Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xii

Mr. George Curzon wrote of Julfa: “The younger Julfa is a place wholly destitute of superficial attractions, consisting as it does of a labyrinth of narrow alleys closed by doors and plentifully perforated with open sewers. Life there is ‘cabined, cribbed, confined’ to an intolerable degree, and it is a relief to escape from its squalid precincts.”

I dare not write thus if I would! It is now the early spring. The “sewers” are clear rapid streams, margined by grass and dandelions, and shaded by ash trees and pollard willows in their first flush of green. The “narrow alleys” are scrupulously clean, and there is neither mud nor dust. If I go up on the roof I see a cultivated oasis, gardens prolonged indefinitely concealing the desert which lies between them and the bold mountain ranges which surround this lofty and breezy plain. Every breeze is laden with the delicious odour of the bean blossom. A rapid river spanned by noble bridges hurries through the oasis it has helped to create, and on its other side the domes and minarets of Isfahan rise out of masses of fine trees, and bridges and mosques, minarets and mountains, are all seen through a most exquisite pink mist, for hundreds of standard peach trees are in full bloom, and look where one may everything is couleur de rose.

I quite admit that Julfa consists of a “labyrinth of alleys.” I can never find my way about it. One alley with its shady central stream (or “sewer”), its roughly paved paths on either side, its mud walls pierced by low doors, is very much like another, and however lucky one may be in “happening on” the right road, it is always a weary time before one escapes from between mud walls into the gardens and wheatfields, to the blossoming beans, and the exquisite wild-flowers among the wheat.

As to the “cabined, cribbed, confined” life, I can give no testimony from personal knowledge. All life in European settlements in the East appears to me “cabined, cribbed, confined,” and greatly devoid of external interests. Perhaps Julfa is deficient in the latter in an eminent degree, and in a very small foreign community people are interested chiefly in each other’s affairs, sayings, and doings. Lawn tennis, picnics, and dinner parties are prevalent, the ordinary etiquette of European society prevails, and in all cases of need the residents are kind to each other both in life and death.

The European society is divided into three circles — the missionaries, the mercantile community, and the telegraph staff. The British agent, Mr. Aganoor, is an Armenian.33 No Christians, Armenian or European, live in Isfahan, and it is practically défendu to European women. This transpontine restriction undoubtedly narrows the life and interests of Julfa. It is aggravating and tantalising to be for ever looking at a city of 60,000 or 70,000 people, the fallen capital of the Sufari dynasty, and never be able to enter it.

This Christian town of Julfa has a certain accessible historic interest. Shah Abbas, justly surnamed the Great, conceived the sagacious project of introducing among his Persian subjects at Isfahan — then, in the latter part of the sixteenth century, a magnificent capital — the Christian habits of trading, sagacity, and thrift, for then as now the Armenians had commercial dealings with China, India, and Europe, and had imported several arts into Persia.

This project he carried out in truly despotic fashion by moving almost the whole population of Julfa on the Araxes, on the modern Russo–Persian frontier, to the banks of the Zainderud, making over to it the best lands in the neighbourhood of Isfahan. Many years later the new Julfa was a place with twenty-four churches, great prosperity, and an estimated population of 40,000. Its agriculturists were prosperous market-gardeners for the huge city of Isfahan, and it had likewise a great trading community, and was renowned for the making of jewellery and watches.

It has now a dwindling population of about 3000, chiefly elderly men, women, and girls, the young men, after receiving a good education in the Church Mission and other schools, flying from its stagnation to India, Java, and even Europe. The twenty-four churches are reduced to twelve, and these with the vast cemetery in the desert at the base of Kuh Sufi are its chief objects of interest, apart from those which are human and living.

April 22.— The peach blossoms have long since fallen, but perhaps I still see Julfa couleur de rose, even after three weeks, so very great is the kindness under this roof, and so fully is my time occupied with various interests, and the preparations for a difficult journey.

