Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

Buried Treasure

We have all been fond, at one time or another, of reading stories of the search for buried treasure, and have felt the strain of excitement as the spade of the adventurer jarred upon the lid of the iron-bound chest full of gold and jewels. But I question if ever any searcher after Captain Kidd's or Teach's hoard had a more thrilling time or more wonderful fortune than fell to the lot of the men who first dug their trenches into the great mounds that covered some of the buried cities of Assyria. It was to a Frenchman that the honor fell of being first in the field. In 1842 M. Paul Emil Botta was sent out to Mosul as French consul, and almost immediately began to make excavations in a great mound called Qoyunjik, not far from Mosul. For a good while he had no luck worth talking about, and he was almost ready to give up in despair, when a wandering Arab who had stopped to watch Botta's diggers at work, and no doubt to wonder how Allah should ever have made such fools as these Frank infidels, told him that in a mound called Khorsabad, about five hours' journey from Mosul, there were plenty of the sculptured stones and lettered bricks for which he was looking.

Botta scarcely believed the man, but after a time he decided to give the new mound a trial, and his workmen had scarcely settled down to dig when they began to uncover parts of a wall that had been sculptured with figures and inscriptions. The consul came at once himself as soon as he heard of their success, and then, day after day and week after week, as the workmen dug further and further into the mound, the walls and galleries of a great palace began to come to light. Of course it was only the lower part that was left; but all along the walls stretched wonderful sculptures, representing scenes of war and triumph, scenes of hunting and of feasting, while the doors of the rooms were guarded by strange and mighty creatures carved in stone, with the heads of men, the wings of angels, and the bodies of lions or bulls. When Botta sent home the drawings of his great discoveries, and still more when the actual sculptures themselves arrived in Paris, the excitement and admiration of the French knew no bounds. Fresh helpers were sent out to enable the consul to complete his work; and bit by bit the whole palace was revealed, and a part of the town which crouched beneath its walls.

It turned out that the palace and the town had been built, about 700 years before Christ, by a great Assyrian king and conqueror named Sargon, the man who captured Samaria and destroyed the kingdom of Israel. He had planned a magnificent house for himself to rest and take his pleasure in after all his wars were over, and it was quite easy to trace what the different rooms had been like, where the great reception-halls had been, and where the bedrooms, the kitchens, and the cellars of the great palace, and to follow the line of the huge walls that made the palace into a strong fortress, the citadel of the town which lay around. But strong though the palace was, it did not prove strong enough to protect the man who built it. The great soldier-king had only enjoyed his splendid new home for a little while when he was murdered in his own palace by conspirators; and after that the magnificent buildings were gradually deserted, as though the curse of the king's blood lay upon them, and Dur-Sharrukin, "Sargon's Burgh," fell into ruins, and lay unknown for centuries till the spades of Botta s workmen brought it to light again.

Man-headed lion


Meanwhile a young Englishman, Austen Henry Layard, was waiting at Constantinople, where he was attaché to the British Embassy, for his opportunity to engage in similar work. He had already traveled through the country, and had marked down one of the big mounds, called Nimrud, as the one he would like to excavate. Moreover, he had met Botta, and the two men had taken to one another at once. When Botta began to make his great finds at Khorsabad, he used to send his reports and sketches to Layard before they were published, and you can imagine how eager the young Englishman at Constantinople grew, as he turned over the wonderful pages, and how he longed for the time when he too would be able to have his share in these great discoveries.

At last his chance came. His chief, Sir Stratford Canning, knowing of his anxiety, offered to contribute £60 towards the cost of digging, and with this sum and a few pounds of his own to help it out, Layard set out from Constantinople to excavate the buried cities of Assyria. He was so eager to get to the scene of his work that he galloped night and day across the country without taking rest, save to change horses at the post-stations, till at last, twelve days after setting out, he reached Mosul, and was almost on the spot where he meant to work. He had to be very careful, however, for, though Botta was friendly, other Europeans were not, and the Turkish pasha, who was pretty bad even for a Turkish pasha, would have been only too glad of an excuse to get rid of him. So he made a great show of going to hunt, and displayed boar spears and guns, while secretly buying the few tools that were needed for his work; and at last, on November 8, 1845, he drifted down the Tigris on a raft with three companions, and landed beside the great mound of Nimrud.

