Clive Bigham Mersey.

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Islam will continue for seventy years, and at the
end of that time Christianity will become supreme,
and will remain so for 400 years, during which time
all creeds will be tolerated. Anti-Christ will then
appear in Egypt, and the Messiah will rise up in
Russia. The last two pages of the manuscript are
said to be missing, so what was to happen after the
cominof of the Messiah is unknown.

The Sabians are probably a very early form
of the Christian Church, for they have far more
points in common with it than with Islam, and
they hate the Mohammedans. The few words of
their language I heard were very like Arabic —
God is Oloho (Arabic, Allah) ; Jesus, Icho (Arabic,


The banks of the river below Mohammerah were
covered with palm trees and date groves, and as we
drew near our goal we saw a crowd of caiques and
feluccas on the estuary. We ran into Busrah about
three o'clock that day, and were put up at the
British consulate.

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The stretch of country on which we were now
entering is called Irak Arabi, and consists of the
two pashalics of Busrah and Baghdad. It is a long
narrow strip, not more than 200 miles broad at any
point, and nearly 400 miles long. The Arabian
or desert frontier runs parallel with the Euphrates,
and is about thirty miles south-west of it. Persia
lies on the east, and the northern end is bounded
by the villayets of Mosul and Zor. The various
names which these provinces have borne from time
to time are worth enumerating. Irak Arabi was
in ancient times called Shumir, the Shinar of the
Bible ; then it became Chaldaea or Babylonia, and,
under the Romans, Mesopotamia. Its capitals have
been in succession, Babylon, Seleucia, Ctesiphon,
and Baghdad. Pars was the original Persia, the
native country of the Achsemenians. Its capitals
were Persepolis and Shiraz. Arabistan is the
ancient Elam, subsequently Susiana, capital Susa.
Mosul, which lies north of Irak Arabi, is the
ancient Accad or Assyria, whose chief town was


Nineveh, near Mosul. Lastly, there is Kurdistan, the
ancient Media, the capital of which was Ecbatana,
now called Hamadan. Of these five great king-
doms of antiquity, two now belong to Turkey, and
three to Persia, but once they were united under
the rules of Darius, Alexander, and the Seleucians.

Busrah itself recalls Venice. It is built on piles,
and the little creeks which run into the Shatel
Arab form the streets. Along the banks of these
canals are built the brick warehouses and villas
of the British traders and Turkish officials. To
the west lie the bazars, and the Arab, Christian,
Jewish, and Sabian quarters. It is Venice without
its palaces, and with a profusion of palm trees.

The tongue of the people is chiefly Arabic, but
Turkish is the official language. Trade is almost
entirely in the hands of the English, and there are
several larg-e mercantile firms. The Tioris is
navigated as far as Baghdad by two steamship
companies, one British and the other Turkish, and
there is also a certain amount of sailing traffic. The
four kinds of boats used are — mehalas, or feluccas,
with one large sail ; kalatches, or pig-skin rafts ;
bellums, a sort of small gondola, and gophers, which
are nothing more than primitive tubs. For some
miles up the river there are beautiful gardens, and
when they end there is swamp with plenty of snipe
and pig. After that the desert.

The town itself is fairly clean, and the bazars are
airy and well stocked. Neither the palace nor the
mosques are worth seeing, and the only good build-


ing is a new military hospital. There are three
Turkish cruisers in the Shatel Arab, armed with
a few guns, but totally unprovided with ammunition.
Their commanders live in terror of the occasional
visits of British men-of-war. Our influence in
Arabia is in fact all powerful, as troops could at
any time be shipped from Bombay to either Busrah,
Baghdad, or even Jeddah. During the Armenian
troubles in 1895, the Turkish officials in Arabia
were afraid of this being done, and the more so,
because they are quite aware that English rule
would be by no means unpopular with the inhabi-
tants of Jeddah or even of Mecca. The Sultan's
authority as Sultan amounts to very little, and as
Caliph it is nothing in Arabia. If he lost the
temporal sovereignty, the Sunnis would quickly
secede from his spiritual rule. So it is difficult
to see where the Turks could establish their capital
if they were turned out of Europe. Mecca is im-
possible, for not only would the Sherif of Mecca
never brook any rival to his power, but also the
means of communication with the rest of the Empire
would depend entirely on the goodwill of the
owners of the Suez Canal. Baghdad is too close
to the Persian and Arabian frontiers, and there the
Sultan would lie at the mercy of lukewarm allies
and bitter foes. At Damascus he would be in the
country of the Nestorians, and at Erzerum in the
heart of Armenia. Angora, Csesarea, or Sivas, in
Asia Minor, where he could count on the firm
support of the Osmanli Turks and their friends,


the Muslim Circassians, would seem to be the only
possible places. But the loss of Stambul would
practically mean the end of the Ottoman Empire.

