An Assyrian palace discovered under the ruins of a mosque destroyed by Daesh in Mosul

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It is in this palace that the king of Assyria Assarhaddon assembled his court, almost three millennia ago. Long hidden and inaccessible, construction has emerged, sadly ironic from history, from the ruins of a mosque in Mosul, destroyed in 2014 by the Islamic State.

Erected on the tell (artificial hill) of Nebi Yunus, the religious building was demolished by explosives by Daesh fighters, like many other archaeological sites in the Iraqi city. But the destruction of the mosque was not in vain: scientists from the University of Heidelberg in Germany were able to discover the remains of an underground palace dating from the time of the Assyrian Empire.

The pedestal of the throne in the room where the king received his visitors. Courtesy of the Nineveh excavation project, University of Heidelberg

In the footsteps of the Islamists, who tried to recover many artefacts in order to resell them, archaeologists made their way through underground galleries, sometimes 70 cm high. An effort largely rewarded when they finally led to the door of the palace, guarded by four large reliefs of winged bulls. The tunnels then brought them into a 55-meter long hall in which Assarhaddon received its visitors, perched on a platform five meters high. “It is the largest throne room in the Assyrian Empire to date”explains to the newspaper Die Welt Peter Miglus, professor of archeology at Heidelberg.

One of the winged bulls guarding the front door. Courtesy of the Nineveh excavation project, University of Heidelberg

A palace 450 meters long

According to archaeologists, the palace is partly preserved, which is all the more surprising since the ancient Assyrian city Nineveh, today covered by the outskirts of Mosul, was founded in 612 BCE, then largely destroyed by the allied armies of the Babylonians and the Medes. The existence of the royal residence had already been known for decades, but no one had been able to access it so far.

Originally a simple arsenal built by King Sennacherib to preserve the treasures brought back from wars and allow horses to train, the place became a real palace during the reign of his son Assarhaddon, from -680 to -669. His successful campaigns subsequently provided the king with the means to enlarge it, and to make it a building of impressive dimensions. The building was thus approximately 450 in length and between 200 and 300 meters in width. Assyrian texts report that Assarhaddon had the palace decorated with exotic stones, wood, ivory and precious metals.

Inscription of King Assarhaddon (680-669 BC) on a wall panel of the palace. Courtesy of the Nineveh excavation project, University of Heidelberg

German scientists now have five years to do all of their research at the archaeological site. But the coronavirus, which has infected a little more than a thousand people in the country, has stopped for an indefinite period any search project. Peter Miglus hopes to be able to resume research in the fall of 2020: “We have a lot to do, but we don’t have much time”he said to Die Welt.

The mosque razed by the fighters of the Islamic State must indeed soon be rebuilt. “Our idea is to bring the mosque and the Assyrian royal palace together, creating a visible link between the Ancient East and Islam”explains to the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel Stefan Maul, professor of assyriology at the University of Heidelberg. Thus, the residence of King Assarhaddon will be preserved, while allowing the population to find this highly prized place of worship.

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