TW Viewpoint | Nineveh and the Archaeological Evidence

March 7, 2018 | Jonathan Riley

Buried beneath the plains of Mesopotamia lay the ruins of the ancient city of Nineveh. Why was its discovery one of the most important historical and archaeological finds of all time?


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The year was 1839 when Austen Henry Layard began his journey across Europe and the Middle East on route to Ceylon, modern day Sri Lanka. Upon reaching Mesopotamia, in the region of the city of Mosul today, he stopped to investigate the remains of ancient cities which were found buried beneath mounds of clay, known as 'tells'. City mounds, or 'tells' were formed by collapsing mud brick which was historically the primary material used in construction. Upon the mounds there were remains of towers that stood out in the landscape and it was understood that these were ancient Assyrian temples, known as 'ziggurats'. Clay tablets were found strewn across the landscape bearing a triangular script, now known as Cuneiform. It was from this text; found on more than 22,000 clay tablets, that an ancient civilisation and vast city were revealed from the sands of time.

In 19th century Victorian Britain, incredulity towards the Bible had begun to set in bringing the Bible's historicity into question. In the 'Post-Age of Enlightenment' period many scholars had eroded the confidence in the accuracy of scripture. However, when Layard produced his first book "Nineveh and its Remains" it became a bestseller and rejuvenated a dying faith in the public consciousness. Other than the Old Testament and an obscure description of ruins by Greek historian Xenophon, in 400 BC, there was no other historical record to prove the existence of Nineveh. The city had long since been considered a myth. What Layard ultimately discovered were the records of kings and their conquests which directly paralleled the biblical account.

Upon the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III was found an inscription and image of one of the Kings of Israel paying tribute to the Assyrian king. This was the first time any evidence had been uncovered to support the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah from the books of Kings and Chronicles. For Victorian Britain, it provided "...the conviction of many people that archeological evidence had vindicated the Bible…" Cities of God: The Bible and Archaeology in Nineteenth-Century Britain by Timothy Larsen p.120

The Assyrian king, Sennacherib, also recorded his victories over the region of Samaria and Judah providing details that support many biblical accounts. On clay hexagonal tablets, known as Sennacherib's Annals, he wrote: "As for the king of Judah, Hezekiah, who had not submitted to my authority, I besieged and captured forty-six of his fortified cities, along with many smaller towns, taken in battle with my battering rams… As for Hezekiah, I shut him up like a caged bird in his royal city of Jerusalem. I then constructed a series of fortresses around him, and I did not allow anyone to come out of the city gates. His towns which I captured I gave to the kings of Ashod, Ekron, and Gaza." These conquests and the failed siege of Jerusalem match the biblical account which records that "…in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. (2 Kings 18:13) Defeats are virtually never recorded by the defeated but no mention of Jerusalem's capture, the last remaining stronghold in Judah, is recorded by Sennacherib and according to the bible God defeated his army and "…he returned shamefaced to his own land." 2 Chronicles 32:21

These discoveries and many more like them paint a clear picture of the ancient Assyrians and their vast cities, such as that of Nineveh, and provide a concise historical record of their achievements and conquests. The once popular notion that these cities and kingdoms were myths was shattered by Layard's work. The unearthed evidence brought the stories of the Bible to life as people began to realise the historical accounts found in scripture were speaking about real kingdoms and real historical figures, which prior to had no other verifiable source.

There are many who scoff at the historical accounts found in the Bible but what Layard and his contemporaries uncovered were secular accounts that substantially corroborated with the Biblical account. Victorian society's growing skepticism was largely rebuffed and a renewed faith in the accuracy and importance of the Bible was established.

We now live in an age where skepticism and open ridicule of the Bible abounds but the archaeological discoveries of men like Austen Henry Layard should cause us, once again, to consider the historical importance of the Bible and no longer treat it with disdain. For more information on this subject you can order or download our free booklet 'The Bible: Fact or Fiction?'

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