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Mosul Breakdown: Where is Iraq's Ancient City Headed?

posted on: Nov 23, 2016

BY: Zane Ziebell/Contributing Writer

The History of Mosul

At the heart of the proverbial Cradle of Civilization, the battle for control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul enters its fourth week as Iraqi, Peshmerga, and Coalition forces have entered the city’s limits for the first time. Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, was captured by the so-called Islamic State in June of 2014 in just another episode of conflict that has ravaged the city in a long history of violence and war. Since its capture by ISIL militants, Mosul has been disconnected and shut off from the outside world. Once the main trading and commercial city of northern Iraq, Mosul has suffered tremendously during its occupation by ISIL. But thousands of years ago Mosul was once a jewel on the Tigris River, a site of robust civilization and beauty that withstood the rise of civilizations and the fall of empires.


Before ISIL’s invasion and occupation, Mosul was a thriving city of nearly three million people. While there has been no census since Mosul’s capture, estimates place the current population between 700,000 and a little over one million. Mosul lies at the crossroads of the ancient world, bridging the gap between the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf. Absorbing various cultures and religions throughout its history, Mosul is home to a diverse population of Arabs, Turkmen, Kurds, Yezidis, Shabaks, Christians, and other various religious and ethnic groups. Mosul today is predominately Sunni Muslim.

Before the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the mass immigration that followed in the early 1950s, Mosul had a large Jewish population.  During the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, many Jews fled violence and chaos caused by sectarian struggle in the Holy Land. Seeking refuge in Mosul, the Jews were granted asylum and flourished under their Muslim rulers as farmers and traders. The Jewish population in Mosul around this time is said to have been between seven and ten thousand. Today there are few if any Jewish residents of Mosul.

The Tigris River at Mosul, Iraq.


Mosul is located roughly 250 miles north of Baghdad, 50 miles west of Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish Region of Iraq, and 75 miles south of Turkey. Modern day Mosul encompasses the twin cities of Mosul itself and the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. Situated in the fertile and lush lands of the Nineveh Plains, Mosul was originally a walled city that was coveted for its fortress like qualities. Nineveh and modern-day Mosul lie on opposite banks of the Tigris River, which runs through the middle of the city. Today’s Mosul started on the west bank of the Tigris and encompasses the ruins of Nineveh on the east bank. The surrounding areas and plains have been inhabited since 6000 BC, making it one of the most ancient and lasting cities in the world. Falling under control of various kings and empires throughout the ages, the Upper Mesopotamian city was described by the 10th century Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi as:

“It is the metropolis of this region. It is a splendid city, beautifully built; the climate is pleasant, the water healthy. Highly renowned, and of great antiquity, it is possessed of excellent markets and inns, and is inhabited by many personages of account, and learned men; nor does it lack a high authority in the Traditions, or a celebrated doctor of the law. It has, besides, parks, specialities, excellent fruits, very fine baths, magnificent houses, and good meats: all in all the town is thriving.”

The medieval Spanish Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela spoke of Mosul as a city:

“…surrounded by a wall, it is very handsome, large, and well-fortified; and the environs abound with gardens and orchards”

View of the frontline of Mosul in July 2016 from the town of Aski Kalak. The bridge in the distance was closed for civilian use. ISIS checkpoints were 8-10km past the bridge. This was about as close as most people get to Mosul nowadays.


Nineveh was the capital of the ancient Assyrian Empire which lasted from 2500-612 BC. Around 700 BC, Nineveh was the largest city in the world. Under the Abbasid Caliphate which ruled from 750 to 1517 CE, Mosul was a major stop along the Silk Road. Linking caravans and traders from the Far East to the cities of the West, Mosul quickly became a major economic hub. The well-governed city rapidly developed with the influx of foreign goods and ideas. Mosul was known for its metal work, unique painting styles, marble, textile industry, and crude oil production.

Despite being a well defended city, Mosul would become the sight of many battles. In over 8000 years of history, the city was conquered by the Sumerians, Assyrians, Alexander the Great, the Persians, the Mongols, the Ottoman Empire, the United States, and now ISIS. Mosul flourished since its rise as a great city for centuries until the Mongols sacked it in 1258. After the fall of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, Mosul fell under Ottoman control until the end of World War I.

The 1916 Sykes-Picot Treaty divided the former Ottoman territories and placed Syria and Lebanon under French control and Iraq under British control. By 1918 the British fully occupied Iraq. In 1920 the Treaty of Sevres, which did not recognize a sovereign Turkish state, was signed. Although it never manifested into a break-up of the areas of the current Turkish state, the Treaty of Sevres would of given the Kurds of Iraq and surrounding areas a defined border and country. Instead, the Treaty of Luasanne replaced Sevres in 1923 after lengthy negotiations to have a recognized Turkish state.

With the border between Iraq and Turkey still not defined, Turkey was laying claim to Mosul, taking the position that Mosul was rightfully their city as it was inhabited by a small population of ethnic Turkmen. It was then up to the League of Nations to delegate whether Turkey or Iraq would have control over the city. Reaching an agreement in the 1926 Frontier Treaty, Turkey dropped its bid for Mosul. This treaty created the modern day border between Iraq and Turkey. In exchange for Mosul, Turkey would get ten percent of all Iraqi oil revenue for the next 25 years.

Mosul, Iraq from Matson Collection, 1932 (LOC).

Iraq would gain its independence from Britain 1932 and establish a monarchy as its form of government. It wasn’t until the end of the 1970s that Iraq’s most infamous leader would come to power. Saddam Hussein was elected president in 1979 and would control Iraq until his removal from power after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. During the US military occupation of Iraq, many of the Baathists and soldiers who were removed from power and relieved of their duties by the Coalition Provisional Authority sought refuge in Mosul. Further alienation by the Shi’ite-led government of Prime Ministers Maliki and Abadi exacerbated tensions within Mosul as more Sunnis fled to the city.

After the US withdrew completely from Iraq in 2011, Mosul became a renewed sight of Sunni insurgency and would eventually fall to ISIL in early June 2014. Sources indicate that Moslawis (natives of Mosul) welcomed the black flags of ISIL as the militant group entered the gates of Mosul for the first time, praising the group as liberators.

Mosul Today

Under the control of ISIL, Mosul has taken steps back in time.Islamic police patrol the city, spreading fear into the population. Executions occur on a daily basis. After dawn prayer, executions are generally carried out in a public square. Reports indicate that residents have no money, no jobs, and no way to leave the city. The population is held hostage by ISIL. There is a tax imposed on Moslawis that if not paid, will result in punishment or the seizure of houses or possessions.

The military operation to rid Mosul of ISIL control started on the morning of October 21, 2016. Up to one million people are predicted to leave Mosul and its surrounding villages and towns as the fighting intensifies. The United Nations and other NGOs are expecting up to 750,000 refugees and IDPs. Since the rise of ISIL in Iraq in January 2014, 3.3 million or 10% of Iraq’s population has been displaced. Mosul is the last key city held by the militant group. With the liberation of Mosul, ISIL will no longer hold significant territory inside Iraq. Mosul will begin to rebuild and the once prosperous city will renew itself after just another conflict in its long and war torn history.