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part III - Freemasonry, Religion and Civilisation

W. M. Don Falconer PM, PDGDC

Water supply and irrigation were vital elements in the development of civilisation and freemasonry was the source of the necessary skills and ingenuity.

The rise of civilisation

It is significant that when the first two advanced civilisations emerged in the ancient Near East, both were located in fertile river valleys that were surrounded by vast tracts of desert. These were the regions occupied by the Empires of Mesopotamia in the wide alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers and by the pharaonic Kingdoms of Egypt in the valley of the Nile River. Both civilisations were founded on irrigation and the regions they occupied are usually described as the “twin cradles of civilisation”. Since then, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers have changed their courses dramatically, so that most of the early cities that flourished along their banks are now only isolated ruins in the desert. In contrast, the ancient course of the Nile River is virtually unchanged. Each of these two civilisations devised calendars and invented methods of writing independently, but almost simultaneously, from which our modern calendars and alphabets were derived. These events were the precursors of advanced civilisation. Although these two civilisations developed in isolation, trading between them seems to have been established about 4,000 years ago.

The rise of advanced civilisations in Mesopotamia and Egypt exemplifies the way that primitive societies always seem to have approached life, which was to adopt the line of least resistance until forced into some other course of action. For example, those hunter-gatherers who lived in fertile temperate regions or tropical rainforests, where wild game abounded and fruit and vegetables were available in their natural state, had a comparatively easy way of life and usually showed little inclination to improve their standard of living. They tended instead to continue with their frugal though comparatively relaxed day-to-day existence, as many still do. During extended periods of inhospitable climate, when the naturally available foodstuffs fell below the basic level for subsistence, the indigenous hunter-gatherers usually migrated to regions with a more favourable climate without attempting to develop survival skills in agriculture and animal husbandry. However, when those skills had been acquired, they sometimes stimulated sufficient interest and impetus to initiate the evolution of a more advanced civilisation. These appear to have been the conditions that prevailed in the countries around the Mediterranean Sea at the end of the last great Ice Age, which precipitated the growth of civilisation in Mesopotamia and Egypt, the first two great civilisations about which we have extensive knowledge.

The empires of Mesopotamia

Mesopotamia is a Greek name signifying “the land between the rivers”. The alluvial plains of this region are confined between the Anatolian Plateau to the north, the rugged Zagros Mountains to the east, the hostile Syrian Desert to the south and the Lebanon Mountains and semi-arid Negeb to the west. It was the homeland of the ancient civilisations of Sumer, Akkad, Babylonia and Assyria. In the uplands to the north and northeast, the climate is suitable and the rainfall is adequate for the land to be cultivated successfully without irrigation, which is in stark contrast to the flood plains to the south where agriculture cannot succeed without irrigation. The Late Hunters entered the uplands more than 10,000 years ago and constructed round huts of wood. After many generations clusters of round huts of compacted mud replaced the wooden huts. In ancient Jarmo in northern Assyria, about 200 kilometres southeast of Nineveh, the early houses were built of clay and plastered with mud, when the head of the Persian Gulf was about 150 kilometres further north than it is now. About 10,000 years ago the early dwellings built on the southern flood plains, at the head of the Persian Gulf, were flimsy semi-conical structures of reed plastered with mud. By about that time the Late Hunters had learnt to herd and breed the wild sheep, goats and gazelles found on the slopes of the Zagros Mountains. They had also begun to cultivate the wild cereals found in the region, which introduced agriculture to the inhabitants of Mesopotamia.

