Western Asia

 

A vast wilderness extends from the centre of Africa to the jungles of Bengal. It consists of rugged mountain and of sandy wastes; it is traversed by three river basins or valley plains.

In its centre is the basin of the Tigris and Euphrates. On its east is the basin of the Indus; on its west is the basin of the Nile. Each of these river systems is enclosed by deserts. The whole region may be pictured to the mind as a broad yellow field with three green streaks running north and south.

Egypt, Babylonia, and India proper, or the Punjab, are the primeval countries of the ancient world. In these three desert-bound, river-watered valleys we find, in the earliest dawn of history, civilisation growing wild. Each in a similar manner had been fostered and tortured by Nature into progress; in each existed a people skilled in the management of land, acquainted with manufactures, and possessing some knowledge of practical science and of art.

The civilisation of India was the youngest of the three, yet Egypt and Chaldea were commercially its vassals and dependents. India offered for sale articles not elsewhere to be found—the shining warts of the oyster; glass-like stones dug up out of the bowels of the earth, or gathered in the beds of dried-up brooks; linen which was plucked as a blossom from a tree, and manufactured into cloth as white as snow; transparent fabrics, webs of woven wind which when laid on the dewy grass melted from the eyes; above all, those glistening, glossy threads stolen from the body of a caterpillar, beautiful as the wings of the moth into which that caterpillar is afterwards transformed.

Neither the Indians, the Chaldeans, nor the Egyptians were in the habit of travelling beyond the confines of their own valleys. They resembled islanders, and they had no ships. But the intermediate seas were navigated by the wandering shepherd tribes, who sometimes pastured their flocks by the waters of the Indus, sometimes by the waters of the Nile. It was by their means that the trade between the river lands was carried on. They possessed the camels and other beasts of burden requisite for the transport of goods. Their numbers and their warlike habits, their intimate acquaintance with the watering-places and seasons of the desert, enabled them to carry the goods in safety through a dangerous land, while the regular profits they derived from the trade, and the oaths by which they were bound, induced them to act fairly to those by whom they were employed. At a later period the Chinese, who were once a great naval people, and who claim the discovery of the New World, doubled Cape Comorin in their huge junks, and sailed up the western coasts of India into the Persian Gulf, and along the coast of Arabia to the mouth of the Red Sea. It as probably from them that the arts of shipbuilding and navigation were acquired by the Arabs of Yemen and the Indians of Guzerat, who then made it their business to supply Babylon and Egypt and Eastern Africa with India goods. At a later period still these India goods were carried by the Phoenicians to the coasts of Europe, and acorn-eating savages were awakened to industry and ambition. India, as a "land of desire," has contributed much to the development of man. On the routes of the India caravan, as on the banks of navigable rivers, arose great and wealthy cities, which perished when the route was changed. Open the book of universal history at what period we may, it is always the India trade which is the cause of internal industry and foreign negotiation.

The intercourse between the Indians, Chaldeans, and Egyptians was often interrupted by wars, which recurred like epidemics, and which like epidemics closely resembled one another. The roving tribes of the sandy deserts, the pastoral mountains, or the elevated steppe-plateaux pressed by some mysterious impulse—a famine, an enemy in their rear, or the ambition of a single man—swept down upon the plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, and thence spread their conquests right and left. Sometimes they merely encamped, and the natives recovered their independence. But more frequently they adopted the manners of the conquered people, and flung themselves into luxury with the same ardour which they had displayed in war. This luxury was not based on refinement but on sensuality, and it soon made them indolent and weak. Sooner or later they suffered the fate which their fathers had inflicted, and a new race of invaders poured over the empire, to be supplanted in their turn when their time was come.

Invasions of this nature were on the whole beneficial to the human race. The mingling of a young, powerful people with the wise but somewhat weary nations of the plains produced an excellent effect. And since the conquerors adopted the luxury of the conquered, they were obliged to adopt the same measure for supplying the foreign goods—for luxury means always something from abroad. As soon as the first shock was over the trade routes were again opened, and perhaps extended, by the brand-new energies of the barbarian kings.

Babylonia or Chaldea, the alluvial country which occupies the lower course of the Euphrates, was undoubtedly the original abode of civilisation in Western Asia. But it was on the banks of the Tigris that the first great empire arose—the first at least of which we know. For who can tell how many cities, undreamt of by historians, lie buried beneath the Assyrian plains? And Nineveh itself may have been built from some dead metropolis, as Babylon bricks were used in the building of Baghdad. Recorded history is a thing of yesterday—the narrative of modern man. There is, however, a science of history; by this we are enabled to restore in faint outline the unwritten past, and by this we are assured that whatever the names and number of the forgotten empires may have been , they merely repeated one another. In describing the empire of Nineveh we describe them all.

The Assyrian empire covered a great deal of ground. The kingdom of Troy was one of its fiefs. Its rule was sometimes extended to the islands of the Grecian sea. Babylon was its subject. It stretched far away into Asia. But the conquered provinces were loosely governed, or rather no attempt was made to govern them at all. Phoenicia was allowed to remain a federation of republics. Israel, Judah, and Damascus were allowed to continue their angry bickerings and petty wars. The relations between the conquered rulers and their subjects were left untouched. Their laws, their manners, and their religion were in no way changed. It was merely required that the vassal kings or senates should acknowledge the Emperor of Nineveh as their suzerain or lord, that they should send him a certain tribute every year, and that they should furnish a certain contingent of troops when he went to war.

