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

. (page 17 of 29)
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 17 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

" menial " work, but is willing to do anything in order to
get to England. He has a frank, independent manner and
"no nonsense about him." Taking him is an experiment. 1

I. L. B.

1 An experiment I never regretted. Mirza Yusuf was with me for nine
months, and I found him faithful, truthful, and trustworthy, very hard-
working, minimising hardships and difficulties, always cheerful, and with
an unruffled temper, his failings being those of a desk-bred man trans-
planted into a life of rough out-doorishness.



KfiM, March S3.

THIS so far is a delightful journey. All the circumstances
are favourable. A friend who was sending his servants,
horses, and baggage to Isfahan has lent me a thorough-
bred, and with a trustworthy young soldier as my escort
I do not trouble myself about the caravan at all, and get
over much of the ground at a gallop. The roads have
nearly dried up, the country looks cheerful, travellers are
numerous, living and dead, the sun is bright but the air
is cool and bracing, and the insects are still hybernating,
Mirza Yusuf is getting into my "ways," and is very
pleasant. I did not think that I could have liked
Persian travelling so well. A good horse and a good
pace make an immense difference. It is not the custom
for European ladies to travel unattended by European
gentlemen in Persia, but no objection to my doing so
was made in the highest quarters, either English or
Persian, and so far there have been no difficulties or

I left the British Legation at noon four days ago.
The handsome Arab, with a sheepskin coat rolled on the
front of the saddle, holsters, and Persian housings, looked
like a life-guardsman's horse. I nearly came to grief as
soon as I got out of the Legation gate ; for he would not
stand my English snaffle, and reared and threw himself
about, and my spur touching him as he did so made him


quite wild, and I endured much apprehension all through
Tihran, expecting to find myself on the rough pavement ;
but I took off the offending spur, and rode him on the
sharp bit he is used to, and when we were outside the
gate he quietened down, and I had a long gallop.

How different it all looks ! No more floundering
through mud ! The trees of Abdul Azim are green.
Caravans are moving fast and cheerily. Even the dead
on their last journey look almost cheerful under the
sunny skies. We did not reach Husseinabad till long
after dark. It was so unspeakably dark that my horse
and I fell off the road into deep water, and we passed
the caravanserai without knowing that we were near it.

The usual disorder of a first night was somewhat
worse than usual. The loads were mixed up, and the
servants and charvadars were quarrelling, and I did not
get my dinner till ten ; but things are all right now, and
have been since the following morning, when I assumed
the reins of government and saw the mules loaded myself,
an efficient interpreter making my necessary self-assertion

Though the spring has set in, most of the country
between this and Tihran looks a complete desert. In
February it was a muddy waste it is now a dusty
waste, on which sheep, goats, and camels pick up a gray
herbage, which without search is not obvious to the
human eye, and consists mostly of wormwood and othe,r
bitter and aromatic plants. Off the road a few tulips
and dwarf irises coming up out of the dry ground show
the change of season.

I came for some distance on one day by a road
which caravans avoid because of robbers. It crosses a
reddish desert with a few salt streams and much saline
efflorescence, a blasted region without a dwelling or
patch of cultivation. Yet a four-mile gallop across one


part of it was most inspiriting. As the two Arabs,
excited by the pace, covering great spaces of ground with
each powerful stride, dashed over the level gravel I
thought, " They'll have fleet steeds that follow " ; but no
steed or rider or bird or beast was visible through all
that hungry land. We passed also close to a salt lake on
the Kavir, seen in the distance on the former journey,
near which are now pitched a quantity of Ilyat tents, all
black. The wealth of these nomads is in camels, sheep,
and goats. Though the camps, five in number, were
small, they had over 200 camels among them.

Where four weeks ago there was deep mud there is
now the glittering semblance of unsullied snow, and the
likeness of frost crystals fills the holes. Miles of camels
loaded with cotton march with stately stride in single
file, the noble mountain camel, with heavy black fur on
neck, shoulder, fore-arm, and haunch, and kindly gentle
eyes, looking, as he is, the king of baggage animals, not
degraded by servitude, though he may carry 800 Ibs.

