Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Books Pilgrims' notes
TAGS: Mentions; Persian culture; Travelogues
LOCATIONS: Iran (documents)
> add tags

Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
With Notes on Russia, Koords, Toorkomans, Nestorians, Khiva, and Persia

by Lady Mary (Leonora Woulfe) Sheil

previous chapter chapter 14 start page single page chapter 16 next chapter

Chapter 15

Plain of Gilpaëgan – Melon-fields – Various travellers in Looristan – The manners of the Loors – Derveesh Ali – Khousar – Ispahan – Former splendour and general decay – Shah Abbas's Hall of Audience – Persian frescos – Felicity of the pigeons – The Armenians of Julfa.

Gilpaëgan, May 27th. – To reach this city from Sultānabād we were, according to custom, forced to cross a high pass. One would be disposed to imagine that Persia, which is a succession of natural fortifications, would, of all countries in the world, be best able to resist the progress of a foreign enemy. Yet few nations have suffered more from the aggressions of invaders than this. From all time Assyrians, Scythians, Toorks, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Turks, Afghans, and Russians have made it their battlefield.

Our only incident hitherto has been a deluge of rain during two hours, which speedily filled the tent with water a foot deep. I sat on the table as the only secure place for some time; but I was conveyed from that disagreeable harbour of refuge luckily just before the ponderous tent fell bodily like a log. Gilpaëgan is an extensive and most fertile valley. Grain is so cheap in this part of Persia as to have almost only a nominal value; and unfortunately there is no mode of exporting it unless by mules, which is too expensive a process for a distant market. I often think what a different country this would

Page 223

be if it were intersected by good roads, waggon-roads even, instead of the mule-tracks which now form the communication from one city to another. A large portion of the revenue of Persia is paid in grain, which, consequently, in Central Persia is not a profitable arrangement for the Government. I remember hearing in Tehran that the Shah had paid his gholāms, or personal guards, by assignments on the grain revenue of Gilpaëgan, Melayer, Mehellāt, and other places in the centre of Irāk. His Majesty's paymaster-general estimated the grain at the Tehran price; but when they arrived at the spot they found themselves obliged to sell it at less than a quarter of the sum. The expenses of the double journey left only a pittance of their salary.

The town of Gilpaëgan was in a more than ordinary state of decay. An impression was made on me of this place by a present of a camel-load – really an ass-load – of roses. They had no stalks, and were tied up in a large cloth. As soon as it was untied the sweet perfume filled the whole tent, and attracted Frances, who sat down in the midst of the fragrant heap, and would have made a pretty picture with the roses scattered on her head and lap. I am told that in this part of Persia, and in Kermanshah, melon-fields are to be seen three or four miles in length, and a mile and a half in breadth. I really believe there is no exaggeration in the statement.

On entering the valley of Gilpaëgan we had noble views of the glorious mountains of Looristan, the abode of a genuine Persian race, the worst and most ferocious robbers throughout the land; for the Toorkomans cannot be considered denizens of Persia. Their poverty and

Page 224

their barbarism are equal, and their own clan-feuds interminable; otherwise it would be impossible for the more peaceable population of the plains to live in their neighbourhood. The mountains were covered with snow, looking grand and solemn, and exciting a lively desire to penetrate their fastnesses. Forty-five years ago two English officers, named Capts. Grant and Fotheringham, who were sent by Sir John Malcolm to make investigation into the state of Looristan, were both murdered by the tribe of Feilee. Other Europeans have travelled hastily through the territory of these tribes, whose forefathers, in all likelihood, partook in the expedition of Xerxes, and who themselves probably preserve the manners and state of society of those days. But the distinguished author of the 'Antiquities of Nineveh' has had the rare fortune of passing some time among these mountaineers, and it is to be hoped he will reveal the result of his experience.

Europeans have been, no doubt, deterred from penetrating the almost inaccessible haunts of these lawless mountaineers, either by the danger, or by the want of objects of curiosity to compensate for the risk. Yet there is an attraction in examining a state of society so unlike our own, where there is little or no law, and where personal freedom is carried to the verge of dissolving the bonds of society. This is the state of civilisation in which Toorkomans and Loors exist. Every man is his own protector, and allows himself the fullest liberty of action, knowing at the same time the penalties of trenching on the similar rights of his neighbour Toorkoman or Loor. A nearer examination generally dispels the visions one

Page 225

may have formed of these supposed unsophisticated beings, passing their lives in the solitude of their mountains, engaged in the care of their flocks and herds. The unveiled display of intense avarice, of poverty, squalor, ferocity, idleness, and tyranny among the men, toil and slavery among the women, soon displays the naked reality, and disgust succeeds sympathy.

