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a tall tale
the christian builder who restored mosul’s oldest minaret – for free

Nawzat Shamdeen
Writer Nawzat Shamdeen was there when a descendant of the Christian builder who restored one of Mosul’s oldest mosques – and most important monuments – for free in the 1930s, visited city…
1.05.2014  |  Mosul
The leaning tower of Mosul can be seen on the far right - at an incline. Pic: UNESCO
The leaning tower of Mosul can be seen on the far right - at an incline. Pic: UNESCO


On Wednesday April 16, at exactly 11 in the morning, Jiryes al-Tamburji was standing outside the office of Ninawa’s governor. Dressed in his best suit, the corpulent fellow was looking handsome. Previously al-Tamburji, who had returned to Mosul after spending years in the US, had organized nine different meetings with the governor of the northern Iraqi province, Atheel al-Nujaifi. But they were all postponed or rescheduled. Apparently al-Nujaifi had heard reports that al-Tamburji was unhinged, mentally unstable.

However on this day, al-Tamburji managed to make good his escape from the outer offices and started trying to get to the governor’s chambers. Three security officers chased him as al-Tamburji, a short, fat chap, ran down the corridors shouting, “oh Atheel, oh Atheel!”

Rumours quickly spread around the building that there was a suicide bomber roaming about inside, who wanted to end the life of the province’s governor. Riot police prepared to storm the building and ordinary police stopped pedestrians from walking on nearby streets, in case a bomb went off.

However the governor, al-Nujaifi, came out of his office and in doing so, he put an end to the security forces’ panic. Around 30 officers were already in one of the corridors when they saw al-Nujaifi come out and greet al-Tamburji, kissing him on the cheeks. The pair walked down the corridor, al-Tamburji as puffed and proud as a festival balloon.

That same day the governor was forced to cancel many other meetings. Instead of going to a seminar on water collection or receiving a delegation of local industrialists he sat and listened to al-Tamburji for around four hours, as the man spoke about the how his grandfather had restored one of the most famous landmarks in Mosul, Ninawa’s capital, in the 1930s.

Al-Tamburji was talking about the Al Hadba minaret, whose name means “the hunchback”. It is part of Mosul’s Great Nurid Mosque, which was built around 1172. The minaret, located at the western entrance to one of Iraq’s most dangerous cities, is a beloved symbol for many locals. And the 45-meter-high tower is called the hunchback because it has been leaning “253 cm off the perpendicular axe for years”, as Iraq’s UNESCO office reports. In fact, the landmark is fairly similar to the leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.

And now here was al-Tamburji, stalking around the governor’s office, telling a new version of the minaret’s tale. Wearing the traditional costume of Mosul – including a ghutra headdress, held in place with a head band, as well as, rather strangely, red leather shoes – he paced the floor.

Al-Tamburji pointed out the window. “The minaret was built on the north western part of the mosque and it is supported by two internal poles. The lean is caused by the heat of the sun which is expanding the bricks on the sunny side – so they’re expanding and tilting the whole structure,” he surmised. “But my grandfather, Abboud al-Tamburji, cannot be blamed for this.”

“Muslims say the minaret started tilting after the Prophet Mohammed passed by, while he was ascending to heaven,” al-Tamburji said, smiling. “Christians say the minaret is bowing toward the tomb of the Virgin Mary. However neither group are aware that the minaret was built hundreds of years after both of those icons were around.”

Al-Tamburji came closer to the governor’s chair and he showed him a picture of a slim man climbing a ladder propped against the minaret. Governor al-Nujaifi was astonished at the picture – he had never seen it before and he didn’t recognize the man in the picture.

“That is Abboud al-Tamburji, my grandfather,” the other man said proudly. “May his soul rest in peace. He restored the minaret in 1939.”

While al-Tamburji went on, Ninawa’s governor took out his iPhone and whispered into it, asking his office manager to call for local historians, so that they could rescue him from al-Tamburji – or verify his ramblings.

Al-Tamburji just continued though. “My grandfather Abboud, a Christian, was one of the most important builders in the northern region,” al-Tamburji said, and rattled off a list of names of other important builders. “They were all called here to repair a crack in the minaret’s wall because it was thought it would collapse.”

Now al-Tamburji pulled out a sheaf of old papers that were rolled into a cylindrical shape. His grandfather had written them, he said, and unrolling them, he began to read: “I was asked by the Mutasarrif [governor] of Mosul to restore the minaret. After visiting the minaret I decided that the work would need be done from outside, not inside. I climbed the minaret to study the effect of wind, sun and weather and I also measured the distance between the bottom of the minaret and the crack: About 20 cubits.”

Al-Tamburji continued to read from the papers he had brought with him for some time, going into great detail about how his grandfather had fixed the minaret with plaster, ropes and other equipment. As he was doing so, four local historians came into the room – the governor’s assistant had indeed called for them.

Al-Tamburji continued to read his grandfather’s words while the group listened. “While I was doing the work, the Mutasarrif came to watch, together with some of his employees and some clerics. Women, children and the elderly sat on their nearby roofs watching us too.”

And now finally, al-Tamburji wrapped up the papers again. “The Mutasarrif – a man in a position as powerful as yours today – wanted to show his gratitude for the work so he offered my grandfather some money. But my grandfather refused to take it. He told the Mutasarrif that the owner of the house he was working on would pay him,” al-Tamburji said, softly noting that the owner of the house was God.

Then he raised his hands and said: “All of them – Muslims and Christians alike – were all worshippers of God. They were brothers, they would not be separated.”

And then the historians who had listened to all of al-Tamburji’s rambling story conferred with the governor, al-Nujaifi. They were able to confirm that yes, indeed, a Christian builder named Abboud al-Tamburji, had restored the oldest mosque in Mosul free of charge. However, they said, there was no way they could know if the man standing before them today, telling this story, was in any way related to that ancient builder.

Al-Tamburji said he was willing to undergo any necessary test if the governor was able to help him get back his old house in Mosul which was sold while he had been seeking refugee status in the US. The house was sold fraudulently, a common problem for many Christian property owners in Iraq, who were forced to flee the country.

While he was talking, al-Nujaifi had been taking notes in a small book. He advised al-Tamburji to begin legal proceedings as soon as possible and that the council would support him as much as it possibly could, within the law. Al-Tamburji was so glad to hear this that he donated his grandfather’s notes and his grandfather’s traditional clothing to the city – “they belong to Mosul and its museums,” he explained.

Then he paused.

“But I didn’t tell you about my grandfather to get my house back,” al-Tamburji insisted finally; he was now standing in the corner of the room next to the Iraqi flag. “I told you this because I read so many reports that the minaret is about to collapse and that nobody is doing anything about it.”

Al-Nujaifi nodded his head and then, as he walked al-Tamburji and the historians to the office door, he explained that in late 2012 the city had signed a memorandum of understanding with UNESCO, the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, that would allow for a study on how the leaning minaret could best be preserved.

At that stage, al-Tamburji stopped again, as if he had forgotten to say something very important. “As long as I’m here, maybe you could tell me who the member of the provincial council was, who was against UNESCO restoring the minaret. I wanted to tell him that my Christian grandfather did the same 75 years ago and nobody objected then."

And with that al-Tamburji stepped out into the red-carpeted hallway.