Mesopotamia
The Land Between the Rivers

By Major-General Sir George MacMunn

[The Living Age, December 7, 1918; from The Cornhill Magazine]

'Miles and miles and miles and miles of—— all,' in the simple diction of Atkins the Hoplite, stretch the plains of Mesopotamia. All England knows about Mesopotamia, and a place called Kut, and a goal called Baghdad, and a hot place they pronounce Basra. They know also just a few vignettes from the history of what is now getting on for three years. The early glories of Shaiba, the quick turned triumph and quicker tragedy of Ctesiphon, and the long-drawn agony of Townsend's Kut.

Some inkling perhaps they have of that period of building by Sir Percy Lake and General Maude. The forming of a large marine, the assembling of railway material, the eternal quarrel with marsh and flood and sandbank. But the real Mesopotamia, 'the miles and miles and miles, through which Atkins is for the nonce tramping, as tramped Greek and Roman legions, back in the ages, is, as yet, unsung. And yet fate and prophecy bid fair to ordain that the English shall know something more of Mesopotamia, that historic 'land between the rivers,' which men also call Turkish Arabia.

Let us therefore gaze on the aspects of the land that meet good Atkins from college and office and Dials, as the British transports bring him up that Empress of Waterways, the Shatt el Arab or River of the Arabs, and also dip into some of those countless aspects which the past recalls.

For seventy miles from its mouth to Basra and for perhaps forty more, ships of the deepest draft can sail up the Shatt, impeded it is true for the present by an eighteen-foot bar at the mouth, which is easily dredged hereafter—ships easily pass each other in the fairway—and the banks for miles are edged with palm gardens, that wonderful tree of life that brings sustenance of all kinds to its owners. The level green of the palms is lightened by a fringe of mulberry trees, and oleanders of surprising flower. Up and down the Shatt sail the sea-going as well as the river craft of the sea-faring Arab, as ancient and daring a mariner as ever the Phoenician and the Norseman. The great sea dhows are often models of old Portuguese brigs and caravels with high poops and great curved stern sheets, with ancient binnacle and brass-bound wheel. Gun-ports pierce the sides in tiers, and the force of habit, so potent and so enduring in the East, has enacted that dummy tiers of gun-ports be painted on the poops of the lesser craft. The Arab sailor is orderly, and the dhow will pipe a uniformed crew over the side, to take the Arab naukodar [skipper] to call on a Turkish or Persian port officer.

But the crews are simple souls, apt to murmur one with another when a voyage is unduly prolonged and the vessel out of her course. On such occasions the aged captain will assemble his crew, and promise a revelation. Out of perhaps a century-old nautical almanac, held upside down, a grimy finger-nail will trace the long ƒ's, and finally he will announce in triumph 'Inshallah!' we shall arrive in port in three days' time.'

There are many ports, and something should by rights turn up!

Into this home water of Arab craft the navigating fleets of Europe have been penetrating these last five hundred years, as Portuguese ports of other days bear witness, along the shores of the Persian Gulf, and John Company's liners in later days, till Colonel Rawdon Chesney and Captain Blosse Lynch came overland from the West and built steamers on the upper Euphrates as a Roman Emperor had built his craft before them.

Down the Euphrates to the Shatt and out into the Gulf and back steamed Chesney's river craft Tigris and then turned north to Baghdad, forerunner of the Lynch line of Tigris steamers.

Just before the mutiny in India, the Shatt saw a British fleet and transports come in the days when the Turk knew his best friend, to bring the Shah to his senses, with Outram and Havelock in command. Persia was brought to reason in time for those leaders to hurry back to harder tasks, and since those days the shipping of Europe has slowly increased in the Shatt, till even, the tardy German discovered the mighty river and all she might mean for trade. And now, since the Turk flies once and for all his true colors, the Jolly Roger of slavery, of oppression, and ruthless murder, the navies of England have made the Shatt el Arab their own. Processions of transports, of storeships and cruisers come and go in the mighty waterway. Basra, the ancient port of Mesopotamia, now seethes with ocean and river steamers—the Mersey with the chill off. The whole of the Arab river craft ply for the British, and the Tigris is white with their sails. Arabs unload ocean ships and pile high the river barges, and roads and railways grow apace beneath their hands.

Slowly the word has gone forth, that there is no mistake as to which is the right side of the fence, and the Sheikhs note that, while the Turk has essayed to destroy the Arab peoples and break up their clans, the British have come to build and unify an ancient nation. The word has gone forth that the yellow man must go back to the East and that Western Asia is the land of Shem and Japhet, of Semitic and Japhetic peoples of Semitic speech and not the agglutinous vocabulary of the Mongol—for the almond eye remains in the Anatolian Turk, till he looks first cousin to a Gurkha or a Manchu.

