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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rumours it is decided coiite gue, cotite to start to-morrow.
For my own part I prefer the freedom even with the
" swinishness " of a caravanserai to receiving hospitality
for which no fitting return can be made. I. L. B.




THE rain at last ceased, and after the katirgis had
squabbled for an hour over the baggage, we got off at
ten, two days ago, very grateful for shelter and hospi-
tality under such untoward circumstances. Six Bashi
Bazouks and two zaptiehs on foot in ragged and in-
congruous uniforms escorted us to the Turkish frontier.

The streets were in a terrible condition, and horse and
footmen, after an attempt to march in pairs, fell perforce
into a floundering and disorderly single file, the footmen
occasionally pulling themselves out of mud holes by the
tails of the horses. Outside the town there was an
expanse of mud and flooded water-channels which broke
up the last attempt at a procession, and led to a general
sauve qui pent. The mire was tenacious and up to the
horses' knees, half the mules were down with their loads,
Hadji rolled into the mud, my capable animal snorted
and struggled, some went on banks and some took
to streams, the asses had to be relieved of their loads,
and the air was full of shouts and objurgations, till after
much delay the forlorn rabble all struggled to the terra
firma of a gravelly slope, splashed from head to foot.

The road crosses low, rolling, gravelly hills, with an
occasional outcrop of red sandstone, and ascends on the
whole. The sun was bright, but the wind was strong
and very cold. The Bashi Bazouk escort was altogether


harum-scarum and inconsequent, careering in circles, and
firing at birds (which they never hit) from the saddle,
and when we reached some low hills bearing a bad
reputation, the officer, in order to represent danger and
his vigilant care, threw them out in all directions scout-
ing for robbers, till we came to a steepish hill crowned
by a round tower with a mushroom top, a few
ruinous mud buildings, and a tattered tent. Here the
escort formed into one line, and the ragged garrison into
another, with an officer facing them, and were photo-
graphed as they shivered in the biting wind. This tower
is a Turkish frontier fort.

Soon afterwards the Persian frontier is crossed,
the hills increase considerably in size, and mud was
exchanged for firm, rough gravel. A feature of the
otherwise featureless landscape is the frequent occurrence
of towers like martello towers, on hill-tops, placed there
for the shelter of the guards who formerly kept a look-
out for robbers. In the uninteresting gravel lie pebbles
of jasper and agate, emerald green, red, yellow, and
purple. The first object of the slightest interest in this
new country was a village of Ilyats, built of reed screens,
with roofs of goafs-hair cloth, and with small yards with
reed walls in front. The women, who wore full trousers
and short jackets, were tall, somewhat striking-looking,
and unveiled. Their hair hung down in long plaits, and
they wore red handkerchiefs knotted at the back of the

There an escort of four Persian sowars joined us. The
type of face was that with which we are familiar on Sasan-
ian coins and sculptured stones, the brow and chin receding
considerably, and the nose thin and projecting, the profile
suggesting a beak rather than a human face, and the skin
having the appearance of being drawn so tightly over the
bones as to force the eyes into singular prominence.


A six hours' march ended at the wildly-situated village
of Kasr-i-Shirin, high on the right hank of the Holwan,
with a plantation of dates on the left bank and consider-
able cultivation in the valley. It has only eighty houses
of the most wretched construction, rivalled in height
and size by middens, the drainage of which wastes itself
on the wretched roadway. A caravanserai of the most
miserable description, a square fort with a small garrison,
and some large graveyards with domed tombs and
curious obelisks, are the salient features of this village.
Its wretched aspect is accounted for by its insecurity.
It has been destroyed by robber tribes as often as there
was anything worth destroying, and it has been so tossed
to and fro between Turkey and Persia as not to have
any of the special characteristics of either empire.

"We stopped short of the village, at a great pile of
building on a height, in massiveness and irregularity
resembling a German medieval castle, in which a letter
had secured accommodation. It has been unoccupied
since its owner, Jan Mir, a sheikh of a robber tribe, and
the terror of the surrounding neighbourhood, was made
away with by the Persian Government.

The accommodation consisted of great, dark, arched,
vaulted rooms, with stone-flagged floors, noble in size, but
needing fifty candles and huge log fires to light up and
warm their dark recesses, and gruesome and damp with
one candle and a crackle of twigs. They were clean,
however, and their massive walls kept out the cold.
The village is at an elevation of 2300 feet, and the
temperature has greatly changed.

