Saturday, August 26, 2006


Israel traced its origin to Babylonia. It was from "Ur of the Chaldees" that Abraham "the Hebrew" had come, the rock out of which it was hewn. Here on the western bank of the Euphrates was the earliest home of the Hebrews, of whom the Israelites claimed to be a part.

But they were not the only nation of the ancient Oriental world which derived its ancestry from Abraham. He was the father not only of the Israelites, but of the inhabitants of northern and central Arabia as well. The Ishmaelites who were settled in the north of the Arabian peninsula, the descendants of Keturah who colonised Midian and the western coast, were also his children. Moab and Ammon, moreover, traced their pedigree to his nephew, while Edom was the elder brother of Israel. Israel, in fact, was united by the closest ties of blood to all the populations which in the historic age dwelt between the borders of Palestine and the mountain-ranges of south-eastern Arabia. They formed a single family which claimed descent from a common ancestor.

Israel was the latest of them to appear on the scene of history. Moab and Ammon had subjugated or absorbed the old Amorite population on the eastern side of the Jordan, Ishmael and the Keturites had made themselves a home in Arabia, Edom had possessed itself of the mountain-fastnesses of the Horite and the Amalekite, long before the Israelites had escaped from their bondage in Egypt, or formed themselves into a nation in the desert. They were the youngest member of the Hebrew family, though but for them the names of their brethren would have remained forgotten and unknown. Israel needed the discipline of a long preparation for the part it was destined to play in the future history of the world.

The Hebrews belonged to the Semitic race. The race is distinguished by certain common characteristics, but more especially by the possession of a common type of language, which is markedly different from the other languages of mankind. Its words are built on what is termed the principle of triliteralism; the skeleton, as it were, of each of them consisting of three consonants, while the vowels, which give flesh and life to the skeleton, vary according to the grammatical signification of the word. The relations of grammar are thus expressed for the most part by changes of vocalic sound, just as in English the plural of "man" is denoted by a change in the vowel. The verb is but imperfectly developed; it is, in fact, rather a noun than a verb, expressing relation rather than time. Compound words, moreover, are rare, the compounds of our European languages being replaced in the Semitic dialects by separate words.

Perhaps one of the most remarkable characteristics of the Semitic family of speech is its conservatism and resistance to change. As compared with the other languages of the world, its grammar and vocabulary have alike undergone but little alteration in the course of the centuries during which we can trace its existence. The very words which were used by the Babylonians four or five thousand years ago, can still be heard, with the same meaning attached to them, in the streets of Cairo. Kelb is "dog" in modern Arabic as kalbu was in ancient Babylonian, and the modern Arabic tayyîb, "good," is the Babylonian tâbu. One of the results of this unchangeableness of Semitic speech is the close similarity and relationship that exist between the various languages that represent it. They are dialects rather than distinct languages, more closely resembling one another than is the case even with the Romanic languages of modern Europe, which are descended from Latin.

Most of the Semitic languages—or dialects if we like so to call them—are now dead, swallowed up by the Arabic of Mohammed and the Qorân. The Assyrian which was spoken in Assyria and Babylonia is extinct; so, too, are the Ethiopic of Abyssinia, and the Hebrew language itself. What we term Hebrew was originally "the language of Canaan," spoken by the Semitic Canaanites long before the Israelitish conquest of the country, and found as late as the Roman age on the monuments of Phoenicia and Carthage. The Minæan and the Sabæan dialects of southern Arabia still survive in modern forms; Arabic, which has now overflowed the rest of the Semitic world, was the language of central Arabia alone. In northern Arabia, as well as in Mesopotamia and Syria, Aramaic dialects were used, the miserable relics of which are preserved to-day among a few villagers of the Lebanon and Lake Urumîyeh. These Aramaic dialects, it is now believed, arose from a mixture of Arabic with "the language of Canaan."

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Western Asia civilisation

The civilisation of western Asia is, as has been said, immensely old. That is the net result of modern discovery and research. As far back as excavation can carry us there is still culture and art. We look in vain for the beginnings of civilised life. Even the pictures out of which the written systems of the ancient East were developed belong to a past of which we have but glimpses. Of savagery or barbarism on the banks of the lower Euphrates there is not a trace. So far as our materials enable us to judge, civilised man existed from the beginning in "the land of Shinar." The great temples of Babylonia were already erected, the overflow of the rivers controlled, and written characters imprinted on tablets of clay. Civilisation seems to spring up suddenly out of a night of darkness, like Athena from the head of Zeus.

