WE entered Iraq, or Messpot, the more familiar and common sobriquet applied by the British soldier, at the port of Basrah, about 60 miles above the point where the united waters of the rivers Euphrates and Tigris empty into the Persian Gulf. It had been a delightful voyage from Karachi on a comfortable ship, the Vasra, of the B. & I. line. A battalion of Indian troops from the Punjab was aboard and the drills, setting-up exercises and preparation of food, was a source of daily interest. They carried with them a really good military band that generously dispensed enjoyable music. The English officers in command were a splendid, sociable lot and as these officers and Doctor Collins and myself were the only first-cabin passengers, the voyage took on the character of a private cruise.
From the Persian Gulf there was plainly visible the lofty range of Koh-Dinar, in the province of Fars, with an elevation of 17,000 to 18,000 feet, an unexplored land. It is here in the wilds of the province Faristan that lions still exist in Persia.
Basrah was a very active base during the Mesopotamian campaign and much war material is still to be seen, unused and passing into decay. There is here located a British military base and a large air force is maintained, as also at Baghdad and Mosul. In fact the entire English military forces in Mesopotamia are under the command of the air service. This branch of the army is a prompt and efficient means of patroling thinly inhabited lands and imparts the “fear of God,” as an army officer would say, into the hearts of marauding and recalcitrant tribes, but it might also be added, usually provokes hatred.
There is nothing attractive about Basrah nor its flat desert surroundings. The city is intersected by numerous canals which are used as thorough-fares for all sorts of water craft, and in places present an activity recalling the canals of Venice. These waterways are attractively bordered by graceful palms that flutter their green feathers in the breeze, but I have seen floating in the waters of these canals, dead animals, and their banks defiled by human excrement. Nevertheless, from these canals women may be seen carrying the household supply of water. It is not surprising that such unsanitary conditions, coupled with the summer temperature of 125 to 130 degrees in the shade, stamp Basrah as an unhealthy place. Nor is it to be wondered at that an occasional epidemic wipes out thousands of these unsanitary people. That any at all are left from the ravages of disease in the past ages is probably only due to the bright, clean, penetrating, purifying, microbe-destroying rays of the sun. As I have said before, it is a wise Providence that has provided protection against our own destruction. England is doing much to improve conditions, but very much remains to be accomplished.
A railroad runs from Basrah to Baghdad, a distance of a little less than 400 miles. It requires the special express train that leaves on the day following the weekly steamer arrival, 23 hours running time; a schedule of approximately 12 miles per hour. For the entire distance the line passes through a flat, uninteresting desert land; not a desert of billowy sand like large areas in the Sahara, but a parched sunburned land, which, however, near the river, when irrigated, is fertile and productive. This desert land stretches out from horizon to horizon, a broad level expanse with an unbroken skyline; usually without a vestige of vegetation; occasionally some sage brush, and whenever in the early spring due to the winter rains, fresh green grass grows sparsely there are seen the black tents of the nomadic Bedouin and his flocks of goats, sheep, donkeys or camels nibbling their existence and supplying their indolent owner with his livelihoodmilk, meat, dung for fuel, transportation, wool for clothing, tents, etc. The heat during the summer is stifling, 125 to 135 degrees in the shade.
It is in this unattractive land of today that tradition has placed the Garden of Eden, at the junction of the Euphrates and Tigris. Why it was placed here, when there are so many really attractive spots in the world, can perhaps best be understood by taking into account the limited sphere of geographic knowledge possessed by the author of the Book of Genesis, for we are in the land of early Biblical history which comparatively speaking, embraces but a very small area. I could not help but think that had a Californian been writing the opening scene of Holy Writ, he surely would have placed this historic first garden of man, among the foothills of southern California. Speaking for myself I must say that had I been in the Garden of Eden, if in those early days it resembled present conditions, it would have been no hardship to have been driven therefrom and become a savage in the earthly paradise of the land of the Indians, in North America.
As our train halted at a station marked Ur, which in reality was the Ur in the land of the Chaldeans, I would have gladly assigned it to any Chaldean, had I then and there possessed a deed to the entire surrounding country, especially had he proffered me a good drink of pure, cold water, and the Doctor, who is a copious drinker of this life-giving fluid, I am sure would have thrown in his shirt to bind such an exchange. One not disposed toward strong beverage gets very tired in-deed of soda, and longs for a long draft of clear, cold, sparkling water.
