Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter vii

Kûm, Feb. 21.

At five yesterday afternoon Abbas Khan rode in saying that the taktrawan, with the orderly much better, was only three miles off. This was good news; a mattress was put down for him next the fire and all preparations for his comfort were made. Snow showers had been falling much of the day, there was a pitiless east wind, and as darkness came on snow fell persistently. Two hours passed, but no taktrawan arrived. At 7.30 Abbas Khan was ordered to go in search of it with a good lantern; 8, 9, 10 o’clock came without any news. At 10.30, the man whose corpse I had feared to see came in much exhausted, having crawled for two miles through the mire and snow. The sowar, who pretended to start with the lantern, never went farther than the coffee-room at the gate, where he had spent an unconscientious but cheery evening!

In the pitch darkness the taktrawan and mules had fallen off the road into a gap, the taktrawan was smashed, and a good white mule, one of the “light division,” was killed, her back being broken. This was not the only disaster. Hadji had lain down on the borrowed mattress and it had taken fire from the live ashes of his pipe and was burned, and he was a little scorched.

The telegraphist was to have started for Isfahan the next morning with his wife and child in the litter, in order to vacate the house for the new official and his family, and their baggage had actually started, but now they are detained till this taktrawan can be repaired. In the meantime another official has arrived with his goods and a large family, a most uncomfortable situation for both parties, but they bear it with the utmost cheerfulness and good nature.

Last night I made Hadji drink a mug of hot milk with two tablespoonfuls of brandy in it, and it worked wonders. This morning, instead of a nearly blind man groping his way about with difficulty, I beheld a man with nothing the matter but a small speck on one eye. It must have been snow-blindness. He looks quite “spry.” It is not only the alcohol which has cured him, but that we are parting by mutual consent; and feeling sorry for the man, I have given him more than his wages, and his full demand for his journey back to Bushire, with additional warm clothing. M—— has also given him a handsome present.

I fear he has deceived me, and that the stone deafness, feebleness, idiocy, and the shaking, palsied gait of a man of ninety — all but the snow-blindness — have been assumed in order to get his return journey paid, when he found that the opportunities for making money were not what he expected. It is better to be deceived twenty times than to be hard on these poor fellows once, but he has been exasperating, and I feel somewhat aggrieved at having worked so hard to help a man who was “malingering.” The last seen of him was an active, erect man walking at a good pace by the side of his mule, at least forty years thrown off. [He did not then leave Kûm, but being seized with pleurisy was treated with great kindness by Mr. Lyne the electrician, and afterwards by the Amin-es-Sultan (the Prime Minister), who was visiting Kûm, and who, thinking to oblige me, brought him up to Tihran in his train!] Those who had known him for years gave a very bad account of him, but said that if he liked he could be a good servant. It is the first time that I have been unfortunate in my travelling servant.

The English telegraph line, and a post-office, open once a week, are the tokens of civilisation in Kûm. A telegraphic invitation from the British Minister in Tihran, congratulatory telegrams on our safety from Tihran, Bushire, and India, and an opportunity for posting letters, make one feel once more in the world. The weather is grim, bitterly cold, with a strong north-east wind, raw and damp, but while snow is whitening the hills only rain and sleet fall here. The sun has not shone since we came, but the strong cold air is invigorating like our own climate.

Taking advantage of it being Friday, the Mohammedan day of rest, when most of the shops are closed and the bazars are deserted, we rode through a portion of them preceded by the wild figure of Abbas Khan, and took tea at the telegraph office, where they were most kind and pleasant regarding the accident which had put them to so much inconvenience.

Kûm is on the beaten track, and has a made road to Tihran. Almost every book of travels in Persia has something to say upon it, but except that it is the second city in Persia in point of sanctity, and that it thrives as much by the bodies of the dead which are brought in thousands for burial as by the tens of thousands of pilgrims who annually visit the shrine of Fatima, and that it is renowned for fanaticism, there is not much to say about it.

Situated in a great plain, the gleam of its golden dome and its slender minarets is seen from afar, and the deep green of its orchards, and the bright green of the irrigated and cultivated lands which surround it, are a splash of welcome fertility on the great brown waste. Singular toothy peaks of striated marl of brilliant colouring — red, blue, green, orange, and salt peaks very white — give a curious brilliancy to its environment, but this salt, which might be a source of wealth to the city, is not worked, only an ass-load or two at a time being brought in to supply the necessities of the market.


The Shrine of Fatima.

The shrine of Fatima, the sister of Reza the eighth Imam, who sleeps at Meshed, is better to Kûm than salt mines or aught else. Moslems, though they regard women with unspeakable contempt, agree to reverence Fatima as a very holy and almost worshipful person, and her dust renders Kûm a holy place, attracting tens of thousands of pilgrims every year, although, unlike pilgrimages to Meshed and Kerbela, Kûm confers no lifelong designation on those by whom it exists. Its estimated population is 10,000 souls, and at times this number is nearly doubled. Pilgrimage consists in a visit to the tomb of Fatima, paying a fee, and in some cases adding a votive offering. Vows of abstinence from some special sin are frequently made at the shrine and are carefully registered.

