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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prey of predatory hordes, strong enough, they said, to
overpower an officer, two zaptiehs, and three orderlies !
Being unwilling to get them into trouble, we accepted a
horrible camping-ground, a mud-walled " garden," trenched
for dates, and lately irrigated, as damp and clayey as it
could be. My dhurrie will not be dry again this winter.
The mules could not get in, the baggage was unloaded at
some distance, and was all mixed up, and Hadji showed
himself incapable ; my tent fell twice, remained precarious,
and the Jcanats were never pegged down at all.

The dhurrie was trampled into the mud by clayey
feet. Baggage had to be disentangled and unpacked
after dark, and the confusion apt to prevail on the
VOL. i E


first night of a inarch was something terrible. It opened
my eyes to the thorough inefficiency of Hadji, who was
so dazed with opium this morning that he stood about
in a dream, ejaculating " Ya Allah \ " when it was sug-
gested that he should bestir himself, leaving me to do
all the packing, groaning as he took up the tent pegs,
and putting on the mule's bridle with the bit hanging
under her chin !

The night was very damp, not quite frosty, and in
the dim morning the tent and its contents were wet.
Tea at seven, with Baghdad rusks, with a distinctly " native
taste," two hours spent in standing about on the damp,
clayey ground till my feet were numb, while the men,
most of whom were complaining of rheumatism, stumbled
through their new work; and then five hours of wastes,
enlivened by caravans of camels, mules, horses, or asses,
and sometimes of all mixed, with their wild, armed
drivers. The leader of each caravan carries a cylinder-
shaped bell under his throat, suspended from a red
leather band stitched with cowries, another at his chest,
and very large ones, often twenty-four inches long by ten
in diameter, hanging from each pack. Every other animal
of the caravan has smaller bells, and the tones, which
are often most musical, reach from the deep note of a
church bell up to the frivolous jingle of sleigh bells;
jingle often becomes jangle when several caravans are
together. The katirgis (muleteers) spend large sums on
the bells and other decorations. Among the loads we
met or overtook were paraffin, oranges, pomegranates,
carpets, cotton goods, melons, grain, and chopped straw.
The waste is covered with tracks, and a guide is absolutely

The day has been still and very gloomy, with flakes of
snow falling at times. The passing over rich soil, once
cultivated and populous, now abandoned to the antelope


and partridge, is most melancholy. The remains of
canals and water-courses, which in former days brought
the waters of the Tigris and the Diyalah into the fields
of the great grain-growing population of these vast levels
of Chaldsea and Mesopotamia, are everywhere, and at
times create difficulties on the road. By road is simply
meant a track of greater or less width, trodden on the
soil by the passage of caravans for ages. On these two
marches not a stone has been seen which could strike a

Great ancient canals, with their banks in ruins and
their deep beds choked up and useless, have been a
mournful feature of rather a dismal day's journey. We
crossed the bed of the once magnificent Nahrwan canal,
the finest of the ancient irrigation works to the east of
the Tigris, still in many places from twenty-five to forty
feet deep and from 150 to 200 feet in breadth.

For many miles the only permanent village is a
collection of miserable mud hovels round a forlorn cara-
vanserai, in which travellers may find a wretched refuge
from the vicissitudes of weather. There is a remarkable
lack of shelter and provender, considering that this is
not only one of the busiest of caravan routes, but is
enormously frequented by Shiah pilgrims on their way
from Persia to the shrines of Kerbela.

After crossing the ISTahrwan canal the road keeps
near the right bank of the Diyalah, a fine stream, which
for a considerable distance runs parallel with the Tigris
at a distance of from ten to thirty miles from it, and falls
into it below Baghdad ; and imamzadas and villages with
groves of palms break the line of the horizon, while on
the left bank for fully two miles are contiguous groves
of dates and pomegranates. These groves are walled,
and among them this semi-decayed and ruinous town is
situated, miserably shrunk from its former proportions.


We entered Yakobiyeh after crossing the Diyalah by a
pontoon bridge of twelve boats, and found one good
house with projecting lattice windows, and a large
entrance over which the head and ears of a hare were
nailed ; narrow, filthy lanes, a covered bazar, very dark
and ruinous, but fairly well supplied, an archway, and
within it this caravanserai in which the baggage must
be waited for for two hours.

