Today, we might call him a “slacker” in terms of his early years. He at least qualified as a kind of vagabond. And in some ways, Millennials should love the guy. He was 22 years old. He cared about social justice, he thought being a lawyer would be unbelievably dull, and he was fascinated by other cultures. Only it was 1839.
After he arrived in Istanbul, he wrote home to a favourite aunt, “With this place, I am much delighted. It even exceeds any description I have seen. The imagination could not picture a site more beautiful as that occupied by Constantinople. In the hands of any other European power it would have been the strongest city in the world; in the hands of the Turks, it has become the most picturesque.”
He couldn’t know it yet, but forty years later, he would be one of the most important foreigners living there.
His name was Henry Layard, and he was far ahead of his time. And chances are, you’ve never heard of him. But people should know his name because of all that he witnessed and accomplished. And because the issues that concerned him, the things that moved him to passionately write and speak out, are still with us.
I know, because I’ve been fascinated with Layard for 20 years and am now—at last—finishing up a biography of him.
Remember the Assyrian ruins that ISIS destroyed in Mosul and Hatra a couple of years ago or so? Layard is the one who originally discovered them. Some of the big winged lions and bulls he found are in the British Museum and the MOMA of New York. Oh, and by the way, before you assume he was another tomb raider of the colonial powers, he didn’t steal anything—he actually got permission from the Ottoman authorities to excavate them. And if that doesn’t impress you, consider this: he found a major ancient palace on the very first day he started digging.
Remember Putin’s blatant grab of the Crimea? Henry Layard went to observe the battles of the Crimean War and warned everyone about the Russians trying to take the region. He saw the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade and told Britons they ought to help the Turks and stop letting aristocratic nitwits with no experience run the military.
When the Indian Mutiny broke out in 1857, Layard wrote friends that “We never get the Indian story” and promptly went off to India to investigate. He came home and gave speeches, saying Indians should have a say in running their own affairs.
And even before all that, before he even reached Istanbul, he was doing more and seeing more than any ambitious, scruffy backpacker with a Daily Planet guide could hope to accomplish today.
Layard grew up in a middle class home with parents who loved to entertain artists and writers. Benjamin Disraeli, back when he was still a novelist and not yet a politician, used to come over to the Layard house. So it was a bit of a shock when Henry was shoved towards law at an uncle’s practice in London—which only prompted the bored young man to wander the streets instead of hitting the books and start hanging out with Polish revolutionaries. The family worried. What are we going to do about Henry? Someone got the bright idea of sending him off to Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), where he could start a practice as a barrister. Henry gave in.
Only his travel companion, a business guy who was ten years older than him, didn’t want to go by sea (which is certainly impractical, given the Channel and the Indian Ocean have to be confronted sooner or later). So they worked out an overland route.
Their long, circuitous tour gave Henry Layard plenty of chances to wander off on his own. He was one of the first Westerners to see the amazing ruins of Petra in Jordan. He befriended a clan of the Bakhtiari, at the time a wild tribe of horse-riding nomads and bandits in Isfahan, Persia, and he ended up having adventures with them like vignettes out of an Indiana Jones film. He offered intelligence to a British officer, because these were the days of the so-called “Great Game” with Britain and Russia jockeying for power over Afghanistan.
By the time this 22-year-old arrived in Istanbul in 1839, he was a seasoned traveller who knew a lot about the regional peoples, about who could cause trouble, and what was at stake in terms of trade and geography.
Great. But in the fine tradition of the British establishment, the powers that be were too stupid to offer him a paying job. Instead, they gave him the Victorian equivalent of an “internship”—letting him twist for years over whether he’d ever get a paying gig. The ambassador gave him occasional funds out of his own pocket.
It was in Istanbul that Layard pitched the scheme that would change his life. He wanted to go dig up Nineveh. He did, and he found amazing sculptures and bas-reliefs. He wrote a Victorian bestseller and become one of the most well known figures in archaeology. But he should be remembered for far more, especially by Turkish history buffs.
