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3,000 years ago, it ruled the Middle East, now blown to pieces

The chilly December wind whipped rain across the strewn wreckage of a city that, nearly 3,000 years ago, ruled almost the entire Middle East. Rivulets of water ran through the dirt, washing away chunks of ancient stone.

3,000 years ago, it ruled the Mideast, now blown to pieces
Carved stone slabs that were destroyed by Islamic State group militants are seen at the ancient site of Nimrud some 19 miles 
(30 kilometers) southeast of Mosul, Iraq in this Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2016 file photo. Militants blew up and hacked apart 
much of the nearly 3,000-year-old city’s remains in 2015, destroying one of the Mideast’s most important archaeological 
sites. More than a month after the extremists were driven out, the site is still in danger, with the wreckage unprotected 
and vulnerable to being stolen [Credit: AP/Hussein Malla]
The city of Nimrud in northern Iraq is in pieces, victim of the Islamic State group's fervor to erase history. The remains of its palaces and temples, once lined in brilliant reliefs of gods and kings, have been blown up. The statues of winged bulls that once guarded the site are hacked to bits. Its towering ziggurat, or step pyramid, has been bulldozed.

The militants' fanaticism devastated one of the Middle East's most important archaeological sites. But more than a month after the militants were driven out, Nimrud is still being ravaged, its treasures disappearing, imperiling any chance of eventually rebuilding it, an Associated Press team found after multiple visits in the past month.

With the government and military still absorbed in fighting the war against the Islamic State group in nearby Mosul, the wreckage of the Assyrian Empire's ancient capital lies unprotected and vulnerable to looters.

"When I heard about Nimrud, my heart wept before my eyes did," said Hiba Hazim Hamad, an archaeology professor in Mosul who often took her students there.

3,000 years ago, it ruled the Mideast, now blown to pieces
A fragment of an Assyrian-era relief shows the image of a genie holding a pine cone at the ancient site of Nimrud that was 
destroyed by Islamic State group militants near Mosul, Iraq. in this Nov. 28, 2016 photo. In the 9th and 8th centuries BC, 
Nimrud was the capital of the Assyrian Empire, which burst out of Northern Mesopotamia to conquer much of the Mideast. 
The remains of its palaces, reliefs and temples were methodically blown up and torn to pieces by the Islamic State group
 in early 2015 in its campaign to erase history [Credit: AP/Maya Alleruzzo]
In three of the AP's four visits, its team wandered the ruins alone freely for up to an hour before anyone arrived. No one is assigned to guard the site, much less catalog the fragments.

Toppled stone slabs bearing a relief that the AP saw on one visit were gone when it returned.

Perhaps the only vigilant guardian left is an Iraqi archaeologist, Layla Salih. She has visited multiple times, photographing the wreckage to document it and badgering militias to watch over it. Walking through the ruins on a rainy winter day, she pointed out things that were no longer in place.

Still, Salih finds reasons for optimism.

"The good thing is the rubble is still in situ," she said. "The site is restorable."

3,000 years ago, it ruled the Mideast, now blown to pieces
A stone tablet with cuneiform writing is seen in the foreground as UNESCO's Iraq representative Louise Haxthausen 
documents the damage wreaked by the Islamic State group at the ancient site of Nimrud, Iraq on Dec. 14, 2016. One of 
the Mideast's most important archaeological sites, the nearly 3,000-year-old remains of an Assyrian capital had been 
 a trove of ancient Mesopotamian art and, with hundreds of clay tablets, provided archaeologists a wealth 
of information on the era [Credit: AP/Maya Alleruzzo]
To an untrained eye, that's hard to imagine, seeing the destruction caused by the Islamic State group. Salih estimated 60 percent of the site was irrecoverable.

The site's palaces and temples were spread over 360 hectares (900 acres) on a dirt plateau on the edge of the Tigris River valley.

A 140-foot-high ziggurat once arrested the gaze of anyone entering Nimrud. Now there is only lumpy earth. Archaeologists had never had a chance to explore the now-bulldozed structure.

Past it, in the palace of King Ashurnasirpal II, walls are toppled into giant piles of bricks. The palace's courtyard is a field of cratered earth. Pieces of the two monumental winged bulls are piled nearby - their heads missing, likely taken to be sold.

Off to the left are the flattened remains of the temple of Nabu, a god of writing. During a Dec. 14 UNESCO assessment tour, a U.N. demining expert peered at a hole leading to a seemingly intact tomb and warned that it could be rigged to explode.

3,000 years ago, it ruled the Mideast, now blown to pieces
Fragments of carved stone slabs which were destroyed by Islamic State group militants, at the ancient site 
of Nimrud, Iraq, are seen on Nov. 16, 2016 [Credit: AP/Hussein Malla]
From 879-709 BC, Nimrud was the capital of the Assyrians, one the ancient world's earliest empires. In modern excavations , the site yielded a wealth of Mesopotamian art. In the tombs of queens were found troves of gold and jewelry. Hundreds of written tablets deepened knowledge about the ancient Mideast.

Touring the site, UNESCO's representative to Iraq, Louise Haxthausen, called the destruction "absolutely devastating."

"The most important thing right now is to ensure some basic protection," she said.

But the government has many priorities. It is still fighting IS in Mosul, and the list of reconstruction needs is long.

Tens of thousands of citizens live in camps. Much of the city of Ramadi is destroyed. More than 70 mass graves have been unearthed in IS territory. Other ancient sites remain under IS control.

None of the various armed groups around Nimrud - whether the military or various militias - has been dedicated to guarding it.

3,000 years ago, it ruled the Mideast, now blown to pieces
Statues of the lamassu, the winged, human-headed bulls that stood at the gates of the palace and were believed to ward off 
evil in the ancient city of Nimrud, Iraq, are seen on Nov. 19, 2008. The bulls were destroyed by Islamic State militants
 in early 2015 as they razed the entire site [Credit: JoAnn S. Makinano/U.S. Army]
During the UNESCO tour, Salih noticed that some of the ancient bricks from the rubble had been neatly piled up as if to be hauled away - perhaps, she suspects, to repair homes damaged in fighting. Stone tiles at the palace entrance vanished from where she saw them last.

Two locals were arrested with a marble tablet and stone seal from Nimrud, presumably to sell. The men are in custody.

But it's unclear where the artifacts seized from them are.

The police insisted they were at a lab in the northern city of Irbil. The lab said it knew nothing about them. The Antiquities Ministry in Baghdad said they were safe in the Nineveh government offices. An official there said they were with the police awaiting transit to Baghdad.

That circle of confusion makes theft easy.

Salih is seeking international funding to pay someone to guard the site. But she recognizes the job will have to go to one of the militia factions, and she has no illusions they will provide full protection.

She'll have to cajole them into doing as much as they can.

"There isn't another choice, as you see," she said.

Author: Lori Hinnant | Source: The Associated Press [December 31, 2016]

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