Persia and the Persian Question, volume I
Some reverence is surely due to the fame of heroes and the religion of nations.
— GIBBON, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
MESHED has in the course of the past half-century been visited and described at greater or less length by several Europeans, among whom Englishmen have been in the ascendant, in merit as well as in numbers. I append a catalogue of their names and publications, so that the reader may know whither to refer for such information as he may desire about particular periods or individual men. If I add one more to the list of these chroniclers, it is because I aspire not to replace, but to supplement their labours. I shall, as far as possible, avoid the repetition of what has been better said by them, believing implicitly in reference to the original source where that is feasible. But it will be within my power both to correct certain errors into which they have fallen, and to impart greater verisimilitude to the picture
by bringing it up to date. The fixed residence of an official representative of the Queen in Meshed is alone sufficient to mark an epoch in its history.
I may dismiss with the briefest notice the rudiments of knowledge about the holy city. Its name (Mashhad = 'Place of Martyrdom or Witness') and fame are alike due to the fact that in the ninth century A.D. the remains of the pre-eminently holy Imam Reza, son of Imam Musa and eighth of the twelve Imams or Prophets, were here interred. Rumour relates, but apparently without any very certain foundation, that, having incurred the jealousy of the Khalif Mamun (son of the renowned Harun-er-Rashid), whose capital was Merv, the saint, then residing at the city of Tus, fifteen miles from the modem Meshed, was removed at his orders by a dish of poisoned grapes; although another tradition represents the holy father as having comfortably died in his bed, or whatever was the ninth century equivalent thereto, at Tus. Whichever be the truth, the body of the departed prophet was interred in a tower in the neighbouring village of Sanabad, where also (a curious corollary to the story of the murder) lay the remains of the Khalif's father, the illustrious Harun. Sanabad gradually became an object of religious attraction and worship, and Ibn Batutah, who travelled hither about 1330 A.D., found the mosque of the Imam in existence, and highly revered. In 1404 the courtly Spanish Ambassador, Don Ruy Gonzalez di Clavijo, passing Meshed on his way to the Court of Timur at Samarkand, left a similar record. Shah Rukh, the youngest son of Timur, subsequently embellished the mausoleum; while his wife, Gowher Shad, erected the magnificent mosque which still exists alongside.
It was not, however, till the accession of the Sefavi dynasty, at the beginning of the sixteenth century, that Meshed, as it had now for long been designated, became a centre of world-wide renown. Having established the Shiah heresy as the national creed, it was in the highest degree necessary for the new occupants of the throne to institute some shrine which should divert the flow of pilgrimage and money from Mecca, and appeal to the enthusiasm of the entire Shiah community. Just as Jeroboam set up the golden calves at Dan and Bethel, in order to divert the Israelitish pilgrims from Jerusalem, so the Shahs Ismail, Tahmasp, and Abbas loaded the mosque of Imam Reza with wealth and endowments, visited and sometimes resided in the city, and left it what it has ever since remained, the Mecca of the Persian world. It does not indeed rank first among Shiah shrines; for just as Ali (son-in-law of the Prophet and in succession to him, according to the Shiah canon, the true leader of the faith) and his son, the martyred Husein, are superior in holiness even to the Imam Reza, so their tombs at Nejef (or Meshed Ali) and Kerbela, near the Euphrates, possess a superior sanctity to the shrine of Meshed. But Nejef and Kerbela, are both situated on Turkish — i.e. on alien — soil; and unpatriotic would be the soul that, while paying its devotions to those sacred spots, did not also burn with the desire to behold and to offer its prayers at the religious centre of Iran, and to kiss the railings of the Imam's grave. The situation of Meshed, however, so near the confines of Turan, rendered it liable to constant inroad and attack, and in common with all the border cities of Khorasan it has had a stormy and eventful history. In the reign of Shah Abbas (A.D. 1587) it was once taken and sacked by the Uzbegs. It suffered severely during the Afghan invasion of Mahmud. But it revived under the patronage of the conqueror Nadir Shah, who, although after his accession to the throne he eschewed and endeavoured
forcibly to expunge the Shiah faith, yet often held his court at Meshed, restored and beautified the sacred shrine, and built in the city a tomb both for himself and for the son whom he had blinded in a fit of jealous passion. After his death, Meshed remained in the possession of his blind grandson, Shah Rukh, under whose infirm rule its population, harried by almost yearly invasions of the Uzbegs, sank from 60,000 to 20,000, until at the end of the century he was deposed and tortured to death by the brutal eunuch Agha Mohammed Khan Kajar, the founder of the reigning family of Persia. During the present century Meshed has several times been in rebellion against the sovereign power, having inherited a detestation of the Kajars, recurrent outbreaks of which have necessitated more than one punitive expedition; but along with the rest of the kingdom it has now passed in peaceful subjection into the hands of Nasr-ed-Din.
Meshed is surrounded, as are all Oriental towns of any size, by a mud wall with small towers at regular distances, and projecting bartizans at the angles. The wall was originally nine feet thick at the bottom and four feet thick at the top, besides having a parapet one foot in thickness, but is now in a state of utter disrepair. There was formerly a small ditch or fausse-braye, below the rampart, with a low parapet on the crest of the counterscarp, and a broader ditch beyond. But the process of decay has merged these structural features in a common ruin, and in most parts they are not to be distinguished from each other. The circumference of the walls has been variously calculated at four, four and a half, and six miles; but any calculation is difficult, owing to the irregularity of the plan. They are pierced by five gates: the Bala Khiaban, or Upper Avenue, and the Pain Khiaban, or Lower Avenue Gate, at the two ends of the main street; the Naugan, Idgah, and Sarab. The ark or citadel, my visit to which I shall presently relate, is situated on the south-west wall.
