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Persia and the Persian Question, volume I

by George N. Curzon

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Chapter 5

FROM ASHKABAD TO KUCHAN

Wild warriors of the turquoise hills.

T. MOORE, Veiled Prophet of Khorasan.

AT the station at Ashkabad I was accosted by a Persian servant whom Colonel Stewart had been kind enough to send out to meet me from the British Consulate at Meshed. The camp, which he had also despatched, was, I understood, awaiting my arrival somewhere on the Persian side of the frontier, over thirty miles distant. The Russian authorities at Meshed being reluctant to give permission to English subjects resident in Persia to cross the border into Russian Transcaspia, my future attendants were unable to meet me at Ashkabad; but the Persian, to whom the restriction did not apply, had been despatched thither to guide me to the frontier. Unfortunately, neither of us spoke any tongue that was intelligible to the other, and an intermediary was equally difficult to find. I drove to the Governor-General's house through suffocating volumes of dust, only to discover that General Komaroff had left the day before, and that my previous year's acquaintance with him would stand me in no stead. The Colonel commanding in his absence, whom I next sought, and who was without instructions as regards myself, expressed a desire to telegraph to St. Petersburg for information, and in the meantime suggested that I might with advantage devote a few days to the charms of Ashkabad. As I knew from former experience that these were of the most meagre description, consisting only of a common native bazaar, several Russian shops, the houses inhabited by the Russian civil and military officials, and the military cantonments — planted down on a flat and featureless desert, and wrapped up in a perpetual whirl-wind of dust[66] — I declined the invitation and expressed my desire


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to proceed at once. As this intention appeared to be incompatible with any concealed design to spy out the land, I was permitted to depart, although I received no assistance or offer of assistance in the dilemma in which I was placed as regards my arrangements. The fact is, the Russian military authorities do not very much care about seeing Englishmen at Ashkabad, and have on more than one occasion shown an incivility rare in so polite a people.

Having at last entered into communications with my Persian, through the medium of two intervening parties, and having spent some hours in rearranging my baggage and transferring it to mules, I started forth an hour before sundown, intending to drive in a droshky to the mountains, and to ride the remaining distance on a horse which had been brought for me by the Persian. A misunderstand, arising from the too numerous necessary links in our chain of conversation, resulted in my baggage being lost for the night, in the Persian having to walk fifteen miles, and myself being compelled to ride entirely alone to the frontier at midnight, and there to wander about till by good fortune I struck the encampment at 1 A.M.

The road upon which I travelled, and which I shall now describe, is one of great importance, inasmuch as it provides Russia with a private way of entry into the coveted province of Khorasan. Immediately after her subjugation of the Turkomans in 1881, she set to work to consolidate her position upon the Persian border and to utilise the advantages which conquest had given her over her weak and timid neighbour on the south. A strategical ascendency she already possessed by virtue of her newly acquired territories, and of a border treaty which she proceeded forthwith to conclude with Persia, and which placed the crest of the mountains as well as the command of the principal water-supplies in her hands.[67] General Annenkoff's railway promised her a commercial superiority not less assured, provided that her merchandise could easily and securely pass across the border. Existing communications between the Turkoman Atek (literally, 'skirt' of the mountains) and Khorasan were none of the best, and had been all but closed by the savage forays of the border clans. It was for the purpose of opening up a new, secure, and direct line of connection that a military chaussée was presently commenced from Ashkabad to the frontier, the Persians undertaking at the


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same time to co-operate in the amicable enterprise by constructing a similar road upon their side of the boundary which should meet the Russian road, and eventually link Ashkabad by a carriageable highway with Kuchan and Meshed. The Persian section of the road was entrusted to General Gasteiger Khan, an Austrian Engineer officer in the service of the Shah. Before the close of 1888 the Russian section, thirty miles in length, had reached the frontier; but the Persian, it is needless to add, had scarcely been commended and showed no signs of progress. Irritated at this delay, and at the advantage presumed to have been gained by Great Britain in the Karun Concession of 1888, Russia now put on the screw at the Persian Court; and, among the stipulations of a secret agreement which has not been divulged, insisted upon the immediate completion of the Ashkabad-Kuchan road. The Shah did not relish the injunction, but was powerless to resist. General Gasteiger Khan was relieved of his office, it being variously alleged that he had quarrelled with the Governor-General of Khorasan, and that he had been found secretly corresponding with the Russians; and the contract was entrusted to the Malek-et-Tajar or Head of the Merchants' Guild at Meshed, who undertook to complete the work in a year at a cost of 13,000l., receiving in return a concession of the rest-houses, wells, and collection of tolls along the route. This was the situation when I travelled upon the road in the beginning of October 1889.

Leaving Ashkabad in a southerly direction, the road strikes across the plain towards the mountains. It is of uniform width, twenty-five feet, and, although near the town it was full of holes, yet the gradients, even in the steepest parts, are such as to render it easily available for the passage of artillery. At a distance of eight miles it reaches the foot of the hills and then winds up a lateral valley parallel to the axis of the main range of the Kopet Dagh. Later on an ascent in zigzags commences, leading, at a distance of fifteen miles, into a narrow mountain gorge, at whose bottom is a stony torrent bed, empty when I passed it, but evidently liable to a sudden rush of water in times of melting snow or flood. It must be economy rather than any practical object that has induced the Russians to cross and recross this torrent-bed, not by bridges, but by a rough stone causeway built through the channel itself, and already in many places broken up and swept away. A second series of zigzags leads, at about the


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twenty-fifth mile, into a desolate upland valley, across which the road runs in a dreary line until, again passing into the hills, it reaches the Russian village of Baj Girha (literally, 'Takers of the Tolls'), previously known as Andan, at about one mile beyond which the crest is mounted that marks the boundary between Russian and Persian territory. Neither on the road nor at the frontier were there any Russian soldiers, though the Chief of the Staff at Ashkabad had presented me with an order for passing any that I might encounter. The fact is, Russia can afford to leave this portion of her Asiatic frontier absolutely unguarded, aggression from Persia being out of the question, and none but Russians or natives going the other way. Near the end of the road, however, and at a short distance from the frontier, I found a large rectangular stone building in course of construction, which is, I believe, to serve the purposes of a guard- and rest-house combined. The Persian Baj Girha, where there is a Custom-house at which dues are levied on caravans from Ashkabad, is a small village of mud


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huts, clinging to the hill side, at about two miles from the frontier down a valley; and here it was that, stumbling along on foot with my bridle on my arm, I fortunately struck my camp. A glorious moon, idealising the gaunt and sombre landscape, had cheered my solitary ride and guided me to my destination. There was not an atom of verdure on the brown bleak hills; and not a sign or sound of life on the road except a rare caravan moving with music of camel-bells through the silence.

