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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impressions of Tihran society. Kindness received per-
sonally always sways one's impressions of the people
among whom one is thrown, and even if I had any un-
favourable criticisms to make I should not make them.

Society, or rather I should say the European popula-
tion, is divided into classes and knots. There are the
eleven American missionaries, whose duties and interests
lie apart from those of the rest of the community, the
diplomatic body, which has a monopoly of political
interests, the large staff of the Indo-European telegraph,
married and single, with Colonel Wells at its head, and
the mercantile class, in which the manager and employes
of the Imperial Bank may be included. Outside of these
recognised classes there is a shifting body of passing
travellers, civil and military, and would-be concessionaires


and adventurers, besides a few Europeans in Persian

From four to five hundred Europeans is a large foreign
settlement, and it is a motley one, very various in its
elements, "and in their idiosyncrasies, combinations,
rivalries, and projects is to be found an inexhaustible
fund of local gossip," writes Mr. Curzon in one of his
recent brilliant letters to the Times, "as well as almost
the sole source of non-political interest."

Outside of the diplomatic circle the relations of
England and Eussia with each other and with the Shah
afford a topic of ceaseless interest. England is just now
considered to be in the ascendant, so far as her diplomacy
is concerned, but few people doubt that Russian policy
will eventually triumph, and that North Persia at least
will be " absorbed."

One or two specially pleasant things I must mention.
Sir H. Drummond Wolff kindly wrote asking permission
from the Shah for me to see his Museum, i.e. his treasure-
house, and we, that is the Minister, the whole party from
the Legation, and Dr. Odling of the telegraph staff and
Mrs. Odling, went there yesterday. There was a great
crowd outside the Palace gates, where we were received
by many men in scarlet. The private gardens are
immense, and beautifully laid out, in a more formal style
than I have hitherto seen, with straight, hard gravel walks,
and straight avenues of trees. The effect of the clear
running water in the immense tanks lined with blue tiles
is most agreeable and cool. Continuous rows of orange
trees in tubs, and beds of narcissus, irises, and tulips, with
a wealth of trellised roses just coming into leaf, are full of
the promise of beauty. These great pleasure gardens
are admirably kept. I doubt whether a fallen leaf
would not be discovered and removed in five minutes.

The great irregular mass of the Palace buildings on


the garden front is very fine, the mangy and forlorn
aspect being confined to the side seen by the public. The
walls are much decorated, chiefly with glazed and coloured
tiles geometrically arranged, and the general effect is

The " Museum," properly the audience chamber, and
certainly one among the finest halls in the world,
is approached by a broad staircase of cream-coloured
alabaster. We were received by the Grand Vizier's two
brothers, and were afterwards joined by himself and
another high official.

The decorations of this magnificent hall are in blue
and white stucco of the hard fine kind, hardly distinguish-
able from marble, known as gatch, and much glass is
introduced in the ceiling. The proportions of the room
are perfect. The floor is of fine tiles of exquisite
colouring arranged as mosaic. A table is overlaid
with beaten gold, and chairs in rows are treated in
the same fashion. Glass cases round the room and
on costly tables contain the fabulous treasures of the
Shah and many of the Crown jewels. Possibly the
accumulated splendours of pearls, diamonds, rubies,
emeralds, sapphires, basins and vessels of solid gold,
ancient armour flashing with precious stones, shields
studded with diamonds and rubies, scabbards and sword
hilts incrusted with costly gems, helmets red with rubies,
golden trays and vessels thick with diamonds, crowns
of jewels, chains, ornaments (masculine solely) of every
description, jewelled coats of mail dating back to the
reign of Shah Ismae'l, exquisite enamels of great anti-
quity, all in a profusion not to be described, have no
counterpart on earth. They are a dream of splendour
not to be forgotten.

