A DWELLER IN MESOPOTAMIA
Being the Adventures of an Official Artist in the Garden of Eden
With Sketches in Colour, Monochrome, and Line
+ + BY THE SAME AUTHOR + + THE LAST CRUSADE ADVENTURES WITH A SKETCH BOOK WITH BIBLE AND BRUSH IN PALESTINE [In preparation] + + THE BODLEY HEAD + +
London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, Vigo Street New York: John Lane Company MCMXXI William Clowes and Sons, Limited, London and Beccles, England.
Few adventurous incidents in our lives seem romantic at the time of their happening, and few places we visit are invested with that glamour that haunt them in recollection or anticipation. I remember comparing the colour scheme of a barge in Baghdad with that of one in Rochester. It was a comparison most unfavourable to Baghdad—a thing the colour of ashes with a thing of red and green and gold. Yet now that I am back in Rochester, the romance lingers around memories of dusty mahailas. It is easy to forget discomfort and insects and feel a certain glamour coming back to things which, at the time, represented the commonplaces of life. There certainly is a glamour about Mesopotamia. It is not so much the glamour of the present as of the past.
To have travelled in the land where Sennacherib held sway, to have walked upon the Sacred Way in Babylon, to have stood in the great banquet hall of Belshazzar's palace when the twilight is raising ghosts and when little imagination would be required to see the fingers of a man's hand come forth and write upon the plaster of the wall, to wander in the moonlight into narrow streets in Old Baghdad, with its recollections of the Arabian Nights: these things are to make enduring pictures in the Palace of Memory, that ideal collection where only the good ones are hung and all are on the line.
Although it was for the Imperial War Museum that I went to Mesopotamia, these notes are not about the War, but they are a series of impressions of Mesopotamia in general. The technical side of my work I have omitted, and any account of the campaign in this field I have left to other hands. The sketches here collected might be described as a bye-product of my mission in Mesopotamia; but most of them are the property of the Imperial War Museum, and it is by the courtesy of the Art Committee of that body that I have now been able to reproduce them.
THE BEACON, BORSTAL, ROCHESTER.
June 12, 1920.
PAGE I. THE FIERY FURNACE 1
II. THE VENICE OF THE EAST 15
III. SINBAD THE SOLDIER 27
IV. THE WISE MEN FROM THE WEST 37
V. BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON 49
VI. ARABIAN NIGHTS IN 1919 67
VII. IN OLD BAGHDAD 89
VIII. PARADISE LOST 97
IX. THE DESERT OF THE FLAMING SWORD 109
X. THE KINGS OF THE EAST 119
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
PLATES IN COLOUR AND MONOCHROME
THE GOLDEN TOWERS OF KHADAMAIN Frontispiece
ABADAN, PERSIA, THE OIL QUAYS 4
H.M.S. MANTIS, ONE OF THE MONITORS ON THE TIGRIS 12
HOSPITAL HULKS AT BASRA 18
"THE SOLEMN PALMS WERE RANGED ABOVE, UNWOO'D OF SUMMER WIND" 22
THE HOUSE OF SINBAD THE SAILOR, BASRA 24
A BEND IN "THE NARROWS" OF THE TIGRIS 30
A MARSH ARABS' REED VILLAGE 34
MUD HOUSES ON THE TIGRIS 40
A MAHAILA OF THE INLAND WATER TRANSPORT 42
EZRA'S TOMB 44
ON THE EUPHRATES, EARLY MORNING 52
BABYLON, THE EXCAVATIONS AT EL-KASR 56
AN OLD WORLD CRAFT: A TYPE OF BOAT UNCHANGED SINCE THE DAYS OF SINBAD 60
BELLAMS UNDER SAIL 62
BABYLON THE GREAT IS FALLEN, IS FALLEN 64
A STREET IN KHADAMAIN 70
MOONLIGHT, BAGHDAD 72
A NOCTURNE OF BAGHDAD 74
MAHAILA AND MARSH ARAB'S BELLAM 80
A MOONLIGHT FANTASY: KUT, FROM THE RUINS OF THE LICQUORICE FACTORY 94
DAWN AT AMARA 100
A BACKWATER IN EDEN 102
PUFFING BILLY ON THE TIGRIS 106
SUNSET ON THE TIGRIS 112
SHEIK SAAD AND THE PERSIAN MOUNTAINS 114
HIT, KNOWN TO THE ARABS AS THE MOUTH OF HELL 116
A BRITISH CRUISER IN THE PERSIAN GULF 122
LIST OF LINE SKETCHES
"SERRIED RANKS OF TALL IRON FUNNELS" 6
SHIP LOADING WITH OIL 7
"A MYSTERIOUS-LOOKING FURNACE TOWER" 9
"CRUDE STEAM ENGINES EVOLVED BY TITANS WHEN THE WORLD WAS YOUNG" 11
IN ASHAR CREEK 16
SUNSET, OLD BASRA 21
DHOWS, BASRA 26
MONITOR "MOTH" AT BASRA 28
THE SIRENS OF THE NARROWS 33
NOAH'S ARK, 1919 36
UPWARD BOUND ON THE TIGRIS 38
ANCIENT IRRIGATION CHANNEL NEAR HILLAH 55
TOWER OF BABEL. FIG. 1 57
THE TOWER OF BABEL 59
TOWER OF BABEL. FIG. 2 60
TOWER OF BABEL. FIG. 3 61
GOUFAS ON THE TIGRIS 68
"A MAGIC VIGNETTE OF PALMS, EASTERN BUILDINGS, AND A LARGE SOUTH-WESTERN RAILWAY ENGINE" 77
"SUDDENLY WE CAME UPON A SCENE OF STRANGE BEAUTY AND DRAMATIC EFFECT" 79
"BY GARDEN PORCHES ON THE BRIM, THE COSTLY DOORS FLUNG OPEN WIDE" 82
"ALL ROUND THE FRAGRANT MARGE, FROM FLUTED VASE AND BRAZEN URN, IN ORDER, EASTERN FLOWERS LARGE." 83
"BY BAGHDAD'S SHRINES OF FRETTED GOLD, HIGH-WALLED GARDENS, GREEN AND OLD." 85
SHOWING THE SIMPLICITY OF MESOPOTAMIAN DOMESTIC ARCHITECTURE. TIGRIS 88
"PUFFING BILLY" IN BAGHDAD 91
A BIT OF OLD BAGHDAD 93
"BLOSSOMS AND FRUIT AT ONCE OF GOLDEN HUE APPEARED, WITH GAY ENAMELLED COLOURS MIXED." 98
"HIGH, EMINENT, BLOOMING AMBROSIAL FRUIT OF VEGETABLE GOLD." 105
THE WALLS OF HIT 110
THE FIERY FURNACE
THE FIERY FURNACE
There is an unenviable competition between places situated in the region of Mesopotamia and the Persian Gulf as to which can be the hottest. Abadan, the ever-growing oil port, which is in Persia and on the starboard hand as you go up the Shatt-el-Arab, if not actually the winner according to statistics, comes out top in popular estimation. Its proximity to the scorching desert, its choking dustiness and its depressing isolation, are characteristics which it shares with countless other places among these mud plains. But it can outdo them all with its bleached and slime-stained ground in which nothing can grow, its roaring furnaces and its all-pervading smell of hot oil.
Across the broad waters of the Shatt-el-Arab there stretches a lonely strip of country bounded by a wall of palm-tops. Like all the land here it is cultivated as long as it borders the river and thickly planted with date groves. Then lies a nondescript belt that just divides the desert from the sown, and then, a mile or so inland, scorched and unprofitable wilderness.
Into this monotonous spiked sky-line the sun was wont to cut his fiery way without much variety of effect every evening, and night rushed down, bringing respite from this heat; for it is happily one of the compensations of life in these parts that the nights are cool, however hot the day.
About 150 miles from this busy spot lie the oilfields of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company. Two adventurous iron pipes start courageously with crude oil and conduct it by or through or over every obstacle from these wells to Abadan. In the early days of the war great and successful efforts were made to protect this line of supply, which was of vital importance to the British Navy. The Turks lost Fao, the fort that commanded the entrance to the Shatt-el-Arab, within a few days of the opening of hostilities. They had imagined it such a formidable obstacle to our approach that they were thrown suddenly on their beam ends when we took it. Consequently they could not keep us out of Abadan, but fell back on Beit Naama vainly attempting to block the river by sinking ships. One of the hulks, however, swung round and left a channel through which a passage was simple. I once sketched some of these old ships as they lay throughout the period of hostilities. Since then they have been partially blown up. A divers' boat was at work when I made my drawing and the first charge was fired about three minutes after I had finished, removing the funnel and one mast of the principal derelict.
