Ancient History & Civilisation



Babylonian contributions to modern civilization—The Land between the Rivers—Hammurabi—His capital—The Kassite Domination—The Amarna letters—The Assyrian Conquest—Nebuchadrezzar—Babylon in the days of its glory

CIVILIZATION, like life, is a perpetual struggle with death. And as life maintains itself only by abandoning old, and recasting itself in younger and fresher, forms, so civilization achieves a precarious survival by changing its habitat or its blood. It moved from Ur to Babylon and Judea, from Babylon to Nineveh, from these to Persepolis, Sardis and Miletus, and from these, Egypt and Crete to Greece and Rome.

No one looking at the site of ancient Babylon today would suspect that these hot and dreary wastes along the Euphrates were once the rich and powerful capital of a civilization that almost created astronomy, added richly to the progress of medicine, established the science of language, prepared the first great codes of law, taught the Greeks the rudiments of mathematics, physics and philosophy,1 gave the Jews the mythology which they gave to the world, and passed on to the Arabs part of that scientific and architectural lore with which they aroused the dormant soul of medieval Europe. Standing before the silent Tigris and Euphrates one finds it hard to believe that they are the same rivers that watered Sumeria and Akkad, and nourished the Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

In some ways they are not the same rivers: not only because “one never steps twice into the same stream,” but because these old rivers have long since remade their beds along new courses,2 and “mow with their scythes of whiteness”3 other shores. As in Egypt the Nile, so here the Tigris and the Euphrates provided, for thousands of miles, an avenue of commerce and—in their southern reaches—springtime inundations that helped the peasant to fertilize his soil. For rain comes to Babylonia only in the winter months; from May to November it comes not at all; and the earth, but for the overflow of the rivers, would be as arid as northern Mesopotamia was then and is today. Through the abundance of the rivers and the toil of many generations of men, Babylonia became the Eden of Semitic legend, the garden and granary of western Asia.*

Historically and ethnically Babylonia was a product of the union of the Akkadians and the Sumerians. Their mating generated the Babylonian type, in which the Akkadian Semitic strain proved dominant; their warfare ended in the triumph of Akkad, and the establishment of Babylon as the capital of all lower Mesopotamia. At the outset of this history stands the powerful figure of Hammurabi (2123-2081 B.C.) conqueror and lawgiver through a reign of forty-three years. Primeval seals and inscriptions transmit him to us partially—a youth full of fire and genius, a very whirlwind in battle, who crushes all rebels, cuts his enemies into pieces, marches over inaccessible mountains, and never loses an engagement. Under him the petty warring states of the lower valley were forced into unity and peace, and disciplined into order and security by an historic code of laws.

The Code of Hammurabi was unearthed at Susa in 1902, beautifully engraved upon a diorite cylinder that had been carried from Babylon to Elam (ca. 1100 B.C.) as a trophy of war. Like that of Moses, this legislation was a gift from Heaven, for one side of the cylinder shows the King receiving the laws from Shamash, the Sun-god himself. The Prologue is almost in Heaven:

When the lofty Anu, King of the Anunaki and Bel, Lord of Heaven and Earth, he who determines the destiny of the land, committed the rule of all mankind to Marduk; . . . when they pronounced the lofty name of Babylon; when they made it famous among the quarters of the world and in its midst established an everlasting kingdom whose foundations were firm as heaven and earth—at that time Anu and Bel called me, Hammurabi, the exalted prince, the worshiper of the gods, to cause justice to prevail in the land, to destroy the wicked and the evil, to prevent the strong from oppressing the weak, . . . to enlighten the land and to further the welfare of the people. Hammurabi, the governor named by Bel, am I, who brought about plenty and abundance; who made everything for Nippur and Durilu complete; . . . who gave life to the city of Uruk; who supplied water in abundance to its inhabitants; . . . who made the city of Borsippa beautiful; . . . who stored up grain for the mighty Urash; . . . who helped his people in time of need; who establishes in security their property in Babylon; the governor of the people, the servant, whose deeds are pleasing to Anunit.4

The words here arbitrarily underlined have a modern ring; one would not readily attribute them to an Oriental “despot” 2100 B.C., or suspect that the laws that they introduce were based upon Sumerian prototypes now six thousand years old. This ancient origin combined with Babylonian circumstance to give the Code a composite and heterogeneous character. It begins with compliments to the gods, but takes no further notice of them in its astonishingly secular legislation. It mingles the most enlightened laws with the most barbarous punishments, and sets the primitive lex talionis and trial by ordeal alongside elaborate judicial procedures and a discriminating attempt to limit marital tyranny.5 All in all, these 285 laws, arranged almost scientifically under the headings of Personal Property, Real Estate, Trade and Business, the Family, Injuries, and Labor, form a code more advanced and civilized than that of Assyria a thousand and more years later, and in many respects “as good as that of a modern European state.”6* There are few words finer in the history of law than those with which the great Babylonian brings his legislation to a close:

The righteous laws which Hammurabi, the wise king, established, and (by which) he gave the land stable support and pure government. . . . I am the guardian governor. . . . In my bosom I carried the people of the land of Sumer and Akkad; . . . in my wisdom I restrained them, that the strong might not oppress the weak, and that they should give justice to the orphan and the widow. . . . Let any oppressed man, who has a cause, come before my image as king of righteousness! Let him read the inscription on my monument! Let him give heed to my weighty words! And may my monument enlighten him as to his cause, and may he understand his case! May he set his heart at ease, (exclaiming:) “Hammurabi indeed is a ruler who is like a real father to his people; . . . he has established prosperity for his people for all time, and given a pure government to the land.” . . .

