It’s 6.30 AM. And instead of ignoring my alarm clock in bed, which I normally do at this hour, I’m standing outside looking at a barely visible piece of rock. It is located half-way up a mountain. And an ugly scaffold obscures most of it from view for the passers-by down below. Nevertheless, there I am – in the cold, camera in hand – waiting for the moment that the first rays of sunlight will illuminate it slightly. Now, I know that the light won’t help me to discern the cuneiform inscriptions that cover it – they are badly weathered – but it just might help me to see the figurative relief in better detail. If it does, then missing both my precious sleep and my breakfast will have been completely worth it. I am standing, after all, below one of my favorite rock reliefs from the entire ancient Near East: the monumental Bisitun inscription.
The Bisitun inscription was created by one of the first kings of the Achaemenid Empire – Darius I – to commemorate his seizure of the throne in 522 BC. It tells us about the court intrigues which preceded Darius’s rise to power, the empire-wide rebellions that broke out upon his coronation, and his brutal defeat of all of those rebellious “liar-kings” (which ranged from simply killing them, to mutilating their bodies and impaling them near capital cities). This alone renders the inscription extremely valuable to the study of the Achaemenid Empire. Additionally, because the inscription was written in three languages – Elamite, Old Persian and Babylonian – it was of essential importance to the decipherment of cuneiform in the nineteenth century. One often hears that it was the “Rosetta Stone” of the field of Assyriology. So, as a PhD student in the field of Achaemenid Empire studies, I was dying to see the inscription with my own eyes.
The Bisitun inscription was just one of the many marvels that I saw on our trip to Iran, however – a trip from which we have only just returned (dates: 19 April – 6 May). We started in Tehran, quickly drove to the snowcapped mountains of Ecbatana (Hamadan), on to the chilly environs of Bisitun (Kermanshah), and from there to the sunny, over 30 degrees Celsius sites of Susa and Chogha Zanbil (Shushtar). From Shushtar we went to Shiraz, where we finally got to see Persepolis and Naqsh-e Rustam; and from there we drove (via Pasargadae) to the beautiful city of Isfahan to relish in some modern-day Persian culture. While most of us went home at that point, some of us went on to Kashan to give an Assyriology workshop to a lovely group of Iranian archaeology students. In all, we covered more than 2420 km in ca. seventeen days. So I can assure you that by the end of the trip our bus had become our second home. There’s nothing like a handful of 10-hour-days on the highways to make you bond with a vehicle.
“We” and “us” in that paragraph, by the way, refers to a small group of (mostly) Assyriologists. For all of us, it was the first time that we went to Iran; and for most of us, it was the first time that we saw cuneiform inscriptions “in the wild,” rather than in some European museum. That was quite something. I mean, you can read about a monument, you can look up the pictures in a dusty book or a scholarly article, but there’s nothing like actually standing in the cold and peering at a frustratingly invisible relief to make you understand an inscription and the place it occupies in the surrounding landscape. Being there, standing there, walking around and taking everything in, gives you a level of historical understanding that reading a published text on your couch back home just cannot. That is not to say that the latter is inferior to the former (as a historian who loves to read texts on her couch, I’d be the last one to claim that). Rather, both are elements of one inseparable whole.
Unfortunately, it is well known that Assyriologists have less easy access to the “being there”-aspect of their discipline than many other scholars of antiquity. Assyriologists can visit cuneiform inscriptions in Iran, of course; or in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon etc. But Iraq – the cradle of the discipline – continues to be a country that few universities feel safe to send their students to. Who knows when that will change. One thing I do know is that I will not wait for that change. If I cannot go to (southern) Iraq, or to (parts of) Syria, then I’ll just visit all of the other countries. And Iran remains on the top of that list. It is a country with so many splendid monuments, mountains, deserts and cities that one trip does not even begin to exhaust what it has on offer. So, I will go back there. And to be completely honest, I’m already planning my next trip…
When the last rays of sun were rolling out, as the days grew cold, the trees unfolded and the lectures and borrels began in Leiden, I found myself lost in London. I have flown across the Channel to enjoy a two-month-long self-imposed academic exile in this Babylon-on-Thames in the wake of a “mad” king.
