Ancient History & Civilisation


Passing the Baton: An End and a Beginning

After 700 BCE

The Secret Weapon

An Assyrian scholar, writer of epics and annals for the royal household, like the compiler of the Chronicle of Tiglath-Pileser II that is inscribed on a reddish clay tablet the top part of which now lies in the British Museum, labelled K3751, steeped in the lore of Mesopotamia’s past, convinced of his civilization’s superiority over all other ways of life, and observing that Aramaic speakers were now promising to become a majority among the empire’s population, might have consoled himself with the thought that this was nothing new. For thousands of years outsiders had entered Mesopotamia as either conquerors or immigrants: Gutians, Elamites, Amorites, Kassites and many others. Every one of these had eventually either been expelled or had become so totally absorbed that they vanished as identifiably separate ethnic groups, and instead had helped to carry forward their adopted Sumerian–Akkadian culture.


This time, however, with the naturalization of Aramaic speakers as Assyrian nationals, the outcome was to be very different. For the Arameans brought with them a secret weapon so overwhelmingly powerful that it was able to bring the long Mesopotamian tradition to a halt, eventually to crush it, and finally to cover over the remains so thoroughly as to make all direct evidence of the splendour of two and a half millennia vanish from the face of earth. And at the same time to begin the next wave of history, at the end of which we ourselves now live, by passing on to others the baton of civilization, and laying the foundations of the modern world. The weapon with that colossal achievement to its credit was an entirely novel way of freezing evanescent speech in time: the alphabet. The letter ‘K’, written by the British Museum on to the top edge of Tiglath-Pileser’s Chronicle symbolizes the victory of the new script over the old, and thus of the new world over the old.

While cuneiform was first invented, it is currently thought, by accountants, and developed by scribes and scholars, the alphabet seems to have had much more plebeian origins. The latest archaeological discoveries suggest that alphabetic writing was the brainwave of a group of expatriate Semitic workers resident in Egypt early in the second millennium BCE. Inspired by the pictographic Egyptian writing-system we call hieroglyphs – ‘priest signs’ – they dreamt up a shorthand to use with their own language. It was, said John Wilford, professor of Near Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, ‘the accidental genius of these Semitic people who were at first illiterate, living in a very literate society. Only a scribe trained over a lifetime could handle the many different types of signs in the formal writing. So these people adopted a crude system of writing within the Egyptian system, something they could learn in hours, instead of a lifetime. It was a utilitarian invention for soldiers, traders, merchants.’

From such humble beginnings evolved every one of the alphabets and syllabaries (symbols that represent whole syllables rather than just individual letters) in use in the world today: from our own Latin alphabet, Greek and Russian, all the way to the scripts of India, Tibet and Mongolia. Naturally enough, on their way to becoming, say, the Greek or the Latin alphabet, many of the signs altered their forms – though not all. Our letter ‘A’, once representing a horned ox-head viewed full face, has turned upside-down, but is otherwise still recognizable; ‘L’, ‘M’ and ‘N’ have also changed relatively little. When we give the title alphabet to our list of letters, we are still recalling the Semitic words which began with the letters they named, the first referring to ‘Aleph’, ox, and the second to ‘Bet’, house.

The use of this workers’ shorthand quickly spread among Semitic speakers along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, Cana’anites and Phoenicians, whose far-flung trading empires carried it throughout the entire region, where each language adapted its principles to its own needs.

Aramaic writing was associated with ordinary working people while cuneiform was seen as the preserve of the educated and the elite; its relatively few signs – less than thirty – might be learned in a few weeks in contrast to the years of intense study demanded for the mastery of cuneiform; it could be written on almost any surface, inked on to potsherds, bones or leaves, chalked on to walls, scratched in the dust with a sharp stick, as well as formally calligraphed on to parchment or papyrus in contrast to cuneiform, which demanded some skill and experience even to prepare the clay for tablets. No wonder literacy spread rapidly and far more widely through society than was ever possible before.

The fact that Aramaic could be, and was, written ensured that it did not disappear like the speech of earlier immigrant groups. The fact that Aramaic speakers now so outnumbered Akkadian speakers ensured that the new language quickly established itself as a secondary national tongue, and ultimately as the principal official speech of the empire and the medium of government, as well as the lingua franca of the entire region, with Akkadian relegated to the role that Sumerian had once held: the language of diplomacy, scholarship and religion. The common analogy, by which use of the Sumerian language by Mesopotamians is compared to the place of Latin in medieval times, must now be changed. If Akkadian was the new Latin, then Sumerian itself became what Greek represented to the European Middle Ages.

For a long time, most educated Assyrians must have been fully bilingual, as much at ease in Aramaic as Assyrian. Scribes began to be represented on sculptures, wall panels and frescoes in pairs, side by side: one inscribing on a clay tablet, the other writing on leather or papyrus. These are not photographic records, of course; they may be more symbolic than realistic, and scholars differ over their interpretation. But as each kind of writing was restricted to its own language – Assyrian was always written in cuneiform, Aramaic always alphabetically – if cuneiform and alphabetic scribes ever did take dictation together, one of them must have been making a simultaneous translation of what was being dictated.

When the official languages of a state are replaced, profound consequences usually follow. In this case they affected not only the Assyrians of ancient times but modern archaeologists too: the change of language and writing spelled the imminent end of our rich inheritance of ancient texts. Clay tablets are all but indestructible, especially if fired to terracotta either purposely or in a conflagration, as so many were during the violent destruction of the buildings in which they were stored. Though abandoned for millennia, they still perfectly preserve the texts originally inscribed on them. Not so the organic materials, papyrus and leather, on which Aramaic records were set down. Even if not burned, such media decay and disappear, usually within a few decades, if not before. As a result, our knowledge of the last centuries of Mesopotamian civilization is limited. With few exceptions, we know only what the ancients chose to write down in what was even then becoming a language of scholars, clerics and antiquarians. To the Assyrians, that should have brought a warning of a devastating outcome: the loss to the world of their entire history.

There are no examples from modern times with which to compare and try to understand the implications of what was happening to Assyrian letters. The closest is the Turkish-language reform of the 1920s, introduced by Mustapha Kemal, later called Atatürk, founder and first president of the modern Turkish Republic that replaced the almost 500-year-old Ottoman Empire. In 1928, the use of Arabic script to write the country’s language was prohibited and a modified form of the Latin alphabet substituted. Though there was resistance at first, the reforms were driven through in short order. Within a year, the use of Arabic writing became a criminal offence. Thus the entire country suddenly became illiterate. Atatürk himself travelled around Turkey with blackboard and chalk, setting up impromptu literacy classes in market squares and railway stations. Thereafter, with the establishment in 1932 of the Türk Dil Kurumu, the Turkish Language Society, the great number of Arabic and Persian words and expressions used in Ottoman times was weeded out and replaced by Turkish folk idioms and new coinages. All Turks had to relearn their way of speaking. Subsequent generations, who have been taught only the new letters and the new ‘purified’ language, can read no text written before 1928. The result has been to abolish the Turkish nation’s entire past and eradicate all popular awareness of Ottoman times. That was, of course, for good or ill, Atatürk’s intended purpose.

Could the Assyrians see such a situation coming in the future? As the Aramaic language made ever-greater inroads, could they imagine that all knowledge of the long history that lay behind their own achievements might one day be lost? It seems just possible that they did: a foreboding that the long Sumerian–Akkadian tradition, of which they were the proud inheritors, was for the first time seriously under threat.

The first sign of that fear, that the achievements of the past might be lost and even their very existence forgotten, was the royal library established at his palace in Nineveh by the last great Assyrian emperor, Ashurbanipal, who reigned form about 668 to 627 BCE. This was far from the first or only large collection of documents ever established in ancient Mesopotamia, but it does seem to have been an archive founded specifically for the sake of preserving the heritage of the past. The king’s concern to conserve the literary riches of his cuneiform culture, that they might be read by scholars of the far future, is evidenced by the colophon associated with many of the tablets it stored: ‘For the Sake of Distant Days’.

We do not know how many late Assyrian rulers were literate, able at least to read letters and dispatches without having to depend on secretaries to recite them aloud. This ability may well have been prized, not so much for its demonstration of the kings’ superior education and mental prowess, but more for getting to the truth of what was really going on around them. It is easy to imagine scribes carefully filtering what they told the monarch. Many may well have feared to be the bearer of bad tidings, particularly if the monarch was irascible, given to explosions of ill-temper, and likely to punish the messenger for the message. That such censorship was hardly unknown is made explicit in this warning at the head of one letter addressed to the palace: ‘Whoever you are, scribe, who is going to read this letter, do not conceal anything from the king, my lord, so that the gods Bel and Nabu should speak kindly of you to the king.’

Ashurbanipal went further than mere ability to read, and claimed complete mastery of all the scribal arts.

