In the summer of 2014, an aggressive offensive by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) through western and northern Iraq left them in control of large swathes of territory, including the city of Mosul. That July, the world watched in horror as ISIS fighters blew up the Nebi Yunus shrine, which sits on top of one of two mounds that formed part of the ancient Assyrian city of Nineveh. The shrine is said to be the burial place of the Prophet Jonah (or Yunus), a key figure in Christianity, Islam and Judaism.
Beginning in December 2016, thousands of Iraqi and Kurdish troops backed by a U.S.-led coalition launched a massive operation to take back Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. In a brutal clash late last month, government forces managed to drive ISIS militants from the area around the Nebi Yunus shrine, even as thousands of people were forced to flee their homes during the conflict.
When they began documenting damage at the shrine, local archaeologists reported that ISIS had dug tunnels deep under the holy site, presumably to search for artifacts that could be worth something on the black market. When they probed these tunnels, the archaeologists discovered they led straight to a previously undiscovered and untouched palace, built more than 2,600 years ago.
“I can only imagine how much Daesh discovered down there before we got here,” the archaeologist Layla Salih, who is supervising the five-man team doing the dig, told the Telegraph, using an acronym for the Arabic term for ISIS. “We believe they took many of the artifacts, such as pottery and smaller pieces, away to sell. But what they left will be studied and will add a lot to our knowledge of the period.”
Salih and her colleagues believe the palace is tied to three generations of Assyrian kings. Built for King Sennacherib, who ruled from 705-681 B.C., it was renovated and expanded first by his son, Esarhaddon (681-669 B.C.) and later by his grandson, Ashurbanipal (669-627 B.C.). The palace was partially destroyed in 612 B.C., when a coalition of Medes, Babylonians and others sacked Nineveh and put an end to the Assyrian capital’s dominance. Though the Ottoman governor of Mosul had partially excavated the Nebi Yunus shrine back in the mid-19th century, and the Iraqi department of antiquities revived the excavations in the 1950s, neither team uncovered the ancient palace.
Despite the destruction the shrine suffered at the hands of ISIS militants, the archaeologists say many priceless artifacts in the palace appear to remain intact, including a marble cuneiform inscription of King Esarhaddon believed to date to 672 B.C. Cuneiform, one of the earliest types of writing, was widely used in ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. In another part of the ISIS-dug tunnels, the archaeologists found intricate Assyrian stone sculptures of a demi-goddess figure sprinkling the “water of life” to protect the humans under her care.
The archaeologists have to work quickly, as Salih said the tunnels are at risk of collapsing “within weeks.” If that happens, the new finds would be buried again or even destroyed. Teams of international experts are now bidding for the opportunity to help the local archaeologists secure and document the site. Later this month, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) will hold a meeting in Paris to decide who will be sent.
During the Islamic State’s reign in Mosul, it closed museums and other cultural centers, and many archaeologists and historians were forced into hiding. ISIS militants believe worshiping tombs and relics goes against the fundamental teachings of Islam, and have made a dedicated effort to destroy shrines and other holy sites throughout Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi Kurdistan regional government recently released a report listing some 100 buildings damaged or destroyed by ISIS in the past two years.
Just this week, Syrian government forces backed by Russian aircraft recaptured the historic city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, killing some 1,000 ISIS fighters in the process. Located in the Syrian desert northeast of Damascus, Palmyra contains the ruins of a city that was one of the ancient world’s most important cultural centers. It’s also been considered a strategically important site in the Syrian civil war, which began more than five years ago. Since 2015, control of Palmyra has repeatedly passed back and forth between ISIS and the Syrian regime, with the militants wasting no time in demolishing the city’s ancient ruins as soon as they gained the upper hand.