Lawrence John Lumley Dundas Zetland.

An Eastern miscellany online

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their midst. As we rode on over a level stretch
of cultivated soil between ridges of rocky hills,
more signs of habitation became apparent, and
small collections of houses enclosed by high mud
walls, little clumps of trees, quaint-looking wind-
mills, and tiny patches of young green barley,
all went to show that we were over the desolate
and uninhabited stretches on the north-west
border of Sistan, and were once more in a
country possessed of a sprinkling, at any rate, of
inhabited and cultivated oases,

I was entirely in my camel men's hands as far
as time and direction were concerned, and from
here they went across country, leaving the main
caravan route which passes through Neh, and
which I did not again strike till within four
marches of Birjand, and camping w^henever they
considered that they had marched far enough.
My progress, consequently, through an intensely


dull and uninteresting country, was far from

On the 16th we marched over a level stretch at
first of good soil, and then of stony ground, while
all round barren hills rose in isolated groups and
ridges from the plain. Towards the end of the
day's march on the 17th we got into more moun-
tainous country, where here and there hills higher
than the rest were lightly flaked with snow,
affording some little relief to the dreary dust-
colour of the whole landscape. As I was leaving
camp on the 18th, two Baluchi sowars rode up, on
their way with the mail-bag to Birjand, carrying
also some letters for me forwarded from Nasrata-
bad. We rode along together for some way, over
the usual monotonous stretches of gravel, earth,
and rock, till we came upon the tents pitched in
the very middle of a cheerless plain. Though not
so cold as it had been of late, heavy clouds hung
threateningly all round, and the outlook was in-
describably dull and dreary. On the 19th we
made better progress, getting over about thirty
miles during the day, through country much the
same as usual, though the plain was covered for
the greater part of the way with large, leafless
bushes, grey, dried-up, and dead-looking. Towards
the end of the march we skirted along the edge of
a large swamp, surrounded by great patches of
glistening salt, to the east of which rose a bare



mountain - range of burnt sienna, smudged here
and there with odd patches of brick red.

Near the head of the plain along which we were
travelling we came upon some acres of cultivated
land, and a village of perhaps 150 small domed
houses, massed closely together, the inmates of
which crowded to their roofs to stare at us. Our
road took us along the "karez" or "kanat"
which brought water from the mountains at the
head of the plain. Parallel to, and within a few
yards of, the one in working order were the
shafts of an old and disused one, the people prefer-
ring, it would seem, to construct an entirely new
kanat to repairing an existing one which happens
to have got blocked, though where the economy
in making an entirely new aqueduct in place of
repairing an old one comes in is not altogether

We now crossed the hills at the head of the
plain, passing a kafilah of forty camels en route
for Sistan, which showed that we had once more
joined the regular caravan route, and, entering an
elevated valley which boasted of a certain amount
of cultivation, camped at the second of two
villages which we came to. The people were in-
quisitive and curious, and gathered in crowds
round my tent.

On the 21st we continued for some way along
the valley, bordered on the west by a fine range of


mountains deep in snow, and then ascended by a
steep pass to higher ground, where snow lay to a
depth of six or eight inches. For the rest of the
day we were winding about among hills and in
snow the whole time, till we reached a sheltered
hollow in which were situated a couple of villages,
where we camped.

The 22nd was a miserable day : a thick white
mist shrouded all the hills, heavy clouds hung low
in the sky, while a biting wind blew in fitful
squalls, adding to the feeling of discomfort already
produced by the cold raw air. The camel men
had refused to take my advance camp on over-
night, and though they had started with daylight
I soon overtook them, and at one o'clock reached
Mud, a large village on the edge of the snow. In
addition to the village itself, which covered a
considerable area, there was also a large walled
enclosure or citadel, a little apart from the rest.

Next day I reached Bujd, a village inhabited by
Sunni Mohammedans, and the day after entered
the capital, Birjand, a large mud town, shortly
after midday.

