Sir Austen Henry Layard
Sometimes they rode camels, sometimes they rode horses, and they often affected native dress—the ominous Arabists of England. Their loyalty to Western civilization was suspect, and in the conspicuous cases of T. E. Lawrence and Harry St. John Bridger Philby their characters were, too. Beyond fancy dress and military fireworks, Lawrence’s main interests were literary and personal, while “Jack” Philby (Cambridge spy Kim Philby’s father) seems to have been hard-wired for betraying anyone and anything at all. Their grasp of politics was superficial; it was enough that Arab tribal rebellions against the Turks deserved support. But they all enjoyed meddling in the Middle East, or “kingmaking”, it was called back then—a deeply satisfying mixture of violence and intrigue.
Like many educated Englishmen of their time, Lawrence and Philby had a romantic conception of the world, and they tried to reshape their chunk of it accordingly. They certainly left geographical marks on the map. Both their names and greatest adventures are reasonably well known, in Lawrence’s case at least partly because of a classic Hollywood movie starring Peter O’Toole, with troops of men and animals rushing around Wadi Rum.
Yet Lawrence, Philby, Sir John Bagot Glubb, Gertrude Bell and scores of others were preceded by a man who out-romanced and out-adventured them all—Sir Austen Henry Layard (1817–94). Today his archaeological achievements are widely and properly recognized: The title of a 1962 biography, Layard of Nineveh, says it all, and in later years he became a renowned Victorian worthy. But his wild escapades among the Bakhtiari in Iran between 1839 and 1845 are little known. Vividly described in his autobiographical Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia (1894) this period of his life epitomizes the contrast between romantic Western visions of the Orient and the raw and awkward facts of Middle Eastern society.
A Youth for the Books
As Layard tells his story, by 1839 he had spent five years as an articled clerk in a solicitor’s office in London and wanted out. In his early twenties, he set off for the East with a companion ten years his senior named Edward Mitford. They planned a journey overland to India and then Ceylon. As they reached northern Italy, everything seemed to be going rather well. For Layard himself the trip south from Trieste ensured a decisive break with dull old England, his aunt’s social circle and the routine of copying legal documents. Free of all that, he was delighted with the beauty of the countryside in late summer, “and with the picturesque costumes of the peasantry, which seemed to increase in gorgeousness as we went south and approached the land of the Ottoman.”
Their next stop was Montenegro. Layard had received a letter from Montenegro’s chief, or Vladika, that “courteously invited” them not merely to visit but to stay with him in his palace at Cetinje. Moreover, to ensure their safety the Vladika sent horses and guards to escort his guests—“four savage but fine-looking fellows . . . presented themselves at our lodging. They each carried a long gun, and were armed to the teeth with pistols, yataghans, and knives.” These accoutrements added a spice of danger; could they really be just ornamental, or were they meant for serious use? Whatever they made of this daunting arsenal, the two young Englishmen can hardly have been prepared for what they found outside the palace: “a circle of forty-five gory Turkish heads were stuck on poles, trophies from a battle the previous week.”
The Vladika (the combined prince-bishop of his domain) was a poet fond of learning and literature. He was delighted to find his English guests were, too. It galled him that German newspapers had praised the courage of the King of Saxony, who had visited Montenegro in the course of a botanical excursion, for venturing into “the territory of a barbarous, sanguinary, and perfidious race.” This was simply untrue, he protested, pointing to a sign of his own civilized taste—the billiard table he had recently installed. But one fine day while he and Layard were chalking their cues they were interrupted by a clatter of hooves outside, with much shouting and firing of guns. Some of the Vladika’s warriors, it seemed, had returned from a foray into Turkish territory with a present for their leader. Layard writes in his Autobiography:
They carried in a cloth, held up between them, several heads which they had severed from the bodies of their victims. Amongst these were those apparently of mere children. Covered with gore, they were a hideous and ghastly spectacle. They were duly deposited at the feet of the Prince, and then added to those which were already displayed…
Then, as later, Layard’s political sympathies were with the Turks, and more generally with the gloriously mysterious East. Russian despotism was the main enemy, as he saw it, so the Sultan, however decadent his administration, deserved British help resisting it. Layard thus accepted the wisdom of the long-term British policy that saw the Ottoman Empire as a necessary bulwark against Russian expansion to the south, which is to say toward India. Yet the trophies on display outside the palace in Cetinje must surely have taken him beyond considerations of policy. They should have provided at least some sense that he had left behind not only the London law office he despised but law itself, that he had crossed a frontier separating civilization from the tribal past.