The mountain range through which I had been passing, in whose spurs and branches I spent another two days before reaching Kuchan, and in whose rugged eastern ramifications I was to wander for the ten days following, is the eastern prolongation of the great Elburz range that runs like a mighty rock wall along the entire northern border of Persia. Connected with the Caucasian system upon the west, it follows at distances varying from ten to thirty miles the south coast line of the Caspian, throwing up on its way the prodigious peak of Demavend (19,400 ft.), until, temporarily arrested in the valley of the Gurgan beyond Astrabad, it assumes a new lease of vigour in the knotted mountain ridges that stand one behind the other like infantry files, with an axis pointing from north-west to south-east, in the middle district between the Turkoman plains and the northern skirts of the Great Persian Desert. Further on the connection is as distinct with the misnamed Paropamisan range above Herat, itself a western continuation of the tremendous Hindu Kush. In the region under examination, the border ranges on the north are known by the names of the Kuren Dagh and Kopet Dagh, whilst the main and still higher inland ridge, enclosing the valley of the Atrek on the south, bears the successive names of Ala Dagh and Binalud Kuh. The upland valleys concealed between these parallel barriers have an average elevation of 4,000 feet, and are dominated by peaks that claim an altitude of from 8,000 to 11,000 feet. It is said that in Khorasan alone there are not less than sixteen summits which answer to this description. Nothing can exceed the bleak sterility of their outward form. Unredeemed by any verdure but a stunted and scanty growth of juniper, watered by few springs, and with little, or no soil upon the slopes, the grey limestone tells with frank and forbidding effrontery its remote geological tale. It was not out of keeping with the chill and savage character of these hills that until the last decade they were


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the chosen haunt of rapine and murder, the Turkoman man-hunters sweeping down like a flame through their sullen gorges, and falling with sword and musket upon the villages and flocks that presumed to survive their repeated devastations.

It was said, when the Russians began to build the Ashkabad-Kuchan road, that they contemplated in the future laying upon it a line of rails — whether a railroad or a steam tramway — that should facilitate their connection with Meshed. As has been pointed out to me, however, by an English Engineer officer who has inspected the work, such cannot possibly be the case, the zigzags by which the ridges are surmounted being of a character with which, in their present condition, no railroad in the world could grapple; while the same may be said of many of the angles on the Persian section of the road between Baj Girha and Kuchan. It would be easy enough to lay a line of rails from Kuchan to Meshed, where the track would run upon a level plain. But no purpose would be served by such an outlay; and it is more probable, as will be pointed out later on, that, if Meshed is to be brought into correspondence with the Russian railway system, it will be from the opposite direction.

From Baj Girha there are two short marches, viâ Durbadam and Imam Kuli, to Kuchan. The distance is said to be 12 farsakhs, nominally 48 miles. I reckon the stages, however, from Ashkabad as follows :

Miles

Ashkabad to Baj Girha

30

Baj Girha to Persian Do.

2

Persian Do. to Imam Kuli

21

Imam Kuli to Kuchan

23

Total

76

Between the frontier and Kuchan, the present camel and mule track does not follow precisely the same line as will the chaussée.

The latter, it is understood, will make a détour by Aughaz, and will avoid other steep or difficult places. Nevertheless, I kept continually striking upon the incomplete works, small segments of the road being finished, others only marked out, and others again in the hands of the workmen. I met some hundreds of these in batches,[68] blasting the rocks, or building unsubstantial bridges, which will probably be destroyed by the first flood. A German engineer had been engaged to infuse


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a little science into the proceedings, but he died a month later; and if native engineering talent has since been thought sufficient, it is a poor look-out for the durability of the undertaking. The labourers I saw at work were engaged in the most leisurely fashion; and if the Malek-et-Tajar completes his contract in double the time specified I shall be very much surprised.

Passing down the valley in a south-easterly direction from Baj Girha, the present route leads through stony hills and glens that reminded me strangely of the forlorn belt of country in Palestine that is crossed between Jerusalem and Samaria. A little further we entered a narrow defile, which was so steep that I was obliged to dismount and lead down my horse. Small watch-towers perched like eyries on the cliff tops, and a rudely constructed wall of stones built across the ravine, were reminders of the not yet forgotten days of Turkoman forays. At the end of the gorge we emerged upon a small circular plain, in which the village of Durbadam takes advantage of the presence of a mountain stream, deriving therefrom both its raison d'être and wherewithal of life. A square enclosure with high mud walls and projecting towers at the angles was a sight with which I was to become daily if not hourly familiar later on, and which was an elementary obligation of tactics imposed by the Turkomans, upon every village within a hundred miles of their border. At Durbadam (14 miles) I spread a carpet in an orchard and lunched.

