Ancient History & Civilisation


The material that Layard took from the mound of Nimrud was both copious and excellent, and surpassed Botta’s findings at Khorsabad. In the flush of success it was not surprising that he should risk his reputation with an experiment that, to outward view, seemed almost certainly doomed to misfire.

Among the many brick-strewn mounds that invited new excavations, Layard chose as the object of his next attack the mound of Kuyunjik, the same hill where Botta had dug to no avail for a whole year. Layard’s decision was not so contrary as it first appears. It shows, in fact, that he had learned a lot from his excavations and did not have to depend for his collecting entirely on luck. He was now able to judge the surface promise of the mounds, drawing correct inferences from the tiniest clues.

There was poetic justice in what now happened to Layard, much as with Schliemann when the former merchant prince and millionaire, having finished digging at Troy, turned to the Lion Gate at Mycenæ. For everyone fancied that Layard’s initial success had been largely a matter of luck. He would never repeat himself, it was believed, and certainly never improve on the Nimrud finds. Yet, as the situation developed, doubters were forced to admit that Layard had outdone himself. At Kuyunjik he achieved the deepest of insights into the past. From the great mound he brought forth treasures that revealed the whole spectrum, in all its richness, of the lost Assyrian culture.

It was in the fall of 1849 when Layard began to work on the mound of Kuyunjik, on the banks of the Tigris across from Mosul. There he found one of the greatest palaces of Nineveh.

He first drove a vertical shaft into the hill until he struck a stratum of bricks twenty feet down. From this level he dug horizontal tunnels in various directions and presently hit on a large hall, and on a gate, flanked by winged bulls. After four weeks’ work he had opened up nine chambers of the palace of Sennacherib (704–681 B.C.), one of the mightiest and bloodiest rulers of the Assyrian kingdom.

Inscription after inscription was laid bare, also friezes, sculptures, splendid walls of glazed brick, mosaics with white cuneiform lettering on a ground of turquoise blue. The colors of the finds were strange and coldly splendid—mostly black and yellow and dark blue. The reliefs and sculptures showed an uncommonly lively and strong manner of expression and in naturalistic detail were much superior to the pieces found on the mound of Nimrud.

From Kuyunjik came the noble frieze—apparently dating from the reign of Assurbanipal—of the dying lioness. The lioness, pinned down by spears, has lost the use of her hindquarters. In her death agony she raises her head for one last roar of defiance. This relief is a carving of tremendous power, as impressive as any work of art of the same genre known to the West (see Plate XVII).

Before Layard’s excavations, our knowledge of the fearsome city of Nineveh had been limited to Biblical description, in the narrow prophetic context of which it is alternately praised and cursed. By revealing the city’s actual lineaments Layard dispelled the thick shroud of myth in which Nineveh had languished for so many centuries.

Nineveh was named after Nin, the great goddess of Mesopotamia. It was a city of vast antiquity. In 1700 B.C. Hammurabi, the Babylonian lawgiver, mentioned the Temple of Ishtar around which the city was built. Yet Nineveh remained a provincial community, while Assur and Kalah had become royal residences.

It was Sennacherib, who, in order to avoid Assur, his father’s residence, made Nineveh the capital of a land that included all of Babylonia and extended as far as Syria and Palestine to the north, and eastward as far as the wild and chronically rebellious mountain folk.

Nineveh reached the height of its fame under Assurbanipal. It was then a city where “merchants are more numerous than the stars in the heavens.” It was the political and economic hub of the Mesopotamian region, and the cultural and artistic center as well, a kind of Assyrian Rome. But during the seven-year reign of Assurbanipal’s son, Sin-sharishkun, Kyaxares, King of the Medes, appeared before the walls of Nineveh with an army reinforced by Persian and Babylonian contingents. He laid siege to the city, took it, razed the walls and palaces, and left nothing behind but a heap of ruins.

This happened in 612 B.C., after Nineveh had been the capital of Assyria for only ninety years. Yet how much must have happened during this short interval to make the city a vital memory for twenty-five centuries, a lasting symbol for greatness coupled with terror and naked power, for sybaritism and civilization, for spectacular ascendancy and shattering fall, for wanton guilt and deserved punishment!

