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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