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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There were difficulties ahead, we heard. The road
heavily blocked with snow was only just open, and the
Persian post, which should have passed forty-eight hours
before, had not been heard of, showing that the snow is
very deep farther on.

It was beautiful, that uplifted, silent world of snow
and mountains, on whose skirts for some miles grew small
apple and pear trees, oak, ash, and hawthorn, each twig a
coral spray. In the deepest depression, among great
rocks, now masses of snow, tumbles a now partially
arrested stream, gleaming with icicles, one of the head-
waters of the Holwan. After getting through this
picturesque forest of scrub, the road emerges on the
plateau of the Kirrind valley, the greatest altitude of
which is about 5800 feet. It is said to be irrigated and
fertile. It is now, as I describe it, a wide valley, with-
out a tree or bush, a rolling plain of snow from two to
three feet deep, marked only by lines made by birds' feet
and the beating of the tips of birds' wings, the track across
it a corrugated trench, wide enough for one mule, the sun
brilliant, the sky blue, the surface of the snow flashing
light from millions of crystals with a glitter not to be
borne, all dazzling, " glistering," silent, a white world
and a blue heaven, with a sun " shining in his strength,"
light without heat.

It has been a tremendous day's march, only fourteen
miles in seven and a half hours of severe toil ! The
katirgis asked us to keep together in case of difficulties
with caravans. Difficulties indeed ! A mild term ! I
was nearly smashed. I little knew what meeting a
caravan in these circumstances meant till we met the
first sixty animals, each laden with two heavy packing-


cases. The question arises who is to give way, and who
is to drive his heavily- laden beasts off the track, to
struggle, flounder, and fall in three feet of snow, not to
get up again without being unloaded, and even then
with difficulty.

The rub came on a bank near a stream where there
was a deep drift. I decided to give way, but nothing
would induce my mule to face the snow. An orderly
was in front and Hadji behind. Down the track came
sixty animals, loaded with their great packing-cases.
They could not and would not give way, and the two
caravans came into collision. There were mules
struggling and falling, loads overturned, muleteers yell-
ing and roaring, Hadji groaning " God help us ! " my mule,
a new one, a big strong animal, unused to a bit, plunging
and kicking, in the middle of a " free fight." I was
struck hard on my ankle by a packing-case and nearly
knocked off. Still, down they came, in apparently
endless hordes ; my mule plunged her bridle off, and
kicked most violently ; there were yells all round. My
snow spectacles were knocked off and lost, then came
another smash, in which I thought a bone was broken.
Fearing that I should be laid up with a broken limb for
weeks in some horrible caravanserai, and really desperate
with the danger and confusion, I called over and over
again to Hadji to get off and pull my mule into the snow
or I should be killed ! He did not stir, but sat dazed on
his pack moaning " God help us ! " till he, the mule, and
the load were rolled over in the drift. The orderly con-
trived to get the bridle on my mule, and to back his
own in front of me, and as each irrepressible animal
rolled down the bank he gave its load a push, which, nicely
balanced as these loads are, made it swerve, and saved
me from further damage. Hadji had rolled off four times
previously, and the last I saw of him at that time and


of the caravan was a man, five mules, and their loads
buried in the snow. The personal results to me of what
is euphemistically called a " difficulty ," are my blue
glasses gone, a number of bruises, a badly-torn riding-
skirt, and a bad cut, which bled profusely, and then the
blood froze.

A number of caravans snowed up for several days
were en route, and there were many similar encounters,
and donkeys and mules falling with their loads and
rolling into the deep snow, and katirgis coming to blows
over the right-of-way. If a donkey is forced off the
track it goes down at once. I unfortunately caught my
foot in the pack of one and rolled it over, and as it dis-
appeared in the snow its pack and saddle fell over its
head and displayed the naked vertebrse of its poor back.

This Kirrind valley must be fully twenty miles long by
from two to five broad, but there was only one village
inhabited and two in ruins. As we floundered along in
the snow with our jaded animals, two well-armed men on
fine horses met and joined us, sent by the Agha Abdul
Eahim, son of the British agent at Kirmanshah, whose
guests we are to be. Following them was a taktrawan
or litter for me, a wooden box with two side doors, four
feet high, six feet long, and three feet wide. At each end
are long shafts, and between each pair of shafts a superb
mule, and each mule has a man to lead him. I could
never use such a thing except in case of a broken limb,
but I am very grateful to Abdul Rahim for sending it
fifty-six miles.

