Chaldea or Chaldaea was a Semitic-speaking nation that existed between the late 10th or early 9th and mid-6th centuries BC, after which it and its people were absorbed and assimilated into Babylonia. It was located in the marshy land of the far southeastern corner of Mesopotamia and briefly came to rule Babylon.
During a period of weakness in the East Semitic speaking kingdom of Babylonia, new tribes of West Semitic-speaking migrants arrived in the region from the Levant between the 11th and 9th centuries BC. The earliest waves consisted of Suteans and Arameans, followed a century or so later by the Kaldu, a group who became known later as the Chaldeans or the Chaldees. The Hebrew Bible uses the term כשדים(Kaśdim) and this is translated as Chaldaeans in the Septuagint, although there is some dispute as to whether Kasdim in fact means Chaldean or refers to the south Mesopotamian Kaldu. These migrations did not affect the powerful kingdom of Assyria in the northern half of Mesopotamia, which repelled these incursions.
The short-lived 11th dynasty of the Kings of Babylon (6th century BC) is conventionally known to historians as the Chaldean Dynasty, although the last rulers, Nabonidus and his son Belshazzar, were from Assyria.
These nomad Chaldeans settled in the far southeastern portion of Babylonia, chiefly on the left bank of the Euphrates. Though for a short time the name later commonly referred to the whole of southern Mesopotamia in Hebraic literature, this was a geographical and historical misnomer, as Chaldea proper was in fact only the plain in the far southeast formed by the deposits of the Euphrates and the Tigris, extending about four hundred miles along the course of these rivers, and averaging about a hundred miles in width.
The names Chaldea and Chaldaea are latinizations of the Greek Khaldaía (Χαλδαία), a hellenization of Akkadian māt Kaldu or Kašdu. The name appears in Hebrew in the Bible as Kaśdim. Its inhabitants are called Chaldeans. The Hebrew word first appears in the Bible alongside Urfa as Arfa-ksad (ארפ־כשד), the City of the Chaldeans (אוּר כַּשְׂדִּים), and as one of the five original Semitic nations of the Bible, which include Lud, Elam, Ashur and Aram. Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus also corroborates the link between Arphaxad and Chaldea, in his Antiquities of the Jews, stating,
“Arphaxad named the Arphaxadites, who are now called Chaldeans.”
In the early period, between the early 9th century and late 7th century BC, mat Kaldi was the name of a small sporadically independent migrant-founded territory under the domination of the Neo-Assyrian Empire (911-605 BC) in southeastern Babylonia, extending to the western shores of the Persian Gulf.
The expression mat Bit Yâkin is also used, apparently synonymously. Bit Yâkin was the name of the largest and most powerful of the five tribes of the Chaldeaens, or equivalently, their territory. The original extension of Bit Yâkin is not known precisely, but it extended from the lower Tigris into Arabia. Sargon II mentions it as extending as far as Dilmun or “sea-land” (littoral Eastern Arabia). “Chaldea” or mat Kaldi generally referred to the low, marshy, alluvial land around the estuaries of the Tigris and Euphrates, which at the time discharged their waters through separate mouths into the sea.
The tribal capital Dur Yâkin was the original seat of Marduk-Baladan.
The king of Chaldea was also called the king of Bit Yakin, just as the kings of Babylonia and Assyria were regularly styled simply king of Babylon or Assur, the capital city in each case. In the same way, what is now known as the Persian Gulf was sometimes called “the Sea of Bit Yakin”, and sometimes “the Sea of the Land of Chaldea”.
“Chaldea” came to be used in a wider sense, of Mesopotamia in general, following the ascendancy of the Chaldeans during 608–557 BC. This is especially the case in the Hebrew Bible, which was substantially composed during this period (roughly corresponding to the period of Babylonian captivity). The Book of Jeremiah makes frequent reference to the Chaldeans (KJV Chaldees following LXX Χαλδαίοι; in Biblical Hebrew as Kasdîy(mâh) כַּשְׂדִּימָה “Kassites”). Habbakuk 1:6 calls them “that bitter and hasty nation” (הַגֹּוי הַמַּר וְהַנִּמְהָר).
