Andrey A. Leonov

Swamp - a "Nursery" for the Civilization


What is a swamp for the modern people? This is a surly area, unfit for human activity. The society recognizes the ecological value of swamps, but with the development of world civilization the notion to the swamp as a sacred phenomenon had erased from people's memory.


The reasons on which the swamp was a "nursery" for the ancient and medieval peoples:

- marshy areas were "breadwinners". For example, the ancient inhabitants of the marshy valley of the Nile and the Euphrates received abundant harvests because of spills of these rivers, which were accompanied by fertile silt sediments. Wet meadows with lush vegetation used for grazing in all regions. Rich fields for agriculture have been turned after wetlands reclamation. Furthermore, the marshy area was very attractive for fishing and hunting

- swamps were "protectors". The tribe that lived in muddy marshland was protected from sudden attacks of the enemy, who did not know the safe paths to the settlement among the bogs.
For various reasons swamps were shelters for the people. For example, in order to avoid the dictates of another people.

Adam of Bremen said about the ancient Prussians: Living , moreover, in inaccessible swamps, they will not endure a master among them [1].

Also chronicler Gall Anonim in The Deeds of the Princes of the Poles said about Prussia: For their land is so well protected by lakes and marshes that castles and cities would not protect it better. So the land has never been subdued by anyone, for no one has ever been able to ferry themselves and an army across so many lakes and marshes [2].

The barbarians often found refuge during the war in swamps. For example, an episode of the campaign of the Byzantine strategos ("commander") Prisca and his taxiarch ("brigadier") Alexander against the Slavs, had been described in the History Theophylact Simokatta: And so Alexander crossed the adjacent river and encountered Sclavenes. But the barbarians, on beholding enemies in sight, made their escape to the nearby marshes and the savage woodland, while the Romans tried to catch them. But when they reached the mire, they fell into overwhelming difficulty, and the whole contingent would have perished if Alexander had not quickly extricated the Romans from the swamp [3].

In the book The History of Francs it was mentioned about dwelling of the people of the Alans in the "marsh shelters": We defeated the Alans, brave, indomitable people, which the Emperor with all the Roman army could not expel from the marsh shelters [4].

In accordance with its protective function, the marshes were also "storages" for the accumulation of material resources. For example, the testimony of S. Herberstein (XVI century): The city [Bieloiesero], by the way, does not stand in the lake itself, as some have said, but is surrounded on all sides with marshes, so that it seems to be impregnable. For this reason, the princes of Russia are accustomed to store up their treasures there [5].

- It is necessary to mention about a very important function of wetlands as a sources of bog ore, raw materials, such as limonite, which could be available for the production of iron from about VII century BC up to the XVII century.



To examine the realities of the ancient swamp, we have to define the terminology. What is the meaning of the term "swamp"?
There are a few of the most common words In English, which means "wetland". Each of them has its own peculiarities:
marshe - a wetland that is dominated by herbaceous rather than woody plant species. It is low poorly drained land that is sometimes flooded and often lies at the edge of lakes, streams, etc., often having an abundance of reeds, rushes, cattails, and other tall grasses.
swamp - An area of low-lying wet or seasonally flooded land, often having trees and dense shrubs or thickets.
bog a wet spongy ground of decomposing vegetation, that accumulates peat; has poorer drainage than a swamp. A bog is a domed-shaped land form, is higher than the surrounding landscape, and obtains most of its water from rainfall.
fen - An area of low wetland having peaty soil and typically being less acidic than a bog. A fen is located on a slope, flat, or depression and gets its water from both rainfall and surface water.
Along with bogs, fens are a kind of mire (sometimes called a peatland).
mire or quagmire - is a wetland terrain without forest cover dominated by living, peat-forming plants.
In this paper, we did not want to focus on one or another type of wetlands. Terminology of marsh was used whatever the classification on the physical and biological characteristics.