Some of the sights of the road were painful. For
instance, just as I passed a caravan of the dead bound
for Kum a mule collided with another and fell, and the
loosely -put -together boxes on its back gave way and
corpses fell out in an advanced stage of decomposition.
A camel just dead lay in a gully. On a ledge of rock
above it seven gorged vultures (not the bald-headed) sat
in a row. They had already feasted on him to repletion.
I passed several dead camels, and one with a pleading
pathetic face giving up the ghost on the road.

Yesterday I rode in here from the magnificent caravan-
serai of Shashgird, sixteen miles in three hours before
lunch, and straight through the crowded bazars to the
telegraph office unmolested, an Afghan camel-driver's
coat, with the wool outside, having proved so good a
disguise that the gholam who was sent to meet me returned


to his master saying that he had not seen a lady, but that
a foreign soldier and sahib had come into Kum.

When my visit was over and I had received from Mr.
Lyne the route to Isfahan, and such full information
about rooms, water, and supplies as will enable me to
give my own orders, and escape from the tyranny of the
ckarvadars, having sent the horses to the caravanserai I
disguised myself as a Persian woman of the middle class
in the dress which Mrs. Lyne wears in the city, a thick
white crSpe veil with open stitch in front of the eyes, a
black sheet covering me from head to foot, the ends
hanging from the neck by long loops, and held with the
left hand just below the eyes, and so, though I failed to
imitate the totter and shuffle of a Persian lady's walk, I
passed unnoticed through the long and crowded streets
of this fanatical city, attended only by a gholam, and at
the door o,f my own room was prevented from entering
by the servants till my voice revealed my identity.

Twice to-day I have passed safely through the city in
the same disguise, and have even lingered in front of
shops without being detected. Mr. and Mrs. Lyne have
made the two days here very pleasant, by introducing me
to Persians in whose houses I have seen various phases of
Persian life. On reaching one house, where Mrs. Lyne
arrived an hour later, I was a little surprised to be re-
ceived by the host in uniform, speaking excellent French,
but without a lady with him.

He had been very kind to Hadji, who, he says, is rich
and has three wives. The poor fellow's lungs have been
affected for two years, and the affection was for the time
aggravated by the terrible journey. He talked a good
deal about Persian social customs, especially polygamy.

He explained that he has only one wife, but that this
is because he has been fortunate. He said that he regards
polygamy as the most fruitful source of domestic unhappi-


ness, but that so long as marriages are made for men by
their mothers and sisters, a large sum being paid to the
bride's father, a marriage is really buying " a pig in a
poke," and constantly when the bride comes home she is
ugly or bad-tempered or unpleasing and cannot manage
the house. " This," he said, " makes men polygamists
who would not otherwise be so.

"Then a man takes another wife, and perhaps this is
repeated, and then he tries again, and so on, and the house
becomes full of turmoil. There are always quarrels in a
polygamous household," he said, " and the children dispute
about the property after the father's death." Had he not
been fortunate, and had not his wife been capable of
managing the house, he said that he must have taken
another wife, " for," he added, " no man can bear a badly-
managed house."

I thought of the number of men in England who have
to bear it without the Moslem resource.

A lady of " position " must never go out except on
Fridays to the mosque, or with her husband's permission
and scrupulously veiled and guarded, to visit her female
friends. Girl-children begin to wear the chadar between
two and three years old, and are as secluded as their
mothers, nor must any man but father or brother see
their faces. Some marry at twelve years old.

" La vie des femmes dans la Perse est tres triste," he
said. The absence of anything like education for girls,
except in Tihran, and the want of any reading-book but
the Koran for boys and girls, he regards as a calamity.
He may be a pessimist by nature : he certainly has no
hope for the future of Persia, and contemplates a Russian
occupation as a certainty in the next twenty years.

After a long conversation I asked for the pleasure, not
of seeing his wife, but the " mother of his children," and
was rewarded by the sight of a gentle and lovely woman


of twenty-one or twenty-two, graceful in every movement
but her walk, exquisitely refined -looking, with a most
becoming timidity of expression, mingled with gentle
courtesy to a stranger. She was followed by three very
pretty little girls. The husband and wife are of very good
family, and the lady has an unmistakably well-bred look.

