Tinco Lycklama meets up with cuneiform history at Bisotun.

Almost everything we know about the ancient civilisations of the Middle East relates to the decipherment of cuneiform script. At Bisotun, Tinco explores the reliefs and carvings that date back to the time of Darius the Great. But, not before having coffee at the Shah Abassi caravanserai.

Bisotun Caravanserai Shah Abassi.jpg-large
Caravanserai Shah Abassi, at Bisotun

Tinco Lycklama left the city of Kermanshah on June 29, 1867. He spent a most interesting fortnight in the company of the Turkish consul, and made new friends at the Qajar court. On his way to Hamadan, Tinco makes a stop at Bisotun. From a cultural perspective, a most interesting one.

By way of comparison, out modern knowledge about ancient Egypt owes everything to the decipherment of hieroglyphs – one of the oldest writing systems in the world. This was made possible by the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799, a piece of rock that not only contains a text in hieroglyphs (dated to the year 196 BCE) but also its translation into Greek.

Cuneiform script, which predates hieroglyphs by a couple of centuries in the 4th millennium BCE, remained a total mystery until the full decipherment of the texts at Bisotun (also called Behistun), in 1857. Like with hieroglyphs, its decipherment was made possible by the fact that the carvings at Bisotun contained the same text in three cuneiform variants – Old Persian, Babylonian, and Elamite.

Bisotun Cuneiform Inscriptions - Closeup
Cuneiform inscriptions at Bisotun

Tinco spent the night at the local chapar khaneh, the courier station where he got fresh horses and provisions for his team. The station has disappeared today, unlike the nearby caravanserai of Shah Abassi, where Tinco went for coffee with an Englishman named Fowl. A happy encounter, but Fowl’s principal reason for staying at Bisotun was business, as he was a telegraph engineer. He did not share Tinco’s interest in the cuneiform inscriptions, located at the foot of the Bisotun mountain.

The inscriptions at Bisotun where carved between 522 BCE and 486 BCE, during the reign of Darius the Great. They contain historical information about the dynasty and the Persian empire. Though the inscriptions were known for centuries, it was Sir Henry Rawlinson who, in 1835, made transciptions and casts and proceeded with the first full decipherment of the Old Persian texts. Understanding these texts, and of the other two writing systems, took another two decades. (See a history of the Behistun inscriptions on Wikipedia…)

Bisotun Reliefs and Inscriptions
Reliefs and cuneiform inscriptions, from the reign of Darius the Great.

Hence, when Tinco Lycklama visited Bisotun in 1867, the world’s knowledge of cuneiform script – and the secrets it was holding – was still at a very early stage. The translation of clay tablets and rock inscriptions only progressed slowly, and full-scale scientific research only took off in the early 20th century.

Rawlinson, Henry Creswicke
Sir Henry Rawlinson (1810-1895)

As a result, Tinco Lycklama couldn’t tell us too much (and certainly not with full certainty) what the inscriptions meant at the ruins and monuments of these ancient civilisations. He could only admire the craftmanship of the people that produced these carvings, thousands of years ago, and provide insights in the general knowledge that was available about these civilisations through other sources such as oral transmission and ancient Greek chronicles.

Who knows what the cuneiform tablets in Tinco’s collection hold? They have never been translated.



Stone with cuneiform inscriptions (Lycklama Collection, Musée de la Castre, Cannes)

“Orientals measure their respect for the traveller by his style.”

Time flies. It feels as if it were yesterday, but Tinco Lycklama arrived in Baghdad in December 1866, five months ago. Now it’s time again to move on. In style…

As it was the perfect custom for a gentleman in those days, Tinco Lycklama spent his last few days on goodbye visits to the people he had acquainted. Little time was lost on ‘Europeans’ (by which he certainly meant the personnel of the foreign legations) – with whom he had spent little time. But he had grown fond of the Carmelite priests, the people of the trading house of Weber, Jaeger and Wartman, and the Tonietti, Asfar, and Hanousche families (Levantines). They had done their utmost to make his stay in Baghdad comfortable and interesting. They had become friends.

Of course, he also visits Mehmed Namik Pacha, the powerful Ottoman viceroy of Baghdad. A direct relationship of mutual respect had grown between the two men. It had given Tinco a few privileges, such as special protection on some of his excursions to places like Babylon, Najaf and Karbala. As Tinco was about to continue his travel through Mesopotamia for a short return to Tehran (Persia), and then back through the north of modern Iraq towards Erbil and Mosul, the viceroy obliged again and provided Tinco with a passport and a special letter of recommendation. (In 1868, Tinco Lycklama and Mehmed Namik Pacha will meet again in Constantinople).

And, Tinco decided to leave Baghdad in style…

Caravan in the desert
Not Tinco Lycklama – but his desert caravan may have looked like this

We know from Tinco’s travelogue that he never travelled alone. He hired servants to assist him with practicalities – from cooking and washing clothes, to delivering messages, conversing and negotiating with locals, and protecting Tinco and his possessions.

“Je permets au lecteur de s’égayer à mes dépens ; je ris encore moi-même quand je me vois, par le souvenir, marchant en tête de cette caravane, d’une composition, néanmoins, absolument orientale.”

