My Wanderings in Persia
Condition and Habits of Persian Women. — Results of Polygamy. — Royal Contentions. — Assumption of Nasir-i-din. — ‘On the Road.’ — Intense Cold of December. — Severe Snowstorms. — Footprints of a Lion. — Arrival of Visitors. — Native Life in Winter. — Miserable Condition of Peasants. — Village Magistrate’s House. — Sevund. — Attacked by Fever. — Leave of Absence. — Yezd. — Persian Immorality.
THE condition of women in Persia and other Eastern countries is totally different to that of the accomplished ladies of Europe and the Western world. They cannot be called anything but slaves or menials. They are not called upon to share the joys and sorrows of their husband. A woman is merely held as an instrument or machine for her
owner. They are entirely destitute and ignorant of knowledge on spiritual matters — they are seldom permitted to enter the sacred precincts of a mosque; indeed, it is strongly affirmed in Persia that woman has no soul, and that their creation was intended solely for man’s pleasure and caprice. They are apparently totally unconscious of a future state. Their chief amusements are in embroidery, needlework, smoking, and fantastically decorating themselves. Each woman vies in her endeavours to become the ‘khanoum,’ or favourite, of the harem. The Persians greatly ridicule the European’s ostentatious display of courtesy to a lady.
All harems are guarded by Ethiopian eunuchs, and no one but its master dare think of crossing its sacred threshold. Not even a brother is allowed to see his sisters unless the latter are closely veiled; and, at one time, such was the rigorousness of this abominable inhibition, that should a woman violate the
laws of the harem, and be discovered in conversation (unveiled) with her nearest relative, immediate death would follow — perhaps by suffocation or some other equally cruel method. The unnatural and degrading results of polygamy are nowhere more evident than in Persia.
The present king has one favourite son whose mother is the queen of the harem, and although not the eldest, has yet been designated as the heir-apparent (Veleyaat). There are several who have priority of birth, but this avails nothing, so long as the mother is an inferior wife; consequently, on the death of the Shah, there will doubtless be, as is usually the case, two or three parties, each in itself justified, claiming, and if necessary fighting, for the vacant throne. Indeed, the eldest son, Sultan Mazud Mirza, whose title is Zil-i-Sultan, the present Governor of Ispahan, has openly declared his intention to seize the throne on the death of his august father.
Some two years ago, on the Zil-i-Sultan receiving a renewal of his present appointment as Governor of the Province of Irak, he, in accordance with a prevailing custom, tendered his sword of office to the King at Teheran. The monarch, noticing an elaborate inscription on the bright blade, asked its meanings and was told by his firstborn that its signification was ‘The keenest edge wins the prize!’ no doubt alluding to his declared intention above referred to.
He certainly is popular with the people, who would hail his ascension with pleasure. The peaceful assumption to power of the present Shah was brought about by the prompt and decisive action of the British ambassador.
Nasir-i-din was then Governor of Tabreez, (the Dukedom of Tabreez is hereditary to the crown prince, as is the Dukedom of Cornwall to the Prince of Wales) and on the death of his father, Mahomed Shah, which was kept
profoundly secret from the populace, an attaché from the English Legation rode post-haste to Tabreez, requested an immediate private audience of the Governor, and informed him of the demise of Mahomed Shah. Nasir-i-din at once returned with the attaché to Teheran, when it was publicly proclaimed that Mahomed Shah was no more, and that Nasir-i-din Shah reigned in his stead. Thus, by the laws of gratitude and friendship, Nasir-i-din should be lastingly bound in goodwill towards the power who, without bloodshed or tumult, raised him to his present exalted position as Lord of Lords and the Shadow of God and the Universe.
Since then, however, all provincial capitals are in direct telegraphic communication with Teheran, and it will prove exceedingly difficult to restrain the native manipulators from imparting the tidings to their distant compatriots, who will, of course, proclaim the fact pro bono publico. This would undoubtedly result
in each son marching towards the capital at the head of his own tribe, and might, perhaps, will conquer right. On the other hand, this may be prevented by the English Minister, who can stop such communications and take the matter under his own official charge. With the present Minister, however, this course is but dubious.
Such are the debasing results of polygamy, that brothers and the nearest members of families are alienated from each other, and are made bitter enemies. There can be no tender ties of the family circle in a country where this banefully destructive custom exists: affection is unknown, and the worst passions of man are aroused where all that is gentle and kind should reign.
