Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxxii

I arrived here two days ago, having ridden the ninety miles from Van in three and a half days. Dr. Reynolds accompanied me, and as we had a couple of zaptiehs on good horses we deserted the caravan, and came along at as good a pace as the mountainous nature of the road would allow. The early winter weather is absolutely perfect for travelling. All along I am quite impressed with the resemblance which the southern shores of Lake Van bear to some of the most beautiful parts of the Italian Riviera — Italian beauty seen under an Italian sky. Travellers lose a great deal by taking the easier route round the north shore of the lake.

The first day’s half march ended at Angugh, an Armenian village on the river Hashal, on the plain of Haizdar or Haigatsor, where the people complained of some Armenian women having been despoiled of their jewels by some Kurds during the afternoon. The views are magnificent en route, especially of the Christian village of Artemid, on a spur on a height, with a Moslem village in gardens below, with green natural lawns sloping to the lake. At Angugh I was well accommodated in a granary on a roof, and as there was no room for my bed, found a comfortable substitute in a blanket spread upon the wheat. The next day’s march was through exquisitely beautiful scenery, partly skirting deep bays on paths cut in the rock above them, among oaks and ferns, and partly crossing high steep promontories which jut out into the lake. A few villages, where strips of level ground and water for irrigation can be obtained, are passed, and among them the village of Vastan, the “Seat of Government” for the district, and a Turkish telegraph station, but in the eleventh century the residence of the Armenian royal family of Ardzrauni.

Art aids nature, and there are grand old monasteries on promontories, and Kurdish castles on heights, and flashing streams and booming torrents are bridged by picturesque pointed arches. There are 150 monasteries in this region, and the towers of St. George at the mountain village of Narek, high on a rocky spur above one of the most beautiful of the many wooded valleys which descend upon the lake of Van, lend an air of medieval romance to a scene as fair as nature can make it. Nearly all the romantic valleys opening on the lake are adorned with one or more villages, with houses tier above tier in their rocky clefts, and terrace below terrace of exquisite cultivation below, of the vivid velvety green of winter wheat. These terraces often “hang” above green sward and noble walnut trees. Occasionally the villages are built at the feet of the mountains, on small plateaux above steep-sided bays, and are embosomed in trees glowing with colour, from canary-yellow to crimson and madder-red, and mountains, snow-crested and forest-skirted tower over all. Lake Van, bluer than the blue heavens, with its huge volcanic heights — Sipan Dagh, Nimrud Dagh, and Varak Dagh, and their outlying ranges — its deep green bays and quiet wooded inlets; its islets, some like the Bass Rock, others monastery-covered; its pure green shadows and violet depths; its heavy boats with their V-shaped sails; and its auburn oak-covered slopes, adds its own enchantment, and all is as fair as fair can be.

Though the state of things among the Christians is not nearly so bad as in some of the Syrian valleys, the shadow of the Kurd is over this paradise. The Armenians complain of robbery with violence as being of constant occurrence, and that they have been plundered till they are unable to pay the taxes, and it is obvious that travellers, unless in large companies, are not safe without a Government escort. In each village the common sheepfold is guarded from sunset to sunrise by a number of men — a heavy burden on villagers whose taxation should ensure them sufficient protection from marauders.

In one of the fairest bays on this south side of the lake is the island rock of Akhtamar, crowned with a church and monastery built of red sandstone. The convent boat, which plies daily to the mainland for supplies, is available for travellers. Eleven monks with their pupils inhabit the rock. It is a very ancient foundation, dating from A.D. 633, and the church is attributed to the Armenian King Kakhik, who reigned in the tenth century. It is a cruciform building, with a hexagonal tower and a conical terminal at the intersection of the cross. The simple interior is decorated with some very rude pictures, and a gilded throne for the Patriarch stands at the east end. This Patriarchate of Akhtamar, the occupant of which has at times claimed the title of Catholicos, was founded in 1113 by an archbishop of Akhtamar who declared himself independent of the Catholicos of the Armenian Church who resides in Echmiadzin, but at the present time he has only a few adherents in the immediate neighbourhood of Van, and has the reputation of extreme ignorance, and of being more of a farmer than an ecclesiastic. He was at Haikavank, at the fine farm on the mainland possessed by the convent, but we had not time to call.

