Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xiii

Each day has been completely filled up since I wrote, and this is probably the last here. My dear old Cabul tent, a shuldari, also Indian, and a servants’ tent made here on a plan of my own, are pitched in one of the compounds to exercise the servants in the art, and it really looks like going after many delays.

A few festivities have broken the pleasant monotony of life in this kindly and hospitable house — dinner parties, European and Armenian; a picnic on the Kuh Sufi, from which there is a very fine panoramic view of the vast plain and its surrounding mountains, and of the immense ruins of Isfahan and Julfa, with the shrunken remains of both; and a “church picnic.”

From Kuh Sufi is seen how completely, and with a sharp line of definition, the arid desert bounds the green oasis of cultivated and irrigated gardens which surround the city, and which are famous for the size and lusciousness of their fruit. From a confusion of ruinous or ragged walls of mud, of ruined and modern houses standing complacently among heaps of rubbish, and from amidst a greenery which redeems the scene, the blue tiled dome of the Masjid-i-Shah, a few minarets, and the great dome of the Medresseh, denuded of half its tiles, rise conspicuously. Long lines of mud streets and caravanserais, gaunt in their ruin, stretch into the desert, and the city once boasting of 650,000 inhabitants and a splendid court survives with a population of less than 80,000 at the highest estimate.

The “church picnic” was held in a scene of decay, but 260 people, with all the women but three in red, enlivened it. It was in the grounds of the old palace of Haft Dast, in which Fatteh Ali Shah died, close to one of the three remarkable bridges of Isfahan, the Pul-i-Kajū. These bridges are magnificent. Their construction is most peculiar, and their roadways being flat they are almost unique in Persia.

The Pul-i-Kajū, though of brick, has stone piers of immense size, which are arched over so as to form a level causeway. On this massive structure the upper bridge is built, comprising a double series of rooms at each pier with doorways overlooking the river, and there are staircases and rooms also in the upper piers.

The Chahar Bagh bridge is also quaint and magnificent, with its thirty-three arches, some of them very large, its corridors for foot passengers, and chambers above each pier, each chamber having three openings to the river. These bridges have a many-storied look, from their innumerable windows at irregular altitudes, and form a grand approach to the city.

As at first, so now at last the most impressive thing to me about the Zainderud next to its bridges is the extent to which rinsing, one of the processes of dyeing, is carried on upon its shingle flats. Isfahan dyed fabrics are famous and beautiful, heavy cottons of village make and unbleached cottons of Manchester make being brought here to be dyed and printed.

There is quite a population of dyers, and now that the river is fairly low, many of them have camped for the season in little shelters of brushwood erected on the gravel banks. For fully half-a-mile these banks are covered with the rinsers of dyed and printed calicoes, and with mighty heaps of their cottons. Hundreds of pieces after the rinsing are laid closely together to dry, indigo and turquoise blue, brown and purple madder, Turkey red and saffron predominating, a vile aniline colour showing itself here and there. Some of the smaller dyers have their colour vats by the river, but most of the cotton is brought from Isfahan, ready dyed, on donkeys’ backs, with the rinsers in attendance.

Along the channels among the shingle banks are rows of old millstones, and during much of the day a rinser stands in front of each up to his knees in water. His methods are rough, and the cotton must be good which stands his treatment. Taking in his hands a piece of soaked half-wrung cotton, from fifteen to twenty yards long, he folds it into five feet and bangs it on the millstone with all his might, roaring a tuneless song all the time, till he fails from fatigue. The noise is tremendous, and there will be more yet, for the river is not nearly at its lowest point. When the piece has had the water beaten out of it a boy spreads it out on the gravel, and keeps it wet by dashing water over it, and then the process of beating is repeated. The coloured spray rising from each millstone in the bright sunshine is very pretty. Each rinser has his watchdog to guard the cottons on the bank, and between the banging, splashing, and singing, the barking of the dogs and the shouts of the boys, it is a noisy and cheery scene.

I have heard that certain unscrupulous English makers were in the habit of sending “loaded” cottons here, but that the calico printers have been a match for them, for the calico printer weighs his cloth before he buys it, washes and dries it, and then weighs it again. A man must “get up very early” if he means to cheat a Persian.

