Persia and the Persian Question, volume I
FROM MESHED TO TEHERAN
There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern or inn. — DR. JOHNSON, Boswell's Life.
Persicos odi, puer, apparatus.
HORACE, Carm., Lib. I. xxxviii.
AFTER the serious political discussions contained in the last two chapters, it will be a relief to such of my readers as have passed through, if they have not altogether evaded, that ordeal, to turn to a chapter with more digestible contents. Having spent eight days at Meshed, I started upon the long chapar ride to Teheran. The distance is given by the Persians, and is therefore paid for by the traveller, as farsakhs. At the full complement of four miles to a farsakh, this would amount to 616 miles; but, though the Khorasan farsakh is famed beyond all others for its odious and seemingly inexhaustible length, a compliment in reality to the funereal monotony of the road — the distance (comparing my own estimate with that of previous voyagers) is under rather than over 560 English miles. It is surprising how soon, if a man be riding alone and have nought to distract him but the paces of his steed and the thought of his destination, he can arrive at an approximately correct calculation of the distance he is covering from stage to stage. The route between Meshed and Teheran is divided into twenty-four stages, the post-houses being established at distances varying from fifteen to thirty miles, but averaging twenty-three miles apart. This
distance I accomplished in the comfortable time of nine days, doing an average of sixty miles a day, but in reality combining days of seventy miles with shorter spans. This is slow rather than speedy travelling for Persia; and I afterwards became easily habituated to journeys of seventy-five to eighty miles in the day. Telegraph officials and residents in the country seldom do less, and frequently more. The post which goes through from Meshed to Teheran without stopping, but with first claim upon the horses at each station, covers the distance in from five to six days. Dr. Wills reports having ridden from Isfahan to Teheran, about 280 miles, in thirty-nine and a half hours; whilst officers travelling by day alone and resting at night have accomplished 120 miles between dawn and leaving the saddle.
Quick riding is indeed an accomplishment for which the Persians have always been famous, and notable records in which have been achieved even by their kings. Abbas the Great, 300 years ago, rode from Shiraz to Yezd in twenty-eight and a half hours, the Astronomer Royal being commanded to take the time. Malcolm gives the distance as eighty-nine farsakhs, or 303 miles; but, though modern measurements have reduced it to 220 miles, it was still no mean performance. Agha Mohammed Khan, the founder of the reigning dynasty, fleeing to Mazanderan on the death of Kerim Khan Zend, rode from Shiraz to Isfahan — a distance, by whatever route, of not much under 300 miles — in less than three days. Fath Ali Shah, his nephew, upon succeeding to the throne, rode from Shiraz to Teheran, a distance of at least 550 miles, in six days. Fraser mentions the case of a Persian, Agha Bahrain, who kept the best horses in the country, and who once on the same Arab horse rode from Shiraz to Teheran in six days, rested three days, rode back in five days, rested nine days, and performed the journey a third time in seven days. But the most remarkable, because the most sustained performance of which I have ever read was that of the dragoman who, in 1804, rode from Constantinople
to Demavend (near Teheran), a total distance of 1,700 miles, in seventeen days, with the news of Napoleon's escape from Elba. On the other hand, when there is no purpose in haste, no rider can be so slow as a Persian. If he is not proceeding at a headlong gallop, he affects a dignified crawl; and in the whole of my chapar rides I never once met a native who was moving at more than a foot-pace on horseback.
As this is the first occasion upon which I have required to describe chapar riding from personal experience, and as I subsequently rode considerably over a thousand miles by the same means, I may as well here condense whatever of observation or suggestion I have to make upon the subject. I have already in Chapter II. (upon Ways and Means) supplied all necessary information as to cost and procedure. The basis of calculation there laid down will show that for four horses — self, gholam, postboy, and baggage (for I duly purchased my own experience by taking on this occasion, but on this only, an extra baggage animal, which cost me many a hard gallop in pursuit as well as a proportionate loss of time) — my journey from Meshed to Teheran cost 600 krans or, at the then rate of exchange, about 17l., exclusive of tips to the postboys and payment for the use of quarters at night, amounting to about 2l. more, and the cost of food en route, which will depend in each case upon the amount of tinned meat carried by the traveller. The journey will not in any case cost over 20l. My sole companion and attendant upon this journey was a Perso-Afghan gholam (mounted courier or kavass) of the British Legation at Teheran, who bore the imposing name of Nadir Ali Khan, and who was well posted in all the tricks of the road.
The postal system in Persia, about the inauguration of which I shall have something to say later on, is under the superintendence of a Minister of Posts; but as the present tenant of that office holds two other portfolios in addition, besides being President of the Council, it may be inferred that it is not regarded as one of commanding importance. The Government allows him a certain annual sum for the repair and equipment of every post-house upon the Government roads, as well as an annual allowance of barley and straw as fodder for the horses. The Minister does
not, however, work the system himself. That would be a shocking violation of all Persian usage. Each road is farmed to a publican, probably some merchant or wealthy person, who pays a certain sum per annum to the Minister for the privilege. He then provides the servants and animals at each station, and makes as much money out of the business as he can; the only check upon his parsimony being the fear of losing his contract in favour of a higher bidder at the end of the year. It is not surprising, therefore, that the post-houses are mostly in a state of extreme and disgraceful dilapidation, or that the horses are among the sorriest specimens of the equine race that were ever foaled. The system is a vicious one, and it is hard to say whether the traveller or the poor brutes whom he is compelled to flog along are the more to be pitied.
Let me, however, endeavour to balance the pains and the pleasures, if any there be, of chapar riding, so as to arrive at a fair verdict. The system has been variously described by travellers according to their tastes, endurance, and fortune, as an exhilaration, a tedium, or a torture; and there is perhaps something to be said for each opinion. Much depends upon the extent to which the road adopted is travelled upon, and, in consequence, supplied; something upon the season of the year or the weather encountered; a good deal upon the luck of the voyager. The route between Meshed and Teheran is but little traversed (except by pilgrims, who move in kafilahs, or caravans), and there are accordingly not above five or six horses, sometimes less, at each station. These I found to be for the most part underfed, broken-down, and emaciated brutes, with ill-regulated paces, and open sores on their backs that sometimes made it almost unbearable to bestride them. The best that were supplied to me would anywhere else be classified at a low level of equine mediocrity. To ride the worst was a penalty to which any future Dante might appropriately condemn his most inveterate foe in the lower circles of hell. Subsequently, however, upon the Teheran-Shiraz line, which is more travelled upon and better provided, I found a larger number and a superior quality of animals. They were generally tolerable and sometimes positively good; and when I succeeded in covering by their means an average of between eight and nine miles in the hour throughout the day, when they invariably cantered and sometimes galloped, it can be imagined that a day's ride of from seventy to eighty miles may become quite endurable,
and, under favourable conditions of climate, at times almost pleasant. In the last resort, however, more depends upon the fortune of the traveller than upon any other consideration. If he can avoid clashing or competing with the Government post, which has universal priority of claim; if he is lightly equipped himself and does not require many animals; above all, if he can get ahead and keep ahead of any other party of travellers on the same road, he will fare passably well. If he is unlucky in any or all of these respects, he will leave Persia muttering deep and unrepeatable curses against a land of rascals and jades. That this is the more common experience may perhaps be inferred from the fact that the main solace of a European's life in Persia appears to be the desire to cover a specified distance in quicker time than it has ever been done before. A furious competition prevails. Where there is a telegraphic line along the route the wire conveys to anxious ears the news of the rider's progress; and a man is seldom so happy, or leaves so enduring a reputation, as when he succeeds in cutting the record.
At this stage let me describe the chapar-khaneh, and its meagre, but peculiar properties. Sometimes in the heart, sometimes on the outskirts of a town or village, sometimes planted in absolute solitude upon the staring waste, but usually in the neighbourhood of water, is to be seen a small rectangular structure, consisting of four blank mud walls surrounding an interior enclosure, with a stunted square tower rising above the gateway, and a projecting semicircular tower or bartizan at each corner. The whole presents the appearance of a miniature mud fort. And such indeed it is intended to be; for in a land till lately desolated by Turkoman forays, and where promiscuous thieving is indubitably popular, every possession, from a palace down to an orchard, has to be safeguarded from attack, as though the country were in a state of open war. Entrance to the chapar-khaneh is gained by a big wooden door in the gateway; and when this is closed it is unassailable except by ladders. Riding into the gateway, one observes a low seat or platform against the wall on either side, and two doorways leading into dark and dirty rooms on the ground floor. The gateway conducts into the interior court, which is an open space about twenty to twenty-five yards in length and twelve to fifteen yards in width. In the middle is a chabutra, or mud platform, usually occupied by fowls and filth, but
designed for al fresco slumbers of the traveller in the summer season. The walls of the court, on two and sometimes on three sides, are pierced with holes or mangers, into which the chopped barley, or kah, is placed for the horses, and to which they are tethered in the warm weather. In the interior of the two side walls, however, are long dark stables for winter use, unlighted save by the low door, unventilated, and reeking with accumulated refuse. In one of these, along with the horses, the postboys and attendants usually sleep, stretched around a low fire. The interior walls of the court have at one time or another been faced with plaster; but this has uniformly peeled off, and the entire fabric looks what it is — mud. As the weary traveller rides in, the chaparchi, or post-house keeper, who sometimes wears the semblance of an official dress, comes out to meet him. Eager inquiries are exchanged as to the supply of fresh horses in the stables; and while these are being gratified or disappointed, the baggage is pulled off the exhausted beasts and piled upon the chabutra, and the English rider stretches
himself at full length or boils a cup of broth or tea. His Persian attendant takes a pull at the kalian, which is always ready, and the wearied animals, stripped except for their tattered horsecloths, are slowly walked up and down for ten minutes by the postboy, and finally marched off to water. In a quarter of an hour, if lucky, sometimes not for one hour or even two, a fresh batch of horses having been brought out, and the traveller having selected the best for himself, he will remount, and will once again pursue the uneven tenour of his way. If, however, no fresh animals are forthcoming, or if he has been anticipated by some other voyager, then ensues the most heartrending experience of all. For, after a tedious wait of perhaps two hours, the same miserable brutes that have borne the burden of his last twenty-five miles' stage are brought out again to be urged and flagellated through twenty-five more. I confess that my sympathies were always with the beast rather than with his rider; and considering the pitiless daily, nay, almost hourly, task that is imposed upon these wretched crocks, it was
sometimes a surprise to me that persuasion, however extreme, could extract from them anything more than a hobble.
But supposing the traveller to have reached the end of his day's journey and to have arrived at the post-house where he proposes to pass the night, what then? The answer to the question is contained in the projecting square tower above the entrance gateway. Access thereto is gained by stairways of almost Alpine steepness, fashioned in the mud at the angles of the court inside. Clambering up these with difficulty, we reach the flat roof that runs right round the building, and find that the tower consists of a single chamber, which invariably has two, sometimes three, doors (that are never known to shut), and usually a couple of open window spaces in the walls, so that it may literally be said to stand
Four-square to all the winds that blow.
This is the bala-khaneh, or upper chamber, specially reserved for the comfort of foreign guests, and within this forlorn and wintry abode, which is not much less draughty than the rigging of a ship, the wayfarer must spend the night. The interior has at one time been plastered and whitewashed. Its only decorative features are a number of shallow niches in the walls, in which Persian visitors have sometimes scrawled the most fearful illustrations, and occasionally, but not always, a fireplace. Of furniture it is absolutely destitute. To have the floor swept clean of vermin, to spread a felt or carpet in the corner and one's sack of straw upon it, to buy firewood and light a fire, to stuff up the open windows and nail curtains over the ramshackle doors — all these are necessary and preliminary operations, without which the dingy tenement would be simply uninhabitable, but which it is sometimes hard work to undertake in a state of extreme stiffness and exhaustion after a long day's ride upon a freezing winter's night. Even so, this aërial roost is sometimes too chill for endurance, and one is compelled to descend and seek refuge in the dank and cellar-like apartments below. In half an hour's time, however, when the work has been done, as the genial warmth begins to relax stiff joints and weary limbs, and as the samovar puffs out its cheery steam, a feeling of wonderful contentment ensues, and the outstretched traveller would probably not exchange his quarters for a sheeted bed in Windsor Castle. But it is upon the following morning,
when, aroused at four or five A.M. in the pitchy darkness and amid biting cold, he must get up to the light of a flickering candle, dress and pack up all his effects, cook his breakfast, and finally see the whole of his baggage safely mounted in the dark upon the steeds in the yard below, that he is sometimes tempted to think momentarily of proverbs about game and candles, and to reflect that there are consolations in life at home.
A word more about the Persian post-horse, for a man does not ride from sixty to seventy of these beasts in the space of a few weeks without being driven to generalise somewhat upon the species. The traveller of course selects the best out of a bad lot for himself, but an eye must be kept on the chapar-shagird, or post-boy, who knows the 'form' of each animal to a nicety and who, if left alone is apt to consult his own rather than his employer's comfort. As you emerge from the post-house, and, after a short walk, try the paces of your new mount, there is a moment of acute suspense. Within 300 yards you know whether your next three or four hours are to be a toleration or an anguish. The pace which, after a little experience, a European usually adopts, is a sharp canter alternating with a walk. The Persians, when not cantering or galloping seem to prefer a rough jog-trot shamble, which on an English saddle is excruciating. In the whole of my chapar rides I only twice encountered a horse that could trot in English fashion. The post-boy carries, and each rider must carry, a long whip made of twisted leather with a leathern thong, and appalling are the whacks that are administered by the former, often without exciting the faintest response from his habituated steed. In this place it maybe well to remark that, though called a boy, the shagird is much more commonly a man. He does not ride upon a saddle, but usually sits perched upon the top of a vast pile of baggage with his legs sticking out on either side; nor does he use reins, but only a single rope or halter attached to one side of the bit. He is supposed to lead the way and to set the pace, but I soon found that seventy miles in the day could never be accomplished in that fashion, and that it was better even in a strange country to lead the cavalcade oneself. As a rule it is difficult, if there is light, to mistake the track; for though there is no road and the route is simply a mule track which crosses plains, climbs mountains, and descends gorges, sometimes, so to speak, a single rut, and sometimes a wide belt of parallel paths,
yet the passage of countless animals has left such impressions upon the soil that the direction to be followed can often be traced in advance for miles. At night a stranger would be lost at once but for the guidance of the post-boy, whose sight and memory are unerring.
The best known characteristic of the Persian post-horse is his incurable predisposition to tumble. Most of them have bare knees in consequence, and the first law in mounting is to select an animal with some hair still adorning that portion. I could not make out that either a tight rein or a slack rein had very much to do with the occurrence of this phenomenon, and I ended by concluding that the Persian post-horse has a certain regulation number of falls in the year, which may be distributed either by accident or as he pleases, but the full tale of which some hidden law of necessity compels him to complete. The fact that I rode through the country from the east to the centre and from the centre to the south without a single fall, tended to confirm rather than to invalidate my theory, for there was no conceivable reason why I should be so favoured, except that others would have or had had to pay the price. It became quite a trite occurrence to hear the groan with which my Persian servant riding behind me sank or was hurled on to mother earth; while the chapur~shagird would be seriously disappointed at an entire day without a fall. There is this to be said for the instability of the Persian post-horse, that it appears very seldom to be vindicated at the lasting expense of his rider. The number of accidents or injuries that take place in proportion to the number of falls is ludicrously small. Two other tricks I noticed which were widespread and popular. Some of the meanest of the animals would very much resent being mounted, a curious proof that their memories had profited by experience; and the only approach to an accident that I had was when a horse from which I had dismounted ran away as I was putting my foot into the stirrup, and as nearly as possible pitched both himself and me down the shaft of an open kanat. The lifting of the right arm, whether with or without a whip, had, further, such a provocative effect upon the memory of these beasts that they would frequently swerve and spin right round to the left. The Persians, if peculiarly disgusted with a post-horse, sometimes revenge themselves by docking his tail, which incapacitates him from further use in a country where a tail is considered de rigueur; but this is a spiteful, if not a cruel act,
from which strangers can afford to abstain. Perhaps I shall not inaptly conclude this digression upon the Persian post-horse and postal system if I quote the sententious observation with which Tavernier prefaced his Persian travels more than three centuries ago: 'A man cannot travel in Asia as they do in Europe; nor at the same hours, nor with the same ease.'
The road from Meshed to Teheran is one whose intrinsic attraction is so small that no one would ever be found to traverse it but for the necessity of getting from one place to the other. For the entire distance of 560 miles there is scarcely a single object of beauty, and but few of interest. The scenery, at any rate in the late autumn, is colourless and desolate. The road, or rather track, winds over long, stony plains, across unlovely mountains, and through deserted villages and towns. There is frequent and abundant evidence that the country traversed was once far more densely or less sparsely populated, and for that reason more carefully tended, than it is at present. The traveller passes towns which have been entirely abandoned, and display only a melancholy confusion of tottering walls and fallen towers. He observes citadels and fortified posts which have crumbled into irretrievable decay, and are now little more than shapeless heaps of mud. He sees long lines of choked and disused kanats, the shafts of the underground wells by which water was once brought to the lands from the mountains. The walls of the cities are in ruins and exhibit yawning gaps; the few public buildings of any note are falling to pieces; rows of former dwellings have been abandoned to dust-heaps and dogs. The dirty, desecrated cemeteries that stretch for hundreds of yards outside every town of any size in which the tombstones are defaced and the graves falling in, are not more lugubrious in appearance than is the interior, where the living seem to be in almost as forlorn a plight as the dead. The utmost that the traveller can expect in the way of incident — an expectation in which I have already said that I was disappointed — is that his chapar horse should tumble down, to break, if not its own knees, at any rate the paralysing monotony of the journey.
But though the route be thus devoid of external attraction, it has a twofold interest, historical and practical. The traveller is not merely pursuing the track that has been worn by countless thousands of pilgrims for at least 500 years, but he is following the stormy wake of armies, and treading in the foot-
steps of great conquerors and kings. And if, in the desolation that gapes around him, he sees no hint or reminder of what these countries once were, at least he is able to form some judgment of what the combined horrors of war, pestilence, and chronic misgovernment — which is worse than either — have done for them, and in this blighted zone of crumbling cities and forsaken homes to read the tale of Persia's long decline.
The following is a table of the stations and distances between Meshed and Teheran:
Before proceeding further it may be well to state that there is an alternative route for the first three stages between Meshed and Nishapur. The postal service and stations being upon the other
or southern route, this, which is a more northerly line, cannot be taken by chapar riders. It is, however, frequently adopted by caravans (other than camels), particularly in the summer; as though the road is much worse, and in parts excessively steep, it runs over higher ground (10,720 feet), and through scenery of quite exceptional verdure and beauty. It is a positive surprise to the traveller, within a few miles of the naked rocks and dusty plains of Meshed, to alight upon running water and a wealth of trees. The stages are as follows: — 
Colonel Stewart and other friends accompanied me on horseback — after the prevailing Persian fashion, which for polite good-fellowship might be — commended elsewhere — for some distance outside the city gate. In deference to another excellent Persian habit, he lent me a horse from his own stables for the first stage; while, in obedience to a third, I proposed only to do one stage on the first afternoon, so as to allow servants and baggage to 'shake down,' and to inure myself for harder work on the morrow. After I had been riding across the level plain for an hour, one of those violent winds arose, which the traveller in the East knows by sad experience, and drove like a hurricane across the land, whirling heaven and earth into one savage thundercloud of dust. Eyes, mouth, and ears were filled and choked with the gritty storm, which was blowing straight in my teeth, and yet was perfectly warm. About seven miles after leaving Meshed we arrived at the base of the mountains, in reality the south-east extremity of the Binalud Kuh, which separates the plain of Meshed from that of Nishapur. The Jagherk-Dehrud road boldly crosses this range; but the postal route avoids so steep a climb by a divergence in a south-easterly direction, and mounts only the lower spurs and slopes.
At the crest of each ridge, where the road, now rapidly ascending, topped the rise, grateful pilgrims wending to the holy city had, as they caught sight of the gilded cupola of the Prophet, piled little heaps of stone in pious thanksgiving. The symbolism of these erections is said to be that the pilgrim is building in anticipation a home for the next world, either for the dear departed, or for those who may survive him, or for himself. Every knoll was thickly covered with these emblems of devotion. The topmost of all, where the new-comer first discerns the sacred pile, is known as Salaam Tepe, or Kuh-i-Salaam. (the Hill of Salutation); and there is an analogous site upon the Dehrud road.
Here, as he first comes in sight of his destination, the excited Shiah Mussulman kneels, and strikes his forehead upon the ground, and sobs aloud at the recollection of the indignities that were heaped upon the martyrs of his faith; here he tears off little fragments of his dress, and ties them to a bramble or a bush, in order that the holy Imam may recognise them and plead for him in Paradise; here he unfurls his coloured banner; and here with loud cries of 'Ya Ali,' 'Ya Husein,' and 'Ya Imam Reza,' he presses forward to the long-sought goal. Many times I turned back myself to look, but the entire valley was wrapped in a tornado of dust, the white clouds of which rolled upwards like the smoke of a prairie fire.
At, the top of one of these hills is an upright slab of stone, which has been erected to commemorate the piety of a former Governor-General of Khorasan, who was exiled to this post after being both Sadr Azem, or Grand Vizier, and Sipah Salar, or Commander-in-Chief, at Teheran, and who earned a great reputation, particularly with pilgrims, for improving the Meshed road and adorning it with substantial caravanserais. His name still lives, both on the slab of slate and on the lips of many a grateful Meshedi.
Following the telegraph poles, and winding over a succession of bleak but undulating ridges, we passed the caravanserai of Turukh, situated by a stream. The road was thronged with pedestrians, with camels, and donkeys; and I even saw a wheeled vehicle which had stuck fast on one of the hills. At length in a hollow we came upon the domed caravanserai of Sherifabad, erected by the famous Ishak Khan of Turbat-i-Haideri, of whom I have spoken in the chapter on Khorasan, at the beginning of this century. Here it was that in 1831 the eccentric Dr.
Wolff, travelling for the first time to Meshed, so narrowly escaped being taken a prisoner by a band of wild Hazaras. There is a small village round the caravanserai, and the chapar-khaneh stands hard by.
There was no sun in the early morning, and a cold white mist ran shivering along the mountains. Two hours after starting we passed the village and caravanserai of Sultanabad, where my baggage horse, seeing his opportunity, bolted down the intricate alleys of the village, and we had quite a game of hide and seek before we could drive him out again. There were many hundreds of travellers upon the road, chiefly going Meshed-way, and all or nearly all on horseback, a sign of greater affluence than the employment of a donkey. I was on the look-out for coffins of defunct Shiahs on their way to the great necropolis of Meshed; and from the descriptions of previous travellers recognised the ghastly burden as soon as I saw it. Some that I passed were wrapped in black felt, and slung on either side of donkeys. One man, however, was carrying a very long coffin in front of him on his saddle-bow, and must have had moments of strange emotion. Sometimes a regular corpse-caravan is met, which has been chartered to convey so many score of departed Shiahs to their final resting-place. But as frequently an amateur carrier is encountered, who, to pay the expenses of his own journey and leave a little for amusement at the end, contracts to carry the corpse of some wealthier fellow-citizen or friend. It was a long and stony and fatiguing ride to the next post-house at Kadamgah.
