From home to heritage: Resurrecting the majesty of Mosul with new museum

Mosul Heritage House in Mosul. Photo Azhar Al-Rubaie.JPG
6 min read
31 January, 2023

A few metres from the bank of the Tigris River, in Iraq's second city of Mosul, lies the Mosul Heritage House, a non-profit initiative to preserve Mosul's heritage launched by Ayoub Thanoon, a 29-year-old activist.

Scenes of violence in Mosul were commonplace as part of the Islamic State group's (IS/ISIS) campaign to damage the city’s cultural heritage sites and level the most prominent sites with destruction.

The group had been targeting various graves, churches, as well as shrines belonging to other Muslim sects.

"The house now stands as a hub for locals to jog their memories of the majesty of Mosul and for foreigners to explore the city's heritage post-IS"

Mosul had been under siege by Islamic State militants, with the battle to free the city by Iraqi security forces and international coalition partners lasting nine months before the city was liberated in July 2017.

Whilst the city was under the grip of IS, Ayoub was prevented from focusing on cultural heritage, instead providing medical assistance and shelter to those wounded by Islamic State. 

After the city was freed in 2017, Ayoub got back to work. He started an initiative to remove all the rubble from the old city, which spiralled into a series of initiatives that eventually spawned the idea behind Mosul Heritage House. 

The photo shows Ayoub talking with tourists visiting Mosul Heritage House [photo credit: Azhar Al-Rubaie]
The photo shows Ayoub talking with tourists visiting Mosul Heritage House [photo credit: Azhar Al-Rubaie]

Bring Mosul spirit back

“In 2018, I was searching for an old house to make a museum, which was difficult as most of the old houses were damaged due to war," the founder of Mosul Heritage House tells The New Arab.

"But after a long time, I found a house belonging to the Al-Rhayyem family that was also damaged, so I talked with the family via phone as they are now based in Germany. They were happy with the idea and decided to renovate the house and rebuild it once again, becoming Mosul Heritage House”

Meanwhile, the Al-Rhayyem family took into consideration the Mosul architecture details to rebuild the house and return it as it was before.

Now the museum hosts many cultural, musical, and artistic activities in order to preserve the city's identity. Furthermore, Ayoub wants to spread awareness of the importance to save Mosul's heritage and passing the city's significance from generation to generation. 

The Mosul Heritage House team members have since welcomed schools and universities to tour heritage sites which were damaged by IS.

Ayoub and his team aim to restore what the city lost by themselves but locals have also come to help the initiative by donating antiques and old books to be displayed in the museum. 

The house now stands as a hub for locals to jog their memories of the majesty of Mosul and for foreigners to explore the city's heritage post-IS. Thousands of Iraqis and foreign tourists have visited the house, so, the house stands as an opportunity to experience Mosul's intangible cultural heritage and connect locals with people from around the world.

Responsibility of residents

"After seeing the destruction of the city first-hand, I felt it was the responsibility of us as residents of the city to help rebuild what had been lost during the war," Ayoub continues.

"After the city was freed, I began to archive the city by taking photographs of Mosul's most historic buildings, houses and archaeological sites, putting them on social media for the world to see, as a reference for what was lost." 

Ayoub went on to say that "the project isn't just about a beautiful house or museum, but has a deeper meaning; we should be proud of our history and our heritage."

VR museum in Mosul

The project is now expanding into new realms of remembrance. In a partnership with Qaf Lab, Mosul Heritage House has now installed a virtual museum as part of its exhibition where people can look around the damaged building digitally. 

Basmah Qais, 23, and her husband Abdullah Bashar, 24, Mosul-based specialists in virtual reality and architecture, are utilising VR technology to document Iraqi buildings and historical sites that were damaged by IS.

Basmah Qais working on reconstructing one of Mosul's heritage sites through VR [photo credit: Azhar Al-Rubaie]
Basmah Qais working on reconstructing one of Mosul's heritage sites through VR [photo credit: Azhar Al-Rubaie]

They started their work in the VR field in 2019, following the liberation of the city from the Islamic State group. Both Qais and Bashar virtually preserve prominent Iraqi buildings by collecting past images and information to reconstruct them back to their original form digitally. 

"Past documentation of the buildings were destroyed in the war, so the VR project aims to preserve the remainder of Mosul's buildings and prominent sites," Abdullah told The New Arab.

“The VR Museum display allows people to virtually visit the Iraqi buildings and heritage sites reconstructed through VR technology. From the beginning, we have been working as a team, there is no work done individually. I am proud that we are working to revive Mosul's spirit," Basmah added. 

Changing stereotypical image

“We wanted to change the stereotypical image of Mosul. For many people, as soon as you say the word 'Mosul', everyone imagines scenes of war and destruction. We want to tell the world that the city of Mosul is a city of history and civilization and can return to become a tourist destination; we are now focused on bringing life back to the city,” Ayoub told The New Arab.

“We hope to get funds from the Iraqi government, all of our work is from our own budget or it comes from a partner with international NGOs,” he added. 

Vlogger and solo traveller from Scotland, Emma Witters, decided one day to visit Iraq when the Iraqi government granted visas on arrival for 37 countries.

Emma visiting Bashtabiya Castle in Mosul [photo credit: Azhar Al-Rubaie]
Emma [right] visiting Bashtabiya Castle in Mosul [photo credit: Azhar Al-Rubaie]

The 54-year-old landed in Iraq to explore the country and share her experience with her audience on her YouTube channel and tell them what her journey to Iraq looks like.

“Mosul was on my list to visit. Once I arrived in the city, I visited the Mosul Heritage house. It is a fine example of the amazing traditional architecture that is unique to Mosul," Emma told The New Arab.

"I was astounded by the intricate restoration of this house in marble. Inside they have turned it into a museum with many pieces of artwork and other artefacts that are from Mosul from the past.”

Emma added: “It is a great history lesson for tourists to learn more about what happened in Mosul in the past. There are very interesting things there, specifically from Mosul. It is usually the first place a tourist would or should go when visiting Mosul to understand everything and see how far the city has come in the few years when it was almost completely destroyed by the Islamic State group.

“There are many cultural events taking place here, but the building itself is like nothing I have seen anywhere in the world. What I saw inside this house is a great Mosul success story in my favourite city in Iraq,” Emma concluded. 

Azhar Al-Rubaie is a freelance journalist based in Iraq. His writing focuses on a variety of issues, including politics, health, society, wars, and human rights. 

Follow him on Twitter: @AzherRubaie