The patterns and colours are beautiful. Quilts, “table-cloths” (for use on the floor), and chadars are often things of exquisite beauty. Indeed I have yielded to temptation, and to gratify my own tastes have bought some beautiful “table-cloths” for Bakhtiari women, printed chiefly in indigo and brown madder on a white ground.

The temptations are great. I really need many things both for my own outfit and for presents to the Bakhtiaris, and pedlars come every day and unpack their tempting bundles in the small verandah. No Europeans and no women of the upper classes can enjoy the delights of shopping in Persia, consequently the pedlar is a necessary institution.

Here they are of the humbler sort. They have learned that it is useless to display rich Turkestan and Feraghan carpets, gold and silver jewellery, inlaid arms, stuffs worked with gold thread, or any of the things which tempt the travelling Feringhi, so they bring all sorts of common fabrics, printed cambrics, worthless woollen stuffs, and the stout piece cottons and exquisitely-printed cotton squares of Isfahan.

At almost any hour of the day a salaaming creature squatting at the door is seen, caressing a big bundle, which on seeing you he pats in a deprecating manner, looks up appealingly, declares that he is your “sacrifice,” and that with great trouble and loss he has got just the thing the khanum wants. If you hesitate for one moment the bundle is opened, and on his first visit he invariably shows flaring Manchester cottons first; but if you look and profess disgust, he produces cottons printed here, strokes them lovingly, and asks double their value for them. You offer something about half. He recedes and you advance till a compromise is arrived at representing the fair price.

But occasionally, as about a table-cloth, if they see that you admire it very much but will not give the price asked, they swear by Allah that they will not abate a fraction, pack up their bundle, and move off in well-simulated indignation, probably to return the next day to offer the article on your own terms. Mrs. Bruce has done the bargaining, and I have been only an amused looker-on. I should prefer doing without things to the worry and tedium of the process of buying them.

The higher class of pedlars, such as those who visit the andaruns of the rich, go in couples, with a donkey or servant to carry their bundles.

I mentioned that the Amir-i-Panj had called and had asked me to visit his wife. I sent a message to say that my entrance into Isfahan had been so disagreeable that I should be afraid to pass through its gates again, to which he replied that he would take care that I met with no incivility. So an afternoon visit was arranged, and he sent a splendid charger for me, one of the finest horses I have seen in Persia, a horse for Mirza Yusuf, and an escort of six cavalry soldiers, which was increased to twelve at the city gate. The horse I rode answered the description —“a neck clothed with thunder,”— he was perfectly gentle, but his gait was that of a creature too proud to touch the earth. It was exhilarating to be upon such an animal.

The cavalry men rode dashing animals, and wore white Astrakan high caps, and the cortège quite filled up the narrow alley where it waited, and as it passed through the Chahar Bagh and the city gate, with much prancing and clatter, no “tongue wagged” either of dervish or urchin.

At the entrance to the Amir’s house I was received by an aide-decamp and a number of soldier-servants, and was “conducted” into a long room opening by many windows upon a beautiful garden full of peach blossom, violets, and irises; the table was covered with very pretty confectionery, including piles of gaz, a favourite sweetmeat, made of manna which is chiefly collected within eighty miles of Isfahan. Coffee was served in little cups in filigree gold receptacles, and then the Amir-i-Panj appeared in a white uniform, with a white lambskin cap, and asked “permission to have the honour of accompanying me to the andarun.”

Persian politeness is great, and the Amir, though I think he is a Turk and not a Persian, is not deficient in it. Such phrases as “My house is purified by your presence, I live a thousand years in this visit,” etc., were freely used.

This man, who receives from all a very high character, and whom Moslems speak of as a “saint,” is the most interesting Moslem I have met. In one sense a thoroughly religious man, he practises all the virtues which he knows, almsgiving to the extent of self-denial, without distinction of creed, charity in word and deed, truth, purity, and justice.

