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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Outside the walls predatory Arabs render the roads
unsafe for solitary travellers, and at times for feeble cara-
vans ; but things in this respect are better than they were.

Visits to the Armenian and Chaldaean Churches, to
the Mosque of Abdel Kader, with its courts thronged by
Afghan pilgrims, and to the Jewish quarter, have been
very interesting. There are said to be 30,000 Jews
here, and while a large proportion of them are in
poverty, on the whole they are an influential nationality,
and some of them are very rich.

Through the liberality of Sir Albert Sassoon a Jewish
High School has been opened, where an admirable education
is given. I was extremely pleased with it, and with the
director, who speaks French fluently, and with the pro-
ficiency in French of the elder students. He describes
their earnestness and energetic application as being most

The French Carmelite monks have a large, solid

1 I heard that the Shah had prohibited this "Dead March " to Kerbela,
on account of the many risks to the public health involved in it, but
nearly a year later, in Persian Kurdistan, I met, besides thousands of
living pilgrims, a large caravan of the dead.


" Mission Church " or Cathedral with a fine peal of bells,
and a very prosperous school attached, in which are boys
belonging to all the many creeds professed in Baghdad.
The sisters of St. Joseph have a school for girls, which
Turkish children are not slow to avail themselves of.
The sisters find a remarkable unhandiness among the
women. Few, if any, among them have any idea of
cutting out or repairing, and rich and poor are equally
incapable of employing their fingers usefully.

The people here are so used to the sight of Europeans
that it is quite easy for foreign ladies to walk in this
quarter only attended by a servant, and I have accom-
panied Mrs. Sutton on visits to several Armenian houses.
The Armenians are in many cases wealthy, as their
admirably-designed and well-built houses testify. The
Christian population is estimated at 5000, and its wealth
and energy give it greater importance than its numbers
warrant. One of the houses which we visited was truly
beautiful and in very good taste, the solidity of the stone
and brickwork, the finish of the wood, and the beauty of
the designs and their execution in hammered iron being
quite remarkable. The lofty roofs and cornices are
elaborately worked in plaster, and this is completely
concealed by hundreds or thousands of mirrors set so as
to resemble facets, so that roof and cornices flash like
diamonds. This is a Persian style of decoration, and is
extremely effective in large Jiandsome rooms. Superb
carpets and divans and tea tables inlaid with mother-of-
pearl furnish the reception and smoking rooms, and the
bedrooms and nurseries over which we were taken were
simply arranged with French bedsteads and curtains of
Nottingham mosquito net. As in other Eastern houses,
there were no traces of occupation, no morning room or
den sacred to litter ; neither was there anything to look
at the opposite extreme from our overloaded drawing-


rooms or any library. Cigarettes and black coffee in
minute porcelain cups, in gold filigree receptacles, were
presented on each occasion, and the kind and courteous
intention was very pleasing.

The visits which I paid with Dr. Sutton were very
different. He has worked as a medical missionary here
for some years, and his unaffected benevolence and quiet
attention to all suffering persons, without distinction of
race or creed, and his recent extraordinary labours by
night and day among the cholera-smitten people, have
won for him general esteem and confidence, and he is
even allowed to enter Moslem houses and prescribe for
the women in some cases.

The dispensary, in which there is not half enough
accommodation, is very largely attended by people of all
creeds, and even Moslem women, though exclusively of
the poorer classes, avail themselves of it. Yesterday,
when I was there, the comfortable seats of the cheerful
matted waiting-room were all occupied by Armenian
and Chaldsean women, unveiled and speaking quite
freely to Dr. Sutton ; while a few Moslem women,
masked rather than veiled, and enveloped in black
sheets, cowered on the floor and scarcely let their voices
be heard even in a tremulous whisper.

I am always sorry to see any encroachment made by
Christian teachers on national customs where they are
not contrary to morality, and willingly leave to Eastern
women the pardah and the veil, but still there is a
wholesomeness about the unveiled, rosy, comely, frank
faces of these Christian women. But and it is a decided
but though the women were comely, and though some
of the Armenian girls are beautiful, every one has one or
more flattish depressions on her face scars in fact the
size of a large date stone. Nearly the whole population
is thus disfigured. So universal is it among the fair-


skinned Armenian girls, that so far from being regarded as
a blemish, it is viewed as a token of good health, and it is
said that a young man would hesitate to ask for the
hand of a girl in marriage if she had not a " date mark "
on her face.

