Basra - Encyclopedia

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BASRA (written also Busra, Bassora and Bussora), the name of a vilayet of Asiatic Turkey, and of its capital. The vilayet has an area of 16,470 sq. m., formed in 1884 by detaching the southern districts of the Bagdad vilayet. It includes the great marshy districts of the lower Euphrates and Tigis, and of their joint stream, the Shatt el-Arab, and a sanjak on the western shore of the Persian Gulf. A settled population is found only along the river banks. Except the capital, Basra, there are no towns of importance. Korna, at the junction of the two great rivers; Amara on the Tigris; Shatra on the Shatt el-Hai canal, connecting the Tigris and Euphrates; Nasrieh, at the junction of that canal with the Euphrates and Suk esh-Sheiukh, on the lower reaches of the Euphrates, are the principal settlements, with a population varying from 3000 to ro,000 or somewhat less. Along the Shatt el-Arab and the lower reaches of the Tigris and Euphrates there are vast plantations of date-palms, which produce the finest dates known. Here and there are found extensive rice-fields; liquorice, wheat, barley and roses are also cultivated in places. But in general the ancient canals on which the fertility of the country depends have been allowed to go to ruin. The whole land is subject to inundations which render settled agriculture impracticable, and the population consists chiefly of nomadic and semi-nomadic tribes whose wealth consists in herds of buffaloes, horses, sheep and goats. The principal exports are wool, dates, cereals, gum, liquoriceroot and horses. The climate is humid and unhealthy. The population is estimated at about 200,000 almost exclusively Moslems, of whom three-quarters are Shiites. There are about 4000 Jews and perhaps 6000 Christians, among whom are reckoned the remains of the curious sect of Sabaeans or Mandaeans, whose headquarters are in the neighbourhood of Suk esh-Sheiukh.

The capital of the vilayet, also called Basra, is situated in 47° 34' E. long. and 32° N. lat., near the western bank of the Shatt el-Arab, about 55 m. from the Persian Gulf. The town proper lies on the canal el-`Assa y about 12 to 2 m. W. of the Shatt el-Arab. There are no public buildings of importance. The houses are meanly built, partly of sun-dried and partly of burnt bricks, with flat roofs surrounded by parapets. The bazaars are miserable structures, covered with mats laid on rafters of date trees. The streets are irregular, narrow and unpaved. The greater part of the area of the town is occupied by gardens and plantations of palm-trees, intersected by a number of little canals, cleansed twice daily with the ebb and flow of the tide, which rises here about 9 ft. These canals are navigated by small boats, called bellem (plur. ablam), resembling dug-outs in form, but light and graceful. At high-tide, accordingly, the town presents a very attractive appearance, but at low-tide, when the mud banks are exposed, it seems dirty and repulsive, and the noxious exhalations are extremely trying. The whole region is subject to inundations. The town itself is unhealthy and strangers especially are apt to be attacked by fever. Basra is the port of Bagdad, with which it has steam communication by an English line of river steamers weekly and also by a Turkish line. The Shatt el-Arab is deep and broad, easily navigable for ocean steamers, and there is weekly communication by passenger steamer with India, while two or more freight lines, which also take passengers, connect Basra directly with the Mediterranean, and with European and British ports. It is the great date port of the world, and the dates of Basra are regarded as the finest in the market. Besides dates the principal articles of export are wool, horses, liquorice, gum and attar of roses. The annual value of the exports is approximately i,000,000 and of the imports a little more. The foreign trade is almost exclusively in the hands of the English, but of late the Germans have begun to enter the market, and the Hamburg-American line of steamers has established direct communication. Since 1898 there has been a British consul at Basra (before that time he was a representative of the Indian government). France and Russia also maintain consular establishments at Basra. The settled population of Basra is probably under 50,000, but how much it is impossible to estimate. It is a heterogeneous mixture of all the nations and religions of the East - Turks, Arabs, Persians, Indians, Armenians, Chaldaeans and Jews. Of the latter there are about 1900, engaged in trade and commerce. Fewest in number are the Turks, comprising only the officials. Most numerous are the Arabs, chiefly Shiites. The wealthiest and most influential personage in the capital and the vilayet is the nakib, or marshal of the nobility (i.e. descendants of the family of the prophet, who are entitled to wear the green turban). Basra is a station of the Arabian mission of the Dutch Reformed Church of America.


The original city of Basra was founded by the caliph Omar in A.D. 636 about 8 m. S.W. of its present site, on the edge of the stony and pebbly Arabian plateau, on an ancient canal now dry. The modern town of Zobeir, a sort of health suburb, occupied by the villas of well-to-do inhabitants of Basra, lies near the ruin mounds which mark the situation of the ancient city. In the days of its prosperity it rivalled Kufa and Wasit in wealth and size, and its fame is in the tales of the Arabian Nights. With the decay of the power of the Abbasid caliphate its importance declined. The canals were neglected, communication with the Persian Gulf was cut off and finally the place was abandoned altogether. The present city was conquered by the Turks in 1668, and since that period has been the scene of many revolutions. It was taken in 1777 after a siege of eight months by the Persians under Sadik Khan. In about a year it fell again into the hands of the Turks, who were again deprived of it by the sheikh of the Montefik (Montafiq) Arabs. The town was in the October following recovered by Suleiman Pasha, who encountered the sheikh on the banks of the Euphrates and put him to flight; it has since remained in the hands of the Turks. (J. P. PE.)

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