One large case contains the different orders bestowed
on the Shah, all blazing with diamonds, a splendid dis-


play, owing to the European cutting of the stones, which
brings out their full beauty. There are many glass cases
from two to three feet high and twelve inches or more
broad, nearly full of pearls, rubies, diamonds, sapphires,
emeralds, flashing forth their many-coloured light treas-
ures not arranged, but piled like tea or rice. Among the
extraordinarily lavish uses of gold and gems is a golden
globe twenty inches in diameter, turning on a frame of solid
gold. The stand and meridian are of solid gold set with
rubies. The equator and elliptic are of large diamonds.
The countries are chiefly outlined in rubies, but Persia
is in diamonds. The ocean is represented by emeralds.
As if all this were not enough, huge gold coins, each
worth thirty-three sovereigns, are heaped round its base.

At the upper end of the hall is the Persian throne.
Many pages would be needed for a mere catalogue of
some of the innumerable treasures which give gorgeous -
ness to this hall. Here indeed is " Oriental splendour,"
but only a part of the possessions of the Shah ; for many
gems, including the Dar-i-nur or Sea of Light, the second
most famous diamond in the world, are kept elsewhere in
double-locked iron chests, and hoards of bullion saved
from the revenues are locked up in vaults below the

If such a blaze of splendour exists in this shrunken,
shrivelled, "depopulated" 'empire, what must have been
the magnificence of the courts of Darius and Xerxes, into
which were brought the treasures of almost " all the
kingdoms of the world and the glory of them " ? Since
seeing this treasure-house I think that many of the early
descriptions of wealth, which I have regarded as Oriental
hyperbole, were literal, and that there was a time in
Persia, as in Judea, when " silver was not accounted of."
And to come down from the far off-glories of Darius,
Xerxes, and Khosroe and the Parthian kings, there have


been within almost modern times Persian sovereigns cele-
brated among other things for their successful " looting "
of foreign kingdoms Shah Abbas the great, and Nadir
Shah, who scarcely two hundred years ago returned from
the sack of Delhi with gems valued at twenty millions of
our money.

After we had seen most of what was to be seen
the Vizier left us, and we went to the room in which
stands the celebrated Peacock Throne, brought by Nadir
Shah from Delhi, and which has been valued at
2,500,000. This throne is a large stage, with parapets
and a high fan back, and is reached by several steps.
It is entirely of gold enamel, and the back is incrusted
with rubies and diamonds. Its priceless carpet has a
broad border, the white arabesque pattern of which is
formed of pearls closely stitched. You will think that I
am lapsing into Oriental exaggeration!

While we were admiring the beautiful view of the
gardens from the windows of this room, Hassan Ali Khan,
better known as " the Nawab," suggested that we should
retire, as the Shah is in the habit of visiting and enjoying
his treasures at a later hour. However, at the foot of
the stairs on the threshold of the vestibule stood the
Shah, the " King of Kings," the "Asylum of the Universe,"
and that his presence there was not an accident was
shown by the fact that the Grand Vizier was with him.

Sir Henry advanced, attended by " the Nawab," and
presented me, lifting his hat to the king, who neither
then nor when he left us made the slightest inclination
of his head. Hassan Ali Khan, in answer to a question,
mentioned some of my travels, and said that with His
Majesty's permission I wished to visit the Bakhtiari
country. 1 The king pushed up his big horn spectacles

1 Some of the Bakhtiari khans or princes, with their families, are kept
by the Shah as hostages in and round Tihran for the loyalty of their


and focused his eyes, about which there is something
very peculiar, upon me, with a stare which would have
been disconcerting to a younger person, asked if I were
going to travel alone in his dominions, and if fitting
arrangements had been made ; if I had been in Pekin,
and had visited Borneo and the Celebes ; said a few
other things, and then without a bow turned round
abruptly and walked down the garden with the Amin-

This accidental and informal presentation was a very
pleasant incident. The Shah is not what I expected
from his various portraits. His manner (though he was
said to be very affable on this occasion) has neither
Eastern nor Western polish. He is a somewhat rough-
looking man, well on in middle life, rather dark in
complexion, and wearing a thick dark moustache, probably
dyed, as is the custom. The long twisted moustache
conceals the expression of his mouth, and the spectacles
with thick horn rims that of his eyes. He was very
simply dressed. The diamond aigrette and sword with
jewelled hilt with which pictures and descriptions have
familiarised us were absent, and this splendid monarch,
the heir of splendour, and the possessor of fabulous
treasures, wore the ordinary Persian high cap of Astrakan
lambskin without any ornament, close-fitting dark
trousers with a line of gold braid, a full -skirted coat of
dull-coloured Kerman silk brocade, loose and open, under
which were huddled one or more coats. A watch-chain
composed of large diamonds completed his costume. He
did not wear gloves, and I noticed that his hands, though
carefully attended to, were those of a man used to muscular
exercise, strong and wiry.

