Discoveries At Nineveh
by
Austen Henry Layard, Esq., D.C.L.

Text source: A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. Austen Henry Layard. J. C. Derby. New York. 1854.


Chapter 11

(Page 268) I had long wished to excavate in the mounds of Kalah Sherghat, which rivaled in extent those of Nimroud and Kouyunjik. An Arab, from the Shammar Bedouins, would occasionally spend a night among my workmen, and entertain them with accounts of idols and sculptured figures of giants, which had long been the cause of wonder and awe to the wandering tribes, who pitch their tents near the place. On my first visit I had searched in vain for such remains; but the Arabs, who are accustomed to seek for pasture during the spring in the neighborhood, persisted in their assertions, and offered to show me where these strange statues, carved, it was said, in black stone, were to be found. Scarcely a ruin in Mesopotamia is without its wondrous tale of apparitions and Frank idols, and I concluded that these sculptures only existed in the fertile imagination of the Arabs. As the vicinity of Kalah Sherghet is notoriously dangerous, being a place of rendezvous for plundering parties of the Shammar, Aneyza, and Obeid Bedouins, I had deferred a visit to the spot, until I could remain there for a short time, under the protection of some powerful tribe. This safeguard was also absolutely necessary in the event of my sending workmen to excavate.

There being no pasture in the neighborhood of Mosul this year, on account of the want of rain, the three great divisions of the Jebour Arabs sought the jungles on the banks of the Tigris. Abd'rubbou with his tribe descended the river, and first pitching his tents at Senidij, near the confluence of the Tigris (Page 269) and the Zab, subsequently moved toward Kalah Sherghat. I thought this a favorable time for excavating in the great mound; and the sheikh having promised to supply me with Arabs for the work, and with guards for their defense, I sent Mansour, one of my superintendents, to the spot. I followed some days afterward, accompanied by Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, the bairakdar, and several well armed men, chosen from among the Jebours who were employed at Nimroud.

We crossed the Tigris on a small raft, - our horses having to swim the river. Striking into the desert by the Wadi Jehainah, we rode through a tract of land, at this time of year usually covered with vegetation; but then, from the drought, a barren waste. During some hours' ride we scarcely saw any human being, except a solitary shepherd in the distance, driving before him his half-famished flocks. We reached at sunset a small encampment of Jebours. The tents were pitched in the midst of a cluster of high reeds on the banks of the Tigris, and nearly opposite to the tomb of Sultan Abd-Allah. They were so well concealed, that it required the experienced eye of a Bedouin to detect them[11.1] by the thin smoke rising above the thicket. The cattle and sheep found scanty pasturage in a marsh formed by the river. The Arabs were as poor and miserable as their beasts; they received us, however, with hospitality, and killed a very lean lamb for our entertainment.

Near the encampment was a quadrangle, resembling on a small scale the great inclosures of Nimroud and Kouyunjik, formed by low mounds, and evidently marking the site of an Assyrian town or fort. I searched for some time, but without success, for fragments of pottery or brick inscribed with cuneiform characters.

On the following day we passed the bitumen pits, or the "Kiyara," as they are called by the Arabs. They cover a (Page 270) considerable extent of ground; the bitumen bubbling up in springs from crevices in the earth and forming small ponds. The Jebours, and other tribes encamping near the place, carry the bitumen for sale to Mosul, and other parts of the pashawlic. It is extensively used for building purposes, for coating the boats on the river, and particularly for smearing camels, when suffering from certain diseases of the skin to which they are liable. Before leaving the pits, the Arabs, as is their habit, set fire to the bitumen, which sent forth a dense smoke, obscuring the sky, and visible for many miles. We reached the tents of Abd'rubbou early in the afternoon. They were pitched about ten miles to the north of Kalah Sherghat, at the upper end of a long tongue of rich alluvial soil, lying between the river and a range of low hills. The great mound was visible from this spot, rising high above the zor, or jungle, which clothes the banks of the Tigris.

No sheikh could have made a more creditable show of friendship than did Abd'rubbou. He rode out to meet me, and, without delay, ordered sheep enough to be slain to feast half his tribe. I declined, however, to spend the night with him, as he pressed me to do, on the plea that I was anxious to see the result of the excavations at Kalah Sherghat. He volunteered to accompany me to the ruins after we had breakfasted, and declared that if a blade of grass were to be found near the mound, he would move all his tents there immediately for my protection. In the meanwhile, to do me proper honor, he introduced me to his wives, and to his sister, whose beauty I had often heard extolled by the Jebours, and who was not altogether undeserving of her reputation. She was still unmarried. Abd'rubbou himself was one of the handsomest Arabs in Mesopotamia.

