Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxxiii

I was indeed sorry to leave the charming circle at the Mission House and the wild grandeur of Bitlis, but a certain wan look in the sky and peculiar colouring on the mountains warned my friends that winter might set in any day, and Dr. Reynolds arranged for katirgis and an escort, and obtained a letter from the Governor by means of which I can procure additional zaptiehs in case of need. My Turkish katirgi, Moussa, is rich, and full of fun and jollity. He sings and jokes and mimics Mirza, rides a fine horse, or sprawls singing on its back, and keeps every one alive by his energy and vitality. My loads are very light, and his horses are strong, and by a peculiar screech he starts them off at a canter with no other object than the discomfiture of Mirza, who with all his good qualities will never make a horseman. Unluckily he has a caravan of forty horses laden with ammunition for the Government on the road, so things may not be always so smooth as they are now. Descending by a track more like a stair than a road, and crossing the Tigris, my friends and I performed the feat of riding through some of the bazars, even though Mr. Knapp and I had been pelted with stones on an open road the day before. There was no molestation, for the people are afraid of the zaptiehs’ swords. Bitlis is busy, and it is difficult to get through its crowded markets, low, narrow, and dark as they are, the sunbeams rarely entering through their woven roofs. The stalls were piled with fruits, roots, strange vegetables, red home-dyed cottons, gay gear for horses, daggers and silver chains such as Kurds love, gay Kurdish clothing, red boots with toes turned up for tying to the knees, pack-saddles, English cottons (“Mankester”), mostly red, and pipes of all kinds. There was pottery in red and green, huge earthen jars for the storage of water, brooms, horse-shoes, meat, curds, cheeses, and everything suited to the needs of a large and mixed population, and men seated in the shops plied their curious trades.

Emerging into the full sunlight on the waggon road to Erzerum, we met strings of girls carrying water-jars on their backs from the wells, and long trains of asses and pack-bullocks bringing in produce, mixed up with foot passengers and Kurds on showy horses. Bitlis rejoices in abundant streams, wells, fountains, and mineral springs, some strongly chalybeate, others resembling the Vichy waters. The grandly picturesque city with its piled-up houses, its barred windows suggestive of peril, its colossal ruins, its abounding waters, its bridges, each one more remarkable than the other, its terraced and wooded heights and the snow-crested summits which tower above them, with their cool blue and purple shadows, disappeared at a turn of the road, and there too my friends left me to pursue my perilous journey alone.

The day was superb, and full of fine atmospheric effects. As we crossed the Rahwan Plain the great mountains to the west were enshrouded in wild drifting mists, through which now and then peaks and ledges, white with recent snow, revealed themselves, to be hidden in blackness the next moment. Over the plain the blue sky was vaulted, and the sun shone bright and warm, while above the mountains to the south of Lake Van white clouds were piled in sunlit masses. After halting at Tadvan, a pleasant village among streams, fountains, gardens, and fruit trees, we skirted the lake along pleasant cultivated slopes and promontories with deep bays and inlets to Gudzag, where I spent the evening in an odah, retiring to sleep in my small tent, pitched in the village, where a big man with a gun, and wearing a cloak of goatskin reaching to his feet, kept up a big fire and guarded me till morning. The water froze in my basin during the night. The odah was full of Armenians, and Murphy interpreted their innumerable tales of wrong and robbery. “Since the Erzerum troubles,” so the tales ran, “the Kurds kill men as if they were partridges.” On asking them why they do not refuse to be robbed by “demand,” they replied, “Because the Kurds bring big sticks and beat us, and say they will cut our throats.” They complained of the exactions of the zaptiehs and of being tied to the posts of their houses and beaten when they have not money wherewith to pay the taxes.

Starting at sunrise on the following morning I had a very pleasant walk along the sweet shore of the lake, while water, sky, and mountains were blended in a flood of rose and gold, after which, skirting a wooded inlet, on the margin of which the brown roofs of the large village of Zarak were scarcely seen amidst the crimson foliage, and crossing a low range, we descended upon a plain at the head of a broad bay, on the farther side of which, upon a level breezy height, rose the countless monoliths and lofty mausoleums of Akhlat, which I had made a long detour to see. The plain is abundantly watered, and its springs were surrounded with green sward, poplars, and willows, while it was enlivened by numerous bullock-carts, lumbering and creaking on their slow way with the latest sheaves of the harvest.