As the sovereign and his prime minister walked away,

tribes, the conquest of these powerful nomads not being so complete as
it might and possibly will be.


it was impossible not to speculate upon coming events: what
will happen, for instance, when Nasr-ed-Din, possibly the
ablest man in the country which he rules, and probably
the best and most patriotic ruler among Oriental despots,
goes " the way of all the earth"? and again, whether Ali
Askar Khan, who has held his post for five years, and
who at thirty-two is the foremost man in Persia after
the king, will weather the storm of intrigue which rages
round his head, and resist the undermining influence of
Eussia ?

I have had two interesting conversations with him,
and he was good enough to propose success to my jour-
ney at a dinner at the Legation ; and though, as he does
not speak French, the services of an interpreter were
necessary, he impressed me very favourably as a man
of thought, intelligence, and patriotism.

He made one remark which had a certain degree of
pathos in it. After speaking of the severe strictures and
harsh criticisms of certain recent writers, which he said
were very painful to Persians, he added, " I hope if you
write you will write kindly, and not crush the aspirations
of my struggling country as some have done."

This Amin-es-Sultan, the faithful or trusted one of the
sovereign, the Grand Vizier or Prime Minister, the second
person in the empire, who unites in his person at this
time the ministries of the Treasury, the Interior, the
Court, and Customs, is of humble antecedents, being the
son of a man who was originally an inferior attendant on
the Shah in his hunting expeditions, and is the grandson
of an Armenian captive. Certain persons of importance
are bent upon his overthrow, and it can only be by the
continued favour and confidence of the Shah that he can
sustain himself against their intrigues, combined with
those of Eussia.

My visit to the Palace terminated with the sight of


another throne-room opening upon the garden in which a
few days hence, with surroundings of great magnificence,
the Shah will receive the congratulations of the diplomatic
corps, and afterwards give a general audience to the

This is an annual ceremony at the festival of No Euz
when the Persian New Year begins, at the time of the
spring solstice, and is probably a relic of the Zoroastrian
worship, though the modern Persians, as Mohammedans,
allege that it is observed to celebrate the birthday of the
Prophet's mother. 1

Some hours after the close of a splendid ceremony in
the audience chamber, chiefly religious, at which the Shah
burns incense on a small brazier, he descends to the
garden, and walking alone along an avenue of Koyal
Guards, with the crown of the Kajars, blazing with
jewels, carried in front of him, he seats himself on an
alabaster throne, the foreign ministers having been re-
ceived previously. This throne is a large platform, with
a very high back and parapets of bold stone fretwork,
supported on marble lions and other figures, and is
ascended by three or four steps.

The populace, which to the number of many thousands
are admitted into the garden, see him seated on his throne,
their absolute master, the lord of life and death. A voice
asks if they are content, and they say they are. A hymn

1 On the eve of the day, the last of a festival of ten days, the common
people kindle rows of bonfires and leap over them ; and, though not on
the same day, but on the night of the 25th of February, sacred in the
Armenian Church as the day of the presentation of our Lord in the temple,
large bonfires are lighted on the mud roofs of the Armenians of the
Persian and Turkish cities, and the younger members of the households
dance and sing and leap through the flames. Meanwhile the Moslems
close their windows, so that the sins which the Christians are supposed to
be burning may not enter. Whether these " Beltane fires" are a relic of
the ancient fire worship or of still older rites may be a question. Among
the Christians the custom is showing signs of passing away.


of congratulation is sung, a chief of the Kajar tribe offers
the congratulations of the people of Persia, the Hakim of
the people hands the king a jewelled kalian, which he
smokes, and showers of gold fall among the populace.

The British Minister is understood to be at this time
the most powerful foreigner in Persia ; and as we drove
through the crowd which had assembled at the Palace
gates, he was received with all Oriental marks of respect.

