My Wanderings in Persia
Koom. — Holy Shrines. — Barber’s Bridge. — Ill-famed Winds. — The King’s Well. — The Valley of the Shadow of Death. — Turkestan Deserts. — Kinarigird. — Distinguished Arrivals. — Prompt Action. — Bone of Contention. — Demavend. — Friends. — Teheran. — Humours. — Fifteenth Century Waggons. — Government Caravanserai. — Gulahek. — Medical Practitioners. — An Outcast.
LEAVING the scene of this wretched encounter, we proceeded on towards the sacred city of Koom. Approaching this city of shrines, we once more pass through cultivated land — water-courses abound, as at Ispahan, whilst a considerable distance from the city gates the golden dome of Koom’s most sacred mosque gleams in the sunlight. Here are buried Fatima, the sister of
Imaum-i-Reza, Fath Ali Shah, a celebrated monarch of Persia, and several other equally illustrious bygones.
Koom is the most fanatical place in Persia. The foot of an unbeliever would not be allowed to pollute the floor of this holiest of holies — even the gaze of a detested Feringee on this temple of Islamism would be resented by fierce looks and gestures from the murderous-looking dervishes, who never leave the divine boundary.
Only once has it been known that an Englishman or any other unbeliever obtained permission to visit the jewelled Tombs of Persia’s illustrious kings; then the deception was only known by a few moolahs. The Englishman was a great favourite with the Koomees, on account of his toleration and apparent inclination to Mahomedanism.
The internal sights are said to be most magnificent; but even these facts have never been revealed. Indian princes, Persian kings
and nobles, have laid before the shrine rich gifts of precious stones and gold.
The city itself is rapidly falling into decay. One notable feature in Koom is the number of storks. which build their nests far up in the towers of the mosques, and which are held sacred by its inhabitants. The tomb of Fath Ali Shah is situated outside the city. Koom is now chiefly noted for its earthenware manufactories, coloured tiles, etc., of which some are good specimens of art.
From Koom we know that for days we shall see nothing but dreary wastes, unvaried except by the arrivals at and departures from the different menzils, but as we are fast nearing the end of our journey, half the monotony of such travelling is lost upon us, at the thought of rest, and the finis of all our troubles and the roughing which must of necessity attend a journey of nearly a thousand miles through one of the most barren and uncivilised countries in the world.
The view from the roof of the Pul-i-Dalork (‘Barber’s Bridge’) chapar khaneh is one of wild beauty: the wide rushing river, which flows alongside the post-house, is seen in the far-off distance like a stream of pure silver encircling the brown sandy plain; and as the sun sank behind the western hills, the sandy plain, and the majestic hills in the distance, lent a beauty to the scene beyond description. In appearance it was a lake of gold divided by a stream of the baser metal, which could be seen persistently entwining itself until lost in the trackless limits of the great Asiatic Sahara: far away beyond all the rest the snow-capped peak of Demavend rose high towards the heavens. We first saw this king of Persian mountains at Kashan, more than a hundred miles away.
I stood gazing on this scene, and thinking of the green pastures and blossoming trees of my native land, until I was awakened from my somewhat pleasant reverie by a servant, who
said that the night winds from the desert were of ill-fame, and advised me to seek solace in the chapar khaneh, which, I may say, is not the best of its kind.
The door rejected all attempts on my part to close it; the windows, if I may so name them, were entirely destitute of anything in the shape of glass. Eventually, I had some boulders brought from below to hold the door in its place — the wind was so keen that I was afraid to sleep fully exposed to its blasts.
A murderous-looking dervish had once or twice paid a visit to the roof; the second time I pointed towards the steps, and politely asked him to retire. With apparent disinclination and black looks he complied.
The next stage was to Hous-i-Sultan (‘The King’s Well’), built by Shah Abbas for the convenience of pilgrims to and from Koom. The chapar khaneh and caravanserai — the latter in ruins — are the only signs of habitations seen since Pul-i-Dalork.
The continual sameness rendered the ride most wearisome. From Hous-i-Sultan to Kinarigird is the most desolate, comfortless spot it is possible to picture. Nay, to picture it is impossible. No one can form an idea of this valley of dry bones unless first traversing its length. The whole distance from Koom — eighty-two miles — is an unbroken expanse of sand. Not even a blade of withered grass or a dried up thistle is to be seen. Between Hous and Kinarigird, however, is by far the worst part of the journey. It is called by the Persians ‘The Valley of the Shadow of Death,’ and as far as the eye can reach in an easterly direction, nothing is seen but this wide expanding desert, terminating only at the base of the mountains of Afghanistan, and reaching northwards beyond the confines of the once independent khanates. In fact, but with few and slight changes, the great Persian desert and the steppes of Turkestan and Siberia might be mentioned as one and the same.
The thousands of acres inhabited only by wild Turcomans, and equally wild and barbarous Cossacks, entirely destitute of even a ray of civilisation or of cultivation, is to the mind of a citizen of some densely populated European city a matter of deep wonderment.
Kinarigird is the last stage from the capital of the Medes and Persians, and it was with no small amount of satisfaction that I entered the chapar khaneh of this, my last night on the road.