The main feature of Meshed (next to the holy shrines) which endears it to the Persian imagination and distinguishes it from other Oriental capitals, is the possession of a straight street, nearly one mile and three-quarters in length, which intersects the town from north-west to south-east, being interrupted only in the centre by the imposing quadrilateral of the sacred buildings. This street is called the Khiaban (i.e. Avenue or Boulevard), and is regarded by the Oriental as the veritable Champs-Elysées of urban splendour. Down the centre runs a canal, or, as we should prefer to call it, a dirty ditch, between brick walls, about twelve feet across, spanned by frail foot bridges and planks. The kerbing and facing as well as the bridges are said to have been originally of stone. This canal appears to unite the uses of a drinking fountain, a place of bodily ablution and washing of clothes, a depository for dead animals, and a sewer. On either side of it is planted an irregular row-of chenars, mulberries, elms, and willows, in which are many gaps, and the majority of which are very decrepit and forlorn. Then on either side again comes the footway, and then the ramshackle shops of the bazaar, the total width being about eighty feet. The Khiaban is filled in the busy parts of the day with so dense a crowd, that one can only proceed on horseback at a foot's pace, even with outriders to clear the way in front. Everyone seems to be shrieking and shouting at the same time. All classes and nationalities and orders of life are mingled: the stately white-turbaned mullah, the half-caste dervish; the portly merchant, the tattered and travel-stained pilgrim; the supercilious seyid in his turban of green, the cowering Sunni who has ventured into the stronghold of the enemy; black-browed Afghans and handsome Uzbegs, wealthy Arabs and wild Bedouins; Indian traders and Caucasian devotees, Turk, Tartar, Mongol, and Tajik — an epitome of the parti-coloured, polyglot, many-visaged populations of the East. Conolly, Ferrier, Vambéry, and O'Donovan have left such graphic descriptions of this living kaleidoscope in the Khiaban that I will not strive to emulate their achievements. Perhaps the most novel feature of the boulevard at the time of my visit was a row of lamp-posts, at distances of fifty yards apart, which had just been erected by the Governor.
As soon as we diverge from the Khiaban, we plunge into the familiar labyrinth of intricate alleys, wandering between mud walls, turning odd corners that seem to lead nowhere, occasionally stumbling upon a small piece of bazaar, now emerging upon open spaces and heaps of rubbish. The houses of the wealthier citizens are concealed behind high walls; the poorer hovels are entered by low doorways often below the level of the street. Suddenly we come upon a vast open area, the surface of which is broken into irregular heaps, and littered with broken slabs of stone. This is one of the cemeteries, for a portion of whose hallowed soil a large price is paid by believers, and for a final resting-place in which corpses are frequently transported for thousands of miles. Hard by, masons in their sheds are busy chiselling the memorial stones, of a coarse granite quarried in the neighbourhood; engraving upon their surface a text from the Koran, or some symbol of the craft or status of the deceased. No more permanent or irremovable tombstone is tolerated; for it is essential to the requirements of the restricted area and to the revenues of the shrine that the ground should be constantly re-available for use, and as soon as the covering of an old grave has fallen in a new-comer is interred in its place. Over several of the graves were erected small white awnings or tents, in which mullahs are hired by the friends of the deceased to sit and moan prayers, and thus to expedite his path to heaven.
In spite of the number of these cemeteries and the outrageous violation of sanitary laws with which they are managed; in spite of the crowded numbers of human beings constantly packed in the city, and of its frequent and filthy cesspools, the average health of Meshed is superior to that of many Persian towns. Though situated in very nearly the same parallel of latitude as Teheran, and at a lower altitude (3,100 ft. as against 3,800 ft.), its average temperature is lower and its rate of mortality less high. Khanikoff attributes this immunity to its situation on the northern slope of a mountain range, by which it is shielded from the suffocating desert winds. The water of Meshed is abominable and quite unfit to drink, being strongly impregnated with sulphuretted hydrogen. I left my razor standing in a cup for one night, and the next morning it was as black as a steel gun-barrel.
Above the level of the rooftops rise several of the badgirs, or wind-towers, which are such a prominent feature in the maritime towns
of the Persian Gulf. Their principle of construction is as follows. A tail square or four-sided tower is built from the roof, and is covered at the top, but contains in its sides long vertical slits or apertures, by which the air enters and passes down corresponding partitions in the interior into a room below, where the inmates live in the hot weather, and where there is consequently a perpetual current of air. In still hotter places in the South, these rooms are replaced by serdabs, or underground chambers. Another very prominent feature of Meshed is the number of karaoul-khanehs, or guard-houses, scattered throughout the city and occupied by small detachments of the regular infantry. They consist, as a rule, of a low verandah with a guard-room behind. The muskets, which are old muzzle-loading smooth-bores, are usually standing piled in front. But as a European rides by, a ragged soldier, in a blue serge tunic and a sheepskin shako, who is probably lounging behind, jumps up, and with a prodigious rattle seizes one of these weapons and presents arms. It is then put down again and the guard resumes his seat.
MacGregor in 1875 truly remarked that 'there is very little in this city to induce any one to visit it, or stay long if fortune has cast him into it. There is just one building, the Imam Reza's tomb, worth seeing; and that one there is no chance of any European being permitted to see, except at a risk quite incommensurate with the reward.' It is indeed most irritating, as one rides down the Khiaban, suddenly to find the passage barred by an archway in a wall surrounding the mysterious parallelogram that contains the holy places, and shutting it off as inexorably from the Christian's gaze as Aaron's cord between the living and the dead. From the descriptions, however, that have been left by such Europeans as have entered it, and from the accounts that have been given by Mohammedans themselves, we can form a correct idea of what is to be seen within.
Immediately beyond the barrier, above the archway of which is a European clock, the street continues to run for 100 yards or more through a crowded bazaar up to the main entrance of the mosques. Here the greatest throng was always congregated, and the busiest barter seemed to be going on. Pilgrims who reside within the enclosure can purchase there all the necessaries of life; while mementoes of their visit are pressed upon them, in the shape of the local manufactures of the city, of amulets
and trinkets, and of turquoises engraven with sentences from the Koran. The most remarkable feature, however, about this section of the parallelogram is that, belonging to the Imam, it is holy ground, and consequently affords an inviolable sanctuary, or bast, to any malefactor who succeeds in entering its precincts. Some writers declare that even Christians, Jews, and Guebres (the Persian name for the Parsis) are permitted to use it for the same purpose; but this I elsewhere heard denied. To a Mohammedan, however, it is a safe refuge from his pursuers, with whom, from the security of his retreat, he can then make terms, and settle the ransom which is to purchase his immunity if he comes out. The idea of sanctuary is of course familiar to the Oriental mind, and is embodied in the Cities of Refuge of the Pentateuch. Nor should it excite the indignant surprise of the English reader, seeing that in our own country and capital at no very distant date a similar refuge for debtors existed in the famous Alsatia between Blackfriars Bridge and Temple Bar, which also had an ecclesiastical foundation, having originally been the precincts of the Dominicans or Black Friars. The Bast at Meshed is so emphatically the property of the Imam, that any animal entering its limits is at once confiscated by the authorities of the shrine.
