History of Ancient Babylonian Cities and Civilizations



Dimly, through the farthest, vaguest mists, perhaps twelve thousand years ago, we see a settlement on the site of Nippur by the side of one of the many channels of the lower Euphrates. Even older may have been the settlement at Susa, the city which afterward became the capital of the Persians. Susa was from the first a hill town, a refuge of violent men who sallied forth from its shelter to hunt and plunder. Nippur, on the contrary, was the home of a peaceful people, fishermen who navigated the river in queer, perfectly round boats of skin, agriculturists who raised crops of wheat and barley on the plains, as these were left bare each season by the receding river flood.

At Nippur there were at first no walls about the town, not even a dike to defend it against the yearly rising of the river. The fishermen built a palace for their king and a temple for their god. These two were elevated on an embankment to protect them from the flood. Doubtless they served also as fortresses in case of an attack. In the temple the fishermen worshipped imaginary goblins of the storm and darkness, strange evil imps whose malignance the poor folk hoped to escape by placating them with sacrifices. Gradually Nippur came to be regarded as a holy city. Its god En-lil, originally chief of the storm spirits, was worshipped as the God of Earth, differentiated from Amu the God of the Sky. Destruction fell more than once upon this city of the storm spirits. Flood came from the hand of Nature; fire from the hand of man. But always Nippur was rebuilt, and each time the sacred temple of En-lil was raised higher and made stronger than before.

Other cities began to grow into prominence. Among the earliest was the ancient seaport Eridhu, "at the mouth of the rivers." Eridhu had its own god, Ea, lord of the ocean. Tradition represented him as rising out of the sea, half man, half fish, and ruling over the city and teaching its people the arts of civilization. Perhaps we have here a hint of some still earlier culture borne to the shores of the Euphrates by voyagers from afar.

From these two cities their religious teachings spread over all the valley. Eridhu, the shrine of the gift-giving Ea, became the center of a bright and sunny worship, a religion of culture, joy, and progress. This kindly faith gave its characteristic tone to the more southern portion of the valley, the cities nearest the sea and the river mouth. Nippur, on the other hand, was the home of spells and incantations, a faith born of the earlier ages of darkness and fear. It lay to the northward, a hundred miles or more from the salt sea and its sunshine. The inland cities of the upper valley caught their religious spirit from sombre Nippur.

After a time there arose a third religious city, Erech, the shrine of Anu, the sky god. It became a sanctuary even more noted than the earlier ones. So sacred, indeed, was Erech that people of other cities journeyed thither to worship Anu. The ground of Erech became holy ground, and the dead were sent there for burial from all the surrounding region. This practice continued for thousands of years. The ruins of Erech today stand in a flat plain that extends for miles, and seems almost wholly composed of human remains. It is perhaps the vastest burial-ground the world has ever known.

Thus our earliest picture of the past shows us man chiefly as a religious being. As to his other characteristics the vision remains vague. None of these three ancient religious cities of the plain, Nippur, Eridhu, or Erech, seems ever to have embarked upon a career of conquest. Each, in turn, however, submitted to other cities which grew up to be their rivals and then their masters.

From these more warlike towns we catch our second kaleidoscopic picture of man and his beginnings. These riverside cities were all brick-built. Indeed, clay for making bricks was practically the only building material to be had along the lower course of the Euphrates. Each city needed walls for protection not only against man but even more against the annual floods. Every important structure had to be raised above the waters by an immense foundation or platform of bricks. The labor thus involved in every important structure was prodigious, and naturally the work of building passed mainly into the hands of the kings or chief rulers of each town. Moreover, from a fairly early period, it was the practice of each king to stamp his bricks with his signet or that of the city. Hence as we come upon these bricks in different places we have a curious means of tracing the old rulers and the growth of their spreading dominions.

The earliest city which we find dominating others was Lagash. It stood in the open plain near Nippur. Its rulers fought the highlanders of Susa, and drove them back from ravaging the river towns. Nippur had been partly destroyed and the rulers of Lagash rebuilt it. Then Lagash extended its apparently beneficent dominion over Erech. Thus several of the little separate communities were for a time drawn together under a single leader. Their united forces made them secure against invasion; and peace brought in its train prosperity, progress, and a higher civilization.

We are still dealing with a period five thousand years before the Christian era. The people of the Euphrates valley who thus rallied around Lagash were apparently still all of one race, Turanian; though some scientists have taken the legend of the fish-god Ea as evidence of the presence of a second, possibly Hamitic, stock among the Turanians. Moreover, in the highlands of Susa we come upon traces of a yet earlier negroid people living in subjection to the dominant Turanians. All of the lowland folk were united in their enmity toward the plundering hillmen of Susa, or Elam as the Bible calls the hill country that surrounded Susa. The valley folk named their own region Kengi, or the land of reeds, since all about the marshy shallows of the river grew great reeds a dozen feet in height. The name Kengi in the course of years gradually changed in pronunciation and became Sumer, or as the Bible spells it, Shinar. So in speaking of the land and people let us henceforth call them by the accepted form of Sumer and Sumerians. It is doubtful if the Sumerian civilization extended more than two hundred miles up the river. Babylon itself had not yet been built. The upper regions of the valley held only a few nomadic tribes.






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