I had been much prepossessed in his favour not only from Dr. Bruce’s high opinion of him but by the unbounded love and reverence which my interpreter has for him. Mirza Yusuf marched on foot from Bushire to Isfahan, without credentials, an alien, and penniless, and this good man hearing of him took him into his house, and treated him as a welcome guest till a friend of his, a Moslem, a general in the Persian army, also good and generous, took him to Tihran, where he remained as his guest for some months, and was introduced into the best Persian society. From him I learned how beautiful and pure a life may be even in a corrupt nation. When he bowed to kiss the Amir’s hand, with grateful affection in his face, his “benefactor,” as he always calls him, turned to me and said, “He is to me as a dear son, God will be with him.”

The garden is well laid out, and will soon be full of flowers. The Amir seemed to love them passionately. He said that they gave rest and joy, and are “the fringes of the garment of God.” He could not cut them, he said, “Their beauty is in their completeness from root to petals, and cutting destroys it.”

A curtained doorway in the high garden wall, where the curtains were held aside by servants, leads into the court of the andarun, where flowers again were in the ascendant, and vines concealed the walls. The son, a small boy, met us and kissed my hand. Mirza had told me that he had never passed through this wall, and had never seen the ladies, but when I proposed to leave him outside, the Amir said he would be welcome, that he wished for much conversation, and for his wife to hear about the position and education of women in England.

The beautiful reception-room looked something like home. The pure white walls and honeycombed ceiling are touched and decorated with a pale shade of blue, and the ground of the patterns of the rich carpets on the floor is in the same delicate colour, which is repeated in the brocaded stuffs with which the divans are covered. A half-length portrait of the Amir in a sky-blue uniform, with his breast covered with orders, harmonises with the general “scheme” of colour. The takchahs in the walls are utilised for vases and other objects in alabaster, jade, and bronze. A tea-table covered with sweetmeats, a tea equipage on the floor, and some chairs completed the furnishing.

The Amir stood till his wife came in, and then asked permission to sit down, placing Mirza, who discreetly lowered his eyes when the lady entered, and never raised them again, on the floor.

She is young, tall, and somewhat stout. She was much rouged, and her eyes, to which the arts of the toilet could add no additional beauty, were treated with kohl, and the eyebrows artificially extended. She wore fine gray socks, white skin-fitting tights, a black satin skirt, or rather flounce, embroidered in gold, so bouffante with flounces of starched crinoline under it that when she sat down it stood out straight, not even touching the chair. A chemise of spangled gauze, and a pale blue gold-embroidered zouave jacket completed a costume which is dress, not clothing. The somewhat startling effect was toned down by a beautiful Constantinople silk gauze veil, sprigged in pale pink and gold, absolutely transparent, which draped her from head to foot.

I did not get away in less than two hours. The Amir and Mirza, used to each other’s modes of expression, found no difficulties, and Mirza being a man of education as well as intelligence, thought was conveyed as easily as fact. The lady kept her fine eyes lowered except when her husband spoke to her.

The chief topics were the education and position of women in England, religion, politics, and the future of Persia, and on all the Amir expressed himself with a breadth and boldness which were astonishing. How far the Amir has gone in the knowledge of the Christian faith I cannot say, nor do I feel at liberty to repeat his most interesting thoughts. A Sunni, a liberal, desiring complete religious liberty, absolutely tolerant to the Bābis, grateful for the kindness shown to some of them by the British Legation, and for the protection still given to them at the C.M.S. house, admiring Dr. Bruce’s persevering work, and above all the Medical Mission, which he regards as “the crown of beneficence” and “the true imitation of the life of the Great Prophet, Jesus,” all he said showed a strongly religious nature, and a philosophical mind much given to religious thought. “All true religions aim at one thing,” he said, “to make the heart and life pure.”

He asked a good deal about my travels, and special objects of interest in travelling, and was surprised when I told him that I nearly always travel alone; but after a moment’s pause he said, “I do not understand that you were for a moment alone, for you had everywhere the love, companionship, and protection of God.”

He regards as the needs of Persia education, religious liberty (the law which punishes a Moslem with death for embracing Christianity is still on the statute-book), roads, and railroads, and asked me if I had formed any opinion on the subject. I said that it appeared to me that security for the earnings of labour, and equal laws for rich and poor, administered by incorruptible judges, should accompany education. I much fear that he thinks incorruptible judges a vision of a dim future!

