Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxvi

Rising very early on Friday morning to keep my appointment with the ladies of the Governor of Sujbulāk, as well as to obtain a letter from him, I reached the palace entrance a little after sunrise, the hour agreed upon. The walls and gateway are crumbling, the courtyard is in heaps, the glass windows of the façade and towers are much broken, the plaster is mangy — a complete disappointment. The Kurdish guard slept soundly at the entrance; only a big dog, more faithful than man, was on the alert. The Governor was not yet awake, nor the ladies. It would be an “intolerable crime,” the sentry said, to waken them. He looked as if he thought it an “intolerable crime” that his own surreptitious slumbers had been disturbed. It is contrary to Persian etiquette to waken persons of distinction till they please. I waited at the entrance for half an hour and then reluctantly departed, very sorry not to give the ladies the opportunity they ardently desired of seeing a European woman. They had sent word that they had only once in their lives seen one!

The march to the poor village of Mehemetabad was over uninteresting low rounded hills and through a valley without habitations, opening upon a fine plain, at the south-east end of which the village stands. The camping-ground was a green fallow near some willows and a stream. After marching for some hours under a glittering sky and a hot sun over scorched, glaring yellow soil, a measure of greenness just round the tent is most refreshing to eyes which are suffering from the want of the coloured glasses which were ground under a yabu’s hoofs a fortnight ago.

The Khan of the village was very courteous, and sent a tray of splendid grapes, and six watchmen. Buffalo bulls of very large size were used there for burden. Buffaloes are a sure sign of mitigated aridity, for they must bathe, i.e. lie down in water three times daily, if they are to be kept in health, and if the water and mud are not deep enough for this, boys go in along with them and pour water over them with a pannikin. In these regions they are almost exclusively used for burdens, draught, and milk, and everywhere their curved flat horns and sweet, calm, silly faces are to be seen above the water of the deep irrigation ditches. The buffalo, though usually mild enough to be driven by small children, has an uncertain temper, and can be roused to frightful ferocity. In Persian Kurdistan, if not elsewhere, this is taken advantage of, and in the spring, when the animals are in good condition after the winter’s rest, the people have buffalo fights, in which cruel injuries would be inflicted were it not for the merciful provision of nature in giving these animals flat incurved horns.75

As I sat at my tent door a cloud of dust moved along the road towards the village, escorting an indefinite something which loomed monstrously through it. I have not seen a cart for nine months, and till the unmistakable creak of wooden wheels enlightened me I could not think what was approaching. Actually every village on these plains has one or more buffalo-carts, with wooden wheels without tires, and hubs and axles of enormous size and strength, usually drawn by four buffaloes. A man sits on the front of the cart and drives with a stick, and a boy facing backwards sits on the yoke between the two foremost beasts. He croons a perpetual song, and if this ceases the buffaloes stop. For every added pair (and on the next plain I saw as many as six yoke) there is an additional boy and an additional song.

This apparition carried a light wooden frame, which was loaded to a preposterous height with the strong reeds which are used to support the mud roofs, heavily weighted as these are with stacks of fodder.

One would think one was in the heart of the Bakhtiari country and not on a caravan route, from the difficulty of getting any correct guidance as to the road, distance, safety, or otherwise, etc. Sharban has never been this way, and is the prey of every rumour. Between his terror of having to “eat wood” on his return, and his dread of being attacked and robbed of his yabus, he leads an uneasy life, and when, as at Mehemetabad, there is no yard for his animals, he watches all night in the idea that the guards are the “worst robbers of all.” I think he has all the Mussulman distrust of arrangements made by a woman! Hitherto the guards have been faithful and quiet. I always ask them not to talk after 8 P.M., and I have not once been disturbed by them; and when I walk as usual twice round the camp during the night I always find them awake by their big watch-fires.

The village Khan, an intelligent man, spent some time with me in the afternoon. The fields of his village are not manured at all, and the yield is only about tenfold. Willows are grown for the sake of the osiers, which are a necessity, and not for fuel, and the whole of the manure is required for cooking and heating purposes. He said that his village becomes poorer annually owing to the heavier exactions of the officials and the larger sums demanded to “buy off robbers.” The latter is a complaint often made in the villages which are near the Turkish frontier, a boundary which from all accounts needs considerable “rectification.” The people say that Kurds cross the border, and that unless they bribe them they drive off their sheep and cattle and get over it again safely, but I doubt the truth of these statements.

I got away at sunrise for a march of nominally fourteen miles, but in reality twenty-four. Sharban not only stated the distance falsely but induced others to do the same thing, and when he passed me at midday, saying the halting-place was only two miles ahead, he went on for twelve miles, his desire being to rejoin that bugbear, the “big caravan,” which he heard had reached Urmi. The result is that I have had to rest for two days, and he has gained two days’ pay, but has lost time.

