Anno Urbis - The Year of the City

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The Babylonian Empire, lying as it did between the thirtieth and thirty-seventh parallels of north latitude, and consisting mostly of comparatively low countries, enjoyed a climate which was, upon the whole, considerably warmer than that of Media, and less subject to extreme variations. In its more southern parts-Susiana, Chaldaea (or Babylonia Proper), Philistia, and Edom—-the intensity of the summer heat must have been great; but the winters were mild and of short duration. In the middle regions of Central Mesopotamia, the Euphrates valley, the Palmyrene, Coele-Syria, Judaea, and Phoenicia, while the winters were somewhat colder and longer, the summer warmth was more tolerable. Towards the north, along the flanks of Masius, Taurus, and Amanus, a climate more like that of eastern Media prevailed, the summers being little less hot than those of the middle region, while the winters were of considerable severity. A variety of climate thus existed, but a variety within somewhat narrow limits. The region was altogether hotter and drier than is usual in the same latitude. The close proximity of the great Arabian desert, the small size of the adjoining seas, the want of mountains within the region having any great elevation, and the general absence of timber, combined to produce an amount of heat and dryness scarcely known elsewhere outside the tropics.

Detailed accounts of the temperature, and of the climate generally, in the most important provinces of the Empire, Babylonia and Mesopotamia Proper, have been already given, and on these points the reader is referred to the first volume. With regard to the remaining provinces, it may be noticed, in the first place, that the climate of Susiana differs but very slightly from that of Babylonia, the region to which it is adjacent. The heat in summer is excessive, the thermometer, even in the hill country, at an elevation of 5000 feet, standing often at 107 Fahr. in the shade. The natives construct for themselves serdaubs, or subterranean apartments, in which they live during the day, thus somewhat reducing the temperature, but probably never bringing it much below 100 degrees. They sleep at night in the open air on the flat roofs of their houses. So far as there is any difference of climate at this season between Susiana and Babylonia, it is in favor of the former. The heat, though scorching, is rarely oppressive; and not unfrequently a cool, invigorating breeze sets in from the mountains, which refreshes both mind and body. The winters are exceedingly mild, snow being unknown on the plains, and rare on the mountains, except at a considerable elevation. At this time, however—from December to the end of March—rain falls in tropical abundance; and occasionally there are violent hail-storms, which inflict serious injury on the crops. The spring-time in Susiana is delightful. Soft airs fan the cheek, laden with the scent of flowers; a carpet of verdure is spread over the plains; the sky is cloudless, or overspread with a thin gauzy veil; the heat of the sun is not too great; the rivers run with full banks and fill the numerous canals; the crops advance rapidly towards perfection; and on every side a rich luxuriant growth cheers the eye of the traveller.

On the opposite side of the Empire, in Syria and Palestine, a moister, and on the whole a cooler climate prevails. In Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon there is a severe winter, which lasts from October to April; much snow falls, and the thermometer often marks twenty or thirty degrees of frost. On the flanks of the mountain ranges, and in the highlands of Upper and Coele-Syria, of Damascus, Samaria, and Judsea, the cold is considerably less; but there are intervals of frost; snow falls, though it does not often remain long upon the ground; and prolonged chilling rains make the winter and early spring unpleasant. In the low regions, on the other hand, in the Shephelah, the plain of Sharon, the Phoenician coast tract, the lower valley of the Orontes, and again in the plain of Esdraelon and the remarkable depression from the Merom lake to the Dead Sea, the winters are exceedingly mild; frost and snow are unknown; the lowest temperature is produced by cold rains and fogs, which do not bring the thermometer much below 40. During the summer these low regions, especially the Jordan valley or Ghor, are excessively hot, the heat being ordinarily of that moist kind which is intolerably oppressive. The upland plains and mountain flanks experience also a high temperature, but there the heat is of a drier character, and is not greatly complained of; the nights even in summer are cold, the dews being often heavy; cool winds blow occasionally, and though the sky is for months without a cloud, the prevailing heat produces no injurious effects on those who are exposed to it. In Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon the heat is of course still less; refreshing breezes blow almost constantly; and the numerous streams and woods give a sense of coolness beyond the markings of the thermometer.