Owing to the uneven nature of the ground on
which the town is built, one sees but a small
portion of it from the plain over which one rides
when approaching from the east, and it is not
until one has climbed one of the many low, irreg-
ularly-shaped hills which surround it, and looked


down on it from above, that one can claim to have
seeji the city in its entirety. From such a point
of vantage one sees spread out before one a stretch
of hilly ground thickly covered with a mass of
irregular domed houses, w^ith here and there an
edifice larger than the rest, standing out conspicu-
ous with upper storey and bald flat roof, usually
the residence of some servant or retainer of the
Amir. At the south-east corner stands the old
fort, the usual high mud walls enclosing a few
houses and a fine mosque and courtyard, built and
completed by the present ruler about five years
ago, by far the finest building I saw in Birjand,
which has little to boast of in the way of archi-
tectural beauty. Through the northern part of
the town a broad thoroughfare runs crescent-wise
from east to west, dominated at its western
extremity by the new fort, an erection standing
on the summit of a low hill. It is known as the
" new fort," but would appear to have very little
valid claim to either title, consisting as it does at
the present time of decayed mud walls enclosing
the remains of what might once have been houses.
I was struck with the spectacle of such a fine
broad thoroughfare in a town which for the rest
boasted of nothing but narrow lanes and winding
alleys, often mere tunnels beneath a conglomerated
mass of buildings ; but the result of inquiry showed
that it was no fault of the people that they were


possessed of so spacious a street, as it was in reality
the bed of a stream which in the wet season
returned to its original office of waterway. On
each side of it stood lines of small shops, and on
the northern side was an imposing caravanserai,
quite recently completed.

From conversation with various people I
gathered that Birjand was a great trading
centre, and that besides one large and several
smaller madressehs and schools, there were six
or seven large serais for the accommodation of
the kafilahs which were always coming and
going. The population was generally agreed
to be about 30,000, which points to the in-
creased prosperity of the town of late years, for
in 1890 it is spoken of as a town of about
14,000 inhabitants, while Colonel Yate, when
visiting the place in 1894, put down the popu-
lation at 25,000. The chief water - supply is
brought from the hills by karez ; but this is
hard and brackish, and for drinking purposes
rain water is caught and preserved in large
tanks. Amonof other institutions which I noticed
were public baths, and not far from my house
stood one of these unwholesome-looking dungeons.
The appearance of the exterior, however, de-
terred me from inquiring personally into the
system and management obtaining in the in-
terior, though as I witnessed steam escaping


from chinks iu the mud roof, which was little
above the level of the ground, I conclude that
it is somethino; akin to a Turkish bath.

Starting on 4th February, after leaving the
strag-g-lino- houses on the outskirts of the town
behind, we travelled in a northern direction over
a flat expanse bounded by a range of mountains
from which long lines of kanat shafts, looking for
all the world like the tops of miniature volcanic
craters, stretched away in various directions,
carrying water to the villages which were dotted
here and there over the country. Much of the
land was being ploughed — the plough, a rough
implement of wood, being drawn by a cow and
donkey harnessed side by side, a quaint though
apparently satisfactory combination ; and it is
possible that there are times of the year when
the terrible monotony of the uniform dust-colour
of Birjand is broken by fields of smiling corn
and the blossom of the many kinds of fruit said
to grow there.

On the 5th we crossed the range in front of
us by the Saman Shahi pass (7000 feet), where
snow lay deep on the ground, at the top of
which I was afforded ample opportunity of
ruminating on the natural disadvantages of the
ungainly build of the camel, which renders all
ground, with the exception of a perfectly level
and dry plain, so peculiarly unsuitable to his


movements, while I looked on helplessly at the
clumsy efforts of my transport animals as they
slid and slithered about on the slippery surface,
halting every few yards to gaze round with
the aggravating expression of injured inno-
cence, with which one becomes so familiar,
only to flounder on again with a protesting
gurgle to the vociferous exhortations of the

Having wasted the greater part of the morn-
ing in seeing them safely over the worst places,
I went on ahead down a gradual descent,
passing here and there a small village in a
sheltered hollow, and little patches of culti-
vated land often enclosed by mud walls. Even-
ing began to close in, bringing with it no signs
of Pium, a village at which I purposed camping
for the night ; and thinking I must surely be
somewhere near my destination, I took the first
opportunity afforded by a small cluster of domed
huts of inquiring how far it was. In reply I
was informed that at present it was twelve
miles, but that if I continued in my present
direction, it would soon be a good deal farther.
This was a little disconcerting, as I had followed
the only visible track ; but none the less, further
questioning elicited the fact that we were off
the road to Mashhad, and should have to go
several miles before we could get on to it again.


