2016-11-20 19:05:00

For centuries, the massive Assyrian city in northern Iraq lay buried beneath the sands of time, forgotten by history.


Archaeologists first began excavating Nimrud -- built nearly 3,000 years ago -- in the 1840s. In the decades that followed, they unearthed priceless treasures from the city, including palaces adorned with unique frescoes and giant sculptures that offered a window into Iraq's glorious past.

Last year, ISIS blew up the ancient walled city.

The terror group released disturbing footage of the destruction. Militants with electric drills and sledgehammers smashed statues and tore holes in the walls. Bulldozers razed structures to the ground. The last frame of an ISIS video captured a massive explosion and a cloud of smoke and dust.

UNESCO described the deliberate destruction of Nimrud as a "war crime."

On Saturday, Iraqi forces reclaimed the modern town of Nimrud, close to the ancient city, as part of the ongoing battle for Mosul -- ISIS' last major stronghold in Iraq, according to a statement from Iraq's Joint Military Command. Several ISIS militants were killed in the battle to liberate the town, the statement said.

Nearly a week ago Iraqi forces liberated a nearby village also known as Nimrud and the site of the ruins. Nimrud is 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Mosul.

Nimrud and Nineveh

Nimrud and nearby Nineveh are the sites where two Assyrian kings, Sennacherib (704-681 B.C.) and Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 B.C.), recorded successful military campaigns on the walls of their palaces, according to the World Monuments Fund, a group dedicated to saving the world's most treasured places.

"The palaces of Sennacherib at Nineveh and Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud are vestiges of the political, cultural and artistic height of the Assyrian Empire," the group says on its website under the heading "Why it Matters." The group had helped preserve the treasures at Nimrud following the Iraq War.

Nimrud flourished between 900 B.C. and 612 B.C. Buildings there "have yielded thousands of carved ivories, mostly made in the 9th and 8th centuries B.C., now one of the richest collections of ivory in the world," according to the Encyclopedia Britannica's website.

The famous British mystery novelist Agatha Christie accompanied her husband, archaeologist Max Mallowan, at his excavation in Nimrud and helped clean some of the ivories.

The destruction last year was not the first time ISIS has targeted cultural and ancient sites in Iraq and Syria. The terror group took over the ancient ruined city of Hatra in 2014, using it to store weapons and ammunitions. It has destroyed libraries, palaces and churches and blown up shrines such as the tomb of Jonah, a holy site said to be the burial place of the prophet Jonah, and a key figure in Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Last year ISIS militants with sledgehammers obliterated stone sculptures and other centuries-old artifacts in the Mosul Museum.

"ISIS continues to defy the will of the world and the feelings of humanity," Iraq's Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities said in a statement then, condemning the destruction in that museum.

"Letting these lost gangs go without punishment will encourage them to destroy humanity's civilization, the Mesopotamian civilization, inflicting irreversible priceless damages and losses."

Other precious monuments destroyed by war

Iraq's neighbor Syria is also a treasure-trove of archaeological sites, many of which have been reduced to rubble during that country's ongoing civil war.

ISIS is part of a puritanical strain of Islam that considers all religious shrines -- Islamic, Christian, Jewish, etc. -- idolatrous.

It is not the only militant group bent on the destruction of the symbols of ancient life. In 2001, the Taliban blew up giant statues, the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan despite international pleas to spare the country's pre-Islamic relics.

The destruction has disturbed many scholars and historians.

"All attacks on archaeological sites and artifacts are brutal assaults on our collective human memory," Cornell University archaeologist and classicist Sturt W. Manning wrote in a commentary last year for CNN. "They deprive us of the evidence of human endeavors and achievements."