Is it a Desert?
The Syrian Desert and its Inhabitants
Christina Phelps
Certain deserts divide countries and their civilizations, inexor- ably; others unite them. The Syrian Desert is one of those which unites adjacent lands; and during the last twenty years, the uniting of those lands has acquired a new importance. Since the Great War, the desert regions have been the scene of a mechanical revolution; medieval methods of transport have suddenly, almost magically, given place to the most advanced exponents of modern transport. For more than three thousand years the trade routes of this desert have linked the eastern seaboard of the Mediterranean with Mesopotamia; they have fostered cultural and religious, as well as commercial exchanges between the Near and the Middle East. Furthermore, until the opening of the Suez Canal, the Syrian Desert was almost universally recognized as a short-cut between the Occident and the Orient. For a brief period after 1869, however, the desert highways were first neglected, and then forgotten.
Camel caravans could have no place in the development of modern transport systems. Trans-desert railways were visualized, but all plans for such were vetoed. The desert was not considered a potentially modern link for the purpose of connecting the West with the East. Instead, the building of a "Berlin to Baghdad" rail- way was undertaken; but before its completion the Great War intervened. During and after the War, armoured cars were used in certain parts of the Syrian Desert, and its arid plains were found to be suitable for motor transport. Also, Royal Air Force machines flew from Cairo to Baghdad, after the beginning of 1921, thus inducing a new awareness of this ancient short-cut to the East.
During 1923-24 popular interest was stimulated by the opening of a trans-desert motor route between Damascus and Baghdad. The exploits of the Nairn Transport Company, the development of a desert mail and of various passenger motor services, the alarms and excursions of the Druze rebellion (in 1925-26) increasingly focused attention upon the new motor highways. Thereafter, the public imagination was further stirred by the opening of imperial air routes. First Imperial Airways, next the French Air Orient, then the Dutch "K.L.M." flew the desert from Gaza, Galilee and Damascus to Baghdad and Basra. Most recently of all, two great pipe-lines have been laid across this desert, through which oil is pumped from Kirkuk to Tripoli and to Haifa. Sketch-maps in the daily papers made us familiar with the course of motor tracks and pipe-lines, and with the outlines of the great space which they all traverse: an expanse long empty of any permanent human habitation except the ancient city of Palmyra and its neighbouring mud villages. Today, in the emptiness, there stands the rest-house and fort at Rutba Wells, and nine pumping-stations of the Iraq Petroleum Company.
So rapid and many-sided a development of transport services does more than stir the imagination; it stirs the curiosity as well. One becomes intrigued by the story of desert travel as a whole, and by the experiences of previous desert travellers.
There grows a desire to learn something about the ancient and medieval methods of transport which have been so completely transformed within the past thirteen years. Former conditions of desert travel, its peculiarities, the nature of its hardships and all related problems have acquired an especial and comparative significance of their own. Hurried voyagers who cross the modern desert track between Damascus and Baghdad are tempted to compare previous varieties of caravans with their own convoys; and to wonder how mer- chants used to go about their business: how they conducted their affairs and carried on their trading ventures under more primitive conditions. Similarly, a modern traveller who looks upon the ruins of Palmyra, Jerash or any other caravan city, feels inclined to ask questions about its origin and place in caravan life, and its role in desert history. It is hoped that this book, which is a condensed summary of caravan life and desert travellers, may give a partial answer to the unvoiced questions of the historically curious. There is no chapter included in this survey which could not be in- definitely expanded and elaborated; each one is in itself a potential book; so that the sum of these chapters is, obviously, no more than an outline of the methods and conditions of travel in the desert regions, from Roman times to the present day.
Some desert travellers have been men, and even women, of great reputation, such as Ibn Battuta, Pietro della Valle, Huber, the Blunts, Colonel Chesney and Gertrude Bell. Others, like Burckhardt, Doughty and T. E.
