BABYLONIA AND ASSYRIA
While the influence of Egypt upon Israel may be described as negative, that of Babylonia was positive. Abraham was a Babylonian by birth; the Asiatic world through which he wandered was Babylonian in civilisation and government, and the Babylonian exile was the final turning-point in the religious history of Judah. The Semitic Babylonians were allied in race and language to the Hebrews; they had common ideas and common points of view. Though Egyptian influence is markedly absent from the Mosaic Code, we find in it old Semitic institutions and beliefs which equally characterised Babylonia.
But the Semites were not the first occupants of Babylonia. The civilisation of the country had been founded by a race which spoke an agglutinative language, like that of the modern Finns or Turks, and which scholars have now agreed to call Sumerian. The Sumerians had been the builders of the cities, the reclaimers of the marshy plain, the inventors of the picture-writing which developed into the cuneiform or wedge-shaped characters, and the pioneers of a culture which profoundly affected the whole of western Asia. The Semites entered upon the inheritance, adopting, modifying, and improving upon it. The Babylonian civilisation, with which we are best acquainted, was the result of this amalgamation of Sumerian and Semitic elements.
Out of this mixture of Sumerians and Semites there arose a mixed people, a mixed language, and a mixed religion. The language and race of Babylonia were thus like those of England, probably also like those of Egypt. Mixed races are invariably the best; it is the more pure-blooded peoples who fall behind in the struggle for existence.
Recent excavations have thrown light on the early beginnings of Babylonia. The country itself was an alluvial plain, formed by the silt deposited each year by the Tigris and Euphrates. The land grows at the rate of about ninety feet a year, or less than two miles in a century; since the age of Alexander the Great the waters of the Persian Gulf have receded more than forty-six miles from the shore. When the Sumerians first settled by the banks of the Euphrates it must have been on the sandy plateau to the west of the river where the city of Ur, the modern Mugheir, was afterwards built. At that time the future Babylonia was a pestiferous marsh, inundated by the unchecked overflow of the rivers which flowed through it. The reclamation of the marsh was the first work of the new-comers. The rivers were banked out and the inundation regulated by means of canals. All this demanded no little engineering skill; in fact, the creation of Babylonia was the birth of the science of engineering.