1839: Discoveries at Nineveh
During the autumn of 1839 and winter of 1840, I had 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.[1.1] We were 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 among the people, acquired without effort their manners, and enjoyed without alloy those emotions which (Page 2) scenes so novel, and spots so rich in varied association, can not fail to produce.
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 Arab, or in some crumbling village still bearing a well known name. No experienced dragoman measured our distances, and appointed our stations. We were honored with no conversations by pashaws, nor did we seek any civilities from governors. We neither drew tears nor curses from villagers by seizing their horses, or searching their houses for provisions: their welcome was sincere; their scanty fare was placed before us; we ate, and came, and went in peace.
I had traversed Asia Minor and Syria, visiting the ancient seats of civilization, and the spots which religion has made holy. I now felt an irresistible desire to penetrate to the regions beyond the Euphrates, to which history and tradition point as the birth place of the wisdom of the West. Most travelers, 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 from Aleppo to the banks of the Tigris. A deep mystery hangs 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 traveler; 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. After a journey in Syria, the thoughts naturally turn eastward; and without treading on the remains of Nineveh and Babylon our pilgrimage is incomplete.
I left Aleppo, with my companion, on the 18th of March. (Page 3) We still traveled as we had 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 preferred that through Bir and Orfa. From the latter city we traversed the low country at the foot of the Kurdish hills, a country little known, and abounding in curious remains. The Egyptian frontier, at that time, extended to the east of Orfa, and the war between the sultan and Mohammed Ali Pasha being still unfinished, the tribes took advantage of the confusion, and were plundering on all sides. With our usual good fortune, we succeeded in reaching Nisibin unmolested, although we ran daily risks, and more than once found ourselves in the midst of foraging parties, and of tents, which, an hour before, had been pillaged by the wandering bands of Arabs. 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.[1.2] We rode also into the desert, and explored the mound of Kalah Sherghat, 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 still 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 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 an ancient city. Although Xenophon had confounded a name, spoken by a strange race, with one (Page 4) 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, connect it with one of the first settlements of the human race.[1.3]
Kalah Sherghat, like Nimroud, was an Assyrian ruin: 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. A few fragments of pottery and inscribed bricks, discovered after a careful search among the rubbish which had accumulated around the base of the great mound, served to prove that it owed its construction to the people who had founded the city of which Nimroud is the remains. There was a tradition current among the Arabs, 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 heaps of earth and bricks, covering a considerable extent of country on the right bank of the Tigris. At the time of our visit, the country had been abandoned by the Bedouins, and was only occasionally visited by a few plunderers from the Shammar or Aneyza tents. We passed the night in the jungle which clothes the banks of the river, and wandered during the day undisturbed by the tribes of the desert. A cawass, who had been sent with us by the Pashaw of Mosul, alarmed at the solitude, and dreading the hostile Arabs, left us in the wilderness, and turned homeward. But he fell into the danger he sought to avoid. Less fortunate than ourselves, at a short distance from Kalah Sherghat, he was met by a party of horsemen, and fell a victim to his timidity.
Were the traveler to cross the Euphrates to seek for such ruins in Mesopotamia and Chaldea as he had left behind him in Asia Minor or Syria, his search would be vain. The (Page 5) graceful column rising above the thick foliage of the myrtle, ilex, and oleander; the gradines of the amphitheater covering a gentle slope, and overlooking the dark blue waters of a lake-like bay; the richly-carved cornice or capital half hidden by luxuriant herbage, - are replaced by the stern, shapeless mound rising like a hill from the scorched plain, the fragments of pottery, and the stupendous mass of brick-work occasionally laid bare by the winter rains. He has left the land where nature is still lovely, where, in his mind's eye, he can rebuild the temple or the theater, half doubting whether they would have made a more grateful impression upon the senses than the ruin before him. He is now at a loss to give any form to the rude heaps upon which he is gazing. Those of whose works they are the remains, unlike the Roman and the Greek, have left no visible traces of their civilization, or of their arts: their influence has long since passed away. The more he conjectures, the more vague the results appear. The scene around is worthy of the ruin he is contemplating; desolation meets desolation: a feeling of awe succeeds to wonder; for there is nothing to relieve the mind, to lead to hope, or to tell of what has gone by. These huge mounds of Assyria made a deeper impression upon me, gave rise to more serious thoughts, and more earnest reflection, than the temples of Balbec, and the theaters of Ionia.
