A pinnacle center of learning reemerges from the ashes of conflict


When Sayf Al-Ashqar was tasked with rebuilding the library at Mosul University in Iraq, he was given a free hand—but no money. The Islamic State, which occupied the city between 2014 and 2017, had burned the prestigious library to the ground and destroyed what was left of its vast collection of books, historical maps and ancient manuscripts.

Al-Ashqar now faced the gigantic challenge of restoring the 3,000 square meters of charred site. The university had once been one of Iraq’s finest institutions, and the central library it was built around boasted centuries-old artifacts – including a 9th-century Koran.

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

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

Many of the artifacts were priceless and were donated by private collections across Iraq. Al-Ashqar, grasping at straws, contacted Interpol and asked for help locating books that were being traded on the black market – but unfortunately, these precious fragments of history were lost forever.

resurrection from the ashes

Six years later, the Central Library has risen from the ashes, putting Iraq’s second-largest city back on the map as one of the top educational centers in the country.

Reopened last February (2022) and continually improved and expanded ever since, it is a hugely symbolic victory for this city, located in the upper reaches of what was once ancient Mesopotamia, where cuneiform writing was first invented. Originally founded in 1921, the library was the beating heart of the city, its books the essence of its soul.

The revitalization of the university is an international story, spearheaded by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), with financial support from Germany through KfW Development Bank.

The new library is four stories high, its work areas are furnished with bright yellow shelves and green and red chairs and tables, which were built with the help of the Dutch and German governments. Books have been donated by a variety of sources, including the French Embassy in Iraq and British charity Book Aid International. Around 60,000 books are currently back on the shelves.

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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 right books. Some people said new homes and hospitals are more important. I said, “Would you accept just seeing your family via e-meeting? It’s the same with books. You have to see it and feel it.” But we have to keep up with the times.”

Radhwan al-Mashhadani, an engineering student at the university, said he uses e-learning extensively for his studies. Recent books in his field are difficult to find anyway, so online resources are essential.

After years of teaching in the computer science department, he and his fellow students will be moving to a new engineering department in the coming weeks. The reconstruction of the university went slowly at first, but accelerated noticeably in the past year. Since 2017, UNDP has completed 52 projects to rebuild university buildings, laboratories and workshops.

Cultural as well as physical reconstruction

There was also cultural reconstruction at the university. Rawaa Qasha, Director of Scholarships and Cultural Relations, says the university feels like a different place these days.

She began as a computer science student in 1993 and later switched to teaching. In 2013, she left Newcastle University in the UK to do her PhD, vowing never to return to Mosul. She was fed up with the university’s conservative dress codes and the lack of diversity among staff and students.

Before she left, elements of the Islamic States (IS) were already present in the city, seen by some Sunni locals as protectors against what they saw as a repressive Shia-led government of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

Qasha, who comes from a Christian family in the nearby city of Alqosh, watched from a distance as ISIS announced the establishment of its “caliphate” from the Al-Nuri Grand Mosque in Mosul’s old city, which subsequently erupted in fighting for The city that was destroyed – the Iraqi government accuses ISIS of having blown up the building that is to be rebuilt.

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When Qasha returned in 2018, she was shocked by the extent of the devastation. “When you see your home destroyed, it’s horrible,” she says. But she believes the university has rebuilt better, both in culture and in buildings. “There’s an open spirit now about how it treats minorities, how it treats women and how it helps the community,” she said.

Previously, Qasha could never have imagined a woman in her current role. “You wouldn’t find a woman representing the university anywhere in the world,” she said. “Today, seven of the university’s 24 deans are women.”

There is also more diversity, with Yazidis, Shias, Shabaks and Christians from across Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq on campus.

Before the occupation by the Islamic State, the University of Mosul, founded in 1967, was the second largest university in the country after the University of Baghdad with 24 universities and 40,000 students.

UNDP’s Stabilization Financing Facility has rehabilitated facilities among agricultural, computer science, education, fine arts, math, medicine, engineering and science colleges, enabling tens of thousands of students to resume their studies.

Student enrollment at the university now exceeds pre-retirement enrollment rates by over 40%, with more than 30,000 undergraduate and nearly 1,000 graduate students on campus.

However, international enrollments have been low since the US invasion, which sparked years of ultra-violent sectarian conflict even before ISIS emerged.

reach the world

Nowadays, the university is also reaching out to the world, hosting events and performances in its library and theatre, which has also been restored with German funds through UNDP – the two projects totaling $3 million, according to Al-Ashqar. The theater is the largest in Iraq and features state-of-the-art digital projection equipment and a surround sound system.

In February, the venue hosted an international conference focused on the sustainable reconstruction of post-war Iraq. Around 800 students took part in 40 workshops prepared by professors from Iraq, Germany, Austria and Poland. It was the largest event the university had ever held – a way of announcing its return to business.

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With more international projects in the offing, it’s an exciting time for the university. Qasha’s UK alma mater, Newcastle University, is currently supporting the Mosul Central Library in digitizing its archive.

In turn, Mosul has collaborated with Newcastle on its archive of British explorer Gertrude Bell, who supported the founding of the former Hashemite monarchy in Iraq and helped organize around 1,200 artifacts – mostly photos and notes – spanning 30 years to 1926.

“It’s an honor to work on connecting my universities,” says Qasha. “We used to just ask for partners to help us, but now we’re really working on joint projects that benefit both sides.”

Promoting peacebuilding is a priority

One of the university’s top priorities is to promote peacebuilding among the general population and ensure these dark ages of extremism never return. It is currently running eight projects helping local people in the surrounding governorate of Nineveh preserve their heritage while rebuilding their communities.

Four projects are being implemented with the University of Sussex, UK, which has trained local Iraqi staff to help local people conduct interviews, collect data and create videos. The results will be published online together.

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

As a journalist, she spent two years fleeing Mosul, crossing the Tigris in the prescribed double layers of veil after receiving death threats from IS supporters. She remembers black smoke rising from the burning library building.

“We felt desperate and hopeless because we didn’t think we could restore the building. But we managed to rebuild with courage,” she says. “Now we can express ourselves. We’re not afraid.”

Al-Ashqar says the secret of the university’s remarkable recovery lies in the dedication of its staff. His father, a business administration lecturer who taught at the university, died shortly after ISIS was crushed by a booby trap while returning to the family home for the first time.

“I cannot allow myself to be afraid,” said Al-Ashqar. “We try to bring better times to the youth. I believe the future will be better.”