On a spring day in April 2017, two jeeps, their windows blacked out, sped down a sandy highway in Iraqi Kurdistan toward the small Christian village of Alqosh.
In the cars sat two Israeli engineers, one in each, for security reasons. They had entered the country holding the only passports they had — Israeli — to take part in an extraordinary reconstruction mission.
The two, Yaakov Schaffer and Meir Ronen, watched through sealed windows as they drove past scenes of ruinous destruction left by nearly two decades of war. Some 15 miles away, fighters from the Islamic State terror group were battling the Iraqi army.
As they approached the village, the jeeps pulled over and Schaffer and Ronen got out, accompanied by their Kurdish security guards. On foot, they climbed into the town and made straight for the antiquities site at the northern part of the ancient city: the Tomb of Nahum, the Old Testament prophet.
For decades, the people of Alqosh, members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, guarded a shrine once revered by local Jews as the final resting place of Nahum of Elkosh. But on that day, the structure that lay before them was crumbling around a caved-in roof.
“The walls and pillars were cracked and crumbling. It looked like the rest of the building would collapse at any minute,” recalled Adam Tiffen, an American entrepreneur and project manager who had visited the site a year earlier and was there that day with the Israelis.
The three of them entered. As they began to examine the structure, they unfurl the options that lay before them to save the ancient shrine.
Schaffer and Ronen are experts in the restoration of synagogues dating back to antiquity. Schaffer has held managerial positions at the Israel’s Antiquities Authority and now partners with Ronen in engineering solutions for ancient Jewish houses of worship.
Tiffen was there as a volunteer for the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, known as ARCH. Tiffen and ARCH chair Cheryl Benard, his boss, had visited the site in 2016 and together decided to restore the Tomb of Nahum and an adjacent synagogue in the heart of war-torn Iraq.
“For thousands of years, the history of the Jewish people has been intrinsically intertwined within the cultural fabric of the region. In recent decades, this fundamental connection was being erased, through deliberate destruction or benign neglect,” Tiffen told ToI. “So much so that despite the Jewish exodus being within living memory, almost no traces remain of the vibrant and enduring Jewish history of the region. If we did nothing to preserve what remained, that history, and knowledge of Jewish life in the region, would be completely lost.”
To Iraq and back again
Sixteen years earlier, Tiffen, then a 25-year-old lawyer and cadet in the Reserves Officer Training Corps (ROTC), watched as 19 terrorists thrust a dagger into America and decided to volunteer for combat duty in the Maryland National Guard. He was stationed as an officer, commanding 40 soldiers in Saba al-Bor, a small town near Baghdad.
While stationed in Iraq, Tiffen decided to document his experiences in a blog, which at the time was nearly unheard of. The dispatches from the heart of the war in Iraq earned him attention and a profile in the Washington Post. In 2007, as a Jewish officer with dozens of soldiers under his command, he gave an interview to this reporter, then a Washington correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Maariv.
He would return to Iraq on six-month tours a number of times after that. There, while dodging the roadside IEDs that made those years among the most treacherous, he was witness to Iraq’s vast ruination.
In 2018 in Tel Aviv, Tiffen told this reporter, under strict secrecy, the story of how he was putting together the restoration of a tomb in Iraq said to belong to the ancient prophet Nahum.
“You will not write a word about it until the project is complete,” he said.
This is that story, told for the first time. It included sneaking Israelis into Iraq to assess the damage to the building’s roof and the best way to restore it. It also involved tapping into the deep knowledge of the Kurdish-Jewish community and its unofficial doyen Mordechai Zaken, a scholar who was instrumental in planning the restoration of the tomb and who passed away just a few months ago.
It features the people of Alqosh, who safeguarded the tomb after the area’s Jews fled the pogroms that followed the creation of the State of Israel, along with the tomb’s modern benefactors: a small group of donors, including oil and energy companies from Norway, the local Kurdish government, the US embassy in Iraq and a few private donors who raised $2 million.
Behind it all was ARCH, a nonprofit started by national security expert Cheryl Benard, an expert on national security and post-war rebuilding efforts. Benard, whose husband Zalmay Khalilzad has led US diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, was impressed in her travels around the world by the resilience and creativity of individuals and groups trying to safeguard their national treasures, even under the most trying circumstances.
