Visions of Pallacopas (18th – 20th century)
On the relationships between travel and science in Mesopotamia

Bart Ooghe[1]


As researchers of the literature of travel well know, travel and science – used here in its widest possible sense as the gathering of empirical information and its study within academic fields, thereby incorporating such disciplines as e.g. history, geography or archaeology – have been closely tied to one-another on various moments of early modern history. Their interrelationships cannot be excluded from studies of the early compilations of narratives, traveller’s instructions or Enlightenment explorations (e.g. Sherman 2002; Colloni and Vannoni 2005; Pratt 1992). In the present article I will extend these questions into the region of Mesopotamia, more or less identifiable for this purpose with present-day Iraq. This part of the world remains at the margins of travel writing studies; Mesopotamian archaeologists, on the other hand, have tended to neglect their travelling predeces[2]sors.

This paper focuses on the relationships between travel and science, observation and supposition, seeing and saying, with regard to an ancient and near-mythical canal named Pallacopas, located somewhere west of the Euphrates in present-day Iraq. Looking at the presentations of this canal in academic literature and travel narrative reveals the way in which travel and science interacted with one another over the course of three centuries, with particular interest in the pivotal moment of the 19th century and the birth of the positive sciences. It reveals the changing relationships between scientist and traveller, and the ways in which these changes altered the writer’s perception of himself and the ways in which he depicted the landscapes he encountered.

The Pallacopas

The canal known as Pallacopas, originally Pallukkatu, was in existence at least by 6th century B.C., as attested by cuneiform documentation. It served as a means of preventing the agricultural lands along the river Euphrates – and the city of Babylon on its banks – from becoming flooded when the river rose in the spring (Cole and Gasche 1998 35, 53). It was known to early modern European scholarship through much later sources: the classical Greek and Latin writings of Arrian (Anabasis Alexandrou VII 21.1-4), Strabo (Geography XVI 1.11), Appian (Bellum Civile II 153) and Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis VI 118). It was the source of particular interest as it was mentioned in relation to the Asiatic expedition of Alexander the Great. Under the name of Pallacottas or more generally Pallacopas, it made its appearance in European knowledge as the massive but partly decayed structure encountered by Alexander the Great on his march to Babylon, perhaps linked to the diversion of Euphrates waters into a series of marshes (Boiy and Verhoeven 1998 148).

While only a relatively brief reference in a mass of literature, the canal thus made its entrance into early modern scholarship mainly in relation to the Alexandrian mythology. This alone we may suppose would have greatly added to its zeal. Yet its location remained unclear from the available texts. It was established to have been artificial and to have left the Euphrates, but apart from this, there was no clarity regarding its geographical location. While in lack of detailed archival study there is little to suggest the canal formed the focus of much study, scholars would in any case find themselves depending on observations by travellers if they wished to get more clarity into the matter.

Gazing at Pallacopas: the 18th century

This reliance on travel was central to much early modern science. In particular since the Great Discoveries of the late 15th century and the development of Humanism, the detailed travel account had gained an important place in providing information on the world outside of Europe (Collini and Vannoni 2005 15-19; Sherman 2002 17-36). With regard to the Middle East, however, these accounts remained for a long time relatively little informative. Very few travellers reached this part of the world when compared for example to the Mediterranean parts of the Near East or the Persian Empire; those that did often left only short accounts of their experiences and some of these furthermore didn’t get published or translated. The 16th and 17th centuries had seen the creation of only a handful of accounts. While their role in opening up a region that had been virtually unknown before the mid-1500’s cannot be underestimated, in terms of landscape descriptions the majority of narratives wasn’t overly instructive. In addition, the major part of the 17th century witnessed a significant decline in published accounts and subsequent lack of renewed insights into the region; the area where the Pallacopas would later become located was little traversed at the time.

At the same time, given such a limited number of European accounts on the region, European scholarship was highly dependent upon these few records for information on the state of the land and, to some extent, its history, a matter evidenced in the many quotes of travellers used in late 17th century historical geographical literature (e.g. Dapper 1680; d’Herbelot 1697). With the limited information available, virtually any traveller’s description could potentially provide vital new data on the land.