We started for the ruins in the afternoon, and rode along the edge of the jungle. Hares, wolves, foxes, jackals, and wild boars continually crossed our path, and game of all kinds seemed to abound. The Arabs gave chase; but the animals were able to enter the thick brushwood, and conceal themselves (Page 271) before my greyhounds could reach them. Lions are sometimes found near Kalah Sherghat, rarely higher up on the Tigris.[11.2] As I floated down to Baghdad a year before, I had heard the roar of a lion not far from this spot: they are, however, seldom seen, and we beat the bushes in vain for such noble game.

As for grass, except in scanty tufts at the foot of the trees in the jungle, there appeared to be none at all. The drought had been felt all over the desert: in the place of the green meadows of last year, covered with flowers, and abounding in natural reservoirs of water, there was a naked yellow waste, in which even the abstemious flocks of the Bedouin could scarcely escape starvation. As we rode along, Abd'rubbou examined every corner and ravine in the hope of finding an encamping place, and a little pasture for his cattle, but his search was not attended with much success.

The workmen on the mound, seeing horsemen approach, made ready for an encounter, under the impression that we were a foraging party from a hostile tribe. As soon, however, as they recognized us, they threw off the few superfluous garments they possessed. Dropping their shirts from their shoulders, and tying them round the waists by the arms, they set up the war-cry, and rushed in and out of the trenches like madmen.

The principal excavations had been made on the western side of the mound. After I had succeeded in obtaining silence, and calming the sudden fit of enthusiasm which had sprung up on my arrival, I descended into the trenches. A sitting figure in black basalt, of the size of life, had been uncovered. It was, however, much mutilated. The head and hands had been destroyed, and other parts of the statue had been injured. The (Page 272) square stool, or block, upon which the figure sat, was covered on three sides with a cuneiform inscription. The first line, containing the name and titles of the king, was almost defaced; but one or two characters enabled me to restore a name, identical with that on the great bulls in the center of the mound at Nimroud. On casting my eye down the first column of the inscription, I found the names of this king's father (the builder of the most ancient palace of Nimroud), and of his grandfather. An Arab soon afterward brought me a brick bearing a short legend, which contained the three names entire. I was thus enabled to fix the comparative epoch of the newly discovered ruins.

The figure, unlike the sculptures of Nimroud and Khorsabad, was in full, and not in relief; and probably represented the king. Part of the beard was still preserved; the hands appear to have rested on the knees, and a long robe, edged with tassels, reached to the ankles. The Arabs declared that this statue (Page 273) had been seen some years before; and it is possible that, at some period of heavy rain, it may have been for a short time exposed to view, and subsequently reburied. It stood on a spur of the mound, and probably in its original position. Mansour had dug trenches at right angles with it on four sides, in the expectation of finding a corresponding figure; but he was disappointed in his search, and no remains of building were discovered near it.[11.3]

In other parts of the mound there were ruins of walls, but we found no more sculptures. Several tombs, similar to those above the palaces of Nimroud, had been opened; and Mansour brought me earthen vases and cups taken from them. He had also picked up, among the rubbish, a few fragments of black stone with small figures in relief, and cuneiform characters, and a piece of copper similarly inscribed.

Having made a hasty survey of the trenches, I rode to my tent, which had been pitched in the midst of those of my workmen. The Arabs had chosen for their encampment a secure place in the jungle at the northern foot of the mound, and not far from the Tigris. A ditch, leading from the river, nearly surrounded the tents, which were completely concealed by the trees and shrubs. Abd'rubbou remained with me for the night. While I was examining the ruins, he had been riding to and fro, to find a convenient spot for his tents, and grass for his cattle. Such is the custom of the Arabs. When the grass, within a certain distance of their encampment, has been exhausted, they prepare to seek new pastures. The sheikhs, and the principal men of the tribe, mount their mares, and ride backward and forward over the face of the country, until they find herbage sufficient for the wants of their flocks. Having fixed on a suitable spot, they return to acquaint their followers with their success, and announce their intention of moving thither on the following morning. The sheikh's tent is generally the first (Page 274) struck; and the rest of the tribe, if they feel inclined, follow his example. If any have cause of complaint against their chief and wish to desert him, they seize this occasion; they leave their tents standing until the others are gone, and then wander in another direction.