Lawrence, never crossed the Syrian Desert; but they made an intimate study of its south-western territory. Still others, less famous, have voyaged thither for various reasons; and these have become known, indirectly, through the writings of fellow travel- lers, or else their own meagre writings have been found scattered among the greater travel collections (such as Hakluyt and Purchas), or the lesser compilations (such as Ray and Murray). The vast majority of travellers, however, have been individually unknown; nameless because of their numbers. Merchants, Mohammedan pilgrims, soldiers and civil servants, couriers and dispatch-bearers have all played their part, as well as explorers and men of science.
Their private concerns are no longer—if they ever were—of general interest; but the manner of their voyaging will always stir the curiosity of those who are interested in desert travel. In order to create a common setting for travellers of the Syrian Desert, down the ages, their various narratives have been taken into account and welded into a single story. Many of these men lived or travelled in the desert during different epochs of its history, so the elements of contrast, as well as those of similarity in their respective periods, have necessarily been noted. Moreover, with the excep- tion of Alois Musil, no one of them ever attempted to traverse the whole of this arid region; so that it has been possible to paint only a collective picture of the desert as seen through their eyes.
Geographically speaking, the Syrian Desert is the shortest highway between the Orient and the Occident. This means that Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia (Natural Syria) have automatically become intellectual and commercial middlemen between these two geo- graphical extremes. ImmemoriaUy, also, it has served as a bridge between the successive civilizations which have centred in the Near and Middle East. Of course, the highway is collective in its meaning. It must be understood to include each and every one of the numerous caravan tracks that cross the desert, by all of which the contacts between east and west have been maintained.
In modern times the desert has become a subject of interest in itself, over and above its use as a highway. Before the nineteenth century, Europeans journeyed across it from necessity; since then, many have travelled in it from curiosity, and to advance some one of the branches of human knowledge. Various geographers, geologists, zoologists, botanists, archaeologists and ethnologists have found food for thought therein, and material for study.
Greece, Rome and Byzantium have left their traces in this desert: temples and caravan cities as well as route-markings. Ruined palaces, castles and the remains of ancient fortifications in mid- desert testify, similarly, to the occupation of early Arab princes, Lakhmid and Ghassanid, and to the rule of medieval Saracens.
Primitive Safaitic inscriptions furnish clues to the later Arabic scripts; and modern Arab nomads preserve ancient customs in their age-old surroundings. Thus the Syrian Desert has an inherent interest of its own, apart from the travel to which it has perenni- ally given rise.
The aspect of the Syrian Desert is a great surprise to many travellers; because the word desert is apt to conjure up a picture of golden sands blown into dunes, only less mobile than the sea.
Whereas the traversible part of this particular desert is flat in appearance, like a vast undulating plain; and the warmth of its colours astonishes even those who have become accustomed to their variety. The plain is in part gravel-strewn; in part sand- covered; and in part hard caked with whitish, glittering dried mud. Then, after first getting used to the sight of a plain, the traveller is again surprised to find any number of green plants scattered thinly over most of its surface. These plants are small and aromatic; gray-green, tinged with red; and they grow on all the desert lowlands. On the north and west desert hills are etched along the sky-line; to the east and south deeply-cut wadis, or dry water-courses, indent the plain's surface. The rocky hills of sand and limestone give changing colours to the desert plain. At mid- day, these are fused into a yellow-tinted gray by the sun's glare; but early in the morning, and late in the afternoon, they run the gamut of a rainbow in which lustrous reds and violets predominate.
