Professor Higginbotham: The Islamic State’s Attack on the Past

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James Higginbotham

By James Higginbotham

The systematic assault on the ancient cultural heritage in Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State (ISIL) has shocked and saddened the international community. In particular, the recent much-publicized destruction of artifacts in the Mosul Museum and the bulldozing of the nearby ancient sites of Nimrud (ancient Kalhu) and Khorsabad highlight the danger to what remains of Assyrian culture.

While attention tends to focus on the destruction of art and the looting of artifacts, the demolition of ancient ruins and the consequent loss of the archaeological context for these remains are even more troubling. Archaeological study of the sites in this region not only brings new material to light but provides important context for artifacts housed in museum collections around the world.

Past cultures and their beliefs can be seen as threats, and the art that represents these traditions can be viewed as offensive, thereby justifying their destruction. Unfortunately, depredation of this sort has a long tradition in human history and the sites in Assyria have born witness to similar destructive efforts in the past. Nimrud is located on the east bank of the Tigris in modern Iraq and was one of the great cities of ancient Assyria. Here, King Ashurnasirpal II, who reigned between 883-859 BC, established his capital and built a large palace covering over 2.5 hectares. Largely constructed of mud brick, the important rooms of the palace were paneled with large slabs of sculpted stone. Excavations, beginning in the nineteenth century, have uncovered hundreds of sculptures that decorated the palace at Nimrud, some of which were left in place at the site while many others now reside in various museums around the world.

Bowdoin College serves as a custodian for this Assyrian heritage and has on display five gypsum alabaster reliefs that were carved to adorn the walls of Ashurnasirpal’s palace at Nimrud. Not merely decoration, these sculptural reliefs served as reminders of Assyrian power and the exalted role of the king. The Bowdoin reliefs depict the Assyrian king accompanied by winged guardians, or apkallu, who lend divine protection to the king. The reliefs are rich in detail and one can still see the traces of pigment that highlighted these sculptures. In a final declarative act, scribes carved lines of cuneiform text over each slab that record Ashurnasirpal’s titles, lineage, and accomplishments. The palace, along with its sculptural decorations, was intended to stand as an enduring testament to Assyrian might, and it did so for over two centuries. At the end of the seventh century BC, an alliance of Medes, Babylonians, and others who had long lived under Assyrian rule rebelled and eventually brought an end to the empire. The great cities of Assyria, Nimrud, Khorsabad, and Nineveh all fell to this onslaught. Sometime between 614-612 BC, Nimrud was captured and sacked by armies formed from the Babylonian, Medes confederation. The conquerors lingered for a time and turned their attention to art decorating the sacked palace. Select examples of the figural sculpture were purposefully mutilated to demonstrate a break with the past and diminish the power of the vanquished regime. This ‘special attention’ can be seen in one relief in the Bowdoin collection where the conquerors took great pains to alter the sculpture and the message they originally conveyed. The image of King Ashurnasirpal II, in particular, has suffered very systematic mutilation. His right hand has been severed, his eyes, nose and ears removed by cutting away the stone. The king’s beard has been carefully cut and his ‘Achilles tendons’ surgically excised. Finally, the bow, symbol of the king’s prowess, has been broken in the middle. On this defaced relief a ghostly silhouette appears opposite the king. Crudely rendered and executed with obvious haste, the new figure approaches the king as conqueror. The occasion of this disfiguring event was certainly the sack of Nimrud by the Medes and Babylonians at the end of the 7th century BC The conquered had finally exacted revenge on the Assyrians.

Over 2600 years after the fall of the Assyrian Empire and the destruction of the palace at Nimrud, new invaders are attacking the past by trying to obliterate reminders of common heritage. But history shows that, however destructive, these mindless efforts will ultimately fail. The archaeological record coupled with important remains housed in museums throughout the world, and in the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, will ensure that this history is not forever lost.

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