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Saving Iraq’s Tomb of Nahum, a secret mission resurrects Kurdistan’s Jewish past

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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. Advertisement

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.”

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 Times of Israel

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