Discoveries At Nineveh
by
Austen Henry Layard, Esq., D.C.L.

Text source: A Popular Account of Discoveries at Nineveh. Austen Henry Layard. J. C. Derby. New York. 1854.


Chapter 4

(Page 58) The operations at Nimroud having been completely suspended until orders could be received from Constantinople, I thought the time not inopportune to visit Sofuk, the sheikh of the great nomad Arab tribe of Shammar, which occupies nearly the whole of Mesopotamia. He had lately left the Khabour, and was now encamped near the western bank of the Tigris, below its junction with the Zab, and consequently not far from Nimroud. I had two objects in going to his tents; in the first place I wished to obtain the friendship of the chief of a powerful tribe of Bedouins, who would probably cross the river in the neighborhood of the excavations during the summer, and might indulge, to my cost, in their plundering propensities; and, at the same time, I was anxious to visit the remarkable ruins of Al Hather, which I had only examined very hastily on my former journey.

Mr. Rassam (the vice-consul) and his wife, with several native gentlemen of Mosul, Mussulmans and Christians, were induced to accompany me; and, as we issued from the gates of the town, and assembled in the well-peopled burying ground opposite the governor's palace, I found myself at the head of a formidable party. Our tents, obtained from the pashaw, with our provisions and necessary furniture, were carried by a string of twelve camels. Mounted above these loads, and on donkeys, was an army of camel-drivers, tent-pitchers, and volunteers ready for all services. There were, moreover, a few irregular (Page 59) horsemen, the cawasses, the attendants of the Mosul gentlemen, the Mosul gentlemen themselves, and our own servants, all armed to the teeth. Ali Effendi, chief of the Mosul branch of the Omeree, or descendants of Omar, which had furnished several pashaws to the province, was our principal Mussulman friend. He was mounted on the Hedban, a well known white Arab, beautiful in form and pure in blood, but then of great age. Close at his horse's heels followed a confidential servant; who, perched on a pack-saddle, seemed to roll from side to side on two small barrels, the use of which might have been an enigma, had they not emitted a very strong smell of raki. A Christian gentleman was wrapped up in cloaks and furs, and appeared to dread the cold, although the thermometer was at 100. The English lady was equipped in riding habit and hat. The two Englishmen, Mr. Ross and myself, wore a striking mixture of European and oriental raiments. Mosul ladies, in blue vails, their faces concealed by black horsehair sieves, had been dragged to the top of piles of carpets and cushions, under which groaned their unfortunate mules. Greyhounds in leashes were led by Arabs on foot; while others played with strange dogs, who followed the caravan for change of air. The horsemen galloped round and round, now dashing into the center of the crowd, throwing their horses on their haunches when at full speed, or discharging their guns and pistols into the air. A small flag with British colors was fastened to the top of a spear, and confided to a cawass. Such was the motley caravan which left Mosul by the Bab el Top, where a crowd of women had assembled to witness the procession.

We took the road to the ruins of the monastery of Mar Elias, a place of pilgrimage for the Christians of Mosul, which we passed after an hour's ride. Evening set in before we could reach the desert, and we pitched our tents for the night on a lawn near a deserted village, about nine miles from the town.

On the following morning we soon emerged from the low limestone hills; which, broken into a thousand rocky valleys, form a barrier between the Tigris and the plains of Mesopotamia. (Page 60) We now found ourselves in the desert, or rather wilderness; for at this time of the year, nature could not disclose a more varied scene, or a more luxuriant vegetation. We trod on an interminable carpet, figured by flowers of every hue. Nor was water wanting; for the abundant rains had given reservoirs to every hollow, and to every ravine. Their contents, owing to the nature of the soil, were brackish, but not unwholesome. Clusters of black tents were scattered, and flocks of sheep and camels wandered, over the plain. Those of our party who were well mounted urged their horses through the meadows, pursuing the herds of gazelles, or the wild boar, skulking in the long grass. Although such scenes as these may be described, the exhilaration caused by the air of the desert in spring, and the feeling of freedom arising from the contemplation of its boundless expanse, must have been experienced before they can be understood. The stranger, as well as the Arab, feels the intoxication of the senses which they produce.

