Underneath a Liberated Mosul

In March 2017, EPIC Program Assistant Matthew Schweitzer traveled to the recently-liberated neighborhoods in eastern Mosul. During this trip, he accompanied Layla Salih, Director of Antiquities for Ninewa Province, into tunnels dug by ISIS underneath the now-destroyed shrine and tomb of Jonah (known in Arabic as Nabi Younis). There, ISIS excavations revealed a 2,600-year-old Assyrian palace. Here, Matthew describes the expansive tunnel network, the site’s new archaeological treasures, and the challenges facing those trying to preserve them. You can read his other dispatch from eastern Mosul here

The ruined shrine complex at Nabi Younis (March 2017).

With its famous shrine and tomb of the prophet Jonah now a pile of shattered brick and twisted metal, the temple mount at Nabi Younis rises like a memorial to ISIS depravity from the slippery mud-filled streets along the main road into eastern Mosul. During their occupation of the surrounding neighborhood, the militants had attempted to erase art, artifacts, and heritage that did not conform to the group’s twisted conception of Islam. In July 2014, one month after capturing the city, they demolished the Nabi Younis site in a highly-publicized video. Nearly three years later, underneath cold rains that sweep across the Ninewa Plains in springtime, the site’s stepped ziggurat garden seems to weep for its own lost beauty in thin sheets of gray water rippling down shrapnel-scarred stone.

Staring silently through the fogged-up rear window of his colleague’s small car on a particularly wet day in late March, Dr. Muzahar offers his own interpretation: “Perhaps these are tears of pain.” As an archaeologist for the Ministry of Antiquities and later the Mosul Museum, he led the first excavations under Nabi Younis in 1986. Since June 2014, ISIS had replicated his team’s work, creating a warren of tunnels underneath the shrine to avoid airstrikes and detection – as they had done elsewhere in occupied territories. As he surveyed the site’s concertina wire-lined approaches, his face twists with a mix of anger, curiosity, and memory. Although he has lived in Mosul his entire life – including under ISIS rule – this visit is his first to Nabi Younis in almost three decades. Over the past few years, he was too afraid of the militants to venture far from his home. “These terrorists stabbed the earth with their shovels,” he sighs, “and it hurts me to think of the things they stole from this ancient place.”

What ISIS uncovered at Nabi Younis, however, has energized young archaeologists today. Buried 70 feet beneath the ruined shrine, the militants’ dark passageways weave through a 2,600-year-old palace complex that marked the old political capital of the Assyrian Empire. “We knew some of the structures were there, thanks to Dr. Muzahar’s work,” explained current Ninewa Antiquities Director Layla Salih, nodding to her friend and former professor in the back seat. “However, we had previously been prevented from excavating it fully due to security risks and the sensitivity of religious buildings above.” With a quiet laugh, she concludes: “Bizarrely, ISIS’s excavations have given the palace to us.”


The narrow road leading up to Nabi Younis presents a microcosm of the political situation across liberated Mosul. At the bottom, an Iraqi tank from the 16th Division points a cannon accusingly toward the Tigris River, its operators slouching nearby in white plastic beach chairs under a large beige umbrella and dark grey skies. Nearly 100 feet above them, the flag of a local militia – the Hash’d Shabak, which is associated with the Iran-backed Badr Organization – strains against a thin metal rod.

After two days of heavy rain, the artillery-churned temple mount is slick with mud and punctuated by deep seas of blue-grey water. From the ruined shrine, which sits 100 feet above the surrounding neighborhoods, the rolling thunder of rocket fire and airstrikes in western Mosul pierces the damp air – sometimes close enough to send vague shockwaves through one’s chest and feet. “There is no need to worry,” mumbles a soldier, wearing full body armor, who had been assigned to escort Layla and Dr. Muzahar through the complex’s rubble-strewn courtyards. “All of that noise, it is mostly outgoing fire.” Nobody pays attention to the danger hidden in the man’s conditional phrase. Less than two kilometers away, a helicopter gunship flies slowly over ISIS-occupied territory, firing a salvo of rockets that disappear into the narrow streets below. Someone pulls out a phone to snap a selfie.

