Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Notes on the “Bakhtiari Country” or Luri-Buzurg

In introducing the following journal of a summer spent in Luri–Buzurg or Greater Luristan by a few explanatory notes, I desire to acknowledge the labours of those travellers who have preceded me over some of the earlier portions of the route, and my obligations to those careful explorers of half a century ago, who turned the light of modern research upon the antiquities of Lower Elam and the condition of its modern inhabitants, and whose earnestness and accuracy the traveller in Upper Elam and the Bakhtiari country may well desire to emulate.42

For the correction of those portions of my letters which attempt to describe a part of mountainous Luristan previously unexplored, I am deeply indebted to a recent unpublished Geographical Report, to which any geographical interest which they may possess is altogether due. For the customs and beliefs of the Bakhtiaris I have had to depend entirely on my own investigations, made through an intelligent and faithful interpreter, whose desire for accuracy was scarcely exceeded by my own.

The accompanying sketch map represents an area of 15,000 square miles, lying, roughly speaking, between Lat. 31° and 34° N., and between Long. 48° and 51° E., and covering a distance of 300 miles from the Khana Mirza to Khuramabad.

The itinerary covers a distance of about 700 miles, a journey of three and a half months, chiefly in the region of the Upper Karun and its affluents, among which must be included the head-waters of the Ab-i-Diz.

During this time the Karun was traced, wherever the nature of its bed admitted of it, from the gorge of Dupulan, below which several travellers have investigated and reported its extraordinary windings, up to the Sar–Cheshmeh-i-Kurang, its reputed source, a vigorous fountain spring with an altitude of 8000 feet in the steep limestone face of the north-eastern side of the Zard Kuh range, and upwards to its real source in the Kuh-i-Rang or “variegated mountain.”

The Ab-i-Diz was found to carry off the water of a larger area than had been supposed; the north-west branches, the Ab-i-Burujird and the Kamandab, which drain the well-watered plain of Silakhor, almost yielding in importance to the Guwa and Gokun, which, uniting to form what, for convenience’ sake, was termed the Ab-i-Basnoi, receive the drainage of the upper part of Faraidan, an important district of Persia proper.

A lake of marvellously coloured water, two and a half miles long by one mile wide, very deep, and with a persistent level, was found to occupy a hollow at the inner foot of the grand mountain Shuturun, and this, having no native name, was marked on the map as Lake Irene.

The Bakhtiari mountains are chains of precipitous parallel ranges, generally running north-west and south-east, the valleys which divide them and carry off their waters taking the same directions as far as the Kuh-i-Rang, where a remarkable change takes place, noticed in Letter XVII. This great mountain region, lying between the lofty plateau of Central Persia and the plains of Khuzistan, has continuous ranges of singular steepness, but rarely broken up into prominent peaks, the Kuh-i-Rang, the Kuh-i-Shahan, the Shuturun Kuh, and Dalonak being detached mountains.

The great ranges of the Kuh-i-Sukhta, the Kuh-i-Gerra, the Sabz Kuh, the Kala Kuh, and the Zard Kuh were crossed and recrossed by passes from 8000 to 11,000 feet in altitude; many of the summits were ascended, and the deep valleys between them, with their full-watered, peacock-green streams, were followed up wherever it was possible to do so. The magnificent mountain Kuh-i-Rang was ascertained to be not only a notable water-parting, but to indicate in a very marked manner two distinct mountain systems with remarkable peculiarities of drainage, as well as to form a colossal barrier between two regions which, for the sake of intelligible description, were called “Upper Elam” and the “Bakhtiari country.”

The same authority, for the same purpose, designated the two main and highest chains of mountains by the terms “Outer” and “Inner” ranges, the former being the one nearest the great Persian plateau, the latter the chain nearest to the Khuzistan plains. The conjectural altitudes of the peaks in this hitherto unexplored region have been brought down by some thousands of feet, and the “eternal snow” with which rumour had crested them has turned out a myth, the altitude of the highest summit being estimated at only a trifle over 13,000 feet.

The nearly continuous ranges south-east of the Kuh-i-Rang are pierced for the passage of water by a few remarkable rifts or tangs— the Outer range by the Tang-i-Ghezi, the outlet of the Zainderud towards Isfahan, and the Tang-i-Darkash Warkash, by which the drainage of the important districts of the Chahar Mahals passes to the Karun, the Inner range being pierced at the Tang-i-Dupulan by the Karun itself. North-west of the Kuh-i-Rang the rivers which carry the drainage of certain districts of south-west Persia to the sea pierce the main mountain ranges at right angles, passing through magnificent gorges and chasms from 3000 to 5000 feet in depth.