This is one of the chief lessons that have been taught us by Oriental archaeology. Culture and civilisation are no new thing, at all events in the East; long before the days of classical Greece, long before the days even of Abraham, man was living in ease and comfort, surrounded by objects of art and industry, acquainted with the art of writing, and carrying on intercourse with distant lands. We must rid ourselves once for all of the starveling ideas of chronology which a classical training once encouraged, and of the belief that history, in the true sense of the word, hardly goes back beyond the age of Darius or Periklês. The civilisations of Babylonia and Egypt were already decrepid when the ancestors of Periklês were still barbarians.

Another lesson is the danger of forming conclusions from imperfect evidence. Apart from the earlier records of the Old Testament, there was no literature which claimed a greater antiquity than the Homeric Poems of ancient Greece; no history of older date than that of Hellas, unless indeed the annals of China were to be included, which lay altogether outside the stream of European history. Criticism, accordingly, deemed itself competent to decide dogmatically on the character and credibility of the literature and history of which it was in possession; to measure the statements of the Old Testament writings by the rules of Greek and Latin literature, and to argue from the history of Europe to that of the East. Uncontrolled by external testimony, critical scepticism played havoc with the historical narratives that had descended to it, and starting from the assumption that the world of antiquity was illiterate, refused to credit such records of the past as dwarfed the proportions of Greek history, or could not be harmonised with the canons of the critic himself. It was quite sufficient for a fact to go back to the second millennium B.C. for it to be peremptorily ruled out of court.

The discoveries of Oriental archaeology have come with a rude shock to disturb both the conclusions of this imperfectly-equipped criticism and the principles on which they rest. Discovery has followed discovery, each more marvellous than the last, and re-establishing the truth of some historical narrative in which we had been called upon to disbelieve. Dr. Schliemann and the excavators who have come after him have revealed to an incredulous world that Troy of Priam which had been relegated to cloudland, and have proved that the traditions of Mykenæan glory, of Agamemnon and Menelaos, and even of voyages to the coast of Egypt, were not fables but veritable facts. Even more striking have been the discoveries which have restored credit to the narratives of the Old Testament, and shown that they rest on contemporaneous evidence. It was not so long ago that the account of the campaign of Chedor-laomer and his allies in Canaan was unhesitatingly rejected as a mere reflection into the past of the campaigns of later Assyrian kings. Even the names of the Canaanite princes who opposed him were resolved into etymological puns. But the tablets of Babylonia have come to their rescue. We now know that long before the days of Abraham not only did Babylonian armies march to the shores of the Mediterranean, but that Canaan was a Babylonian province, and that Amraphel, the ally of Chedor-laomer, actually entitles himself king of it in one of his inscriptions. We now know also that the political condition of Babylonia described in the narrative is scrupulously exact. Babylonia was for a time under the domination of the Elamites, and while Amraphel or Khammurabi was allowed to rule at Babylon as a vassal-prince, an Elamite of the name of Eri-Aku or Arioch governed Larsa in the south. Nay more; tablets have recently been found which show that the name of the Elamite monarch was Kudur-Laghghamar, and that among his vassal allies was Tudkhula or Tidal, who seems to have been king of the Manda, or "nations" of Kurdistan. Khammurabi, whose name is also written Ammurapi, has left us autograph letters, in one of which he refers to his defeat of Kudur-Laghghamar in the decisive battle which at last delivered Babylonia from the Elamite yoke.

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Friday, August 18, 2006

Conected history in Middle-East

Alike, therefore, by its geographical position, by the characteristics of its population, and by the part it played in the history of the civilised East, Palestine was so closely connected with the countries and nations which surrounded it that its history cannot be properly understood apart from theirs. Isolated and alone, its history is in large measure unintelligible or open to misconception. The keenest criticism is powerless to discover the principles which underlie it, to detect the motives of the policy it describes, or to estimate the credibility of the narratives in which it is contained, unless it is assisted by testimony from without. It is like a dark jungle where the discovery of a path is impossible until the sun penetrates through the foliage and the daylight streams in through the branches of the trees.

