Fertility of Ancient Babylonia--Rivers, Canals, Seasons, and Climate--Early Trade and Foreign Influences--Local Religious Cults--Ea, God of the Deep, identical with Oannes of Berosus--Origin as a Sacred Fish--Compared with Brahma and Vishnu--Flood Legends in Babylonia and India--Fish Deities in Babylonia and Egypt--Fish God as a Corn God--The River as Creator--Ea an Artisan God, and links with Egypt and India--Ea as the Hebrew Jah--Ea and Varuna are Water and Sky Gods--The Babylonian Dagan and Dagon of the Philistines--Deities of Water and Harvest in Phoenicia, Greece, Rome, Scotland, Scandinavia, Ireland, and Egypt--Ea's Spouse Damkina--Demons of Ocean in Babylonia and India--Anu, God of the Sky--Enlil, Storm and War God of Nippur, like Adad, Odin, &c.--Early Gods of Babylonia and Egypt of common origin--Ea's City as Cradle of Sumerian Civilization.
Ancient Babylonia was for over four thousand years the garden of Western Asia. In the days of Hezekiah and Isaiah, when it had come under the sway of the younger civilization of Assyria on the north, it was "a land of corn and wine, a land of bread and vineyards, a land of oil olive and of honey". Herodotus found it still flourishing and extremely fertile. "This territory", he wrote, "is of all that we know the best by far for producing grain; it is so good that it returns as much as two hundredfold for the average, and, when it bears at its best, it produces three hundredfold. The blades of the wheat and barley there grow to be full four fingers broad; and from millet and sesame seed, how large a tree grows, I know myself, but shall not record, being well aware that even what has already been said relating to the crops produced has been enough to cause disbelief in those who have not visited Babylonia." To-day great tracts of undulating moorland, which aforetime yielded two and three crops a year, are in summer partly barren wastes and partly jungle and reedy swamp. Bedouins camp beside sandy heaps which were once populous and thriving cities, and here and there the shrunken remnants of a people once great and influential eke out precarious livings under the oppression of Turkish tax-gatherers who are scarcely less considerate than the plundering nomads of the desert.
This historic country is bounded on the east by Persia and on the west by the Arabian desert. In shape somewhat resembling a fish, it lies between the two great rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, 100 miles wide at its broadest part, and narrowing to 35 miles towards the "tail" in the latitude of Baghdad; the "head" converges to a point above Basra, where the rivers meet and form the Shatt-el-Arab, which pours into the Persian Gulf after meeting the Karun and drawing away the main volume of that double-mouthed river. The distance from Baghdad to Basra is about 300 miles, and the area traversed by the Shatt-el-Arab is slowly extending at the rate of a mile every thirty years or so, as a result of the steady accumulation of silt and mud carried down by the Tigris and Euphrates. When Sumeria was beginning to flourish, these two rivers had separate outlets, and Eridu, the seat of the cult of the sea god Ea, which now lies 125 miles inland, was a seaport at the head of the Persian Gulf. A day's journey separated the river mouths when Alexander the Great broke the power of the Persian Empire.
In the days of Babylonia's prosperity the Euphrates was hailed as "the soul of the land" and the Tigris as "the bestower of blessings". Skilful engineers had solved the problem of water distribution by irrigating sun-parched areas and preventing the excessive flooding of those districts which are now rendered impassable swamps when the rivers overflow. A network of canals was constructed throughout the country, which restricted the destructive tendencies of the Tigris and Euphrates and developed to a high degree their potentialities as fertilizing agencies. The greatest of these canals appear to have been anciently river beds. One, which is called Shatt en Nil to the north, and Shatt el Kar to the south, curved eastward from Babylon, and sweeping past Nippur, flowed like the letter S towards Larsa and then rejoined the river. It is believed to mark the course followed in the early Sumerian period by the Euphrates river, which has moved steadily westward many miles beyond the sites of ancient cities that were erected on its banks. Another important canal, the Shatt el Hai, crossed the plain from the Tigris to its sister river, which lies lower at this point, and does not run so fast. Where the artificial canals were constructed on higher levels than the streams which fed them, the water was raised by contrivances known as "shaddufs"; the buckets or skin bags were roped to a weighted beam, with the aid of which they were swung up by workmen and emptied into the canals. It is possible that this toilsome mode of irrigation was substituted in favourable parts by the primitive water wheels which are used in our own day by the inhabitants of the country who cultivate strips of land along the river banks.