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Iraq demolishes historic 300-year-old religious minaret for bizarre reason, sparking outcry

A decision by Iraqi officials to demolish a 300-year-old religious spire and tourist attraction in the city of Basra has prompted outcries from the local community.

For three centuries, the al-Siraji Mosque remained a distinctive feature in southern Iraq but Basra’s governor, Asaad al-Eidani, said officials decided to tear down its minaret, fashioned from weathered bricks and blue ceramic tiles, to widen a road the city built after the mosque was already constructed.

“The actions of official authorities that have put an end to our heritage,” Jaafar Jotheri, an assistant professor of geoarchaeology at Al-Qadisiyah University in Iraq, told The Associated Press.

City officials claimed the minaret encroached on the street, but Jotheri protested: “The minaret predates the street and it is one of the oldest sites in Basra. It was not encroaching on the street; rather, they encroached upon it.”

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The rubble of the minaret

A man walks past the rubble of the demolished minaret of al-Siraji Mosque in Basra, Iraq, on Monday, July 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Nabil al-Jurani)

Ali Nazim, a resident of Basra, agreed with expanding the street but said “the way it was done has caused anger.”

“In other countries, they protect even a tree during street expansions,” said Ali Hilal, an Iraqi photographer who promotes historical sites in Iraq. “Why did we destroy a three-century-old site to widen the street?”

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Despite the outcries, Basra’s governor said in a statement that the local government received permission from Iraq’s Sunni Endowment Office, which has authority over Sunni religious sites, before it demolished the minaret on Friday morning, July 14.

“We requested the Basra governorate to relocate the minaret, not destroy it,” Mishaan al-Khazraji, the head of the Sunni Endowment, told The Associated Press.

A view of the city, a river

An aerial view of the Al-Qurnah region in Basra, Iraq on Jan. 31, 2023. (Amar Ali/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The decision came as some local residents complained that the minaret jutted out into the street, snarling traffic. The city ultimately determined to remove it and, Friday morning, the 33-foot-high minaret was razed to the ground, igniting a wave of social media backlash.

“Some may say it’s historical, but it was in the middle of the street, and we took it down to expand the street for the public interest,” the governor said via the Basra Governorate Media Office.

He also clarified the Siraji Mosque, which was built with its minaret in 1727, would be replaced with one that was more accommodating to the city.

The Basra governor attended the demolition, as did advocates for the preservation of Iraq’s cultural heritage. The demolition included only the minaret, as the mosque itself was permitted to remain.

The site was a tourist attraction in the oil-rich city.

A sandy Basra, Iraq

A man walks along a road during a sand storm in Iraq’s southern port city of Basra, on March 4, 2022. (Hussein Faleh/AFP via Getty Images)

Many heritage sites in Iraq, home to multiple civilizations going back more than six millennia, have been hard hit by looting and damage spanning decades, especially with the rise of the militant Islamic State group, which targeted and demolished numerous ancient sites in northern Iraq.

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After the uproar, the Basra governor said a Turkish company specializing in heritage preservation might take charge of rebuilding the minaret from the rubble.

Jotheri doubted such a reconstruction effort was possible: “Every visitor to Basra over the past 300 years has seen and formed memories with [the iconic minaret.] But now, neither my son nor your son will have the chance to witness it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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