In October, three months after my arrival in Shiraz, I was again ‘on the road,’ and once more travelling over the mountains I had crossed a short time before. I was engaged, until late in December, in repairing the section
of lines under my charge (from Shiraz to Kazeroon). The weather, a contrast to my last passing over the hills, was excessively cold. In some places under the line the snow had drifted to the depth of from ten to fifteen feet; on one occasion a somewhat serious interruption occurred on the Kothal Pir-i-zan. Myself and a party of native workmen started early in the morning to effect the necessary repairs; a severe snowstorm had been raging for the past two days, and the silvery wreaths were still falling thickly. It was with some difficulty that we and our horses managed to pick our way through the almost blinding flakes, and had it not been for the line of poles, the tops of which were just discernible, we should inevitably have lost our way.
At one time I was compelled to threaten the workmen, who were not Government employees with severe punishment, and at last promise higher remuneration, to induce them to accompany me. I was wrapped up in two or
three thick blankets, until I had the appearance of some huge white animal scrambling as best it could through the almost impenetrable mass of crystallised snow, and with these I could not shake off the feeling of numbness which had spread over nearly the whole of my body.
It was beyond the range of possibility to attempt to ride. The horses were simply an encumbrance to our progress; several times we were obliged to halt to assist the poor brutes out of some treacherous slip. At the end of eight hours we had marched, or rather crawled, five miles. At last, almost in despair, we reached a ruined village at the foot of the Kothal, and there we passed the night.
It was some considerable time before T could in the least feel the benefit of a roaring pile of burning wood, which we had happily found in the shape of a few broken-down doors. Whether we had missed the fault on the line, or whether it was further south, was a question
not known or asked. The severity of the storm may perhaps be imagined: several gigantic oaks had been torn up by their roots; an old caravanserai, near the village, had been completely devastated; the village itself, in a ruinous condition, was now a mere heap of rubbish; the hole — it could not be called a room — in which we found temporary shelter, was in imminent danger of being overthrown.
Little sleep was to be had; the melting snow was pouring through the loose stones which at one time had formed the roof. At daybreak we resumed our cheerless journey, and after three or four hours’ tedious marching we discovered the fault: two iron poles had been uplifted by the storm and hurled over a dozen yards away. A little after noon the repairs were completed and communication restored, and by the use of portable instruments which I carried we had the satisfaction of learning from head-quarters that ‘lines were right!’
We then pushed on to the Myun Kothal
caravanserai for our night’s rest Early the following morning we commenced our return to Dashtarjin. We did not experience the same difficulty as before; the storm had to a great extent subsided. A short distance from the village is a grove of almond-trees. As we passed the place, I noticed footprints in the snow, which on examination proved to belong to a good-sized lion; we saw by their distinctness that the marks had been but recently made. Had both parties met, and the monarch of the forest shown fight, the result might not have been a pleasant one. My only weapon was a Colt’s heavy revolver, which would have proved comparatively useless, my hands being numbed with cold and covered with thick gloves, which I was afraid to unloose, and to have allowed one of the Persians to attempt a shot would have been fraught with equal danger to himself. I could not but feel thankful that the mighty king of beasts had passed on his way ignorant of our close proximity.
The station was reached just before sunset, and even this solitary spot appeared to me a cheerful sight, as I found my rudely furnished bungalow lighted by a goodly blaze; riding-boots, blankets, etc., could be dispensed with, and more than all, I could anticipate a good night’s rest.
Similar interruptions and journeys found me occupation during the weary months of winter. Christmas was passed in the same solitary, earth-forsaken spot, having for my companions inside a few dusky Persian servants, whose only delight appeared to be akin to that of the dormouse: the extreme cold had such an affect upon them that it was seldom they were awake; and outside, wild beasts of almost every kind.
The monotonous routine of my daily existence was but once broken, by the arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Arnold, who were at this unseasonable time making a tour of the country. After being isolated from European society for more than five months, it is scarcely necessary to say with
what degree of pleasure and joy I hailed the arrival of this lady and gentleman, who remained my guests two days. They appeared surprised to find me alone in such a cheerless region, and expressed their unconcealed disapproval of such a life being required by the Indian Government.
The words ‘Good-bye!’ were most reluctantly spoken, as I raised my hat when we parted, as a last farewell. I had accompanied them a few miles on their homeward journey, and as I returned to my lonely abode, my spirits were not of the most lively kind.