The Fighting Téméraire last port-of-call
I was based on the borough of Southwark for the duration, not very far from the 00o00’ 00” meridian. This part of London has a suburban feeling to it. Being a suburban boy, I quite enjoyed the neighbourhood. It is so peaceful and quiet that foxes cross the streets during the day just as freely as they do at night [Fig. 1].
I was able to visit a few of the many public parks London has to offer: Greenwich [Fig. 2], St. James, Southwark, Hyde Park etc. These are all excellent green oases in the heart of this Babylon-on-Thames. And yet, I confess that I liked the smaller and unknown Russia Dock Woodland park and its Stave Hill [Fig. 3] better, as it often served as scenery for my sleepless nights.
Moreover, the neighbourhood is steeped in history. During the last two centuries, this area was a lively commercial port welcoming inbound ships from Canada, Russia etc. It was also here that the HMS Téméraire, a ship-of-the-line which fought at Trafalgar, found its last port-of-call and was dismantled in 1838. Nowadays, the docks are either drained and turned into parks or have simply become leisure wharves; while the Fighting Téméraire’s last voyage lives on eternalised by the lively strokes of Turner [Fig. 4].
There and back again: the routine
Each day I cross the clayish waters of the Thames to the heart of London. I spend my days around Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia, but mostly around Russel Square. After roughly one hour of commuting, I reach the square around eight a.m. Both the SOAS Library and the British Museum are still closed, so I bide my time reading at the Square or in a nearby café. At nine in the morning, I enter SOAS Library to continue my work in a more quiet place.
Alas, by 10:15 a.m. I must be on the move making my way to the British Museum [Fig. 5]. I still need to go through security and on no circumstance will I be late for the rare chance to read a twenty five hundred year old piece of history. As is to be expected, security is a big concern at the museum. All visitors and their bags are thoroughly checked every time they enter.
Within the museum, the same zealous attention applies. It has been somewhat tricky to access the Middle East Reading Room at the British Museum, as the shop, which serves as an antechamber to this Reading Room, is officially closed. Often, the security personnel deniesstudents access or locks the doors while the students are still inside the room.
Thankfully, the Reading Room staff has been equally zealous in solving the situation. It will surely be solved from November onwards, once the new exhibition opens its doors.
Once I gain access to the Reading Room, I take my place on one of the long old wooden tables. In front of me, there is always a small black mat, a lamp, and a large upholstered wooden tray labelled with my name. On it, there are fifteen clay tablets or fragments. Most objects have their own cardboard box, in which they rest upon a cotton bed. Some bigger objects such as joined literary tablets or cylinders lack such a box. Curiously, students are only required to wear gloves when handling metal objects and pottery sherds. When handling tablets made of clay, such precaution is not observed.
What lays ahead are five and a half hours to study, copy and read millenary royal inscriptions, literary fragments of wisdom and historical writings that show but a glimpse of political and intellectual world of Babylon during the first millennium BCE.
As if that was not enough, the Reading Room merits a visit by itself. Under its high ceiling the study of the Middle East is disposed on two floors. The first floor harbours a library, used by the department staff, and wide windows designed to flood the room with light; the ground floor, divided into twelve bays with eleven tall cabinets each, houses but a small portion of the cuneiform collections owned by the museum.
At 4 p.m. the Reading Room closes for visitors. Packing my things, I cross Montague Place and Russell Square in the opposite direction and return to the library of School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The SOAS Library with its four open levels full of books is impressive. And it is also useful, once you crack the peculiar reference system. Here, cramped into a small workspace, I spend the remainder of my time. Normally, I check the readings done during the day, read on my research topic and try to write. When SOAS Library closes, I board the 188 and head back to suburbia. Tomorrow will be another day.
Some other time perhaps…
At its inception, this research trip to London had two main objectives. The first one has a somewhat broad scope, namely to gain some experience in reading and collating Neo- and Late Babylonian cuneiform tablets. The second aim, more zeroed in on my current PhD research, was to access, collate and copy an important literary text from that same period.
