1800-1899 A.D. Assyrian History

1840: Introduction to The Discoveries at Nineveh
by Austen Henry Layard, Esq., D.C.L.
Posted: Monday, August 21, 2000 01:01 pm CST

Before submitting the following narrative of my labors in Assyria to the reader, it may not be uninteresting to give a slight sketch of what had been done in the field of Assyrian antiquities, previous to the recent discoveries on the site of Nineveh.

A few fragments scattered among ancient authors, and a list of kings of more than doubtful authenticity, is all that remains of a history of Assyria by Ctesias; while of that attributed to Herodotus not a trace has been preserved. Of later writers who have touched upon Assyrian history, Diodorus Siculus, a mere compiler, is the principal. In Eusebius, and the Armenian historians, such as Moses of Chorene, may be found a few valuable details and hints, derived, in some instances, from original sources not altogether devoid of authenticity.

It is remarkable that in profane history we meet with only three Assyrian monarchs of whose deeds we have any account, - Ninus, Semiramis, and Sardanapalus. Ninus and his queen, like all the heroes of primitive nations, appear to have become mythic characters, to whom all great deeds and national achievements were assigned. Although originally historic personages, they were subsequently invested to some extent with divine attributes, and were interwoven with the theology of the race of (Page vi) which they were the first, or among the earliest, chiefs. Above thirty generations elapsed between Semiramis and Sardanapalus, during which more than one dynasty of kings occupied the Assyrian throne, and maintained the power of the empire. Yet of these kings nothing has been preserved but doubtful names.

The Assyrians are not particularly alluded to in Holy Writ, until the period when their warlike expeditions to the west of the Euphrates brought them into contact with the Jews. Pul, the first king whose name is recorded in Scripture, having reigned between eight and nine hundred years before the Christian era, and about two hundred previous to the fall of the empire, must have been nearly the last of a long succession of kings who had ruled over the greater part of Asia. The later monarchs are more frequently mentioned in the Bible on account of their wars with the Jews, whom they led captive into Assyria. Very little is related of even their deeds unless they particularly concern the Jewish people.

Of modern historians who have attempted to reconcile the discrepancies of Assyrian chronology, and to restore to some extent, from the fragments to which I have alluded, a history of the Assyrian empire, I scarcely know whom to point out. From such contradictory materials, it is not surprising that each writer should have formed a system of his own; and we may, without incurring the charge of skepticism, treat all their efforts as little better than ingenious speculations. In the date alone to be assigned to the commencement of the Assyrian empire, they differ nearly a thousand years; and even when they treat of events which approach the epoch of authentic history, - such as the death of Sardanapalus, the invasion (Page vii) of the Medes, and the fall of the empire, - there is nearly the same comparative discrepancy. The Bactrian and Indian expeditions of Ninus, the wonderful works of Semiramis, and the effeminacy of Sardanapalus, have been described over and over again, and form the standard ingredients of the Assyrian history of modern authors. The narratives framed upon them convey useful lessons, and are, moreover, full of romantic events to excite the imagination. As such they have been repeated, with a warning that their authenticity rests upon a slender basis, and that it is doubtful whether they are to be regarded as history, or to be classed among fables. Although the names of Nineveh and Assyria have been familiar to us from childhood, and are connected with the earliest impressions we derive from the Inspired Writings, it is only when we ask ourselves what we really know concerning them, that we discover our ignorance of all that relates to their history, and even to their geographical position.

It is indeed one of the most remarkable facts in history, that the records of an empire, so renowned for its power and civilization, should have been entirely lost; and that the site of a city as eminent for its extent as its splendor, should for ages have been a matter of doubt: it is not perhaps less curious that an accidental discovery should suddenly lead us to hope that these records may be recovered, and this site satisfactorily identified.

The ruins in Assyria and Babylonia, chiefly huge mounds, apparently of mere earth and rubbish, had long excited curiosity from their size and evident antiquity. They were the only remains of an unknown period, - of a period antecedent to the Macedonian conquest. Consequently they alone could be identified with Nineveh and (Page viii) Babylon, and could afford a clew to the site and nature of those cities. There is, at the same time, a vague mystery attaching to remains like these, which induces travelers to examine them with more than ordinary interest, and even with some degree of awe. A great vitrified mass of brick-work, surrounded by the accumulated rubbish of ages, was believed to represent the identical tower, which called down the divine vengeance, and was overthrown, according to an universal tradition, by the fires of heaven. The mystery and dread, which attached to the place, were kept up by exaggerated accounts of wild beasts, who haunted the subterraneous passages, and of the no less savage tribes who wandered among the ruins. Other mounds in the vicinity were identified with the hanging gardens, and those marvelous structures which tradition has attributed to two queens, Semiramis and Nitocris. The difficulty of reaching these remains, increased the curiosity and interest with which they were regarded; and a fragment from Babylon was esteemed a precious relic, not altogether devoid of a sacred character. The ruins which might be presumed to occupy the site of the Assyrian capital, were even less known, and less visited, than those in Babylonia. Several travelers had noticed the great mounds of earth opposite the modern city of Mosul, and when the inhabitants of the neighborhood pointed out the tomb of Jonah upon the summit of one of them, it was natural to conclude, at once, that it marked the site of Nineveh.[0.1]

