Henry Layard and The Kings of Assyria

It is now 150 years since Henry Layard discovered the buried secrets of ancient Assyria, but what he found remains stunning evidence of Bible Truth

By W.H. Boulton

We will try to sum up the results of the work of Sir Henry Layard during his visit to Mesopotamia during the years 1845-6-7. Speaking of that work the Trustees of the British Museum say: "In the year i845 Sir Henry Layard began the work of exploring the mound at Nimroud. This mound marks the site of the ancient city of Calah, which, according to Genesis 10:2, was built by Asshur. In the large standard inscription of Ashur-nasir-pal, King of Assyria, about 885 B.C., it is said that Calah was founded by Shalmaneser 1, King of Assyria, about 1300 B.C. Calah, or Nimroud, is twenty miles to the south of Nineveh. The place is called Nimroud by the natives, as they believe it was built by one of the generals of Nimrod, the 'mighty hunter.'

A plan of the site at which Henry Layard discovered Assyrian palaces "At Nimroud the remains of the palaces of three kings were found, viz., of Ashur-nazir-pal (See plan opposite -- the north-west palace, plan letter A), of Shalmaneser III (central palace, letter B), and of Esarhaddon (south-west palace, letter C). At D the remains of a building, and at E a vaulted chamber, were also discovered.

"To the north of the north-west palace, the site of the temple of the war-god Ninib (F), was found the monolith stele of Sharnshi-Ramman, King of Assyria (825-8I2 B.C.), and not very far from this were discovered two statues which were made and dedicated to the god Nebo by Rammannirari, III King of Assyria (812-783 B.C.)."

The three kings whose palaces are referred to above were not all successive rulers of the land; that their palaces should be in the same area simply indicates that in their choice of a royal residence outside the capital, they selected approximately the same spot. The first of the three was Ashurnasirpal. In the first few years of his reign he conducted a series of campaigns against various people with such effect that during the rest of his life very little fighting had to be faced.

He occupied the time in rebuilding and adorning the city of his choice. The captives taken in his wars were impressed into his service as builders and carriers. The lands which he conquered were forced to provide the materials he required. He relates that he had enormous quantities of pines, cedars and oaks cut down in Amanus and Lebanon and carried to Nineveh to be employed in the construction of his palace and the temples of his gods. His palace adjoins the temple of Ninib, the war-god. Such a site was a natural preference, for Ashur-nasir-pal was one of the most cruel of all the kings of Assyria, glorying in the atrocities' perpetrated by him or on his behalf. Flaying alive and impaling on stakes, putting out his captives' eyes and burning boys and girls in the fire are some of the horrors which he narrates of himself in his own annals.

As a builder, however, he was something of an artist. His palace was decorated throughout with sculptured slabs, which, when first discovered, were a revelation concerning the luxury and refinement to which the Assyrians had attained. The hunting scenes present the wild animals in a life-like way. In one respect, however, the Assyrian artist always failed; he had no sense of perspective.

Ashur-nasir-pal was succeeded by his son, Shalmaneser III, who built his palace near his father's. His reign was occupied in almost ceaseless wars, until he became master of Western Asia, right to the shores of the Mediterranean. Of his palace we have very few remains, but the obelisk found there is of peculiar interest. It is made of black alabaster, and is inscribed on the four sides with an account of the King's expeditions, and a number of scenes representing the payment of tribute by the kings he had conquered. There are in all twenty small sculptured pictures, forming five series, each series having four related pictures. Over each series is a cuneiform inscription describing the events depicted, the second recording the payment of tribute by Jehu, the son of Omri, who brought silver, gold, lead, and bowls, dishes, cups, and other vessels of gold. All round the top and the base of the obelisk there is an historical text setting forth the exploits of Shalmaneser, though, strangely enough, it contains no reference to Jehu.

Now, thenks to Layard's work you can meet king Jehu - in the British Museum! To those who are interested in the history of Israel as recorded in the Bible this peculiarity may seem strange. The text, however, does make reference to a war against Hazael, King of Syria, who is mentioned in 1 Kings 19:15 in connection with Jehu, the King of Israel, both of whom were to be anointed by the prophet Elijah, one to be King of Syria and the other as King of Israel. This obelisk is thus of peculiar interest, and illustrates one of the uses of these old records, for the information which it contains supplements the information hitherto available and explains things which before were not easily understood.

There is in the Bible a very graphic account of a battle between Ahab of Israel and Ben-hadad of Syria in which the former was completely victorious. In those days it was usual for victorious kings to show little mercy to those they conquered, but in this case Ben-hadad received most courteous treatment and easy terms. Why? The black obelisk supplies the answer which we seek for in the Bible, but in vain. The fact that Shalmaneser's monument refers to Jehu of Israel and Hazael of Syria amongst his enemies and tribute-paying vassals shows that the mighty power of Assyria was threatening the independence of the peoples of Syria and Palestine. Ahab recognised this, for whatever he may have been as an individual, he was a wise statesman, and his mild treatment of Ben-hadad was a piece of political wisdom as it helped to bring the two peoples together in the face of the threat of Assyrian overlordship. Jehu succeeded Ahab and Hazael succeeded Ben-hadad, and both had to face the Assyrian attempt to impose its sovereignty on the surrounding nations.

Shalmaneser's successors did not raise any palaces near by. Nearly a hundred and fifty years passed before another king chose the place to build a palace there. This was Esarhaddon, the son and successor of the well-known Sennacherib. Less is known of him than of his immediate predecessors, or of his successor. He has been described as the noblest and most gracious of the Assyrian monarchs. He was a great builder, and erected no less than three palaces, one at Babylon, one at Nineveh, and the one discovered by Layard at Calah. Unfortunately the latter was never finished, and was destroyed by fire, which ruined the sculptures. Esarhaddon evidently preferred his Babylonian residence, for, unlike most of the kings of Assyria, he spent a good deal of time there. Three cylinder annals of his reign, one complete and two broken, are in the British Museum, and each of them, after speaking of his conquests, and warlike expeditions, concludes with an account of the building of his palace at Babylon. Esarhaddon is one of the comparatively few kings to whom the title can be applied of "Monarchs retired from business," for he abdicated the throne in favour of his son Ashur-bani-pal.