Ancient History & Civilisation


In 1854 the London Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park, where for three years it had housed the world exposition, and taken to Sydenham, where it was fitted out as a museum. With this the people of western Europe for the first time were able to form some idea of the luxury and splendor of those Biblical cities so often condemned by the prophets as sinks of sin and corruption. Two enormous Old Syrian rooms and a huge palace façade were reconstructed at this new British Museum. These exhibits offered an overwhelming impression of an architecture hitherto known only through legend, the Bible, and the fanciful travelogues written by the writers of antiquity.

A ceremonial hall and a royal chamber were also set up. Winged human-headed lions and images of the lion-killer Gilgamesh, the “conquering hero” and “master of the land,” were put on display. Walls were reconstructed of Babylonian brick, a colored, glazed variety used in no other ancient architecture. There were friezes showing exciting martial and hunting scenes which happened twenty-seven centuries ago at the time of the great King Assurnasirpal (see Plates XVII and XVIII).

The man who made this exhibition possible was Austen Henry Layard. In 1839 he rode into Mosul, on the banks of the Tigris, his condition hardly better than a vagabond’s; but by the time his Assyrian finds were being put on show at the British Museum atSydenham, Layard had become British Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs.

Layard’s career is very similar to those of Botta and Rawlinson. All three were adventurers at heart, and fascinated by power; scientists of rank, yet worldly men; inclined to politics and experienced in the art of handling people, yet sensitive to the beautiful.

Layard was a member of a French family that had settled in England. He was born in Paris in 1817. After spending part of his youth in Italy with his father, in 1833 he came back to England and began the study of law. The year 1839 saw him traveling in the Orient. For a time he lived at the British Embassy in Constantinople, then in 1845 began his excavations in Mesopotamia. In 1852 and again in 1861 he was made Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs, in 1868 he became minister in charge of all public works, and in 1869 was made minister from England to Madrid with full credentials.

A longing to see the East, to visit distant Baghdad, Damascus, and Persia, colored his youthful dreams. Though at the age of twenty-two he was bent over a desk in a London solicitor’s stuffy office, facing the prospect of a monotonous, confined existence, with no goal to work toward but the judicial bench, Layard shook off his bonds and followed the dream.

Layard’s career was just the opposite of Heinrich Schliemann’s. At the beginning both were caught up by youthful enthusiasms. Schliemann was excited by reading Homer, Layard by the Thousand and One Nights. Schliemann, however, first followed the paths of material success, with a unique display of self-control and method. He became a millionaire and a man with world-wide connections. Only then did he allow himself to be carried away by the long-suppressed dream. Layard, however, could not wait; he went forth as an impoverished youth into the land of fable. There he experienced even more than the fable had promised, there he won fame and honor, there climbed the ladder of success rung by rung.

One thing, nevertheless, he had in common with the great German archæologist. Like Schliemann, who in his Amsterdam garret had prepared himself for the fulfillment of his urge by learning foreign languages, during his youth Layard applied himself to everything that he conceived would be needed to travel freely in the land of his dreams. His interest inclined to practical matters far outside the province of the law—the use of compass and sextant, how to go about making topographical surveys, and the like. He studied first-aid methods and ways of combating tropical diseases. Not least, he learned some Persian and other languages spoken in Iraq and Iran.

In 1839 he left his London office and began his first journey into the Middle East. Very soon he showed an ability that few of his colleagues in the same field could match: he proved to be not only a great excavator, but a superior writer as well, one who could describe his accomplishments in brilliant language. Let him tell about his first Mesopotamian experience—in a somewhat abbreviated version of the original:

“During the autumn of 1839 and winter of 1840, I have been wandering through Asia Minor and Syria, scarcely leaving untrod one spot hallowed by tradition, or unvisited one ruin consecrated by history. I was accompanied by one no less curious and enthusiastic than myself. We are both equally careless of comfort and unmindful of danger. We rode alone; our arms were our only protection; a valise behind our saddles was our wardrobe, and we tended our own horses, except when relieved from the duty by the hospitable inhabitants of a Turcoman village or an Arab tent. Thus unembarrassed by needless luxuries, and uninfluenced by the opinions and prejudices of others, we mixed amongst the people.…

“I look back with feelings of grateful delight to those happy days when, free and unheeded, we left at dawn the humble cottage or cheerful tent, and lingering as we listed, unconscious of distance and of the hour, found ourselves, as the sun went down, under some hoary ruin tenanted by the wandering Arabs, or in some crumbling village still bearing a well-known name.

