1902 Encyclopedia > Mesopotamia


MESOPOTAMIA, the " country between the rivers," is a purely geographical expression, the countries which it comprehends never having formed a self-contained political unity. [Footnote 47-1] It was first introduced by the Greeks at or after the time of Alexander, but probably had its origin in the earlier Aramaean name bêth nahrîn (the country between the rivers), to which again corresponds the Biblical Aram Naharayim. [Footnote 47-2] As early as 700 B.C. " the country of two rivers" is mentioned on the Egyptian monuments under the name Naharina, but no such designation appears in the cunei form increptions (though the territory formed part of the Assyrian as it afterwards did of the Persian empire). The most settled period in the history of Mesopotamia was probably under Persian-Greek rule. Xenophon allplies the name Syria to the extremely fertile district which he traversed after having crossed the Euphrates at Thapsacus. The country beyond the Araxes (Chaboras?) he calls Arabia, -- a desert region in which his army had to suffer great hardships until it reached the "gates of Arabia." Even in later times Mesopotamia was included under the name Asayrin, or was reckoned part of Babylonia.

These statements of Xenophon already indicate a demarcation of the territory afterwards called Mesopotamia, as well as its division into two sections. The fertile portion, inhabited by agricultural Aramaeans, stretched from the Euphrates to the Chaboras; the desert portion, the home of wandering tribes, extended to the Tigers. It would be rash, however, to conclude from this that Mesopotamia designated the whole territory between the Euphrates and Tigris; indeed it is possible that Aram Naharayim, the Aram of the country of the two rivers, originally meant only the main portion of the fertile country inhabited by Syrians. In this case the two boundary rivers must have been, not the Euphrates and the Tigris, but the Euphrates and the Chaboras. After the final occupation of the country by the Romans (156 A.D.), the political province of Mesopotamia was practically confined to this more limited district. Though in ordinary usage the Euphrates and Tigris are considered as the two rivers which bound Mesopotamia, the one bank of the river cannot be geographically separated from the other, and consequently narrow strips of country on the right bank of the Euphrates and on the left bank of the Tigris must be reckoned to the country " between" the rivers. On the other hand, the country between the sources of the Euphrates and the Tigris has from early times been reckoned not to Mesopotamia but to Armenia. In this direction the Masius range forms the proper boundary, and it is only on rare occasions that theoretical geographers extend the name Mesopotamia over the more northern districts, Sophene &c. Purely theoretical too, and not to be approved, is the extension of the definition so as to include the land Babylonia (‘Irák ‘Arabi), that is, the country as far south as the confluence of the Euphrates and Tigris, or even as far as their embouchure in the Persian Gulf.

From what has been said it appears that Mesopotamia reaches its northern limits at the points where the EUPHRATES (q.v) and the Tigris break through the mountain range and enter the lowlands. In the case of the Euphrates this takes place at Sumeisát (Samosata), in that of the Tigris near Jezíret ibn ‘Omar (Bezabdá) and Mosul (Nineveh). Consequently the irregular northern boundaries are marked by the lowland limits of those spurs of the Taurus mountains known in antiquity as Mons Masius and now as Karaje Dágh and Túr ‘Abdín. Towards the south the ancient boundary was the so-called Median Wall, which, near Pirux Shapur, not much to the south of Hít (the ancient Is), crossed from the Euphrates in the direction of Kadisiya (Opis) to the Tigris. There the two rivers approach each other, to diverge again lower down. At the same place begins the network of canals connecting the two rivers which rendered the country of Babylonia one of the richest in the world ; there too, in a geological sense, the higher portion of the plain, consisting of strata of gypsum and marl, comes to an end ; there at one time ran the line of the sea-coast ; and there begin those alluvial formations with which the mighty rivers in the course of long ages have filled up this depressed area. Mesopotamia thus forms a triangle lying in the north-west and south-east direction, with its long sides towards the north and south-west. It extends from 37° 30´ to about 33° N. lat. and from 38° to 46° E. long., and has an area of some 55,200 square miles. The points at which the rivers issue from among the mountains have an absolute altitude of between 1000 and 1150 feet, and the plain sinks rapidly towards the southern extremity of Mesopotamia, where it is not more than about 165 feet above the sea. As a whole the entire country consists of a single open stretch, save that in the north there are some branches of the Taurus -- The Nimrùd Dágh near Orfá, the long limestone range of ‘Abd-el ‘Azíz, running north-north-west, and farther to the east the Sinjar ranged, also of limestone, 7 miles broad and 50 miles long, running north-north-east. Between these two ranges -- near the isolated basaltic hill of Tell Kókab (Hill of Stars) -- runs the defile by which the waters of the Chaboras, swollen by the Jaghjagha and other affluents from the Masius, find their way into the heart of Mesopotamia. The Khábúr proper, the ancient Chaboras, which rises in the three hundred copious fountains of Rás-‘ain (the ancient Rhesaena) and ultimately falls into the Euphrates near Karhísiya (Circesium), forms the boundary between the two, or more correctly the three, great divisions of Mesopotamia. These divisions are (1) the northern country to the west of the Khábúr, (2) the northern country to the east, and (3) the steppe-land. In the country to the north-west of the Khábúr we must probably, as already mentioned, recognize the true ancient Aram Naharayim. Under the dominion of the Seleucids it bore the name of Osrhoene, or better Orrhoene, and was for a time the seat of a special dynasty which at a later date at any rate was Arabian (Abgar). The capital of this kingdom was Orfa (Roha), the Edessa of the Greeks and Romans, the Orrhoi of the Syrians ; it was at a later date Roman colony, and bore also the name of Justinopolis. This once flourishing city lies on the small river Daisan (the ancient Scirtus). South of Edessa lie the ruins of HARRAN (see vol. xi. P. 454). In the Mongolian period Harran fell into decay, and at present it is a mere heap of ruins. A third town of this region I Serug (Gen. xi. 20) ; in the Greek period it was calleld Batne, but the Syrians retained the name Serug, which I still in use (Serúj). The town lies between Harran and the Eupharates, in a plain to which it gives its name. On the left bank of the Euphrates lay Apamea (the modern Birejik), connected with Zeugma on the other side by a bridge, and farther south, at the mouth of the Bilechas (modern Belik), was the trading town and fortress Nicephorium, founded by command of Alexander, and completed by Seleucus Nicator, in memory of whose victory it was named. From the emperor Leo it received the designation Leontopolis. The spot is now known as Rakka (see below). Farther up the fruitful valley of the Belik lay the town of Ichnae (Chne). Farther south lay Circesium (Chaboras of Ptolemy, Phaleg of Isidor), not to be identified, as is usually assumed, with Carchemish ; from the time of Diocletian it was strongly fortified. The site is at present occupied by a wretched place of the name Karkísiyá. Carchemish probably lay near the bridge of Membij, the present Kalat el-Nejm.