Today we know the truth. Today we know, through the combined efforts of excavator and cryptologist, enough about the lives of Sennacherib and Assurbanipal—and about those who came before and after them as well—to say that:

Nineveh was impressed on the consciousness of mankind by little else than murder, plunder, suppression, and the violation of the weak; by war and all manner of physical violence; by the deeds of a sanguinary dynasty of rulers who held down the people by terror and who often were liquidated by rivals more ferocious than themselves.

Sennacherib was the first of the half-mad Cæsars—a forerunner of Nero, not of Julius—upon the throne of the first metropolis. For Nineveh was the Assyrian Rome: megalopolis, city of vast palaces, squares, avenues, of unprecedented technical triumphs. The prototype of urban civilization, it was typically ruled by an elite, whether its power was based on noble birth, family, race, money, violence, or some combination of these. But it was also the city of a submerged gray mass of the disfranchised, whipped into slavish obedience for the most part, though they were sometimes given the illusion of freedom by slogans such as that their work was being done for the good of all, their wars were being fought for the people, and the like. They were a mass in ferment, moving like a tide every twenty years between the poles of social revolt and slavish resignation, blinded, ready to be slaughtered like sheep. In such a city one finds, usually, a whole pantheon of gods, many of them imported from distant places, their primeval creative meaning and function long since lost. Here politics is the craft of permanent mendacity.

Such a city was Nineveh.

It could be seen from far off, the façades of its shimmering palaces reflected in the waters of the Tigris. It was surrounded by an outer wall, then came the Great Wall, which was named “Whose Terrifying Glare Casts Down the Enemy.” This wall rose upon a foundation of dressed stone. It was forty bricks thick and a hundred bricks high, 32 and 76 feet respectively. Fifteen gates breached this wall. A moat ran around it, 77 feet wide and spanned at the “Garden Gate” by an arched stone bridge, an architectural marvel of the times.

On its western side stood the palace “the like of which was never seen,” Sennacherib’s showplace. Like Augustus transforming his Rome of brick into a Rome of marble, and like Hitler laying down his “axes” diagonally traversing Berlin, he had torn down old buildings in the way of his new construction.

Sennacherib’s mania for building reached on orgiastic peak at the banquet hall of the god at Assur. The temple stood on about 172,800 square feet of leveled rock. Holes were made in this rock all around the temple; they were then connected by subterranean canals, and all this covered with loam. The ruler wished to see a garden there!

He began his reign by inventing an improved ancestry for himself, beginning with Sargon, his father, whom he disowned in favor of descent from prediluvial kings, demigods such as Adapa and Gilgamesh. In this, too, he was a forerunner of the Roman Cæsars who had themselves worshipped as gods, and of the contemporary dictators whose self-deification is only a trifle less explicit.

“Sennacherib was an exceptional personality in every way. He was an extremely gifted man who loved sports, art, science, and especially its technical aspects. But all of these superior traits were canceled out by his willful, irascible temperament, which drove him to pursue his goal headlong regardless of its practicability. Because of this he was the precise opposite of a good statesman,” says Meissner.

War was the essence of Sennacherib’s government. He attacked Babylon, he marched against the Kassi, in 701 B.C. he took up arms against Tyre, Sidon, Ashkelon, and Ekron, against Hezekiah of Judah, whose adviser had been the prophet Isaiah. He boasted of having taken forty-six fortresses and countless villages in the land of the Jews. But at Jerusalem he met his Waterloo. In the words of Isaiah:

“Therefore thus saith the Lord concerning the king of Assyria, He shall not come into this city, nor shoot an arrow there, nor come before it with shields, nor cast a bank against it.… Then the angel of the Lord went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians a hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses.”

