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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love, companionship, and protection of God."

He regards as the needs of Persia education, religious
liberty (the law which punishes a Moslem with death for
embracing Christianity is still on the statute-book), roads,
and railroads, and asked me if I had formed any opinion
on the subject. I said that it appeared to me that security
for the earnings of labour, and equal laws for rich and
poor, administered by incorruptible judges, should accom-
pany education. I much fear that he thinks incorruptible
judges a vision of a dim future !

The subject of the position of women in England
and the height to which female education is now carried
interested him extremely. He wished his wife to under-
stand everything I told him. The success of women in
examinations in art, literature, music, aud other things,
and the political wisdom and absolutely constitutional rule
of Queen Victoria, all interested him greatly. He asked
if the women who took these positions were equally good
as wives and mothers ? I could only refer again to
Queen Victoria. An Oriental cannot understand the
position of unmarried women with us, or dissociate it
from religious vows, and the Amir heard with surprise that
a very large part of the philanthropic work which is done
in England is done by women who either from accident
or design have neither the happiness nor the duties of
married life. He hopes to see women in Persia educated
and emancipated from the trammels of certain customs,
" but," he added, " all reform in this direction must come
slowly, and grow naturally out of a wider education, if
it is to be good and not hurtful."


He asked me what I should like to see in Isfahan,
but when I mentioned the prison he said he should be
ashamed to show it, and that except for political offences
imprisonment is not much resorted to, that Persian
justice is swift and severe the bastinado, etc., not

Afterwards I paid a similar visit to the bouse of
Mirza Yusufs other " benefactor," also a good and charit-
able man, who, as he speaks French well, acted as inter-
preter in the and n rim.

A few days later the Amir-i-Panj, accompanied by
General Faisarallah Khan, called on Dr. Bruce and on
me, and showed how very agreeable a morning visit might
be made, and the following day the Amir sent the same
charger and escort for me, and meeting him and Dr.
Bruce in the Chahar Bagh, we visited the Medresseh, a
combined mosque and college, and the armoury, where we
were joined by two generals and were afterwards enter-
tained at tea in the Standard Room, while a military
band played outside. The Amir had ordered some
artificers skilled in the brass-work for which Isfahan is
famous to exhibit their wares in one of the rooms at
the armoury, and in every way tried to make the visit
more agreeable than an inspection of the jail! He
advises me not to wear a veil in the Bakhtiari country,
and to be "as European as possible."

The armoury, of which he has had the organising, does
not fall within my province. There are many large
rooms with all the appliances of war in apparently
perfect order for the equipment of 5000 men.

With equal brevity I pass over the Mcdresseh, whose
silver gates and exquisite tiles have been constantly
described. Decay will leave little of this beautiful
building in a few years. The tiles of the dome, which
can be seen for miles, are falling off, and even in the


halls of instruction and in the grand mosque under the
dome, which are completely lined and roofed by tiles, the
making of some of which is a lost art, one may augur
the approach of ruin from the loss or breakage here and
there. In the rooms or cells occupied by the students,
who study either theology or law, there are some very
fine windows executed in the beautiful tracery common
to Persia and Kashmir, but the effect of beauty passing
into preventible decay is very mournful.

Isfahan too I barely notice, for the best of all reasons,
that I have not seen it ! Though a fourth part of it is
in ruins, and its population is not an eighth of what it
was in the days of Shah Abbas, it is a fairly thriving
commercial emporium with an increasing British trade.
Indeed here Russian commercial influence may be said
to cease, and that of England to become paramount.
It is the paradise of Manchester and Glasgow cottons :
woollen goods come from Austria and Germany, glass
from Austria, crockery from England, candles and kerosene
represent Russia. Our commercial supremacy in Isfahan
cannot be disputed. I am almost tired of hearing of it.
Opium, tobacco, carpets from the different provinces,
and cotton and rice for native consumption, are the chief
exports. Opium is increasingly grown round the city,
and up the course of the Zainderud. Of the 4500 cases
exported, worth 90 a case, three-fourths go to China.
Its cultivation is so profitable and has increased so
rapidly to the neglect of food crops that the Prince
Governor has issued an order that one part of cereals
shall be sown for every four of the opium poppy.