Abd'rubbou having, at length, found a convenient site on the banks of the river, to the south of the mound, he marked out a place for his tents, and sent a horseman to his tribe, with orders for them to move to Kalah Sherghat on the following morning. These preliminaries having been settled, he adjourned to my tent to supper. It was cold and damp, and the Arabs, collecting brushwood and trunks of trees, made a great fire, which lighted up the recesses of the jungle. As the night advanced, a violent storm broke over us; the wind rose to a hurricane - the rain descended in torrents - the thunder rolled in one long peal -and vivid streams of lightning, almost incessant, showed the surrounding landscape. When the storm had abated, I walked to a short distance from the tents to gaze upon the scene. The huge fire we had kindled threw a lurid glare over the trees around our encampment. The great mound could be distinguished through the gloom, rising like a distant mountain against the dark sky. From all sides came the melancholy wail of the jackals, who had issued from their subterranean dwellings in the ruins, as soon as the last gleam of twilight was fading in the western horizon. The owl, perched on the old masonry, occasionally sent forth its mournful note. The shrill laugh of the Arabs would sometimes rise above the cry of the jackal. Then all earthly noises were buried in the deep roll of the distant thunder. It was desolation such as those alone who have witnessed such scenes, can know - desolation greater than the desolation of the sandy wastes of Africa: for there was the wreck of man, as well as that of nature.

Soon after sunrise, on the following morning, stragglers on horseback from Abd'rubbou's late encampment, began to arrive. They were soon followed by the main body of the tribe. Long lines of camels, sheep, laden donkeys, men, women, and children, (Page 275) such as I have described in my visit to Sofuk, covered the small plain, near the banks of the river. A scene of activity and bustle ensued. Every one appeared desirous to outdo his neighbor in vehemence of shouting, and violence of action. A stranger would have fancied that there was one general quarrel; in which, out of several hundred men and women concerned, no two persons took the same side of the question. Every one seemed to differ from every one else. All this confusion, however, was but the result of a friendly debate of the site of the respective tents; and when the matter had been settled to the general satisfaction, without recourse to any more violent measures than mere yelling, each family commenced raising their temporary abode. The camels being made to kneel down, and the donkeys to stop in the place fixed upon, their loads were rolled of their backs; The women next spread the black goat-hair canvas. The men rushed about with wooden mallets to drive in the stakes and pegs; and in a few minutes the dwellings, which were to afford them shelter, until they needed shelter no longer, and under which they had lived from their birth upward, were complete. The women and girls were then sent forth to fetch water, or to collect brushwood and dry twigs for fire. The men, leaving all household matters to their wives and daughters, assembled in the tent of the sheikh; and crouching in a circle round the entire trunk of an old tree, which was soon enveloped in flames, they prepared to pass the rest of the day in that desultory small-talk, relating to stolen sheep, stray donkeys, or successful robberies, which fills up the leisure of an Arab, unless he be better employed in plundering or in war.

Leaving Abd'rubbou and his Arabs to pitch their tents and settle their domestic matters, I walked to the mound. The trenches dug by the workmen around the sitting figure were almost sufficiently extensive to prove that no other remains of building existed in its immediate vicinity. Had not the figure been in an upright position I should have concluded, at once, that it had been brought from elsewhere; as I could not find (Page 276) traces of pavement, nor any fragments of sculpture or hewn stone, near it. Removing the workmen, therefore, from this part of the mound, I divided them into small parties, and employed them in making experiments in different directions. Wherever trenches were opened, remains of the Assyrian period were found, but only in fragments; such as bits of basalt, with small figures in relief, portions of slabs bearing cuneiform inscriptions, and bricks similarly inscribed. Many tombs were also discovered. Like those of Nimroud, they belonged to a period long subsequent to the destruction of the Assyrian edifices, and were in the rubbish and earth which had accumulated above them. The sarcophagi resembled those I have already described - large cases of baked clay, some square, others in the form of a dish-cover; as at Nimroud, they were all much too small to hold a human body, unless it had been violently forced in, or the limbs had been separated. That the bodies had not been burned, was proved by the bones being found entire. They may have been exposed, as is the custom among the Parsees, until the skeleton was made bare by the usual process of decomposition, or by birds and beasts of prey, and then buried in these earthen cases. In the sarcophagi were found numerous small vases, metal ornaments, and a copper cup, resembling in shape and in the embossed designs one held by the king, in a has relief from the N.W. palace of Nimroud.[11.4]

Above these ancient tombs were graves of more recent date; some of them, indeed, belonged to the tribes which had, but a few days before, encamped among the ruins.[11.5] The tenant of one had been removed from his last resting-place by the hungry hyenas and jackals, who haunt these depositories of the dead. The rude casing of stones, forming the interior of an Arab (Page 277) grave, had been opened; and the bones and skull, still clothed with shreds of flesh, were scattered around.