“… I now felt an irresistible desire to penetrate to the regions beyond the Euphrates, to which history and tradition point as the birthplace of the wisdom of the West. Most travellers, after a journey through the usually frequented parts of the East, have the same longing to cross the great river, and to explore those lands which are separated on the map from the confines of Syria by a vast blank stretching over Assyria, Babylonia, and Chaldea. With these names are linked great nations and great cities dimly shadowed forth in history; mighty ruins, in the midst of deserts, defying, by their very desolation and lack of definite form, the description of the traveller; the remnants of mighty races still roving over the land; the fulfilling and fulfillment of prophecies; the plains to which the Jew and the Gentile alike look as the cradle of their race.

“I left Aleppo, with my companion, on the 18th of March. We still travelled as we have been accustomed; without guide or servants. The road across the desert is at all times impracticable, except to a numerous and well-armed caravan, and offers no object of interest.… We entered Mosul on the 10th of April. During a short stay in this town we visited the great ruins on the east bank of the river, which have been generally believed to be the remains of Nineveh. We rode also into the desert, and explored the mound of Kalah Shergat, a vast ruin on the Tigris, about fifty miles below its junction with the Zab. As we journeyed thither we rested for the night at the small Arab village of Hammum Ali, around which are the vestiges of an ancient city. From the summit of an artificial eminence we looked down upon a broad plain, separated from us by the river. A line of lofty mounds bounded it to the east, and one of a pyramidical [sic] form rose high above the rest. Beyond it could be faintly traced the waters of the Zab. Its position rendered its identification easy. This was the pyramid which Xenophon had described, and near which the ten thousand had encamped: the ruins around it were those which the Greek general saw twenty-two centuries before, and which were even then the remains of anancientcity. Although Xenophon had confounded a name, spoken by a strange race, with one familiar to a Greek ear, and had called the place Larissa, tradition still points to the origin of the city, and, by attributing its foundation to Nimrod, whose name the ruins now bear, connects it with one of the first settlements of the human race.”

Layard was not able at the time to investigate the history-laden mound more closely. But he was fascinated by the spectacle, he caressed the very thought of it as a miser strokes his cashbox. Again and again he returned to it in his description of his journey, always trying to find new words for the impression that it made on him.

“Kalah Shergat,” he writes, “was … a vast, shapeless mass, now covered with grass, and showing scarcely any traces of the work of man except where the winter rains had formed ravines down its almost perpendicular sides, and had thus laid open its contents.” And farther along, emphasizing the barrenness of the scene as it strikes the traveler, he says: “He is now at a loss to give any form to the rude heaps upon which he is gazing.” And again: “The richly carved cornices or capitals half hidden by luxuriant herbage are [here] replaced by the stem shapeless mound rising like a hill from the scorched plain, the fragments of pottery, and the stupendous mass of brickwork occasionally laid bare by the winter rains.”

Although a short time after this he had to turn back, he could not leave without at least once trying to satisfy his curiosity. “There was a tradition current amongst the Arabs,” he writes, “that strange figures carved in black stone still existed among the ruins; but we searched for them in vain, during the greater part of a day in which we were engaged in exploring the heap of earth and bricks, covering a considerable extent of country on the right bank of the Tigris.”

And he sums up by saying: “These huge mounds of Assyria made a deeper impression upon me, gave rise to more serious thought and more earnest reflection, than the temples of Balbec or the theatres of Ionia.”

One mound most of all fettered his attention. He was held by its great size, and, too, by the name of the city that lay in ruins at its base, the city of Nimrud (Nimrod). This Biblical site, as he writes, seemed to provide him with a concrete link with the “cradle of the human race.”

Cush, we are told in the tenth chapter of Genesis, was a son of Ham, whose father was Noah. This Cush, his three sons, their wives, and a host of animals began to repopulate the earth after humanity had been punished by a great deluge.

And Cush begat Nimrod: he began to be a mighty one in the earth.

He was a mighty hunter before the Lord: wherefore it is said, Even as Nimrod the mighty hunter before the Lord.

And the beginning of his kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar.

Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth, and Calah,

And Resen between Nineveh and Calah: the same is a great city.

His pitifully inadequate funds having been eaten up, Layard had no choice but to turn back and go to Constantinople. There he made the acquaintance of the English Ambassador, Sir Stratford Canning. Day in, day out, Layard talked about the mysterious mounds near Mosul, and with ever more urgency, for meanwhile the world had been apprised of the finds made by Paul Émile Botta at Khorsabad. Layard’s glowing descriptions and unflagging enthusiasm were not without effect on the Ambassador, though it cannot be said he was set on fire. At any rate, five years after Layard’s first journey and after Botta had scaled the pinnacle of success at Khorsabad, Sir Stratford gave the twenty-eight-year-old enthusiast a present of sixty English pounds. Sixty pounds! Hardly a princely sum in view of what Layard hoped to accomplish. For his plans went far beyond anything that Botta had attempted, though the Frenchman had been helped by his government and enjoyed the income from an official sinecure in Mosul.