After winding up a deep ravine we came upon a great table of rock scarped so as to be nearly perpendicular, at the base of which is a stone village. On the other side is a fine stream. I had purposed to spend the night at Akhlat, but on riding up the village street, which has several shops, there was a manifest unfriendliness about its Turkish inhabitants, and they went so far as to refuse both lodgings and supplies, so I only halted for a few hours. Few things have pleased me more than Akhlat, and the dreamy loveliness of the day was altogether propitious.

I first visited the Kharaba-shahr or “ruined city.” The table rock is honeycombed with a number of artificial chambers, some of which are inhabited. Several of these are carefully arched. A very fine one consists of a chamber with an arched recess like a small chancel, and a niche so resembling a piscina at one side that one involuntarily looks for the altar. These dwellings are carefully excavated, and chisel marks are visible in many places. Outlining this remarkable rock, and above these chambers, are the remains of what must have been a very fine fortress, with two towers like those of the castle of Bitlis springing from below the rock. The whole of it has been built of hewn red sandstone. The walls have been double, with the centre filled up with rough stones and mortar, but not much of the stone facing remains, the villages above and below having been built of it. Detached pieces of masonry, such as great masses of walls, solitary arches, and partially-embedded carved fragments extend over a very large area, and it is evident that investigators with time and money might yet reap a rich reward. Excavators have been recently at work — who or what they were I could not make out, and have unearthed, among other objects of interest, a temple with the remains of a dome having a cornice and frieze, and two small circular chambers, much decorated, the whole about twenty-five feet long.

Akhlat Kalessi, or the castle of Akhlat, stands on the sea-shore, on which side it has no defences. It is a fortress with massive walls, with round and square towers at intervals, and measures about 700 paces from the water to the crest of the slope, and about 330 across. The enclosure, which is entered by two gates, contains two ancient mosques solidly built, and a few houses among fruit trees, as well as some ruins of buildings. The view of the Sipan Dagh from this very striking ruin is magnificent.

There are many Circassian villages on the skirts of the Sipan Dagh, and their inhabitants bear nearly as bad a reputation as that of the Kurds. They are well armed, and defy the local government. They are robbers and pilferers, and though they receive, or did receive, an allowance raised by a tax on the general community, they wring what they please out of the people among whom they live.

A mile from Akhlat, on a table-land of smooth green sward high above the silver sea, facing southwards, with a glorious view of the mountains of Central Kurdistan whitened with the first snows of winter, lies in an indescribable loneliness — the city of the dead. The sward is covered though not crowded with red sandstone monoliths, from six to fourteen feet in height, generally in excellent preservation. Each has a projecting cornice on the east side with carved niches, and the western face is covered with exquisite tracery in arabesques and knot-work, and inscriptions in early Arabic. On the graves are either three carved stones arranged on edge, or a single heavy hewn stone with a rounded top, and sides decorated with arabesques. Few of these beautiful monoliths have fallen, but some are much time-worn, and have a growth of vivid red or green lichen upon them.

Besides these there are some lofty turbehs or mausoleums, admirably preserved and of extreme beauty. The form is circular. The sepulchre is a closed chamber, with another above it open half-way round on the lake side, and a colonnade of very beautiful pillars supports round arches, above which are five exquisitely-carved friezes. The whole is covered with a conical roof of carved slabs of red stone, under which runs an Arabic inscription. Each of these buildings is decorated with ornament in the Saracenic style, of a richness and beauty of which only photography could give any adequate representation. Close to the finest of these turbehs is an old mosque with a deeply-arched entrance, over which is a recess, panelled and carved like one in the finest of the rock chambers. The lintels of the door are decorated with stone cables. Mirza counted more than 900 monoliths.

As I sketched the finest of these beautiful mausoleums some mollahs came up and objected to the proceeding, and Moussa urged me to desist, as the remainder of the march was “very dangerous,” he said, and must be “got over” in full daylight. This phrase “very dangerous,” as used in Armenia, means that there is a serious risk of having the baggage and horses driven off, and the men stripped to a single garment. Such things are happening constantly, and even Moussa ceases his joking when he speaks of them.108 The remaining march was over great solitary sweeps of breezy upland to Pikhruz, an Armenian village of 100 houses, which has an intelligent Protestant teacher with sixty boys in his school. The villagers possess 4000 sheep, and have not been much harassed by the Kurds. They employ Kurdish shepherds and four night watchmen, two of whom are Kurds. The head-dresses of the women are heavy with coins, and they wear stomachers and aprons so richly embroidered that no part of the original material is visible.