Plain as is the interior of the Church of Akhtamar, the exterior is most elaborately ornamented with bas-reliefs, very much undercut. Three of the roofs rest on friezes on which birds and beasts in singularly vigorous action are portrayed, and there are besides two rows of heads in high relief, and a number of scripture subjects very boldly treated, in addition to some elaborate scroll-work, and bands of rich foliage. On this remarkable rock Dr. Reynolds and his family took refuge a few years ago, when it was apprehended that Van would be sacked by the Kurds.

The vivid colouring of the lake is emphasised by a line of pure white deposit which runs round its margin, and vivacity is given to its waters by innumerable wild fowl, flamingoes, geese, ducks, pelicans, cormorants, etc. From a reedy swamp near it ducks rose in such numbers as literally to darken the air. Carbonate of soda and chloride of sodium are obtained from the lake water by evaporation, but it is not nearly so salt as that of the Sea of Urmi. Not very far from the south shore a powerful fresh-water spring bubbles up in the midst of the salt water. The only fish known of is a species said to be like a small herring. These are captured in enormous quantities in the spring as they come up into the streams which feed the lake.

On the last two nights at Undzag and Ghazit I had my first experiences of the Turkish odah or village guest-house or khan, of which, as similar abodes will be my lodgings throughout my journey to Erzerum, I will try to give you an idea. Usually partially excavated in the hillside and partly imbedded in the earth, the odah is a large rambling room with an irregular roof supported on rough tree-stems. In the centre, or some other convenient place, is a mud platform slightly raised; in the better class of odahs this has a fireplace in the wall at one end. Round this on three sides is a deep manger, and similar mangers run along the side walls and into the irregular recesses, which are lost in the darkness. The platform is for human beings, and the rest of the building for horses, mules, oxen, asses, and buffaloes, with a few sheep and goats probably in addition. The katirgis and the humbler class of travellers sleep among the beasts, the remainder, without distinction of race, creed, or sex, on the enclosed space. Light enters from the door and from a few small holes in the roof, which are carefully corked up at night, and then a few iron cups of oil with wicks, the primitive lamp in general use, hanging upon the posts, give forth a smoky light.

In such an odah there may be any number of human beings cooking, eating, and sleeping, and from twenty to a hundred animals, or more, as well as the loads of the pack-horses and the arms of the travellers. As the eye becomes accustomed to the smoke and dimness, it sees rows of sweet ox faces, with mild eyes and moist nostrils, and wild horse faces surrounding the enclosure, and any number more receding into the darkness. Ceaseless munching goes on, and a neigh or a squeal from some unexpected corner startles one, or there is a horse fight, which takes a number of men to quell it. Each animal is a “living stove,” and the heat and closeness are so insupportable that one awakes quite unrefreshed in the morning in a temperature of 80°. The odah is one of the great features of travelling in Eastern Asia Minor. I dined and spent the evenings in its warmth and cheeriness, enjoying its wild picturesqueness, but at Undzag I pitched my small tent at the stable door, and at Ghazit on the roof, and braved the cold in it.

Boy is usually close to me, eating scraps from my dinner, and gently biting the back of my neck when he thinks that I am forgetting his presence. He amuses all the men everywhere by his affectionateness, and eating out of my hand, and following me like a dog. I never saw so gentle and trustworthy a creature. His hair has grown very long, thick, and woolly, and curls in parts like that of a retriever. His sweet ways have provided him with a home after his powerful legs and big feet have trudged with me to Trebizond, for my hosts here, who are old and somewhat frail, have taken such a fancy to his gentleness and winsomeness that he is to return to them when the roads open in the spring.

It was a grand ride from Undzag over lofty mountain passes to the exquisitely-situated village of Ghazit, built in a deep cul de sac above the lake. Terraces, one above another, rise from the lake shore, so beautifully cultivated as to realise Emerson’s description of the appearance of English soil, “Tilled with a pencil instead of a plough.” A church stands on a height, and the village, almost hidden among magnificent walnuts, is crowded upon a terrace of green sward at the foot of a semicircle of mountains which wall it in from the world. The narrow village road, with its low, deep-eaved stone houses, was prettily brightened by colour, for all the women were dressed more or less in red, and wore high red coronets with dependent strings of coins, and broad aprons, reaching from the throat to the feet, of coarse dark blue cotton, completely covered with handsome patterns worked in cross-stitch in silk.

