Following a long, exhausting campaign, Iraqi forces successfully retook control of Mosul. The city was critical to ISIS’s territorial claims, and its loss severely weakens the terrorist group’s position in the region. Symbolically, recapturing the city holds even greater significance, for in 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pronounced himself leader of a new caliphate in the city’s Grand al-Nuri Mosque.
Despite just cause for celebration, the toll of ISIS’s reign of terror, and the scars it left on the city’s inhabitants, still remain. The city is not yet fully secure, as Iraqi troops continue weeding out scattered terrorists. The landscape itself remains disfigured, a consequence of the recent campaign and deliberate destruction on the part of ISIS militants over the past few years.
In 2015, ISIS destroyed thousands of books in Mosul’s main library, as well as artifacts at the Mosul Museum. Churches, mosques, and religious sites also succumbed to the group’s violence. The tomb of Jonah was destroyed in the summer of 2014, soon after ISIS took control of the city. Iraq’s oldest Christian monastery, Saint Elijah’s, suffered a similar fate.
The recent bombing of the al-Nuri Mosque and the al-Hadba minaret left perhaps the deepest wound on the citizens of Mosul. The mosque, with its unique tilted minaret, was a longstanding symbol of the city. One former resident said it represented “generations of memories.”
Residents of Mosul will have to begin the process of recovering psychologically and physically from the trauma of ISIS’s reign. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the role that restoring the city’s beauty will have on its inhabitants. More broadly, reflection on ISIS’s wake of destruction permits renewed consideration of the importance of beauty.
In the midst of a modern world that values use, pleasure, and individual expression, the notion of beauty as a transcendental ideal has often been discarded or ignored. A personal anecdote related by George Stanciu, dean emeritus of Northeast Catholic College, makes this point rather poignantly:
Halfway down Canyon Road, we stopped in at a contemporary gallery that had a new show featuring conceptual art that our painter friend was dying to see. . . . Puzzled by what I saw, I mumbled, “What pointlessness. What happened to beauty?” Our painter friend wheeled around to face me, and I was surprised to see black anger in his eyes. He shouted at me and apparently at everyone else in the gallery, “Beauty is an old-fashioned, idiotic concept.”
And yet our souls demand it.
Beauty has the capacity to move a soul, to stir it into a transcendent experience that infuses life with renewed meaning. Encountering the peculiar beauty of the tilted minaret, for example, connected Mosul residents with countless memories from the past. Its beauty possessed a power that went beyond its mere material components.
Furthermore, beauty can bring hope where hopelessness has reigned. Pope Paul VI articulated this point well at the end of Vatican II:
This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. It is beauty, like truth, which brings joy to the heart of man and is that precious fruit which resists the wear and tear of time, which unites generations and makes them share things in admiration.
ISIS’s barbaric ethos feeds on despair, so restoring Mosul’s beauty would prove to be a powerful symbol of resistance. In fact, restoration has already begun. Muslim and Christian residents recently joined together to repair the Monastery of Saint George, which had been severely damaged.
Mosul’s healing process will be arduous, and will have to address residents’ physical and emotional scars. As that process moves forward, beauty can play an essential role in moving the city out of the shadow of terror.
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