Austen Henry Layard: Nineveh and its Remains

The Library of Alexandria was not the first systematically organized library in the world. There was another one that was much older: The great library of Nineveh built circa 668 BCE by Assyrian King Ashurbanipal. Although it shared Alexandria’s fate through destruction by fire, it had another advantage — its clay tablets. Alexandria’s papyrus were reduced to ashes, but Nineveh’s cuneiform clay tablets that exceeded twenty thousand in number were merely baked afresh. Not only did this library preserve the Epic of Gilgamesh for future generations, the Nineveh excavation has become a prime source of information about the Assyrians and the Babylonians whose knowledge and culture they inherited.

We all know Nineveh — this wonder of the ancient world, for a time the largest city in the world — from the Old Testament account of Jonah, but for thousands of years, it could have remained a fictional city for unbelievers until its unearthing. “Without the evidence that these monuments afford, we might almost have doubted that the great city ever existed,” writes Austen Henry Layard.

“Existing ruins show that Nineveh had acquired its greatest extent in the time of the Assyrian kings mentioned in the Old Testament.  It was then that Jonah visited it, and that reports of its size and magnificence were carried to the West, and gave rise to those traditions from which the Greeks mainly derived the information they have handed down to us concerning the city.” On a footnote, Layard adds, “With regard to the connection between the ornaments mentioned in the text and those of Greek architecture, it is now impossible to doubt that all that is Ionic in the arts of Greece is derived from the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates.”

Austen Henry Layard, a name no longer too familiar to our generation, was once a household name in Europe when he discovered Nineveh in the 1840s. Quoting from the introduction, his journals “took Europe by storm and became one of those books that everyone had to read.” It has never gone out of print and is still considered to be among the greatest archaeological books of all time.

Layard being an art historian, a draughtsman, a cuneiformist, and a diplomat, among other things, this book is also so many things at once! The journals have occasional sketches of details from the excavations, he ponders on art, history, religion, civilizations, and takes the reader on his expeditions while painting a vibrant portrait of the time, places, the tribes and people that he encounters on his journeys, and writes vividly of life-threatening experiences.  But the best parts are those moments of discovery that lead to spine-tingling wonder! He can be quite poetic, too: “On all sides, as far as the eye could reach, rose the grass-covered heaps marking the site of ancient habitations. The great tide of civilisation had long since ebbed, leaving these scattered wrecks on the solitary shore. Are those waters to flow again, bearing back the seeds of knowledge and of wealth that they have wafted to the West? We wanderers were seeking what they had left behind, as children gather up the coloured shells on the deserted sands.”

Reading this book recalls and intensifies the question that Jason Elliot posed in his book on Iran: “What will future archaeologists think of us when they find what we’ve left for them?”

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