I learned about the existence of the hollow plain of Ka’ra, in Iraq, when I was reading Gertrude Bell’s letters.
On the 10th of February, 1911, Gertrude, who is forty-two years old, sets out across the Syrian desert from Damascus to go to Hit, some 600 km east, on the Euphrates River. Both of these cities are, at this time, in the Ottoman Empire, so there are no international borders to be crossed.
She begins on a horse.
I rode my mare all day, for I can come and go more easily upon her, but when we get into the heart of the desert I shall ride a camel. It’s less tiring. (Feb 10)
Not alone, Gertrude (who is fluent in Arabic) is in part of a party of fifteen, some of whom are her employees. She describes them as…
myself, the Sheikh, Fattuh, ‘Ali and my four camel men, and the other seven merchants who are going across to the Euphrates to buy sheep.
For much of this journey they are outside of the zone of Ottoman control.
In half an hour we passed the little Turkish guard house which is the last outpost of civilization and plunged into the wilderness.
Their exact route is not easy to trace from her letters—she does not give many landmarks—but on February 16th she reports that
We came to the end of the inhospitable Hamad today and the desert is once more diversified by a slight rise and fall of the ground. It is still entirely waterless, so waterless that in the Spring when the grass grows thick the Arabs cannot camp here.
She uses the term Hamad to denote the core of the Syrian desert, the highest, flattest part—although other writers call the entire the Syrian Desert the Hamad. On the next day (17th) she writes that they have deviated from their route, which, up to this time, had been almost due east.
So it happened that we had to cut down rather to the south today instead of going to the well of Ka’ra which we could not have reached this evening… the whole day’s march was over ground as flat as a board, flatter even than the Hamad…We had a ten hours march to reach the water by which we are camped.
we got off half an hour before dawn and after about an hour’s riding dropped down off the smooth plain into an endless succession of hills and deep valleys – when I say deep they are about 200 ft deep and they all run north into the hollow plain of Ka’ra.
This is the last we hear about the hollow plain of Ka’ra, which apparently has a series of north-flowing canyons running into it from the south. On the 20th they arrive at the ruins of Muḩaywir in the Wādī Ḩawrān.
We rode today for 6 and a half hours before we got to rain pools in the Wady Hauran, and an hour more to Muhaiwir and a couple of good wells in the valley bed.
The Wādī Ḩawrān and Muḩaywir are not difficult to locate. They show up on this 1959 Times Atlas map of the Middle East, along with the sites she now visits on her way to Hit: Amij, Khubbaz and Kubeisa.
But Ka’ra (or “Kara” as it is spelled in the printed edition of Bell’s letters, rather than the online archive of her diaries and letters) is not there.
Now, if you’re quicker than me, you probably already picked up that on this map, just to the west of Wādī Ḩawrān, there is a “Jumat Qa’ara”—and reasoned that this might be what Gertrude referred to as the hollow plain of Ka’ra. But I missed that, and began a pointless search of Google Maps, OpenstreetMap, geonames.org and Wikipedia for something called the Ka’ra. (There is a Wikipedia entry for “Kara Depression,” but this is a Kara Depression in northern Russia.)
I did, however, noticed on the shaded relief of OpenTopoMap that 40 km west of Muḩaywir there was a 50-km-wide depression with a series of canyons flowing into it from the south. Was this the “the hollow plain of Ka’ra?”
But this feature goes unnamed on online mapping sites.
This shows the weakness of much of online mapping: it is point-based. Area features, which are readily labelled on what we can call “static maps” (maps designed to be printed, or to be a single image you can’t zoom in on) do not make it into the database that underlies slippy maps. Neither do linear features, like rivers. I do not know why OSM, Google et al. try to make everything into points, but points dominate online mapping.
(As an amusing exercise, try typing “Yangtze River” in the search box on Google Maps. You don’t get a very satisfying result.)
