Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xvii

From Dima we ascended to high tablelands, having the snowy Zard Kuh ever in sight, one nameless peak being at present pure white, and descended into and crossed the Shorab, a fertile valley, on one side of which is the famous cleft called Kar Kanun, an artificial gash across a spur of the Kuh-i-Rang of the same name. After winding among mountains we descended on the Karun, whose waters, clear, rapid, and peacock-green, fertilise a plain of fine flowery turf lying at the base of hills, with another branch of the Karun between them and the Zard Kuh.

It is a lovely plain, bright and smiling, contrasting with the savage magnificence of the Zard Kuh, which comes down upon it with its peaks, chasms, and precipices, and glittering fields of unbroken snow. It was given up to mares and foals, but green platforms high above, and little hollows in the foot-hills were spotted with Ilyat tents, and in the four days which we spent there the camps were never free from Ilyat visitors. The Sahib came in the first evening with one man badly hurt, and another apparently in the first stage of rheumatic fever. A small tent was rigged for this poor fellow, who was in intense pain and quite helpless, with a temperature of 104°, and every joint swollen. The usual remedies had no effect on him. I had had a present of a small quantity of salol, a newish drug, with directions for its use, and his master Hadji undertook to make him take it regularly, and hot tea when he fancied it, and at the end of twenty-two hours he was not only free from fever but from pain, and was able to mount a mule.53

There are two definite objects of interest close to the plain of Chaman Kushan, the reputed source of the Karun and the great artificial cleft of Kar Kanun. I visited the first on a misty day, which exaggerated the height of the mountains, and by filling their chasms with translucent blue atmosphere gave a rare loveliness to the whole, for it must be said that the beauties of Persian scenery are usually staring, hard, and unveiled. The fords of two or three rivers, including the Karun, some steep ascents and descents, a rough ride along a stony slope of the Zard Kuh, and the crossing of a very solid snow-bridge took us to the top of a cliff exactly opposite the powerful springs in which the Karun has its reputed origin.

Over this source towers the mighty range of the Zard Kuh — a colossal mountain barrier, a mass of yellow and gray limestone, with stupendous snow-filled chasms, huge precipices, and vast snow-fields, treeless and destitute of herbage except where the tulip-studded grass runs up to meet the moisture from the snow-fields. It is the birthplace of innumerable torrents, but one alone finds its way to the sea.

These springs are in a lateral slit in a lofty limestone precipice below a snow-field, at one end of which, as if from a shaft, the most powerful of them wells up, and uniting with the others in a sort of grotto of ferns and mosses pours over a ledge in a sheet of foam, a powerful waterfall, and slides away, a vigorous river of a wonderful blue-green colour, under a snow-bridge, starting full fledged on its course. The surroundings of this spring are wild and magnificent. A few Bakhtiaris crept across the lower part of the face of rock, and perched themselves above it. The roar of the water, now loud, now subdued, made wild music, and the snow-bridges added to the impressiveness of the scene.


Of course the geographical interest of this region is engrossing.54 This remarkable spring, called by the Bakhtiaris Sar-i-Cheshmeh-i-Kurang (“the head source of the Kurang”), and until this journey held to be the real source, is not, however, the actual birthplace of the Karun or Kurang, which was afterwards traced up to its headwaters in the magnificent Kuh-i-Rang.55

A few words on this, the one real river of which Persia can boast, and which seems destined to play an important part in her commercial future, will not be out of place. From its source it is a powerful and important stream, full, deep, and flowing with great velocity for much of its upper course between precipices varying in height from 1000 to 3000 feet. It is a perennial stream, fordable in very few places, and then only in its upper waters. Varying in width usually from fifty to a hundred yards, it is compressed at the Pul-i-Ali-kuh into a breadth of about nine feet.

