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 2 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 2 of 29)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

a good fire, and New Year's Day come together appro-
priately. The sky is clear and cloudless, and the air
keen. The bungalows belonging to the European firms
are dwelling-houses above and offices below, and are
surrounded by packing-yards and sheds for goods. In
line with them are the Consulates.

The ancient commercial glories of Basrah are too well
known to need recapitulation. Circumstances are doing
much to give it something of renewed importance. The
modern Basrah, a town which has risen from a state of
decay till it has an estimated population of 25,000, is
on the right bank of the river, at some distance up a
picturesque palm-fringed canal. Founded by Omar soon


after the death of Mohammed, and tossed like a shuttlecock
between Turk and Persian, it is now definitely Turkish,
and the great southern outlet of Chaldsea and Mesopo-
tamia, as well as the port at which the goods passing to
and from Baghdad " break bulk." A population more
thoroughly polyglot could scarcely be found, Turks, Arabs,
Sabeans, Syrians, Greeks, Hindus, Armenians, Frenchmen,
Wahabees, Britons, Jews, Persians, Italians, and Africans,
and there are even more creeds than races.

S.S. Mejidieh, River Tigris, Jan. 4- Leaving Basrah
at 4 P.M. on Tuesday we have been stemming the strong
flood of the Tigris for three bright winter days, in which
to sit by a red-hot stove and sleep under a pile of
blankets have been real luxuries after the torrid heat of
the " Gulf." The party on board consists of Dr. Bruce,
Mr. Hammond, who has been for some months pushing
British trade at Shuster, the Assistant Quartermaster-
General for India, a French-speaking Jewish merchant,
the Hon. G. Curzon, M.P., and Mr. Swabadi, a Hungarian
gentleman in the employment of the Tigris and Euphrates
Steam Navigation Company, a very scholarly man, who in
the course of a long residence in Southern Turkey has
acquainted himself intimately with the country and its
peoples, and is ever ready to place his own stores of
information at our disposal. Mr. Curzon has been
" prospecting " the Karun river, and came on board from
the Shuslian, a small stern- wheel steamer with a carrying
capacity of 30 tons, a draught when empty of 18 inches,
and when laden of from 24 to 36. She belongs to the
Messrs. Lynch Brothers, of the Tigris and Euphrates
S.N. Co. They run her once a fortnight at a considerable
loss between Mohammerah and Ahwaz. Her isolated
position and diminutive size are a curious commentary
on the flourish of trumpets and blether of exultation with
which the English newspapers announced the very poor


concession of leave to run steamers on the Karun be-
tween the Shat-el-Arab and Ahwaz.

[Since this letter was written, things have taken rather
a singular turn, and the development of trade on the
Karun has partly fallen into the hands of a trading cor-
poration of Persians, the Nasiri Company. By them, and
under their representative partner, Haja Mahomad, a man
of great energy, the formidable rapids at Ahwaz are being
circumvented by the construction of a tramway 2400
yards long, which is proceeding steadily. A merchants'
caravanserai has already been built on the river bank
at the lower landing-place and commencement of the
tramway, and a bakery, butchery, and carpentry, along
with a cafe and a grocery and general goods stores, have
already been opened by men brought to Ahwaz by
H. Mahomad.

A river face wall, where native craft are to lie, is
being constructed of hewn stone blocks and sections of
circular pillars, remains of the ancient city.

The Nasiri Company has a small steamer, the Nasiri,
plying on the lower Karun, chiefly as a tug, taking up
two Arab boats of twenty - seven tons each, lashed
alongside of her. On her transference at the spring
floods of this year to the river above Ahwaz, the Karun,
a steam launch of about sixty tons, belonging to the
Governor of Mohammerah, takes her place below, and
a second steamer belonging to the same company is
now running on the lower stream. Poles from
Zanzibar have been distributed for a telegraph line
from Mohammerah to Ahwaz. The Messrs. Lynch
have placed a fine river steamer of 300 tons on the
route ; but this enterprising firm, and English capitalists
generally, are being partially "cut out" by the singular
" go" of this Persian company, which not only appears to
have strong support from Government quarters, but has


gained the co-operation of the well-known and wealthy
Sheikh Mizal, whose personal influence in Arabistan is
very great, and who has hitherto been an obstacle to the
opening of trade on the Karun.

