Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter ix

Three weeks have passed quickly by since that terrible ride from Husseinabad. The snow is vanishing from the Shimran hills, the spring has come, and I am about to leave the unbounded kindness and hospitality of this house on a long and difficult journey. It is very pleasant to go away carrying no memories but those of kindness, received not only from Europeans and Americans, but from Persians, including the Amin-es-Sultan and the Muschir-u-Dowleh.

It is impossible to bear away other than pleasant impressions of Tihran society. Kindness received personally always sways one’s impressions of the people among whom one is thrown, and even if I had any unfavourable criticisms to make I should not make them.

Society, or rather I should say the European population, is divided into classes and knots. There are the eleven American missionaries, whose duties and interests lie apart from those of the rest of the community, the diplomatic body, which has a monopoly of political interests, the large staff of the Indo–European telegraph, married and single, with Colonel Wells at its head, and the mercantile class, in which the manager and employés of the Imperial Bank may be included. Outside of these recognised classes there is a shifting body of passing travellers, civil and military, and would-be concessionaires and adventurers, besides a few Europeans in Persian employment.

From four to five hundred Europeans is a large foreign settlement, and it is a motley one, very various in its elements, “and in their idiosyncrasies, combinations, rivalries, and projects is to be found an inexhaustible fund of local gossip,” writes Mr. Curzon in one of his recent brilliant letters to the Times, “as well as almost the sole source of non-political interest.”

Outside of the diplomatic circle the relations of England and Russia with each other and with the Shah afford a topic of ceaseless interest. England is just now considered to be in the ascendant, so far as her diplomacy is concerned, but few people doubt that Russian policy will eventually triumph, and that North Persia at least will be “absorbed.”

One or two specially pleasant things I must mention. Sir H. Drummond Wolff kindly wrote asking permission from the Shah for me to see his Museum, i.e. his treasure-house, and we, that is the Minister, the whole party from the Legation, and Dr. Odling of the telegraph staff and Mrs. Odling, went there yesterday. There was a great crowd outside the Palace gates, where we were received by many men in scarlet. The private gardens are immense, and beautifully laid out, in a more formal style than I have hitherto seen, with straight, hard gravel walks, and straight avenues of trees. The effect of the clear running water in the immense tanks lined with blue tiles is most agreeable and cool. Continuous rows of orange trees in tubs, and beds of narcissus, irises, and tulips, with a wealth of trellised roses just coming into leaf, are full of the promise of beauty. These great pleasure gardens are admirably kept, I doubt whether a fallen leaf would not be discovered and removed in five minutes.

The great irregular mass of the Palace buildings on the garden front is very fine, the mangy and forlorn aspect being confined to the side seen by the public. The walls are much decorated, chiefly with glazed and coloured tiles geometrically arranged, and the general effect is striking.

The “Museum,” properly the audience chamber, and certainly one among the finest halls in the world, is approached by a broad staircase of cream-coloured alabaster. We were received by the Grand Vizier’s two brothers, and were afterwards joined by himself and another high official.

The decorations of this magnificent hall are in blue and white stucco of the hard fine kind, hardly distinguishable from marble, known as gatch, and much glass is introduced in the ceiling. The proportions of the room are perfect. The floor is of fine tiles of exquisite colouring arranged as mosaic. A table is overlaid with beaten gold, and chairs in rows are treated in the same fashion. Glass cases round the room and on costly tables contain the fabulous treasures of the Shah and many of the Crown jewels. Possibly the accumulated splendours of pearls, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, sapphires, basins and vessels of solid gold, ancient armour flashing with precious stones, shields studded with diamonds and rubies, scabbards and sword hilts incrusted with costly gems, helmets red with rubies, golden trays and vessels thick with diamonds, crowns of jewels, chains, ornaments (masculine solely) of every description, jewelled coats of mail dating back to the reign of Shah Ismaël, exquisite enamels of great antiquity, all in a profusion not to be described, have no counterpart on earth. They are a dream of splendour not to be forgotten.

