My Wanderings in Persia
Shiraz. — Sanitary arrangements. — Nomadic Tribes. — Persian Education and Virtues. — Religion. — ‘Hajee.’ — Advent of the Moslem Prophet. — Origin of Islamism. — Sunnies’ and Shahies’ Disputes. — Climate of Persia. — Products. — Garden-parties. — Persian Dinner-parties. — Lack of Female Society.
SHIRAZ is one of the largest cities of Persia, and is the capital of Farsistan. It is about six hundred miles S.E. of Teheran, and is situated in a most fertile plain, entirely surrounded by high mountains. It is chiefly famous for its carpets, gardens, and mosaic work. It is also the burial-place of two of Persia’s most eminent poets, Saadi and Hafiz. The population is upwards of fifty thousand, including Jews, Armenians, and Arabs. The streets, like
Bushire, are exceedingly narrow and irregular; nothing but blank mud walls are to be seen, which vary from six to thirteen feet high, and are entered by small, low-built doors. Large doors proclaim wealthy inmates, and this is one thing in Persia which must be kept secret. A firman from the king of kings at Teheran might summon the too-trustful owner to the royal stirrup, from whence, under such circumstances, there would in all probability be no return.
The town is surrounded by a wall, the greater part of which is entirely in ruins. The gates are closed at sunset, no person being admitted unless in possession of the necessary password. The streets during the summer months emit fetid odours, arising from the entire absence of sanitary arrangements. The refuse of each house is thrown indiscriminately before the doorway. No notice is taken of the accumulation of so rank a nuisance until the road becomes impassable;
it may then be removed to some less-frequented place until some pestilential epidemic brings it to the notice of the authorities.
In winter the nuisance exists in but a worse condition. The snow is shovelled from off the roofs of the houses into the streets below, and this, combined with the continuous filthiness, impregnates the atmosphere with putrid fumes, which carry disease and death in every direction. In the capital itself no precautions are taken to avoid the dreaded plague which periodically visits the more thickly populated towns of Persia.
Sanitary boards are as yet unknown by the subjects of the Shah, and a Persian depositing the rubbish of his house in the street adjacent imagines he has fulfilled all that is required of him, either by law or decency.
The great majority of the population of Persia is composed of wandering and lawless tribes, such as Turcomans, Arabs, Eelyants, etc.; nothing definite is known as to their
numbers. They acknowledge no king, and many tribes pay no taxes. They have no records of their antecedents or their numbers. Each tribe has a patois of its own, very similar to the Persian language.
Their wealth consists principally in horses, camels, goats, etc. Their chief occupation is in making carpets, some of which are of the finest in Persia. Each family owns a tent (the value is about four tomans, or one pound ten shillings) made of camels’ hair.
The tent is erected by a stout pole in the centre, the sides being fastened to the ground by wooden spikes. They usually encamp in thirty or forty tents. Their domestic expenses are but slight: they make their own butter, bread, and charcoal. Dates are plentiful, and this is all they require.
The Persian education consists chiefly of a knowledge of reading and writing their own language and the Koran; this is considered a great accomplishment. They grow up re-
ligiously superstitious, and utterly ignorant of subjects beyond their everyday life; believing in Mahomed as the great prophet and intercessor for man’s guilt, placing implicit trust in the absurd writings and pretended revelations of the cleverest impostor the world has known.
They hold in great veneration the name of the Virgin Mary (called in Arabic Marian). They also believe in our Saviour as a great prophet, but second in adoration.
Their great faults are in the wants of honesty, truthfulness, and other similar virtues; these they are totally unacquainted with, and a falsehood is considered, in Persia, more a virtue than a crime.
I do not hesitate in stating that there is no country in the world where truth is held in such a low estimation as in Persia. It is inherent with them; from the king to the lowest fakir there is scarcely a single man worthy of trust. They are brought up in this systematic style of falsity. It is even practised when
sensible of being wrong; and they will vehemently vouch for the veracity of their statements in a thousand different ways. ‘By your life!’ ‘By the soul of God!’ and ‘By the Prophet’s beard!’ being the first assurances of the truthfulness of their utterances. This pernicious method of thoughtless oath-taking is not considered irreligious in the land of the Medes and Persians.
