Islamic State (IS) terrorists have totally destroyed the ninth-century BC palace of the Assyrian king Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud, which lies 30km south of Mosul, in northern Iraq. The attack appears to have occurred on 2 April, since residents miles away reported hearing an explosion and seeing thick clouds of dust. IS released a propaganda film nine days later showing the destruction. The use of explosives to destroy an archaeological site represents a highly disturbing escalation of IS tactics after their destruction of individual sculptures at the Mosul museum and the ancient cities of Nineveh and Hatra a few weeks earlier.
Nimrud under Ashurnasirpal II was probably the world’s most populous city and the destruction of its Northwest Palace represents the greatest single cultural loss suffered by Iraq in modern times. In terms of the obliteration of archaeological knowledge and artefacts, the damage is likely to be even greater than that resulting fr om the looting of the Baghdad Museum in 2003.
What we have lost
The IS propaganda film shows extremists arriving at Nimrud and using electric drills to attack the lamassu, huge gypsum sculptures of winged human-headed beasts created as guardians to protect the king and his palace. Many had been moved earlier to museums around the world, but three pairs remained in situ. Two pairs were at the entrance to the throne room (now known as Room B) and the other was at the entrance to the reception room (Room S), which led to the residential quarters. These lamassu are now all likely to have been broken into many fragments.
The other great treasures that remained at Nimrud were its gypsum relief panels. These mainly depict Ashurnasirpal II, human-headed or bird-headed figures of sages (genies) and sacred trees (symbols of divine abundance). Originally these large panels, many more than two-metres-high, were brightly coloured, telling of the glories of the Assyrian kingdom.
Most of the reliefs are in the collections of foreign museums and private individuals, but there were still 13 rooms in the palace that were partially decorated with them. Altogether, there were around 50 full panels and 80 fragments. These offered visitors the only opportunity to see Assyrian panels in situ. They also represented rare survivals, since some retained part of their original polychromy, whereas those that have gone abroad were mainly cleaned or moulded for casts.
The IS film showed its militants destroying the reliefs in Rooms L, N and S, although it is feared that the other ten rooms were similarly attacked. Using sledgehammers, electric grinders and electric drills, they broke off parts of the upright reliefs and pushed them down onto the floor. They then moved some of the large reliefs outside with heavy-duty vehicles, where they were dropped fr om a height and then broken up further with electric drills.
Finally, the extremists moved to Room S at the centre of the palace, wh ere they wired up at least six oil drums filled with ammonium nitrate. Their detonation, next to some of the remaining panels, created an explosion audible from many miles away and reduced the entire palace to a crater of rubble.
As well as the sculptures, the explosion almost certainly obliterated four royal tombs. The underground tombs beneath it were only discovered in 1990 by the Iraqi archaeologist Muzahim Mahmud. As well as the bones of royal queens, they contained a magnificent gold treasure. This was taken to Baghdad shortly before the fall of Saddam Hussein to be stored in the vaults of the national bank, wh ere it is believed to be still safe.
Propaganda becomes real
A month before the IS attack, on 5 March, the Iraqi ministry of tourism and antiquities in Baghdad had claimed that Nimrud had been “razed by heavy military vehicles” and Unesco reported the use of bulldozers. However, at this stage Nimrud probably remained untouched. Despite the looming IS threat, there was nothing that archaeologists could have done. During the past few years the rooms containing the reliefs had been made more secure, but these efforts proved ineffective against extremists with heavy equipment.
Although the IS film showed the destruction of dozens of panels, it is possible that some more portable and attractive fragments may have been looted by the extremists, perhaps to raise funds for their activities.
So far, however, there is little evidence that IS terrorists have sold looted antiquities on the international market since they occupied Iraqi archaeological sites last year. Archaeologists abhor looting, but on this occasion it might be a welcome surprise if a few panels eventually reappear.
The loss of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II is likely to represent the worst case of deliberate destruction of an archaeological site in living memory. Although the blowing up of the Buddhas of Bamiyan by the Taliban in 2001 is arguably comparable, that was the loss of two enormous sculptures, whereas the Nimrud palace represented the heart of a city and its civilisation.
If IS is eventually expelled from Nimrud, the first task for archaeologists will be to seal the archaeological site and protect the rubble with a temporary cover. The contents of the rubble will need to be sifted for any small fragments of artefacts that survive. In the meantime, the immediate task for archaeologists outside Iraq is to systematically assemble documentation and images about Nimrud to assist those who will hopefully have to deal with the rubble.
The walls of the palace could be reconstructed and it may be possible to painstakingly reassemble some of the reliefs from fragments, but the vast majority of Ashurnasirpal II’s sculptures that remained in situ will have been lost forever. They survived the king’s death for nearly 2,900 years, only to be destroyed in minutes by terrorists.
Ashurnasirpal II’s Assyrian legacy
Ashurnasirpal II, the Assyrian king who ruled Assyria from 883BC to 859BC, created his citadel on the east bank of the Tigris. His ornately decorated palace was 200m long, with more than 100 rooms. After the Assyrian empire’s defeat in 612BC, his palace was looted. Squatters occupied the ruins, which eventually collapsed, leaving a pile of earth. In 1845, the palace was rediscovered by Austen Henry Layard, who found its amazing sculptures. Since then, the site has been excavated by European and Iraqi archaeologists, including Max Mallowan—the husband of the crime writer Agatha Christie. Some of the palace walls were later reconstructed.