In ancient times a highly flourishing district mush have stretched along the river Chaboras (Khábúr) to its principal source at Ràs-‘ain (" Foundain-head," Syr. Rîsh ‘aina, the Rhaesaena of Ptolemy), a town which was for some time called Theodosiopolis, because after 380 A.D. it was extended and embellished by Theodosius. Justinian fortified it. The strip of completely desert country which now stretches along the lower course of the Khábúr was called in antiquity Gauzanitis, and corresponds to the Gozan of 2 Kings xviii.6 (Guzana or Guzanu in the cuneiform inscriptions).

The country to the east of the upper Khábúr is in many respects similar tot that which has just been described. As the watershed of the Tigris is not far distant, the Masius ranged sends down into Mesopotamia only insignificant streams, the most important being the Hermas, the Mygdonius of the Greeks. On its banks was situated Nisibis, the chief city of the district, which commanded the great road at the foot of the mountains leading through the steppe, which here from the scarcity of water comes up to the edge of the hills. In the old Assyrian empire Nasibina was the seat of one of the four great administrative officials. In the time of the Seleucids the site was occupied by the flourishing Greek colony of Antiochia Mydonia ; but the new designation, transferred to the rive and the vicinity of Nisibis from the Macedonian district of Mygdonia, afterwards passed out of use. Nisibis was an important trading city, and played a great part in the wars of the Romans against the Persians. Captured by Lucullus, surrendered by Tigranes, recovered by Trajan, again abandoned by Hadrian, once more occupied under Lucius Verus, and strongly fortified by Severus, it was at length raised to be the capital of the province, and remained the frontier fortress of the Romans till in the time of Jovian it was ceded to the Persians. After the loss of Nisibis the emperor Anastasius in 507 founded to the north-west the fortress of Darae or Daras (the modern Dárá), also called Anastasiopolis, which from the reign of Justinian, who increased its strength, remained for a time the residence of the dux Mesopotamiae. Beside these strongholds, many fortified posts were established by the Byzantine empire in this district. Antoninopolis must be mentioned as an important town ; these strongholds, many fortified posts were established by the Byzantine empire in this district. Antoninopolis must be mentioned as an important town ; this was refortified by Constantine under the name of Constantia, and has left its ruins near Tela between Harran and Nisibis. Mardin too was a fortress of a similar kind, and town of Singara, at the southern foot of the mountain of the same name, was an advanced post of the Roman power.

The south or steppe portion of Mesopotamia was from early times the roaming-ground of Arabic tribes ; for Xenophon gives the name of Arabia to the district on the left bank of the Euphrates to the west of the Khábúr ; and elsewhere it is frequently stated that the interior at a distance from the rivers was a stepped inhabited by Arabes Scenitae (Tent Arabs). Along the bank of the two great rivers ran a belt of cultivated country, and the rocky island of the Euphrates were also occupied by a settled population. On the Eupharates, beginning towards the north, we must mention first Zaitha or Zautha, south-east of Circesium ; next Corsothe, at the mouth of the Mascash ; then Anatho or Anathan, the modern Ana ; and finally Is (Hit). On the Tigris the point of most importance is Carnae (Kawaí of the Anabasis), south from the mouth of the Great Zab near the present Kal´at Sherkát ; and not far distant towards the interior was Atrae or Hatrae, also called Hatra, the chief town of the Arab tribe of the Atreni. It was besieged without success by Trajan and Severus ; by the 4th century it was already destroyed ; but the interesting ruins, which can scarcely be visited owing to the plundering habits of the Bedouins, still bear the name of El-Hadhr. They lie in the heart of the steppe, and were formerly well supplied with water.

