Hadi Hassan, a major in the Iraqi Army, stood by two Humvees outside the Nebi Yunus mosque in Mosul, Iraq. A bear of a man, he had a pistol in a drop-holster and three mobile phones. On top of the Humvee one of his soldiers rotated a turret gun in its gimballed mount – clack, clack, clack – tracking it across the city, largely destroyed during the recent battle with Islamic State (IS). But I wasn’t interested in recent ruins that day. “You’ve come to see the lamassu,” said Hassan, like a proud zookeeper.
He was referring to the giant sculptures from the Assyrian period (900-600BC) – fantastic beasts with human heads, bull or lion bodies, and wings – that lay buried deep beneath our feet. The mosque sits on top of a vast man-made hill, the result of millennia of occupation on that single spot. The Assyrians came first, building a palace in the sixth century BC. Then came Christians, who venerated the site as the resting place of the prophet Jonah and built a church in his honour on top of the old palace. They were followed by Muslims, who also venerated Jonah and built a mosque.
In 2014 IS arrived and, because this had been a place of pilgrimage for different faiths, they blew up Nebi Yunus before profiting from their destruction. IS made an estimated $5m from selling artifacts looted from ancient sites like Palmyra. At Nebi Yunus they dug tunnels deep into the mound of stone, mud-bricks and desert sand in order to retrieve whatever antiquities they could find.
We picked our way through the blasted wreckage and climbed down through a broken slab of polished stone in the floor of one of the side rooms. As we descended into a warren of shafts, we passed through a layer-cake of current affairs and ancient history. The air was cold, damp and mouldy, with tunnels branching off in every direction. “The looting was terrible,” Hassan said. “IS robbed and smashed their way through the city, its mosques and churches, museums and libraries. But they were idiots too; they looted bits of cooking pots and yet left us these priceless statues.” He pointed at a frieze of three goddesses set into the wall.
As my eyes grew accustomed to the dark I began to see the thousands of pick-marks made by the people who, enslaved by IS, dug the tunnels. No one is sure who these diggers were but scraps of their discarded uniforms – the notorious orange jumpsuits – were found down here. IS tunnels are notorious for being booby-trapped with explosives, and as my eyes scanned for tell-tale wires along the floors and walls, I saw shattered Assyrian funerary jars with bones spilling from them, along with other bones scattered on the floor – the remains of meals eaten by IS’s slaves. It’s hard to reconcile an interest in ancient monuments with such modern horror. But for many Iraqis, the past is proof that they will survive: no matter what storms rage now, they know they are part of an ancient civilisation.
We ventured deeper into the maze of tunnels. It felt like pure Indiana Jones, except that instead of illuminating our path with flaming torches we used the lights on our phones. Eventually, out of the murk, two hulking figures began to emerge. We were now at the ground level of the original Assyrian palace, and the lamassu, which were thought of as protective deities, stood guard either side of an entrance way. Towering over us, each was half-buried in the walls of the tunnel as if shouldering the incredible weight of the shrine above them. Hassan beamed and slapped the elephant-sized beast lovingly: “IRAQ!” he shouted.
I put my hands on one of the cold statues. Suddenly I was transported back to rainy afternoons in London as a child, looking up the lamassu that have been displayed in the British Museum since they were taken from Assyrian sites in the 19th century. I mentioned this to my Iraqi friends, which provoked more laughter. “Ah, yes. The British,” Hassan said admiringly. “Now they really knew how to loot.”