Mr. Riach, formerly physician to the Mission in Persia, made a journey through these mountains with a caravan many years ago. The journey from Kermanshah to Desfool occupied eleven days. The population along the road was nearly all residing in tents, and had every appearance of the greatest poverty, which prevents them from procuring arms, otherwise the country would be impassable. Clubs and stones are their weapons. The travellers never ventured to undress to go to bed on this march, so imminent was the danger of an attack of the Loors. The state of society was such, that old clothes, needles, pepper, and salt were better than money for procuring necessaries. He describes the Loors to be "handsome, strapping, ferocious-looking fellows, and far from civil."

It is strange that in these savage regions Mr. Riach should have found the ruins of the "finest bridge he had seen in Asia." The two extremities rested on rocks three hundred feet apart, and thirty or forty feet above the level of the stream. The few arches remaining were supported by pillars of great size, and the span of one of them was not less than sixty or eighty feet, and eighty or ninety feet in height, the whole formed of hewn stone. Who can have built this?

Page 226

More than twenty years ago another Englishman lived among these tribes. He assumed the character of a Mussulman and derveesh, and called himself by the name of Derveesh Ali. So well did he personate the character that on one occasion he appeared at Tabreez before several English gentlemen, and exclaimed "Hoo, Hak!" with such emphasis and discretion, that until he addressed them in English his disguise was not detected. In his peregrinations through Looristan he had taken a Loor wife, whom he afterwards found it convenient to exchange for a donkey. Derveesh Ali was a very eccentric person, and passed many years of his life in wandering over the East in the above disguise.

I have seen extracts from a journal of Derveesh Ali, from which the following passage will illustrate the state of society in Looristan: –

"In Looristan proper there are no houses. Half the year the people live in the higher mountains in arbours formed of twigs and bushes, the other half is spent in tents below the mountains in the germseer, or hot region, during winter; six months of the year they live on acorn-bread, steeped in mud to remove the acrid taste. Saw a girl, sixteen years old, reaping corn in a field, in the dress of Eve before the Fall. Gum arabic, gum mastic, and gum tragacanth abound in these mountains; also sulphur and bitumen. The lower range of mountains towards Desfool is covered with large oak-trees, fit for ship-building, which might be floated down the Kerkha, and thence through the marshes to the Tigris at Shat-el-Had."

Colonel Rawlinson, Colonel Williams, and Baron Bode

Page 227

of the Russian Legation in Persia, are, it is said, the only other Europeans who have visited these mountains.

Khonsar, May 30th. – From the hot valley of Gilpaægan we were delighted to reach this cool spot. The town of Khonsar lies chiefly at the bottom of a deep ravine, and therefore does not partake of the cool breezes we enjoy, for we took care to pitch our tents on the high land. Judging by the climate we found, I conjecture the cold must be exceedingly rigorous in winter, on which account, perhaps, the ravine was selected as the site of the city. The town is of great length, and is pretty. The valley is narrow, full of fruit and other trees, which, to the exclusion of tillage, seem to occupy all the care of the inhabitants; it is closed on both sides by very high mountains.

Ispahan, June 15th. – We were four days reaching this renowned city from Khousar. For miles before approaching its walls the country was covered with cornfields, melon and cucumber fields, vineyards, and orchards of all the fruit-trees produced in Persia. Whoever wants to know what Ispahan was two hundred and fifty years ago can consult Chardin, who says it contained six hundred thousand inhabitants, and was twenty-four miles in circumference. Now the population is supposed to be under one hundred thousand – an estimate to which its untenanted and deserted streets give credibility. Its capture one hundred and thirty years ago by the Afghans, who committed great ravages, commenced its downfall, which was completed by the transfer of the seat of the monarchy to Sheeraz and afterwards to Tehran. The Ispahanees bear the reputation of being the most