The British Consul, or Assistant Political Agent
at Busrah, belongs to the Political Department of
the Indian Government. He is under the direct
orders of the Consul-General at Baghdad, who has
at his command a gun-boat of the Indian marine and
a guard of thirty Sepoys. Besides this there are
British mail steamers in Busrah half the week, and
very frequently British men-of-war, so that the Vali
and his myrmidons are quite outnumbered by us.
Still they do their best to make the work of the
Steam Navigation Company as difficult as possible,
issuing absurd regulations by which the Company
are only allowed to run two boats on the river at
a time, although there is plenty of traffic for six.

After seeing the Sabian quarter we embarked on
board the steamer Khalifah for Baorhdad. At Kermah
we passed the mouth of the Euphrates and entered
the Tigris proper. The river is here about 350
yards wide, but higher up it widens to about a
quarter of a mile. The water is muddy, but the
current is swift, and it is deep. The Euphrates is
still swifter but very shallow, a combination which
makes navigation of it impossible.

We passed many wretched little villages built of
mud huts, the natives of which pursued us along
the bank begging for oranges or small coins.
The first place of any size was Amarah, a muddy,
dirty town with a tall, wooden bazar, and old-


fashioned houses with latticed windows, through
which the veiled ladies of the harems looked
out. We stayed there four hours unloading Man-
chester goods, and had to anchor outside all night
owing to the darkness. The higher we went the
more the flood rose, until we could see nothing but
water for miles, and the few Arabs who had not fled
to the mountains were camping out on the tops of
their almost submerged huts. The river bank was
discernible by tall reeds, in which we saw and shot
three or four boar. Now and then the bank dis-
appeared altogether, and twice the steamer wandered
off into the flooded rice fields. Once we steamed
over the top of a village and picked up a miserable
Arab, who had stayed on top of his hut too long.
The people on board were very amusing. They were
all Shiah Indians and Persians going on a pilgrimage
to Kerbela, and of course sworn foes of the indi-
genous Turks and Arabs, who are all Sunnis. They
made their own little fires, and spread out their beds
on deck, and never moved even when a severe
thunderstorm broke over them. As soon as the
sun came out again they took off their clothes and
hung them up to dry on the mast stays.

There were also two Englishmen on the steamer
going to conduct some excavations near Babylon.
Whether they ever reached their destination is
doubtful, as the whole country was under water
and they could only have got there in a gopher ;
besides which the country was " disturbed." The
Arabs had just fought three battles with the Imperial


troops, and had threatened to kill the American
whom our two friends were o"oinor to relieve. The
Turkish authorities at Baghdad would not provide
them with an escort, and the Consul-General refused
to sanction their s^oino- without one.

On the day before we reached Baghdad we passed
the ruins of Seleucia and Ctesiphon. The former
was the capital of King Seleucus, one of Alexander
the Great's generals, and the latter was the metro-
polis of the Parthian kingdom. The only remains
are a fine brick arch and a wing of the royal palace,
which are in a good state of preservation.

We steamed into Baghdad on a Sunday morning,
and found it in danger of being flooded. But we
were not sorry to get off the boat, as we had taken
140 hours to steam 500 miles, a very slow time. We
stayed with Colonel Mocklerat the British Residency
for the next five days.



