Who were the ancient Chaldeans?

Chaldean captives as depicted in an Assyrian military campaign.
Chaldea (Akk. Kaldu) corresponds to the geographical territory situated within the south-eastern marshlands and coastal plains of southern Babylonia along the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The name Kaldu is a variant of Kašdu (Akk. conquered, seized, attacked). German archaeologist Wolfram von Soden argues that in later stages of the Babylonian dialect of Akkadian, the sibilants s, s̈, and ṣ often shifted to l before dental consonants like t and d. For instance, the earlier as̈ṭụr "I wrote" became altur. From the beginning of the second millennium BCE, an influx of semi-nomadic clans had begun infiltrating southern Babylonia in waves and established permanent settlement in the region's fertile marshes, also known as the Sealand. The Chaldeans (Akk. Kaldayu), whose existence has been recorded yet origins shrouded in obscurity controlled much of the regions trade routes due to their geographical proximity to the Persian Gulf. It must be noted that, there is admittedly not a single shred of independent archaeological evidence to attest earlier Chaldean settlements in this region. This suggests that the Chaldeans may have represented part of a later migratory group of peoples who settled in southern Babylonia. Some writers have proposed that the Chaldeans may have been a continuum of the ancient Sumerians, however, this notion is fictitious and holds no archaeological credence. In fact, the Chaldeans are often differentiated from the native population and described as "nomads" and/or the "non-Babylonians". These references are quite significant as they project native Assyro-Babylonian perceptions and attitudes toward these newcomers. Given that their settlements traversed the south-eastern fertile marshes, the economy of the Chaldean clans was one predominantly based on agricultural farming, animal husbandry, fishing and hunting. The region of Chaldea consisted of five principal clans and/or provinces; Bit-Yâkin, Bit-Dakkuri, Bit-Amukkani, Bit-Sa'alla and Bit-Šilani— 'Bit' signifying 'household of' and concluding with the name of an eponymous ancestor. The administrative structure of the Chaldean clans was one governed by individual chieftain (Akk. ra'su, plural. ra'sānu) assigned to each respective clan.

By the seventh century BCE, Babylonia had entered a period of turmoil, civil unrest, political decline, and vulnerability. This was a period of anarchy darkened by internal disorders. Chaldean tribal chiefs whom, no doubt aspired to flatter Babylonian susceptibilities, took on Babylonian names in an attempt to usurp the throne. Marduk-apla-uṣur, the earliest documented Chaldean chief successfully seizes the throne— filling the political vacuum created by a declining Babylon. Fragmentary text from Uruk vividly accounts the Chaldean king's plundering, sacrilege, and mistreatment of its native Babylonian population; "Marduk-apla-uṣur... the Chaldean... without the authority of this city he did as he pleased... He delivered inhabitants of Babylon to Hatti and Elam as a token of respect... He made the inhabitants of Babylon with woman, children, and servants go out and settled them into the countryside... He heaped up the houses of Babylon's inhabitants into piles of rubble, and he turned them into royal property... The possessions of the Esagila (temple of Babylonian deity Marduk), as much as there was, what earlier kings had brought there, he took out, gathered them into his own palace and made them his own; silver, gold, choice and priceless stones, and everything that befits a deity, as much as was there. According to his good pleasure, he made offerings of them to the gods of the Sealand, of the Chaldeans."

Marduk-apla-uṣur was succeeded by Eriba-marduk and lastly Nabû-šuma-iškun— a dynasty totalling approximately forty-five years. The Chaldean dynasty of Babylon was eventually halted by a native Babylonian ruler— Nabû-naṣir. The Dynastic Chronicle from Babylon informs us; “The dynasty of Kaldu was terminated. Its kingship was transferred to the Sealand.” Be that as it may, Chaldean resistance continued. Nabû-naṣir succeeded in securing a political alliance with the Assyrian king Tukultī-apil-ešarra III (Tiglath-Pileser III) with the objective of subduing the Chaldean revolts within his kingdom. The Assyrian and Babylonian armies successfully weakened the Chaldean resistance, thus leaving Babylon under its native and now vassal ruler. Nabû-naṣir's reign was notably short and according to the Babylonian Chronicle; "Nabû-nadin-zeri, his son, ascended the throne in Babylon." During the second year of his reign, Nabû-nadin-zeri was killed in a rebellion and Nabû-šuma-ukin, a district officer and leader of the rebellion ascended the throne.

