Project Canterbury

Notes on the Overland Route, via the Persian Gulf and the Euphrates Valley

By W. B. Keer

From Mission Life, Vol. IV (1873), pages 82-92.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006



BY THE REV. W. B. KEER, for some years Harbour Chaplain of Bombay.

TAKING leave of my friends in Bombay amid the greetings of Christmas-tide, I embarked on the steamer "Ethiopia" for Kurrachee, hoping to cross Syria and Palestine on my way to old England. The voyage to Kurrachee, which occupied but three days, was a very pleasant one. We had among the first class passengers two Roman Catholic priests, earnest religious men, with whom much interesting conversation passed, and when I left them one kindly gave me an introduction to some friends of his I was likely to meet in Syria. The Roman Catholics, by the way, have splendid ecclesiastical and educational premises in Kurrachee in the schools, chapel, convent, and orphanage. Their buildings of this kind both here and in Bombay exceed in extent and costliness those of any other denomination of Christians, and as they have been raised mainly by the numerous contributions of the poor--the "many mickles" that "make the muckle"--they may well serve as an incentive to the efforts of other Christians.

At Kurrachee I visited the church, schools, and mission premises of the C.M.S., under the care of the Rev. Mr. Sheldon, who seems greatly beloved, and appears to be very successful in his schools and educational efforts. The season was a holiday, however, and little could be seen of schools besides the buildings. We left after a stay of two of two days, the weather being pinchingly cold to an Indian, thermometer 44° F in the early morning. It became warmer soon after sailing, and as we passed along the coast of Beloochistan heavy rain fell for some hours. Divine service was held on board the steamer on the Sunday after Christmas, and public daily prayers were attempted, but as there were no other English passengers, and the officers were too much engaged to attend, this was found impracticable.

Next day, January 2nd, 1872, at early morn we entered the rock-fortified seaport of Muscat, on the coast of Arabia, and stayed the day. There are, perhaps, 20,000 persons here of various nationalities, some Hindus strange to say, a few Jews, Sidhis, or East African negroes, and one or two English houses, but there is no school or Mission here. Islam has full sway. Next day we landed at Bunder Abbas, or Gombroon, having passed the straits and isle of Ormuz, with its ruined towers, churches, and desolate [82/83] houses, about two hours before. In Gombroon there are, perhaps, 5,000 inhabitants, and as it is on the coast of Persia the first symptoms of want and famine were witnessed in the great number of shivering beggars to be seen. Shivering, I say, for the weather was very cold, the thermometer being nearly down to freezing point in the early morning, and snow lay on the distant hills, east of the small bay. We landed next day at the pretty looking fishing port of Linga, whose merchants are said to be enriched greatly by the pearl fishery to the south of this place. This port contains, perhaps, 6,000 or 7,000 inhabitants, but no Christian Mission exists here; indeed, the people hardly tolerate a Christian, and wash money and break a jug touched by "Nasarani," or Nazarene.

On Sunday, January 7th, shortly after the 11 o'clock service was over, the port of Bushire appeared in sight, and about 3 p.m. I accompanied the officer on shore with the mails. The heavy rains which we had experienced at sea two or three days before had extended to the land. The narrow dirty streets were ankle deep with mire, and in places literally swarmed with the multitudes of the most abject, shrunken, starving, dying creatures I ever beheld. They beset us on landing, so that it required great strength to push through them, and cries for food went up on all sides. On my way to the consulate I passed two persons lying dead in the street, though there is some kind of charitable provision for their interment. The next morning I saw another and another nearly in the same places, but the deaths, then 10 or 12 per day, among the poor had grown fewer as fewer were present to die. One rainy, cold, and stormy night that I slept on shore or, rather, tried to sleep, the cries of the starving were heard all night, and next day on enquiry I was told that nearly twenty dead had been taken out at the usual gate for burial. The British resident Colonel Pelly fed or otherwise relieved between three and four thousand persons twice a week on the sea-shore, from money chiefly supplied by British liberality. I stayed here a few days hoping to be able to do something for the poor, but as an organisation already existed at the Residency, I found this impracticable, further than giving a little personal relief, and getting four starving children provided for in families who engaged to keep them at my expense till the harvest.

