Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxix (continued)

Who is or is not in this house it is hard to say. Mirza tells me that there are 115 guests today! Among them are a number of Tyari men, whose wild looks, combined with the splendour of their dress and arms, are a great interest. Their chief man has invited me to visit their valley, and they say if I will go to them they will give me “a fine suit of clothes.” I need it much, as doubtless they have observed! Their jackets are one mass of gold embroidery (worked by Jews), their shirts, with hanging sleeves, are striped satin; their trousers, of sailor cut, are silk, made from the cocoons of their own silkworms, woven with broad crimson stripes on a white ground, on which is a zigzag pattern; and their handsome jack-boots are of crimson leather. With their white or red peaked felt hats and twisted silk pagris, their rich girdles, jewelled daggers, and inlaid pistols, they are very imposing. Female dress is very simple.

These Tyari men come from one of the wildest and most inaccessible valleys of Central Kurdistan, and belong to those Ashirets or tribal Syrians who, in their deep and narrow rifts, are practically unconquered by the Turks and unmolested by the Kurds, and maintain a fierce semi-independence under their maleks (lit. kings) or chiefs. They are wild and lawless mountaineers, paying taxes only when it suits them; brave, hardy, and warlike, preserving their freedom by the sword; fierce, quarrelsome among themselves, and having little in common with the rayahs or subject Syrians of the plains except their tenacious clinging to their ancient Church, with its Liturgies and rites, and their homage to our Lord Jesus as divine. They and their priests, many of whom cannot even read, are sunk in the grossest ignorance. They love revenge, are careless of human life, and are wilder and more savage than their nominal masters. It is among these people, who purchase their freedom at the cost of absolute isolation, that Mr. Browne is going to spend the coming winter, in the hope of instructing their priests and deacons, to whom at present guns are more than ordinances. He has been among them already, and has won their good-will.


A Syrian Girl.

These Ashirets, of whom the Tyari guests are specimens, are quite unlike the Syrian lowlanders, not only in character but in costume and habits. As they have naturalised numbers of Kurdish words in their speech, so their dress, with its colour, rich materials and embroideries, and lavish display of decorated and costly arms, is almost altogether Kurdish. If report speaks truly their fierce tribal feuds and readiness with the dagger are Kurdish also. Their country is the country of the hunted. Its mountains rise nearly perpendicularly to altitudes of over 12,000 feet, and the valleys, such as Tyari, Tkhoma, Baz, Diz, and Jelu, are mere slits or gashes, through which furious tributaries of the greater Zab take their impetuous course. Above these streams the tribes have built up minute fields by raising the lower sides on stone walls a few feet above the rivers, the upper being the steep hill slope. So small are these plots that it is said that the harvest of some of them would only fill a man’s cap! Occasionally heavy floods sweep away the rice and millet cultivation of a whole district, and the mountaineers are compelled to depend for their food entirely on the produce of their flocks.

If they could sustain themselves and their animals altogether within their own fastnesses, they would be secure from molestation either from Kurds or Turks, for the only possible entrances to their valleys are so narrow and ruggedly steep as scarcely to be accessible for a pack-horse, and ten men could keep any number at bay. But unfortunately the scanty herbage of their mountains is soon exhausted, and they have to feed their flocks outside their natural fortifications, where the sheep are constantly being carried off by the Kurds, who murder the shepherds and women. The mountaineers are quick to revenge themselves; they carry off Kurdish sheep, and savage warfare and a life under arms are the normal condition of the Ashirets. The worst of it is, that they are disunited among themselves, and fight and spoil each other as much as they fight the Kurds, even at times taking part with them against their Christian brethren. Travellers are scarcely safer from robbery among them than among the Kurds, but fierce, savage, and quarrelsome as they are, and independent both of Turk and Kurd, they render a sort of obedience to Mar Shimun, who rules them, through their maleks. There is not only enmity between tribe and tribe, but between village and village, and, as in parts of the Bakhtiari country, guides refuse to conduct travellers beyond certain spots, declaring that “blood” bars their farther progress.

Besides the Kurdish and Ashiret inhabitants of these mountains of Kurdistan there are Yezidis, usually called devil-worshippers, and a few Jews and Armenians. Probably there is not a wilder population on the face of the earth, or one of whose ideas, real beliefs, and ways Europeans are so ignorant. What, for instance, do we really know of the beliefs which underlie the religious customs of the Kizilbashes and Yezidis, and of the Christianity to which these semi-savage Ashirets are so passionately attached?