Among the mountains, but especially in the formation south-east of the Kuh-i-Rang, there are many alpine valleys at altitudes of from 7000 to 8500 feet, rich summer pastures, such as Gurab, Chigakhor, Shorab, and Cheshmeh Zarin.

Some of the valleys are of considerable width, many only afford room for narrow tracks above the streams by which they are usually watered, while others are mere rifts for torrents and are inaccessible. Among the limestone ranges fountain springs are of frequent occurrence, gushing out of the mountain sides with great volume and impetuosity — the perennial sources of perennial streams.

Much of the country is absolutely without wood, producing nothing fit even for fuel but the Astragalus verus and the Astragalus tragacantha. This is especially the case on the outer slopes of the Outer range, which are formed of rocky ribs with a covering of gravel, and are “barren, treeless, waterless, and grassless.” From the same crest to the outer slopes of the Inner range, which descend on Khuzistan, there are splendid pasturage, abundant water, and extensive forests in the deep valleys and on the hill slopes.43

The trees, however, can rarely be defined as “forest trees.” They are small in girth and are usually stunted and wizened in aspect, as if the conditions of their existence were not kindly.

Flowers are innumerable in the months of May and June, beginning with the tulip, the iris, the narcissus, and a small purple gladiolus, and a little later many of the hillsides above an altitude of 7000 feet are aflame with a crimson and terra-cotta Fritillaria imperialis, and a carnation-red anemone, while the margins of the snow-fields are gay with pink patches of an exquisite alpine primula. Chicory, the dark blue centaurea, a large orange and yellow snapdragon, and the scarlet poppy attend upon grain crops there as elsewhere, and the slopes above the upper Karun are brilliant with pink, mauve, and white hollyhocks. But it must be admitted that the chief interest of many of the flowers is botanical only. They are leathery, woolly, thorny, and sticky, adapted rather for arid circumstances than to rejoice the eye.

Among the economic plants observed were the Centaurea alata, which grows in singular abundance at a height of from 5500 to 7000 feet, and is cut and stacked for fodder; a species of celery of very strong flavour, which is an important article of food for man and beast, and the flower-stalks of which, six feet high, are woven into booths by some of the tribes; the blue linum, red madder, the Eryngium cæruleum, which is cut and stacked for fodder; a purple garlic, the bulbs of which are eaten; liquorice, and the Ferula asafetida in small quantities.

It is a surprise to the traveller to find that a large area is under cultivation, and that the crops of wheat and barley are clean, and up to the Persian average, and that the removal of stones and a laborious irrigation system are the work of nomads who only occupy their yailaks for five months of the year. It may be said that nearly every valley and hill-slope where water is procurable is turned to account for grain crops.

No part of the world in this latitude is fuller of streams and torrents, but three only attain to any geographical dignity — the Zainderud, or river of Isfahan, which after a course full of promise loses itself ignominiously in a partially-explored swamp; the Karun, with its Bakhtiari tributaries of the Ab-i-Bazuft, the Darkash Warkash, the Ab-i-Sabzu, and the Dinarud; and the Ab-i-Diz, which has an important course of its own before its junction with the Karun at Bandakir. None of these rivers are navigable during their course through the Bakhtiari mountains. They are occasionally spanned by bridges of stone or wickerwork, or of yet simpler construction.

With the exception of the small area of the Outer range, which contains the head-waters of the Zainderud, the Bakhtiari country proper consists of the valleys of the upper Karun and its tributaries.

The tracks naturally follow the valleys, and are fairly easy in their gradients to the south-east of the Kuh-i-Rang. To the north-west, however, being compelled to cross rivers which pierce the ranges at right angles to their directions, ascents and descents of several thousand feet are involved at short intervals, formed of rock ladders, which may be regarded as “impassable for laden animals.”

The so-called roads are nothing better than tracks worn in the course of centuries by the annual passage of the nomads and their flocks to and from their summer pastures. In addition to the tracks which follow the lie of the valleys, footpaths cross the main ranges where foothold can be obtained.

