A HISTORY OF PERSIA

CHAPTER III

THE GEOGRAPHY OF ELAM AND BABYLONIA

 

And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.—Genesis XI. 2.

 

Early Civilization.—It is generally accepted that civilization first came into existence in the valleys of the great rivers of the world, and thence spread gradually into the mountains which bordered them. The dweller in such a valley would usually be assured of his food supply so long as he tilled the land. He would also enjoy the inestimable benefits of intercourse by river as well as by land; and intercourse is certainly an important factor in the foundation of civilization.

Moreover, the valley was, and is, the permanent centre of the life of a country; for periodical droughts, such as occur all over the world, would drive the pastoral dwellers in the mountains down to the valleys, where the perennial rivers would, at any rate, save them and their flocks from dying by thirst. Even today the primitive nomad of Sarhad, on the eastern borders of Persia, migrates whenever drought dries up the scanty springs in his barren hills; and I have seen families driving their flocks and herds to Sistan just as the patriarchs under similar conditions took refuge in Egypt. Indeed it is certain that from time immemorial the influence of drought has been enormous in determining migrations; and yet, until quite recently, this question has not been studied by the historian with the attention its importance merits.

In the eastern hemisphere there is a broad belt of desert, which runs from the Atlantic Ocean across the north of Africa to Asia. There it is continued in the deserts of Arabia, and farther eastwards, with a northerly trend, to the paralysing waste of the great desert of Persia. Indeed deserts extend nearly across Asia to the Yellow Sea. At the point where the low-lying Arabian desert gives place to the high-lying plateau of Iran the waters of the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the Karun, at the time when our survey commences, flowed into the Persian Gulf by separate mouths. This region, with its great navigable rivers running approximately from north to south into the landlocked Persian Gulf, is one which is of great natural importance, and to it our attention must now be turned.

Nowhere else throughout the entire world do great rivers discharge into a landlocked sea. Nowhere else could be found in equal degree those favorable conditions which were required for the early beginnings of civilization. The great rivers of Babylonia made cultivation easy, and provided facilities of communication by river and in the Gulf.

In these valleys then the civilization of the world as we know it took shape. China and the Far East were remote and made progress on their own distinctive lines at a later date. Egypt, although it developed in a similar way and is believed to have derived its marvellous civilization in part from Semitic sources, was shut in by natural obstacles. Moreover, the Nile discharged into an open sea; and, consequently, its influence in those early days did not pass beyond its sandy deserts. Thus we have Babylonia as the centre, but affecting an area which extended to the Mediterranean on the one hand and included Persia on the other. The influence during the period of its greatness was Semitic, although, as will be shown, Sumer and Akkad were not by any means entirely Semitic. A second and later fact of capital importance is the Aryan influence, which included Central Asia and the Iranian plateau. The effect upon the world of other countries is secondary and accessory to that of these two centres.

Elam, the Home of the Earliest Civilization of Persia.— For the reasons just stated we do not seek for the earliest civilization of Persia on its plateau, where there are no important rivers. In the whole of the vast area of Iran there is, as we have seen, but one navigable river, the Karun, and it is in its valley that we find the earliest civilization in what was generally known as the kingdom of Elam. This was a state bordering on ancient Sumer and Akkad; like them situated, partly at any rate, on a rich alluvial plain, faced with somewhat similar problems, leading a similar life, and, if not related in similarity of origin or in language, yet connected from the first by raids and counter-raids, and later on by intercourse of every description. I propose, in the first place, to ascertain what has been discovered about these neighbouring lands of hoary antiquity. Next I propose, so far as is possible, to trace briefly the history of Elam, not only independently but as forming one of these very ancient states. Later, we shall come down to the period when the inhabitants of the Iranian plateau conquered these developed civilizations, which, in their turn, deeply affected their conquerors, who adopted the arts and civilization of Babylonia and of Elam, and made their chief capital at Susa, the centre of the oldest civilization in what is still the Persian Empire.

Physical Changes in Elam and Babylonia since the Dawn of History.—The formation of the great alluvial valleys of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Karun has already been referred to briefly in the first chapter. Here it is important to consider what was their physical condition in the fourth millennium BC when historical civilization was dawning in those regions, and again at later periods; for few countries have seen greater physical changes.

The first point to note is that the coast has advanced enormously, and that it then lay about one hundred and twenty miles farther north than today. The importance of this fact cannot be overestimated, and it must be borne in mind in considering every question in these early days; moreover, it circumscribes the area in which these epoch-making events occurred. It must also be recollected that land recently formed by deltaic action is generally of little agricultural or other value.

