Notebook, 1993-

Manual of Oriental Antiquities - Babelon, Ernest. Librarian of the Department of Medals and Antiques in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. Manual of Oriental Antiquities, including the Architecture, Sculpture, and Industrial Arts of Chaldæ, Assyria, Persia, Syria, Judæ, Phœnicia, and Carthage. London: H. Grevel and Co. 1906.

The Chaldæn -- Assyria -- Elamites (Archeological Discoveries at Souza) -- The Phœnicians & The Cypriots -- The Hittites

Chaldæn Art

The extensive region of Western Asia to which the Greeks gave the name of Mesopotamia was already, at the period which lies farthest back among the memories of mankind, the centre of a mighty civilization rivaling that of Egypt, and disputing with the latter the glory of having formed the cradle of the arts in the ancient East.

Babylon and Nineveh were by turns, according to the course of political events, the intellectual hearth at which the bold and original genius was kindled, which marks the artistic productions of Chaldæ and Assyria, and the reflection of which is shown in the monuments of Persia, Judæ, Phœnicia, and Carthage, the island of Cyprus, and the Hittite races. Yet it is neither in the capital of Chaldæ nor in that of Assyria that the oldest traces have hitherto been found of this great civilization, extinct now for twenty-four centuries; it is not among the ruins of these famous cities that we can hear, as it were, an echo of the first wailings of the genius of plastic art, observe its groping efforts, touch with our finger its rudest attempts. In the country, formerly so fertile, called Lower Chaldæ, where, according to [p. 1] the popular tradition preserved by Berosus, the fish-god Oannes taught men in the beginning "all that serves to soften life," the traveler comes almost at every step, upon artificial mounds known as tells, concealing under a veil of dust the remains of cities which yield in point of antiquity neither to Babylon nor Nineveh; and it is there that modern arch¾ologists have had the good fortune to disinter ruins far more ancient than those of the palaces of Sargon, Assurbúnipal, or Nebuchadnezzar. Though a number of tumuli remain unexplored, and, as we may conjecture, future excavations will afford much new matter for science, nevertheless a brilliant light has already been thrown by numerous and important discoveries on the oriental origin of art and on the degree of material culture reached by the nation which founded Babel and the other Chaldæn towns of Genesis. The ruins of Abu Habbah, identified with the two Sipparas [Sepharvaim, that of the god Samas and that of the goddess Anunit], have yielded to our curiosity several monuments of the highest interest; those of Abu Shahrein [Eridu], Senkereh [Larsa], Mugheir [Ur, the native city of Abraham], the great necropolis of Warka [Uruk, the Erech of the Bible], are sites which have all furnished already an important harvest of remains belonging to the most distant ages, incomplete as their exploration has been. But the extensive and methodical excavations undertaken from 1877 to 1881 by M. E. de Sarzec at Tello [Tell Loh] have enriched the Louvre with a collection of monuments unique in the museums of Europe, and enable us to give, at the present time, an exact and precise account of the [p. 2] character of Chaldæn architecture and sculpture long before Nineveh and Babylon had succeeded in imposing their supremacy upon these regions. Tello, fifteen hours north of Mugheir, twelve hours east of Warka, seems to represent the ancient Sirpurla. [The authority of a syllabary and a bilingual text enables us to correct the pronunciation of this name to Lagas. See Pinches in Babylonian and Oriental Record, vol. iii, p. 24. (Translator's note.)] Its ruins, which cover a space of four miles and a quarter, consist of a series of mounds at a short distance from the course of an ancient canal dug by the hand of man, the Shatt el Hai, which starts from the Euphrates and flows into the Tigris twelve hours below Bagdad. The principal tell contained the substructures of a palace which was, two or three thousand years before our era, the dwelling of a prince named, according to Assyriologists, Gudea. Hither we must especially transport ourselves, as well as to the mounds of Mugheir, Warka, and Abu Shahrein, where the English explorers Loftus and Taylor made some excavations with good results. The narrative of these excavations and the monuments which they have yielded to our museums, will help us to determine the peculiar features of an essentially self-made art, born spontaneously on the soil where it flourished, and apparently in no degree borrowed from its neighbours. [p. 3]

