Mosul the Pearl of Northern Iraq: Its History and Contribution to Classical Civilisation of Islam

Mosul, in Northern Iraq, is the country's second largest city and the north's major center for trade, industry and communications. Situated in the northwestern part of the country, on the west bank of Tigris, and close to the ruined Assyrian city of Nineveh, Mosul is called Al-Fayha' (the paradise), Al-Khadhra' (the green), and sometimes described as the Pearl of the North. In this article, the history of the city is narrated and the contribution of its scholars to Muslim Heritage in various domains is described through notable examples.

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Table of contents

1. Introduction
2. Mosul in Historical Records: Splendors of the City, Trade and Industry
3. The Scholars of Mosul
   3.1. The Philosopher Al-Mawsili
   3.2. The Astronomer Al-Qabisi
   3.3. ‘Ammar Ibn 'Ali the Brilliant Ophthalmologist
   3.4. Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd Baqi al-Mawsili
   3.5. The Historian Ibn al-Athir
   3.6. Various scholars
4. Makers of Astronomical Instruments
5. Bibliography

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Mosul, Al-Mawsil in Arabic, on the west bank of the Tigris, opposite the ancient Niniveh, is the capital of Diyar-Rabi'a, forming the eastern part of the province of al-Djazira in Iraq. Mosul takes its name from the fact that a number of arms of the river Tigris combine to form a single stream [1]. The town lies close beside the Tigris on a spur of the western steppe plateau which juts out into the alluvial plain of the river. Close besides its walls are quarries in which the plaster for the buildings and for the mortar is obtained [2].

1. Introduction

After the taking of Niniveh by Utba b. Farkad in 641 CE during the reign of Caliph ‘Umar I, the Arabs crossed the Tigris whereupon the garrison of the fortress on the west bank surrendered on promising to pay a poll tax [3] and consequently obtaining the permission to go where it pleased [4]. The new governor of the city Hartham b. Arfadja al-Bakiri settled Arabs in houses of their own and made Mosul a camp city in which he also built a mosque. The city's chief of police Ibn Talid paved the town and built a wall around it. According to the geographers Ibn Fakih and Yaqut, the Umayyad Caliph Marwan II organised the city's administration and built roads, walls and a bridge of boats over the Tigris [5]. The foundation of a mosque was also ascribed to him and under him Mosul became the capital of Al-Djazira province.

Figure 1: Map of Iraq, showing the location of Mosul in the northern provinces.

In 1095-1096 Mosul passed under the rule of the Seljuks. This was a crucial event and also a most extraordinary coincidence in history, for in the same year (1095), thousands of miles away from Mosul, in France, Pope Urban II launched the crusades. An amazing coincidence, for, as will be amply explained in the final part of this article, it was Mosul, in particular and its ruling Seljuk dynasties which were to play the most decisive role on the Muslim side against the crusaders in the subsequent decades (1096-1144) [6]. Exactly like Cairo in the period 1260-1291, it helped in organizing the resistance of the Muslim provinces of the Middle East [7]. It is indeed extraordinary how Mosul fell to the Seljuks just in time to play the decisive role that will be described further on. It is also astonishing how Cairo fell to the Mamluks in 1250, just precisely when the Mongols and their Christian allies in the 1250-60s were about to exterminate the cities and lands they conquered. Both places were strategically placed for both deeds, which is remarkable especially when also considering that the Seljuks did nearly all the fighting against the crusaders in the first crusade (1096-1144), and only the Mamluks were left to fight the Mongols in 1258-60. Had either the Seljuks or the Mamluks not been on the scene, the events would have been quite different and the course of history in the region would have been profoundly different.