There is one evil, however, to which almost the whole Empire must have been subject. Alike in the east and in the west, in Syria and Palestine, no less than in Babylonia Proper and Susiana, there are times when a fierce and scorching wind prevails for days together—a wind whose breath withers the herbage and is unspeakably depressing to man. Called in the east the Sherghis, and in the west the Khamsin, this fiery sirocco comes laden with fine particles of heated sand, which at once raise the temperature and render the air unwholesome to breathe. In Syria these winds occur commonly in the spring, from February to April; but in Susiana and Babylonia the time for them is the height of summer. They blow from various quarters, according to the position, with respect to Arabia, occupied by the different provinces. In Palestine the worst are from the east, the direction in which the desert is nearest; in Lower Babylonia they are from the south; in Susiana from the west or the north-west. During their continuance the air is darkened, a lurid glow is cast over the earth, the animal world pines and droops, vegetation languishes, and, if the traveller cannot obtain shelter, and the wind continues, he may sink and die under its deleterious influence.

The climate of the entire tract included within the limits of the Empire was probably much the same in ancient times as in our own days. In the low alluvial plains indeed near the Persian Gulf it is probable that vegetation was anciently more abundant, the date-palm being cultivated much more extensively then than at present; and so far it might appear reasonable to conclude that the climate of that region must have been moister and cooler than it now is. But if we may judge by Strabo's account of Susiana, where the climatic conditions were nearly the same as in Babylonia, no important change can have taken place, for Strabo not only calls the climate of Susiana "fiery and scorching," but says that in Susa, during the height of summer, if a lizard or a snake tried to cross the street about noon-day, he was baked to death before accomplishing half the distance. Similarly on the west, though there is reason to believe that Palestine is now much more denuded of timber than it was formerly, and its climate should therefore be both warmer and drier, yet it has been argued with great force from the identity of the modern with the ancient vegetation, that in reality there can have been no considerable change. If then there has been such permanency of climate in the two regions where the greatest alteration seems to have taken place in the circumstances whereby climate is usually affected, it can scarcely be thought that elsewhere any serious change has been brought about.

The chief vegetable productions of Babylonia Proper in ancient times are thus enumerated by Berosus. "The land of the Babylonians," he says, "produces wheat as an indigenous plant," and has also barley, and lentils, and vetches, and sesame; the banks of the streams and the marshes supply edible roots, called gongoe, which have the taste of barley-cakes. Palms, too, grow in the country, and apples, and fruit-trees of various kinds. Wheat, it will be observed, and barley are placed first, since it was especially as a grain country that Babylonia was celebrated. The testimonies of Herodotus, Theophrastus, Strabo, and Pliny as to the enormous returns which the Babylonian farmers obtained from their corn lands have been already cited. No such fertility is known anywhere in modern times; and, unless the accounts are grossly exaggerated, we must ascribe it, in part, to the extraordinary vigor of a virgin soil, a deep and rich alluvium; in part, perhaps, to a peculiar adaptation of the soil to the wheat plant, which the providence of God made to grow spontaneously in this region, and nowhere else, so far as we know, on the whole face of the earth.

Besides wheat, it appears that barley, millet, and lentils were cultivated for food, while vetches were grown for beasts, and sesame for the sake of the oil which can be expressed from its seed. All grew luxuriantly, and the returns of the barley in particular are stated at a fabulous amount. But the production of first necessity in Babylonia was the date-palm, which flourished in great abundance throughout the region, and probably furnished the chief food of the greater portion of the inhabitants. The various uses to which it was applied have been stated in the first volume, where a representation of its mode of growth has been also given.

In the adjoining country of Susiana, or at any rate in the alluvial portion of it, the principal products of the earth seem to have been nearly the same as in Babylonia, while the fecundity of the soil was but little less. Wheat and barley returned to the sower a hundred or even two hundred fold. The date-palm grew plentifully, more especially in the vicinity of the towns. Other trees also were common, as probably konars, acacias, and poplars, which are still found scattered in tolerable abundance over the plain country. The neighboring mountains could furnish good timber of various kinds; but it appears that the palm was the tree chiefly used for building. If we may judge the past by the present, we may further suppose that Susiana produced fruits in abundance; for modern travellers tell us that there is not a fruit known in Persia which does not thrive in the province of Khuzistan.

