ABOVE: Assyrian relief from the reign of Sennacherib who is mentioned in 2 Kings 18 & 19 etc. - British Museum

By W.H. Boulton

ORMUZD RASSAM, taking advantage of the bright moonlight of the East, worked at night and found a large bas-relief and the walls of a palace which he was confident was there. It was the palace of Ashur-bani-pal, and among all the bas-reliefs that have been recovered from Assyria and brought to Europe there are probably none which can be compared with them. It was under this king that Assyrian art reached its highest point of excellence, and the visitor to the British Museum may see many examples of it in the Assyrian Room there. Amongst them there are none to surpass those which represent the hunting scenes; they show an appreciation of animal form and spirit never surpassed by Assyrian sculptors.

In 1878 further excavations were made under Mr. Rassam’s superintendence. The principal idea of the expedition was to add to the collection of inscribed tablets from the libraries of Assyria. But Rassam was anxious to extend his researches to larger things than tablets. "Although," he wrote, "that was the first object of my mission, I was, nevertheless, more eager to discover more new ancient sites than to confine my whole energy on such a tame undertaking." He therefore extended his operations to the most important of the Babylonian and Assyrian cities. Amongst other places he visited Balawat, where he found and secured bronze bands from the gates made by Shalmanezer II to record his military expeditions and conquests. There are no less than thirteen bands, representing various incidents in his wars against Carchemish, Ararat, the land of Nairi and Hamath, and also the reception of tribute from the ships of Tyre and Sidon. On this occasion Arab sentiment was outraged by the fact that Balawat was the site of a burying-ground, and on more than one occasion bloodshed seemed imminent but was fortunately avoided.

One more find which we owe to Mr. Rassam illustrates a phase of life and activity in ancient Babylon not generally realised. It consisted of some hundreds of tablets which belong to a series known as the Egibi tablets. The first of these were found in several terracotta jars by some Arabs in 1874. They apparently sold them to a dealer in Bagdad, who in turn sold them to Mr. George Smith. The house of Egibi seems to have been an Assyrian or Babylonian house of Rothschild. For some centuries it carried on its financial activities in small matters as well as in large. Loans, contracts, sales of all kinds from landed estates to slaves, deeds of partnership, are all represented. The firm apparently commenced its operations as early as the reign of Sennacherib, and some of the tablets acquired by Mr. Rassam are dated in the reign of Alik-sa-an-dir,—Alexander.

According to Professor F. Delitzsch "all the financial business of the court was entrusted to this firm through several centuries. They collected the taxes with which land, and the crops of corn, dates, etc., were burdened, also the dues for the use of the public roads and the irrigation canals, etc., etc." Among the many finds of tablets in Assyria and Babylon, few have been more interesting than this, for it sheds a flood of light upon the highly-organised state of society in the land of Mesopotamia between two and three thousand years ago.

The story would not be complete without a reference to the American expedition of 1899 and the German expedition under the direction of Dr. R. Koldewey. The latter expedition commenced its labours at Babylon in the year 1899, and it was not until fourteen years afterwards that the results of the work were published, and it was then estimated that only about one-half of the necessary work had been done.

One of the principal results was the discovery of what was evidently the great Processional Street of Babylon. It was a roadway running north and south past the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar. One of the inscriptions of this king records "Aiburshadu the roadway of Babylon I filled up with high filling for the procession of the great lord Marduk, and with turminabanda stone and with shadu stone I made Aiburshadu from the Illu gate to the Ishtar-sakipat-tebisha fit for the procession of his godhead. I connected it with the Palaces that my father had built, and made the road glorious."

Stone tabletLeft: A stone tablet describes Nebuchadnezzar's many buildings.

It was indeed a glorious roadway, and was evidently a kind of Via Sacra of Babylon. There was a brick pavement covered with asphalt and a flagged causeway. The stones were of limestone, each measuring about three and a half feet square. The side walks were made of breccia (conglomerate rock) about two feet square. The joints of the stones were all bevelled and the interstices filled in with asphalt. The edges all bore an inscription, "Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, son of Nabopolassar, king of Babylon, am I. The Babel Street I paved with bricks of shadu stone for the procession of the great lord Marduk. Marduk, Lord, grant eternal life." Along the roadside were walls about twenty-seven feet thick, with fortifications.