The khan is an exceptionally bad odah, and is absolutely crowded with horses, oxen, and men, and dim with the fumes of animal fuel and tobacco. It is indeed comically wretched. The small space round the fire is so crowded with zaptiehs, katirgis, and villagers that I have scarcely room for my chair and the ragamuffin remains of my baggage. Murphy is crouching over a fire which he is trying to fan into a state in which it will cook my unvarying dinner — a fowl and potatoes. Moussa is as usual convulsing the company with his stories and jokes, and is cracking walnuts for me; the schoolmaster is enlarging to me on that fruitful topic —“the state of things,” the sabres and rifles of my escort gleam on the blackened posts, the delectable ox and horse faces wear a look of content, as they munch and crunch their food, the risk of sleeping in a tent is discussed, and meanwhile I write spasmodically with the candle and ink on a board on my lap. I am fast coming to like these cheery evenings in the odahs, where one hears the news of the country and villages. The khanji, the man who keeps the guest-house, provides fire, light, horse-food, and the usual country diet at so much per head, and obtains the daily fowl, which costs about 6d., and is cooked while warm. Milk can be got from one of the cows in the stable. My expenses for food and lodging are from 4s. to 6s. a night.

Matchetloo, November 19.— One of the most unpleasant parts of the routine of the journey is the return to the odah at 5 A.M. after a night in the fresh air, for the atmosphere is so heated and foul as almost to knock one down. The night frosts are sharp, and as we start before sunrise we are all glad to walk for the first hour. The night in my tent at Pikhruz was much disturbed, and I realised that it is somewhat risky for me to have my servants out of hearing in the depths of a semi-subterranean dwelling. The village dogs raged at times as though the Kurds were upon them, and every half-hour the village guards signalled to each other with a long mournful yell. I was awakened once by a confusion of diabolical sounds, shots, shrieks, roars, and yells, which continued for some time and then died away. In the morning the guards said that the Kurds had attacked a large caravan on the plain below, but had been repulsed, and that men on both sides had been wounded.

The following day’s march by the silver sheet of the Kuzik Lake, alive with ducks, divers, and other water fowl, was very charming. Snow had fallen heavily, and the Sipan Dagh and the Nimrud Dagh were white more than half-way down their sides. From the summit of a very wild pass we bade adieu to the beautiful Sea of Van, crossed a plain in which is a pretty fresh-water lake with several villages and much cultivation on its margin, and, after some hours of solitary mountain travelling, came down upon the great plain of Norullak, sprinkled with large villages, very fertile, and watered by the Murad-chai, the eastern branch of the Euphrates.

I was to have had an easy march of five hours, and to have spent Sunday at Shaoub in the comfortable house of a Protestant pastor with an English-speaking wife, but the zaptiehs took the wrong road, and as twilight came on it was found that Shaoub had been left hours behind. I have been suffering very much from the fatigue of the very long marches, and only got through this one by repeatedly lying down by the roadside while the zaptiehs went in search of information. After it was quite dark and we were still astray, news came that Shaoub was occupied by 400 Turkish soldiers, and that there were neither supplies nor accommodation, and after two more hours of marching and counter-marching over ploughed lands and among irrigation ditches, we emerged on the Erzerum road, six inches deep in dust, forded a river in thick darkness, got very wet, and came out upon the large village of Yangaloo, a remarkable collection of 170 ant-hills rather than houses, with their floors considerably below the ground. The prospects in this hummocky place were most unpromising, and I was greeted by Moussa, who, on finding that Shaoub was full of troops, had had the wits to go on to Yangaloo, with the information that there was “no accommodation.”

A womanly, Christian grip of my arm reassured me, and I was lodged for Sunday in the Protestant church, the villagers having arranged to worship elsewhere. A building forty feet long with small paper-covered windows under the eaves was truly luxurious, but the repose of Sunday morning was broken by loud and wearisome noises, lasting for several hours, which received a distressing explanation. I was informed by the priests and several of the leading men of the village that Yangaloo for some time past had suffered severely from the Kurds, and that just before a heavy demand for taxes had been made by the Government, the three days’ grace usually granted having been refused. The local official had seized the flax seed, their most profitable crop, at half-price, and had sold it for full price, his perquisite amounting to a large sum. Fifteen arabas, each one loaded with seven large sacks of “linseed,” were removed in the morning.