A great change for the better has taken place in the
circumstances of the population, and villages, attracted by
trade, are springing up, which the Nasiri Company is
doing its best to encourage. The land-tax is very light,
and the cultivators are receiving every encouragement.
Much wheat was exported last year, and there is a brisk
demand for river lands on leases of sixty years for the
cultivation of cotton, cereals, sugar-cane, and date palms.

Persian soldiers all have their donkeys, and at Ahwaz
a brisk and amusing competition is going on between the
soldiers of a fine regiment stationed there and the Arabs
for the transport of goods past the rapids, and for the
conveyance of tramway and building materials. This
competition is enabling goods to pass the rapids cheaply
and expeditiously.

One interesting feature connected with these works is
the rapidly increased well-being of the Arabs. In less
than a year labour at 1 kran (8d.) a day has put quite a
number of them in possession of a pair of donkeys and
a plough, and seed-corn wherewith to cultivate Govern-
ment lands on their own account, besides leaving a small
balance in hand on which to live without having to
borrow on the coming crop at frightfully usurious rates.

Until now the sheikhs have been able to command
labour for little more than the poorest food ; and now
many of the very poor who depended on them have started
as small farmers, and things are rapidly changing.

The careful observer, from whose report on Persia to
the Foreign Office, No. 207, I have transferred the fore-
going facts, wrote in January 1891 : "It was a sight to
see the whole Arab population on the river banks hard


at work taking advantage of the copious rain which
had just fallen ; every available animal fit for draught
was yoked to the plough horses, mules, bullocks, and
donkeys, and even mares, with their foals following them
up the furrows."

This, which is practically a Persian opening of the
trade of the Karun, is not what was expected, however
much it was to be desired. After a journey of nine
months through Persia, I am strongly of opinion that if
the Empire is to have a solid and permanent resurrection,
it must be through the enterprise of Persians, aided it
may be by foreign skill and capital, though the less of
the latter that is employed the more hopefully I should
regard the Persian future. The Nasiri Company and the
Messrs. Lynch may possibly unite, and the New Road
Company may join with them in making a regular trans-
port service by river and road to Tihran, by which
England may pour her manufactured goods even into
Northern Persia, as this route would compete success-
fully both with the Baghdad and Trebizond routes.

Already, owing to the improved circumstances of the
people, the import of English and Indian cotton goods
and of sugar has increased; the latter, which is French,
from its low price, only 2-^d. a pound in the Gulf, pushing
its way as far north as Sultanabad. Unfortunately the
shadow of Eussia hangs over the future of Persia.]

At present two English and four Turkish boats run
on the Tigris. They are necessarily of light draught, as
the river is shallow at certain seasons and is full of
shifting sand-banks. The Mejidieh is a comfortable boat,
with a superabundance of excellent food. Her saloon,
state-rooms, and engines are on the main deck, which is
open fore and aft, and has above it a fine hurricane deck,
on the fore part of which the deck passengers, a motley
crowd, encamp. She is fully loaded with British goods.


The first object of passing interest was Koruah,
reputed among the Arabs to be the site of the Garden of
Eden, a tongue of land at the junction of the Tigris and
Euphrates. The " Garden of Eden " contains a village,
and bright fires burned in front of the mat -and -mud
houses. Women in red and white, and turbaned men in
brown, flitted across the firelight ; there was a mass of
vegetation, chiefly palms with a number of native vessels
moored to their stems, and a leaning minaret. A frosty
moonlight glorified the broad, turbid waters, Kornah and
the Euphrates were left in shadow, and we turned up the
glittering waterway of the Tigris. The night was too
keenly frosty for any dreams of Paradise, even in this
classic Chaldsea, and under a sky blazing down to the
level horizon with the countless stars which were not to
outnumber the children of " Faithful Abraham."

