My Wanderings in Persia
Eastward bound. — At Southampton. — Victims to Neptune. — P. and O. berths. — Storm at Sea. — Gibraltar. — Acquaintance aboard Ship. — Malta and its Churches. — Religion. — Alexandria, its Ruins. — The Suez Canal; Previous Attempts at its Construction.
EASTWARD bound! Such was my salutation to a friend on the morning of March 15th, 1875. I had not many hours previously received from the India Office orders for Persia (Teheran). My route was marked out, and I was to be in readiness three weeks from that date.
From Southampton I was to proceed to
Bombay, viá the Suez Canal; at that place I should tranship for Bushire, and thence to Teheran, 900 miles by caravan, which, it appeared, was the only means of locomotion in that far-distant land.
The time was but short in which to make the numerous necessary preparations, the various visits and adieus; for there is much more than is probably imagined in the words ‘Eastward bound!’ My first thoughts were to make inquiries as to the land of the Medes and Persians, in which my lot had been cast — the answers to my many inquiries were generally the same. Teheran was a place unknown by the world at large; a few there might be in the Despatch Department of the Foreign Office who knew the name, but even this knowledge was very limited.
With some difficulty I eventually ascertained what would be most requisite in the way of outfit, etc. ‘Be sure and take a good supply of ammunition for your Martini-Henry,’ said
one friend. ‘Don’t forget quinine and chlorodyne,’ remarked another.
The last article (a stout hunting-saddle) for the completion of my outfit was ordered, and I left that great labyrinth of foreign agencies to spend a few quiet days in Yorkshire. These appeared of very short duration. The last farewell had been spoken, and with many a ‘God speed you!’ I once more found myself at express speed en route for London, there to receive some final instructions and to proceed on to Southampton.
I had been requested to take out a large supply of lamps, consigned to the Director-General of Telegraphs in Persia, but owing to an important order for similar apparatus for the Polar Expedition, then about setting out, I was compelled to leave without them.
A berth had been secured for me by Messrs. Grindlay and Co. in the P. and O. Steamship Geelong, sailing the following day (April 14th).
At Southampton were two compagnons de voyage, anxiously awaiting my arrival. One was bound for Cawnpore, the other was under similar orders as myself. We were favoured with a beautifully bright morning; not a cloud dimmed the sky as we were towed alongside the Geelong, after having passed through the due, though somewhat annoying, formalities of the Southampton Docks Department.
On seeing the manner in which luggage is hoisted and removed from one place to another, I began to be somewhat alarmed as to the safety of a portion of my baggage, which, however, had fortunately been packed with considerable care and attention.
On arriving at the steamer, the deck presented a scene of great bustle and excitement; luggage and provisions being hauled up as quickly as it is in the power of Lascar seamen to do so. On the upper deck were groups of persons busily engaged in a few last words to the friends whom perhaps they were destined
to never more see. Our own thoughts naturally wandered away, endeavouring to pierce the thick veil of the future, wondering which of the trio would return first to his native land. Visions of joyous greetings and warm welcomes flitted before me as I stood dreamily watching the waters beating against the ship’s sides. Yet, during these pleasant dreams, it was impossible to forget the anxious loving faces I had left behind — sorrowing friends who perhaps thought too much of the dangers to which we must be exposed.
We were not, however, long allowed to indulge in these speculations; the captain’s voice was heard ordering the decks to be cleared of all but crew and passengers, and in a short time the anchor was weighed and the Geelong moved gracefully away towards the Channel. Bets were freely offered and accepted as to our individual powers of resisting that peculiar sensation in the lower regions commonly called sea-sickness.
The first to succumb was Mr. Jefferies (who was bound for Persia), and his mournful look, as he leaned over the bulwarks, was piteous to behold. Mr. Coates, in the generosity of his sympathetic heart, soon joined him, and for a considerable time this mutual affection was severely tested. I, for the time being, was free from the hideous sensation; but, alas! my time drew nigh. As our speed increased, so, unfortunately, did the rolling of the ship, assisted by a somewhat boisterous wind, and I with tottering steps endeavoured to find some secluded spot where my outraged feelings might be satisfied; but ere I reached the main-deck the spell was broken — Neptune had one more victim.
Soon after sunset we retired to our shelves, which require the ingenuity of an Alpine-climber to scramble up without coming in sudden contact with some projecting piece of woodwork. Experience is bought, and nowhere is the fact more exemplified than when
the severe bump of the previous night reminds one that wood is harder than a human cranium. For the first few mornings our awakening thoughts were painfully illustrated by a scream from a fellow-sufferer as he, in sleepy forgetfulness, would, in rising above his feelings, catch the sharp edge of the upper rack.
On this, our first night on the waste of waters, after the excitement and sufferings of the day, we thought that sleep was indeed a boon and a blessing to man. The following morning two only were reported sick: one of these being Mr. Jefferies, who was, in fact, a perfect slave to his feelings until the day we landed at Bushire.
By this time, around us was nothing but a wide expanse of water. At one moment we were on the summit of a huge wave, the next we were down in an abyss of foam. The spectacle was grand in its reality and sublimity. Crossing the Bay we experienced some rough weather. One storm, terrific in its fierceness,
and lasting upwards of five hours, passed over us near St. Vincent. I had many times wished to witness a storm at sea; and now I felt awestruck at the grandeur and solemnity of these mighty walls of water. We, a mere speck on the horizon, with an almost fathomless sea around us, were nothing compared with the majesty of power exhibited in these tempestuous outbursts.
