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mosul’s ancient arcades
endangered by progress and a bad attitude

Abdullah Salem
The city of Mosul is known for its unique architecture. But as with so many antiquities in Iraq, some of its most distinctive features – a series of domed arcades that run between houses – are being lost.
2.01.2014  |  Mosul
Developments in Mosul are threatening historic architecture.
Developments in Mosul are threatening historic architecture.

In Iraq the city of Mosul is well known for its unique architecture. “The city is described as ‘the pearl of the north’,” writes ArchNet, a website for architects with a focus on Muslim culture. “Mosul, once a walled city … is the only major city east of Euphrates built primarily of stone and brick. It includes extensive marble especially in columns, door and window frames.”

And among some of the most unique pieces in the city, which is over 2,000 years old, are the passage ways or arcades built between residential houses.

In the Ottoman era, authorities told anyone who wanted to build a house that they would have to ensure there was a public passageway on the land too, explains Azhar al-Ubaidi, a local historian. The passages that were built, often with doomed roofs and marble columns, had various uses – they protected residents from sun and rain and acted as hallways for extended families to travel to one another’s homes, if their homes were adjoining. Often the domed arcades would be named for the home owners or the family homes they passed through.

“Because houses were often very small, the house owners often asked if they could add on a public passageway because then they could use its roof to extend their living space,” al-Ubaidi said.

The passageways are clearly a unique part of Mosul’s heritage. However they are now endangered by modern development. Only seven still exist in Mosul’s old town.

Mosul was originally a Christian city and Christians were the first to begin building the passageways, says local researcher Salwan Abdul-Aziz. The Muslims that came after the Christians adopted the same building methods and also constructed the passageways. “There used to be hundreds of these arcades in residential neighbourhoods here,” Abdul-Aziz says, arguing for the preservation of the architectural features. “They are a pathway to the city’s many secrets.”

The city is looking at implementing what is known as the Urban Renewal Project, the city’s governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi told NIQASH and the historic passageways are part of that project. However, he also said that the project was still in its early stages. It also involved having Mosul locals who owned historic houses applying to authorities for help with restoration.

Any rehabilitation of Mosul’s historic buildings faces a number of challenges, says Haidar Saad al-Jamil, an engineering professor at the University of Mosul. Some of these relate to legislation on historic buildings – the owners have not been allowed to renovate them and the state doesn’t provide any financial assistance for renovation, so the buildings are crumbling, al-Jamil explains.

Additionally the skilled tradesmen with their traditional construction techniques, who would be needed to restore the passages properly, are also dying out. And perhaps most of all, al-Jamil says, there is a lack of local appreciation of why these historical features are so important.