The five-year anniversary of the Al-Nuri’s mosque’s minaret’s destruction is a time to lament the loss of an Iraqi and global symbol of cultural heritage.
It has been close to two years since the Notre Dame fire in April 2019. Numerous memes emerged afterwards of Quasimodo, the fictitious hunchback of Notre Dame, embracing his beloved cathedral. Iraqis also lovingly call the curved minaret of the al-Nuri mosque, “al-Hadba,” or “the hunchback.” These two “hunchbacks,” sacred structures, were beset by disasters, one deliberate and the other accidental.
While commentators on both sides of the Atlantic took to cyberspace to mourn the fire of Notre Dame as a loss to “Western Civilisation,” the tale of two “hunchbacks” demonstrates that cultural interactions that led to the construction of both monuments undermine the binary notions of a clash of civilisations. Rather, both monuments are testaments to architectural innovations that were shared between Europe and the Middle East.
A vexing narrative
It is worth remembering that as Notre Dame burned years ago, online conspiracy theories emerged blaming Muslims for the disaster, despite the evidence pointing to the fire as an accident occurring during the cathedral’s renovation.
Others simply lamented that the tragedy was a loss for “Western civilisation.” Ben Shapiro, for example, an American right-wing pundit with over two million followers on twitter, tweeted: “a magnificent monument to Western civilization collapsing.”
While invocations of Western civilisation in the past were based on antiquarian view of history, the Notre Dame fire fed into a narrative of a siege mentality, which conflated this tragic fire with Muslim immigration as threats to Western, White European identity.
The cathedral as a besieged symbol is replete in Oriana Fallaci’s lengthy essay, “La Rabbia E L’orgoglio” (“The Rage and The Pride”), published in Il Corriere della Sera on 29 September 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks. In it she equates the destruction of the Twin Towers to the cathedral of her native Florence, besieged by Muslims immigrants moving into the district of the sacred structure.
From a disciplinary perspective, claiming Notre Dame as a symbol of Western civilisation belies recent trends in history and art history which have documented the cultural cross-fertilisation of architectural techniques within the culture of the greater Mediterranean.
On arches and minarets
The minaret in Mosul and spire of Notre Dame represented the human attempt to defy gravity, reaching for the heavens. So did the pointed arch. The pointed arch that is characteristic of Gothic architecture, like the Notre Dame cathedral, was an architectural innovation that could support more weight, allowing for thinner, higher walls to create vaulted, celestial-like ceilings which also defied gravity. The arch has origins in the Middle East.
In the premodern past, there were no such things as patents for these architectural innovations. While it is difficult in determining causal influences over time and space in terms of borrowing of building techniques, studying both trade and wars help historians contextualise how different cultures came into contact with each other, and how they may have imitated new buildings they came into contact with.
For example, the Muslim minaret, was most likely was influenced by Greek lighthouses, watchtowers or church towers that they witnessed after conquering Byzantine Syria in the 7th century.
The lineage of the pointed arch in France can be traced back to Abbot Suger, instrumental in the 1135 renovation of of the abbey church of St Denis in Paris, famed as the birthplace of Gothic architecture. He was most likely in inspired by the Abbot Hugh of Semur’s renovations of the abbey of Cluny in southern Burgundy and its pointed arches.
Hugh of Semur’s inspiration came from a visit to the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino, in the south of Italy, a structure replete with Middle Eastern architectural motifs, including the pointed arch, as a result of its proximity to the Italian port city of Amalfi, which had extensive trading networks in the Middle East.
The similarities in style were alluded to by Sir Christopher Wren, designer of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, who wrote: “This we now call the Gothic manner of architecture…I think it should with more reason be called the Saracen [Arab] style….If any one doubts of this assertion, let us appeal to any one who has seen the mosques and palaces of Fez or some of the cathedrals in Spain built by the Moors.”
In this case, architectural techniques, styles and innovations, rather than being the exclusive domain of the West or the East, are the product of a synthesis within the greater Mediterranean of Eurasian landmass, where pre-Christian and pre-Islamic Roman and Persian architectures interacted, and afterwards Muslims borrowed from Christians who then borrowed from Muslims again.
Mosul and Paris
After examining how architectural techniques flowed over time, one can appreciate that the Great Mosque of Mosul and Notre Dame were products of an artistic trajectory uniting Europe and the Middle East.
Zaha Hadid, the famed architect from Mosul exemplified how Middle Eastern motifs inspired her iconic structures. She passed away in 2016, a year before the tragic destruction of the mosque that was the symbol of her native Mosul.
Furthermore, these losses had tragic impacts on the inhabitants of Mosul and Paris. If Victor Hugo’s work was instrumental in fostering an appreciation of what was then a decrepit Notre Dame, it was the Iraqi writer Ahmed Zaidan from Mosul who lamented that the city’s skyline will never be the same with the destruction of the minaret, just as it has been said for the spire of Notre Dame.
Reconstruction has begun on both the mosque, and its minaret will be rebuilt to conform to its original “hunchback” shape. Notre Dame’s spire will also be rebuilt to mimic its original design that its Hunchback would recognise today.
On a rhetorical and symbolical level claiming Notre Dame as a loss for the West denied the universalism of this structure. The anniversary of the Nuri mosque’s disaster serves as a reminder that a sacred structure is the product of a global human heritage, and their loss, whether it be in Mosul or Paris, is a matter which can be lamented regardless of one’s origin, race, faith or religiosity.