From Classical Geography, by H. F. Tozer, from the series of Literature Primers edited by John Richard Green; New York : American Book Company; pp. 43-49.
ARABIA, ÆGYPT, AFRICA.
1. Arabia : Sinai. — The great country of Arabia, the area of which is hardly less than that of all the countries of Asia which we have considered, west of India, has been compared in respect of its shape to a hatchet, the edge of which is surrounded by the Erythræan Sea. The interior is a vast plateau, several thousand feet above the sea, and thus forms a link between the highlands of Iran and those of northern Africa; and the correspondence between the countries on either side of it is further increased by both of them being separated from it by a deep depression — to the east by that of the Euphrates valley and the Persian gulf, to the west by the Nile and the Red Sea. The whole of this elevated area is a sandy desert, only here and there relieved by oases of verdure in the neighbourhood of the springs; along considerable portions of the sea-coast, however, there is a belt of vegetation, especially in the south-west corner, the country of the Sabæans, which was famous for its spices, the chief export of Arabia. To this part, on account of its fertility, was originally given the name of Arabia Felix, which was afterwards applied to the whole country south of a line drawn from the head of the Arabian to that of the Persian Gulf. Of the other divisions, the northern part 44 between Palestine and the Euphrates was called Arabia Deserta, while that which extended from the peninsula of Sinai to Petra on the southern border of the Holy Land, was called from that city Arabia Petræa (ἡ κατὰ τὴν Πέτραν Ἀραβια). The Sinaitic peninsula occupied the angle formed by the two gulfs at the head of the Red Sea (p. 7). The northern and wider part of this was the desert of the wanderings of the Children of Israel; the southern part was a knot of massive granite mountains, and in the heart of these, where lofty peaks overlook a plain of somewhat more than a mile in length (Wady Musa), is the traditional position of Mount Horeb, and the scene of the giving of the Law.
2. Ægypt : the Nile Valley. — Herodotus calls Ægypt emphatically “a gift of the Nile,” and this is true, not only of its southern portion, but also of the Delta, which must originally have been a bay of the sea, lying in a depression between the Libyan and Arabian deserts, until it was filled up by the rich alluvium of that river. Consequently, in giving an account of Ægypt, we have to study the geography of the Nile valley. In the upper part of its course the great stream consists of two branches, of which the eastern is now called the Blue, the western and most important the White, Nile : near the junction of these in ancient times stood the town of Meroë, in modern that of Khartoum. From this point to its mouth, its course may be divided into three parts : (1) from Meroë to Syēne; (2) Upper Ægypt, from Syene to Cercasōrum; (3) Lower Ægypt, or the Delta, from Cercasorum to the sea. The first of these divisions was in the land of Æthiopia, and may be called the region of the cataracts; which, however, must not be conceived of as cascades or waterfalls, but as rocky rapids, which can be shot by boats. As the Nile forms a natural highway of traffic, the products of Æthiopia were from early times brought down into 45 Ægypt. At Syene, which is 500 miles from the sea, the cataracts cease, and Upper Ægypt begins. This country is a long rockbound valley, widening gradually, but very gradually, as it advances northwards, the breadth being on the average seven, but nowhere exceeding eleven miles. The intervening space is mainly occupied by the river and the soil which it has deposited. Another peculiarity that we should notice, as distinguishing the Nile from all other rivers, is that in the whole of this long course it does not receive a single tributary. The great city of this district was Thebes, the ruins of which are the most famous in all Ægypt. At Cercasorum, where the stream of the Nile begins to divide, Lower Ægypt begins; though the city of Memphis, somewhat higher up the stream, might perhaps more rightly be taken as the point of demarcation between the two territories. The importance of that place arose from its central position, and to the same cause is to be attributed the greatness of the modern Cairo, which lies close by, on the opposite bank of the stream. Not far from Memphis was the lake Mœris, beyond the mountains on the western side of the valley.
3. The Delta. — Lower Ægypt was in shape an equilateral triangle, and was called by the Greeks the Delta, from its resemblance to that letter [Δ]. The whole area was an unbroken level of black soil, the deposit of the Nile, whence the inhabitants called the land Chemi (“black”) : in the spring this is covered with the richest vegetation, thus justifying Virgil’s epithets in the line —
“Et viridem Ægyptum nigra fecundat arena.”
This effect was largely produced by the yearly inundation, which arose from the moisture, with which the north winds from the Mediterranean were charged, being precipitated when they reached the mountains of Æthiopia, thus swelling the upper 46 tributaries, and causing the Nile itself to flood. The inundation continued from the beginning of July to the end of November, attaining its maximum in September. Herodotus compares the towns and villages at that season, as they stood out of the water, to the islands which rise out of the Ægean Sea. The Delta was at all times intersected by the arms of the Nile, which was commonly described as entering the sea by seven mouths. Of these the most important were : on the eastern side the Pelusiac branch, on the upper part of which were situated the important cities of On or Heliopolis, and Bubastis; in the centre the Sebennytic branch, which, from its flowing straight onward, had the strongest claim to be the true representative of the Nile; and to the west the Canōpic, on which lay the ancient city of Sais, and Naucrătis, the trading town which the Greeks were allowed to establish in the country. This last branch was connected by a canal with the lake Mareōtis, which lay close to the coast; and on one part of the narrow belt that separated this lake from the sea was built Alexandria, in front of which was the Island of Pharos with its famous lighthouse. The position of this city was worthy of its great founder, Alexander, who saw that it was the most central point to command the three continents.