The subject of the position of women in England and the height to which female education is now carried interested him extremely. He wished his wife to understand everything I told him. The success of women in examinations in art, literature, music, and other things, and the political wisdom and absolutely constitutional rule of Queen Victoria, all interested him greatly. He asked if the women who took these positions were equally good as wives and mothers? I could only refer again to Queen Victoria. An Oriental cannot understand the position of unmarried women with us, or dissociate it from religious vows, and the Amir heard with surprise that a very large part of the philanthropic work which is done in England is done by women who either from accident or design have neither the happiness nor the duties of married life. He hopes to see women in Persia educated and emancipated from the trammels of certain customs, “but,” he added, “all reform in this direction must come slowly, and grow naturally out of a wider education, if it is to be good and not hurtful.”

He asked me what I should like to see in Isfahan, but when I mentioned the prison he said he should be ashamed to show it, and that except for political offences imprisonment is not much resorted to, that Persian justice is swift and severe — the bastinado, etc., not incarceration.

Afterwards I paid a similar visit to the house of Mirza Yusuf’s other “benefactor,” also a good and charitable man, who, as he speaks French well, acted as interpreter in the andarun.

A few days later the Amir-i-Panj, accompanied by General Faisarallah Khan, called on Dr. Bruce and on me, and showed how very agreeable a morning visit might be made, and the following day the Amir sent the same charger and escort for me, and meeting him and Dr. Bruce in the Chahar Bagh, we visited the Medresseh, a combined mosque and college, and the armoury, where we were joined by two generals and were afterwards entertained at tea in the Standard Room, while a military band played outside. The Amir had ordered some artificers skilled in the brass-work for which Isfahan is famous to exhibit their wares in one of the rooms at the armoury, and in every way tried to make the visit more agreeable than an inspection of the jail! He advises me not to wear a veil in the Bakhtiari country, and to be “as European as possible.”

The armoury, of which he has had the organising, does not fall within my province. There are many large rooms with all the appliances of war in apparently perfect order for the equipment of 5000 men.

With equal brevity I pass over the Medresseh, whose silver gates and exquisite tiles have been constantly described. Decay will leave little of this beautiful building in a few years. The tiles of the dome, which can be seen for miles, are falling off, and even in the halls of instruction and in the grand mosque under the dome, which are completely lined and roofed by tiles, the making of some of which is a lost art, one may augur the approach of ruin from the loss or breakage here and there. In the rooms or cells occupied by the students, who study either theology or law, there are some very fine windows executed in the beautiful tracery common to Persia and Kashmir, but the effect of beauty passing into preventible decay is very mournful.

Isfahan too I barely notice, for the best of all reasons, that I have not seen it! Though a fourth part of it is in ruins, and its population is not an eighth of what it was in the days of Shah Abbas, it is a fairly thriving commercial emporium with an increasing British trade. Indeed here Russian commercial influence may be said to cease, and that of England to become paramount. It is the paradise of Manchester and Glasgow cottons: woollen goods come from Austria and Germany, glass from Austria, crockery from England, candles and kerosene represent Russia. Our commercial supremacy in Isfahan cannot be disputed. I am almost tired of hearing of it. Opium, tobacco, carpets from the different provinces, and cotton and rice for native consumption, are the chief exports. Opium is increasingly grown round the city, and up the course of the Zainderud. Of the 4500 cases exported, worth £90 a case, three-fourths go to China. Its cultivation is so profitable and has increased so rapidly to the neglect of food crops that the Prince Governor has issued an order that one part of cereals shall be sown for every four of the opium poppy.

The cotton in the bazars, through which one can walk under cover for between two and three miles, is of the best quality, owing to the successful measures taken by the calico printers to defeat the roguery of the cheating manufacturers. All the European necessaries and many of the luxuries of life are obtainable, and the Isfahan bazars are the busiest in Persia except those of Tabriz.

It is only fair to this southern capital to say that if one can walk over two miles under the roofs of its fine bazars, one can ride for many miles among its ruins, which have desolation without stateliness, and are chiefly known for the production of the excellent wild asparagus which is used lavishly on European tables at this season.