At Kadamgah the Dehrud route from Meshed descends from the mountains on to the plain and joins that upon which I travelled. The name means 'the place of the step,' the tradition being that the Imam Reza halted here on his way to Tus, and, in order to convince the local fire-worshippers of his superiority, left the imprint of his foot upon a black stone, which became a ziarat gah, or place of pilgrimage, ever afterwards. Over the sacred spot a mosque was raised, not, as Eastwick says, by Shah Abbas, but by Shah Suleiman, and the sanctity of the site has led to its being peopled by a colony of seyids, who are as
eminent rascals as are most of their brethren. The mosque stands on a raised platform at the upper end of a large garden, which has once been beautifully laid out in terraces, with flower beds, and tanks, and channels of running water, and which, though in a state of hopeless decay, is still overshadowed by considerable trees. Inside the mosque is a single chamber, entered by a coffered archway, and covered by a large dome. The sacred stone is inside; nor is it surprising to find that the Prophet's foot-marks are of more than ordinary size. All these great men had huge feet. I have seen Mohammed's footprint in the Mosque of Omar at Jerusalem, and Buddha's footprint on the summit of Adam's Peak in Ceylon; and in view of their prodigious magnitude I was surprised at the modesty of the Imam Reza in having been content with, comparatively speaking, so temperate a measurement. The exterior of the dome has once been covered with tiles; but all these have been stripped or have fallen off, though bands of a still perfect inscription encircle the drum and adorn the facade. From the garden of the mosque the stream flows down the middle of the roadway, past a remarkably stately row of pines, between the chapar-khaneh and a large caravanserai. Above the shrine, on a hill some 500 feet above the plain, stand the village and fort of Kadamgah, whilst upon a corresponding hill on the opposite side of the valley which here opens into the mountains, is perched an old fortress.
An hour after leaving Kadamgah we entered upon the famous plain of Nishapur, whose praises have been sung by so many chroniclers of the past. Its wonders were expressed in multiples of the number twelve. It was said to have twelve mines of turquoise, copper, lead, antimony, iron, salt, marble, and soapstone; twelve ever-running streams from the hills; 1,200 villages, and 12,000 kanats flowing from 12,000 springs. Gone, irretrievably gone, is all this figurative wealth; but fertile, though far less fertile than legend has depicted, is still the plain of Nishapur. Not that fertility in these parts, at any rate in the late autumn, bears the smallest resemblance to its English counterpart. There is no visible green except in the square patches, topped with trees, that mark the villages. But these occur at intervals of almost every quarter of a mile, and the
numerous ditches and banks show that the whole country is under irrigation. Its return of the grain sown is said to be tenfold; but the chief local products are now rice, opium, and tobacco. Ferrier, who passed this way forty-five years ago at a more favourable season of the year, spoke quite enthusiastically of its charms. 'Never had I before seen in Persia such rich and luxuriant vegetation; and, as the eye revelled in contemplating it, I could understand without any difficulty the predilection which ancient sovereigns had for Nishapur.'
The shattered walls and towers of Nishapur — 'the Nisaya or Nisoa blessed by Ormuzd, the birthplace of the Dionysus of Greek legend, and one of the "paradises" of írán' — with the roof and minar of a lofty mosque looming above them, were visible long before we reached the city. Passing through an extensive cemetery, whose untidy graves were typical of the squalor that environs death as well as life in Persia, and skirting the town wall on the southern side, we came to the chapar-khaneh, immediately outside the western gate. The walls of the city, which had at one time been lofty, were in a more tumbledown condition even than those of Kuchan. Great gaps occurred every fifty yards, and whole sections had entirely disappeared. In one place, however, men were at work rebuilding a bastion, lumps of clay being dug out of a trench at the bottom and tossed from hand to hand until they reached the top, where they were loosely piled one upon the other; though what purpose this belated renovation can have been intended to serve, I am utterly at a loss to imagine. An enemy could march into Nishapur as easily as he could march down Brompton Road, and would find about as much to reward him as if he occupied in force Brompton Cemetery.
The name Nishapur is popularly derived from nei (reed) or ni = no (new) and Shapur, the tradition being that Shapur built the town anew, or built it in what had been a reed-bed. The city was older, however, than Shapur, its legendary foundation being attributed to Tahmuras, one of the Pishdadian kings, fourth in descent from Noah; and its true derivation is from niw (the modern Persian nik) = good, and Shapur. This town is said to have been destroyed by Alexander the Great, and subsequently rebuilt either by Shapur I. or by Shapur Zulaktaf (the two are constantly confused in Persian tradition), who is further said to have erected here a huge statue of himself, which remained standing till
the Mussulman invasion. Shapur's city, however, was not upon the site of the modern Nishapur, but considerably more to the southeast, where its ruins are still traceable round a blue-domed tomb to the left of the road. Nishapur, which has certainly been destroyed and rebuilt more than any city in the world, rose again under the Arabs, and became successively the capital of the Taheride dynasty, of Mahmud of Ghuzni, when Governor of Khorasan, and of the powerful Seljuk family, whose first Sultan, Togrul Beg, resided here, and brought it to the zenith of its splendour. A long line of eminent travellers testified to its magnificence and renown. In the tenth century, the Arab pilgrim El Istakhri found the city a square, stretching one farsakh in every direction, with four gates and two extensive suburbs. In the eleventh century, Nasiri Khosru declared that it was the sole rival to Cairo. An Arab wit said of its kanats and its people, 'What a fine city it would be if only its watercourses were above ground and its population underground!' Another writer, Abu Ali el Alewi, recorded that it was larger than Fostat (old Cairo), more populous than Baghdad, more perfect than Busrah, and more magnificent than Kairwhan. It had forty-four quarters, fifty main streets, a splendid mosque, and a world-famed library. It was one of the four Royal cities of the Empire of Khorasan.
But now the cycle of misfortune had come round; and from the twelfth century downwards it may be said that if Nishapur was only destroyed in order that it might be rebuilt, it was no sooner rebuilt than it was again destroyed. No city ever showed such unconquerable vitality. No city was ever the sport of such remorseless ruin. Nature herself assisted man in the savage tenacity of his vengeance, for what a conqueror had spared an earthquake laid low. Three great earthquakes are recorded in the twelfth, the thirteenth, and the fifteenth centuries. The long career of human devastation was inaugurated by the Turkomans, who in 1153 A.D., in the reign of the great Sultan Sanjar, ravaged it so completely that the inhabitants on returning could not discover the sites of their homes. But if the Turkomans had chastised with whips, the Mongol hordes of Jenghiz Khan might be trusted to chastise with scorpions. They fell upon the city with flame and sword in 1220 A.D., under the command of Tului Khan, son of the conqueror; and the appalling measure of
their cruelty is said by a credible historian not to have been filled until they had slain 1,740,000 persons, and razed the city so completely to the ground that a horse could ride over the site without stumbling. Fifty years later, Nishapur was rebuilt, but it would be tedious to relate the vicissitudes of misery through which it has since passed. Mongols, Tartars, Turkomans, and Afghans in turn made it their prey, and gradually reduced it to what in the eighteenth century was reported to be one vast ruin. Upon the death of Nadir Shah in 1747 it held out against Ahmed Abdali the Afghan; but after a six months' siege was taken by him under circumstances which recalled, if they did not equal, the atrocities of Jenghiz Khan. The conqueror, however, was as prudent as he was successful. He restored as ruler to the city the Turkish chieftain, Abbas Kuli Khan, who had resisted him, but whom he learnt to respect, and whose sister he married. The vassal repaid the compliment by life-long loyalty, and by an energetic restoration and adornment of the town. In the time of his successor, in 1796, Nishapur passed tranquilly into the hands of the Kajar usurper, Agha Mohammed Khan, and has ever since remained an appanage of the Persian crown. Fraser in 1821 computed its population as under 5,000, Conolly in 1830 said 8,000, Sir F. Goldsmid in 1872 gave the same figure; the latest estimate is 10,000, which, with the growth that might be expected in a long period of peace, ought not to be excessive.
To a great many English readers Nishapur will perhaps be known only as the last resting-place of the Persian astronomer-poet Omar el Khayam. (i.e. the tent-maker), whose name and works have been rendered familiar to the present generation by the masterly paraphrase of Fitzgerald, and by the translations or adaptations of many inferior bards. I remember reading in the preface of one of these latter the plaintive request that someone would take the volume and cast it as an offering at Nishapur before the poet's tomb. Had I possessed it, I should certainly have gratified the writer's petition, at the same time that I disencumbered myself of useless baggage by making the offering, although I fear that the condition of Omar's grave would have greatly shocked his English admirers. It stands in a neglected garden, which once contained flower-beds and rivulets of water, but is now a waste of weeds. There is no inscription to mark the poet's name or fame and it is to be feared that the modern Persians are
as little solicitous of the dust of Omar el Khayam as a nineteenth-century citizen of London might be of that of Matthew
Paris or William of Malmesbury.
Nishapur possesses a Telegraph station of the Meshed-Teheran line worked by a Persian staff. It is also the meeting-point of several important roads in addition to the two from Meshed. On the south a road comes in from Turshiz, and on the north a track runs viâ Madan (where are the turquoise mines) to Kuchan; while in a more westerly direction stretches the old long-forgotten trade route to the Caspian, which is believed to have been a link in the great chain of overland connection in the middle ages between China and India and the European continent. It ran from Nishapur to the Arab city of Isferayin in the plain of the same name, then struck westwards, and passing through the mountains by the defile known as the Dahaneh-i-Gurgan, through which the river Gurgan forces its way, descended the slope to the Caspian. The stages on this route are recorded in the itineraries of Isidore of Charax, and of El Istakhri, and the caravanserais built by Shah Abbas the Great are still standing, though in ruins.
About thirty-six miles in a north-westerly direction from Nishapur, on the first of the roads above mentioned, are situated the famous turquoise mines of Madan (i.e. mines), which from their proximity to the better known city have always been called the mines of Nishapur. Though turquoises are or have been found elsewhere in Persia, and, it is sometimes said, in other countries, these may for all practical purposes be regarded as the only mines in the world that are worked or that repay working on a large scale, and as the source of 999 out of every 1,000 turquoises that come into the market. The mines, of which there are an immense number, actually worked, fallen in, or disused, are situated in a district some forty square miles in extent,
which is rich in mineral deposits, there being a productive salt mine, a neglected lead mine, and sandstone quarries within the same area. The turquoises are found in a range of hills, consisting of porphyries, greenstones, and metamorphic limestones and sandstones, at an elevation above the sea which has never exceeded 5,800 feet or fallen below 4,800 feet. They are obtained in one of two ways, either by digging and blasting in the mines proper, which consist of shafts and galleries driven into the rock, or by search among the débris of old mines, and amid the alluvial detritus that has been washed down the hill-sides on to the plain. The finest stones are now commonly found in the last-named quarter. The mining, cutting, &c., give occupation to some 1,500 persons, who inhabit the two principal villages of Upper and Lower Madan and several small hamlets in the neighbourhood.
It is believed that in former times and under the Sefavi dynasty, when Persia touched the climax of her wealth and renown, these mines were worked directly by the State. In the anarchy and turbulence of the eighteenth century they were either neglected or left to the villagers, who extracted from them what they could. As order was re-established, control was resumed by the Government, which throughout this century has farmed them to the highest bidder. Abundant relics, however, exist of the reign of 'every man for himself' that preceded. There was no system or science in the working, and the clumsy and sporadic efforts of individuals have resulted in the roofs and sides of most of the old mines falling in and thus completely choking the most lucrative sources of produce. Moreover, the march of science has itself tended to make the work more unscientific, for gunpowder is now used at random where the pick once cautiously felt its way; and many of the stones are smashed to atoms in the process that brings them to the light.
Conolly relates that when Hasan Ali Mirza was Governor of Khorasan the turquoise mines were rented for 1,000 tomans, and the rock-salt mine for 300 tomans per annum. In Fraser's time (1821), 2,000 Khorasan tomans or 2,700l., were asked for the whole mines, and 1,300 tomans for the principal mine. In1862, Eastwick says the rent was only 1,000 tomans, or 400l. Ten years later the Seistan Boundary Commissioners found the total rent of all the mines to be 8,000 tomans, or 3,200l., though in 1874 Captain Napier reported the figures to be 6,000 tomans, or 2,400l.