There are but two bridle tracks which deserve mention as being possible for caravan traffic between Isfahan and Shuster, one crossing the God-i-Murda at a height of 7050 feet and the Karun at Dupulan, the other, which considerably diminishes the distance between the two commercial points, crossing the Zard Kuh by the Cherri Pass at an altitude of 9550 feet and dropping down a steep descent of over 4000 feet to the Bazuft river. These, the Gurab, and the Gil-i-Shah, and Pambakal Passes, which cross the Zard Kuh range at elevations of over 11,000 feet, are reported as closed by snow for several months in winter. In view of the cart-road from Ahwaz to Tihran, which will pass through the gap of Khuramabad, the possible importance of any one of these routes fades completely away.

The climate, though one of extremes, is healthy. Maladies of locality are unknown, the water is usually pure, and malarious swamps do not exist. Salt springs produce a sufficiency of salt for wholesome use, and medicinal plants abound. The heat begins in early June and is steady till the end of August, the mercury rising to 102° in the shade at altitudes of 7000 feet, but it is rarely oppressive; the nights are cool, and greenery and abounding waters are a delightful contrast to the arid hills and burning plains of Persia. The rainfall is scarcely measurable, the snowfall is reported as heavy, and the winter temperatures are presumably low.

There are few traces of a past history, and the legends connected with the few are too hazy to be of any value, but there are remains of bridges of dressed stone, and of at least one ancient road, which must have been trodden by the soldiers of Alexander the Great and Valerian, and it is not impossible that the rude forts here and there which the tribesmen attribute to mythical heroes of their own race may have been built to guard Greek or Roman communications.

The geology, entomology, and zoology of the Bakhtiari country have yet to be investigated. In a journey of three months and a half the only animals seen were a bear and cubs, a boar, some small ibex, a blue hare, and some jackals. Francolin are common, and storks were seen, but scarcely any other birds, and bees and butterflies are rare. It is the noxious forms of animated life which are abundant. There are snakes, some of them venomous, a venomous spider, and a stinging beetle, and legions of black flies, mosquitos, and sand-flies infest many localities.

This area of lofty ranges, valleys, gorges, and alpine pasturages is inhabited by the Bakhtiari Lurs, classed with the savage or semi-savage races, who, though they descend to the warmer plains in the winter, invariably speak of these mountains as “their country.” On this journey nearly all the tribes were visited in their own encampments, and their arrangements, modes of living, customs, and beliefs were subjects of daily investigation, the results of which are given in the letters which follow.

Their own very hazy traditions, which are swift to lose themselves in the fabulous, represent that they came from Syria, under one chief, and took possession of the country which they now inhabit. A later tradition states that a descendant of this chief had two wives equally beloved, one of whom had four sons, and the other seven; and that after their father’s death the young men quarrelled, separated, and bequeathed their quarrel to posterity, the seven brothers forming the Haft Lang division of the Bakhtiaris, and the four the Chahar Lang.44

The Haft Lang, though originally far superior in numbers, weakened their power by their unending internal conflicts, and in 1840, when Sir A. H. Layard visited a part of Luristan not embraced in this route, and sojourned at Kala-i-Tul, the power and headship of Mehemet Taki Khan, the great chief of their rivals the Chahar Lang, were recognised throughout the region.

The misfortunes which came upon him overthrew the supremacy of his clan, and now (as for some years past) the Haft Lang supply the ruling dynasty, the Chahar Lang being, however, still strong enough to decide any battles for the chieftainship which may be fought among their rivals. Time, and a stronger assertion of the sovereignty of Persia, have toned the feud down into a general enmity and aversion, but the tribes of the two septs rarely intermarry, and seldom encamp near each other without bloodshed.

The great divisions of the Bakhtiaris, the Haft Lang, the Chahar Lang, and the Dinarunis, with the dependencies of the Janiki Garmsir, the Janiki Sardsir, and the Afshar tribe of Gunduzlu, remain as they were half a century ago, when they were the subject of careful investigation by Sir A. H. Layard and Sir H. Rawlinson.

The tribes (as enumerated by several of the Khans without any divergence in their statements) number 29,100 families, an increase in the last half-century. Taking eight to a household, which I believe to be a fair estimate, a population of 232,800 would be the result.45

A few small villages of mud hovels at low altitudes are tenanted by a part of their inhabitants throughout the winter, the other part migrating with the bulk of the flocks; and 3000 families of the two great Janiki divisions are deh-nishins or “dwellers in cities,” i.e. they do not migrate at all; but the rest are nomads, that is, they have winter camping-grounds in the warm plains of Khuzistan and elsewhere, and summer pastures in the region of the Upper Karun and its affluents, making two annual migrations between their garmsirs and sardsirs (hot and cold quarters).