As a matter of fact, it was the plague (known today as malaria tropica) that defeated Sennacherib’s army. After the Palestinian raid he engaged in military promenades to places as far away as Armenia. He fought again and again with Babylonia, which country would not tolerate Sennacherib’s despotic satraps. Using a fleet of boats, he ventured as far as the Persian Gulf, where his men fell on the countryside like a “swarm of locusts.” His chronicling of these deeds is exaggerated, and freely invented in point of numbers. Indeed, the records of Sennacherib bring to mind the typically modern picture of a dictator shouting vast lies at vast audiences, civilian or military, confident in the knowledge that they will be swallowed whole. It is hardly a consolation for us moderns when one of our archæologists finds in the ruins of Babylon a clay tablet on which this lapidary observation is inscribed: “Look thou about thee, and see that all men are fools.” The recurrent parallelism between past and present is real. Analogies appear of their own accord if one has the capacity to remove cultural epochs from the temporal series and place them side by side for purposes of comparison.

Sennacherib reached the limits of despotic willfulness when, in 689 B.C., he made up his mind to erase rebellious Babylon from the face of the earth. Having forced his way into the city, he slaughtered the inhabitants one by one, until the dead clogged the streets. Private dwellings were methodically destroyed. The towered Temple of E-sagila was toppled into the Arachtu Canal. Finally water was diverted into the city, and streets, squares, and houses were drowned in the artificial flood. Even then Sennacherib’s lust was not appeased. He would have the city vanish, at least symbolically, from the very sight of mankind. To this end he caused loads of Babylonian earth to be loaded on boats and carried to Tilmun, where they were scattered to the four winds.

Having now eased his ferocious spirit, he seemed to be content to occupy himself with domestic affairs. To please his favorite, Nakiya, he had Esarhaddon, one of his younger sons, named successor to the Assyrian throne, and forced the sacred oracles to approve this choice. He gathered together a sort of representative assembly, composed of Esarhaddon’s older brothers, Assyrian nobles and officials, and some delegates standing for the people. Asked to approve Sennacherib’s plan, they shouted a unanimous “Yea!” Nevertheless, the older brothers, secretly determined to restore the traditional mode of royal succession, at the end of 681 B.C. fell on their father as he was praying to the gods in the temple at Nineveh and killed him. So ended Sennacherib.

This was one chapter in the bloody story that Layard brought forth with his spade. He was to add to the tale when, in Sennacherib’s palace, he discovered two rooms, apparently added by way of afterthought, which had functioned as a library.

The use of the term library to describe these rooms is not at all farfetched, even from the modern standpoint; for the treasury of information discovered there by Layard comprised nearly thirty thousand “volumes.” A library of clay tablets!

Assurbanipal (688–626 B.C.), who ascended the throne through the influence of his grandmother Nakiya, one-time favorite of Sennacherib, was the exact temperamental opposite of the tyrant. His inscriptions, though as overweening in phrase as his predecessor’s, voice peaceable sentiments and generally reflect Assurbanipal’s inclination toward the tranquil life. From this one must not construe, however, that Assurbanipal did not engage in war. His brothers—one of whom, a high priest of the moon-god, is memorable for the length of his name, Assur-etil-shameirssiti-uballitsu, otherwise Assur-ballit—caused Assurbanipal a great many headaches. Shamash-shum-ukin, the brother who had been appointed King of Babylon, was more troublesome than any of the lot. He laid waste the King of the Elamites, and after conquering Babylon—it had already been rebuilt—instead of razing it as Sennacherib would have done, he simply moved in and ruled. During the two-year siege of Babylon a black market sprang up, a symptom of economic disorder often erroneously regarded as peculiar to modern times. Three sila of grain—about two and a quarter quarts—cost one shekel, or 8.4 grams of silver. Normally this amount would have bought at least sixty times as much.

Assurbanipal received a kind of poetic eulogy such as would never have been applied to Sennacherib. It went as follows:

The weapons of rebellious enemies were at rest,

The charioteers unharnessed their horses,

Their pointed lances they stacked up,

And loosened their bowstrings;

Deeds of violence were suppressed,

Among those who practiced war against their adversaries.

Within the house and in the city

None took away his comrade’s goods by force;

Within the whole land’s circuit

No man did harm unto his brother.

He who went the way alone

Traveled distant roads quite safe and sound.

