Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter iv

The rain at last ceased, and after the katirgis had squabbled for an hour over the baggage, we got off at ten, two days ago, very grateful for shelter and hospitality under such untoward circumstances. Six Bashi Bazouks and two zaptiehs on foot in ragged and incongruous uniforms escorted us to the Turkish frontier.

The streets were in a terrible condition, and horse and footmen, after an attempt to march in pairs, fell perforce into a floundering and disorderly single file, the footmen occasionally pulling themselves out of mud holes by the tails of the horses. Outside the town there was an expanse of mud and flooded water-channels which broke up the last attempt at a procession, and led to a general sauve qui peut. The mire was tenacious and up to the horses’ knees, half the mules were down with their loads, Hadji rolled into the mud, my capable animal snorted and struggled, some went on banks and some took to streams, the asses had to be relieved of their loads, and the air was full of shouts and objurgations, till after much delay the forlorn rabble all struggled to the terra firma of a gravelly slope, splashed from head to foot.

The road crosses low, rolling, gravelly hills, with an occasional outcrop of red sandstone, and ascends on the whole. The sun was bright, but the wind was strong and very cold. The Bashi Bazouk escort was altogether harum-scarum and inconsequent, careering in circles, and firing at birds (which they never hit) from the saddle, and when we reached some low hills bearing a bad reputation, the officer, in order to represent danger and his vigilant care, threw them out in all directions scouting for robbers, till we came to a steepish hill crowned by a round tower with a mushroom top, a few ruinous mud buildings, and a tattered tent. Here the escort formed into one line, and the ragged garrison into another, with an officer facing them, and were photographed as they shivered in the biting wind. This tower is a Turkish frontier fort.

Soon afterwards the Persian frontier is crossed, the hills increase considerably in size, and mud was exchanged for firm, rough gravel. A feature of the otherwise featureless landscape is the frequent occurrence of towers like martello towers, on hill-tops, placed there for the shelter of the guards who formerly kept a look-out for robbers. In the uninteresting gravel lie pebbles of jasper and agate, emerald green, red, yellow, and purple. The first object of the slightest interest in this new country was a village of Ilyats, built of reed screens, with roofs of goat’s-hair cloth, and with small yards with reed walls in front. The women, who wore full trousers and short jackets, were tall, somewhat striking-looking, and unveiled. Their hair hung down in long plaits, and they wore red handkerchiefs knotted at the back of the head.

There an escort of four Persian sowars joined us. The type of face was that with which we are familiar on Sasanian coins and sculptured stones, the brow and chin receding considerably, and the nose thin and projecting, the profile suggesting a beak rather than a human face, and the skin having the appearance of being drawn so tightly over the bones as to force the eyes into singular prominence.


A Turkish Frontier Fort.

A six hours’ march ended at the wildly-situated village of Kasr-i-Shirin, high on the right bank of the Holwan, with a plantation of dates on the left bank and considerable cultivation in the valley. It has only eighty houses of the most wretched construction, rivalled in height and size by middens, the drainage of which wastes itself on the wretched roadway. A caravanserai of the most miserable description, a square fort with a small garrison, and some large graveyards with domed tombs and curious obelisks, are the salient features of this village. Its wretched aspect is accounted for by its insecurity. It has been destroyed by robber tribes as often as there was anything worth destroying, and it has been so tossed to and fro between Turkey and Persia as not to have any of the special characteristics of either empire.

We stopped short of the village, at a great pile of building on a height, in massiveness and irregularity resembling a German medieval castle, in which a letter had secured accommodation. It has been unoccupied since its owner, Jan Mir, a sheikh of a robber tribe, and the terror of the surrounding neighbourhood, was made away with by the Persian Government.

The accommodation consisted of great, dark, arched, vaulted rooms, with stone-flagged floors, noble in size, but needing fifty candles and huge log fires to light up and warm their dark recesses, and gruesome and damp with one candle and a crackle of twigs. They were clean, however, and their massive walls kept out the cold. The village is at an elevation of 2300 feet, and the temperature has greatly changed.