The interest of Kasr-i-Shirin is that it lies among
masses of ancient rubble, and that the slopes which
surround it are completely covered with hewn and
unhewn stones of all sizes, the relics of a great city, at
the western extremity of which the present wretched


hamlet stands. 1 The walls, which are easily traced,
enclose an irregular square, the shortest front of which is
said to be three miles long. They are built of roughly-
hewn blocks of gray and red sandstone, and very hard
mortar or concrete. The blocks are so huge in many
places as to deserve the often misused epithet Cyclopean.
Within this enclosure are remains of houses built of
water-worn round stones, which lie in monstrous heaps,
and of a large fort on an eminence. In another direction
are the ruins of an immense palace of quadrangular form,
with only one entrance, and large underground rooms
now nearly choked up. There are remains of what must
have been very fine archways, but as the outer coating of
hewn stone and all the decorations have fallen off, leaving
only the inner case of rough rubble and concrete, the
architectural forms are very badly defined, and the aspect
of what must once have been magnificent is now for-
bidding and desolate. The remains of an aqueduct cut
in the rock, and of troughs and stone pipes by which
water was brought into the palace and city, from a distance
of fifteen miles, are still traceable among the desolations,
but of the beautiful gardens which they watered, and
with which Khosroe surrounded the beautiful Shirin, not
a trace remains. There was a pale sunset, flushing with

1 Another interest, however, is its connection with many of the romantic
legends still told of Khosroe Parviz and his beautiful queen, complicated
with love stories concerning the sculptor Farhad, to whom the Persians
attribute some of their most famous rock sculptures. One of the most
romantic of these legends is that Farhad loved Shirin, and that Khosroe
was aware of it, and promised to give her to him if he could execute the
impossible task of bringing to the city the abundant waters of the moun-
tains. Farhad set himself to the Herculean labour, and to the horror of
the king nearly accomplished it, when Khosroe, dreading the advancing
necessity of losing Shirin or being dishonoured, sent to inform him of her
death. Being at the time on the top of a precipice, urging on the work of
the aqueduct, the news filled him with such ungovernable despair that
he threw himself down and was killed.


pale pink distant leagues of sodden snow, and right across
a lurid opening in a heavy mass of black clouds the great
ruined pile of the palace of Khosroe the Magnificent stood
out, a dismal commentary on splendour and fame.

The promise of the evening was fulfilled the next day
in windy rain, which began gently, but afterwards fell in
persistent torrents, varied by pungent swirls of sleet and
snow. Leaving the gash through cliffs with curious
stratification in white and red, formed by the Holwan,
the day was spent in skirting or crossing low hills.
The mud was very deep and tenacious, and the rate of
progress barely two miles an hour. There were no
caravans, travellers, or population, and no birds or beasts.
The rain clouds hung low and heavy, mists boiled up
from among the folds of the hills, the temperature fell
perceptibly. It was really inspiriting for people pro-
tected by good mackintoshes.

After riding for six hours the rain changed into sleet
and wet snow, blotting out the hills and creating an
unnatural twilight, in which we floundered in mud up to
the mules' knees into the filthiest village I have ever
seen, a compound of foul, green ditches, piles of dissolving
manure, mud hovels looking as if they were dissolving too,
reed huts, and an Ilyat village, gr6uped round the vilest
of caravanserais, the entrance to which was knee-deep in
mire. To lodge in it was voted impossible, and the
escort led us in the darkening mist and pelting sleet to
an adjacent mud hamlet as hopeless-looking on the other
side of the bridge, where, standing up to the knees of the
mules in liquid manure, we sought but vainly for shelter,
forded the Holwan, and returned to the caravanserai
through almost impassable slush.

It was simply loathsome, with its stench, its foulness,
and its mire, and was already crowded and noisy with
men and beasts. There was a great courtyard with arched
VOL. i G




recesses all round, too abominable to be occupied, too
exposed and ruinous, even had they been cleaned, to give
shelter from the driving sleet. The last resource was to pass
through an archway into the great, lofty mule stable, on
both sides of which are similar recesses or mangers, about
ten feet by seven and about eight feet high. The stable
was of great size and height with a domed roof. Probably
it runs half-way round the quadrangle at the back of the
uninhabitable recesses. There were at least four hundred
mules in this place, jangling their great bells, and crowds


of katirgis, travellers, and zaptiehs, all wet and splashed
over their heads with mud, some unloading, others mak-
ing fires and feeding their mules, all shouting when they
had anything to say, the Babel aggravated by the clatter
of the rattles of a hundred curry-combs and the squeals
of fighting horses.