The temperature fell with the sun ; the snowy hills
took on every shade of rose and pink, and in a universal
blush of tender colouring we reached Kirrind. All of a
sudden the colour died out, the rose-flushed sky changed
to blue -gray, and pallid wastes of unbroken snow
stretching into the gray distance made a glorious winter


landscape. We are now fairly in for the rigours of a
Persian winter.

Kirrind, the capital of the Kirrind Kurds, is either
grotesquely or picturesquely situated in and around a
narrow gap in a range of lofty hills, through which the
Ab-i-Kirrind rushes, after rising in a spring immediately
behind. The gap suggests the word jaws, and in these
open jaws rise one above another flat-roofed houses
straggling down upon the plain among vineyards, poplars,
willows, fruit-trees, and immense walnuts and gardens.
There are said to be 900 houses, but many of them are
ruinous. The stream which bursts from the hills is
divided into innumerable streamlets, which must clothe
these gardens with beauty.

A fardsh riding on ahead had engaged a house, so
we avoided the horrors of the immense caravanserai,
crammed to-night with storm -bound caravans. The
house is rough, but has three adjoining rooms, and the
servants are comfortable. A fire, with its usual accom-
paniment of stinging smoke, fails to raise the temperature
of my room to the freezing-point, yet it is quite possible
to be comfortable and employ oneself.

Mahidasht, Jan. %4- My room at Kirrind was very
cold. The ink froze. The mercury fell to 2 below
zero in it, and outside in the sun was only 14 at 8.30.
There was a great Babel at starting. Some men had sold
four chickens for the high price of 2s. each, the current
price being 6d., and had robbed the servants of two, and
they took one of the mules, which was sent after us by
an official. Slipping, floundering, and falling in the deep
snow, and getting entangled among caravans, we rode
all day over rolling levels. The distance seemed inter-
minable over the glittering plains, and the pain and
stiffness produced by the intense cold were hard to bear,
and it was not possible to change the cramped position by


walking. The mercury fell to 4, as with tired animals
we toiled up the slope on which Harunabad stands.

A very large caravanserai and a village of sixty houses
occupy the site of a town built by Harun-al-Easchid on
the upper waters of the Kerkhah. It has the reputation
of being one of the coldest places in Persia, so cold that
its Ilyat inhabitants desert it in winter, leaving two or
three men who make a business of supplying caravans.
Usually people come out of the villages in numbers as
we arrive, but we passed group after group of ruinous
hovels without seeing a creature. We obtained awfully
cold rooms at a great height above a bazar, now deserted.
I write " awfully " advisedly, for the mercury in them at
sunset was 2 below zero, the floors were plaster, slippery
with frozen moisture, the walls were partly wood, with
great apertures between the planks ; where they were mud
the blistered plaster was fringed with icicles. Later the
mercury sank to 12, and before morning to 16 below
zero, and the hot water froze in my basin before I could
use it !

We were to have started at eight, as there was no
possible way of dividing the nine hours' march, but when
the time came the katirgis said it was too cold to rope
the loads, a little later that we could only get half-way,
and later that there was no accommodation for mules
half-way and that we must go the whole way ! At nine
the mercury was at 4 below zero, and the slipperiness
was fearful. The poor animals could scarcely keep on'
their feet. We have crossed two high passes, Nal
Shikan (the Horse-Shoe breaking pass) and the Charzabar
Pass, in tremendous snow, riding nine hours, only dis-
mounting to walk down one hill. At the half-way
hamlet I decided to go on, having still a lingering pre-
judice against sharing a den with a quantity of human
beings, mules, asses, poultry, and dogs.


