Persia and the Persian Question, volume I
It came on made highways, from far cities towards far cities; weaving them, like a monstrous shuttle, into closer and closer union.
CARLYLE, Sartor Resartus, bk. ii., cap. ii.
There, methinks, would be enjoyment more than in the march of mind,
In the steamship, in the railway, in the thoughts that shake mankind.
TENNYSON, Locksley Hall.
HAVING previously discussed the subject of roads, present and prospective, in Persia, I now pass to the question of railway extension, and the conditions that favour or retard the undertaking. Every prominent man in Persia, from the Shah downwards, professes to be keenly alive to the importance of introducing railroads into the country, and can only return to the question why they are not forthwith commenced the ambiguous but stereotyped rejoinder that 'there are obstacles in the way.' The Grand Vizier assured me that he regarded the opening of railways in the country as the only method by which Persia could repay the debt of gratitude she owed to Europe for the hospitable entertainment of the Shah. He said that when, upon his recent return, he exchanged the splendid lines of Europe for the abominable tracks that lead from the Persian frontier, he almost wept at the contrast. I received similar assurances of sympathy or support from the Governor-General of Khorasan, the Ilkhani of Kuchan, the royal princes, and every minister with whom I conversed. How then comes it that with this consensus of favourable opinion no progress is made, and that the railroads of Persia are still limited to two short lines of a few miles in length which are detached undertakings and not parts of a general scheme?
The geographical configuration of the country affords in itself some clue to a reply. Every railway from the coast must perforce climb from the sea level to that of the elevated plateau, varying from 3,000 to 4,000 feet in height, which constitutes the bulk of Persia, and upon which all the great cities are placed. The passes conducting to this plateau are commonly of
great altitude and steepness, ranging from 4,000 to 8,000 feet in height, and being as a rule so precipitous that even mule traffic upon them is not unattended with danger. Herein lies a preliminary obstacle, conquerable indeed by engineers, but only at a hazardous cost to the pocket either of Government or of shareholders. It is not, however, by the impediments of Nature one half so much as by the selfish impulses of man that the introduction of railways into Persia has hitherto been retarded. The question has been, and is still, one not of science but of statesmanship; and is debated not in the offices of engineers and contractors, but in the cabinets of ministers and the chancelleries of ambassadors. In the hands of these parties, and wrapped in a perpetual mist of conspiracy and intrigue, the railway movement in Persia has for over twenty years been generally in a semi-animate and sometimes in an acute condition. If the correspondence thereupon that has passed from the various legations in Teheran to the great capitals of Europe, and more especially to St. Petersburg and London, were collected, it would provide a bonfire that would blaze for a week. A brief history of its leading incidents will enable us to understand, more quickly than would any other method, the reason why no 'Bradshaw' has ever yet been able to devote a page to the time-table of Persian railways.
The famous Reuter concession in 1872 was not the first railway concession that had been granted and signed by the Persian Government. Concessionaries of various nationalities had already been at work, and between 1865 and 1871 a French, a German, an Austrian, and an English syndicate had successively been authorised to proceed. These schemes came to nothing, being of unsound origin, or sufficient capital not being subscribed in response to the appeal. Then came the notorious Reuter agreement, that literally took away the breath of Europe and handed over the entire resources of Persia to foreign hands for a period of seventy years. Included in this gigantic monopoly, the remaining features of which I have elsewhere described, was the immediate construction of a railroad from the Caspian to the Persian Gulf, and the exclusive right of building all other railways in Persia. Land for the requisite building purposes was to be given by the State, free of cost, as also were sand, gravel, and stone. No duties were to be levied upon either the materials or the men employed. The Government was to receive twenty per cent. of the net profits,
and the reversion of the entire establishment at the end of seventy years. Baron de Reuter at once commenced operations. The preliminary route from the Caspian was surveyed, engineers were sent out, and a few miles of earthwork were constructed in the neighhood of Resht in order to escape forfeiture of the caution money. But the intense and angry hostility of Russia, the indifference of England, steeped at that time in abysmal ignorance of all things Persian, and the stubborn antagonism of the Persian reactionaries, easily defeated a scheme whose colossal proportions rendered it impossible from the start, and, on the Shah's return from his European tour, a fictitious excuse was easily discovered and the concession was revoked.
Less ambitious schemes for some time afterwards occupied the field. In 1874 General or Baron von Falckenhagen, a retired Russian engineer officer, who had constructed several lines in Georgia, came out to Teheran; and, ostensibly on his own account, but in reality strongly backed by the Russian Government, pressed for a line from Julfa, on the north-west Perso-Russian frontier, to Tabriz, in connection with a Russian line from Tiflis to Julfa. According to this scheme the Persian Government was to guarantee six and a half per cent. for forty-four years on the capital of the company to be raised, five per cent. interest, and one and a half per cent. as a sinking fund; no concession was to be granted to any other line within a radius of 100 miles; and the company also proposed to arrogate to itself the customs of Tabriz. This proposal was sufficiently cool and barefaced to arouse the opposition of the Shah, in spite of the imperious pressure exercised by the Russian Minister. A modified concession was subsequently in 1875 proposed by the Shah, in which the Persian Government guaranteed three per cent. on the nominal capital of the company, reserving to itself the control of the expenditure of the line, and demanding forty per cent. of the revenue received after six per cent. had been paid on the nominal capital. General Falckenhagen could not procure the funds for working the concession thus framed, and the project fell through. It is needless to say that it was
designed solely in the interests of Russian trade or aggression; whilst its rumoured extension in the direction of Baghdad was equally intended to give access to a part of the Turkish Empire which Russia may some day find it not incompatible with her respect for the eighth commandment to appropriate.
In 1878 a French-Armenian of Constantinople, M. Alléon, representing a Paris firm, obtained a concession, also inoperative, from Resht to Teheran. An Austrian engineer, Herr Von Scherzer, even traced a line for the railway, avoiding the lofty Kharzan Pass over the Elburz by a circuitous route through the Bakandi Valley, and climbing the central plateau by serpentines with a gradient of one in thirty-three. The project came to grief because of the refusal of the Persian Government to give a guarantee for the seven per cent. interest promised on the capital to be raised.