Fine walnut trees are one of the specialities of this part of Turkey. They provide much of the oil which is used during the long fasts which both Armenians and Syrians observe, and they develop very large woody excrescences or knots, the grain and mottling of which are peculiarly beautiful. These are sought for by buyers for Paris houses even in the remote valleys of Kurdistan for use in the making and veneering of furniture, especially of pianos. Fortunately the removal of this growth does not kill the tree, and after a time the bark grows over much of the uncovered portion of the trunk, only a scar being left.

At sunset that evening 800 sheep were driven into the village sheepfold just below the roof on which my tent was pitched, and it was a very picturesque scene, men pushing their way through them to find their own sheep by ear-mark, women with difficulty milking ewes here and there, big dogs barking furiously from the roofs above, and all the sheep bleating at once. In winter they are all housed and hand fed. The snow lies six feet deep, and Ghazit can communicate neither with Bitlis nor Van. It is the “milk of the flocks” which is prized. Cows’ milk is thought but little of. I made my supper of one of the great articles of diet in Turkey, boiled cracked wheat, sugar, and yohoort, artificially soured milk, looking like whipped cream.

I was glad to escape to my tent from the heat and odours of the odah, even though I had to walk over sheep’s backs to get up to the roof. I had a guard of two men, and eight more armed with useless matchlock guns watched the sheepfold. I was awakened by a tremendous noise, the barking of infuriated dogs close to me, the clashing of arms and the shouts of men, mixed up with the rapid firing of guns not far off on the mountain side, so near, indeed, that I could see the flashes. It was a Kurdish alarm, but nothing came of it. A village which we passed a few hours later was robbed of 600 sheep, however.

Leaving beautiful Ghazit before the sun rose upon it the next morning, we spent some hours in skirting the lake, and in crossing elevated passes and following paths along hillsides covered with oaks, the russet leaves of which are being cut for winter “keep.” The dwarf juniper is also abundant. After crossing a pass on the top of which are graves covered with heavy stone slabs with inscriptions on their sides, and head-stones eight feet high inscribed with epitaphs in Kufic or early Arabic, we descended upon the great plain of Rahwan, separated from the plain of Mush only by a very low ridge, which, however, is a remarkable water-parting, dividing the drainage systems of the Tigris and the Euphrates. On this solitary plain there are the ruins of a magnificent building, known as “the Persian Khan,” built of large blocks of hewn stone. Parts of it are still available for shelter during snowstorms. It has courtyards with stately entrances, domes, arches, and vaulted chambers, and is a very striking object. Two other khans are placed as refuges in the valley nearer Bitlis.

Shortly afterwards we reached the meeting-place of three valleys and three roads, leading respectively to the plain of Mush, the lake of Van, and Bitlis. It is in this neighbourhood that the eastern source of the Tigris is situated, and here there is also the great interest of coming upon one of the landmarks on the retreat of the Ten Thousand. Scholars appear to agree in general that this gallant band must have come up by these eastern sources of the Tigris, for then, as now, the only practicable entrance into Armenia from the Karduchi territory, the modern Kurdistan, was by this route.106

The march was very long and fatiguing, and as we were compelled to rest for two hours at the beautifully-situated village of Toogh, evening was coming on with a gray sky and a lurid sunset before we left the Rahwan plain, after which we had a ride of more than three hours down the wild and stony Bitlis valley before we reached our destination. If I had made this march in spring, when herbage and flowers drape the nakedness of the rocky and gravelly mountains and precipices, it would not have made such an impression upon me as it did, but seeing the apparently endless valley for ever winding and falling to the south, with two bars of lurid light for ever lying across what never proved to be its opening, and the higher peaks rising snow-crested into a dark and ominous-looking sky, I think it one of the weirdest and wildest rides I ever took.

The infant Tigris is rapidly augmented by a number of streams and torrents. The descent was like taking leave of the bright upper world to go down into some nether region, from which there would be no exit. The valley, at times narrowing into a ravine, is hemmed in by sterile mountains, so steep as not to afford sites for villages. There are parapetless ancient arches of stone, flung across torrents which have carved hideous pathways for themselves through hideous rocks, scoriæ, and other signs of volcanic action, rough gulches, with narrow paths hanging on their sides, and in spite of many climbs upwards the course is on the whole downwards.