In order to understand the peculiar significance of the Syrian Desert routes, and the reason why they have always made so convenient a short-cut to the east, one must consider the geo- logical nature of the desert: its divisions and limitations, as well as its points of vantage. To do this one is also forced to take into account Arabia, which intervenes between Africa and Asia. The southern fringes of this great peninsula, famed as the "incense lands", are Oman, Mahra, Hadramaut and Yemen. The principal town of Oman is Muscat, so well known in the seventeenth century; and the fleetest dromedaries, or riding-camels, of all Arabia are bred by the Beduin of Mahra. The interior of the peninsula, which stretches across more than ten degrees of latitude, is divided into three parts. There is a southern desert of reddish sand, the "Empty Quarter" (el-Rub el-Khali) formerly held to be impassable; a central plateau, the great highland called Nejd, which is a relatively healthful and fertile country (especially in the Kasim district, which is traversed by the Wadi er-Rumma); and a northern mountainous area, the Jebel Shammar region, which forms the southern rampart of another vast sand-wilderness. This northern desert, similar to that south of Nejd, is called the Nefud, an Arabic word signifying high sand dunes; its dune crests vary in height from 150 feet on the north and north-east to 600 feet on the south-west. East of the Nefud are long fingers of ridged sands, called the Dahana, which taper off (toward the Persian Gulf) into desert country of the smooth, stony type. The northern limits of Arabia may be said to coincide, roughly, with the thirtieth degree of latitude.
Until the nineteenth century, the interior of Arabia was never penetrated by Europeans. But a few westerners had made tentative excursions through some of Arabia's coastal lands, especially those which border the Red Sea, from Sinai in the north to Aden at the southern tip of the peninsula; and the Hejaz, which contains the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina, had been frequented by Mos- lems of every sect and nationality. On the eastern, or Persian Gulf side, Oman is divided from Kuwait (in southern Irak) by the Hasa, with its ancient port of Gerrha and the pearl fisheries of the Bahrein Islands. The best known towns of central Arabia are Riyadh, the capital of southern Nejd; Hayil, the capital of northern Nejd; and Tayma, near the south-western border of the Nefud.
Geologically speaking, the Syrian Desert is a continuation of the Arabian plateau. It may be thought of as a triangle whose base rests on the thirtieth parallel of latitude, and whose apex projects itself north-westward towards Asia Minor—to where the fertile lands of Syria and Mesopotamia converge (see map, p. xvi). The shortest side of this desert triangle is on the west, where it is bounded by the Sinai Peninsula, the Dead Sea and Jordan valleys, and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains of Syria. In the north, the city of Aleppo is—to all intents and purposes—at the apex of the triangle, because the plain which extends from this city to the Taurus Mountains is now under cultivation. The third side of the triangle stretches south-east from Aleppo, and is bounded by the river Euphrates. Near its mouth, at the south-eastern angle of the triangle, the Euphrates is joined by the Tigris, and the two great rivers—known in their conjunction as the Shatt el-Arab— empty into the Persian Gulf.
These rivers have not always joined as they do today. Between the seventh and the fifteenth centuries, the main stream of the Euphrates (called el-Frat by the Arabs) held to a more westerly course, from just above Babylon; and just below Kufa (or Meshed Ali) it discharged its waters into what was called the "Great Swamp". Some time after the eighteenth century, the "Great Swamp" (the lower part of which is now a lake) drained into an estuary that passed the site of Medieval Basra, and emptied into the Persian Gulf at Abadan. At some unknown time between the middle of the fifteenth and the middle of the seventeenth centuries the Tigris changed to its present eastern bed; and the head-waters of the Persian Gulf gradually receded. Abadan now lies some twenty miles up the estuary. Since the eighteenth century, the Euphrates has flowed through a more easterly bed to the ancient lagoons of the Tigris, in what used to be the "Great Swamp".
Today, the Frat joins the Tigris at Kurna, and their joint stream becomes the Shatt el-Arab. The records describing the changes of these two great rivers are not altogether satisfactory, and leave considerable gaps of time to the imagination; but at least the original changes appear to have been caused by a great flood that occurred in A.D. 629. It is interesting to note that the modern course of the Tigris, since the seventeenth century, is apparently the same as the channel which the Tigris followed in pre-Islamic days.