In the middle of April I left Mosul for Baghdad. As I descended the Tigris on a raft, I again saw the ruins of Nimroud, and had a better opportunity of examining them. It was evening as we approached the spot. The spring rains had clothed the mound with the richest verdure, and the fertile meadows, which stretched around it, were covered with flowers of every hue. Amid this luxuriant vegetation were partly concealed a few fragments of bricks, pottery, and alabaster, upon which might be traced the well defined wedges of the cuneiform character. Did not these remains mark the nature of the ruin, it might have been confounded with a natural eminence. A long line of consecutive narrow mounds, still (Page 6) retaining the appearance of walls or ramparts, stretched from its base, and formed a vast quadrangle. The river flowed at some distance from them: its waters, swollen by the melting of the snows on the Armenian hills, were broken into a thousand foaming whirlpools by an artificial barrier, built across the stream. On the eastern bank, the soil had been washed away by the current; but a solid mass of masonry still withstood its impetuosity. The Arab, who guided my small raft, gave himself up to religious ejaculations as we approached this formidable cataract, over which we were carried with some violence. Once safely through the danger, he explained to me that this unusual change in the quiet face of the river was caused by a great dam which had been built by Nimrod,[1.4] and that in the autumn, before the winter rains, the huge stones of which it was constructed, squared, and united by cramps of iron, were frequently visible above the surface of the stream.[1.5] It was, in fact, one of those monuments of a great people, to be found in all the rivers of Mesopotamia, which were undertaken to insure a constant supply of water to the innumerable canals, spreading like net-work over the surrounding country, and which, even in the days of Alexander, were looked upon as the works of an ancient nation.[1.6] No wonder that the traditions of the present inhabitants of the land should assign them to one of the founders of the human race! The Arab explained the connection between the dam and the city, built by Athur, (Page 7) the lieutenant of Nimrod, the vast ruins of which were then before us, and its purpose as a causeway for the mighty hunter to cross to the opposite palace, now represented by the mound of Hammum Ali. He was telling me of the histories and fate of the kings of a primitive race, still the favorite theme of the inhabitants of the plains of Shinar, when the last glow of twilight faded away, and I fell asleep as we glided onward to Baghdad.
My curiosity had been greatly excited, and from that time I formed the design of thoroughly examining, whenever it might be in my power, these singular remains.
It was not until the summer of 1842 that I again passed through Mosul on my way to Constantinople. I was then anxious to reach the Turkish capital, and had no time to explore ruins. I had not, however, forgotten Nimroud. I had frequently spoken to others on the subject of excavations in this and another mound, to which a peculiar interest also attached; and at one time had reason to hope that some persons in England might have been induced to aid in the undertaking. I had even proposed an examination of the ruins to M. Coste, an architect who had been sent by the French government, with its embassy to Persia, to draw and describe the monuments of that country.
I found that M. Botta had, since my first visit, been named French consul at Mosul; and had already commenced excavations on the opposite side of the river in the large mound of Kouyunjik. These excavations were on a very small scale, and, at the time of my passage, only fragments of brick and alabaster, upon which were engraved a few letters in the cuneiform character, had been discovered.
While detained by unexpected circumstances at Constantinople, I entered into correspondence with a gentleman in England on the subject of excavations; but with this exception, no one seemed inclined to assist or take any interest in such an undertaking. I also wrote to M. Botta, encouraging him to proceed, notwithstanding the apparent paucity of results, and (Page 8) particularly calling his attention to the mound of Nimroud, which, however, he declined to explore on account of its distance from Mosul and its inconvenient position. I was soon called away from the Turkish capital to the provinces; and for some months numerous occupations prevented me turning my attention to the ruins and antiquities of Assyria.