The floor was deep with the manure of ages and piled
with bales and boxes. In the side recesses, which are
about the height of a mule's back, the muleteers camped
with their fires and their goods, and laid the provender
for their beasts in the front. These places are the
mangers of the eastern caravanserai, or khan, or inn.
Such must have been the inn at Bethlehem, and surely


the first step to the humiliation of " the death of the
cross " must have been the birth in the manger, amidst
the crowd and horrors of such a stable.

The odour was overpowering and the noise stunning,
and when our wet, mud-covered baggage animals came
in, adding to the din, there was hardly room to move, far
less for the roll in which all mules indulge when the
loads are taken off ; and the crush resulted in a fight, and
one mule got his fore - feet upon my " manger," and
threatened to share it with me. It was an awful place
to come to after a six hours' march in rain and snow, but
I slid off my mule into the recess, had it carpeted,
put down my chair, hung a blanket up in front, and
prepared to brave it, when the inhabitants of this room,
the one place which has any pretensions to being a room
in the village, were bribed by an offer of six Jcrans (about
four shillings) to vacate it for me. Its " pretensions "
consist in being over a gateway, and in having a door,
and a square hole looking on the street ; a crumbling
stair slippery with mud leads up to it. The roof leaks
in every direction, and the slimy floor is full of pools,
but it is luxury after the caravanserai stable, and with
one waterproof sheet over my bed and another over
myself I have fared well, though the door cannot be shut,
and the rest of the party are in the stable at an
impassable distance.

Our language happily has no words in which the
state of this village can be described. In front of this
room is a broken ditch full of slimy greenish water,
which Hadji took for my tea ! There has been a slight
snowfall during the night, and snow is impending. We
have now reached a considerable altitude, and may expect
anything. Hadji has just climbed the stair with groans
of " Ya Allah'' and has almost wailed out, " Colonel says
we go God help us."


Xirrind, Jan. 23. From Saripul-i-Zohab we are
taking the most southerly of the three routes to Kirman-
shah traversed by Sir H. Eawlinson in 1836. 1 A sea of
mud varied by patches of sodden snow, walls of rock
with narrow passes, great snow-covered mountains, seen
spectrally for a minute at a time through swirling snow-
clouds, black tents of nomads, half-drowned villages, and
a long, cold, steep ascent, among scrub oaks and dwarf
ash, to snow which was not melting, and the hospitalities
of a Kurdish village, comprise the interests of the march
from Saripul to Myan Tak, so far as they lie on the
surface, but in various ways this part of Kurdistan has
many interests, not to be absolutely ignored even in a
familiar letter.

Here the Ilyats, who are supposed to constitute a fifth
of the rural population of Persia, are met with in large
numbers, and their brown flocks and herds are still
picking up a scanty subsistence. The great chief of this,
the Guran tribe, holds the region on an annual payment
to the Persian Government, gives grain to his tribesmen,
and receives from them, of corn one-half, and of rice two-
thirds of the crop. These people sow their grain in early
spring, and then move up with their flocks to the
mountain pastures, leaving behind only a few men to
harvest the crops. They use no manure, this being
required for fuel, and in the case of rice they allow a
fallow of at least seven years. There are very few
cultivators resident upon these lands, but Ilyat camps
occur frequently.

The region is steeped in history. The wretched
village of Saripul is the Calah of Asshur and the Halah
of the Israelitish captivity, 2 and gave to the surrounding

1 The Pashalik of Zohab, now Persian territory, is fully described by
Major Rawlinson in a most interesting paper in The Journal of the Royal
Geographical Society, vol. ix. part 1, p. 26.

