Once one of the great cities of the Assyrian Empire, 2,500 years ago, Nimrud lies within Isis-held territory east of the Tigris river, 30 miles south of Mosul
Friday 27 February 2015
Isis militants have targeted the remains of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud for destruction after filming themselves smashing statues and artefacts in the Mosul Museum.
The men, who used sledgehammers and electric drills to destroy archaeological treasures, are said to have told bystanders that they would continue their work of destruction in Nimrud.
Once one of the great cities of the Assyrian Empire, 2,500 years ago, Nimrud lies within Isis-held territory east of the Tigris river, 30 miles south of Mosul.
Archaeologists are worried that the Isis video released on Thursday, showing the destruction of the antiquities and denouncing them as idols and against Islam, will encourage mass looting of the remains of ancient cities and palaces across northern Iraq and eastern Syria.
The final scene in the video is shot not in Mosul Museum, but outside at the so-called Nirgal Gate of the Assyrian city of Nineveh which is intertwined with modern Mosul, which was captured by the jihadist group last year.
A black-clad man is drilling into a massive stone Winged Bull which the Assyrians commonly placed at entrances to their cities, palaces and throne rooms. The man says: “Oh Muslims, these artefacts that are behind me were idols and gods worshipped by people who lived centuries ago instead of Allah.”
“I am fearful that there will be mass looting as in Syria,” said Katharyn Hanson, a fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Heritage Centre and a specialist in Mesopotamian archaeology, who is visiting Erbil. She says that Nineveh, Nimrud and other cities of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which once stretched from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, will “become like Dura-Europos on the Euphrates, a moonscape of craters [from looters pits].” Dura-Europos is a Hellenistic city whose site used to be known as “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert”.
The five ancient cities most under threat from Isis are Nineveh, Nimrud, Ashur, Khorsabad and Hatra, all of which stand on the territory of the self-declared Islamic State. A government official in Baghdad in contact with Mosul was quoted by Al Jazeera television as saying that those breaking up the statues “told the people they will go next to Nimrud” to continue their work of destruction. Ms Hanson said Isis officials made similar threats against the Greco-Roman city of Hatra last year, though there is no evidence of destruction from there.
Fortunately, the most famous surviving monuments at Nimrud – the great Winged Bulls – are now in the British Museum, brought there by Henry Layard in the mid-19th Century. The golden treasure of Nimrud, 613 pieces of gold and precious stone excavated in the 1990s, is in Baghdad. But other artefacts at the site, protected from the weather by sheds, could be vandalised and destroyed. It is already in some danger from its proximity to the battle lines between Isis and the Kurds where there has been much fighting and heavy US air strikes in recent weeks.
During the Iraq War I visited the Mosul Museum in 2003 when the Kurds overran Mosul; it was one of the only public buildings not to be ransacked after staff persuaded looters not to enter. At that time, it contained only a limited number of important antiquities because others had been taken to Baghdad for safekeeping after the Kurdish and Shia uprisings of 1991.
Many of the statues which the Isis militants were shown destroying in the video are in fact plaster casts, as can be seen from the ease with which they shatter when struck by a sledgehammer or toppled onto the floor. Truly ancient items made of alabaster are far harder and more difficult to break, Ms Hanson said.
However, although at first she “felt that the damage could have been a lot worse”, when she saw the Winged Bull of the Nirgal Gate being destroyed with a drill she realised that all such sites are at risk. Iraq has a total of 12,000 registered archaeological sites, of which 1,800 are in Isis-held territory.
Ms Hanson said that the video does not show what has happened to the prehistoric or Islamic galleries in the museum and fears that items from these might be sold to dealers, part of a trade which is said to be netting Isis significant sums. Also in danger from looters are cuneiform tablets that can be easily sold on the international black market.
During my own visit 12 years ago I noticed that Mosul Museum had many items from Hatra, a Greco-Roman city but inhabited by Arabs, a fact which made Saddam Hussein’s government keen to promote excavations in order to underline Iraq’s Arabic heritage.
In January last year, after Isis blew up a Sixth Century mosaic found near Raqqa, Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, said that extreme Islamic iconoclasm was a calamity.
An expert on the Roman and early Christian periods in Syria, he added: “I am sure that if the crisis continues in Syria we shall have the destruction of all the crosses from the early Christian world, mosaics with mythological figures and thousands of Greek and Roman statues.” His predictions have turned out to be all too true.