4. Effect of the Nile on the Ægyptians. — The great river which watered the country is the key to its history as well as its geography. Its fertilizing power was the cause of the early civilisation, as the abundance of food caused the population to multiply (see p. 15). But at the same time it had a depressing effect on the character of the inhabitants, as is always the case when a people is wholly dependent on one great natural feature. Besides this, the fact that the country was self-sufficing prevented there being any stimulus to commerce, so that no new ideas were imported from abroad; for the Greeks did not settle 47 there till a comparatively late period, and their numbers were too small to influence the mass of the population; with these circumstances, and in so uniform a country, it was impossible for independence of thought and action to arise, and the government was almost necessarily a despotism. To the same cause we may refer the permanence of traditional institutions, such as castes, and, what was more natural still, the worship of the Nile as a divinity.
5. Africa; Oases; Cyrene. — Of the great continent of Africa, exclusive of Ægypt (or Libya, as the Greeks called it), only the northern part requires our attention, as the remainder was practically unknown to the ancients. The habitable portion of this may be described as rising in a succession of terraces from the Mediterranean to the great central desert, the Sahara, and the region bordering on the shore was often extremely fertile. The desert itself was barren, except where at long intervals oases were formed by the surface-water collecting in depressions of the ground. The northern coast of Africa has already been partly described in connection with the formation of the Mediterranean (p. 10). From Ægypt it extends westward as far as the Cyrenaica, then forms a broad but shallow gulf, at the two angles of which are the Syrtes; and after approaching nearest to Europe at the Mercurii Promontorium (Cape Bon), follows a nearly direct course to the Straits. In the eastern portion Cyrene occupies by far the most important position, and its colonists, from the Island of Thera, in the Ægean, were well rewarded for their adventurous journey. It was the nearest point to Greece; it was placed on a terrace of land, about ten miles from the shore, and was both sheltered from the parching blasts of the Sahara and open to the cool breezes of the sea; and it was provided with a perennial spring of water in the midst of the richest vegetation. From it proceeded several neighbouring colonies, of which 48 Barca, situated a little to the west, was the most important.
6. Carthage. — But the place which was best fitted by nature for an extensive dominion was Carthage. This city, as it lay in the recesses of a bay to the west of the Mercurii Promontorium, was at once sheltered in its position, and commanded both the eastern and western basin of the Mediterranean : and as it faced Italy — “Italiam contra,” as Virgil says — with Sicily close at hand to act as a stepping-stone, it held a vantage-ground both for conquest and for commerce. Thus it was that the Phœnician colonies in Sicily, of which Panormus (Palermo) was the chief, passed into their hands; and had they not been defeated by Gelo at the battle of Himĕra, which was said to have been fought on the same day as Salamis, Carthage, and not Rome, might have been the great western power. Thus too it was that they colonized Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, and the coast of Spain, where they reproduced themselves in Carthago Nova. The city occupied a peninsula, joined to the land by an isthmus two-and-a-half miles wide, on the south side of which was the harbour, now the port of Tunis, which received their immense navies. The original citadel was called by the Semitic name of Bozra (“fortress”), which the Greeks rendered by Byrsa; and as this word signifies “a hide,” the legend grew up, that in purchasing he land the settlers had obtained as much as they could enclose by a bull’s hide cut in strips — “Taurino quantum possent circumdare tergo.” The district in the neighbourhood of Carthage, reaching form the lesser Syrtis to the northern coast, formed at a later period the Roman province of Africa, and, like Ægypt, form its great productiveness was one of the granaries of Rome; and so greatly did that capital depend on those countries for its corn, that we hear in the Imperial times of its being in danger of starvation 49 when the supplies from one or other of those countries were cut off. Its other principal city, situated to the west of Carthage, was Utica, famous for its defence by Cato.
7. Numidia; Mauretania. — The coastland west of the province of Africa was divided between two countries, Numidia and Mauretania, which were separated from one another by the river Ampsaga. The former of these, which forms a considerable part of the modern Algeria, is familiar to us in Roman history in connection with its princes Masinissa, Jugurtha, and Juba. The name of its inhabitants, Numidæ, which is only another form of the Greek Νομάδες, signifies that they, like the Gætūli, who lay to the south of them, and the Garamantes, still further inland, were wandering tribes — the “armentarius Afer” of Virgil. From these the Carthaginians obtained their light horse, who rode without saddle or bridle (“infrenati”), in like manner as they obtained their slingers from the Balearic islands. The much more extensive territory of Mauretania, the country of the Mauri or Moors, reaching for some distance along the shore of the Atlantic, was bounded on the south by the Atlas Mountains, which are often spoken of in the poets as a single peak, but in reality formed an extensive chain, rising in places nearly 13,000 feet above the sea. When it was reduced to a Roman province, its eastern half was called Cæsariensis, its western half Tingitana.
CHAPTER V. Asia Minor, Thrace, Macedonia.