On July 31 the Jewish representative of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) launched an “emergency declaration” to raise awareness about a crumbling Jewish tomb in northern Iraq. Interred in the tomb is the body of the biblical prophet Nahum.
Nahum was a kind of "follow up" to his better known predecessor, Jonah. About 100 years before Nahum's time, Jonah was an Israeli who longed to seen the Assyrian empire destroyed. According to the biblical text, he was commissioned to offer it a chance to repent. When the entire capital city of Assyria, Nineveh, accepted the offer, Jonah was not happy. The Assyrians were renown for breathtaking brutal treatment of peoples that it conquered. Israelis were not exempt.
About 150 years after Nineveh's repentance, the empire reverted to savagery. In 721 BCE, the would-be "Supreme Leader" of Assyria, Sennacharib, besieged and conquered Judea's second largest city, Lachish. Some of its captives were skinned alive. Others were impaled and then, like gruesome shish-kabobs, set up in the desert sun to fry. Still others, many others, were beheaded. Sennacharib boasted, "Its inhabitants, young and old, I did not spare, and with their corpses I filled the streets of the city."
Assyrian conduct was a precursor to today's ISIS and Iran, both of whom display a level of brutality on par with their regional ancestors.
After what must have been a death march to Nineveh, Jewish survivors from Lachish were presented to Sennacharib who gloated in their defeat. Failing to conquer Jerusalem, these Jews were a kind of consolation prize. In this at least, and from Nineveh's perspective, the Assyrian goddess Ishtar had defeated the God of Israel. This conclusion was further reinforced by Assyria's defeat of Israel's entire Northern Kingdom. All of its 10 tribes were taken into captivity. To this day, they are lost to history.
Nahum came on the scene to announce Nineveh's certain and complete destruction. Its idols and temples, said Nahum on behalf of Israel's God, "will be destroyed." As for Assyrian leaders, they were promised personal terror on par with all they had inflicted. They would be plundered, stripped, and then assigned an ignominious grave.
In fact, less than one hundred years later, in 621 BCE, an invasion of Babylonians, Chaldeans, Medes, Persians, Scythians and Cimmerians razed the city to the ground. Archaeologists have discovered countless unburied skeletons at the site.
For his part, Nahum was interred with honor. His tomb, which has survived, is in northern Iraq in the city of Alqosh, an ancient Christian village. Dominating the city's skyline to the southwest is a massive earthen mound that used to be Nineveh. A few miles further to the south is the 21st century wreckage of Mosul. Under the rule of ISIS today, the tombs of Jonah and Daniel, both in Mosul, have been destroyed.
Sherzad Mamsani works in the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs for the autonomous Kurdish Regional Government, also known as the KRG. Mamsani claims that Nahum's tomb, one “oldest [Jewish] monuments in Kurdistan,” is in danger of “annihilation.” His declaration noted that the 1,000 square meter tomb dates back more than 2,500 years was in danger of collapsing. “Expert engineers and structural specialists” said it could deteriorate more within a month.
The place of Nahum's tomb, Al-Qosh, is surrounded many historical sites. It overlooks the historic Nineveh plains and Mosul. It is also less than 10 kilometers (about 7 miles) from the frontlines that the Kurdish peshmerga hold against Islamic State. This area is home to ancient Christian monasteries such as the Saint Hormizd monastery nestled in the mountains above.
Nahum's tomb is testimony to the ancient Jewish presence in Iraq. Other Jewish tombs, such as that of Ezekiel in El-Kifl south of Baghdad, have been converted into mosques since most Iraqi Jews fled the country after 1948. Cities such as Fallujah, which were important in Jewish history, have been destroyed in war between Iran’s government and ISIS. But in the Kurdish region the local government and people seek to renew connections to the Jewish past.
In three trips I (Seth Frantzman) made to the Kurdish region, many people have talked about the Jewish history of the region, includig towns such as Zakho and Akre that had sizable Jewish populations. In the last two years the KRG has sought to raise awareness about the tomb of Nahum in Al-Qosh because it is one of the well known Jewish sites under the control of the KRG.
The problem is that the tomb faces to receive any international recognition through UNESCO. Such recognition would have to be recommended by Baghdad, not the KRG, and Baghdad has shown little interest.
ISIS has caused massive destruction of historical sites since 2014. It blew up a mosque over the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul and a tomb related to the prophet Daniel, which was originally a synagogue but had been converted into a mosque centuries ago. It also destroyed or harmed Hatra, Nineveh and Nimrod. As a result, Baghdad’s attention has been directed at these sites, more than adding a new site to its UNESCO list. There is also evidence that Baghdad has little interest in its Jewish history. A recent articles claimed that Baghdad municipality sought to destroy the house of Iraq’s first finance minister, a Jewish Iraq by the name of Sassoon Eskell.
The Kurdish initiative to preserve the tomb of Nahum represents a clear change in the region. It indicates a desire to preserve Jewish memory instead of erasing or denying it, as has been the trend throughout much of the Middle East.
In the spirit of Nahum's undiminished prophecies, his tomb in Al-Qosh may not be in quite the dire straits that has been painted. When I (Seth Frantzman) visited it in June 2015, it was in ruins; but it also had a metal roof built over the original structure. A Jewish inscription could be seen near the tomb itself. It is in need of major investment, but the tomb itself has already partly collapsed years ago. Raising awareness about Jewish heritage in the Kurdish region, and using the tomb as part of that overall historical memory is an important step, and the KRG is tentatively taking that step in a positive direction.
As for the region's bloody and aspiring leaders of a global Muslim caliphate, especially ISIS and Tehran, they would do well to read Nahum's prophetic word. And take heed.
Seth Frantzman is the Op-Ed Editor at The Jerusalem Post. Follow him on Twitter @SFrantzman