Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxvii

URMI, Oct. 14.

Very few European travellers visit Urmi and its magnificent plain, the “Paradise of Persia,” though it is only 112 miles from Tabriz. Gardens come up to the city walls, and the plain, about fifty miles long by eighteen broad, is cultivated throughout, richly wooded, very populous, and bounded on the east not by a desert with its aridity, but by the blue waters of the Urmi Sea, and on the west by the magnificent mountains of Kurdistan. The city is some miles to the west of the lake.

Urmi is on the whole very pretty and in good repair. The Christian quarter is almost handsome, well built and substantial, and the houses are generally faced with red bricks. The bazars are large and well supplied, and trade is active. The walls and gateways are in good repair, and so is the deep ditch, which can be filled with water, which surrounds them. Every gate is approached by an avenue of noble elægnus and other fruit trees. The gardens within the walls are very fine, and orchards and vineyards, planes and poplars testify to the abundance of water and the excellent method of its distribution. The altitude is stated at 4400 feet. The estimate of the population varies from 12,000 to 20,000.

Though the Sea of Urmi receives fourteen rivers, some of them by no means insignificant, and has no known outlet, it recedes rather steadily, leaving bare a soil of exceeding richness, and acres of dazzling salt. It has very few boats, and none suited for passenger traffic. Its waters are so salt that fish cannot live in them.

The antiquarian interests of Urmi consist in the semi-subterranean Syrian church of Mart–Mariam, said to have been built by the Magi on their return from Bethlehem! a tower and mosque of Arab architecture seven centuries old, and some great mounds outside the walls, from sixty to one hundred feet in height, composed entirely of ashes, marking the site of the altars at which the rites of one of the purest of the ancient faiths were celebrated. As the birthplace of Zoroaster, and for several subsequent ages the sacred city of the Fire Worshippers and the scene of the restoration of the Mithraic rites, Urmi must always remain interesting.

The Christian population of the city is not very large, though it is estimated that there are 20,000 Syrian Christians in the villages of the plain. The city Syrians are mostly well-to-do people, who have come into Urmi to practise trades. The best carpenters, as well as the best photographers and tailors, are Syrians, and though in times past the Moslems refused to buy from the Christians on the ground that things made by them are unclean, the prejudice is passing away.

There is a deputy-governor called the Serperast, whose duty it is to deal with the Christians. The office seems to have been instituted for their protection at the instigation of the British Government, but the Europeans regard it simply as a means of oppression and extortion, and desire its abolition. Canon Maclean goes so far as to say, “The multiplication of judges in Persia means the multiplication of injustice, and of the number of persons who can extort money from the unfortunate people.” The Serperast depends chiefly for his living and for keeping up a staff of servants on what he can get out of the Christians in the way of fines and bribes, and consequently he foments quarrels and encourages needless litigation on all hands, the Syrians being by all accounts one of the most litigious of peoples.

I write of the Christians of Urmi and its plain as Syrians because that is the name by which they call themselves. We know them at home as Nestorians, but this is a nickname given to them by outsiders, and I know of no reason why we should use a nomenclature which attaches to a nation the stigma of an ancient “heresy.” They are sometimes called Chaldæans,84 and the present Archbishop of Canterbury has brought into currency the term “Assyrians,” which, however, is never used by themselves, or by any Orientals in speaking of them. The Moslems apply the name Nasara (Nazarenes) solely to the Syrian Christians. They claim that Christianity was introduced among them by the Magi on their return from Bethlehem. The highest estimate of their numbers is 120,000, and of these more than 80,000 are in Turkey. The Persian Syrians inhabit the flat country, chiefly the plains of Urmi and Salmas, where the fertile lands are most carefully cultivated by their industry.