I, Ashurbanipal, within the palace, understood the wisdom of Nabu [the god of learning]. All the art of writing…of every kind, I made myself the master of them all…I read the cunning tablets of Sumer, and the dark Akkadian language which is difficult rightly to use; I took my pleasure in reading stones inscribed before the flood.

He could not only read, but write, too.

The best of the scribal art, such works as none of the kings who went before me had ever learnt, remedies from the top of the head to the toenails, non-canonical selections, clever teachings, whatever pertains to the medical mastery of [the gods] Ninurta and Gula, I wrote on tablets, checked and collated, and deposited within my palace for perusing and reading.

(There may even be actual proof of his ability to compose cuneiform: some surviving tablets are marked ‘Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria’ in a notably unpractised hand.)

Assembling his library seems to have been no mere vanity project for this literate and well-schooled monarch. He wrote to all quarters of his empire instructing that whatever texts were locally available should be sent to him in Nineveh. We have, for example, his letter to the governor of Borsippa, an ancient city not far from Babylon: ‘Word of the king to Shadunu: I am well, be of good cheer. On the day when you receive my tablet, you shall take with you Shuma, the son of Shum-ukin, Bel-Etir his brother, Apla, the son of Arkat-Ilani, and the expert from Borsippa whom you know; and you shall bring out all the tablets that are in their houses and those deposited in Ezida [the main temple of Borsippa’s city god, Nabu].’ He was concerned not just to amass as large a collection as possible, but to ensure that he had copies of every important work in the Mesopotamian canon. In the letter he goes on to list prayers, incantations and other texts, identified, as was usual in ancient times, by their first words. He wants the series of tablets called ‘Battle’, as well as ‘Their blood’, ‘In the battle the spear shall not come near a man’ and ‘To rest in the wilderness and again to sleep in the palace’. In addition, he commands that Shadunu collect anything else that the palace library might lack.

You shall search for and send to me…rituals, prayers, stone inscriptions and whatever is useful to royalty such as expiation texts for cities, to ward off the evil eye at a time of panic, and whatever else is required in the palace, all that is available, and also rare tablets of which no copies exist in Assyria.

I have written to the temple overseer and to the chief magistrate that you are to place the tablets in your storage house and that no one shall withhold any tablet from you. And in case you should see some tablet or ritual text which I have not mentioned and which is suitable for the palace, examine it, take possession of it, and send it to me.

By a happy stroke of fortune, Ashurbanipal’s aim of preserving in his archive the literary fruits of Sumerian–Akkadian culture ‘for the sake of distant days’ succeeded. His library was among the earlier discoveries made by the pioneers of Mesopotamian archaeology in the 1840s and 1850s, fulfilling the king’s hope that one day the collection would help to restore to memory the intellectual riches of his civilization. Excavation of the site of ancient Nineveh, modern Kouyunjik, provided a host of texts and fragments of texts, over 30,000 in all, representing many thousand individual documents – annals, myths, epics, prayers, incantations, glossaries, omen lists, mathematical exercises, astronomical tables, medical treatises – a boon to the scholars then working on the decipherment and translation of cuneiform. There was even a detailed acquisitions catalogue, noting the provenance of items in the king’s collection. For example: ‘One single-column tablet, anti-witchcraft, [written by] Mushezib-Nabu, son of Nabu-Shum-Ishkun, scribe of the King of Babylon. Two of ‘Lamentations’, one of the ‘Dream Book’, in all one hundred and twenty-five tablets, [written by] Arrabu, exorcist from Nippur.’

The downside to the early discovery of Ashurbanipal’s library was, however, that the primitive excavation techniques and lack of proper record-keeping led to tablets from different buildings and even different excavations being irretrievably mixed together. The work of sorting out the jumble, of finding matches among the fragments and piecing them together, continues into the present.

The man credited with unearthing Ashurbanipal’s library was Austen Henry Layard, a French-born British adventurer, diplomat and politician, whose explorations of the buried cities of Assyria, though they brought him international renown, in fact occupied little more than five years of his long and successful life. Most of the work was organized and supervised – and continued after Layard returned to his political career – by, very appropriately, an ethnic Assyrian; that is, a late descendant of Ashurbanipal’s own people. Layard wrote appreciatively of Hormuzd Rassam in his account of the excavations: ‘To Mr. Hormuzd Rassam, who usually accompanied me in my journeys, were confided, as before, the general superintendence of the operations, the payment of the workmen, the settlement of disputes, and various other offices, which only one as well acquainted as himself with the Arabs and men of various sects employed in the works, and exercising much personal influence amongst them, could undertake.’

No evidence there of the condescension and even contempt with which ‘orientals’, by definition oily, weak, and untrustworthy, were all too often treated by Europeans in the nineteenth century. Sir Henry Rawlinson, who played such an important part in the decipherment of cuneiform, had nothing but disdain for Rassam, and worked hard to have him excluded from taking any official role in the excavations. Layard, a future Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs of the British Government, displayed a very different attitude to his Assyrian right hand man.

To his unwearied exertions, and his faithful and punctual discharge of all the duties imposed upon him, to his inexhaustible good humour, combined with necessary firmness, to his complete knowledge of the Arab character, and the attachment with which even the wildest of those with whom we were brought in contact regarded him, the Trustees of the British Museum owe not only much of the success of these researches, but the economy with which I was enabled to carry them through. Without him it would have been impossible to accomplish half what has been done with the means placed at my disposal.

It is not hard to imagine the excitement the two must have felt as they and their team became the first people in over two and a half thousand years to explore the remains of the Assyrian emperors’ sumptuous palaces, to discover passageways and great chambers guarded by colossal winged, human-headed bulls, lamassu, wearing the horned crown of divinity, and panelled with exquisite, if often gruesome, bas-reliefs. At the end of one tunnel they came upon two huge figures, of which only the lower half remained, yet which were none the less instantly recognisable as the fish-robed attendants of Eridu’s god Enki or Ea, who had first taught humanity the arts of civilization. This was the historic moment when the glories of ancient literature were about to be introduced to the modern world.

The first doorway, guarded by the fish-gods, led into two small chambers opening into each other, and once panelled with bas-reliefs, the greater part of which had been destroyed. Layard first explains what was, in his day, a novel notion to the general public: that ancient Mesopotamians had used clay tablets as a medium for their writings, for this was still some time before the 1857 four-man challenge set by the Royal Asiatic Society to decipher cuneiform.

The chambers I am describing appear to have been a depository in the palace of Nineveh for such documents. To the height of a foot or more from the floor they were entirely filled with them; some entire, but the greater part broken into many fragments, probably by the falling in of the upper part of the building. They were of different sizes; the largest tablets were flat, and measured 9 inches by 63 inches; the smaller were slightly convex, and some were not more than an inch long, with but one or two lines of writing. The cuneiform characters on most of them were singularly sharp and well defined, but so minute in some instances as to be almost illegible without a magnifying glass.

As so often, we owe the recovery of Ashurbanipal’s collection of documents to a catastrophe: the destruction of the palace that housed it, the ‘falling in of the upper part of the building’ and its millennia-long burial under a mound of debris. But we do know what the reading room must once have looked like, because an archive dating from perhaps a century later – some 800 tablets, intact and preserved in the original extensive pigeon-holed shelving that lined the room’s walls, carefully sorted and clearly labelled – was discovered in 1986 in the remains of the city of Sippar, a little north of Babylon. It contained few documents new to scholars, but their perfect state of preservation promised to fill in gaps in already known texts: ‘the kind of discovery that one waits 100 years to see,’ said the curator of the Yale University Babylonian Collection.

The nineteenth-century policy of shipping out such discoveries en masse to European museums having been long abandoned, the Sippar library was made part of Iraq’s National Museum of Antiquities unparalleled tablet collection of more than 100,000 documents. This was looted after the fall of Saddam Hussein: the wooden boxes storing the collection were broken open and the catalogues recording their contents were burned. There is no great hope of getting much back. ‘You put these things in the back of a truck and drive over a bumpy road,’ lamented one archaeologist, ‘and pretty soon you have a sackful of dust.’

Thus did Assyria’s enemies ultimately fail to achieve their aim when they razed Ashur and Nineveh in 612 BCE, only fifteen years after Ashurbanipal’s death: the wiping out of Assyria’s place in history. The ancient destruction was so complete that when the Greek historian Xenophon and his mercenary army retreated past the location of Nineveh in 401 BCE, they were quite unaware of it. According to the satirist Lucian, an ethnic Assyrian who wrote in Greek, ‘Nineveh is so completely destroyed that it is no longer possible to say where it stood. Not a single trace of it remains.’ It was the almost inevitable consequence of the imperial policy of Oderint dum Metuant, let them hate so long as they fear. For when the fear is overcome, the hatred remains. An object lesson to states, even of the present day, who base their relations with their neighbours on the same principle.