The archaeologists pause in the shrine’s central courtyard, amid this soundtrack of battle. There are two entrances into the ISIS tunnel system – one cut into the temple mount’s muddy flank, the other hidden at the end of a ruined arcade leading to Jonah’s tomb. Layla has never descended through the latter route, but the group’s escort insists that it is a better option after a night of heavy rain, “if only I can find it,” he mutters with exasperation as he disappears around a corner. Clambering across bricks and through fallen archways, it is impossible to ignore signs of ISIS occupation left nearly three months since liberation: stray electrical wires used to manufacture bombs; a pair of sandals neatly left in a doorway; the group’s slogans spray-painted on the walls alongside its circular black emblem.

“ISIS treated this place as animals would, and I hope every last one of those animals is killed,” Dr. Muzahar mumbles as he slowly picks his way across the debris. “Then we can rebuild the shrine.” His words belie the increasingly complex competition between various political actors to lead Nabi Younis’ reconstruction. While the Iraqi government in Baghdad seeks to rebuild the site as a symbol of its legitimacy in liberated territory, other local groups have been jostling to perform this work, while siphoning away some of the restoration funds in the process. “These people do not necessarily have the wishes or welfare of Mosul’s people at heart,” Layla notes as a line of armed men in plain clothes quietly file past Dr. Muzahar. They are the personal guards for a Member of Parliament who had come to visit Nabi Youni’s ruins – and speak on camera about the need to “provide Moslawis with a new symbol of unity.” Layla is unconvinced: “He is another prominent voice to say the right things, but we have yet to see if anything comes of these statements.”

After 15 minutes, the 16th Division soldier returns, shrugs his shoulders, and declares that he cannot find the tunnel entrance. “No matter,” Layla replies, “we will find our way to the main doorway through the mud.” This task, however, is not so simple. Heavy rainfall has made the shallow basin carved into the temple mount into a sea of green-grey water and trash. On the far side of this barrier an inconspicuous passageway, quickly narrowing into darkness, beckons. “The ceiling is low and there are occasional collapses, but that is our way in,” Layla laughs without any sign of the apprehension flickering across some of her companions’ faces. Not Dr. Muzahar’s, though: “You must slow down,” he chuckles while negotiating a particularly wide pond of sewage. “I am not young anymore!”

Into the Gloom

Once through its four-foot entrance and a shower of clinging dirt, the tunnel network expands in a pitch-black maze. The sounds of fighting and traffic quickly melt into the quiet shuffling of feet on hard clay and rush of a cold wind passing up from the depths ahead. When the column pauses for a quick rest, the silence becomes complete. The darkness ahead is palpable, filled with fine dust kicked up by the small group. Pierced by five thin lances of flashlight from mobile phones, the wafting air tastes bitter and damp – punctuated at various points by the scents of clay, earth, and the wretched stench of human waste. “The terrorists lived and died down in these tunnels. Some of the passageways have not yet been cleared of their remains or explosives,” Layla explains.

The tunnel soon opens into a small chamber. This is “a tomb for both the ancient and modern dead,” mumbles the army escort. An orange jumpsuit with faded grey lettering lies crumpled in a corner. “We now think that prisoners were forced to dig out the caves,” Layla says quietly, matching the soldier’s tone. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, she continues: “It must have been terrifying for them.” The chamber’s low ceilings bear the scars of their final work in clear, smooth grooves from pickaxes and shovels. Pointing to these etchings, Layla notes: “There is no support structure for these tunnels, which were carved straight into the solid ground. This area is not permanent. Our greatest concern right now is ensuring they do not collapse.”

Within ten feet, the need for such preservation work becomes clear. Dr. Muzahar’s flashlight, which had been dancing across the muddy walls to match his unsteady cadence, now disappears into a large high-ceilinged gallery. “Here is where my memories begin,” he sighs, pushing ahead into the room with renewed energy. “These are the great Lamassu, the winged bulls, which once guarded the above-ground entrance to a palace.” In his flashlight’s murky glow emerge the haunches of two 15-foot creatures soaring to the ceiling, their heads obscured by the earth above. “It is a miracle that ISIS did not destroy these artifacts,” Layla explains from the entranceway. “Nobody is sure exactly why this statuary was allowed to survive, but I suspect that it was simply too dark in this tomb for any public display of evil. These terrorists were only looking to create a spectacle.”

