My Wanderings in Persia
Fazir Ali Shah. — Persian Justice and Impalement. — Buried Alive. — Execution of Soldiers. — Imperial Rage. — Mutilation. — Despotic Tyranny. — Inspecting Telegraph-Line. — The Abode of the Wind. — ‘Samovar.’ — Dehbeed. — Sport. — Misfortunes. — Lost on the Plain. — Camping in the Snow. — Fears of my Caravan. — Attacked by a Liliputian Army. — Sons of Dogs. — Shiraz. — Solitary Existence.
DURING my absence from Sevund, the local governor had received orders from the Provincial Governor of Fars (Farhad Mirza, the King’s uncle) to effect the capture of a noted band of robbers, whose chief was called Fazir Ali Shah (the kingship being self-constituted), who had been outlawed eight or ten years. His fortress, which was reported impregnable, was situated
in a mountainous part of Farsistan and was accessible by one road only, known but to the band. He was betrayed by one of his companions, who was bribed by promises of liberty and a commission in the army, but upon his arrival in Shiraz was beheaded.
Fazir Ali Shah and his band, after a desperate and valiant defence, were eventually captured. Each one had large camel bells fastened in his ears; manacled, and compelled to walk or be dragged after a mule to Shiraz, a distance of 110 miles, they were then cast into prison to await their sentences.
The tribe of Arabs to which Fazir Ali belonged petitioned the Prince Governor for his release, which was promised on the payment of an enormous sum of money. With great difficulty this was collected by the Arabs and paid (it was the proceeds of nearly the whole of their flocks); a further sum was exacted, and a third exorbitant demand was made, and on the Arabs stating their inability to do so (perhaps
they were dubious as to whether a further payment would be of any use), Fazir Ali was tied to a horse to be strangled. This, however, was too slow a death, and he with four others was beheaded, their gory heads being piked and placed on the gate leading to the Governor’s palace, and there they remained for months as an example to the marauding people of Fars. Four others were blown from guns, four were crucified, and some were built up in lime — the latter a favourite mode of capital punishment. A hole about four feet deep is dug in the ground, into which the miserable wretch is placed, after his hands have been tied firmly behind him. The lime is then poured over him until the mass resembles a huge pillar. In some cases death ensues immediately the region of the heart is covered.
These human pillars are common outside the gates of Shiraz and Ispahan. The capital, Teheran, is ruled by His Imperial Majesty the Shadow of God in a not less merciful manner.
Some few years ago, on his attempted assassination by two Bawbees (of which religion there are still many adherents), the would-be assassins were sentenced to have thirty holes cut in their bodies, into which lighted candles were to be placed and allowed to burn out. The men were lacerated to a fearful extent, death mercifully ending their sufferings before the candles were put in.
It is a common practice in Persia to put out the eyes or cut out the tongues of all those who may in any way incur their monarch’s displeasure.
A few days previous to the Shah leaving for Europe (on his second tour), in April of last year, a most horrifying massacre was perpetrated at the King’s order in Teheran.
It is customary on any Mussulman starting on a journey, to pay a farewell visit to the mosque. The King was leaving Teheran for this purpose, en route for the shrine of Shah Abdul-Azim, distant about six miles from the
city, when, nearing the gate leading in the direction of the shrine, he was met by some fifteen or twenty soldiers, belonging to an Ispahan regiment, who, in the customary manner, held up a petition, which they were desirous of presenting to his majesty; they were told to await his return, when he would condescend to hear them.
Soon afterwards, the trumpet announcing the King’s return was heard, and the soldiers pressed forward with their petition, which asked for pay, they having received none for over fifteen months, and unless it could be obtained previous to the Shah’s departure there would be but small possibility of their receiving a fraction of it. The regiment would have been despatched to some southern station, their officers changed, and anything in the shape of a petition would have been treated with summary punishment. On their asking to see the King, an aide-de-camp, from personal motives (he was colonel of the regiment), ordered them to
stand back; this they refused to do, and the royal bodyguard were ordered to beat them. The soldiers — who were entirely destitute of either arms or clothing — in defiance picked up stones and threw at the officious guard, one stone accidentally striking the Shah’s carriage.
