Beneath Biblical Prophet's Tomb, an Archaeological Surprise

Seven inscriptions were found in looters' tunnels dug beneath the destroyed tomb of Jonah (one of the tunnels is shown here).
Seven inscriptions were found in looters' tunnels dug beneath the destroyed tomb of Jonah (one of the tunnels is shown here). (Image credit: Eleanor Robson)

Deep inside looters' tunnels dug beneath the Tomb of Jonah in the ancient Iraq city of Nineveh, archaeologists have uncovered 2,700-year-old inscriptions that describe the rule of an Assyrian king named Esarhaddon.

The seven inscriptions were discovered in four tunnels beneath the biblical prophet's tomb, which is a shrine that's sacred to both Christians and Muslims. The shrine was blown up by the Islamic State group (also called ISIS or Daesh) during its occupation of Nineveh from June 2014 until January 2017.

ISIS or ISIS-backed looters apparently dug the tunnels to look for archaeological treasures from the Assyrian kings in what is today Iraq, Ali Y. Al-Juboori, director of the Assyrian Studies Centre at the University of Mosul, wrote in a recent issue of the journal Iraq. [In Photos: Ancient City Discovered in Iraq]

Deciphering inscriptions

One inscription, in translation, reads: "The palace of Esarhaddon, strong king, king of the world, king of Assyria, governor of Babylon, king of Sumer and Akkad, king of the kings of lower Egypt, upper Egypt and Kush [an ancient kingdom located south of Egypt in Nubia]."

This inscription was found during excavations at Nineveh on the back of a fallen "lamassu," a deity with a human's head and the body of a lion or bull. It reads (in translation): "The palace of Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, descendant of Sennacherib, king of Assyria." (Image credit: Stevan Beverly)

Kush leaders at one point ruled Egypt, according to ancient inscriptions found at other archaeological sites. Those inscriptions also say that Esarhaddon defeated the Kush rulers and chose new rulers to govern Egypt. 

Another inscription found under the Tomb of Jonah says that Esarhaddon "reconstructed the temple of the god Aššur [the chief god of the Assyrians]," rebuilt the ancient cities of Babylon and Esagil, and "renewed the statues of the great gods."

The inscriptions also tell of Esarhaddon's family history, saying that he is the son of Sennacherib [reign 704–681 B.C.] and a descendent of Sargon II (reign 721–705 B.C.), who was also "king of the world, king of Assyria."

More inscriptions

Al-Juboori also translated four other inscriptions found at Nineveh, near the Nergal Gate (Nergal was the Assyrian god of war), between 1987 and 1992 by an archaeological team from Iraq's Inspectorate of Antiquities. Conflicts in the area made it difficult for the team to publish their discoveries at the time. 

The inscriptions date to the reign of King Sennacherib, and they all say this king "had the inner wall and outer wall of Nineveh built anew and raised as high as mountains." 

Archaeologists found several inscriptions near the Tomb of Jonah during the 1987-1992 excavations. One of them was written on a prism-shaped clay object and discusses Esarhaddon's many military conquests, including Cilicia (located on the southern coast of what is now Turkey). The transcribed inscription calls Esarhaddon "the one who treads on the necks of the people of Cilicia."

Esarhaddon claims in the inscription that "I surrounded, conquered, plundered, demolished, destroyed and burned with fire twenty-one of their cities together with small cities in their environs. …" The inscription also discusses his conquest of Sidon (located in modern-day Lebanon), claiming that Esarhaddon's army tore down the city's walls and threw them into the Mediterranean Sea.

The remains of ancient inscriptions from other sites that ISIS tried to loot and destroy have also been found. After the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud was recaptured in November 2017, the surviving inscriptions include one describing a monkey colony that once flourished at Nimrud. 

Originally published on Live Science.

Owen Jarus
Live Science Contributor

Owen Jarus is a regular contributor to Live Science who writes about archaeology and humans' past. He has also written for The Independent (UK), The Canadian Press (CP) and The Associated Press (AP), among others. Owen has a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto and a journalism degree from Ryerson University.