[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]

From Classical Geography, by H. F. Tozer, from the series of Literature Primers edited by John Richard Green; New York :  American Book Company; pp. 19-31. [19]


1.   Outlying Countries of Asia — Serica, India. — In examining the various countries of the ancient world, we naturally commence from Asia, as that continent was the cradle of the human race, or, at all events, the earliest seat of those peoples who have exercised the greatest influence on the history of mankind. The geography of its outlying districts need not detain us long, as they were very imperfectly known to the Greeks and Romans, and remotely connected with them. The area, which is now occupied by the vast empire of China, was divided between two races; in the north the Seres, who were principally known to the Romans through the silk trade, that article being already produced in great quantities in that country; in the south the Sinæ. The Indian peninsula was known in its general features, especially the two great rivers that water it on the north, rising at no great distance from one another, and flowing to 20 the south-west and south-east respectively; viz. (1) the Indus, which was reached by Alexander the Great during his famous eastern campaign in the district where it receives the waters of five great streams, which for that reason is now called the Punjab (five waters). The most important of these tributaries are the Hydaspes (Jelum) and Hypănis or Hyphăsis (Sutlej). (2) the Ganges, which was considered the greatest of all rivers, and is described by Virgil as ‘septem surgens sedatis amnibus.’ This flowed into the Gangeticus Sinus on the eastern side of India, while the Indus found its way into the Erythræan Sea. The principal exports which came to Europe from India were gold and ivory. To the south of the peninsula lay the island of Taprobăne (Ceylon).

2.   Scythia. — The Jaxartes and Oxus. — The country which in later times was called by the ancients by the name of Scythia comprised a large part of central and northern Asia, and was divided into two portions by the Mons Imaus (part of the Altai chain); the district between those mountains and Serica being Scythia extra Imaum, and corresponding to the modern Tibet, while the part between them and the Caspian, and for some distance towards the north, was Scythia intra Imaum. The last-named region contained two important rivers, the Jaxartes (Sir) and the Oxus (Jihon), both of which flow from east to west, the Jaxartes being the more northerly of the two :  at the present day both of them discharge their waters into the Sea of Aral, but this does not seem to have been the case in ancient times. The Jaxartes indeed has not changed its course, though ancient writers speak of it as flowing into the Caspian; but this may be true, if, as is sometimes thought, the Sea of Aral was formerly a bay of that great inland sea, and not, as it is now, a separate piece of water. The Oxus, on the other hand, almost certainly flowed directly into the Caspian, and its channel in the latter part of its course 21 was different from that which it now follows :  hence it formed a great artery of traffic, by which the produce of Central Asia passed by way of the Euxine into Europe. Between the upper courses of the two rivers lay Sogdiāna (Bokhara), and on the lower course of the Jaxartes dwelt the Massagĕtæ, in fighting with whom Cyrus lost his life. In his description of that occurrence, Herodotus calls that river the Araxes. It was afterwards reached by Alexander the Great, who founded a city on its banks, which he called Alexandria Eschăte, as marking the furthest limit of his empire. The tribes who inhabited Scythia cannot be regarded as forming one people, though in all probability most of them belonged to the Turanian family (see p. 16); the reason why they were included under one name was that they were all nomads and travelled in tented waggons. So Horace describes them as “Campestres Scythæ, quorum plaustra vagas rite trahunt domos.” Hence the name was employed at different periods in very different senses, and to signify the inhabitants of distinct districts. Still, it is certain that there was a race who properly bore the name of Scythæ, and Herodotus speaks of them as mainly inhabiting the countries to the north of the Euxine, between the Hister and the Tanais, in the steppes of Southern Russia, though others were settled further to the east. It was from them that the name came to bear a more general sense in later times.