Following the gorge by which the river Sharek enters the valley, and where the new road will cross the stream several times, and will be very liable to demolition by floods, we came into more open country, and passed the first of two villages known as Imam Kuli on the left. Hearing sounds of lamentation proceeding from a miserable hovel, and observing a circle of women and children weeping and bewailing outside, I went up and found that one of the natives of the village, a husband and a father, had been killed by a fall of rock, while blasting on the new roadway, in the gorge which I had just quitted. The dead body, naked, but covered with a sheet, lay with its feet in the doorway. I gave the poor creatures a few krans, as they looked miserably poor. Outside the village I passed a shallow gravelly trench dug by the roadside, where, amid a little cluster of stony mounds, the hapless victim was about to be laid to rest. At 3 P.M., in a wider opening of the valley, dignified by occasional clumps of poplar, I reached the main


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village of Imam Kuli, built, as are all these Persian mountain villages, in tiers upon the hill side — a series of squalid mud terraces pierced by low holes for doorways. The headman of the village offered me his house, but I preferred the prospect of cold in a tent to the certainty of fleas indoors. Here I was met by a messenger from the Ilkhani or Chief of Kuchan, whose capital I was to visit on the morrow, and who had been apprised of my arrival. The emissary, an old gentleman with white beard most imperfectly dyed with henna, inquired at what hour I proposed to arrive at Kuchan, as his master wished to give me a befitting reception outside the town. I gave him the rendezvous at noon. He suggested that I should spend an entire day at Imam Kuli — a solicitude on my behalf which I found to be due to his own reluctance to make the return journey to Kuchan with sufficient speed to anticipate my arrival. I replied that the irresistible attractions of Kuchan drew me on.

As I started at seven o clock the next morning, a party of pilgrims for Meshed, who had come from Resht, viâ Uzun Ada and Ashkabad,[69] passed out of the village on donkey back in front of me, singing loudly in praise of Ali and Husein, and other saints of the Shiah calendar. I followed the main road out of the valley, and then struck off to the south-west, taking a short cut over a rolling range of hills which constitute the watershed between the streams that drain north to the Atek and those that drain south to Kuchan. In a ravine on the left could be discerned the small villages of Kelat-i-Shah Mohammed, watered by a kanat or underground aqueduct, and further on Kelat-i-Mullammamud (Mullah Mahmud?). There was no contrast of colour on the barren hills, even though they now became lower and more undulating, while their flanks had in parts been ploughed for grain. The landscape might have been draped in khaki, that excellent but unlovely material with which we clothe our soldiers in torrid climes. Zobaran (15 miles), though the name signifies plenty, did not by its appearance betray that it enjoyed plenty of anything but stones and dust. However, a tiny rill of clear water fed a


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small pool and watered a few straggling poplars and willows. The two remaining farsakhs to Kuchan were full farsakhs, and it was a little past noon when I arrived. For three-quarters of an hour beforehand I had seen the town and its orchards and vineyards lying far below in the midst of a broad valley, like a footprint of red mould upon a sandy floor. The limits of the highly cultivated ground around the town were distinctly marked; and it was as though some giant, stepping over the earth, had planted one big foot in this desolate hollow of the world's surface, which had straightway burgeoned and blossomed under the magic touch. On the north and south the valley was confined by rolling ranges which stretched away towards Shirwan in the west and eastwards in the direction of Meshed. Within about two miles of the town, and at the last swell of the hill before descending into the plain, I struck the main road again, and galloped briskly towards the walls. About a mile therefrom a bridge with a single high arch and no attempt at a parapet spanned the then waterless channel of the Atrek.[70] A flock of goats was standing in the dried-up bed, and sipping the little remaining moisture in a few stagnant pools. A few dusty poplars fringed the banks of the vanished stream. On the other side vegetation was general and even prolific. Orchards of peaches, mulberry, apricot, and pomegranate were yellowing under the fall of the year. The enclosures were thickly planted with vines straggling in irregular double rows with broad deep irrigation trenches for the water between, and presenting an appearance very unlike the trim precision of the vineyards of Bordeaux. The industrial energy of Kuchan seems to be specially devoted to the manufacture of wine, and in a scarcely less degree to its consumption, a genial immunity which the Shiah Mahometans have never been slow to claim for themselves from the stern asceticism of the Sunni dogma.

By this time I was in much surprised to have met no carriage or deputation from the Khan, in view of the recognised reception given to strangers at Persian seats of government, and of the


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preparations of the previous day.[71] I remembered that when Colonel Baker came to Kuchan in 1873, in the time of the same Ilkhani, he was treated with a similar scant ceremony on his arrival, the reason being that the Khan was sleeping off the effects of a heavy debauch the night before. As these orgies were said to be of constant occurrence, it was extremely likely that the same plea might be forthcoming for the failure to receive me now. However, I was sufficiently versed in Oriental etiquette to know that in matters of ceremony a foreigner is taken at his own estimation, and that any failure to vindicate his titular importance is ascribed not to modesty but to weakness.[72] Accordingly I halted outside the walls of the town, which I declined to enter under such auspices, and sent on my Afghan sergeant and one of the Turkoman sowars[73] to the house of the Khan, to say that I had arrived at the hour agreed upon, and was surprised at the indignity of being compelled to halt in a caravanserai outside the walls. In about ten minutes there was a clatter of hoofs; eight or ten horsemen galloped up; and a somewhat dilapidated single brougham, drawn by two grey steeds, on one of which was mounted a postilion, rumbled up to the door. The leader explained that the Khan was very much distressed at my legitimate annoyance; that he had intended to meet me as arranged, but that the messenger from Imam Kuli, the old fellow with the skewbald beard, had named one o clock as the hour of my arrival. He begged I would forgive the mistake and accept a house which he had prepared for me. My wounded dignity having received this balsam, I mounted the vehicle; my horse was led before; my escort came behind; and the Khan's cavaliers galloped in front, clearing a way through the streets and bazaars with astonishing rapidity.