Well, to begin my story.
It was evening. The sun was setting in the orthodox manner described above. Abadan was looking very much as usual. The smoke was smoking, the pumps were pumping, the works were working, and all the oilers along the quay, like all well-behaved oilers, were oiling.
As if to protest against the frankly commercial atmosphere of everything and everybody at Abadan, a dhow that might have belonged to Sinbad the Sailor himself was making slow headway before the failing breeze under a huge spread of bellying canvas—an apparition from another age, relieved boldly against the dark hull of a tank steamer.
The flood tide had spent itself and the river seemed unusually still as twilight deepened and the many lights of the works wriggled in long reflection in the water. A spell of enchantment seemed to lie over everything, and the faint purring hum from the distant oil blast furnaces pervaded the still air. Old Sinbad came to anchor and night set in.
This is all very peaceful and picturesque to write about now, but at the time I was in a motor boat that had left Mahommerah to take me for a run and it had broken down and seemed unlikely to start again in spite of all the coxswain's efforts. Consequently we were drifting about on the stream and likely to be swept down by the ebb tide. We were unfortunately on the far side of the river from Abadan, and consequently our plight would not be observed from the works. The situation was not a pleasant one because we stood a very good chance of being run down by some incoming steamer.
When it was clear that we should drift down below the region of the oil quays I thought we would see what our lungs could do. Timing our shouts together, the coxswain and I, we sent up a tremendous hail to the lowest of the piers. Again and again we startled the night, until at last we heard an answering hallo.
In a few minutes a motor-boat bore down upon us. It was the British Navy in the shape of an engineer lieutenant commander. He took us in tow, carried me off to his bungalow, arranged about the boat being berthed and looked after till the morning, and proved a most cheery soul full of good looks and given to hospitality. When I explained my job he roared with laughter.
"Just the right time to arrive," he said. "Subject one, Abadan at night complete with tanks; subject two, works, oil, one in number—sketched in triplicate—why, my Lords Commissioners will be awfully bucked. They've put a couple of millions into this show, you know. Say 'when,' it can't hurt you, special Abadan brand."
I said "when." I kept on saying "when," and then as a measure of self-protection suggested sketching the works while I could distinguish tanks from palm trees. So we went out and had a preliminary look round, reserving the "Grand Tour of the Inferno," as my host named our projected expedition, until after dinner.
I will not attempt to explain the processes of oil refining. I am merely concerned in narrating what it looks like. I know little beyond the fact that the crude oil arrives by pipe from the oilfields by means of several pumping stations and that it is cooked or distilled over furnaces and converted into different grade oils from petrol to heavy fuel oil. As a spectacle, however, I found a journey through this weird region most fascinating and mysterious. At night it appears as a vast plain gleaming with lights and studded with dark objects, half seen and suggesting primitive machinery of uncouth proportions. Huge lengths of pipes creep from the shadows on one hand into the far-off regions of blackness on the other.
Armed with an electric torch, which the Chief carried, and a large sketch-book which I regretted taking almost as soon as we started, we set out on our quest of Dantesque scenery. At first our road ran along the quays by the river side. A camouflaged Admiralty oiler was loading fuel oil by means of three pipes that looked like the tentacles of an octopus clutching on to the side of the ship. Near this quay was a gate, and we entered the wire fence that surrounds the works and the area of the tanks and struck out over a dark waste.
The novice who roams about this place in the dark spends a lot of time falling over pipes. They are stretching all over the place without any method that is apparent. The Chief showed up most of them with his torch, and so I fell about only just enough to get used to the feel of the ground as a preliminary to what was coming later. It had rained heavily two or three days before, consequently there were lake districts, slimy reaches of mixed oil and mud and dried, hard-looking islands that were in reality traps to the unwary. The top only was firm, and it had the playful property of sliding rapidly on the greasy substratum and thus sitting you down without warning when you thought you had reached dry land.
Had I known more about Abadan before I started I would have taken a course of lessons in tight-rope walking, for that seems to be a great asset in getting along. The Chief was quite a Blondin. He could walk or run any length of pipe and never swerve. Much practice had made him an adept. There were places where the only alternative to walking in mud and water was this balancing feat along the pipe lines.
When I had fallen several times and covered myself with a mixture that looked like grey condensed milk mixed with butter and felt like a poultice, I got my second wind. I was still recognizable as a human being. All fear of making myself in a worse mess had vanished, and thus, freed from nervousness, I began to get quite daring. The Chief saw in me the making of a first-class pipe walker, and prophesied that I should be able to attain the speed of three miles an hour. I still fell off, however, enough not to get a swelled head on the subject.
After what to me seemed miles, and which as a matter of fact must have been about five hundred yards, we emerged from the lake region and were able to find a track along the ground. It skirted a railway line and led toward some buildings and machinery. A dull glow began to illuminate the scene and show up our path.
A building loomed up against the sky. It was dimly lit by firelight and suggested to me a glimpse of the Tower of London with the corner turrets knocked off. In front of this were some vast boilers with uncouth chimneys stretching out of sight into the dark sky. The whole thing, weird and eerie, was reflected in pools of water, through which black figures toiled and splashed, pushing some loaded trollies. Then we came out into a lighted area at the foot of a mysterious-looking furnace tower, where strangely clad men, not unlike tattered and disreputable monks, were hauling at a great black object, some boiler or piece of machinery.
The workmen on closer view showed that they were dressed in sacking or some such rough material in a sort of tunic. They wore long curly hair and curious hats that looked like Assyrian helmets.
"What race are these men?" I asked the Chief.
"They are the Medes and Persians," he replied.
"And what is that tower?"
"Oh, that—," he paused for a few seconds, "that's Nebuchadnezzar's Fiery Furnace heated seven times hotter."
He was evidently determined to do me well from the point of view of local colour and picturesque Biblical association. I think, however, he missed a chance when later on we saw mysterious writing in Arabic characters upon the wall of an engine house. He should at least have read it out as MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN.
Abadan is on an island and the pipe line crosses the water from the mainland. We could see it stretching away across the flat land into the darkness where the sky-line of the palm belt by the waterside was just visible. It is strange to reflect that all this scene of careless activity is dependent on those two pipes, each about 14 inches in diameter, connecting it with a point 150 miles away.
I came again in the morning to look at the works. They did not appear half so mysterious as when seen in the dark. The Tower of London had shrunk into quite a small buttressed building of brick and Nebuchadnezzar's Fiery Furnace dwindled considerably in size. The Medes and Persians, on the other hand, looked wilder and more "operatic" than at night. I think as a matter of fact they were Kurds.
It is a very simple style of get-up to imitate. For purposes of private theatricals I will tell you how to do it, in case you should find the stage direction, "Alarums and excursions. Enter the Medes and Persians."
Take a very tattered, colourless, and ill-fitting dressing gown, without a girdle and flopping about untidily. Wear long black curly hair to shoulder. Put plenty of grease on. Then knock handle off a round-bottomed saucepan, very sooty, and place on your head. Dirty your face and you might walk about Abadan without attracting notice.
I daresay if I knew something technical about the refining of oil I should not find these works so fascinating. There is always a glamour about a thing only half understood. Probably the retorts and boilers and all the apparatus here are of the very latest pattern, yet so strangely unlike modern machinery do they seem that I find myself wondering if I have gone back into some previous age and unearthed strange things of prehistoric antiquity. These solemn-looking turbaned Indians might be tending the first uncouth monsters of engineering—the antediluvians of machinery. These serried ranks of tall iron funnels, these rude furnaces fed by crawling snakes of piping, these roaring domes of fire might be crude steam engines evolved by Titans when the world was young.
THE VENICE OF THE EAST.
THE VENICE OF THE EAST
Before the war, when Mesopotamia was a more distant land than it is to-day, Basra was often referred to as the Venice of the East. Few travellers were in a position to test the accuracy of the comparison, and so it aroused little comment. No Venetians had returned from Basra burning with indignation and filled with a desire to get even with the writer who first thought of the parallel, probably because no Venetian had ever been there.
A few simple souls, who had delighted in the mediaeval splendours of Venice, dreamed of a Venice still more romantic—a Venice with all her glories of art tinged with the glamour and witchery of the Arabian Nights, a Venice whose blue waterways reflected stately palms and golden minarets. Other souls, like myself, less simple and sufficiently salted to know that these Turnerian dreams are generally the magical accidents of changing light and seldom the result of any intrinsic interest in the places themselves—even they had a grievance when they saw the real Basra. Was this the Venice of the East, this squalid place beside soup-coloured waters? Was this the city that reveals the past splendours of Haroun Alraschid as Venice reveals the golden age of Titian and the Doges?