As the Late Hunters mastered the art of food production, they also began to construct permanent villages in the northern foothills and plains, which gradually spread to the rich flood plains in the south. By then mud bricks had replaced the mud and clay used for construction, from which the “beehive” houses developed at Khirokitia in Cyprus. In the northern uplands, where stone was readily available, houses were also being constructed with stone foundations. The next development was to replace circular houses with rectangular houses, which are more suitable for village development. Large groups of rectangular houses that were packed together and had common walls, with access from their flat roofs, were developed at Çatal Hüyük in Turkey. Larger two-storey developments of a similar style, but built back to back with entrances from narrow lanes at ground level, were constructed at Hacilar in Turkey. Thereafter building construction developed steadily and the use of stone became more prevalent. A good example of the early development of masonry structures is the fortified settlement at Dimini in Greece, constructed about 6,000 years ago, which is one of the earliest towns known in Europe. The inner settlement is surrounded by six concentric walls of undressed limestone, which form a series of narrow passages and gates probably for defence. In some sections the external walls were constructed as a series of arcs, while in other sections they were buttressed or provided with quoined revetments for structural strength. By 5,000 years ago well-finished and well-furnished dwellings were being constructed entirely of stone at Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands. The inhabitants were farmers who lived there for several hundred years until driven out by deteriorating climatic conditions. From whence the farmers came and where they went is not known.

It is not known when the flood plains of the “fertile crescent” were first irrigated, but there is evidence that the prehistoric Ubaidan people, who settled in Mesopotamia about 6,500 years ago, were proficient in directing the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers onto the fields as and when required. When the Sumerians arrived in Mesopotamia about 500 years later, a network of small irrigation channels crisscrossed the deep alluvial soil in the south. An extensive system of lakes and swamps developed at the head of the Persian Gulf, where the waters from the canals flowed out onto the low-lying land. In the course of time dense thickets of reeds proliferated in these swamps and lakes. Progressively through the ages the swamps and lakes expanded and combined to form the extensive marshes that exist today, teeming with fish and waterfowl. The progressive accumulation of silt in the headwaters of the Persian Gulf is as much a result of sediment carried by the water discharged from irrigation canals, as it is from the deltaic effect of the rivers.

When the smelting and casting of copper in the Near East was established about 6,500 years ago and the kiln firing bricks followed about 5,500 years ago, Mesopotamia was the undisputed centre of advanced civilisation in the Levant and the Near East. Remarkable as these advances were, Mesopotamia’s ultimate destiny was achieved through the activities of the small trading city of Assur, on the west bank of the Tigris River, about 100 kilometres south of Nineveh. The original capital of Assyria was Assur, when the Assyrians were subject to Sumer and later intermittently to Babylonia. They mainly adopted the Sumerian religion and structure of society. The first Assyrian capital was Ashur, but ultimately was moved to Ninevah. The Assyrian empire grew from about 2500 BCE until 612 BCE, when its rule extended from the Caspian Sea to Egypt. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers not only provided the water for irrigation, but also became the main arteries of communication in ancient Mesopotamia. The established system of river transport was the basis on which Mesopotamia developed its trade routes by sea using dhows. This trade began more than 5,000 years ago and expanded as far eastwards as the Indus River basin on the Indian subcontinent, when Bahrain was an important entrepot port. Sumerian texts record that this sea trade continued for at least 1,000 years. They record in detail the woollen and linen textiles, leather goods, oil and dried fish exported to the Indus River basin and also show that copper was one of the principal imports from there.

Some time earlier than 4,600 years ago Mesopotamia had also established overland trade routes through Iran to eastern Afghanistan. It terminated in the province of Badakhshan on the northern slopes of the Hindu Kush Mountains, which then was the major source of lapis lazuli. It is now known that copper mined in Afghanistan to the north of Kabul, but on the southern slopes of the Hindu Kush Mountains in the Indus River basin, was transported by land through Badakhshan as well as by sea. One of the Mesopotamian tin sources, referred to as Melukhkha in the Sumerian records, only recently has been positively identified as the Sarkar valley, on the common boundary of the provinces of Herat and Farah in western Afghanistan. It is very close to the border of Iran and near one of the established land trade routes from Badakhshan. The location of an ore body, from which the metal in artefacts and other a manufactured objects has been obtained, can be determined accurately by complex testing techniques. This is done by comparing detailed analyses of samples obtained from the object and from the possible ore sources. The existence of these ancient trade routes, overland and by sea, strongly supports the hypothesis that the Sumerians were migrants from the Far East, probably about the time of the earliest flooding of Sundaland, the immense drowned archipelago once a part of Southeast Asia. Stephen Oppenheimer examines this aspect in his book Eden in the East, which is subtitled the Drowned Continent of Southeast Asia.