Entering the town by a low gateway with earthen towers in the earthen wall, we jolted along a number of narrow and tortuous lanes, and at length pulled up at a house which, I was informed, the Khan had furnished and placed at my disposal. Three excellent rooms, carpeted and with whitewashed walls, relieved by shallow niches, looked out on a


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little open court, in the centre of which was a circular basin and fountain, surrounded by flower-beds — the normal interior of every Persian mansion. A Russian samovar simmered on the table, and some cane-bottomed chairs (which a Persian nobleman invariably keeps for European visitors) stood around. The entire garden wall of the principal room was one large window frame, filled, according to the prevailing Persian fashion, with little pieces of stained glass prettily set in a species of wooden lattice. The second apartment, intended as a bedroom, contained a small iron stove of Persian manufacture; and the niches in the walls were completely covered with Russian pictures of a character that we associate either with tradesmen's advertisements at Christmas time or with the special issues of illustrated newspapers — viz. brilliantly coloured pictures of the Russian Royal Family, and fanciful portraits of black-haired houris with gorgeous necklaces and bare necks and arms. There were no less than four large pictures of the Czar and Czarina, and a coloured print of the principal


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sovereigns of the world, with the Czar, quite double the size of the rest, in the centre; and the old Emperor of Germany and the Emperor of Austria, of size No. 2, on his right and left. Queen Victoria, in a red silk dress, occupied the central position in a row of the third dimension, Along with these embellishments were nailed up a number of brightly coloured and gilded chromos of religious subjects, such as the Virgin Mary, Christ, and different saints of the Greek calendar, contrasting curiously with the uniformed royalties and the smiling coquettes. The decorations of the room sufficiently indicated the foreign influences to which the Khan is most amenable, and must originally have been devised for guests of another nationality than my own. Huge trays laden with pink and white sweetmeats now arrived from the Khan, who renewed his apologies, asked when I would come to see him, and inquired whether I would be willing to remit the punishment of the red-bearded emissary from Imam Kuli on the ground that, being a Kurd, he had imperfectly understood the explanations of my interpreter. I named five o clock as the hour of meeting, and gladly acquiesced in the pardon of the offender.

And now, having arrived at Kuchan, let me, before proceeding further, give some idea of the character and inhabitants of this important frontier province, and of the personality of the Kurdish chieftain whose guest I was, and whom I was about to interview.

Three hundred years ago the north-eastern border of Persia was as subject to Tartar inroads as, till ten years ago, it was to the alamans of the Akhal Tekkes. Collecting in the desert on the north, they burst through the mountain gorges and defiles, burnt, harried, massacred, plundered, and retired with as much swiftness and as great impunity as they had come. It was characteristic of the dispositions of a great monarch that, recognising the inability of so timid a people as the Persians successfully to resist the invaders themselves, Shah Abbas looked elsewhere for his frontier garrison. Just as he transported an entire Armenian community from his north-west provinces to Isfahan, in order to teach trade and attract prosperity to his newly founded capital, so he now transferred an entire community of warlike Kurdish tribesmen from the same quarter, and planted them in the mountainous glens and uplands of Khorasan. By this judicious act he served a double purpose; for he both


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fortified his position in the east and relieved himself of the insecurity arising from the bloody feuds and divisions of the Kurdish clans in the west.[74] The expatriated tribes were the Shahdillu, Zaferanlu, Kaiwanlu, and Amanlu; and it is said that while the transplantation of 40,000 families was originally contemplated by Abbas, the resistance of several of the chieftains reduced the number actually moved to 15,000 families.[75] Settled in the mountains and valleys between Astrabad and Chinaran, they held their new territories free from revenue or tribute, on the feudal ground of military service, being responsible for the safety of the frontier and for the provision of mounted troops to the army of the King. The great richness of Kuchan accounted for a money tribute being subsequently demanded from its ruler as well. Bujnurd, as a poorer district, was not mulcted in more than a nominal annual present from its chief to the sovereign. The independent position, no less than the hereditary instincts of the new-comers, soon led to the acquisition by their chieftains of great power and much importance. Of these, Kuchan from an early date acquired the superiority, and the title of Ilkhani (i.e. Lord of the Ils or Clans) was bestowed upon its ruler, either in recognition of his pre-eminence or, as some say, in order to make him personally answerable to the central authority for the good behaviour of the whole. Nevertheless, the Kurdish settlers were constantly either in veiled or open rebellion; and although Nadir Shah attempted to conciliate them by marrying a daughter of the Ilkhani, they took advantage of his absence in India again to assert their independence. At this he was so infuriated that, vowing their complete extermination, he marched against Kuchan, and was already outside its walls when, in 1747, he was murdered in his tent. Again in the present century Kuchan was in open rebellion against Fath Ali Shah; and when Burnes was there in 1832 the town had just fallen, after a protracted siege, to the army of Abbas Mirza, the heir apparent, whose artillery was directed by British officers. The experiences of the present Ilkhani, which I shall presently relate, have shown that under the reigning Shah rebellion is a more precarious experiment; and


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during the last twenty years and more, especially since the advent of the Russians on the north, and the consequent disappearance of the particular necessity to which the Kurds owed both their position and their power, the strength of the latter and the authority of their chieftains have very sensibly declined.

Of the five Kurdish states originally settled in Khorasan, three alone — Kuchan, Bujnurd, and Deregez — now remain. Of a simple, if rude and independent, character when first they entered the country, their turbulent existence and the opportunities of plunder which they enjoyed soon exercised a deteriorating influence upon the morale of the colonists; and travellers who visited them during the days of Turkoman border warfare, and saw both parties at work, reported that there was very little to choose between the methods of the two. Both raided, pillaged, and massacred whenever they had a chance. A Turkoman was always fair game to a Kurd, and a Kurd to a Turkoman; and if we have heard more of the awful results of the Tekkes' devastations in Persia than of the return compliments paid by the Kurds to the Atek, it is probably because no curious stranger ever dared to penetrate the Turkoman desert, while a hundred eyes have witnessed the desolated villages and hamlets of Khorasan. In appearance the Kurds are easily distinguishable from the Persians, both in physiognomy and dress. They are a fine masculine race, with open countenances, strongly marked and well-shaped features, sometimes fair complexions, and untrimmed beards and hair. They have adopted the principal articles of Persian costume, but they wear rough sheepskin bonnets (instead of the smug kolah or the small egg-shell felt cap) and long sheepskin coats or poshtins. Until quite recently they were distinguished for their tribal cohesion and attachment to their chiefs, whom they were ready to support at any time in an insurrection against the central power.