On the evening of the 18th we anchored off Gibraltar. The town appeared to be brilliantly lighted up, and the view from the ship’s deck was one not to be forgotten. In this fortress one is reminded of some mighty giant raising his strong arm in defiance of all comers, conscious of his own strength allowing liberties which would be shackled by a meaner power. The rocks bristle with guns, and woe betide any enemy who would dare attempt to force a passage here. On shore we saw dark visaged Spaniards, in their peculiar-looking cloaks and slouched hats, trying to palm off
bad cigars to any one whom they thought could be caught. The familiar red coat of the British soldier, who to us appeared to walk with a firmer step on this foreign soil, was a common sight.
We were not ashore long before a gun fired from the mail-boat sounded our return.
Shortly after midnight we steamed for Malta. By this time all was merriment aboard; the apparent depression of spirits seemed to have left behind a cheerfulness scarcely to be expected.
It is surprising how quickly a friendly circle is formed aboard ship: an acquaintance which at any other time would require months to form, is here ripened into open friendship in a comparatively short time. Unless such was the case, passengers from the Far East would have but a poor time of it. Destined to see the same faces for weeks together, hear only a few voices — each day the same — it would be pitable indeed if it were not so. In fact, after
a month’s intimate acquaintance with a few fellow-passengers, the day of separation seems an affecting one: a hearty grip of the hand, and one feels as if some dear friend had departed.
Of our list of passengers, a few were for Bombay and Calcutta, others for the North West Provinces, Burmah, and Persia; and on arrival in Bombay never in all probability to see each other again — the thought is an impressive one; yet such is the case time after time.
Every day each steamer leaves our shores, these acquaintances are thus formed, and in a few weeks are as suddenly broken.
We arrived in the roadsteads of Malta on the morning of the 22nd.
The churches, convents, markets, etc., were each in turn visited. The buildings in Malta belong to a style of architecture long since passed into oblivion: the streets are exceedingly narrow, but, unlike other Oriental towns, they are well paved.
At every step we met something to attract attention. A Dominician or St. Augustine monk, with his cowl and beads, would pass by silently and ghostlike. Next would be seen some half dozen nuns, whose monotonous tread speaks ill of the highly religious training they are supposed to be endowed with. As a contrast to the stealthy movements of Maltese monks and friars, the heavy tread and cheerful laughter of two or three troopers reach our ears.
The market at Malta deserves praise: in this spacious building almost any imaginable fruit can be had at very low prices.
The church of St. Michael’s also commands admiration, if only from an architectural point of view. All religous worship is tolerated in this church, the believer in Romish mummeries, the follower of Luther or Calvin, the Jew, or the more modern style of Christianity: a place is set apart for each, no one daring to interfere.
The absurd prostrations and genuflexions of the Church of Rome are nowhere more contemptibly repulsive than in Malta. Those who are wont to look with a lenient eye on the doings of Rome, should study Maltese character and the doctrines there taught by the hypocritical agents of the apostolic vicar.
In Russia the present writer has seen saint-worship, rude prostrations, and other fantastical modes of pretended worship, almost equally disgusting as those practised by the so-called direct apostles of Christ, but certainly not by a people who have known the benefits of civilisation, as do the adherents of the Romish Church.
Alexandria, our next calling place, had previously been to my mind the ideal of Oriental beauty. It is said that ignorance is bliss; and had I known what to expect in this ancient city, I believe the wiser part would have been chosen, and I should still entertain a sacred opinion of Alexandria by having remained aboard the steamer.
The morning was intensely hot: a parching east wind was blowing; myriads of sand-flies were busy on every object from which a single drop of blood could be taken.
This great pagan capital, once the second city of the Roman Empire, the burial place of its illustrious founder, Alexander the Great, which has boasted of holding no inferior position in learning or wealth, is now a mere heap of crumbled ruins. The grandeur of its palaces, baths, theatres, etc., have, like the frail edifice of paganism of which it was once the champion, passed into the darkness of an almost forgotten past.
Its temples, gorgeously built, dedicated to the pagan gods — into which thousands of ignorant yet devout worshippers have entered with silent and reverential tread, from which the dread sentences of the pagan laws have been thundered out against those who had incurred the displeasure of the gods, and where all the abasing practices of a paganized people have been un-
ceasingly carried on — are now ruins of an ancient grandeur.
It is composed chiefly of Arabs, Jews, Italians, dirt and dust. Some things there were which rendered our visit not altogether a sacrifice to comfort, yet I was not sorry to once more find myself under the shady awning of the Geelong’s deck.
The following day we arrived at Port Seyed (the entrance of the Suez Canal). It would not perhaps be out of place to say here that this last attempt was not the first made to connect the Mediterranean and Red Seas.
About 1,000 years before the Christian era an attempt was made to cut through this strip of land, but it failed after an enormous sacrifice of life. The enterprise was a second time commenced some centuries afterwards, but again resulted in a complete failure; and so it remained until the great task was once more planned by M. de Lesseps; and everyone
knows to what extent his efforts have been rewarded.
Although with great difficulty and at no small cost is this highroad to India kept open, yet our war vessels and heavily burdened steamers now pass through with but little difficulty. Steam drags are in constant use to clear away the ever falling sand. The present canal is some distance from the ruins of the ancient one.