A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 1

A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria.

by Georges Perrot and Charles Chipiez.

VOL 1.


In face of the cordial reception given to the first two volumes of MM.

Perrot and Chipiez's History of Ancient Art, any words of introduction from me to this second instalment would be presumptuous. On my own part, however, I may be allowed to express my gratitude for the approval vouchsafed to my humble share in the introduction of the History of Art in Ancient Egypt to a new public, and to hope that nothing may be found in the following pages to change that approval into blame.

W. A.

_October 10, 1883._



-- 1.--_Situation and Boundaries of Chaldaea and Assyria._

The primitive civilization of Chaldaea, like that of Egypt, was cradled in the lower districts of a great alluvial basin, in which the soil was stolen from the sea by long continued deposits of river mud. In the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates, as in that of the Nile, it was in the great plains near the ocean that the inhabitants first emerged from barbarism and organized a civil life. As the ages passed away, this culture slowly mounted the streams, and, as Memphis was older by many centuries than Thebes, in dignity if not in actual existence, so Ur and Larsam were older than Babylon, and Babylon than Nineveh. The manners and beliefs, the arts and the written characters of Egypt were carried into the farthest recesses of Ethiopia, partly by commerce but still more by military invasion; so too Chaldaic civilization made itself felt at vast distances from its birthplace, even in the cold valleys and snowy plateaux of Armenia, in districts which are separated by ten degrees of latitude from the burning shores where the fish god Oannes showed himself to the rude fathers of the race, and taught them "such things as contribute to the softening of life."[1] In Egypt progressive development took place from north to south, while in Chaldaea its direction was reversed. The apparent contrast is, however, but a resemblance the more. The orientation, if such a term may be used, of the two basins, is in opposite directions, but in each the spread of religion with its rites and symbols, of written characters with their adaptation to different languages, and of all those arts and processes which, when taken together, make up what we call civilization, advanced from the seaboard to the river springs.

In these two countries the conscience of man seems to have been first awakened to his innate power of bettering his own condition by well directed observation, by the elaboration of laws, and by forethought for the future. Between Egypt on the one hand, and Chaldaea with that Assyria which was no more than its offshoot and prolongation, on the other, there are strong analogies, as will be clearly seen in the course of our study, but there are also differences that are not less appreciable. Professor Rawlinson shows this very clearly in a page of descriptive geography which he will allow us to quote as it stands. It will not be the last of our borrowings from his excellent work, _The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World_, a book that has done so much to popularize the discoveries of modern scholars.[2]

"The broad belt of desert which traverses the eastern hemisphere, in a general direction from west to east (or, speaking more exactly, of W.S.W.

to N.E.E.) reaching from the Atlantic on the one hand nearly to the Yellow Sea on the other, is interrupted about its centre by a strip of rich vegetation, which at once breaks the continuity of the arid region, and serves also to mark the point where the desert changes its character from that of a plain at a low level to that of an elevated plateau or table-land. West of the favoured district, the Arabian and African wastes are seas of land seldom raised much above, often sinking below the level of the ocean; while east of the same, in Persia, Kerman, Seistan, Chinese Tartary, and Mongolia, the desert consists of a series of plateaux, having from 3,000 to nearly 10,000 feet of elevation. The green and fertile region which is thus interposed between the 'highland' and 'lowland' deserts,[3]

participates, curiously enough, in both characters. Where the belt of sand is intersected by the valley of the Nile, no marked change of elevation occurs; and the continuous low desert is merely interrupted by a few miles of green and cultivable surface, the whole of which is just as smooth and as flat as the waste on either side of it. But it is otherwise at the more eastern interruption. Then the verdant and productive country divides itself into two tracts, running parallel to each other, of which the western presents features, not unlike those that characterize the Nile valley, but on a far larger scale; while the eastern is a lofty mountain region, consisting for the most part of five or six parallel ranges, and mounting in many places far above the level of perpetual snow.