The Rivers of Babylonia and Elam.—At the earliest historical period in Babylonia and in Elam the rivers which were the makers of the country were those which exist today; but their courses were somewhat different, and they all reached the Persian Gulf independently by one or more mouths.

The Euphrates.—Starting from the west, the Euphrates, still termed the Frat, which rises in the Taurus not very far from the Tigris, followed a course in its lower reaches to the east of the bed it now occupies, and thus diminished the area of Babylonia as compared with today; for the country to the west has always been in historical times hopelessly sterile. The Euphrates, which, unlike its sister river Tigris, receives no tributaries of any value, played a greater part in the earliest stages of civilization; its banks being lower, its stream less swift, and its waters falling more slowly during the summer. It is thus not surprising to find that not only Babylon but every city of Sumer and Akkad, with the sole exception of Opis, was situated on the Euphrates or on one of its offshoots. Its waters discharged by two main branches, on the southern of which "Ur of the Chaldees" was the great emporium for trade moving east and west; but it does not appear that at this very early period there was any commerce with India.

 

The Tigris.—We next come to the Tigris, which, rising near Diarbekr, receives constant accessions from the rivers draining the Zagros, of which the Great and the Lesser Zab are among the most important. It pursued its rapid course parallel to the Euphrates for some hundreds of miles and discharged independently many miles east of the sister river. Owing to its high banks and rapid current, none of the earliest settlements were formed near it; moreover, dwellers on the Tigris would be more exposed to attack than dwellers on the Euphrates. It carried, and indeed still carries, a larger volume of water to the Persian Gulf than the Euphrates, which is not navigable for steamers.

The Tigris River

 

The Kerkha.—We now come to the river on the left bank of which Susa, the capital of Elam, was situated. Known as the Uknu, and by the Greeks as the Choaspes, it springs from Mount Nahavand, where it flows near the rock inscriptions of Bisitun under the name of Gamasiab. Ever an impetuous river, it rushes through the defiles of Luristan and does not appear as the Kerkha, so called from a town of that name on its right bank, until the plain is reached. In early days it discharged into the Persian Gulf, but its waters are now lost in the swamps of Hawizeh.

Nahavand Mountains

 

The Ab-i-Diz.—The Ididi, known as the Koprates in classical times and as the Ab-i-Diz today, rises in the mountains of Luristan near Burujird. After being joined by another river called the Kazki, it flows past Dizful and joins the Karun, of which it is the main affluent, at Band-i-Kir.

 

The Karun.—The Ulai, termed Euloeus by the Greeks and Pasitigris or the "Lesser Tigris" by Nearchus, was named Dujayal by the Arabs. It is now the Karun, and at the fourth millennium before Christ flowed into the Persian Gulf at a point near the modern Ahwaz, where what is now a prominent rocky ridge was at a still more remote period an island in the Persian Gulf.

In the heart of the Bakhtiari country there is a culminating mass of ranges. From this, on one side, springs the Zenda Rud, which runs east to Isfahan, while on the southern slope the Karun takes its rise.From its source the Karun dashes down at an incredible speed, falling 9000 feet before it reaches Shuster. On its way it passes through some of the grandest scenery in the world. The rugged mountain gorges are frequently inaccessible and the river appears like a riband thousands of feet below. At one point the gorge is so narrow that it can be jumped by an ordinarily active man. The river flows in every direction by turn, and often parallel to its original course. Indeed the windings between its source and Shuster measure two hundred and fifty miles, although as the crow flies the distance is less than one-third of this total.

Bridge over the Karun River

 

The Karun—or rather its artificial branch, the Ab-i-Gargar—is navigable from a few miles below Shuster, where the mountains end. At this point the banks are very high and the bed is narrow. Until the Ab-i-Diz joins it, there is no appearance of a fine river. Throughout, the plain is absolutely treeless and the inhabitants are nomads of a distinctly low type. The navigable portion of the river is bisected by the natural barrage at Ahwaz, where steamers are changed, and the lower reach is extremely uninteresting and tortuous until the date groves around its mouth are reached. At a point some two miles above Mohamera there is an old channel known as the Bahmeshir which connects with the Persian Gulf direct and has been navigated. The present channel, termed the Haffar, by which the Karun joins the Shatt-ul-Arab, is generally believed to be artificial. Today the Karun, which increases at its mouth to a width of nearly half a mile, discharges its waters into the majestic Shatt-ul-Arab and adds sensibly to its width.