They bear a bitter hatred towards all Christians; and the cry is now, as of old, wherever they dare to raise it, ‘The Koran or the sword!’ The belief is still prevalent as ever, that the surest passport to heaven is attained if an infidel dog dies by the hand of a true believer.
The Persian, like the Turk and other Mahomedans of either sect, aspires to the title of ‘Hajee,’ and to gain this will undertake the long dreary journey to the holy city Mecca; and after seeing the great temple of God, and possessing himself of a piece of the sacred
clay, he believes he has performed the most sacred duty and obligation enjoined upon him by Ali and other successors of Mahomed.
The name thus conferred upon the pilgrims to Mecca affords greater inducement for the journey than does its sacredness, and were it not for the many privileges to which ‘Hajee’ entitles them, and the rank which the pilgrim may assume on his return, very few would visit the holiest of holies.
Their religion is a compulsory one, and were it not for this fact, I fully believe that not one half of the population would proclaim themselves followers of the fictitious doctrines of Mahomed; but the violation of the prescribed religious laws, or favouring the views of Christianity, is followed by an ignominious death.
The moolahs (priests) are generally in some way connected with the supposed family of Mahomed, and truly speaking, it is they who govern Persia. The king’s first counsellor is
the high priest of Teheran. Should this moolah order a man’s death, no one would dare oppose it. The influence of this class of men is powerfully felt in the realms of the Shah. A priest may, by uttering a few words from the Koran, either arouse the fiery and animal-like passion of his hearers, or subdue any tumultuous gathering or fanatical outburst.
The Government of Persia is a despotic one, everything being under the absolute power of a barbarously tyrannical king, who is invariably ruled by a detestable priesthood.
Mahomed, the founder of the doctrine of Islamism, was born at Mecca, in Arabia, A.D. 574; and, according to the writings of the Persian poet and historian, Hafiz, was a direct descendant of Ishmael, the son of Abraham. His illustrious advent into this wicked world was, it is said, signalised by mighty miracles: the great river Tigris overflowed its banks — the Guebres’ sacred fire was extinguished — and the stars were transformed to a dazzling
splendour; and, as if to expiate for the innumerable sins of his unworthy ancestors, his first earthly act was to devoutly fall upon his knees and solemnly devote his whole life to the will and service of the great Allah. A thousand such absurdities could be written, attendant upon the early life of the greatest impostor history has known, all of which only tend to prove the utter worthlessness of the so-called divine Koran.
It has been contended, by eminent scholars of our time, that Mahomed’s mission was divinely appointed by an Almighty wisdom and foresight, yet we cannot accept such imaginations as correct, when we think of the many deceitful, bloodstained practices which were but of too common an occurrence with the Moslem Prophet — how thousands of those who dared oppose him were ruthlessly put to the sword — of the infamous laws which still exist in countries where the religion of Mahomed flourishes. These do not bear comparison with
the sublime laws of peace and goodwill which our Saviour strove to inculcate into the hearts of the proud Jewish people. One thing is certain: Mahomed, in his true character, was more suited to the minds and anticipations of the Eastern world than was the lowly-born Nazarene, who, in His beautiful teachings, His holy examples, shameful death, and glorious resurrection, will eventually triumph over all the superstitious idolatry of Mahomedanism, Paganism, or Romanism.
The pretended revelations received by Mahomed from the angel Gabriel were written on skins and leaves, and were treasured up by his immediate successors, Abubekr, Omar, and Ali; they were formed into a single volume by a Khalif of Baghdad, and have since remained intact under the name of ‘Al Koran,’ which is held by all devout Mussulmans as a divine revelation of Allah’s wishes to man. It is written in an elegant and flowing style of language, than which nothing could be more
suitable to the Oriental, whose fascinated mind holds it in the highest admiration and awe. When reading the Koran, or listening to its flowery strain, the sparkling orbs and muttered utterances of praise prove how the Arab’s heart is held enraptured by its wonderful charms.