The interest of Kasr-i-Shirin is that it lies among masses of ancient rubble, and that the slopes which surround it are completely covered with hewn and unhewn stones of all sizes, the relics of a great city, at the western extremity of which the present wretched hamlet stands.11 The walls, which are easily traced, enclose an irregular square, the shortest front of which is said to be three miles long. They are built of roughly-hewn blocks of gray and red sandstone, and very hard mortar or concrete. The blocks are so huge in many places as to deserve the often misused epithet Cyclopean.

Within this enclosure are remains of houses built of water-worn round stones, which lie in monstrous heaps, and of a large fort on an eminence. In another direction are the ruins of an immense palace of quadrangular form, with only one entrance, and large underground rooms now nearly choked up. There are remains of what must have been very fine archways, but as the outer coating of hewn stone and all the decorations have fallen off, leaving only the inner case of rough rubble and concrete, the architectural forms are very badly defined, and the aspect of what must once have been magnificent is now forbidding and desolate. The remains of an aqueduct cut in the rock, and of troughs and stone pipes by which water was brought into the palace and city, from a distance of fifteen miles, are still traceable among the desolations, but of the beautiful gardens which they watered, and with which Khosroe surrounded the beautiful Shirin, not a trace remains. There was a pale sunset, flushing with pale pink distant leagues of sodden snow, and right across a lurid opening in a heavy mass of black clouds the great ruined pile of the palace of Khosroe the Magnificent stood out, a dismal commentary on splendour and fame.

The promise of the evening was fulfilled the next day in windy rain, which began gently, but afterwards fell in persistent torrents, varied by pungent swirls of sleet and snow. Leaving the gash through cliffs with curious stratification in white and red, formed by the Holwan, the day was spent in skirting or crossing low hills. The mud was very deep and tenacious, and the rate of progress barely two miles an hour. There were no caravans, travellers, or population, and no birds or beasts. The rain clouds hung low and heavy, mists boiled up from among the folds of the hills, the temperature fell perceptibly. It was really inspiriting for people protected by good mackintoshes.

After riding for six hours the rain changed into sleet and wet snow, blotting out the hills and creating an unnatural twilight, in which we floundered in mud up to the mules’ knees into the filthiest village I have ever seen, a compound of foul, green ditches, piles of dissolving manure, mud hovels looking as if they were dissolving too, reed huts, and an Ilyat village, grouped round the vilest of caravanserais, the entrance to which was knee-deep in mire. To lodge in it was voted impossible, and the escort led us in the darkening mist and pelting sleet to an adjacent mud hamlet as hopeless-looking on the other side of the bridge, where, standing up to the knees of the mules in liquid manure, we sought but vainly for shelter, forded the Holwan, and returned to the caravanserai through almost impassable slush.

It was simply loathsome, with its stench, its foulness, and its mire, and was already crowded and noisy with men and beasts. There was a great courtyard with arched recesses all round, too abominable to be occupied, too exposed and ruinous, even had they been cleaned, to give shelter from the driving sleet. The last resource was to pass through an archway into the great, lofty mule stable, on both sides of which are similar recesses or mangers, about ten feet by seven and about eight feet high. The stable was of great size and height with a domed roof. Probably it runs half-way round the quadrangle at the back of the uninhabitable recesses. There were at least four hundred mules in this place, jangling their great bells, and crowds of katirgis, travellers, and zaptiehs, all wet and splashed over their heads with mud, some unloading, others making fires and feeding their mules, all shouting when they had anything to say, the Babel aggravated by the clatter of the rattles of a hundred curry-combs and the squeals of fighting horses.


Lodgings for Travellers.

The floor was deep with the manure of ages and piled with bales and boxes. In the side recesses, which are about the height of a mule’s back, the muleteers camped with their fires and their goods, and laid the provender for their beasts in the front. These places are the mangers of the eastern caravanserai, or khan, or inn. Such must have been the inn at Bethlehem, and surely the first step to the humiliation of “the death of the cross” must have been the birth in the manger, amidst the crowd and horrors of such a stable.

