Myths of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 5

From the Painting by E. Wallcousins

[1] Life of Apollonius of Tyana, i, 20.
[2] Egyptian Tales (Second Series), W.M. Flinders Petrie, pp. 98 et seq.


Ancient Babylonia has made stronger appeal to the imagination of Christendom than even Ancient Egypt, because of its association with the captivity of the Hebrews, whose sorrows are enshrined in the familiar psalm:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down;
Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows....

In sacred literature proud Babylon became the city of the anti-Christ, the symbol of wickedness and cruelty and human vanity. Early Christians who suffered persecution compared their worldly state to that of the oppressed and disconsolate Hebrews, and, like them, they sighed for Jerusalem--the new Jerusalem. When St. John the Divine had visions of the ultimate triumph of Christianity, he referred to its enemies--the unbelievers and persecutors--as the citizens of the earthly Babylon, the doom of which he pronounced in stately and memorable phrases:

Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen,
And is become the habitation of devils,
And the hold of every foul spirit,
And a cage of every unclean and hateful bird....
For her sins have reached unto heaven
And God hath remembered her iniquities....
The merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her,
For no man buyeth their merchandise any more.

"At the noise of the taking of Babylon", cried Jeremiah, referring to the original Babylon, "the earth is moved, and the cry is heard among the nations.... It shall be no more inhabited forever; neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation." The Christian Saint rendered more profound the brooding silence of the desolated city of his vision by voicing memories of its beauty and gaiety and bustling trade:

The voice of harpers, and musicians, and of pipers and trumpeters shall be heard no more at all in thee;
And no craftsman, of whatsoever craft he be, shall be found any more in thee;
And the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee;
And the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee:
For thy merchants were the great men of the earth;
For by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.
And in her was found the blood of prophets, and of saints,
And of all that were slain upon the earth.[3]

So for nearly two thousand years has the haunting memory of the once-powerful city pervaded Christian literature, while its broken walls and ruined temples and palaces lay buried deep in desert sand. The history of the ancient land of which it was the capital survived in but meagre and fragmentary form, mingled with accumulated myths and legends. A slim volume contained all that could be derived from references in the Old Testament and the compilations of classical writers.

It is only within the past half-century that the wonderful story of early Eastern civilization has been gradually pieced together by excavators and linguists, who have thrust open the door of the past and probed the hidden secrets of long ages. We now know more about "the land of Babel" than did not only the Greeks and Romans, but even the Hebrew writers who foretold its destruction. Glimpses are being afforded us of its life and manners and customs for some thirty centuries before the captives of Judah uttered lamentations on the banks of its reedy canals. The sites of some of the ancient cities of Babylonia and Assyria were identified by European officials and travellers in the East early in the nineteenth century, and a few relics found their way to Europe. But before Sir A.H. Layard set to work as an excavator in the "forties", "a case scarcely three feet square", as he himself wrote, "enclosed all that remained not only of the great city of Nineveh, but of Babylon itself".[4]

Layard, the distinguished pioneer Assyriologist, was an Englishman of Huguenot descent, who was born in Paris. Through his mother he inherited a strain of Spanish blood. During his early boyhood he resided in Italy, and his education, which began there, was continued in schools in France, Switzerland, and England. He was a man of scholarly habits and fearless and independent character, a charming writer, and an accomplished fine-art critic; withal he was a great traveller, a strenuous politician, and an able diplomatist. In 1845, while sojourning in the East, he undertook the exploration of ancient Assyrian cities. He first set to work at Kalkhi, the Biblical Calah. Three years previously M.P.C. Botta, the French consul at Mosul, had begun to investigate the Nineveh mounds; but these he abandoned for a mound near Khorsabad which proved to be the site of the city erected by "Sargon the Later", who is referred to by Isaiah. The relics discovered by Botta and his successor, Victor Place, are preserved in the Louvre.