I had also hoped to have visited the ruins of Persepolis, near Shiraz, distant about three days' journey, but found the snow in the hills had rendered the way impassable, and one or two caravans were halting outside the town. I held service on the second Sunday after Epiphany in the Armenian Church at Bushire, kindly lent by the trustees to the English congregation for the occasion. The attendance was good, amounting to nearly thirty persons, and both Baptism and [83/84] the Lord's Supper were administered. Three children were baptized. The Rev. Dr. Wolff had, I was told, held service in this church upwards of thirty years ago, and several of the English dead are laid to rest round its walls.

I left Bushire in the steamer "Baghdad" for Fao and Bussorah. The trip was pleasant but cold, and some heavy rain fell. Indeed, far more rain has lately fallen in this "rainless region," as Johnstone in his Physical Atlas calls it than has ever been known before. At Fao an Englishman embarked from the lonely Telegraph Offices on the right bank at the mouth of the Shat-el-Arab, and before evening we were steaming up the river past the small town of Hommerah on the left bank, and on a creek or canal said to have been cut by Nearchus, the General and Admiral of Alexander, 327 B.C.

At Bussorah, a city of 60,000 inhabitants, about two miles up a creek to the west of the Shat-el-Arab, and about 70 miles from the sea, there was less want and more business. The merchants talked with some confidence of the railway, which was expected to connect the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf from Alexandretta in Syria to Kowheit, 80 or 90 miles south of Bussorah. At Bussorah I visited the Jewish Synagogue (there being a community of several hundred Jews here), the Armenian Church, and the Chaldean Church in communion with Rome, but there are no modern Missions here, and the old churches have long since lost their Missionary character, and ceased to propagate or extend their religion. The Sunday I spent in Bussorah I held Divine service on board the steamer, and the English residents, and a few English officers on board three or four other ships, were invited to join, and a few did so. I sailed in the steamer "Dijleh" for Baghdad, and in the evening entered the Tigris at its junction with the Euphrates. Here the Ottoman Telegraph wires cross, and here, on the point of land named Kornah on the right bank of the Tigris, and left bank of the Euphrates, the Garden of Eden is by some said to have been. The place at which we landed a short time is a lovely one, the river is fringed by groves of date palm trees, mingled here and there with a few acacias, and, perhaps willows as in the creek at Bussorah. Next day we passed on the right bank Ezra's Tomb, a castellated mosque-like building. Great numbers of wild fowl had been seen in the river, and here two immense wild pigs were standing on the river bank--one quite fierce at the sight of the ship. A gun loaded with shot and fired at him only made him run off after the second charge had hit him. There being four or five Englishmen on board a short service was held in the saloon at 11 a.m., when the 9th and part of the 10th chapter of Ezra were read as the O. T. lesson.

Early in the morning we were called, and told that if we wished [84/85] to see the ruins of Ctesiphon and Seleucia we might do so, and walk across a peninsula a mile or two in breadth, while the steamer went round it, occupying the space of two or three hours. Frosty as was the morning four Englishmen were quickly dressed, and after a hot cup of coffee pulled to the shore in a boat, and, accompanied by a native, who knew the path, landed amid low brushwood jungle, near long mounds of earth about twenty or thirty feet high. These were once the sun-dried brick walls of the capital of the early Parthian kings; further on is a noble arch of burnt brick rising to more than 100 feet from the débris below, and with a width of span in proportion, extending back from the front or facade which looks towards the east, and covering a grand hall fifty-two paces deep. This is said to have been a palace of Khosro Nowshirwan. The silence here--the hour being between 5 and 6 a.m.--was almost awful. The distant steamer could be heard puffing and beating the waters, but no other earthly sound until the firing of a gun and the sound of our voices in reverberating echoes, awoke a flock of blue pigeons, which rushed from all parts of the immense building. Not far off are two solitary tombs of Arab Sheikhs, both large buildings with a dome and one with two, and a few date palm trees growing in the compounds, or enclosures.

