Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
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Ruins of Rēi – Massacre of Russian mission – The camel artillery – Excursion to Verameen – Extraordinary ruin – Rages – The Salt Desert – Wild asses – Tame asses.
October 1st. – Every one has returned to town, our season is over, and Shemeran is desolate; not a single tent being visible excepting those of our own camp, which we break up to-morrow to resume our old abode. I feel thankful the summer is over. The Persian autumn is still more delightful than the Spring, and fortunately autumn in general is prolonged to the middle of December. The air is so pure that the animal spirits are highly exhilarated. Everything looks bright and cheerful in the dazzling atmosphere, through which objects are seen with distinctness at immense distances.
The rides and drives about Tehran are very limited. One of the most usual is to the ruins of the ancient city of Rēi, four miles from town. Little now remains of this capital, which, judging from the extent of mounds, broken walls, and other evidences of former population, must have been of great magnitude. Two towers still exist, which might have been minarets, with inscriptions on them in Cufic, as I am told; also some portions of the ancient rampart, which is of prodigious size, and various fragments of the city wall. I hear it is a city of Mahommedan construction, having been transferred from a
more ancient site thirty miles to the eastward, where the city of Rages is supposed to have existed. There is, however, a curious image carved in a rock still in a state of high preservation, which Mr. Morier considers to be a proof that Rēi preceded Mahommedanism. The city was utterly destroyed six hundred years ago by the Lieutenants of Chengeez Khan, nearly all the inhabitants having been slain. The dreadful calamities in the shape of invasion to which Persia has been always exposed, must explain in some degree the want of population. The heat of Rēi is said to exceed that of Tehran, and the insalubrity of the climate may be imagined from the Persian tradition relative to it. Izraeel, the angel of death, happening to pay a visit to Rēi in the exercise of his vocation, seeing the devastation caused by the deadly atmosphere, took fright, and fled in such haste that he forgot his slippers. Overlooking Rēi is the hill where the Gebrs expose their dead to birds of prey; and close to it is the town of Shah Abdul Azeem, famous for the pilgrimages made to it from Tehran to the shrine of some holy descendant of Mahommed of the above name, and for its affording sanctuary to criminals. This town is in truth the representative of Rēi on whose ruins it stands, and with the hills overlooking the ruins, which are a spur from Elboorz, forms a striking object at the eastern extremity of the plain of Tehran.
November, 1850. – In driving to the gate for exercise outside the walls, I often pass a melancholy building, not far from our house, in ruin and uninhabited. It was the residence of the Russian Mission, which nearly thirty years ago was massacred in Tehran by a rising of the
people. The Minister was M. Grubaëdoff, who came to Tehran not long after the war was concluded. His demeanour to the Shah was said to have been rude and overbearing. A Georgian slave, deeply in the confidence of Fetteh Ali Shah and of the chief ladies of his haram, claimed the protection of the Mission as a subject of the Czar, and was received by the Minister under his roof. On the same plea, several women in the haram of either the Shah or of the principal nobleman in Persia, the Azof Uddouleh, a near relation of his Majesty, were demanded and removed against their own consent to the Russian Mission. Various other acts, reminding the Persians of their being humbled to the dust, took place. The indignation of the populace was aroused; perhaps it was fostered by the monarch himself. In some accidental brawl a Persian was killed. His body was carried in procession to one of the chief moollas, who issued a fetwā, a religious decree, that the Kafirs should be slain, and that the people should march to the Jehād (war for the faith). Next morning several thousand persons assembled in arms at the various mosques, and proceeded in solemn array to the house of the unfortunate Russians. The Shah was terrified at the tumult which had been raised, and which he now wished to quell, but could not. He was told that his own life and throne were at issue if he dared to interfere. The attack proceeded. The Russians closed their gates and doors, but offered, it seems, no resistance. The people mounted on the flat roof of the house, into which they made openings, and fired on the Russians below; they were all slain, thirty-six in number, I am told, excepting one attaché, who gave some
Camel-Artillery. Page 185.
of the assailants a sum of gold to spare his life; they thrust him into a small room, and told the mob that women were lying there concealed, on which they retired. The British Mission was then in Tabreez, but one of their number was immediately despatched to Tehran, and brought this Russian gentleman in safety to that city. I am told his name was Malkhof, and that he is now in the Foreign Office of St. Petersburg, and one of the most esteemed composers of the famous Russian despatches and circulars. Fortunately for Persia a war was then impending between Russia and Turkey, and the Emperor Nicholas was satisfied with an apology delivered in Petersburg by a grandson of the Shah. Since the above display of popular anger the Russians have never ventured to live in the town; their residence has always been in the Ark or Citadel, close to the Shah's palace and the Prime Minister's house. Their former dwelling has never been inhabited since that event; it now serves as a stable for the Shah's camel-artillery.
