In Northern Iraq, ISIS Leaves Behind An Archaeological Treasure In Ruins

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Archaeologist Layla Salih looks around the ancient site of Nimrud, in northern Iraq, outside Mosul. The Islamic State captured the area in 2014 and destroyed many of its archaeological treasures that date back 3,000 years. The extremist group was recently driven out of Nimrud, allowing Salih and others to come back and survey the extensive damage.

When archaeologist Layla Salih was a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Mosul, Iraq, she visited the ancient site of Nimrud for the first time on a field trip, led by a guide past the remnants of temples and roads to the ancient palace of Ashurnasirpal II.

The king of the Assyrian empire, he built his palace at Nimrud almost three millennia ago. Enough of the cuneiform inscriptions, carved stone friezes and sculptures were left that it had been reconstructed throughout the 20th century by Iraqi and international archaeologists, and later by the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage, as a kind of on-site museum, where visitors could really imagine the stately building on a hill.

"It was exciting, really," Salih said. She recalled a great pair of sculptures guarding the gate – the mythical beast called a lamassu with the face of a man, body of a bull and the wings of an eagle.

"It was very important to put them at the gates," she explained recently, "to drive away evil spirits from the city."

That visit 25 years ago was the beginning of a long relationship with the site and with the rich archaeological history of the Nineveh plain, in which Mosul is the main city. Salih went on to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology from the University of Mosul, and was part of the team that maintained the Nimrud site.

Then, in 2014, the Islamic State surged through Iraq, taking nearly a third of the country's territory, along with several ancient sites, including Nimrud, which is about 20 miles southeast of Mosul. They smashed and blew up Ashurnasirpal II's palace.

Salih, who later worked with the state board of antiquities, had not seen the site since 2014. But she had, like millions, seen the videos the extremists made of their henchmen attacking the masonry and sculptures, deeming them heretical.

Last week, the Iraqi army retook Nimrud from the extremists, part of a push by an assortment of Iraqi security forces to dislodge ISIS from Mosul and surrounding areas. So Salih returned to see the site for herself.

"I cannot guess my reaction," she said nervously beforehand.

The journey involved waiting for military permissions from different branches of Iraq's diverse forces, but eventually, on arrival at an improvised army base in a village, a local man offered to show the way.

The car wound through scrubland and then up a hill to the site, once the citadel, where the ruins of temples stick out of dusty ground. It was windswept and totally deserted.

In front of the grand entrance to what archaeologists call the northwest palace, built with thick walls around a central courtyard, was a grim pile of chunks of the lamassu statues that Salih saw on her school trip all those years ago.

"I try to keep my tears," She said, but she was weeping too much to speak. "So sad — yeah — speechless."

Ancient tablets with cuneiform writing lie around in pieces. The entrance to the palace is blocked with rubble, with tiny pieces of ancient inscription mixed up in it. A climb to the top of the walls reveals a courtyard strewn with wreckage.

The pride of the palace used to be a stone frieze of the Assyrian figures known as winged genies. On a visit in 2010 I, too, marveled at the ancient carvings, which dwarfed me. Now they are all but destroyed.

And despite numerous international initiatives and conferences on emergency heritage management, despite regular statements by Iraqi officials about the importance of the country's ancient heritage, no soldier is guarding the site. Not so much as a local tribesman.

"I call on security forces to come here," said an outraged Salih. "It could be looted."

Although the site is historically Assyrian, it is not just Iraq's small, Assyrian minority that sees it as part of its history. Iraqis often cite Nimrud as a source of national pride, part of the long history of the land once known as Mesopotamia.

"Of course, it's a part of their culture and heritage," said Salih indignantly. "So I cannot imagine their feeling if they see this destruction."

The army says they do plan to put soldiers at the site, but have not done so yet.

As she walked around the site, stepping gingerly over the abandoned piles of stone, Salih stopped crying and her face assumed a determined expression.

"Actually, I was scared about the site, but now we can do something here," she said. "We can salvage the site – to do some first aid for the structure and Assyrian reliefs here."

No one knows when that might start. The British Museum is leading a project to train Iraqi archaeologists in emergency management.

"All the area which has been under ISIS control will need to be inspected and assessed," said John MacGinnis, the archaeologist who leads the project.

But MacGinnis said for that to begin, the area has to be secure. And at Nimrud, ISIS is still within mortar range. The sounds of fighting nearby echo every day around the ruins.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

A previous Web version of this story incorrectly stated that Layla Salih's first visit to Nimrud was 15 years ago. In fact, it was 25 years ago.