My Wanderings in Persia
European Rumours. — Passport. — Bon Voyage. — Persian Promises. — Golden Globe. — Amusing Pastime. — Departure from Teheran. — Homeward Bound. — Animal Stupidity. — Morning Meal. — Casvin.— Religious Fervour. — Imaginary Obstacles. — Salaam Aleikum. — Persian Falsity. — Menjeel.— Surfeit Rood. — Alone in a Forest. — ‘Kurak Kurak.’ — Stiffened by Cold. — Kudoom.
IN March, 1878, my term of engagement expired, and I prepared to start for England. The world at this juncture was in a state of anxious excitement at the constant cries of ‘War imminent,’ ‘Reserves called out,’ ‘Six millions voted for war preparations,’ etc., and a journey through the dominions of the White Czar was not a thing contemplated upon by many who bore the name of Russia’s great
enemy. On all sides of Persia quarantine was established. The Circassian frontier, the Caspian Sea, the Turco-Persian frontier, were equally difficult to pass, and for some time the belief was universal that the Bushire and Suez route would be the only available one for homeward-bound travellers.
April came, and still no decision in Europe. No abatement of the cry that war was imminent. Fourteen days’ quarantine were enforced on all passengers by the Caspian steamers. This was established by the Russian military authorities at St. Petersburg with a view, it was officially announced, to present the plague (which never existed) from being carried into their territory. Had the explanation been an honest one, we should doubtless have heard that it was to prevent communication by courier with England.
At last, after waiting impatiently to the end of April, and as summer was fast approaching, I determined to start viâ the Caspian Sea, and
risk the consequences. I obtained the necessary passport from her Majesty’s Minister, and a warning that I had better use discretion in my anticipated journey through Russia, and to travel in all haste to the German frontier. But for the past six months we had heard only conflicting statements as to British interests and their definition; I thought it quite possible that the sequel would be talk, and that British interests would be left to take care of themselves, and, tired of waiting for a settlement, I walked down to the Persian Foreign Office for permission to leave the capital chapar for Resht. This permission and requisition for post-horses must be obtained by all who leave the metropolis of Persia.
As I entered, the ante-room was full of servants, slave-like in their manners, who in a minute or two ushered me into the presence of Hajee Ali Khan, the Foreign Minister, who, on hearing my request for permission to leave, at once ordered the necessary instructions to be
sent to the interested officials. After a short conversation on European topics, he bade me bon voyage, and I returned. The Minister’s servants mistook me for a British Legation attaché, and in numerous meaningless salaams bowed me to the door.
The whole etiquette and courtesy in Persia is composed of hollowness and falsity. Highly flavoured and richly coloured compliments are always ready in a Persian; they are uttered without the slightest intent to convey their literal meaning. Promises are thus given with no intention of ever thinking about their fulfilment. A Persian would one moment be swearing that ‘he was your sacrifice,’ and that ‘his highest ambition in life was to gaze at the light of your eyes.’ The next moment, when out of sight, he would be fiendishly meditating upon the varieties of torture which he would amuse himself with if he could but have his own way for a short time. On entering the Shah’s palace, servant or courtier, he
must prostrate himself before the great king, and in this absurd position must he remain until the harsh voice of the great Shadow of the Universe is heard commanding him to speak. With much fear and trembling, and with timorous voice, the king is addressed in the following manner: ‘May I ever be your majesty’s sacrifice. Allow me, a dog, to address myself to the great nobility, even the Shadow of Allah.’ Chief priests are treated with the same marked reverence, the people standing aside until the wolf in sheep’s clothing has passed by.
The king’s palace at Teheran is not richly adorned, as one is led to believe such courts are by the fairy tales in the ‘Arabian Nights.’ One or two rooms are fitted up in European fashion, by costly, probably unpaid-for, furniture from England. A few pictures of modern painters ornament the walls. In one room is a splendid autograph picture of her Majesty the Queen; on the opposite side is a similar one
of Francis Joseph of Austria. The finest piece of work which is to be seen in the king’s apartments is the golden globe which was made previous to the European tour, to keep safe the jewels of his majesty.
