Iraq today is a battle-scarred land that is being torn apart by religious and tribal sectarianism. The fact that the region was once the epicenter of Jewish life and the cradle of global civilization is often forgotten.
Babylonia, as southern Iraq was once called, was controlled by the Assyrians, a people originating from the area that is present-day Syria. The Babylonian Empire started out as a single city called Babylon. Babylon, now a heap of ruins in Hillah, Iraq, was home to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
It wasn’t until Hammurabi (of Hammurabi Code fame,) came to power in 1700 B.C.E. that the Empire grew and started expanding to the west. After Hammurabi’s death, Babylonia went through a turbulent period of succession struggles but managed to reach stability after it fell into Akkadian and then Assyrian hands. The Assyrians made many scientific and mathematical accomplishments, including being the first to divide a circle into 360 degrees.
In 620 B.C.E. Nabopolassar finally put the Babylonian Empire back under native Babylonian control in what is referred to as the Neo-Babylonian Empire. After Nabopolassar died, his son Nebuchadnezzar II made the Empire a world power and built the Hanging Gardens. It was also Nebuchadnezzar II that sacked Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. and destroyed the First Temple, as recounted in the Books of Yirmiyahu and Daniel.
Thousands of Jews were exiled as a result of the Babylonian conquest of Judea. Most went to northern Israel but about 1,500 Judeans made the dangerous trek to Babylonia. They found great success in their new home, gaining prominent positions in business and government, but they also wept with longing to return to the Holy Land (Tehillim 137:1). After the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians in 539 B.C.E., a group of exiles returned to Jerusalem under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah.
On February 2nd, a new exhibition at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, is showing more than 100 clay cuneiform tablets and is shedding some light on what life was like in the Babylonian Exile. The small tablets were dug up in Iraq in the 1970’s and acquired some time ago by London-based Israeli collector David Sofer. However, it wasn’t until two years ago that archaeologists were given their first chance to look at them when Mr. Sofer loaned part of the collection to the Bible Lands Museum. In the words of Filip Vukosavovic, ancient Babylonian history expert and current curator of the museum’s tablet exhibition, “It was like hitting the jackpot.”
The tablet collection is made up mainly of Akkadian administrative certificates such as sales bonds, contracts and addresses. The tablets are marked with dates ranging from 572-477 B.C.E. with the oldest one having been written in a small script, just 15 years after the destruction of the First Temple. They speak of a bloc of Jewish settlements between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in Babylonia. One village is called Al-Yahadu, the Babylonian term for Jerusalem. Names of the residents there include Gedalyahu, Hanan, Dana, Shaltiel, and Netanyahu. The tablets also match up with the passage in the Book of Yechezkel in which the prophet writes, “as I was among the captives by the River Chebar.” Mention of the “River Chebar” appears several times in the tablets.
The tablets keep a meticulous record of various business transactions, leasing agreements, debts, taxes etc. For example, Certificate 31 describes a deal between Yirpa Ben Dohah and Ahikam Ben Refa’iyahu in which a “trained, five-year-old bull” is traded for a “gray jennet.” In another tablet, a man named Neriayu Ben Ahikam rents his house for “10 silver shekels … half given at the beginning of the year and the rest in the middle of the year” with the condition that the tenant would pay for any damages done to the structure.
The tablets also chronicle a family in the Judean Kingdom over the course of four generations beginning with the father, Samak-Yama, his son, grandson, and five great-grandchildren, all with biblical Hebrew names still in use today. Even the inheritances for each generation are detailed.
Some tablets have ancient Hebrew writing next to the Akkadian cuneiform. This is assumed by researchers to be for the purpose of cataloging and tracing. For example, in Certificate 10, dealing with a barley bond, the name Shalemiyahu appears in ancient Hebrew. According to Prof. Wayne Horowitz, an archaeologist studying the tablets, “These are the most ancient Hebraic letters from Babylonian exile.”
Vukosavovic says that the tablets complete a “2,500-year-old puzzle.” They also represent yet another confirmation of the Biblical text’s historical accuracy.
Many Jews returned to Eretz Yisrael after it was conquered by the Persian Empire under Cyrus the Great. However, many others stayed in Babylonia and formed one of the oldest exile communities in the world, thriving for over 2,500 years until the 1950’s when most Jews from the Arab world moved to the newly formed state of Israel. The single most important contribution of the Babylonian Jews was undoubtedly Talmud Bavli, a text still in use to this day.
(Sources: Jerusalem Post, Haaretz, Daily Mail)