He never was short of servants as he had the money to pay them – and pay them well. But, he reflected that it would make sense to expand his team. “The reader is entitled to cheer at my expense; I’m still laughing myself, remembering how I was leading this caravan which, by the way, looked perfectly oriental.” Indeed, he left Baghdad with…

  • Eight servants:
    • Jussouf – a schismatic Armenian
    • Betros (Pierre) – a catholic Chaldean
    • Naoum – a catholic Chaldean
    • Djamoun (Simon) – a catholic Chaldean
    • Reza-Kouli – a chiite Persian
    • Iskender (Alexander) – a chiite Persian
    • Abbas – a chiite Persian
    • Naguy – a sunni Kurd
  • Three mule-drivers – all arab muslims
  • Twenty-five animals:
    • 10 mules
    • 9 Arabian horses
    • 2 greyhounds
    • 2 English dogs
    • 1 cat
    • … and of course his faithful Vashka – the dog that had joined him in Tiflis.

This caravan may have been perfectly oriental, but with a somewhat excentric Dutchman in the lead it must have been a pretty interesting sight!

Why did Tinco grow his team even though he didn’t need the extra manpower? Let’s assume that, carrying a precious recommendation from the viceroy of Baghdad, Tinco must have felt that he had to live up to his new status. And, as we’ll see later, word about Tinco’s activities in Baghdad even reached Tehran: his journey through the Orient got noticed!

However, there is also a very practical reason, and the answer lies in the enumeration of the various religions in his team. As a rule, travellers in the Orient were advised to hire people from different backgrounds, so that they would look at each other rather than turn against their paymaster. Tinco admits that it sounds ‘Machiavellian’, but it may have been a wise decision.

On a seperate note (and, admittedly, it’s very trivial), one may wonder where the cat came from. In fact, Tinco informs us that the cat was a gift from someone in Tehran. That means that he has been travelling no less than seven months with a cat, without telling us! We already know that the story of his dog Vashka is exceptional, as no other dog in history has seen as many remnants of antiquity (Persepolis, Babylon, Nineveh, Palmyra) or ancient places such as Aleppo, Damascus and Jerusalem. Now, we’re finding that he also had a cat with him when climbing the stairs of the palace of Darius and walking the streets of Baghdad. We have no clue, however, about the greyhounds and the English dogs. Perhaps he took them along as gifts for his friends in Tehran?

Quintessential coffee at Ctesiphon, the bedouin way.

30/04/1867  —–  Yesterday, Tinco Lycklama left Baghdad for an excursion to the ruins of antique Ctesiphon. It’s not just for touching another remnant of antiquity. He is also going to herd sheep and experience life in the desert. And, he’ll learn how the bedouins make coffee. Real coffee.

The Tigris was still flooding part of the city, and the main roads were impractical, so Tinco and his companions used quffa boats to move themselves and their horses out of town.

The trip was organised by Hanouche Asfar, a prominent christian merchant from Damascus who lived close to Tinco in Baghdad. Asfar had to inspect his flock of over 2,000 sheep, at his desert camp about an hour south of Ctesiphon. He brought along his two sons – Djabouri and Rhedzouk.


Ctesiphon by Sandor Alexander Svoboda (1826 - 1896)
Ctesiphon prior to 1888, rendered by Hungarian artist Sandor Alexander Svoboda (1826 – 1896)


The party was joined by Father Damien, one of the missionaries of the Discalced Carmelites who had become close friends with Tinco. Our research tells us that father Damien was actually Pierre Batailley, a young French doctor from the Faculté de Médecine in Paris. When Father Marie-Joseph de Jésus, in his previous life Gustave Cancel, became the superior of the Baghdad mission in 1858, he briefly returned to France to find an assistant. He met Pierre Batailley by chance, and it was a godsend for the future of Baghad. Father Damien became the most prominent doctor in the city – and for over thirty years (until his death in 1898) he helped rich and poor through the many sanitary challenges of Baghdad in those days.

Father Damien thought of himself as a good huntsman, and he joined the excursion for a little break of desert hunting. Tinco amusedly reflects that Father Damien’s hunting skills were probably limited to rabbits and low-flying birds.

Tinco’s five-day trip to Ctesiphon – the ancient capital of the Sassanids – was instructive, not only for the opportunity to witness again another remnant from antiquity, but also because it was his first real experience with the bedouin life and a true immersion into their culture. The herdsmen of Hanouche Asfar were genuine Bedouins – a world apart from the people in the city.

The juxtaposition of the simple life of the bedouins, in the shadow of the monuments that ruled the Orient over two thousand years ago, was a striking sight to Tinco Lycklama.

Naqsh-i Rustam (Iran): Sasanian Relief Showing the Investiture of Ardashir I by the God Ahura Mazda (Hormizd)
A relief depicting Ardeshir I, at Naqsh-e Rustam, near Persepolis – visited by Tinco Lycklama in October 1876 (photo by Antoin Sevruguin in the 1890s)

The Sassanid Empire (224-651) had its origins at Estakhr, the lost city near Persepolis which Tinco Lycklama explored in October 1866. King Ardeshir I soon moved its capital to Ctesiphon, where the Sassanids rule until the dawn of the islamic period. At times, the empire covered the whole of the Middle East as far as modern-day Egypt, Turkey, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Ctesiphon was already a capital in the preceding Parthan Empire (247 BCE – 224 CE). Its real history started about 120 BCE around what was originally a military encampment near the old regional Parthian capital of Seleucia. It became the empire’s capital around 58 BCE.


