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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Soon after leaving Ctesiphon there is increased cul-
tivation, and within a few miles of Baghdad the banks


of the river, which is its great high road, "become
populous. " Palatial residences," in which the women's
apartments are indicated by the blankness of their walls,
are mixed up with mud hovels and goat's-hair tents;
there are large farmhouses with enclosures foe cattle and
horses; date gardens and orange groves fringe the
stream, and arrangements for drawing water are let into
its banks at frequent intervals. Strings of asses laden
with country produce, companies of horsemen and in-
numerable foot passengers, all moved citywards.

The frosty sun rose out of an orange sky as a disc
of blood and flame, but the morning became misty and
overcast, so that the City of the Arabian Nights did not
burst upon the view in any halo of splendour. A few
tiled minarets, the blue domes of certain mosques,
handsome houses, some of them European Consulates,
half hidden by orange groves laden with their golden
fruitage, a picturesque bridge of boats, a dense growth
of palms on the right bank, beyond which gleam the
golden domes of Kazimain and the top of Zobeide's tomb,
the superannuated British gun-boat Comet, two steamers,
a crowd of native craft, including Jcufas or gophers, a
prominent Custom-house, and decayed alleys opening on
the water, make up the Baghdad of the present as seen
from the Mejidieti's deck.

As soon as we anchored swarms of kufas clustered
round us, and swarms of officials and hamals (porters)
invaded the deck. Some of the passengers had landed
two hours before, others had proceeded to their destina-
tions at once, and as my friends had not come off I was
alone for some time in the middle of a tremendous
Babel, in which every man shouted at the top of his
voice and all together, Hadji assuming a deportment of
childish helplessness. Certain officials under cover of
bribes lavished on my behalf by a man who spoke


English professed to let my baggage pass unopened,
then a higher official with a sword knocked Hadji
down, then a man said that everything would be all
right if I would bestow another gold lira, about 1,
on the officers, and I was truly glad when kind Cap-
tain Dougherty with Dr. Sutton came alongside in the
Comet's boat, and brought me ashore. The baggage was
put into another of her boats, but as soon as we were out
of sight it was removed, and was taken to the Custom-
house, where they insisted that some small tent poles in
a cover were guns, and smashed a box of dates in the
idea that it was tobacco !

The Church Mission House, in which I am receiv-
ing hospitality, is a " native " house, though built and
decorated by Persians, as also are several of the Con-
sulates. It is in a narrow roadway with blank walls, a
part of the European quarter ; a door of much strength
admits into a small courtyard, round which are some of
the servants' quarters and reception rooms for Moslem
visitors, and within this again is a spacious and hand-
some courtyard, round which are kitchens, domestic
offices, and the serddbs, which play an important part in
Eastern life.

These serdabs are semi-subterranean rooms, usually
with arched fronts, filled in above-ground with lattice-
work. They are lofty, and their vaulted roofs are
supported in rich men's houses on pillars. The well of
the household is often found within. The general effect
of this one is that of a crypt, and it was most appropriate
for the Divine Service in English which greeted my
arrival. The cold of it was, however, frightful. It was
only when the Holy Communion was over that I found
that I was wearing Hadji's revolver and cartridge belt
under my cloak, which he had begged me to put on to
save them from confiscation ! In these vaulted chambers


both Europeans and natives spend the hot season, sleeping
at night on the roofs.

Above this lower floor are the winter apartments,
which open upon a fine stone balcony running round
three sides of the court. On the river side of the house
there is an orange garden, which just now might be the
garden of the Hesperides, and a terrace, below which is
the noble, swirling Tigris, and beyond, a dark belt of
palms. These rooms on the river front have large
projecting windows, six in a row, with screens which
slide up and down, and those which look to the court-
yard are secluded by very beautiful fretwork. The
drawing-room, used as a dormitory, is a superb room,
in which exquisitely beautiful ceiling and wall decorations
in shades of fawn enriched with gold, and fretwork
windows, suggest Oriental feeling at every turn. The
plaster -work of this room is said to be distinctively
Persian and is very charming. The house, though large,
is inconveniently crowded, with the medical and clerical
mission families, two lady missionaries, and two guests.
Each apartment has two rows of vaulted recesses in its walls,
and very fine cornices above. It is impossible to warm
the rooms, but the winter is very short and brilliant,
and after ulsters, greatcoats, and fur cloaks have been
worn for breakfast, the sun mitigates the temperature.

