Peeps at Ancient Assyria - Jamse Baikie

A King's Library of Twenty-Five Centuries Ago

I daresay you sometimes go into a museum, and see the ancestors, as you might call them, of some of the things we use most to-day—a model, for instance, of Stephenson's first railway-engine, the "Rocket," or a model of the first steamship that ever ploughed the ocean. It is interesting to see how the engine or the steamship has grown out of the quaint old-fashioned thing that we see in the museum case into the powerful giant that hauls our modern trains, or the huge turbine-driven battleship that rules the seas. Well, did you ever think that just in the same way you can see the ancestors of this little book that you are reading, and of all the other books that stand upon your shelves and on those of all the libraries in the world? Some of them are just as quaint to look at, compared with our modern books, as the "Rocket" compared with a modern express engine; but, all the same, they are the great-grandfathers, ever so many times removed, of the volumes in your own bookcase.

King Solomon once said: "Of making of many books there is no end"; and it is quite true. Long before his time, indeed, almost as soon as men had learned how to shape letters and words so that other people could read them, they began to put together bits of history, and stories about their gods and their heroes, which made what are really and truly books. Each nation, almost, had its own separate way of making a book, and, no doubt, thought its neighbor nation's way a very silly and clumsy one. But, in the main, the different ways could be more or less reduced to two. There were nations that wrote what they wanted to say with a brush, or kind of pen, and inks of different colors, on a roll of prepared stuff, which might be parchment, made out of an animal's skin, or papyrus, what we call paper, made out of a plant; and there were nations which wrote what they wanted to say with a sharp-pointed tool on a flat tablet of prepared stuff, which might be wax, or might be clay.

In the old days these two different systems practically divided the bookmaking of the world between them, and it was a question which way would prevail. There was a long time when it looked as though the second way, of the clay tablet and the sharp point, would win the day; but, fortunately for us all, the other way proved the more convenient in the end, and our libraries are made of paper books, not of clay bricks. The chief race that used the papyrus roll and the brush or pen with ink was, as you know, the Egyptian people; and I have told you elsewhere how they made their rolls, and how they wrote upon them with their quaint and beautiful picture-writing. The chief races that used the clay tablet and the sharp point were the Babylonians and the Assyrians; and I am going to tell you now how they made their books and what they put into them, and perhaps one or two of the old stories that have been read out of these old books of theirs.

Lion hunting


To begin with, you know, all the nations of the world used pictures for their writing, instead of letters. Instead of writing the word for "soldier," they would draw a picture of a man with a feather on his head and a bow in his hand; or instead of the word for "door," they would draw a rough door made of three or four planks with a couple of cross-pieces. Then bit by bit the pictures, instead of always standing for a whole word, would come to stand for a syllable each, so that you might need two or three little pictures to make up a whole word. And then each picture came to stand for a letter, and by arranging your pictures in the order you wanted, you could write any word you liked. And then people began to get tired of having to draw the pictures so carefully, and drew just as little as they could manage to make themselves understood by. The Egyptians stood by their beautiful picture-writing longer than any other nation, because they were a nation of real artists, and loved to see a thing look pretty as well as read accurately; but even they gradually dropped the pictures except for great and important writing, and used a sort of running hand, which was just broken-down picture-writing, for their letters and business affairs and most of their books.

But the Babylonians and Assyrians gave up the picture-writing far earlier than the Egyptians did; and the reason why they did so is very plain and brings us to the point of what their books were like. The Euphrates and Tigris either did not grow the papyrus plant along their banks, as the Nile did, or else the people of Mesopotamia had never learned how to use the plant for paper-making. So when they wanted to write they had to look for something else to write upon. Now in the soil of Babylonia especially there is a great deal of very fine clay. You remember how I told you that all the land in Babylonia is just mud and silt brought down by the rivers. So when a Babylonian wanted to write a letter he got a lump of this fine soft clay, spread it out till it made a little tablet a few inches square, or more generally oblong, and then he took a sharp point, very likely his dagger point to begin with, and scratched his pictures on the clay with it. But if you ever try to do that kind of thing you will soon find out that it is anything but easy. Straight lines you can draw well enough; but when you come to draw curves then the stiffness of the clay hinders you and spoils your writing.

So our Babylonian friend soon found that pictures were no good for writing in on clay. The Egyptian, with his little brushes of bruised reed and his inks, might make a neat job of it on papyrus, but he couldn't with his knife-point and clay. So he began to make his pictures as simple as he could, so that a man or a horse or a mountain would be represented just by two or three straight strokes; and at last he got the thing to the stage where the strokes in a certain arrangement stood for certain letters or syllables, and had no likeness at all to the original picture. And because, if you press a sharp point, wedge-shaped, as all sharp points are, into soft clay you will find that the impression it leaves behind is broadest where you first pressed the point in, and tapers away to a point as you gradually draw the point out, so all our Babylonian writer's signs were broad at the beginning and tapered to a fine point, so that they were just for all the world like arrowheads. And, indeed, sometimes these letters are called "arrow-headed characters"; but generally they are called "cuneiform," which means wedge-shaped, because they must have been imprinted by a tool shaped like a wedge. If you can imagine a lot of barbed arrow-heads cut off their shafts and flung higgledy-piggledy down upon a piece of flat ground, you will have a pretty good idea of what a piece of Babylonian or Assyrian cuneiform writing looks like.

