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The ziggurat of Nimrud seen in the upper left-hand corner of satellite images from late August, early October, mid October, and early November (gif by the author from photos courtesy American Schools of Oriental Research Cultural Heritage Initiatives, DigitalGlobe, via Facebook)

The ziggurat of Nimrud, a 2,900-year-old structure that once supported a large temple and stood about 140 feet tall as recently as August 31, has been leveled, presumably by ISIS, which controlled the site from March 2015 until recently. Recent DigitalGlobe satellite images released by the American Schools of Oriental Research’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives (ASOR CHI) show the historic, mud brick structure seemingly intact in late August, partially truncated on October 2, and largely flattened on October 16 and November 4.

“The Nimrud ziggurat was apparently bulldozed and pushed into the ancient bed of the Tigris river,” British Institute for the Study of Iraq President John Curtis told the Art Newspaper. Iraqi sources had told Curtis of the ziggurat’s destruction in early September, but it was only confirmed last week with the release of the satellite images.

“There are multiple reasons why ISIL militants may have destroyed the ziggurat, and the group has destroyed other monuments at the site as performative deliberate destructions, such as the reconstructed Northwest Palace and the Nabu Temple (the Ezida),” ASOR CHI said in a statement. “The ziggurat mound is the highest point in the nearby landscape, making it an ideal defensive position for encroaching forces. However, the archaeological site is located in a remote area far from strategic points. Alternatively, like the Northwest Palace and the Nabu Temple at Nimrud, the attack could have served a dual purpose: intentional destruction for the composition of future propaganda and retributory violence to demoralize local populations and goad invading military forces. ISIL militants could also have been searching for antiquities in the mound.”

The ziggurat was built by Shalmaneser III (858–824 BCE), whose father Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BCE) made Nimrud (then known as Kalhu) the capital of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. Its base was originally 200 feet by 200 feet, though subsequent rulers added to it and to the temple that sat atop it. British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard has originally excavated the site in the mid 19th century.

“You’d have to be pretty naïve to loot a ziggurat,” Michael Danti, the academic director of ASOR CHI, told National Geographic. “We’re seeing a lot of really peculiar activity like this in Islamic State-held territory.”

Members of the Provincial Reconstruction Team and UNESCO representatives visit Nimrud, whose ziggurat looms in the distance, in 2008. (photo by Staff Sgt. JoAnn Makinano, via Wikimedia Commons)

Nimrud, which is about 23 miles south of Mosul, was recently retaken from ISIS. The terrorist group laid waste to several other historic structures and artifacts at the site, as documented in videos it released in April 2015, including the ruins of the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, which was built around 879 BCE and sat right alongside the ziggurat. The ziggurat’s stepped, pyramidal can be seen in the distance in a 2008 photo of Nimrud, taken when UNESCO representatives were visiting the prospective World Heritage site — it remains listed as a “tentative” site.

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy Sherman, and other divisive issues have...