In my last letter I remarked upon the prosperity and garden-like appearance of the Urmi Plain. Its 20,000 Syrian inhabitants usually live in separate villages from the Kurds, Persians, and Armenians, and are surrounded on all sides by Moslems of the Shiah sect. The landlords or Aghas of their villages are generally Moslems, who govern their tenants in something of feudal style. Land is a favourite investment in Persia, and owing to the industrious habits of the Syrians, the “Agha-ship” of their villages commands a high price. The Aghas often oppress the peasants, but the tenure of houses is fairly secure, and according to Canon Maclean, to whom I am indebted for my information, a system much like the Scotch feuing system (though without feu charters) is in force. If a man wishes to build a house he takes a present of a few sugar-loaves or a few krans with him, and applies to an Agha for a site. After it is granted he pays an annual ground rent of 4s. 9d., but he can build his house as he pleases, and it cannot be taken from him so long as he pays his ground rent. Moreover, he can sell the house and give a title-deed to the purchaser, with the sole restriction that the new possessor must become a vassal of the Agha.

In addition to the payment of the ground rent, the tenant is taxed annually by the Agha for every female buffalo 2s., for every cow 1s., and for every ewe and she-goat 6d., after they have begun to bear young. The Agha also receives from each householder annually two fowls, a load of kiziks, some eggs, three days’ labour or the price of it, and a fee on every occasion of a marriage. Each house pays also a tax of 8d. a year and gives a present of firewood to the Serperast of Urmi, the Mussulman governor of the Christians. In his turn the Agha pays to the Shah from a third to a half of the total taxation.

A village-house, even when built of sun-dried bricks, rarely costs more than £35, and often not the half of that sum.85 The great feature of a Syrian dwelling is what is called emphatically “the house”; the combined living-room, bedroom, smoking-room, kitchen, bakery, and workroom of one or more families. This room cannot possess a balakhana, as its openings for light and air are in the roof. A stable, store-rooms, and granary are attached to it.

Vineyards are the chief reliance of the Syrians of the Urmi Plain, their produce, whether as grapes, raisins, or wine, being always marketable. They are held on the same tenure as the houses, and as long as the vine-stocks remain in the ground, and the ground rent, which is 7s. a year for the tanap, a piece of ground 256 yards square, is paid, the tenant cannot be evicted. Where vineyards are sub-let for a year a fair rent is from 10s. to 12s. a tanap. If a tenant buys a property from an Agha the yearly taxation is 5s. a tanap; grass fields and orchards are held on the same tenure as vineyards, and at the same rent. With ploughed land the case is different. If the tenant provides the seed, etc., he gives the Agha a third of the produce, and if the Agha provides seed the tenant returns two-thirds. The tenant of ploughed land may be changed annually.

This paying the rent in kind is going on just now in every village, and the Aghas secure themselves against dishonesty by requiring that the grain shall be threshed on their floors. In addition, their servants watch night and day by turns, in an erection similar to the “lodge in a garden of cucumbers” or melons, an arbour of boughs perched at a height of seven or eight feet upon four poles. The landlord’s nasr appears at intervals to take away his master’s share of the grain. It is all delightfully primitive.

The arrangements sound equitable, the taxes are moderate, and in some respects the Christians are not more victimised by their landlords than are their Mohammedan neighbours. The people acknowledge readily that as regards oppression they are much better off than they were, and that in this respect the presence of the American missionaries in Urmi has been of the greatest advantage to them, for these gentlemen never fail to represent any gross case of oppression which can be thoroughly substantiated to the Governor of Urmi, or in the last resort to the Governor of Azerbijan. The oppressions exercised by the Aghas consist in taking extra taxes, demanding labour without wages, and carrying off Christian girls for their harams. The laws which affect Christians specially and injuriously are —

1. That the evidence of a Christian is not received against a Mussulman.

2. That if any member of a Christian family becomes a Moslem, he or she becomes entitled to claim the whole property of the “house,” which as often as not consists of two or three families. The apostatising member of a household is usually a girl, who either falls in love with or is carried off by a young Mohammedan, who declares truly or falsely that she has embraced his creed. A good governor is careful in these matters, and in some cases gives the girl only her share of the family property, but a bad governor may at any time carry out the law, or use it as a means for extorting ruinous bribes.86

Every Christian man above the age of sixteen pays a poll tax of 3s. annually for exemption from military service, but from this impost the headman of a village, who is at once its tax-gatherer and its spokesman, is free. He ranks next to the priest, and is treated by the villagers with considerable respect. I have found the Syrian kokhas as polite and obliging as the Persian ketchudas.