Suppose, then, that a letter is to be written. We shall take a real one which was written by a young fellow in his first situation to his father at home. It was found at a town called Sippara, and is now in the museum at Constantinople. Young Zimri-eram takes a piece of clay and makes a tablet about three inches long by two broad, shaped very like a small cushion. Then he takes his sharp-pointed "stylus" or pen—you know we talk still about a man's "style" of writing—and he presses it into the clay, making wedge-shaped marks all over the surface, at all kinds of angles, and in all sorts of groups and combinations. It looks a hopeless muddle, but really each group of wedges has its own meaning and when at last he has covered the whole tablet, this is what he has written:

"To my father, thus says Zimri-eram: May the Sun-god and Marduk grant thee everlasting life! May your health be good! I write to ask how you are; send me back news of your health. I am at present at Dur-Sin on the canal of Bit-Sikir. In the place where I am living there is nothing to be had for food. So I am sealing up and sending you three-quarters of a silver shekel. In return for the money, send some good fish and other provisions for me to eat."

Marduk and Tiamat


Then if the writing had been a very important one, the clay tablet would have been baked in a kiln before being sent off. As it is, there will be no need of that; but, at least, since that three-quarters of a silver shekel has to be sent, it will be as well to put the letter and the coin in an envelope. So Zittirieram takes a lump of clay and rolls it out into a thin sheet bigger than his letter. He lays the tablet with the letter in the middle of the sheet of clay, and wraps the fresh clay round about it so that the writing is quite covered. Then upon this clay envelope he inscribes the destination of the letter. Finally, he takes from his girdle, where it hangs by a string, a little piece of green jade-stone, shaped just like a photographer's squeegee, and able to roll, like it, upon a pin which passes through it. This cylinder-seal, as it is called, is carved with signs, so that his father will know that the letter which bears its imprint is from his son. Zimri-eram rolls the cylinder-seal across the envelope of damp clay, and his letter is ready for the post-bag. I wonder if he ever got his good fish, and if his landlady was offended when it came.

That is how a letter is written, then, in the Land of the Rivers; and books are written in just exactly the same way. Each tablet is covered with as much writing as it will hold, and is then numbered, just like the chapters of a book. Let us suppose that the first tablet of the book begins with the words, "When the gods Anu and . . ." Then that tablet will be called "First tablet of 'When the gods Anu and . .'" The next will be called "Second tablet of 'When the gods Anu and . . .'" and so on. For fear that any word should be missed out in passing from one tablet to another, the second tablet always begins by repeating the last line of the first, and the third by repeating the last line of the second. Sometimes, in an old book in your father's library, you may see the last word or two at the bottom of one page repeated at the top of the next—a custom which has almost died out now. So now, when you see such a thing, you will know where it came from, and that it is just the repeating of the old Babylonian custom of carrying over a sentence from each tablet to the next.

As you can understand, when books were made of clay tablets, really small bricks, like that, it was rather a business to have a library. Whatever was the character of the stories written in them, the books themselves were heavy and clumsy to the last degree. A royal library of any size must have looked rather like a brick-maker's yard. In one of his essays Lord Macaulay makes fun of such writing: "Gomer Chephoraod," he says, making a king of Babylon out of his own imagination, "was so popular that the clay of all the plains round the Euphrates could scarcely furnish brick-kilns enough for his eulogists. It is recorded in particular that Pharonezzar, the Assyrian Pindar, published a bridge and four walls in his praise." But in spite of Macaulay's jest, and in spite of the cumbrousness of this way of making books, real libraries were got together, and have proved of infinite value in telling us what the Babylonians and Assyrians thought and believed about the gods, and the past history of the world, what was the course of events in their own times, and what traditions had come down to them about their heroes and great men of the past.

Several of these libraries have been discovered. One, which was found in recent times at the ancient sacred city of Nippur, where the great spirit-god Enlil used to be worshipped, has great value because it preserves the oldest forms of the national legends. Others have turned out to have importance from different points of view—some because they contain medical and scientific books, others because they contain great masses of the accounts of big business firms, such as the firm of Egibi, the bankers of Babylon, or Murashu of Nippur. But perhaps the most interesting of all is the library which Ashurbanipal, one of the last of the great kings of Assyria, gathered at Nineveh, and which was found there, in the mound of Qoyunjik, partly by Sir Austen Layard, and partly by his assistant, Mr. Hormuzd Bassam.

Of course the royal library of Nineveh is nothing like so old as some of the other libraries that have been found, for Ashur-bani-pal reigned only a short time before the fall of Assyria; but it gives us the best idea of the books not only of Assyria, but of Babylonia as well. For the king had a great love for ancient histories, and he ordered his scribes to make copies of all the chief books of history, religion, and science in the great libraries of Babylonia, and add them to the records of his own land. So we have now thousands of the tablets which he gathered, inscribed with all kinds of ancient literature, and nearly all our knowledge of the old stories of Babylonia and the days when the world was young has come in the first instance from the bookshelves of this Assyrian king.