A History of Art in Chaldaea & Assyria Part 27

In another Nimroud bas-relief we find a still greater variety of processes used upon a single work (Fig. 156). The picture shows the king enthroned in the centre of a fortified city which he has just captured. Prisoners are being brought before him; his victorious troops have erected their tents in the city itself. Beside these tents three houses of unequal size represent the dwellings of the conquered. The _enceinte_ with its towers is projected on the soil in the fashion above noticed; a longitudinal section lays bare the interiors of the tents and shows us the soldiers at their various occupations. As for the houses, they are represented by their principal facades, which are drawn in elevation.

[Illustration: FIG. 157.--Plan and elevation of a fortified city; from Layard.]

When he had to deal with more complicated images, as in the reliefs at Kouyundjik representing the conquests and expeditions of Assurbanipal, the artist modified his processes at will so as to combine in the narrow space at his disposal all the information that he thought fit to give. See for instance the relief in which the Assyrians celebrate their capture of Madaktu, an important city of Susiana, by a sort of triumph (Fig. 157).

The town itself, with its towered walls and its suburbs in which every house is sheltered by a date tree, is figured in the centre. At the top and sides the walls are projected outwards from the city; at the bottom they are thrown inwards in order, no doubt, to leave room for the tops of the date trees. Moreover, the sculptor had to find room for a large building on the right of his fortification. This is, apparently, the palace of the king. Guarded by a barbican and surrounded by trees it rises upon its artificial mound some little distance in front of the city. The artist also wished to show that palace and city were protected by a winding river teeming with fish, into which fell a narrower stream in the neighbourhood of the palace. If he had projected the walls of the palace and its barbican in the same way as those of the other buildings he would either have had to encroach upon his streams and to hide their junction or to divert their course. In order to avoid this he made use of several points of view, and laid his two chief structures on the ground in such a fashion that they form an oblique angle with the rest of the buildings. The result thus obtained looks strange to us, but it fulfilled his purpose; it gave a clear idea of how the various buildings were situated with respect to each other and it reproduced with fidelity the topographical features of the conquered country.

The chief desire of the sculptor was to be understood. That governing thought can nowhere be more clearly traced than in one of the reliefs dealing with the exploits of Sennacherib.[417] Here he had to explain that in order to penetrate into a mountainous country like Armenia, the king had been compelled to follow the bed of a torrent between high wooded banks. In the middle of the picture we see the king in his chariot, followed by horsemen and foot soldiers marching in the water. Towards the summit of the relief, the heights that overhang the stream are represented by the usual network. But how to represent the wooded mountains on this side of the water? The artist has readily solved the question, according to his lights, by showing the near mountains and their trees upside down, a solution which is quite on all fours, in principle, with the plans above described. The hills are projected on each side of the line made by the torrent, so that it runs along their bases, as it does in fact; but in this case the topsy-turviness of the trees and hills has a very startling effect. The intentions of the artist, however, are perfectly obvious; his process is childish, but it is quite clear.

None of these plans or pictures have, any more than those of Egypt, a scale by which the proportions of the objects introduced can be judged. The men, who were more important in the eye of the artist than the buildings, are always taller than the houses and towers. This will be seen still more clearly in the figure we reproduce from the Balawat gates (Fig. 158). It represents a fortress besieged by Shalmaneser II., three people stand upon the roof of the building; if we restore their lower limbs we shall see that their height is equal to that of the castle itself.[418]

[Illustration: FIG. 158.--Fortress with its defenders; from the Balawat gates.]