The “Persian Versailles,” the Palace of Forty Pillars, each pillar formed of shafts enriched with colour and intricate work, and resting on a marble lion, the shaking Minarets, the Masjid-i-Shah with its fine dome of peacock-blue tiles, all falling into premature decay, remain to attest its former greatness; the other noble palaces, mosques, caravanserais, and Medressehs are ruinous, the superb pleasure gardens are overgrown with weeds or are used for vetches and barley, the tanks are foul or filled up, the splendid plane trees have been cut down for fuel, or are dragging out a hollow existence — every one, as elsewhere in Persia, destroys, no one restores. The armoury is the one exception to the general law of decay.

Yet Isfahan covered an area of twenty-four miles in circumference, and with its population of 650,000 souls was until the seventeenth century one of the most magnificent cities of the East. Its destruction last century by an Afghan conqueror, who perpetrated a fifteen days’ massacre, and the removal of the court to Tihran, have reduced it to a mere commercial centre, a “distributing point,” and as such, its remains may take a new lease of life. It has a newspaper called the Farhang, which prints little bits of news, chiefly personal. Its editor moves on European lines so far as to have “interviewed” me!

There are manufactures in Isfahan other than the successful printing and dyeing of cottons; viz., earthenware, china, brass-work, velvet, satin, tents, coarse cottons, glass, swords, guns, pistols, jewellery, writing paper and envelopes, silk brocades, satins, gunpowder, bookbinding, gold thread, etc.

The plateau on which Isfahan stands, about seventy miles from east to west and twenty from north to south, and enclosed by high mountains with a striking outline, lies 5400 feet above the sea. The city has a most salubrious climate, and is free from great extremes both of heat and cold. The Zainderud, on whose left bank it is situated, endows much of the plain with fertility on its way to its undeserved doom in a partially-explored swamp.

This Christian town, called a suburb, though it is really two and a half miles from Isfahan, is a well-built and well-peopled nucleus. It is not mixed up with ruins as Isfahan is. They have a region to themselves chiefly in the direction of the Kuh Sufi. My impression of it after a month is that it is clean and comfortable-looking, Mr. Curzon’s is that it is “squalid.” I prefer mine!

It is a “city of waters.” Streams taken from a higher level of the Zainderud glide down nearly all its lanes, shaded by pollard mulberries, ash, elm, and the “sparrow-tongue” willow, which makes the best firewood, and being “planted by the rivers of water,” grows so fast that it bears lopping annually, and besides affording fuel supplies the twigs which are used for roofing such rooms as are not arched.

The houses, some of which are more than three centuries old, are built of mud bricks, the roofs are usually arched, and the walls are from three to five feet thick. All possess planted courtyards and vineyards, and gardens into which channels are led from the streams in the streets. These streams serve other purposes: continually a group of Armenian women may be seen washing their clothes in them, while others are drinking or drawing water just below. The lanes are about twenty feet wide and have narrow rough causeways on both sides of the water-channel. It is difficult on horseback to pass a foot passenger without touching him in some of them.

Great picturesqueness is given to these leafy lanes by the companies of Armenian women in bright red dresses and pure white robes, slowly walking through them at all hours of daylight, visions of bright eyes and rosy cheeks. I have never yet seen a soiled white robe! Long blank mud walls, low gateways, an occasional row of mean shops, open porches of churches, dim and cool, and an occasional European on foot or horseback, and groups of male Armenians, whose dress so closely approaches the European as to be without interest, and black-robed priests gliding to the churches are all that is usually to be seen. It sounds dull, perhaps.

Many of the houses of the rich Armenians, some of which are now let to Europeans, are extremely beautiful inside, and even those occupied by the poorer classes, in which a single lofty room can be rented for twopence a week, are very pretty and appropriate. But no evidence of wealth is permitted to be seen from the outside. It is only a few years since the Armenians were subject to many disabilities, and they have even now need to walk warily lest they give offence. As, for instance, an Armenian was compelled to ride an ass instead of a horse, and when that restriction was relaxed, he had to show his inferiority by dismounting from his horse before entering the gates of Isfahan.

They were not allowed to have bells on their churches, (at Easter I wished they had none still), but now the Egglesiah Wang (the great church) has a fine campanile over 100 feet high in its inner court. The ancient mode of announcing the hours of worship is still affectionately adhered to, however. It consists of drumming with a mallet on a board hanging from two posts, and successfully breaks the sleep of the neighbourhood for the daily service which begins before daylight.