If I were to leave Mr. Browne unnoticed I should ignore the most remarkable character in Kochanes. Clothed partly as a Syrian and living altogether like one — at this time speaking Syriac more readily than English; limited to this narrow alp and to the narrower exile of the Tyari valley; self-exiled from civilised society; snowed up for many months of the year; his communications even with Van and Urmi irregular and precarious; a priest without an altar; a teacher without pupils; a hermit without privacy; his time at the disposal of every one who cares to waste it; harassed by Turkish officialism and obstruction, and prohibited by the Porte from any active “mission work,” it yet would be hard to find a sunnier, more loving, and more buoyant spirit. He has lived among these people for nearly four years as one of themselves, making their interests completely his own, suffering keenly in their persecutions and losses, and entering warmly even into their most trivial concerns, till he has become in fact a Syrian among Syrians. He sits on the floor in native fashion; his primitive and unpalatable food, served in copper bowls from the Patriarch’s kitchen, is eaten with his fingers; he is nearly without possessions, he sleeps on the floor “among the spiders” without a mattress, he lives in a hovel up a steep ladder in a sort of tower out of repair — Syrian customs and etiquette have become second nature to him.

He has no “mission work” to report. He is himself the mission and the work. The hostility of the Turkish Government and the insecurity of the country prevent him from opening schools, he cannot even assemble a few boys and teach them their letters; he got a bit of land and the stones for erecting a cottage, but is not allowed to build; his plans are all frustrated by bigotry on one side and timidity on the other, and he is even prevented from preaching by the blind conservatism of the patriarchal court. It has not been the custom to have preaching at Kochanes. “Sermons were dangerous things that promoted heresy,” the Patriarch said. But Mr. Browne is far from being idle. People come to him from the villages and surrounding country for advice, and often take it. They confide all their concerns to him, he acts effectively the part of a peacemaker in their quarrels, he is trusted even by the semi-savage chiefs and priests of the mountain tribes, and his medical skill, which is at the service of all, is largely resorted to at all hours of the day. Silenced from preaching and prohibited from teaching, far better than a sermon is his own cheery life of unconscious self-sacrifice, truth, purity, and devotion. This example the people can understand, though they cannot see why an Englishman should voluntarily take to such a life as he leads. His power lies in his singular love for them, and in his almost complete absorption in their lives and interests.

His room is most amusing. It is little better than a Kerry hovel. He uses neither chair, table, nor bed; the uneven earthen floor is covered with such a litter of rubbish as is to be seen at the back of a “rag and bone” shop, dusty medicine bottles predominating. There is a general dismemberment of everything that once was serviceable. The occupant of the room is absolutely unconscious of its demerits, and my ejaculations of dismay are received with hearty laughter.99

Humbly following his example, I have become absorbed in the interests of the inhabitants of Kochanes, and would willingly stay here for some weeks longer if it were not for the risk of being blocked in by snow on the Armenian highlands. The cattle plague is very severe, in addition to other misfortunes. The village has already lost 135 of its herd, and I seldom go out without seeing men dragging carcasses to be thrown over the cliff. The people believe that the men will die next year.

My future journey and its safety are much discussed. If I had had any idea of the “disturbed” state of the region that I have yet to pass through I should never have entered Turkey, but now I have resolved to go viâ Bitlis to Erzerum. If the road is as dangerous as it is said to be, and if the rumours regarding the state of the Christians turn out to have much truth in them, the testimony of a neutral observer may be useful and helpful. At all events the risk is worth running. My great difficulty is that Qasha —— must leave me here to return to Urmi with Mar Gauriel’s escort, and that I have no competent man with me in case of difficulty. Mirza not only does not speak Turkish, but has no “backbone,” and Johannes, besides having the disadvantage of being an Armenian, is really half a savage, as well as disobedient, bad-tempered, reckless, and quarrelsome. He fought with a Turk at Yekmala, and got me into trouble, and one of his first misdemeanours here was to shoot the church doves, which are regarded as sacred, thereby giving great offence to the Patriarch.

It is most difficult to get away. The Julamerik muleteers are afraid of being robbed on the route I wish to take, and none of them but a young Kurd will undertake my loads, and though he arrived last night the zaptiehs I applied for have failed me. They were to have been here by daylight this morning, and the loads were ready, but nine o’clock came without their appearance. I wanted to take armed men from Kochanes, but Mar Shimun said that twelve Christians would be no protection against the Kurds, and that I must not go without a Government escort, so things were unpacked. Late this evening, and after another messenger had been sent to Julamerik, one zaptieh arrived with a message that they could not spare more, and the people protest against my leaving with such insufficient protection.