(Page ix) The first to engage in a serious examination of the ruins within the limits of ancient Assyria was Mr. Rich, many years the political resident of the East India Company at Baghdad, - a man whom enterprise, industry, extensive and varied learning, and rare influence over the inhabitants of the country, acquired as much by character as position, eminently qualified for such a task. The remains near Hillah, being in the immediate vicinity of Baghdad, first attracted his attention; and he commenced his labors by carefully examining their position, and by opening trenches into the various mounds. It is unnecessary to enter into a detailed account of his discoveries. They were of considerable interest, consisting chiefly of fragments of inscriptions, bricks, engraved stones, and a coffin of wood; but the careful account which he drew up of the site of the ruins was of greater value, and has formed the ground-work of all subsequent inquiries into the topography of Babylon.

In the year 1820, Mr. Rich, having been induced to visit Kurdistan for the benefit of his health, returned to Baghdad by way of Mosul. Remaining some days in this city, his curiosity was naturally excited by the great mounds on the opposite bank of the river, and he entered upon an examination of them. He learned from the inhabitants of Mosul that, some time previous to his visit, a sculpture, representing various forms of men and animals, had been dug up in a mound forming part of the great inclosure. This strange object had been the cause of general wonder, and the whole population had issued (Page x) from the walls to gaze upon it. The ulema having at length pronounced that these figures were the idols of the infidels, the Mohammedans, like obedient disciples, so completely destroyed them, that Mr. Rich was unable to obtain even a fragment.

His first step was to visit the village containing the tomb of Jonah. In the houses he met with a few stones bearing inscriptions, which had probably been discovered in digging the foundations; and under the mosque containing the tomb, he was shown three very narrow and apparently ancient passages, one within the other, with several doors or apertures.

He next examined the largest mound of the group, called Kouyunjik by the Turks, and Armousheeah by the Arabs; the circumference of which he ascertained to be 7690 feet. Among the rubbish he found a few fragments of pottery, bricks with cuneiform characters, and some remains of building in the ravines. On a subsequent occasion he made a general survey of the ruins, which is published in the collection of his journals, edited by his widow.

With the exception of a small stone chair, and a few remains of inscriptions, Mr. Rich obtained no other Assyrian relics from the site of Nineveh; and he left Mosul, little suspecting that in the mounds were buried the palaces of the Assyrian kings. As he floated down the Tigris to Baghdad, he visited Nimroud, and was struck by its evident antiquity. The tales of the inhabitants of the neighboring villages connected the ruins with Nimrod's own city, and better authenticated traditions with those of Al Athur, or Ashur, from which the whole country anciently received its name. He collected a few (Page xi) bricks bearing cuneiform characters, and proceeded with his journey.

The fragments obtained by Mr. Rich were subsequently placed in the British Museum, and formed the principal and indeed almost only, collection of Assyrian antiquities in Europe. A case scarcely three feet square inclosed all that remained, not only of the great city, Nineveh, but of Babylon itself!

Other museums in Europe contained a few cylinders and gems, which came from Assyria and Babylonia; but they were not classified, nor could it be determined to what exact epoch they belonged. Of Assyrian art nothing was known. The architecture of Nineveh and Babylon was a matter of speculation, and the poet or painter restored their palaces and temples, as best suited his theme or his subject. A description of the temple of Belus by Herodotus, led to an imaginary representation of the tower of Babel. Its spiral ascent, its galleries gradually decreasing in circumference, and supported by innumerable columns, are familiar to us from the illustrations, adorning almost the opening page of that Book, which is associated with our earliest recollections.

Such was our acquaintance four years ago with Nineveh - its history, its site, and its arts. The reader will judge from the following pages, how far recent discoveries are likely to extend our knowledge.

