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Document number: 1316
Date: 10 Jan 1863
Recipient: ATHENAEUM (periodical)
Author: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Collection: PUBLISHED
Last updated: 27th August 2010

[The fate of WHFT's original letter is unknown. This is the version published in The Athenæum, no. 1839, 24 January 1863, pp. 120-121, under the heading 'Assyriian History'.]

11, Great Stuart Street, Edinburgh,
Jan. 10, 1863.

I read with great interest an account which appeared in the Athenæum of December 20th of some antiquities recently discovered near the source of the Tigris.<1> It is there said that at the last meeting of the Royal Asiatic Society, “ Sir H. Rawlinson <2> communicated to the meeting the results of certain researches in the hill country north of ancient Assyria, carried on during the present year by J. Taylor, Esq., Her Majesty’s Consul at Diarbekr, and which are to be resumed by that Gentleman next spring.<3> In a cave from which the principal stream of the Tigris rises a large river, two cuneiform inscriptions were discovered and casts taken by Mr. Taylor. One of these is already in London, and proves to be a record of Tiglath-pileser I. The other, not yet received, is surmised to belong to Sardanapalus.”

Now, this discovery is valuable, not only from the interest attaching to sculptures preserved to us from such a remote age, but also from the testimony which it bears to the truth of the modern interpretations of cuneiform writing. Your readers are well aware, no doubt, that althougth Sir H. Rawlinson and others have laboured for many years in the decipherment of the curious and complicated Assyrian records, usually agreeing with one another in their interpretation whenever the inscriptions contain a simple narrative of historical facts, yet a large proportion of the learned world, including many distinguished Orientalists, still remain incredulous; some even doubting the fact whether any true decipherment has yet been obtained. It is difficult to account for this continued incredulity; but the only way to overcome it seems to be, to continue to accumulate proofs of the general correctness and trustworthiness of the translations.

An opportunity of doing so appears to me to offer itself on the present occasion, and I will proceed to explain in what manner.

The volume of cuneiform inscriptions recently published by the British Museum<4> contains a long inscription, which fills ten sheets, of the Annals of Sardanapalus I., recovered from the pavement slabs of the temple of Ninev, the Assyrian Hercules. He was the god of war, and also the traditional founder of Nineveh, as is expressly stated in the inscription, in these words: “Ninev, who laid the foundations of this city, in ancient days now long past.” This deity has likewise the name of Bar, which is used indifferently and interchanged with that of Ninev in the same inscription.

Sardanapalus I. (whose name I prefer to read as Ashurakhbal) was a great conqueror, the son of Kuti-Bar, whose name means “the arrows of Bar,” or rather, “the armed service of Bar.” He was therefore, doubtless, a zealous worshipper of that deity.

Now, in the third sheet of these Annals, line 101, there occurs a statement which appears to me to throw light upon the fact now announced of the discovery of inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser and Sardanapalus at the source of the Tigris. The following is the translation of this part of the record: –

“In that same year, while I was staying at Nineveh, they brought me the news, that those Assyrians whom Divanurish, King of Assyria, my ancestor, had located in the cities of Zilukha, has revolted, together with Kuliah their chief, and had marched against Damdamusa, one of my royal cities, and attacked it. In the name of Ashur, the Sun, and the Sky, my protecting deities, I assembled my chariots and my army; and at the source of the waters of the river Supnat, in the same place with the statues which Tiglath-pileser and Kuti-Bar, Kings of Assyria, my ancestors, had erected, there I erected a statue of myself, and I placed it by the side of theirs.”

Such is the statement contained in the Annals, and I thought at first that our explorers had now discovered the very sculptures which that ancient record speaks of; so that, in fact, their discovery might have been predicted with some probability. But whether or not the same sculptures are spoken of, at any rate the Annals record a remarkably similar event. I may add, that there are other inscriptions in which Divanubar, the Obelisk King, speaks of having set up sculptures or tablets at the actual source of the Tigris, but he does not speak of having seen those already placed there by Tiglath-pileser; so that the coincidence is again imperfect. But these inscriptions show the veneration with which the sources of great rivers were anciently regarded. And so in the present day, the source of the Ganges, at Gangootri, in the Himalaya mountains, is accounted a sacred spot and visited by numerous pilgrims. The reason why an army, or at any rate its principal cheifs, assembled at the sacred source of a large river before commencing a campaign, would perhaps not be divined if the inscriptions did not expressly inform us. It was for the purpose of dipping their weapons in the sacred fountain. This kind of baptism was in all probability thought to render them irresistible. So the Greeks fabled that Achilles was made invulnerable by being dipped when an infant in a sacred stream. But to return to the passage in the Annals (iii. 101), the questions remains, in what district was the source of the Supnat? I believe the Supnat was an affluent of the Tigris. The Assyrian colony spoken of lay some distance to the north of Nineveh, and near to the mountains of the Nahiri, whose numerous and turbulent tribes were usually at war with the King of Assyria. The annals of Tiglath-pileser give a long account of battles with them. And moreover, from the source of the Supnat, Sardanapalus marched straight to Kinabu, the city of the revolted Assyrian cheif Kuliah, which he took and destroyed, and slew all the inhabitants.

He particularly says, “not one escaped.”

After which, he gives an account of a campaign in the mountains of the Nahiri; whence it seems reasonable to infer that the city of Kinabu, and consequently the source of the Supnat, lay in that district. And the source of the Tigris is also in a mountain district which once formed a part of the land of the Nahiri. I therefore think it probable that if the sources of the other great rivers in that country are carefully examined, other sculptures and tablets will be found there.

H. Fox Talbot.


1. The Athenaeum (London).

2. Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson, 1st Baronet (1810–1895), orientalist.

3. John George Taylor (erroneously cited as J E Taylor with some frequency in the literature), Hon East India Company Agent and, from 1859, H.M. Consul-General for Kurdistan at Diyarbekir and Erzerum. He was the son of Capt. R. Taylor, the predecessor of Rawlinson at Baghdad, who was the original owner of the 'Taylor Cylinder' in the British Museum. Very little is known about his son, other than trough correspondence and through the Trustees Minutes at the British Museum, who commissioned work from him. See E. Sollberger, 'Mr. Taylor in Chaldaea', Anatolian Studies, v. 22, 1972, pp 129-139.

4. British Museum, Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities, A selection from the historical inscriptions of Chaldæa, Assyria, and Babylonia, v. 1, 1861 (four more volumes were eventually published).

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