This short examination of the spirit and principles of Assyrian figuration was necessary in order to prevent embarrassment and doubt in speaking of the architectural designs and other things of the same kind that we may find reproduced in the bas-reliefs. Unless we had thoroughly understood the system of which the sculptors made use, we should have been unable to base our restorations upon their works in any important degree; and, besides, if there be one touchstone more sure than another by which we may determine the plastic genius of a people, it is the ingenuity, or the want of it, shown in the contrivance of means to make lines represent the thickness of bodies and the distances of various planes. In this matter Chaldaea and Assyria remained, like Egypt, in the infancy of art. They were even excelled by the Egyptians, who showed more taste and continuity in the management of their processes than their Eastern rivals. Nothing so absurd is to be found in the sculptures of the Nile valley as these hills and trees turned upside down, and we shall presently see that a like superiority is shown in the way figures are brought together in the bas-reliefs. In our second volume on Egyptian art we drew attention to some Theban sculptures in which a vague suspicion of the true laws of perspective seemed to be struggling to light. The attempt to apply them to the composition of certain groups was real, though timid. Nothing of the kind is to be found in Assyrian sculpture. The Mesopotamian artist never seems for a moment to have doubted the virtues of his own method, a method which consisted in placing the numerous figures, whose position in a space of more or less depth he wished to suggest, one above another on the field of his relief. He trusted, in fact, to the intelligence of the spectator, and took but little pains to help the latter in making sense of the images put before him.


[415] _Art in Ancient Egypt_, vol. ii. chapter i. -- 1.

[416] M. J. HALeVY disputes this reading of the word. As we are unable to discuss the question, we must refer our readers to his observations (_Les Monuments Chaldeens et la Question de Sumir et d'Accad_) in the _Comptes rendus de l'Academie des Inscriptions_, 1882, p. 107. M. Halevy believes it should be read as the name of the prince Nabou or Nebo. The question is only of secondary importance, but M. Halevy enlarges its scope by reopening the whole matter of debate between himself and M. Oppert as to the true character of what Assyriologists call the Sumerian language and written character. The _Comptes rendus_ only gives a summary of the paper. The same volume contains a _resume_ of M. Oppert's reply (1882, p. 123: _Inscriptions de Gudea_, et seq).

[417] LAYARD, _Discoveries_, p. 341.

[418] The same disproportion between men and buildings is to be found in many other reliefs (see figs. 39, 43, and 60).




-- 1.--_Chaldaean and Assyrian Notions as to a Future Life._

Of the remains that have come down to us from ancient Egypt the oldest, the most important in some respects, and beyond dispute the most numerous, are the sepulchres. Of the two lives of the Egyptian, that of which we know the most is his posthumous life--the life he led in the shadows of that carefully-hidden subterranean dwelling that he called his "good abode."

While in every other country bodies after a few years are nothing but a few handfuls of dust, in Egypt they creep out in thousands to the light of day, from grottoes in the flanks of the mountains, from pits sunk through the desert sand and from hollows in the sand itself. They rise accompanied by long inscriptions that speak for them, and make us sharers in their joys and sorrows, in their religious beliefs and in the promises in which they placed their hopes when their eyes were about to close for ever. A peculiarity of which Egypt offers the only instance is thus explained. The house of the Memphite citizen and the palace of the king himself, can only now be restored by hints culled from the reliefs and inscriptions--hints which sometimes lend themselves to more than one interpretation, while the tombs of Egypt are known to us in every detail of structure and arrangement. In more than one instance they have come down to us with their equipment of epitaphs and inscribed prayers, of pictures carved and painted on the walls and all the luxury of their sepulchral furniture, exactly in fact as they were left when their doors were shut upon their silent tenants so many centuries ago.[419]

We are far indeed from being able to say this of Assyria and Chaldaea. In those countries it is the palace, the habitation of the sovereign, that has survived in the best condition, and from it we may imagine what the houses of private people were like; but we know hardly anything of their tombs.

Chaldaean tombs have been discovered in these latter years, but they are anonymous and mute. We do not possess a single funerary inscription dating from the days when the two nations who divided Mesopotamia between them were still their own masters. The arrangements of the nameless tombs in lower Chaldaea are extremely simple and their furnishing very poor, if we compare them with the sepulchres in the Egyptian cemeteries. As for Assyrian burying-places, none have yet been discovered. Tombs have certainly been found at Nimroud, at Kouyundjik, at Khorsabad, and in all the mounds in the neighbourhood of Mossoul, but never among or below the Assyrian remains. They are always in the mass of earth and various _debris_ that has accumulated over the ruins of the Assyrian palaces, which is enough to show that they date from a time posterior to the fall of the Mesopotamian Empires. Any doubts that may have lingered on this point have been removed by the character of the objects found, which are never older than the Seleucidae or the Parthians, and sometimes date even from the Roman epoch.[420]

