Only weeks ago, hungry Jews spent Yom Kippur listening to how Jonah turned the people of Mosul from their evil ways. Wait a minute - Mosul? The oil-rich Iraqi city that has languished under Daesh rule since July 2014 and is now the site of a major battle for its liberation?
Yes, for the Book of Jonah's fabled Nineveh is essentially the same place. Nineveh was founded on the east bank of the Tigris around 2,500 BCE but crushed by Babylonia in 612 BCE. Mosul arose two centuries later on the west bank. Its name means "linking point" because, under Persian and then Muslim rule, it absorbed the remains of Nineveh. Mosul expanded under Abbasid Caliphs as a cultural hub and centre of trade in marble, sulphur and muslin cloth. Still today, the province surrounding Mosul is called Ninawa in Arabic.
Before the Daesh deluge, greater Mosul housed up to 1.5 million people, making it Iraq's second-largest city. Since then, half a million have fled. But Nineveh was already vast in biblical times when it was the capital of Assyria, the largest empire that had ever been known. The Book of Jonah says it took three days to cross by foot. And who can forget the closing lines, where God admonishes the prophet: "Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 souls who do not know the difference between their right and left hand?"
Curiously, Nineveh's ancient cuneiform symbol seems to blend two elements of the Jonah story. It shows a fish inside a house, seemingly mimicking the gourd-tabernacle that sheltered the reluctant prophet.
Jonah was not the last Jew to tramp Mosul/Nineveh's streets. Jews settled there after the Assyrian King Shalmaneser conquered Samaria, northern Israel, around 730 BCE. Their numbers swelled 18 centuries later when Jews fleeing the Crusaders poured into what was the capital of the friendlier Muslim Zangid principality.
Mosul's Muslims had mohels circumcise their sons
In 2004, Carlos Heurta, a rabbi in the US army, wrote movingly about praying in a synagogue within the Nineveh suburb of Mosul, reportedly constructed by the 13th-century Jewish exilarch of the city. Talmudic sages speak of another earlier shul which existed from 990. A shrine to Jonah also stood in Mosul's Nineveh district after that time. Jonah/Yunus has a full Koranic surah (chapter) dedicated to him, hence no surprise that Muslims built a mosque around the site.
According to the London-based Iraqi Jewish magazine, The Scribe, Jews used to visit it over Succot; and local Muslims took advantage of this influx to have mohels circumcise their sons. Tragically, Daesh destroyed the shrine in 2014.
As for Mosuli Jews, decline set in after the 13th century. Mosul recorded fewer than 6,000 Jews in 1947; most had decamped to livelier Baghdad. By 1955 nearly all had left for Israel - a mercy, given the dire Daesh record towards Christians, Kurds and other minorities.
The Book of Jonah praises the Assyrians for repenting and, fascinatingly, the Arab Church of the East still commemorates this event with a three-day Fast of the Ninevites.