An Iraqi soldier near the temple carvings. Photograph: Aris Messinis/AFP/Getty Images.

Ancient Temple Discovered Beneath Holy Site Previously Destroyed by ISIS in Mosul

Beneath the destroyed tomb of the prophet Jonah in Mosul, which was housed in the twelfth-century Mosque of the Prophet Jonah, Iraqi archeologists have discovered a previously unknown Assyrian temple, possibly dating back to the fifth or sixth centuries BCE, amid escape tunnels dug by ISIS militants, writes Maev Kennedy of The Guardian. Jonah’s mosque and tomb were blown up by ISIS in 2014. Experts at the British Museum believe that ISIS’s tunnels went so far underground that they managed to accidentally uncover the temple, which is cut into bedrock.

So far only poor-quality photographs are available of the temple, which depict, among other things, some carvings of figures participating in religious ceremonies. “The reliefs are unique, they have features which we have not seen anywhere else—they are not at all like the well-known Assyrian hunting and banqueting scenes such as we have in the museum,” said Sebastien Rey, the head archaeologist at the Iraq Emergency Heritage Management Program at the British Museum. “The archaeologists are incredibly brave,” Rey continued. “They are working in extreme danger, with the mudbrick [under which the temple is buried] in danger of collapse at any time. When it is safe to mount a full rescue excavation this will be a major operation, needing a great deal of resources which will certainly mean international support.” Layla Salih, head of the antiquities service for Mosul, also reported that more than one hundred pieces of pottery—found in reasonably good shape—have been hiding in a house in Mosul, likely stolen by ISIS as they were creating the tunnels.

Qais Rashid, the deputy Iraqi culture minister, reported at a UNESCO conference in Paris last month that ISIS has destroyed at least sixty-six archeological sites, some of which have since been turned into parking lots. But with troops poised to retake Mosul, there may be hope for heritage and archeological sites there yet.