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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and was kicking with all its might at my bed and " hold-
all," which were between its hind legs, and succeeded in
catching and holding it till Hadji came up. I told him
to unfasten the surcingle, for the animal was wild with
the things among its legs, and he wrung his hands and
beat his breast, exclaiming, " God is great ! God knows I
shall never see Bushire again ! " and was quite helpless.
Seeing a caravan of asses approaching, I rode on as fast
as I could to the well -situated little town of Kangawar,
expecting him to follow shortly. At present the entrance
into Kangawar is up the bed of a stream.

We had been promised good accommodation there,
and the town could evidently afford it, but Abbas Khan
had chosen something very wretched, though it was up-
stairs, and had an extensive snow view. Crumbling,
difficult stairs at each end of a crumbling mud house led
to rooms which barely afforded a shelter, with a ruinous
barn between, where the servants, regardless of conse-
quences, kept up a bonfire. A man shovelled most of
the snow out of my room, and tried to make a fire but
failed, as neither he nor I could stand the smoke produced
by the attempt. This imperfect shelter had a window-
frame, with three out of its four wooden panes gone, and
a cracked door, which could only ensure partial privacy
by being laid against the posts from the outer landing,
which was a flat roof. The wall was full of cracks big
enough for a finger, through which the night wind rioted
in a temperature 5 below zero.

There was nothing to sit upon, and I walked up and
down for two hours, half-frozen, watching the straggling
line of the caravan as it crawled along the valley, till the
sunset flush changed into the chill blue-gray of twilight.
Hadji arrived with it, having broken his girth after I left
him. There was not much comfort after the severe
march, owing to the draughts and the smoke, but one is


always hungry and sleepy, and the cybernation of the
insects makes up for any minor discomforts. It was
so cold that some water in a cup froze before I could
drink it, and the blanket over my face was hard frozen.

Kangawar was full of mourning. The bodies of two
men and a boy, who had perished on the plain while we
were struggling up the pass, had been brought in. This
boy of twelve was " the only son of his mother and she
was a widow." He had started from Kangawar in the
morning with five asses laden with chopped straw to sell
for her, and had miserably perished. The two men were
married, and had left families.

Kangawar is a town of a thousand people built below
a high hill, on some natural and artificial mounds. Some
traditions regarding Semiramis are localised there, and it
is supposed to be on the site of Pancobar, where she
erected a temple to Anaitis or Artemis. Euins of a
fortress, now snow -buried, occupy the crest of a hill above
the town, and there are other ruins, regarded by
antiquaries as Grecian, representing a temple or palace,
"a vast building constructed of enormous blocks of
dressed stone." Of these remains I saw nothing but
some columns and a pilaster, which are built into the
miserable mud walls of a house near the bazar.

At night the muleteers were beseeching on their
knees. They said that they could not go on, that the
caravan which had attempted to leave Kangawar in the
morning had put back with three corpses, and that they
and their mules would perish. In the morning it was
for some time doubtful whether they could be induced or
bribed to proceed. The day was fine and still, but they
said that the snow was not broken. At last they agreed
to start if we would promise to return at the first breath
of wind !

Every resource against cold was brought out and put


on. One eye was all that was visible of the servants'
faces. The charvadars relied on their felt coats and raw
sheepskins, with the fur inside, roped round their legs.
There is danger of frost-bite even with all precautions.
In addition to double woollen underclothing I put on a
pair of thick Chitral socks over two pairs of woollen
stockings, and over these a pair of long, loose Afghan
boots, made of sheepskin with the fur inside. Over my
riding dress, which is of flannel lined with heavy homespun,
I had a long homespun jacket, an Afghan sheepskin coat, a
heavy fur cloak over my knees, and a stout " regulation "
waterproof to keep out the wind. Add to this a cork
helmet, a fisherman's hood, a " six-ply " mask, two pairs of
woollen gloves with mittens and double gauntlets, and
the difficulty of mounting and dismounting for a person
thus swaddled may be imagined ! The Persians are all in
cotton clothes.

