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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Kirmanshah. The traders accept it as a foregone con-
clusion that Russia will occupy Persia as far as Isfahan
on the death of the present Shah, and regard such a destiny


as " fate." If only their religion is not interfered with,
it matters little, they say, whether they pay their taxes to
the Shah or the Czar. To judge from their speech, Islam
is everything to them, and their country very little, and
the strong bond of the faith which rules life and thought
from the Pillars of Hercules to the Chinese frontier far
outweighs the paltry considerations of patriotism. But
my impression is that all Orientals prefer the tyrannies
and exactions, and the swiftness of injustice or justice of
men of their own creed and race to good government on
the part of unintelligible aliens, and that though Persians
seem pretty comfortable in the prospect of a double
occupation of Persia, its actual accomplishment might
strike out a flash of patriotism.

Probably this ruinous, thinly -peopled country, with
little water and less fuel, and only two roads which deserve
the name, has possibilities of resurrection under greatly
changed circumstances. Of the two occupations which
are regarded as certain, I think that most men, at least
in Central and Southern Persia, would prefer an English
occupation, but every one says, "England talks and does
not act," and that"Eussia will pour 100,000 troops into
Persia while England is talking in London." I. L. B.




TWELVE hours and a half of hard riding have brought us
here in two days. No doctor could be obtained in Kum,
and it was necessary to bring the sick men on as quickly
as possible for medical treatment. It was bitterly cold
on the last day, though the altitude is only 3400 feet,
and it was a tiresome day, for I had not only to look
over and repack, but to clean the cooking utensils and
other things, which had not been touched apparently since
we left Baghdad !

This is a tedious part of the journey, a " beaten track "
with few features of interest, the great highway from
Isfahan to Tihran, a road of dreary width ; where it is
a made road running usually perfectly straight, with
a bank and a ditch on each side. The thaw is now
complete, and travelling consists of an attempt to get on
by the road till it becomes an abyss which threatens to
prove bottomless, then there is a plunge and a struggle
to the top of the bank, or over the bank to the trodden
waste, but any move can be only temporary, the all-
powerful mire regulates the march. The snow is nothing
to the mud. Frequently carcasses of camels, mules, and
asses, which have lain down to die under their loads, were
passed, then caravans with most of the beasts entangled in
the miry clay, unable to rise till they were unloaded
by men- up to their knees in the quagmire, and, worst of


all, mules loaded with the dead, so loosely tied up in
planks that in some cases when the mule flounders and
falls, the miserable relics of humanity tumble out upon
the swamp ; and these scenes of falling, struggling, and
even perishing animals are repeated continually along
the level parts of this scarcely passable highroad.

Our loads, owing to bad tackle, were always coming
off, the groom's mule fell badly, the packs came off another,
and half an hour was spent in catching the animal, then
I was thrown from my horse into soft mud.

Cultivation ceases a short distance from Kum, giving
place to a brown waste, with patches of saline efflorescence
upon it, on which high hills covered partially with snow
send down low spurs of brown mud. The water nearly
everywhere is brackish, and only just drinkable. After
crossing a rapid muddy river, nearly dry in summer, by
a much decayed bridge of seven or eight low arches,
we reached terra firma, and a long gradual ascent and
a series of gallops brought us to the large caravanserai of
Shashgird, an immense place with imposing pretensions
which are fully realised within. In the outer court
camels were lying in rows. A fine tiled archway leads
to an immense quadrangle, with a fine stone abambar
or covered receptacle for water in the middle. All round
the quadrangle are arched recesses or mangers, each with
a room at the back, to the number of eighty. At two of
the corners there are enclosed courtyards with fountains,
several superior rooms with beds (much to be avoided),
chairs, mirrors, and tables fairly clean somewhat dreary
luxury, but fortunately at this season free from vermin.
That caravanserai can accommodate 1000 men in rooms,
and 1500 mules.

To-day's long march, which, however, has had more
road suitable for galloping, has been over wild, weird,
desolate, God-forsaken country, interesting from its de-


solation and its great wastes, forming part of the Kavir or
Great Salt Desert of Persia, absolutely solitary, with scarcely
a hamlet miles of the great highway of Persia without
a living creature, no house, no bush, nothing. Later, there
were some vultures feasting on a dead camel, and a mule-
load of two bodies down in the mud.

