My Wanderings in Persia
Lost — Turcomans. — Russian Atrocities. — Left-hand Friendship. — Premier Lord. — ‘Sons of Burnt Fathers.’ — Marvellous. — Tiger Hunt. — At Bay. — ‘Non est.’ — ‘Shadow of God.’ — Satisfied Grunt. — Wretched Road. — Teheran. — 115° Fahrenheit. — Phenomena. — Distress. — Turkey. — Sick Man. — National Reforms. — Millennium.
ON leaving Ask, our muleteers, to save time and trouble, instead of proceeding by the caravan road, led their camels and mules over the plain of Demavend, and, as we afterwards learnt, were totally unacquainted with the road. Our journey should have lasted but seven or eight hours, but, as night approached, it became painfully evident that our guides were at a loss which direction to lead their animals.
We had for the last four hours been traversing a wild, desolate region, trackless and solitary. As darkness had now succeeded the sunlight, a brief consultation was held, and, after a few meaningless excuses, our camel-driver confessed that he had unfortunately lost his way, and would advise us to make a temporary encampment until daylight should reveal unto his blindness, as he termed it, the proper road.
We were somewhat suspicious as to our guide’s good intentions. It was possible that he had purposely lost the way, after agreeing with the Turcomans as to the plunder; and, although we were compelled to assent, yet we determined to sleep cat-like, with one eye open and our rifles ready for any emergency. Had our suspicions proved correct, the camel-driver would assuredly have met with his deserts.
It was now too late to erect our tents, so that we were reluctantly roofless. A few stones were cleared away, our horses tethered, and a huge fire lighted, to guard against any
attack from prowling wolves. Our bedding was placed on the ground, and, weary and hungry, we retired supperless to bed. Fortunately, we had brought a good supply of warm clothing, and never did we feel more the need of our ulsters and blankets than on this cheerless plain. The night was intensely cold. We were at a great altitude, not more than two miles from perpetual snow. Our situation was anything but an enviable one. The continual howlings of jackals, infuriated by hunger and cold, made our sleep but of short duration. Day at last dawned without further alarm, and we recommenced our journey to the Lar.
Shortly after our departure, we came across a tribe of Turcomans, who were bound for Khiva. We bought a good supply of goats’ milk, dates and cheese from these lawless nomads, and continued our march in their company. The chief was a native of Bokhara, but he said the Russians were there, and wanted too much ‘baksheesh,’ so they left that
part of Turkestan for one where the cursed Ooroos had not yet penetrated. His language was bitter against the tyrannical aggression of Russia, who, he said, burnt all before them. He expressed a great desire to have the Russian commander’s beard in his hand, and, by the ferocious expression of his swarthy countenance, and the menacing grip on his scimitar, I thought that, could the desire be effected, General Kaufmann would be in rather dangerous quarters. He spoke of women and children, old and feeble men, being bayoneted by the fierce Russian soldiers at the command of their officer, because a stipulated sum could not be paid by the wretched people whom they massacred.
‘If,’ said he, ‘if Russians are Christians, what are you?’
The question was more than I could answer; but I immediately replied that Russia did not believe in our religion, but worshipped images and saints. He asked why Russia sent
her armies to Turkestan, ravaging and destroying the poor Turcoman’s land? He had heard, he said, in the bazaars at Khiva, that England and Russia would fight in Turkestan; that Russia wanted to occupy India, as she had done Khivan territory, and asked if we could fight them? To this I replied, that England wished for peace, but, if Russia assailed our rights in India, we should unquestionably drive her back to the Oxus. ‘Russia,’ he remarked, ‘is like a fox, deceitful and crafty.’
The road afforded us great interest in the beautiful scenery surrounding us. Encircled by the everlasting whiteness of the many peaks; the wide, quickly-flowing river at our feet, abounding with trout; the numerous nomadic tribes who had temporarily settled on the rich pastures of the Lar; and also the sport which we managed to make with the herds of deer and flocks of wild geese. We had now arrived at the eastern extremity of the valley, and after bidding ‘God be with you!’ to the
friendly Turcoman, who good-naturedly extended his left hand, ignorant that we used only the right, but wishing to appear polite, we selected for our encampment a beautiful spot, at the base of the last chain of hills leading northwards. Demavend formed a magnificent background to our exquisite landscape. Our four large tents looked formidable to any band of rovers who might have a passing fancy to visit us.
Not far distant was encamped the El Beggie or Premier Lord of Persia, who owned the country and villages around. The second day after our arrival, we received a visit from this sorrow-stricken old man, who had been dismissed for ever from the presence of the King of Kings, for some uncommitted, yet ably-devised, offence. On several succeeding occasions we received and returned these pleasing visits. Many an hour was spent in conversation with the El Beggie and his sons, which were greatly amusing, without being weari-
Some, as is usually the case when in Persian society. Many and varied were the subjects spoken on from time to time. His youthful exploits — he was then at the advanced age of eighty-seven — were recounted to us; how, at one time, he had alone encountered a fierce tiger in the jungles of Ghelan and come off victor, with but a few marks on his body; and, when fighting against the Turcomans, how he had, with his own hand, cut down the dogs of unbelievers.