At the earliest historical period we thus have the chief rivers directly connected with the Persian Gulf, each forming a separate delta and bringing down millions of tons of soil. This fact and the shorter courses of the rivers made for the quicker formation of land than the conditions of the present day. It is also probable that the rainfall in the hills was heavier, and the quantity of mud-laden water consequently greater.

The Expedition of Sennacherib.—In the seventh century BC or, to be more exact, in 694 BC, there is a detailed account given by Sennacherib of a campaign which he waged against the Chaldeans, who had taken refuge in the towns of the sea-coast of Elam. This is of the utmost value from the geographical point of view. The Great Assyrian describes how he sent for Hittites to Nineveh to build great ships in the manner of their country. This flotilla was constructed partly on the Euphrates and partly on the Tigris. The ships built on the Tigris were rowed down to Opis and thence dragged on rollers to the Euphrates by their crews of Tyrians, Sidonians, and Greeks. The united fleet then moved down the Euphrates to the port of Bab-salimeti, distant a few miles from its mouth, which has a truly modern Arabic ring and means the "Gate of (divine) Mercies". There the camp was flooded by a high tide, and for five days the army was cooped up in the ships. The fleet was then got ready, and when it was about to start; Sennacherib sacrificed victims to Ea, God of the Abyss, on the shore of the "Bitter River", into which he also threw a golden model of a ship, a fish made of solid gold, and a golden ring.

The expedition proceeded across the head of the Persian Gulf to the mouth of the Karun River, a distance of perhaps one hundred miles if there were no mud islands to be avoided. The force was landed on the first firm ground, probably close to Ahwaz. The surprise was complete, various town were sacked, and the Chaldean settlements were broken up, after which the Assyrians looted the country towards the delta of the Tigris, and finally returned in triumph to the presence of the Great Monarch, who had prudently remained behind at Bab-salimeti.

The Voyage of Nearchus.—Close on four centuries after this memorable expedition, namely in 325 BC, we have a still more valuable description of the head of the Persian Gulf from Nearchus, the intrepid admiral of Alexander the Great, whose high place in the roll of fame was won not only by the then unparalleled featof conducting a fleet of river-built ships from Karachi across the Arabian Sea and up the Persian Gulf to Susa, but also by his accurate observations, which have fortunately been preserved to us in the pages of Arrian.

The Greek admiral mentions the fact that between the mouths of the Euphrates and the Tigris there lay at the period of his famous journey a lagoon into which the Tigris then discharged. Of still greater interest with reference to Elam is his statement that one hundred and fifty stadias, or seventee miles, from the mouth of the Karun the bridge of boats leading from Persepolis to Susa is reached. He adds that this point was six hundred stadia, or sixty-eight miles, from Susa. As this is the exact distance from Susa to the modern Ahwaz, which not only lies on the direct Susa-Behbehan-Persepolis route, but is situated at point where the famous natural barrage facilitates a crossing, the identification of this centre is of primary importance; for, working down from it, we can accurately fix the position of the coast. Today, if we measure the distance of seventeen miles down-stream from Ahwaz, we come to Kut Omeirah, which thus in the fourth century BC lay at the mouth of the River Karun. To continue our identifications, the mouth of the Tigris lay six hundred stadia, or sixty-eight miles, from that of the Karun, and the mouth of the Euphrates was situated three thousand stadia, or three hundred and forty miles, below Babylon itself, also a fixed point. This works out at some seven miles above Kurna. Here or hereabouts was the mouth of the Euphrates atthat period.

Taking then these observations of Nearchus, which not only are those of an author on whom reliance can be placed, but are corroborated in other ways, we have a sufficiently accurate delineation of the coast-line at a most important period. For, if we take the earliest historical era of Babylonia to be the middle of the fourth millennium, from that period to the present day is about 5400 years. Now the voyage of Nearchus was undertaken some 2240 years ago, and thus gives us a faithful geographical description of Babylonia and Elam at a period which is almost half-way between the days when Lagash was a flourishing seaport and the twentieth century, when it is more than one hundred miles inland.

The Rivers of Babylonia and Elam at the Present Day.— Today the relatively small stream of the Euphrates and the much larger volume of the Tigris unite at Kurna, which Moslems look upon as the site of the Garden of Eden, but which is of course comparatively newly-formed land. The united waters become a broad river, termed the Shatt-ul-Arab or "River of the Arabs", which flows in majestic beauty past Basra to Mohamera, where the Karun swells its stream to a width of half a mile. From Mohamera it is a distance of fifty miles to the Persian Gulf. The stately river with its great historical associations, exceeding the Nile in volume, lined throughout on both banks with dense palm groves, and attaining the ample width of a mile opposite Fao, will ever remain in my mind as an impression of ineffaceable beauty.