Tiffen’s involvement with ARCH stemmed from his time in Iraq, and after the group decided to push ahead with the restoration, he became the point person on the project.
His first encounter with the tomb, in 2016, was a tapestry of amazement and dolor. “I was astonished at its beauty and the dozens of Hebrew inscriptions on the walls,” he recalled to ToI later. “I was also shocked at its terrible condition, with several parts of the roof having fallen in, and mounds of rubble surrounding the tomb.”
One challenge of the project was finding funds, especially given its sensitivity and the fact that it could not be publicized. ARCH had never taken on a project of this magnitude. Tax filings for years before the tomb project show annual revenues and expenses of tens of thousands of dollars.
“We unsuccessfully reached out to the Jewish community, including several Jews of Iraqi and Kurdish descent. We were unable to raise funds among this community,” Tiffen said. “For the most part, everyone we spoke to thought we were a little crazy.”
“We were trying to restore an ancient Jewish synagogue, in a Christian town, under an Islamic government, in a disputed territory, 15 kilometers from the front lines with ISIS. Especially given that ISIS had only recently tried attacking the town. Most people wished us luck but didn’t have much enthusiasm for supporting the project,” he added.
In the end, the US government pumped $1 million into the project, and others chipped in as well, including the Kurdish and Czech governments. Among those supporting the plan was Kurdish President Nechirvan Barzani.
There was also the question of finding people who were expert not only in art restoration, such as the Czech company GEMA ART, which was eventually contracted to carry out the work, but also in Jewish heritage and antiquities, and who would be willing to visit.
And of course the small matter of taking on a project to restore a Jewish shrine in a country almost totally bereft of Jews, torn asunder by decades of war and under threat from a bloodthirsty terror group that had already rampaged through the country, gleefully smashing Iraq’s, and humanity’s, cultural treasures.
But according to Tiffen, the tomb was special. It had for generations resisted being turned into a church or mosque, and more recently had also been spared by Islamic State, which had not been so kind to the nearby Nabi Younus Tomb, believed to be where the prophet Jonah is buried, or a shrine in Mosul that some revere as the final resting place of the biblical Daniel.
“The synagogue was a beautiful and tangible reminder of the connection of the Jewish people to the land and their coexistence in the region with the Christian, Yazidi and Muslim communities for over a millennium,” Tiffen said.
“Given the recent sectarian violence and attacks by ISIS on religious minorities like the Christians and Yezidis, we also saw the restoration as a symbol of hope and a reminder of the common history and belief that we all share,” he went on. “Jews, Christians and Muslims coexisted in the region for hundreds or thousands of years. Perhaps not perfectly, but with a level of tolerance and acceptance that should not be forgotten.”
From Israel, with blessings
During a trip through Israel in 2017, Tiffen was introduced to Yaacov Schaffer, an expert in the restoration of ancient synagogues.
Tiffen — who had decompressed from his first tour in Iraq with a stint at a Jerusalem yeshiva — thought it was important for the project to be guided by Jewish and rabbinical input. He would later seek a blessing from Rabbi Shlomo Amar, Israel’s former Sephardic chief rabbi, who would also give him and the engineers halachic advice on Jewish law regarding restoration of a sacred site.
“It was important that we receive a blessing from a significant rabbinic authority on the restoration effort we were planning,” Tiffen said. “After presenting the project to Rabbi Amar, he gave us his blessing and the guidance that we were not permitted to touch or move the tomb itself.”
Schaffer, who at the time had been the head of the Conservation Department at the Israel Antiquities Authority, was gung-ho about joining the project, with a caveat: “I told them straight away that I was ready to go to Iraq on one condition — that my partner, Meir Ronen, join us.”
“Some people asked whether my wife tried to veto the whole trip, but she actually wanted to join us,” Schaffer told The Times of Israel recently. “It was clear to us that we had to do it and we were complete volunteers, without getting paid for the trip or our work there.”
The will was there, but there was still a matter of finding a way to get into Iraq. While it’s not unheard of for Israelis to visit Kurdistan, entering Iraq usually requires presenting a passport from another country.