From time immemorial

The image of the swamp as a "nursery" of civilization, as a kind of sacred ground and the ancestral home of the elite of humanity had derived from the ancient times.
All ancient notions of a paradise earth had been also linked to a swamp.

Sekhet-Aaru, which had been translated from the ancient Egyptian as a reed fields was Paradise in the representation of the ancient inhabitants of the Nile Valley.
According for the ancient texts, "reed fields" gave a very abundant harvests. It was the image of the swamp which had been embodied in temple architecture of ancient Egypt.
Numerous columns on the sides of the passages in the courtyards and halls, stylized giant reed shoots of plants together with birds, along reliefs reflected symbolically the world of aquatic plants. This sacred place in a marshy plain, from which once upon a time the life in all its manifestations had been originated. This is the place of the original creation, where Neteru or Gods of Ancient Egypt had gone on vacations. And it is the personification of the Egyptian Paradise - "Reed-Elysees" (or "Reed fields").

Iriy is a mythical place, the ancient name of heaven (paradise) of the East Slavic mythology. According to one of the etymological versions (Kempinski [6]), the term Iriy had been based on the Proto lexeme *ur which meant "water".

From the same row was Old Iranian term Airyanem Vaejah that had sacred ancestral home. The word Airyanem had been formed from the plural genitive case of airya, which consistent with the ancient Egyptian Aaru and ancient Russian Irij. In the Avesta texts Airyanem Vaejah also had been represented as the heated swampy area. ... There is winter, [when] comes to the end, there is a big flood (Vendidad, Chapter 1, 3). [7].

Sekhet-Aaru (or Aalu), as expected had become the prototype of Elysian Fields of Greek mythology, and later they became Champs-Elysees in Paris, which before had been situated among the marshes.


Cities on the marshes

The cities had been built in a swampy areas since the ancient times. Here are some examples from the list of well-known metropolitan cities:

Giant swamps, which had been exist because of the Euphrates spills, had surrounded the ancient Babylon - the first megacity in the human history. We know about this facts thanks to the works of ancient authors and archaeological evidence.

What was an era of ancient Rome? According to Pierre Grimal The civilization of Rome: In fact, the ruins of ancient Rome era had been detected in the depths of the Eternal City, (traces of sanctuaries, which arose around the center and there were poor construction). Rome had been a very unhealthy place. The center of the future city, between the Capitol and the small hill, later was known as Veliem . It was a marshy placef, and half of which climbed out of the water or plunged into it at each flood of the Tiber. Brooks, which were desceding down the hills, stagnated around the Field of Mars, the place which had been formed by the alluvium of the river meanders between the Vatican Hill and faulted ridges on the left bank of the rocks of the Capitol, the Palatine and Aventine. All low-lying places were swampy [8].

Paris, which had been surrounded by the swamps, firstly had received the Roman name - Lutetia. This name may come from the Latins root ´lut´, which means "mud, silt" or Celtic root ´luto-´ or ´luteuo-´, which means "marsh" or "swamp".
The most prestigious area of the city called the Marais, also means - "swamp". And world famous The Avenue des Champs-Elysees were located among swamps too.

This town had also been founded in the bog-meadow area, and this fact was reflected in its name. The city was founded on the territory populated by Slavs, and therefore its origin name came from the Slavic (Polabian) word berl or birl which means also "swamp".

Dresden the capital of Saxony.
The name had come from the word Drjezdzan (Upper Sorbian), which, in turn, came from Drezdany (Old Sorbian), also meant "people of riparian (wetland) forests."

Initially, London had been a wild and desolate swampy place with a few islands in it.
Among the historic areas of London, Westminster in the first place: Within this space stand, and have stood, so many magnificent buildings closely connected with the annals of England that Westminster may well claim to occupy a unique place in the history of the nation. It is in this place the Royal Palace of Westminster had been built. Later the Palace of Westminster became the residence of the kings of England, and later on it became the seat of the British Parliament and the Royal Supreme Court. But among the marshy places London, Westminster also in first place. The first documents, mentioned about London, told us about those times when Westminster place was as impassable swamp. On the marshy landscape of the ancient London also indicated the names of some places such as Wapping (which means "swamp") and Fenchurch in the City of London (meaning "church on the swamp").