The cotton in the bazars, through which one can walk
under cover for between two and three miles, is of the
best quality, owing to the successful measures taken by
the calico printers to defeat the roguery of the cheating
manufacturers. All the European necessaries and many


of the luxuries of life are obtainable, and the Isfahan
bazars are the busiest in Persia except those of Tabriz.

It is only fair to this southern capital to say that if one
can walk over two miles under the roofs of its fine
bazars, one can ride for many miles among its mins,
which have desolation without stateliness, and are chiefly
known for the production of the excellent wild asparagus
which is used lavishly on European tables at this season.

The " Persian Versailles," the Palace of Forty Pillars,
each pillar formed of shafts enriched with colour and
intricate work, and resting on a marble lion, the shaking
Minarets, the Masjid-i-Shah with its fine dome of pea-
cock-blue tiles, all falling into premature decay, remain
to attest its former greatness; the other noble palaces,
mosques, caravanserais, and Medressehs are ruinous, the
superb pleasure gardens are overgrown with weeds or
are used for vetches and barley, the tanks are foul or
filled up, the splendid plane trees have been cut down
for fuel, or are dragging out a hollow existence every
one, as elsewhere in Persia, destroys, no one restores.
The armoury is the one exception to the general law of

Yet Isfahan covered an area of twenty-four miles in
circumference, and with its population of 650,000 souls
was until the seventeenth century one of the most magni-
ficent cities of the East Its destruction last century by
an Afghan conqueror, who perpetrated a fifteen days'
massacre, and the removal of the court to Tihran, have
reduced it to a mere commercial centre, a " distributing
point," and as such, its remains may take a new lease of
life. It has a newspaper called the Farhang, which
prints little bits of news, chiefly personal Its editor
moves on European lines so far as to have " interviewed "

There are manufactures in Isfahan other than the


successful printing and dyeing of cottons ; viz., earthen-
ware, china, brass-work, velvet, satin, tents, coarse cottons,
glass, swords, guns, pistols, jewellery, writing paper and
envelopes, silk brocades, satins, gunpowder, bookbinding,
gold thread, etc.

The plateau on which Isfahan stands, about seventy
miles from east to west and twenty from north to south,
and enclosed by high mountains with a striking outline,
lies 5400 feet above the sea. The city has a most salu-
brious climate, and is free from great extremes both of
heat and cold. The Zainderud, on whose left bank it is
situated, endows much of the plain with fertility on its
way to its undeserved doom in a partially-explored swamp.

This Christian town, called a suburb, though it is
really two and a half miles from Isfahan, is a well-built
and well -peopled nucleus. It is not mixed up with
ruins as Isfahan is. They have a region to themselves
chiefly in the direction of the Kuh Sufi. My impression
of it after a month is that it is clean and comfortable-
looking, Mr. Curzon's is that it is " squalid." I prefer
mine !

It is a " city of waters." Streams taken from a
higher level of the Zainderud glide down nearly all its
lanes, shaded by pollard mulberries, ash, elm, and the
" sparrow-tongue " willow, which makes the best firewood,
and being " planted by the rivers of water," grows so fast
that it bears lopping annually, and besides affording fuel
supplies the twigs which are used for roofing such rooms
as are not arched.

The houses, some of which are more than three
centuries old, are built of mud bricks, the roofs are
usually arched, and the walls are from three to five feet
thick. All possess planted courtyards and vineyards, and
gardens into which channels are led from the streams in
the streets. These streams serve other purposes : continu-


ally a group of A nut-man women may be seen washing
their clothes in them, while others are drinking or draw-
ing water just below. The lanes are about twenty feet
wide and have narrow rough causeways on both sides
of the water-channel. It is difficult on horseback to
pass a foot passenger without touching him in some of

Great picturesqueness is given to these leafy lanes by
the companies of Armenian women in bright red dresses
and pure white robes, slowly walking through them at
all hours of daylight, visions of bright eyes and rosy
cheeks. I have never yet seen a soiled white robe !
Long blank mud .walls, low gateways, an occasional row
of mean shops, open porches of churches, dim and cool,
and an occasional European on foot or horseback, and
groups of male Armenians, whose dress so closely
approaches the European as to be without interest, and
black-robed priests gliding to the churches are all that is
usually to be seen. It sounds dull, perhaps.