A large globe of the world in pure gold, richly illuminated by precious stones. The British Isles flash and sparkle in diamonds of the first water, whilst our immediate neighbour, France, shines out in brilliancy of emeralds. Germany is represented by turquoise stones, and Russia is marked out by rubies. The whole continent of Africa, undivided, is a mass of emeralds. India is adorned and richly clad in pure whiteness of pearls. America is found sparkling in spar amethysts. Other nations are represented by rich gems and precious stones. The king’s dresses, swords, daggers, etc., are each adorned by these somewhat expensive trimmings. One palace there is in Teheran, built and once occupied by Fath All Shah (the present Shah’s illustrious
great grandsire), which is remarkable in its structure. It is said that the king was passionately enamoured by the fair sex, so much so that his chief amusement was in frolicsomely passing his time with his selected favourites. For this purpose he caused a marble slab to be erected from an upper window of the harem to a tank of bubbling rose-water in the garden below, a distance of about twenty feet. At the base of this oblique was a bower of passion flowers, in which the amorous monarch would recline whilst the ladies of his harem would descend the slanting slab in a state of perfect nudity, and were caught at the bottom by Fath Ali Shah, who then threw his lovely burdens into the sweet-scented water.
After receiving my passport, the only thing required now was to obtain a visa from the Russian Ambassador. This being done, I was in readiness to start for distant England. On the morning of the fourth of May, horses were brought, and, after adieus were spoken, we
mounted our post animals and threaded our way through the bazaars leading towards the Casvin Gate. On emerging from the narrow thoroughfares and approaching the city walls, the ordinary custom of selling at the gates was going on.
All kinds of articles are here exposed for sale, as in ancient days, when the Prophet announced that on the morrow such and such a thing would be sold at the city gates. Muleteers, camel drivers, dervishes, beggars, and religious mendicants stood in confused groups at the gate, trying in harsh tones to run down the sellers of fruit, etc., who were seated on the ground.
Donkey-drivers were buying bread to sell in the villages outside the town. Muleteers were boarding up a few thin loaves which must last for days; these, with a few melons, would constitute their unvarying meals. I had a compagnon de voyage, an Austrian gentleman who had been in the Persian service two or
three years, but who was leaving, thoroughly disgusted with the mode of payment of salaries. Some half-dozen miles from the city walls we halted to take farewell of those friends who had accompanied us so far on our homeward journey, and to take a last look at the capital of his Imperial Majesty the Shah in Shah.
A few words and hearty shakes of the hand, and our horses were galloping northwards towards the Caspian Sea. A stiff ride soon placed one stage between our late residence and ourselves. On arriving at the post-house, we were joined by a Persian khan travelling to Tiflis. Fresh horses being brought, we were quickly cantering from Myun-Jub.
We had not proceeded more than a mile, when our new acquaintance suddenly came to grief. The animal he bestrode had previously given evident symptoms of its unwillingness to proceed; but, waiting its opportunity until we had reached the middle of a stream, it sud-
denly endeavoured to stand erect on its hind legs, and in as quick a movement its fore feet were down, as also was the khan. A slight soaking was all the result of the mishap, but the animal persistently refused to move. After many unsuccessful attempts to proceed at even a walk, I changed animals with the unfortunate Iranee. Seeing the cause of our delay was only stupidity — the horse appeared to be sound and of good make — I tightened my girths and mounted. But the animal still evinced his desire to do battle with the air; I thought of another way to coax the brute. One or two quick applications of the spur, a sharp cut from my whip, and, by the speed we travelled, the Derby winning-post might have been ahead. The horse travelled in splendid condition the remaining twenty miles.
At a caravanserai midway between the stages we overtook and passed a party of Europeans travelling by caravan stages to Resht. Some were bound to Germany, and
others to France. We reached Abdulabad, the second stage, at a little after midday; and, after two hours’ rest, we again mounted, and rode on, through uninteresting, undulating land, void of cultivation or vegetation, surrounded by the customary hills.
The third stage was Shazpore, and, as the sun was fast receding into obscurity, we deemed it advisable to rest here, and saddle-up early the following morning.
We had put seventy miles between the ruins of Media’s capital and ourselves. We were invited by the khan to dine with him in the village, and, in credit to his cook, I must say the fowl cutlets and his soups were excellent. After dinner we spent some time in lively conversation and with the soothing kalyun (the khan spoke good French). When time began to move slowly on, we asked permission to retire, and mounted the huge steps of the chapar khaneh, and soon found quietude in the peaceful arms of Morpheus.