All these districts some in 640 A.D., or perhaps a little earlier, into the power of the Arabs, who named them Jezíra (island) or Jezíret Akúr, [Footnote 48-1] and divided them according to tribes into three portions, the land of Bekr, of Rebi´a, and of Modhar. The district of Modhar ran along the side of the Euphrates, and its chief towns were Orfa and Rakka ; the district of Rebi´a comprised the plain of Mosul as far as the country on the Khábúr (chief towns Mosul and Nisibis), and the district of Berk (diyár Bekr) the more mountainous country to the west of the upper Tigris (Chief town Amid or Diarbekr). In general the Arabs consider a part of the mountain territories which lie between the two rivers to belong to Jezíra, as is best seen between the two rivers to belong to Jeríza, as is best seen from the following notice given by Abulfeda: --

" El-Jezíra is the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, yet many places on the other side of the Euphrates, which properly belong to Syria, are also included, as well as places and even districts on the east side of the Tigris. The exact boundary line thus runs from Malatia by Sumeisát, Kal´at er-Rúm (Rum-Kala of the maps), and Bíre (Birejik) to the point opposite Membij, and then by Bális, Er-Rakka, Karkísiyá, Er-Rahaba (on right bank), and Hít to Anbár. Here the Euphrates ceases to form the boundary, which runs across to the Tigris in the direction of Tekrít, and ascends the Tigris as far as Es-Sinu (Senna) to El-Hadítha and Mosul, thence to Jezíret ibn ‘Omar, then to Diarbekr, and so bank to Malatia."

From the Arabic geographers and travellers we gain the impression that a great part of Mesopotamia, with a exception of the southern steppe of course, must at that time have been in a very flourishing condition; the neighbourhood of Nisibis especially is celebrated as a very paradise. In fact it is only since the Turkish conquest of the country under Sultan Selim in 1515 that it has turned into a desert and gradually lost its fertility. As the nomadic Arabs have continually extended their encroachments, agriculture has been forced to withdraw into the mountains ; and this is especially true of the western portions of Mesopotamia, the district of Rás-‘ain, and the plain of Harran and Serúj, where huge mounds give evidence that the whole country was once covered with towns and villages. Under the Turks El-Jezíra does not form a political unity, but belongs to different pshaliks.

From this brief survey it appears that Mesopotamia, like Syria, constitutes an intermediate territory between the great eastern and western monarchies, -- Syria inclining more to the west, and Mesopotamia to the east. In virtue of its position it frequently formed both the object and the scene of contest between the armies of those mighty monarchies, and it is wonderful how a country so often devastated almost always recovered. The roads, it is true, which traversed the territory were not mere military highways, but the main routes of traffic for Central Asia, Western Asia, and Europe. It is only in modern times, and since these lines of commercial intercourse have ceased to be followed, that the general condition of things has been so entirely altered.

The number of roads which in ancient times traversed the country was very considerable ; the Euphrates formed not a barrier but a bond between the nations on either side ; at many places were at least boat-bridges (zeugma) across. One of the most important of the ancient crossing-places must be sought, where in fact it still exists, at Birejik, the ancient Apamea-Zeugma. From this point a great road led across to Edessa (Orfa) ; there it divided into two branches, the northern going by Amid (Diarbekr) and the other by Mardin and Nisibis to Mosul (Nineveh). In quite recent times, in order to avoid the direct route across the desert and through the midst of the Bedouins, the post-road makes a great circuit from Nisibis by Jezíret ibn ‘Omar to Mosul. A second route crossed the Euphrates somewhat more to the sooth, and joined the other via Harran and Rhesaena. The principal crossing of the earlier times (Xeniphon) was at Thapsacus, almost opposite Rakka ; and it will be remembered also how important a part Thapsacus (Tiphsah) plays in the Old Testament. Sometimes a route along the Euphrates to Babylonia was followed, as is still frequently done by caravans at the present day ; but even in ancient times this course was attended by more or less difficulty, the country being occupied by the chiefs of independent Arab tribes, with whom the travelers had to come to terms.

The ancient condition of things must consequently be considered as essentially analogues to that of the present day ; the central districts away from the rivers were occupied at certain seasons, according as they yielded pasture, by nomadic cattle-grazing tribes, the physical character of the country being then and now the same on the whole as that of the Syrian desert, which belongs not to Syria but properly to Arabia. On the banks of the rivers were settled half-nomadic Arab tribes, -- tribes is, which were, more or less on the way to the agricultural stage, or which, having become altogether agricultural, had nevertheless, owing to frequent intercourse with the Bedouins, lost little of their original character, and even maintained their independence. The same movement takes place over and over again : Arab tribes migrating from Arabia, that officina gentium, gradually settle down wherever circumstances prove favourable, and by this very change in their mode of life make their first step towards civilizations. In this way a continual stream of Arabs has flowed into the civilized countries of Mesopotamia. On the Assyrian movements are figures of Arabs riding on camels ; evidently the Assyrians had carried on war against the Bedouins settled in their territory. At an early period the Tai Arabs were the neigbours of the Aramaeans, and consequently all Arabs bear in Syriac the name of Tayóyé. The district between Mosul and Nisibis received the name Béth ‘Arbáyé from its being occupied by Arabs. These _ai Arabs, whose original home was Central Arabia, are still settled partly near Nisibis and partly east of Mosul ; but they have to some extent lost their old noble Bedouin manners. The wandering Arab tribe which at the present time is dominant in Mesopotamia is the Shammar ; they have driven back the Aneze, the most powerful tribe of the Syrian desert. It is only two or three generations ago that the Shammar came from Nejd ; but theyt have already broken up into two great parties. The head of the one division is Ferhán, who has more or less completely submitted to the Turks, and has consequently obtained the title of pasha ; to him adhere the Shammar tribes between Mosul and Baghdad, and those also to the east of the Tigris. The head of the tribes who roam over the greater part of Mesopotamia -- pasturing their camels and sheep to the east of the Chaboras in the colder season and to the north in the hotter -- is the chivalrous Fáris. These western tribes are totally independent of the Turkish Government, and have offered determined opposition to the attempt of the authorities at Dér to force them to a settled way of life; they still lay the peasants of Mesopotamia under contribution by exacting Khuwwe, " brother-money," or a portion of grain. The Shammar live in almost perpetual feud with their relations to the east, and especially with the Aneze on the Syrian bank of the Euphrates, the so-called Shémíya. Many other Bedouin tribes might here be mentioned ; but it may be enough to name the Delém on the Euphrates as an example of a tribe just in process of becoming agricultural. In the northern parts of Mesopotamia there are a number of tribes of mingled Kurds and Arabs which have to a greater or less degree abandoned their tents for fixed habitations and the tillage of the ground; such are the Beraziye near Orfa, the Milliye between Orfa and Mardin, and the Kíkíye nearer Mardin and also in the neighbourhood of Mosul. It is extremely hard to obtain trustworthy statistical information about the number of the Bedouins; the Shammar may have a total strength of some 3500 tents. In the difficult contests which it has to carry on with those independence-loving tribes, the Turkish Government acts in general on the principle divide et impera.