In the succeeding years, Mr. Winston, American Minister Resident, and an eccentric personage, very nearly obtained an extensive railway concession, but was baulked at the last moment. The English Government were on the verge of a similar success, with a line from the Upper Karun to Teheran. This, however, came to nothing. When a line asked for or conceded to an English firm or English representatives is finally refused, there is never any doubt as to the quarter from whence the opposition has been inspired. This could be proved to demonstration.
Finally, a M. Boital, who is a concessionary on a large scale, and who has, at different times, received concessions for gasworks and electric light at Teheran, and for the construction of roads, obtained a group of railway concessions, the chief of which was a line from Resht to the capital, to be continued later on from thence to Bushire. In the grant were included branch lines in connection with the main system, and the right to work all mines within a distance of ten kilomètres on either side of the metals. The works were to be opened in 1885, and the concession was to run for ninety-nine years, caution money to the extent of 500,000 francs being lodged by M. Boital in Paris, as security for the fulfilment of his part of the contract. Nevertheless, the Nemesis that overhangs all projected undertakings in Persia was not to be baffled, and the Boital proposals experienced the customary fate.
One, however, of the Boital group of grants, in itself the least intrinsically important, did eventually struggle into the light of day. Among the concessions obtained was one for a small Décauville railway from Teheran to the famous shrine of Shah Abdul Azim, situated about six miles south of the city. The remains of this distinguished saint repose beneath a gilded dome, and are said to be visited by over 300,000 pilgrims yearly from Teheran, the easy distance from which renders the sanctuary a favourite place of holiday as well as religious resort. The Décauville project came to nothing, and some of the rails are said to be still lying where they were landed at Bushire. The concession, however, was sold to a Belgian syndicate, under the title of La Société des Chemins-de-fer de Perse, who saw in this opening the starting point of what might possibly become the much-talked-of trunk line of the future from North Persia to the Gulf. The capital of 2,000,000 francs was subscribed in Belgium, an additional three millions having since been raised by the issue of bonds in order to meet the heavy outlay, and to purchase a tramway concession; the engines were built in Brussels, and brought in pieces, viâ Batum and Baku; the rails came partly from Belgium and partly from Russia, and were transported at a terrific cost (I was told 4l. for each pair) from the Caspian to Teheran. The station, platforms, offices, and workshops were constructed on a scale worthy of the terminus of a possible future main line from the capital to the south; an eighty-centimètre gauge was adopted, and in July 1888 the line was opened by the Shah.
Its early progress was impeded by an unhappy accident, which arrayed against it the superstitious hostilities of the native population. A Persian leaving the train at Shah Abdul Azim while it was still in motion fell on the rails and was run over and killed. The crowd immediately attacked the engine-driver, a Russian, who defended himself with a revolver, but was savagely knocked about and hurt. The ill-feeling thus aroused has since been allayed; but the traffic has not answered to the expectations formed of it, and financially the speculation is believed to be a failure. There is, of course, no goods traffic whatever on the line, while the distance is too short to render its advantages for passenger traffic obligatory, the Persian pilgrim or holidaymaker who has the entire day at his disposal preferring to take things leisurely and to ride to and from the shrine on his donkey.
The cost of tickets for the single journey is two krans, one kran, and one half-kran, according to the class, and the receipts, which on festival days in summer have risen as high as from 200 to 500 tomans (3½ tomans equal 1l.), sink on ordinary days in summer to from ten to thirty tomans, and in winter as low as from three to five tomans, and even less, in the day. The company possesses four locomotives and twenty-one wagons, and employs five European officials and sixty Persian workmen. The engines are entirely driven by the latter. It is to be hoped that this company, which must be applauded for its enterprise and for the excellent character of its establishment, may ultimately procure a concession for an extension southwards, or be able to part with its plant and premises on favourable terms to some other company more lucky in its fortunes. In any case the 'Gare du Sud' is ready built at Teheran, from which passengers in the twentieth century may be able to book their seats for the Gulf.
Anxious to recoup itself for the losses thus incurred, the same company in 1889 bought a tramway concession from the same M. Boital, the lines of which, extending at present for a tramway distance of about five miles through the streets of the capital, were opened to traffic during my stay in Teheran. The company already possessed 12 tramcars, and had ordered 36 more; a stable of 150 horses, mainly from Russia; and a staff of 40 workmen. Unfortunately, the line had been badly laid, transverse sleepers being employed, and the rails projecting considerably instead of being laid flush with the street. It was contemplated later on to continue the existing lines through the city to the north, and possibly to extend them towards the mountain suburb of Gulahek. I have since heard that the Teheran tramway service, at which the Persians looked somewhat askance in its early days, has proved a great success, and that it has been continued towards the northern outskirts of the capital.
In the spring of last year, 1891, this company, which now calls itself the 'Société des Chemins-de-fer et Tramways de Perse,' and is understood to be financed from Moscow, has procured permission from the Shah to extend the Shah Abdul Azim line in a south-easterly direction towards some quarries of gypsum, limestone, slate, marble, and building stone,
which exist in the hills in that quarter; but the line so extended is nowhere to penetrate more than 30 kilometres from the city, and is to be available for goods traffic only. Simultaneously the ubiquitous M. Boital has received a concession for a similar narrow-gauge line, not above 80 kilometres in length, from Teheran to the Feshend coal mines in the Elburz, about half-way between the capital and Kazvin. These concessions are relatively insignificant, and have so far led to nothing; but in Persia any relaxation of tradition or practice is deserving of welcome.
