Yom Kippur is one of the central holidays of the Jewish people and during that day the book of Jonah is read in its entirety. The story of Jonah and the whale is one of the epic tales of all times. So, it shouldn’t be surprising that the places associated with the Jewish prophet are sought out and revered. Here in Israel there are several spots along the coast which are associated with Jonah. The port of Jaffa from whence he departed is one. As to where the whale deposited Jonah after he agreed to go on God’s mission, there are 3 candidates: Tel Yonah next to the Rishon LeZion beach, Givat Yonah overlooking Ashdod, and Khan Yunis in the Gaza Strip.
After his predicament in the whale/fish, Jonah does end up going to prophesy against the people of Nineveh, and they repent, making this an appropriate reading for a day associated with repentance.
What happens to Jonah afterwards, however, is a mystery. The biblical account does not follow him to the end of his life. One tradition posits that Jonah stayed around Nineveh, dies and was buried there. A shrine in Mosul, known as the Nebi Yunis (Prophet Jonah) shrine marks a spot that is revered by both Christians and Moslems. It occupies a place of importance on one of two mounds which made up the ancient city of Nineveh.
Tragically, in 2014, the shrine along with many antiquities in Mosul were destroyed by ISIS, their treasures destroyed or sold off to fund the terror organization. (See before and after in inset.)
After the Iraqi government recaptured Mosul, archaeologist Layla Salih came to the site to do emergency archaeological work. She found that the ISIS terrorists did not just destroy and loot that which was visible, but also dug tunnels in order to harvest even more antiquities, hundreds of objects according to Salih.
This story is not just tragic, though, for in digging these tunnels, they unwittingly discovered that the shrine to Jonah sat on an earlier building, a 7th century B.C.E. palace. There had been earlier excavation at the site during quieter times; the Ottomans headed an expedition in 1852 and the Iraqi government revisited it in the 1950’s, but neither reached as deep as the palace.
Among the finds was a marble cuneiform inscription describing King Esarhaddon. He was the son of Sennacherib who destroyed cities in Judea and set siege on Jerusalem in approximately 701 B.C.E. Archaeologists believe that the Royal residence of Assyrian kings was initially built for Sannacherib himself. Sometime during Esarhaddon’s reign (681-669 B.C.E.), the palace was expanded and renovated. A later renovation was during the reign of Ashurbanipal (669-627 B.C.E.). In 612 B.C.E. Nineveh was destroyed by the Babylonians and, with the city, the imperial palace. In the 7th century C.E. an Assyrian Church stood on the hill and that church became associated with Jonah. Sometime in the 8th century C.E. a mosque and shrine took the place of the church.
The wheels of time have a way of turning history upside down. Jonah the prophet was sent to proclaim the destruction of Nineveh, and in so doing, preserved the city when the residents repented. In modern times, the destruction surrounding Jonah’s tomb, reveals the ancient palace and makes possible preservation of the site.