A Terrible Defeat upon a Great People

The principal agent, and beneficiary, of the conquest of Assyria and the destruction of its cities was the land with which the northern imperialists had had such an ambivalent relationship for so long: Babylon. Assyrian rulers had tried everything to dominate and control their southern neighbour. Some, like Tiglath-Pileser III, imposed direct rule, creating a dual monarchy by nominating themselves King of Assyria and Babylon; others tried placing a close – and hopefully loyal – relative on Babylon’s throne; yet others selected a native Babylonian as client–king. None of these choices was ultimately successful; rebellions and revolts were frequent, and were put down with great severity.

Assyria’s difficulties were compounded by the fact that Babylonia had been just as subject to the flood of new immigrant Semitic nomads as Assyria. In the south, the principal incomers were a people related, but not identical, to the Arameans: the Kaldi, Chaldeans. Representing themselves as defenders of Babylon’s independence, they fought strenuously against Assyrian domination. The convoluted, confused, and very violent political history of the time is exemplified in the tumultuous events which took place in the hundred years following Assyria’s annexation of Israel in 721 BCE.

It all began in the days of Assyria’s campaigning Emperor Sargon II. A Chaldean prince and leader of the Beit Yakin clan, called Marduk-Apla-Iddina, known to the Bible as Merodach Baladan, had contrived to occupy the Babylonian throne for some ten years, in defiance of attempts by the Assyrian king to oust him. Eventually Sargon managed to drive him into exile in Elam, and proclaim himself King of Babylon. But after Sargon’s death in battle, Marduk-Apla-Iddina immediately returned. Sargon’s son Sennacherib led his armies against this repeat offender, who retreated to his base in the marshes around the head of the Gulf, while the Assyrian king tried to assuage Babylonian sensitivities by appointing to the kingship a certain Bel-Ibni, a native Babylonian, albeit an aristocratic one who had spent his childhood in the Assyrian palaces of Nineveh. But Bel-Ibni also revolted against Assyrian hegemony and Sennacherib was forced to replace him with his own son, Ashur-Nadin-Shumi. While the Assyrian tried to drive Marduk-Apla-Iddina from his redoubt in the southern wetlands, the King of Elam, Mesopotamia’s eternal enemy, took the opportunity to mount an attack on Babylon, impose a ruler of his own choice and take away Sennacherib’s son in chains – he was never heard of again. Sennacherib returned to Babylon, captured the Elamite placeman, and then set off east to punish the Elamites with an assault on their capital Susa. But while he was thus engaged, yet another Chaldean prince clambered on to the Babylonian throne. In a great rage, Sennacherib laid siege to the city for fifteen months, and when he finally broke through the walls, carried off the pretender, his family and other Chaldean notables into captivity, looted the palaces and temples of all their valuables, and dragged off the statue of the god Marduk, protector and ruling deity of Babylon. He then had canals dug right through the city centre and flooded the entire urban area, so that nobody should ever live there again.

Or, at least, so he claimed in his inscriptions.

The city and its houses, from its foundation to its walls, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire. The wall and outer wall, temple-tower of brick and earth, temples and gods, as many as there were, I razed and dumped into the Arahtu-Canal. Through the midst of the city I dug canals, flooded its site with water, and the very foundations thereof I destroyed. I made its destruction more complete than by a flood. That in days to come, the site of the city, its temples and gods, might not be remembered, I completely blotted it out with floods of water and made it like a meadow.

Time and time again we read such accounts of the total destruction of great Mesopotamian cities, and yet after a relatively short interval they appear to have risen again as if nothing had happened. Babylon is a case in point. Utterly destroyed by the Assyrian emperor in 689 BCE, sixty years later, far from the site not being remembered, it was flourishing even more than before. How could this be? Is the truth that the devastation was never quite as great as we are led to believe?

Maybe we should remember our twentieth-century history. By the end of 1945 many European cities had been almost totally destroyed. Berlin was a sea of ruins; Minsk appears in photographs as no more than an ocean of pulverized rubble, square mile after square mile in extent; in Japan, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were utterly wiped out by the first atomic bombs. Yet within a few decades the damage had largely been repaired and the cities rebuilt, often reconstructed following the original architectural plans. Much the same seems to have taken place in Babylon.

After Sennacherib was assassinated in a palace coup and his son Esarhaddon took control, the new king allowed the deportees to return home, ordered the restoration of the gods’ statues to their temples, and generally did his best to undo the damage his father had wrought. He tried to stabilize the relationship between Assyria and Babylon by designating his younger son, Ashurbanipal, as his successor to the Assyrian throne, and another son, Shamash-Shumu-Ukin, as King of Babylon.

But even this solution failed. Soon after Esarhaddon’s death a bitter civil war broke out between the brothers, which ended only when Ashurbanipal besieged Babylon, broke through the gates and unleashed his forces on to the populace. Shamash-Shumu-Ukin died in his burning palace. Ashurbanipal installed a new puppet king and then turned on his rebellious brother’s allies.

Here he made a grave political error, though he would not live to see its disastrous consequences. Elam had supported the Babylonian king against him, so in revenge, Ashurbanipal attacked Susa, the Elamite capital, and decided to make of it an object lesson: he stripped the palaces of everything of value, demolished the temples, destroyed the ziggurat, smashed the statues of previous Elamite kings and desecrated their tombs. Then he turned his attention to the Elamite hinterland. ‘In a month of days I levelled the whole of Elam. I deprived its fields of the sound of human voices, the tread of cattle and sheep, the refrain of joyous harvest songs. I turned it into a pasture for wild asses, gazelles, and all manner of wild animals.’ Susa city was eventually restored, but Elam would never regain its place as a major power in the region.

This was a tactical victory but a strategic blunder. In destroying Elam, Ashurbanipal had removed not only a barrier that protected Mesopotamia against attack from further east, but the power that had long prevented new peoples from establishing control over the Iranian plateau. With Elam humbled, semi-nomads from Central Asia could now take over: Medes and Persians, speakers of Indo-European languages, who had penetrated Iran through the passes over its northern mountains, quickly established themselves as the new strongmen of the Iranian highlands. The Medes, vigorous warriors, immediately began to challenge Assyrian power. In 612 BCE, a mere fifteen years after Ashurbanipal’s death, with a succession of ever-weaker emperors allowing Ashur’s borders to be pushed back yet further, Medean forces smashed through Assyria’s defences and, supported by the Babylonian king, who cleverly arrived on the battlefield just too late to take part in the fighting, brought the state of Ashur to a sudden, unexpected, final and violent end.

After mopping-up operations that lasted several years, the Assyrian provinces were divided among the victors, the Medes ruling in Anatolia and the north-east, the Babylonians commanding the entire Fertile Crescent and the northern half of Arabia. In effect Babylon, led by its new king, a Chaldean sheikh who took the Akkadian name Nabu-Apla-Usur (Nabopolassar), meaning ‘Nabu Protect the Heir’, had taken over her longstanding rival’s empire. What Assyriologists call the Neo-Babylonian Empire was born.

It did not last long: roughly three score years and ten, a single human lifetime, or the same as the USSR in the twentieth century, a shortness of span that is brought into remarkable focus by one of the great finds of recent archaeology.

In 1956, a British scholar, Dr David Storm Rice, was investigating a twelfth-century mosque in the ancient city of Harran, once city of the moon god, built on the orders of Saladin, the Kurdish general who retook Jerusalem from its Christian crusader occupiers in the year 1187. Rice was trying to confirm his belief that ancient paganism continued to reign in Harran until late in the Middle Ages. At each of the three entrances to the mosque, he uncovered large stone slabs that showed signs of being far older than the rest of the building. On turning them over he discovered carvings representing a Babylonian king in the act of adoring Sin, represented as a crescent moon. The stones had been placed face downwards so that the faithful would walk over them on their way in to pray, symbolizing the final victory of faith in Allah over the worship of the moon.

That was astonishing enough, but the cuneiform text accompanying the image named the king pictured as Nabonidus, last King of Babylon, and included a biography of his mother. In spite of the fabulous lengths of reign ascribed to the ancient kings of Sumer, and the impossibly long lives claimed for the patriarchs in the Bible, here we have the very first proper documented evidence for an ancient centenarian: ‘I am the lady Adda-guppi, mother of Nabu-na’id [Nabonidus], king of Babylon’. She had lived ‘From the 20th year of Asur-Bani-Apli [Ashurbanipal], king of Assyria, during whose rule I was born until the 42nd year of Asur-Bani-Apli, until the 3rd year of Asur-Etillu-Ili, his son, until the 21st year of Nabu-Apla-Usur [Nabopolassar], until the 43rd year of Nabu-Kudurri-Usur [Nebuchadnezzar], until the 2nd year of Amel-Marduk [Evil-Merodach], until the 4th year of Nergal-Sharu-Ussur [Neriglissar].’ Furthermore, she remained in extremely good shape to the very end:

Sin, the king of the gods, chose me and made my name famous in the world by adding many days and years of mental capacity to the normal span of life and thus kept me alive – from the time of Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria, to the 6th year of Nabu-Na’id, King of Babylon, the son of my womb: that is, for 104 happy years. According to what Sin, the king of the gods, had promised me, my eyesight was keen, my hearing excellent, my hands and feet in perfect condition, my diction well chosen, food and drink agreed with me…I was in good spirits.

