Saturday, 7 March 2015

Excavating NIMRUD: Lest We Forget

Layard supervises Removal of Artefacts
Nimrud is one of the four great cities of the Assyrians built between 2000 and 700 BC within a small region of the Tigris valley in what is now North Iraq. The world heritage site, currently being bulldozed from the face of the earth, only re-emerged from its depths between 1845 and 1851. It was dug up by Iraqi workmen under the direction of Briton Austen Henry Layard.

Fig from Layard's bestseller
Layard originally thought Nimrud was the biblical Nineveh. His bestselling book was erroneously titled Nineveh and its Remains. Yet Layard’s Nineveh was the first archaeological blockbuster in English, and in abridged form one of the first six books published in 1852 in the imprint Murray’s Reading for the Rail sold at  W.H. Smith  station bookstalls.

Tenniel's Assyrian-Influenced Hybrid Creatures
When the astonishing Assyrian remains arrived at the British Museum, Layard became a national hero. The press went wild. Queen Victoria donated money to the archaeological fund. Assyrianised guardian-monsters appear in John Tenniel’s 1865 depiction of the Mock Turtle and the Gryphon in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Kipling uses the model of Nineveh in the poem which produced his most famous line, ‘Lest we forget!’

Westernised Ancestors of Assyrians
Nimrud and Nineveh mattered because Christian Victorians desperately needed confirmation of the historical veracity of the bible, including its statements that the Israelites had dealing with the people of Assyria and Mesopotamia. Nineveh had after all, according to Genesis 10.11, been founded by a descendant of Noah and Shem called Assur. The new science of Biblical Archaeology allowed the literal truth of the bible to be defended against allegorical interpreters, and subsequently Darwinian doubters, on new terms. The material history of the Judaeo-Christian religions was not only emerging from the deserts of Mesopotamia, the birthplace of these faiths, but arriving in central Bloomsbury. The working-class Victorian autodidact and clergyman John Relly Beard was typical when he used Layard’s discovery of the cities named in connection with Noah in the Old Testament to defend its historicity against contemporary geologists’ attempts to disprove the universal deluge.

Agatha & Max  in Iraq
USA Nabu at Library of Congress
I do not know whether the Islamic State bulldozer drivers consciously connect Nimrud and Nineveh with Judaeo-Christian self-definition. I do not know how explicitly they associate them with the western imperialism which allowed Layard and later generations of European and  American archaeologists (including Agatha Christie's husband Max Mallowan) to take by far the majority of the detachable objects away from their Mesopotamian home westward to infidel museums. But perhaps they see, or subconsciously intuit, representations of the ancestors of the other Abrahamic religions in the stony faces they are smashing of Nabu and Ninurta, Assyrian gods of written records and of victory respectively.

If so, then their hatred, although no less terrifying and its results no less of a catastrophic outrage, may be just a little easier to understand.

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