Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxi

A week has glided away since I sent my last diary letter, with only two events of direct personal interest, one being that I have bought a young, powerful little Bakhtiari horse, which has been in camp since we left the Karun river, a dark bay, with black points, big feet, a big ugly head, and big flopping ears, but otherwise passably good-looking, an unsuspicious animal, brought up in tent life, with children rolling about among his feet, and as yet quite ignorant that man can be anything but his friend. I intend to look after his well-being, but not to make a pet of him.

The other event occurred on the morning after our arrival, and took the place of the “boot and saddle” call, for I was awakened very early by a hubbub round my tent, the interpretation of which was that a packing case in three compartments, containing my cooking utensils, remaining table equipments, and stores, had been carried off before daylight, deposited in an adjacent plantation, broken open, and emptied. Thus I was left with nothing, and have been unable to get anything in the bazars here except two cooking pots and a tin teapot of unique construction made to order. The few other things which I still regard as absolute necessaries, a cup, plate, knife, fork, and spoon, have been lent me by the Agha. All my tea is gone, the worst loss of all.

Later in the day Hassan came in a quiet rage, saying that he would leave for Isfahan at once, because Mirza had accused him of not keeping an efficient watch, and shortly afterwards Mahomet Ali and his handsome donkey actually did leave.64 Burujird bears a very bad reputation. Here, last year, a young English officer was robbed of his tents and horses, and everything but the clothes he wore.

The Governor, on hearing of the theft, said I should not have “camped in the wilderness,” the “wilderness” being a beautifully kept garden with a gardener (who was arrested) and a house. For the last week a guard of six soldiers has watched by day and night.

The news received from the Bakhtiari country is rather startling. Mirab Khan, who looked too ill and frail for active warfare, sent a messenger with a letter to Khaja Taimur, urging him to join him in an attack on Aslam Khan. The letter was intercepted by this “Judas,” and now the country from Kalahoma to Khanabad is in a flame. Serious troubles have broken out in this plain, all the Khans of the Sagwand tribe having united to rise against the payment of a tribute which they regard as heavy enough to “crush the life out of the people.” The Hākim has telegraphed for troops, and the governor of Luristan is said to be coming with 500 men.

A “tribute insurrection,” on a larger or smaller scale, is a common autumnal event. The Khans complain of being oppressed by “merciless exactions.” They say that the tribute fixed by the Shah is “not too much,” but that it is doubled and more by the rapacity of governors, and that the people are growing poorer every year. They complain that when they decline to pay more than the tribute fixed by the Amin-es-Sultan, soldiers are sent, who drive off their mares, herds of cattle, and flocks to the extent of three, four, and five times the sum demanded.

These few words contain the substance of statements almost universally made. There is probably another side, and they may be true in part only. The tribesmen of Silakhor state that they had protested and appealed in vain before they decided on resistance. Every Khan with whom I have conversed has besought me to lay his case before the “English Vakil” at Tihran.

This widely-diffused belief in England as the redresser of wrongs is very touching, and very palatable to one’s national pride. All these people have heard of the way in which the cultivators in India have been treated, of “land settlements” and English “settlement officers,” and they say, “England could make everything right for us.” So she could, “and she would”! As the governors pay large sums for offices from which they are removable at the Shah’s pleasure, and as the lower officials all pay more or less heavily for their positions, we may reasonably infer that all, from the highest to the lowest, put on the screw, and squeeze all they can out of the people, over and above the tribute fixed at Tihran. Near views of Oriental despotisms are as disenchanting as near views of “the noble savage,” for they contain within themselves the seeds of “all villainies,” which rarely, if ever, fail of fructification.

Mirza Karim Khan, the Governor of Burujird, called a few days ago, a young harassed-looking man, with very fine features, but a look of serious bad health. He complained so much that the Agha asked his attendant, a very juvenile Hakīm, speaking a little scarcely intelligible French, if he would object to the Governor taking something from the famous “leather box,” and the effect was so magical that the next day he looked a different man.

An arrangement was made for returning the visit, and he received us in a handsome tent in a garden, with the usual formalities, but only a scribe and the Hakīm were present. A sowar, sent from Burujird with a letter to the Sahib, was undoubtedly robbed of his horse, gun, and some of his clothing en route. Very quietly the Governor denied this, but as he did so I saw a wink pass between the scribe and Hakīm. It was a pitiable sight — a high official sitting there, with luxuries about him, in a city with its walls, embankments, and gates ruinous, the brickwork in the palace gardens lying in heaps, his province partially disturbed, the people rising against what, at the least, are oppressive exactions, raising an enormous tribute, from which there is no outlay on province or city, government for the good of the governed never entering into his (as rarely into any other Oriental) mind.

This evening he has made a farewell visit on the terrace, attended by the Hakīm. Aziz Khan stood on the edge of the carpet, and occasionally interjected a remark into the conversation. I have before said that he has a certain gentlemanliness and even dignity, and his manner was neither cringing nor familiar. The Hakīm, however, warned him not to speak in presence of the Governor, a restraint which, though very different from the free intercourse of retainers with their chiefs among the Bakhtiari, was in strict accordance with the proprieties of Persian etiquette. Aziz stalked away, shaking his wide shulwars, with an air of contempt. “This governor,” he afterwards said, “what is he? If it were Isfandyar Khan, and he were lying down, my head would be next to his, and twenty more men would be lying round him to guard his life with ours.”

