'To see men die is sad. To see our culture destroyed is even sadder'
Published 17/11/2016 | 02:30
A pile of stones is all that remains of the winged lion that guarded the palace of Ashurnasirpal II for thousands of years.
Two more "Lamassu", the mythical creatures whose statues were built to protect the palaces of the ancient Assyrian kings, once framed the gates of the palace. They too have been destroyed by the jihadists of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant, (Isil) which stormed the historic site in the summer of 2014.
The ruins of Nimrud, capital of an Assyrian empire that spanned from Egypt to Iran, have been obliterated by Isil, which regards the relics and statures as idolatry.
On Sunday, the Iraqi army retook the village of Nimrud and the adjacent archeological site, revealing the full extent of the destruction.
"Everything has been destroyed, 100pc," said Maj Gen Diar Kadoun Saadi, the commander of the troops that liberated Nimrud. Standing next to Ashurnasirpal's palace, now little more than a rubble, the commander surveyed a wasteland.
Gone are the columns, pyramids and statues that had not found their way into the museums of Europe after excavations in the nineteenth century.
Only glimpses of old splendour are still found: fragments of finely carved stone tablets that once adorned the walls are strewn about, or are left hanging on reconstructed walls.
The destruction has deeply affected the soldiers who fought to expel Isil from Nimrud.
"When you see men dying in battle you feel sad. But when you see our culture destroyed like this if feels worse," says Capt Taher Hakem, who was in the advance column that entered Nimrud on Sunday.
As the army pushes Isil back in its offensive to liberate Mosul from the insurgents, the lasting effects of the group's rule have been laid bare.
"These remains were over 3,000 years old. Every country is proud of its history, and we are proud of ours. This was an act of barbarism by criminal people," said Maj Gen Saadi.
In April 2015, Isil released a video showing bearded jihadists using sledgehammers, a bulldozer and explosives to level much of the site.
The group also released footage of its members rampaging through Mosul's museum, smashing artefacts from Nimrud exhibited there.
The insurgents did not stop there. Locals in Nimrud, a small village a few hundred yards away from the site, said that Isil stepped up its vandalism as the Iraqi army drew near.
Two weeks before Iraqi forces took Nimrud, its inhabitants began hearing explosions echoing from the ruins once again.
"Daesh even came to our houses and told us to open the windows so they would not be shattered by the blast," said Omar Mahmoud (12), who used an Arabic acronym for the group.
To the locals, who have grown up in the shadow of the ancient ruins, and who took pride in their proximity to one of Iraq's most important archaeological sites, the destruction at Nimrud is hard to bear.
"When I saw what happened here, I cried for the second time in my life.
"The first time was when I saw the video Daesh had made after the capture of Mosul," said Sheikh Khalid Sabah, the leader of a group of local militiamen who fled when Isil took over, and now helps the army control the area.
Sheikh Sabah hails from the village of Nayfa, a hamlet within sight of the ruins. He had visited the site many times in the past, and seen the tour groups and archeological teams that came from far and wide.
"Once it is gone, it is gone for ever," the sheikh said mournfully.