People in Mosul have their own theory on why their 838-year-old downtown mosque tower bends like a banana: It is making a graceful bow to Islam's Prophet Mohammed.

Iraqi antiquity officials cite more scientific reasons for the tilt of the Nurid mosque's minaret and fear that without quick restoration it may eventually collapse into a pile of bricks.The 165-foot tower is now eight feet off perpendicular, and the government has ordered urgent studies on how to stop the tilt. By comparison, the famous tower of Pisa leans 13 feet.

Mosul University's Engineering Consultancy Bureau is formulating a plan for the minaret - known as al-Hadba, "the humped" - that has brought fame to this city 250 miles northwest of Baghdad.

"We want to reverse man's and nature's doing against the historic structure," said Mouyyad Damerji, a senior antiquities official.

The bombs that hit Mosul during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war - soon after an Italian company finished restoring the minaret - broke underground pipes, allowing sewage to collect in pools and weaken the soil under the minaret.

Since the Fondedile firm of Rome shored up the minaret in 1981, it has leaned an extra 16 inches.

Various theories are offered for why the minaret started to tilt in the first place, probably shortly after it was built in 1160.

While some say steady northwesterly winds were the cause, others blame weak gypsum used to hold the bricks together. Damerji maintains the sun was the culprit.

The cylindrical minaret is encased in baked bricks, and the ones exposed to the sun expanded, crunching those in the shade until the whole trunk leaned south, he said.

The local story about the minaret bowing to Mohammed is based on faith, not fact. Mohammed never visited Iraq - and he died more than 500 years before the minaret was built.

The minaret is at the northwest corner of a mosque ordered built by Nureddeen Zengi, a 12th-century Turkish ruler of Mosul.

The mosque and minaret sit along a busy street and among rickety, 200-year-old houses, themselves standing at precarious angles. Running between the alleyways - and descending toward the minaret - are rivulets of gray water.

The mosque is a square, plain affair not as pretty as its minaret. The minaret's inner layer is made with stone bricks and its exterior is decorated with mud bricks set in a stitch-like pattern.

Now, the minaret's body shows spidery cracks and the small, white-plastered dome has gaps one can wedge a fist in.

The tilt is so alarming that a sheik no longer climbs up to give the call to prayer from the top. Still, children climb the steep, interior staircases in daily acts of bravery, and men go up for the view over Mosul and the River Tigris.