Returning to the matter of the Pallacopas, academics had to wait until the mid-18th century for the canal to make its supposed re-entry into European scholarship as an actual physical entity. As might be expected, this ‘rediscovery’ was a direct exponent of science-travel interrelatedness that had gained specific importance in Enlightenment philosophy (Pratt 1992 15-37). It can be attributed to the famous Danish explorer/mathematician, and sole survivor of the Danish expedition to the Near East of 1761, Carsten Niebuhr. In 1765, when passing through Iraq, he noticed what seemed to be the remains of a large canal, lying west of the Euphrates, named Dsjarri Záade.[3] He encountered this canal on at least two and probably three occasions: once in the regions some 20 km southwest of Basrah, a second time in the region of Kufah, seemingly coming from Kerbela and corroborating the information gathered in the south (Niebuhr 1968 [1774-1778] 261). He assumed the canal ran from Hit, on the Middle Euphrates, to the Persian Gulf. While he doesn’t shed light on the factual basis of this assumption, it may in part be attributed to local beliefs: in the 19th century a number of similar stories would circulate regarding the nature of this canal and its enormous length (Taylor 1855 413; Hoefer 1852 362-364). His maps XL and XLI show it as a continuous canal between Old Basrah and the Hindiyah lands.

Naturally, the presence of what seemed to be a massive man-made construction sparked Niebuhr’s imagination; it didn’t take long for him to make a connection between this Jari Sa’deh and the only major canal system known to him to have existed in this part of Mesopotamia. Niebuhr suggested that this, then, must be the remains of the Pallacopas, which must have started at Hit and flowed through the depressions located southwest of Najaf. He also linked it with the ruin of ‘Ukhaidir, in the deserts west of Kerbela, which had been seen by an English traveller (probably Carmichael, and also noted by Tavernier) which he assumes must have been watered by it. (Niebuhr 1968 [1774-1778] note on 223-225)

In terms of the history of sciences, Niebuhr’s publication is a most telling example of the intertwined nature of exploration and travel writing during these times. Part of a journey with pure scientific purposes, the death of most of its members had remade a large part of the expedition’s results into a one-man travelogue, written in the well-known style of narrative diary. In addition, both in its nature and use of sources, the work illustrates the role played by travel narratives in the scientific study of the region. Through it, the Pallacopas made its physical re-entry into European scholarship, regardless of the highly speculative nature of the geographical location and extent of the Sa’deh, or the basis of identifying the latter with the canal known from antiquity.

Travel and science: pushing the observations

The impact of Niebuhr’s remarks might have been substantial, but as the account was only published over a decade after the observation, it seems that its repercussions became felt on a wider scale only by the early 19th century. Furthermore, the image created by Niebuhr wasn’t unanimously accepted, as there remained uncertainty regarding the starting point of the Pallacopas. Thus, the 1799 map by Dean Vincent shows the Sa’deh running from the lower Euphrates rather than from Hit, and shows the ‘Pallacopas of Nieb.’ originating below Hillah (and thus below Babylon), a clear alteration of the original image (Vincent 1797). In fact, it seems we must wait over 40 years after Niebuhr’s observations before we note the first indications that ‘his’ Pallacopas had become accepted into the scholarly imagery of the region (see below). While at least by the close of the eighteenth century we in other words witness the assimilation of the Pallacopas idea, the veracity of Niebuhr’s suppositions was by no means uniformly accepted.

We are at a guess as to why this image entered into common knowledge only in the early 19th century. We can only note that by the time it did, the scientific community had begun to look very different from what it had been during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Prior to 1800 the scholar had largely depended on travellers, learned or not, to provide descriptive data on the landscape, its cities, modes of life and possible remains of antiquity. By the close of the 18th and the early 19th century, on the other hand, we witness a growing specialisation of the scientific discourses. Archaeology was slowly becoming a separate discipline and positivist science (Renfrew and Bahn 1998 20-36). With the close of the 18th century the first more ‘scientific’ explorers had started to write on the land and its history, which was increasingly becoming the focus of archaeological/antiquarian study (seen in the likes of people as de Beauchamp, Rich or Ker Porter). Cuneiform writing would become deciphered in 1836, imperialist interests brought underway a series of land surveys undertaken between the 1830’s and the 1880’s, which pushed geographical knowledge to unknown heights even though it kept certain regions – most notably the lands of the lower Tigris – in the dark (Chesney 1850, Selby et. al. 1885; Lynch 1839). New Arabic geographical texts were becoming studied, furthering understanding of recent Iraqi history. In short, the 19th century explosion of the positivist sciences had reached the Middle East and was quickly rewriting its history.

Though this process was brought to its height only by the middle of the century, its forebears are clearly noticeable in the early ‘archaeological’ writings of the early parts of the century. People like Sir Robert Ker Porter created the first more detailed images of the main sited of the alluvium; someone like Claudius James Rich created the most detailed images of Persepolis and Babylon of his time, while extending his travels to include various other Mesopotamian sites (Ker Porter 1821-22, Rich 1839). The main change of relevance to the present study lay in the altered nature of travel itself: whereas academic travellers had existed since the 16th century, they increased significantly in number during the latter 1700’s, forming part of the growing ‘scientisation’ and ‘disciplinasation’ of oriental studies.

This development greatly altered the role which travellers played in the evolution of knowledge on the region. In the earlier days, the mere description of the land had been of value because information had been so scarce; relatively uninformative writers as Jean-Baptiste Tavernier had gained international acclaim, though of course schooled individuals with greater antiquarian interest had been of more value to the historian/geographer (See ‘Rediscovery of Babylonia’, in preparation).

With the study of land and history now increasingly coming into the hands of the specialist, however, those travellers who wished to continue to write informative books found themselves competing with this new brand of more specialised travelling researchers. In this light, we can see the Pallacopas question beginning to enter the traveller’s narrative and use it as a way to denote the shifting natures of travel and science. This nature can roughly be divided into three aspects, which in part reflect a continuing adherence to existing narrative traditions, blended into a partly new framework, but also reveal what we might tentatively label the final phases of the science-travel entwinement.

Naturally, the delineation between ‘academic’ or ‘scholar’ and traveller isn’t easily made at this time; one might rightly argue that any academic of the region would naturally have to be a traveller and that several archaeologists, Austen Henry Layard no doubt the most famous among these, made use of the literary format of the travelogue to publish their archaeological researches (a.o. Layard 1853). The main difference I adhere to, is that between the ‘specialist’, who has very specific reasons for being in the area (such as Layard’s archaeological intentions) and/or who publishes his accounts in specialised journals or books and who maintains in his writings a discrete distance between his study and the actual act of travelling, and the ‘traveller’, whose writings continue to cling to the narrative style and/or who evidently is not a specialist in the field, such as the geographical notes of Dr. Winchester (see below). I am fully aware of the at times hazy border between these two types, as one might make use of the idiom of the other.

Observation and supposition

A first way for the traveller of maintaining the link with the scientific community was to reveal oneself eager to add to questions developed within this community. Some authors, as a result, blend the academic questions regarding the Pallacopas into their accounts. In doing so, they place themselves in a direct line with preceding informative travelogues and their tendency to link biblical and classical texts to the observed landscape.

Numerous examples of this can be noted throughout the 19th century. For instance, J. Winchester, the doctor on the famous Euphrates expedition which would bring steamboat navigation to the Euphrates and the Tigris, noticed a large canal leaving the river some 36 miles north of Babylon. In a singular movement between observation and speculation he suggests that this is probably the head of the Pallacopas, regardless of the fact that, as he was travelling on the river, he never actually observed more than this head (Winchester 1838 10).

Kennet Loftus, a British operant in the mission to delineate the Iraqi-Iranian frontier and one of the early archaeologist travellers, later member of the Assyrian Excavation fund, suggested that the Pallacopas might be identified with what he observed at the time to be the western branch of the Euphrates. In his account of travels and researches in Mesopotamia in 1847 he put forward this idea, while clarifying that it was at the same time merely a supposition (Loftus 1857 43, 45).

In the southern parts of the land, too, the Pallacopas became supposedly sighted on occasion. The idea that the canal ran into the Persian Gulf had become well-established and so we see William Ainsworth, also part of the Euphrates expedition, stating that a large canal which ran some 20km southwest of present-day Basrah must have been its southern extent. This idea is also put forward 50 years later, when Henry Swainson-Cowper travels through the area in 1894 (Cowper 1894 416, 419).

Mapping the Pallacopas

A second way of revealing ties with the academic community occurs through the maps which are added to the narratives. Such maps were originally meant to inform the reader of the routes taken by the traveller and to provide a visible image of this land so far removed from home. However, from the start these maps were also imbued with more historical meanings, as they often depicted the presumed locations of ancient cities or famous canals. They present an image of the land that is both based on observation and on secondary literature; originally classical and biblical texts formed the main sources of cartographic information (for instance Philippe de La Ruë’s 1651 ‘Assyria Vetus Diusia in Syriam, Messopotamiam, Babyloniam et Assyrian’, in: La Terre Sainte en six cartes géographiques) but as time went by the level of factually observed data increased (see in this case the maps included in Dapper 1680 or Vander Aa’s edition of travelogues). The choice between depicting the ‘actual’ or the ‘historical’ landscape became an explicit choice: while some maps, such as Irwin 1792, were used to show only the observed landscape features, others, such as the one of Dr. Vincent or Rennel, blended these with elements from geographical texts.

In light of this dual aspect to cartography we witness that in the course of the 19th century certain travellers’ maps integrate into their depiction an image of the Pallacopas as if it was still clearly visible in the landscape. Examples of this practice are revealed for instance in the map accompanying Mignan’s travels (Mignan 1829). In a cartographically highly distorted image of the land, the Pallacopas is shown running from the regions of Kerbela to the Persian Gulf even though it has no bearing on Mignan’s journey. A second example lies with the maps accompanying Layard’s adventures, which show the canal between Hit and the Gulf (Layard 1887, the map of which probably goes back to a mid-19th century predecessor).

This choice of including geographical elements which were not only unobserved by the traveller but whose nature was also unresolved within academia is evidently an ideological one, made either by the author himself or by the editor of the account. There was no factual reason to include this image of an obsolete canal and as has just been said, some 18th century maps had deliberately abstained from doing so. Pallacopas maps in other words reveal a conscious desire to create a link – through depiction – between the traveller and the academic realms by allowing the journey to take place in a landscape with scholarly rather than purely observational connotations.

In addition, the mode of depiction of the presumed canal allows the maps to be placed within specific cartographic genealogies. In both cited cases the depicted Pallacopas shows obvious resemblances to the image created by Niebuhr, whereas other maps, following Dr. Vincent’s example, suggested a different identification and subsequently gave it a different cartographic form. Thus, apart from revealing the ‘academic’ interests of the traveller, the Pallacopas maps also may have served as a way of ‘choosing sides’, so to speak, in the academic debate.

Illusion and depiction: the non-observation issues of Kinneir and Fraser

However, the desire on behalf of the traveller to provide instructive accounts might in some cases lead him to make overly bold statements in which speculation most evidently surpasses observation. These cases represent what I deem to be the final stages of the informative travel writing in a chorographic tradition and, in light of this paper, it may be witnessed in the accounts of non-specialists over-eager to add their two cents to the Pallacopas question. It is important to note that these cases can show a slight chronological overlap with the more observation-based speculation of e.g. Winchester. In a manner of speaking, both the latter and the former are transformations of reality. Yet as time went on and more accurate data on the land became available, we may suppose geographical remarks which weren’t based on observation to disappear from the travelogue. On a side note, such remarks seem more easily to have been retained in the specialised literature, where an implied objectivity at times allows the statement of supposition as fact (note for instance George Rawlinson’s remarks on the Pallacopas in Rawlinson 1879 57-58).

At least two examples of such would-be observations are available for the Pallacopas; they show some of the final attempts of non-archaeologists or non-Assyriologists at providing all-inclusive landscape histories and the digression beyond actually observed geographical phenomena.

