Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

An Assyrian City 2,800 Years Ago

Now that we have heard a little of how the wonders of Ancient Assyria were dug up again out of the ground, we want to try to get some idea of what life was like in the far-off days when these buried cities and palaces and temples still stood proudly overlooking the wide plains of the land between the rivers. Suppose, then, that we get away back into the past on some magic carpet, and that we are living about the year 870 or so before Christ. That seems far enough to go back, but really it only takes us about half-way to the dawn of history in these old lands. At that time a very great Assyrian king was reigning, whose name was Ashur-natsir-pal. If you want to be able to put him in his right place in your mind's eye, perhaps you will do it best by remembering that he reigned just a little while before King Ahab came to the throne of Israel.

I have chosen to go back to his time rather than to come further down the story to Sennacherib or Ashurbanipal and Nineveh, partly because his palace was the most important one which Layard discovered at Nimrud, and partly because he has left us a very clear story of his own doings.

Suppose, then, that we are travelling across the plains with a caravan of merchants. We have been slowly journeying for many days since we left Egypt, laden with fine things from the Land of the Nile—beautiful Egyptian linen, goldsmith's work and ivory, and such-like things—and now in the far distance we can see the towers of the great town of Kalkhi or Kalah lifting their heads above the horizon. High above them all there flashes a brilliant golden light like a star, and the merchants who have been here before tell us that it is the rays of the sinking sun striking upon the gilded top of the great tower of the temple of Ninib, the god of the city. We hurry on as fast as we can, urging our weary camels to their utmost speed, for sunset is drawing near, and we have no desire to find the city gates shut when we come up, and to be forced to spend the night outside the walls.

The nearer we come, the more we feel how unlike an Assyrian town is to any of the great Egyptian cities, such as Thebes or Memphis, which we have left behind us. Of course; the long line of the walls, with the projecting towers at frequent intervals, battlemented all round their tops looks not unlike the wall of an Egyptian city too, though in Egypt there would be less brick and more stone. Here the wall is entirely of brick, except at the very foot, where it is rooted in a sloping platform faced with big stones, so as to be able to resist the sappers of a besieging army, or the blows of the battering-ram. But instead of the tall slender obelisks, the huge stone gateways, and the towering flagstaves with gay pennons floating from them which would mark out the temple of Amen or Ptah in Thebes or Memphis, the main thing that attracts the eye in Kalah is the great temple-tower whose summit we saw flashing from far across the plain. It is really a very wonderful thing when you see it near at hand, though it is so different from the Egyptian temples, and though it is built for all the world just as a child would build a tower with his first box of bricks.

Now we have reached the great gate of the city, under the shadow of the two frowning gate-towers; and after a little haggling with the captain in command, and with the customs officer over the amount of duty to be paid on the merchandise which we carry with us, we are duly passed under the dark archway which leads through the thick wall to the busy streets. On either side of the narrow passage the guard is drawn up—a company of the famous Assyrian spearmen, soldiers whose backs no enemy has ever seen. High up in the towers we catch the glint of light from helmet and corselet, and know that the bowmen, too, are on the watch. In the gathering dusk our caravan makes its way through the narrow streets to the great inn where the southern traders have their headquarters; but we are going with the secretary of the Egyptian Embassy, an Assyrian gentleman called Zil-Assur, to stay with one of his acquaintances in the town. Zil-Assur has a mind to buy this friend's house, so we are to lodge with Sarludari, the owner, overnight, and if the house is satisfactory, the bargain will be struck in the morning.

Sarludari's house does not look especially attractive from the street—Assyrian houses never do. A low arched gateway lets us enter into a dark narrow passage which leads right through the house to the inner door. When our host has opened this door, however, we get a new idea of the prettiness and comfort of his dwelling. The door leads into a central court, whose paths are paved with gaily-colored tiles. In the midst a fountain is playing, while the paths are bordered by beds of bright flowers interspersed with sweet-smelling shrubs. In the fast fading evening glow the little garden makes a very pretty picture. Around it there runs a verandah supported on wooden pillars, and from this the various rooms of the house open. After Sarludari has given us water to wash our hands and feet, he invites us, till the supper is ready, to inspect the house so that we may be ready for business next morning.