As long as a vigorous and dreaded king sat upon the throne this simple machinery worked well enough. Every year the tributes, with certain forms of homage and with complimentary presents of curiosities and artisans, were brought to the metropolis. But whenever an imperial calamity of any kind occurred—an unsuccessful foreign war, the death or even sickness of the reigning prince—the tributes were withheld. Then the emperor set to work to subdue the provinces again. But this time the conquered were treated not as enemies only but as traitors. The vassal king and his advisers were tortured to death, the cities were razed to the ground, and the rebels were transplanted by thousands to another land—an effectual method of destroying their patriotism or religion of the soil. The Syrian expeditions of Sennacherib were provoked by the contumacy of Judah and of Israel. The kingdom of Israel was blotted out, but a camp plague broke up the Assyrian army before Jerusalem, and not long afterwards the empire crumbled away. All the vassal nations became free, and for a short time Nineveh stood alone, naked but unattacked. Then there was war in every direction, and when it was over the city was a heap of charred ruins, and three great kingdoms took its place.

The first kingdom was that of the Medes, who had set the example of rebellion, and by whom Nineveh had been destroyed. They inhabited the highland regions bordering on the Tigris, Ecbatana was their capital. They were renowned for their luxury, and especially for their robes of flowing silk. Their priests were called Magi, and formed a separate tribe or caste; they were dressed in white, lived only on vegetables, slept on beds of leaves, worshipped the sun and the element of fire, as symbols of the deity, and followed the precepts of Zoroaster. The empire of the Medes was bounded on the west by the Tigris. They inherited the Assyrian provinces in Central Asia, the boundaries of which are not precisely known.

The civilisation of Nineveh had been derived from Babylon, a city famous for its rings and gems, which were beautifully engraved, its carpets in which the figures of fabulous animals were interwoven, its magnifying glasses, its sun-dials, and its literature printed in cuneiform characters on clay tablets, which were then baked in the oven. Many hundreds of these have lately been deciphered, and are found to consist chiefly of military dispatches, law papers, royal game-books, observatory reports, agricultural treatises, and religious documents. In the partition of Assyria Babylon obtained Mesopotamia, or "the Land between the Rivers," and Syria, including Phoenicia and Palestine. Nebuchadnezzar was the founder of the Empire; he routed the Egyptians, he destroyed Jerusalem, transplanted the Jews on account of their rebellion, and reduced Tyre after a memorable siege. He built a new Babylon as Augustus built a new Rome, and the city became one of the wonders of the world. It was a vast fortified district, five or six times the area of London, interspersed with parks and gardens and fields, and enclosed by walls on which six chariots could be driven side by side. Its position in a flat country made it resemble in the distance a mountain with trees waving at the top. These were the "hanging gardens," a grove of large trees planted on the square surface of a gigantic tower, and ingeniously watered from below. Nebuchadnezzar erected this extraordinary structure to please his wife, who came from the highlands of Media, and who, weary of the interminable plains, coveted meadows on mountain tops such as her native land contained. The Euphrates ran through the centre of the city, and was crossed by a stone bridge which was a marvel for its time. But more wonderful still, there was a kind of Thames Tunnel passing underneath the river, and connecting palaces on either side. The city was united to its provinces by roads and fortified posts; rafts inflated with skins, and reed boats pitched over with bitumen, floated down the river with timber from the mountains of Armenia and stones for the purposes of building. A canal large enough for ships to ascend was dug from Babylon to the Persian Gulf, and on its banks were innumerable machines for raising the water and spreading it upon the soil.

The third kingdom was that of the Lydians, a people in manners and appearance resembling the Greeks. They did not consider themselves behind the rest of the world. They boasted that they had invented dice, coin, and the art of shop-keeping, and also that the famous Etruscan state was a colony of theirs. They inhabited Asia Minor, a sterile, rugged tableland, but possessing a western coast enriched by nature and covered with the prosperous cities of the Asiatic Greeks. Hitherto Ionia had never been subdued, but the cities were too jealous of one another to combine, and Croesus was able to conquer them one by one. This was the man whose wealth is still celebrated in a proverb—he obtained his gold from the washings of a sandy stream. Croesus admired the Greeks; he was the first of the lion-hunters, and invited all the men of the day to visit him at Sardis, where he had the pleasure of hearing Aesop tell some of his own fables. He was anxious that his capital should form part of the grand tour which had already become the fashion of the Greek philosophers, and that they should be able to say when they returned home that they had not only seen the pyramids of Egypt and the ruins of Troy, but also the treasure-house of Croesus. When he received a visit from one of these sages in cloak and beard he would show him his heaps of gold and

silver, and ask him whether, in all his travels, he had ever seen a happier man—to which question he did not always receive a very courteous reply.

After long wars, peace was established between the Babylonians, the Lydians, and the Medes on a lasting and secure foundation. The royal families were united by marriage; alliances, defensive and offensive, were made and ratified on oath. Egypt was no longer able to invade, and there was a period of delicious calm in that stormy Asiatic world, broken only by the plaintive voices of the poor Jewish captives who sat by the waters of Babylon and sang of the Holy City that was no more.

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