Chapter 9 - Babylonia and Assyria (Part I)
"From Under the Dust of Ages"
You must have stopped many times to look in wonder at the huge
man-headed bulls and lions on our way to the Egyptian and Greek Galleries. You
have certainly compared and contrasted them with the other monsters of
our acquaintance - the Egyptian Sphinx or the Greek Centaur.
The number of their legs - those legs that show the great treading-down
power of the bull or lion - must have puzzled us till we understood
that the sculpture is a sort of double relief which had to look well
from both side and front, and so a fifth leg was added for appearance's
The rows and rows of neat flat curls add also to the effect, as well as
the well-tied sash round the strong-looking body. The great eagles'
wings suggest swiftness that cannot be tired, and towering high above
us is the head which endows the monster with the intelligence and
wisdom of man.
These man-headed monsters once stood at the gateways [pg 144] which led
into the royal palaces of Assyria, and were looked upon as the
guardians of the footsteps of the kings who made them.
Before seeking out the story of these footsteps, and of much else that
came before and after, all told in the vivid language and pictures on
the remains in the Assyrian and
Babylonian Rooms in the British and other museums; let us first
look well at the maps in the Nimrud
Gallery, close to the bulls.
There is the Bridge of Nations, in the south-west corner, leading from
the country of one great river, the Nile, towards the countries of two
mighty streams -- the Euphrates and the Tigris. Trace their courses
from the mountains in the north, noticing how far westwards the
Euphrates flows in its journey to the Persian Gulf. As you see,
Babylonia, with its capital, Babylon, on the Euphrates, lies nearest to
the head of the Gulf, and Assyria with its capital, Nineveh, on the
Tigris, lies farther north.
Babylonia was the older kingdom, which sent out colonies up the two
great rivers to found cities and states. Later, these became not only
independent under one king, but strong enough to conquer the Mother
Next let us glance at the names of some of the neighbours of these
countries on the two rivers. Beginning on the east side there is
Persia, Elam, Media; to the west are the countries of the Hittites, the
Syrians, and the Canaanites, part of whose land was conquered by the
Israelites when they came out of Egypt.
The map shows us further that a great wedge of [pg 145] desert pushes
up between the Euphrates and the strip of seaboard countries near the
Mediterranean. This wedge and desert kept the nations on the banks of
the Nile and those on the Euphrates and Tigris apart for many
centuries. Armies could not pass by a direct way from on the other, but
had to travel by two sides of a triangle and to force the key of the
route where the desert was narrowest about Karkemish, the capital of
the Hittites, and so reach the upper waters of the Euphrates.
As you think over this you will understand what is meant when these
countries lying in the highway that connected the great powers are
called buffer states. All through the years of conflict these buffer
states were the scene of perpetual war; conquered first by Egypt, then
by Assyria; now rebelling, now in league on against another.
The Bible history of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel relates a great
deal of all this, and on Egyptian monuments are found accounts of wars
with these nations of Western Asia. We have already seen that these
Egyptian accounts could not be read till the key was found to unlock
the mysteries of the hieroglyphic writing, and this so lately as last
The monuments themselves, however, to a great extent have stood on the
banks of the Nile for thousands of years in the brilliant sunshine for
all to see. How different has been the case with the countries in the
valley of the Euphrates and Tigris! They are mentioned in the Bible,
and old travellers and historians have left scattered notices of them
through the [pg 146] centuries -- here and there -- but the cities
themselves and their contents were no longer to be seen; only stories
of their wonder and greatness survived.
If you travel in those countries to-day you will see great mounds
rising to varying heights above the dreary sandy plains in the south,
as well as in the more hilly country of the north. Sometimes villages
are built on these mounds, sometimes crops are raised on their tops,
sometimes they are gay with wild flowers.
It was only last century that people because in earnest to seek to find
out what those mounds were, and what they contained. These mounds --
you can see some fine models of them at the Louvre -- are the graves in
which the cities, temples, palaces, of Babylonia and Assyria have been
buried and forgotten for some two thousand years.
You can fancy the excitement of the first explorers as the dust of ages
was laboriously cleared away from the ruins that lay beneath. When the
head of the winged bull emerged, the Arab diggers were terror-stricken,
and fled to their village, thinking some dreadful monster had been
roused to make an end of them; later they came to the conclusion that
the English were taking it home for their queen and the rest of the
unbelievers to worship!
It is not easy to understand how a country once thickly peopled, and
dotted over with flourishing cities, tow of them believed to have been
larger than London, could become so desolate and forgotten.