On November 8, 1845 Layard went down the Tigris on a river boat to begin his excavations at the mound of Nimrud. This time it was not only a lack of financial backing that jeopardized his expedition. Five years had slipped away since his last visit, and during this interval the whole region had become alive with insurrection.

The land between the two rivers at this time was under Turkish control. A new governor, or pasha, had been appointed since Layard’s previous visit. It seems to have been characteristic of Oriental viceroys to regard territories in their charge as arenas of exploitation, the inhabitants as so many milch cows.

The new governor of Mosul ruled in true Asiatic style; on this point the many descriptions of his regime all agree. The pasha was a story-book villain. Even in physical appearance he fully looked the part. For example, he had only one eye, and one ear. He was small, and fat, in an insidious and Oriental way. To make matters worse, his face was covered with pockmarks. He had a terrifying voice, his gestures were uncouth and jerky, he habitually wore a mistrustful look, as if he momentarily expected to be ambushed. He was also a clever sadist, and gifted with a macabre wit. One of his first actions upon taking office was to institute a “dishparassi,” or tooth-tax. This tribute went the European salt tax one better. Its purpose, the pasha announced, was to cover the attrition of his teeth and for extractions of the same occasioned by his eating the miserable diet of this benighted land.

The tooth-tax was a mere coquettish preliminary to what followed. He made the people shake in their shoes. His method was to despoil; the cities he robbed, villages he casually set on fire for the fun of watching them go up in smoke.

Despotism always breeds rumor, the news service of the weak. One day somebody in Mosul spread the story that Allah was fed up with the odious pasha and was going to take measures to take him down a peg or two. A few hours later the governor himself got wind of the story, and was inspired by it to invent a stratagem that might have been taken from an old Italian novella. For there are similar anecdotes in Boccaccio, though of less drastic consequences.

The next time the governor went out for a drive, he ostentatiously announced that he felt unwell. He was hurried back to the palace, apparently in a state of collapse. On the wings of hope eyewitness reports of this interesting development flew throughout Mosul. During the next few days the palace gates remained closed. Then the monotonous death wail of the lifeguards and eunuchs resounded from within. The people, pricking up their ears, began to shout with joy. “Allah be praised,” they roared, “the pasha is dead!” Howling and hooting and screaming, wishing the supposedly defunct tyrant in the lowest depths of Gehenna, a crowd gathered in front of the palace. The gates suddenly swung open. There stood the pasha. Small, fat, loathsome. A patch over his blind eye, his face like a colander, grinning with malice.…

A nod, and soldiers rushed upon the terrified crowd. A cruel revenge was now carried out. Heads rolled. The pasha’s sadism also took a pecuniary turn. He dispossessed all “rebels” who had anything to lose, not exempting properties previously immune from official rapacities. He did this, he said, because his victims had “spread rumors that injured the Turkish authority.”

At last the country could stand this sort of thing no longer; the tribes who lived in the desert country about Mosul rebelled. They resisted in their own haphazard style. Incapable of an organized insurrection, they matched pillage with pillage. No road was safe, in consequence, no foreigner sure of his head. And it was in the midst of this hurly-burly that Layard landed in Mesopotamia, hoping to excavate the great mound of Nimrud.

Layard quickly sized up the situation. A few hours after arriving in Mosul he realized that the best policy was to keep his archæological plans to himself. As a subterfuge he bought heavy-caliber rifles and a short spear, saying that he was going down into the river bottoms to hunt wild boar.

A few days later he hired a horse and rode out alone in the direction of Nimrud, which also meant toward a village populated by thievish Bedouins.

Now the improbable came to pass. By evening he had won the friendship of Awad, the tribal sheik who ruled the roost in the territory immediately surrounding the mound of Nimrud. Indeed, by the time he lay down to sleep that night, he had hired six Arab laborers from the sheik. On the morrow, Awad promised, they would help him find what was in “the belly of the mountain”—and for delightfully modest wages at that.

The twenty-eight-year-old explorer must have spent a sleepless night. Tomorrow would prove his luck. Tomorrow? No, several months, perhaps, for had not Botta dug a whole year before getting any results? Actually, as it turned out, Layard struck into the walls of two Assyrian palaces before twenty-four hours had passed.

By early dawn he was roaming the mound. Everywhere he saw inscribed bricks. Awad, the Bedouin sheik, pointed out to his newly won friend a piece of alabaster sticking out of the ground, and this very simply decided the problem of where to dig first.

Seven men turned to and dug a long trench in the mound. The first finds, after several hours of shoveling, were some alabaster slabs that had been buried in an upright position. They proved to be parts of the frieze on the plinth of the orthostat, the decorative inside sheathing of palace walls. The richness of the decoration indicated that the walls could belong to nothing less than a royal palace.

