A General History of the Middle East
Chapter 4: THE NEO-BABYLONIAN EMPIRE
627 to 539 B.C.
This chapter covers the following topics:
The Fall of Assyria
Ashur-etil-ilani (627-623), the son of Ashurbanipal, had to defeat his own brother, Sin-shar-ishkun, to hold the throne and crushed another revolt before his short reign ended; then the throne went to Sin-shar-ishkun anyway. Meanwhile, the political situation outside Assyria rapidly deteriorated. In the far south, deported Aramaeans, Neo-Hittites and Urartians, henceforth to be known as Chaldeans, were revolting on the shore of the Persian Gulf. The banner of revolt was raised by a Chaldean general named Nabopolassar in 627; on November 23, 626 he was crowned king in Babylon, thereby founding the last Babylonian dynasty. Six months earlier he had taken Uruk, so now he returned the Elamite gods to Susa, which the Assyrians had carried off to Uruk.
Nabopolassar was not the only new adversary the Assyrians had to face. In 625 Cyaxares (Uvakhshatra in cuneiform), the son of Khshathrita, gained freedom for the Medes by getting his Scythian masters drunk and slaughtering them at a banquet. The relationship between the Scythians and Medes was now reversed, with the Scythian tribes in the area of modern-day Azerbaijan becoming vassals of the Medes. Soon Cyaxares had a kingdom that stretched across northern Iran, from Lake Urmia to the region around modern Tehran, and indirectly dominated the Persians to the south. By reorganizing and modernizing his army, he gave the Median state power on the Assyrian scale. In the west the Phoenician cities seem to have severed their ties with Nineveh, and Assyrian rule was getting so weak that Judah's King Josiah could spread his religious reform to the Assyrian province of Samaria, the former kingdom of Israel.(1)
For the next decade it was a seesaw struggle, with most of the battles fought in the valley of the Euphrates, and the score tied. The balance started to tip against the Assyrians in 616, when Nabopolassar broke through Assyrian defenses, advanced up the Euphrates as far as Haran, then crossed over to the Tigris and marched on Assur, before the Assyrians turned him back. The same year saw the Medes thrust through the Zagros mts., defeat Ualli, the last king of the Mannaeans, and conquer his territory. That left only the Egyptians as a reliable ally of the Assyrians, so Sin-shar-ishkun called on them for help. The current pharaoh, Psammetich I, probably felt that if Assyria fell to the Babylonians, Egypt could become their next target, so he sent just enough troops to prevent a disaster on the Euphrates front.
Meanwhile in the west, Alyattes became king of Lydia in 617 B.C. The longest-reigning Lydian ruler (617-560 B.C.), he is considered to be the real founder of the Lydian empire, because he transformed it from a minor realm around Sardis into the dominant state in Anatolia. Early in his reign he eliminated Lydia's oldest menace, the Cimmerians. The date of this campaign is uncertain, but it drove back the Cimmerians so effectively that the survivors fled and joined up with the Scythian bands. Alyattes built a fort on the ruins of Gordium, the former Phrygian capital, and the Halys River became the eastern boundary of Lydia. On the other side of his kingdom, Alyattes first continued the war that his father started against Miletus, then ended it when both he and the Ionians agreed to a peace treaty. He also conquered Smyrna, which joined Colophon as Lydia's ports on the Aegean, and gained control over the Troad, the peninsula in the northwest where ancient Troy was located. Finally he challenged the Medes when they invaded eastern Anatolia; more about that later.
In 614 Cyaxares of Media made a feint at Nineveh, then suddenly turned south and captured Assur, Assyria's holy city. Nabopolassar arrived too late to take part in that action, but he hurried to meet Cyaxares under the ruined walls of Assur, and there they agreed to an alliance, sealed with a marriage between Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar II(2), and Cyaxares' daughter or granddaughter, Amytis. The following year saw Nabopolassar wage an unsuccessful campaign along the Euphrates, but the allies persuaded the Scythians to join the anti-Assyrian coalition, and with that, Assyria's fate was sealed. In 612 B.C. the Medes destroyed Calah, the former Assyrian capital, and all three of the allies fell upon Nineveh and burned it to the ground. Sin-shar-ishkun perished in the flames that consumed his palace.
"And he will stretch out his hand against the north, and destroy Assyria; and will make Nineveh a desolation, [and] dry like a wilderness.
In Syria, a brother of Ashurbanipal took what was left of the Assyrian army and crowned himself King Ashur-uballit II. Yet his days were numbered--in 610 the Medes approached his headquarters in Haran, and he abandoned the city to them. One year later he tried and failed to recover Haran; we don't hear from Ashur-uballit after 609, so he probably perished in that battle. On that note, the history of the Assyrians ended. Whereas people wrote lamentations for Ur and Jerusalem when those cities fell, nobody wrote one for Nineveh (Nahum 3:7). When Xenophon and his Ten Thousand Greek companions passed by the ruins of Nineveh in 400 B.C., the natives of the region had no idea who used to live there; they thought it was a former city of the Medes, and called the site Mespila. Likewise, when Alexander the Great's army camped beside the ruins, just before the battle of Gaugamela (see Chapter 6), they didn't know this was the capital of the greatest empire to exist before the Persian one.