On one long ascent we encountered a " blizzard,"
when the mercury was only 3 above zero. It was awful.
The men covered their heads with their abbas and turned
their backs to the wind. I got my heavy mackintosh
over everything, but in taking off three pairs of gloves
for one minute to button it the pain of my hand was
literally excruciating. At the summit the snow was four
feet deep, and a number of mules were down, but after
getting over the crest of the Nal Shikan Pass and into
the Zobeideh valley it became better. But after every
descent there was another ascent to face till we reached
the pass above the Cheshmeh-i-Charzabar torrent, in a
picturesque glen, with a village and some primitive flour

Below this height lies the vast and fertile plain of
Mahidasht, one expanse of snow, broken by mud villages
looking like brown islands, and the truncated cone of
Goree, a seat of the ancient fire-worship. In the centre
of the plain is an immense caravanserai with some houses
about it. When this came into sight it was only five
miles off, but we were nearly three hours in reaching it !
The view was wonderful. Every speck on the vast plain
was seen distinctly; then came a heavy snow blink,
above which hovered ghosts of snow mountains rising
into a pale green sky, a dead and lonely wilderness,
looking as if all things which lived and moved had long
ago vanished from it. Those hours after first sighting
the village were very severe. It seemed to grow no
nearer. I was half-dead with the journey of twenty-two
miles at a slow foot's pace, and was aching and cramped
from the intense cold, for as twilight fell the mercury
sank to 3 below zero. The Indian servants, I believe,
suffered more than I did, and some of the katirgis even
more than they.

At last by a pointed brick bridge we crossed the


little river of Mahidasht, and rode into the house of
the headman, who is a sort of steward of Abdul
Rahim, our future host, the owner of many villages on
this plain. The house is of the better class of
Kurdish houses, with a broad passage, and a room on
each side, at the end a great, low, dark room, half living-
room, half stable, which accommodates to-night some of the
mules, the muleteers, the servants, and the men of the
family. Beyond this again is a large stable, and below-
ground, reached by a sloping tunnel, is the sheep-fold.
One room has neither door nor window, mine has an
outer and inner door, and a fire of live embers in a hole
in the floor.

The family in vacating the room have left their goods
behind, two plank beds at one end heaped with carpets
and felts, a sacking cradle hanging from the roof, two
clay jars five feet high for storing grain, and in the
takchahs, or recesses of the walls, samovars or tea-urns,
pots, metal vases, cartridge belts, and odds and ends.
Two old guns, an old sword, and a coarse coloured print
of the Russian Imperial family are on the wall.

I was lifted from the mule to my bed, covered
with all available wraps, a pot of hot embers put by
the bed, my hands and feet rubbed, hot syrup coloured
with tea produced in Eussian glasses, and in two
hours I was able to move. The caravan, which we
thought could not get through the snow, came in three
hours later, men and mules thoroughly knocked up, and
not till nine could we get a scanty dinner. It has been
a hard day all round. The farashes in the kitchen are
cursing the English sahibs, who will travel in the winter,
wishing our fathers may be burned, etc., two of the
muleteers have been howling with pain for the last two
hours, and - 1 went into the kitchen to see the poor


In a corner of the big room, among the rough trunks
of trees which support the sooty roof, the muleteers were
lying in a heap in their big -sleeved felt coats round a
big fire, about another the servants were cooking their
food, the fardshes were lying round another, and some of
the house people about a fourth, and through smoke and
flame a background of mules and wolf-like dogs was dimly
seen, a gleam now and then falling into the dark stable
beyond, where the jaded baggage animals were lying in

Mahidasht is said to be one of the finest and most fertile
plains in Persia, seventy-two miles long by fifteen broad,
and is irrigated throughout by a small stream swarming
with turtles. Its population, scattered over it in small
villages, is estimated over-estimated probably at
4000. At a height of 5050 feet the winters are severe.
The snow is nearly three feet deep already, and more is

The mercury in my room fell to 5 below zero before
midnight, but rose for a gray cloudy day. The men and
animals were so done up that we could not start till
nearly eleven. The march, though not more than sixteen
miles, was severe, owing to the deep snow and cold wind.
Five miles over the snowy billows of the Mahidasht
plain, a long ascent, on which the strong north wind was
scarcely bearable, a succession of steep and tiresome
ridges, many " difficulties " in passing caravans, and then
a gradual descent down a long wide valley, opened upon
the high plateau, on which Kirmanshah, one of the most
important cities in Persia, is situated.

