Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
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Tiflis sacked by the Persians – Prince Woronzow's improvements – Georgian drinking parties – Armenian Patriarch – Gookcha Lake – Supper at Erivan – Etchmiatzin – Nakhshewan – Our host and hostess – Night at the Aras – Crossing the frontier – Farewell to Russia.
Tiflis is another Vladikafkaz (key) on the southern side of the Caucasus. We were glad to arrive at this capital of the Transcaucasian provinces, which is close to the foot of the mountains, and situated on both sides of the river Kur. Some sixty years ago it was sacked by the Shah of Persia, Agha Mahommed Khan, the founder of the dynasty of Kājār, who carried a large portion of the inhabitants, Georgians and Armenians, into slavery. I saw at Tehran a few of these unhappy captives, who all had been forced to embrace Mahommedanism, and many of whom had risen to the highest stations; just as the Circassian slaves in Constantinople became pashas, seraskiers, capitan-pashas, &c. Tiflis has entirely recovered from this shock. It is now a most thriving, active, and bustling city, and will doubtless, when the day arrives for the development of free trade in the dominions of the Czar, become a rich emporium of commerce, situated as it is midway between the Black Sea and Caspian, and on the high road between Russia, Persia, and Asia Minor. The official part of the town is full of imposing buildings, and the native portion is equally well stored with busy shops,
crowded by the motley population. Prince Woronzow's fostering care has not allowed this important part of the territory under his jurisdiction to remain without its share of his patronage. In spite of the pre-occupation of a war not always successful, with the mountaineers, he is said to have planned many valuable institutions, to which are to be added a large and handsomely built theatre for the performance of operas, not completed at the time of our visit, besides a small theatre, for Russian comedies and farces. All these improvements evince his anxiety to promote civilization among the Georgians and Armenians. The Military Governor of Tiflis was an Armenian of Georgia, General Baïbetoff; a man of experience, who had distinguished himself in the campaigns of Turkey and Persia in former years. It sounded strange to find an Armenian occupying this high post, but Russia is more cosmopolite than England. A stranger of the gate is readily admitted within the temple; but it will require a change in English ideas before we find a Canadian or Maltese Governor of India, or the Cape of Good Hope. Is this facility the result of enlightenment, or does it proceed from the dearth of native talent?
If I were to form my opinion from the Georgian ladies visible in the street, which, except one evening that we went to the theatre, was the only place I had an opportunity of beholding them, I should be forced to declare that their beauty has obtained a greater reputation than it deserves. They certainly are fair, with high complexions, natural or artificial, and regular features, all of which perhaps entitle the owners to the meed of beauty;
still the entire absence of animation or expression deprives the countenance of attraction. They look well, however, in their pretty dresses while young. The Armenians, when out of doors, wrap themselves up in white veils, or rather cloaks, which have a graceful effect.
At Tiflis we were lodged, as usual, at the house of an Armenian merchant. He was a man of much reputed wealth. His house was furnished with great richness, and at a cost that may be imagined when it is considered that the whole of the furniture was brought from St. Petersburg. It was much too expensive to be profaned by use, being exclusively reserved either for compulsory guests, like ourselves, or marriage and other feasts. The part of the habitation occupied by our host and his family was very humble, and far from clean.
Next to its conquerors, the Georgians are the master caste of this country. It is said that between the Georgians and the Armenians, who are found here in great numbers, there is a wonderful contrast in character and manners. The Georgian is bold, turbulent, reckless, extravagant; the Armenian is mean, cringing, timid, always intent on gain, and, unlike a Georgian, in keeping what he gains. The same characteristics mark him in Persia and Turkey, and I am told everywhere else; for, like the gipsy, he is a wanderer on the face of the earth, and is to be found in every part of Asia. He is consequently an abundant and pleasant harvest to all needy pashas, khans, hakims, and minor functionaries of misrule, easily reaped, gathered, and gleaned.
It is as unsurpassable topers, as well as for their military qualities, which have always been acknowledged, that the
Georgians have acquired notoriety. At their frequent drinking parties it is said they will pass several days and nights, almost without intermission, in quaffing the productions of the vineyards of Kakheti, a district in the mountains east of Tiflis. This wine is by no means of bad quality; it is of a deep red colour, so deep that one fancies it has been tinged with some dye to produce so intense a hue. They are said to consume incredible quantities of wine on these occasions, and in a fashion that would put to shame the drinking triumphs of Ireland, recorded by Sir Jonah Barrington, in days of old, when intoxication was the standard of spirit. The drinking-vessel is a cow's horn, of considerable length, and the point of honour is to drain it at a draught. The brethren and convivial rivals of the Georgians in the neighbouring provinces of Imeretia and Mingrelia, instead of a horn, use a delicately-hollowed globe of walnut tree, with a long narrow tube at the orifice. It holds fully a pint, and like its companion, the horn, the contents are consumed at a single gulp. How these globes are hollowed is as great a marvel as the construction of the ingenious Chinese puzzle of ball within ball.