In the meanwhile M. Botta, not discouraged by the want of success which had attended his first essay, continued his excavations in the mound of Kouyunjik; and to him is due the honor of having found the first Assyrian monument. This remarkable discovery owed its origin to the following circumstances. The small party employed by M. Botta were at work on Kouyunjik, when a peasant from a distant village chanced to visit the spot. Seeing that every fragment of brick and alabaster uncovered by the workmen was carefully preserved, he asked the reason of this, to him, strange proceeding. On being informed that they were in search of sculptured stones, he advised them to try the mound on which his village was built, and in which, he declared, many such things as they wanted had been exposed on digging the foundations of new houses. M. Botta, having been frequently deceived by similar stories, was not at first inclined to follow the peasant's advice, but subsequently sent an agent and one or two workmen to the place. After a little opposition from the inhabitants, they were permitted to sink a well in the mound; and at a small distance from the surface they came to the top of a wall which, on digging deeper, they found to be lined with sculptured slabs of gypsum. M. Botta, on receiving information of this discovery, went at once to the village, which was called Khorsabad. Directing a wider trench to be formed, and to be carried in the direction of the wall, he soon found that he had entered a chamber, connected with others, and surrounded by slabs of gypsum covered with sculptured representations of battles, sieges, and similar events. His wonder may easily be imagined. A new history had been suddenly opened to him - the records of an unknown people were before him. He was (Page 9) equally at a loss to account for the age and the nature of the monument. The style of art of the sculptures, the dresses of the figures, the mythic forms on the walls, were all new to him, and afforded no clew to the epoch of the erection of the edifice, or to the people who were its founders. Numerous inscriptions, accompanying the bas-reliefs, evidently contained the explanation of the events thus recorded in sculpture, and being in the cuneiform, or arrow headed, character, proved that the building belonged to an age preceding the conquests of Alexander; for it is generally admitted that after the subjugation of the west of Asia by the Macedonians, the cuneiform writing ceased to be employed. It was evident that the monument appertained to a very ancient and very civilized people; and it was natural from its position to refer it to the inhabitants of Nineveh, a city, which, although it could not have occupied a site so distant from the Tigris, must have been in the vicinity of these ruins. M. Botta had discovered an Assyrian edifice, the first, probably, which had been exposed to the view of man since the fall of the Assyrian empire.
M. Botta was not long in perceiving that the building which had been thus partly excavated, unfortunately owed its destruction to fire; and that the gypsum slabs, reduced to lime, were rapidly falling to pieces on exposure to the air. No precaution could arrest this rapid decay; and it was to be feared that this wonderful monument had only been uncovered to complete its ruin. The records of victories and triumphs, which had long attested the power and swelled the pride of the Assyrian kings, and had resisted the ravages of ages, were now passing away forever. They could scarcely be held together until an inexperienced pencil could secure an imperfect evidence of their former existence. Almost all that was first discovered thus speedily disappeared; and the same fate has befallen nearly every thing subsequently found at Khorsabad. A regret is almost felt that so precious a memorial of a great nation should have been exposed to destruction; but as far as the object of the monument is concerned, the intention of its founders will (Page 10) be amply fulfilled, and the records of their might will be more widely spread, and more effectually preserved, by modern art, than the most exalted ambition could have contemplated.
This remarkable discovery having been communicated by M. Botta, through M. Mohl, to the French Academy of Fine Arts, that body lost no time in applying to the Minister of Public Instruction for means to carry on the researches. The recommendation was attended to with that readiness and munificence which almost invariably distinguish the French government in undertakings of this nature. Ample funds for excavations were at once assigned to M. Botta, and an artist of acknowledged skill was placed under his orders to draw such objects as could not be removed. The work was carried on with activity and success, and by the beginning of 1845, the monument had been completely uncovered. M. Botta did not extend his researches beyond Khorsabad; but, having secured many fine specimens of Assyrian sculpture for his country, he returned to Europe with a rich collection of inscriptions, the most important result of his discovery.
