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.