Britain’s Queen of the Desert

When thinking about the Middle East, the first British name to come to mind is often Lawrence of Arabia (T. E. Lawrence), who was involved with the Arab Revolt (1916–1918) and the Sinai and Palestine Campaign (1915–1918). Yet, Lawrence was not the only British person to support the Middle East. Gertrude Bell, an author and archaeologist, became highly influential to British officials and helped establish modern states, such as Iraq. Trusted by both the British and the Arabs, Bell is often described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty’s Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection”.

Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell was born on 14th July 1868 in an English town called Washington in County Durham. Her father, Sir Thomas Hugh Bell, 2nd Baronet of Rounton Range and Washington Hall (1844-1931), was a wealthy landowner, and her grandfather, Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, 1st Baronet (1816-1904), was an ironmonger “as famous in his day as Isambard Kingdom Brunel“. Gertrude’s mother, Mary, passed away when she was only three years old after giving birth to her younger brother, Maurice (1871-1944).

Without a mother, Bell grew close to her father, who inspired her thirst for adventure. Her father also taught her about British policy-making and capitalism. He always made sure his workers were well paid and cared for, an attitude which he passed down to his daughter.

When Bell was seven, her father married the playwright Florence Olliffe (1851-1930). As well as providing the family with three more children, Hugh (1878-1926), Florence (1880-1971) and Mary (1882-1966), Florence taught Bell about duty and decorum but also encouraged her growing intellect. Florence regularly assisted the wives of local ironworkers, helping them become self-sufficient and access education.

At 11, Bell started attending Queen’s College in London before moving to Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford University, at 17. At the time, degree topics were limited for women, with history being one of the few they could study. Bell specialised in modern history and became the first woman to graduate in the subject at Oxford with a first-class honours degree. Unfortunately, her success was not classed as an academic degree because she was a woman.

After graduating from university, Bell travelled to Persia in 1892 to visit her step-uncle, Sir Frank Lascelles (1841-1920), who served as the British minister in Tehran. Bell described her journey in a book, Persian Pictures, which she published in 1894. The adventure inspired her to continue travelling, and she developed a passion for archaeology and languages. During her travels, Bell learned to speak Arabic, Persian, French, German and Italian.

In 1899, Bell explored Palestine and Syria, then travelled from Jerusalem to Damascus the following year. In 1903, Bell visited Singapore with her brother, where she befriended British colonial administrator Sir Frank Swettenham (1850-1946). Bell and Swettenham kept up a correspondence for several years, and they may have had a brief affair in 1904.

Between 1899 and 1904, Bell enjoyed mountaineering. While hiking in the Bernese Alps in western Switzerland, she recorded ten new pathways and reached one of the highest peaks in 1901. Since named after her, Gertrudspitze rises 2,632 m (8,635 ft) above sea level and remains a popular destination for experienced climbers.

In 1907, Bell published another book, Syria: The Desert and the Sown, which described her voyage to Syria. At the time, Syria belonged to the Ottoman Empire and encompassed the cities of Damascus, Jerusalem (now Israel/Palestine), Beirut (Lebanon), the ruins of Antioch (Turkey), and Alexandretta (Turkey). Her descriptions of the country and cities gave readers in the Western World their first glimpse of the Arabian Desert.

In March 1907, Bell returned to the Ottoman Empire, where she joined the archaeologist and New Testament scholar Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851-1939) on an excavation of Binbirkilise. Meaning “One Thousand and One Churches”, Binbirkilise is a ruined city once inhabited by Byzantine Christians between the 3rd and 8th century AD. Bell published her initial findings in the Revue Archéologique and helped Ramsay write the book, The Thousand and One Churches. Together, they started excavating several buildings, but when Bell returned two years later, stone robbers had demolished their findings.

Bell returned to England in 1908, where she became a founder member of the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League. Despite her misgivings about women’s inequality at university, Bell opposed women being granted the vote in parliamentary elections. Bell’s opinions stemmed from her social and political background, where the men were in charge but allowed her to participate in intellectual discussions. Today, it may seem strange that Bell, one of the most educated women of her time, opposed the suffrage campaign, but her main argument was that the uneducated should not be involved in politics, regardless of their sex. If women did not have the right to equal education with men, Bell questioned how they would cope with parliamentary matters.

Bell did not remain in England for long before travelling to Mesopotamia in January 1909. Today, the majority of historical Mesopotamia is located in Iraq. While there, she visited the ancient city of Carchemish, where she met T. E. Lawrence (1888-1935), who was working for Reginald Campbell Thompson (1876-1914), the man responsible for the excavation of the city.

While in Mesopotamia, Bell also photographed the Assyrian relief carvings in the Halamata Cave near the city of Duhok (Iraq). Bell was the first person to document a procession of nine carved figures that date back to approximately 704-681 BC on camera. Further study of the carvings has led archaeologists to believe the figures represent ” the Assyrian king worshipping the main divinities in the Mesopotamian pantheon.”

In the same year, Bell helped excavate the Al-Ukhaidir Fortress and wrote the first report on the remains. Whilst the building was large, Bell noted the living quarters were cramped. The fortress was on several important trade routes, so the size was likely to demonstrate the “despotic and the pleasure-loving character of the dynasty” rather than provide comfort for its inhabitants.