The first general impression of Basra is that of an unending series of quays along a river not unlike the Thames at Tilbury. The British India boats and other transports lying in the stream or berthed at the wharves might be at Gravesend and the grey-painted County Council "penny steamboats" at their moorings in the river look very much as they looked in the reach below Charing Cross Bridge.
Another thing which makes the contrast between Venice and Basra rather a painful one is the complete and noticeable absence of anything of the slightest architectural interest in this Eastern (alleged) counterpart of the Bride of the Adriatic. Whereas in Venice the antiquarian can revel in examples of many centuries of diverse domestic architecture from ducal palace to humble fisherman's dwelling on an obscure "back street" canal, in Basra there abounds a great deal of rickety rubbish that never had any interest in itself and which depends for its effect on the flattering gilding of the sun and the intangible glamour of Eastern twilight. In fact Basra might be described from an architectural point of view as a great heap of insanitary and ill-built rubbish which can look collectively extraordinarily picturesque. I have seen bits on Ashar Creek (as for instance the wooden old-tin-and-straw-mat-covered buildings shown in the centre of the sketch in the heading to this chapter) look most romantic and beautiful. Yet they will not bear any close inspection, without revealing themselves as monuments of slovenliness and dirt.
In spite, however, of these drawbacks and disappointments, to those who would find Venetian character by the waters of Mesopotamia, there are two features in Basra that do undoubtedly bring Venice to mind—the boats and the canals. The bellam is a long, flat-bottomed boat not unlike a punt but narrowing at each end to a point, the stem and stern-post alike ending in a high curved piece suggestive of a gondola. These craft are propelled by two men standing one at each end like gondoliers and punting the boat along by poles. If the water is too deep to bottom it they sit and propel the boat with paddles.
The canals of Basra are multitudinous. They are artificially dug and are really more canals than creeks, although they are always called creeks. Ashar Creek is the most important of these waterways. It is generally packed with craft from big mahailas, the type of vessel shown in the sketch facing page 16, to the ubiquitous bellam. Old Basra lies up here. As I approached it one evening, with the sun going down, it looked most gorgeous. Palms and gardens on the right and the buildings of the town on the left, and boats approaching, dream-like In the sunset glow. I have sketched the effect roughly in the line drawing on page 21.
Some of the regions up these creeks are extremely beautiful. For once there was nothing disappointing even in comparison—although comparisons, as we have seen, are odious—with Venetian waterways. For once we have something that can surpass in beauty anything that Venice can show. Basra can boast no architecture, but Nature, coming to her assistance, can produce, between sunshine and water, vistas of orange-laden trees overtopped with palms and all reflected in the still canal. I have known seven kinds of fruit to overhang the banks of one creek at the same time.
I hired a bellam manned by two fearsome-looking pirates and explored unending waterways in and around Basra. The main thoroughfares run at right angles to the river, but there are numerous narrow branches communicating from one to the other, in some places forming a network of little channels. Some of these were beautiful beyond description. The tide is felt in all these waters, and sometimes, during a spring tide, the effect of some of these date palm plantations, with the ground just covered, is strange. Hundreds of palms seem to be growing up out of a lake, and the glades reflected in the still water is dream-like and enchanting, recalling Tennyson's nocturne—
"Until another night in night I enter'd, from the clearer light, Imbower'd vaults of piller'd palm."
The pirates were quite jolly fellows who pointed out various things to me as being worthy of interest. By this time the natives have got up, in a most superficial way, the things which they think will interest the Englishman. Every group of palm trees more than twenty in number is pointed out as the Garden of Eden, every bump of ground more than six feet high is the mount on which the Ark rested, and every building more than fifty years old is the one undoubted and authentic residence of Sinbad the Sailor. An old house in Mesopotamia in which Sinbad the Sailor had not lived would be equivalent to one of England's ancient country mansions in which Queen Elizabeth had never slept. The fact that Sinbad the Sailor is a literary creation doesn't discourage the Arabs in the least.
During this voyage of mine by bellam through the multitudinous creeks of Basra a remarkable thing happened. Under the circumstances it was a providential happening. I ran into Brown.
Now I do not expect the readers of some previous notes of my sketching escapades to believe this. It is almost too wonderful that a chronicler of travels in desperate need of some comic relief to save his book from dulness would be so lucky as to pick up such excellent copy as Brown, without previous intrigue. Nevertheless I do solemnly state that I had not the slightest idea where Brown was doing his bit in the war. I had last heard of him in France in the Naval Division. That we should both have travelled half across the world to meet with a crash in a backwater at Basra was one of the strangest freaks of fortune I have come across.
My two pirates were poling along quite merrily when we took a right angle turn in fine style. It is evident that the low foliage had hidden the side channel into which we shot, and they had not seen what became evident too late, a motor-boat at right angles across the creek, apparently stuck fast.
I had just time to observe two naval officers and the native coxswain struggling with poles to turn the boat round, or free it from its unserviceable position with regard to the bank when the prow of my bellam took a flying leap over the motor-boat, precipitating my two boatmen into the water, and sending me by means of a somersault into the launch. Somewhat stunned I lay gazing up at a piece of blue sky in which I could discern the green leaves of palm trees.
When in the midst of this blue dome above I beheld Brown perched on the top of a palm tree exhibiting with a look of blank astonishment on his face, waving an arm as if in a kind of bewildered greeting, I gave up the struggle for existence and became resigned to my fate. Without doubt Brown, whom I had last heard of in France, had been killed and was now doing his best to welcome me into a happier and better world.
It would be quite like Brown to try and outdo the ordinarily accepted symbolism of bearing a palm branch by attempting to wave a whole palm tree, for this he seemed most undoubtedly to be doing, embracing its trunk and swaying from side to side.
Subsequently, when things had sorted themselves out in my mind, and when I found I was still in the land of the living I realized that he was attempting to descend to earth. He was no less astonished than I.
After baling out the bellam and restoring order in the launch we found that the casualties were nil, and proceeded to compare notes. Brown, it appeared, had joined the Naval Division, been to Antwerp, Gallipoli and France, and then been transferred for gunnery duties to the rivers of Mesopotamia, and was now Lieut. R.N.V.R. in the Dalhousie stationed at Basra. His occupation, when I came across him in this unexpected way, was that of a leader of an expedition in a motor-boat with two R.N. victims to find a new route to somewhere or other which could not possibly be approached by water.
His enthusiasm had been so infectious that he had persuaded these gallant and guileless officers to go with him, and was, at the moment of my arrival, attempting to get a better geographical idea of the surrounding country by climbing a palm tree and shouting directions to the unfortunate occupants of the boat below, who were hopelessly stuck. The sudden impact of the bellam, uncomfortable as it was for all concerned, succeeded where they had failed, in getting them off the mud.
An old-world touch is given to the waters of Basra by the high-sterned dhows anchored in the river. Above Ashar Creek the scenery of the banks with its wharves and big steamers is not particularly characteristic of the East. Some of it might be by the Thames at Tilbury Docks. But by Khora Creek and in the lower reaches of the river at Basra, these old-world ships, with their quaint lines and steep, naked masts, are more in keeping with our recollections of Sinbad the Sailor, or perhaps of the days of the Merchant Venturers of our own Elizabethan days.
It is to be supposed that the type of ship that has survived in the East to the present day, like the mahaila and the goufa, is very much unchanged like everything else, and tells us faithfully what sort of ships there were in these waters some two thousand years ago or more. If this surmise be a correct one, then we can trace the poop tower of the Great Harry and the square windows and super-imposed galleries of the Victory's stern to this common ancestor. I wish I had been able to get an elevation of the details of one of these more ornate sterns. It would be interesting to compare the work with that in the ships of the Middle Ages and see if there is a definite development of type from East to West via the Mediterranean.
We passed down Ashar Creek just after sunset, and the house of Sinbad, with its picturesque surroundings, thoroughly looked the part. The tower of the mosque stood out against a lemon-coloured sky, and wandering wisps of purple smoke curled up from countless hearths.
Some giant mahailas, nearly obliterated the crooked little galleries that overlook the creek, and a few boats glided silently down towards the open river. Lights began to appear and stars studded the darkening sky. Faint sounds of chanting music floated across the water and all the world was still.
SINBAD THE SOLDIER
SINBAD THE SOLDIER
After a few days among the waterways of Mesopotamia one can get hardened against surprises. The most amazing and outrageous types of craft soon meet the eye as commonplaces of river life. Things that would make a Thames waterman sign the pledge proceed up and down without arousing any comment. Noah's ark, with its full complement, could ply for hire between Basra and Baghdad, and the lion's roaring would be accepted as the necessary accompaniment of a somewhat old type of machinery resuscitated for the war.
