NIMRUD, Iraq – The palace of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king, had survived for three millennia before the Islamic State militants arrived and sacked the place with glee.
They smashed the statutes of winged creatures that had stood sentry at a gate, leaving them in a terrible, broken heap — a wing here, a foot there. They pulled down stone relief panels that once lined the palace walls, ripping them so crudely in places that the panels splintered, leaving a tantalizing but painful reminder of what was.
And the militants bulldozed Nimrud’s ziggurat, the mud-brick base of a once-soaring ancient temple, reducing it to a nondescript pile of dirt.
The bracing scale of the devastation in Nimrud has become fully apparent only in recent days, after Iraqi soldiers advancing on the northern city of Mosul recaptured the ancient site from Islamic State militants who took control of the area more than two years ago.
That the site was brutalized came as no surprise: The Islamic State had released a video last year showing jihadists smashing panels with sledgehammers, scooping up stones with bulldozers and rigging the site with explosive barrels that they detonated and filmed from multiple angles, as if they were teenagers memorializing their mastery of some cruel, extreme sport.
But as Iraqi forces have clawed back territory in Nimrud and other places — discovering mass graves and terrorized residents — the Islamic State occupation has been revealed, time and again, to be even more harrowing than it looked from afar.
Although antiquities experts have not yet visited Nimrud, they have seen pictures shared by soldiers and journalists. “The destruction was worse than we thought,” said Qais Hussein, the general director of the antiquities department at Iraq’s Ministry of Culture. He said that the leveling of the ziggurat came as a shock because satellite images seemed to show that the structure was still untouched.
He had instructed the security forces not to disturb the site, in the hopes that something — maybe the winged sentinels, known as lamassu — could be restored. But even so, “it’s a huge loss to Iraqi heritage,” he said. “It is history for all the world.”
Nimrud, the second capital of the kingdom of Assyria, was a UNESCO heritage site and was considered one of the most important archaeological finds in the world. When its destruction was revealed last year, it was seen as an alarming escalation of the Islamic State’s violent campaign against the region’s heritage as well as the legacy of its ancient civilizations, which the jihadists view as idolatrous.
For archaeologists and antiquities experts who have spent careers researching the region’s cultural treasures, the jihadist assault on heritage has only added to a spreading sense of despair. Over the past five years, war and political conflict in Syria, Egypt and other countries has led to widespread looting of archaeological sites, often with little attention or concern from state authorities.
Iraqi scholars have been grappling with loss for more than a decade, since the looting of Iraq’s national museum and other archaeological sites after the U.S.-led invasion of the country in 2003.
“I almost spent my whole life in the ancient sites of Mosul. These gangs didn’t only destroy my city, they have destroyed the dearest things to my heart,” said Amer Al-Jumaily, a professor who taught archaeology at Mosul University but fled after the Islamic State occupation and now works at the national museum in Baghdad.“Seeing the photos of Nimrud’s destruction, for me, was like seeing one of my sons dead,” he said. There was possibly worse to come, he said, expressing fears that artifacts in Mosul’s museum, which is still under the Islamic State’s control, had been looted by the jihadists or destroyed .
Amid the despair, there were small graces. Many of Nimrud’s statues and sculptures are on display in museums overseas, including in New York. And the site’s greatest treasures — ivories and gold artifacts — were safely stored in the vaults of the Central Bank in Baghdad, according to Abdulameer al-Hamdani, an Iraqi archaeologist.
Most of the site had never been excavated, he said, stirring hope that there was still more waiting to be revealed, under layers of destruction.
Among the soldiers walking around the detritus of Nimrud on Wednesday were local militiamen, and for them, the ruins held special meaning: a place of beauty perched on a hill above the surrounding villages that drew visitors to this rural patch and even a few jobs. Sheik Khalid al-Jabbouri, a local commander, said he wept when he first saw the Islamic State videos of Nimrud’s destruction. His father had worked at the site decades ago, and Jabbouri narrated the features of the palace — its grand hall, the library, its wells — like a seasoned guide.
Maybe there was salvation in the portions of the site that had yet to be excavated, he said, but added: “It will be very hard to make it like it was.”
Aaso Ameen Shwan contributed to this report.