The odour was overpowering and the noise stunning, and when our wet, mud-covered baggage animals came in, adding to the din, there was hardly room to move, far less for the roll in which all mules indulge when the loads are taken off; and the crush resulted in a fight, and one mule got his fore-feet upon my “manger,” and threatened to share it with me. It was an awful place to come to after a six hours’ march in rain and snow, but I slid off my mule into the recess, had it carpeted, put down my chair, hung a blanket up in front, and prepared to brave it, when the inhabitants of this room, the one place which has any pretensions to being a room in the village, were bribed by an offer of six krans (about four shillings) to vacate it for me. Its “pretensions” consist in being over a gateway, and in having a door, and a square hole looking on the street; a crumbling stair slippery with mud leads up to it. The roof leaks in every direction, and the slimy floor is full of pools, but it is luxury after the caravanserai stable, and with one waterproof sheet over my bed and another over myself I have fared well, though the door cannot be shut, and the rest of the party are in the stable at an impassable distance.

Our language happily has no words in which the state of this village can be described. In front of this room is a broken ditch full of slimy greenish water, which Hadji took for my tea! There has been a slight snowfall during the night, and snow is impending. We have now reached a considerable altitude, and may expect anything. Hadji has just climbed the stair with groans of “Ya Allah,” and has almost wailed out, “Colonel says we go — God help us.”

Kirrind, Jan. 23.— From Saripul-i-Zohab we are taking the most southerly of the three routes to Kirmanshah traversed by Sir H. Rawlinson in 1836.12 A sea of mud varied by patches of sodden snow, walls of rock with narrow passes, great snow-covered mountains, seen spectrally for a minute at a time through swirling snow-clouds, black tents of nomads, half-drowned villages, and a long, cold, steep ascent, among scrub oaks and dwarf ash, to snow which was not melting, and the hospitalities of a Kurdish village, comprise the interests of the march from Saripul to Myan Tak, so far as they lie on the surface, but in various ways this part of Kurdistan has many interests, not to be absolutely ignored even in a familiar letter.

Here the Ilyats, who are supposed to constitute a fifth of the rural population of Persia, are met with in large numbers, and their brown flocks and herds are still picking up a scanty subsistence. The great chief of this, the Gurān tribe, holds the region on an annual payment to the Persian Government, gives grain to his tribesmen, and receives from them, of corn one-half, and of rice two-thirds of the crop. These people sow their grain in early spring, and then move up with their flocks to the mountain pastures, leaving behind only a few men to harvest the crops. They use no manure, this being required for fuel, and in the case of rice they allow a fallow of at least seven years. There are very few cultivators resident upon these lands, but Ilyat camps occur frequently.

The region is steeped in history. The wretched village of Saripul is the Calah of Asshur and the Halah of the Israelitish captivity,13 and gave to the surrounding country the name of Chalonitis, which we have on our old maps. A metropolitan See in the fifth century A.D., soon after the institution of the Nestorian hierarchy, it was called Calah, Halah, and Holwan. If the Diyalah be the ancient Gyndes, noteworthy for the singular delay of Cyrus on his march to Babylon, and Saripul the ancient Holwan, and if in addition to the numerous Chaldæan and Sasanian remains there are relics of Semiramis and of the fire-temples of the Magi, the crowd of historic associations is almost too much for one day, and I will return to the insignificant details of the journey.

We left at nine, crossed the Holwan by a four-arched brick bridge, and in falling snow and deep mud rode over fairly level ground till we came to an abrupt range of limestone rock, with a natural rift, across which the foundations of a wall still remain. The clouds were rolling low, and the snow was driving wildly, so as to make it impossible to see the sculptured tablet described by Rawlinson and Layard, on which a high-priest of the Magi is represented, with one hand raised in benediction, and the other grasping a scroll, the dress being the pontifical robe worn by the Zoroastrian priests, with a square cap, pointed in front, and lappets covering the mouth. Above this is a tomb with an ornamented entrance.

We were now among a very strange and mysterious people, of whose ancestry and actual beliefs very little is known. They are Ali–Ilahis, but Europeans often speak of them as “Davidites,” from their special veneration for King David. This tomb in the rift is called Dukkani–Daoud, or David’s shop, and the people believe that he still dwells there, and come on pilgrimages and to offer animals in sacrifice from all parts of Kurdistan. He is believed to work as a smith, and the katirgis say that he makes suits of fine armour. A part of the tomb which is divided from the rest by a low partition is believed to be a reservoir containing the water which he uses to temper his metal. A great mound with some building in the centre, on the right of the road near this gorge, though properly it bears another name, is called by the people “David’s Fort.” Jewish traditions abound, specially concerning David, who is regarded by the tribes as their great tutelar prophet.