One day, in course of a conversation on European topics, the old Lord asked if we had not once fought by the side of the Osmanli (Turks) against Russia? On being answered in the affirmative, he said, ‘Could you beat Russia alone?’ We informed him that our interests were centred in peace; but, if compelled to fight Russia, we could never doubt the result. ‘Ah,’ says he, ‘those “sons of burnt fathers" will be the ruin of Persia.’
Many were the questions he asked about
London, that ‘marvellous place,’ as it pleased the old man to call it, and our Indian Empire. Were we sure that those ‘sons of dogs,’ the Ooroos, could not take Hindustan? ‘Thank God!’ was the fervent ejaculation, as we readily answered, ‘Quite sure.’ Was it true that a woman ruled England? was the next question. On our assuring him that such was the fact, but that our Government was not despotic, but ruled by representatives chosen by the nation, he exclaimed, ‘Marvellous!’
The conversation once turned on railways and steam engines, but on this subject the aged nobleman appeared to be invulnerable. He had placed a mark to believe so far, and no farther. He thought it impossible for a railway train to travel fifty miles an hour, or that we could speak from Teheran with distant London in a minute. These appeared to the old man mere delusions of a fanciful imagination. Our army and navy all underwent careful questioning, until at last our
visitors rose to leave, apparently mazed by what they had heard.
Some time after our arrival, we were told that a number of tigers were annually killed in the district by the peasants; and one morning a servant of the El Beggie came to our tent, and, with an awestricken countenance, said that during the night several sheep had been killed by what was thought to be tigers. No further notice was taken of the affair at the time, but we determined to organise a party to hunt this terrible ravager. The afternoon of the same day found my friend and myself at the summit of a neighbouring hill, accompanied only by two servants, and unarmed, except by a Colt’s heavy revolver which I carried, and a fowling-piece which one of the men had. The servants were some twenty yards ahead, and appeared to be conversing on some interesting subject, when suddenly an exclamation of terror and consternation was uttered by one of them, who hurried back toward us, and,
with an affrighted look, tremblingly pointed to a small bush about thirty yards away. He was unable to utter more than the one word, ‘poolang’ (tiger). For a moment I laughed at the man’s story; but the tremulous lips and the pallid face bespoke more than he said. A savage tiger strikes one with a feeling of awe, even in a menagerie at home; but a ferocious beast in the open wood, unarmed as we were, is a much more formidable foe, and the better part of valour at this time was discretion. We despatched a man to our tents for two rifles. Unfortunately, however, a number of cartridges had been lost the previous day, and what remained were charged with shot only. With such weapons it would have been worse than madness to attempt the dislodgment of our foe. I climbed up towards the place where our servants had stood, but no signs of such majestic presence was visible. The bush was clear, and I was about to freely indulge in contemptuous language to the awe-stricken
servants, when a slight sound on my right caused me to turn hastily about. Not half a dozen yards from me I saw, in a crouching posture, with head erect, an immense tigress, who, with outstretched forepaws, lay jealously guarding two cubs. I was in a very unenviable dilemma. Two yards in the opposite direction was a yawning precipice, and, before me, the most ferocious animal man has ever met. Had the tigress sprung upon me, and in the great excitement of the moment I had missed my aim, death was inevitable, either from being dashed to pieces on the projecting rocks hundreds of feet below, or from the capacious jaws or still more terrible claws of the infuriated animal. Once, for a moment, I thought the struggle was coming. The tigress raised her head, and in a menacing manner shook her tail, and with flashing eyes, which shone like balls of fire, appeared as if about to rise. I grasped my revolver, determined, if it was to be, to die hard. Fortunately, with presence
of mind for the occasion, I had scanned the ground, and had intended, should she spring, to quickly step on one side, firing at angles. The animal, flying beyond her intended mark, would possibly have found her death far below. The suspense to me was dreadful. A lifetime was almost passed in those brief moments. At last, seeing no further movement from her highness, I, with revolver cocked, cautiously descended, and in a few moments rejoined my anxious friend, who dared not interfere with his duck-shot. As it was now dusk, we decided on returning to camp to load our rifles with ball cartridge, and re-enter on our adventure the following morning. We had sustained an inglorious defeat, and were anxious to wipe out the stain.