Darkness settled upon the valley long before lights, in what looked like infinite depths, and straggling up remarkable heights, trees, stone walls, and such steep ups and downs that it felt as if the horses were going to topple over precipices, denoted that we had entered Bitlis. Then came a narrow gateway, a flagged courtyard choked with mules and men, a high house with heavily-barred windows, a steep outside stair, and at the top sweet faces and sweet voices of European women, and lights and warm welcomes.

Bitlis, November 12.— This is the most romantically-situated city that I have seen in Western Asia. The dreamy impressions of height and depth received on the night of my arrival were more than realised the following morning. Even to the traveller arriving by daylight Bitlis must come as a great surprise, for it is situated in a hole upon which the upper valley descends with a sudden dip. The Bitlis-chai or Eastern Tigris passes through it in a series of raging cataracts, and is joined in the middle of the town by another torrent tumbling down another wild valley, and from this meeting of the waters massive stone houses rise one above another, singly, and in groups and terraces, producing a singularly striking effect. Five valleys appear to unite in Bitlis and to radiate from a lofty platform of rock supported on precipices, the irregular outlines of which are emphasised by walls and massive square and circular towers, the gigantic ruins of Bitlis Castle.

The massiveness of the houses is remarkable, and their courtyards and gardens are enclosed by strong walls. Every gate is strengthened and studded with iron, every window is heavily barred, all are at a considerable height, and every house looks as if it could stand a siege. There is no room to spare; the dwellings are piled tier above tier, and the flagged footways in front of them hang on the edges of precipices. Twenty picturesque stone bridges, each one of a single arch, span the Tigris and the torrents which unite with it. There are ancient ruins scattered through the town. It claims immense antiquity, and its inhabitants ascribe its castle and some of its bridges to Alexander the Great, but antiquarians attribute the former either to the Saracens or to the days when an ancient Armenian city called Paghesh occupied the site of the present Bitlis. It seems like the end of the world, though through the deep chasms below it, through which the Tigris descends with great rapidity to the plains, lies the highway to Diabekir. Suggestions of the ancient world abound. The lofty summits towering above the basin in which this extraordinary city lies are the termination of the Taurus chain, the Niphates of the ancients, on the highest peak of which Milton localised the descent of Satan.107

Remote as Bitlis seems and is, its markets are among the busiest in Turkey, and its caravan traffic is enormous for seven or eight months of the year. Its altitude is only 4700 feet, and the mercury in winter rarely falls to zero, but the snowfall is tremendous, and on the Rahwan Plain snow frequently lies up to the top of the telegraph poles, isolating the town and shutting up animals in their stables and human beings in their houses for weeks, and occasionally months, at a time. Bitlis produces a very coarse, heavy cotton cloth which, after being dyed madder red or dark blue, is largely exported, and is used for the embroidered aprons which the Armenian women wear. It also exports loupes, the walnut whorls or knots of which I have written before, oak galls, wax, wool, and manna, chiefly collected from the oak. The Bitlis people, and even some Europeans, regard this as a deposit left by the aromatic exhalations which the wind brings in this direction from Arabia, and they say that it lies on any plant without regard to its nature, and even on the garments of men. The deposit is always greatest in dry years. In addition to the white manna, obtained by drying the leaves and allowing the saccharine matter to fall off — and the green, the result of steeping the leaves in water, which is afterwards strained, there is a product much like golden syrup, which is used for the same purposes.

Bitlis is one of the roughest and most fanatical and turbulent of Turkish cities, but the present Governor, Raouf Pasha, is a man of energy, and has reduced the town and neighbourhood to some degree of order. Considerable bodies of troops have been brought in, and the garrison consists of 2500 men. These soldiers are thoroughly well clothed and equipped, and look remarkably clean in dress and person. They are cheery, soldierly-looking men, and their presence gives a little confidence to the Christians.

