History of Mosul, the ancient Nineveh

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A city older than history itself; Mosul, formerly known as Nineveh, is without a shadow of a doubt one of the most fascinating places on earth, founded by the Assyrians and still inhabited by them today.

The words of Ibn Battuta

“Of ancient and opulent origin, Mosul has an imposing citadel that enjoys a reputation for impregnability, the so-called al-Hadba (the Humpback), with high towers and a solid wall. […]


I have never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world except Delhi, the capital of the king of India!

Ibn Battuta

Capital of Assyria

To deal with Mosul, it is first necessary to speak of Nineveh, the ancient capital of the Assyrian Empire which has now become a suburb of the former. The oldest remains of the latter date back to 6000 BC, making it one of the oldest inhabited centers in the entire human history. Under the Amorite ruler Shamshi Adad I it became a very important center of worship of the goddess Ishtar; however, it will be under the sovereign Sennacherib that the city will become the capital of Assyria, starting a series of public works that will allow it to eclipse Babylon. It is no coincidence that an increasing number of scholars tend to think that the legendary Hanging Gardens of Babylon were actually located in Nineveh.


So much was the opulence and grandeur of this settlement that, according to the Bible and the Quran, the prophet Jonah went here following his famous adventure with the whale. A decisive peculiarity in the Quranic episode is that the inhabitants of Nineveh were the only ones to follow the messenger of God and thus escape the Divine Punishment. However, great riches always bring great problems and the same was for this great city which was eroded by continuous civil wars, which provided suitable humus for their enemies. In 612 BC a coalition of Iranian tribes and Babylon besieged Nineveh, killing its king Sin-shar-ishkun and causing its first great downfall. Thanks to his exiles, however, the city of Mosul was founded, a few kilometers from where the ancient and never forgotten capital stood.

Between Arabs and Turks

Following this event, Assyria will no longer be independent but will pass under the Achaemenid, Seleucid and Sassanid empires; in 637 it will then be taken by the Rashidun Caliphate, entering from that moment on into the history of the Islamic world. Mosul will become a particularly disputed place in this period, with the Hamdanids, the Uqaylids and the Abbasids contending for control; around the end of the 10th century, the city was inhabited by an increasing number of Kurds who soon became the majority of the population.


Mosul will then be conquered by: Seljuks, Zengids, Ayyubids, Mongols and Aq Koyunlu, finding refuge for a short time even under the Safavids. Very interesting to note how Benjamin of Tudela, a great Jewish traveler of the 12th century, visited Mosul in 1165, finding there a community of 7,000 Jews, whose exhilaration Rabbi Zakai seems to have even descended from King David.

Ottoman Mosul

Starting from 1500, the ancient center will become one of the places of greatest tension between the Safavid and Ottoman Empire, so much so that only with the Treaty of Zuhab of 1639 will there be a definitive peace in those places, finally able to recover from the long tensions. Under the Ottomans, in fact, Mosul was soon granted an almost unthinkable autonomy for the time, allowing several local families to consider themselves almost independent. In this period the trade between East and West became more and more dense, bringing to the inhabited center the same glory experienced centuries before with Badr ad-Din Lu’lu, the greatest of the Zengids to govern the city.


In this period, various Dominican congregations can also be linked which, sent here by Pope Benedict 14th, built many schools, orphanages, printing works and hospitals. The choice of this place over others was due to the fact that, starting from the 4th century, a large part of the Assyrians converted to Christianity, making the area a real crossroads of faiths. Starting from the 19th century, however, the Ottoman Empire implemented a decisive policy of centralization of power, which paradoxically led to an increasingly fragmented dominion of the territory; this, combined with the construction of the Suez Canal, led to an increasingly strong marginalization of Mosul, now difficult to control and much less rich than in the past.

Iraqi Mosul

Unfortunately, in the First World War the city will suffer losses never seen before and this from both a human and a political point of view. This area will in fact be the victim of the terrible Assyrian Genocide, massacres carried out by the Ottomans at the hands of the Hamidiye regiments, mostly composed of Kurds, Turks and other local populations; the estimates of deaths range from 150,000 to 300,000, resulting only in numbers below the Armenian. Once defeated, the Ottoman Empire was forced by the United Kingdom to cede the possession of Mosul to Iraq, which, with the provinces of Baghdad and Basra, will form the modern country.


London was particularly keen on this agreement in order to obtain preferential access to the oil wells located near the city, a wealth which, over the years, has proved to be a real curse. Precisely because of its strategic importance, since the birth of the country it became one of the places of greatest wealth and importance, so much so that it became essential for Saddam Hussein who practiced a violent Arabization here. Like the ancient sultans, the new dictator also feared the riots of distant ethnic groups and for this he made all the violence available, but complicating the situation. In 1991 a violent Kurdish revolt broke out there and, precisely because of this situation, in 2003 Mosul became one of the key places for the American invasion. Unfortunately, the political climate of great uncertainty, assisted by an ever-increasing expansion of Islamic fundamentalist organizations, has made the area a perfect place for the development of ISIS which, from 2014 to 2017, dominated the territory.

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