The steepness and height of its banks make it in general useless for irrigation purposes, but some day it may be turned to account as a great “water power.” Its windings, dictated by the singular formation of the mountain ranges (for I reject the idea of it having “carved” its channel), are almost phenomenal. After flowing south-east for a hundred miles from its source, it makes an acute bend, flows for fifty miles to the south-west, and then making another fantastic turn it flows in an exactly opposite direction to that of its earlier course, proceeding north-west to Shuster for a hundred miles.

It is calculated that the distance from the Kuh-i-Rang to Shuster as the crow flies is seventy-five miles, but the distance travelled by the waters of the Karun is 250 miles, with an aggregate fall of 9000 feet.

Besides being fed on its journey through the Bakhtiari country by many mountain-side fountain springs of pure fresh water, as well as by salt streams and springs, it receives various tributaries, among the most important of which are the Ab-i-Bazuft and a stream which, though known locally under various names, may be called from the Chigakhor basin in which it rises the Ab-i-Chigakhor, which makes a course of ninety miles to get over a distance of twenty; the Darkash Warkash flowing in from the Chahar Mahals near Ardal, the Dinarud rising in the fair valley of Gorab, and the Ab-i-Cherri or Duab.

This mountain range, the Zard Kuh, in whose steep side at a height of over 8000 feet the Sar-i-Cheshmeh-i-Kurang wells up so grandly, is rather a series of rock summits and precipices than a range of mountains. In late June its naked shelves and battlements upbore great snow-fields, and its huge rifts or passes — the Gil-i-Shah, nearly 11,700 feet in altitude, and the Pambakal, 11,400 — were full of snow. But even in four days it melted rapidly, and probably by August little remains except a few patches, in the highest and most sunless of the rifts. It is only on the north side that the snow lasts even into July.

Zard Kuh Range.

The marked features of this range are its narrow wall-like character, its ruggedness on both sides, its absence of any peaks rising very remarkably above the ordinary jagged level of the barrier, its lack of prominent spurs, and its almost complete nakedness. It is grand, but only under rare atmospheric conditions can it be termed beautiful. Its length may be about thirty miles. It runs from north-west to south-east. Some of its highest summits attain an elevation of 13,000 feet. Its name is a corruption of Sard Kuh, “cold mountain.”

After fording various snow streams and taking a break-neck goat track, we reached the great snow pass of Gil-i-Shah, by which the Bakhtiaris come up from the Shuster plains on the firm snow in spring, returning when the snow is soft in autumn by a very difficult track on the rocky ledges above. In the mist it looked the most magnificent and stupendous pass I had ever seen, always excepting the entrance to the Lachalang Pass in Lesser Tibet, and an atmospheric illusion raised the mountains which guard it up to the blue sky. I much wished to reach the summit, but in a very narrow chasm was fairly baffled by a wide rift in a sort of elevated snow-bridge which the mule could not cross, and camped there for some hours; but even there nomads crowded round my tent with more audacity in their curiosity than they usually show, and Mirza heard two of them planning an ingenious robbery.

The heat was very great when I returned, 100° in the shade, but rest was impossible, for numbers of mares and horses were tethered near my tent, and their riders, men and women, to the number of forty, seized on me, clamouring for medicines and eye lotions. I often wonder at the quiet gravity of Mirza’s face as he interprets their grotesque accounts of their ailments. A son of Chiragh Ali Khan came to tell me that the “Feringhi ointment” had cured a beautiful young woman of his tribe of an “abscess in her nose”! An instance of real benefit hardly consoles for many failures, and any cure increases the exhausting number of “patients.” On one day on that plain there was no rest between eleven and five.

Small events occurred tending to show that the good order which the Ilkhani’s government secures is chiefly round the centre of rule. Stories of tribal disputes with violence, and of fights arising out of blood feuds came in daily, and recent sword cuts and bullet wounds were brought to the Hakīm. One day there was a disturbance in camp owing to a man attacking Hassan for preventing a woman from entering my tent in my absence. I learned very soon after coming into this country that the Bakhtiaris are dangerously sensitive about their women, although the latter are unveiled and have an amount of latitude unusual in the East. I have more than once cautioned my servants on this point, for any supposed insult to a female relative of a Bakhtiari would have by custom to be wiped out in blood. This extreme sensitiveness has its good side, for even in the midst of the tribal wars and broils which are constantly occurring female honour is always secure, and a woman can travel safely alone through the wildest regions; a woman betraying her husband would, however, almost certainly be put to death. One night the camps were threatened by robbers, upon whom Aziz Khan fired.