First of all we climb, by a brick staircase, to the flat roof, whence we get a view over the roofs and streets of the city towards the royal palace and the temple of Ninib, with its great tower rising dark against the evening sky. The roof is surrounded by a battlemented wall, and it makes a favorite resort for the womenfolk of the household. Nearly all their work is taken up there in the early morning and at evening, and it is only in the great heat of the day that they go downstairs. Sarludari's wife and daughters sit in the fresh morning air, doing all kinds of fine embroidery work, by the hour together, while in another corner of the roof, screened off from their mistresses, the servants are baking, or washing and drying the household linen. Sometimes, to tell the truth, a good deal of gossip goes on between house-top and house top, though it is rather difficult to keep secrets that have to be spoken in a loud tone from one roof to another.

Going downstairs, we find that the rooms are long and narrow, as all Assyrian rooms are. They are covered with a flat ceiling which hides a roof of undressed palm trunks. A good many of the apartments are really only store-rooms, for a family in Assyria likes to keep the bulk of its possessions about it. Underneath the house is, not a cellar, but a fine underground room, which Sarludari shows us with great pride. Scarcely any light can enter it from above. It is floored with slabs of grey and white plaster, and the walls are covered with the same material, and are watered twice or thrice a day in the summer to keep the room cool. This is the most indispensable room in the house, to which the family retires when the blazing heat of the Mesopotamian summer sun makes life above ground unbearable.

After our survey and a good solid supper of meat, fish, and vegetables, we get to our beds. The servants of the household sleep on mats laid on the floor, but we, as honored guests, have wooden bedsteads standing upon feet carved like lions' paws, and provided with a mattress and two warm blankets, for it grows chilly in Assyria in the early morning. Each bedroom has its amulet, a bronze, jasper, or clay image of the destroying demon of the south-west wind, who brings fever and all sorts of evil, inscribed with a charm bidding him keep far away. Before he lies down, Zil-Assur, who is as superstitious as any other Assyrian, in spite of his Egyptian training, gabbles over a charm to keep him safe: "The pestilence and fever which might carry me off; the evil spirit, the evil imp, the evil man, the evil eye, the slanderous tongue, may they be driven away from this man, from his body, from his bowels. May they never come behind my back, never wound my eye, never come near my body; may they never enter my house, never cross the beams of my roof, never descend into my dwelling. Double of heaven, conjure them! Double of the earth, conjure them." Charm or no charm, however, we are all too tired to care much for evil spirits, and are soon sound asleep.



Morning brings business. After seeing the house, Zil-Assur has definitely decided to buy it; and he and Sarludari have come to terms. So we all go out to the gate of Ninib where the judge will be sitting, taking with us a scribe and the needed witnesses. The deed of sale is settled, written on a clay tablet, and read over by the judge in the presence of us all. Then the judge affixes his seal, and Sarludari and his wife, who, like many of the well-to-do Assyrians, cannot write, affix their nail-marks in the soft clay, and the business is done. Here is the deed as the judge reads it over:

"The nail-marks of Sarludari and Amat-suhla, his wife, owners of the house which is sold. The house, which is in thorough repair, with its woodwork, doors, and court, situated in the city of Kalah, and adjoining the houses of Mannu-ki-akhi and Ilu-ittiya, has been bargained for by Zil-Assur, the Egyptian secretary. He has bought it for one maneh of silver, royal standard, from Sarludari and Amat-suhla. The money has been paid in full, and the house received as bought. Withdrawal from the contract, lawsuits, and claims, are hereby excluded. Whoever hereafter at any time, whether these men or others, shall bring an action against Zil-Assur, shall be fined ten manehs of silver. Witnessed by Murmaza, the official, Nebo-dur-uzur, the champion, Murmaza, the naval captain, and Zedekiah." Then follows the date and the governor's name. You see the Assyrians are pretty slippery customers in business, and things have to be tied up very strictly to prevent fraud.

Business over, we take a stroll through the streets. Down by the riverside where the Tigris rolls swiftly past the quays and water-gates of the city, we see the quaint boats in which a great deal of the traffic of the land is carried on. They are very different from the graceful river-boats and sea-going galleys of the Egyptians, for they are neither more nor less than great round baskets of willow wands, covered with skins. Some of them, however, are very large, and can carry more than ten tons of cargo. Of course they are no use for going upstream, and so the way in which they are used is this: When sufficient goods are gathered to make a cargo for a little fleet of them, the merchant loads them, puts a few asses on board along with himself and his goods and servants, and drifts downstream to the town where he wishes to trade. There he sells his goods and the wicker-baskets from which he has stripped the skins, packs the skins on the backs of the asses, and makes the return journey by land. It is a cumbrous way of trading certainly, but it is cheap, for nothing is lost except time, and folks are not in a great hurry as yet.