The title of Ilkhani has always been hereditary in one family, though nominally subject to the ratification of the Shah. The Persian Government has, on occasions, tried the experiment of appointing its own officials; but this has invariably led to rebellion and the compulsory withdrawal of the intruder. Till the accession, or rather till the assertion in the last twenty-five years of the authority, of the present Shah, the Kurds have uniformly regarded the Kajar dynasty as an alien


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usurpation. They were the subjects of their own rulers, but not of the Persian monarch. The Ilkhanis dispensed law and justice in their own name, without reference to Teheran, and even wielded the power of life and death. An incident, however, which had occurred just before my arrival in Kuchan will better indicate than any words the change that has taken place. The Vizier or Deputy-Governor of Kuchan, one Ramzan Khan, had been shot by a would-be assassin in pursuit of personal revenge. Though the injured man had not died, the Ilkhani, without any reference to Teheran, put the attempted murderer to death, it was said with horrible tortures. This was regarded by the Shah as an unwarrantable encroachment upon his own prerogative; and I have no doubt that the old Ilkhani did not escape without paying a substantial indemnity.

The pedigree of the Ilkhani's family is as follows: The first chief of whom I find record was Mohammed Husein Khan, who resided at Shirwan towards the close of the last century. His son, Amir Gunah Khan, moved to Kuchan in the early years of this century, and was engaged in frequent conflict with the Turkomans. About 1815 he was deposed by his son, Reza Kuli Khan, who must have ruled for the greater part of fifty years. He was Ilkhani when Fraser visited Kuchan (which he called Kabushan or Cochoon, Kuchan being a contraction of the longer name) in 1822, and was described by him as a man of good and honourable character, but of no great courage or talents, although he succeeded for long in remaining more or less independent of the sovereign power. Taking advantage of his absence upon one occasion, Fath Ali Shah, who was as ambitious of military aggrandisement as he was personally timid and unwarlike, advanced against Kuchan, but failed to take the town, and was obliged to conclude a truce and withdraw. Later, as I have shown, the place was successfully captured by Abbas Mirza, and Reza Kuli Khan was compelled to acknowledge his subjection. Sent as a prisoner first to Teheran and afterwards to Tabriz, he died of chagrin on the way at Mianeh.[76] His son, Sam Khan, was made ruler in his place. The present Ilkhani was a younger son, and told me that he succeeded his elder brother twenty-four years ago.

Amir Husein Khan, my host, who also bears the grandiloquent titles of Amir el Omrah (i.e. Lord of Lords) and Shuja-ed-Dowleh


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(i.e. Boldness of the Empire, a title conferred upon him by the Shah), has, during his life of over sixty years, enjoyed a somewhat checkered existence. In early days he took part in the campaign against Herat in 1856-7, and in the Persian expedition against Merv that had such disastrous consequences in 1860. Vain, ambitious, and inordinately proud, he was unwise enough, after succeeding to the chieftainship, to incur the enmity of the Governor-General of Khorasan. Summoned to Meshed to render account, he declined to obey, and held out till a Persian army, sent to chastise him, arrived within sight of Kuchan, when a compromise was arrived at, and the Ilkhani was left in possession on payment of a fine to the Shah which I have heard variously named as 3,000l. and 7,000l. Again, however, he was either guilty or was suspected of rebellion, and on this second occasion was summoned to Teheran, deposed and imprisoned, his son being made Ilkhani in his stead. After a short time, probably in return for a second and larger ransom, he was released and reinstated, and has since remained in undisturbed possession, having learnt quite enough of the present Shah to find that rebellion, even on the part of a Warden of the Marches, no longer pays. Though the deterioration of his Kurdish clansmen, arising from a long period of peace, and the weakening of his own position consequent upon the strength of the present Shah, and upon the centralisation introduced in all parts of the kingdom by the electric telegraph, have shorn the Khan of much of his ancient prestige, he is still one of the most powerful vassals of the Persian crown, and, apart from his own personality, is interesting as perhaps the last survival of a vanishing order.

With his eldest son, Abul Hasan Khan, now about thirty-six years of age, he has long been upon the worst of terms. The latter was once Governor of Shirwan, the second town of the principality, but was deposed and imprisoned by his father. He now resides at Chinaran, where he enjoys a fixed revenue by order of the Shah, and had lately married a daughter of the Vizier of Khorasan. It is not certain, however, whether he will succeed the old Ilkhani, as he is subject to fits of madness, in one of which he was said to have beaten his former wife, a Turkoman woman, to death; and, moreover, he inherits in full measure the parental addiction to drink.

It is, I fear, as a drunkard that the old chief is best known to


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English readers and has been commemorated by English writers. During the past twenty years he has been visited and interviewed by several Englishmen: by Colonel Valentine Baker in 1873, Captain Napier in 1874, Sir C. MacGregor in 1875, and Edmund O'Donovan in 1880;[77] and by most of these authorities was found either drinking or drunk, or slowly recovering from the effects of drink, Kuchan being noted for its white wine, and the Khan having a partiality besides for brandy, arrack, and any spirit that is sufficiently potent. General Grodekoff, who was despatched to Khorasan in disguise in 1880 by General Skobeleff, with the knowledge of the Shah, in order to purchase supplies for the Russian army then operating against the Tekke Turkomans in Transcaspia, was well aware beforehand of the propensities of the Kurdish chieftain, and in his official account of the mission entrusted to him very candidly avows the steps by which he sought to ingratiate himself with his too convivial host: —

Knowing that he was fond of liquor, we placed several bottles of wine, liqueurs, and vodka before him; and in a very short time the Shuja had drunk several glasses of different wines, and then called in his singers and musicians. The men who came with him, his surgeon, and his favourites, Vali Khan and Ramzan Khan, drank themselves stupid, and a regular orgy began. Next day I went to see the Amir, and presented my documents to him. Bottles were already standing before him, and he explained that he was recovering from his intoxication. During our conversation he repeatedly partook of brandy, opium, hashish, and wine, and by noon was quite drunk. In the evening of the same day he invited us to a European supper, and again got intoxicated to the last degree.