Many of the houses of the rich Armenians, some of
which are now let to Europeans, are extremely beautiful
inside, and even those occupied by the poorer classes, in
which a single lofty room can be rented for twopence a
week, are very pretty and appropriate. But no evidence of
wealth is permitted to be seen from the outside. It is
only a few years since the Armenians were subject to
many disabilities, and they have even now need to walk
warily lest they give offence. As, for instance, an
Armenian was compelled to ride an ass instead of a
horse, and when that restriction was relaxed, he had to
show his inferiority by dismounting from his horse before
entering the gates of Isfahan.

They were not allowed to have bells on their churches,
(at Easter I wished they had none still), but now the
Egglesiah Wang (the great church) has a fine campanile


over 100 feet high in its inner court. The ancient mode
of announcing the hours of worship is still affectionately
adhered to, however. It consists of drumming with a
mallet on a board hanging from two posts, and success-
fully breaks the sleep of the neighbourhood for the daily
service which begins before daylight

The Armenians, like the rich Persians, prudently keep
to the low gateways, which, with the absence of windows
and all exterior ornament, give the lanes so mean an
aspect, and tend to make one regard the beauty and even
magnificence within with considerable surprise.

In England a rich man, partly for his own delectation,
and partly, if he be " the architect of his own fortune,"
to impose his position ocularly on his poorer neighbours,
displays his wealth in all ways and on most occasions.
In Persia his chief pleasure must be to hoard it and con-
template it, for any unusual display of it in equipages or
furnishings is certain to bring down upon him a " squeeze,"
at Tihran in the shape of a visit from the Shah with its
inevitable consequences, and in the Provinces in that of
a requisition from the governor.

For a man to " enlarge his gates " is to court destruc-
tion. Poor men have low gates, which involve stooping,
to prevent rich men's servants from entering their houses
on horseback on disagreeable errands. Christian churches
have remarkably low doors elsewhere than in Julfa, to
prevent the Moslems from stabling their cattle in them.
Rich men affect mean entrances in order not to excite the
rapacity of officialism, according to the ancient proverb,
" He that exalteth his gate seeketh destruction " (Proverbs
xvii. 19). Only Royal gates and the gates of officials who
represent Royalty are high.

The Armenian merchants have, like the Europeans,
their offices in Isfahan. The rest of the people get
their living by the making and selling of wine, keeping


small shops, making watches and jewellery, carpentering,
in which they are very skilful, and market-gardening;
they are thrifty and industrious, and there is very little
real poverty.

The selling of wine does not conduce to the peace of
Julfa. A mixture of sour wine and arak, a coarse spirit,
is very intoxicating, and Persians, when they do drink,
drink till they are drunk, and the abominable concealed
traffic in liquor with the Moslems of the town is apt
to produce disgraceful brawls.

Wine can be bought for fourpence a quart, but the
upper classes make their own, and it costs less than this.
Wines are both red and white, and one red wine is said
to be like good ChiantL The Armenians tipple and also
get drunk, priests included. It is said that some of the
jars used in fermenting are between 200 and 300 years

The excellent education given in the C. M. S. schools
has had the effect of stimulating the Armenian schools,
and of producing among the young men a large
emigration to India, Batavia, Constantinople, and even
England. Only the dullards as a rule remain in Julfa.
Some rise high in Persian and even in Turkish employ-

The Armenian women are capital housewives and
very industrious. In these warm evenings the poorer
women sit outside their houses in groups knitting.
The knitting of socks is a great industry, and a woman
can earn 4s. a month by it, which is enough to live upon.

In Julfa, and it may be partly owing to the presence
of a European community, the Christians have nothing to
complain of, and, so far as I can see, they are on terms of
equality with the Persians.