Of course there are other vessels on the river besides these clumsy tubs, sharp-nosed police-galleys, with armed men on board them, driven through the water by sturdy oarsmen, and ferry-boats of various shapes and sizes; but the riverside is rather a disappointment to those who have seen the Nile covered with its fleets of swift and beautiful boats and ships. So we turn uptown to see whether we cannot find anything more worthy of Assyria's great fame. One thing we notice at once in the crowded streets is the dress of the people. No longer have we the bare bronzed skin, or the pure white linen of the Egyptian. Here everyone wears plenty. A good thick cap made of a substance like felt, and often quilted, covers the head. The body is wrapped In a thick woolen tunic, of gay color, and bedecked with a fringe, which falls to the knees; and over this, in cold weather at all events, another heavy robe is worn, which reaches nearly to the feet. The arms are left bare, and the feet are shod either with sandals or laced boots, though these are more often worn by the army than by civilians. Instead of the clean-shaven Egyptian faces, we see all around us bushy curled black beards, and thick heads of black hair, plentifully anointed with scented oils. In fact, the Assyrians and Babylonians go by the name of "the black-headed folk." The crowd In the streets is much more gaily-colored than In an Egyptian town—not to say much more gaudy, and far more greasy.

The different quarters of the town are divided among the various trades—one to the weavers, another to the smiths, a third to the dyers, and a fourth to the stone-cutters and carvers, and so forth. Babylonia has long been famous for its weaving of the "goodly Babylonish garments" of fine texture and beautiful design and color, and the Assyrian weavers are not far behind. Here you can see all sorts of splendid stuffs—fine tapestry hangings for a king's palace or a nobleman's house, glowing with the softest and richest colors, for the dyers of the land are as famous as its weavers, thick woolen mantles, warm enough to keep out the cold when the wind blows fierce across the snow-mountains to the north, or delicate fabrics for the dresses of the fine court ladies.

In the smiths' quarter at present it is mostly armor that is being made, for everyone in the town believes that war is near; it is seldom anything else. Some of the weapons are beautifully finished and inlaid, and the Assyrian armorer prides himself on the fine temper of his swords and spearheads. In the next street you will find the goldsmiths and jewelers at work. You turn to the brothers Bel-akh-iddina and Bel-sunu whose shop attracts you, for you want a ring to carry home with you as a memento of your visit; and when you have made your choice, you get along with your ring a guarantee of its quality written on a clay tablet and printed with the nail-marks of the two brothers. This is how it reads: "As for the gold ring set with an emerald, we guarantee that for twenty years the emerald shall not fall out of the ring. If it should fall out before the end of twenty years, we shall pay an indemnity of ten manehs of silver." It isn't at all likely that we shall be here to claim the fine if the emerald does fall out; but the Assyrians are a careful people.

It will be worth our while before we go home again to turn to the engravers' street, and see a seal-cutter at work; for there are no engravers in the world like the seal-cutters of Babylonia and Assyria. Long ago, before iron was known, and when only soft bronze and copper tools could be had, they managed to cut the most wonderful little pictures on seals of the very hardest stone. Nowadays, they use the turning-lathe to shape the seals; they polish the stones with emery and sand, and they engrave the most elaborate and intricate designs in a space so small that you would almost need a magnifying glass to follow all the details. It is a thriving trade, for nearly everybody has a stone-seal hanging at his girdle, a bit of jasper, or carnelian, or diorite, carved with his own device, to impress upon the clay tablets that record his business transactions. It makes your eyes sore to watch the engravers poring over their fine work, and when you see the result you wonder how men ever had the patience and the skill to do such things.

On our road home, we pass one of the places that you find in all great towns—a beer-house situated in a cellar below the level of the street, where decent folks don't care to be seen, and where fools go and waste their hard-earned wages. But there is one thing to be said for these Assyrian lawgivers. They keep a tight hand over drunkenness and drinking. Long, long ago, in Abraham's time, the old king of Babylon, Hammurabi, made a law that if any woman who kept a beer-house (it is mostly women who follow this trade) did not report any disorderly conduct in her house to the police, she should at once be put to death. Laws like that have literally put the fear of death into Assyrian and Babylonian public-house keepers and drunkards; and while their trade remains a poor business at the best, the beer-house managers do their best to keep it orderly, for the sake of their own necks.

So at last, after a long day among the markets and shops of Kalah, we return to Zil-Assur's new house to pass the night. To-morrow we shall see the great sights, the temple, and the palace, and perhaps get a glimpse of Ashur-natsir-pal himself. For the king has heard that the southern peoples are growing restless, and he is anxious to get first-hand news from anyone who comes from the south.