But, to begin with, much of the building was set on great platforms of
bricks and earth, so as to be [pg 147] out of reach of the river
floods. Then the buildings themselves were chiefly made of sun-dried
bricks, which would easily turn back again into the clay of which they
were made, and the roofs were supported on wooden beams and pillars. So
when the conquerors set fire to the doomed city, the roofs and brick
walls fell in, and the heavy rains, season after season, gradually
covered all up with mud and clay.
As to the inhabitants, many were killed or taken prisoners, or settled
elsewhere, and as wave after wave of newcomers passed over the land,
each knew less and less of its once powerful owners in the centuries
that were gone.
Now let us glance round to see the sort of remains that have come to us
from the mounds.
Besides the “guardians of the path of the king,” we have the sculptured
slabs which once lined the walls of their palaces, se out in the Nimrud Gallery, so called from the
mound of Nimrud, the site of the ancient city of Calah, about twenty
miles south of Nineveh. Many more of these slabs are to be seen in the Assyrian Saloon and also in the Nineveh Gallery, from the mound of
Kouyunjik, part of the ancient site of Nineveh itself.
Besides these slabs there are numberless little clay tablets, like
cakes of soap, in the Babylonian and
Assyrian Rooms upstairs. Some are oblong, some round, all are
covered with writing, as are also the barrel-shaped and many-sided
large cylinders in the upper room.
Here you will also find a large collection of cylinder seals, like long
stone beads (you will remember similar [pg 148] ones amongst the
Egyptian treasures), which were generally used to make an impression on
the soft clay of the tablets. Round the walls are all sorts of stone
and clay objects, as well as a few larger statues and memorials,
standing out in the rooms.
The illustrations on the slabs and cylinder seals look stiff and often
confused, but from them and from the writing on clay tablets and
cylinders, looking like unending combinations of arrow-headed or
wedge-shaped lines, we can gather a glowing story full of unexpected
The story is a long one, as long as that of Egypt, and it will lead us
into the very presence of great kings whose names and deeds are already
known to us. Visions of centuries or prosperous farming and great
wealth will pass before our eyes, as well as those of the excitement of
the hunt, and the desolation of war.
The contents of great libraries, too, are open to our gaze, safe in the
cases, though the shelves that once help them, and the walls of their
original home, have been lying in ashes for 2500 years.
When the mounds were first explored, the writing to be found on the
newly found monsters, slabs, cylinders, and tablets was still a
mystery, though many scholars had been at work for years trying to
unravel it from various inscriptions that had been found in the
In the second Northern Gallery
are not only casts of many of these inscriptions, but specimens of the
paper squeezes -- they look like the raised writing for the blind --
made from a very important inscription [pg 149] in three languages,
which could not be carried away from the spot like the Rosetta Stone,
because it is cut high up on a great rock at Behistun, in Persia.
When the dauntless traveller and scholar arrived at the Rock to get his
copy he found his ladders were too short; so he had himself lowered by
a rope from the top.
Then followed months and months of hard, patient study. No one knew
even one of the three languages, as had been the case with the Rosetta
Stone; they only knew others like one of them, and derived from the
same stock. Success came at last, and now it is possible to get grammar
and dictionary, and set to work to study and read cuneiform or
wedge-shaped writing, and so receive the message across the centuries,
left on the clay and stone as the old king said, “for future ages, for
In the beginning this writing was a series of pictures, like the
Egyptian hieroglyphs; the earliest signs, for instance, for a fork, an
arrow, a comb, a bird, a fish, are easily distinguishable.
This was the invention of the old inhabitants of the land between he
rivers -- the Sumerians and Akkadians before the Babylonians settled
there; and as time went on the writing gradually became more stiff and
wedge-like and was used to express the language not only of the
Babylonians and Assyrians, but of nearly all their neighbours, from
Syria on the west to Persia on the east, just as Roman letters are now
used nearly all over Europe.
For a long time, when the Babylonians had settled [pg 150] down amongst
the older inhabitants, the languages were spoken side by side, as
French and Flemish are in Belgium now. When this ceased, about 2000
B.C., the memory of the older tongues was kept up in the literature of
the country, more or less till the end of its history, much as we use
Latin and Greek now.
Hence, in the cases of tablets, you will find constant reference made
to the Sumerian and Akkadian languages, with translations into
Babylonian and Assyrian, and many spelling books, grammars, and
dictionaries, for those who had to learn the dead languages.
The men with shaved heads in the sculptures are of the older race.
There is a most quaint Sumerian person of high rank, with folded hands
in the Babylonian Room -- the
Babylonians and Assyrians were famous (like the bulls) for fine beards
and heads of hair. This is a specimen of Archaic Sumerian sculpture. A
very fine specimen of late Sumerian sculpture stands in the centre of
the same room.
