||The most casual
wanderer in the British Museum can hardly fail to notice two pairs of massive
sculptures, in the one case winged bulls, in the other winged lions, both
human-headed, which guard the entrance to the Egyptian hall, close to the
Rosetta Stone. Each pair of these weird creatures once guarded an entrance
to the palace of a king in the famous city of Nineveh. As one stands before
them his mind is carried back over some twenty-seven intervening centuries,
to the days when the "Cedar of Lebanon" was "fair in his greatness" and
the scourge of Israel.
The very Sculptures before us, for example,
were perhaps seen by Jonah when he made that famous voyage to Nineveh some
seven or eight hundred years B.C. A little later the Babylonian and the
Mede revolted against Assyrian tyranny and descended upon the fair city
of Nineveh, and almost literally levelled it to the ground. But these great
sculptures, among other things, escaped destruction, and at once hidden
and preserved by the accumulating debris of the centuries, they stood there
age after age, their very existence quite forgotten. When Xenophon marched
past their site with the ill-starred expedition of the ten thousand, in
the year 400 B.C., he saw only a mound which seemed to mark the site of
some ancient ruin; but the Greek did not suspect that he looked upon the
site of that city which only two centuries before had been the mistress
of the world.
So ephemeral is fame! And yet the moral
scarcely holds in the sequel; for we of to-day, in this new, undreamed-of
Western world, behold these mementos of Assyrian greatness fresh from their
twenty-five hundred years of entombment, and with them records which restore
to us the history of that long-forgotten people in such detail as it was
not known to any previous generation since the fall of Nineveh. For two
thousand five hundred years no one saw these treasures or knew that they
existed. One hundred generations of men came and went without once pronouncing
the name of kings Shalmaneser or Asumazirpal or Asurbanipal. And to-day,
after these centuries of oblivion, these names are restored to history,
and, thanks to the character of their monuments, are assured a permanency
of fame that can almost defy time itself. It would be nothing strange,
but rather in keeping with their previous mutations of fortune, if the
names of Asurnazirpal and Asurbanipal should be familiar as household words
to future generations that have forgotten the existence of an Alexander,
a Caesar, and a Napoleon. For when Macaulay's prospective New Zealander
explores the ruins of the British Museum the records of the ancient Assyrians
will presumably still be there unscathed, to tell their story as they have
told it to our generation, though every manuscript and printed book may
have gone the way of fragile textures.
But the past of the Assyrian sculptures
is quite necromantic enough without conjuring for them a necromantic future.
The story of their restoration is like a brilliant romance of history.
Prior to the middle of this century the inquiring student could learn in
an hour or so all that was known in fact and in fable of the renowned city
of Nineveh. He had but to read a few chapters of the Bible and a few pages
of Diodorus to exhaust the important literature on the subject. If he turned
also to the pages of Herodotus and Xenophon, of Justin and Aelian, these
served chiefly to confirm the suspicion that the Greeks themselves knew
almost nothing more of the history of their famed Oriental forerunners.
The current fables told of a first King Ninus and his wonderful queen Semiramis;
of Sennacherib the conqueror; of the effeminate
Sardanapalus, who neglected the warlike ways of his ancestors but perished
gloriously at the last, with Nineveh itself, in a self-imposed holocaust.
And that was all. How much of this was history, how much myth, no man could
say; and for all any one suspected to the contrary, no man could ever know.
And to-day the contemporary records of the city are before us in such profusion
as no other nation of antiquity, save Egypt alone, can at all rival. Whole
libraries of Assyrian books are at hand that were written in the seventh
century before our era. These, be it understood, are the original books
themselves, not copies. The author of that remote time appeals to us directly,
hand to eye, without intermediary transcriber. And there is not a line
of any Hebrew or Greek manuscript of a like age that has been preserved
to us; there is little enough that can match these ancient books by a thousand
years. When one reads Moses or Isaiah, Homer, Hesiod, or Herodotus, he
is but following the transcription - often unquestionably faulty and probably
never in all parts perfect - of successive copyists of later generations.
The oldest known copy of the Bible, for example, dates probably from the
fourth century A.D., a thousand years or more after the last Assyrian records
were made and read and buried and forgotten.
There was at least one king of Assyria
- namely, Asurbanipal, whose palace boasted a library of some ten thousand
volumes - a library, if you please, in which the books were numbered and
shelved systematically, and classified and cared for by an official librarian.
If you would see some of the documents of this marvellous library you have
but to step past the winged lions of Asurnazirpal and enter the Assyrian
hall just around the corner from the Rosetta Stone. Indeed, the great slabs
of stone from which the lions themselves are carved are in a sense books,
inasmuch as there are written records inscribed on their surface. A glance
reveals the strange characters in which these records are written, graven
neatly in straight lines across the stone, and looking to casual inspection
like nothing so much as random flights of arrow-heads. The resemblance
is so striking that this is sometimes called the arrow-head character,
though it is more generally known as the wedge or cuneiform character.
The inscriptions on the flanks of the lions are, however, only makeshift
books. But the veritable books are no farther away than the next room beyond
the hall of Asurnazirpal. They occupy part of a series of cases placed
down the centre of this room. Perhaps it is not too much to speak of this
collection as the most extraordinary set of documents of all the rare treasures
of the British Museum, for it includes not books alone, but public and
private letters, business announcements, marriage contracts - in a word,
all the species of written records that enter into the every-day life of
an intelligent and cultured community.
But by what miracle have such documents
been preserved through all these centuries? A glance makes the secret evident.
It is simply a case of time-defying materials. Each one of these Assyrian
documents appears to be, and in reality is, nothing more or less than an
inscribed fragment of brick, having much the color and texture of a weathered
terra-cotta tile of modern manufacture. These slabs are usually oval or
oblong in shape, and from two or three to six or eight inches in length
and an inch or so in thickness. Each of them was originally a portion of
brick-clay, on which the scribe indented the flights of arrowheads with
some sharp-cornered instrument, after which the document was made permanent
by baking. They are somewhat fragile, of course, as all bricks are, and
many of them have been more or less crumbled in the destruction of the
palace at Nineveh; but to the ravages of mere time they are as nearly invulnerable
as almost anything in nature. Hence it is that these records of a remote
civilization have been preserved to us, while the similar records of such
later civilizations as the Grecian have utterly perished, much as the flint
implements of the cave-dweller come to us unchanged, while the iron implements
of a far more recent age have crumbled away.