MOSUL -- To the sound of drums, religious chants resounded on Sunday evening (October 17) for the first ceremony of its kind at Iraq's historic al-Nuri mosque, which is being rebuilt after heavy damage in the battle against the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS).
The city of Mosul's 12th-century mosque, known for its leaning al-Hadba minaret, was severely damaged in 2017. Iraq's army accused ISIS of blowing it up.
It is now being rebuilt as part of a project from the United Nations cultural agency, UNESCO.
"For me, it's an extraordinary day. I am joyful," said Marwan Muafak, 45, a teaching administrator.
"This celebration symbolises the return of the chant of the muezzin and prayer in this place," he added. "The residents of Mosul want to get their old lives back."
Several hundred people gathered at the site to mark the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed in a courtyard decorated with multicoloured lights between the mosque with its gaping windows, surrounded by scaffolding, and the minaret -- only the base of which survived.
It was there, on a stage, that five men in traditional robes played the "daf" -- a Middle Eastern drum -- and chanted to the glory of the Prophet after the celebration began with a communal prayer.
"It's the first celebration organised in al-Nuri mosque on the occasion of the Prophet's birthday," said Abu Bakr Kenaan, head of Sunni religious properties in Ninawa province.
"Our joy is immense. Our feelings are indescribable in seeing all these people here."
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance as ISIS chief from al-Nuri mosque in 2014, declaring the establishment of a "caliphate".
Iraq's army and the US-led international coalition forced ISIS out of the northern city in 2017.
"The minaret and the prayer room will be rebuilt just as they were," a local antiquities official told AFP.
Reconstruction in full sway
Eight Egyptian architects won an international competition to reconstruct the mosque as part of UNESCO's "Reviving the Spirit of Mosul" initiative for rehabilitating Iraq's second city and its cultural life.
UNESCO raised more than $100 million for the project, half of it pledged by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The restoration is to be completed by 2023.
Al-Nouri mosque's leaning minaret, which has been a symbol of the city for centuries, was reduced to rubble as Iraqi forces closed in on ISIS's last bastion.
The last time the grand mosque got attention was during Pope Francis's visit to Iraq in March.
In August, French President Emmanuel Macron also visited the mosque during his trip to Ninawa province.
Restoration and repair work is under way at Ninawa's numerous archaeological sites, despite some delays caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Iraqi officials said last year.