The Kurdish element only appears sporadically in the true Mesopotamian plain; but the Yezidis, who form the population of the Sínjar range, may be referred to this stock. He who encounters the uncanny figure of one of these people will hardly be able to restrain a slight shudder, especially if he remembers the graphic descriptions of the Yezidi robbers in Morier’s Ayesha. Of the old Aramaean peasantry there are no longer any important remains in the plain, the Aramaean having withdrawn farther into the Kurdish highlands, where, in spite of their wild Kurdish neighbours, they are more secure from exactions of every kind. The plain of the northern country of the two rivers was at one time richly cultivated, and owed its prosperity to this industrious people, who formerly played so distinguished a part as a connecting link between the Persians and the Roma empire and afterwards between the Western and the Arabian world, and whose highest culture was developed in this very region. Quite otherwise is it now. In the plain there are almost no remains of the common Aramaean tongue. Apart from the scattered areas in which Kurdish prevails, the ordinary language is a vulgar Arabic dialect ; but both Kurdish and Aramaean (Syriac) have exercised an influence on the speech of the Arab peasant. Finally it must be mentioned that certain Turcoman hordes roam about the Mesopotamian territory.

In climate and in the character of its soil, as in its ethonographic history, Mesopotamia holds an intermediate position. In this aspect also we must maintain the division into two quite distinct zones. The southern half consists mainly or grey, dreary flats covered with selenite ; and gypsum everywhere makes its appearance a little below the surface ; bitumen is not unfrequent, and here and there it rises in petroleum wells. In the solid strata of gypsum and marl the rivers have carved out valleys, from a quarter to half a mile broad and from 40 to 50 or even 100 feet deep, which with their arable soil constrast with the barren surface of the more elevated desert (chól). Especially below Bális there are marl-hills capped with gypsum, and alluvial plains (so-called háwís) or considerable extent have been formed. The banks of the rivers are there lined with a luxuriant growth of tamarisks. Occasional swamps and small lagoons occur ; and the marl shows a more or less marked efflorescence of salt. In this part of the country frost is rare even in winter ; in summer the heat is of extraordinary intensity, and during the whole season from May to the close of October it is but slightly modified by the night-dews. During the sand storms which frequently blow the West Arabian desert, the temperature may rise to 50° C. (122° Fahr.), and this same excess of heat will then prevail through seven degree of latitude in the whole valley of the Euphrates and Tigris from the Persian Gulf to the foot of the mountains. For, considering the strong radiation which takes place over what is not the uniform surface of the Mesopotamian soil with its almost complete absence of evaporation, there is nothing to hinder this warm zone extending in summer to the upper half of the country. In winter, on the other hand, this latter region has quite a different climate. From the mild coasts of the Mediterranean the cold increase from west to east. In the spurs of the Taurus, consequently, the winter cold extends for to the south, and the influence of the snow-covered ridges spreads far into the Mesopotamian plain. Snow and ice are thus not unfrequent in the higher part of the plain, and the temperature may fall as low as higher part of the plain, and the temperature may fall as low as - 10° C. (14° Fahr.), especially if the cold north winds are blowing. That inland region too is cut off from the influence of the mild air of the Mediterranean by the coast ranges. For this reason the vegetation is of a less southern character than that of the Mediteranean countries in the same latitude. In the spring the green is soon parched out of existence. In this way the northern district of Mesopotamia combines strong contrasts, and is a connecting link between the mountain region of western Asia and the desert of Arabia. On the other hand the country to the south of Mesopotamia, or ‘Irák, has a warm climate , and towards the Persian Gulf indeed the heat reaches the greatest extremes.