Page 228

intelligent and industrious, as well as the most effeminate and timid, among the inhabitants of Persia. The inconceivable subjugation of their city when it held five hundred thousand souls by a body of twenty thousand Afghans, is a confirmation of the latter portion of this character.9 Still enough remains of fine bridges, mosques, beautiful avenues of plane-trees, and crumbling palaces, to attest its former greatness. It enjoys the inestimable and in Persia the rare advantage of being situated on the banks of a fine river, which covers its immense plains with abundance and fertility. Its desolation and lonely, silent streets, make a deeper impression than even the mouldering ruins of its departed grandeur. We pass through stately bazars of immense length utterly tenantless; not a human being in them: yet even now Ispahan continues to be a place of considerable trade and manufacture, and contains many wealthy merchants – all the great roads of Persia from every quarter concentrating at this spot. Its silks, velvets, brocades, satins, chintzes, arms, and lacker-work, [sic] bear a high reputation. The climate has a character superior to its merits, the heat being very great and the odours overwhelming.

September. – It would be superfluous to describe the curiosities of Ispahan in palaces, gardens, and so forth, when they have been already so ably depicted by such writers as Morier, Porter, and Fraser. Besides this, the

Page 229

prodigious heat and exhaustion arising from a residence in a house nearly open, with an aspect only to the south, had fairly worn me out during our abode of nearly three months, and prevented me from undertaking extensive researches. Add to this the circumstance of her Majesty's subjects having received an increase a month after my arrival,. and my lack of enterprise will appear excusable; still I cannot forbear from recalling to remembrance the splendid maïdan, or square, of Shah Abbas, and the equally splendid mosque at one extremity of the maïdan, to the gate only of which we were allowed to penetrate. The inspection of some of the palaces of that monarch, who appears to have built all the palaces, and caravanseras, and everything else of note in Persia, gave us great pleasure, and I am happy to say that some attempt is now made to rescue and to preserve them from ruin. The building which made most impression on me is the large hall of audience called Chehel Sitoon, or forty columns. Besides an unbounded supply of looking-glass, gilding, and paintings on the walls and ceiling, this hall contains several frescoes representing Persian royal life two or three hundred years ago. The colours are vivid, and the execution by no means despicable. I caused some of them to be copied on a reduced scale, which I preserve as souvenirs of Ispahan. In one of these paintings Shah Tamasp, who reigned three hundred years ago, is represented entertaining his refugee guest from India, Hoomāyoon Shah; the courtiers are seated around, dancing-girls are performing, and wine and drinking cups are not wanting. In another, forty years later, we see Shah Abbas himself seated with the Turkish ambassador,

Page 230

evidently at a drinking-party. The Turkish and Persian courtiers are seated on each side, whereas the present etiquette inflexibly requires them to stand with folded arms. The attendants are looking on from behind, and dancing-girls occupy the foreground. It is evident that the debauch has made considerable progress. In one corner we see a man prostrate, very drunk, holding the wineflask to his mouth; while another of the carousers, in a shocking state of intoxication, is borne away in the arms of the attendants. But we do not see the brave Sir Anthony and Sir Robert Shirley, who often partook of the orgies of this monarch. These were two Englishmen who entered the service of the Shah, and who, by their ability and military qualities, raised themselves to high favour. I have been told that these two gentlemen were among the first, if not the first, Englishmen who entered the Persian service. Hanway says that in those days the English residing in Ispahan were numerous, and lived with a magnificence amounting to extravagance. In the present day it would be difficult for a numerous party of Englishmen to find subsistence in Ispahan, much less live there in splendour. The Suffavee dynasty of monarchs seem nearly all to have been devoted to wine, and to have indulged in this propensity without scruple, careless of the opinions of their subjects. Perhaps their subjects partook with more freedom, or at least more openly, than at present of these forbidden enjoyments. From these paintings and from the memoirs of Sultan Baber, the founder of the Moghul dynasty in India, and a devout worshipper of the wineflask, we are able to judge of the habits of Asiatic royalty in those days.

