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Persia and the Persian Question, volume I

by George N. Curzon

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Chapter 6

FROM KUCHAN TO KELAT-I-NADIRI

And one a foreground black with stones and slags,

Beyond — a line of heights, and higher

All barred with long white cloud the scornful crags,

And highest snow and fire.

TENNNYSON, The Palace of Art.

FROM Kuchan it was my intention, if possible, to visit the famous frontier stronghold of Kelat-i-Nadiri, the Fort of Nadir Shah, described by previous travellers as one of the most extraordinary natural phenomena in the world, and famous even in this land of mountain fastnesses and impregnable defiles for its inaccessibility and amazing natural strength. Ever since the rumour had been spread, and even circulated in Europe, that Russia coveted this particular possession [a question was asked in the House of Commons in the spring of 1889 as to whether it had not actually been ceded to the Czar], the Persians had looked with a jealous eye upon any intruder, and I accordingly judged it prudent to say nothing of my desire. I had ascertained that it was impossible for me to fortify myself before starting with a special permit from the Shah, the latter not having as yet returned to Teheran from Europe, and the British Minister not being at the capital, in order to approach the sovereign's representatives. Nor in any case should I have solicited such permission, knowing that if granted it would at once have been treated as a precedent by the Russians for demanding a similar concession, which might in the case of their emissary have meant something very different from the visit of so innocent a traveller as myself. I was still less willing to telegraph for leave to the Governor-General of Khorasan at Meshed, because I doubted his ability to grant it, and felt certain that my footsteps would at once be dogged by spies, if I was not actually turned back. The Persians are so extravagantly suspicious of foreigners, and particularly of such as sketch, or ask questions, or measure, or


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pull instruments out of their pockets, that no successful exploration would ever be undertaken if they were to be forewarned of the traveller's intention. I determined, therefore, to take no one into my counsels, but to announce that I was going to Meshed and might possibly diverge on the way to hunt in the mountains; my secret resolve being to strike across country by whatever route I could find,[85] and ascertain for myself whether it was possible for a single individual, unexpected and unannounced, to penetrate into Kelat.

I had the greatest difficulty in eluding the vigilance of the Ilkhani, who was not only full of curiosity as to my movements, but also insisted upon my travelling in his brand-new Russian victoria as far as Meshed, threatening to return me the silver watch if I would not accept the loan of his vehicle. It was in vain that I said that I preferred to ride. 'You will have plenty of riding later on,' was the reply. Or that I wanted to stop at the villages en route. 'So can the carriage,' was the rejoinder. Finally I compromised by accepting the victoria, with the intention of sending it back at the end of the first stage; and concluded by a most ceremonious departure from Kuchan. The Khan walked with me through the streets, holding me by the hand, and deposited me in the vehicle, which was of Moscow build and of the newest and most elegant description (I fell to wondering from whom the present had come), and to which were harnessed four grey horses with postilions. With mounted gholams clearing a way in front and attendants walking by the side, the victoria, with myself inside it, rolled slowly out of the town.

The first part of my route lay along the highway to Meshed; as, in order to avoid suspicion, I had decided upon pursuing it as far as Radkan, on the outskirts of the Shuja's government, and forty miles from his city. The road runs across an almost dead level, although at about twenty miles from Kuchan it crosses the watershed between the Atrek and Keshef Rud drainage. It was unmetalled, in bad repair, and reflected no credit on the engineer who had constructed it. My postilions, as a rule, preferred to drive over the open plain, for the road was frequently intersected by irrigation trenches of a foot or more in depth, which


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caused excruciating scrunches to the springs of the light victoria. For the first ten miles the country, though at this season destitute of verdure, was richly cultivated, every square yard being turned by the plough. Wrapped up in a shroud of dust, I could scarcely see a yard in front. At intervals on either side of the plain occurred small mud villages, clinging to the shade of tiny clumps of trees, which owed their existence to some stray watercourse or to a happily unchoked kanat.[86] Of these villages we passed in


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succession Fathiabad, two miles from Kuchan; Sarkhan, seven miles; Jafirabad, a collection of low cubical domes, fifteen miles, and Dashtabad. Black goats'-hair tents scattered here and there showed that not all the Kurds had taken to sedentary life, but that some retained their nomad instincts; while an occasional deserted village marked the site of a destroyed kanat or exhausted spring. At Kelata,[87] about twenty-two miles from Kuchan, I dismissed the victoria, with instructions to go home on the morrow; and mounting my horse, and leaving the high road to Meshed and the telegraph poles on the right, continued for another eight miles on the level to Chamgir, a small village some way short of Radkan. As we rode along the plain, now quite destitute of vegetation, a lovely lake of water, the creature of the Eastern mirage, trembled and glittered on the horizon, and ever receded while we advanced. Towards evening the north-east hills, on which the declining sun shone with full orb, acquired a startling glory with tints of rose and coral; the opposite range, plunged in the shadow, was suffused with an opaline vapour that temporarily endowed it with almost ethereal beauty. Presently they both relapsed, the one into a russet brown, the other into a cold and ashen grey. I camped in an orchard outside the village.

At one of the hamlets which we had passed during the day I saw a decidedly primitive manner of threshing barley straw. A threshing-floor was prepared of trodden earth outside the walls, and upon this the straw was spread out; while a long wooden cylinder or roller, armed with big wooden spikes, like the barrel of a colossal musical box, and drawn by bullocks, was driven slowly round and round over the heaps. The result was that the straw was chopped up into small pieces, which constitute the kah, or fodder, that is the common food of horses and mules in Persia. This mode of threshing and the implement employed are as old and unalterable as are most of the habits and utensils of the East. It is described at length by Chardin over two hundred years ago,[88] and by even earlier travellers, and will doubtless be visible in remote hamlets two hundred years hence.


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It is impossible to tire of the interest and humours of camp life. The traveller arrives first on his superior mount, and selects a favourable spot, beneath the protection of trees, and if possible near to running water. Stretching himself at full length upon an outspread carpet, he enjoys the luxury of relaxation and repose. The villagers crowd round and stare. Some firewood and forage are bought for a few coppers. A flame is soon crackling and blazing; the samovar puffs out its grateful steam; and an excellent cup of tea proves to be the best beverage in the world. By this time the remainder of the camp has arrived. The horses are unsaddled by their grooms, currycombed, wrapped in thick felts from ears to tail, picketed, and fed from nosebags containing grass and chopped straw. The tents and beds and cooking utensils and baggage are pulled with a crash from the backs of the mules, who, relieved of their burdens, immediately seek the nearest tree to scratch their hinder parts, and then incontinently lie down, and kicking their heels in the air, do their ineffectual best to turn a somersault in the dust. Meanwhile the cook is hard at work on one side scooping a hole in the ground, into which he transfers the already lighted fuel, and over which he props an iron grid. On the other side the tent-pegs are driven in; the tent soon rises, and, extended on his couch, the traveller recalls the incidents of the day, tries to summon up resolution to write his diary, and awaits the crowning consolation of dinner. By 8.30 or 9 P.M. all is still save the tinkle of the mule bells and an occasional sneeze from the horses; for at five next morning the forward movement must again begin.

