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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" rivers of waters," " a spring of water whose waters fail
not," convey a fulness of meaning to Persian ears of which
we are quite ignorant The first inquiry of a Persian about
any part of his own country is, " Is there water ? " the
second, " Is the water good ? " and if he wishes to extol
any particular region he says " the water is abundant all
the year, and is sweet, there is no such water anywhere."

The position of a village is always determined by the
water supply, for the people have not only to think of
water for domestic purposes, but for irrigating their crops,
and this accounts for the packing of hamlets on steep
mountain sides where land for cultivation can only be
obtained by laborious terracing, but where some perennial
stream can be relied on for filling the small canals.
The fight for water is one of the hardest necessities of the
Persian peasant A water famine of greater or less degree
is a constant peril.

Land in Persia is of three grades, the wholly irrigated,
the partially irrigated, and the "rain-lands," usually up-
lands, chiefly suited for pasturage. The wholly irrigated
land is the most productive. The assessments for taxes
appear to leave altogether out of . account the relative
fertility of the land, and to be calculated solely on the
supply of water. A winter like the last, of heavy snow,
means a plenteous harvest, i.e. " twelve or fourteen grains
for one," as the peasants put it; a scanty snowfall means
famine, for the little rain which falls is practically of
scarcely any use.

The plan for the distribution of water seems to be far
VOL. i x


less provocative of quarrels than that of some other
regions dependent on irrigation, such as Ladak and Nubra.
Where it is at all abundant, as it is in this Zainderud
valley, it is only in the great heats of summer that it is
necessary to apportion it with any rigidity. It is then
placed in the hands of a mirab or water officer, who allows
it to each village in turn for so many days, during which
time the villages above get none, or the ketchudas manage
it among themselves without the aid of a mirab, for the sad
truth, which is applicable to all Persian officialism, applies
in the mirab's case, that if a village be rich enough to
bribe him it can get water out of its turn.

The blessedness of the Zainderud valley is exceptional,
and the general rule in the majority of districts is that
the water must be carefully divided and be measured by
"tasJtis," each tasht being equivalent to the use of the
water supply for eleven minutes.

"This space of time is estimated in a very ancient
fashion by floating a copper bowl with a needle hole
in the bottom in a large vessel of water. The tasht
comes to an end as the bowl sinks. The distribution
is regulated by the number of taskts that each man
has a right to. If he has a right to twenty he will
receive water for three and three-quarter hours of the
day or night every tenth day." Land without water in
Persia is about as valuable as the " south lands " were
which were given to Caleb's daughter.

So far as I can learn, the Persian peasant enjoys a
tolerable security of tenure so long as he pays his rent.
A common rate of rent is two-thirds of the produce, but
on lands where the snow lies for many months, even
when they are " wet lands," it is only one-third ; but this
system is subject to many modifications specially arising
out of the finding or non-finding of the seed by the owner,
and there is no uniformity in the manner of holding land


or in assessing the taxes or in anything else, though the
system established 1400 years ago is still the basis of the
whole. 1

The line between the oasis and the desert is always
strongly marked and definite. There is no shading away
between the deep green of the growing wheat and the
yellow or red gravel beyond. The general impression is
one of complete nakedness. The flowers which in this
month bloom on the slopes are mostly stiff, leathery, and
thorny. The mountains themselves viewed from below
are without any indication of green. The usual colouring
is grayish -yellow or a feeble red, intensifying at sun-
set, but rarely glorified owing to the absence of " atmo-

It is a very solitary route from Pul-i-Kala, without
villages, and we met neither caravans nor foot passengers.
The others rode on, and I followed with two of the
Bakhtiari escort, who with Rustem Khan, a minor chief,
had accompanied us from Julfa. These men were most
inconsequent in their proceedings, wheeling round me at
a gallop, singing, or rather howling, firing their long guns,
throwing themselves into one stirrup and nearly off their
horses, and one who rides without a bridle came up
behind me with his horse bolting and nearly knocked
me out of the saddle with the long barrel of his gun.
When the village of Charmi came in sight I signed to
them to go on, and we all rode at a gallop, the horsemen
uttering wild cries and going through the pantomime of
firing over the left shoulders and right flanks of their

The camps were pitched on what might be called the
village green. Channi, like many Persian villages, is