But this was just the start. Layard was on his way to Mesopotamia where, in the 1840s not less than in the antiquity he later unearthed, he would discover a markedly cavalier attitude toward both human life and human heads in the region we now call Iraq. A deep disjunction was becoming obvious: On the one hand picturesque peasants, colorful textiles, novel dishes to whet the appetite, followed by exciting music and dance; on the other, grisly customs and diabolical politics. For romantic aesthetes the discovery that in tribal societies the appealing and the appalling are often inseparable always comes as a disappointing surprise.
And this is surely a curious thing. Why is it that so many well-meaning, sensitive people (not a few of them in the United States) think a culture with nice arts and crafts must have political virtues, too? How was it that an exceedingly cultured young Englishman like Austen Henry Layard understood so little—less indeed than ordinary German newspaper readers might expect to know in 1840—about the “barbarous, sanguinary, and perfidious” political customs of the Arab east? It was all, it seems, because of a book.
Layard knew so little about lands unlike his own, where life is cheap and where both civil and civilized law is thin on the ground, in part because his formal education had been patchy. In fact, his experience of various schools both in England and on the Continent had been miserable. Trilingual, in France he was tormented for being English; in England he was persecuted as a “frog.” He was only truly happy in Florence, where the family went for nine years hoping that a change in climate would restore the health of his asthmatic father Peter. It was in Italy that Peter Layard took young Austen to galleries where he learned to appreciate the Masters, and where he first read Shakespeare, Spenser and Ben Jonson—though these proved of only minor interest to him.
“The work in which I took the greatest delight”, he wrote late in life, “was ‘The Arabian Nights.’” In the Rucellai Palace, the Layard family home in Florence,
I was accustomed to spend hours stretched upon the floor, under a great gilded Florentine table, poring over this enchanting volume. My imagination became so much excited by it that I thought and dreamt of little else but ‘jins’ and ‘ghouls’ and fairies and lovely princesses, until I believed in their existence. . . . My admiration for ‘The Arabian Nights’ has never left me. . . . . They have had no little influence upon my life and career; for to them I attribute that love of travel and adventure which took me to the East, and led me to the discovery of the ruins of Nineveh.
Layard’s sympathy for the Turkish cause was not unique, nor was his romantic fascination with The Arabian Nights. Here enters none other than Benjamin Disraeli.
Disraeli at one point tried to volunteer to help Turkey suppress a rebellion in Albania. Layard’s biographer Gordon Waterfield tells us that the revolt was over before he was ready, but that Disraeli nevertheless went to Janina in northwestern Greece “to congratulate Reshid Pasha, the Grand Vizier, who was in command of the Turkish army.” Both a friend of Layard’s uncle Benjamin Austen and a regular visitor to his aunt Sara’s salons, Disraeli wrote to Austen: “For a week, I was in a scene equal to anything in the Arabian Nights. Such processions, such dresses, such cortèges of horsemen, such caravans of camels!” Another of Disraeli’s letters to Austen, this one from Constantinople, reports: “All here is very much like life in a pantomime or Eastern tale of enchantment, which I think very high praise.” In Waterfield’s opinion Disraeli’s thrilling stories about his travels in the 1830s influenced the young Layard as much as the tales in the Arabian Nights themselves: Both encouraged romantic dreams of the East, an aesthetic vision that easily outweighed any possible political misgivings.
Only a short time after the grim experience of Montenegro, having crossed into Turkish Albania and arrived at the city of Scutari (modern Shkodër), Layard was enthusing about the colorful life of an eastern bazaar. He was pleased to see that the dress and manners of European civilization “had scarcely penetrated into the realm of Islam” and that he felt he had at last passed into “a world of which I had dreamt from my earliest childhood.” Once again he sees the ferocious weaponry men habitually carry not as symptoms of lawlessness or the absence of civil society, but as largely decorative and on much the same level as cuisine. In the bazaar he is delighted to encounter:
The jaunty Albanian with his white fustanella and his long gun resplendent with coral and silver, his richly inlaid pistols and his silver-sheathed yataghan, the savoury messes in the cook’s shops . . . .