Ravenna became the capital of the Western Roman Empire (since the time of Emperor Honorius) and the residence of Lombard kings.
In the I century Strabo said about it: Situated in the marshes is the great [city of] Ravenna, built entirely on piles, and traversed by canals, which you cross by bridges or ferry-boats. ( Strabo, Geography Bk.V, Ch.1,7 [9])

Brussels and Bruges (The capital of Flanders in the VII century)
The name of Brussels had been firstly mentioned as Broucsela, which then transformed into modern French and Flemish Bruxelles, Brussel. The place-name consists of Flemish roots broek "marsh" and zele "settlement,village", that is why the name of Brussels means literally "settlement in the marsh" [10].
A similar meaning has the name of the city of Bruges. The word "Braga", which in the language of the Celts, Belgians also can be translated as "marsh".

Amsterdam is the city which had been built on stilts in swamp. Foundations of buildings of the old city stand on the fir piles, scored in the swampy soil which consists of silt, sand and clay. Several centuries ago, about 5 million fir piles had been jammed into the soil under the foundation of the city.
Russian Tsar Peter the Great, who learnt the art of shipbuilding in Amsterdam, was fascinated by that city and built a similar one on the pile in swampy area, which we know as St. Petersburg. Later on it became the new capital of the State of Russia.

Even the capitals of different countries such as Baku, Tbilisi, Quito had been built in the marshy hollows between mountains or foothills.

Not only the cities but the whole countries, as soon as the historical areas and regions had swamp landscapes (and proper etymology of their names associated with the word for "swamp")

Suomi. The name Suomi (Finnish for "Finland"), according to the common version, may represent fen land (suo "fen" + maa "land"): Finland was named by the native people as kainu = swamp or suomi with the same meaning. The first name came from the West, the second - from the East [11].

County of Flanders was a historic region, lowland swampy area, on the territory of modern France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Netherlandish placenames Vlaanderen, Vlaming and Vlaams mean "overstroomd gebied" (flooded area), derived from the Old Frisian flamsk (with the addition of the suffix andra), the roots of which are Germanic *flaumaz meaning "overflow, flooding" [12].

Pannonia is the old historical name of present-day western Hungary, eastern Austria and partly of Slovenia. Pannonia was an ancient province of the Roman Empire. In some Indo-European languages, this name means "marsh", including ancient Prussian pannean. Thracian pani (cf. English fen). From the Proto-Indo-European root *pen-, "swamp, water, wet" (Julius Pokorny [13])

Silesia is a region of Central Europe now located mostly in Poland, with small parts in the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Germany. According to some Polish Slavists the name Sleza or Slez is directly related to the Old Slavic words sleg or slag, which means "dampness, moisture or humidity" [14]. Compare also with Germany Slilze "swamp", and Russian (slize) "slime".

Prussia was a historic region in the south-eastern coast of the Baltic Sea. The landscape of this area included numerous lakes and marshes. Chronicler Gall Anonim in The Deeds of the Princes of the Poles said about Prussia: For their land is so well protected by lakes and marshes that castles and cities would not protect it better. So the land has never been subdued by anyone, for no one has ever been able to ferry themselves and an army across so many lakes and marshes [2].
The Latin name Borussia, Arab Burus as soon as ethnonym Bruzi from the Bavarian Geographer can suggest that this name may be associated with an old Dutch word bruoc (swamp), which was later transformed in Bruz / Brus (according for Bruoc'sella> Brus'sella analogues). According for the latest archaeological researches, the groups of inhabitants of the western coast of the Baltic Sea ancient Frisii- really penetrated to the land on the outskirts of the Sembians at the end of V century BC. [15]

Muscovy is a historico-geographical term, used in the 16th17th centuries in Western Europe for Grand Duchy of Moscow and Tsardom of Russia.
According to the opinion of foreign middle Ages diplomats and travelers, Muscovy was very marshy country.
The whole country is marshy and woody, so that travelers can take no exact account of the road, on account of the numerous marshes and windings of the rivers (Sigismund von Herberstein [5]).