I have seen boats jostling each other cheek by jowl that might have been taking part in a pageant entitled "Ships in All the Ages." There were Thornycroft motor-boats and Sennacharib goufas, mahailas and Thames steamboats, an oil-fuel gunboat and a stern paddler that could have come out of a woodcut of the first steamboat on the Clyde—and all these in the same reach. I travelled in this last extraordinary vessel for a short time. She was in charge of a sergeant of the Inland Water Transport, with an Indian pilot and miscellaneous crew, and my adventurous cruise called to mind both the travels of Ulysses and the Hunting of the Snark.
The sergeant could not speak Hindustani and the pilot could not speak a word of English. Mistakes of the most frantic nature were common, especially when we were being whirled round and round by the stream at a difficult corner. In the midst of controversy unrelieved by any glimmer of understanding on the part of anybody present we would slide gracefully into a state of rest on a mudbank or bump violently against the shore. Luckily, it seemed as easy to get off the mudbank as to get on it, and we finally got into positions we wanted to for making sketches of various points. The pantomimic violence of the sergeant, together with diagrams in my sketch-book, were ultimately successful.
Nearly all the Tigris steamers proceeding up river have loaded lighters on each side of them. These act as fenders at the corners and take the bump whenever the bank is encountered. The progress is slow and there is often a good deal of waiting, for in the region between Ezra's tomb (above Kurna) and Amara there is not room for two steamers thus encumbered to pass with safety. These waters are known as the Narrows. Signal stations are placed at various intervals, and a signal is made to clear the way, generally for the down-river boat, the up-river craft, which, with the stream against them, will not have to turn round in stopping, tying up to the bank. This manoeuvre is done in a few minutes. The steamer that is to stop runs alongside the bank and natives with stakes jump out and drive them into the marsh ground. She moors to these until the other vessel has passed downwards.
The sketch facing page 30 was done from a steamer bound up-river, which had tied up under these conditions. The paddler coming down has a lighter on each side of her as the one sketched on page 38. She will come down toward the leading marks shown on the right-hand side of the picture, and then slide along the bank, using the lighter on the port side as a fender. Then she will leave the bank and shoot across to the other side of the river, taking the next turn with her starboard lighter.
This drawing will serve to show the general nature of most Mesopotamian river scenery, dead flat, with nothing or little to relieve the monotony, a great expanse of muddy waters and featureless dust, with just a suggestion in one direction of a low line of blue—very faint. It tells of the far-away Persian mountains and of snow.
The great feature of the Narrows, however, and one which all our dwellers in Mesopotamia will remember vividly as long as they live, is the egg-sellers from the Marsh Arab villages on the banks. Although a steamer proceeding up-river may be kicking up a great fuss in the water and apparently thumping along at a great rate, it is, in reality, making only about four knots on the land. Consequently, when it sidles into the bank, with one of its lighters touching the marsh, the natives who are selling things can keep up, and a running—literally running—fire of bargaining is maintained between the ship's company and the Arabs.
They are all women who do the selling—weird figures in black carrying baskets of eggs and occasionally chicken. Gesticulating, shouting, shrieking, they rush along beside the up-going steamer and keep even with it. In the middle of a bargain the steamer may edge away until a great gulf is fixed between the bargainers. Sometimes it will slide along the other bank and a fresh company of yelling Amazons will try and open up negotiations for eggs while the frenzied and now almost demented sellers left behind rend their clothes and shout imprecations at their rivals. Another turn of the current, however, and the vessel again nears the shore of the original runners and the deal is finished.
One girl kept up for miles and at last sold her basket of eggs. She got a very good price for them, but apparently she wanted her basket back again. The buyer insisted that the basket was included, and the seller shrieked frantically that it was not. She kept up with us for some miles, making imploring gestures, kneeling down with her arms outstretched as though she was begging for her life, and yelling at the top of her voice, tears streaming down her cheeks. The basket would be worth twopence or less and she had made many shillings on the deal. Finally, a soldier good-naturedly threw it to her and it fell in the water about three feet from the shore. She hurled herself upon it waist deep in the water and seized it, then waved her arms and leaped about in a dance of ecstatic triumph that would have made her fortune at the Hippodrome.
Another feature of the Narrows is the reed villages. This, of course, does not exclusively belong to this region, but it is here, when tied up to the bank, that the best opportunity of a close view is taken.
That houses can be built in practically no time and out of almost anything has been abundantly claimed at home by numerous enterprising firms by ocular demonstration at the Building Trades and Ideal Home Exhibitions. Cement guns and climbing scaffolding, we are assured, will raise crops of mansions at a prodigious pace, and the housing problem is all but solved. If we have not noticed many new houses it is not for want of inventors. Yet the best of these efforts is elaborately cumbersome compared with housing schemes on these flat lands bordering the Tigris and Euphrates. Not only has the Marsh Arab evolved a style of dwelling that can be built in a night, but he can boast of a device still more alluring in its naivity and utility—the Portable Village!
I once made a sketch of a Marsh Arabs' village at evening (reproduced facing p. 34), and on returning thither on the following morning to verify certain details, I found it had gone! I succeeded in tracking it down again by the afternoon, about ten miles from its former situation, and found the mayor (or whatever the Marsh-Mesopotamian equivalent may be) inspecting the finishing touches being made to the borough. Of course it is frightfully muddling, all this moving about of villages, to the stranger who is not keeping a sharp look-out and marking well such impromptu geographical activity.
Along the shores of the rivers of Mesopotamia and in the innumerable lagoons and backwaters that abound can be found large areas of tall reeds, ranging from quite slight rushes to canes twenty feet high. It is with such material the Marsh Arab builds. The long rods he bends into arches like croquet hoops. On this skeleton, not unlike the ribs of a boat turned upside down, he stretches large mats woven out of rushes. At the ends he builds up a straight wall of reed straw bound up in flat sheaves. An opening is left for an entrance, a mat, sometimes of coloured material, doing duty for a door.
So much for the principal and removable part of the village. However, the town planner will add to this by improvising mud enclosures for animals, and an occasional wall and "tower." The mud is mixed with cut grass and reeds, quickly drying into a hard substance, and sufficiently permanent for anything that such a temporary village requires.
In the bright sunlight of the Mesopotamian plains, and probably also on account of their prominence at a distance over the flat land, some of these mud buildings look quite imposing. I remember once approaching a city with ramparts, towers, and formidable walls which, on close inspection, turned out to be a small mud enclosure of the most decrepit kind.
Great changes have been made in the rule of the waterways of Mesopotamia. Sinbad the Sailor has given place to Sinbad the Soldier, the Inland Water Transport.
We have learnt, as we were advised to do in regard to the things of Mesopotamia, to think amphibiously.
THE WISE MEN FROM THE WEST
THE WISE MEN FROM THE WEST
The story of Mesopotamia is a story of irrigation. "It is not improbable," writes Sir William Willcocks, the great irrigationist, "that the wisdom of ancient Chaldea had its foundations in the necessity of a deep mastery of hydraulics and meteorology, to enable the ancient settlers to turn what was partially a desert and partially a swamp into fields of world-famed fertility." The civilizations of Babylon and Assyria owed their very life to the science of watering the land, and even in the later times of Haroun Alraschid their great systems had been well maintained. It is said of Maimun, the son and successor of this monarch, that he exclaimed, as he saw Egypt spread out before him, "Cursed be Pharaoh who said in his pride, 'Am I not Pharaoh, King of Egypt?' If he had seen Chaldea he would have said it with humility."
Allowing for a certain amount of patriotic exaggeration, the exclamation at least shows at what a high degree of excellence the irrigation system of Mesopotamia was maintained in the 10th century A.D. Yet Mesopotamia is to-day a desert except for the regions in the immediate vicinity of the rivers. You can go westwards from Baghdad to the Euphrates, and every mile or so you will have to cross earthworks, not unlike irregular railway embankments, showing a vast system of irrigation channels both great and small. But there is not a drop of water near and not a tree and no sign of any life. How came the change and how can such a network of channels have ceased to work entirely?
The reason is to be found in some past neglect of the ancient dams that kept the water on a high level, so that it could flow by means of artificial canals at a greater height (and consequently at a slower rate) than the rivers themselves. The Tigris and Euphrates are rivers fed by the melting snow in the mountains of Armenia. The hotter the season and the more necessary a plentiful supply of water, the greater is the amount brought down. The rivers, however, when they reach the flat alluvial plain between the region round about Baghdad and the Persian Gulf, when left to themselves are always bringing down a deposit and choking themselves up and then breaking out in a new direction, causing swamps and turning much of the land into useless marsh. Consequent also upon this silting-up process the banks of the rivers are higher than the surrounding country, and there is a gentle drop in the level of the land as it recedes from the river.
