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How History's Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World Through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder
By Micah D. Halpern
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2007 Micah D. Halpern
All rights reserved.
The First Lawmaker
Born: Circa 1810 BCE
Died: Circa 1750 BCE
Ruled: 1792–1750 BCE
Innocent until proven guilty. Today it is a given. Today it is an expected and naturally assumed part of law. But until Hammurabi, the Emperor of Babylon, codified ethical behavior and lawlessness ruled.
Hammurabi, the sixth king of Babylon, was one of the empire's best-known leaders. It was he who expanded and transformed Babylon into a monarchy, creating the Babylonian Empire and turning himself into its first emperor. The name Hammurabi translates into "the kinsman is a healer." Apparently, his parents had different aspirations for their son than he had for himself. This Hammurabi was a conquering warrior. His exploits included capturing and destroying the kingdoms of Sumer and Akkadian, ousting them from influence, ending their control over the world, and furthering his own. Sumer and Akkadian were, in their day, as powerful as the United States is today.
Although he was a masterful conqueror whose army successfully destroyed enemies and neighboring societies, Hammurabi's crowning glory was not his military achievements. It was the code of law, ethics, and conduct that he composed and enacted. It was the Code of Hammurabi.
Written on a stela—a large eight-by-eight-foot black basalt stone that stood in a public place so it could be easily seen by everybody—the code was like a big billboard. Unfortunately, while everyone could see the stela, few people at that time could read it. Illiteracy was rampant. But everyone knew what it said. The stela was considered prime plunder and was stolen by warring enemies of the Babylonians. It was probably taken to the city of Susa where, in the early twentieth century, it was rediscovered. Today Hammurabi's code is safely ensconced in Paris at the Louvre Museum.
Once laws were literally written in stone, they were to be taken seriously. Hammurabi codified 282 laws covering all aspects of life. He dealt with family rights and children's rights and the rights of slaves. He set down rules of conduct in both business and personal affairs. But the greatest contribution of the code is not the specifics of the laws that were written but the fact that the laws were written at all.
Hammurabi's code proves to us that he was not merely a conquering king and vanquishing emperor. He was a ruler who was dedicated to justice. And he was a dictator. Who else could and would set down those laws? Hammurabi's legal system was so developed that he even thought to codify a law defending a woman falsely accused of adultery.
Code #132: If the finger is pointed at a man's wife about another man, but she is not caught sleeping with the other man, she shall jump into the river for her husband.CHAPTER 2
God of Egypt
Born: Circa 1303 BCE
Died: Circa 1225 BCE
Ruled: 1292–1225 BCE
Pharaoh is the name given to all the great kings of Egypt.
All Egyptian kings in the Bible were called pharaoh. In Genesis Joseph served Pharaoh, king of Egypt. And in Exodus Moses was raised by the daughter of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Yet the two lived during very different periods. It was a title-turned-name that they all carried. The word pharaoh comes from the ancient Egyptian pr-aa, which means "the great house." The pharaohs were more than mighty and masterful men. They were also considered to be gods, both in their lifetimes and after their deaths.
They were the rulers of the crescent-shaped Nile River, the most fertile region in the world. The symbol of the society in which the pharaohs lived was the fertile crescent, and to this day the crescent-shaped moon is one of the great symbols of Islam. When you fly above Egypt today you can see just how important the Nile River is. It carves a green semi-moon into the barren desert.
The pharaohs of the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus are typical of Egyptian history. They adopted and adapted surrounding culture. So when the Bible describes Joseph rising from prisoner to court adviser second only to Pharaoh, it shows just how open they were to outside culture.
The pharaohs were absolute rulers with absolute control. And yet, there were pharaohs who were deposed and even some who were assassinated.
Rameses II was by far the most influential of the pharaohs. He was also the most notorious. Rameses, son of Pharaoh Seti I and Queen Tuy, ascended the throne at about twenty years old at the request of his father, who was getting on in years. Rameses was not heir to the throne; he usurped it and proceeded to rule for sixty-seven years during the nineteenth dynasty in the twelfth century BCE. Pharaoh Rameses II was the second-longest ruling of the pharaohs, and during his reign he fathered more than a hundred children.