1 The readers interested in such matters will find much carefully-
acquired information on water distribution, assessments, and tenure of
land in the second volume of the late Mr. Stack's Six Months in Persia.


walled, the wall, which is much jagged by rain and frost,
having round towers at intervals, and a large gateway.
Such walls are no real protection, but serve to keep the
flocks and herds from nocturnal depredators. Within the
gate is a house called the Fort, with a very fine room
fully thirty feet long by fifteen high, decorated with a
mingled splendour and simplicity surprising in a rural
district The wall next the courtyard is entirely of
very beautiful fretwork, filled in with amber and pale
blue glass. The six doors are the same, and the walls and
the elaborate roof and cornices are pure White, the pro-
jections being " picked out " in a pale shade of brown,
hardly darker than amber.

The following morning Miss Bruce left on her return
home, and Mr. Douglas and I rode fourteen miles to the
large village of Kahva Rukh, where we parted company.
It is an uninteresting march over formless gravelly hills and
small plains thinly grassed, until the Gardan-i-Rukh, one
of the high passes on the Isfahan and Shuster route, is
reached, with its extensive view of brown mountains and
yellow wastes. This pass, 7960 feet in altitude, cross-
ing the unshapely Kuh-i-Rukh, is the watershed of the
country, all the streams on its southern side falling into
the Karuu. It is also the entrance to the Chahar Mahals
or four districts, Lar, Khya, Mizak, and Gandaman, which
consist chiefly of great plains surrounded by mountains,
and somewhat broken up by their gravelly spurs.

Beyond, and usually in sight, is the snow-slashed Kuh-i-
Sukhta range, which runs south-east, and throws out a
spur to Chigakhor, the summer resort of the Bakhtiari
chiefs. The Chahar Mahals, for Persia, are populous,
and in some parts large villages, many of which are
Armenian and Georgian, occur at frequent intervals, most
of them treeless, but all surrounded by cultivated lands.
The Armenian villages possess so-called relics and ancient


copies of the Gospels, which are credited with the power
of working miracles. 1

The Chahar Mahals have been farmed to the Ilkhani
of the Bakhtiaris for about 20,000 tumans (6000) a
year, and his brother, Reza Kuli Khan, has been appointed
their governor. Thus on crossing the Kahva Eukh pass
we entered upon the sway of the feudal head of the
great Bakhtiari tribes.

We camped outside the village, my tents being pitched
in a ruinous enclosure. The servants are in the habit
of calling me the Hakim, and the report of a Frank Hakim
having arrived soon brought a crowd of sick people, who
were introduced and their ailments described by a blue
horseman, one of the escort

His own child was so dangerously ill of pneumonia
that I went with him to his house, put on a mustard
poultice, and administered some Dover's powder. The
house was crammed and the little suffering creature had
hardly air to breathe. The courtyard was also crowded,
so that one could scarcely move, all the people being quite
pleasant and friendly. I saw several sick people, and
was surprised to find the village houses so roomy and
comfortable, and so full of " plenishings." It was in vain
that I explained to them that I am not a doctor, scarcely
even a nurse. The fame of Burroughes and Wellcome's

1 Some of the legends connected with these objects are grossly super-
stitious. At Shurishghan there is a "Holy Testament," regarding which
the story runs that it was once stolen by the Lure, who buried it under a
tree by the bank of a stream. Long afterwards a man began to cut down
the tree, but when the axe was laid to its root blood gushed forth. On
searching for the cause of this miracle the Gospels were found uninjured
beneath. It is believed that if any one were to take the Testament away it
would return of its own accord. It has the reputation of working miracles
of healing, and many resort to it either for themselves or for their sick
friends, from Northern Persia and even from Shiraz, as well as from the
vicinity, and vows are made before it. The gifts presented to it become
the property of its owners.


medicine chest has spread far and wide, and they think
its possessor must be a HaMm. The horseman said that
medicine out of that chest would certainly cure his
child. 1 I was unable to go back to the tea which had
been prepared in the horseman's house, on which he
expressed great dismay, and said I must be " enraged
with him."