In 1913, Bell made another trip to Mesopotamia, where she became the second foreign woman to visit Haʼil, a city now in Saudi Arabia. Haʼil is the homeland of the Rashid royal family, who are historical rivals to the Saudi royal family. When Bell arrived, the city was in political turmoil. She was held in the city for eleven days before being able to continue her journey across the Arabian peninsula to Baghdad and back to Damascus. The only woman to visit Haʼil before Bell was Anne Blunt, 15th Baroness Wentworth (1837-1917), the daughter of the famous mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52).

At the outbreak of the First World War, Bell requested to be posted to the Middle East. Initially, her request was declined, so she spent a year in France working for the Red Cross. In November 1915, British Intelligence changed its mind and sent Bell to General Gilbert Clayton (1875-1929) at the Arab Bureau in Cairo, Egypt. Both Bell and T. E. Lawrence, who had also been sent to Cairo, were recommended by Commander David Hogarth (1862-1927), an archaeologist who became the acting director of the Arab Bureau the following year.

Using her knowledge of the Arabic language, Bell’s first task was to interpret data about Arab tribes collected by Captain William Shakespear (1878-1915), who had been shot and killed at the Battle of Jarrab. With Bell as the translator, Lawrence and other British Intelligence agents aimed to encourage the Arabs to form an alliance with Britain and stand against the Ottoman Empire.

In March 1916, Captain Clayton sent Bell to Basra, a former city belonging to the Ottoman Empire (now Iraq) that British forces had captured. Bell visited the city during her earlier travels and knew the area better than any Brit. Dividing her time between the Military GHQ Basra and the office of Chief Political Officer Percy Cox (1864-1937), Bell devised maps to help British troops travel safely from Basra to Baghdad.

Bell was given the title “Liaison Officer, Correspondent to Cairo” and assigned to Colonial Office intelligence officer Harry St John Philby (1885-1960), an Arabist born to British parents in Ceylon (Sri Lanka). As his field controller, Bell taught him about political manoeuvering and espionage. Bell remained in Basra until British troops successfully took Baghdad in March 1917.

When it was safe, Percy Cox summoned Bell to Baghdad and gave her the title “Oriental Secretary”. She remained in the city until the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in January 1919, after which Cox sent her to analyse the situation in Mesopotamia. With her knowledge of Arab tribes, Bell wrote a report called Self Determination in Mesopotamia, in which she listed the tribes she thought best suited to take on the leadership of a newly formed country. Unfortunately, the British Commissioner in Mesopotamia, Arnold Wilson (1884-1940), insisted the Mesopotamian population was not ready to rule alone, so proposed an Arab government under the influence of British officials.

Throughout 1920, Bell acted as a mediator between the Arab government and British officials. Not only did she have to convey messages between the two nations, but she also needed to mediate between the various Mesopotamian tribes. The Shias in the south, the Kurds in the north and the Sunnis in the centre all wanted to self-govern their land, but for the country to function, Bell needed to persuade them to unite. British Officials were also mindful of tribal feuds that could be costly and make the country vulnerable to other nations, such as Turkey, Persia and Syria, who had their eye on Mesopotamia’s oil resources.

Uniting the tribes was easier in theory than in practice. The Kurds not only inhabited parts of Mesopotamia but also Syria and Turkey. Whilst the Shias and Sunnis could merge their lands, only a portion of the Kurds lived in the new country, Iraq. Whilst Bell endorsed the division of the northern tribe, the Kurds were not happy about being denied a homeland, which led to uprisings in Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

Bell expressed the difficulties British officials faced in a letter to her father, saying, “Mesopotamia is not a civilised state.” By the end of 1920, the British had prevented the Kurdish revolt from escalating. Bell was invited to attend a series of meetings between 12th and 30th March to discuss the geographic and political future of the country. Officially known as the Middle East Conference held in Cairo and Jerusalem, the meetings were attended by many British officials, including the newly appointed Secretary of State for the Colonies Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and T. E. Lawrence, the Special Advisor to Colonial Office. The minutes of the meetings record Bell as the Oriental Secretary for High Commissioner of Iraq, with Sir Percy Cox as High Commissioner of Iraq.

During the Cairo Conference, Bell provided significant input in the discussions about Iraq’s creation and recommended Faisal bin Hussein (1885-1933), a former commander of the Arab forces, as the first King of Iraq. Lawrence backed up the suggestion, and Faisal officially became King on 23rd August 1921. Due to his Hashemite lineage, the country was initially called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

Not everyone welcomed Faisal as the king because they did not want to be governed by someone from a different tribe. Bell tried to ease Faisal into the role, teaching him about tribal geography and local business and supervising the election of government officials. The Arabs called Bell “al-Khatun”, which means a Lady of the Court who keeps an open eye and ear for the benefit of the State, and she served as Faisal’s confidante.

Supervising Faisal was not always an easy task, especially when he attempted to rid himself of the control of the British advisors. Writing about the ordeal, Bell confessed, “You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain.” Eventually, Faisal settled into the role and assisted Bell to establish the Baghdad Archaeological Museum, later renamed the Iraqi Museum. Bell donated many of her archaeological finds to the museum, believing the relics of Mesopotamian civilization ought to remain in their country of origin. Bell also founded the British School of Archaeology in Iraq to encourage the Arab population to develop an interest in their history and help preserve ancient artefacts.

