Gateway to the Classics: Cyrus the Great by Jacob Abbott
Cyrus the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Conquest of Babylon

In his advance toward the dominions of Crœsus in Asia Minor, Cyrus had passed to the northward of the great and celebrated city of Babylon. Babylon was on the Euphrates, toward the southern part of Asia. It was the capital of a large and very fertile region, which extended on both sides of the Euphrates toward the Persian Gulf. The limits of the country, however, which was subject to Babylon, varied very much at different times, as they were extended or contracted by revolutions and wars.

The River Euphrates was the great source of fertility for the whole region through which it flowed. The country watered by this river was very densely populated, and the inhabitants were industrious and peaceable, cultivating their land, and living quietly and happily on its fruits. The surface was intersected with canals, which the people had made for conveying the water of the river over the land for the purpose of irrigating it. Some of these canals were navigable. There was one great trunk which passed from the Euphrates to the Tigris, supplying many minor canals by the way, that was navigable for vessels of considerable burden.

The traffic of the country was, however, mainly conducted by means of boats of moderate size, the construction of which seemed to Herodotus very curious and remarkable. The city was enormously large, and required immense supplies of food, which were brought down in these boats from the agricultural country above. The boats were made in the following manner: first a frame was built, of the shape of the intended boat, broad and shallow, and with the stem and stern of the same form. This frame was made of willows, like a basket, and, when finished, was covered with a sheathing of skins. A layer of reeds was then spread over the bottom of the boat to protect the frame, and to distribute evenly the pressure of the cargo. The boat, thus finished, was laden with the produce of the country, and was then floated down the river to Babylon. In this navigation, the boatmen were careful to protect the leather sheathing from injury by avoiding all contact with rocks, or even with the gravel of the shores. They kept their craft in the middle of the stream by means of two oars, or, rather, an oar and a paddle, which were worked, the first at the bows, and the second at the stern. The advance of the boat was in some measure accelerated by these boatmen, though their main function was to steer their vessel by keeping it out of eddies tine away from projecting points of land, and directing its course to those parts of the stream where the current was swiftest, and where it would consequently be borne forward most rapidly to its destination.

These boats were generally of very considerable size, and they carried, in addition to their cargo and crew, one or more beasts of burden—generally asses or mules. These animals were allowed the pleasure, if any pleasure it was to them, of sailing thus idly down the stream, for the sake of having them at hand at the end of the voyage, to carry back again, up the country, the skins, which constituted the most valuable portion of the craft they sailed in. It was found that these skins, if carefully preserved, could be easily transported up the river, and would answer the purpose of a second voyage. Accordingly, when the boats arrived at Babylon, the cargo was sold, the boats were broken up, the skins were folded into packs, and in this form the mules carried them up the river again, the boatmen driving the mules as they walked by their side.

Babylon was a city of immense extent and magnitude. In fact, the accounts given of the space which it covered have often been considered incredible. These accounts make the space which was included within the walls four or five times as large as London. A great deal of this space was, however, occupied by parks and gardens connected with the royal palaces, and by open squares. Then, besides, the houses occupied by the common people in the ancient cities were of fewer stories in height, and consequently more extended on the ground, than those built in modern times. In fact, it is probable that, in many instances, they were mere ranges of huts and hovels, as is the case, indeed, to a considerable extent, in Oriental cities, at the present day, so that it is not at all impossible that even so large an area as four or five times the size of London may have been included within the fortifications of the city.

In respect to the walls of the city, very extraordinary and apparently contradictory accounts are given by the various ancient authors who described them. Some make them seventy-five, and others two or three hundred feet high. There have been many discussions in respect to the comparative credibility of these several statements, and some ingenious attempts have been made to reconcile them. It is not, however, at all surprising that there should be such a diversity in the dimensions given, for the walling of an ancient city was seldom of the same height in all places. The structure necessarily varied according to the nature of the ground, being high wherever the ground without was such as to give the enemy an advantage in an attack, and lower in other situations, where the conformation of the surface was such as to afford, of itself, a partial protection. It is not, perhaps, impossible that, at some particular points—as, for example, across glens and ravines, or along steep declivities—the walls of Babylon may have been raised even to the very extraordinary height which Herodotus ascribes to them.

The walls were made of bricks, and the bricks were formed of clay and earth, which was dug from a trench made outside of the lines. This trench served the purpose of a ditch, to strengthen the fortification when the wall was completed. The water from the river, and from streams flowing toward the river, was admitted to these ditches on every side, and kept them always full.

