Legends of Babylon and and Egypt in Relation to Hebrew Tradition

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In Mesopotamia, on the other hand, the floods, which come too late for
the winter crops, are followed by the rainless summer months; and not
only must the flood-water be controlled, but some portion of it must
be detained artificially, if it is to be of use during the burning
months of July, August, and September, when the rivers are at their
lowest. Moreover, heavy rain in April and a warm south wind melting
the snow in the hills may bring down such floods that the channels
cannot contain them; the dams are then breached and the country is
laid waste. Here there is first too much water and then too little.

The great danger from flood in Babylonia, both in its range of action
and in its destructive effect, is due to the strangely flat character
of the Tigris and Euphrates delta.[1] Hence after a severe breach in
the Tigris or Euphrates, the river after inundating the country may
make itself a new channel miles away from the old one. To mitigate the
danger, the floods may be dealt with in two ways--by a multiplication
of canals to spread the water, and by providing escapes for it into
depressions in the surrounding desert, which in their turn become
centres of fertility. Both methods were employed in antiquity; and it
may be added that in any scheme for the future prosperity of the
country they must be employed again, of course with the increased
efficiency of modern apparatus.[2] But while the Babylonians succeeded
in controlling the Euphrates, the Tigris was never really tamed,[3] and whenever it burst its right bank the southern plains were
devastated. We could not have more suitable soil for the growth of a
Deluge story.

[1] Baghdad, though 300 miles by crow-fly from the sea and 500 by
river, is only 120 ft. above sea-level.

[2] The Babylonians controlled the Euphrates, and at the same time
provided against its time of "low supply", by escapes into two
depressions in the western desert to the NW. of Babylon, known
to-day as the Habbânîyah and Abu Dîs depressions, which lie S. of
the modern town of Ramâdi and N. of Kerbela. That these
depressions were actually used as reservoirs in antiquity is
proved by the presence along their edges of thick beds of
Euphrates shells. In addition to canals and escapes, the
Babylonian system included well-constructed dikes protected by
brushwood. By cutting an eight-mile channel through a low hill
between the Habbânîyah and Abu Dîs depressions and by building a
short dam 50 ft. high across the latter's narrow outlet, Sir
William Willcocks estimates that a reservoir could be obtained
holding eighteen milliards of tons of water. See his work /The
Irrigations of Mesopotamia/ (E. and F. N. Spon, 1911),
/Geographical Journal/, Vol. XL, No. 2 (Aug., 1912), pp. 129 ff.,
and the articles in /The Near East/ cited on p. 97, n. 1, and p.
98, n. 2. Sir William Willcocks's volume and subsequent papers
form the best introduction to the study of Babylonian Deluge
tradition on its material side.

[3] Their works carried out on the Tigris were effective for
irrigation; but the Babylonians never succeeded in controlling its
floods as they did those of the Euphrates. A massive earthen dam,
the remains of which are still known as "Nimrod's Dam", was thrown
across the Tigris above the point where it entered its delta; this
served to turn the river over hard conglomerate rock and kept it
at a high level so that it could irrigate the country on both
banks. Above the dam were the heads of the later Nahrwân Canal, a
great stream 400 ft. wide and 17 ft. deep, which supplied the
country east of the river. The Nâr Sharri or "King's Canal", the
Nahar Malkha of the Greeks and the Nahr el-Malik of the Arabs,
protected the right bank of the Tigris by its own high artificial
banks, which can still be traced for hundreds of miles; but it
took its supply from the Euphrates at Sippar, where the ground is
some 25 ft. higher than on the Tigris. The Tigris usually flooded
its left bank; it was the right bank which was protected, and a
breach here meant disaster. Cf. Willcocks, op. cit., and /The Near
East/, Sept. 29, 1916 (Vol. XI, No. 282), p. 522.

It was only by constant and unremitting attention that disaster from
flood could be averted; and the difficulties of the problem were and
are increased by the fact that the flood-water of the Mesopotamian
rivers contains five times as much sediment as the Nile. In fact, one
of the most pressing of the problems the Sumerian and early Babylonian
engineers had to solve was the keeping of the canals free from
silt.[1] What the floods, if left unchecked, may do in Mesopotamia, is
well illustrated by the decay of the ancient canal-system, which has
been the immediate cause of the country's present state of sordid
desolation. That the decay was gradual was not the fault of the
rivers, but was due to the sound principles on which the old system of
control had been evolved through many centuries of labour. At the time
of the Moslem conquest the system had already begun to fail. In the
fifth century there had been bad floods; but worse came in A.D. 629,
when both rivers burst their banks and played havoc with the dikes and
embankments. It is related that the Sassanian king Parwiz, the
contemporary of Mohammed, crucified in one day forty canal-workers at
a certain breach, and yet was unable to master the flood.[2] All
repairs were suspended during the anarchy of the Moslem invasion. As a
consequence the Tigris left its old bed for the Shatt el-Hai at Kût,
and pouring its own and its tributaries' waters into the Euphrates
formed the Great Euphrates Swamp, two hundred miles long and fifty
broad. But even then what was left of the old system was sufficient to
support the splendour of the Eastern Caliphate.