However, by luck I found an article by another famous British archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein, written some twenty-nine years later. He was writing about his search for Roman forts along the line from Hit to Palmyra. A lot had changed. World War I had happened; the British had created the mandate state of Iraq; they had built the pipeline to carry the oil from Kirkuk to the Mediterranean, and put pumping stations along it; aircraft were in common use. Stein wrote…
after gaining the pipe-line station H2 for a base, we resumed the survey of the ancient trade route which had led from Hit to Palmyra. I was able to recognize its line clearly both from the air and on the ground also over long stretches right up to where Pere Poidebard had before determined its continuation beyond the Syro-‘Iraq frontier. The line proved to have led with characteristic Roman straightness right across the wide sandy depression of Qa’ara, and not as had been supposed before past the ruins of Qasr Helqum.
Ah, “the wide sandy depression of Qa’ara!” And on his map, there it is, just north of the H2 pumping station, and northeast of Mlosi, labelled as “Al Qa’ara”.
Ironically, the online mapping sites do not even show the H2 pumping station and airfield, although it used to be a standard feature on static maps, like this National Geographic 1960s map of the Middle East.
Mlosi, which Stein also called the “well of Mlosi,” is shown on the National Geographic map as Bi’r al Mulusi, and is probably the same as the Ābār al Malūsī (ابار الملوسي) located by geonames.org at N 33°29′48″ E 40°06′14. (Ābār being the plural of Bi’r, a well.) Qasr Helqum would be Qaşr al Ḩalqūm which geonotes.org places visibly on the north rim of the depression.
Bell doesn’t indicate whether she had heard of the Ka’ra before, but Stein refers to “the wide sandy depression of Qa’ara” as if it is well-known. How did he learn about it? What maps was he using? It would also be nice to know how it is spelled in Arabic, so we could know how it should be transliterated to the Latin alphabet.
Well, it turns out, if I look at more static maps, the hollow plain is consistently labelled.
The 1986 Soviet 1:200,000 scale topographic map I-37-23, has “ВПАДИНА КААРА” ВПАДИНА is a depression.
A 1944 by British Naval Intelligence, from the Perry-Castaneda Library: shows it as “JUMAT QAARA.” (And this is what I see, looking back at the Times Atlas, above.)
And the 1942 map from the US Army Map Service (NJ-43-11 “Rutba”), calls it JUMAT AL QAARA
There are also a number of recent geological papers about this feature. Mustafa and Tobia have one called Modes of Gold Occurrences in Ga’ara Depression, Western Iraq, in the Iraqi Bulletin of Mining, 2010. Their map leaves no doubt that the Ga’ara Depression is the same as Bell’s Ka’ra and Stein’s Al Qa’ara.
The paper’s abstract is in Arabic, so we can see how they render “Ga’ara Depression” in Arabic.
“In Ga’ara Depression” is , which uses the unusual letter gaf-with-line (گ), a variant on kāf (كـ ) which is regularly used in Persian, a language that has a /g/ sound. منخفض Munkhafidun is a depression.
It’s a confusing variety of transliterations: Ka’ra, Qa’ara, Ga’ara. What helps make sense of it is that (as I learn at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Varieties_of_Arabic), the letter ق, pronounced /q/ in classical Arabic, has become a /g/ in both the Iraqi and Nejdi dialects. Typically they still spell these words with a ق (as in Qa’ara), but sometimes they are using the gaf-with-line (as in Ga’ara).
Poking through an Arabic-English dictionary I see that the Q-‘-R triliteral root in Arabic means to be deep, or hollowed out. So, ironically, Qa’ara may simply mean the deep, hollowed out place. This may be why Gertrude Bell called it “the hollow plain of Ka’ra.”
So, now I know where this hollow, sandy plain is, but I am left with one mystery that I can’t solve. On the maps where it is labelled Jumat Al Qaara, or Jumat Qa’ara, what does Jumat mean? Jum’ah (جمعة) is the word for Friday, but it seems unlikely that this is the Friday of Hollows. The J-M-‘ root means to gather or collect, so conceivably this is the Collection of Hollows? I could not find other Jumats to compare this to. Any ideas from Arabic speakers would be welcome.