My Wanderings in Persia
Teheran Fortifications. — Rhages. — Pretensions. — Hussein Khan. — Military Review! — Two to One. — Summary Punishment. — Mission Guards. — Baron Reuter’s Contract. — Russian Intrigues. — Railways. — Eastern Opinions. — England and Russia. — Party Factions. — Leave of Absence. — Sulphuric Springs. — Prevention and Cure. — Vapours. — Perplexing Dilemma. — Torn and Wounded.
TEHERAN is surrounded by a moat some thirty feet in depth. The fortifications are not on an extensive scale, consisting only of the sand and stones thrown from the moat, which in several places is in a most ruinous condition. The heavy winter rains wash down the embankments, which are never substantially repaired. The gates (nine in number) are built of mud-bricks
and enamelled tiles; the doors are stout woodwork, surmounted by strong iron bars, securely fastened by stones. These defences offer no great resistance to a band of desperate men, who could force an entrance at almost any point. Once inside, a few krans, judiciously distributed amongst the guards, would gain admittance to any part of the city. Still, the gates are not, as in other instances, merely a myth.
About ten miles from Teheran are the ruins of Rhey, or Rhages, the ancient capital of Media, the place where Alexander the Great turned from his pursuit of Hyrcus, who, fearing the dreaded powers of the great conqueror, fled the country, and tried to find refuge in the wild mountain-fastnesses of Afghanistan; but at the thought of being overtaken by Alexander, who was in full pursuit, was slain at his own command by an aide-de-camp, accepting death rather than capture. Cruelty and torture have ever characterised the history of Persia, and although the present monarch has, or rather
such are his pretensions, accustomed himself to many European customs; yet it is lamentable to know that far above the rest shines that great lust for cruelty — in fact, it appears to be the greatest and ever-rising passion of Orientals.
Hussein Khan, the present Prime Minister, at one time despaired of ever seeing old age. The king was through the intrigues of Hussein Khan’s enemies embittered against him, and forbade his entrance into the presence of his Serene Majesty, and after a time, although with apparent reluctance, his execution was determined upon. Hussein Khan by some means heard of this decision of his Majesty, and at once claimed protection from the English Minister, in virtue of being a Knight of the Star of India. The protection was given, and through the influence and power of Her Majesty’s Ambassador, Hussein Khan was restored to his former exalted position.
He is, perhaps, the best man in the Shah’s
realms fitted for the post he occupies. Like his imperial master, his inclinations lean towards England, and whilst Hussein Khan remains Grand Vizier any alliance with Russia need cause no fear in political circles at home. Still, unfortunately, Hussein Khan’s will is not despotic nor is he infinite, and the opinions of other ministers and courtiers who are unquestionably Pro-Russian may be brought with some weight on the subject, and these, coupled with the spurious pretensions of Russia, may have great influence with the king, and perhaps at a not far distant period prove a matter of some anxiety both to the Indian and Home Governments.
The Envoy of Russia at the Persian capital loses no opportunity in assuring his Majesty of the honourable and unwavering interest, his peace-loving Emperor entertains toward his august neighbour — the slightest wish, even childish though it may be, is made law by the Russian Minister.
Not along ago the Shah expressed a desire to hold a grand review of his army. The Ambassador of All the Russias entirely concurred, and offered, should his Majesty condescend to accept it, to ask for Russian officers to prepare and command the manoeuvres. The officers were accordingly at once despatched from Tiflis, and arrived in Teheran without delay, not wasting time to suffer the Shah to change his intentions. For some time the drilling was strictly carried on, and the day of the review(!) fixed on. When all was over, the King received the Russian Minister in audience, who loudly praised the army and its equipments, and the review was considered a grand success. The Shah not personally being familiar with that discipline which should control an army, consequently failed to detect the great lack of even an approach to order or discipline, although the troops were declared to be in a grand condition.
I scarcely think that the sight of two ragged and filthy officers riding one jaded horse (which appeared to be a total stranger to barley) on a field-day would create any enthusiastic feeling of admiration at Aldershot. Nor would such a scene as I witnessed afford any great theme of conversation, or thrill the heart with patriotic fire — it might certainly prove a great source of official conversation and correspondence.