... The whole Muscovy crossed by large rivers which, are rising from the spring snow and ice melting as far as the fields were turned into swamps, and the roads covered by the standing water and deep mud, which can not dry until the Russian rivers and swamps again covered with ice at the beginning of the next winter, so you can drive safely on them (Paolo Giovio [16]).

... The vast forests and swamps, which served as a barrier, made everyone to keep closer to the main roads ... (Albert Pighius [17]).

... A large part of it [Muscovy] is a wild desert, covered with bushes and swamps (Georg Tectander von der Jabel [18]).

Siberia was an extensive geographical region in the north-eastern part of Eurasia. According to G.J.Ramstedt [19] the name Siberia had comes from the Mongolian word Sibir (or Kalmyk - siwr) - "Thicket, wet area".

Taman is a historical region in the south of Russia (The Taman Peninsula), in the ancient times it was the part of the Kingdom of the Bosphorus. Later it became the center of the Great Bulgaria. And after that, it was the place of the ancient kingdoms Tmutarakan. The name originated from the word "" (Adyghe language), which also means "swamp" [20].

Orda was an ancient city in the lower reaches of the Dnieper, and the camp of Mamai too. (Mamai was the powerful military commander of the Blue Horde). The word (orda ) in Old Russian language meant "swamp". Later this large area was named as " " (Grand Meadow) belonged to the Zaporizhian Sich (Cossack settlements). Because of its wetland " " was a symbol of the Cossacks safeness and freedom.



To be continued:

Marsh peoples;
Army marsh tradition;
Marsh regalia monarchs;


1. Adam of Bremen - History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen (Francis J. Tschan (Translated, Introduction and Notes)) Columbia University Press, 1959
2. The Deeds of the Princes of the Poles (Translated and annotated by Paul W. Knoll and Frank Schaer, With a preface by Thomas N. Bisson) Central European University Press 2003
3. The History of Theophylact Simocatta,VII,10-11 (An English Translation with Introduction and Notes Michael and Mary Whitby) Oxford University Press,1986
4. Das Buch von der Geschiche der Franken // Quellen zur Geschichte des 7. und 8. Jahrhunderts. Ausgewaehlte Quellen zur deutschen Gechichte des Mittelalters. Bd. 4a. Darmstadt. 1982
5. Notes Upon Russia: Being a Translation of the Earliest Account of that Country, Entitled Rerum Moscoviticarum Commentarii. Sigmund Freiherr von Herberstein. Hakluyt society, 1851.
6. Andrzej Kempinski: Encyklopedia mitologii ludow indoeuropejskich. Warszawa: Iskry, 2001

7. Vendidad, Chapter 1, 3.
8. . . : -; .: , 2008
Strabo, Geography, H.C. Hamilton, Esq., W. Falconer, M.A., Ed., London 1854-1857
10. .. : . : .: : 1998
11. . . . .: . . , 1906.
13. Indogermanisches etymologisches Worterbuch 2 Bde. Francke: Bern-Munchen, 1959
14. Rudolf Fischer. Onomastica slavogermanica. Uniwersytet Wroclawski. 2007. t. XXVI. 2007. str. 83. (
15. . , , 1992
16. , , VII (. . ) // . 1. . 1836 :
17. VII (. . . C) // . 1. . 1836 :
18. (. . . ) // . 1602-1603 . . . 1896. :
19. . : 4- .: . . = Russisches etymologisches Worterbuch / . . . 4- ., . .:
20. // . . .


The article was translated by Leyla Leonova, (Cambridge Preliminary English Test (PET) Certificate, not professional)