Explorers, antiquaries and archaeologists

The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw huge changes in European intellectual culture. Enlightenment scholarship brought forth new ideas and new approaches to studying the world in a flood, from the models for understanding sensory experience proposed by Bacon and Descartes to the transformative contributions to physics and mathematics of Newton and Leibniz. The network of scholars was international, the scope of their researches cross-disciplinary, and sooner or later the implications of their work came to be felt in almost every area of scholarship. It should come as no surprise that over the course of the eighteenth century descriptions of ancient sites such as Babylon came to exhibit far more in the way of empirical inquiry than those of the past.

Early eighteenth-century attempts to establish the site of Babylon already have a somewhat different character from their predecessors. The existence of two distinct proposed sites for the Tower of Babel may have spurred some empirical research and comparison with ancient sources. The Dominican monk Pére Emmanuel de St Albert makes explicit mention of two possible sites for Babylon, both of which he visited in 1700, and of which neither is ‘Aqar Quf.1 Rather, he identifies a problem that would puzzle visitors until the time of Koldewey: the apparently competing sites of Birs Nimrud, which he describes as lying in Arabia, and the ruins on the eastern bank of the Euphrates, that is the actual ruins of Babylon. Jean Otter, visiting in May 1743, apparently had no confusion regarding the site, insofar as it was in the general area of Hillah, and was aware of a surviving local tradition of calling all or part of it Babel. Otter, an orientalist who would later become professor of Arabic at the Collège de France, cites not other recent travellers but rather the ‘Géographe Turc’ (meaning Ahmed Dede Müneccimbaşı, author of the seventeenth-century universal history Camiu’d-Düvel, ‘The Chronology of Nations’)2 and the Qur’anic reference to Harut and Marut.3

Niebuhr and Beauchamp

The late eighteenth century is notable for two particularly influential visitors’ accounts of Babylon: those of Carsten Niebuhr and the Abbé Joseph de Beauchamp. Writing his history of the field in 1904, Hilprecht saw their accounts as an important transitional point. In introducing the two he drew a firm distinction between their approaches and those of their predecessors,4 describing the latter as ‘Travellers, whose education was limited, and missionaries who viewed those ruins chiefly from a religious standpoint,’ in contrast to the ‘strictly scientific interest in the ruins of Babylon’ shown by Niebuhr, Beauchamp and their successors.5

Carsten Niebuhr travelled in Asia between 1761 and 1768, visiting the area of Babylon in 1765. The account of Babylon forms part of his Reisebeschreibung nach Arabien und andern umliegenden Ländern.6 As the only surviving member of the six-man scientific expedition sent by Frederick V of Denmark, Niebuhr was obliged to write as a polymath and did so with dazzling success. Not the least of his abilities, however, was a prosaic one: the careful attention to detail he brought to his recording. This proved of immense value both to the early excavators benefiting from his maps and plans, and perhaps even more to the decipherers of cuneiform scripts. The inscriptions Niebuhr copied at Persepolis were later used by Georg Grotefend to make the first steps in the decipherment of Old Persian, a success which in turn would contribute to the unlocking of the more complex syllabic cuneiform scripts.

Pierre Joseph de Beauchamp, then vicaire général in Baghdad, visited Babylon twice during the 1880s. As well as conducting modest investigations of his own at the ruins, Beauchamp questioned one of the diggers for bricks at the site. Nebuchadnezzar’s baked bricks from the site made an excellent modern building material and had long been recycled for use in new buildings in the surrounding area – indeed the process would continue throughout the nineteenth century. Beauchamp was given a remarkable account:

I was informed by the master mason employed to dig for bricks that the places from which he procured them were large thick walls and sometimes chambers. He has frequently found earthen vessels, engraved marbles, and about eight years ago a statue as large as life, which he threw amongst the rubbish. On one wall of a chamber he found the figure of a cow, and of the sun and moon, formed of glazed-bricks. Sometimes idols of clay are found representing human figures.7

This was the most accurate description of the contents of the Babylon mounds yet to occur in a European source. Beauchamp did not have the means to discover what a good informant he had found, but the glazed-brick bull reliefs and Babylonian terracottas discovered by much later excavators are clearly the objects to which the mason refers.

Beauchamp took care to confirm Niebuhr’s measurements, including making his own calculations of Babylon’s latitude.8 This detail reflects a broader change: as the numbers of travellers increased, and as a greater and more permanent European imperial presence was being established in many parts of the world, European mapping of the world was becoming more accurate and more complete. The ability to give precise coordinates to something as exotic as Babylon has its own impact. The site is no longer a vague area on the edge of the known geography, but a manageable part of it that submits to its rules as easily as anything else. As such edges of known geography became less common, so they became increasingly interesting, even fetishized.9 In the nineteenth century, the tension between discovery and the exhaustion of these boundaries is most clearly reflected in the fame and fascination of Henry Morton Stanley and David Livingstone’s meeting on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Stanley emphasizes the fact that the last certain location he had for Livingstone was 10° S on the Eastern coast of the continent, and that with Livingstone having been 58 months in the interior this knowledge would be of no help.10 Africa, in other words, was still beyond such control. By enlarging the known, controlled world, geographical expertise equally shrank the unknown. The role of mystery and mythology in understandings of faraway places such as Babylon was being gradually eroded, although it could be argued that the value of what remained exotic and beyond reach correspondingly increased.

Claudius Rich

Claudius Rich was East India Company Resident in Baghdad 1808–21, and visited Babylon in 1811 (Figure 11). This visit, in the form of Rich’s Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon, first published in the Mines de l’Orient in 1813 and subsequently reproduced as a separate book, was by far the most detailed report on the site yet produced.11 Not only is Rich’s observation thorough, but his knowledge of earlier sources, many of which were not available to him while he was writing in Baghdad, is impressively wide-ranging. These qualities lead to an account at once based on empirical observation and informed by older sources, whether biblical, classical or the reports of travellers, and thus acts as a review of these sources based on Rich’s own experience. Thanks partly to the author’s own ability in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and Hebrew, the Memoir is also an interesting, if not very complimentary, source on local knowledge and stories relating to various parts of the site.

Rich’s account includes the journey from Baghdad to Hillah, detailing the route and distances. This journey includes a dried up canal known as the ‘Naher Malcha, or fluvius regius, the work, it is said, of Nebuchadnezzar’.12 In discussing Babylon itself, Rich works south to north across the mounds, describing each one in some detail. He also provides a series of views of the mounds on two of his three plates. (The third is a now quite famous plan of Babylon, by far the most accurate yet produced.) In the course of the description, he resolves a number of points arising from earlier travellers’ accounts. This is not incidental, but at times feels like the structuring principle and purpose of his description; in this, it is distinguished from all other travel accounts referred to here with the possible exception of the far later (and in tone rather more quarrelsome) By Nile and Tigris of E. A. Wallis Budge.13 Rich felt strongly that there was a need to improve on what he saw as the incomplete and misleading sources available. To demonstrate his point (and extremely helpfully from our perspective), the author introduces his account by describing his own first impressions of Babylon explicitly in relation to the preconceptions he was conscious of bringing with him to the site:

I have frequently had occasion to remark the inadequacy of general descriptions to convey an accurate idea of persons or places. I found this particularly exemplified in the present instance. From the accounts of modern travellers, I had expected to have found on the site of Babylon more, and less, than I actually did. Less, because I could have formed no conception of the prodigious extent of the whole ruins, or of the size, solidity, and perfect state, of some of the parts of them; and more, because I thought that I should have distinguished some traces, however imperfect, of many of the principal structures of Babylon. I imagined, I should have said: ‘Here were the walls, and such must have been the extent of the area. There stood the palace, and this most assuredly was the tower of Belus.’– was completely deceived: instead of a few insulated mounds, I found the whole face of the country covered with vestiges of building, in some places consisting of brick walls surprisingly fresh, in others merely of a vast succession of mounds of rubbish of such indeterminate figures, variety and extent, as to involve the person who should have formed any theory in inextricable confusion.14

Rich therefore set out to describe the site in the greatest possible detail, an exercise that provided him with the tools to unpick the claims of earlier travellers to an impressive extent. For example, he seems to have been the first writer to have realized that many of the ruins described by even his immediate predecessors were in fact canals.15 He deduced this partly from references to foliage, of which there is little on the site itself (he also suggests that this is probably due to the rubbish contained in the mounds being unsuitable soil for plants) save the Kasr tree (of which more below), which he describes as a badly damaged but still leaf-producing evergreen.16

While his stated aim is to confine himself almost entirely to on-the-spot description of the site, Rich does in fact devote considerable attention in his account to questions of correspondence with the claims of classical authors and with the confirmation of Old Testament prophecy. Throughout, he relies on and refers to the Geographical System of Herodotus Examined and Explained of Rennel,17 and subsequent English visitors such as Robert Ker Porter, George Keppel and James Silk Buckingham tended to use Rennel’s textual perspective and Rich’s observations in conjunction.18

Rich is notable because he was prepared to challenge details of Herodotus based on his own observations, but he does not express any great doubt in the authority of classical authors in general, much less the claims of Isaiah and Jeremiah. Indeed, he had little reason to. At this stage, there was no very great conflict with these sources, even for an author placing a very high value on empirical observation. The confusion and desolation Rich saw fitted very well with Babylon’s prophesied destruction, even to the point of the ruins being home to ‘many dens of wild beasts’.19 Confirmations of detail from classical accounts are also forthcoming: ‘From the yielding nature of the soil I can readily conceive the ease with which Cyrus dug a trench round the city, sufficient to contain the river’, he reports, referring to an event described in Xenophon’s Cyropedia.20

A final merit of Rich’s account, no doubt enhanced by the author’s long residence in Iraq and linguistic ability, is its incidental coverage of local and non-European tradition relating to the site, a subject that is only now reappearing in archaeological discourse generally.21 A memorable conversation occurs on top of the mound Rich calls Mujelibè:

The summit is covered with heaps of rubbish, in digging into some of which, layers of broken burnt brick cemented with mortar are discovered, and whole bricks with inscriptions on them are here and there found: the whole is covered with innumerable fragments of pottery, brick, bitumen, pebbles, vitrified brick or scoria, and even shells, bits of glass, and mother of pearl. On asking a Turk how he imagined these latter substances were brought there, he replied, without the least hesitation, ‘By the deluge’.22

Mujelibè in this case is Tell Babil, also called Maqlub, although other travellers refer to the Kasr area by the same names.23 Koldewey too knew the Kasr by the name ‘Mudshallibeh’, ‘the overturned’.24

Rich also gives a full account of the legend attaching to the single, ancient tree on the Kasr, which he tells us is locally known as Athelè. According to local tradition, this tree alone was spared in the destruction of Babylon, ‘that it might afford Ali a convenient place to tie up his horse after the battle of Hellah [Hillah]!’.25 Hereafter, this story appears several more times in the travel accounts.26 Although Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon gives the impression that it was already well known, it seems to be the first published report of its existence, at least as a single tree.

Rich resists the obvious but etymologically unlikely conclusion that the word birs, as in Birs Nimrud, was a corruption of the Arabic burj, or tower. He also seems to have consulted Iraqi scholars on its meaning. In a footnote he writes:

The etymology of the word Birs (ﺑﺮﺱ) would furnish a curious subject for those who are fond of such discussion. It appears not to be Arabic, as it has no meaning which relates to this subject in that language, nor can the most learned persons here [in Baghdad, where Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon was written] assign any reason for its being applied to this ruin.27

The account provoked considerable debate between the author and other scholars, most importantly the great geographer of India James Rennel, and prompted Rich to revisit the site and publish a Second Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon in 1818.28 The posthumousNarrative of a Journey to the Site of Babylon29 is a compilation of these accounts, the original journal of his expedition to Babylon from which the Memoir was written, a reprint of an article by Rennel on Rich’s 1815 account of the topography of Babylon, and the account of an 1821 journey from Basra to Shiraz and Persepolis. The debate between Rich and Rennel is significant because it provides the first serious example of the authority of textual scholarship on Babylon being challenged on the basis of observations made at the site. Although an important cartographer and surveyor himself, where Rennel contests points made by Rich he is defending not only his own scholarship but to some extent that of Herodotus. Rich, in turn, is an early contributor to a process that over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries would progressively undermine the primacy of classical and biblical accounts of the ancient Near East, displacing them from the centre of scholarly debate as archaeology in the region developed.

