THE BLOG

Heart Gift 5 - Nineveh, Antiquity, Friendship and Courage

ISIS in their sub-human brutality have blown up and damaged many parts of the almost 5000-year-old gem of antiquity, The City of Nineveh in Iraq. My Heart Gift today comes from the same letter I found last week from my father. In this section, he beautifully portrays his experience of Nineveh back in 1953. He also tells us of Issa who after knowing each other for just a day thought nothing of possibly sacrificing his life for him. This is a story of friendship, courage, antiquity and love of travel. So much about this story reminds me of my childhood and how dad would share stories about ancient civilizations and the virtues they held dear. I hope you enjoy it.

"Issa and I met in a brothel-cum-caff of Mosul, northern Iraq. One of those sleazy joints of Araby, serving tepid beer, soft drinks, strong coffee and tea spiced with the lure of belly-dancers going through copulatory undulations to the deafening staccato of flute, drum and wild ululation of tumescent lechers. His features were striking, and I felt I 'recognised' him from friezes in the B.M. and Bagdad Museum. "Are you Assyrian?", I ventured. "Yes", he smiled broadly. Soon we were chatting away like old friends. I like his easy banter. Issa (which means Jesus in Arabic -- most Assyrians are Christians now) was a young railway engineer, with a passionate interest in Assyriology. The legendary courage and martial temper of Assyrians have survived to this day. When Iraq was a British Protectorate, many Assyrians served in the Imperial army. And when in 1941 Nazis instigated an anti-British uprising, a detachment of 600 Assyrians held out the British airbase at Habbaniyeh against assaults of the Iraqi army until relief was sent by the British.

The following day Issa and I walked across the bridge over the Tigris and into the desert to the ruins of Nineveh, the last Assyrian capital. Hardly anything survives there for the eye to fix on and set imagination aflame. An area of mounds and ridges, occasionally punctured by remains of a brick wall. But Issa's instinctive feel for the place and evocative powers were uncanny. He guided me with the assurance, the quiet pride of a lord taking a guest over his domain. Weaving history, anecdotes, stories of campaigns and intrigue with description of temples, palaces, broad avenues, of regal circumstance. He led the way to Kuyunjik, the highest mound in the northern part of the city, where Sennacherib had built his 'Palace without Rival'. Raised on a solid platform, it contained large courtyards and hundreds of rooms, adorned with friezes and brilliantly painted. Cedar beams supported ceilings, monumental doorways built in cypress-wood and other odoriferous timber, brought from four quarters of the far-flung empire, led from one chamber to the next. Gateways guarded by huge stone-carved 'Lamassu', the winged human-headed bulls. Graceful copper pillars resting on bronze lions. Foreign embassy officials, tribute bearers, stepped in awe down those courtyards flanked by towering figures of demonic guardians, to prostrate before the king who reclined on a stone throne carved with a relief which portrayed him standing in his war-chariot over bodies of slain enemies, as his soldiers pile up pyramids of decapitated heads before him. We rested where the vast library of over 25,000 cuneiform tests had stood. And ambled by the side of the palace where a large pleasure park was laid out, watered by aqueduct, planted with palm, vine and all manner of herb and fruit-tree. Here kinds found sport fighting on foot wild lions released from cages. The left arm, thickly wrapped up in black-goats' hair yarn, was thrust forth to the beast's maul, while the sword, held in the right hand, was plunged in its flank. Down what had been broad avenues we sauntered, Issa conjuring the gaudy splendours of the temple to Assur, the looming mass of the Ziggurat, the man-built cosmic mountain, like the biblical Tower of Babel. Past opulent dwellings of the nobility, 'Sons of Creation', as they were called, into the area busy with bankers, merchants, physicians, scribes and artisans, each organised into a guild and living in its own quarter. A city gorged with riches, the plunder and tribute of kingdoms under the Empire's thrall. As Ashurbanipal's inscription declares:- "Even menial workers and slaves received camels as a present, the brewer as baksheesh, the gardener as additional payment." Issa evoked the broad avenues over which the invincible Assyrian armies set out on campaigns:- the light infantry -- bowmen and slingers -- clad in short tunies; the heavy infantry -- lancers -- in coat-of-mail and front laces half-boots; cavalry, riding bare back, but both horses and men clad in armour; the famed two-wheeled chariots, drawn by three horses and carrying driver, bowman and he ladders, fiery projectiles. Invincible they marched on incessant campaigns, against Cimmerians, Scythians, Hittites, Phrygians, Aramaeans, the Jews before the walls of Jerusalem, captured distant Thebes in Upper Egypt. And created arts of find expressiveness and sensitivity -- a well-advanced culture. As Issa pointed out the still discernible outline of the outer walls, which, coated in limestone blocks, rose 'sky-high' and 7 ½ miles in circumference and entered through 15 gateways, no longer was Nineveh sandy mounds to me, but a city vibrant with life and enterprise.