At the end of the bazaar of the Bast, a lofty archway, rising high above the adjoining wall, leads into the Sahn, or principal court, of the Holy Buildings. This is a noble quadrangle, 150 yards long by 75 yards wide, flagged with gravestones of the wealthy departed, whose means have enabled them to purchase this supreme distinction, and surrounded by a double storey of recessed alcoves. In the centre of this court stands a small octagonal structure or kiosque, with gilded roof, covering a fountain which is supplied by the main canal, and surrounded by a stone channel constructed by Shah Abbas. The water of this fountain is used for purposes of ablution by the pilgrim as he enters. Upon the four sides the walls between and above the recesses are faced with enamelled tiles; and in the centre of each rises one of those gigantic portals, or aiwans (archways set in a lofty rectangular frame), which are characteristic of the Arabian architecture of Central Asia. These arches are embellished with colossal tiles, bearing in Kufic letters verses from the Koran. An inscription on the southern aiwan says that it was built by Shah Abbas II. in A.H. 1059. The lower bands of Kufic characters on all the aiwans were, we learn from a similar source, added in A.H. 1262. Upon the summit of the western aiwan rises a cage, very rashly assumed by Eastwick to be made of ivory, from which the muezzin gives the call to prayer. The eastern aiwan is that which leads to the Holy of Holies, the tomb-chamber of the Imam; and its special character is indicated by the gilding with which its upper half is overlaid. An inscription upon it says that it was finished by Shah Sultan Husein in A.H. 1085; and some later verses record that it was gilded by Nadir Shah in A.H. 1145 with the gold that had been plundered from India and the Great Mogul. The Sahn contains two minarets, which, according to descriptions, and from what I myself saw from the roof of a bazaar within the Bast, do not appear to be placed in analogous positions on either side of the main entrance. The older minaret, built by Shah Ismail or Shah Tahmasp, springs from the mausoleum itself. When Fraser was here on his second visit in 1834, it had been 'so shaken or damaged, that for fear of its falling they had taken it down.' It was afterwards rebuilt. The second or larger minaret was erected
by Nadir Shah, and rises from behind the opposite gateway. The upper part of these minarets is in each case overlaid with gilded copper plates, and is crowned with the cage-like gallery that is common to the Persian style. The sun flashes from their radiant surface, and in the distance they glitter like pillars of fire.
And now we approach the chief glory of the whole enclosure, the mosque and sepulchre of the immortal Imam. I say immortal advisedly, for the theory upon which the shrine and the vast system dependent upon it subsist is that the sainted Reza still lives, and responds miraculously to the petitions of his worshippers. The Hazret, as he is called — i.e. His Highness, — is the host of his guests. He supplies their bodily wants while they remain within his domain; and equally he answers their prayers, and furthers their spiritual needs. It is open to any pilgrim to consult him, and Delphic responses are easily forthcoming in return for a suitable fee to one of the attendant priests. From time to time also the rumour goes abroad that some astonishing miracle has been effected at the shrine of His Highness. The cripple has walked, or the blind man has seen, or some similar manifestation has occurred of god-like effluence.
The tomb itself is preceded by a spacious chamber, whose marble floor is overlaid with rich carpets. Above it, to a height of seventy-seven feet, swells the main cupola, whose gilded exterior
marks the sacred spot to the advancing pilgrim, and gladdens his weary eyes from afar. The walls of this chamber are adorned with a wainscoting of kashi — i.e. enamelled tiles, above which are broad bands of Arabic writing in the same material. There is a hum of voices in the building; for servants of the shrine are heard reading aloud from the Koran, seyids are mumbling their daily prayers, greedy mullahs are proffering their services to the new arrivals; and many are the exclamations of pious wonder and delight that burst from the bewildered pilgrim, as, after months of toil and privation in the most cheerless surroundings, there flash upon his gaze the marbles and the tile work, the gold and the silver, the jewels and the priceless offerings of the famous shrine. 'Encrusted within and without with gold, it is,' says Vambéry, who himself saw it, 'unquestionably the richest tomb in the whole Islamite world. Although since the date of its first erection it has been several times plundered, the cupolas, towers, and massive fretted work of the interior still contain an incalculable amount of treasure. The walls are adorned with the rarest trinkets and jewels: here an aigrette of diamonds, there a sword and shield studded with rubies and emeralds, rich old bracelets, large massive candelabra, necklaces of immense value.' Well may the worshipper, as he enters, bow his head till it touches the ground, before he approaches the main object of his devotion, the sepulchre itself.
At different times the tomb has been surrounded with railings of gold and silver and steel. The first of these was originally set up by Shah Tahmasp, but was in part dismantled and plundered by the grandson of Nadir Shah. The last was the gift of Nadir himself. Three doors lead to the shrine, one of which is of silver, another of gold plates studded with precious stones, the gift of Fath Ali Shah; the third being covered with a carpet sewed with pearls. Upon the railings round the tomb are hung silver and wooden tablets with appropriate forms
of prayer and inscriptions. 'Before each of them a little group of the devout is posted, either to pray themselves or to repeat the petitions after the leader of their common devotions. This they do with cries and sobs, as though thus to open to themselves the gates of eternal bliss. It is indeed a singular and sublime spectacle to see how these rude sons of Asia kiss with unfeigned tenderness the fretwork of the grating, the pavement, and especially the great padlock which hangs from the door. Only the priests and the seyids are uninfluenced by these feelings of devotion. Their only concern is with the pence which they may collect. They force their way everywhere among the devout, nor do they retire till by felicitations or other good offices they have obtained the desired mite. When the pilgrim, filled with awe, walking backwards, has at last left the building, he has earned for himself the honorary title of Meshedi, a title which he has inscribed on his signet and his tombstone, and which he ever after prefixes to his name as an agnomen.'
In the absorption consequent upon visiting the mausoleum of the Imam, the pilgrim probably recks little of the dust of the famous Harun-er-Rashid, which reposes beneath a sarcophagus hard by. Nor, perhaps, will he think much of the tomb of Abbas Mirza, the son of Fath Ali Shah, and grandfather of the present monarch, which also stands beneath the sacred roof. Other tombs and chambers, moreover, there are opening out of the principal shrine, but of minor importance, and these may be dismissed without further notice.
