Members of ISIS have destroyed two large gates in Iraq’s ancient city of Nineveh, which once served as the capital of the Neo-Assyrian empire. Recently released satellite imagery, according to National Geographic, reveal the ruins of the Adad Gate; Michael Danti, co-director of the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiative (CHI) and archaeology professor at Boston University, last week confirmed the destruction of the Mashki Gates based on photographic evidence obtained from “trusted sources” in Mosul, who also verified their legitimacy. The initiative is an international collaborative effort that works with the US State Department to document the conditions of heritage sites in Syria and Iraq.
An image shared exclusively on National Geographic reveals a backhoe crossing a flat landscape surrounded by a cloud of dust. While ISIS often uses explosives to blow up archaeological sites, it has been known to favor heavy construction equipment as well, so such a technique would align with the group’s past cultural crimes.
The gates are two of 15 built along the city wall around 700 BCE, but much of what ISIS destroyed was actually the result of restoration programs from the 1960s and ’70s, as University College London professor Eleanor Robson, chair of council of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, told Hyperallergic.
“The high mound on which the ‘wall’ sits is the real ancient wall, built by [king of Assyria] Sennacherib in c.702–690 BCE,” Robson said. “So whatever damage ISIS think they are doing, the damage is mostly (but not exclusively) to 20th-century buildings, not ancient ones. Well over 90% of the ancient remains are still covered in over 2,500 years of accumulated earth and remain safe for future generations of archaeologists and visitors to study and enjoy.
“Nevertheless, any destruction of the careful restoration and reconstruction work carried out by Iraqi archaeologists such as Tariq Madhloom and his colleagues is to be deplored— as is the terrible loss of life and suffering wreaked upon the people of Mosul and its neighborhood,” she continued.
Robson, who has visited Nineveh, describes the wall as being about 50 feet thick and 6.5 miles in length. Archaeologists have only excavated six of its gates and restored four — the Mashki and Adad Gates as well as the Nergal and Shamash Gates.
“All news media should think carefully about the manner in which they report attacks on cultural heritage, whether by ISIS or other perpetrators,” Robson said. “It is all too easy to unwittingly magnify their actions into a catastrophe, thereby giving them undue credit and power and further feeding their propaganda aims.”
Still, speaking over the phone, CHI Project Manager Allison Cuneo told Hyperallergic that the Nergal Gate did hold original statuary, of the same type that militants filmed themselves smashing in the Mosul Museum last February. Like those artworks, the sculptures at the Hatra archaeological site, and the many ancient sites in Palmyra, the works from the Nergal Gate are now lost forever.
Update, 5/5: This story has been edited to reflect newly released satellite imagery showing that ISIS had, in fact, demolished the Adad Gate, not the Nergal Gate, as National Geographic previously reported.