Persia's second railway, which I have already had occasion to mention in my chapter upon the Northern Provinces, is positively the creation of native enterprise and the property of a native individual. Perhaps this may explain the fact that, for all practical purposes, it is worthless, and at the time of my visit could not be otherwise described than as a fiasco. Teheran is at present approached by two caravan routes from the Caspian — that from Resht, viâ Kasvin, which is a ten days' march, and that from the small port of Meshed-i-Ser, which is only seven days' march, but crosses a very steep country and offers at present few facilities for transport. Twenty-four miles west of Meshed-i-Ser is the roadstead of Mahmudabad, whence a track leads over a flat country to the town of Amol, a distance of twelve miles, from which point commences the ascent into the Elburz range, whose spurs approach to within six miles of the town. Amol is only six days' march from Teheran. It occurred to a Persian merchant, who is Master or Farmer of the Persian Mint, that he might reasonably swell the profits already derived from debasing the metal currency by constructing a light railway from Mahmudabad to Amol, and thus acquiring the monopoly of the shortest caravan approach to Teheran, and, as a consequence, of the export and import trade to and from the Caspian. The idea was praiseworthy, but the execution fell short of the mark. At Mahmudabad he built a magnificent caravanserai and several shops. He began by employing Belgian engineers and ordering Belgian rails; but here his enterprise appears to have become exhausted. He failed to take any steps to remove the bar at Mahmudabad, or to render it an accessible port; he omitted to pay the Belgians, who withdrew in disgust; he parted with his German engine-driver on the same grounds. The line (of 4 ft. 8½ in. gauge), left in Persian hands, was badly engineered and abominably laid, with rotten sleepers and rickety
bridges; and, according to the reports that I received, the rolling stock consisted only of a dozen uncovered trucks and one locomotive, driven by an African negro, which had either blown up or broken down, and traffic was at an absolute standstill. The original project was to continue the line from Amol with a horse tramway to the foot of the mountains. Whether anything will ever be made of a further projection is doubtful, owing to the steepness of the mountain range that supervenes. Haji Mohammed Hasan, the Master of the Mint, is evidently a man of some energy, as the large works, with machinery for timber-cutting and sugar extraction which he has set up at Amol, testify. But that he is qualified to be the pioneer of successful railway enterprise in Persia is open to serious doubt.
At the time of my visit in the autumn of 1889, a Russian named Palashkofski, of the Transcaucasian Railway, was on the hunt for railway concessions, and was said to have succeeded in procuring one for a line from Gazian on the Enzeli lagoon to Resht. I have heard nothing further of the project which, I imagine, has found its way to the well-filled limbo of the Persian still-born. Soon after, in 1890, two-Russian contractors, M. Raffalovitch, formerly Persian Consul at Odessa, and M. Poliakoff, appeared upon the scene, and advanced a colossal scheme of railroad and custom-house monopoly. Lines from Julfa viâ Teheran to Bunder Abbas, from Julfa to Mohammerah, from Julfa to Teheran, and from Teheran to Meshed, are said to have been successively discussed. The negotiations did not even reach as precocious a stage of development as have so many of their predecessors; and the disappointed contractors finally retired with nothing better than a concession for a mont-de-piété or a national pawn-shop on a large scale in their pockets. This institution has since opened its doors at Teheran, and besides lending, undertakes banking business also; being evidently designed as a sort of Russian counterblast to the British Imperial Bank.
The narrative which I have here compiled of the history of railway concessions in Persia will have given some idea of the obstacles with which such undertakings have to contend. The reactionary party in Persia, with whom the mullahs usually side, are opposed to any innovation which may tighten the grip of Europe upon their country, and hasten the end of their lengthy but inglorious reign. Even if
Persian hostility be dormant or appeased, there is not that security which, in the absence of a Government guarantee, will tempt capitalists or even speculators to embark upon so dubious a venture. They have no surety that a change of sovereign, a political convulsion, or a foreign war might not be the signal for confiscation. How many of the abortive schemes of the past have been ruined because of the refusal of the Persian Government to grant a fixed guarantee, these pages will have made clear. Furthermore, the long list of unsuccessful appeals to foreign capital will have shown that, in the eyes of Europe, railways along the majority of the lines projected are not likely to be of a commercially profitable nature.
This, it must be said, arises not so much from a disbelief in the remunerative capacity of the country itself through which the line might be laid, as from the enormous cost of plant and rolling stock, all of which, at any rate in so far as it consisted of metal, would have to be imported into the country (if from the north, through the gauntlet of the Russian Custom-house), and when required in the interior would have to be conveyed by mule or camel back, unless, indeed, the American plan were adopted of making the railway carry forward its own material as it advanced from the coast. I confess I have been amazed at reading in a recent publication by a writer signing himself 'Persicus' and claiming an eighteen years' acquaintance with the country, the following sentence: —
There are other circumstances which would facilitate the construction of railways in Iran, namely, the existence of any quantity of good stone for metalling up the permanent way, of wood for sleepers, and of metals, the mines of which, when opened up, will suffice for the requirements of the country without having recourse to importation.
The calm assertion of the concluding lines, which I have italicised, should render the unique knowledge of the author of exceptional value to the Mining Corporation, now engaged in exploiting the mineral resources of Persia. It is, however, to such rash misstatements that much of the foreign ignorance and confusion about the country are due. In this particular case Persia
happens to be notorious for its general dearth of wood; for the lack, so far as discovery has hitherto proceeded, of seams of coal qualified to supply the needs of an extensive railway service, or of naphtha in sufficient quantities to take its place in the engines; and for the absence, in situations where they can be worked with profit, of iron mines, capable of producing the material for rails. All these desiderata may conceivably be forthcoming in the future; and the prospect is far from discouraging. But to assert that they are now, or will shortly be, accessible is to substitute conjecture for fact, and to render poor service to the cause of Persian regeneration.
Greater, however, than any impediment, either physical or commercial, to the introduction of railroads into Persia that has hitherto been mentioned, is the political obstacle imposed by the stubborn and selfish antagonism of Russia. I shall have occasion in my concluding chapter to add something about the general attitude of that Power towards Persian reforms; but what I shall here say about her policy in the matter of Persian railways, will afford no mean illustration of my later thesis. This I assert without fear of contradiction, that, whenever and whatever the scheme propounded, the bitter opposition of Russia may be counted upon as a certain factor in the case of any railways in Persia but those specially aligned to suit Russian commercial or strategical needs, i.e. railways running from the Russian frontier, either in Azerbaijan or in Khorasan, or from the Caspian to Teheran. With the exception of these lines, which would facilitate Russian ascendency and that alone, the Russian influence at Teheran is steadily cast in the scale against any other Persian railway that may be proposed. This is no hypothetical assumption, but can be demonstrated beyond the possibility of doubt by events which have occurred during the last three years.