Egypt's ruler, Psammetich I, died of old age at the same time, and was succeeded by Necho II. In 608 B.C. Necho marched north to support the Assyrians. King Josiah of Judah foolishly tried to stop Necho at Megiddo, and lost his life in the battle that followed. Still, Josiah's delaying action may have made a difference, because when the Egyptians arrived in northern Syria, the last Assyrian king was nowhere to be found. Consequently, Necho made the best of the situation by occupying everything west and south of Carchemish, before returning home. This was what he really wanted--the land that Egypt had ruled in the days of the XVIII and early XIX dynasties, and it looks like if Assyria survived, he would have turned it into a dependent buffer state protecting his realm.
However, Necho would have to fight to keep Carchemish and the Levant. This region was more important to the Babylonians than it had been to the Assyrians, since most of Babylon's commerce was now directed toward the west. The rise of new economic powers in that direction (Greece, Lydia, Carthage, Etruria and soon Rome) meant that the Mediterranean basin was now replacing the Fertile Crescent as the center of civilization. The kings of Babylon could leave Assyria in ruins, and let the Medes have anything they wanted north and east of the Tigris, but Babylon could not have its gateway to the Mediterranean blocked by the Egyptians. Furthermore, the easiest route for communication and commerce between Iraq and Anatolia ran through Syria, meaning that an Egyptian presence there would cut the empire off from Lydia and Ionia, too. We can thus see the conflict between Necho and Nebuchadnezzar, with the Jews caught in the middle of it, as a struggle to control the source of Babylon's prosperity.(3)
The Egyptian and Babylonian armies met at Carchemish in 605 B.C. The clay tablets we have from Babylon don't describe the battle in detail, simply saying that Nebuchadnezzar crossed the Euphrates to reach Carchemish, and smashed the Egyptian army there. Those Egyptians who survived fled to Hamath, in central Syria, where Nebuchadnezzar caught up with and annihilated the rest of them. Then he marched all the way to Pelusium, the nearest town of Egypt itself, only turning back when he heard news of a barbarian raid on Syria. A brief campaign in Cilicia took care of that problem, and then he quickly returned to Babylon. This was because Nabopolassar had abdicated the throne in favor of his son when he heard about the victory at Carchemish, and then died just a few months later. The changing of monarchs in an Oriental country is always very important, so other matters had to wait until the issues surrounding the throne were settled.
In 602 B.C. Nebuchadnezzar marched on Egypt but being overextended, he was forced to turn back after losing the first battle. One year later Necho returned to the Holy Land, capturing Gaza, passing through Philistia and advancing as far as Beth-Shan. Because it now looked like the Egyptians were going to win, Jehoiakim threw off the Babylonian yoke and announced he was on the side of Egypt. Sure enough, the Babylonians returned, bringing Aramaean, Ammonite and Moabite troops with them; they drove off the Egyptians first before they turned their attentions on Jerusalem. In 598 they captured the city, placed the Jewish prince of their choice on the throne (Zedekiah), and led 3,000 upper-class Jews into the famous "Babylonian Captivity"; the future prophets Ezekiel and Daniel were among them.(4)
Seven years later Zedekiah, offended by the cruelties of Babylon and seduced by more Egyptian promises, launched a second revolt against Babylon, and Nebuchadnezzar promptly sent another army to Jerusalem. An Egyptian army came to the rescue, and the Babylonians withdrew from Jerusalem to meet it.(5) From Judah's point of view, however, it was only a temporary reprieve; the Egyptians withdrew without a battle, as the prophet Jeremiah predicted (Jer. 37:7), and the Babylonians soon returned. After the siege of Jerusalem began, Zedekiah released Jeremiah--whom he had previously persecuted--from prison, in the hope that the prophet would give him an encouraging word. However, no miracle saved God's people this time. The siege went on for eighteen months, and food ran out, but the people would not submit. Finally, in the summer of 587 B.C., the siege engines breached the walls. Zedekiah tried to escape with the last defenders, but the victors caught up with them near Jericho. They brought Zedekiah before Nebuchadnezzar at his base camp in Riblah (a town in central Syria); there Zedekiah's children were slain, and that was the last thing he saw in his life. The unfortunate king was then blinded, bound in chains, and thrown into a Babylonian prison. Then came the rest of Nebuchadnezzar's final solution; the entire nation of Judah, except about 20,000 of its poorest citizens, followed their king into exile. Every building in Jerusalem, including the Temple, was turned into a heap of ruins--not one stone was left standing on another stone, as the Bible put it. The whole land was left a desolate waste, as an example for others to remember.
At first, Nebuchadnezzar appointed a loyal Jew named Gedaliah, the grandson of a priest from Josiah's time, to serve as governor. He set up his court at Mizpeh, a few miles north of Jerusalem, but two months later he was murdered by Ishmael, a surviving member of the royal family. Fearing another bloodbath when the Babylonians found out, several Jews fled to Egypt, taking an unwilling Jeremiah with them; they would found an important Jewish community on Elephantine, an island at the First Cataract of the Nile.
To the north, Tyre was also in revolt, but because it was on an offshore island, with a supply line from Carthage, it was safely out of the Babylonian war machine's reach (Babylon did not have a navy). Nebuchadnezzar left an army behind to deal with it while he returned home, but thirteen years went by (587-574) before he could capture the city and replace its king with a more submissive one.