In Upper Mesopotamia, strictly so called, agriculture has suffered an extraordinary decline; in spite of excellent soil, very little of the land is turned to account. In the western district the fertile red-brown humus of the Orfa plain, derived from the lime of Nimrúd Dágh, extends to about 12 miles south of Harran. With a greater rainfall, and an artificial distribution of the water such as existed in olden times, agriculture would flourish. If spring rains are only moderately abundant, wheat and barley grow to a great height, and yield from thirty to forty fold. Rice is also grown richly watered hill-encircled district of Serúj and on the banks of the Khábúr. Next, millet and seamum are the chief crops, -- the latter being grown for the sake of its oil, as the olive does not succeed in this region. The abundance of wheat may be estimated from the fact that during Layard’s residence in Mosul a camel-load of 480 lb was worth for shillings. Durra (Holcus Sorghum and H. biclor), lentils, peace, and vetches are also grown, as well as cotton, safflower, hemp, and tobacco. Medicago sativa furnishes fodder for horses. Among the fruits the most noteworthy are the cumumbers, melons, and water-melons planted in great abundance on the banks of the smaller streams. The figs of the Sinjar mountains are celebrated are celebrated for their exceptional sweetness. Timber trees are few ; plane trees and white poplars are planted along the streams, and a kind of willow and a sumach flourish on the banks of the Euphrates. The palm-trees which appear on the banks of both the rivers farther south do not come so far north On account of the hot dry summer the orange does not succeed. Of the great forest which existed (?) near Nisibis in the time of Trajan no trace remains ; but the slopes both of the Masius mountains and of the Jebel ‘Abd-el ‘Azíz, as well as, more especially, those of the Sinjar range, are still covered with wood.

The wide treeless tracts of the low country of Mesopotamia are covered with the same stepped vegetarian which prevails from Central Asia to Algebra, but there is an absence of a great many of the arborescent plants that grow in the rockier and more irregular plateaus of western Asia and especially of Persia. This comparative poverty and monotony of the flora is partly due to the surface being mainly composed of detritus, and partly to the cultivation of the country in remote antiquity having ousted the original vegetation and left behind it what is really fallow ground untouched for thousands of years. Endless masses of tall weeds, belonging to a few species, cover the face of the country, -- large Cruciferae, Cynareae, and Umbelliferae disputing the possession of the soil in company with extraordinary quantities of liquorice (Glycyrrhiza glabra and echinata) as well as Lagonychium and the white ears of the Imperata. In autumn the withered weeds are torn up by wind and driven immense distance. Among the aromatic plants, which even Xenophon mentions in Mesopohamia, the first place belongs to the species of wormwood (Artemisia), which cover wide areas, and the second to Labiatae, such as species of thyme and Salvia, which, however, became rarer in the low country. With few exceptions there are none but cultivated trees, and these are confined to the irrigated districts on the Euphrates and the Shatt ; a few willows, a Pyrus, tamarisks, a Rhus, a Rubus, on the banks of the rivers, and the willow-like Populus euphratica, which grows from Dzungaria to Morrocco, make up to the list of the indigenous kinds. In the wide belt of swamp which lines the Shatt el-‘Arab in the low country of ‘Irák ‘Arabi there are boundless reaches of gigantic sedge inhabited by a rich fauna, especially of birds such as pelicans and flamingoes. From the south, or in other words from the true desert and oasis country of Arabia, the date-palm spreads up the valley to some little distance above Baghdad; and especially along the Shatt it yields rich crops of fruit, which are exported to India. With the exception of a few truffles, capers, liquorice, and such like, there are few wild food-plants. The cycle of vegetation begins in November. The first winter rains clothe the plain with verdure, and by the beginning of the year a number of bulbous plants are in bloom—Amaryllidae, and Colchicum. The full summer development is reached in June ; and by the end of August everything is burnt up.

The lion is said to roam as far as the Khábúr; but in any case it is at least much less frequent than in the time of the Assyriaus, when the lion-hunt was a recognized form of sport. The wild ass too is very rare ; but on the other hand wild swine, hyaepas , jackals, cheetahs, and foxes are extremely abundant. Wolves are said to exist in the plain, and among others a variety of black wolf (Canis lycaon). Particularly numerous in the steppe are the antelope species ; and herds of gazelles are frequently met with, Beavers are said to have been observed on the Euphrates. Jerboas, moles, porcupines, and especially the common European rat, abound in the desert ; bats and numerous ; and the long-haired desert hare is also found. Among the domestic animals in this steppe country the camel holds the first place ; and next come goats and sheep country the camel holds the first place ; and next come goats and sheep; but the Beldouin sheep is not the ordinary fat-tailed variety. The common buffalo is often kept by the Arabs and Turcomans on the Euphrates and the Tigris ; and on the Euphrates we also find the Indian zebu, which is still more frequent in the district farther tot the south. Bird-life is very rare in the southern parts of the plain ; though on the Euphrates there are vultures, owls, ravens, &c., as well as falcons (?Tinnunculaus alaudarius) which are trained to hunt. Among game-birds are some kinds of doves, francolins, partridges, wild ducks and geese, and in the steppe bustards. The ostrich seems almost to have disappeared. Large tortoises are numerous.

In conclusion it is necessary in supplement to the article IRAK to say something of eh district of Babylonia, often (though wrongly) included under the name Mesopotamia. Here we have to do with a fundamentally different region, for it consists in the main of alluvial formations, a few scattered reaches of sand only now and then appearing in the level depression not filled up by alluvium. The mass of solid matter which the rivers bring down and deposit is very considerable ; it has been ascertained that the maximum proportion for the Euphrates in the month of January is 1/80, and at other times 1/200 ; of the Tigris the maximum is 1/100. As regards the physical character of the alluvia, in the most northerly portion the soil is pebbly, the pebbles consisting almost solely of variously coloured flints and occasional small fragments of gypsum. This is succeeded by a continuous formation of clayey soil, in part argillaceous and argillo-calcareous, but covered with mould and sand, or the more tenacious clay of frequent inundations.

