A General History for Colleges and High Schools (Myers)/Chapter 3, pp. 40-47
Basin of the Tigris and Euphrates
The northern part of the Tigris and Euphrates valley, the portion that comprised ancient Assyria, consists of undulating plains, broken in places by considerable mountain ridges.
But all the southern portion of the basin, the part known as Chaldaea, or Babylonia, having been formed by the gradual encroachment of the deposits of the Tigris and Euphrates upon the waters of the Persian Gulf, is as level as the sea. During a large part of the year, rains are infrequent; hence agriculture is dependent mainly upon artificial irrigation. The distribution of the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates was secured, in ancient times, by a stupendous system of canals and irrigants, which, at the present day, in a sand-choked and ruined condition, spread like a perfect network over the face of the country (see cut, p. 41).
The productions of Babylonia are very like those of the Nile valley. The luxuriant growth of grain upon these alluvial flats excited the wonder of all the Greek travellers who visited the East. Herodotus will not tell the whole truth, for fear his veracity may be doubted. The soil is as fertile now as in the time of the historian; but owing to the neglect of the ancient canals, the greater part of this once populous district has been converted into alternating areas of marsh and desert.
The Three Great Monarchies
Within the Tigris-Euphrates basin, three great empires--the Chaldaean, the Assyrian, and the Babylonian--successively rose to prominence and dominion. Each, in turn, not only extended its authority over the valley, but also made the power of its arms felt throughout the adjoining regions. We shall now trace the rise and the varied fortunes of these empires, and the slow growth of the arts and sciences from rude beginnings among the early Chaldaeans to their fuller and richer development under the Assyrian and Babylonian monarchies.
The Chaldaeans a Mixed People
In the earliest times Lower Chaldaea was known as Shumir, the Shinar of the Bible, while Upper Chaldaea bore the name of Accad. The original inhabitants of Chaldaea were of Turanian race, and are called Accadians.
These people laid the basis of civilization in the Euphrates valley, so that with them the history of Asian culture begins. They brought with them into the valley the art of hieroglyphical writing, which later developed into the well-known cuneiform system. They also had quite an extensive literature, and had made considerable advance in the art of building.
The civilization of the Accadians was given a great impulse by the arrival of a Semitic people. These foreigners were nomadic in habits, and altogether much less cultured than the Accadians.
Gradually, however, they adopted the arts and literature of the people among whom they had settled; yet they retained their own language, which in the course of time superseded the less perfect Turanian speech of the original inhabitants; consequently the mixed people, known later as Chaldaeans, that arose from the blending of the two races, spoke a language essentially the same as that used by their northern neighbors, the Semitic Assyrians.
Sargon (Sharrukin) I. (3800? B.C.)
We know scarcely anything about the political affairs of the Accadians until after the arrival of the Semites. Then, powerful kings, sometimes of Semitic and then again of Turanian, or Accadian origin, appear ruling in the cities of Accad and Shumir, and the political history of Chaldaea begins.
The first prominent monarch is called Sargon I. (Sharrukin), a Semitic king of Agadê [see map] , one of the great early cities. An inscription recently deciphered makes this king to have reigned as early as 3800 B.C. He appears to have been the first great organizer of the peoples of the Chaldaean plains.
Yet not as a warrior, but as a patron and protector of letters, is Sargon’s name destined to a sure place in history. He classified and translated into the Semitic, or Assyrian tong the religious, mythological, and astronomical literature of the Accadians, and deposited the books in great libraries, which he established or enlarged--the oldest and most valuable libraries of the ancient world. The scholar Sayce calls him the Chaldaean Solomon.
Conquest of Chaldaea by the Elamites (2286 B.C.)
While the Chaldaean kings were ruling in the great cities of Lower Babylonia, the princes of the Elamites, a people of Turanian race, were setting up a rival kingdom to the northeast, just at the foot of the hills of Persia.
In the year 2286 B.C., a king of Elam, Kudur-Nakhunta by name, overran Chaldaea, took all the cities founded by Sargon and his successors, and from the temples bore off in triumph to his capital, Susa [see map], the statues of the Chaldaean gods, and set up in these lowland regions what is known as the Elamite Dynasty.
More than sixteen hundred years after this despoiling of the Chaldaean sanctuaries, a king of Nineveh [see map] captured the city of Susa, and finding there these stolen statues, caused them to be restored to their original temples.