2. Mosul in Historical Records: Splendors of the City, Trade and Industry

According to the 10th-century Muslim geographer al-Muqaddasi, Mosul:

"is the metropolis of this region. It is a splendid city, beautifully built; the climate is pleasant, the water healthy. Highly renowned, and of great antiquity, it is possessed of excellent markets and inns, and is inhabited by many personages of account, and learned men; nor does it lack a high authority in the Traditions, or a celebrated doctor of the law. From here come provisions for Baghdad, and thither go the caravans of al-Rihab. It has, besides, parks, specialities, excellent fruits, very fine baths, magnificent houses, and good meats: all in all the town is thriving. However, the gardens are remote from the city, the sound wind is noxious, and the level of the water is far from the surface of the ground, so as to make the drawing of it difficult [8]."

Figure 2: Quran frontpiece from Mosul dated to 710 H. (Source).

The town was defended by a strong citadel and a double wall, the towers of which were washed on the east side by the Tigris; to the south lay a great suburb. Muslim geographers compare the plan of the city to a headcovering, i.e. to an elongated rectangle [9]. Ibn Hawqal who visited Mosul in 968-9 CE describes it as a beautiful town with fertile surroundings. According to al-Muqaddasi, a few years later, the town was very beautifully built. Its plan was in the form of a semicircle. The Friday mosque built by Marwan stood on an eminence not far from the Tigris where steps lead up to it. Al-Muqaddasi's description goes:

"The town is in the form of a taylasan just as is al-Basra, and is not large in size. Along one third of its boundary is a building like a fortress, called al-Murabba'a (the square). It lies on the river Zubayda, and is known as Suq al-Arbi'a' (the Wednesday market). Within is an expansive area in which the hired people and the harvesters congregate, and at each corner of the area stands an inn. Between the mosque and the river bank is the distance of a bow shot; it is built on a higher ground, and is approached by steps from the steps towards the river: fewer steps are on the market side [10]."

It is entirely surrounded by arched galleries of banat (a soft marble stone). The front of the roofed part of the mosque is without any doors. Most of the markets are roofed [11]. According to the geographer Al-Qazwini, the town was surrounded by a deep ditch and high walls; the city walls which had strong towers ran down to the river and along its bank; a broad highway connected the upper and lower towns. In front of the walls suburbs stretched into the distance with many smaller mosques, inns and baths. The hospital was celebrated. Most houses in Mosul were built of tufa or marble (from the Djebel maklub, east of the town) [12].

Figure 3: Siege of Mosul (1261–1262) in Jami' al-tawarikh, by Rashid-al-Din Hamadani, painting dated 1430. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale, Supplément persan, MS 1113, fol. 190. (Source).

Mosul developed considerably under Imad Zangi (d. 1146). He gave it splendid buildings; the fortifications were restored and flourishing gardens surrounded the town [13].

A distinctive variant of the Iraqi style of brick construction was used in Mosul during the late 12th and early 13th centuries. Important public buildings were erected under the patronage of both the Zangid rulers (1127-1222) and Badr al-Din Lu'lu' (ca. 1222-1259) [14]. Surviving from this time are parts of a palace, with lavish stucco ornament and several shrines in which geometric decoration similar to that used in contemporary Baghdad is combined with richly carved arabesque designs often set in niches [15]. Badr Din Lu'lu' also patronized manuscript illuminators and metalworkers. Because of political and economic instability, many Mosul craftsmen moved to Syria and Egypt during the latter decades of the 13th century [16]. Wherever they were produced, the manuscripts used the compositional schemes and pictorial conventions developed in Iraq and found in 13th-century manuscripts from Baghdad and Mosul [17]. More securely localized is the production of inlaid metalwork. Here too, however, some of the craftsmen working in Aleppo and Damascus appear to have come from Mosul, a situation that emphasizes the cultural links between northern Iraq and Syria [18].

Mosul was also a great industrial centre. Sources record crude oil production in Iraq where there were seepages on the eastern bank of the Tigris along the road to Mosul. Muslim travellers reported that it was produced on a large scale and was exported [19]. Petroleum was an important product in Islamic economic life centuries before it attained its present global significance. Crude petroleum (naft) was extracted and distilled extensively; it had both military and domestic uses [20]. Crude oil was usually called black naft and the distillate, white naft, even though some of the crude oils were colourless in their natural state. We have a number of descriptions of the distillation process in Arabic writings, as in al-Razi's Book of Secrets. From this we learn that the crude oil was first mixed with white clay or ammonium chloride (i.e. sal ammoniac) into "a dough like a thick soup" and then distilled. The light distillates, i.e the white naft, were used by him to "soften or loosen" some solid substances, such as certain gems and minerals [21].