And here, before I proceed further, let me introduce to my readers, for the purposes of this chapter only, the names and individuality of my attendants, who will appear several times within its pages. Their leader was Ramzan Ali Khan, an Afghan of Persian extraction (i.e. a descendant of a Persian ancestor who had accompanied either Nadir Shah or Ahmed Shah Durani into Afghanistan in the previous century, and had settled there), himself a duffadar, or sergeant, in the Indian Corps of Guides, who are recruited on the north-west border of India very largely from these sources, and whose members are commonly employed upon frontier expeditions or foreign service. Ramzan Ali had accompanied General Maclean, the British Consul-General at Meshed, from India, and was a fine


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specimen of the Asiatic. Courageous and resourceful, a good horseman, with the manners of a perfect gentleman, he entertained a profound conviction that there was no people in the world like the English. Colonel Stewart, then acting as substitute for General Maclean at Meshed, had kindly given me the loan of his personal servant, Gregory, an Armenian of Julfa, who, knowing English fairly well, and Persian thoroughly, proved himself a most efficient interpreter,[89]

and also of his cook. He had, moreover, sent as a personal escort two of the Turkoman sowars, or horsemen, a small contingent of whom are kept by the Indian Government at Meshed, and are employed as a private mounted post between that city and Herat. They are chiefly Sarik Turkomans of Penjdeh, who threw in their lot with Great Britain before the Russian advance of 1885, and have preferred to


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maintain this allegiance rather than join the conquerors, whom they cordially dislike. I present upon the accompanying page a portrait of Nobad Geldi, the senior of these Turkomans, which I took with my 'Kodak' at Imam Kuli. He rode a white Turkoman horse, whose tail was dyed with henna, and which, though of unprepossessing appearance, could always go both faster and longer than any other animal in the caravan. Its favourite pace was the peculiar amble or run which the Turkomans teach their horses, and which it performed with its hind legs very wide apart. The Persians look upon this idiosyncrasy as a good sign in a horse, proving that it is not knock-kneed, and call an animal thus gifted asp shulwari gushad — i.e. 'a horse with broad trowsers.' Riding behind him, I never failed to be tickled at the paces of Nobad Geldi's red-tailed charger, and used to amuse both myself and him by taking him off, as he was ambling along, with my photographic camera. Finally, the only other servant whom I need mention was the Persian groom, Shukurullah, who had met me


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at Ashkabad, and of whom it was impossible to say whether he was more willing or more stolid.

I will give my diary for the ensuing week according to each day's march, as the information may conceivably be useful to a later traveller following the same line.

October 15. — Starting at 7 A.M., we reached Radkan (seven miles), a largish village of 400 to 500 houses and superb orchards, inhabited by Kaiwanlu Kurds, at 8.30. Away to the right I could discern Saidan (or Saidabad), a village on the road to Meshed; and the curious tower, or Mil-i-Radkan, one of those lofty circular structures, evidently dating from the times that succeeded the Arab conquest of Persia, but whose exact purpose has never clearly been ascertained. Its exterior consists of fluted brick columns, round the summit of which, beneath the conical roof, ran a gigantic Kufic inscription in blue tiles. The interior originally contained three storeys, which have fallen in and disappeared. O'Donovan, who carefully examined the structure,[90] says it could neither have been a dwelling nor a tomb. Why not the latter he does not state; and good authorities have regarded it as the mausoleum of one of the Tartar rulers of Khorasan, although the theory that it was designed as a watchtower is also worthy of consideration. Colonel Stewart conjectures that it was intended for a hunting-tower.[91] It is a curious fact that a somewhat similar tower is to be seen near another village, also bearing the name of Radkan, on the road between Astrabad and Gez; from which we may infer that the name, which is neither modern Persian nor Turkish, contains some reference to the object of the building.


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Halting outside the village, I sent Ramzan Ali to hire a guide to lead us to Kelat, having heard from an Afghan trader at Kuchan that there was a track from here across the mountains. A man was found who, for three krans, offered to conduct us to Pushtah, six farsakhs. Further he had never been, but another guide would be procurable there. As we were waiting outside the walls in some fields that formed part of the vakf or endowment of the shrine of Imam Reza at Meshed, the leading personage of Radkan — a green-turbaned seyid who administered the domain — came out with a posse of townsfolk behind him to inspect some tobacco with which the ground had been planted. He loudly expressed his dissatisfaction with the crop, and his intention to sow wheat another year. We started again at ten. It was a long wearisome ride to Pushtah, for the sun was piercingly hot, and a brisk wind sprang up and blew the desert into suffocating whirlwinds of dust. At about ten miles from Radkan the track passed into the first fold of the foot hills on the north side of the plain, and then struck boldly up a dried torrent bed to a higher plateau, the first of a series of similar terraces between the main range and the Meshed valley. There were no villages, water, or vegetation in this arid desert. At twenty miles from Radkan we came to a kind of circular crater with ragged walls, at the extreme end of which, under a rock once crowned by a fort, nestled the village of Shiri[92] by the side of a genuine stream. Skirting this and continuing to the north, we now passed on to a second and higher terrace that stretched for several miles to the base of the Hazar Musjid,[93] or main range. Dotted at intervals along its length could be seen the villages of Girri, Pushan, and Ardokh. We camped at the village of Pushtah, on the southern side of this plateau, six good farsakhs from Radkan. On the plain outside was a very large encampment of Kurd nomads, with black many-peaked tents, and innumerable flocks.

October 16. — Started at 6.45 A.M. We marched straight across the plain to the village of Ardokh (or Ardrakh), two miles, at


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the foot of the mountain range. Here we entered the bed of a broad but empty torrent that clove a winding passage in the wall of rock. Coming, after a mile or more, to a plain where two gorges converged, we followed that to the right, and proceeded up a mountain valley to the village of Oghrah, picturesquely situated upon a rocky slope at its extremity. Here we procured a guide, following whom we plunged into a deep and narrow gorge that cut straight into the heart of the rock wall, as though some Titan's axe had slashed a savage gash in the solid stone. Its walls were absolutely perpendicular, and shaped in parts by the storms of centuries into windy buttresses and towers, while at the bottom brawled a stream, which had hollowed pools in the rock, and up and across the bed of which it was with difficulty that our horses could be persuaded to climb. The formation and the scenery of this magnificent gorge, whose walls were in receding terraces, are a precise reproduction on a miniature scale of the little known but unequalled cañon of the Colorado River, in Arizona. After two hours' marching in this splendid defile, we scaled the right or east side, and followed a line over the mountains in a north-easterly direction, crossing a second sweep of hills, and emerging upon another valley, richly watered both by springs and streams, and tilled by the villagers of Maresh. This was the most remarkable of the mountain villages that I saw. Clinging to the side of the steep rock, its houses were built entirely of stone, rudely quarried and loosely put together, the ruins of an old stone castle frowning from a peak above the whole. It was a sombre-looking place, even in the full blaze of the sunshine. Here we again turned northwards, and after climbing another ridge of hills descended upon yet another valley, commanded by the romantic village of Bolghor. There we halted for the night, having been on the march for nine hours; although, owing to the extraordinarily rugged ground, we had probably not covered more than twenty-four miles.