Immediately Layard divided up his little gang of workmen. Suddenly fearing that he might be overlooking even more profitable diggings, and always hoping to come upon walls that were perfectly intact—those he had excavated on the first attempt showed signs of having been calcined by fire—he put three of his men to work on the other side of the mound. Again their spades seemed to act like divining rods. Immediately they hit a wall covered with slabs showing carvings in relief, these separated by an inscription frieze. Layard had found the corner section of a second palace.

Assyrian princes on a lion hunt.

The better to visualize the sort of finds that Layard continued to make during this month of November 1845, listen to the archæologist’s own description of an orthostat from Nimrud:

“The subject on the upper part of No. 1 was a battle scene. Two chariots, drawn by horses richly caparisoned, were each occupied by a group of three warriors; the principal person in both groups was beardless, and evidently a eunuch. He was clothed in a complete suit of mail, and wore a pointed helmet on his head, from the sides of which fell lappets covering the ears, the lower part of the face, and the neck. The left hand, the arm being extended, grasped a bow at full stretch; whilst the right, drawing the string to the ear, held an arrow ready to be discharged. A second warrior with reins and whip urged to the utmost of their speed three horses, who were galloping over the plain. A third, without helmet, and with flowing hair and beard, held a shield for the defense of the principal figure. Under the horses’ feet, and scattered about the relief, were the conquered, wounded by the arrows of the conquerors. I observed with surprise the elegance and richness of the ornaments, the faithful and delicate delineation of the limbs and muscles, both in the men and horses, and the knowledge of art displayed in the grouping of the figures, and the general composition.”

Bas-reliefs of this kind are found today everywhere in the museums of Europe and America. As a rule the visitor gives them a glance, then moves on. But these works of art really deserve close attention. They are so realistic in detail—at least in certain epochs—that the examination of a dozen or so of them affords a deep insight into the life of the period, particularly into the lives of the tyrants who are the object of violent Biblical stricture.

Today, in the age of photography, countless pictures give at least a superficial idea of these low reliefs, and are familiar even to schoolchildren. At the time, however, when Layard was toiling amid desert dust on the mound of Nimrud, no exemplars were available but those which Botta had shipped to Paris. And so they were a new thing, absolutely new, wonderfully exciting finds for those who were retrieving them from the debris of millennia.

Mesopotamia, one must realize, was rediscovered almost at one stroke. In 1843 Rawlinson was hard at work in Baghdad deciphering the Behistun inscriptions. That same year Botta began his excavations at Kuyunjik and Khorsabad, and in 1845 Layard was digging at Nimrud. Great advances resulted from these three years of labor. The decipherment of the Behistun inscription alone yielded more information on the Persepolitan rulers than all the authors of antiquity taken together had been able to supply. Today without exaggeration we can say that we know more about the history of Assyria and Babylonia, about the rise and decline of such cities as Babylon and Nineveh, then did the learned men of “classical” antiquity, more than all the Greek and Roman historians, who were closer in time to the subject by some two thousand years.

The Arabs who daily saw Layard’s delight in chipped alabaster slabs, stained carvings, and scored bricks thought him stark, raving mad. But so long as he paid wages, they were ready and eager to dig on. Still, no pioneer in archæology, and Layard was no exception to the rule, was ever so lucky as to complete his task without interruption. Adventure has always gone hand in hand with field work, hazard with science, knavery with selfless sacrifice. Even so, Layard was a man on whom fortune smiled.

One day when the excavations were considerably advanced, when almost any hope, however vaulting, seemed justified, and the shortest breathing spells an intolerable waste of time, Awad, the Arab sheik and Layard’s friend, called him to one side. In his hand he held a little figure covered with gold foil. Slyly, hinting his willingness to play along, with much circumlocution and many appeals to Allah, he made it clear that he knew what the honorable Frank was really searching for. Of course he wished Layard good luck. If there was gold in the mound, well and good. All that he asked was a little for himself. They—he and Layard—would have to watch their step. These donkeys of workmen had no idea about keeping their mouths shut. Above all, news of Layard’s successes must never get to Mohammed Pasha, in Mosul. Awad extended his arms full length, to show just how large the pasha’s ear was.

Indeed a despot has not only large ears, but ears by the thousands. All his senses are multiplied by the sums of the senses of all the creatures serving him blindly as a god. It was no time at all before the pasha began to show an interest in Layard’s activities. An officer, with soldiers, appeared on the scene. The officer made a token inspection of Layard’s trenches and stores of excavated sculpture. He dropped hints that he knew all about the gold that had cropped up from time to time. Then he ceremoniously delivered an order from the pasha, forbidding further excavation.