The western expansion of Cyaxares is slightly better documented. Apparently it started in 590, when Cyaxares marched against some rebellious Scythian tribes. The Scythians fled west, and Cyaxares pursued them until he reached Urartu, and conquered it. The last king listed for Urartu was Rusas IV (598?-585?), who is mentioned in a few clay tablets found near Yerevan, Armenia. The reason why dates are unclear is because none of the records we have reported the end of Urartu when it happened. What we do know is that the end must have been violent, because its fortresses were burned down at this point. Recently some historians have pointed out that native rulers must have remained in charge after the Median conquest (Herodotus called the Urartians "Alarodians"), so according to them, Urartu's end didn't really happen until about 520 B.C., when the Persian king Darius I installed a governor from elsewhere. The next time we hear from Armenia, the ancestors of today's Armenians are living there, so they must have moved in/taken over by 500 B.C.
Next, Cyaxares entered Anatolia, where he ran into tougher opposition from Lydia. For five years, Cyaxares and his Lydian counterpart, Alyattes, fought battles in the land of Cappadocia, neither side winning a clear victory. Then in the middle of one battle, an eclipse of the sun turned day into night(7). The combatants saw this as sign from the gods to stop fighting, so they did. At this point, Nebuchadnezzar and the king of Cilicia (a minor state in southern Anatolia), alarmed at how the war was messing up international trade, intervened to end it. Together the four kings drew up a peace treaty between Lydia and Media, which declared the Halys River a border that no nation may violate. The treaty was sealed with two rituals; Cyaxares and Alyattes drank each other's blood, and Astyages, the son of Cyaxares, married Aryenis, the daughter of Alyattes.
There were six Median tribes in the eighth century B.C., before they became a kingdom; Herodotus called them the Busae, Paretaceni, Struchates, Arizanti, Budii, and the Magi. Originally it appears that each tribe was divided into at least four social classes; whether a tribal member became a priest, warrior, artisan or peasant depended on which class he belonged to. This may remind the reader of the Indian caste system, which was invented by Aryan relatives of the Iranians, but we do not think it was as rigid; for one thing, there were no Iranian "untouchables." Eventually the Magi became the priests for all Medes, and after Zoroastrianism became the chief religion of Iran (see the next section), Zoroastrian priests were also called Magi or Magians.
The Median kingdom's core territory was located between the modern Iranian cities of Hamadan, Tehran and Isfahan, and is sometimes called the "Median Triangle" by archaeologists. We know they had four cities: Ecbatana (from the Median word Hegmatane, meaning "Gathering Place"), Laodicea (modern Nahavand), Rhages (near Tehran, called Rayy or Rai later on), and Apamea (location unknown). The capital was Ecbatana, where Cyaxares ruled from a hilltop citadel. According to Herodotus, the citadel had seven walls, nobody could laugh or spit in the royal presence, and no visitor was allowed to meet the king; an intermediary delivered all messages from visitors. Despite the pomp of the Median court, however, the king ruled more like a feudal monarch than an absolute one, his main job being to resolve disputes between his subject princes. Most of our information on the Median kingdom comes from Herodotus, because the modern city of Hamadan was built right on top of Ecbatana. So far only two attempts have been made to excavate to Hamadan's Median level, and they did not turn up anything important.(8). This is one reason for the shortage of Median-era artifacts; the other is that the kingdom only existed as an independent state for seventy-five years (625-550 B.C.). Recently it has been proposed that the Median kingdom was not really an empire at all, but a confederation of like-minded tribes and princes that treated the king as the "first among equals."(9)
In the same year as the battle of the eclipse and the treaty with Lydia, Cyaxares died and Astyages became king. Astyages ruled for thirty-five years (585-550 B.C.), and whereas Cyaxares worked hard to build an empire, it looks like Astyages sat back and enjoyed it. At least one account of Astyages reports that he was fond of fine clothing, used makeup on his eyes and face, and wore a wig--the Medes had none of these luxuries when Cyaxares became king. Herodotus portrayed Astyages as a cruel tyrant, but this may simply be anti-Persian propaganda; Herodotus never missed an opportunity for that. With Media tied to Lydia and Babylon by royal marriages, you could say that one happy family ruled the Middle East at this point. No wars took place for most of the reign of Astyages, quite remarkable in a region which has produced so many aggressive empires. Greek authors like Polybius and Aristotle, coming from a culture that enjoyed a good fight, saw this time of peace as evidence of decadence; they announced that Astyages and the Medes had grown soft in a single generation. In the next chapter we will see the Persians doing exactly the same thing, so if the stories are true, we have a fine example of history repeating itself. Anyway, the balance of power between Mede, Lydian, Babylonian and Egyptian ended when a vassal of Astyages, a governor named Cyrus II, became both strong enough and popular enough to overthrow every rival. We'll cover his amazing career at the end of this chapter.
Greece = Thales, Anaximander and Pythagoras.
