Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Libraries in Iraq’s Mosul rise from the ashes of rule by Islamic State

Libraries in Iraq’s Mosul rise from the ashes of rule by Islamic State

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
The front of a bookshop in Iraq’s northern city of Mosul. Once boasting a million titles, the University of Mosul’s library is set to reopen after its books met a fiery fate under the Islamic State group. AFP

Libraries in Iraq’s Mosul rise from the ashes of rule by Islamic State

The storied library of Iraq’s Mosul University boasted a million titles before Islamic State group jihadists rampaged through it, toppling book shelves and burning ancient texts.

Now, almost five years after their defeat, the war-battered northern metropolis is trying to rebuild the pride of the city long known as a literature hub boasting countless booksellers and archives guarding rare manuscripts.

Mohamed Younes, technical director of the prestigious university library, recalls the carnage he witnessed after Mosul was recaptured from IS in mid-2017 following long and gruelling street battles.

“When we came back, we saw . . . the books pulled from the shelves, thrown on the ground and burned,” he said.

Thousands of texts on philosophy and law, science and poetry which in some way contradicted the IS’s extremist world view had gone up in flames.

Some of the most valuable titles were sold on the black market.

“Before, we had more than a million titles, some of which couldn’t be found in any other university in Iraq,” said Younes.

When the jihadists were first at the gates of the city, he said, “we were only able to move the rare books and a number of foreign periodicals”.

With the IS group’s brutal takeover of Mosul, 85 per cent of the collection was lost.

Before IS, Mosul University was “the mother of all books”, said former student Tarek Attiya, 34, who is now enrolled at Tikrit university.

“There is a huge difference between what used to be and the situation after IS,” he said.

Refurbished building

Now there is a revival going on to, with the help of donations, slowly line the library shelves with books again.

The library building, refurbished with financing from a UN agency, is set to reopen this month. Four floors high with a sleek glass exterior, it will have an initial 32,000 books.

It will also feature a digital trove of e-books, with a view to eventually rebuilding a million-strong collection.

Ahead of the opening, the books have been housed in the narrow premises of the university’s engineering faculty where shelves are overflowing and titles are stacked on every available surface.

Significant donations from Arab and international universities have been received to “enable the revival of the library”, said the director.

Renowned figures in Mosul and across Iraq have also contributed by “dipping into their personal” collections, he added.

The northern metropolis of Mosul has historically been a hub for merchants and aristocrats, with a rich cultural and intellectual life.

A commercial crossroad of the Middle East, Mosul was able to preserve thousands of rare and ancient works, notably religious texts.

Iraq’s first printing press was operating in Mosul in the second half of the 19th century.

Appetite for reading

Signs of Mosul’s fledgling cultural revival have begun to take root – at least where there was anything left to save.

The library of the Waqf, the state body that manages Islamic endowments, once contained manuscripts dating back 400 years, said its head, Ahmed Abd Ahmed.

But, he added sadly, “they have all disappeared”.

Elsewhere in the city, Al-Nujaifi street, historically lined with booksellers, still bears the scars of destruction wrought by the jihadists.

Many shops are abandoned, and mounds of rubble lay under old stone arches – but a handful of shopkeepers have reopened their doors after paying out of pocket for restoration work.

Mosul’s central public library – which was founded a century ago last year, and had boasted more than 120,000 titles – reopened its doors in late 2019, after restoration.

“We lost 2,350 books on literature, sociology or religion,” said its director Jamal al-Abd Rabbo.

But he added that public donations and purchases had allowed him to rebuild the collection up to 132,000 titles.

Old leather-bound books with worn spines and creased pages still line the library’s shelves.

Crucially, the public’s appetite for literature remains unbroken, he said, and “some of our visitors come daily, for an hour or two, to read”.

MOST VIEWED

  • Research key to Kanitha’s rep for expertise

    Sok Kanitha is used to weighing in on controversial issues using a confident approach that signals expertise and authority, and a recent video she made was no exception. Her “Episode 342: The History of NATO” video went live on January 16, 2023 and immediately shot to 30,000 likes and 3,500

  • Cambodia maintains 'Kun Khmer' stance despite Thailand’s boycott threat

    Cambodia has taken the position that it will use the term "Kun Khmer" to refer to the sport of kickboxing at the upcoming Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, and has removed the term Muay from all references to the sport. Despite strong reactions from the Thai

  • Knockout! Kun Khmer replaces ‘Muay’ for Phnom Penh Games

    Cambodia has decided to officially remove the word Muay from the programme of the 32nd Southeast Asian (SEA) Games 2023 in May. “Kun Khmer” will instead be used to represent the Southeast Asian sport of kickboxing, in accordance with the wishes of the Cambodian people. Vath

  • Artificial insemination takes herd from 7 to 700

    Some farms breed local cows or even import bulls from a broad for the purpose of breeding heavier livestock for meat production. One Tbong Khnum farmer has found a more efficient way. Hout Leang employs artificial insemination to fertilise local cows. Thanks to imported “straws”

  • Chinese group tours return to Cambodia starting Feb 6

    Cambodia is among 20 countries selected by Beijing for a pilot programme allowing travel agencies to provide international group tours as well as flight and hotel packages to Chinese citizens, following a three-year ban. As the days tick down until the programme kicks off on February 6,

  • Capital-Poipet express rail project making headway

    The preliminary results of a feasibility study to upgrade the Phnom Penh-Poipet railway into Cambodia’s first express railway indicate that the project would cost more than $4 billion and would take around four years to complete. The study was carried out by China Road and