Seriously speaking, it must be borne in mind that the northern part of the plain of Mesopotamia usually enjoys a sufficient rainfall to produce abundant crops of wheat and barley. In consequence of this, the country was thickly populated in antiquity, as is indicated by the many ruins. Gigantic systems of irrigation, the extensive embankments of which still stretch between the two great rivers, afford ample evidence of the ancient fertility of this alluvial plain, formed by the deposits of the Euphrates and Tigris, but which were allowed to fall into decay and disuse with the invasion of the Arabs in 636-642. This soil still retains its capacity for agricultural wealth and we are informed that the rivers still contain as much water, while the rainfall in the northern portion of the territory is still as high as of yore. There-fore, by the construction of modern irrigation systems and the extension of transportation by means of railroads and highways, the land of the two great rivers might again return to its former greatness.
It must be borne in mind, however, that extensive operations and investments of this nature could only be undertaken upon political security being assured, and is only justified to the extent that it would serve as an economical development and a source of wealth to the inhabitants of the land. The present population of Mesopotamia is only estimated at one and one-half million souls, of which practically one-third live in the cities, a large portion in northern Mesopotamia and about one-fifth are said to be nomadic or semi-nomadic in their habits. These facts suggest the thought that irrigation in Mesopotamia offers little inducement for the investment of foreign capital.
Further up the line is Hilla, the railroad station near the old ruins of the ancient city of Babylon and about 60 miles south of Baghdad. We proceeded direct to Baghdad and later I engaged a gasoline trolley car to bring us back to Babylon, returning the same day to Baghdad, thereby avoiding a stopover of a day, with no decent European accommodations available at Hilla.
When we visited these ruins, as the little gasoline railway motor car stopped and we alighted, we were at once surrounded by a pack of noisy boys, all endeavoring to inflict upon us their services as guides to the ancient ruins of Babylon. With my cane, imprecations and stones, we drove off most of the pack, even then they followed along to the ruins, but remained at a safe distance.
Set in the desolation of the desert waste were the ruins of Babylon; excavations among old foundations and walls of earthen brick. They are not impressive ruins in appearance, but nevertheless stern reminders of those early epochs linked to the records of our Biblical history. Here has been unearthed Nebuchadnezzar’s palace and there is pointed out to visitors the place where Alexander the Great died, although in 1887 his burial place was finally definitely established as being at Sidon, where his elaborate sarcophagus was discovered, to be removed later to the museum at Constantinople.
At Babylon was also located one of the “Seven Wonders of the World,” the famous “Hanging Gardens. Nothing like a garden now remains excepting here and there a stray wild flower growing among the rubbish or from the crevice of a shaded wall.
Even before the invasion of the Semitics, B. C. 4000 to 3000, it is claimed by historians that a culture superior to that of the Semitics existed in Babylon. The Sumerians, whose racial affinity is still unknown, were the earliest known inhabitants of this country, and to them is commonly artributed the cuneiform system of writing. Records show that they possessed considerable mathematical and astronomical knowledge and developed a highly effective legal system.
The chariot ruts of the great conquerors wend their way down through the history of ancient Babylon. Sargon I, 2800 B. C.; Hamurapi, 2200 B. C.; Nebuchadnezzar I of the twelfth century B. C.; Sargon II and Sennacherib of the eighth century B. C.; Nebuchadnezzar II, 600 B. C.; Cyrus 540, conqueror of the Medes; Cambyses, 525 B. C.; Darius the Great, 500 B. C. and Alexander the Great, whose death occurred here in Babylon, 323 B. C., all were linked with the history of this city, of which now but a rubbish heap remains.
The city of Babylon at one time ranked first as Asia’s greatest city in population, wealth and magnificence of architecture. Herodotus records that it had a circumference of 55 miles (equaling Paris or London) and that the city wall was 330 feet in height. Even at the time of the entry of Alexander the Great, we read that the occupied portion of the city had a circuit of 10 miles, which compares with the present extent of the ruins.
The most interesting ruins laid bare by the excavations are Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, including the great throne room, 170 feet in length and 60 feet in breadth, also some high brick walls leading to the processional road of the god Marduk. On these walls are some interesting low reliefs molded on the face of brick and representing a lion, a bull and a dragon.