When the British Minister at Teheran, in the autumn of 1888, obtained from the Shah what is commonly called the Karun Concession, i.e. the opening to navigation, not by Great Britain alone, but by all countries, of the Lower Karun River from Mohammerah to Ahwaz, many British newspapers committed the error both of exaggerating the importance of the concession, which in its undeveloped state has up till now been almost valueless, and of extolling the successful diplomacy that had extorted it. The concession itself was one which had long
been demanded, and which it was known would ultimately be made. It involved no monopoly for British trade, and indicated no peculiar resuscitation of British influence. Seeing, however, that these merits were loudly claimed for it by the English and European Press, the Russian papers started a counter agitation, proclaimed that Russia had been worsted in a diplomatic duel, and insisted upon some corresponding advantage to redress the shattered balance. Prince Dolgorouki, the Russian Minister in Persia, received instructions to apply the screw at Teheran; and the result of his combined threats and persuasion was the signature of a document by the Shah which gave to Russia the refusal of any railway concession in Persia for a period of five years. In other words, no foreign company or individual could obtain authority to construct a railway in Persia during that period, unless or until Russia had herself received a similar permission or commenced similar operations. Russia, in fact, had it placed in her power either to promote railway enterprise in Persia to-morrow by starting a company or applying for a concession herself, when she would certainly not long remain alone in the field; or absolutely to close the door for five years against any railway enterprise at all by declining to exercise her own preferential right.
Such was the state of affairs when I was in Teheran, and after describing it, I not unnaturally observed in the columns of the 'Times': —
Here, therefore, is presented to Russia the opportunity of showing how far she is genuinely interested in the development of the country, and whether she is prepared to use her power as a sullen barrier to progress or in the interests of much-needed reform.
What is her own interpretation of the document, and what is her real attitude towards the opening up of Persia, have since been made evident in a manner that has more than justified my early suspicions. The first act of the new Russian Minister, M. Butzow, upon arriving at Teheran in 1890 with instructions to insist upon some Russian equivalent to the recent British successes in the matter of the Imperial Bank, the Mining Corporation, and the Tobacco Régie, was to secure a prolongation of the railroad prohibition for another period of five years, or for ten years in all from 1889; and Russian diplomacy has since been openly congratulating itself on having stifled the railway movement at its birth, and retarded the first stop towards the ultimate regeneration of Persia for another
decade. No attempt is made to argue that Russia has extorted this privilege as a guarantee for a fair, or even a preferential consideration of her own interests, when the question of assigning railways to foreign powers comes up for settlement. The refusal has been demanded, and the diplomacy that has exacted it is extolled, for no other reason than that it throws back the Europeanisation of Persia for a further period, and consequently arrests the fast-spreading commercial and political influence of Great Britain in that country.
Personally, I do not think that the Russian diplomats are wise in their generation. Apart from the fact that their attitude in this matter can only confirm the suspicions already entertained by the Shah and his ministers, that Russia's interest in Persia is exclusively a selfish one, and that she prefers stagnation to progress because she prefers a debilitated to a robust patient, I believe that, judged from their own stand-point, the policy of the Russians will, in this case, recoil upon themselves. I am by no means certain that an interval of ten years, during which the commercial and industrial enterprises recently started can be steadfastly and tranquilly pursued; during which roads, the natural precursors and feeders of railways, are constructed throughout the country; during which more extensive information is gained as to the mineral and other resources of Persia; and during which European systems of business, management, and administration become familiar to the people, will not be of the greatest advantage both to Persia and to the European well-wishers for her future. Above all, I incline to the opinion that the power most likely to profit by such a respite is not Russia, but Great Britain, inasmuch as it is by British and not by Russian capital that the natural resources of the country will be developed in the interim, and that it will be upon more reliable data than at present exist, that England will ultimately take up the question of railroad extension in Persia, of which every year that passes renders the final settlement more likely upon British lines. In Persia, however, it is never wise to look too far ahead or to predict too confidently of the future, and circumstances may occur to induce the Russians to repent of their present conspiracy and to hurry on the very consummation which they are now so anxious to avert. We may, therefore, not inappropriately take advantage of the prevailing inaction to examine the various directions and routes from or
along which railways in Persia would be feasible, and may endeavour in this way to form some sort of plan of campaign upon which, as soon as the favourable moment occurs, British commerce or capital may proceed to act in the future.
Railroads in Persia, or from its frontiers to the interior, may be classified according to the direction from which they may be expected to enter or to traverse Persian territory — i.e., either from the north, the east, the south, or the west. Along the north there are four possible lines of approach. The first of these, if we commence our survey from the north-west angle of Persia, would be a line from Tiflis, or from some other station more to the east on the Tiflis-Baku Railway, viâ Erivan and Julfa to Tabriz, and thence viâ Kazvin to Teheran, following more or less closely the present postal route from the Caucasus to the Persian capital. As I have pointed out, a concession for such a line has once, if not more than once, been granted, and at one time the Russians talked confidently about its early execution. Such a line would possess certain commercial advantages, at least to Russian industry. It would lead directly from Russian territory to Tabriz, the mercantile capital and largest distributing centre of Persia. It would open up the wealthy and fertile province of Azerbaijan, and it would facilitate the Russian import trade into the interior of the country. I do not myself, however, think that it is likely, for some time at least, to be undertaken, and certainly not to be carried beyond Tabriz for the reason that the project would be too distinctively Russian to interest the capital of other countries, and that the returns would, for a long while, be too small to pay any interest to Russia upon her original outlay. Already the proximity of her frontier provides her with an easy access to the Tabriz market, while her monopoly of the Caspian gives her the choice of more than one entry into Teheran. British goods would only profit by such a railway in the case of its being carried beyond Tabriz, which, since the final abolition by Russia of the Caucasian transit trade in 1883, they approach overland from Trebizond. The volume, however, of this trade beyond Tabriz is not sufficient to make the matter one of paramount moment to British commerce; the more so as other projects are in existence for approaching Teheran from the south or west, whereby English trade would be much more decisively and solely the gainer.
