Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Notes on Tihran25

It is a matter of individual taste, but few cities in the East interest me in which national characteristics in architecture, costume, customs, and ways generally are either being obliterated or are undergoing a partial remodelling on Western lines. An Eastern city pure and simple, such as Canton, Niigata, or Baghdad, even with certain drawbacks, forms a harmonious whole gratifying to the eye and to a certain sense of fitness; while Cairo, Tokio, Lahore, and I will now add Tihran, produce the effect of a series of concussions.

Tihran — set down on a plain, a scorched desert, the sublimity of which is interfered with by kanaats or underground watercourses with their gravel mounds and ruinous shafts — has few elements of beauty or grandeur in its situation, even though “the triumphant barbarism of the desert” sweeps up to its gates, and the scored and channelled Shimran range, backed by the magnificent peak, or rather cone, of Demavend, runs to the north-east of the city within only ten miles of its walls.

The winter with its snow and slush disappeared abruptly two days after I reached Tihran, and as abruptly came the spring — a too transient enjoyment — and in a few days to brownness and barrenness succeeded a tender mist of green over the trees in the watered gardens, rapidly thickening into dark leafage in which the bulbul sang, and nature helped by art spread a carpet of violets and irises over the brown earth. But all of verdure and greenery that there is lies within the city walls. Outside is the unconquerable desert, rolling in endless shades of buff and brown up to the Elburz range, and elsewhere to the far horizon.

Situated in the most depressed part of an uninteresting waste in Lat. 35° 40´ N. and Long. 51° 25´ E., and at an altitude of 3800 feet, the climate is one of extremes, the summer extreme being the most severe. For some weeks the heat is nearly insupportable, and the Legations, and all of the four hundred Europeans who are not bound to the city by a fate which they execrate, betake themselves to “yailaks,” or summer quarters on the slopes of the adjacent mountains.

Entering Tihran in the darkness, it was not till I saw it coming back from Gulahek, the “yailak” of the British Legation, when the mud was drying up and the willows were in their first young green, that I formed any definite idea of its aspect, which is undeniably mean, and presents no evidences of antiquity; indeed, it has no right to present any, for as a capital it only came into existence a century ago, with the first king of the present Kajar dynasty. The walls are said to be eleven miles in circuit, and give the impression of being much too large, so many are the vacant spaces within them. They consist chiefly of a broad ditch, and a high sloping rampart without guns. Twelve well-built domed gateways give access to the city. These are decorated with glazed tiles of bright colours and somewhat gaudy patterns and designs, representing genii, lions, and combats of mythical heroes.

Above the wall are seen tree-tops, some tile-covered minarets, the domes of two mosques, and the iron ribs of a roofless theatre in the Shah’s garden, in which under a temporary awning the Tazieh or Passion Play (elsewhere referred to) is acted once a year in presence of the Shah and several thousand spectators.

Entering by a gateway over which is depicted a scene in the life of Rustem, the Achilles of Persia, or by the Sheikh Abdul Azim gate, where the custom-house is established and through which all caravans of goods must reach Tihran, the magnitude of the untidy vacant spaces, and the shabby mud hovels which fringe them, create an unfavourable impression. Then there are the inevitable ruinousness, the alleys with broken gutters in the centre, the pools of slime or the heaps of dust according to the weather, and the general shabbiness of blank walls of sun-dried bricks which give one the impression, I believe an unjust one, of decay and retrogression. I never went through those mean outskirts of Tihran which are within the city walls without being reminded of a man in shabby clothes preposterously too big for him.

The population is variously estimated at from 60,000 to 160,000 souls. It varies considerably with the presence or absence of the Court. The streets and bazars are usually well filled with people, and I did not see many beggars or evidences of extreme poverty, even in the Jewish quarter. On the whole it impressed me as a bustling place, but the bustle is not picturesque. It is framed in mean surroundings, and there is little variety in costume, and much sober if not sad colouring.

In “old” Tihran the alleys are crooked, dirty, and narrow, and the bazars chiefly frequented by the poor are very mean and untidy; but the better bazars, whether built as some are, round small domed open spaces, or in alleys roofed with low brick domes, are decidedly handsome, and are light, wide, clean, and in every way adapted for the purposes of buying and selling. European women, even though unattended, can walk through them quite freely without being mobbed or stared at.

The best bazars are piled with foreign merchandise, to the apparent exclusion of native goods, which, if they are of the better quality, must be searched for in out-of-the-way corners. Indeed, if people want fine carpets, curios, rich embroideries, inlaid arms, and Kerman stuffs, they must resort to the itinerant dealers, who gauge the tastes and purchasing powers of every European resident and visitor, and who may be seen at all hours gliding in a sort of surreptitious fashion round the Legation compounds, conveying their beautiful temptations on donkeys’ backs.