Around the fourth century of our common era, the city of Ctesiphon measured about twice the size of Rome. It is also around that time that the remaining and remarkable archway of Tāq-i Kisrā was built. After the start of the islamic period, much of city was taken down for use as building material to construct the new Abbassid capital of Baghdad in the 8th century CE. Ctesiphon became a ghost town.

It is under the Tāq-i Kisrā archway that Tinco Lycklama is having coffee today – in the manner of the desert people.

In terms of constructions, the Taq-i Kisra is about the sole building that subsist from the old Ctesiphon. Tinco saw more of it than visitor’s can see today. Indeed, the northern façade collapsed in 1888 due to flooding by the Tigris river. The archway, with its monumental height of 37 meters, was the largest construction of its kind when it was built. The fact that it still stands is a witness to the incredible craftmenship of its architects.

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Genuine excavations of the Ctesiphon site were only conducted for the first time in the late 1920s and early 1930s. in 1867, Tinco was keen to undertake some digging himself, understanding the potential of what he saw as an ancient graveyard nearby. But, he didn’t have the tools nor the skilled manpower to undertake it, and contented himself with a few objects that he found laying bare in the sand.

But, for Tinco Lycklama, the experience of the desert life at Ctesiphon proved to as fascinating as the sight of the ancient site. He share the meals with the bedouins, saw them at work with the herds of sheep. He saw how different the people were, both physically and culturally, from the citizens of Baghdad. He reflected on the different roles of women. For their hard labour, women had far more value here in the desert than in the city. As a result, bedouin parents prized themselves when having many daughters, whereas parents in Baghdad were keen on raising many sons.


At Ctesiphon, Tinco also tasted the best coffee he ever had in his life. And, no doubt having us in mind – 150 years later, he even shared the recipee for making the best coffee – the bedouin way. Courtesy of Djérif, a sixty-year old chief herdsman at the service of Hanouche Asfar.

In a nutshell, here is how you must make your coffee:

  • Coffee in the desertPrepare three coffee pots of different sizes.
  • The largest pot holds the used coffee of the previous day. Boil it slowly.
  • Put a layer of freshly grinded coffee in a second, smaller pot, and pour the old coffee over it. Boil it for another fifteen minutes.
  • Then pour what you have into the third pot, the smallest one, and let the water evaporate as much as what suits your taste for stronger or lighter coffee.

Tinco Lycklama calls this the ‘quintessential coffee’ which has nothing to do with what we erroneously like to call ‘good coffee’. Just don’t drink it before you go to bed, he says.

Let’s assume that Tinco must have delighted his guests in Cannes, later in life, when serving coffee the bedouin way, after a delightful meal.



Socialising with Indian and Persian princes in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala

Ten soldiers were awaiting Tinco Lycklama as a guard of honour at the gates of Karbala. This was arranged by the Turkish kaymakam (governor) of the city who, impressed by the instructions of the Viceroy of Baghdad, did his best to please this special guest – a ‘simple tourist’ from The Netherlands. Karbala was very busy, as tens of thousands of pilgrims had descended on the holy city for religious celebrations. Including the heir to the Indian Kingdom of Oudh, as well as a rebellious Qajar prince-in-exile from Baghdad.

Tinco Lycklama had truly enjoyed his travel from Najaf (the other Shi’a holy city) to Karbala. He could actually claim to have done something quite unique: for thirty-six hours, he had sailed the deserts in a boat! Indeed, because of the most severe flooding of the century between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the deserts had become a gigantic lake – and the only way to reach Karbala was by sailing the sands.


The city of Karbala dates from the earliest days of islam, built around the shrine of the Imam Hussain – son of Muhammed’s daughter Fatimah and her husband ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib – the first Imam of all muslims in the Shi’a belief system. After the deaths of both his father and his older brother, Hussain became the third Imam.

Karbala Imam Hussain shrine
Imam Hussain shrine, Karbala

Imam Hussain became a martyr when he died in battle at Karbala, in the year 680 CE. Hussain is a key figure in the original split between Sunni and Shi’a islam. And it explains why Karbala, like Najaf, are so important no only to the Iraqi Shia’s but also to Iran, which is largely Shi’a.

In fact, Karbala was essentially a Persian city in Iraq. At the time of Tinco Lycklama’s visit, most of the pilgrims travelled aal the way from Persia. Even by the end of the 19th century, it is estimated that seventy-five percent of the population was of Persian origin.

This helps to explain why Tinco met with an Indian prince from Oudh and a Qajar prince from Teheran. When Tinco heard about the presence of Birjis Qadr in the city, he promptly sent a message and asked for an audience with His Majesty. No way that Tinco would miss the opportunity to pay his respects to a crown prince who had just lost his last chance to recover his kingdom.

Birjis Qadr
Birjis Qadr (in The Illustrated London News, August 1, 1857)

In 1856, the Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of the East India Company, deposed Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh (or Awadh), and his rich kingdom was annexed to British India. The princes and kings of Oudh had their origins in Persia and were followers of Shi’a islam. After the British annexation, Birjis Qadr, the son and heir to the deposed King, went into exile.