3.   Sarmatia. — Sarmatia, like Scythia, was divided into two portions, which were called Asiatic and European Sarmatia. But in this instance also the name was used in a narrower and a wider acceptation, for the Sauromătæ of Herodotus occupied a limited area on the east of the Tanais (Don) and Palus Mæōtis (Sea of Azov). This latter form of the name was afterwards extended by the Greek writers, so as to include the rest of Asiatic Sarmatia; and the Roman poets use Sauromata and Sarmăta indiscriminately, 22 according as one or the other best suits the verse. The boundaries of the Asiatic portion were the Caucasus on the south; on the east and west, the Caspian and Euxine, and the Rha (Volga) and Tanais; and on the north the watershed from which the streams begin to flow to the Northern Sea. Of the European portion the Vistula was regarded as the western, the Tanais the eastern limit; and in the opposite direction it extended from the Baltic and Gulf of Bothnia to the Carpathians and the neighbourhood of the Euxine. Here, as in the case of Scythia, a great variety of tribes must have been included in so wide an area; but it would appear that in its original and proper application the name belonged to races of the Slavonic stock.

4.   The Plateau of Iran or Ariana. — We turn now to the great central district, which lies between India and the deserts of Arabia, and is bounded on the north by the Caucasus, the Caspian Sea, and the country to the east of it, and on the south by the Persian Gulf and Erythræan Sea. Within this region all the great Oriental monarchies arose; on the western side, those of Assyria, Babylonia, Media, and Persia; on the north, that of Partha. The central and eastern portion of it is occupied by the great table-land, which is called Iran or Ariana, and lies on an average 4,000 feet above the sea, enclosed on all sides by ranges of mountains. We have already seen that this upland level is a continuation of the still higher plateaus of Tartary and Tibet (p. 12); and also that it was the original seat of the ancestors of the various tribes of the Indo-European family p. 17); the other name of which, Aryan, is connected with that of the country. It was eminently a pastoral region, and that primitive people was a race of shepherds. The mountains of Gedrosia separated it from the Erythræan Sea, those of Persis from the Persian Gulf, those of Media from the valley of the 23 Euphrates and Tigris. The north-western portion was occupied by Parthia, between which country and the Caspian the Hyrcanian mountains intervened; the north-eastern portion by Bactria.

5.   Parthia, Bactria. — Parthia was a very mountainous country, and to this feature and its remoteness we must attribute its greatness. While the great Persian empire was at its height, Parthia, as might be expected, was unable to make head against it; but the defeat of Crassus (B.C. 53) showed the Romans how serious an enemy that had to contend against in the Parthians, and all through the Augustan age they were the most dreaded antagonists of the masters of the world. To reach that country from the west it was necessary to penetrate, either through the rugged mountains of Armenia and Media, or else, from the side of the Caspian, through the lofty range now called Elburz, forming a westerly continuation of the Hyrcanian mountains, which reaches at one point an elevation of more than 18,000 feet. The principal pass that led through this was called the Caspian gates (Caspiæ Pylæ), and this afforded an entrance both into Parthia and Media. The principal town was called Hecatompylos, and was the residence of its rulers, the Arsacidæ. Bactria, with its capital city Bactra, occupied a somewhat similar, though still more remote, position among the mountains near the head waters of the Oxus. The successors of Alexander, who ruled Syria, of the family of the Seleucidæ, reduced this country to the condition of a province; but about the middle of the third century B.C. the Bactrians recovered their independence, and for nearly 200 years maintained a very flourishing kingdom, as is proved by their numerous and handsome coins.

