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We passed bombed factories and bullet-pocked houses, and then jolted up a hilltop on the eastern outskirts of the city. The mud-brick remnants of the purported tomb of the biblical prophet Jonah—dynamited to bits by the Islamic State in July —sprawled in front of us. Muffled explosions from a battle between jihadists and Iraqi security forces reverberated across the Tigris River, two miles away.
A police officer helped Salih—a round-faced woman wearing a floral hijab, black sequined sweater and sneakers—and me to climb over a slippery, muddy embankment.
We kicked off the thick goo that clung to our shoes. Then Salih ducked down, squeezed into a four-foot-high tunnel and led me into the darkness. Looted treasures constitute a lucrative source of revenue for ISIS. On that visit, she had entered the tunnel—and soon found herself deep inside a lost 2,year-old Assyrian palace carved in the bedrock. Walls inscribed with cuneiform, a winged bull and a worn-away frieze of three robed women—all left intact because the militants apparently feared collapsing the tunnel if they tried to remove them—materialized out of the gloom.
News of her discovery had rocketed around the world. Now Salih had returned to show me what she had uncovered. Salih cast her light on an ancient well, and on a pile of blue uniforms in a corner. I breathed in the musty air, fearful that the passageway might cave in at any moment.
Then, barely visible in shadows from the pale stream of her flashlight, a gypsum wall inscribed with thousands of tiny, wedge-shaped characters appeared. Without an expert to guide me through the murk, I would easily have missed them; Salih had stumbled upon them while carefully probing the tunnel for statuary. Cuneiform provided a historical record of the kingdoms that had flourished in the Fertile Crescent, the intersection of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, at the very dawn of civilization.