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June 14, 2015



Not everybody thought of Nineveh as some mythical biblical story concocted by Jewish shepherds who had been out in the sun too long and spent too many long and lonely nights with their flocks dreaming up excuses for their sorry lives. Some vicars of the Church of England who accompanied British Empire-building efforts of that day were anxious to connect history and the Bible in their travels to the exotic ruins of the Holy Land and the ancient Near East (as if to validate scripture). Per Hunt, antiques and ruins were the educated hobby of British churchmen and many of their parishioners. These people believed or wanted to believe the scriptural account of the existence of Nineveh as the epicenter of a godless Assyrian empire finally brought to ruin by the Babylonians and their allies in 612 B.C.

However, it was the French who first attempted to find and unearth Nineveh. They failed. The discipline of archaeology had not yet been invented, so search for ancient civilizations was carried on by collectors and passionate amateur historians. One such amateur who was a lawyer by training, one Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894), who while serving as British consul in then Constantinople, persuaded the Ottoman sultan there to help underwrite excavations in Mesopotamia. Thus assisted, he discovered the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud, which he erroneously believed to be Nineveh. The discovery of gold in California in 1849 was not the only discovery of note that year because an undaunted Layard in that year mounted another expedition to the outskirts of Mosul (much in the ISIS-Iraqi news these days), and there he found Nineveh at last!

Later that year and next Layard unearthed the royal library of Assyria in King Ashurbanipal’s palace and found tens of thousands of clay tablets that were somehow preserved in its archives when Nineveh fell and was burned in 612 B.C. As an archeological discovery it stands as one of the world’s greatest treasures since it opened up a whole ancient world previously unknown. It turned out not to be the city described by Jonah when he came there with his message of repentance, though the Lord’s estimate of a city of 120,000 or more to Jonah when sending him on his trip there was substantially correct. It was in fact the largest city in the world at the time, even larger than Babylon.

Nineveh’s wall was almost 14 miles long and encompassed more than 1,800 acres. Its 15 gates were named after its gods. Reliefs depicting lion hunts and sieges of cities such as that of Judah by Sennacherib circa 702 B.C. are now called the most important masterpieces of Assyrian art. Sennacherib, the Assyrian king who sacked Judah, had a palace (called the palace without rival) measuring over 630 X 600 feet with 80 rooms and miles (!) of reliefs in which vassal kings in servitude were forced to look and tremble at Assyrian military efficiency with scene after scene of Assyrian battle prowess.

On a smaller mound at Nineveh, a tomb shrine to Jonah can still be found, perhaps designed to include the biblical Hebrew prophet into Islamic legend. The shrine’s Arabic name is Nebi Yunas, which means “Prophet Jonah.” People in Mosul yet today joke that a larger mound nearby contains the burial site of the whale that swallowed Jonah.

So what motivated an illiterate Assyrian king (Ashurbanipal) to create this great archive of Mesopotamian lore? Archeologists now know that the king wanted to learn how to read, but they also know he mistrusted his priests and scribes. He wanted to be able to read ancient texts himself to verify what his priests and scribes claimed to be reading in such texts in order to influence imperial policy. As noted earlier, Assyrians were a superstitious lot and the king wanted to be free from manipulation of his clergy (see the manipulation of ayatollahs in contemporary Iran where mosque and state are not separated).

The king, thus armed with literacy, collected ancient texts from all over Mesopotamia from Assyrian and several other allies or even subjugated enemies and employed hundreds of scribes to copy material sent by his command from places like Elam, Sumer, Babylon and others, including some that were written 2,500 years before circa 645 B.C.! Many of such writings were originals with a copy as well, were organized thematically, and included tablets that served as filing systems for referencing all the tablets.

The British lawyer Layard who unearthed the library’s enormous trove simply put the unearthed tablets  into baskets and had them shipped from Mosul to London’s British Museum because he could not read cuneiform, leaving archaeology altogether a few years later for a career in Parliament back in Britain. He wrote several books after his return detailing his explorations, including one he called “Nineveh and Its Remains,” which became an overnight best seller partly because it proved the existence of this biblical city to English readers of the Bible, who concluded that independent verification of the existence of Nineveh proved the truth of scripture.

One who devoted himself to every word Layard wrote was George Smith (1840-1876), son of a laborer and apprenticed at age 14 as an engraver of banknotes. After reading Layard’s accounts, he turned to archeology with a passion and hung out around the British Museum from dawn to dusk, finally attracting the attention of Sir Henry Rawlinson, the “Father of Assyriology,’ who was then one of the major decipherers of cuneiform. Rawlinson arranged an appointment for the undereducated Smith in the Near Eastern Department of the Museum, and Smith learned how to read cuneiform when few could.

Smith continued to work hard in trying to put fragmentary pieces of some of the tablets together when one day as he was rummaging through museum boxes and baskets he noticed a fine tablet. He had found the Epic of Gilgamesh, the story which paralleled that of Noah in Genesis 6-11! Smith presented his discovery before the Society of Biblical Archaeology in London and then to the stunned world. He was a hero; he had discovered an external unrelated artifact far from Israel that confirmed Noah’s story in Genesis. Unfortunately, Smith died prematurely and was not around to determine which came first, the Genesis story of Noah, the rains and the ark – or the story of his counterpart in the Epic of Gilgamesh, Utnapishtim, who also filled a boat with all life and endured the flood as did Noah.

British Christians and Jews may have celebrated Smith’s discovery prematurely. There remained the problem of priority of texts – which came first? Per Hunt, we now not only know that hundreds of texts from Mesopotamia parallel the familiar biblical stories that fit the Bronze Age like a hand in a glove, we know that there are thousands of texts much older than the Bible, such as the famous Law Code of Hammurabi echoed later in the Law of Moses. Hunt concludes that the Bible is not the only repository of ancient law and literature and is very much influenced by older texts. Smith’s discovery led to others as whole new textual revelations revolutionized the way ancient history is taught and learned today. Given  the foregoing, perhaps the reader can now understand my fascination with the history of the history of archeological discovery as played out with discovery of the Assyrian Library in Nineveh. Wow! GERALD  E


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