The Gurāns and Kalhurs, who are the nomadic inhabitants of this district, are of a very marked type of physiognomy, so Israelitish indeed that, taken along with certain traditions of their origin, their Jewish names, and their veneration for David, they have been put forward as claimants to the dignity of being the “lost tribes.” The great Hebrew traveller of the twelfth century, to whom I have referred before, believed that the whole of the Ali–Ilahis were Jews, and writes of 100 synagogues in the Zagros mountains, and of 50,000 Jewish families in the neighbourhood.

As we shall be for some days among these people, I will abbreviate Sir H. Rawlinson’s sketch of their tenets. He considers that Ali–Ilahism bears evident marks of Judaism, mixed up with Moslem, Christian, and Sabæan legends. The Ali–Ilahis believe in 1001 incarnations of the Godhead in a series; among them Benjamin, Moses, Elias, David, Jesus Christ, Ali and Salman his tutor, the Imam Houssein and the Haftān (or seven bodies), the chief spiritual guides in the early ages of Islam, “and each, worshipped as a Deity, is an object of adoration in some locality of Kurdistan.” The tomb of one of these, Bābā Yadgār, is their holy place, and this was regarded as the dwelling of Elijah at the time when the Arabs invaded Persia. All these incarnations are regarded as of one and the same person. All that changes is the bodily form of the Divine manifestation. There are degrees in the perfection of the development, and the most perfect forms are Benjamin, David, and Ali.

Practically, however, the metaphysical speculations involved in this creed of successive incarnations are unknown, and the Imam Ali, the cousin of Mohammed, is the great object of worship. Though professing Mohammedanism the Ali–Ilahis are held in great horror by “believers,” and those of this region lie under the stigma of practising unholy rites as a part of their religion, and have received the name of “Chiragh Sonderan,” the putters-out of lights.14 This accusation, Sir A. H. Layard observes, may be only a calumny invented, like many another, to justify persecution.

Passing through the rift in the Dukkani–Daoud range which has led to this digression, we entered an ascending valley between the range through which we had passed and some wild mountains covered with snow, which were then actively engaged in brewing a storm. Farther on there was irrigation and cultivation, and then the wretched village of Pai Tak, and the ruins of a bridge. There, the people told us, we must halt, as the caravanserai at the next place was already full, and we plunged about in the snow and mud looking for a hovel in which to take shelter, but decided to risk going on, and shortly began the ascent of the remarkable pass known as “The Gates of Zagros,” on the ancient highway between Babylonia and Media, by which, in a few hours, the mountain barrier of Zagros is crossed, and the plain of Kirrind, a part of the great Iranian plateau, is reached.

This great road, which zigzags steeply up the pass, is partly composed of smoothed boulders and partly of natural rock, somewhat dressed, and much worn by the continual passage of shod animals. It is said to be much like a torrent bed, but the snow was lying heavily upon it, filling up its inequalities. Dwarf oaks, hawthorn, ash, and other scrub find root-hold in every crevice. All that may be ugly was draped in pure white, and looking back from the surrounding glitter, the view of low ranges lying in indigo gloom was very striking. On the ascent there is a remarkable arch of great blocks of white marble, with a vaulted recess, called the “Tak-i-Girreh,” “the arch holding the road,” which gives the popular name of Gardan-i-Tak-i-Girreh (the pass of Tak-i-Girreh) to the ascent, though the geographers call it Akabah-i-Holwan (the defile of Holwan).

After the deep mud of the earlier part of the march it was a pleasure to ride through pure, deep, powdery snow, and to find the dirt of the village of Myan Tak, a Kurdish hamlet situated on a mountain torrent among steep hills and small trees, covered with this radiant mantle. The elevation of the pass is 4630 feet, but Myan Tak is at a lower altitude an hour farther on.