Four hours after leaving Kornah we passed the
reputed tomb of Ezra the prophet. At a distance and
in the moonlight it looked handsome. There is a but-
tressed river wall, and above it some long flat-roofed
buildings, the centre one surmounted by a tiled dome.
The Tigris is so fierce and rapid, and swallows its alluvial
banks so greedily, that it is probable that some of the
buildings described by the Hebrew traveller Benjamin of
Tudela as existing in the twelfth century were long since
carried away. The tomb is held in great veneration not
only by Jews and Moslems but also by Oriental Chris-
tians. It is a great place of Jewish pilgrimage, and is so
venerated by the Arabs that it needs no guard. 1

1 Sir A. H. Layard describes the interior of the domed building as
consisting of two chambers, the outer one empty, and the inner one
containing the Prophet's tomb, built of bricks covered with white stucco,
and enclosed in a wooden case or ark, over which is thrown a large blue
cloth, fringed with yellow tassels, the name of the donor being inscribed
in Hebrew characters upon it. Layard 's Early Adventures, vol. i.
p. 214.


Hadji brought my breakfast, or as he called it, " the
grub," the next morning, and I contemplated the Son of
Abraham with some astonishment. He had discarded
his turban and abba, and looked a regular uncivilised
desert Ishmaelite, with knives and rosaries in his belt,
and his head muffled in a kiffiyeh, a yellow silk shawl
striped with red, with one point and tassels half a yard
long hanging down his back, and fastened round his head
by three coils of camel's-hair rope. A loose coat with a
gay girdle, " breeks " of some kind, loose boots turned up
at the toes and reaching to the knees, and a striped under-
garment showing here and there, completed his costume.

The view from the hurricane deck, though there are
no striking varieties, is too novel to be monotonous. The
level plains of Chaldaea, only a few feet higher than the
Tigris, stretch away to the distant horizon, unbroken
until to-day, when low hills, white with the first snows
of winter, are softly painted on a pure blue sky, very far
away. The plains are buff and brown, with an occasional
splash, near villages as buff and brown as the soil out of
which they rise, of the dark-green of date gardens, or the
vivid green of winter wheat. With the exception of these
gardens, which are rarely seen, the vast expanse is un-
broken by a tree. A few miserable shrubs there are,
the mimosa agrestis or St. John's bread, and a scrubby
tamarisk, while liquorice, wormwood, capers, and some
alkaline plants which camels love, are recognisable even
in their withered condition.

There are a few villages of low mud hovels enclosed
by square mud walls, and hamlets of mat huts, the mats
being made of woven sedges and flags, strengthened by
palm fronds, but oftener by the tall, tough stems of
growing reeds bent into arches, and woven together by
the long leaves of aquatic plants, chiefly rushes. The
hovels, so ingeniously constructed, are shared indis-


criminately by the Arabs and their animals, and crowds
of women and children emerged from them as we passed.
Each village has its arrangement for raising water from
the river.

Boats under sail, usually a fleet at a time, hurry down-
stream, owing more to the strong current than to the
breeze, or are hauled up laboriously against both by their
Arab crews.

The more distant plain is sparsely sprinkled with
clusters of brown tents, long and low, and is dotted over
with flocks of large brown sheep, shepherded by Arabs in
kiffiyelis, each shepherd armed with a long gun slung over
his shoulder. Herds of cattle and strings of camels move
slowly over the brown plain, and companies of men on
horseback, with long guns and lances, gallop up to the
river bank, throw their fiery horses on their haunches,
and after a moment of gratified curiosity wheel round
and gallop back to the desert from which they came.
Occasionally a stretch of arable land is being ploughed
up by small buffaloes with most primitive ploughs, but
the plains are pastoral chiefly, tents and flocks are their
chief features features which have changed little since
the great Sheikh Abraham, whose descendants now people
them, left his " kindred " in the not distant Ur of the
Chaldees, and started on the long march to Canaan.

Eeedy marshes, alive with water- fowl, arable lands,
bare buff plains, brown tents, brown flocks, mat huts,
mud and brick villages, groups of women and children,
flights of armed horsemen, alternate rapidly, the
unchanging features are the posts and wires of the

The Tigris in parts is wonderfully tortuous, and at
one great bend, " The Devil's Elbow," a man on foot can
walk the distance in less than an hour which takes the
steamer four hours to accomplish. The current is very


strong, and the slow progress is rendered slower at this
season of lo'w water by the frequent occurrence of sand-
banks, of which one is usually made aware by a jolt, a
grinding sound, a cessation of motion, some turns astern,
and then full speed ahead, which often overcomes the
obstacle. Some hours' delay and the floats of one paddle-
wheel injured were the most serious disasters brought
about ; and in spite of the shallows at this season, the
Tigris is a noble river, and the voyage is truly fascinating.
Not that there are many remarkable objects, but the
desert atmosphere and the desert freedom are in them-
selves delightful, the dust and debris are the dust and
ctibris of mighty empires, and there are countless
associations with the earliest past of which we have any

