General Fraser's House, Mosul, Mesopotamia
April 19, 1920
Monday Morning, six-thirty A.M.
I turned in early last night in order to get well rested for the long trip back to Baghdad and the early start this morning, but Raman, the old Assyrian thunder god of air and weather, decreed otherwise. I had slept perhaps an hour, when I was awakened by thunder, and that first peal which woke me, continued without an instant’s cessation for over half an hour! It was to me a most extraordinary phenomenon, for I have never before met anything like it. After this thunder had at length moderated to interrupted peals, it began to rain heavily and with the rain came a violent wind storm which made every window rattle and creak. I can suppose that lying here at the foot of the northern mountains, between the cold of their snow-covered peaks and the heat of the southern plains, we are especially liable to such violent outbreaks as this. The thunder had about it a strange suggestion of vastly spacious mountain wildernesses over which it was rolling upon us from the snowy north. In the midst of the darkness and the roaring storm, I heard the creak of the screen door in my ante-room as it opened twice. I seized my revolver, and of course with all sorts of visions of blood-thirsty Kurds, I turned on the electric light, and rushed out into the ante-room, where two huge———- cats! turned as they saw me and fled out the door! With slight intermissions the storm continued all night, but I turned out at 5:30 to get my party started. I was all packed and ready, doing it all myself, for Abbas, like the true oriental, did not turn up at 5:30 as he had been told, when at 6:30 he appeared bringing in a note from Colonel Duncan, the general’s chief of staff, saying that it would be impossible for a car to move today. I found the aide-de-camp in his bath robe in the court, and he added the information that we might not be able to move for several days, as the roads would be in an impassable condition for perhaps as much as four days! So I have quietly opened the type-writer to improve the time till breakfast.
Perhaps you were surprised to hear that I have electric lights in my room. Well, I was myself. I expected it in Baghdad, but not here in the heart of the undeveloped Orient. An excellent British mechanic has mounted in a row, five or six engines taken out of disabled lorry trucks and an airplane, and with their combined power he is running a dynamo which the general got up from Baghdad. The outfit furnishes light for all the administrative offices, as well as the general’s house and some others, besides power also to run electric fans of which I have two huge ones with wooden wings five feet across, mounted from the ceiling. It seems incongruous enough to find these latest conveniences of civilization in a quaint old oriental town overlooking the palaces of Semiramis and Sennacherib. Of course there are plenty of oriental arrangements still unmodernized, like the ferry which we have used every day of our stay here. Imagine a row of large, clumsy and heavily timbered boats, each open at one end, like our steam ferry boats, for the entrance of horses, donkeys and crazy old Turkish coaches, comically askew and threatening instant collapse if any one ventures to climb in. Swarming up and down the river banks like so many ants, are crowds of shouting orientals who overflow into the boats, and from the boats again inundate the shores,—all shrieking like a multitude of lunatics, directions, advice, orders, messages to friends, abuse, billingsgate and revilings of your father, and your father’s father, your mother and your mother’s mother, vileness which would cause the instant arrest of the speaker in a civilized community, all heard with the utmost unconcern by everybody, including crowds of women. The old sheikh of the ferry sits at the open, shoreward end of the boat and receives from every entering passenger the fare, which varies according to the passenger’s financial status or his momentary inclination. Water carriers fill their jars or water-skins with the filthy water of the river, a group of convicts with heavy shackles on their legs come pushing along on a cart a metal tank which they fill with water for the public offices and drag it up the steep slope under the urgence of a rifleman who follows close behind them. Above is a line of curious earthenware stills with fires under them, and an attendant feeding the fires watches the distillation of arrak, a frightfully intoxicating beverage. Behind stretch the bazaars, with goldsmiths, coppersmiths, cobblers and plentiful other craftsmen, besides merchants selling every known commodity of the East.
I have spent the day in these bazaars, camera in hand, and have found it very instructive. Here are the same crafts and the same tools which enabled the Assyrian Emperors to build their palaces across the river, 2700 to 2600 years ago. I found workmen sawing up blocks of alabaster, just as their ancestors did to furnish the slabs for the splendid sculptured relief wainscoting which lined the magnificent halls of the Ninevite palaces, when Sennacherib was besieging Jerusalem, and Isaiah was delivering political speeches on the street corners twenty-six centuries ago.
I called on the Political Officer, Colonel Nalder this morning, and had a very instructive talk about modern conditions and the possibilities for excavation. I found that Clay also is very interested in Nimrûd, which we visited as I have already recounted. I propose to hand in the official certificate of my commission from the University of Chicago, of which President Judson very thoughtfully gave me duplicate copies, so that I can part with one, and on the basis of this I shall make formal application for permission to carry to completion, a systematic and methodical clearance of Nimrûd in accordance with the strictest requirements of modern science,—a totally different thing from grubbing for museum pieces. The museum pieces will come without the slightest doubt, but they will be an incidental result. If we are unable to find the money for the work, it will be easy enough to relinquish our permit in favor of some one else, but I am not going to let Clay and Yale anticipate us in this post-war campaign in the Orient. You may be interested to know that when Miss Bell, who knows more about archaeology than anyone else in the British administration out here, brought up the name of Clay, she added, “But of course he cuts no ice”. I really couldn’t contradict her, though I have come to feel very much more charitable toward him;—indeed I have only the kindest feelings for him. But that is no reason for letting him push in Yale ahead of Chicago!
I spent practically all of yesterday at the house of old Khayatt, the Vicar-General. The day proved one long oriental comedy, vexatious beyond endurance, laughable to tears, wearisome and exacting to the last degree of exhaustion. When evening came I was completely done. Luckenbill and I went over to the old gentleman’s house the first thing in the morning. We were led into a great arcaded and colonnaded court, the chief surfaces of which were all adorned with the richest and most ornate designs carved in alabaster. The old man gave us a stately welcome at the rear of the court, and we drank coffee, we drank tea, we drank sherbet, we smoked courtesy cigarettes, and we palavered for an endless time. At length he showed us some Assyrian reliefs in alabaster, from our much desired city of Nimrûd, a foretaste of what we shall find there. Then he brought in a cylindrical pillow cushion, which investigation proved to be full of feathers. We got rid of these on the balcony outside, and found within a cylindrical hard bundle covered with cotton fabric. Removing this we found a large tin can, and packed in much cotton within, we found a cylindrical bundle wrapped in oiled stuff. Unrolling this, we disclosed some more cotton packing, and inside this was at last the kernel of the nut, an eight-sided baked clay prism, bearing an account of the campaigns of Sennacherib. Later on, in the house of a neighbor of the old man, we waited an endless time while they found the key to an upper room where Luckenbill and I sat down and went over the fragments of what the old priest said had been no less than 15 of these prisms, or to be more accurate in some cases “barrel” cylinders, with records of Assurbanipal, Esarhaddon and Tiglath-Pileser. These had once been intact, so the old man said.
For the full story of my exciting trip you should come to the special exhibit “Pioneers to the Past: American Archaeologists in the Middle East, 1919-1920,” at the Oriental Institute!
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