Some miles from Shashgird, far from the road, there is
a large salt lake over which some stationary mists were
brooding. Beyond this an ascent among snow clouds
along some trenched land where a few vines and saplings
have been planted leads to a caravanserai built for the
accommodation of state officials on their journeys, where
in falling snow we vindicated our origin in the triumphant
West by taking lunch on a windy verandah outside rather
than in the forlorn dampness of the inside, and brought a
look of surprise even over the impassive face of the

When we left the snow was falling in large wet flakes,
and the snow clouds were drifting wildly among the peaks
of a range which we skirted for a few miles and then
crossed at a considerable height among wonderful volcanic
formations, mounds of scoriae, and outcrops of volcanic
rock, hills of all shapes fantastically tumbled about,
chiefly black, looking as if their fires had only just died
out, streaked and splotched with brilliant ash orange,
carmine, and green a remarkable volcanic scene, backed
by higher hills looking ghastly in the snow.

After passing over an absolutely solitary region of

camel-brown plains and slopes at a gallop, M a little

in front always, and Abbas Khan, the wildest figure
imaginable, always half a length behind, the thud of the
thundering hoofs mingling with the screech of the cutting
north wind which, coming over the snowy Elburz range,
benumbed every joint, on the slope of a black volcanic hill
we came upon the lofty towers and gaudy tiled front of


this great caravanserai, imposing at a distance in the
solitude and snow clouds, but shabby on a nearer view,
and tending to disintegrate from the presence of saltpetre
in the bricks and mortar.

There are successions of terraces and tanks of water
with ducks and geese upon them, and buildings round
the topmost terrace intended to be imposing. The seraidar
is expecting the Amin-es-Sultan (the Prime 'Minister) and
his train, who will occupy rather a fine though tawdry
"suite of apartments"; but though they were at our
service, I prefer the comparative cosiness of a small, dark,
damp room, though with a very smoky chimney, as I
find to my cost.

British Legation, Tiliran, Feb. 26. The night was
very cold, and the reveille specially unwelcome in the
morning. The people were more than usually vague
about the length of the march, some giving the distance
at twenty-five miles, and others making it as high as
thirty-eight. As we did a good deal of galloping and yet
took more than seven hours, I suppose it may be about
twenty-eight. Fortunately we could desert the caravan,
as the caravanserais are furnished and supply tea and
bread. The baggage mules took ten hours for the march.

The day was dry and sunny, and the scenery, if such
a tract of hideousness can be called scenery, was at its
best. Its one charm lies in the solitude and freedom of
a vast unpeopled waste.

The " made road " degenerates for the most part into
a track "made" truly, but rather by the passage of
thousands of animals during a long course of ages than
by men's hands. This track winds among low ranges of
sand and mud hills, through the " Pass of the Angel of
Death," crosses salt and muddy streams, gravelly stretches,
and quagmires of mud and tenacious clay, passing through
a country on the whole inconceivably hideous, unfinished,


frothy, and saturated with salt the great brown desert
which extends from Tihran to Quetta in Beloochistan,
a distance of 2000 miles.

On a sunny slope we met the Prime Minister with a
considerable train of horsemen. He stopped and spoke
with extreme courtesy, through an interpreter, for, unlike
most Persians of the higher class, he does not speak
French. He said we had been for some time expected at
Tihran, and that great fears were entertained for our
safety, which we had heard at Kum. He is a pleasant-
looking man with a rather European expression, not more
than thirty-two or thirty-three, and in spite of intrigues
and detractors has managed to keep his hazardous position
for some years. His mother was lately buried at Kum,
and he was going thither on pilgrimage. After the usual
compliments he bowed his farewells, and the gay pro-
cession with its brilliant trappings and prancing horses
flashed by. The social standing of a Persian is evidenced
by the size of his retinue, and the first of the Shah's
subjects must have been attended by fully forty well-
mounted men, besides a number of servants who were
riding with his baggage animals.