This first experience of a Turkish inn is striking.
There is a large square yard, heaped with dirt and
rubbish, round which are stables and some dark, ruinous
rooms. A broken stair leads to a flat mud roof, on
which are some narrow " stalls," rooms they cannot be
called, with rude doors fastening only from the outside,
for windows small round holes mostly stuffed with straw
near the roof, for floors sodden earth, for fireplaces holes in
the same, the walls slimy and unplastered, the corners full
of ages of dusty cobwebs, both the walls and the rafters
of the roof black with ages of smoke, and beetles and
other abominations hurry into crannies, when the doors
are opened, to emerge as soon as they are shut. A small
hole in the wall outside each stall serves for cooking.
The habits of the people are repulsive, foul odours are
only hybernating, and so, mercifully, are the vermin.

While waiting for the " furniture " which is to make
my " unfurnished apartment " habitable, I write sitting
on my camp stool with its back against the wall,
wrapped up in a horse-blanket, a heap of saddles, swords,
holsters, and gear keeping the wind from my feet. The
Afghan orderly smokes at the top of the stair. Plumes
of palms and faintly-seen ridges of snowy hills appear
over the battlements of the roof. A snow wind blows
keenly. My fingers are nearly numb, and I am generally
stiff and aching, but so much better that discomforts
are only an amusement. Snow is said to be impending.


I have lunched frugally on sheep's milk and dates,
and feel everything but my present surroundings to be
very far off, and as if I had lived the desert life, and
had heard the chimes of the great caravans, and had
seen the wild desert riders, and the sun sinking below
the level line of the desert horizon, for two months
instead of two days.

Yakobiyeh is said to have 800 houses. It has some
small mosques and several caravanserais, of which this is
the best ! It was once a flourishing place, but repeated
ravages of the plague and chronic official extortions
have reduced it to decay. Nevertheless, it grows grain
enough for its own needs on poorly irrigated soil, and
in its immense gardens apples, pears, apricots, walnuts,
and mulberries flourish alongside of the orange and palm.

Kizil Robat, Jan. IJf,. It was not very cold at
Yakobiyeh. At home few people would be able to sit
in a fireless den, with the door open, on a January
night, but fireless though it was, my slender camp
equipage gave it a look of comfort, and though rats or
mice ate a bag of rusks during the night, and ran over
my bed, there were no other annoyances. Hadji grows
more dazed and possibly more unwilling every day, as
he sees his vista of perquisites growing more limited, and
to get off, even at nine, I have to do the heavy as well
as the light packing myself.

There was a great " row," arising out of an alleged
delinquency of the Jcatirgis concerning payment, when
we left Yakobiyeh the following morning. The owners
of the caravanserai wanted to detain us, and the arch-
way was so packed with a shouting, gesticulating,
scowling, and not kindly crowd, mostly armed, that it was
not easy for me to mount. The hire of mules always
includes their fodder ancl the keep of the men, but in
the first day or two the latter usually attempt to break


their bargain, and compel their employer to provide for
them. So long as Arabic is spoken Hadji acts as sole
interpreter, and though soldiers and zaptiehs were left with
him he was scared at being left behind with the baggage.
The people stormed and threatened at the top of their
voices, but doubtless it was not so bad as it sounded, for
we got through the bazars without molestation, and then
into a perplexing system of ancient water-courses whose
high broken banks and deep waterless beds intersect each
other and the road. In contrast to this magnificent irriga-
tion system there are modern water-channels about a foot
wide, taken from the river Diyalah, which, small as they
are, turn the rich deep soil into a " fruitful field."

After these glimpses of a prosperity which once was
and might be again (for these vast alluvial plains, which
extend from the Zagros mountains to the Euphrates and
up to the Syrian desert, are capable with irrigation
and cultivation of becoming the granary of Western
Asia), the road emerges on a level and somewhat gravelly
waste, on which after a long ride we were overtaken by
a zaptieh sent by the Persian agent in Yakobiyeh, to say
that the baggage and servants were being forcibly de-
tained, but shortly afterwards with a good glass the
caravan was seen emerging from the town.

