Babylonian Ancient History

So Babylonia remained unknown-except for the vague account of Herodotus, which was mostly legendary, and for a few extracts preserved by the Greeks from other narratives. Some knowledge of the land could be gathered also from the Hebrew Scriptures, and something from the Egyptian hieroglyphics, where these made mention of wars between the two countries.

Yet of the real nature of the Babylonian civilization, its extreme age, remarkable development and astounding power, we had no conception until recent years, when these strange and silent tombs of cities began to yield their secrets. The first scientist to undertake with resolution the task of their exploration was a Frenchman, M. Paul Botta. In 1842, having been appointed consul in the region, he hired men to undertake a systematic digging into one of the hills. For more than two years the results were disappointing. But despite every obstacle of climate and fever, despite the extortions of Turkish officials, and the terror, treachery, and hatred of the natives, M. Botta persisted. In 1845 he laid bare the sculptured ruins of an entire ancient palace, its walls covered with inscriptions, and its doorways frescoed with strange Asiatic sphinxes, half lion and half man.

Europe was astounded and immensely impressed by the discovery. Many scientists, notably the English traveler and scholar Sir A. H. Layard, took up the work of research with eager interest. The results of these explorations were for a long time meagre; the difficulties encountered were almost insurmountable; progress was very slow. The last twenty years, however, have reaped the benefits of the earlier discouragements. Knowledge has come to us almost with a rush. Particularly impressive have been the recent elaborate excavations of the ancient cities of Lagash, Nippur, and Susa. There our scientists have dug through layer after layer of ancient ruins. Especially at Nippur they have found that the city was destroyed and re-destroyed many times in many ages, and each time a new city rose upon the debris, until now relics of the lowest town lie ninety feet below the surface structures.

Every layer of this ninety feet has been carefully explored. Tunnelling like moles in these strange "mines" of history, scholars have brought to the surface materials for much knowledge of this most ancient civilization. We now know just where Babylon stood, and its great rival Nineveh, and a score of still older cities. We have unearthed their buried temples and their palaces, their inscriptions, arts, monuments, the statues of their kings, the figures of their gods, and even the remnants of their buried dead.

Of all these discoveries, the most valuable, and certainly the most surprising, has been the recovery of the writings, the actual literature and language of this long-forgotten people. For several years Mr. Layard continued digging on the site of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria, that state which for a time defeated Babylon and succeeded to its empire. Layard's search was rewarded by the discovery of the royal library of Nineveh's king, Assurbanipal, which contained some forty thousand records.

Here, you will say, there lay waiting for us the whole history of Assyria, and of Babylon as well. So, doubtless, it would have been had these records been such as we could read with ease. These strange old volumes were not of paper, like our books. Each was a clay tablet like a flat stone, with both of its sides stamped full of letters. These we now know were put in with a stick, something like our pen, while the clay was soft; and then the tablet was baked in order to harden and preserve it. Assurbanipal's volumes had met with rough usage. His palace had evidently been burned; and though the tablets, unlike our paper books, had withstood the fire, they met misfortune from another source. Apparently they were kept in a second story; and, the floor burning underneath, they were precipitated to the ground. The fall was disastrous for clay tablets; scarcely one of all the thousands remains whole. We can only fit them together in patches and uncertain fragments. Still another obstacle to the reading of these primitive volumes was the fact that no one knew their language; and though much patient work has been expended by scholars in deciphering it, no one even yet fully comprehends the intricacies of the mysterious tongue. We call it the wedge or cuneiform language, because its signs are made of little wedges. These represent syllables or words rather than letters; indeed, each one is a substitute for a picture which took too long to draw. Many of them are found to stand for three or four different things; others remain wholly unknown to us. Thus our reading of the language is still imperfect. Other libraries have since been discovered, better preserved than that of Assurbanipal, and many inscriptions have been unearthed from the ruined cities. Hence we have been at last enabled to gather a fairly full idea of the story of Babylonia.

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