2 Gen. x. 11 ; 2 Kings xviii. 11 ; 1 Chron. v. 26.


country the name of Chalonitis, which we have on our
old maps. A metropolitan See in the fifth century A.D.,
soon after the institution of the Nestorian hierarchy, it
was called Calah, Halah, and Holwan. If the Diyalah be
the ancient Gyndes, noteworthy for the singular delay of
Cyrus on his march to Babylon, and Saripul the ancient
Holwan, and if in addition to the numerous Chaldsean
and Sasanian remains there are relics of Semiramis and
of the fire-temples of the Magi, the crowd of historic
associations is almost too much for one day, and I will
return to the insignificant details of the journey.

We left at nine, crossed the Holwan by a four-arched
brick bridge, and in falling snow and deep mud rode
over fairly level ground till we came to an abrupt range
of limestone rock, with a natural rift, across which the
foundations of a wall still remain. The clouds were

i rolling low, and the snow was driving wildly, so as
to make it impossible to see the sculptured tablet
described by Eawlinson and Layard, on which a high-
priest of the Magi is represented, with one hand raised
in benediction, and the other grasping a scroll, the dress
being the pontifical robe worn by the Zoroastrian priests,
with a square cap, pointed in front, and lappets covering
the mouth. Above this is a tomb with an ornamented

We were now among a very strange and mysterious
people, of whose ancestry and actual beliefs very little is
known. They are Ali-Ilahis, but Europeans often speak
of them as " Davidites," from their special veneration for
King David. This tomb in the rift is called Dukkani-
Daoud, or David's shop, and the people believe that he
still dwells there, and come on pilgrimages and to offer
animals in sacrifice from all parts of Kurdistan. He is
believed to work as a smith, and the katirgis say that he
makes suits of fine armour. A part of the tomb which


is divided from the rest by a low partition is believed to
be a reservoir containing the water which he uses to
temper his metal. A great mound with some building
in the centre, on the right of the road near this gorge,
though properly it bears another name, is called by the
people "David's Fort." Jewish traditions abound, specially
concerning David, who is regarded by the tribes as their
great tutelar prophet.

The Gurans and Kalhurs, who are the nomadic
inhabitants of this district, are of a very marked type of
physiognomy, so Israelitish indeed that, taken along with
certain traditions of their origin, their Jewish names, and
their veneration for David, they have been put forward
as claimants to the dignity of being the " lost tribes."
The great Hebrew traveller of the twelfth century, to
whom I have referred before, believed that the whole of
the Ali-Ilahis were Jews, and writes of 100 synagogues
in the Zagros mountains, and of 50,000 Jewish families
in the neighbourhood.

As we shall be for some days among these people, I
will abbreviate Sir H. Eawlinson's sketch of their tenets.
He considers that Ali-Ilahism bears evident marks of
Judaism, mixed up with Moslem, Christian, and Sabaean
legends. The Ali-Ilahis believe in 1001 incarnations of
the Godhead in a series; among them Benjamin, Moses,
Elias, David, Jesus Christ, Ali and Salman his tutor, the
Imam Houssein and the Haftan (or seven bodies), the
chief spiritual guides in the early ages of Islam, " and
each, worshipped as a Deity, is an object of adoration
in some locality of Kurdistan." The tomb of one of
these, Baba Yadgar, is their holy place, and this was
regarded as the dwelling of Elijah at the time when the
Arabs invaded Persia. All these incarnations are regarded
as of one and the same person. All that changes is the
bodily form of the Divine manifestation. There are


degrees in the perfection of the development, and the
most perfect forms are Benjamin, David, and Ali.

Practically, however, the metaphysical speculations
involved in this creed of successive incarnations are un-
known, and the Imam Ali, the cousin of Mohammed, is
the great object of worship. Though professing Moham-
medanism the Ali-Ilahis are held in great horror by " be-
lievers," and those of this region lie under the stigma of
practising unholy rites as a part of their religion, and have
received the name of " Chiragh Sonderan," the putters-out
of lights. 1 This accusation, Sir A. H. Layard observes,
may be only a calumny invented, like many another, to
justify persecution.

Passing through the rift in the Dukkani-Daoud range
which has led to this digression, we entered an ascend-
ing valley between the range through which we had
passed and some wild mountains covered with snow,
which were then actively engaged in brewing a storm.
Farther on there was irrigation and cultivation, and then
the wretched village of Pai Tak, and the ruins of a bridge.
There, the people told us, we must halt, as the caravan-
serai at the next place was already full, and we plunged
about in the snow and mud looking for a hovel in which to
take shelter, but decided to risk going on, and shortly began
the ascent of the remarkable pass known as " The Gates
of Zagros," on the ancient highway between Babylonia
and Media, by which, in a few hours, the mountain
barrier of Zagros is crossed, and the plain of Kirrind,, a
part of the great Iranian plateau, is reached.