These " date boils," or " Baghdad boils," as they are
sometimes called, are not slow in attacking European
strangers, and few, if any, escape during their residence
here. As no cause can reasonably be assigned for them,
so no cure has been found. Various remedies, including
cauterisation, have been tried, but without success, and
it is now thought wisest to do nothing more than keep
them dry and clean, and let them run their natural course,
which lasts about a year. Happily they are not so pain-
ful as ordinary boils. The malady appears at first as a
white point, not larger than a pin's head, and remains
thus for about three months. Then the flesh swells,
becomes red and hard and suppurates, and underneath
a rough crust which is formed is corroded and eaten
away as by vitriol. On some strangers the fatal point
appears within a few days of their arrival.

In two years in the East I have not seen any
European welcomed so cordially as Dr. Sutton into
Moslem homes. The Hakim, exhibiting in " quiet con-
tinuance in well-doing " the legible and easily-recognised
higher fruits of Christianity, while refraining from harsh
and irreverent onslaughts on the creeds of those whose
sufferings he mitigates, is everywhere blessed. 1

To my thinking, no one follows in the Master's foot-
prints so closely as the medical missionary, and on
no agency for alleviating human suffering can one look

1 Six months later a Bakhtiari chief, a bigoted Moslem, said to me at
the conclusion of an earnest plea for European medical advice, "Yes,
Jesus was a great prophet ; send us a Hakim in His likeness" and doubtless
the nearer that likeness is the greater is the success.


with more unqualified satisfaction. The medical mis-
sion is the outcome of the living teachings of our faith.
I have now visited such missions in many parts of
the world, and never saw one which was not healing,
helping, blessing ; softening prejudice, diminishing suf-
fering, making an end of many of the cruelties which
proceed from ignorance, restoring sight to the blind,
limbs to the crippled, health to the sick, telling, in every
work of love and of consecrated skill, of the infinite com-
passion of Him who came "not to destroy men's lives,
but to save them."

In one house Dr. Sutton was welcome because he had
saved a woman's life, in another because a blind youth
had received his sight, and so on. Among our visits
was one to a poor Moslem family in a very poor quarter.
No matter how poor the people are, their rooms stand
back from the street, and open on yards more or less
mean. It is a misnomer to call this dwelling a house, or
to write that it opens, for it is merely an arched recess
which can never be shut !

In a hole in the middle of an uneven earthen floor
there was a fire of tamarisk root and animal fuel, giving
off a stinging smoke. On this the broken wheat porridge
for supper was being cooked in a copper pot, supported
on three rusty cannon-balls. An earthenware basin, a
wooden spoon, a long knife, a goat -skin of water, a
mallet, a long hen-coop, which had served as the bed for
the wife when she was ill, some ugly hens, a clay jar full
of grain, two heaps of brick rubbish, and some wadded
quilts, which had taken on the prevailing gray-brown
colour, were the plenishings of the arch.

Poverty brings one blessing in Turkey the poor
man is of necessity a monogamist. Wretched though the
place was, it had the air of home, and the smoky hole
in the floor was a fireside. The wife was unveiled and


joined in the conversation, the husband was helping her
to cook the supper, and the children were sitting round
or scrambling over their parents' knees. All looked as
happy as people in their class anywhere. It is good to
have ocular demonstration that such homes exist in
Turkey. God be thanked for them ! The man, a fine
frank-looking Turk, welcomed Dr. Suttou jovially. He had
saved the wife's life and was received as their best friend.
Who indeed but the medical missionary would care for
such as them and give them of his skill " without money
and without price " ? The hearty laugh of this Turk was
good to hear, his wife smiled cordially, and the boys
laughed like their father. The eldest, a nice, bright
fellow of nine, taught in the mosque school, was proud to
show how well he could read Arabic, and read part of a
chapter from St. John's Gospel, his parents looking on
with wonder and admiration.