After we had encamped I heard that the peasant who had guided us in the afternoon had, while returning to his village, been overtaken and soundly thrashed by a Persian sowar. He had, apparently, told my muleteers that he expected this chastisement for showing us the way. But three krans were too tempting a bait to be resisted. One of my men overheard the howls of the poor wretch, and watched the soldier beating


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him; but we neither saw nor heard anymore of the latter. He was probably the solitary representative of the Imperial Government in these parts, and did not care to assert its majesty in the face of a numerous caravan.

October 17. — Undeterred by the fate of his predecessor, another guide was forthcoming this morning. For an hour we were occupied in climbing and descending the ridge immediately to the north of Maresh; and then, facing due northwards, we struck the track from Meshed to Kelat, the passage of which along a deep gorge was marked by telegraph poles and a single wire, so loosely hung that we had frequently to dip our heads in order to avoid being struck in the face. At this point I joined the principal caravan route from Meshed to Kelat-i-Nadiri, which has been followed by most English visitors to the stronghold of Nadir.[94] It runs here through a profound and narrow gorge, whose sides are so close that in places there is only room for a single horseman to pass between.[95] The pass is called Dahaneh-i-Zaupirzan,[96] or Old Woman's Gorge, any peculiarly horrible piece of country in Persia being described, as I shall have reason again to observe later on, by this quaint but in Persia most apposite simile. After an hour's laborious marching, we emerged upon a more open valley, where two roads diverged, to the east and to the west. I was informed that the latter also led to Kelat, but was very rough and almost impassable for horses, and that the other was the easier and more ordinary way. Accordingly we turned our faces towards the sun and struck eastwards along a rolling upland valley, having upon our left hand the main range of the Kara Dagh (Black Mountains), whose splintered limestone crags were dotted on their inferior


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slopes with mountain juniper. At one point of this valley, where an elevation is crossed, a most superb view unrolled itself to the east. In tier after tier the mountain ridges descended towards the basin of the Tejend River (formed by the junction of the Keshef Rud and Heri Rud) and the Turkoman plains; while like a yellow scarf against the sky hung the dim outline of the desert. After pursuing this valley for an hour and a half, we turned sharply to the left and scaled the ridge by a path known as the Dewah Boini, or Camel's Neck, so steep, and alternately so rough and so slippery, that, although on foot ourselves, it was with much difficulty that we could prevail upon our horses to ascend. At the crest we gazed down upon a second valley parallel with that which we had just left — i.e. running from north-west to south-east, in the bottom of which appeared a little hamlet with a ruined fort perched upon a knoll, and beyond this again the larger red-coloured village of Vardeh.

Leaving these villages on our left hand, we struck eastwards, following the telegraph poles in the direction of Kelat, the horizontal ramparts of which we thought we could now discern against the distant sky. At noon, having been in the saddle for over five hours, I stopped for lunch by a rivulet running at the valley bottom, which here deepens into a rocky ravine. At this juncture one of the Turkomans, whom I had left behind to point out our direction to the muleteers, arrived with the news that in scaling the Camel's Neck one of the mules had slipped and rolled down for fifty feet, maiming or breaking its leg. I was not in the least surprised at this intelligence, as there are certain places which even Persian mules cannot attack with impunity, and of which this horrible natural ladder was most assuredly one. We left the poor brute behind to be looked after till our return, and followed the gully down for two miles till at its eastern end we came to the small village and crumbling fort of Baghkhan.

Here the wire turned sharply to the north-east, and an hour was occupied in crossing a rolling hump of hills, at whose further edge a deep ravine disclosed itself below, and a second magnificent panorama burst upon our view. Now we could distinctly see the corrugated battlements of the southern outer wall of Kelat, dipping at the point where is the solitary rift in this portion of their circumference. Beyond to the north fold succeeded fold of lower undulations, until like a sea upon the


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horizon spread the blue band of the Kara Kum (Black Sand), which I had left little more than a week before at Ashkabad. A bee-line due north from where I was standing would have struck the Russian station of Kaahka, on the Transcaspian Railway, from which, or from the neighbouring station of Dushak, a year before my companions and I had lightly and without any preparations contemplated an expedition to Kelat and Meshed, little recking of the appalling stretch of country that intervened. On that occasion we had been stopped by the Russian authorities;[97] and I had since travelled some thousands of miles in order to renew the experiment from the opposite quarter. We now commenced a very steep and prolonged descent, having to lead our horses most of the way, the ravine breaking at times into a sheer precipice upon our left hand. The opposite side of the gorge had sloping sides of coloured clay and marls, above which rose sandstone pinnacles and towers; and as we contemplated the strange and variegated spectacle, it was as though the mountain had been draped for festal purposes in a particoloured skirt with purple and crimson flounces.[98] The defile was alive with partridges, in coveys of from four to eight. They started up with a whirr almost under our feet, but seldom flew more than a hundred yards. Indeed, they seemed to be greater adepts on foot than on the wing, for they scudded up the bare vertical cliffs just like squirrels. At the bottom of the descent we followed the dried-up bed of a torrent till, through a rocky portal, it opened upon the last valley but one before that of Kelat. Here the telegraph poles and track diverged to the right, but as it was now late in the afternoon, and our animals were dead beat we turned to the left, following the course of a plentiful stream that ran down the valley and made it green with chenars (the Oriental plane) and poplars. At the mouth of this valley is a gigantic chenar springing from the base of a rock which contains an imamzadeh or saint's tomb. Its boughs were positively covered with rams' horns, a favourite offering of the pious Mussulman to the distinguished dead, and with other emblems of reverence. After a mile and a half I reached the secluded little village of Issurcha or Ab-i-garm (i.e. hot water), so called from some warm springs which rise near by.


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Realising that my mules, which I had left far behind, would be unlikely to arrive for hours, if indeed they succeeded in coming at all before it was dark, I made up my mind for a night in a Persian hovel. The inhabitants of the Issurcha, however, were by no means glad to see a stranger, and at first declared that they could provide me neither with forage nor with accommodation. After a little delay a villager was found who placed at my disposal an empty mud apartment, in which, with nothing but what I had on me, I made myself as comfortable as I could. Fortunately, about 10.30 P.M. the mules appeared, having found a guide who brought them safely down the mountain.

During the last two days I had, from such natives as we met and interrogated, heard the most conflicting reports of the possibility of entering Kelat. Some declared that any one could go in or come out as he pleased;[99] others that a strict guard was kept at the entrance, and no strangers permitted to pass. The question accordingly presented itself how and in what guise I was to make the attempt. I did not want, after all this trouble, to be turned back. On the other hand, I was reluctant to do anything that, if discovered, might arouse suspicion, or bring discredit upon the English name. I imagine from what I saw later that it would have been possible to ride in at night, though I cannot be sure. I resolved, however, as I had no motive in concealing my intentions, and as they were of the most innocent description, to ride down to the gate, if gate there was, at daylight, and either enter uninterrupted or not at all. My presence, moreover, was likely so soon to become known in the neighbourhood, that disguise or concealment, even if temporarily successful, would be liable to detection in the end.

