Isabella L. (Isabella Lucy) Bird.

Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) online

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Online LibraryIsabella L. (Isabella Lucy) BirdJourneys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 29)
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may stop at 10 per cent, but the Shah's servant may
think himself generous if he hesitates at 50 per cent.
I have heard it said that when the late Shah was dying
he said to the present sovereign : " If you would sit long
upon the throne, see that there is only one spoon among
ten men," and that the system represented by this speech
is faithfully carried out. I. L. B.




ON January 28 there was a tremendous snowfall, and
even before that the road to Hamadan, which was our
possible route, had been blocked for some days. The
temperature has now risen to 31, with a bitter wind,
and much snow in the sky. The journey does not
promise well. Two of the servants have been ill. I am
not at all well, and the reports of the difficulties farther
on are rather serious. These things are certain, that the
marches are very long, and without any possibility of
resting en route owing to mud or snow, and that the food
and accommodation will be horrible.

Hadji is turning out very badly. He has fever now,
poor fellow, and is even more useless than usual. Abdul
Rahim does not like him to interpret, and calls him " the
savage." He does no work, and is both dirty and dis-
honest. The constant use of pious phrases is not a good
sign either of Moslem or Christian. I told him this
morning that I could not eat from so dirty a plate.
" God is great," he quietly answered. He broke my
trestle bed by not attending to directions, and when I
pointed out what he had done, he answered, " God knows
all, God ordains all things." It is really exasperating.

It is necessary to procure an additional outfit for
the journey a slow process masks lined with flannel,
sheepskin bags for the feet, the thick felt coats of the


country for all the servants, additional blankets, kajawehs
for me, and saddle-horses. The marches will frequently
be from twenty to thirty miles in length, and the fatigue
of riding them at a foot's pace when one cannot exchange
riding for walking will be so great that I have had a pair
of Jcajawehs made in which to travel when I am tired of
the mule. These panniers are oblong wooden boxes,
eighteen inches high, with hoops over them for curtains.
One hangs on each side of the mule on a level with his
back, and they are mounted, i.e. they are scrambled into
from the front by a ladder, which is carried between
them. Most women and some men travel in them.
They are filled up with quilts and cushions. The mule
which is to carry them is a big and powerful animal, and
double price is charged for him.

Horses are very good and cheap here. A pure Arab
can be bought for 14, and a cross between an Arab and
a Kurdish horse a breed noted for endurance for even
less. But to our thinking they are small, never ex-
ceeding fifteen hands. The horses of the Kirmanshah
province are esteemed everywhere, and there is a steady
drain upon them for the Indian market. The stud of
three horses requires a groom, and Abdul Eahim is
sending a sowar, who looks a character, to attend us to
Tihran. A muleteer, remarkable in appearance and
beauty, and twelve fine mules have been engaged. The
sowar and several other men have applied to me for
medicine, having fearful coughs, etc., but I have not been
fortunate enough to cure them, as their maladies chiefly
require good feeding, warm bedding, and poultices, which
are unattainable. It is pitiable to see the poor shivering
in their thin cotton clothes in such weather. The men
make shift with the seamless felt coats more cloaks than
coats, with long bag-like sleeves tapering to the size of a
glove but with a slit midway, through which the hands


can be protruded when need arises. The women have
no outer garment but the thin cotton chadar.

I have tried to get a bed made, but there is no wood
strong enough for the purpose, and the bazars cannot
produce any canvas.

Sannah, Feb. 5. Yesterday we were to have started at
nine, but the usual quarrelling about loads detained us till
10.30, so that it was nearly dark when we reached the
end of the first stage of a three weeks' journey. From
the house roof the prospect was most dismal. It was
partly thawing, and through the whiteness of the plain ran
a brown trail with sodden edges, indicating mud. The
great mass of the Jabali-Besitun, or Behistun, or Behishtan,
though on the other side of the plain, seemed actually im-
pending over the city, with its great black rock masses, too
steep to hold the snow, and the Besitun mountain itself,
said to be twenty-four miles away, looming darkly through
gray snow clouds, looked hardly ten. Our host had sent
men on to see if the landau could take me part of the way
at least ; but their verdict was that the road was impassable.