The small and ruinous caravanserai was really full of caravans detained by the snowstorm, and we lodged in a Kurdish house, typical of the style of architecture common among the settled tribes. Within a wide doorway without a door, high enough for a loaded mule to enter, is a very large room, with a low, flat mud roof, supported on three rows of misshapen trunks of trees, with their branches cut off about a foot from the stem, all black and shiny with smoke. Mud and rubble platforms, two feet high, run along one side and one end, and on the end one there is a clay, beehive-shaped fireplace, but no chimney. Under this platform the many fowls are shut in at night by a stone at the hole by which they enter. Within this room is a perfectly dark stable of great size. Certainly forty mules, besides asses and oxen, were lodged in it, and the overflow shared the living-room with a number of Kurds, katirgis, servants, dogs, soldiers, and Europeans. The furniture consisted of guns and swords hanging on the walls.

The owner is an old Kurd with some handsome sons with ruddy complexions and auburn hair. The big house is the patriarchal roof, where the patriarch, his sons, their wives and children, and their animals, dwell together. The women, however, had all been got rid of somehow. The old Kurd made a great fire on the dais, wood being plentiful, and crouched over it. My bed was pitched near it, and enclosed by some reed screens. With chairs and a table, with routes, maps, writing materials, and a good lantern upon it, an excellent dinner of soup and a leg of mutton, cooked at a bonfire in the middle of the floor, and the sight of all the servants and katirgis lying round it, warm and comfortable, and the knowledge that we were above the mud, the clouds of blinding smoke which were the only drawback scarcely affected the cheerfulness and comfort of the blazing, unstinted fire. The doorway gave not only ample ventilation but a brilliant view of snow, and of myriads of frosty stars.

It was infinitely picturesque, with the fitful firelight falling on the uncouth avenues of blackened tree-stumps, on big dogs, on mild-eyed ox faces and long ass ears, on turbaned Indian heads, and on a confused crowd of Turks, Kurds, and Persians, some cooking, some sleeping, some smoking, while from the black depth beyond a startling bray of an ass or the abortive shriek of a mule occasionally proceeded, or a stray mule created a commotion by rushing in from the snow outside.

I slept comfortably, till I was awakened early by various country sounds — the braying of an ass into my ear (for I was within a few inches of the stable), the crowing of cocks, and some hens picking up crumbs upon my bed. The mules were loaded in the living-room. The mercury was only 26° at 9 A.M., and under cloudless sunshine the powdery snow glittered and crackled. There were difficulties ahead, we heard. The road heavily blocked with snow was only just open, and the Persian post, which should have passed forty-eight hours before, had not been heard of, showing that the snow is very deep farther on.

It was beautiful, that uplifted, silent world of snow and mountains, on whose skirts for some miles grew small apple and pear trees, oak, ash, and hawthorn, each twig a coral spray. In the deepest depression, among great rocks, now masses of snow, tumbles a now partially arrested stream, gleaming with icicles, one of the head-waters of the Holwan. After getting through this picturesque forest of scrub, the road emerges on the plateau of the Kirrind valley, the greatest altitude of which is about 5800 feet. It is said to be irrigated and fertile. It is now, as I describe it, a wide valley, without a tree or bush, a rolling plain of snow from two to three feet deep, marked only by lines made by birds’ feet and the beating of the tips of birds’ wings, the track across it a corrugated trench, wide enough for one mule, the sun brilliant, the sky blue, the surface of the snow flashing light from millions of crystals with a glitter not to be borne, all dazzling, “glistering,” silent — a white world and a blue heaven, with a sun “shining in his strength,”— light without heat.

It has been a tremendous day’s march, only fourteen miles in seven and a half hours of severe toil! The katirgis asked us to keep together in case of difficulties with caravans. Difficulties indeed! A mild term! I was nearly smashed. I little knew what meeting a caravan in these circumstances meant till we met the first sixty animals, each laden with two heavy packing-cases. The question arises who is to give way, and who is to drive his heavily-laden beasts off the track, to struggle, flounder, and fall in three feet of snow, not to get up again without being unloaded, and even then with difficulty.