One of the fundamental characters of Chaldæo-Assyrian architecture is the exclusive use of bricks as the constructive material. This is required by the very nature of the soil of Mesopotamia, in which [p. 3] building-stone and wood suitable for carpenters' work are entirely wanting, while the clay is thick, adhesive, and peculiarly adapted for fashioning in the mould and baking in the kiln. Accordingly, while the modern inhabitants of the country continue to make bricks, their manufacture is already recorded in the biblical reminiscences of the Tower of Babel: "Go to," say the men who would build a tower that should reach to Heaven, "let us make brick and burn them thoroughly: and they had brick for stone and slime had they for mortar." [Genesis xi. 3.] The prophet Nahum informs us of the method of brick-making: "Draw thee waters," he says, ". . . go into clay, and tread the mortar, make strong the brick-kiln." [Nahum iii. 14.] There were two kinds of bricks. The unbaked brick is a square or whitish clay, mixed with fine straw and simply dried in the sun when it comes out of the mould; it was generally from 8 in. to 1 ft. square by 4 in. thick. The month in which the heat of simmer first becomes intolerable in these regions, namely the month of Sivan [May-June] was called "the brick month," or that in which the clay cakes were submitted to the action of the sun. To judge by what is done in Egypt at the present day, one workman could by himself make from one thousand to fifteen hundred bricks a day. The baked brick was subjected to the action of fire in proper kilns, like those of our modern brickyards; it acquired, through the baking, a reddish colour, and was less sensible than the crude brick to the decomposing action of damp; it was also more limited in its dimensions, in order that the heat might penetrate the internal substance of the mass, [p. 4] without danger of calcination on the surface. On one side of every brick, baked or unbaked, the name and official titles of the reigning prince were stamped by means of a matrix or a die used as a seal; thus, at Tello most of the bricks were marked with the name of Gudea, and at Babylon bricks of Nebuchadnezzar are found by hundreds of thousands. . . . [p. 5]

The old sanctuaries of primitive Chaldæ, E-saggil, E-zida, the Temple of the Great Light, E-parra, E-anna, [p. 6] E-ulbar, and others consecrated to Sin, to Samas, to Nana, to Bel Marduk, to Nebo, are restored at great expense by Nabonidus, the last King of Babylon, who sets himself the task of recalling in his inscriptions the material difficulties of this work worthy of a pious antiquarian. Let no one be surprised after this at the striking contrast between the ruins of Mesopotamia, and those of Egypt as we now see them. In the valley of the Nile building-stone abounds, and the architect has only to make his choice among the various qualities of material. Accordingly he hews out gigantic monoliths, erects imposingly majestic pylons, rears to an aerial height forests of pillars which seem to uphold the sky, plants in the middle of the desert those massive Pyramids which will defy to the end of time even the most determined of vandals. On the banks of the Tigris and Euphrates, on the contrary, there is now nothing but the uniform plain of the desert, broken here and there by mounds of débris covered with sand; here it may be said with truth that the very ruins have perished. Only in thought can the archaeologists reconstruct vast buildings in accordance with the vast materials buried in disorder in the mud. The use of bricks in building has been, to a greater extent than political events, the auxiliary of Jehovah's wrath against Nineveh and Babylon.

If the nature of the soil forced the Mesopotamian architect to build with bricks, the neighbourhood of rivers and canals for irrigation and the want of outlet for the water obliged him at the same time to have recourse to an expedient peculiar to Chaldæo-Assyrian architecture. He had to raise the actual dwelling on [p. 7] an artificial terrace removed from the level of a soil impregnated with unwholesome damp. This platform or basement of unbaked brick on which the building was placed is met with everywhere, not only at Nineveh and Babylon, but from the beginning in the substructures of Mugheir, Tello, Warka, and Abu Shahrein. In the palace of the patesi Gudea, the mass forms a sort of immense pedestal 39 ft. high, and nearly 655 ft. at the base; at the present day the sides form in relation to the plain a slope of 164 ft. Formerly the platform was mounted by a gentle slope intended for horses and chariots, and by one or more flights of steps which broke the outline of the terrace. The stone staircases by which the terraces of the palaces of Persepolis is ascended, are still in place; in Chaldæ and Assyria, where they were built of brick, they have almost everywhere disappeared. However, Taylor discovered two on the side of the platform of the palace of Abu Shahrein; one has only twelve steps 2 ft. broad; but the other was a monumental staircase of stone, 16 ft. broad, with a slope of more than 65 ft.

The edifice which surmounts the platform at Tello is of bricks cemented together with bitumen; its exterior walls are 5 ft. '10 in. thick, and form a parallelogram 173 ft. long and 101 ft. broad. Like the palaces of Warka and Mugheir, its orientation is according to the Assyrian custom--that is to say, the angles are turned towards the cardinal points, not the sides as in the Egyptian monuments. The two longer sides bulge slightly towards the middle, thus describing two opposite elliptical curves--a peculiarity which gives to the plan of the edifice something of the appearance of [p. 9] a barrel, or of two trapeziums joined at the base. The outer surface of the walls is not everywhere uniform and flat; the adjacent sides of the northern angle are ornamented by projections alternately curved and rectilineal--a system of decoration which has also been observed at Warka, among the ruins of the temple called Wuswas, and is found later in the Assyrian monuments. The great north-eastern façade exhibits in the middle, besides the outward swell of which we have spoken, a projection 3 ft. 3 in. thick and 18 ft. long. The wings of this projection are formed of square pilasters and half-columns 1 ft. 7 i n. in diameter, which recall the clustered pillars of our cathedrals, and form one of the most interesting peculiarities of the primitive architecture of Chaldæ. . . . [p. 9]