The Khán was the first astir in the morning, and had proved a thoughtful companion. A boiling samovar was quickly brought in our room, accompanied by a good-sized tray of fruits, some bread, and eggs. The air was keen; the sun was but just rising as we commenced our repast, which we did ample justice to. The kalyun was smoked around, and we each felt ready for our journey. Fortunately, no mishap befel our party, and while the day was yet young, we saw, not far ahead, the bare mud walls of the halfway-house to Casvin. It was Sunday morning, and, as we passed through the well-cultivated gardens and fields leading to the town, I could almost imagine the village bells tolling the hour of worship.
All nature seemed dressed in its own attire; the air was pleasantly cool; the sweet fragrance of wild flowers and orange-blossom impregnated the atmosphere with odoriferous perfumes. Rich golden-hued cornfields swayed
to and fro in the morning breeze; tail stalks of maize were bursting with grain; vineyards and orange-groves, all bringing forth their fruits in abundance, marked our route.
Our ride was a most pleasant one. Indeed, we fain would have stood gazing on the beauties of nature, and enjoying the cooling breeze, but our steamer was timed to leave in about thirty-six hours, and we were still almost two hundred miles from the port, so that these delights must be left behind, and we must face the crumbling mud ruins of Casvin, the Kasvin of Byron. It was once a town of considerable importance, but years of decay and terrors of famine, civil contentions, and petty feuds, have brought down the high walls and crumbled the palaces of Byron’s famous scene.
Casvin suffered greatly during the recent famine; the poorer classes died by thousands, and the desolation was spoken of as fearful in its widespread intensity. The grapes of Casvin are exceedingly luscious; pomegranates, also,
are famed for their sweetness. The religious fervour of Casvin is more fanatical than most towns of Persia; the solemn, monotonous tone of the moollahs and dervishes is heard in almost every street, or rather lane, of the town. The people appeared the most miserable of their kind I have yet seen, existing in filth and rags, dragged through life without the slightest comfort or even necessary indulgence, which we of the West reckon amongst our daily requirements. The houses are in a state of ruinous decay; long rows of dust-heaps lined our path towards the chapar khaneh. Even the mosque is in a very dilapidated condition, and, as usual, it concerns no one. At the present rate, Casvin will, at an early day, be a mere heap of ruins and a thing of the past.
The keeper of the post-house had an apparent objection to our proceeding. Several reasons were urged as to the impossibility of our resuming the journey that day. The old
man was perhaps anxious to earn, or rather beg, a couple of krans in return for his hospitality. After a little delay, however, horses were procured and saddled, and we were once more en route. Here we parted company with the khan, whose road was due west. We expressed our sorrow at having so quickly to part with our pleasant fellow-traveller; and with a hearty ‘Bon voyage, messieurs,’ we parted.
The bazaars of Casvin are the worst of the kind in Persia. The filth and rubbish of years is thrown up in all available corners. The fumes from such pungent heaps were not of the sweetest. The suburbs of Casvin are of a more interesting character. For a considerable distance orchards and vineyards line the route. Half the stage to Mazra is through cultivated land.
This village was reached about sunset, and is one of the most miserable collection of mud-huts it has been my lot to see. Near to the closely-thrown-up fever-breeding village were a
tribe of Beduins. We received an invitation from the chief to accept the hospitality of his tent. After dismounting at the chapar khaneh we walked over to the Arab encampment, and received the ‘Salaam aleikum,’ which appeared to be well-meant, and I responded in a friendly manner. ‘Aleikum salaam,’ (peace be between us).
I had met this tribe before south of the capital and the laughing faces of his attendants made us fell quite at home. A kalyun was brought and passed round, and as the evening advanced dates, milk and fruit were brought in.
We had given instructions to our servant to purchase from the tribe a lamb, which presently appeared, after having undergone the process of cooking. The Arabs present apparently were not familiar with the sight of a roasted lamb and boiled rice, and stroking their beards exclaimed, ‘Mashallah, Mashallah!’ — ‘Praise
God, praise God!’ We took up our positions at either side of the chief, and after hearing his ‘Bismillah!’ — ‘In the name of God!’ — we commenced our meal.
The long knives of these sons of Ishmael were quickly drawn, and in a moment each one had a steaming piece of flesh in his hand. Their dark, greasy-looking arms were at times buried in the huge heaps of rice, which had been abundantly served. For our own part, sour milk and dates, with a few eggs, served, although each Arab in turn offered us a dainty piece, which he had managed to cut. On our politely saying ‘Bismillah!’ the capacious jaws were opened, and the morsel disappeared. Their rapturous expressions of delight evidenced their enjoyment of the meal.
