by Nadav Shragai
Even from Syria and Iraq, ISIS is systematically destroying precious testimony of Jerusalem's historical links to the region's great ancient empires • Dr. Donald Sanders sits with Israel Hayom to discuss how virtual reality can help solve the problem.
Austen Henry Layard was a 28-year-old British adventurer, a lawyer by trade, who in the 1840s traveled across Mesopotamia in search of biblical cities. In 1849, Layard came upon the ruins of Nineveh (near Mosul in modern-day Iraq), one of the late capitals of the Assyrian Empire. He began digging.
Layard and his associates worked hard, but the work paid off. One morning they discovered a sculpture of a giant bull with a man's head, and they were overcome with excitement. The sculpture was designed to serve as a type of sentry, placed at the doorway to the throne room of what modern-day archeologists would come to recognize as the South-West Palace. Layard could hardly contain his joy when he identified a lengthy and intricate text on the side of the sculpture, recounting the story of the Sennacherib siege of Jerusalem, and details of the ransom money eventually paid by Hezekiah, the King of Judea, to the Sennacherib army -- 30 gold bullions. These were independent archeological findings, the first of their kind, which testified to events mentioned in the bible.
Today, as a fog hangs over what is happening in Nineveh, Nimrod and other ancient sites in Syria and Iraq, and as conflicting reports trickle to the West about the scope of the destruction inflicted by the Islamic State group at these sites, archeologist Dr. Donald Sanders, the President of the Institute for the Visualization of History, is visiting Jerusalem.
Sanders is one of the world's most highly regarded experts in his field. Since 2001, his work has made it possible for millions of people across the globe to participate in virtual tours of invaluable ancient sites, and to acquire knowledge and gain historical perspective by purchasing the services offered by his online museum. He did not plan of course for his life's work to include this commercial aspect. His commodities, however, are essentially the last bastions of our ancient memory -- even if only virtual -- of these precious artifacts and cultures, such as the winged bull's heads from Nineveh, which the Islamic State group is currently obliterating. Nebi Yunes, the site which was blown up by Islamic State in Mosul and is recognized as the burial place of Jonah the prophet -- is also documented by Sanders. The Book of Jonah is traditionally read in synagogues every Yom Kippur, as will be the case later this month.
"Islamic State controls the information"
In an interview with Israel Hayom this week, Sanders expressed his belief that the West isn't doing enough to save these artifacts and the most important archeological monuments in the Middle East, built by King Sennacherib of Assyria 2,650 years ago. With that, he also understands the complex reality of the situation and the fact that concern for human life, which Islamic State extinguishes everywhere it goes, overshadows the concern for the statues it is destroying.
Sanders' work includes a sea of information, cross-referenced from multiple sources: biblical, Assyrian, photographs or drawings -- all of it digitally reproduced by sophisticated software. His most recent development is a smartphone application -- the dream of any beginning Assyriologist -- which automatically translates cuneiform script into English.
At the City of David Studies of Ancient Jerusalem annual conference on Thursday, titled "ISIS: Is it possible to stop the destruction?" Sanders took participants on a virtual tour of ancient Nineveh, specifically of the section that no longer exists. Sanders recounted how Layard discovered the South-West Palace, and the room in which Sennacherib's siege of the Lachish region of Judea is documented. He also presented the illustrations found on the walls of the Lachish Room, depicting the full scope of the devastation wrought on the second-most important city in the Judean kingdom. He spoke of Lachish's destruction, about the capitulation to the battering rams of Sennacherib's army and about the cruelty of the Assyrian army, which slit the throats of its captives, as scores of surviving Jews were hauled off to Sennacherib praying for their lives.
Sanders is a historian of architecture and an archeologist. In his work he combines and implements innovative methods, including advanced computerized graphics, virtual realities and behavioral sciences techniques -- all for the purpose of teaching and simulating the past. He illustrates the story of the spread of the Assyrians, the mighty empire of the Near East, through virtual tours and a variety of videos.