About mid-day we found ourselves in the midst of extensive herds of camels. They belonged to the tribe of Haddedeen. The sonorous whoop of the Arab herdsmen resounded from all sides. A few horsemen were galloping about, driving back the stragglers, and directing the march of the leaders of the herd. Shortly after we came up with some families moving to a new place of encampment, and at their head I recognized my old antiquity-hunter, Mormous. He no sooner perceived us than he gave orders to those who followed him, and of whom he was the chief, to pitch their tents. We were now in the Wadi Ghusub, formed by a small salt stream, forcing its sluggish way through a dense mass of reeds and water shrubs, from which the valley has taken its name. About fifteen tents having been raised, a sheep was slaughtered in front of the one in which we sat; large wooden bowls of sour milk, and platters of fresh butter were placed before us; fires of camel's dung were lighted; decrepit old women blew up the flames; the men cut the carcass into small pieces, and capacious caldrons soon sent forth volumes of steam.

(Page 61) The sheep having been boiled, the Arabs pulled the fragments out of the caldron and laid them on the wooden platters with their fingers. We helped ourselves after the same fashion. The servants succeeded to the dishes, which afterward passed through the hands of the camel-drivers and tent-pitchers; and at last, denuded of all apparently edible portions, reached a strong party of expectant Arabs. The condition of the bones by the time they were delivered to a crowd of hungry dogs, assembled on the occasion, may easily be imagined.

We resumed our journey in the afternoon, preceded by Mormous, who volunteered to accompany us. As we rode over the plain, we fell in with the sheikh of the Haddedeen mounted on a fine mare, and followed by a large concourse of Arabs, driving their beasts of burden loaded with tents and furniture. He offered to conduct us to a branch of the Shammar, whose encampment we could reach before evening. We gladly accepted his offer, and he left his people to ride with us.

We had been wandering to and fro in the desert, uncertain as to the course we should pursue. The sheikh now rode in the direction of the Tigris. Before nightfall we came to a large encampment, and recognized in its chief one Khalaf, an Arab who frequently came to Mosul, and whom Mr. Rassam and myself had met on our previous journey to Al Hather. He received us with hospitality; sheep were immediately slaughtered, and we dismounted at his tent. Even his wives, among whom was a remarkably pretty Arab girl, came to us to gratify their curiosity by a minute examination of the Frank lady. As the intimacy, which began to spring up, was somewhat inconvenient, we directed our tents to be pitched at a distance from the encampment, by the side of a small stream. It was one of those calm and pleasant evenings, which in spring make a paradise of the desert. The breeze, bland and perfumed by the odor of flowers, came calmly over the plain. As the sun went down, countless camels and sheep wandered to the tents, and the melancholy call of the herdsmen rose above the bleating of the flocks. The Arabs led their prancing mares (Page 62) to the water; the colts, as they followed, played and rolled on the grass. I spread my carpet at a distance from the group, to enjoy uninterrupted the varied scene. Rassam, now in his element, collected around him a knot of admiring Arabs, unscrewed telescopes, exhibited various ingenious contrivances, and described the wonders of Europe, interrupted by the exclamations of incredulous surprise, which his marvelous stories elicited from the hearers. Ali Effendi and his Mussulman friends, who preferred other pleasures and more definite excitement, hid themselves in the high rushes, and handed round a small silver bowl containing fragrant ruby colored spirits, which might have rejoiced even the heart of Hafiz. The camel-drivers and servants hurried over the lawn, tending their animals or preparing the evening meal.