Along the Euphrates valley to a considerable distance—at least as far as Anah (or Hena)—the character of the country resembles that of Babylonia and Susiana, and the products cannot have been very different. About Anah the date-palm begins to fail, and the olive first makes its appearance. Further up a chief fruit is the mulberry. Still higher, in northern Mesopotamia, the mulberry is comparatively rare, but its place is supplied by the walnut, the vine, and the pistachio-nut. This district produces also good crops of grain, and grows oranges, pomegranates, and the commoner kinds of fruit abundantly.

Across the Euphrates, in Northern Syria, the country is less suited for grain crops; but trees and shrubs of all kinds grow luxuriantly, the pasture is excellent, and much of the land is well adapted for the growth of cotton. The Assyrian kings cut timber frequently in this tract; and here are found at the present day enormous planes, thick forests of oak, pine, and ilex, walnuts, willows, poplars, ash-trees, birches, larches, and the carob or locust tree. Among wild shrubs are the oleander with its ruddy blossoms, the myrtle, the bay, the arbutus, the clematis, the juniper, and the honeysuckle; among cultivated fruit-trees, the orange, the pomegranate, the pistachio-nut, the vine, the mulberry, and the olive. The adis, an excellent pea, and the Lycoperdon, or wild potato, grow in the neighborhood of Aleppo. The castor-oil plant is cultivated in the plain of Edlib. Melons, cucumbers, and most of the ordinary vegetables are produced in abundance and of good quality everywhere.

In Southern Syria and Palestine most of the same forms of vegetation occur, with several others of quite a new character. These are due either to the change of latitude, or to the tropical heat of the Jordan and Dead Sea valley, or finally to the high elevation of Hermon, Lebanon, and Anti-Lebanon. The date-palm fringes the Syrian shore as high as Beyrut, and formerly flourished in the Jordan valley, where, however, it is not now seen, except in a few dwarfed specimens near the Tiberias lake. The banana accompanies the date along the coast, and even grows as far north as Tripoli. The prickly pear, introduced from America, has completely neutralized itself, and is in general request for hedging. The fig mulberry (or true sycamore), another southern form, is also common, and grows to a considerable size. Other denizens of warm climes, unknown in Northern Syria, are the jujube, the tamarisk, theelasagnus or wild olive, the gum-styrax plant (Styrax officinalis), the egg-plant, the Egyptian papyrus, the sugar-cane, the scarlet misletoe, the solanum that produces the "Dead Sea apple" (Solanum Sodomceum), the yellow-flowered acacia, and the liquorice plant. Among the forms due to high elevation are the famous Lebanon cedar, several oaks and juniper, the maple, berberry, jessamine, ivy, butcher's broom, a rhododendron, and the gum-tragacanth plant. The fruits additional to those of the north are dates, lemons, almonds, shaddocks, and limes.

The chief mineral products of the Empire seem to have been bitumen, with its concomitants, naphtha and petroleum, salt, sulphur, nitre, copper, iron, perhaps silver, and several sorts of precious stones. Bitumen was furnished in great abundance by the springs at Hit or Is, which were celebrated in the days of Herodotus; it was also procured from Ardericca (Kir-Ab), and probably from Earn Ormuz, in Susiana, and likewise from the Dead Sea. Salt was obtainable from the various lakes which had no outlet, as especially from the Sabakhab, the Bahr-el-Melak, the Dead Sea, and a small lake near Tadmor or Palmyra. The Dead Sea gave also most probably both sulphur and nitre, but the latter only in small quantities. Copper and iron seem to have been yielded by the hills of Palestine. Silver was perhaps a product of the Anti-Lebanon.

It may be doubted whether any gems were really found in Babylonia itself, which, being purely alluvial, possesses no stone of any kind. Most likely the sorts known as Babylonian came from the neighboring Susiana, whose unexplored mountains may possess many rich treasures. According to Dionysius, the bed of the Choaspes produced numerous agates, and it may well be that from the same quarter came that "beryl more precious than gold," and those "highly reputed sard," which Babylon seems to have exported to other countries. The western provinces may, however, very probably have furnished the gems which are ascribed to them, as amethysts, which are said to have been found in the neighborhood of Petra, alabaster, which came from near Damascus, and the cyanus, a kind of lapis-lazuli, which was a production of Phoenicia. No doubt the Babylonian love of gems caused the provinces to be carefully searched for stones; and it is not improbable that they yielded besides the varieties already named, and the other unknown kinds mentioned by Pliny, many, if not most, of the materials which we find to have been used for seals by the ancient people. These are, cornelian, rock-crystal, chalcedony, onyx, jasper, quartz, serpentine, sienite, haematite, green felspar, pyrites, loadstone, and amazon-stone.