The success of M. Botta had increased my anxiety to explore the ruins of Assyria. It was evident that Khorsabad could not stand alone. It did not represent ancient Nineveh, nor did it afford us any additional evidence as to the site of that city. If the edifice discovered had been one of its palaces, surely other buildings of a vaster and more magnificent character must exist nearer the seat of government, on the banks of the river Tigris. It was true that M. Botta had labored unsuccessfully for above three months in the great mound opposite Mosul, which was usually identified with the Assyrian capital; but that mound much exceeded in extent any other known ruin; and it was possible that in the part hitherto explored the traces of the buildings which it once contained were as completely lost as they were in many parts of the mound of Khorsabad. My thoughts still went back to Nimroud, and to the traditions which attached to it. I spoke to others, but received little encouragement. At last, in the autumn of 1845, Sir Stratford (Page 11) Canning offered to incur, for a limited period, the expense of excavations in Assyria, in the hope that, should success attend the attempt, means would be found to carry it out on an adequate scale.
It was now in my power to prosecute a work which I had so long desired to undertake; and the reader will not, I trust, be disinclined to join with me in feelings of gratitude toward one who, while he has maintained so successfully the honor and interests of England by his high character and eminent abilities, has acquired for his country so many great monuments of ancient civilization and art.[1.7] It is to Sir Stratford Canning we are mainly indebted for the collection of Assyrian antiquities with which the British Museum has been enriched; without his liberality and public spirit the treasures of Nimroud would have been reserved for the enterprise of those who have appreciated the value and importance of the discoveries at Khorsabad.
It was deemed prudent that I should leave Constantinople without acquainting any one with the object of my journey. I was furnished with the usual documents given to travelers when recommended by the Embassy, and with letters of introduction to the authorities at Mosul and in the neighborhood. My preparations were soon completed, and I started from Constantinople by steamer to Samsoun in the middle of October. Anxious to reach the end of my journey, I crossed the mountains of Pontus and the great steppes of the Usun Yilak as fast as post horses could carry me, descended the high lands into the valley of the Tigris, galloped over the vast plains of Assyria, and reached Mosul in twelve days.
[1.1] My traveling companion, during a long journey from England to Hamadan, was Edward Ledwich Mitford, Esq., now of her Majesty's civil service in the island of Ceylon.
[1.2] These ruins include the mounds of Kouyunjik and Nebbi Yunus.
[1.3] "He (Nimrod) went out into Assyria and builded Nineveh, the city Rehoboth and Calah, and Resen, between Nineveh and Calah; the same is a great city." (Gen. 10:11, 12.)
[1.4] This dam is called by the Arabs, either Sukr el Nimroud, from the tradition, or El Awayee, from the noise caused by the breaking of the water over the stones. Large rafts are obliged to unload before crossing it, and accidents frequently happen to those who neglect this precaution.
[1.5] Diodorus Siculus, it will be remembered, states that the stones of the bridge built by Semiramis across the Euphrates were united by similar iron cramps, while the interstices were filled up with molten lead.
[1.6] These dams greatly impeded the fleets of the conqueror in their navigation of the rivers of Susiana and Mesopotamia, and he caused many of them to be removed. (Strabo, p. 1051. ed. Ox. 1807.) By Strabo they were believed to have been constructed to prevent the ascent of the rivers by hostile fleets; but their use is evident. Tavernier mentions, in his Travels (vol. i. p. 226), this very dam. He says that his raft went over a cascade twenty-six feet high; but he must have greatly exaggerated.
[1.7] I need scarcely remind the reader that it is to Sir S. Canning we owe the marbles of Halicarnassus now in the British Museum. The difficulties which stood in the way of the acquisition of these valuable relics, and the skill which was required to obtain them, are not generally known. I can testify to the efforts and labor which were necessary for nearly three years before the repugnance of the Ottoman government could be overcome, and permission obtained to extract the sculptures from the walls of a castle which was more jealously guarded than any similar edifice in the empire. Their removal, notwithstanding the almost insurmountable difficulties raised by the authorities and inhabitants of Budroon was most successfully effected by Mr. Alison. The Elgin marbles, and all other remains from Turkey or Greece now in Europe, were obtained with comparative ease.
1800-1899 A.D. Assyrian History Archives