Baghdad, the Garden of David, was founded by
the Caliph Al Mansor, second Prince of the Abbas-
side Dynasty in 762 a.d., and it at once became the
capital of Islam. Under Harun al Raschid (a.d.
800) it was distinguished for its science as well as
for its elegance and splendour, and we are told that
Baghdad and Bussorah were rival schools of learning.
In 1260 it was taken by the Mongols under Haloko,
and again by the Turks in 1640, since when it has
been governed from Stambul. The population is
now over 200,000 and the city is said to contain
100 mosques and fifty public baths. It lies on the
two banks of the Tigris ; on the western shore live
the Shiahs, the Persian colony who look after the
shrines of Kerbela and Kazimaim, and here is
Harun al Raschid's house and the tomb of his
favourite wife, Zobeida. On the eastern side are
the Sunnis and the Christian traders. The two
banks are generally connected by a bridge of boats,
but while we were there all the traffic was carried
on by means of small launches and gophers, the


bridge having been washed away by the floods.
The desert on the northern side of the town was
under water, and the western fields had become a
swamp and were rapidly sinking out of sight. Every
day 3000 men from the garrison were set to work,
banking up the outer wall and the counterscarp of
the inner ditch. For two days too the populace
itself was impressed to labour from dawn to sunset
against the flood, it being a custom of the city not
to levy taxes but to execute all public works by
forced labour. During this time the shops were
closed, but on the third day the waters went down a
little, and the bazars were opened. We walked
through their fine avenues crowded with people and
well stocked with shawls, silks, belts, gold and silver
cloth, besides many Chaldsean and Assyrian relics.
Many of these are genuine, but the Jews and
Armenians devote themselves to the work of imita-
tion with such clever results that only a connoisseur
should risk buying.

The finest buildinor on the Turkish or Arab side
is the Serai, the Governor's palace, which includes
all the Government offices, the law courts, the river
customs, and police bureaux. The trade of the
place lies chiefly in the hands of three European
firms, Lynch, Holtz, and Sassoon. Consulates are
maintained by England, Germany, Russia, Persia,
France, Austria, America, and Switzerland, the first
four of which are the most important. As at
Busrah, Turkish is the official, and Arabic the
popular tongue.


The finest mosque in Baghdad is that of Kazi-

maim, on the Shiah side of the river, where two of

the holy Imams are buried. But the great place of

interest is Kerbela, a small town lying about sixty

miles west of Baghdad. Here are buried Huseyn

and Hassan, the two sainted sons of Ali, the

Prophet's cousin and successor. Huseyn was killed

here by order of the Caliph Omar, and the place is

still the real centre of the Shiah religion. " Kerbe-

lai," the title given to a man who has made the

pilgrimage to Kerbela, is more esteemed in Persia

than " Hajji," the pilgrim to Mecca. The great

difference between the two sects of Sunnis and

Shiahs is that the Shiahs receive Ali as the direct

successor of Mahomet and as the second Caliph,

while the Sunnis interpose Abu Bekr and Omar,

and insist that Ali was only the fourth on the roll.

The Sunnis also believe that the Caliphate has

descended through the various dynasties of the

Ommiades, the Abbassides and the Memluk princes

of Egypt, to the Sultan who is now the orthodox

Amir el Muminim or Commander of the Faithful.

The Shiahs on the other hand maintain that the

right line of descent was from Ali through his sons

Hassan and Huseyn to the Twelve Holy Imams,

the last of whom disappeared in the tenth century.

The Shiahs believe that this Imam is still livinef and

that he will eventully return as the Mahdi and

ricrhtful Messiah of Islam.

His coming was predicted by the Prophet in the
following passage :


" When you see black banners coming out of
Khorasan, go forth and join them, for the Imam of
God will be with those banners, and his name is
El Mahdi. He will fill the world with equity and

Hence the Persians do not look upon the Shah as
anything more than their temporal sovereign, and
the real power lies in the hands of the Mollahs whose
chief lives at Kerbela. The Shiahs all look to Ali
and his sons as the heroes of their relis^ion. In
Kurdistan there are even some who say that Ali is
God (Aliillahis), and among orthodox Persians the
greatest religious event of the whole year is the
tenth day of Muharrem, the anniversary of the
murder of Huseyn by the Caliph Omar. On that
day all Persia mourns the martyr and execrates
Omar, and no one who has not seen this ceremony
can realise to what lengths the usually impassive
Oriental can be carried by religious enthusiasm. In
Azerbajan, Europeans generally keep to their houses
the whole of the tenth Muharrem, as the mob and
the soldiers are all in a state of uncontrollable