Before the creation of Iraq, each Arab tribe had a flag or badge. To prevent riots and protests, the British proposed a new flag for Iraq, which incorporated aspects of each tribe. The design featured a black stripe to represent the Abbasid caliphate, a white stripe for the Umayyad caliphate, and a green stripe for Fatimid Dynasty. Joining the three lines together, a red triangle represented the country’s main religion, Islam. Bell also suggested adding a star to the flag to make it stand out from similar flags of other Middle Eastern countries.

The flag of Iraq has changed many times since its creation. Today’s flag looks remarkably different from the version Bell worked on in 1921. In 1959, a revolution led by Brigadier Abd al-Karim Qasim (1914-1963) abolished the Hashemite monarchy. For a brief time, the new republic adopted a black, white and green vertical tricolour, with a red eight-pointed star in the centre. When Qasim was overthrown in 1963, the country adopted the same colours and style as Egypt and Syria’s flags, a horizontal tricolour of red, white, and black bands. Initially, three green stars sat in the centre to symbolise Iraq’s aspiration to unite with Egypt and Syria. The union never happened, and the central symbol changed several times until 2008 when the Council of Representatives of Iraq settled on the phrase Allāhu ʾakbar in Kufic script, which means “Allah is the greatest”.

Bell’s lengthy stay in the Middle East began to take a toll on her health during the 1920s. Her work, which included writing correspondence and intelligence reports, was stressful, not helped by her repeated bronchitis attacks due to the smoke-filled offices she shared with her heavy smoking colleagues. She also suffered bouts of malaria and struggled to cope with the heat in the summer. By the time Bell returned to England for a brief visit in 1925, she was frail and emaciated.

After a short stay with her family, Bell returned to Baghdad, where she developed pleurisy, leaving her unable to work for several weeks. When she recovered, she received the sad news that her brother Hugh had succumbed to typhoid. On 11th July 1926, Bell instructed her maid to wake her up in the morning and went off to bed. That night, Bell died from a supposed overdose of sleeping pills. Whilst some assumed Bell committed suicide, others believe her death was an accident since she had asked her maid to wake her.

Bell’s funeral took place on 12th July 1926, merely hours after her death. The funeral was a major event attended by British officials and Arabs living in the area. King Faisal watched the procession from his balcony as Bell’s coffin was carried to the British cemetery in Baghdad’s Bab al-Sharji district.

Commander David Hogarth wrote Bell’s obituary, emphasising the respect British officials had for her. “No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”

Bell’s stepmother also honoured her by publishing two volumes of letters Bell sent to her and the family about her adventures in the Middle East before the outbreak of World War One. Some of these letters formed part of the documentary Letters from Baghdad, featuring Tilda Swinton (b. 1960) as the voice of Bell. Gertrude Bell’s life was also the basis of the 2015 film Queen of the Desert, starring Nicole Kidman (b. 1967).

For her work, Bell was posthumously made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) and honoured with a stained glass window at St Lawrence’s Church, East Rounton, North Yorkshire. The window, designed by Douglas Strachan (1875-1950), features Magdalen College, Oxford, where Bell attended university, and Khadimain, Baghdad, where she spent the last year of her life.

As one of the few British people remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection, Bell remained a respected name in Iraq for some time. Unfortunately, as time went on, she disappeared from general public knowledge, with T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) taking precedence. With the help of recent films, Gertrude Bell is gradually getting the respect she deserves. Whilst the situation in Iraq and its neighbouring countries still face political struggles and tribal feuds, Bell simultaneously helped the country reform after the fall of the Ottoman Empire whilst preserving the remains of the ancient land. Not only are these enormous feats, but Bell’s achievements also occurred at a time when women were excluded from political work. Despite her views on women’s suffrage, Bell paved the way for women to aspire to careers in archaeology, and for that reason, she deserves the epithet “Queen of the Desert”.


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Making Your Mark

There are many worries and concerns about the increasingly digital world. Already, fairly new inventions are becoming obsolete, for instance, tape recorders and VHS, and it will not be long before the latest technology is considered old-fashioned. Local shops are closing as they fail to live up to the successes of online retailers and some shops have gone cash-less, only allowing payments by debit or credit card. Before long, society may not be able to cope without digital intervention, which leads to questions such as “what would happen during a power cut?” or “what if there was a signal failure?”

The British Library has picked up on a question that many people will not have considered. What is the future for writing? Will we abandon pens and pencils in favour of keyboards or voice recording? Will we no longer learn how to write by hand? In their current exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, the Library charts the evolution of writing through 5000 years of human discovery from hieroglyphs to emojis.

Writing can achieve what speech cannot: it communicates across space and time and has left evidence of the development of language and communication from all areas of the world. The exhibition begins by exploring the earliest evidence of writing, which is generally believed to date back 5,000 years. As archaeologists discover more ancient relics, the very earliest form of writing becomes more debatable, however, scholars generally believe the first writing-system developed in Mesopotamia around 3400 BCE. Of course, this was nothing like the systems we are familiar with today; initially, people used pictorial signs to communicate but these eventually developed into complex characters, each representing a different sound in the Sumerian (southern Mesopotamian) language.

