Monday, 15 April 2013

Austen Henry Layard – Discoverer of Nineveh - Part Two

Woe to the city of blood,Full of lies, full of plunder, never without victims! The crack of whips, the clatter of wheels, galloping horses and jolting chariots! Charging cavalry, flashing swords and glittering spears!
Many casualties, piles of dead, bodies without number, People stumbling over the corpses all because of the wanton lust of a harlot, Alluring, the mistress of sorceries, Who enslaved nations by her prostitution and peoples by her witchcraft."I am against you," declares the Lord Almighty. "I will lift your skirts over your face!  I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame.I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle.All who see you will flee from you and say, 'Nineveh is in ruins--who will mourn for her?' Where can I find anyone to comfort you?"

Nahum 3:1-7

Layard's recreation of Assurnasirpal II's throne room
Nineveh was destroyed just as the prophets had foretold. It lay forgotten, buried beneath the dust of centuries. In 1847 however, the lost city's slumber was finally brought to an end and its treasures were once more destined to see the light of day. Her discoverer was at hand at last.
Layard had learned much from the excavation of Nimrud and when he returned to Mosul he looked once more upon the great mounds across the river with new eyes; seeing at once where he must dig if he were to meet with success at last. Layard now understood that the Assyrian kings had built their temples and palaces atop great platforms of sun-dried bricks. The key therefore was to discover the top of the platform which Layard was able to determine by observing the highest point of the mound which corresponded to the top of the ziggurat; the great pyramidal structure at the heart of the temple. Having unearthed a pavement of brick at the expected height, Layard set his diggers to work and soon they uncovered the entrance to a chamber flanked by the a colossal pair of winged bulls. Everywhere once again the evidence of destruction by fire was clear. Layard soon noted that all of the reliefs and sculptures in this new city were larger than those found elsewhere. Clearly this was a case of royal one-upmanship. Nineveh had been found.
The locals by this stage regarded the charismatic blue-eyed Layard as something of a magician and marvelled at his ability to conjure up from beneath the soil, that which they had never suspected lay under their feet. As Layard's friend the Sheikh declares:

God is great! Here are stones which have been buried ever since the time of the holy Noah- peace be with him! Perhaps they were under ground before the deluge. My father and the father of my father, pitched their tents here before me; but they never heard of these figures. For twelve hundred years have the true believers been settled in this country, and none of them ever heard of a palace under ground. Neither did they who went before them. But lo! Here comes a Frank from many days' journey off, and he walks up to the very place, and he takes a stick and makes a line here and makes a line there. Here, says he, is the palace; there, says he, is the gate; and he shows us what has been all our lives beneath our feet, without our having known anything about it. Wonderful! Is it by books, is it by magic, is it by your prophets that you have learned these things? Speak, Oh Bey; tell me the secret of wisdom. 

A.H. Layard - Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh

Nineveh was the city of Sennacherib, who had set out to comprehensively outdo his father Sargon II. Sennacherib built himself a splendid new palace which exceeded that constructed by his father at Khorsabad in every particular. It was by all accounts an awe inspiring structure, a third of a mile long with a portico of solid bronze columns standing on the backs of solid bronze lions and bulls. Such was the wealth of Nineveh.

In the usual Assyrian style Sennacherib chose to decorate his palace with images of his victorious campaigns and these included depictions of his wars against the errant Kingdom of Judaea. In 701 BC Sennacherib had set out with the intention of capturing and destroying Jerusalem as his father had Samaria. In the path of Sennacherib’s army lay the fortress city of Lachish. Sennacherib sought initially to terrorise the populace into surrender by parading his army before the walls and having a declaration read out to the listening defenders; promising clemency if the city was surrendered and a nasty fate for the defenders if they chose to resist. Fortified by their faith the defenders nevertheless chose resistance and then watched with mounting trepidation as a great earth ramp was constructed in front of the city walls. The Assyrians made use of Jewish prisoners captured from other cities which had already fallen to work upon the ramp. The defenders were therefore faced with the dilemma of shooting at their own countrymen in order to prevent work on the ramp from progressing. Iron tipped battering rams were brought up against another section of wall and eventually succeeded in making a breach. The Assyrians poured through the gap whilst more attacked the defenders on top of the wall by means of a siege tower which had been rolled up the ramp. The city was swiftly overwhelmed, the defenders put to the sword and the city leaders impaled for daring to resist.

