Looting and destruction in Iraq and Syria

Aline Tenu
CNRS, Nanterre, France

March 20, 2015

Two weeks ago, terrible pictures of the destruction committed by DAESH in the Mosul Museum and on the archaeological site of Nineveh were broadcast on every TV channel. A few days later, the Iraqi Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities reported that DAESH had bulldozed the site of Kalhu, modern Nimrud. At first light on 7th March, DAESH destroyed ruins at the ancient city of Hatra. On March 9th the Ministry was informed that Khorsabad might have been destroyed as well. These tragic acts perpetrated by DAESH reveal an attempt at ‘cleansing’ Iraq’s cultural and historical heritage. The news is all the more shocking since Nineveh, Kalhu, Khorsabad and Hatra are among the most important sites in Iraq.

Nineveh is a very old city, inhabited already in the 7th Millennium BC. As early as the 3rd Millennium BC a temple devoted to Ištar, goddess of sexual love and warfare, was built. By the end of the 8th century BC, the city was chosen by Sennacherib (705–681 BC), king of Assyria, to be capital of the huge empire he had inherited from his father, Sargon II (721–705 BC). Sennacherib significantly reshaped the city. He erected a new rampart to protect the lower town. It stretched 12 km in length and, according to Sennacherib’s own inscriptions, reached 25 m in height. The city wall was fitted with 15 gateways. The Nergal gate, situated to the North, was excavated in the mid-19th century by Austen Henry Layard, who introduced his description of the gate as follows: “This gateway facing the open country was formed by a pair of majestic human-headed bulls, fourteen feet in length, and still entire though cracked and injured by fire” (Layard, Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon, 1853, p. 120) (Fig. 1). Already weakened by the fire endured by the city when the Medes conquered it in 612 BC, the human-headed bulls (lamassu in Akkadian) have now been destroyed by DAESH militants.

In his book, Layard compared the human-headed bulls with the ones already excavated in Nimrud and Khorsabad. Khorsabad (ancient Dur-Sharrukin) was a new city erected by Sennacherib’s father, Sargon II, between 717 and 706. The palace was first excavated by a French consul, Paul-Emile Botta, in 1843–1844. It measures more than 10 ha, comprises about 300 rooms and was decorated with more than 2 km of bas-reliefs. For his palace Sargon II made the tallest lamassu ever, nearly 6 m high! It is not completely certain, but the bull destroyed in the Mosul Museum could be one of these.

Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) was also a new city founded by an Assyrian king, Shalmanaser I (1264–1233 B.C.), who, however, remained in his old capital, Aššur (modern Qalat Shergat). More than three centuries later Assurnasirpal II (883–859 BC) installed his court at Shalmaneser’s city. He built there a new palace and two temples, one devoted to Ištar and another to the warrior god Ninurta. A ziggurat dedicated to Ninurta was erected close to the palace. Most of the pictures that show the palace have been taken from the ziggurat, which is still more the 40 m high (Fig. 2). The palace (ca. 200 m x 120 m) is the most impressive structure still visible on the site. The entry was protected by lamassus and the walls were still adorned with bas-reliefs. This building was discovered by Layard on his very first day of excavation at the site. In the 20th century, archeological excavations revealed other palaces, other temples, dwelling quarters and a huge arsenal erected by Assurnasirpal’s son, Shalmaneser III (859–824). The latter is still clearly identifiable on satellite images.

For the time being it is still very difficult to get a reliable assessment of the extent of the destruction done by DAESH, but the lamassus are among the most well-known features of Ancient Mesopotamia. They are represented on Iraqi banknotes, and they attract many visitors where they are displayed in Paris, Berlin, London and Chicago.

Unfortunately, the ancient cities of Iraq are not the only ones to suffer such destruction. In Syria DAESH militants also deliberately crushed statues and bas-reliefs, for instance in Tell Ajaja, a small city located in the Habur Valley. The situation of the Syrian sites is thus less spectacular, but no less serious. Numerous sites have been systematically looted because DAESH sells antiquities on the black market to finance their operations. Looting is done with picks and shovels, but also with bulldozers. Objects are sold, and their primary context is lost for ever. We will never know if they were in a palace, in a temple, in a house … Moreover, mudbricks used in buildings in Mesopotamia quickly decay once exposed and bulldozers go through them easily. In addition, current archaeological research now pays great attention to the archaeo-botanical or archaeo-zoological remains, which convey valuable information about the ancient environment, agricultural practices or hunted species for instance. Such data are necessary to complete what we learn from the texts and from archaeological artefacts (pottery, jewels, figurines, tools, weapons and so on).

While archaeological research began in 1842 with the excavations of Nineveh, Dur-Sharrukin (Khorsabad) and Kalhu (Nimrud), the sites are not well known. Those cities were so big, and in two cases occupied for such a long time, that the excavations reached only the surface levels and limited areas of the settlement (Nineveh is about 775 ha!). For example, the palace of Sennacherib’s son Assurbanipal in Nineveh is barely known… Plundering and vandalism cause irremediable damage because these still largely unexplored Mesopotamian sites are part of the common legacy of humanity.


Drawing of a winged bull and attendant by F.C. Cooper probably showing the sculptures of the Nergal Gate (A. H. Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, 1853, pl. 3).
Drawing of a winged bull and attendant by F.C. Cooper probably showing the sculptures of the Nergal Gate (A. H. Layard, A Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh, 1853, pl. 3).

Fig. 1


North-West Palace built by Assurnasirpal, seen from the ziggurat dedicated to Nergal (photo by the author, Spring 2002)
North-West Palace built by Assurnasirpal, seen from the ziggurat dedicated to Nergal (photo by the author, Spring 2002)

Fig. 2