It is chiefly in the fine lofty saddlery bazar and some small bazars that native manufactures are en évidence. All travelling is on horseback, and the Persian, though sober in the colours of his costly clothing, loves crimson and gold in leather and cloth, embroidered housings and headstalls, and gorgeous saddle-covers for his horse. The usual saddle is of plain wood, very high before and behind, and without stuffing. A thick soft namad or piece of felt covers the horse’s back, and over this are placed two or more saddle-cloths covered with a very showy and often highly ornamental cover, with tasselled ends, embroidered in gold and silks and occasionally with real gems. The saddle itself is smoothly covered with a soft ornamental cover made to fit it, and the crupper, breastplate, and headstall are frequently of crimson leather embroidered in gold, or stitched ingeniously with turquoise beads.

The mule, whether the pacing saddle-mule worth from £60 to £80, much affected by rich Persians in Tihran, or the humbler beast of burden, is not forgotten by the traders in the great saddlery bazar. Rich charvadars take great pride in the “outfit” of their mules, and do not grudge twenty tumans upon it. Hence are to be seen elaborate headstalls, breastplates, and straps for bells, of showy embroidery, and leather stitched completely over with turquoise beads and cowries — the latter a favourite adornment — while cowried headstalls are also ornamented with rows of woollen tassels dyed with beautiful vegetable dyes. In this bazar too are found khurjins— the great leather or carpet saddle-bags without which it is inconvenient to travel — small leather portmanteaus for strapping behind the saddles of those who travel chapar, i.e. post — cylindrical cases over two feet long which are attached in front of the saddle — decorated holsters, the multifarious gear required for the travelling pipe-bearers, the deep leather belts which are worn by chapar riders, the leathern water-bottles which are slung on the saddles, the courier bags, and a number of other articles of necessity or luxury which are regarded as essential by the Persian traveller.

In most of the bazars the shops are packed to the ceiling with foreign goods. It looks as if there were cottons and woollen cloth for the clothing of all Persia. I saw scarcely any rough woollen goods or shoddy. The Persian wears superfine, smooth, costly cloth, chiefly black and fawn, stiff in texture, and with a dull shine upon it. The best comes exclusively from Austria, a slightly inferior quality from Germany, and such cloth fabrics as are worn by Europeans from England and Russia.

The European cottons, which are slowly but surely displacing the heavy durable native goods, either undyed, or dyed at Isfahan with madder, saffron, and indigo, are of colours and patterns suited to native taste, white and canary yellow designs on a red ground predominating, and are both of Russian and English make, and the rivalry which extends from the Indian frontier, through Central Asia, is at fever-heat in the cotton bazars of Tihran. It does not appear that at present either side can claim the advantage.

In a search for writing paper, thread, tapes, and what are known as “small wares,” I never saw anything that was not Russian. The cheap things, such as oil lamps, samovars, coarse coloured prints of the Russian Imperial family in tawdry frames, lacquered tin boxes, fitted work-boxes, glass teacups, china tea-pots, tawdry lacquered trays, glass brooches, bead necklaces, looking-glasses, and a number of other things which are coming into use at least in the south-west and the western portions of the Empire, are almost exclusively Russian, as is natural, for the low price at which they are sold would leave no margin of profit on such imports from a more distant country.

A stroll through the Tihran bazars shows the observer something of the extent and rapidity with which Europe is ruining the artistic taste of Asia. Masses of rubbish, atrocious in colouring and hideous in form, the principle of shoddy carried into all articles along with the quintessence of vulgarity which is pretence, goods of nominal utility which will not stand a week’s wear, the refuse of European markets — in art Philistinism, in most else “Brummagem,” without a quality of beauty or solidity to recommend them — are training the tastes and changing the habits of the people.

One squarish bazar, much resorted to for glass and hardware and what the Americans call “assorted notions,” is crammed with Austrian glass, kerosene lamps of all sizes in hundreds, chandeliers, etc. The amount of glass exhibited there for sale is extraordinary, and not less remarkable is the glut of cheap hardware and worthless bijouterie. It is the Lowther Arcade put down in Tihran.

Kerosene and candles may be called a Russian monopoly, and Russia has completely driven French sugar from the markets. In the foreign town, as it may be called, there are two or three French shops, an American shop for “notions,” and a German chemist.