After some serious difficulties in crossing some swampy streams and a pitiable display of cowardice on Boy’s part, we embarked on the magnificent plain of Sulduz, where Johannes, with a supreme self-confidence which imposed on me, took the wrong one of two tracks, and we rode west instead of east, to within a few hours’ journey of a pass into Turkey through the magnificent range of the Zibar mountains, which even at this advanced season are in some places heavily patched with last winter’s snow.

To regain the caravan route we had to cross the greater part of this grand plain, which I had not then seen equalled in Persia for fertility and population. It possesses, that crown of blessings, an abundant water supply, indeed so abundant that in the spring it is a swamp, and the spring sowing is delayed till May. It has several large villages, slightly raised and well planted, a few of them with the large fortified houses of resident proprietors overtopping the smaller dwellings. Evidences of material prosperity meet the eye everywhere, a prosperity which needs to be guarded, however, for every shepherd, cowherd, ploughman, and buffalo-driver goes about his work armed.

Large herds of mares with mule foals, of big fat cattle, and of buffaloes, with plenty of mud to wallow in, stacks of real hay and of fine reeds, buffalo carts moving slowly near all the villages carrying the hay into security, grass uncut and unscorched, eighteen inches high, a deep, black, stoneless soil, impassable at certain seasons, towering cones of animal fuel, for export as well as use, an intensely blue sky above, a cool breeze, and the rare sight of cloud-shadows drifting over waving grass and flecking the cobalt sides of the Zibar mountains, combined to form a picture I would not willingly have missed, impatient as I was for the first view of the Sea of Urmi.

Beyond there are low stony hills, which would be absolutely bare now but for the Eryngium cæruleum and the showy spikes of a great yellow mullein, a salt lake, most of which is now a salt incrustation, mimicking ice from beneath which the water has been withdrawn, but with an odour which no ice ever has, then a gradual ascent to a windy ridge, and then — the Dead Sea of Urmi or Urumiya.

Dead indeed it looked from that point of view, and dead were its surroundings. It lay, a sheet of blue, bluer even than the heavens above it, stretching northwards beyond the limits of vision, and bounded on the east, but very far away, by low blue ranges, seen faintly through a blue veil. On the west side there are mountains, which recede considerably, and descend upon it in low rounded buff slopes or downs, over which the track, keeping near the water, lies. There was not a green thing, not a bush, or house, or flock of sheep, or horseman, or foot passenger along the miles of road which were visible from that point. The water lay in the mocking beauty of its brilliant colouring, a sea without a shore, without a boat, without a ripple or flash of foam, lifeless utterly, dead from all time past to all time to come. Dead, too, it is on closer acquaintance, and its odour, which can be discerned three miles off, is that odour of corruption known to science as sulphuretted hydrogen. Now and then there is a shore, a shallow bay or inlet, in which the lake, driven by the east wind, evaporates, leaving behind it a glaring crust of salt, beyond which a thick, bubbly, blackish-green scum lies on the blue water. In such places only the expressive old-fashioned word stench can describe the odour, which was strong enough nearly to knock over the servants and charvadars. No description can give an idea of the effluvium which is met with here and there beside this great salt lake, which has a length of eighty miles and an average breadth of twenty-four.

A few miles from Dissa the lake-water is brought into tanks and evaporated, and many donkeys were being loaded with the product, which, like all salt which is sold in Persia, is impure, and for European use always requires a domestic and tedious process of purification.

After a solitude of several miles villages appear, lying off the road in folds of the hills, which gradually recede so far as to leave a plain some miles broad and very fertile. At the end of an eleven hours’ march we reached the important village of Dissa, with large houses and orchards, abundant water, a detachment of soldiers as a garrison, a resident proprietor’s house, to which in his absence I was at once invited by his wife, and so surrounded by cultivation that a vacant space could only be found for the camp in a stubble-field.

The caravan had only just come in, and there was neither fuel nor drinking water within easy reach. I was so completely worn out that I was lifted off the horse and laid on the ground in blankets till the camp was in order late at night. Sharban, knowing that his deception was discovered, had disappeared with his yabus without helping as usual to pitch my tent. Mirza, always cheerful and hard-working, though always slow, and Johannes did their best, but it is very hard on servants who are up before five not to bring them in till sunset, when their work is scarcely over till near midnight, and has to be done in the dark. The next day there were a succession of dust storms and half a gale from noon to sunset, but my tent stood it well, and the following day this was repeated. These strong winds usually prevail in the afternoon at this season.

Urmi, October 8.— A march over low and much-ploughed hills, an easy descent and a ford brought us down upon the plain of Urmi, the “Paradise of Persia,” and to the pleasant and friendly hamlet of Turkman, where I spent the night and made the half-march into Urmi yesterday morning. This plain is truly “Paradise” as seen from the hill above it, nor can I say that its charm disappears on more intimate acquaintance. Far from it!

I have travelled now for nine months in Persia and know pretty well what to expect — not to look for surprises of beauty and luxuriance, and to be satisfied with occasional oases of cultivation among brown, rocky, treeless hills, varied by brown villages with crops and spindly poplars and willows, contrasting with the harsh barrenness of the surrounding gravelly waste.