Next day he started digging with a staff of six Arab workmen. Layard set them to work at two likely spots on the mound, and they had scarcely begun to dig before it was evident that they were going to be successful. Slab after slab of sculptured alabaster which had once lined the walls of an Assyrian king's palace came to light, and before he lay down to sleep that night Layard had discovered two palaces—a very fair beginning for one day's work with six men. Of course it was only a beginning. The walls had to be followed up and traced so that the plan of the various rooms and passages could be made out. The workmen were unskilled and not very great workers, and the Turkish officials at Mosul, stirred up by some of the Europeans who were jealous of Layard's work, put every hindrance in his way. The very idea that he was digging only for sculptured stones seemed ridiculous to them. They were sure that he was seeking for buried gold. One day his friend Awad came to him very mysteriously, and showed him a few morsels of gold leaf which he had found sticking to some of the sculptures. "O Bey," he said, "Wallah! Your books are right, and the Franks know that which is hid from the true believer. Here is the gold, sure enough, and, please God, we shall find it all in a few days. Only don't say anything about it to those Arabs, for they are asses, and cannot hold their tongues. The matter will come to the ears of the Pasha." He was greatly surprised when Layard told him he was welcome to keep all the gold he found, and his opinion of the wisdom of the Franks greatly diminished.

Bit by bit, however, in spite of all difficulties, the lines of the walls of the ancient palace chambers were laid bare. It was like bringing to life again a long dead and buried world. Here were sculptures of the king making an offering, or pouring out a libation over wild bulls or lions killed in the chase, his attendants holding a gorgeous umbrella over his head, or waving fly whisks to drive away those nuisances. Beside the great man, perhaps, there stood a guardian spirit, with human form, but with eagle head, and great wings outspread. On another part of the wall you might see the king going forth to battle in his war chariot, his bow bent with a strong arm, and the arrow drawn to the very head, while before him his enemies were fleeing and falling. Or it would be the siege of a town, with archers shooting on all sides against the towers of the town wall, and a battering ram hammering away, and bringing down the walls in ruins, while the king, standing behind, shot arrow after arrow among the miserable defenders.

Ashur-natsir-pal II


In spite of the bad weather and continual rain, which made life at the mound very uncomfortable, everything was going well, and Layard's heart was being gladdened day after day by fresh discoveries, when suddenly word came from the pasha at Mosul that the diggings must be stopped at once. It had been found, he said, that the diggers were disturbing the graves of good Moslems, and it could not be tolerated that unbelievers should profane the rest of the faithful. Of course, Layard knew that this was all nonsense, and was only an excuse. Indeed, when he questioned the officer who was appointed to look after things at the mound, this worthy told him quite frankly that he and his men had been ordered by the pasha to manufacture Moslem graves on the mound in order to get up an excuse. They had done it by bringing gravestones from distant villages, quite regardless of the fact that thus they were disturbing the rest of the true believers. "We have destroyed more real tombs of the true believers," he said, "in making sham ones, than you could have defiled between the Zab and Selamiyah. We have killed our horses and ourselves in carrying those accursed stones."

After a while, however, the opposition began to die down. The old pasha proved too great a rascal for even the Turkish Government to put up with, and his successor was much easier to deal with. Some of the officials at Mosul still tried to make trouble, but the work went gradually on, and the ancient palaces came bit by bit to light. And at last, one day came a crowning wonder of which I must let Layard tell you in his own words. "I was returning to the mound," he says, " when I saw two Arabs urging their mares to the top of their speed. On approaching me they stopped. 'Hasten, O Bey,' exclaimed one of them. 'Hasten to the diggers, for they have found Nimrod himself. Wallah! It is wonderful, but it is true! We have seen him with our eyes. There is no god but God.'" Hurrying back to the mound, he learned to his delight the cause of the excitement. "The workmen had uncovered the upper part of a figure, the remainder of which was still buried in the earth. I saw at once that the head must belong to a winged lion or bull, similar to those of Khorsabad and Persepolis. It was in admirable preservation . . . I was not surprised that the Arabs had been amazed and terrified at this apparition. It required no stretch of imagination to conjure up the most strange fancies. This gigantic head, blanched with age, thus rising from the bowels of the earth, might well have belonged to one of those fearful beings which are pictured in the traditions of the country, as appearing to mortals, slowly ascending from the regions below."

The discovery of this wonderful monster (it turned out to be a winged, human-headed lion) made a tremendous sensation. Arab chieftains with their following, Turkish soldiers, Cadis, merchants from Mosul, all sorts and conditions of people crowded to see it and the similar creatures which were found later; and their remarks, if not very instructive, were at least very amusing. " This is not the work of men's hands," said the first Arab chief who saw the monster, "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." Later on the pasha of the district came in person to see, accompanied by a large force of regular and irregular troops and three guns; and the remarks of his satellites were just as wise as those of the Arab chief. "These are the idols of the infidels," said one of them who had travelled. "I saw many such when I was in Italia with Reshid Pasha, the ambassador. Wallah! they have them in all the churches, and the Papas (priests) kneel and burn candles before them."

