My Wanderings in Persia
National Decay. — Inoffensive! Ooroos. — Zinderood. — Festivities. — Moharrum. — Alas, Hossein! — Bottled Tears. — God is Great. — Gathering Manna. — Moodukhor Plain. — Bolting. — Accident. — Imaum Zada. — Sacred Fish. — Kohrood. — Industrious Villagers. — Swiss Scenery. — Smelling the Desert. — Kashan. — Scorpions. — Duped. — ‘What Pushed it Along.’ — Tragedy.
ISPAHAN, the once famous capital of Írán, contains some of the finest relics of ancient architecture to be found in the empire; but, like all other things in Persia, these grand old palaces and mosques are now in irremediable ruin.
During the civil wars and contentions of petty chiefs, rebellious and insurrectionary factions, which have for ages ravished and
laid waste the country, all ideas of national pride and honour in the preservation of public buildings, etc., have been forgotten, and such is still the case. No one in Persia thinks it necessary to repair or even preserve what was once the lauded glory of their land. From Bushire in the south to Resht in the north, or from Teheran to the Turkish frontier, no one ever heard of any notice being taken of the continuous decay of either buildings or land, and to picture a land whose people are entirely void of the least semblance of national pride or dignity, is to picture a country already doomed to the invader’s ruthless hand, to the tyrannical aggression of native chiefs and governors, and to perpetual ignorance.
Persia is no exception, and when we consider that their nearest neighbour is the harmless, inoffensive, but withal christianising and humanising ‘Ooroos’ — as the Russians are called by all Orientals — we may expect a similar fate for Persia as fell to the kingdom
of Armenia, to the independent Khanates of Central Asia, and even to a Persian province.
One of the finest views in Ispahan, so seldom seen in a Persian town, is the beautiful wide-flowing river — the Zeinderud — the waters of which are carried or led away to irrigate the surrounding country. This continuous and plentiful supply of water in some degree accounts for the rich productions of the district around Ispahan. The gardens are of the finest in Persia, as previously stated. The perfection in which grapes and melons are grown cannot be equalled in Asia.
The river is crossed, at four places in and near the city, by splendid bridges of ancient build; and a most delightful scene it is, on some Mahomedan festival, to see the city assemble all its wealth and poverty on the rivers bank. Gaily dressed ladies, whose merry laughter and chatter can be heard from behind the long veil which effectually screens them from all impure gaze; Persian gentle-
men with their extensive retinues, who pass away the latter part of the day in idle gossip and rose-flavoured smoke from the kalyun; muleteers; merchants with their white-turbaned heads and long robes; dervishes, with long, thickly matted hair and filthy-looking garments, who continually yell ‘God is great!’, camel-drivers in their peculiar tight-fitting dress and laced-up legs, and fakeers in ragged attire, with all sorts and conditions of men, make this their favourite retreat, and a walk or ride on the banks of the Zeinderud, in Moharrum, or on the ‘Ade-i-nau-rooz’ (New Year’s Day), is not easily forgotten.
It was the month of mourning — Moharrum — when I passed through Ispahan. All over were tents erected by the wealthier class for the purpose of publicly lamenting the murder of Hossein, the son of Ali.
During this season of lamentation the people are worked up to a pitch of excitement seldom witnessed. The moolahs relate to the
assembled crowds how Hossein bravely fought against an overwhelming foe for the succession of the Khalifate, and how he was most basely murdered by his enemies. The crowd of people, at this juncture of the recital, rock themselves to and fro like some huge wave, smiting their breasts, and crying out, in anguish of spirit, ‘Alas, Hossein! Alas, Hossein!’
On the anniversary of his death, an effigy of Omar, the Turks’ patron saint, is erected in a prominent part of the city, and is, at a sign from the moolahs, burnt, amid the execrations of an excited and fanatical mob.
On this day, called the ‘Rooz-i-katl,’ the excited populace reach the verge of insanity, their wild, animal-like feelings finding vent in gashing themselves with short swords, whilst the blood streams down their dress from these self-inflicted wounds. The wailings of the women on this day of lamentation are something awful in their hideousness — at times, when the priest is reciting some pathetic story
of the sainted Imaum’s life, their shrieks and groans are indescribable.
