Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxxiv

I left Harta in a snowstorm without the caravan, and wherever the snow was well beaten got along at a good pace, passing on the right the fortress of Hassan–Kaleh, with several lines of fortifications and a town at its base, which, with the surrounding district, consumes, it is said, an amount of strong drink equal in value to its taxation. The adjacent Pasin Plain, watered by the Araxes, has suffered severely from the Kurds. A short time ago all its Christian villages were plundered, and at least 20 horses, 31 asses, 2282 sheep, and 750 head of cattle, nearly the whole pastoral wealth of the people, were carried off by these marauders, while the Moslem villages were exempt from their attacks. After winding among uninteresting hills crowned with forts, along valleys in which military posts occur at frequent intervals, and making a long ascent, the minarets and grim fortifications of the unhappy town of Erzerum loomed through the snow-mist; the city itself lying on a hill slope above a very extensive plain at a height of over 6000 feet. It was a solemn scene. The snow was deep and was still falling, the heavens were black, and swirls of mist driven by a strong wind blotted out at times the surrounding mountains. A dead calm followed, and snow clouds hung suspended over the city.

My first impression of Erzerum was of earthworks of immense size extending for miles, with dismounted guns upon them looking very black in the snow; of a deep ditch, and a lofty rampart pierced by a fine granite tunnel; of more earthworks, and of forts crowning all the heights directly above the city, and of many flags drooping on their staffs. Between the fortifications and the town there is a great deal of open ground sprinkled with rifle pits, powder magazines, and artillery, cavalry, and infantry barracks, very solidly built and neatly kept up. After passing through cemeteries containing thousands of gravestones, we abruptly entered the principal street, wide and somewhat European-looking, in which are some of the Consulates and the Protestant Armenian church and schools. The houses in this street are very irregular, and most of them have projecting upper fronts.

I was received with the utmost kindness at the American Mission House, where it has seemed likely that I might be detained for the winter! I understood that when I reached Erzerum I should be able to drive to Trebizond in a fourgon, so I sent Murphy to Van on Boy, and thought with much satisfaction of the ease of the coming journey. Then I was ill, and afterwards found that the fourgons were long rough waggons without springs, in which one must lie or sit on the top of the baggage, and that I should never be able to bear the jolting. There was another heavy snowstorm, and winter set in so rigorously that it was decided that driving was out of the question, and that I must hire a horse. After the matter had been settled thus, Murphy and Boy, both in very bad case, were found in a low part of the town, and though Murphy asserts that he encountered Kurds near Hassan–Kaleh who robbed him of everything, it is not believed that he ever passed through the city gate. He looks a pitiable object, and his much-frogged uniform, and the blanket, revolver, and other things that I had given him are all gone. In spite of his fatal failing, I have reengaged him, and shall again ride my trusty pet. The Vali, ignoring my official letter, has insisted on a number of formalities being complied with, and though the acting-Consul has undertaken all the formal arrangements, the delays have been many and tiresome. There are two bugbears on the Trebizond road — the Kop and Zigana mountains, which are liable to be blocked by snow.

As compared with Persian towns, Erzerum looks solid and handsome, and its uncovered bazars seem fairly busy. The through traffic between Trebizond and Tabriz, chiefly in British goods, is very heavy. The Custom House is in sight from my windows, and in one day I have counted as many as 700 laden camels passing through it, besides horse and mule caravans. There are about 2000 Persians in the city, and the carrying trade is mainly in their hands. The present population is estimated at from 20,000 to 24,000. The Armenians are not very numerous, but their enterprise as traders gives them an importance out of proportion to their numbers. The Armenian cathedral, the “Pair of Minarets,” the “Single Minaret,” and the castle, which stands on a height in the middle of the city, and contains a small Saracenic chapel, are the chief “sights.”

Nothing is talked about but “the troubles,”112 and the European Consuls, who possess trustworthy information, confirm my impressions of the seriousness of the present latitude allowed to the Kurds. The Turkish Government has just taken a step which is regarded as full of hazard. Certain Kurdish Beys were summoned to Erzerum, nominally for the purpose of being reprimanded for their misdeeds; but they were allowed to enter the gates with a number of armed followers, and afterwards went to Erzingian, where, from the hands of Zeki Pacha, the Commander of the Fourth Army Corps, they received commissions as officers of irregulars. The Christians (but I hope erroneously) regard this step as a menace, and the Kurds appear to think that it gives them license to maraud.

These Beys, after receiving their commissions, went through the Christian quarter of the Erzingian bazars, making gestures as of cutting throats, and saying to the Christian merchants, “Your time has come now; hitherto we have not had the cooperation of the Government, but we have it now.” It remains to be seen whether the Porte will succeed in bringing these men and their wild followers under the conditions of military discipline.

The excitement following upon the “troubles” last June has only partially subsided, and I learn from the Europeans that the state of suspicion, fear, distrust, and repression within the city has undergone little diminution. Every day brings fresh reports of robbery and outrage, and for murders of well-known Christians no arrests are being made.113 Trade among the Armenians is suffering, for those merchants whose transactions are with Kurdish districts dare not collect their debts for fear of losing their lives. Arrests of Christians on frivolous and worthless pretexts are being made daily, Armenian houses are being searched continually, and individuals are being imprisoned for long terms of years for having books in their possession containing references to the past history of Armenia, and the Government is, or affects to be, in constant dread of an insurrectionary rising among the Christians. The accounts from the country districts are so very bad that one of the ablest and best-informed of the European Consuls, a very old resident in Asia Minor, remarked indignantly, “It’s no longer a question of politics but of humanity.”

One of the most interesting sights in Erzerum is the Sanassarian College, founded and handsomely endowed by the liberality of an Armenian merchant. The fine buildings are of the best construction, and are admirably suited for educational purposes, and the equipments are of the latest and most complete description. The education and the moral and intellectual training are of a very high type, and the personal influence of the three directors, who were educated in Germany and England, altogether “makes for righteousness.” The graduation course is nine years. The students, numbering 120, wear a uniform, and there is no distinction of class among them. They are, almost without exception, manly, earnest, and studious, and are full of enthusiasm and esprit de corps. Much may be hoped for in the future from the admirable moral training and thorough education given in this college, which is one of the few bright spots in Armenia.

I have seen Erzerum under very favourable circumstances, for, since the last snowstorm, the weather has been magnificent, and everything that is untidy or unsightly has an unsullied covering. The winter sunsets reddening the white summits of the Deveh Boyun and other lofty ranges, and the absolute purity of the whiteness of the plain, between thirty and forty miles long and from ten to twenty broad, which lies below the city, exercise a witchery which the scorching heats of summer must utterly destroy.

I. L. B.

112 The reader will recollect that the “Erzerum troubles” so frequently referred to consisted of riot and bloodshed following upon a search for arms which was made under the floors of the Armenian Cathedral and the Sanassarian College, on the strength (it is said) of an anonymous telegram in June 1890. The lucid account given of this deplorable affair and of the subsequent inaction of the local Government by Her Britannic Majesty’s Consul–General for Kurdistan, in the “White Book,” to which allusion has been made, should be studied by all who are interested in the so-called “Armenian Question.”

113 In a despatch in the “White Book” (Turkey, No. 1, 1890–91) Mr. Clifford Lloyd sums up the condition of things in Kurdistan thus: “In a country such as this is, lawlessness is to be expected; but unfortunately in nearly every instance armed and ungoverned Kurds are the aggressors, and unarmed and unprotected Armenian Christians the victims.”

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