The sides of these ditches were lined with bricks too, which were made, like those of the walls, from the earth obtained from the excavations. They used for all this masonry a cement made from a species of bitumen, which was found in great quantities floating down one of the rivers which flowed into the Euphrates, in the neighborhood of Babylon.

The River Euphrates itself flowed through the city. There was a breast-work or low wall along the banks of it on either side, with openings at the terminations of the streets leading to the water, and flights of steps to go down. These openings were secured by gates of brass, which, when closed, would prevent an enemy from gaining access to the city from the river. The great streets, which terminated thus at the river on one side, extended to the walls of the city on the other, and they were crossed by other streets at right angles to them. In the outer walls of the city, at the extremities of all these streets, were massive gates of brass, with hinges and frames of the same metal. There were a hundred of these gates in all. They were guarded by watch-towers on the walls above. The watch-towers were built on both the inner and outer faces of the wall, and the wall itself was so broad that there was room between these watch-towers for a chariot and four to drive and turn.

The river, of course, divided the city into two parts. The king's palace was in the center of one of these divisions, within a vast circular inclosure, which contained the palace buildings, together with the spacious courts, and parks, and gardens pertaining to them. In the center of the other division was a corresponding inclosure, which contained the great temple of Belus. Here there was a very lofty tower, divided into eight separate towers, one above another, with a winding staircase to ascend to the summit. In the upper story was a sort of chapel, with a couch, and a table, and other furniture for use in the sacred ceremonies, all of gold. Above this, on the highest platform of all, was a grand observatory, where the Babylonian astrologers made their celestial observations.

There was a bridge across the river, connecting one section of the city with the other, and it is said that there was a subterranean passage under the river also, which was used as a private communication between two public edifices—palaces or citadels—which were situated near the extremities of the bridge. All these constructions were of the most grand and imposing character. In addition to the architectural magnificence of the buildings, the gates and walls were embellished with a great variety of sculptures: images of animals, of every form and in every attitude; and men, single and in groups, models of great sovereigns, and representations of hunting scenes, battle scenes, and great events in the Babylonian history.

The most remarkable, however, of all the wonders of Babylon—though perhaps not built till after Cyrus's time—were what were called the hanging gardens. Although called the hanging gardens, they were not suspended in any manner, as the name might denote, but were supported upon arches and walls. The arches and walls sustained a succession of terraces, rising one above another, with broad flights of steps for ascending to them, and on these terraces the gardens were made. The upper terrace, or platform, was several hundred feet from the ground; so high, that it was necessary to build arches upon arches within, in order to attain the requisite elevation. The lateral thrust of these arches was sustained by a wall twenty-five feet in thickness, which surrounded the garden on all sides, and rose as high as the lowermost tier of arches, upon which would, of course, be concentrated the pressure and weight of all the pile. The whole structure thus formed a sort of artificial hill, square in form, and rising, in a succession of terraces, to a broad and level area upon the top. The extent of this grand square upon the summit was four hundred feet upon each side.

The surface which served as the foundation for the gardens that adorned these successive terraces and the area above was formed in the following manner: Over the masonry of the arches there was laid a pavement of broad flat stones, sixteen feet long and four feet wide. Over these there was placed a stratum of reeds, laid in bitumen, and above them another flooring of bricks, cemented closely together, so as to be impervious to water. To make the security complete in this respect, the upper surface of this brick flooring was covered with sheets of lead, overlapping each other in such a manner as to convey all the water which might percolate through the mold away to the sides of the garden. The earth and mold were placed upon this surface, thus prepared, and the stratum was so deep as to allow large trees to take root and grow in it. There was an engine constructed in the middle of the upper terrace, by which water could be drawn up from the river, and distributed over every part of the vast pile.

The gardens, thus completed, were filled to profusion with every species of tree, and plant, and vine, which could produce fruit or flowers to enrich or adorn such a scene. Every country in communication with Babylon was made to contribute something to increase the endless variety of floral beauty which was here literally enthroned. Gardeners of great experience and skill were constantly employed in cultivating the parterres, pruning the fruit-trees and the vines, preserving the walks, and introducing new varieties of vegetation. In a word, the hanging gardens of Babylon became one of the wonders of the world.