These assemblies are held at every important house in each town, friends and relations meeting together to mingle their sorrows and sympathies on the great loss sustained by the Imaum’s death, which occurred centuries ago.
The belief is prevalent that on this day all past sins are atoned for. The tears shed on these occasions are often preserved in bottles or jars, the Persians using them as a certain cure for disease, when everything else has proved ineffectual. When, however, death occurs after the use of this elixir of life, the usual expression is that ‘God is great!’
Connected with this festival of Hossein’s death is a tale which speaks of an Englishman having interceded for Hossein’s life at the hands of his persecutor, Yezeed. From this supposed circumstance a better feeling is ex-
hibited towards Englishmen in Persia than might otherwise be expected.
The utter absurdity of this story, however, is apparent when we know that Yezeed was entirely ignorant of the young man’s death until his gory head was brought to him (Yezeed) by his victorious general. The Khalif was exceedingly sorry and angry at the death of the last of Ali’s family, exclaiming, at the sight of the bloody trophy, ‘Ah, Hossein! I would they had spared thee!’ — undoubtedly feeling in his Moslem mind that a great sin had been committed in wilfully destroying one of the few surviving direct descendants of the great Prophet. And also when we know the impossibility of an Englishman being in that country at the time spoken of.
In the large towns these celebrations frequently terminate in a free fight between Sunnies and Shahies; weapons are freely used, sometimes resulting in one or two being killed.
Ispahan is noted for its copper work and carving on brass. The climate is very genial, the heat in summer being not much more than in England. It is the seat of a provincial government, like Shiraz.
After a delay of four days, we once again journeyed northwards. I had some difficulty in leaving the city, on account of these religious ceremonies being a source of great attraction to all zealous Mussulmans. My muleteers were inclined to prove obstructive to my intentions of leaving; but once through the gates and on the road, all gloominess and discontent vanished, and the thought of the village ceremonies, where they, being townsmen, would act a leading part, was uppermost in their minds.
The bazaars at Ispahan are extensive, but, like other towns, they are but indifferently maintained. The great lack of sewerage is the greatest necessity in Eastern cities, and more especially in the hot stifling atmosphere
of the closely packed buildings of the narrow bazaar. All kinds of fetid nuisances are thrown unnoticed in the much-frequented lanes of these Eastern market-halls, but which bear a much more romantic name than our common English term.
The road from ‘Half the World’ to Gez, our next stage, is through an interesting country — at least, for some miles outside the city gardens and large melon-fields line the route; but these, with their many water-courses, are soon left behind, and a salt plain marks the nearer approach to Gez, only sixteen miles from what should be a large mark on our maps of the world — the city.
The village derives its name from the large number of tamarisk trees or bushes which grow in its neighbourhood; and under the leaves of this tree the manna of the Israelites, called in Persian ‘gez,’ is found. It is in appearance similar to dew, but of a greenish hue. A cloth is spread under the bush, which is
shaken; the manna falls off, and is thus gathered, and when mixed with flour and split almonds, makes an agrble sweetmeat. It is always gathered in the early morning with great caution.
The road to this little village is under somewhat bad repute, many travellers having, in the darkness, lost their way. Such was not the case with our party. We left Ispahan about noon, and arrived here long before sunset.
From Gez to Moochikhor was an unpleasant, dreary ride: the rain was falling in drizzling showers, accompanied by a biting wind from the Kohrood hills. The long salt plain appeared a vast desert, but as all things, pleasant or otherwise, necessarily have an end, so had the ride to Moochikhor.
It was late in the day when we arrived at the house of an Armenian merchant who had invited us to stay with him. I was accompanied by an Armenian lady, the wife of
the inspector at Soh, our next station. She left Ispahan under my protection, as the roads were reported not altogether safe. The lady travelled in a takhtravan, unexposed to the pelting rains which fell — I myself was literally soaked through, and was glad to find a little solace beneath my bedding (which had been protected from the rain) in the cosy little room assigned to me by our hospitable host.
