فصل 04کتاب: تاریخی کوچک از جهان / فصل 4
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SUNDAY, MONDAY …
There are seven days in a week. I don’t need to tell you their names because you know them already. But have you any idea where and when it was that the days were each given a name? Or who first had the idea of arranging them into weeks, so that they no longer flew past, nameless and in no order, as they did for people in prehistoric times? It wasn’t in Egypt, but in another country which was no less hot, but where, instead of just one river, there were two: the Tigris and the Euphrates. And because the important part of that country lay between two rivers, it was called Mesopotamia, which is Greek for the land ‘between the rivers’. Mesopotamia is not in Africa, but in Asia, though still not so very far from our part of the world, in a region called the Middle East, in the country we know as Iraq. The Tigris and the Euphrates join together and then flow out into the Persian Gulf.
Picture a vast plain, crossed by these two rivers. A land of heat and swamp and sudden floods. Here and there tall hills rise out of the plain. But if you dig into them you find that they aren’t hills at all. First, you come across a lot of bricks and rubble, and when you dig deeper you meet stout, high walls. For these hills are really ruined towns and great cities laid out with long, straight streets, tall houses, palaces and temples. But unlike Egypt’s stone temples and pyramids, they were built with sun-baked bricks which cracked and crumbled over time, and eventually collapsed into great mounds of rubble.
One such mound, standing in the desert, is all that remains of Babylon, once the greatest city on earth, a city swarming with people who came there from every part of the world to trade their wares. Upstream, at the foot of the mountains, sits another. This was Nineveh, the second greatest city in the land. Babylon was the capital of the Babylonians that’s easy enough to remember Nineveh was that of the Assyrians.
Unlike Egypt, Mesopotamia was rarely ruled by just one king. Nor did any single empire survive long within firm frontiers. Many tribes and many kings held power at different times. The most important of these were the Sumerians, the Babylonians, and the Assyrians. For a long time, it was thought that the Egyptians were the first people to have everything that goes to make up what we call a culture: towns and tradesmen, noblemen and kings, temples and priests, administrators and artists, writing and technical skills.
Yet we now know that, in some respects, the Sumerians were ahead of the Egyptians. Excavations of rubble mounds on plains near the Persian Gulf have revealed that the people living there had already learnt how to shape bricks from clay and build houses and temples by 3100 BC. Deep inside one of the largest of these mounds were found the ruins of the city of Ur where, so the Bible tells us, Abraham was born. A great number of tombs were also found that appeared to date from the same time as Cheops’s Great Pyramid in Egypt. But while the pyramid was empty, these tombs were packed with the most astonishing treasures. Dazzling golden headdresses and gold vessels for sacrifices, gold helmets and gold daggers set with semi-precious stones. Magnificent harps decorated with bulls’ heads, and would you believe it a gameboard, beautifully crafted and patterned like a chessboard. The explorer who found these treasures took many of them to England, where you can see them in the British Museum. Others are in the University of Pennsylvania and the Museum of Baghdad in Iraq.
They also found round seals and inscribed clay tablets in those tombs. However, the inscriptions were not in hieroglyphs, but in a totally different script that was, if anything, even harder to decipher. This was because pictures had been replaced by neatly incised single strokes ending in a small triangle, or wedge. The script is called cuneiform, meaning wedge-shaped. Books made of papyrus were unknown to the Mesopotamians. They inscribed these signs into tablets of soft clay, which they then baked hard in ovens. Huge numbers of these ancient tablets have been found, some recounting long and wonderful stories, such as that of the hero Gilgamesh and his battles with monsters and dragons. On other tablets kings boast of their deeds: the temples they have built for all eternity, and all the nations they have conquered.
There are also tablets on which merchants recorded their business dealings contracts, receipts and inventories of goods and thanks to these we know that, even before the Babylonians and Assyrians, the ancient Sumerians were already great traders. Their merchants could calculate with ease, and plainly knew the difference between what was lawful and what was not.