We had now reached the pasture-grounds of the Shammar, and Sheikh Khalaf declared that Sofuk's tents could not be far distant. A few days before they had been pitched almost among the ruins of Al Hather; but he had since left them, and it was not known where he had encamped. We started early in the morning, and took the direction pointed out by Khalaf. Our view was bounded to the east by a rising ground. When we reached its summit, we looked down upon a plain, which appeared to swarm with moving objects. We had come upon the main body of the Shammar. The scene caused in me feelings of melancholy, for it recalled many hours, perhaps unprofitably, though certainly happily spent; and many friends, some who now sighed in captivity for the joyous freedom which those wandering hordes enjoyed; others who had perished in its defense. We soon found ourselves in the midst of wide spreading flocks of sheep and camels. As far as the eye could reach, to the right, to the left, and in front, still the same moving crowd. Long lines of asses and bullocks laden with black tents, huge caldrons and variegated carpets; aged women and men, no longer able to walk, tied on the heap of domestic furniture; infants crammed into saddle-bags, their tiny heads thrust through the narrow opening, balanced on the animal's back by (Page 63) kids or lambs tied on the opposite side; young girls clothed only in the close-fitting Arab shirt, which displayed rather than concealed their graceful forms; mothers with their children on their shoulders; boys driving flocks of lambs; horsemen armed (Page 64) with long tufted spears, scouring the plain on their fleet mares; riders urging their dromedaries with short hooked sticks, and leading their high-bred steeds by the halter; colts galloping among the throng; high-born ladies seated in the center of huge wings, which extend like those of a butterfly from each side of the camel's hump, and are no less gaudy and variegated.[4.1] Such was the motley crowd through which we had to wend our way for several hours. Our appearance created a lively sensation; the women checked our horses; the horsemen assembled round us, and rode by our side; the children yelled and ran after the Franks.

It was mid-day before we found a small party that had stopped, and were pitching their tents. A young chestnut mare belonging to the sheikh, was one of the most beautiful creatures I ever beheld. As she struggled to free herself from the spear to which she was tied, she showed the lightness and elegance of the gazelle. Her limbs were in perfect symmetry: her ears erect, slender, and transparent; her nostrils high, dilated, and deep red; her neck gracefully arched, and her mane and tail of the texture of silk. We all involuntarily stopped to gaze at her. "Say Masha-Allah," exclaimed the owner, who, seeing not without pride, that I admired her, feared the effect of an evil eye. "That I will," answered I, "and with pleasure; for, O Arab, you possess the jewel of the tribe." He brought us a bowl of camel's milk, and directed us to the tents of Sofuk.

We had still two hours' ride before us, and when we reached the encampment of the Shammar sheikh, our horses, as well as ourselves, were exhausted by the heat of the sun, and the length of the day's journey. The tents were pitched on a broad lawn (Page 65) in a deep ravine; they were scattered in every direction, and among them rose the white pavilions of the Turkish irregular cavalry. Ferhan, the son of Sofuk, and a party of horsemen, rode out to meet us as we approached, and led us to the tent of the chief, distinguished from the rest by its size, and the spears which were driven into the ground at its entrance. Sofuk advanced to receive us; he was followed by about three hundred Arabs, including many of the principal sheikhs of the tribe. In person he was short and corpulent, more like an Osmanli than an Arab; but his eye was bright and intelligent, his features regular, well formed and expressive. His dress differed but in the quality of the materials from that of his followers. A thick kerchief, striped with red, yellow, and blue, and fringed with long plaited cords, was thrown over his head, and fell down his shoulders. It was held in its place, above the brow, by a band of spun camel's wool, tied at intervals by silken threads of many colors. A long white shirt, descending to the ankles, and a black and white cloak over it, completed his attire.