Throughout all lands a peace prevailed,

Like finest oil were the world’s four quarters.

Assurbanipal made a name for himself that will endure through all time by founding his famous library, “in order that he might have that which to read.” The discovery of these tablets was Layard’s last great excavational triumph. After this he handed the torch to others, returned to England, and embarked on his political career.

Assurbanipal’s library provided a key to the understanding of the whole Assyrio-Babylonian civilization. The collection had evidently been arranged according to a definite system. The King obtained part of the tablets from private sources, but the largest section consisted of copies he had made of originals scattered throughout all the provinces of his realm. To Babylon he sent Shadanu, one of his officials, with the following instructions:

“The day that you receive my letter, take Shuma, his brother, Bel-etir, Apla, and the artists of Borsippa whom you know, and collect the tablets, as many as there are in their houses, and as many as there are in the Temple of Ezida.”

And he ended his orders like this:

“Seek out and bring to me the precious tablets for which there are no transcripts extant in Assyria. I have just now written to the temple overseer and the mayor of Borsippa that you, Shadanu, are to keep the tablets in your storehouse, and that nobody shall refuse to hand over tablets to you. If you hear of any tablet or ritualistic text that is suitable for the palace, seek it out, secure it, and send it here.”

A battery of scholars and “writing-artists” were in Assurbanipal’s employ. With their aid he amassed a library containing the total knowledge of his times. This fund of information was strongly colored by different kinds of magic; most of the books are made up of material having to do with the arts of exorcism, divination, and conducting rites. Yet there was also a number of medical works—tinged, to be sure, with the ubiquitous magical influence—also philosophical, astronomical, mathematical, and philological works. (On the mound of Kuyunjik Layard found the school texts that gave so much help in deciphering the Class III cuneiform writing.)

The library also contained dynastic lists, historical sketches, palace edicts of a political nature, and even a poetical literature, consisting of epic-mythical tales, songs, and hymns.

Among the purely “literary” tablets were those recording the first great epic of world history, the saga of the terrible and splendid Gilgamesh, part god, part man. This Gilgamesh Epic is the most significant work produced by the Mesopotamian civilizations.

These particular tablets were not discovered by Layard. They were found by a man who, shortly before, had been freed from an unpleasant two-year imprisonment in Abyssinia by a rescue expedition. If, by chance, Layard had been the one to find them, he would indeed have overloaded the scales of fame. For the epic of Gilgamesh was not only fascinating from the literary standpoint; it also threw amazing light on our most primitive past, and particularly on a story that every European child is still taught in the schools, without, however, anyone having the least notion whence the tale really comes.

Hormuzd Rassam, who actually made the find, was one of Layard’s assistants. When Layard gave up archæology for a diplomatic career, Rassam was appointed by the British Museum to carry on the master’s work.

Rassam was a Chaldean Christian, born in 1826 in Mosul, on the Tigris. In 1847 he began his studies at Oxford and in 1854 was employed as interpreter at the British residency in Aden. A short time thereafter, though hardly thirty years old, he was made deputy resident. In 1864 he went as a diplomatic messenger to the court of King Theodore of Abyssinia. The autocratic Theodore, a black potentate who had very literal notions of the royal prerogative, had Rassam seized and held. The unfortunate messenger spent two years in Abyssinian prisons before he was freed by Napier’s expedition. A little later he began his excavations at Nineveh.

Rassam was almost as successful in his projects as Layard had been, but he lacked two advantages that had redounded so strongly in Layard’s favor. He was not lucky enough to be the first one on the scene, and the novelty of his finds could not be so sensational as Layard’s had been. Nor did he have that budding diplomat’s ability to write up his archæological experiences in a colorful, charming style studded with brilliant formulations that appealed both to the archæologists and to the public at large.