This is a very pretty-looking body of soldiers, and, to all appearance, equally formidable. They, however, bear the character of being merely a pageant, and nearly useless for purposes of war in these days. Their number is upwards of a hundred, each animal having a soldier and a small piece of artillery on its back, which carries, I bear, a ball half a pound in weight. When about to be fired, the gun is placed on the ground, resting on a swivel, though I believe it can be used from its elevated position. They accompany the Shah on journeys and on occasions of ceremony, to fire salutes. When preceding the Shah in their red housings, with kettledrums beating
and clarionets sounding, their appearance is quite melodramatic.
December, 1850. – Persia has at least one recommendation: life is very free and easy; there is not much choice of action, but, such as it is, it is free and uncontrolled. One goes and one comes; one is constantly on the move, without any particular why or wherefore, excepting that it is in some way or other a matter of course. A French gentleman in Tehran described it well when he said that it was "une vie de pantoufle." It was for some such reason that in the early part of this fine, bright, cold month we determined to make an excursion to Verameen, the granary of Tehran, thirty miles distant from the city.
The first day took us to Shah Abdul Azeem, where there is nothing to attract attention excepting the mosque. The Persians and the Spaniards seem to resemble each other in this respect. Where nothing else is to be seen, one is tolerably certain of beholding a fine church or mosque. At night we rested, according to our old practice, in a village house. Next day we reached the town of Verameen, where again we saw another fine mosque, but in ruins. It was several hundred years old, as the inscription on it declared. These ancient mosques are built in a manner to ensure duration, and their beauty consists in the taste and variety of tint of the enamelled tiles with which they are covered. The interior is decorated in the same manner, with the addition of innumerable inscriptions from the Koran, in bas-relief, of stucco or more valuable materials, as the case may be. Persian stucco lasts for ever. The dome of this mosque
offered rather a curious spectacle; it was full of pigeons, which flew round and round, and seemed either unable to descend, or to be attracted by some mysterious power. I watched them a considerable time, but still their circular evolutions continued without any apparent motive, and perhaps the magnetic influence was only destroyed by night and darkness.
Near Verameen a most remarkable antiquity still survives the lapse of twenty centuries, that is, if what we hear be true. It consists of an immense rampart, twenty or thirty feet in height, and of proportional thickness, inclosing a space of about half a mile in length and nearly the same in breadth. It is in the form of a square; the rampart is continuous, and at short intervals is strengthened by bastions of prodigious size. The whole is constructed of unbaked bricks of large dimensions, and is in a state of extraordinary preservation. The traces of a ditch of great size, though nearly filled up, are evident in front of the rampart. No buildings are found inside, where nothing is visible excepting a few mounds, – not a single habitation or human being. The solitude of this striking vestige of antiquity adds to its solemnity. It stood alone; Elboorz, distant only a few miles, gazing down on its hoary walls, with Demawend, in its garment of snow, to complete the scene. From no place have I had a finer view of this grand mountain, which seemed to lie exactly to the north. I am informed that these magnificent ruins represent Europa, a city built by Seleucus, which, if true, would make it upwards of two thousand years old. On seeing the perfect state of the ruins, and the materials of which they are composed, one feels hesitation
in crediting so venerable an antiquity. Seleucus chose the spot well. The district of Verameen is renowned for its fertility, though not at this period for the salubrity of its climate. The surrounding country is covered with earthen mounds, denoting former edifices, which, if explored, might reveal objects worthy of the erudition and intellect of even Sir Henry Rawlinson. My husband sent a Persian, with 100l., to "dig" in the ruins of Moorghāb, the site of the tomb of Cyrus; and though I do not suspect the money to have been "eaten," nothing came of the experiment. I wish he had made choice of one of these great mounds in preference.
This district seems to have been the land of cities. A few miles to the south-east, on the edge of the Keveer, or Great Salt Desert, are other remains of vast extent; they consist of mere mounds, not remarkable for their size. Here, it is said, was [sic] the veritable Rages, – the Rages of Alexander, the Rages of Tobias, transformed, it would seem, successively first to Europa, then to Rēi, and lastly to its present humble representative, Tehran. The position, it is alleged, confirms the supposition of that great city being on this spot, which was the high road between Nineveh and Balkh. I perceive, however, in the Catholic Bible, in the Book of Tobias, that there were two cities called Rages, one being at Ekbatana; so I leave the question to the antiquaries.