October 18. — I was called at 4.30 A.M., and started at five in the moonlight, having a rough ride of nearly ten miles before me. Descending the valley of Issurcha to the point where we had entered it on the previous day, we followed the course of the stream, which here turned northwards and plunged into a black and rocky gorge called Derbend-i-Jaur, where we threaded our way between sombre walls in and out of the river bed. The


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moon hung high overhead, and straight in front the Great Bear twinkled solemnly, standing upon his tail. At the exit of the gorge was a ruined and unoccupied fort. The track now broadened into a flat and open valley, across which were drawn segments of a curious rocky ridge which had been burst through by some convulsion of nature, and whose strata were strangely contorted and inclined. Streams of water, impregnated with naphtha, gushed from the mountain side and joined the river channel, from which a flock of wild duck started with a prodigious clamour. The sun rose as we were about half down the valley, and disclosed the southern wall of Kelat on our right hand, a magnificent and lofty rampart of rock, springing from the valley bottom to a height of 700 or 800 feet, as level along the summit as though pared by a plane, but scarred and fluted down its absolutely vertical and impervious sides. Four times I passed to and fro beneath this stupendous barrier, and never failed to think it one of the most astonishing natural phenomena that I have ever seen. Its outer slopes or glacis consist of steep acclivities and shelving spurs, which swell up to it from the plain, and resemble colossal piles of débris that might have been shot from its summit. From the point where they terminate the rock rises sheer and abrupt to its aërial battlements. As this wall encloses Kelat on the south-east side, it does not catch the morning sun, but remains plunged in shadow. In the evening, however, towards sundown, the red sandstone under the descending rays glistens like columns of porphyry and jasper, and the entire rocky rampart seems to be on fire.

In descending the valley, where not a soul was to be seen, I had observed a place ahead of us where the level top of the rocky parapet ended abruptly in a jutting point, and its continuity was evidently broken by some sort of rift or cleft. As we drew nearer this spot, at a distance of about seven miles from the gorge by which we had entered the valley, the sides began to converge and close, until presently they left only the narrowest passage, the bottom of which was filled by the bed of the stream. Following this natural cutting through one or two zigzags, we came in sight of a rocky portal, some twenty yards in width, completely barred by a wall, the only aperture in which consisted of three arches that admitted the stream, and were also the sole gateway for any visitor to Kelat.


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The upper part of the wall above the arches was loopholed and had a parapet, but there was no one upon it and no sign of life or movement. This is the famous Derbend-i-Argawan Shah, or Gate of Argawan, or Arghun Shah, the passage having originally been fortified by that monarch, who was the grandson of Hulaku Khan, and is said to have retired to Kelat after being defeated on one occasion in battle by his uncle, Ahmed Khan.[100] A fine inscription on a smoothed surface of rock upon the right-hand wall of the defile beyond the gate records this act of the sovereign. The present barricade is only a modern

substitute for that which was built by Nadir Shah, and which, I do not doubt, was a far more substantial structure.


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In the fond belief that all my previous fears had been groundless, I put my horse into the bed of the stream, and, accompanied by Ramzan Ali Khan, Gregory, and Shukurullah, also on horseback, rode through the central arch. No one appeared or challenged. I had time upon the other side to note the inscription of Argawan Shah, and to observe a round tower at the summit of an eminence commanding the entrance, and had already advanced about a hundred yards towards the houses of a village that appeared upon either side of the defile, when suddenly a terrific shouting was heard from the gate behind us, and a miserable soldier, still half asleep, and pulling his tattered cotton tunic about his shoulders, came running out, yelling at the top of his voice. Answering cries were heard; and presently there poured out of the wall, which was really a gate-tower and had casements on the inner side, a motley band of half-clad individuals, for the most part in rags, though an occasional button with the Lion and Sun upon it, and one pair of blue trousers with a red stripe, showed that I was in the presence of some of the serbaz or regular infantry of the King of Kings.

As I did not want to begin with a fracas, and as the soldiers were clearly doing their duty, although they had been within an ace of letting me slip through unobserved, I halted and we entered into conversation. At first they were very violent and tried to pull back our horses. But when I represented that I had no intention of going further without leave, they became calmer. I inquired for the officer in command. There did not appear to be such a person. I next asked where was the Khan of Kelat. The reply was given that he was at his village, two miles away. Accordingly I despatched Shukurullah (as a Persian and therefore free from suspicion), with a soldier mounted on the same horse behind him, to the Khan, to tell him who I was, and to request permission to pass through Kelat and out on the other side; or, if this could not be granted on his own responsibility, then to telegraph to Meshed.

While the Persian was away I remained in the rocky gateway conversing with the soldiers. It was bitterly cold, for the sun would not strike the chasm for some hours, so I bought some brushwood and lit a fire. When they heard that I was an Englishman they seemed disposed to be more friendly; for they said that if I had been a Russian they would have shot me


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down as I rode through the gate, though how they could have guessed my nationality when they never saw me, or have shot at all when they were fast asleep, I did not needlessly vex them by asking. They added that a Russian had come to Kelat last year and had beaten a Persian, and been beaten by them, and had then started to come with 300 Turkomans in revenge; but that they had marched out, and the Russian and the Turkomans had marched back again. They also asked me if it was true that the Zil-es-Sultan, the eldest son of the Shah, had put off the Persian costume, donned English dress, and sailed from Bushire for London. I interrogated them about their existence and service at Kelat. They said that the water was very unhealthy, being impregnated with naphtha, and that they suffered from it.[101] They also complained that, though they were to have been relieved in three months, they had already been there for five, and during that time had received no pay. I could not help feeling for the poor wretches, who were about as like what one ordinarily associates with the idea of a soldier as a costermonger's donkey is like the winner of the Derby.

After an hour and a half of tedious waiting, Shukurullah returned with the news that the Khan wished me to telegraph for leave to the Governor-General of Meshed, and that if the answer was favourable I might pass through. This was all that I desired; so I proceeded to write a telegram to Colonel Stewart, asking him to interview the Governor on my behalf and to wire me a reply. There was some difficulty, however, in finding any one to transcribe the message into Persian characters. Few of the lower orders know the Persian alphabet; if they want to write a letter they hire a scribe to do it for them. The solitary scribe of Kelat was reported to be asleep under the influence of opium; but I insisted upon his being severely awakened, and at length he appeared, and spent exactly half an hour in transliterating the despatch which it had taken half a minute to compose. I now proposed to return to my camp, leaving the Persian behind till an answer arrived from Meshed; but Gregory suggested, from a more profound knowledge of the national


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character, that I was not yet out of the wood, and that it would be advisable to wait. So I moved to the other side of the gateway and halted in the sunshine.

In an hour Shukurullah reappeared upon the scene with the news that the telegram had been refused on the plea that the line was broken between Kelat and Meshed. Presently arrived a mounted emissary from the Khan, who was voluble with explanations, and afforded me an interesting insight into Persian character. First he repeated that the wire was broken; but when I replied that if that were the case it was unlikely that the Khan would himself have invited me to use it, he shifted his position and said that the wire, though not broken, was trailing upon the ground. Upon my rejoining that communication was not thereby interrupted, he was ready with the counter plea that the Khan had meant me to telegraph not to Meshed but to Teheran. As there was no wire to Teheran from Kelat except by Meshed, this falsehood was easily exposed; but I confess I was scarcely prepared for the fourth, which immediately replaced it — viz. that the Khan had meant me to telegraph neither to Teheran nor to Meshed, but from Meshed on my return thither. As it was useless bandying words with so accomplished a liar, I resigned the verbal contest, but insisted upon receiving a direct answer or a direct refusal from the Khan to my request to telegraph; and it was agreed that Gregory, as a more befitting ambassador than Shukurullah, should ride back to the village and receive a definite answer to my ultimatum.