What then did the Assyrians do with their dead? No one has attacked this question more vigorously than Sir Henry Layard. In his attempt to answer it he explored the whole district of Mossoul, but without result; he pointed out the interest of the inquiry to all his collaborators, he talked about it to the more intelligent among his workmen, and promised a reward to whoever should first show him an Assyrian grave. He found nothing, however, and neither Loftus, Place, nor Rassam have been more successful. Neither texts nor monuments help us to fill up the gap. The excavations of M. de Sarzec have indeed brought to light the fragments of an Assyrian stele in which a funerary scene is represented, but unfortunately its meaning is by no means clear.[421] I cannot point to an Assyrian relief in which the same theme is treated. Among so many battle pictures we do not find a single scene analogous to those so often repeated in the pictures and sculptures of Greece. The death and burial of an Assyrian warrior gave a theme to no Assyrian sculptor. It would appear that the national pride revolted from any confession that Assyrians could be killed like other men. All the corpses in the countless battlefields are those of enemies, who are sometimes mutilated and beheaded.[422]

These despised bodies were left to rot where they fell, and to feed the crows and vultures;[423] but it is impossible to believe that the Assyrians paid no honours to the bodies of their princes, their nobles, and their relations, and some texts recently discovered make distinct allusions to funerary rites.[424] We can hardly agree to the suggestions of M. Place, who asks whether it is not possible that the Assyrians committed their corpses to the river, like the modern Hindoos, or to birds of prey, like the Guebres.[425] Usages so entirely out of harmony with the customs of other ancient nations would certainly have been noticed by contemporary writers, either Greek or Hebrew. In any case some allusion to them would survive in Assyrian literature, but no hint of the kind is to be found.

But after we have rejected those hypotheses the question is no nearer to solution than before; we are still confronted by the remarkable fact that the Assyrians so managed to hide their dead that no trace of them has ever been discovered. A conjecture offered by Loftus is the most inviting.[426]

He reminds us that although cemeteries are entirely absent from Assyria, Chaldaea is full of them. Between Niffer and Mugheir each mound is a necropolis. The Assyrians knew that Chaldaea was the birthplace of their race and they looked upon it as a sacred territory. We find the Ninevite kings, even when they were hardest upon their rebellious subjects in the south, holding it as a point of honour to preserve and restore the temples of Babylon and to worship there in royal pomp. Perhaps the Assyrians, or rather those among them who could afford the expenses of the journey, had their dead transferred to the graveyards of Lower Chaldaea. The latter country, or, at least, a certain portion of it, would thus be a kind of holy-land where those Semites whose earliest traditions were connected with its soil would think themselves assured of a more tranquil repose and of protection from more benignant deities. The soil of Assyria itself would receive none but the corpses of those slaves and paupers who, counting for nothing in their lives, would be buried when dead in the first convenient corner, without epitaph or sepulchral furnishing.

This hypothesis would explain two things that need explanation--the absence from Assyria of such tombs as are found in every other country of the Ancient World, and the great size of the Chaldaean cemeteries. Both Loftus and Taylor received the same impression, that the assemblages of coffins, still huge in spite of the numbers that have been destroyed during the last twenty centuries, can never have been due entirely to the second and third rate cities in whose neighbourhood they occur. Piled one upon another they form mounds covering wide spaces of ground, and so high that they may be seen for many miles across the plain.[427] This district must have been the common cemetery of Chaldaea and perhaps of Assyria; the dead of Babylon must have been conveyed there. Is it too much to suppose that by means of rivers and canals those of Nineveh may have been taken there too? Was it not in exactly that fashion that mummies were carried by thousands from one end of the Nile valley to the other, to the places where they had to rejoin there ancestors?[428]

But we need not go back to Ancient Egypt to find examples of corpses making long journeys in order to reach some great national burying-place. Loftus received the first hint of his suggestion from what he himself saw at Nedjef and at Kerbela, where he met funeral processions more than once on the roads of Irak-Arabi. From every town in Persia the bodies of Shiite Mussulmans, who desire to repose near the mortal remains of Ali and his son, are transported after death into Mesopotamia.[429] According to Loftus the cemetery of Nedjef alone, that by which the mosque known as _Meched-Ali_ is surrounded, receives the bodies of from five to eight thousand Persians every year. Now the journey between Nineveh and Calah and the plains of Lower Chaldaea was far easier than it is now--considering especially the state of the roads--between Tauris, Ispahan, and Teheran, on the one hand and Nedjef on the other. The transit from Assyria to Chaldaea could be made, like that of the Egyptian mummy, entirely by water, that is to say, very cheaply, very easily, and very rapidly.

