Assyria, Babylonia, Empire, Assyrian, Babylonian, Religion
In contrast to Babylonia, which is from the start stamped as a civilizing power, Assyria, from its rise till its fall, is essentially a military empire, seeking the fulfillment of its mission in the enlargement of power and in incessant warfare. Its history may be traced back to about 1800 B.C., when its rulers, with their seat in the ancient city of Ashur, first begin to make their presence felt. The extension of their power proceeds, as in Babylonia, from the growing importance of the central city, and soon embraces all of Assyria proper. They pass on into the mountain regions to the east, and advancing to the west, they encounter the vigorous forces of Egypt, whose Asiatic campaigns begin about the same time as the rise of Assyria. The Egyptians, abetted by the Hittites—the possessors of the strongholds on the Orontes—successfully check the growth of Assyria on this side, at least for a period of several centuries. In the meanwhile, the Assyrian king gathers strength enough to make an attack upon Babylonia.
The conflict, once begun, continues, as has been indicated, with varying fortunes. Occasional breathing spells are brought about by a temporary agreement of peace between the two empires, until at the end of the twelfth century, Assyria, under Tiglathpileser I., secures control over the Babylonian empire. Her kings add to their long list of titles that of 'ruler of Babylonia.' They either take the government of the south into their hands or exercise the privilege of appointing a governor of their choice to regulate the affairs of the Euphrates Valley. From this time on, the history of Babylonia and Assyria may be viewed under a single aspect. The third period of Babylonian history—the second of Assyrian history—thus begins about 1100 B.C., and continues till the fall of Assyria in the year 606 B.C. These five centuries represent the most glorious epoch of the united Mesopotamian empire. During this time, Assyria rises to the height of an all-embracing power. With far greater success than Egypt, she securely established her sovereignty over the lands bordering on the Mediterranean. After severe struggles, the Hittites are overcome, the names of their strongholds on the Orontes changed, in order to emphasize their complete possession by the Assyrians, and the principalities of Northern Syria become tributary to Assyria. Phoenicia and the kingdom of Israel are conquered, while the southern kingdom of Judah purchases a mere shadow of independence by complete submission to the conditions imposed by the great and irresistible monarchy. Far to the northeast Assyria extends her sway, while Babylonia, though occasionally aroused to a resistance of the tyrannical bonds laid upon her, only to be still further weakened, retains a distinctive existence chiefly in name. The culture of the south is the heritage bequeathed by old Babylonia to the north. Babylonian temples become the models for Assyrian architecture. The literary treasures in the archives of the sacred cities of the south are copied by the scribes of the Assyrian kings, and placed in the palaces of the latter. Meanwhile, the capital of Assyria moves towards the north. Ashur gives way under the glorious reign of Ashurnasirbal to Calah, which becomes the capitol in the year 880 B.C.; and Calah, in turn, yields to Nineveh, which becomes, from the time of Tiglathpileser II., in the middle of the eighth century, the center of the great kingdom. Under Ashurbanabal, who rules from 668 to 626 B.C., the climax of Assyrian power is reached. He carries his arms to the banks of the Nile, and succeeds in realizing the dreams of his ancestors of a direct control over the affairs of Egypt. A patron of science and literature, as so many great conquerors, Ashurbanabal succeeds in making Nineveh a literary as well as a military center.
A vast collection of the cuneiform literature of Babylonia is gathered by him for the benefit of his subjects, as he is at constant pains to tell us. The city is further embellished with magnificent structures, and on every side he establishes his sovereignty with such force, that the might of Assyria appears invincible. The fatal blow, dealt with a suddenness that remains a mystery, came from an unexpected quarter. A great movement of wild northern hordes, rather vaguely known as the Cimmerians and Scythians, and advancing towards the south, set in shortly after the death of Ashurbanabal, and created great political disturbances. The vast number of these hordes, their muscular strength, and their unrestrained cruelty, made them a foe which Assyria found as hard to withstand, as Rome the approach of the Vandals and Goths. The sources for our knowledge of the last days of the Assyrian empire are not sufficient to enable us to grasp the details, but it is certain that the successful attempt of the Babylonians to throw off the Assyrian yoke almost immediately after Ashurbanabal's death, was a symptom of the ravages which the hordes made in reducing the vitality of the Assyrian empire. Her foes gained fresh courage from the success that crowned the revolt of Babylonia. The Medes, a formidable nation to the east of Assyria, and which had often crossed arms with the Assyrians, entered into combination with Babylonia, and the two making several united assaults upon Nineveh, under the leadership of Kyaxares, at last succeeded in effecting an entrance. The city was captured and burned to the ground. With the fall of Assyria, a feeling of relief passed over the entire eastern world. A great danger, threatening to extinguish the independence of all of the then known nations of the globe, was averted. The Hebrew prophets living at the time of this downfall, voice the general rejoicing that ensued when they declared, that even the cedars of Lebanon leaped for joy. The province of Assyria proper, fell into the hands of the Medes, but Babylonia, with her independence established on a firm footing, was the real heir of Assyria's spirit. Her most glorious monarch, Nebuchadnezzar II. (604-561 B.C.), seems to have dreamed of gaining for Babylon the position, once held by Nineveh, of mistress of the world. Taking Ashurbanabal as his model, he carried his arms to the west, subdued the kingdom of Judah, and, passing on to Egypt, strove to secure for Babylon, the supremacy exercised there for a short time by Assyrian monarchs. In addition to his military campaigns, however, he also appears in the light of a great builder, enlarging and beautifying the temples of Babylonia, erecting new ones in the various cities of his realm, strengthening the walls of Babylon, adorning the capital with embankment works and other improvements, that gave it a permanent place in the traditions of the ancient world as one of the seven wonders of the universe.