During these terrible months of frost and snow it is astonishing by what means the wretched inhabitants of such villages as Dashtarjin find sustenance. Their food is chiefly bread made from acorns and dried dates, a little goat’s milk, and sometimes rice. The bread is of a most miserable, unpalatable kind; it is extremely bitter, about the thickness of cowhide.
From November to March these poor villagers are compelled to live as best they can. They remain shut up in a room, perhaps two yards square, frequently without fire, and inadequately supplied with clothes.
Bedding requisites being a thing altogether unknown, the severities of winter come upon them most keenly, and in every village a great number annually succumb and die of starvation in their own homes. During the whole of those five months I may without hesitation affirm that not one man or woman living in these places knows the delight of clean linen. As they dress at the commencement of the winter, so they may be found at its close: not one particle of clothing ever changed, night or day.
In most cases the goats, cows, and fowls are sheltered beneath the same roof as the family. On visiting these wretched huts, sometimes, I have turned away from such sights with unutterable loathing — not through any degree
of contempt at the great difference which exists between the luxuries of a European resident and these miserable beings, but because of the abhorrent stench, which is almost sufficient to suffocate one unused to such fetidness, and of the terrible lowness to which human beings descend.
Their condition is far worse than it is possible to describe.
I visited one village in company with two United States generals who were passing through Persia, and the sight which met our gaze on entering the somewhat spacious room of the khetkhoda, or chief of the village, almost defies description.
In one corner of the room were two or three small children and a couple of dirty ugly women, who were fearful lest the infidel Feringee should catch a glimpse of their interesting physiognomies. In an opposite corner were grouped together some half-dozen goats and one or two cows, whilst above these sat a few winged animals. In the centre of
the apartment were a few smouldering embers, the fumes of which yet filled the room. In another part we noticed several rude implements used by the Persians in tilling the land, and a few articles of the cuisine lay strewed about the floor. The odour in the room was not a pleasant one, which greatly curtailed our visit.
At the entrance to this wretched abode stood a group of shivering villagers (it was February), who were lost in wonderment as to why these Feringees should visit their settlement.
The gentlemen with whom I was travelling said that during the whole of their travels in the Far West, in Australia and China, they had never witnessed such a degree of misery as was exhibited in this Persian village.
A few days after my return from Shiraz, to which place I had escorted the American officers, I received an invitation from the khetkhoda, or governor, of Dashtarjin to wit-
ness the marriage festivities of his eldest son, a lad of some sixteen summers. The old governor, a man of solid appearance, brought the invitation en personne; he was accompanied by a few of the principal villagers, whose black orbs beamed with curiosity as they wandered from one object to another in my cosy little bungalow. An English clock, my rifle, and a few pictures hanging on the mud walls, were themes of hushed conversation. A large medicine chest and the telegraphic apparatus were, to their affrighted minds, objects of mystic majesty.
One more courageous than the rest, yet with apparent timidity, crossed the room to where the apparatus stood, and cautiously examined the screws and brass-work of the battery connections. Emboldened by success, he ventured with both hands to more minutely prosecute his search after knowledge; for some time he studiously avoided touching more than one terminal; at last, however, thinking probably
that he had become considerably advanced in the science of electricity, he grasped, with both hands, the two screws from whence flows the electric current; a sudden yell from the pursuer of knowledge, and a burst of laughter from me, were the next items of the programme. The man, rather crestfallen, resumed his seat, and in an awestricken tone, told his companions of the numerous stars he had seen, and the terrible bite which he had at the moment he touched those curious bits of brass. In vain did I endeavour to persuade them that the bite was nothing more than the combined action of two metals immersed in fluid. The man, who was a victim to his own inquisitive mind, firmly believes to this day that the battery-box is tenanted by genii, in whom the Persians have great and astonishing credulity.
The following day was the one named for the wedding ceremonies. At the appointed hour the khetkhoda arrived to conduct me
to his house. Before leaving my bungalow I noticed the governor speaking in subdued tones to my servant, and wondered, for a time, what could induce the old chief to this act of condescension. The reason soon became evident; on arriving at the village, and mounting to the roof of the khetkhoda’s house, I saw, to my surprise, a couple of my own arm-chairs and a small camp-table ready placed; this, then, had been the cause of the khetkhoda’s kingly condescension. Afterwards my servant informed me that the governor had instructed him to provide tea, etc., from my store, and asked my permission to do so. I could not refuse, yet I experienced a feeling midway between amusement and vexation at the old man’s cunning way of studying economy. The wedding festivities were not of a prolonged or various kind. A band of dancing girls made the proceedings not altogether void of amusement. Yet I did not feel sorry when the due formalities of tea-
drinking were finished, and it was announced that the bride and her lord would retire — which was also a signal for my speedy exit.