Shortly after passing him a turn among the hills
brought the revelation through snow clouds of the magni-
ficent snow-covered chain of the Elburz mountains, with
the huge cone of Demavend, their monarch, 18,600 feet l in
height, towering high above them, gleaming sunlit above the
lower cloud-masses. Swampy water-courses, a fordable
river crossed by a broad bridge of five arches, more low
hills, more rolling desert, then a plain of mud irrigated
for cultivation, difficult ground for the horses, the ruins
of a deserted village important enough to have possessed
two imamzadas, and then we reached the Husseinabad,
which has very good guest-rooms, with mirrors on the walls.

1 The altitude of Demavend is variously stated.


This caravanserai is only one march from Tihran, and
it seemed as if all difficulties were over. Abbas Khan
and the sick orderly were sent on early, with a baggage
mule loaded with evening dress and other necessities
of civilisation; the caravan was to follow at leisure, and
M and I started at ten, without attendants, expect-
ing to reach Tihran early in the afternoon.

It is six days since that terrible ride of ten hours
and a half, and my bones ache as I recall it. I never
wish to mount a horse again. It had been a very cold
night, and for some time after we started it was doubtful
whether snow or rain would gain the day, but after an
hour of wet snow it decided on rain, and there was a
steady downpour all day. The Elburz range, which the
day before had looked so magnificent when fifty miles
off, was blotted out. This was a great disappointment.

An ascent of low, blackish volcanic hills is made by
a broad road of gray gravel, which a torrent has at some
time frequented. Thorns and thistles grow there, and
skeletons of animals abound. Everything is grim and
gray. From these hills we descended into the Kavir, a
rolling expanse of friable soil, stoneless, strongly impreg-
nated with salt, but only needing sufficient water to wash
the salt out of it and to irrigate it to become as prolific as
it is now barren.

It is now a sea of mud crossed by a broad road in-
dicated by dykes, that never-to-be-forgotten mud growing
deeper as the day wore on. Hour after hour we plunged
through it, sometimes trying the road, and on finding
it impassable scrambling through the ditches and over
the dykes to the plain, which after offering firmer foot-
hold for a time became such a " slough of despond " that
we had to scramble back to the road, and so on, hour after
hour, meeting nothing but one ghastly caravan of corpses,
and wretched asses falling in the mud.



At mid-day, scrambling up a gravel hill with a little
wormwood upon it, and turning my back to the heavy
rain, I ate a lunch of dates and ginger, insufficient sus-
tenance for such fatigue. On again ! the rain pouring,
the mud deepening, my spine in severe pain. We turned
off to a caravanserai, mostly a heap of ruins, the roofs
having given way under the weight of the snow, and there
I sought some relief from pain by lying down for the short
thirty minutes which could be spared in the seraidar's
damp room. It was then growing late in the afternoon,
all landmarks had disappeared in a brooding mist, there
were no habitations, and no human beings of whom to
ask the way.

The pain returned severely as soon as I mounted, and
increased till it became hardly bearable. Ceaseless mud,
ceaseless heavy rain, a plain of mud, no refuge from mud
and water, attempts to gallop were made with the risk of

the horses falling into holes and even kanaats. M

rode in front. Not a word was spoken. A gleaming
dome, with minarets and wood, appeared below the Shim-
ran hills. Unluckily, where two roads met one looked
impassable and we took the other, which, though it
eventually took us to Tihran, was a ddtour of some

In the evening, when I was hoping that Tihran was
at hand, we reached the town of Shah Abdul Azim, built
among the ruins of an ancient city, either Ehages or Ehei.
The gilded dome is the shrine of Abdul Azim, and is a
great place of pilgrimage of the picnic order from Tihran.
The one railroad of Persia runs from the capital to this
town. As we floundered in darkness along wide roads
planted with trees, there was the incongruity of a railway
whistle, and with deep breathing and much glare an
engine with some carriages passed near the road, taking
away with its harsh Western noises that glorious freedom


of the desert which outweighs all the hardship even of a
winter journey.

It was several miles from thence to the gate of Tihran.
It was nearly pitch dark when we got out of Abdul Azim
and the rain still fell heavily. In that thick rainy dark-
ness no houses were visible, even if they exist, there
were no passengers on foot or on horseback, it was a
" darkness which might be felt."

