A group of archaeologists made an exceptional discovery after they visit site of shrine destroyed by the Islamic state: an ancient Assyrian palace from 600 BC. The discovery was made using tunnels dug by jihadists, bent on stealing buried artefacts to sell. Archaeologists have to work fast because tunnels might collapse.
Baghdad (AsiaNews) – Archaeologists found an ancient Assyrian palace under the tomb of the Prophet Jonah, which is located on top of a hill overlooking eastern Mosul in the Nineveh Plain.
The team of experts was working on the shrine that contains the remains of the prophet dear to Jews, Christians and Muslims.
The Islamic State (IS) group destroyed the tomb in July 2014, shortly after taking control of Iraq’s second largest city.
Last month, government troops retook eastern Mosul, allowing the team of archaeologists to document the damage caused by IS.
In doing their work, they stumbled on a stunning find: underneath the shrine lay a previously undiscovered palace built before 600 BC for the Assyrian ruler, King Sennacherib.
In the summer of 2014, as IS rose, the world watched helplessly the men of the self-styled Caliphate wreck devastation on temples, statues and other antiquities. In addition to the temple of Jonah in Iraq, IS devastated the temple of Mar Elian and the historic city of Palmyra in neighbouring Syria.
According to UNESCO, this was the "most brutal" destruction of the Second World War.
In late February, Iraqi government forces and Kurdish militias managed to wrest control of the area of Nebi Yunus (Prophet Jonas) from IS. Since they launched their offensive on 17 October 2016, thousands of people have fled their homes to escape the fighting.
When local archaeologists began documenting damage at the shrine, they reported that IS had dug tunnels deep under the holy site, presumably to search for artefacts that could be worth something on the black market for the Sunni extremist group.
When the archaeologists probed these tunnels, they discovered an undiscovered and untouched palace, built more than 2,600 years ago.
"I can only imagine how much Daesh discovered down there before we got here," archaeologist Layla Salih, who is supervising the five-person team doing the dig, told the Telegraph. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
"We believe they took many of the artefacts, 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."
Neither the Ottomans in the mid-19th century nor the Iraqi government a century later had uncovered the palace.
Salih and her colleagues believe the palace was built for King Sennacherib, who ruled from 705-681 BC; however, the building was linked to three generations of Assyrian kings.
The structure was damaged in 612 BC, when a coalition of Medes, Babylonians and others sacked Nineveh and put an end to the Assyrian capital's dominance.
Despite the destruction the shrine suffered at the hands of IS militants, the archaeologists say many priceless artefacts appear to remain intact, including a marble cuneiform inscription. One of the earliest types of writing, cuneiform was widely used in ancient Mesopotamian civilisations.
The archaeologists have to work quickly, as Salih said the tunnels are at risk of collapsing "within weeks." If that happens, the new finds would be buried again or even destroyed.
During its reign in Mosul and the Nineveh Plain, IS closed museums and other cultural centres, and many archaeologists and historians were forced to flee to avoid execution as was the case for the head of antiquities in Palmyra.
Caliphate militants believe that worshiping tombs and relics goes against the fundamental teachings of Islam, and have made a dedicated effort to destroy the shrines and other holy sites other than what they could sell in the black market.