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Damaged House In Mosul's Old City Is Remnant Of Old Synagogue


A century ago, the Iraqi city of Mosul was one of the region's most prosperous and religiously diverse cities. Jewish history there goes back almost 3,000 years to ancient Nineveh. The battle against ISIS heavily damaged the oldest part of the city. NPR's Jane Arraf tells us the violence laid bare a piece of Jewish heritage.

ZAID AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: "This is the house where I was born," Zaid Ahmed tells me. We're in Mosul's historic old city, high stone walls on either side of a twisting, narrow alley, leading to what's left of a grand, old house. Ahmed, like almost everyone in Mosul now, is Muslim. His family home is huge, with marble arches and colorful, decorated pillars in the old Jewish quarter. In fact, the house Ahmed's grandfather bought in 1956 from the Iraqi government was a synagogue.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) This room is where the cleric sat. He taught in Hebrew. And this was their only church in the neighborhood.

ARRAF: By church, he means synagogue. Mosul's Jewish community has been gone for so long, most people don't know the word for rabbi anymore. But Ahmed remembers from his father and grandfather the Jews who worshipped there prayed facing west, the direction of Jerusalem. And they told him that when Iraqi Jews were forced to leave the country after the creation of Israel, they left a big gap.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) Before they left, they came to say goodbye to my grandfather. And they said, Zaid Ahmed, you were a good neighbor. We had nothing against each other. We didn't hurt them, and they didn't hurt us.

ARRAF: Ahmed says his grandfather even had a photo of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir hanging in the house.

AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: It's a cemetery.

He shows me the remains of a religious school next to the synagogue. He says there was also a workshop here, and he whispers that there are still Jewish graves under the courtyard. For years, the building went unnoticed. If it weren't for the battle against ISIS, it still would be. The fighting destroyed part of the ceiling and some of the walls. ISIS fighters lived here for a while. There are bullet casings everywhere. You have to climb over piles of rubble to make your way inside. And when the old city was lying in ruins after the fighting, a lot of people did.

AHMED: (Through interpreter) ISIS came. Then airstrikes hit the house. Thieves came to the house. People came and took things. The directorate of antiquities came and took two pieces.

ARRAF: Ahmed and his brother show me holes in the thick walls where two Hebrew inscriptions were chipped out.

So it's a room with iron bars that's full of rubble, but it has these vaulted ceilings, and you can tell it was lovely once. But in the wall, someone from the department of antiquities actually dug out some of the marble plaques that had Hebrew writing in them.

The director of antiquities later tells me his department took two inscriptions and padlocked the door to protect the house. He acknowledges it's legally owned by Ahmed's family but says it's too dangerous for anyone to live there. At least two other inscriptions were believed stolen and, according to neighborhood residents, are being shopped around for sale. Ahmed paints cars for a living. He has a 14-year-old son who was badly wounded two years ago and needs operations the family can't afford. He and his brothers and sisters would like to sell the house, but it could be difficult because the antiquities department would have to agree to it.

AHMED: (Speaking Arabic).

ARRAF: He shows me where he used to play in a small pool in the courtyard as a child, and the room where he got married, where his grandfather used to sit propped up by pillows to eat oranges and drink coffee with the Jewish neighbors. That was a nicer time in Mosul, he says, when no one cared what religion you were.

Jane Arraf, NPR News, Mosul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.