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ISIS threatens Iraq’s ancient past: The lost city of Nineveh

“The Arabs marvelled at these strange figures. As each head was uncovered they showed their amazement by extravagant gestures or exclamations of surprise.” The “strange figures” had the head of a man, the body of a lion and the wings of a bird. They had not been seen for over 25 centuries.

So what are these creatures and why is their home under threat from Islamic State (ISIS) fighters in Iraq?

These imposing creatures are an ancient Assyrian protective deity called a lamassu. Carved out of alabaster, they date back to 9th Century BC. A few of these powerful anthropomorphic sculptures can be found in a handful of prestigious museums in America and Europe. I was admiring the lamassu in the British Museum. But how did these priceless treasures end up in London and where did they originally come from?

In order to answer these questions, we need to focus on Iraq, specifically the northern province of Nineveh. Much of Nineveh has recently been seized by Islamic State militants, forcing hundreds of Christians and Yazidis to flee its ancient fertile plains to escape persecution. Islamic State pamphlets were handed out last weekend, announcing the “legal” demolition of more shrines in Nineveh. As in late June when the Islamic State destroyed the tombs of Daniel and Jonah (or Younis, as he is referred to in the Qur’an) as well as other shrines in Mosul, Nineveh province’s ancient history is under threat.

For over 50 years, Nineveh was the largest city in the world and was the capital of the mighty Assyrian Empire under King Sennacherib. Its ruins are located near the banks of the river Tigris, where it once blossomed as an important trading city between the East and West.

Its true wonder was not re-discovered until the Victorian adventurer Austen Henry Layard travelled to Iraq and uncovered the lost city of Nineveh. Inspired by his favourite book The Arabian Nights and the travel stories of his family friend Benjamin Disraeli, the 22-year-old left his office job in London and set out to travel to Ceylon in 1839. Layard got as far as Persia, where he spent time living with the Bakhtiari tribe before abandoning his plans of reaching Ceylon and turning back to Constantinople. There he befriended the British Ambassador Stafford Canning, who recognised his interest in antiquities. In 1845, Canning gave Layard £160 to pursue his interest in investigating the Kuyunjik and Nimrud mounds near Mosul in the hope of uncovering the lost Assyrian city.

Helped by a highly eccentric, one eyed local tribal leader called Mohammed Pasha; Layard hired five local Arab labourers and began excavating one of the mounds on November 9, 1845. He quickly began to uncover the remains of the ancient Assyrian city of Kalhu, one of the destroyed capital cities of Assyria. Archaeologists named it Nimrud after the first king of Assyria, Nimrod, who is remembered in the Bible for rebelling against God and for his hunting skills.

Within weeks Layard had discovered two colossal lamassu, guarding the gateway to the throne room of Ashurnasirpal II. Layard wrote in his diary: “I shall not myself easily forget this enormous head appearing from the earth, at the bottom of a deep trench, like some giant arising from the lower regions… The head is five foot high, and must form a part of a winged bull.” Layard was delighted.

The discovery initially struck fear amongst many of the locals, prompting one of Layard’s workers to flee in terror, running all the way to Mosul. With their feathered wings, thick beard and protruding horns, some of the locals believed the statues were djinns, fearful that they would be cursed if they carried on excavating the site. So Layard invited one of the tribal leaders to inspect his discovery. He approached cautiously and upon seeing the lamassu, warned Layard: “This is not the work of men’s hands but of those infidel giants of whom the Prophet has said that they were higher than the tallest date tree; this is one of the idols which Noah cursed before the flood.” Layard persevered with the excavation, but fearful of unrest and his camp being raided, he paid off some of the local Yazidi and Bedouin tribes with gifts of coffee, sugar and silk.

