Several days ago, like the rest of the world, I heard that ISIS had destroyed the grave of Jonah (yes, as in, Jonah and the whale). In all honesty, like the rest of the world, I had little idea that he grave was supposedly in Mosul. This short piece is a sharing of my own efforts to learn what was lost.
The modern city of Mosul lies in the north astride the river Tigris. In short, it is the historical twin city to Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian empire. The Babylonians destroyed Nineveh in 612 BC when they overthrew that empire, and a new city, Mosul (al-Mawsil), arose on the opposite bank of the Tigris. I have noticed that news sources sometimes try to disassociate the cities (saying that Nineveh is “nearby”, or similar). Perhaps the writers in question lacked the diligence to consult a map. Perhaps a diminished connection to ancient Nineveh suited each article’s obligatory paragraph attacking the historicity of the site. In any case, the remains of Nineveh’s western wall stand barely half a mile from the center of old city Mosul. Apart from the archaeological park, which is plainly visible from a satellite photo, the ruins of Nineveh are completely enveloped by the northeast suburbs of modern Mosul.
The site of the Nabi Yunus (prophet Jonah) mosque, was a few thousand feet south of the Mashki gate and modern archaeological park, on a hill known locally as Tell al-Tawba (the “hill of repentance”). Once upon a time, it would have been part of the western wall of Ninevah. For most of the Christian period of the city, which started in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, it had been a church or monastery. M. Streck’s old entry on “Ninawa” (Brill’s First Encyclopedia of Islam, originally published in 1927) is worth reading because it sets the stage for recent events. The site remained in Christian hands even after the Islamic conquest; the first mosque was built on the hill sometime in the 10th century and the site finally changed hands after the Mongols took control of Mosul in the 13th century. Christian and Muslim alike venerated the tomb. Indeed, the 10th century Arabic geographer al-Muqaddasi said that seven pilgrimages to Nabi Yunus in Nineveh were as valuable at the great pilgrimage to Mecca.
This sort of background is needed if one wants to appreciate news coverage of recent events. Official statements from ISIS claim that the mosque was destroyed to purify Islam from perceived idolatry. Not surprisingly, news coverage has, on the main, treated the event as an affair between Muslim sects (cf. Telegraph, Time, NPR, Washington Post, to take a quick sampling). The odd thing is that most fail to observe that the mosque was a Sunni holy site. ISIS Islamists are also Sunni. This should not be confused with the Sunni vs. Shi’ite violence so common to Iraq.
Some, however, have noted that this is equally an attack on what little Christian community remained in Mosul. Nabhan’s Wall Street Journal article is useful as is CNN’s interview with Dr. Candida Moss from the University of Notre Dame. She also co-authored a CNN blog post with Joel Baden from Yale Divinity School in which they lay out the argument in greater detail. In short, because the site had a long Christian history and because Christians see Jonah as a prophetic anticipation of Jesus’ death and resurrection, the destruction of Nabi Yunus should be understood primarily within the context of the religious cleansing taking place in Mosul.
This makes good sense, provided one knows the history of the site and takes the time to learn about the recent history of Mosul. Before the U.S. invasion in 2003, Mosul had a Christian population of roughly 130,000. By the time ISIS overran the city, only about 10,000 remained. It is not hard to understand why. Mosul had seen frequent outbreaks of Islamist aggression against Iraqi Christians over the last 10 years. One may find a compilation of the more infamous atrocities on Wikipedia.
The fall of Mosul to ISIS was the final calamity for the remaining community. I will not outline ever detail here. Those interested may refer to the timeline provided by the Assyrian International News Agency. They closed, desecrated, and destroyed the remaining churches. Christians were given a deadline to convert, pay the jizya tax, or flee. As the deadline approached, ISIS marked Christian houses with the Arabic letter “N” for “Nazarene”. (If you travel in the right Facebook circles, you have seen friends changing their picture to a stylized version as a sign of solidarity and protest, pictured to left.) As Christians fled the city, numerous reports indicated that they were robbed of all but the clothes on their backs (compare, for example, the Guardian, Breitbart). Interviewed survivors and church officials indicate that return is unthinkable as long as ISIS controls the city.
Patriarch Louis Raphael I Sako, head of the Chaldean Church, summed up the situation simply: “For the first time in the history of Iraq, Mosul is now empty of Christians“. Given that the city’s inhabitants converted to Christianity some 1800 years ago, that is a stunning and tragic statement. It is also the final stage of a religious purge that has a 10 year history.