However, though they have no " firesides," and no
cheerful crackle and blaze of wood, they have an ar-
rangement by which they can keep themselves warm
for hours by the expenditure of a few handfuls of animal
fuel. The fire hole or tdndur in the middle of the
floor is an institution. It is circular, narrows some-
what at the top and bottom, has a flue leading to the
bottom from the outside, and is about three feet deep
and two in diameter. It is smoothly lined with clay

Over this is the Jcarsi or platform, a skeleton wooden
frame like an inverted table, from two to five feet square,
covered with blankets or a thickly-wadded cotton quilt,
which extends four or five feet beyond it. Cushions are
placed under this, and the women huddle under it all
day, and the whole family at night, and in this weather
all day the firepot in the hole giving them comfortable
warmth both for sleeping and waking. They very rarely


wash, and the karsi is so favourable for the develop-
ment of vermin that I always hurry it out of the room
when I enter. So excellent and economical is the
contrivance, that a tandur in which the fire has not
been replenished for eighteen hours has still a genial

It was a serious start, so terribly slippery in the
heaped -up alleys and uncovered bazars of Kangawar
that several of the mules and men fell. Outside the
town was a level expanse of deep, wrinkled, drifted,
wavy, scintillating snow, unbroken except for a rut about
a foot wide, a deep long "mule ladder," produced by
heavily-laden mules and asses each stepping in its
predecessor's footsteps, forming short, deep corrugations,
in which it is painful and tedious for horses or lightly-
laden animals to walk. For nine hours we marched
through this corrugated rut.

Leaving on the left the summer route to Tihran
vid Hamadan, which is said to have been blocked
for twenty days, we embarked upon a glittering plain
covered with pure snow, varying in depth from two feet
on the level to ten and fifteen in the drifts, crossed by
a narrow and only slightly beaten track.

Ere long we came on solemn traces of the struggle and
defeat of the day before : every now and then a load of
chopped straw thrown away, then the deep snow much
trampled, then the snow dug away and piled round a
small space, in which the charvadars had tried to shelter
themselves from the wind as the shadows of death fell,
then more straw, and a grave under a high mound of
snow ; farther on some men busy burying one of the
bodies. The air was still, and the sun shone as it had
shone the day before on baffled struggles, exhaustion, and
death. The trampling of the snow near the track
marked the place where the caravan had turned, taking


three out of the five bodies back to Kangawar. The
fury with which the wind had swept over the plain was
shown by the absolute level to which it had reduced the
snow, the deep watercourses being filled up with the

After crossing a brick bridge, and passing the nearly
buried village of Hussenabad, we rode hour after hour
along a rolling track among featureless hills, till in the
last twilight -we reached the village of Pharipah, a low-
lying place ( " low-lying " must never be understood to
mean anything lower than 5000 feet) among some
frozen irrigated lands and watered gardens. I arrived
nearly dead from cold, fatigue, and the severe pains in
the joints which are produced by riding nine hours at a
foot's pace in a temperature of 20. My mule could only
be urged on by spurring, and all the men and animals
were in a state of great fatigue. My room was very
cold, as much of one side was open to the air, and a fire
was an impossibility.

Except for the crossing of a pass with an altitude of
7500 feet, the next day's route was monotonous, across
plains, among mountains, all pure white, the only in-
cidents being that my chair was broken by the fall of a
mule, and that my mule and I went over our heads in a
snow-drift. The track was very little broken, and I was
four hours in doing ten miles.

Hamilabad is a village of about sixty mud hovels, and
in common with all these mountain hamlets has sloping
covered ways leading to pens under the house, where
cattle, sheep, and goats spend much of the winter in
darkness and warmth.

I have a house, i,e. a mud room, to myself. These
two days I have had rather a severe chill, after getting
in, including a shivering lasting about two hours,
perhaps owing to the severe fatigue; and I was lying


down with the blankets over my face and was just
getting warm when I heard much buzzing about me,
and looking up saw the room thronged with men, women,
and children, just such a crowd as constantly besieged
our blessed Lord when the toilsome day full of "the
contradiction of sinners against Himself" was done,
most of them ill of " divers diseases and torments,"
smallpox, rheumatism, ulcers on the cornea, abortive and
shortened limbs, decay of the bones of the . nose, palate,
and cheek, tumours, cancers, skin maladies, ophthalmia,
opaque films over the eyes, wounds, and many ailments
too obscure for my elementary knowledge. Nothing is
more painful than to be obliged to say that one cannot
do anything for them.