The country was nearly as featureless as on the pre-
ceding day, and on the whole quite barren ; among the
few caravans on the road there were two of immense
value, the loads being the best description of Persian
carpets. There were a few families on asses, migrating
with all their possessions, and a few parties of Arab
horsemen picturesquely and very fully armed, but no
dwellings, till in the bright afternoon sunshine, on the
dreariest stretch of an apparently verdureless waste, we
came on the caravanserai of Wiyjahea, a gateway with a
room above it, a square court with high walls and arched


recesses all round for goods and travellers, and large
stables. A row of reed huts, another of Arab tents, and
a hovel opposite the gateway, where a man with two guns
within reach sells food, tobacco, and hair ropes, make up
this place of horror. For, indeed, the only water is a
brackish reedy pool, with its slime well stirred by the feet
of animals, and every man's hand is against his brother.

We proposed to pitch my tent in a ruined enclosure,
but the headman was unwilling, and when it was sug-
gested that it should be placed between the shop and the
caravanserai, he said that before sunset all the predatory
Arabs for ten miles round would hear that "rich
foreigners were travelling," and would fall upon and
plunder us, so we must pitch, if at all, in the filthy and
crowded court of the caravanserai. The lalakhana, or
upper room, was too insecure for me, and had no privacy,
as the fodder was kept in it, and there was no method of
closing the doors, which let in the bitterly cold wind.

We arrived at 3 P.M., and long before sunset a number
of caravans came in, and the courtyard was full of horses,
mules, and asses. When they halted the loads were
taken off and stacked in the arched recesses ; next, the
great padded pack-saddles, which cover nearly the whole
back, were removed, revealing in most cases deep sores
and ulcers. Then the animals were groomed with box
curry-combs, with " clatters" like the noise of a bird-scarer
inside them. Fifty curry-combs going at once is like
the din of the cicada. Then the beasts were driven in
batches to the reedy pool, and came flying back helter-
skelter through the archway, some fighting, others play-
ing, many rolling. One of them nearly pulled my tent over
by rolling among the tent ropes. It had been pitched
on damp and filthy ground in a corner of the yard, among
mules, horses, asses, dogs, and the roughest of rough men,
but even there the damp inside looked like home.


After this brief hilarity, the pack-saddles, which serve
as blankets, were put on, the camels were made to lie
down in rows, most of the mules and horses were tethered
in the great stable, where they neighed, stamped, and
jangled their bells all night, and others were picketed in
the yard among the goats and donkeys and the big
dogs, which wandered about yelping. Later, the small
remaining space was filled up with sheep. It was just
possible to move, but no more, and sheep and goats were
even packed under the jfo/s of my tent. The muleteers
and travellers spread their bedding in the recesses, lighted
their fires of animal fuel, and cooked their food.

At sunset the view from the roof was almost beautiful.
Far away, in all directions, stretched the level desert
purpling in the purple light. Very faintly, on the far
horizon to the north-east, mountain ranges were painted
in amethyst on an orange sky. Horsemen in companies
galloped to tents which were not in sight, strings of
camels cast their long shadows on the purple sand, and
flocks of big brown sheep, led by armed shepherds, con-
verged on the reedy pool in long brown lines. The
evening air was keen, nearly frosty.

The prospects for the night were not encouraging, and
on descending the filthy stair on which goats had taken
up their quarters, I found the malodorous, crowded
courtyard so blocked, that shepherds, with much pushing,
shouting, and barking of big dogs, with difficulty made a
way for me to pass through the packed mass of sheep
and goats into the cold, damp tent, which was pitched on
damp manure, two or three feet deep, into which heavy
feet had trampled the carpet. The uproar of katirgis and
travellers went on for another two hours, and was ex-
changed later for sounds of jangling bells, yelping and
quarrelling dogs, braying asses, bleating sheep, and coarsely-
snoring men.


At 9 P.M. the heavy gates, clamped with iron, were
closed and barred, and some belated travellers, eager to
get in from the perils of the outside, thundered at them
long and persistently, but " the door was shut," and they
encountered a hoarse refusal. The seraidar said that
400 horses and mules, besides camels and asses, 2000
sheep, and over 70 men were lodged in the caravanserai
that night.