Though I knew what to expect in the costume of a
woman of the upper classes, I was astonished, and should
have been scandalised even had women only been present.
The costume of ladies has undergone a great change in
the last ninety years, and the extreme of the fashion is
as lacking in delicacy as it is in comfort. However, much
travelling compels one to realise that the modesty of the
women of one country must not be judged of by the
rules of another, and a lady costumed as I shall attempt
to describe would avert her eyes in horror by no means
feigned from an English lady in a Court or evening-
dress of to-day.

The under garment, very much en Evidence, is a short
chemise of tinselled silk gauze, or gold - embroidered
muslin so transparent as to leave nothing to the imagina-
tion. This lady wore a skirt of flowered silver brocade,
enormously full, ten or twelve yards wide, made to stand
nearly straight out by some frills or skirts of very stiffly
starched cotton underneath, the whole, not even on a
waistband round the waist, but drawn by strings, and
suspended over the hips, the skirts coming down to within
a few inches of the knee, leaving the white rounded
limbs uncovered. The effect of this exaggerated
louffante skirt is most singular. White socks are worn.
Over the transparent pirahan, or chemise, she wore a
short velvet jacket beautifully embroidered in gold,
with its fronts about ten inches apart, so as to show
the flowered chemise. Her eyebrows were artificially
curved and lengthened till they appeared to meet above


her nose, her eyelashes were marked round with Jcohl, and
a band of blue-black paint curving downwards above the
nose crossed her forehead, but was all but concealed by
a small white square of silk crfye on the head and brow
and fastened under the chin by a brooch.

Had she been in another house she would have worn
a large square of gold-embroidered silk, with the points
in front and behind, and fastened under the chin. Under
the crgpe square there was a small skull-cap of gold-
embroidered velvet, matching her little zouave jacket,
with an aigrette of gems at the side. Her arms were
covered with bracelets, and a number of valuable necklaces
set off the beauty of her dazzlingly white neck.

Persian ladies paint, or rather smear, but her young
pure complexion needed no such aids. Her front hair,
cut to the level of her mouth, hung down rather straight,
and the remainder, which was long, was plaited into many
small glossy plaits. Contrary to custom, it was undyed,
and retained its jet-black colour. Most Persian ladies
turn jt blue-black with indigo, or auburn with henna, and
with the latter the finger-nails and palms of the hands
are always stained.

Her jewellery was all of solid gold ; hollow gold and
silver ornaments being only worn by the poor. She wore
a chain with four scent caskets attached to it exhaling
attar of roses and other choice perfumes.

She was a graceful and attractive creature in spite of
her costume. She waited on her husband and on me,
that is, she poured out the tea and moved about the
room for hot water and bonbons with the feeble, tottering
gait of a woman quite unaccustomed to exercise, and to
whom the windy wastes outside the city walls and a
breezy gallop are quite unknown. The little girls were
dressed in the style of adults, and wore tinselled gauze
chaddrs or chargats.


After seeing a good deal of home life during some
months in Persia, I have come to the conclusion
that there is no child life. Swaddled till they can
walk, and then dressed as little men and women, with
the adult tyrannies of etiquette binding upon them,
and in the case of girls condemned from infancy to the
seclusion of the andarun, there is not a trace of the
spontaneity and nonsense which we reckon as among
the joys of childhood, or of such a complete and beautiful
child life as children enjoy in Japan. There does not
appear to be any child talk. The Persian child from
infancy is altogether interested in the topics of adults ;
and as the conversation of both 'sexes is said by those
who know them best to be without reticence or modesty,
the purity which is one of the greatest charms of child-
hood is absolutely unknown. Parental love is very
strong in Persia, and in later days the devotion of the
mother to the boy is amply returned by the grown-up
son, who regards her comfort as his charge, and her
wishes as law, even into old age.

When tea was over the host retired with the remark
that the ladies would prefer to amuse themselves alone,
and then a Princess and another lady arrived attended
by several servants. This Princess came in the black
silk sheet with a suggestion of gold about its border which
is the street disguise of women of the richer classes,
and she wore huge bag-like violet trousers, into which
her voluminous skirts were tucked.