[1] Cf. /Letters of Hammurabi/, Vol. III, pp. xxxvi ff.; it was the
duty of every village or town upon the banks of the main canals in
Babylonia to keep its own section clear of silt, and of course it
was also responsible for its own smaller irrigation-channels.
While the invention of the system of basin-irrigation was
practically forced on Egypt, the extraordinary fertility of
Babylonia was won in the teeth of nature by the system of
perennial irrigation, or irrigation all the year round. In
Babylonia the water was led into small fields of two or three
acres, while the Nile valley was irrigated in great basins each
containing some thirty to forty thousand acres. The Babylonian
method gives far more profitable results, and Sir William
Willcocks points out that Egypt to-day is gradually abandoning its
own system and adopting that of its ancient rival; see /The Near
East/, Sept. 29, 1916, p. 521.

[2] See Le Strange, /The Lands of the Eastern Caliphate/, p. 27.

The second great blow to the system followed the Mongol conquest, when
the Nahrwân Canal, to the east of the Tigris, had its head swept away
by flood and the area it had irrigated became desert. Then, in about
the fifteenth century, the Tigris returned to its old course; the
Shatt el-Hai shrank, and much of the Great Swamp dried up into the
desert it is to-day.[1] Things became worse during the centuries of
Turkish misrule. But the silting up of the Hillah, or main, branch of
the Euphrates about 1865, and the transference of a great part of its
stream into the Hindîyah Canal, caused even the Turks to take action.
They constructed the old Hindîyah Barrage in 1890, but it gave way in
1903 and the state of things was even worse than before; for the
Hillah branch then dried entirely.[2] [1] This illustrates the damage the Tigris itself is capable of
inflicting on the country. It may be added that Sir William
Willcocks proposes to control the Tigris floods by an escape into
the Tharthâr depression, a great salt pan at the tail of Wadi
Tharthâr, which lies 14 ft. below sea level and is 200 ft. lower
than the flood-level of the Tigris some thirty-two miles away. The
escape would leave the Tigris to the S. of Sâmarra, the proposed
Beled Barrage being built below it and up-stream of "Nimrod's
Dam". The Tharthâr escape would drain into the Euphrates, and the
latter's Habbânîyah escape would receive any surplus water from
the Tigris, a second barrage being thrown across the Euphrates up-
stream of Fallûjah, where there is an outcrop of limestone near
the head of the Sakhlawîyah Canal. The Tharthâr depression,
besides disposing of the Tigris flood-water, would thus probably
feed the Euphrates; and a second barrage on the Tigris, to be
built at Kût, would supply water to the Shatt el-Hai. When the
country is freed from danger of flood, the Baghdad Railway could
be run through the cultivated land instead of through the eastern
desert; see Willcocks, /The Near East/, Oct. 6, 1916 (Vol. XI, No.
283), p. 545 f.

[2] It was then that Sir William Willcocks designed the new Hindîyah
Barrage, which was completed in 1913. The Hindîyah branch, to-day
the main stream of the Euphrates, is the old low-lying Pallacopas
Canal, which branched westward above Babylon and discharged its
waters into the western marshes. In antiquity the head of this
branch had to be opened in high floods and then closed again
immediately after the flood to keep the main stream full past
Babylon, which entailed the employment of an enormous number of
men. Alexander the Great's first work in Babylonia was cutting a
new head for the Pallacopas in solid ground, for hitherto it had
been in sandy soil; and it was while reclaiming the marshes
farther down-stream that he contracted the fever that killed him.

From this brief sketch of progressive disaster during the later
historical period, the inevitable effect of neglected silt and flood,
it will be gathered that the two great rivers of Mesopotamia present a
very strong contrast to the Nile. For during the same period of
misgovernment and neglect in Egypt the Nile did not turn its valley
and delta into a desert. On the Tigris and Euphrates, during ages when
the earliest dwellers on their banks were struggling to make effective
their first efforts at control, the waters must often have regained
the upper hand. Under such conditions the story of a great flood in
the past would not be likely to die out in the future; the tradition
would tend to gather illustrative detail suggested by later
experience. Our new text reveals the Deluge tradition in Mesopotamia
at an early stage of its development, and incidentally shows us that
there is no need to postulate for its origin any convulsion of nature
or even a series of seismic shocks accompanied by cyclone in the
Persian Gulf.