The King drew his revolver, and ordered his coachman to drive faster, and on reaching the palace, in a tremendous rage, he ordered the whole regiment to be strangled. The ministers who were in attendance on the King with great difficulty persuaded him to consider the consequences of such a course, and at such a time, as there was already much discontent apparent amongst the people at his intended journey.
Eventually his wrath was appeased by twelve soldiers being strangled, and ten others being deprived of their ears and noses and thrown into a vile den called a prison; some bled to death, others received some assistance from passers-by, who themselves were risking
punishment for such help. Amongst the mutilated was the captain of the regiment and two subordinate officers; they were not punished for retaining the pay of the men, but simply to pacify the wrath of a barbaric despot. The soldiers who were strangled were inoffensive men, entirely innocent of the affair.
Two of the murdered men I personally saw sitting near a fruit shop in the bazaars eating some miserable food, scarcely fit for the unclean beast. Three Gholams — servants of the Shah — came up, and in a brutal manner, accompanied with hard knocks, asked if they were Ispahanees. On being answered in the affirmative, they were dragged off, and in a short time were numbered amongst those who were victims to the brutal and savage tyranny of an inhuman monster.
And this is he whose society was courted by some of the most fashionable circles of European nobility! Let us hope that his true character was not then known, and that such
cruelties, totally eclipsing the Bulgarian atrocities, had not at that time been heard of. Should such a contingency, however, as his reappearance in Europe be possible, it would be wisdom I think, to give him such a reception as he merits. The authorities in England, and those gentleman who hospitably entertained his majesty during his sojourn in this country have profited by the lesson taught them by this Eastern potentate.
The enormous cost of repairing the rooms which the Shah and his suite occupied in Buckingham Palace will, it is to be hoped, teach the English Government to be wary of royal visitors such as the Shah.
Up to December of that year, 1876, I was assisting the divisional superintendent in the erection of the last section of iron poles throughout Persia, and on its completion I left Abadeh to inspect the newly-constructed line to Shiraz, to make the necessary regulation and adjustment of wires, etc. The road from Abadeh
to Shiraz, 180 miles, is mostly of a level sandy nature, the sameness of the country being broken here and there by ranges of hills running transversely over the road, and in some places by lofty mountains, which were at this time covered with a glittering whiteness.
At the time I left Abadeh, the weather was very unsettled, symptoms of an impending snowstorm being visible, which hastened my movements. Our first day’s march was but of eight miles; the wind was bitterly cold, piercing through sheepskin and ulster alike. Heavy clouds were hanging over our heads as we entered the caravanserai, which gave promise of no bright hopes for the morrow.
On throwing open the few boards which formed the door of my room the following morning, I was not surprised to see a good thickness of Scotch feathers on the ground. The storm must have commenced about midnight; the air was still full of large flakes, and we saw no sign of its abating.
The horses were at length saddled up, and we started for Khaneh Korah, a stage of twenty-eight miles, one of the most wearisome rides it is possible to conceive, not a hut, nor even a tree or plant, to be seen the whole distance.
I need scarcely describe the manner in which we reached our shelter, late in the evening, half-starved, and almost blinded by the perpetual glare of the snow.
Khaneh Korah is called by the Persians Khaneh-i-bád, (‘The Abode of the Wind’), and well does it merit the appellation. Throughout the entire night the howling and shrieking of the wind, as it shook the rackety doors and windows of the chapar khaneh, was deafening: all attempts at sleeping were useless.
Towards day-break it became intolerable. I took a blanket, and, tired and sleepy, went below to the stables, and there obtained two or three hours’ rest, glad enough to avail myself of such a bedroom as this.
Our next stage was a little more cheering, although the snow still filled the air, and accumulated at each step we took. Dehbeed, a telegraph station, was our hope, where we could look for better things than at the stormy seat of the hero in one of Æsop’s fables.