These marks became known as cuneiform and have been preserved in clay tablets. With a reed stylus, writers scratched the characters into wet clay, as evidenced in a preserved 4000-year-old tablet that records an account of workers’ wages. This example of cuneiform had not yet lost the look of pictograms, however, over the next few centuries, the characters were simplified making it both easier to read and write.

Although cuneiform was originally used by Sumerians, their empire was invaded by the Akkadians in 2340 BCE, who began to adopt the form of writing in their own language. In total, an estimated fifteen languages used cuneiform inspired letters, many of which were still being used long into the Common Era.

Cuneiform was not used worldwide, however, and other areas developed their own method of writing. In Egypt, evidence of hieroglyphics date back to 3250 BCE and have been found on rocks, stone and ivory tablets. Later, people began using brush and ink to produce these characters, although it is believed this method had specific purposes. Hieroglyphs mean sacred carvings and are found in the remains of ancient temples and ceremonial places. The written version is known as hieratic or “priestly” script and is thought to have been used in the service of royal or temple administration.

The hieroglyphs or hieratics were made up of a range of different characters; some represented sounds and syllables, whereas others had particular meanings. An example of this form of writing can be seen on a limestone stela from around 1600 BCE that contains a hymn to Osiris, the king of the netherworld. This is on display at the exhibition and is the oldest artefact belonging to the British Library.

Another example of ancient writing came from the late Shang dynasty (1300–1050 BCE) in China. Shards of bone have been discovered with characters carved into the surface, many of which remain undeciphered. It is believed these bones came from the shoulder blades of oxen and the shells of turtles and have been identified as “oracle” bones containing questions about a variety of topics from crop rotation to childbirth. Thousands of these bones have been discovered, and from them over 4,500 different symbols have been recorded.

The British Library displays an Oracle bone from the Couling-Chalfant collection that has been dated between 1300 BCE and 1050 BCE. The inscription on the bone records that there would be no bad luck in the next ten days and carries a record of a lunar eclipse.

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Whilst Chinese characters today look similar to the ancient version, they have evolved considerably. Unlike cuneiform, which simplified over time, Chinese symbols gradually became more abstract and new compound forms developed. Today, many written Chinese words are a combination of two components: one reflects the meaning and the other the pronunciation. Take the word “mother” for example; the first symbol means “woman” and the other represents the sound “ma”. Combined together, the symbols create the word “mother”.

In Mesoamerica, there was a broad range of languages and recent discoveries have confirmed that many of these had systems of writing. These include Maya, Mixtecs, Aztecs, Olmecs and Zapotecs. Some of these languages focused on symbols to represent different words or ideas, whereas, others developed characters based on sound and grammar. An example of the latter is the Mayan glyphs as found on a Limestone stela at Pusilhá in Belize. These have been translated as information about the ruler K’ak’ U’ Ti’ Chan and praise of his father.

Whilst the oldest form of writing is commonly believed to have stemmed from Mesopotamia, there have been discoveries in other areas of symbols that might have once been a form of language. Societies dating back as far as 7000 BCE occupied areas in the Indus River valley of Pakistan and northwest India. At least 5000 inscribed artefacts have been unearthed from the region, however, they are usually only three or four signs long. The longest “sentence” discovered is twenty-six characters long but it is not certain what it says if anything at all. In total, 400 different symbols have been identified, which suggests it may not be a form of writing style as we understand them today.

On Rapa Nui (Easter Island), Polynesia, glyphs have been discovered on Rongorongo – wooden tablets inscribed with animal and plant motifs amongst other things. Unfortunately, no one knows how to read these tablets and, although 120 characters have been identified, the meanings of the lengthy texts remain hidden.

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One of the oldest examples of writing, found in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

So, how did writing develop from these form of writing styles to the alphabet we are familiar with today? As can be seen on the Serabit sphinx on display at the British Library, the Proto-Sinaitic inscription looks nothing like the words written today. However, it contains a symbol that eventually developed into the letter A.

It is possible to chart the evolution of writing systems from Ancient Egypt to today. Usually, the contemporary method of writing is known as the alphabet, however, other cultures use alternative systems. An alphabet contains letters that represent different sounds, both vowels and consonants; abjads, however, only stand for consonants, as in the Arabic and Hebrew languages. The third type of characters are abugidas, which represent combinations of a consonant attached to a vowel sound. This is most commonly associated with the Indian script Devanāgarī.

Non-native Egyptian speakers began to adopt hieroglyphs in their own language. A wavy line, which meant water, was used as the first letter of their word for water (pronounced Mayim). Over the centuries, this symbol developed into our letter M. The Phonecians adopted this method of writing, which was then passed on to other cultures, such as Aramaic, Hebrew and Syriac. Via Aramaic, the Indian scripts developed, and via Syriac, the writing system spread to northern Asia.

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By travelling south, scripts including Arabian and Arabic were formed, and to the west Punic script developed, eventually leading to the Greek Alphabet. The Phoenician script only used consonants, however, the Greeks began to add signs for vowels. From Greek, the Etruscan alphabet was produced, and from that, the Romans created the alphabet that is still used today.

The Roman alphabet was introduced to other countries via the spread of the Roman Empire. As with all the writing styles of the past, the original alphabet has developed and altered over time. Letters began to take on slightly different shapes to help people write faster and capitals and lowercase letters helped make the script easier to read.

The history of writing encompasses far more than the development of the alphabet. Included in the exhibition are displays of ancient and modern writing materials and technologies. As already mentioned, the earliest material used to write on was clay, which was readily available in Mesopotamia. Damp clay could easily be moulded into a tablet then, with a stylus made from dried reeds, the cuneiform marks could be etched into the material. The clay tablet could also be wiped clean and used again if needed.

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2,000-year-old homework book

Evidence remains of writing carved into stone and bone, which would have been produced using chisels or other sharp objects, however, anything written using this method was permanent and could not be erased. Approximately 2000 years ago in Greek and Roman cultures, inscribing words into materials was still the main method of writing but they had developed new forms of tablets that could be used again and again. These were made from wooden frames filled with beeswax, which could easily be scratched with a stylus. The wax could be melted and used again when needed.

The British Library owns a wax tablet dating from the second century CE that contains the writing practice of a young Egyptian endeavouring to learn Greek. The top two lines were written by the tutor or schoolmaster and read: “Accept advice from someone wise / it is not right to believe every friend of yours.” The child’s attempt to copy the phrase is on the lines toward the bottom of the tablet. It appears he has missed out the first letter of the sentence and, toward the end, run out of space, scratching the final letter into the frame.

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Writing with ink is almost as old as the incised hieroglyphs from ancient Egypt (approx. 3200 BC). Ink has been made from various dyes and pigments over the years but it is the method of applying it to materials that is the most interesting. The earliest writing implements were made from reeds, which were easily obtainable in Asia and Europe. The reed is prepared by cutting a nib shape with a sharp knife. The angle determined the thickness of the lines and they were trimmed in different directions depending on the script. The nib was cut to the right for Roman and Greek scripts but left for scripts such as Arabic, Urdu and Persian, which are written from right to left.

It was not until the middle ages that quill pens were introduced. Similar to the reed, the point of a feather quill was cut to form a nib, which could then be dipped into ink and applied to various parchment. A damaged quill belonging to the British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-92) is on display as part of the exhibition. The nib has been bent and is, therefore, not fit for use.

The downside about using quills or reeds was the constant need to replenish the ink on the nib. It was not until the industrial revolution that metal pens became widely available and revolutionised the process of writing. In 1819, the Manchester firm James Perry & Co began producing metal nibs and from this, the fountain pen was developed.

In the 1940s, the ballpoint pen was introduced, which, yet again, revolutionised writing. Baron Marcel Bich (1914-94) bought the patent for ballpoint pens from László Bíró (1899-1985) who had begun producing such pens in Argentina in 1943. Bich was the co-founder of BIC Cristal, which quickly became the world’s leading producer of ballpoint pens.

Without a doubt, the printing press was the most revolutionary invention in the history of writing. In the 8th century, the Chinese discovered the method of woodblock printing (xylography), which involved carving letters into a piece of wood, covering it with ink, and pressing the wood onto a thin sheet of paper. Whilst this was effective, it was also time-consuming. In the West, scribes continued to hand write important texts, a feat that also took an extremely long time. The printing press changed all this.

Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg (1400-68), a German goldsmith from Mainz, was the first person to print with moveable type. Letters from the Roman alphabet were produced on tiny, individual metal blocks that could be carefully positioned and inked in a printing press to transfer passages of text to paper. The first book to be printed in this manner was the Bible, now known as the Gutenberg Bible.

In 1476, William Caxton (1422-91), an English merchant and writer, introduced the printing press to England. It is believed the first significant book to be printed in Britain was The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400).

Unfortunately, the printing press was limited to the Roman type and was of no use to scripts that were made up of abjads or abugidas. An alternative printing method called Lithography was developed in the 1790s by the German actor Aloys Senefelder (1771–1834). This involved using a greasy or waxy substance to write on a smooth stone surface that was then dampened and covered with ink. The ink would not stick to the greasy areas, therefore, when the stone was applied to paper, the greasy areas remained blank.

Based on the printing press, the next significant development was the typewriter. In 1872, the Remington typewriter was released in the USA and quickly became the model for typewriters all over the world. In English speaking countries, the QWERTY keyboard was developed, which is still used today, to prevent keys jamming by spreading the most common letters across the keyboard. Pressing a key sent an individual hammer, carved with a letter, onto an inked ribbon, which would leave a mark on the paper that was being fed through line by line. The average typist could manage to write 150 words per minute in contrast to 30 words by hand.

Once again, the typewriter alienated languages that used different scripts, for instance, Chinese. During the 20th century, the Double Pigeon Chinese typewriter became iconic in the East. Based on the western typewriter, it could accommodate almost 2,450 loose pieces of type, which are individually picked up using a selector tool and applied to the paper.