All this occurred within 100 yards of the gate of Argawan Shah on the outer side. As I was giving final instructions to Gregory, the Persian, who had remounted, suddenly clapped spurs to his horse, and disappeared like lightning through the archway, shouting to the guard not to let any one through. When Gregory arrived a few seconds later he was refused the passage. There was nothing more to be done; and thus ignobly ended my attempt to penetrate to the interior of Kelat-i-Nadiri! Shukurullah now told me that when he took the telegram to the office the clerk was about to accept it, when the Khan's son came in and said that his father absolutely forbade any message to be sent at all. I had heard a good deal of Persian artfulness before entering the country, but had scarcely expected so artistic a sample within the first fortnight; and I do not know


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whether I was more incensed at the treatment I had received or tickled at the illustration it afforded of Oriental tactics.

The most amusing episode, however, was yet to come; for on arriving at Meshed three days later I found the Governor-General in a great state of excitement, having been informed by the faithful Khan that the new British Vice-Consul had appeared at Kelat with an armed retinue, had tried to force a passage, and had drawn his sword upon the guard! The latter had gallantly performed their duty and had expelled the intruder.

October 19. — Before I left the neighbourhood I determined to make one more effort to see the interior of Kelat. I knew from MacGregor's book that, besides the two main entrances of Argawan Shah and Nafta, there were other pathways by which it could be entered; and at Ab-i-Garm a hunter was found who said that he knew one of these very well, but was afraid to conduct me himself. He had a nephew, however, who would act as his substitute, and would appear in the morning. I need hardly say that at the appointed hour the nephew was not forthcoming. That my presence in the vicinity of Kelat was beginning to be regarded with some suspicion, was evident both from this and from an incident which occurred that evening. As I was discussing plans in the mud hovel with Ramzan Ali and Gregory, I heard a scratching in the roof overhead, and, looking up, detected a man, who, it appeared, had come from Kelat, with his ear to a hole in the rafters, eaves-dropping. As no guide was procurable, I decided to go without one. I had noticed in riding down the valley to Kelat that there was one place where the otherwise unbroken parapet of the southern wall dipped, and formed a V-shaped indentation, which seemed to be accessible from below by one of the sloping natural buttresses that swell up against it from the plain. Any future visitor to Kelat who has read this description will not fail to recognise the spot, about halfway down the valley. I was called at 3.30 A.M., the mules were laden, and we all moved out of Issurcha at 4.30 on a black cold morning. Sending the camp on to Vardeh from the Derbend-i-Jaur, I rode down the valley for the last time, and leaving my horse at the foot of the hills began the climb. It did not take long to mount the stony skirts, though the slope was very steep; and I easily arrived below the craggy battlements. Here the rock, the natural conformation of which is in wavy horizontal bands, parallel with the


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summit, had been artificially scarped by some previous occupant, no doubt by Nadir Shah, so as to form a sort of rocky ledge or pathway running along the face, and defended at intervals by ruined circular towers. There were two such rocky ledges, one about thirty feet above the other. I scrambled on to the lower and pursued it as far as the V-shaped gap. There were only about thirty feet of rock above me; and it was to be climbed. But the face of the rock was very steep and smooth; I was alone, and though, I could have scrambled up it was the kind of place that would have been very awkward to come down from again. Accordingly I resigned the attempt. With the aid of a friend and a rope it could easily have been managed, but from what I know of the interior of Kelat I doubt whether the panorama afforded from the top of the wall would be as striking as might be expected from its external configuration.

On my way back, however, I climbed the highest mountain in the neighbourhood, the name of which I do not know, but whose elevation is far higher than the perimeter of Kelat; and from there my ambitions were so far and unexpectedly realised that, though I could not see the interior level of Kelat, the angle of vision being too obtuse, I could trace the entire circuit of its walls from east to west on both sides; the southern wall, which I had attempted to climb, appearing from the height on which I stood to be the lower of the two, and the summit of the north wall rising above it on the further side. From this point I could follow, without difficulty, the whole southern rampart, nearly twenty miles in a straight line, running as regularly as though it had been built by design, and scarped and scarred along its vertical sides down to the point where the buttress-slopes shelved away to the valley. If in their war with Olympian Zeus the Titans had ever had occasion to build for themselves an unassailable retreat, such might well have been the mountain fortress that they would have reared. I made a sketch from this point of the entire circumference, which is reproduced on the next page.[102] The mountains in the foreground are the range that separate the valley of Issurcha from the valley that leads down to Argawan Shah's gate.

And now, having related with so much minuteness what I did see, I propose to describe from a variety of sources, some of which


[page 134 – Drawing of Kelat-i-Nadiri]


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have not been accessible to the public, what I did not see, in order that my readers may be able to form an accurate idea of Kelat-i-Nadiri as it is at the present moment. They will already have gathered that, though literally translated and commonly called the Fort of Nadir Shah, it is not a fort at all in the accepted sense of the term; consisting as it does of a mountain plateau, with a mean elevation of 2,500 feet above the sea, intersected by deep gullies and ravines, some twenty miles in total length by from five to seven in breadth; and only so far resembling a fortress that this vast extent of ground, comprising a probable area of 150 square miles, is surrounded as with a ring fence by a mighty natural rampart enclosing it from end to end with a cliff-wall of naked and vertical rock, 700 to 1,000 feet in sheer height above the valley bottom. From early times the extraordinary character of the place, which must have resulted from some abnormal convulsion of nature, impressed itself upon the imagination of the neighbouring peoples; and Iranian legend localises here one of the mythical combats between the hero Rustam and the alien forces of Turan under Afrasiab, who, expelled from Kelat by the victorious hosts of Iran, fell back upon the Oxus, where they sustained a final and crushing defeat. Here too, according to the Shah Nameh of Firdusi, settled Ferud, the brother of Kai Khosru, and here he was attacked and slain by Tus. The inscription to which I have alluded proves that as a defensible and defended retreat it was known to the Mongol successors of Jenghiz Khan. Timur is said to have possessed himself of it by stratagem.

But it was not till the times of Nadir Shah that full use was made of its invaluable natural gifts. Returning from India, laden with the spoils of conquered kingdoms and with the rifled treasures of the Great Mogul, he saw in Kelat, with which he must have been familiar from childhood,[103] the ideal storehouse where this vast wealth could be deposited, and also an invulnerable place of arms. Accordingly, he constructed powerful fortifications at all the entrances, placed watch-towers on every peak and point of vantage, artificially scarped the rocky battlements both within and without, in order to render them still more impossible of access, built himself a residence on a plateau in the interior (which it is said he rarely occupied), and provided for a supply of


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good water by excavating large tanks and bringing in fresh supplies by an aqueduct from the exterior.