A brickRight: One of the many bricks discovered at Babylon bearing the name of King Nebuchadnezzar. (British Museum)

It was not only a very fine roadway, it was also an excellent defence for the city, for any enemy marching along it would have been open to the missiles of the defenders. Along the walls were lions executed in bas-relief. The road led to the Ishtar Gate. This was a turreted construction with double towers, ornamented in relief in coloured brick, and excavated out of the earth. There were over 500 bulls, dragons and other animals depicted on the gate, and it has been well described as the most imposing monument of Babylonian architecture now surviving.

In the city there was a mound known as the Kasr, on which Nebuchadnezzar built his own Palace. It contains a Great Throne Room, immediately adjoining the Great Court of the Palace. Whilst the outer walls were decorated with coloured enamels, the inner walls of this great room were merely plastered with white gypsum. It is some two hundred feet long and sixty-seven feet wide. It was probably in this room that the great lords of Babylon were feasting when, as the book of Daniel narrates, the fingers of a man’s hand appeared and wrote upon the white walls of Babylon’s impending doom.

Temples and a Ziggurat were also excavated and explored by the expedition, and though it was at one time imagined that the older Babylon had been completely destroyed by its Assyrian conquerors, relics of the more ancient city were laid bare. In one section at a depth of thirty feet the outlines of the more ancient streets were clearly traced. A thick layer of ashes proved that fire had been employed as the means of destruction of the early city, which inscribed tablets proved to be the city of Khammurabi. Altogether the expedition of Dr. Koldewey has had most useful and instructive results. By careful work and painstaking examination the old city has been uncovered and induced to tell its tale of a forgotten past.

Amid it all there emerges the figure of that great builder of old, and everything goes to prove that it was no vainglorious boast when Nebuchadnezzar said: "Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of my kingdom by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty." His works and his name are everywhere —streets, temples, walls, citadel, the palace with a most elaborate drainage system, the supposed hanging gardens, the great gate of Ishtar — everywhere there is the memorial of his greatness and the multiplicity of his activities in the capital of his kingdom.

The American expedition extended over several years with varying results. Commencing in 1889 work was undertaken at Nippur, south-east of Babylon, and at once the magnitude of the task was realized. Professor Hilprecht wrote: "Even at a distance I began to realize that not twenty, not fifty years would suffice to excavate this important site thoroughly." He said the ruins were more like a mountain range than the remains of human constructions. From one mound alone many tablets relating to times about 2000 B.C., also those of Nebuchadnezzar and the Persian kings were recovered.

Unfortunately a certain amount of damage was caused at one period by digging through to older levels, nevertheless a great work was done and much new material placed at the disposal of Assyriologists. In 1889 the work was placed under the direction of the University of Pennsylvania, and tablets sufficient to form a library were recovered. The place in which they were found has been termed a Library; and is dated somewhere about the time of Abraham. They were found in strata sometimes four feet thick and seemed as if they had been arranged on wooden shelves.

Buildings were unearthed, graveyards examined, and, perhaps, most peculiar of all, a Babylonian Museum was discovered, small but certainly interesting. Among the items was a "squeeze" of an inscription of Sargon 1, who reigned something like two millennia before the Museum was founded, apparently in the reign of Nabonidus.

It will be realised from the foregoing how our knowledge of Babylonia in these past epochs is constantly increasing, and how the veil is gradually being lifted to enable us to see more and more clearly into the earlier history of our earth. It is all so real; it is not mere reports and traditions, but we may handle the very things which were made so long ago, read the inscriptions actually imprinted by men who have been dead over 4,000 years. This is the strange appeal which Archaeology makes to the student, the appeal of first-hand information brought to us, as it were, straight from the studios and offices of Khammurabi or of Ashur-bani-pal, the book-lover who made himself master of the writings of his own and past times.

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