In the negotiations that followed, General Grodekoff was alternately impressed by the astuteness of the Ilkhani and disgusted by his habits. Once his editor writes: —

A three days' sojourn in his society showed Colonel Grodekoff that the Amir was very much in possession of all his faculties; that he was not to be deceived by our giving ourselves out as commission agents; and that, although he was a drunkard, still he saw and remembered everything.


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But on another occasion: —

To carry on business with him was more than difficult. One had to drink with him, to listen to his drunken speeches, to be present at his orgies, and still to be on one's guard not to show signs of disgust which, would at once have called forth the anger of the barbarian. Truly the world has produced few such brutes, as Colonel Grodekoff expressed himself in a telegram to General Skobeleff.

It would appear, however, that the Khan has only perpetuated himself, and bequeathed to the estimable son whom I have before named, a taste which he had himself inherited from his father; for when Fraser was the guest of Reza Kuli Khan in 1822 he relates that he saw 'the Khan and the whole court dead drunk.' There is a certain fine continuity, therefore, in the family proceedings.

It may be imagined that, knowing as much as I did about Amir Husein Khan, my familiarity with whose antecedents would probably have caused a severe shock to the old gentleman had he been aware of it, I looked forward with some anxiety to my interview. Donning my frock coat, which I confess looked somewhat incongruous beneath a Terai hat, and my goloshes, and attended by as large a retinue of my own servants as I could muster,[78] I followed the escort of six persons who had been sent by the Khan to conduct me to his palace hard by. The facade over the entrance gateway was in the form of a triple arch filled with elegant bas-reliefs in white plaster, made after the fashion of an Italian villa, behind which a neat little kiosque rose above the roof. Passing through the gateway, which was filled with guards, I was conducted to the left into a large open court, about twice as long as it was broad, the lower end of which was divided into flower-beds, while above the middle was a hauz, one of those large tanks common to every Persian house of any pretensions, and so cunningly constructed that the, water just laps over the stone brim and trickles down into a channel outside. On the pavement beyond were standing some thirty individuals with their backs turned to the tank and their faces towards the upper end, where I could see into an elevated aiwan or reception chamber, separated


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from the court by a latticed window, the central panels of which were thrown open. Entering a small room in the right-hand corner, I left my goloshes, and was ushered into the central apartment of the daïs, which contained only two inlaid tables down the middle, positively laden with coloured glass candelabra, vases, and curios, and an iron bedstead with a mattress in the corner. The glass baubles represent an incomprehensible but very widely spread taste among the Persians of the upper classes, while the bedstead was doubtless introduced as a crowning evidence of successfully assimilated civilisation. In the centre of this audience chamber at the back was a recessed apartment, where the Khan was seated at a table, and whence he rose to welcome me. While he was dictating to the interpreter the customary opening civilities, and during our subsequent interviews, which lasted fully two hours, I had abundant opportunity to become acquainted with his features and deportment.

In appearance the Shuja is striking, but the reverse of handsome. There was a photograph of him hanging in the house where he entertained me, which I subsequently begged of him, and a reproduction of which adorns the accompanying page. He was careful to explain that, having been taken by a Persian artist, the likeness entirely failed to do him justice, a criticism which I am bound to endorse, as, though an ugly, he was in no sense a forbidding-looking man, but wore an air both of authority and of intelligence. Though over sixty years of age, his beard and hair were jet black, the result, I imagine, of dye. He had strongly marked features and a very sallow complexion. He was dressed in a black cloth coat and trousers, with diamond buckles, and a diamond-hilted sword, a black sheepskin kolah or hat pressed low down on to his ears,[79] white cotton gloves and stockings, and patent leather shoes. Being very short-sighted, he wore colossal blue spectacles over his eyes. When speaking,


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his manner and locution were those of one habituated to command. In parleying with the interpreter he showed great animation, and when calling for his kalian (the Persian water-pipe or narghileh), or issuing an order, his utterance was an imperious growl. At his left hand sat a Seyid (i.e. descendant of the Prophet) in a green turban and prodigious khelat of dark blue colour, who occasionally interpolated remarks when appealed to, and generally acted the part of an echo to his master. One of the younger sons of the Khan, a boy of fourteen, was also present, and a mirza or secretary was afterwards called in, who understood a few words of French. A group of attendants stood at a little distance, and ran to and fro with kalians, tea, coffee, and ices.

In the two conversations which I enjoyed with the Khan — for he returned my visit early on the following morning — he said many quaint and characteristic things which I shall not here repeat at full length, but the bulk of which may advisably be condensed. I soon found that I was dealing with a man who, whatever his common delinquencies, was in full possession of his faculties upon the present occasion, and who had an acute and questioning mind. He occasionally displayed an ignorance that in a European would be puerile; but this mixture of childishness and sagacity is characteristic of the Oriental intelligence, and is natural to a state of life where mental development is crushed by restricted surroundings and by a total lack of general experience.

In reply to my question, he could not tell me how many subjects he possessed, because they were never counted. But there were 40,000 houses under his rule (I am afraid a great exaggeration), and each house paid one toman (six shillings) in taxation (a greater still), and each house supplied an armed soldier (the greatest of all). They were very good soldiers, and would fight anybody. This gave me the opportunity I desired of sounding the old gentleman about Russia and his Russian proclivities. I observed that Khorasan was a very rich country, and that it was sometimes said that the Russians wanted to take it.

'How should they take it?' he said.

'In the same way that they have already taken Akhal Tekke,' he replied.

'No, that is out of the question! The people will fight for it. They will all gather together and fight for Meshed. They

are good


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soldiers. We are not sour milk that the Russians should swallow us down.[80] We have a wall of men; a wall of men is stronger than a wall of stones.'