Although I spent two days at Kalah Sherghat I was unable to reach the platform of sun-dried bricks upon which the edifice, now in ruins, and covered with earth, must originally have been built. Remains of walls were found in abundance; but they were evidently of a more recent period than the Assyrian buildings, to which the inscribed bricks and the fragments of sculptured stone belonged. The ruins were consequently not thoroughly explored. I saw no remains of the alabaster or Mosul marble so generally employed in the palaces to the north of Kalah Sherghat. Unbaked bricks alone may have been used in the edifice; and if so, the walls built with them could no longer, without very careful examination, be distinguished from the soil in which they are buried.

The Tigris has been gradually encroaching upon the ruins, and is yearly undermining and wearing away the mound. Large masses of earth are continually falling into the stream, leaving exposed to view vases, sarcophagi, and remains of building. Along the banks of the river, several shafts of circular masonry, having the appearance of wells, had been thus uncovered. At the time of my first visit, we observed similar wells, and were at a loss to account for their use. I now opened two or three of them. They were filled with earth, mixed with human bones and fragments of vases and pottery ;[11.6] which may have been originally deposited there, or may have fallen in from above with the rubbish. It is possible that these wells may have been constructed, at a very early period, for purposes of irrigation, or to supply water to the inhabitants of the city.

The principal ruin at Kalah Sherghat, like those of Nimroud, Khorsabad, and other ancient Assyrian sites, is a large square mound, surmounted by a cone or pyramid, which rises nearly in the center of the north side of the great platform. (Page 278) Immediately below it, and forming a facing to the great mound, is a wall of well hewn stones, carefully fitted together, and beveled. The battlements, which still exist, are cut into gradines, and resemble those of castles and towers in the Nimroud sculptures. The wall is therefore, I think, Assyrian. It is not improbable that much of the masonry, still visible on the summit of the mound, may be the remains of an Arab fort. Long lines of smaller mounds or ramparts form a quadrangle, and are the remains of the walls which once inclosed the town.

The principal ruin of Kalah Sherghat, is one of the largest with which I am acquainted in Assyria. I was unable to measure it accurately during this visit; but when on the spot with Mr. Ainsworth, we carefully paced round it; and the result, according to that gentleman's calculation, gave a circumference of 4685 yards.[11.7] A part of it, however, is not artificial. Irregularities in the face of the country, and natural eminences, have been united into one great platform by earth and layers of sun dried bricks. It is, nevertheless, a stupendous structure, yielding in extent to no other artificial mound in Assyria. In height it is unequal; to the south it slopes off nearly to the level of the plain, while to the north, where it is most lofty, its sides are perpendicular, in some places rising to nearly one hundred feet.

I will not attempt to connect, without better materials than we now possess, the ruins of Kalah Sherghat with any ancient city whose name occurs in the sacred books, or has been preserved by ancient geographers. That it was one of the oldest cities of Assyria, is proved by the identification of the name of the king found on its monuments and bricks, with that on the center bulls and obelisk of Nimroud; but whether it be Chalah, one of the four primitive cities mentioned in Genesis,[11.8] I will not venture to decide.

Having directed Mansour to continue the excavations, I prepared to return to Mosul. Abd'rubbou offered to accompany (Page 279) me; and as the desert between Kalah Sherghat and Hammum Ali was infested by roving parties of the Shammar and Aneyza Arabs, I deemed it prudent to accept his escort. He chose eight horsemen from his tribe, and we started together for the desert.