I now come to a very prevalent error which it is desirable in the interests of truth to expose. It was started by Mr. Eastwick in 1862, when he claimed for himself that he was 'the only European that ever went into the mosque of Imam Reza at Meshed, certainly the only one that entered as a European.' And it has been repeated and aggravated by the new edition of the 'Encyclopaedia Britannica,' which says (vide article on Meshed): 'Eastwick was the only European before O'Donovan who penetrated as far as the parallelogram.' Both of these claims are quite without justification. Before the time of Eastwick, Fraser in 1822 went into the shrine and into the tomb chamber itself, and after more than once repeating the Moslem confession of faith and giving the mullahs to understand that he
was a convert to Islam (a most questionable proceeding on his part), was allowed to sit for two days in one of the alcoves of the Sahn, in order to make a drawing of its interior. Conolly in 1830 visited all the chambers of the mosque but that containing the tomb itself, and walked daily in the Sahn, where, though recognised, he was free from insult. Burnes in 1832, on his return journey from Bokhara, went into the Sahn, but did not think it prudent to go beyond, his 'judgment conquering his curiosity.' Ferrier in1845 did exactly the same. Fraser, returning to Meshed in 1834, after the occupation of the city by the army of Abbas Mirza, with which were several English officers, found 'the Sahn open to all Europeans,' but in a state of grievous dilapidation that was afterwards repaired. All these were before the date of Eastwick's visit. But when we come to Eastwick himself, we are surprised to find not only that he did not go into the mosque, in the true sense of the term, at all, but that he did not even go so far as the more cautious of his predecessors in crossing the Sahn. He was introduced by the Mutawali Bashi, or Chief Guardian of the shrine, by a door from the back into one of the recessed alcoves that surround the Sahn, where he sat and gazed at what was passing below. He went no further, and he even went there unawares.
Continuing the narrative since his day and down to that of O'Donovan, we find that in the year following (1863) Vambéry, on the return from his heroic voyage as a mendicant dervish to Bokhara and Samarkand, entered the mosque and visited the tomb chamber in the character which he had so long and successfully worn. About the same time Colonel Dolmage, an English officer in the service of the Shah, who superintended a powder factory near Meshed, penetrated into the interior under the auspices of the Hissam-es-Sultaneh, then Governor-General of Khorasan. Finally, when we come to O'Donovan in 1880, we find that he did not even enter the Sahn, but claims from a doorway outside to have
looked through into the great quadrangle. This is an achievement which might, I think, be effected without risk at the present time. A European who found his way into the Bast, particularly by some other than one of the two main entries, might without much difficulty succeed in reaching the gates of the Sahn. He might be stared at or followed or mobbed, but he would probably not be attacked. It would be a different thing were he to enter the sacred precincts themselves; though I am one of those who incline to the opinion that in these respects the fanaticism of Orientals is apt to be exaggerated. In the interests, however, not merely of personal safety, but of the reputation of his nationality, which might suffer from detection, it would be foolhardy in a foreigner to make the attempt. I was myself conducted over the roofs of the bazaars to a spot, I believe, within the Bast, where I could see the sacred buildings very well, and was from eighty to a hundred yards distant from the mosque of Gowher Shad, which adjoins that of Imam Reza, and to which I next turn. If I must claim for myself any special distinction, it is the modest one of being the first English Member of Parliament who has entered the walls of Meshed, so far as my knowledge extends.
The second mosque is behind that of Imam Reza, but is situated obliquely to it. Like the other, it has a large court, with two storeys of recessed compartments all round, with soaring tile-covered aiwans, and with two great ungilt but tile encircled minarets. On the main facade is an inscription saying that it was erected in the reign of Shah Rukh in A.H. 821. A similar panel on the southern aiwan records its reconstruction by Shah Sultan Husein in A.H. 1087. Fraser, who visited it, thought this mosque 'by far the most beautiful and magnificent that he had seen in Persia;' and Vambéry, speaking of its main archway, said:
It was long before I could determine whether I should award the palm to this gate or to those two in Samarkand and Herat which are of the same style; for it is certain that they all date from the reign of Shah Rukh, if indeed they were not the work of the same architect. It is possible that the Madrasseh Khanym in Samarkand, as also the Musallah in Herat, were more luxurious and magnificent, but I can hardly believe that they were ever more beautiful.
Gowher Shad's mosque hardly, at the present day, sustains this reputation from the outside, though evidently its kashi is
superb. The dome, which is larger and loftier than that of Imam Reza, is covered with tiles of blue, green, and orange patterns, which have peeled off in places.
Entrance is found by one of the archways in the principal Sahn to a madresseh, or religious college, which was erected by the munificence of one Mirza Jafir, a wealthy Persian merchant who had made a fortune in India; and it is the third finest building in Meshed, resembling the mosques in structural features and decoration. It was further endowed by its founder with large revenues, which supported fifty or sixty mullahs. Also included in the parallelogram are other madressehs, courts, lodging-houses, and baths, as well as a great refectory, where the pilgrims are fed at the expense of His Highness (each new-comer being entitled to three days' gratuitous board), at the rate of 30 mans or 195 lbs. of rice a day. Here it is said that 500 or 600 meals are served daily to the hungry guests of the Imam.
We are indebted to Khanikoff, who was a most scholarly and accurate inquirer, for the following information about the library of the Imam. He says that the date of its foundation cannot be placed earlier than the time of Shah Rukh, the oldest volume being a Koran that was deposited in his reign. The next donations occurred in the reigns of Shah Abbas and Shah Sultan Husein. A catalogue had been drawn up shortly before Khanikoff's visit in 1858, from which he learnt that the library contained 2,997 works in 3,654 volumes, of which 1,041 were Korans (189 printed, and 852 manuscripts, some of the latter of great dimensions and rare beauty), 299 prayer-books and guides to pilgrims, 246 works on general ecclesiastical law, and 221 on that of the Shiah persuasion alone. It is curious to learn that the greatest benefactor of the library was the unlettered Nadir Shah, who presented it with as many as 400 manuscripts.
