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Gilgamesh, Nineveh, and Sir Austen Henry Layard

QUESTION: Gilgamesh, Nineveh, and Sir Austen Henry Layard


The rediscovery of Gilgamesh and his ancient exploits is a great story of 19th century archaeology and adventure. It begins in 1817 with the birth of Austen Henry Layard in Paris, France. Layard belonged to a family of doctors, bankers and diplomats, and was educated in the top schools of England, France, Italy and Switzerland. He loved the study of languages and fine arts, and served as a lawyer-apprentice for six years. Upon entering his 20’s, Layard was totally groomed for aristocratic success.

In 1839, Layard determined to follow in his father’s footsteps and return to Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka) to serve in the British civil service. Layard’s family had served as diplomats in Ceylon for generations. However, rather than travel by standard aristocratic means, Layard decided to walk from England to Ceylon by way of Asia. He was 22.

Once he embarked on his trek, Layard’s life journey took a totally different track. He never made it to Ceylon. Instead, he spent years wandering about Persia and Turkey, fascinated by the local cultures and ancient Assyrian ruins. Ultimately, he was responsible for rediscovering the ancient ruins of Nineveh in 1847, including the lost palace of Sennacherib. He also stumbled into the famous library of Ashurbanipal, which contained 22,000 clay texts, including important finds such as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

The Preservation of Gilgamesh beneath the Sands of Time
The ancient accounts of Gilgamesh and other events of the first Babylonian Empire were presumed destroyed in the fiery fall of Nineveh in 612 BC. However, it was Sir Austen Henry Layard that discovered that thousands of years of history were actually preserved under the desert sands, from the cuneiform records of Gilgamesh to the huge walls and relief sculptures of Sennacherib's throne room.

Beyond the tablets of Gilgamesh, which would be studied and deciphered at the British Museum for years, Layard discovered a very important cuneiform inscription on a massive doorway. This stunning discovery turned out to be Sennacherib's own account of his siege of Jerusalem. Why was this stunning? The mid-19th century was a time of religious skepticism and biblical revisionism in Europe. Now, the world had new and compelling evidence for an important biblical event.

Layard’s journeys and exploits continued throughout his life, including more tablets in the line of Gilgamesh and more biblical discoveries from the ancient Assyrian period. In 1866, Sir Austen Henry Layard became a trustee of the British Museum, where he published a number of books and articles about his phenomenal adventures into the past.

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