One can well imagine how Layard, who was inclined to be upset by the slightest delay, reacted to this sweeping prohibition. He swung up on his horse, rode at top speed to Mosul, and requested an immediate audience with the pasha.

His request was granted. Thereupon Layard was given a lesson in Oriental deviousness and chameleon shifts of color. The pasha lifted deprecatory hands. Naturally—he would do everything, but everything, to help Layard. He liked Franks, he admired them, honored them as a people, and he was anxious to be honored by their friendship, today, tomorrow, his whole life long until Allah called him away. Still, digging was really another matter. Impossible. The site, Layard should understand, was an old Mohammedan burial ground. The Frank really ought to look around a little more carefully. He would find the gravestones. In the eyes of all true believers Layard, sad to relate, was committing a sacrilege. The faithful would rise against the foreigner unless he were more careful. Also against the pasha. If that happened, it would be too bad. The pasha would no longer be able to hold a protecting hand over his friend from foreign parts.

Layard’s visit was humiliating and had got him exactly nowhere. Seated one evening in front of his little hut, Layard had to admit to himself that the whole project was in danger of collapse. Having returned from his audience with the pasha, he had ridden over the mound to see whether it was true, as the tyrant had said, that Mohammedan tombstones were located there. And sure enough, there they were! The first one of these tombstones that he found—it was in an isolated spot—had aroused his suspicions. But what to do? He was still pondering what move to make next when he went to bed that night. A mistake, he thought grimly, not to have noticed the gravestones, and not to have discussed the matter more carefully with the pasha while he was at the palace.

And he was making another mistake, had he but known it, by crawling in under the bedclothes and out of sight this second night of his return to Nimrud. For this meant that he was letting slip a chance of seeing something that would have given him an excellent argument in parleying with Mohammed Pasha. This night—and the night before—had he been up and about, he would have seen ghostly shapes flitting about the mound of Nimrud, coming and going in company, with the sound of stones being softly cracked together. All night long, as Layard slept, slinking figures came and went in pairs. Were they robbers of Egyptian kidney? If so, what could they be looking for? There was nothing there to steal except some heavy stone reliefs.

Layard must have been an unusually charming man, a master in the art of dealing with people. The third morning, going up to the mound, he ran into the captain who had delivered the order to desist, and engaged him in conversation. The captain became confidential. Very privately he told Layard that he and his men, on the pasha’s orders, had worked like dogs for two nights collecting gravestones from all the nearby village cemeteries to replant them on the mound of Nimrud.

“We have destroyed more real tombs of the true believers in making sham ones,” said the captain, “than you could have defiled between the Zab and Selamiyah. We have killed our horses and ourselves in carrying these accursed stones.”

Before Layard had devised means of coping with this astonishing development—if he had been a little more observant he would never have been caught napping in the first place—his difficulties were resolved in a quite unexpected fashion. Shortly after his elegant palaver with Layard, the pasha himself was clapped into jail. The fate which usually sees to it that despots are short-lived had worked the pasha’s downfall. The Turkish government was summoning him to account for his misdeeds. Layard found him in a miserable room with the ceiling dripping rain. “Thus it is with God’s creatures,” the pasha complained. “Yesterday all those dogs were kissing my hands and feet.” And looking up at the damp ceiling, he added: “Today everyone, and everything, falls upon me, even the rain.”

With the pasha off the scene, Layard’s work could proceed without hindrance. One morning the diggers, all excited and jabbering, rushed out of the pits in the northwestern sector of the mound. They waved their shovels, they shrieked and danced. Their furore was a wonderful mixture of fear and joy. “Hasten, O Bey,” they yelled. “Hasten to the diggers, for they have found Nimrud himself. Wallah, it is wonderful, but it is true! We have seen him with our own eyes. There is no god but God.”

Layard hurried to the spot. Hope lent speed to his steps. Not for one moment did he believe that the natives had really found an image of Nimrud. Yet, secretly remembering Botta’s successes, he could not curb all high expectation. Had another one of those splendid man-headed lions been found in the rubble? Like those Botta had discovered?

Then he saw the powerfully sculptured torso, the gigantic head of a winged lion carved in alabaster. “It was in admirable preservation,” he writes. “The expression was calm, yet majestic, and the outline of the features showed a freedom and knowledge of art, scarcely to be looked for in the works of so remote a period.”

Today we know the figure represented one of the four astral gods that were identified with the four cardinal points of the compass. According to the Assyrian tradition, Marduk was shown as a winged bull, Nebo as a human being, Nergal as a winged lion, and Ninib as an eagle.