The Armenians, like the rich Persians, prudently keep to the low gateways, which, with the absence of windows and all exterior ornament, give the lanes so mean an aspect, and tend to make one regard the beauty and even magnificence within with considerable surprise.

In England a rich man, partly for his own delectation, and partly, if he be “the architect of his own fortune,” to impose his position ocularly on his poorer neighbours, displays his wealth in all ways and on most occasions. In Persia his chief pleasure must be to hoard it and contemplate it, for any unusual display of it in equipages or furnishings is certain to bring down upon him a “squeeze,” at Tihran in the shape of a visit from the Shah with its inevitable consequences, and in the Provinces in that of a requisition from the governor.

For a man to “enlarge his gates” is to court destruction. Poor men have low gates, which involve stooping, to prevent rich men’s servants from entering their houses on horseback on disagreeable errands. Christian churches have remarkably low doors elsewhere than in Julfa, to prevent the Moslems from stabling their cattle in them. Rich men affect mean entrances in order not to excite the rapacity of officialism, according to the ancient proverb, “He that exalteth his gate seeketh destruction” (Proverbs xvii. 19). Only Royal gates and the gates of officials who represent Royalty are high.

The Armenian merchants have, like the Europeans, their offices in Isfahan. The rest of the people get their living by the making and selling of wine, keeping small shops, making watches and jewellery, carpentering, in which they are very skilful, and market-gardening; they are thrifty and industrious, and there is very little real poverty.

The selling of wine does not conduce to the peace of Julfa. A mixture of sour wine and arak, a coarse spirit, is very intoxicating, and Persians, when they do drink, drink till they are drunk, and the abominable concealed traffic in liquor with the Moslems of the town is apt to produce disgraceful brawls.

Wine can be bought for fourpence a quart, but the upper classes make their own, and it costs less than this. Wines are both red and white, and one red wine is said to be like good Chianti. The Armenians tipple and also get drunk, priests included. It is said that some of the jars used in fermenting are between 200 and 300 years old.

The excellent education given in the C.M.S. schools has had the effect of stimulating the Armenian schools, and of producing among the young men a large emigration to India, Batavia, Constantinople, and even England. Only the dullards as a rule remain in Julfa. Some rise high in Persian and even in Turkish employment.

The Armenian women are capital housewives and very industrious. In these warm evenings the poorer women sit outside their houses in groups knitting. The knitting of socks is a great industry, and a woman can earn 4s. a month by it, which is enough to live upon.

In Julfa, and it may be partly owing to the presence of a European community, the Christians have nothing to complain of, and, so far as I can see, they are on terms of equality with the Persians.

However, Isfahan is full of religious intolerance which can easily be excited to frenzy, and the arrogance of the mollahs has increased since the fall from almost regal state of the Zil-i-Sultan, the Shah’s eldest son, into the position of a provincial governor, for he curbed them somewhat, and now the restraint is removed. However, it is against the Jews and the Bābis, rather than the Christians, that their hostility is directed.

A few weeks ago some Bābis were peaceably returning to a neighbouring village, when they were attacked, and seven of their number were massacred under atrocious circumstances, the remainder taking refuge for a time in the British Telegraph office. Several of both sexes who escaped are in concealment here in a room in the Hospital compound, one of them with a broken jaw.

The hiding of these Bābis has given great umbrage to the bigots of Isfahan, though the Amir-i-Panj justified it on all grounds, and about the time I arrived it was said that a thousand city fanatics purposed to attack the mission premises. But at one of the mosques there is a mollah, who with Gamaliel-like wisdom urged upon them “that if 300 Moslems were killed nothing would happen, but if a single European were killed, what then?”37

I cannot close this letter without a few words on the Armenian churches, some of which I visited with Mr. and Dr. Aganoor, and others with Dr. Bruce. The ceremony representing the washing of the disciples’ feet on the Armenian Holy Thursday was a most magnificent one as regards the antique splendour and extreme beauty of the vestments and jewels of the officiating bishop, but the feet, which are washed in rose-water and anointed, are not, as in Rome, those of beggars, but of neophytes costumed in pure white. Incense, embroideries, crowds of white-robed women, and other accessories made the function an imposing one.