There were a few Arabs in tents about 200 yards off, and a small flock of sheep and goats near, and one family appears to reside either in or near one of the large tombs, and to cultivate some of the land, the greater part of which, though a fine deep alluvial soil, is desert and desolate. Shortly after sunrise we re-embarked, exactly opposite the ruins of Seleucus Nicator. Mounds of earth, extending for three or four miles, the debris of walls of sun-dried bricks are all that now remain. A solitary factory, built by the Turkish government for making saltpetre, which in some places covers the ground both here and in Ctesiphon like snow or hoar frost, is all the present civilization the place possesses. The tops of the mounds possess, after being washed by the rain, the marks and prints of the single sun-died bricks, of which they are composed; and traces of the straw in them are plain. Both these cities, now long since in ruins, and utterly desolate, were it is said largely built from the ruins of ancient Babylon, and both had a numerous population, Christian bishops, and flourishing churches.

The same afternoon we arrived in Baghdad. This city, as approached from the river, and, indeed, as seen from a distance on either side has an imposing appearance, its facades of buildings on both sides of the river, over which are two bridges of boats, its minarets, towers, walls, and domes, with groves of palm trees on [85/86] either side, varied with green orange trees with golden fruit in the gardens, suggest the ideas of wealth and magnificence. And its extensive and busy bazaar, stocked richly with all kinds of European and Asiatic goods, is amongst the finest I have seen anywhere east of Egypt and Constantinople.

The city and suburbs of Kauthemaine, and one or two others, about two miles distant, contain, according to a recent census, about 170,000 persons among whom are over 20,000 Jews. There are Chaldean, Armenian, Syrian, and French Roman Catholic Churches--the last a fine new structure has a good school in active operation. The Jewish school, which I visited is, perhaps, by far the best in the city, and its pupils are taught, French, English, Turkish, Arabic, and Hebrew, besides mathematics. There is no English Church, but the English consul, Colonel Herbert, conducts the English Church service every Sunday morning in a suitable room in the Residency. Here I held Divine service, and administered the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's supper on the morning of Sexagesima Sunday, nearly all the Europeans of the place being present.

The next day I started in company with another English gentleman and a Cawas, kindly supplied from the Residency to act as guide, on a tour of visitation on horseback across Mesopotamia. Both the Tigris and Euphrates were crossed the same day, and on Tuesday evening we slept at Kerbela, the city noted for the tomb of Sheikh Hossein, grandson of the Prophet Mahomet. Here are, perhaps, 30,000 inhabitants, many from India and Persia, chiefly of the Shia sect, and hundreds are brought here for interment. From this place we rode southward some fifty miles or more, over desert in some places and in others swamps, to Nedjif, the city around the tomb of Sheikh Ali, the son-in-law of Mahomet. Here are some 20,000 inhabitants, and the city is, like the other, the resort of pilgrims, and many corpses (a few of which we met or passed) are brought from great distances to be interred in the grave-yards, which extend for a mile or two on the north and east of the walls.

Both here and at Kerbela all are Moslems, no other place of worship existing. On the south is the sea of Nedjif, a salt lake, fifty miles long, formed by the river Hindyah, a comparatively modern outbreak of the river Euphrates. From Nedjif we journeyed east about three or four miles to Kful, the early capital of the Caliphs before Baghdad. It is now in utter ruin, a Serai with a mosque and a few inhabited houses being all that is left amid heaps of débris, which extend a mile or two each way. A small fishing village exists also near the river Hindyeh, half a mile below here, where we embarked in a boat for Chifel. Here is the tomb of the Prophet Ezekiel, which stands beside the Hindyeh, about 15 miles to the north.

[87] We arrived at night, and next morning I visited the Jews' Synagogue raised over and around the tomb. Prayers were being conducted by the cohen or priest, and about twenty Jews were present. There may be about forty families all Jews in the village, the place being one of Jewish pilgrimage from Baghdad. The ground round around the village, too, is deemed sacred as a resting place for the Jewish dead.