In general, the northern plains of the interior have a slight but-well defined southerly inclination with local depressions. The territory undulates in the central districts, and then sinks away into mere marshes and lakes. The clay, of a deep blue colour, abounds with marine shells, and shows a strong efflorescence of natron and sea-salt, the latter derived from the decomposition of vegetable matter. When the soil is parched up the appearance of the mirage (seráb) is very common. As extensive inundations in spring are caused by both the rivers, especially the Tigris, great alterations must have taken place in this part of the country in the course of thousands of years. It has been asserted that in former times the alluvial area at the mouth of the river increased one mile in the space of thirty years ; and from this it has been assumed that about the 6th century B.C. the Persian Gulf must have stretched from 45 to 55 miles farther inland than at present. The actual rate of increase at the present time is about 72 feet per former physical configuration of southern Babylonian; but it is at least certain that the Euphrates and the Tigris reached the sea as independent rivers. Ritter estimates that in the time of Alexander the Great the embouchures were still separated by a good day’s journey ; and, though they cannot now be traced, great alterations have probably taken place in the upper portions of the rivers as well as in the country near the mouths. Assyriologist tell us that more than thirty-five canals are known by name from the Babylonian period ; but it is extremely difficult, or rather it has proved hitherto impossible, to identify them either with those actually existing or with those mentioned in classical authors, in the Babylonian Talmud, or in Arabian writers. To the west of the Euphrates was to be found the Parllacopas channel. And we still have the Hindiye channel in the same quarter. The country between the rivers more particularly was traversed by such secondary branches. Beginning from the Euphrates we must mention the Saklawíye channel (Nahr 'Isá), the Narh Melik, the Nahr Zemberáníye, and especially the Nar-en-Nil, constructed by the famous Omayyad governor Hajjaj. Eastwards from the Tigris strikes the great Nahrawan channel ; and right through the country of the two rivers runs the Shatt-el Hai from Kut-el-‘Amára, almost due south to the Euphrates, parallel with the Shett-el-Kehr. Many of these have been sil ted up ; from those, however, which are still maintained there I derived a considerable revenue, and by the restoration of may of the old channels traces of which are met with at every step, the country might be raised to that condition of high civilization which it enjoyed not only in antiquity but partly even in the time of the later caliphs. The classical jwriters are unanimous in their admiration of this country ; and it is at least certain that nowhere else in the whole world was the principle of the application of canals to the exigencies of agriculture worked out so successfully. The most luxuriant vegetation was diffused over the whole country ; and crops were obtainable in the year. It is this alone which makes it intelligible how this region in the most remote antiquity attained a high civilization, and for centuries played, it may be said, one of the principal parts in the history of the world. In the matter of civilization, indeed, no country of the ancient world was its equal ; a multitude of great cities once flourished within its borders. Even the Arabic writers are unanimous in regard to thee extremely favourable influence which the character of the country exercised on the intellectual activity, spirit, and capacity of its inhabitants. We need not here discuss the question recently started as to whether the Biblical garden of Eden is to be sought in this locality, two canals of the Euphrates and Tigris being identified with the Gihon and Pison of Gen. ii.; but it is certain at least that this lower country of the two rivers might well pass in antiquity for the ne plus ultra of civilization, and exercised the most powerful political and intellectual influence on the surrounding regions. The question often raised as to whether the Semites were derived from this district may also be left untouched. From the Bible we know that an ancient name of the district was Shinar, though this has not hitherto been discovered in the cuneiform inscriptions. The name Kush is applied in the Bible to its oldest non-Semitic inhabitants. The northern half of the country was called Akkad, the southern Sumer. But it must not be forgotten that the rivers never formed ethnographic and political boundaries ; and thus Sumer extended to the coast of the Persian Gulf and Akkad as far as the Lower Zab, the eastern affluent of the Tigris. As a less ancient designation of the whole country may be reckoned mat Kalda, the country of the Chaldaeans (Hebr., erets Kasdîm) ; originally Kalda is said to have designated central Babylonia. Of still later date is the name derived from the capital, the country of Babel (erets Bábel), as an equivalent of which mât Bâbîlû appears in the cuneiform inscriptions (in the Darius lists Babîru). From this was developed the Greek designation Babylonia, GREEK (as early as Xenophon). That the country was densely peopled may be gathered from the fact that about 745 B.C. eighty-nine fortified towns and eight hundred and twenty smaller pl;aces in the Chaldaean country were captured during one military expedition. Of separated districts of the country we may mention Karduniash, the district in the vicinity and especially to the north of Babylon ; and southward by the sea-coast the important country of Bít Yakín, governed by kings of its own. At a later date we find on the coast and at the mouth of the Pallacopas canal the maritime town of Teredon, which is also mentioned by the classical writers. Besides Babylon and Borshippa, the larger cities were the double city of Sippar (Sefarvayim, 2 Kings xvii. 24, 31) and Akkad on the left bank of the Euphrates on the present Nahr ‘Isá ; Erech, i.e., Warka, on the left bank of the Euphrates ; Ur on the Pallacopas, not far from the place where the Shatt-el-Hai falls into the Tigris ; Nippur, i.e., Tell Niffer ; Kutha (2 kings xvii. 24), Kalne (Gen. x. 10), in the north, opis at the junction of the Adhem (Physcus) with the Tigris. Huge mounds give evidence of the extent of these cities. A number of the canals were navigable, and at the same time, when the bridges were destroyed, they formed defensive moats against the incursion of enemies from the north. And the same purpose was served by the great wall (afterwards the Median Wall of the Greeks) which ran across the country from river to river between the points of their nearest approach.