The famous tower of Babel is now a hole in the ground, for according to Baedeker it was the step pyramid of Etemen-Ana-Ki, and belonged to the chief sanctuary of the Babylonians, the Temple of Esagila. The site of this tower has been recognized in Essahen (the bowl), a hole of about 330 feet square on the north front of the temple, which ruins are a part of these excavations. Thus has the splendor of the ancients fallen into ruin and decay.
We visited another historic ruin while at Baghdad the imposing remains of the palace and arch of Khosry. This is the only remaining relic of the ancient city of Ctesiphon. The great vaulted hall built of large brick was 121 1/2 feet high, 82 feet wide and 164 feet long and was the audience hall of the “White Palace of the Kings.” It stands in an open space with no near buildings, and there-fore its gigantic proportions are hard to fully appreciate. It is, however, by far the most imposing ruin in this part of the globe.
Baghdad is different, and that difference affords real interest. It is anything but beautiful. Its mosques and minarets have some architectural merit and supply a touch of pleasing color, covered as they are with glazed tile of green, blue and yellow laid in artistic designs. Many, if not viewed too closely, look like huge pieces of cloisonné; dam-aged cloisonné, however, for invariably if examined more precisely, it will be observed that here and there have fallen from the walls great flakes of the colored tile covering that encrusts the minarets, domes and entrance portals.
The glory of Baghdad lies in the days of long ago. One is quickly disillusioned of the fancied dreams that he had painted of this magnificent ancient capital of Harun-al-Rashid, that familiar figure of The Arabian Nights, fancies that were conjured while reading those fascinating tales attributed to the harem favorite Scheherazade, authoress of the Thousand and One Nights. It was these tales that immortalized this mighty caliph, who was the most powerful monarch of his age, for by his great ability he raised the caliphate of Baghdad to its greatest splendor and his reign is considered the greatest era of the Mohammedan nations.
Baghdad has a charm in literature that is found to be sadly lacking upon visiting the present city, and surely no one today would sing her praises.
It was a disappointment affecting me the same as when I read a book or attended a play of which I had expected much and then found flat. Of all the ancient things of historical interest, the only thing on record I could discover in Baghdad were some bricks in old ancient quays along the Tigris, that bore the imprint of the name of Nebuchadnezzar.
You should see this mud city of Baghdad with its mud houses, mud walls and mud streets after a hard rain. Its narrow, filthy streets are a sea of mud and slime, which, after a day of brilliant sunshine, becomes a cloud of dust. Its narrow sidewalks are as rough and uneven as a cobble-stone paved country barnyard after the frost thaws out in the early springonly worse. So as you wallow through its filth, you inhale it in your lungs or absorb it through your boots.
The city is divided by the Tigris River, which is spanned by two pontoon bridges, and traffic is obliged to proceed in the one direction over what is known as the Maude Bridge and in the opposite direction over the Kotah Bridge, as both are too narrow to permit of double traffic. Generally speaking, however, while the railroad terminus is on the west bank of the river, the larger and principal portion of Baghdad lies on the east bank of the deep, swift-flowing Tigris.
One of my chief enjoyments was to stand at the end of either of these bridges and watch the colorful tide of humanity ebb and flow; Mohammedan women completely enveloped in black and with faces veiled; Hebrew women robed with gorgeous silken abahs brocaded in silver and gold, the upper part of their faces covered by an unsightly black visor from under which they peered; coolie women carrying huge baskets of green vegetables and others with several jars of milk or Standard Oil cans balanced likewise one above the other on their carefully poised heads, their noses studded with nose-rings, their wrists encircled by bracelets and their ankles with anklets, Arabs, Bedouins, Turks, Ghurkas, Sudanese, Hindus and the European Tommies and their officers, all in their characteristic dress and customs. At the same time this kaleidoscopic scene is heightened by an unending parade of heavily-laden camels, donkeys under bulky burdens with head, tail and feet only visible, pack mules, horse-drawn vehicles, cumbersome wagons, camels, dilapidated gharries, motor cars and trucks. An unending traffic constantly packing and jamming these narrow pontooned bridges. It would appear that every one of Baghdad’s 200,000 inhabitants crossed and re-crossed the bridge daily.
