The Assyrians and Babylonians

That large extent of level country situated between and on the banks of the two great rivers, the Euphrates and the Tigris, was in the earliest antiquity, the seat of a Semitic population living under an organized government. Of the cities, the most important ultimately were Babylon, built, by Nimrod, (B.C. 2217); and Nineveh (called Ninos by the Greeks), built either by Asshur or Nimrod about the same time, but afterwards rebuilt and enlarged, according to ancient tradition, by a great king, Ninus, (B.C. 1230). With these two cities as capitals, the country divided itself into two corresponding parts or kingdoms - the kingdom of Assyria proper, including, besides part of Mesopotamia, the country to the right of the Tigris as far as Mount Zagros; and the kingdom of Babylonia, including the western part of Mesopotamia, together with the country to the left of the Euphrates as far as Syria proper. The two kingdoms, however, are often included under the joint name of Assyria; a word which, as well as the shorter form Syria, was often employed by the ancient Greek writers to designate the whole region lying along the courses of the two great rivers from the Black Sea to the northern angle of the Persian Gulf.

Although Babylon was according to Scripture, the earlier of the two powers, yet the Assyrians of Nineveh attained such strength under their hero Ninus, as to reduce the Babylonians to a species of dependence. Under Ninus, and his wife and successor the great conqueress Semiramis, says ancient mythical history, the city of the Tigris extended its dominions far and wide, from Egypt to the border of India. This empire, known in the common chronologies by the name of 'The Assyrian Empire,' lasted, according to the usual accounts, five or six centuries, during which it was governed, in the absolute Oriental manner, by the successors of Ninus and Semiramis. Of these several are mentioned in Scripture - Phul, the contemporary of Menahem, king of Israel (B.C. 761), Tiglath Pileser (B. C . 730), both of whom were mixed up with the affairs of Israel and Judah; Salmanassar, contemporary with Hezekiah, king of Judah, and Hoseah, king of Israel, by whom it was that Samaria was taken (B.C. 722), and the Israelites led into captivity (B.C. 722); and Sennacherib, or Sanherib (B.C. 714), who attacked Egypt, and whose fruitless invasion of Judah forms the subject of the striking narrative in the 18th and 19th chapters of the second book of Kings. The last of the great line of the Assyrian kings of Nineveh was the luxurious Sardanapalus, in whose reign the empire was dissolved, through the instrumentality of its revolted subjects the Medes (B.C. 626).

After Nineveh, the greatest city in the Assyrian dominion was Babylon. Even while under the dominion of the kings of Nineveh, Babylon appears to have possessed a special organization under its own chiefs, several of whose names - such as Beldesis (B.C. 888), and Nabonassar (B.C. 747) - have been preserved; and, together with the whole province of which it was the capital, to have pursued a special career. The peculiar element in the Babylonian society which distinguished it from that of Assyria proper, was its Chaldaean priesthood. 'The Chaldaean order of priests,' says Mr. Grote. 'appear to have been peculiar to Babylon and other towns in its territory, especially between that city and the Persian Gulf; the vast, rich, and lofty temple of Belus in that city served them at once as a place of worship and an astronomical observatory; and it was the paramount ascendancy of this order which seems to have caused the Babylonian people generally to be spoken of as Chaklieans, though some writers have supposed, without any good proof, a conquest of Assyrian Babylon by barbarians called Chaldaeans from the mountains near the Euxine. There were exaggerated statements respecting the antiquity of their astronomical observations*, which cannot be traced, as of definite and recorded date, higher than the era of Nabonassar (B.C. 747), as well as respecting the extent of their acquired knowledge, so largely blended with astrological fancies and occult influences of the heavenly bodies on human affairs. But however incomplete their knowledge may appear when judged by the standard of after-times, there can be no doubt that, compared with any of their contemporaries of the sixth century B.C. either Egyptians, Greeks, or Asiatics they stood preeminent, and had much to teach, not only to Thales and Pythagoras, but even to later inquirers, such as Eudoxus and Aristotle. The conception of the revolving celestial sphere, the gnomon, and the division of the day into twelve parts, are affirmed by Herodotus to have been first taught to the Greeks by the Babylonians.' This learned Chaldae an class seems to have pervaded the general mass of Babylonian society, as the corresponding priest-caste in Egypt pervaded Egyptian society, with this difference, that Babylonian society does not appear to have been parceled out like the Egyptian into a rigorous system of castes.