During the period of Greek domination a Greek city, Seleucia, which afterwards attained great prosperity, was founded by Seleucus I. in an extremely favourable situation on the right bank of the Tigris. In the south of the country, too, there was a Greek seaport towr first called Alexadria on the Tigris and afterwards Antiochia. After the conquest of Babylonia by the Parthians (130 B.C) a small Arabian kingdom grew up in those parts called Characene or Mesene, after the town of Charae or Maisan. It was under Parthian and for a time under Roman supremacy. The city of Vologesia, founded by Vologeses to the south-west of Babylon, near Ullais, in neighbourhood of the later Kúfa, was one of the capitals of the Parthian power. In the time of the Sasanids, too, as well as in that of the Parthians, the country of the lower Euphrates and Tigris played a leading part ; it formed in fact the main centre of the Persian kingdom. The city of Ctesiphon, founded by the Greeks on the east side of the Tigris opposite Seleucia, was the winter residence of the Parthian kings, and the imperial capital of the Sasanids. Under the name of Madáin (The Cities) it continued to flourish till the rise of Baghdad in the 9th century. The neighbourhood of Ctesephon was called in the time of the Sasanids. Undr the name of Madáin (The Cities) it continued to florurish till the rise of Baghdad in the 9th century. The neighbourhood of Ctesiphon was called in the time of the Sassnids Súristán, a translation of the Aramaean designation Bêth-Arâmây, "country of the Syrians," for the land was mainly occupied by Aramaeans. By a notable substitution the Arabs afterwards gave the name Nabat, i.e., Nabataeans, to these Aramaean peasantry, who, it may be added, were already found in these parts at the time of the Babylonian empire.

On the west side of the Tigis the Arab kingdom of Híra formed the Bulwark of the Sasanid power. As the result mainly of the battle of Kadisiya (eat of Híra) in 635 A.D., the whole of this wealthy country fell into the hands of the Moslems, and it soon constituted the centre of their power, especially when the Abbasids, with true political insight, transferred thither the capital of the empire and founded Baghdad. The chief cities of the older Arabic period were Kúfa (in the neighbourhood of the earlier Híra to the south of ancient Babylon) and Basra (or BUSSORAH, q.v.) in the neighbourhood of the earlier Maissan. After these two cities the country was divided into the Sawád, "rich arable district," of Basra and that of Kúfa. Sawád was also employed as a name for the whole country ; and more or less identical with this designation is the name ‘Irák still in use. Sometimes also the term Sawád-el-‘Irák is employed ; but at a later date the country is distinguished as ‘Irák ‘Arabi (Arabian ‘Irák) from the Persian ‘Irák ‘Ajemi to the eastm the ancient Media. The Arabian geographer Yákút makes the distinction that the country called Sawád reaches farther to the north (viz., to the district of the Upper Záb).

Abulfeda gives the boundaries of ‘Irák as follows : -- "In the west of the country lie El-Jezíra and the desert, in the south the desert, the Persian Gulf, and Khuzistán, in the east the mountain country as the far as Holwán (near the principal pass through the Zagrus range). Thence the boundary runs again towards Mesopotamia. Thus the greatest breadth of ‘Irák is in the north, and its narrow extremity is formed by island ‘Abbádán in the Shatt-el-‘Arab (the united Euphrates and Tigris) to the south of Basra." From what has been said it appears that ‘Irák extended far beyond the country between Euphrates and Tigris. Abulfeda says clearly that ‘Irák lies on the Nile ; for according to this view the Tigris flows through the middle of the country. ‘Irák consequently lies between 30° and 34° 30' N. lat. and between 44° and 48° 30' E. long. ; of its area it is impossible to form an estimate under such varying conditions. For some details see BAGHDAD.

From the union of the rivers upwards, in the case of the Euphrates as far as 26° N. lat. (above Rakka), in that of the Tigris to 35° N. lat., the valleys are known as ezzór, the depression, in opposition to the more elevated desert-plateau. It has been surmised that in this name is to be recognized the Dúra of the Old Testament (Daniel iii. 1).

Very little of the ancient condition of the country has been preserved; and there are now but few remains of ancient buildings, scarcity of stone having all along led to the use of bricks. ‘Irák has played its part. It is only by the expenditure of immense sums, that the ancient canals could be restored and the swamps formed by them drained. The whole land falls into two unequal portions, -- an extensive dry steppe with at any rate a healthy desert climate, and an unhealthy region of swamps. There is a good deal more agriculture along the Euphrates than along the Tigris ; but swamps, with almost impenetrable reed thickets, composed of a kind of Agrostis, are the same time much extensive. The slightly more elevated districts are the special habitat of the date palm, which by itself forms dense groves bordering the banks particularly on the lower Euphrates, for a distance of several day’s journey. This part of the country consequently has a some what monotonous but in its own way imposing aspect. A luxuriant vegetation of water-plants is to be found in the swamps, which are the haunt of numerous wild beasts – wild swine, lions, different kinds of aquatic and birds. The swamps are inhabited by a wild race of men, dark of hue, with many negroes amongst them. They live in reed huts, and cultivate rice ; and they weave straw mats. In the main they keep pretty free both of the Turkish Government and of the semi-Bedouins and Bedouins of ‘Irák. The Khazael especially who dwell to the south of ancient Babylon often give the Government trouble, through their passion for independence. Less turbulent are the Bedouins in the interior of the country – the Zobeid, the Afaij, and the Abu Muhammed ; but on the other had the Beni Lám (7500 tents strong), who occupy the great tract of country east of the Tigris to the pashas of that city. A still more difficult task is the management of the Sham mar, who come and pitch their tents to the south-east of Baghdad; and also the Muntefitch on the southern Euphrates put the whole administrative and diplomatic skill of the Turkish officials to the test. The Turkish influence has here made at one time great advance and at another lost all the ground it had gained, -- the rich and powerful sheikhs of the Muntefitch sometimes becoming for a season rulers over the whole of Southern ‘Irák and even over the town of Basra. The present writer the great sheikh Násir in his camp near Súk-esh-Shiyúkh ; and he received the impression of having to do with a very remarkable and astute personage.