All my intercourse with Persians here has been
pleasant, and if I mention one person particularly, it is
owing to a certain interest which attaches to himself and
his possible, future, and because some hours spent at
his splendid palace were among the pleasantest of the
many pleasant and interesting ones which I shall here-
after recall.

Yahia Khan, Minister of Justice and Commerce,
whose official title is Muschir-u-Dowleh, was formerly
Minister of Foreign Affairs, but forfeited the confidence
of the British Government in supposed connection with the
escape of Ayoub Khan, and being suspected of Russian
proclivities, which he denies, lost his position. He speaks
French perfectly, is credited with very great abilities,
and not only has courteous and charming manners, but
thoroughly understands the customs of Europe.

As the possessor of one of the most magnificent
palaces in Persia, married to the Shah's sister, his son, a
youth of eighteen, married to a daughter of the Vali-'ahd,
the heir-apparent, and as the brother of Mirza Hussein
Khan for long Grand Vizier and Sipah Salar, or Com-
mander-in-Chief, whose gorgeous mosque, scarcely finished,
the finest mosque built in late years by any but a royal
personage, adjoins his house, Yahia Khan is in every way
an important personage.

He is the fourth husband of the Shah's sister, who
has had a tragic life and is a very accomplished woman.


Her first husband, Mirza Taghi, when Prime Minister,
attempted reforms which would have tended to diminish
the hideous corruption which is the bane of Persian
officialism, and consequently made many enemies, who
induced the Shah, then a young man, to depose him.
Worse than deposition was apprehended, and as it was
not etiquette to murder a husband of a royal princess
in her presence, his wife, who loved him, watched him
night and day with ceaseless vigilance for some weeks.
But the fatal day at last came, and a good and powerful
man, whose loss is said to have been an irreparable one
to Persia, was strangled by the Shah's messengers, it is
said, in the bath.

Her son, who has married the Shah's grand-daughter,
is courteous like his father, but is apparently without his

The Muschir-u-Dowleh invited me to breakfast, along
with General Gordon and Hassan Ali Khan. The
dejetiner was altogether in European style, except that
in the centre of the table, among lilies and irises, a con-
cealed fountain sent up jets of rose-water spray. Sevres
and Dresden porcelain, the finest damask, and antique
and exquisitely beautiful silver adorned the table. The
cooking was French. The wines and liqueurs, an
innovation on Moslem tables now common, but of recent
date, were both French and Persian. The service was
perfection. The host conversed both thoughtfully and
agreeably, and expressed himself remarkably well in

Afterwards we were invited to go over the palace and
its grounds, which are remarkably beautiful, and then
over the magnificent mosque. Shiah mosques are
absolutely tabooed to Christians ; but as this has not
yet been used for worship, our entrance was not
supposed to desecrate it. When quite finished it will


be one of the most magnificent buildings dedicated to
religious use in the world, and its four tile- covered
minarets, its vast dome, and arches and facades in tiled
arabesques and conventional patterns and exquisite
colouring, show that the Persian artist when adequately
encouraged has not lost his old feeling for beauty.

Besides the mosque there is a fine building, the low
roof of which is supported by innumerable columns, all
of plain brick, resembling a crypt, which will be used
for winter worship. In addition, a lavish endowment
has provided on the grounds a theological college and
a hospital, with most, if not all, of the funds needed for
their maintenance ; and on every part of the vast pile
of buildings the architect has lavished all the resources
of his art.

No houses are to my thinking more beautiful and
appropriate to the climate and mode of living than those
of the upper classes of Persians, and the same suitability
and good taste run down through the trading classes
till one reaches the mud hovel, coarse and un-ideal, of
the workman and peasant.

My memory does not serve me for the details of the
Muschir-u-Dowleh's palace, which, though some of the
rooms are furnished with European lounges, tables, and
chairs in marqueterie and brocade, is throughout dis-
tinctively Persian ; but the impression produced by the
general coup d'ceil, and by the size, height, and perfect
proportion of the rooms, galleries, staircases, and halls,
is quite vivid. The rooms have dados of primrose-
coloured Yezd alabaster in slabs four feet high by three
broad, clouded and veined most delicately by nature.
The banqueting hall is of immense size, and the floor
is covered with a dark fawn namad three-quarters of
an inch thick, made, I understood, in one piece eighty
feet long by fifty broad. The carpets are the most


beautiful which can be turned out by Persian looms, and
that is saying a great deal.