The religion of Islam consists of six great laws: (1) the belief in the true God — ‘There is no God but God, and Mahomed is his prophet;’ (2) fasting as required in the months Moharrum and Ramazan; (3) relief of the oppressed; (4) a strict compliance to Mahomed’s prescribed prayers; (5) pilgrimage to the tombs of the prophets and the seven Imaums; and (6) a close observance of the laws of cleanliness as regards unbelievers. There are various minor laws relating to the way in which a true believer shall live, etc.
They have an implicit faith, or rather belief, in the existence of one supreme, omnipresent, omniscient God, and that through him all
things have their being: he creates and destroys; and, in fact, that every virtue and all perfections emanate from God. They also believe that Allah leads them astray in order to test their faith, and that everything good or evil, virtuous or vicious, must of necessity be willed by the great Allah. Indeed, their religion throughout is one of fatalism.
The Koran also commands a most rigorous obedience to the laws of purification, washing of hands before and after eating, total abstinence from all intoxicants, shaving of the head, praying with uncovered feet, facing towards Mecca, preservation of the beard, and other similar hypocritical enforcements.
There are two great sects of Islamism — the Sunnis (Turks, Arabs, and Indian Mussulmans) and Shahies (Persians, Turcomans, Khurds); the greatest and most powerful of the two are the Sunnis. The reason of this division is that on the death of Mahomed, two parties claimed the succession, the Prophet having ex-
pired without naming one. The claimants were Abubekr, father-in-law of Mahomed, and Ali, the nephew of the Prophet. For some days the office of leadership was fiercely contested, but eventually Abubekr was unanimously elected Khalif.
His reign, however, was but of short duration. On his death, Omar was appointed his successor — a cruel and relentless tyrant, his motto being, ‘Death to all unbelievers!’ — and bitterly did he carry out his doctrine. He and the following Khalif (Othman), were assassinated by fanatical factionists, when Ali was proclaimed vicar-elect.
Mahomedanism, at this juncture of its history, had acquired renewed vigour. The Arabs were enthusiastic in their zeal to conquer, believing in Mahomed’s words that Paradise was hidden behind the sword. The khalifate was disputed by Mowiya, an Arab chieftain, and several severely contested engagements resulted, but a decision was never
arrived at Ali was murdered by one of his own soldiers; and the khalifate was held by members of the different sects, until it was finally wrecked, the high office of Imaum-i-Jumma (high-priest) being one of election.
The Shahies, especially the Persians, believe that Mahomed, just before his death, actually nominated Ali as his successor; but the wife of the prophet was Ali’s greatest enemy, and took an oath that Abubekr was the lawfully nominated Ehalif.
The Shahies declare the three first Khalifs usurpers, and some even assert a divine election for Ali, prior to Mahomed’s mission; but through some misrepresentation, the divine commands were given to Mahomed by the angel Gabriel. After Ali’s death the two families successively reigned, and the diversion of opinion has never changed.
Ali is idolized by the Persians, whilst Omar is the whole-absorbing name in the mind of the Turk. Bitter jealousies still exist between the
two parties^ although Islamism has lost its vitality and is fast crumbling into a thing of the past.
Shah Abbas of Persia had engraved upon his seal, as a description of himself ‘The meanest dog of Ali.’ Pilgrimages are yearly made to the tomb of Ali and the twelve Imaums. In the month Moharrum the death of Houssein, Ali’s son, who was murdered by the Sunnis, is celebrated with unusual splendour and pomp in Persia and India.
The climate of Persia is to a great extent regulated by the situation of the town or village — if sheltered by high snow-crowned hills, or if exposed to the dry arid winds from some vast expanse of sand. There are but few rivers of consequence, and even these are in some cases dried up during the summer months.
Northern Persia is subject to the extreme Caspian cold in winter, and the unhealthy desert winds in summer. Southern Persia
has the gulf monsoons and heavy rain, and in summer is much hotter than any other portion of the country. The heat at Bushire during July and August is almost inexpressible.
The products of the country are tobacco, opium, maize, castor oil, cotton, barley, and dates. Two crops are yearly gathered. There are hundreds of miles, however, totally unproductive. Cultivation is unknown except near the most principal towns and villages.