The object of the ancient irrigationists was to tap the rivers at the higher part of this plain, and then, by means of great canals, lead the water where they wanted it. Large reservoirs and lakes for storing surplus water were made, and thus the uneven delivery of water by the rivers was checked and a more regular and manageable supply maintained.
The greatest of these ancient channels was the Nahrwan. A regulator, the ruins which are still traceable in the bed of the Tigris, turned sufficient water into this high-level river at Dura. It stretched southwards for about 250 miles along the left bank of the Tigris. It was the neglect of this canal that led to a fearful catastrophe which must have been responsible for the death of millions; a catastrophe which turned some 20,000 square miles of fruitful land, teeming with populous cities, into a dismal swamp.
The intake from the Tigris of this and other canals evidently silted up, and thus enormous volumes of water, usually carried off by them in times of flood, helped to swell this river till, bursting its banks, it inundated the whole country. The result remains to-day—a vast tract of swampy land, barren and almost useless, except to a few wandering tribes of Arabs.
And now the land which sent its Wise Men to the West is looking towards the West again for aid. If its ancient prosperity is to be restored, if Chaldea is again to be a granary to the world, it is to the West that it must turn. Science and machinery shall again make the waste places to be inhabited and the desert blossom as the rose. Thus shall the wise men return to them—the Wise Men of the West. In every important agricultural centre are to be found irrigation officers—the first-fruits of British occupation.
There was only one subject of conversation in Mesopotamia in the winter of 1918-1919, and that was the chances of getting back home. There was very little to do at Basra except watch steamers load up with the more fortunate candidates for demobilization and give them a send-off. Brown had no difficulty in getting three weeks' leave to accompany me in some of my expeditions to gather up such fragments as remained of naval subjects on the rivers. We determined on a voyage of discovery up the Euphrates in search of the famous "fly-boats" which had figured so vividly in the early days of naval river fighting, and which now were more or less peacefully employed. I had to make many sketches of them for further use, and succeeded in finding a whole "bag" at Dhibban.
We embarked in an ancient-looking stern paddler named Shushan. As we had to camp out in a somewhat rough-and-ready way, with not a little discomfort owing to a spell of very cold weather, Brown insisted on referring to her as Shushan the Palace.
She had a tall funnel, like the tug in Turner's Fighting Temeraire, and kicked up a tremendous wash with her paddle, the whole effect being faintly reminiscent of a hay-making machine. She pushed her way along, slightly "down by the head," as if she had suddenly thought of something and was putting on a spurt to make up for lost time. I cannot lay hands on a sketch of her, but the one reproduced at the head of this chapter will give some idea of her character. Take away one funnel and place it amid-ships, reduce her tonnage a little, and you have the Shushan to the life.
This gallant little curiosity is no late conscripted product of the war. She is one of the pukka ships of the Navy in Mesopotamia—one of the Old Contemptibles. Armed with a three-pounder which caused such havoc to her decks when fired that it is reported the ship had to be turned round after each round. Two shots in succession in the same direction would have wrecked the vessel.
A host of amusing stories of her exploits were told us by her C.O., who was an R.N.V.R. Lieutenant. Some practical joker produced a cylinder alleged to be in cuneiform writing. A translation of the inscription proved beyond doubt that the Shushan was used by Nebuchadnezzar as a royal yacht, and is the last surviving link with the Babylonian navy.
When the Turks had fled from Kurna and we were chasing them up the river with an amazing medley of craft, like a nightmare of Henley regatta suddenly mobilized, the Shushan was in the forefront of the battle. Led by the sloops Espiegle, Clio, and Odin, the Stunt Armada came to Ezra's Tomb at twilight. The river was high and the land in between the great bends was a maze of rushes and lagoons. Hospital hulks like Noah's arks, little steamers, and loaded mahailas jostled each other in their endeavours to get up against the strong stream. The hulks and the barges were dropped at the bend shown in the sketch, facing page 46, and the Odin anchored. We had captured already some Turkish barges, and prisoners had to be collected.
The rest pushed on. Across the bend, some two or three miles away, the Turkish gunboat Marmaris was putting on every ounce of fuel she had, and a mass of mahailas and tugs were doing their best to escape the Nemesis that awaited them. Then the sloops opened fire, and a desultory cannonade was kept up as it grew darker and darker. At last it was too dark to get any sort of aim, and firing ceased. The Marmaris had been set alight by her crew, but we captured the whole of the enemy's flotilla.
Ezra's Tomb is a splendid spot to look at. Mosquitoes at times makes it far from pleasant to live in. The blue-tiled dome surrounded by palms, one of which is bending down in a manner strange to such a straight-growing tree, is an oasis in a vast wilderness of nothing in particular.
The Euphrates from a scenic point of view might be described as more wooded than the Tigris. There are some delightful glimpses of waterside verdure and rush-covered shores. To the archaeologist and the historian Mugheir is intensely interesting, for the great mound discloses the site of the ancient Ur—Ur of the Chaldees—from which Abraham set out towards Canaan.
Up till now, upon a map of the world in Abraham's time, the good little Shushan would still be at sea. She would be approaching the coast at the mouth of the river Euphrates, the Tigris flowing-out some fifty miles further east. Dockyards and busy workshops would proclaim the vicinity of this capital, the greatest of all the cities of Chaldea.
Since these prosperous days the sea has receded about 150 miles, and left Ur a nondescript heap to be disputed over by professors.
At length, when we had said good-bye to the Shushan and taken to a motor-boat, we arrived at Hillah, bent on finding the house of the irrigation officer. We landed on the wrong side of the river and rashly let the boat go back. Brown maintains now that this was my idea, but as a matter of fact it was one of his attempts at a picturesque approach—for my benefit. Brown has a vivid imagination, and sees so clearly in his mind how a place ought to be that he really believes it is so. In this case he pictured us approaching Hillah and looking down upon miles and miles of fruitful gardens intersected with little waterways—a sort of landscape-garden Venice. This view could only be obtained from a high cliff, and as there was no cliff in lower Mesopotamia, except in Brown's imagination, it was natural that he would be disappointed.
A sudden white fog, moreover, took away any chance of a view of any kind, and we were soon hopelessly lost. Some soldiers we met on the way told us to keep straight on and then turn to the left by some palm trees. As we soon encountered some palm trees every few yards we wondered whether they intended to be humorous. I don't think they did, however. The optimism of you-can't-possibly-miss-it type is too general. The man who says "turn down by some trees" knows the place well, and can see certain trees in his mind's eye. He will turn when he sees the right trees, but you will probably get lost.
Needless to say, everything went wrong with our scheme of approaching the irrigation works from a picturesque angle. The dense fog thickened and shrouded the neighbourhood of the river in impenetrable mystery. We kept turning down by palm trees as directed, but to no purpose. We struck the river bank again after much wandering and kept to it, hoping the mist would clear. A man in a goufa appeared from nowhere and floated away out of sight into nowhere like a ghostly visitant from another world. The sun began to show through the fog and blue sky appeared overhead. Soon the steaming vapours dispersed, showing a view of buildings among palm trees and a bridge of boats.
Here again we were held up while countless mahailas passed through, but we succeeded in getting over at last and eventually found the house of the Wise Men, the headquarters of the irrigation officers.
Had we been ambassadors on a diplomatic visit to Hillah, we could not have been more hospitably entertained or given greater facilities for getting about in a most fascinating region of the world for any one who felt the glamour of history in this once highly civilized country.
Great buildings like Ctesiphon near Baghdad or traces of the vast irrigation works of the past are full of interest, but for romance and mystery there is no piece of the world more fraught with meaning than this site of the city of Nebuchadnezzar, nearly 200 square miles in extent, and now, but for the comparatively small tract of irrigated land, a desert.
"Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils."
BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON
BY THE WATERS OF BABYLON
The irrigation officers at Hillah were ideal hosts, not only from the commonly accepted standpoint, but from that of an artist. They let me roam about and sketch what I wanted, not what they wanted. They gave me every means of transport, and such suggestions as they made as to possible subjects were excellent and offered with such tact that there was no difficulty in abstaining from sketching or going on with something else.