The Cathedral, a part of the Monastery, has a narrow winding approach and a thick door, for ecclesiastics were not always as safe as they are now. In the outer court is the campanile before mentioned. The floor is paved with monumental slabs, and among the graves are those of several Europeans. Piles of logs look as if the Julfa carpenters seasoned their wood in this court!

The church is divided by a rail into two compartments. The dome is rich with beaten gold, and the dado is of very fine tiles, which produce a striking effect. The embroideries and the carpets, some of which are worth fabulous sums, are between two and three centuries old. The vestments and ornaments of the priests are very fine, and suggest the attire of the Aaronic priesthood.

It is a striking building, and the amount of gold and colour, toned into a certain harmony by time, produces a gorgeous effect. The outer compartment has a singular interest, for 230 years ago its walls were decorated with religious paintings, on a large scale, of events in Bible history, from the creation downwards. Some are copies, others original, and they are attributed to Italian artists. They are well worth careful study as representing the conceptions which found favour among the Armenian Christians of that day. They are terribly realistic, but are certainly instructive, especially the illustrations of the miracles and parables.

In one of the latter a man with a huge beam sticking out of one eye is represented as looking superciliously with the other at a man with an insignificant spike projecting. The death of Dives is a horrible representation. His soul, in the likeness of a very small nude figure, is represented as escaping from the top of his head, and is being escorted to the entrance of the lower regions by a flight of small black devils. The idea of the soul emerging from the top of the head is evidently borrowed from the Moslems.

Our Lord is, I think, everywhere depicted as short, dark, and dark-haired, with eyebrows much curved, and a very long upper lip, without beauty or dignity, an ordinary Oriental workman.

The picture of the Cathedral is an enormous canvas, representing the day when “before Him shall be gathered all nations.” The three persons of the Trinity are there, and saints and angels are portrayed as worshipping, or as enjoying somewhat earthly but perfectly innocent delights.

In this the conception is analogous to those celebrated circular pictures in which the Buddhistic future is unrolled, and which I last saw in the monasteries of Lesser Tibet. The upper or heavenly part is insignificant and very small, while the torments of the lost in the lower part are on a very large scale, and both the devils and the nude human sufferers in every phase of anguish have the appearance of life size. The ingenuity of torment, however, is not nearly so great, nor are the scenes so revolting as those which Oriental imagination has depicted in the Buddhist hells. A huge mythical monster represents the mouth of hell, and into his flaming and smoking jaws the impenitent are falling. Does any modern Armenian believe that any of those whose bones lie under the huge blocks of stone in the cemetery in the red desert at the foot of Kuh Sufi have passed into “this place of torment”?

The other church which claims one’s interest, though not used for worship, is that of St. George, the hero of the fraudulent contract in bacon, as well as of the dragon fight, to whom the Armenians as well as ourselves render singular honour.

This church is a great place for “miracles” of healing, and cells for the sick who come from a distance are freely provided. In a covered court are some large stones in a group, one of them evidently the capital of a column. Two of them have cavities at the top, and the sick kneel before them, and as the voluble women who were there told us, “they first pray to God and then to the stones,” and finally pour water into these cavities and drink it. The cure is either instantaneous or occurs at any time within fifteen days, and in every case the patient hears the voice of St. George telling him to go home when it is complete.

These stones, according to the legend told by the women and popularly believed by the uneducated, took it into their heads to come from Etchmiadzin in Armenia, the residence of the Catholicos, in one night, and deposited themselves where the church now stands. Seven times they were taken into Faraidan, eighty miles from Julfa, and as often returned, and their manifest predilection was at last rewarded by a rest of centuries. There were a number of sick people waiting for healing, for which of course fees are bestowed.

The Armenians, especially the women, pay great attention to the externals of their religion. Some of its claims are very severe, such as the daily service before daylight, winter and summer, and the long fasts, which they keep with surprising loyalty, i.e. among the poor in towns and in the villages. For at least one-sixth of the year they are debarred from the use of meat or even eggs, and are permitted only vegetable oils, fruits, vegetables, and grain. Spirits and wine, however, are not prohibited.