There are some foolish writers who like to babble of the clean fighting Turk, when in reality he is but a docile savage in the control of ruthless men. There is something appalling in the docility of the slave races, the German, the Turk, the fellah beneath the Pharaohs. To the Turk it may be ordered 'Kiss the children' and he will kiss them, or 'Bayonet the children' and he bayonets them, even as does the kindly German of former belief. The fellah bidden by the Pharaoh will flog the life out of his comrade, even like the other slave races the Turk of Hulugu, and the Hun of Hohenzollern, and the place for the yellow man is away East.

Not that the army in Mesopotamia has any love for the hosts of Arab tribes that have fished in the troubled waters between Kut and Baghdad; their savage cruelty to wounded has made them hated by all. That may be due to the Arab's conception of warfare, for where he has accepted the British, he is wholeheartedly a worker for a price, and an appreciator of order, wishful only to be governed and given the benefits of progressive rule. To which he adds a very great desire to acquire wealthy and is therefore open to proposals which will develop prosperity.

Into the Turk-clogged progress-desiring port of Basra has come the daily increasing activity of a large military base, which must, however, usurp all use of the port till war be done. The improvements for war purposes are, however, chiefly those that are needed in peace, save perhaps that time the future works are built with speed rather than durability as governing factor. Wharves, waterworks, electric lighting, metaled roads, bridges, dockyards spring up on all sides, and the great Jew settlements that date from the captivity take heart of grace and tender for contracts and peddle tinned salmon and cigarettes for Atkins.

The population of this great seafaring port is a mixed one. Jewish, Greek, and Chaldean traders jostle for the business of war. Kurd and Arab, Lur and Bakhtiari labor and build and garden. It is a bustling population, for the flourishing date gardens at all times bring trade and shipping, and the 'Tree of Life' feeds and finds fuel and building material for tens of thousands.

To the medley of peoples, the British have added many. Every race in India has contributed to the army, and with them also negro troops and watermen from the West Indies, and Chinese artisans to build huts and work in the dockyards. Roads and railways push up along the waterways. River steamers from the rivers of India and Burma, from the Irrawadi, from the Ganges, and the Brahmaputra, chunk against the current of the Tigris.

The Nile too has added to the gayety of rivers, and, if you please, County Council steamers have come under their own steam from Battersea to Basra, aye and Baghdad too, remarkably fine boats for their size. Those who would moralize on the divinity that doth shape our ends may well marvel that the Edmund Ironside and the Christopher Wren and other denizens of Chelsea Reach should tow munitions of war into Baghdad. To feed with all the munitions of war an army fighting five hundred miles away, and also feed the railways with material, this river fleet from the waterways of the Empire works all day and far into the night, and porters from the four corners of India and Africa load barges and unload ships for this, the real river war of history.

And all the while the Tigris and the Euphrates roll on down to the sea, as they have rolled since Eden, to the almost historic days of the Deluge, since Abraham went north from Ur of the Chaldees, and Hammurabi ruled in Shinar, since the glory of Shumer and Accade, and the Empires of Shalmanezar, and Ashurbanipal and the hosts of Syria. The British rail along the Euphrates passes at the foot of the great pyramidical pile of brick at Ur, on which stood the Temple of the Moon. The great square bricks stand set in bitumen, many of them bearing in cuneiform the Royal stamp of Nebuchadnezzar, the enthusiastic restorer of ancient temples. The temple pile remains eighty feet above the mounds of dust that cover the foundations of erstwhile prosperous Ur, the river port that ruled a tidal estuary.

At Ur is to be seen one of those small cross checks on ancient history, which in one way or another is a feature of Mesopotamian archeology. Among the layer of bricks firmly set in bitumen are to be found intact pieces of matting even as the reed matting of to-day. Old Herodotus records among those many minor details, which are a satisfying feature in his history, that the Chaldeans place matting in the bitumen setting of every tenth layer of bricks. It is pleasant with one's own eyes to be able to testify to the accuracy in detail, of the late Mr. Herodotus.

On the way from Kut to Baghdad the dreary embankment of dead and dry Babylonian canals close the horizon, and often have furnished ready-made entrenchments for belligerents. All the world knows how the British and Turk fought within sight of the great Arch of Ctesiphon, the Arch of the Hall of Audience of the Sassanian capital.

