Satellite Images Reveal Mosul's Cultural Destruction

A quirky, crooked minaret dubbed 'the Hunchback' symbolized the Iraqi city for nearly 900 years, until it was blown up by the Islamic State.

Like the elegant Eiffel Tower or Seattle's forward-looking Space Needle, Mosul's al-Hadba' minaret not only commanded the city's skyline, but also captured the spirit of its residents: unique, resilient, dignified in its deep history. After surviving more than eight centuries of invasion and conquest, however, it finally succumbed to the Islamic State on June 21.

"This is a highly significant historic site in Mosul. It's an incredible tragedy," says Michael Danti, professor of archaeology at Boston University and co-director of the Cultural Heritage Initiative at the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR CHI). The Initiative recently entered into a new cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of State to preserve and protect cultural heritage in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

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Mosul's iconic al-Habda' minaret, likened to the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, was a symbol of resilience to the residents of Mosul.

Exclusive satellite images provided to National Geographic by ASOR CHI show the extent of the destruction in Mosul's Old City. According to reports, the Islamic State had wired the al-Hadba' minaret and adjoining al-Nuri mosque with explosives, which were detonated as Iraqi troops approached.

The 150-foot-high brick minaret has loomed over the ancient city in northern Iraq since 1172, when it was built along with the al-Nuri mosque and a madrassa (religious school) on the orders of Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a leader famed for his victories against the Crusaders.

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The distinctive lean of Mosul's 850-year-old minaret, above, was captured in a photograph during the Battle of Mosul on June 20, 2017. The ancient city's skyline, below, has been irreparably altered in a photograph from June 22.

The quirky tilt of the minaret led it to be dubbed "al-Hadba'" or "the Hunchback" as least as early as the 14th century. One local tradition suggested that it acquired its lean while bowing to Muhammad as the prophet ascended into heaven.

Yet while al-Hadba' was part of an Islamic religious complex, the minaret was the imperfect, beloved embodiment of Mosul to all residents of a remarkably diverse city, including Assyrian Christians, Yazidis, and Kurds.

After the Islamic State took Mosul in June 2014, it began a campaign of destroying the ancient legacy of the city and its surroundings, including Nineveh, Nimrud, and the tomb of the prophet Jonah. The terrorists also attempted to destroy al-Hadba' in July of that year, but backed off after local residents formed a human chain around the city's icon.

“If you blow up the minaret, you’ll have to kill us, too,” defiant Mosulis are reported to have told Islamic State forces at the time.

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A photograph taken in 1933 shows Mosul's crooked minaret. Built in 1172, it already had the nickname "al-Habda'" or "the Hunchback" just two centuries later.

"Everyone took ownership of that site," says Marina Gabriel, an ASOR CHI program manager who has been monitoring cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria since 2015. "This is a major blow to the identity of Mosul."

The distinctive silhouette of al-Hadba' was "recognizable to everyone in Iraq," adds Lisa Ackerman, executive vice president of the World Monuments Fund, which put the minaret on its Most Endangered Sites Watch list in 2010. The minaret also graces Iraq's 10,000 dinar note.

While only a small amount of the original 12th-century structure of the Nur al-Din mosque—which was built and rebuilt over the centuries and completely renovated in 1942—survived until 2017, the nearly 850-year-old minaret remained untouched throughout the centuries it leaned over Mosul. The reason behind its precarious tilt is unknown.

Concerns over the stability of al-Hadba' increased after the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, when shelling of the city weakened the foundation of the minaret. By 1988, the Hunchback tilted more than eight feet from the perpendicular.

Now, as the battle for Mosul continues, its resident's mourn the loss of their Hunchback.

"For the first time in 900 years, Mosul sleeps without our old lady, Hadbaa," reads a forlorn Tweet from the besieged city.