The Chedorlaomer of Genesis, whose contact with the history of the Jewish patriarch Abraham has caused his name to be handed down to our own times in the records of the Hebrew people, is believed to have been the son and successor of Kudur-Nakhunta.
Chaldaea eclipsed by Assyria
After the Elamite princes had maintained a more or less perfect dominion over the cities of Chaldaea for two or three centuries, their power seems to have declined; and then for several centuries longer, down to about 1300 B.C., dynasties and kings of which we know very little as yet, ruled the country.
During this period, Babylon, gradually rising into prominence, overshadowed the more ancient Accadian cities, and became the leading city of the land. From it the whole country was destined, later, to draw the name by which it is best known--Babylonia.
Meanwhile a Semitic power had been slowly developing in the north. This was the Assyrian empire, the later heart and centre of which was the great city of Nineveh [see map]. For a long time Assyria was simply a province or dependency of the lower kingdom; but about 1300 B.C., the Assyrian monarch Tiglathi-nin conquered Babylonia, and Assyria assumed the place that had been so long held by Chaldaea. From this time on to the fall of Nineveh in 606 B.C., the monarchs of this country virtually controlled the affairs of Western Asia.
Arts and General Culture
In the art of building, the Chaldӕans, though their edifices fall far short of attaining the perfection exhibited by the earliest Egyptian structures, displayed no inconsiderable architectural knowledge and skill.
The most important of their constructions were their tower-temples. These were simple in plan, consisting of two or three terraces, or stages, placed one upon another so as to form a sort of rude pyramid. The material used in their construction was chiefly sun-dried brick. The edifice was sometimes protected by outer courses of burnt brick. The temple proper surmounted the upper platform.
All these tower-temples have crumbled into vast mounds, with only here and there a projecting mass of masonry to distinguish them from natural hills, for which they were at first mistaken.
We have already mentioned the fact that the Accadians, when they entered the Euphrates valley, were in possession of a system of writing. This was a simple pictorial, or hieroglyphical system, which they gradually developed into the cuneiform.
In the cuneiform system, the characters, instead of being formed of unbroken lines, are composed of wedge-like marks; hence the name (from cuneus, a wedge). This form, according to the scholar Sayce, arose when the Accadians, having entered the low country, substituted tablets of clay for the papyrus or other similar material which they had formerly used. The characters were impressed upon the soft tablet by means of a triangular writing-instrument, which gave them their peculiar wedge-shaped form.
The cuneiform mode of writing, improved and simplified by the Assyrians and the Persians, was in use about two thousand years, being employed by the nations in and near the Euphrates basin, down to the time of the conquest of the East by the Macedonians.
Books and Libraries
The books of the Chaldӕans were composed of clay tablets, varying in length from one inch to twelve inches, and being about one inch thick. Those holding records of special importance, after having been once written over and baked, were covered with a thin coating of clay, and then the matter was written in duplicate and the tablets again baked. If the outer writing were defaced by accident or altered by design, the removal of the outer coating would at once show the true text.
The tablets were carefully preserved in great public libraries. Even during the Turanian period, before the Semites had entered the land, one or more of these collections existed in each of the chief cities of Accad and Shumir. “Accad,” says Sayce, “was the China of Asia. Almost every one could read and write.” Erech was especially renowned for its great library, and was known as “the City of Books.”
The Accadian religion, as revealed by the tablets, was essentially the same as that held today by the nomadic Turanian tribes of Northern Asia--what is known as Shamanism. It consisted in a belief in good and evil spirits, of which the latter held by far the most prominent place. To avert the malign influence of these wicked spirits, the Accadians had resort to charms and magic rites. The religion of the Semites was a form of Sabӕanism--that is, a worship of the heavenly bodies--in which the sun was naturally the central object of adoration.
When the Accadians and the Semites intermingled, their religious systems blended to form one of the most influential religions of the world--one which spread far and wide under the form of Baal worship. There were in the perfected system twelve primary gods, at whose head stood Il, or Ra. Besides these great divinities, there were numerous lesser and local deities.
There were features of this old Chaldaean religion which were destined to exert a wide-spread and potent influence upon the minds of men. Out of the Sabaean Semitic element grew astrology, the pretended art of forecasting events by the aspect of the stars, which was most elaborately and ingeniously developed, until the fame of the Chaldaean astrologers was spread throughout the ancient world, while the spell of that art held in thraldom the mind of mediaeval Europe.