We slept the first night at the tents of a Seyyid, or descendant of the Prophet, of some repute for sanctity, and for the miraculous cure of diseases, which he effected by merely touching the patient. The Arabs were fully persuaded of the existence of his healing power; but I never saw any one who even pretended to have been cured, although there was certainly no lack of subjects for the Seyyid to practice upon. The old gentleman's daughter, a dark, handsome girl, was claimed by a sheikh of the Jebours, to whom, according to some accounts, she had been betrothed. The greater part of the night was spent in quarreling and wrangling upon this subject. The Seyyid resolutely denied the contract, on the mere plea that one of such holy descent could not be united to a man in whose veins the blood of the Prophet did not flow. Abd'rubbou and his friends, on the other hand, as stoutly contended for the claims of the lover, not treating, I thought, so great a saint with a proper degree of respect. Although my tent was pitched at some distance from the assembly, the discordant voices, all joining at the same time in the most violent discussion, kept me awake until past midnight. Suddenly the disputants appeared to have talked themselves out, and there was a lull. Vainly flattering myself that they had sunk into sleep, I prepared to follow their example. But I had scarcely closed my eyes, when I was roused by a fresh outbreak of noises. An Arab had suddenly arrived from the banks of the Khabour - the old pasture-grounds of the tribe: he was overwhelmed with a thousand questions, and the news he brought of struggles; between the Aneyza and the Asai, and the defeat of the former enemies of the Jebours, led to continual bursts of enthusiasm, and to one or two attempts to raise a general shouting of the war-cry. Thus they passed the night to my great discomfort.

(Page 280) On the morrow I started early with Abd'rubbou and his horsemen. We struck directly across the desert, leaving my servants and baggage to follow leisurely along the banks of the river, by a more circuitous but safer road. When we were within four or five miles of that part of the Tigris at which the raft was waiting for me, I requested the sheikh to return, as there appeared to be no further need of an escort. Mr. Hormuzd Rassam and myself galloped over the plain. We disturbed, as we rode along, a few herds of gazelles, and a solitary wolf or jackal; but we saw no human beings. Abd'rubbou and his Arabs, however, had scarcely left us, when they observed a party of horsemen in the distance, whom they mistook for men of their own tribe returning from Mosul. It was not until they drew nigh that they discovered their mistake. The horsemen were plunderers from the Aneyza. The numbers were pretty equal. A fight ensued, in which two men on the side of the enemy, and one of the Jebours, were killed; but the Aneyza were defeated, and Abd'rubbou carried off in triumph a couple of mares.

A few days after my return to Nimroud, the Jebours were compelled, by want of pasturage, to leave the neighborhood of Kalah Sherghat. The whole desert, as well as the jungle on the banks of the river, which generally supplied, even in the driest seasons, a little grass to the flocks, having been completely dried up, Abd'rubbou, with his tribe, moved to the north. A few of his people came to Nimroud to cultivate millet; but the sheikh himself, with the greater part of his followers, left the district of Mosul altogether, migrating to the sources of the Khabour and to the Nisibin branch of that river - the ancient Mygdonius. The desert to the south of the town was now only frequented by wandering parties of plunderers, and the position of my workmen at Kalah Sherghat became daily more insecure. After they had been once or twice exposed to molestation from the Aneyza and the Obeid, I found it necessary to withdraw them - had I not, they would probably have run away of themselves. I renounced the further (Page 281) examination of these ruins with regret, as they had not been properly explored; and I have little doubt, from the fragments discovered, that many objects of interest, if not sculptured slabs, exist in the mound.


[11.1] In the desert, the vicinity of an encampment is generally marked by some sign well known to the members of the tribe. It would otherwise be very difficult to discover the tents, pitched, as they usually are, in some hollow or ravine to conceal them from hostile plundering parties.

[11.2] The lion is frequently met with on the banks of the Tigris below Baghdad, rarely above. On the Euphrates it has been seen, I believe, almost as high as Bir, where the steamers of the first Euphrates expedition, under Colonel Chesney, were launched. In the Sinjar, and on the banks of the Kabour, they are frequently caught by the Arabs. They abound in Khuzistan, the ancient Susiana: I have frequently seen three or four together and have hunted them with the chiefs of the tribes inhabiting that province.

[11.3] This statue is now in the British Museum.

[11.4] This cup was taken out entire, but was unfortunately broken by the man who was employed to carry it to Mosul.

[11.5] The Arabs generally seek some elevated spot to bury their dead. The artificial mounds, abounding in Mesopotamia and Assyria, are usually chosen for the purpose, and there is scarcely one whose summit is not covered with them. On this account I frequently experienced great difficulty while excavating, and was compelled to leave unexamined one or two ruins.

[11.6] I found similar wells, containing human remains and pottery, among the ruins on the banks of the rivers of Susiana.

[11.7] Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. xi. p. 5.

[11.8] Chap. x. 11


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