The rent remained at 8,000 tomans up till 1882, when the Shah very wisely thought that he could make a better bargain. In that year he leased the mines for a term of fifteen years to the Mukhber-ed-Dowleh, Minister of Education, Telegraphs, and Mines, the rent to be 9,000 tomans in the first year, and 18,000 tomans in each succeeding year. The Minister took a few rich men into partnership, and the versatile and accomplished General Schindler, whose services are enlisted for whatever work of regeneration is contemplated (I wish I could say executed) in Persia, held the post of managing director for one year. This syndicate appears to have found the system of working the mines itself unremunerative; for at the time of my visit I found that they had been sublet to the Malek-et-Tajar, or head of the Merchants' Guild at Meshed — the enterprising speculator who had also undertaken the Kuchan Road — and who was paying a rent of 10,000 tomans, or 2,850l., per annum as sublessee, himself subletting again to the villagers after the immemorial fashion to which every tenant in turn seems compelled to come back. He had just had a smart dispute with some of his own sublessees, who had discovered some larger and finer stones than he had bargained for, and whose tenancy he had accordingly terminated by the abrupt method of confiscation. In the past year (1890) the output of stones was estimated at not less than 80,000 tomans, or 22,850l.
It would be quite a mistake to suppose that by going either to Meshed or to Nishapur, or even to the pit mouth, the traveller can pick up valuable stones at a moderate price. Fraser tried seventy years ago, and was obliged to desist from the attempt by the ruthless efforts made to cheat him. Every succeeding traveller has tried and has reported his failure. All the best stones are bought up at once by commission agents on the spot and are despatched to Europe or sold to Persian grandees. I did not see a single good specimen either in Meshed or Teheran, though I
made constant inquiries. I might indeed, to record my own experience, adopt the very words of Tavernier over two centuries ago: —
Formerly the Mesched jewellers brought some turquoises of the old rock out of Persia; but for these fifteen years last past there have bin none found. The last time I was there I could only meet with three which were but reasonable. As for those of the new rock, they are of no value, because they do not keep their colour, but turn green in a little time.
Against the proverbial craftiness of the Oriental the would-be purchaser of turquoises must indeed be pre-eminently upon his guard. There is a plan by which the deep azure that should characterise the true turquoise can be artfully retained up till the very moment of sale. The stones are kept in moist earthenware pots or otherwise damp, until they are parted with. The purchaser hugs his trouvaille, only to see its colour fade from day to day, until it is turned to a sickly green. The commoner stones are much used in Persia and the East generally for the decoration of bridles, horse-trappings, dagger-hilts and sheaths; though even of the flat slabs so employed I could obtain no decent specimens; while the commonest of all are converted into charms and amulets, Arabic characters being engraved and gilded upon them so as to hide the flaws. A roaring trade in these trinkets is driven with the pilgrims at Meshed.
From this digression let me now return to my forward journey. The plain of Nishapur is separated from that of Sebzewar (which is 1,000 feet lower) by an undulating range of ugly hills over which the road passes. Fifteen miles from Nishapur, the big caravanserai of Zaminabad is passed, the hills are entered by a low pass, and after a while the post-station and hamlet of Shurab (salt water) are discerned in a hollow. It was during the next stage that my worst chapar experience in Persia befell me. The pitiful brute that I was riding smelt so abominably that I could barely sit upon his back, while he himself groaned (for I can call it by no other name) in a manner that testified to his own misery. Removal of the saddle soon showed the seat of mischief in a great open sore; but I only exchanged horses with the gholam to discover that his Rosinante was similarly afflicted. It was cruelty to man and beast alike to be compelled to ride these suffering
skeletons for eighteen miles. A stretch of several miles across the level brought us to the station of Zafarani. There was once a magnificent caravanserai here, reported to be the largest in Persia. The Persians, eager for a fantastic interpretation wherever it can be suggested, explain the title (yellow or saffron) by a legend of a certain rich merchant who, when building the structure, mixed with the bricks some saffron which he had bought out of charity from a poor man, and which was forthwith converted by a miracle into gold dust, that is supposed to have glittered in the bricks ever afterwards. The building, which is said once to have contained 1,700 rooms, besides baths, shops, and gardens (all of which have disappeared), has been attributed by some travellers to Shah Abbas. But Khanikoff very appositely pointed out that the style and the inscriptions in the Kufic character alike referred it to the Arab period, and he conjecturally placed its foundation in the reign of the Seljuk Malek Shah. Upon its ruins a fine modern caravanserai was built by the public-spirited Sadr Azem before mentioned. From Zafarani the road leads across the Sebzewar plain at no great distance from the mountains on the north, until the city of that name is reached. The entire town, whose central street is a very long covered bazaar (newly constructed when Conolly passed through in 1830), must be traversed before we arrive at the chapar-khaneh, close to the western gate.
Sebzewar (i.e. green-having) is the capital of a district of some fertility, which suffered terribly in the famine of 1871, and is only now beginning to raise its head again. Before that year the population of the city was estimated at 30,000. It sank at once to less than 10,000, but is now said to have mounted to 18,000. The town is surrounded by the usual wall of mud bricks, and on the north is commanded by a ruined ark or citadel on a mound. The legendary foundation of Sebzewar, it is needless to say, goes far back into the past, but its historical birth is more justly attributed to the Seljuk dynasty, the style of whose architecture can be detected in certain of its remains. Like most of its neighbours, it has been several times destroyed; Timur completing in 1380 A.D. the operation which Mohammed Shah of Kharezm had left imperfectly done. Whatever of prosperity it subsequently regained was obliterated in true Afghan fashion by the Afghan
invaders in the eighteenth century. The modern city is not a century old, having been rebuilt and fortified by Ali Yar Khan, of Mazinan, one of the rebellious governors in Khorasan in the reign of Fath Ali Shah. A good deal of trade has latterly sprung up in Sebzewar, for it is a considerable centre of cotton cultivation, as well as the local entrepôt for the export of wool: and there is an Armenian commercial establishment in the town whose occupants trade with Russia viâ Astrabad and Gez, exporting cotton and wool and importing sugar and chintzes. A coarse cotton cloth is manufactured in the bazaars, and rude copper pots are also fashioned from the produce of three mines in the neighbourhood, which are reputed to be the richest in North Persia and the proper exploitation of which is not unlikely to be undertaken by the Persian Mining Rights Corporation. Sebzewar is also said to be one of the strongholds of the Babis in North Persia.
Almost the only object of interest in Sebzewar to a stranger lies, if a bull may be permitted, outside it. This is an isolated minaret called by the Persians (in their legendary vein) Khosrugird, which stands about four miles beyond the walls of the present town on the west, but was no doubt within the limits of the ancient city destroyed by Mohammed Shah of Kharizm. That any one should ever have been mystified by this tower, which has every feature of Arabic architecture about it, simply because it has lost the mosque which it once adorned, is difficult to believe. Riding out to inspect it in the early dawn, I found the mountain crests both to the north and the south of the town white with freshly fallen snow, the first of the winter. Glorious they looked as the rising sun shone on their glistening caps, and flushed the purples and reds of their lower skirts. O'Donovan, rather irreverently, but with some justice, compared the minaret at a distance to a factory chimney; but this illusion is
dispelled as we approach. Then we see it to be a single lofty tower, 100 feet high, of brickwork arranged so as to form an exterior pattern on the surface, converging towards the summit, and adorned with two bands of Kufic inscriptions also in brickwork. The capital at the top is broken, and the shaft has, therefore, an unfinished appearance. It springs from a square plinth of mixed concrete and gravel, the whole of which to a depth of about six feet is exposed, and which stands upon a further terrace about eight feet high, in the corners of which are doors, and which is surrounded by low pillars and a low mud wall encircling the whole enclosure. Fraser ascended the tower in 1822 by an interior flight of spiral steps, and O'Donovan followed his example in 1880. The stairway is now in ruins.
No traveller who could read the Kufic character need ever have been in doubt as to the history of this interesting relic; for the inscription states that it was raised in the year 505 of the Hejira — i.e. in 1110 A.D. — when Sultan Sanjar ruled in Khorasan, in the reign of Sultan Mohammed, the son of Malek
Shah the Seljuk. It suffered severe injury in the Afghan invasion in 1722, but was subsequently restored by Nadir Shah, and now stands the sole surviving reminder of a city and a splendour that have utterly perished.
Near Sebzewar the country was richly cultivated, especially with cotton. In less than an hour, however, the arable ceased, and in front and around stretched a desolate gravelly plain, in the middle of which in the distance a mountain with double cone stood up and expanded, as we drew near, into a small isolated ridge. Leaving this on the left, we turned towards the base of the snowy range on the north, and after a five hours' ride reached the village of Mihr, the first inhabited place that we had seen for over thirty miles. The post-house is in the very centre of the village, down whose main street runs a rapid and brick-coloured stream. Between Mihr and Mazinan I caught my first glimpse of a kavir, or salt desert, one of those strange and weird expanses, sometimes hard plain, sometimes treacherous swamp,
which cover so large a portion of the centre of Persia, and about which I shall require to particularise later on. The white patches of sand glittered under a thin saline efflorescence, and at a little distance might have been mistaken for shallow pools. Mazinan was once a place of considerable size, and was itself the centre of a cluster of fortified villages and towns, but was destroyed by Abbas Mirza in 1831, in punishment of a rebel chief. It is now a most miserable spot, full of tumble-down or abandoned houses. A relic of bygone days exists in the shape of a big caravanserai on the outskirts of the village, built by Shah Abbas. A once far finer structure, the work of Mamun, the son of Harun-er-Rashid and murderer of the Imam Reza, is now in partial ruin. All around are the remains of other towns or villages not less dismal or deserted. As I rode out of Mazinan at 5.30 A.M. on an icy morning, the caravans of pilgrims in the two big caravanserais were already astir; and some loud-lunged seyid or haji would be heard to chant the note of invocation to Allah, which the whole body would forthwith take up in a responsive volume of sound that rang far through the crisp chill air. From the other side of the village came a chorus of similar cries; and with plentiful shouting and discord, another day for the holy wanderers began.
The mention of the pilgrims, or zawars, of whom I saw so much on each day's journey, and who all but monopolise the Meshed road, tempts me to vary the dull recital of my progress by a slight description of the human surroundings in which it was framed. The stream of progress appeared in the main to be in the opposite direction to that which I was pursuing. Sometimes for miles in the distance could be seen the kafilah, or caravan, slowly crawling at a foot-pace across the vast expanse. Then, as it came nearer, would be heard the melancholy monotone of some devout or musical member of the band, droning out in quavering tones a verse from the Koran; sometimes, in less solemn companies, a more jovial wayfarer trolling some distich from the Persian classics. As the long cavalcade approached, it would be seen to consist of every kind of animal and of every species of man. Horses would carry the more affluent, who would be smoking their kalians as they paced along; some would affect camels; mules were very common, and would frequently support kajavehs, a sort of
wooden pannier, with an arched framework for a hood, in which men as often as women were curled up beneath mountains of quilts. The donkey, however, was the favourite beast of burden. Tiny animals would bear the most stupendous loads, with pots and pans, guns, and water-bottles hanging on either side, and with the entire furniture of a household on their backs; the poultry of the owner perched with ludicrous gravity upon the top of all. It is a common thing for the poorer pilgrims to take shares in a donkey and to vary riding with walking. In the early morning the equestrians would often be seen fast asleep upon their asses, lying forward upon their necks, and occasionally falling with a thump on to the ground. Each kafilah would have a caravan-bashi, or leader, who not infrequently bore a red pennon fluttering from a lance. It was often difficult to discern the men's faces as they rode by shrouded in huge woollen blanket-coats, pulled up over their heads, while the stiff, empty arm-holes stood out on either side like monstrous ears. But, if it was not easy to discern the males, still less could be distinguished of the shapeless bundles of blue cotton that were huddled upon the donkeys' backs, and which chivalry almost forbade me to accept for the fairer sex. I confess to having once or twice, with intentional malice, spurred my horse to a gallop, as I was overtaking some party of wayfarers thus accompanied: for, to see the sober asses kick up their heels and bolt from the track as they heard the clatter of horse-hoofs behind, to observe the amorphous bundles upon their backs shake and totter in their seats, till shrieks were raised, veils fell, and there was imminent danger of a total collapse, was to crack one's sides with sorely-needed and well-earned laughter. There would usually be an assortment of beggars in every band, who would beg of me in one breath and curse me for an infidel in the next, or of tattered dervishes, who in Mussulman countries are beggars in their most offensive guise.