Rich was an avid collector, most notably of oriental manuscripts, and collected archaeological material during his time in Iraq, including bricks from Babylon stamped with the name of Nebuchadnezzar and cuneiform tablets – though at this stage they could not be read, with some doubting whether the script was really written language at all. This collection, later sold to the British Museum by Rich’s widow, has some claim to being the first of its kind in Europe:

There had indeed existed certain collections of Oriental gems and cylinders and, as early as the seventeenth century, ‘that vain and curious traveller’ Pietro della Valle had brought back to Italy inscribed bricks from the ruins of Babylon and Ur, and later, at the end of the eighteenth century, the Abbé de Beauchamp had also gathered bricks from Babylon. But Rich’s collection was the first that could be called representative, for it included several classes of ancient Babylonian antiquities, as well as Oriental manuscripts and coins.30

Despite this, both Rich’s investigations and his collecting were on a very small scale in comparison to what would follow. Away from Babylonia, in northern Iraq, the age of large-scale British and French Assyrian excavations was about to begin.

Botta, Layard and large-scale excavation:
The rediscovery and reception of Assyrian art

The background to the great age of Assyrian excavation was as much political as scholarly. The politics of European imperial competition within the Ottoman Empire would have forced both England and France to engage more heavily in Mesopotamia by the 1840s, regardless of precedent. By this period the processes that would ultimately lead to the delineation of the present-day Middle East, from the formation of new boundaries and borders to the construction of the concept of the ‘Middle East’ itself,31 were well underway. In terms of the ancient Near East, the excavations would give the modern world its first substantial contact with ancient Mesopotamian visual culture: the iconic reliefs and winged bulls of the Assyrian palaces.

Today, large-scale European excavations in the nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire are popularly assumed to have been simple matters of imperial plunder, driven by a desire for conquest and power. The extent to which this assumption bears close examination varies. In the Mesopotamian case imperial military concerns, Anglo-French competition and political positioning were definitely factors, though not the only ones, and even within the realm of politics the Ottoman Empire, which granted permission for excavations and export of antiquities, was no powerless victim of European deception. The picture, inevitably, is more complicated.32

The diplomat with antiquarian interests, Rich, was followed in 1842 by a diplomat appointed specifically because of them, Paul-Émile Botta as French Consul in Mosul at the suggestion of Jules Mohl, the leading orientalist and secretary of the Société Asiatique in Paris. Botta was originally on the right path to excavate Nineveh, following Rich’s correct attribution of the city to the Nebi Yunus and Kuyunjik mounds. Botta planned at first to work on Nebi Yunus, but was forced to bow to strong local opposition due to the shrine on top of that mound (Nebi Yunus means ‘tomb of Jonah’). Botta dug at Kuyunjik from December 1842 to May 1843,33 but did not find the palaces of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal that lay beneath. Instead he was led away by discoveries of carved stone at the nearby site of Khorsabad. This mound quickly yielded spectacular architectural discoveries. Encountering a vast and ornately decorated palace, Botta revised his view, henceforth believing Khorsabad to be the site of Nineveh. Texts were later to reveal the site as ancient Dur-Sharrukin, an important but short-lived Assyrian capital, and the palace Botta found as that of Sargon II (722–705 BC), founder of that city.

In contrast to the French governmental decision to place Botta in Mosul, Austen Henry Layard’s, and therefore Britain’s, entry into competition for the spectacular discoveries and museum pieces of Assyria was a matter more of an accident than design. Despite the precedent set by Rich, whose finds from the area were purchased by the British Museum after his death and whose antiquarian work had attracted public attention, the Museum itself displayed its then customary attitude to non-classical antiquity, giving neither money nor further thought to Mesopotamia.34 Layard himself was supposed to be on his way to Ceylon (Sri Lanka) for the purpose of practicing law when he met Botta at Mosul in 1842.35 The encounter was fortuitous, however, since the young Layard possessed both the education and the ambition necessary to appreciate the value of Botta’s discoveries and to dream of conducting similar excavations himself. On a personal level, Layard and Botta seem to have liked each other from the first.36 Later, Layard would praise the generosity of his French counterpart:

M. Botta lost no time in communicating his remarkable discovery [i.e. the first discoveries at Khorsabad] to the principal scientific body in France. Knowing the interest I felt in his labours, he allowed me to see his letters and drawings as they passed through Constantinople; and I was amongst the first who were made acquainted with his success. And here I gladly avail myself of the opportunity of mentioning, with the acknowledgment and praise they deserve, his disinterestedness and liberality, so honourable to one engaged in the pursuit of knowledge. During the entire period of his excavations, M. Botta regularly sent me not only his descriptions, but copies of the inscriptions, without exacting any promise as to the use I might make of them. That there are few who would have acted thus liberally, those who have been engaged in a search after antiquities in the East will not be inclined to deny.37

At a political level Layard had a potent tool for getting his wish: the report of discoveries that would heap glory upon France and bring the monuments of legendary Nineveh to Paris itself. The appeal to British cultural pride and Anglo-French competition was necessarily indirect, however. The British and French governments behaved in different ways with regard to this kind of imperial cultural competition, and although it is not true that the British state provided no help in the acquisition and study of antiquities,38France was – as Layard and other British excavators were not slow to point out – far more generous in its direct support. Perhaps it would be fair to say that the British government, and the trustees of the British Museum, generally viewed the acquisition of antiquities as a meritorious service to be rendered to the state by private individuals, to be given practical help where possible, and whose efforts might subsequently be better compensated in terms of honour and recognition than financial renumeration. It was therefore initially through the private sponsorship of Stratford Canning, the British ambassador to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople, that Layard was able to return to the area and excavate at Nimrud in 1845.

Like Botta, Layard was initially unable to excavate at Nebi Yunus, nor even at Kuyunjik, the reason being that both tells were visible from Mosul, lying just across the Tigris. He initially attempted to hide his work from local authorities, though in light of its eventual scale this seems a little hard to fathom. The situation was certainly embarrassing for Canning, who later had to obtain a retroactive permission on Layard’s behalf. As Russell observes:

This was not India, and while Britain was a major imperial power, so was the Ottoman Empire. The Assyrian sculptures were obtained through diplomatic channels, by the British ambassador [Canning] approaching the Ottoman sultan, hat in hand, asking if Britain might have any pieces that the sultan did not need.39

Nonetheless, it was this attempt to employ large numbers of men in digging colossal sculptures out of a nearby tell and yet somehow maintain a low profile that led Layard to dig at Nimrud, ancient Kalhu (Nimrud, site of the former Assyrian capital Kalhu, is not to be confused with Birs Nimrud, ancient Borsippa, near Babylon). Here, excavating what turned out to be the palace of Ashurnasirpal II, Layard became convinced that this, rather than Khorsabad or the Kuyunjik and Nebi Yunus mounds, was the site of biblical Nineveh. Like Botta at Khorsabad, he had concluded that the city he had discovered was too grand not to be that of Nineveh. As a result, neither Layard’s Nineveh and its Remains nor Botta’s Monuments de Ninive40 describe Nineveh, instead treating ancient Kalhu and Dur-Sharrukin respectively. Layard did return to Nineveh itself, however, and his work there was continued by Hormuzd Rassam, resulting in further collections of reliefs from palaces of Sennacherib and Ashurbanipal, now held in the British Museum alongside those of Ashurnasirpal II and Tiglath-Pileser III from Nimrud.

Following Layard’s spectacular initial successes, Canning was able to recoup his expenses from the British government and to persuade the British Museum to take responsibility for further work in Assyria, but this handing over to government and even the entry of the Assyrian sculptures into the national collection were contentious. Layard himself was exceptional in arguing that the sculptures had any great merit aesthetically, as art in their own right. ‘It is impossible to examine the monuments of ancient Assyria,’ he claimed, ‘without being convinced, that the people who raised them had acquired a skill in sculpture and painting, and a knowledge of design and even composition, indicating an advanced state of civilization’.41 Even so, he and others sympathetic to the cause of acquiring the sculptures thought that their chief merit lay in their position in art history, as distant precursors to the genius of classical Greece. Purists did not even concede this as a virtue, arguing instead that the purpose of the sculpture collections of the British Museum was to display what was finest and best in the ancient traditions in order to provide instruction to the artists of the present. No such instruction, it was held, was to be gained from studying the sculptures of Assyria. The most important proponent of this view was Richard Westmacott the Elder, who as a trustee of the museum and leading figure in art criticism wielded considerable power.42 Ultimately the Assyrian sculptures were accepted into the collection, but certainly not on equal terms with those of classical antiquity. Like the statuary of ancient Egypt, they were treated as curiosities and crude steps in the early history of art, far from the perfection of the Parthenon marbles and the associated concept of ancient objects embodying achievements that the present might seek to emulate. Even Layard did not go so far as to suggest that the Assyrian sculptures could bear comparison with the best of ancient Greek art. Instead he made the argument for a historical connection, seeing the discoveries of Sir Charles Fellows at Xanthos in Lycia (also recent arrivals at the British Museum; also disliked by the purist Westmacott) as a kind of bridge:

The Xanthian marbles […] are remarkable illustrations of the threefold connection between Assyria and Persia, Persia and Asia Minor, and Asia Minor and Greece. Were those marbles properly arranged, and placed in chronological order, they would afford a most useful lesson; and would afford even a superficial observer to trace the gradual progress of art, from its primitive rudeness to the most classic conceptions of the Greek sculptor. Not that he would find either style, the pure Assyrian or the Greek, in its greatest perfection; but he would be able to see how a closer imitation of nature, a gradual refinement of taste, and additional study, had converted the hard and rigid lines of the Assyrians, into the flowing draperies, and classic forms of the highest order of art.43

Something like this principle did eventually come to govern the arrangement of the museum’s principal sculpture galleries, with the lasting consequence that the sculpture galleries are still arranged in the order Egypt, Assyria, Asia Minor, Greece (Parthenon).44Even among students of the field, Layard’s more enthusiastic view was an exception. Henry Rawlinson argued that Layard’s finds were of the highest value, but for their historical importance and the cuneiform inscriptions they carried rather than their imagery:

I still think the design in general crude and stiff, the execution careless, the grouping confused and fantastic. I am sure, in fact, that modern art alone cannot desire instruction from the marbles of Nineveh, and that the mere connoisseur in statuary will be offended at the inelegant (sometimes even grotesque) forms. But far be it from me to declare the marbles valueless on this account […]. The marbles of Nimrud will be, in my opinion, an honour to England, not in the exclusive department of art, but in that more worthy field, a general knowledge of the early world.45

Nor would Rawlinson countenance the idea that Greek art owed any debt to that of Assyria.46 His views on the qualities of the Assyrian sculptures as art were so negative as to offend the sometimes touchy Layard, notwithstanding that the latter was every bit as invested as Rawlinson in the European traditions that placed the art of classical Greece at the pinnacle of human achievement, and had even expressed similar negative sentiments.47

Layard’s encounter with Botta and his discoveries in 1842 had changed his life. He returned home a hero, ‘Layard of Nineveh’. Nineveh and its Remains, however, suggests a personality that, notwithstanding the author’s genuine and long-term interest in the ancient past of the region, would have found plenty of other occupation on his journey even if excavating tells had played no part in it (indeed, he had taken a commission from the Royal Geographical Society before setting out). The book is more travel narrative than antiquarian study, and its author took as great an interest in his contemporary Ottoman setting as in ancient Mesopotamia. This interest is often very positively expressed, though this is not the case in his dealings with officials. Layard's own rather high-handed approach, and perhaps problems of communication, led at times to friction with the local and Ottoman authorities. His account is not sympathetic to these other interests: Reade describes the book as ‘one of the most damning accounts of Ottoman imperial administration ever written’.48 The criticism falls into a broad genre: negative depictions of Ottoman government by representatives of the other Great Powers would accumulate through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and would be employed as a justification for the eventual division of the empire and introduction of British and French Mandates in the Middle East. More positively, Layard's concern with the present also gives his work considerable value as a travel account. From the so-called ‘devil-worshippers’ (Yezidis) to the governors of regions through which Layard passed, his book is valuable as a mid-nineteenth-century European’s experience of contemporary Iraq, as well as the country’s ancient past.

