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Virtual Jewish World: Mosul, Iraq

Mosul is a city along the banks of the Tigris River in northern Iraq. Jews first settled in Mosul - or rather in ancient Nineveh, a suburb of which probably stood on the site of the modern Mosul - when Shalmaneser, king of Assyria (730–712 B.C.E.), conquered Samaria.

In the middle of the seventh century CE there was a Jewish community in Mosul living in a special quarter called Mahallat al-Yahūd (the Jewish Quarter; according to Ibn al-Faqīh, BGA V 129; Balādhuri, Futuḥ, 1907, 340). In the middle of the 10th century the Jewish philosopher Ibn Abi Saʿīd ibn Uthmān Saʿīd al-Mawṣilī lived in Mosul and through another Jew asked a contemporary Arab-Christian philosopher to settle several philosophical questions (S. Pines, in: PAAJR, 34 (1966), 103–36). During the first half of the 12th century the Jewish community of Mosul increased when a Muslim principality was established there. It was ruled by Atabeg Zangī (1127–46) and his sons who sought to unite all the small kingdoms in the vicinity of Mosul, to expand his domain up to Syria, and later to make a joint attack on the Crusaders.

Many Jews who had suffered from the Crusaders in Israel came to the town and placed themselves under the protection of the Muslim rulers, who did not harm them. The traveler Benjamin of Tudela, who visited Mosul before 1170, found approximately 7,000 Jews headed by R. Zakkai (b. Azariah b. Solomon), the nasi who claimed to be from the Davidic line, and R. Joseph, who is called Burhan al-Falak [Ar. Globe] who is the [astrologer] to the king Zein al-Dīn" (Benjamin, Travels, p. 94). R. Pethahiah of Regensburg , who visited Mosul about ten years later, found more than 6,000 Jews and two nesi'im: David and Samuel, two cousins who were of the Davidic line. The nesi'im had the authority to imprison transgressors. Every Jew paid a tax, one dīnār per year, half of which was for the authorities and half for the nesi'im. They had fields and vineyards.

In 1289, the head of the flourishing community was the exilarch David b. Daniel . He, together with 11 members of the local rabbinical college, signed a letter threatening Solomon Petit of Acre, the opponent of Maimonides , with excommunication (Graetz, Gesch, 7 (c. 1900), 166).

After a brief period of prosperity at the beginning of the Il-Khan rule, at the time of the vizier Saʿd al-Dawla in the second half of the 13th century, there followed a swift decline and harsh setbacks which impoverished the community. Tamerlane, who captured the city at the end of the 14th century, caused great harm to its inhabitants. Nevertheless, there was a great yeshivah in the city at the beginning of the 16th century, which sent one of its students to the Adoni family to serve as rabbi of the Baghdad community (A. Ben-Yaacob, Kehillot Yehudei Kurdistan (1961), 34–36).

In 1848, the traveler Benjamin II found 450 Jewish families there (Benjamin II, Mas'ei Yisrael (1859), 34).

In the 20th century, there was no improvement in the situation of the Jews of Mosul. The figure of 3,000 Jews in the city remained more of less stable until the beginning of the 20th century. The decline of Mosul’s economic standing seems to have contributed to the departure of the Jews for Baghdad. According to the census of 1947, there were in the city 5,688 Jews. The Jewish community of Mosul remained enclosed in its neighborhood, most of them poor and ignorant, a few of them merchants. Schools established by the Alliance Israélite Universelle in 1906 (for boys) and in 1912 (for girls) were closed at the outbreak of World War I. In about 1930, schools for boys and girls were established by the philanthropist Eliezer Kadoorie, but there was no Jewish high school. A few children attended government schools and a very small number attained a higher education.

Probably because of their lowly position, the Jews of Mosul did not arouse the envy of their neighbors and were not persecuted. Nevertheless, they lived in great fear throughout this entire period. The rabbis of the community were not highly regarded. During World War I the chief rabbi of the community was R. Elijah Barazani, and from the 1920s, his son R. Solomon Barazani (d. 1960), who remained in this position until he immigrated to Israel in 1951.

From 1950 to 1955, nearly all the Jews of Mosul immigrated to Israel.

In 2018, an ancient synagogue was accidentally discovered by a Muslim historian in the heart of the city. The building had been converted into a cache for rockets and ammunition and was left untouched by ISIS, which had destroyed many significant landmarks during its occupation of the city. 

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Bernard-Henri Levy, ISIS Overlooks a Synagogue in Mosul, Wall Street Journal, (October 19, 2018).