"No, my lamb," said another, "I have seen the images of the infidels in the churches of Beyoglu; they are dressed in many colors; and although some of them have wings, none have a dog's body and a tail; these are the works of the Jin, whom the holy Solomon—peace be upon him!—reduced to obedience and imprisoned under his seal." But the deputy of the Cadi expressed the Turk's true feeling. " May God curse all infidels and their works; what comes from their hands is of Satan. It has pleased the Almighty to let them be more powerful and ingenious than the true believers in this world, that their punishment and the reward of the faithful may be greater in the next."

Altogether, in this great mound of Nimrud, Layard found no fewer than thirteen pairs of these monstrous creatures, some of them winged lions, some of them winged bulls. They were really the guardian genii who were placed on either side of the doorways into the great chambers of the royal palaces of Assyria, to prevent evil spirits and enemies of all kinds from entering. With such strange but majestic guardians, with the wonderful carved slabs of alabaster which made a band of pictures round the walls of each important room, showing all kinds of scenes of war and hunting, and with all the gay coloring which adorned the walls and the cedar roofs, an Assyrian palace must indeed have been a magnificent place to look upon.

So far, then, Layard's success had been quite extraordinary. Between November, 1845, and June, 1847, when he left Mosul at the close of his first expedition, he discovered in Assyria no fewer than eight palaces, seven of them in this one mound of Nimrud. This mound, by the way, turned out to be the ruin of one of the towns which had once been the capital of Assyria. It had then been called Kalah, and the king who had had most to do with it was called Ashur-natsir-pal, a fierce and cruel soldier and conqueror, and a great huntsman. If you go to the British Museum and walk through the Assyrian Galleries, you will see the long ranges of these very sculptured alabaster slabs which Layard dug out of the mound of Nimrud, with their wonderful pictures of King Ashur-natsir-pal, hunting, feasting, charging in his chariot against his enemies, or besieging their cities; and you will see, too, the very winged lions and bulls which roused such excitement among the Arabs and Turks.

How did they get from far-off Mesopotamia to London? That was the difficulty that Layard had to face, and it was a tremendous one, for the lion that was first discovered measures eleven and a half feet in height by twelve feet in length, and the bull is only a few inches smaller, so that these figures weigh many tons. Layard had no skilled engineers with steam cranes to lift them, or railroads to move them to a seaport. He had only his clumsy, untaught Arab workmen, and a few beams of very poor wood, and some exceedingly bad rope. Most people would have given up in despair the idea of moving the great blocks; but Layard was not easily beaten.

Out of such wood as he could get, and some old iron left by M. Botta after his excavations, he made a great cart such as had never been seen in Mosul before. It made almost as much sensation as the winged bulls and lions, and when it was drawn over the rotten bridge of boats that crosses the Tigris at Mosul, all business in the town was stopped for the day, and everybody came out to see the wonderful sight. Then he engaged a great crowd of Arabs, and by fastening a palm-fiber cable round the bull so that dozens of men could tail on to the rope while the great block was being pulled down on its side, and by propping it up stage by stage as it came down, he was able at last to get it lowered upon rollers. As the great weight came upon the rubbishy cable and ropes, they stretched more and more, in spite of the water which was thrown upon them, and at last, when the bull was within five feet of the rollers, they all broke together. The Arabs, of course, all went flying heels over head in a great cloud of dust, and the bull collapsed. Layard rushed into the trench expecting to find the precious sculpture shattered to atoms, but, to his amazement and delight, it was resting on the rollers quite uninjured, and exactly in the position which he wished it to occupy. Good luck could scarcely go further.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


The wonderful cart was then brought along, the ground having been cut away so that the bull could be moved by the rollers right on to the top of its new carriage. This was comparatively easy, but when buffaloes were yoked to the cart and tried to pull it out of the trench, it could not be got to budge. Finally, it was hauled out by a gang of 300 Arabs, all screeching at the top of their voices, and was dragged yard by yard to the sound of drums and fifes and musket-shots to the bank of the Tigris. Later on a winged lion was brought out in the same way, and at last the two huge monsters were rafted down the river to Basra, whence they were shipped to London.

