1800-1899 A.D. Assyrian History

1840: The Discovery of Nineveh
by Austen Henry Layard, Esq., D.C.L.
Posted: Monday, August 21, 2000 12:35 pm CST


My first step on reaching Mosul was to present my letters to Mohammed Pashaw, the governor of the province. Being a native of Candia, he was usually known as Keritli Oglu (the son of the Cretan), to distinguish him from his celebrated predecessor of the same name. The appearance of his excellency was not prepossessing, but it matched his temper and conduct. Nature had placed hypocrisy beyond his reach. He had one eye and one ear; he was short and fat, deeply marked by the small-pox, uncouth in gestures and harsh in voice. His fame had reached the seat of his government before him. On the road he had revived many good old customs and impositions, which the reforming spirit of the age had suffered to fall into decay. He particularly insisted on dish-parasi; [2.1] or a compensation in money, levied upon all villages in which a man of such rank is entertained, for the wear and tear of his teeth in masticating the food he condescends to receive from the inhabitants. On entering Mosul, he had induced several of the principal aghas, who had fled from the town on his approach, to (Page 13) return to their homes; and having made a formal display of oaths and protestations, cut their throats to show how much his word could be depended upon. At the time of my arrival, the population was in a state of terror and despair. Even the appearance of a casual traveler led to hopes, and reports were whispered about the town of the disgrace of the tyrant. Of this the pashaw was aware, and hit upon a plan to test the feelings of the people toward him. He was suddenly taken ill one afternoon, and was carried to his harem almost lifeless. On the following morning the palace was closed, and the attendants answered inquiries by mysterious motions, which could only be interpreted in one fashion. The doubts of the Mosuleeans gradually gave way to general rejoicings; but at mid-day his excellency, who had posted his spies all over the town, appeared in perfect health in the market-place. A general trembling seized the inhabitants. His vengeance fell principally upon those who possessed property, and had hitherto escaped his repacity. They were seized and stripped, on the plea that they had spread reports detrimental to his authority.

The villages, and the Arab tribes, had not suffered less than the townspeople. The pashaw was accustomed to give instructions to those who were sent to collect money, in three words - "Go, destroy, eat;"[2.2] and his agents were not generally backward in entering into the spirit of them. The tribes, who had been attacked and plundered, were retaliating upon caravans and travelers, or laying waste the cultivated parts of the pashawlic. The villages were deserted, and the roads were little frequented and very insecure.

Such was the pashaw to whom I was introduced two days after my arrival by the British vice-consul, Mr. Rassam. He read the letters which I presented to him, and received me with that civility which a traveler generally expects from a Turkish functionary of high rank. His anxiety to know the object of (Page 14) my journey was evident, but his curiosity was not gratified for the moment.

Many reasons rendered it necessary that my plans should be concealed, until I was ready to put them into execution. Although I had always experienced from M. Botta the most friendly assistance, there were others who did not share his sentiments; from the authorities and the people of the town I could only expect the most decided opposition. On the 8th of November, having secretly procured a few tools, I engaged a mason at the moment of my departure, and carrying with me a variety of guns, spears, and other formidable weapons, declared that I was going to hunt wild boars in a neighboring village, and floated down the Tigris on a small raft constructed for my journey. I was accompanied by Mr. Ross (a British merchant of Mosul[2.3]), my cawass, and a servant.

At this time of the year nearly seven hours are required to descend the Tigris, from Mosul to Nimroud. It was sunset before we reached the awai, or dam across the river. We landed and walked to the village of Naifa. No light appeared as we approached, nor were we even saluted by the dogs, which usually abound in an Arab village. We had entered a heap of ruins. I was about to return to the raft, upon which we had made up our minds to pass the night, when the glare of a fire lighted up the entrance to a miserable hovel. Through a crevice in the wall, I saw an Arab family crouching round a heap of half-extinguished embers. The dress of the man, the ample cloak and white turban, showed that he belonged to one of the tribes which cultivate a little land on the borders of the Desert, and are distinguished, by their more sedentary habits, from the Bedouins. Near him were three women, lean and haggard, their heads almost concealed in black handkerchiefs, (Page 15) and the rest of their persons enveloped in the striped aba. Some children, nearly naked, and one or two mangy greyhounds, completed the group. As we entered, all the party rose, and showed some alarm at this sudden appearance of strangers. The man, however, seeing Europeans, bid us welcome, and spreading some corn-sacks on the ground, invited us to be seated. The women and children retreated into a corner of the hut. Our host, whose name was Awad or Abd-Allah, was a sheikh of the Jehesh. His tribe having been plundered by the pashaw, and being now scattered in different parts of the country, he had taken refuge in this ruined village. He had learnt a little Turkish, and was intelligent and active. Seeing, at once, that he would be useful, I acquainted him with the object of my journey; offering him the prospect of regular employment in the event of the experiment proving successful, and assigning him fixed wages as superintendent of the workmen. He volunteered to walk, in the middle of the night, to Selamiyah, a village three miles distant, and to some Arab tents in the neighborhood, to procure men to assist in the excavations.