Kurdish officials signed off on bringing in the Israelis, and they received enthusiastic backing and a special permit from then-interior minister Aryeh Deri (Israel technically forbids its citizens from visiting Iraq since it is an enemy country). While Schaffer described the trip into Iraq in great detail, Tiffen asked that no specifics be published about how they got into the country and to Alqosh, for fear of jeopardizing future operations.
Once in Alqosh, the two engineers toured the half-ruined shrine and got to work drawing up a restoration plan, which took them several days. During that time, they were hosted by a Chaldean priest in a guesthouse attached to the Rabban Hermizd monastery, since the nearest hotel was over an hour away.
On the second day there, the group took a tour of the city and the surrounding area, traveling close to Mosul, where a massive battle to retake the city from Islamic State had just concluded.
“I won’t tell you that I wasn’t completely afraid, but I overcame my fears. It was scary to see all the ruined towns around. Either IS destroyed them or American bombs did,” Schaffer recalled. “This is an area that was important to the Yazidis and Chaldean Catholics.”
It was also important to the Jews.
“The burden of Nineveh,” reads the first sentence of the Book of Nahum. “The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite.”
The Book of Nahum, the seventh of the 12 minor prophets found in the Bible, tells of the destruction of the great Assyrian capital Nineveh, located on the outskirts of modern-day Mosul, an event that probably occurred circa 612 BCE. “And it shall come to pass, that all they that look upon thee shall flee from thee, and say: ‘Nineveh is laid waste; who will bemoan her? whence shall I seek comforters for thee?'”
Little is known about Nahum, who is thought to have lived in the 7th century BCE, and whose family may have come to Assyria together with the exiled Israelite tribes.
While some scholars place Nahum’s Elkosh in the Galilee, many others identify it with the Assyrian city of Alqosh. Jews in the area have identified the Alqosh shrine as Nahum’s tomb for centuries, if not millennia, and built a synagogue around it to host the many pilgrims who came there.
“The point is that there is a longstanding belief for more than 2,000 years that this is the Tomb of Nahum. If for 2,000 years people have thought and believed that this is where the prophet is buried, then this structure is quite important,” Schaffer said.
Nobody knows when the synagogue dates from, but Schaffer noted that the building is constructed in a style reminiscent of King Herod, comparing it to a miniature version of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. But the architecture also noted other telltale clues.
“All my life I have been involved in antiquities, history and the Bible,” Schaffer said. “This is a synagogue that has stood there at least since the Middle Ages. I can identify it by the nature of the structure with the vaults and by the shape of the dome.”
“On the surrounding pillars we saw inscriptions in Hebrew,” he added. “Some are in Hebrew, others in block letters in something between Arabic and Hebrew.”
In the 1950s, as Jewish families fled Iraq, the Jews of Alqosh asked the Shajah family to safeguard the tomb .The Shajahs have done so since, cleaning and maintaining the building as well as controlling access to it.
When Islamic State began spreading its campaign of terror and destruction across the area, many feared it would be only a matter of time before the terror organization swept into Alqosh, destroying both the tomb and the Rabban Hormizd monastery, which is some 1,400 years old.
But the group never reached the city, which is nestled in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains some 25 miles (40 kilometers north) of Mosul, and it was spared the irreversible destruction that befell other tombs in Iraq revered by Jews.
But what Islamic State terrorists could not do, time and neglect had already done. By the time the group got there in 2017, many of the synagogue’s rooms were completely destroyed, and a roof that had been built in the 1970s to protect the structure had collapsed, causing even worse damage.
“It may not have been damage from Islamic State, but it was in total neglect and disrepair and the place was in dire shape,” remembered Ronen, the other Israeli engineer. “The first step was just believing the place could be restored.”
The report prepared by Schaffer and Ronen warned that if immediate work were not done to stabilize the structure, wind and rain could cause it to collapse completely within months.
“We recommended constructing a square structure above the tomb, topped by a dome,” Schaffer said.
For the next six months, crews worked to stabilize the structure and keep the roof from caving in, before starting on the larger project of restoring the entire synagogue building, which was contracted out to the Czech firm GEMA ART International. The firm, which specializes in reconstruction of religious sites and antiquities, had already been involved in a number of projects in Kurdistan, including restoration of the Erbil Citadel in 2017.