I have only come across one description of Kelat as it was in the days of Nadir Shah, by a traveller who had evidently been there himself and had not trusted merely to hearsay. This occurs in the narrative of one Basil Batatzes, a Greek merchant who travelled far and wide in Persia and Central Asia at the beginning of the eighteenth century, penetrating to Khiva and Bokhara and visiting Nadir Shah at Meshed. His diary, written in quaint but very intelligible Greek,[104] appears to have been quite unknown to the historians who from oral evidence compiled such erroneous descriptions of Kelat in the early part of the present century,[105] and diffused an altogether false impression of the place that remained uncorrected till the visit of Baker and Gill in 1873. Returning from Bokhara to Meshed in 1728, Batatzes came by way of Kelat, to which he devotes forty lines of his diary (780-822). The mountains here rise, he says, to a great and inaccessible height, and the place is surrounded, as it were, by a mighty wall, which is not only barren and treeless but is like as though made of marble or of brass. The circuit thereof is forty or fifty stadia [this is one of his few mistakes], and there are two entrances only, and those by means of zigzag approaches. One might say that the mountain had been rent asunder by an earthquake to form these entrances, where there is barely space for three horsemen or footmen to pass. Of the interior of Kelat (which was then under Nadir's fostering care, very different from what it is now) he will only say that it contains all that a man can want in the way of natural delights, and that it is self-sufficing and could sustain itself without ever bringing in aught from the outside. He also speaks of it as the intended treasure house of Nadir Shah.


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After the assassination of the latter in 1747, Kelat passed into the hands of the present Khan's family, who have held it ever since, along with the Atek or slopes extending to the Turkoman desert below, in nominal vassaldom to Persia, but with occasional assertions of independence which have more than once led to the despatch of punitive expeditions from Meshed. It has indeed been the habit to keep the head of the family as a hostage at Meshed, in order to guarantee the good behaviour of his locum tenens at Kelat. Since the conquest of the Atek by Russia in 1881, and the subsequent delimitation of the Russo-Persian frontier in these parts by agreement between the two powers, the greater part of the external properties of Kelat, such as Abiverd (now Kaahka), Mehna, Chardeh (now Dushak), and Chacha — the villages, in fact, which are situated at the northern base of the range have passed into Russian hands; and, as I shall show later on, the new-comers are gradually creeping further and further up the slopes towards the crest, till they will ultimately reach Kelat itself.

The loss both of possessions and of prestige thus involved has co-operated with the centralising policy so vigorously pursued by Persian Nasr-ed-Din Shah to reduce Kelat to thorough subordination; and the present Khan, Haji Abul Fath Khan, would not dream of the rebellious vagaries of his predecessors. Kelat is garrisoned by the Persian Government, by a wing of one of the infantry regiments stationed at Meshed, there being a nominal force of 500 serbaz in the valley, and two guns of the horse artillery. From what I saw at the Derbend-i-Argawan Shah, I cannot think that anything like this effective, strength is maintained, any more than the conditions of service which promise relief at the end of three months are observed. Though the place has enormous natural strength, I should think that with the present ragged and scattered garrison it might be 'rushed' any day; while the defences are not such as would stand for ten minutes against modern artillery.

It appears indeed that the military value of Kelat (in its present condition) to Persia is very small; nor, if acquired by Russia, can I see that its value to her would be very great. No future conqueror is likely to wish to use Kelat for Nadir's purpose — viz. as a fortified treasure-house; nor would any modern tactician, I imagine, contemplate the fortification of an


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enclosure over sixty miles in circumference. The real value of Kelat is as a basis of operations and starting point for offensive movements against Transcaspia. Well guarded at the entrances and held by a strong garrison, it might have been made, and might still become, a veritable thorn in the side of an enemy stationed in the Atek below. A hostile force quartered here might, for instance, descend without warning and with overwhelming strength upon the Transcaspian Railway, and cut the Russian line of communication with the Caspian. But Persia is not the power to do anything one half so heroic; and Nadir's fortress is in the highest degree unlikely ever to be made a sally-port against General Annenkoft's railway. Should the Russians take Kelat, which they appear to be excessively anxious to do, the gain to them in prestige would be considerable; for ever since Nadir's days it has been looked upon as the principal military outpost of Khorasan. They would also acquire what might be made a suitable depôt for stores, and arsenal for a limited number of troops (neither the water nor the grain supply would sustain many), and there would be the decided negative advantage of preventing a position so formidable in the hands of an enemy from falling into an enemy's hands. But as an offensive measure against Khorasan I do not see that they would profit thereby, as other and far simpler ways are open to them of reaching Meshed, and as no modern army would trust itself to the awful defiles that extend for quite forty miles between the two places. In other words, the offensive eye of Kelat, so to speak, looks northward not southward; and, the march of power being in the latter direction, it is unlikely that we shall again see it utilised as a place of arms.

So much for the military value of Kelat-i-Nadiri. Let me now say something about its interior features. How little was known about it before the visits of Baker and MacGregor may be illustrated by the scanty description furnished from hearsay by Fraser, who doubled both its length and breadth.[106] Entrance to the interior is gained by one of five gates, of which the two principal are Argawan Shah on the south and Nafta on the north. The three others are Kushtani on the south-east, Chubast on the west, and Dehcha on the north-west. All of these gates are said to be fortified and defended by troops; of the two main entrances it is undoubtedly true. There are also several footpaths (it is said


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nine) by which it can be entered; and I doubt not that in that large circumference shepherds must have discovered goat-tracks by which approach, though difficult, is feasible. Nevertheless, the character, no less than the paucity of the acknowledged entrances, which are in each case through easily barred defiles, confirms the general opinion which I have expressed as to the phenomenal nature of this mountain stronghold.

The inhabitants are Turks chiefly of the Jallayer and Benjat tribes, with a few Arab and Kurdish families as well. Their total number does not exceed 1,000. They are to be found in two villages, situated in the valley by which the stream which I followed enters and traverses Kelat, and in six hamlets upon the uplands or higher elevations. Of the two main villages, I saw that of Argawan Shah, clustered upon either side of the gorge, at a short distance within the gate of the same name. The other, Giuk Gumbaz (i.e. 'Vault of Heaven' in Turkish) or Ja Gumbaz, locally contracted into Gugumaz, is a little over two miles down the valley from the same entrance, and is the spot to which I had twice despatched Shukurullah to interview the Khan and to send the telegram. Here is a curious circular tower of red sandstone, with fluted half-columns on the outer surface, rising from a big octagonal substructure. It is called Makber-i-Nadiri, having been built (for what purpose does not appear clear) by that king, and is now used as a residence by the Khan.[107] From Gugumaz the river continues to run for six miles at the bottom of the same valley, which intersects Kelat from south to north, and deepens into a rocky gorge, until upon reaching the northern wall it passes out through a cleft not unlike that of Argawan Shah, similarly fortified, garrisoned, and closed by a wall pierced with arches across the bed of the stream. The latter, emerging from the defile, makes its way down through the lower ranges, and ultimately irrigates the cornfields of Dushak.