The curse of the Bible prophets—'their cities I will make into heaps'—has been amply fulfilled in Mesopotamia. Babylon, Nineveh, Warka Lagash, Eridhu, all are mere heaps of gray-dust, from which the spade alone extracts history. The Palace of Khosru almost alone stands as a ruin, in the usual acceptance of the word. The great Arch of Ctesiphon is modern as Mesopotamian history goes, a mere fifteen hundred years of existence, but it stands as it was built of foot-square bricks, set in the comparatively newly devised mortar that had replaced the bitumen. It stands a huge hall of one single arch and one of the great façades of its right front with it. High up in the walls, defying time as bravely as the brick work, lie great timbers that must be cedar of Lebanon, and perhaps the oldest woodwork extant. Among the ruined mud walls of the city site stand sandbagged gun emplacements and the empty tins of derelict bivouacs.

Opposite Ctesiphon, which the Turks call Suleiman Pak, lie the ruins of Seleucia, the great Greek capital, where Seleukos founded his dynasty on the death of his master Alexander, and moved the seat of Greek government from Babylon to the Tigris. Naught remains but heaps of dust and a mighty wall now cut by the Tigris immediately opposite Ctesiphon, and that curious sense of Greek dominion which stretches far over Asia to the Frontiers of Afghanistan and the Punjab itself. And over away from Seleucia a very few leagues lies the battlefield of Cunaxa where, a few centuries before Seleucia came into being, Xenophon started back over the mountains to distant Trebizond.

In the midst of this shadow and presence of extreme antiquity, Atkins marches unconcerned, somewhat disturbed by Bible names that the army has given to unnamed sites round Kut. It is desirable for artillery purposes to identify such mounds as may exist, but when these are officially called Sodom and Gomorrah, Atkins may be excused from writing home that he is in the midst of Bible scenes.

Among the early spots occupied by the army that first reached Mesopotamia was Qurna, at the junction of the Tigris and Euphrates, a hot, moist kingdom of the wet bulb if ever there was one, where Anopheles Pulcherrima at first made the army her own. There is an old Sumerian legend which places Eden at Qurna, oblivious of the fact that the Persian Gulf must have extended far above it. The army read the story and adopted it; Temptation Square and Adam's Lane are official spots among the palm groves of the Arab town. To one of the bulldog breed marching in with a pack and a hundred round of ammunition, with a temperature of 112 and the wet bulb over 90, an officer confided the fact that this was the Garden of Eden. 'Well, sir,' said the product of undenominational teaching, 'all I can say is that no wonder the twelve apostles deserted.'

However that may be, the British army is touching history and archeology unknown at every march, and the glamour of it is biting deep into the minds of those who are not too weary to think. Every outpost lies on some village or city mound, ancient bricks are dug for roadways, coins and vases turn to the light beneath the trench spade—slipper coffins, aptly described as 'babies' baths,' break before the plate-layers. Men may dream any moment of coming on such revelations as charmed the best years from Layard and life from George Smith, and of finding treasure like to the Royal Library of Nineveh.

The aeroplanes themselves acid to historic research in a manner hardly realized. The giant city sites of Assyria, acres of ruined fields, yield no plan to the wanderer therein, and even traverse and theodolite can hardly find the secrets of plan and design which the aeroplane photos map clearly. Lines of walls that are hardly visible on the flat show clearly to those above, and the ground plan of Opis and Sammarah are becoming an open book.

The Assyrian and Chaldean blocks at the British Museum will have very different meaning to those who have motored to Babylon, flown over Nineveh, or climbed to the top of the Temple of the Moon at Ur of the Chaldees.

Perhaps the tracing of the story of the book of Genesis is the true fascination that Mesopotamia has for those who have time to read. The great boats of the Euphrates have the identical lines of the toy ark that can be bought in Regent Street. Where a pent roof has been added for our purposes, the two are one in shape. A Euphrates 'bellum' arranged as a sick barge is the toy ark of childhood. Is that toy ark an authentic tradition in its shape? It is almost certain to be. The Euphrates boats are pitched inside and out with pitch, as was that ark. In these same bellums, some as large as seventy tons, we may find British batteries sailing the Euphrates, and a modified menagerie could easily walk on board. One more suggestion of the toy-shop tradition strikes the casual observer. The tribes-people from the hills who work on the Tigris and Euphrates wear high black felts hats, a topper without a brim. Are Mr. and Mrs. Noah really correctly dressed?

Then on top of the discovery of the ark comes the more serious reading of a parallel version of the Bible story of the Flood found in the cuneiform in Layard's tablets from the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Nineveh, copied or collected possibly from Sargon's library at Accade or Erech, older than Ashurbanipal by perhaps eighteen hundred years. Were the stories of Genesis the household stories of Chaldea four thousand years ago? It would seem so, when from Babylon is unearthed a seal with the representation of the Temptation, Adam and Eve, the Serpent and the Apple-tree. Then who, having seen the floods in Chaldea in 1916, cannot realize that two feet more would have submerged the whole land?