The Syrian Desert plateau is between two and three thousand feet above sea-level. In the south, the highlands ofjebel Aneza rise to an altitude of 3300 feet; in the west, Jebel Druze does the same; and in the north, a chain of sand and limestone hills, 3000 feet above sea-level, stretch diagonally north-east across the desert, from Damascus to Palmyra and thence to the Euphrates (north of Deir ez-Zor). There is also a range of low hills, the Jebel Melossa, which run south-east from the salt marshes of Palmyra.
These are the only important exceptions to the general flatness of the plateau, although the occasional isolated mountain, called jebel by the Arabs, or hill, called tell, raise their heads above the plains. Jebel Tenf, a landmark near the modern Damascus motor route, is one of these. On the limestone plateau east ofjebel Aneza, sinter cones have been found which suggest extinct geysers. From the vicinity of Palmyra a volcanic zone extends southwards into Arabia, as far as Mecca. Even in historical times there have been eruptions, the most recent of which was recorded in 1256. Natur- ally enough, earthquakes have also occurred; and to this cause must be attributed the ruins of the caravan cities and walled towns, those in the desert (like Palmyra and Resafa) as well as those on its edge (like Jerash and Umm el-Jemal). In the neighbourhood of Aleppo there are patches of low-lying waste land, with an altitude of only 1000 feet, much of which is composed of crystallized salt marshes, known as sebkha. Eastwards from Palmyra there lies a broad belt of similar low-lying land, also containing a wide sebkha.
East of Rutba Wells the hard surface of the desert is dotted with mud-flats—some of which are bituminous. Since the whole desert plateau declines gradually toward the Euphrates valley, sloping from north and west to south and east, its altitude naturally decreases until, near Basra, it approximates sea-level.
This great triangle of land has not always gone under the name of the Syrian Desert. Ptolemy, for example, divided it, like Gaul, into three parts. He named its south-western third "Arabia Petraea", after the then flourishing caravan city of Petra; the central and south-eastern portions he named "Arabia Deserta", and all the rest—which had been lavishly Romanized—he called Syria. Thus was the Desert of Syria triply-named (by Occidentals) until the seventeenth century, as may be seen in the various maps of these lands which were made by the distinguished French geo- grapher Sanson. In the Ottoman period, Arabia was held to embrace all three of these regions, and the northern limit of "Turkish Arabia" was the so-called fertile crescent which con- nected Damascus with the Euphrates. This designation was as convenient as it was necessary, because the Porte never had more than a nominal control over its Arabian "subjects", and was never able to collect taxes from any desert nomads. Today the frontiers of Syria, Irak, Trans-Jordan and "Sa'udi Arabia" all meet in the Syrian Desert, and have artificially divided it once more into several new sections.
The Arabs of the Syrian Desert have their own name for this nomad's-land. By them it is called the Badia, which signifies waste or open country—the untilled or empty regions where no per- manent habitations exist. But the Badia is not necessarily desert country; parts of it are potentially capable of cultivation. Some- times the Beduin distinguish between the Badiet esh-Shem and the Badiet el-Irak, the waste lands of Syria and of Irak respectively; but not always. Incidentally, since the Saracen period, Arabs have called Syria by the name of esh-Shem—for rather an interesting reason. The word shem is a contraction of the Arabic word meaning left, or left-hand. Now Syria is on the left hand of all Moham- medans who look toward Mecca, when they are in the west, or on the Mediterranean sea-board. According to the same reasoning, the Hejaz (meaning middle or centre) is where Mecca is situated; and the country to the right of the Hejaz is called Yemen, which is a derivative of the Arabic word which means right, or right-hand.
For our purposes it is both permissible and logical to think of the Syrian Desert, this plateau some 2000 feet in elevation, as a geographical unit; which unit resolves itself into two principal component parts. In the eighteenth century, English travellers christened the southern part, which is quadrilateral in shape, the Great Desert; and they called the northern part, a triangle which is set within the larger triangle of the whole, the Little Desert. It is the southern, or Great Desert which divides, and the northern, or Little Desert which connects the fertile lands of the Mediterranean seaboard with the equally fertile valley of Mesopotamia.