Not that every company we met or passed were pilgrims on pious mission bent. Far from it. Sometimes we would encounter
merchants, absorbed and sedate; sometimes mullahs on sleek asses or mules; sometimes officials and soldiers; and sometimes whole families migrating. All classes and all ages were on the road: horsemen and footmen; rich men and poor men; seyids and scoundrels — a microcosm of the stately, commonplace, repulsive, fascinating Oriental world.
At night these varied and polyglot elements (for there will be pilgrims from many lands) seek shelter and sleep in the caravanserais erected at intervals of ten or fifteen miles along the entire route. I have so often spoken of these structures that I may here, in passing, describe what they are. The caravanserai is the Eastern inn. But with the name the parallelism ends: for no proud signboard, no cheerful parlour or burnished bar, no obsequious ostler or rubicund landlord welcomes your approach. The caravanserai, perhaps, contains a single custodian, and that is all. The wayfarer must do everything for himself. He stables his own beasts, piles together and watches his own baggage, lights his own fire, and cooks his own repast. As a rule, the building is a vast square or rectangular structure of brick or stone, built in the form of a parallelogram round an open court. The two exterior sides and the back walls are plain, and give the building from a distance the appearance of an immense fort — an idea which is frequently, and with full intention, sustained in the shape of projecting towers at the angles and a parapet above. In the front outer wall, or facade, is a series of large recessed arches, with a seat, or platform, about two feet from the ground. These are frequently used as sleeping-places in the warm weather. A huge gateway opens in the centre, with sometimes a tower and bala-khaneh overhead, and leads into the inner quadrangle, which is perhaps fifty yards square, and whose sides are divided into recessed compartments, open to the air, similar to those on the outside wall. In the superior caravanserais a doorway at the back of each of these arches leads into an inner cell, which is occupied on cold nights. Behind these, and reaching to the exterior wall, are long rows of hot, unlit stables, where the animals are lodged, and access to which is gained from the four corners. Such is the ordinary Persian caravanserai. In a few of improved style or recent construction, such as that at Borasjun, near the Persian Gulf — by far the finest that I saw in the whole country — there is a series of upstairs apartments for visitors of higher rank or means; but, as a
rule, democracy is the prevailing law in the economy of the serai of Persia.
Perhaps the weirdest and most impressive of the many unwonted memories that the traveller carries away with him from such-like travel in the East is the recollection of the camel caravans which he has encountered at night. Out of the black darkness is heard the distant boom of a heavy bell. Mournfully, and with perfect regularity of iteration, it sounds, gradually swelling nearer and louder, and perhaps mingling with the tones of smaller bells, signalling the rearguard of the same caravan. The big bell is the insignia and alarum of the leading camel alone. But nearer and louder as the sound becomes, not another sound, and not a visible object, appear to accompany it. Suddenly, and without the slightest warning, there looms out of the darkness, like the apparition of a phantom ship, the form of the captain of the caravan. His spongy tread sounds softly on the smooth sand, and, like a great string of linked ghouls, the silent procession stalks by and is swallowed up in the night.
And how wonderful and ever-present is the contrast in Eastern travel to all life and movement at home! No heavy carts and lumbering wagons jolt to and fro between the farmyard and the fields. No light vehicles and swift equipages dash past upon macadamised roads. Alas! there are no roads; and, if no roads, how much less any vehicles or wagons! Thatched roofs and tiled cottages, lanes and hedgerows and trim fields, rivers coursing between fall banks, beyond all the roar and sudden, smoky rush of the train — these might not exist in the world at all, and do not exist in the world of the Persian, straitened and stunted, but inexpressibly tranquil in his existence. Here, all is movement and bustle, flux and speed; there, everything is imperturbable, immemorial, immutable, slow.
Between Mazinan and Shahrud, a distance of approximately one hundred miles, intervene four stages, which were formerly known as the 'Stages of Terror.' Here the western extremities of the Khorasan mountains, pushed out in long spurs of diminishing height from the knotted mountain cluster that surrounds the head-waters of the Atrek, descend on to the plain, and the road pursues a winding course through their lower folds and undulations. This entire mountain region was once desolated by Turkoman bandits, and through these valleys and ravines they
dashed down in headlong foray upon the helpless bands of travellers making their way to or from Meshed. Sweeping up whatever they could get, driving off the animals, and chaining a few score of captives to their saddle-bows, they galloped off into their mountain-fastnesses with as much precipitation as that with which they had come. Already, along the route which I have described from Meshed to Mazinan, I had seen frequent proofs of their dreaded presence, in the shape of those small circular towers, dotted all over the plain like chessmen on a chessboard, which, from Ashkabad to Meshed, from Sarakhs to Farrah, and from Shahrud almost to Kum, marked the chosen hunting-grounds of these terrible moss-troopers of the border. In parts almost every field had one of these structures, into which, as soon as a rolling cloud of dust revealed the apparition of the enemy, the husbandman crept by a small hole at the bottom, and, rolling two big stones against the aperture, waited till the scourge had swept past. Similar evidence of the terror they inspired, and of the state of siege which self-preservation imposed upon their possible victims, is forthcoming along the entire belt of country above named, in the rude forts erected in every village as a refuge for the inhabitants. Once behind a mud wall the miserable peasants were safe; but woe betide them if caught in the open country — death or the slave-markets of Khiva and Bokhara were then the certain issue.
What the luckless peasant faced every day the timid pilgrim looked to encounter on this fateful stretch of road which I am about to describe. The most elaborate precautions were taken against the danger. An escort used to leave Shahrud and Mazinan twice a month, consisting of a number of so-called foot-soldiers armed with matchlocks, and a mounted detachment accompanying an old gun. At Miandasht the two escorts met and relieved each other. The support of the Mazinan detachment, consisting of 150 matchlock men and twelve artillerymen with their horses, was imposed, in lieu of the ordinary taxes, upon the villagers of that place; and even so late as 1872, when the Seistan Boundary Commissioners passed this way on their return to Teheran, they had to travel with an escort of eighty matchlocks, a 4½-pounder dragged by six horses, and 150 to 200 mounted sowars, between Mazinan and Shahrud.
Conolly, Fraser, Eastwick, O'Donovan, and other writers who journeyed with the pilgrim caravans have left inimitable accounts
of the perils and the panics of their pious companions. A Persian is a coward at the best of times: but a Persian pilgrim is a degree worse than his fellows; and a Persian pilgrim in the vicinity of a Turkoman almost ceases to be a human being. There would be long delays and anxious rumours at the beginning; several false starts would be made and abandoned in consequence of some vague report; finally the caravan would venture forth, moving frequently at night, when the darkness added to, rather than diminished, the terror. First would come the matchlock men blowing their matches, and either marching on foot or mounted on donkeys; then the genuine cavalry, with flintlocks and hayfork-rests; next the great body of the pilgrims, huddling as close as possible round the artillerymen and the gun, which was looked upon as a veritable palladium, but of which it is not on record that it was ever fired. Soldiers again brought up the rear, and, wrapped up in dust, confusion, and panic, the procession rolled on. The noise they made, shouting, singing, cursing, praying, and quarrelling, signalled their approach for miles, and, if they escaped, it was the positive worthlessness of the spoil (for a Mussulman pilgrim leaves all his valuables behind him), rather than the hazard of capture or the awe inspired by the bodyguard, that was responsible for their safety. To their fearful imaginations every bush was a vedette of the enemy, every puff of wind that raised the dust betrayed a charge, every hillock concealed a squadron. Loud were the shouts and clamorous the invocations to Allah, and Ali, and Husein, and all the watchful saints of the calendar, when the end of the march was reached and God had protected his own.
It is only just to add that, if the panic of a multitude was despicable, the terrors of individuals were not unfairly aroused. Many are the tales that are still told of the capture of isolated travellers or of small bands; and there was scarcely a single peasant in the villages in this strip of country that had not, at some time or other, been pounced down upon in the fields or at the water-springs, and who, if happily he were ransomed after years of slavery, did not bear upon his person the lifelong imprint of cruelty and fetters. Colonel Euan Smith is in error in stating that it was upon this piece of road that M. de Blocqueville, the French amateur photographer who had accompanied the disastrous expedition against Merv in 1860, in order
to take photographs and paint a battle-scene for the Shah, was seized and carried off, and not redeemed until he had been a captive for fifteen months and a ransom of 11,000 tomans (then equivalent to 5,000l.) was paid by his royal patron. He was captured in the successful attack made by the Turkomans upon the Persian column while at Merv. It was here, however, that a Persian general in command of 6,000 men, halting behind his column for two or three moments to take a final pull at his kalian, was snatched up and swept away in full sight of his troops, and within a few weeks' time was sold for a few pounds in the bazaar of Khiva.
Whatever may be said of the designs of Russia on this province of Khorasan, not Persia only, but every traveller between Teheran and Meshed, owes her a lasting sense of gratitude for the service she has wrought in putting an end to this unmitigated curse. It was certainly not for unselfish reasons, nor in the interests of Persia, still less out of pure philanthropy, that Russia undertook her successful campaigns against the Tekke Turkomans of Transcaspia. But here we may afford to ignore motives, and may be content with congratulating both ourselves and her upon the fact. Since the victorious campaign of Skobeleff in 1881, and the subsequent annexation of Akhal Tekke, the Meshed-Teheran road has been absolutely secure. No guard is maintained or needed, the pilgrims have no special ground of appeal to Allah, and the traveller is startled by nothing more serious than the whirr of wings as a covey of red-legged partridges — which abound in these mountains — rises almost from between his horse's legs.
Leaving Mazinan, our road struck northwards towards the hills. In the grey morning light I discerned a numerous herd of wild deer, as large as red deer, at a distance of 300 yards from the track; but the bullets of my revolver had no other effect than to accelerate their disappearance. After fourteen miles we came to the deserted caravanserai and fort of Sadrabad.
As the name implies, these edifices were raised by the great Minister, or Sadr Azem, before mentioned; but the fort and its garrison were practically useless: for the latter were only just strong enough to guard themselves, without turning a thought to the protection of others. A mile and a half beyond Sadrabad brought us to the Pul-i-Abrishum (or Bridge of Silk) — originally built by Nadir Shah, and recently restored — over the Abrishum River (a stream strongly impregnated with salt from salt-springs near its source), which flows down here from the north, and, under the name of the Kal Mura, subsequently disappears into a kavir to the south. The Kal Mura is generally regarded as the eastern boundary of Khorasan, and it marked the extreme north-west limit of the Afghan empire of Ahmed Shah Durani in the last century. At the time that I passed, the river-bed, which was about twenty yards in width, was absolutely dry. The rising sun just enabled me to take a photograph, which reveals a very typical Persian bridge, and I then hurried on.
A few miles beyond we came to a spot known as the Chashmeh-i-Gez (or Spring of Tamarisks), where a scanty rivulet supplies a number of little pools and fertilises some patches of grass. This was a notorious and dreaded spot in the old days, for hither came the Turkoman robbers to water their horses after the long mountain ride, and here the luckless voyager was frequently swooped down upon and caught. It was close to this spot that Ferrier had a brush with them in 1845. The end of this stage is the remarkable-looking village-fort of Abbasabad, which rises in tiers upon an eminence, the lofty front being pierced with numerous windows and crowned with ruined battlements. Its inhabitants are the converted descendants of a Georgian colony of a hundred families, who were transported to this spot by Abbas the Great three centuries ago, as a link in his chain of military colonies along the northern frontier. He assigned them an annual allowance in coin (100 tomans) and wheat (100 kharvars), which after a while was not paid. In the third generation, being forbidden to use the Georgian tongue, they are said to have become Mussulmans; but traces of their mother language have been detected by some travellers in their dialect. During the Turkoman reign of terror there was said not to be a single adult man in Abbasabad who had not more than once been carried away captive.