From Constantinople he sent a letter to his Aunt Louisa that might have come from Disraeli himself: “The imagination could not picture a site more beautiful as that occupied by Constantinople. In the hands of any other European Power it would have been the strongest city in the world; in the hands of the Turks it has become the most picturesque.” The costumes of the Dalmatian peasantry are picturesque; the city of Constantinople is picturesque. It also became necessary for this fugitive from a London solicitor’s office to announce his new identity in a suitably picturesque way. Two of the most commonly reproduced portraits of Layard as a young man show him “in Albanian Dress”, by W.H. Phillips, and “in Bakhtiari dress”, a watercolor painted in Constantinople by Amadeo Preziosi in 1843.
Jerusalem, Petra and All That
At Antioch Layard had seen the springs associated with Daphne and the remains of what may have been the Temple of Apollo. On the way to Aleppo he found reminders of Crusader days—churches, convents and castles. Now, in Jerusalem, he was determined to cross the Jordan to see the strange rock-carved architecture of Petra and explore the lands of Moab and Jerash. South of the Dead Sea the whole countryside was in disorder following an invasion by Egyptian armies. The British Vice Consul warned Layard that he would be attacked and plundered by Bedouin, who would strip him naked and leave him for dead. For his part the more mature Mitford declined to go; Layard could not be similarly persuaded.
At this stage Layard knew no Arabic, and the area where he was going was indeed infested with Bedouin who lived by robbing and murdering anyone they could find on the roads. But none of this dimmed the glowing vision of the desert tribes he had acquired from yet another influential book: the writings of the Swiss traveller Johann Ludwig Burckhardt. According to Burckhardt these tent-dwellers, a people of virtuous simplicity, were so hospitable and honorable that you could trust them with your life. Defying augury, Layard hired an interpreter and set off. Later he confessed:
I had romantic ideas about Bedouin hospitality and believed that if I trusted to it, and placed myself unreservedly in the power of the Bedouin tribes, trusting to their respect for their guests, I should incur no danger. I did not know that the Arab tribes who inhabit the country to the south and east of the Dead Sea differed much from the Bedouins of the desert, of whom I had read in the travels of Burckhardt, and that they fully deserved the evil reputation which they had acquired in Jerusalem.
The consequence of placing himself unreservedly in the power of armed and dangerous brigands, however picturesquely dressed, was not what he had hoped. His eventual return was pitiful to behold. After skirmishes with drawn swords and confrontations at pistol-point, half-starved, exhausted, robbed of books, papers, compass, medicines, his beautiful robe of Damascus silk and most of his clothes, he dragged himself into Damascus to meet the British Consul wearing only an “Arab cloak, now almost in tatters and not worth taking.” Exactly what the Consul thought of him will forever remain unknown. But he did the British thing: He kindly offered his bedraggled countryman some tea.
Now somewhat less trusting, Layard took the road to Mosul, where the future archaeologist came face to face with destiny. On the banks of the Tigris were the long-buried remains of Nineveh, the ancient city where he would make his name. Although it would be five long years before he was allowed to begin digging, and all he could see upon first gazing were vast enigmatic mounds, “I was deeply moved by their desolate and solitary grandeur.” He spent a week in the area taking measurements and looking for inscriptions.
The dress, manners and political institutions of European civilization had scarcely penetrated into this Islamic realm—presumably a huge plus as Layard saw it. Nonetheless, he was beginning to understand the limitations of Turkish rule. His lodgings were on the Mosul side of the Tigris; Nineveh was on the other. There had once been a bridge, but it had been swept away long ago, “and, under the careless and fatuous rule of the Turks, no attempt had been made to replace it.” Furthermore, it seemed the consequences of Ottoman government were more serious than a mere indifference to roads and bridges. The town of Mosul was governed by “a Pasha of the old school, almost independent of any control . . . who could oppress the subjects of the Sultan under his rule, extort money from them, and reduce them to utter ruin and misery with impunity.”