If this had been the only version of the story that had come down to
us, we should hardly have regarded it as a record of world-wide
catastrophe. It is true the gods' intention is to destroy mankind, but
the scene throughout is laid in Southern Babylonia. After seven days'
storm, the Sun comes out, and the vessel with the pious priest-king
and his domestic animals on board grounds, apparently still in
Babylonia, and not on any distant mountain, such as Mt. Nisir or the
great mass of Ararat in Armenia. These are obviously details which
tellers of the story have added as it passed down to later
generations. When it was carried still farther afield, into the area
of the Eastern Mediterranean, it was again adapted to local
conditions. Thus Apollodorus makes Deucalion land upon Parnassus,[1] and the pseudo-Lucian relates how he founded the temple of Derketo at
Hierapolis in Syria beside the hole in the earth which swallowed up
the Flood.[2] To the Sumerians who first told the story, the great
Flood appeared to have destroyed mankind, for Southern Babylonia was
for them the world. Later peoples who heard it have fitted the story
to their own geographical horizon, and in all good faith and by a
purely logical process the mountain-tops are represented as submerged,
and the ship, or ark, or chest, is made to come to ground on the
highest peak known to the story-teller and his hearers. But in its
early Sumerian form it is just a simple tradition of some great
inundation, which overwhelmed the plain of Southern Babylonia and was
peculiarly disastrous in its effects. And so its memory survived in
the picture of Ziusudu's solitary coracle upon the face of the waters,
which, seen through the mists of the Deluge tradition, has given us
the Noah's ark of our nursery days.

[1] Hesiod is our earliest authority for the Deucalion Flood story.
For its probable Babylonian origin, cf. Farnell, /Greece and
Babylon/ (1911), p. 184.

[2] /De Syria dea/, 12 f.

Thus the Babylonian, Hebrew, and Greek Deluge stories resolve
themselves, not into a nature myth, but into an early legend, which
has the basis of historical fact in the Euphrates Valley. And it is
probable that we may explain after a similar fashion the occurrence of
tales of a like character at least in some other parts of the world.
Among races dwelling in low-lying or well-watered districts it would
be surprising if we did not find independent stories of past floods
from which few inhabitants of the land escaped. It is only in hilly
countries such as Palestine, where for the great part of the year
water is scarce and precious, that we are forced to deduce borrowing;
and there is no doubt that both the Babylonian and the biblical
stories have been responsible for some at any rate of the scattered
tales. But there is no need to adopt the theory of a single source for
all of them, whether in Babylonia or, still less, in Egypt.[1] [1] This argument is taken from an article I published in Professor
Headlam's /Church Quarterly Review/, Jan., 1916, pp. 280 ff.,
containing an account of Dr. Poebel's discovery.

I should like to add, with regard to this reading of our new evidence,
that I am very glad to know Sir James Frazer holds a very similar
opinion. For, as you are doubtless all aware, Sir James is at present
collecting Flood stories from all over the world, and is supplementing
from a wider range the collections already made by Lenormant, Andree,
Winternitz, and Gerland. When his work is complete it will be possible
to conjecture with far greater confidence how particular traditions or
groups of tradition arose, and to what extent transmission has taken
place. Meanwhile, in his recent Huxley Memorial Lecture,[1] he has
suggested a third possibility as to the way Deluge stories may have

[1] Sir J. G. Frazer, /Ancient Stories of a Great Flood/ (the Huxley
Memorial Lecture, 1916), Roy. Anthrop. Inst., 1916.

Stated briefly, it is that a Deluge story may arise as a popular
explanation of some striking natural feature in a country, although to
the scientific eye the feature in question is due to causes other than
catastrophic flood. And he worked out the suggestion in the case of
the Greek traditions of a great deluge, associated with the names of
Deucalion and Dardanus. Deucalion's deluge, in its later forms at any
rate, is obviously coloured by Semitic tradition; but both Greek
stories, in their origin, Sir James Frazer would trace to local
conditions--the one suggested by the Gorge of Tempe in Thessaly, the
other explaining the existence of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles. As he
pointed out, they would be instances, not of genuine historical
traditions, but of what Sir James Tyler calls "observation myths". A
third story of a great flood, regarded in Greek tradition as the
earliest of the three, he would explain by an extraordinary inundation
of the Copaic Lake in Boeotia, which to this day is liable to great
fluctuations of level. His new theory applies only to the other two
traditions. For in them no historical kernel is presupposed, though
gradual erosion by water is not excluded as a cause of the surface
features which may have suggested the myths.

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