[Illustration: Plate 33]
“The Assyrian was a cedar in Lebanon, fair of branches, and with a shadowing shroud, and of high stature; and his top was among the thick boughs. . . . Nor was any tree in the garden of God like unto him in his beauty.”—EZEK. xxxi. 3 and 8.
The ethnic character of the ancient Assyrians, like that of the Chaldaeans, was in former times a matter of controversy. When nothing was known of the original language of the people beyond the names of certain kings, princes, and generals, believed to have belonged to the race, it was difficult to arrive at any determinate conclusion on the subject. The ingenuity of etymologists displayed itself in suggesting derivations for the words in question, which were sometimes absurd, sometimes plausible, but never more than very doubtful conjectures. No sound historical critic could be content to base a positive view on any such unstable foundation, and nothing remained but to decide the controversy on other than linguistic considerations.
Various grounds existed on which it was felt that a conclusion could be drawn. The Scriptural genealogies connected Asshur with Aran, Pier, and Joktan, the allowed progenitors of the Armaeians or Syrians, the Israelites or Hebrews, and the northern or Joktanian Arabs. The languages, physical type, and moral characteristics of these races were well known: they all belonged evidently to a single family the family known to ethnologists as the Semitic. Again, the manners and customs, especially the religious customs, of the Assyrians connected then plainly with the Syrians and Phoenicians, with whose practices they were closely allied. Further it was observed that the modern Chaldaeans of Kurdistan, who regard themselves as descendants of the ancient inhabitants of the neighboring Assyria, still speak a Semitic dialect. These three distinct and convergent lines of testimony were sufficient to justify historians in the conclusion, which they commonly drew, that the ancient Assyrians belonged to the Semitic family, and were more or less closely connected with the Syrians, the (later) Babylonians, the Phoenicians, the Israelites, and the Arabs of the northern portion of the peninsula.
Recent linguistic discoveries have entirely confirmed the conclusion thus, arrived at. We now possess in the engraved slabs, the clay tablets, the cylinders, and the bricks, exhumed from the ruins of the great Assyrian cities, copious documentary evidence of the character of the Assyrian language, and (so far as language is a proof) of the ethnic character of the race. It appears to be doubted by none who have examined the evidence, that the language of these records is Semitic. However imperfect the acquaintance which our best Oriental archaeologists have as yet obtained with this ancient and difficult form of speech, its connection with the Syriac, the later Babylonian, the Hebrew, and the Arabic does not seem to admit of a doubt.