One of the first Babylonian kings to rule over the whole region left a long and important inscription, engraved in stone. It is the oldest law-book in the world, and is known as the Code of Hammurabi. His name may sound as if it comes out of a storybook, but there is nothing fanciful about his laws they are strict and just. So it is worth remembering when King Hammurabi lived: around 1700 BC, that is some 3,700 years ago.
The Babylonians, and the Assyrians after them, were disciplined and hardworking, but they didn’t paint cheerful pictures like the Egyptians. Most of their statues and reliefs show kings out hunting, or inspecting kneeling captives bound in chains, or foreign tribes-people fleeing before the wheels of their chariots, and warriors attacking fortresses. The kings look forbidding, and have long black ringlets and rippling beards. They are also sometimes shown making sacrifices to Baal, the sun god, or to the moon goddess Ishtar or Astarte.
For both the Babylonians and the Assyrians worshipped the sun and the moon, and also the stars. On clear, warm nights, throughout the year and over centuries, they observed and recorded everything they saw in the skies. And because they were intelligent, they noticed that the stars revolved in a regular way. They soon learnt to recognise those that seemed fixed to the vault of heaven, reappearing each night in the same place. And they saw shapes in the constellations and gave them names, just as we do when we speak of the Great Bear. But the stars which seemed to move over the vault of heaven, now, say, towards the Great Bear, and now towards the Scales, were the ones that interested them most. In those days people thought that the earth was a flat disk, and that the sky was a sort of hollow sphere cupped over the earth, that turned over it once each day. So it must have seemed miraculous to them that, although most of the stars stayed fixed to the heavens, some seemed, as it were, only loosely fastened, and able to move about.
Today we know that these are the stars that are close to us, and that they turn with the earth around the sun. They are called planets. But the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians couldn’t know that, and so they thought some strange magic must lie behind it. They gave a name to each wandering star and observed them constantly, convinced that they were powerful beings whose positions influenced the destinies of men, and that by studying them they would be able to predict the future. This belief in the stars has a Greek name: astrology.
Some planets were believed to bring good luck, others misfortune: Mars meant war and Venus, love. To each of the five planets known to them, they dedicated a day, and with the sun and the moon, that made seven. This was the origin of our seven-day week. In English, we still say Satur (Saturn)-day, Sun-day and Mon (moon)-day, but the other days are named after different gods. In other languages such as French or Italian most of the days of the week still belong to the planets that the Babylonians first named. Would you ever have guessed that our weekdays had such a strange and venerable history, reaching back all those thousands of years? To be nearer to their stars, and also to see them better in a misty land, the Babylonians, and the Sumerians before them, erected strange buildings with a wonderful name: ziggurats. These are tall, broad towers made up of terraces piled one on top of another, with formidable ramps and steep, narrow staircases. Right at the very top was a temple dedicated to the moon, or one of the other planets. People came from far and wide to ask the priests to read their fortunes in the stars, and brought offerings of great value. These half-ruined ziggurats can still be seen today, poking out of the rubble mounds, with inscriptions telling how this or that king built or restored them. The earliest kings in this region lived as long ago as 3000 BC, and the last around 550 BC.
The last great Babylonian king was Nebuchadnezzar. He lived around 600 BC and is remembered for his feats of war. He fought against Egypt and brought a vast number of foreign captives home to Babylon as slaves. And yet his truly greatest deeds were not his wars: he had huge canals and water cisterns dug in order to retain the water and irrigate the land, so that it became rich and fertile. Only when those canals became blocked with silt and the cisterns filled with mud did the land become what it is today: a desert wasteland and marshy plain with, here and there, one of those hills I mentioned.
So, whenever we are glad that the week is nearly over, and Sunday is coming round again, we must spare a thought for those hills of rubble in that hot and marshy plain, and for those fierce kings with their long, black beards. For now, we know how it all fits together.
It was in this part of the world, between Mesopotamia and Egypt, that the history of mankind began, with bloody battles and daring voyages by Phoenician trading ships. You can look at this map again as you read the next chapters.