I. L. B.



BAGHDAD, Jan. 9.

BAGHDAD is too well known from the careful descrip-
tions given of it by Eastern travellers to justify me in
lingering upon it in detail, and I will only record a few
impressions, which are decidedly couleur de rose, for the
weather is splendid, making locomotion a pleasure, and
the rough, irregular roadways which at other seasons are
deep in foul and choking dust, or in mud and pestilential
slime, are now firm and not remarkably dirty.

A little earlier than this the richer inhabitants, who
have warstled through the summer in their dim and
latticed serdabs, emerge and pitch their tents in the
plains of Ctesiphon, where the men find a stimulating
amusement in hunting the boar, but it is now the " season "
in the city, the liveliest and busiest time of the year.
The cholera, which is believed to have claimed 6000
victims, has departed, and the wailing of the women,
which scarcely ceased day or night for a month, is silent.
The Jewish troubles, which apparently rose out of the
indignation of the Moslems at the burial within the gates,
contrary to a strict edict on the subject, of a Eabbi who
died of cholera, have subsided, and the motley popula-
tions and their yet more motley creeds are for the time
at peace.

In the daytime there is a roar or hum of business,
mingled with braying of asses, squeals of belligerent


horses, yells of camel-drivers and muleteers, beating of
drums, shouts of beggars, hoarse-toned ejaculations of
fakirs, ear-splitting snatches of discordant music, and
in short a chorus of sounds unfamiliar to Western ears,
but the nights are so still that the swirl of the Tigris
as it hurries past is distinctly heard. Only the long
melancholy call to prayer, or the wail of women over the
dead, or the barking of dogs, breaks the silence which at
sunset falls as a pall over Baghdad

Under the blue sunny sky the river view is very fine.
The river itself is imposing from its breadth and volume,
and in the gorgeous sunsets, with a sky of crimson
flame, and the fronds of the dark date palms mirrored in
its reddened waters, it looks really beautiful. The city
is stately enough as far as the general coup-d'ceil of the
river front goes, and its river facade agreeably surprises
me. The Tigris, besides being what may be called the
main street, divides Baghdad into two unequal parts, and
though the city on the left bank has almost a monopoly
of picturesque and somewhat stately irregularity in the
houses of fair height, whose lattices and oriel windows
overhang the stream from an environment of orange
gardens, the dark date groves dignify the meaner
buildings of the right bank. The rush of a great river is
in itself attractive, and from the roof of this house the
view is fascinating, with the ceaseless movements of
hundreds of boats and kufas, the constant traffic of men,
horses, asses, and caravans across the great bridge of
boats, and the long lines of buildings which with more or
less picturesqueness line the great waterway.

Without the wearisomeness of sight-seeing there is
much to be seen in Baghdad, and though much that
would be novel to a new-comer from the West is familiar
to me after two years of Eastern travel, there is a great
deal that is really interesting. The kufas accumulating


at their landing, freighted with the products of the Upper
Tigris, the transpontine city, in which country produce
takes the foremost place ; the tramway to Kazimain con-
structed during the brief valiship of Midhat Pasha, on
which the last journey of the day is always performed at
a gallop, coiLte que co^te, ; the caravans of asses, each one
with a huge fish, the " Fish of Tobias," hanging across its
back ; the strings of the same humble animal, carrying
skins of water from the river throughout the city ; the
tombs, the mosques, the churches, the great caravans of
mules and camels, almost monopolising the narrow road-
ways, Arabs and Osmanlis on showy horses, Persians,
Turks, Arabs, Jews, Armenians, Chaldseans, in all the
variety of their picturesque national costumes, to which
the niggardly clothing of a chance European acts as an
ungraceful foil ; Persian dead, usually swaddled, making
their last journey on mule or horseback to the holy
ground at Kerbela, and the occasional march of horse or
foot through the thronged bazars, are among the hourly
sights of a city on which European influence is scarcely
if at all perceptible.