The Boundaries of Elam.—I now propose to give some description of the historical province of Elam, which included the modern provinces of Arabistan, Luristan, Pusht-i-Kuh,and the Bakhtiari mountains. Dieulafoy holds that it stretched down the Persian Gulf as far south as Lingah, while to the north its approximate boundary was the trunk road running from Babylon to Ecbatana. On the east the Bakhtiari mountains and part of the modern province of Fars were included within its limits, which obviously varied as the state was strong or weak. On the west the Tigris formed the frontier when Elam was powerful; but at other periods much of the fertile land to the east of this natural boundary, as far as the lower slopes of the mountains, was held by the Sumerians.

Its Cities, Ancient and Modern.—When Elam was at the zenith of its prosperity we read of Madaktu, situated on the middle course of the River Kerkha, rivalling Susa in strength and importance; of Khaidalu, probably on the site of modern Khorramabad, and of other large walled cities scattered about in the fertile valleys to the north of the plain.

Khorramabad City

 

At Ahwaz, as already mentioned, is the natural barrage. Indeed the site has been of great importance from very ancient times. The present name is abbreviated from Suk-al-Ahwaz, signifying the "Market of the Huz or Khuz". Modern Ahwaz is little more than a village situated on the left bank above the rapids, with Nasiri, developed by English enterprise, below the rapids, opposite to Aminia, the port on the right bank. But, if the potential wealth of Arabistan be developed, Ahwaz will regain its former prosperity.

Shuster, too, with its picturesque castle, is historically of great interest, as in a.d. 260 the Emperor Valerian, who fell into the hands of Shapur I as narrated in Chapter XXXVI, was employed, according to Persian historians, to build the great weir across the river. This weir still stands, though at the time of my visit in 1896 a great gap in the centre had destroyed its usefulness. The climate of Shuster, as mentioned in the previous chapter, is terribly hot. Ahwaz found comparatively cool, with a maximum temperature of 118º. In medieval times it was otherwise, and the climate of Ahwaz, owing to the large amount of cultivated land, was damp and, according to Mukaddasi, execrable; for hot winds blew all day, and by night the noise of the rushing water, the mosquitoes, and bugs which "bite like wolves" rendered sleep impossible.

Gargar river making its way through Shushtar (Shuster)

 

Some thirty miles north-west of Shuster, near the river Kerkha but actually on the left bank of the little river Shaur (a corruption of Shapur), lie the mounds of Sus, the site of Susa, which will be described in detail later on. Farther north, on the main route leading to the mountains, is Dizful, or the "Bridge Fort", which derives its name from a second splendid example of Sasanian work that spans the Ab-i-Diz.

Some sixty miles to the south-east of Shuster is the small mountain plain of Malamir, which contains remarkable bas-reliefs. This district was apparently that of the Hapardip, and the large mound on the eastern part of the plain was probably the capital, Tarrisha. Most of the figures in the rock sculptures have no inscriptions; but one of them forms a happy exception, and we learn that it was chiselled in honor of a certain Prince Khanni, whose effigy dominates the scene, the figures of a priest, of the attendants, and of the sacrificial rams being disproportionately small. Above these tiny figures three musicians march in procession. Ruins of the Sasanian period have also been discovered; and to the north-west are the remains of the famous bridge Khurrah Zad, so named after the mother of Ardeshir, the founder of the Sasanian dynasty.

Ram Hormuz on the Ahwaz-Behbehan road was also a site of antiquity, its founder under its present name being Hormuz, grandson of Ardeshir. It was also celebrated as the site of the last and decisive battle which sealed the fortunes of the house of Sasan and ended the Parthian dynasty. It is probable that all these sites, and others like Band-i-Kir are extremely ancient, and that the Sasanian and medieval remains cover Elamite foundations.

The Natural Fertility of Elam.—In medieval times Khuzistan, as it was then termed, was perhaps the most fertile province of Persia, its sugar-cane being especially celebrated. But an influx of nomads, following on ruthless conquest, has destroyed a once teeming population, which depended for its living on the splendid irrigation works. This system of canals every government until comparatively recent times kept in order, even if it did not enlarge it; but now ancient Elam, like Babylonia, awaits the engineer who, given a free hand and a stable government, could in a few years, as in Egypt or on a still larger scale in the Punjab, settle millions of prosperous peasantry on land which now supports only a few thousand nomads and their flocks.