I saw the ceremony once at Constantinople, where
there is a large Persian colony, and even in the
heart of the Sunnis the fervour of the celebrants was
intense. The rite took place after sunset in a large
open caravanserai known as the Valideh Khan.
The Persian ambassador attended as representing
the Shah, and except for a few Turkish soldiers and
European onlookers, the whole assemblage con-


sisted of Persians. The first part of the celebration
was a kind of miracle play, Huseyn and Hassan being
presented, with their children, in the chief acts of
their lives. But soon the play became a procession,
a dreadful sight, which made the few women present
faint. First came a group of men leaping, shouting,
and brandishing torches ; then lads, stripped to the
waist, beating themselves with scourges, which if
they did not actually draw blood made hideous weals.
After these a palanquin appeared, containing child-
ren representing Hassan's orphans, sitting under
huge black banners, and followed by Huseyn's white
horse with a dove tied to its saddle. Then more
torches and lanterns, and turbaned Mollahs chanting
passages from the Koran ; and in the rear a ghastly
group of men wearing nothing but their breeches,
weeping and cutting themselves with knives. Every
now and then a fanatic dropped down exhausted by
the loss of blood. All the time the spectators
kept up loud crying and weeping, and even the
Turkish soldiers joined in. One never forgets the
spectacle of the flashing torches and bleeding flesh,
nor the clashing of the cymbals, and the frenzied
lamentations, nor the gruesome smell of sweat and
warm blood with which the place reeked. The
origin of this worship dates back to pre- Muslim
times, and is a mixture of the fire worship of
Zoroaster, the sacrifices to Baal, and the mourning
for the death of Adonis.

A passage in the Vulgate about the worship of



Baal exactly describes what I saw on the tenth
Muharrem :

Clamabant ergo voce magna, et incidebant se juxta ritum suum
cultris et lanceolis, donee perfunderentur sanguine.

To return to Kerbela and its pilgrims. Rever-
encing Ali and his sons as they do, it is not
wonderful that the Persians prefer to make pilgrim-
ages to Kerbela, Mecca being so much further away
and given over to the Sunnis, with whom they have
little in common. Pilgrimages set out every year
from all the big towns in Persia to the number of
twenty or thirty, the men often taking their families
with them. They move very slowly by day marches
to their destination, preceded by a man with a red
flag. They stay at Kerbela or Meshed about a
month, the richer pilgrims offering gifts at the various
shrines, the poorer collecting relics. Then they set
out on the long tedious way home again, but with
the riofht to bear the title of " Kerbelai," or
" Meshedi," and a certainty of eternal salvation.

We met many caravans of pilgrims, and they
always seemed devout and in earnest about their
journey. Their worst hardship is the extravagant
demands made by officials on the road in return for
a passport. The Persian Consul at Jeddah is said
to make ^5000 a year out of them.

The walls of all the caravanserais on the road
from Baghdad to Teheran are inscribed with " Ya
Ali," " Ya Hassan," and long prayers and sentences


from the Koran, executed by passing Hajjis. It is
certain that these rival pilgrimages do much to keep
up the hatred that exists between the Turks and

Hillah, where the ruins of Babylon are, is within
reach of Baghdad, but we could not get there as all
the intervening country was under water.

While in Baghdad we visited the Vali, Hassan
Pasha, a fine old man who talked most beautiful
Turkish. We also had tea with Rejeb Pasha, the
Field-Marshal commanding the Sixth Army Corps.

He told me he had been at school with Mahomet
Zekki Pasha, and showed us two regiments drafted
from Albania, big bony men and well disciplined,
but not so carefully drilled as those at Ersinjan.

We got together a caravan to take us to Kerman-
shah in Kurdistan, via Khanikin, but we were
delayed three days by a hurricane which made it
unsafe to cross the flooded desert in a gopher. At
last on the 30th of January the wind had sunk
enough to allow us to cross. We crammed our-
selves and our belongings into three gophers, and
after two hours' punting and paddling reached the
road, which was little better than a swamp. We
passed four of the filthiest towns in the world on
this route. In each of them the street was a mass
of black fetid mud, into which our horses sank
up to the girths. The caravanserais had no doors,
and smelt of rotting carcases and vegetables. It
rained every day, and we were never dry until we
reached the snows of Kurdistan. At Khanikin, the

N 2


last of these terrible Turkish towns, we had to
submit to a visit from the Custom House officials.
They took a Longman s Magazine and a Statesman s
Year-Book away with them, but returned them in a
few minutes saying that the head of the office had
read them through and that there was nothing illegal
in them. They then gave us our permission " pour
quitter la Turquie," and next day we re-entered
Persia, gradually getting near the foot of the mighty
Zagros range which borders the Iranian plateau.