After the repast was completed wild Arabian ditties were sung to entertain us, pipes were occasionally brought, and until a late hour we remained in the tent of the hospitable Arab.
The sun had been casting its brightness around for some time ere we mounted and left Mazra for Porchenar, a journey of three hours over a rough, mountainous road. At Porchenar we hastily swallowed a few uncooked eggs, a few dates, and proceeded on to Menjil. Through interesting country, between stages, we came upon an extensive encampment of Turcomans, from whom we purchased a few dates, some cheese, and half-baked bread.
At Menjil we were informed that no horses could be had until evening, the post-house keeper solemnly assuring us that the animals were all out. I questioned my servant whether any chapar had passed us since morning. He replied that he thought not, and that the chaparchee only wanted extra hire. This confirmed our suspicions, and we walked over to the rudely-erected stables in front of the post-house, where we found seven fresh horses.
These the man protested were his brother’s, and he could not allow them to be taken.
‘But perhaps if your excellencies.’ said one man, ‘paid him a little extra, he would consent.’
Here was the secret. The man, after all his endeavours to cheat and delay us, received some extra payment from a stout whip I carried. This remonstrance had the effect desired; in five minutes the horses were saddled, and we turned in the direction of Rustumabad.
From Menjil to Resht is the finest scenery throughout Persia, the entire distance — ninety miles — being through a forest of olive and wild pomegranate trees, running by the side of the largest river in Iran, called the Surfeit Rood. The path now and then carried us over ridges and heights of the Elburz chain. At times entire confidence must be placed in the horse, owing to the extreme narrowness of the path, not more than four feet wide; on one side a yawning precipice and a deep, quickly flowing river, on the other hand a
gigantic barricade of basaltic rocks. At times a feeling of uneasiness would involuntarily creep over one, and more than once I fain would have dismounted and trusted to my own means of locomotion; but to pull up on the narrow causeway might have been more dangerous than to proceed.
From Rustumabad to Kudoom the scenery is exquisite; the lofty mountains in the background, the mighty river beneath, whilst all around is an endless forest of green in a variety of shades, folded together in a circle of green-clad hills, majestically and wonderfully interwoven by Nature’s wise handiwork.
We left the village of Rustumabad about four p.m., intending to reach Kudoom about two hours after sunset, but another disappointment crushed those hopes. Some half dozen miles from our last stage we halted for a few minutes to partake of refreshments, which consisted of dried bread, dates, cold fowl, and water from the Surfeit Rood. Our repast, not
being a ceremonious one, was consequently soon over, and we tightened girths and passed on our way.
The animal I rode appeared to be suffering from sore fetlocks, and from this reason was rather tardy in his progress, allowing the other horses to outstride him, and thus considerably gain on us. In a short-time I found myself alone, moving on at a miserable pace through the intricacies of a Ghelan forest. At one part of the road these intricate paths became more perplexing, and in ignorance I unfortunately took the wrong one. I noticed at the time that my jaded, suffering animal had an indubitable disinclination to turn, but mistaking its source, I pressed forward.
For some time I rode on, wondering that I heard no sound, when a sudden thought caused me to look at the road, which was somewhat muddy through recent heavy rains. I noticed that no hoof-prints were to be seen. I immediately pulled up and shouted, but the only
response was the echo of my own voice. As we were still some distance from Kudoom when I last saw my fellow-traveller and the guide, I concluded the wisest plan would be to retrace my wandering steps; but even this was not so easy of accomplishment as I had imagined; the prints made by the horse were almost covered.
It was by this time nearing sunset, and the thought of spending a night alone in the wild jungles of Ghelan without food or even a rug was something I had no particular desire to experience. The wild cries of the hyena and the howlings of wolves were even now ringing in my ears. Once an affrighted jackal crossed my path; my hand unconsciously fell on my revolver. I was in a puzzling dilemma as to what course I had better adopt, when suddenly I thought of the horse, and that through it I might possibly reach Rustumabad , — our starting-point.
