NIMRUD (Iraq) • The palace of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king, had survived for three millennia before ISIS militants arrived and sacked the place with glee.
They smashed the statues of winged creatures that stood sentry at a gate, leaving them in a terrible, broken heap - a wing here, a foot there. They pulled down stone relief panels that once lined the palace walls, ripping them so crudely in places that the panels splintered, leaving a tantalising but painful reminder of what was.
And Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants bulldozed Nimrud's ziggurat, the mud-brick base of a once-soaring ancient temple, reducing it to a nondescript pile of dirt.
The scale of the devastation has become fully apparent only in recent days, after Iraqi soldiers advancing on the northern city of Mosul recaptured the site from ISIS militants who took control of the area more than two years ago.
Although antiquities experts have not yet visited Nimrud, they have seen pictures shared by soldiers and journalists. "The destruction was worse than we thought," said Mr Qais Hussein, the general director of the antiquities department at Iraq's Ministry of Culture.
Nimrud, the second capital of the kingdom of Assyria, was a Unesco heritage site and was considered one of the most important archaeological finds in the world.
These gangs didn't only destroy my city, they have destroyed the dearest things to my heart.
PROFESSOR AMER AL-JUMAILY, who taught archaeology at Mosul University.
For archaeologists and antiquities experts who have spent their career researching the region's cultural treasures, the assault on heritage has only added to a spreading sense of despair. Over the past five years, war and political conflict in Syria, Egypt and other countries has led to widespread looting of archaeological sites, often with little attention or concern from the authorities. Iraqi scholars have been grappling with the loss for more than a decade, since the looting of Iraq's national museum and other archaeological sites after the US-led invasion in 2003.
"I spent almost my whole life in the ancient sites of Mosul. These gangs didn't only destroy my city, they have destroyed the dearest things to my heart," said Professor Amer Al-Jumaily, who taught archaeology at Mosul University but fled after the occupation by ISIS and now works at the national museum in Baghdad.
Amid the despair, there were small graces. Many of Nimrud's statues and sculptures are on display in museums overseas. And the site's greatest treasures - ivories and gold artefacts - were safely stored in the vaults of the Central Bank in Baghdad, according to Mr Abdulameer al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist.
Most of the site had never been excavated, he said, stirring hope that there were still more relics to be discovered.