Following the direction indicated by our infor-
mant, we were lucky enough to strike a fair-
sized village called Sadik at seven o'clock, where
as luck would have it there was a good cara-
vanserai, about seven miles from Rum. What
had become of the camels goodness only knew,
as nothing had been heard of them in the
village, and by ten o'clock I gave up all hope
of seeing them before day, and having dined off
some native bread obtained in the village, I got
hold of some straw, and lay down to sleep as
I was, on the floor of one of the untenanted
rooms of the caravanserai. It was bitterly
cold, and what with having had scarcely any-
thing to eat, and being entirely without blankets,
I did not pass a very enjoyable night.

Next morning I sent out men to search for
the camels, while I got on to the roof of the
serai and scoured the country with field-glasses.
About midday they hove in sight, and half an
hour later reached Sadik. It seemed that they
had also lost their way, and had been aimlessly
wandering over the plain, a fact which will give
some idea of the nature of a Persian road. As
soon as they reached Sadik, I went on, getting
over the remaining distance between us and
Rum by evening.

The next place of any importance to be reached
was Kain. Judging from what I saw, I should


say that a great deal of fruit must be grown
here, for I marched for nearly two miles among
orchards and cultivated fields enclosed by mud
walls before coming to any sign of houses.
When I at length came to the town itself, I
found a solid-looking gateway barring entrance
to the main street, supported on each side by a
tower, the whole of which w^ould seem to be a
little superfluous since the place was without
walls. After proceeding through the usual alleys
of a Persian town, we reached the caravanserai,
a moderate example of the article, and I set to
work to clean out the hovel in which I purposed
passing the night.

The town had the appearance of a large village
surrounded by trees, with one large building
standing up high above the rest of the houses,
which I was informed was a mosque. The popula-
tion is, I was given to understand, about 1000 ;
but the only fact of any interest that I gleaned
about the place was, that it is famous as a
great place for growing saffron, a valuable ex-
port, which has taken the place of the silk for
which it used to be noted.

By evening the day following we reached the
village of Asadabad, where we spent the night.
The next day our road lay over a dreary, shora-
covered plain, where all sense of distance was
annihilated ; and though Dasht-i-Piaz, the village


we were making for, built on the slope leading
up to a range of hills at the end of the plain,
appeared quite close at midday, it continued to
do so in a tantalising and aggravating way, while
I tramped along steadily for another four hours
before reaching it.

A peculiarity I noticed of the people of Dasht-i-
Piaz and other villages in this neighbourhood was
the fashion in head-dresses, which took the form
of huge sheepskin hats in place of the more usual

Leaving Dasht-i-Piaz at 8.30, we went up a
gradual ascent into the mountains in front of us
until one o'clock, when we came to a sudden and
very steep descent down a defile between pre-
cipitous, and in many places snow-covered, moun-
tains. The camels having been got safely down
to more level ground, we followed a dry river-bed
which pursued a winding course along the bottom
of a tortuous ravine, and at 3 p.m. reached another
steep pass over a ridge of hills. The camels were,
however, able to avoid this by taking a rather
longer road, and I left them to follow the level,
crossing the hills myself

From the top of the ridge Kakh was visible
almost immediately below us, its houses nestling
among clumps of trees at the foot of the moun-
tain. Immediately opposite the serai was a large
building surmounted by a fine dome of enamelled


bricks in yellow and light and dark blue, which I
was informed was the tomb of Sultan Mohammed,
younger brother of Iman Eeza, the saint whose
remains invest Mashhad with such a degree of
sanctity, and of course a resort of pilgrimage.
As I passed it on entering the serai, several
devout worshippers were prostrating themselves
to the ground before the holy threshold. Beyond
this there was a high-walled enclosure, presum-
ably the fort, in the usual state of decay, and
several mosques, as befitted so holy a place of