One large case contains the different orders bestowed on the Shah, all blazing with diamonds, a splendid display, owing to the European cutting of the stones, which brings out their full beauty. There are many glass cases from two to three feet high and twelve inches or more broad, nearly full of pearls, rubies, diamonds, sapphires, emeralds, flashing forth their many-coloured light — treasures not arranged, but piled like tea or rice. Among the extraordinarily lavish uses of gold and gems is a golden globe twenty inches in diameter, turning on a frame of solid gold. The stand and meridian are of solid gold set with rubies. The equator and elliptic are of large diamonds. The countries are chiefly outlined in rubies, but Persia is in diamonds. The ocean is represented by emeralds. As if all this were not enough, huge gold coins, each worth thirty-three sovereigns, are heaped round its base.

At the upper end of the hall is the Persian throne. Many pages would be needed for a mere catalogue of some of the innumerable treasures which give gorgeousness to this hall. Here indeed is “Oriental splendour,” but only a part of the possessions of the Shah; for many gems, including the Dar-i-nur or Sea of Light, the second most famous diamond in the world, are kept elsewhere in double-locked iron chests, and hoards of bullion saved from the revenues are locked up in vaults below the Palace.

If such a blaze of splendour exists in this shrunken, shrivelled, “depopulated” empire, what must have been the magnificence of the courts of Darius and Xerxes, into which were brought the treasures of almost “all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them”? Since seeing this treasure-house I think that many of the early descriptions of wealth, which I have regarded as Oriental hyperbole, were literal, and that there was a time in Persia, as in Judea, when “silver was not accounted of.” And to come down from the far off-glories of Darius, Xerxes, and Khosroe and the Parthian kings, there have been within almost modern times Persian sovereigns celebrated among other things for their successful “looting” of foreign kingdoms — Shah Abbas the great, and Nadir Shah, who scarcely two hundred years ago returned from the sack of Delhi with gems valued at twenty millions of our money.

After we had seen most of what was to be seen the Vizier left us, and we went to the room in which stands the celebrated Peacock Throne, brought by Nadir Shah from Delhi, and which has been valued at £2,500,000. This throne is a large stage, with parapets and a high fan back, and is reached by several steps. It is entirely of gold enamel, and the back is incrusted with rubies and diamonds. Its priceless carpet has a broad border, the white arabesque pattern of which is formed of pearls closely stitched. You will think that I am lapsing into Oriental exaggeration!

While we were admiring the beautiful view of the gardens from the windows of this room, Hassan Ali Khan, better known as “the Nawab,” suggested that we should retire, as the Shah is in the habit of visiting and enjoying his treasures at a later hour. However, at the foot of the stairs on the threshold of the vestibule stood the Shah, the “King of Kings,” the “Asylum of the Universe,” and that his presence there was not an accident was shown by the fact that the Grand Vizier was with him.

Sir Henry advanced, attended by “the Nawab,” and presented me, lifting his hat to the king, who neither then nor when he left us made the slightest inclination of his head. Hassan Ali Khan, in answer to a question, mentioned some of my travels, and said that with His Majesty’s permission I wished to visit the Bakhtiari country.27 The king pushed up his big horn spectacles and focused his eyes, about which there is something very peculiar, upon me, with a stare which would have been disconcerting to a younger person, asked if I were going to travel alone in his dominions, and if fitting arrangements had been made; if I had been in Pekin, and had visited Borneo and the Celebes; said a few other things, and then without a bow turned round abruptly and walked down the garden with the Amin-es-Sultan.

This accidental and informal presentation was a very pleasant incident. The Shah is not what I expected from his various portraits. His manner (though he was said to be very affable on this occasion) has neither Eastern nor Western polish. He is a somewhat rough-looking man, well on in middle life, rather dark in complexion, and wearing a thick dark moustache, probably dyed, as is the custom. The long twisted moustache conceals the expression of his mouth, and the spectacles with thick horn rims that of his eyes. He was very simply dressed. The diamond aigrette and sword with jewelled hilt with which pictures and descriptions have familiarised us were absent, and this splendid monarch, the heir of splendour, and the possessor of fabulous treasures, wore the ordinary Persian high cap of Astrakan lambskin without any ornament, close-fitting dark trousers with a line of gold braid, a full-skirted coat of dull-coloured Kerman silk brocade, loose and open, under which were huddled one or more coats. A watch-chain composed of large diamonds completed his costume. He did not wear gloves, and I noticed that his hands, though carefully attended to, were those of a man used to muscular exercise, strong and wiry.