Before I continue this narrative, however, discussing Zoroaster would be appropriate, because he founded a major religion in the land that would shortly become the Persian Empire. About Zoroaster(10) himself only legends are available. We do not know for sure where or even when he lived. Most scholars put his main area of activity in eastern Iran and Afghanistan, a newly civilized frontier at this time. Estimates of when he lived are usually around 600 B.C., but some scholars and theologians place him a thousand, two thousand, or even five thousand years earlier. The scriptures attributed to Zoroaster, the Zend Avesta, were composed in Avestan, a very old Indo-Iranian language, which was already passing out of use in the sixth century B.C.; he may have copied an older oral tradition. Unfortunately the oldest existing copies of the Zend Avesta date to the beginning of the Sassanian era, or the third century A.D. (see Chapter 8), so we do not know how closely they followed what Zoroaster wrote; it has been said that the original edition was destroyed when Alexander the Great burned Persepolis in 330 B.C. The Encyclopaedia Britannica ventures to date the conversion of Vishtaspa, his most important follower, "258 years before Alexander," or 588 B.C. Since he was 40 years old when this happened, and lived to be 77, this gives him a lifespan of 628-551 B.C., making the dates of his birth and death roughly equivalent to those of the Median kingdom. Until more reliable information appears, these dates will do.
Tradition says that Zoroaster was born in Azerbaijan. When he was a youth the Iranians, like nearly everybody else, had many gods. Some of these gods may have been deified ancestors; others were personified animals or forces of nature. Chief among the gods were Mitra (also spelled Mithra or Mithras, see Chapter 2), a sun god; Anahita, goddess of fertility and the earth; and Haoma, a sacred bull that gave his name to a plant producing a hallucinogenic drink.
Zoroaster had an excellent education, and a keen interest in religion. The worship of the gods involved the use of haoma, causing the ceremonies to look like Bacchanalian orgies to the uninitiated. Zoroaster became restless because he disapproved of these practices, and at age 20 he left his home to ponder the mysteries of life, and to find a real meaning to it all. Wherever he went, he asked people for answers to his questions, and used his medical knowledge to help the elderly and heal those wounded by raiding nomads from Central Asia.
At the age of 30 Zoroaster received enlightenment. As the account goes, he was on the banks of the Daitya River when a large figure appeared to him. This person called himself Vohu Manah, or "Righteous Thought," and he took Zoroaster to meet the ultimate source of good, Ahura Mazda. In heaven Ahura Mazda instructed Zoroaster in the true religion.
When Zoroaster proclaimed the truth he had discovered, he ran up against the Magi. They forced him to leave Media and wander in the wild lands to the east. His fortunes finally turned upward when he converted a local prince named Vishtaspa. Some historians equate Vishtaspa with Hystaspes, the father of the Persian king Darius I. This makes sense, because Darius was the first monarch to openly practice Zoroastrianism. We don't know what Cyrus the Great believed in, because he wouldn't force his religion on anyone!
During Zoroaster's last years the faith spread rapidly, forming a sizeable community around Balkh, in Afghanistan. Still, he could not convert the nomads, whom he called "followers of the lie." Tradition records two holy wars fought between the nomads and the faithful; Zoroaster was killed in the second one.
Zoroastrianism teaches that only one god deserves worship: the wise lord Ahura Mazda, who created justice, truth, and everything else that is good. Since the beginning of time an evil god named Ahriman has opposed him. Ahura Mazda and Ahriman are equal in strength, but after they fight for twelve thousand years, Ahura Mazda will win the last battle and destroy Ahriman. Then the world will come to an end, and the soul of every man who ever lived will face judgment. Only those whose good deeds outweigh the bad will cross the bridge into the "Kingdom of Everlasting Light and Joy"; the unrighteous will fall into a dark, burning Hell.
The rest of Zoroastrian scriptures teach how to be one of the righteous. We can summarize the main rules for doing that as follows:
1. The most honorable work is to farm and/or make new land arable.
Zoroastrianism may have influenced or received influence from Judaism, since both religions declared all other gods to be false, and both have similar views on ethics and God's judgment. Unlike Judaism, it could not uproot the old-time paganism completely, but at least it reduced the number of gods to two (Ahura Mazda and Ahriman). The former gods were demoted to angels serving one side or the other; we will hear from one of them, Mithras, in Chapters 6 and 8 of this work. Most Iranians observed Zoroastrianism for more than a millennium, but it never made many converts outside Iran.
After Islam swept across the Middle East in the seventh century A.D., Zoroastrianism ceased to be a major influence on world affairs. A few thousand Zoroastrians (nowadays called Gabars, meaning unbelievers) survive to this day in the Iranian cities of Yazd and Kerman.(11) The last population census before the Iranian Revolution, conducted in 1974, counted 21,400 Zoroastrians; more recent estimates put their number at 35,000 to 94,000 (out of 74 million Iranians).
A larger community of about 110,000, known as the Parsees (Persians), can be found abroad. Since the eighth century A.D. they have been a respectable, middle-class group in India. To give two examples, Freddie Mercury, the late lead singer of Queen, came from a Parsee family; his birth name was Farrokh Bulsara; former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was married to Feroze Gandhi, a Parsee politician and journalist. Two-thirds of them live around Mumbai (Bombay), but unlike the Gabars, their numbers are shrinking fast. There are three big reasons for the decline: their population has become inbred over the ages, they tend to marry too late in life to have many children (the average age of marriage is 31 for men, 29 for women), and they do not accept converts. Recently the Indian government has funded new fertility clinics in an effort to reverse this trend.