Most early Arab geographers (including el-Bekri) called the whole of the Great Desert by the name of as-Samawa. It extends, roughly, from the thirtieth to the thirty-third parallel of latitude; and it divides itself into three natural parts, each of which has dis- tinctive physical features of its own. The Hauran, on the north- west, includes Jebel Druze (formerly known zs Jebel Hauran) and some of the worst of the lava country; the Hamad is a central strip of stony, waterless desert, dominated by the heights of Jebel Aneza; and the Wadian, which slopes down towards the Euphrates, is a network of wadis whose sands are alternately loose and hard- packed. Jebel Aneza is the great watershed of the Syrian Desert; in its foothills the larger wadis have their rise. The Wadi Hauran, for instance, slopes from the summit of Jebel Aneza to the Euphrates, for a distance of about 300 miles; in places it is 200 feet deep and as much as a mile wide. After a winter rain this wadi, like all the other dry water-courses of the desert, is temporarily flooded.
More than two degrees south of Jebel Aneza lies the large sand- stone depression (sometimes called the "Juba Depression") which contains the Jauf-Sakaka oases. Between Trans-Jordan and this group of oases extends (for more than 200 miles) that other unique depression known as the Wadi Sirhan. As-Sama1va, or the Great Desert, coincides (for all practical purposes) with Musil's "Arabia Deserta"—which thus recalls, but is not identical with, the "Arabia Deserta" of Ptolemy. The nature of its terrain will be described more fully in the next chapter, where the origins and courses of certain ancient trade routes are discussed.
The Little Desert, called the Shamiya by the Beduin, is con- spicuously different from as-Samawa; and it is the only easily traversible part of the Syrian Desert. It has been spoken of as triangular in shape, and its apex, like that of the greater desert triangle, is the narrow strip of semi-arable land between Aleppo and the westernmost bend of the river Euphrates. The broad base of this triangle corresponds, roughly, to the thirty-third parallel of latitude. It rests on the northern fringes of the Hauran and the Hamad, so the common frontier of the Great and the Little deserts is a broad strip of excessively hard, stony and barren desert; and this is completely waterless, except for Rutba1 and the other ancient wells of the Wadi Hauran. The peculiar flatness of the Little Desert has already been commented upon. Actually, it has often been called arid steppe land rather than desert. During the winter there is a rainfall of from three to five inches, so that—in spring—patches of the desert are thinly covered with a kind of tall feathery grass; and all the year round most of the plain is sparsely covered with camel thorn, and a variety of gray-green aromatic plants. Water is near the surface in every wadi or depression; natural springs ('ain), and wells or dug-out springs (bir) occur frequently; also the less reliable water-holes (maurid). In the low- lands, mud-flats are numerous as well as salt marshes (sebkha), but these are dry and hard-caked, except just after a winter rain. In many places the surface is hard and relatively smooth, so that it is adapted to the use of any sort of travel—camels and motor cars alike. Sand-dune formation is unknown (except near the banks of the Euphrates), and patches of soft sand are rare. It is small wonder that many tribes migrate northwards every summer, in order to pasture their flocks and their camels in this comparatively fertile and well-watered region; or that the black tents of certain nomad tribes are to be seen there the whole year round.
There are only two serious obstacles to transport in this steppe land. For one thing, numerous wadis on its eastern edge slope down to the Euphrates; several of these, notably Wadi Hauran and Wadi Suab, are difficult to cross. For another, there is the range of desert hills (previously mentioned) which crosses the great plain diagonally, from the neighbourhood of Damascus to the Euphrates, just north of Deir ez-Zor. Between Palmyra and the river, this hilly divide is rather broad, rocky and irregularly spread out; but from Palmyra to Dumeir (near Damascus) the highland narrows into a single range of mountains called Jebel Rawak. There are of course mountain passes, leading from the north-western to the south-eastern parts of this plain; and these have naturally predetermined the course of its various routes.