I really believe that their passionate attachment to their venerable church, the oldest of all national churches, is fostered by those among them who have ceased to believe its doctrines, as a necessity of national existence. I doubt very much whether the “Reformed” congregations, which have been gathered out here and elsewhere, would survive the withdrawal of foreign aid. Rather, I think, they would revert to the original type.

Superstitions without number are mixed up with their beliefs, and are countenanced by the priests. The meron or holy oil used in baptism and for other purposes has the stamp of charlatanism upon it. It is made in Etchmiadzin.

Rose leaves are collected in an immense vat, which is filled with water, and at a set time the monks and nuns form a circle round it, and repeat prayers till “fermentation” begins. They claim that the so-called fermentation is a miracle due to the prayers offered. Oil, probably attar of roses, rises to the surface, and this precious meron is sent to the Armenian churches throughout the world about once in four or five years. In Persia those who bear it are received with an istikbal or procession of welcome.

It is used not only in baptism and other rites but at the annual ceremony of washing the Cross at Christmas, when some of it is poured into the water and is drunk by the worshippers. In the villages they make a paste by mixing this water and oil with earth, which is made into balls and kept in the houses for “luck.” If a dog licks a bowl or other vessel, and thus renders it unclean, rubbing it round with one of these balls restores it to purity.

At a village in Faraidan there is an ancient New Testament, reputed to be of the sixth century. To this MS. people come on pilgrimage from all quarters, even from Fars, Tihran, and Armenia, to be healed of their diseases, and they make offerings to it, and practically render it worship.

To go and pray on a newly-made grave is a remedy for childlessness much resorted to by childless wives. When two boys fight, and one of them is hurt, or when any one is injured by a dog or by a tree falling, they wash the damaged person in water, and then throw the water over the boy, dog, or tree which has been the cause of the injury, believing that in this way the mischief is transferred.

When any one is ill of fright and the cause is not known, the nuns come to the house, and pour wax into a basin of boiling water, noting the form it takes, such as a snake, a dog, or a frog. In a case lately they went out and killed a snake, for the thing whose form the wax takes ought to be killed; but as this might often be difficult or unsuitable, they compromise the matter by throwing the water (not boiling, I hope) over the nearest dog or toad, or anything else which is supposed to be the culprit.

On the first Monday in Lent the women wash their knitting needles for luck in a stream which runs through Julfa. The children educated in the Mission schools laugh at these and many other superstitions.

The dress of the Armenian women is very showy, but too much of a huddle. Red is the dominant colour, a carnation red with white patterns sprawling over it, They wear coloured trousers concealed by a long skirt. The visible under-garment is a long, “shaped” dress of Turkey red. Over this is worn a somewhat scanty gown of red and white cotton, open in front, and very short-waisted, and over this a plain red pelisse or outer garment, often quilted, open in front, gashed up the sides, and falling below the knees. Of course this costume is liable to many modifications in the way of material, and embroidered jackets, heavily trimmed with jewellery and the like. As fashion is unchanging the acquisition and hoarding of garments are carried to a great extent.

There are two marked features of Armenian dress, one, the massive silver girdle made of heavy chased-silver links four inches long by two deep, often antique and always of antique design, which falls much below the waist in front, and is used to confine the ends of the white sheet which envelops an Armenian woman out of doors, so that it may hang evenly all round. The other is a skull-cap of embroidered silk or cloth, placed well back on the head above the many hanging plaits in which the hair is worn, with a black velvet coronet in front, from which among the richer women rows of coins depend. This, which is very becoming to the brilliant complexion and comely face below it, is in its turn covered by a half handkerchief, and over this is gracefully worn, when not gracelessly clutched, a chadar or drapery of printed cambric or muslin. A white band bound across the chin up to the lips suggests a broken jaw, and the tout ensemble of the various wrappings of the head a perennial toothache.

I. L. B.

37 I have written nothing about this fast-increasing sect of the Bābis, partly because being a secret sect, I doubt whether the doctrines which are suffered to leak out form really any part of its esoteric teaching, and partly because those Europeans who have studied the Bābis most candidly are diametrically opposed in their views of their tenets and practice, some holding that their aspirations are after a purer life, while others, and I think a majority, believe that their teachings are subversive of morality and of the purity of domestic life.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/persia_and_kurdistan/chapter16.html

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