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Iraq's urban sprawl, not looting, threatens Ninevah antiquities

Growth threatens undiscovered layers of an empire that stretched from the Nile Valley to the Caucusus.

Breaking down: Experts say the statue of a winged bull near the gates of the ancient city of Ninevah is deteriorating due to exposure.

Jane Arraf

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Nine-year-old Younis struggles to open the large iron padlock to the gates of Ninevah.

Younis, letting in visitors late one afternoon to the ancient site, is named after the prophet Jonah, who is said to be buried within the city walls of the Assyrian capital. It's a popular name here in the modern city that has sprung up within the ancient walls, threatening the undiscovered layers of civilizations underneath.

"There is very little left of Ninevah now because of the encroachment," says Muzahim Hussein, director of antiquities in Ninevah Province. Mr. Hussein says renovation in the 1990s of the Nebi Younis mosque – dedicated to the prophet Jonah and built on the site of an older church – destroyed part of the ancient city, across the river from modern Mosul.

"There are many treasures under there, but archaeologists could not stop the renovation," says Hussein, who believes there is an Assyrian palace buried underneath the site. "The department of antiquities could not stop the renovations because it was done by President Saddam Hussein himself, and because religiously, it's a holy place and you can't excavate near it or under it."

The Iraqi archaeologist's excavation at Nebi Younis in 1990 revealed neo-Assyrian sculptures that appeared to be the entrance to a palace. Hussein says he wrapped them in plastic and buried them again to hide and protect them.

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