Out of the Shamanistic element contributed by the Turanian Accadians, grew a system of magic and divination which had a most profound influence not only upon all the Eastern nations, including the Jews, but also upon the later peoples of the West. Mediaeval magic and witchcraft were, in large part, an unchanged inheritance from Chaldaea.
The Chaldӕan Genesis
The cosmological myths of the Chaldaeans, that is, their stories of the origin of things, are remarkably like the first chapters of Genesis.
The discoveries and patient labors of various scholars have reproduced, in a more or less perfect form, from the legendary tablets, the Chaldaean account of the Creation of the World, of an ancestral Paradise and the Tree of Life with its angel guardians, of the Deluge, and of the Tower of Babel. (Consult especially George Smith’s The Chaldaean Account of Genesis; see also Records of the Past, Vol. VII. pp. 127, 131.)
The Chaldaean Epic of Izdubar
Beside their cosmological myths, the Chaldaeans had a vast number of so-called heroic and nature myths. The most noted of these form what is known as the Epic of Izdubar (Nimrod?), which is doubtless the oldest epic of the race. This is in twelve parts, and is really a solar myth, which recounts the twelve labors of the sun in his yearly passage through the twelve signs of the Chaldaean zodiac.
This epic was carried to the West, by the way of Phoenicia and Asia Minor, and played a great part in the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. “The twelve labors of Heracles may be traced back to the adventures of Gisdhubar [Izdubar] as recorded in the twelve books of the great epic of Chaldaea.” (Sayce.)
In astronomy and arithmetic the Chaldaeans made substantial progress. The clear sky and unbroken horizon of the Chaldaean plains, lending an unusually brilliant aspect to the heavens, naturally led the Chaldaeans to the study of the stars. They early divided the zodiac into twelve signs, and named the zodiacal constellations, a memorial of their astronomical attainments which will remain forever inscribed upon the great circle of the heavens; they foretold eclipses, constructed sun-dials of various patterns, divided the year into twelve months, and the day and night into twelve hours each, and invented or devised the week of seven days, the number of days in the week being determined by the course of the moon. “The 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st, and 28th days of the lunar month were kept like the Jewish Sabbath, and were actually so named in Assyria.”
In arithmetic, also, the Chaldaeans made considerable advance. A tablet has been found which contains the squares and cubes of the numbers from one to sixty.
This hasty glance at the beginnings of civilization among the primitive peoples of the Euphrates valley, will serve to give us at least some little idea of how much modern culture owes to the old Chaldaeans. We may say that Chaldaea was one of the main sources--Egypt was the other--of the stream of universal history.
- Chaldaea, Cal D uh
- Babylonia, bob-uh LONE E uh
- Shumir, shoe-MEER
- Shinar, shiner
- Accad, ACK ad
- Turanian, as in east Asia.
- Accadian, ACK ad ee-inn
- Asian, as in east of the Mediterranean.
- Semitic, as in southwest Asia.
- Sargon, s-are gun
- Sharrukin, s-are gun
- Agadê, uh got ah
- Elamites, E-luh mite-s
- Elam, E lum
- Susa, sue zah
- Nineveh, N-inn uh-vuh
- Chedorlaomer, K door lah O-mer
- Persia, Mediterranean to Indus River in Pakistan, 6th century B.C. and later for a while the name of Iran, east of Tigris river.
- Macedon, ancient northern Greece, Alexander the Great, 4th century B.C.
- Deluge, the severe rains and tidal waves accurately predicted by the naturalist, Noah, in Genesis 6–9.
- In 1890, they had not yet named the epic Gilgamesh. Iz-dub-ar was the tentative English translation Smith gave the name, and he wanted a better one.
- To point out Phoenicia, it was basically where Lebanon is now. Like other countries, it was on the east edge of the Mediterranean Sea. It included, going south, the costal land which now includes the cities of Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre. Phoenicia had a lot of ships and the country may have been were the phonics-based alphabet was invented.
- Asia Minor, the peninsula between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea on the north-east side of the Mediterranean. Asia Minor is now in Turkey.
- Zodiac, 12 yearly groupings of stars, that can be used to prepare for various events such as the seasons.