We are brought up, however, by one objection. Although as a rule subject to the Assyrians, the Chaldaeans were from the eleventh to the seventh century before our era in a constant state of revolt against their northern neighbours; they struggled hard for their independence and waged long and bloody wars with the masters of Nineveh. Can the Assyrian kings have dared to confide their mortal remains to sepulchres in the midst of a people who had shown themselves so hostile to their domination? Must they not have trembled for the security of tombs surrounded by a rebellious and angry populace? And the furious conflicts that we find narrated in the Assyrian inscriptions, must they not often have interrupted the transport of bodies and compelled them to wait without sepulture for months and even years?

Further explorations and the decipherment of the texts will one day solve the problem. Meanwhile we must attempt to determine the nature of Chaldaeo-Assyrian beliefs as to a future life. We shall get no help from Herodotus. Intending to describe the manners and customs of the Chaldaeans in a special work that he either never wrote or that has been lost,[430] he treated Mesopotamia in much less ample fashion than Egypt, in his history.

All that he leaves us on the subject we are now studying is this passing remark, "The Babylonians put their dead in honey, and their funerary lamentations are very like those of the Egyptians."[431] Happily we have the Chaldaean cemeteries and the sculptured monuments of Assyria to which we can turn for information. The funerary writings of the Egyptians allow us to read their hearts as an open book. We know that the men who lived in the days of the ancient empire looked upon the posthumous life as a simple continuation of life in the sun. They believed it to be governed by the same wants, but capable of infinite prolongation so long as those wants were supplied. And so they placed their dead in tombs where they were surrounded by such things as they required when alive, especially by meat and drink. Finally, they endeavoured to ensure them the enjoyment of these things to the utmost limit of time by preserving their bodies against dissolution. If these were to fall into dust the day after they entered upon their new abode, the provisions and furniture with which it was stocked would be of no use.

The Chaldaeans kept a similar object before them. They neglected nothing to secure the body against the action of damp, in the first place by making the sides of their vaults and the coffins themselves water-tight, secondly, by providing for the rapid escape of rain water from the cemetery,[432]

and, finally, if they did not push the art of embalming so far as the Egyptians, they entered upon the same path. The bodies we find in the oldest tombs are imperfect mummies compared with those of Egypt, but the skeleton, at least, is nearly always in an excellent state of preservation; it is only when handled that it tumbles into dust. In the more spacious tombs the body lies upon a mat, with its head upon a cushion. In most cases the remains of bandages and linen cloths were found about it. Mats, cushions, and bandages had all been treated with bitumen. A small terra-cotta model in the British Museum shows a dead man thus stowed in his coffin; his hands are folded on his breast, and round the whole lower part of the body the bands that gave him the appearance of a mummy may be traced.

The funerary furniture is far from being as rich and varied as it is in the tombs of Egypt and Etruria, but the same idea has governed the choice of objects in both cases. When the corpse is that of a man we find at his side the cylinder which served him as seal, his arms, arrow heads of flint or bronze, and the remains of the staff he carried in his hand.[433] In a woman's tomb the body has jewels on its neck, its wrists and ankles; jewels are strewn about the tomb and placed on the lid of the coffin. Among other toilet matters have been found small glass bottles, fragments of a bouquet, and cakes of the black pigment which the women of the East still employ to lengthen their eyebrows and enhance their blackness.[434]

[Illustration: FIGS. 159, 160.--Vases; from Warka. British Museum.]