This, as you know, is the Church Mission House. Dr. Bruce has been here for twenty years, and until lately, when the Archbishop of Canterbury’s mission to the Assyrian Christians began its work at Urmi, near the Turkish frontier in the north-west, this was the only English mission in the Empire. It was contemplated as a mission to the Mohammedans, but in this respect has been an apparent failure. It is true that much prejudice has been disarmed, and, as I have heard from some leading Mohammedans, Dr. Bruce’s zeal and good works have won their respect. A large part of the Bible has been translated into Persian and very widely circulated through the adjacent country by means of colporteurs of the British and Foreign Bible Society. His preaching of Christianity is listened to respectfully, and even with interest, wherever he itinerates, and Moslems daily call on him, and show much friendliness, but the results, as results are usually estimated, are nil— that is, no Mohammedans openly profess Christianity.

There is actual though not legal toleration, but Moslem children may not attend a mission school, and a Moslem who becomes a Christian loses his means of living, and probably his life is sacrificed to fanaticism.

In consequence of these difficulties, and certain encouragements in another direction, the ostensible work of the mission is among Armenians. Dr. Bruce has not been afraid of incurring the stigma of being a proselytiser, and has a large congregation of Armenians worshipping after the English form, ninety-four being communicants of the Church of England. On Easter Eve there was an evening Communion, and the great row of women kneeling at the rail in the pure white robes which cover them from head to foot, and then moving back to their places in the dim light, was very picturesque and beautiful.

Good works have been added one after another, till the mission is now a very large establishment. The C.M.S. has been liberal to this, its only Persian agency, and Dr. Bruce, having private means, has generously expended them largely on missionary work in Julfa.

The chief features of the compounds are the church, which is both simple and ecclesiastical in its exterior and interior, and the library adjoining it, where Dr. Bruce works at the translation of the Old Testament into Persian and the revision of the New, aided by a munshi, and where through much of the day he is receiving Moslems, some of whom come to inquire into Christianity, others for religious disputations, and a third and numerous class out of mere friendliness. The latter are generally invited into the Mission House, and are regaled with coffee and kalians, in orthodox Persian fashion. Among the latter visitors has been the Amir-i-Panj, who came to ask me to call on his wife, accompanied by a general of cavalry, whose name I cannot spell, and who speaks French remarkably well.

Among the other buildings are those of the Medical Mission, which include a roomy courtyard, where the animals which carry the patients are tethered, rooms for the doctor, a well-arranged dispensary and consulting-room, with waiting-rooms for both sexes, and rooms above in which serious surgical cases are received for treatment, and where at present there are eleven patients, although just now there is no European doctor, and they are being treated by the native assistants, most kindly helped by Dr. Scully of the telegraph staff. This hospital and dispensary are largely taken advantage of by Moslems, who highly appreciate this form of Christian benevolence.

The boys’ school, with 205 pupils, has been a great benefit to Julfa. The head-master, Mr. Johannes, was educated in England and was formerly a master of the Nassik School in India. This school provides the education of one of our best middle-class schools, and the teaching is thorough. Smattering would be infinitely despised by teachers and pupils. In this thorough fashion Latin, French, the first four books of Euclid, and algebra are taught to the young men of the upper form. The boys have a large playground, with a great tank for bathing, and some of the equipments of a gymnasium, a vaulting pole, parallel bars, etc.

The girls’ schools, containing 100 girls, have their own courtyard, and they need enlarging, though the process has been more than once repeated. Mrs. Aidin, an English teacher, is at their head, and exercises that strong influence which love and firmness give. The girls are a mass of red, a cool red, without yellow, and when they disperse they enliven the Julfa alleys with their carnation dresses and pure white chadars. The education is solid and suitable, and special attention is given to needlework.

Besides these there is an orphanage, begun for the benefit of those whose parents died in the famine, in which are twenty boys. Outside are many other works, a Bible House, from which colporteurs at intervals proceed on journeys, a Young Men’s Christian Association, or something like it, etc. etc.