6.   Armenia. — The plateau of Iran is continued towards the north-west in a still more elevated table-land, that of Armenia, which is as much as 6,000 feet above the sea. The position of this country is 24 remarkable as occupying a great part of the triangle which lies between three seas, the Mediterranean, the Euxine, and the Caspian. In consequence of this, and of its standing between Greece and Rome on the one side, and Persia and Parthia on the other, it was the scene of continual struggles, either for its own independence, or in the contests between those empires. Nor is it less conspicuous as the birthplace of great rivers, of which the Euphrates and Tigris flow towards the Persian Gulf, the Araxes to the Caspian, and the Acampsis to the Euxine. In the midst of its upland plains and valleys lie several lakes of great size, the most important of which, that of Arsēne (Van), is as large as the Lake of Geneva. In consequence of its elevation the climate is very severe, and the ground is deeply covered with snow during many months of the year. Xenophon in the Anabasis tells us of the sufferings and privations that he and his soldiers experienced in consequence of this in passing through Armenia; and he also describes the custom of the inhabitants of living in underground dwellings, which prevails at the present day. Its boundaries are, on the south Mesopotamia and the Median mountains; on the east the Caspian; on the north the tribe of Ibēri, who separate Armenia from the Caucasus; on the west Asia Minor, the limit of which is formed by the ranges of Taurus and Anti-Taurus :  these mountains also penetrate into Armenia, the highest point of Taurus being the Mons Niphates, to the west of Lake Arsene. In contradistinction to the Armenia which has been now described, the name of Armenia Minor is sometimes given to the neighbouring part of Asia Minor, south of the kingdom of Pontus; the line of demarcation of the two Armenias was the Euphrates. The passes by which the country could be entered were from Trapezus on the Euxine, which has always been a favourite route for traffic from Upper Asia; from 25 the interior of Asia Minor, to the south of Lesser Armenia; and from Mesopotamia, by a way that passes near the head waters of the Tigris. But all of these presented great difficulty to an invading army. In the northern part of the country rises the highest of all its mountains, Ararat, a gigantic snow-covered mass, with two summits, the loftiest of which is more than 17,000 feet above the sea. Placed as it is, it appears like a huge boundary stone to mark the division of continents; and, as a matter of fact, at the present day, parts of its lower declivities are possessed by the three empires of Russia, Turkey, and Persia. The earlier capital of Armenia, Artaxăta, was situated in the northern districts, on the banks of the Araxes, near Mount Ararat; while the later, Tigranocerta, which was founded by Tigranes, and sacked by Lucullus in his eastern expedition, was on an affluent of the Tigris, to the south of Mount Niphates.

7.   The Caucasus, and Tribes in its Neighbourhood. — The river Araxes (Aras) rises in the north-west part of Armenia, and flows round to the east, under the northern slopes of Mount Ararat; after which it finds its way into the Caspian. Before reaching that sea, however, it is joined by the waters of another considerable river, the Cyrus (Kur), flowing from the north-west, where the watershed lies, from which the streams drain to the Euxine and the Caspian respectively. This watershed lies much nearer to the former of these seas, and in the interval between it and the easternmost bay of the Euxine was the land of Colchis, so famous in early Greek story from its connection with the Argonauts. The river which intersects it is the Phasis. The valley of the Cyrus and its tributaries, lying between Armenia and the Caucasus, is the land of the Ibēri (Georgia). Between these and the Caspian were the Albāni, who also occupied the eastern part of the chain of Caucasus, and some part of the territory 26 north of it. The Caucasus itself, which stretches across the whole isthmus, between the Euxine and Caspian, maintaining a great average elevation, and in its highest summits, Mounts Kazbek and Elburz, reaching the height of 16,000 and nearly 18,000 feet, is a most imposing mountain barrier. Just at its centre it is cut through by a remarkable pass, called in ancient times the Caucasiæ or Sarmaticæ Pylæ, and at the present day the Pass of Dariel. A second pass led round its eastern extremity between the mountains and the sea, called Albaniæ, or Caspiæ Pylæ. This must be carefully distinguished from the pass of the same name on the south of the Caspian.