The postscript reads:

In the ninth year of Nabu-Na’id, King of Babylon, she died a natural death, and Nabu-Na’id, King of Babylon, the offspring of her womb, the favourite of his mother, deposited her corpse in the coffin clad in fine woollen garments, shining linen,…precious and costly stones. He sprinkled her corpse with perfumed oil. They placed the coffin in a secure tomb and, in front of it, he slaughtered cattle and fat sheep, and assembled into his presence the inhabitants of Babylon and Borsippa.

This amazing lady lived from the time of the height of Assyrian power to a mere six years before the final end of the Neo-Babylonian Empire, a century that would prove to be one of the most influential in all history. Why so? Because it was in the days of the second ruler of the Chaldean dynasty, Nabopolassar’s son Nabu-Kudurri-Usur, ‘Nabu preserve the first-born’, whom we know from the Bible as Nebuchadnezzar, that the tiny client state of Judaea, after an inadvisable revolt, was finally fully annexed into Babylon’s domains. The Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, King Zedekiah blinded, his heirs executed, the entire ruling class exiled to the imperial capital – and in a sweeping gesture of populist land reform, their estates given over to the common people. The most accurate report is probably not the politically and theologically motivated account in the Books of Kings and Chronicles, but the eye-witness testimony of the Prophet Jeremiah:

And the Chaldeans burned the king’s house, and the houses of the people, with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem.

Then Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive into Babylon the remnant of the people that remained in the city, and those that fell away, that fell to him, with the rest of the people that remained.

But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left of the poor of the people, which had nothing, in the land of Judah, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time.(Jeremiah 39:8–10)

When the Neo-Babylonian Empire fell to the Persians less than fifty years later, and the Judaean nobility was permitted to return to Jerusalem and begin rebuilding the Temple, only those who had been exiled to Babylon were henceforth to be counted as Jews. Though the common folk who had been left behind in Judaea, ‘the poor of the people’, approached the returnees and begged to take part in the restoration work, they were told, in robust terms, to get lost:

Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the King of Persia hath commanded us. (Ezra 4:3)

In any case, only a minority of Judaeans wanted to resettle their provincial and impoverished former homeland anyway. Most elected to stay on in Mesopotamia, to continue enjoying the benefits of living in the heartland of civilization. For centuries, Babylonia and not Jerusalem housed the largest Judaic communities anywhere. And it was in the Babylonian academies that the Babylonian Talmud was created, the text that shapes Judaism to this day. Without Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest and deportation, Judaism as we know it, and therefore Christianity and Islam in their turn, could never have come to be.

Such profound and distant outcomes were of course never envisaged by those like Adda-guppi’ who lived through neo-Babylonian times. In fact, few would have recognized that very much had altered at all when Assyrian was replaced with Babylonian power. As so many times before in Mesopotamian history, this was a takeover rather than a true conquest.

From the very beginning the story of Mesopotamian civilization is reminiscent of one of those giant industrial enterprises of the modern world, which may change ownership and shareholding but continue to be the same company, promoting the same brands, generating the same products, whoever actually draws the dividends and prepares the annual financial reports. For those other than the city folk of Ashur and Nineveh whose homes were erased from the map, for ordinary farmers, crafts people, for traders outside the ruling class, not to mention slaves, little may have appeared to have changed. The same bureaucrats stayed in place; the same chancellery language, Aramaic, remained in use; the same literary culture was celebrated; the same music was played; the same prayers were chanted; the same gods were worshipped – with the exception of Assyria’s patron deity Ashur, who lost everything. Indeed, Mesopotamians may well have felt no more had occurred than that the leadership of their traditions had been repatriated to its source. Observers like the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived only a century after Babylon’s glory days, still recognized the empire as Assyrian, and Babylonian victory as a mere change of the ruler’s address: ‘Assyria possesses a vast number of great cities, whereof the most renowned and strongest at this time was Babylon, whither, after the fall of Nineveh, the seat of government had been removed.’

Babylon, with its rather more than 1,000-year history, primary urban focus of the land of Akkad, heir to the Sumerian founders of civilization, was now the centre of its world once again. Nebuchadnezzar marked the city’s regained status by raising it to its greatest prominence ever. He made it the largest, the most splendid, and in some eyes the most glamorous city the world had ever seen.

Herodotus again:

The city stands on a broad plain, and is an exact square, a hundred and twenty stadia in length each way, so that the entire circuit is four hundred and eighty stadia. While such is its size, in magnificence there is no other city that approaches to it. It is surrounded, in the first place, by a broad and deep moat, full of water, behind which rises a wall fifty royal cubits in width, and two hundred in height.

Herodotus may well not have visited the place himself. His dimensions are impossibly large: a two hundred cubit-high wall would have towered to nearly 100 metres. And, since the remains of the city are still clearly visible on the ground, we know that, enormous as it was – about two and a quarter thousand acres – its circumference was not some 80 kilometres, as the ancient historian claimed, but just over 10.

The city as modern archaeologists have found it is mostly the result of Nebuchadnezzar’s extensive and expensive rebuilding projects. But that does not mean that the city changed in any really significant way. Babylon’s rebuilders were always careful not to alter what they believed to be her god-given form. Indeed, the archaeological layers piled one on top of another that scholars now use to determine the history of a site, is, in the Mesopotamian case, not so much the result of natural decay and restoration, as the fruits of a conscious policy of carefully preserving the old in the context of the new that goes all the way back to the building and rebuilding of sacred Eridu more than 3,000 years before.

Thus Nabopolassar, when restoring the defensive wall called Imgur-Enlil, ‘Enlil is gracious’, said that he had ‘looked for its ancient foundation platform and found it’. He described himself as he who ‘searches for the ancient foundation platforms…who discovers bricks of the past, who rebuilds…on the original platform.’ Several decades later the last king of the dynasty, Nabonidus, rebuilt the temple to Ishtar of Agade, claiming that his brickwork was constructed directly ‘above the original foundation…not allowing those foundations to protrude by one finger’s breadth nor allowing them to recede by one finger-breadth’.

The exact replication of Babylon’s ancient fabric when restoring and rebuilding was of paramount importance because the city symbolically represented the whole of Sumerian–Akkadian history. Approaching from any direction, the travellers would have first spied the gigantic walls and the towering ziggurat from afar. Coming closer, they would have seen that those walls seemed to rise out of a swamp, just as the ancient myths had described the creation of the land of Sumer and Akkad, as it emerged from the underground waters called the Apsu, home of the god of civilization Enki/Ea, far to the south in Eridu near the head of the gulf. ‘Alongside Babylon great banks of earth I heaped up,’ wrote Nebuchadnezzar. ‘Great floods of destroying water like the great waves of the sea I made flow around it; with a marsh I surrounded it.’

Entering the double-walled inner city near the eastern bank of the Euphrates, through the heavily guarded gate named for the god Urash, and also known by the epithet ‘the enemy is abhorrent to it’, visitors quickly crossed a commercial district called Shuanna, and soon came to another gate, the Market gate. According to a contemporary topography of the city, ‘from the Market Gate to the Grand Gate is called Eridu.’ In the quarter bearing this ever-numinous name, representing the very origins of ancient Sumer, known to all as the very fount of civilization, stood the most important religious building in Babylon: E-Sagila, Sumerian for the ‘House with a High Head’. the earthly residence of the god Marduk, Babylon’s founder and protector as well as Prince of all the gods. E-Sagila was the very name borne by the sanctuary of Enki in Eridu. And, separated from it by a 75-metre-wide plaza, the most famous construction of all was Etemenanki, the ‘House which is the foundation-peg of Heaven and Earth’, the great 90-metre-high Ziggurat of Babylon, inspiration for the story of the Tower of Babel. The biblical author must have known its Akkadian name when he wrote, ‘And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven.’ (Genesis 11:4) The not-always-reliable Herodotus described it as:

a tower of solid masonry, a furlong in length and breadth, upon which was raised a second tower, and on that a third, and so on up to eight. The ascent to the top is on the outside, by a path which winds round all the towers. When one is about half-way up, one finds a resting-place and seats, where persons are wont to sit some time on their way to the summit. On the topmost tower there is a spacious temple, and inside the temple stands a couch of unusual size, richly adorned, with a golden table by its side. There is no statue of any kind set up in the place, nor is the chamber occupied of nights by any one but a single native woman, who, as the Chaldeans, the priests of this god, affirm, is chosen for himself by the deity out of all the women of the land.