"We know that ISIS blew up part of the wall at ancient Nineveh, and we know that the king's palace that Sennacherib describes as being 'without rival' hasn't been damaged," Sanders says in response to the question of how much is actually known about the scope of the destruction. "However, some of the very impressive sculptures there were shattered by the organization. There are more unknowns than knowns. ISIS is in control of the information reaching the West, no one else. That's part of the problem."
Q: Are the materials already documented from sites like Nineveh enough to create reproductions, at least virtually, of the ancient Assyrian world?
"Broadly speaking, the answer is yes, but it changes from site to site. There are sites where the level of detail in the computerized reproduction will be very high, and there are sites where the level of detail will be lower, all in accordance with the raw materials and the photographs we have in our possession."
Q: Are you aware of any type of contact with Islamic State regarding the matter of antiquities preservation? Despite their barbaric nature, is someone trying to reach out to them anyway and discuss the matter with them?
"I know in general that there were such attempts, by private individuals and by state representatives, but they never amounted to anything. It is such a shame; 2,700 years ago the Assyrians similarly destroyed antiquities and historical monuments in Lachish, and now, their modern-day 'successors,' ISIS, are desecrating the Assyrian culture in the same manner. History is laughing, or perhaps crying."
Q: Through an historical perspective, it is possible the British were wise to take so many antiquities back to London from Iraq. Perhaps it would have been even better if they had taken more with them?
"There are two sides to that coin. It's possible, surely, that many more artifacts would have been saved. On the other hand there is much less value to findings that are disconnected from their natural habitat and context and put on display in a museum. It's a very old argument, which the offenders from ISIS have made relevant again. Absurdly, the fact that ISIS needs some of these antiquities to fund its conquests and barbaric endeavors, is saving some of them. There is someone working on this front."
The Assyrian march of conquests is, in many ways, a part of the historic story of the people of Israel. The objective of Sennacherib's third march westward was to punish the coalition of kingdoms that rebelled against him, among them Judea. Sennacherib's armies embarked on their path in 701 BCE. The kingdom of Israel, the capital of which had been located in Samaria, had already ceased to exist. But King Hezekiah was still ruling over Judea and Jerusalem.
This bloody Assyrian campaign is mentioned in multiple ancient scriptures. From a Jewish perspective, the main interest lies in the war in Judea and Hezekiah's attempt to withstand Sennacherib's onslaught. After successfully subduing most of the rebellion, Sennacherib turned to "deal" with the Judean kingdom. He first closed in on Azekah, the border city between Judea and Assyria; he toppled its walls with battering rams and set the city ablaze. In a reference to Azekah found in Nineveh, Sennacherib himself describes the siege: "With the help of battering rams and an infantry attack ... they, the Jews, saw my horsemen draw near and they heard the mighty roar of the Assyrian god, and their hearts were filled with fear; the city of Azekah I besieged, I captured, I carried off its spoil, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire."
Sennacherib then turned toward the second most important Judean city -- Lachish. The city was built under the kings Josiah and Menashe. It was completely destroyed along with the First Temple and the remaining Judean cities, after Zedekiah's rebellion (585 BCE). Sennacherib reached Lachish some 120 years earlier, on his aforementioned campaign to quell Hezekiah's rebellion in Judea. In Sennacherib's palace, the British adventurer Layard found a wall relief depicting the siege and destruction and refugees bowing before the ruler on his throne. Next to the image were the words: "Sennacherib, king of nations, king of Assyria, sitting on his throne, causes the spoils of the city of Lachish to pass before him." The stone wall relief is on display at the British Museum in London.
In "Sennacherib's Annals," inscribed on a number of artifacts, one of which was found in the ruins of his palace, are detailed accounts, supposedly, of what transpired on that campaign of oppression -- which culminated in the massacre of the Jews of Lachish.
