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Chapter 2
This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A History of Armenia

by Vahan M. Kurkjian

published by the
Armenian General Benevolent Union of America

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 4

 p14  Chapter III
The Neighbors of Armenia

The Sumero-Akkadians

The Chaldeo-Elamite region had, like Egypt, been a seat of prehistoric civilization and of power­ful states. Around 3500 B.C., Chaldea appears to have been already divided into two regions, that of the Sumerian race and language and that of the Semitic. The language of the former was spoken in southern Chaldean cities such as Ur, Lagash and others. The race was characterized by a round, brachycephalic skull and an eagle-beaked nose, the face and head being shaven. The Chaldean cuneiform writing may have been created for the Sumerian language. The Akkadian language, spoken in northern Chaldean cities such as Kish, Agade and Babylon, was Semitic. The profiles of the people of that area exhibited a straight nose, somewhat enlarged at its lower extremity. They were long-haired and bearded.

At the dawn of history, the civilization of these sectors was commingling, making it difficult to differentiate the two elements. The Elamites, however, retained their distinctive character. Their capital, Susa (Biblical Shushan), whose origin was far back in prehistory, steadily maintained during the fourth and third millenaries B.C., its conformity with the oldest Sumerian civilization.


Every Chaldean city, whether Semitic or Sumerian, had as its prince or Patesi a grand priest of the local deity. Anu was the god of Heaven, Enlil of the destructive elements, Adad of the benevolent elements, Ea of the waters. Sin was the moon-god, Shamash the sun, Marduk the planet Jupiter, Ishtar a goddess of fecundity and of war, and so on. Astrology played a preponderant role in  p15 Chaldean society. Temple-observations of massive brick construction, generally pyramidal, in seven tiers or steps, were erected for the study of the course of the stars.

Commercial and Cultural Center

The fertility of the soil of Chaldea explains the wealth of the country. Irrigation canals made Chaldea a great garden, an earthly near-paradise. Agricultural prosperity brought forth industry. No other people was more inventive, especially in the arts of luxury. Their artisans produced stuffs in gorgeous colors, magnificent rugs and furniture, gold and silver articles. Their merchants transported these products by way of the Euphrates and across the desert to Armenia, Cappadocia and Syria, carrying with them also the Chaldean cuneiform writing. From the fourth to the third century B.C., their culture played almost the same role that Hellenism did in the Graeco-Roman period. Correspondence among the Mitanni, Hittite and Egyptian rulers was carried on, as clay tablets testify.

The oldest traces of this civilization, dating from 3200 to 2800 B.C., were discovered in Ur (Tell el Mugayir) by the American-British mission of Hall and Woolley. The objects found consisted of alabaster vases, jewelry (hand ornaments of Queen Shubad), statues (bull's head in gold with beard of lapis lazuli), mosaics (royal banquet with animals in tribute), reliefs on limestone (chariots drawn by asses). A form of heraldic art was established, with figures facing each other, which was transmitted to the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians and other peoples. At Tello (Lagash), cylindrical signets have been unearthed with similar representations, inspired by the Gilgamesh epic. Among them are types of monsters, such as the two-headed eagle, the winged dragon, and the Kherubim, a bull with human head.

The Babylonians

The last Sumerian empire, that of Ur, was overthrown in 235 B.C. by the Elamites from the East and the Amorites from the West. The Elamites founded a dynasty in Southern Chaldea, while the Amorites, a Semitic people from Syria, dominated the North, with Babylon as their center. One of their kings, Hammurabi (2123‑2081), put an end to the Elamite dynasty of the South and founded the Babylonian Empire. The Amorites, whatever their racial origin may have been, made Semitism predominant in Chaldea. Hammurabi's  p16 reign became a continuation of the dynasty of the ancient Agade — the principal Semite land of Akkad, whose kings, Sharrukin (the ancient Sargon) and Naram-Su, subjugated all Mesopotamia. Hammurabi left to us a famous Code of Laws, engraved on a diorite (granite) stele, now in the Louvre. In the domain of literature, the Amorite period is said to have almost the same importance that the epoch of Pisitratus had for the preservation of Homeric literature. In this epoch appeared the first Semitic revision of the epic of Gilgamesh, a sort of Sumerian Hercules, son of a goddess, but a target for the wrath of another goddess Ishtar, whose love he spurned. To the same epoch also belongs the Chaldean story of the Creation and the Deluge, power­ful works which have the tone of the book of Genesis. We are reminded by it of the sorrow­ful lyricism of the Psalms in the Chaldean litanies and in the Poem of the Suffering Just, so like to the Book of Job. This misery of man before a vengeful God, these pathetic appeals, the moral problem involved in them all, and the images of the ancient theogony, all show the affiliation of the Chaldean to the Biblical genus. Thus, the Chaldean thought, a humanism of the Orient of remotest antiquity, exercised a capital influence on the intellectual evolution of neighboring races. Likewise, Chaldean motifs inspired for many centuries the monumental art of new nations — Hittites, Assyrians, Achaemenid and Sassanid Persians.