A hilly ride over low, barren ridges, and up the gravelly bed of a valley known as the Dahaneh Al Hak, brings us to the squalid village of that name, where a corps of fifty militiamen were once stationed to guard the road. Through similar scenery and over undulating ground we mount 1,000 feet since leaving Abbasabad, and come at length to the magnificent caravanserai of Miandasht (lit. mid-plain), whose lofty embattled walls and projecting towers resemble a vast fortress, and can be seen for miles. This was the central point of the 'Stages of Terror,' and here, one half the peril over, the pilgrims foregathered to exchange felicitations or foment alarms. There is an old caravanserai built by Shah Abbas, whose name appears above the gateway; but the huge castellated structure is a new erection of burnt brick, with a parapet and walls twenty feet high. A courtyard, in which the chapar-khaneh is located, connects the two, and water is provided
from three large abambars, or subterranean reservoirs, to which access is gained by steep flights of steps.
Beyond Miandasht occurs what was formerly the most perilous part of the journey. The road winds in and out of low passes between rounded knolls, where every turn discloses a hidden hollow, and where every elevation might hide an ambuscade. The hills are bare and stony, or clad only with a diminutive scrub. They are alive with partridges, in pairs or in small coveys of five or six, which were so tame that they ran along the road and crouched till one was within a dozen yards. Here is the peculiarly noted Dahaneh-i-Zaidar, the gully by which the Turkomans usually descended to make their attack, and at its mouth was the small, now dismantled fort of Zaidar, where was a garrison of fifty regulars. On emerging from the hills we see before us the twin-peaked mountain above Maiomai, and, skirting its northern base, reach the village of that name, where is a fine caravanserai, built by Shah Abbas II., and some superb old chenars. It was in the bala-khaneh of the posthouse at Maiomai, which I occupied, that O'Donovan was besieged by an infuriated band of Arab hajis, and had rather a narrow escape; and it was in the caravanserai that Dr. John Cormick, for many years chief physician to Abbas Mirza, died of typhus in 1833.
The next march, from Maiomai to Shahrud, forty-one miles, used to be the longest in Persia, and has been bewailed by many victims. But, for postal purposes, it has now been divided by the station and chapar-khaneh of Armian. The first part of the road, along the base of the same mountain range, is very stony. Two small villages are passed, each dependent upon a single small rill, whose passage from the mountains can be traced by a thin line of poplars. Armian is picturesquely situated on a hill-side, with an abundant stream flowing down the road just outside the posthouse door, and subsequently fertilising a series of well-kept terrace-plots below the village. The first
half of the ride to Shahrud is spent in winding in and out of the lower ranges that gradually dip into the plain of Shahrud, 1,000 feet below Armian. The snowy crown of the Shah Kuh (King Mountain), the highest point of the Elburz between Shahrud and Astrabad, had been before my eyes the whole day, and at its feet, I knew, lay Shahrud. About eleven miles before reaching the latter, the first view is caught of the level plain, some ten miles in width, on which were visible three detached green clumps. The two nearer were unimportant villages, the farthest and largest, nestling at the very foot of the Elburz, was Shahrud. So buried in trees is the town, that, after riding for some time between garden-walls and orchards, I found myself in the main street, almost unawares.
I have already, in a previous chapter, dwelt upon the strategical importance of the position of Shahrud. The town is a great meeting-point of roads, from Herat to Meshed, from Tabbas and Turshiz, from Yezd, from Astrabad and Mazanderan, and from the capital. It is situated in a plain, of whose fertility I could form no just estimate in the month of November, but whose productiveness and abundant water-supply are unquestioned. The Rud-i-Shah (or King's River) flows down the street outside the chapar-khaneh, but at this season of the year was little more than a rivulet, and reflected no honour upon its name. The defensive properties of the place struck me as contemptible, and appeared to be limited to a ruined citadel, and to two small mud towers, perched upon a conical hill above the town. Shahrud is celebrated for its local manufacture of boots and shoes, which are said to be patronised by the Shah and the Royal Family; for the redoubtable shabgez, or gherib-gez, which attacked O'Donovan here but spared me; and as an entrepôt both of the local products of Mazanderan and of Russian imports viâ Gez and Astrabad, through the agency of Russian and Russo-Armenian traders. The Russian Caucasus and Mercury Company also keep an agent in the town. Its population is said to be 5,000. There is a Persian Telegraph-station here, and a wire to Astrabad, whence there is further telegraphic connection by Chikishliar with Kizil Arvat and Transcaspia — a line which is much used by the Russian Legation in Teheran in communicating with Ashkabad.
Having arrived at Shahrud early in the afternoon, I spent some time in inspecting the town. It contains a large covered bazaar, not thatched, but properly roofed, and with spacious and well-appointed shops. My observations and inquiries tallied exactly with what I had heard at Meshed. All the sugar was Russian, all the tea was Indian, brought from Bunder Abbas viâ Yezd. The greater part of the coloured cottons and chintzes were Russian, but the white sheeting bore the name of a Bombay firm, and I saw, not merely a large pile of Manchester glazed calicoes with a Bombay label, but also a number of unbleached cottons direct from Manchester itself. This was a gratifying fact, considering that Shahrud lies within four marches of what is practically a Russian port on the Caspian. I bought some delicious white grapes for a few pence. A wine is made from them in Shahrud.
Though Shahrud is the capital of the district of Bostam-Shahrud, it is not the residence of the Governor or the seat of government. The latter is at the town of Bostam, three and a half miles in a north-easterly direction from Shahrud (from which it is concealed by a rocky hill), and higher up the course of the same river. Bostam, a Mazanderani proper name, is a place of superior fertility and luxury to Shahrud. It is, further, a site of great sanctity among Mohammedan pilgrims, for here was buried the famous Sheikh, or Sultan, Bayazid, the leader of a dervish sect, who died, and was interred in the court of a beautiful mosque, now much ruined, in the year A.D. 874. Attached to the same mosque, whose cupola was erected by a Mongol prince in A.D. 1313, is a shaking minaret, similar to those which I shall afterwards describe at Isfahan, and which can be made to vibrate by rocking it at the summit. Colonel Lovett has attributed this phenomenon to the elasticity of the bricks and cement employed, the latter becoming more elastic with age, and has compared it with the kindred phenomenon of slabs of elastic sandstone. There is, further, at Bostam a curious brick tower, whose outer circumference is, so to speak, dog-toothed by a number of salient angles, similar to the tower of which I shall speak later at Rhey.
Already, upon arriving at the posthouse of Shahrud — which is unique in the possession of a threefold bala-khaneh — I had observed unfamiliar symptoms of refinement, in the shape of a druggeted floor and curtained doorways. On my return from the bazaars I was proceeding to make my toilet, and was already in a state of semi-déshabille, when, without the slightest warning, I became aware of a further act of official attention. Two Armenians first entered unannounced, both of whom could speak a little French. One was the agent of Messrs. Ziegler in Shahrud, the other of a firm named Tumanianz. I presumed that they had come out of curiosity, as they offered no explanation. But in the East such amenities cannot be resented, requiring rather to be interpreted as tokens of civility. Wherefore I continued my toilet while discussing the trade and commerce of Shahrud. Presently, however, the doorway of the bala-khaneh was again darkened, and a trio of Persian officials marched in, while a posse of attendants stood outside. They were succeeded by some menials carrying a tray, on which were two packets of tea and four sugar-loaves wrapped up in blue paper; following whom appeared two other individuals holding by the legs a kicking sheep, while a third balanced a couple of cane-bottomed chairs behind. I really think that I am justified in presenting this to my readers as a spectacle of no mean dramatic effect.
Scene. — A mud room in a Persian posthouse.
Dramatis Personae. — Englishman in flannel shirt, breeches, and stockings only; Armenian traders; Persian chamberlains; struggling sheep.
Dramatic Accessories. — Sugar-loaves and cane-bottomed chairs.
I now realised that I was the recipient of a formal deputation from the Prince-Governor of Shahrud, who had sent to welcome and to invite me to become his guest at Bostam, and that the Armenians had been despatched as a sort of advanced guard to reconnoitre and interpret. By their aid I was enabled to acknowledge the hospitality of the Governor and to accept his gifts — a process which naturally involved the return of an equivalent present to the deputies. Having pocketed a few tomans with much satisfaction, these worthies forthwith realised that no more business was to be done.
Accordingly, they announced that the hour for repose had arrived, and bowed themselves out. For my part, I slew the sheep and had a capital leg of mutton for dinner.
Shahrud is rather more than the halfway stage between Meshed and Teheran, but it serves to divide the journey into two portions, of which it is difficult to determine which is the less attractive. There is a curious identity between their respective features: for, just as the Meshed-Shahrud section presents two cities of ancient fame, Nishapur and Sebzewar, so the Shahrud-Teheran section displays Damghan and Semnan and; just as the only structures worthy of observation in the first section are the minarets and towers of Sebzewar and Bostam, so, in the second, we must be content with the analogous monuments of Damghan and Semnan. Finally, to complete the parallelism, just as the first section terminates after threading the famous Turkoman passes, so does the second conduct us, on the penultimate day's journey, through the even more famous Caspian Gates that lead into the Plain of Veramin. Stones, sand, kavir, and execrable horses are the common prerogatives of both.
It was on one of the worst of these brutes that over a track scarcely less atrocious, I pursued my way to Deh Mullah ('the Village of the Priest'). The chapar-khaneh is on the outskirts of the village, which lies a little farther in the plain, and is remarkable only for a huge mound of clay, once crowned by a citadel, whose riven and crumbling walls stand up in melancholy ruin. The ride from Deh Mullah to Damghan is over rather better ground, but is unutterably tedious. On my right hand was the scarped red rampart of the Elburz, rising sheer from the plain, and, like a wall of brass, shutting off the defiles and gorges of that mighty range; and behind them, again, the steamy lowlands of Mazanderan, sloping to the Caspian. On the left, or south, whereas on most maps I see marked a salt desert, or kavir, my own notes record that, throughout the entire day's journey, the horizon was bounded on that side, at an average distance of about ten miles, by a range of hills of quite sufficient elevation to appear upon most maps, although I cannot find any trace of them upon the majority of those that I have studied. The road to Damghan passed several villages, one of which, Mehmandost, was evidently a favourite halting-place for travellers, as there were crowds of wayfarers and horsemen in the single street. About three miles from Damghan
we rode through the ruins of a deserted city, Bostajan. A more sorrowful spectacle than an abandoned town of mud cannot be conceived. The buildings, and roofs, and walls gradually waste away into indistinguishable heaps of clay; but, so compact and solid but do these become in the process, that they last for scores, and sometimes for hundreds, of years. Nor is it fair to assume that, along with each deserted city or site, its inhabitants, as an item in the population, have been wiped off the face of the earth. Were such the case, one might be led to infer that Persia, which is now as sparsely peopled as Palestine, was once as densely crowded as China. I believe that this would be a false inference. Just as each great Persian monarch or founder of a dynasty, from Cyrus downwards, has shifted the capital and seat of government, so as to associate a fresh glory with his name, so has each petty governor or chieftain striven to emulate his sovereign by a new urban plantation; and, in a yet lower grade, each father of a family has thought to better himself and to transcend his forerunners by erecting a new abode. It is to this universal instinct, permeating every rank of life, not less than to the ravages of famine, disease, and war, that must be attributed the countless wasting skeletons of tenements and cities that litter the soil of Persia.
From a distance of some miles the two minarets of Damghan, the counterparts of that of Sebzewar, rise in view. They stand some way apart, in different quarters of the town. The better preserved of the two, which is mountable and has a small turret of later date at the top, with a door for the muezzin, is situated just off the main street of the town, and is in close proximity to a mosque — not, indeed, that to which it was originally attached, but a comparatively modern structure. Like the minar at Sebzewar, it is faced with bricks, so laid as to form geometrical patterns on the circumference, and has, further, a band of Kufic letters in high relief. The two minarets belong to the imamzadehs, or tombs of two saints, named respectively Jafir and Kasim; and, for an account of their shrines, as well of a third tomb raised over a saint named Mohammed, the son of Ibrahim, and called Pir-i-Alamdar, I cannot do better than refer my readers to the erudite pages of Khanikoff. Damghan, though a considerable place, even
in the present century, is now in a pitiable state of decay. The deserted ruins of a huge square citadel — a room in which used to be preserved and shown as the apartment wherein Fath Ali Shah first saw the light — rise above the cubical domes of the bazaar, are fast crumbling to pieces. I rode through the bazaar, which consists of a long covered street, far less cleanly and decorous than that of Shahrud. Through the town runs a stream, flowing down from a spring in the mountains called Chashmeh-i-Ali, where is both a summer residence of the Shah, and also a place of pilgrimage, as one of the spots where Ali's charger appears to have stamped so fiercely with his hoof as to leave a permanent indentation in the rock. On a hill-top near this miraculous site a further miracle exists in the shape of a spring, called Chashmeh-i-Bad (or Fountain of the Wind), which, if stirred at certain times, is said to produce a hurricane that blows everything to destruction.