However, Isfahan is full of religious intolerance which
can easily be excited to frenzy, and the arrogance of the


mollahs has increased since the fall from almost regal
state of the Zil-i-Sultan, the Shah's eldest son, into the
position of a provincial governor, for he curbed them some-
what, and now the restraint is removed. However, it is
against the Jews and the dbis, rather than the Christians,
that their hostility is directed.

A few weeks ago some Babis were peaceably return-
ing to a neighbouring village, when they were attacked,
and seven of their number were massacred under atrocious
circumstances, the remainder taking refuge for a time in
the British Telegraph office. Several of both sexes who
escaped are in concealment here in a room in the Hospital
compound, one of them with a broken jaw.

The hiding of these Babis has given great umbrage to
the bigots of Isfahan, though the Amir-i-Panj justified
it on all grounds, and about the time I arrived it was
said that a thousand city fanatics purposed to attack the
mission premises. But at one of the mosques there is a
mollah, who with Gamaliel-like wisdom urged upon them
"that if 300 Moslems were killed nothing would happen,
but if a single European were killed, what then ? Ml

I cannot close this letter without a few words on the
Armenian churches, some of which I visited with Mr.
and Dr. Aganoor, and others with Dr. Bruce. The cere-
mony representing the washing of the disciples' feet on
the Armenian Holy Thursday was a most magnificent one
as regards the antique splendour and extreme beauty of
the vestments and jewels of the officiating bishop, but

1 I have written nothing about this fast-increasing sect of the Babis,
partly because being a secret sect, I doubt whether the doctrines which
are suffered to leak out form really any part of its esoteric teaching, and
partly because those Europeans who have studied the Babis most candidly
are diametrically opposed in their views of their tenets and practice, some
holding that their aspirations are after a purer life, while others, and I
think a majority, believe that their teachings are subversive of morality
and of the purity of domestic life.



the feet, which are washed in rose-water and anointed,
are not, as in Rome, those of beggars, but of neophytes
costumed in pure white. Incense, embroideries, crowds
of white -robed women, and other accessories made the
function an imposing one.

The Cathedral, a part of the Monastery, has a narrow
winding approach and a thick door, for ecclesiastics were
not always as safe as they are now. In the outer court is
the campanile before mentioned. The floor is paved with
monumental slabs, and among the graves are those of
several Europeans. Piles of logs look as if the Julfa
carpenters seasoned their wood in this court !

The church is divided by a rail into two compartments.
The dome is rich with beaten gold, and the dado is of
very fine tiles, which produce a striking effect The
embroideries and the carpets, some of which are worth
fabulous sums, are between two and three centuries old.
The vestments and ornaments of the priests are very
fine, and suggest the attire of the Aaronic priesthood.

It is a striking building, and the amount of gold and
colour, toned into a certain harmony by time, produces a
gorgeous effect. The outer compartment has a singular
interest, for 230 years ago its walls were decorated
with religious paintings, on a large scale, of events in
Bible history, from the creation downwards. Some are
copies, others original, and they are attributed to Italian
artists. They are well worth careful study as represent-
ing the conceptions which found favour among the
Armenian Christians of that day. They are terribly
realistic, but are certainly instructive, especially the
illustrations of the miracles and parables.

In one of the latter a man with a huge beam sticking
out of one eye is represented as looking superciliously
with the other at a man with an insignificant spike pro-
jecting. The death of Dives is a horrible representation.


His soul, in the likeness of a very small nude figure, is
represented as escaping from the top of his head, and is
being escorted to the entrance of the lower regions by
a flight of small black devils. The idea of the soul
emerging from the top of the head is evidently borrowed
from the Moslems.

Our Lord is, I think, everywhere depicted as short,
dark, and dark -haired, with eyebrows much curved,
and a very long upper lip, without beauty or dignity, an
ordinary Oriental workman.