8.   The Euphrates and Tigris. — On either side of the sources of the Araxes there rise two streams, which flow towards the south-west, separated from one another by a spur of Anti-Taurus, and joining their waters to the south of Armenia Minor, form the Euphrates (Frat). This important river, which the Jews emphatically called “the great river,” and the course of which extends to 1,780 English miles, formed the ultimate boundary of the Roman Empire, which was only for a short time advanced beyond it in the reign of Trajan. Shortly after the junction of its two streams it bends towards the south, and here on the one side, among the Armenian mountains, lay the province of Sophēne; on the other, pushed out from the south-east of Asia Minor and the north of Syria, that of Commagēne :  both of these at various periods, even under the Roman Emperors, existed as separate kingdoms. The Euphrates then flows to the south-west, towards the innermost angle of the Mediterranean, and into that sea it would discharge itself, were it not for the intervening range of Taurus; but being diverted at that point, it makes a sharp bend, and flows towards the south-east with many windings, between the fertile districts of Mesopotamia and Babylonia and the Arabian deserts, until 27 it reaches the Persian Gulf. Its principal tributary was the Chabōras (the Araxes of Xenophon), which, together with its numerous affluents, flowed from the mountains in the north of Mesopotamia. The most important passage of the stream was at Thapsăcus, near the bend just mentioned, and by it was the usual line of communication between Asia Minor and Persia. It was forded by the army of the younger Cyrus, and Alexander constructed there a bridge, from which it afterwards bore the name of the Zeugma. By this also Crassus passed on his fatal Eastern expedition. The most famous places on the banks of the Euphrates were — at its point of junction with the Chaboras, Circesium, the Carchemish of Scripture, where Pharaoh Necho, King of Ægypt, was defeated by Nebuchadnezzar (Jer. xlvi. 2); near the place where it approaches closest to the Tigris, Cunaxa, where the great battle took place between Cyrus and his brother Artaxerxes, ending in the defeat and death of the former, from which event commenced the retreat of the Ten Thousand*; and somewhat lower down the stream the great city of Babylon. The Tigris rises in three separate streams, the westernmost of which flows from Sophene, close to the Euphrates, the easternmost from Mount Niphates; and after these have united it skirts the mountains of Assyria, passing Nineveh, and at the southern extremity of Mesopotamia comes within twenty miles of the Euphrates, with which river it was connected by means of canals. Near this point, on the right bank of the Tigris, the important city of Seleucia was founded by Seleucus Nicator; while close by, on the left bank, was Ctesiphon, which rose to importance with the decay of its neighbour, and was the winter residence of the Parthian kings. After this the Tigris again withdraws from its sister river, until at last they join their waters some distance above their entrance into the sea.


9.   Mesopotamia — Babylonia. — The extensive district between the Euphrates and Tigris was called Mesopotamia, or “the land between the rivers.” This, however, did not include the country enclosed by their lower course, which was known as Babylonia, the point of division being the waist formed by the approach of the two rivers, where a great fortification, called the Median Wall, was carried across from one to the other, having been erected at an early period by the rulers of Babylon to prevent the incursions of the Medes. On the north Mesopotamia was bounded by the mountains of Armenia. In the Bible it is commonly known as Padan-Aram. It was, on the whole, a level country, but not in the same sense as Babylonia, the whole of which was an unbroken alluvial plain; hence, also, as well as from the climate, arose the difference of their products; for while much timber was brought from the forests of Mesopotamia, and its pastures supported numerous herds of cattle, few trees were found in Babylonia, except the date-palm, which was of great importance to the natives, and the extreme fertility of the soil produced extraordinary crops of corn. The principal cities of Mesopotamia, in addition to those already noticed on the banks of the Euphrates, were :  Edessa, an important town in the north-west, forty miles from the Zeugma of the Euphrates, situated on a tributary of that river, the Scirtus — this was probably the site of Ur of the Chaldees, the original home of Abraham and his ancestors; Charrhæ, somewhat to the south of that place, the scene of the great defeat of Crassus by the Parthians, which also was Haran, the place to which Abraham migrated before he finally departed into Canaan (Acts vii. 2); and Nisĭbis, the capital of Mygdonia, the north-eastern district of Mesopotamia, which was rebuilt by one of the successors of Alexander, and called Antiochia Mygdoniæ, and was a frequent bone of contention between the Romans 29 and the Parthians. In Babylonia we need only notice the capital, Babylon, of the size and magnificent buildings of which Herodotus has left us a vivid description — a city exactly square, with gigantic walls and a hundred brazen gates, divided into two parts by the Euphrates. Babylonia was the seat of the first great Eastern kingdom, that of Nimrod, before Nineveh became the head-quarters of the Assyrian dominion. From that time it was subject to the Assyrians, until, about B.C. 750, it asserted its independence, and rose to be the great power that carried away the Jews into captivity. After its conquest by Cyrus it became a province of the Persian Empire. When we hear of Chaldæa as a separate district, it means the territory about the lower course of the separate stream of the Euphrates.