After much noise the caravan got under way, but it
was soon evident that the fine mules we had engaged
had been changed for a poor, sore-backed set, and that
the fine saddle-mule I was to have had was metamor-
phosed into a poor weak creature, which began to drop
his leg from the shoulder almost as soon as we were out-
side the walls, and on a steep bridge came down on his
nose with a violent fall, giving me a sharp strain, and fell
several times afterwards ; indeed, the poor animal could
scarcely keep on his legs during the eight hours' march.

Hadji rode in a kajaweh, balanced by some luggage,
and was to keep close to me, but when I wanted to
change my broken-down beast for a pannier he was not
to be seen, then or afterwards, and came in late. The
big mule had fallen, he was bruised, the kajawehs were


smashed to pieces, and were broken up for firewood, and
I am now without any means of getting any rest from
riding ! " It's the pace that kills." In snow and mud
gallops are impossible, and three miles an hour is good

An hour from Kirmanshah the road crosses the Karasu
by a good brick bridge, and proceeds over the plain for
many miles, keeping the Besitun range about two miles
on the left, and then passes over undulating ground to the
Besitun village. Two or three large villages occur at a
distance from the road, now shut in, and about eight miles
from Besitun there are marble columns lying on the
ground among some remains of marble walls, now only
hummocks in the snow.

The road was churned into deep mud by the passage
of animals, and the snow was too deep to ride in. My
mule lost no opportunity of tumbling down, and I felt
myself a barbarian for urging him on. Hills and moun-
tains glistened in all directions. The only exception- to
the general whiteness was Piru, the great rock mass of
Besitun, which ever loomed blackly overhead through
clouds and darkness, and never seemed any nearer. It
was very solitary. I met only a caravan of carpets, and
a few men struggling along with laden asses.

It was the most artistic day of the whole journey,
much cloud flying about, mountains in indigo gloom, or in
gray, with storm clouds round their heads, or pure white,
with shadows touched in with cobalt, while peaks and
ridges, sun-kissed, gleamed here and there above indigo
and gray. Not a tree or even bush, on them or on the
plain, broke the monotony after a summer palace of the
Shah, surrounded by poplars, was passed. There is
plenty of water everywhere.

As the sun was stormily tinging with pink the
rolling snow-clouds here and there, I halted on the brow


of a slope under the imposing rock front of Besitun to
wait for orders. It was wildly magnificent : the huge
precipice of Piru, rising 1*700 feet from the level, the
mountains on both sides of the valley approaching each
other, and behind Piru a craggy ravine, glorified here
and there by touches of amber and pink upon the clouds
which boiled furiously out of its depths. In the fore-
ground were a huge caravanserai with a noble portal, a
solitary thing upon the snow, not a dwelling, but offering
its frigid hospitality to all corners ; a river with many
windings, and the ruinous hovels of Besitun huddled
in the mud behind. An appalling view in the wild twi-
light of a winter evening ; and as the pink died out, a
desolate ghastliness fell upon it. As I waited, all but
worn out by the long march, the tumbling mule, and the
icy wind, I thought I should like never to hear the deep
chimes of a Persian caravan, or see the huge portal of
a Persian caravanserai any more. These are cowardly
emotions which are dispelled by warmth and food, but at
that moment there was not much prospect of either.

Through seas of mud and by mounds of filth we
entered Besitun, a most wretched village of eighteen
hovels, chiefly ruinous, where we dismounted in the
mixed snow and mud of a yard at a hovel of three
rooms vacated by a family. It was a better shelter than
could have been hoped for, though after a fire was made,
which filled the room with smoke, I had to move from
place to place to avoid the drip from the roof.

Hadji said he was ill of fever, and seemed like an
idiot ; but the orderly said that the illness was shammed
and the stupidity assumed in order not to work. I told
him to put the mattress on the bed ; " Pour water on the
mattress," he replied. I repeated, " Put the mattress
on the bed," to which he replied, " Put the mattress
into water ! " I said if he felt too ill for his work he


might go to bed. " God knows," he answered. " Yes,
knows that you are a lazy, good-for-nothing, humbug-
ging brute" a well-timed objurgation from M ,
which elicited a prolonged " Ya Allah ! " but produced no
effect, as the tea and chapatties were not relatively but
absolutely cold the next morning.

