Surveying Islamic State’s destruction of Nimrud
Unlike Palmyra, the heart of the Assyrian empire has been reduced to rubble
A member of Iraqi army walks at the remains of wall panels and colossal statues of winged bulls, destroyed by Islamic State militants in the Assyrian city of Nimrud, south of Mosul, Iraq. Photograph: Ari Jalal/Reuters
Syria’s Greco-Roman city of Palmyra survived the assault of Islamic State, but it was a different story for Nimrud, the Assyrian city liberated by the Iraqi army last weekend.
At Palmyra, Islamic State, also known as Isis, used explosives to bring down two 2,000-year-old temples, an iconic arch and tower tombs. The terror group also vandalised the museum and beheaded the site’s octogenarian caretaker Khaled al-Asaad.
Palmyra’s magnificent columns, theatre and Agora still stand, however.
At Nimrud, Islamic State dynamited and bulldozed to rubble the 3,000-year-old palace of King Ashurnasirpal, destroyed the statues of winged bulls that flanked the entrance, and reduced to a stump the 50m ziggurat, the tower that had stood sentinel until Islamic State demolished 95 per cent of the remains of the city.
Carved panels were prised from the walls of the palace or smashed and the ruins combed for saleable items. Nimrud had been the heart of the mighty Assyrian empire which, at its height, embraced Turkey and Egypt.
Iraq’s director of antiquities Qais Hussein said the destruction was “worse than we thought”. Expressing the hope the winged bulls could be reconstructed, he said the devastation visited on Nimrud was a “huge loss to Iraqi heritage . . . It is history for all the world.”
Islamic State seized Nimrud in June 2014, when the group captured Mosul and the surrounding countryside, which contains 1,800 of Iraq’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites. The group has also looted many of these sites and smuggled artefacts to earn revenue to sustain its grip on Mosul and Nineveh province.
The destruction of the country’s cultural heritage, which had survived 1,400 years of Muslim rule, began in March 2015. Considered idolatrous by Islamic State, the symbol of Nimrud – the winged bull, a creature with the body of a bull, head of a bearded man, and wings of an eagle – has been systematically removed in a 21st-century iconoclastic spree in Iraq and Syria.
Islamic State complemented its assault on Nimrud by breaking with sledge hammers statues in the Mosul museum and attacking the 2,000-year-old Parthian city of Hatra, both of which remain under the group’s control, hostages to Iraq’s ongoing conflict. The extent of the damage to the museum and Hatra can only be assessed when Islamic State is expelled.
There is more to Islamic State’s onslaught on cultural heritage than eradicating idolatrous relics. The group seeks to eliminate seminal epochs in Iraq’s history with the aim of erasing the historic memory of subjects and filling their minds with Islamic State ideology.
Fortunately, Nimrud, initially excavated in the mid-19th century, has not been uncovered entirely and fresh Assyrian built relics, artefacts and statuary may still be found. Furthermore, most major items have been removed from Nimrud.
Magnificent Assyrian winged bulls, wall reliefs, frescoes, tablets, and ivory furniture reside in the Iraqi national museum in Baghdad, while museums in Britain, France and the US, beneficiaries of colonial expropriation, display Assyrian pieces.
Nimrud is a Unesco heritage site and one of the most important archaeological sites on Earth. Unesco condemned the onslaught as a war crime, a charge that could be submitted to the International Criminal Court, which this year tried and sentenced Malian jihadi Ahmed al-Faqi al-Mahdi to nine years imprisonment for the 2012 destruction of nine mausoleums and the door of a mosque in Timbuktu.
Iraq’s national museum and ancient sites fell to looters following the 2003 US invasion and occupation during which al-Qaeda established an Iraqi branch, the parent of Islamic State, which was founded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and fellow prisoners while they were being held at Abu Ghraib and Bocca prisons.