Though a pastoral people, they have (as has been referred to previously) of late years irrigated, stoned, and cultivated a number of their valleys, sowing in the early autumn, leaving the crops for the winter and early spring, and on their return weeding them very carefully till harvest-time in July.

They live on the produce of their flocks and herds, on leavened cakes made of wheat and barley flour, and on a paste made of acorn flour.

In religion they are fanatical Moslems of the Shiah sect, but combine relics of nature worship with the tenets of Islam.

The tribes, which were to a great extent united under the judicious and ambitious policy of Mehemet Taki Khan and Hussein Kuli Khan, nominally acknowledge one feudal head, the Ilkhani, who is associated in power with another chief called the Ilbegi. The Ilkhani, who is appointed by the Shah for a given period, capable of indefinite extension, is responsible for the tribute, which amounts to about two tumans a household, and for the good order of Luri–Buzurg.

The Bakhtiaris are good horsemen and marksmen. Possibly in inter-tribal war from 10,000 to 12,000 men might take the field, but it is doubtful whether more than from 6000 to 8000 could be relied on in an external quarrel.

The Khan of each tribe is practically its despotic ruler, and every tribesman is bound to hold himself at his disposal.

As concerns tribute, they are under the government of Isfahan, with the exception of three tribes and a half, which are under the government of Burujird.

They are a warlike people, and though more peaceable than formerly, they cherish blood-feuds and are always fighting among themselves. Their habits are predatory by inclination and tradition, but they have certain notions of honour and of regard to pledges when voluntarily given.46

They deny Persian origin, but speak a dialect of Persian. Conquered by Nadir Shah, who took many of them into his service, they became independent after his death, until the reign of Mohammed Shah. Though tributary, they still possess a sort of quasi independence, though Persia of late years has tightened her grip upon them, and the Shah keeps many of their influential families in Tihran and its neighbourhood as hostages for the good behaviour of their clans.

Of the Feili Lurs, the nomads of Luri–Kushak or the Lesser Luristan, the region lying between the Ab-i-Diz and the Assyrian plains, with the province of Kirmanshah to the north and Susiana to the south, little was seen. These tribes are numerically superior to the Bakhtiaris. Fifty years ago, according to Sir H. Rawlinson, they numbered 56,000 families.

They have no single feudal chieftain like their neighbours, nor are their subdivisions ruled, as among them, by powerful Khans. They are governed by Tushmals (lit. “master of a house”) and four or five of these are associated in the rule of every tribal subdivision. On such occasions as involve tribal well-being or the reverse, these Tushmals consult as equals.

Sir H. Rawlinson considered that the Feili Lur form of government is very rare among the clan nations of Asia, and that it approaches tolerably near to the spirit of a confederated republic. Their language, according to the same authority, differs little from that of the Kurds of Kirmanshah.

Unlike the Bakhtiaris, they neglect agriculture, but they breed and export mules, and trade in carpets, charcoal, horse-furniture, and sheep.

In faith they are Ali Ilahis, but are grossly ignorant and religiously indifferent; they show scarcely any respect to Mohammed and the Koran, and combine a number of ancient superstitions and curious sacrificial rites with a deep reverence for Sultan Ibrahim, who under the name of Bābā Buzurg (the great father) is worshipped throughout Luri–Kushak.

For the tribute payable to Persia no single individual is responsible. The sum to be levied is distributed among the tribes by a general council, after which each subdivision apportions the amount to be paid by the different camps, and the Rish–Sefid (lit. gray-beard) or head of each encampment collects from the different families according to their means.

The task of the Persian tax-collector is a difficult one, for the tribes are in a state of chronic turbulence, and fail even in obedience to their own general council, and the collection frequently ends in an incursion of Persian soldiers and a Government raid on the flocks and herds. Many of these people are miserably poor, and they are annually growing poorer under Persian maladministration.

The Feili Lurs are important to England commercially, because the cart-road from Ahwaz to Tihran, to be completed within two years, passes partly through their country,47 and its success as the future trade route from the Gulf depends upon their good-will, or rather upon their successful coercion by the Persian Government.

