Nabu was the god of writing

A Cambridge archaeologist, Augusta McMahon, tells us more about Nimrud and why it mattered.

Ancient Iraq is famous for many global “firsts” – Mesopotamia gave us the first writing, the first city, the first written law code, and the first empire.

The people of Iraq are justifiably proud of this ancient heritage and its innovations and impact on the world.

The first writing. This thing I’m doing now – it was invented by the Mesopotamians.

Trashing Nimrud, McMahon says, is trashing the Iraqi people.

Nimrud was the capital of the world’s first empire, the Neo-Assyrian Empire of the 1st millennium BC.

Lying 35km (22 miles) south of the modern city of Mosul in north Iraq, Nimrud covers some 3.5 sq km (1.35 sq miles), with a prominent “citadel” mound within the city walls, on which are clustered the main administrative and religious buildings.

These buildings include the enormous palaces of several Assyrian kings and the temples of Ninurta, the god of war, and of Nabu, the god of writing.

They had a god of writing.

The Palace of Ashurnasirpal, also known as the North-West Palace, was first excavated by the British explorer Austen Henry Layard in the 1840s. His excavations are the source of the winged bull gatekeeper statues currently displayed in the British Museum.

Layard also recovered large numbers of stone panels that lined the walls of rooms and courtyards within the palace. These panels are of a local limestone, carved in low relief with beautifully detailed scenes of the king seated at state banquets, hunting lions, or engaged in warfare and religious ritual.

Extended excavations at Nimrud were next carried out in the 1950s-60s by Max Mallowan, the husband of crime writer Agatha Christie.

Mallowan and his team reconstructed the complex plans of the palace, temples and citadel, and his excavations recovered rich finds of carved ivory furniture, stone jars and metalwork, as well as hundreds of additional wall reliefs and wall paintings.

Remember back in December when some Greenpeace activists stomped on the Nazca lines in Peru? I was very pissed off about that, too, and they didn’t even do it out of deliberate malice. Destroying ancient artifacts is a terrible thing to do.

Large parts of Ashurnasirpal’s palace were reconstructed by Iraq’s antiquities board during the 1970s and 1980s, including the restoration and re-installation of carved stone reliefs lining the walls of many rooms.

The winged bull statues that guard the entrances to the most important rooms and courtyards were re-erected.

These winged bulls are among the most dramatic and easily recognised symbols of the Assyrian world.

They combine the most highly valued attributes of figures from nature into a complex hybrid form: a human head for wisdom, the body of a wild bull for physical power, and the wings of an eagle for the ability to soar high and far and to see and prevent evil.

The Iraqi restoration project also led to the dramatic discovery of several tombs of the queens of the Assyrian empire. These tombs contained astonishingly rich finds of delicate gold jewellery and crowns, enamel ornaments, bronze and gold bowls, and ivory vessels.

The technical skill and aesthetic sense of the artisans responsible are unrivalled in the ancient world.

So it’s too bad that Daesh saw fit to smash it all. Really too bad.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    They’re doing all they can to provoke a western/US intervention and spread their war wider.

  2. lorn says

    Hopefully the outrage of Muslims at the current manifestation of their religion, and the established requirement to try to emulate a child-raping, slave holding, murderer, will be the equivalent of the outrage Martin Luther felt. Hopefully this will trigger a reformation of Islam. We may be seeing the first spark of a new reform Islam, a religion that recognizes that Mohammed was a only a man and not a suitable exemplar of all humanity should aspire to.

    This would be a shift toward how Americans think of Jefferson, he was a founding father, brave and noble in some ways, but also a philanderer, a slaveholder, a spendthrift, and chronically in debt. We applaud his strengths and lament his weaknesses. His weaknesses and internal contradictions, in some ways, make the contributions even more remarkable because we make progress despite our brokenness.

  3. wsierichs says

    Bitterly angry about this, as I’m a longtime lover of history. While ISIL’s murder of people is worse, in overall terms, the pointless destruction of such incredible examples of human artistry, creativity and civilization is just sickening.
    As a technical point, Egyptologists would say the jury is still out on who had writing first, Mesopotamians or Egyptians. Probably both came up with it independently. Egypt’s god of writing was Thoth. I’ve seen some of Egypt’s Bronze Age ruins. Now I wish I’d found an opportunity to somehow visit the Mesopotamian ones (not financially possible, unfortunately, and would be reluctant to risk myself in Saddam’s police-state). I just keep hoping a lot of the most-important items are in Western museums.

  4. Robert, not Bob says

    This is typical Islamist behavior. Remember the Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, the Timbuktu tombs and records, and all those old buildings in Mecca.

    One can hope that ISIS will shake many Muslims’ romantic visions of Islamic paradise, but I’m sure most Muslims will just say “That’s not MY Islam, no” and go on as usual. And why stop with reformist Islam? I’m hoping it’s the small beginning of the unraveling of Islam itself!

  5. says

    Nabu, the god of writing. Were I to believe in a god, that would be the sort of god I might find appropriate.

    Thank you for highlighting this horrible cultural tragedy, Ophelia. It’s not getting much attention other than the odd story buried in a sidebar on or something.

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