During our short stay at Tiflis we paid a visit to Narses, the venerable patriarch of the Armenian Church. His manners and appearance were full of dignity and benevolence – an observation seldom applicable to the clergy of the Armenian Church in Persia. Notwithstanding his extreme age, he conversed with great cheerfulness and even vivacity, showing much interest in and some knowledge of the affairs of Europe. Not suspecting we were Catholics, he amused himself and us too, he no doubt thought, by
sneering at the Pope, descanting with great unction on the supposed infallibility of His Holiness. Having no inclination to enter on polemics, and unwilling to put the Patriarch out of countenance by explaining the real state of the case, we allowed him to pursue the pleasant theme without restraint to the top of his bent. There was an appearance of great simplicity throughout the establishment of the Patriarch, indicating, if not poverty, the entire absence of any approach to superabundant revenue. For some unexplained reason he had been compelled by the Russian authorities to quit his see at Etchmiatzin, the Rome of the Armenians, and fix his residence in Tiflis, from whence I have since heard he has been transferred to St. Petersburg. The Patriarch is said to enjoy the highest popularity among his flock, and it is added that his talents, virtue, and learning, entitle him to all their veneration. If what we heard was true of the state of learning among the Armenian divines in general, this Patriarch must be a black swan among the prelacy and priesthood of that faith. Still it would be unjust to exact from them any great profundity of learning, sunk as they are in the lethargy and indolence of Persia, Turkey, and Russia. Their morals are reported not to be constructed according to the rules of a high or very rigid code; and of their theological depth I remember to have heard some amusing anecdotes. The following is one among the number: – A priest was asked why Christ suffered on the cross? he reflected some time, and replied, "Wallāh, I do not know; doubtless he committed some crime for which he was punished." Another anecdote is told of a priest in Hamadan, whose daughter was married to an Armenian
who went to India on business which detained him some time. During his absence the bishop heard that the priest had married his daughter to another man. On demanding an explanation of this unapostolic alliance, the diocesan received an indignant reply from the priest that he had mistaken his character, for he was incapable of aiding or abetting the sin of bigamy, and that all he had done was to pronounce a blessing for their living happily together until her husband should return.
Impatient to conclude our peregrination and reach our destination, we lost no time in resuming our journey. Travelling in Georgia is neither luxurious nor commodious, still it immensely surpasses all our experience of Southern Russia, particularly in the Mahommedan portion of the province. If horses were scarce at the post-houses, chickens and lambs, yoghourt and kymāk, those savoury preparations from milk so cherished all over Asia, were abundant. The invasive hordes of the post-houses, too, we heard, were less numerous, ferocious, and bloodthirsty, but we pressed on without stop or stay through a pretty country with groves of oak-trees scattered about, which afforded food for enormous droves of swine, in whose flesh the Georgians take special delight. When we arrived at the high mountains near the lake Gookcha, we left our carriage and walked up the pass. On reaching the summit of this high range, which forms the limit of Georgia proper, we had a noble prospect. On the left, at our feet, lay the beautiful lake of Sevān, the first sheet of water we had seen on this journey; before us were spread Armenia and the plains of Erivan, expanding far to the south; while on the right, dark, towering, and
frowning, lay the Karadagh, the Black Mountains, beyond Kars, stretching towards the Black Sea. At this interesting spot the postmaster had hospitably resolved not to confine our gratification to the pleasure of sight, and had prepared for us a most notable breakfast; at which we revelled on strawberry jam, made fresh from the fruit on the mountains, and the far-famed salmon trout, just out of the lake. Long after dark, at the conclusion of a toilsome journey over a detestable road, we reached Erivan. This was formerly the frontier town of Persia, from which kingdom it was conquered twenty-five years ago, after a vigorous resistance, during which the Russians were more than once repulsed, and were obliged to raise the siege. The loss was severe to Persia; as, instead of a strongly fortified town in the possession of the Shah, a narrow river now marks the frontier of the two countries. The strength of this fortress has been increased, it is said, to an extent that would render its capture exceedingly difficult, or perhaps impracticable, by a Turkish or Persian army. Not satisfied with the strength thus added to the frontier by the possession of this important post, the Russian Government has sought for farther security by constructing a fortress, or entrenched camp, at a spot named Gumri, a short distance to the northwest of Erivan. Gumri possesses farther interest to a traveller from its vicinity to some remarkable ruins situated within the Turkish frontier, named Ani, which it seems was once the capital of an Armenian kingdom (Note B.), for even the Armenians once had a kingdom. We ordered horses to be prepared without delay, resolving to make no