Layard was profoundly impressed. Later he wrote:

“I used to contemplate for hours these mysterious emblems, and muse over their intent and history. What more noble forms could have ushered the people into the temple of their gods? What more sublime images could have been borrowed from nature, by men who sought, unaided by the light of revealed religion, to embody their conception of the wisdom, power, and ubiquity of a Supreme Being? 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 rapidity of motion, than the wings of the bird. These winged humanheaded lions were not idle creations, the offspring of mere fancy; their meaning was written upon them. They had awed and instructed races which flourished 3,000 years ago. Through the portals which they guarded, kings, priests, and warriors had borne sacrifices to their altars, long before the wisdom of the East had penetrated to Greece, and had furnished its mythology with symbols long recognized by the Assyrian votaries. They may have been buried, and their existence may have been unknown, before the foundation of the eternal city. For twenty-five centuries they had been hidden from the eye of man, and they now stood forth once more in their ancient majesty. But how changed was the scene around them! The luxury and civilization of a mighty nation had given place to the wretchedness and ignorance of a few half-barbarous tribes. The wealth of temples, and the riches of great cities, had been succeeded by ruins and shapeless heaps of earth. Above the spacious hall in which they stood, the plough had passed and the corn now waved. Egypt has monuments no less ancient and no less wonderful; but they have stood forth for ages to testify her early power and renown; whilst those before me had but now appeared to bear witness in the words of the prophet [Ezekiel, xxxi, 3] that once ‘the Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon with fair branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of an high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs.’ ”

Zephaniah (ii, 13–15) records the Lord’s frightful promise as follows:

And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness.

And flocks shall lie down in the midst of her, all the beasts of the nations: both the cormorant and the bittern shall lodge in the upper lintels of it; their voice shall sing in the windows; desolation shall be in the thresholds; for he shall uncover the cedar work.

This is the rejoicing city that dwelt carelessly, that said in her heart, I am, and there is none beside me: how is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in! every one that passeth by her shall hiss, and wag his hand.

Many centuries ago this prophecy had been fulfilled; and now Layard was bringing to light whatever there remained after its dire workings.

The news of the find, more or less frightening to the Arabs, spread quickly. The Bedouins came from far and near to see. The sheik appeared with half his tribe in tow to celebrate the occasion with bursts of rifle-fire. It was a glittering fantasy in honor of a world lost since times primeval. The Arabs rode up to the diggings, took one look at the gigantic image, bleached and scored by the watery erosion of millennia, then lifted their arms and called out to God to witness.

The sheik needed a great deal of reassuring before he would consent to stepping down into the hole to see for himself that the likeness was not a terrible jinni, or god, risen out of the bowels of the earth. He stared, and finally said: “This is not the work of men’s hands, but of those infidel giants of whom the Prophet—peace be with him!—has said that they were higher than the tallest date tree; this is one of the idols which Noah—peace be with him!—cursed before the flood.”

Meanwhile one of the Arab workmen, having dropped his tools in terror, had rushed off to Mosul. There his report that the great Nimrud had risen out of his grave created vast excitement in the market place.

The cadi interested himself in the matter. He called in the workmen for interrogation. What had been found? The bones, the skeleton of Nimrud? Or only his likeness, something made by human hands? The cadi went into consultation with the mufti, who reviewed the incident from the theological point of view to determine whether Nimrud should be considered one of the faithful or a dog of an unbeliever.

The governor, successor to the tyrannical Mohammed Pasha, made a decision worthy of Solomon. He ordered Layard to handle the “remains” with propriety and for the time being suspend further excavation. Layard managed to get an audience with the governor and was able to convince him that the feelings of the true believers would not be wounded by additional digging. Then, shortly afterwards, a firman, or official Turkish permit, finally arrived from the Sultan in Constantinople. This relieved him permanently from all annoyances stemming from the local authorities and rabidly orthodox Arab tribesmen.

Sculpture after sculpture came to light. In a short time no less than thirteen pairs of winged lions and bulls had been taken out of the ground. The imposing structure that Layard slowly revealed at the northwest side of the mound of Nimrud, a labor for which he was to be accorded fame far exceeding Botta’s, was later identified as the palace of King Assurnasirpal II (reigned 884–859 B.C., according to Weidner), who had moved here to Kalah from Assur. Like his predecessors and successor, Assurnasirpal had lived in the style of Nimrud, who, as the Bible says, “was a mighty hunter before the Lord.” From this palace Layard took hunting reliefs showing animals carved in a naturalistic mode that, once it had become known throughout Europe, inspired generations of modern artists. The chase was a daily occupation of the Assyrian nobility. This fact is shown in all the reliefs and sculptures, and recorded in all the inscriptions. The Assyrians had animal parks, “paradises,” as they called them, precursors of our zoological gardens. Within their large confines were kept freely roaming lions and herds of gazelle. They arranged battues—that is, hunts in which the animals were driven by beaters—and hunted with nets, a sport hardly known anywhere on the face of the earth today.