From day-break until the hours of day were far advanced we toiled on, facing the storm. The cold was too intense to think of stopping on the way for eating; a piece of acorn bread and a few dates, which I had remembered to pocket at Kaneh Korah, was all my stock of provisions. Not a shelter-house the whole way where we could find a moment’s protection from the pitiless wintry blasts!
It was, as I have said, late ere we saw in the distance the grim, ghost-like trees which surround the Dehbeed office. Wreaths of smoke were curling in fantastic shapes from the English-built chimneys of the house, giving to me a welcome foretaste of the internal comforts.
Our appetites had been sharpened by the long ride through the keen, biting frosty air, and as I dismounted at the gate, I saw through the window the samovar cheerily hissing and bubbling, which betokened something more inviting not far off.
Dehbeed could with appropriateness be called, ‘The House on the Moor.’ For miles around there is neither house nor tent. An extensive plain stretches in every quarter, edged in, afar off, by ranges of lofty snow-capped mountains.
The climate during the summer months is exquisite, the plain, always verdant, abounding with game and sport — wild sheep and goats, deer, grouse, pigeons, ducks, and the larger kind of animals, such as the tiger, panther, wild ass, and pigs, being amongst the number.
In the cold and dreary days of winter the officer at Dehbeed may without moving beyond the precincts of his own domicile find plenty
of sport and work for his rifle on the packs of wolves, hyenas, jackals, foxes, and sometimes bears, attracted thither by the savoury smells which proceed from the cookery establishment.
There can scarcely be conceived a more isolated, desolate spot than Dehbeed. Silence does indeed reign supreme in this particular spot — the stillness which pervades is only broken at times by the sharp crack and the resounding report of the hunter’s rifle, or by the death cry of a fierce panther which has received the leaden messenger of death.
It is to the traveller’s eye, approaching either way, an oasis; for more than 120 miles there are but three signs of the presence of man. Such are the places chosen by the Indian Government as telegraph stations.
At each station they post one lonely, almost forgotten Englishman, who must be his own doctor, parson and lawyer, and who seldom hears a word of his mother tongue, unless,
indeed, he resorts to the amusing pastime of conversing with himself. The office is almost a sinecure one, built for the purpose of maintaining the line.
On mounting the following morning, the icicles were hanging on the windows and trees, and there was every appearance of another storm. The surrounding scenery was one of absolute whiteness, grand, no doubt, to an uninterested spectator:, but to me it had no charms. The stage in the warmer months is a most pleasant one; but with three feet of snow on the ground the prospects are of a gloomy nature.
The misfortunes of the day commenced by my servant unfortunately misplacing my goggles, which in Persia are of priceless value in protecting the eyes from the baneful effects of the snow. In a short time the continuous glare so affected my eyes that I was compelled to cover my head to prevent the terrible result of exposure — snow-blindness.
A sudden thaw the previous night, followed by a sharp frost, had made the roads even worse than before: for a considerable distance we were obliged to plod our way on foot.
Near Khaneh Kergoon (a caravanserai midway between Dehbeed and Morghaub) several poles had been snapped by the frost and torn down by the wind. We were consequently delayed some hours in their re-erection; towards dusk the work was temporarily finished, and we started for Khaneh Kergoon, about three miles distant.
Fears were expressed as to our reaching that haven of refuge, but one or two workmen declared they could find the place in the darkest night, so we hastily pushed on. It was evident that unless we reached the caravanserai before dark there would be a serious possibility of our having to encamp in the snow, the roads being entirely blocked, our only guide over this wild region being the iron poles of the telegraph line.
At first we tried to discover the footprints of my caravan, which had passed on. This we found impossible. Our last resource was to follow the line. The darkness became every minute more intense, and even this was a forlorn hope. For upwards of four hours we vainly endeavoured to find our way through the blinding snow, each minute getting colder and more benumbed.
The prospect of being safely housed from the storm — even in the doorless and windowless rooms of a deserted rest-house — was sufficient to renew our efforts. At last, however, dispirited and without hope, and fearing lest we might wander further away in the darkness, I most reluctantly gave the order to camp.
What an encampment! Without covering save our already well-soaked clothes, food, or fuel, our position was not enviable. We had repeatedly, though ineffectually, tried to retrace our steps to the line; but each time doomed to bitter disappointment.