The siege of Lachish

The siege of Lachish had been a fine example of cutting edge siege warfare and Sennacherib was greatly proud of the achievement. Scenes from the storming of the city were immortalised in the reliefs chosen to decorate his new palace and these and many others were now uncovered by Layard. At last the mysterious mound had given up its secrets.

Ill health finally forced Layard to return to Europe in 1848. In Paris he received a hero’s welcome and accompanied Botta to see his Khorsabad finds which were now ensconced in the Louvre and were creating a sensation. Layard’s discoveries and his account of the excavations were received with equal wonderment back in England. A full scale recreation of an Assyrian throne room would later feature in the reconstructed Crystal Palace following the Great Exhibition. In the following year Layard returned once more to Mosul and reopened his excavations at Nimrud and Nineveh and it was now that he made his most important discovery; the library of Ashurbanipal.

Ashurbanipal had been the last great king of Assyria, dying in 627 BC. He held the heartland of the empire together through decades of ruinous war with the resurgent Babylonians but the cost in manpower and gold had been ruinous. The effort had finally exhausted Assyria and left her vulnerable. For all the slaughter and destruction of his reign however, Ashurbanipal has in fact gone down in history as a great scholar, which hopefully would please him. At Nineveh he constructed a new palace more spectacular than his grandfather Sennacherib’s which included an enormous library containing twenty four thousand cuneiform tablets covering the history and mythology of the region. It was the discovery of this library that opened the floodgates to the cracking of cuneiform and Layard’s friend Rawlinson greeted the find with joy, applying himself once more to the challenge of decipherment that he had despaired of achieving, but for which he now had all of the material he required.

Under Ashurbanipal Assyria had reached its greatest extent, yet only fifteen years after his death the most powerful nation the world had yet seen would be wiped off of the map. By the summer of 612 BC it was all over. An alliance of the Medes and Babylonians had besieged Nineveh and finally took it by storm. According to legend the last king Sardanapalus gathered his concubines around him and then set fire to his throne room, perishing in the flames as his city met with total destruction at the hands of her enemies. In revenge for the many assaults on Babylon and for one in particular during the years of Assyrian domination, the Babylonian conqueror Nabopolasar ordered Nineveh to be flooded.

Assyria was no more. Her territory was divided between the conquerors, her palaces torn down and her glory days consigned to dimly remembered history. Assyrian civilisation would be all but forgotten until Botta and the intrepid Layard rediscovered the remains of its cities which had been reclaimed by the pitiless desert.

                Back home, Layard’s name was made and he was elected to parliament on the strength of his fame. He proved an outspoken firebrand in the commons; deploring the conduct of the Crimean war and denouncing the treatment of Britain’s Indian subjects in the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny. He married in 1869 and in 1877 was appointed Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire; taking up the role once occupied by his old patron Sir Stratford Canning. In the following year he received a knighthood. Layard retired from public service three years later and retired to Venice, living out his days corresponding with learned men across the continent and enjoying life as a patron of the arts. He returned to London where he died in 1894.

Layard in 1890

                It is as the young explorer rather than the grand old scholar that we should remember him however; setting out with only the essentials he could carry in his saddlebags, careless of danger, disease or discomfort; driven by boundless curiousity and eager to see over the next horizon.

Layard's discovery of Nineveh

Siege of Lachish

Old Testament Prophecies concerning Assyria and Babylon

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