Archaeologists, scholars, and art lovers reeled in horror this week when Iraq’s tourism and antiquities ministry confirmed that ISIS jihadis had bulldozed the ancient city of Nimrud in northern Iraq. The location, known as Calah or Kalhu in the Bible, was the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire, which flourished under King Ashurnasirpal II in the First Millennium BC.
From his imposing palace on the banks of the Tigris, guarded by statues of winged bulls with human heads, Ashurnasirpal received tribute from vassal states and oversaw ruthless military campaigns that extended his rule from the Mediterranean throughout Asia Minor.
His private apartments and throne room were decorated with elaborate, brightly-painted bas-reliefs, carved into large slabs of gypsum and alabaster, which depicted the king’s wars and his hunts, his lavish feasts, and sacred rituals performed by palace eunuchs.
Many of the artworks and cuneiform tablets from Nimrud and nearby Nineveh—both excavated by the swashbuckling Austen Henry Layard in the mid 19th-century—ended up in the British Museum or New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. However, many antiquities remained at the original site, and the Iraqi government reconstructed the palace grounds several decades ago, according to The Guardian. Those ruins are all now presumably lost to history, a casualty of ISIS’s thirst for annihilation.
Before ISIS’s razing of Nimrud, the Met had created a stunning 3-D tour of the northwest palace, to show Ashurnasirpal’s stronghold in all its glory.
In the video, we float through the palace’s labyrinthine courtyards and private spaces, past the winged bulls (magnificent and strange, even in digital reconstruction), into the shadowy throne room.
Here, the walls are lined with images of Ashurnasirpal’s military campaigns. He was not kind to those who resisted his rule; according to inscriptions, he decapitated prisoners, burned children alive, and cut off the hands, feet, ears and noses of the conquered.
How ironic, then, that his beautiful palace has fallen prey to men swaggeringly proud to match that ancient cruelty.