I had slept little during the night. The hovel in which we had taken shelter, and its inmates, did not invite slumber; but such scenes and companions were not new to me: they could have been forgotten, had my brain been less excited. Hopes, long cherished, were now to be realized or were to end in disappointment. Visions of palaces underground, of gigantic monsters, of sculptured figures, and endless inscriptions, floated before me. After forming plan after plan for removing the earth, and extricating these treasures, I fancied myself wandering in a maze of chambers from which I could find no outlet. Then, again, all was reburied, and I was standing on the grass-covered mound. Exhausted, I was at length sinking into sleep, when hearing the voice of Awad, I rose from my carpet, and joined him outside the hovel. The day already dawned; he had returned with six Arabs, who agreed for a small sum to work under my direction.

(Page 16) The lofty cone and broad mound of Nimroud broke like a distant mountain on the morning sky. But how changed was the scene since my former visit! The ruins were no longer clothed with verdure and many colored flowers; no signs of habitation, not even the black tent of the Arab, were seen upon the plain. The eye wandered over a parched and barren waste, across which occasionally swept the whirlwind, dragging with it a cloud of sand. About a mile from us was the small village of Nimroud, like Naifa, a heap of ruins.

Twenty minutes' walk brought us to the principal mound. The absence of all vegetation enabled me to examine the remains with which it was covered. Broken pottery and fragments of bricks, both inscribed with the cuneiform character, were strewed on all sides. The Arabs watched my motions as I wandered to and fro, and observed with surprise the objects I had collected. They joined, however, in the search, and brought me handfuls of rubbish, among which I found with joy the fragment of a bas relief. The material on which it was carved had been exposed to fire, and resembled, in every respect, the burnt gypsum of Khorsabad. Convinced from this discovery, that sculptured remains must still exist in some part of the mound, I sought for a place where excavations might be commenced with a prospect of success. Awad led me to a piece of alabaster which appeared above the soil. We could not remove it, and on digging downward, it proved to be the upper part of a large slab. I ordered all the men to work around it, and they shortly uncovered a second slab. Continuing in the same line, we came upon a third; and, in the course of the morning, discovered ten more, the whole forming a square, with a slab missing at one corner. It was evident that we had entered a chamber, and that the gap was its entrance. I now dug down the face of one of the stones, and an inscription in the cuneiform character was soon exposed to view. Similar inscriptions occupied the center of all the slabs, which were in the best preservation; but plain, with the exception of the writing. Leaving half the workmen to remove the rubbish (Page 17) from the chamber, I led the rest to the S. W. corner of the mound, where I had observed many fragments of calcined alabaster.

A trench, opened in the side of the mound, brought me almost immediately to a wall, bearing inscriptions in the same character as those already described. The slabs, which had been almost reduced to lime by exposure to intense heat, threatened to fall to pieces as soon as uncovered.

Night interrupted our labors. I returned to the village well satisfied with their result. It was now evident that the remains of buildings of considerable extent existed in the mound; and that although some had been injured by fire, others had escaped the conflagration. As inscriptions, and the fragment of a bas-relief had been found, it was natural to conclude that sculptures were still buried under the soil. I determined, therefore, to explore the N. W. corner, and to empty the chamber partly uncovered during the day.

On returning to the village, I removed from the crowded hovel in which we had passed the night. With the assistance of Awad, who was no less pleased than myself with our success, we patched up with mud the least ruined house in the village, and restored its falling roof. We contrived at least to exclude, in some measure, the cold night winds; and to obtain a little privacy for my companion and myself.

