From ashes of conflict, a top centre of learning re-emerges

When Sayf Al-Ashqar was tasked with rebuilding the library of the University of Mosul in Iraq, he was given a free rein – but no cash. Islamic State, which occupied the city between 2014 and 2017, had burned the prestigious library to the ground, destroying what remained of its vast collection of books, historic maps and ancient manuscripts.

Al-Ashqar now faced the gargantuan challenge of restoring the 3,000 square metres of charred premises. The university had once been one of Iraq’s finest institutions, the central library around which it was built boasting centuries-old artefacts – including a Koran from the ninth century.

“This was one of the most important collections in the Middle East,” says Al-Ashqar. “People from around the Arab world came to study here.”

The university’s rector, Kossay Al-Ahmady, told him to do his best. And so Al-Ashqar set about trying to replace the irreplaceable.

Many of the artefacts were priceless, donated by private collections across Iraq. Grasping at straws, Al-Ashqar contacted Interpol, asking for help in tracing books traded on the black market – but, sadly, these precious fragments of history were lost forever.

Rising from the ashes

Six years on, the central library has risen from the ashes, putting Iraq’s second-largest city back on the map as one of the country’s top centres of learning.

Reopened last February (2022), with improvements and expansions continuing to be made since then, it is a hugely symbolic victory for this city, located in the upper reaches of what used to be ancient Mesopotamia, where cuneiform writing was first invented. The library, originally founded in 1921, was the beating heart of the city, its books the very essence of its soul.

The university’s revival is an international story, led by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), with financial support from Germany provided through the KfW Development Bank.

The new library is four storeys high, its workspaces furnished with bright yellow shelves and green and red chairs and tables, built with help from the Dutch and German governments. Books have been donated by a variety of sources, including the French embassy in Iraq and UK charity Book Aid International. Right now, there are around 60,000 books back on the shelves.

But physical books are only part of the story. Much of the recovery has been driven by technology, with the university working with institutions such as Cornell University in the United States and Oxford University Press and the British Library to offer access to e-materials.

“We have to be realistic,” says Al-Ashqar. “Of course, I think about the real books. Some people said new houses and hospitals are more important. I said: ‘Would you accept to see your family just by e-meetings? It’s the same with books. You need to see and feel them.’ But we have to move with the times.”

Radhwan al-Mashhadani, an undergraduate engineering student at the university, said he is making extensive use of e-learning for his studies. Up-to-date books in his field of study are difficult to find anyway, he said, so online resources are essential.

After years of being taught in the computer science department, he and his fellow students are about to move into a new engineering department in the coming weeks. In the beginning, reconstruction of the university was slow, he says, but it has noticeably speeded up over the past year. Since 2017, the UNDP has completed 52 projects, rebuilding college buildings, laboratories and workshops.

Cultural as well as physical reconstruction

There has also been cultural reconstruction at the university. Rawaa Qasha, director of scholarships and cultural relations, says the university feels like a different place these days.

She started out in 1993 as a computer science student, later moving into teaching. In 2013, she left to undertake PhD studies at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, vowing never to return to Mosul. She was fed up with the university’s conservative rules on women’s dress and the lack of diversity among staff and students. By the time she left, elements of Islamic States (IS) were already present in the city.

Qasha, who hails from a Christian family in the nearby town of Alqosh, watched from afar as IS announced the establishment of their ‘caliphate’ from the Great Al-Nuri Mosque in the old city of Mosul, which was subsequently destroyed in battles for the city – the Iraq government accuses IS of dynamiting the building, which is to be rebuilt.

When Qasha returned in 2018, she was shocked at the extent of devastation. “When you see your home destroyed, it is horrible,” she says. But she believes the university has built back better, in culture as well as buildings. “There is now an open mind in how it deals with minorities, how it deals with women and how it helps the community,” she said.

In the old days, Qasha would never have imagined a woman in her present role. “You wouldn’t find a woman representing the university around the world,” she said. “Now, seven of the university’s 24 deans are women.”

There is also more diversity, with Yazidi, Shia, Shabaks and Christians from around Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq rubbing shoulders on campus.

Established in 1967, the University of Mosul was the country’s second-largest institution of higher learning, after the University of Baghdad, with 24 colleges and 40,000 male and female students, before the Islamic State occupation.

The UNDP’s Funding Facility for Stabilization has rehabilitated facilities under the colleges of agriculture, computer science, education, fine arts, mathematics, medicine, engineering and science, allowing tens of thousands of students to resume their studies.

The number of students at the university now surpasses pre-occupation enrolment rates by over 40%, with more than 30,000 undergraduates and nearly 1,000 postgraduate students on campus.

International enrolments, however, have been low since the US invasion, which unleashed years of ultra-violent sectarian conflict even before IS came on the scene.

Reaching out to the world

These days, the university is also reaching out to the world, hosting events and performances in its library and its theatre, also restored with German funds through the UNDP – the two projects cost a total of US$3 million, according to Al-Ashqar. The theatre is the biggest in Iraq, featuring state-of-the-art equipment for digital projections and a surround-sound system.

In February, the venue hosted an international conference, discussing sustainable reconstruction of post-war Iraq. Around 800 students participated in 40 workshops prepared by professors from Iraq, Germany, Austria and Poland. It was the biggest event the university had ever held – a way of announcing it was back in business.

With more international projects in the offing, it is an exciting time for the university. Qasha’s UK alma mater, Newcastle University, is currently helping Mosul’s central library to digitalise its archive.

In return, Mosul has been collaborating with Newcastle on its archive of British explorer Gertrude Bell, who supported the creation of Iraq’s former Hashemite monarchy, helping to organise around 1,200 artefacts – mainly photos and notes – covering 30 years to 1926.

“It’s an honour to work on linking my universities,” says Qasha. “Previously we were just asking for partners to help us, but now we’re really working on joint projects to benefit both sides.”

Fostering peace-building is a priority

One of the university’s main priorities is to foster peace-building in the wider population, ensuring that those dark days of extremism never return. Currently it is running eight projects helping locals in the surrounding governorate of Nineveh to preserve their heritage as they rebuild their communities.

Four projects are being run with the University of Sussex, UK, which has trained Iraqi staff on the ground to help locals conduct interviews, collect data and make videos. Findings will be published jointly online.

“It’s a new era for the university,” said Barwin Hamid, who works in the media department, helping to produce the college newspaper.

As a journalist, she spent two years on the run in Mosul, criss-crossing the Tigris in the regulation double layers of veil after receiving death threats from IS loyalists. She remembers seeing the black smoke rising from the burning library building.

“We felt desperate and hopeless, believing that we couldn’t restore the building again. But with courage we managed to rebuild,” she says. “Now we can express ourselves. We are not afraid.”

Al-Ashqar says that the secret of the university’s remarkable recovery lies in the commitment of its staff. His father, a lecturer in business administration, who taught at the university, died just after IS was routed, killed by a booby trap as he returned to the family home for the first time.

“I can’t allow myself to be scared,” said Al-Ashqar. “We are trying to bring better times to the youth. I believe the future will be better.”