The revenues of the shrine in money and in kind are very large. Fraser says that under Shah Sultan Husein, the last of the Sefavi dynasty, at the beginning of the eighteenth century, they were 15,000 tomans; but in 1821 he gives the figures as 2,000 to 2,500 tomans (can this be a misprint for 20,000 to 25,000?). Bassett, in 1878, gave the total as 40,000 tomans, which were then equivalent to 16,000l. According to the information supplied to me, they now stand at 60,000 tomans (equivalent at
the present rate of exchange to 17,000l.) and 10,000 kharvars of grain. The landed property of the Imam is scattered all over Persia, and there is a good deal of estate besides in the shape of houses, caravanserais, shops, and bazaars. There are 600 paid servants of the mosque, 100 for each day of the week. The total retinue connected with the holy buildings, and consisting of mujtaheds, mullahs, mutawalis, attendants, menials, and hangers-on, has been estimated at 2,000.
The entire fixed population of Meshed stands at about the same (45,000) as it did in the days of Conolly. But how large a part in its life is played by the religious element is shown by the computation that within the year as many as 100,000 pilgrims enter its walls, and that the average number at any time to be found in the city is from 5,000 to 8,000. From these figures, and from what has been said above, some idea may be formed of the vast and potent machinery which is in the hands of the ecclesiastical power, and of the part that it must play in the politics of Meshed. The capital is, indeed, a great collection of peoples, occupations, interests, and intrigues, revolving round the central pivot of the shrine. Just as its middle portion is occupied by the sacred quadrilateral, so the life of the place throbs from the same hidden heart, moving in dark channels of superstition, miracle-mongering, and imposture. Conolly was well within the mark when he wrote of the mullahs of Meshed that 'the greater number of these are rogues who only take thought how to make the most of the pilgrims that visit the shrine. From the high priest to the seller of bread, all have the same end; and, not content with the stranger's money, those in office about the saint appropriate to themselves the very dues for keeping his temple in order.'
From ancient times the government of the shrine has been vested in the hands of an individual, not necessarily an ecclesiastic, and commonly a layman, know as the Mutawali Bashi, or Chief Guardian. He has ordinarily become, by virtue of his office, the principal personage in Meshed, equalling and often surpassing the Governor-General in influence. It was no mean proof of the strength of the present Shah, that here, as elsewhere, he had secured the due subordination of the ecclesiastical to the civil element by appointing his own brother the Rukn-ed-Dowleh, who was Governor-General of Khorasan at the time of my
visit, to the post of Mutawali Bashi as well. It was the first time in history that the offices had been united in the same individual, and in proportion as the occurrence detracted from the ecclesiastical predominance of the clergy, so did it aggrandise the temporal ascendency of the sovereign. Below the Mutawali Bashi in descending grades of authority and repute, extends a hierarchy of inferior mutawalis, some of whom are hereditary office-bearers, while others receive their appointments from the Shah; of mujtaheds, or doctors of the law, who expound the canonical jurisprudence, and occupy positions of great distinction and influence, receiving in some cases fixed allowances from the Shah; and of mullahs, who preach, and conduct the services, and live by what they can extract from the pilgrims. The more eminent mujtaheds are regarded as very holy characters. When they enter the mosque to pray, crowds gather behind them to participate in their prayers, and they spend much of their spare time in indiscriminate shouting and weeping. At the time of my visit Meshed was in one of its chronic spasms of religious excitement. The anniversaries of the martyrdom both of Hasan and of the holy Imam were being commemorated. Taziehs, or religious play, were being acted; the holy places were crowded to suffocation; and beaten tomtoms and clamoured invocations made the night hideous. Judging from the noise that he made, there must have been some particularly holy personage living near my quarters in the British Consulate; and freely did I anathematise this insufferable saint as I lay awake at night listening to his long-drawn lamentations and plaintive howls.
From gate to gate of the Bast on either side, the parallelogram thus enclosed must be at least a square quarter of a mile. The western gate is used as a nakkara-khaneh, or band-tower; and from here, as in other Persian seats of royal residence, is sounded at sunset a discordant fanfaronade of cymbals, drums, and horns.
Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of Meshed life, before I leave the subject of the shrine and the pilgrims, is the provision that is made for the material solace of the latter during their stay in the city. In recognition of the long journeys which they have made, of the hardships which they have sustained, and of the distances by which they are severed from family and home, they are permitted, with the connivance of the ecclesiastical law and its officers, to contract temporary marriages during their
sojourn in the city. There is a large permanent population of wives suitable for the purpose. A mullah is found, under whose sanction a contract is drawn up and formally sealed by both parties, a fee is paid, and the union is legally accomplished. After the lapse of a fortnight or a month, or whatever be the specified period, the contract terminates; the temporary husband returns to his own lares et penates in some distant clime, and the lady, after an enforced celibacy of fourteen days' duration, resumes her career of persevering matrimony. In other words, a gigantic a system of prostitution, under the sanction of the Church, prevails in Meshed. There is probably not a more immoral city in Asia; and I should be sorry to say how many of the unmurmuring pilgrims who traverse seas and lands to kiss the grating of the Imam's tomb are not also encouraged and consoled upon their march by the prospect of an agreeable holiday and what might be described in the English vernacular as 'a good spree.'
Here, in the city which he patronised and adorned, was originally laid the body of the great conqueror, Nadir Shah. In his own lifetime he caused the buildings to be raised both for himself and for his son, Reza Kuli Mirza. They were situated about halfway between the mosque of the Imam and the Bala Khiaban gate. Not a trace now remains of their existence. The brutal eunuch Agha Mohammed Khan Kajar, mindful of the source to which he owed his calamity, as soon as he became Shah, gratified the instincts of a long-nurtured revenge by razing the structures to the ground; while the bones of Nadir were removed at his orders to Teheran, and deposited (along with those of his other rival, Kerim Khan Zend) beneath the threshold of the palace, so that whenever he went abroad he might trample upon the dust of the great persecutor of himself and his family. In Fraser's day the desecrated buildings at Meshed were heaps of rubbish. Ten years later Burnes found a crop of turnips springing from the soil which had sheltered the body of the conqueror of Hindustan.