During the reign of Šarru-ukin II (Sargon II), the Chaldean chief Marduk-apla-iddina II of the Bit-Yâkin clan forges a political alliance with the Elamites and successfully seizes the Babylonian throne— reigning for twelve years. According to an ancient text pertaining to this period, the native Babylonians were ill-treated, their lands expropriated, and deities removed from religious temples. An Assyrian military campaign supported by the native Babylonians was carried out and the Chaldean leader expelled from the city. In retaliation, Marduk-apla-iddina II flees to Bit-Yâkin carrying with him Babylonian hostages. Sargon II promptly responds by initiating a military attack on the province of Bit-Yâkin and manages to free the Babylonian hostages; "With regard to the citizens of Sippar, Nippur, Babylon, and Borsippa who through no fault of their own were held captive there (Bit-Yâkin). I put an end to their imprisonment and let them see the light of day." Defeated and weak, Marduk-apla-iddina II escapes to Elam seeking refuge. The native Babylonians welcomed the Assyrian king where he ruled as regent.

Sargon II's annals (K.1668.A) document the aforementioned events in vivid detail; “Marduk-apla-iddina, son of Yâkin, King of Kaldu, the fallacious, the persistent in enmity, did not respect... the Gods... during twelve years, against the will of the Gods of Babylon... Bit-Amukkani, Bit-Dakuri, Bit-Šilani, Bit-Sa'alla, which together form Kaldu in its totality... I decreed an expedition against the Chaldeans, an impious and riotous people... Marduk-apla-iddina heard of the approach of my expedition, dreading the terror of his own warriors, he fled before it, and flew in the night time like an owl, falling back from Babylon, to the town of Ikbibel... The nomadic (Chaldean) tribes were terrified by this disaster... I made each family and every man who had withdrawn himself from my arms, accountable for this sin. I reduced Bit-Yâkin the town of his power to ashes. I undermined and destroyed its ancient forts... I allowed the people of Sippar, Nippur, Babylon, and Borsippa, who live in the middle of the towns to exercise their profession, to enjoy their belongings in peace, and I have watched upon them.”

Sargon II dies in battle defending his northern frontier and is succeeded by his son Sîn-ahhī-erība (Sennacherib). Marduk-apla-iddina II plots to seize the Babylonian throne, however, his campaign proved unsuccessful due to a prompt and effective military campaign by the newly appointed Assyrian monarch. According to Sennacherib's Chronicles; “In my first campaign, I accomplished the defeat of Marduk-apla-iddina..., together with the army of Elam, his ally, on the plain of Kish. In the midst of that battle he deserted his camp and he escaped alone, so he saved his own life. Seventy-five of his strong walled cities of Kaldu... I surrounded, I conquered.” Sennacherib reverts to the traditional practice of ruling Babylon through the use of a vassal king. His appointee, a Babylonian nobleman— Bel-ibni, who was educated in Assyria. Unfortunately, Bel-ibni proved unsatisfactory and was shortly after replaced with Sennacherib's son, the crown-prince Aššur-nadin-šumi. Babylon oversaw stability for six years under Aššur-nadin-šumi's reign. Although Marduk-apla-iddina II had disappeared, the Chaldean clans and their Elamite allies remained a threat to the political stability of the region. Sennacherib's final solution would be to commission the construction of a fleet in the north, sail it southwards and pursue the Chaldeans in an epic battle. The Elamites reply with a counterattack into northern Babylonia, taking the city of Sippar with considerable damage and slaughter. Sennacherib's son is captured during this military-coup, murdered and replaced by a usurper Chaldean tribal chief Nergal-ušezib.

ABL 0403
Nergal-ušezib's reign was relatively short and he was soon after replaced by an alternative Chaldean tribal chief Mušezib-marduk. According to a fragmentary text from this period; "In the time of Mušezib-marduk, king of Babylonia, the land was gripped by siege, famine, hunger, want, and hard times. Everything was changed and reduced to nothing. Two of barley sold for one shekel of silver. The city gates were barred, and a person could not go out in any of the four directions. The corpses of men, with no one to bury them, filled the squares of Babylon." Mušezib-marduk would later be captured by the Assyrians and executed under Sennacherib's orders. Following the patricide of Sennacherib, Aššur-ahu-iddin (Esarhaddon) inherits the dual-kingship of Assyria and Babylonia. Nabû-zer-kitti-lišir, son of Marduk-apla-iddina II plots to lay siege to the Sumerian city of Ur, an important administrative and religious centre. Babylonian texts pertaining to this period inform us; “Nabû-zer-kitti-lišir, governor of the Sealand, had gone upstream, he encamped against Ur.” Esarhaddon dispatches the Assyrian army southward and successfully suppresses the Chaldean rebels. Fortunately for Esarhaddon, the governor of Ur remains loyal to Assyria and refuses the Chaldeans from entering the city. Nabû-zer-kitti-lišir abandons his siege and flees to Elam, where just as his father (Marduk-apla-iddina II) had done before him found aid and asylum. Unwilling for another direct confrontation with the Assyrians, the Elamites executed Nabû-zer-kitti-lišir and severed ties with the Chaldeans. With Elamite-Chaldean relations now fractured, the Chaldean clans were left powerless and defenceless. In an effort to win the good favour of the king, Chaldean clans dispatched various correspondences to Esarhaddon submitting themselves before the Assyrian king. Esarhaddon's response follows: (ABL 0403); "The word of the king to the non-Babylonians... When the citizens of Babylon, who are my servants and love me, wrote to me, I opened their letter and read it. Now, would it be good that I should accept and read a letter from the hand of criminals."