Beyond their mistaken association with Nineveh, Botta and Layard’s publications share very little and were decidedly different in nature. Frederick Bohrer has discussed the different aims and methods of dissemination employed in England and France in some detail,49 but to summarize the most important differences we can look specifically at these two publications of 1849 by Layard and Botta themselves. Layard’s was a popular book – exceptionally popular, in fact50 – and its commercial success was furthered both by extensive coverage of the Assyrian discoveries as they reached London in the Illustrated London News and by the publication of an even cheaper abridgement of Layard’s already relatively affordable work, A Popular Account of the Discoveries at Nineveh.51In France, meanwhile, Monument de Ninive represented the other extreme. Botta’s work was published in five large volumes, lavishly illustrated and produced, and absolutely beyond the reach of all but the very richest. Next to the mass-production of Nineveh and its Remains, Monument de Ninive looks like a Renaissance masterpiece, produced under elite patronage and for the particular benefit of the patron. This, in fact, is not so far from the truth of the matter. Monument de Ninive was indeed produced in tiny numbers and mainly for patrons of the work. It could more fairly be compared to Layard’s own The Monuments of Nineveh52 and Second Series of the Monuments of Nineveh,53 expensive large-format works again produced in small numbers and for a very exclusive audience, although Monument de Ninive was a grander production even than these. Unlike them, however, it was the principal means of disseminating information about the discoveries, there being no perceived popular appetite for or benefit in a publication equivalent toNineveh and its Remains. Had such a book been written, it remains possible that this assumption would have been borne out, since Layard’s sales were built on the foundation of regular coverage of Assyrian antiquities in the Illustrated London News, whose weekly circulation of approximately 100,000 (which in the mid-nineteenth century would imply a much higher actual readership) dwarfed the sales of even very successful books of the time.54 The publication did have a Parisian opposite number in l’Illustration, but the latter did not parallel the remarkable enthusiasm for the Assyrian discoveries shown by the Illustrated London News.

Partly in consequence of this difference in publication formats, Layard presents himself in a manner far more consistent with other travellers and travel writers, particularly the other Englishmen who had visited Mesopotamia earlier in the nineteenth century. In style his work is reminiscent of Ker Porter or Buckingham. Botta seems more in tune with a savant tradition, for which the supremely lavish 23 volumes of the Description de l’Égypte provided the publication model.55 Whether such a difference can be ascribed to national scholarly traditions as such is far from clear, however, since they can be explained at least as well through the different levels of state interest and support the two excavators received. Whatever the case, Nineveh and its Remains reads as a story of adventure and discovery, and finds its closest parallels in other travel accounts. This is the field in which the style of the book comes to make the most sense, far more so than in comparison with a lavish, visually stunning and above all expensive production such as Monument de Ninive, or a book as excavation report such as Koldewey was later to produce with Wiedererstehendes Babylon.56 It is a captivating book because its author is a fine travel writer possessed of an elegant style. The details of the excavations themselves, which are really only sketched, are clearly secondary to the work of producing an engaging account and creating for the reader a vivid sense of place. Layard is extremely successful in both these respects, and it is perhaps for this reason as well as the inherent interest of the Nineveh story that he is popularly remembered as a rugged adventurer rather than the cultured aesthete who would go on to become a politician, diplomat and collector and connoisseur of fine art. By the same token, it is easy to criticize the manner in which the mid-nineteenth-century Assyrian excavations were conducted, and to paint Layard as a coarse treasure-hunter, unconcerned with the historical value or context of his discoveries. Such a view is grossly unfair to a man who, acting largely on his own initiative precisely because he did see the great historical value of the Assyrian mounds, was also a pioneer of excavation in Mesopotamia, and whose recording, in the form of fine and accurate drawings of the discoveries themselves,57 was of an extremely high quality in its own light. Later excavators deserve credit for developing better approaches and realizing the value of stratigraphy and context, but the reverse is not true: the mid-nineteenth-century excavators do not deserve censure for their failure to account for data they did not know could be successfully recovered from an archaeological site, nor for their view that the most useful thing they could do was recover large numbers of stone reliefs and cuneiform tablets for study. The subsequent 150 years of Mesopotamian archaeology and Assyriology have proven them only partially wrong in this latter respect, so dependent on the nineteenth-century excavations are we for the cuneiform archives and art that today still form the bulk of available data on ancient Assyria and the focus for its study.

One interesting facet of the Assyrian discoveries is that they lent dramatic material and visual support to an idea of world history that was in any case pervasive in mid-nineteenth-century England. The rise and fall of empires was a subject normally studied through ancient authors, where the classical idea of a cyclical pattern leading ultimately to the pinnacle of Rome dominated ideas of historical development.58 These models explained Britain’s place at the pinnacle of world civilization, and its ability to wield power over the once mighty states of the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. They were seen to receive substantial physical proof in discoveries such as Layard’s. They also prophesied decline and fall of even the mightiest, as Shelley famously observed inOzymandius, but like their Roman predecessors most British imperialists solved this problem through the crude device of seeing their creation, for no better reason than self-interest, as the end and perfection of the process.59

The museums themselves took quite different attitudes to the Assyrian material. The French project was supported by the government throughout, whereas available records suggest the British Museum’s position lay somewhere between grudging acceptance of and outright hostility to Layard’s finds, which the trustees considered aesthetically inferior to the classical sculpture they saw as the Museum’s main business. Egyptian material generally suffered the same fate, and the second-class status of both sets of antiquities is reflected in the sums the trustees were willing to spend on them, in sharp contrast with Greco-Roman antiquities.60 Despite the trustees’ reservations, however, a vast quantity of Assyrian sculptures did enter the British Museum, celebrated on their arrival by enthusiastic coverage in the Illustrated London News.

The excavation methods themselves were distant from those of modern archaeology. The main method for extracting the sculptures consisted of finding the edge of a relief-decorated wall and tunnelling alongside it, removing reliefs along the way. Sometimes this could be done in open trenches; at others it was necessary to tunnel deep into the mounds, shoring up the tunnels to prevent their caving in. Paintings by one of the artists who worked with Layard, F. C. Cooper, give some sense of the method and its dangers.61For shipping it was necessary to minimize weight, and therefore the thick panels were cut down to only a few inches in thickness. Nonetheless they remain extremely heavy, and require great care to move safely even with the best modern equipment and professional heavy artefact handlers. For workmen at the time of the excavations, the movement of the objects must have been very dangerous. On occasion large pieces, in particular the winged bulls and lions, were deliberately cut into pieces for transport – the repairs made on their reassembly are still visible.62 Assyrian antiquities went first down the Tigris on rafts to Basra before being shipped on to London and Paris. In the British case they travelled via Mumbai, where at least one large shipment was temporarily unpacked for display at the docks. Losses and damage were inevitable under these circumstances; the most tragic case was that of the French expedition of Fulgence Fresnel, Felix Thomas and Jules Oppert, which lost an entire shipment of Mesopotamian finds in the Tigris in 1855 after being attacked.63 Material left in situ fared no better. Exposed to wind-blown dust, huge temperature changes and moisture, surfaces of reliefs left exposed on site after excavation were quickly damaged, eroding the usually very shallow reliefs and inscriptions. Exposure to the elements remains a huge problem for sites and monuments in Iraq.64

Layard at Babylon

Based on large-scale excavation, Layard and Botta’s work was invasive and physically destructive. Their successors caused perhaps greater damage, particularly in southern Iraq where the difficulty of tracing mud-brick architecture, often combined with a lack of interest in doing so as excavators searched for stone monuments or caches of cuneiform tablets, meant that excavations frequently dug through buildings. This different character of sites in the south was one reason why Layard did not replicate his Assyrian successes at Babylon. He did attempt to excavate at the site, but was discouraged by early results. There were no stone reliefs here of the kind found at Nimrud and Nineveh, nor did it seem possible to glean much information about the ancient city’s layout beyond what had already been identified by Rich.65 In this respect Layard shared the frustration of his predecessors. He was prepared to cast doubt on the idea of a great square agreeing with the vast dimensions for the city wall given by Herodotus and encompassing Birs Nimrud, as several nineteenth-century visitors had proposed,66 although like them he did not realize that one of the walls already identified was the real outer wall of the city (it suggested an area too small in comparison to the classical descriptions). Layard reports that his excavations were conducted during a period of considerable local unrest, one consequence of which was that he was unable to excavate at Birs Nimrud.

At Tell Babil, Babylon’s northernmost mound, Layard excavated buildings constructed in later periods from recycled Nebuchadnezzar bricks (still visible on the surface of the mound today), and burials dating to the Seleucid, Parthian and Sasanian periods. He also found some original Neo-Babylonian masonry, presumably a part of what Koldewey would later identify as Nebuchadnezzar’s Summer Palace. Layard also noted local traditions on Tell Babil, which more than Babylon’s other ruins stands as a high isolated mound in the landscape. He recalls Benjamin of Tudela’s medieval informants, who (according to Layard’s reading) gave this as the location of the Fiery Furnace of Daniel,67 and notes that in his own day ‘the ruin is not without its Mohammedan tradition. Within it are suspended by the heels, until the day of judgement, the two fallen angels, Harut and Marut, and the Arabs relate endless tales of the evil spirits which haunt the place.’68

At the Kasr, Layard saw the visible ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s monumental building programme. He found that:

Piers, buttresses, and pilasters may be traced; but the work of destruction has been too complete to allow us to determine whether they belong to the interior or exterior of a palace. I sought in vain for some clue to the general plan of the edifice.69

Layard also saw the continuing industry of extracting bricks:

To this day there are men who have no other trade than that of gathering bricks from this vast heap and taking them for sale to the neighbouring towns and villages, and even to Baghdad. There is scarcely a house in Hillah which is not almost entirely built with them; and as the traveller passes through the narrow streets, he sees in the walls of every hovel a record of the glory and power of Nebuchadnezzar.70

The contrast between past grandeur and present decay was by now a standard feature of European travel writing on the Middle East; that the phenomenon should present itself to Layard in this light is unsurprising. Nonetheless, like de Beauchamp, Layard realized that the diggers might be an excellent source of information. However, he did not have his predecessor’s good fortune in informants: ‘Those who had been engaged from childhood in the brick trade, assured me that no sculptures or inscribed slabs had been discovered in their time, and that no remains of stone walls existed in any part of the mound.’71 The last part of the answer must reflect his own question: were there parallels here to the Assyrian reliefs? The answer was no, and his own soundings also yielded only brickwork, though he did note the colourful fragments of glazed brick that could be found here, and to which we will return in the next chapter. His finds were minimal, although they did include a noteworthy ninth- to eighth-century BC relief fragment.72