It seems as if Burujird were destitute of cavalry, at least of men who can be spared, though it has been stated that a whole cavalry regiment is in garrison.65

The Governor promised three escorts; my modest request was for one sowar, and a very unmilitary-looking horseman has arrived for me, but now, within an hour of marching, the others are without even one!

Attended by the Hakīm and an escort, we rode yesterday through Burujird. To write that a third of it is in ruins is simply to write that it is a Persian town. It has crumbling mud walls, said to be five miles in circumference, five gates in bad repair, and a ditch, now partially cultivated.

It is situated in Lat. 33° 55’ N, and its Long. is 48° 55’ E. Its elevation is 4375 feet [Bell]. Its population is estimated at from 12,000 to 18,000, and includes a great many Seyyids and mollahs. It has a Persian Telegraph Office and Post Office, neither of them to be depended upon, six large and very many small mosques, a number of mosque schools, thirty-three public baths, and six caravanserais. It manufactures woollen goods, carpets, and the best arak to be found in Persia. It also produces dried fruits and treacle made from grapes.

The bazars are large, light, and well supplied with European goods, Russian and English cottons in enormous quantities, Austrian kerosene lamps of all descriptions and prices, Russian mirrors, framed coloured engravings of the Russian Imperial family, Russian samovars, tea-glasses and tea-trays, Russian sewing and machine cotton, American sewing machines, Russian woollen cloth, fine and heavy, Russian china, and Russian sugar-loaves, to the sale of which several shops are exclusively devoted.

Persian manufactures are chiefly represented by heavy cottons, dyed and stamped at Isfahan, carpets, saddles, horse and mule furniture, copper cooking utensils, shoes of all makes, pipes, kalians, rope, ornamented travelling trunks, galon, gimps, tassels of silk and wool, and “small wares” of all kinds, with rude pottery, oil jars, each big enough to contain a man, great water-jars, small clay bowls glazed roughly with a green glaze, guns, swords, pistols, long knives, and the tools used by the different trades.

Altogether the bazars look very thriving, and they were crowded with buyers. Possibly the people have rarely if ever seen a Feringhi woman, and they crowded very much upon me, and the escort drove them off in the usual fashion, with sticks and stones. Though much of Burujird lies in ruins it has a fair aspect of prosperity and some very good houses and new buildings. The roads are cobbled with great stones, and are certainly not worse than those of the older parts of Tihran. Water is abundant.

Nature evidently intends Burujird to be a prosperous city. The pasturage of the plain is magnificent, and the rich soil produces two crops a year. All cereals flourish. Wheat and barley ripen in July. Seven sorts of grapes grow, and ripen in August and September, and some of the clusters are finer than any of our hothouse produce. Water and musk melons, tobacco, maize, gourds and cucumbers, beans, the bringal or egg plant, peas, flax and other oil seeds, rice and cotton, apricots, walnuts, pomegranates, and peaches testify to the excellence of the soil and climate.

Not only is Burujird in the midst of an exceptionally fine agricultural district, but it is connected by caravan routes with the best agricultural and commercial regions of Persia to the north, east, and west by easy roads, never snow-blocked, or at least they never need be if there were traffic enough to keep them open. It is only 130 miles from rich Kirmanshah, 90 from the fertile district which surrounds Hamadan, 60 from Sultanabad, the most important carpet-producing region of Western Persia, and rich besides in grain and cotton, 140 from Kûm, on the main road from Isfahan to Tihran, something about 230 from Tihran, and only 310 from Ahwaz.

These routes are all easy, though, so far as I know them, very badly supplied with caravanserais, except on the main road between the two capitals. The southern road, leading through Khuramabad to Dizful and Shuster, has no great natural difficulties, though part of it lies through a mountainous region. Some blasting and much boulder-lifting would, according to Colonel Bell, remedy the evils of the fifty miles of it which he regards as bad. But, apart from this, the Shuster–Burujird route, the most natural route for north and south-western Persian commerce to take to and from the sea, is at present useless to trade from its insecurity, as the Feili Lurs, through whose territory it passes, own no authority, live by robbery when they have any one to rob, and are always fighting each other.

There are no regular charvadars in Burujird, and many and tedious have been the difficulties in the way of getting off. Up to last night I had no mules, and Hadji said mournfully, “When you learn what other charvadars are like, you’ll think of me.” I have taken leave of Aziz Khan with regret. He echoes the oft-repeated question, “Why does not England come and give us peace? In a few years we should all be rich, and not have to fight each other.” “Stay among us for some years,” he said, “and you will get very rich. What have you to go back to in Feringhistan?” He asked me for a purse, and to put some krans in it for his children, but not to give him any money. He said that when he asked for money and other things he was only in fun. I do not know whether to believe him.

Mirza and my caravan started this morning, and now, 4 P.M., I am leaving with the sowar, with the mercury at 90°, for the first march of a journey of 800 miles.

I. L. B.

64 I have since heard that this youth was an accomplice of a Burujird man in this theft, and of an Armenian in a robbery of money which occurred in Berigun.

65 Throughout the part of Persia in which I have travelled I have observed a most remarkable discrepancy between the numbers of soldiers said to garrison any given place, and the number which on further investigation turned out to be actually there. It is safe to deduct from fifty to ninety per cent from the number in the original statement!

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