The servants were in a recess near, and Hadji pro-
fessed that he watched all night, and said that he fired at
a man who tried to rob my tent after the light went out,
but I slept too soundly to be disturbed, till the caravans
and flocks left at daybreak, after a preliminary uproar of
two hours. It was bitterly cold, and my tent and its
contents were soaked with the heavy dew, nearly doubling
their weight.

I started at 9 A.M., before the hoar-frost had melted,
and rode with the zaptieh over flat, stoneless, alluvial
soil, with some irrigation and the remains of some fine
canals. There are villages to be seen in the distance,
but though the soil is rich enough to support a very
large population, there are no habitations near the road
except a few temporary reed huts, beside two large
caravanserais. There was little of an interesting kind
except the perpetual contrast between things as they are
and things as they were and might be. Some large
graveyards, with brick graves, a crumbling imamzada, a
pointed arch of brick over the Nahrud canal, a few ass
caravans, with a live fowl tied by one leg on the back of
each ass, and struggling painfully to keep its uneasy
seat, some cultivation and much waste, and then we
reached the walled village of Sheraban, once a town, but
now only possessing 300 houses.

Passing as usual among ruinous dwellings and between
black walls with doors here and there, by alleys foul


with heaps of refuse, and dangerous from slimy pitfalls,
in the very foulest part we turned into the caravanserai,
its great courtyard reeking with filth and puddles, among
which are the contaminated wells from which we are
supposed to drink. The experience of the night before
was not repeated. There were fairly good rooms, mine
looking into a palm garden, through a wooden grating,
cold truly, but pleasant. I fear we may never have such
" luxury " again. I remarked to my fellow-traveller that
our early arrival had fortunately given us the " choice of
rooms," and he replied, " choice of pig-styes, choice of
dens ! " but my experience at Wiyjahea has deprived me
of the last remnants of fastidiousness !

I walked through the ruinous, wretched town, and its
poor bazar, where the very fine physique of the men was
in marked contrast with their wretched surroundings, and
gives one the impression that under honest officials they
might be a fine people. They are not genial to strangers,
however. There was some bad language used in the
bazar, and on the roads they pass one in silence at the
best, so unlike the Tibetans with their friendly Tzu. At
Sheraban one of the muleteers forced his way into my
room, and roughly turned over my saddle and baggage,
accusing me of having taken his blanket ! Hadji is use-
less under such circumstances. He blusters and fingers
his revolver, but carries no weight. Indeed his defects
are more apparent every day. I often have to speak to
him two or three times before I can rouse him from his
opium dream, and there is a growing inclination to shirk
his very light work when he can shift it upon somebody
else. I hope that he is well-meaning, as that would cover
a multitude of faults, but he is very rough and ignorant,
and is either unable or unwilling to learn anything, even
how to put up my trestle bed !

Open rooms have sundry disadvantages. In the night a


cat fell from the roof upon my bed, and was soon joined by
more, and they knocked over the lamp and milk bottle,
and in the darkness had a noisy quarrel over the milk.

The march of eighteen miles here was made in six hours,
at a good caravan pace. The baggage animals were sent
off in advance, and the zaptieh led a mule loaded with
chairs, blankets, and occupations. I ride with the zaptieh
in front of me till I get near the halting-place, when

M and his orderly overtake me, as it might be

disagreeable for a European woman to enter a town alone.

The route lies over treeless levels of the same brown
alluvial soil, till it is lifted on a gentle gravelly slope to a
series of low crumbling mounds of red and gray sandstone,
mixed up with soft conglomerate rocks of jasper and
porphyry pebbles. These ranges of mounds, known as
the Hamrin Hills, run parallel to the great Kurdistan
ranges, from a point considerably below Baghdad, nearly
to Mosul and the river Zab. They mark the termination
in this direction of the vast alluvial plains of the Tigris
and Euphrates, and are the first step to the uplifted
Iranian plateau.

Arid and intricate ravines, dignified by the name of
passes, furrow these hills, and bear an evil reputation, as
Arab robbers lie in wait, "making it very unsafe for
small caravans." A wild, desolate, ill -omened -looking
region it is. When we were fairly within the pass, the
zaptieh stopped, and with much gesticulation and many
repetitions of the word effendi, made me understand that
it was unsafe to proceed without a larger party. We
were unmolested, but it is a discredit to the administra-
tion of the province that an organised system of pillage
should be allowed to exist year after year on one of the
most frequented caravan routes in Turkey. There were
several companies of armed horsemen among the ranges,
and some camels browsing, but we met no caravans.