They also declare – but I for my part do not credit it – that the god comes down in person into this chamber, and sleeps upon the couch.

Yet Herodotus is not all we have to go on. When trying to imagine the building’s appearance we do have one single apparently contemporary image. On a broken black stele, most of which is held in a private collection, is a representation of both the ziggurat’s ground plan and its elevation, with King Nebuchadnezzar standing beside them, and an inscription stating: ‘Etemenanki – I made it the wonder of the people of the world. I raised its top to the heaven, made doors for the gates, and covered it with bitumen and bricks’. The relief corrects Herodotus by showing not eight, but only six stages with a ‘spacious temple’ on top.

Today there is not even a ruin where Etemenanki once raised its top towards heaven. Alexander of Macedon, after his Asian conquests, intended to make Babylon the capital of his empire. Modelling his royal actions on Mesopotamian tradition, he determined to restore Babylon’s ziggurat and began by dismantling the ageing structure in preparation for its reconstruction. He did not live long enough to achieve his ambition, so all we find today in what was once Babylon’s Eridu quarter are the water-logged foundations.

Beyond E-Sagila and Etemenanki, visitors to Babylon passed through another gate to enter the adjoining quarter: ‘From the Grand Gate to the Ishtar Gate is called Ka-Dingir-ra’, says the itinerary. Ka-Dingira is Sumerian for the Akkadian Bab-Ilum, Babylon, interpreted as meaning Gate of God; perhaps this area was the original nucleus of the urban foundation. Thus Eridu, the original locus of Mesopotamian culture, and Babylon, its final and most glorious expression, were here symbolically united in facts on the ground.

The Ka-Dingir-ra quarter contained the most spectacular of Nebuchadnezzar’s urban-renewal projects: his own magnificent palaces, the processional way, its walls magnificently decorated with glazed-tile lions, leading to the Marduk temple through the magnificent 18-metre-high Ishtar Gate with its crenellated bastions, their glittering blue façades adorned with bulls and dragons in white and ochre, and bearing a long inscription by the king himself:

This street of Babylon having become increasingly lower, I pulled down the gates and re-laid their foundations at the water-table with asphalt and bricks. I had them remade of bricks with blue stone on which wonderful bulls and dragons were depicted. I covered their roofs by laying majestic cedars lengthwise over them. I fixed doors of cedar wood trimmed with bronze in all the gates. I placed wild bulls and ferocious dragons in the gateways and thus adorned them with luxurious splendour so that Mankind might gaze on them in wonder.

Fear of the Future

The concern to replicate the past and to ensure that the symbolism of Babylon City survived into the future might be seen as no more than a continuation of longstanding Mesopotamian tradition. But, just as Ashurbanipal’s establishment of a library ‘for the sake of distant days’ reflected a new concern that the past might altogether disappear, so too did the rulers of first millennium Babylon seem to have similar concerns.

Most cultures either look forward to the future or look back towards the past. Rarely both. When the future is bright, when what is yet to come seems most exciting, history is usually left to fend for itself. Germanic settlers in western Europe left most Roman city centres to rot: thatched wooden shacks in the forum, animal pens in the circus, pigsties in the public baths. Medieval cathedral-builders showed little respect for the primitive chapels of their forefathers. Victorian architects in industrializing, modernizing Britain, with its rapidly developing science and its great feats of engineering, could hardly wait to pull down all those ghastly, old-fashioned neoclassical Georgian terraces. True, these were often replaced by buildings designed in a fantasy version of medieval style, but keeping the old in place was never on the nineteenth-century agenda.

As late as the 1940s, when Swiss art-historian Siegfried Giedion was researching the revolutionary period during which American industry pioneered the principles of mass-production, ‘I myself visited a great factory outside Boston where clocks and watches were first assembled from standardized parts shortly after 1850. (This principle later found its most extensive use in the manufacture of automobiles.) The early products of this factory were mentioned by some European observers of the [eighteen-]seventies. I wanted to see examples of them and to study the early catalogues of the company. There were no old catalogues at all – the company destroyed them, on principle, when they were three years old – and the only old watches were those which had come in for repairs.’

By contrast, times that are obsessed with maintaining the past, with conservation and preservation, with genealogy, with investigating and unearthing prehistory, are usually those, like ours now, whose future looks uncertain, even threatening.

The mood of the mid-first millennium BCE must have had something in common with our own. Mesopotamians had always shown dedication to their ancestry and their traditions, but now a positive passion for deep antiquity came to the fore. Indeed Babylon in the seventh and sixth century can truly said to have invented the study of archaeology as we would recognize it. Professor Irene Winter, a distinguished historian of art at Harvard, has pointed out that most of the criteria by which we recognize modern archaeology were established by the rulers of the Neo-Babylonian Empire. They mounted field campaigns and made great efforts to expose architectural remains. Some of their records would not look out of place in the accounts of nineteenth-century explorers of Mesopotamia. Nabonidus went on an expedition to Agade and searched for the remains of the temple of Ishtar: ‘I sought to rebuild this temple; and in order to do so, I opened up the ground inside Agade and looked for the foundation.’ Elsewhere he writes, ‘Kurigalzu, King of Babylon who preceded me, looked for the foundation of Eulmash [the Ishtar Temple] in Agade, which had not been known since the time of Sargon, King of Babylon, and his son Naram-Sin [actually his grandson]…but he did not find it. He wrote and set up an inscription which said: “I looked ceaselessly for the foundations of the Eulmash, but did not find them.”’ Nabonidus then credits Esarhaddon of Assyria, his son Ashurbanipal, and Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon with also having looked unsuccessfully for the building. ‘As for Nebuchadnezzar, he called up his numerous workmen and looked ceaselessly…He dug deep trenches but did not find the foundations.’ Finally, relentless perseverance paid off and Nabonidus was successful: ‘For three years I excavated in the trench of Nebuchadnezzar…I looked to the right and left…to the front and rear of the trench…Then a downpour occurred and made a gully…I said…“Dig a trench in that gully”. They excavated in that gully and found the foundations of Eulmash.’

Like other neo-Babylonian rulers he also explored the ruins for ancient texts, which he then carefully studied: ‘I looked upon the old foundation of Naram-Sin, an earlier king, and I read the tablets of gold, lapis and cornelian about the building of the E-Babbar [temple of the sun god].’ Then he added his own new text and returned them all to their original locations. He also found a much damaged image of Sargon of Akkad, had it restored in his workshop, and then put it back in its place in the temple.

Other artefacts, of many different periods, were kept in the royal residence. Excavators have recovered from the ruins of Babylon’s Northern Palace objects dating from the third millennium BCE to Nebuchadnezzar’s time. Could they have constituted some kind of palace museum? Whatever their purpose, they demonstrate once more the neo-Babylonians’ concern to preserve their past in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.

There is even a very late tradition, expounded by Berosos, Priest of Marduk, who earlier described the fish-god who taught humans the arts of civilization, and who was active around the beginning of the third century BCE, when Macedonians ruled in Mesopotamia, that Nebuchadnezzar himself had foreseen the fall of the Babylonian world. Berosos’s own works are long lost, but are summarized in the writings of later authors, including the Church Father Eusebius of Caesarea, who lived from the third to the fourth century of our era, and who tells us that:

Nebuchadnezzar, having mounted to the roof of his palace, was seized with a divine afflatus, and broke into speech as follows: “I, Nebuchadnezzar, foretell to you, O Babylonians, the calamity which is about to fall upon you, which [the god] Bel, my forefather, and Queen Beltis are alike unable to persuade the fates to avert. A Persian mule will come, assisted by your gods, and will bring slavery upon you, with his accomplice, a Mede, the pride of the Assyrians.”

This is of course no more than 20/20 hindsight projected back on to the great Chaldean emperor. Nevertheless it does suggest that in Berosos’s day, and long thereafter, it was believed that the last dynasties of Mesopotamia were given to intimations of imperial mortality, to the feeling that the glory and the dream were over; in short, that the Babylonian outlook on the future was far from sanguine.

It would be wonderful to know whether the neo-Babylonians were as subject to the effusions of prophets of doom and foretellers of disaster of the kind who regularly fill our newspaper pages today. Not to mention dishevelled men shambling along Tillazida Street bearing sandwich boards inscribed with the slogan ‘The End is Nigh’ – in cuneiform, of course. We have inherited such a tiny fraction of Babylonian writings – and none at all in their everyday language Aramaic – that we cannot tell. In any case, the ancients’ familiar reluctance to express their ideas as theory and speculation rather than subtly and elliptically, in terms of tales of the gods and epic sagas, hides so much of their mentality from our matter-of-fact, less metaphorically inclined, modern minds.