She emerged from these wrappings a " harmony " in
rose colour a comely but over-painted young woman in
rose and silver brocade skirts, a rose velvet jacket em-
broidered in silver, a transparent white muslin pirakdn
with silver stars upon it, and a chargat of white muslin
embroidered in rose silk.

She and the hostess sat on a rug in front of a


fire, and servants now and then handed them kalians.
The three little girls and the guest's little girl were in
the background. The doors were then fastened and a
number of servants came in and entertained their
mistresses. Two sang and accompanied themselves on
a sort of tambourine. Tea was handed round at intervals.
There was dancing, and finally two or three women acted
some little scenes from a popular Persian play. By
these amusements, I am told, the women of the upper
classes get rid of time when they visit each other ; and
they spend much of their lives in afternoon visiting,
taking care to be back before sunset. After a long time
the gentle hostess, reading in my face that I was not
enjoying the performances, on which indeed unaccustomed
English eyes could not look, brought them to a close,
and showed me some of her beautiful dresses and em-
broidered fabrics.

Putting on my disguise and attended by a servant I
walked a third time unrecognised and unmolested through
the crowded bazars, through the gate and across the
bridge, when a boy looked quite into my shroud, which
I was not perhaps clutching so tightly as in the crowd,
and exclaiming several times Kafir, ran back into the
city. I did not run, but got back to the " hotel " as
fast as possible.

It is very noisy, and my room being on the ground
floor, and having three doors, there is little peace
either by day or night. Thirteen days from the No
Euz or New Year, which was March 21, are kept as a
feast before the severe fast of the Ramazan, and this
city of pilgrims is crowded, and all people put on new
clothes, the boys being chiefly dressed in green.

To-morrow I begin my journey over new ground.

i. L. r>.



KASHAN, March 26.

I HAVE seen the last of Kum and hotels and made roads
for many months. So much the better ! I had to ride
the whole length of the bazars and the city, a mile and
a half, but the camel -driver's coat served again as a
disguise, and I heard no remarks except from two boys.
Indeed I am delighted to find that the " foreign soldier "
who rides in front of me attracts so much curiosity that
I pass in his wake unnoticed.

The ruinous condition of Kum is fearful. Once
outside the houses and bazars which surround the
shrine of Fatima, the town is mostly rubbish and litter,
with forlorn, miserable houses created out of the
rubbish, grouped near festering pools ; broken cause-
ways infamously paved, full of holes, heaps of pot-
sherds, bones obtruding themselves, nothing to please
and everything to disgust the eye and sadden the
spirit, religious intolerance, a diminished population, and

The pottery bazar, abounding in blue glazed ware of
graceful shapes, and a number of shrines of saints, are
the only objects of interest. The domes of the latter
were once covered with blue tiles, but these have nearly
all peeled off, leaving the universal mud a mud so
self-asserting everywhere that Persia may be called the
" Great Mud Land." The cherry and apricot trees are


in full bloom, but as yet there is little greenery round
Kum, and the area of cultivation is very limited.

I am now on the road which, with the exception of
that from Tihran to Resht, is best known to travellers, 1
but I cannot help sketching it briefly, though the interests
are few considering the distance travelled, 280 miles
from Tihran to Isfahan. I now see Persia for the first
time ; for traversing a country buried in snow is not
seeing it. It would be premature to express the opinion
that the less one sees of it the more one is likely to
admire it.

I have been en route for a week under the best
possible circumstances the nights always cool, the days
never too warm, the accommodation tolerable, the caravan
in excellent working order, no annoyances, and no griev-
ances. The soldier who attends me arranges everything
for my comfort, and is always bright and kind. I have
no ambition to " beat the record," but long gallops on a
fine Arab horse turn marches of from twenty-two to
thirty miles into delightful morning rides of from three
and a half to four and a half hours, with long pleasant
afternoons following them, and sound sleep at night. These
are my halcyon days of Persian travelling; and yet I
cannot write that Persia is beautiful

It is early spring, and tulips and irises rise not out of a
carpet of green but, to use the descriptive phrase of Isaiah,
" as a root out of a dry ground," the wormwood is dressed
in its gray-green, the buds of the wild dwarf-almond
show their tender pink, the starry blossom of the nar-
cissus gleams in moist places, the sky is exquisitely blue,
and shining cloud-masses fleck the brown hillsides with
violet shadows. Where there is irrigation carpets of
young wheat cover the ground ; but these, like the villages,

1 It is new to me, however, and may be new to a large proportion of the
' untravelled many " for whom I write.


occur only at long intervals, for the road passes mainly
through a country destitute of water, or rather of arrange-
ments for storing it.