Less than a century ago it seemed useless even to hope that such external testimony would ever be forthcoming. There were a few scraps of information to be gleaned from the classical authors of Greece and Rome, which had been so sifted and tortured as to yield almost any sense that was required; but even these scraps were self-contradictory, and, as we now know, were for the most part little else than fables. It was impossible to distinguish between the true and the false; to determine whether the Chaldæan fragments of Berossos were to be preferred to the second and third hand accounts of Herodotus, or whether the Egyptian chronology of Manetho was to be accepted in all its startling magnitude. And when all was said and done, there was little that threw light on the Old Testament story, much less that supplemented it.

But the latter part of the nineteenth century has witnessed discoveries which have revolutionised our conceptions of ancient Oriental history, and illuminated the pages of the Biblical narrative. While scholars and critics were disputing over a few doubtful texts, the libraries of the old civilised world of the East were lying underground, waiting to be disinterred by the excavator and interpreted by the decipherer. Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia have yielded up their dead; Arabia, Syria, and Asia Minor are preparing to do the same. The tombs and temples of Egypt, and the papyri which have been preserved in the sandy soil of a land where frost and rain are hardly known, have made the old world of the Egyptians live again before our eyes, while the clay books of Babylonia and Assyria are giving us a knowledge of the people who wrote and read them fully equal to that which we have of Greece or Rome. And yet we are but at the beginning of discoveries. What has been found is but an earnest of the harvest that is yet in store. It is but two years since that the French excavator, de Sarzec, discovered a library of 30,000 tablets at Tello in southern Chaldæa, which had already been formed when Gudea ruled over the city in B.C. 2700, and was arranged in shelves one above the other. At Niffer, in the north of Babylonia, the American excavators have found an even larger number of tablets, some of which go back to the age of Sargon of Akkad, or 6000 years ago, while fresh tablets come pouring into the museums of Europe and America from other libraries found by the Arabs at Bersippa and Babylon, at Sippara and Larsa. The Babylonia of the age of Amraphel, the contemporary of Abraham, has, thanks to the recent finds, become as well known to us as the Athens of Periklês; the daily life of the people can be traced in all its outlines, and we even possess the autograph letters written by Amraphel himself. The culture and civilisation of Babylonia were already immensely old. The contracts for the lease and sale of houses or other estate, the documents relating to the property of women, the reports of the law cases that were tried before the official judges, all set before us a state of society which changed but little down to the Persian era. Behind it lie centuries of slow development and progress in the arts of life. The age of Amraphel, indeed, is in certain respects an age of decline. The heyday of Babylonian art lay nearly two thousand years before it, in the epoch of Sargon and his son Naram-Sin. It was then that the Babylonian empire was established throughout western Asia as far as the Mediterranean, that a postal service was organised along the highroads which led from one city of the empire to another, and that Babylonian art reached its climax. It was then, too, that the Babylonian system of writing practically took its final form.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Palestine Oriental history

Palestine is thus a centre of ancient Oriental history. Its occupation by Babylonians or Egyptians marks the shifting of the balance of power between Asia and Africa. The fortunes of the great empires of the eastern world are to a large extent reflected in its history. The rise of the one meant the loss of Palestine to the other.

The people, too, were fitted by nature and circumstances for the part they were destined to play. They were Semites with the inborn religious spirit which is characteristic of the Semite, and they were also a mixed race. The highlands of Canaan had been peopled by the Amorites, a tall fair race, akin probably to the Berbers of northern Africa and the Kelts of our own islands; the lowlands were in the hands of the Canaanites, a people of Semitic blood and speech, who devoted themselves to the pursuit of trade. Here and there were settlements of other tribes or races, notably the Hittites, who had descended from the mountain-ranges of the Taurus and spread over northern Syria. Upon all these varied elements the Israelites flung themselves, at first in hostile invasion, afterwards in friendly admixture. The Israelitish conquest of Palestine was a slow process, and it was only in its earlier stages that it was accompanied by the storming of cities and the massacre of their inhabitants. As time went on the invaders intermingled with the older population of the land, and the heads of the captives which surmount the names of the places captured by the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishak in the kingdom of Judah all show the Amorite and not the Jewish type of countenance. The main bulk of the population, in fact, must have continued unchanged by the Israelitish conquest, and conquerors and conquered intermarried together. The genealogies given by the Hebrew writers prove how extensive this intermingling of racial elements must have been; even David counted a Moabitess among his ancestors, and surrounded himself with guards of foreign nationality. Solomon's successor, the first king of Judah, was the son of an Ammonite mother, and we have only to read a few pages of the Book of Judges to learn how soon after the invasion of Canaan the Israelites adopted the gods and religious practices of the older population, and paid homage to the old Canaanite shrines.

