Saturday, 6 April 2013

Austen Henry Layard - Discoverer of Nineveh - Part One

He will stretch out his hand against the north
and destroy Assyria,
leaving Nineveh utterly desolate
and dry as the desert.
Flocks and herds will lie down there,
creatures of every kind.
The desert owl and the screech owl
will roost on her columns.
Their hooting will echo through the windows,
rubble will fill the doorways,
the beams of cedar will be exposed.
This is the city of revelry
that lived in safety.
She said to herself,
“I am the one! And there is none besides me.”
What a ruin she has become,
a lair for wild beasts!
All who pass by her scoff
and shake their fists.

Zephaniah 2:13-15
Nineveh on the Tigris

Thus spake Zephaniah and so it came to pass that the mighty city of Nineveh; last glorious capital of the Assyrian Empire was utterly destroyed. Its walls were torn down, its palaces sacked, its streets flooded. The dust of centuries covered her until at last she was lost to memory and consigned to legend. The name of Nineveh was known only from a few tantalising references in the Old Testament. Yet today the history of Assyria is known and the wonders of Nimrud and Nineveh can be marvelled at in the world’s great museums. That this is so is largely thanks to one man: Austen Henry Layard.
The other day I had cause to grab Arnold C Brackman’s superb The Luck of Nineveh from the bookshelf just for a quick reference. A couple of hours later I was a hundred pages in with my original enquiry forgotten. Such is the compelling nature of Layard’s story. Having devoured the book for a second time I then hunted down Layard's own Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh and devoured that too.
Born into a relatively affluent family in 1817 and following an itinerant and cosmopolitan childhood spent in Paris, Florence, Switzerland and Kent, the young Layard was destined for a legal career but a sense of adventure burned within him. In 1838, aged 21, Layard finally broke free from his dull destiny which had filled him with dread at spending his days enmired in fusty legal tomes and struck out on a grand adventure, aiming to reach Ceylon where his uncle had promised him employment. Unusually however, in part due to his travelling companion Edward Mitford’s terror of the sea, he would make his way there overland; passing through regions which at the time were a virtual blank on the Victorian map.
It was a bold and many thought a foolhardy enterprise for the two young men to set out by this route but for Layard, raised on the romance of the Arabian Nights and more recently fascinated by accounts of travels and discoveries in the Near East, it represented both an escape and an exciting new horizon. It is probable that even at the time of setting out, he had little intention of reaching Ceylon.
By the time he had reached Aleppo, Layard was utterly captivated by the landscape, people and surviving ancient monuments that he had seen on his journey from Constantinople. Travelling light and fast on horseback, dressed incognito in Turkish style in the hope of avoiding robbers on the road, Layard was revelling in his freedom. Bouts of malaria and dysentery had failed to quell his adventurous spirit. Following a detour to Jerusalem he determined to visit the ruins of Petra; discovered by Burckhardt in 1812, setting off alone whilst Mitford continued eastwards. Petra lay in a land beyond the rule of law, where the Bedouin tribes held sway and Layard had many adventures amongst the Arabs, winning over the tribesmen with his easy charm but falling foul of robbers more than once. Arriving back in Aleppo robbed of most of his possessions and with only the tattered clothes on his back and his notebooks, Layard nevertheless regretted the journey not a jot, having been thrilled by the sight of Petra. Layard and Mitford pressed on to Mosul from where they journeyed down the Tigris to Baghdad and Layard once more set out alone to explore the ruins of Ctesiphon, almost drowning in a marsh on the return journey before being picked up by a passing steamer.
A H Layard
Soon the two companions decided to part company for good, with Mitford embarking eastwards towards a diplomatic career in India whilst Layard struck out into the wilds of Persia on a year-long escapade which saw him venture into the remote Baktiyari Mountains and at one point even join in raid by tribesmen against the forces of the Shah of Persia. The Great Game was afoot and Layard proved a useful and resourceful man, mapping the region and making copious notes on the dispositions of the locals. Finally, barefoot and in rags having once more fallen amongst robbers, he returned to Baghdad, from whence he was enlisted by the consul with carrying a message to the British Ambassador Sir Stratford Canning in Constantinople.
This then was the formidable traveller and indomitably curious explorer who arrived in Constantinople in 1842 and immediately impressed the ambassador, who soon found many uses for Layard, whom he employed as his private secretary.
Layard had at last found his calling or so it seemed, as a member of the diplomatic service. Nevertheless a greater passion for exploration and discovery still drove him and he continued to strive to find some means by which he might return to Mosul and commence an excavation of the mysterious mounds he had seen there and had become convinced contained the remains of a long lost city.