The rub came on a bank near a stream where there was a deep drift. I decided to give way, but nothing would induce my mule to face the snow. An orderly was in front and Hadji behind. Down the track came sixty animals, loaded with their great packing-cases. They could not and would not give way, and the two caravans came into collision. There were mules struggling and falling, loads overturned, muleteers yelling and roaring, Hadji groaning “God help us!” my mule, a new one, a big strong animal, unused to a bit, plunging and kicking, in the middle of a “free fight.” I was struck hard on my ankle by a packing-case and nearly knocked off. Still, down they came, in apparently endless hordes; my mule plunged her bridle off, and kicked most violently; there were yells all round. My snow spectacles were knocked off and lost, then came another smash, in which I thought a bone was broken. Fearing that I should be laid up with a broken limb for weeks in some horrible caravanserai, and really desperate with the danger and confusion, I called over and over again to Hadji to get off and pull my mule into the snow or I should be killed! He did not stir, but sat dazed on his pack moaning “God help us!” till he, the mule, and the load were rolled over in the drift. The orderly contrived to get the bridle on my mule, and to back his own in front of me, and as each irrepressible animal rolled down the bank he gave its load a push, which, nicely balanced as these loads are, made it swerve, and saved me from further damage. Hadji had rolled off four times previously, and the last I saw of him at that time and of the caravan was a man, five mules, and their loads buried in the snow. The personal results to me of what is euphemistically called a “difficulty,” are my blue glasses gone, a number of bruises, a badly-torn riding-skirt, and a bad cut, which bled profusely, and then the blood froze.

A number of caravans snowed up for several days were en route, and there were many similar encounters, and donkeys and mules falling with their loads and rolling into the deep snow, and katirgis coming to blows over the right-of-way. If a donkey is forced off the track it goes down at once. I unfortunately caught my foot in the pack of one and rolled it over, and as it disappeared in the snow its pack and saddle fell over its head and displayed the naked vertebræ of its poor back.

This Kirrind valley must be fully twenty miles long by from two to five broad, but there was only one village inhabited and two in ruins. As we floundered along in the snow with our jaded animals, two well-armed men on fine horses met and joined us, sent by the Agha Abdul Rahim, son of the British agent at Kirmanshah, whose guests we are to be. Following them was a taktrawan or litter for me, a wooden box with two side doors, four feet high, six feet long, and three feet wide. At each end are long shafts, and between each pair of shafts a superb mule, and each mule has a man to lead him. I could never use such a thing except in case of a broken limb, but I am very grateful to Abdul Rahim for sending it fifty-six miles.

The temperature fell with the sun; the snowy hills took on every shade of rose and pink, and in a universal blush of tender colouring we reached Kirrind. All of a sudden the colour died out, the rose-flushed sky changed to blue-gray, and pallid wastes of unbroken snow stretching into the gray distance made a glorious winter landscape. We are now fairly in for the rigours of a Persian winter.

Kirrind, the capital of the Kirrind Kurds, is either grotesquely or picturesquely situated in and around a narrow gap in a range of lofty hills, through which the Ab-i-Kirrind rushes, after rising in a spring immediately behind. The gap suggests the word jaws, and in these open jaws rise one above another flat-roofed houses straggling down upon the plain among vineyards, poplars, willows, fruit-trees, and immense walnuts and gardens. There are said to be 900 houses, but many of them are ruinous. The stream which bursts from the hills is divided into innumerable streamlets, which must clothe these gardens with beauty.

A farāsh riding on ahead had engaged a house, so we avoided the horrors of the immense caravanserai, crammed to-night with storm-bound caravans. The house is rough, but has three adjoining rooms, and the servants are comfortable. A fire, with its usual accompaniment of stinging smoke, fails to raise the temperature of my room to the freezing-point, yet it is quite possible to be comfortable and employ oneself.

Mahidasht, Jan. 24.— My room at Kirrind was very cold. The ink froze. The mercury fell to 2° below zero in it, and outside in the sun was only 14° at 8.30. There was a great Babel at starting. Some men had sold four chickens for the high price of 2s. each, the current price being 6d., and had robbed the servants of two, and they took one of the mules, which was sent after us by an official. Slipping, floundering, and falling in the deep snow, and getting entangled among caravans, we rode all day over rolling levels. The distance seemed interminable over the glittering plains, and the pain and stiffness produced by the intense cold were hard to bear, and it was not possible to change the cramped position by walking. The mercury fell to 4°, as with tired animals we toiled up the slope on which Harunabad stands.

