Saturday, August 05, 2006


Environment & Ecology

By: Prof. M. R. Izady

Over the past 100,000 years, Kurdistan has seen several cycles of dry and wet spells, resulting in the advance and retreat of lush vegetation in the region and drastic changes in the nature and abundance of local flora and fauna.

At the height of the most recent Ice Age, large tracts of land in the higher elevations were barren due to the persistent cold and much more extensive glaciation on the higher points. Permanent glaciation existed as low as 5,000 feet, and glacial ice flowed down to elevations no higher than 3,500 feet (Wright 1960:89-90). The lower regions received less precipitation, because of a shift in the climatic zones and a southward shift in the jet stream.

At the time of the domestication of crops and animals in Kurdistan, around 12,000 years ago, a good deal of glacial ice was still present, and there existed a precipitation regime not dissimilar to that of today, although its seasonal pattern was quite different. The most prominent feature of the ecosystem at this time was its pervasive and rich grassland, with a wealth of seed grasses and plantago weed, as well as bulbed and other kinds of flowers (Wright 1968, 334-339). Large herds of wild sheep, goats, boars, carnivorous mammals, and migratory birds were present to tap this wealth of food. The area was ideal for the invention of two new and revolutionary technologies: agriculture and livestock domestication. The territory of Kurdistan, along with the adjacent lowlands of Mesopotamia and Syria-Palestine, took the historical title of "Fertile Crescent" for this reason.

The last episode in climatic and ecological change began around 8000 years ago, with the final retreat of the glaciers and the return in full force of warm, rain-bearing clouds stimulated by a northward shift of the jet stream. This Asian monsoon regime advanced well onto the Iranian plateau to the east of Kurdistan around 6000 years ago, creating vast inland lakes. This greatly accelerated the retreat of the ice and the proliferation of vegetation up the slopes of Kurdistan by adding adequate summer rainfall to the already generous winter and spring precipitation on these mountains.

The cold tundra and sparse grasslands gave way to thick forests of cedar, pine, juniper, oriental cyprus, ash, poplar, sycamore, and most importantly, chestnut and oak. Large stands of fruit and nut trees also appeared in the more protected valleys. New animals, such as brown and black bear, proliferated with the new forests. The higher elevations now became the grasslands.

The Asian monsoons began a slow retreat back south about 4000 years ago, dramatically cutting the summer rains. While the vegetation in the higher elevations in Kurdistan could tolerate this reduction of rainfall because of lower annual temperatures (and thus evaporation rates), the lower grounds and valleys were left in a fragile state. The neighboring Iranian plateau was devastated. The long and slow trend toward desiccation continues to the present day.

The extant literature from the cuneiform archives of Mesopotamian civilizations, beginning with the 4000-year-old epic of Gilgamesh, all celebrate the Zagros as the land of the "Cedar Forest," which stretched "for ten thousand leagues in every direction" (see Popular Culture and Individual Character). "Together they went down into the forest and they came to the green mountain. There they stood still, they were struck dumb; they stood still and gazed at the forest, at the mountain of cedars, the dwelling place of the gods. The hugeness of the cedar rose in front of the mountain, its shade was beautiful, full of comfort; mountain and glade were green with brushwood" (Sandars, trans. and ed., The Epic of Gilgamesh, "The Forest Journey," 1972).

To the ancients these thick, dark mountain woods must have seemed an inexhaustible source of timber for construction and charcoal for brick furnaces and domestic use. But exhausted they became. In fact, by the beginning of the first millennium BC, the cedar forests of the Zagros (konâr in Kurdish) were so exhausted that later versions of the Epic, despite clear geographical discrepancy, ascribe the "Cedar Forest" to Lebanon, where the prized timbers could still be logged in abundance at the time. In fact, some modern scholars, noting the geographical discrepancy but perplexed by the long absence of any large cedar stands in the Zagros, have come to interpret the ancient words of the epic as "Pine Forest" rather than as "Cedar Forest." As the Sumerologist S.N. Kramer asserts, "The Cedar Land referred to would not be identical with the Lebanon to the west but with a land to the east… This is borne out by the fact that the sun-god, Utu, is described in the Sumerian literature as the god who ‘rises from the land of aromatics and cedar." (Kramer 1963:281)

