Several years ago, two Israeli architects, Yaakov Shefer and Meir Ronen, made a very special trip to northern Iraq in order to visit the tomb of the Prophet Nachum, located in Alkush, near the city of Mosul. The purpose of their visit: to find a way to refurbish the site. Meir Ronen spoke with Israel National News, relating fascinating details surrounding the complex mission.
Ronen noted that the visit was coordinated with the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH) which concerns itself with the renovation of historic buildings and landmarks. The organization originally reached out to Ronen and Shefer in order to obtain their assistance and architectural expertise, following a partial collapse at the site.
Ronen and Shefer traveled to the site using their Israeli passports, during a period when the Islamic State (ISIL) was in control of nearby areas; in fact, they approached within kilometers of the tomb of the Prophet, but did not actually reach it – had they done so, they would undoubtedly have destroyed it, as they did numerous other historic sites across Iraq.
Given the prevailing conditions, Ronen and Shefer deliberated for a long while regarding the potential dangers of the trip. “We were certainly afraid of what could happen,” Ronen related. “I have children and my colleague has grandchildren…” In the end, however, they resolved to go.
Ronen was notably reticent regarding the details of the trip, and avoided answering questions on how it was actually accomplished – did U.S. troops secure their journey? Did Kurdish fighters protect them? Eventually, somehow, they arrived in northern Iraq.
“We inspected the site and its various features, noting the Hebrew inscriptions on the stones. It has the appearance of a very beautiful synagogue with inscriptions and engravings on the stones. It was very emotional to see it, as a Jew – and then we got down to work.”
From their initial inspection, it was apparent that the repairs needed to commence as soon as possible. Ronen and Shefer then returned to Israel where they met with representatives of ARCH and began to formulate comprehensive plans for the refurbishments. They made provisional plans for emergency reparations to the stone walls and arches, and engaged the services of a construction company from the Czech Republic in order to carry out the work.
For the past several hundred years, the site had been maintained by the Christian residents of Alkush, there being no local Jewish community. Ronen himself did not know the exact age of the building at the site – he noted that it was constructed over several periods, with some of the construction certainly dating back to the twelfth and thirteen centuries CE.
Once the Czech workers began to repair the site, Ronen and Shefer were able to supervise the progress of the work, which necessitated many trips back and forth to Iraq. Ronen related that as time passed, their fears regarding the dangers faded somewhat. “Iraq is a beautiful country – I was so impressed by what I saw there,” he said. “As for the people, I found them to be simple people who were mostly uninterested in the political climate and just wanted to be left alone to live in peace.”
Ronen and Shefer will be presenting a full account of their remarkable experiences this coming Friday at the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center.