In the morning we saddled up early and moved off. A motley crowd had gathered to witness our departure: tottering old men and women; young urchins, entirely nude, were skipping about like so many squirrels to catch a glimpse at the Feringee lady; men and women, half naked, stood by motionless, apparently awestruck at the sight.
Just at the moment I attempted to mount my horse — a high-spirited Arab — a movement in the crowd caused him to rear, and I, rather lame at the time, had a narrow escape of being thrown headlong into the crowd. Another
moment, and with a bound he started along the road at a racing speed, frightened at the noise made by so many people. When he thought proper to stop, we were some, five miles from the village, and of course alone. Our caravan was not long in coming up, and we proceeded on to Soh, where we were met by the inspector, who warmly welcomed us, a short distance from the telegraph office.
Owing to an accident sustained at Ispahan whilst racing, I was obliged to rest here two days. We had been out for a ride, and in course of conversation spoke of the qualities of the animals which we bestrode, ending in a race of two miles. When nearing the post, and some dozen yards ahead, I noticed several donkeys carrying bricks approaching; turning my horse opposite to these brutes, I should have passed, had not one ass, more stupid than the rest, swerved from his chosen path and placed himself in my way. Too late to pull up, I tried to pass it, but in doing so caught
one brick with my leg; the donkey and the load of bricks went with a crash, whilst I got a severe cut on my right leg, but won the race.
A short distance from the inspector’s house at Soh is the Imam Zada, or sacred tank, containing a number of fish equally holy. To this consecrated spot we paid a prolonged visit, and received, in copious showers, the blessings of the venerable patriarch, who is the leader of a small community of devout dervishes resident there; but to be the happy recipient of such divine favours one must first purchase from an attendant dervish a few small loaves of thin sacred bread wherewith to feed the fishes.
To my own mind it was evident, by the manner in which these rapacious animals swallowed the bread, that such visits were few and far between; perhaps the fish were supposed to be of divine origin, and thereby not requiring subsistence allowance. After
purchasing some half-dozen loaves, which should have satisfied three times their number, we left them open-mouthed and quite content with their treatment.
Such holy places are frequently met with in the East. The buildings are uniformly erected in the shape of a small mosque, and guarded in a like manner by some pious dervish; but, unlike a mosque, the feet of the infidel are allowed to tread the sacred portals — but for such condescension some donation is expected, either by the doorkeeper or the inmates — usually both. Curiosity is easily satisfied: the interior is a vile loathsome den, unfit for habitation; but for experience one is supposed to pay.
From Soh to Kohrood was our next march. The road runs through exquisite mountain Scenery — defiles and passes, descending and ascending, ever climbing. Upward and onward seems to be, or should be, the motto of the Kohroodees; from the time of leaving Soh
it was but a series of ups and downs until, near sunset, I saw in the distance a few small huts, which turned out to be the suburbs, of Kohrood.
In ascending and descending the zigzag, wearisome path, I noticed a stream which we crossed and recrossed until I forgot to count. The last one I took was thirty-six; but I saw the same stream several times again before reaching the rest-house.
Kohrood is pleasantly situated at an elevation of 9,500 feet above sea-level; and after the parching, sultry air of the two or three previous stages, the cheery sound of the rippling water, as it dashes foaming against the huge piles of rock, is pleasant indeed. Whilst still studying the beauties of the surrounding landscape, the chapar khaneh came in sight, amidst a grove of richly blossomed trees, which give a certain halo to the hitherto understood and experienced loneliness of such places.
Kohrood, unlike most places in Persia, can justly boast of an industrious class of people — the well cultivated fields and gardens in its vicinity speak admirably of the diligence and praiseworthy labours of these isolated villagers.
For two or three miles at either side of the village the caravan track runs by the side of the Kohrood gardens, which at the time I passed were in full blossom, emitting most fragrant odours. One wishes with a sigh that such scenery could be found throughout the country; but unfortunately it is not so, and one is tempted to linger for a short time amid such natural beauty.