Fruit of all kinds in abundance may be had at Shiraz, Ispahan and Teheran. The grapes and melons at Ispahan are unequalled in any other part of Asia, a bunch of grapes I have seen weighing over twelve pounds.
Europeans are never in any way prevented visiting the gardens and making themselves at home with the fruit. The man in charge will expect something in the way of baksheesh, and by placing half a kran (fivepence) in his hand, he would be made to forget all his domestic troubles for the next twenty-four hours. The
numerous blessings which would then be lavishly bestowed upon the ‘noble head’ of the donor would complete the bargain, and one would think the half kran not misspent.
Some of the gardens around Shiraz are beautifully laid out with fruit trees and flowers; the orange, pomegranate, citron, almond and fir trees are the most general.
The people of Shiraz and other places in Persia esteem it one of the first enjoyments of life to resort with a few friends or relations to one of these gardens, and beneath the wide-spread branches of the almond tree sip cup after cup of insipid sugary water.
The ‘samovar,’ imported from Russia, is as universal in a Persian house as is the common kettle of our English homes. It is something after the fashion of a good-sized tea-urn. Live charcoal is put down a small chimney in the centre of the urn; water is held in another partition around the fire, which is kept lighted
by an attendant or an inferior member of the family.
During my stay in Shiraz, I, with two or three other Europeans, was frequently invited by different khans to visit their gardens and partake of breakfast or dinner.
An Eastern meal is entirely different to the more ceremonious receptions and introductions attendant upon an accepted invitation to dinner in a Western country. Unfortunately, it lacks one thing which to an Englishman’s idea is specially necessary to luminate the attractions: there is no lady of the house to whom we must first pay our salaams; a circle of olive-complexioned, long-bearded, solemn-faced men is the only thing we expect to see on our entrance to the festive hall.
Usually, a servant of the host is despatched to each invited guest to announce that everything is ready for our reception and that the master awaits our arrival. There is no powdered obsequious footman to loudly an-
nounce the name and rank of the in-goer. The doors are thrown open, and we unceremoniously pass in to where the assembled guests are sitting, who, on our entrance, immediately rise and return our salutation of ‘Peace be unto you.’
The governor of the feast then points for us to take up seats at either side of himself, thus giving unto us the place of honour so much coveted by Orientals. The servants then produce an earthenware vessel, and water to wash our hands before eating.
This difficulty over, we take a survey of the eatables before us. All around the cloth, which is, of course, on the floor, are huge piles of ‘nun,’ or thin bread, and large dishes of steaming rice, prepared in a manner essentially Eastern.
We Europeans are granted the favour of a plate each, but all the rest dip their swarthy fingers in the same dish. No knives are to be seen, so we are obliged to settle down á la mode de Persian.
The host took a large nun, and breaking it, passed a small piece to each one. As each morsel of bread was given to the guests; the word ‘Bismillah!’ (‘In the name of God!’) was devoutly uttered by the giver.
During the meal, the host, being desirous to make himself as polite and agrble as possible, put his greasy fingers in the dish of curried meat, and after fishing for some time, picked out of the savoury mess a dainty morsel and offered it to the guest nearest him. Fortunately for myself, this punctilio of refinement was made to my friend of the opposite side, who dare not, in courtesy, refuse it, although it was accepted and swallowed with apparent aversion. This is considered in the East the very essence of politeness, and he who is thus honoured is greatly envied. The happy(!) recipient of this act of condescension must in return wish that the donor’s shadow may never grow less, and that his star may ever be in the ascendancy.
During the meal, the black greasy fingers were busily employed in rolling small balls of rice, and with great dexterity throwing them into the capacious mouth, anxiously awaiting it. For upwards of an hour there was little said, but much eaten. After dinner we again washed our hands, and the coffee and inevitable Kalyun (pipe) were brought. As I have said, there were no ladies present with whom we could converse; but at intervals a silvery laugh from some adjoining apartment was heard, and once or twice we saw peeping from behind one of those Manchester-made curtains, of a pattern peculiar to the East, the dark eyes of some inquisitive beauty who evinced a longing desire to gaze upon the face of a Feringee.