From a distance, Hezekiah closely followed the unfolding of events in Lachish. When he understood that Sennacherib had the same fate in store for Jerusalem, he ordered the digging of a 533-meter (1,750 foot) canal stretching to Gihon, to reroute the flow of water away from the Assyrians. In the Second Book of Chronicles it is written: "When Hezekiah saw that Sennacherib had come and that he intended to wage war against Jerusalem, he consulted with his officials and military staff about blocking off the water from the springs outside the city, and they helped him. They gathered a large group of people who blocked all the springs and the stream that flowed through the land [2 Chronicles 32:2-4]."
Chronicles also describes how Hezekiah spoke to the people and gained their support, and how Jerusalem refused to surrender and open its gates to the Assyrians. Sennacherib later dispatched his envoys Rabshakeh, Rabsaris and Tartan to persuade the residents of Jerusalem to surrender. Rabshakeh, standing near the wall on the north side of the city, delivered a stirring speech, but Hezekiah and his people did not capitulate. Then the siege began.
According to the Assyrian source (Sennacherib's Annals, discovered in Nineveh), Hezekiah, afraid for his kingdom, sent a message to Sennacherib saying: "I have done wrong. Withdraw from me, and I will pay whatever you demand of me [2 Kings 18:14]." It was then that "the king of Assyria exacted from Hezekiah king of Judea three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. So Hezekiah gave him all the silver that was found in the temple of the Lord and in the treasuries of the royal palace. [2 Kings 18:15-16]."
Based on Sennacherib's Annals, the campaign ends here. Hezekiah remains king but is now a tributary leader. According to the Torah, however, Assyrian soldiers died en masse during the siege of Jerusalem by the hand of God. Regardless, Sennacherib conquered parts of Judea, caused a mass exile, but was ultimately unable to conquer the kingdom of Judea and enslave it. Judea was to remain free for another 115 years.
Through their revolutionary innovations, Sanders and his team join together the Assyrian and biblical accounts of the events. They attribute the scenes ingrained in Sennacherib's palace walls to the testimonies unearthed at the Lachish excavation.
"One of the byproducts of our virtual research," says Sanders, "is that several projects were merged to again reveal a link between Jerusalem and Nineveh."
Sanders continues: "One of the events that occurred in 701 was the military campaign waged by Egyptian forces, led by a young commander by the name of Tirhakah, to help the people of Jerusalem against Sennacherib's armies in Judea. Even though he suffered a resounding defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, Tirhakah later became a pharaoh of the Ancient Egyptian 25th dynasty. In an interesting coincidence, along with the fact that artifacts from the 25th Dynasty were found in Nineveh, we are also working on a 3-D computerized simulation of the Jebel Barkal site that Tirhakah built in Nubia, Sudan of today, which will include monuments built by Tirhakah."
Sanders emphasizes that the innovations to his simulation research not only help commemorate sites and findings that ISIS is now destroying, they also help gather all the relevant material pertaining to the various antiquities sites.
"All the testimony is centralized, studied and integrated," he explains. "We have now made available, for the purpose of aiding archeological field work, a software package that will digitally preserve all the data from the moment of discovery to the moment of publicizing, integrate all the different types of data together, be applicable to different types of sites, and will feature three-dimensional interactivity."
During the conversation, Sanders also mentions the Cairo Declaration, signed by 10 countries whose antiquities have become targeted for destruction by terrorists or have been sold on the black market. The declaration aspires to institute basic guidelines, independent supervisory committees, in conjunction with task forces, to fight on behalf of cultural heritage. Sanders sees himself as a soldier in this campaign.
This week Sanders was a guest of the Megalim Institute for Jerusalem studies, established by the City of David Foundation, which together with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority organized Thursday's archaeological conference. Megalim Director Ahron Horovitz told Israel Hayom that the original idea was to dedicate one panel to the link between Jerusalem and Mesopotamia.
"After all," he says, "you can't truly understand the history of ancient Jerusalem without knowing its relationship with the great empires of the East: Assyria, Babylon, Persia. But the frequent reports about how the evidence of this relationship is being destroyed, led us to the decision to dedicate most of the conference to the antiquities destruction by ISIS."
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