He led Rassam and myself to the top of the tent, where we seated ourselves on well-worn carpets. When all the party had found places, the words of welcome, which had been exchanged before we dismounted, were repeated. "Peace be with you, O Bey! upon my head you are welcome: my house is your house," exclaimed the sheikh, addressing the stranger nearest to him. "Peace be with you, O Sofuk! may God protect you!" was the answer, and similar compliments were made to every guest, and by every person, present. While this ceremony, which took nearly half an hour, was going on, I had leisure to examine those who had assembled to meet us. Nearest to me was Ferhan, the sheikh's eldest son, a young man of handsome appearance and intelligent countenance, although the expression was neither agreeable nor attractive. His dress resembled that of his father; but from beneath the kerchief thrown over his head hung his long black tresses plaited into many tails. His teeth were white as ivory, like those of most Arabs. Beyond (Page 66) him sat a crowd of men of the most ferocious and forbidding exterior - warriors who had passed their lives in war and rapine, looking upon those who did not belong to their tribe as natural enemies, and preferring their wild freedom to all the riches of the earth.

Mrs. Rassam had been ushered into this crowded assembly. The scrutinizing glance with which she was examined from head to foot, by all present, not being agreeable, we requested that she might be taken to the tent of the women. Sofuk called two black slaves, who led her to the harem, scarcely a stone's throw distant.

The compliments having been at length finished, we conversed upon general topics. Coffee, highly drugged with odoriferous herbs found in the desert, and with spices, a mixture for which Sofuk was celebrated, was handed round before we retired to our own tents.

Sofuk's name was so well known in the desert, and he so long played a conspicuous part in the politics of Mesopotamia, that a few words on his history may not be uninteresting. He was descended from the sheikhs, who brought the tribe from Nedjd in Arabia Proper. At the commencement of his career he had shared the chiefship with his uncle, after whose death he became the great Sheikh of the Shammar. From an early period he had been troublesome to the Turkish governors of the provinces on the Tigris and Euphrates; but gained the confidence of the Porte by a spirited attack upon the camp of Mohammed Ali Mirza, son of Feth Ali Shah, and governor of Kirmanshah, when that prince was marching upon Baghdad and Mosul. After this exploit, to which was mainly attributed the safety of the Turkish cities, Sofuk was invested as Sheikh of the Shammar. At times, however, when he had to complain of ill treatment from the Pashaw of Baghdad, or could not control those under him, his tribes were accustomed to indulge their love of plunder, to sack villages and pillage caravans. He thus became formidable to the Turks, and was known as the King of the Desert. When Mehemet Reshid Pashaw led his successful (Page 67) expedition into Kurdistan and Mesopotamia, Sofuk was among the chiefs whose power he sought to destroy. He knew that it would be useless to attempt it by force, and he consequently invited the sheikh to his camp on the pretense of investing him with the customary robe of honor. He was seized and sent a prisoner to Constantinople. There he remained some months, until deceived by his promises, the Porte permitted him to return to the tribe. From that time his Arabs had been the terror of the pashawlics of Mosul and Baghdad, and had even carried their depredations to the east of the Tigris. However, Nejris, the son of Sofuk's uncle, had appeared as his rival, and many branches of the Shammar had declared for the new sheikh. This led to dissensions in the tribe; and, at the time of our visit, Sofuk, who had forfeited his popularity by many acts of treachery, was almost deserted by the Arabs. In this dilemma he had applied to the pashaw of Mosul, and had promised to serve the Porte, and to control the Bedouins, if he were assisted in re-establishing his authority. This state of things accounted for the presence of the white tents of the hytas in the midst of his encampment.