Figure 4: Coin of Badruddin Lu‘lu (bronze, 8.81 g) minted in Mosul in the Zangid period, 521-648 H/ 1127-1250 CE. Harvard Art Museums, Department of Islamic and Later Indian Art, Division of Asian and Mediterranean Art. (Source).

The textiles of Mosul were especially famed and from the city's name came the English name Muslin and in French "mousseline" [22]. Mosul has always been celebrated as a weaving centre [23]. Al-Djahiz (776-868) [24] stated that curtains, sutur and striped robes (musuh) came from Mosul. The Latai'if al-Maarif [25] too mentions the curtains of Mosul in a long list of fine stuffs. One of the Arabian Nights story set during the reign of Harun al-Rashid [26] mentions a turban, as worn by the viziers, except that it was of the Mosul kind and again [27], in Baghdad, of a Mosul izar (woman's cloak) of silk with gold embroidered shoe, with a border (hashiya) of qasab and a cord hanging loose. Marco Polo stated:

"All the cloths of gold and silk that are called Mosolins are made in this country; and these great merchants called Mosolins who carry for sale such quantities of spicery and pearls, and the cloths of silk and gold, are also from this Kingdom [28]."

Sharaf Khan Bidlisi (1596) said:

"At Mosul ‘Boucassins' (Bughasi) of great price, are made… The black stuffs of Mosul are quite lovely [29]."

Marco Polo also added:

"Near this province (Mosul) is another called Mus (Mush) and Mardin, producing immense quantities of cotton from which they make a great deal of Buckram and other cloth [30]."

Figure 5: Scene from an Arabic version of Dioscorides' Materia Medica depicting Dioscorides and a disciple holding a mandrake, by Yusuf al Mawsili (Mosul, 1228 CE), in the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul. (Source).

Hospitals were built all over the country and the hospital in Mosul is referred to by the Spanish Muslim Ibn Jubayr who said that during his visit to Mosul in 1184 CE he learned that the prince of that city, Mugahad al-Din, had built a mosque on the banks of the Tigris in the city of Mosul and a hospital facing the mosque [31].

3. The Scholars of Mosul

3.1. The Philosopher Al-Mawsili

The first scholar was a rarity - a philosopher by the name of Bakr b. Kasim Abi Thawr al-Mawsili (fl. first half of the 10th century). He is known as the author of an epistolary philosophical work entitled Fi' al-Nafs (Concerning the Soul) which was written between 900-950 CE [32]. The treatise was sent to the illustrious translator and doctor Abu ‘Uthamn Said b. Yaqub al-Dimashqi [33]. The author seems to have lived in the Mosul area and is not to be confused with another philosopher from the area, Ibn Abi Sa'id al-Mawsili. The text of the treatise Fi al-Nafs deals not with the soul as such, but only with a part of it - the rational soul (al-nafs al-natika) or the intellect (‘aql), in line with the tradition of the classical Islamic philosophy [34].

The author's technique is to analyse the characteristics of the definition of the intellect in order to draw out its essence [35]. The intellect impresses a form upon our sense data and what we know can either be acquired (mustafad) from outside by ourselves or not [36]. Bakr al-Mawsili argues that the intellect does not acquire knowledge by means of contact with a transcendent being but rather by reflection of the intellect upon itself [37]. We can indeed make mistakes (e.g. be misled by imagination) but not if we reflect rationally upon the first principles (al-‘awâ'il) or logical thought, since they are the ground upon which the truth or falsity of everything else depends. These universals (al-‘umûr al-kulliyât) are true, real in themselves and their own objects, and are not equivalent to the body [38].