The next day dawned miserably, and the daylight
when it came was only a few removes from darkness,
yet it was enough to bring out the horrors of that
wretched place, and the dirt and poverty of the people,
who were a prey to skin diseases. Many readers will
remember that Sir H. Rawlinson considers that there are
good geographical and etymological reasons for identify-
ing Besitun with the Baghistan, or Place of Gardens of
the Greeks, and with the famous pleasure-grounds which
tradition ascribes to Semiramis. But of these gardens
not a trace remains. A precipitous rock, smoothed at its
lower part, a vigorous spring gushing out at the foot of
the precipice, two tablets, one of which, at a height of
over 300 feet, visible from the road but inaccessible, is
an Acheemenian sculpture portraying the majesty of
Darius, with about a thousand lines of cuneiform writing,
are all that survive of the ancient splendours of Besitun,
with the exception of some buttresses opposite the rock,
belonging to a vanished Sasanian bridge over the Gamasiab,
and some fragments of other buildings of the Sasanian
epoch. These deeply interesting antiquities have been
described and illustrated by Sir H. Eawliuson, Flandin
and Coste, and others.

It has been a severe day. It was so unpromising that
a start was only decided on after many pros and cons.
Through dark air small flakes of snow fell sparsely at
intervals from a sky from which all light had died out.
Gusts of icy wind swept down every gorge. Huge ragged
masses of cloud drifted wildly round the frowning mass


of Piru. Now and then the gusts ceased, and there was
an inauspicious calm.

I rode a big mule not used to the bit, very trouble-
some and mulish at first, but broken in an hour. A
clear blink revealed the tablets, but from their great alti-
tude the tallest of the figures only looked two feet high.
There is little to see on this march even under favour-
able circumstances. A few villages, the ruined fort of
Hassan Khan, now used as a caravanserai, on a height,
the windings of the Gamasiab, and a few canals crossed
by brick bridges, represent its chief features. Impres-
sions of a country received in a storm are likely to be
incorrect, but they were pleasurable. Everything seemed
on a grand scale : here desolate plateaus pure white, there
high mountains and tremendous gorges, from which white
mists were boiling up everything was shrouded in
mystery plain prose ceased to be for some hours.

The others had to make several halts, so I left the
" light division " and rode on alone. It became dark and
wild, and presently the surface of the snow began to
move and to drift furiously for about a foot above the
ground. The wind rose to a gale. I held my hat on
with one half-frozen hand. My mackintosh cape blew
inside out, and struck me such a heavy blow on the eyes
that for some time I could not see and had to trust to
the mule. The wind rose higher ; it was furious, and the
drift, not only from the valley but from the mountain
sides, was higher than my head, stinging and hissing as
it raced by. It was a "blizzard," a brutal snow-laden
north - easter, carrying fine, sharp, hard - frozen snow
crystals, which beat on my eyes and blinded them.

After a short experience of it my mule " turned tail "
and needed spurring to make him face it. I fought on
for an hour, crossed what appeared to be a bridge, where
there were a few mud hovels, and pressed on down a


narrower valley. The blizzard became frightful; from
every ravine gusts of storm came down, sweeping the
powdery snow from the hillsides into the valley; the
mountains were blotted out, the depression in the snow
which erewhile had marked the path was gone, I could
not even see the mule's neck, and he was floundering in
deep .snow up to the girths ; the hiss of the drift had in-
creased to a roar, the violence of the storm produced
breathlessness and the intense cold numbness. It was
dangerous for a solitary traveller, and thinking that

M would be bothered by missing one of the party

under such circumstances, I turned and waited under the
lee of a ruinous mud hovel for a long, long time till the
others came up two of the men having been unhorsed in
a drift.

In those hovels there were neither accommodation nor
supplies, and we decided to push on. It was never so
bad again. The wind moderated, wet snow fell heavily,
but cleared off, and there was a brilliant blue heaven
with heavy sunlit cloud-wreaths, among which colossal
mountain forms displayed themselves, two peaks in
glorious sunlight, high, high above a whirling snow-cloud,
which was itself far above a great mountain range below.
There were rifts, valleys, gorges, naked, nearly perpen-
dicular rocks, the faces of mountains, half of which had
fallen down in the opposite direction, a snow-filled valley,
a winding river with brief blue stretches, a ruined fort
on an eminence, a sharp turn, a sudden twilight, and
then another blizzard far colder than the last, raging
down a lateral ravine, up which, even through the blind-
ing drift, were to be seen, to all seeming higher than
mountains of this earth, the twin peaks of Shamran lighted
by the sun. I faced the blizzard for some time, and then
knowing that Hadji and the cook, who were behind me,
would turn off to a distant village, all trace of a track


having disappeared, I rode fully a mile back and waited
half an hour for them. They were half-frozen, and had
hardly been able to urge their mules, which were lightly
laden, through the snow, and Hadji was groaning " Ya
Allah \ "