This miracle has transported Dr. Muzahar to his “younger times.” He touches the stone gently, pointing out the bulls’ various indentations and markings as a father might examine a newborn son. “I was sure I would see these statues again one day,” he says, “but I never knew when, or if that day would only come while I was dreaming.” These Lamassu guarded the political capital of the Assyrian Empire in Ninewa – a palace campus that sprawled across the modern Nabi Younis site between 900BC until King Sennacharib built his “palace without rival” in 700BC. One generation later, the Assyrian Empire would collapse, splintering under external attack and internal power struggles after centuries in which it dominated Mesopotamia. Ignoring Layla’s half-serious pleas for him to “give it a rest and move on,” Dr. Muzahar relates this history with the energy of a young doctoral student. “These bulls have watched many wars from inside their crypts, and have undoubtedly shed tears for the civilizations lost on this very ground,” he sighs.

The group eventually passes through this ancient buried gateway back into ISIS’ claustrophobic warren. Soon, the mud walls give way to solid stone – “the outer walls of the old palace,” according to Layla. Shining her light across their surface illuminates lines of cuneiform inscriptions stretching into darkness, extolling the kings for whom the palace was built in long stanzas of wedged symbols. Beyond them, ghostly faces peer at the approaching archaeologists with wide eyes and faint smiles – a characteristic feature of Assyrian carvings to signify life and vigor. “We have seen many artifacts in the past that depict hunting, battle, or banqueting scenes, but these reliefs are different and unique in the world,” Layla explains, nodding to a row of life-sized priestesses etched into the grey wall. “Instead, they show a religious procession of some sort. It will take a great deal of study to decipher their significance and meaning. This is the type of mystery that gives us fuel to push on.”

The Future of Iraq’s Past

Vague slivers of cold sunlight refracted across shovel-gouged walls indicate ascent. Soon, their source appears – a small square window cut into the domed ceiling of a wide gallery, illuminating a series of indentations perforating the rocky wall. A narrow set of spiral stairs leads up from the opposite corner toward the world above. “We are now standing in the actual tomb of Jonah. Between the Assyrian palace below and this gallery, we have traversed almost 1,000 years of history,” Layla declares with a matter-of-fact tone that belies the room’s significance. “We are standing in his grave.”

For Layla, who now heads preservation and excavation efforts across the conflict-scarred Ninewa Province, the Nabi Younis site is uniquely significant: “The shrine and its tunnels represent all stages of Mosul’s history – which is truly the history of all Iraq. For many years this heritage was buried in its own kind of tomb. Now we have a chance to exhume it with international support.” Securing assistance from foreign universities and governments, as well as from Baghdad, is critical if the artifacts buried underneath Mosul are to survive. “Already we have experienced collapses and other damage, in addition to looting,” Layla explains. “It is critical to protect the site with an emergency preservation effort quickly.”

Thus far, however, such efforts have been handicapped by serious security and political obstacles. “Of course, nobody wants to focus on antiquities right now,” Dr. Muzahar concludes, “but they will miss this heritage if they ignore the problem now.” While political actors compete for the opportunity to rebuild Mosul’s icons, pressing needs at these sites go unaddressed. Uncertain security has simultaneously prevented international teams from filling Baghdad’s role; just two days before this visit, three mortars landed in the nearby market, killing 18 civilians. “The only way to move forward in Mosul is to take these responsibilities into our own hands,” Layla adds. “Mosul will never be safe until its residents create their own militia.”

The future of Iraq’s past ultimately hinges on these governance debates. “I am hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic that the necessary steps will be taken to save this heritage,” Layla sighs on the drive back into Erbil that afternoon. “The many layers of ruins at Nabi Younis are a monument to the mistakes of leaders who could not move beyond war.”

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