The careful planning and timing necessary to manage the irrigation, planting and harvesting of crops, coupled with the maintenance of records to control the production and supply of products to distant purchasers and the importation of goods in return, must have provided the incentive for the Chaldeans at Ur to devise a calendar and for the Sumerians at Uruk to invent writing. Both of these events took place in southern Mesopotamia about 5,200 years ago. The original Chaldean calendar almost certainly had a lunar basis, probably with thirteen months of twenty-eight days. Later it was changed to reflect the solar year and had twelve months of thirty days, with an additional month every sixth year to realign the calendar with the seasons. Still later the calendar was again modified, having twelve months alternately thirty and twenty-nine days long, with an additional month added at the end of every third year. The Babylonian year commenced with Nisän at the spring equinox. The Israelites were accustomed to using this calendar during their Babylonish captivity, so they adopted it as their own calendar when they returned to Jerusalem.

The Sumerians first used a pictographic script in about 3200 BCE, which they had modified to the ideograms of their cuneiform script by about 2800 BCE. The script is called cuneiform from the Latin cuneus meaning a wedge, because its letters are the wedge-shaped imprints of a reed stylus on wet clay. The construction of sentences using Sumerian pictographs differed significantly from the sentence structure using Egyptian hieroglyphs, as discussed later. There is archaeological evidence revealing that the Sumerian script would not have been devised specifically for the Sumerian language, but probably was adapted from a system of writing borrowed from some earlier literate people, although texts that clearly belong to those earlier people have yet been found. There were at least 500 Sumerian ideograms in use, each of which represented a concept or a thing, although the meaning could not be deduced from the outline. Ideograms were used for all common words and additional phonemes were also used to represent syllables, so that sentences spoken in any language could be transcribed to give the exact meaning instead of only conveying the basic concepts. This script soon spread to Assyria and thence to Egypt, but it was not the basis of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. From 3,500 years ago or even earlier, an Akkadianised form of the script was the lingua franca of the Near East and Egypt, which continued to be used in commerce for more than 1,000 years.

The oldest alphabet of which we have a record in script form, as distinct from the Egyptian hieroglyphs, was derived from the Sumerian phonemes to imitate the system more economically. That alphabet appeared in the Canaanite city of Ugarit, in Syria, in about 1500 BCE. Because of the Semitic influence it then had twenty-nine consonants with no vowels, which the Phoenicians adapted as an alphabet of twenty-two letters that emerged in Byblos in about 1200 BCE. When the Greeks introduced vowels the Phoenician adaptation of the Sumerian script became the direct ancestor of all modern alphabets. The deciphering of the Sumerian cuneiform script by Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson (1810-1895) and his translation of Darius’s inscription on the Behistun Rock, about 30 kilometres from the ancient Persian city of Persepolis, is described by William Ryan and Walter Pitman in Noah’s Flood, subtitled The New Scientific Discoveries about the Event That Changed History. Rawlinson’s pioneering work enabled the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh to be translated. The system of cuneiform writing and the shared tradition of the scribal craft were the main factors holding the different peoples of Mesopotamia together, which also ensured that their history was preserved for thousands of years. The many important developments in mathematics and astronomy that the Greeks made were based on the earlier discoveries of Mesopotamian scholars, but there is a tendency to overlook the importance of the foundations laid by the Mesopotamian.

When the Mesopotamian villages in the north were small and scattered they were able produce adequate crops without irrigation, but this was not possible after they had grown into large towns. Limestone is readily available in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains, which could be used to construct buildings, irrigation structures and fortifications in the northern towns as they expanded. This was in contrast with the southern flood plains that are devoid of rock, where compacted soils and mud brick were the only materials available to construct buildings and irrigation structures until kiln-fired bricks were developed. The summer flows in the northern rivers became inadequate as the population of the towns increased, necessitating the provision of a reliable supply of pure water for drinking, as well as water in sufficient volume to meet the increasing demands of irrigation. These probably became the most pressing of the many problems that had to be overcome during civic development. Successive rulers tapped the available sources of water in the foothills that formed arcs around the larger towns. It is fortunate that historical records of many of these important developments have been preserved in sculptures and inscriptions. Many books describe the history and development of civilisation in the Near East, but those of special interest include The First Empires by Nicholas Postgate, From Village to Empire by Charles Burney and Crossroads of Civilization by Clive Irving.