Next morning my workmen were increased by five Turcomans from Selamiyah, who had been attracted by the prospect of regular wages. I employed half of them in emptying the chamber, and the rest in following the wall at the S. W. corner of the mound. Before evening, the work of the first party was completed, and I found myself in a room[2.4] paneled with slabs about eight feet high, and varying from six to four feet in breadth. Upon one of them, which had fallen backward from its place, was rudely inscribed, in Arabic characters, the name of Ahmed Pashaw, one of the former (Page 18) hereditary governors of Mosul. A native of Selamiyah remembered that some Christians were employed to dig into the mound about thirty years before, in search of stone for the repair of the tomb of Sultan Abd-Allah, a Mussulman saint, buried on the left bank of the Tigris, a few miles below its junction with the Zab. They uncovered this slab; but being unable to move it, they cut upon it the name of their employer, the pashaw. My informant further stated that, in another part of the mound, he had forgotten the precise spot, they had found sculptured figures, which they broke in pieces to carry away the fragments.

The bottom of the chamber was paved with smaller slabs than those which lined the walls. They were covered with inscriptions on both sides, and had been placed upon a layer of bitumen, which, having been used in a liquid state, had retained a perfect impression in relief of the characters carved upon the stone. The inscriptions on the upright slabs were about twenty lines in length, and all were precisely similar.

In the rubbish near the bottom of the chamber, I found several objects in ivory, upon which were traces of gilding; among them were the figure of a king carrying in one hand the Egyptian crux ansata, or emblem of life, part of a crouching sphinx, and an elegant ornamental border of flowers. Awad, who had his own suspicions of the object of my search, which he could scarcely persuade himself was limited to mere stones, carefully collected all the scattered fragments of gold leaf he could find in the rubbish; and, calling me aside in a mysterious and confidential fashion, produced them wrapped up in a piece of dingy paper. "O bey," said he, "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 can not hold their tongues. The matter will come to the ears of the pashaw." The sheikh was much surprised, and equally disappointed, when I generously presented him with the treasures he had collected, and all such (Page 19) as he might hereafter discover. He left me, muttering "Yia Rubbi!" and other pious ejaculations, and lost in conjectures as to the meaning of these strange proceedings.

At the foot of the slabs in the S. W. corner, we found a great accumulation of charcoal, proving that the building of which they had formed part had been destroyed by fire. I dug also in several directions in this part of the mound, and in many places came upon the calcined remains of walls.

On the third day, I opened a trench in the high conical mound, but found only fragments of inscribed bricks. I also dug at the bank of the north side of the chamber first explored, in the expectation of coming upon other walls beyond, but unsuccessfully. As my chief aim was to ascertain the existence, as soon as possible, of sculptures, all my workmen were moved to the S. W. corner, where the many remains of walls already discovered evidently belonging to the same edifice, promised speedier success. I continued the excavations in this part of the mound until the 13th, still finding inscriptions, but no sculptures.

Some days having elapsed since my departure from Mosul, and the experiment having been so far successful, it was time to turn to the town and acquaint the pashaw, who had, no doubt, ready heard of my proceedings, with the object of my researches. I started, therefore, early in the morning of the 14th, and galloped to Mosul in about three hours.

I found the town in great commotion. In the first place, his excellency had, on the previous day, entrapped his subjects by the reports of his death, in the manner already described, and was now actively engaged in seeking pecuniary compensation for the insult he had received in the rejoicings of the population. In the second, the British vice-consul having purchased an old building to store his stock in trade, the cadi, a fanatic and man of infamous character, had given out that the Franks had formed a design of buying up the whole of Turkey, and was endeavoring to raise a riot, which was to end in the demolition of the consulate and other acts of violence. I called (Page 20) on the pashaw, and, in the first place, congratulated him on his speedy recovery; a compliment which he received with a grim smile of satisfaction. He then introduced the subject of the cadi, and the disturbance he had created. "Does that ill-conditioned fellow," exclaimed he, "think that he has Sheriff Pashaw (his excellency's immediate predecessor) to deal with, that he must be planning a riot in the town? When I was at Siwas the ulema tried to excite the people because I encroached upon a burying-ground. But I made them eat dirt! Wallah! I took every gravestone and built up the castle walls with them." He pretended at first to be ignorant of the excavations at Nimroud; but subsequently thinking that he would convict me of prevarication in my answers to his questions as to the amount of treasure discovered, pulled out of his writing tray a scrap of paper, as dingy as that produced by Awad, in which was also preserved an almost invisible particle of gold leaf. This, he said, had been brought to him by the commander of the irregular troops stationed at Selamiyah, who had been watching my proceedings. I suggested that he should name an agent to be present as long as I worked at Nimroud, to take charge of all the precious metals that might. be discovered. He promised to write on the subject to the chief of the irregulars; but offered no objection to the continuation of my researches.

