In Iraq's Mosul, library rises from ashes
Mosul University's historic library rises after years of war in Iraq.
Before ISIS rampaged through Mosul University's historic library, collapsing shelving and torching priceless literature, the library had a million titles.
Now, over five years after the war, the northern metropolis is attempting to reclaim its former glory as a literary hotspot with a plethora of bookshops and archives guarding priceless manuscripts.
Mohamed Younes, technical director of the Mosul University library, recalls the destruction he saw after ISIS took Mosul in mid-2017 following a long and arduous street fighting.
"When we came back, we saw... the books pulled from the shelves, thrown on the ground, and burned," he said.
Thousands of volumes on philosophy and law, science and poetry, all of which challenged the fanatical worldview of ISIS, 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.
"We were only able to move the rare books and a number of foreign periodicals" when the terrorists initially arrived at the city's borders, he claimed. With ISIS' brutal takeover of Mosul, 85% of the collection was lost.
Former student Tarek Attiya, 34, who is now enrolled at Tikrit University, described Mosul University as "the mother of all books" before ISIS. "There is a huge difference between what used to be and the situation after ISIS," he said.
Now, with the support of contributions, there is a rebirth underway to restock the library shelves with books.
The library building, which was renovated with UN funding, is expected to reopen this month. It will be four stories high with a sleek glass front and house 32,000 volumes at first. It will also include a digital library of e-books, with the goal of eventually reconstructing a million-strong library.
The volumes have been stored in the University's Engineering Faculty's cramped quarters, where shelves are overflowing and titles are packed on every available surface, in preparation for the opening. The Director stated that significant donations from Arab and foreign colleges have been received to "allow the resurrection of the library."
Well-known Mosul and Iraqi figures had also contributed by "dipping into their personal" collections, he said.
Iraq's northern capital, Mosul, has long been a center for merchants and aristocrats, with a vibrant cultural and intellectual life.
Mosul, a Middle Eastern economic crossroads, was able to preserve thousands of rare and old publications, particularly religious writings. It is worth noting that Iraq's first printing press was operating in Mosul in the second half of the 19th century.
The love for books
Mosul's nascent cultural resurgence is beginning to take root, at least where there was anything left to salvage.
According to Ahmed Abd Ahmed, the head of the Waqf, which controls Islamic endowments, the library previously had writings dating back 400 years. But, he added sadly, "they have all disappeared."
Other parts of the city, like as Al-Nujaifi Street, which was once lined with bookshops, still retain the marks of the militants' destruction.
Many stores have been abandoned, and mounds of rubble lie beneath old stone arches, yet a few proprietors have reopened their doors after paying for restoration work out of their own pockets.
Mosul's central public library, which housed more than 120,000 titles and was founded a century ago last year, reopened its doors in late 2019 after its restoration.
"We lost 2,350 books on literature, sociology, or religion," said its Director Jamal Al-Abd Rabbo. He did say, though, that public donations and purchases had enabled him to rebuild the collection to 132,000 titles.
The library's shelves are still stacked with old leather-bound books with faded spines and crumpled pages. He stressed that the public's thirst for reading has not waned and that "some of our visitors come every day, for an hour or two, to read."