I dismounted, and allowed the animal to
pursue its own path, which it evinced great willingness to do. In about half an hour we reached the small hut which had been the scene of our frugal meal. I examined the ground around, and found the only footprints were of animals travelling towards Kudoom. This satisfied me that no one had passed that place in search of me, so I resolved to remain here until the guide or my servant returned. I had just seated myself on a stone, disconsolately viewing my situation, thinking how I might possibly remain here for some hours to come, when my horse assumed a listening attitude. In a few moments I heard faintly nearing, the voice of my servant calling, ‘Sahib, Sahib, woy, woy!’ — ‘Master, alas, alas!’ I shouted at the top of my voice, and in a few minutes had rejoined my friends, who had been greatly alarmed at my absence.
Kudoom was once more in prospect, where we arrived, tired and hungry, about midnight. A more miserable ride than the one just
mentioned I cannot imagine; the road appeared to have no end. Mountain torrents impaled our way, low-banging boughs painfully reminded us of the profound darkness, and despite the repeated warnings of our guide, as he cried, ‘Kurak, kurak!’ — ‘Take care! take care!’ — we frequently came in rough contact with stoat olive-branches which proved more than a match for our already well-blistered faces. The only objects of interest were the innumerable groups of luminous silkworms which formed at times a pathway of magnificent brilliancy through this never-ending forest.
Our guide must have become weary of my oft-repeated inquiries as to our proximity to the post-house. After answering these questions in full detail for upwards of an hour, he at last contented himself by saying, ‘Nazdik, nazdik’ — ‘Near, near.’ Once a light faintly glimmering in the distance revived my hopes, and I jumped to the welcome conclusion that our journey was almost ended. On question-
ing the man he informed that the lights were from a Turcoman village four miles from Kudoom.
My spirits and my feelings, which had for some time been greatly taxed, refused to support this additional burthen, and found vent in accusing the man of purposely leading us wrong, and of falsely representing the distance.
To my mind the road must be very similar in many parts, or otherwise we passed one particular spot many times. In the daylight the journey is undoubtedly a pleasant one, full of absorbing interest to a lover of nature or to a sportsman: but half-starved, with a ravenous appetite and cramped limbs, and at dead of night, a ride of thirty-five miles through water-courses, ravines, and low-spreading trees, which show no respect to one’s feelings, isn’t the most agrble thing in the world.
At last, half-perished of cold and hunger.
we arrived at the long-expected chapar khaneh, which was the last I saw in Persia. On asking for something with which to appease our inward cravings, the post-housekeeper replied in no consoling manner that he had nothing to offer us. It was too late to commence cooking operations, so we accepted the only alternative, and went supperless to bed.
Our steamer was reported as leaving Resht at noon the following day, and twenty-three miles yet divided us and the finis of all our troubles. This necessitated short repose at Kudoom, so I spread my blanket on the wooden floor of the windowless room, inflated my air pillow, and without divesting myself of revolver, boots, or clothes, laid down to obtain what little rest I date.
My limbs were almost immovable from the long cramping posture in the saddle, aided by the stiffness from the cold. Yet, being somewhat accustomed to such weariness, I heard nothing till my man called in the morning,
announcing the horses were ready. We had given orders to start before sunrise.
Hastily swallowing a cup of strongly-flavoured tea (or, perchance, something infinitely worse) we again mounted and took our way towards the only port Persia has on the Caspian.
I had gained some reputation amongst our Bedouin friends as a medicine man, having in a few hours effected a ‘miraculous cure’ by the application of a well-seasoned mustard-plaster to the neck of an Arab who was suffering from what he termed looseness in his head; the real ailment was a severe cold, which had fastened itself in the man’s face. The mustard-plaster had not been doing duty many moments, when the Arab imagined himself near the place so terrifying to all good Mahomedans; these imaginations found vent in loud cries, much to the amusement of the spectators, who clapped their hands and highly enjoyed their companion’s sufferings. The
man positively declared that I had lighted a fire on his back with a piece of wet cloth, but notwithstanding this, he decided to think himself cured, and, as firm faith goes much further than medicine, I suppose he was.
This reputation had reached Kudoom on faster wings than I bargained for; the result was that two or three of the gentler sex appeared at an early hour to speak with the hakim (doctor) sahib. They had heard of this fire-cloth, and wished me to give them one or two for their own use. Not having time to manufacture plasters, I gave to each a few pills, part flour and part quinine, which had been used with astonishing results before.
One case, I remember, having no quinine in my chest, I made a few pills of common flour and administered to an eager patient, who thanked me and returned in two hours declaring himself to be once more a perfect model of physical humanity.