Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xiv

You will be tired of Julfa though I am not. I fully expected to have left it a fortnight ago, but unavoidable delays have occurred. My caravan and servants started this morning, and I leave myself in a few hours.

Upon my horse I have bestowed the suggestive name of Screw. He is fairly well-bred, big-headed, big-eared, small-bodied, bright bay, fine-coated, slightly flat-footed, and with his fore hoofs split in several places from the coronet nearly to the shoe. He is an undoubted yabu, and has carried loads for many a day. He has a long stride, shies badly, walks very fast, canters easily, and at present shows no tendency to tumble down.38

I have had pleasant rides alone, crossing the definite dividing line between the desert and the oasis of cultivation and irrigation, watching the daily development of the various crops and the brief life of the wild flowers, creeping through the green fields on the narrow margins of irrigating ditches, down to the Pul-i-Kajū, and returning to the green lanes of Julfa by the bright waters of the Zainderud crimsoning in the setting sun.

For in the late cool and breezy weather, not altogether free from clouds and showers, there have been some gorgeous sunsets, and magnificent colouring of the depth and richness which people call tropical, has blazed extravagantly; and from the violet desert to the indigo storm-clouds on the still snow-patched Kuhrūd mountains, from the vivid green of the oasis to the purple crags in dark relief against a sky of flame, all things have been new.

Two Sundays witnessed two incidents, one the baptism of a young Moslem in a semi-private fashion, who shortly afterwards renounced Christianity, and the other that of a respectable Mohammedan merchant in Isfahan, who has long pleaded for baptism, presenting himself at the altar rails at the Holy Communion, resolved that if he were not permitted to confess Christ as Divine in one way he would in another. He was passed over, to my great regret, if he be sincere, but I suppose the Rubric leaves no choice.39

I have written little about my prospective journey because there has been a prolonged uncertainty about it, and even now I cannot give any definite account of the project, except that the route lies through an altogether mountainous region, in that part of the province of Luristan known in Persia colloquially as the “Bakhtiari country,” from being inhabited by the Bakhtiari Lurs, chiefly nomads. The pros and cons as to my going have been innumerable, and the two people in Persia who know the earlier part of the route say that the character of the people makes it impossible for a lady to travel among them. On the other hand, I have the consent and help of the highest authorities, Persian and English, and shall not go too far, but shall return to Isfahan in case things should turn out as is feared. The exploration of a previously unexplored region will be in itself interesting, but whether there will be sufficient of the human interests, which I chiefly care for, I doubt; in that case the journey will be dull.

At all events I shall probably have to return here in two months,40 but such a journey for myself and two servants in such a region requires extensive preparations, and I have brought all my own travelling “dodges” into requisition, with a selection of those of other people.

It is considered desirable to carry stores from Isfahan for forty days, except flour and rice, which can be obtained a week’s march from here. At the British Legation I was kindly supplied with many tins of preserved meat, and milk, and jam, and besides these I am only taking a quantity of Edwards’ Desiccated Soup, portable and excellent, twelve pounds of tea, and ten pounds of candles. The great thing in planning is to think of what one can do without. Two small bottles of saccharin supply the place of forty pounds of sugar.

Two yekdans contain my stores, cooking and table utensils and personal luggage, a waterproof bag my bedding, and a divided packing-case, now empty, goes for the flour and rice. Everything in the yekdans is put up in bags made of the coarse cotton of the country. The tents and tent-poles, which have been socketed for easier transport on crooked mountain paths, and a camp-bed made from a Kashmiri pattern in Tihran, are all packed in covers made from the gunny bags in which sugar is imported, and so are double sets of large and small iron tent-pegs.

Presents for the “savages” are also essential, and I have succeeded in getting 100 thimbles, many gross of small china buttons which, it is said, they like to sew on children’s caps, 1000 needles, a quantity of Russian thread, a number of boxes with mirror tops, two dozen double-bladed knives, and the same number of strong scissors, Kashmir kamarbands, gay handkerchiefs for women’s heads, Isfahan printed “table-cloths,” dozens of bead bracelets and necklaces, leather purses and tobacco pouches, and many other things.

I take three tents, including a shuldari, five feet square, and only weighing ten pounds. My kit is reduced to very simple elements, a kettle, two copper pots which fit into each other, a frying pan, cooking knife and spoon, a tray instead of a table, a chair, two plates, a teacup and saucer, a soup plate, mug, and teapot, all of course in enamelled iron, a knife, fork, and two spoons. This is ample for one person for any length of time in camp.