These imperfections fought and lost, however, with Layard’s childhood notions of Eastern romance. The memories of books read under the gilded Florentine table came flooding back to him. The approach to Baghdad by water as he floated down the Tigris delighted his senses. Beneath tall and graceful date palms, he wrote,
were clusters of orange, citron, and pomegranate trees, in the full blossom of spring. A gentle breeze wafted a delicious odour over the river, with the cooing of innumerable turtle-doves. The creaking of the water-wheels, worked by oxen, and the cries of the Arabs on the banks added life and animation to the scene. I thought that I had never seen anything so truly beautiful, and all my ‘Arabian Nights’ dreams were almost more than I realised.
But where every natural prospect pleases, the men who inhabit such a paradise can be uncommonly vile. Layard had been warned of Arabs along the banks of the river who “would rob and plunder us if we ventured to land.” Surprisingly, this did not happen, and he informs us why: A highly disagreeable penalty for robbery had been imposed by the previous Pasha. Indeed, in Baghdad the rule of Daoud Pasha had been one of punitive terror. To improve security for travellers he had kept the roads safe and the Bedouin under control by “the horrible punishment of impalement.” There was a bridge of boats across the river, and the Pasha, a man proud of his province and determined to defend the progress he had made from inveterate criminals, “was in the habit of placing them on stakes at the two ends of the bridge of boats, and on either side of it, as a warning to those who visited the city and had to pass between them.” An English resident in Baghdad, Dr. Ross, had recently seen four offenders thus exposed. Bear in mind this was 1840, not 1480.
Among the Bakhtiari
In Baghdad, Layard spent his days exploring Babylonian ruins and looking at the fine collection of Arabic and Persian manuscripts in the library of Colonel Taylor, the British Resident. But soon his mind turned toward the region of the southern Zagros Mountains, a territory vigorously contested between the Bakhtiari tribe, who pretty much controlled things on the ground, and the Shah in Teheran, who claimed sovereignty. To travel there, however, meant dealing with the Persian governor of Isfahan, Manuchar Khan, a man who had recently shown he was not to be trifled with by building a tower out of 300 living prisoners, mortared together like bricks, who all died hideously.
About this time, his traveling companion Mitford decided that Layard was incorrigible—and that they would probably never make it to India and Ceylon. If he was now going to defy Manuchar Khan and throw in his lot with the Bakhtiari—a tribe regarded in Tehran as “a race of robbers, treacherous, cruel, and bloodthirsty”, that Governor Manuchar Khan plainly intended to destroy—then he wanted none of it. So Mitford now journeyed on to India alone, while Layard turned his mind to the months ahead. In a full-blooded romantic outburst he wrote to his uncle-solicitor back in London (on whom, by the way, he entirely depended for funds) that he was sick of the civilized and semi-civilized world and lived “happier under a black Bakhtiari tent with liberty of speech and action and nobody to depend on, no-one to flatter, certain that I shall have dinner tomorrow—for there is always bread and water—and without need of that source of all evil, money…” In his memoir about these days Layard was, however, more calculating. He wrote that, despite the bad reputation of the Bakhtiari,
I was very hopeful and very confident that my good fortune would not desert me, and that by tact and prudence I should succeed in coming safely out of my adventure. I determined at the same time to conform in all things to the manners, habits, and customs of the people with whom I was about to mix, to avoid offending their religious feeling and prejudices, and to be especially careful not to do anything which might give them reason to suspect that I was a spy.
His confidence was justified. He fluked his way into the patronage of a great and powerful Bakhtiari chieftain, Mehemet Taki Khan, a man able to command a force of 10,000 men. In the fortress of Kala Tul the Khan’s ten-year-old son was dying of fever. Wrote Layard, “the father appealed to me in the most heartrending terms, offering me gifts of horses and anything that I might desire if I would only save the life of his son.” Taking a huge chance Layard gave the patient some quinine. Within hours the boy broke into “a violent perspiration”; by dawn he had recovered, after which Layard found himself welcomed into the most intimate areas of Bakhtiari domestic life. He even lodged in the residential inner sanctum or enderun itself.
No longer a solitary alien on the outside, perpetually having to explain himself and at risk of being murdered on the road, Layard’s position was suddenly transformed. Now he was on the inside, and tribal life looked increasingly like the warm and hospitable world he had fantasized about for so long. In these days he may from time to time have been romantically involved with Bakhtiari women; they found him attractive, and he was certainly attracted to them. After saving her son’s life Layard tells us that the Khan’s wife “treated me with the affection of a mother”, while he described her sister Khanumi as the most beautiful woman in all the tribe: “Her features were of exquisite delicacy, her eyes were large, black and almond-shaped, her hair of the darkest hue; she was intelligent and lively.”