Now as to the Mission House itself, which has to accommodate Dr., Mrs., and Miss Bruce, Mr. Carless, a clerical missionary, and two English lady missionaries. So much has been written lately about the “style of living” of missionaries, their large houses, and somewhat unnecessary comfort in general, that I am everywhere specially interested in investigating the subject, having formed no definite opinion on the question whether living as natives or living as Europeans is the more likely mode of producing a salutary impression.

The Mission House here is a native building, its walls and ceilings simply decorated with pale brown arabesques on a white ground. There are a bedroom and parlour, with an ante-room between giving access to both from the courtyard, a storeroom, and a kitchen. Across the court are servants’ quarters and a guest-room for natives. Above these, reached by an outside stair, are a good room, occupied by Mr. Carless as study and bedroom, and one small guest-room. Another stair leads to two rooms above some of the girls’ school premises, having enclosed alcoves used as sleeping and dressing rooms. These are occupied by two ladies. One room serves as eating-room for the whole mission party, at present six in number, and as drawing-room and workroom. Books, a harmonium, Persian rugs on the floor, and just enough furniture for use constitute its “luxury.”

There are two servants, both of course men, and all the ladies do some housework. At present the only horse is the dispensary horse, a beast of such rough and uneven paces that it is a penance to ride him. The food is abundant, well cooked, and very simple.

The life, all round, is a very busy one. Visitors are never refused at any hour. The long flat mud roofs from which one can see the gardens and the hills are used for exercise, otherwise some of the party would never have anything better than mud walls for their horizon, and life in courtyards is rather depressing for Europeans. I have told facts, and make no comments, and it must be remembered that both Dr. Bruce and Miss V— — a lady of rare devotion who has lately arrived,34 are to a certain extent “honorary” missionaries, and have the means, if they had the desire, of surrounding themselves with comforts.

This is about the twenty-third mission circle with which I have become acquainted during the last eight months, and I see in nearly all the same difficulties, many of them of a nature which we can hardly realise at home.

Women coming to the East as missionaries are by far the greatest sufferers, especially if they are young, for Eastern custom, which in their position cannot be defied with advantage, limits free action and abridges all the comforts of independence. Thus a woman cannot take a walk or a ride or go to a house without a trusty man-servant in attendance on her, and this is often inconvenient, so she does not go out at all, contenting herself with a walk on the roof or in the courtyard.

The wave of enthusiasm on which a lady leaves her own country soon spends its force. The interest which has centred round her for weeks or even months is left behind. The enthusiastic addresses and farewell meetings, the journey “up the country” with its excitement and novelties, and the cordial welcome from the mission circle to which she is introduced, soon become things of the past. The circle, however kind, has its own interests and work, and having provided her with a munshi, necessarily goes on its own way more or less, and she is left to face the fearful difficulties of languages with which ours has no affinity, in a loneliness which is all the more severely felt because she is usually, for a time at least, one nominally of a family circle.

Unless she is a doctor or nurse she can do nothing till she has learned the language, and the difficulty of learning is increased by the loss of the flexible mind and retentive memory which are the heritage of extreme youth. The temptation is to “go at it” violently. Then come the aching head, the loss of sleep, the general lassitude and nervousness, and the self-questionings as to whether she was right in leaving her fruitful work in England.

Then, instead of realising the truth of the phrases used at home —“multitudes flocking as the doves to their windows”—“fields white unto the harvest,” etc. — she finds that the work instead of seeking her has to be made by her most laboriously, and oftentimes the glowing hope of telling of the Redeemer’s love and death to throngs of eager and receptive listeners is fulfilled in the drudgery of teaching sewing and the rudiments of English during the first year.

It is just this first year under which many women succumb. Then how many of the failings and weaknesses of the larger world must be epitomised in a mission group exposed, as Mr. Heyde of Kyelang feelingly said, “to the lowering influence of daily contact with a courteous and non-repulsive Heathenism and Mohammedanism”! Missionaries are not likely to possess, as they certainly are the last to claim, superior sanctity, and the new-comer, dreaming of a circle in all respects consecrated, finds herself among frictions, strong differences as to methods of working, not always gently expressed, and possible jealousies and criticisms, and an exaggeration of the importance of trifles, natural where large events are rare. A venerable American missionary in Turkey said, “Believe me, the greatest trial of missionaries is missionaries.”