His intercourse with the Turkish authorities, who must be conciliated by adequate presents before assistance can be expected from them, and the famine, which for the last two years had prevailed in the countries surrounding the desert, were not favorable to the domestic prosperity of Sofuk. The wealth and display, for which he was once renowned among the Arabs, had disappeared. A few months before, he had even sent to Mosul the silver ankle-rings of his favorite wife - the last resource - to be exchanged for corn. The furred cloaks, and embroidered robe, which he once wore, had not been replaced. The only carpet in his tent was the rag on which sat his principal guests; the rest squatted on the grass, or on the bare ground. He led the life of a pure Bedouin, from the commonest of whom he was only distinguished by the extent of his female establishment - always a weak point with the sheikh. But even in his days of greatest prosperity, the meanest Arab (Page 68) looked upon him as his equal, addressed him as "Sofuk," and seated himself unbidden in his presence. The system of patriarchal government, faithfully described by Burckhardt, still exists, as it has done for 4000 years, in the desert.

The usual Arab meal was brought to us soon after our arrival - large wooden bowls and platters filled with boiled fragments of mutton swimming in melted butter, and sour milk; and when we had eaten, Sofuk came to our tents, and remained with us the greater part of the day. He was dejected and sad. He bewailed his poverty, inveighed against the Turks, to whom he attributed his ruin, and confessed, with tears, that his tribe was fast deserting him. While conversing on these subjects, two sheikhs rode into the encampment, and hearing that the chief was with us, they fastened their high-bred mares at the door of our tent, and seated themselves on our carpets. They had been among the tribes to ascertain the feeling of the Shammar toward Sofuk, of whom they were the devoted adherents. One was a man of forty, blackened by long exposure to the desert sun, and of a savage and sanguinary countenance. His companion was a youth, whose features were so delicate and feminine, and eyes so bright, that he might have been taken for a woman; a profusion of black hair which fell, plaited into numerous tresses, on his breast and shoulders, added to his feminine appearance. An animated discussion took place as to the desertion of the Nejm, a large branch of the Shammar tribe. The young man's enthusiasm and devotedness knew no bounds. He threw himself upon Sofuk, and clinging to his neck, covered his cheek and beard with kisses. When the chief had disengaged himself, his follower seized the edge of his garment, and sobbed violently as he held it to his lips. "I entreat thee, O Sofuk!" he exclaimed, "say but the word; by thine eyes, by thy beard, by the Prophet, order it, and this sword shall find the heart of Nejris, whether he escape into the farthest corner of the desert, or be surrounded by all the warriors of the tribe." But it was too late, and Sofuk saw that his influence was fast declining.

(Page 69) I must endeavor to convey to the reader some idea of the domestic establishment of a great Arab sheikh. Sofuk, at the time of our visit, was the husband of three wives, who were considered to have special claims to his affection and his constant protection; for it was one of Sofuk's weaknesses, arising either from a desire to impress the Arabs with a notion of his greatness and power, or from a partiality to the first stage of married life, to take a new partner nearly every month; and at the end of that period to divorce her, and marry her to one of his attendants. The happy man thus lived in a continual honeymoon. Of the three ladies now forming his harem, the chief was Amsha, a lady celebrated in the song of every Arab of the desert for her beauty and noble blood. She was the daughter of Hassan, Sheikh of the Tai, a tribe tracing its origin from the remotest antiquity, and one of whose chiefs, Hatem, her ancestor, is a hero of Eastern romance. Sofuk had carried her away by force from her father; but had always treated her with great respect. From her rank and beauty, she had earned the title of "Queen of the Desert." Her form, traceable through the thin shirt which she wore like other Arab women, was well proportioned and graceful. She was tall in stature, and fair in complexion. Her features were regular, and her eyes large, dark, and brilliant. She had undoubtedly claims to more than ordinary beauty; to the Arabs she was perfection, for all the resources of their art had been exhausted to complete what nature had begun. Her lips were dyed deep blue, her eyebrows were continued in indigo until they united over the nose, her cheeks and forehead were spotted with beauty-marks, her eyelashes darkened by kohl; and on her legs and bosom could be seen the tattooed ends of flowers and fanciful ornaments, which were carried in festoons and network over her whole body. Hanging from each ear, and reaching to her waist, was an enormous ear-ring of gold, terminating in a tablet of the same material, carved and ornamented with four turquoises. Her nose was also adorned with a prodigious gold ring, set with jewels, of (Page 70) such ample dimensions that it covered her mouth, and had to be removed when she ate. Ponderous rows of strung beads, Assyrian cylinders, fragments of coral, agates, and party-colored stones, hung from her neck; silver rings encircled her wrists and ankles, making a loud jingling as she walked. Over her blue shirt was thrown, when she issued from-her tent, a coarse striped cloak, and a common black kerchief was bound loosely round her temples by a rope of twisted camel's hair.