10.   Assyria. — Assyria, in the proper sense of the term, was the long and comparatively narrow country reaching southwards from the confines of Armenia, and separated from Media by the lofty range of Zagros, and from Mesopotamia by the Tigris. In other words, it was the region of the eastern affluents of that river. The principal of these are the Zabatus, or Lycus (Greater Zab), towards the north, which flowed from the territory of the Cardūchi, through whom the Ten Thousand made their retreat; and the Gyndes towards the south, entering the Tigris somewhat above Ctesiphon. As was the case with most of the other great kingdoms, the original name received a wider application with the extension of the empire, and Mesopotamia and Babylonia came to be included in Assyria. The great city of Ninus, or Nineveh, which was the centre of the Assyrian Empire, and of which such great remains have lately been discovered near Mosul, was situated in the neighbourhood of the Tigris, not far from the point where it received the waters of the Zabatus. According to some authors it was even greater than Babylon, and the splendour of its 30 sculptures and other monuments bear witness to a very remarkable civilisation. It was to this country that the tribes of Israel were carried into captivity. The city was ultimately captured, and the kingdom brought to an end by the Medes under Cyaxares (B.C. 606). A little to the east of the Zabatus lay Arbēla, in the neighbourhood of which the great final struggle took place between Darius of Persia and Alexander the Great.

11.   Media, Susiana, Persis. — Eastward of Assyria, and reaching from thence to the confines of Ariana, was the territory of the Medes, the next great power in Upper Asia. Media was an elevated country, well suited for training a hardy race of soldiers. Its northern division, called Atropatēne, formed the natural link between the tablelands of Iran and Armenia; but the southern and larger part was that which is most associated with the history of the people, and contained their capital, Ecbatăna (Hamadan). The territory of Susiāna, which lay to the south of this, was a continuation of the same mountainous district towards the head of the Persian Gulf. Its principal river is the Choaspes, which joins the Euphrates below its junction with the Tigris. The northern district, from which it flows, is called Elymāis, the original Elam, by which name this entire district is called in Scripture. On its eastern bank was situated the city of Susa, which became the centre of government in the Persian Empire, so that the chief treasury was there, and roads were made to lead to it from all the provinces. To the south-east of Susiana again, between the Persian Gulf and Ariana, were the highlands of Persis, the original home of the most powerful race in Asia, and the most dreaded enemies of the Greeks. From this centre their empire was extended over a great part of Asia, so that it included twenty satrapies, which yielded an enormous income, and furnished unlimited supplies of soldiers. The ancient capital, 31 Pasargădæ (Murghab), was situated in the centre of the country, and from its containing the tomb of Cyrus and other historical memorials, became to the Persian nation what Moscow is to modern Russia, the object of veneration from its associations. The later and more splendid capital, Persepolis, which was burnt by Alexander, lay somewhat further to the north. By shaking off the yoke of the Medes, by the defeat of Crœsus, and by the capture of Babylon, Cyrus established the supremacy of the Persians. In this, and in the previous overthrow of the Assyrian Empire by the Medes, we have an illustration of the tendency in history already mentioned (page 18); of poor and hardy mountain tribes to overpower the wealthy peoples of the lower country in their neighbourhood.

At the close of this survey it may be well to notice that the Medes and Persians, together with the Armenians, and probably also the Parthians, belonged to the Indo-European family of the human race; the Assyrians to the Semitic; and the early Babylonians, or Accadians, to the Turanian family. We should also remark the number of Greek cities which were founded throughout Upper Asia by Alexander and his successors, such as Alexandria Eschate, Seleucia, and Antiochia Mygdoniæ — and many others will have to be added in Syria and Asia Minor — for these were of the greatest importance in spreading Greek civilisation, and still more in providing a means of communication in the Greek language.

Elf.Ed. Note

*  The March of the Ten Thousand refers to the Anabasis, the prototype of true adventure prose, by Xenophon. In it, he tells, of his escape, with the Ten Thousand Greek mercenaries from Persia after their contract abruptly ended with the death of their employer, Cyrus the Younger, at the battle of Cunaxa.

Next :

CHAPTER III. Syria and Palestine.

[BACK]          [Blueprint]         [NEXT]