Unlike the East Semitic Akkadian-speaking Akkadians, Assyrians and Babylonians, whose ancestors had been established in Mesopotamia since at least the 30th century BC, the Chaldeans were not a native Mesopotamian people, but were late 10th or early 9th century BC West Semitic Levantine migrants to the south eastern corner of the region, who had played no part in the previous 3,000 years or so of Sumero-Akkadian and Assyro-Babylonian Mesopotamian civilization and history.
The ancient Chaldeans seem to have migrated into Mesopotamia sometime between c. 940–860 BC, a century or so after other new Semitic arrivals, the Arameans and the Suteans, appeared in Babylonia, c. 1100 BC. They first appear in written record in the annals of the Assyrian king Shalmaneser III during the 850s BC. This was a period of weakness in Babylonia, and its ineffectual native kings were unable to prevent new waves of semi-nomadic foreign peoples from invading and settling in the land.
Though belonging to the same West Semitic speaking ethnic group and migrating from the same Levantine regions as the earlier arriving Aramaeans, they are to be differentiated; the Assyrian king Sennacherib, for example, carefully distinguishes them in his inscriptions.
The Chaldeans were rapidly and completely assimilated into the dominant Assyro-Babylonian culture, as was the case for the earlier Amorites, Kassites, Suteans and Arameans before them. By the time Babylon fell in 539 BC, the Chaldean tribes had already disappeared as a distinct race, becoming completely absorbed into the general population of southern Mesopotamia, and the term “Chaldean” was no longer used or relevant in describing a specific ethnicity or race of men. However, the term lingered in some quarters until the Seleucid period, after which it disappeared, but this later term was used only in relation to a socio-economic class of astrologers with no ethnic implications, and not a race of people or land. The nation of Chaldea in southeast Mesopotamia seems to have disappeared even before the fall of Babylon, and the succeeding Achaemenid Empire (546–332 BC) did not retain a province or land called Chaldea, and made no mention of a Chaldean race in its annals.
The Chaldeans originally spoke a West Semitic language similar to but distinct from Aramaic. However, they eventually adopted the Akkadian language of the Assyrians and Babylonians. During the Assyrian Empire, the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III introduced an Eastern Aramaic dialect as the lingua franca of his empire in the mid-8th century BC. As a result of this innovation, in late periods both the Babylonian and Assyrian dialects of Akkadian became marginalised, and Mesopotamian Aramaic took its place across Mesopotamia, including among the Chaldeans. This language in the form of Eastern Aramaic neo-Aramaic dialects still remains the mother-tongue of the now Christian Assyrian people of northern Iraq, north-east Syria, south-eastern Turkey and north-western Iran to this day.
One form of this once widespread language is used in Daniel and Ezra, but the use of the name “Chaldee” to describe it, first introduced by Jerome, is linguistically incorrect and a misnomer.
In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Abraham is stated to have originally come from “Ur of the Chaldees” (Ur Kaśdim). If this city is identified with the ancient Sumerian city state of Ur, it would be within what would only many centuries later become the Chaldean homeland south of the Euphrates.
However, it must be pointed out that no evidence has been discovered indicating that the Chaldeans existed in Mesopotamia (or anywhere else in historical record) at the time Abraham (circa 1800–1700 BC) lived, the evidence instead shows the Chaldeans as arriving some eight or nine hundred years later. Thus the Biblical text in relation to Abraham and Ur of the Chaldees is in actuality a retrospective use of the term, used simply because at the time these Talmudic/Biblical texts were written down in the 6th century BC in Babylon, the Chaldean dynasty was then in power in Babylonia. The traditional identification with a site in Assyria (a nation in Upper Mesopotamia predating Chaldea by well over thirteen hundred years, and never recorded in historical annals as ever having been inhabited by the much later arriving Chaldeans) would then imply the much later sense of “Babylonia”.
Some interpreters have additionally identified Abraham’s birthplace with Chaldia in Anatolia on the Black Sea, a distinct region utterly unrelated geographically, culturally and ethnically to the southeast Mesopotamian Chaldea. According to the Book of Jubilees, Ur Kaśdim (and Chaldea) took their names from Ura and Kesed, descendants of Arpachshad.