The people were very friendly. All the “brethren” and “sisters” came to kiss hands, and to wish that my departure “might be in great peace,” and on Sunday evening I was present at a gathering of men in a room with the door carefully bolted and guarded, who desired me to convey to “the Consul” at Erzerum, with the attestation of the names of the priests of the Old and Reformed Churches, certain complaints and narratives of wrong, which represented a condition of living not to be thought of without grief and indignation, and not to be ignored because it is partially chronic.

Yangaloo is a typical Armenian village, its ant-hill dwellings are half-sunk, and the earth which has been excavated is piled up over their roofs and sides. The interior of each dwelling covers a considerable area, and is full of compartments with divisions formed by low clay walls or by the posts which support the roof, the compartments ramifying from a widening at the inner end of a long dark passage. In Yangaloo, as in other villages on the plains, the earth is so piled over the houses as to render them hardly distinguishable from the surrounding ground, but where a village burrows into a hill-side only a small projection needs an artificial roof. The people live among their live stock; one entrance serves for both, and in winter time the animals never leave the stables. The fireplace or tandūr is in the floor, but is only required for cooking purposes, as the heat and steam of the beasts keep the human beings comfortably warm. From two to five families live in every house, and the people are fairly healthy.109

All the male members of a family bring their brides to live under the parental roof, and one “burrow” may contain as many as three generations of married couples with their families. On becoming an inmate of her father-in-law’s house, each Armenian bride, as in the country districts of Persia, has to learn the necessity of silence. Up to the day of the birth of the first child she is the family drudge, and may not speak to any one but her husband, and not to him in the presence of his parents. Maternity liberates her tongue; she may talk to her child, and then to the females of the household; but she may not speak freely till some years of this singular novitiate have passed by. She then takes a high place in the house, and eventually rules it if she is left a widow. The Armenian women are veiled out of doors, but only in deference to the Moslems, who regard an uncovered head as the sign of a bad woman. The girls are handsome, but sheepish-looking; their complexions and eyes are magnificent.

Sunday was windy, with a gray sky, and the necessity of getting over the Ghazloo Pass before the weather absolutely broke was urged upon me by all. On the plain of Norullak, not far from Yangaloo, I forded the Euphrates — that is, the Murad-chai, a broad, still, and deep river, only fordable at certain seasons. The fine mountain Bijilan is a landmark in this part of the country. Leaving the Euphrates we ascended for some hours through bleak uninteresting regions to Kara Kapru, and on the road passed thirty well-armed Kurds, driving a number of asses, which the zaptiehs said had been driven off from two Christian villages, which they pointed out. I was interested in the movements of some mounted men, who hovered suspiciously about my caravan, and at one time galloped close up to it, but retired on seeing the Government uniforms, and were apparently “loafing about” among the valleys. The zaptiehs said that they were notorious robbers, and would not go home without booty. Towards evening they reappeared with several bullocks and asses which they had driven off from the village of — — the headman of which came to me in the evening and asked me to report the robbery to “the Consul,” adding that this was the third time within a week that his village had been robbed of domestic animals, and that he dared not complain.

At Kara Kapru, the best-looking Armenian village I have seen, while I was looking for an odah, Moussa, in spite of Murphy and the zaptiehs, dashed off with his horses at full speed, and never stopped till he reached Ghazloo, three hours farther on. This barbarous conduct was occasioned by his having heard that two of his forty horses ahead had broken down, and he hurried on to replace them with two of mine! I was so tired and in so much pain that I was obliged to lie down on the roadside for a considerable time before I could proceed, and got a chill, and was so wretched that I had to be tied on my horse. It was pitch dark, the zaptiehs continually lost the way, heavy rain came on, and it was 9 P.M. when we reached Ghazloo, a village high up on a hill-slope, where Mirza and Murphy carried me into a small and crowded stable, and later into my tent, which was pitched in the slime at the stable door. Moussa was repentant, borrowed a kajaveh, and said he would give me his strong horse for nothing!