A very large caravanserai and a village of sixty houses occupy the site of a town built by Harun-alRaschid on the upper waters of the Kerkhah. It has the reputation of being one of the coldest places in Persia, so cold that its Ilyat inhabitants desert it in winter, leaving two or three men who make a business of supplying caravans. Usually people come out of the villages in numbers as we arrive, but we passed group after group of ruinous hovels without seeing a creature. We obtained awfully cold rooms at a great height above a bazar, now deserted. I write “awfully” advisedly, for the mercury in them at sunset was 2° below zero, the floors were plaster, slippery with frozen moisture, the walls were partly wood, with great apertures between the planks; where they were mud the blistered plaster was fringed with icicles. Later the mercury sank to 12°, and before morning to 16° below zero, and the hot water froze in my basin before I could use it!

We were to have started at eight, as there was no possible way of dividing the nine hours’ march, but when the time came the katirgis said it was too cold to rope the loads, a little later that we could only get half-way, and later that there was no accommodation for mules half-way and that we must go the whole way! At nine the mercury was at 4° below zero, and the slipperiness was fearful. The poor animals could scarcely keep on their feet. We have crossed two high passes, Nal Shikan (the Horse–Shoe breaking pass) and the Charzabar Pass, in tremendous snow, riding nine hours, only dismounting to walk down one hill. At the half-way hamlet I decided to go on, having still a lingering prejudice against sharing a den with a quantity of human beings, mules, asses, poultry, and dogs.

On one long ascent we encountered a “blizzard,” when the mercury was only 3° above zero. It was awful. The men covered their heads with their abbas and turned their backs to the wind. I got my heavy mackintosh over everything, but in taking off three pairs of gloves for one minute to button it the pain of my hand was literally excruciating. At the summit the snow was four feet deep, and a number of mules were down, but after getting over the crest of the Nal Shikan Pass and into the Zobeideh valley it became better. But after every descent there was another ascent to face till we reached the pass above the Cheshmeh-i-Charzabar torrent, in a picturesque glen, with a village and some primitive flour mills.

Below this height lies the vast and fertile plain of Mahidasht, one expanse of snow, broken by mud villages looking like brown islands, and the truncated cone of Goree, a seat of the ancient fire-worship. In the centre of the plain is an immense caravanserai with some houses about it. When this came into sight it was only five miles off, but we were nearly three hours in reaching it! The view was wonderful. Every speck on the vast plain was seen distinctly; then came a heavy snow blink, above which hovered ghosts of snow mountains rising into a pale green sky, a dead and lonely wilderness, looking as if all things which lived and moved had long ago vanished from it. Those hours after first sighting the village were very severe. It seemed to grow no nearer. I was half-dead with the journey of twenty-two miles at a slow foot’s pace, and was aching and cramped from the intense cold, for as twilight fell the mercury sank to 3° below zero. The Indian servants, I believe, suffered more than I did, and some of the katirgis even more than they.

At last by a pointed brick bridge we crossed the little river of Mahidasht, and rode into the house of the headman, who is a sort of steward of Abdul Rahim, our future host, the owner of many villages on this plain. The house is of the better class of Kurdish houses, with a broad passage, and a room on each side, at the end a great, low, dark room, half living-room, half stable, which accommodates to-night some of the mules, the muleteers, the servants, and the men of the family. Beyond this again is a large stable, and below-ground, reached by a sloping tunnel, is the sheep-fold. One room has neither door nor window, mine has an outer and inner door, and a fire of live embers in a hole in the floor.

The family in vacating the room have left their goods behind — two plank beds at one end heaped with carpets and felts, a sacking cradle hanging from the roof, two clay jars five feet high for storing grain, and in the takchahs, or recesses of the walls, samovars or tea-urns, pots, metal vases, cartridge belts, and odds and ends. Two old guns, an old sword, and a coarse coloured print of the Russian Imperial family are on the wall.

I was lifted from the mule to my bed, covered with all available wraps, a pot of hot embers put by the bed, my hands and feet rubbed, hot syrup coloured with tea produced in Russian glasses, and in two hours I was able to move. The caravan, which we thought could not get through the snow, came in three hours later, men and mules thoroughly knocked up, and not till nine could we get a scanty dinner. It has been a hard day all round. The farāshes in the kitchen are cursing the English sahibs, who will travel in the winter, wishing our fathers may be burned, etc., two of the muleteers have been howling with pain for the last two hours, and I went into the kitchen to see the poor fellows.