Trees, bare and gaunt, chiefly poplars, rising out of
unsullied snow, for two hours before we reached it,
denoted the whereabouts of the city, which after many
disappointments bursts upon one suddenly. The view
from the hill above the town was the most glorious snow
VOL. i H


view I ever saw. All around, rolled to a great height,
smooth as the icing of a cake, hills, billowy like the
swell of the Pacific after a storm an ocean of snow ;
below them a plateau equally unsullied, on the east side of
which rises the magnificently precipitous Besitun range,
sublime in its wintry grandeur, while on the distant side
of the plateau pink peaks raised by an atmospheric
illusion to a colossal height hovered above the snow
blink, and walled in the picture. Snow was in the air,
snow clouds were darkening over the Besitun range ;
except for those pink peaks there were no atmospheric
effects ; the white was very pallid, and the gray was very
black ; no illusions were possible, the aspect was grim,
desolate, and ominous, and even before we reached the
foot of the descent the huge peaks and rock masses of
Besitun were blotted out by swirls of snow.

Kirmanshah, approached from the south-west, added no
elements of picturesqueness to the effect. A ruinous wall
much too large for the shrunken city it encloses, parts of
it lying in the moat, some ruinous loopholed towers, lines
of small domes denoting bazars below, a few good-look-
ing houses rising above the insignificant mass, gardens,
orchards, vineyards, and poplars stretching up the southerly
hollow behind, and gardens, now under frozen water, to
the north, made up a not very interesting contrast with the
magnificence of nature.

We circled much of the ruinous wall on thin ice,
turned in between high walls and up an alley cumbered
with snow, dismounted at a low door, were received by a
number of servants, and were conducted through a frozen
courtyard into a handsomely-carpeted room with divans
beside a blazing fire, a table in the centre covered with
apples, oranges, and sweetmeats, and the large Jubilee
photograph of Queen Victoria hanging over the fire-
place. I. L. B.




THIS hospitable house is the residence of the British
Agent or Vakil for Kirmanshah, in whose absence at
Tihran, his son, Abdul Eahim, performs the duties of
hospitality in a most charming manner, as if though a
very busy man he had nothing else to do but carry out
the wishes of his guests. His hospitality is most unob-
trusive also, and considerate. If such a wish is expressed
as to visit the sculptures of the Takt-i-Bostan, or anything
else, everything is quietly and beautifully arranged ; a
landau-and-four with outriders, superb led saddle-horses,
and arrangements for coffee are ready outside the walls,
with the host as cicerone, ready to drive or ride at the
pleasure of his guests. The rooms in which he receives
Europeans are on the opposite side of the courtyard from
the house, and have been arranged according to European

The family history, as usually told, is an interesting
one. They are Arabs, and the grandfather of our host,
Hadji Khalil, was a trusted Tcatirgi in the employment of
Sir Henry Eawlinson, and saved his life when he fell
from a scaffolding while copying the Besitun inscriptions.
His good qualities, and an honesty of character and
purpose rare among Orientals, eventually placed him in the
important position of British Vakil here, and he became a
British subject, and was succeeded in his position by his


son, Agha Hassan, who is now by virtue of singular
business capacities the wealthiest man in this province
and possibly in Persia, and bears the very highest char-
acter for trustworthiness and honour. 1

Abdul Rahim is a very fine-looking man, with noticeable
eyes, very large and prominent. He has a strong sense
of humour, which flits over his face in an amused smile.
He and his father are very large landowners, and are
always adding land to land, and are now the owners of
the magnificent sculptures and pleasure-grounds of the
Takt-i-Bostan. They are bankers likewise, and money-
lenders, merchants on a large scale, and have built a very
fine caravanserai, with great brick warehouses for the use
of traders. Agha Hassan travels en prince, driving to
Tihran and back in an English landau with four horses
and a number of outriders and attendants, and his son
entertains visitors in the same way, mounting even the
outriders and pipe-bearers on well-bred Arabs. When
he walks in the city it is like a royal progress. Every-
body bows low, nearly to the ground, and his purse-
bearer follows, distributing alms among the poor.