Ronen noted that the reconstruction work needed to be planned without relying on concrete and steel. “The structure had to be stabilized, first of all, and rebuilt in the language of the existing structure,” he said.
“The restoration itself was planned according to where the arches were located, which followed the structure of the foundations,” he added. “This was actually not complicated, because it is a type of construction that you see often; it is familiar from other places, like domes and vaults. It was easy to decipher what the original structure was, as it is a site that has not undergone restorations for centuries.”
Tiffen noted that he gave the US ambassador to Iraq a tour of the restoration work in January 2020, with the project set to finish by late spring, in time for the Jewish holiday traditionally associated with large pilgrimages to the tomb.
“We were on schedule to complete the restoration work in time for Shavuot in 2020, but everything came to a stop because of the pandemic,” he said. “It’s quite incredible that this entire effort, despite all the challenges, would have been completed on time and on budget if it wasn’t for COVID.”
In the end it took until spring 2021 to finish the restoration of the ancient building.
Benard called the project “the most satisfying” she has ever done, because it was able to benefit the community at large as well as preserve Jewish heritage. She noted that ARCH was pushing ahead with other projects in Iraq and even Afghanistan.
“They were depressed to go by these ruins of an ancient building every day, something that has been part of the town’s identity for hundreds of years right in the middle of the town,” she said. “When we started, they thought we will be just another passerby and that they will never see us again. But it was completed.”
‘A tangible reminder’
While studying the tomb, Schaffer spotted an opportunity to possibly put one ancient mystery to rest.
In 1891, the French geographer Vital Quint claimed that eight years earlier, the bones of the Prophet Nahum had been spirited away to a Christian church without the Jews noticing. Quint claimed that Jews had been praying to an empty box, and though his account is highly disputed, the myth has persisted in some places.
“The Christians say that at one time there was a fear that Jews who left the place would take Nahum’s bones, so they took the remains and buried him in the church,” Schaffer said.
While Schaffer was not about to open the ancient tomb and check for bones, he considered whether he might be able to scrape off a sliver of wood from the grave to be taken for DNA testing.
“My goal was to analyze the piece of wood to give an approximate date,” he said, noting similarities to other tombs in Iraq said to belong to biblical prophets and that had been destroyed by IS.
In the end though, Schaffer could not bring himself to scrape off a piece, and had GEMA construct a special wooden cage to place over the tomb to protect it during the restoration works.
“I obey the law,” he said. “While it would not have done any harm if I had taken a piece, I feared it would be seen as antiquities theft, which is strictly forbidden. Ronen agreed with me.”
“The importance of the place here is cultural, not only for Jews but also for Christians,” Ronen said. “We were amazed to see how the local Christians guarded it for generations.”
Benard, the head of ARCH, recalled that during the restoration work, locals who remembered the town’s Jews asked if they were coming back to rebuild the shrine — not apprehensively, but in anticipation.
“It was said in friendliness and positivity and welcome,” she said. “It’s important to understand that in some communities they miss them and remember them fondly, hoping for their return one day.”
Even if Israel’s Kurdish Jewish community is not moving back to Alqosh anytime soon, many of its members still maintain a strong connection with it.
While planning the reconstruction, Tiffen and Benard made several trips to Israel to meet with members of the community, including leaders like Yehuda Ben Yosef and Zaken, the scholar.
“We wanted to capture the intangible cultural heritage – the stories and legends that members of the community might have, and ideally meet with people who remember visiting the synagogue in their youth,” he said.
“For Jews, [the restored tomb] is a tangible reminder of their connection to the land and the restored synagogue can help educate future generations about the historical, cultural and religious diversity of the region.”
Today, the tomb is ostensibly open to visitors, though it’s not clear if Israelis are welcome.
“I cannot tell you if it will happen right away. For Israelis, this is a dangerous area,” Tiffen says when asked if Israelis will be able to make the pilgrimage. “Our hope is that the restored synagogue serves as a beacon of hope for the region, and a reminder of not only what was, but what can still be.”