The dead, however, who are annually brought in thousands to be buried in the sacred soil which surrounds the shrine, are the great source of the wealth of Kûm. These corpses travel, as to Kerbela, on mules, four being lashed on one animal occasionally, some fresh, some decomposing, others only bags of exhumed bones. The graves occupy an enormous area, of which the shrine is the centre. The kings of the Kajar dynasty, members of royal families, and 450 saints are actually buried within the precincts of the shrine. The price of interments varies with the proximity to the dust of Fatima from six krans to one hundred tumans. The population may be said to be a population of undertakers. Death meets one everywhere. The Ab-i-Khonsar, which supplies the drinking water, percolates through “dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.” Vestments for the dead are found in the bazars. Biers full and empty traverse the streets in numbers. Stone-cutting for gravestones is a most lucrative business. The charvadars of Kûm prosper on caravans of the dead. There is a legion of gravediggers. Kûm is a gruesome city, a vast charnel-house, yet its golden dome and minarets brighten the place of death.

The dome of Fatima is covered with sheets of copper plated with gold an eighth of an inch in thickness, and the ornament at the top of the dome, which is of pure gold, is said to weigh 140 lbs. The slender minarets which front this imamzada are covered with a mosaic of highly-glazed tiles of exquisite tints, in which an azure blue, a canary yellow, and an iridescent green predominate, and over all there is a sheen of a golden hue. The shrine is inaccessible to Christians. I asked a Persian doctor if I might look in for one moment at the threshold of the outer court, and he replied in French, “Are you then weary of life?”22

My Indian servant, an educated man on whose faithful though meagre descriptions I can rely, visited the shrine and describes the dome as enriched with arabesques in mosaic and as hung with ex votos, consisting chiefly of strips of silk and cotton. The tomb itself, he says, is covered with a wooden ark, with certain sacred sentences cut upon it, and this is covered by a large brown shawl. Round this ark, which is under the dome, Kerman, Kashmir, and Indian shawls are laid down as carpets. This open space is surrounded with steel railings inlaid with gold after the fashion of the niello work of Japan, and the whole is enclosed with a solid silver fence, the rails of which are “as thick as two thumbs, and as high as a tall man’s head.” This imamzada itself is regarded as of great antiquity.

Two Persian kings, who reigned in the latter part of the seventeenth century, are buried near the beautiful minarets, which are supposed to be of the same date. There are many mosques and minarets in Kûm, besides a quantity of conical imamzadas, the cones of which have formerly been covered with glazed blue tiles of a turquoise tint, some of which still remain. It was taken by the Afghans in 1772, and though partially rebuilt is very ruinous. It has a mud wall, disintegrating from neglect, surrounded occasionally by a ditch, and at other times by foul and stagnant ponds. The ruinousness of Kûm can scarcely be exaggerated.

The bazars are large and very busy, and are considerably more picturesque than those of Kirmanshah. The town lives by pilgrims and corpses, and the wares displayed to attract the former are more attractive than usual. There are nearly 450 shops, of which forty-three sell Manchester goods almost exclusively. Coarse china, and pottery often of graceful shapes with a sky-blue glaze, and water-coolers are among the industries of this city, which also makes shoes, and tans leather with pomegranate bark.

The Ab-i-Khonsar is now full and rapid, but is a mere thread in summer. The nine-arched bridge, with its infamously paved roadway eighteen feet wide, is an interesting object from all points of view, for while its central arch has a span of forty-five feet, the others have only spans of twenty. The gateway beyond the bridge is tawdrily ornamented with blue and green glazed tiles. After seeing several of the cities of Persia, I am quite inclined to give Kûm the palm for interest and beauty of aspect, when seen from any distant point of view.

That it is a “holy” city, and that a pilgrimage to its shrine is supposed to atone for sin, are its great interests. Its population is composed in large proportion of mollahs and Seyyids, or descendants of Mohammed, and as a whole is devoted to the reigning Shiah creed. It has a theological college of much repute, established by Fath’ Ali Shah, which now has 100 students. The women are said to be very devout, and crowd the mosques on Friday evenings, when their devotions are led by an imam. The men are fanatically religious, though the fanaticism is somewhat modified. No wine may be sold in Kûm, and no Jew or Armenian is allowed to keep a shop.

Kûm, being a trading city, manufactures a certain amount of public opinion in its business circles, which differs not very considerably from that which prevails at Kirmanshah. The traders accept it as a foregone conclusion that Russia will occupy Persia as far as Isfahan on the death of the present Shah, and regard such a destiny as “fate.” If only their religion is not interfered with, it matters little, they say, whether they pay their taxes to the Shah or the Czar. To judge from their speech, Islam is everything to them, and their country very little, and the strong bond of the faith which rules life and thought from the Pillars of Hercules to the Chinese frontier far outweighs the paltry considerations of patriotism. But my impression is that all Orientals prefer the tyrannies and exactions, and the swiftness of injustice or justice of men of their own creed and race to good government on the part of unintelligible aliens, and that though Persians seem pretty comfortable in the prospect of a double occupation of Persia, its actual accomplishment might strike out a flash of patriotism.

Probably this ruinous, thinly-peopled country, with little water and less fuel, and only two roads which deserve the name, has possibilities of resurrection under greatly changed circumstances. Of the two occupations which are regarded as certain, I think that most men, at least in Central and Southern Persia, would prefer an English occupation, but every one says, “England talks and does not act,” and that “Russia will pour 100,000 troops into Persia while England is talking in London.”

I. L. B.

22 I spent two days at Kûm five weeks later, and saw the whole of it in disguise, and in order to attain some continuity of description I put my two letters together.

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