The vases which are always present in well-preserved tombs, show the ideas of the Mesopotamians on death more clearly than anything else. Upon the palm of one hand or behind the head is placed a cup, sometimes of bronze, oftener of terra-cotta. From it the dead man can help himself to the water or fermented liquors with which the great clay jars that are spread over the floor of his grave are filled (Figs. 159 and 160). Near these also we find shallow bowls or saucers, used no doubt as plates for holding food.

Date-stones, chicken and fish bones are also present in great numbers. In one tomb the snout of a swordfish has been found, in another a wild boar's skull. It would seem too that the idea of adding imitation viands to real ones occurred to the Chaldaeans as well as to the Egyptians.[435] From one grave opened by Taylor four ducks carved in stone were taken.

The sepulchres in which the objects we have been mentioning were found, are the most ancient in Chaldaea--on this all the explorers are agreed. Their situation in the lowest part of the funerary mounds, the aspect of the characters engraved upon the cylinders and the style of the things they contained, all go to prove their age. In similar tombs discovered by M. de Sarzec at Sirtella, in the same region, a tablet of stone and a bronze statuette, differing in no important particular from those deposited in foundation stones, were found. The texts engraved upon them leave no doubt as to their great antiquity.[436] It is then to the early Chaldaean monarchy that we must assign these tombs, which so clearly betray ideas and beliefs practically identical with those that find their freest expression in the mastabas of the ancient Egyptian Empire.

In Mesopotamia, as in Egypt, the human intellect arrived with the lapse of time at something beyond this childish and primitive belief. Men did not, however, repel it altogether as false and ridiculous; they continued to cherish it at the bottom of their hearts, and to allow it to impose certain lines of action upon them which otherwise could hardly be explained or justified. As in Egypt, and in later years in Greece, a new and more abstract conception was imposed upon the first. Logically, the second theory was the negation of its predecessor, but where imagination and sentiment play the principal _role_, such contradictions are lost sight of.

We have elsewhere[437] traced the process by which the imagination was led to sketch out a new explanation of the mystery of death. As man's experience increased, and his faculty for observation became more powerful, he had to make a greater mental effort before he could believe in the immortality of the body, and in a life prolonged to infinity in the darkness of the tomb. In order to satisfy the craving for perpetuity, a something was imagined, we can hardly say what, a shade, an _imago_, that detached itself from the body at the moment of death, and took itself off with the lightness of a bird. A great space, with no definite size, shape, or situation, in which these shades of the departed could meet each other and enjoy greater freedom than in the tomb, was added to the first conception. This less material belief was better adapted than the first to the moral instincts of humanity. A material and organic existence passed in the grave dealt out the same fate to good and bad alike. On the other hand, nothing was more easy than to divide the kingdom of the shades into two compartments, into two distinct domains, and to place in one those whose conduct had been deserving of reward; in the other, those whose crimes and vices had been insufficiently punished upon earth.

It is not to the Chaldaean sepulchres that we owe our knowledge that the Semites of Mesopotamia followed in the footsteps of the Egyptians, when they found themselves in face of the problem of life and death; it is to the literature of the Assyrians. Among those tablets of terra-cotta from the library of Assurbanipal that are now preserved in the British Museum, George Smith discovered, in 1873, a mythological document in which the descent of Istar to the infernal regions in search of her lover Tammouz is recounted. Of this he gives a first translation, which is already out of date. Since his discovery was announced, the most learned Assyriologists have made a study of the document, and now even those among them who most seldom think alike, are in agreement as to its meaning except in a few unimportant particulars.[438] No doubt remains as to the general significance of the piece; we may even compare it with other documents from the same library in which there is much to confirm and complete its contents.

Even if there were no evidence to the contrary, we might safely affirm that the first conception was not effaced from the minds of the Assyrians by the second. M. Halevy has translated an Assyrian text, whose meaning he thus epitomizes: "What becomes of the individual deposited in a tomb? A curious passage in one of the 'books' from the library of Assurbanipal answers this question, indirectly, indeed, but without any ambiguity. After death the vital and indestructible principle, the incorporeal spirit, is disengaged from the body; it is called in Assyrian _ekimmou_ or _egimmou_.... The _ekimmou_ inhabits the tomb and reposes upon the bed (_zalalu_) of the corpse. If well treated by the children of the defunct, he becomes their protector; if not, their evil genius and scourge. The greatest misfortune that can befall a man is to be deprived of burial. In such a case his spirit, deprived of a resting-place and of the funerary libations, leads a wandering and miserable existence; he is exposed to all kinds of ill-treatment at the hands of his fellow spirits, who show him no mercy."