Persians always use round numbers, and the ketchuda
says that the village has 300 Persian houses, and 100
more, inhabited during the winter by Ilyats. It has
mud walls with towers at intervals, two mosques, a
clear stream of water in the principal street, some very
good houses with balakhanas, and narrow alleys between
high mud walls, in which are entrances into courtyards
occupied by animals, and surrounded by living-rooms.
The only trees are a few spindly willows, but wheat
comes up to the walls, and at sunset great herds of cattle
and myriads of brown sheep converge to what seems
quite a prosperous village.

May 5. Yesterday, Sunday, was intended to be a
day of rest, but turned out very far from it After the
last relay of " patients " left on Saturday evening, and
the last medicines had been " dispensed," my tent was
neatly arranged with one yekdan for a table, and the other
for a washstand and medicine stand. The latter trunk con-
tained some English gold in a case along with some valu-
able letters, and some bags, in which were 1000 krans, for
four months' travelling. This yekdan was padlocked. It
was a full moon, the other camps were quite near, all
looked very safe, and I slept until awakened by the sharp-
ness of the morning air.

Then I saw but one yekdan where there had been

1 And so it did, though it was then so ill that it seemed unlikely that
it would live through the night, and I told them so before I gave the
medicine, lest they should think that I had killed it.


two ! Opening the tent curtain I found my washing
apparatus and medicine bottles neatly arranged on the
ground outside, and the trunk without its padlock among
some ruins a short distance off. The money bags were
all gone, leaving me literally penniless. Most of my
store of tea was taken, but nothing else. Two men
must have entered my tent and have carried the trunk
out. Of what use are any precautions when one sleeps
so disgracefully soundly ? When the robbery was made
known horsemen were sent off to the Ilkhani, whose
guest I have been since I entered his territory, and
at night a Khan arrived with a message that " the
money would be repaid, and that the village would be
levelled with the ground!" Kahva Rukh will, I hope,
stand for many years to come, but the stolen sum will be
levied upon it, according to custom.

The people are extremely vexed at this occurrence,
and I would rather have lost half the sum than that it
should have happened to a guest. In addition to an
escort of a Khan and four men, the Ilkhani has given
orders that we are not to be allowed to pay for anything
while in the country. This order, after several battles,
I successfully disobey. This morning, before any steps
were taken to find the thief, and after all the loads
were ready, officials came to the camps, and, by our wish,
every man's baggage was unrolled and searched. Our
servants and charvadars are all Moslems, and each of
them took an oath on the Koran, administered by a
mollah, that he was innocent of the theft.

Ardal, May 9. I left rather late, and with the
blue horseman, to whom suspicion generally pointed,
rode to Shamsabad, partly over gravelly wastes, passing
two mixed Moslem and Armenian villages on a plain,
on which ninety ploughs were at work on a stiff whitish


Shamsabad is a most wretched mud village without
supplies, standing bare on a gravelly slope, above a clear
quiet stream, an affluent of the Karun. This country
has not reached that stage of civilisation in which a
river bears the same name from mouth to source, and as
these streams usually take as many names as there are
villages on their course, I do not burden my memory
with them. There is a charming camping-ground of
level velvety green sward on the right bank of the river,
with the towering mass of Jehanbin (sight of the world),
12,000 feet high, not far oft This lawn is 6735 feet
above the sea, and the air keen and pleasant The
near mountain views are grand, and that evening the rare
glory of a fine sunset lingered till it was merged in the
beauty of a perfect moonlight

After leaving Shamsabad the road passes through
a rather fine defile, crosses the Shamsabad stream by a
ten-arched bridge between the Kuh-i-Zangun and the
Kuh-i-Jehanbin, and proceeds down a narrow valley now
full of wild flowers and young wheat to Khariji, a village
of fifty houses, famous for the excellent quality of ite
opium. From Khariji we proceeded through low grassy
hills, much like the South Downs, and over the low but
very rough Pasbandi Pass into an irrigated valley in
which is the village of Shalamzar. I rode through it
alone quite unmolested, but two days later the Sahib,
passing through it with his servants, was insulted and
pelted, and the people said, " Here's another of the dog
party." These villagers are afflicted with "divers
diseases and torments," and the crowd round my tent
was unusually large and importunate. In this village of
less than fifty houses nearly all the people had one or
both eyes more or less affected, and fourteen had only
one eye.