In addition to Nadir's tower at Gugumaz, there are other but quite inconsiderable relics of that king's occupation. To the north-west of the village, upon an elevated open plateau, are the ruins of what purports to be his palace, and is called Imaret-i-Nadiri, the largest remains being those of an enclosure, called the Diwan-Khaneh, twenty yards square. Beyond this,


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again, most travellers, have been taken up the summit of the Kuh Khisht, which is 1,500 feet above the level of the plateau and 4,000 feet above the sea; but than which MacGregor was of opinion that finer views are afforded by other elevations. The water tanks and conduit constructed by Nadir, have already been mentioned.

O'Donovan compared Kelat with the Happy Valley of Rasselas; but he would probably have shifted his simile had he been condemned to reside for a time within its walls. Of the total inside area, only a small portion is under cultivation, the water supply consisting merely of the stream so often mentioned and of five small springs. This scarcity renders the support either of a large population or of a powerful garrison impossible, except by supplies brought from the outside. Cultivation in the interior is limited to two areas, the river valley and the uplands. In the former, along the banks of the stream and in the flat spaces, rice, cotton, lucerne, vines, melons, and cucumbers flourish under the persuasive influence of water. On the higher ground, which rises to 1,000 and even 1,500 feet above the valley bottom, are grown barley and wheat. There are few trees or shrubs inside Kelat; and the grass cannot be remarkable either in quantity or quality, seeing that the inhabitants frequently send their flocks outside to graze. To represent the place, therefore, as an oasis is a misnomer.

From this point I may resume my return march to Meshed, the first stage of which was by the route already traversed and described between Kelat and Vardeh. The distance is said to be five farsakhs; I should call it a bare twenty miles. My camp was pitched outside the tiny hamlet on the knoll, and here I found the mule which had tumbled down the Camel's Neck, but whose leg was fortunately not broken, but only severely sprained. From standing out in the cold at night, the limb had grown so stiff that the poor brute could scarcely hobble.

October 20. — We marched to Kardeh, nominally seven farsakhs, but according to my reckoning not more than twenty-six miles. For the first part of the route I was repeating my journey of three days before, up to the point where the lateral ravine comes in from Bolghor. From here we continued down the main gorge, following both the telegraph poles and the stream which flows along and often entirely fills its bottom. For miles


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we threaded this intricate and precipitous defile, clambering over the boulders in the river-bed, now confined in a narrow chasm, now emerging upon a neat little valley. MacGregor, who was a good judge of country from the soldier's point of view, paid no ordinary, though a well-deserved, tribute to this section of the Meshed-Kelat road when, in his graphic way, he said:

I certainly have never seen a stronger bit of country than the twenty-seven miles between Kardeh and Vardeh, it being one continual succession of impregnable defiles, any one of which would make the road celebrated. ... The country is more like what one would see in a nightmare than anything one has ever beheld awake.[108]

On the way we pass a mighty lump of sheer rock, perched upon the top of a 1,000-feet slope, and known as the Kuh-i-Panjmana or Five-man (= about 32 lbs.) Mountain, from a story about a facetious monarch who invited one of his courtiers to weigh the airy trifle. A little further, on the left hand, is an Arabic and Persian inscription upon the smoothed surface of a big limestone block, some twenty feet above the path, which records a victory of Sheibani Mohammed Khan, the Uzbeg conqueror of Bokhara, over the Persian unbelievers in the year of the Hejira 916. We then came to a little village, the name of which was pronounced to me as Hark (or Whark), where I found an agreeable shade in an orchard sloping down to the stream. After another six miles through the same defile, the valley widened into an open plain, at the head of which, surrounded by trees, was situated the larger village of Kardeh. It is an insignificant place, but is the residence of the chief of a petty district.

October 21. — After skirting the eastern slope of the hills that enclose the valley of Kardeh, the track to Meshed plunges into a narrow gorge, called the Derbend-i-Kardeh, through which the stream, coursing in rapid zigzags between the walls, occupied the whole of the slender space between. Above the lower slopes the cliffs rose in craggy magnificence to a sheer height of 1,000 or 1,500 feet. This ravine equalled in savage splendour anything that I had seen even during the past week of astonishing scenery; and I could not help thinking that if those who rave about the Alpine passes, set though they be in the incomparable framework of snow and ice, could travel to this unvisited corner of Asia, even their senses would be bewildered by


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so amazing a succession of natural phenomena, each one of which would attract a stream of pilgrims in any better-known land.

At this point we finally left the mountains and debouched on to the eastern continuation of the same plain from which I had diverged a week before at Radkan. The moment, therefore, is an opportune one for casting an eye in swift retrospect over the country and surroundings in which I had been travelling since I entered Persia, and which embrace the least known and yet most typical characteristics of North-eastern Khorasan. I summed up my impressions, without, however, describing my journeys, in the 'Times' in these words:

'After leaving Kuchan, I struck eastwards through the mountains, and spent eight days in wandering about amid the mountain valleys of this rugged and almost inaccessible corner of Khorasan. Being hampered by a camp and mules, I was limited to about twenty-five miles a day, but even so succeeded in traversing about 200 miles of this interesting and rarely visited country. The names of most of the villages are not upon any English map, and only a few larger or more notable localities, such as the famous stronghold of Kelat-i-Nadiri, are known to European ears. It is astonishing how difficult it is in these parts to procure reliable information about anything, most of all about that which should be best known — namely, the distance between adjoining places. A farsakh, nominally about four miles, is the sole unit of measurement, but, judging by my own experience, it may mean anything from two to five. The commonest thing is to be told that a place is half a farsakh distant — a term which, being used to imply any fraction less than the whole farsakh, may describe a distance of either one mile or three miles and a half. The scenery through which I travelled, and which may be said to extend over the whole of North-eastern Khorasan, is singularly uniform in its characteristics. A series of lofty mountain ridges, with an axis inclined from north-west to south-east, run parallel to each other at varying distances, the intervening hollows being in the more northern parts deep gorges admitting little more than a torrent bed at their bottom, while further south they widen into valleys watered by mountain streams and dotted with villages, and eventually into broad, rich plains, such as that of Kuchan to the north and Nishapur to the south of the Binalud Kuh mountains. Transverse ravines cut these ridges, often at right angles, and provide a way


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of communication from valley to valley. These gorges are frequently of almost inconceivable abruptness and grandeur. Each one presents a score of positions of absolute impregnability; and I do not suppose that more savage mountain scenery, in zones below the snow line, exists anywhere in the world. The base of these defiles seldom admits more than a torrent bed blocked with enormous boulders, and the walls are frequently vertical to a height of from 500 to 1,000 feet. The higher mountains rarely display even the scantiest vegetation, being sterile, stony, and forbidding to a degree, though the loftiest peaks are majestic with splintered outline, and occasionally some astonishing natural phenomenon is encountered, like the southern wall of Kelat. Cultivation is almost wholly confined to the valley bottoms, and is there dependent upon precarious streams and watercourses dug therefrom to the arable plots. Each village is like an oasis in a brown desert; and the squalid mud huts, with their fringe of green poplars and orchards, present an appearance almost as refreshing to the wayfarer as the snuggest of English homesteads.