Aimarah, a rising Turkish town of about 7000 people,
built at a point where the river turns at a sharp angle
to the left, is interesting as showing what commerce can
create even here, in less than twenty years. A caravan
route into Persia was opened and Aimarah does a some-
what busy trade. Flat -faced brick buildings, with pro-
jecting lattice windows, run a good way along the left
bank of the river, which is so steep and irregular that
the crowd which thronged it when the steamer made
fast was shown to great advantage Osmanlis, Greeks,
Persians, Sabeans, Jews of great height and superb
physique, known by much-tasselled turbans, and a pre-
dominating Arab element.

We walked down the long, broad, covered bazar,
with a broken water channel in the middle, where there
were crowds, solely of men, meat, game, bread, fruit,
grain, lentils, horse - shoes, pack saddles, Manchester
cottons, money-changers, silversmiths, and scribes, and
heard the roar of business, and the thin shouts of boys
unaccustomed to the sight of European women. The


crowds pressed and followed, picking at my clothes, and
singing snatches of songs which were not complimentary.
It had not occurred to me that I was violating rigid
custom in appearing in a hat and gauze veil rather than
in a chadar and face cloth, but the mistake was made
unpleasantly apparent. In Moslem towns women go
about in companies and never walk with men.

We visited an enclosed square, where there are
barracks for zaptiehs (gendarmes), the Kadi's court, and
the prison, which consists of an open grating like that
of a menagerie, a covered space behind, and dark cells
or dens opening upon it, all better than the hovels of
the peasantry. There were a number of prisoners well
clothed, and apparently well fed, to whom we were an
obvious diversion, but the guards gesticulated, shouted,
and brandished their side-arms, making us at last
understand that our presence in front of the grating was
forbidden. After seeing a large barrack yard, and
walking, still pursued by a crowd, round the forlorn out-
skirts of Aimarah, which include a Sabean village, we
visited the gold and silversmiths' shops where the Sabeans
were working at their craft, of which in this region they
have nearly a monopoly, not only settling temporarily
in the towns, but visiting the Arab encampments on the
plains, where they are always welcome as the makers and
repairers of the ornaments with which the women are
loaded. These craftsmen and others of the race whom
I have seen differ greatly from the Arabs in appearance,
being white rather than brown, very white, i.e. very pale,
with jet-black hair ; large, gentle, intelligent eyes ; small,
straight noses, and small, well -formed mouths. The
handsome faces of these " Christians of St. John " are
very pleasing in their expression, and there was a
dainty cleanliness about their persons and white cloth-
ing significant of those frequent ablutions of both which
VOL. I c


are so remarkable a part of their religion. The children
at Aimarah, and generally in the riparian villages, wear
very handsome chased, convex silver links, each as large
as the top of a breakfast cup, to fasten their girdles.

The reedy marshes, the haunts of pelicans and pigs,
are left behind at Aimarah, and tamarisk scrub and
liquorice appear on the banks. At Kut-al- Aimarah, a
small military post and an Arab town of sun-dried
bricks on the verge of a high bank above the Tigris,
we landed again, and ragamuffin boys pressed very
much upon us, and ragamuffin zaptiehs, 1 grotesquely
dressed in clothes of different European nationalities,
pelted them with stones. To take up stones and throw
them at unwelcome visitors is a frequent way of getting
rid of them in the less civilised parts of the East.

A zaptieh station, barracks, with a large and badly-
kept parade ground, a covered bazar well supplied, houses
with blank walls, large cafts with broad matted benches,
asafoetida, crowds of men of superb physique, picturesque
Arabs on high-bred horses, and a total invisibility of
women, were the salient features of Kut-al-Aimarah.
Big -masted, high -stemmed boats, the broad, turbid
Tigris with a great expanse of yellowish sand on its
farther shore, reeds " shaken with the wind," and a windy
sky, heavily overcast, made up the view from the bank.
There were seen for the first time by the new-comers
the most venerable boats in the world, for they were old
even when Herodotus mentions them kufas or gophers,
very deep round baskets covered with bitumen, with
incurved tops, and worked by one man with a paddle.
These remarkable tubs are used for the conveyance of
passengers, goods, and even animals.