Wherever the few remaining Zoroastrians live, they continue to defend their rich heritage against all outsiders. Thomas Bullfinch, in his encyclopedia of mythology, quotes from a tale called Lalla Rookh, the Fire Worshipers, where a Gabar chief says:
"Yes! I am of that impious race,
The Euphrates River ran through the center of the city, providing both transportation and a water supply. To minimize damage from floods and seepage, walls and canals touching the water were coated with waterproof bitumen. Outside the city, the Euphrates was also put to work irrigating the fields; of this land, Herodotus said, "so great is the fertility of the grain fields that they normally produce crops of two hundredfold."
The city's first and second lines of defense were two massive walls, the outer one eleven miles in circumference. Seventy feet thick, the outer wall had houses built on its outer and inner edges, when the area inside the walls became too crowded, and there was still enough space left over on the top for two chariots to drive abreast. Eight gates, each named after a god, pierced the walls. From the northwestern, or Ishtar Gate, the main road of the city ran southeast past all the major buildings; archeologists have named this "Procession Street" because the parade during the twelve-day New Year festival, Babylon's most important holiday, took place here. The gates had some of the earliest examples of a true arch (as opposed to a corbelled arch), and were decorated with blue glazed bricks, featuring reliefs of animals like lions and dragons.
The most important buildings were the temples, and Babylon reportedly had 1,179 of them. Besides serving as homes for the nation's many gods, the temples controlled much of the wealth and land, and were the king's largest source of revenue (they paid 20 percent of their income in taxes to the palace treasury). Largest of all was the Esagila, a temple complex dedicated to the god Marduk, which included a 300-foot-high ziggurat, the Etemenanki; today some people call this structure a rebuilt Tower of Babel. Herodotus reported that the Esagila contained a fifteen-foot-high statue of Marduk, made from twenty-two tons of gold.
Another building worthy of note is the palace of Nebuchadnezzar, which had a throne room measuring 180 by 197 feet. Like the city gates, its walls featured animals in a parade on glazed bricks; this is one of the buildings that the Iraqi government has restored. Everything Nebuchadnezzar built used bricks with his name stamped on them: "Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon."(12) Near the palace, we believe Nebuchanezzar built his most famous structure, the legendary Hanging Gardens, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Flowers and trees covered this ziggurat-like structure, and had ferns and running water cascading down the sides. Legend says that Nebuchadnezzar raised this artificial mountain to please Queen Amytis, who was homesick for the mountains of her native Media.
The prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel both predicted that Nebuchadnezzar would "smite the land of Egypt." Likewise, Josephus (Antiquities X.9.7) claimed that Nebuchadnezzar invaded Egypt in 583 or 582 B.C., and brought back the Jews that had fled in that direction to escape Babylonian rule, but there is no evidence from the Nile valley or Greek sources of a successful Babylonian conquest. Josephus may have gotten his dates confused, because Nebuchanezzar supported an unsuccessful attempt by a deposed pharaoh, Apries (Hophra in the Bible), to regain control over Egypt in 567 B.C. However, Jeremiah hid some stones in a kiln at Tahpanheth in Egypt, to show where Nebuchadnezzar's throne would one day be set up (Jer. 43:9). Early in the twentieth century Sir Flinders Petrie found Babylonian-style kiln-baked bricks on the same site.(13) It now appears that the Babylonian domination of Egypt was more symbolic than real, since the agreements between the two nations were always on Babylon's terms. Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar's policies were much like those of his Assyrian predecessors, meaning that even if he did park his throne in Egypt for a time, he would have quickly returned to Babylon, after making sure the Egyptian ruler he left in charge paid tribute. Still, the prophecy came true where the Jews were concerned, because many of them were later extradited from Egypt, after Nebuchadnezzar promised not to repeat the atrocities he had inflicted already.
Few records from the last years of Nebuchadnezzar's reign have come down to us. In fact, for a four-year period, Nebuchadnezzar left no records at all. Presumably it was around this time when the events from the first four chapters of the Book of Daniel took place, including the king's seven-year bout with insanity. The empire showed how dependent it was on an absolute monarch, because it only lasted for twenty-three years after Nebuchadnezzar's death. Four kings followed him, and none of them were very competent. Of the first three, we know little, because they were short-lived. Nebuchadnezzar's son, Amel-Marduk (562-560, called Evil-Merodach in 2 Kings), was murdered after just two years by Nergilissar, a son-in-law of the former king. Nergilissar ruled in turn for four years (560-556), and then his son, a minor named Labashi-Marduk, lasted for nine months in 556 B.C. Around 560 B.C., Cyprus transferred its vassalage from Babylon to Egypt.