During his excavation work, Layard got to know and appreciate the culture of the Yezidis, and thanks to his lobbying efforts, the British ambassador back in Istanbul, Stratford Canning, intervened with the Sublime Porte to end—at least temporarily—their ongoing persecution. The Yezidis in the Mosul region considered Layard a hero.
The Crimean War isn’t taught in Western schools anymore, and few British—let alone North Americans—will know that Britain fought on Turkey’s side against Russia. For most Brits, it was difficult at first to understand why they should come to the defence of “Muslim Orientals” (to use the bizarre and erroneous syntax of the time) against “Christian Europeans.” It was only when Russia began its brutal attacks that the natural English hatred of a bully reasserted itself.
Back then, just as today, there was a fair amount of Muslim-bashing, and one backbencher asked Layard in the House of Commons if a Christian in Turkey could be a Kadi, a Muslim judge, or a magistrate. Layard shot back that he might as well ask whether a Muslim could become Archbishop of Canterbury, and under the reforms of the Tanzimat, Christian Greeks, Armenians or even Jews could hold office “with a liberality not even known in this country…”
Years later, when Layard was Britain’s ambassador to Turkey and living in Istanbul, he recognised how Russia still looked with hungry eyes on the Ottoman holdings of Bulgaria, Montenegro and other spots in Eastern Europe. During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, Disraeli was prime minister and sympathetic to the Turks, but he dithered and bowed to pressure to keep Britain neutral.
The Russians were especially bloodthirsty and vindictive in the conflict, prompting even Queen Victoria to lose her composure in letters: “Oh, if the Queen were a man, she would like to go and give the Russians, whose word one cannot believe, such a beating!”
It was Layard who pushed for Britain’s military attaché in Istanbul to help Turkish army engineers shore up the fortifications at Gallipoli. The irony is that when British soldiers came to fight the Turks at Gallipoli in World War One, they were hopelessly beaten back by these brilliant upgrades.
There were massacres on both sides of the war in 1877-1878, but the Russians openly threatened to pillage and lay waste to Istanbul as they demanded an armistice—even while they kept scooping up more territory, getting ever closer to the capital.
Layard and his wife saw a refugee crisis that could easily compare with today’s. Tens of thousands poured in each day. “As the trains arrive at the stations, the bodies of men, women and children frozen to death, or who have succumbed to illness are dragged out of the wagons,” he wrote in a dispatch. “Even the tops of the closed carriages are occupied by the women and children who in some instances, numbed by the cold, roll off and are killed.”
Layard arranged to get a large building near the railway station under his control, and he took in at least 1,500 more refugees. He took money out of his own embassy’s accounts to open soup kitchens on the railway between Istanbul and Adrianople. His wife made clothes for the needy.
Turkish forces were in disarray, the Sublime Porte couldn’t make up its mind, and even though Britain was supposed to be neutral, Layard managed to finally get London to send the Royal Fleet into the Bosphorus (the age-old reliable excuse was that it was “protecting” British expatriates).
This was when Layard executed a master-stroke. He haggled and bought four ironclad ships from the Turks to add to the Royal Fleet flexing its muscles. And it worked. The Russians squawked, but didn’t dare engage the British Navy. It’s reasonable to give Layard a fair amount of credit for saving Istanbul.
There is much, much more to Layard’s incredible story. How he whisked a Marshal of Spain out of Madrid in a daring rescue. How he was friends with Dickens and admired by “reporter,” Karl Marx, who was writing at the time for a New York newspaper. How in his seventies, he returned to London to help a friend in a sensational libel suit—over archaeology. But a good portion of his legacy is in Beyoğlu and Therapia. With luck, maybe interest will grow in him again, and the man who gave the world such astonishing sculptures will get his own in one of its great capitals.
Novelist, historian, career surrealist. Latest book: Prevail, now out in ppk from Skyhorse.