Between Shalamzar and Ardal lies the lofty Gardan-


i-Xirreh, by which the Kuh-i-Sukhta is crossed at a height
of 8300 feet The ascent begins soon after leaving the
village, and is long and steep^a nasty climb. The upper
part at this date is encumbered with snow, below which
primulas are blooming in great profusion, and lower down
leathery flowers devoid of beauty cover without adorning
the hillside. Two peasants went up with me, and from
time to time kindly handed me clusters of small raisins
taken from the breasts of dirty felt clothing. On reach-
ing the snow I found Rustem Khan's horse half-buried
in a drift, so I made the rest of the ascent on foot The
snow was three feet deep, but for the most part presented
no difficulties, even to the baggage animals.

At the summit there were no green things except
some plants of artemisia, not even a blade of grass, but
among the crevices appeared small fragile snow-white
tulips with yellow centres, mixed with scarlet and mauve
blossoms of a more vigorous make. At that great height
the air was keen and bracing, and to eyes for months ac-
customed to regions buried in dazzling snow and to glaring
gravelly wastes, there was something perfectly entrancing
about the view on the Bakhtiari side. Though treeless, it
looked like Paradise. Lying at the foot of the pass is the
deep valley of Seligun, 8000 feet high, with the range
of the Kuh-i-Nassar to the south, and of the Kuh-Shah-
1'urnar to the north green, full of springs and streams,
with two lakes bringing down the blue of heaven to earth,
with slopes aflame with the crimson and terra-cotta Fritil-
laria imperialis, and levels one golden glory with a yellow
ranunculus. Rich and dark was the green of the grass,
tall and deep on the plain, but when creeping up the
ravines to meet the snows, short green sward enamelled
with tulips. Great masses of naked rock, snow-slashed,
and ranges of snow-topped masses behind and above,
walled in that picture of cool serenity, its loneliness only


broken by three black tents of Ilyats far away. So I saw
Seligun, but those who see it a month hence will find
only a brown and dusty plain !

The range we crossed divides the Chahar Mahals from
the true Bakhtiari country, a land of mountains which
rumour crests with eternal snow, of unexplored valleys
and streams, of feudal chiefs, of blood feuds, and of
nomad tribes moving with vast flocks and herds.

Mehemet All, a new and undesirable acquisition, was
loaded with my sJiuldari, and we clambered down the
hillside, leading our horses amidst tamarisk scrub and a
glory of tulips, till we reached the level, when a gallop
brought us to the camps, pitched near a vigorous spring
in the green flower-enamelled grass.

That halt was luxury for man and beast Later the
air was cool and moist The sun-lit white fleeces which
had been rolling among the higher hills darkened and
thickened into rain -clouds, drifting stormily, and only
revealing here and there through their rifts glimpses of
blue. A few flocks of sheep on the mountains, and the
mules and horses revelling knee-deep in the juicy grass,
were the sole representatives of animated life. It was
a real refreshment to be away from the dust of mud
villages, and to escape from the pressure of noisy and
curious crowds, and the sight of sore eyes.

Towards evening, a gallop on the Arabs with the
Bakhtiari escort took us to the camp of the lately-arrived
Ilyats. Orientals spend much of their time in the quiet
contemplation of cooking pots, and these nomads were
not an exception, for they were all sitting round a brush-
wood fire, on which the evening meal of meat broth with
herbs was being prepared. The women were unveiled.
Both men and women are of quite a different type from
the Persians. They are completely clothed and in
appearance are certainly only semi-savages. These tents


consisted of stones rudely laid to a height of two feet at
the back, over which there is a canopy with an open
front and sides, of woven goat's-hair supported on poles.
Such tents are barely a shelter from wind and rain, but in
them generations of Ilyats are born and die, despising
those of their race who settle in villages.

There were great neutral-tint masses of rolling clouds,
great banks of glistering white clouds, a cold roystering
wind, a lurid glow, and then a cloudy twilight Hukim
threw up his heels and galloped over the moist grass, the
Bakhtiaris, two on one horse, laughed and yelled there
was the desert freedom without the desert It was the
most inspiriting evening I have spent in Persia. Truth
compels me to add that there were legions of black flies.

