With Layard to Ninevah

Each summer, with the intention of adding leisure to the spirit of idleness, I choose an historical topic for general reading. Or rather, it is chosen for me some time in late May or early June, when some book or books fall into my hands, from my peregrinations about the flea markets and second-hand shops of Greater Parkdale.

This year the signal was provided by a lovely old copy of an enthralling memoir by the late Right Honourable Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817–94), his Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia. (One may read along, here.) My copy washed up with a clump of other tomes carrying the bookplate and signature of a certain Colonel Stucley — I assume among the Stucleys of Affeton in Devonshire, who are also in possession of what physically survives of the twelfth-century Hartland Abbey. It was the very last of the innumerable religious houses dissolved by that monster of depravity, Henry VIII, half a millennium ago. (I have not inquired, however, lest the Stucleys want their books back.)

It is now forty-five summers since, at age eighteen, I stood myself in the ruins of Ninevah — across the Tigris from Mosul in post-modern Iraq, the seat of Christian Assyria. Gentle reader may be aware that the Assyrians, Yazidis, Armenians, Turkmen, Shabaki, and for that matter, a portion of the Arabs who once lived around that town have been slaughtered or exiled over the last two years by the Daesh. The self-styled “Islamic Caliphate” has also made a show of demolishing Mosul’s remarkable Museum, and the more celebrated ancient monuments, starting with the purported tombs of Jonah and several other Old Testament prophets.

How one wishes that the French and British, rivals for archaeological glory from the early Victorian age, had succeeded in floating more of the treasures they had uncovered, on great rafts down the Mesopotamian rivers to Basrah and the sea — and then by ship to safe new homes in the Louvre and British Museum. That was the heroic age of “Orientalism,” when under the burning sun, and the noses of Ottoman administrators, and in the face of Arab raids and depredations — goaded by popular excitement over the recovery of deep Biblical history — the lost kingdoms and empires of the Near and Middle East were being rediscovered. Not only the tireless spadework, but the ingenious decoding of ancient tablets found in subterranean libraries of clay, extended our detailed knowledge of the human past by thousands of years.

This was a gentleman’s contest, and I am struck by the way, without rules or treaties, the French and the British (later joined by Germans, and eventually Americans, Poles, Italians, and even Canadians) peacefully recognized each other’s stakeholdings and claims, and honoured each other’s adventurers and scholars. So much of what we now reflexively condemn as “European Imperialism” was conducted at a level of civilization that is unimaginable today. We ritually sneer at digging practices that were primitive and inexact, forgetting that our own “modern methods” were being devised by these men, as they went along, starting only from rumour and wild surmise.

We have now, thanks to them, a vista over ten thousand years, to a time when human beings were a rare and endangered species, before towns or villages or farms. About the time our Western ancestors used to associate with Adam and Eve — the fifth millennium before Christ — we have suddenly a whole human world along the Euphrates, the Diyala and the Tigris; the extraordinary facts of the Ubaid and Sumer. In a rapid blink of geological time, we have Semitic, Hamitic, and other peoples, spreading their fields, their works of irrigation, their roads and their laws by hereditary overlords. (In the time since Layard we have discovered scattered, fragmentary remains of still older “cities”; yet only by a few millennia.)

The Assyrian Empire, for one, rises and falls, rises and falls and rises from the twenty-fifth century BC, to its final collapse at the end of the seventh, leaving a people like those who succeeded the Romans, with the memory of order, and the principles of productive agriculture. They, too, were Christianized in their course, and many to the present day continue quite recognizably Christian, in the shadow of Islam.

Our post-modern habit is to glibly despair, and fickly surrender to any pressure of “events,” often brought on by our own irresponsibility. Iraq is one huge case in point. We cared for one media moment and then, experiencing difficulties, we packed up and turned away, leaving people we had rescued to another hideous fate.

In my summer reading, I am trying to reassemble in my mind the fragments of my knowledge of Mesopotamia, acquired piecemeal over decades. Beyond history, I think of it as a remedy for despair. Even were my fascination restricted to archaeological research, so much is unscathed. The destruction of the Daesh is itself shallow and piecemeal: my Layard (pronounced as “Laird” incidentally) found in multiple locations that he had to trench down only twenty feet to yet another rich store of artefacts. They in their millions will stay buried to some happier time; and the current barbaric tyranny will pass at the surface. We can have no idea what is to come, even in this world; for better, for worse.

Among my mottoes is the observation of the poet Wallace Stevens, that “all history is modern history.” That is why I like to look back thousands of years; and at this moment have, with the aid of a few books, been able to reimagine a time, four thousand years ago, when the traffic on the Tigris, the canals and royal roads, is so thick with merchants that we have complex traffic regulations in the ancient cuneiform.

Our own generation is one among hundreds, and our own conceits are as fatuous as any that might have been encountered then. Far from being “the end of history,” our time is among the passing scenes. We are, or each of us soon will be, contemporary with all humankind; and our “progress” is not towards any historical goal, but in each soul, to salvation or damnation.