[Illustration] from Peeps at Ancient Assyria by Jamse Baikie


If the Arabs were amazed, the people of England were not less astonished. Layard had a most wonderful gift of telling his story in an interesting manner, and when his book, "Nineveh and its Remains," came out, and was followed by his great series of pictures of the discoveries, everybody read the story with breathless interest, and thousands thronged to the British Museum to see the great winged monsters which had cost so much trouble to bring there.

Altogether the sensation made by these discoveries was so great that people would not be content until Layard was sent out again to continue the work he had so well begun; and accordingly he started in 1849 in command of a new expedition as the representative of the British Museum. This time his main work was to be done, not at his old mound of Nimrud, but at another mound called Qoyunjik, which proved to have been the site of the most famous capital of Assyria, "Nineveh, that great city." His work here was just as successful as at Nimrud, though it no longer had the charm of novelty. In some respects it was even more interesting, because it brought to light the palaces and sculptures of kings with whom our Bibles have made us familiar. Everyone has read of Sennacherib, the Assyrian who "came down like a wolf on the fold." Layard unearthed at Qoyunjik the great palace which this mighty king and soldier built for himself, and which he adorned with sculptures, showing the progress of that very campaign in which Jerusalem was delivered out of his cruel hands.

The Assyrians were not fond, any more than other people, of mentioning their defeats, and Sennacherib has said nothing about bad luck in this campaign. On the contrary, he pictures it as a most triumphant success, and one of the sculptured slabs represents him receiving the spoil of the city of Lachish, the town which we know he was besieging when Hezekiah's ambassadors came to him. Besides that he tells us very boastfully of all the losses he inflicted on Judah, and how he shut up Hezekiah in Jerusalem, like a bird in a cage; but he nowhere says that he captured Jerusalem, and if he had done so, he would have been only too glad to have said it. And we know from other sources that this campaign that he so brags about really ended in disaster, as the Bible says—probably in a great attack of plague among his soldiers. But Layard made another discovery in this same mound, which, though not nearly so striking at first sight as Sennacherib's war pictures, has proved far more valuable in the end. He came upon two small rooms which were filled with small clay tablets inscribed all over with the curious Assyrian arrow-headed writing, which we now call cuneiform. Later on his assistant, Mr. Bassam, found another store of these tablets. When scholars found out how to read the inscriptions on them (I shall have to tell you about that too), it was discovered that these stores of clay tablets were really the books of the great royal library of the Assyrian kings, which was gathered by some of the later Assyrian monarchs, especially by one called Ashurbanipal, whom the Greeks used to call Sardanapalus, and about whom they told most wonderful stories.

Bit by bit the books were read, and we were able to learn from the Assyrians' own writings all their ideas about how the world was made, and who the gods were and what they did, and the story of the adventures of some of their great early heroes. Some of these stories I shall tell you later. There were histories which told of the chief events of the different reigns; there were astronomical books with observations of the planets and all sorts of mathematical calculations; there were hymns and prayers which show us how the Assyrians approached God in worship; there were letters of all kinds, and even lots of medical prescriptions. And not only were these books valuable as telling us about the Assyrians, but a great number of them proved to be careful copies, made by order of Ashurbanipal, of far earlier Babylonian books, so that we learn from them about Babylonia as well, and are carried away back hundreds of years beyond the time at which these copies were actually written.

Altogether it was a most wonderful find, and if Layard had never found anything else it would have amply repaid him for all his toil and trouble. But both he and Bassam made many other fine discoveries, and though much has been done since, and done in a more thorough and careful manner than Layard ever had money enough to attempt, yet no one has ever eclipsed the fame of the first explorers.

Since then some very remarkable and thorough work has been done at different places both in Assyria and Babylonia. At one place called Tello, in particular, another Frenchman called M. de Sarzec laid bare the ruins of a very ancient Babylonian town called Lagash or Shirpurla, a town far older than Kalah or Nineveh; and it is from what he found there that we have been able to learn so much of what life was like in the very earliest dawn of history, the time of the little city-states of which I told you in the first chapter. An American expedition working at Nippur found a still older city, with thousands of clay tablets belonging to the temple library of Enlil, the god of the town. And the Germans, working at Babylon, uncovered the great palace of Nebuchadnezzar and the splendid Procession Street, lined with beautiful enameled reliefs of dragons and bulls, along which the great conqueror's victorious armies passed in triumph to give thanks at the great temple under the shadow of the vast tower of Babel. But none of them has ever been able to tell his story in so bright and fresh and interesting a way as Layard, and so I have taken our earliest explorer's work rather than that of any later discoverer as an example of how interesting the search for buried treasure may be, even though the treasure be not gold and jewels, but only wisdom.