From the top of the descent there was a striking view-
over a great brown alluvial plain, watered by the Beladruz
and the Diyalah, with serrated hills of no great height, but
snow-covered ; on its east side a silent, strange, weird view,
without interest or beauty as seen under a sullen sky.
There are no villages on this march, but ancient canals
run in all directions, and fragments of buildings, as well
as of brick and pottery, scattered over the unploughed
surface, are supposed by many to mark the situation of
Dastagird, the residence of Khosroe Parviz in the seventh
century. I have no books of reference with me, and
can seldom write except of such things as I see and

Farther on a multitude of irrigation ditches have
turned a plain of dry friable soil into a plain of mud,
through which it was difficult to struggle. Then came a
grove of palms, and then the town or village of Kizil
Kobat (Red Shrine), with its imamzada, whose reputation
for sanctity is indicated by the immense number of
graves which surround it. The walls of this decayed and
wretched town are of thick layers of hardened but now
crumbling earth, and on the east side there is an old
gateway of burned brick. There are said to be 400
houses, which at the lowest computation would mean a
population of 2000, but inhabited houses and ruins are
so jumbled up together that one cannot form any estimate.

So woe-begone and miserable a place I never saw,
and the dirt is appalling even in this dry weather. In
spring the alleys of the town are impassable, and people
whose business calls them out cross from roof to roof on
boards. Pools of filthy water, loathsome ditches with
broad margins of trodden slime full of abominations, ruins
of houses, yards foul with refuse, half-clothed and wholly
unwashed children, men of low aspect standing in melan-
choly groups, a well-built brick bazar, in which Man-


Chester cottons are prominent, more mud and dirt, some
ruinous caravanserais, and near the extremity of the town
or village is the horrible one in which I now am, said to be
the best, with a yard a foot deep in manure and slush, in
the midst of which is the well, and around which are
stables and recesses for travellers.

At first it seemed likely that I should fall so low as
to occupy one of these, but careful investigation revealed
a ruinous stair leading to the roof, up which were two
rooms, or shall I say three ? an arched recess such as
coals are kept in, a small room within it, and a low wood
hole. The open arch, with a mangel or iron pan of
charcoal, serves as the "parlour" this January night,

M occupies the wood hole, and I the one room, into

which Hadji, with many groans and ejaculations of "Ya
Allah ! " has brought up the essential parts of my baggage.
The evening is gray and threatening, and low, snow-covered
hills look grimly over the bare brown plain which lies
outside this mournful place.

Khannikin, Jan. 15. This has been a hard, rough
march, but there will be many worse ahead. Eain fell
heavily all night, converting the yard into a lake of
trampled mud, and seemed so likely to continue that it
was difficult to decide whether to march or halt. Miser-
able it was to see mules standing to be loaded, up to
their knees in mud, bales of tents and bedding lying in
the quagmire, and the shivering Indian servants up to
their knees in the swamp. In rain steadily falling the
twelve animals were loaded, and after the usual scrimmage
at starting, in which the lakhsheesh is often thrown back at
us, we rode out into a sea of deep mud, through which the
mules, struggling and floundering, got on about a mile an

After a time we came to gravel, then relapsed into
deep alluvial soil, which now means deep mire, then a


low range of gravelly hills on which a few sheep and
camels were browsing on artemisia and other aromatic
herbs gave a temporary respite, then again we floundered
through miles of mud, succeeded by miles of gravel and
stones. The rain fell in torrents, and there was a cold
strong wind to fight against. There was that amount of
general unpropitiousness which is highly stimulating and

When noon came, there was not a rock or bush for
shelter, and turning our backs to the storm we ate our
lunch in our saddles. There was nothing to look at but
brown gravel, or brown mud, brooded over by a gray mist.
So we tramped on, hour after hour, in single file, the
zaptieh leading, everything but his gun muffled in his
brown abba, splashing through mud and water, the water
pouring from my hat and cloak, the six woollen thicknesses

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 5 of 29)