Shamash-shum-ukin (668–648 BC) had become infused with Babylonian nationalism after sixteen years peacefully subject to his brother, and despite being Assyrian himself, declared that the city of Babylon and not Nineveh or Ashur should be the seat of the empire.
In 652 BC, he raised a powerful coalition of peoples resentful of their subjugation to Assyria against his own brother Ashurbanipal. The alliance included the Babylonians, Persians, Chaldeans, Medes, Elamites, Suteans, Arameans, Israelites, Arabs and Canaanites, together with some disaffected elements among the Assyrians themselves. After a bitter struggle lasting five years, the Assyrian king triumphed over his rebellious brother in 648 BC, Elam was utterly destroyed, and the Babylonians, Persians, Medes, Chaldeans, Arabs and others were savagely punished. An Assyrian governor named Kandalanu was then placed on the throne of Babylon to rule on behalf of Ashurbanipal. The next 22 years were peaceful, and neither the Babylonians nor Chaldeans posed a threat to the dominance of Ashurbanipal.
In 601 BC, Nebuchadnezzar II was involved in a major but inconclusive battle against the Egyptians. In 599 BC, he invaded Arabia and routed the Arabs at Qedar. In 597 BC, he invaded Judah, captured Jerusalem, and deposed its king Jehoiachin. Egyptian and Babylonian armies fought each other for control of the Near East throughout much of Nebuchadnezzar’s reign, and this encouraged king Zedekiah of Judah to revolt. After an eighteen-month siege, Jerusalem was captured in 587 BC, thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon, and Solomon’s Temple was razed to the ground.
By 572, Nebuchadnezzar was in full control of Babylonia, Chaldea, Aramea (Syria), Phonecia, Israel, Judah, Philistia, Samarra, Jordan, northern Arabia, and parts of Asia Minor. Nebuchadnezzar died of illness in 562 BC after a one-year co-reign with his son, Amel-Marduk, who was deposed in 560 BC after a reign of only two years.
Labashi-Marduk reigned only for a matter of months, being deposed by Nabonidus in late 556 BC. Nabonidus was certainly not a Chaldean, but an Assyrian from Harran, the last capital of Assyria, and proved to be the final native Mesopotamian king of Babylon. He and his son, the regent Belshazzar, were deposed by the Persians under Cyrus II in 539 BC.
When the Babylonian Empire was absorbed into the Persian Achaemenid Empire, the name “Chaldean” lost its meaning in reference a particular ethnicity or land, but lingered for a while as a term solely and explicitly used to describe a societal class of astrologers and astronomers in southern Mesopotamia. The original Chaldean tribe had long ago became Akkadianized, adopting Akkadian culture, religion, language and customs, blending into the majority native population, and eventually wholly disappearing as a distinct race of people, as had been the case with other preceding migrant peoples, such as the Amorites, Kassites, Suteans and Arameans of Babylonia.
The Persians considered this Chaldean societal class to be masters of reading and writing, and especially versed in all forms of incantation, sorcery, witchcraft, and the magical arts. They spoke of astrologists and astronomers as Chaldeans, and it is used with this specific meaning in the Book of Daniel (Dan. i. 4, ii. 2 et seq.) and by classical writers, such as Strabo.
By the time of Cicero in the 2nd century BC, “Chaldean” appears to have completely disappeared even as a societal term for Babylonian astronomers and astrologers; Cicero refers to “Babylonian astrologers” rather than Chaldean astrologers. Horace does the same, referring to “Babylonian horoscopes” rather than Chaldean in his famous Carpe Diem ode. Cicero views the Babylonian astrologers as holding obscure knowledge, while Horace thinks that they are wasting their time and would be happier “going with the flow”.
The terms Chaldee and Chaldean were henceforth only found only in Hebraic and Biblical sources dating from the 6th and 5th centuries BC, and referring specifically to the period of the Chaldean Dynasty of Babylon.
After an absence from history of 2,236 years, the name was revived in 1683 AD by the Roman Catholic Church in the form of the Chaldean Catholic Church as the new name for the “Church of Assyria and Mosul” (so named in 1553 AD).