Her menage combined, if the old song be true, the domestic and the queenly, and was carried on with a nice appreciation of economy. The immense sheet of black goat-hair canvas, which formed the tent, was supported by twelve or fourteen stout poles, and was completely open on one side. Being entirely set apart for the women, it had no partitions, like the tent of the common Arab, who is obliged to reserve a corner for the reception of his guests. Between the center poles were placed, upright and close to one another, large goat-hair sacks, filled with rice, corn, barley, coffee, and other household stuff; their mouths being, of course, upward. Upon them were spread carpets and cushions, on which Amsha reclined. Around her, squatted on the ground, were some fifty handmaidens, tending the wide caldrons, baking bread on the iron plates heated over the ashes, or shaking between them the skins suspended from three stakes, and filled with milk to be thus churned into butter. It is the privilege of the head wife to prepare in her tent the dinners of the sheikh's guests. Fires, lighted on all sides, sent forth a cloud of smoke, which hung heavily under the folds of the tent, and would have long before dimmed any eyes less bright than those of Amsha. As supplies were asked for by the women, she lifted the corner of her carpet, untied the mouths of the sacks, and distributed their contents. Every thing passed through her hands. To show her authority and rank, she poured continually upon her attendants a torrent of abuse, and honored them with epithets, of which I may be excused attempting to give a translation; her vocabulary equaling, if not exceeding, in richness, that of the highly-educated lady of the (Page 71) city.[4.2] The combination of the domestic and authoritative was thus complete. Her children, three naked little urchins, black with sun and mud, and adorned with long tails of plaited hair hanging from the crown of their heads, rolled in the ashes, or on the grass.

Amsha, as I have observed, shared the affections, though not the tent of Sofuk - for each establishment had a tent of its own - with two other ladies: Atouia, an Arab not much inferior to her rival in personal appearance; and Ferrah, originally a Yezidi slave, who had no pretensions to beauty. Amsha, however, always maintained her sway, and the others could not sit, without her leave, in her presence. To her alone were confided the keys of the larder - supposing Sofuk to have had either keys or larder - and there was no appeal from her authority on all subjects of domestic economy.

Mrs. Rassam was received with great ceremony by the ladies. To show the rank and luxurious habits of her husband, Amsha offered her guest a glass of "eau sucree," which Mrs. Rassam, who is over-nice, assured me she could not drink, as it was mixed by a particularly dirty negro, in the absence of a spoon, with his fingers, which he sucked continually during the process.

In the evening, Amsha and Ferrah returned Mrs. Rassam's visit; Sofuk having, however, first obtained a distinct promise that they were to be received in a tent from which gentlemen were to be excluded. They were very inquisitive, and their discreet curiosity could with difficulty be satisfied.

Sofuk was the owner of a mare of matchless beauty, called, as if the property of the tribe, the Shammeriyah. Her dam, who died about ten years ago, was the celebrated Kubleh, whose renown extended from the sources of the Khabour to the end of the Arabian promontory, and the day of whose death is an (Page 72) epoch from which the Arabs of Mesopotamia date events concerning their tribe. Mohammed-Emin, sheikh of the Jebours, assured me that he had seen Sofuk ride down the wild ass of the Sinjar on her back, and the most marvelous stories are current in the desert of her fleetness and powers of endurance. Sofuk esteemed her and her daughter above all the riches of the tribe; for her he would have forfeited all his wealth, and even Amsha herself. Owing to the visit of the irregular troops, the best horses of the sheikh and his followers were concealed in a secluded ravine at some distance from the tents.

