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Recently in 2006, a rabbi in a division of the US army stationed in Iraq named Carlos Huerta stumbled upon the abandoned and desecrated synagogue of the old Jewish quarter in Mosul that had been filled with sewage and trash for the past half century. He also visited the children’s yeshiva in the Jewish quarter, which no longer had a roof but stood with just walls. Rabbi Huerta pens his poignant experience:
“The old ones tell me there was a Jewish quarter, as well as a synagogue, study halls and a cemetery. One day, while searching the streets of the ancient city, I came across a building missing half of its roof. The site was a garbage dump, and the building’s interior was three-quarters full of rotting garbage, feces and sewage. I had to crouch down low to get inside, as the doorway was almost completely buried.
As I entered, light came through the half-open roof, and I could just make out writing engraved on the walls. It was Hebrew. It was then that I knew I had stumbled into the ancient synagogue of the city of Mosul-Nineveh. My heart broke, as I climbed over the garbage piles that filled the room where, for hundreds of years, the prayers of Jews had reached the heavens. This is when I realized I was probably the first Jew to enter this holy place in more than a half century" (1).
The Jewish community in Mosul (also referred to as the ancient biblical town of Nineveh) first formed in the 8th century BCE when Shalmaneser, a king of Assyria, conquered Samaria. It was in the middle of the 7th century CE that a consolidated Jewish quarter in Mosul was identified, called Mahallat al-Yahūd ("the Jewish Quarter") (2). In the 9th century, an Arab historian named al-Balādhurī and a geographer named Ibn al-Faqīh both wrote that there was an established Jewish quarter in Mosul when the Muslims conquered the city in mid 7th century (3). Through the medieval period, the Jewish community and quarter of Mosul were headed by exilarchs who claimed to be descendants from the royal dynasty of King David from antiquity (4).
Though Benjamin of Tudela never actually visited the city and its Jewish quarter, he wrote in 1165 that there were approximately 7,000 Jews in Mosul, most of whom lived in the Jewish quarter (5). The Jewish community in Mosul had close ties with Baghdadi Jews. Two descendants of Mosul’s exilarchs filled in for the exilarchate of Baghdad’s Jewish community when the exilarch in Baghdad died without an heir in 1174. However, Baghdadi Jewry still held much more power and sway over political and religious matters than did the Jewish community of Mosul. There was also simply significantly lower number of Jews in Mosul than Baghdad. Until 1937, the Jewish community living in Mosul’s Jewish quarter were electing Baghdadi Jews to represent them in parliament (6).
Benjamin II visited Mosul in the mid 19th century and recorded that there was 450 Jewish families, most if not all probably lived in the quarter that had served as the Jewish neighborhood for centuries. The synagogue was located on a cave traditionally associated with Elijah the prophet. Many Jews in the Mosul Jewish quarter worked as craftsmen and merchants, manufacturing clothing, jewelry, and veils. However, most of them were poor and in need of assistance (7). The decline of Mosul’s economy in the early 20th century led to many Mosul Jews leaving for Baghdad. Until the mid 20th century when most Mosul Jews emigrated to Israel or the United States, the Jewish community of Mosul remained separate from the rest of the city in its old quarter. Though there was a children’s yeshiva or school inside the quarter, most children living in the quarter were not educated beyond the elementary level, as the two gender-based Alliance Israelite Universelle schools in Mosul were shut down only a couple decades after their inception, due to the outbreak of World War I (8).
The old Jewish quarter of Mosul was largely abandoned and emptied following the mass emigration to Israel and other countries in mid 20th century. It was only in 2006 that Rabbi Carlos Huerta stumbled upon the neighborhood and brought it to light with his writing.
Mosul: Mosul, currently the third largest city in Iraq, was the Biblical city of Nineveh and was so large that the Book of Jonah describes it as a "great city of three days journey in breadth." During its peak from 668 to 627 BCE, Nineveh stood as the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (9). It was also the focal city of two minor biblical prophets Jonah and Nahum, who both warned the city of its evil practices. It is located on the southern banks of northern Iraq about 225 miles north of Baghdad. There are a number of shrines and tombs of revered biblical prophets in Mosul that have become popular pilgrimage sites for Jews and Muslims, such as tombs of Jonah, Nahum, and Obadiah.