Archaeologists in Iraq say they have made an unexpected discovery under a site destroyed by Islamic State traditionally thought to hold the tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah.
Under a mound covering the ancient city of Nineveh, beneath a shrine destroyed by IS, they found a previously undiscovered palace built in the seventh century BCE for the Biblical Assyrian King Sennacherib and renovated by his son Esarhaddon.
The Nabi Younus shrine in Mosul — which was built on the reputed burial site of a prophet known in the Koran as Yunus and in the Bible as Jonah — was a popular pilgrimage site.
In July 2014, weeks after overrunning Mosul and much of Iraq’s Sunni Arab heartland, IS militants rigged the shrine and blew it up, sparking global outrage.
In mid-January, Iraqi troops in Nineveh liberated the site.
“(It is) far more damaged than we expected,” Culture Minister Salim Khalaf said.
But IS also dug tunnels beneath the shrine searching for artifacts to plunder.
Iraqi archaeologist Layla Salih told Britain’s Daily Telegraph that in the tunnels she discovered a “marble cuneiform inscription of King Esarhaddon thought to date back to the Assyrian empire in 672 BCE.”
Although Esarhaddon’s name does not appear, the king is described in terms that were only used to refer to him, referencing his rebuilding of Babylon after his father’s death.
Chapters 18 and 19 of the biblical book of II Kings describe Sennacherib’s unsuccessful attempt to conquer Jerusalem. Upon his return to his palace he was murdered by two of his sons, who then fled, leaving Esarhaddon to take over the kingdom.
“And it came to pass, as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that Adrammelech and Sarezer his sons smote him with the sword; and they escaped into the land of Ararat. And Esarhaddon his son reigned in his stead,” reads verse 19:37 in Kings II.
Eleanor Robson, head of the British Institute for the Study of Iraq, said the terror group’s destruction had opened the way to a “fantastic find.”
“The objects don’t match descriptions of what we thought was down there,” she said, according to a Telegraph report. “There’s a huge amount of history down there, not just ornamental stones. It is an opportunity to finally map the treasure-house of the world’s first great empire, from the period of its greatest success.”
However, IS plundered many of the items that were in the palace. Khalaf estimated that more than 700 items have been looted from the site to be sale on the black market.
Searching for lost treasures
Iraq is turning to Interpol and other world agencies to track down the lost treasures. Under UN Security Council resolution 2199, all trade in cultural artifacts from Iraq and Syria is illegal.
“We believe they took many of the artifacts, such as pottery and smaller pieces, away to sell. But what they left will be studied and will add a lot to our knowledge of the period,” she said.
However, she also warned that the tunnels were not built professionally and were at risk of collapse within weeks.
The city of Mosul is intertwined with human history, tracing its roots to 4,400 years ago when civilization rose in fabled, fertile Mesopotamia.
Today, as Iraqi forces backed by an international coalition inch forward in their fight to recover Mosul from the Islamic State (IS) group, historians are looking at how to save, repair or retrieve precious heritage after the jihadists’ three-year reign.
At a meeting in Paris last week, Iraqi officials and dozens of experts from around the world agreed to coordinate efforts to restore Iraq’s cultural treasure.
But, they admitted, the road ahead will be hard and long.
“The main challenge is for Iraqis to deal with this task by themselves. It is important to empower the people,” said Stefan Simon, director of global cultural heritage initiatives at Yale university.
“It is a heartbreaking situation,” he added. “Rehabilitation will take a very long time. They need patience. ”
In 2014, at the zenith of IS’ self-declared “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq, more than 4,000 Iraqi archaeological sites were under the heel of the Sunni fanatics.
In the Mosul region alone in northern Iraq, “at least 66 sites were destroyed, some were turned into parking lots, Muslim and Christian places of worship suffered massive destruction and thousands of manuscripts disappeared,” Iraq’s deputy minister for culture, Qais Rashid, said at the conference, hosted by UNESCO.
The most grievous blow has been suffered by the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, believed to be named after the biblical hunter Nimrod.
Eighty percent of the site has been destroyed, by jihadists driving bulldozers and detonating explosives.
Nineveh, once the largest city in the world, has been 70% destroyed.
As for Mosul itself, historians are quailing at the likely fate of the city’s museum, the second largest in Iraq and a treasure house of ancient artifacts.
After suffering looting during the 2003 Iraq War, the museum was on the point of reopening in 2014 when IS took over.
The jihadists immediately set about destroying objects from the Assyrian and Greek period, which they claimed promoted “idolatry.”
Grim discoveries by the Iraqi army in its advance towards the jihadists’ bastion of west Mosul have prompted some specialists to fear the worst.
“Daesh tried but will never erase our culture, identity, diversity, history and the pillars of civilization,” Iraqi Education Minister Mohammad Iqbal Omar said, referring to another name for IS.
France Desmarais, of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), a professional museum group, said there was a long and tragic history of trafficking in cultural objects from northern Iraq.
However, “successive wars in Iraq since 2003 have created additional opportunities” for the trade, Desmarais said.
The long-term needs of preserving Iraq’s ancient history are many. They start with securing and monitoring sites, drawing up an inventory of items that are safe or missing, restoring and digitizing manuscripts — a task that is dozens of years in the making, and with a bill to match.
But culture embodies universal values, and there is a deep well of goodwill for this venture.
“Culture implies more than just monuments and stones -– culture defines who we are,” says Unesco chief Irina Bokova.
That’s a point of view shared by Najeeb Michaeel, an Iraqi Dominican monk who saved hundreds of manuscripts from the 13th to 18th century, spiriting them to safety in Kurdistan just before IS began its destructive grip on the plain of Nineveh.
“We have to save both man and culture,” Michaeel said. “You cannot save the tree without saving its roots.”