Birjis Qadr (1845-1893)
Birjis Qadr (1845-1893)

At the time of Tinco Lycklama’s visit, prince Birjis Qadr was living in Nepal. But, in 1867, as a devout muslim, he did his pilgrimage to the holy shrines in Karbala. There he was joined by Ilkhani Khan. This is how Tinco calls him, but the latter’s full name was Amir ‘Allah Quli Khan-e Qajar Quyunlu (1821-1892), and he was the Ilkhani (or ‘head’) of the Royal Tribe. A cousin of the Persian shah Naser al-Din Qajar, he was considered somewhat rebellious and sent into exile to Baghdad in 1846 (he returned to Persia in 1870 and occupied various posts as provincial governor).

There was a special relationship between the Kingdom of Oudh and the city of Karbala. The Oudh Bequest was a rich endowment by the kings of Oudh to the cities of Karbala and Najaf to meet the expenses for upkeep of the holy Shi’a shrines. Needless to say that prince Birjis Qadr was a most significant guest at Karbala.

Tinco Lycklama has fond memories as the guest of Birjis Qadr and Ilkhani Khan. In fact, their encounter was so gracious and friendly that he was invited to stay at their palace. Unfortunately, Tinco’s stay was short, so he had to decline the offer (and he was staying in quarters arranged by the governor of Baghdad, and refusing that honour would have been a political ‘faux-pas’).

By an interesting twist of coincidence, Tinco would later befriend another Earl Dalhousie in Cannes. James Broun-Ramsay, the Lord Dalhousie and British governor-general in India, had died in 1860. His cousin Fox Maule-Ramsay was the heir to the earlship of Dalhousie and a prominent guest in Cannes, where he attended Tinco Lycklama’s famous ‘bal masqué’.

For ramadan, Tinco Lycklama joins the Shi’a pilgrims to Najaf.


We’re in the last days of the ramadan in 1867. After exploring Babylon and the remnants of its ancient civilisation, Tinco Lycklama immerses himself into religion and visits the holiest of shrines of Shi’a islam. And, at Najaf, he leisurely walks across the world’s largest cemetery.

Najaf - Imam Ali mosque


Tomb of Ezekiel
Tomb of Ezekiel at al-Kifl

Leaving the ruins of the ancient Babylon (near modern Hillah) behind him, Tinco travels towards the town of al-Kifl, where he visits the tomb of Ezekiel, considered a prophet by both the Talmud and the Bible as well as the Quran. The monument is a fascinating sight, covered with both hebrew inscriptions and islamic decorations.


The region south of Baghdad is highly significant to Shi’a islam. Whereas Mecca and Medina are the holiest of shrines to all muslims, next in line for the Shi’a is Masjid Ali, the tomb of Hazrat ‘Alī ibn Abī Tālib, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammed and – according to the Shi’a – his true legitimate heir. In Sunni islam, it is considered instead that Muhammed’s successors have to be elected by his followers. This conflict of opinion is a major factor in the religious strife in the Middle East until this day.

Najaf (Iraq)

On April 13, 1867, Tinco travels down the Euphrates from al-Kifl to Kufa, where he is the guest of Emir Effendi, the governor of the city. After a few hours of rest, he travels straight to Masjid Ali, which is located in the modern town of Najaf. It is here that the ayatollah Khomeini spent most of his years in exile before leading the Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlevi in Tehran.


Najaf - Imam Ali mosque 2
Masjid Ali, tomb of the Imam Ali in Najaf

At the time of Tinco’s visit, we’re in the last days of the ramadan, and the city of Najaf was extremely busy with pilgrims from both Iraq and Persia. Non-muslims are not allowed to visit the shrine and – being the only European in town – Tinco was looked upon with suspicion. Fortunately he was escorted by soldiers and by Emir Effendi himself, but these were all Turkish and sunni – and the Ottoman rulers were careful enough not to upset the local population. Tinco did not even attempt to enter the Mashid Ali.

But, even the exteriors of the shrine were impressive enough to satisfy Tinco’s curiosity, and he was allowed to explore the surroundings in all safety. He also mentions leisurely his visit to the local cemetery, the Wadi al-Salaam. Tinco doesn’t expand on this cemetery, and it is quite possible that its true significance was lost upon him. The Wadi al-Salaam is today the world’s largest cemetery, counting over five million bodies and in operation since fourteen centuries. It is thought that every single Shi’a muslim has at least one relative here, as such is the wish of true believers who consider it the highest honour to be burried close their religion’s first imam.

Wadi us salaam




At Babylon, one object could have changed Lycklama’s destiny.

April 11, 1867. Yesterday, Tincy Lycklama arrived at Hillah, the modern town that lies near the ancient city of Babylon. Today, Tinco proceeds with excavations in the Omran section of Babylon’s ruins. He proudly adds many interesting artefacts to his collections. Some, it seems, have disappeared.  Tinco also misses the opportunity of a lifetime. He could have made archaeological history – if only he had dug deep enough and found the Cyrus Cylinder.

When Tinco reaches the rubbles of Babylon, he concentrates on three major sections: the Omran mound (known today as Tell Amran-ibn-Ali ), the Kasr, and the Umdjelibeh fortress. For guidance, he brought along the books written by previous archaeological explorers such as Austin Layard and Henry Rawlinson, who did extensive surveys of the site in 1850 and 1853, respectively.

The Omran mound was identified as a place of burial. Tinco Lycklama made the sensible assumption that he could make some discoveries here. Early in the morning, his five hired hands started digging – including Youssouf, the teamleader who had worked for Rawlinson fourteen years earlier.