Urged by the Khan to convert to Islam and marry Khanumi, Layard resisted, though he told his aunt that the Bakhtiari custom of sigha interested him. This was a custom that enabled a man “to marry for a period, however short—even for twenty-four hours—and which makes the contract for the time legal.” The marital arrangements of the Khan himself seemed ideal. He married and divorced monthly, enjoying a continual honeymoon. It is perhaps not entirely irrelevant that in The Arabian Nights, before Scheherazade thought of a beguiling way around it, the Sultan had married, enjoyed and then calmly killed each of his “wives” the next day.
Lord Curzon described Layard’s account of life among the Bakhtiari as “one of the most romantic narratives of adventure ever penned.” He not only joined the tribe, he mastered their Persian dialect and participated in their lion hunts, their feuds and their battles with Persian authority. This did not go unnoticed. Upon learning of Layard’s active participation in skirmishes with Persian troops, the Vizier in Teheran told the British Ambassador, Sir John McNeill, who inquired after his whereabouts: “That man! Why, if I could catch him I’d hang him. He has been joining some rebel tribes and helping them.”
It must have been great fun living amidst forays, feuds and death by the assassin’s hand, or sitting up to all hours listening to stories told by men
constantly engaged in bloody quarrels arising out of questions of right of pasture and other such matters. When they were thus at war they ruthlessly pillaged and murdered each other. With them ‘the life of a man was as the life of a sheep’, as the Persians say, and they would slay the one with as much unconcern as the other.
Life in the great chief’s castle was all very well for Layard as long as Mehemet Taki Khan was in control and the Persians were not. But it couldn’t last. Manuchar Khan was determined to break and punish the Bakhtiari—the clans sensed it—and soon their fealty weakened and the chief’s followers began to melt away. In a land where oaths were lightly given and lightly broken, Mehemet Taki Khan now found himself on the run. As for Layard, confined by Manuchar Khan in the city of Shustar for having helped the Bakhtiari, he boldly escaped and made his way through arid deserts and fearful heat back to Baghdad.
It was not an easy journey. Attacked and thrown from his horse by marauders of the Shammar tribe, Layard lost his Arab keffiya and was mistaken for a hated Osmanli. He wrote:
One of the Arabs cried out that I was a ‘Toork’, and a man who had dismounted drew a knife and endeavoured to kneel upon my chest. I struggled, thinking that he intended to cut my throat, and called out to one of the party who, mounted upon a fine mare, appeared to be a sheikh, that I was not a ‘Toork’ but an Englishman.
The sheikh relented, mistaking Layard for Dr. Ross of Baghdad, and again Layard escaped with his life—but once more most of his clothing, his watch, compass and his last few silver pieces were lost. When he reached Baghdad, it was Damascus all over again. Lying alone at dawn in the dust and dirt outside the city gates, clad in rags and with bare and bleeding feet “overcome by fatigue and pain”, he was ignored by parties from the British Embassy who rode by without recognizing him—nor did he rush to make his presence known. But following behind them came Dr. Ross:
I called to him, and he turned towards me in the utmost surprise, scarcely believing his senses when he saw me without cover to my bare head, with naked feet, and in my tattered ‘abba.’
Layard’s experiences along the Turko-Persian border made the young adventurer an authority on the geographical issues involved—he had put his compasses, while he had them, to good use. This drew the notice of the British Ambassador in Constantinople, Sir Stratford Canning, who in 1842 made him an unpaid attaché at the Embassy. In 1845, after much hesitation, Canning allowed Layard to commence the excavations that led to the discovery of several long-buried palaces, including that of Sennacherib.
The subsequent achievements of Sir Austen Henry Layard, as he eventually became known, were prodigious. He excavated an enormous and an immensely significant site, making remarkable drawings of the palace sculptures, mastering cuneiform, firmly responding to the continual obstruction of his work by venal and mendacious Pashas, transporting both the palace reliefs and two colossal stone bulls down the Tigris—all the while fighting off armed marauders who, both at the diggings and while rafting the reliefs downriver to Basra, were always waiting their chance. In any event, here was a man of whom it can confidently be said that he did not waste his youth. He was, however, fortunate to have survived it.