Photographing Mosul, 1944

Anthony Kersting's expedition through Kurdistan in the 1940s is the focus of an exhibition at London's Courtauld Gallery.

Until recently, a large mosque stood on a significant site associated with the prophet Jonah – or, in Arabic, Yunus – who was swallowed by a giant fish in Islamic and Judaeo-Christian traditions. As Anthony Kersting, the British photographer who took the image on the right, wrote: ‘The Mosque is said to contain the body, not only of Jonah, but of the whale also’, referring to a large tooth that was preserved at the site outside Mosul, in northern Iraq.

The Anthony Kersting Archive, Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art. Released under a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence

The magnificent Nabi Yunus Mosque we see here on 11 August 1944, decades before it was destroyed by Daesh in July 2014, was not the first building to occupy this spot. It replaced an Assyrian church thought to be Jonah’s burial place, and was built on one of the two mounds marking the ancient city of Nineveh. Archaeological work since the destruction has uncovered finds from Nineveh including Assyrian reliefs of women.

Kersting captured this image on an expedition through Kurdistan, the focus of an exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery. He had been stationed with an RAF photographic unit outside Cairo in the early 1940s. After a fateful meeting with art historian Tom Boase (whose career included stints at the Courtauld, the British Council in the Middle East, and the intelligence site Bletchley Park), he set off on photographic expeditions across the region. Kersting journeyed around many places, among them Egypt (he is at the pyramids in a photograph not in the exhibition, shown below) and, in 1944 and 1946, Kurdistan, where he documented Yazidi festivals at Lalish, Chaldean monks, shrines, and a winged bull from Nineveh that had been exposed by the rain just a few years before his visit.

The Anthony Kersting Archive, Conway Library, Courtauld Institute of Art. Released under a CC BY-NC 4.0 licence

The photographer’s glass plates and prints, which had been kept in the kitchen of his south London home, were given to the Courtauld after his death in 2008. The archive of 42,000 images covers Kersting’s whole career, including his chocolate-box images of the English countryside and later far-flung trips. The entire archive – as well as the rest of the Conway Library of architectural photographs, in which the collection now resides – is currently being digitised in a major project, involving over 1,000 volunteers to date.

Anthony Kersting: Kurdistan in the 1940s runs at the Courtauld Gallery in London until 30 May 2022. See https://courtauld.ac.uk/whats-on/kurdistan-in-the-1940s/ for more details.