The Ancient Orient (part III)

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On the horizon of the ancient world this disciplined force was rising slowly. The peoples who received from Assyria the heritage of our conquests and who already had taken over from Iranian husbandry its cult of bread and the plow, the worship of fire, the central force of civilized life, the first philosophic notions of good and evil, which Ormuzd and Ahriman personified—the people of the mountains of the East were entering history with an ideal less harsh. Masters of the high plateaus, the Medes, after long struggles, had overturned the empire of the rivers, to spread over Asia Minor. Then Cyrus had given the hegemony to the Persians, and soon all western Asia, from the Persian Gulf to the Euxine Sea, Syria, Egypt, Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and the banks of the Indus obeyed his successors. Only the breasts of the Greeks could stop the wave at Marathon. But this incessant binding together of men and ideas had done its work. If the armies of the King of Kings remained subject to the frightful discipline which they inherited from the Sars of Assyria, political Persia at least left to the countries it had just conquered the liberty to live about as they pleased. The enormous Medo-Persian Empire became a kind of federal monarchy whose component states, under the direction of the satraps, kept their customs and their laws. The atmosphere of the Oriental world became more tolerable, as was the case in the Occident when Rome had conquered it entirely. Men cultivated their fields and exchanged their merchandise and ideas in comparative peace. The attempt at a first synthesis, even, was about to be made among the peoples of the Levant.

That attempt would hardly produce a final result either in Egypt or in Greece. Egypt, fatigued by forty or sixty centuries of effort, was being swallowed up under the deposits of the river. Greece was too young and too much alive not to extract a personal ideal of victory from all the elements that the ancient world intrusted to her. As to the people of Syria, they had already failed in various attempts which they had made. The Phoenicians lived only for trade. They were forever on the sea, or on the search for unknown coasts, possessed with a fever for wandering which was fed by their mercantile nature. Mingling with the Mediterranean peoples whom they flooded with their products—textiles, vases, glassware, wrought metals, trinkets, statuettes hastily imitated from all the original nations for whom they were the agents and intermediaries—they had not the time to question their hearts. They were satisfied to serve as a means of exchange for the ideas of others and to bequeath to the world the alphabet, a positivist invention which the extent and complication of their commercial writings rendered necessary. Cyprus, the eternally servile, subjected to their influence, combined fallen Assyria with nascent Greece in heavy and doughlike forms wherein the force of the one and the intelligence of the other were reciprocally hurtful in the attempt to unite them. As to the Hittites, caught between the Egyptians and the Assyrians and pushed into northern Syria, they were never sufficiently masters of themselves to seek in the outer world any justification of their desire to cut stone into those rude bas-reliefs on which remains the moral imprint of the conqueror.

The Semites, through the gravity and the vigor of their history, might have had the ambition to pick up the instrument of human education which Assyria was letting fall—the more so since they had absorbed, by peaceful conquest, the populations of Mesopotamia, and since their race dominated from Iran to the sea. But their religion repudiated the cult of images. Their whole effort was employed in raising a single edifice, the house of a terrible and solitary god. And that effort did not produce a final result. The Temple of Solomon was not worthy of that Jewish genius, so grandly synthetical, but closed and jealous, which wrote the poem of Genesis, and whose voice of iron has traversed the ages.

Persia alone, mistress of the hearths of Oriental civilization, could—by concentrating for a final leap the weakening energies of the peoples she had conquered—attempt a resume of the soul of antiquity, in the course of the two hundred years which separated her appearance in the world and the Macedonian conquest. Egypt, Assyria, and Greece—she assimilated the qualities of all. For two centuries she represented the Oriental spirit declining in face of the Occidental spirit which was issuing from the shadow. She had even the exceptional destiny not to disappear entirely from history and to show to changing Europe—now very civilized, now very barbarous—a genius sufficiently supple to welcome, in their turn, the ideas of the Hellenic world, the Latin world, the Arab world, the world of the Hindoos and of the Tartars; and yet her genius was sufficiently independent to emancipate her from their material domination.