Page 231

Persia is decidedly the country for men of good luck, enterprise, and intrigue to choose for a career. Obscurity of birth, as before said, is no bar to advancement, nor does it prevent the "right man from being in the right place." In this point, at least, Persia has a superiority over England. The late Prime Minister was a schoolmaster; I have already mentioned Meerza Tekkee Khan's descent; the Governor of Ispahan was once the latter's menial servant, and a previous Governor was the son of a small greengrocer in the same city. This last was a man of great capacity, who raised Ispahan to a high state of prosperity; and the present Governor, if not possessed of the same rare abilities, is a man of moderation and firmness, who rules the people with equity, and pays the Shah his share of the revenue without undue peculation. Ispahan is beginning to recover from the deep ruin into which it had fallen. Its remaining edifices, as I said before, are protected, its commerce is improving, and the merchants are becoming wealthy. A continuance of the present moderate system of government, aided by the wonderful fertility of the soil, will ere long restore to this ancient city a share of the prosperity it once enjoyed. The late and the reigning Shah have often formed schemes for establishing their capital here, but reasons of state have hitherto prevented this desirable change from being carried into execution.

Ispahan is the land of promise for pigeons; they swarm like locusts, and not only are never eaten, but are highly cherished and thrive accordingly. Their residences, high, malakhoff-looking towers, painted white, dot the whole country, and these buildings are evidently

Page 232

objects of great care – much more so than any other edifices.

We resided in the quarter of the Armenians, which is separated by the Zayenderood from the Mahommedan city. It has received the name of Julfa, in memory of the town near Nakhshewan, from which these Christians were forcibly conducted by Shah Abbas. Their number was then estimated at twelve thousand families, which are supposed to be now reduced to six or eight hundred. Notwithstanding their thrift, the Armenians have participated in the general decay of Ispahan. They have been reduced to great poverty: one sees the streets crowded with young men, sauntering, or seated at their doors, without any employment, They go to India in great numbers, where they are distinguished for their habits of industry. After a few years' exile they return with a competence to their native land to spend the remainder of their days.

Their spiritual chief is a bishop, nominated by the patriarch at Etchmiatzin, near Erivan, consequently a Russian subject, like his colleague at Tabreez. This Bishop of Julfa visited us more than once during our stay in Ispahan. His appearance and manners were highly dignified and agreeable, and he was evidently a man of education – very different from the unfortunate Armenian clergy of Persia. We heard that he was in despair at the ignorance and clownishness of his clergy and flock, not one of whom did he find to be a suitable associate. He consequently lived in solitude. We heard also that the worthy Bishop condemned himself rigorously to abstain from wine, lest his life of solitude should seduce

Page 233

him to the habits of inebriation to which his co-religionists are often addicted. At his breast he wore a beautiful cross of diamonds and emeralds, and by its side a decoration of the same materials surmounted by the double-headed eagle, showing clearly whose subject he was.

The conventual system exists among the "orthodox" Armenians, as they designate themselves. At Ispahan there is a convent containing six or eight old and exceedingly ugly ladies, who used occasionally to visit me. They were evidently extremely poor; their residence was inconveniently close to us, as I used every night to bear their loud summons to matins by knocking a mallet on a piece of wood.

We also found here a small community of Catholic Armenians, presided over by a venerable gentleman called Padre Giovanni, who, originally from Angora, had been educated at Rome, and had afterwards devoted a large share of his life to the care of his humble flock at Ispahan, where, soon after our departure, he died.

It happened that, attending Mass on one occasion at his church, service was performed in old Armenian by a Catholic Armenian clergyman. To our surprise, and to the consternation of our Irish servants, we found that part of the congregation consisted of the wife and three daughters of the officiating clergyman. They were ignorant, and we had forgotten, that the discipline of celibacy among the priesthood is not applicable to the secular clergy of the Eastern churches of the Catholic faith. I hear, however, that marriage is allowable only before ordination.

In former days the Jesuits and various other orders

Page 234

had each their establishments at Ispahan, and I believe that at this moment there is ground in that city claimed as belonging to the French Government, in virtue of some immunities conferred two or three hundred years ago on French ecclesiastics. Padre Giovanni and his small flock were then the representatives of all these establishments, the names of whose occupants crowd the enormous cemetery to the south of Julfa.

There is great similarity between the two Armenian churches, "orthodox" and Catholic. I do not know whether this title "orthodox" is one assumed by themselves or conferred by Protestant American writers. I believe it is the latter. The ceremonial in regard to the use of vestments, incense, candles, veneration for pictures, but not images, representing sacred subjects, holy water, the sign of the cross, and similar minor observances, is much alike in both creeds. In doctrine the great difference seems to be the disavowal of the spiritual authority of the Pope by the Armenians, their rejection of certain general councils, and a disagreement from Catholics, as well as Protestants, in the procession of the Holy Ghost. They also acknowledge only one nature in Christ, and anathematize all who dissent from this doctrine. It is on this account that they are considered as schismatics in the Church of Rome, Transubstantiation, baptism, confession, and the remainder of the seven sacraments, are alike in the two churches. Purgatory is nominally rejected; still masses, prayers, and alms are offered for the dead. They communicate in two kinds, – by dipping the bread in the wine. As in the Catholic Church, the bond of matrimony can be annulled

Page 235

only by death; they also admit the efficacy of good works.

