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The classical and medieval views of Mesopotamia

Rediscovery in modern times


Before the first excavations in Mesopotamia, about 1840, nearly 2,000 years had passed during which knowledge of the ancient Middle East was derived from three sources only: the Bible, Greek and Roman authors, and the excerpts from the writings of Berosus, a Babylonian who wrote in Greek. In 1800 very little more was known than in AD 800, although these sources had served to stir the imagination of poets and artists, down to Sardanapalus (1821) by the 19th-century English poet Lord Byron.

Apart from the building of the Tower of Babel, the Old Testament mentions Mesopotamia only in those historical contexts in which the kings of Assyria and Babylonia affected the course of events in Israel and Judah: in particular Tiglath-pileser III, Shalmaneser V, and Sennacherib, with their policy of deportation, and the Babylonian Exile introduced by Nebuchadrezzar II. Of the Greeks, Herodotus of Halicarnassus (5th century BC, a contemporary of Xerxes I and Artaxerxes I) was the first to report on "Babylon and the rest of Assyria"; at that date the Assyrian empire had been overthrown for more than 100 years. The Athenian Xenophon took part in an expedition (during 401-399 BC) of Greek mercenaries who crossed Anatolia, made their way down the Euphrates as far as the vicinity of Baghdad, and returned up the Tigris after the famous Battle of Cunaxa. In his "Cyropaedia" Xenophon describes the final struggle between Cyrus II and the Neo-Babylonian empire. Later, the Greeks adopted all kinds of fabulous tales about King Ninus, Queen Semiramis, and King Sardanapalus. These stories are described mainly in the historical work of Diodorus Siculus (1st century BC), who based them on the reports of a Greek physician, Ctesias (405-359 BC).

Herodotus saw Babylon with his own eyes, and Xenophon gave an account of travels and battles. All later historians, however, wrote at second or third hand, with one exception, Berosus (b. c. 340 BC), who emigrated at an advanced age to the Aegean island of Cos, where he is said to have composed the three books of the Babyloniaka. Unfortunately, only extracts from them survive, prepared by one Alexander Polyhistor (1st century BC), who, in his turn, served as a source for the Church Father Eusebius (d. AD 342).

Berosus derided the "Greek historians" who had so distorted the history of his country. He knew, for example, that it was not Semiramis who founded the city of Babylon, but he was himself the prisoner of his own environment and cannot have known more about the history of his land than was known in Babylonia itself in the 4th century BC. Berosus' first book dealt with the beginnings of the world and with a myth of a composite being, Oannes, half fish, half man, who came ashore in Babylonia at a time when men still lived like the wild beasts. Oannes taught them the essentials of civilization: writing, the arts, law, agriculture, surveying, and architecture. The name Oannes must have been derived from the cuneiform U'anna (Sumerian) or Umanna (Akkadian), a second name of the mythical figure Adapa, the bringer of civilization. The second book of Berosus contained the Babylonian king list from the beginning to King Nabonassar (Nabu-nasir, 747-734 BC), a contemporary of Tiglath-pileser III.

Berosus' tradition, beginning with a list of primeval kings before the Flood, is a reliable one; it agrees with the tradition of the Sumerian king list, and even individual names can be traced back exactly to their Sumerian originals. Even the immensely long reigns of the primeval kings, which lasted as long as "18 sars" (= 18 3,600 = 64,800) of years, are found in Berosus. Furthermore, he was acquainted with the story of the Flood, with Cronus as its instigator and Xisuthros (or Ziusudra) as its hero, and with the building of an ark. The third book is presumed to have dealt with the history of Babylonia from Nabonassar to the time of Berosus himself.

Diodorus made the mistake of locating Nineveh on the Euphrates, and Xenophon gave an account of two cities, Larissa (probably modern Nimrud [ancient Kalakh], 20 miles southeast of modern Mosul) and Mespila (ancient Nineveh, just north of Mosul).

The name Mespila probably was nothing more than the word of the local Aramaeans for ruins; there can be no clearer instance of the rift that had opened between the ancient Middle East and the classical West. In sharp contrast, the East had a tradition that the ruins opposite Mosul (in north Iraq) concealed ancient Nineveh. When a Spanish rabbi from Navarre, Benjamin of Tudela, was traveling in the Middle East between 1160 and 1173, Jews and Muslims alike knew the position of the grave of the prophet Jonah.

The credit for the rediscovery of the ruins of Babylon goes to an Italian, Pietro della Valle, who correctly identified the vast ruins north of modern Al-Hillah,(60 miles south of Baghdad); he must have seen there the large rectangular tower that represented the ancient ziggurat. Previously, other travelers had sought the Tower of Babel in two other monumental ruins: Birs Nimrud, the massive brick structure of the ziggurat of ancient Borsippa (modern Birs, near Al-Hillah), vitrified by lightning, and the ziggurat of the Kassite capital, Dur Kurigalzu, at Burj 'Aqarquf, 22 miles west of Baghdad.

Pietro della Valle brought back to Europe the first specimens of cuneiform writing, stamped brick, of which highly impressionistic reproductions were made. Thereafter, European travelers visited Mesopotamia with increasing frequency, among them Carsten Niebuhr (an 18th-century German traveler), Claudius James Rich (a 19th-century Orientalist and traveler), and Ker Porter (a 19th-century traveler).

In modern times a third Middle Eastern ruin drew visitors from Europe-- Persepolis, in the land of Persia east of Susiana, near modern Shiraz, Iran. In 1602, reports had filtered back to Europe of inscriptions that were not in Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, Georgian, or Greek. In 1700 an Englishman, Thomas Hyde, coined the term "cuneiform" for these inscriptions, and by the middle of the 18th century it was known that the Persepolis inscriptions were related to those of Babylon. Niebuhr distinguished three separate alphabets (Babylonian, Elamite, and Old Persian cuneiform). The first promising attempt at decipherment was made by the German philologist Georg Friedrich Grotefend in 1802, by use of the kings' names in the Old Persian versions of the trilingual inscriptions, although his later efforts led him up a blind alley. Thereafter, the efforts to decipher cuneiform gradually developed in the second half of the 19th century into a discipline of ancient Oriental philology, which was based on results established through the pioneering work of Emile Burnouf, Edward Hincks, Sir Henry Rawlinson, and many others.

Today this subject is still known as Assyriology, because at the end of the 19th century the great majority of cuneiform texts came from the Assyrian city of Nineveh, in particular from the library of King Ashurbanipal in the mound of Kuyunjik at Nineveh.


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