The blizzard was over and the sky almost cloudless,
but the mercury had fallen to 18, and a keen wind was
still blowing the powdery snow to the height of a foot.
I sent the two men on in front, and by dint of calling to
them constantly, kept them from getting into drifts of
unknown depth. We rode up a rising plateau for two
hours a plateau of deep, glittering, blinding, trackless
snow, giving back the sunshine in millions of diamond
flashings. Through all this region thistles grow to a
height of four feet, and the only way of finding the track
was to look out for a space on which no withered thistle-
blooms appeared above the snow.

This village of Sannah lies at an altitude of about 5500
feet, among poplar plantations and beautiful gardens, in
which fine walnut trees are conspicuous. Though partly
ruinous it is a flourishing little place, its lands being
abundantly watered by streams which run into the
Gamasiab. It is buried now in snow, and the only mode
of reaching it is up the bed of a broad sparkling stream
among the gardens. The sowar met us here, the navi-
gation being difficult, and the " light division " having
come up, we were taken to the best house in the village,
where the family have vacated two rooms, below the
level of a yard full of snow. The plateau and its ad-
jacent mountains were flushed with rose as we entered
Sannah, and as soon as the change to the pallor of death
came on the mercury raced down to zero outside, and it
is only 6 in the room in which I am writing.

There is a large caravanserai at the entrance to Sannah,
and I suspect that the sowar in choosing private quarters


bullies the ketchuda (headman) and throws the village
into confusion, turning the women and children out of
the rooms, the owners, though they get a handsome sum
for the accommodation, having to give him an equally
handsome modakel.

After nearly nine hours of a crawling pace and ex-
posure to violent weather, I suffered from intense pain
in my joints, and was dragged and lifted in and put into
a chair. I write " put," for I was nearly helpless, and had
to take a teaspoouful of whisky in warm milk. While the
lire was being made two women, with a gentle kindliness
which won my heart, chafed my trembling, nearly frozen
hands with their own, with kindly, womanly looks,
which supplied the place of speech.

I lay down under a heap of good blankets, sorry to
see them in thin cotton clothes, and when I was less
frozen observed my room and its grotesquely miserable
aspect, " the Savage " never taking any trouble to arrange
it. There are no windows, and the divided door does
not shut by three inches. A low hole leads into
the granary, which is also the fowl-house, but the fowls
have no idea of keeping to their own apartment. Two
sheep with injured legs lie in a corner with some fodder
beside them. A heap of faggots, the bed placed diagon-
ally to avoid the firehole in the floor, a splashed tarpaulin
on which Hadji threw down the saddle and bridle plastered
with mud, and all my travelling gear, a puddle of frozen
water, a plough, and some ox yokes, an occasional gust of
ashes covering everything, and clouds of smoke from
wood which refuses to do anything but smoke, are
the luxuries of the halt. The house is full of people,
and the women come in and out without scruple, and I
am really glad to see them, though it is difficult to rouse
Hadji from his opium pipe and coffee, and his comfortable
lounge by a good fire, to interpret for them.


The day's experiences remind me of the lines

" Bare all he could endure,
And bare not always well."

But tired and benumbed as I am I much prefer a march
with excitements and difficulties to the monotony of
splashing through mud in warm rain.

Hamildbad, Feb. 7. The next morning opened cloud-
less," with the mercury at 18, which was hardly an excuse
for tea and chapatties being quite cold. I was ready much
too early, and the servants having given out that I am
a Hakim, my room was crowded with women and chil-
dren, all suffering from eye diseases and scrofula, five
women not nearly in middle life with cataract advanced
in both eyes, and many with incurved eyelids, the
result of wood smoke. It was most painful to see their
disappointment when I told them that it would need
time to cure some of them, and that for others I could
do nothing. Could I not stay ? they pleaded. I could
have that room and milk and eggs the best they had.
" And they lifted up their voices and wept." I felt like
a brute for leaving them. The people there showed much
interest in our movements, crowding on the roofs to see
our gear, and the start.