Figure 6: Munajat (Confidential Talks) of 'Ali ibn Abu-Talib in a non-illustrated manuscript dated ca. 1200 CE, from Iraq, possibly Mosul. Ink, gold, and opaque watercolor on paper; morocco leather binding. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, accession number 1995.324. The similarity of the calligraphy of its title and the surrounding illuminated scrolls to another manuscript dated and attributed to Mosul provides the basis for attributing this piece. (Source).

3. 2. The Astronomer Al-Qabisi

Ali Ibn al-Imrani (d. 955), who was born and lived in Mosul, was a mathematician, astronomer, geometer and teacher of Al-Qabisi. He was the author of Sharh Kitab al-Jabr wa-'l-Muqabala li-Abi Kamil (Commentary on the Book of Algebra and Almucabala of Abu Kamil) [39].

Abd al-Aziz ibn Uthman ibn ‘Ali al-Qabisi (fl. 10th century), a well-known pupil of Al-Imrani, was known in Latin as Alcabitius [40]. His mathematical work is Risala fi anwâ' al-‘adad (Treatise on the kinds of numbers), kept in Istanbul (SM AS 4832/17), whilst the rest of his works are on astronomy and studies of the stars [41]. Among the latter can be included Risala fi al-ab'âd wa-'l-ajrâm (treatise on distances and bodies), which has been quoted subsequently by al-Biruni in his Sharh Kitab al-Fusul li-al-Farghani (commentary on the book of sections of al-Farghani). Al-Qabisi's other work of astronomy is the Shukuk fi al-Magisti (Doubts Regarding the Almagest) [42]. The contents of this text seem to have been lost forever, as no manuscript of the book reached us so far, but they must have been written from the perspective of the criticism against Ptolemaic astronomy that began to be developed a century earlier [43]. Al-Qabisi also wrote a treatise on determining the sizes and distances of planets, kept in manuscript form in Dublin (Chester Beaty Library, MS 5254), and another one entitled Hal al-Zîjat (Solving astronomical tables) [44].

3.3. ‘Ammar Ibn 'Ali the Brilliant Ophthalmologist

A number of treatises on the eye were written at different times by the Arabic-speaking physicians. In 850 a book was published entitled Daghal al-'Ayn, followed by Hunayn ibn- Ishaq's Ten Treatises on the Eye, the first systematic textbook on ophthalmology; and following Hunayn's treatise the later Muslim medical writers included sections on ophthalmology [45]. Furthermore, independent works on anatomy of the eye and medical as well as surgical treatment of its diseases started to flourish. Zafer Wafaei was able to collect 39 such books specialized in ophthalmology written by 25 authors in the period between the 9th and 14th centuries [46]. Casey Wood describes the many specialized instruments used by the Muslim surgeons, among them the forerunner of the injection syringe, the hollow needle or cannula for extracting soft cataracts [47]. The Muslims played a fundamental role in practical ophthalmology in the matter of cataract. They stated that it was due to a pouring out of humour into the eye, which collected in the locus vacuus between the pupil and the lens, thus abstracting the visual power, and by clearing this empty space vision could be restored [48].

Figure 7a-b: Two images from the illustrated manuscript of Kitab al-diryaq from Mosul School, mid-13th century CE; Vienna, Nationalbibliothek, MS AF 10: (a). A Seljuq court (Source 1); (b) a scene with animals. (Source 2). The treatise is an Arabic biographical dictionary, of which the content concerns the theriac, the famed 'universal antidote' of Antiquity. The book's unifying feature as a collective biography is the physicians' contribution to the development of the theriac; each physician's recipe follows his biography.

‘Ammar Ibn ‘Ali (11th century, Latin name Canamusali) of the city of Mosul developed the operation the soft cataract by suction. As described in his book Al-Muntakhab fi ‘Ilm al-‘Ayn wa-‘ilaliha wa-mudawatiha bi-al-adwiya wa-‘l-hadid (The Book of Selections in Eye Diseases and its Medical and Surgical Treatment, this operatio