Although the Persian Government has been tolerably successful in subduing the Kurds within its territory, the Christians of the slopes of the Urmi Plain are exposed to great losses of sheep and cattle from Kurdish mountaineers, who (it is said) cross the Turkish frontier, and return into Turkey with their booty.87

The American and English missionaries do not paint the Syrians couleur de rose, though the former during their long residence in the country must have lifted up several hundreds to the blessings of a higher life, and these in rising themselves must have exercised an unconscious influence on their brethren. Since I came I have seen several women whose tone would bear comparison with that of the best among ourselves, and who owe it gratefully to the training and influence of the Fiske Seminary. I like the women much better than the men.

The Christians complain terribly of the way in which “justice” is administered, and doubtless nothing can be worse, but the Europeans say that the people bring much of its hardship upon themselves by their frightful litigiousness, and their habit of going to law about the veriest trifles. Intense avarice seems to be a characteristic of the Syrians of the Persian plains, and they fully share with other Orientals in the failings of untruthfulness and untrustworthiness. They are said to be very drunken as well as grossly ignorant and superstitious, and the abuses and unutterable degradation of their church perpetuate all that is bad in the national character. The women are spoken of as chaste, and some of the worst forms of vice are happily unknown among the Syrians, though they are practised by the Moslems around them. Their hospitality, their sufferings for the faith, and their family attachment are justly to be reckoned among their virtues, but on the whole I think that the extraordinary interest attaching to them, and which I feel very strongly myself, is due rather to their Past than to their Present.

On this plain the dress of the men is much assimilated to that of the Persians, but the women wear their national costume. The under-garment is a coloured shirt, over which is worn a sleeved waistcoat of a different colour, and above this is an open-fronted coat reaching to the knees. Loose trousers, so full as to look like a petticoat, are worn, and frequently an apron and a heavy silver belt are added. The head-dress is very becoming, and consists of a raised cap of cloth or silk, embroidered or jewelled, with a white muslin veil over it and the head, but the face is exposed, except in the case of married women, who draw a part of the veil over the mouth. It is not proper that the hair should be seen.

There is something strikingly Biblical about their customs and speech. At dinner at Geog-tapa I noticed that it is a mark of friendship for a man to dip a piece of bread (a sop) into the soup and give it to another, a touching reminiscence. A priest is greeted with “Hail, Master,” a teacher is addressed as “Rabban,” the salutation is “Peace be with you,” and such words as Talitha cumi and Ephphatha occasionally startle the ear in the midst of unintelligible speech, suggesting that the Aramaic of our Lord’s day was very near akin to the old Syriac, of which the present vernacular is a development. As among the Moslems, pious phrases are common. A Syrian receiving a kindness often replies, “May God give you the kingdom of Heaven,” and when a man makes a purchase, or enters on a new house, or puts on a new garment, it is customary to say to him, “May God bless your house, your garment,” etc. A child learning the letters of the alphabet is taught to say at the close, “Glory to Christ our King.” A copyist begins his manuscript by writing within an ornamental margin, “In the strength of our Lord Jesus Christ we begin to write,” and a man entering on a piece of work honours the Apostolic command by saying, “If the Lord will I shall accomplish it.”88 My friends tell me that I shall find the Syrians of the mountains a different people, and a mountaineer is readily recognised in the streets by the beauty and picturesqueness of his dress.