A mixed race is always superior to one of purer descent. It possesses more enterprise and energy, more originality of thought and purpose. The virtues and failings of the different elements it embodies are alike intensified in it. We shall probably not go far wrong if we ascribe to this mixed character of the Israelitish people the originality which marks their history and finds its expression in the rise of prophecy. They were a race, moreover, which was moulded in different directions by the nature of the country in which it lived. Palestine was partly mountainous; the great block of limestone known as the mountains of Ephraim formed its backbone, and was that part of it which was first occupied by the invading Israelites. But besides mountains there were fertile plains and valleys, while on the sea-coast there were harbours, ill adapted, it is true, to the requirements of modern ships, but sufficient for the needs of ancient navigation. The Israelites were thus trained on the one hand to the habits of hardy warriors, living a life of independence and individual freedom in the fastnesses of the hills, and on the other hand were tempted to become agriculturists and shepherds wherever their lot was cast in the lowlands. The sea-coast was left to the older population, and to the Philistines, who had settled upon it about the time of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt; but the Philistines eventually became the subject-vassals of the Jewish kings, and friendly intercourse with the Phoenicians towards the north not only brought about the rise of a mixed people, partly Canaanite and partly Israelitish, but also introduced among the Israelites the Phoenician love of trade.

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Early Israel - introduction

One of the first facts which strike the traveller in Palestine is the smallness of a country which has nevertheless occupied so large a space in the history of civilised mankind. It is scarcely larger than an English county, and a considerable portion of it is occupied by rocky mountains and barren defiles where cultivation is impossible. Its population could never have been great, and though cities and villages were crowded together on the plains and in the valleys, and perched at times on almost inaccessible crags, the difficulty of finding sustenance for their inhabitants prevented them from rivalling in size the European or American towns of to-day. Like the country in which they dwelt, the people of Palestine were necessarily but a small population when compared with the nations of our modern age.

And yet it was just this scanty population which has left so deep an impress on the thoughts and religion of mankind, and the narrow strip of territory they inhabited which formed the battle-ground of the ancient empires of the world. Israel was few in numbers, and the Canaan it conquered was limited in extent; but they became as it were the centre round which the forces of civilisation revolved, and towards which they all pointed. Palestine, in fact, was for the eastern world what Athens was for the western world; Athens and Attica were alike insignificant in area and the Athenians were but a handful of men, but we derive from them the principles of our art and philosophic speculation just as we derive from Israel and Canaan the principles of our religion. Palestine has been the mother-land of the religion of civilised man.

The geographical position of Palestine had much to do with this result. It was the outpost of western Asia on the side of the Mediterranean, as England is the outpost of Europe on the side of the Atlantic; and just as the Atlantic is the highroad of commerce and trade for us of to-day, so the Mediterranean was the seat of maritime enterprise and the source of maritime wealth for the generations of the past. Palestine, moreover, was the meeting-place of Asia and Africa. Not only was the way open for its merchants by sea to the harbours and products of Europe, but the desert which formed its southern boundary sloped away to the frontiers of Egypt, while to the north and east it was in touch with the great kingdoms of western Asia, with Babylonia and Assyria, Mesopotamia and the Hittites of the north. In days of which we are just beginning to have a glimpse it had been a province of the Babylonian empire, and when Egypt threw off the yoke of its Asiatic conquerors and prepared to win an empire for itself, Canaan was the earliest of its spoils. In a later age Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians again contended for the mastery on the plains of Palestine; the possession of Jerusalem allowed the Assyrian king to march unopposed into Egypt, and the battle of Megiddo placed all Asia west of the Euphrates at the feet of the Egyptian Pharaoh.

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