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).

 
 
 
 

Wild boar are moving back to Genoa, and not everyone is pleased

A wild boar, c1933. Image: Getty.

Crossing the Ponte Gerolamo Serra in the Italian city of Genoa, I spotted a small crowd clustered by the river wall. I approached, intrigued, and peered over the wall to discover the subject of their delight: a sounder of eight wild boars – the adults sheltering from the heat in the undergrowth, while the juveniles foraged among the foliage that grows in the river bed during the dry summer months.

In any other city, such a sight might have been surprising. But in Italy, and particularly in the region of Liguria, where Genoa is located, the population of wild boars has been increasing at such a rapid rate that these incidents are now common. Across the country, it’s estimated that the population has risen from 600,000 to 1m over the past decade.

But while wild boars may look comically out of place trotting about the city, it’s actually a natural result of the way people have migrated – and the wars they have fought – over the course of recent history.

Making a comeback

A species native to Europe, the wild boar (or “cinghiale”, in Italian) largely disappeared from its historical territories during the 18th and 19th centuries. Their decline was widely attributed to the combined effects of habitat change, competition for space and resources and, of course, hunting.

Wild boars were a prized quarry, revered for their ferocity – and the danger involved in pursuing them. According to local folklore from the region of Liguria, the last truly wild boar was hunted and killed in 1814, in the province of Savona.

After an absence of more than a century, wild boar began to return to Liguria, and to the neighbouring region of Piedmont. A further influx occurred during World War I, when it’s believed that military activities in the south-east of France forced parts of the population back into Italy over the Alps.

Although hunting fraternities were quick to augment this fledgling population with wild boars transported from elsewhere, the return of the species was primarily due to natural causes. From the 1950s onwards, traditional agricultural practices were abandoned as more and more people moved from rural towns into the cities. This meant that large areas of formerly cultivated terraces and pastures were rapidly overgrown, fast becoming dense secondary woodlands.

A city gone wild

This spontaneous “rewilding” has become a controversial issue in the region. Many conservationists and environmental organisations consider the region’s return to a “wild state” a success. But others believe that the encroaching wilderness signals a loss of traditional woodland knowledge and a reduction of biodiversity, associated with the pastures and meadows.


The province of Genoa is among the areas most densely populated by wild boar in Italy, with an estimated 25 boar per 10km². Rewilding processes have brought woodlands to the city limits, blurring the boundary between rural and urban areas. The species has expanded beyond the hinterlands, colonising highly urbanised, densely populated city spaces in Genoa, drawn by the abundance of food waste created by humans.

In 2009, the infamous boar Pierino made his home at Righi, on the outskirts of Genoa, where he was routinely fed with focaccia by enthusiasts. Today, a family of wild boar call the Albergo dei Poveri – a historical hostel for the Genoese poor in the city centre – their home.

But while their antics are often recorded and shared with glee on social media, the threats posed by the presence of wild animals has become a preoccupation for the city’s municipal administration.

Boorish behaviour

Wild boar have been involved in a number of traffic accidents, and have proven to be particularly dangerous when with their young, attacking dogs and even people. The city council in Genoa has put forward many proposals to reduce the number of animals in the city, ranging from forced removals, to sterilisation, increased attention to waste disposal and approved hunts. About 90 wild boar were reportedly culled in 2018.

Needless to say, each of these measures has been hotly debated. Animal advocacy groups staunchly oppose the proposals, and sometimes obstruct the authorities’ attempts to take action, often sending patrols to care for the animals, and even give them names. But other residents are displeased with the animals’ presence in the city, and have consulted with the council on how to address the problems that they cause.

And so Genoa continues to grapple with thorny issues surrounding the presence of wild boar in the city, with the city authorities seeking to resolve a polemical issue that embroils the lives of animals and humans alike. So far, a collective, coherent and communally agreeable strategy has proven evasive; one that considers the need for public safety, hygiene and health with the ethical responsibilities towards to wild boar themselves.

Meanwhile, the animals themselves continue to lounge and forage beneath the Ponte Gerolamo Serra and elsewhere, bringing a little of the wilderness into the city.

The Conversation

Robert Hearn, Assistant Professor in Human Geography, University of Nottingham.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.