If we refer to the testimony of her most ancient monuments, of the period when she was trying to disengage a freer and less tense spirit from the force of Assyria, we perceive quickly that the archers of her processions are not so cruel, that the beasts –whose throats are cut are not so fearful, that the monsters which guard the gates or support the architraves have a less brutal look. The hieratic spirit of conquered Egypt and especially the harmonious intelligence of the lonians of the coasts and islands who were called in by Darius give to these feasts of death a character of decoration and pageantry which masks their ferocity. The genius of Greece, which was then ripening, could not endure an original form of art subsisting at its side. And as it could not prevent Persia from speaking, it denatured her words in translating them. It is not even necessary to see the Assyrian monsters before looking at the figures of Susa in order to realize that the latter have but little life, that they are heraldic in their silhouette and rather bombastic in style. The Sassanian kings, their prisoners, and the great military scenes cut in the rock at several places in the mountain chain which borders the Iranian plains and dominates the region of the rivers, have a far more grand and redoubtable appearance, despite the discernible evidence that Persia continued to borrow from the peoples with whom she fought—the Romans after the Greeks and Assyrians. Asia alone and Egypt have possessed the unshakable and gigantic faith that is needed to stamp the form of our sentiments and of our acts on these terrible natural walls against which the sun crushes men, or to spend three or four centuries in penetrating the bowels of the earth in order to deposit in its shade the seed of our mind.

Amid these sculptured mountains we find the ruins of the great terraced palaces to which giant staircases lead and for the building of which Ninevite architects had certainly come; and we are astonished that Greek genius, which in the same centuries was building its small and pure temples, could have made itself pliable to the point of marrying without effort its own grace and this brutal display of pomp and sensuality, before which the serenity of the Egyptian genius bowed ever as did the violence of the Assyrian genius. It was, however, Ionian Greece that gave the elegance and the upward thrust to the long columns of the porticos, as she also draped the archers and gave architectural style to the lions. It was Egypt that loaded their bases and necks with strong wreaths of plants—lotus and fat leaves that grow in the tepid water of the rivers. It was Assyria that crowned them with broad bulls affixed by the middle of the body to support the beams on which the entablature was to be placed. And the palaces of Nineveh seemed to have piled up here their chiseled furniture with its incrustation of gold, silver, and copper, their cloths heavy with precious stones and those thick deep carpets, changeable in color and shaded like the harvests of the earth, opulent and vague like the Oriental soul—the carpets which Persia had not ceased to manufacture. But the decoration of the royal dwellings of Persepolis and of Susa is less loaded, less barbarous, and betokens a more refined industry and a mind that is humanizing. Enameled brick, with which the Assyrians, after the Chaldeans, had protected their walls against humidity, is lavished from the top to the bottom of the edifice, on the exterior, under the porticos, and in the apartments. The palace of the Achemenides is no longer the impenetrable fortress of the Sars of the north. Still imposing by its rectangular heaviness, it is lightened by its columns, which have the freshness of stalks swelling with water; it is flowered with green, blue, and yellow, brilliant as lacquer in the sunlight, and reflecting the glow of the lamps. Enamel is the glory of the Orient. It is still enamel which reflects the burning days and the nights of tawny pearl in the cupolas and the minarets of the mysterious cities sunk under the black cypresses and the roses.

When Alexander reached the threshold of these palaces, dragging behind his war chariots all the old vanquished peoples, he was like the incarnate symbol of the ancient civilizations wandering in search of their dispersed energy. His dream of universal empire was to endure a shorter time than that of Cambyses and his successors. Union is to be realized only when willed by a common faith and when it tends toward one goal. Egypt, Chaldea, and Assyria, exhausted by their gigantic production, were nearing the end of their last winter. The Jews, in their inner solitude, were marching toward a horizon that no one perceived. Rome was too young to impose on the Orient, now grown old, that artificial harmony which, three centuries later, gave it the illusion of a halt in its lethargic death struggle. Greece, in her skepticism, smiled at her own image. Meanwhile, the Macedonian was pretending to the position of armed apostle of her thought, and the whole ancient world was under her moral ascendancy. Despite all, in that immense floating mass of civilizing energies which hesitated about their departure for a more distant Occident, it was still Greece that represented, in the face of the confused reawakening of brutal and mystical powers, the young ideal of reason and liberty.

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