Further south, at Amran, Layard also discovered later material: Aramaic incantation bowls, whose interest in terms of Jewish history at Babylon he immediately recognized.73 Once again, however, he was unable to find the clear remains of ancient structures. Overall, Babylon had been a disappointment, certainly when compared to the wondrous Assyrian discoveries:

Such then were the discoveries amongst the ruins of ancient Babylon. They were far less numerous and important than I could have anticipated, nor did they tend to prove that there were remains beneath the heaps of earth and rubbish which would reward more extensive excavations. It was not even possible to trace the general plan of any one edifice; only, shapeless piles of masonry and isolated walls and piers, were brought to light – giving no clue whatever to the original form of the buildings to which they belonged.74

Hormuzd Rassam

Excavations were performed at Babil in 1864 by Arnold Kemball,75 and between 1878 and 1882 at Babylon as well as nearby Birs Nimrud76 and Sippar by Hormuzd Rassam, Layard’s assistant, friend and successor as agent of the British Museum in Iraq (Figure 12).77 Rassam supervised many excavations simultaneously during this period but was inadequately resourced to do so, with the result that recording is often minimal. After beginning excavations at the site he would leave overseers in charge of the work, but none had his training or was really qualified for the work. Moreover, for a variety of reasons Rassam himself was only present in the field for part of the time.78 He was conscious of the inadequacy of these arrangements, but the trustees of the Museum did not share his view. He was, after all, tasked specifically to recover tablets for the Museum’s collections, and for this reason was unable to persuade the trustees of the necessity of either an epigraphist in the field or of a camera for himself. It is unfair that the resulting loss of information has frequently been blamed on Rassam. The greater fault surely lies with the Museum’s policy of treating the excavations simply as a mechanism for recovering tablets.79

One reason for Rassam’s anxiety about the difficulty of recording data in the field was the fact that not all of the tablets excavated stood a good chance of survival. Unbaked tablets do not survive well once excavated, and much of what Rassam’s workmen discovered must surely have crumbled. Anxious that so much information was thus being lost in the disintegration of cuneiform tablets at the sites themselves, Rassam – following experiments performed by one of his workmen – pioneered the practice of baking tablets in order to conserve them.80 Recovering tablets was almost the only goal, and indeed a huge part of the British Museum’s incredible cuneiform collection comes from Rassam’s excavations.81 Of Babylon itself, he wrote that ‘Had it not been for my scruple not to waste public money on such an object, which is of no material benefit to the British Museum, I should certainly have gone about differently to discover some clue as to the positions of the important parts of the old city’.82 Like his predecessors he had great trouble in identifying even the extent and boundaries of Babylon, though he was certain that Birs Nimrud was a separate city. At the latter he even produced a good plan of the Nabu Temple,83 though again his focus was necessarily on recovering texts.

Rassam’s best results in terms of the recovery of tablets came at Amran, the southernmost of Babylon’s major mounds, near to the modern village of Djimijma.84 Here, largely in the vicinity of what was later revealed to be Esagila, the greatest of all Babylon’s temples, Rassam’s workmen recovered large numbers of inscriptions, the most famous of which by far is the Cyrus Cylinder (see Chapter 2). This object, whose significance only became clear once it had been translated in London, was of particular value because of its biblical connection, a factor of no small importance in Rassam’s own fascination with the ancient past. Like many of his English contemporaries (but unlike Layard)85 Rassam was acutely alive to the biblical relevance of his work. He believed strongly in divine involvement in history, both in the ancient past and in the present:

There is another striking proof of the fulfilment of prophecy in the utter destruction and annihilation of the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchies for their rebellion and pride. God, through his omnipotent power, left no remnant of their sovereignty not a vestige of their grandeur […]. But the Persians whom God raised to chastise the rebellious nations have held their own up to day, because it was divinely decreed that they should conquer and be victorious; and in return for the victories which God bestowed upon them, they ordered the rebuilding of His temple at Jerusalem, and thus Persia has remained an independent monarchy as it was then, and where God Jehovah is acknowledged as the only Lord and King with the revealed religion of the Jews and Christians at the base of their belief in Mohammed.86

Late nineteenth-century Britain is a world away from the seventeenth-century Amsterdam of Athanasius Kircher, but treatment of the confusion of tongues as a historical event survives in a few theories on linguistic development even now. Discussing Birs Nimrud, which he believes to be the Tower of Babel, Rassam comments:

The most striking proof, in my mind, of the confusion of languages, and the dispersion of mankind after that event, is the widespread affinity existing in different parts of the world of Semitic derivation of words.

The learned Colonel Vallancy says, ‘that the descendants of Japhet peopled China as well as Tartary, we have no reason to doubt (though when they arrived in that country we cannot pretend to say), and that the language of the Chinese was pretty nearly related to the Hebrew and other tongues, which the learned consider as dialects of it.’87

Rassam goes on to cite supposed identifications of Hebrew and Gaelic names or roots in Native American and Pacific languages. Rassam himself was not a philologist and his views were not shared by Assyriologists such as Rawlinson, but the survival of this literal reading of Genesis is noteworthy nonetheless. It was precisely to the study of Semitic languages, however, that Layard and Rassam’s work contributed most profoundly, and in which unimaginable leaps toward the real Babylon were being taken in their own time.

Cuneiform decipherment and the birth of Assyriology

The resurrection of ancient Mesopotamian language and literature after its complete extinction and an interval of 2,000 years is one of the greatest achievements of modern philology. As with Egyptian hieroglyphs, trilingual inscriptions were to play a crucial role in the decipherment. In this case, however, the trilingual inscriptions involved no known script or language. The crucial inscriptions are those of the Achaemenid Persian kings, who recorded their deeds in Babylonian, Elamite and Old Persian, the latter presumably the language of the Achaemenid kings themselves and for which a new, much simplified cuneiform script was invented. Some examples reached Europe via the drawings of Carsten Niebuhr, but the most famous among these trilingual records is the great rock-cut inscription at Bisitun in western Iran. The steep cliff face at Bisitun overshadowed a valley on one of the principal routes through the Zagros mountains; Alexander and his army are known to have passed this way and seen the inscription, while other Hellenistic, Parthian and Sasanian monuments at the site attest its long-term importance. The monument consists of a relief carving showing a king facing a line of smaller figures (Ibn Hauqal, writing in the tenth century AD, had interpreted the scene as a teacher admonishing his pupils).88 Less clearly visible is a prostrate figure below the king’s foot. Surrounding this central relief are monumental carved inscriptions of some length. The whole group is positioned high up the cliff face, making it difficult to reach or to make out clearly from the valley floor.

The inscriptions were written in the cuneiform (wedge-shaped) script of which tiny samples had been known in Europe since the time of Don Garcia de Silva y Figueroa and Pietro Della Valle in the seventeenth century. Little progress had been made with the fragments and drawings that had trickled westward since that time, but developments at the beginning of the nineteenth century suggested that change was on the way. In 1802 Georg Grotefend, a German philologist – most of whose work was on Italian and Latin – succeeded for the first time in identifying the names of Persian kings on inscriptions from Persepolis that had been copied at the site by Carsten Niebuhr.89 This he did by the logical process of assuming that the word ‘king’ would appear frequently in monumental inscriptions, followed by the names of kings whose names were still known to the modern world via Herodotus and other ancient Greek writers. Proceeding on this basis he succeeded in identifying the names of Darius, Xerxes and Hystaspes. Grotefend also correctly deduced several characteristics of the inscriptions: that they must read from left to right (confirming the conclusions of Pietro Della Valle and Niebuhr), that the inscriptions were in fact of three different kinds (also suggested by Niebuhr) and that probably they were therefore a trilingual version of the same text, that two of the scripts were syllabic and that the third, simpler one in which he was able to identify kings’ names was alphabetic, and consisted of 40 characters.90 He believed that the language used was Middle Persian,91 and was on the right path, since the actual language of the simpler inscription, today known as Old Persian, was indeed an Indo-Iranian one. Further progress was made by the Norwegian Christian Lassen and Frenchman Eugène Burnouf, the latter of whom was able in 1836 to identify in one of the texts copied by Niebuhr a list of the Satrapies of the Achaemenid Empire.92 Again, the existing comparative sources on these were ancient Greek.

The second major development of the early nineteenth century was the work of Claudius Rich, whose researches in Mesopotamia included collecting tablets and inscribed bricks. The material acquired by Rich that would eventually reach the British Museum was modest compared to the later discoveries of Layard (whose observation that until his own discoveries ‘a case scarcely three feet square inclosed all that remained, not only of the great city, Nineveh, but of Babylon itself!’93 is only slightly exaggerated), but it greatly increased the quantity available for study in Europe and was accompanied by some extremely accurate copies of cuneiform inscriptions produced by Rich’s private secretary, Carl Bellino. A little earlier, other individual inscriptions of particular value had reached London and Paris, most notably the East India House inscription, a large stone monumental inscription from Babylon that would eventually be found to record the restoration and rebuilding of the city’s temples, palaces and defences by Nebuchadnezzar himself. At this stage the content remained wholly inaccessible; all this was to change, however, in the 1840s, and particularly with the close study of the inscriptions at Bisitun.

The celebrated hero of decipherment, remembered today for both his genius and his adventurous exploits in Persia, was Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson. Rawlinson was a gifted linguist, who while serving in the East India Company army not only rapidly acquired Persian (the language of Indian administration and government inherited by the British from the Mughals) but also studied several Indian languages. Once posted to Persia, Rawlinson began to study ancient inscriptions, and in 1836 he was fortuitously posted near to Bisitun, where he was to spend the next two years. During this time he made strenuous efforts to produce good copies of one inscription (the Old Persian), returning to the site in 1844 and 1847 to recopy this and to produce casts and copies of the other two (Elamite and Babylonian).94 Although the Bisitun inscriptions were difficult to reach, Rawlinson realized their importance as tools for decipherment: lengthy trilingual texts would allow the kind of comparative work that might unlock the mysteries of cuneiform. It is not necessarily Rawlinson’s fault that in imperial folklore these efforts were later imagined to consist of Rawlinson himself scaling the cliff and risking his life while being lowered on ropes to make the copies. The idea seemed to fit with his deserved reputation as a great sportsman and an exceptional rider. In fact Rawlinson did climb on ledges, but was assisted by local boys in his work, and as a feat of mountaineering his accomplishment has been exaggerated for the sake of a good story. What is more unjust, and results both from Rawlinson’s own behaviour and from the somewhat partisan biography of him produced by his brother,95 is that posthumously at least he ended up gaining the whole credit for achievements in decipherment that should at least have been shared with the Irish clergyman Edward Hincks. The latter was a far less glamorous figure and one of less worldly power, but the two worked in parallel, as rivals, and reached similar conclusions at a similar pace. Today Assyriologists generally agree that although Rawlinson deserves primacy in the case of Old Persian (where his knowledge of modern Persian proved a great advantage), Hincks pre-empted many of Rawlinson’s conclusions in the decipherment of Babylonian, and that he ultimately deserves more of the credit.96 There is of course quite enough credit to share: three quite different languages written in different cuneiform scripts; two of these involving gigantic syllabaries and all three unknown – the achievement of decipherment was enormous. Nonetheless it was the Babylonian part of the trilingual inscriptions that would prove of the greatest importance in the grander scheme of things. Old Persian is confined to Achaemenid royal inscriptions, whereas Babylonian is a major branch of Akkadian, one of the two principal languages of Mesopotamian cuneiform (the other, Sumerian, was not convincingly deciphered until the twentieth century). Akkadian is a Semitic language related to Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic, but the syllabic script in which it was written made its decipherment substantially more difficult than that of Old Persian. The reward, however, was correspondingly great: Hincks, Rawlinson and others were unlocking the vast corpus of texts surviving in the form of cuneiform tablets in Mesopotamia. The reward also constituted a helpful resource, since for the decipherment of Akkadian scholars had more examples of text available to them than was the case for either Old Persian or Elamite.