stay. While we were engaged in eating our dinner of cold potatoes in the more than ordinarily desolate post-house, we were surprised and somewhat put to confusion, travel-worn as we were, by a visit from the Governor in full uniform, who announced that most comfortable quarters and an excellent supper were awaiting us in the fort. Long-continued travelling makes one, I think irritable and anxious to get forward; otherwise I know not what demon of perversity took possession of us to instigate us, in spite of our meagre fare, without prospect of improvement until next day, to refuse the hospitable offer. The worthy Count M—, ever studious of our comfort, did not disguise his vexation, and told us we should repent the rejection of the manna in the wilderness. His prophecy proved true, for at midnight our steeds declined farther work; so there we lay several hours on the road-side while they were refreshed at a neighbouring hamlet. In the morning we beheld the rising sun in great glory gilding the white peak of Aghree Dāgh, as the Turks and Persians call Mount Ararat; and then the whole mountain, towering and glittering aloft in its mantle of snow. The country hereabout being flat, and Ararat not being many miles distant, we beheld the mountain in all its solitary grandeur. Still it is not wholly solitary, for near it is a smaller mountain called Little Ararat, but the difference of height between it and its stupendous companion prevents any rivalry with the resting-place of the Ark. The traditions of the Armenians, who pretend that whoever surmounts the difficulty of the ascent will be rewarded with a sight of a
fragment of the veritable Ark, has been refuted by some Russian travellers, who within late years have claimed the honour of being the first to scan the summit of hoary Ararat. Previously to our detention during the night, we had passed Etchmiatzin, the principal see of the Armenian church, and residence of the Patriarch, from whence are despatched bishops – Russian bishops, in truth-not only to Persia, but to India, English India. In the latter empire they are doubtless innocuous, for their report to St. Petersburg can only be confirmatory of daily increasing wealth and prosperity; but in Persia it may be otherwise. The loss I suffered in not seeing this famous monastery, I was told, was merely one of fancy and association, as Etchmiatzin, or Utch Kilisiya, meaning Three Churches, as it is termed by the Turks and Persians, consists of nothing but three very plain monastic buildings or churches, situated in the midst of barren plains. It is to the Armenians an object of profound veneration from having been, as they relate, the seat of their first patriarch and patron, St. Gregory. Continuing our journey through a level plain we reached the venerable, but decayed, city of Nakhshewan, which, according to Armenian tradition, had no less a founder than Noah himself. The tomb of the great patriarch is placed in Nakhshewan by these Christians of strong faith, who, I am told, even pretend to show his grave.
His city is in a state of extreme dilapidation; the poorest bazars, scantily furnished with the humblest merchandise, and a small population of Armenians, being all that remains to mark a site which teemed with inhabitants
and wealth. The neat houses of the Russian authorities are a relief among the all-pervading decay which meets the eye. We lodged in the house of the Governor, as the captain of a few soldiers stationed here was styled. Our entertainer was most hospitable, and as this was the only opportunity for seeing anything of the interior of Russian life in a middle class, I must avail myself of it to declare that the impression it left was eminently favourable. The house of our host was good, but plain, substantial, and clean. We lived with him and his family, who fulfilled the ideas of the domesticity we are so prone to boast of as exclusively English. The table was good and perfectly in keeping with the rest of the establishment; still I hope I shall be pardoned a slight breach of the reserve enjoined by the laws of hospitality if I remark a gastronomic exploit which excited our amusement as well as our astonishment at the powers it revealed. Our hostess helped herself to a large bowl of soup, fattened in the proportions that Russians love, into which she poured half a bottle of the favourite beverage, London stout, adding eggs and sugar; after duly amalgamating which ingredients, she gave a plate of the fearful mixture to her only child, a pretty, delicate-looking, little girl, who seemed highly delighted and refreshed with the compound.
