The intoxicating fascination of archaeology and ancient ruins comes not from a melancholy romanticism brought on by shattered towers and collapsing walls, but from what the English novelist and traveler Rose Macaulay called “the soaring of the imagination into the high empyrean where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams; it is the stunning impact of world history on its amazed heirs. . . . It is less ruin-worship than the worship of a tremendous past.” Macaulay herself was an indefatigable traveler in search of the ghosts of the past. She looked at far more than the serried columns of the Parthenon in Athens or the ruins of Roman Palmyra. Her travels took her to sites that required imagination as well as some specialized knowledge. “Nineveh and Babylon . . . are, in fact, little more than mounds.” Macaulay was not the first to articulate this. The nineteenth-century English archaeologist Austen Henry Layard wrote of the “stern, shapeless mound rising like a hill from the scorched plain, the stupendous mass of brickwork occasionally laid bare by winter rains.” He was an archaeologist of energy and vast imagination, intoxicated with the grandeur of the Assyrian bas-reliefs on Nineveh’s palace walls—human figures, gods, kings, warriors, human-headed lions. Nineveh captivated the Victorians. “Is not Nineveh most delightful and prodigious?” wrote one young lady to her brother in India. “Papa says nothing so truly thrilling has happened in excavations since they found Pompeii.” Layard and others wrote books about the mighty palaces that once dazzled the ancient world. Inevitably, the tourists came to wander through the tunnels that Layard’s workers had carved into the city’s mounds. Inevitably, too, many of them succumbed to fever, recovering to remember an exotic underground world they had seen in their delirium. Today, you must rely on your restless imagination amid bare heaps of earth, desert on every side. You inescapably remember the words of the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah as you tread on twenty centuries of Assyrian history: “And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria, and will make Nineveh a desolation, and dry like a wilderness. . . . How is she become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down in!”
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