Very little was known of the mighty Assyrian empire until Sir Austen Henry Layard began his investigations in Mesopotamia in the mid-nineteenth century. Up to that time, the great civilizations of Assyria and Babylon were largely forgotten in the European West. Outside of the Bible, only a few facts survived in the works of classical writers and ancient historians, such as Herodotus (ca. 484–424 BC). By the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the cities of Assyria were already buried and lost. Today, scattered mounds and ruins in Iraq are all that remain of the Assyrian empire.

The first explorer to attempt serious excavation, however, was not Layard but Paul Emile Botta, French consul at Mosul in Iraq. Botta uncovered inscriptions at Khorsabad which verified the existence of the Assyrian king Sargon II. The overthrow of Samaria was accomplished by Sargon, who is mentioned by the prophet Isaiah (20:1). Until Sargon’s palace was discovered in 1843 by Botta, this brief reference was the only place in extant literature where his name was recorded. Annals found in Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad record the fall of Samaria in the first year of his reign.

Excavation was crude compared to today’s archaeological methods, but it yielded an abundance of evidence that verified the record of the Bible. The nineteenth century excavators were mainly interested in recovering artefacts to add to the collections of their national museums. Indeed, the rich collections of antiquities in the British Museum and the Louvre in France were built up in this early period.

In 1845, Layard began excavations that led to the discovery of Nineveh and the palace of Sennacherib (704-681 BC) at modern Kuyunjik. Libraries housing thousands of tablets inscribed with cuneiform script were also discovered. These cuneiform tablets preserved documents such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Significant objects were also uncovered such as the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III (859-824 BC). The Black Obelisk, found by Layard in 1846 in the imperial palace of Nimrud, shows Jehu the king of Israel, kneeling before the Assyrian king. Israelites follow carrying gifts. The inscription below this relief sculpture reads:

“Tribute of Iaua [Jehu], son of Omri. Silver, gold, a golden bowl, a golden beaker, golden goblets. Pitchers of gold, lead, staves for the hand of the king, javelins I received from him”.

Other discoveries included the annals of Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727 BC) which record the tribute he exacted from Menahem, king of Israel: “As for Menahem, terror overwhelmed him, like a bird, alone he fled and submitted to me … silver, colored woolen [sic] garments, linen garments I received as tribute”.

Israel knew Tiglath-Pileser III as Pul, the name by which he was also known in Babylon, and the biblical record in 2 Kings 15 bears a remarkable similarity to the Assyrian annals:

“And Pul the king of Assyria came against the land: and Menahem gave Pul a thousand talents of silver, that his hand might be with him to confirm the kingdom in his hand” (15:19).

The discovery in 1830 of the so-called Taylor prism revealed details of Sennacherib’s campaign of 701 BC that included the siege of Jerusalem during the reign of Hezekiah, king of Judah. The remarkable correspondence between the biblical record in 2 Kings chapters 18–19 and Isaiah chapters 36–37, and the Assyrian account on the prism has been noted by scholars. While there are points of difference they are either minor or can be readily explained. Equally remarkable was the evidence of Nineveh’s destruction. Layard found that the city had been burnt and in the report of his excavations he frequently “notes the calcination of the alabaster and limestone as the result of fire”. Later excavators also found layers of ash as they unearthed parts of Nineveh.

The prophet Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh by fire: “There shall the fire devour thee; the sword shall cut thee off ” (3:15), and Zephaniah foretold that Nineveh would be completely destroyed and become a ruin thereafter (2:13-15). Not long after the fall of Nineveh the site was abandoned and was gradually covered by earth until only mounds marked the location of this once great city.

In reviewing his discoveries, Layard wrote:

“ The time of the discovery was singularly opportune. Had these palaces been exposed years before, no European would have been there to protect them from destruction. Had they been discovered a little later, there would have been insurmountable objections (from Governments) to the removal of their contents. It was consequently just at the right moment that they were disinterred …”

It is not hard to see the hand of divine providence in the many archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century and recent years that confirm the record of the Bible. These monuments and ruins testify to the truth and the certainty of God’s Word and are a constant and faithful witness to the living God.