42 The writers who have dealt with some of the earlier portions of my route are as follows: Henry Blosse Lynch, Esq., Across Luristan to Ispahan — Proceedings of the R.G.S., September 1890. Colonel M. S. Bell, V.C., A Visit to the Karun River and Kûm — Blackwood’s Magazine, April 1889. Colonel J. A. Bateman Champain, R.E., On the Various Means of Communication between Central Persia and the Sea — Proceedings of the R.G.S., March 1883. Colonel H. L. Wells, R.E., Surveying Tours in South–Western Persia — Proceedings of R.G.S., March 1883. Mr. Stack, Six Months in Persia, London, 1884. Mr. Mackenzie, Speech — Proceedings of R.G.S., March 1883. The following among other writers have dealt with the condition of the Bakhtiari and Feili Lurs, and with the geography of the region to the west and south-west of the continuation of the great Zagros chain, termed in these notes the “Outer” and “Inner” ranges of the Bakhtiari mountains, their routes touching those of the present writer at Khuramabad: Sir H. Rawlinson, Notes of a March from Zohab to Khuzistan in 1836 — Journal of the R.G.S., vol. ix., 1839. Sir A. H. Layard, Early Adventures in Persia, Susiana, and Babylonia, including a residence among the Bakhtiari and other wild tribes, 2 vols., London, 1887. Baron C. A. de Bode, Travels in Luristan and Arabistan, 2 vols., London, 1845. W. F. Ainsworth (Surgeon and Geologist to the Euphrates Expedition), The River Karun, London, 1890. General Schindler travelled over and described the Isfahan and Shuster route, and published a map of the country in 1884.

43 Among the trees and shrubs to be met with are an oak (Quercus ballota), which supplies the people with acorn flour, the Platanus and Tamariscus orientalis, the jujube tree, two species of elm, a dwarf tamarisk, poplar, four species of willow, the apple, pear, cherry, plum, walnut, gooseberry, almond, dogwood, hawthorn, ash, lilac, alder, Paliurus aculeatus, rose, bramble, honeysuckle, hop vine, grape vine, Clematis orientalis, Juniperus excelsa, and hornbeam.

44 In Persian haft is seven, and chakar four.

45 This computation is subject to correction. Various considerations dispose the Ilkhani and the other Khans to minimise or magnify the population. It has been stated at from 107,000 to 275,000 souls, and by a “high authority” to different persons as 107,000 and 211,000 souls!

46 Sir. H. Rawlinson sums up Bakhtiari character in these very severe words: “I believe them to be individually brave, but of a cruel and savage character; they pursue their blood-feuds with the most inveterate and exterminating spirit, and they consider no oath or obligation in any way binding when it interferes with their thirst for revenge; indeed, the dreadful stories of domestic tragedy that are related, in which whole families have fallen by each other’s hands (a son, for instance, having slain his father to obtain the chiefship — another brother having avenged the murder, and so on, till only one individual was left), are enough to freeze the blood with horror.

“It is proverbial in Persia that the Bakhtiaris have been obliged to forego altogether the reading of the Fāhtihah or prayer for the dead, for otherwise they would have no other occupation. They are also most dexterous and notorious thieves. Altogether they may be considered the most wild and barbarous of all the inhabitants of Persia.”—“Notes on a March from Zohab to Khuzistan,” Journal of the R.G.S., vol. ix. Probably there is an improvement since this verdict was pronounced. At all events I am inclined to take a much more favourable view of the Bakhtiaris than has been given in the very interesting paper from which this quotation is made.

47 A report to the Foreign Office (No. 207) made by an officer who travelled from Khuramabad to Dizful in December 1890, contains the following remarks on this route.

“As to the danger to caravans in passing through these hills, I am inclined to believe that the Lurs are now content to abandon robbery with violence in favour of payments and contributions from timid traders and travellers. They hang upon the rear of a caravan; an accident, a fallen or strayed pack animal, or stragglers in difficulty bring them to the spot, and, on the pretence of assistance given, a demand is made for money, in lieu of which, on fear or hesitation being shown, they obtain such articles as they take a fancy to.

“The tribes through whose limits the road runs have annual allowances for protecting it, but it is a question whether these are regularly paid. It can hardly be expected that the same system of deferred and reduced payments, which unfortunately prevails in the Persian public service, should be accepted patiently by a starving people, who have long been given to predatory habits, and this may account for occasional disturbance. They probably find it difficult to understand why payment of taxes should be mercilessly exacted upon them, while their allowances remain unpaid. It is generally believed that they would take readily to work if fairly treated and honestly paid, and I was told that for the construction of the proposed cart-road there would be no difficulty in getting labourers from the neighbouring Lur tribes.”

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