Progress on decipherment was made throughout the 1840s and 1850s, but the date generally accepted as a watershed is 1857. In this year William Henry Fox Talbot, another significant contributor to decipherment, moved to address growing public scepticism (induced not least by disagreements between, particularly, Rawlinson and Hincks themselves) by asking the Royal Asiatic Society to hold a test, or ‘competition’, to establish the progress that had been made. An Akkadian inscription97 was sent to Talbot himself, Rawlinson, Hincks and Jules Oppert. The four scholars sent their individually produced, sealed translations to the Royal Asiatic Society in London, where they were found to be so similar as to admit of no doubt that decipherment had been achieved.

What of the content of the Bisitun inscriptions themselves? The monument would prove to be the record of an event once thought to be pure fancy on the part of Herodotus. The king represented on the relief is Darius I (550–486 BC). The man he is crushing underfoot is named Gaumata. According to Darius’ own account Gaumata had claimed to be none other than Bardiya, brother of the reigning king Cambyses II (530–522 BC) and who, again according to Darius, the king had in fact already murdered. Gaumata provoked a rebellion against Cambyses in his absence and masquerading as Bardiya claimed the throne. Darius states that he served as lance-bearer for Cambyses until the king’s death, at which point he and his allies attacked and defeated Gaumata. The inscription commemorates the event, and the smaller figures standing before Darius on the Bisitun relief are those of the satraps who unwisely supported Gaumata, now in chains. Darius, naturally, is proclaimed king. The account is very convenient from the point of view of Darius’ accession – might he and his allies not have fought and murdered the real Bardiya to claim the throne? – but does accord remarkably well with what had seemed to be the far-fetched version given by Herodotus. In this account both Bardiya and Gaumata are named Smerdis; Herodotus distinguishes between the two by calling the latter as false king Pseudo-Smerdis. Again Cambyses, on campaign in Egypt, has his brother murdered, though this time it is the official he has left to rule in his absence, Patizeithes, who betrays him, allowing his brother to present himself as his namesake Smerdis, to whom he bears a close physical resemblance.98 Again, Darius defeats the usurper and claims the throne. That the story appears in Herodotus does nothing to support Darius’ claim to legitimacy, but does show that what Herodotus was recounting in this case was not fantasy or folklore, but the Achaemenid official version of events.

The contents of the Bisitun description, remarkable as they were, were only the first in what has proven to be a constant procession of discoveries in cuneiform texts that bear on, reveal more about or on occasion directly contradict the classical and biblical accounts that had for so long been the only sources available. The impact of this change has been enormous, and is perhaps best illustrated through its most famous manifestation: the discovery of the so-called Flood Tablet, a discovery that was also the culmination of the remarkable Assyriological career of George Smith.

As a young man Smith trained and worked as an engraver of banknotes. His developing fascination with the famous achievements of Layard and Rawlinson, however, led him to spend as much of his spare time as possible at the British Museum, studying the Mesopotamian antiquities. In this way he came to the attention of Samuel Birch, the Keeper of the Department of Antiquities,99 in 1861, and at some time in the next two years he was able to secure a junior post in the department. The self-taught Assyriologist (this in itself a remarkable achievement) quickly rose as his talents became clear, and by 1870 he was senior assistant to Birch himself. His triumph, however, came in 1872 when, to his own amazement, he translated a text whose resemblance to the Genesis account of the Flood was simply too close to ignore. The tablet100 described a character named Uta-Napishtim, the survivor of a great deluge. Like the biblical Noah, Uta-Napishtim had received divine warning of the coming catastrophe and had built a boat to carry himself and his family, as well as animals and craftsmen. Smith’s discovery was a Victorian sensation, attracting huge interest, and his lecture given to the Society of Biblical Literature in December 1872 was even attended by the prime minister, William Gladstone. TheDaily Telegraph went so far as to sponsor Smith to travel to Mesopotamia (for the first time in his career) the following year in order to search for more of the story of which the Flood Tablet was obviously only a part. He succeeded, and the Flood Tablet was found to be part of the legend known today as the Epic of Gilgamesh. In the epic Gilgamesh, the hero king of Uruk, travels literally to the ends of the Earth in his quest for immortality. There he meets Uta-Napishtim, the only human being ever to have been granted eternal life by the gods, who does his best to convince Gilgamesh of the futility of his desire. To this day Gilgamesh remains by far the most famous piece of Babylonian literature, and several translations for the general reader exist.101

George Smith went twice more to Mesopotamia, now funded to do so by the British Museum, in 1873–4 and 1875–6. The second trip was to end in tragedy: suffering from dysentery, Smith collapsed at the village of Ikisji while making a journey between Mosul and Aleppo. He was brought to Aleppo but did not recover; he died in the city on 19 August 1876. He was only 36, yet he had lived to see the most dramatic of the transformations in his discipline. At the time of his birth the few brick fragments and undeciphered tablets collected by travellers still constituted all that the world knew of ancient Mesopotamia beyond the biblical and classical sources. By the end of his life the sculpted reliefs of Assyrian palaces could be seen at the Louvre and British Museum, cuneiform had been deciphered, and Smith himself had contributed to the discovery that scholars now possessed documents older even than the earliest parts of the Bible, and which bore directly on the latter’s content. Over the next 25 years excavators such as Rassam would continue to add to the collections of clay tablets from Mesopotamia, creating a resource that even now continues to pour forth new discoveries.

The most important trend in the accounts of travellers, from the pilgrims and merchants of the Middle Ages to the excavators of the nineteenth century, is a gradual, qualified, but definite shift toward a particular empiricism in which the perspective of the present-day, on-the-spot observer is privileged. This empiricism so underpins present-day attitudes to research that its absence, or rather weakness in relation to competing epistemologies, is difficult to imagine. It is an Enlightenment perspective, equally present in the competing bases for human knowledge put forward by Descartes and Vico (discussed below). Its absence leaves a very different, and at root more complex, set of mechanisms for verifying and establishing knowledge, in which cross-referencing and synthesis are of the highest importance. Attempting to appreciate this pre-modern perspective is central to understanding the early visitors’ accounts of Babylon, and the transition to a more familiar humanist empiricism is equally important in understanding our later sources in terms of what they add and change.

In the accounts of visitors to Babylon there are some continuities and consistencies that are as remarkable as any change. The ubiquity of references to wild beasts, meaning the fulfilment of Isaiah and Jeremiah, is one such case; a fascination with the construction methods described by Herodotus another. Reinforcement and stability make knowledge, whether in the form of unquestioned assumptions or of the expectations one brings to one’s investigations. Travel accounts form a part of this process, but by no means the whole. To enlarge our picture we must now return to the broader sweep of sources on Babylon, and the impact of their form and content on the study, representation and consumption of the Mesopotamian past.

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century histories, art and literature

New approaches to the past

What, philosophically, underpinned the changes that separated scholars in the mould of Claudius Rich from their medieval forebears? The question is about knowledge, what it means and how it is to be gathered. The criteria for truth when studying knowledge historically do not have to be narrow or stringent. Just the reverse: what the authors of our sources considered to constitute truth is of great relevance, and any analysis must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate them.

One can seek to differentiate between different bases for knowledge, and hence between fundamentally different types of knowledge. There are many ways in which this can be done, for example by differentiating between scientific, moral and religious knowledge,102 but the project of making such distinctions is an old one. Something of the sort occurs in Plato’s Republic, in which it is suggested that the rational and emotional aspects of thought:

Are two and different from one another, naming that in the soul whereby it reckons and reasons the rational and that with which it loves, hungers, thirsts, and feels the flutter and titillation of other desires, the irrational and appetitive – companion of various repelations and pleasures.103

Such distinctions need to be treated as tools or lenses of the interpreter, in which respect they are of enormous use in highlighting and isolating different patterns of logic, association and belief, and not as full-blown models of human cognition, which they are plainly not. The emphasis should therefore lie not on finding a single perfect distinction – it is unlikely to exist – but on tools appropriate for understanding a given process. The distinctions I outline here, therefore, are only those I see as most relevant to the historiographic treatment of the relationships between sources on Babylon. Others are equally possible.

In the case of Babylon, the first, perhaps historically the most important, form of knowledge that is apparent is that based on the authority of the Bible as revelation, as infallible and as literal truth: theocratic knowledge. This means primarily uses of scripture, but the term will be used here more loosely, wherever texts are treated as infallible authorities. A second form of knowledge to be considered is that which is grounded in allegory, which uses the past in moral or anecdotal rather than historical ways, and which, though often recounting or representing biblical material, does not depend for its message on the literal truth of that material. This we might term allegorical or mythic knowledge. It is not necessarily appropriate to talk of myth as knowledge as such, yet the history of Babylon as idea has involved great permeation of the mythic into the known, and this interaction is such as to suggest very strongly that myth can function as knowledge within the history of ideas. Crucially, the mythic includes moral knowledge embodied in allegory. The argument for its value as knowledge in this sense is encapsulated in Aristotle’s contention that poetry is superior to history because it deals with the universal and with meaning where history can deal only with the particular.104Giambattista Vico made such ‘poetic wisdom’ a precursor and substitute for historical knowledge: each, for Vico, encapsulated its own form of philosophy and of science more generally.105 The notion of the historical (or rational–empirical) supplanting the poetic in such a broad compass is an intriguing one, but perhaps not as promising as that of their coexistence and interaction in thought. In terms of cultural history and representation, the question is not so much one of the model as of practical influence: how, in practice, is the mythic used as knowledge, and how does it relate to or interact with other forms of knowledge?

The next broad category, humanistic knowledge, covers several distinct bases for truth-claims, whose shared feature is a grounding of knowledge in the human, whether in cognition or sensory perception. The most influential starting points for this anchoring in the human are those of Descartes (I think, therefore I am) and Vico (we can know only what we have made).106 In practical terms at least, some form of humanism has underpinned the vast bulk of work in the fields we would now call the humanities and social sciences since the eighteenth century. Finally there is positivistic knowledge, whose basis is a physical universe whose properties can be measured in absolute (objective) terms and, in a pure positivism, without reference to the human except as an object of study. In archaeology as in many other fields, most research today operates through a hybrid, whereby in practical terms knowledge is treated as positive and the sensory perception underpinning it as accurate, while in philosophical terms limitations based on subjectivity are broadly accepted. The hybrid position is at least in part a consequence of the rise of atheism and the removal of the divine as an anchoring point for the human, and by extension for humanistic knowledge. In the absence of God the humanist cannot be studying the world as revealed by providence, nor can reason or the senses be trusted as accurate through the will of a divine creator. It therefore becomes necessary to anchor knowledge elsewhere, whether in human experience or in physical absolutes.