Turkish statistics must be received with caution, and
the population of Baghdad may not reach 120,000 souls,
but it has obviously recovered wonderfully from the
effects of war, plague, inundation, and famine, and looks
busy and fairly prosperous, so much so indeed that the
account given of its misery and decay in Mr. Baillie
Eraser's charming Travels in Kurdistan reads like a story
of the last century. If nothing remains of the glories of
the city of the Caliphs, it is certainly for Turkey a busy,
growing, and passably wealthy nineteenth-century capital.
It is said to have a hundred mosques, twenty-six minarets,
and fifteen domes, but I have not counted them !

Its bazars, which many people regard as the finest in
the East outside of Stamboul, are of enormous extent and


very great variety. Many are of brick, with well-built
domed roofs, and sides arcaded both above and below,
and are wide and airy. Some are of wood, all are
covered, and admit light scantily, only from the roof.
Those which supply the poorer classes are apt to be
ruinous and squalid "ramshackle" to say the truth,
with an air of decay about them, and their roofs are
merely rough timber, roughly thatched with reeds or
date tree fronds. Of splendour there is none anywhere,
and of cleanliness there are few traces. The old, narrow,
and filthy bazars in which the gold and silversmiths ply
their trade are of all the most interesting. The trades
have their separate localities, and the buyer who is in
search of cotton goods, silk stuffs, carpets, cotton yarn,
gold and silver thread, ready-made clothing, weapons,
saddlery, rope, fruit, meat, grain, fish, jewellery, muslins,
copper pots, etc., has a whole alley of contiguous shops
devoted to the sale of the same article to choose from.

At any hour of daylight at this season progress
through the bazars is slow. They are crowded, and
almost entirely with men. It is only the poorer women
who market for themselves, and in twos and threes, at
certain hours of the day. In a whole afternoon, among
thousands of men, I saw only five women, tall, shapeless,
badly - made - up bundles, carried mysteriously along,
rather by high, loose, canary-yellow leather boots than
by feet. The face is covered with a thick black gauze
mask, or cloth, and the head and remainder of the form
with a dark blue or black sheet, which is clutched by
the hand below the nose. The walk is one of tottering
decrepitude. All the business transacted in the bazars is
a matter of bargaining, and as Arabs shout at the top of
their voices, and buyers and sellers are equally keen, the
roar is tremendous.

Great cafes, as in Cairo, occur frequently. In the


larger ones from a hundred to two hundred men are seen
lounging at one time on the broad matted seats, shouting,
chaffering, drinking coffee or skarbal and smoking chibouks
or infanta. Negro attendants supply their wants. These
caffs are the dubs of Baghdad. Whatever of public
opinion exists in a country where the recognised use of
words is to "conceal thought," is formed in them. They
are centres of business likewise, and much of the noise is
due to bargaining, and they are also manufactories of
rumours, scandals, and fimatM-aaam The great caravan-
serais, such as the magnificent Khan Othman, are also
resorts of merchants for the display and sale of their

Europeans never make purchases in the bazars.
They either have the goods from which they wish to
make a choke brought to their houses, or their servants
bargain for them, getting a rmTnigtinn both from buyer
and seller.

The splendour of the East, if it exists at all, is not
to be seen in the bazars. The jewelled daggers, the cloth
of silver and gold, the J **ii[fllmE n| * jfiTir tissues, the brocaded
ailka, tin* A flMiiai^i jfrj^ the damascened sword blades,
the finer cMjoeta, the inlaid armour, the cunning work in
brass and inlaid bronze, and all the articles of rertit and
Irie-d-lme of real or spurious value, are carefully con-
cealed by their owners, and are carried for display, with
much secrecy and mystery, to the houses of their ordinary
customers, and to such European strangers as are reported
to be willing to be victimised.

Trade in Baghdad is regarded by Europeans and
large capitalists as growing annually more depressed
and unsatisfactory, but this is not the view of the
small traders, chiefly Jews and Christians, who start
with a capital of 5 or upwards, and by buying some
cheap lot in Bombay, gay handkerchiefs, perfumery,


shoes, socks, buttons, tin boxes with mirror lids, scissors,
pocket-knives, toys, and the like, bid fair to make
small fortunes. The amount of perfumery and rubbish
piled in these ramshackle shops is wonderful The
trader who picks np a desert Arab for a customer and
sells him a knife, or a mirror box, or a packet of
candles is likely to attract to himself a large trade,
for when once the unmastered pastoral hordes of Al
Jazira, Trak, and Stramlya see such objects, the desire
of possession is aroused, and the refuse of Manchester and
Birmingham will find its way into every tent in the

The best bazars are the least crowded, though once
in them it is difficult to move, and the strings of asses
laden with skins of water are a great nuisance. The
foot-passenger is also liable at any moment to be ridden
down by horsemen, or squeezed into a jelly by the
passage of caravans.