There still exist a considerable number of Jewish families in Meshed, although the practice of their own worship is strictly for-
bidden, and is only pursued in secret. The story of their enforced conversion to Mohammedanism in the year 1838 is well known, and has been repeated by more than one traveller. Dr. Wolff, who was twice at Meshed, both before and after the incident, described it in these terms: —
The occasion was as follows: A poor woman had a sore hand. A Mussulman physician advised her to kill a dog and put her hand in the blood of it. She did so; when suddenly the whole population rose and said that they had done it in derision of their prophet. Thirty-five Jews were killed in a few minutes; the rest, struck with terror, became Mohammedans. They are now more zealous Jews in secret than ever, but call themselves Anusim, the Compelled Ones.
Wolff does not add — what is necessary to explain the sudden outburst — that the incidents of the Jewess and the slaughtered dog unfortunately occurred on the very day when the Mohammedans were celebrating the annual Feast of Sacrifice. Superstition and malice very easily aggravated an innocent act into a deliberate insult to the national faith; and hence the outbreak that ensued. There is much less fanaticism now than in those days; but it still behoves a Yehudi, or Jew, to conduct himself circumspectly and to walk with a modest air in Meshed.
Khanihoff is responsible for the statement that there are fourteen madressehs and sixteen caravanserais in the city; as also for an enumeration of their names and the dates of their foundation. Any reader who requires information upon these points may be referred to his pages.
I had heard or read a good deal about the native manufactures of Meshed, but was greatly disappointed with such articles as I saw. A more unfavourable hunting-ground for the would-be purchaser can hardly be imagined. The manufacture of damascened sword-blades has long been a trade here, having originally, it is said, been introduced by a colony transported for the purpose by Timur from Damascus. Now, however, that rifles and revolvers have taken the place of swords and
daggers, there is not the same demand for new blades. Silk and cotton and velvet stuffs are made here, but of a quality greatly inferior to those of Bokhara. There are in the town 650 silk looms and 320 shawl looms. On the other hand, good carpets are procurable, particularly those of genuinely Oriental pattern, close texture, and imperishable vegetable dyes, that hail from Kain and Birjand. The Kurdish carpets are also original, but less artistic. In Meshed itself are forty carpet-looms. Turkoman carpets, jewellery, and weapons were formerly a common object in the bazaars, but are now almost entirely bought up by the Russians in Transcaspia or exported to Europe. Astrabad, near the camps of the Goklan Turkomans, is probably, next to Teheran (whither everything converges), the best place in Persia for procuring Turkoman articles. Old Tartar and even Bactrian coins are frequently to be met with at Meshed. I naturally anticipated that, being in such close proximity to the famous turquoise mines of Nishapur, the bazaars would be well stocked with specimens of that stone. I saw little but rubbish. All the best stones are bought at the mouth of the mines and are exported to foreign countries. Meshed seems to receive the residue, of a price and quality likely to attract the itinerant pilgrim. Nor was I any better pleased with the carved objects, cups, bowls, basins, ewers, which are hollowed with the aid of a very primitive lathe and tools out of a soft slate or steatite that is found in the neighbourhood. There are two varieties of this stone, a dull reddish brown, and a blue-grey. But though previous travellers have spoken in terms of great admiration of these works of art, I failed to appreciate either the material, the shape, or the workmanship.
At the time of my visit, the scale of artisans' wages was as follows: Carpenters, 3 krans, or 1s. 9d., per diem; masons, 2 krans, or ls. 2d.; blacksmiths, 1½ kran, or 11d.; common labourers, 1 kran, or 7d. The price of bread was about ½d. per lb., of mutton 2¾d. Fowls, which had cost ½kran, or 3½d., in the mountains, cost 1 kran, or 7d., in the capital. The price of wheat was a little less than 6d. a stone, of barley a little less than 4d.
There were reported to be 144 private bankers or usurers in the city, with a united capital of 931,000 tomans, or 266,000l. Two only of these had a capital of 100,000 tomans (28,570l.); three a capital of 50,000 tomans (14,285l.) each; and two a capital of
30,000 tomans (8,570l.) each. The rest were petty money dealers. The New Oriental Bank in Teheran kept an agent at Meshed; but, as they have since parted with their business to the new Imperial Bank of Persia, the latter have taken their place in Khorasan, where there is considerable scope for their transactions. A great many Russian rouble notes (it is said 200,000). were in circulation in Meshed. An English sovereign was worth 3 tomans and 3½ krans, or, at the normal rate of exchange, 19s. 6d. Indian rupees fetched their full Indian value of 1s. 5d.
While at Meshed I enjoyed an interview with the Governor-General of Khorasan. As I have already indicated, this high official is one of the two surviving brothers of the Shah. His name is Mohammed Taki Mírzá, his title the Rukn-ed-Dowleh (i.e. Pillar of the State), and he was then Governor-General for the third time, having filled the post at intervals during the past fifteen years, and occasionally been superseded or shelved, as some other aspirant had gained the ear of the sovereign or been able to offer a higher bribe. He had the reputation of being a mild but timid individual, who shared the family taste for saving, but temporises in politics. His chief minister however, or Wuzir (Vizier), was reported to be a staunch partisan of Russia, with whom his sympathies were notorious.
The Ark, or Citadel, in which the Governor resides, stands in the south-west portion of the city, from which it is separated by a large parade-ground or meidan. It is defended by a circuit of low walls and towers. Entering a gateway between two towers, above which was a ludicrous daub or fresco of the Lion and the Sun, we rode down a long vaulted corridor into a large court. Here we dismounted, and, passing through an untidy quadrangle with straggling flower-beds, crossed into an inner and smaller court, where were a number of attendants and hangers-on, by whom we were ushered into the divan-khaneh, or reception room, at the upper end.
Here the Governor came forward to receive us. He is short
and very fat, but wears an amiable expression, and, although unlike the Shah, has the distinctive Kajar features. His hair was black, but a white stubble ornamented his chin. His dress was the kolah, or lambskin bonnet, and the ordinary black large-skirted coat and trousers of the Persian grandee. White cotton gloves covered his hands, which he crossed affably upon his stomach.
Our conversation was not of surpassing interest, as the Governor contented himself with civil and conventional replies. I asked him if he thought railways were likely to come in Persia. 'If God be willing, yes,' was the somewhat ambiguous rejoinder. Of the possible lines, he thought that from Teheran to Kum was most likely to be the first constructed. He said that the mineral resources of his province were very great (which is probably true), and comprised gold, silver, lead, copper, and coal. When I asked him whether the people knew anything about the Shah's recent reception in Europe, and particularly in England, he answered 'No; how should they? Only the officials and upper classes know. Three newspapers are published in Teheran, and of one of these 100 copies are brought every week to Meshed. Later on, when the Shah's diary is published, people will read it, and then they will know.'