Ere daybreak we were making preparations for the encounter. The two sons of the El Beggie, and four or five servants, with ourselves, formed this attacking party, and upon nearing the bush we formed companies to sur-
round, if possible, the victorious occupant of the brushwood. After carefully loading our rifles, myself and a servant proceeded as noiselessly as possible towards the spot of the previous day’s adventure, but by a different route, so that we should not be so fully exposed to any onslaught. After reaching an eminence exactly opposite the dread spot, we were surprised to find the animal was non est. We searched far and near, but nowhere could we find even a trace of the tigress. The Persians, by their exchanged looks and smiles, were apparently disinclined to believe in the veracity of our statement; but such dubiousness was of course never spoken. After carefully scrutinising every possible crevice or bush, we, rather crestfallen, returned to our tents.
The same evening six goats were carried away by these ravenous beasts, but we never again mentioned tiger-hunting to our lordly neighbours.
The river, flowing twenty yards from our
tents, abounded in trout and perch, affording us great amusement and sport during our stay. One day his Serene Majesty the King of Kings, with his numerous train, passed us en route for the hunting grounds of Mazanderan. It is, perhaps, an uncommon sight to witness the entire retinue of an Eastern monarch, with all its pomp and grandeur, journey towards some provincial hunting-seat. The first apprisement of the event which we received was a body of some two hundred ragged spearmen, who were preparing the way for the Shadow of the Universe and his loads of wives. The tents and provision camels next passed. The chief coffee-bearer and the pipe-bearer were next in procession. Half an hour elapsed, when clouds of dust announced a somewhat formidable arrival. Twenty-two carriage-loads of the king’s ladies were the cause of this display of antiquated vehicles. Of course the royal ladies were invisible. A host of guards and attendants blocked up either side. These
were followed by the ministers and nobles in attendance — servants, cup-bearers, barbers, and other camp-followers. Another pause, and then, in the distance, with pennants and banners flying, surrounded by his own tribe of Kajar Arabs, dressed in the fashion of the exhibitors of ‘Punch and Judy’ shows, came mounted on a noble white Turcoman richly caparisoned, his Imperial and august Majesty the Shah-in-Shah of Persia. On reaching our tents, he inquired whose encampment it was, and on receiving a reply to the effect that two Englishmen were the inmates, he gave a grunt of satisfaction and passed on.
The weather had proved most propitious for our enjoyment. Several times, however, we were visited by severe thunderstorms. At such times Demavend was seen in its grandest form. The vivid flashes of lightning lingeringly played around its snowy crest, lent an awful yet majestic appearance to the natural wildness of the surrounding scenery.
Early in August we struck our tents, presented our salaams to the El Beggie, wishing that his star might ever be in the ascendancy, and bid farewell to the finest district in the land of the Persians. Leaving the Lar, I left the caravan and travelled alone by a nearer route towards the capital. The road was more than I had bargained for, rugged and mountainous the entire distance. I was mounted on a small bay Arab, one I had purchased in Teheran, a superb little animal, almost unequalled in swiftness. He cheerfully did the distance, about fifty-five miles, in less than nine hours, over a wretched road, comparable only with the one between Shiraz and Bushire, which is described by authentic travellers as the worst road in the world. Half the distance I had no alternative but to dismount and lead my willing little Arab. We reached the gates of Teheran about an hour after sunset.
The heat in Teheran was terrible, especially
after the cool atmosphere in Mazanderan. It was reported that cholera had made its appearance in the military camp outside the city walls; this was, however, afterwards proved to be untrue.
The day of my arrival in the capital was the first of the month of fasting, called Ramazan, which is universally recognised by all followers of the doctrines of Mahomed. The poorer classes during this month of fasting suffer severely, especially when Ramazan falls during the summer months. All good Mussulmans from dawn to sunset piously refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking (the latter of the three abstentions is by far the greater sacrifice). Not a drop of water may be taken to quench their thirst or to moisten the swollen and parched lips, not a morsel of food to appease the inward cravings, nor a whiff of smoke to revive the exhausted energies may be indulged in.
As a rule, the poorer classes of Mahomed’s
disciples more conscientiously respect the thirty days’ fast than do the wealthier Mahomedans. As the shades of evening draw nigh great preparations are made for a sumptuous meal. The anxious party of faithful fast-keepers look with some concern towards the sinking orb of day, and as soon as they lose sight of the last ray of the departing luminary they ‘fall to’ with a will, determined, by all appearances, to quickly make up for lost time.
In towns the firing of a cannon announces to the expectant half-famished crowds that the time for gratifying the inner man has arrived. A few minutes previous to the gun being fired all is got in readiness for the meal. The kalyun is prepared, tobacco damped, and charcoal ignited. The rice and curry is vigorously stirred, sometimes to an extent very suggestive of impatience, which should not be, considering the ordinance is of such divine origin.
The moment the distant boom is heard, and long ere the returning echoes reach them, the
kalyun is gurgling, thick wreaths of rose-scented smoke are curling heavenward, solid grunts of satisfaction are heard, a very hasty ‘bismillah’ spoken, and all mouths are busy. The meal has commenced. No time for compliments is this. It is everyone for himself. The mournful look hitherto seen is chased away by the smiles of determination to do their duty, and cheerfulness reigns on each swarthy countenance.