Al Hather was about eighteen miles from Sofuk's encampment. He gave us two well-known horsemen to accompany us to the ruins. Their names were Dathan and Abiram. The former was a black slave, to whom the sheikh had given his liberty and a wife - two things, it may be observed, which are in the desert perfectly consistent. He was the most faithful and brave of all the adherents of Sofuk, and the fame of his exploits had spread through the tribes of Arabia. As we rode along, I endeavored to obtain from him some information concerning his people, but he would only speak on one subject. "Ya Bej,"[4.3] said he, "the Arab only thinks of two things, war and love: war, Ya Bej, every one understands; let us, therefore, talk of love."

As we rode to Al Hather, we passed large bodies of the Shammar moving with their tents, flocks, and families. On all sides appeared the huge expanding wings of the ladies' camel-saddle, looking, as it rose above the horizon, like some stupendous butterfly skimming slowly over the plain. Dathan was known to all. As the horsemen approached, they dismounted and embraced him, kissing him, as is customary, on both cheeks, and holding him by the hand until many compliments had been exchanged.

(Page 73) A dark thunder-cloud rose behind the time-worn ruins of Al Hather as we approached them. The sun, still throwing its rays upon the walls, lighted up the yellow stones until they shone like gold.[4.4] Mr. Ross and myself, accompanied by an Arab, urged our horses onward, that we might escape the coming storm; but it burst upon us in its fury ere we reached the palace. The lightning played through the vast buildings, the thunder re-echoed through its deserted halls, and the hail compelled us to rein up our horses, and turn our backs to the tempest. It was a fit moment to enter such ruins as these. They rose in solitary grandeur in the midst of a desert, "in media solitudine positae," as they stood fifteen centuries before, when described by the Roman historian.[4.5] On my previous visit, the first view I obtained of Al Hather was perhaps no less striking. We had been wandering for three days in the wilderness without seeing one human habitation. On the fourth morning a thick mist hung over the place. We had given up the search when the vapors were drawn up like a curtain, and we saw the ruins before us. At that time within the walls were the tents of some Shammar Arabs, but now as we crossed the confused heaps of fragments, forming a circle round the city, we saw that the place was tenantless. Flocks on a neighboring rising ground showed, however, that Arabs were not distant.

We pitched our tents in the great court-yard, in front of the palace, and near the entrance to the inner inclosure. During the three days we remained among the ruins I had ample time to take accurate measurements, and to make plans of the various buildings still partly standing within the walls. As Al Hather has already been described by others, and as the information I was able to collect has been placed before the public,[4.6] I need (Page 74) not detain the reader with a detailed account of the place. Suffice it to mention, that the walls of the city, flanked by numerous towers, form almost a complete circle, in the center of which rises the palace, an edifice of great magnificence, solidly constructed of squared stones, and elaborately sculptured with figures and ornaments. It dates probably from the reign of one of the Sassanian Kings of Persia, certainly not prior to the Arsacian dynasty, although the city itself was, I have little doubt, founded at a very early period, being one of the great caravan stations, like Palmyra, connecting the cities of Syria with those on the banks of the Tigris. The singular marks upon the stones, which appear to be either a builder's sign or to have reference to some religious observance, are found in most of the buildings of Sassanian origin in Persia, Babylonia, and Susiana.

With the exception of occasional alarms in the night, caused by thieves attempting to steal our horses, we were not disturbed during our visit. The Arabs from the tents in the neighborhood brought us milk, butter, and sheep. We drank the water of the Thathar, which is, however, rather salt; and our servants and camel-drivers filled during the day many baskets with truffles.