Early in March I left Dashtarjin, in consequence of my being transferred to another section of the line, of which Sevund was the chief station.
This portion of the line extended from Shiraz northwards to Abadeh, distant 180 miles.
Sevund is a village similar in size and importance to the one I had just left. It is situated some forty-five miles north-west of Shiraz, about twelve miles north of Persepolis and the Tombs of the Kings.
At the time I went, there was no Government House in Sevund, the only accommodation being one room of a filthy, obnoxious hut, only fit for the people for whom it was built, who expect nothing more. I had not been in this place twenty-four hours before I was virulently attacked by fever, which never left me (for many hours) for upwards of three months;
nor was it to be expected, surrounded by people whose only delight it is to do nothing, allowing everything rancid and disgusting to accumulate not three yards from the room in which they live. A good substantial stone building has since been erected closely adjacent to the village.
I was occupied during the summer months in repairing and re-erecting a portion of the line; but on each occasion of returning to this hot-bed of fever, I was prostrated during the whole time of my remaining in the village. This continuous state of fever had such a physical effect on me that it was necessary I should be removed to some healthier spot.
The Government magnanimously granted me one month’s leave of absence, in which I was to recruit my wasted strength and then return convalescent to my former labours.
My leave was spent at a village in the hills called Dehbeed, and at Yezd, the Guebre capital. This religion (fire-worshippers) is
almost extinct in Persia, only being practised in very remote places. Their belief is that the Supreme Being is eternally in the sun, which is a ball of fire; hence their worship to that great luminary. A Guebre will on no account extinguish a flame, no matter by whom lighted, whether by accident or design. The road to Yezd is nothing but salt desert, wearisome and trackless. The burning heat, the hot sand, and the awful silence which pervades throughout the day, is almost beyond imagination.
We travelled in the night-time, guided by the polar star. No noise was made by men or animals; the camel’s tread is soft and unheard. No lights are allowed by the jelowdar (head of the caravan); everything is done to escape the notice of the Turcomans, who are in all probability prowling about not far from us, defying all authority, trusting solely to their swift horses and knowledge of the desert.
We arrived safely in Yezd after five days’ marching.
It is, so far as I have seen, the centre of Eastern barbarism and savage life. The people looked on me as some wild animal would do, and on entering the town crowds of half-naked — and in some cases fully so — men, women and children followed to take a look at the ‘Feringee Sahib.’
The men looked fierce, savage and ferocious, and the women worse; so that I was not sorry to leave this not very interesting locality, although I was treated with the greatest respect and attention by the Governor (Hajee Mahomed Ali Khan), for whom I had a letter of introduction from an influential merchant of Shiraz.
There is not the remotest sign of civilisation in this part of the globe. It would be difficult, indeed, to find a more desolate waste than Eastern Persia, or a people more ignorant and miserable, brutalised by their isolated position from the civilised world. No spark of progression yet exists — they are the same now as
were their ancestors 4,000 years ago. They treat their horses and camels with more attention than their children or themselves. Their huts (unless they own tents) are built of mud, and furnished with a straw mat and a few earthenware pots used in cooking their rice, etc.
One might as well try to change the wind’s wild course as to endeavour to alter their manners, introduce improvements, or drop the seeds of civilisation with any hope of fructification.
Nothing is a match for their inbred national superstitious fanaticism. Their life-long aim is power, their greatest virtue (essentially an Oriental one) is selfishness to the utmost sense of the word; the only understood object of life is the acquisition of power and wealth, and the gratification of the most brutal of passions which man is the subject of: to which end an Oriental will stop at nothing. There is nothing in themselves individually or as a nation
which tends to ennoble the mind, or to raise the faculties and elevate the senses, which places man near the eminence for which he is intended. In Persia it is exactly the reverse.
Speaking of them as a nation, they are the most immoral, degraded, and brutal beings the world can own. An inferior is held simply as an inanimate body or machine; hence the prevalence of slavery and despotism. From the king down to the wandering mendicant their conversation is of the most indecent and obscene character it is possible to imagine; the presence of women and young children does not in the least deter them from its use.