The ancient city now called Nimrud, located in what is present-day Iraq, was once the military capital of one of history's fiercest empires. When word first leaked out this summer that Iraqi archaeologists had discovered a major find at the site, scientists around the world were immediately intrigued. The reports told of remarkable archaeological treasures, including royal tombs heaped with gold jewelry of exquisite quality. But reliable information about the site was virtually impossible to obtain. The Iraqis refused to grant visas to the press or let any outsiders photograph the jewelry.
Until now. Through a series of extraordinary turns of fate, and by the good graces of Iraq's Department of Antiquities, TIME has obtained exclusive access to both the Nimrud site and the treasures uncovered there -- including some 57 kg (125.6 lbs.) of gold jewelry never before shown outside Iraq. The find, which was made by Muzahim Mahmoud Hussein, head of the Iraqi team at Nimrud, has turned out to be, by all accounts, one of the most important in modern times. John Curtis, an archaeologist from the British Museum, describes the treasure of Nimrud as the most significant archaeological discovery since King Tutankhamen's tomb was uncovered in Egypt in 1922.
Because the treasure includes booty captured during Assyrian raids, the discoveries may shed light on other cultures as well. But beyond its scientific importance, the jewelry is stunning in its own right. Some of it displays craftsmanship that puts even Van Cleef's to shame. There is an intricate crown woven from fine gold strands; a flask carved flawlessly from a solid block of crystal; a pair of heavy cuffs set with stones that look like large, startled eyes; a playful necklace festooned with teardrop pendants. "It sets a magnificent standard," says Georgina Herrmann, an archaeologist at the British Institute of Archaeology. "The workmanship would be difficult to duplicate today."
The Assyrians, who first rose to power about 17 centuries after the unification of Egypt, swept out of the fertile valley of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to conquer much of the Middle East, from roughly 900 B.C. to 612 B.C. They were known for their ferocious cruelty. In addition to their biblical role as the oppressors of Israel, there was the testimony of Ashurnasirpal II, an Assyrian king of the 9th century B.C. who boasted in cuneiform inscriptions of having rebellious chieftains impaled on stakes, dismembered and skinned alive. Ashurnasirpal made Nimrud, known in the Bible as Calah, his capital. The fortress city on the banks of the Tigris was dominated by an elaborate palace and a towering ziggurat and was populated in part by peoples subjugated during military campaigns.
Nimrud's glory ended abruptly in 612 B.C., when the Assyrians, badly overextended, were taken by surprise by the combined armies of the Medes, the Babylonians and the Scythians. Nimrud was overrun. The palace caught fire, and its ceilings collapsed. Over time, the Tigris changed course, and the glorious ziggurat was reduced to a formless mound.