ISIS is bulldozing some of the world's first cities. Here’s what we're losing

The court of the royal palace in the ancient city of Hatra. Image: Getty.

Within days of Islamic State (IS) releasing a video showing their destruction of sculptures in the Mosul museum and the ancient city of Nineveh, reliable reports emerged that the obliteration of Iraq’s past had expanded to include the architectural treasures of Nimrud and, most recently, Hatra.

Lying to the south of the modern city of Mosul, these two archaeological sites were among the best preserved in Iraq. There was only a slim chance that these impressive archaeological remains would be overlooked by IS, since an attack on them would guarantee world attention. These acts are not only an attack on the people of Iraq but also on the roots of our modern, urbanised world. So what exactly are we losing?

The first cities

Iraq occupies the territories described by Greek geographers of the early centuries BC as Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates. It was here that the world’s first cities, such as Uruk and Ur, emerged around 3500 BC on the fertile plains at the head of the Persian Gulf, along with the invention of writing and the codification of laws.

Map of Mesopotamia. Image: Goran tek-en.

In northern Mesopotamia, the kingdom of Assyria developed as a powerful state. Between 900 and 620 BC it established itself as the world’s first extensive empire, unifying a region reaching from the Persian Gulf to Egypt. Nimrud was the empire’s first great capital city.

Although an immensely ancient town dating back to 5500 BC, Nimrud was developed into an imperial centre by King Ashurnasirpal II from about 880 BC. The result was a walled city covering some 3.5 sq km, with a prominent “citadel” mound on which were erected enormous administrative and religious buildings. These structures included the palaces of several Assyrian kings as well as temples, including that of Nabu, the god of writing.

Indeed, it was scribal administration as much as military might that held the Assyrian empire together. These buildings were centres of learning, gathering knowledge into libraries. Information was written on clay tablets in the cuneiform script of Mesopotamia and thousands of such texts were discovered by archaeologists at the later Assyrian capital of Nineveh. Such was its importance and splendour that the city, known to the Assyrians as Kalhu, that it also appears in the Old Testament under the name Calah.

An example of cuneiform from the West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Nimrud. Image: pahudson via Flickr.

Astonishing carvings

The greatest of the buildings at Nimrud was undoubtedly the Palace of Ashurnasirpal. This was a huge mud brick structure with many rooms ranged around open courtyards. The walls of the most significant rooms were lined with huge slabs of gypsum carved in relief with images of the king hunting dangerous wild animals, defeating hostile people, and undertaking religious rituals. These were some of the earliest visual representations of historical narratives, carved with astonishing attention to detail.

Archaeologists call this building the North-West Palace. It was first excavated by the British explorer Austen Henry Layard between 1845 and 1851. Layard’s work was supported by the British government and the majority of his finds, including many examples of the carved stone panels and sculpted gate colossi, were transported to the British Museum. While examples of relief slabs were also sent to museums and institutions around the world, many were left where they were found and reburied.

Further excavations at Nimrud took place in the 1950s and 1960s by Max Mallowan, husband of the crime writer Agatha Christie. This work reconstructed the complex plans of the palace, and other buildings on the citadel.

Large parts of Ashurnasirpal’s palace were then investigated by Iraqi archaeologists during the 1970s and 1980s, and their work included the re-installation and repair of fallen stone reliefs, many with traces of the original paint that covered them. The winged bull statues that guard the entrances to the most important rooms and courtyards were also re-erected.

A winged human headed lion from Nimrud, now in the British Museum. Image: 71279764@N00 at Wikimedia Commons.

This restoration project also revealed several tombs of Assyrian queens that lay below the floors in one area of the palace. The finds, which are now securely stored in Baghdad, were truly astonishing and included gold jewellery and crowns, bronze and gold bowls, and ivory vessels. The technical skill and aesthetic sense of the artisans responsible are unrivalled in the ancient world.


The reconstruction of the palace also allowed visitors, including regular parties of school children, to experience the buildings' scale and beauty, as well as bringing scholars closer to understanding its role in the lives of the ancient Assyrians.

The merchant city

While Nimrud represents the glories of empire, Hatra reflects mercantile enterprise. The city flourished in the first two centuries AD as part of an extensive trade network that connected it with Palmyra and Petra. It was the centre of one of the region’s first Arab kingdoms and its massive walls withstood attacks by the armies of the Roman emperors Trajan and Septimius Severus. Behind the enclosing walls of the city were constructed architectural gems, including a number of spectacular temples erected on a massive platform. The compelling fusion of Greek and Mesopotamian art and architecture made it an especially beautiful place. Its importance was recognised in 1985 when Hatra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Iraqis are justifiably proud of this ancient heritage and its innovations and impact on the world. The intellectual and cultural achievements of Mesopotamia were shared with ancient Greece and then expanded by the scholars of Baghdad during the 8th to 13th centuries in a golden age of Islamic art and learning.

We are witnessing the destruction of this priceless legacy – and these stories mean that Libyan are now also fearing for their own rich heritage. The international community must act to support the government of Iraq in stopping further terrible violence against such unique and irreplaceable heritage that holds so much meaning for us all.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Paul Collins is a Curator for Ancient Near East at the Ashmolean Museum (University of Oxford).

 
 
 
 

Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.