How often does the unfortunate painter suffer from the well-meaning host, who with an admiration for his calling, which is both extremely flattering and tremendously inconvenient, tries to do him well—especially if he dabbles a little in water-colour painting himself. An organized attack on all the real or supposed picturesque bits in the neighbourhood is planned and the members of his family outdo each other in praiseworthy endeavours to help on the great cause of Art. The campaign is prefaced by a violent discussion at G.H.Q. as to the best landscape within easy reach, and Millie, who has had lessons in pastelles, prevails over Mollie, who merely does pen painting. The wretched painter is then hauled triumphantly into a car surrounded by the artistic, who regard him with almost heathen veneration and feel thrilled by the fact that they, too, observe that the sky is blue and the trees are green. Arriving at the chosen scene and viewing it from the spot "from which they always take it," the unfortunate artist is stood or seated down, book in hand, complete with paintbox and water, and expected to begin. He does not have any voice in the choosing of the view. It is high noon. The sun is right in front of him and everything is so hard that even Turner could make nothing of it. The worshippers at the shrine of art stand round in awed anticipation, waiting for the masterpiece.
It is useless for him to protest that the conditions are impossible. "After such kindness that would be a dismal thing to do." So he contrives to make some sort of a drawing which dims the lustre of his reputation in their eyes for many years to come.
The major took us in his car to various points along the river and explained the means employed in irrigation. On the Euphrates there are two methods used for local irrigation apart from the system of canals flowing from the river. One is the water-wheel, a curious contrivance built out on stone piers. It consists of a huge paddle-wheel with buckets like those of a dredger, that fills a trough that runs down into the fields.
The other is a water-raising device that is worked by bullocks. A large leather skin is hauled up from the river by a rope over a wheel. This rope is harnessed to a bullock which walks backwards and forwards hauling up the water-skin and letting it down again. When the full skin reaches the top it hits against a bar and pours itself out into a trough. These two systems, as can be easily imagined, are good only for the land in the immediate vicinity of the river bank, as the supply of water is necessarily not large. Above Hit the frequency of the water-wheels with their stone piers causes so much obstruction that navigation for any large boats is impossible. In one place there are seven wheels abreast.
At last we arrived at an old bridge crossing one of the ancient canals, which branched off from the river in a westerly direction. I have sketched it on page 57. It is extremely interesting as an example of the resuscitation of the old waterways of Babylonia. The banks of this channel here take almost a mountainous character for so flat a country. This piling up of mounds has been caused by clearing the silt from the entrance to the intake of the canal.
From the vantage point of this high ground we could see a goodly prospect, and on the one side the river, here called the Hindeyeh canal, with its green shore and on the other a belt of date palms and beyond the illimitable desert. Some five or six miles away there appeared a mound surmounted by a tower, a curious object alone in the great expanse of flat land.
"What is that thing," I asked, "that looks like a ruined castle on the Rhine?"
"The Tower of Babel," replied the major, "or rather that is its popular name. It is Birs Nimrud on the map." Brown wanted to start straight away and "discover" it, but we persuaded him to assent to lunch first. The major was too busy for such an escapade, but he suggested lending us a Ford car which would do anything with the desert and which we could not break, so we returned to Hillah.
After lunch we set out on our expedition, Brown very silent and full, no doubt, of romantic projects, and arrived back again at the bridge where I made my sketch. It appears that the route was not direct as far as the car was concerned, owing to the crossing of some water channels, but that on foot we should be able to do it. I knew Brown was concocting something, and he soon let out what it was. His scheme was to send the car round to meet us at the Tower of Babel and we would walk. I think he rather liked the idea of saying "Tower of Babel" to the driver instead of "home." I consented, rather against my better judgment, for I fear Brown's enthusiasm for dramatic settings. His pathetic belief that my next picture for the R.A. would be entitled "The Tower of Silence," and that I should achieve a masterpiece in depicting the blood-red ruin at sunset across the desert was somewhat disarming. He forgot in his enthusiasm that if the sun did set when we were in the required position we should be benighted on the plain without food or shelter, and not at all in the mood for painting pictures.
Practical difficulties still existed, inasmuch as we were for a long time unable to explain to the native driver that he was to meet us at Birs Nimrud, and feared, if we were not very explicit, he would return to Hillah and we might never be heard of again. Brown's pantomimic attempts at direction were obscure even to me, and I am sure the driver thought he had gone out of his mind. They consisted in his stooping down with his hand on the ground, then rising slowly, turning round and round, his hand describing a spiral curve, till it shot up straight over his head. Then he pointed to the car. There was evidently some implied connection between the spiral curve and the car. How long this would have gone on I do not know had I not tried the words "Birs Nimrud." The driver understood this and I think we made it clear that whatever happened he was to be at Birs Nimrud and wait for us. So we started off on foot.
When we were well under way, I asked Brown, who is a freemason, if he was endeavouring to reach the understanding of the native by means of some mystic Eastern ritual unknown to me. He was quite scornful of my want of intelligence and explained that his movements were intended to describe the tower that had been built from earth to reach up into heaven. It was perfectly clear, he maintained, that if he first indicated the Tower of Babel and then the Ford car, the driver would see, had he been reasonably intelligent, that he was to take the car to the tower.
The journey over the plain towards the mound and tower was not so eventful as we had expected it to be. Beyond jumping many small watercourses or negotiating muddy patches left by the recent rain, we found no difficulty in keeping a straight course. A herd of camels trotted away as we approached and we started up a fox. Otherwise we came across no sign of life. As we advanced mile upon mile the mysterious tower seemed to get further away, an illusion possible in flat countries. I have often observed a similar phenomenon in Holland. Perhaps in this case mirage had something to do with it.
A mosque or tomb became visible and then, almost suddenly, we seemed to get to close quarters with everything. A ridge rose up from the flat land and from this point of vantage, known as the tomb of Abraham, we could look across a level zone a few hundred yards wide to the long, irregular hummock about a hundred feet high, although in this setting it looked a great deal more. The east side of this small range is scored with miniature wadies washed out by rain, and the crowning ruin appeared (as in sketch, Fig. 1), casting a long shadow down the slope of the hill.
Leaving the high ground we skirted the foot of the mound, going southwards and seeing it from the point of view indicated in Fig. 2, and then as at Fig. 3. A group of Arabs bargaining about coins and attempting to sell curios to two British officers, who had dismounted from their horses, made a tremendous hubbub and, as Brown noted, gave the right local colour as to the confusion of tongues.
I am ill-equipped with books of reference out here, but in one of Murray's handbooks I have unearthed the following note—all I can find about this place:—
"BIRS NIMRUD, about 21/2 hours from Hillah, is a vast ruin crowned apparently by the ruins of a tower rising to a height of 1531/2 ft. above the plain, and having a circumference of rather more than 2000 feet. The Birs, which was situated within the city of Borsippa, has been wrongly identified with the Tower of Babel. It is the temple of Nebo, called the 'Temple of the seven spheres of Heaven and Earth,' and was a sort of pyramid built in seven stages, the stairs being ornamented with the planetary colours, and on the seventh was an ark or tabernacle. The Birs was destroyed by Xerxes and restored by Antiochus Soter. The Tower of Babel was possibly the Esagila of the inscriptions, or the E-Temenanki—a tower not yet identified. Not far from Birs Nimrud are the ruins of Hashemieh, the first residence of the Abbaside Khalifs."
Brown would have none of this. Anything is anathema to Brown which destroys topographical romance. He is a fierce enemy to "higher criticism," which does away with the whale in the book of Jonah or the snow-clad summit of Mount Ararat as the resting-place of the ark. It is quite exciting, he maintains, to picture the ark stuck on the perilous ice-peaks of a glacier, with Noah and his family endeavouring to get the elephants and giraffes safely down a ravine like the Mer de Glace to the more temperate regions of the plains below. How much better than thinking of it stuck fast on some wretched mound by the Euphrates, 30 feet high.
Here was a find, too good to be lost, a high tower on a mound visible from afar and unrivalled by any equally picturesque claimant. It looked the part splendidly, so the Tower of Babel it should be as far as Brown was concerned.
As a matter of fact, Brown "let himself go" with historical speculations and discovered not only that this was the Tower of Babel, but that it was the site of Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace, with evident signs, from a fragment of calcined brick, which he bore away in triumph, that it had been heated seven times hotter on some occasion.
We climbed about the ruin, unearthed several coins, which seemed quite plentiful in one place where the rain had washed down the side of a small mound, and found obvious signs of some great conflagration. Brown says that, as no one has got any better explanation of this fire than he has, he will stick to his furnace theory.
The native driver turned up all right with the car and took us back to Hillah. From there we crossed the river by the bridge of boats and at a distance of about five miles came upon the scene of the great excavations, which, although the city is said to have extended over an area of some 200 square miles, is generally known as the site of Babylon. It was in 1899, that the German archaeologist, Dr. Koldeway, began excavations on a large scale and with systematic care.
