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U.S. Army captain and heritage expert Heather Sprowls, shown here with a local girl, surveys an 800-year-old synagogue believed to house the tomb of the biblical prophet Nahum.


Is This the Tomb of a Biblical Prophet—and Will It Survive?

War threatens a site in Iraq where biblical prophet Nahum is said to rest.

The 800-year-old synagogue believed to house the tomb of the biblical prophet Nahum could become the next victim of Iraq's ancient and modern conflicts.

The crumbling stone walls, weakened by weeds sprouting from cracks, tilt precariously over a sidewalk; the decorative buttresses that prop up the pockmarked roof appear ready to cave in.

To keep the historic structure from collapsing, authorities have erected a makeshift metal awning to shield it from the fierce winds that whip across the storied Nineveh Plains. They have strung rusty coils of barbed wire around its perimeter to discourage worship in the synagogue for fear of falling masonry, and they have tried to plug some holes with gravel and sand. But with no active preservation effort, the tomb seems condemned to a slow, weather-induced death.

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It's an unexceptional plight in Iraq, where more than 12 years of near-unbroken violence have inflicted irreparable damage on many cultural sites and compromised the government's limited attempts to safeguard the country's heritage.

But the circumstances that have conspired against what is believed by many to be the resting place of Nahum, a holy man from the seventh century B.C., illustrate the challenges that conservationists face in salvaging architectural riches in conflict zones.

Even by ancient standards, Nahum's life is poorly documented—it's not even certain where he's buried (a village south of Jerusalem also lays claim to him). His supposed prediction of the downfall of the Assyrian Empire more than 2,000 years ago, however, has earned him the reverence of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Yazidis who have venerated his tomb for hundreds of years.

There's a book named after him in the Old Testament, he's a saint in some Eastern Christian churches, and until recently many Yazidis tied colorful knots of cloth to the railings around what they believe is his dust-caked tomb.

Nowadays, though, the current synagogue, which dates to at least 1173, according to Iraqi officials, has fallen far. The Hebrew-inscribed cupboards that once housed Torah scrolls are bare; the tomb itself is partially enveloped by a collapsing side wall.

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Some walls of the synagogue have already collapsed, while others are at risk as moisture and winter thaws eat away at the remaining mortar.

Fears of Islamic State

There's plenty of blame to go around for the site's parlous state, but the situation is complicated by the ambivalence of Alqosh's residents about restoring the synagogue and tomb—despite the potential economic boon that could come with reestablishing it as a pilgrimage destination.

The Jewish community, which maintained the synagogue, largely departed for Israel after that nation's founding in 1948. Now, all of the inhabitants of the town, which is about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northeast of Mosul, are Christians. They are terrified of provoking Islamic State fighters, worried that IS might target the synagogue and the ancient monasteries and churches nearby.

Their apprehension isn't entirely misplaced. The jihadist group surged to within about six miles (ten kilometers) of Alqosh last August. All but a few residents fled, fearing the same fate that befell inhabitants of other Christian towns. Those who have returned are particularly wary of the shrine's presence, which is now one of the last of its kind in the Mosul area.

"We're scared Muslims will come and blow it up," said Bassim Bello, the mayor of Telkaif District, which includes Alqosh.

The Islamic State, motivated by an extreme interpretation of Sunni Islam, has gutted dozens of Yazidi, Christian, Jewish, Turkmen, and, in particular, Shiite Muslim sites in Iraq—including the tomb of Jonah (of biblical whale fame). Experts who have followed the group fear that it intends to erase northern Iraq's extraordinary array of religious and historic treasures.

"What the Islamic State is doing is best described as a war on cultural diversity," said Michael Danti, a co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research's Syrian Heritage Initiative, which documents the devastation war has wreaked on the region. "It's a war on anything deemed inappropriate for their version of Islam." Danti's group worked in tandem with the University of Mosul until the jihadists abolished its archaeology department last year.

But the reluctance of Alqosh's residents to lobby the Iraqi government to restore the site also is partly because of the synagogue's Jewish roots. Wild conspiracy theories warn of Zionist plots to seize control of war-torn Iraq and, with jihadists on the doorstep, the town's people are nervous about feeding into these fears.

"No one dares take care of this place because they are scared of being accused of taking money from Israel," said Sami Bello, the district mayor's brother and an engineer who emigrated to the United States more than 20 years ago.

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A U.S. Army team surveyed the synagogue in 2008. Local authorities have tried to protect the site from further decay, but without active preservation efforts it will likely join other cultural sites irreparably damaged after 12 years of conflict in the area.

Territorial Dispute

For the moment, the Islamic State poses little threat to Alqosh, as Kurdish peshmerga forces, supported by U.S. airstrikes, have pushed the group back toward Mosul's city limits. But the tomb's location in territory claimed both by the semi-autonomous Kurdish government and the central government in Baghdad creates additional complications.

Heritage experts must tread carefully when dealing with the rival antiquities ministries, both of which are loath to surrender sovereignty over any sites but are short on funds to make the necessary repairs.

"There really wasn't much we could do to help when we visited," said Suzanne Bott, who traveled to Alqosh as a conservationist attached to the State Department after the U.S. invasion toppled longtime dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

"Baghdad, of course, had no interest in doing anything about it, nor did the Kurds. We were stuck," said Bott, who now heads the University of Arizona's Iraq Conservation Program. "It's kind of remote, and I don't think it's ever been high up on anyone's priority list."

Prompted by the Iraqi army's disintegration in the midst of the Islamic State's lightning offensive last summer, the peshmerga assumed control of the area. The fighters hoisted the Kurdish tricolor—red, green, and white with a fiery sun in the middle—over the fortress-like police station, built earthwork defenses on a rise just up the road, and manned the double row of checkpoints outside the town.

Corruption an Obstacle

Some conservationists believe this change of administration augurs well for tumbledown heritage sites, after the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) spent an estimated $17 million to restore parts of Lalish, a sacred Yazidi place of worship over a hill from Alqosh.

But the experiences of Huw Thomas, a British security consultant and logistics expert, suggest the Kurdish antiquities authorities are (or at least were) beset by the same rash of dodgy official practices that have hampered archaeological digs in the south.

Thomas stumbled onto the synagogue while exploring battlefields and led a team that tried to patch it up in 2007. He received a pledge of a half million dollars from a loosely organized group of Jewish jewelers in New York City to have a conservation firm repair parts of the building. But then the head of the Kurdish antiquities department at the time, Abbas al-Hussaini, stepped in with his own proposal, according to Thomas.

"He announced publicly that the KRG was taking over the restoration, then contacted us privately to tell us to continue overseeing the restoration, but that all of the foreign funds had to go directly to him," said Thomas, who canceled the plan, as this was unacceptable to his backers.

Al-Hussaini could not be reached for comment, but a source confirmed that money had been raised and surveys conducted before developments ground to an abrupt halt.

Meanwhile, in another blow to the tomb's prospects, the family that was entrusted with the keys to the synagogue plans to join the many Iraqi Christians fleeing the country.

Nasir Sami's late father promised the town's last Jewish inhabitant—a rabbi who died in the 1980s—that he and his descendants would make basic repairs and keep an eye on the building from their house, next to the temple. But with the bid by the younger generation for asylum in the U.S. likely to be approved, Nahum looks to have lost most of his few remaining guardians.

"It's sad," Sami said, gazing down into the overgrown synagogue courtyard. "But there's no hope for any of us here."

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The synagogue courtyard, which once housed craft shops and quarters for pilgrims, is covered in vegetation. Locals have dumped garbage in the small caves that open into some outbuildings.

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