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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