As the men, dressed in torn yet gaudy clothes, who were playing at soldiers, marched by en route for parade, I noticed that one man, whose coat had long since had its day, and was now, or should have been, indisputably the sign of a rag-shop, with two or three buttons short, handed his rifle to a comrade whilst he — the man who would have made a fortune in Petticoat Lane — endeavoured to mend the matter, and also his coat, by tying up the gap with a piece of rag he had but then torn from the inner side of his garment. A non-commissioned officer happened to notice the
man minus his rifle; taking no notice of his forlorn condition, he dragged the unfortunate wretch from amongst the crowd — they cannot be said to walk in rank — and with a tremendous stick he carried belaboured him most unmercifully. This novel instrument of military punishment is carried by all non-commissioned officers.
The above disgraceful spectacle was witnessed by three or four commanding officers of the Persian array, who seemed to take the thing as a good joke. The man thus punished was a ‘saku,’ or water-carrier, and had been hired for the day to make up the number — as no doubt half the regiment were — and knew nothing of military discipline. Such scenes are not uncommon. Punishment is always inflicted on the spot. Such a thing as a court-martial has not yet put in an appearance in the realms of the Shah. Officers, too, should they incur the displeasure of a superior, are as summarily punished.
Where as one thing in Teheran which strikes an observer of occurrences as being remarkable, that is in all the Foreign Missions a body-guard of some half-dozen troopers of each Mission’s country are allowed in the Ambassadors by the Persian Government. I said all. The English only form a striking exception. Whether such exception be the fault of our Minister or of the Indian Government (under whose control the Mission is), I am unable to state. Yet, while the Russian Envoy is escorted by six mounted and well-armed Cossacks, the Turkish Minister or Chargé d’Affaires with a like number of well-mounted fellows from Constantinople, the English Minister is noticeable and attractive by his forlorn appearance: he might well be taken as an antiquated medicine-man, instead of her Britannic Majesty’s representative at the Court of Persia. Such, however, is not the case with Russia’s proud noble; the state and pomp of a prince is his. Whilst the English Government can
be complimented on the magnificent building on which thousands have been lavishly expended, their policy cannot be considered wise nor their influence paramount; prestige suffers to a great extent through this laxity of such affairs, slight as they may be to a European mind. Orientals differ widely from the people of the West; their sense of imaginary grandeur and pomp will carry the day where honesty of purpose, void of outward display, would fall through.
Such is the present state of things in Teheran. England is satisfied by honourably transacting what international business she may have, suffering no thought of the future to disturb her serene repose, allowing Russian influence to have entire command of the Persian mind, whilst she calmly reclines in the feebleness of old age. It is now publicly acknowledged in Persia and Russia that the contract made between the Shah and Baron Reuter would have been carried out had it not been
for the intriguing of Russian diplomacy. The King was advised to abandon the idea as costly and worthless; he was told that the finances of his country would be thereby ruined, that the railway when completed would be of no practical utility. Thus the project was given up at Baron Reuter’s expense, who ‘had despatched an entire working staff and material — in fact, all had been prepared for the commencement of the permanent way, when the result of Russia’s secret scheming threw all aside. The debt of such costly and foolish experiments has not yet been paid; his Majesty the Shah is still a debtor of a good round sum to Baron Reuter.