Proceeding in an easterly direction, the next railway proposals that we find have been mooted are those for a line along the western coast of the Caspian from Baku, viâ Lenkoran, Astara and Resht, or from Resht alone, to the capital; and further east from Meshed-i-Ser to the capital. In connection with the first of these schemes, it is to be noted that the Russians, in laying the Tiflis-Baku line, constructed a particularly fine station at Adji-Kabul, seventy miles west of Baku, with an admitted view to such an extension. Either of these schemes would be executed solely in the interests of Russia; neither could be expected to pay. Between either Caspian port and Teheran intervenes the main chain of the Elburz mountains, which, except in a country giving promise of immense traffic, might anywhere be considered as a formidable barrier to railroad aggression. Concessions for the former of these railroads — i.e. Resht-Teheran — have frequently been granted, but very charily taken up. The Russians would do far better to insist upon the improvement of the road from Resht to Kazvin, and upon the removal of the obstacles to disembarkation and the reverse that at present exist at Enzeli. Considering that this is their main line of entry into Persia, and is only 200 miles in length from the Caspian to the capital, it can only be regarded as typical of Russian supineness in such matters that both the roadstead at Enzeli and the road from Resht are left in a condition so unpropitious to the free ingress and egress of merchandise.
Before the Russian occupation of Transcaspia, a line of railway running from Gez, in the south-east corner of the Caspian, to Astrabad, and thence up the Gurgan Valley on to the plateau of Bujnurd and Kuchan, found some favour with Russian strategists as an easy mode of advance upon Meshed or Herat, to an army operating against either of which places it would bring up supplies both from Khorasan and Mazanderan, and, also, by means of the Caspian, from Russia itself. Such a line would have been entirely destitute of any commercial character or value, and would have been designed with the sole purpose of abetting Russian aggression. It need not now be discussed, seeing that all necessity for its construction has been obviated by the later conquests of Russia and the Transcaspian Railway of General Annen-
koff, which have placed her in a position of such overwhelming superiority with reference to Khorasan, that a separate railway is not needed to expedite her advance, and which have opened to her other and far better avenues of approach either to Meshed or Herat.
I have, in the fifth chapter of this volume, discussed the project of a railway from the Russian capital of Transcaspia, viâ Kuchan, to Meshed, which route I have there minutely described. It will have been evident from what was there said that, simple as would be the construction of a railroad across the almost level plain from Kuchan to Meshed, neither the Russian nor the Persian sections of the made roadway between Ashkabad and Kuchan have been engineered with a view to rails being laid upon or near to them, and that it may, accordingly, be presumed that Russia has abandoned any such notion.
While I was at Meshed, however, another and far more feasible project of railway connection between the Russian dominions in Transcaspia and the capital of Khorasan was mentioned for the first time, and is said to have been referred to a special military committee in the Caucasus, by the Governor-General of which territory, Prince Dondoukoff-Korsakoff, it was believed to be strongly recommended. This was the scheme for a Russian branch line from the station of Dushak on the Transcaspian Railway to Meshed. Such a line would, in all probability, pass viâ the frontier outpost of Sarakhs, and would, in that case, constitute a first instalment of the ultimate Russian extension to Herat, thereby killing two birds — by threatening both Meshed and the Afghan frontier — with one stone. In the spring of the past year (1891) it has been announced that General Annenkoff is pressing strongly for the Dushak-Sarakhs extension; whilst later reports render it likely that the same result will be attained by a branch line, not from Dushak, but from Karibent on the Transcaspian Railway to Sarakhs. Up to that point the undertaking might menace, but would not be a violation of, the agreement with Persia. It could only be extended into Persia — i.e. towards Meshed — by abandoning the policy embodied in the document referred to, and thereby throwing open the door to foreign railroad competition in other parts of the country. For these reasons, and because the military position of Russia with reference to Khorasan is already so well assured as to render any
considerable outlay upon a railway unremunerative, I incline to the opinion that not yet awhile will Meshed be brought into connection with the Russian system, although the Sarakhs extension may very likely be commenced, and although, when such a junction is finally effected, the above will, in all probability, be the line pursued. I need hardly add that the Persians — who, in spite of their weakness, are very sensitive about Meshed — would regard any such project with extreme aversion.
Some writers have recommended a railway from Teheran to Meshed, a distance of about 550 miles. Having ridden the entire distance myself, I can aver that the physical obstacles to such a work are so insignificant as not to merit consideration. The description, however, which I gave of the road, its desolate and untilled plains, and its mouldering cities, will show that, in my judgment, such a line could not possibly be a profitable venture, and that it would be folly to undertake it. Some authorities, however, are of opinion that the grain-producing districts between Teheran and Shahrud might sustain a line which would certainly give them an immense impetus. The connection of Meshed with Teheran would undoubtedly enable a larger amount of English piece-goods to enter the bazaars of Khorasan than is at present the case, but the principal avenue of ingress into Khorasan for English or Anglo-Indian trade must continue to be, as it is now, from the south, rival competition from that quarter being impossible; and British energy will do wisely to direct itself to the improvement of those routes rather than to the attempted recovery of lost ascendency in the north.
Turning from the north to the east frontiers of Persia, I have already, in a chapter on the Seistan question, indicated my opinion that the safeguarding of British, i.e. Afghan, interests and the spread of British, i.e. Indian, trade in that quarter can most effectively be achieved by the introduction of railways into this part of Persia in connection with the English frontier railway in Beluchistan. The stations of Darwaza, Quetta, Kila Abdullah, or Chaman, upon that railway are all possible points of departure whence an extension might be pushed either viâ Nushki to the south of the Amran range, or, in a more northerly direction, to Seistan, from which point a connection is obviously desirable with the important industrial and agricultural centres of Kerman and Yezd. The Indian Government is reported to be opposed to the
construction of the preliminary section of this railway, on the grounds that it would involve considerable expense, that for a time it might require to be guarded, that it would be open to flank attack from the north, and that there would be no immediate commercial return. The latter objection applies to every single railway, without exception, that might be devised or made in Persia. No railway would pay for three, or four, or five years. On the other hand, the potential resources of Seistan and the uses of a new entrance for Indian and exit for Persian goods across the east border are so great that I believe such a railroad might in time become a profitable speculation. The other questions appertain to the sphere of strategy, which I have touched upon in an earlier chapter, and which I will dismiss with the remark that no strategical railway has ever been laid that has not had to pass through the ordeal of these or cognate objections.