Occasionally, however, a scholar does manage to part the cloud of unknowing. Some sixty years ago, the late Nels Bailkey, a professor at Tulane University, published an article provocatively entitled ‘A Babylonian Philosopher of History’, showing how intense study and close reading of a text can sometimes bring out its underlying message. The document in question is at first sight a typical Mesopotamian story of the gods, known variously as ‘The Myth of the Pest-God Irra, The King of All Habitations’, or ‘The Dibarra Epic’. (Bailkey dated it to the time of Hammurabi or a little after. Scholars now are sure that it was written very much after that: either in late Assyrian or neo-Babylonian days.) And it is, in fact, not typical at all.

The text tells us that a messenger from the god Irra-Nergal, Lord of plague, death and the ruler of the underworld, ‘Revealed the poem at night [in a dream] to the author, Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk, son of Dabibu. When he arose in the morning he left no line out. Nor a single line did he add.’ This, then, is not poesy but prophecy. Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk is not concerned, like others of his time, simply to reiterate ancient tales and preserve memories of the past. He has received a message for mankind, which foretells the future and, more importantly, explains it.

The poem is long: more than six hundred lines, falling into three acts. Act one tells of how the plague god intervenes in heaven, against some healthy opposition, to persuade the other gods to leave their places, abandon their protégés on earth, and allow Irra to wreak total devastation on the land of Sumer and Akkad. Previously Mesopotamians had ascribed the disasters that regularly befell them to the unpredictable actions of capricious gods. Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk, however, presents Irra’s justification in words that would not, apart from the name of the divinity, seem out of place heard from the mouth of a Hebrew prophet: ‘Because they have not feared my name and have rejected the word of Marduk, the Prince, and because they follow their own hearts, I shall challenge the Prince Marduk, cause him to arise from his throne, and crush mankind.’ The destruction is not to be limited to Babylon, Marduk’s own city; it will be as wide-reaching as the great Flood, that earlier disjunction in Mesopotamian history. ‘Sea shall not spare sea, Subartu not Subartu, Assyrian not Assyrian, Elamite not Elamite,…land not land, city not city, house not house, brother not brother. They shall slay each other.’

In act two, after persuasive argument, Irra-Nergal gets his way. He unleashes his terrifying fury.

Open the way, I will take the road.

The days are ended, the fixed time has passed. I will command.

The splendour of the sun I will cut off;

I will cover over the moon in the night…

I will decimate the land and count it as ruin.

The cities will I destroy and turn them to wilderness.

The catastrophe is total. In passage after passage we see Irra destroy the cities, ruin the fields, reduce humanity to a remnant, wipe out civilization utterly. He calls the gods together and boasts:

Be silent, all of you, and learn my words….

My heart raged so that I decimated the peoples…

Like one who plants not fruit trees I weary not to cut down.

Like a plunderer distinguishing not faithful and wicked I seize away;

Like a devouring lion from whose mouth they seize not the corpse.

And where one perished in fear a second shall not counsel him.

Finally, in act three, we are shown the point and purpose of all this devastation. The world is to be rebuilt, humanity restored, the cities reconstructed, the fields and groves, the flocks and herds rendered fruitful once more. As the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah wrote in a different context: ‘For, behold, I create new heavens and a new earth: and the former shall not be remembered, nor come into mind.’ In the Babylonian seer’s version, Irra-Nergal commands:

Thou shalt restore the gods of the land, who have become angered, upon their thrones.

The god of flocks and the grain-goddess shalt thou cause to descend upon the land.

Thou shalt cause the mountains to bring their produce and the sea its tribute.

The parched fields shalt thou cause to bear produce.

The governors will have their heavy tribute brought to Babylon from all their cities.

The temples which have been destroyed,

like the splendour of the sun shall shine their censers.

The Tigris and the Euphrates shall send their waters of fullness.

So what was it for, all the terror and the agony? Was it pointless? No, Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk insists. The devastation was no wilful act of divine vandalism. Clearing the past away has allowed the future to grow anew. After destruction comes rebuilding. But what comes now is to be no mere reconstruction of an earlier golden age, for the new world is to be better than before. The aim of wiping out the past has been to allow a superior dispensation to take its place. In Professor Bailkey’s words: ‘The true nature and purpose of the destructive work of Irra-Nergal, the fact that change and progress are essential characteristics of human history, will now be realized by all and will be expressed in the form of praise to the god who has been given the leading role in the drama of history, making his initial appearance in the second act in the guise of a diabolical villain, but revealing himself finally in the third act as the far-seeing hero of the entire action.’

Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk is promoting a striking, almost Darwinian, even Nietzschean concept: that death and destruction, far from being the enemy of mankind, is the positive, creative force behind all history. That without it there can be no progress. And that change, progress, constant self-transcendence are the only true tasks of human existence. The Babylonian prophet is telling his hearers: ‘Yes, the end is coming. Yes, the land you know and love will be destroyed. But from the ashes will rise a new and different world, one which will take the development of civilization on to its next stage.’ In promoting this message, Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk is being true to that trust in the future, that Mesopotamian belief in unending development, which first made itself known among those who gathered, all those thousands of years before, around the miraculous sweet-water pool, dedicated to Enki god of progress, near the marshes around Eridu, far to the south by the side of the southern sea.

Mesopotamian independence survived Nebuchadnezzar by less than a quarter of a century. After he died of natural causes following a reign of forty-three years, he was succeeded by his son, who took the throne-name Amel-Marduk (Man of Marduk) – Evil-Merodach in the Bible. Two years of contentious policy-making led to his assassination and replacement by Nergal-Sharu-Ussur (O Nergal Protect the King), whom the Greeks called Neriglissar. On his death, his young son La-Abashi-Marduk (May I not be Destroyed, O Marduk) inherited the imperial rule. But he was soon eliminated – murdered in yet another palace coup d’état. A document known as the Dynastic Prophecy explained that he had been unable to exercise authority as he was a young man and had not ‘learned how to behave’. Who killed him is not clear. The conspirators placed on the throne Nabu-na’id (Nabu be Praised), Nabonidus to the Greeks, who must have by then been in late middle age. He was assisted by his ambitious son Bel-Sharu-usur (Bel Protect the King), Belshazzar in the Book of Daniel.

Meanwhile the Medes, who had brought about Assyria’s downfall had been, in their own turn, deposed as overlords of the Iranian plateau by their cousins the Persians, under the leadership of Cyrus, the Median king’s son-in-law. Cyrus then turned his attention west. In 539 BCE, after a short campaign that saw city after city fall to Persian forces, Babylon herself was taken.

Several accounts of that momentous event have come down to us, so that we are able to reconstruct a picture of how it must have seemed to those who lived through it.

Babylon’s Final Fall

On the 15th day of the Autumn month of Tashritu (12 October) in the greatest city on earth, the weather would have been pleasantly warm; the sky cloudless and blue – no longer yellowed, as throughout the summer, by sand lofted from the desert; the first tentative gusts of the Ishtanu, the winter wind from the north, lazily stirring the rubbish lying in the walk-ways between the houses, fluffing the fur of the clowders of hungry cats who patrolled the alleys and pounced on every wisp of straw or stem of reed blown in by the breeze.

The streets must have been unusually silent and deserted that day; wine bars and beer-halls unaccustomedly shut up; market squares strangely empty; fishmongers’ and costerwomen’s stalls folded and stacked back against blind khaki-coloured walls. Fast-food counters stood empty, their pots lidded over, no servers idling behind them waiting for custom. In the school for scribes, the Bet Thuppi, no young students chanted their reading exercises, or yelped as they received a sharp stroke of the cane for slapdash work, forgetfulness or daydreaming. It was a special day.

Yet the City was not totally quiet. Wherever you stood you would have heard the hubbub coming from the E-Sagila temple: the sound of thousands of voices raised in song and celebration, accompanied by the jangling and thrumming of hundreds of musical instruments. It was a festival day. The odour of sanctity, of butchered meat, wafted from the Temple precinct as sheep and oxen were sacrificed by the dozen; priests and ministrants scurried up and down the stairways of the Etemenanki ziggurat that dominated every view in the City.

The crossways boulevards, which ended at the towering niched and crenellated wall flanking the commercial quayside of the Euphrates River, which bisected the City, were also empty, the gates through the wall unmanned by guards or collectors of customs duty. Which is why nobody saw that the level of the stream had been falling rapidly for several hours, and that the water now reached to no more than halfway up a man’s thigh.

The citizens would know it soon enough.

