Scale of monument destruction by ISIS terrorists comes to light

As government forces drive ISIS terrorists out of Mosul and nearby Nimrud the scale of destruction to one of Iraq’s greatest archaeological treasures comes to light. Once magnificent masterpieces of art are now broken into pieces and bulldozed flat. Moreover, the crippled Mosul Dam threatens to flood vast populated areas filled with archaeological sites with water from the Tigris river.

ISIS terrorists blowing up ancient Nimrud (by AFP)
ISIS terrorists blowing up ancient Nimrud (by AFP)

As the Syrian government soldiers surveyed the destruction of the ancient sites freed from ISIS terrorist occupation pictures of piles of rubble emerge created by the journalists who accompany the soldiers. The damage sustained by the ancient sites such as of Nimrud or Dur-Sharukkin the UN officials called a “war crime”.

Ancient Nimrud destroyed by ISIS terrorists (by Hussein Malla)
Ancient Nimrud destroyed by ISIS terrorists (by Hussein Malla)

At the site of Nimrud, the Assyrian ziggurat, built nearly 3000 years ago, has been levelled by bulldozers. On palace walls, only small fragments of stone carvings remained. Two Assyrian winged-bull statues that once marked the palace entrance have been completely destroyed. In a palace doorway, four deep cracks defaced a large carving of an Assyrian guardian spirit.

Nimrud ziggurat before (top) and after (bottom) destruction (by Wikimedia Commons and ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives)
Nimrud ziggurat before (top) and after (bottom) destruction (by Wikimedia Commons and ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives)

Based on the satellite images, researchers from the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) Cultural Heritage Initiatives say that the ancient sites were most likely deliberately destroyed by ISIS. Imagery dating to early October shows the almost complete levelling of the ziggurat mound, with the majority of damage occurring between 31 August and 2 October 2016. Nimrud, (known as biblical Calah in the Book of Genesis), was established in the 13th century BC near the Tigris River. In the 9th century BC, Nimrud became the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire under the reign of Ashurnasipal II. It was under his command that the ziggurat was built, originally measuring 61 by 61 metres at its base, and 61 metres tall. The ziggurat ruins were the highest point in the surrounding area, so it’s possible that the ISIS terrorists could have flattened it for strategic reasons. But it is also possible that the terrorists might have been looking for valuable artefacts in the mound – but ziggurats are known to be solid masonry structures that don’t contain burials. It is also possible that the structure was destroyed to demoralise local populations and show bravado as the Iraqi army approached Mosul.

Satellite picture Nimrud's area before (top) and after (bottom) destruction (by ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives)
Satellite picture Nimrud’s area before (top) and after (bottom) destruction (by ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives)

Another ancient side in the vicinity of Mosul, that was affected by ISIS terrorists is the second capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire,  Dur-Sharrukin, which replaced Nimrud in 706 BC, under the ruler Sargon II. The site is unique as it was built and used for one year before it was abandoned after Sargon II’s death in 705 BC. The city was protected by a vast wall and hosted numerous artefacts and pieces of artwork such as monumental sculptures of winged bulls. Dur-Sharukkin was confirmed for looting in 2015 and recent satellite imagery revealed that the site has been destroyed further by Peshmerga forces, who bulldozed embankments on the important archaeological site and built a large military post on top of it – despite visible archaeological remains.

Satellite images of citadel and palace of Dur-Sharrukin before (top) and (bottom) after destruction by ISIS (by ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives)
Satellite images of citadel and palace of Dur-Sharrukin before (top) and (bottom) after destruction by ISIS (by ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives)

Archaeologists are now worried about what further damage will be done to the important historical sites of Iraq in the near future, as the ISIS terrorists are pushed out. In the mean time Iraqi soldiers began to secure the remains of the ancient sites. Full assessment of the destruction will take time due to the fears the terrorists have left bombs or even fighters concealed in tunnels among the ruins. Drone surveillance over the sites was ordered in order to make sure no imminent threat still exists. The government troops that control the area are said to have strict instructions to be extremely cautious while securing the area and clearing the nearby villages.

Car bomb exploding in Mosul (by Felipe Dana)
Car bomb exploding in Mosul (by Felipe Dana)

Many of the art and artefacts from Nimrud and Dur-Sharukkin have been removed during excavations in the 19th and 20th centuries and sent to various museums, including the British Museum in London, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad. The Iraqi army officers state that all of the archaeological places in Mosul have already been destroyed. Archaeologists and government officials have yet to visit the site to conduct a proper assessment.

Destroyed reliefs of Nimrud's royal tombs (by Hussein Malla)
Destroyed reliefs of Nimrud’s royal tombs (by Hussein Malla)

As heavy fighting in Mosul rages on and Iraqi forces pushed deeper into the city destruction, direct destruction by ISIS terrorists is not the only thing that threatens archaeological and historical sites in vicinity of the city. The  dam in Mosul is reported to be crumbling and if should break the water would not only kill hundreds of thousands, but also wipe out millennia of history. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a security message on February 29th, 2016, urging Iraqi citizens to prepare for a possible collapse of the Mosul Dam, located about 60 kilometres north of the city. The catastrophic flood would result in an in-land tidal wave rushing 280 kilometres south along the Tigris River to the city of Samarra, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Approximately 500000 to 1.47 million people would die in the inundation unless they evacuate the flood path in time. The hydroelectric dam is built on a “very poor” foundation of water-soluble minerals. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called it “the most dangerous dam in the world” in 2006. The projected path of a deluge resulting from a dam failure contains on its course Assyrian sites of Nimrud, Nineveh and Khorsabad, capitals of empires in the first millennium BC.

Mosul Dam (by Alessandro Rota)
Mosul Dam (by Alessandro Rota)

So far ISIS terrorists destroyed many important historical sites in the Near East, including Palmyra, Mer Elian monastery in Al-Qaryatain, Roman-era Apamea, Greek Dura-Europos, Bronze Age Mari, Hatra, Assyrian Ninevah, Assyrian Nimrud, ancient Assyrian Khorsabad, Mar Behnam Monastery near Beth Khdeda, Mosque of the Prophet Yunus in Mosul, Imam Dur Mausoleum near Samarra, and numerous libraries and museums in Mosul itself, toppling statues and smashing others with hammers.

(after The Fiji Times Online, Science Alert, AFP, ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiatives, Wikimedia Commons, National Geographic, Felipe Dana, Hussein Malla, Alessandro Rota & Associated Press)

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