When Assur-nasir-apli II (883-859 BCE) refounded the ancient town of Kalhu on the eastern bank of the Tigris River, it became the city called Nimrud and was established as the capital of Assyria. Assur-nasir-apli II constructed a canal from the River Zab to augment the inadequate water supply obtained from the Tigris River. Nimrud continued to be the royal residence until Sargon was king from 721 BC to 705 BCE and built a new capital, Khorsabad, further to the north. Khorsabad was a substantial fortified town, some distance to the east of the Tigris River, which necessitated the provision of yet another major water supply. When Sargon’s son Sennacherib succeeded him as king from 704 BCE to 681 BCE, the Assyrian capital was moved to its fourth and final location at Nineveh, also on the eastern bank of the Tigris River. Nineveh was a much larger city and is estimated to have had a population of at least 120,000. As a consequence Sennacherib had to construct an even more comprehensive water supply than that of Nimrud.

The various works carried out in the foothills of the Zagros Mountains to meet the needs of water supplies for the towns, as well as to irrigate extensive agricultural and horticultural developments in the districts surrounding them, are typified by Sennacherib’s developments at Nineveh, which are eloquently described in his own words on one of the many inscriptions that he had carved in stone:

“To give these waters a course through the steep mountains, I cut through the difficult places with pickaxes and directed their outflow to the plain of Nineveh . . . I had all of the orchards watered in the hot season . . . Within the orchards, more than in their native habitat, the vine, every fruit-bearing tree and herbs throve luxuriously . . . The mulberry and cypress, the product of the orchards, the reeds of the brakes in the swamps I cut down and used them as desired in the building of my royal palaces. The wool-bearing trees (cotton) they sheared and wove the wool into garments . . .”

Sennacherib’s development included a large aqueduct from Bavian through Jerwan to augment the Khosr River that joined the Tigris River at Nineveh. He also built a dam on the Khosr River northeast of Nineveh to divert its waters into an artificial swamp used as a reservoir. The aqueduct from Bavian was a remarkable piece of Assyrian engineering, complete with flood spillways and sluices with boat shaped piers to streamline the flow. Much of its length was excavated in solid rock, but elsewhere it was constructed in fine rustic masonry with the base sealed with bitumen. The stones were rough dressed with a square cross-section and in various lengths to suit their specific use. The walls were massive and vertical, with buttresses at regular intervals. The aqueduct stonework was supported on a series of massive ogival arches when crossing wadis. The ogival arches were filled with rock to withstand the force of flash floods. At least one complete structure has survived to the present day, which proves that the Assyrians had mastered the structural technique of arches once thought to have been introduced by the Romans several centuries later.

In the course of time tribes from the Iranian plateau joined the first agriculturists in the “fertile crescent” and learnt their techniques over many generations. When the Iranian tribes returned to their homeland to establish an agricultural society, the supply of water was a major problem, ultimately solved in about 750 BCE by an ingenious development called the qanat system, first used in Urartu between the Zagros Mountains and Lake Urmia on the northern plateau of Iran. It is recorded that King Rusa himself designed a marvellous water supply and irrigation system for the town of Ulhu. This is the earliest known application of the qanat system, which has been in continual use ever since it was constructed about 2,700 years ago. The qanat system makes use of underground springs and aquifers that are tapped by constructing tunnels having an outfall gradient of about 1 in 100, thus controlling the velocity of the water so that both erosion and sedimentation are kept within manageable limits.

Access for construction of the qanat tunnels was gained by sinking deep shafts at intervals of 100 metres or so along the tunnel line. The tunnels were often up to 100 kilometres long and discharged at suitable points on the plains, usually into some form of storage reservoir, which allowed water to be drawn off as required. An important benefit of the qanat system is that it reduces evaporation to a minimum when conveying water over long distances in an arid climate. When the system is in service, the shafts are used as access for maintenance and also as wells from which water is drawn and discharged into subsidiary canals to irrigate the intervening areas. The qanat system was introduced into other Islamic countries as recently as during the tenth century. The system is called foggara in Algeria and khettara in Moorish Spain.

The kingdoms of Egypt

For countless thousands of years the Nile River has flooded annually and deposited rich black mud in a narrow and clearly defined strip along each bank. The Egyptians call these narrow strips of fertile land the Kmt, which signifies “the Black Land”, in contrast to the otherwise barren hinterland that they call Dsrt, meaning “the Red Land”. The man-made residues that remain from the occupation of Egypt by the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age, indicate that they were beginning to settle in villages and had acquired some knowledge of agriculture about 7,000 years ago. Later, at least 5,200 years ago and possibly earlier, the Egyptians were practising irrigation. They built levees or embankments to prevent the river from flooding too widely and cut channels to divert water over what otherwise was barren land. Because Egypt has a very low rainfall, less than 100 millimetres annually, the Nile has been of the utmost importance to the Egyptians since prehistoric times. It is their main source of water and the annual flood must be utilised to the best advantage for their crops.

The times when the Nile’s water would be available for irrigation and the scheduling necessary for construction and maintenance of irrigation channels, coupled with the planting and harvesting of crops, probably provided the incentive that induced the Egyptians to devise their calendar, possibly as early as 5,500 years ago. Their year was divided into twelve months of thirty days each, with a sacred period of five feast days intercalated between the end of one year and the beginning of the next. The Egyptian year began with Sothis, the heliacal rising of Sirius, which is the brightest star in the heavens. The heliacal rising of Sirius was when, after a long period during which Sirius was not visible in the skies, it was first seen to rise in the east before the sun rose. Sothis heralded the beginning of spring and was a very important event, because it usually coincided with the arrival of the annual flood from Upper Egypt and Nubia.

The first hieroglyphs are now known to have been in use in Egypt by about 3300 BCE and in fact they combine three different systems of writing. As with pictographic scripts generally, each sign represented a word or an idea, but in addition each sign represented a syllable and also an individual sound that was used as the letter of an alphabet. Words were often written in two or even three of the systems simultaneously. There also were signs used as determinatives to indicate the specific meaning to be attached to a word. Soon after 2800 BCE the Egyptian hieroglyphs were further developed as a cursive script, called hieratic, which could be engraved in clay or written with a pen and ink on papyri. This was the beginning of advanced civilisation of Egypt. The later Egyptian cursive script evolved by the progressive omission of parts of the hieroglyphic picture, so that eventually the remaining skeletal vestiges could be written consecutively without lifting the pen or brush from the paper.

Over the centuries the characters formed by the skeletal vestiges of the original pictographs were taken to represent the initial sounds of the words they represented. This is called the acrophonic principle and it is the basis of all alphabets. However, the alphabetical characters of the cursive script were not the same as the hieroglyphs that originally were used as an alphabet. The Hebrew characters were once thought to have evolved directly from the Egyptian hieratic alphabet, but modern investigations reveal that the Egyptian hieratic and the Hebrew characters both have many aspects that are closely related to early alphabets derived from the Sumerian cunieform. This probably is the reason why the hieroglyphic and hieratic alphabetical characters are not the same. The earliest Sinai-Hebrew script dates from about 1500 BCE.

The pharaonic Egyptian civilisation was renowned for its preoccupation with eternal life and left a vast array of temple complexes, pyramids and other funerary structures. It had a period of great brilliance during the Old Kingdom from about 4,500 to 4,100 years ago, when the people were exhorted to practise modesty, discretion, honesty and respect for their elders. The peasants worked for most of the year on the land, except when the Nile was in flood, when they were employed on the great building projects of the state, such as the pyramids. The constant demands of the land had to be met for life to survive, so that the maintenance of agriculture and the irrigation system was of the utmost importance. This period of greatness was followed by a period of decline and decay. There was a period of renewal during the Middle Kingdom, which lasted from about 4,000 to 3,600 years ago, when the land was gradually resettled and the irrigation system was restored. A Rosalie David explains these developments in some detail in The Egyptian Kingdoms. Several of the references mentioned in other chapters on related aspects also provide relevant information.