I had to get up, and for nearly two hours was hear-
ing their tales of suffering, interpreted by Hadji with
brutal frankness ; and they crowded my room again this
morning. All I could do was to make various ointments,
taking tallow as the basis, drop lotion into some eyes,
give a few simple medicines, and send the majority sadly
away. The sowar, Abbas Khan, is responsible for spread-
ing my fame as a Hakim. He is being cured of a severe
cough, and comes to my room for medicine (in which I
have no faith) every evening, a lean man with a lean
face, lighted with a rapacious astuteness, with a kaftan
streaming from his brow, except where it is roped
round his shaven skull, a zouave jacket, a skirt something
like a kilt, but which stands out like a ballet dancer's
dress, all sorts of wrappings round his legs, a coarse
striped red shirt, a double cartridge-belt, and a perfect
armoury in his girdle of pistols and knives. He is a wit
and a rogue/ Dogs, deprived of their usual shelter, shook
my loose door at intervals all night. This morning is
gray, and looks like change.

Nanej, Feb. 9. It was thawing, and the march here


was very soft and splashy. The people are barbarous in
their looks, speech, manners, and ways of living, and have
a total disregard of cleanliness of person, clothing, and
dwellings. Whether they are actually too poor to have
anything warmer than cotton clothing, or whether they
have buried hoards I do not know; but even in this
severe weather the women of this region have nothing on
their feet, and their short blue cotton trousers, short, loose,
open jackets, short open chemises, and the thin blue sheet
or chadar over their heads, are a mere apology for clothing.

The journey yesterday was through rolling hills, en-
closing level plains much cultivated, with villages upon
them mostly at a considerable distance from the road. I
passed through two, one larger and less decayed than
usual, but fearfully filthy, and bisected by a foul stream,
from which people were drinking and drawing water.
Near this is a lofty mound, a truncated cone, with some
" Cyclopean " masonry on its summit, the relics of a fire
temple of the Magi. Another poorer and yet filthier
village was passed through, where a man was being
buried ; and as I left Hamilabad in the morning, a long
procession was escorting a corpse to its icy grave, laid on
its bedding on a bier, both these deaths being from small-
pox, which, though very prevalent, is not usually fatal,
and seldom attacks adults. Indeed, it is regarded as a
childish malady, and is cured by a diet of melons and by
profuse perspirations.

A higher temperature had turned the path to slush,
and made the crossing of the last plain very tedious.
This is an abominable village, and the thaw is revealing
a state of matters which the snow would have concealed ;
but it has been a severe week's journey, and I am glad
of Sunday's rest even here. It is a disheartening place.
I dismounted in one yard, in slush up to my knees,
and from this splashed into another, round which are


stables, cowsheds, and rooms which were vacated by the
ketchuda and his family, but only partially, as the women
not only left all their " things " in my room, but had a
godown or storehouse through it, to which they resorted
continually. I felt ill yesterday, and put on a blister,
which rendered complete rest desirable ; but it is not to
be got. The room filled with women as soon as I settled
myself in it.

They told me at once that I could not have a fire
unless I had it under the karsi, that the smoke would
be unbearable. When I asked them to leave me to rest,
they said, " There's no shame in having women in the

house." M came an hour later and cleared the room,

but as soon as he went away it filled again, and with
men as well as women, and others unscrupulously tore
out the paper panes from the windows. This afternoon
I stayed in bed feeling rather ill, and about three o'clock
a number of women in blue sheets, with a very definite
leader, came in, arranged the karsi, filling the room with
smoke, as a preliminary, gathered themselves under the
quilt, and sat there talking loudly to each other. I felt
myself the object of a focused stare, and covered my
head with a blanket in despair. Then more women
came in with tea-trays, and they all took tea and sat for
another hour or two talking and tittering, Hadji assur-
ing me that they were doing it out of kindness, because
I was not well, and they thought it dull for me alone !
The room was again cleared, and I got up at dark, and
hearing a great deal of whispering and giggling, saw that
they had opened the door windows, and that a crowd
was outside. When I woke this morning a man was
examining my clothes, which were hanging up. They
feel and pull my hair, finger all my things, and have
broken all the fine teeth out of my comb. They have
the curiosity without the gracefulness of the Japanese.