I left Kakh on the 12th, getting all the camels
loaded and ready to start by 8.30 a.m., and jour-
neyed over a level plain away from the snow-
covered mountains above the town. The march
to Gunabad, though supposed to be four " far-
sakhs" — a"farsakh" is an elastic term indicat-
ing a distance of from three to five miles according
to the part of the country one happens to be in
— was certainly a good deal less, and we reached
the serai on the edge of the town by 3 p.m.

After leaving Gunabad we passed during the
first two or three hours through a large and
smiling oasis of well-kept fields, many already
green with the young shoots of corn, and flourish-
ing villages, a pleasant change after the usual
tracts of barrenness ; but having left these
behind, we emerged once more on to brown,


uncultivated plain, reaching the village of Amrani
by evening.

Between Amrani and the next inhabited country
stretched a sterile and inhospitable plain for a
distance of eight farsakhs, and as my camels
seldom succeeded in covering more than four, or at
most five, farsakhs during the day, I found it
necessary to carry water, firewood, fodder, &c.,
from Amrani, so that I should be able to halt
for the night at an empty building which was said
to exist half-way.

The landscape was one such as is common in
Baluchistan and Khurasan, a vast expanse of level
with a vision of hills in the dim distance beyond.
Overhead the sun shone from a cloudless sky ;
but during the morning a strong wind blew in
fitful gusts, raising a whole host of sand-devils,
that spun in wild gyrations over the dreary waste.
Mirage, too, dazzling the eye and bewildering
the senses with its elusive and incessant tremor,
produced for our edification some of its most
fantastic illusions, a weird sample displaying a
flock of sheep floating gently about in the air
with a filmy blue vapour beneath them. During
the day I passed a caravan of about forty donkeys,
and noticed on one or two occasions shepherds
driving their sheep and goats over the plain to
pick up what nourishment they could from the
dry and dusty scrub that grew there. By 5 p.m.


we reached the building, a large, empty barn,
obviously devoted as much to animals as to men.
A small party of Hazara pilgrims also spent the
night here. I had met one or two of these
pilgrims before, tramping wearily along to Mash-
had, and I am bound to say I could not help being
struck with their implicit trust in Providence.
One man I call to mind accosted me on the road
before I reached Sistan, begging for a meal and
a little money. Six weeks later I met the same
individual close to Birjand, still tramping light-
heartedly along with not so much as a coin in his
pocket, his worldly goods consisting of a rug,
which he carried on his back. He was entirely
dependent on the hospitality of the villagers he
met for mere existence, yet it never so much as
entered his head that he might never reach
the holy city.

The following day we crossed the remainder
of the plain, reaching a village called Khairabad,
at the foot of hilly ground, and next day reached
Turbat-i-Haidari. Thence a toilsome journey of
70 or 80 miles over mountain-ridges covered with
ice and snow took me to the holy city of Mashhad,
the end of my caravan journey.

The whole of my journey from Sistan to Mash-
had may be summed up as a wearisome struggle,
across flat and inconceivably monotonous plains,
alternated by jagged lines of hills, becoming


hio-her and more obstructive as one gets farther
north, which seem to have been stretched across
this part of Persia from east to west with the
express purpose of hindering any one who may be
endeavouring to traverse the country. At times
in the valleys at the foot of mountain-ridges one
encounters considerable tracts of cultivated land ;
but the predominant impression left upon the mind
is of a thirsty and waterless land robed in an eter-
nal garb of drab, and as I traversed these wastes
and pondered on the fact that I was travelling
through the rich province of Khurasan, I often
wondered if the trade of such a country could ever
show results worthy of any very great commercial

It is, indeed, only when one comes to under-
stand how fierce is the craving of Russia for an
outlet in warm water from the grim spaces of her
land-girt and ice-bound Empire, that the marked
attentions paid to Persia by two such powerful
suitors as Great Britain and Russia become even
remotely comprehensible.