Such a line would, undoubtedly, before long be succeeded by branches from the Indian Ocean or Persian Gulf, the starting-points of which might be Pusni, Gwadur, or Chahbar; or, in deference to the existing trade routes, Bunder Abbas. The advantages to British trade of such an opening up of south-east Persia, involving, as it would, more intimate communication with the central and north-east provinces, would be as great as would the gain to Persia resulting from the new and more expeditious outlet for her exports in opium, cotton, and dried fruits. The optimist whose vision ranges into the far future will contemplate the extension of a railway system thus inaugurated through the heart of Persia, viâ Isfahan, to Shushter, and an ultimate junction with lines running north to Teheran and west to Baghdad. Such a prospect has great theoretical attractions, and its realisation would be the saving of Persia. Optimism, however, is a plant to whose growth the climate of Persia has, so far, given none but the most meagre encouragement, and I prefer not to project my gaze into so nebulous a future.
The project of uniting Bushire with Teheran by a direct line passing through Shiraz is one that I do not believe will ever be realised, owing to the enormous difficulties of the country between Shiraz and the sea. A series of parallel ridges, which, from their character and steepness, may almost be described as ladders, and which rise to a height of over 7,000 feet above the Persian Gulf, separate the two places, and could only be
pierced or crossed by a railway at an expenditure out of all proportion to the probable return. The fact that Bushire, in spite of its scanty recommendations as a harbour, is the principal trading port on the south coast, has tempted people to suppose that it must be the necessary terminus of a Trans-Persian line and to ignore the physical obstacles of which I have spoken. The existence and probable exploitation of a far easier and more advantageous avenue of entry a little further to the west will relegate the Bushire-Shiraz proposal to the limbo from which it ought never to have emerged. The objections that render impracticable this particular section of the trunk line from north to south do not, of course, apply to a line from Teheran to Isfahan, which is quite feasible, and may possibly be realised in the future.
The easier and more commodious route, to which I have alluded, is, of course, that from the upper waters of the Karun river, through the big towns of the grain-producing provinces of West Persia in the direction of the capital. There appears to be a consensus of opinion that the railroad most likely to pay in Persia would be one starting from Shushter (or, perhaps, more probably from Mohammerah), and running northwards through the Lur country to Khorremabad and Burujird, whence, on the one hand, connection would be easily established with Kermanshah or Hamadan on the line from Baghdad to Teheran, and, on the other, viâ Sultanabad with Kum, and thence with the capital. The new southern port of Persia would be several hundred miles nearer to the capital, and even to Isfahan, than is Bushire, and would be separated from neither by any such impracticable barrier as the kotals of the Shiraz-Bushire caravan road. Furthermore, besides attracting to itself the export and import trade of the Persian Gulf, such a line would traverse one of the richest corn-growing regions of Persia, would serve large cities, and open up a new approach from the south and the sea to as far north as Azerbaijan. In other words, local would be superadded to foreign traffic; and from their united proceeds a surplus ought in time to be struck out. Nor, as I have indicated in speaking of the road at present in course of construction along the same line, should the prospects of passenger traffic on such a railway be overlooked. In Persia, the principal streams of human movement are those that circulate between the shrines and tombs of the famous dead. The access to no fewer than five such holy resorts would be
facilitated by a Mohammerah railroad — viz., to Kum on the north, the final resting-place of the illustrious Fatima, sister of Imam Reza of Meshed; to the shrines of Kerbela, Nejef (or Meshed Ali), and Samara, all in close proximity to the Euphrates or Tigris, and the last depositories respectively of the hallowed dust of Husein, Ali, and Imam Hasan Askeri; and, not least, to Mecca itself, whither the devout Shiah who aspires to become a Haji must go once, at least, in his lifetime. When we consider the hundreds of thousands of persons of both sexes who yearly wend their laborious way over vast distances to these consecrated spots, and remember the extraordinary fondness for railway travel of the normal Asiatic, we may infer no mean return from the booking-offices of a line which would accommodate so many pious inclinations.
Continuing westwards, we complete our circuit of the entire Persian frontier when we approach the often-suggested line of rails from Baghdad to Teheran. The distance would be 500 miles, and the important towns of Kermanshah and Hamadan would be passed en route. Already a great deal of merchandise enters and leaves Persia by this route, and Europeans in Teheran, desirous of importing some object or article which they are specially reluctant to expose to the perils of the kotals between Bushire and Shiraz, are in the habit of sending it up river to Baghdad, and transporting it thence to the capital. This line might be expected to do a considerable business, though it would be a costly one to construct, the ascent from the Chaldaean plains to the Persian plateau being very steep and difficult. But neither in goods nor in passenger traffic could it compete with the line last sketched, nor would it tap the resources of so extensive a country, nor be so easily reached from the sea.
The mention of a Baghdad-Teheran line suggests a concluding reference to the schemes, of which less is now heard than was once the case, of a Euphrates Valley railway, approaching Baghdad from the Mediterranean and the north-west. Or, perhaps, seeing that other routes than that of the Euphrates basin have been suggested and supported, it would be better to include all projects of a transcontinental line entering Persia from the west under the generic title of Indo-Mediterranean railways, India being the ultimate destination and the Mediterranean the starting-point in each case, and Persia merely constituting a link in the intervening connection.
