In March 2015, ISIS released a video depicting the demolition of one of the most important surviving monuments from the Assyrian empire, the palace of Ashurnasirpal in the ancient city of Nimrud.
As archaeologists, we are all too familiar with destruction. In fact, it is one of the key features of our work. One can only unearth ancient remains, buried long ago under their own debris and those of later times, once. It brings with it an obligation to properly record and make public what is being excavated. The documentation from Ashurnasirpal’s palace is generally disappointing. This is due to the palace mostly having been excavated in the early days of archaeology. Still, the resulting information is invaluable and will continue to allow us to answer new questions about the past.
Ashurnasirpal’s palace was constructed around 865 BCE during a period in which Assyria was slowly becoming the empire that would rule most of the Middle East two centuries later. The palace had probably been emptied by those who conquered the empire in 612 BCE and by those who reoccupied its remains thereafter. (This explains why its rooms were mostly devoid of precious objects.) It is the first known royal palace from the Assyrian Empire (little has survived from the centuries before), and is among the few Assyrian palaces to have been excavated (more or less) in its entirety. Measuring at least two hectares, it must have been one of the largest and most monumental buildings of its time. Though Nimrud itself is 180 times the size of the palace, and still mostly unexplored, the palace’s destruction is yet another blow to the cultural heritage of Iraq. It was without doubt one of the most important sites from that time in the world.
The palace was first excavated from 1847 onwards by Austen Henry Layard, with most finds ending up in the British Museum, which was just being constructed. Contrary to the later royal palaces, it used war scenes sporadically in the decoration of the palace, only using them in the throne-room and in the two reception rooms to its southwest. Hardly any of these reliefs remained in Nimrud, many were taken away during the reign of King Esarhaddon (680-669 BCE), when the palace no longer functioned as a royal residence, to be reused in his new palace. Most reliefs with war scenes were later shipped to the British Museum by Layard.
The other monumental rooms of the palace were decorated with apotropaic scenes that depicted different otherworldly creatures. The palace depicted a varied group of such figures, but most walls depicted only a single type. In order to limit the number of reliefs coming their way, the British Museum asked Layard not to send “duplicates”. Layard therefore started giving them away to people visiting his excavations. People continued to visit the site in the decades thereafter to take away reliefs for their own, and as a result, the palace’s reliefs ended up throughout the world. ISIS has now destroyed the last reliefs that remained in Nimrud.
The remaining contents of the palace were also taken away during excavations, with the valuable finds mostly ending up in museums in Iraq and England. Original items still remaining included architectural features, such as floors and drainage, and stone reliefs that had been deemed less valuable by European museums and collectors. The walls blown up by ISIS were mostly reconstructed during the past decades.
A sense of irony pervades the tragedy of the destruction. The Assyrians were renowned destroyers of cultural heritage themselves and masters in letting the world know about their deeds. They were highly skilled in the art of propaganda and used all the media available at the time. Their propaganda was so effective that the Assyrians have had a bad reputation throughout most of history.
ISIS uses propaganda as an art of misdirection. Overall it has been destroying less than it claims, and much more than the ones that have made headlines. To a considerable degree, ISIS was blowing up a reconstructed, excavated, and emptied palace. There should, however, be no doubt about the cultural and scientific value of what had remained. The damage is irreparable and heart breaking. The amount of destroyed heritage is only countered by the daunting potential for more damage. ISIS controls numerous archaeological sites of universal importance. Some of these are known to have been pillaged in order to profit from the illegal sale of antiquities. It is a problem that goes well beyond the area controlled by ISIS and one of which Europe is not always on the good side. Unsurprisingly, ISIS has been less eager to highlight how the art they say to despise is supporting them financially. Since sites can only be dug up once, looting forever robs us of the chance to learn about the past.
Headline image: Portal guardians mark the entrance to what once was the Northwest palace in the ancient city of Calah, which is now known as Nimrud, Iraq. Photo by Staff Sgt. JoAnn Makinano. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
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