The gods of the Sumerians were also kept in memory through the ages,
such as Ishtar, the great giver of victory in war, the Sun and Moon
gods, and those of the earth, sky, and sea.
Some of the very earliest of the Babylonian relics in this room are the
stone sockets, in which the pivot of the gates turned, also memorial
tablets belonging to the governors or kings of the states which later
were united under one ruler.
The exhibition of writing in the Babylonian
Room will show you the gradual development of the Babylonian [pg
151] writing from the picture signs which were probably in use about
The second stage of development was the reduction of the pictures to
linear signs with as few curves as possible. This was done because wet
clay was used for writing.
Later on the straight lines tended to take a triangular form, and so
the writing became wedge-shaped, and is called cuneiform.
You will see all these stages in the special exhibit of writing.
On one of the memorial tablets (dated perhaps about 1500) there is the
name of a king of Ur, which name at once brings to mind the calling of
Abraham from this very city, Ur of the Chaldees, where he lived with
The bricks inscribed with the name of this king come from the temples
he built to the Sun and Moon gods. Numerous other bricks of this and
later date record much building of temples as well as restorations of
older ones, also the cutting of a great canal. We are hereby reminded
that the making of bricks, where stone was scarce and the best clay
very plentiful, was one of the chief industries in a country of great
A flood of light is cast upon the life of the times, which may have
been near those of Abraham, by the clay tablets in a table-case.
Fortunately, for later generations, these have been practically
indestructible; they are the letters, annals, business documents, as
well as what we call books, all written on finely prepared clay, when
moist, with a three-edged stylus, [pg 152] and then hardened by heat of
sun or fire. Many of the tablets are still almost perfect, in spite of
occasional dampness, the destruction of the cities and temples by fire,
and the long burial in the mounds.
Examine the labels slowly. There are deeds relating to buying, selling,
and letting house property, gardens, fields, and plantations; others
which show how slaves were bought or hired, how children were adopted,
how money was borrowed.
Many letters from kings to their officials refer to the making and
cleaning of the canals which crossed the country between the rivers,
storing water to use on the land, and making it so fertile that it
produced two crops a year.
“The land of the double spring-time” became a great corn-growing
country and very rich.
Many orders refer to sending stores of all kinds to Babylon -- clothes
to wear, dates, oil, and other necessaries. There is a very interesting
one from the great king Khammurabi about the twentieth century. There
are many of his tablets on view, but this particular one gives
directions about felling trees to use in smelting metal.
Other tablets deal with the protection of fishing rights; of
arrangement for the transport of sheep and lambs, and for their
shearing. Another gives orders for sending images of the gods and
goddesses from one place to another. The bustle and worries of the old
life are very real. You realize how much it all mattered -- four
thousand years ago -- how they had to rush about, clean out canals in
three days, find extra [pg 153] shepherds in great haste for the
shearing, travel night and day to obey the king’s behest; and on all
sides were the agitations of gaining and losing money, of going to law,
and the ever-present terror of offending the great king.
The circular tablets are chiefly lists of fields and estates with their
measurements. Very often the boundaries of these fields became changed
from the flooding of the rivers. There are many interesting boundary
stones in the wall-cases of different periods.
The large square tablets are chiefly accounts concerning wages -- for
men, women and children -- also particulars about grain and wool for
purposes of the revenue.
All this commerce must needs have been carried on by many people, whose
relations to each other had to be settled by good laws. Khammurabi was
the great lawgiver, and it is said of him that he “established the
heart of the country in righteousness.”
Look well at the cast of the pillar on which his great code of laws --
the oldest in the world, some say -- is inscribed. There is his
portrait on the top receiving the laws from the Sun god. He set up the
original of this pillar in Babylon, and copies of it in other cities,
so that if any one felt aggrieved at any loss or bad treatment he could
go and find out the law bearing on his case.
But Khammurabi’s stele was not found in Babylon, but in Susa, one of
the most ancient cities of Elam and Persia. It was n Elamite king who
carried it there many centuries after Khammurabi had set it up. He [pg
154] stored it in his museum, where he exhibited other treasures from
Babylonia. You will be interested to notice the space he had cleared at
the bottom by erasing several sections of the code. Here he meant to
engrave his own name and great deeds, as he has done on five other
During the centuries which followed, the kings of Egypt were gradually
getting more and more power over the nations that dwelt about the high
road to Assyria. Thothmes III. -- you have his name in the fifteenth
century, he who set up Cleopatra’s Needle -- was one of them, also the
manly Queen Hat-shep-sut, who sent her fleets to the Land of Punt, and
who built a most magnificent temple.