From both ends of the river, up and downstream, heavily armed fighters appeared, marching through the shallows, one platoon at a time to begin with, until they realized that the citizens were quite unaware of their presence and called to those behind to advance. Over half the army plashed its way along, the commander having earlier sent the other part upstream to open the sluices and divert the river into the huge reservoir, dug on an earlier Queen’s command to protect the City from the spring floods. Bowmen and swordsmen climbed the quayside steps, advanced through the river gates, spread out into the streets and secured their line of retreat.

Herodotus: ‘Had the Babylonians been alerted to what Cyrus intended, or had they noticed their danger, they would never have allowed the Persians to enter the City, but would have utterly destroyed them; for they would have secured all the street gates that gave on to the river, and would have mounted the walls along the sides of it, and so would have caught the enemy in a kind of trap. But, as it was, the Persians came upon them by surprise and so took the City.’

General Gobryas, former Babylonian governor of the province of Gutium (which stretched from the east bank of the River Tigris to the Zagros Mountains), had changed sides to become commander-in-chief of the army of Cyrus the Persian. Any ambition he may ever have nurtured must on this day have surpassed his wildest dreams. He had taken the greatest city on earth, the fount of civilization, the centre of the world. Without the citizens even noticing, says Herodotus. ‘Owing to the vast size of the place, the inhabitants of the central parts (as the residents at Babylon declare) long after the outer portions of the town were taken, knew nothing of what had chanced, but as they were engaged in a festival, continued dancing and revelling until they learnt of their capture only too certainly.’ Two weeks later Cyrus himself arrived and took King Nabonidus prisoner.

But Herodotus was born fifty years after the events he narrated. Those who were actually there at the time told different stories. A priest in the service of the Temple of Marduk, the official chronicler of Nabonidus’s reign described an entirely peaceful occupation, greatly welcomed by a citizenry that was desperate for change after years of grotesque misrule by a scandalously impious and mostly absent monarch who, in any case, had stolen the throne by having its previous occupant murdered.

He showed no respect for the cult of Marduk, preferring to honour Ishtar, Shamash (the sun) and particularly Sin (the moon). He had absented himself for many years from his capital, residing instead at Tayma, an Arabian oasis town, which meant that the annualAkitu festival, the Assyrian New Year, the most important religious observance of the entire calendar, which demanded the presence and participation of the monarch, and on which the safety, security and good fortune of the Babylonian state depended, could not be celebrated. In his place he left his son and co-regent Belshazzar.

Cyrus, on the other hand, had promised to restore Marduk to his rightful place in the yearly round, and had indeed confirmed his intention to support the proper worship of all the gods. He was especially singled out for praise by the official chronicler – unlike our twenty-first-century conqueror of Iraq – for posting shield-bearers around Marduk’s Temple, with its rich archives, irreplaceable libraries and precious antiquities, to prevent looting and theft in the chaotic aftermath of the occupation.

Even more positive about the great and gracious Cyrus was that temple priest who composed the romantic verse account of the conquest. He was utterly scathing about his former ruler:

He muddled the rites,

he confused the oracles.

He ordered an end to

the most important rituals.

He looked at the sacred images in the temple of Esagila

and uttered blasphemies.

All agreed that Cyrus was a worthy king, a paragon of virtue, a devout servant of God, who had captured the sacred City without a single act of violence.

On the other hand, a month after being incorporated into the Persian Empire, the city wall around the most vulnerable city gate was earmarked for swift restoration from damage incurred during the occupation. The destruction was extensive, the repair expensive. The contractor’s receipt, signed by four witnesses, accounts for seven weeks of work

Nurea, son of Bel-iqisa, of the family of Nanaia the Priest, has received a payment of 19 shekels [about half a pound] of silver from Marduk-Remanni, son of Iddin-Marduk, of the family of Nur-Sin, for work carried out on the rampart of the Great Gate of Enlil from the 14th day of the month Tevet [18 December] to the 6th day of Adar [27 February].

Cyrus had devoted great effort to psychological warfare. Months before his invasion – perhaps even years – his representatives had been busily spreading the word that the Babylonian king had proved himself a menace to his neighbours and an oppressor of his own people; that he must be deposed to restore freedom and justice to Babylonia. They proclaimed the Shahanshah’s generosity and concern for basic rights. They sent secret letters to E-Sagila’s management committee and its Shatammu, its head, reassuring them of Cyrus’s firm intention to uphold the worship of Marduk and all the other deities sacred to the cities of Mesopotamia. To the leaders of the displaced peoples deported by Nebuchadnezzar they confirmed that it was Cyrus’s intention to permit their return. To those in the court of the town called Nehardea, who served the sons of Jehoiakin, the last legitimate King of Judah, and to the major religious agitator and propagandist who would become known to posterity as the Second Isaiah, they promised Cyrus’s revenge against the city that had humbled Jerusalem. Agents were dispatched to loiter in the bars and taverns to encourage the disaffected citizenry to abandon their loyalty to Nabonidus and to welcome a new ruler who would restore all the ancient traditions so neglected by the usurper of the immortal Nebuchadnezzar’s throne, and deliver mercy and fairness to all.

To Babylonian grandees like the official chronicler dictating history in his temple office, the conquest of their city by the Persian represented no threat to their way of life, particularly given Cyrus’s generous guarantees. It signified no more than another, and very welcome, change of management. In the course of her long history the land of Sumer and Akkad had been ruled by kings of many nationalities: Amorites, Kassites, Elamites, Assyrians, Chaldeans. All had assimilated to Mesopotamian culture and become more Akkadian than the Akkadians, more Babylonian than the Babylonians. Now the throne was to be occupied by an ethnic Persian. What difference could that make? It could not displace the country from its position – as the maps showed – at the very centre of the Universe, nor its role as the greatest engine of progress that history had ever known.

If he really thought that, then the official chronicler was wrong. The loss of confidence in the Mesopotamian future, first noted in Assyrian times, re-emphasized by the neo-Babylonian passion for antiquity, openly expressed by Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk, signalled that true change was on its way. For the first time ever, the new monarchs of the realm chose not to locate their capital in Babylon, but were content to rule from their original homeland, which meant from Pasagard, from Ecbatana (modern Hamadan), from Persepolis (modern Takht-e-Jamshid), and from Susa (modern Shush), former chief city of Mesopotamia’s ancient enemy Elam. Somehow Babylon had lost its overwhelmingly glamorous allure.

Can we say then that it is here that we have reached the end of Mesopotamian civilization? The end of the great arc of development that had begun nearly 3,000 years previously in the rich alluvial soils around the northern end of the Gulf, risen to the first experiments in empire building under Sargon of Akkad and in central planning under King Shulgi of Ur, peaked in free enterprise Old Babylonian days, and experienced a last great surge, the template for the modern imperial state, under Assyrian rule?

Not really. A tradition more than 2,000 years old does not vanish overnight, in a year, in a decade, or even in a single century. For a long time yet, among the many peoples of what had been the Neo-Babylonian Empire, business would continue to prosper, the gods would continue to be served and lauded, the heavens continue to be observed, the omens to be read, the ancient texts to be studied, and the cities to be thronged by multinational, multilingual, multicultural crowds of Anatolians, Egyptians, Greeks, Judaeans, Persians and Syrians.

Though Mesopotamia was reduced to the status of a mere province – albeit retaining the still prestigious name Assyria – in an empire that now extended over four million square miles, the Persians never made any attempt to substitute their own traditions for those of their provincial subjects. How could they, when their own culture was by comparison so meagre, and their own history so short? In fact the traffic was mostly the other way. Persians adopted a form of cuneiform for creating inscriptions in their own, previously unwritten, language; they employed Babylonian Akkadian for scholarly and formal purposes; adopted Mesopotamian Aramaic – henceforth to be known as Persian Imperial Aramaic – as the language of diplomacy and commerce, even in the Persian homeland.

Yet the Babylonians were far from the only people from whom the new rulers of western Asia borrowed in order to enrich their civilization. Their architecture provides ample evidence that craftsmen from right across the wide Persian Empire were employed to beautify their cities: Babylonians, Assyrians, Anatolians, Egyptians, Greeks and all the other nations shown in exquisite detail bringing gifts on the sculptured panels that embellished the stonework of the Persians’ new ceremonial capital, Persepolis. The famous autobiographical inscription of Darius the Great at Behistun that detailed his battle for the throne, and which provided the key for the decipherment of cuneiform, was illustrated by bas-reliefs of provincial Assyrian inspiration, but was written in Old Persian, Babylonian and Elamite, the language of the previous rulers of the Iranian lands. Persians had a wide choice in choosing their mentors.