In the days that are yet to come, for all future time, may the king who is in the land observe the words of righteousness which I have written upon my monument!8

This unifying legislation was but one of Hammurabi’s accomplishments. At his command a great canal was dug between Kish and the Persian Gulf, thereby irrigating a large area of land, and protecting the cities of the south from the destructive floods which the Tigris had been wont to visit upon them. In another inscription which has found its devious way from his time to ours he tells us proudly how he gave water (that noble and unappreciated commonplace, which was once a luxury), security and government to many tribes. Even through the boasting (an honest mannerism of the Orient) we hear the voice of statesmanship.

When Anu and Enlil (the gods of Uruk and Nippur) gave me the lands of Sumer and Akkad to rule, and they entrusted this sceptre to me, I dug the canal Hammurabi-nukhush-nishi (Hammurabi-the-Abundance-of-the-People), which bringeth copious water to the land of Sumer and Akkad. Its banks on both sides I turned into cultivated ground; I heaped up piles of grain, I provided unfailing water for the lands. . . . The scattered people I gathered; with pasturage and water I provided them; I pastured them with abundance, and settled them in peaceful dwellings.9

Despite the secular quality of his laws Hammurabi was clever enough to gild his authority with the approval of the gods. He built temples as well as forts, and coddled the clergy by constructing at Babylon a gigantic sanctuary for Marduk and his wife (the national deities), and a massive granary to store up wheat for gods and priests. These and similar gifts were an astute investment, from which he expected steady returns in the awed obedience of the people. From their taxes he financed the forces of law and order, and had enough left over to beautify his capital. Palaces and temples rose on every hand; a bridge spanned the Euphrates to let the city spread itself along both banks; ships manned with ninety men plied up and down the river. Two thousand years before Christ Babylon was already one of the richest cities that history had yet known.*

The people were of Semitic appearance, dark in hair and features, masculinely bearded for the most part, and occasionally bewigged. Both sexes wore the hair long; sometimes even the men dangled curls; frequently the men, as well as the women, disguised themselves with perfumes. The common dress for both sexes was a white linen tunic reaching to the feet; in the women it left one shoulder bare, in the men it was augmented with mantle and robe. As wealth grew, the people developed a taste for color, and dyed for themselves garments of blue on red, or red on blue, in stripes, circles, checks or dots. The bare feet of the Sumerian period gave way to shapely sandals, and the male head, in Hammurabi’s time, was swathed in turbans. The women wore necklaces, bracelets and amulets, and strings of beads in their carefully coiffured hair; the men flourished walking-sticks with carved heads, and carried on their girdles the prettily designed seals with which they attested their letters and documents. The priests wore tall conical caps to conceal their humanity.10

It is almost a law of history that the same wealth that generates a civilization announces its decay. For wealth produces ease as well as art; it softens a people to the ways of luxury and peace, and invites invasion from stronger arms and hungrier mouths. On the eastern boundary of the new state a hardy tribe of mountaineers, the Kassites, looked with envy upon the riches of Babylon. Eight years after Hammurabi’s death they inundated the land, plundered it, retreated, raided it again and again, and finally settled down in it as conquerors and rulers; this is the normal origin of aristocracies. They were of non-Semitic stock, perhaps descendants of European immigrants from neolithic days; their victory over Semitic Babylon represented one more swing of the racial pendulum in western Asia. For several centuries Babylonia lived in an ethnic and political chaos that put a stop to the development of science and art.11 We have a kaleidoscope of this stifling disorder in the “Amarna” letters, in which the kinglets of Babylonia and Syria, having sent modest tribute to imperial Egypt after the victories of Thutmose III, beg for aid against rebels and invaders, and quarrel about the value of the gifts that they exchange with the disdainful Amenhotep III and the absorbed and negligent Ikhnaton.*

The Kassites were expelled after almost six centuries of rule as disruptive as the similar sway of the Hyksos in Egypt. The disorder continued for four hundred years more under obscure Babylonian rulers, whose polysyllabic roster might serve as an obbligato to Gray’s Elegy, until the rising power of Assyria in the north stretched down its hand and brought Babylonia under the kings of Nineveh. When Babylon rebelled, Sennacherib destroyed it almost completely; but the genial despotism of Esarhaddon restored it to prosperity and culture. The rise of the Medes weakened Assyria, and with their help Nabopolassar liberated Babylonia, set up an independent dynasty, and dying, bequeathed this second Babylonian kingdom to his son Nebuchadrezzar II, villain of the vengeful and legendary Book of Daniel.13 Nebuchadrezzar’s inaugural address to Marduk, god-in-chief of Babylon, reveals a glimpse of an Oriental monarch’s aims and character:

