MOSUL, Iraq — The palm trees were the last straw. In a UNESCO competition to restore Mosul’s most famous landmarks, there they were, in the winning design. Neither the palms nor the Gulf-style design are indigenous to the historic city, Iraqi architects complained.
At stake were not only the $50,000 award and the contract for a final design — which was funded by the United Arab Emirates and went to an Egyptian architectural team — but, seemingly, the pride of Iraq’s second-largest city, which was rising from the rubble of its battle against the Islamic State four years ago.
“It’s a fiasco, honestly,” said Ihsan Fethi, one of Iraq’s best-known architects, of the competition for the Nouri mosque project. “The whole thing has been a terrible tragedy for us.”
Mr. Fethi and the Iraqi architects’ union had more substantive complaints about the winning entry for a new mosque complex than transplanted trees, including elements they viewed as anti-Islamic and a lack of parking. They say it betrays the architectural heritage of the historic city.
It is a resentment all the more keenly felt in a country with a proud architectural history that fostered Rifat Chadirji, considered the father of modern Iraqi architecture, and the design icon Zaha Hadid. In previous decades, architecture was so important to Iraq that it commissioned buildings by Le Corbusier and plans by Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Iraqi Society of Engineers, which oversees the architects’ union, issued a statement opposing the project. The Iraqi Architectural Heritage Preservation Society rejected the winning design in the 123-entry competition as seriously flawed. It said the design introduced numerous “alien” concepts that would change the site beyond recognition and called on Iraq’s prime minister to intervene.
It is not the site of just any mosque. Formally known as the Great Mosque of Al-Nouri, it was where in 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, then the leader of ISIS, declared a caliphate after the group’s fighters took control of Mosul along with almost one-third of Iraq and parts of Syria. Three years later, as U.S.-backed Iraqi forces fought to defeat the terrorist group, ISIS fighters blew up the mosque and an even more iconic minaret as they retreated.
Airstrikes and explosives flattened large parts of the old section of Mosul and killed thousands of civilians as well as hundreds of Iraqi security forces. Rebuilding the mosque complex is seen as essential to the idea that despite its losses, the battered city has moved beyond ISIS.
Al-Nouri mosque, named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, the ruler of Mosul and Aleppo, dates back to the 12th century but was completely rebuilt in the 1940s.
The $50 million project will also restore two heavily damaged churches nearby and repair a 12th-century brick minaret near the mosque — a symbol of Mosul so iconic that the tilted minaret is on Iraq’s 10,000 dinar note.
In announcing the architectural competition, the U.N. cultural agency said the new design was intended to advance the city’s reconciliation and cohesion.
But in many circles, it has done anything but, prompting an uproar among architects, urban planners and some Mosul residents who say it ignores Iraqi heritage. Perhaps in a nod to the United Arab Emirates, which is footing the bill, the winning design features cream-colored brick and straight angles of the kind found in the Gulf — a contrast to the arches, blue-veined local alabaster and limestone of traditional Mosul buildings.
“The local architectural language isn’t there,” especially given this city’s history, said Ahmed Tohala, a lecturer in architecture at the University of Mosul. “The materials, colors, elements, proportion, rhythm, relationship between the elements — it is another strange language.”
“It looks very much like the Emirates,” Mr. Fathi said.
To be fair, some of the requirements were mandated by Iraq’s Sunni Endowment Office, which oversees Sunni mosques in Iraq. On a recent day at the worksite, above the roar of a generator, Maher Ismail, the Sunni endowment’s project manager, declared it “a beautiful design.”
The expanded mosque complex will include a public park, a religious high school and a cultural center, while the mosque and minaret will be restored and architecturally unchanged.
Mr. Ismail said the criticism of the complex design had been generated by jealous architectural firms.
“Some of the people who wanted to work on the mosque and had no chance to do it have created many problems to stop the work,” he said.
After the outcry, UNESCO held a meeting with the Iraqi architects’ union, which maintained that it should have been consulted from the start. Among the main complaints besides aesthetics were competition requirements that called for an open courtyard next to the mosque open to the general public and a separate section for dignitaries to be built on a balcony of the prayer hall.
“A V.I.P. section is anathema to Islam,” Mr. Fathi said. He said jurors, including the head of the jury, his former student, lacked the necessary background in Islamic architecture to be able to properly choose a winning design.
There were also practical concerns — in a city with no public transportation system, there were only 20 parking places planned, to be used by employees of the complex.
Mr. Ismail said that instead of putting a V.I.P. section in the prayer hall itself, they planned a V.I.P. hall next to the mosque for visiting officials.
UNESCO also points out that the competition rules were developed in coordination with the Iraqi Ministry of Culture. It says the winners are expected to produce a more detailed final design with construction to start this fall.
Paolo Fontani, UNESCO’s Iraq director, said there could be changes made to the final plans, as is normal in a competition for an initial design. He said UNESCO would consult with local experts and architects.
The lead partner in the winning Egyptian firm, Salah El Din Samir Hareedy, died shortly after the competition results were announced. Mr. Hareedy died of complications from Covid-19, but meanspirited Iraqis joked on social media that it was the curse of Mosul residents upset over his design that killed him.
At the construction site in the heart of Mosul’s historic section on the west side of the Tigris River, crews have removed almost 6,000 tons of rubble from the bombed site, recovering and cleaning 45,000 bricks that will be used to rebuild the minaret. Pieces of marble and stone from the heavily damaged mosque have been cataloged and sorted for the restoration.
Local carpenters working under the supervision of an Italian expert are restoring damaged woodwork in the mosque.
Across the street from the planned complex, a new coffeehouse started by local activists flanks a row of brightly colored shops intended to help bring life back to the devastated area.
“It’s too modern,” said Mobashar Mohammad Wajid of the complex design. But Mr. Wajid, standing in his tiny art studio across from the coffeehouse featuring his calligraphy designs, said that once the complex was completed, Mosul residents would probably be pleased with it.
“When they see buildings are being rebuilt,” he said, “they are going to be so happy.”