Torrents of rain fell, changing into sleet, and sleet into snow, and when the following day dawned dismally my tent was soaked, and standing in slush and snow. My bed was carried into the stable, and I rested while the loading was going on. Suleiman, my special zaptieh, said that the khanji was quadrupling the charges, and wanted me not to pay him anything. The khanji retorted that I gave the zaptieh money to pay, and that he gave only a few coppers to the people — a glaring untruth, for Murphy pays everything in my presence. Thereupon Suleiman beat the khanji with his scabbarded sword, on which the man struck him, and there was a severe fight, in the course of which the combatants fell over the end of my bed. So habituated does one become to scenes of violence in this country that I scarcely troubled myself to say to Murphy, “Tell them to fight outside.”

It was a severe day’s march over the Bingol Dagh, and I know little about the country we passed through. We skirted a bleak snowy hillside, first in rain and then in a heavy snowstorm, made a long ascent among drifting snow clouds, saw an ass abandoned by a caravan shivering in the bitter wind, with three magpies on its back picking its bleeding wounds, and near the summit of the Ghazloo Pass encountered a very severe “blizzard,” so severe that no caravan but my own attempted to face it, and sixty conscripts en route for Bitlis in charge of two officers and some cavalry turned back in spite of words and blows, saying, “We may be shot; better that than to die on the hillside”! Poor fellows, they are wretchedly dressed, and many of them have no socks. The “blizzard” was very awful —“a horror of great darkness,” a bewildering whirl of pin-like snow coming from all quarters at once, a hurricane of icy wind so fearful that I had to hold on by the crupper and mane to avoid being blown out of the saddle; utter confusion, a deadly grip at my heart, everything blotted out, and a sense of utter helplessness. Indeed I know of no peril in which human resources count for so little. After reaching the summit of the pass the risk was over, but we were seriously delayed in forcing a passage through the drift, which was fully seven feet deep. The men were much exhausted, and they say that “half an hour of it would have finished them.” All landmarks were lost in the storm, and after some hours of struggling through snow, and repeatedly losing the way, the early darkness compelled us to take refuge in a Kurdish village of bad repute on a bleak mountain side.

The odah was not only the worst I have yet seen, but it was crammed with handsome, wild-looking Kurds, and with the conscripts who had turned back at the pass, some of whom were suffering from fever, and with cavalrymen and their horses, every man trying to get near the fire. I cannot say that any of them were rude, indeed the Kurds did their best for what they supposed to be my comfort. I spent the evening among them, but slept in my tent outside, in two feet of snow, 100 yards from the stable, in spite of the protestations of the zaptiehs. In fact I trusted to Kurdish watchmen, who turned out faithful, and when an attempt was made to rob my tent in the night they sprang on the robbers, and after a struggle got two of them down and beat them with their guns, both sides yelling like savages. When I left the odah for the tent two Kurds gripped my arms and led me to it through the deep snow. It was better to run some risk than to be suffocated by the heat and overpowering odours of the stable, but it was an eerie place.

November 21.— The weather considerably delayed my farther progress. The days were severe, and the nights were spent in a soaked tent, pitched in slush or snow. Mist and snow concealed the country, and few travellers were stirring. We marched with the powder caravan for the sake of the escort and for its services in beating the track, and Moussa and his men watched at night. The going was very bad, and both Moussa and I fell down hill slopes with our horses, but the animals luckily alighted on their feet. Moussa’s jollity was very useful. He is a capital mimic, and used to “take off” Mirza in the odahs at night, and as Murphy lost no opportunity of showing up the poor fellow’s want of travelling savoir-faire, he would have had a bad time but for his philosophical temperament and imperturbable good-nature. I suffered very much from my spine, but the men were all kind, and tried to make things easy for me, and the zaptiehs were attentive and obliging.

Kurdistan is scarcely a “geographical expression,” and colloquially the word is used to cover the country inhabited by the Kurds. They are a mysterious people, having maintained themselves in their original seats and in a condition of semi-independence through all the changes which have passed over Western Asia, though they do not exceed numerically two and a quarter millions of souls. Such as they were when they opposed the retreat of the Ten Thousand they seem to be still. War and robbery are the business of Kurdish life.


A Hakkiari Kurd.