Let us now penetrate into the interior of the Chaldæn edifice, of which the blind and dumb walls leave in our imagination an impression of gloom and cold uniformity. The walls seem never to have exhibited the smallest architectural decoration; they are entirely bare, and only characterized from time to time by depressions and projections; no traces of mouldings, of plinths, of cornices, and of those devices to which the architects of all countries have recourse in order to break the lines of the walls, and to call forth effects of light and shade. It must be supposed that the interior decoration of the palace consisted entirely of colouring and hanging draperies. The thickness of the wall varies from 8 ft. 6 i n. to 2 ft. 7 in. All the partitions cut one another at right angles, forming thirty-six square or rectangular chambers; the largest measures 39 ft. 4 in. by 12 ft. 3 in., and the smallest 10 ft. 11 in. by 9 ft. 9 in . . . . . [p. 13]

All the rooms were paved with bricks; they very rarely led into one another, and had an opening looking onto the court. The largest of the doorways, that which opened into the state saloon, was of the unusual breadth of 6 ft. 6 in.; it was probably a folding door. Under each of the principal doors there was a great threshold of marble or alabaster, sometimes covered with an inscription and placed on a bed of bitumen and crushed bricks; under this concrete, finally, cylinders of precious stone and talismanic amulets were generally found. . . . . p. 17]

The discoveries of Loftus and Taylor show us how the façades and the rooms of the Chaldæn palaces were decorated. The principal façade of the buildings at bu Shahrein and Warka had a mural decoration of a kind as primitive as it was singular. [Loftus, Travels and Researches, pp. 187-189.] First it was plastered with a thick layer of clay stucco; then, before this plaster was completely dry, cones of baked clay were buried in it, like metal nails. Only the head of these cones is visible on the surface of the wall, while the stem is plunged into the thick clay and sticks there unseen. To the heads of these cones, disposed at regular distances, and acting perhaps also as talismans, [p. 18] various colours are applied; they are black, red, white, or yellow. Moreover, each head is separated from its neighbours by coloured geometrical lines, so that it became to the eye the centre of a lozenge or a square.

If the interior of the rooms was lined in monochrome with white stucco, or with fresco painting, nothing of this decoration is left. But we have in sufficiently large quantities, although always much mutilated, the remains of another more original system of wall decoration, of which the Chaldæns are the inventors--that is to say, enameled bricks. By applying a coloured paste, which the fire would vitrify, to one of the surfaces of the bricks before baking, a glaze or enamel was produced, closely united to the clay and immovably solid. It was again necessity and their ungrateful climate which induced the Chaldæns to have recourse to this ingenious method. They were in great need of a remedy for the want of stone and a means of preventing the heavy rains from spoiling the colours applied to the walls. They succeeded so perfectly in this that even at the present day the brilliancy of these glazed tiles is not affected. The colours with which they are painted are of the simplest, and vary little; they are blue, white, black, yellow and red. Unfortunately, those fine fragments which have been brought to our museums are only so far interesting that they teach us the technical methods of a manufacture which involves that of opaque glass; even those which are least mutilated contain at the most a few floral designs or portions of the figures of animals, and moreover these last are not older than the epoch of Nebuchadnezzar. . . . [p. 19]

The construction of a temple or palace was the occasion of a religious ceremony analogous to that which we call the laying of the first stone. In a hollow formed in the foundation-wall a cylinder of baked clay was deposited [fig. 8], on which an inscription was written describing the erection of the building and setting forth the piety and great deeds of the prince; this cylinder was accompanied by various talismanic objects: cones and statuettes of bronze and baked clay, cylindrical seals, votive tablets, sometimes of silver or gold. Among the foundations of the palace of Gudea, M. de Sarzec found four of these cavities in the wall measuring 1 ft. 1 in. by 10 in. by 4 in.; they still contained the cylinders and amulets deposited there.

Hiding-places of the same kind have been observed at Senkereh, at Mugheir, and among the ruins of almost all the Chaldæn and Assyrian buildings. The Assyrians themselves, when they wished to restore an old ruined temple, took pains first to find out the hiding-place of the foundation-cylinder or timmennu.

The last king of Babylon, Nabonidus, relates in one of the official inscriptions of his reign how he happened to find the timmennu of the earliest builders of the temple of the Sun at Larsa. King Kurigalzu [about B.C. 1350], and later Esarhaddon [B.C. 680-667], and [p. 21] Nebuchadnezzar himself, had repaired this venerated sanctuary, and sought vainly for the hiding place of the talismans. "Then I, Nabonidus, inspired by my piety towards the goddess Istar of Agade, my sovereign, caused an excavation to be made. The gods Samas and Rammanu granted me their constant favour, and I found the foundation-cylinder of the temple of E-Ulbar." It bore the name of the king Sagasaltias [about B.C. 1500]. After reading the inscription, Nabonidus restored it to its place and himself made another cylinder to record his researches and his own works; he deposited it in the foundation by the side of the ancient cylinder. Modern explorers, no doubt also favoured by Samas and Rammanu, found in a sufficiently good state of preservation the mysterious hiding-places and the precious objects which had been piously placed there 550 years before our era. [M. Babelon's statement that the cylinder of Sagasaltias was found by modern explorers with that of Nabonidus is unfortunately inaccurate. Only the records of Nabonidus were discovered. See Taylor, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. xv.] [p. 22]




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