"It is with the western or plain tract that we are here concerned. Between the outer limits of the Syro-Arabian desert and the foot of the great mountain range of Kurdistan and Luristan intervenes a territory long famous in the world's history, and the chief site of three out of the five empires of whose history, geography, and antiquities, it is proposed to treat in the present volumes. Known to the Jews as Aram-Naharaim, or 'Syria of the two rivers'; to the Greeks and Romans as Mesopotamia, or 'the between-river country'; to the Arabs as Al-Jezireh, or 'the island,' this district has always taken its name from the streams which constitute its most striking feature, and to which, in fact, it owes its existence. If it were not for the two great rivers--the Tigris and Euphrates--with their tributaries, the more northern part of the Mesopotamian lowland would in no respect differ from the Syro-Arabian desert on which it adjoins, and which, in latitude, elevation, and general geological character, it exactly resembles. Towards the south the importance of the rivers is still greater; for of Lower Mesopotamia it may be said, with more truth than of Egypt,[4] that it is 'an acquired land,' the actual 'gift' of the two streams which wash it on either side; being as it is, entirely a recent formation--a deposit which the streams have made in the shallow waters of a gulf into which they have flowed for many ages.[5]

"The division, which has here forced itself upon our notice, between the Upper and the Lower Mesopotamian country, is one very necessary to engage our attention in connection with ancient Chaldaea. There is no reason to think that the term Chaldaea had at any time the extensive signification of Mesopotamia, much less that it applied to the entire flat country between the desert and the mountains. Chaldaea was not the whole, but a part, of the great Mesopotamian plain; which was ample enough to contain within it three or four considerable monarchies. According to the combined testimony of geographers and historians,[6] Chaldaea lay towards the south, for it bordered upon the Persian Gulf, and towards the west, for it adjoined Arabia. If we are called upon to fix more accurately its boundaries, which, like those of most countries without strong natural frontiers, suffered many fluctuations, we are perhaps entitled to say that the Persian Gulf on the south, the Tigris on the east, the Arabian desert on the west, and the limit between Upper and Lower Mesopotamia on the north, formed the natural bounds, which were never greatly exceeded, and never much infringed upon.

These boundaries are for the most part tolerably clear, though the northern only is invariable. Natural causes, hereafter to be mentioned more particularly, are perpetually varying the course of the Tigris, the shore of the Persian Gulf and the line of demarcation between the sands of Arabia and the verdure of the Euphrates valley. But nature has set a permanent mark, half way down the Mesopotamian lowland, by a difference of a geological structure, which is very conspicuous. Near Hit on the Euphrates, and a little below Samarah on the Tigris,[7] the traveller who descends the streams, bids adieu to a somewhat waving and slightly elevated plain of secondary formation, and enters on the dead flat and low level of the new alluvium. The line thus formed is marked and invariable; it constitutes the only natural division between the upper and lower portions of the valley; and both probability and history point to it as the actual boundary between Chaldaea and her northern neighbour."[8]

Whether the two States had independent and separate life, or whether, as in after years, one of the two had, by its political and military superiority reduced the other to the condition of a vassal, the line of demarcation was constant, a line traced in the first instance by nature and rendered more rigid and ineffaceable by historical developments. Even when Chaldaea became nominally a mere province of Assyria, the two nationalities remained distinct. Chaldaea was older than Assyria. The centres of her civil life were the cities built upon the alluvial lands between the thirty-first and thirty-third degree of latitude. The most famous of these cities was Babylon. Those whom we call Assyrians, a people who rose to power and glory at a much more recent date, drew the seeds of their civilization from their more precocious neighbour.

These expressions, Assyria and Chaldaea, are now employed in a sense far more precise than they ever had in antiquity. For Herodotus Babylonia was a mere district of Assyria;[9] in his time both States were comprised in the Persian Empire, and had no distinct existence of their own. Pliny calls the whole of Mesopotamia Assyria.[10] Strabo carries the western frontier of Assyria as far as Syria.[11] To us these variations are of small importance. The geographical and historical nomenclature of the ancients was never clearly defined. It was always more or less of a floating quantity, especially for those countries which to Herodotus or Diodorus, to Pliny or to Tacitus, were dimly perceptible on the extreme limits of their horizon.

It would, however, be easy to show that in assigning a more definite value to the terms in question--a proceeding in which we have the countenance of nearly every modern historian--we do not detach them from their original acceptation; at most we give them more constancy and precision than the colloquial language of the Greeks and Romans demanded.[12] The expressions _Khasdim_ and _Chaldaei_ were used in the Bible and by classic authors mainly to denote the inhabitants of Babylon and its neighbourhood; and we find Strabo attaching with precision the name _Aturia_, which is nothing but a variant upon Assyria, to that district watered and bounded by the Tigris in which Nineveh was situated.[13] Our only aim is to adopt, once for all, such terms as may be easily understood by our readers, and may render all confusion impossible between the two kingdoms, between the people of the north and those of the south.