One great interest of this journey is that it lies through a country in which Kurds, Turks, and Armenians live alongside each other — the Kurds being of two classes, the tribal, who are chiefly nomads, owning no law but the right of the strongest; and the non-tribal or settled, who, having been conquered by Turkey, are fairly orderly, and are peaceable except in their relations with the Christians. The strongholds of the tribal Kurds are in the wild mountains of Kurdistan, and especially in the Hakkiari country, which is sprinkled with their rude castles and forts. An incurable love of plunder, a singular aptitude for religious fanaticism, a recklessness as to the spilling of blood, a universal rapacity, and a cruel brutality when their passions are roused, are among their chief vices. The men are bold, sober, and devoted to their kinsmen and tribe; and the women are chaste, industrious, and maternal. Under a firm and equitable Government, asserting vigorously and persistently the supremacy of law and the equal rights of race and creed, they would probably develop into excellent material.

The village Turk, as he is described by Europeans well acquainted with him and speaking his language, and as I have seen him on a long journey, is a manly, hospitable, hard-working, kindly, fairly honest fellow, domestic, cheerful, patriotic, kind to animals, usually a monogamist, and usually also attentive to his religious duties.

The Christians, who, in this part of Kurdistan, are all Armenians by race, live chiefly on the plains and in the lower folds of the hills, and are engaged in pastoral and agricultural pursuits. My letters have given a faithful representation of them as dwelling with their animals in dark semi-subterranean hovels. The men are industrious, thrifty, clannish, domestic, and not given to vices, except that of intoxication, when they have the means and opportunity, and the women are hardworking and chaste. Both sexes are dirty, hardy, avaricious, and superstitious, and ages of wrong have developed in them some of the usual faults of oppressed Oriental peoples. They cling desperately to their historic church, which is represented among the peasants by priests scarcely less ignorant than themselves. Their bishops constitute their only aristocracy.

They are grossly ignorant, and of the world which lies outside the sandjak in which they live they know nothing. The Sultan is to them a splendid myth, to whom they owe and are ready to pay a loyal allegiance. Government is represented to them by the tax-gatherer and his brutalities. Of justice, the most priceless product of good government, they know nothing but that it is a marketable commodity. With the Armenian trading communities of the cities they have slender communication, and little except nationality and religion in common.

As a rule, they live in villages by themselves, which cluster round churches, more or less distinguishable from the surrounding hovels, but there are also mixed villages in which Turks and Armenians live side by side, and in these cases they get on fairly well together, though they instinctively dislike each other, and the Turk despises his neighbour both for his race and creed. The Armenians have not complained of being maltreated by the Turkish peasants, and had there been any cause for complaint it would certainly have reached my ears.

On this journey hundreds of stories have been told to me by priests of both the Old and Protestant Churches, headmen, and others, of robbery by demand, outrages on women, digging into houses, killing, collectively and individually, driving off sheep and cattle, etc., etc.110

On the whole, the same condition of alarm prevails among the Armenians as I witnessed previously among the Syrian rayahs. It is more than alarm, it is abject terror, and not without good reason. In plain English, general lawlessness prevails over much of this region. Caravans are stopped and robbed, travelling is, for Armenians, absolutely unsafe, sheep and cattle are being driven off, and outrages, which it would be inexpedient to narrate, are being perpetrated. Nearly all the villages have been reduced to extreme poverty by the carrying off of their domestic animals, the pillage, and in some cases the burning, of their crops, and the demands made upon them at the sword’s point for every article of value which they possess, while at the same time they are squeezed for the taxes which the Kurds have left them without the means of paying.

The repressive measures which have everywhere followed “the Erzerum troubles” of last June — the seizure of arms, the unchecked ravages of the Kurds, the threats of the Kurdish Beys, who are boldly claiming the sanction of the Government for their outrages, the insecurity of the women, and a dread of yet worse to come — have reduced these peasants to a pitiable state.

The invariable and reasonable complaint made by the Christians is, that though they are heavily taxed they have no protection from the Kurds, or any advantage from the law as administered in Kurdistan, and that taxes are demanded from them which the Kurds have left them without the means of paying. They complain that they are brutally beaten when they fail to produce money for the payment of the Government imposts, and they allege with great unanimity that it is common for the zaptiehs to tie their hands behind them, to plaster their faces with fresh cow-dung, and throw pails of cold water at their eyes, tie them to the posts of their houses and flog them severely. In the village of — — which has been swept bare by the Kurds, the people asserted that the zaptiehs had tied twenty defaulters together, and had driven them round and round barefooted over the thistles of the threshing-floor, flogging them with their heavy whips. My zaptiehs complain of the necessity they are under of beating the people. They say (and I think correctly) that they can never know whether a man has a hoard of buried money or not without beating him. They tell me also that they know that half the peasants have nothing to pay their taxes with, but that unless they beat them to “get what they can out of them” they would be punished themselves for neglect of duty.