On our return we crossed the desert, reaching Wadi Ghusub the first night, and Mosul on the following morning. Dathan and Abiram, who had both distinguished themselves in recent forays, and had consequently accounts to settle with the respectable merchants of the place, the balance being very much against them, could not be prevailed upon to enter the town, where they were generally known. We had provided ourselves with two or three dresses of Damascus silk, and we invested our guides as a mark of satisfaction for their services. Dathan grinned a melancholy smile as he received his reward. "Ya Bej," he exclaimed, as he turned his mare toward the desert; "may God give you peace! Wallah! your camels shall be as the camels of the Shammar. Be they laden with gold, they shall pass through our tents, and our people shall not touch them."

A year after our visit the career of Sofuk was brought to its (Page 75) close. I have mentioned that Nejris, his rival, had obtained the support of nearly the whole tribe of Shammar. In a month Sofuk found himself nearly alone. His relations and immediate adherents, among whom were Dathan and Abiram, still pitched their tents with him; but he feared the attacks of his enemies, and retreated for safety into the territory of Beder Khan Bey, to the east of the Tigris, near Jezirah. He then sought the support of Nejib Pashaw of Baghdad, under whose authority the Shammar were supposed to be, and having succeeded in bringing back a considerable part of the tribe, proposed to Nejris, that they should meet at his tents, forget their differences, and share equally the sheikhship of the Shammar. The unfortunate sheikh was induced by Ferhan, the son of Sofuk, to enter the encampment of his rival, where he was perfidiously murdered, in violation of those laws of hospitality which are so much respected by the Arabs. The Shammar were amazed and disgusted by an act of perjury which brought disgrace upon the tribe. They withdrew a second time from Sofuk, and placed themselves under a new leader, a relation of the murdered sheikh. Sofuk again appealed to Nejib Pashaw, justifying his conduct by the dissensions which would have led to constant disorders in Mesopotamia had there still been rival candidates for the sheikhship. Nejib pretended to be satisfied, and agreed to send out a party of irregular troops to assist Sofuk in enforcing his authority throughout the desert.

The commander of the troops sent by Nejib was joyfully received by Sofuk, who immediately marched against the tribe. But he had scarcely left his tent, when he found that he had fallen into a snare such as he had more than once set for others. In a few hours after, his head was in the palace of the Pashaw of Baghdad.

Such was the end of one whose name will long be remembered in the wilds of Arabia; who, from his power and wealth, received the title of "the King of the Desert," and led the great tribe of Shammar from the banks of the Khabour to the ruins of Babylon. The tale of the Arab will turn for many years to come on the exploits and magnificence of Sofuk.


[4.1] These wings are formed by a light frame-work of cane varying from sixteen to twenty feet in length, covered with parchment and ornamented, as is also the body and neck of the camel with tassels and fringes of worsted of every hue, and with strings of glass beads and shells. The lady sits in the center in a kind of pavilion, covered with gay carpets, by which she is shaded from the sun. This singular contrivance sways from side to side, and the motion is very disagreeable to one not accustomed to it.

[4.2] It may not perhaps be known that the fair inmate of the harem whom we picture to ourselves conversing with her lover in language too delicate and refined to be expressed by any thing but flowers, uses ordinarily words which would shock the ears of even the most depraved among us.

[4.3] "O my Lord:" he so prefaced every sentence. The Shammar Arabs pronounce the word Beg, which the Constantinopolitans soften into Bey, Bej.

[4.4] The rich golden tint of the limestone, of which the great monuments of Syria are built, is known to every traveler in that country. The ruins of Al Hather have the same bright color; they look as if they had been steeped in the sunbeams.

[4.5] Ammianus Marcellinus, lib. xxv. cap. 8.

[4.6] See Dr. Ross's Memoir in the Geographical Society's Journal, and Dr. Ainsworth's Travels. A memoir on the place by me, accompanied by plans, &c., was read before the Institute of British Architects.


Copyright (c) 1997 by Bruce J. Butterfield

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