From Chifel we journeyed about twelve miles north to Birs Nimroud--the Tower of Babel of early travellers, and which may be seen on the treeless plains like a conical mountain many miles off. As we approached it the foxes ran off here and there, and wild pigeons flew out of the mass of brick work at the top. The mound is, perhaps 180 or 200 feet high, and 200 yards long. The vitrified bricks lie in large irregularly shaped masses, like blocks of granite on the summit. A wild boar at a distance of 200 or 300 yards, two men with a plough and oxen, an old man with an ass laden with collected bricks, and a lonely Arab with a boy and pet lamb in the large tomb, on the adjoining mound to the east of the Birs Nimroud were all we saw.* [Footnote: * A typographical error in the latest edition of Mr. Layard's work on Babylon and Nineveh gives this mound as west of the Birs Nimroud, which is a mistake, as I proved by my packet compass--so, too, the Government trigonometrical chart.] The ground on the mounds is rotten and nearly barren, and around the tomb, which is said by the Arabs to have been built over where Abraham was delivered from martyrdom, are many Arab graves. Ten or twelve miles farther over the plain brought us to the modern town of Hillah with its groves of date palms on both sides of the Euphrates, and, perhaps, 20,000 inhabitants and a busy bazaar.

Next morning at daybreak, with a couple of sowars or horsemen (kindly granted by the governor, to whom I had letters) to direct us, and serve as a protection against Arabs on the road, we started for the ruins of old Babylon about six miles north from Hillah on the left bank of the Euphrates, which we crossed by the bridge of boats which connects the two sides of the town. Our horses were able to travel quite up to the top of the mounds, which were a mile or two from the regular track or road from Baghdad to Hillah. There are three principal mounds, or tels as the Arabs call them--Amran, the most southern, was the first we visited. It has on it a small mosque or dome-covered tomb, with a small enclosure, in which is a shed, as if for travellers to stay in, and a deep well of, it is said, sweet water, which, as the ruins are in many parts covered with a white saline efflorescence, it is doubtful, but the well was deep, and we had nothing to draw with, and so had to take the words of our guides.

This mound is several hundred feet long, nearly as broad, and more than a hundred feet high, and it separated by a deep valley from the [87/88] Kasr, or Mjuelibe, though which the river may not unlikely have flowed before Cyrus turned it aside into its present course. The Mujelibe still contains a small brick ruin, daily growing less as Arabs and others carry the bricks to Hillah. In one deep hole of 16 or 18 feet, lay a rude sculptured stone lion 9 feet long by 6 feet in height.

The Mujelibe, or Kisr, is longer, and higher, and larger than the Amran, and is thought to have been one of the Royal Palaces, perhaps that in which Daniel interpreted the writing seen on the walls in Belshazzar's feast, or in which he and his three companions lived and all refused the king's meat, in which Nebuchadnezzar walked in his boasted grandeur, and Alexander banqueted. The mounds are full of holes, from some of which foxes or jackals ran off, as if ashamed to be seen. One solitary tree of the casarina or cedar kind stands on the Mujelibe, but it is fast dying, if not dead. Some off-shoots of it were a few years since planted in the Residency garden, Baghdad, from which others were recently planted in the English cemetery, by direction of Colonel Herbert.

The tel Babel, or mound Babel, which is by far the largest and highest of the mounds, is nearly north, or north-east, of the others, and nearly, if not quite, a mile distant. It is seen like a mountain in the distance. It is several hundred feet long, a little less broad, and some 180 or 200 feet high. The sun-dried bricks in the wells at the north-east corner are almost in a perfect state of preservation, and the reeds laid between their courses were so strong and fresh when we pulled some out that we found it difficult to break them even by twisting them.

Here, too, was a man gathering bricks in depths below that may have been the royal cellars, or the shady surdaubs and cool retreats of royalty during the sultry heats of summer. Of the thousands of busy feet that once thronged these halls and terraces not one was to be seen, and the sounds of the "sackbut, psaltery, dulcimer, and all kinds of music" that once were heard amid these now desolate palaces are silent for ever. The city is become a desolation. The telegraph wires of the Ottoman Government pass a short distance from the ruined palace of what once was one of the grandest and most powerful of the world's capitals, but no message has within the eight years of its existence been known to pass for Babylon--there is no one to receive them, though hundreds and even thousands pass to Baghdad, the busy but comparatively modern though decayed capital of the Khalifs, the famed city in the Arabian Nights entertainments. There is outside and beyond the mounds the appearance as of lines of ruined walls of sun-dried brick and numerous canals, but where the great [88/89] walls and city boundaries, described by Herodotus, ran, it is impossible to say; "the broad walls of Babylon are utterly broken."