1 A year later in Kurdistan, the zaptiehs, all time-expired soldiers and well
set up soldierly men, wore neat, serviceable, dark blue braided uniforms,
and high riding-boots.




Before leaving we visited the Arab Khan or Sheikh
in his house. He received us in an upper room of
difficult access, carpeted with very handsome rugs, and
with a divan similarly covered, but the walls of brown
mud were not even plastered. His manner was dignified
and courteous, and his expression remarkably shrewd.
A number of men sitting on the floor represented by


their haughty aspect and magnificent physique the
royalty of the Ishmaelite descent from Abraham. This
Khan said that his tribe could put 3000 fighting men
into the field, but it was obvious that its independence
is broken, and that these tribal warriors are reckoned
as Osmanli irregulars or Bashi Bazouks. The Khan
remarked that " the English do not make good friends,
for," he added, "they back out when difficulties arise."
On board the steamer the condition of the Arabs is


much discussed, and the old residents describe it as
steadily growing worse under the oppression and corrup-
tion of the Osmanli officials, who appear to be doing
their best to efface these fine riparian tribes by merciless
exactions coming upon the top of taxation so heavy
as to render agriculture unprofitable, the impositions
actually driving thousands of them to seek a living in
the cities and to the Persian shores of the Gulf, where
they exchange a life of hereditary freedom for a pre-
carious and often scanty subsistence among unpropitious
surroundings. Still, the Arab of the desert is not con-
quered by the Turks.


LETTER I (Continued}

BAGHDAD, Jan. 5.

THE last day on the Tigris passed as pleasantly as its
predecessors. There was rain in the early morning,
then frost which froze the rain 'on deck, and at 7 A.M.
the mercury in my cabin stood at 28.

In the afternoon the country became more populous,
that is, there were kraals of mat huts at frequent
intervals, and groups of tents to which an external wall
of mats gave a certain aspect of permanence. Increased
cultivation accompanied the increased population. In
some places the ground was being scratched with a
primitive plough of unshod wood, or a branch of a tree
slightly trimmed, leaving a scar about two inches deep.
These scars, which pass for furrows, are about ten inches
apart, and camel thorn, tamarisk, and other shrubs
inimical to crops stand between them. The seed is now
being sown. After it comes up it grows apace, and
in spite of shallow scratches, camel thorn, and tamarisk
the tilth is so luxuriant that the husbandmen actually
turn cattle and sheep into it for two or three weeks, and
then leave it to throw up the ear ! They say that there
are from eighteen to thirty-five stalks from each seed in
consequence of this process ! The harvest is reaped in
April, after which water covers the land.

Another style of cultivation is adopted for land, of
which we saw a good deal, very low lying, and annually


overflowed, usually surrounding a nucleus of permanent
marsh. This land, after the water dries up, is destitute
of vegetation, and presents a smooth, moist surface full
of cracks, which scales off later. No scratching is
needed for this soil. The seed is sown broadcast over
it, and such of it as is not devoured by birds falls into
the cracks, and produces an abundant crop. All this rich
alluvial soil is stoneless, but is strewn from Seleucia
to Babylon with fragments of glass, bricks, and pottery.
Artificial mounds also abound, and remains of canals, all
denoting that these fertile plains in ancient days sup-
ported a large stationary population. Of all that once
was, this swirling river alone remains, singing in every
eddy and ripple

" For men may come and men may go,
But I go on for ever."

As we were writing in the evening we were nearly
thrown off our chairs by running aground with a thump,
which injured one paddle wheel and obliged us to lie up
part of the night for repairs near the ruins of the ancient
palace of Ctesiphon. Seleucia, on the right bank of the
river, is little more now than a historic name, but the
palace of Tak-i-Kasr, with its superb archway 100
feet in height, has been even in recent times mag-
nificent enough in its ruin to recall the glories of the
Parthian kings, and the days when, according to Gibbon,
" Khosroes Nushirwan gave audience to the ambassadors
of the world " within its stately walls. Its gaunt and
shattered remains have even still a mournful grandeur
about them, but they have suffered so severely from the
barbarous removal of the stones and the fall of much of
the front as to be altogether disappointing.

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 2 of 29)