Nimrud, Iraq: In a field outside an ancient palace in the Assyrian city of Nimrud, shattered remains of intricate carvings lie broken in the dust.
Remnants of elaborate wall panels and colossal statues of winged bulls, they stood at the site for nearly three millennia, reminders of a mighty empire which stretched across the Middle East.
At the northern edge of the old city, a ziggurat – or terraced pyramid – towered over the palace and nearby temples.
Until two years ago, when ISIS militants swept through northern Iraq, ransacking ancient cities, religious sites and palaces which the ultra-hardline Sunni Muslim zealots deem idolatrous.
The ziggurat has been reduced to a pile of dirt, with tyre tracks all over it, apparently flattened by bulldozers in the last two months before ISIS fighters were driven out of the site by Iraqi forces on Sunday.
Palace walls have been stripped of the carved facades which adorned them. Just a few pieces remain in place, while fragments of the winged bulls – or lamassus – which stood at one of the palace entrances lie in a pile outside.
Carefully engraved feathers can still be seen on one of them, lying close to what appears to be a foot of one of the mythical carved creatures. Several tablet fragments seem to contain symbols from cuneiform, an ancient Semitic language.
“There were about 200 ancient panels. Daesh (ISIS) stole some of them and destroyed the rest,” Major-General Dhiya Kadhim al-Saidi told Reuters on a visit to the site on Wednesday, three days after it was recaptured.
A tribal fighter from the area said the ziggurat had been destroyed by the militants in the last two months as the Iraqi army advanced towards Nimrud, confirming evidence from satellite pictures which showed its steady destruction since September.
Video released by ISIS supporters in 2014, purporting to show them at work in Nimrud, included footage of the militants using bulldozers and electric drills to tear down murals and statues. They also rigged up barrels full of explosives which they appeared to detonate at the site.
Saidi said ISIS had been driven about 3.5 km (two miles) northwest of Nimrud, but the area had not yet been cleared of possible bombs and booby traps.
Path of destruction
Nimrud lies on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, 30 km (20 miles) south of Mosul where Iraqi soldiers are battling to crush ISIS. Mosul is the largest city under the militants’ control in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.
The campaign to retake it, which began on October 17, is the biggest military operation in Iraq in more than a decade of turmoil unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Counter-terrorism forces breached ISIS defences in the east of Mosul two weeks ago but have faced resistance from the militants who have deployed suicide car bombs, snipers and waves of counter-attacks.
ISIS still controls other Assyrian landmarks including the ruins of Nineveh and Khorsabad, as well as the 2,000-year-old desert city of Hatra, famed for its pillared temple which blended Graeco-Roman and eastern architecture.
The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO has condemned the destruction at Nimrud as a war crime and an attack on the world’s shared heritage, pointing to ancient Mesopotamia’s role as a cradle of civilisation where early urban centres flourished and cuneiform writing on clay was developed.
In neighbouring Syria, ISIS was driven out of the city of Palmyra eight months ago, after dynamiting monuments including two temples and Palmyra’s imposing triumphal arch.
The Iraqi army used drones earlier in the week to monitor the Nimrud site after retaking it from ISIS.
The antiquities authority says it is still working to set up field teams to assess the damage, but says it hopes some of the ruins can be salvaged.
“Despite the massive destruction to the ancient city, and the loss of the architectural intricacies of the palaces and temples and the ziggurat, we trust that we can restore and renovate what was destroyed and bring back to life this outstanding archaeological site,” deputy culture minister Qais Hussain Rasheed said.