Although Babylon was a site occupied by some city in prehistoric times, as stone and flint implements denote, the earliest houses of which there are any traces belong to about 2000 B.C. It was Nebuchadnezzar, however (605—562 B.C.), who rebuilt the city and made it very splendid, and it is to this period of his reign that the greater part of the ruins of the great city belong. The mound Babil is thought to be the palace of Nebuchadnezzar II. An inscription reads: "On the brick wall towards the north my heart inspired me to build a palace for the protecting of Babylon. I built there a palace, like the palace of Babylon, of brick and bitumen."
The principal excavations are in the Kasr, at one time a vast block of buildings where are still the traces of a great and broad street used as a processional road to the temple of E-Sagila, which lies to the south about 700 yards away. Some of the stones of this road are in their original places, and there are pieces of brick pavement, each bearing cuneiform characters. If you take up a brick and look at it casually, you might think that it had "Jones & Co." or the "Sittingbourne Brick Co." stamped upon it and it does not look at all old. It is rather startling to be told that the letters read:—
"I am Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon; I paved the Babel Way with blocks of shadu stone for the procession of the great lord Marduk. O Marduk, Lord, grant long life."
These mounds of the Kasr have suffered by successive generations of brick getters. Half Hillah is said to be built out of bricks from the ruins of Babylon, and bricks are still taken for any building operations that occur within easy access of these well-nigh inexhaustible supplies. In one place, the Temple of Nin-Makh, the Great Mistress, there are to be found an immense number of little clay images, thought to be votive offerings made by women to the great Mother Goddess.
In the Mound of Amram, according to Major R. Campbell Thompson, are traces of the E-Temenanki referred to in Murray's handbook as not yet identified. [My Murray's handbook is 15 years old.] He writes, in a most useful little book published in Baghdad, 1918, "History and Antiquities of Mesopotamia":—"A hundred yards north of the north slope of Amram is the ancient zigurrat or temple-tower of the famous E-Temenanki: 'the foundation stone of Heaven and Earth' (the Tower of Babylon). The enclosing wall forms almost a square, and part has been excavated, but all the buildings have suffered from brick-robbers. The remains of the actual Tower are towards the south-west corner.
"Many ancient restorations were carried out here. Professor Koldeway found inscriptions of Esarhaddon and Sardanapalus and thereafter inscriptions of Babylonian Kings. Herodotus calls the group of buildings 'the brazen-doored sanctuary of Zeus Below,' and he describes the zigurrat as a temple-tower in eight stages. The cuneiform records of Nabopolassar relate how the god Marduk commanded him 'to lay the foundation of the Tower of Babylon ... firm on the bosom of the underworld while its top should stretch heavenwards.'"
The first impression of the Kasr is that of a shelled town or mined flour mill, where nothing remains but the lower walls of buildings. From a painter's point of view, the scene of this great city, about which he has pictured so much, is somewhat disappointing. There is such an absence of anything suggestive of palaces and streets. Frankly, the ruins of the cement works at Frindsbury are, pictorially, far more suggestive. I have always said that the hanging gardens of Borstal knocked spots off the hanging gardens of Babylon, and now I know it. So much for a first impression.
After awhile, however, wandering amongst these hummocks and pits, with here and there a suggestion of a gateway or pavement, the glamour of it all begins to return.
It is not to the eye that the appeal of poetry is made, but to the imagination.
There is a figure of a stone lion trampling on a man, but this was unearthed and set up by a French engineer, and is not explanatory of any scheme of sculptural work. It is merely a monument. There is also a brick pillar, the bricks being uncommonly like London stock bricks, which might be part of a fallen chimney in a ruined factory. These are the only architectural signs at first visible.
On descending to the passages and ways made by the base walls of buildings, lions and monsters moulded in the brickwork appear, but they are only to be seen at close quarters, and in one part of this vast wilderness of brick, and do not affect in any way the general character of the place—a place of loneliness and of utter desolation. The whole area is like a small range of hills, down the slopes of which are steep descents to clefts sometimes filled with reeds and rushes and stagnant pools of water. The site of the world-renowned hanging gardens is now marked by a series of nondescript lumps. The great temple of Marduk is a dusty heap of brick rubbish, and the Palace of Nebuchadnezzar appears as a mean slag heap looking down upon a land desolate and empty.
This is Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees.
"It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation; neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.
"But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there and satyrs shall dance there.
"And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces."
ARABIAN NIGHTS IN 1919
ARABIAN NIGHTS IN 1919
Somewhere in Mesopotamia, in the desert country that lies between the Euphrates at Felujeh and the Tigris, and in the neighbourhood of a walled-in group of buildings known as Khan Nuqtah, in the month of February of this year, and on a singularly miserable and rainy afternoon, there might have been seen a dark object moving very slowly across the uninteresting field of vision. At a distance it would not have been very easy to make out the nature of the thing, and a newcomer to the scene, with no local knowledge of circumstantial evidence to guide him, would have hesitated between a buffalo or a hippopotamus and finally given a vote in favour of it being some slime-crawling saurian that we come across in pictures of antediluvian natural history.
A closer view, however, would have made clear to him that it was no animal, but some species of tank, coated and covered with mud, accompanied by three similarly encased attendants, probably human beings, staggering and skidding about in its immediate vicinity. From time to time, one of these three would mount on the head or fore-part of this object, with the effect of causing it to slide and plunge forward for a few yards to stick again and again, snorting and panting and unable apparently to make any further progress.
A detective, equipped with a certain amount of motor knowledge, might have been able to discern that the mud-encrusted monster was a Ford car. A tailor, whose technical training would help him to penetrate the disguise of thick slime, might have been able to recognize by the cut of their clothes that the first of the three figures was an R.A.F. driver and the other two were naval officers. As a matter of fact one of these forlorn representatives of our boasted sea-power was Brown, and the other one, although I think he would have hesitated to swear to his identity at the time, was the unfortunate writer of these chronicles.
There was no doubt about it; we were done.
"At the present rate of progress we shall reach Baghdad in about ten days," said the driver, "and it's getting worse."
A few more hours' rain and no power on earth would move the car an inch. We knew from experience that nothing could be done for four or five days, so we faced the situation philosophically, shouldered a bag each and staggered in the sliding mud in the direction of the Khan. We started off with no illusions as to our fate if we encountered rain, and were therefore quite prepared for this. There was nothing for it but to camp out somehow until the sun had been given a chance. The fact that we had been able to reach this point with the Khan and railway close at hand was a piece of luck for which we were thankful.
Brown was by far the best exponent of this art of walking in mud while carrying weight. The driver was quite good at it, having had considerable practice on similar occasions. I was uncompromisingly bad. I sat down three or four times to the driver's once. Brown did not sit down at all, but he did some amazing movements in skidding, reminding one in a somewhat vague way of the tramp cyclist of the music-hall stage.
I have often thought since these days of mud in Mesopotamia that a vast fortune might be made by some one who could find a commercial use for a substance, as slippery as oil, as indelible in staining properties as walnut juice, and as adhesive as fish glue. Large quantities of Mesopotamian mud could be shipped to London and made up into tubes. Then all that would be necessary would be three distinctive labels. One could describe it as a wonderful lubricant and cheap substitute for machine oil. Another could proclaim to the world a new washable distemper. A third could laud it as a marvellous paste or cement that would adhere to anything whatsoever.
"There is one comfort," Brown gasped in an interval between two very energetic spells of sliding, "if we can't move the Ford, nobody else can!"
In the circumstances of the moment I cannot say that I felt much "comfort" in contemplating the car's condition. In fact I didn't care in the least whether I saw the thing again or not. All I cared about was reaching the Khan and putting down my bag. We found tracks where some scrubby plants were growing, where the surface was passable, but as we neared the entrance to the Khan, where carts and horsemen had made a veritable quagmire, we stuck, all three, without apparently any prospect of getting on at all unless we abandoned our baggage. However, some Arabs came to our assistance and relieved us of our burdens, so that we gained our objective.
Beginning our toilet by scraping each other down with a ruler, so that we could see which was which, we soon evolved into something like our normal selves. We had a few clothes to change into, but neither Brown nor I had a complete set of everything. The result was that Brown looked like a naval officer that had taken up cement making and I appeared to be a cement worker, finished off, as the eye followed me downwards, with very smart trousers and regulation naval boots.
The Khan was a poor enough shelter as far as accommodation went, but we managed to make up a good fire and get tolerably dry. Some tea, made by the ever resourceful driver, raised our spirits considerably, and we talked over plans for the immediate future. Enquiries revealed the fact that we were in great luck about trains, which appeared at intervals of several days, as one was due in a few hours that would reach Baghdad the same night. The driver had found others held up with their cars, so we left him to stand by till better weather made movement possible and decided to put in a few days at Baghdad instead of waiting here.