There was a causeway which gave foothold below the
mud, but it was full of holes and broken culverts, deep
in slime, and seemed to have water on each side not
particular in keeping within bounds. It was necessary to
get on, lest the city gates should be shut, and by lifting
and spurring the jaded horses they were induced to trot
and canter along that road of pitfalls. I have had many
a severe ride in travelling, but never anything equal to
that last two hours. The severe pain and want of food
made me so faint that I was obliged to hold on to
the saddle. I kept my tired horse up, but each flounder
I thought would be his last. There was no guidance
but an occasional flash from the hoofs of the horse in
front, and the word " spur " ringing through the darkness.

After an hour of riding in this desperate fashion
we got into water, and among such dangerous holes
that from that point we were obliged to walk our
horses, who though they were half dead still feebly re-
sponded to bit and spur. We reached the dimly-lighted
city gate just as half of it was shut, and found Abbas
Khan waiting there. The caravan with the other sick
men never reached Tihran till late the next morning.

At the gate we learned that it was two miles farther
to the British Legation, and that there was no way for
me to get there but on horseback. One lives through a
good deal, but I all but succumbed to the pain and faint-
ness. Inside the gate there was an open sea of liquid mud,


across which, for a time, certain lights shed their broken
reflections. There was a railway shriek, and then the
appearance of a station with shunting operations vaguely
seen in a vague glare.

Then a tramway track buried under several inches of
slush came down a slope, and crowded tramway cars with
great single lamps came down the narrow road on
horses too tired to be frightened, and almost too tired to
get out of the way. Then came a street of mean houses
and meaner shops lighted with kerosene lamps, a region
like the slums of a new American city, with cafis and
saloons, barbers' shops, and European enormities such as
gazogenes and effervescing waters in several windows.
Later, there were frequent foot passengers preceded by
servants carrying huge waxed cambric lanterns of a
Chinese shape, then a square with barracks and artillery,
a causewayed road dimly lit, then darkness and heavier
rain and worse mud, through which the strange spectacle
of a carriage and pair incongruously flashed.

By that time even the courage and stamina of an
Arab horse could hardly keep mine on his legs, and with
a swimming head and dazed brain I could hardly guide
him, as I had done from the gate chiefly by the wan
gleam of Abbas Khan's pale horse ; and expecting to fall
off every minute, I responded more and more feebly and
dubiously to the question frequently repeated out of the
darkness, " Are you surviving ? "

Just as endurance was on the point of giving way, we
turned from the road through a large gateway into the
extensive grounds which surround the British Legation,
a large building forming three sides of a quadrangle,
with a fine stone staircase leading up to the central door.
Every window was lighted, light streamed from the open
door, splashed carriages were dashing up and setting
down people in evening dress, there were crowds of


servants about, and it flashed on my dazed senses that
it must be after eight, and that there was a dinner party !

Arriving from the mud of the Kavir and the slush of
the streets, after riding ten hours in ceaseless rain on
a worn-out horse ; caked with mud from head to foot,
dripping, exhausted, nearly blind from fatigue, fresh from
mud hovels and the congenial barbarism of the desert,
and with the rags and travel-stains of a winter journey
of forty-six days upon me, light and festivity were over-

Alighting at a side door, scarcely able to stand, I sat
down in a long corridor, and heard from an English steward
that " dinner is waiting." His voice sounded very far off,
and the once familiar announcement came like a memory
out of the remote past. Presently a gentleman appeared
in evening dress, wearing a star, which conveyed to my fast-
failing senses that it was Sir H. Drummond Wolff. It
was true that there was a large dinner party, and among the
guests the Minister with thoughtful kindness had invited
all to whom I had letters of introduction. But it was
no longer possible to make any effort, and I was taken up
to a room in which the comforts of English civilisation
at first made no impression upon me, and removing only
the mackintosh cloak, weighted with mud, which had
served me so well, I lay down on the hearthrug before a
great coal fire till four o'clock the next morning. And " so
the tale ended," and the winter journey with its tremen-
dous hardships and unbounded mercies was safely accom-
plished. 1 I. L. B.