For the Babylonian takeover from Assyria had masked a momentous change in the ecology of ancient civilization: Mesopotamia no longer stood alone as a beacon of development in a barbarian world. From every quarter new cultures challenged Babylon’s central place in the history of progress. Other nearby states had caught up with the leader and were rapidly developing their own take on civilized development, in particular the Greeks, whose outlook on life, the universe and everything had started with a very different perspective and, from the eighth century BCE onwards, had taken them in a very different direction.

The contrast between the Persian and the Greek models of society quickly led to conflict: first intellectually on the page – with Greek authors setting up the Persian polity as the eternal future archetype for oriental despotism – and then physically on the battlefield. The conflict continued throughout the lifetime of the Persian Empire: a little over two centuries. The contending parties were too evenly matched for either to achieve easy victory over the other.

Just as it had taken unpolished incoming Amorites to establish the Old Babylonian Empire, and uncouth immigrant Arameans to carve out greater Assyria, so did it demand the barbarian energy and resourcefulness of a newcomer to Greek power, the kingdom of Macedonia, finally to tip the balance and win a decisive victory for the Greek, Hellenistic, way of life. Alexander of Macedon, by-named ‘The Great’ for these very victories, prevailed at the battles of Issus and Gaugamela, and chased Darius III, King of Persia from the heart of his kingdom, to meet his death at the knife-point of a kinsman. Alexander marked the historic moment by burning glorious Persepolis to ashes at the instigation, the Greek writer Diodorus of Sicily tells us, of an Athenian courtesan.

Had one to choose a day when the first half of all history ended and the second half began, when the original idea of how urban humanity should live was supplanted by a new and different vision, when the first ever civilization, which expressed itself in cuneiform writing, was overtaken by a second, which expresses itself through alphabets (and towards the end of which we ourselves live), then this date would be 1 October 331 BCE.

Of course, to repeat the point, longstanding ways of living do not disappear overnight. If one represents the arc of a civilization in a graph, the drawn line representing, say, its vitality over time, however measured, then the bell-shaped curve would rise first gradually from the base line, after that climbing increasingly steeply to the high point; at the end the curve would fall away, first sharply and then ever more slowly, before very gradually tailing away to nothing. When one civilization gives way to another, their graphs overlap, often by centuries, the decline of the one coinciding with the rise of the other. And so it was in this case.

Thus long before their millennial traditions fully disappeared, Mesopotamians had already begun their induction into an entirely new world, with new Hellenist cities springing up everywhere, with new kinds of public buildings under feverish construction: colonnaded temples, basilicas, gymnasiums; with a bewilderingly cosmopolitan population: Persians, Indians, Greeks, Egyptians and Jews living cheek by jowl with Babylonians, Assyrians, Armenians and Scythians; and with entirely new classes of people, with no equivalent in the old order: shady entrepreneurs, charismatic adventurers, mercenaries, unattached thinkers and writers, freelance priests, religious revolutionaries.

Yet though the old style of life in the ancient cities still continued, change was inevitable. In her book Babylonians, Gwendolyn Leick tells us that:

Most of the documents from this period concern slave sales, sales of land and of temple offices, the last an apparently highly lucrative form of capital investment. However, when the Greek authorities decided to tax such activities, beginning initially with the sale of slaves, the temple administration was no longer in charge of recording such transfers and the new records were written on more perishable materials such as papyrus. Babylonian was no longer spoken in daily use, and cuneiform learning became increasingly specialized to deal with astronomical matters and divination. Those who practised these arts were known to the West as Chaldeans, magicians and astrologers, who belonged to a few prominent families of scribes. The last cuneiform tablets date to the first century AD and deal with astronomical observations.

It is fitting that these final cuneiform records come from Uruk, where Mesopotamia’s long and brilliant story of the inventing of civilization had first begun nearly 3,000 years earlier, after its principles, the Me, were brought there from Eridu.

We should not succumb to the belief that everything was now lost; that when the ancient cities finally sank below the sands in the succeeding age, their achievements were rendered to nought. That their people, in the words of Ecclesiaticus, ‘which have no memorial, who are perished, as though they had never been, are become as though they had never been born and their children after them.’ For the new civilization ushered in by the Macedonian conquerors was never pure Greek. Hellenism was a profoundly syncretic culture, borrowing much from the old as well as bringing in the new. Particularly here in Mesopotamia, Hellenism was always a complex brew of Greek, Assyrian and Persian culture. The greatest Hellenist bequest to the world, Christianity, had sprung from many sources: Mesopotamian Judaism, Hellenic paganism and Iranian Zoroastrianism.

Assyrian and Babylonian ideas, literary themes, philosophical notions, musical forms, astronomy and astrology, medicine and mathematics, had long travelled westward to be incorporated into the foundations of the new, alphabetic, civilization. And since a good case can be made that, in spite of the many subsequent changes in political mastership, Hellenistic culture survived – indeed survived magnificently – through Macedonian, Seleucid, Roman and Parthian times, in the end transforming itself into Byzantine civilization, which still, after so many centuries, distantly reflected the original Assyrian model of imperial management established by Tiglath-Pileser I in the twelfth century BCE, one could even say, only a little tendentiously, that the Mesopotamian way of the world lasted, one way or another, until 1453, when Mehmed the Conqueror finally took Constantinople into the Ottoman Empire. Or even – since the Ottomans themselves inherited so much from the Byzantines – until the founding of the modernist secular Turkish state in the 1920s.

So what do we learn from the long saga that we have followed from its beginnings before 4,000 BCE almost to the present? That it has a distinct shape and form.

The Italian systems analyst Cesare Marchetti has shown over a working lifetime of brilliantly argued papers and articles how statistical mathematics may be applied to social data, in particular equations first developed in the 1920s to model the relationship between population numbers of a predator species and its prey. Marchetti successfully used these to show that such disparate phenomena as the spread of the London plague, the history of the Catholic Church, the numerical strength of the British army and even the creative output of a whole series of artists, writers, musicians, scientists and inventors accorded with predictable mathematical patterns. By this means, for example, he was able to show that on his death at the age of thirty-five, Mozart had probably already composed almost everything that he would have written had his life lasted longer. Perhaps we scoff – until we remember that Rossini, born the year after Mozart died, had also completed his life’s work by the time he was thirty-seven, though he lived on to the ripe old age of seventy-six.

When applying his insight to long-term phenomena like the growth and decay of empires, here too Marchetti found that the maths worked splendidly: ‘The fact that the growth of an empire follows a single…equation for hundreds of years suggests that the whole process is under the control of automatic mechanisms, much more than the whims of a Napoleon or Genghis Khan.’ His results offer the exciting possibility that by following the rise and fall of the Mesopotamian civilization mathematically, we might learn something of the natural laws that shape all civilizations, including our own.

But Marchetti’s results depended on amassing large datasets. For example, he plotted his Mozart curve by graphing the cumulative sum of the composer’s works against the years of their composition, while his exploration of the vitality of the Catholic Church depended on the well-documented history, dates and numbers, of the canonization of saints and the building of cathedrals. So far no scholar has addressed the problem of selecting and accumulating anything like enough data to apply Marchetti’s principles and processes to ancient Mesopotamian times.

But if Marchetti is right, and the rise and fall of civilizations, too, follow predictable mathematical laws, then they should also apply to our own civilization.

That should give us pause for thought, for we also live towards the end of an era. Many features of our own times are strongly reminiscent of the last centuries of Assyrian and neo-Babylonian rule. Our society too shows distinct signs of a loss of confidence in the future: an obsession with the past, an all-consuming zeal for preservation and conservation, a passion for museum culture, for genealogy and history – of which this very book is perhaps an example. We know that the way of life of the second half of all history, based as it is upon the unrestricted exploitation of the earth’s resources, is not forever sustainable. We recognize that the world cannot survive if every Indian and Chinese peasant aspires to the lifestyle of the affluent west. We understand that continued population increase at the present exponential rate will certainly overwhelm the globe. And we perceive also that the 2,500-year-old alphabetic civilization, which has made us what we are, is for the very first time being seriously challenged by the first stirrings of a new dispensation – what we could maybe call the Digital Civilisation, which began with Hollerith’s census-machine in the 1890s. As the composer of the ‘Lamentation over the Destruction of Sumer and Ur’ put it around 2000 BCE, ‘Who has ever seen a reign of kingship that would take precedence for ever? The reign of kingship has been long indeed but had to exhaust itself.’

If that is so, then we might take some comfort from the moral first drawn by the philosopher Kabiti-Ilani-Marduk, composer of ‘The Myth of the Pest-God Irra’ back in Assyrian–Babylonian days: that ours is a world in which decline, collapse and destruction always presages some kind of rebirth; that without sweeping away the old, the new cannot be born. And that through all the ups and downs, nothing really worthwhile is ever permanently lost, even though its creators may be long forgotten. When, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, our civilization finally lies dying in the gutter, some of us will still be looking, as the ancient Mesopotamians taught us to do, at the stars.

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