Among the Christian families we called on were those
of the dispenser and catechist people with very small
salaries but comfortable homes. These families were
living in a house furnished like those of the rich Armen-
ians, but on a very simple scale, the floor and dais
covered with Persian carpets, the divan with Turkish
woollen stuff, and there were in addition a chair or two,
and silk cushions on the floor. In one room there were
an intelligent elderly woman, a beautiful girl of seven-
teen, married a few days ago, and wearing her bridal
ornaments, with her husband ; another man and his wife,
and two bright, ruddy-cheeked boys who spoke six
languages. All had " date marks " on their faces. After
a year among Moslems and Hindus, it was startling to
find men and women sitting together, the women un-
veiled, and taking their share in the conversation merrily
and happily. Even the young bride took the initiative
in talking to Dr. Sutton.


Of course the Christian women cover their faces in
the streets, but the covering is of different material and
arrangement, and is really magnificent, being of very rich,
stiff, corded silk self-coloured usually black, heliotrope,
or dark blue, with a contrasting colour woven in deep
Vandykes upon a white ground as a border. The silk is
superb, really capable of standing on end with richness.
Such a sheet costs about 5. The ambition of every
woman is to possess one, and to gratify it she even denies
herself in the necessaries of life.

The upper classes of both Moslem and Christian women
are rarely seen on foot in the streets except on certain
days, as when they visit the churches and the mosques
and burial-grounds. Nevertheless they go about a great
deal to visit each other, riding on white asses, which are
also used by mollahs and rich elderly merchants. All
asses have their nostrils slit to improve their wind. A
good white ass of long pedigree, over thirteen hands high,
costs as much as 50. As they are groomed till they
look as white as snow, and are caparisoned with red
leather trappings embroidered with gold thread and silks,
and as a rider on a white ass is usually preceded by
runners who shout and brandish sticks to clear the
way, this animal always suggests position, or at least

Women of the upper classes mounted on these asses
usually go to pay afternoon visits in companies, with
mounted eunuchs and attendants, and men to clear the
way. They ride astride with short stirrups, but the rider
is represented only by a shapeless blue bundle, out of which
protrude two yellow boots. Blacks of the purest negro
type frequently attend on women, and indeed consequence
is shown by the possession of a number of them.

Of the Georgian and Circassian belles of the harams,
a single lustrous eye with its brilliancy enhanced by the


use of kohl is all that one sees. At the bottom of the
scale are the Arab women and the unsecluded women of
the lower orders generally, who are of necessity drudges,
and are old hags before they are twenty, except in the
few cases in which they do not become mothers, when
the good looks which many of them possess in extreme
youth last a little longer. If one's memories of Baghdad
women were only of those to be seen in the streets, they
would be of leathery, wrinkled faces, prematurely old,
figures which have lost all shape, and henna -stained
hands crinkled and deformed by toil.

Baghdad is busy and noisy with traffic. Great quan-
tities of British goods pass through it to Persia, avoiding
by doing so the horrible rock ladders between Bushire
and Isfahan. The water transit from England and
India, only involving the inconvenience of transhipment
at Basrah, makes Baghdad practically into a seaport, with
something of the bustle and vivacity of a seaport, and
caravans numbering from 20,000 to 26,000 laden mules
are employed in the carriage of goods to and from the
Persian cities. A duty of one per cent is levied on
goods in transit to Persia. 3

The trade of Baghdad is not to be despised. The
principal articles which were imported from Europe
amounted in 1889 to a value of 621,140, and from
India to 239,940, while the exports from Baghdad to

1 The entire trade of Baghdad is estimated at about 2,500,000, of
which the Persian transit trade is nearly a quarter. The Persian imports
and exports through Baghdad are classified thus : Manufactured goods,
including Manchester piece goods, and continental woollens and cottons,
7000 to 8000 loads. Indian manufactures, 1000 loads. Loaf sugar,
chiefly from Marseilles, 6000 loads. Drugs, pepper, coffee, tea, other
sugars, indigo, cochineal, copper, and spelter, 7000 loads. The Persian
exports for despatch by sea include wool, opium, cotton, carpets, gum,
and dried fruits, and for local consumption, among others, tobacco, roghan
(clarified butter), and dried and fresh fruits, with a probable bulk of from
12,000 to 15,000 loads.