About 3,700 years ago a great engineering feat was accomplished in the Fayoum, a large basin in the western desert, when the annual inflow from the Nile through the Bahr Yüsef was reduced and regulated. That allowed some 10,000 hectares of pastureland to be reclaimed, with the protection of a huge semi-circular embankment. An existing lake also was adapted to act as a reservoir and dykes and canals were built to prevent flooding. The pharaonic civilisation reached its pinnacle with a period of great international power, prestige and wealth during the New Kingdom from about 3,500 to 3,000 years ago. Nubia was again brought under Egyptian control, much of Syria and Palestine was conquered and many magnificent temples and tombs were built at Thebes. After this period of affluence Egypt suffered continuous internal turmoil and was overrun by successive invaders, until it became a province of the Persian Empire in 525 BCE. However, its way of life and deep-seated traditions were not seriously interfered with and for almost two centuries Egypt existed as a well-managed Persian satrap, although there were brief periods of uprising by local princes.

When Alexander the Great reached Egypt in 332 BCE, the Persian satrap surrendered to him without a struggle and Alexander was accepted as a pharaoh. He laid the foundations for the future great city of Alexandria, but died shortly after leaving a four-year old son as his heir. The heir was promptly murdered and Alexander’s empire was divided among his generals, as a result of which Egypt became the property of general Ptolemy in 305 BCE. Although the Ptolemaic period was one of great intellectual achievement, the native Egyptians suffered severe deprivation and were forced to become intensely regulated tenant farmers who paid exorbitant taxes. The reign of fifteen Ptolemies and finally the famous Queen Cleopatra was abruptly terminated when the Roman general Octavius conquered Egypt in 30 BCE. This brought the Pharaonic Kingdoms to an end and Egypt became a part of the Roman Empire.

The Indus civilisation

Recent archaeological investigations reveal that about 9,000 years ago cereals were growing wild in the Baluchistan foothills, on the north western edge of the Indus River basin, especially barley and to a lesser extent wheat. Previously nomadic hunter-gatherers began to cultivate these cereals in the vicinity of Mehrgarh, about 1,000 years after agriculture began in the “fertile crescent”, when rice was being cultivated in Thailand. They erected sturdy houses of mud brick and also grain storage buildings because the growing season was so short. The rearing of goats, sheep and cattle had replaced hunting by about 8,000 years ago. However there seems to have been little further development until during the period from about 6,000 to 5,000 years ago, when Mesopotamia developed extensive trade with the Indus region.

As people experienced in farming and animal husbandry migrated from Mesopotamia to the Indus River basin, prosperous settlements soon appeared in the valley. This period of prosperity coincided with favourable changes in climate and a flourishing civilisation had developed by about 4,500 years ago. Although it was related to the communities of Baluchistan, the Indus civilisation owed its greater prosperity to the enormous agricultural potential of the rich soils in a riverine environment, coupled with a good climate and aided by extensive irrigation. At its zenith the Indus civilisation seems to have been as advanced as the civilisations of Mesopotamia and Egypt. The development of civilisation in the Indus River basin and of the associated development in Afghanistan are discussed in a number of publications referred to in the panorama of archaeology given in an earlier chapter on that subject. Several references in other chapters also are relevant.

Mohenjo-Daro had a peak population of about 40,000 people and was one of the two most important cities of the Indus civilisation, located on the west bank of the Indus River about 400 kilometres upstream from the Indian Ocean. The buildings were constructed almost entirely of kiln-fired bricks, which would have required an immense outlay of labour and fuel. Of special significance were two huge granaries, each of which comprised six storage units about 7 metres wide, 17 metres long and 7 metres high. They incorporated large underfloor ventilation ducts to prevent the grain from rotting and were suitably located to facilitate loading onto river transport. There were 18 circular threshing or pounding floors associated with the granaries, each about 3 metres in diameter and constructed of kiln-fired brick. All houses had brick lined wells and bathrooms, many with latrines built in. Stormwater and domestic wastewater were carried away in well-built covered brick drains that ran down all of the main streets. There also were various civic buildings, including a great bath lined with asphalt and a large assembly hall. Massive brick walls were provided in strategic areas to protect the city from the flooding of the Indus River. The available evidence indicates that the city was abandoned about 3,500 years ago, after a millennium or more of human exploitation had denuded the vegetation by deforestation and overgrazing, by which time the extensive irrigation areas had become tracts of salt encrusted desert.