The population of Bitlis is estimated at 30,000, of which number over 20,000 are Kurds. Both men and women are very handsome, and the striking Kurdish costume gives a great brilliancy and picturesqueness to this remarkable city. The short sleeveless jackets of sheepskin with the black wool outside which the men are now wearing over their striped satin vests, and the silver rings in the noses of the girls give them something of a “barbarian” look, and indeed their habits appear to be much the same as those of their Karduchi ancestors in the days of Xenophon, except that in the interval they have become Moslems and teetotallers! Here they are Sunnis, and consequently do not clash with their neighbours the Turks, who abhor the Kurds of the mountains as Kizilbashes. The Kurdish physique is very fine. In fact I have never seen so handsome a people, and their manly and highly picturesque costume heightens the favourable effect produced by their well-made, lithe, active figures.

The cast of their features is delicate and somewhat sharp; the mouth is small and well formed; the teeth are always fine and white; the face is oval; the eyebrows curved and heavy; the eyelashes long; the eyes deep set, intelligent, and roving; the nose either straight or decidedly aquiline, giving a hawk-like expression; the chin slightly receding; the brow broad and clear; the hands and feet remarkably small and slender.

The women when young are beautiful, but hard work and early maternity lead to a premature loss of form, and to a withered angularity of feature which is far from pleasing, and which, as they do not veil, is always en évidence.

The poorer Kurds wear woollen socks of gay and elaborate patterns; cotton shoes like the gheva of the Persians; camlet trousers, wide at the bottom like those of sailors; woollen girdles of a Kashmir shawl pattern; short jackets and felt jerkins without sleeves. The turban usually worn is peculiar. Its foundation is a peaked felt cap, white or black, with a loosely-twisted rope of tightly-twisted silk, wool, or cotton wound round it. In the girdle the khanjar is always seen. Over it the cartridge belt is usually worn, or two cartridge belts are crossed over the chest and back. The girdle also carries the pipe and tobacco pouch, a long knife, a flint and steel, and in some cases a shot pouch and a highly-ornamented powder horn.

The richer Kurds dress like the Syrians. The under-garment, which shows considerably at the chest and at the long and hanging sleeves, is of striped satin, either crimson and white or in a combination of brilliant colours, over which is worn a short jacket of cloth or silk, also with long sleeves, the whole richly embroidered in gold. Trousers of striped silk or satin, wide at the bottom; loose medieval boots of carnation-red leather; a girdle fastened with knobbed clasps of silver as large as a breakfast cup, frequently incrusted with turquoises; red felt skull-caps, round which they wind large striped silk shawls, red, blue, orange, on a white or black ground, with long fringed ends hanging over the shoulders, and floating in the wind as they gallop; and in their girdles they carry richly-jewelled khanjars and pistols decorated with silver knobs, besides a number of other glittering appointments. The accoutrements of the horses are in keeping, and at marriages and other festivities the head-stalls, bridles, and breast-plates are completely covered with pendent silver coins.

The dress of the women is a foil to that of their lords. It consists of a blue cotton shirt; very wide trousers, drawn in at the ankles; a silver saucer on the head, from which chains depend with a coin at the end of each; a square mantle hanging down the back, clasped by two of its corners round the neck, and many strings of coins round the throat; a small handkerchief is knotted round the hair, and in presence of a strange man they hold one end of this over the mouth. The Turks in Bitlis are in a small minority, and the number of Armenian Christians is stated at from 2000 to 5000. The Old Church has a large monastery outside the town and several churches and schools. The Protestant Armenians have a substantial church edifice, with a congregation of about 400, and large boarding-schools for boys and girls.

The population is by far the wildest that I have seen in any Asiatic city, and is evidently only restrained from violence by the large garrison. It is not safe for the ladies of this mission to descend into the Moslem part of the city, and in a residence of more than twenty years they have never even passed through the bazars. The missionaries occupy a restricted and uncertain position, and the Armenian Christians are subject to great deprivations and restraints, and are distrusted by the Government. Of late they have been much harassed by the search for arms, and Christian gunsmiths have been arrested. Even their funeral ceremonies are not exempt from the presence of the police, who profess to believe that firearms are either carried in the place of a corpse or are concealed along with it. Placed in the midst of a preponderating and fully-armed Kurdish population, capable at any moment of being excited to frenzy against their faith, they live in expectation of a massacre, should certain events take place which are regarded as probable within two or three years.

It was not to see the grandeur and picturesqueness of Bitlis that I came here so late in the season, but to visit the American missionaries, especially two ladies. My hosts, Mr. and Mrs. Knapp, have returned from a visit to America to spend their last days in a country which has been their home for thirty years, and have lately been joined by their son, who spent his boyhood in Bitlis, and after graduating in an American university has come back, like so many sons of missionaries, to cast in his lot with a people to whom he is bound by many links of sympathy, bringing his wife with him. The two Misses — — who are more than half English, and are highly educated and accomplished, met Mr. and Mrs. Knapp long ago in a steamer on the Mediterranean, and decided to return with them to this dangerous and outlandish place, where they have worked among the women and girls for twenty-three years, and are still full of love and hope. The school for girls, in which fifty boarders are received in addition to fifty day pupils, has a kindergarten department attached to it. The parents of all are expected to contribute in money or in kind, but their increasing poverty is telling on their ability to do so, and this winter the supply of food contributed by them is far short of the mark.

The tastefulness and generosity of these ladies have produced as bright and beautiful a schoolroom as could be found anywhere, and ivy trained round the windows, growing plants, and pictures which are not daubs give a look of home. With them “Love is the fulfilling of the law”— love in every tone, look, and touch, and they have that true maternity of spirit which turns a school into a family, and trains as well as educates. They are now educating the children, and even grandchildren, of their earliest pupils, and have the satisfaction of seeing how very much their school has effected in permeating the household and social relationships of the Armenian women with the tone of Christian discipleship, so that one would scarcely hear from the lips of any of their married pupils the provoking question, “We are only women, what can we do?” Many of them have gone to homes in the roughest and wildest of mountain villages, where they sweeten village life by the gentle and kindly ways acquired in the Bitlis school. These ladies conduct a mothers’ meeting, and I thought that the women were much developed in intelligence and improved in manner as compared with the usual run of Armenian women. On being asked to address them, I took their own words for my text, “We are only women,” etc., and found them intelligent and sympathetic.

These ladies have endured great hardships, and their present position is one of continual deprivation and frequent risk. One of them was so severely stoned in Bitlis that she fell unconscious from her horse. In the winter Miss —— itinerates among the Armenian villages of the Mush and Rahwan Plains and the lake shore, travelling over the crust of the enormously deep snow in a hand-sled drawn by a man, braving storms which have nearly cost her her life, sleeping and living for a month or more at a time chiefly in odahs, and fearlessly encountering the very roughest of Kurds and others in these dim and crowded stables. The danger of village expeditions, and the difficulty of obtaining zaptiehs without considerable expense, have increased of late, and the Mush Plain especially has been ravaged all the summer and autumn by the Kurds, with many barbarities and much loss of life, so that travelling for Christians even in companies has been dangerous. Caravans have lately been attacked and robbed, and in the case of one large mixed caravan the Christians were robbed but the Moslems were unmolested. A traveller was recently treacherously murdered by his katirgis, and Miss — — having occasion to employ the same men a few days ago, saw and heard them rehearse his dying agonies more than once for the amusement of Kurds on the road.

Luxury is unknown in this mission house. It is so small that in order to receive me the ladies are sleeping in a curtained recess in the kitchen, and the reception-room for the natives is the eating and living room of the family. Among them all there is a rare devotion, and lives spent in cheerful obedience to God and in loving service for man have left on their faces the impress of “the love which looks kindly and the wisdom which looks soberly on all things.” The mission has had a severe struggle. The life on this mountain slope above the fanatical city is a very restricted one — there is nothing of what we are accustomed to regard as “necessary recreation,” and a traveller is not seen here above once in two or three years. All honour to those who have courage and faith to live such a life so lovingly and cheerfully!

I. L. B.

106 It does not present any difficulty to me that Xenophon omits all mention of the lake of Van, for a range of hills lies between it and the road. I have travelled over the track twice, and failed to see anything in the configuration of the country which would have led me to suppose that the region to the eastward was anything but a continuity of ranges of hills and mountains, and if the Ten Thousand took the route from the eastern head-waters of the Tigris to the Murad-chai at the farther end of the plain of Mush, directing all their investigations and inquiries in a westerly direction, there are very many chances against their having been informed, even by their prisoners, of the existence of the sea of Van.

107 Paradise Lost, iii. 741, “Nor stayed, till on Niphates’ top he lights.”

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