It seems inconceivable that a large city could have occupied this desolate waste. Here we were in the Great Salt Desert, extending for hundreds of miles to the south and east. It is not like the honest steppes of Russia, which by culture supply all the wants of man. The
shootoor-khar, or camel-thorn, a briar on which that animal delights to browse, is the only vegetable substance that meets the eye, or that these deserts can produce. It would appear, however, that in ancient days Rages was not necessarily in the midst of desolation. The desert is of an encroaching spirit; when not resisted by population and tillage, it makes steady advances, and would swallow up Verameen, as it certainly has to some extent already, if not repelled by human labour. Rages may therefore have been in a land flowing with milk and honey.
Verameen abounds in eelyats, who in summer remove their flocks from that sultry region to the foot of Demawend. In the last century, when the tribes were the staple of a Persian army, this was a valuable consideration in the selection of a capital. When Agha Mahommed Khan chose so wretched a place as Tehran for the seat of his dynasty, no doubt he had in view that on the east, south, and west the tribes could be easily summoned to his standard; while on the north, at the city of Asterabad, lay his own tribe of Kajjar. Politically Tehran is considered to be well situated. Midway between Azerbijan and Khorassan, not too far from Asterabad and Resht on the Caspian, the Shah of Persia, who is supposed always to lead his armies, is ready, or ought to be, to oppose any invader. He is, no doubt, too far from the south, but from this point he has not much to fear. Ispahan, situated in the centre of the kingdom, was the natural capital of Persia when Turks, Affghans, and Usbeks were her only enemies. Now, however, that the Muscovite "barbarian eye" is fixed on her best provinces, the Shah must approach nearer the post of danger,
The skirt of Verameen towards the desert is said to be stocked with the wild ass, which Persians recommend as an excellent kebab, in spite of his non-cloven foot and of his not chewing the cud. But the Mussulmans have given themselves more latitude in these matters than the Benee Israeel, – asses, camels, horses, porcupines, crayfish, locusts, do not come amiss to them. The desert Arabs are even accused of not scrupling to make a meal of a lizard, when need be. At all events, they did so in former days, if we may judge by the following indignant verse of the last Persian king before the Arab conquest. Mahommed, having attained the zenith of his power, addressed a letter to Yezdejerd, sovereign of Persia, in which he invited him to submit, and gave him his choice of the Book, the Sword, or the Tribute. Stung to the quick at this proffer from an unknown Arab, the great king exclaimed –
Ze Sheer e Shootoor Khoorden ve Soosmār,
Arabrā bejāee reseedeh ast Kār,
Kih taj e Kyānee hoonend Arzoo,
Toofoo ber too āī cherkh gerdoon, toofoo.
Drinkers of camel's milk, eaters of lizards!
To this pass has it come with the Arab?
That he dares to aspire to the crown of the Kyanees!
I spit on thee, fickle fate! I spit on thee!"
Numerous as are the herds of the wild ass in Persia, particularly to the north of Meshed and in Kerman, the only one I ever saw was a tame one, which used to wander about Shemeran and often came to our camp. He was a beautiful creature, very large, but exceedingly fierce and vicious. If any one ventured to approach, he immediately got ready for battle, striking out with his forefoot
with great force. There is a beautiful breed of asses in the province of Yezd, perfectly white, tall and stately; they bring large prices, sometimes 25l., being in request among merchants and moollas for their activity and secure ambling pace. As the wild asses are numerous in the deserts of Yezd, they perhaps are descended from this stock. It is, however, the "regimental" ass in Persia which excites our admiration and deep pity. He is small, strong, and indefatigable. I hear that in each regiment of Azerbijan there are several hundreds of these animals, who carry the soldiers' baggage, as well as a great many of the soldiers themselves. I have seen a regiment marching, with their asses trudging manfully along the road, some of them well loaded with baggage, and two or three muskets on each side, besides a soldier astride, almost on the tail, his feet touching the ground. He also fulfils the part of ambulance, the sick soldiers being mounted on these personifications of patience. The powers of endurance of these poor fellows – I mean the asses – are said to be inexhaustible. Many of them are known to have marched from Tabreez to Herat, and, more wonderful still, to have marched back again.
We returned to Tehran, after having explored all the rides round Verameen, a few days before Christmas, which we kept as much as possible in the English fashion. Holly there was none, so I decorated the rooms with ivy and the few flowers left in the garden.
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