In order to define Assyria exactly we should have to determine its frontiers, and that we can only do approximately. As the nation grew its territory extended in certain directions. To the east, however, where the formidable rampart of the Zagros forbade all progress, no such extension took place. Those lofty and precipitous chains which we now call the mountains of Kurdistan, were only to be crossed in two or three places, and by passes which during their few months of freedom from snow and floods gave access to the high-lying plains of Media. These narrow defiles might well be traversed by an army in a summer campaign, but neither dwellings nor cultivated lands could invade such a district with success; at most they could take possession of the few spots of fertile soil which lay at the mouth of the lateral valleys; such, for example, was the plain of Arbeles which was watered by the great Zab before its junction with the Tigris. Towards the south there was no natural barrier, but in that direction all development was hindered by the density of the Chaldee population which was thickly spread over the country above Babylon and about the numerous towns and villages which looked towards that city as their capital. To the north, on the other hand, the wide terraces which mounted like steps from the plains of Mesopotamia to the mountains of Armenia offered an ample field for expansion. To the west there was still more room. Little by little rural and urban life overflowed the valley of the Tigris into that of the Chaboras or Khabour, the principal affluent of the Euphrates, until at last it reached the banks of the great western river itself. In all Northern Mesopotamia, between the hills of the Sinjar and the last slopes of Mount Masius, the Assyrians encountered only nomad tribes whom they could drive when they chose into the Syrian desert. Over all that region the remains of artificial mounds have been found which must at one time have been the sites of palaces and cities. In some cases the gullies cut in their flanks by the rain discover broken walls and fragments of sculpture whose style is that of the Ninevitish monuments.[14]

In the course of their victorious career the Assyrians annexed several other states, such as Syria and Chaldaea, Cappadocia and Armenia, but those countries were never more than external dependencies, than conquered provinces. Taking Assyria proper at its greatest development, we may say that it comprised Northern Mesopotamia and the territories which faced it from the other bank of the Tigris and lay between the stream and the lower slopes of the mountains. The heart of the country was the district lying along both sides of the river between the thirty-fifth and thirty-seventh degree of latitude, and the forty-first and forty-second degree of longitude, east. The three or four cities which rose successively to be capitals of Assyria were all in that region, and are now represented by the ruins of Khorsabad, of Kouyundjik with Nebbi-Younas, of Nimroud, and of Kaleh-Shergat. One of these places corresponds to _Ninos_, as the Greeks call it, or Nineveh, the famous city which classic writers as well as Jewish prophets looked upon as the centre of Assyrian history.

To give some idea of the relative dimensions of these two states Rawlinson compares the surface of Assyria to that of Great Britain, while that of Chaldaea must, he says, have been equal in extent to the kingdom of Denmark.[15] This latter comparison seems below the mark, when, compass in hand, we attempt to verify it upon a modern map. The discrepancy is caused by the continual encroachments upon the sea made by the alluvial deposits from the two great rivers. Careful observations and calculations have shown that the coast line must have been from forty to forty-five leagues farther north than it is at present when the ancestors of the Chaldees first appeared upon the scene.[16] Instead of flowing together as they do now to form what is called the _Shat-el-Arab_, the Tigris and Euphrates then fell into the sea at points some twenty leagues apart in a gulf which extended eastwards as far as the last spurs thrown out by the mountains of Iran, and westwards to the foot of the sandy heights which terminate the plateau of Arabia. "The whole lower part of the valley has thus been made, since the commencement of the present geological period, by deposits from the Tigris, the Euphrates, and such minor streams as the Adhem, the Gyndes, the Choaspes, streams which, after having long enjoyed an independent existence and having contributed to drive back the waters into which they fell, have ended by becoming mere feeders of the Tigris."[17] We see, therefore, that when Chaldaea received its first inhabitants it was sensibly smaller than it is to-day, as the district of which Bassorah is now the capital and the whole delta of the Shat-el-Arab were not yet in existence.


[1] BEROSUS, fragment No. 1, in the _Essai de Commentaire sur les Fragments cosmogoniques de Berose d'apres les Textes cuneiformes et les Monuments de l'Art Asiatique_ of FRANcOIS LENORMANT (Maisonneuve, 1871, 8vo.).

[2] _The Five Great Monarchies of the Ancient Eastern World; or, The History, Geography, and Antiquities of Chaldaea, Assyria, Babylon, Media, and Persia. Collected and Illustrated from Ancient and Modern Sources_, by GEORGE RAWLINSON. Fourth edition, 3 vols., 8vo., with Maps and Illustrations (Murray, 1879).

[3] HUMBOLDT, _Aspects of Nature_, vol. i. pp. 77, 78.--R.

[4] HERODOTUS, ii. 5.

[5] LOFTUS'S _Chaldaea and Susiana_, p. 282.--R.