Such are the fascinating reflections that fill the minds of many who realize that the very names in use of the stars they march under are the names that the Chaldean astrologers gave them—so far away in the mist of time that human imagination almost fails to grasp the story.

It is before the ancient-stories that the Bible of the Captivity and the prophets are records but of yesterday. The Tombs of Ezekiel on the Euphrates, of Queen Esther and the prophet Daniel at Susa are extant shrines. On the lower Tigris, the most beautiful of all vignettes is the hedge-sparrow dome of the Tomb of Ezra, set in a small grove of palms for all the world to see. Jews of the Captivity fill every town and ply that gift of trade they learned in Babylon, and ancient rabbis step from old-world blocks.

The story of the advance from the trenches of the impasse (trenches three hundred and fifty miles up the Tigris even at this stage), the months of hammer and tongs, of spade and bayonet, culminating in the never-to-be- forgotten crossing at the Shamran bend, the recovery of Kut, and the pressure that brought the army marching for dear life on Baghdad and the retreating Turks, cannot be told here. Nor the joyous arrival at Baghdad to save a mercantile town torn from mob and tribal atrocities, nor of the severe fighting that followed as the reinforced Turks strove to regain their own and hem us in, for those are the property of accurate history to be recorded on granite. This is rather the story of the sidelights that shine on the army's progress.

Nor is the trade and prospect of Turkish Arabia, whatever may be its future, a suitable subject for discussion here. It will be remembered how Sir William Willcocks spent several years in Mesopotamia on behalf of the Turkish Government studying the waterways and the ancient and existing systems of irrigation. He envisaged the old smiling Chaldea with its ancient crops in all their abundance, with cotton and other paying crops added thereto. The country grows alfalfa (or lucerne), and whoever can grow alfalfa can fatten stock, the one commodity the world is really short of. Flocks and herds crowd the land, but the people for extended agriculture are sparse. Twenty years of good sanitation, so that the countless children come to maturity, may work wonders.

The Arab, however, is eager for progress, and therein lies the hope for the future. Civilization and government are eagerly looked for. Do the military authorities even spit-lock a road through the scrub by the Tigris edge, forthwith does every man, woman, and child proclaim it the King's highway. Oil pumps and machinery are eagerly used, while the military organization of labor and native craft have proved the Arab to be a first-class worker, if well and sympathetically handled. The farmers, and even the marsh Arabs, have hurried to work on roads and railways. The great Bedouin encampments on the Tigris, the long rows of brown camel-hair shelters, watch the steamers passing by, and the white-bearded sheikhs, like Abraham 'sitting in their tents in the heat of the day,' send their young men out to work on the earthwork of the permanent way.

Of Baghdad itself who may speak? It is literally the modern Babylon, built with bricks stolen there from, or from Seleucia and Ctesiphon and the dead cities of the plains, as Port Said is built from Tel Tennis, and as new cities from old, all the world over. Its dome and its minarets stand out among its palm groves from afar. A few of its mosques and vaulted khans date from Haroun-al-Raschid, but the city, though picturesque, is modern save for the bricks that lie under its whitewashed walls. They have seen Nebuchadnezzar in all his glory, yet the city they have built is upstart. The Great Gate of Murad, closed since the conqueror entered, was blown up by the Turks, perhaps lest the English should open it to enter by that way in solemn significance, the which is not an Anglo-Saxon trait, for the Anglo-Saxon rarely does anything of intention that is solemnly significant.

Above Baghdad, where the army now waits what may befall, the ruin field is thick also. Nineveh lies ahead by Mosul, and Calneh of Assyria, and all that Assyria stood for in building and magnificence, changing to the memory of Greece and Rome. The Tomb of Julian the Apostate bears witness to one of Rome's failures on the Tigris. Though Vespasian penetrated to Shushan and the Diz, yet was Mesopotamia always a scene of disaster to the Imperial troops, a land which overstrained endeavor.

In spite of 'miles and miles and miles of——all,' the dead canals ever raise their promise to the prospect of central government, and the groves of dates and poplars and mulberries on the inhabited shores show that the drinking earth is full of promise. Chaldea is full of Temple ruins. The dead course of the Nahrwan canal and its ghostly village mounds but wait the touch of the irrigation engineer. The Arabs bear many but raise few, and a generation of dispensaries and kindly medical aid will populate the banks of the canals that are to be. Even those there be who dream of finding a real home for the long-stapled cotton, that other great want of modern economics, and one again for the wheat, that Herodotus guarantees to bear three hundredfold.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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