By the time of the advent of the Achaemenians (550 BC), who adhered to the time-honored tradition of using cedar beams for roofing, Kurdistan no longer provided the wood. For his palaces at Susa and Persepolis, the Achaemenian king Darius I had to import cedar from far-off Lebanon. It did not, at any rate, take long for the Lebanese cedars to meet the fate of the Kurdish edars. Many Kurdish forests are relics of a more humid past and are unable to renew themselves once they have been clear-cut in large tracts. Once the forests are clear-cut, the microclimate and the ecosystem they maintain literally evaporate. As such, most of these woods are not a renewable resource in the strict sense of the word, and great care must be given to the exploitation and management of these old forests. First, there went the cedars, followed by the pine. An approximate date for the destruction of the pine forests can be set at about the 3rd or 4th century BC, by noting that pines are depicted as the tree of choice, and pine cones as a favorite motif, in the palace bas reliefs during the Assyrian, Median, and Achaemenian periods, ending in 330 BC—but not later.

This deterioration in plant cover has naturally had a strong and adverse effect on the general climate and the ability of the ecosystem to mend the damage. The damage done in the 19th- and 20th century has dwarfed the total effects of all previous abuses since antiquity. A quick comparison of the current environment with the accounts of European travelers in the past century horrifies the reader with the degree of negative change in the plant and animal wealth of the region. The fertile topsoil, devoid of its protective plant cover, washes away catastrophically under the heavy downpours of spring, and winter snow avalanches alternate with spring mud avalanches to block roads and damage settlements below. The valuable topsoil dumped into the network of rivers carries away not only the future natural productivity of the land but also clogs at alarming rates the dams built to tap the region's vast hydraulic potentials.

Kurdistan is not, of course, alone on this destructive path, as the ecosystems of the neighboring regions, in fact the world over, similarly bear the brunt of human abuse. Very little has been spent on the preservation or revival of plant cover. The perennial existence of a state of siege or outright war in the region has not helped either. The movement of heavy military equipment, bombardments, and intentional fires in the course of military operations have all contributed to the deterioration of the fragile environment.

Bibliography: Herbert Wright, "Climate and Prehistoric Man in the Eastern Mediterranean," in R. Braidwood and B. Howe, eds., Prehistoric Investigation in Iraqi Kurdistan (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1960); Herbert Wright, "Pleistocene Glaciation in Kurdistan," Eiszeitalter und Gegenwart XII (Wiesbaden, 1961); K. Wasylikowa, "Late Quaternary Plant Macro-Fossils from Lake Zeribar, Western Iran," Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 2 (1967); Herbert Wright, "Late Quaternary Climates and Early Man in the Mountains of Kurdistan," Report of the VI International Congress on Quaternary Epoch, Warsaw, 1961 (Lödz, 1964); H. Wright, "Modern Pollen Rain in Western Iran and its Relation to Plant Geography and Quaternary Vegetational History," Journal of Ecology 55 (1969); Charles Reed and R. Braidwood, "Toward the Reconstruction of the Environmental Sequence of Northeastern Iraq," in Braidwood and Howe, eds., Prehistoric Investigations in Iraqi Kurdistan (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); C. Brooks, Climate Through the Ages (London: Ernest Benn, 1949); Arlette Leroi-Gourhan and Ralph Solecki, "Palaeoclimatology and Archaeology in the Near East," Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences XCV (1961); Clark Howell, "Pleistocene Glacial Ecology and the Evolution of Classic Neanderthal Man," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology VIII-4 (1952); Werner Nützel, "The Climatic Changes of Mesopotamia and Bordering Areas: 14,000 to 2,000 BC," Sumer xxx:1-2 (Baghdad, 1976); X. de Planhol, "Limites antique et actuelle des cultures arbustives mèditerranèennes en Asie Mineure," Bulletin de l’Association de Gèographes français 239-40 (1954); Climatic Atlas of Iran (Teheran: Teheran University Press, 1970); Ali Tanoglu, Sirri Erinç, and Erol Tümertekin, Türkiye Atlasi (Istanbul: Milli Egilim Basimevi, 1961); The Epic of Gilgamesh, translated and edited by N.K. Sandars (Baltimore: Penguin, 1972); H. Wright, "Natural Environment of Early Food Production North of Mesopotamia," Science 161:334-339 (1968); W. van Zeist, "Late Quaternary Vegetation History of Western Iran," Review of Palaeobotany and Palynology 2 (1967); H. Bobek, "Die gegenwärtige und eiszeitliche Vergletscherung im Zentralkurdischen Hochgebirge (Osttaurus, Ostanatolien)," Zeitschrift für Gletscherkunde 27 (1940); Jacques de Morgan, Relation sommaire d’un voyage en perse et dans le kurdistan (Paris, 1895); Kramer, S.N., The Sumerians (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963).

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