But beautiful Urmi, far as the eye can reach, is one oasis. From Turkman onwards the plain becomes more and more attractive, the wood-embosomed villages closer together, the variety of trees greater. Irrigation canals shaded by fruit trees, and irrigation ditches bordered by reeds, carry water in abundance all through the plain. Swampy streams abound. Fair stretches of smooth green sward rejoice the eye. Big buffaloes draw heavy carts laden with the teeming produce of the black, slimy, bountiful soil from the fields into the villages. Wheat, maize, beans, melons, gourds, potatoes, carrots, turnips, beets, capsicum, chilis, bringals, lady’s fingers, castor-oil (for burning), cotton, madder, salsify, scorzonera, celery, oil-seeds of various sorts, opium, and tobacco all flourish. The orchards are full of trees which almost merit the epithet noble. Noble indeed are the walnuts, and beautiful are the pomegranates, the apricots, the apples, the peach and plum trees, and glorious are the vineyards with their foliage, which, like that of the cherry and pear, is passing away in scarlet and gold. Nature has perfected her work and rests. It is autumn in its glories, but without its gloom.

Men, women, and children are all busy. Here the wine-press is at work, there girls are laying clusters of grapes on terraces prepared for the purpose, to dry for raisins; women76 are gathering cotton and castor-oil seeds, little boys are taking buffaloes to bathe, men are driving and loading buffalo-carts, herding mares, ploughing and trenching, and in the innumerable villages the storehouses are being filled; the herbs and chilis are hanging from the roofs to dry, the women are making large cakes of animal fuel (of which they have sufficient for export), and are building it into great conical stacks, the crones are spinning in the sun, and the swaddled infants bound in their cradles are lying in the fields and vineyards, while the mothers are at work. This picture of beauty, fertility, and industry is framed by the Kurdistan mountains on the one side, and on the other by long lines of poplars, through which there are glimpses of the deep blue waters of the Urmi Sea. These Kurdistan mountains, a prolongation of the Taurus chain, stern in their character, and dwarfing all the minor ranges, contrast grandly with the luxuriant plains of Sulduz and Urmi.

As I passed northwards the villages grew thicker, the many tracks converged into a wide road which was thronged with foot passengers, horsemen, camel and horse caravans, and strings of asses loaded with melons and wood. Farther yet the road passes through beautiful orchards with green sward beneath the trees; mud walls are on both sides, and over them droop the graceful boughs and gray-green foliage of an elægnus, with its tresses of auburn fruit.

At the large village of Geog-tapa a young horseman overtook me, and said in my native tongue, “Can you speak English?” He proved to be a graduate of the American College at Urmi, and a teacher in Shamasha Khananeshoo’s school (known better to his supporters in England as Deacon Abraham). He told me that I was expected, and shortly afterwards I was greeted by the son of the oldest missionary in Urmi, Dr. Labaree.

The remaining four miles were almost entirely under the shade of fine trees, past the city walls and gates, put into tolerable repair after the Kurdish invasion ten years ago, and out into pretty wooded country, with the grand mountains of the frontier seen through the trees, where a fine gateway admitted us into the park in which are the extra-mural buildings of the American Presbyterian Mission, now more than half a century old. These are on high ground, well timbered, and the glimpses through the trees of the mountains and the plain are enchanting.

Through the kindness of my friends at Hamadan, who had written in advance, I am made welcome in the house of Dr. Shedd, the Principal of the Urmi College.77

Within two hours of my arrival I had the pleasure of visits from Canon Maclean and Mr. Lang of the English Mission, and from Dr. Labaree and the ladies of the Fiske Seminary, the English, French, and American missionaries being the only European residents in Urmi.

I. L. B.

75 While I was sleeping in a buffalo stable in Turkey two buffaloes quarrelled and there was a terrible fight, in which the huge animals interlocked their horns and broke them short off, bellowing fearfully. It took twenty men with ropes, or rather cables, two and a half inches in diameter, which are kept for the purpose, to separate them; and their thin skins, sensitive to insect bites and all irritations, were bleeding in every direction before they could be forced apart.

76 Christian women and girls share the work of the fields with the men.

77 It is a pleasant duty to record here the undeserved and exceeding kindness that I have met with from the American, Presbyterian, and Congregational missionaries in Persia and Asia Minor. It is not only that they made a stranger, although a member of the Anglican Church, welcome in their refined and cultured homes, often putting themselves to considerable inconvenience in order to receive me, but that they ungrudgingly imparted to me the interests of their work and lives, helping me at the cost of much valuable time and trouble with the complicated and often difficult arrangements for my farther journeys, showing in every possible way that they “know the heart of a stranger,” being themselves “strangers in a strange land.” Specially, I feel bound to acknowledge the kindness and hospitality shown to me by the Presbyterian missionaries in Urmi, who were aware that one object of my journey through North–West Persia was to visit the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Missions, which work on different and, I may say, opposite lines from their own.

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