The Governor and his wife must have been heartily tired of us. They were both genuine Muscovites, not speaking a syllable of any language but their own, and consequently we were unable to communicate with each other unless by signs and contortions; still they were both thoroughly good-humoured and amiable, submitting with
the best grace to our intrusion. We were detained three days waiting for notice of the arrival of tents and servants from Tabreez at the frontier on the Aras, distant only twenty miles from Erivan. At length the much-wished-for intelligence arrived, and in a few hours we were on the banks of that stream. Through some mismanagement respecting our baggage and carriage, the latter being again very near meeting a watery grave, we were forced to pass the night in Russia, at this quarantine station. A more miserable spot than Julfa (as this frontier post was called) we had not met, unless perhaps on the Kuban. The quarantine master had most obligingly given up the one room in his house for all our party, which room, by an ingenious device, was converted into two, while he and his subordinates retired to some den, as the quarantine houses here may truly be called. They are partly subterraneous, the roof being nearly level with the ground, and are entered by a slope which commences several yards from the door, and forms. an apt conductor for the rain as it falls on the ground. The light is admitted by the door or a hole in the roof, exactly like the houses we afterwards saw in Turkish Armenia, on our return to England. Several years previously, my husband had passed fourteen days in quarantine at Julfa, in one of these caverns; which penance Russia has condemned all unfortunate travellers from Persia to undergo for reasons not fathomable – Persia in general, and above all Tabreez, and the entire province of Azerbijan, being incomparably superior in salubrity to Georgia. Unless politics lurk at the bottom, Julfa is a strange place for the establishment
of a sanitary station, and to be the medium for introducing sound health into Russia, it having a confirmed character for malaria during the summer.
Having expected to dine in Persia, it was only the charitable hospitality of the quarantine master which saved us from being dinnerless. The party was numerous and miscellaneous, presided over by the quarantine master, who was a Spanish gentleman, and a model of courtesy and dignity, which qualities he preserved under very trying circumstances. It was curious and amusing to see him alternately serving the soup and washing the plates, seated at table. He performed both offices with a solemn gravity which a Spaniard only could assume, and which entirely overcame the feeling of his being engaged in a menial occupation.
We here bade adieu to our attentive and amiable friend Count M—, who had accompanied us so long a distance. Willingly, had his commander sanctioned it, would he have accepted our invitation to be our guest to Tehran, or, at least Tabreez, as he would have had a fair chance of decorating his breast with what a Russian loves so dearly, another cross or star – I mean the Lion and Sun – which it would have been possible to have obtained for him. It is strange with what avidity Russian officers covet these equivocal marks of honour – honourable, and highly so, when fairly won, but contemptible when bestowed through caprice and favour. I remember perfectly well hearing in Persia of various occasions on which the Russian Minister solicited the decoration of the Lion and Sun for this —off and that —ski, who had
glorified the arms of Russia in Circassia, and whose feats of arms Persia was called on to reward.
Sunrise came, and in a few minutes we were shoved in the most primitive of boats over the Aras. We offered a farewell to Russia with grateful feelings for the prodigal attentions which had been showered on us. Russia is often reviled, but if we were to judge of the national character by what we saw, candour would oblige us to declare that intelligence, cordiality, and liberality are the prevailing qualities. Much of course was due to official position, but every Englishman, whatever his rank, travelling in Russia has hitherto always met with kindness and attention. This has not been, as I said before, from love or liking; for I doubt not that every one felt, at least every one of reflection felt, that a crisis between the two nations was impending, – that the day was approaching when it must be decided whether the East or the West of Europe, the Sclavonian or the Celto-German race, was to be predominant. But I am touching on politics, a domain from which I have resolved to exclude myself. What struck me more than anything else in Russia was the disregard of the upper classes for the feelings of their servants and dependents. They seemed to me to look on and to treat them as inferior animals. They seem to have no rooms allotted for their use; the lobby and the ante-room are their apartments, and the bare bench is their bed, We heard a curious fact at Stavropol, which I may as well relate in this place: – A landed proprietor perceived in one of his young serfs a decided talent and inclination for painting.
He sent the lad to Rome, and there education made him not only a first-rate painter, but also developed his mind on every subject. At the end of some years he was recalled to Russia by his master, who found him too valuable to give him his freedom; and this well-educated gentleman is actually a slave of the nobleman who sent him to Italy, and obliged to paint for his benefit. I cannot imagine a more melancholy fate.
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