All around are gigantic mountains, over which the eagles majestically soar and the hawks pursue their sport; while far below lies this sequestered little hamlet, entirely clad in the gay colours of nature. A few yards below is a magnificent lake of pure blue mountain water, into which the stream alluded
to empties itself. The scenery is unsurpassed or unequalled in Persia, and could set at defiance the lauded beauties of Switzerland; it is worthy of the painter’s brush or the poet’s gaze.
Leaving this enchanting spot, we wound our way down the mountain defiles, which in the summer time are a rare haunt for the lawless bands of Bakhtiaries who infest the neighbourhood.
Leaving Gabrabad, a caravanserai half-way to Kashan, we gradually descend the hillside, a somewhat laborious procedure, as it is also a lengthy one. On reaching the summit of a small curved eminence in the road, a scene is presented before us, grand in its sublime quietude. About two miles lower down the declivity is one extremity of the great Central Asian desert, which ends only on the far-distant borders of Afghanistan. The sand, curled up in fantastically shaped heaps, gives an appearance of a stormy sea
lashing the waves against some massive wall.
Most fortunately our route is not in this direction, and we are spared the evils of desert travelling until within a short distance of the capital. The road into Kashan may be compared to riding along the sea coast: at our feet are the deep furrows and the small heaps of sand from the desert; across the immensity of space comes the dry, arid atmosphere, which to smell is sufficient.
Kashan, a famous city in Persian history, has since the time of its highest glory deteriorated to an alarming extent. Its glories now consist in its fame as a silk and copper emporium, and also in the fact that scorpions abound to an extent quite unappreciated by its peaceful inhabitants.
For my own part, well it was that I had learned the cautious method of examining my bed before seeking repose, for on lifting up my pillow I found that I had most unmistak-
ably been forestalled by two tremendous black scorpions. They quickly paid the penalty of such unceremonious intrusion.
A friend of mine, who frequently visits Kashan, was on one occasion retiring to his bed on the roof, and feeling extremely fatigued, wished for a good night’s rest, free from mosquitoes, scorpions, etc. He took the usual precaution to closely examine his bedding, and finding the road clear, slipped into it. Scarcely, however, had he composed his weary limbs, when a sharp bite caused him to spring with more than usual agility, and with a cry of pain, from his retreat; and without waiting to take summary vengeance on his unseen assailant, he quickly descended to a lower room, where he had left a bottle of native spirits (arrack), and as an antidote against the poison, he drank most of the fiery contents, which speedily had the desired effect — viz., intoxication.
On an examination of the bed it was found
that the sudden pain had been caused, not by a scorpion, but by a pin, which had by some means got firmly fixed in the bed-linen. My friend was some time before he entirely recovered from the effects of such potent imbibition, and not at all pleased at being so severely duped.
The following morning we left the mountainous region of Kashan behind, and travelled across the uninteresting plain leading to Sin-Sin, where we arrived early in the day. On the road I had heard my servants and the muleteers discussing the feasibility and the desirability of a railroad through Persia. My servant, Mahomed Saduk — the only one of the debaters who had seen a railway — declared that it would be a great blessing, if Allah would so will.
After a most elaborate description from Mahomed Saduk to his attentive hearers as to the speed of an engine and the qualities of its going-power, one man asked how much
corn it would eat in a day. Another question was that if the engine was iron and neither a camel nor a mule before it, what pushed it along? (!!)
A number of similar questions were put, all of which my man satisfactorily answered. Although they did not believe a word he said, still, in their estimation, he was a learned man, in consequence of his being a Hindoo and having seen an ‘iron road,’ as the Persians call the railway.
From Sin-Sin we travelled on to Pasangun, where we halted for breakfast. A ruined village is Pasangun — not a living thing near it; at least, not one large enough to be seen.
At this place a sergeant of Royal Engineers was shot: the man had been recklessly drinking spirits, in consequence of the death of a comrade who had been shot near Shiraz; this, so affected the man’s brain, that a fit of delirium tremens was the result, in which he imagined
every man to be a robber. In one of these fits he shot an inoffensive man at Pasangun; the dead man’s son took up a gun and immediately put an end to the poor sergeant’s life. The morning following this twofold tragedy, there was not a single soul to be found in the village, and to this day it remains a deserted place, shunned by all.