The fasts are most numerous, far surpassing in number and rigour those of the Roman Catholic faith: they exceed one hundred and fifty days in the year; meat and fish of every kind, with eggs, milk, butter, cheese, are excluded from consumption on these days. It is said, moreover, that the Armenians are rigid in the observance of this ordinance.

The practice of covering the mouth, even in their houses, seems to prevail among Armenian women everywhere. They live, especially the married women, in a state of seclusion much more severe than that imposed on Persian females. A woman, for years after her marriage, is not allowed to see her nearest male relations. She lives in complete silence for a long time, and conceals her face from even her husband's father and mother. They are, in fact, menial servants; their ignorance is extreme, it not being considered prudent to give them any education. Though much fairer than Persian women, their appearance is exceedingly coarse; their countenance often possesses a wonderfully crimson hue, not, however, of an agreeable tinge, as it reminds one too strongly of the source from which, if fame does not slander them, it is often derived. They have the reputation of indulging sometimes in the deep potations to which the Armenian men are habitually addicted.

I have been told that there is a striking uniformity in the character of Armenians in all parts of the world – at least in the East – Persia, Turkey, Russia, and India. It possesses some qualities calculated to attract regard, and

Page 236

the inflexible tenacity with which the Armenian has clung to his faith during centuries of persecution claims respect. He is a model of frugality and self-denial, excepting, it must be avowed, when he encounters the temptation of the wine-skin. With little to boast of in point of honesty, he nevertheless exceeds the other natives of the countries where he resides in these virtues. A most keen and indefatigable trader, Tartary and China are the limits of his commercial enterprise in the East. His hatred to the profession of arms is extreme. It may be doubted if the recent concession in Turkey of the abolition of the kharāj, or poll-tax, will be a boon to this real "peace party" in the East, In Persia, I am satisfied, the Armenian would rather pay a double poll-tax than be a soldier. Oppression has made him timid and cringing, yet, with all his defects, the Armenian is certainly an improvable person, willing to adapt himself to the progress of civilization.

It is remarkable that in the vicinity of Ispahan there is a district called Feraidoon, inhabited by Armenians, who form a complete exception to the above remarks. They are courageous, warlike, and always ready to appeal to arms in their unceasing feuds with their neighbours the Bakhtiarees.

The uniformity observable in their characters exists also in their features. Their faces are large and full, with prominent hooked noses, rendering them extremely like the sons of Israel in countries where the fine countenances of the latter are not deformed by oppression. The appearance of the women has been described in a previous page.

Page 237

The industrious habits of the Armenians make them valuable as Rayas or Ryots in Turkey and Persia. In both countries, particularly in Turkey, a Mahommedan landlord much prefers that his tenants should be composed of Armenians rather than Mussulmans. As far as my husband's observation extends, the treatment of Armenians and other Christians in Turkey is more just and moderate than in Persia. This remark does not, of course, extend to the Turkish Koords, whose treatment of the Nestorian Christians is infamous. It is not that a Persian is less tolerant than a Turk; on the contrary, in many respects he is more so; but he is more covetous and grasping, more profuse and extravagant, and the law is weaker in Persia than in Turkey.

Russia, too, seems to place an equal value on an Armenian population. In her last wars with Persia and Turkey, she inveigled many thousand families of this race from Tabreez, Erzeroom, and the adjacent districts into Georgia.


9 The palm of timidity is disputed by the Kashees, or natives of Kashan. A body of soldiers from this city, being permitted to return from Tehran to their homes, made a petition to the Shah that a few of his ghoolams, or personal guards, should be ordered to see them in safety through a dangerous defile near Tehran. This is a popular anecdote illustrative of their reputation.

Page 238

previous chapter chapter 14 start page single page chapter 16 next chapter
Back to:   Books Pilgrims' notes
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
. .