The European quarter is in the northern part of Tihran, and is close to vacant and airy spaces. There are the Turkish Embassy, and the Legations of England, France, Germany, Russia, Italy, Belgium, Austria, and America, and a Dutch Consulate–General, each with its Persian gholams who perform escort duty. Their large and shady compounds, brightened by their national flags, and the stir and circumstance which surround them, are among the features of the city. The finest of all the Legation enclosures is that of England, which is beautifully wooded and watered. The reception-rooms and hall of the Minister’s residence are very handsome, and a Byzantine clock tower gives the building a striking air of distinction. The grounds contain several detached houses, occupied by the secretaries and others.

A very distinct part of the foreign quarter is that occupied by the large and handsome buildings of the American Presbyterian Mission, which consist of a church occupied at stated hours by a congregation of the Reformed Armenian Church, and in which in the afternoons of Sundays Dr. Potter, the senior missionary, reads the English Liturgy and preaches an English sermon for the benefit of the English-speaking residents, very fine boarding-schools for Armenian girls and boys, and the houses of the missionaries — three clerical, one medical, and several ladies, one of whom is an M.D.

Outside this fine enclosure is a Medical Missionary Dispensary, and last year, in a good situation at a considerable distance, a very fine medical missionary hospital was completed. The boys’ and girls’ schools are of a very high class. To my thinking the pupils are too much Europeanised in dress and habits; but I understand that this is at the desire of the Armenian parents. The missionaries are not allowed to receive Moslem pupils; but besides Armenians they educate Jewish youths, some of whom have become Christians, and a few Guebres or Zoroastrians.

I do not think that the capital is a hopeful place for missionary work. The presence of Europeans of various creeds and nationalities complicates matters, and the fine, perhaps too fine, mission buildings in proximity to the houses of wealthy foreigners are at so great a distance from the Moslem and Jewish quarters, that persons who might desire to make inquiries concerning the Christian faith must be deterred both by the space to be traversed and the conspicuousness of visiting a mission compound in such a position. The members of the mission church last year were altogether Armenians. The education and training given in the schools are admirable.

Indications of the changes which we consider improvements abound in Tihran. There are many roads accessible to wheeled vehicles. There are hackney carriages. A tramway carrying thousands of passengers weekly has been laid down from the Maidan or central square to one of the southern gates. There are real streets paved with cobble stones, and bordered with definite sidewalks, young trees, and shops. There is a railroad about four miles long, from the city to the village of Sheikh Abdul Azim. There are lamp-posts and fittings, though the light is somewhat of a failure. There is an organised city police, in smart black uniforms with violet facings, under the command of Count Monteforte, an Italian. Soldiers in Europeanised uniforms abound, some of them, the “Persian Cossacks,” in full Russian uniforms; and military bands instructed by a French bandmaster play European airs, not always easily recognisable, for the pleasure of the polyglot public.

All ordinary business can be transacted at the Imperial Bank, which, having acquired the branches and business of the New Oriental Bank, bids fair to reign supreme in the commercial world of Persia, the Shah, who has hitherto kept his hoards under his own eye, having set an example of confidence by becoming a depositor.

European tailors, dressmakers, and milliners render a resort to Europe unnecessary. There are at least two hotels where a European may exist. About five hundred European carriages, many of them Russian, with showy Russian horses harnessed à la Russe, dash about the streets with little regard to pedestrians, though an accident, if a European were the offender, might lead to a riot. The carriages of the many Legations are recognisable by their outriders, handsomely-dressed gholams.

But even the European quarter and its newish road, on which are many of the Legations, some of the foreign shops, and the fine compound and handsome buildings of the Imperial Bank, has a Persian admixture. Some of the stately houses of official and rich Persians are there, easily recognisable by their low closed gateways and general air of seclusion. Many of these possess exquisite gardens, with fountains and tanks, and all the arrangements for the out-of-doors life which Persians love. In the early spring afternoons the great sight of the road outside the British Legation is the crowd of equestrians, or rather of the horses they ride. However much the style of street, furniture, tastes, art, and costume have been influenced by Europe, fortunately for picturesque effect the Persian, even in the capital, retains the Persian saddle and equipments.

From later observation I am inclined to think very highly of the hardiness and stamina of the Persian horse, though at the time of my visit to Tihran I doubted both. Such showy, magnificent-looking animals, broken to a carriage which shows them to the best advantage, fine-legged, though not at the expense of strength, small-eared, small-mouthed, with flowing wavy manes, “necks clothed with thunder,” dilated nostrils showing the carmine interior, and a look of scorn and high breeding, I never saw elsewhere. The tail, which in obedience to fashion we mutilate and abridge, is allowed in Persia its full development, and except in the case of the Shah’s white horses, when it is dyed magenta, is perfectly beautiful, held far from the body like a flag. The arched neck, haughty bearing, and easy handling which Easterns love are given by very sharp bits; and a crowd of these beautiful animals pawing the ground, prancing, caracoling, walking with a gait as though the earth were too vulgar for their touch, or flashing past at a gallop, all groomed to perfection and superbly caparisoned, ridden by men who know how to ride, and who are in sympathy with their animals, is one of the fascinations of Tihran.

