Mesopotamia: a Garden of Eden? Part 1

As the troops of the 2nd Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment began to adapt to life in and around Basra and Qurna, we can wonder about the condition of the country in which they found themselves… our researcher into this theatre of war tell us more:

Mesopotamia: a Garden of Eden? Part 1

The inhabitants, Arabs from many tribes and their Turkish overlords, were Muslims. South of Baghdad they were predominantly adherents of the Shia branch of Islam, whilst to the north they were mainly Sunni. The Turks were largely, although not exclusively, Sunni. The Kurds, an Iranian people, were religiously diverse, but the majority were Sunni.

This generalized distribution of the main groups within modern Iraq gives some indication of the position in 1915.

Perry Castaneda Map Library, University of Texas

Perry Castaneda Map Library, University of Texas

Both the Muslim Koran and the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament) refer to this land of rivers as the Garden of Eden:

 Koran 9:71 Allah promiseth to the believers, men and women, Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide – blessed dwellings in Gardens of Eden

Genesis 2:8 And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.

Scholars cite the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 11-14 as evidence for the Garden of Eden being located in Mesopotamia, although they do not agree quite where:

And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted, and became into four heads. The name of the first is Pison; the second is Gihon; the third is Hiddekel; the fourth is Euphrates. (The Hiddekel,which goeth toward the east of Assyria, is generally taken to be the Tigris.)


Certainly, the PhotoVenus studio in Basra had few doubts when it photographed this local view for a postcard which the troops no doubt sent home. We might be justified in thinking that this picture with its muddy creek and date palms bears little resemblance to the image of the Garden of Eden as painted by generations of artists.

Yet, the marshes about and above Qurna (Kurna) have an almost mystical quality which Wilfred Thesiger described in The Marsh Arabs (1964). See also, Thesiger, Desert, Marsh and Mountain (1979) for a collection of wonderful photographs:

That morning I had no idea what I should find beyond those distant reed-beds. We were pressed for time, unable to linger, but even so I gained an impression of a delightful and unexpected world: of narrow waterways winding through the tufted reeds, duck circling above still lagoons, the crying of geese, a village of reed houses clustered on the water, a hum of voices, and the incessant passage of canoes; dark dripping buffaloes, the sun crimson through the smoke of burning reed-beds, a boy’s voice singing in the dark, firelight on a half-turned face, the croaking of frogs, and stillness, the stillness of a world that had never heard an engine.

A Marsh Arab Village : author

A Marsh Arab Village 

Lieutenant Bill Spackman, a young Regimental Medical Officer with the 48th Pioneers, Indian Army, expressed a slightly different view in his diary for late 1914;

Qurna was locally reputed to be the site of the Garden of Eden, and although in winter the climate was at least tolerable, and justified Adam and Eve dressing up a bit, there were times in summer when one was not a bit surprised that they had left the place. A British Corporal succinctly expressed his opinion when he said (in rather more forthright language) ‘Well, if this is the Garden of Eden, the bleeding angel wouldn’t have needed a  f***ing sword to keep me out!’

from Captured at Kut: Prisoner of the Turks – the Great War Diaries of Colonel W C Spackman (2008).


The marshes have suffered much since the 1980s through extensive drainage works, in part politically motivated. Reflooding in recent years has sought to rehabilitate some of the marshland, with its unique ecology and way of life.

Other photographs of the time suggest alternative locations for the Garden, perhaps as here, upstream of Baghdad on the Euphrates; a world quite different to the marshes of Lower Mesopotamia:


Mesopotamia is topographically two regions, roughly north and south of Baghdad. Upper (Northern) Mesopotamia is made up of hills and plains and the spurs of the Taurus Mountains. The land is quite fertile due to the seasonal rains, and to the streams and rivers flowing down from the mountains into the Tigris and Euphrates. Lower (Southern) Mesopotamia is made up of marshland and flat, barren plains. Irrigation is needed here for cultivation. (NB Modern Iraq also includes the desert fringes of Syria and Arabia in the south-west.)

The Topography of Iraq adapted from : contributor Sadalmelik

The Topography of Iraq
adapted from : contributor Sadalmelik


In August 1916 (two years after soldiers arrived in the area) the Intelligence Division of the Admiralty War Staff produced Volume I, the first of four volumes, entitled A Handbook of Mesopotamia: Volume II appeared in provisional format in May 1917.

handbook iraq

This is how Volume I describes the topography of Mesopotamia:

[Mesopotamia] relative to the surrounding highlands, is a vast depression of the surface… This depression falls away from the northern mountains, at first at a steep and then at a slowly diminishing gradient, till it reaches the point where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers approach to within 40 miles of each other, viz. on the line Baghdad – Fellujeh. Here, now at a very low altitude, it changes suddenly into the great alluvial basin which, in almost a dead flat, stretches southwards for 350 miles, to end at the Persian Gulf. The heights of the mean river levels above the sea at the following places will illustrate conveniently and graphically the scale of declivity of this depression from north to south, till the sea is reached : Samsat, 1,615 ft. ; Birijxk, 1,115 ft. ; Diarbekr, 1,900 ft. ; Mosul, 980 ft. ; Baghdad, 105 ft. (350 miles from the sea in a straight line) ; Basra, 5 ft. (55 miles from the sea in a straight line).