This took place in 1875-6. The latest news from Persia states that a railway is to be "Commenced at once from Teheran to Baghdad under Russian control. This means an enormous expense, which the already shattered finances of Persia can never meet. The Czar will then have a feasible and valid excuse to
pay himself by seizing a strip of territory stretching from Nakshivan to Tabreez, or another piece from the rich provinces of Ghelan or Mazanderan. The road lying between Teheran and the Sultan’s Asiatic capital presents to Russian engineering science great and innumerable difficulties. Mountains, miles in extent, must be tunnelled; deserts crossed; and lastly, even supposing that in time all will have a successful termination, it requires more than Persian vigilance to protect the line from the tribes of Bedouins, who are ever turbulent on the road. At the same time, Russia would be preparing for herself, at the expense of Persia, a direct and substantial road from her Circassian capital to Baghdad, whence, by way of Tabreez and Hamadan, the transport of troops would be an easy matter. The railroad would never by any possible means be a financial success. Traffic, either passengers or goods, could not be extensive. Supposing it to connect and form a direct line of railway to
India, the journey from London to Baghdad, viâ Russia and Teheran, or viâ Constantinople and Teheran, would occupy at least twenty days, whilst from Baghdad, either by steamer or railway, would be eight more; the ordinary passage from London to Bombay is but twenty-one days. So that a railway route, with all its stoppages, changes, and passport rigid observances, can never supersede the present mode of carrying passengers and merchandise to our Eastern dominions. It is said that the railway is to be from the Persian capital to the Asiatic metropolis of Turkey, which is under the British protectorate. If this be true, a treaty must have been signed by the four interested Powers, which is scarcely feasible at the present time of Anglo-Russian squabbles and Turkish settlements. So that, to our mind, the projected railroad is doomed to premature death should it ever have an existence.
The policy of Russia is throughout the East recognised as antagonistic to that of
England, and the result of this great crisis, which is openly commented on by Russian officers as drawing nigh, is looked for and eagerly anticipated by all those who dabble in international policies. England and Russia are spoken of as bitter enemies, and an appeal to arms for Eastern supremacy is entertained as inevitable. Every one knows that the two nations must some day transform the limitless tracks of Turkestan into Asiatic battle-fields, and the victorious army will carry supreme power throughout the whole of Asia.
Perhaps to some who have not been over studious as to the movements of Russia in Central Asia, it would be surprising to them to know the vastness of the territory annexed by that civilising power since 1864; and to those who still tenaciously cling to the virtues of Russia, I would recommend the correspondence between the Russian Government and that of Mr. Gladstone. Russia faithfully promised not to touch Khiva; not to advance her
armies in occupation beyond certain limits marked out by Lord Granville who was then the Foreign Minister. What were those promises made for? To throw England off her guard, to falsify their position and intentions, and on the first opportunity to be broken. Russian troops have occupied Khiva. Russia’s armies have advanced leagues beyond the limits of England’s sufferances, and instead of being one thousand miles from our north-western frontier, their outposts and the English-trained Sepoy are but three hundred miles apart.
England may never have cause to fear a Russian invasion of India, until India herself is ripe for such invasion; but her intriguing powers, her worthless promises, her indiscriminate falsity, and her patriotic servants in England (who were not born in Russia), may yet prove sources of anxiety, and perhaps bloodshed, and may not turn out mere visions and delusions, as characterised by a staunch supporter of Russia some time ago.
Russian generalship and weight of arms will never prove fatal to England; but party and press factions in our administration are another thing altogether, and will perhaps some day receive far different treatment than they at present are favoured with.
Two or three months after my arrival in Teheran, I obtained leave of absence, and in company of a friend travelled through Mazanderan (the ancient Hyrcania), on towards Turkestan, past the hot springs of Demavend, remaining for a few days in the rich valley of the Lar, which is watered by one of the finest rivers in Persia. We left the capital on the first day of July, and after crossing the barren plain around the city, pitched our tents beneath the spreading trees of Surmanabad, twenty-one miles from the gates. Our second day’s march was through uninteresting country, without vegetation or signs of habitation. This second day our tents were erected in a pleasant village called Cheshm-i-Lar, or the Lar
Springs. Here we decided to continue our journey towards the desert of Turkestan, and had some difficulty in getting the camel-drivers any further. The climate here was cool and fresh, greatly different to Teheran; the air was invigorating, and tempted us to remain a few days, amusing ourselves by shooting and fishing. Rugs and furs were beginning to come in useful at night, when the cold was greatly felt. Our next encampment was at the base of Giant Demavend. The country around is richly cultivated, and produces in abundance corn, oats, and barley (cotton and opium being but seldom seen in these northern districts). The cornfields were all of a rich golden hue, the gardens full of luscious fruits, and the green pastures and rushing river reminded me for the first time during my residence in Persia of far-off England, and had it not been for the miserable buildings, flat roofs, and swarthy-looking peasants, we could have fancied ourselves in some quiet Lincolnshire hamlet. Our
tents had been pitched in an orchard of walnut-trees, not more than a dozen yards from the foaming River Lar.