While treating this asseveration with becoming respect, I fear that I was uncharitable enough at this juncture to remember not only the mural decorations of the house which I had so recently quitted, but a certain passage that occurred in a letter written by this same vehement old patriot to the Russian, Grodekoff, only ten years before, in which he had remarked: 'There is only one Jesus, on whom were poured out all divine blessings, so that he should come from heaven and create such a people as the Russians.' Changing the subject, I inquired what the Khan thought about railways in Persia. Though he had never seen a railroad in his life, he surprised me by advocating their introduction everywhere into the country, and wondered why they were not begun. He was aware that Queen Victoria had reigned over fifty years and had recently celebrated her jubilee. He could not understand the niggardly policy of the Amir of Afghanistan in refusing to allow strangers to enter his dominions, and was unwilling to believe that it was more difficult to penetrate to Herat than to Kuchan. The narrow range of his knowledge, however, transpired when I told him that eight days were required to go from London to America, and he immediately asked if the distance was 80 farsakhs, i.e. 320 miles, arguing from the maximum distance of a day's land march in Persia.[81]

Very characteristic too, and in strict accordance with the practice of his family (his father, Reza Kuli Khan, put the same questions to Fraser, and the Ilkhani himself had repeated them seventeen years before my visit to Baker), were his interrogations as to my object and motive in travelling. 'Why do you come to Kuchan? What do you want? Do the English Government pay


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you to travel? How much do they pay you? If not they, then who pays you?' The taste for travel and gratuitous thirst for knowledge are emotions quite incomprehensible to the Oriental mind.[82]

I had great difficulty also in explaining to him my own profession and the position of my family. Parliament he had never heard of; and when I told him that I was a member of the great mejilis (council), he replied, 'Are you a soldier?' The status or rank of an English nobleman conveyed nothing to him; but he put the pertinent questions, 'Has your father many soldiers?' and 'Who made him governor of his property?' He was positively amazed at a tenure of the same estates lasting over 800 years, but replied, in the spirit of Mr. Hardcastle in 'She Stoops to Conquer,'[83] and with a Conservatism which I could not fail to admire, that Ferenghistan was a great country because of its antiquity; age, as he said, meaning authority.

Acting in unconscious imitation of Fraser, who, nearly seventy years before, had presented a silver hunting watch to the father of my host, I endeavoured to make some little recognition of the hospitality of which I was the recipient by offering the Ilkhani a watch, the hours and minutes upon the face of which were marked not by a revolving hand, but by numerals appearing on a disc. He was vastly interested in this novelty; but as he could not understand the figures, which did not correspond with the Roman numerals on watches which he had previously seen or possessed, I had to draw up a table with the ordinary numerals from 1 to 60 and their Roman equivalents, to which his secretary appended a Persian translation. Having accepted the watch, the Shuja somewhat staggered me by inquiring how much it had cost. I attributed this question, which in a European would have implied impertinent curiosity, to the Oriental desire to make a return of as nearly as possible equivalent value to the donor, the notorious character of the Ilkhani for stinginess rendering it certain that he


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would not give a farthing in excess. What the quality or worth of his return gift may have been I never discovered; because, although he brought a bundle with him on his valedictory visit the next day, which I afterwards heard contained an intended present of carpets or embroidery, he failed to offer it to me, and it was said to have been purloined by some of his servants.

Such were the main incidents of my intercourse with the old chief of Kuchan. I am glad to be able, if not to contradict the versions of his character and accomplishments that have been given by my predecessors, at least to depict another and more favourable side of his nature. I note that on Sir C. MacGregor in 1875 he left the same impression of dignified manners and considerable intelligence. In the evening I had an opportunity both of becoming acquainted with the Persian cuisine and of testing the quality of the Khan's own kitchen. A dinner that would have fed a regiment was brought ready cooked from his house to that which he was pleased to call mine, and deposited in dishes upon the floor of the room. There were soup, chickens cooked in no less than three different ways, leg of lamb, mutton ragoüt, excellent kabobs, a Persian omelette, three gigantic platters of rice, two of them containing the famous Persian chilau or plain boiled rice, the third a pilau, or rice mixed with meat and currants,[84] and other dishes for which I cannot find a name. The cooking of such as I tried was excellent, and the rice especially was prepared in a manner that no Parisian artist could emulate. For drink there was Kuchan wine, which I thought extremely nasty, sour milk, which is equally distasteful to the untrained palate, and native sherbet, which, though little else than iced sugar and water, is a most agreeable and refreshing beverage. Delicately carved and transparent pear-wood spoons from Abadeb floated in the sherbet-bowl. Lastly there were piles of grapes. I more than


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once afterwards partook of a Persian dinner, and thought the fare, though excessive in quantity, better than in any of the other Oriental countries whose native styles I have tested.

While at Kuchan I rode out to inspect the town and its environs. I was informed that it now contains 12,000 inhabitants, but cannot help regarding this as an exaggerated estimate. The walls, of which I made the tour and which, along with the ditch, were constructed by the father and grandfather of the present Ilkhani, have never been repaired since their bombardment by the siege train of Abbas Mirza, and have been still further reduced by frequent shocks of earthquake since, notably one in 1872. Indeed, MacGregor in 1875 said the town was such a mass of ruins that he felt absolved from giving any description of it. The old ramparts are now in many places no more than shapeless heaps of mud. Outside the town are a large number of brick-kilns, and several ice-houses with lofty mud cones, built in beehive fashion over a pit in which the ice is stored. I was also taken to an extensive garden or orchard belonging to the Khan, the interior of which, ten or twelve acres in extent, was planted with vines, and avenues of apple, pear, apricot, pomegranate, mulberry, peach, plum, and quince. In the centre was a raised platform of beaten clay about a foot high, on which the Shah's pavilion was pitched when he stopped here on his second journey to Meshed in 1883, and where the Khan sometimes camps out when there is danger of earthquakes. Outside the town are also pointed out an elevated plateau known as Takht-i-Shah (i.e. Throne of the King), where Fath Ali Shah's tents were pitched in his expedition against Kuchan; and a hill called Nadir Tepe, at a distance of a mile and a half from the walls, where Nadir Shah met his fate in June 1747.