Kurdistan is not, strictly speaking, a province.
It lies partly in Persia and partly in Turkey, and
represents roughly the eastern half of ancient Media,
and the western half of Assyria. The Kurds are a
very ancient people, speaking a language of their
own akin to Persian. They are probably the
descendants of the Carduchii or Corducui. Mande-
ville says of Kurdistan :

In that kingdom of Media are many great hills and little of
level ground. Saracens dwell there, and another kind of people
called Cordines.

The Kurds are scattered far beyond the
boundaries of Kurdistan, and their robber reputation
has clung to them since the days of Alexander. In
religion they are both Shiahs and Sunnis, and there
are besides a few Yezeedis or devil worshippers, and
Aliillahis already mentioned. They all have, what-
ever their creed, a great many odd superstitions,
traceable to some extent to the old faith of the

In appearance the men are very handsome, and


the women ruddy and better looking than any we
saw in Persia. They all have an inordinate love of
finery, and wear brilliant colours and a great many
ornaments. The Kurds are hospitable to strangers,
loyal to their chieftains, and cleaner in their habits
than most Persians. Those who have been trained
make excellent soldiers. On our way to Teheran
we nearly always stayed with Kurds, although we
occasionally came across the northern Baktiari, the
Felli Laurs and some migratory Turkish tribes.
The women make carpets which are artistic, though
-somewhat gaudy, and the men occupy themselves
with shooting and pastoral pursuits. Their little
huts are decorated inside with rugs, carpets, shining
brass bowls, enamelled boxes, and now and then a
cheap Russian print.

All through Kurdistan we travelled without an
escort, our cavass from Baghdad having left us at
the frontier. We went by caravan as far as
Kermanshah ; from there to Hamadan we tried to
chapper, but finding the post very slow, took to a
caravan again for the last part of the road.

On the third day of our journey we got into deep
snow. Luckily it was still hard, and although the
air was keen the weather remained good during the
whole journey. Considering that it was in the
wildest part of Persia and the depth of winter we
escaped very easily, nothing worse happening than
frost-bitten ears. We passed strings of Haj
caravans and corpse caravans going to Kerbela. It
is the great wish of all devout Shiahs to be buried

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near the shrine of AH, and the horrid practice of
transporting corpses there in batches for burial is
resorted to. Some of the rich Persians we met
were seated in kejavehs, but they looked miserably
cold, and we were better off riding. The early
morning and the late evening were the most trying,
as when the sun was not up, the cut-up snow on the
track refroze, and we had to ride over a bad verglas.
Once we had to cross ploughed land frozen to the
hardness of iron, and very rough. Here I remember
we passed a solitary Persian muffled up to the eyes,
with a long- orrim-looking coffin sluno- across his
saddle-bow, a sinister figure.

Frequently we had to stop to shoot horses which
had broken their legs and been left by their owners
to die. The nights were spent in little Kurdish huts,
where we were almost stifled by the smoke, and
lived on partridges which cost us twopence apiece.
On February loth we reached Kermanshah, the
mountain peaks around us rising to a height of
16,000 feet, and everything wrapped in a glittering
garment of snow, a really magnificent sight. We
had ridden the 217 miles from Baghdad in eleven
days, which was not fast going ; but very fair, con-
sidering the state of the road. At Kermanshah we
were entertained by the British Agent, a Persian,
whose full name and title were Hajji Mirza Abdul
Rahim Khan Vekil i Dowlit Ingiliz. He provided
us with a comfortable guest-room, and showed us
every sort of hospitality. He and his forefathers
have represented British interests in Kermanshah


during the last eighty years, and he is as eager
over our commercial expansion in Persia as any
Englishman could be.

Kermanshah is a large clean town, with a popula-
tion of about 100,000, mainly Kurds. The bazars
are stocked from Ispahan and Baghdad, and the
chief industry is in carpets. The only buildings of
any interest are the Ark, where the Governor lives ;
the barracks, built to hold a thousand men, but now

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Online LibraryClive Bigham MerseyA ride through western Asia → online text (page 10 of 16)