This king was given many titles, including Rameses the Great and Son of Ra, the Egyptian sun god. He was a bold leader who envisioned uniting the upper and lower sections of Egypt. While he was a great warrior, Rameses was also a peacemaker. Under his domination, Egypt stretched from northern Syria through large parts of Africa.
Architecture was Rameses' passion. He built and he built and he built, more than any other pharaoh before or after him. Rameses built great monuments honoring himself and paying tribute to his own exalted powers. The tomb of his beloved wife Queen Nefertari is believed to be the most beautiful of all the tombs uncovered in Egypt. He expanded and improved the monuments in Luxor and Karnak. He erected a mortuary at Thebes and constructed numerous colossal temples in tribute to the gods.
Rameses' Abu Simbel temple towers above all else in glory and splendor. It looms larger than large with four humongous columns displaying four different images of Rameses the Great nestled among the gods. The temple was called the House of Rameses, Beloved of Amun.
Rameses II was a dynamic warrior. His army employed large numbers of mercenaries, and under his reign the slave population increased dramatically.
And when war and acquisition did not go his way, Rameses became resourceful, wily, and wise. He is probably the first ruler ever to draft and implement an international treaty. Architecture aside, creating the concept of a peace treaty and then implementing and standing by the treaty is one of the greatest gifts this pharaoh gave to future civilizations.
Egypt was forever battling the Hittites in the north. After a prolonged battle at Kadesh, which is located in today's Syria, Rameses suffered what he considered a significant defeat. He feared this one defeat would limit the future growth of his empire, so he signed a treaty with the Hittites. Included in the treaty was a clause common for the time. Pharaoh Rameses II would marry the daughter of the Hittite king, thereby assuring that both sides would adhere to the treaty. The deal was done; the marriage took place. Rameses had another wife.
Along with jewels, baubles, coins, and food, it is believed Rameses was buried with two of his most-loved possessions: his favorite horse and his favorite wife. Not surprisingly, the tomb of Rameses II was robbed many times. By the time it was uncovered, archaeologists found it empty and barren. But that is not the end of the most powerful pharaoh in history. The mummy of Rameses II was found and is considered by experts to be one of the best-preserved mummies ever discovered.CHAPTER 3
The Shepherd King
Born: Circa 1005 BCE
Died: Circa 965 BCE
Ruled: Circa 1011–971 BCE
David. The slight young boy who slew the great giant.
For Jews, David was king—the monarch who set up his capital in the city of Jerusalem.
For Christians, David is considered to be the progenitor of the Messiah.
For Muslims, David is one of the prophets of Islam.
David, son of Jesse, first came to fame as a musician. He was a simple shepherd boy who played the lyre with great grace and dexterity and had the ability to soothe the troubled soul of Saul, the first king of Israel.
King Saul was suffering from severe depression, and David was brought in to play music and sing songs (called psalms) that he composed for the king. The psalms were intended to relieve the tremendous stress and pressure bearing down on Saul.
Israel was at war with the Philistines. The future looked very bleak. Today, we would call it a media ploy and label it a hoax. It was a game of intimidation. Day after day Goliath, the great symbolic warrior of the Philistines, would goad Saul by asking if there was no one in all of Israel brave enough to fight him. Goliath would enter the valley called Ella that separated Saul's army and the army of the Philistines. Each army would be poised for battle on their mountain top, and Goliath would call out again and again to the king of Israel.
There was a lull in battle. Saul was trying to regroup and strategize but was overcome by depression. The more Goliath taunted, the greater the depression grew. Even the pleasant songs of little David could not raise Saul's spirits. Like in so many great myths about great leaders, the boy took up the challenge.
Saul tried to cloak little David in his own royal armor, but the armor was too bulky for the boy. So wearing only the clothes of a shepherd and clutching five smooth stones that he picked up in the wadi, or riverbed, David faced the giant.