It is in the meat, vegetable, cotton, ofl, grain, fruit,
and fish bazars that the throngs are busiest and noisiest,
and though cucumbers, the great joy of the Turkish palate,
are over, vegetables "of sorts" are abundant, and the
slant, broken sunbeams fall on pyramids of fruit, and
glorify the warm colouring of melons, apples, and pome-

A melon of 10 Ibs. weight can be got for a penny,
a sheep for five or six shillings, and fish for something
like a farthing per pound, that is the " Fish of Tobias,"
the monster of the Tigris waters, which is largely eaten
by the poor. Poultry and game are also very cheap, and
the absolute necessaries of life, such as broken wheat for
porridge, oil, flour, and cheese, cost little.

Cook-shops abound, but their viands are not tempting,
and the bazars are pervaded by a pungent odour of hot
sesamum oil and rancid fat, frying being a usual mode


of cooking in these restaurants. An impassive Turk,
silently smoking, sits cross-legged on a platform at each
Turkish shop door. He shows his goods as if he had no
interest in them, and whether he sells or not seems a
matter of indifference, so that he can return to his pipe.
It is not to him that the overpowering din is owing, but
to the agitated eagerness of the other nationalities.

The charm of the bazars lies in the variety of race
and costume and in the splendid physique of the greater
number of the men. The European looks " nowhere."
The natural look of a Moslem is one of hauteur, but no
words can describe the scorn and lofty Pharisaism which
sit on the faces of the Seyyids, the descendants of Mo-
hammed, whose hands and even garments are kissed rever-
ently as they pass through the crowd ; or the wrathful
melancholy mixed with pride which gives a fierceness to
the dignified bearing of the magnificent beings who glide
through the streets, their white turbans or shawl head-
gear, their gracefully flowing robes, their richly em-
broidered under- vests, their Kashmir girdles, their inlaid
pistols, their silver-hilted dirks, and the predominance
of red throughout their clothing aiding the general effect.
Yet most of these grand creatures, with their lofty looks
and regal stride, would be accessible to a bribe, and
would not despise even a perquisite. These are the
mollahs, the scribes, the traders, and the merchants of the

The Bedouin and the city Arabs dress differently, and
are among the marked features of the streets. The under-
dress is a very coarse shirt of unbleached homespun
cotton, rarely clean, over which the Sheikhs and richer
men wear a robe of striped silk or cotton with a Kashmir
girdle of a shawl pattern in red on a white ground. The
poor wear shirts of coarse hair or cotton, without a robe.
The invariable feature of Arab dress is the abba a long


cloak, sleeveless, but with holes through which to pass
the arms, and capable of many adaptations. It conceals
all superabundance and deficiency of attire, and while it
has the dignity of the toga by day it has the utility of a
blanket by night. The better- class abba is very hard,
being made of closely- woven worsted, in broad brown and
white or black and white perpendicular stripes. The
poorest abba is of coarse brown worsted, and even of goafs-
hair. I saw many men who were destitute of any cloth-
ing but tattered abbas tied round their waists by frayed
hair ropes. The abba is the distinctive national costume
of the Arabs. The head-gear is not the turban but a
shawl of very thick silk woven in irregular stripes of
yellow and red, with long cords and tassels depending,
made of the twisted woof. This handsome square is
doubled triangularly, the double end hangs down the
back, and the others over the shoulders. A loosely-
twisted rope of camel's-hair is wound several times round
the crown of the head. When the weather is cold, being
like all Orientals very sensitive in their heads, they bring
one side of the shawl over the whole of the face but the
eyes, and tuck it in, in great cold only exposing one eye,
and in great heat also. Most Moslems shave the head,
but the Arabs let their hair grow very long, and wear it
in a number of long plaits, and these elf-locks mixed up
with the long coloured tassels of the kiffiyeh, and the dark
glittering eyes looking out from under the yellow silk,
give them an appearance of extreme wildness, aided by
the long guns which they carry and their long desert