The writings of the late Sir W. P. Andrew, of Commander Cameron, and others, and the evidence and report of the Select Committee appointed by Parliament to examine the question in 1872, have familiarised the public with the arguments in favour of a railway to India by the Euphrates or Tigris valleys, and with the possible lines of country that might be traversed. Starting on the Syrian seacoast, opposite Cyprus, either from Suedia (the ancient Seleucia) or Alexandretta (Iskanderun), or Tyre, or Tripoli, or Ruad Island (Aradus) — all of which maritime bases have been recommended by different experts — the railway would proceed in an easterly direction to the Euphrates, either on a northerly line viâ Aleppo, or on a southerly line viâ Palmyra. The Euphrates reached, the railway would either follow the right bank of that river to Busrah and ultimately to the port of Grane or Koweit on the Persian Gulf — a total distance of approximately 1,000 miles — or would cross the Euphrates, strike eastwards to the Tigris, and descend the latter river, so as to bring Baghdad within its scope — a bridge being again required at this spot — proceeding thence, as before, to Busrah or Koweit. Broadly speaking, these were the main proposals placed before the Parliamentary Committee and discussed in the volumes referred to. The minimum estimated cost of such a railroad, if constructed as a light line upon a metre gauge, was 6,000,000l.; the maximum, if constructed as a permanent highway upon the European 4 feet 8½ inch gauge, or the Indian 5 feet 6 inch gauge, varied from 8,500,000l. to 10,000,000l. At Busrah or at Koweit — more probably at the latter, because of its excellence as a harbour — shipping would again be resorted to, and would be continued either to Kurrachi, or, as some proposed, to Cape Jask, whence a land line would conduct along the Mekran coast to Kurrachi. Such, in outline, was the scheme for supplying a shorter and alternative land route to India that recommended itself to so many authorities, was urged by such able advocates, and excited so much popular attention in the 'Seventies.'
In the very fact that neither the attention which it then excited nor the voluminous literature to which it gave birth have saved it from an almost complete extinction, might be discovered an inferential argument against this scheme. Its superficial attractions, judiciously dressed up in a garb of patriotism, were such as to allure many minds; and I
confess to having felt, without having ever succumbed to, the fascination. Closer study, however, and, still more, a visit at different times to both sides of the country concerned — viz. to Syria and to Mesopotamia — have convinced me both that the project is unsound, and that it does not, for the present at any rate, lie within the domain of practical politics. Without recapitulating the pros and cons of the question, I will briefly marshal the arguments that have led me to that conclusion.
The grounds upon which such a railway should be advocated, and by which the policy of constructing it must, in the last resort, be determined, are fourfold — physical, political, military, and economic. I believe that in each of these respects the scheme of a Euphrates Valley railway, if tried, will be found wanting. The physical obstacles consist in the character of the country and in the climate. Dismissing the preliminary difficulty that would be encountered in piercing the Syrian coast range as one that engineers might reasonably be expected to overcome, there remains the fact that, upon the more northerly of the lines suggested, there are no places of the faintest importance before reaching Baghdad except Antioch and Aleppo, and that the railway, for the most part, would pass over bare and uncultivated plains, whilst upon the more southerly or Palmyrene route it would traverse what cannot be otherwise described than as a waterless desert. The temperature on these sandy wastes is excessively torrid and trying during the summer months, and I decline to believe that during half the year any general in the world would consent to pack his soldiers into third-class carriages for conveyance across these terrible thousand miles, at least if he anticipated using them in any other capacity than as hospital inmates at the end. Still less would he do so if, as contemplated by an extension of the scheme, to which I shall presently refer, this section of a thousand miles were only the forerunner to another and longer continuation, through a tract of country even less prepossessing.
I have been astonished in wading through the literature on the subject to note the almost absolute unanimity with which the wishes or attitude of Turkey in the matter have been ignored. The country traversed is from end to end under Turkish dominion; not a rail could be laid, or a bridge constructed, or a ticket taken, or a dividend paid — or, as is more likely, not paid
— without Turkish consent. And yet the line suggested is one that does not profess for one moment to consult Turkish interests or views; it neither opens up her resources nor connects her populous centres; it does not save her from Russian aggression on the north nor add to her own defensive strength in the south; it has, in fact, been discussed and decided solely in its bearing upon British interests and upon the safety of the Indian Empire. But are we entitled to assume that Turkey is so very warmly interested in either? My own experience of the Turkish Government in Asia is that no axiom is dearer to its heart than that charity not only begins but stays at home; and that, if there is a people or a government at whose expense the Ottoman officials love to assert their independence in a vexatious spirit, it is the British. Before, therefore, we calmly discuss the question of making a thousand-mile railway in our own interests through Turkish territory, would it not be as well to ascertain what the Porte thinks on the matter? I have very little doubt myself as to what would be the nature of the reply.
Considering that the project is advocated almost solely on military grounds, it should at least be invulnerable in those respects. I doubt exceedingly whether this could be said of a Euphrates Valley railway. Not only, in the impetuous desire to take a bee-line to India, without considering the intervening country, does it, as I have pointed out, ignore the true strategical line for the defence of Asia Minor, which lies greatly to the north (within the radius of Urfa, Diarbekr, Mardin, and Mosul); but, laid as it would be across a lengthy and utterly unprotected stretch of country, this railway would be peculiarly exposed to attack, and would consequently provide a most unsafe line of communication in time of war.
But strongest of all are the fiscal and commercial objections. I do not see how such a line, running through such a region, could possibly be expected to pay; and I should indeed be loth to incur the responsibility of advising any Government to saddle itself with even a limited guarantee. I fail to see how it could pay, for three reasons: (1) because of the tremendous initial outlay; (2) because the line would not pass through either an agricultural or a mining district, and local traffic would be practically nil; (3) because through traffic, either of passengers or of merchandise, would be small — far smaller
than has ever been anticipated; and the receipts at the two ocean termini would not avail to compensate for the utter lack of intervening receipts. I hazard the statement that the returns from merchandise would be small, because I do not see how it could pay any trader to incur the heavy additional expense of railroad carriage, as well as the risks and delays of one, and possibly of two, transhipments en route, in order to save four or, at the most six, days in the voyage from England to India; and that the returns from passenger traffic would be equally insignificant, because I know that travellers to and from India, whether soldiers, or civilians, or ladies, or infants, want as much air and physical stimulus as they can get, and would by no means consent to be cooped up for days in stifling railway carriages, exposed to the dust, and heat, and fatigue of a long journey over such a country. If I were a shareholder in the P. and O. Company, I would not, except for the possible loss of the mails, be in the least alarmed at the competition of such a railway.
These are the principal objections which appear to me to disqualify and condemn the scheme of a Euphrates Valley railway to India. Since the construction of the Suez Canal, the need for such an alternative route has to a great extent ceased to exist. Without desiring to embark upon larger political theses, I would venture to say that, in keeping a firm hold upon Egypt, and a safe watch upon the Suez Canal, and in quickening and cheapening the maritime service between England and India, are to be found far preferable methods for ensuring rapidity of communication between the two parts of the empire in time of danger.