Knowledge derived empirically from observation and experiment can be humanist or positivist in character, because both forms of knowledge allow for hypothesis testing of a kind that is impossible for mythic knowledge and antithetical to theocratic knowledge. This ability to test is the basis on which the authority of academic research is most commonly validated: authority stems principally from the conception that the researcher tests claims according to reason and rational thought.107 The high value placed on these principles originates in the Enlightenment, most importantly with Francis Bacon in the case of empiricism and with Descartes in that of rationalism. Despite their history of use in combination, however, the positions of Bacon and Descartes are not particularly compatible: Bacon put a faith in sensory data108 that Descartes shunned, the latter arguing that only the mind and the capacity to reason are secure, and therefore favouring an inductive progression from abstract geometry, mathematics and logic to knowledge of the particular, as opposed to experiment and physical measurement of properties.109 His belief in rational thought as the ideal basis for knowledge was strong enough to constitute its own form of positivism, an inward-looking metaphysical counterpart to the late-modern theories that have tried to achieve the same through the physical world:

The long chains of simple and easy reasoning by means of which geometers are accustomed to reach the conclusions of their most difficult demonstrations, had led me to imagine that all things, to the knowledge of which man is competent, are mutually connected in the same way, and that there is nothing so far removed from us as to be beyond our reach, or so hidden that we cannot discover it, provided only we abstain from accepting the false for the true, and always preserve in our thoughts the order necessary for the deduction of one truth from another.110

Although he agrees with Descartes in placing the world of the human mind closest to God, expressing the relationships of knowledge visually in his frontispiece to the New Science,111 Vico’s position in this respect is closer to that of Bacon. The new science in question was that of the philosophy of history – the study of what we have made, which for Vico defined the limits of possible human knowledge – and therefore the primary science from which philosophy is derived.112 This was a grand footing indeed on which to place historical research. For our purposes it is more important to note that it was an empirical one, with a foundation that was explicitly humanist.

One impact of rational–empirical models over time was to raise the status of the situated observer considerably, a phenomenon of which Claudius Rich’s ability to argue points of detail with Herodotus is only one manifestation. There is no need to imagine that such models pushed other forms of knowledge to the sidelines, however. During the eighteenth century some believers in the importance of a good myth were only getting warmed up.


Athanasius Kircher’s researches into the development of language and the antiquity of the Tower of Babel had appeared at an interesting time. Kircher was writing not long after Isaac Lapeyrère’s Preadamitaei,113 or Men Before Adam and, perhaps more importantly, after Lapeyrère’s arrest in Treuremberg.114 The establishment of a new, long chronology for humanity’s existence was imminent, but the dangers of heresy were still very real. The eighteenth century would see rapid changes in the scope and influence of geology, natural history and antiquarianism. The growth of the Enlightenment tradition in humanism and science is today celebrated as the period in which many modern fields of study came of age. Not everyone had quite the proper reverence at the time, however, and by the mid-eighteenth century the increasing concern with empiricism and commitment to historical accuracy relating to the ancient Near East had, for Voltaire, become nothing less than a tremendous bore. His play, Sémiramis (completed 1748),115 and the novels Zadig, ou la destinée116 and La Princesse de Babylone,117are purely, determinedly fantastic. Their storylines are original, or at least owe more to the Arabian Nights than to Greek or biblical sources on Babylon. Even among the latter, the sources were selected for inspiration rather than plausibility. Zadig draws (via Photius) on the already fantastic Babyloniaca of Iamblichos, as well as the Venetian Michele Tramezzino’s sixteenth-century The Three Princes of Serendip, itself supposedly based on a Persian folk tale, and the whole laced with references to contemporary French politics. Voltaire’s Zadig is a Babylonian philosopher, but his main impact may have been on the modern detective novel: his prowess in deduction is thought to have inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin, and possibly Arthur Conan-Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.118 Sémiramis makes more use of the Babylon described by classical authors, particularly Ctesias, but also of the Armenian tradition. The play begins with the murder of Ninus by Semiramis and her lover Ashur, and ends with the ghost of Ninus orchestrating his revenge, guiding his son Ninyas to murder Semiramis. The play was later adapted for Rossini’s 1822 opera Semiramide. The story is original but several elements, including Ninyas’ estrangement from and eventual murder of Semiramis, are found in the Moses Khorenati account of Semiramis (see Chapter 4).

At times it seems that Mesopotamia is merely the source of exotic names and the glamorous location of Babylon, of which Voltaire offers a beautiful though entirely fanciful description at the start of La Princesse de Babylone. At the end of this romantic adventure the author characteristically steps into his story to make a rather unorthodox appeal to the Muses against the professors of the Sorbonne, whose usefulness he can nonetheless appreciate:

I recommend you to [sic] my Princess of Babylon: say every thing you can against it, that it might be read [… E]ndeavour to prevail upon the Sieur Riballier to have the Princess of Babylon condemned by the Sorbonne: you will, thereby, afford my bookseller much pleasure, to whom I have presented this little history for his New Year’s gift.119

Against such charm might be weighed the fact that Voltaire’s work endorses the European use of the Middle East, ancient and modern, as an infinitely malleable resource for exotica. His distaste for the first serious attempts to learn about the Mesopotamian past expresses, for all its wit, a contempt for the subject matter as well as its students. This contempt is one side of a great ambivalence in Voltaire, who is by turns a fastidious historian (of France) and a committed sceptic of historical practice:

So, although he engages in extensive historical research in search of facts, the simultaneous awareness of the probable inaccuracy of sources neither deters Voltaire from writing history nor does it inhibit him in the slightest […] indeed, his method of systematic doubt renders him permanently assertive. The admission of both the practical impossibility of omniscience and of the philosophical pyrrhonism of history illustrates how cavalierly the historian Voltaire could dismiss the fears of contemporary historians about their own inadequacies in relation to the chosen historical subject matter.120

In drawing out these problems of veracity, Voltaire echoes the approach taken in Lucian of Samosata’s True Stories,121 written c.170–80 AD, in which the author challenges the notion of historical truth by happily labelling himself a liar before launching into a series of stories that, though fantastic and magical, clearly parallel events described by historians, and take comparable forms.122 Such pessimism and scepticism is especially easy to understand in the case of ancient Near Eastern history at this early stage, prior to the mid-nineteenth-century revolution in knowledge that came with excavation and decipherment. In the eighteenth century it cannot have been at all clear that historians would ever be able to move beyond their complete dependence on the biblical and classical sources for knowledge of this distant world. It is perhaps an indication of the environment within which he worked that Voltaire also wrote an article on Babel for the Dictionnaire philosophique, in which he comically dismisses the biblically-derived ‘confusion’ etymology for the name Babel itself, pointing out that this makes no sense for the capital of a great empire, and instead suggests ‘the city of God, the holy city’. It was a guess, but one which brought Voltaire rather closer to the ancient (though probably still not etymologically correct) understanding of bâb-ilu, ‘Gate of the gods’.123

In style very distant from Voltaire, two of the great English romantics (though neither used the term themselves) produced famous and influential representations of Babylon: William Blake and George Gordon, Lord Byron.

William Blake

William Blake’s theological vision was completely unique. Pouring forth a mixture of prophecy, fantasy and polemic in his art and poetry, Blake developed a schema concerned with the placement of types, and represented these types through individuals or groups. The model is dominated by Blake’s distinction between what he called innocence and experience, each of which could dominate in six types of being or matter: the divine, human, animal, mineral, vegetable and chaotic.124 In Blake’s imagery, Babylon appears as a manifestation of the mineral and of experience, i.e. as a physical (mineral) place whose characteristics are defined by worldly experience (and thus sin). At this point, however, the similarities with other visions of the city end. Although Blake placed sin on the side of experience, and virtue on that of innocence, what he meant by these terms was particular to his own work and extremely radical. For him, experience meant not only the kinds of sin with which Babylon has generally been associated, but also with all those institutions through which humans mitigate and restrain their desires; that is, law and society. Against this, uninhibited sexuality falls on the side of innocence, because it lies outside the production of social norms and controls.125

Blake argued that all forms of moral, religious and legal restraint sapped human energy, holding humanity back from innocence and salvation.126 The idea of innocence as a powerful, primal force of desire checked by the world of experience leads to the conclusion that experience is straining against a stronger and more primitive force that will ultimately overwhelm it. This is exactly Blake’s point, for innocence was also on the side of the New Jerusalem. Until its triumph innocence will strain and encroach upon the unnatural state of experience, and hence the manifestations of innocence will be seen as negative by the society they threaten. Blake’s distrust of the constraints of society gives a foretaste of what, a century later, would resurface in the fin-de-sièclefascination with forbidden sexuality. To see uninhibited sexuality as redemptive, however, seems at first somewhat at odds with Babylon’s traditional place as the home both of sin in general and of carnal sin in particular.

Blake produced several images relating to Babylon, of which by far the most famous is the large colour print Nebuchadnezzar (Figure 13).127 This shows the Nebuchadnezzar of Daniel 4: 31–3, during his seven years in the wilderness. He is mad, naked, and crawling on all fours like a beast, a pose drawn from Albrecht Dürer’s depiction of St John Chrysostomos and producing a deliberate circularity since, at least in legend, the latter consciously based his own penance on the wilderness years of Nebuchadnezzar.128The probable partner to this image is the figure of Newton, in this case embodying an excess of reason against Nebuchadnezzar’s madness. Blake originally used Nebuchadnezzar in plate 24 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,129 the major differences being that in the earlier image Nebuchadnezzar wore a crown, in reference to the recent fall of the French monarchy, and that beneath it sits the caption ‘One Law for the Lion & Ox is Oppression’, a phrase repeated in the accompanying paragraph.130Blake shows Nebuchadnezzar living and suffering by the law of the beasts, i.e. ruled by the senses, and gives a devil (the roles of devils and angels are deliberately confused in the work) a speech in which he argues that Christ himself broke several of the Ten Commandments. This theme is reprised in The Everlasting Gospel,131 whose argument is that no moral teaching of Jesus was original and that the real substance of the Gospels is, simply and exclusively, the forgiveness of sin. Blake argues for licence, particularly for the great, and scorns ‘moral virtues’. For him they are part of experience, and false:

The Heathen Deities wrote them all:
These Moral Virtues great and small.
What is the Accusation of Sin
But Moral Virtue’s deadly Gin?
The Moral Virtues in their Pride,
Did o’er the World triumphant ride
In Wars & Sacrifice for Sin,
And Souls to Hell ran trooping in.132

Blake’s position with respect to Babylon, however, remains superficially traditional. It remains for him the city of sin, yet that sin is not luxury or amorality. As with Bruegel, Babylon is not only itself but also the city of Blake’s own experience, and its sins are as much the artifice of order and restraint as the excesses of the Great Whore; for him the two go hand-in-hand. In 1809 Blake produced a nightmarish depiction of Revelation’s Whore of Babylon.133 She also appears in his sketches of c.1810 for what Dante Gabriel Rossetti later named A Vision of the Last Judgement,134 which, though unfinished, makes Babylon’s place in Blake’s religious schema explicit.135 With its swirling masses of bodies rising toward Christ or descending to hell, A Vision of the Last Judgement strongly echoes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel Last Judgement. The Great Whore, here found in the bottom centre of the composition, is an important element in Blake’s crowded, chaotic work, but what she stands for is the deviant, misguided power that experience has created. Her sexual sins, we can therefore conclude, are of a character wholly alien to the free sexuality of Blake’s innocence, and like all other experience are destroyed in the birth of the New Jerusalem, represented by the coming of Christ at the top of the picture. Thus A Vision of the Last Judgement makes explicit the metaphor of experience buckling under the pressure of innocence. Blake's images were unique, but the use of Babylon and apocalyptic to comment on contemporary society was a common thread in nineteenth-century English culture. One might point to the vast outpouring of religious pamphlets on the theme, or to the dramatic, apocalyptic works of John Martin.136


Perhaps the most important literary sources for the early nineteenth century are the immensely popular works of Byron. His Hebrew Melodies are concerned with the Babylonian Captivity, and naturally incorporate Old Testament references throughout. The best known of these song-poems today is The Destruction of Sennacherib, or rather its opening verse:

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts all gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.137