Goliath shouted up at Saul, "You sent a boy to do a man's work"—an expression that remains in our lexicon even today.
David placed four of the stones in his pouch, put one in his sling and took aim. He found the one chink in Goliath's armor—the one hole, the unprotected spot in the center of his forehead—and the giant was felled. It was a great victory. David took Goliath's sword and, with the giant's own blade, decapitated him. The army of Israel rushed down the hill, and the Philistine army ran back in the direction of the sea.
So begins the saga of one of history's first benevolent dictators—a true ancient thug.
David's glory is now part of history. He became part of Saul's family and the commander of Israel's armies. He was the best friend of Saul's son Jonathan and was given Saul's second daughter, Michal as his first wife. Seven more wives and a host of mistresses would follow.
This is the kind of story that great history is made of.
David's greatness and popularity were on the rise. He was anointed king by the prophet. Then, after Saul's death, David became king of Judea while Saul's son Ish Bosheth was anointed king of Israel. Judea was in the south, and the city of Hebron was chosen by David to be his capital. Israel, in the north, was its own state. Soon after, Ish Bosheth was assassinated, meeting the same fate as his father. When the death of Ish Bosheth was announced to David (the assassins personally delivered the ruler's head thinking they would receive a reward), David flew into a rage, killing the assassins just as he had killed Saul's murderer.
The elders of Israel then came down to Hebron and asked David the Beloved to extend his rule over all twelve tribes of Israel. And he accepted.
In addition to being a wonderful musician and a brilliant warrior, David was an astute politician. After assuming kingship of all Israel, David moved his capital from Hebron just a little farther north to the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was neither in the north nor in the south of Israel; it was a city controlled by the Jebusites. By relocating to Jerusalem, David avoided angering his southern constituents who would have accused him of abandoning them. He also placated his new northern constituents by not ruling them from the South. Think of Jerusalem as Washington, D.C., which is neither North nor South. It is below the Mason–Dixon line, which runs along Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Even the best politicians have enemies. David's own son Absalom, rose up in rebellion against his father. When their two armies clashed in battle, Absalom caught his curly locks in the branches of an oak tree and could not untangle himself to run free. A general in David's army, thinking he would please his king, killed Absalom. Rather than rejoice at the death of his enemy, David lamented the loss of his beloved son.
David was a successful monarch. He expanded the borders of Israel and successfully brought Israel into international recognition. He was a great planner. He had a creative side. He was a poet. He wrote the psalms—poetry with a magical quality and profound philosophy that transcends translation.
But David, king of Israel, had a tragic flaw. He lusted. So much so that he used the power of his position as commander in chief of the army to have the husband of his lover murdered.
In ancient cities the highest building belonged to the king. It was the most secure and offered the best vantage point. From his palace David could look down and see the entire city. And that is how he spied the lovely Bathsheba sun bathing on her rooftop. The king was overcome with desire.
David and Bathsheba conceived a child. At the time, Bathsheba's husband, Uriah, was a Hittite mercenary—an officer commanding part of David's army. Uriah was far from home and could not have impregnated his wife. In order to cover up his indiscretion, David had Uriah brought back from the front for a conjugal visit. But out of guilt Uriah refused to go home. He would not allow himself the comforts of home while his men were embroiled and suffering in battle.
David sent Uriah back to the front. Without knowing it, Uriah was carrying his own death notice. David had given him a message to take back to the front instructing that Uriah should be put directly in the line of fire and that everyone else should pull back.
After Uriah's death the prophet Nathan appeared before David and offered him a parable. The prophet told of two men: one who had a large flock, the other who had only one sheep. The rich shepherd stole the one sheep from the poor shepherd and brought it to slaughter to feed a guest. David was enraged. How dare the prosperous man behave in that manner; how evil!
"You," said the prophet Nathan to David, king of Israel, "you are that man."
Excerpted from Thugs by Micah D. Halpern. Copyright © 2007 Micah D. Halpern. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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