Stone for building was absent from Babylonia Proper and the alluvial tracts of Susiana, but in the other provinces it abounded. The Euphrates valley could furnish stone at almost any point above Hit; the mountain regions of Susiana could supply it in whatever quantity might be required; and in the western provinces it was only too plentiful. Near to Babylonia the most common kind was limestone; but about Had-disah on the Euphrates there was also a gritty, silicious rock alternating with iron-stone, and in the Arabian Desert were sandstone and granite. Such stone as was used in Babylon itself, and in the other cities of the low country, probably either came down the Euphrates, or was brought by canals from the adjacent part of Arabia. The quantity, however, thus consumed was small, the Babylonians being content for most uses with the brick, of which their own territory gave them a supply practically inexhaustible.

The principal wild animals known to have inhabited the Empire in ancient times are the following: the lion, the panther or large leopard, the hunting leopard, the bear, the hyena, the wild ox, the buffalo (?), the wild ass, the stag, the antelope, the ibex or wild goat, the wild sheep, the wild boar, the wolf, the jackal, the fox, the hare, and the rabbit. Of these, the lion, leopard, bear, stag, wolf, jackal, and fox seem to have been very widely diffused, while the remainder were rarer, and, generally speaking, confined to certain localities. The wild ass was met with only in the dry parts of Mesopotamia, and perhaps of Syria, the buffalo and wild boar only in moist regions, along the banks of rivers or among marshes. The wild ox was altogether scarce; the wild sheep, the rabbit, and the hare, were probably not common.

To this list may be added as present denizens of the region, and therefore probably belonging to it in ancient times, the lynx, the wildcat, the ratel, the sable, the genet, the badger, the otter, the beaver, the polecat, the jerboa, the rat, the mouse, the marmot, the porcupine, the squirrel, and perhaps the alligator. Of these the commonest at the present day are porcupines, badgers, otters, rats, mice, and jerboas. The ratel, sable, and genet belong only to the north; the beaver is found nowhere but in the Khabour and middle Euphrates; the alligator, if a denizen of the region at all exists only in the Euphrates.

The chief birds of the region are eagles, vultures, falcons, owls, hawks, many kinds of crows, magpies, jackdaws, thrushes, blackbirds, nightingales, larks, sparrows, goldfinches, swallows, doves of fourteen kinds, francolins, rock partridges, gray partridges, black partridges, quails, pheasants, capercailzies, bustards, flamingoes, pelicans, cormorants, storks, herons, cranes, wild-geese, ducks, teal, kingfishers, snipes, woodcocks, the sand-grouse, the hoopoe, the green parrot, the becafico, the locust-bird, the humming-bird (?), and the bee-eater. The eagle, pheasant, capercailzie, quail, parrot, locust-bird, becafico, and humming-bird are rare; the remainder are all tolerably common. Besides these, we know that in ancient times ostriches wore found within the limits of the Empire, though now they have retreated further south into the Great Desert of Arabia. Perhaps bitterns may also formerly have frequented some of the countries belonging to it, though they are not mentioned among the birds of the region by modern writers.

There is a bird of the heron species, or rather of a species between the heron and the stork, which seems to deserve a few words of special description. It is found chiefly in Northern Syria, in the plain of Aleppo and the districts watered by the Koweik and Sajur rivers. The Arabs call it Tair-el-Raouf, or "the magnificent." This bird is of a grayish-white, the breast white, the joints of the wings tipped with scarlet, and the under part of the beak scarlet, the upper part being of a blackish-gray. The beak is nearly five inches long, and two thirds of an inch thick. The circumference of the eye is red; the feet are of a deep yellow; and the bird in its general form strongly resembles the stork; but its color is darker. It is four feet high, and covers a breadth of nine feet when the wings are spread. The birds of this species are wont to collect in large flocks on the North Syrian rivers, and to arrange themselves in several rows across the streams where they are shallowest. Here they squat side by side, as close to one another as possible, and spread out their tails against the current, thus forming a temporary dam. The water drains off below them, and when it has reached its lowest point, at a signal from one of their number who from the bank watches the proceedings, they rise and swoop upon the fish, frogs, etc., which the lowering of the water has exposed to view.