My interview with His Royal Highness left upon me the same impression that did the conversation of so many of the Persian ministers whom I afterwards encountered — viz. the existence of an abstract willingness for the internal development of their country, but a total absence of initiative, and a passive acquiescence in the status quo.
In the succeeding chapter I shall have something to say about the armed forces of the Khorasan province. I may here limit my attention to the garrison of Meshed, which consists of three infantry regiments of 800 each, usually regiments recruited in the Turkish province of Azerbaijan; a precaution which is supposed to preclude any possible fraternisation between the populace and the military. There are reported to be some twenty light field guns in the Ark. But as they are never brought out, as the artillerymen never practise working them, and as the horses are never exercised, they would probably not constitute a very formidable battery in actual warfare.
The only two foreign Powers officially represented, or who
have had any cause to be so represented in Meshed, are Great Britain and Russia; and in both cases the appointment is quite recent, and was effected under circumstances that had occurred a short time before my visit, and are worthy of narration. It was Russia who took the initiative in the latter part of 1888. By the seventh article of the Akhal-Khorasan Treaty of 1881, she was entitled to keep agents at the Persian frontier-posts. But there was no mention therein of a Consul or Consul-General; Meshed could not possibly be described as a frontier-post, or as even remotely concerned with the Turkoman question; and the Shah was known to be particularly averse to any such intrusion at the religious capital of Khorasan. Both Russia and Great Britain had for long maintained native agents at the latter place. But such British officers as had been specially employed on political service in these regions, as, for instance, General Maclean and Colonel Stewart, had been careful either to reside elsewhere or to move from place to place, and had never taken up permanent quarters in the capital, where they were always assured that their residence would be attended with personal risk.
Russia, however, had decided for some time that her interests in Khorasan required direct and official representation in the city. Accordingly M. Vlassof, Russian Consul at Resht, and a diplomatist widely known for his grasp of Persian politics, was nominated Consul-General by the Czar, and the Shah was informed that he must ratify the appointment. This peremptory manner of proceeding was not calculated to soothe the wounded feelings of the latter, and for some time the exsequatur was withheld. Russia, however, is in a position on the north to make it extremely dangerous for Persia to oppose any prolonged or genuine resistance to whatever proposals she may threaten to enforce, and accordingly, after a certain delay, the exsequatur was granted, and in the spring of 1889 M. Vlassof was installed at
Meshed. Such a concession having been made to the Russians could not, of course, be denied to the British, and General Maclean, who had for some time most ably represented the Indian Government on the Perso-Afghan frontier, received simultaneously his appointment as Consul-General, and, arriving at his post a short time before his Russian colleague, was the doyen of the limited Diplomatic Corps that had thus been called into being at the capital of Khorasan.
The Russian Government had for some time made preparations for this eventuality. Their native agent had acquired a large house, standing in spacious surroundings, in a suitable quarter of the city, and into this abode, well qualified to furnish the official residence of the representative of a great sovereign, M. Vlassof at once moved. The Russian flag floated above the doorway. A small bodyguard of four Russian Cossacks, as well as the Persian guard assigned to both Consuls by the Government, preceded the Consul when he moved abroad, and the native population of Meshed, whose fanaticism turned out to be a very negative quantity, were speedily habituated to the presence of the foreign element which made so brave a display. There can be no question that the presence of a capable Russian official and staff, and the impression produced by ample surroundings and an imposing abode must have done much to augment Russian influence in the capital, and, if that influence is some times exercised with an abrupt and imperious insistence, the effect, even though it be the reverse of welcome to those on whom it is produced, will not thereby have been lessened in intensity. A vigorous Russian representative at Meshed is a visible symbol of the great Power whose movements and intentions form the subject of conversation in every Oriental bazaar, and whose ever swelling shadow, witnessed with a sort of paralysed quiescence by the native peoples, looms like a thunder-cloud over the land.
In one of my 'Times' letters I wrote as follows: — 'It is to be regretted that so far the British Government has not been able to house its representative in a similarly becoming fashion. Preparations for such a contingency had not been made, as in the rival case, long beforehand; and the building which now bears the insignia of the British Consulate, and flies the British flag, is one that affords the scantiest possible evidence of the rank and importance of its inmate. It is little short of discredit-
able that the British Consul-General should be compelled to reside in such attenuated and miserable surroundings. An immediate duty is imposed upon the Government to provide for his maintenance in a style and in quarters better fitted to represent to the native mind the prestige of a great and wealthy Power.' I rejoice to have heard since that the Government has taken the same view of the case as I did; and that a sum of money has been granted, sufficient for the purchase of a plot of ground and the erection of a becoming edifice thereon. General Maclean, the capable representative of Great Britain in Khorasan, contemplated at first the purchase of a well-wooded and well-watered garden, nearly thirty acres in extent, outside the walls of the city; but my latest information is that this project has been abandoned, and that a property is more likely to be bought within the walls.
The staff of the British Consulate, when fully organized (it is still in a state of embryo), will consist of the Consul-General, his assistant, and a Vice-Consul. A private guard is provided by two sergeants and three privates of the Indian Corps of Guides, whose picturesque uniform and smart appearance create a favourable impression, while a native guard of one sergeant and six men is furnished by the Persian Government. Attached to the British Consulate is also a body of twenty-two Turkoman sowars, mainly Sariks of Penjdeh, who from the earlier stages of the Afghan boundary dispute allied themselves to the British side, and who are now employed upon a private postal service between Meshed and Herat, where their post enters into correspondence with that of the Amir of Afghanistan. Should the latter be in the northern parts of his domains, it sometimes occurs that a message from the Viceroy of India is most easily and expeditiously transmitted to him by this circuitous route. When a proper house with becoming surroundings has been built, the British Consul-General, who is also Agent to the Governor-General of India, thus attended and assisted, will be able to maintain an appearance worthy of the twofold Power which he represents, and positively essential in a country and amid a people where etiquette and display are credited with a virtue amounting almost to salvation.