At about 7 o'clock, a train of miscellaneous construction steamed in from the direction of Dhibban, bound for Baghdad. This bit of line runs from Baghdad to the Euphrates and is important because it links up the two great waterways and is always available when motor transport is impossible on account of the state of the roads.
We clambered into a covered van, specially reserved—a sort of Mesopotamian Pullman car. It contained a great litter of odd baggage and two Hindu officers who were very luxuriously fitted up with beds and a table. Divesting ourselves of our wet trench-coats, for it was still raining, we made some sort of a seat of our bags and were tolerably comfortable. Brown, who, now that he was dry and warm and well fed, was in the highest spirits, prophesied that our arrival in the enchanted city of the Arabian Nights was well timed, for it was Friday night, when all the mosques would be lighted up.
"A million tapers flaring bright From twisted silvers look'd to shame The hollow-vaulted dark, and stream'd Upon the mooned domes aloof In inmost Bagdat, till there seem'd Hundreds of crescents on the roof Of night new-risen."
So sang Brown, with a map spread out, proving to me that we must alight at Baghdad South to get the best effect as we gazed entranced at the night glory of Bagdat's shrines of fretted gold and walked on to find romance and mystery by many a shadow-chequer'd lawn.
"So much better," he argued, "to approach it gradually like this instead of arriving in a matter-of-fact way by train." It was still raining hard, and I had grave doubts about the splendour we were enjoying so much in anticipation, but I did not throw all cold water on his scheme, especially as much of it was planned for my benefit. Art would be the richer, although we, its humble devotees, might be the wetter.
I forget now, very clearly what did happen when we arrived at Baghdad South, because we had stopped some time, shunting about, and did not know that we were there. When at last we discovered that we were at the station the train was just moving off. Brown shouted to me to jump out and take our bags. I did so as best I could, but found myself up to my ankles in liquid mud, not a good position at any time for catching heavy baggage at a height, but singularly awkward in view of the fact that Brown in the dark could not see where I was and hurled the bags just out of reach, but sufficiently near to me to cover me with a kind of soup.
My next recollection is that of Brown, dark against the sky, describing a parabolic curve and alighting further up the line. The train had gone, and a sloppy gurgling noise mingled with muffled exclamations growing more distinct indicated that Brown was endeavouring to walk in my direction. These were the only sounds that interrupted the steady noise of pouring rain. There was nothing in sight. Not only was it that we could not see the splendour of Baghdad; we could not see each other.
After an interval of groping about and finding bearings, we began to get accustomed to the gloom and discerned some sheds or buildings up the line. Thinking this was the station we plodded on as steadily as possible through the mud. Dimly, through the rain, we could make out some palms and what appeared to be a domed building and a minaret. Then we reached a large wooden shed out of the shadow of which loomed an engine. It evidently had steam up, so we stopped and gave it a hail.
I think I shall never forget the surprise of the next few minutes. As if in answer to our hail, a door opened in the dark mass of the shed and revealed a workshop brilliantly lighted. Out of this stepped an Arab with a lamp in his hand, and gave us an answering shout We stepped into the light. I don't know which was most surprised, the native at seeing such curious figures staggering under large bags through the mud, or we, at beholding in the beam of light from the shed a magic vignette of palms, Eastern buildings and a large South Western Railway engine.
Brown was delighted.
"The slave of the lamp," he cried, "calling up spirits from the vasty mud. I don't believe this engine is real, but it will do to get us into Baghdad."
And it did. We found a soldier driver and a stoker, got leave from headquarters to use the engine to run into Baghdad West, hurled our bags on to the coal in the tender and were transported unscathed by further mud to the quay by the waters of the Tigris. It was too dark to see much. A multitude of steamboats and mahailas lined the shore. The river was in flood and looked black and forbidding, and it was impossible to see across to the other side. The only light was supplied by a few electric lamps at intervals along the road. It still rained dismally and we made for a canteen close at hand. Here we felt quite at home, for there were several other arrivals as muddy as we were and even worse. Considering this was only a restaurant attached to a rest camp, we fared very well. Our baggage we left there and set out on foot to try and reach Navy House, which was the other side of the river. There were two boat-bridges we were told, and the upper one would lead us into the right quarter. The old Navy House, near to G.H.Q., was now used by some one else, and the British Navy, shrunk to very small proportions as far as Baghdad was concerned, "carried on" in a back street.
Our first check was at the bridge. Owing to the river being in flood, it was open, that is, the middle section had been floated out, for fear that the hawsers would not stand the strain and the only road across was the Maude Bridge lower down.
Brown was delighted. The rain had stopped and he anticipated adventure. The idea of getting across the river in a goufa flashed across his mind, but a glance at the foaming, tearing water was sufficient deterrent even to an optimist like Brown. It might be done in daylight, but at night it would be suicide.
We decided to make our way through the narrow streets that led by the side of the river until we struck the main road that approached the bridge of boats half a mile or so down. In theory this sounded very feasible, but in practice, owing to the tortuous nature of the ways and to the fact that it was very dark, we soon got lost. Twice, when we thought we were progressing well, we came upon the same place again. Then we struck the river, more or less by accident, and took fresh bearings of the general direction we were to pursue.
We plunged into a covered way, arched overhead like a cloister. This had the advantage of being dry and our speed increased considerably. From time to time a dim light gave a glimmer to show us the way.
It was late and there were few people about. The figures that flitted by were silent and mysterious. A window here and there was lighted up, but for the most part the houses were dark and without sign of life. We found no "splendours of the golden prime of good Haroun Alraschid," but for all that the narrow streets looked romantic and weird. The sky had cleared and the moonlight had given a glamour of phantasy to the vistas of the street.
Suddenly we came upon a scene of strange beauty and dramatic effect. A turn in this narrow and cloister-like way brought us to an arched opening, with some steps leading to the water. It was a sheltered inlet from the surging and swirling stream of the Tigris, a kind of pocket built round by crazy old balconied buildings. This was filled with goufas, the weird round boat of the upper river, and the animated scene of people either embarking or disembarking made a strange people. We saw this scene for a few moments only, as we made our way through the crowd at this point. I have since wondered where all these goufas were going. They could not have intended to cross the river under present conditions. I think the rapidly rising river must have upset all calculations as to mooring boats at this point and their owners were making sure that they were secure. The noise and apparent excitement was probably nothing but the usual Eastern custom of making a great fuss about nothing.
At last, after much marching and counter-marching, we struck the main thoroughfare leading to the Maude bridge, which we crossed. The thick, seething waters foamed and struggled against the pontoons and swept down between them like roaring devils. We were very glad to get over, for it looked as though a little more force would have carried the whole thing away. Once clear of the bridge we found ourselves in New Street, the thoroughfare made since the British occupation, and incidentally we ran into a cheery naval officer who picked us up and deposited us again at Navy House, whither he was bound. Had we not received this timely aid I think we should have gone on looking for Navy House all night. A more amazing situation for it could not have been found, if you searched the world over.
Wedged in, cheek by jowl, with buildings that might have figured in the tall streets of old London, it lay nowhere near the water, down a very narrow and crooked lane, where mules and men, camels and beggars jostled each other on their lawful occasions.
When we had settled down there and had fine weather for several days, Brown, loath to waste the romance of old Baghdad during glorious moonlight nights, insisted on some mysterious expeditions which were for the purpose of adventure, but ostensibly arranged to give me an opportunity of sketching. He produced an Arab, arrayed in strange garments, to carry a light and generally act as a guide. We called him the slave of the lamp. I am quite certain that he thought Brown was mad, but this belief on the whole was rather an advantage, as he treated him with all the more respect because of his affliction, which he regarded as a special visitation of Allah.
I was surprised that he seemed to take great delight in my sketching, and several times, when I was making notes of some quaint latticed windows overhanging the narrow road, so that they nearly met, he became quite excited, chuckling and laughing to himself, as if in the enjoyment of some tremendous joke.
I discovered afterwards that Brown's native servant had been pulling the leg of our worthy slave, by telling him that these nightly expeditions were for the purpose of carrying off some ravishingly beautiful lady from one of the harems. No doubt he thought my sketching merely a blind. Measurements with a pencil were obviously part of some incantation.
While on the subject of sketching, especially quick note-taking under difficult conditions, I want a word with my fellow-craftsmen should they chance to take up this book. The difficulties of drawing by twilight, lamplight, and the still greater difficulty of drawing in colour under blazing sunlight, cannot easily be exaggerated. How many times has a sketch done in a failing light looked strong in tone, only to go to pieces when seen under normal conditions? How often the sunlight on your paper flatters your colours, so that you think you are improvising in a most joyous way, and when you get home you find nothing but dinginess and mud!