Another difficulty is the want of money. Owing to the “boom” in silver in Persia, and the semi-panic which prevailed, the utmost efforts of my friends in Urmi could only obtain £10 for a £20 note, and this only in silver mejidiehs, a Turkish coin worth about 4s. As no money is current in the villages change cannot be procured, and on sending to Julamerik for small coins, only a very limited quantity could be obtained — Russian kopecks locally current at half their value, Turkish coins the size of a crown piece, but so debased that they are only worth 1s., a number of pieces of base metal the size of sixpences, and “groats” and copper coins, miserably thin. It took me an hour, even with Mr. Browne’s help, to count 8s. in this truly execrable money. The Julamerik shroff sent word that the English sovereign is selling at 16s. only.

So, owing to these delays, I have had another day here, with its usual routine of drinking coffee in houses, inviting women to tea in my room, receiving mountaineers and others who come in at all hours and kiss my hand, and smoke their long pipes on my floor, and another opportunity of walking in the glory of the sunset, when the mountain barriers of beautiful Kochanes glow with a colouring which suggests thoughts of “the land which is very far off.” Good Mr. Browne makes himself one with the people, and is most anxious for me to identify everybody, and say the right thing to everybody — no easy task, and as I hope and fear that this is my last evening, I have tried to “leave a pleasant impression” by spending it in the great gathering-place, called preeminently the “house”! Mirza says that the people talk of nothing but “guns, Kurds, the harvest, and the local news,” but the conversation to-night had a wider range, and was often very amusing, taking a sombre turn only when the risks of my journey were discussed, and the possible misconduct of my Kurdish katirgi. Ishai, who describes him as “a very tame man” (not at all my impression of him), has told him that “if he gives any trouble the House of Mar Shimun will never forget it.”

Nothing could exceed the picturesqueness of the “house” to-night. There were doubtless fifty people there, but the lamps, which look as old as the relentless sweep of Taimurlane, hanging high on the blackened pillars, only lighted up the central group, consisting of Sulti and Marta in the highest place, the English priest in his turban and cassock, the grotesque visage of Shlimon the Jester, and the beautiful face and figure and splendid dress of Ishai the Patriarch’s brother, as proud as proud can be, but sitting among the retainers of his ancient house playing on a musical instrument, the hereditary familiarity of serf and lord blending with such expressions of respect as “your foot is on my eyes,” and the favourite asseveration, “by the Head of Mar Shimun.” The blackness in which the lofty roof was lost, the big ovens with their busy groups, the rows of men, half-seen in the dimness, lounging on natural ledges of rock, and the uphill floor with its uncouth plenishings, made up such a picture as the feudalism of our own middle ages might have presented.

My letter100 from the Turkish Ambassador at Tihran was sent to Julamerik this afternoon, and has produced another zaptieh, and an apology!

I. L. B.

99 In the winter of 1887 and the spring of 1888 every effort was made by Fikri Pasha, the Turkish Governor of this district, but a Kurd by race, to dislodge Mr. Browne from his position in the mountains. “Soldiers were continually sent to inquire into his plans; he was accused of practising without a diploma as a medical man, because he gave a few simple remedies to the natives in a country destitute of physicians, and his position became well-nigh intolerable when he found that his host, Mar Shimun, was being insulted and punished for harbouring him, and that the native Christians were being made to suffer for his residence among them. The Patriarch, however, stood firm. ‘Your presence here,’ said he to Mr. Browne, ‘may save us from a massacre; and as for these troubles we must put up with them as best we can.’ These words were verified a few months afterwards.”— Mr. Athelstan Riley’s Report on the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Mission to the Assyrian Christians, 1888.

100 Translation of a letter given to the author by His Excellency the Turkish Ambassador to the Court of Tihran.

“Among the honoured of English ladies is Mrs. Bishop. On this tour of travel she has a letter of recommendation from the Exalted Government of England, issued by the English Embassy in Tihran, and earnest request is made that in her passage through the Imperial Territory she be well protected. As far as zaptiehs are necessary let them be given for her safety, all necessary provision for her most comfortable travel be perfected, and all her requests from the High Government of the Osmanlis be met.

“That all courtesy and attention be shown to this distinguished lady, this letter is given from the Embassy at Tihran.”

As various statements purporting to be narratives of attacks made upon me in Turkey have appeared in Russian and other papers, I take this opportunity of saying that they are devoid of any foundation. I was never robbed while in the dominion of His Majesty the Sultan: courtesy was shown me by all the Turkish officials between the Persian frontier and Erzerum, and efficient escorts of steady and respectful zaptiehs were readily supplied.

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