Solitary as is now the general aspect of the surrounding country, it must have been crowded with workmen and their food providers within the last two centuries, for in the beginning of the seventeenth century Shah Abbas the Great, the greatest and most patriotic of modern Persian kings, in his anxiety to deliver Isfahan once for all from the risk of famine, formed and partly executed the design of turning to account the difference in level (about 300 feet) between the Karun and Zainderud, and by cleaving an intervening mountain spur to let the waters of the one pass into the other. The work of cleaving was carried on by his successors, but either the workmen failed to get through the flint which underlies the free-stone, or the downfall of the Sufari dynasty made an end of it, and nothing remains of what should have been a famous engineering enterprise but a huge cleft with tool marks upon it in the crest of the hill, “in length 300 yards, in breadth fifteen, and fifty feet deep.”56 Above it are great heaps of quarried stones and the remains of houses, possibly of overseers, and below are the remnants of the dam which was to have diverted the Karun water into the cleft.

On a cool, beautiful evening I came down from this somewhat mournful height to a very striking scene, where the peacock-blue branch from the Sar-i-Cheshmeh unites with the peacock-green stream from Kuh-i-Rang, the dark, high sides of their channels shutting out the mountains. Both rivers rush tumultuously above their union, but afterwards glide downwards in a smooth, silent volume of most exquisite colour, so deep as to be unfordable, and fringed with green strips of grass and innumerable flowers. On emerging from the ravine the noble mass of the Zard Kuh was seen rose-coloured in the sunset, its crests and spires of snow cleaving the blue sky, and the bright waters and flower-starred grass of the plain gave a smiling welcome home.

The next march was a very beautiful one, most of the way over the spurs and deeply-cleft ravines of the grand Kuh-i-Rang by sheep and goat tracks, and no tracks at all, a lonely and magnificent ride, shut in among mountains of great height, their spurs green with tamarisk, salvias, and euphorbias, their ravines noisy with torrents, bright springs bursting from their sides with lawn-like grass below, and their slopes patched with acres of deep snow, on whose margin purple crocuses, yellow ranunculuses, and white tulips were springing. But the grand feature of the march is not the mighty Kuh-i-Rang on the right, but the magnificent Zard Kuh on the left, uplifting its snow-fields and snow-crests into the blue of heaven, on the other side of an ever-narrowing valley. At the pass of Gal-i-Gav, 11,150 (?) feet in altitude, where we have halted for two days, the Zard Kuh approaches the Kuh-i-Rang so closely as to leave only a very deeply cleft ravine between them. From this pass there is a very grand view, not only of these ranges, but of a tremendous depression into which the pass leads, beyond which is the fine definite mountain Kuh-i-Shahan. This pass is the watershed between the Karun and Ab-i-Diz, though, be it remembered, the latter eventually unites with the former at Band-i-Kir. All is treeless.

The Kuh-i-Rang is the only “real mountain” seen on the journey hitherto. It is unlike all others, not only in its huge bulk and gigantic and far-reaching spurs, but in being clothed. Its name means the “variegated mountain.” It has much Devonshire red about it, but clad as it is now with greenery, its soil and rock ribs cannot be investigated.

It is a mountain rich in waters, both streams and springs. It is physically and geographically a centre, a sort of knot nearly uniting what have been happily termed the “Outer” and “Inner” ranges of the Bakhtiari mountains, and it manifestly divides the country into two regions, which, for convenience’ sake, have been felicitously termed the Bakhtiari country and Upper Elam, the former lying to the south-east and the latter to the north-west of this most important group of peaks, only just under 13,000 feet, which passes under the general name Kuh-i-Rang.