The last king, Nabonidus (556-539), was not a relative of the previous kings, but the son of Adad-Guppi, a high priestess of Sin (the ancient moon-god of Ur, also called Nanna). He was put on the throne by a palace coup, and emphasized his humble origins by introducing himself thusly in inscriptions: "I am Nabonidus who have not the honor of being a somebody; kingship is not within me." Recently it has been proposed that Nabonidus had Assyrian ancestry, because he often talked about the late Ashurbanipal and had a special interest in Haran, the city where the Assyrians made their last stand. The people accepted the new king anyway, figuring that if the gods let him rule, he was good enough for them, but then Nabonidus showed he was both unsuited and uninterested in his job. Whereas you would expect the world's mightiest king to lead conquering armies, Nabonidus limited his military activities to minor campaigns against Cilicia and Edom. When not campaigning he kept himself busy restoring old temples, instead of handling affairs of state. Before he started rebuilding, he would excavate the foundation of each structure to learn its age, and the original architectural design; this has earned him the nickname of "the royal archeologist."(14) Because of his mother's exalted status,(15) he gave the sanctuaries of Sin special attention.
This behavior alienated the priests of Marduk, who feared he was going to replace Babylon's chief god with his own. In 550 Cyrus, the king of the Persians, overthrew the Medes, and gave the city of Haran, on the upper Euphrates River, to Nabonidus (more about that in the next section). Nabonidus raised taxes to pay for the reconstruction of Haran and its famous moon-god temple, and his enemies ran him out of Babylon. He stayed away for an astonishing ten years, spending much of that time at the oasis of Tema, in the Arabian desert. While he was away, his son Belshazzar managed the government, but the New Year festival could not take place without the king, so many feared for Babylon's future. Economic stagnation set in, and prices went up, concentrating wealth in the hands of a few bankers, slavers, and real estate speculators. Meanwhile across the border, Cyrus treated all of his subjects generously, and allowed them to practice their religion and customs without persecution. Many pro-Persian Babylonians thought that they would lose little by becoming subjects of such a good king. Before Belshazzar and the prophet Daniel saw the handwriting on the wall, Cyrus knew that Babylon would be easy prey.
The land they found along the Persian Gulf was a sweltering landscape of sand and rocks that held little promise, but the Persians made do with what they had, by growing wheat in the valleys and leading their flocks of fat-tailed sheep up the mountains in the spring and down to the plains when the weather turned cooler in the fall. Not yet a strong nation, they came under the successive domination of their more powerful neighbors: first the Elamites, then the Assyrians, and finally their relatives, the Medes.
The first Persian leader whose name has come down to us was Hakham-Anish (700?-675? B.C.), known as Achaemenes to later Greek historians. His name meant "wise man," and the stories concerning him are pure legends, but he went down as the founder of the dynasty; later Persian monarchs often called themselves Achaemenids. His successor, Chishpish (Teispes in Greek, perhaps 675-640 B.C.), divided his land between two sons, Kurush I (Cyrus(16)) and Ariaramna (Ariaramnes). For the next ninety years there were two Persian kingdoms, both ruled by Achaemenids and paying tribute to Media: Anshan, on the border of old Elam, and Parsumash (also called Parsa or Persis), farther to the east. Around 600 B.C. Kambujiya I (Cambyses I in Herodotus) succeeded his father Cyrus as king of Anshan.
Unfortunately for us Herodotus is the only historian who left us detailed records on how the Persian Empire got started. The sources he used were unreliable, since all kinds of wild stories circulated in his day concerning the early years of the empire's founder, Cyrus II; one said he was abandoned as a baby and suckled by a she-wolf, like Romulus and Remus. Since no other source is as thorough, the material on the next few pages will come from Herodotus; decide for yourself how much of this is a true story.
Early in the reign of Astyages, the last Median king, strange things happened in his court at Ecbatana. One night he had a dream in which his daughter Mandane urinated and flooded all of Asia! The Magi interpreted the dream as meaning that a son of Mandane would become king of Asia. Attempting to nip this threat to his rule in the bud, Astyages decided that Mandane must not marry a Mede, for a full-blooded Median grandson would automatically become the legitimate heir to his throne. Instead he gave her to one of his Persian governors, Cambyses of Anshan, a man "of good family and quiet habits." Cambyses was a safe son-in-law because in the Median pecking order, a Persian noble ranked below even a middle-class Mede.
After Mandane became pregnant with a son, the future Cyrus II, Astyages had another dream, in which vines sprang out of Mandane's loins and covered Asia. The Magi interpreted this dream to mean the same thing as the first, and Astyages realized that his half-Median grandchild could still be dangerous. He ordered his chief steward, Harpagus, to slay the newborn Cyrus in the wilderness. But Harpagus, overcome by the child's beauty, could not bring himself to commit such a foul deed. Instead, he told a mountain shepherd to do it, but the shepherd, whose wife had just given birth to a stillborn baby, had other ideas. The shepherd took the infant prince home and raised him as his own son, and left the dead baby in Cyrus' royal clothing on the mountain for Harpagus to find and bury.
The next paragraph contains the part of the story I find hardest to believe. When Cyrus was ten years old, several boys played a game of "King of the Mountain," and they appointed Cyrus as their "king." One boy, the son of a Median noble, refused to do what Cyrus commanded, and Cyrus ordered him seized and beaten. The boy went and complained to his father, who was so angry that he took the matter to Astyages. Astyages sent for the young Cyrus and his "father," and noticed that Cyrus acted too noble to be a herdsman's son; moreover, he looked like a member of the royal family. Through some interviews with the herdsman and Harpagus, the king found out what really happened. At that point he decided he liked his Persian grandson, and called for the Magi again. This time the Magi suggested that the prophecy had been fulfilled in an unexpected way; if Cyrus had already been "king" in a children's game, then maybe the predicted danger was past. Astyages agreed and sent Cyrus off to his real parents in Anshan. For the disobedience of Harpagus, however, he devised a ghastly punishment; he summoned the son of Harpagus to the palace, had him killed and cooked up, and served him to his father at a banquet that night. Harpagus did not know what he was eating until they lifted the lid from the final platter, whereupon he saw his son's head, hands and feet.
