Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon    

Chapter 11: Assyria and Babylonia—the Great Semitic Melting-pot

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We often call America the "Melting-pot." When we use this term we mean that many races from all over the earth have made America their home. It is true, Mesopotamia was much smaller than our own country. But the fertile valley was the most extraordinary "melting-pot" the world has ever seen and it continued to absorb new tribes for almost two thousand years. The story of each new people, clamoring for homesteads along the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates is interesting in itself but we can give you only a very short record of their adventures.

The Sumerians whom we met in the previous chapter, scratching their history upon rocks and bits of clay (and who did not belong to the Semitic race) had been the first nomads to wander into Mesopotamia. Nomads are people who have no settled homes and no grain fields and no vegetable gardens but who live in tents and keep sheep and goats and cows and who move from pasture to pasture, taking their flocks and their tents wherever the grass is green and the water abundant.

Far and wide their mud huts had covered the plains. They were good fighters and for a long time they were able to hold their own against all invaders.

But four thousand years ago a tribe of Semitic desert people called the Akkadians left Arabia, defeated the Sumerians and conquered Mesopotamia. The most famous king of these Akkadians was called Sargon.

He taught his people how to write their own Semitic language in the alphabet of the Sumerians whose territory they had just occupied. He ruled so wisely that soon the differences between the original settlers and the invaders disappeared and they became fast friends and lived together in peace and harmony.

The fame of his empire spread rapidly throughout western Asia and others, hearing of this success, were tempted to try their own luck.

A new tribe of desert nomads, called the Amorites, broke up camp and moved northward.

Thereupon the valley was the scene of a great turmoil until an Amorite chieftain by the name of Hammurapi (or Hammurabi, as you please) established himself in the town of Bab-Illi (which means the Gate of the God) and made himself the ruler of a great Bab-Illian or Babylonian Empire.

This Hammurapi, who lived twenty-one centuries before the birth of Christ, was a very interesting man. He made Babylon the most important town of the ancient world, where learned priests administered the laws which their great Ruler had received from the Sun God himself and where the merchant loved to trade because he was treated fairly and honorably.

Indeed if it were not for the lack of space (these laws of Hammurapi would cover fully forty of these pages if I were to give them to you in detail) I would be able to show you that this ancient Babylonian State was in many respects better managed and that the people were happier and that law and order was maintained more carefully and that there was greater freedom of speech and thought than in many of our modern countries.

But our world was never meant to be too perfect and soon other hordes of rough and murderous men descended from the northern mountains and destroyed the work of Hammurapi's genius.

The name of these new invaders was the Hittites. Of these Hittites I can tell you even less than of the Sumerians. The Bible mentions them. Ruins of their civilization have been found far and wide. They used a strange sort of hieroglyphics but no one has as yet been able to decipher these and read their meaning. They were not greatly gifted as administrators. They ruled only a few years and then their domains fell to pieces.

Of all their glory there remains nothing but a mysterious name and the reputation of having destroyed many things which other people had built up with great pain and care.

Then came another invasion which was of a very different nature.

A fierce tribe of desert wanderers, who murdered and pillaged in the name of their great God Assur, left Arabia and marched northward until they reached the slopes of the mountains. Then they turned eastward and along the banks of the Euphrates they built a city which they called Ninua, a name which has come down to us in the Greek form of Nineveh. At once these new-comers, who are generally known as the Assyrians, began a slow but terrible warfare upon all the other inhabitants of Mesopotamia.

In the twelfth century before Christ they made a first attempt to destroy Babylon but after a first success on the part of their King, Tiglath Pileser, they were defeated and forced to return to their own country.

Five hundred years later they tried again. An adventurous general by the name of Bulu made himself master of the Assyrian throne. He assumed the name of old Tiglath Pileser, who was considered the national hero of the Assyrians and announced his intention of conquering the whole world.

He was as good as his word.

Asia Minor and Armenia and Egypt and Northern Arabia and Western Persia and Babylonia became Assyrian provinces. They were ruled by Assyrian governors, who collected the taxes and forced all the young men to serve as soldiers in the Assyrian armies and who made themselves thoroughly hated and despised both for their greed and their cruelty.

Fortunately the Assyrian Empire at its greatest height did not last very long. It was like a ship with too many masts and sails and too small a hull. There were too many soldiers and not enough farmers--too many generals and not enough business men.

The King and the nobles grew very rich but the masses lived in squalor and poverty. Never for a moment was the country at peace. It was forever fighting someone, somewhere, for causes which did not interest the subjects at all. Until, through this continuous and exhausting warfare, most of the Assyrian soldiers had been killed or maimed and it became necessary to allow foreigners to enter the army. These foreigners had little love for their brutal masters who had destroyed their homes and had stolen their children and therefore they fought badly.

Life along the Assyrian frontier was no longer safe.

Strange new tribes were constantly attacking the northern boundaries. One of these was called the Cimmerians. The Cimmerians, when we first hear of them, inhabited the vast plain beyond the northern mountains. Homer describes their country in his account of the voyage of Odysseus and he tells us that it was a place "forever steeped in darkness." They were a race of white men and they had been driven out of their former homes by still another group of Asiatic wanderers, the Scythians.

The Scythians were the ancestors of the modern Cossacks, and even in those remote days they were famous for their horsemanship.

The Cimmerians, hard pressed by the Scythians, crossed from Europe into Asia and conquered the land of the Hittites. Then they left the mountains of Asia Minor and descended into the valley of Mesopotamia, where they wrought terrible havoc among the impoverished people of the Assyrian Empire.

Nineveh called for volunteers to stop this invasion. Her worn-out regiments marched northward when news came of a more immediate and formidable danger.

For many years a small tribe of Semitic nomads, called the Chaldeans, had been living peacefully in the south-eastern part of the fertile valley, in the country called Ur. Suddenly these Chaldeans had gone upon the war-path and had begun a regular campaign against the Assyrians.

Attacked from all sides, the Assyrian State, which had never gained the good-will of a single neighbor, was doomed to perish.

When Nineveh fell and this forbidding treasure house, filled with the plunder of centuries, was at last destroyed, there was joy in every hut and hamlet from the Persian Gulf to the Nile.

And when the Greeks visited the Euphrates a few generations later and asked what these vast ruins, covered with shrubs and trees might be, there was no one to tell them.

The people had hastened to forget the very name of the city that had been such a cruel master and had so miserably oppressed them.

Babylon, on the other hand, which had ruled its subjects in a very different way, came back to life.

During the long reign of the wise King Nebuchadnezzar the ancient temples were rebuilt. Vast palaces were erected within a short space of time. New canals were dug all over the valley to help irrigate the fields. Quarrelsome neighbors were severely punished.

Egypt was reduced to a mere frontier-province and Jerusalem, the capital of the Jews, was destroyed. The Holy Books of Moses were taken to Babylon and several thousand Jews were forced to follow the Babylonian King to his capital as hostages for the good behavior of those who remained behind in Palestine.

But Babylon was made into one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

Trees were planted along the banks of the Euphrates.

Flowers were made to grow upon the many walls of the city and after a few years it seemed that a thousand gardens were hanging from the roofs of the ancient town.

As soon as the Chaldeans had made their capital the show-place of the world they devoted their attention to matters of the mind and of the spirit.

Like all desert folk they were deeply interested in the stars which at night had guided them safely through the trackless desert.

They studied the heavens and named the twelve signs of the Zodiak.

They made maps of the sky and they discovered the first five planets. To these they gave the names of their Gods. When the Romans conquered Mesopotamia they translated the Chaldean names into Latin and that explains why today we talk of Jupiter and Venus and Mars and Mercury and Saturn.

They divided the equator into three hundred and sixty degrees and they divided the day into twenty-four hours and the hour into sixty minutes and no modern man has ever been able to improve upon this old Babylonian invention. They possessed no watches but they measured time by the shadow of the sun-dial.

They learned to use both the decimal and the duodecimal systems (nowadays we use only the decimal system, which is a great pity). The duodecimal system (ask your father what the word means), accounts for the sixty minutes and the sixty seconds and the twenty-four hours which seem to have so little in common with our modern world which would have divided day and night into twenty hours and the hour into fifty minutes and the minute into fifty seconds according to the rules of the restricted decimal system.

The Chaldeans also were the first people to recognize the necessity of a regular day of rest.

When they divided the year into weeks they ordered that six days of labor should be followed by one day, devoted to the "peace of the soul."

It was a great pity that the center of so much intelligence and industry could not exist forever. But not even the genius of a number of very wise Kings could save the ancient people of Mesopotamia from their ultimate fate.

The Semitic world was growing old.

It was time for a new race of men.

In the fifth century before Christ, an Indo-European people called the Persians (I shall tell you about them later) left its pastures amidst the high mountains of Iran and conquered the fertile valley.

The city of Babylon was captured without a struggle.

Nabonidus, the last Babylonian king, who had been more interested in religious problems than in defending his own country, fled.

A few days later his small son, who had remained behind, died.

Cyrus, the Persian King, buried the child with great honor and then proclaimed himself the legitimate successor of the old rulers of Babylonia.

Mesopotamia ceased to be an independent State.

It became a Persian province ruled by a Persian "Satrap" or Governor.

As for Babylon, when the Kings no longer used the city as their residence it soon lost all importance and became a mere country village.

In the fourth century before Christ it enjoyed another spell of glory.

It was in the year 331 B.C. that Alexander the Great, the young Greek who had just conquered Persia and India and Egypt and every other place, visited the ancient city of sacred memories. He wanted to use the old city as a background for his own newly-acquired glory. He began to rebuild the palace and ordered that the rubbish be removed from the temples.

Unfortunately he died quite suddenly in the Banqueting Hall of Nebuchadnezzar and after that nothing on earth could save Babylon from her ruin.

As soon as one of Alexander's generals, Seleucus Nicator, had perfected the plans for a new city at the mouth of the great canal which united the Tigris and the Euphrates, the fate of Babylon was sealed.

A tablet of the year 275 B.C. tells us how the last of the Babylonians were forced to leave their home and move into this new settlement which had been called Seleucia.

Even then, a few of the faithful continued to visit the holy places which were now inhabited by wolves and jackals.

The majority of the people, little interested in those half-forgotten divinities of a bygone age, made a more practical use of their former home.

They used it as a stone-quarry.

For almost thirty centuries Babylon had been the great spiritual and intellectual center of the Semitic world and a hundred generations had regarded the city as the most perfect expression of their people's genius.

It was the Paris and London and New York of the ancient world.

At present three large mounds show us where the ruins lie buried beneath the sand of the ever-encroaching desert.

    Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon Ancient Man by Hendrik Van Loon    

Chapter 11: Assyria and Babylonia—the Great Semitic Melting-pot


Study the lesson for two weeks.

Over the two weeks:

  • Read the story multiple times.
  • Read the synopsis.
  • Review the vocabulary terms.
  • Complete the enrichment activities.
  • Study the review questions.


The eleventh chapter describes the convergence of people upon the fertile, green land of Mesopotamia. Remember that Mesopotamia, meaning 'middle river,' sat between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in the land now known as Syria and Iraq. The first settlers of the land were the Sumerians. Four thousand years ago, a Semitic tribe called the Akkadians came and conquered the Sumerians. The Sumerians and Akkadians integrated and lived peacefully together. Next came a tribe of desert nomads, called the Amorites. The great Amorite leader, Hammurabi, established the Babylonian Empire. The Babylonians were defeated by a mountain tribe called the Hittites, who destroyed much and didn't rule long. Next, the cruel Assyrians came to rule. The Assyrians built up a large empire which included the city of Nineveh. After attacks from both the Cimmerians and Chaldeans, Nineveh fell, and the Assyrian rule ended. People rejoiced under Chaldean rule. The people were given a day of rest each week, and science and math flourished. Babylon rose again to become a wonder of the world with its famous hanging gardens that grew from the rooftops. Unfortunately, the happy times did not last for Babylon. After the Persians conquered the Chaldeans, Mesopotamia became a province of Persia and the great city of Babylon faded away.


Mesopotamia: A fertile valley between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in present-day Syria and Iraq.
Semitic: Relating to or denoting a family of languages that includes Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic and certain ancient languages such as Phoenician and Akkadian.
Nomad: People who have no settled homes and no grain fields and no vegetable gardens but who live in tents and keep sheep and goats and cows and who move from pasture to pasture, taking their flocks and their tents wherever the grass is green and the water abundant.
Tribe: A social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious, or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognized leader.
Empire: An extensive group of states or countries under a single supreme authority, formerly especially an emperor or empress.


Activity 1: Narrate the Chapter

  • After you listen to the chapter, narrate the chapter aloud using your own words.

Activity 2: Map the Lesson

Study the locations mentioned in the chapter.

  • The Tigris River
  • The Euphrates River
  • Mesopotamia

Activity 3: Can You Find It?

Find the following items in 'Hanging Gardens of Babylon,' a 16th century engraving by Dutch artist Martin Heemskerck.

  • Euphrates River
  • Boat with Sails
  • Griffin Statue
  • Elephant
  • Camels
  • Babylonians
  • Fountain
  • Steps
  • Pillars
  • Palm Trees
  • Parasol

Activity 4: Can You Find It?

Zoom in on the image, and study the heavens as the Chaldeans did with their telescopes. Find the following celestial objects in the sky.

  • The Planet Saturn
  • The Planet Mars
  • The Planet Jupiter
  • The Evening Star (The Planet of Venus)
  • The Moon
  • The Star Lyra
  • The Star Arcturus
  • The Star Castor
  • The Star Pollux
  • The Constellation 'The Dipper'
  • The Constellation 'The Little Dipper'
  • The Constellation 'The Serpent'
  • Two Comets
  • The City of Babylon
  • The Babylonian Observatory with a Telescope

Activity 5: Complete Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing   

  • Click the crayon above. Complete pages 36-37 of 'Second Grade World History Coloring Pages, Copywork, and Writing.'


Question 1

What is a melting-pot?
1 / 6

Answer 1

A melting-pot is a place where many groups of people converge.
1 / 6

Question 2

What are nomads?
2 / 6

Answer 2

Nomads are people who have no settled homes, no grain fields, and no vegetable gardens. Nomads live in tents, keep sheep, goats, and cows, and move from pasture to pasture.
2 / 6

Question 3

What happened to the city of Nineveh?
3 / 6

Answer 3

Nineveh was destroyed by the Cimmerians and the Chaldeans.
3 / 6

Question 4

Why was the city of Babylon considered a wonder of the world?
4 / 6

Answer 4

The city of Babylon was considered a wonder of the world for its beautiful hanging gardens.
4 / 6

Question 5

What happened to the great city of Babylon?
5 / 6

Answer 5

Babylon was abandoned and reclaimed by the desert.
5 / 6

Question 6

Name three celestial objects in the sky.
6 / 6

Answer 6

Named celestial objects might include the moon, the stars, other planets, and comets.
6 / 6

  1. What is a melting-pot? A melting-pot is a place where many groups of people converge.
  2. What are nomads? Nomads are people who have no settled homes, no grain fields, and no vegetable gardens. Nomads live in tents, keep sheep, goats, and cows, and move from pasture to pasture.
  3. What happened to the city of Nineveh? Nineveh was destroyed by the Cimmerians and the Chaldeans.
  4. Why was the city of Babylon considered a wonder of the world? The city of Babylon was considered a wonder of the world for its beautiful hanging gardens.
  5. What happened to the great city of Babylon? Babylon was abandoned and reclaimed by the desert.
  6. Name three celestial objects in the sky. Named celestial objects might include the moon, the stars, other planets, and comets.


  1. 'Hanging Gardens of Babylon.' Wikipedia. n.p.