Nabû-zer-kitti-lišir's brother Na'id-marduk journeys to Assyria and submits himself before the Assyrian king. In an act of mercy, Esarhaddon appoints Na'id-marduk as vassal-governor over Chaldea. Elamite delegations were shortly sent to Chaldea in efforts of appointing a pro-Elamite Chaldean superior. The Chaldean chieftain reject the Elamite offer and thus Elam is isolated from Mesopotamian affairs. An astonishing correspondence between the Chaldean clans with Esarhaddon reads; “More than once, (Elamite) messengers... have come to us, saying: Come and embrace Nabû-ušallim, your lord's son, so that he may lead you. We have not agreed but have responded, Na'id-marduk, our lord, is alive and we are the servants of the king of Assyria. If you wish his promotion in the land, send him to the king of Assyria and let the king promote him if he likes... We will not do wrong and he shall not become our superior. We will send him in manacles to the king of Assyria." This show of loyalty, however, would prove to be short-lived.

BM 121005
Chaldean revolts led by Šamaš-ibni, a Chaldean tribal chief of the Bit-Dakkuri clan flair up in Babylonia once again. According to the Babylonian Boundary Stone, we are informed; “during the trouble and revolt in Akkad, their boundaries one had changed, and the governor and ruler of Kaldu had appropriated them, and had presented them to another." Esarhaddon was prompt in reversing the Chaldean rebellion. According to the Esarhaddon Prism (BM 121005); “I despoiled Bit-Dakkuri which is in Kaldu, the enemy of Babylon, I captured Šamaš-ibni, its king, a corrupt scoundrel, without fear of the command of the lord of lords, who the fields of the children of Babylon and Borsippa by force seized and took to himself: (but) because I know the fear of Bel and Nabu, those fields I again entrusted to the children of Babylon and Borsippa.” Under Esarhaddon's command, Šamaš-ibni is captured and executed in Assyria.

By the second and first century BCE, the Chaldean clans continued inhabiting the southern marshlands retaining their distinctive identity and gradually became influential within Babylonian society. Nevertheless, the native-Babylonian population remained an active force from a political and military point of view whereas a small settlement of Chaldeans begin to infiltrate the Babylonian priesthood. In his Geographica, the famed Greek geographer, philosopher, and historian Strabo of Amasia informs us; “In Babylon a settlement is set apart for the local philosophers, the Chaldeans, as they are called, who are concerned mostly with astronomy; but some of these who are not approved of by the others, profess to be writers of horoscopes... There is also a tribe of the Chaldeans, and a territory inhabited by them, in the neighbourhood of the Arabs and of the Persian Gulf... the mathematicians make mention of some of these men; as, for example, Cidenas, Naburianus and Sudines." Furthermore, Greek historian Diodorus corroborates Strabo’s account; “Alexander set his army in motion and marched towards Babylon... While he was still 54 kilometres from the city, the scholars called Chaldeans, who have gained a great reputation in astrology and are accustomed to predict future events by a method based on age-long observations...”

The modern descendants of these ancient Chaldeans are the Sabeans (Mandaeans).

[1] John Malam, Mesopotamia and the Near East (London: Evans Brthers, 1999), 23.
[2] Samuel Birch, Records of the Past: Being English Translations of the Assyrian and Egyptian Monuments (London: Samuel Bagster & Sons, 1873), 29-42.
[3] Jean-Jacques Glassner, Mesopotamian Chronicles (Leiden: BRILL, 2005).
[4] Grant Frame, The Political History and Historical Geographyof the Aramean, Chaldean, and Arab Tribesin Babylonia in the Neo-Assyrian Period (University of Pennsylvania).
[5] Alonzo Trévier Jones, Empires of the Bible (Washington: Review & Herald Publishing Assn., 1904).
[6] Barbara N. Porter, Images Power Politics: Figurative Aspects of Esarhaddon's Babylonian Policy (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1993).
[7] L. W. King, Babylonian Boundary-Stone and Memorial-Tablets in the British Museum (London: 1912).


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