SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Nearly 3,000 years ago, in what is now northern Iraq, the king of the Assyrian Empire built a palace on the top of a hill. Many of its antiquities were still in place until ISIS took over two years ago and tried to destroy them. The site was recently retaken by the Iraqi army. And NPR's Alice Fordham went to see what's left.
ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: I was lucky enough to visit the remains of the ancient Assyrian city at Nimrud back in 2010. It was dismal and cold that day. But the palace was breathtaking. There were wall carvings of men twice life size with great stone wings and hulking sculptures of a mythical beast called a lamassu, with a human face, a bull's body, the wings of an eagle.
Last week, Nimrud was retaken from ISIS by the Iraqi army. And it's now possible to get there again. So I arranged a visit with Iraqi archaeologist Layla Salih.
(SOUNDBITE OF CARS DRIVING)
FORDHAM: The trip entails a lot of waiting around military checkpoints. Chatting in the car, I ask Salih about the first time she visited Nimrud.
LAYLA SALIH: Yeah, the first time - when I was in the secondary school. It could be.
FORDHAM: The secondary school was in Mosul. The 14-year-old Salih was on a field trip.
SALIH: Yeah, it was exciting, really.
FORDHAM: People used to come from all over to see Nimrud. But two years ago, ISIS took over the site. They systematically destroyed the ancient sculptures and structures using heavy machinery, calling them heretical.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)
SALIH: (Foreign language spoken).
FORDHAM: Eventually, we arrive at an improvised army base in a village where a local man offers to show us the way. We drive through scrubland and then up a hill to the site, once the citadel of a city. You can see the ruins of temples sticking out of the dusty ground. It's windswept and deserted.
(SOUNDBITE OF CLOSING CAR DOORS)
FORDHAM: We stand in front of what was the grand entrance to the palace, which was built with thick walls around a central courtyard. The gateway is now full of rubble.
SALIH: I try to keep my tears. But...
FORDHAM: Salih is weeping too much to speak.
SALIH: So sad. Yeah, speechless. Just...
FORDHAM: The lamassus, those winged bulls, are in a broken pile. There are ancient tablets with cuneiform writing lying around in pieces. What archaeologists say was once great about this site is that the palace had been reconstructed, so it was a kind of living museum.
Visitors could imagine entering a palace at the heart of the Assyrian Empire millennia ago. Iraqis often cite this ancient heritage as a huge source of pride.
SALIH: Of course, it's part of their culture and heritage. So I cannot imagine if they see this destruction.
FORDHAM: And Salih is furious that - even now the site has been retaken from ISIS - there's no protection.
SALIH: You see? There is no - any security forces around the city.
FORDHAM: People could loot.
SALIH: Of course. It could be loot.
FORDHAM: We walk through the gateway to look over the courtyard, which is now strewn with shattered masonry, picking our way over broken bricks with little bits of ancient reliefs mixed in. And, in fact, Salih says it might still be possible to do some conservation, some reconstruction.
SALIH: Actually, I was scared about this. But now we are - we can do something here.
FORDHAM: What can you do?
SALIH: To salvage the site, to do a first aid for some structure and Assyrian relief here.
FORDHAM: No one quite knows when that might start. The area has to be secure first. And as we leave, we can hear battles with ISIS in villages not far away. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Nimrud, northern Iraq.
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