Long time readers will know that I have been confused by Vavilov’s note that he travelled north of Aleppo to the granary of Syria. I couldn’t figure out how you get to any kind of granary by going north.  Thanks to human networks and the internets, I now have an answer.
The crucial point here is that unless you know the accession number for the samples Vavilov collected, you can’t find out about them, and if you can’t find out about them you can’t find the accession numbers. And none of the original Vavilov data are available through good geographical portals like GBIF. A clear instance of what my friend Luigi calls genebank database hell.
Anyway, Luigi casually mentioned to a wheat guy that he wondered where Vavilov collected wheat in northern Syria in 1926. The wheat guy asked a guy at the genebank in Syria for the data, which eventually found its way here. And the result? An arrow head with its point in the centre of Aleppo.
The first, where Vavilov collected 5 bread wheats (Accessions VIR 17186-17190, for the record), looks now to be slap in the middle of a coach park or something. Perhaps in 1926 there was a market there where Vavilov could just buy samples. More likely this location reflects a recurrent problem in attaching geodata after the fact. It is impossible to be sure, and so one gets an approximate value, which in this case happens to be pretty close to the geographic centre of Aleppo. Google Earth puts that at 36.215549N 37.159279E. .
The second is about 80 km northeast of Aleppo, in the town of Membidj (according to the accession notes). As with Aleppo, it’s in the middle of a built-up area, although unlike Aleppo, the site is towards the edge of town, so perhaps it was a wheatfield in 1926. Vavilov collected three durum wheats there: VIR 17210-17212. I doubt that he could have seen the Euphrates from there, though; at its closest it is about 18 km away. But there’s an intriguing strip of green fields running NE-SW through Membidj. I wonder whether that is the path of a temporary watercourse that drains to the Euphrates?
Ah, but in the end …
For the final accession listed, VIR 17213, if the geodata are to be believed, Vavilov found himself just southeast of the village of Meskene, about 2 km from the river, which is now the dammed great Lake Assad. At the moment it seems to be a field of trees, but I reckon it could easily have been wheat back in the day. And from there, I’m willing to believe that Vavilov did indeed marvel at the Euphrates and all it symbolized, for the past and for the future.
Now all I need is a decent photo of the view across the Euphrates.
Heartfelt thanks to Luigi Guarino, Michael Mackay and Jan Konopka, who know their way around.
- Confession; I didn’t read carefully enough. He says that from Aleppo he “intended to go by car in the direction of Mesopotamia (Iraq) to the Euphrates river.” I assumed he continued north. Mea culpa. [↩]
- The other coordinates, if you want to play with them, are 36.200000N, 37.150000E; 36.516670N, 37.950000E; and 36.016670N, 38.050000E, all deeply suspicious decimal values [↩]