The order of march now is light division, three
mules with an orderly, Hadji, and the cook upon them,
the two last carrying what is absolutely necessary for the
night in case the heavy division cannot get on. M
and an orderly, the sowar, Abbas Khan, another who is
changed daily, the light division and I, sometimes start
together ; but as the others are detained by work on the
road, I usually ride on ahead with the two servants.

To write that we all survived the march of that day
is strange, when the same pitiless blast or " demon wind,"
blowing from " the roof of the world " the Parnir desert,


made corpses of five men who started with a caravan
ahead of us that morning. We had to climb a long
ascending plateau for 1500 feet, to surmount a pass.
The snow was at times three feet deep, and the tracks
even of a heavy caravan which crossed before us were
effaced by the drift in a few minutes.

A sun without heat glared and scintillated like an
electric light, white and unsympathetic, out of a pitiless
sky without a cloud. As soon as we emerged from Sannah
the " demon wind " seized on us a steady, blighting,
searching, merciless blast, no rise or fall, no lull, no hope.
Steadily and strongly it swept, at a temperature of 9,
across the glittering ascent swept mountain-sides bare ;
enveloped us at times in glittering swirls of powdery snow,
which after biting and stinging careered over the slopes
in twisted columns ; screeched down gorges and whistled
like the demon it was, as it drifted the light frozen snow
in layers, in ripples, in waves, a cruel, benumbing, blinding,
withering invisibility !

The six woollen layers of my mask, my three pairs of
gloves, my sheepskin coat, fur cloak, and mackintosh piled
on over a swaddling mass of woollen clothing, were as
nothing before that awful blast. It was not a question
of comfort or discomfort, or of suffering more or less
severe, but of life or death, as the corpses a few miles
ahead of us show. I am certain that if it had lasted
another half-hour I too should have perished. The torture
of my limbs down to my feet, of my temples and cheek-
bones, the anguish and uselessness of my hands, from
which the reins had dropped, were of small consequence
compared with a chill which crept round my heart,
threatening a cessation of work.

There were groans behind me ; the cook and Hadji had
rolled off into the snow, where Hadji was calling on Him
" who is not far from every one of us." M was on


foot. His mask was frozen hard. He was using a
scientific instrument, and told his orderly, an Afghan, a
smart little " duffadar " of a crack Indian corps, to fasten
a strap. The man replied sadly, " I can't, Sahib." His
arms and hands were useless. My mask was frozen to
my lips. The tears extorted from my eyes were frozen.
I was so helpless, and in such torture, that I would gladly
have lain down to die in the snow. The mercury fell
to 4.

After fighting the elements for three hours and a half,
we crossed the crest of the pass at an altitude of 7000
feet, to look down upon a snow world stretched out every-
where, pure, glistering, awful ; mountains rolling in snowy
ranges, valleys without a trace of man, a world of horror,
glittering under a mocking sun.

Hadji, with many pious ejaculations, gasped out that
he was dying (in fact, for some time all speech had
been reduced to a gasp) ; but when we got over the crest
there was no more wind, and all the benumbed limbs
resumed sensation, through an experience of anguish.

The road to Kangawar lies through a broad valley,
which has many streams. Among the mountains which
encompass it are the Kuh-i-Hassan, Boka, the Kuh-i-Paran,
and the Kuh-i-Bozah. I rode on with the two servants,
indulging in no higher thoughts than of the comfort I
should have in lying down, when just in front of me
Hadji turned a somersault, my alpenstock flying in one
direction and the medicine chest in another, while he lay
motionless, flat on his back with all his limbs stretched
out, just as soldiers who have been shot lie in pictures.
In getting to him my mule went down in a snow-drift,
out of which I extricated him with difficulty. I induced
Hadji, who said his back was broken, and was groaning
and calling on Allah, to get up, and went on to secure his
mule, which had the great pack-saddle under its body,
VOL. i K


Online LibraryIsabella L. (Isabella Lucy) BirdJourneys in Persia and Kurdistan : including a summer in the Upper Karun region and a visit to the Nestorian rayahs (Volume 1) → online text (page 10 of 29)