The picture of the Cathedral is an enormous canvas,
representing the day when " before Him shall be gathered
all nations." The three persons of the Trinity are there,
t and saints and angels are portrayed as worshipping, or
as enjoying somewhat earthly but perfectly innocent

In this the conception is analogous to those celebrated
circular pictures in which the Buddhistic future is un-
rolled, and which I last saw in the monasteries of
Lesser Tibet. The upper or heavenly part is insigni-
ficant and very small, while the torments of the lost in
the lower part are on a very large scale, and both the
devils and the nude human sufferers in every phase of
anguish have the appearance of life size. The ingenuity
of torment, however, is not nearly so great, nor are the
scenes so revolting as those which Oriental imagination
has depicted in the Buddhist hells. A huge mythical
monster represents the mouth of hell, and into his flaming
and smoking jaws the impenitent are falling. Does any
modern Armenian believe that any of those whose bones
lie under the huge blocks of stone in the cemetery in the
red desert at the foot of Kuh Sufi have passed into " this
place of torment " ?

The other church which claims one's interest, though
not used for worship, is that of St. George, the hero of the


fraudulent contract in bacon, as well as of the dragon
fight, to whom the Armenians as well as ourselves render
singular honour.

This church is a great place for " miracles " of healing,
and cells for the sick who come from a distance are
freely provided. In a covered court are some large stones
in a group, one of them evidently the capital of a column.
Two of them have cavities at the top, and the sick kneel
before them, and as the voluble women who were there
told us, " they first pray to God and then to the stones,"
and finally pour water into these cavities and drink it.
The cure is either instantaneous or occurs at any time
within fifteen days, and in every case the patient hears
the voice of St. George telling him to go home when it
is complete.

These stones, according to the legend told by the
women and popularly believed by the uneducated, took
it into their heads to come from Etchmiadzin in
Armenia, the residence of the Catholicos, in one night,
and deposited themselves where the church now stands.
Seven times they were taken into Faraidan, eighty miles
from Julfa, and as often returned, and their manifest pre-
dilection was at last rewarded by a rest of centuries.
There were a number of sick people waiting for healing,
for which of course fees are bestowed.

The Armenians, especially the women, pay great
attention to the externals of their religion. Some of its
claims are very severe, such as the daily service before
daylight, winter and summer, and the long fasts, wliich
they keep with surprising loyalty, i.e. among the poor in
towns and in the villages. For at least one-sixth of the
year they are debarred from the use of meat or even
eggs, and are permitted only vegetable oils, fruits, vege-
tables, and grain. Spirits and wine, however, are not


I really believe that their passionate attachment to
their venerable church, the oldest of all national churches,
is fostered by those among them who have ceased to
believe its doctrines, as a necessity of national existence.
I doubt very much whether the " Keformed " congrega-
tions, which have been gathered out here and elsewhere,
would survive the withdrawal of foreign aid. Rather, I
think, they would revert to the original type.

Superstitions without number are mixed up with their
beliefs, and are countenanced by the priests. The meron
or holy oil used in baptism and for other purposes has
the stamp of charlatanism upon it It is made in

Eose leaves are collected in an immense vat, which is
filled with water, and at a set time the monks and nuns
form a circle round it, and repeat prayers till "fermenta-
tion " begins. They claim that the so-called fermentation
ia a miracle due to the prayers offered. Oil, probably
attar of roses, rises to the surface, and this precious
meron is sent to the Armenian churches throughout the
world about once in four or five years. In Persia those
who bear it are received with an istikbal or procession of

It is used not only in baptism and other rites but at
the annual ceremony of washing the Cross at Christmas,
when some of it is poured into the water and is drunk
by the worshippers. In the villages they make a paste
by mixing this water and oil with earth, which is made
into balls and kept in the houses for "luck." If a
dog licks a bowl or other vessel, and thus renders it
unclean, rubbing it round with one of these balls restores
it to purity.

At a village in Faraidan there is an ancient New
Testament, reputed to be of the sixth century. To this
MS. people come on pilgrimage from all quarters, even


from Fare, Tihran, and Armenia, to be healed of tin -ir
diseases, and they make offerings to it, and practically
render it worship.

To go and pray on a newly-made grave is a remedy
for childlessness much resorted to by childless wives.
When two boys fight, and one of them is hurt, or when

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 21 of 29)