The old Syrian population of ‘Irák has almost entirely disappeared ; the few remnants left are distinguished by a special religion, in regard to which see the article MANDAENS. Ethnographically the country is subject to a double influence. On the one hand the connexion with Nejd, the central plateau of Arabia, continues uninterrupted ; the emigration form that region being mainly directed towards ‘Irák and Jezíra. In Baghdad even, the ‘Angél-Bedouins from Central Arabia have a quarter of their own. With the earnings obtained in these rich districts the emigrants return to their homes. But quite as strong at least is the influence of Persia. Persian customs are in fashion; in Baghdad there is an important Persian quarter ; and Kerbela and Meshed ‘Ali to the west of the Euphrates may be considered regular Persian " enclaves." In these place are buried the son-in-law of Mohammad, the caliph Ali, and his son Hosein (in Kerbela), the chief saints of the Shitte sect ; and their tombs are not only shrines of pilgrimage to the living, but the dead are brought by countless caravans from Persia to be buried in ground which they have made holy. And from the midst of them pestilence has often begun its corpses ; and from the midst of them pestilence has often begun its march. Throughout the whole of ‘Irák the Shiites have many adherents, -- for example, the Khazael already mentioned. Persian influence prevails on the Arab population of ‘Irák, and the intermingling of the races can still be very clearly traced ; in this distant corner of the Turkish empire a more international tone prevails than in any other district. And how, however small when compared with former times the commercial and intellectual intercourse of various nations in these regions may be at the present day, the attentive observer must notice that such intercourse does still exist, though within restricted limits. No trace, indeed, is to be found of that rich intellectual development which was produced in the time of the caliphs through the reciprocal action of Persian and Arabic elements. Still the quickwittedness of the inhabitants of ‘Irák makes a decided impression on the traveller passing through Asiatic Turkey ; and one might venture to prophesy that the country might to some extent recover its former position in the world , especially if English influence from India were more widely extended, and should lead to the construction of a railway. The trade which passes through ‘Irák is even now not unimportant; horses, for example, are exported in considerable numbers from southern ‘Irák to India. But it might be very be very much improved, as the country, it is said, could support five hundred times as many inhabitants as it actually contains. There is also a considerable export of dates, a fruit which forms the chief sustenance of a great number of the inhabitants ; and the breeding of cattle (especially buffaloes) is extensively carried on. Only a few steamboats as yet navigate the majestic rivers. Communication by water is carried on by means of the most primitive craft. Goods are transported in the so-called "terrades," moderately big high-built vessels, which also venture out into the Persian Gulf as far as Kuwét. Passengers are conveyed, especially on the Euphrates, in the meshhúf, a very long and narrow boat, mostly pushed along the river bank with poles. The Mesopotamia "kelleks"—rafts laid on goatskin bladders – come down as far as Baghdad, where round boats made of plaited reeds pitched with asphalt are in use. At Basra, on the other hand, we see the "belem," boats of a large size, having the appearance of being hallowed out of tree trunks, and partly in fact so constructed. Throughout ‘Irák in general Indian influence is partially at work ; in the hot summer months, for instance, when the natives live in underground apartments (serdáb), the Indian punkah is used in the houses of the rich. As regards language, the local Arabic dialect has evidently been affected on the one hand by Persian, on the other by the Bedouin forms of speech.

See Ritter, Die Erdkunde von Asien, 2d end. Vol. vii., 10th and 11th parts, Berlin, 1843, 1844; Chesney, Expedition for the Survey of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris, 2 vols., London, 1850; W. Ainsworth, Researches in Assyria, Babylonia, and Chaldaea, London, 1838; Fr. Delitzsch. Wo lag das Paradies? Leipsic, 1881. Map: Kiepert, Die Euphrat- und Tigrisländer, Berlin, 1854. (A. SO.)


47-1 Mesopotamia [Gk.], more exactly he mese ton potamon [Gk., the middle of the rivers], scil. Chora [Gk.] or Suria [Gk.].

47-2 In the more recent parts of Genesis Padan Aram takes the place of Aram Naharayim. But this perhaps is the name of a smaller district in the neigbourhood of Harran.

48-1 Philostratus (c. 200 A.D.) already reports that the Arabs called Mesopotamia nesos [Gk., island]

The above article was written by: Albrecht Socin, Ph.D.; Professor of Semitic Theology, Leipzig University, from 1890; formerly of Tübingen University; compiled Baedeker's Handbooks of Palestine and Syria; author of an Arabic grammar.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-14 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries