Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxx

Here, in one of the wildest of mountain hamlets, I hoped to indulge in the luxury of my tent, and it was actually unrolled, when all the village men came to me and with gestures of appeal besought me not to pitch it, as it would not be safe for one hour and would “bring trouble upon them.” The hamlet is suffering terribly from the Kurds, who are not only robbing it of its sheep and most else, but are attempting to deprive the peasants of their lands in spite of the fact that they possess title-deeds. This Berwar–Lata valley has been reduced from a condition of pastoral wealth to one of extreme poverty. Kotranis, and Bilar a little lower down, from which the best hones are exported, are ruined by Kurdish exactions. The Christians sow and the Kurds reap: they breed cattle and sheep and the Kurds drive them off when they are well grown. One man at —— a few miles off, had 1000 sheep. He has been robbed of all but sixty. This is but a specimen of the wrongs to which these unhappy people are exposed. The Kurds now scarcely give them any respite in which “to let the sheep’s wool grow,” as their phrase is.

Kotranis is my last Syrian halting-place, and its miseries are well fitted to leave a lasting impression. It is included in the vilayet of Van, in which, according to the latest estimates, there are 80,000 Syrian Christians. The rayahs either own the village lands or are the dependants or serfs of a Kurdish Agha or master. In either case their condition is deplorable, for they have practically no rights which a Kurd or Turk is bound to respect. In some of their villages they have been robbed till they are absolutely without the means of paying taxes, and are beaten, till the fact is established beyond dispute. They are but scantily supplied with the necessaries of life, though their industry produces abundance. Squeezed between the rapacity and violence of the Kurds and the exactions of the Turkish officials, who undoubtedly connive at outrages so long as the victims are Christians, the condition of these Syrians is one of the most pitiable on earth. They have no representatives in the cities of Europe and Asia, and no commercial instincts and habits like the Armenians. They have the Oriental failings of untruthfulness and avarice, and the cunning begotten by centuries of oppression, but otherwise they are simple, grossly ignorant, helpless shepherds and cultivators; aliens by race and creed, without a rich or capable man among them, hemmed in by some of the most inaccessible of mountain ranges, and by their oppressors the Kurds; without a leader, adviser, or friend, rarely visited by travellers, with no voice which can reach Europe, with a present of intolerable bondage and a future without light, and yet through all clinging passionately to the faith received by tradition from their fathers.

As I have no lodging but a dark stable, I am utilising the late afternoon, sitting by the village threshing-floor, on which a mixed rabble of animals is treading corn. Some buffaloes are lying in moist places looking amiable and foolish. Boy is tied to my chair. The village women knit and stare. Two of the men, armed with matchlock guns, keep a look-out for the Kurds. A crystal stream tumbles through the village, over ledges of white quartz. Below, the valley opens and discloses ranges bathed in ineffable blue. The mountain sides are aflame with autumn tints, and down their steep paths oxen are bringing the tawny gold of the late harvest on rude sledges. But the shadow of the Kurd is over it all. I left English-speaking people so lately that I scarcely realise that I am now alone in Central Kurdistan, in one of the wildest parts of the world, among fierce predatory tribes, and a ravaged and imperilled people.

I bade the Patriarch farewell at six this morning, and even at that early hour men were seated all round his room. After shaking hands with about thirty people, I walked the first mile accompanied by Mr. Browne, who then left me on his way to seek to enlighten the wild tribesmen of the Tyari valley. From the top of the Kamerlan Pass, above Kochanes, the view was inconceivably beautiful. On the lovely alp on which the village stands a red patch of autumnal colouring flamed against the deep indigo and purple mountains of Diz and Shawutha, which block up the east end of the lofty valley; while above these rose the Jelu ranges, said to be from 12,000 to 15,000 feet in altitude, bathed in rich pure blue, snow-fields on their platforms, new-fallen snow on their crests, indigo shadows in their clefts and ravines — a glorious group of spires, peaks, crags, chasms, precipices, rifts, parapets, and ridges perfect in their beauty as seen in the calm coloured atmosphere in which autumn loves to die. Higher up we were in vast solitudes, among splintered peaks and pasturages where clear streams crashed over rock ledges or murmured under ice, and then a descent of 1800 feet by steep zigzags, and a seven hours’ march in keen pure air, brought us through rounded hills to this village.

Van, November 1.— There was a night alarm at Kotranis. A number of Kurds came down upon the threshing-floor, and the zaptiehs were most unwilling to drive off the marauders, saying that their only orders were to protect me. The Kurds, who were at least ten to one, retired when they saw the Government uniforms, but the big dogs barked for the rest of the night.

The next day’s march occupied eleven hours. It was very cold, “light without heat,” superb travelling weather. One zaptieh was a Moslem, the other an Armenian, and there were strong differences of opinion between them, especially when we halted to rest at a Christian village, and the Kurdish katirgi took several sheaves of corn from a threshing-floor without paying for them. The Moslem insisted that he should not pay and the Christian that he should, and it ended by my paying and deducting the sum from his bakhsheesh. The zaptiehs are usually men who have served five years with the colours. In Eastern Asia Minor they are well clothed in dark blue braided uniforms, and have ulsters in addition for cold weather. They provide their own horses. Their pay is eighty piastres a month, with rations of bread for themselves and of barley for their animals, but the pay is often nine months in arrear, or they receive it in depreciated paper. They are accused of being directly or indirectly concerned in many robberies, and of preying on the peasantry. They are armed with Snider rifles, swords, and revolvers. From the top of a high pass above Kotranis there was a final view of the Jelu mountains, and the remainder of the day was spent among hills, streams, and valleys, with rich fertile soil and abundant water, but very thinly peopled.

A very ingenious plough has taken the place of the primitive implement hitherto used. The share is big and heavy, well shod with iron, and turns up the soil to a great depth. The draught is from an axle with two wheels, one of them two feet in diameter and the other only ten inches. The big wheel runs in the last furrow, and the little one on the soil not yet upturned, the axle being level. Some of these ploughs were drawn by eight buffaloes, with a boy, singing an inharmonious tune, seated facing backwards on each yoke. After the ploughing, water is turned on to soften the clods, which are then broken up by the husbandmen with spades.

There is a great charm about the scenery as seen at this season, the glorious colouring towards sunset, the fantastic forms and brilliant tints of the rocks, and the purity of the new-fallen snow upon the heights; but between Kotranis and Van, except for a little planting in the “Valley of the Armenians,” there is scarcely a bush. If I had warm clothing I should regard the temperature as perfect, nearly 50° at noon, and falling to about 25° at night. After a severe march, a descent and a sudden turn in the road brought us in the purple twilight to Merwanen, the chief village of Norduz, streamily situated on a slope — a wretched village, semi-subterranean; a partly finished house, occupied by a newly arrived Kaimakam and a number of zaptiehs, rising above the miserable hovels, which, bad as they are, were all occupied by the Kaimakam’s attendants. Zaptiehs, soldiers, Kurds, and villagers assured me that there was no room anywhere, and an officer, in a much-frogged uniform, drove my men from pillar to post, not allowing us standing room on the little dry ground that there was. I humbly asked if I could pitch my tent, but a rough negative was returned. A subterranean buffalo stable, where there was just room among the buffaloes for me to lie down in a cramped position, was the only available shelter, and there was none for the servants. I do not much mind sharing a stable with Boy, but I “draw the line” at buffaloes, and came out again into the frosty air, into an inhospitable and altogether unprepossessing crowd.

Then there was a commotion, with much bowing and falling to the right and left, and the Kaimakam himself appeared, with my powerful letter in his hand, took me into the unfinished house, at which he had only arrived an hour before, and into a small room almost altogether occupied by two beds on the floor, on one of which a man very ill of fever was lying, and on the other an unveiled Kurdish beauty was sitting. The Kaimakam, though exceedingly “the worse of drink,” was not without a certain dignity and courtesy. He apologised profoundly for the incivility and discomfort which I had met with, and for his inability to entertain me “with distinction” in “so rough a place,” but said that he would give up his own room to so “exalted a personage,” or if I preferred a room outside it should be made ready. Of course I chose the latter, with profuse expressions of the gratitude I sincerely felt, and after a cup of coffee bade him good-night.

The room was the justice or injustice room over the zaptieh barracks, and without either door or glazed windows, but cold and stiff as I was after an eleven hours’ march, I was thankful for any rest and shelter. Shortly my young Kurdish katirgi, a splendid fellow, but not the least “tame,” announced that he must leave me in order to get the escort of some zaptiehs back to Julamerik. He said that “they all” told him that the road to Van was full of danger, and that if he went on he would be robbed of his mules and money on the way back. No transport however, was to be got, and he came on with me very pluckily, and has got an escort back, at least to Merwanen. In the morning the Kaimakam rose early to do me honour, but was so tipsy that he could scarcely sit upright on his chair on a stone dais amidst a rabble of soldiers and scribes. We were all benumbed with cold, and glad that the crossing of an expanse of frozen streams rendered walking a necessity. A nine hours’ march through mountains remarkable for rocky spires and needles marvellously coloured, and for the absence of inhabitants, took us to the Armenian village of Khanjarak, finely situated in a corrie upon a torrent bank; but it is so subterranean, and so built into the hillside, that a small square church and conical piles of kiziks are the only obvious objects, and I rode over the roofs without knowing what was underneath.

All the women and children, rabbit-like, came out of their holes, clothed in red rags, and some wore strings of coins round their heads. The men were dressed like Kurds, and were nearly as wild-looking. They protested against my tent being pitched. They said the Kurds were always on the watch, and would hack it with their swords in half an hour to get at its contents, that they had only three matchlock guns, and that the Kurds were armed with rifles. I felt that I could scarcely touch a lower depth in the matter of accommodation than when they lodged me in a dark subterranean stable, running very far back into the hill, with a fire of animal fuel in the middle giving off dense and acrid fumes. A recess in this, with a mud bench, was curtained off for me, and the rest of the space was occupied by my own horses and baggage mules, and most of the village asses, goats, cows, calves, and sheep. Several horses belonging to travellers and to my own escort were also there, and all the zaptiehs, servants, travellers, and katirgis were lodged there. There were legions of fleas revelling in a temperature which rose to 80° at midnight, though there were 5° of frost outside. In the part of the roof which projected from the hill there were two holes for light, but at night these were carefully closed with corks of plaited straw.

The wretched poverty of the people of this place made a very painful impression on me. They may have exaggerated when they told me how terribly they are oppressed by the Kurds, who, they say, last year robbed them of 900 sheep and this year of 300, twenty-five and some cattle having been driven off a few days before, but it is a simple fact that the night of my visit the twenty-four sheep for which there was no room in the stable were carried away by a party of well-armed Kurds in the bright moonlight, the helpless shepherds not daring to resist. It is of no use, they say, to petition the Government; it will not interfere. The Kurds come into their houses, they say, and terrify and insult their women, and by demands with violence take away all they have. They say that the money for which they have sold their grain, and which they were keeping to pay their taxes with, was taken by the Kurds last week, and that they will be cruelly beaten by the zaptiehs because they cannot pay. Their words and air expressed abject terror.101

Their little church is poorer than poverty itself, a building of undressed stone without mortar, and its length of thirteen feet includes the rude mud dais occupied by the yet ruder altar. Its furniture consists of an iron censer, an iron saucer containing oil and a wick, and an earthen flagon. There are no windows, and the rough walls are black with candle smoke. The young man who showed the church took a Gospel from the dais, kissing the cross upon it before handing it to me, and then on seeing that I was interested went home and brought a MS. of St. Matthew’s Gospel, with several rudely-illuminated scenes from our Lord’s life. “Christos,” he said with a smile, as he pointed to the central figure in the first illustration, and so on as he showed me the others, for in each there was a figure of the Christ, not crowned and risen, but suffering and humiliated. Next morning, in the bitter cold of the hour before sunrise, the clang of the mallet on the sounding-board assembled the villagers for matins, and to the Christ crowned and risen and “sitting on the right hand of power” they rendered honour as Divine, though in the midst of the grossest superstition and darkness, and for Him whom they “ignorantly worship” they are at this moment suffering the loss of all things. Their empty sheepfold might have been full today if they had acknowledged Him as a Prophet and no more.102

Leaving this wretched hamlet, where the unfortunate peasants are as avaricious as they are poor and dirty, and passing a Kurdish village with a stone fort picturesquely situated, we crossed a pass into a solitary valley, on which high rounded hills descend in harmonised buffs and browns, both hills and valleys covered with uncut hay. The zaptiehs said that this was a specially dangerous place, and urged the caravan to its utmost speed. We met three Armenian katirgis in their shirts. They complained most bitterly that they had been robbed an hour before of five mules with their equipments, as well as of their clothing and money. The ascent and the very tedious descent of the Kasrik Kala Pass brought us into the large and fertile plain of Haizdar, the “plain of the Armenians,” sprinkled with Armenian villages, and much cultivated.

Mirza and one zaptieh had gone back for a blanket which had been dropped, and after halting in an orchard till I was half-frozen I decided to proceed without them, having understood that we could reach Van in three hours. I started my party by signs, and after an hour’s riding reached a village where Johannes spoke fluently in an unknown tongue, and the zaptieh held up five fingers, which I learned too late meant that Van was five hours off. I thought that they were asking for instructions, and at every pause I repeated Van.

After a brief consultation we went up among the hills, the young Kurdish katirgi jumping, yelling, singing, and howling, to keep his mules at a trot, the zaptieh urging them with his whip, and pointing ominously at the fast sinking sun. On we clattered with much noise, nor did we slacken speed till we gained a high altitude among desert solitudes, from which we looked down upon the Dead Sea of Van, a sheet of water extending in one direction beyond the limits of vision, lying red and weird, with high mountains jutting into it in lofty headlands hovered over by flame-coloured clouds. High up along the mountain side in a wavy line lay the path to Van in the deepening shadows, and the zaptieh, this time holding up three fingers, still urged on the caravan, and the Kurd responded by yells and howls, dancing and jumping like a madman.

Just as it was becoming dark, four mounted men, each armed with two guns, rode violently among the mules, which were in front of me, and attempted to drive them off. In the mêlée the katirgi was knocked down. The zaptieh jumped off his horse, threw the bridle to me, and shouldered his rifle. When they saw the Government uniform these Kurds drew back, let the mules go, and passed on. The whole affair took but a few seconds, but it was significant of the unwillingness of the Kurds to come into collision with the Turks, and of the power the Government could exercise in the disturbed districts if it were once understood that the marauders were not to be allowed a free hand.

After this attack not a word was spoken, the bells were taken off the mules, the zaptieh, as fine and soldierly a man as one could wish to see, marched in front, quiet and vigilant, and so in a darkness in which I could not see my horse’s ears we proceeded till, three hours later, the moon rose as we entered Van. It was one of the eeriest rides I ever made, and I had many painful reflections on having risked through ignorance the property of my faithful Kurdish katirgi. The first light of Van was a welcome sight, though after that there was a long ride to “the gardens,” a large wooded suburb chiefly inhabited by Armenians, in which the American missionaries live. Dr. Reynolds, the medical missionary, has given me a most hospitable welcome, though his small house is more than full with new arrivals from America. I wanted to reengage my jolly katirgi for Bitlis, but he went back at once with the zaptieh, and after the obvious perils of the road it would not have been fair to detain him. Visitors are scarce here. Van does not see more than one non-official European in three years. The Vice–Consul says that he should have doubted the sanity of any one who had proposed to travel from Urmi to Van by the route I took, but now that the journey is safely over I am glad that no one at Urmi knew enough to dissuade me from it. The Vice–Consul and all the mission party are as kind as they can be, and Van is for me another oasis.

I. L. B.

101 I must ask my readers to believe that I crossed the Turkish frontier without any knowledge of or interest in the “Armenian Question;” that so far from having any special liking for the Armenians I had rather a prejudice against them; that I was in ignorance of the “Erzerum troubles” of June 1890, and of yet more recent complications, and that the sole object of my journey by a route seldom traversed by Europeans from Urmi to Van was to visit the Patriarch of the Nestorians and the Kochanes station of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Assyrian Church Mission, and that afterwards I travelled to Erzerum viâ Bitlis only to visit the American missionaries there. So far as I know, I entered Turkey as a perfectly neutral and impartial observer, and without any special interest in its Christian populations, and it is only the “inexorable logic of facts” which has convinced me of their wrongs and claims.

102 In another village, a young man in speaking of their circumstances said: “We don’t know much, but we love the Lord Jesus well enough to die for Him.”

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