Khuzistan


The Boundaries of Babylonia.—Having given some account of the province of Elam both in ancient and modern times, I now turn to Babylonia. As already explained, owing to the much greater northern extension of the Persian Gulf and the more easterly course of the Euphrates, Babylonia was formerly of smaller extent than the study of a modern map would lead the student to suppose. On the north, the natural division was one between the dead level plain and the slightly undulating country, which would be represented by a line drawn from near Samarra on the Tigris to Hit on the Euphrates. On the east the Tigris was the boundary when Elam was strong; but when Elam was weak Babylonia occupied fertile districts to the east of the river. On the west, the Euphrates was a natural boundary and defence; and on the south lay the Persian Gulf. Canon Rawlinson calculates the area as being rather less than that of the Netherlands.

Meaning of Sumer and Akkad.—Before proceeding farther it would seem desirable to explain the various terms used in connection with this ancient country. At the very earliest period it was referred to simply as "The Land". At a later but still early period the name Sumer was applied to the district at the head of the Persian Gulf, and Akkad was the neighbouring district to the northeast. There was no marked geographical or other division between the two countries : but Erech, Ur, Larsa, and Umma formed part of Sumer, which is referred to as the
land of Shinar in the book of Genesis, the verse running, "And the beginning of his (sc. Nimrod's) kingdom was Babel, and Erech, and Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar". Akkad or Agade, on the other hand, had Sippar, Kish, Babylon, and Borsippa within its boundaries.

Chaldea and Babylonia. —The term Chaldea ws formerly used in referring to this ancient land; but, as Rawlinson points out, the word is not found at all before
the ninth century BC, and then in Assyrian inscriptions. Consequently, owing to the fame of Babylon and its comparative antiquity, it appears to be most convenient to employ Babylonia as the geographical term during all periods of its history.

Description of Babylonia.—And what sort of a country was it that saw the birth of a civilization which has affected mankind so intensely? Then, as today, it was so absolutely featureless and flat and on such a vast scale that dwellers in Europe can hardly realize what the description of it means. Everywhere the land touches the sky with only rare palm-groves to break up the landscape, and no mountains are visible. As in Egypt, civilization had its birth between the sea and the dry land, on alluvial soil interspersed with vast marshes and flooded annually by its rivers. These rivers, indeed, as is shown above, formed it and, as also in the case of Egypt, kept it alive; although the marshes, with their fevers, must have taken, then as now, a heavy toll from the wild population. The chief difference between Babylonia and Egypt lay in the fact that the Nile flowed into the open Mediterranean Sea, which did not invite navigation; whereas the rivers of this ancient land flowed into a Gulf that is landlocked for hundreds of miles, and thus tempted the river boatmen to venture farther on its waters.

Climate, Flora, and Fauna.—The climate of this rich land is one in which snow is unknown and frost hardly ever severe, although the nights are at times bitterly cold. In the early winter there are heavy rains, which were in all probability more abundant in those early days. The winter upon the whole is bracing and healthy : but it is succeeded by six months of heat that is trying to Europeans, and affects the value of the man unit to some extent. Today the desert winds are much dreaded; and this was equally the case in early days. The soil was and is fertile, and it is generally believed that, while rice was first cultivated in India, this historical land can claim to have given wheat and barley as its main contributions to the sustenance of man. As residents in the East know well, the wheat-fed man is almost invariably superior in energy and vigour to the man whose chief support is rice. The date-palm supplied many needs, including food, drink, and building materials. Next perhaps in general utility to the date-palm were the enormous reeds, from which huts, matting, and boats were alike constructed. Fish, too, formed a staple article of food, especially the barbel and carp. There is also the amphibious fish termed the goby, which is equally at home in the water or out of it. Of big game we know that the elephant and the urus were hunted by the early monarchs; and the hippopotamus had at this period but recently disappeared. The lion, the leopard, the wild ass, the wild boar, the gazelle survive, and are still plentiful, except the first named, which it gradually becoming extinct. Jackals are common, but wolves and hyenas are rare. Of small game, the common francolin and the quail inhabit the scrub in the vicinity of the crops, and the ostrich and bustard may be found on the borders of the desert, though the ostrich is very rare today : but above Babylon it was abundant and hunted by the soldiers of Cyrus the Younger, as may be read in the pages of Xenophon. The marshes during winter teem with geese, duck, and snipe. Cranes, herons, and other aquatic birds abound.