Cyrus Cylinder
The Cyrus Cylinder (Coll. British Museum)

Let’s be fair. The Omran mound is huge. But, it is here that Hormuzd Rassam would discover the Cyrus Cylinder in 1879. This cylinder with cuneiform inscriptions provides us with considerable insights into the Achaemenid dynasty (c550-330 BCE). The great Cyrus started his empire from Pasargadae, before Darius built the new and magnificent capital of Persepolis. The cylinder is also considered as the first attempt to establish a universal declaration of human rights. To the Pahlevi in the 20th century, it was the embodiment of a Persian monarchic continuity that lasted since 2,500 years.

Hormuzd Rassam
Hormuzd Rassam (1826-1910)


Tinco Lycklama was not equipped to undertake serious archaeological work. Nor did he plan to stay more than two days at Babylon. He was however, the only westerner to visit and examine the site between 1854 and 1879. His observations were valuable to others. Upon his return to Europe, and throughout the 1870s, he travelled several times to London, and it is quite possible that he met with officials at the British Museum, including Hormuzd Rassam. Finally, it was Rassam who found the Cyrus Cylinder and brought it to the British Museum (where it is still on display today).

Bowl with Aramaic inscriptions

Tinco didn’t leave Babylon empty-handed. Quite the contrary! The first inventory of his ‘Oriental Museum‘ (in his native Beetsterzwaag) has no less than 206 entries from Babylon. It includes statues, coins, jewelry, tablets, and pieces of pottery. He also unearthed two rare terracotta bowls with Aramaic inscriptions, which are significant for understanding elements of the judaic belief system. However, besides a few exceptions, the vast majority of Tinco’s artefacts from Babylon have never been analysed by scientists. The true value of Tinco’s finds remains unknown.

The most puzzling story about Tinco’s excavations at Babylon concerns two stone coffins. Following his instructions, his team dug deep and uncovered two untouched tombs. The coffins held human remains and a variety of funeral objects. One of the skulls carried a headband in goldleaf, which broke into fragments when Tinco examined it. He kept the fragments in a paper envelope, but also decided to take both coffins and their content with him. It took two mules to carry both coffins back to Hillah.

There is no trace of these coffins at the Musée de la Castre – the municipal museum in Cannes (F) that houses the Lycklama collections. Actually, there is mention of them either in the afore-mentioned inventory of 1871.


We know that Tinco entrusted his agents – the Swiss merchants Weber, Jaeger & Wartman in Baghdad – with the warehousing of the heavier objects, before shipping them to the Syrian city of Aleppo, where Tinco was heading later in 1867.  From there, he would then organise transportation to Europe through the Messageries Impériales, via Beirut.

It is quite possible that the coffins never made it to Europe. However, Tinco’s secretary Ernest Massenot travelled to Beirut in December 1873 to recover a number of unidentified objects that had been stuck there because of the Franco-Prussian war. Also, Tinco talks openly about the coffins in the third volume of his books, published in 1874 – and nothing indicates that they might have been lost.

These lost coffins could have been significant treasures in the Lycklama collection. Their story adds to the many other mysteries surrounding Tinco’s life.

Searching Babylon

Between April 8 and April 17, 1867, Tinco Lycklama travels the region south of Baghdad. He explores the ruins of Babylon, the ancient city that traces back to 2300 BCE and conjures the names of Hammurabi and Nebuchadnezzar. One can easily understand the eagerness and curiosity of a young man to go and see for himself the place where once stood (it is rumoured) the Tower of Babel and one of the seven wonders of the ancient world – the Hanging Gardens. And, for the first time, Tinco also goes digging. Was Tinco’s visit to Babylon exceptional?

There is almost no mention in the history books of Tinco’s short exploration of the ruins. Also, the many finds that he took home (206, no less!) have been largely ignored by modern scientists. Or, better put: just forgotten.

In 1983, Saddam Hussein started building a dubious reconstruction of Babylon on top of the old site. The earliest scientific excavations only started under Hormuzd Rassam in 1879, and took serious shape from 1898 onwards under German archaeologist Robert Koldewey. Previous digging – including Tinco’s – merely touched the surface.

Babylon 1906
A 1906 view of Babylon, reflecting how Tinco Lycklama must have seen it.
The excavations of Babylon by Robert Koldewey (after 1898).
Image result for babylon of saddam hussein
Reconstructions of Babylon under Saddam Hussein, after 1983.

One must consider the sheer size of the site to understand the challenge of undertaking excavations. The old Babylon probably covers an area of about nine square kilometers. Prior to 1898, one could only observe shapeless mounds of rubble. For centuries, it was assumed that ‘something was there’, but the knowledge about Babylon was derived from indications on objects found elsewhere. The exact location of Babylon was not known.

The 17th century traveller Pietro della Valle was one of the first to assert (in 1616) that this was the site of the famous Babylon mentioned in old scriptures. The Frenchman Joseph de Beauchamp visited the site in 1784 and offered more precision and encouraged later explorers to have a closer look at this particular site. The first to undertake some primitive digging here was Claudius James Rich in 1811.

Prior to Tinco Lycklama, only ten other people undertook archaeological explorations at Babylon, of which seven in the 1849-1854 timeframe. After 1854, Tinco was the first to visit the site again, in 1867. In his personal library, which he donated to the city of Cannes, we discovered that he had well prepared his exploration of Babylon, collecting the books published by earlier travellers such as Henry Rawlinson, Fulgence Fresnel and Julius Oppert. In fact, to undertake his digging, Tinco recruited the same people that had been working for Henry Rawlinson in 1853.

None of these earlier visitors were ‘archaeologists’, as the science as such did not exist. They were usually called ‘antiquarians’ – people studying and collecting antiquities. They brought the first artefacts from those sites to Europe and thus started the primitive collections of some of the world’s most reknown museums.

Tinco Lycklama was the only ‘private’ traveller, and he liked to call himself modestly ‘un simple touriste’. He was digging and buying artefacts for his personal collection (which, eventually, became a museum which he donated to the city of Cannes). Perhaps the fact that Tinco Lycklama was travelling on his own, without a commission from a government or other institution and paying for his own expenses, was the reason why official records and history books barely mention him.

Tinco was not equipped to carry along large objects. Keep in mind that he was on a three-and-a-half year journey through the Middle East, and that he wanted to collect ‘souvenirs’ from many places. Though he organised the temporary warehousing and subsequent shipping of objects through local merchants, he had to be practical and focused on smaller objects that were easier to handle.

Having said that, his collection of 206 objects from Babylon is significant in number, and certainly unique for a private traveller in that time period. A few objects were considered extremely rare and were studied by experts during Tinco’s lifetime. But, the vast majority of Tinco’s collection requires further research by experts.

Tinco sails his quffa through the streets of Baghdad.

When we think of Iraq, we imagine endless deserts and barren land.  But, the region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that cut through the old Mesopotamia used to be a very fertile region. And, very often, it had to deal with torrential rains. Tinco Lycklama happened to be in Baghdad when the Tigris swelled to such proportions that it almost wiped away the whole city. Fortunately, he had a quffa.


In the winter of 1866-67, Tinco Lycklama lived three months inside the city, across from the mission of the Discalced Carmelites. Early March, his health was failing and he moved to a countryhouse, about three kilometers out west. He felt the air would do him good. One day, after eight days of incessant raining, he woke up and found the house surrounded by water. A major dam had broken, three hours north of Baghdad, and the Tigris had flooded the whole region. The disaster was the worst in living memory.

In his travelogue, Tinco explains us in detail what happened. And, he also tells us how Baghdad survived thanks to the tremendous solidarity and mobilisation of all citizens. Even the Turkish viceroy of Baghdad, Mehmed Namik Pasha, worked through water and mud to help fortify the city walls with his bare hands.

Bad timing for Tinco. He had waited for the spring season to start his archaeological expeditions in the region. He intended to go and explore the location of the ancient city of Babylon, about 120 kilometers south of Baghdad. But, to do so, he needed to obtain official papers and protection from his friend the viceroy.

Without other means of communication or transportation, Tinco decided to sail over the flooded countryside and through Baghdad, towards the governor’s downtown palace. It took him no more than half an hour. Tinco used a “coffe” – more commonly named “quffa” (but one finds all sorts of spellings).

The quffa is a kind of round boat that you still encounter today in modern Iraq, in particular with the ‘marsh arabs‘. Through archaeological evidence we find that the concept of these boats dates from ancient times. It is depicted on reliefs that date back to the 7th century BCE. In 2014, a newly decyphered 4000-year-old tablet suggests that, in the oldest version of the story, the ark of Noah may have been round.

It is on such a quffa that Tinco sailed all the way up to the entrance of the palace of Mehmed Namik Pasha. He got his papers, and the viceroy even assigned an armed guard to accompany him during his expedition. We’ll see that some of these quffa were pretty big, as Tinco even carried horses on them to cross the heavily flooded areas on his way to Babylon.


How the new year 1867 will look like for Tinco Lycklama.

Everyone starts a new year with good intentions. Tinco Lycklama couldn’t know how 1867 was going to look like. But, he certainly had a plan. Thanks to Tinco’s own travel account, we know exactly where he was. Baghdad, Tehran, Mosul, Aleppo… places that we hear so much about in the news today. Even though we know where Tinco was, we’re not always sure what he did there. But that makes it interesting, of course. Let’s have a look at how we’re going to walk in Tinco’s footsteps in the Middle East, exactly 150 years later.

Tinco starts the year in Baghdad, where he is spending the whole winter. In the spring, he makes excursions to ancient sites such as Babylon. He then journeys back to Persia and its capital Tehran. In the autumn, he travels east towards Mosul, in northern Iraq. From there, he travels through Kurdistan towards Aleppo, where he will spend the next winter.


Spying in Baghdad?

Yes, we asked the same conspiratorial question about Tinco’s stay in Tehran in 1866 and his visit to the Shahrestanak military encampment. The fact is, we still have no clue about what Tinco did in the Persian capital. For sure, he tells us about the Bazaar, about the parties at the foreign legations, about how wonderfully he was received by Persian dignitaries. But, besides being a welcome and somewhat eccentric tourist, what else did Tinco do there?

In Baghdad, the same question arises. Remember that Tinco arrived in modern Iraq’s capital on December 4th, 1866. He is looking forward to his visits to ancient places like Babylon, Ctesiphon, and Samarra. But, he sets foot outside Baghdad only four months after his arrival. Why wait such a long time? Why spend so much time in Baghdad?

Mehmed Emin Namık Pasha (1804-1892)
Mehmed Namik Pasha

Well, he visited the military arsenal, and he is keen on telling that, if it weren’t for the special permission of the viceroy of Baghdad, Mehmed Namik Pasha (1804-1892), he would never have gotten a private tour of Baghdad’s military secrets. Also consider that the viceroy, who later continues to occupy high positions in the Ottoman Empire, not only delivers special passports to Tinco, but also military escorts so that he can move around in safety.

Other weird things… Nowhere else in his 2,200-page travel account does he give such rich information about the local economy. Indeed, he prints tables that show the trade figures for cotton, shoes, tea, coats… you name it. Fair enough, Tinco was probably proud that he was the first European to publish such information about this particular timeframe. But still… why would he do that? If you were keen to dig for artefacts, wouldn’t you head straight for the desert?

badgad-tableau-des-exportations-1860-62When Tinco finally leaves Bagdad in May 1867, he returns to Persia. The only thing he tells us about his additional three weeks in Tehran (in August), is that he went there to organise the shipment of the items he had collected. Why didn’t he do so a year earlier, in 1866? Sure enough, there were interesting places to see on the way between Baghdad and Tehran – such as Kermanshah and Ecbatane. But, he could have gone there, and then head straight north towards Kirkuk. Instead, he makes an 800-kilometer detour via Tehran. Easy by car – not easy on horseback!

Questions, questions, questions… One wish for 2017: to find some answers!

Babylon, Ctesiphon, Samarra, Baqubah


So, Tinco stays the whole winter in Bagdad, and then he spends the single month of April on visiting all the ancient sites and many interesting Islamic shrines. Four quiet months to “read and learn” (as he says himself), and then a hectic 4-5 weeks sightseeing and digging for artefacts. Whatever Tinco’s ulterior motives, his encounters with antiquity are fascinating.

Tinco belongs to the first Europeans who ever put their hands in the sands of Babylon to dig for ancient statues, seals, pottery… Prior to 1800, the site had never received much attention, as the exact location of Babylon was actually confounded with other places, including Baghdad itself.

objects-from-babylonTinco amasses over 200 objects from Babylon. At least, that’s the number of objects that made it to his museum in his native Beetsterzwaag – and later ended up at his museum in Cannes – according to the original inventories. For years after Tinco’s trip, his collection of Babylonian artefacts did attract the attention of scholars in England, France and Italy. But, by and large, the collection disappeared into oblivion. Even today, very little is known about Tinco’s Babylonian collection. But, we are about to change that.

Making new royal Qajar friends in Kermanshah and Ecbatana

By June 4th, 1867, Tinco crosses the Ottoman border and journeys back into Persia. He stays over two weeks at Kermanshah, and then continues to Ecbatana (modern Hamadan) where he spends another ten days. Finally, he arrives back at Tehran, where he rents a house for the month – coincidentally becoming a neighbour of the Russian legation.

Emam Qoli Mirza (1814-1875, governor of Kermanshah B-W
Emam Qoli Mirza

As said, we know close to nothing about his second stay at Tehran. But, at Kermanshah and Ecbatana, he acquaints many people and becomes good friends with Kadjar dignitaries such as Emam Qoli Mirza, ‘Emad-ed-Dowleh’ (1814-1875), the governor of Kermanshah and uncle of the shah, and Ali Quli Mirza, ‘Sarim ud-Daula’ (xxxx-1872). The latter was an avid photographer and took several pictures of Tinco (which we are trying to locate). At Hamadan, he gets acquainted with Abdosamad Mirza, Ezz ed Dowleh (1843-1929), . Tinco will meet again in 1873 with both Emam Qoli Mirza and Abdosamad Mirza, when they are members of the entourage of Naser al-Din Shah Qajar during his first European visit. Abdosamad Mirza, ‘Ezz ed Dowleh’, even comes and visit Tinco in Cannes.

Moving into Assyria – Kirkuk, Erbil, Mosul

Towards the end of August 1867, Tinco Lycklama finally leaves Persia, and re-enters modern Iraq. In fact, this is the region of ancient Assyria, which was also part of the Ottoman Empire.

Tinco reaches Kirkuk by October 13. The next four weeks, he also visits Erbil and Mosul. He talks about the Kurds and the Yazidis. Given the situation in this region today, Tinco’s visits are especially interesting, as it gives us a detailed view of how these places once were.

At Mosul, Tinco also walks in the footsteps of a handful of earlier archaeologists who explored the ancient sites of Nineveh, Nimrud, and Khorsabad. Another occasion for Tinco to dig in the sand and enlarge his collection of artefacts.

Crossing Kurdistan towards Aleppo

Tinco Lycklama leaves Mosul on November 11. During four weeks, he travels straight through the heartland of Kurdistan, where he arrives on December 12. During his 1865-68 ‘grand tour’, there are four places where Tinco really settles down and stays for a longer period of time: Tiflis (winter of 1865-66), Tehran (summer of 1866), Baghdad (winter of 1866-67), and finally Aleppo. His stay in the war-torn Syrian city of today lasted four months.