A prominent geographical feature of this region is that from this point south-eastwards the valleys rim parallel with the great ranges, and are tolerably wide and level, carrying the drainage easily and smoothly, with plenty of room for the fairly easy tracks which usually run on both banks of the rivers.

The reader who has followed the geographical part of my narrative will, I hope, have perceived that the openings through the Outer and Inner ranges in the region previously traversed are few and remarkable, the Tang-i-Ghezi and the Tang-i-Darkash Warkash piercing the Outer, and the Tang-i-Dupulan the Inner range.

The Kuh-i-Rang is the definite water-parting and the originating cause of two drainage systems, and it may be seen from the map, as was beautifully obvious from the summit of one of the peaks over 11,000 feet in height, that it marks a singular change in the “lie of the land,” inasmuch as the main drainage no longer runs parallel to the main ranges, but cuts them across, breaking up Upper Elam into a wild and confused sea of mountains, riven and gashed, without any attempt at uniformity.

This cutting through the ranges at right angles by rivers which somehow must reach the sea, probably through channels formed by some tremendous operations of nature, presents serious obstacles to the traveller, and must effectually prevent commerce flowing in that direction. The aspect of Upper Elam as seen from the Kuh-i-Rang is of huge walls of naked rock, occasionally opening out so as to give space for such a noble mountain as the Kuh-i-Shahan, with tremendous gorges or cañons among them, with sheer precipices 4000 and 5000 feet high, below which blue-green torrents, crystalline in their purity, rage and boom, thundering on their way to join the Ab-i-Diz. The valleys are short, and elevated from 6000 to 7000 feet, and the tracks dignified by the name of roads pass along them and at great altitudes on the sides of the main ranges, but are compelled continually to make dips and ascents of many thousand feet to reach and emerge from the fords of the rivers which dash through the magnificent rifts and cañons.

To the south-east of the Kuh-i-Rang the formation is orderly and intelligible; to the north-west all is confusion and disorder, but a sublime confusion. Two great passes to the north and south of this magnificent mountain are the only ways of communication between the region of Upper Elam and the Bakhtiari country. The northern pass was ascended from Dima. The Kharba, one of the head-streams of the Zainderud, rises on it and fertilises a beautiful valley about fourteen miles in length. That pass, the Gal-i-Bard-i-Jamal (the pass of Jamal’s stone), the stone being a great detached rock near the summit, and the Gal-i-Gav (the Cattle Pass) on the southern side, are both over 10,000 feet in altitude. They are seldom traversed by the natives, and only in well-armed parties, as both are very dangerous.

The Kuh-i-Rang must now be regarded as the true birthplace of the Zainderud and the Karun, though their sources have hitherto been placed in the Zard Kuh. A tributary of the Ab-i-Diz, and locally considered as its head-water, rises also in the Kuh-i-Rang.

Aziz Khan.

Aziz Khan, who had gone to his tents, has returned with a very nice young servant and another mare, and with him noise and “go.” He has such a definite personality, and is so energetic in his movements, that the camps are dull without him. He is a fearful beggar. He asks me for something every day, and for things he can make no possible use of, simply out of acquisitiveness. He has got from me among many other things a new embroidered saddle-cloth, a double-bladed knife, an Indian kamarband, many yards of silk, a large pair of scissors, bracelets for his wife and daughter, and working materials, and now he has set his heart on a large combination knife, which is invaluable to me. “What use is that knife to a woman?” he asks daily. Now he says that I have given him many things but I have never given him money, and he must have a purse of money.

“Why can you do so much more than our women?” he often asks. His astonishment that I can read, and yet more that I can write, is most amusing. “Can many women in your country write?” he asked. “Can your Queen read and write? Can she embroider as you do?” At first he thought that I only pretended to write, but was convinced when I sent a letter to the Ilkhani.