Supposing Layard had found a temple 160 feet long and 96 feet wide on the much-worked mound of Nimrud, how masterly would have been his description of it! How colorfully he would have told the story of the workmen’s revolt that occurred while Rassam was digging some eight miles north of Nimrud, at Balawat, and which he put down with an iron hand. At Balawat, Rassam not only excavated a temple built by Assurnasirpal, but the remains of a terrace city as well. Among other gates he found one 22.4 feet high, furnished with double doors of bronze. This was the first evidence of the existence of doors in the modern sense in the palaces of Mesopotamia. Imagine, too, how Layard, with that brilliantly decisive and consciously reverent style of his, would have described the discovery of the Gilgamesh epic, even though, in actual fact, his competence to make a definitive evaluation of it was no greater than Rassam’s.

For the full meaning of this work, which has yielded so many illuminating insights into the dawn of the human spirit, was not properly understood until many years after its discovery. Today every history of world literature mentions it somewhere at the beginning of the book. Modern literary historians however, characteristically put little stress on the Gilgamesh Epic. They cite ten or a dozen lines, call it the “wellspring of epic poetry,” and let it go at that. Actually it is the whole work that leads us back to the very cradle of the human race, and pads out the bones of our remotest ancestors with living flesh. The tracking down of the Gilgamesh Epic to the ancient sources was accomplished by a man who died only four years after completing the task and whose commonplace name is most unfairly relegated to marginal comments and footnotes in the majority of archæological histories.

This man was George Smith, another archæological amateur, and a banknote engraver by profession, who was born on March 26, 1840 at Chelsea, in London. Smith was a self-taught man who at night in his little room gave himself over with unparalleled zeal to the study of the first publications of Assyriology. At the age of twenty-six he wrote a few minor commentaries on some cuneiform characters of debated meaning. These essays by the unknown engraver aroused a great deal of professional notice. A couple of years later he was made assistant in the Egyptian-Assyrian section of the British Museum. When he died prematurely, in 1876, at the age of thirty-six, he had already published a dozen books and linked his name with significant discoveries.

In 1872 this erstwhile banknote engraver was sitting over the tablets that Hormuzd Rassam had sent to the museum, trying to decipher them. At this time no one was aware that there had been an Assyrio-Babylonian literature worthy of being ranked with that of the best of later heroic epochs. As it happened, however, Smith was not interested particularly in the literary quality of the tablets per se. Smith, basically, was a persevering and apparently a rather amusing man of strict scholarly habits, not at all a poet. He was thrilled by the bare content of the tale, by the “what” rather than the “how” of the legend. The farther he progressed with the decipherment, the more excited he became and the more anxious to know how the argument would turn out.

Bit by bit Smith unraveled the great deeds of Gilgamesh the strong. He read about the man of the woods, Enkidu, brought into the city by a priest’s whore to subdue Gilgamesh the modest. But the violent battle of heroes ended in a draw. Gilgamesh and Enkidu became fast friends and, working together, accomplished many noble deeds. They killed Khumbaba, terrible ruler of the cedar forest, and even challenged the gods themselves when they had offended Ishtar, who had offered her love to Gilgamesh.

Always laboriously translating, Smith read, farther along, how Enkidu died of a frightful sickness, how he was mourned by Gilgamesh, who, to avoid a similar fate, set out to find immortality. During his wanderings he met Ut-napishtim, the primeval ancestor of mankind. This Ut-napishtim and his family, when the gods visited a great punishment on the wicked human race, had been the only survivors of the debacle. Afterwards the gods had made them immortal.

Ut-napishtim then tells Gilgamesh the whole story of his miraculous escape. Smith read the Ut-napishtim legend with eager eyes. As his initial excitement began to evolve into the certainty of a remarkable discovery, bigger and bigger gaps appeared in the narrative flow of the Rassam tablets. Smith had to reconcile himself to the fact that he had only fragments of the total inscription to work with. Indeed, the most essential section of the story was entirely missing—that is, the conclusion.

What Smith had read of the Gilgamesh Epic left him no rest. Nor could he keep silent about his discoveries, though to disclose them was sure to rock the Bible-bound England of Victoria’s day. Later a powerful newspaper came to George Smith’s aid. The London Daily Telegraph announced that it was offering the sum of a thousand guineas to anyone who would go to Kuyunjik, find the missing Gilgamesh inscriptions, and bring them back to England.