The country in the neighborhood of Babylon, extending from the river on either hand was in general level and low, and subject to inundations. One of the sovereigns of the country, a queen named Nitocris, had formed the grand design of constructing an immense lake, to take off the superfluous water in case of a flood, and thus prevent an overflow. She also opened a great number of lateral and winding channels for the river, wherever the natural disposition of the surface afforded facilities for doing so, and the earth which was taken out in the course of these excavations was employed in raising the banks by artificial terraces, such as are made to confine the Mississippi at New Orleans, and are there called levees. The object of Nitocris in these measures was two-fold. She wished, in the first place, to open all practicable channels for the flow of the water, and then to confine the current within the channels thus made. She also wished to make the navigation of the stream as intricate and complicated as possible, so that, while the natives of the country might easily find their way, in boats, to the capital, a foreign enemy, if he should make the attempt, might be confused and lost. These were the rivers of Babylon on the banks of which the captive Jews sat down and wept when they remembered Zion.

This queen Nitocris seems to have been quite distinguished for her engineering and architectural plans. It was she that built the bridge across the Euphrates, within the city; and as there was a feeling of jealousy and ill will, as usual in such a case, between the two divisions of the town which the river formed, she caused a bridge to be constructed with a movable platform or draw, by means of which the communication might be cut off at pleasure. This draw was generally up at night and down by day.

Herodotus relates a curious anecdote of this queen, which, if true, evinces in another way the peculiar originality of mind and the ingenuity which characterized all her operations. She caused her tomb to be built, before her death, over one of the principal gates of the city. Upon the façade of this monument was a very conspicuous inscription to this effect: "If any one of the sovereigns, my successors, shall be in extreme want of money, let him open my tomb and take what he may think proper; but let him not resort to this resource unless the urgency is extreme."

The tomb remained for some time after the queen's death quite undisturbed. In fact, the people of the city avoided this gate altogether, on account of the dead body deposited above it, and the spot became well-nigh deserted. At length, in process of time, a subsequent sover- eign, being in want of money, ventured to open the tomb. He found, however, no money within. The gloomy vault contained nothing but the dead body of the queen, and a label with this inscription: "If your avarice were not as insatiable as it is base, you would not have intruded on the repose of the dead."

It was not surprising that Cyrus, having been so successful in his enterprises thus far, should now begin to turn his thoughts toward this great Babylonian empire, and to feel a desire to bring it under his sway. The first thing, however, was to confirm and secure his Lydian conquests. He spent some time, therefore, in organizing and arranging, at Sardis, the affairs of the new government which he was to substitute for that of Crœsus there. He designated certain portions of his army to be left for garrisons in the conquered cities. He appointed Persian officers, of course, to command these forces; but, as he wished to conciliate the Lydians, he appointed many of the municipal and civil officers of the country from among them. There would appear to be no danger in doing this, as, by giving the command of the army to Persians, he retained all the real power directly in his own hands.

One of these civil officers, the most important, in fact, of all, was the grand treasurer. To him Cyrus committed the charge of the stores of gold and silver which came into his possession at Sardis, and of the revenues which were afterward to accrue. Cyrus appointed a Lydian named Pactyas to this trust, hoping by such measures to conciliate the people of the country, and to make them more ready to submit to his sway. Things being thus arranged, Cyrus, taking Crœsus with him, set out with the main army to return toward the East.

As soon as he had left Lydia, Pactyas excited the Lydians to revolt. The name of the commander-in-chief of the military forces which Cyrus had left was Tabalus. Pactyas abandoned the city and retired toward the coast, where he contrived to raise a large army, formed partly of Lydians and partly of bodies of foreign troops, which he was enabled to hire by means of the treasures which Cyrus had put under his charge. He then advanced to Sardis, took possession of the town, and shut up Tabalus, with his Persian troops, in the citadel.

When the tidings of these events came to Cyrus, he was very much incensed, and determined to destroy the city. Crœsus, however, interceded very earnestly in its behalf. He recommended that Cyrus, instead of burning Sardis, should send a sufficient force to disarm the population, and that he should then enact such laws and make such arrangements as should turn the minds of the people to habits of luxury and pleasure. "By doing this," said Crœsus, "the people will, in a short time, become so enervated and so effeminate that you will have nothing to fear from them."

Cyrus decided on adopting this plan. He dispatched a Median named Mazares, an officer of his army, at the head of a strong force, with orders to go back to Sardis, to deliver Tabalus from his danger, to seize and put to death all the leaders in the Lydian rebellion excepting Pactyas. Pactyas was to be saved alive, and sent a prisoner to Cyrus in Persia.

