When we think of Iraq, we imagine endless deserts and barren land. But, the region between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers that cut through the old Mesopotamia used to be a very fertile region. And, very often, it had to deal with torrential rains. Tinco Lycklama happened to be in Baghdad when the Tigris swelled to such proportions that it almost wiped away the whole city. Fortunately, he had a quffa.
In the winter of 1866-67, Tinco Lycklama lived three months inside the city, across from the mission of the Discalced Carmelites. Early March, his health was failing and he moved to a countryhouse, about three kilometers out west. He felt the air would do him good. One day, after eight days of incessant raining, he woke up and found the house surrounded by water. A major dam had broken, three hours north of Baghdad, and the Tigris had flooded the whole region. The disaster was the worst in living memory.
In his travelogue, Tinco explains us in detail what happened. And, he also tells us how Baghdad survived thanks to the tremendous solidarity and mobilisation of all citizens. Even the Turkish viceroy of Baghdad, Mehmed Namik Pasha, worked through water and mud to help fortify the city walls with his bare hands.
Bad timing for Tinco. He had waited for the spring season to start his archaeological expeditions in the region. He intended to go and explore the location of the ancient city of Babylon, about 120 kilometers south of Baghdad. But, to do so, he needed to obtain official papers and protection from his friend the viceroy.
Without other means of communication or transportation, Tinco decided to sail over the flooded countryside and through Baghdad, towards the governor’s downtown palace. It took him no more than half an hour. Tinco used a “coffe” – more commonly named “quffa” (but one finds all sorts of spellings).
The quffa is a kind of round boat that you still encounter today in modern Iraq, in particular with the ‘marsh arabs‘. Through archaeological evidence we find that the concept of these boats dates from ancient times. It is depicted on reliefs that date back to the 7th century BCE. In 2014, a newly decyphered 4000-year-old tablet suggests that, in the oldest version of the story, the ark of Noah may have been round.
It is on such a quffa that Tinco sailed all the way up to the entrance of the palace of Mehmed Namik Pasha. He got his papers, and the viceroy even assigned an armed guard to accompany him during his expedition. We’ll see that some of these quffa were pretty big, as Tinco even carried horses on them to cross the heavily flooded areas on his way to Babylon.