I have hitherto discussed the Euphrates Valley railway in its Syrian and Mesopotamian sections, terminating on the threshold of the Persian Gulf. I must not omit, however, to notice that schemes have been projected for continuing the line of rails by land for the entire distance to Kurrachi. One of these schemes contemplated the construction of a line along the northern or Persian shore of the Gulf, from, say, Mohammerah, viâ Bushire, Lingah, Bunder Abbas, Jask, and Gwadur, to Kurrachi. Such a plan seems to me to be destitute of even the most elementary recommendations, and to fail far more conspicuously if subjected to the fourfold test that I have previously applied, than even the Euphrates Valley scheme. It would
be costly, absolutely unremunerative, useless to Persia, and perilous to health.
There are, however, two other lines of Persian extension, which have been discussed or recommended by the eminent authority of Sir F. Goldsmid, and which are, therefore deserving of careful consideration. In either case, starting from Baghdad, in connection with a Euphrates or Tigris Valley railway, the line recommended would pass in an easterly direction through Persian territory, avoiding the Gulf, by Shushter and Ram Hormuz, or possibly by Hawizeh, and Ahwaz, to Behbehan, whence an existing caravan route would be followed to Shiraz. From Shiraz two lines of communication are available to the sea; a northerly line by Fasa, Darab, and Forg, or a more southerly line by Lar, both debouching upon Bunder Abbas. Thence the railroad would be continued along the Mekran coast to Karrachi.
Of this scheme I will merely say that it would meet with physical difficulties by no means easily or cheaply overcome, that it predicates the long Mekran coast continuation, for which I have no liking, and that it appears to me to forsake the true line of Trans-Persian railway communication, which I should be inclined to place a good deal more to the north. If ever a railroad is built in a transverse direction across the breadth of Persia, it will surely not be by so southerly or unremunerative a line that it will be conducted. The true line would seem rather to be one that shall unite the great agricultural, manufacturing, and commercial centres of Persia, and that shall be constructed with reference to Persian as well as to British requirements. Such a line is more likely to be found along the track Baghdad, Kermanshah, Burujird, Isfahan, Yezd, Kerman, which I believe to be the ultimate route of through communication by rail, in the far distant days when such a development becomes possible. What I have elsewhere said with reference to a Seistan railway will show how this scheme might connect with the Indian railways, and how it would possess the
further advantage, if ever constructed and brought into communication with Europe, of depositing the British soldier, not merely at Kurrachi, but on the Afghan frontier itself, and at the probable theatre of war.
Should such a line ever be realised, and should it be connected with the Mediterranean, and thereby with Europe, the junction is more likely to be effected by correspondence with railroads already in existence in Asia Minor, than by the construction of a separate debouchure and port in the Syrian recess of the Levant. There are, at the present moment, three separate railway systems in Asia Minor. The first conducts from Scutari, opposite Constantinople, to Ismidt, fifty-six miles, and is now being continued to Angora in the heart of Asia Minor. The second runs from Smyrna to Dinair, 230 miles in the interior. The third is a short line of forty miles in length, connecting the port of Mersina, near Tarsus in Cilicia, with Adana. The engineering difficulties of railroads in so mountainous a country as Asia Minor are great, the impediments arising from the vices of Ottoman administration are many, and the commercial returns are, in any case, for some time likely to be small. But it is conceivable that in the future the first two of these lines may be joined, or that the first of them may be protracted to a point at which it would ultimately connect with the Trans-Persian line which I have sketched. In such a case, the long-talked-of overland route to India might be supplied by the Oriental Express running from Calais to Constantinople, in conjunction with the Asia Minor railways, continuing from the other side of the Bosphorus. In the far-off future a supplementary connection with the Mediterranean might be supplied by a Syrian line. But the whole of these projects appertain to a distance so remote that I shall not live to see them realised, if realisation ever comes, and that prophecy approximates with suspicious closeness to conjecture.
I have heard suggested another alternative overland route to India, in the shape of a railroad from Port Said, at the mouth of the Suez Canal, across the heart of Arabia, to some point on the Persian Gulf. Such a scheme appears to me to suffer from all the disadvantages of the Euphrates Valley route in an exaggerated degree, without any of the redeeming compensations. The children of Israel wandered for forty years in a section of the intervening wilderness; but I should be sorry
to assign so modest a term to the sorrows of those who might embark upon so desperate an undertaking.
I have discussed the various suggestions for Indo-Mediterranean railways in this chapter, because in every scheme that has been or can be put forward, Persia, by its geographical position, plays a prominent part, and because the future of Persian railways is consequently endowed with a more than local importance. Not only is this the case, but, behindhand as Persia now is, it is conceivable that an impulse or a direction may be imparted to future developments by her initiative; and it is, therefore, in the highest degree desirable to frame an opinion about railroad policy in that country with a view to all contingent relations. In my circuit of the Persian borders I have indicated in outline the more feasible of the many schemes that have so far emanated from the brains of those who wish well to Iran, either for her sake, or, as is more frequently the case, for their own. The backward and ill-developed condition of the country, the absence of security in certain parts, the opposition of Russia, and, above all, the want of patriotism or enterprise on the part of the Persian Government, are obstacles with which even the most promising of these projects will have to contend. They may retard the commencement of operations, they may defer financial profit to a late period. Nevertheless, railways in Persia, if a questionable metaphor may be permitted, are in the air. From the Cabinets of statesmen it is but a short step to the desk of the contractor and the workshop of the engineer. That a country affecting a high civilisation can permanently resist civilisation's choicest agency and most powerful means of influence is out of the question. When even China has already constructed a short railway, and contemplates a grand trunk line several hundred miles in length, the kingdom of a sovereign who has three times overrun Europe by rail can hardly linger behind. It will be as impossible for Persia to pursue a policy of exclusion in this respect as it is in another sphere of action for Japan to remain faithful to
a religion in which she has long since ceased to believe, and which is incompatible with her moral and intellectual aspirations. In the long run caravans are doomed in the one country just as Buddhism is in the other. And perhaps not in this century, but certainly before the next has run its course, this land of a single miniature line of rails will fill its due quota of pages in the 'Bradshaw' of the world.