Layard's 'Nineveh and Its Remains.'

Article excerpt

When in the 18th century European travellers passed through the obscure Ottoman provinces of Mosul and Baghdad, in what is now Iraq, they sometimes paused to contemplate the wreckage of Nineveh and Babylon. We know today that every Mesopotamian mound is an accumulation of history, but at the time it was far from obvious that significant relics of ancient civilizations, known on Biblical authority to have existed but at the same time condemned and destroyed by Divine justice, might still survive beneath the surface of the ground.

In 1820 Claudius James Rich. British Resident in Baghdad, investigated Nineveh and heard of sculptures that had been found among the ruins, but it was 1836 before his widow published an account of his visit. That book was the catalyst for a phase of frantic exploration, between 1843 and 1855, which led ultimately to the discovery both of ancient Assyria and of an entire civilization, that of ancient Mesopotamia, which stretched back past BabyIonians and Sumerians to the very evolution of writing and the dawn of history. The discoveries were more than academic. In 1848, when the first results began to be known in Great Britain, they helped undermine some of the fundamental assumptions of established society.

Austen Henry Layard, a young English adventurer, had started his Assyrian excavations in late 1845, and he returned home two years later. During 1848, besides touring and lecturing, he was writing Nineveh and its remains, an account of his discoveries and of what could be deduced from them, which was published just after the New Year. It was an instant success. Described in The Times as 'the most extraordinary work of the present age', it was repeatedly reprinted over the next months and years, and an abridged version, Nineveh, even appeared in 'Murray's Reading for the Rail', a series ancestral to modern paperback editions. The success of Layard's book was based not merely on his fluent style and exotic subject. His discoveries, which were extended during his second expedition of 1849-51, and the concurrent decipherment of Assyrian inscriptions found by him, had implications for anyone interested in the origins of Christianity and Classical civilization alike.

What Layard had uncovered were the palaces and contemporary documents of Assyrian kings, who reigned between 900 and 600 BC. Some of them had conquered or ruled the Holy Land. The Bible itself referred to some of them; the Assyrian records in turn referred to rulers of Judah and Israel. At a time when the absolute truth of Holy Writ was being challenged by a range of scientific discoveries, as well as by critical analysis of the Old Testament, the Assyrian finds were a revelation. They might almost have been sent by the Almighty to confound the sceptics. Large crowds of respectable working people, quite unlike the usual elegant visitors, flocked to the British Museum to see for themselves the Black Obelisk, with its carving of the Israelite king Jehu, and the eagle-headed genies and enormous human-headed winged bulls and lions that represented the monstrous paganism of Nineveh.

At the same time some more far-sighted members of the Establishment were uncomfortable. It was a period of social unrest: the Anglican Church was one pillar of the British constitution, and any investigation into the foundations of a faith that needed no reinforcement was manifestly superfluous. One of those who protested vehemently about the work was George Rawlinson, brother of the same Henry Rawlinson who, as British Resident in Baghdad, was deeply involved in the progress of research and made major contributions to the original decipherment of Assyrian. As early as 1847, well before any direct connections with Biblical history had been demonstrated, George wrote to Henry arguing that the excavations should be discontinued. …