Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter i (continued)

The last day on the Tigris passed as pleasantly as its predecessors. There was rain in the early morning, then frost which froze the rain on deck, and at 7 A.M. the mercury in my cabin stood at 28°.

In the afternoon the country became more populous, that is, there were kraals of mat huts at frequent intervals, and groups of tents to which an external wall of mats gave a certain aspect of permanence. Increased cultivation accompanied the increased population. In some places the ground was being scratched with a primitive plough of unshod wood, or a branch of a tree slightly trimmed, leaving a scar about two inches deep. These scars, which pass for furrows, are about ten inches apart, and camel thorn, tamarisk, and other shrubs inimical to crops stand between them. The seed is now being sown. After it comes up it grows apace, and in spite of shallow scratches, camel thorn, and tamarisk the tilth is so luxuriant that the husbandmen actually turn cattle and sheep into it for two or three weeks, and then leave it to throw up the ear! They say that there are from eighteen to thirty-five stalks from each seed in consequence of this process! The harvest is reaped in April, after which water covers the land.

Another style of cultivation is adopted for land, of which we saw a good deal, very low lying, and annually overflowed, usually surrounding a nucleus of permanent marsh. This land, after the water dries up, is destitute of vegetation, and presents a smooth, moist surface full of cracks, which scales off later. No scratching is needed for this soil. The seed is sown broadcast over it, and such of it as is not devoured by birds falls into the cracks, and produces an abundant crop. All this rich alluvial soil is stoneless, but is strewn from Seleucia to Babylon with fragments of glass, bricks, and pottery. Artificial mounds also abound, and remains of canals, all denoting that these fertile plains in ancient days supported a large stationary population. Of all that once was, this swirling river alone remains, singing in every eddy and ripple —

“For men may come and men may go,

But I go on for ever.”

As we were writing in the evening we were nearly thrown off our chairs by running aground with a thump, which injured one paddle wheel and obliged us to lie up part of the night for repairs near the ruins of the ancient palace of Ctesiphon. Seleucia, on the right bank of the river, is little more now than a historic name, but the palace of Tak-i-Kasr, with its superb archway 100 feet in height, has been even in recent times magnificent enough in its ruin to recall the glories of the Parthian kings, and the days when, according to Gibbon, “Khosroes Nushirwan gave audience to the ambassadors of the world” within its stately walls. Its gaunt and shattered remains have even still a mournful grandeur about them, but they have suffered so severely from the barbarous removal of the stones and the fall of much of the front as to be altogether disappointing.

Soon after leaving Ctesiphon there is increased cultivation, and within a few miles of Baghdad the banks of the river, which is its great high road, become populous. “Palatial residences,” in which the women’s apartments are indicated by the blankness of their walls, are mixed up with mud hovels and goat’s-hair tents; there are large farmhouses with enclosures for cattle and horses; date gardens and orange groves fringe the stream, and arrangements for drawing water are let into its banks at frequent intervals. Strings of asses laden with country produce, companies of horsemen and innumerable foot passengers, all moved citywards.

The frosty sun rose out of an orange sky as a disc of blood and flame, but the morning became misty and overcast, so that the City of the Arabian Nights did not burst upon the view in any halo of splendour. A few tiled minarets, the blue domes of certain mosques, handsome houses — some of them European Consulates, half hidden by orange groves laden with their golden fruitage — a picturesque bridge of boats, a dense growth of palms on the right bank, beyond which gleam the golden domes of Kazimain and the top of Zobeide’s tomb, the superannuated British gun-boat Comet, two steamers, a crowd of native craft, including kufas or gophers, a prominent Custom-house, and decayed alleys opening on the water, make up the Baghdad of the present as seen from the Mejidieh’s deck.

As soon as we anchored swarms of kufas clustered round us, and swarms of officials and hamals (porters) invaded the deck. Some of the passengers had landed two hours before, others had proceeded to their destinations at once, and as my friends had not come off I was alone for some time in the middle of a tremendous Babel, in which every man shouted at the top of his voice and all together, Hadji assuming a deportment of childish helplessness. Certain officials under cover of bribes lavished on my behalf by a man who spoke English professed to let my baggage pass unopened, then a higher official with a sword knocked Hadji down, then a man said that everything would be all right if I would bestow another gold lira, about £1, on the officers, and I was truly glad when kind Captain Dougherty with Dr. Sutton came alongside in the Comet’s boat, and brought me ashore. The baggage was put into another of her boats, but as soon as we were out of sight it was removed, and was taken to the Custom-house, where they insisted that some small tent poles in a cover were guns, and smashed a box of dates in the idea that it was tobacco!

The Church Mission House, in which I am receiving hospitality, is a “native” house, though built and decorated by Persians, as also are several of the Consulates. It is in a narrow roadway with blank walls, a part of the European quarter; a door of much strength admits into a small courtyard, round which are some of the servants’ quarters and reception rooms for Moslem visitors, and within this again is a spacious and handsome courtyard, round which are kitchens, domestic offices, and the serdabs, which play an important part in Eastern life.

These serdabs are semi-subterranean rooms, usually with arched fronts, filled in above-ground with latticework. They are lofty, and their vaulted roofs are supported in rich men’s houses on pillars. The well of the household is often found within. The general effect of this one is that of a crypt, and it was most appropriate for the Divine Service in English which greeted my arrival. The cold of it was, however, frightful. It was only when the Holy Communion was over that I found that I was wearing Hadji’s revolver and cartridge belt under my cloak, which he had begged me to put on to save them from confiscation! In these vaulted chambers both Europeans and natives spend the hot season, sleeping at night on the roofs.

Above this lower floor are the winter apartments, which open upon a fine stone balcony running round three sides of the court. On the river side of the house there is an orange garden, which just now might be the garden of the Hesperides, and a terrace, below which is the noble, swirling Tigris, and beyond, a dark belt of palms. These rooms on the river front have large projecting windows, six in a row, with screens which slide up and down, and those which look to the courtyard are secluded by very beautiful fretwork. The drawing-room, used as a dormitory, is a superb room, in which exquisitely beautiful ceiling and wall decorations in shades of fawn enriched with gold, and fretwork windows, suggest Oriental feeling at every turn. The plaster-work of this room is said to be distinctively Persian and is very charming. The house, though large, is inconveniently crowded, with the medical and clerical mission families, two lady missionaries, and two guests. Each apartment has two rows of vaulted recesses in its walls, and very fine cornices above. It is impossible to warm the rooms, but the winter is very short and brilliant, and after ulsters, greatcoats, and fur cloaks have been worn for breakfast, the sun mitigates the temperature.

I. L. B.

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