The Story of Mankind
Hendrik van Loon

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I AM going to take you to the top of the highest pyramid and I am going to ask that you imagine yourself possessed of the eyes of a hawk. Way, way off, in the distance, far beyond the yellow sands of the desert, you will see something green and shimmering. It is a valley situated between two rivers. It is the Paradise of the Old Testament. It is the land of mystery and wonder which the Greeks called Mesopotamia– the “country between the rivers.”

The names of the two rivers are the Euphrates (which the Babylonians called the Purattu) and the Tigris (which was known as the Diklat). They begin their course amidst the snows of the mountains of Armenia where Noah’s Ark found a resting place and slowly they flow through the southern plain until they reach the muddy banks of the Persian gulf. They perform a very useful service. They turn the arid regions of western Asia into a fertile garden.

The valley of the Nile had attracted people because it had offered them food upon fairly easy terms. The “land between the rivers” was popular for the same reason. It was a country full of promise and both the inhabitants of the northern mountains and the tribes which roamed through the southern deserts tried to claim this territory as their own and most exclusive possession. The constant rivalry between the mountaineers and the desert-nomads led to endless warfare. Only the strongest and the bravest could hope to survive and that will explain why Mesopotamia became the home of a very strong race of men who were capable of creating a civilisation which was in every respect as important as that of Egypt.



THE fifteenth century was an age of great discoveries. Columbus tried to find a way to the island of Kathay and stumbled upon a new and unsuspected continent. An Austrian bishop equipped an expedition which was to travel eastward and find the home of the Grand Duke of Muscovy, a voyage which led to complete failure, for Moscow was not visited by western men until a generation later. Meanwhile a certain Venetian by the name of Barbero had explored the ruins of western Asia and had brought back reports of a most curious language which he had found carved in the rocks of the temples of Shiraz and engraved upon endless pieces of baked clay.

But Europe was busy with many other things and it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that the first “cuneiform inscriptions” (so-called because the letters were wedge-shaped and wedge is called “Cuneus” in Latin) were brought to Europe by a Danish surveyor, named Niebuhr. Then it took thirty years before a patient German school- master by the name of Grotefend had deciphered the first four letters, the D, the A, the R and the SH, the name of the Persian King Darius. And another twenty years had to go by until a British officer, Henry Rawlinson, who found the famous inscription of Behistun, gave us a workable key to the nail- writing of western Asia.

Compared to the problem of deciphering these nail-writings, the job of Champollion had been an easy one. The Egyptians used pictures. But the Sumerians, the earliest inhabitants of Mesopotamia, who had hit upon the idea of scratching their words in tablets of clay, had discarded pictures entirely and had evolved a system of V-shaped figures which showed little connection with the pictures out of which they had been developed. A few examples will show you what I mean. In the beginning a star, when drawn with a nail into a brick looked as follows: {illust.} This sign however was too cumbersome and after a short while when the meaning of “heaven” was added to that of star the picture was simplified in this way {illust.} which made it even more of a puzzle. In the same way an ox changed from {illust} into {illust.} and a fish changed from {illust.} into {illust.} The sun was originally a plain circle {illust.} and became {illust.} If we were using the Sumerian script today we would make an {illust.} look like {illust.}. This system of writing down our ideas looks rather complicated but for more than thirty centuries it was used by the Sumerians and the Babylonians and the Assyrians and the Persians and all the different races which forced their way into the fertile valley.

The story of Mesopotamia is one of endless warfare and conquest. First the Sumerians came from the North. They were a white People who had lived in the mountains. They had been accustomed to worship their Gods on the tops of hills. After they had entered the plain they constructed artificial little hills on top of which they built their altars. They did not know how to build stairs and they therefore surrounded their towers with sloping galleries. Our engineers have borrowed this idea, as you may see in our big railroad stations where ascending galleries lead from one floor to another. We may have borrowed other ideas from the Sumerians but we do not know it. The Sumerians were entirely ab- sorbed by those races that entered the fertile valley at a later date. Their towers however still stand amidst the ruins of Mesopotamia. The Jews saw them when they went into exile in the land of Babylon and they called them towers of BabIlli, or towers of Babel.

In the fortieth century before our era, the Sumerians had entered Mesopotamia. They were soon afterwards over- powered by the Akkadians, one of the many tribes from the desert of Arabia who speak a common dialect and who are known as the “Semites,” because in the olden days people believed them to be the direct descendants of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah. A thousand years later, the Akkadians were forced to submit to the rule of the Amorites, another Semitic desert tribe whose great King Hammurabi built himself a magnificent palace in the holy city of Babylon and who gave his people a set of laws which made the Babylonian state the best administered empire of the ancient world. Next the Hittites, whom you will also meet in the Old Testament, over- ran the Fertile Valley and destroyed whatever they could not carry away. They in turn were vanquished by the followers of the great desert God, Ashur, who called themselves Assyrians and who made the city of Nineveh the center of a vast and terrible empire which conquered all of western Asia and Egypt and gathered taxes from countless subject races until the end of the seventh century before the birth of Christ when the Chaldeans, also a Semitic tribe, re-established Babylon and made that city the most important capital of that day. Nebuchadnezzar, the best known of their Kings, encouraged the study of science, and our modern knowledge of astronomy and mathematics is all based upon certain first principles which were discovered by the Chaldeans. In the year 538 B.C. a crude tribe of Persian shepherds invaded this old land and overthrew the empire of the Chaldeans. Two hundred years later, they in turn were overthrown by Alexander the Great, who turned the Fertile Valley, the old melting-pot of so many Semitic races, into a Greek province. Next came the Romans and after the Romans, the Turks, and Mesopotamia, the second centre of the world’s civilisation, became a vast wilderness where huge mounds of earth told a story of ancient glory.


Preface  •  Foreword  •  The Story of Mankind  •  Our Earliest Ancestors  •  Prehistoric Man  •  Hieroglyphics  •  The Nile Valley  •  The Story of Egypt  •  Mesopotamia  •  Moses  •  The Phoenicians  •  The Indo-Europeans  •  The Aegean Sea  •  The Greeks  •  The Greek Cities  •  Greek Self-Government  •  Greek Life  •  The Greek Theatre  •  The Persian Wars  •  Athens vs. Sparta  •  Alexander the Great  •  A Summary  •  Rome and Carthage  •  The Rise of Rome  •  The Roman Empire  •  Joshua of Nazareth  •  The Fall of Rome  •  Rise of the Church  •  Mohammed  •  Charlemagne  •  The Norsemen  •  Feudalism  •  Chivalry  •  Pope vs. Emperor  •  The Crusades  •  The Mediaeval City  •  Mediaeval Self-Government  •  The Mediaeval World  •  Mediaeval Trade  •  The Renaissance  •  The Age of Expression  •  The Great Discoveries  •  Buddha and Confucius  •  The Reformation  •  Religious Warfare  •  The English Revolution  •  The Balance of Power  •  The Rise of Russia  •  Russia vs. Sweden  •  The Rise of Prussia  •  The Mercantile System  •  The American Revolution  •  The French Revolution  •  Napoleon  •  The Holy Alliance  •  The Great Reaction  •  National Independence  •  The Age of the Engine  •  The Social Revolution  •  Emancipation  •  The Age of Science  •  Art  •  Colonial Expansion and War  •  A New World

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By Hendrik van Loon
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