'When I heard that ISIS is bulldozing the ancient city of Nimrud, I cried'

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Marco Werman: As I mentioned earlier, the Iraqi government says ISIS is destroying the ancient city of Nimrud near Mosul. ISIS has destroyed historical artifacts and archeological sites before. It’s part of the extremist group’s campaign against what they call “paganism” and “idolatry.” But the destruction of Nimrud would take that to a whole other level. I don’t know much about Nimrud but The World’s history guy, Chris Woolf, does. He gave me his reaction.


Christopher Woolf: Well, I’m not ashamed to say that I cried when I heard this news. It’s still hard not to choke up on this. I’m clinging to the hope that this is simply propaganda from the Baghdad government because so far there’s been no pictures or video of the destruction, and no claim from ISIS that this has happened. But this is not just a local piece of history Marco, this is part of our common heritage as human beings. Western civilization traces its roots to these first agricultural civilizations and what we call the fertile crescent--the first laws, the first writing, new forms of government beyond the village level. Time is not kind to history--you have fire, floods, earthquakes, wars. Even just simple erosion are constant threats to places like this. It’s an unbelievable shock that anyone should deliberately attempt to destroy a place of such beauty and significance. It survived all these threats--the crusades, the Mongols for goodness sake, which is shocking.


Werman: Would you say Nimrud perhaps is the most significant historic site in Iraq?


Woolf: No, there are others that are just as fabulous--Babylon--but this one is under the control of ISIS and has been targeted for whatever reason. It’s a place of palaces, temples. I think the most familiar imagery for listeners is these big reliefs that they have of these giant winged man/bull/lion beasts or giant chariots with archers firing from them, with the huge beards. I’ve never been lucky enough to visit the site but I have seen some of the giant statues of these winged man beasts in the British museum and there are other reliefs and stuff at the New York Met in Chicago and in Paris and all over the world.


Werman: Reading through various sources, what sense are you getting for the scale of destruction for this attack?


Woolf: As I say, it’s still unconfirmed, so let’s cling to that hope. But we won’t be able to say until archeologists have done a comprehensive survey on the ground. There are some glimmers of hope. Luckily, like many historic sites around the world, not much of the site has been excavated--90% of it is still below ground. So, that’s some cause for hope. And much of the art, the statues, the reliefs, a lot of the ivory and jewels, have been removed to different museums in the 19th and 20th centuries around the world. But the above-ground structures, which still hold many of these priceless reliefs, are still vulnerable.


Werman: Some of the most important riches of Nimrud date back to the Assyrian Empire. I don’t know much about that--what is the Assyrian Empire?


Woolf: They were one of the powers, civilizations that rose and fell throughout the fertile crescent. You think of the Babylonians and the Hittites that would compete for power, and Nimrud is actually the wrong name altogether. It was known in the Bible and to the people who lived there as Kalhu in the Bible. The name Nimrud was attached to it in the 18th century by some Western explorer because they thought it was the home of the biblical character, Nimrud, but that’s separate. So, these powers waxed and waned. Nimrud was founded about 1250 BC, so we’re talking more than 3,000 years ago. 1250 BC--that’s about 100 years after the Israelites crossed the Jordan, just to help people put it into perspective, and it lasted until almost the time of the exile of the Israelites under the Babylonians 600 to 700 years later.


Werman: What happened to the Assyrians?


Woolf: We shouldn’t use the past tense--they’re still there. The village down the street from the ruins is still populated by Assyrians. It was this phase of the Assyrian Empire that established Eastern Aramaic as the lingua franca of the Middle East, probably something similar to the language that Jesus spoke. The language has evolved but that language is still spoken by the Assyrians there, most of whom have been Christians now for about 2,000 years. The numbers are disputed--there’s maybe a few hundred thousands, or maybe it’s in the low millions. No one is really sure.


Werman: If this is not true, if this is propaganda by the Iraqi government, I suspect it’d be to further disgust Iraqis about what ISIS is doing, but it also shows just how important Nimrud is to the whole psyche in Iraq.


Woolf: You talk to your average Iraqi and they’re immensely proud. It’s part of their education, they learn about their great heritage. It’s one of the cradles of civilization in the world. So yeah, it’s of huge significance and that’s probably one of the reasons the Islamic State wants to take it down.


Werman: Chris Woolf, we’ll hope that this is not true. Thank you very much for telling us about this. Chris Woolf, who helms The World’s history desk. Thanks a lot.


Woolf: You’re welcome Marco.