It was no easy matter to clear away a few yards of snow and erect our small tent, generally used for line material. At last it was finished, and we were safely lodged inside, looking blankly at each other, without food or fire. Suddenly I thought of a ladder which was outside, and of little use; this I had broken up, and after some little difficulty we managed to get a fire; but by this time the snow had commenced to ooze through our tent, and fell hissing on our only comfort, and eventually — defying all our endeavours to protect it — with a hiss and a sputter louder than the rest, it gave up the ghost.
There is no necessity to linger upon the miserable hours which passed before morning dawned. All night the melting snow fell down, and the tent, containing three men and two horses, was literally a pool of muddy water.
Towards morning I fell into a feverish sleep, stretched upon a horse-rug which should have
been the covering of one of the trembling brutes we had in the tent.
At dawn of day, on emerging from our comfortless shelter, our surprise may be imagined: we saw not two hundred yards away, the great end of all our search — the ruined caravanserai. On closer examination I found that we had several times during our wanderings made a complete circle of the walls.
On entering the place the coup de grâce of our miseries was apparent: my caravan had not yet arrived. Most probably they, too, were lost — perhaps buried in the snow.
After a miserable breakfast of dates and sour milk, I went out to finish a little work near the caravanserai, continually casting my eyes over the snowy plain, trying to discover some speck in which I might recognise my lost mules. But vain the hope — night arrived and no tidings.
Fears now commenced to engender in my
mind as to their safety; and I determined, with the morning, to return to Dehbeed, hoping that there I might either find or hear news of the lost party.
The storm had altogether ceased since morning, succeeded, as is usually the case, by a solemn calm. That night was passed in scarcely a less wretched manner than the preceding one. I had a few camel-rugs to cover me, and, compared to the one of the previous night, a dry floor.
I was most unwillingly kept awake throughout the night by the small yet lively occupants of the camel rugs, who appeared to unanimously resent the usurpation of their common rights by collecting their entire strength, and attacking me with what might be Liliputian spears. Several times they appeared to be holding some kind of athletic sports on my body. It certainly was not amusing to me, although undoubtedly it must have been to these insulted inhabitants of the camel-rugs.
Midnight scarcely had struck on my repeater when I heard loud and incessant shouting and hammerings at the outside door. I at once surmised that it was a band of Arabs who might be passing, and did not relish the idea of their company; but I was pleasantly surprised to hear the gruff voice of my groom, asking in a dolorous tone if the ‘Ṣáḥib’ had been there.
Upon receiving an affirmative reply, the tone of voice was instantly changed, and the caravanserai keeper was told in no complimentary terms to bring lights; then came the bustle of unloading, and complaints from the muleteers, who solemnly declared that they had long ago ceased to exist.
They cursed the road, the mules, and the mules’ fathers to generations long since passed away; protested that the mules could not be more than sons of dogs, or they would never have lost the road. They, like myself, had lost the way, the density of snow hiding all
signs of the telegraph poles, but more fortunately than we, had accidentally wandered to a village about eight miles away, where they rested till daybreak.
In the morning I enjoyed my breakfast, which had been cooked for dinner two days before, and we proceeded on towards Shiraz.
It is only after a day’s toil and hardships that one can fully appreciate a haven of rest, even though it be a mud-hut without windows or doors, or a filthy room in some thickly populated Persian village. Nevertheless, the traveller hails with intense delight and gratification the sight of a resting-place, be it whatever it may; and as he is screened from the sun’s scorching heat, and the blinding dust or the snow of those vast Asiatic plains, and is stretched full length on the cool floor, his fatigue, troubles, privations and dangers are at once forgotten.
It was with feelings similar to these I
beheld the high walls of the caravanserai at Morghaub, raised higher by the amount of snow which had fallen on them; the cold then was intense, but the worst part of the journey was over.
Near the Persepolis we were again delayed by broken poles; but here the snow was not so deep, the road was in a much better condition, and we were not subjected to a night’s exposure.