Pactyas did not wait for the arrival of Mazares. As soon as he heard of his approach, he abandoned the ground, and fled northwardly to the city of Cyme, and sought refuge there. When Mazares had reached Sardis and re-established the government of Cyrus there, he sent messengers to Cyme, demanding the surrender of the fugitive.

The people of Cyme were uncertain whether they ought to comply. They said that they must first consult an oracle. There was a very ancient and celebrated oracle near Miletus. They sent messengers to this oracle, demanding to know whether it were according to the will of the gods or not that the fugitive should be surrendered. The answer brought back was, that they might surrender him.

They were accordingly making arrangements for doing this, when one of the citizens, a very prominent and influential man, named Aristodicus, expressed himself not satisfied with the reply. He did not think it possible, he said, that the oracle could really counsel them to deliver up a helpless fugitive to his enemies. The messengers must have misunderstood or misreported the answer which they had received. He finally persuaded his countrymen to send a second embassy: he himself was placed at the head of it. On their arrival, Aristodicus addressed the oracle as follows:

"To avoid a cruel death from the Persians, Pactyas, a Lydian, fled to us for refuge. The Persians demanded that we should surrender him. Much as we are afraid of their power, we are still more afraid to deliver up a helpless suppliant for protection without clear and decided directions from you."

The embassy received to this demand the same reply as before.

Still Aristodicus was not satisfied; and, as if by way of bringing home to the oracle somewhat more forcibly a sense of the true character of such an action as it seemed to recommend, he began to make a circuit in the grove which was around the temple in which the oracle resided, and to rob and destroy the nests which the birds had built there, allured, apparently, by the sacred repose and quietude of the scene. This had the desired effect. A solemn voice was heard from the interior of the temple, saying, in a warning tone,

"Impious man! how dost thou dare to molest those who have placed themselves under my protection?"

To this Aristodicus replied by asking the oracle how it was that it watched over and guarded those who sought its own protection, while it directed the people of Cyme to abandon and betray suppliants for theirs. To this the oracle answered,

"I direct them to do it, in order that such impious men may the sooner bring down upon their heads the judgments of heaven for having dared to entertain even the thought of delivering up a helpless fugitive."

When this answer was reported to the people of Cyme, they did not dare to give Pactyas up, nor, on the other hand, did they dare to incur the enmity of the Persians by retaining and protecting him. They accordingly sent him secretly away. The emissaries of Mazares, however, followed him. They kept constantly on his track, demanding him successively of every city where the hapless fugitive sought refuge, until, at length, partly by threats and partly by a reward, they induced a certain city to surrender him. Mazares sent him, a prisoner, to Cyrus. Soon after this Mazares himself died, and Harpagus was appointed governor of Lydia in his stead.

In the mean time, Cyrus went on with his conquests in the heart of Asia, and at length, in the course of a few years, he had completed his arrangements and preparations for the attack on Babylon. He advanced at the head of a large force to the vicinity of the city. The King of Babylon, whose name was Belshazzar, withdrew within the walls, shut the gates, and felt perfectly secure. A simple wall was in those days a very effectual protection against any armed force whatever, if it was only high enough not to be scaled, and thick enough to resist the blows of a battering ram. The artillery of modern times would have speedily made a fatal breach in such structures; but there was nothing but the simple force of man, applied through brazen-headed beams of wood, in those days, and Belshazzar knew well that his walls would bid all such modes of demolition a complete defiance. He stationed his soldiers, therefore, on the walls, and his sentinels in the watch towers, while he himself, and all the nobles of his court, feeling perfectly secure in their impregnable condition, and being abundantly supplied with all the means that the whole empire could furnish, both for sustenance and enjoyment, gave themselves up, in their spacious palaces and gardens, to gayety, festivity, and pleasure.

Cyrus advanced to the city. He stationed one large detachment of his troops at the opening in the main walls where the river entered into the city, and another one below, where it issued from it. These, detachments were ordered to march into the city by the bed of the river, as soon as they should observe the water subsiding. He then employed a vast force of laborers to open new channels, and to widen and deepen those which had existed before, for the purpose of drawing off the waters from their usual bed. When these passages were thus prepared, the water was let into them one night, at a time previously designated, and it soon ceased to flow through the city. The detachments of soldiers marched in over the bed of the stream, carrying with them vast numbers of ladders. With these they easily scaled the low walls which lined the banks of the river, and Belshazzar was thunderstruck with the announcement made to him in the midst of one of his feasts that the Persians were in complete and full possession of the city.

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