For Noor Ammar, 25, and Aveen Imad, 26, Unesco’s Bringing Back the Spirit of Mosul project is something they can really get their hands on. The historic Iraqi city, which was unique for its diverse mix of Jewish, Christian and Muslim residents living side by side rather than in separate neighborhoods, was badly damaged by aerial bombardment by the Iraqi army and its allies as they were looking to flush out Isis in 2014-17. Unesco’s major EU-funded program to restore Ottoman-era houses damaged during the liberation of Mosul is now bearing fruit, with 44 houses completed last month and another 75 planned for here the end of the year.
Ammar and Imad are among 119 women and 670 men from the region who are being trained in traditional stone masonry techniques using “Mosul marble” – a type of gypsum alabaster native to the region – as part of of a wider effort by Unesco to encourage community participation in heritage conservation. A separate training partnership in Mosul with the International Center for Studies for the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property focuses on young architects and civil engineers. Elsewhere in Iraq, the European fund Madad is involving Syrian refugees and displaced Iraqis in the rehabilitation of the citadel of Erbil, the former tumulus crowned with Ottoman buildings and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ammar and Imad learned the delicate art of coloring and repairing damaged alabaster. They began working at the Old Town sites in February after four months of training. “It’s not a usual job for a woman,” said Ammar, a history graduate from the University of Mosul. Imad, a Christian from nearby Bartella with a degree in business administration, agrees. “But after sitting at home for so many years during the Isis occupation, we are really happy to be working on such an important project that helps restore what has been destroyed,” she says.
Four years after Unesco launched its ambitious initiative to rebuild Mosul, the two men say there is now a bigger job market for people trained in heritage conservation techniques than for university graduates. “There is so much work,” Ammar says, both with NGOs and the Iraqi government, “now that reconstruction has started in earnest.”
Although interns currently only receive a stipend of $20 per day to cover lunch and transportation, they can earn up to $500 per month once they complete the Unesco program. Conservation is “an in-demand skill,” says Imad, “and one that will secure future employment.”
Unesco’s professional initiatives in Mosul are not only about restoring monuments and infrastructure, but also about reviving endangered traditional art forms and crafts. “Before I started this training, I didn’t know that this type of craftsmanship still existed,” says Imad. “It was just stories I heard from my grandfather.” She hopes their efforts will also contribute to the growth of cultural tourism in Mosul, as Unesco continues to restore homes along two “heritage trails” linking them to landmarks like the Al-Nuri Mosque.
As the city’s old houses come to life, their spacious courtyards and cool alabaster basements have already attracted NGOs to work in Mosul, and many are renting properties from Moslawi families. Markets have reopened and Al-Ekhlas School, a shell burnt down just two years ago, is being rebuilt as a child-centred learning institution.
“I have a degree in history,” says Ammar, “but it’s like working with living history. I am proud to participate in the reconstruction of my city.