As the sovereign and his prime minister walked away, it was impossible not to speculate upon coming events: what will happen, for instance, when Nasred–Din, possibly the ablest man in the country which he rules, and probably the best and most patriotic ruler among Oriental despots, goes “the way of all the earth”? and again, whether Ali Askar Khan, who has held his post for five years, and who at thirty-two is the foremost man in Persia after the king, will weather the storm of intrigue which rages round his head, and resist the undermining influence of Russia?

I have had two interesting conversations with him, and he was good enough to propose success to my journey at a dinner at the Legation; and though, as he does not speak French, the services of an interpreter were necessary, he impressed me very favourably as a man of thought, intelligence, and patriotism.

He made one remark which had a certain degree of pathos in it. After speaking of the severe strictures and harsh criticisms of certain recent writers, which he said were very painful to Persians, he added, “I hope if you write you will write kindly, and not crush the aspirations of my struggling country as some have done.”

This Amin-es-Sultan, the faithful or trusted one of the sovereign, the Grand Vizier or Prime Minister, the second person in the empire, who unites in his person at this time the ministries of the Treasury, the Interior, the Court, and Customs, is of humble antecedents, being the son of a man who was originally an inferior attendant on the Shah in his hunting expeditions, and is the grandson of an Armenian captive. Certain persons of importance are bent upon his overthrow, and it can only be by the continued favour and confidence of the Shah that he can sustain himself against their intrigues, combined with those of Russia.

My visit to the Palace terminated with the sight of another throne-room opening upon the garden in which a few days hence, with surroundings of great magnificence, the Shah will receive the congratulations of the diplomatic corps, and afterwards give a general audience to the people.

This is an annual ceremony at the festival of No Ruz when the Persian New Year begins, at the time of the spring solstice, and is probably a relic of the Zoroastrian worship, though the modern Persians, as Mohammedans, allege that it is observed to celebrate the birthday of the Prophet’s mother.28

Some hours after the close of a splendid ceremony in the audience chamber, chiefly religious, at which the Shah burns incense on a small brazier, he descends to the garden, and walking alone along an avenue of Royal Guards, with the crown of the Kajārs, blazing with jewels, carried in front of him, he seats himself on an alabaster throne, the foreign ministers having been received previously. This throne is a large platform, with a very high back and parapets of bold stone fretwork, supported on marble lions and other figures, and is ascended by three or four steps.

The populace, which to the number of many thousands are admitted into the garden, see him seated on his throne, their absolute master, the lord of life and death. A voice asks if they are content, and they say they are. A hymn of congratulation is sung, a chief of the Kajār tribe offers the congratulations of the people of Persia, the Hakim of the people hands the king a jewelled kalian, which he smokes, and showers of gold fall among the populace.

The British Minister is understood to be at this time the most powerful foreigner in Persia; and as we drove through the crowd which had assembled at the Palace gates, he was received with all Oriental marks of respect.

All my intercourse with Persians here has been pleasant, and if I mention one person particularly, it is owing to a certain interest which attaches to himself and his possible future, and because some hours spent at his splendid palace were among the pleasantest of the many pleasant and interesting ones which I shall hereafter recall.

Yahia Khan, Minister of Justice and Commerce, whose official title is Muschir-u-Dowleh, was formerly Minister of Foreign Affairs, but forfeited the confidence of the British Government in supposed connection with the escape of Ayoub Khan, and being suspected of Russian proclivities, which he denies, lost his position. He speaks French perfectly, is credited with very great abilities, and not only has courteous and charming manners, but thoroughly understands the customs of Europe.

As the possessor of one of the most magnificent palaces in Persia, married to the Shah’s sister, his son, a youth of eighteen, married to a daughter of the Vali-‘ahd, the heir-apparent, and as the brother of Mirza Hussein Khan — for long Grand Vizier and Sipah Salar, or Commander-inChief, whose gorgeous mosque, scarcely finished, the finest mosque built in late years by any but a royal personage, adjoins his house, Yahia Khan is in every way an important personage.