Layard’s most trying problem was how to send a pair of these colossal winged statues back home to London without doing them injury. The summer had ended in a bad harvest, and robber gangs were expected to be prowling about the environs of Mosul. Although by this time Layard had made many friends, it seemed advisable to expedite the work.

Accordingly the day came when a large gang of Arabs and Chaldeans shoved, tugged, and wrenched a gigantic cart over a half-rotted pontoon bridge to the site. This cart Layard had ordered to be hurriedly knocked together in Mosul. A pair of mighty water buffalo harnessed to the vehicle could hardly budge it. For the first shipment Layard had chosen a bull and a lion, two of the best-preserved specimens, also two of the smallest. Even so, the undertaking was hazardous enough, considering the limited material means at his disposal.

In order to get just one bull out of the mountain of rubble, Layard’s workmen had to dig a trench 90 feet long, 16 feet wide, and up to 22 feet deep, from the place where the find was located to the rim of the mound. While Layard was becoming frantic with worry, the Arabs were having the time of their lives. They were quite different from the Egyptian fellahin, who, when they were rafting their dead kings down the Nile for Brugsch, sang mournful dirges. The Arabs dug with a merry will; they let out earsplitting roars of delight. The colossus was hauled forth on rollers amid a din of approbation.

That evening, the first step in the project being accomplished, Layard rode home with Sheik Abd-er-Rahman. He records a speech that the sheik made on this occasion:

“Wonderful, wonderful! There is surely no God but God, and Mohammed is his Prophet.” And then, after a long pause, he said: “In the name of the Most High, tell me, O Bey, what you are going to do with those stones. So many thousands of purses spent upon such things! Can it be, as you say, that your people learn wisdom from them; or is it, as his reverence, the Cadi, declares, that they are to go to the palace of your Queen, who, with the rest of the unbelievers, worships these idols? As for wisdom, these figures will not teach you to make any better knives, or scissors, or chintzes; and it is in the making of those things that the English show their wisdom. But God is great! God is great! Here are stones which have been buried ever since the time of the holy Noah, peace be with him! Perhaps they were under ground before the deluge. I have lived on these lands for years. My father, and the father of my father, pitched their tents here before me: but they never heard of these figures. For twelve hundred years have the true believers—and, praise be to God! all true wisdom is with them alone—been settled in this country, and not one of them ever heard of a palace under ground. Neither did they who went before them. But lo! here comes a Frank from many days’ journey off, and he walks up to the very place, and he takes a stick … and makes a line here, and makes a line there. Here, says he, is the palace; there, says he, is the gate; and he shows us what has been all our lives beneath our feet, without our having known anything about it. Wonderful! wonderful! Is it by books, is it by magic, is it by your prophets, that you have learnt these things? Speak, O Bey; tell me the secret of your wisdom.”

Night fell, and at the mound of Nimrud the shrieks and commotion continued unabated. The success was being celebrated with music, dancing, and the crash of cymbals. Huge and pale, the winged bull looked out upon an alien world.…

The following morning the transport to the river began. The buffalo refused to pull such an outsize load. Layard sought help, and the sheik loaned him men, equipped with ropes, and rode on ahead with Layard to clear the way. Behind the leaders danced drummers and fifers making a hellish noise with their rude instruments.

“The cart followed, dragged by about three hundred men,” Layard writes, “all screeching at the top of their voices, and urged on by the cawasses and superintendents. The procession was closed by the women, who kept up the enthusiasm of the Arabs by their shrill cries. Abd-er-Rahman’s horsemen performed divers feats round the group, dashing backwards and forwards, and charging with their spears.”

But even now all difficulties had not been overcome. Twice the cart bogged down. The actual loading onto the raft brought the sweat of apprehension to Layard’s brow. The downriver transport of the basreliefs that he had already shipped home to England had not been half the problem. From Mosul the reliefs had gone to Baghdad, thence to Basra on the Persian Gulf, where the loading on board ship had been the easiest part of the job. This time, however, because of the colossal weight of the winged animals, Layard wished to avoid a transfer at Baghdad, which of course would be quite out of his control.

The Mosul shippers, who never in their lives had rafted anything as far as Basra, wrung their hands and positively refused to commit themselves to any such adventurous undertaking. Had not a certain Baghdad shipper been threatened with jail on account of his debts, the pieces might very well be there yet. Even so, Layard had to pay through the nose for special consideration. Eventually the statues were carried down to the Persian Gulf with none of the mishaps that had beset Botta’s shipment down the Tigris.

And so the gigantic effigies, winged man-beasts, began their long journey downriver, after some twenty-eight centuries in oblivion. On a raft they traveled some 600 miles down the Tigris, then about 2,000 more miles over two oceans, around the length of Africa (the Suez Canal was not opened until 1869) to London, where they found a new home in the British Museum.