The glory of this second Babylonian empire was of short duration. Its vaulting ambition appears to have overleaped itself. Realizing for a time the Assyrian ideal of a world monarchy, the fall was as sudden as its rise was unexpected. Internal dissensions gave the first indication of the hollowness of the state. Nebuchadnezzar's son was murdered in 560 B.C., within two years after reaching the throne, by his own brother-in-law, Neriglissar; and the latter dying after a reign of only four years, his infant child was put out of the way and Nabonnedos, a high officer of the state, but without royal prerogative, mounted the throne. In the year 550 news reached Babylon that Cyrus, the king of Anzan, had dealt a fatal blow to the Median empire, capturing its king, Astyages, and joining Media to his own district. He founded what was afterwards known as the Persian empire.
The overthrow of the Medes gave Cyrus control over Assyria, and it was to be expected that his gaze should be turned in the direction of Babylonia. Nabonnedos recognized the danger, but all his efforts to strengthen the powers of resistance to the Persian arms were of no avail. Civil disturbances divided the Babylonians. The cohesion between the various districts was loosened, and within the city of Babylon itself, a party arose antagonistic to Nabonnedos, who in their short-sightedness hailed the advance of Cyrus. Under these circumstances, Babylon fell an easy prey to the Persian conqueror. In the autumn of the year 539 Cyrus entered the city in triumph, and was received with such manifestations of joy by the populace, as to make one almost forget that with his entrance, the end of a great empire had come. Politically and religiously, the history of Babylonia and Assyria terminates with the advent of Cyrus; and this despite the fact that it was his policy to leave the state of affairs, including religious observances, as far as possible, undisturbed. A new spirit had, however, come into the land with him. The official religion of the state was that practiced by Cyrus and his predecessors in their native land. The essential doctrines of the religion, commonly known as Mazdeism or Zoroastrianism, presented a sharp contrast to the beliefs that still were current in Babylonia, and it was inevitable that with the influx of new ideas, the further development of Babylonian worship was cut short. The respect paid by Cyrus to the Babylonian gods was a mere matter of policy. Still, the religious rites continued to be practiced as of old in Babylonia and Assyria for a long time, and when the religion finally disappeared, under the subsequent conquests of the Greeks, Romans, and Arabs, it left its traces in the popular superstitions and in the ineradicable traditions that survived. But so far as the history of this religion is concerned, it comes to an end with the downfall of the second Babylonian empire.
The period, then, to be covered by a treatment of the religion of the Babylonians and Assyrians extends over the long interval between about 4000 B.C. and the middle of the sixth century. The development of this religion follows closely the course of civilization and of history in the territory under consideration. The twofold division, accordingly, into Babylonia and Assyria, is the one that suggests itself also for the religion. The beginning, as is evident from the historical sketch given, must be made with Babylonia. It will be seen that, while the rites there and in Assyria are much the same, the characters of the gods as they developed in the south were quite different from those of the north; and, again, it was inevitable that the Assyrian influence manifest in the second Babylonian empire should give to the religion of the south at this time, some aspects which were absent during the days of the old Babylonian empire. In Babylonia, again, the political changes form the basis for the transformation to be observed in the position occupied by the deities at different periods; and the same general remark applies to the deities peculiar to Assyria, who must be studied in connection with the course pursued by the Assyrian empire.
The division of the subject which thus forces itself upon us is twofold, (1) geographical, and (2) historical.
It will be necessary to treat first of the beliefs and pantheon developed during the first two periods of Babylonian history, down to the practical conquest of Babylonia by Assyria. Then, turning to Assyria, the traits of the pantheon peculiar to Upper Mesopotamia will be set forth. In the third place, the history of the religion will be traced in Babylonia during the union of the Babylonian-Assyrian empire; and, lastly, the new phases of that religion which appeared in the days of the second Babylonian empire. Turning after this to other aspects of the religion, it will be found that the religious rites were only to a small degree influenced by political changes, while the literature and religious art are almost exclusively products of Babylonia. In treating of these subjects, accordingly, no geographical divisions are called for, in setting forth their chief features.
The general estimate to be given at the close of the volume will furnish an opportunity of making a comparison between the Babylonian-Assyrian religion and other religions of the ancient world, with a view to determining what foreign influences may be detected in it, as well as ascertaining the influence it exerted upon others.
|Written By Morris Jastrow|
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