The upper classes, however, do not so scrupulously observe these fasts and ceremonies. Civilised society and European habits bring religious ordinances and Mahomed’s injunctions subordinate to personal convenience. No one would of course dare to eat or drink during the day in the presence of orthodox Mussulmen, but were he in the seclusion of his own harem, or invited to the house of a Christian, the most exalted follower of Mahomed’s doctrines is not unwillingly constrained to accept the pangs of hunger as more absolute
and substantially prior (to their own personal ideas) than all the requirements of the Koran.
The hot summer dragged wearily on, until we saw with gladness the first autumnal shower. The wet seasons in Persia are of but short duration; the rain falls in torrents for two or three days, without intermission, and then as suddenly cease as it commenced. There is no timely warning as to the approach of these downfalls. A clear blue sky overhead, which has been without spot or cloud for six months, a small black speck in the distant horizon, and, before any preparation can be made, the rain patters in large drops on the earth — almost all could be included in a few minutes. Thunderstorms, accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning, frequently pass over Teheran, but without rain; the atmosphere at such times is charged with sulphurous fumes, and this, combined with the excessive heat, renders breathing almost a burden. The heat in Teheran frequently reaches 115° Fahrenheit
in the coolest room. Bushire and Southern Persia reach even a higher degree; but the cooler breeze from the sea greatly mitigates the extreme heat of the Gulf: in Bushire and neighbourhood the air is impregnated with moisture, whilst in Teheran a dry, arid atmosphere perpetuates the summer months; it is supposed to be the most unhealthy place in Persia.
The winter commenced early, and lasted an unusual length. Not many of the inhabitants could recollect one equal in its prolonged severity. Towards Christmas, the roads leading to the capital were entirely blocked by snow, which had fallen heavily for upwards of a fortnight. Quite a phenomena was seen in Teheran — hoar frost silvered the mulberry trees which line each side of the ‘Boulevard des Europeans.’ This was each morning seen by the astonished natives, who could not understand its strange and continued appearance.
The extraordinary severity of the winter had a disastrous effect on the line of telegraph;
each morning’s test revealed fresh faults. In one section numerous iron poles were snapped at their base as though they had been timber; the wires were contracted by the sharp frosts, and snapped in hundreds of places. Once or twice the lines and poles were completely embedded in the snow. Christmas Day was spent by many out in the biting cold repairing the ever-occurring breaks. Many cases of starvation among the ryots (peasants) were reported, especially in Western Persia. Hamadan (the ancient Ecbatana) suffered greatly by the severities. Indeed, throughout the country the terrors of winter were fearfully evident.
At Hamadan is the tomb of Esther and Mordecai. It is a place of great pilgrimage with the Jews; it is now chiefly famous for its leather and copper. Rumours were current about this time of the king’s intended second tour to Europe, and speculations were rife as to the result of the Russo-Turkish war: whether a Congress would meet, or if Russia
would openly defy England to action. But amid all the vague rumours and startling facts which were ever crowding on us, not one word was uttered in the city as to the policy and attitude of Persia should England and Russia clash. It was at one time thought that an occupation of Baghdad by Persian troops was decided upon. One thing was certain: a large force was concentrated near the Turco-Persian frontier, and orders were daily expected for an advance.
England’s attitude, however, apparently saved Turkey in that quarter, or we should be hearing of another claimant in the division of the Sick Man.
We are rather inclined to think, however, that if Turkey can in justice be called the Sick Man, through her apparent disinclination to carry out the accepted reforms which we hear so much talk of, most certain it is that Persia needs medical assistance. On the one hand, Turkey accepted and agreed to certain national
reforms which individual prejudice must certainly be violently opposed to; whilst, on the other hand, Persia either will not or dare not accept the reforms which have been proposed for her benefit. When Turkey falls, through corrupt administration, rottenness of her external policy, or dies a natural death from old age and total debility, Persia may groan in spirit, for her days will be numbered.
The conjoined reforms of the two nations may be a great theme for Parliamentary debate or party faction — may possibly cause war and revolutions — but the event of their effectual fulfilment is in the far distant future — possible, perhaps, when the two countries are ruled by different Powers, certainly not under the present system of autocratic government, backed up and supported by a fanatical, yet all-powerful priesthood, who will never consent to even a modification of reform. The words ‘Turkish reforms’ are, in our opinion, mythical; they point to something that can
never be. When the Sick Man, propped up as he is, has gained sufficient strength to reform the wretched existing form of government, the strength may possibly be used in a contrary direction. Should such a consummation be accomplished as reform in Stamboul, we may with a degree of expectancy look forward to that blessed period, the Millennium.