The small group is frequently destitute of social resources outside itself, it is cut off from friendly visits, services, lectures, music, new books, news, and the many recreative influences which all men regard as innocent. The life-work seems at times thrown away, the heat, the flies, and the mosquitos are depressing and exhausting, and in the case of young women, especially till they can use the language colloquially, there is little if any outside movement. Is it wonderful that supposed slights, tiffs, criticisms which would be utterly brushed away if a good walk in the open or a good gallop were possible, should be brooded over till they attain a magnitude which embitters and depresses life?

A man constantly finds the first year or two very trying till he has his tools — the language — at command, and even men at times rub each other the wrong way, but a man can take a good walk or a solitary gallop, or better still, a week of itinerating among the villages. People speak of the dangers and privations of missionary life. I think that these are singularly over-estimated. But the trials which I have alluded to, and which, with the hot climates and insufficient exercise, undermine the health of very many female missionaries, cannot be exaggerated, and demand our deep sympathy.

I do not think that the ordinary pious woman, the successful and patient worker in district visiting, Bible classes, mothers’ meetings, etc., is necessarily suited to be a foreign missionary, but that a heart which is a well-spring of human love, and a natural “enthusiasm of humanity” are required, as well as love to the Master, the last permeating and sanctifying the others, and giving them a perennial freshness. Fancy G. G—— grumbling and discontented and magnifying unpropitious trifles, when her heart goes out to every Chinawoman she sees in a perfect passion of love!35

With the medical missionary, whether man or woman, the case is different. The work seeks the worker even before he is ready for it, claims him, pursues him, absorbs him, and he is powerful to heal even where he is impotent to convert.

I have been to the hospital to see a woman from the Kuhrūd mountains, who was brought here to undergo an operation. She had spent all her living on native physicians without result, and her husband has actually sold his house to get money to give his wife a last chance of recovery. Fifteen years ago this man nearly took Dr. Bruce’s life. Now, he says, “The fruits of Christianity are good.”

Daily the “labyrinth of alleys” becomes denser with leafage, and the sun is hot enough to make the shade very pleasant, while occasional showers keep the greenery fresh. Indeed it is warm enough in my room to make the cool draught from the bādgīr very pleasant. These wind-towers are a feature of all Persian cities, breaking the monotony of the flat roofs.

Letters can be sent once a week from Isfahan, and there is another opportunity very safe and much taken advantage of, the “Telegraph chapar,” a British official messenger, who rides up and down between Bushire and Tihran at stated intervals. The Persian post is a wretched institution, partaking of the general corruption of Persian officialism, and nowhere, unless registered, are letters less safe than in Tihran.36 I shall send this, scrappy as it is, as I may not be here for another week’s mail.

I. L. B.

33 Since my visit Mr. Preece, then, and for many previous years, the superintending electrician of this section of the Indo–European telegraph, has been appointed Consul, the increasing dimensions of English interests and the increasing number of resident British subjects rendering the creation of a Consulate at Isfahan a very desirable step.

34 A few weeks later she died, her life sacrificed, I think, to over-study of a difficult language, and the neglect of fresh air and exercise.

35 These sentences were written nearly a year ago, but many subsequent visits to missions have only confirmed my strong view of the very trying nature of at least the early period of a lady missionary’s life in the East, and of the constant failure of health which it produces; of the great necessity there is for mission boards to lay down some general rules of hygiene, which shall include the duty of riding on horseback, for more rigorous requirements of vigorous physique in those sent out, and above all, that the natural characteristics of those who are chosen to be “epistles of Christ” in the East shall be such as will not only naturally and specially commend the Gospel, but will stand the wear and strain of difficult circumstances.

36 Nearly all my non-registered letters to England failed to reach their destination.

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