George Smith himself accepted the offer. He traveled the thousands of miles separating London from Mesopotamia, and there boldly attacked the tremendous pile of rubble that was Kuyunjik—the mound, in respect of total area, had hardly been scratched—in search of the missing tablets. Smith’s task was about comparable to finding one particular water-louse in the sea, or the famous needle in the haystack.

And again there occurred one of the almost unbelievable wonders that stud the history of archæological excavation. Smith actually found the missing parts of the Gilgamesh Epic.

He brought home, altogether, 384 fragmentary clay tablets, among them the missing parts of the controversial story of Utnapishtim. This tale was a variation of the Biblical legend of the Flood. There are, of course, flood stories in almost every folklore, but this one was concerned with the very same deluge described, at a later date, in Genesis. Ut-napishtim, indeed, was none other than Noah! The following is the text of that section of Gilgamesh concerned with Ut-napishtim. The friendly god Ea in a dream had revealed the god’s punitive intent to Ut-napishtim, Ea’s protegé, whereupon Ut-napishtim decided to build himself an ark.

What I had I loaded thereon, the whole harvest of life

I caused to embark within the vessel; all my family and my relations,

The beasts of the field, the cattle of the field, the craftsmen, I made them all embark.

I entered the vessel and closed the door.…

When the young dawn gleamed forth,

From the foundations of heaven a black cloud arose.…

All that is bright is turned into darkness,

The brother seeth his brother no more,

The folk of the skies can no longer recognize each other

The gods feared the flood,

They fled, they climbed into the heaven of Anu,

The gods crouched like a dog on the wall, they lay down.…

For six days and nights

Wind and flood marched on, the hurricane subdued the land.

When the seventh day dawned, the hurricane was abated, the flood

Which had waged war like an army;

The sea was stilled, the ill wind was calmed, the flood ceased.

I beheld the sea, its voice was silent,

And all mankind was turned into mud!

As high as the roofs reached the swamp!

I beheld the world, the horizon of sea;

Twelve measures away an island emerged;

Unto Mount Nitsir came the vessel,

Mount Nitsir held the vessel and let it not budge.…

When the seventh day came,

I sent forth a dove, I released it;

It went, the dove, it came back,

As there was no place, it came back.

I sent forth a swallow, I released it;

It went, the swallow, it came back,

As there was no place, it came back.

I sent forth a crow, I released it;

It went, the crow, and beheld the subsidence of the waters;

It eats, it splashes about, it caws, it comes not back.

Impossible to question the fact that the primal version of the Biblical legend of the Deluge had been found. The story of Ut-napishtim shows much more than a general analogy to the story of Noah and the ark. Specific events are duplicated, as for instance the freeing of the dove and the raven.

This text in cuneiform from the Gilgamesh Epic raised for Smith’s generation the disturbing question: Was the Bible no longer the oldest historical source we had?

Once again research by spade had enabled us to take a great leap into the past. This time, new aspects presented themselves: Was the Ut-napishtim story merely the confirmation of Biblical legend by a still more ancient legend? Had not everything the Bible related of this mysterious, opulent land between the rivers been regarded as merely a legend all along? What if there was a factual basis for all these so-called legends? Could the story of the Flood, for example, have been based on an actual historiacl event? And how far back did the history of Mesopotamia actually go?

What had seemed to be an impenetrable wall, a total eclipse of history, was soon revealed as a curtain ready to rise upon vistas of unsuspected ancient worlds.

A few years after George Smith’s discovery it was again a Frenchman, also a consular agent, Ernest de Sarzec, who in 1880 dug out of the sands at Telloh (Lagash) a statue of a style never yet seen in Mesopotamia. Though not unrelated in style to previous finds, it was far more archaic and monumental, an example of the earliest kind of art from the infancy of human culture. It looked far older than the Egyptian art which had been considered the most ancient till then.

The discovery of these primal peoples and cultures was the fruit of an exceptionally bold hypothesis of the scholars, brilliantly confirmed by de Sarzec’s accidental find.

Some time later, around the turn of the century, a German archæologist began to excavate the Tower of Babel.

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