Baghdad is geographically located where Upper and Lower Mesopotamia meet. From 1914 until 1916 the British campaign was largely fought to south of Baghdad, in the marshes and on the sometimes flooded plains of Lower Mesopotamia. (See Mesopotamian Map Overview in the posting of December 22, 2014)

A Handbook of Mesopotamia includes a comprehensive vocabulary in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish and Syriac, presumably because in 1916 the War Office was unable to predict how the war against Turkey would progress, and into which territories British troops might have to advance. It asks the important question, What will the weather be today?

what will the weather

Robert Palmer, a young officer with the 6th Hampshires, writing his diary from a steamer anchored in the Tigris wrote in September 1915:


It was hot, but nothing fabulous. My faithful thermometer never got beyond 104 in my cabin. The disadvantage of any temperature over 100 indoors is that the fan makes you hotter instead of cooler. There are only two ways of dealing with this difficulty. One is to drink assiduously and keep an evaporation bath automatically going: but on this ship the drinks used to give out about 4 p.m. and when it comes to neat Tigris-cum-Euphrates, 1 prefer it applied externally. So I used to undress at intervals and sponge all over and then stand in front of the fan. While you’re wet it s deliciously cool: as soon as you feel the draught getting warm, you dress again and carry on.

The health of troops has on the whole been good. Ice and fans are installed wherever possible, i.e. nowhere beyond Basra. The hot weather sickness casualties have been just over 30% of the total force: but as they were nearly all heatstroke and malaria, it ought to be much better now. Already the nights are cool enough for a blanket to be needed just before dawn.

Station January: Average Daily Temperature°F July: Average Daily Temperature°F January: Average Daily Rainfall(inches) July:Average Daily Rainfall


January:Average Daily Humidity


July:Average Daily Humidity


Mosul 41.0 (5°C) 94.8 (34.9°C) 2.5 0 87 46
Baghdad 48.8 (7.1°C) 92.1 (33.4°C) 1.0 0 67 39
Basra 51.8 (11°C) 90.2 (32.3°C) 1.2 0 79 59

This data taken from recordings in A Handbook of Mesopotamia mask the true nature of the climate that the troops had to endure: Temperatures could be low in winter with average daily minima for January of 32.0° (0°C) in Mosul, 38.2° (3.4°C) in Baghdad and 43.7° (6.5°C) in Basra, whilst July could see average daily maxima of 118.8° (48.2°C) in Mosul, 120.2° (49°C) in Baghdad and 114.4° (45.8°C) in Basra. According to the Handbook:


The smiting power of the sun in Mesopotamia is very great, and consumption of alcohol should be most moderate, especially in the case of those whose work exposes them to the sun-rays. Alcohol should not be taken before sunset.

The extreme heating of the ground surface caused mirages in summer, and additionally with fine dust picked up by the wind visibility was frequently poor. Sandstorms were not infrequent in spring.

The rainfall amounts were very modest: the annual total for Mosul being 16.18 inches, Baghdad, 6.95 inches, and Basra, 6.23 inches. It is unsurprising therefore that the great civilizations of Lower Mesopotamia, Sumer and Babylon, relied upon irrigation for the cultivation of crops.

In summary, from Baghdad to Qurna (at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates) the climate was characterized as hot and dry. South of Qurna the climate became damp as well as hot with frequent heavy dews.


The annual floods were a serious environmental hazard faced by troops. The main flood season occured from late March through to early June when the Tigris, Euphrates and their tributaries responded to the snowmelt in the mountains and frequently burst their banks in the level plains of Lower Mesopotamia. The low flow season was in September and October and the Handbook quotes average water discharge figures:


Tigris, 14,000 cubic feet per second in September, but 106,000 cubic feet per second in April. Euphrates, 16,000 cubic feet per second in September, but 97,000 cubic feet per second in April.


Floods could also occur in December and January as a result of heavy winter rains in the uplands. The consequences for the comfort of the troops is shown in this photograph from The Illustrated War News of January 26, 1916. The caption reads, ‘Flooded Out And Not Minding A D***’.

flooded out

Mesopotamia: a Garden of Eden? Part 2 to follow: malaria, boils, sand-flies and sanitation…