[6] See STRABO, xvi. 1, -- 6; PLINY, H.N. vi. 28; PTOLEMY, v. 20; BEROSUS, pp. 28, 29.--R.

[7] Ross came to the end of the alluvium and the commencement of the secondary formation in lat. 34, long. 44 (_Journal of Geographical Society_, vol. ix. p. 446). Similarly, Captain Lynch found the bed of the Tigris change from pebbles to mere alluvium near Khan Iholigch, a little above its confluence with the Aahun (_Ib._ p. 472). For the point where the Euphrates enters on the alluvium, see Fraser's _Assyria and Mesopotamia_, p. 27.--R.

[8] RAWLINSON. _The Five Great Monarchies_, &c., vol. i., pp. 1-4. As to the name and boundaries of Chaldaea, see also GUIGNAUT, _La Chaldee et les Chaldeens_, in the _Encyclopedie Moderne_, vol. viii.

[9] HERODOTUS, i. 106, 192; iii. 92.

[10] PLINY, _Nat. Hist._ vi. 26.

[11] STRABO, xvi. i. -- 1.

[12] _Genesis_ xi. 28 and 31; _Isaiah_ xlvii. 1; xiii. 19, &c.; DIODORUS ii. 17; PLINY, _Nat. Hist._ vi. 26; the Greek translators of the Bible rendered the Hebrew term Khasdim by Chaldaioi; both forms seem to be derived from the same primitive word.

[13] STRABO, xvi. i. 1, 2, 3.

[14] LAYARD, _Nineveh and its Remains_, vol. i. pp. 312, 315; _Discoveries_, p. 245.

[15] RAWLINSON, _Five Great Monarchies_, vol. i. pp. 4, 5.

[16] LOFTUS, in the _Journal of the Geographical Society_, vol. xxvi. p.

142; _Ib._, Sir HENRY RAWLINSON, vol. xxvii. p. 186.

[17] MASPERO, _Histoire Ancienne des Peuples de l'Orient_, p. 137.

-- 2.--_Nature in the Basin of the Euphrates and Tigris._

The inundation of the Nile gives renewed life every year to those plains of Egypt which it has slowly formed, and so it is with the Tigris and Euphrates. Lower Mesopotamia is entirely their creation, and if the time were to come when their vivifying streams were no longer to irrigate its surface, it would very soon be changed into a monotonous and melancholy desert. It hardly ever rains in Chaldaea.[18] There are a few showers at the changes of the season, and, in winter, a few days of heavy rain. During the summer, for long months together, the sky remains inexorably blue while the temperature is hot and parching. In winter, clouds are almost as rare; but winds often play violently over the great tracts of unbroken country. When these blow from the south they soon lose their warmth and humidity at the contact of a soil which, but a short while ago, was at the bottom of the sea, and is, therefore, in many places still strongly impregnated with salt which acts as a refrigerant.[19] Again, when the north wind comes down from the snowy summits of Armenia or Kurdistan, it is already cold enough, so that, during the months of December and January, it often happens that the mercury falls below freezing point, even in Babylonia. At daybreak the waters of the marshes are sometimes covered with a thin layer of ice, and the wind increases the effect of the low temperature. Loftus tells us that he has seen the Arabs of his escort fall benumbed from their saddles in the early morning.[20]

It is, then, upon the streams, and upon them alone, that the soil has to depend for its fertility; all those lands to which they never reach are doomed to barrenness and death. It is fortunate for the prosperity of the country through which they flow, that the Tigris and Euphrates swell and rise annually from their beds, not indeed like the Nile, almost on a stated day, but ever in the same season, about the commencement of spring. Without these periodical floods many parts of the plain of Mesopotamia would be beyond the reach of irrigation, but their regular occurrence allows water to be stored in sufficient quantities for use during the months of drought.

To obtain the full advantage of this precious capital, the inhabitants must, however, take more care and expend more labour than is necessary in Egypt. The rise of the Euphrates and of the Tigris is neither so slow nor so regular as that of the Nile. The waters do not spread so gently over the soil, neither do they stay upon it so long;[21] since they have been abandoned to themselves as they are at present, a great part of them are lost, and, far from rendering a service to agriculture, they turn vast regions into dangerous hot-beds of infection.

It was to the west of the double basin that the untoward effects of the territorial conformation were chiefly felt. The valley of the Euphrates is not like that of the Nile, a canal hollowed out between two clearly marked banks. From the northern boundary of the alluvial plain to the southern, the slope is very slight, while from east to west, from the plains of Mesopotamia to the foot of the Arabian plateau, there is also an inclination. When the river is in flood the right bank no longer exists.

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