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ISIS Destroyed Jonah’s Tomb, but Not Its Message

As we saw the first images of Jonah’s Tomb destroyed in Mosul on July 24, 2014, we felt shocked and deeply uneasy. We had been following news from Iraq obsessively over the previous weeks, distressed by the Islamic State’s actions in a country we still thought of as home, even though all three of us now live in North America. Every bit of ISIS destruction had been terrible to witness, but somehow the image of this ruined tomb was uniquely jarring. Three years later, with Mosul liberated, we understand why.

The tomb, one of Iraq’s iconic monuments, was revered by Muslims, Christians, and Jews alike. It was believed to be the final resting place of the biblical prophet Jonah, who got swallowed by a whale and who warned inhabitants of the Assyrian city of Nineveh (now Mosul) that God would destroy them if they did not repent for their sins. Jonah’s story appears in the Bible as well as the Koran. His tomb is perched on a high mound containing many layers of history: an ancient Assyrian temple and palace, a site of devotion for Jews, a Christian church, and a 12th century mosque. In 1924, a grand minaret was added by a Turkish architect who described the glow of the site as God’s gift to Mosul. Renovated in the 1990s under Saddam Hussein, it was a popular draw for pilgrims.

But the tomb was much more than a tourist destination; it was a constant, potent symbol. Overlooking the city, it reminded all Maslawis of the interconnectedness of Iraq’s diverse religious populations. It was the antithesis of sectarianism. As such, ISIS’s decision to blow it up read as an attempt to erase the shared history of the many religious populations that Mosul housed, and to erase the very notion that such populations can share anything at all. But now that Mosul has been liberated from ISIS, we—three Iraqis from different religious backgrounds—hope all our communities will have a hand in rebuilding the city and its holy sites.

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