He is the fourth husband of the Shah’s sister, who has had a tragic life and is a very accomplished woman. Her first husband, Mirza Taghi, when Prime Minister, attempted reforms which would have tended to diminish the hideous corruption which is the bane of Persian officialism, and consequently made many enemies, who induced the Shah, then a young man, to depose him. Worse than deposition was apprehended, and as it was not etiquette to murder a husband of a royal princess in her presence, his wife, who loved him, watched him night and day with ceaseless vigilance for some weeks. But the fatal day at last came, and a good and powerful man, whose loss is said to have been an irreparable one to Persia, was strangled by the Shah’s messengers, it is said, in the bath.

Her son, who has married the Shah’s grand-daughter, is courteous like his father, but is apparently without his force.

The Muschir-u-Dowleh invited me to breakfast, along with General Gordon and Hassan Ali Khan. The dejeûner was altogether in European style, except that in the centre of the table, among lilies and irises, a concealed fountain sent up jets of rose-water spray. Sèvres and Dresden porcelain, the finest damask, and antique and exquisitely beautiful silver adorned the table. The cooking was French. The wines and liqueurs, an innovation on Moslem tables now common, but of recent date, were both French and Persian. The service was perfection. The host conversed both thoughtfully and agreeably, and expressed himself remarkably well in French.

Afterwards we were invited to go over the palace and its grounds, which are remarkably beautiful, and then over the magnificent mosque. Shiah mosques are absolutely tabooed to Christians; but as this has not yet been used for worship, our entrance was not supposed to desecrate it. When quite finished it will be one of the most magnificent buildings dedicated to religious use in the world, and its four tile-covered minarets, its vast dome, and arches and façades in tiled arabesques and conventional patterns and exquisite colouring, show that the Persian artist when adequately encouraged has not lost his old feeling for beauty.

Besides the mosque there is a fine building, the low roof of which is supported by innumerable columns, all of plain brick, resembling a crypt, which will be used for winter worship. In addition, a lavish endowment has provided on the grounds a theological college and a hospital, with most, if not all, of the funds needed for their maintenance; and on every part of the vast pile of buildings the architect has lavished all the resources of his art.

No houses are to my thinking more beautiful and appropriate to the climate and mode of living than those of the upper classes of Persians, and the same suitability and good taste run down through the trading classes till one reaches the mud hovel, coarse and unideal, of the workman and peasant.

My memory does not serve me for the details of the Muschir-u-Dowleh’s palace, which, though some of the rooms are furnished with European lounges, tables, and chairs in marqueterie and brocade, is throughout distinctively Persian; but the impression produced by the general coup d’oeil, and by the size, height, and perfect proportion of the rooms, galleries, staircases, and halls, is quite vivid. The rooms have dados of primrose-coloured Yezd alabaster in slabs four feet high by three broad, clouded and veined most delicately by nature. The banqueting hall is of immense size, and the floor is covered with a dark fawn namad three-quarters of an inch thick, made, I understood, in one piece eighty feet long by fifty broad. The carpets are the most beautiful which can be turned out by Persian looms, and that is saying a great deal.

The roofs, friezes, and even the walls of this house, like those of others of its class, have a peculiarity of beauty essentially Persian. This is the form of gatch or fine stucco-work known as ainah karee. I saw it first at Baghdad, and now at Tihran wonder that such beautiful and costly decoration does not commend itself to some of our millionaires. Arches filled with honeycomb decoration, either pure white or tastefully coloured and gilded, are among the architectural adornments which the Alhambra borrowed from Persia. My impression is that this exquisite design was taken from snow on the hillsides, which is often fashioned by a strong wind into the honeycomb pattern.

