(10) Arabia - Nejd (Central Arabia). Northern Desert. The Simoon.
Central Arabia, or Nejd
We have now to consider the central plateau, or Nejd, an important region, regarded by the Arabs themselves as peculiarly their own-the stronghold of their vigorous nationality, and the birthplace of their most cherished traditional and institutions.
It is girded in on every side by a broad desert belt, which the traveler must of necessity cross before he reaches the inner region. It is this very desert that, having been often witnessed on its outer rim, but never traversed form one side to the other by Greek or Roman, or even, in the greater number of instances, by modern explorers, has given occasion to the belief that central Arabia was itself little better than an expanse of uninhabitable waste,- an idea expressed by the Arabia Deserta of the ancients, and often repeated by later writers.
The Northern Desert
This desert, on the north and north-east, where it extends from Syria and the Hejaz inwards, is a region of hard gravelly soil, from which circumstances it has derived the elastic title of "Petraea." It is diversified here and there by belts of sand, with occasional patches of stunted bush and this grass, indicative of moisture at some depth below; the sand, too, affords rooting for a feathery euphorbia, the "ghada" of the Arabs, a favourite browse of camels. The general height of this tract, backed up as it is by the Syrian plateau on the north, and the Shera mountains on the west, appears to vary from 1000 to 2000 feet above the sea. Eastward it slowly slopes down to the level of the Persian Gulf. A long serpentine depression, beginning in the Syrian territory near Palmyra, traverses it in a south-easterly direction; this is Wadi Seihan, or the "Valley of the Wolf," leading to the deep oval hollow of Jowf, wits its oasis of palms and gardens. A more extensive but shallower depression to the west forms the oasis of Teyma, known to Hebrew chroniclers.
South of Jowf and Teyma the desert changes its stony to a sandy character, and its surface is heaped up by the winds into vast ridges, called the Nefood or "passes," not to be crossed without some danger; for, besides the almost absolute want of water, a few scanty and brackish wells of which, separated one from the other by intervals of 60 or more miles, alone exist, it is here that the "simoon," or poison wind, often blows-a phenomenon entirely distinct from the customary "shelook," or sirocco, of the south, much as a hurricane differs from an ordinary gale, though the two have been occasionally confounded in popular writings. The simoon is a peculiar condition of the atmosphere, resembling in all essential points a cyclone. As in the cyclone, the central space, or the simoon itself, is calm, but is occupied by a gas unfit for respiration; while round this as centre, slowly traveling on, there eddy violent gusts of heated air, like those of a furnace, though it is not to them, but to the comparative vacuum which they surround, that the simoon owes its suffocating qualities. It approaches slowly amid the whirl of air currents that precede it for some distance; its violet colour announces it when actually near. During its presence the only chance of preserving life till the mephitic vapour has passed over, is found in covering the face with a cloth and lying prone on the sand, thus to inhale what little atmosphere air still exists in the upper ground stratum, and thus to maintain the breath till the period, varying from two to ten minutes, of the poison column be gone by; meanwhile the feeling in the chest is that of suffocation, and that in the limbs as if molten iron were being poured over them. Camels instinctively bury their muzzles in the sand during the simoon; but horses are said not to possess the same preservatory instinct, and to perish in consequence. The precise nature of the phenomenon, and its origin, are subjects of conjecture; but its general character, that of an eddy of heated atmosphere around a central occupied by a deleterious gas, the whole traveling at a slow rate, and generally from south or east to north and west, is not to be mistaken.
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