The eight days in Urmi have been a very pleasant whirl, a continual going to and fro between the College and the Fiske Seminary, the English clergy house and the Sisters’ house, receiving Syrian visitors at home and holding a reception for them in the city, calling on the Governor, visiting the English upper school, where deacons, in the beautiful Syrian costume, with daggers in their girdles, look more like bandits than theological students, and spending a day at Geog-tapa, where I saw Shamasha Khananeshoo’s (Deacon Abraham’s) orphanage, dined with him and his charming wife, and a number of other Syrians in Syrian style, and went to the crowded Geog-tapa church, where the part of the floor occupied by the women looked like a brilliant tulip-bed. Here, in the middle of the service, the Qasha or priest said that the people, especially the women, were very anxious to know for what reason I was travelling, to which evidence of an enlightened curiosity I returned a reply through an interpreter, and reminded them of the glories of their historic church and its missionary fervour.

Geog-tapa (cerulean hill) possesses one of the largest of the Zoroastrian mounds of ashes. It is a pity that these are not protected, and that the villagers are allowed to carry away the soil for manure, and to break up the walls and cells (?) which are imbedded in them for building materials. This vandalism has brought to notice various curious relics, such as earthenware vessels of small size and unique shape, and a stone tomb containing a human skeleton, with several copper spikes from four to five inches long driven into its skull. In another mound, at some distance from this one, a large earthen sarcophagus was discovered, also containing a skeleton with long nails driven into its skull.

Deacon Abraham’s work is on the right lines, being conducted entirely by Syrians. It is most economically managed, and the children are trained in the simple habits of Syrian peasants. The religious instruction is bright and simple. The boys receive an elementary education, a practical training in agriculture on some lands belonging to the Orphanage, and in various useful handicrafts. As much of the money for the support of this work is raised in England, it is satisfactory to know that the accounts are carefully audited by the American missionaries.

The days have flown by, for, in addition to the social whirl, I have been occupied in attempts, only partially successful, to provide myself with necessaries for the journey, and in an endeavour, altogether unsuccessful, to replace Johannes by a trustworthy servant. The kind friends here have lent me a few winter garments out of their slender stock, and have helped me in every way.

It has been most difficult to get charvadars. The country on the other side of the frontier is said to be “unsettled,” no Persians will go by the route that I wish to take, and two sets of Kurds, after making agreements to carry my loads, have disappeared. Various Syrians have come down from the mountains with stories of Kurdish raids on their sheep and cattle, but as such things are always going on, and the impression that “things are much worse than usual” does not rest on any ascertained basis, my friends do not advise me to give up the journey to Kochanes, and I am just starting en route for Trebizond. I. L. B.

84 A name usually applied to the Roman Uniats at Mosul.

85 The mode of building mud houses was described in Letter VI. vol. i. p. 149.

86 Dr. Labaree, whose experience stretches back for thirty years, writes of the races under Persian rule in the Province of Azerbijan in the following terms: “The Nestorians and Armenians of Persia in common with their Mohammedan neighbours suffer from the evil forms of society and government which have been bequeathed to them from the earliest dawnings of history. Landlordism in its worst forms bears sway. The poor rayat or tenant must pay his landlord one-half or two-thirds of all the produce of his farm. Aside from his poll tax he must pay a tax on his house, his hayfields, and his fruit trees, and on all his stock with the exception of the oxen with which he tills the soil. But this is not all. He is virtually at the mercy of his Agha, which translated literally means master, a word which most correctly describes the relation of the landlord to his peasants. By law he may require from each of his rayats three days of labour without pay. In reality he makes them work for him as much as he sees fit. He helps himself to what he pleases whenever he makes them a visit. He sells them grain and flour above the market price. He ties them up and beats them for slight offences. And to all this and much else must the poor peasant submit for fear of worse persecutions if he complains. In these respects Moslem, Christian, and Jew suffer alike.”

87 Later, I heard the same accusation brought against the Persian Kurds by a high official in Constantinople.

88 The national customs of the Syrians are endless, and in many ways very interesting. They are treated very fully in a scarce volume called Residence in Persia among the Nestorians, by Dr. Justin Perkins.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/persia_and_kurdistan/chapter33.html

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