Here we find certain elements of that primitive belief that would escape us in a mere examination of the Chaldaean tombs. We see how they understood the connection between the living and the dead, and why they so passionately desired to receive due sepulture. These ideas and sentiments are identical with those which M. Fustel de Coulanges has analysed so deeply in his _Cite antique_. They subsisted in all their strength in Assyria, and must have had all the consequences, all the social effects that they had elsewhere, and yet we find mentioned a home for the dead, a joyless country in which they could assemble in their countless numbers; as Egypt had its _Ament_ and Greece her _Hades_, so Chaldaea and Assyria had their hell, their place of departed ghosts. We know from the narrative of Istar that they looked upon it as an immense building, situated in the centre of the earth and bounded on every side by the great river whose waters bathe the foundations of the world. This country of the dead is called the "land where one sees nothing" (_mat la namari_), or the "land whence one does not return" (_mat la tayarti_). The government of the country is in the hands of Nergal, the god of war, and his spouse Allat, the sister of Astarte. The house is surrounded by seven strong walls. In each wall there is a single door, which is fastened by a bolt as soon as a new comer has entered. Each door is kept by an incorruptible guardian. We cannot quote the whole of the story; we give, however, a few lines in which the chief features of the Assyrian conception is most clearly shown. Istar speaks:--

Let me return [toward the house],

[Toward] the house in which Irkalla lives, In which the evening has no morning, [Towards the country] whence there is no return, [Whose inhabitants,] deprived of light, [Have dust for food] and mud to nourish them, A tunic and wings for vesture, [Who see no day,] who sit in the shadows, [In the house] into which I must enter, [They live there,] (once) the wearers of crowns, [The wearers] of crowns who governed the world in ancient days, Of whom Bel and Anou have perpetuated the names and memory.

There too stand the foundations of the earth, the meeting of the mighty waters, In the palace of dust into which I must come, Live the prince and the noble, Live the king and the strong man, Live the guardians of the depths of the great gods, Live Ner and Etana.

A long dialogue follows between Istar and the guardian of the gate, by which we find that there was a rigorous law compelling all who came to strip themselves of their clothes before they could enter. In spite of her resistance, Istar herself was obliged to submit to this law. From other texts we learn that the entrance to these infernal regions was situated at the foot of the "northern mountain," a sort of Assyrian Olympus.

According to the fragment above quoted the condition of the dead was truly piteous; they had no food but dust and mud; their dwelling is sometimes called _bit-edi_, the "house of solitude," because in the life of misery and privation they lead no one takes any thought for others, his only care is to relieve his own troubles. Consequently there are no families nor any social or common life. The conscience protested against the injustice of confounding with the crowd those mortals who had distinguished themselves when alive by their exploits or virtues. Thus we find in a recently copied passage from the great epic of Izdubar, the Assyrian Hercules, that valiant soldiers--those no doubt who had fallen in the "Wars of Assur"--were rewarded for their prowess. As soon as they entered the shadow kingdom they were stretched upon a soft couch and surrounded by their relations. Their father and mother supported the head the enemy's sword had wounded, their wives stood beside them and waited on them with zeal and tenderness. They were refreshed and had their strength restored by the pure water of life.

The idea of a final reward is expressed in still more unmistakable accents in a religious song of which two fragments have come down to us. The poet celebrates the felicity of the just taking his food with the gods and become a god himself:--

Wash thy hands, purify thy hands, The gods, thine elders, will wash and purify their hands; Eat the pure nourishment in the pure disks, Drink the pure water from the pure vases; Prepare to enjoy the peace of the just!

They have brought their pure water, Anat, the great spouse of Anou, Has held thee in her sacred arms; Iaou has transferred thee into a holy place; He has transferred thee from his sacred hands; He has transferred thee into the midst of honey and fat, He has poured magic water into thy mouth, And the virtue of the water has opened thy mouth.

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