Creeping along by the side-walk is often seen a handsome pacing saddle-mule, or large white ass, nearly always led, carrying a Persian lady attended by servants — a shapeless black bundle, with what one supposes to be the outline of a hand clutching the enshrouding black silk sheet tightly over her latticed white mask: so completely enveloped that only a yellow shoe without a heel, and a glimpse of a violet trouser can be seen above the short stirrups.

Another piece of Orientalism unaffected by Western influence is the music performed daily at sunset in the upper stories of some of the highly-decorated tiled gateways which lead into and out of the principal squares. This is evoked from drums, fifes, cymbals, and huge horns, and as the latter overpower all the former, the effect is much like that of the braying of the colossal silver horns from the roofs of the Tibetan lamaserais. Many people suppose that this daily homage to the setting sun is a relic of the ancient fire or sun worship.

Two great squares, one of them with a tank in the middle with a big gun at each corner, artillery barracks on three sides, and a number of smooth-bore twenty-four-pounder guns on the fourth, are among the features of Tihran. In this great Maidan there are always soldiers in multifarious uniforms lounging, people waiting for the tram-cars, and Royal footmen, whose grotesque costumes border on the ridiculous. They are indeed a fitting accompaniment to the Royal horses with their magenta tails and spots, for they wear red coats with ballet-dancer skirts and green facings, green knee-breeches, white stockings, and tall stiff erections resembling a fool’s cap on the head, topped by crests suggestive of nothing but a cock’s comb.

A gateway much ornamented leads from the artillery square, or Maidan Topkhaneh, by a short road shaded with trees to the Citadel or Ark, which is an immense enclosure, rather mangy and unprepossessing in its exterior, which contains the palace of the Shah, the arsenal, certain public offices, the royal colleges, etc. Over the gateway floats rather grandly the Royal standard, bearing the Lion and the Sun in yellow on a green ground.

The Shah’s palace is very magnificent, and the shady gardens, beautifully kept, with their fountains and tanks of pale blue tiles, through which clear water constantly moves, are worthy of a Royal residence. From the outside above the high wall the chief feature is a very lofty pavilion, brilliantly and elaborately painted, with walls inclining inwards, and culminating in two high towers. This striking structure contains the andarun or haram of the sovereign and his private apartments.

This hasty sketch exhausts those features of Tihran which naturally arrest the stranger’s attention. There is no splendour about it externally, but there is splendour within it, and possibly few European residences can exceed in taste and magnificence the palaces of the Minister of Justice (the Muschir-u-Dowleh), the Naib-es-Sultan, the Zil-es-Sultan, and a few others, though I regret that much of the furniture has been imported from Europe, as it vexes the eye more or less with its incongruity of form and colouring. The current of European influence, which is affecting externals in Tihran, is not likely now to be stemmed. Eastern civilisation is doomed, and the transition period is not beautiful, whatever the outcome may be.

So much for what is within the walls. That which is outside deserves a passing notice as the environment of the capital. The sole grandeur of the situation lies in the near neighbourhood of the Shimran mountains — a huge wall, white or brown according to the season, with some irrigated planting near its base, which is spotted with villages and the yailaks not only of the numerous Legations but of rich Europeans and Persians. Otherwise the tameless barbarism of a desert, which man has slashed, tunnelled, delved, and heaped, lies outside the city walls, deformed by the long lines of kanaats— some choked, others still serviceable — by which the city is supplied with water from the mountains, their shafts illustrating the Scriptural expression “ruinous heaps.” In the glare of the summer sun, with the mercury ranging from 95° to 110° in the shade, and with the heated atmosphere quivering over the burning earth, these wastes are abandoned to carcasses and the vultures which fatten on them, and travelling is done at night, when a breeze from the Shimran range sends the thermometer down from 10° to 15°.

Curving to the south-west of Tihran, the mountains end in a bare ridge, around the base of which, according to many archæologists, lie vestiges of the ancient city of Rhages, known in later days as Rhei. A tomb of brick with angular surfaces, sacred to the memory of an ancient and romantic attachment, remains of fortifications, and the Parsee cemetery on a ledge overlooking these remains, break the monotony of the waste in that direction.

