Tomb of Jonah (now Nabi Yunis Mosque), Mosul, Iraq

     In the early twentieth century, Miryam and Rahamim Beh Sabagha, a Jewish couple from Zakho traveled to Mosul to visit the tomb of Jonah. They came to pray for a child, as other local couples had done. Ariel Sabar wrote:

                “The half day’s journey to Mosul had made Miryam’s stomach churn. But then the walls of the ancient city of Nineveh, with their gray-stone battlements and their forbidding gates named after Assyrian gods, rose on the horizon…. A babel of languages swirled around them as they passed a row of vendors in stalls beside the arching gate. They walked toward the crenelated minaret that loomed like a giant stovepipe over the city, and entered through a gate below.

                “Is this a mosque?” Miryam whispered…

                “Yes, of course,” Rahamim said.

                “But Yona was a Jew.”

                “He was a prophet for Muslims, too. Yunis, they called him…”

                Now she knelt in the shadows and pressed her forehead against the old tomb, draped in luminous silk carpets, with tapers burning in copper candlesticks at the four corners…”[1]

 Video of ISIS blowing up the mosque. 




     The Tomb of Jonah was located in the city of Mosul in Iraqi Kurdistan. Mosul was known as Nineveh in ancient times, when it was the focus of the biblical prophet Jonah, who preached there and foresaw divine wrath befalling the city. A Jewish quarter already existed in Mosul at the time of the Muslim conquering in 637. In the 900s, it was a center of Jewish learning.[2] The Tomb of Jonah as well as other tombs and holy sites associated with biblical prophets became pilgrimage sites for Jews, Muslims, and Christians, attracting visitors from across Iraq.

     Jonah is the eponymous character of the Book of Jonah and was commanded by God to go to the city of Nineveh. He is also one of the twelve minor prophets included in the Tanakh. When Jonah defied God’s command to preach against the wickedness of the people of Nineveh, God roiled the seas and Jonah was thrown from the ship. A whale (or a fish, in some translations) swallowed him whole, spitting him ashore when he repented.

      Nineveh’s location is marked by excavations of five gates, parts of walls on four sides, and two large mounds. The shrine to Jonah was located on Nabi Yunis hill. In 1852, the Ottoman governor of Mosul carried out an excavation on Nabi Yunis which uncovered a winged bull-man, a statue of Gilgamesh, a statue of a lion, and a length inscription of the Assyrian King Sennacherib dated between 690-686 BCE. The palace was renovated many times during this era until a church was built some time in the early Christian era. It is unclear when specifically the site of the church began to be believed to mark the site of Jonah’s grave.[3] After the Islamic invasion, Jonah’s tomb was incorporated into a mosque, the Masjid al-Nabi Yunis. In addition to the tomb, the mosque also held the supposed remains of the whale that swallowed Jonah.[4] The mosque was unique in Iraq for its grand ascending stairs and alabaster floors. Its large prayer rooms had arched entrances inscribed with Quranic verses.[5] In 2008, US soldiers replaced the missing tooth from the supposed whale that swallowed Jonah.[6]

    The Tomb of Jonah was destroyed with explosives by ISIS militants in July 2014.[7] The Islamic State has destroyed many holy sites across the region as well as expelling and killing religious minorities. At least two dozen shrines have been destroyed in Mosul. Nikolay Mladenov, the UN secretary general’s special representative for Iraq, described the tomb’s destruction as “yet another demonstration of the terrorist’s group’s intention to shatter Iraq’s shared
heritage and identity.”[8]

Walking around the Tomb of Jonah, Mosul, Iraq. Video by Hshiar Goran. 



Mosul, Iraq

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