In the fourteenth century we come to the names of two Egyptian kings,
who not exacted tribute from the buffer states, but overran the country
of the two rivers itself. Both these kings were called Amen-hetep; one
the husband, the other the son, of a lady from Western Asia -- Queen
Amen-hetep (or Amen-ophis) IV. was so much influenced by his mother
that he adopted the religion of her country and built a fine new city,
with a temple and a palace in which to carry it out, and changed his
name from “the favourite of Amen” to that of “the splendour of the
Sun’s rays.” You can imagine how angry all this made the powerful
priests of Amen.
Now amongst the ruins of his city, not far from the old tombs at
Beni-Hasan, were found numbers of letters and dispatches in cuneiform
writing on the familiar clay tablets. These are to be see, at least [pg
155] some of them, in a table-case in the Babylonian Room, headed
Tell-el-Amarna (or Tall al-Amarnah) tablets -- this being the Arab name
of a village close by.
These letters are from kings of Babylonia and Assyria, also from
governors of various provinces, and give a graphic picture of the
relations between the kings of Egypt and Western Asia in the fifteenth
or fourteenth centuries B.C. Translations of many are to be seen in the
case, and are most interesting reading. Some refer to the sending of
Mesopotamian princesses as wives for the Egyptian kings and beg for an
Egyptian princess in return.
Then there is a great deal about gifts of all kinds -- chariots,
horses, much gold, also a gold-and-ivory throne, even the statue of a
goddess. There is much complaint when equally handsome presents are not
sent in return.
Many of the dispatches speak of rebellions, and beg for troops and arms
and corn for food. One governor says he is shut up “like a bird in a
cage”; another, that he is “stricken with fear.”
These tablets all show us how much coming and going there was at this
time over the Bridge of Nations; a constant passing of couriers and
scribes, presents and provisions, soldiers and bridal processions.
Ever since Assyria had become independent, there had been perpetual
quarrels. Chiefly about the boundaries of the two kingdoms. At last,
soon after the beginning of the thirteenth century, Assyria conquered
Babylonia, and managed to remain the ruling power, with occasional
reverses, for over six hundred years.
[pg 156] The Assyrians were more energetic and better fighters than the
Babylonians, who were very successful in commerce and agriculture, and
as devoted to learning as the old Sumerians had been before them. We
must remember that the climate of the hilly, northern kingdom was more
bracing than that of the low plain to the south, between the slow
winding rivers which were often flooded.
Towards the end of the twelfth century we learn of the removal of the
slab engraved with Khammurabi’s code from Babylon to Susa, while about
the beginning of the twelfth century you can picture Tiglath Pileser
I., a mighty old Assyrian king, who tells us on his cylinders in the Babylonian and Assyrian Room of his
prowess in war -- the countries he conquered, the spoil he took,
including images of the gods. There is a picture on one clay prism
showing a procession of captured gods who look rather like Guy Fawkes
aloft on his chair.
Tiglath Pileser I. was a great hunter too: he specially mentions
leopards; and when he visited the Phœnicians, the great sailors and
traders of the old world, he even “mounted” a ship and went for an
excursion on the Mediterranean. Unfortunately the name of the monster
of the deep (perhaps a dolphin) that he succeeded in killing is erased
from the relief.
King David is believed to have lived near this time, in about the
In the Babylonian Room, look,
in the table-case at the earliest known map of the world -- such a very
small and curious world! The map is of course of clay, and was probably
drawn in [pg 157] the eighth or seventh century B.C. It illustrates a
story quite well known even in the fourteenth century, and seems to
refer to the legend which accumulated round the heroic figure of King
Sargon of Agade, who conquered an empire in Western Asia about the
twenty-sixth century B.C.
There is Babylon in the centre, and the ocean round the edge; the two
great rivers are also shown, with the mountains at their source, and
the swamps at their mouth.
There is also to be seen part of a plan of Babylon, showing the
position of the great gate of the Sun god, also several chronicle
tablets giving names of Babylonian kings.
The worship of the Sun god is beautifully shown on the celebrated
tablet from the Temple of Sippar. There is the god himself seated on a
throne in a shrine, holding symbols of eternity. Notice the palm trunk
column before him, and the disk of the sun held up by ropes, and the
priest leading the king to worship.
It must have been a gorgeous temple with its gold and lapis lazuli, a
fit setting for the fine garments of the priests. The tablet gives an
account of the restoration of this ancient temple by a king of Babylon
in the ninth century, just about the time when the kingdom of Assyria
was entering the period of its greatest power and glory. It lasted for
three hundred years, and during that time there are at least six or
seven kings whose names (rather difficult at first sight) and bearded
faces will become perfectly familiar to us as we look again and again
at the relics from their times.
(Chapter 9 typed by Janel Folden)