BAGHDAD (Reuters, AFP) - Nimrud, which Iraq said was bulldozed Thursday by extremists, was once the jewel of Assyria, home to a treasure considered one of the biggest archaeological finds of the 20th century.
On Thursday, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group "bulldozed" the ancient ruins of Nimrud, according to the antiquities ministry.
Nimrud, which lie on the Tigris about 30km southeast of Mosul, was built around 1250 BC. Four centuries later it became capital of the neo-Assyrian empire – at the time the most powerful state on earth, extending to modern-day Egypt, Turkey and Iran.
"Nimrud was the capital of Assyria, during the new Assyrian era," said Abdulamir Hamdani, an archaeologist from Stony Brook University in New York.
The city, which is on Unesco's tentative list of world heritage sites, is the later Arab name given to a settlement which was originally called Kalhu.
Many of its most famous surviving monuments were removed years ago by archaeologists, including colossal Winged Bulls which are now in London’s British Museum and hundreds of precious stones and pieces of gold which were moved to Baghdad.
But giant "lamassu" statues - winged bulls with human heads - and reliefs of the ancient city remain at the northern Iraqi site, excavated by a series of experts since the 19th century. British archaeologist Max Mallowan and his wife, crime writer Agatha Christie, worked at Nimrud in the 1950s.
The extent of the latest damage done to Nimrud, which was also looted and damaged during the 2003 US invasion, by ISIS extremists is unclear because guards and antiquities officials have not yet been able to assess it.
The destruction comes a week after a video was released in which ISIS militants wielding sledgehammers are seen gleefully smashing statues in the Mosul museum.
Many of the artefacts destroyed in the video came from Nimrud.
"It's really a very important site in the history of Mesopotamia," said Hamdani. "Many of Assyria's greatest artistic treasures came from this site."
The "treasure of Nimrud", unearthed in 1988, is a collection of 613 precious stones, gold jewels and various ornaments which some archaeologists described as the most significant discovery since Tutankhamun's tomb in Egypt in 1923.
The treasure, which dates back to the Assyrian empire's heyday around 2,800 years ago, was briefly displayed at the National Museum in Baghdad before Iraq invaded Kuwait.
It was then hidden and its fate remained unknown until it was discovered in 2003, soon after US-led troops toppled Saddam Hussein's regime, in a bombed out central bank building.
ISIS members came to the Nimrud archaeological city and looted the valuables in it and then they proceeded to level the site to the ground,” a Mosul tribal source told Reuters. “There used to be statues and walls as well as a castle that Islamic State has destroyed completely.”
Archaeologists have compared the assault on Iraq’s cultural history to the Taleban’s destruction of Afghanistan’s giant Bamiyan Buddha statues in 2001. But the damage being wreaked by ISIS, not just to ancient monuments but also on some Muslim places of worship, is even more relentless and wide-ranging.
“This is yet another attack against the Iraqi people, reminding us that nothing is safe from the cultural cleansing underway in the country,” said Unesco chief Irina Bokova. “The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime,” Bokova said, describing Iraq’s history as “the heritage of the whole of humanity”.
Last week’s video showed fighters toppling statues and carvings from plinths in the Mosul museum and smashing them with sledgehammers and drills. It also showed damage to a huge statue of a bull at the Nergal Gate into the city of Nineveh.
Archaeologists said it was hard to quantify the damage; although some items appeared to be replicas, many priceless articles had been destroyed including artefacts from Hatra, a stunning pillared city in northern Iraq dating back 2,000 years.
Iraq’s senior Shi’ite cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on the country’s deeply divided religious and ethnic groups to come together to fight Islamic State. “Day after day, the need is proven for everyone to unite and fight this ferocious organisation that spares neither man nor stone,” Sistani said in a Friday sermon delivered by an aide in the southern city of Kerbala.
Iraqi forces and Shi’ite militia supported by Shi’ite Iran have launched an offensive to drive ISIS from the northern city of Tikrit and could move on Mosul later this year. A US-led coalition is also mounting air strikes against the fighters.
Iraqi officials said last week that ISIS had kept many artefacts to sell to antiquities smugglers and raise revenue. A prominent politician from Iraq’s Assyrian Christian community, some of whose members still speak the Aramaic language of Jesus, told Reuters on Friday that the destruction at Nimrud was aimed at covering up the fact that the militants had stolen and sold many pieces.
Yonadam Kanna described them as “an ignorant, backward gang that seeks to erase the collective memory of Iraq and its culture and heritage”.
Modern day Iraq was one of the birthplaces of civilisation, with agriculture and writing pioneered on the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers more than 5,000 years ago. Many of the cities and empires mentioned in the bible’s Old Testament were in what is now northern Iraq.
In the south, sheltered from ISIS depredation but still damaged by years of conflict and theft, lie Babylon – site of Nebuchadnezzar’s Hanging Gardens – Ur, birthplace of the Biblical patriarch Abraham, and the imperial capitals of Arab and Iranian empires in Samarra, Baghdad and Ctesiphon.
Islamic State, which rules a self-declared caliphate in north Iraq and eastern Syria, promotes a fiercely purist interpretation of Sunni Islam, rejecting religious shrines of any sort and condemning Iraq’s majority Shi’ites as heretics.
In July it destroyed the tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul. It has also attacked Shi’ite places of worship and has ordered non-Muslims to convert, pay a tax or face the sword.