Dust To Dust

How ISIS Reduced the Ancient World of Nimrud to Rubble

Video showing Isis destroying Nimrud, one of the world’s oldest antiquities, has surfaced. Fortunately, many of its objects still survive in museums.

04.14.15 9:15 AM ET

Statues topple over and shatter into pieces as men with massive power tools and heavy sledgehammers demolish some of the world’s oldest antiquities.

The dramatic video, which surfaced over the weekend, allegedly showed the destruction by Isis of the ancient city of Nimrud, in northern Iraq, which dated back to the 13th century BCE.

The video shows the vandals destroying all imagery that is deemed “offensive” or “unclean” in the toppled and shattered statues, wall friezes and other ancient artifacts.

“God has honored us in the Islamic State to remove all of these idols and statutes worshipped instead of Allah in the past days,” one militant says in the video, while another vows that “whenever we seize a piece of land, we will remove signs of idolatry and spread monotheism.”

Finally, heavy explosives send a cloud of dust high into the air: Nimrud, completely reduced to rubble.

Just a little over a month ago, Iraq’s tourism and antiquities ministry confirmed that the world had lost the 3,000-year-old UNESCO cultural site. The video is the proof.

The Art Newspaper considers it “the greatest single cultural loss since the Second World War,” while Irina Bokova, the director general of UNESCO, condemned “this mad, destructive act that accentuates the horror of the situation,” in a statement while equating the destruction to a war crime.

“It confirms that the terrorists are not only destroying representations of figures and bas-reliefs. With their hammers and explosives they are also obliterating the site itself, clearly determined to wipe out all traces of the history of Iraq’s people.”

Thankfully, the majority of the site’s most priceless relics had been extracted during initial excavations in 1845, and again in 1949. Now, some 76 museums around the world hold the last tangible pieces of Nimrud’s legacy.

Founded some three millennia ago, Nimrud, on the Tigris River about 18 miles south of Mosul, became a thriving civilization with grand palaces and temples while being ruled by King Ashurnasirpal II.

Throughout the capital, colossal winged bulls or lions with human heads guarded palace entryways. Many of these lamassu statues remained almost completely intact up until ISIS gained control.

As The Daily Beast’s Katie Baker described, Ashurnasirpal’s “private apartments and throne room were decorated with elaborate, brightly-painted bas-reliefs, carved into large slabs of gypsum and alabaster, which depicted the king’s wars and his hunts, his lavish feasts, and sacred rituals performed by palace eunuchs.”

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art holds smaller-scale examples of his palace guards in their collection of over 300 Nimrud artifacts, including relief panels and statues of various gods as well as everyday items like vases and jewelry.

Other institutions, including The British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris, have dedicated entire rooms to the ancient city.

While the majority of Nimrud’s past has been preserved, it isn’t the only major cultural site ISIS has attacked.

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When ISIS claimed control of Mosul in June 2014, they also gained access to the thousands of archaeological sites that were nearby—nearly 2,000 to be exact.

And ever since, the extremist rebel group has been on a crusade to purge them of all materials they find offensive or unclean. This includes the worship of idols through shrines or tombs as well as any form of polytheism.

Almost instantly, they began destroying artifacts and looting the rest. The profits they made from selling goods on the black market have become the terrorist group’s second-largest source of income, according to intelligence officials.

The amount has not been able to be confirmed, but experts know it’s happening at a massive scale.

ISIS heavily taxes and regulates every sale, which is not being combated by the United Nations Security Council and G-20 leaders by banning the trade of antiquities from Syria.

Within the last year dozens of landmark mosques, shrines, and other religious sites have been obliterated.

The Sunni Mosque of the Prophet Younis, for instance, was publicly demolished in front of a large crowd before the video was posted to social media. It is allegedly where the prophet Jonah (from the biblical tale of Jonah and the whale) was buried.

Then, in January of this year, militants invaded the largest literary repositories in Mosul, including the 265-year-old Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers. They removed or burned over 100,000 ancient manuscripts and books on topics from children’s stories and poetry to science and philosophy.

Only Islamic texts where allowed to stay. Some reported that the libraries themselves had been heavily damaged.

“This destruction marks a new phase in the cultural cleansing perpetrated in regions controlled by armed extremists in Iraq,” Bokova commented. “It adds to the systematic destruction of heritage and the persecution of minorities that seeks to wipe out the cultural diversity that is the soul of the Iraqi people.”

The attack was followed by a tirade through the Mosul Museum, where militants smashed almost every piece of artwork in sight. Many of them were identified as dating back to 7th century BCE.

Nimrud was only their latest and surely won’t be their last.

“This crude attempt to erase the heritage of an ancient civilization will ultimately fail,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in March. “No terrorist can rewrite history. And just as the United States stands with the Iraqi and Syrian people in their fight against brutality, we also recognize the need to preserve national treasures—a critical component of a unified society.”

Kerry added, “We urge all parties in Iraq and Syria and the international community to respect and protect archaeological, historic, religious, and cultural sites, including museums and archives, and to reaffirm that all those who destroy important cultural property must be held accountable. The United States is committed to defeating ISIL and to opposing such senseless acts.”