The 1960s and 70s saw another major leap forward in technology when computers were invented. Originally, computers were considered to be giant calculating machines but the potential to be used as a new writing tool was soon realised. The Apple Macintosh II was one of the first computers to be produced, however, they already look ancient in comparison to the computers used today. In the past few decades, technology has developed at an exceedingly rapid pace. Now, not only can I type this on my computer, I can share it with the world on my blog. I can post a link to it on Facebook or Whatsapp then chat with various people on Messenger and other apps.

It is these latest developments that have led the British Library to question the future of writing, particularly handwriting. How often do people write by hand per day? How many people write letters rather than emails? How often do people write a note on a piece of paper rather than on their phone? Questions like these are bound to make people worry that the chances of handwriting surviving are remote.

Nonetheless, schools are still keen for children to write more by hand than on a computer. Studies have proved than handwritten notes are easier to recall than digital ones. Learning to write also helps children learn to read as well as develop other cognitive behaviours across many disciplines.

The British Library reveals how writing by hand has benefitted people in the past. With examples from Florence Nightingale‘s (1820-1910) journals and notes by Alexander Flemming (1881-1955), it is clear that being able to jot down thoughts with a pen or pencil can be a good way of remembering things at a later date. (You should see the notes I wrote on the exhibition guide as I viewed the displays!) Irish novelist James Joyce (1882-1941) not only found writing notes useful when working on books, such as Ulysses, he constantly went back to them and added more notes or colours to help him piece together his narrative. The famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) wrote notes on his manuscripts about how to play certain notes and so forth. The latter in particular is much easier to do by hand than digitally.

Before concluding, the exhibition takes a look at modern developments in typography, including work by graphic artists, for instance, El Lissitzky (1890-1941), and the graffiti artist eL Seed (b.1981). None of these things would be possible without the development of writing styles dating back to the Mesopotamian and other ancient eras and whatever the future holds, it will always be possible to trace the history of writing and communication back to them.

There is no answer to the question “What is the future of writing?” No one knows, no one can predict the way technology will develop and the impact this will have on the way we write. The exhibition ends by asking visitors what they think writing will be like in the future. Some people said they think voice recognition devices that type what you say will be the way forward. Others think that handwriting will continue to be a skill taught and used in schools.

Whatever happens, I know that I will continue writing both by hand and digitally (how else would you read my blog?).

Writing: Making Your Mark can be viewed in the PACCAR 1 gallery at The British Library until Tuesday 27th August 2019. Tickets are £14 for adults, £12 for over 60s and £7 for children and students over 11 years old. Members of the British Library can visit free of charge.


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I am Ashurbanipal

“I am Ashurbanipal, great king, mighty king, king of the world, king of Assyria.”

With over 200 extraordinary objects, the British Museum is exploring the life of King Ashurbanipal of Assyria (r.668-627 BC). In his own words, Ashurbanipal was “king of the world”, but if he was so great, why is he not well-known today? Those familiar with the Assyrians have likely come across references in classical sources or the Bible. Assyria and its capital city, Nineveh, feature in Biblical stories such as Jonah when the Lord commands the prophet to “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.” (Jonah 3:2 NIV) The eventual fall of Nineveh is written about in the book of Nahum but the supposedly most powerful individual on the planet never earned a mention.

The British Museum begins the exhibition I am Ashurbanipal with a brief history of the empire up to the reign of the great and mighty king. At the time of his reign (668 BC), the Iron Age Mesopotamian empire Neo-Assyria was the largest empire in the world. Assyria was originally an Akkadian kingdom which had begun to evolve as early as the 25th century BC, however, its most important period began in 911 BC with the ascension of Adad-Nirari II.

By the time Ashurbanipal became king, Assyria stretched from Cyprus in the west to Iran in the east, its capital city – the biggest city in the world – falling where Iraq is today. With an empire covering such a considerable amount of land, Ashurbanipal was not far off with his boast about being king of the world. Yet, being the youngest son of the previous king, he was never destined for the throne.

When King Esarhaddon’s (r.680-668 BC) eldest son died, he ignored his next eldest son, Shamash-shumu-ukin, making Ashurbanipal the crown prince instead. In order to attempt to keep the peace between the brothers, Esarhaddon gave Shamash-shumu-ukin the kingdom of Babylon, which he had rebuilt during his reign. This, however, as the exhibition proves, only stirred up more antagonism. Despite being a kingdom, Babylon was part of the Assyrian empire, thus the king of Babylon was subject to his baby brother.

Ashurbanipal reigned from the city of Nineveh in Upper Mesopotamia, on the outskirts of what is now the major city of Mosul in Iraq. During the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, there was a significant architectural expansion of the city, eventually making it the largest in the world. The man mostly responsible for this endeavour was Ashurbanipal’s grandfather, King Sennacherib (r.704-681 BC).

Sennacherib laid out new streets and squares to help the old provincial town grow into a magnificent city. Towards the south-west of the city, Sennacherib built a palace, which he boasted to be a “palace without a rival”. It is thought to have contained over 80 rooms and had the approximate dimensions of 503 by 242 metres.