In Anshan, Cyrus grew up toughened by the desert life, and received a basic Persian education, which was learning "to ride a horse, to draw a bow, and to speak the truth." In 559 B.C., he succeeded Cambyses as king of Anshan. Three years later he annexed Elam. Nabonidus, who became king of Babylon in the same year, recognized Cyrus as heir to the Elamites, so the Persian capital was moved from Pasargadae, the hometown of the Achaemenids, to Susa, the old Elamite capital. As Cyrus behaved more like an independent monarch, and less like a loyal vassal, Astyages saw everything he feared coming true.
A cuneiform text from Nabonidus tells thus that a religious matter caused the final break between Cyrus and Astyages. We saw earlier how Nabonidus liked to repair the ancient temples of the moon-god, and one of the biggest was the E.HUL.HUL in Haran; it very well may have been the same temple where Terah, the father of Abraham, worshiped the Mesopotamian gods, approximately fifteen hundred years earlier (see Chapter 1). The E.HUL.HUL was destroyed when the Medes took Haran from the Assyrians in 610. According to Nabonidus, the god Marduk appeared to him in a dream and ordered him to rebuild the E.HUL.HUL, but he protested, saying he couldn't do it while the Medes controlled Haran, so Marduk replied:
"The Umman-manda (Medes) of whom you speak, they and their land and the kings who side with them no longer exist. In the coming third year I shall make Cyrus, king of Anzan, their young slave, expel them. With his few troops, he will disperse the widespread Umman-manda."
Accordingly, Nabonidus invited Cyrus to join him in an alliance. Astyages got wind of this, and in 550 B.C., he summoned Cyrus to Ecbatana, to explain his actions; Cyrus responded that he would come sooner than the Median monarch wished. A Median army was promptly sent to put down the upstart Persians. However, Harpagus led the army, and he understandably had no stomach for supporting his king. When the Medes and Persians met outside Pasargadae, Harpagus and his troops defected to the cause of Cyrus. After he switched sides, Harpagus proved to be Cyrus' best general and administrator. Then Cyrus marched to Ecbatana and seized Astyages in an encounter that was more of a coup than a real battle. Although he stripped Astyages of his rank and titles, Cyrus showed more benevolence than any other monarch of the day by letting him live. His final fate is unknown, though. Herodotus said that Astyages spent the rest of his life at the court of Cyrus. However, another historian, Ctesias, asserts that Astyages was appointed satrap (governor) of Parthia, in present-day northeast Iran. Sometime after that, Cyrus summonded Astyages to his court, and Astyages was found dead in the desert; a Persian named Oebaras was blamed for the murder, and he may or may not have been acting on orders from Cyrus. Whichever story is the correct one, the overthrow of Astyages marked the end of the Median Kingdom and the beginning of the Persian Empire.
Because Cyrus was the grandson of Astyages, and he left most of the Median institutions intact, his takeover may not have looked like much of a change. Still, one foreign leader was not fooled: Croesus (560-546), the king of Lydia and heir to his father Alyattes. Easily the richest man of his time, Croesus was sitting on so much money that his name became a byword for wealth among the Greeks. Early in his reign he accomplished what no previous Lydian king could do: he subdued all of the Ionian city-states except Miletus. At home he lavishly entertained visiting guests, like the Athenian lawgiver Solon.(17) Then his favorite son died in a hunting accident. Croesus mourned him for two years, until the rise of Cyrus brought him back to his senses. Astyages was the Lydian's brother-in-law, so Croesus felt duty-bound to make war upon the enemies of Media.
Before he attacked the Persians, Croesus did what any prudent monarch of that time would do: he consulted a soothsayer. For Croesus, the only soothsayer that would do was the best that money could buy, namely the Oracle in the temple of Apollo at Delphi, in Greece. Accordingly he sent a ship to Delphi loaded with the biggest donation that the Greeks had ever seen: it included 117 ingots of gold, two huge basins (one gold and one silver), four silver chests, a gold and a silver holy water sprinkler, a gold statue of a lion, a gold statue of a woman (said to be the king's baker), and all of the Lydian queen's jewelry. With all this treasure came two questions: should Croesus attack the Persians, and if the answer is yes, so he go alone or get help from allies? The Oracle gave the kind of answers Croesus wanted: if he attacked the Persians he would destroy a great empire. As for allies, he should come to an understanding with the strongest of the Greeks. At this date, the strongest Greeks were the Spartans, so Croesus persuaded Sparta to form an alliance by sending the Spartans enough gold (of course). Then confident of victory, he marched across the Halys River in 547 B.C., without bothering to ask which empire the Oracle meant.