Damghan has a twofold historical interest — legendary and modern. It is always supposed to mark the site of the ancient Hekatompylos (or City of a Hundred Gates), the name given by the Greeks to the capital of the Arsacid dynasty of Parthian kings, although, with the exception of a number of mounds and of several underground conduits, built of large-slabs of stone, there does not exist, and is not on record as having existed, at Damghan a single remain that could be identified with so illustrious a past. Ferrier, I think erroneously, endeavours to combat this theory by the argument that the City of a Hundred Gates must mean a city in which many roads met, whereas at Damghan there are only two. He, therefore, prefers the Shahrud-Bostam site for that of Hekatompylos. Apart, however, from the fact that more roads meet at Damghan than two, it is by no means certain that the Greeks, when they used this descriptive epithet, referred to city gates at all. The title was equally applied by them to Egyptian Thebes, where it has been conjectured to refer to the pylons, or gateways, of the many splendid temples by which the capital of the Rameses was adorned; and it may have had some similar application in the case of the Parthian city.
Dismissing, however, the identity of Damghan with Hekatompylos as a question of purely speculative interest, we may find enough of romance in the history of the town under its modern name. It is needless to say that Jenghiz Khan destroyed it once, or to add that Timur destroyed it again. That was a compliment invariably paid by those rival scourges of humanity to urban magnificence. Don Ruy di Clavijo, passing through Northern Persia on his embassy from the Castilian King to the Court of the Great Tartar in 1404, found still standing at Damghan two towers of human heads set in mud, which, but a few years before, the latter had erected as a trophy. Shah Abbas rebuilt the town and constructed its citadel. Here, in October 1729, Nadir Shah gained his great victory over the Afghan Ashraf, which heralded the final expulsion of the aliens in the following year. Here, in 1763, Zeki Khan, the savage half-brother of Kerim Khan Zend, being despatched to quell a revolt of the Kajar tribe, planted a garden with his prisoners, head downwards, at even distances; and here, in 1796, perished the miserable grandson of Nadir, Shah Rukh, from the effects of the inhuman torture inflicted upon him at Meshed by Agha Mohammed Shah. In the present century Damghan is said to have been finally ruined by a friend, instead of a foe, having never recovered from the encampment here, for three months, in 1832, of the army of Abbas Mirza on its way to Herat. No flight of locusts could have inflicted a more wholesale devastation. The population is reported now to be 13,000. I cannot credit it.
After leaving Damghan the road strikes due west, and traverses first a gravelly, and afterwards a richly-cultivated, plain to Ghushah, a place consisting only of two buildings — a caravanserai and a posthouse, which the exigencies of travel have conjured up in an otherwise untenanted expanse. The only interesting spot passed on the way is the deserted fort of Dowletabad, with a triple wall of enclosure, surrounded by a deep fosse. Sixty years ago Sergeant Gibbons, an Englishman serving in the army of Abbas Mirza, said it was 'one of the best little forts he had seen in Persia.' Its chief, who had held out for some time against the exactions of the provincial Governor, offered Abbas Mirza a bribe
of 30,000 tomans if he would continue him in the government. The Prince pocketed the money and carried off the chief to Meshed, the local Governor taking advantage of his absence to capture the fort. Like most other places in the neighbourhood, it is now abandoned and is rapidly falling to pieces.
Throughout this day, and, indeed, in all parts of my journey, I passed several of those great tumuli, or barrows, which have so puzzled the traveller in North Persia. They consist of immense circular or oval mounds, from fifty to a hundred feet in height, supporting, as a rule, no traces of buildings, but composed of solid masses of clay, worn smooth by the long passage of time. Local tradition, of course, assigns them to Jamshid — which is tantamount to a confession of utter ignorance as to their origin. By some they have been regarded as the sites of fire-temples, raised in the old days of Zoroastrian worship. I entertain very little doubt that they were mostly, if not all, raised as citadels or forts of defence for villages, long since perished, below. They are invariably to be found upon the plains where Nature has provided no ready means of defence, and where artifice was consequently required to create them. Many still exhibit upon their summits the crumbling, shapeless walls of the mud citadels by which they were once crowned. Good illustrations of this stage of existence are visible at Bidesht, near Shahrud, and at Jajarm, between Bujnurd and Shahrud. Where the tumuli (or kurgans, as they are called) are smooth and bare, the superstructure has entirely perished. A long line of these mounds is still traceable along the valley of the Gurgan, starting from Gumesh Tepe (or Silver Hill) — an obviously artificial erection — on the shores of the Caspian, and forming part of a triple line of earth ramparts, attributed to Alexander the Great, which extends as far as Bujnurd. The regularity of their occurrence in some places, as, for instance, between Kazvin and Teheran, has led to the plausible conjecture that they may also have been used as signal-stations, or beacons, from one camp to another. But, in either case, their purpose was military. There seems to be no ground for regarding any of them as sepulchral barrows.
The road from Ghushah lay over a desolate and uncultivated plain, and then gradually mounted, until, having traversed an easy pass in the hills, it suddenly dropped down upon a gloomy hollow, where stood the caravanserai and posthouse of Ahuan. The existing
brick serai was built by Shah Suleiman Sefavi; an older one of stone, attributed to the Sassanid Nushirwan, is in ruins. The name Ahuan, which has apparently much perplexed previous travellers, signifies antelope or gazelle, tradition ascribing to this spot one of the astounding miracles by which the Imam Reza signalised the various stages of his eastward journey to Tus. Here he found a captive female antelope, which, detecting his sacred personality, found speech, and invoked the assistance of the saint on behalf of her motherless young. The Imam bade the hunter release the animal, and himself went bail for her reappearance. The antelope, however, found the joys of home too much for her plighted word, and failed to keep the tryst; whereupon the prophet, being appealed to, 'willed' her back again to her captor, with whom she remained a prisoner, or a pet, ever afterwards. Here the mountain range is entered that separates the plains of Damghan and Semnan. From the highest point of the dividing crest the latter city was visible, twelve miles away, lying like a green splash upon a floor of stones. The descent on the far side, though easy, is very stony, and cantering down was no pleasure. Meeting a closed carriage drawn by four horses, with two postillions, outriders, and a guard, I had a horrible momentary dread that I was in for an istikbal, or official entry; but was reassured by finding that the occupant was the hakim, or Governor, who presumably was making a tour through his not very extensive dominions.
Semnan is held remarkable in Persia for its extensive and well-irrigated gardens, for its ancient trees, for an old minaret which enables it to compete with Damghan, for a smart and well-preserved modern mosque, for its local manufactures of teacakes and blue cotton pyjamas, for the beauty of its women, and for the unintelligibility of its speech. Perhaps in none of these respects does it quite answer to expectation. There is a great deal of water flowing in rivulets down the smaller streets, which usually serve as watercourses in Persia as well us roadways; but the environs of the town did not appear to profit thereby to the full extent, although a good deal of tobacco is cultivated.
Outside the bazaar is an open space in which there are some venerable chenars, and one magnificent veteran is enclosed in the bazaar itself, and protrudes his stupendous bole through the roof. The old minaret is also encountered in the middle of the bazaar, attached to the Musjid-i-Jama, which is in ruins. The tower is one hundred feet high and contains a hundred steps leading to the summit, which is fitted with a prayer-gallery. Earthquakes and age have caused it to slant. Fath Ali Shah's mosque, a little distance away, contains a spacious quadrangle, fifty yards square, and two fine aiwans, or recessed arches, set in tile-enamelled frames. Attached to it is a madresseh, or religious college. As for the teacakes, when Vambéry asked in vain for them, having heard of their fame as far away as in Herat, he received the truly Persian reply that, so great was the demand for these articles, and so enormous the export, that none were left for local consumption. I did not see the beautiful women any more than Vambéry found the teacakes. Upon the speech I am not qualified to pronounce; but so learned a philologist as Khanikoff, having made fruitless efforts to ascertain something by queries, came to no more definite conclusion than that it was a Mazanderan dialect, enriched by more vowels; whilst a legend relates that a savant who was once employed by a Persian monarch to report upon the languages spoken by his subjects illustrated that of Semnan by shaking some stones in an empty gourd before his royal patron. Semnan is reported to contain 4,000 houses and 16,000 inhabitants — a probably altogether extravagant estimate. Jews are prohibited from residing here; but there are some twenty-five Hindu Buniahs engaged in trade, Semnan being the point where a route from Bunder Abbas, viâ Yezd and Tabbas, comes in from the south and supplies the northern provinces. A mud wall of the usual character, with flanking towers and gateways, and in the usual state of dilapidation, surrounds the town; and the Governor lives in a fortified ark (or citadel) projecting from the city wall on the north-west.
A long stony ascent leads us to one of the few interesting spots on the road between Meshed and Teheran. This is the remarkable mail-roost — for I can call it by no more appropriate name — of Lasgird. Here there has once been a citadel, built upon a lofty
circular mound to a total height of perhaps eighty feet from the plain. The citadel has fallen into ruin and the buildings in its interior are a litter of rubbish and bricks. But the villagers have established themselves in the deserted enceinte, and, on the very top of the outer walls, have built a double storey of mud houses, which are only accessible by flights of crazy steps from the interior, and the most remarkable feature of which is a ledge or balcony built out from each storey with rude logs of wood plastered over with mud. Upon this rickety platform, which has nothing in the shape of a railing to prevent anyone from falling off, and which is full of holes, the inhabitants appear to live their outdoor life. The place, from a little distance, looks as if a gigantic colony of birds had settled there and built out their nests from the walls, the outer shape of the entire mound resembling a huge cask. It is entered by a steep stairway from the ground, mounting to a small postern, the door of which is a single block of stone swung on a pivot. I entered, and scrambled up the rude flights of steps in the interior, and poked my nose into some of the nests — I cannot call them cottages — in the upper storeys. The women were unveiled and steeped in squalor. The general condition of the tenements was very much like what the domestic economy of a rookery might be expected to be. Here the same dialect is spoken as at Semnan. The citadel is surrounded by a deep, broad fosse, converted into garden-plots, the revenues of which go to swell the endowment of the Imam Reza at Meshed.
After leaving Lasgird the route conducts through a hilly region which has been furrowed by winter torrents into deep gullies and ravines crossed by bridges. Upon descending again into the plain, the village of Deh Nemek (Salt Village) can be seen, at least twelve miles away, in the middle of an unutterably barren and repulsive desert. Few things are more treacherous in Persian travel than the false expectation induced by the sight of one's destination at the apparent distance of a few miles only, or more wearying than the disappointment that follows as the miles lengthen out into farsakhs, and the end never seems to come. What, in the distance, had appeared a settlement of two buildings only, turned out to be a village with a good many houses, hidden in a little semi-fertile depression of 'the level waste, the rounding grey.' In the succeeding strip of country — which is not less desolate — we pass, at the villages of Padeh and Aradan, further
specimens of abandoned, though not, as at Lasgird, re-inhabited, citadels on the top of great artificial clay mounds. When originally raised, and crowned with battlements and towers, these kalehs must have been imposing structures. They are now in a sort of intermediate stage between the recognisable fort and the indurated bare mound which I have discussed and explained in a preceding paragraph. Beyond Aradan an abundant stream descends from the mountains and separates into many channels, of which I must have crossed twenty in the space of half a mile. Cultivation improves in the same ratio, and at Kishlak (lit. winter quarters), which is khalisah, or Crown property, is responsible for the grain and fodder with which the royal stables are supplied at Teheran. This is the district of Khar, so often mentioned in earlier history and travel, and renowned as one of the granaries of North Persia. Here the route turns towards the north-west, and, at a distance of eight miles from Kishlak, enters a range of hills by a path which is commonly identified with, and which therefore raises the question of, the famous Pylae Caspiae (or Caspian Gates).