This is a house of the better sort, though the walls
are not plastered. A carpet loom is fixed into the floor
with a half- woven carpet upon it. Some handsome rugs
are laid down. There are two much-decorated marriage
chests, some guns and swords, a quantity of glass tea-
cups and ornaments in the recesses, and coloured wood-
cuts of the Eussian Imperial family, here, as in almost
every house, are on the walls.

There is great rejoicing to-night " for joy that a man
is born into the world," the first-born of the ketchuda's
eldest son. In their extreme felicity they took me to see
the mother and babe. The room was very hot, and
crowded with relations and friends. The young mother
was sitting up on her bed on the floor and the infant lay
beside her dressed in swaddling clothes. She looked
very happy and the young father very proud. I added
a small offering to the many which were brought in for
luck, and it was not rejected.

A sword was brought from my room, and with it the
mamachg traced a line upon the four walls, repeating a
formula which I understood to be, " I am making this
tower for Miriam and her child." l I was warned by
Hadji not to look on the child or to admire him without
saying " Mashallah," lest I should bring on him the woe
of the evil eye. So greatly is it feared, that precautions
are invariably taken against it from the hour of birth,
by bestowing amulets and charms upon the child. A
paragraph of the Koran, placed in a silk bag, had already
been tied round the infant's neck. Later, he will wear
another bag round his arm, and turquoise or blue beads
will be sewn upon his cap.

If a visitor admires a child without uttering the word
Mashallah, and the child afterwards falls sick, the visitor

1 This custom, supposed to be an allusion to our Lord and His mother,
is described by Morier in his Second Journey in Persia.


at once is regarded as answerable for the calamity, and
the relations take a shred of his garment, and burn it in
a brazier with cress seed, walking round and round the
child as it burns.

Persian mothers are regarded as convalescent on the
third day, when they go to the hammam to perform the
ceremonies required by Moslem law. A boy is weaned
at the end of twenty-six months and a girl at the end
of twenty-four. If possible, on the weaning day the child
is carried to the mosque, and certain devotions are
performed. The weaning feast is an important function,
and the relations and friends assemble, bringing presents,
and the child in spite of his reluctance is forced to
partake of the food.

At the earliest possible period the mamacM pronounces
in the infant's ear the Shiah profession of faith : " God is
God, there is but one God, and Mohammed is the Prophet
of God, and Ali is the Lieutenant of God." A child
becomes a Moslem as soon as this Kelemah Islam has
been spoken into his ear; but a ceremony attends the
bestowal of his name, which resembles that in use
among the Buddhists of Tibet on similar occasions.

Unless the father be very poor indeed, he makes a
feast for his friends on an auspicious day, and invites the
village mollahs. Sweatmeats are solemnly eaten after the
guests have assembled. Then the infant, stiffened and
mummied in its swaddling clothes, is brought in, and is
laid on the floor by one of the mollahs. Five names are
written on five slips of paper, which are placed between
the leaves of the Koran, or under the edge of the carpet.
The first chapter of the Koran is then read. One of the
slips is then drawn at random, and a mollah takes up the
child, and pronounces in its ear the name found upon it,
after which he places the paper on its clothes.

The relations and friends give it presents according to


their means, answering to our christening gifts, and
thereafter it is called by the name it has received.
Among men's names there is a preponderance of those
taken from the Old Testament, among which Ibrahim,
Ismail, Suleiman, Yusuf, and Moussa are prominent.
Abdullah, Mahmoud, Hassan, Kaouf, Baba Houssein, Imam
are also common, and many names have the suffix of Ali
among the Shiahs. Fatmeh is a woman's name, but girl-
children usually receive the name of some flower or bird,
or fascinating quality of disposition or person.

The journey is beginning to tell on men and animals.
One of the Arab horses has had a violent attack of pain
from the cold, and several of the men are ailing and depressed.

