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Nimrud's broken glory lies in dust after IS rampage

  • Published at 07:05 pm November 16th, 2016
Nimrud's broken glory lies in dust after IS rampage

In a field outside an ancient palace in the Assyrian city of Nimrud, shattered remains of intricate carvings lie broken in the dust. Remnants of elaborate wall panels and colossal statues of winged bulls, they stood at the site for nearly three millennia, reminders of a mighty empire which stretched across the Middle East.

At the northern edge of the old city, a ziggurat or terraced pyramid - towered over the palace and nearby temples.

Until two years ago, when Islamic State militants swept through northern Iraq, ransacking ancient cities, religious sites and palaces which the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim zealots deem idolatrous.

The ziggurat has been reduced to a pile of dirt, with tyre tracks all over it, apparently flattened by bulldozers in the last two months before Islamic State fighters were driven out of the site by Iraqi forces on Sunday.

[caption id="attachment_33485" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A picture taken on November 15, 2016, shows destruction caused by the Islamic State (IS) group at the archaeological site of Nimrud, some 30 kilometres south of Mosul in the Nineveh province, a few days after Iraqi forces retook the ancient city from IS jihadists. Iraqi forces announced that Nimrud, which was founded in the 13th century and became the capital of the Assyrian empire, was recaptured on November 13 as part of the massive operation to retake Mosul, the last IS-held city in the country. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED A picture taken on November 15, 2016, shows destruction caused by the IS at the archaeological site of Nimrud, some 30 kilometres south of Mosul in the Nineveh province, a few days after Iraqi forces retook the ancient city from IS jihadists. AFP[/caption]

Palace walls have been stripped of the carved facades which adorned them. Just a few pieces remain in place, while fragments of the winged bulls or lamassus - which stood at one of the palace entrances lie in a field outside.

Carefully engraved feathers can still be seen on one of them, lying close to what appears to be a foot of one of the mythical carved creatures.

"There were about 200 ancient panels. Daesh (Islamic State) stole some of them and destroyed the rest," Major-General Dhiya Kadhim al-Saidi told reporters on a visit to the site on Wednesday, three days after it was recaptured.

A tribal fighter from the area said the ziggurat had been destroyed by the militants in the last two months as the Iraqi army advanced towards Nimrud, confirming evidence from satellite pictures which showed its steady destruction since September.

Saidi said Islamic State had been driven about 3.5km away from Nimrud, but the area had not yet been cleared of possible bombs and booby traps. Nimrud lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, 30km south of Mosul where Iraqi soldiers are battling to crush Islamic State. Mosul is the largest city under the militants' control in Iraq and neighbouring Syria. Iraq's antiquities authority says it is still working to set up field teams to assess the damage to the site, but says it hopes some of the ruins can be salvaged. "Despite the massive destruction to the ancient city, and the loss of the architectural intricacies of the palaces and temples and the ziggurat, we trust that we can restore and renovate what was destroyed and bring back to life this outstanding archaeological site," deputy culture minister Qais Hussain Rasheed said. "One hundred percent has been destroyed," Ali al-Bayati, a local villager said as he surveyed the hilltop site, just 500 metres from his native village, for the first time in more than two years. "Losing Nimrud is more painful to me than even losing my own house," he said. The jihadist group released video footage last year of fighters blowing up the remnants of the famed Northwest Palace and smashing stone carvings at the site - destruction it justified as wiping out un-Islamic idols. UNESCO has said that the destruction of Nimrud by IS amounts to a war crime.

Bombs and booby traps

The group also blew up and looted antiquities in the spectacular Syrian site of Palmyra, smashed sculptures at ancient Hatra in Iraq, which is still under IS control, and rampaged through the Mosul museum.

In Nimrud, the jihadists attacked the antiquities with ferocity as they claimed they represented idols banned under their extreme interpretation of Islam.

But that has not stopped them from looting and selling such allegedly forbidden items to fund their operations.

"They want to make a new picture of Iraq, with nothing before Daesh," Bayati said, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

He said he thought IS "destroyed this place because they wanted to destroy Iraq - the new Iraq and old Iraq".

Most of Nimrud's priceless artefacts were moved long ago to museums in Mosul, Baghdad, Paris, London and elsewhere, but giant "lamassu" statues - winged bulls with human heads - and relief were still on site.

[caption id="attachment_33488" align="aligncenter" width="800"]Iraqi soldiers stand amid destruction caused by the Islamic State (IS) group at the archaeological site of Nimrud, some 30 kilometres south of Mosul in the Nineveh province, on November 15, 2016, a few days after Iraqi forces retook the ancient city from IS jihadists. Iraqi forces announced that Nimrud, which was founded in the 13th century and became the capital of the Assyrian empire, was recaptured on November 13 as part of the massive operation to retake Mosul, the last IS-held city in the country. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED Iraqi soldiers stand amid destruction caused by the IS at the archaeological site of Nimrud, some 30 kilometres south of Mosul in the Nineveh province, on November 15, 2016, a few days after Iraqi forces retook the ancient city from IS jihadists. AFP[/caption] [caption id="attachment_33489" align="aligncenter" width="800"]A picture taken on November 15, 2016, shows destruction caused by the Islamic State (IS) group at the archaeological site of Nimrud, some 30 kilometres south of Mosul in the Nineveh province, a few days after Iraqi forces retook the ancient city from IS jihadists. Iraqi forces announced that Nimrud, which was founded in the 13th century and became the capital of the Assyrian empire, was recaptured on November 13 as part of the massive operation to retake Mosul, the last IS-held city in the country. / AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMED A picture taken on November 15, 2016, shows destruction caused by the IS group at the archaeological site of Nimrud, some 30km south of Mosul in the Nineveh province, a few days after Iraqi forces retook the ancient city from IS jihadists. AFP[/caption]

Now it will take experts to carry out a full evaluation of the damage IS has wrought at Nimrud.

But it may be some time before they can get there: the jihadists that Iraqi forces are fighting to drive back are still just a few kilometres away, and occasional explosions can be heard in the distance.

The site also still needs to be fully investigated and cleared by security forces of any hidden dangers IS may have left behind.

"There are many (bombs) and booby traps suspected," said Lieutenant Wissam Hamza, a member of an army explosives disposal team, as he walked carefully across the site.

"So we want to find them and clear the area - then after that it can be called safe."

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