The poem describes the miraculous destruction of the Assyrian army on the eve of their seemingly inevitable sack of Jerusalem. The sentiment of this and the other Hebrew Melodies is nationalist, and concentrates on the message that a nation dedicated to and loved by God can and must endure any enemy. This is a use of the Old Testament that is very much of its time: Blake’s ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ later to become the lyric of the popular English patriotic song ‘Jerusalem’, dates to the same period.138For Byron there was little to differentiate the oppression of the Assyrians and that of the Babylonians, in which respect he shared a perspective with many ancient authors. His ‘By the Rivers of Babylon We Sat Down and Wept’, closely based on Psalm 137, emphasizes resistance to those oppressors:

While sadly we gazed on the river
Which roll’d on in freedom below,
They demanded the song: but, oh never
That triumph the stranger shall know!
May this right hand be wither’d forever,
Ere it string our high harp for the foe!139

This is to be expected, and is not a distortion of the psalm’s message, but it is worth remembering that the Old Testament itself is not so consistent as later tradition would make it. Several biblical sources, most prominently the early part of Isaiah, counsel acceptance of God’s punishment in the form of the Captivity and advise the Israelites to build new lives for themselves in Babylon. This inconsistency better reflects the complex historical experience of displacement, with resistance, adaptation and integration all parts of the story, but would hardly serve Byron’s purpose. The Vision of Belshazzar reprises an 1814 occasional piece, To Belshazzar, and covers the Daniel account of the writing on the wall. The subject of the Israelites’ exile was a particularly poignant one for the romantic pessimist Byron, in whose eyes it symbolized the sorrow and pain of human existence itself.140

Clearly, there is a tragic aspect to Byron’s outlook. Though on other topics his wit shines, here the contrast with the quick and flippant Voltaire could hardly be greater. Both authors, however, were immensely popular in their own lifetimes, and are often cited as defining examples of the great cultural movements of their times. Byron’s work clearly struck a chord with a wide readership, and its sentiment cannot therefore be dismissed as entirely misrepresentative. Romanticism brought a powerfully emotional element, by turns moving and cloying, into cultural life; one whose tone has fallen in and out of favour with modern scholars ever since, but whose impact in all fields of nineteenth-century cultural life was undeniably profound.

Byron’s largest work on a Mesopotamian theme is the play Sardanapalus, completed in 1821 and first performed in 1834. The subject and its treatment have little in common with the Hebrew Melodies. Here Byron concentrates on the downfall of a flawed ruler, though his treatment is not entirely unsympathetic. The main source is not biblical but Greek: the account of Ctesias preserved in Diodorus Siculus. Byron’s play was written 20 years prior to the rediscovery of Assyrian cities and the decipherment of cuneiform, and so Ctesias remained the best available source.141 Several other major productions were based on Byron’s Sardanapalus, including one, Sardanapal, Historische Pantomime,142 which came to play an important role in the German reception of Babylon (seeChapter 6). Most notably, Byron’s play provided the inspiration for Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus, one of the most famous Orientalist paintings ever produced.


Also focusing on the plight of the exiled Judaeans, Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco (originally Nabucodonosor, i.e. Nebuchadnezzar) is, by far, the grandest and most famous musical representation of ancient Babylon. First performed in Milan in 1842, the opera’s libretto (by Temistocle Solera) was based on an 1856 play and 1838 ballet of the same name.143 As the title suggests, the sources from which the plot is derived are biblical rather than classical, though a large part is also modern invention.144 The Babylonian Captivity is the opera’s setting and core theme, and is complemented by elements including an original version of Nebuchadnezzar’s madness and a story in which non-biblical character, Abigaille, attempts to seize the throne of Babylon. The opera is best known for its Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves. In Nabucco Verdi foregrounded the chorus to a previously unknown degree, a musical innovation which also carried, or perhaps more accurately developed, political significance. ‘Va pensiero’, the most famous chorus, became associated with Risorgimento-era popular ardour for a unified homeland and political freedom. At Verdi’s funeral in 1901, the chorus of La Scala led the huge crowds in a rendition of ‘Va pensiero’. Once again the historically specific events of the Captivity had taken on a modern, universalizing importance far removed from their original context.

Nabucco, the opera which first brought Verdi real fame, has remained among his most popular and frequently staged works ever since.145 Following the Second World War, the opera was the first to be performed at the reopened La Scala in 1948. The sets were designed by Zampini, the costumes by the celebrated Caramba (Luigi Sapelli), after whom La Scala’s costume facility is now named. A surviving photograph held by the Royal Opera House, London, shows that the sets to this production incorporated features now known from the early twentieth-century excavations at Babylon, including the glazed-brick bulls and dragons of the Ishtar Gate.

‘Assyriana’: reception and consumption in mid-nineteenth-century Europe

The European impact of the Assyrian discoveries of the 1840s was substantial, and certainly affected the representation of Babylon well before that city had itself been excavated. The majority of the materials Layard had uncovered went to the British Museum, but some did find other homes.146 Two famous examples are the set of jewellery, itself now held in the British Museum, that was produced for Enid Guest’s wedding to Layard in 1869 from real Assyrian cylinder seals (and worn by her for the Layards’ dinner with Queen Victoria in 1873),147 and the Nineveh Porch at Canford Manor, home of Layard’s cousin, patron, from 1869 mother-in-law – and in her own right an important translator (most notably of the Mabinogion), collector and businesswoman – Lady Charlotte Guest.148 These two uses for the Assyrian discoveries testify eloquently to their meaning and worth socially. If the British Museum collections symbolized national greatness, those privately held did as much for their discoverer and his circle. John Malcolm Russell, who has studied the history of the Nineveh Porch and the papers of Charlotte Guest in detail, considers what the reliefs at Canford Manor meant to their owner:

Lady Charlotte’s experience of the Nineveh marbles both parallels and contrasts with that of the British public. She appreciated their biblical and aesthetic value, but they also offered her the unique opportunity to compete with the national museums of England and France.149

This, of course, says a great deal about the wealth and social standing of Lady Charlotte and her husband Sir John Guest, a prominent industrialist.150 Russell is able to cite the owner’s own comments on the use of the Nineveh Porch:

Lady Charlotte envisaged it as ‘a beautiful and interesting object’ and ‘as interesting a little spot of ground that Porch as any in England.’ Such an interesting object must be shown off and Lady Charlotte clearly enjoyed doing so, as evidenced by her numerous diary references to visits to the Porch by guests in 1853 and 1854.151

Lady Layard’s jewellery could be said to fulfil a similar role: a talking point focussed on Henry Layard’s status and success. It was the crowning glory of a trend for ‘Assyriana’, some examples of which are also retained in the collections of the British Museum. There was certainly an element of fashion. The French artist Gustave Courbet, referring to his own beard, noted that he himself possessed an ‘Assyrian profile’,152 and incorporated postures from Botta’s Khorsabad reliefs into his own compositions on non-Mesopotamian subjects.

Seductions east and west


Back! Daughter of Babylon! Come not near the chosen of the Lord. Thy mother hath filled the earth with the wine of her iniquities, and the cry of her sinning hath come up even to the ears of God.


Speak again, Iokanaan. Thy voice is as music to mine ear.153

The identification of Babylon with sin and amoral luxury is longstanding. The major influences here are Old Testament sources, but their fortuitous compatibility with Greek representations of Achaemenid Persia can also be fairly said to have contributed to later attitudes to the Middle East as a whole. The moral meaning of biblical texts could even take it outside this geographical context, as in Spenser’s conscious modelling of the Faerie Queene’s Duessa after the Whore of Babylon described in Revelation, and of Lucifera as the Daughter of Babylon, guilty of pride.154 It comes as no surprise, then, that Babylon should be a popular subject in Orientalist art. The story of Salome, of course, has nothing to do with Babylon, and yet Wilde’s reference above is not only simple and clear, but there is also a more than allegorical truth in it. Salome and her real mother, Herodias, are indeed the kin of Revelation’s Great Whore: neither are meaningful as individual characterizations, but both work as specific embodiments of a female type. Babylon and Salome are, throughout their literary careers, fatally seductive and corrupting to men. What makes Wilde’s Salome so interesting is that it explicitly makes Salome’s seductions the heart of the play, and emphasizes them far more than the virtue of the saint. Wilde even sexualizes the conclusion of the story, turning John the Baptist’s resistance to Salome into a macabre triumph for her as she kisses his severed head: ‘they say that love hath a bitter taste, but what matter? I have kissed thy mouth, Iokanaan, I have kissed thy mouth’.155 This was Salome, but it could have been Lilith, Ishtar or Semiramis. As Zainab Bahrani puts it in her study Women of Babylon:

Ancient goddesses have been the subject of both scholarly and popular fascination since the earliest days of archaeological discovery in Babylonia and Assyria. Exoticising fantasies of cultic prostitution and illicit sexual practices were woven around historically attested female deities in the scholarly literature, and these descriptions eventually became part of a larger imaginative picture of Oriental antiquity.156

This is a type also represented in semi-mythologized Greco-Roman history: Livia, wife of Augustus, or Olympias, mother of Alexander. In the Homeric tradition their luxury is not as clear, or at least not as material, yet their function still exists. Here it is found not in Helen, who like all the Iliad’s mortal protagonists is a pawn of the gods, but in the Sirens or the nymph Calypso. When Babylon is anthropomorphized in art and literature, this is the category in which it is consistently placed. We can explore this idea further by looking at two Mesopotamian characters who come to us from ancient Greece: Sardanapalus and Semiramis.

The stories of Sardanapalus and Semiramis have much in common. They both involve sexual deviancy and violence, power and the abuse of power. They also specifically involve the blurring of gender and sexuality. There is a rich literature on the European representation of Eastern man and Eastern woman, but they are as a rule treated as separate types in representation, and separate conclusions are drawn about them. Frequently, however, they are not different types at all. Instead, they are both parts of a fantasy of seduction and transgression being played out in modern, male, upper-class European minds. On this subject Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather is a key work, bringing together gender, sexuality, class and race in describing imperial discourse. McClintock looks at Victorian culture, identifying cultural taboos and boundaries and then looking at their transgression.157 She concentrates on the ways in which fantasies are played out and constrained, and this often hidden tension is very relevant to the representation of characters like Sardanapalus and Semiramis.

The transgressions of Sardanapalus and Semiramis are represented, in modernity as in antiquity, as basically negative, Sardanapalus’ entirely so. Semiramis is brave and cunning in her military career, but she abuses her power and her very success undermines the male kings of Mesopotamia, since in classical Greek literature female intervention in war is either reserved for immortals or treated as abhorrent, as in the case of the Amazons. Insofar as these characters carry an explicit lesson in modern paintings and plays, that lesson is about the dangers of such transgression. Rather than screening out such sin, however, nineteenth-century painters in particular seem to have revelled in it. Presented with an image such as Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus158 it is hard to deny that the artist dwells on the sexual transgressions, and that the viewer is encouraged to do the same. The public material plays an unspoken sexual, almost pornographic, role codified in just such a way as to be ideologically acceptable within a relatively prudish modern culture. This role is not simply a matter of the nudity of female figures found in many ‘fall of Babylon’ images, but rather the fantasy of transgression and sin for which they are ciphers. The feminized bisexual tyrant Sardanapalus and the masculinized, sadistic Semiramis represent everything forbidden, yet they and their behaviour are accessible because they are legitimated as culturally worthwhile subject matter by high culture and history. Such characters and their stories form a taboo-breaking aspect of a high culture created by and for a rich, powerful, but socially quite constrained audience, and this is the context in which their cultural significance makes most sense.