Whilst in Mosul, Layard had befriended the French Consul Emille Botta and the two of them had speculated long into the sweltering nights about the giant earth mounds across the Tigris from the city and what they might conceal. Botta had commenced some small scale excavations but had turned up nothing of interest. Just as he had reached the point of giving up however, Botta heard about another site at Khorsabad to the north where bricks covered with mysterious markings were being turned up by the local townspeople. Botta determined to investigate and his workmen soon turned up an astonishing find; a relief of an ancient warrior king surrounded by his soldiers and their chained captives. The discovery of a colossal, human headed, winged bull twenty seven feet tall soon followed and Botta was able to announce to the world that he had discovered the remains of a previously unknown ancient civilisation.
Though Botta did not know it at the time he was looking at the face of Sargon II: A great Assyrian general who had succeeded to the kingship during the siege of Samaria in 722 BC, ruthlessly sacking the city and carrying twenty seven thousand people away into captivity; a story which would have been familiar to him from the Old Testament. At the time of course, no one was able to decipher the cuneiform inscriptions that covered the finds.
Sargon had decided that his new dynasty required a new capital and had set about constructing a magnificent new city called Dur Sarrukin. The city boasted a wall with one hundred and fifty towers and seven gateways and a spectacular palace with two hundred rooms. None of it however would ever be used. Sargon was killed in battle in 705 BC and was succeeded by his son Sennacherib. The new king decided to abandon the still unfinished city of Dur Sarrukin and instead moved the imperial capital to the legendary city of Nineveh which lay, just as Layard and Botta suspected, across the Tigris from Mosul. As for Dur Sarrukin, it was destined to be nothing more than probably the largest folly ever constructed, left empty and unfinished to be consumed by the desert sands.
Winged bull (lamassu) from Khorsabad, now in the Louvre
Botta wrote excitedly to his friend Layard about his discoveries and Layard prevailed upon his employer Sir Stratford Canning to find funds for a British excavation. Canning, himself an enthusiast for antiquities who had recently facilitated the recovery of the remains of the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus for the British Museum, agreed to fund the project and in the winter of 1845 Layard found himself dispatched to hire Arab diggers and investigate the mysterious mound of Nimrud; some fourteen miles downstream from Mosul. He met almost immediately with success, when the corner of an alabaster slab protruding from the mound proved to be the entrance to a great chamber, whose walls were covered with reliefs. As the diggers excitedly drove exploratory tunnels into the mound, more and more finds came to light until Layard at last found his way into a great throne room.
Layard had found the complex of palaces begun in the reign of Assurnasirpal II, who came to the Assyrian throne in 883 BC and set about re-establishing the empire in a merciless onslaught, sweeping all before him in a wave of conquest which took Assyrian control once more to the shores of the Mediterranean by subduing Phoenicia. Assurnasirpal commanded the most efficient army yet seen in the Near East, an unstoppable war machine capable not only of dominating the battlefield but of attacking and taking walled cities. He was proud of his army. In his new capital at Nimrud he decorated the walls of his throne room with great reliefs depicting scenes of war. Visitors to the palace would be left in no doubt as to the deadly efficiency of the Assyrian army, nor would they be in any doubt as to the fate of those who rebelled against Assyrian control. The reliefs showed the Assyrians overcoming all adversaries. Nowhere was an Assyrian soldier shown to be wounded or dead. They marched on unstoppably whilst enemy bodies piled up around them.
The most evocative finds unearthed by Layard from the ruins of Nimrud were the colossal stone guardians which watched over the entrances to the throne rooms, similar to those found by Botta at Khorsabad and which today greet visitors to the Assyrian gallery of the British Museum. Their discovery caused a furore amongst the local population in Mosul who denounced the finds as devils and idols.
Moving the winged bulls at Nimrud
Layard, triumphant, spent Christmas 1845 in Baghdad at the home of the British Consul Henry Rawlinson; the man who would play a large part in the decipherment of cuneiform and the unlocking of the history of the ancient civilisations of the Near East. As Layard unearthed treasures at Nimrud, it was agreed, Rawlinson would arrange for their transport downriver to Baghdad, where he could pore eagerly over their inscriptions and arrange their onward transport to the British Museum. In the event it proved impossible to for a steamer to make its way upstream as far as Nimrud and so Layard was obliged to have the reliefs that he had unearthed cut into several pieces and floated down the Tigris to Baghdad on rafts.
Despite the fierce Anglo-French rivalry which raged across the Nineteenth Century archaeological landscape, Botta and Layard remained great friends who took pains to ensure that each other’s achievements were recognised on both sides of the Channel. Nevertheless the two nations were now engaged in a race to bring home the first Assyrian artefacts to Europe. Would it be the British Museum or the Louvre that would take the glory? Layard and Guillois, Botta’s replacement in Mosul, both now fell upon the mound that they hoped would yield up the fabled city of Nineveh but their rival searches brought little to light and Layard returned to Nimrud where, with the pathetically small sum forwarded him by the British Museum trustees for conducting the excavation, he continued to work miracles.
In total Layard discovered three distinct palaces, with miles of reliefs and dozens of sculptures, including thirteen pairs of colossal stone guardians; lamassu as they are known. Selecting the two best preserved examples; one with the body of a lion and one with the body of a bull, Layard undertook the immense task of removing them from their positions and transporting them on rollers and then on a specially constructed giant cart to the river. They were transported on goat-skin rafts downriver to Basra from where they could take ship for India and ultimately England.
In his memoirs Layard reflects movingly on the remarkable journey that these ancient treasures were undertaking:

As I watched the rafts, until they disappeared behind a projecting bank forming a distant reach of the river, I could not forebear musing upon the strange destiny of their burdens; which, after adorning the palaces of the Assyrian kings, the objects of the wonder and maybe the worship of thousands, had been  buried unknown for centuries beneath a soil trodden by Persians under Cyrus, by Greeks under Alexander, and by Arabs under the first successors of their Prophet. They were now to visit India, to cross the most distant seas of the southern hemisphere, and to be finally placed in a British museum. Who can venture to foretell how their strange career will end?

A.H. Layard - Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh
Transporting the bull to the river
His work at Nimrud had been a triumph but the mounds across the river at Mosul still defied him. With almost no funds left, Layard nevertheless determined to have one more crack at the most promising mound known as Kouyunjik, still as convinced as the first time he had seen it that it harboured secrets and treasures just waiting for discovery.
You may also enjoy: Ctesiphon - Fallen City of the Sassanid Kings

1 comment:

  1. I am so inspired by your site. Thank you. It helps to see our own lives - the hubris of our own civilization - in the light of lost civilizations and empires.