Europe and America were valued in the same year at
469,200, and to India by British India Company
steamers only at 35,150. In looking through the
Consular list of exports, it is interesting to notice that
13,400 cwts. of gum of the value of 70,000 were
exported in 1889. Neither the Indian postage stamps
nor ours should suffer from the partial failure of the
Soudan supply.

Liquorice roots to the value of 7800 were exported
in 1888, almost, solely to America, to be used in the
preparation of quid tobacco and " fancy drinks " !

The gall nuts which grow in profusion on the dwarf
oaks which cover many hillsides, were exported last year
to the value of 35,000, to be used chiefly in the pro-
duction of ink, so closely is commerce binding countries
one to the other.

Two English firms have concessions for pressing wool
and making it into bales suitable for shipment. There
are five principal English firms here, three French, and
six Turkish, not including the small fry. There are five
foreign Consulates.

The carriage of goods is one of the most important of
Persian and Turkish industries, and the breeding of mules
and the manufacture of caravan equipments give extensive
employment; but one shudders to think of the amount
of suffering involved in sore backs and wounds, and of
exhausted and over-weighted animals lying down forlornly
to die, having their eyes picked out before death.

The mercury was at 37 at breakfast-time this morn-
ing. Fuel is scarce and dear, some of the rooms are
without fireplaces, and these good people study, write,
and work cheerfully in this temperature in open rooms,
untouched by the early sun.

The preparations for to-morrow's journey are nearly
complete. Three mules have been engaged for the


baggage one for Hadji, and a saddle mule for myself;
stores, a revolver, and a mangel or brazier have been
bought; a permit to travel has been obtained, and my
hosts, with the most thoughtful kindness, have facili-
tated all the arrangements. I have bought two mule
yeMans, which are tall, narrow leather trunks on strong
iron frames, with stout straps to buckle over the top of
the pack saddle. On the whole I find that it is best
to adopt as far as possible the travelling equipments of
the country in which one travels. The muleteers and
servants understand them better, and if any thing goes
wrong, or wears out, it can be repaired or replaced. I
have given away en route nearly all the things I brought
from England, and have reduced my camp furniture to
a folding bed and a chair. I shall start with three
novelties a fellow-traveller, 1 a saddle mule, and an un-
tried saddle.

It is expected that the journey will be a very severe
one, owing to the exceptionally heavy snowfall reported
from the Zagros mountains and the Persian plateau.
The Persian post has arrived several days late. I. L. B.

1 I had given up the idea of travelling in Persia, and was preparing to
leave India for England, when an officer, with whom I was then un-
acquainted, and who was about to proceed to Tihran on business, kindly
offered me his escort. The journey turned out one of extreme hardship
and difficulty, and had it not been for his kindness and efficient help I do
not think that I should have accomplished it.




WHETHER for " well or ill " the journey to Tihran is
begun. I am ashamed to say that I had grown so
nervous about its untried elements, and about the
possibilities of the next two months, that a very small
thing would have made me give it up at the last
moment ; but now that I am fairly embarked upon it in
splendid weather, the spirit of travel has returned.

Much remained for the last morning, debts to be paid
in complicated money, for Indian, Turkish, and Persian
coins are all current here ; English circular notes to be
turned into difficult coin, and the usual " row " with
the muleteers to be endured. This disagreeable farce
attends nearly all departures in the East, and I never
feel the comfortable assurance that it means nothing.

The men weighed my baggage, which was considerably
under weight, the day before, but yesterday three or four
of them came into the courtyard, shouting in Arabic at
the top of their loud harsh voices that they would not
carry the loads. Hadji roared at them, loading his
revolver all the time, calling them " sons of burnt fathers,"
and other choice names. Dr. Bruce and Dr. Sutton
reasoned with them from the balcony, when, in the very

1 I present my diary letters much as they were written, believing
that the details of travel, however wearisome to the experienced
traveller, will be interesting to the " Untravelled Many," to whom these
volumes are dedicated.


height of the row, they suddenly shouldered the loads
and went off with them.