As my precious life do I love thy sublime appearance! Outside of my city Babylon, I have not selected among all settlements any dwelling. . . . At thy command, O merciful Marduk, may the house that I have built endure forever, may I be satiated with its splendor, attain old age therein, with abundant offspring, and receive therein tribute of the kings of all regions, from all mankind.14

He lived almost up to his hopes, for though illiterate and not unquestionably sane, he became the most powerful ruler of his time in the Near East, and the greatest warrior, statesman and builder in all the succession of Babylonian kings after Hammurabi himself. When Egypt conspired with Assyria to reduce Babylonia to vassalage again, Nebuchadrezzar met the Egyptian hosts at Carchemish (on the upper reaches of the Euphrates), and almost annihilated them. Palestine and Syria then fell easily under his sway, and Babylonian merchants controlled all the trade that flowed across western Asia from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea.

Nebuchadrezzar spent the tolls of this trade, the tributes of these subjects, and the taxes of his people, in beautifying his capital and assuaging the hunger of the priests. “Is not this the great Babylon that I built?”15 He resisted the temptation to be merely a conqueror; he sallied forth occasionally to teach his subjects the virtues of submission, but for the most part he stayed at home, making Babylon the unrivaled capital of the Near East, the largest and most magnificent metropolis of the ancient world.16Nabopolassar had laid plans for the reconstruction of the city; Nebuchadrezzar used his long reign of forty-three years to carry them to completion. Herodotus, who saw Babylon a century and a half later, described it as “standing in a spacious plain,” and surrounded by a wall fifty-six miles in length,17 so broad that a four-horse chariot could be driven along the top, and enclosing an area of some two hundred square miles.18* Through the center of the town ran the palm-fringed Euphrates, busy with commerce and spanned by a handsome bridge.19 Practically all the better buildings were of brick, for stone was rare in Mesopotamia; but the bricks were often faced with enameled tiles of brilliant blue, yellow or white, adorned with animal and other figures in glazed relief, which remain to this day supreme in their kind. Nearly all the bricks so far recovered from the site of Babylon bear the proud inscription: “I am Nebuchadrezzar, King of Babylon.”21

Approaching the city the traveler saw first—at the crown of a very mountain of masonry—an immense and lofty ziggurat, rising in seven stages of gleaming enamel to a height of 650 feet, crowned with a shrine containing a massive table of solid gold, and an ornate bed on which, each night, some woman slept to await the pleasure of the god.22 This structure, taller than the pyramids of Egypt, and surpassing in height all but the latest of modern buildings, was probably the “Tower of Babel” of Hebraic myth, the many-storied audacity of a people who did not know Yahveh, and whom the God of Hosts was supposed to have confounded with a multiplicity of tongues.* South of the ziggurat stood the gigantic Temple of Marduk, tutelary deity of Babylon. Around and below this temple the city spread itself out in a few wide and brilliant avenues, crossed by crowded canals and narrow winding streets alive, no doubt, with traffic and bazaars, and Orientally odorous with garbage and humanity. Connecting the temples was a spacious “Sacred Way,” paved with asphalt-covered bricks overlaid with flags of limestone and red breccia; over this the gods might pass without muddying their feet. This broad avenue was flanked with walls of colored tile, on which stood out, in low relief, one hundred and twenty brightly enameled lions, snarling to keep the impious away. At one end of the Sacred Way rose the magnificent Ishtar Gate, a massive double portal of resplendent tiles, adorned with enameled flowers and animals of admirable color, vitality, and line.

Six hundred yards north of the “Tower of Babel” rose a mound called Kasr, on which Nebuchadrezzar built the most imposing of his palaces. At its center stood his principal dwelling-place, the walls of finely made yellow brick, the floors of white and mottled sandstone; reliefs of vivid blue glaze adorned the surfaces, and gigantic basalt lions guarded the entrance. Nearby, supported on a succession of superimposed circular colonnades, were the famous Hanging Gardens, which the Greeks included among the Seven Wonders of the World. The gallant Nebuchadrezzar had built them for one of his wives, the daughter of Cyaxares, King of the Medes; this princess, unaccustomed to the hot sun and dust of Babylon, pined for the verdure of her native hills. The topmost terrace was covered with rich soil to the depth of many feet, providing space and nourishment not merely for varied flowers and plants, but for the largest and most deep-rooted trees. Hydraulic engines concealed in the columns and manned by shifts of slaves carried water from the Euphrates to the highest tier of the gardens.24 Here, seventy-five feet above the ground, in the cool shade of tall trees, and surrounded by exotic shrubs and fragrant flowers, the ladies of the royal harem walked unveiled, secure from the common eye; while, in the plains and streets below, the common man and woman ploughed, wove, built, carried burdens, and reproduced their kind.

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