It's interesting to reflect on the influence that past archaeological investigations have had on our modern way of seeing the world. Before the military campaigns of Napolean people in the west had heard of Egypt, but just had a general sense of it being a hot country far away. In medieval times they knew the country was Moslem and therefore the opposite of good Christians, and very likely the kind of people the crusades were being fought against. But as for having a good solid well formed picture of Egypt and its people the western idea was as a fanciful but rather indistinct place where magic might be real and possible, as in Mozart's The Magic Flute.
But it could be said that our present picture of Egypt is still the pyramids first, and the people second. It's the impact that the discovery of the actual remains of this past civilisation had on the west, its artists, thinkers and scientists that still colours our thinking today. The strangeness of Egyptian art for people who had based their vision on that of the renaissance which in turn was derived from the classical Greeks and Romans, must have been profound. They couldn't dismiss it (Though I'm sure some must have done) as being crude and without value, for any contemplation of the best sculpture and architecture from ancient Egypt shows that they were extremely sophisticated. And wasn't there a Roman connection? Hadn't the Romans conquered the place? Hadn't Julius Caesar and Cleopatra got it on together? They must be alright then.
|Gloomy nineteenth century engraving of John Martins 'Fall of Nineveh'|
The cities dissipated emperor, Ashurbanipal (aka Sardanapalus) realising that the jig was up, created a massive funeral pyre inside his palace where he died alongside all his concubines and eunuchs (who had no choice) in one massive conflagration which ended the 800 year old empire. The Bible has no good word to say about Assyria, it being in the minds of the writers of the Old Testament the very home of evil, and this is why historians believed it to be a Biblical metaphor for all bad things. The Israelite prophet Nahum writing about Nineveh says 'Woe to the bloody city, it is all lies and wickedness!' And later, after the destruction, 'Shattered is Nineveh, who shall pity her?'. But all this comes from one book, with nothing in the way of real evidence. The prophet Ezekiel said about the cities long standing greatness, 'Behold, the Assyrian is a cedar of Lebanon, and under his shadow dwell all great nations.' So where were they, why, if the Bible account was correct were there no ruins, no artefacts ?
|Drawing of Austen Henry Layard drawing at Kuyunjik, the site of Nineveh.|
|The removal of the giant 'Lamassu' sculptures from the Kuyunjik mound.|
|Layards own reconstruction of the interior of a palace throne room.|
|Photograph from the 1851 Crystal Palace Exhibition, showing part of the Assyrian court.|
Brackman's Luck of Nineveh was written between 1976 and 78, but as good as it is, it doesn't seem that Layard is any bigger in the public consciousness. His life would make a great film or TV series, but whether that happens or not its certainly time for Layard to be more generally known.