Palmyra, situated on the eastern mountain slopes, commands the most strategically important of these passes; which was the reason for the commercial supremacy of this famous caravan city during so many centuries of its history. For this reason, Musil and certain noted French archaeologists, Dussaud and Poidebard in particular, have named the Little Desert "Palmyrena". The region has an essential and effective unity which is rendered the more striking by the fact that the whole of its territory was once within the frontiers of the Roman Empire. Today, whenever the Little Desert is distinguished from the Syrian Desert as a whole, it is most commonly called Palmyrena. Nevertheless, whenever the southern and the northern parts of the Syrian Desert have to be contrasted or compared, the writer prefers to use the older and more dis- tinctive designations of the Great and the Little deserts.
The wild animal life which supports itself on the Syrian Desert is quite varied—considering the general aridity of the region. Gazelles and hares are plentiful, especially in the Little Desert; so also are the scavengers: vultures, hyaenas and a variety of jackal. Ostriches used also to be plentiful, but are now found only in the Great Desert. Wild asses (or "onagers"), once numerous through- out the Syrian Desert, disappeared therefrom during the eighteenth century; and the Arabian oryx antelope—described by Tenreiro (in 1528) under the name of "wild cow"—must have retreated southward, into Arabia, even before then. Douglas Carruthers, who hunted the oryx in 1909, found that rarest of antelopes only in the north-western part of the Great Nefud, and just to the south-west of the Wadi Sirhan. Foxes are not uncommon in the Syrian Desert; and the jerboa, or desert rat—often described by travellers after the sixteenth century—is seen occasionally. This animal is larger than a rat, sandy-white in colour, and is con- structed like a kangaroo. A seventeenth-century traveller (M. Carre*) claims to have killed a crocodile in a salt marsh between Taiyiba and Aleppo, and it is possible that he did see and kill what may have been a so-called "relict survivor" from a crocodile colony of an earlier age. Travellers, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, reported seeing lions and tigers near the Euphrates. Tigers have never existed within the historical period in the Syrian Desert; but lions have been seen (and killed) along the whole length of the Euphrates, from Birejik to Basra, at least as late as the middle of the nineteenth century—although they are now wholly extinct in the river valley. Wolves are the only large animals to be met with in the wilderness today. Game birds, the bustard and a species of small partridge are still hunted in the Little Desert. Lastly, there are several kinds of harmless snakes and insects, including locusts; and there are scorpions—particularly the black scorpions—whose sting is poisonous.
Three kinds of domesticated animals can also find enough food in the desert to keep them alive. Camels, the single-humped pack- camels from north-eastern Arabia and the Hasa, and the fast rid1ng- camels or dromedaries (also single-humped) from Oman and Mahra; both kinds have been used on the desert, and have been bred to sell, since the ninth century B.C. They live on camel-thorn and any other green plants which they can find; and they are able to go from four to ten days without water, according to the season of the year (that is, they need less water in cool weather, and when their "green" food contains some moisture). When camels are working and heavily freighted, their owners often supplement their grazing food by giving them barley "cakes" or little balls of a kind of dough, and sometimes even dates. The two-humped Bactrian camels were once tried in the Little Desert, before those from Arabia were imported; but, though surer-footed in the rainy season than the single-humped camels, they did not long with- stand the heat of summer. Horses, which the nomads breed chiefly for their own use (rather than for sale), are able to live in the desert; but they require relatively careful treatment. They must have more food, and that of better quality, than camels need; and they must be watered much more often and more regularly— usually once in every twenty-four hours at the least. Many nomad tribes perform all their raiding sorties on horse-back; their shaykhs always own either a mare or a stallion; and a brood mare is the most valued possession of any Beduin family. Sometimes several families will own such a mare in common. Desert-bred asses are also used; but—though hardier—they are valued less highly than horses, and are of less use than camels.