Reduced to rubble by ISIS, archaeologists see a new day for ancient city of Nimrud


JUDY WOODRUFF: The ISIS campaign of terror, murder and conquest has been well-documented, but the group has also used its particular interpretation of Islam to justify the destruction of historical treasures in what is known as the Fertile Crescent, the area in Mesopotamia between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, where the earliest recorded civilizations began.

From the ancient ruins of Nimrud in Northern Iraq, special correspondent Marcia Biggs reports.

It's part of our ongoing coverage of Culture at Risk.

MARCIA BIGGS: The road to the cradle of civilization is finally accessible. We're making our way there to see what's left of a 3,000-year-old city after only 2.5 years under ISIS.

With us, two archaeologists, Leila Salih, originally from nearby Mosul, and Tobin Hartnell, an Australian teaching at a local Kurdish university.

It takes us four hours to travel the roughly 35 miles, through checkpoint after checkpoint controlled by Kurdish Peshmerga and Iraqi Shia militias.

Sheik Khalid Al-Sabah Al-Jabbouri commands the Shia militia controlling the area. He grew up in this village, and treasures memories of picnics at Nimrud and the buses full of tourists.

KHALID AL-JABBOURI, Militia Commander (through interpreter): For us in this village, Nimrud is one of the first things we saw when we were born. This ancient city and its antiques it's a part of our life.

MARCIA BIGGS: Nimrud is the ancient city known as Calah in the Bible, capital of the Assyrian empire, known for its famous lamassu, winged bulls guarding the gates of the palace. It was destroyed in the seventh century B.C.

Its ruins buried in time, archaeologists unearthed it 2,500 years later. When the Islamic State captured parts of Northern Iraq in 2014, it declared war on the ruins of Nimrud, releasing this video of ISIS militants taking sledgehammers to the ancient site, drilling holes in its carvings, and finally blowing the entire place up.

When ISIS took the town, they also destroyed Sheik Khalid's home and killed 40 of his family members, including two brothers. But he says he rarely cried, until he saw this ISIS video.

KHALID AL-JABBOURI (through interpreter): I lost something priceless. My sorrow lies in the fact that we lost something that we were so proud of when tourists came to our country. The pride we felt for them and our civilization, what our forefathers made for our country, it's a subject that's part of our soul.

When the Saddam regime fell in 2003, we and our clans protected those monuments because there was no central Iraqi government. We were able to protect the palace from looting. But ISIS, ISIS did something we were not expecting.

MARCIA BIGGS: The area was taken back by Iraqi forces last November, but it was forever changed. When we arrived, the first thing we noticed was that the pyramid-like structure, the famous ziggurat of the Ishtar Temple, was erased from its skyline, and the temple once at its feet the victim of a massive explosion.

TOBIN HARTNELL, Archaeologist: Every photograph, every view I have ever seen of Nimrud has that temple, that ziggurat. And it's gone. That's the thing that is the most devastating, is to see it just bulldozed, just — it's gone. The iconic image of Nimrud is with the ziggurat.

MARCIA BIGGS: For Tobin Hartnell, this was an experience he'd waited for. He studied Assyria and its ancient capital for 15 years, yet he had never seen it.

He took a job teaching at the American University of Iraq in 2014 and was just about to move his family when ISIS swept through the region.

TOBIN HARTNELL: We got basically the e-mail or a call, in my case, an e-mail, saying, well, you don't have to accept the job because ISIS has just taken Mosul.

My wife and I, we talked about it, we're going, because, as archaeologists, this is where the work needs to be.

MARCIA BIGGS: And how does it feel to be walking down these steps for the first time?

TOBIN HARTNELL: I mean, it's bittersweet. This is an incredible site that I have been looking forward to going to for over 20 years. And look at it. I mean, walking over rubble, the destruction that ISIS has left has turned one of the most magnificent palaces of Assyria into a disaster zone.

MARCIA BIGGS: The gates of the famous Northwest Palace, once the home of magnificent winged bulls, reduced to rubble, its walls bare.

TOBIN HARTNELL: I never got to see the gate as it should be seen, that these bulls welcomed you to the palace.

LEILA SALIH, Archaeologist: Every Assyrian gates have a couple of winged bulls, so we cannot imagine the gates without them.

MARCIA BIGGS: It wasn't Leila Salih's first time here. She was 14 years old when she first visited Nimrud.

LEILA SALIH: To be honest with you, at that time, we didn't care about historical things or ancient civilization things. We just would like to escape out of school. But what I can remember, the huge figure of lamassu and the facade of that palace.

MARCIA BIGGS: But this was a happy place for you to come with friends and family?

LEILA SALIH: Of course. It's a very happy and wonderful, amazing place for us.

MARCIA BIGGS: Salih is from nearby Mosul, much of it still controlled by ISIS. She fled in 2014 with only a handbag. She was the curator for the Mosul Museum, which ISIS was seen destroying in these videos.

Yet, even with the widespread damage, both she and Hartnell say there is still hope for Nimrud.

LEILA SALIH: I thought we lost everything, as you see in the video. But after I visited Nimrud, yes, there are some positive signs for us.

TOBIN HARTNELL: You can see the wings of the bull here.

MARCIA BIGGS: One source of hope, large chunks of the rubble still exist, which makes restoration easier. And several of the original lamassu bulls excavated in the 19th century have been living for decades in museums in London and New York.

While the displaying of Iraq's antiquities abroad may have been controversial, for the man whose childhood was spent among the ruins, this actually provides some comfort.

KHALID AL-JABBOURI (through interpreter): Maybe we Iraqis felt hurt when we saw our monuments displayed outside of Iraq. We get hurt because it's our civilization.

But when ISIS occupied the city, I felt relieved that Nimrud monuments had been transported outside of Iraq and remain protected. And we are proud of them wherever they are.

MARCIA BIGGS: And after over 100 years of excavation, Hartnell says less than a quarter of the ancient city was actually unearthed.

TOBIN HARTNELL: There's still 1,000, 2,000 years of history underneath that palace. The whole city is waiting to be discovered.

MARCIA BIGGS: So, in some ways, this being razed will allow archaeologists to see what's underneath?

TOBIN HARTNELL: If, when we're doing our cleanup and restoration, we take some more time to dig down, we will find many more discoveries from what happened before the empire, what happened in the 10th, 11th, 12th centuries, which are also great periods in Mesopotamian history. And yet we know almost nothing.

MARCIA BIGGS: For Hartnell, amidst the sobering reality of finally checking Nimrud off his bucket list, comfort in determining what needs be done.

TOBIN HARTNELL: You have to see, be there, see the destruction to start to formulate a plan. Archaeologists need to be on the ground.

So, I won't say a dream comes true, but it was on my dream list before it was destroyed, and for very good reason. This is a fantastic place, and I think it will be again.

MARCIA BIGGS: As the sun sets on Nimrud, it's a promise that a new day will come.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Marcia Biggs in Nimrud, Northern Iraq.

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