But the glory of this form of decoration reaches its height when, after the gatch ceiling and cornice or deep frieze have been daringly moulded by the workman into distinct surfaces or facets, he lays on mirrors while the plaster is yet soft, which adhere, and even at their edges have scarcely the semblance of a joining. Sometimes, as in the new summer palace of the Shah’s third son, the Naib-es-Sultaneh, the whole wall is decorated in this way; but I prefer the reception-rooms of Yahia Khan, in which it is only brought down a few feet. Immense skill and labour are required in this process of adornment, but it yields in splendour to none, flashing in bewildering light, and realising the fabled glories of the palaces of the Arabian Nights. One of the salons, about sixty feet by fifty, treated in this way is about the most beautiful room I ever saw.

The Persian architect also shows great art in his windows. He masses them together, and by this means gives something of grandeur even to an insignificant room. The beauty of the designs, whether in fretwork of wood or stone, is remarkable, and the effect is enhanced by the filling in of the interstices with coloured glass, usually amber and pale blue. So far as I have seen, the Persian house is never over-decorated, and however gorgeous the mirror-work, or involved the arrangement of arches, or daring the dreams in gatch ceilings and pillars, the fancy of the designer is always so far under control as to give the eye periods of rest.

Under the palace of the Muschir-u-Dowleh, as under many others, is a sort of glorified serdab, used in hot weather, partly under ground, open at each end, and finished throughout with marble, the roof being supported on a cluster of slender pillars with capitals picked out in gold, and the air being cooled by a fountain in a large marble basin. But this serdab is far eclipsed by a summer hall in the palace of the Shah’s third son, which, as to walls and ceiling, is entirely composed of mirror-work, the floor of marble being arranged with marble settees round fountains whose cool plash even now is delicious. The large pleasure gardens which surround rich men’s houses in the city are laid out somewhat in the old French style of formality, and are tended with scrupulous care.

I did not see the andarun of this or any house here, owing to the difficulty about an interpreter, but it is not likely that the ladies are less magnificently lodged than their lords. The andarun has its own court, no one is allowed to open a window looking upon it, it is as secluded as a convent. No man but the master of the house may enter, and when he retires thither no man may disturb him. To all inquirers it is a sufficient answer to say that he is in the andarun. To the Shah, however, belongs the privilege of looking upon the unveiled face of every woman in Persia. The domestic life of a Moslem is always shrouded in mystery, and even in the case of the Shah “the fierce light that beats upon a throne” fails to reveal to the outer world the number of wives and women in his andarun, which is variously stated at from sixty to one hundred and ninety.

It is not easy in any Eastern city to get exactly what one wants for a journey, especially as a European cannot buy in the bazars; and the servant difficulty has been a great hindrance, particularly as I have a strong objection to the regular interpreter-servant who has been accustomed to travel with Europeans.

I have now got a Persian cook with sleepy eyes, a portion of a nose, and a grotesquely “hang-dog” look. For an interpreter and personal attendant I have an educated young Brahmin, for some years in British post-office service in the Gulf, and lately a teacher in the American school here. He speaks educated English, and is said to speak good Persian. He has never done any “menial” work, but is willing to do anything in order to get to England. He has a frank, independent manner and “no nonsense about him.” Taking him is an experiment.29

I. L. B.

27 Some of the Bakhtiari khans or princes, with their families, are kept by the Shah as hostages in and round Tihran for the loyalty of their tribes, the conquest of these powerful nomads not being so complete as it might and possibly will be.

28 On the eve of the day, the last of a festival of ten days, the common people kindle rows of bonfires and leap over them; and, though not on the same day, but on the night of the 25th of February, sacred in the Armenian Church as the day of the presentation of our Lord in the temple, large bonfires are lighted on the mud roofs of the Armenians of the Persian and Turkish cities, and the younger members of the households dance and sing and leap through the flames. Meanwhile the Moslems close their windows, so that the sins which the Christians are supposed to be burning may not enter. Whether these “Beltane fires” are a relic of the ancient fire worship or of still older rites may be a question. Among the Christians the custom is showing signs of passing away.

29 An experiment I never regretted. Mirza Yusuf was with me for nine months, and I found him faithful, truthful, and trustworthy, very hard-working, minimising hardships and difficulties, always cheerful, and with an unruffled temper, his failings being those of a desk-bred man transplanted into a life of rough out-doorishness.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31