Fish are abundant in the Chaldaean marshes, and in almost all the fresh-water lakes and rivers. [PLATE. VIII., Fig.] The Tigris and Euphrates yield chiefly barbel and carp; but the former stream has also eels, trout, chub, shad-fish, siluruses, and many kinds which have no English names. The Koweik contains the Aleppo eel (Ophidium masbacambahis), a very rare variety; and in other streams of Northern Syria are found lampreys, bream, dace, and the black-fish (Macroptero-notus niger), besides carp, trout, chub, and barbel. Chub, bream, and the silurus are taken in the Sea of Galilee. The black-fish is extremely abundant in the Bahr-el-Taka and the Lake of Antioch.

Among reptiles may be noticed, besides snakes, lizards, and frogs, which are numerous, the following less common species—iguanoes, tortoises of two kinds, chameleons, and monitors. Bats also were common in Babylonia Proper, where they grew to a great size. Of insects the most remarkable are scorpions, tarantulas, and locusts. These last come suddenly in countless myriads with the wind, and, settling on the crops, rapidly destroy all the hopes of the husbandman, after which they strip the shrubs and trees of their leaves, reducing rich districts in an incredibly short space of time to the condition of howling wildernesses. [PLATE. VIII., Fig. 3.] If it were not for the locust-bird, which is constantly keeping down their numbers, these destructive insects would probably increase so as to ruin utterly the various regions exposed to their ravages.

The domestic animals employed in the countries which composed the Empire were, camels, horses, mules, asses, buffaloes, cows and oxen, goats, sheep, and dogs. Mules as well as horses seem to have been anciently used in war by the people of the more southern regions-by the Susianians at any rate, if not also by the Babylonians. Sometimes they were ridden; sometimes they were employed to draw carts or chariots. They were spirited and active animals, evidently of a fine breed, such as that for which Khuzistan is famous at the present day. [PLATE. VIII., Fig. 4.] The asses from which these mules were produced must also have been of superior quality, like the breed for which Baghdad is even now famous, The Babylonian horses are not likely to have been nearly so good; for this animal does not flourish in a climate which is at once moist and hot. Still, at any rate under the Persians, Babylonia seems to have been a great breeding-place for horses, since the stud of a single satrap consisted of 800 stallions and 16,000 mares. If we may judge of the character of Babylonian from that of Susianian steeds, we may consider the breed to have, been strong and large limbed, but not very handsome, the head being too large and the legs too short for beauty. [PLATE IX., Fig. 1.]

Plate Ix.

The Babylonians were also from very early times famous for their breed of dogs. The tablet engraved in a former volume, which gives a representation of a Babylonian hound, is probably of a high antiquity, not later than the period or the Empire. Dogs are also not unfrequently represented on ancient Babylonian stones and cylinders. It would seem that, as in Assyria, there were two principal breeds, one somewhat clumsy and heavy, of a character not unlike that of our mastiff, the other of a much lighter make, nearly resembling our greyhound. The former kind is probably the breed known as Indian, which was kept up by continual importations from the country whence it was originally derived.[PLATE. IX., Fig. 2.]

We have no evidence that camels were employed in the time of the Empire, either by the Babylonians themselves or by their neighbors, the Susianians; but in Upper Mesopotamia, in Syria, and in Palestine they had been in use from a very early date. The Amalekitos and the Midianites found them serviceable in war; and the latter people employed them also as beasts of burden in their caravan trade. The Syrians of Upper Mesopotamia rode upon them in their journeys. It appears that they were also sometimes yoked to chariots, though from their size and clumsiness they would be but ill fitted for beasts of draught.

Buffaloes were, it is probable, domesticated by the Babylonians at an early date. The animal seems to have been indigenous in the country, and it is far better suited for the marshy regions of Lower Babylonia and Susiana than cattle of the ordinary kind. It is perhaps a buffalo which is represented on an ancient tablet already referred to, where a lion is disturbed in the middle of his feast off a prostrate animal by a man armed with a hatchet. Cows and oxen, however, of the common kind are occasionally represented on the cylinders [PLATE IX., Fig. 4.], where they seem sometimes to represent animals about to be offered to the gods. Goats also appear frequently in this capacity; and they were probably more common than sheep, at any rate in the more southern districts. Of Babylonian sheep we have no representations at all on the monuments; but it is scarcely likely that a country which used wool so largely was content to be without them. At any rate they abounded in the provinces, forming the chief wealth of the more northern nations.

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