I mention all this because it is a marvel in Persia,
where a reputation for wealth is the last thing a rich
man desires. To elevate a gateway or to give any
external sign of affluence is to make himself a mark for
the official rapacity which spares none. The policy is to
let a man grow quietly rich, to " let the sheep's wool
grow," but as soon as he shows any enjoyment of wealth

1 I had the pleasure of seeing Agha Hassan at the British Legation at
Tihran. He is charming, both in appearance and manner, a specimen of
the highest type of Arab good breeding, with a courteous kindliness and
grace of manner, and is said to have made a very favourable impression
when he went to England lately to be made a C. M. G. Both father and
son wear the Arab dress, in plain colours but rich materials, with very
large white turbans of Damascus embroidery in gold silk, and speak only
Arabic and Persian.


to deprive him of his gains, according to a common
Persian expression, " He is ripe, he must be squeezed."
The Vakil and his son are the only men here who are
not afraid to show their wealth, and for the simple
reason that it cannot be touched, because they are
British subjects. They can neither be robbed, squeezed,
nor mulcted beyond the legitimate taxation by Persian
officials, and are able to protect the property of others
when it is entrusted to their keeping. British protection
has been in fact the making of these men.

The manage is simple. The dining-room is across the
frozen courtyard. The meals are served in European
fashion, the major-domo being an ancient man, " born in
the house," who occasionally inserts a remark into the
conversation or helps his master's memory. The inter-
preter sits on the floor during meals. I breakfast in my
room, but lunch and dine with our host, who spends
the evening in the salon; sherbet is provided instead of
wine. Abdul Eahim places me at the head of the
table, and I am served first ! The interpreting is from
Persian into Hindustani, and vice versd. Our host
expresses almost daily regret that he cannot talk with me
on politics !

Kirmanshah, which is said to be a favourable speci-
men of a Persian town, is absolutely hideous and unin-
teresting. It is really half in ruins. It has suffered
terribly from " plague, pestilence, and famine," and from
the awful rapacity of governors. It once had 12,000
houses, but the highest estimate of its present population
is 25,000. So severely have the town and province been
oppressed that some years ago three-quarters of the
inhabitants migrated, the peasants into Turkey, and the
townspeople into the northern province of Azerbijan.
If a governor pays 30,000 tumans (10,000) to the
Shah for an appointment, of which he may be deprived


any day, it can scarcely be expected of Oriental, or
indeed of any human nature, that he will not make a
good thing of it while he has it, and squeeze all he can
out of the people.

The streets are very narrow, and look narrower just
now, because the snow is heaped almost to the top of the
mud walls, which are not broken up as in Turkish towns
by projecting lattice windows, but are absolutely blank,
with the exception of low-arched entrances to the court-
yards within, closed by heavy, unpainted wooden doors,
studded with wooden nails. The causeways, on which,
but for the heaps of slippery snow two men might walk
abreast, have a ditch two or three feet wide between
them, which is the roadway for animals. There are
some open spaces, abounding in ruinous heaps, others
where goods are unloaded, surrounded with warehouses,
immense brick bazars with domed roofs, a citadel or ark,
where the Governor lives, a large parade ground and
barracks for 2000 men, mosques of no pretensions,
public baths, caravanserais, brick warehouses behind the
bazars, public gardens, with fountains and avenues of
poplars, a prison, and some good houses like this one,
hidden behind high mud walls. Although the snow
kindly veils a good deal of deformity, the city impresses
one as ruinous and decayed ; yet it has a large trade, and
is regarded as one of the most prosperous places in the
Empire. 1

The bazars are spacious and well stocked with
European goods, especially with Manchester cottons of
colours and patterns suited to Oriental taste, which
loves carnation red. There are many Jews, otherwise
the people are Shiah Moslems, with an increasing
admixture of the secret sect of the Babis. In some

1 A journey of nine months in Persia, chiefly in the west and north-west,
convinced me that this aspect of ruin and decay is universal.


respects the Shiahs are more fanatical than the Sunnis,
as, for instance, it is quite possible to visit a mosque in
Turkey, but here a Christian is not allowed to cross the
threshold of the outer gate. Certain customs are also
more rigidly observed. A Persian woman would be in
danger of death from the mob if she appeared unveiled
in the streets. When I walked through the town,
though attended by a number of men, the major-domo
begged me to exchange my gauze veil for a mask, and
even when I showed this deference to custom the
passing through the bazars was very unpleasant, the men

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 8 of 29)