The Arab moves as if he were the ruler of. the country,
though the grip of the Osmanli may be closing on him.
His eyes are deeply set under shaggy eyebrows, his nose
is high and sharp, he is long and thin, his profile suggests
a bird of prey, and his demeanour a fierce independence.
VOL. i D


The Arab women go about the streets unveiled, and
with the abba covering their very poor clothing, but it is
not clutched closely enough to conceal the extraordinary
tattooing which the Bedouin women everywhere regard
as ornamental. There are artists in Baghdad who make
their living by this mode of decorating the person, and
vie with each other in the elaboration of their patterns.
I saw several women tattooed with two wreaths of blue
flowers on their bosoms linked by a blue chain, palm
fronds on the throat, stars on the brow and chin, and
bands round the wrists and ankles. These disfigurements,
and large gold or silver filigree buttons placed outside one
nostril by means of a wire passed through it, worn by
married women, are much admired. When these women
sell country produce in the markets, they cover their
heads with the ordinary chadar.

The streets are narrow, and the walls, which are
built of fire -burned bricks, are high. Windows to
the streets are common, and the oriel windows, with
their warm brown lattices projecting over the roadways
at irregular heights, are strikingly picturesque. Not less
so are latticework galleries, which are often thrown
across the street to connect the two houses of wealthy
residents, and the sitting-rooms with oriel windows,
which likewise bridge the roadways. Solid doorways
with iron -clasped and iron -studded doors give an im-
pression of security, and suggest comfort and to some
extent home life, and sprays of orange trees, hanging
over walls, and fronds of date palms give an aspect of
pleasantness to the courtyards.

The best parts of the city, where the great bazars,
large dwelling- houses, and most of the mosques are, is
surrounded by a labyrinth of alleys, fringing off into
streets growing meaner till they cease altogether among
open spaces, given up to holes, heaps, rubbish, the


slaughter of animals, and in some favoured spots to the
production of vegetables. Then come the walls, which
are of kiln-burned bricks, and have towers intended for
guns at intervals. The wastes within the walls have
every element of decay and meanness, the wastes without,
where the desert sands sweep up to the very foot of the
fortifications, have many elements of grandeur.

Baghdad is altogether built of chrome-yellow kiln-dried
bricks. There are about twenty-five kilns, chiefly in the
hands of Jews and Christians in the wastes outside the
city, but the demand exceeds the supply, not for building
only, but for the perpetual patchings which houses, paths,
and walls are always requiring, owing to the absorption
of moisture in the winter.

Bricks at the kilns sell for 36s. per thousand twelve
inches square, and 18s. per thousand seven inches square.
They are carried from the kilns on donkeys, small beasts,
each taking ten large or twenty-five small bricks.

Unskilled labour is abundant. Men can be engaged
at 9d. a day, and boys for 5d.

This afternoon, in the glory of a sunset which
reddened the yellow waste up to the distant horizon,
a caravan of mules, mostly in single file, approached the
city. Each carried two or four white bales slung on
his sides, or two or more long boxes, consisting of planks
roped rather than nailed together. This is the fashion
in which thousands of Persian Moslems (Shiahs or
" Sectaries ") have been conveyed for ages for final
burial at Kerbela, the holiest place of the Shiahs, an
easy journey from Baghdad, where rest the ashes of Ali,
regarded as scarcely second to Mohammed, and of Houssein
and Hassan his sons, whose "martyrdom" is annually
commemorated by a Passion Play which is acted in
every town and village in Persia. To make a pilgrimage
to Kerbela, or to rest finally in its holy dust, or both,


constitutes the ambition of every Shiah. The Sunnis, or
" Orthodox," who hate the Shiahs, are so far kept in check
that these doleful caravans are not exposed to any worse
molestation than the shouts and ridicule of street Arabs.

The mode of carrying the dead is not reverent. The
katirgis, who contract for the removal, hurry the bodies
along as goods, and pile them in the yards of the
caravanserais at night, and the mournful journey is
performed, oftener than not, without the presence of
relations, each body being ticketed with the name once
borne by its owner. Some have been exhumed and are
merely skeletons, others are in various stages of decom-
position, and some are of the newly dead. 1

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 3 of 29)