{A Paper read before the Central Asian Society, December 14, 1904.)

Rather more than two years ago I had the
honour of reading a paper before this Society on
a journey which I made over the then newly-
opened trade route between India and Persia,
across the arid reaches of Baluchistan. Since
that time I have had opportunities of renewing
my acquaintance with the countries and the
peoples of the East, and have carried out a
journey which has taken me the whole length
of Asia from Constantinople to Peking ; and fall-
ing in with a suggestion that has been made to
me, I have selected for the purpose of this paper
a few points which loomed large in the political
panorama which unrolled itself before me, more
with a view to exciting discussion upon topics
that are of interest to the members of this
Society than in any false hope of materially


adding to their existing knowledge of Asian

First, then, since my journey led me across the
steppes of Mesopotamia to Baghdad, a word as to
the prospects, more especially in connection with
railway development, of the Asiatic dominions of
the Sultan. This subject has already been dealt
with at some length by Colonel Picot in the
admirable paper read by him before the members
of this Society, entitled " Railways in Western
Asia," and there is no occasion, therefore, for me
to lay before you any detailed review of the
project generally spoken of as the Baghdad
Railway scheme. There are, however, one or
two points in connection with it which seem
to me to be worthy of special consideration
and discussion. With the general conclusions
drawn by Colonel Picot I heartily agree — that
when the prospects of the consummation of the
enterprise are nearer realisation than they are
at the present time, this country should be in a
position to exercise a dominating voice in its
control. And I would lay stress upon the
reasons which, in my opinion, render such a
contingency necessary. I have been accused —
wrongly, if I may say so — of lightly putting
aside that section of public opinion which is
avowedly — and I m.ay add rightly — suspicious
of the designs and objects of German world


policy, and which for this reason sees insuper-
able objections to our having anything to do
with any scheme with which that country is
concerned. But it is for this very reason —
namely, that I should view with dismay Ger-
many or any other great Continental Power exer-
cising the dominating influence in that part of
the Near East which stretches from Constantin-
ople to the Persian Gulf which the sole owner-
ship of such a railway would inevitably confer
upon them — that I advocate the participation of
this country, upon certain conditions, in the
Baghdad Railway scheme. As far as our co-
operation is concerned, I would lay it down that
equal powers of construction, management, and
control should be the minimum in the way of
concession that Great Britain should accept,
and I admit that I should far prefer to see, as
I have elsewhere advocated, an ultimate solution
of the question which would display this country
in possession of the section from Baghdad to the
Persian Gulf Under such circumstances " the
German road," to quote so high an authority as
Captain Mahau, "would find its terminus in
a British system, a not unusual international

I am one of those who are of opinion that it
cannot be too often or too strongly urged that —
to make use of the language of Captain Mahau



once again — " pureW naval control is a very
imperfect instrument unless supported and rein-
forced by the shores on which it acts," and that
just as we believe it to be imperative that we
should not abandon our rights and our position
of ascendancy in the southern provinces of
Persia, so it is equally important that that
portion of the dominions of the Sultan which
lies between Baghdad and Koweit should be
preserved free from the control of a great Con-
tinental Power. Even if we admit — and there
are those in this country who do admit it —
that the strateo^ic line of our communications
with India, Australia, and the Far East will
lie in the future by the Cape of Good Hope
rather than through the Mediterranean, the
vital importance of the Persian Gulf remains
unaltered. For although under such altered
conditions the capital of the Ottoman Empire
w^ould to some extent cease to be a source of
danger as providing a base for a flank attack,
that portion of the Turkish Empire of which
I have been speaking lies equally as a menace
on the flank of one line of communication as of
the other. It seems to me, too, that in assum-
ing an attitude of uncompromising hostility to
German aspirations in this matter, we are court-

Online LibraryLawrence John Lumley Dundas ZetlandAn Eastern miscellany → online text (page 8 of 24)