“I enlarged the site of Nineveh, my capital city. I broadend its squares, making them as bright as day. I had an inner and an out wall built and I raised them as high as mountains.”
– King Sennacherib

The British Museum displays the remains of wall panels and carvings that have been recovered from the remains of the palace’s site as well as the North Palace that Ashurbanipal built in about 645 BC on the citadel mound of Nineveh. The outer walls were most likely constructed of mud brick and plaster, while cedar wood beams were used to hold up the roof. The grander rooms of the palaces contained narrative scenes and protective figures carved into gypsum panels.

The main doorways were probably flanked by colossal stone lamassu figures. These were protective deities, often depicted with a human head but the body of a lion or bull. Whilst these have not survived to the present day, the museum has a couple of examples of protective spirits on wall panels, which, along with the stone figures, were revered as magical guardians who would protect the palace from malevolent supernatural forces, particularly those that could harm the king.

There are three spirits on the wall panels in the exhibition, each with different physical characteristics. One is called Lahmu or “the hairy one”, recognised by his elaborate ringlets, which also denote his divine status. Another is considered to be a “House God”, whose divinity can be determined by his headdress. These deities both have human heads, however, the one positioned between them has the head of a lion. Known as Ugallu, “Great Lion”, or “Big Weather-Beast”, this monstrous-looking deity or demon was believed to ward off evil and disease using threatening gestures with his dagger and mace.

Other carvings and statues of magical creatures were also found in the ruins of the ancient palaces, for example, the stone face of a sphinx that may once have formed part of a column base. A sphinx was believed to have similar powers to the human-headed lamassu figures, however, the sphinx usually looked more animalistic. With the haunches of a lion, a human head and often bird-like wings, the Sphinx was usually carved from one piece of limestone, however, Sennacherib also used other materials.

“Sphinxes of alabaster, as well as sphinxes of cast copper overlaid with silver … I erected over them columns of ebony, cypress, cedar, juniper and Indian wood, with gold and silver inlays.”
– King Sennacherib

The British Museum has examples of Assyrian wall reliefs in abundance and it is easy to be overwhelmed with the number of scenes they depict. These are some of the finest examples of Assyrian art, however, after continuously seeing one after another, they begin to all look the same. Nonetheless, these reliefs show some of the most important parts of Ashurbanipal’s reign and emphasise his importance and power throughout Assyria.

After being appointed crown prince by his father, Ashurbanipal began training to be king. Whilst living in a palace known as the “House of Succession”, the prince was taught royal etiquette, important military and leadership skills and was instructed in Mesopotamian scholarship. He also shadowed his father in court and was given the position of spymaster general, tasked with gathering information about Assyria’s allies and enemies throughout the empire.

“I cantered on thoroughbeds, rode stallions that were rearing to go; I held a bow and made arrows fly as befits a warrior …”
– King Ashurbanipal

As many of the wall reliefs show, Assyrian kings and warriors were famed for hunting lions, the most dangerous creature in the empire. This was considered a royal sport and represented the king’s ability to protect his nation against the dangers of the world. Assyrian kings were also believed to be the human representative of the gods, so these lion hunts were also a way of proving that they had divine protection from harm.

Ashurbanipal recorded his experience of lion slaying, describing how he seized a wild lion by the tail and “through the command of the gods” killed it by shattering its skull with his mace. Whilst this seems cruel and inhumane, these triumphs were celebrated at the time of the Neo-Assyrian empire, hence the number of reliefs depicting the feat.

When Ashurbanipal was not killing lions, he enjoyed reading and writing, which was rather an unusual hobby for a king. As well as being a good commander, Ashurbanipal believed that to have control over an empire, he needed to have knowledge too. He loved to boast about the extent of his scholarship and was proud of his education, especially after having studied with one of the top scribes of the time. As a result, many surviving images of the king depict him with a stylus for writing tucked into his belt.

“I have read cunningly written texts in obscure Sumerian and Akkadian that are difficult to interpret.”
– King Ashurbanipal

When he became king, Ashurbanipal inherited an enormous collection of specialist writings, which eventually became the foundation of the largest and most extensive library the world has seen. In total, it is believed Ashurbanipal owned at least 10,000 works.

The works in Ashurbanipal’s library were written on freshly made clay tablets and the British Museum has assembled a huge sample of the remaining fragments. Assyrian books were written in a script called cuneiform, which had first been developed by the ancient Sumerians of Mesopotamia around 3000 BCE. The system of writing was read left to right and looked like a series of wedge-shaped marks. In fact, cuneiform simply translates as “wedge-shaped”.

Ashurbanipal’s library provided him access to texts and references of all types of knowledge, including rituals, calendars, prayers, magic and medicine. Mostly, Ashurbanipal used the books to help him communicate with the gods and determine what the future held.

“I, Ashurbanipal, learned the wisdom of Nabu [the god of writing], laid hold of scribal practices of all the experts, as many as there are, I examined their instructions.”

Fortunately for scholars all over the world, when Ashurbanipal’s palace was eventually destroyed, the library was buried underneath the rubble where it stayed hidden for 2000 years. As a result, excavators were able to find examples of many of the significant works in Ashurbanipal’s collection. One of these works, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is the most famous of Mesopotamian literature.

As well as being the most famous Mesopotamian work, The Epic of Gilgamesh is also considered to be the earliest surviving piece of literature. Written in the form of an epic poem, it tells the adventures of Sumerian Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk, which include killing the monster Humbaba and searching for immortality.

