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Iraq: No haven for ancient world's landmarks

At Nimrud, decay is accelerating for 3,000 years of history.

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History in stone: Little money is devoted to upkeep of ancient panels depicting the conquests of King Asurnasirpal II, who ruled a vast empire from his palace at Nimrud.

Jane Arraf

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The carved stone reliefs lined the entrance to a great palace, a testament to one of the most powerful kings the world has known. The ancient works of art have stood for 3,000 years but for the past 20 they've been threatened by the lack of a corrugated steel roof.

One of the prizes of archaeology, the excavated palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud, is in peril. The World Monuments Fund lists Nimrud as one of its most endangered sites.

Exposed to the elements, the reliefs are quickly deteriorating, experts say. Without basic maintenance, they will decay further and modern society will lose an important portal into the life of one of the great warrior kings and the beginnings of civilization.

Here on the banks of the Tigris River, King Ashurnasirpal II built a six-acre palace of cedar and exotic woods. The walls were lined with glazed and painted seven-foot-high stone bas reliefs of his epic battles. Inside, furniture was inlaid with the most delicate ivory carvings. When the palace was completed around 869 BC, 70,000 guests attended a feast that lasted 10 days.

Now, inside the North West Palace, dead birds lie at the feet of the mythical beings depicted on the alabaster panels. Droppings from pigeons flying in and out of the broken windows stain the seven-foot-high reliefs of King Ashurnasirpal and the winged genies that protected him. The weather has softened the sharp details of feathers carved by craftsmen 3,000 years ago, as well as the cuneiform inscriptions below them.

Outside, the soft stone of a huge, intricately carved winged bull guarding the entrance to the palace has been pockmarked by rain coming in from gaps in the makeshift metal roof and by blowing sand. Mold creeps from cracks in some of the carvings.

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