Before Layard temporarily left the diggings, he seems to have made one last tour of inspection, notebook in hand. This survey is recorded in the closing description of the Nimrud site found in his Nineveh and Its Remains:

“Let us imagine ourselves issuing from my tent near the village in the plain. On approaching the mound, not a trace of building can be perceived, except a small mud hut covered with reeds, erected for the accommodation of the Chaldean workmen. We ascend this artificial hill, but still see no ruins, not a stone protruding from the soil. There is only a broad level platform before us, perhaps covered with a luxuriant crop of barley, or may be yellow and parched, without a blade of vegetation, except here and there a scanty tuft of camel-thorn. Low, black heaps, surrounded by brushwood and dried grass, a thin column of smoke issuing from the midst of them, may be seen here and there. These are the tents of the Arabs; and a few miserable old women are groping about them, picking up camel’s dung or dry twigs. One or two girls, with firm step and erect carriage, are perceived just reaching the top of the mound, with water-jars on their shoulders, or a bundle of brushwood on their heads. On all sides of us, apparently issuing from under ground, are long lines of wild-looking beings, with dishevelled hair, their limbs only half concealed by a short loose shirt, some jumping and capering, and all hurrying to and fro, shouting like madmen. Each one carries a basket, and as he reaches the edge of the mound, or some convenient spot near, empties its contents, raising at the same time a cloud of dust. He then returns at the top of his speed, dancing and yelling as before, and flourishing his basket over his head; again he suddenly disappears in the bowels of the earth, from whence he emerged. These are the workmen employed in removing the rubbish from the ruins.

“We will descend into the principal trench, by a flight of steps rudely cut into the earth.… We descend about twenty feet and suddenly find ourselves between a pair of colossal lions, winged and human-headed, forming a portal.… In the subterraneous labyrinth which we have reached, all is bustle and confusion. Arabs are running about in different directions; some bearing baskets filled with earth, others carrying the water-jars to their companions. The Chaldeans or Tiyari, in their striped dresses and curious conical caps, are digging with picks into the tenacious earth, raising a dense cloud of fine dust at every stroke. The wild strains of Kurdish music may be heard occasionally issuing from some distant part of the ruins, and if they are caught by the parties at work, the Arabs join their voices in chorus, raise the war-cry, and labor with renewed energy.…

“We issue from between the winged lions, and enter the remains of the principal hall. On both sides of us are sculptured gigantic, winged figures; some with the heads of eagles, others entirely human, and carrying mysterious symbols in their hands. To the left is another portal, also formed by winged lions. One of them has, however, fallen across the entrance, and there is just room to creep beneath it. Beyond this portal is a winged figure, and two slabs with bas-reliefs, but they have been so much injured that we can scarcely trace the subject upon them. Further on there are no traces of wall, although a deep trench has been opened.…

“We issue from between them, and find ourselves on the edge of a deep ravine, to the north of which rises, high above us, the lofty pyramid. Figures of captives bearing objects of tribute—ear-rings, bracelets, and monkeys—may be seen on walls near this ravine; and two enormous bulls, and two winged figures about fourteen feet high, are lying at the very edge.

“As the ravine bounds the ruins on this side, we must return to the yellow bulls. Passing through the entrance formed by them, we enter a large chamber surrounded by eagle-headed figures: at the one end of it is a doorway guarded by two priests or divinities, and in the centre another portal with winged bulls. Whichever way we turn, we find ourselves in the midst of a nest of rooms: and without an acquaintance with the intricacies of the place, we should soon lose ourselves in this labyrinth. The accumulated rubbish being generally left in the centre of the chambers, the whole excavation consists of a number of narrow passages, panelled on one side with slabs of alabaster; and shut in on the other by a high wall of earth, half buried, in which may here and there be seen a broken vase, or a brick painted with brilliant colors. We may wander through these galleries for an hour or two, examining the marvellous sculptures, or the numerous inscriptions that surround us. Here we meet long rows of kings, attended by their eunuchs and priests—there lines of winged figures, carrying fir cones and religious emblems, and seemingly in adoration before the mystic tree.

“Other entrances, formed by winged lions and bulls, lead us into new chambers. In every one of them are fresh objects of curiosity and surprise. At length, wearied, we issue from the buried edifice by a trench on the opposite side to that by which we entered, and find ourselves again upon the naked platform.”

This description Layard ends by writing:

“We look around in vain (having left Nimrud) for any traces of the wonderful remains we have just seen, and are half inclined to believe that we have dreamed a dream, or have been listening to some tale of Eastern romance. Some, who may hereafter tread on the spot when the grass again grows over the ruins of the Assyrian palaces, may indeed suspect that I have been relating a vision.”

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!