A large part of the exhibition concentrates on the areas that were owned by the Assyrian empire. By the time Ashurbanipal came to power, Assyria controlled a huge territory, which was divided into several provinces. Each province was supervised by a governor who had been appointed by the king, for example, his brother who ruled Babylon. Other provinces included the Levantine kingdoms, Cyprus, Urartu, Western Iran, and Aramaean kingdoms, such as Syria and Turkey. The British Museum documents each place with examples of ancient relics, many of which may have been spoils of war.

Ashurbanipal was involved in many wars during his reign, particularly ones that helped to expand the empire’s borders or stamp out usurpers. The Assyrians were not deterred by violence, believing it was a just punishment against those who had slighted the king or the gods.

During the first half of his reign, Ashurbanipal sent his armies to the west to conquer Egypt and its neighbouring regions. His success came about by defeating his enemies and capturing the city of Thebes, however, in the East, other problems were brewing.

Whilst Ashurbanipal was busy dealing with Egypt, the kingdom of Elam tried to rise up against Assyria. The king’s armies quickly quashed the revolt and the threat abated until the Elamite king died later in the year. Rather than the rightful heir, Ummanigash, take the throne, his uncle Teumman seized the position. Fearing for his life, Ummanigash fled with his family to the safety of Assyria. Naturally, Teumman was displeased with this turn of event and demanded that Ashurbanipal force his nephew to return. Instead, the Assyrian’s retaliated by attacking the Elamite usurper. After Teumman’s defeat, his head was paraded through the streets of Nineveh.

“I cut off the head of Teumman, their presumptuous king who had plotted evil. I slew his warriors without number. I captured the fighting men alive.”
– King Ashurbanipal

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Teumman’s decapitated head hanging from a tree

Ashurbanipal took the credit for the defeat of Teumman claiming that he personally killed the Elamite king and his son with his own sword. In reality, Ashurbanipal never entered the battle in Elam, remaining in safety back at his palace in Nineveh. Nonetheless, the death of the usurper was permanently recorded on wall friezes depicting the king of Assyria relaxing in his garden. On a tree nearby, hangs the head of the ex-Elamite king.

For Ashurbanipal, the empire was the most important thing in his life, more important than family, including his brother. Shamash-shumu-ukin never got over his father’s choice to make his younger brother the crown prince of Assyria. Whilst he was given the kingdom of Babylon to rule over, Shamash-shumu-ukin was extremely displeased to be under the thumb of Ashurbanipal. In secret, he began to conspire against his younger brother, creating a coalition with other areas of the empire. Unfortunately for Shamash-shumu-ukin, Ashurbanipal caught wind of his vicious plot.

Initially, Ashurbanipal attempted to maintain peace with Babylon but his brother’s persistent rebellion sparked a war in 652 BC, lasting for four years. Although Shamash-shumu-ukin had the support of foreign rulers, the king soon had the upper hand. The Assyrians eventually laid siege to the city of Babylon for two years during which time the Babylonian’s suffered from lack of food and disease. The siege ended after Shamash-shumu-ukin perished after setting his palace on fire to avoid capture.

By the end of Ashurbanipal’s reign, he had ruthlessly crushed Assyria’s enemies, thus fulfilling his kingly duty to restore order in the world. Despite having a well-documented life, the final years of Ashurbanipal’s long reign have not been recorded or, at least, not been discovered. As a result, it is impossible to determine how or when he died; some scholars believe his reign ended as early as 631 BC, whereas others report that it was as late as 627 BC. What can be proved, however, is that after his death, all Ashurbanispal’s hard work began to unravel.

Just as Nahum prophesied in the Bible, the city of Nineveh was destined to fall: “he [God] will make an end of Nineveh; he will pursue his foes into the realm of darkness.” (Nahum 1:8 NIV)

Ashurbanipal was shortly succeeded by his son Ashur-etil-ilani until 624 BC and possibly another son, Sin-shar-ishkun until 612 BC. It was during this time that things began to fall apart, beginning with a general called Nabopolassar seizing the throne of Babylon in 626 BC. This caused a civil war that left the Assyrian empire fighting for survival.

The Iranian Medes joined the war, sacking cities and desecrating the tombs of past Assyrian kings. By 612 BC, Assyria’s enemies had fought their way to the capital city Nineveh which they razed to the ground, causing the death of King Sin-shar-ishkun, the last ever King of Assyria.

The British Museum ends the exhibition with an insight into the work taking place in Iraq, including the ancient site of Nineveh. Archaeological discoveries relating to the Assyrians were first made in the 1840s, however, recent events have destroyed a lot of remaining cultural heritage. The Gulf War (1990-91) and invasions between 2003 and 2011 resulted in the loss and vandalism of many ancient relics. Further irreparable damage was made during Daesh from 2014 to 2017. The British Museum is currently one of a number of organisations working with the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage to salvage what they can plus rebuild and preserve Iraq’s cultural heritage.

I am Ashurbanipal is on view in Room 30 of the British Museum until 24th February 2019. Ticket prices are £17, however, under-16s may visit for free when accompanied by a paying adult.