This tablet, which has been published twice before, is commonly known as the Verse Account [Fig. 6]. Usually, this artefact is displayed at the British Museum as a highlight concerning the last Babylonian monarch, Nabonidus. Due to its popularity and the fact that it is on display, it is difficult to gain access to this source. However, for the time being, it is even harder to gain access to the source than usual. As it turns out, the artefact is part of an exhibition on political dissent through the ages, guest curated by Ian Hislop. Unfortunately, this central objective has to be postponed. Yet, more than enough tablets are accessible to me, so I will be able to fulfil my secondary aim.
A museum of the world, for the world
By now, the British Museum is an old and cherished institution both in and outside the United Kingdom. It is both a cultural centre hosting various events and also modern art; and a house of tradition where the wall clocks are still winded by hand every now and then…
Nowhere else is this respect for tradition more manifest than in the so-called Enlightenment Gallery. This gallery aims to reproduce the original configuration of the museum. Two hundred and sixty tall cabinets exhibit books and artefacts, several display cases are disposed through the hall. Classical statues intermingled with modern ones, representing the first curators and Sir Hans Sloan, the “spiritual founder” of the museum, lay around the room. And, testifying that the early inclinations of the institute were just as vast and international as the modern ones, a replica of the Rosetta Stone is also on display here, upon a display stand similar to the one which held the real artefact in 1801.
Despite its name, The British Museum has indeed become “grande maison des étrangers” as an anonymous prophet announced in 1845 . But, contrary to his calamitous view, this is a good thing. From staff to visitors, the world comes here to tend to and to see the treasures of the world. Moreover, the museum is an important asset for research fields with an international standing such as Assyriology. This worldwide scope has been the main argument presented by the British Museum when ownership of possessions such as the Elgin Marbles are contested. These worldwide famous archaeological remains, named after the British official who secured their acquisition and transport to the museum, were once part of the Parthenon in Athens. There is a lively debate on whether these marbles should remain at the British Museum or if they should be returned to Athens’ Acropolis Museum.
Babylon-on-Thames AKA London
On Sundays, I take a leave from work. Its time bury my thoughts on something else and explore the city. All and all, I expected a much darker and more oppressive metropolis. Gratefully, the heavy smog is now only a thing of memory enclosed on the pages of Dickens, and hopeful billboards announce zero emissions in the city centre in a near future.
And, as the cherry on top, the last and resilient Summer days mostly keep rain and fog away. It is nice to stroll along the banks of the Thames [Fig. 7], to walk in the public parks and to chase squirrels and foxes around. It is equally good to enjoy the many free of charge museums like the Tate Modern (which besides contemporary art offers a great view of the city [Fig. 8]) or the Museum of Natural History in Kensington with its majestic hanging blue whale skeleton [Fig. 9].
More interesting still is the city itself and its people. This is truly a Babylon-on-Thames: diverse and multicultural. Several communities live here together, everyone goes about their daily strife shoulder to shoulder. And yet, this Babylon is not just a majestic, beautiful and lively city, there’s a darker side as well. Just take a short bus ride and pay attention. You will see several young and able-bodied men sleeping on the streets and under the bridges. For them, this city is all but beautiful or kind.
In any case, because I am only a tourist here, I can still find some charm to the city and its views. It is amazing to see how the old and the new play with each other [Fig. 10]. I especially like the way the history encroaches itself on the modern city [Fig. 11 and 12], or rather the solutions the modern city has found to preserve and embrace the old cities of London [Fig. 13]. The whole city feels like an open-air museum.
With all said, seen and done, it is about time to wander on to other shores and say: Dear, damn’d distracting town, farewell! [Fig. 14].
 “Situations in the Museum, as they became vacant by death – no one ever retires – are given to German and Italian boys; so that in time our great national institution will be one grande maison des étrangers” ‘Correspondent of the Edinburgh Review’ 1845, Madden collection, fol. 85 in Millard, Edward (1974) That Noble Cabinet: A History of the British Museum: 172.