So the day drew on. The dipping sun-soaked the mounds with the crimson of blood, pools of ominous dark on the lee-sides. Our shadows long across the sands. Somewhere across the dunes jackals' shrill cachinnation. Issa's voice came low, out of an inner reverie:- "Ah, those Medes... two months... of relentless storm and siege. Wild horsemen of the Zagros mountains, led by Cyaxares, soured with hatred, set on avenging his father, Phrortes, slain while leading his horses against us... And abetted by the Babylonians, led by Nabopolassar..." Issa jerked up as if stabbed, and his voice came forth now in an ill-supressed yell of anguish:- "Arthur, Arthur, hear the scream, the shriek of carnage? Of women and babies slaughtered. The whoop snort and roar of men who unyielding stood their ground?" Issa's index jabbed the dusk, his other hand gripping my arm with fingers of steel. "Look!, there, there they must have breached the walls, that's where the gore poured in. If only we could have thrown more men into that breach..." The wind ceased its parley with the sands, the jackals were not to be heard. And in the stillness the tumult came in flooding over me, rising the irrepressible rip of human agony, the cloying smell of sweat, blood, of fear -- of human endeavour kneaded into dust. The ruckle of an Empire, but more so of one man, of one particular Man of flesh and bone, who must have lain dying close to where we stood. One Man of flesh and bone, an Empire ineffably more unique than those conglomerate empires built by men. Intensely, passionately my being went out to his, consecrating him in my living breast, yearning to eternalise him. Not as an Unknown Soldier. Oh no, I abominate what that stands for:- the enormity of robbing a Man of his uniqueness, his particularity, to turn him into a symbol, an abstraction. And whenever I see those edifices of stony bombast which nations erect, vile altars to herdish brutishness and folly, I sicken for the Dust entombed therein in usurped oblation to men's vainglory. Ah, you warrior dying here amidst the conflagration engulfing the 'Palace without Rival'. You Man of flesh and bone, your thoughts racing to your lived-ones' fate, to the crash of your one known living world of Nineveh. Your rasping breath struggling to grip the air of life, to grasp your Life, your spark Divine. I shall never know where to buy your vegetables your were wont to go, and what you did for your tooth-ache. But like Jules Michelet with you I cry:- "Mon moi, ils m'arrachent mon moi!" 'Nation'; 'humanity' -- these otiose generics leave me cold. I love, I adulate life, the urge for immortality it enshrines, life in the singular, life in you, dying warrior of Nineveh. Not those generics empty of all but bombast, so ready to pimp as shibboleths, vehicles to men's beastliness and folly.

On Kuyunjik we stood, Issa and I, hearts of lead, senses replete. Dimly I recalled a phrase form the bible -- is it Ezekiel? -:- 'Nineveh is laid waste; who will bemoan her'. But there silent we stood, Issa and I, and there we lamented.

The sack of Nineveh took place in the summer of 612 B.C. Babylonian chronicles record the event with laconic brutality:- 'On that day Sin-shaw-ishkum, the Assyrian king was slain. The great spoil of the city and temple they carried off and turned the city into a ruin-mound of heaps of debris.'
The stars were bright, the phantasm gone, when Issa and I retraced our steps. Over the bridge across the Tigris and into the narrow, ill-lit streets of Mosul. And a strange twist of fate capped that day. Lost in musings, I walked oblivious of my surroundings. To be torn out of my reverie by the sight of Issa springing like a panther behind me. Whether through bravado or drunkenness, a motorcyclist has come speeding from round the corner behind, and, unable to control his machine, made straight at me. With his lunge Issa deflected the cycle inches from my back. He and rider went hurtling into a wall. Shouts, the curious come running. Issa manages to pick himself up, furious with the rider, who lies moaning. Visibly concussed, Issa bleeds quite heavily. The tough Assyrian, he insists on walking to the hospital; I come with him. The following day I visit him. Issa has internal concussion, lacerations over head and body and multiple fractures of the left arm. But grins happily from under the bandages. "My God, Issa, why dud you do it, you could've been killed!" "And more so you, you didn't even notice the bastard coming at you." Pause. "You're my friend, so what's the risk of a life to that?", he shrugs his shoulders, winces with pain and grins. For a moment I look him straight in the eye. I know he meant it. No fuss, no bother, no empty mouthings. Just -- 'friend'. In the absolute. Staunch, steady, abiding. "mutual", I say to myself. Then aloud "Because of Kuyunjik and Assyria?", I smile. "Yes, because of Kuyunjik. Fucking Kuyunjik! D'you what it means in Arabic, Hillock of the Little Lamb!!' Hut, blasted Arabs. To us, Assyrians I prefer 'Palace without Rival'. In the parks of which our kings fought lions on foot, thrusting the left arm into the jaw and eviscerating them with the right!".

Issa my friend. Kuyunjik, Assyria, its gore and glory. 612 B.C., its demise. Dates and events sown down annals of history, remote history. But to me, to my life, this glorious life, vital beacons. To which I may well owe my life."

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