This cemetery, or “Tower of Silence,” a white splash on the brown hillside, is visible from afar. The truncated cones which in many places mark seats of the ancient Zoroastrian worship have been mentioned here and there, but it is only in Tihran and Yezd that the descendants of the ancient fire-worshippers are found in such numbers as to be able to give prominence to their ancient rites of sepulture. Probably throughout Persia their number does not exceed 8000. Their head resides in Tihran. They bear a good character for uprightness, and except in Yezd, where they weave rich stuffs, they are chiefly agriculturists. They worship firelight and the sun on the principles symbolised by both, they never use tobacco, and it is impolite to smoke in their presence because of the sacredness of fire.

Their belief has been, and is, that to bury the dead in the earth is to pollute it; and one among the reasons of the persecution of the early Christians by the Zoroastrians was their abhorrence of the desecration of the ground produced by the modes of Christian burial.

This “Tower of Silence” near Tihran is a large round edifice of whitewashed mud and stone. On the top of it, a few feet below the circular parapet, the dead are laid to be devoured by birds and consumed by exposure to the elements. The destiny of the spirit is supposed to be indicated by the eye which is first devoured by the fowls of the air, the right eye signifying bliss.

In a northern direction, to which the eye always turns to be refreshed by the purity of the icy cone of Demavend, or to watch the rosy light deepening into purple on the heights of Shimran, are palaces and country seats in numbers, with a mass of irrigated plantations extending for twenty miles, from Vanēk on the east to Kamaraniēh on the west. These are reached by passing through the Shimran gate, the most beautiful of the outer gates, tiled all over with yellow, black, blue, and green tiles in conventional designs, and with an immense coloured mosaic over the gateway representing Rustēm, Persia’s great mythical hero, conquering some of his enemies.

On the slopes of the hills are palaces and hunting seats of the Shah, beginning with the imposing mass of the Kasr-i-Kajār, on a low height, surrounded by majestic groves, in which are enormous tanks. Palaces and hunting seats of ministers and wealthy men succeed each other rapidly, a perfect seclusion having been obtained for each by the rapid growth of poplars and planes, each dwelling carrying out in its very marked individuality a deference to Persian custom, and each if possible using running water as a means of decoration. Many of these palaces are princely, and realise some of the descriptions in the Arabian Nights, with the beauty of their decorated architecture, the deep shade of their large demesnes, the cool plash of falling water, the songs of nightingales, and the scent of roses — sensuous Paradises in which the Persian finds the summer all too short.

Beyond this enchanting region, and much higher up on the mountain slopes, are the hunting grounds of the Shah and his sons, well stocked with game and rigidly preserved; for the Shah is a keen sportsman, and is said to prefer a free life under canvas and the pleasures of the chase to the splendid conventionalities of the Court of Tihran.

The two roads and the many tracks which centre in the capital after scoring the desert for many miles around it, are a feature of the landscape not to be overlooked, the Meshed, Resht, Bushire, and Tabriz roads being the most important, except the route from Baghdad by Kirmanshah and Hamadan, which in summer can be travelled by caravans in twenty-eight days, and by which many bulky articles of value, such as pianos, carriages, and valuable furniture, find their way to Tihran.26

These are some of the features of the environments of Tihran. A traveller writing ten years hence may probably have to tell that the city has extended to its walls, that Western influence is nearly dominant in externals, and possibly that the concessionaires who for years have been hanging about the Palace in alternations of hope and despondency have made something of their concessions, and that goods reach the capital in another way than on the backs of animals.

25 A volume of travels in Persia would scarcely be complete without some slight notice of the northern capital; but for detailed modern accounts of it the reader should consult various other books, especially Dr. Wills’ and Mr. Benjamin’s, if he has not already done so.

26 There are only two roads, properly so called, in Persia, though in the summer wheeled carriages with some assistance can get from place to place over several of the tracks. These two are the road from Kûm to the capital, formerly described, and one from Kasvin to the capital, both under 100 miles in length. Goods are everywhere carried on the backs of animals.

The distance between Bushire and Tihran is 698 miles.

The summer freight per ton is £14 1 8
The winter do. 20 2 0

The distance between Tihran and Resht on the Caspian is 211 miles.

The summer freight per ton is £4 0 5-4/5
The winter do. 8 0 11-3/5

From the Caspian to the Persian Gulf

The summer freight per ton is £18 2 3
The winter do. 28 3 4

inclusive of some insignificant charges.

The time taken for the transit of goods between Bushire and Tihran is forty-two days, and between Resht and Tihran twelve days.

The cost per ton by rail, if taken at Indian rates, between the Gulf and the Caspian, would be £3:11:10.

On these figures the promoters of railway enterprise in Persia build their hopes.

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