Layard was fascinated with learning about the locals, spending long periods with the differing tribes in Iraq during the excavations. In particular, Layard writes warmly of the Yazidi people in his book: “I was allowed to be present at all the ceremonies, made a public profession of faith and was received into the bosom of the Yazidi church. There is nothing in our solemnities to warrant the charge brought against the Yazidis by the Mussulman [Muslims] – on the contrary everything is conducted with great decorum and reverence.”

Layard set to work exploring the palace remains, meticulously noting down the cuneiform Assyrian inscriptions which adorned the palace. He also made drawings of the bas-reliefs which covered the walls, showing scenes of kings hunting and heroic Assyrian victories, including the siege of Lachish against the rebellious king of Judah, Hezekiah, (as recorded in the Old Testament, Chronicles 32:9).

He also uncovered the black obelisk of Shalmeneser III which was also transported back to London and remains on display in the British Museum. For Layard, the seven foot high obelisk was one of his finest discoveries, calling it “one of the most interesting and unique monuments of antiquity known!”

An excited Layard wrote to his aunt, Sara, informing her of his historic discoveries: “As I advance further into the mound, the sculptures become more perfect in preservation and superior in execution… God knows when the ramifications of rooms and passages will stop.”

News of Layard’s findings had also reached the British Museum trustees in London. Although they were delighted with the news, they refused to come close to meeting Layard’s financial demands to expand the excavations. Such was Layard’s frustration with the meagre financial support offered by the museum’s trustees, he even briefly considered turning his back on London and selling the artefacts to France.

In 1847, the first two lamassu were removed and transported to London. They were too heavy for ropes so they had to be tilted onto small mounds of earth before being positioned onto a large, reinforced wagon. It took 300 Arab workers three days to pull the cart through the mud to the banks of the Tigris. The artefacts were then transported down to Baghdad before being shipped via Bombay to London.

Running out of money to pay his workers and suffering from exhaustion, Layard returned to Britain in 1847. He published the first of his 10 books on Assyria, Nineveh and its Remains, in 1848 just as some of his Assyrian artefacts were to go on display in the British Museum. The book was a bestseller, catching the British public’s attention and sparking huge interest in Assyrian history. More importantly, it provided Layard with the funding and support from the British Museum to return to Iraq and complete a second expedition.

It was not until 1849 that Layard began to properly discover the lost city of Nineveh, hidden beneath the Kuyunjik mound. With the discovery of the lost palace of Sennacherib, Nineveh’s former glory was revealed. An assortment of beautiful objects was found. Decorative copper cauldrons, metal colanders used for straining wine, sword handles, ivory and glass bowls, as well as around 27 other well preserved lamassu.

Nineveh’s old pavements were also revealed, still displaying the worn grooves where chariot wheels ran down the road. By the end, some 71 passages inside the city had been uncovered and nearly two miles of bas-reliefs were found. However, one of the most important findings in Nineveh occurred in 1851. The library of King Ashurbanipal was compiled during the great king’s reign from 668 to 627 BC. It contained around 30,000 terracotta tablets and is considered the oldest surviving royal library in the world. The tablets are currently being pieced together and catalogued by the British Museum.

At 35 years old, Austen Henry Layard had achieved world fame for his discoveries. On returning to London in 1852, Layard went on to carve out a career in politics and the foreign office.

Interestingly, he remained troubled by the fact he had plundered some of Iraq’s finest treasures. In one of his books, he reflects sadly on removing the first two lamassu from Nineveh and putting them on show in London: “It seemed almost sacrilege to tear them from their old haunts to make them a mere wonder-stock to the busy crowd of a new world. They were better suited to the desolation around them; for they had guarded the palace in its glory, and it was for them to watch over it in its ruin.”

One day I hope the lamassu will return to guard the palace of Nineveh and the library and all the other Assyrian artefacts will be returned to their home. But for now, Iraq is in a crisis that seems to be escalating into further chaos and destruction, and even archaeological sites are becoming victims of war.

Tom Wyke is a freelance journalist with a particular interest in Middle Eastern affairs.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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