Nimrud liberators find harsh evidence of ISIL’s fanaticism

Residents say extremists stepped up their dynamiting of the famed Assyrian ruins as the Iraqi army approached.

The gates of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud in northern Iraq after ISIL destroyed the winged Lamassu statues that once guarded the entrance. Florian Neuhof for The National / November 16, 2016
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NIMRUD, Iraq // On a mount rising from the Nineveh plains near Mosul, where testaments to Iraq’s rich history stood proudly for almost three millennia, all that remains now are heaps of stones.

For the soldiers who liberated the archaeological site of Nimrud from ISIL on Sunday, the elation of victory was soon replaced by despair at the loss to their country’s heritage.

“It feels like I am being choked,” said Capt Taher Hakem as he stood on the barren plateau that was once the capital of the Assyrian empire that ruled large parts of the Middle East.

The destruction of Nimrud began not long after it was seized by ISIL in 2014, as the militants set out to demolish anything they deemed contrary to their extremist interpretation of Islam. According to residents of the village of Nimrud, which stands at the foot of the mount, this destruction intensified in recent weeks as the Iraqi army pushed forward in its offensive to liberate Mosul – ISIL’s final stronghold in Iraq.

Regarding them as idolatrous, the extremists blew up a pair of Lamassu – statues of Assyrian protective deities – that guarded the gates of the nearly 3,000-year-old palace of Ashurnasirpal II. A pile of rocks a few feet from the entrance was all that was left of another statue, exquisite engravings still visible on some of their surfaces.

The site of the palace, also known as the Northwest Palace, was delineated by the piles of rubble. A ziggurat built by Ashurnasirpal II in the 9th century BC that had remained visible as an earthen pyramid behind the palace was bulldozed by ISIL last year. The Temple of Nabu, the Assyrian god of writing and the arts, was demolished earlier this year.

“What you see here says more than words,” said Capt Hakem as he gestured at the scene of destruction.

His commanding officer was furious.

“They are not part of humanity. We do not have words to describe them. Monsters?” said Maj Gen Diar Kadoun Saadi, who led the force that liberated Nimrud.

In April 2015, ISIL released a video showing its members using sledgehammers and explosives to remove all traces of Nimrud’s glorious past. The video also showed militants bursting into Mosul museum to smash artefacts from Nimrud on display there.

“Whenever we take control of a piece of land, we remove the symbols of polytheism and spread monotheism in it,” a militant tells the camera.

The destruction at Nimrud and the subsequent release of the video were not just acts of blind fanaticism, but also a calculated attempt to boost ISIL’s appeal and fear factor, experts say.

“These were intentional destructions carried out for propagandistic purposes – to promote the ISIL brand internationally – and as a form of psychological warfare,” said Michael Danti, an archaeologist and assistant professor at Boston University.

Having levelled all the historical remains, ISIL did not bother putting up much of a fight. The insurgents launched a suicide car bomb at the approaching army, which was destroyed by the Iraqis, while a coalition air strike put an end to a mortar position. Five militants were taken prisoner after a brief skirmish, said Capt Hakem.

Retreating on all fronts as the noose tightens around Mosul, ISIL is still only four kilometres away from Nimrud, but will soon be pushed back further, said Maj Gen Saadi. Nimrud was part of a small salient that remained in ISIL hands while the 9th Armoured Division, responsible for retaking this sector of the front, had already entered Mosul to the south-west.

Residents of Nimrud village said that in the weeks preceding its liberation, explosions once again echoed from the mount. According to Omar Mahmoud, 12, the blasts were so powerful that the militants told villagers to open the windows of their homes to prevent them from being shattered.

The community was in grief over the loss of the historical treasure in their midst. Before ISIL, Nimrud was a magnet for those with an interest in archaeology, and children were taught the significance of the ruins at school.

“It was not just a place for the locals. People from all over Iraq, from all over the world came to see it,” said Sheikh Khalid Sabah, the head of a militia group composed of men from the area. The sheikh and his men fled when ISIL took control of the area, but is now helping the military secure Nimrud and its surroundings.

Sheikh Sabah visited the site many times before its destruction, and said he cried when he saw video released by ISIL in April last year. He cried again when he saw the site with his own eyes following its liberation.

Fortunately, the layers of civilisation at Nimrud are too manifold to be completely eradicated by ISIL.

“The archaeological deposits at the site are quite deep – the site has many major stratigraphic levels – and Nimrud covers an enormous area. Only a small percentage of the site has been excavated. We hope new parts of the site will be explored through excavation,” said Prof Danti.