As to natural trees there are none, and even the bushes
are few and unlovely, chiefly camel thorn and a rigid and
thorny tamarisk. Beyond Kum there is no made road.
A track worn by the caravans of ages exists, sometimes
parallel ruts for a width of half a mile, sometimes not
two yards wide, and now and then lapsing into illegi-
bility. There are large and small caravanserais of an
inferior class along the route, and chapar khanas at inter-
vals. Water is often bad and sometimes brackish. It
is usually supplied from small brick abambars, or covered
reservoirs. Milk is hard to obtain, often impossible ; at
some places fowls can be bought for eightpence each, and
" flap jacks " everywhere.

Except the snowy cone of Demavend, with purple
ranges curtaining his feet, no special object of admira-
tion exists; the plains are reddish, yellowish, barren,
gravelly, or splotched with salt ; the ranges of hills,
which are never far off (for Persia is a land of moun-
tains), are either shapeless and gravelly, or rocky, rugged,
and splintered, their hue reddish and purplish, their sides
scored by the spring rush of wasted torrents, their aspect
one of complete desolation, yet not without a certain
beauty at this season rose-flushed in the early morning,
passing through shades of cobalt and indigo through the
day, and dying away at sunset in translucent amethyst
against a sky of ruddy gold.

But, take away the atmospheric colouring which the
advancing heat will abolish and the plain English of the
route is this, that in every direction, far as the eye can
reach, the country is a salt waste or a gravelly waste,
with a few limited oases of cultivation on the plains and
in the folds of the hills, always treeless, except round


a few of the villages, where there are small groves of
poplars and willows. The villages are clusters of mud
hovels, scarcely distinguishable from the wastes, and many
of them are ruined and deserted, oppressive exactions or
a failure of water being common reasons for a migra-
tion. These dismal ruins are shapeless heaps of mud,
the square towers of the square walls alone retaining any
semblance of form.

Long lines of choked kanaats, denoted by their crumb-
ling shafts, attest the industrious irrigation of a former
day. Tracks wind wearily among shrunken villages, or
cross ridges of mud or gravel to take their unlovely way
over arid stony plains. Unwatered tracts of land, once
cultivated, as the kanaats show, but now deserts of sand
and stones, send up gyrating clouds of gritty dust.

Such is Persia between its two capitals; and yet I
repeat that in cool weather, and on a good horse, the
journey is a very pleasant one. Most European men
ride chapar, that is, post; but from what I see of the
chapar horses, I would not do it for the sake of doubling
the distance travelled in the day, and therefore cannot
describe either its pleasures or tortures from experience.

On certain roads, as from Tihran to Shiraz, there are
post stations (chapar khana) with horses and men at
distances of from twenty to twenty-five miles, with a
charge of one kran (eightpence) per farsakh (four miles)
for each horse engaged, an order having been previously
obtained from a government official. Besides your own
horse you have to take one for the shasgird chapar, or
post-boy, who has to take the horses back, and one for the
servant. The two latter carry the very limited kit,
which includes a long cotton bag, which, being filled
with chopped straw at night, forms, the traveller's bed.
The custom is to ride through all the hours of daylight
whenever horses are to be got, doing from sixty to


ninety miles a day, always inspired by the hope of
" cutting the record," even by half an hour, and winning
undying fame.

The horses, which are kept going at a canter so long
as they can be thrashed into one, are small and active,
and do wonders ; but from the strain put upon them, bad
feeding, sore backs, and general dilapidation and exhaus-
tion, are constantly tumbling down. Several times I
have seen wretched animals brought into the yards,
apparently " dead beat," and after getting some chopped

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 17 of 29)