I do not here propose, and I have not the space at my command, to discuss that question at full length. Its essential points may be said to have been argued, if not determined, by the labours of previous writers; and I will, accordingly, refer my readers to the pages of Rennell, Ouseley, Morier, Fraser Ferrier, Eastwick, and Goldsmid. The Pylae Caspiae were the pass through which Darius fled towards Bactria after the defeat of Arbela, and through which he was pursued by the army of Alexander. Information that may help us to identify it is to be found principally in the pages of Arrian and Pliny. The latter says that the pass itself was eight miles in length, and that no fresh water is encountered in a tract of twenty-eight miles; the former reports that Alexander reached it in one day's rapid march from Rhages (Rhey). Now
the claimants to the distinction of being the veritable Pylae Caspiae are four in number. There is a pass called Teng-i-Shemshirbur, (or the Pass of the Sword Cut — the tradition being that it was hewn in the rock by one slash of Ali's scimetar), on the upper road from the capital to Shahrud, and just under the shadow of the Shahkuh, the highest peak of the Elburz, between Astrabad and Shahrud. This pass is 150 yards long and only 18 feet wide, between two perpendicular walls of limestone. Napier says, 'there can be little doubt that this is the Caspian Gates.' On the other hand, there can be no doubt that Napier is wrong. For, not only do neither the features nor length correspond in any particular, but the Sword Cut Pass is about 200 miles too far to the east. Burnes selected as his candidate the Gaduk Pass in the Elburz, north of Firuzkuh, through which runs the ordinary road to Mazanderan. Among the northern passes leading from Irak Ajemi into the Caspian provinces, those of Sawachi, near Firuzkuh, and the Teng-serenza, just beyond that place, have also been mentioned, both of them being precipitous rocky defiles of a character that might be supposed to justify the name of gates. Morier, however, who visited them, and was at first impressed by the verisimilitude of their features, soon recognised that, in addition to other respects, they failed in the essential element of distance, being ninety miles east of Teheran, and, consequently, not within a day's march even for Alexander. Accordingly, he suggested, and Fraser, Ferrier, and Eastwick have supported with much wealth of argument, the choice of the pass to which my journey has now brought me, between the plains of Khar and Veramin.
This pass is known as the Sirdara, or Ser Dereh, or Sardari, probably Ser-i-dareh (i.e. Head of the Valley). It is entered by a narrow passage or gateway on the south-east, and winds tortuously through a projecting spur of the Elburz range, that here runs forward in a south-westerly direction into the great central desert. My notes represent it as being nearly six miles in length. A salt stream flows down the valley bottom, and encrusts its banks with a white efflorescence. At times the pass opens into a little plain, and then again contracts. In the centre is an old
deserted building with towers at the corner, and at the western exit are the remains of two old castles or towers. The place has evidently been strongly fortified and guarded, according to the standards of an age that knew no guns; and this very fact tends to sustain the likelihood of its having been the recoguised mountain passage in a bygone day. Furthermore, the distance from Rhey — which is about forty miles — corresponds sufficiently with the reckoning of the classical writers. On the other hand, there remain the considerations, which I feel it impossible to ignore, that the pass itself does not, in its material features, in the least justify the description of pyloe, or gates, or the statement of Pliny that it was artificially fashioned, and so narrow in parts as only to admit a cart; that, leading, as it does, through a quite subordinate spur of the main range, it would be surprising that it should have attained a celebrity so far in excess of other, and much more remarkable, defiles; and, above all, that, as it does not conduct directly to the Caspian, but leaves the main range of the Elburz still to be pierced, there appears to be no sufficient reason for its being known as the Caspian Gates. The first, however, of these difficulties is to some extent met and obviated by the suggestion of Sir H. Rawlinson — whose acquaintance with the orography of Persia is unrivalled — that the real Caspiae Pylae are not the Sirdara Pass, but a defile in the same range a few miles to the north, known as the Teng-i-Suluk, which he saw and examined in 1835, and whose physical characteristics, although little known, correspond with the accounts of the classical authorities, besides containing a shorter route between Rhages and the Plain of Khar.
I cannot help thinking, indeed, that some such solution must be accepted, or at least anticipated, by those who attach a becoming value to the statements of the Greek and Roman writers. Nor can the very important fact be left out of sight, that European travellers, passing northwards from Isfahan to Mazanderan, to the Court of Abbas the Great at Ferahabad or Ashraf, on the Caspian, less than 300 years ago, have left descriptions of the defile or defiles by which they penetrated the Elburz in this very
part, that correspond with sufficient exactitude with the words of Pliny. Starting from Mahalleh Bagh, which a Persian geographer identifies with the Plain of Khar, both Pietro della Valle, in 1618, and Sir Thomas Herbert, accompanying Sir Robert Sherley and Sir Dodmore Cotton, in 1627, proceeded through a defile, which they describe in very similar terms, to Hablah Rud and Firuzkuh, whence they continued their march to the Caspian. Of this defile Pietro della Valle says that, after leaving Mahalleh Bagh, he entered a deep and very narrow valley (una profonda e angustissima valle), with lofty mountains on either side (i monti son sempre altissimi delle bande), and in some turnings so narrow that to conduct a litter through it was a critical undertaking (che ci diede fastidio per far passar la lettiga), and that through this valley flowed a rivulet of salt water. Herbert, in his inimitable phraseology, says: 'The greater part of this night's journey was through the bottoms of transected Taurus, whose stupendious forehead wets itself in the ayery middle region; the fretum, or lane, is about forty yards broad even below, and bestrewed with pibbles; either side is walled with an amazing hill, higher than to reach up at twice shooting; and for eight miles so continues, agreeing with the relation Pliny and Solinus make of it; a prodigious passage, whether by art or nature questionable; I allude it unto nature, God's handmaid.' The description of these writers does not essentially differ from that left by A. Chodzko, formerly Russian Consul at Resht, of the pass which he visited in company with Sir H. Rawlinson, in 1835. He calls it Gardan-i-Sialek, and describes it as a tremendous defile, 2,500 yards long, with bare precipitous rock walls, from 650 to 1,000 feet in height, the passage between them being only thirty feet wide in its broadest and five feet in its narrowest part. On the other hand, it is quite credible that the passes of Pliny, Della Valle, Herbert, and Rawlinson, may not be the same Caspian Gates through which Darius fled and Alexander marched; and that there may be more than one claimant to the title. This is, on the whole, the most probable solution, the Sirdara pass, in the opinion of the most learned critics, corresponding more accurately to the account of Arrian (cf. also Quintus Curtius and Amm. Marcellinus), than does any other pass to the north or east. It cannot, however, to my
mind, conceivably be identified with that of Pliny, nor is it likely to have been the Caspiae Pylae to which so much geographical importance was attached by Strabo.
It was soon after emerging upon the plateau beyond the pass that an isosceles cone of perfect shape and dazzling whiteness rose in view above the browns and greys of the nearer ranges, and disclosed to my enchanted vision the mighty Demavend. From that day, for over a month, I never, except in the mist of early morning, lost sight of the lordly spectacle, which always overhangs Teheran, and which attended me on my southward ride to a distance of 160 miles. What Fujiyama is to the Japanese, Demavend is to the Persian landscape. Both are ever-present, aerial, and superb. Both have left an enduring mark upon the legends of their country; and if the peerless Fuji has played a far greater part in the art of Nippon than has Demavend in that of Iran, it is because the Japanese, while not inferior in ingenuity, are a vastly more imaginative people.
Traversing a level, uncultivated plain, we reached the village and posthouse of Aiwan-i-Kaif, fording a rapid but muddy stream which flows over a broad bed outside. The name indicates Portal, or Hall, of Delight, although other derivations have been suggested — viz. Aiwan-i-Kai (i.e. Hall of the Kaianians — tradition interpreting a ruin in the neighbourhood as a palace of
Cambyses), and Aiwan-i-Key (or Royal Drinking-hall). Whichever it be, the place appeared to me to have no attractions for the modern votaries of Epicurus. A great many of the houses had no occupants, and seemed to have been abandoned; and ill-advised would the monarch be who sought refuge in so squalid a retreat. Between Aiwan-i-Kaif and Kabud Gumbaz (Blue Dome) the River Jajrud descends from the mountains, and was divided at this season of the year into at least twenty-five different channels, straggling over a pebbly bed — in all, quite a quarter of a mile in width. I forded all these, and at Kabud Gumbaz encountered the first returning symptoms of proximity to that civilisation to which I had now been a stranger for nine days, in the shape of a vast pile of letters (the first I had received since leaving England) and a good hack sent out for my use by a friend in Teheran. Right gladly did I speed over the Plain of Veramin, whose ruins, presenting in the distance the appearance of four solitary columns, rose from a mound far away in the hollow of the plain. From a distance of quite ten miles the flash, as of a beacon fire, on the horizon showed where the sun's rays splintered on the golden dome of Shah Abdul Azim. Formerly the caravan route lay past this sanctuary and round the base of the range which separates the plains of Veramin and Teheran. Still is that line followed by the pilgrims, upon whom, whether starting for or returning from Meshed, it is incumbent to call and do reverence at the prophet's shrine; but pack animals and the postal road now both cut off an angle by striking in a due northerly direction over the ridge itself. Mounting to the summit of the pass, the new road winds up and down through dusty folds, until, the northern crest being reached, far down upon the plain that expands below is seen spread out the belt of verdure, topped only by a few edifices, that marks the capital of Persia. Beyond, again, at a distance of about seven miles from the city, rises the abrupt ferrugineous face of the Elburz range, like a prodigious rampart of rusty corrugated iron. The first appearance of Teheran is agreeable after a long journey, but in no sense imposing. As I descended the slope and drew Teheran nearer, it was difficult to believe that that green band could shroud a great city with a population of nearly 200,000 souls. The only buildings that rose to any height above the level of the tree-tops appeared to be a large mosque, with four tile-covered minarets, that looked from a distance like painted
organ-pipes, and, upon nearer approach, like sham Corinthian columns; one or two detached towers, and a domed structure whose roof consisted only of skeleton ribs of iron, like the frame work in which a schoolroom globe is hung. The latter turned out subsequently to be the Takieh, or Theatre of the Passion Plays, within the precincts of the palace. Outside the walls on the southern side are a large number of brick-kilns, a monopoly of which industry is possessed by the Grand Vizier. Here, too, are the slaughter-houses, the lease of which brings in an income of 2,230l. per annum. Entering the fortifications by a gaudily decorated gate at some distance from the populated quarter, I rode quite two miles through the streets before reaching the British Legation, which is situated on the northern outskirts of the city.
SUPPLEMENTARY ROUTES BETWEEN MESHED AND TEHERAN
TEHERAN TO SHAHRUD (the summer or mountain route, viâ Demavend, Firuzkuh, and Chasmeh Ali, 237 miles). J. B. Morier (1814), Second Journey, cap. xxiii. Captain Hon. G. Napier (1874), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xlvi. p. 62 seq. (1876).
Routes between Teheran and Meshed taken by General A. H. Schindler in 1876, and described, with a map, in the Zeit. d. Gesell. f. Erd. zu Berlin, 1877, pp. 215-229: 1. Semnan, southern route, viâ Frat, to Damghan; 2. Maiomai, northern route, viâ Sherifabad, to Miandasht; 3. Miandasht, southern route, viâ Khan-i-Khodi and Dashtgird, to Abbasabad; 4. Abbasabad, northern route, viâ Ferumed and Jagatai, to Plain of Juwain, and thence south-east, viâ Tabbas, to Sebzewar; 5. Nishapur, north-west route, to Madan (Turquoise Mines), and thence south-west, viâ Shurab, to Zafarani.