Cyrus responded by leading his army of Medes and Persians west. On the way he passed through Assyria and occupied Cilicia, doing both without the permission of the Babylonians. Croesus engaged the Persians at a place Herodotus called Pteria, which may have been the Greek name for the ruins of ancient Hattusas. A one-day battle between the two forces ended in a draw. Then Croesus did an about-face and returned to Sardis. He wasn't chickening out. The year was ending and the Lydians, like the Greeks, called off their campaigns every fall to harvest their crops, coming back in the following spring to pick up where they left off. Croesus felt he had done all he could do for 547 B.C., and as he went home, he paid off his soldiers and sent letters to Babylon, Egypt, and Sparta, asking them to send him troops for next year's campaign.
If those troops had arrived, they probably could have beaten Cyrus. But Cyrus had no intention of waiting--for his enemies, or for winter to end. He pursued so closely behind Croesus that, as Herodotus put it, "He was his own messenger." Croesus hastily recalled what troops he had and sent his best against the Persians, the formidable Lydian cavalry with iron-tipped lances. Cyrus defeated them with a clever trick: he took the camels that carried the Persian army's baggage and put them in front of his own horses. The Lydian horses had never smelled a camel before, and one whiff from these strange beasts was enough to make them turn tail and run. Afterwards Croesus was forced to take refuge in his capital. He thought that the walls of Sardis were impregnable, but the Persians, being mountain-climbers, found a spot they could scale and took the city two weeks later.
Cyrus spared Croesus, but it was a close call. At first he placed Croesus and fourteen Lydian youths on top of a great pile of wood, to make a burnt offering of them all. Croesus managed to talk him out of it, but not before the edges of the pyre were lit. Now it was too late to put the fire out, and both Cyrus and Croesus cried for the gods to help them. Fortunately, a rainstorm came at that point and saved the day. Croesus spent his last years as an advisor to Cyrus and his son Cambyses II. He also realized that he had misunderstood the words of the Oracle. Croesus had indeed destroyed a great empire--his own!
The conquest of Lydia technically gave Cyrus authority over the Ionian Greeks. The Ionians, however, saw the fall of Sardis as the return of their own independence, and Cyrus was forced to subjugate each of their cities one by one. Then he made Harpagus satrap (governor) of the region. Ionia brought commerce and wealth into the new empire, but the Persians' first impression of the Greeks was not a favorable one. To Cyrus, the Greeks were a dishonest race, whose marketplaces "were set apart for people to go and cheat each other under oath."
The next few years saw Cyrus spread his rule into Central Asia. This campaign, like the eastern campaign of the Medes, is completely undocumented, but we know what happened from the situation in that area a few years later. First he marched through Hyrcania (the part of Iran along the shore of the Caspian Sea), Parthia (northeastern Iran), and Bactria (Afghanistan), stopping just short of the Indian border. Then he went north across the Oxus (Amu Dar'ya) River, subduing local nomads as he advanced. He chose the Jaxartes (Syr Dar'ya) as his northern boundary, and built a string of fortresses to secure it. Wherever Cyrus went, he used diplomacy (treaties and marriages) with those tribes and communities that were willing to make a deal, and used force against those that weren't. Then he returned home and prepared to conquer Babylon and the Fertile Crescent.
The Persian army invaded the land between the rivers in 539 B.C. Nabonidus finally came home when he heard this news. On the way he stopped at more than one city, picked up their chief idols, and took them with him. Officially he did this to protect the gods of those cities, by keeping their idols from falling into the wrong hands. At the same time, however, he was also preventing those cities from going over to the Persians, by taking their gods hostage. Remember in previous ages that when the Elamites and Assyrians captured Babylon, they showed their gods had triumphed over the Babylonian god Marduk by taking away the largest statue of Marduk as a war trophy; the same kind of thinking was at work here.
Nabonidus had enough time to make those stops before returning, because Cyrus stopped to do something that was both foolish and out of character--punish the Diyala River. A tributary of the Tigris, the Diyala drowned one of his favorite horses, so Cyrus got revenge by having the river carved into 360 ditches. This activity kept the Persians busy for all of spring and summer, so it was October when the Persian and Babylonian armies met, outside the city of Opis. By then, Nabonidus was there, but his presence did not do any good; a bloody clash followed, which was decided when the governor of Assyria defected to the Persian camp.
Nabonidus fled from Opis to Babylon, with Cyrus in pursuit. The Persians tried a siege of Babylon at first, only to realize that the city was too big for even their army to encircle, and because Babylon could store enough grain to last for years, the Persians would run out of food first. Consequently they pulled another trick, instead of relying on brute force, to overthrow the enemy. This time the Persians dug a canal to divert the Euphrates away from Babylon, waited for the water level in the main riverbed to drop, and when the water was only two feet deep, they marched in under the city's gates. As a result, they took the city without a battle. Belshazzar was killed, while Nabonidus fled to Borsippa (the next city to the south), before he surrendered; his final fate is unknown. Cyrus worshiped in Marduk's temple afterward, showing himself as the rightful heir to the Babylonian throne, and allowed everyday life to continue without interruption. The replacement of Nabonidus by Cyrus marks the end of the Babylonian Empire, the end of the age when the Fertile Crescent marked the center of world civilization, and the beginning of an age lasting nearly 1,200 years in which Japhetic peoples(18), not Semites or Hamites, ruled the Middle East.
This is the End of Chapter 4.
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