Irrigation in ancient Afghanistan

A study of the influence of irrigation on the rise of civilisation would not be complete without referring to an extensive irrigation system in ancient Afghanistan. After the ice sheets of the last great Ice Age had receded into northern Eurasia about 10,000 years ago, large areas of forest spread across the tundra where herds of wild game had previously wandered. The hunter-gatherers of Europe then began to move eastwards into the more temperate steppes along the southern fringes of the forests. They became intensive gatherers of the wild barley, wheat and legumes growing in the steppes and also captured wild sheep, goats and gazelles, which they gradually formed into semi-domesticated herds. These nomadic groups developed into pastoralists as they moved into central Asia. By about 7,000 years ago they had travelled around the north of the Caspian Sea and then south into Turkestan, where they began to establish mixed farms along the southern edge of the Karakumy Desert, within several hundred kilometres of the north-western border of Afghanistan. At the average rate at which nomadic pastoralists seem to have migrated, they probably would have travelled the intervening 1,000 kilometres and reached the Takhar and Kunduz provinces of Afghanistan, on its north-eastern border with the Soviet republic of Tadzhikistan, by about 6,000 years ago.

This region of Afghanistan, which is situated in the northern foothills of the Hindu Kush Mountains, is semi-arid and it has an elevation that varies from about 500 metres to 1,500 metres. Because it has an annual precipitation less than 250 millimetres, the region is not suitable for intensive agriculture without the aid of irrigation. The nomadic pastoralists were undeterred when they settled there and soon developed the first agricultural and pastoral societies of central Asia, which later spread northwards into the more fertile plains of Russia. The area settled by the nomads was on the southern terraces in the central basin of the Amu Darya River, the Oxus River of antiquity. The settled area extended about 150 kilometres eastwards along the Kundut and Taluqan Rivers and from there northwards for another 100 kilometres, about half of which was irrigable land. Mesopotamia’s overland trade route to Afghanistan, that was in continuous use from about 4,600 years ago until about 3,750 years, ago passed through the settled area and terminated in the adjacent Badakhshan province.

As the irrigation works in the settled area were begun at about the same time as trade commenced, the nomadic pastoralists probably learnt their irrigation techniques from Mesopotamian migrants, as did the settlers in the Indus River valley during the same period. At least 75 kilometres of irrigation canals were in use by 4,200 years ago. The longest canal headed north from the Kokcha River into the plain of Shortughai and there was another was in the vicinity of Taluqan. By about 3,800 years ago at least another 75 kilometres of canals had been constructed, one heading southwards from the Kokcha River into the plain of Archi and another heading eastwards from the Taluqan River into the plain of Kunduz. A second ambitious phase of about 150 kilometres of canal, in much more difficult terrain, was completed about 3,000 years ago. It included a spectacular diversion channel, the Rud-i Shahrawan, which is up to 30 metres deep and diverts water northwards from the Taluqan River into the basin of the Kokcha River, which enabled much of the otherwise inaccessible hinterland to be irrigated.  The Rud-i Shahrawan canal has been in use continuously ever since it was constructed.

Canals were added progressively under the later Persian and Greek dominations, when required to meet increasing irrigation requirements, until all work was brought to a halt by the invasion of a nomadic people in about 130 BCE. The Kushan dynasty, which occupied the region from about 35 BCE onwards when the effects of the invasion had subsided, resumed the policy of extending the cultivated lands even though it abandoned some of the earlier canals. However it renewed and extended many of the old canals, as well as constructing at least another 150 kilometres of new canals. The region experienced its greatest prosperity from the influx of Islam at the end of the sixth century until the Mogul invasion in 1220, after which the use of the scheme was precluded for several centuries. However the traditional knowledge of irrigation, which had been built up when establishing the ancient canals, was preserved by later generations and was the basis for all subsequent work in the area. Whenever it has been necessary to rebuild canals the original alignments have always been preferred, including the work carried out by the Sumanids in the tenth century, by the Timurids in the fifteenth century and even in the present century.

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