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The seven reliefs made of alabaster depict the military victories of Sennacherib, a Neo-Assyrian king.
Archaeologists have stumbled upon a series of stone carvings while working on the reconstruction of the Mashki Gate in Mosul, Iraq, which Islamic State (IS) destroyed in 2016. The Mashki Gate was one of the grand gateways to the ancient Assyrian capital of Nineveh.
The director of the project, Michael Danti, an archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania, says that the seven 2,700-year-old alabaster carvings are “some of the best-preserved examples of King Sennacherib reliefs in existence.” His team is collaborating with the Nineveh State Board of Antiquities and Heritage on ongoing excavations that started in April. “They are rare and well-preserved examples of a very important time period and ruler and a pivotal point in time for Near Eastern art,” he says.
The Assyrian carvings are the only current examples of Sennacherib reliefs in Iraq. “If an Iraqi wanted to see one, they’d have to go to the British Museum. This is a very exciting moment for Iraqis,” Danti says. His project got funding from the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Museum for additional excavation, as well as slightly over $1 million from the International Alliance for the Protection of Heritage in Conflict Areas (Aliph) to rebuild the gate.
Other historic sites in Iraq, particularly in its north, have been restored after being destroyed by ISIS, including Hatra and Nimrud.
Sennacherib, a Neo-Assyrian king who ruled from 704-681 BC, relocated Khorsabad, established by his father Sargon II, 15 kilometers northeast of modern-day Mosul, to Nineveh to serve as the imperial capital. Sennacherib significantly expanded Nineveh by building city walls, temples, gardens, and the renowned Southwest Palace. His military victories, particularly in the Levant, and the fall of Babylon in 689 BC are well-recorded events, and the majority of the seven slabs that were found at the Mashki gate site extol his deeds.
The seven slabs discovered at Mashki gate depict military encampments in lush, mountainous areas that Danti theorizes might be in present-day Lebanon, and they are carved in alabaster or “Mosul marble” with remarkable detail. Along with representations of Assyrian lords, warriors, and captives, they also feature date palms, grape vines, and pomegranate trees.
The Bible’s Book of Isaiah provides a thorough account of King Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem and sacking of the city of Lachish in the Kingdom of Judea. His conquests of Phoenicia are also widely known. Danti asserts that the recently discovered slabs are similar to those found at Sennacherib’s Southwest Palace, which were unearthed by the British during the 19th century and are now on display in the British Museum and portray his siege of Lachish.
Ironically, ISIS actually destroyed a replica of the old gate that had been created in the 1970s by archaeologist and artist Tariq Madhloom. The original gate had been burned in a fire when the Babylonians and Medes attacked in 612 BC. The renowned painter and protector of Iraqi culture started the site’s excavations in 1968 and then rebuilt the gate using the information he found.
When Danti’s team went beneath what Madhloom had excavated, they unlocked a gateway he had blocked and found the Assyrian drawings in a long hallway beneath the layer of rubble and artifacts from the fire in 612 BC.
The relief slabs that were discovered, which contained faint indications of portions that had been removed, according to Danti, were an attempt by a later ruler—possibly Sinsharishkun, the last king of Nineveh—to erase and recycle the priceless alabaster material. According to him, they were most likely first installed in Mashki Gate after being lost due to the Babylonian invasion after being utilized for the Southwest Palace.
The site, which has been exploited and seized by numerous empires and invaders, will come full circle once the gate reconstruction is finished in a few years, according to Danti, with a proposed visitor’s center chronicling Nineveh’s history.