The roofs, friezes, and even the walls of this house,
like those of others of its class, have a peculiarity of
beauty essentially Persian. This is the form of gatch
or fine stucco-work known as ainah karee. I saw it
first at Baghdad, and now at Tihran wonder that such
beautiful and costly decoration does not commend itself
to some of our millionaires. Arches filled with honey-
comb decoration, either pure white or tastefully coloured
and gilded, are among the architectural adornments which
the Alhambra borrowed from Persia. My impression is
that this exquisite design was taken from snow on the
hillsides, which is often fashioned by a strong wind into
the honeycomb pattern.

But the glory of this form of decoration reaches its
height when, after the gatch ceiling and cornice or deep
frieze have been daringly moulded by the workman into
distinct surfaces or facets, he lays on mirrors while the
plaster is yet soft, which adhere, and even at their edges
have scarcely the semblance of a joining. Sometimes,
as in the new summer palace of the Shah's third son,
the Naib-es-Sultaneh, the whole wall is decorated in
this way ; but I prefer the reception-rooms of Yahia
Khan, in which it is only brought down a few feet.
Immense skill and labour are required in this process
of adornment, but it yields in splendour to none, flashing
in bewildering light, and realising the fabled glories of the
palaces of the Arabian Nights. One of the salons, about
sixty feet by fifty, treated in this way is about the
most beautiful room I ever saw.

The Persian architect also shows great art in his win-
dows. He masses them together, and by this means gives
something of grandeur even to an insignificant room.
The beauty of the designs, whether in fretwork of wood


or stone, is remarkable, and the effect is enhanced by the
filling in of the interstices with coloured glass, usually
amber and pale blue. So far as I have seen, the Persian
house is never over-decorated, and however gorgeous the
mirror-work, or involved the arrangement of arches, or
daring the dreams in gcdck ceilings and pillars, the fancy
of the designer is always so far under control as to give
the eye periods of rest.

Under the palace of the Muschir-u-Dowleh, as under
many others, is a sort of glorified serdab, used in hot
weather, partly under ground, open at each end, and
finished throughout with marble, the roof being supported
on a cluster of slender pillars with capitals picked out in
gold, and the air being cooled by a fountain in a large
marble basin. But this serdab is far eclipsed by a summer
hall in the palace of the Shah's third son, which, as to
walls and ceiling, is entirely composed of mirror-work,
the floor of marble being arranged with marble settees
round fountains whose cool plash even now is delicious.
The large pleasure gardens which surround rich men's
houses in the city are laid out somewhat in the old
French style of formality, and are tended with scrupulous

I did not see the andarun of this or any house here,
owing to the difficulty about an interpreter, but it is not
likely that the ladies are less magnificently lodged than
their lords. The andarun has its own court, no one is
allowed to open a window looking upon it, it is as
secluded as a convent. No man but the master of the
house may enter, and when he retires thither no man
may disturb him. To all inquirers it is a sufficient
answer to say that he is in the andarun. To the Shah,
however, belongs the privilege of looking upon the un-
veiled face of every woman in Persia. The domestic life
of a Moslem is always shrouded in mystery, and even in
VOL. i p


the case of the Shah " the fierce light that beats upon a
throne " fails to reveal to the outer world the number of
wives and women in his andarun, which is variously stated
at from sixty to one hundred and ninety.

It is not easy in any Eastern city to get exactly what
one wants for a journey, especially as a European cannot
buy in the bazars ; and the servant difficulty has been a
great hindrance, particularly as I have a strong objection to
the regular interpreter-servant who has been accustomed
to travel with Europeans.

I have now got a Persian cook with sleepy eyes, a
portion of a nose, and a grotesquely " hang-dog " look.
For an interpreter and personal attendant I have an
educated young Brahmin, for some years in British post-
office service in the Gulf, and lately a teacher in the
American school here. He speaks educated English, and
is said to speak good Persian. He has never done any

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 16 of 29)