So much for the outward political position at present occupied by the two Powers in Meshed. An immense amount of consular business devolves upon the shoulders of either representative, for both the Russian and British Governments have several hundred subjects residing in or passing through Meshed for trading purposes. In the case of the British Government these will be in the main Hindus and a few Kashmiris trading, viâ Bunder Abbas, from Bombay, or occasional descendants of Afghan and Persian families who became British subjects in the earlier years of this century. The Afghans who come to Meshed are willing enough to claim the shelter of British citizenship, a recognition that is in sharp contrast with the haughty exclusiveness maintained in his own dominions by the Amir. The Russian subjects in Khorasan are Armenians, Caucasian Mussulmans, Turkomans, inhabitants of Transcaspia, Sarts, and Bokhariots. In the registration of these subjects and in the prompt attention to their business the Russians possess an indubitable
advantage in their passport system, by which the identity, nationality, and claims of an applicant can at once be ascertained. The British have never adopted this most useful of systems, and an immense amount of labour and time is spent in investigating the titles of the claimant to British protection, which are frequently disputed by the Persian authorities, and can only be vindicated with trouble and delay. It is worth while considering whether in Persia, at any rate, the passport system might not advantageously be introduced. It would, I believe, be welcomed by the Persian Government.
There is very little to be seen in the neighbourhood of Meshed. The mosque of Khojah Rabi I have already described. The Musallah, originally built in A.D. 1699 for the celebration of the feast of Kurban, and described by MacGregor as the only ruin of any note about the city, has lost any note that it may once have had by being a total ruin. Visitors will possibly care to ride out to the remains of Tus, the predecessor of Meshed, fifteen miles distant in a north-westerly direction. Persian legend is very busy with the antiquity and history and vicissitudes of this once famous city. The present remains, which are very clearly to be traced, are those of a walled Arab city, quite four miles in circumference, and of a citadel in its north-east corner. In the centre is a large ruined structure under a dome, which was no doubt once a mosque, but is now known as the Nakkara-Khaneh or Drum Tower. O'Donovan, who spent some time in examining and describing the ruins, mistook this building for the tomb of the great national poet Firdusi, and even identified his coffin. The poet's grave lay beneath a far humbler structure which was visible seventy years ago; but had disappeared long before O'Donovan visited it, and been replaced by no more distinctive memorial than a field of wheat.
Meshed is connected by telegraph, as I have already shown, with Kelat-i-Nadiri on the north, and with Kuchan and Bujnurd
on the north-west. From Kelat a branch line runs to Deregez. There is further a single wire from Meshed to the frontier outpost of Sarakhs, on the Russian border; but this is usually broken or interrupted, and Sarakhs is, as a rule, cut off from communication with the capital. This line has been linked in the present year (1891) with Russian Sarakhs, on the other side of the Tejend, where there is a military outpost of Russia; the point of junction being in the bed of the Tejend. This brings Meshed into telegraphic connection with Ashkabad and Merv, and further exemplifies the Russian ascendency. There is, at present, no telegraphic connection between Meshed and the south; but a wire has been talked of from the capital to Birjand. The main line between Meshed and Teheran, 570 miles in length, consists of a single wire, viâ Nishapur, Sebzewar, and Shahrud. Though it belongs to the Persian Government, it is subsidised and maintained for them by the Indo-European Telegraph Department, who keep an inspector at Shahrud and two signallers at Teheran and Meshed. This staff is inadequate for the maintenance and service of the line, and it is out of order on several days in each month. The Persians were apt at first to invest the telegraph offices with the sanctity of a bast, and cases have occurred at Meshed and elsewhere where the premises have been so claimed by fugitives from pursuit or persecution — the underlying idea being that the wire ran directly from the Shah's palace at Teheran, and that they could thus communicate at once with head-quarters.
In conclusion I may say that the fanatical hostility to Europeans and Christians for which Meshed was always said to be distinguished appears to have completely disappeared. Precautions, it is true, are still observed by the advice of the authorities; and it was one of the inconveniences of life and residence there that one had to pass through the town on horseback preceded and followed by an escort. This prevents the desultory stroll and 'poking of the nose in every corner' which the European traveller loves, but which is so foreign to the Oriental's notion of dignity and self-respect. During my residence of eight days in Meshed I always moved about on horseback; but I believe that there was nothing in reality to have prevented me from wandering whither I would on foot, and in a few years' time a European will doubtless be as familiar a spectacle there and will excite as little comment as in the streets of Bokhara or in the bazaars of Isfahan.
SUPPLEMENTARY ROUTES FROM MESHED
MESHED TO SARAKHS (viâ Ak Derbend and Pui-i-Khatun, 96 miles). (Sir) A. Burnes (1832), Travels into Bokhara, vol. iii. pp. 56-65; Capt. Hon. G. Napier (1874), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xlvi. p. 146 (1876); (Sir) C. MacGregor (1875), Journey through Khorasan, vol. ii. pp. 1-30.
MESHED TO HERAT (two routes; the most familiar viâ Turbat-i-Sheikh Jam and Ghurian, 220 miles). J. B. Fraser (1822), Journey into Khorasan, pp. 118-19; Lieut. A. Conolly (1830), Overland Journey to India, vol. i. cap. xii.; J. P Ferrier (1845), Caravan Journeys, cap. x. and cap. xxxi.; Capt. Claude Clerk (1857), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xxxi. pp. 45-47; H. C. Marsh (1872), Ride through Islam, pp. 113-131; (Sir) C. MacGregor (1875), Journey through Khorasan, vol. i. caps. viii. ix.
MESHED TO SEISTAN (viâ Turbat-i-Haideri, Bajistan, Birjand, Lash Juwain). Dr. F. Forbes (1841), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xiv. (1844); Col. Euan Smith (1872), Eastern Persia, vol. i. pp. 323-356, and Appendix D; Dr. H. W. Bellew (1872), From the Indus to the Tigris, caps. ix. x.; Sir F. Goldsmid (1872), Journal of the R.G.S., vol. xliii. p. 65 (1873).
MESHED TO KAAHKA (Transcaspian Railway), viâ Sengiban, Chaksari, Charköi, and Kardeh. Max von Proskowetz (1888), Vom Nervastrand nach Samarkand, iii. 5.
MESHED TO DUSHAK (Transcaspian Railway), viâ Kanegosha, Khanibist, Namisar, Huntalabad, Tamura Pass, Chacha, Karategan. (Private information.)
For other routes, outlined but not described, vide MacGregor, vol. ii. Appendix II.