We lingered over these scenes of desolation so full of suggestions, and recalling to mind what were once, perhaps, regarded as the wild ravings of insignificant Jews, but which have since proved to be words more stable than the thrones, palaces, and citadels against which they were uttered, words of Divinely inspired truth, not one jot or tittle of which has fallen to the ground, but have "all been fulfilled." We at length remounted, and rode on to Mahmodieh, little more than half of the 50 miles of return journey from Babylon to Baghdad. The next morning, bright clear and summer-like, we were early abroad, and soon after the sun had begun to exhibit its kaleidoscopic variations of desert scenery in the mirage upon the treeless plains, we again crossed the Tigris by one of the bridges of boats, and were in Baghdad in time to join in the Sunday morning services at the British Residency, and to appreciate and enjoy the Sabbath rest after the toilsome but invigorating and instructive tour of 180 or 200 miles with which the week had been occupied.

A few day' rest for the horses after the departure of the Turkish post, by which we purposed to travel to Mosul, was were told necessary, and this given we left Baghdad and the kind friends at the Residency, and reached the end of the first stage of about twenty-one miles the same day. A meal consisting of bread, or pancakes, which from the mode in which they are dashed on the hot side of the oven are called, "slapjacks," which resemble Yorkshire "backstone bread," dried dates, milk, and meat if taken in tins, and kishmish or zabeeb (kinds of dried grapes or raisins) and, perhaps, a boiled egg or two with a cup of tea or coffee around a wood fire in gipsy fashion, the whole sweetened by the toils of the journey, and invigorating air prepare one to enjoy a bed of straw on the stable floor, with railway rugs for sheets, quilts, and counterpanes. At times all these comforts cannot by any means be obtained, and much simpler fare, with the danger of having half your scanty and necessary kit taken from you, must be put up with on the Turkish postal route. Such robberies, however, are rare, as people generally respect the musaffar or stranger, if he is social and agreeable, and will trust them. But there are bad horses, bad roads, swamps, rivers to ford, storms to be endured, and many smaller matters which one might wish otherwise, but which, as they cannot be cured, must be endured. Amid such a variety, not without some of the sunshine and the agreeable, I passed over the treeless plains, mountains, and vales, that lie on the 300 mile tract between Baghdad and Mosul, and which occupied nearly nine days on this occasion with the Turkish post horses.

[90] In spite of its toils, dangers, and difficulties the journey was not without much to interest. Part of the way is in the very track over which Xenophon retreated with his 10,000 Greeks, and if the rivers and swamps were half as swollen and muddy then as they are now it is infinitely to his credit that he led any of them at all back to the shores of the Euxine alive. Over these plains, too, the hosts of Cyrus, Alexander, Julian, and Tamerlane must have marched. Indeed, I spent one night at Arbela, where Alexander gained the battle that made him master of Persia, and in the castle on the large and lofty artificial hill drank coffee with the governor, who courteously treated me to refreshments, and conversed on a variety of topics through a French interpreter.

There was much snow on the hills to the north-east in the mountain fastness of the Nestorians and Kurds, and the mornings were cold and frosty., The Zab, twenty-seven miles from Mosul, swollen by the rains was crossed by a ferry,. But the Hazir, a little nearer, has neither bridge nor ferry, and was nearly up to the horses' shoulders, and they were in danger of swimming or drifting with us and our baggage. We came to rest on Saturday evening, the 24th of February, St. Matthias' Day, about three hours' ride from Mosul, and on the morning of the second Sunday of Lent we passed among the huge mounds of earth which are all that can be now seen on the site of ancient Nineveh. Nebbi Yunas' tomb is said to be beneath a dome, beside which a tall minar rises covered with enamelled tiles. Some traces of the course of ancient mud or sun-dried brick walls appear to be discernible. But the soil, more stony and shingly than that which covers ancient Babylon, is more cultivated, and fields of wheat are sown and begin to look green as meadows, even on the top of some of the highest of the mounds. As grass and hay have been short, sheep and goats were turned out to feed here, and the black tents of villagers were pitched among them. Thus Nineveh has "become a fold for flocks." As the animals on which we rode required rest, we pushed on without lingering among these mounds, or stopping to contemplate the varied scenery presented by the city, the view of which from these eastern hills was not without much interest and beauty, heightened as it was by the sun which shone brightly upon the walls, domes and minars. These, though graceful, are by no means so numerous and lofty as the minars and domes of Baghdad. There is, too, a singular absence of trees, not a date tree (though they are so common lower down the river) was to be seen, nor did I observe any others in the city as seen from a distance. A few small ones grow in the gardens east of the river, but few, if any, west.