Dizdbad, Feb. 11. Nanej is the last village laid down
on any map on the route we are taking for over a hundred
miles, i.e. until we reach Kum, though it is a caravan
route, and it does not appear that any Europeans have pub-
lished any account of it. Just now it is a buried country,
for the snow is lying from one to four feet deep. It is
not even possible to pronounce any verdict on the roads,
for they are simply deep ruts in the snow, with " mule
ladders." The people say that the plains are irrigated
and productive, and that the hills pasture their sheep and
cattle ; and they all complain of the exactions of local
officials. There is no variety in costume, and very little
in dwellings, except as to size, for they are all built of
mud or sun-dried bricks, within cattle yards, and have
subterranean pens for cattle and goats. The people abound
in diseases, specially of the eyes and bones.

The salient features of the hills, if they have any, are
rounded off by snow, and though many of them rise to
a great height, none are really impressive but Mount
Elwand, close to Hamadan. The route is altogether
hilly, but the track pursues valleys and low passes as
much as possible, and is never really steep.


Yesterday we marched twenty-four miles in eight
hours without any incident, and the "heavy division"
took thirteen hours, and did not come in till ten at night !
There are round hills, agglomerated into ranges, with easy
passes, the highest 7026 feet in altitude, higher summits
here and there in view, the hills encircling level plains,
sprinkled sparsely with villages at a distance from the
road, denoted by scrubby poplars and willows ; sometimes
there is a kanaat or underground irrigation channel with a
line of pits or shafts, but whatever there was, or was not, it
was always lonely, grim, and desolate. The strong winds
have blown some of the hillsides bare, and they appear
in all their deformity of shapeless mounds of black gravel,
or black mud, with relics of last year's thistles and
euphorbias upon them. So great is the destitution of
fuel that even now people are out cutting the stalks of
thistles which appear above the snow.

As the hours went by, I did rather wish for the
smashed Jcajawehs, especially when we met the ladies of
a governor's haram, to the number of thirty, reclining
snugly in pairs, among blankets and cushions, in panniers
with tilts, and curtains of a thick material, dyed Turkey
red. The cold became very severe towards evening.

The geographical interest of the day was that we
crossed the watershed of the region, and have left behind
the streams which eventually reach the sea, all future
rivers, however great their volume, or impetuous their
flow, disappearing at last in what the Americans call
" sinks," but which are known in Persia as kavirs, usually
salt swamps. Near sunset we crossed a bridge of seven
pointed arches with abutments against a rapid stream,
and passing a great gaunt caravanserai on an eminence,
and a valley to the east of the bridge with a few villages
giving an impression of fertility, hemmed in by some
shapely mountains, we embarked on a level plain,


bounded on all sides by hills so snowy that not a brown
patch or outbreak of rock spotted their whiteness, and
with villages and caravanserais scattered thinly over
it. On the left, there are the extensive ruins of old
Dizabad, and a great tract of forlorn graves clustering
round a crumbling imamzada.

As the sun sank the distant hills became rose-flushed,
and then one by one the flush died off into the paleness
of death, and in the gathering blue-gray ness, in desola-
tion without sublimity, in ghastliness, impressive but only
by force of ghastliness, and in benumbing cold, we rode
into this village, and into a yard encumbered with mighty
piles of snow, on one side of which I have a wretched
room, though the best, with two doors, which do not shut, but
when they are closed make it quite dark a deep, damp, cob-
webby, dusty, musty lair like a miserable eastern cowshed.

I was really half -frozen and quite benumbed, and
though I had plenty of blankets and furs, had a long and

severe chill, and another to-day. M also has had

bad chills, and the Afghan orderly is ill, and moaning
with pain in the next room. Hadji has fallen into a state
of chronic invalidism, and is shaking with chills, his teeth
chattering, and he is calling on Allah whenever I am
within hearing.

The chilly dampness and the rise in temperature
again may have something to do with the ailments, but
I think that we Europeans are suffering from the want of
nourishing food. Meat has not been attainable for some
days, the fowls are dry and skinny, and milk is very
scarce and poor. I cannot eat the sour wafers which
pass for bread, and as Hadji cannot boil rice or make
flour porridge, I often start in the morning having only
had a cup of tea. I lunch in the saddle on dates, the
milk in the holsters having been frozen lately ; then is the

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 11 of 29)