One important transgression of the taboo is missed as long as we treat the representation of men and women as distinct categories. These representations are laden with gender blurring and the reversal of traditional sexual roles and categories (as is also the case with Ishtar, analysed by Bahrani).159 Sardanapalus and Semiramis are part of the same, modern fantasy, and their representation ties in well with a more widely documented Victorian fascination with the androgyne.160 In the representation of Babylon, fantasies of transgression occur again and again, so much so that there evolves a standard way of mediating them and making them acceptable in modern society: that mediation is the performance of a seduction, yet sin and responsibility for sin are transferred away from the viewer. When the Sardanapalus story is presented as both a historical education and a moral lesson, for example, it can hardly be the fault of the producers for being faithful to history and morality, or of the audience if they witness all the sins of the ancient East.

The arrival of excavated Mesopotamian material in Europe and the decipherment of cuneiform did not in themselves do anything to undermine this tendency in art. Indeed, they could easily be co-opted to complement it. Edwin Long’s 1875 Babylonian Marriage Market is a representation of particular interest to archaeologists and Assyriologists, incorporating an enormous amount of detail sourced from the Assyrian collections of the British Museum (Figure 14). Meticulous use of the Assyrian reliefs is everywhere in evidence, giving the impression that it represents a major break with what has gone before, and that Long’s painting is far more accurate and authentic a representation of Babylon than its predecessors. No doubt this is true at the level of decorative detail, Long using the closely-related arts of Assyria rather than, for example, the classical sources of the Flemish Tower of Babel images. In theme and narrative, however, Long’s choice of subject puts his work firmly into the category of Orientalist sexual exotica. Long drew the painting’s narrative not from ancient Mesopotamia but from Herodotus, and in particular his far-fetched story of an annual market where the dowries of less attractive women are covered by the bride prices paid by rich men for the beauties (see Chapter 3). There is truth in the statement that ‘the new archaeological approach signified a desire to engage more directly with the past and to recreate it more authentically than ever before,’161 but this desire was realized in practice as an authentification of the fantastic. Just as Said argued with regard to orientalist scholarship and art more generally, meticulous attention to detail in history painting could mask a lack of factual foundation for the overall subject and its subjective treatment in moral terms.162

A large part of the legitimacy this sourcing of detail brings stems from the belief that objects are able in some way to speak for themselves. Layard himself felt that there were occasions on which even Assyrian art, alien as it was to the Victorian public, might speak in such clear terms. Describing the great gateway sculptures that were to become the best-known examples of Assyrian art, he wrote:

They could find no better type of intellect and knowledge than the head of the man; of strength, than the body of the lion; of ubiquity, than the wings of the bird. These winged, human-headed lions were not idle creations, the offspring of mere fancy; their meaning was written upon them.163

In a similar vein, it has been suggested that there was something of a happy coincidence between the form of these particular statues and the aesthetics of the modern culture into which they were received, that ‘these enormous Assyrian bulls had something very much in common with the ponderous, conservative philosophy of the Mid-Victorian period’.164 Some proof of the limitations of this belief can be found in the mixed reception the sculptures received as art. Layard championed Assyrian art as important and worthy of study, but his view was by no means shared by the British Museum’s trustees or other art experts of the time, who judged the Mesopotamian reliefs and statues by comparison with a Greco-Roman standard for aesthetic perfection and – inevitably, since they failed to take the Assyrian material on its own terms – found them wanting.

The veracity The Babylonian Marriage Market achieves in detail misleads for two reasons. First, once the authority of the artist who has studied the Assyrian sources is confirmed in the viewer’s mind, the legitimating detail serves partly to confuse: that some aspects of the painting are more firmly grounded than others is easily forgotten. In this case that legitimation extends not only to the Herodotus story of the marriage market, but also to the Victorian equation of skin colour with beauty. The girls appearing first at auction (the more beautiful in Herodotus’ story) are white, with skin colour darkening as the queue to the auction block progresses from left to right across the canvas. Second, the level of detail, and of a kind of photo-realism in the depiction of people and objects, serves to disguise the extent to which the image is not and could not be drawn as a single study from life. This seems obvious given the ancient subject of the work, but the illusion here is not that Long was somehow present at an actual marriage market at the time of Herodotus, but that in his sources he had access to a coherent whole from which to copy. In eliding the composite nature of the work, its creator also conceals the selection and manipulation of a diverse set of texts and material culture to a particular end.

Conclusion: The experience and the idea

Close attention to the detail of one epistemology and set of sources in the production of a representation by no means precludes the effective dominance of another. Ideas or whole systems of knowledge can be overturned in theory and yet continue to exert an influence in practice. Stephanie Moser’s study Ancestral Images traces the development of an iconography for human origins, revealing a surprising continuity in the face of major paradigm shifts, including the rise of evolutionary theory itself.165 The relative stability in the iconography of ‘primitive’ humans over centuries is shown not only to survive but even to undermine new understandings of hominid evolution, and to contribute significantly to quite recent popular and scholarly images of Neanderthals and earlier hominids. In this case technical details receive close scientific attention, while important but less tangible factors (such as the facial expressions, posture, social groupings and gaze of figures) are treated far less critically, with the result that dramatic change in scientific theory has masked incredible continuity in representation. The history of Babylon’s representation has taken a different course, but the intertwining of biblical, classical and later sources has produced a comparable degree of inconsistency and complexity in the relationship between current ideas on the ancient city in theory and its representation in practice. A simplistic model of intellectual change, in which new ideas and understandings neatly displace their predecessors, will tend to impose order and consistency on the sources where there is little to be found, and to obscure some of the less reasoned but more pervasive cross-pollination that has influenced everything from representation in art to the questions asked by excavators. Ideas too have their afterlives, and these can easily take on visual forms.

The dynamics of change and continuity are key to understanding the historical dimension of representation. One myth to be dispelled, particularly in the case of classical sources, is the notion of change exemplified by medieval decay and modern recovery, the belief that knowledge of the ancient past was once ungarbled and unambiguous, was gradually forgotten, and was eventually recovered and re-established by modern scholarship. This is a model of scholarly recovery based on particular ideals, especially a certain modern scientific positivism, not a historical pattern readily observed in practice. To demonstrate this point, we can return to our key early Greek accounts of Babylon. The combined writings of Herodotus, Ctesias and Berossus do not add up to a coherent and consistent account of Babylon or of Babylonia and Assyria. There is very little consistency in terms of historical events, king-lists, details of the great engineering works or the roles of individual rulers. There is often direct contradiction, and usually very little scope for an ancient reader to verify a given claim. Further, it seems probable that the lost elements of Berossus, especially if based on Babylonian primary sources, would throw up even more contradictions than those of which we are already aware. Later writers and artists have been forced to reconcile and homogenize the three very different accounts, or to favour one to the exclusion of the others. In its earliest stages, the literary reception of Babylon was already plural and inconsistent. Even allowing for the better-informed account of Berossus, there never was a correct single account of Babylon to lose, nor would there be if we went back further, to the Babylonian sources themselves or even to a set of hypothetical ‘perfect’ sources, in which residents of Babylon described the city in depth and detail. Such sources are impossibilities, of course, and all description is by its nature situated, partial, partisan and reductive. It can never be complete or absolute. The brief window in the early- to mid-twentieth century when positivism in archaeology briefly made the idea of a single accurate scholarly picture of the ancient past seem an achievable or at least an appropriate goal is not the consequence of progressive generations of scholars narrowing down the range of the possible. If anything it is an exception, a fleeting moment inconsistent with a history in which subjectivity and uncertainty have been accepted as the inevitable operating mode of historians. Although difficult to apply sensibly and constructively to the fragmentary remains of the ancient past, the pluralism and multi-vocality seen in contemporary critical theory and anthropology better suit the data and their problems, even if they lack the allure of completion and closure.

Any historical perspective shows knowledge and understanding to exist in states of perpetual flux, and their study, through representation as much as through philosophy, requires a concentration on the ebb and flow of epistemologies and values. There is a great deal of existing work on the patterns of gradual and dramatic, accretive and paradigmatic change in knowledge within the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. A model of minor incremental change punctuated by dramatic revolution was the basic thesis of Thomas Kuhn’s hugely influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.166 There is a strong case for this understanding of the history of science: Bachelard argued that it does not apply equally to the humanities, which develop more incrementally,167yet while this objection may hold true to some extent there is no need to polarize or draw strong distinctions between the sciences and the humanities. Rather, both incremental and revolutionary processes operate in both contexts. In the history of science, of the humanities or of any scholarship, abrupt revolutionary change may be of great importance without implying total discontinuity or wholesale destruction. Since we are dealing here with the history of archaeology, we in any case find ourselves at the border between the two worlds.

The visits of travellers to Babylon frequently involved the conscious use of biblical and classical sources in more-or-less confined situations, whereby specific aspects of a visitor’s experience were related in their accounts to specific aspects of the two textual traditions. Time, repetition and selective borrowing all contributed to a process by which observations and traditions became entangled, but this entanglement was frequently balanced by scholarly visitors such as Niebuhr and Rich, whose tendency to return to and compare their older sources did much to refresh and clarify the historiographic basis of the tradition. Representations in art and fiction developed in a different way, and their interrelation over time is as much a matter of narrative and theme as of historical detail. It is possible to identify the most popular and influential narratives and their biblical or classical roots, yet by the nineteenth century the overwhelming impression is of a single canon rather than two separate and conflicting biblical and classical traditions. The connection is sin: the moral and sexual deviancy of Sardanapalus and Semiramis tie in quite comfortably with the despotism of Nebuchadnezzar, or the hubris of Nimrod.

When ancient Assyrian material culture began arriving in Europe in the mid-nineteenth century, its iconography was applied to themes from both the biblical and classical traditions, lending the credibility of history and the support of physical evidence. The impact of decipherment played a similar unifying and legitimating role. The discovery of the palace sculptures of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh gave European scholars a credible historical Sardanapalus, while another Ninevite palace really was that of the biblical Sennacherib, complete with vivid depictions of his campaigns in the Levant. An understanding of the chronological and familial relationship between the two kings gave new weight to the biblical and classical accounts in equal measure.168 There may be a reflection of this in the travellers’ accounts, where observations on the fulfilment of biblical prophecy were increasingly supplemented by discussion of Herodotus’ description of the walls of Babylon and temple of Bel.169 This shift, however, could more convincingly be explained as the product of Herodotus’ greater suitability to the types of topographical and architectural question and investigation that became important for visitors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The sexualized and sinful aspects of Babylon in modern European culture would ultimately become the elements that lend the greatest potency and relevance to Babylon’s representation in the present. Sin is as near to a universal theme as could be imagined, and in terms of Babylon’s enduring relevance as a cultural symbol this is enormously important. We seek the difference of the past, yet it is recognition that fascinates. Leonard Woolley, excavator of Ur, observed that ‘the surprise which a visitor to a museum expresses at the age of a given object is in exact proportion to his recognition of the object’s essential modernity – it is the surprise of one who sees his horizon suddenly opening out’.170 This precise and elegant explanation of archaeology’s appeal brings us to the very heart of the relationship between the academic study of the past and its treatment in other cultural forms. The recognition of the object’s essential modernity, in this case, is a sleight of hand: it stems from the fact that the object, be it painting, play, poem or opera, actuallyis modern, and thus able to bridge the gap and manufacture the desired mix of strangeness and familiarity. To satisfy this appeal, increasing empiricism is the last thing needed from travellers’ accounts (as Voltaire recognized), yet this was occurring at just the same time as orientalist fantasies flourished. It is only as this conflict develops that the worlds of antiquarian, historical and archaeological study and the artistic representation of the past truly diverge. It was not, for example, a problem faced by Athanasius Kircher, even if his inclusion of Pietro Della Valle’s pictures of Tell Babil alongside other, more fantastic, images is a part of its genesis. The firm separation of empirical, archaeological approaches as a distinct category, both in performance and in publication, is a recent development in our relationship with the human past. The consolidation and consequences of this change will be seen more clearly as we move into the twentieth century, and the German archaeological excavations at Babylon.

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