The Book of History, Vol. 6

The Book of History, Vol. 6

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Excerpt from The Book of History, Vol. 6: A History of All Nations From the Earliest Times to the Present With Over 8000 Illustrations; The Near East

Mediterranean Africa is divided into two sharply defined geographical regions, an eastern and a western. In the east the coast line sinks back to the south; in the west it juts out towards the north; and while on the eastern edge the desert regions extend to the sea, in the western and projecting part there rises a country of mighty mountains with snow - covered peaks and foaming torrents, and of fertile valleys and well-watered plains. Here, then, tribes of agriculturists could develop into powerful nations, while the east is the home only of nomads. Only at one point in the eastern coast, in modern Tripoli, just where the tableland of Barca projects like a peninsula into the sea, lies a feeble counterpart of the western mountainous region, an agricultural district formerly the possession of the once flourishing Greek colony of Cyrene.

But if the coast-line in the east as an independent country is at a disadvantage compared with the west, it has some counterbalancing features. First, it is situated nearer to the ancient civilised countries and came comparatively earlier under their influence; and, secondly, owing to the deep bays that indent its coast, it is the favoured starting-point and terminus of the entire Sudan trade, which is again facilitated by the convenient position of numerous oases. It is no accident that the two most powerful ancient commercial cities of North Africa, Carthage and Cyrene, flourished in the vicinity of the Syrtes.

Communication with the Sudan was in ancient times probably less difficult than at present. There is no doubt that there has been an unfavourable change in the climate. In the northern Sahara especially, the calcareous deposits of dried-up springs, the traces of a formerly richer flora, but, above all, the remains of human settlements in regions now completely uninhabited, speak only too clear a language and assure us that even the deficiency of water in the Algeria of to-day as compared with that of Roman times is not to be referred merely to the decay of artificial irrigation, but must have deeper causes. But if North Africa and, above all, the desert was once better watered and more habitable than it is to-day, then communication also with negritic Africa must have been easier than now, notwithstanding that in early antiquity the camel was not known to the tribes of North Africa. The commercial position of Carthage, as of Cyrene, rested, indeed, to a great extent on intercourse with the Sudan. In Roman times this traffic appears to lessen or completely to cease; the Arabic era first roused it to fresh activity. Parallel with climatic changes there is in the course of history no lack of topographical changes: the rising of the Tunisian coast, which caused many of the famous harbours of antiquity to be silted up, is to be especially mentioned.

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