Two days afterwards (on December 23rd), having finished my inspection, I once more came in sight of the gilded domes of Shiraz.
Upon nearing the Ispahan gate, I saw in the distance two or three horsemen riding towards me. On nearer approach I knew them to be the European residents of Shiraz, who had been apprised of my coming, and in the customary fashion had rode out to welcome the new-comer, always glad to receive anyone who could for a time make an addition to their small circle of friends. Indeed, one
might almost use a more endearing term; for in such a far-off land, where native society is utterly impossible, one’s heart yearns towards an Englishman, be he stranger or friend.
Very often this genuine hospitality is greatly trespassed upon by loafing, dissimulating Italians and Germans, who frequently pass through Persia on foot, en route for India. Some Englishmen there are who have spoken disrespectfully of the hospitality of their countrymen in Persia. I said ‘some Englishmen,’ but I believe they are now naturalized Americans; a correspondent of African fame might have spoken in terms of courtesy of the receptions he met with in Persia, certain it is that a less harsh sentence than the one spoken by him was merited.
It was with feelings of great gladness that I recognised these familiar faces, and looked forward to a few months in their society.
The day was far spent as we passed the Musjid-i-Nau (new mosque) and heard from
the roof of an adjacent building the shrill voice of the moolah (priest) calling the true believers to evening prayer. His sonorous tones were heard far and near, and as his ‘Allah Ackbar! Allah Ackbar!’ (‘God is great!’) and ‘La illah i Allah!’ (‘There is only one God!’) resounded through the building, the faithful hurried to their common place of prayer, and for upwards of half an hour lent themselves indefatigably to senseless repetitions of ‘God is great!’ — once or twice, perhaps, the gesticulations being interrupted by some considerate friend, who, having finished his devotions, had lighted a kalyun, or nargileh, and presented to his fellow devotee, who, after taking a few whiffs, will resume his cries and prostrations.
These devotional exercises are also often Interrupted by the close proximity of a street dog, who has unwittingly strayed towards the pious believer; a string of oaths is at once hurled against the canine offender, accompanied
occasionally by a tremendous kick; the dog’s parentage is with many oaths eternally cursed; then, with solemn mutterings of ‘God is great!’ the true believer resumes his devout attitude.
A kalyun is one thing which a Persian never refuses, not even at prayer. At the very height of passion he is pacified by its soothing influence, and once more thinks of Paradise and the houris when the clouds of smoke scented with rosewater are puffed from his capacious throat.
I had been in the saddle since early morning, and was anything but sorry to arrive before the door of a friend’s house, where I was hospitably received by his good lady. I may say that fatigue was quickly forgotten, and when we retired to rest, the Eastern horizon was already giving tokens of approaching day.
A description of such meetings as this is almost beyond the range of possibility, after months of travelling and hardships of a camp life — all day exposed to a terrific heat, and at
night the sultry air peculiar to Eastern countries, or perhaps living, or rather existing, in some solitary spot, away from all signs of civilisation or modern culture, the only words of conversation must be with one’s own servants, in a language too difficult to allow anything but conventionalities — the days spent in one methodical routine, reading, riding and shooting.
In the early morning one may take a gun, and for an hour or two find sport enough; towards noon the heat becomes so oppressive that outdoor amusements and exercise are impossible. From that time until almost sunset books may occupy the mind, but more frequently are such things untouched, and the almost universal Anglo-Asiatic habit, a doze, is indulged in. A walk or ride can be taken until such time as the sinking sun affords light, for in the East there is no twilight.
Then come the loner weary hours of the evening which must of necessity be spent at
home. Nothing outside the bungalow except thick impenetrable darkness, and wild beasts whose cries and howlings, mingled with those of the village dogs, are sometimes horrific. The hour for retiring is generally an early one, and is more welcome than any other of the twenty-four, unless, however, it be the hour for the arrival of the monthly mail, which usually affords some excitement for all.
This montonous sameness of months, without any single mutation, is no doubt the great goal of life to those who with the poet exclaim, ‘Ah me! solitude is bliss;’ but to one differently tempered by Dame Nature, this identicalness of existence is not to be ardently desired.