On the dissolution of the Assyrian empire of Nineveh by the Medes (B.C. 626), the Chaldaean fragment of it rose to eminence on its ruins, chiefly by the efforts of Nabopolassar, a viceroy of the last Assyrian king. Establishing Babylonia as an independent power in the east, Nabopolassar came into collision with Nekos, king of Egypt, who was at that time extending his empire into Asia. It was in opposing Nekos (Pharaoh-Necho) on his march to Babylon, that Josiah, king of Judah, was slain. At length (B. C . 608) Nebuchadnezzar, or Nebuchodonosor, the son of Nabopolassar, defeated Nekos, and annexed all his conquests in Asia to his father's kingdom. Two years afterwards the same prince took Jerusalem, and carried away a number of captives to Babylon, among whom were Daniel and his companions. Succeeding his father, B.C. 605, Nebuchadnezzar reigned over Babylon forty-three years (B.C. 605-561); and during his reign extended the empire to the Mediterranean and the borders of Egypt, adding to it Palestine, Phoenicia, etc. With his countenance the Medes and Lydians destroyed Nineveh (B.C. 601). The great abduction of Jewish captives by his orders took place B.C. 588. He was succeeded (B.C. 561) by his son, Evil-Merodach, who was dethroned (B.C. 559) by his brother-in-law Neriglissar, whose son and successor, Laboroso-archod, was dethroned, after a brief reign, by Nabonnedus, the Belshazzar of Scripture (B.C. 555); in the eighteenth year of whose reign (B.C. 538) Babylon was taken by Cyrus, and passed into the hands of the Persians.

It was during the reign of Nebuchadnezzar that the city of Babylon attained that glory which has rendered it a known word to all who are at all acquainted with history. Herodotus, who saw the city in its decline, gives a description of it which has seemed incredible to many, although now fully verified. 'The city, divided in the middle by the Euphrates, was surrounded with walls in thickness 75 feet, in height 300 feet and in compass 480 stadia, or about 60 of our miles.' Within this circuit there was included, besides the houses, a space of vacant ground, gardens, pasture, etc., sufficient to accommodate the country population in case of invasion: the height and strength of the walls rendered the city itself to all appearance impregnable. 'These walls formed an exact square, each side of which was 120 stadia, or 15 miles in length; and were built of large bricks cemented together with bitumen, a glutinous slime which issues out of the earth in that country, and in a short time becomes harder than the very brick or stone which it cements. The city was encompassed without the walls of a vast ditch filled with water, and lined with bricks on both sides; and as the earth that was dug out of it served to make the bricks, we may judge of the depth and largeness of the ditch from the height and thickness of the walls. In the whole compass of the walls there were a hundred gates that is, twenty-five on each side, all made of solid brass. At intervals round the walls were 250 towers. From each of the twenty five gates there was a straight street extending to the corresponding gate, in the opposite wall; the whole number of streets was therefore fifty, crossing each other at right angles, and each fifteen miles long. The breadth of the streets was about 150 feet. By their intersection the city was divided into 676 squares, each about two miles and a quarter in compass, round which were the houses, three or four stories in height; the vacant spaces within being laid out in gardens,' etc. Within the city the two greatest edifices were the royal palace with its hanging gardens, and the temple of Belus, composed of eight towers built one above another, to the enormous height, it is said, of a furlong.

Without the city were numerous canals, embankments, etc., for the purpose of irrigating the country, which, as little or no rain fell, depended on the river for moisture. 'The execution of such colossal works as those of Babylon and Egypt,' it has been remarked, 'demonstrates habits of regular industry, a concentrated population under one government, and above all, an implicit submission to the regal and kingly sway - contrasted forcibly with the small self-governing communities of Greece and western Europe, where the will of the individual citizen was so much more energetic.' In the latter countries only such public works were attempted as were within the limits of moderate taste. Nineveh is said to have been larger even than Babylon, and is described as an oblong, three days' journey round - that is, upwards of 60 miles.

*When Alexander the Great was in Babylon, the Chaldaeans told him their order had begun their astronomical observations 400,000 years before he was born.