[91] We crossed a viaduct of forty arches leading to the bridge of seventeen boats across the Tigris to the city. We entered the yard of the English consulate as the clock struck nine English time, and were kindly entertained by Mr. C. A. Rassam, the well-known representative of the British Government here, to whom I had been favoured with an introduction. He has with much labour and learning completed two volumes (embracing Genesis and Exodus) of a new translation of the Old Testament into Arabic, a work in which he takes great interest. On the afternoon of Sunday I attended vespers in the Chaldee Church, and was introduced to the venerable patriarch Yosuf Odo, patriarch of the Chaldean Church in Babylonia, as also to Mar Elia, one of the Chaldee bishops. I had heard of him in Baghdad, on visiting the church there. His communion numbers, it is said, about 400,000 members. The Roman Catholic Church too, and schools I have since visited. The church large, strong, and handsome, is in course of construction. There are some other Christian communities as the Syrians and Armenians, and about 150 members of the American Church under the Board of Foreign Missions.

I visited the church and schools of this Mission to-day in company with the Missionary of Mardin, the Rev. Mr. Pond, who visits the native pastor here once a year. To-day was a fast day among them, and I was truck at the apparent earnestness of these people, for more than half the community assembled for prayer and conference with their native pastor, and the Missionary, in the afternoon. There is a Jewish community of perhaps 1,000 or upwards, but by far the largest portion of the population of Mosul, which is estimated at 100,000 are Musalmans. It is said boastingly by Musalmans themselves that they are increasing, and that Christians among the villagers often become Moslems, especially women who turn that they may marry Moslem men. There is some reason to believe that this is too true. Indeed, a Syed, or descendent of the prophet, named Ali, to-day boasted to the consul that seven had turned Moslems from the Christian ranks. With so many merely nominal Christians this is not much to be wondered at. The great obstacle, humanly speaking, to the spread of Christianity in these parts is considered to be the presence of Islamism, from which certainly no converts have been made here, as I am told, for many years, nor would the lives of such converts be safe.

Besides the churches I paid a second visit to the mounds of ruins east of the river--relics of the departed greatness of Nimrod, Asshur, Tiglath Pileser, Shalmanezer, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, and other kings of Assyria, but even the ruins have been so searched that nothing of art or value is now to be found. I also visited one of the [91/92] most northern of the mounds nearly a mile north of Koiyunjik, and was shown two colossal marble bulls, with human heads, and round flat topped turbans. They are winged, and have a colossal human figure 8 or 10 feet high standing and holding an apple at the back of each. They are about 15 feet in height and 12 apart, and face towards the north, as if they had been placed at the grand entrance of some doorway or staircase of a palace. But the surroundings, as Mr. C. A. Rassam informed me, appear not to have been completed, the palace of which they were to have formed apart having probably been in the course of construction. They were offered some years ago to the British Museum, as well as to the French Government, neither of whom needed them, and the Turkish Government has allowed them to remain uncovered, to their injury, for they are broken, though the pieces remain in situ. There are four inscriptions of four lines each on them, two at the back of each bull; or, two towards the east, and two towards the west. I copied one of the inscriptions on the east side, but Mr. Rassam informed me on my return that all had been copied and published long ago. The figures standing as they now do in a mound of earth forty or fifty feet deep serve to heighten the desolation and to shew more vividly how the present state of things contrasts with the former greatness and grandeur of the city. Even the ruins have perished, and are mere heaps of earth, on which little or no vegetation exists.

(To be continued.)

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