This great road, which zigzags steeply up the pass, is
partly composed of smoothed boulders and partly of
natural rock, somewhat dressed, and much worn by the
continual passage of shod animals. It is said to be much
like a torrent bed, but the snow was lying heavily upon

1 See Sir A. H. Layard's Early Adventures, vol. i. p. 217.


it, filling up its inequalities. Dwarf oaks, hawthorn, ash,
and other scrub find root -hold in every crevice. All
that may be ugly was draped in pure white, and looking
back from the surrounding glitter, the view of low ranges
lying in indigo gloom was very striking. On the ascent
there is a remarkable arch of great blocks of white
marble, with a vaulted recess, called the " Tak-i-Girreh,"
" the arch holding the road," which gives the popular
name of Gardan-i-Tak-i-Girreh (the pass of Tak-i-Girreh)
to the ascent, though the geographers call it Akabah-i-
Holwan (the defile of Holwan).

After the deep mud of the earlier part of the march it
was a pleasure to ride through pure, deep, powdery snow,
and to find the dirt of the village of Myan Tak, a Kurd-
ish hamlet situated on a mountain torrent among steep
hills and small trees, covered with this radiant mantle.
The elevation of the pass is 4630 feet, but Myan Tak is
at a lower altitude an hour farther on.

The small and ruinous caravanserai was really full of
caravans detained by the snowstorm, and we lodged in
a Kurdish house, typical of the style of architecture
common among the settled tribes. Within a wide door-
way without a door, high enough for a loaded mule to
enter, is a very large room, with a low, flat mud roof,
supported on three rows of misshapen trunks of trees,
with their branches cut off about a foot from the stem,
all black and shiny with smoke. Mud and rubble
platforms, two feet high, run along one side and one
end, and on the end one there is a clay, beehive-
shaped fireplace, but no chimney. Under this platform
the many fowls are shut in at night by a stone at the
hole by which they enter. Within this room is a per-
fectly dark stable of great size. Certainly forty mules,
besides asses and oxen, were lodged in it, and the over-
flow shared the living-room with a number of Kurds,


katirgis, servants, dogs, soldiers, and Europeans. The
furniture consisted of guns and swords hanging on the

The owner is an old Kurd with some handsome sons
with ruddy complexions and auburn hair. The hig house
is the patriarchal roof, where the patriarch, his sons,
their wives and children, and their animals, dwell
together. The women, however, had all been got rid of
somehow. The old Kurd made a great fire on the dais,
wood being plentiful, and crouched over it My bed
was pitched near it, and enclosed by some reed screens.
With chairs and a table, with routes, maps, writing
materials, and a good lantern upon it, an excellent
dinner of soup and a leg of mutton, cooked at a bonfire
in the middle of the floor, and the sight of all the
servants and katirffis lying round it, warm and comfort-
able, and the knowledge that we were above the mud,
the clouds of blinding smoke which were the only draw-
back scarcely affected the cheerfulness and comfort of
the blazing, unstinted fire. The doorway gave not only
ample ventilation but a brilliant view of snow, and of
myriads of frosty stars.

It was infinitely picturesque, with the fitful firelight
falling on the uncouth avenues of blackened tree-stumps,
*on big dogs, on mild-eyed ox faces and long ass ears, on
turbaned Indian heads, and on a confused crowd of Turks,
Kurds, and Persians, some cooking, some sleeping, some
smoking, while from the black depth beyond a startling
bray of an ass or the abortive shriek of a mule occasion-
ally proceeded, or a stray mule created a commotion by
rushing in from the snow outside.

I slept comfortably, till I was awakened early by
various country sounds the braying of an ass into my
ear (for I was within a few inches of the stable), the
crowing of cocks, and some hens picking up crumbs upon


my bed. The mules were loaded in the living-room.
The mercury was only 26 at 9 A.M., and under cloud-
less sunshine the powdery snow glittered and crackled.

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 7 of 29)