Progress made on saving Prophet Nahum’s tomb in Iraq

Jewish tomb and synagogue in Kurdish region of northern Iraq requires support to continue process of restoration

Photos show the tomb of the Prophet Nahum in Al-Qosh in northern Iraq and efforts to stabilize the structure inside (photo credit: COURTESY LISA MIARA (SPRINGS OF HOPE FOUNDATION))
Photos show the tomb of the Prophet Nahum in Al-Qosh in northern Iraq and efforts to stabilize the structure inside
“I was struck by the beauty but it looked like it might be too late,” recalls Cheryl Benard.
Along with a team from the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, she has been leading efforts to restore and save the tomb of the Prophet Nahum in northern Iraq. Now initial work has been performed to save the historic Jewish site, but challenges lie ahead to restore it.
The tomb of the Prophet Nahum lies in the ancient Christian town of Al-Qosh overlooking Nineveh Plains. Nahum was one of the minor prophets who predicted the destruction of the city of Nineveh located in the outskirts of modern-day Mosul. The tomb is on the border between the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and Mosul.
For centuries the tomb was a major site of Jewish pilgrimage and many Kurdish Jews would come to the tomb and synagogue around it, which is thought to date back more than 800 years. In the 1940s and 1950s Jews of the region moved to Israel, and the town’s Christian residents took care of the tomb as best they could.
“It’s noteworthy, the community there is amazing, it has been a place of sanctuary,” says Benard. “They are proud of their shrine but they were not in a position to maintain it.”
After the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 there was talk of restoring the tomb and the US Army Corp of Engineers even paid a visit.
In 2014, Islamic State conquered the plains below the tomb and threatened the site. Kurdish Peshmerga and the US-led coalition pushed the extremists back. I visited the tomb in 2015 and saw the tremendous state of disrepair. There was a rusted metal awning over the collapsing building to keep rain out. The tomb itself had a green blanket over it and showed signs that some pilgrims still visited.
IN 2017, conservation experts told Benard that it looked worse than it had been a few years before and might not survive another winter. Benard, who holds a PhD in international relations and has worked at the RAND Corporation, hoped the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage could help save the site. “The structural integrity was imperiled and they explained that the way it was constructed, the columns and arches were connected so that if the outermost ones collapsed, then it could destroy the others.”
Benard and her team rushed to get funding. There happened to be a Czech firm working on preserving the ancient citadel in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdistan Region. Called Gema Art Group, the Czechs were experts in construction and preservation and had experience not only in the Kurdistan Region but also in preserving religious buildings. About an-hour-and-a-half drive south of Nahum’s Tomb, the Czech experts were also familiar with Al-Qosh and said they could help stabilize Nahum’s tomb and would do it for the cost of the materials. However, hurdles remained.
In September 2017, the Kurdistan Region held an independence referendum and Baghdad punished the Kurds by ordering the Erbil international airport closed. Suddenly the equipment the Czechs wanted to bring in couldn’t come directly to Erbil but had to go through Baghdad on a local airline. “They were concerned for their equipment but they went ahead with it and you can see the results,” says Benard.
Recent photos of Nahum’s tomb taken by Lisa Miara of the Springs of Hope Foundation, which works in the Kurdistan Region, show that metal stabilizers have been erected on some exterior walls, and inside, large straps, scaffolding and wooden planks have been placed to hold up parts of the structure. In addition, much of the rubble has been cleared.
In doing the work the experts discovered some of the reasons for the accelerating structural collapse.
“For instance on the exterior of the shrine the municipality had raised the level of the sidewalk by a meter and covered up ancient drainage, so the water started going under the shrine and undermining the foundations.”
Temporary fixes have been found for the more severe problems, but Benard says that it has bought the tomb only another two years. “We need to raise the funds for a full restoration.”
She says that restoring the tomb is an important symbol. “It is accepted by all three religions. Every time we went there we saw signs someone had been there for some sort of religious purposes.”
In that sense it is more than just a building, but a representation of history and coexistence. The Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage is now looking for more historic information about the tomb, such as how it was furnished in the 1940s and any artifacts from it that might still be located in Iraq, Israel or elsewhere. For instance, the tomb once had chandeliers, and some items from the site have been located in nearby Zakho on the Kurdish Region’s border with Turkey.