1 I remained for three weeks as Sir H. Drummond Wolffs guest at the
British Legation, receiving from him that courtesy and considerate kind-
ness which all who have been under his roof delight to recall. I saw
much of what is worth seeing in Tihran, including the Shah and several
of the Persian statesmen, and left the Legation with every help that
could be given for a long and difficult journey into the mountains of


IT is a matter of individual taste, but few cities in the
East interest me in which national characteristics in
architecture, costume, customs, and ways generally are
either being obliterated or are undergoing a partial
remodelling on "Western lines. An Eastern city pure and
simple, such as Canton, Niigata, or Baghdad, even with
certain drawbacks, forms a harmonious whole gratifying
to the eye and to a certain sense of fitness ; while Cairo,
Tokio, Lahore, and I will now add Tihran, produce the
effect of a series of concussions.

Tihran set down on a plain, a scorched desert, the
sublimity of which is interfered with by Jcanaats or under-
ground watercourses with their gravel mounds and ruin-
ous shafts has few elements of beauty or grandeur
in its situation, even though " the triumphant barbarism
of the desert " sweeps up to its gates, and the scored and
channelled Shimran range, backed by the magnificent
peak, or rather cone, of Demavend, runs to the north-east
of the city within only ten miles of its walls.

The winter with its snow and slush disappeared
abruptly two days after I reached Tihran, and as abruptly
came the spring a too transient enjoyment and in a few
days to brownness and barrenness succeeded a tender

1 A volume of travels in Persia would scarcely be complete without some
slight notice of the northern capital ; but for detailed modern accounts of
it the reader should consult various other books, especially Dr. Wills' and
Mr. Benjamin's, if he has not already done so.


mist of green over the trees in the watered gardens,
rapidly thickening into dark leafage in which the bulbul
sang, and nature helped by art spread a carpet of violets
and irises over the brown earth. But all of verdure and
greenery that there is lies within the city walls. Out-
side is the unconquerable desert, rolling in endless shades
of buff and brown up to the Elburz range, and elsewhere
to the far horizon.

Situated in the most depressed part of an uninteresting
waste in Lat. 35 40' N. and Long. 51 25' E.,
and at an altitude of 3800 feet, the climate is one
of extremes, the summer extreme being the most severe.
For some weeks the heat is nearly insupportable, and the
Legations, and all of the four hundred Europeans who are
not bound to the city by a fate which they execrate,
betake themselves to "yailaks," or summer quarters on
the slopes of the adjacent mountains.

Entering Tihran in the darkness, it was not till I saw
it coming back from Gulahek, the " yailak " of the British
Legation, when the mud was drying up and the willows
were in their first young green, that I formed any definite
idea of its aspect, which is undeniably mean, and presents
no evidences of antiquity ; indeed, it has no right to present
any, for as a capital it only came into existence a century
ago, with the first king of the present Kajar dynasty.
The walls are said to be eleven'miles in circuit, and give
the impression of being much too large, so many are the
vacant spaces within them. They consist chiefly of a
broad ditch, and a high sloping rampart without guns.
Twelve well-built domed gateways give access to the city.
These are decorated with glazed tiles of bright colours
and somewhat gaudy patterns and designs, representing
genii, lions, and combats of mythical heroes.

Above the wall are seen tree -tops, some tile-covered
minarets, the domes of two mosques, and the iron ribs of


a roofless theatre in the Shah's garden, in which under a
temporary awning the Tazieh or Passion Play (elsewhere
referred to) is acted once a year in presence of the Shah
and several thousand spectators.

Entering by a gateway over which is depicted a scene
in the life of Eustem, the Achilles of Persia, or by the
Sheikh Abdul Azim gate, where the custom-house is
established and through which all caravans of goods
must reach Tihran, the magnitude of the untidy vacant
spaces, and the shabby mud hovels which fringe them,
create an unfavourable impression. Then there are the
inevitable ruinousness, the alleys with broken gutters in
the centre, the pools of slime or the heaps of dust accord-
ing to the weather, and the general shabbiness of blank
walls of sun-dried bricks which give one the impression,
I believe an unjust one, of decay and retrogression. I
never went through those ' mean outskirts of Tihran

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 14 of 29)