The night was an exceptionally fine one, and I, feeling in a much better humour than of late, took advantage of the privileges of the bala khaneh’s occupant, and was soon enjoying (in slippers and loose jacket) the beauties of an Eastern moonlight, as also of a good dinner on the roof.
Shortly after I had finished my repast and was calmly pulling at the stem of a kalyun, I heard a loud knocking at the outer door, and on looking over the wall from my elevated position, saw that, by all appearances, a Persian
of high rank had arrived — the number of his attendants pronounced him as such.
The chaper-chee, or man in charge of the house, on opening the door, was peremptorily ordered to clear the bala khaneh. This is the best room of the building; it is a second storey, built to exclude all nauseous smells from the stables, etc., and for privacy; it is only given to distinguished travellers.
The man replied that it was already occupied by a sahib. To this reply the khan gave an unmistakable token of disgust, by threatening to burn my father, and all my worthy ancestors, unless I allowed him, a star of greater magnitude, to take up his quarters in the bala khaneh. All this was spoken unsuspicious of my close presence.
The next minute I heard the man ascending the steps, and was informed, with a profound salaam, that His Excellency Hajee Ahmed Khan, who was then travelling to Koom with orders for the Governor, had arrived, and
wished to have this room. Not a word was uttered as to the alternative of my refusal.
I told the man to carry to His Excellency my Salaams, and trusted that his shadow would never grow less, and that his nose was fat; but, at the same time, I regretted my inability to accede to his request. Should he, however, condescend to wait until morning, the room would in all probability be at his service.
The man retired, but soon returned, this time accompanied by three others, who insolently demanded my immediate departure. My servants just then appeared, and in less than one minute the roof was cleared of these noisy intruders: two of the men I assisted downstairs in a much quicker manner than which they ascended. One man, in his haste to reach the bottom, jumped from the roof — about ten feet. Language peculiarly adapted to the Persian tongue was used by my men in ejecting them from the building, not showing much tenderness during the operation.
I heard no more until about retiring, when Mahomed Saduk came to say that the Khan en personne wished to see me.
I gave the customary ‘Bismillah,’ and was soon vis à vis with this imperial messenger. He assured me that he was altogether ignorant of the insult offered me by his servants, until complained of by my man. He wished me to forgive them, stating that punishment had already been inflicted.
Whether this was literally true or not I cannot say, but after smoking a kalyun together, we parted on the best of terms. I offered to vacate the wished-for room, but either from a sense of shame, should he accept, or, as he professed, from respect to my exalted position, he politely declined.
The following morning, before the great orb of day had spread its golden light around, we left this bone of contention for our last march of thirty miles to Teheran, the capital of the Shadow of the Universe.
After passing through the intricate mountain paths near Kinarigird, we arrived just as the sun made its appearance in the Orient, on the summit of the last hill before descending into the plain of Teheran, the morning was beautifully calm — scarcely a breath of air stirred; the view from the spot where we stood was truly a picturesque and imposing one.
The lofty snow-covered heights of that great European-Asiatic range of mountains, called the Elburz glistened in the morning sun, and far away, crowning the grandeur by its majestic peak, rose Demavend, that mount of perpetual snow, upwards of 20,000 feet above the sea’s level.
The Persian capital lies, as it were, firmly embedded in the very heart of these mountains. As yet it is entirely hidden from us by the rising ground and projecting hills.
All around in the plain below are villages and gardens, their beauty at that time greatly
enhanced by the natural garb of spring. Some fifteen miles away the golden dome of the sacred shrine of Shah Abdul Azim glitters and shines like a far-off star.
One would think, on riding through this magnificent scenery, that the approach to this Asiatic capital was unequalled by any other similar landscape.
At Bagh-i-Hajee Ali, ten miles from the city, I called a halt to refresh and strengthen the inner man — a ride of twenty miles before breakfast had a great tendency to create a sharp appetite.
When descending into the plain, one of my stirrups had by some unaccountable means snapped; I was therefore riding at great disadvantage. Fortunately, the month’s continuous marching had taken a little spirit out of my Arab, or I should have found another though less comfortable stirrup, i.e. terra firma.
On resuming the march, I had scarcely proceeded a mile when my muleteer, who was
ahead, hurried back saying a company of sahibs were riding towards us. I hastened forward, and at the brow of an adjacent hill I met a number of gentlemen who were here stationed, and who expressed their pleasure at receiving me safe and sound after my long journey from the South.
At this point I had my first view of Teheran. I was charmed by its pleasant appearance, but I must confess that the fascination was not of long duration. These favourable impressions, perhaps too hastily made, were shattered to a thousand pieces, on passing through the bazaars leading towards the centre of the city.