The Assyrians

The classical epoch of Assyria is predominantly Semite, despite the fact that ethnically, it comprises other elements also — Sumerian, Mitannian, etc. The Assyrian became a power­ful military race, stronger than its cousin of Babylon. "A thick-set, muscular body, aquiline nose with fleshy nostrils, thick lips, large, bright eyes — this is how the Assyrian looks on their bas-reliefs." Harsh in war, sensual and pompous after victory, cruel to the vanquished, thus do their inscriptions reveal them to us. From the very beginning of their history about the 13th century B.C., they were a permanent military machine. The first kings of Assyria became the grand-priests of two national deities, Assur and Ishtar, the planet Venus. The Assyrian monarchy, however, never did assume a religious character, like that of Egypt. After a short period of eclipse, it conquered Damascus (732) and Babylon (728). Sargon II (722‑705 B.C.), who built the palace of Khorsabad, destroyed the kingdoms of Israel  p17 and Urartu. The great king Esarhaddon (680‑668) subjugated Egypt. After the destruction of Elam in 646, Assyria remained master of the Near East, from Iran to Cappadocia, from Ararat and the Caspian Sea to Egypt and the Persian Gulf. Its capital, Nineveh, became the capital of the world.

Assyrian cruelty united opposition

The Assyrians have been severely judged for their cruelty, which, however, unintentionally served the cause of civilization. Through blood and terror, this imperial race eventually united all the East nations under one yoke; through devastation and death it established peace from Ararat to the Nile. The short and frightful Pax Sargonide, so it is said, heralded the benevolent Pax Achaemenide. The vast political union which the Sargonidae had brought into being was not to disappear entirely. The empire which the Chaldeans, the Achaemenids, the Macedonians, the Sassanids and the Arabs, one after the other, inherited, was destined to preserve until modern times the stamp of the material civilizations of Nineveh and Babylon.

The Chaldeo-Assyrian civilization already contained almost the entire Arabo-Persian civilization in the bud. The Sargonid court, with its gorgeous embellishment, its brutality, its mixture of indolence and ferocious energy, was in itself an epitome of the Orient. The king was an army chief, not a god, as in Egypt. "The King of Legions, the great King, the power­ful King, the King of the people of Assur" spent half his life on horseback or in his chariot, hunting or fighting. His people threw the lance and the arrow as their soldiers did, and then, in the hour of hallali, with their own hands flayed their prisoners alive, impaled them, gouged out their eyes.

The apotheosis of the Ninevite deities, associated with the Sargonid triumphs, was the apotheosis of the very race itself. Their victory over the gods of Egypt, of Judea and Urartu, became a symbol of Assyrian hegemony in the world. The temple dominated the palace; it was the ziggurat, a square tower of seven stories, each story set back from the preceding one, each one consecrated to a star. On the top of the highest level was the chapel of the divinity, Assur, the eponym of the race or Ishtar, the lady of Arbeles. Here the Sargonid kings, surrounded by their diviners and astrologers, came before their departure for hunting or war, to receive the counsel of the all-powerful gods.

 p18  High culture

This ferocious people was, paradoxically enough, also a highly cultivated one. Well versed in Babylonian literature, they gathered from it and transmitted to us its priceless heritage. Assurbanipal (669‑626 B.C.), their last king, collected in Nineveh an enormous library, thousands of tablets of which have been recovered and placed in the British Museum. Through it, the scientific and literary knowledge of those days, the Chaldean legends and the royal Assyrian inscriptions have reached us. The recital of the achievements of Assur-Nazir‑Apal II is an impressive example. "I killed one in every two," says he. "I erected a wall in front of the great gate of the city. I flayed the chiefs and covered this wall with their skins. Some of them were walled in alive in the masonry; others were impaled along the wall. I flayed a great number of them in my presence, and I clothed the wall with their skins. I collected their heads in the form of crowns, and their corpses I pierced in the shape of garlands. . . . My figure blooms on the ruins; in the glutting of my rage I find my content."

Assyrian art illustrates these texts. The painted bas-reliefs of Nineveh and Khorsabad may be regarded as a royal record, told through stone fresco paintings.º Furthermore, Chaldean and Assyrian art was also derived from the Hittite. The Hittites imparted to the Assyrians the idea of decorating the plinth — the square base of their columns — with mythological or historical cavalcades.

Hunting scenes and those of war are parts of such decorations. In the representation of the lion, the Assyrians are considered supreme. Multifarious other pictures represent winged bulls, eagles, and aquiform monsters. Old themes like those of the Sumero-Akkadian cylinders, developed by the Hittites, were recovered by the Assyrians and transmitted to Iran. Assyrian civilization penetrated also into Urartu and to other "Alarodian" peoples in the direction of the Caucasus. It was a seed which gradually germinated in Transcaucasia, in southern Russia and the Altaic regions.

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Page updated: 10 Dec 04