Two hours later the delightful hospitalities of Dr. and
Mrs. Sutton were left behind, and the farewell to the
group in the courtyard of the mission house is a long
farewell to civilisation. Eumours of difficulties have
been rife, and among the various dismal prophecies the
one oftenest repeated is that we shall be entangled in
the snows of the Zagros mountains ; but the journey
began propitiously among oranges and palms, bright sun-
shine and warm good wishes. My mule turns out a fine,
spirited, fast -walking animal, and the untried saddle
suits me. My inarching equipment consists of two large
holsters, with a revolver and tea-making apparatus in
one, and a bottle of milk, and dates in the other. An
Afghan sheepskin coat is strapped to the front of
the saddle, and a blanket and stout mackintosh behind.
I wear a cork sun-helmet, a gray mask instead of a veil,
an American mountain dress with a warm jacket over it,
and tan boots, scarcely the worse for a year of Himalayan
travel. Hadji is dressed like a wild Ishmaelite.

Captain Dougherty of H.M.S. Comet and his chief
engineer piloted us through the narrow alleys and
thronged bazars, a zaptieli, or gendarme, with a rifle
across his saddle-bow, and a sheathed sabre in his hand,
shouting at the donkey boys, and clearing the crowd to
right and left. Through the twilight of the bazars,
where chance rays of sunshine fell on warm colouring,
gay merchandise, and picturesque crowds ; along narrow
alleys, overhung by brown lattice windows; out under the
glorious blue of heaven among ruins and graves, through
the northern gateway, and then there was an abrupt exchange
of the roar and limitations of the City of the Caliphs for
the silence of the desert and the brown sweep of a limit-
less horizon. A walled Eastern city has no suburbs. It


is a literal step from a crowded town to absolute solitude.
The contrast is specially emphasised at Baghdad, where
the transition is made from a great commercial city with
a crowded waterway, to an uninhabited plain in the
nudity of mid-winter.

A last look at gleaming domes, coloured minarets, and
massive mausoleums, rising out of an environment of
palms and orange groves, at the brick walls and towers
of the city, at the great gate to which lines of caravans
were converging from every quarter, a farewell to the
kindly pilots, and the journey began in earnest.

The " Desert " sweeps up to the walls of Baghdad, but
it is a misnomer to call the vast level of rich, stoneless,
alluvial soil a desert. It is a dead flat of uninhabited
earth; orange colocynth balls, a little wormwood, and
some alkaline plants which camels eat, being its chief
products. After the inundations reedy grass grows in the
hollows. It is a waste rather than a desert, and was
once a populous plain, and the rich soil only needs
irrigation to make it " blossom as the rose." Traces of the
splendid irrigation system under which it was once a
garden abound along the route.

The mid-day and afternoon were as glorious as an un-
clouded sky, a warm sun, and a fresh, keen air could make
them. The desert freedom was all around, and the
nameless charm of a nomadic life. The naked plain,
which stretched to the horizon, was broken only by the
brown tents of Arabs, mixed up with brown patches of
migrating flocks, strings of brown camels, straggling
caravans, and companies of Arab horsemen heavily
armed. An expanse of dried mud, the mirage continually
seen, a cloudless sky, and a brilliant sun this was all.
I felt better at once in the pure, exhilarating desert air,
and nervousness about the journey was left behind. I
even indulged in a gallop, and except for her impetuosity,


which carried me into the middle of a caravan, and
turning round a few times, the mule behaved so
irreproachably that I forgot the potential possibilities of
evil. Still, I do not think that there can ever be that
perfect correspondence of will between a mule and his
rider that there is between a horse and his rider.

The mirage was almost continual and grossly
deceptive. Fair blue lakes appeared with palms and
towers mirrored on their glassy surfaces, giving place to
snowy ranges with bright waters at their feet, fringed
by tall trees, changing into stately processions, all so
absolutely real that the real often seemed the delusion.
These deceptions, continued for several hours, were
humiliating and exasperating.

Towards evening the shams disappeared, the waste
purpled as the sun sank, and after riding fifteen miles
we halted near the mud village of Orta Khan, a place with
brackish water and no supplies but a little brackish
sheep's milk. The caravanserai was abominable, and we
rode on to a fine gravelly camping-ground, but the head-
man and some of the villagers came out, and would not
hear of our pitching the tents where we should be the

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 4 of 29)