MOSUL -- When "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) fighters bulldozed the ancient monumental Mashki gate in the Iraqi city of Mosul in 2016, it was part of the extremists' systematic destruction of cultural heritage.
Now, US and Iraqi archaeologists working to reconstruct the site have unearthed extraordinary 2,700-year-old rock carvings among the ruins.
They include eight finely made marble bas-relief carvings depicting war scenes from the rule of the Assyrian kings in the ancient city of Ninawa, a local Iraqi official said Wednesday (October 19).
Discovered last week, the detailed carvings show a soldier drawing back a bow in preparation to fire an arrow, as well as finely chiselled vine leaves and palms.
The grey stone carvings date to the rule of King Sennacherib, in power from 705-681 BCE, according to a statement from the Iraqi Council of Antiquities and Heritage.
Sennacherib was responsible for expanding Ninawa as the Assyrians' imperial capital and largest city -- on a major crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Iranian plateau -- including constructing a magnificent palace.
Fadel Mohammed Khodr, head of the Iraqi archaeological team working to restore the site, said the carvings were likely taken from Sennacherib's palace and used as construction material for the gate.
"We believe that these carvings were moved from the palace of Sennacherib and reused by the grandson of the king, to renovate the gate of Mashki and to enlarge the guard room", Khodr said.
When they were used in the gate, the above-ground section of the carvings was erased.
"Only the part buried underground has retained its carvings," Khodr said.
ALIPH, the Swiss-based International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas, said the Mashki gate had been an "exceptional building".
ISIS targeted the fortified gate, which had been restored in the 1970s, because it was an "iconic part of Mosul's skyline, a symbol of the city's long history", it added.
ALIPH is supporting the reconstruction of the gate, which is being carried out by a team of archaeologists from Iraq's Mosul University alongside University of Pennsylvania experts, in collaboration with Iraqi antiquities authorities.
The restoration project aims to turn the tables on ISIS, transforming the damaged monument into an educational centre on Ninawa's history.
ISIS's destructive legacy
Between 2014 and 2017, ISIS demolished pre-Islamic treasures with bulldozers, pickaxes and explosives, claiming these ancient artefacts and statues were essentially "idols" and they had demolished them out of "religious duty".
But it soon came to light that ISIS elements also smuggled artefacts out of the country to sell at high prices to black market dealers, using the proceeds to finance the group's operations, exposing its hypocrisy.
ISIS also conducted systematic excavations in search of archaeological valuables in historical sites that fell under its control -- more than 1,700 archaeological and religious sites in Mosul, in total.
In a 2020 interview with Al-Mashareq's sister site, Diyaruna, Mosul Museum director Zaid Ghazi Saadallah said that following the ouster of ISIS, the museum engaged in extensive efforts to evaluate looted or damaged artefacts.
It found that stolen artefacts had provided a key source of revenue for the group, and posited that the group's films of its elements destroying the museum's artefacts "were nothing but a cover-up of the theft".
ISIS would loot the artefacts from archaeological sites it seized and would detonate or bulldoze the sites to hide any sign of theft, he said.
According to Saadallah, this is what took place at the site of Tell Nabi Yunus (Prophet Jonah) shrine and Tell Quwainjaq, where the palace of the Assyrian king Sennacherib is located, and the historic city of Nimrud.
An October 2020 report by the Iraqi Supreme Judicial Council, citing UNESCO, said ISIS had made up to $36 million from smuggling Mosul artefacts and selling them on the global market through intermediaries.