He usually appears when a number of sick people come, interprets their dialect into good Persian for Mirza, and beats and pelts them with stones when they crowd too closely, but they do not care. Sometimes when I say that nothing that I have can do a sick person any good he begs “for my sake” that I will try, and when I still decline he goes away in a tantrum, cursing, and shaking his wide shulwars with an angry strut, but is soon back again with fresh demands.

He spreads his prayer-carpet and goes through his devotions thrice a day, but somehow “Aziz Khan praying” seems to suggest some ludicrous idea, even to his coreligionists. “Feringhis don’t fear God,” he said to me; “they never worship.” I told him he was wrong, that many are very devout. He said, “Does —— pray?” mentioning a European. I said “Most certainly,” and he walked away with the sneering laugh of a fiend. He is a complete child of nature. He says what he thinks, and acts chiefly as he pleases, but withal there is a gentlemanliness and a considerable dignity about him. I think that his ruling religion is loyalty to Isfandyar Khan, and consequent hatred of the Ilkhani and all his other enemies. Going through a pantomimic firing of an English rifle he said, “I hope I may shoot the Shah with this one day!” “For what reason?” I asked. “Because he murdered Isfandyar Khan’s father, and I hate him.” I asked him if he liked shooting, and he replied, “I like shooting men!”

He has done a good deal of fighting, and has been shot through the lung, arm, and leg, besides getting sword cuts, and he takes some pride in showing his wounds. I think he is faithful. Mirza says that he has smoothed many difficulties, and has put many crooked things straight, without taking any credit to himself. His most apparent faults are greed and a sort of selfish cunning.

There are many camps about the Gal-i-Gav, and crowds, needing very careful watching, are always about the tents, wanting to see Feringhi things, most of the people never having seen a Feringhi. It is a novel sight in the evenings when long lines of brown sheep in single file cross the snow-fields, following the shepherds into camp.

This Gal-i-Gav on the Kuh-i-Rang marks a new departure on the journey, as well as the establishment of certain geographical facts. It will be impossible for the future to place the source of the Karun in the Zard Kuh range, for we followed the stream up to the Kuh-i-Rang, or to indulge in the supposition that the mountains which lie to the north-west are “covered with eternal snow,” which in this latitude would imply heights from 17,000 to 20,000 feet.

It is indeed a disappointment that, look where one may over the great area filled up by huge rock barriers and vast mountains, from the softer ridges bounding the fiery Persian plains to the last hills in which the Inner range descends upon the great alluvial levels of Khuzistan, not a peak presents itself in the glittering snowy mantle which I have longed to see. Snow in forlorn patches or nearly hidden in sunless rifts, and the snow-fields of the Zard Kuh will remain for a time, but eternal snow is — nowhere, and it does not appear that the highest of the peaks much exceeds 13,000 feet, either in Upper Elam or the Bakhtiari country.

Great difficulties are ahead, not only from tracks which are said to be impassable for laden animals, but from the disturbed state of the country. From what I hear from Aziz Khan and from the guides who have come up here, I gather that the power of the Ilkhani, shaky enough even nearer Ardal, all but dwindles away here, and is limited to the collection of the tribute, the petty Khans fighting among themselves, and doing mainly what is right in their own eyes.

It is somewhat of a satisfaction to me that it is impossible now to go back, and that a region absolutely unexplored lies ahead, doubtless full, as the previously untraversed regions have been, of surprises and interests.

I. L. B.

53 For the benefit of other travellers I add that the dose of salol was ten grains every three hours. I found it equally efficacious afterwards in several cases of acute rheumatism with fever. I hope that the general reader will excuse the medical and surgical notes given in these letters. I am anxious to show the great desire for European medical aid, and the wide sphere that is open to a medical missionary, at least for physical healing.

54 A few geographical paragraphs which follow here and on p. 35 are later additions to the letter.

55 Although the correct name of this river is undoubtedly Kurang, I have throughout adopted the ordinary spelling Karun, under which it is commercially and politically known.

56 Six Months in Persia.— Stack.

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