On the plains to the west and north-west of the lake of Van, where the deep, almost subsoil, ploughing and carefully-constructed irrigation channels testify to the industry of a thrifty population, great depredations are even now being committed, and though later the intense cold and tremendous depths of snow of the Armenian highlands will proclaim the “Truce of God,” the Kurds are still on the alert. Nor are their outrages confined to small localities, neither are they the result of “peculiar local circumstances,” but from the Persian frontier near Urmi, along a more or less travelled road of several hundred miles, there is, generally speaking, no security for life, traffic, or property, and I hear on good authority that on the other side of Erzerum, even up to the Russian frontier, things are if possible worse.

I have myself seen enough to convince me that in the main the statements of the people represent accurately enough the present reign of terror in Armenia, and that a state of matters nearly approaching anarchy is now existing in the vilayet of Erzerum. There is no security at all for the lives and property of Christians, law is being violated daily, and almost with perfect impunity, and peaceable and industrious subjects of the Porte, taxed to an extent which should secure them complete protection, are plundered without redress. Their feeble complaints are ignored, or are treated as evidence of “insurrectionary tendencies,” and even their lives are at the mercy of the increased audacity and aroused fanaticism of the Kurds, and this not in nearly inaccessible and far-off mountain valleys, but on the broad plains of Armenia, with telegraph wires above and passable roads below, and with a Governor–General and the Fourth Army Corps, numbering 20,000 seasoned troops, within easy distance!

I have every reason to believe that in the long winter evenings which I have spent in these sociable odahs, the peasants have talked to me freely and frankly. There are no reasons why it should be otherwise, for my zaptiehs are seldom present, Moussa is looking after his horses in distant recesses, quite out of hearing, and my servants are Christians. If the people speak frankly, I am compelled to believe that the Armenian peasant is as destitute of political aspirations as he is ignorant of political grievances; that if he were secured from the ravages of Moslem marauders he would be as contented as he is loyal and industrious; and that his one desire is “protection from the Kurds” and from the rapacity of minor officials, with security for his life and property. Not on a single occasion have I heard a wish expressed for political or administrative reform, or for autonomy. The Armenian peasants are “of the earth, earthy,” and the unmolested enjoyment of material good is their idea of an earthly Paradise.

With regard to the Kurds, they have been remorseless robbers for ages, and as their creed scarcely hesitates to give the appropriation of the goods of a Kafir a place among the virtues, they prey upon the Syrian and Armenian peasants with clear consciences. To rob them by violence and “demand,” month after month and year after year, till they have stripped them nearly bare, to cut their throats if they resist, to leave them for a while to retrieve their fortunes — “to let the sheep’s wool grow,” as their phrase is — and then to rob them again, is the simple story of the relations between Kurd and Christian. They are well armed with modern rifles and revolvers. I have rarely seen a Kurd with an old-fashioned weapon, and I have never seen a Christian with a rifle, and their nearly useless long guns have lately been seized by the Government. The Kurds hate and despise the Turks, their nominal rulers; but the Islamic bond of brotherhood is stronger than the repulsion either of hatred or contempt, and the latent or undisguised sympathy of their coreligionists in official positions ensures them, for the most part, immunity for their crimes, for the new Code, under which the evidence of a Christian has become nominally admissible in a court of law, being in direct opposition to the teaching of the Koran, to the practice of centuries, to Kurdish fanaticism, and to the strong religious feelings and prejudices of those who administer justice, is practically, so far as the Christians are concerned, a dead letter.111