For this amount of baggage and for the sacks of flour and rice, weighing 160 lbs., which will hereafter be carried, I have four mules, none heavily laden, and two with such light loads that they can be ridden by my servants. These mules, two charvadars, and a horse are engaged for the journey at two krans (16d.) a day each, the owner stipulating for a bakhsheesh of fifty krans, if at the end I am satisfied. This sum is to cover food and all risks.

The animals are hired from a well-known charvadar, who has made a large fortune and is regarded as very trustworthy; Dr. Bruce calls him the “prince of charvadars.” He and his son are going on the “trip.” He has a quiet, superior manner, and when he came to judge of the weight of my loads, he said they were “very good — very right,” a more agreeable verdict than muleteers are wont to pass upon baggage.41

The making of the contract with Hadji involved two important processes, the writing of it by a scribe and the sealing of it. The scribe is one of the most important persons in Persia. Every great man has one or more, and every little man has occasion for a scribe’s services in the course of a year. He is the trusted depositary of an infinity of secrets. He moves with dignity and deliberation, his “writer’s inkhorn” pendent from his girdle, and his physiognomy has been trained to that reticent, semi-mysterious expression common to successful solicitors in England.

Writing is a fine art in Persia. The characters are in themselves graceful, and lend themselves readily to decoration. The old illuminated MSS. are things of beauty; even my contract is ornamental. The scribe holds the paper in his left hand, and uses a reed pen with the nib cut obliquely, writing from right to left. The ink is thick, and is carried with the pens in a papier-maché inkhorn.

Hadji tells me with much pride that his son, Abbas Ali, can write “and will be very useful.”

Sealing is instead of signing. As in Japan, every adult male has his seal, of agate or cornelian among the rich, and of brass or silver among the poor. The name is carefully engraved on the seal at a cost of from a half-penny to 18s. a letter. Tihran is celebrated for its seal-cutters. No document is authentic without a seal as its signature.

Hadji took the contract and applied it to his forehead in token of respect, touched the paper with his tongue to make it moist and receptive, waved it in the air to rid it of superfluous moisture, wetted his fingers on a spongy ball of silk full of Indian ink in the scribe’s inkstand, rubbed the ink on the seal, breathed on it, and pressed it firmly down on the paper, which he held over the forefinger of his left hand. The smallest acts in Persia are regulated by rigid custom.

The remaining portion of my outfit, but not the least important, consists of a beautiful medicine chest of the most compact and portable make, most kindly given to me by Messrs. Burroughes and Wellcome, containing fifty small bottles of their invaluable “tabloids,” a hypodermic syringe, and surgical instruments for simple cases. To these I have added a quantity of quinine, and Dr. Odling at Tihran gave me some valuable remedies. A quantity of bandages, lint, absorbent cotton, etc., completes this essential equipment. Among the many uncertainties of the future this appears certain, that the Bakhtiaris will be clamorous for European medicine.

I have written of my servants. Mirza Yusuf pleases me very much, Hassan the cook seems quiet, but not active, and I picture to myself the confusion of to-night in camp, with two men who know nothing about camp life and its makeshifts!

Whatever the summer brings, this is probably my last letter written from under a roof till next winter. I am sorry to leave Julfa and these kind friends, but the prospect of the unknown has its charms.

I. L. B.

38 Screw never became a friend or companion, scarcely a comrade, but showed plenty of pluck and endurance, climbed and descended horrible rock ladders over which a horse with a rider had never passed before, was steady in fords, and at the end of three and a half months of severe travelling and occasional scarcity of food was in better condition than when he left Julfa.

39 He has since been baptized, but for safety had to relinquish his business and go to India, where he is supporting himself, and his conduct is satisfactory.

40 I never returned, and only at the end of three and a half months emerged from the “Bakhtiari country” at Burujird after a journey of 700 miles.

41 Hadji Hussein deserves a passing recommendation. I fear that he is still increasing his fortune and has not retired. The journey was a very severe one, full of peril to his mules from robbers and dangerous roads, and not without risk to himself. With the exception of a few Orientalisms, which are hardly worth recalling, he was faithful and upright, made no attempt to overreach, kept to his bargain, was punctual and careful, and at Burujird we parted good friends. He was always most respectful to me, and I owe him gratitude for many kindnesses which increased my comfort. It is right to acknowledge that a part of the success of the journey was owing to the efficiency of the transport.

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