In the early morning, after riding round the south-
east end of the valley, we passed by the lake Seligun or
Albolaki, banked up by a revetment of rude masonry.
The wind was strong, and drove the foam-flecked water
in a long line of foam on the shore. Red-legged storks
were standing in a row fishing. Cool scuds of rain made
the morning homelike. Then there was a hill ascent,
from which the view of snowy mountains, gashed by
deep ravines and backed by neutral -tint clouds, was
magnificent, and then a steep and rocky defile, which
involved walking, its sides gaudy with the Fritillaria
imperial-is, which here attains a size and a depth of colour-
ing of which we have no conception.

In this pass we met a large number of Ilyat families
going up to their summer quarters, with their brown
flocks of sheep and their black flocks of goats. Their
tents with all their other goods were packed in con-
venient parcels on small cows, and the women with
babies and big wooden cradles were on asses. The
women without babies, the elder children, and the men


Whatever beauty these women possessed was in the
Meg Merrilees style, with a certain weirdness about it.
They had large, dark, long eyes, with well-marked eye-
brows, artificially prolonged, straight prominent noses,
wide mouths with thin lips, long straight chins, and
masses of black hair falling on each side of the face.
Their dress consisted of enormously full dark blue cotton
trousers, drawn in at the ankles, and suspended over the
hips, not from the waist (the invariable custom in
Persia), and loose sleeved vests, open in front The
adult women all wear a piece of cotton pinned on the
head, and falling over the back and shoulders. The men
had their hair in many long plaits, hanging from under
felt skull-caps, and wore wide blue cotton trousers, white
or printed cotton shirts over these, and girdles in which
they carried knives, pipes, and other indispensables.
All wore shoes or sandals of some kind. These men
were very swarthy, but the younger women had rich
brunette complexions, and were unveiled.

Some bad horse-fights worried the remainder of the
march, which included the ascent of an anemone-covered
hill, 7700 feet high, from which we got the first view of
the Ardal valley, much cultivated, till it narrows and is
lost among mountains, now partly covered with snow.
In the centre is a large building with a tower, the spring
residence of the Ilkhani, whose goodwill it is necessary
to secure. Through a magnificent gorge in the mountains
passes the now famous Karun. A clatter of rain and a
strong wind greeted our entrance into the valley, where
we "were met by some horsemen from the Ilkhani.

The great Ardal plateau is itself treeless, though the
lower spurs of the Kuh-i-Sabz on the south side are well
wooded with the belut, a species of oak. There is much
cultivation, and at this season the uncultivated ground
is covered with the great green leaves of a fodder plant,


the Centaurea alata, which a little later are cut, dried,
and stacked The rivers of the plateau are the Karun
and Sabzu on the south side, and the river of Shamsabad,
which brings to the Karun the drainage of the Chahar
Mahals, and enters the valley through a magnificent tang
or chasm on its north side, called Darkash Warkash.
The village of Ardal is eighty-five miles from Isfahan,
on the Shuster caravan route, and is about 200 from
Shuster. Its altitude is 5970 feet, its Long. 50 50' K
and its Lat. 32 N.

On arriving here the grandeur of the Ilkhani's house
faded away. Except for the fortified tower it looks like
a second-rate caravanserai. The village, such as there is
of it, is crowded on a steep slope outside the " Palace."
It is a miserable hamlet of low wiudowless mud hovels,
with uneven mud floors, one or two feet lower than the
ground outside, built in yards with ruinous walls, and
full of heaps and holes. It is an olla podrida of dark,
poor, smoky mud huts ; narrow dirt-heaped alleys, with
bones and offal lying about ; gaunt yelping dogs ; bottle-
green slimy pools, and ruins. The people are as dirty
as the houses, but they are fine in physique and face, as
if only the fittest survive. There is an imamzada, much
visited on Fridays, on an adjacent slope. The snow lies
here five feet deep in winter, it is said.

When we arrived the roofs and balconies of the
Ilkhani's house were crowded with people looking out
for us. The Agha called at once, and I sent my letter
of introduction from the Ainin-es- Sultan. Presents
arrived, formal visits were paid, the Ilkhani's principal
wife appointed an hour at which to receive me, and a
number of dismounted horsemen came and escorted me
to the palace. The chief feature of the house is a large

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 24 of 29)