Reports of the wealth extracted from the ruins had already reached Mosul, and had excited the cupidity and jealousy of the cadi and principal inhabitants of the place. It was evident that I should have to contend against a formidable opposition; but as the pashaw had not, as yet, openly objected to my proceedings, I hired some Nestorian Chaldeans, who had left their mountains for the winter to seek employment in Mosul, and sent them to Nimroud. At the same time I engaged agents to explore several mounds in the neighborhood of the town, hoping to ascertain the existence of sculptured buildings in some parts of the country, before steps were taken to interrupt me.

(Page 21) While at Mosul, Mormous, an Arab of the tribe of Haddedeen, informed me that figures had been accidentally uncovered in a mound near the village of Tel Kef. As he offered to take me to the place, we rode out together; but he only pointed out the site of an old quarry, with a few rudely hewn stones. Such disappointments were daily occurring; and I wearied myself in scouring the country to see remains which had been most minutely described to me as sculptures, or slabs covered with writing, and which generally proved to be the ruin of some modern building, or an early tombstone inscribed with Arabic characters.

The mounds, which I directed to be opened, were those of Baasheikha (of considerable size), Baazani, Karamles, Karakush, Yara, and Jerraiyah. Connected with the latter ruin many strange tales were current in the country. It was said at on its lofty conical mound formerly stood a temple of black stone, held in great reverence by the Yezidis, or worshipers of the devil; its walls covered with all manner of sculptured figures, and with inscriptions in an unknown language. When the Bey of Rowandiz fell upon the Yezidis, and massacred those who were unable to escape, he destroyed this house of idols; but the ruins of the building, it was declared, had only been covered by small accumulation of rubbish. The lower part of an Assyrian figure, in relief on basalt, dug up, it was said, in the mound, was actually brought to me; but I had afterward reason to suspect that it was discovered at Khorsabad. Excavations were carried on for some time at Jerraiyah, but no remains of the Yezidi temple were brought to light.

Having finished my arrangements in. Mosul, I returned to Nimroud on the 19th. During my absence, my cawass had carried the excavations along the back of a wall, in the S. W. corner of the mound,[2.5] and had discovered an entrance or doorway. [2.6] Being anxious to make as much progress as possible, increased my workmen to thirty, and distributed them in (Page 22) three parties. By opening long trenches at right angles in various directions, we came upon the top of a wall, [2.7] built of slabs with inscriptions similar to those already described. One, however, was reversed, and was covered with characters, exceeding in size any I had yet seen. On examining the inscription carefully I found that it corresponded with those of the chamber in the N. W. corner; but as the edges of this, as well as of all the other slabs hitherto discovered in the S. W. ruins, had been cut away to make the stones fit into the wall, several letters had been destroyed. From these facts it was evident that materials taken from another building had been used in the construction of the one we were now exploring; but as yet it could not be ascertained whether the face or the back of the slabs had been uncovered; for the general plan of the edifice could not be determined until the heap of rubbish and earth under which it was buried had been removed. The excavations were now carried on but slowly. The soil, mixed with sun-dried and baked bricks, pottery, and fragments of alabaster, offered considerable resistance to the tools of the workmen; and when loosened, could only be removed in baskets to be thrown over the edge of the mound. The Chaldeans from the mountains, strong and hardy men, could alone wield the pick; the Arabs were employed in carrying away the earth. Spades could not be used, and there were no other means, than those I had adopted, to clear away the rubbish from the ruins. A person standing on the mound could see no remains of building until he approached the edge of the trenches, into which the workmen descended by steps, where parts of the walls were exposed to view.

The Abou-Salman and Tai Arabs continuing their depredations in the plains of Nimroud and surrounding country, I deemed it prudent to remove from Naifa, where I had hitherto resided, to Selamiyah. This village is built on a rising ground near the Tigris, and was formerly a place of some importance, (Page 23) being mentioned at a very early period as a market-town