The one hotel commonly patronized by Europeans is Hotel Maude. It is certainly no compliment to Gen. Maude, who died here at Baghdad in November, 1918. It had been his task to retrieve the military disaster following the forced surrender of Gen. Townsend with 8,000 men at Kut, owing to lack of resources. He did his job in characteristic English manner, defeating the Turks, retaking Kut and later capturing Baghdad. I have traveled rather extensively and all things considered, Hotel Maude is about the poorest hostelry I have ever been obliged to endure. It is dirty, unkempt, smelly, poor food, rotten service, pillows as hard and heavy as sand bags, beds inhabited by things that bite and not a single redeeming feature other than the excellent view it commands of the river and of the moving throng on the Maude pontoon bridge near at hand. It enjoys a good patronage but only through force of circumstances.
Travelers who in their peregrinations should discover themselves in Baghdad would find interest in the bazaars, which are not unlike the souks in Tunis. Here anything may be purchased from a needle to a strawstack, the latter being bundled up in huge gunny sacks and slung on the backs of camels or donkeys wending their way through the narrow passageways, pushing or brushing the pedestrians to one side or necessitating their flattening themselves against the walls of the shops. You will also here get a fascinating glimpse of native life, for the narrow thorough-fares between the busy little shops actually over-flow with humanity, like a street in an American city on the day of a circus parade. You are obliged to push and crowd your way through the throng of vendors, buyers, coolies and mendicants that constantly swarm these bazaars.
The spot most revered by the Shiites, a Moslem sect of dissenters, is the mosque of Kazemain. Its two great domes and five lofty minarets were the first objects visioned as we approached Baghdad from Persia, and it was the last thing outlined above the horizon as Baghdad faded with the day, as we were wending our way by motor car across the great wastes, bound for Damascus, 600 miles to the westward. One of the portals is exceptionally ornate in its colorful decorations of tiles and some of the inner façades and domes of the shrine are said to be overlaid with gold. It is a shrine to which many devotees of this sect make pilgrimages and it is commonly remarked that a pilgrim, upon leaving, does so empty-handed for all he possessed has been added as his mite to the colossal revenue of the greedy powers of this institution. He may wander back to his homeland as best he can afoot, usually selling his one remaining articlea prayer rugto obtain sustenance, or begging along the way.
The Shiites assign to Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed, a rank equal or even superior to that of the prophet himself. They are an extremely fanatical sect and have a bad reputation, having been originally known as “the order of the assassins,” which word should be literally translated. No one but devotees are admitted to the mosque, but this did not prevent my encircling the entire outer wall and peering through its seven gateways opening to narrow streets, and I even risked several snap shots of the interior through the open doorway while surrounded by anything but a friendly looking lot of natives, many of whom wore daggers whose handles protruded in a sinister way from their belts.
It always affords me special pleasure to pay my respects by a visit to the tomb of one who in his day has contributed something that added to the well-being, comfort, or happiness of his con-temporaries and the posterity that followed. There is a Mohammedan cemetery on the west side of the river, in the outskirts of the city, that contains the tomb of Sitt Zubaidah, of the Thou-sand and One Nights fame. At the edge of the cemetery stands an octagonal building about 50 feet in diameter and of like height, upon which rests a still loftier tower-like structure that is shaped and somewhat resembles a huge pine cone. I visited this final resting place of Zubaidah upon my return to Baghdad, after journeying into Persia and on the last day before our departure from Baghdad for the Holy Land. I thought it well to endeavor to make more real, if possible, by association with the dead favorite of Harun-al-Rashid the memories of a dead Baghdad, a Baghdad of The Arabian Nights, and immediately thereafter let the pure desert air of the hot sands of Arabia sweep from my being, as we whirled in the purring cars across the Syrian desert, the filth and memory of the Baghdad of today.
Here at the tomb of Zubaidah it might be possible, with the aid of imagination, to find one of Ali-Baba’s great earthen jars, from which, perhaps, would flow forth the filmy form of a genei, time would be rolled backyes, we are standing before the rock that guarded the robbers’ cave; Cassim cries the magic word, the stone swings back revealing the priceless treasure of gold and jewels; likewise memory unlocks the treasure stores of tales read long ago but quite forgotten; these, aided by imagination, enable us to conjure scenes of Baghdad of the day of Zubaidah and judge it more kindly because of the legacy that it bequeathed us in the centuries long since departed.