In many ways, we are eager on exploring Tinco’s Aleppo. But, there are so many things to be learned from Tinco’s visits to Mesopotamia and Assyria, and we chose to follow his chronology. As readers can see, 1867 is a promising year for Tinco, and we’re looking forward in sharing with you our discoveries. Enjoy! 



24/12/1866 – Tinco celebrates Christmas Eve in the tolerant city of Baghdad

Over the past few years, the followers of the christian and hebrew faiths in Iraq have been having a difficult time. It was’t always like that. Whereas Baghdad was founded as a muslim city in the year 762, the Iraqi capital has had a general reputation for tolerance throughout the centuries. People of all faiths lived and worked together. This was still the case when Tinco Lycklama spent the winter of 1866-67 in Baghdad. As it’s Christmas Eve, and as Tinco was a christian, we offer readers a translation of Tinco’s brief description of how he spent the night of December 24, 1866 – exactly 150 years ago.

When Tinco arrived in Baghdad (on December 4, 1866), he first stayed a few days at the house of Mr. Weber, the head of the Swiss trading house through which Tinco did his ‘banking’ and organised the logistics of his travel. But, he needed more permanent lodgings, as he was going to spend the whole winter in the city.

He found an excellent place. It was located just opposite the mission house of the catholic order of the Discalced Carmelites. At the time, they were constructing a church in the yard of the mission. The archives of the order tell us that this was the exact same spot were now stands St Joseph’s Cathedral.

The church that Tinco saw didn’t have the same proportions, but the location still exists as it was integrated into the cathedral and turned into a library.

At the helm of the order of the Discalced Carmelites in Baghdad were two missionaries from France. They not only built churches but also schools and a dispensary of medical care. They were well respected in Baghdad, and they turned their mission into a vibrant community. Tinco Lycklama met both these carmelites.

Father Marie-Joseph de Jésus, ca.1896 – in the gardens of the Carmelite mission in Baghdad (*)

Father Marie-Joseph de Jésus was born Gustave Cancel in 1830 in La Magistère (near the French city of Montauban). In 1858, he was sent to Baghdad to become the superior of the mission. He occupied that position until his death, in 1898. During all that time, he returned to Europe only twice. During his first visit, he came across a young French doctor from the Faculté de Médecine in Paris, Pierre Batailley. Father Marie-Joseph took Batailley along with him to Baghdad, where the doctor became the mission’s second carmelite under the adopted name of Father Damien. He died in Baghdad in 1896, after spending 30 years tending to the sick and the poor, and was considered the best doctor in town.

On Christmas Eve, in 1866, Tinco Lycklama just crossed the street and joined Father Marie-Joseph and Father Damien for mass. Tinco was a protestant by birth (he converted to catholicism in 1868, in Jerusalem). But, he was a christian, and all faiths were respected in Baghdad. During his Baghdad stay, he became close friends with the carmelites.


Below follows the translation of Tinco’s Christmas Eve. The original (French) text (**) can be viewed online in the digital collection of Gallica/BnF…


There are many christian sects in Baghdad – the Latins, the Syrians, the Armenian catholics, the schismatic Armenians, the Chaldeans, and the Greek catholics. Long ago, the catholics possessed just a single small chapel for the whole city, but that is different today. Besides the roman catholic church that is currently under construction there were, in 1867, a Syriac church, a Chaldean church, an Armenian catholic church and, finally, two churches that belong to the schismatic Armenians. The Greek catholics celebrate mass at the Syriac church. Each church has its own school, where they teach young boys to read and write in the local language. For girls, there is only one school, located at the Carmelite mission; this school is led by the nuns of the same order, natives from Baghdad and its environs, but not well disposed to teach even the basic principles of their religion. All these christian communities are totally devoted to their priests, and the good peace and order in the city is especially due to the influence and example set by the latin Church.

When it comes to religious ceremonies, I participated (among others) in the midnight celebration of Christmas Eve, held at the latin church of the Carmelites. I arrived shortly before the start of the ceremony, which lasted very long but was nevertheless beautiful. Upon entering the church, I was given a candle. A few minutes later, all the men in attendance started a procession around the church, holding candles like myself. We were followed by one of the priests who was holding the Infant Jesus in his arms. When we re-entered the church, all the candles on the altar and on the many chandeliers were lit. This illumination was a very pretty sight.The women were draped in colourful veils, and they sat crouched before the altar, the oriental way. The men took place behind the women, most of them also sitting on the floor. The celebration started soon after, interrupted by the kissing of the Infant Jesus which one of the priests was presenting to the faithful in front of the altar. After communion, which was shared with about thirty people, father Marie Joseph climbed the pulpit and delivered an eloquent and forceful sermon, in Arabic. The Arabic language is essentially oratorical and its diction has a majestic and solemn gravity to it. Mass finished in deep contemplation.The religious chants were sung by the local sisters of charity, accompanied by a harmonium organ, and they did well.


(*) Source : “Les missions catholiques françaises au XIXe siècle. Tome 1”, par Jean-Baptiste Piolet, ca. 1900
(**) T. M., chevalier Lycklama a Nijeholt,“Voyage en Russie, au Caucase et en Perse, dans la Mésopotamie, le Kurdistan, la Syrie, la Palestine et la Turquie, exécuté pendant les années 1866, 1867 et 1868”, Volume III, 1874, Arthus Bertrand (Paris, Libraire-Editeur) et C.L. van Langenhuysen (Amsterdam, Libraire-Editeur).