The first is by James Macdonald Kinneir, who wrote his Geographie Memoir on the Persian Empire in 1813. The title alone suggests that Kinneir wished to write an influential geographical work; the fact that Iraq, at that time, wasn’t part of the Persian Empire at all is already an indication of the limited reliability of Kinneir, as well as, by inference, of the mingling of fact and fiction. In it, he also writes on the nature and the location of the Pallacopas, which he claims to contain water from the Euphrates to Najaf. Its dry bed between Najaf and the Persian Gulf would also still have been visible. The Pallacopas, he states, was abandoned after the desertion of Kufah during our Middle Ages, only to be cleared out and reopened in the late 1700’s (Kinneir 1813 284).

The remarks are interesting enough in their attempt at tying antique texts into recent and contemporary geography; however, the factual value of Kinneir’s supposition is less certain. He obviously believed that the western Euphrates branch was the same as the Pallacopas, yet he doesn’t mention this branch by name, rather opting to state speculation as fact. The statements regarding its abandonment and reconstruction are likewise linked to the Hindiyah canal (they are also noted for instance in Rich 1839 31) and probably lie at the basis of Loftus’ later identification of the riverbranch with the Pallacopas, but their factual basis is equally unclear. Claiming that the canal continued all the way to the Persian Gulf doesn’t imply that he actually saw it as such: he was most likely copying statements made by earlier travellers, most importantly of all Niebuhr, who had likewise connected the separate observations of his canal into an unobserved super-structure. In short, at face value Kinneir’s report evidences an attempt at providing a regional landscape history, but this is in fact merely a collation of suppositions and earlier accounts, themselves still clouded in uncertainty.

A similar case is presented in James Baillie Fraser’s account of travels in the Middle East in 1834. He states that the lands between Najaf and Basrah are a vast marsh, due to the destruction of the banks of the Pallacopas. The remark may go back to an actual bursting of the banks of the Euphrates and subsequent flooding of the lands along the Hindiyeh and along the lower Euphrates in the late 18th and/or early 19th century, but similar to Kinneir, Fraser’s account is an exaggeration. Certainly not the entire region between Najaf and Basrah was a swamp; rather there were individual spots of marshland. Any direct reference to the western Euphrates branch is again left out in favour of the Pallacopas. Finally, the remark doesn’t go back to a factual observation, as Fraser seems never to have travelled further south than Najaf. (Fraser 1840 Vol. 2 25)

To conclude, in these examples we witness a desire to provide historical and geographical insights leading to a presentation of the land in ways quite distant from factual knowledge, let alone observation. Nevertheless the accounts implicitly presume to be giving factual information.

The distancing of travel and science

As time went on, the relationships between traveller and academic became increasingly strained. The study of the land had by the second half of the century largely moved away from the former and into the hands of the armchair academic, the excavation archaeologist or the geologist. The core of scientific study had clearly moved away from the traveller and into the hands of the specialist, even if the latter might still resort to the paradigm of travel writing as a way of reaching a wider audience (Peters’ archaeological journeys of the late 19th century are an example of this (Peters 1898)). The Pallacopas question was put more strongly in European academic communities, where newly discovered Arabic and cuneiform texts were now being looked at for additional information and purely academic literature began to speculate on its location and its possible relationships with the Sa’deh (see below).

The amount of material used within these Pallacopas discussion, and the very nature of the discussion itself, was in other words continuously becoming more complex, as scholars from Great Britain were proposing different theories than their French colleagues, and the readings of the original texts, both cuneiform and classical, remained open for discussion (e.g. Rawlinson 1875 591 and Delattre 473-474; Boiy and Verhoeven 1998). Though at first there was little unanimity, by the close of the century the canal originally seen by Niebuhr would become reinterpreted: rather than being the Pallacopas, it was now deemed to be a much younger canal, dating from the 4th century A.D. It did retain some connection with the Pallacopas, though, in the suggestion that this younger canal might in part have been a reopening of the older system. Eventually this theory would become adopted as an academic certainty.[4]

In short, any single traveller could no longer presume to play a vital part in these discussions. In addition, Assyriology and much more so archaeology, the main candidates for the study of regional historical geography, were rapidly developing as ‘scientific’ disciplines, cutting ties with the travellers which had to all effect been their predecessors. In light of the more precise information available, travel narratives became perceived as ill-informed and therefore negligible sources of information. The early overviews of the development of Mesopotamian archaeology offer a good example of this attitude, as they implicitly stress that ‘true’ archaeology came into being only in the late 18th century. Travelogues are hardly mentioned, and all interests goes either to the official survey missions and the famous excavators (Rogers 1900; Hilprecht 1903; Budge 1920; Parrot 1947; Goudie 1987 11-25; this issue is dealt with in more detail in Ooghe, B., ‘The rediscovery of Babylonia’, forthcoming). The 19th century academic studies of the Pallacopas question, too, cease to mention travel literature as a source of information in the way that Niebuhr had done.

During the second half of the 19th century, the travel account as a result largely alters from an instructive to a diversionary text. No longer aiming to provide overall histories or reinterpretations of the ancient land features, travellers will start to write much less about the history of the land and more about the adventures and emotions of their own experiences. Contemporary observations regarding the state of the region and the practicalities of travel became more important as a new class of traveller, emulating aspects of tourim.[5] Elements such as these had from the very start been an integral part of travel literature, which had always pointed to travel modes, exciting developments en route, stories of relationships with local people etc. These elements were still present in the descriptions of certain 19th century surveys (e.g. Lynch 1839). Now, however, they much more evidently take over from attempts at chorography or detailed historical excursuses. As a result, the Pallacopas question is almost entirely absent from such writings and its image disappears from traveller’s maps which now more clearly show only the perceived contemporary geography. Eventually the link between travel and science will disappear almost entirely, as travel for the purpose of research becomes prominently presented as such, its accounts published in specialised journals and distancing itself for the most part from narrative modes of writing,[6] becoming rather incorporated into elaborate records of survey or historical geographies of the land.


By the early 20th century, the link between travel and science had all but disappeared from the field of Mesopotamian studies, even if narrative traditions might continue to be noted in a handful of specialists’ accounts. As for the Pallacopas itself, I can close by saying that a subsequent century of study has not yet been able to rediscover its bed. Scholarship remains divided between possible locations of its head, for which three suggestions are presently being considered (Boiy and Verhoeven 1998). The gap created between landscape studies and early travel narratives has left much of the earlier discussions on the Pallacopas forgotten. Perhaps, in the end, the Pallacopas, while once existing as a visible feature in the landscape, has over the centuries come to exist more readily in the mind of the explorer than that it has presented any observable reality. It has become entwined in theory and speculation, its bed has been ‘observed’, reconstructed and abandoned in academic literature on and off for over two centuries. Maybe the continued study of the relict landscape through remote sensing or the translation of new textual sources may eventually reveal its original location. Then again, maybe there is something to say in favour of such an elusive, almost mythical feature that has managed to captivate so many generations of travellers and scholars.

Bart Ooghe

Notes de pied de page

  1. ^ Bart Ooghe is presently finishing a PhD on European travel literature relating to landscape reconstruction of 15th-19th century Lower Mesopotamia/Iraq. This paper is based on a lecture given at the conference orders and Crossings VI (Palermo, Sept. 7-9, 2006).
  2. ^ This situation has slowly started to change only in the past few years. An article on the role of travel in the studies of the Near East, entitled ‘The rediscovery of Babylon’, is currently in preparation.
  3. ^ The most likely modern transcription of this name, which will be maintained throughout this text, is Jari Sa’deh.
  4. ^ On the altering academic perception of the Jari Sa’deh, see Ooghe, ‘Deconstructing the Sa’deh), forthcoming.
  5. ^ This term should be used with caution, as the Mesopotamian region remained to the great majority of the public too remote to form the object of mass-tourism witnessed for instance in the eastern Mediterranean.
  6. ^ Exceptions, of course, do exist, as in the case of Alois Musil’s historical geography of Mesopotamia (1927), a travelogue which, while abounding in historical excurses virtually unequalled in length, also clings to the old form of travel narrative.

Référence électronique

Bart OOGHE, « VISIONS OF PALLACOPAS », Astrolabe - ISSN 2102-538X [En ligne], Décembre 2006, mis en ligne le 25/07/2018, URL :