I am writing in an odah in the village of Harta, after a wild mountain ride in wind, sleet, and snow. The very long marches on this journey have been too much for me, and I made a first and last attempt to travel in a maffir or covered wooden pannier, but the suffering was so great that I was glad to remount my faithful woolly Boy. We had a regular snowstorm, in which nothing could be seen but the baggage horses struggling and falling, and occasional glimpses of caverned limestone cliffs and precipitous slopes, with a foamy torrent at a tremendous depth below. On emerging from the pass, Moussa, Suleiman, and I came at a good pace through the slush to this odah, and I arrived so cold that I was glad to have to rub my horse dry, and attend to him. Murphy describes him thus: “That’s a strange horse of yours, ma’am; if one were to lie down among his legs he’d take no notice to hurt one. When he comes in he just fills hisself, then he lies down in the wettest place he can find, and goes to sleep. Then he wakes and shakes hisself, and hollers, he does, till he gets his grub”— an inelegant but forcible description of the excellences of a travelling horse. Boy is truly a gentle pet; it afflicts me sorely to part with him. A few nights ago as I took some raisins to him in a dark recess of the stable, my light went out, and I slipped and fell among the legs of some animal. Not knowing whether it was a buffalo or a strange horse I did not dare to move, and said, “Is this you, my sweet Boy?” A low pleasant snuffle answered “yes,” and I pulled myself up by the strong woolly legs, which have carried me so sturdily and bravely for several hundred miles.

The Christians appear not to have anything analogous to our “family worship,” but are careful in their attendance at the daily prayers in church, to which they are summoned before dawn, either by loud rappings on their doors or the striking of a wooden gong or sounding-board. The churches differ very little. They usually have an attempt at an outer courtyard, the interior of the edifice is generally square, the roof is supported by two rows of poplar pillars, and the rough walls are concealed by coarse pictures and dirty torn strips of printed cotton. Dirty mats or bits of carpets cover the floor, racks are provided for the shoes of the worshippers, and if there is not a gallery a space is railed off for the women. The prayers are mumbled by priests in dirty vestments, while the women knit and chatter. Candle-grease, dust, and dirt abound. There is such an air of indifference about priests and people that one asks what motive it is which impels them to leave their warm stable dwellings on these winter mornings to shiver in a dark and chilly church. They say, “We will tread the paths our fathers trod; they are quite good enough for us.” Two nights ago, in an odah full of men, the Kurdish khanji, at the canonical hour, fell down on his forehead at prayer in the midst of us, all daggers, pistols, and finery as he was. In which case is the worship most ignorant, I wonder?

I. L. B.

108 Akhlat was a place of immense importance in ancient days, and its history epitomises the vicissitudes of Armenia; Abulfeda, Bakani, Deguignes, Ritter, and Finlay in his History of Greece are among the best-known authorities on its history, and Mr. Tozer in his work on Turkish Armenia, p. 318, etc., gives an interesting popular sketch of the way in which it was conquered and reconquered by Saracens, Greeks, Kurds, Turks, Khoarasmians and Georgians, till eventually the Turks reconquered it from the Kurds. Its ancient Armenian name of Khelat is altogether unknown to its present inhabitants.

109 Xenophon in his Anabasis describes the Armenian dwellings of his day thus:—

“Their houses were underground, the entrance like the mouth of a well, but spacious below; there were passages dug into them for the cattle, but the people descended by ladders. In the houses were goats, sheep, cows, and fowls, with their young. All the cattle were kept in fodder within the walls.” I have not seen the entrance by a well, but have understood that it still exists in certain exposed situations. Xenophon mentions buried wine, and it is not unlikely that the deep clay-lined holes in which grain is stored in some of the villages are ancient cellars, anterior to the date when the Karduchi became Moslems and teetotallers.

110 It was not possible to ascertain the accuracy of these narratives, and though many of them appeared to be established by a mass of concurrent and respectable testimony, I forbear presenting any of them to my readers, especially as the report presented to Parliament in January 1891 (Turkey, No. 1) not only gives, on British official authority, a mass of investigated facts, but states the case of the Armenian peasantry in language far stronger than any that I should have ventured to use.

111 In a Minute by the late Mr. Clifford Lloyd (Turkey, No. 1, 1890–91, p. 80) the condition of the Christian peasant population of Kurdistan is summarised thus:—

“Their sufferings at present proceed from three distinct causes —

“1. The insecurity of their lives and properties, owing to the habitual ravages of the Kurds.

“2. The insecurity of their persons and the absence of all liberty of thought and action (except the exercise of public worship).

“3. The unequal status held by the Christian as compared with the Mussulman in the eyes of the Government.”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/b/bird/isabella/persia_and_kurdistan/chapter40.html

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