The only building in Kuchan, in addition to the palace, that lifts its head above the horizontal level of the dusty roofs or is of the least importance, is a mosque with a dome and two stunted minarets, one of these having a wooden gallery at the top from which is given the summons to prayer. As the Shiah Mahometans do not allow unbelievers to enter even the gateways of their mosques, combining a peculiar fanaticism in this respect with excess of laxity in others, neither here nor elsewhere was I able to do more than gaze through the Arabic archway into the inner court.

I am sorry that it was not till later that I read Fraser's account


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of his visit to Kuchan in 1822; because I should have liked to ascertain the whereabouts of the fragments, described by him, of a magnificent Koran which had been brought by some of the Kuchan soldiers of Nadir Shah from the grave of Timur at Samarkand. Seventy years ago about sixty of these pages, ten to twelve feet long by seven to eight feet broad, and covered with beautiful calligraphy, were seen by Fraser lying upon a shelf in an imamzadeh, or saint's tomb.

While at Kuchan I also visited the native bazaars. They are of the usual Oriental character — long alleys roofed over with timbers meeting above in an arch, and covered with mud and faggots to keep out the glare. I stopped in the cotton bazaar, where I saw a number of shops stocked with what were evidently European printed calicoes and cottons, and asked where they came from. 'Russia,' was the reply. Every piece bore the name of a Russian firm. I asked if there were any English goods sold in the bazaar. In reply some Turkey red was produced, and also some striped cotton-stuff. Neither, however, bore any English mark, and the vendor could not say where they came from. At length was produced some calico bearing the stamp of a Bombay manufacturer, and doubtless made of Indian cotton. I asked how it was that it was worth while to import goods from such a distance. The answer was that, though the price was high, yet the quality, which was not equalled in other wares, created a demand. All the glass, hardware, and crockery in the bazaar were Russian. So was the sugar. I was told that most of the tea came from India viâ Bunder Abbas and Meshed, but that some also came from Russia. Russian interests, political as well as commercial, are indeed well looked after at Kuchan, for the Russians keep a paid agent in the town. The export trade, which is principally in cotton and skins, is in the hands of Armenians, whose commercial aptitudes place much of the trade of Persia in their control. The proximity of Kuchan to Ashkabad, and the easy and secure communication between the two places, are alone sufficient to account for the Russian preponderance. The town is connected by a single (Persian) telegraphic wire with Meshed on the one hand, and Bujnurd, thirty miles lower down the Atrek valley, on the other. There connection is established with the Russian wires at Kizil Arvat. Kuchan is also served by a weekly Russian post from Ashkabad, carried by mounted Turkomans, who ride viâ Kuchan to Meshed.


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Before I leave Kuchan I may furnish a few details of the district and government of which it is the capital. Bounded by the district of Bujnurd on the north-west, it extends as far as Radkan on the road to Meshed, a total length of nearly sixty miles, its breadth from north to south being a little less, and being about equally divided between the mountain ranges and uplands in which I had been journeying from the frontier and the Kuchan valley itself, which is fifteen miles in average width, and stretches without physical interruption to Meshed. The Shah Jehan mountains, which enclose it on the south, rise behind the town of Kuchan, which is 3,800 feet above the sea, to a peak of 10,000 feet. There is no more fertile or better watered tract in the whole of North Persia than the Kuchan valley. Under irrigation it gives a hundred-fold return of grain; and its cereal productiveness entitles it to be termed the granary of Khorasan. Skobeleff knew very well what he was about when he despatched Grodekoff to buy forage for his horses and camels from the Shuja-ed-Dowleh; and the Russians of to-day also know very well what they are doing in planting themselves within easy reach and in strategical command of a district which would feed a large army and dominate the whole of Khorasan. The population of the principality consists mainly of Zaferanlu Kurds, but contains also some Geraili Turks and a few Persians. Its total has been variously estimated at from 90,000 to 200,000 souls, the lower figure being, it is needless to add, nearer the probable mark. The income of the Ilkhani is derived partly from duties on houses and shops in the towns and on cultivated lands outside, partly from the revenues of his own private property. Out of it he is required to defray the charges of his cavalry contingent, who are well mounted and armed with guns, but whose numbers, which formerly stood at 1,000, had, I was informed (perhaps in consideration of the altered condition on the frontier), been reduced to 500.

SUPPLEMENTARY ROUTES FROM KUCHAN

KUCHAN TO MESHED (viâ Jafirabad, Shurcha, Radkan, Chinaxan, Gunabad, Kasimabad, 93 miles). — J. B. Fraser (1822), Journey into Khorasan, cap. xxii.; (Sir) A. Burnes (1832), Travels into Bokhara, vol. iii. pp. 74-5; Captain Hon. G. Napier (1874), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xlvi. pp. 79-87 and 151-3; E. O'Donovan (1880), The Merv Oasis, vol. i. cap. xxviii.

KUCHAN TO SEBZEWAR (69 miles). — E. O'Donovan.(1880), The Merv Oasis, vol. i. p. 437.


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KUCHAN TO ASTRADAD (viâ Shirwan, Bujnurd, and the Gurgan). — J. B. Fraser (1823), Journey into Khorasan, caps. xxiii.-iv., and (1831) A Winter's Journey, vol. ii. Letters xii., xiii.; (Sir) A. Burnes (1832), Travels into Bokhara, vol. iii. pp. 86-101.

KUCHAN TO SHAHRUD (viâ Shirwan, Bujnurd, Semulghan, Jajarm, and Bostam). — Colonel Val. Baker (1873), Clouds in the East, caps. xvi., xvii.; Captain Hon. G. Napier (1874), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xlvi. pp. 98-113 and 164-5; (Sir) C. MacGregor (1875), Journey through Khorasan, vol. ii. pp. 88-113.

KUCHAN TO DEREGEZ. — Captain Hon. G. Napier (1874), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xlvi. pp. 88-94 and 158-9.


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