As inscriptions in the cuneiforrn character will be so frequently mentioned in the following pages, a few words on the nature of this very ancient mode of writing may not be unacceptable to the reader. The epithets of cuneiform, cuneatic, arrow-headed, and wedge-shaped - tete-a-clou in French, and keilformig in German - have been (Page xii) assigned to it according as the fancy of the describer saw in its component parts a resemblance to a wedge, the barb of an arrow, or a nail. The term "cuneiform" is now most generally used in England, and probably best expresses the peculiar form of the character, each letter being composed of several distinct wedges combined together. The following may be given as an example:-

This inscription contains the names of an Assyrian king, and his title of king of Assyria. It is not improbable that these letters were originally formed by mere lines, for which the wedge was afterward substituted as an embellishment; and that the character itself may once have resembled the picture writing of Egypt, though all traces of its ideographic properties have been lost. The Assyrians, like the Egyptians, possessed at a later period a cursive writing, resembling the rounded character of the Phoenicians, Palmyrenes, Babylonians, and Jews, which was probably used for written documents, while the cuneiform was reserved for monumental purposes. There is this great difference between the two forms of writing, which appears to point to a distinct origin, - the cuneiform runs always from left to right, the cursive from right to left.

The cuneiform under various modifications, the letters being differently formed in different countries, prevailed over the greater part of western Asia to the time of the overthrow of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great. It is to this circumstance that we mainly owe the progress which has been made in deciphering the Assyrian (Page xiii) inscriptions, and the hope that we shall ultimately be able to ascertain, with some degree of certainty, their contents. The Persian kings ruled over all the nations using this peculiar form of writing. These nations consisted of three principal races, the Babylonian (including the Assyrian) speaking a language allied to the Hebrew and Arabic, the Persian, and the Tatar, the last two using dialects nearly approaching those still found among their descendants. When recording their victories, as was their custom, on rocks and pillars, these monarchs used the three languages spoken by their subjects. Such was the origin of what are called the trilingual inscriptions of Persia, which afford the principal clew to the Assyrian writing. The tablets containing these inscriptions are divided into three columns, each column being occupied by a version of the same inscription in one of the three national languages, and each language being written in the modification of the cuneiform character peculiar to it. Fortunately, the contents of the Persian inscriptions have long been accurately ascertained, and the alphabet and grammar reduced to a system. Owing, however, to the very large number of distinct characters in the Assyrian inscriptions, there being nearly 400 different signs, while in the Persian there are but thirty-nine or forty, and the great apparent laxity in the use of letters and the grammar, the process of deciphering is one of considerable difficulty, notwithstanding the aid which a version of the same inscription in a known tongue naturally supplies.

The most important trilingual inscriptions hitherto discovered are those on the palaces of Darius and Xerxes at Persepolis, over the tomb of Darius, and in the rock (Page xiv) tablets of Behistun. The latter are by far the most extensive and valuable. They contain a history of the principal events of the reign of Darius, and giving a long list of countries and tribes subdued by that monarch, and the names of conquered kings and rebels, afford the best materials for deciphering the Assyrian character, proper names being the real clew to the value of letters. The inscriptions of Behistun are upon the face of a lofty precipice, so difficult of access that Colonel Rawlinson has alone succeeded in copying them. He has printed the Persian column with a translation, but the corresponding Babylonian or Assyrian column is still in his possession, and the scientific world is anxiously awaiting the publication of an inscription which can afford the only trustworthy materials for deciphering the Assyrian records.

In the meanwhile, Colonel Rawlinson has communicated to the public, through the journals of the Royal Asiatic Society, some of the results of his own inquiries, which are of great interest and importance; and other scholars, among whom may be mentioned Dr. Hincks, have made such progress in deciphering the Assyrian character as the means at their disposal would permit. It is to Dr. Hincks we owe the determination of the numerals, the name of Sennacherib on the monuments of Kouyunjik and of Nebuchadnezzar on the bricks of Babylon - three very important and valuable discoveries. The actual state of our knowledge of the cuneiform character will enable us to ascertain the general contents of an inscription, although probably no one can yet give a literal translation of any one record, or the definite sound of many words.

The custom of engraving inscriptions on stone, as well (Page xv) as on baked clay, the two methods of perpetuating their annals adopted by the Assyrians, is of the very highest antiquity. The divine commands were first given to man on stone tables; Job is made to exclaim, "Oh that my words were now written! . . . that they were graven with an iron pen and lead in the rock forever;"[0.2] and Ezekiel, when prophesying on the river Chebar, was directed "to take a tile and portray upon it the city of Jerusalem."[0.3] There could have been no more durable method of preserving the national records; and the inscribed walls of palaces and rock tablets have handed down to us the only authentic history of ancient Assyria.


[0.1] It need scarcely be observed, that the tomb of Jonah could not stand on the ruins of a palace, and that the tradition placing it there is not authenticated by any passage in the Scriptures. It is, however, received by Christians and Mussulmans, and probably originated in the spot having been once occupied by a Christian church or convent, dedicated to the prophet. The building, which is supposed to cover the tomb, is very much venerated, and few Christians have been allowed to enter it. The Jews in the time of St. Jerome, pointed out the sepulcher of Jonah at Gathhepher, in the tribe of Zabulon.

[0.2] Job 19:23, 24.

[0.3] Ezekiel 4:1.

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