The ordinary beasts of burden in these mountain villages are very small grey donkeys, camels being only seen when belonging to a caravan, and a horse being beyond the means of the poorer people. The arid hill slopes provide a slender herbage that sustains large flocks of black sheep and goats, which are met with everywhere, guarded by big dogs. Mutton is consequently cheap and abundant. Rude wooden ploughs unshod with iron are drawn by yokes of black oxen; but cows and milk are not to be met with in every village. Fowls abound, and can be always bought for about 3d. apiece. The valley of Kuchan revels in every kind of fruit, but further north I was not able to procure any. Rice appeared to be the staple food of the peasantry. These struck me as a fine and masculine race, and as a very different type from the Persian of the towns. They spring for the most part from a different stock, being not of Iranian, but of Turkoman or Turkish origin, and are far more like the Uzbegs or Tartars in appearance than the Persians. They wore sheepskin bonnets on their heads, not unlike those of the Turkomans, but less lofty in the crown, canvas bound round their legs with thongs, and big loose shoes of untanned cowhide similarly attached. The women were everywhere visible, but, as a rule, carefully concealed their features, not with a veil, but with the


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upper cotton garment drawn over the lower part of the face. Such as I saw were prematurely old and ugly, the melancholy law of the East.'

In extension of what was here said, I may add two other observations upon the peculiar orography of the country. In the first place the dividing lines between the watersheds are seldom the highest ranges or crests; illustrations of which phenomenon I noticed in the case both of the dividing line between the Atek or Transcaspian and Kuchan drainage, and again of that between the Kuchan and Meshed drainage — i.e. the streams that run respectively to the Caspian and the Heri Rud. Secondly, the rivers, instead of pursuing a course parallel to the axis of the mountain ranges, or, in other words, running down the deep valleys between them, and then turning the corner where the saddle dips, prefer to pierce the ranges almost at right angles to their previous course; Nature having provided for that purpose transverse fissures and gashes through the very heart of the rock, which they could never have forced for themselves, and which do not betray the symptoms of aqueous detrition, but must rather have been caused by extreme tension at the moment of original elevation.

Once upon the plain, we passed in quick succession the villages of Anderokh and Rezan, which appeared to revel in an abundant water supply and in a wide area of cultivation. Far away on the southern side of the expanse the mountains behind Meshed could be seen, broken up into detached ridges, with sharp and serrated points. I strained my eyes to catch in the distance the glint of the golden cupola and minars of the holy Imam. Slowly the mist curled upward, as though a silken window-blind were being delicately raised by cords; and first a sparkle, and then a steady flash, revealed at a distance that must still have been from twelve to fifteen miles the whereabouts of the gilded dome. Though my emotions were not those of the devout pilgrim who had very likely travelled hundreds, perhaps thousands, of miles to see the hallowed spot, though I did not break into wild cries of 'Ya Ali, Ya Husein,' and though I did not tear off fragments of my dress and suspend them upon the nearest bush, according to the formula of the pious Shiah, I yet looked with the interest of one who has heard and read much from afar upon the famous city which I was approaching; and, putting spurs to


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my horse, I sped as quickly as I could over the intervening plain.

Nobad Geldi and I were galloping in front, and the old red tailed charger was showing the best of his speed, when, ceasing to hear the clatter of the rest of the party behind me, I turned round to see what had befallen. At a distance of 200 yards Gregory's horse was lying on its back, furiously kicking its heels in the air. Its load lay scattered in every direction on the ground. The unhappy Armenian was slowly extracting himself from under the horse and ruefully rubbing his knee. Ramzan Ali Khan, also on foot, and covered with dust, was seen careering over the plain after his horse, which was disappearing in an opposite direction. It appeared that Gregory's animal, overtired, and unable, with its heavy load, to keep the pace at which we were going, had stumbled and fallen on the top of Gregory; and that the Afghan, dismounting in order to extricate his colleague, had received a kick on the head which knocked him over. All was soon right again, and, leaving the slow movers to follow at their own pace, I pushed on. At five miles from the town we came to a massive high-backed bridge, of eleven arches, spanning the slender current of the Keshef Rud.[109] The bridge, which is called Pul-i-Shah (King's Bridge), looked ridiculously out of proportion to the attenuated volume of the stream, which was only about twenty-five feet in width, and was barely moving. The ramps of the bridge had originally been paved with big cobbles, but, in common with all good work in Persia, these had for the most part disappeared, and the ruined causeway was better adapted to break legs than to save them.

Continuing for a mile, we reached the enclosure of the tomb of Khojah (or Khwajah) Rabi, a holy man who is variously reported as having been the personal friend and the tutor of Imam Reza, and whose body, in order to be near that of his sainted companion, was interred in this spot. The tomb is surrounded by a garden, in which there is abundance of trees, and which is entered by a lofty gateway containing rooms


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in arched recesses. From the surroundings it was evident that it is a favourite holiday resort of the people of Meshed, being indeed the only place of any attractiveness in the environs of the city. Thinking that the building also contained a mosque, and was, therefore, of an ecclesiastical character, I did not attempt to enter it, but merely took a photograph from the outside. I heard afterwards that, as with other tombs, any one can visit it who will. The present building is not the original mausoleum, but, as the inscription says, was raised by Shah Abbas the Great on the remains of the earlier structure. A second restoration was now in course of execution; for the building was enveloped in a scaffolding, and workmen were replacing the blue tiles on the exterior of the dome, most of which had peeled off and disappeared. MacGregor spoke of the tile-work, in 1875, as better than any in Persia. But of this, too, a great deal had vanished; and what had once been a magnificent circular frieze below the spring of the dome now existed only in segments and patches. Hard by is buried the father of Agha Mohammed Shah (the founder of the reigning dynasty), Fath Ali Khan Kajar, who incurred the hostility of Nadir Shah, and was beheaded by his orders.

Soon the road passed between dusty earthen walls and over small ditches, the uniform suburbs of the cities of the East. The long line of the city wall now appeared, projecting towers connected by a curtain, and defended by a shallow ditch. Passing through the gateway, where a shabby guard sprang to his feet and presented arms with an ostentatious rattle of his musket, we rode for nearly half an hour through the blank and unlovely alleys that constitute four-fifths even of the proudest Oriental capital; and after crossing the Khiaban, or central avenue of Meshed — more about which will belong to my next chapter — pulled up at a low door, over which a large painted shield displayed the insignia of the British Government and indicated the residence of Her Majesty's Consul-General and Agent of the Viceroy of India. In a minute's time I was shaking hands with Colonel Charles Stewart.

The march from Kardeh to Meshed is called eight farsakhs, but is not in reality more than twenty-four miles. Accordingly, the route from Kelat to Meshed is as follows:


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Farsakhs

Approximate distance in miles

Kelat-i-Nadiri to Vardeh

5

20

Vardeh to Kardeh

7

26

Kardeh to Meshed

8

24

Total

20

70

SUPPLEMENTARY ROUTES TO AND FROM KELAT

KELAT TO DEREGEZ (viâ Archingan 70 miles). Col. Val. Baker (1873), Clouds in the East, pp. 210-229; (Sir) C. MacGregor (1875), Journey through Khorasan, vol. ii. pp. 63-75.

KELAT TO MESHED (viâ Kanegosha and Karategan), two alternative routes. (Sir) C. MacGregor

(1875), Journey through Khorasan, vol. ii. Appendix II.


[page 148]

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