We entered by the Shah Abdul Azim gate, and wended our way through the intricacies of the filthy bazaars situated at this portion of the city. We passed the executioner’s pole, on which the gory heads of autocratic victims are placed. The king’s town palace next met our view. In the front are two immense brass cannons, taken at the siege of Delhi by a
Persian king. Further on, the new college, foreign offices, and other public buildings are passed — all are the fruits of the European tour. We next turn and cross the artillery ‘maidon,’ or square, full of antiquated brass guns and rotten-looking ammunition waggons; through the artillery gate we pass into the principal street of the capital, by far the finest street in Persia, and the only one of its kind. It is paved with boulders varying in size, indiscriminately thrown on the road, and which painfully reminds one of the rocky road to Dublin. Ancient looking lamps are placed at either side of the road, lighted at night by native candles, an attempt, peculiarly Persian, to imitate European cities; the candles are supposed to burn throughout the night, but long ere the midnight hour arrives, dismal darkness reigns supreme. It is whispered — but far be it from me to accept the rumour doubting the honesty of Persians — that these candles are taken from the lamps by the soldiery who
guard the street, and sold in the bazaars for bread.
Another story is becoming somewhat stale in the bazaars of Teheran.
The king, a short time after his return from Europe, issued a royal mandate to the Grand Vizier that a candle manufactory was to be erected, forthwith to supply themselves with this useful commodity.
In course of time the structure was completed, and a very elaborate report given to his majesty of the great demand made by the dealers, and of the prosperous state of the concern. A day or two afterwards the Governor of Public Affairs received notice to prepare the manufactory for his majesty’s reception. These preparations were of a more lengthy nature than the Shah imagined. For upwards of three months the works had been closed, unknown to the authorities, who continued to receive good accounts of extensive trade, etc.
The day of the royal visit arrived, and to
put a good surface on the matter, the manager hired all the water-carriers, hawkers and other street idlers to make candles for that occasion. I may also say that a frequenter of the bazaars would notice on this particular day an entire absence of even the least semblance of a candle — all had been hired by this enterprising Persian to deceive his illustrious visitor. The Shah saw on his arrival a room full of busily engaged workmen — the walls completely covered with the lanky, fatty substance of their industrious labour — and highly complimented the manager on the efficient state of the department.
The pavement, if we may so call it, is specially adapted for the king’s ‘fifteenth century waggons,’ or, as they are called, his ‘royal carriages,’ which rumble and jolt up the street like the vans of a travelling showman — an infallible remedy for liver complaint. Conversation in an English vehicle is sometimes difficult, but in these imperial waggons the very thought is madness.
In Russia we see and feel what we are unaccustomed to in the shape of street locomotion, nor do we desire to have a repetition; but none can be compared to these carriages, unfurnished with springs, which are generally employed in the transit of the selected ladies of his harem, who are always surrounded and guarded from the impure gaze of man by a ragged rabble called ‘Body-guards.’
Not far up this Piccadilly we halted before the doors of a massively built house, in appearance like a caravanserai, both externally and the interior. This I was informed was the Government House, in which my quarters had been selected. The house was in a very dilapidated condition — the court yard was one heap of stones and rubbish, whilst the rooms so kindly allotted to me by a thoughtful and considerate superintendent were unfit to lodge the unclean animal in. I turned with disgust from such dens, and sought out my own
abode, after being refused allowance for that purpose, and told that quarters were ready for me; and until the day of leaving the control of such ill-bred officialism, I was compelled to find house-rent, although my contract had been that excellent quarters were furnished by the Indian Government, and, I may say, which had been found, previous to my arrival in Teheran.
In this fashionable street are the various foreign missions — French, Austrian, Turkish, and English, the latter commanding a splendid site, and by far the finest building in Persia. There is also a Roman Catholic Church erected in this European street, as also an hotel kept by a French-German. The central office of the Indo-European Company and the Indian Government Telegraph Department occupies a less prominent position, although, were it not for this department, but few Englishmen would make their home in Persia.
Teheran, unlike other places in the country,
boasts of a mixed European population — the majority of these residents, however, can only be classified as idle vagrants. The little colony of English are to be found during the summer months in Gulahek, a small village seven miles distant from the city.
The climate in this district and around the base of the Elburz range is much pleasanter than in the dry arid plain in which the capital is built, but in this Elysium the elite only are allowed to reside.
The grounds around the village were a gift to the British Legation, who retain the right to grant or refuse application for such a privilege; the grant was made by the king, so that the Mission could transfer the seat of government to the cooler shades of Gulahek during the hot summer months. Chiefs of the telegraphs, medical gentlemen and railway contractors reside here, whilst the staff are compelled to remain in the almost suffocating atmosphere of Teheran.
I am under the impression that the Government of India appoint medical officials in order to insure, if possible, the good health of the respective staffs. Notwithstanding this fact, and also that the city gates are closed shortly after sunset, no one being allowed egress or admittance after such time, these medical officers are seldom seen during the day, and certainly not after sunset. Should a member of the staff be suddenly prostrated by fever, cholera, or other prevalent illness after sunset, it would be impossible to gain their assistance until the following morning, when such assistance would in all probability be too late.
There is, however, one English official who, either through a sense of shame or honour, is forbidden to take up his abode here, owing, no doubt, to the great susceptibilities some ladies may have to any infringement of strict moral observances. Thus this desolate outcast is obliged to live solitary and alone in the great city, and is excluded from the innocent
pleasures of a country life. I said alone, yet not alone: there is one other who perhaps at times affords him some enjoyment, or harmless pastime, to his otherwise monotonous existence.