The Ancient Orient

View the scanned original illustrations

HERE, between the two old rivers which empty into the burning sea after crossing the solitudes, there is no longer anything more than formless hillocks, choked canals, and a few poor villages. The sand has covered up everything. Doubtless it is not much deeper above the Chaldean palaces which have disappeared than around the temples of the Nile which are still visible at its surface; and the Greeks must have exaggerated when they assigned two hundred thousand years of antiquity to Babylonian civilization. But the material of the walls was less hard and their abandonment by men more complete. And what, then, does it matter? The true cradle of the human soul is wherever we can recognize the face of out earliest aspiration. 

And yet how mobile this face is! There it glows with the light of an undying hearth of contemplative aspirations, here we see concentrated the rigorous will to attain the visible and practical purpose and not to go beyond it. The statues, which the dunes covered in the ruins of Tello, bear witness to a mind infinitely more positive, if not more sure of itself, than ever the Egyptian mind was, even at the time of the "Seated Scribe," their contemporary by a margin of a few centuries; and in the old Orient centuries count no more than years. Egypt had probably built the Pyramids by then, and had given the Sphinx's visage to a rock; the next age was to plunge her still deeper into mystery and turn her gaze inward more and more. The statues of Tello are neither gods nor symbols; they have nothing mysterious about them but their antiquity and that silence which haunts the old stones found amid the relics of life beneath the ground. Here is the image of a builder-prince, a rule across his knees. As in Egypt, it is true, these decapitated bodies are stiff; rigid planes cut them into rectangular figures, and the limbs remain at rest; but the shoulders have a terrible squareness, and the hands, instead of reposing on the thighs in the abandon of thought, are joined and strongly clasped, as if to indicate the articulation of the bones, the moving relief of the muscles, the folds and the rough grain of the skin. Two heads found near them have the same energy. One would think they were natural rocks that had been rolled by the waters, such is their compactness, their coherence, their sustained roundness.

In facial feature primitive Mesopotamia was, however, the sister of the plain of the Nile. The Tigris and the Euphrates, whose alluvial deposits nourish Mesopotamia, penetrate the country through hundreds of canals which cross one another around the cultivated fields. Covered with palm trees and date trees, with fields of wheat and barley, always at its harvest time, always at its seed time, Mesopotamia was the Eden of the Biblical legends, the granary of western Asia, to which its caravans and its rivers brought fruits and bread. By way of the Persian Gulf it launched its fleets on the sea. But renewing its strength from the tribes which descended from the high plateaus, communicating by its rivers connected with the oceans of the south, with Armenia and with Syria which bounds the European Sea, surrounded by more advanced and more accessible peoples, it remained less shut in than Egypt, and did not, like the latter, consume itself at its own flame. To the east it made fecund the Medo-Persian Empires, and through them penetrated into India and even into China. To the north it extended itself through Assyria until the dawn of the modern civilizations. To the west it awakened Phoenicia, which opened the route from Mesopotamia to the valley of the Nile and to the world of the archipelago.

Finally, the Chaldean theocracy probably adhered more closely to primitive instincts than the priestly caste did that governed the people of the Nile. It was in Chaldea that astronomy was born, to which her engineers of hydraulics and her architects added the unerring instruments of geometry and mechanics. It was during her brilliant nights, when the earth prolongs its glow, which is due to the cloudless sky and the flatness of the land, that the shepherds of the earliest times, as well as those who came later to seek the coolness of the upper terraces, had observed in the clear sky the turning of the constellations. The positivistic education of the Egyptians aimed at more material needs and, because of this, left untouched the source of the great moral intuitions to which the people turned for a consolation, and which the Chaldean people, less harshly governed, interpreted in terms of navigation and trade, while the king-priests of Babylon interpreted it in the higher serenity which comes with the contemplation of the movements of the heavenly bodies.

Before the time of those powerful statues, which seem to foretell the end of this people's evolution and which are certainly the final flower of a culture centuries old, Chaldean art is almost an entire mystery. Its baked clay, less hard than the granite of the valley of the Nile or the marble of Pentelicus, has turned to dust; nothing is left but some sunken foundations. Only stone, which is scarce in Mesopotamia, can resist under the tide of earth that gnaws and corrodes like water and ends by reclaiming everything. From Assyro-Chaldean positivism to Egyptian idealism we find the distance which separates the consistency of baked clay from that of granite. Between the soil of the country and the intelligence of men, there have always been such close analogies which we find are logical and necessary as soon as we understand that the mind invents nothing—discovers everything. We see, therefore, that a material which endures ought to give it the idea of permanence, and that a material which crumbles should give it the idea of fragility and of the practical utilization of the instruments it can furnish. Thus, also, a sky whose mathematical revolutions have been scrutinized gives the idea of consecrating the precise means which it offers for mapping it out.

And so has disappeared the very skeleton of those monstrous cities which sheltered the most active peoples of the ancient world, and the most practical, in the modern sense of the word. Where Babylon rose there is nothing but palm groves on some vestiges of city walls, around which the sand heaps up. None the less, on the two banks of the Euphrates, Babylon encircled its multitudes in a belt of walls twenty-five leagues in length, ninety feet in thickness, bristling with two hundred and fifty towers and studded with gates of bronze. Built of bricks and bitumen, with its city walls, palaces, temples, houses, street pavements, the banks of its canals, its reservoirs, the bridges and quays of the river—uniform, dull, and reddish in color, here and there touched with enamel, the city of Semiramis lifted toward the heavens its monotonous buildings, almost solid blocks with gardens on their terraces, thus resembling the Iranian foothills, which are bare as far up as the cool plateaus, where forests and flowers grow. Above these artificial woods were towers, made up of stages built one upon the other. The plains call for gigantic constructions from which they can be surveyed from afar and commanded, and which shall be infinite like themselves.

The tower of Babel was never to be finished and, as if to explore the ocean of the stars from nearer by, the temple of Baal rose to a height of two hundred meters. The tower of Babel is now a formless hill which the desert is absorbing little by little. Apart from the seals of hard stone which continued to be produced during the whole civilization of Nineveh, there is perhaps no longer much that is solid under the sand, and it is possible that Chaldea has nothing more to reveal to us. The sand still gives up, at times, one of those cuneiform inscriptions which are the most ancient writing known, and by which the Chaldeans wrote their legal documents, their acts of purchase and of sale, the great events of their history, the recital of the deluge—history and legend intermingled. The few bas-reliefs of Tello must have been an exception in the industry of the time. The desert is too bare to inspire in man the desire for multiple forms and luxuriant decoration. It needs, rather, the outer life of the Assyrians with their wars and hunts, to bring about a more prolonged contact with living forms. But it brings about nothing which is not strongly indicated in the bas-relief of Tello, where vultures carry off in their claws and tear with their beaks strips of human bodies, and in the dense black statues with prominent muscles.

No comments: