Geography of Babylonia and Assyria

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The Geography of Babylonia, like its ethnology and history, enclosed between the two great rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, forms but one country. The writers of antiquity clearly recognized this fact, speaking of the whole under the general, while the southern is flat and marshy; the near approach of the two rivers to one another, at a spot where the undulating plateau of the north sinks suddenly into the Babylonian alluvium, tends to separate them still more completely. In the earliest recorded times, the northern portion was included in Mesopotamia; it was marked off as Assyria after the rise of the Assyrian monarchy. Apart from Assur, the original capital, the chief cities of the country, Nineveh, Calah and Arbela, were all on the east bank of the Tigris. The reason was its abundant supply of water, whereas the great Mesopotamian plain on the western side had to depend on streams flowing into the Euphrates.

This vast flat, the modern El-Jezireh, is about 250 miles (400 km) in length, interrupted only by a single limestone range rising abruptly out of the plain, and branching off from the Zagros mountains under the names of Sarazur, Hainrin and Sinjar. The numerous remains of old habitations show how thickly this level tract must once have been peopled, though now mostly a wilderness. North of the plateau rises a well-watered and undulating belt of country, into which run low ranges of limestone hills, sometimes arid, sometimes covered with dwarf oak, and often shutting in, between their northern and northeastern flank and the main mountain line from which they detach themselves, rich plains and fertile valleys. Behind them tower the massive ridges of the Euphrates and Zagros ranges, where the Tigris and Euphrates take their rise, and which cut off Assyria from Armenia and Kurdistan. The name Assyria itself was derived from that of the city of Assur or Asur, now Qal'at Sherqat (Kaleh Shergat), on the right bank of the Tigris, midway between the Greater and the Lesser Zab. It remained the capital long after the Assyrians had become the dominant power in western Asia, but was finally supplanted by Calah (Nimrud), Nineveh (Nebi Vunus and Kuyunjik), and Dur-Sargina (Khorsabad), some 60 miles (97 km) farther north.

In contrast with the arid plateau of Mesopotamia stretched the rich alluvial plain of Chaldaea, formed by the deposits of the two great rivers that encircled it. The soil was extremely fertile, and teemed with an industrious population. Eastward rose the mountains of Elam, southward were the sea-marshes and the Kaldy or Chaldaeans and other Aramaic tribes, while on the west the civilization of Babylonia encroached beyond the banks of the Euphrates, upon the territory of the Semitic nomads (or Suti). Here stood Ur (Mugheir, more correctly Muqayyar) the earliest capital of the country; and Babylon, with its suburb, Borsippa (Birs Nimrud), as well as the two Sipparas (the Sepharvaim of Scripture, now Abu Habba), occupied both the Arabian and Chaldaean sides of the river. The Arakhtu, or "river of Babylon," flowed past the southern side of the city, and to the southwest of it on the Arabian bank lay the great inland freshwater sea of Najaf, surrounded by red sandstone cliffs of considerable height, 40 miles (64 km) in length and 35 in breadth in the widest part. Above and below this sea, from Borsippa to Kufa, extend the famous Chaldaean marshes, where Alexander the Great was nearly lost (Arrian, Eup. Al. vii. 22; Strabo xvi. I, § 12); but these depend upon the state of the Hindiya canal, disappearing altogether when it is closed.

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