About seven miles away from Ask are the boiling springs of Demavend. These sulphuric waters boil up from the subterranean passages around the mountain. Near the well is a rudely-constructed bath-room, which in the native mind should be held sacred, in virtue of the healing and curative powers of the waters. Out of curiosity we entered, and thought of bathing in this ill-looking place. We were quickly satisfied of its assuasive powers, but as prevention is said to be better than cure, we thought it better to retire.
Our walk had in a marked degree improved our appetites; our servant was despatched to some neighbouring tents for bread, milk, and eggs. The latter were put in a cloth and dropped in the boiling well, which we thought just the thing. On breaking the shell, however, we found to our disappointment that the
sulphuric action on the eggs had rendered them unfit for food, so we were contented, after a fashion, with our leather-like bread and sour milk.
These springs go far to prove that the subterranean caverns of Demavend are still agitated by the currents which once resulted in volcanic eruption. The atmosphere in the caves around the crater is exceedingly high and unhealthy; the vapours arising from the action of subterranean heat make it impossible to remain inside more than an hour or so; the fact is established that Demavend was at one period of its existence a volcano of great magnitude, and the fear entertained of its one day bursting forth in terrible fury is not to be despised.
After a few days spent in this charming spot (in comparison to Teheran), we left for the valley of the Lar. The day previous to our departure I had a narrow escape of falling some hundreds of feet. I had started out
alone with my rifle in search of some wild goats which I had seen grazing at the side of Demavend. After an hour’s ceaseless climbing, and without seeing anything in the shape of game, I was about to retrace my steps, when, on turning round, I saw, far above me, some twenty goats skipping along the slippery paths. I at once followed cautiously, and did not notice the road I was taking. When within about a hundred yards of the herd, I fired, fetching down one fine kid. A second shot was impossible, and I tried to reach the spot where the fallen victim lay. My astonishment was great at finding that it was almost impossible for anything but a goat to climb the path leading upward, and the path downward was but a hairsbreadth broader. I could stir neither way. Far below, rushing and foaming, was the river. Cumbered by my rifle, and not daring to move one way or the other, I calmly debated on my position. After a while I gently seated myself and carefully took off my
boots. This being done, I tried to descend in this manner. Succeeding in a few steps, I was emboldened to try again, when a false step set me sliding down the steep, glass-like rock. I now thought I was doomed, for the abrupt termination of the hill hung directly over the river. When but a few yards from the rough, uneven edge overhanging the seething waters, I noticed a little to my right what appeared to be a crag-pit, into which could I but drop the butt-end of my rifle I should be saved. One tremendous effort, and not only my rifle, but I myself, was precipitated headlong into the cave. A few bruises were the only results of my fall.
But the next question was, How can I get out? After groping in the darkness for a few minutes, I saw ahead what appeared to be an opening. Hastily making my way to this beacon-light, I found, as I had surmised, the mouth of the cave. A few yards brought me to the river’s brink. Here one more difficulty presented itself — I was on the wrong side of the
water. No bridge spanned the river; so I of necessity was compelled to walk back four miles to the nearest village, where I might cross and return, rather disconcerted at having lost my well-earned spoil, and certainly not a presentable figure until my lower garments were changed. The ride, or rather the slide, down the mountain side had carried away a large portion of my unmentionables; my helmet I had irretrievably lost sight of, and one boot was in a most dilapidated state. A few peasants near the village seemed struck with astonishment at seeing my pitiable plight; one or two women in the village exhibited great curiosity, and followed some distance with lingering looks of either pity or amusement, although I hurried past at a pace quite equal to Weston’s.