In a corner of the big room, among the rough trunks of trees which support the sooty roof, the muleteers were lying in a heap in their big-sleeved felt coats round a big fire, about another the servants were cooking their food, the farāshes were lying round another, and some of the house people about a fourth, and through smoke and flame a background of mules and wolf-like dogs was dimly seen, a gleam now and then falling into the dark stable beyond, where the jaded baggage animals were lying in heaps.

Mahidasht is said to be one of the finest and most fertile plains in Persia, seventy-two miles long by fifteen broad, and is irrigated throughout by a small stream swarming with turtles. Its population, scattered over it in small villages, is estimated — over-estimated probably — at 4000. At a height of 5050 feet the winters are severe. The snow is nearly three feet deep already, and more is impending.

The mercury in my room fell to 5° below zero before midnight, but rose for a gray cloudy day. The men and animals were so done up that we could not start till nearly eleven. The march, though not more than sixteen miles, was severe, owing to the deep snow and cold wind. Five miles over the snowy billows of the Mahidasht plain, a long ascent, on which the strong north wind was scarcely bearable, a succession of steep and tiresome ridges, many “difficulties” in passing caravans, and then a gradual descent down a long wide valley, opened upon the high plateau, on which Kirmanshah, one of the most important cities in Persia, is situated.

Trees, bare and gaunt, chiefly poplars, rising out of unsullied snow, for two hours before we reached it, denoted the whereabouts of the city, which after many disappointments bursts upon one suddenly. The view from the hill above the town was the most glorious snow view I ever saw. All around, rolled to a great height, smooth as the icing of a cake, hills, billowy like the swell of the Pacific after a storm — an ocean of snow; below them a plateau equally unsullied, on the east side of which rises the magnificently precipitous Besitun range, sublime in its wintry grandeur, while on the distant side of the plateau pink peaks raised by an atmospheric illusion to a colossal height hovered above the snow blink, and walled in the picture. Snow was in the air, snow clouds were darkening over the Besitun range; except for those pink peaks there were no atmospheric effects; the white was very pallid, and the gray was very black; no illusions were possible, the aspect was grim, desolate, and ominous, and even before we reached the foot of the descent the huge peaks and rock masses of Besitun were blotted out by swirls of snow.

Kirmanshah, approached from the south-west, added no elements of picturesqueness to the effect. A ruinous wall much too large for the shrunken city it encloses, parts of it lying in the moat, some ruinous loopholed towers, lines of small domes denoting bazars below, a few good-looking houses rising above the insignificant mass, gardens, orchards, vineyards, and poplars stretching up the southerly hollow behind, and gardens, now under frozen water, to the north, made up a not very interesting contrast with the magnificence of nature.

We circled much of the ruinous wall on thin ice, turned in between high walls and up an alley cumbered with snow, dismounted at a low door, were received by a number of servants, and were conducted through a frozen courtyard into a handsomely-carpeted room with divans beside a blazing fire, a table in the centre covered with apples, oranges, and sweetmeats, and the large Jubilee photograph of Queen Victoria hanging over the fireplace.

I. L. B.

11 Another interest, however, is its connection with many of the romantic legends still told of Khosroe Parviz and his beautiful queen, complicated with love stories concerning the sculptor Farhad, to whom the Persians attribute some of their most famous rock sculptures. One of the most romantic of these legends is that Farhad loved Shirin, and that Khosroe was aware of it, and promised to give her to him if he could execute the impossible task of bringing to the city the abundant waters of the mountains. Farhad set himself to the Herculean labour, and to the horror of the king nearly accomplished it, when Khosroe, dreading the advancing necessity of losing Shirin or being dishonoured, sent to inform him of her death. Being at the time on the top of a precipice, urging on the work of the aqueduct, the news filled him with such ungovernable despair that he threw himself down and was killed.

12 The Pashalik of Zohab, now Persian territory, is fully described by Major Rawlinson in a most interesting paper in The Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vol. ix. part 1, p. 26.

13 Gen. x. 11; 2 Kings xviii. 11; 1 Chron. v. 26.

14 See Sir A. H. Layard’s Early Adventures, vol. i. p. 217.

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