Nim­rud: Restor­ing a city de­stroyed by Is­lamic State

Unesco and lo­cals are at­tempt­ing to res­cue the Iraqi city’s her­itage from the ter­ror­ist group’s at­tacks

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Ruaidhrí Gi­b­lin

The first step to­wards restor­ing an­cient Nim­rud, in north­ern Iraq, is un­der way af­ter the Is­lamic State group bull­dozed and bombed the cap­i­tal city of one of the world’s first em­pires. Nim­rud was founded more than 3,300 years ago, 20km south­east of Mo­sul. It was the cap­i­tal of the pow­er­ful Assyr­ian em­pire be­tween 879-709 BC.

Cover­ing some 3.5sq km, on an el­e­vated plateau, it in­cluded the palaces and tombs of Assyr­ian kings, tem­ples to their gods, stat­ues of winged bulls as well as tablets and fres­coes cov­ered in cu­nei­form writ­ing – one of the world’s first writ­ten lan­guages, now ex­tinct.

Is­lamic State, also known as Isis, swept through north­ern Iraq in the sum­mer of 2014, cap­tur­ing vast swathes of ter­ri­tory from an Iraqi army on the run.

Months later, videos be­gan to emerge of Is­lamic State fight­ers tak­ing sledge­ham­mers, elec­tric kango ham­mers and an­gle grinders to the an­cient stone arte­facts. They bull­dozed the area and ul­ti­mately blew it up. The group de­lib­er­ately de­stroys cul­tural her­itage in ar­eas it con­trols, de­nounc­ing pre-Is­lamic art and architecture as idol­a­trous.

Piles of rub­ble litter the area. Stat­ues of lions and winged bulls have been dis­mem­bered. Cu­nei­form script can still be seen on an­cient stone tablets chis­elled to pieces.

A mound of earth is all that re­mains of a 140ft- high, rec­tan­gu­lar stepped tower, known as a zig­gu­rat. Satel­lite im­agery sug­gests the zig­gu­rat was bull­dozed weeks be­fore Is­lamic State was driven out of the area in Oc­to­ber.


The United Na­tions cul­ture body, Unesco, called Is­lamic State’s de­struc­tion of Nim­rud a “war crime” stat­ing that the group was “clearly de­ter­mined to wipe out all traces of the his­tory of Iraq’s peo­ple”.

Es­ti­mates of the dam­age to Nim­rud vary be­cause it has yet to be com­pletely as­sessed. The area is still con­sid­ered dan­ger­ous for work­ers and has been guarded by armed militiamen since it was re­cap­tured in Oc­to­ber.

The Unesco Of­fice for Iraq is erect­ing a fence around Nim­rud to pro­tect it from loot­ers and so that ar­chae­ol­o­gists and con­ser­va­tors can move in. The UN her­itage body is also pro­duc­ing aerial imag­ing of the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site.

Mo­hammed Say­eed, from a nearby vil­lage, has been work­ing on-site for 20 years with var­i­ous teams “be­fore Sad­dam and af­ter Sad­dam”, he says, re­fer­ring to the fall of the for­mer regime in 2003 – year zero for mod­ern Iraq.

Nim­rud is “part of me”, Say­eed says. “Af­ter the ex­plo­sion, I didn’t come out [of my house] for three days. I couldn’t look at it, I couldn’t ac­cept it. I felt very, very bad.

“I have worked for a long time here,” he says, ex­plor­ing, ex­ca­vat­ing and guard­ing the site from loot­ers as well.

“At first Isis brought a bull­dozer and heavy tools. Then they used bombs.”

Say­eed says Is­lamic State was mo­ti­vated by some­thing other than pure de­struc­tion. As well as the arte­facts, Is­lamic State “tried to erase all the doc­u­ments, all the records” so that in a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion no­body would know what was taken away – and sold on the black mar­ket – and what was de­stroyed.

“Isis took arte­facts away to sell. The peo­ple who bought these arte­facts don’t want the govern­ment to know.”

“That’s why they ex­ploded [Nim­rud]” – to con­fuse the au­thor­i­ties in­ves­ti­gat­ing what was lost, he says.

They don’t know how many arte­facts were taken to be sold on the black mar­ket, he says, or how many were de­stroyed.

Me­chan­i­cal dig­ger

Say­eed’s younger col­league, Fateh, also from the lo­cal area, points to the earthy mound where Nim­rud’s zig­gu­rat once stood. He says Is­lamic State re­moved some­thing very large from the ground us­ing a me­chan­i­cal dig­ger – it was that big.

“They took some­thing big but we don’t know what,” Fateh says.

Say­eed could not say what per­cent­age of an­cient Nim­rud could be re­stored be­cause he worked in the “find­ing of pieces” not restor­ing them.

“I even know where there is a winged bull. I know all about this place,” in­clud­ing “the se­cret stuff,” Say­eed claims.

Layla Salih, head of the Nin­eveh’s state- run her­itage depart­ment, puts the over­all dam­age to Nim­rud at 65 per cent.

The north­west cor­ner was 70 per cent dam­aged, she says, the Nabu and Ishtar tem­ples 50- 55 per cent. But the zig­gu­rat was 90 per cent dam­aged, and is now a quar­ter of its pre­vi­ous height.

Re­fer­ring to Is­lamic State as Daesh – an Ara­bic acro­nym which means a bigot who im­poses his views on oth­ers – Salih says “Daesh, they bull­dozed it [ the zig­gu­rat] and put a lot of mines in it also.”

“Nim­rud is re­stor­able, but it will take a lot of time. I es­ti­mate it could take 10 years just to re­build it again. But it also de­pends on the funds and the plans.”

The Unesco project is to put a fence around Nim­rud to pro­tect it and to pro­vide some sort of pro­tec­tion for guides and ar­chae­ol­o­gists who will work there. The fenc­ing of Nim­rud is be­ing car­ried out un­der a con­ser­va­tion project funded by the govern­ment of Ja­pan.

Salih says a num­ber of peo­ple are be­ing trained in the Iraqi In­sti­tute for Con­ser­va­tion of An­tiq­ui­ties and Her­itage in Erbil for re­con­struc­tion and restora­tion work. She hopes work will start soon.

“Daesh de­stroyed a lot of her­itage build­ings,” she says. “I have a lot to do in the fu­ture.”


A sol­dier stands guard by the ru­ins of the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal site of Nim­rud, which was re­cap­tured from Is­lamic State in Novem­ber.

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