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Hebrew prophet's tomb in Iraq saved from collapse

The synagogue housing the tomb of the prophet Nahum — the only surviving prophet’s tomb from Mesopotamia — has been saved from collapse through the efforts of local Christians and with the help of a US-based organization.

AL-QOSH, Iraq — “The Iraqi government was against everything Jewish after the Jews left in the '50s,” said Father Araam, a young Chaldean priest serving in the predominantly Christian town of al-Qosh, in northern Iraq. That, he explained, was why it has been indifferent to the fate of the sole remaining synagogue in Iraq, here in al-Qosh. “That’s why it almost collapsed.”

Al-Qosh, on the Ninevah Plains, is home to several historic monasteries and churches as well as the synagogue, which houses the tomb of Nahum, the prophet who in 615 B.C. correctly predicted the downfall of the Assyrian kingdom. While the town's churches have been well maintained due to the efforts of the Christian community, the synagogue — despite Nahum being regarded as a prophet by the three major monotheistic religions — was allowed to crumble after the last Jews left town for Israel in 1951.

The good news is that after years of aborted attempts to save the building, a US organization — ARCH, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage — was finally able to send a team of engineers to secure the building in January before it fully collapsed. Some of the walls and part of the roof had already collapsed, and columns with Hebrew inscriptions are barely standing, endangering the tomb, which lies beneath a green covering.

Father Araam gratefully points out that the engineers' scaffolding, ropes and support beams are now holding the remains together. “Our history is built from different civilizations, and all of it is equally important,” he remarked. “We should care for it all.” 

Iraq has a troublesome relationship with parts of its heritage. Iraq's longtime ruler Saddam Hussein having his name carved into the stone used for restoring the archaeological site of Babel is an infamous example. It's heritage was being looted and destroyed long before the arrival of the Islamic State (IS), which set about destroying everything lacking connection to its radical brand of Islam. What it didn't destroy, it looted and sold, including some of the most valuable artifacts from Iraq's ancestry. They were stopped only miles from al-Qosh and its wealth of heritage.

When Iraq became too dangerous for archaeologists to continue their work after 2003, locals often looted the sites they were forced to abandon. Iraqi military intelligence announced last February that it had thwarted a major smuggling operation to whisk artifacts out of the country. Boston-based archaeologist Allison Cuneo, who has been working at sites in Iraqi Kurdistan since 2012, said that the looting has steadily increased, in particular during the economic crisis of recent years.

“At the same time, staffing was cut, especially among the guards,” Cuneo told Al-Monitor. “The way the authorities in Iraq connect archaeology to tourism gives the wrong message. It makes it look as though it’s only about the money.”

Meanwhile visitors have taken “souvenirs” with them from Nahum’s tomb, as the locals refer to the synagogue. A stone table with Hebrew inscriptions has been retrieved, but sections of the iron fence surrounding the tomb have not been, said Adam Tiffen, deputy director of ARCH.

“We had to work fast, as we were informed last year that, because of the deterioration in the structure, we had less than a year before the rest of the building collapsed,” Tiffen told Al-Monitor. For ARCH, it was important to save the temple, so it found funding and seized the opportunity to stabilize the building. 

“This is the last remaining prophet’s tomb in Mesopotamia. The others, the tombs of Jonah and George, were destroyed by IS. If IS had reached here, it would have been a catastrophe. This is a unifying symbol for the history of the region. In a place just miles from former IS territory, it is a symbol of hope,” Tiffen added.

Tiffen explained that the shrine represents a shared symbol of the three monotheistic religions, whose adherents have traditionally lived together in this part of Ninevah province. He said, “For us, this was an important site to protect and preserve, both for future generations and because it is one of the few remaining commonalities between Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It symbolizes what the region could be in terms of coexistence in a part of the world where this is lacking right now.”

That is what a local man named Shmoon recounted while sitting with friends in the front yard of his house in al-Qosh. “Jewish people would come and pray and celebrate at the Nahum tomb,” the 93-year-old recalled. “Nahum spoke with the Lord. He is a prophet.”

Sabah, a young 76, also remembers how Jewish families would stay with locals, including his own family, during the pilgrimages to the temple. “I would sneak to the shrine and see them praying, moving their bodies like we see on TV now.”

After the Jews left Iraq, the yearly visitors stopped coming. Sabah said he is sad to see the shrine in its current state. His friend Shmoon added, “The decline started after the Jews left, and it started to fall down in the '60s.”

The men declared themselves relieved that something is finally being done, a sentiment also held by some of al-Qosh's young residents. Nafla, 26, said she has often gone to the shrine “to pray, because it is a temple.” Dyar, 31, has also been inside many times. “I wanted to know how it was before,” he said. “It’s our history, our Nahum.”

Father Araam agrees. “Nahum is our prophet too,” he said. “The church is responsible for all the shrines here in al-Qosh now.” That’s why the Chaldean Church put a roof over the temple a couple of years ago to stop the winter rains from causing further damage. “It tries to protect it as a mother would,” said the priest.

Yet, as Tiffen pointed out, the work that is currently underway is only the first stage of what is needed to keep the shrine safe for future generations. “Our engineers focused on the immediate challenges and have stabilized the site for at least the next three years,” he said. “[That] gives us time to decide what needs to be done next, and to find the money to do it.”

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