Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Farewell Impressions of Persia

In the letters by which this chapter is preceded few general opinions have been expressed on Persia, its government, and its people, but now that I contemplate them with some regard to perspective, and have reversed some of my earlier and hastier judgments, I will, with the reader’s permission, give some of the impressions formed during a journey extending over nine months, chiefly in the western and south-western portions of the Empire.

On the pillared plain of Persepolis, on the bull-flanked portals which tower above the Hall of Xerxes, the Palace of Darius, and the stairways with the sculptured bas-reliefs, which portray the magnificence, the military triumphs, and the religious ceremonial of the greatest of the Persian monarchs, runs the stately inscription: “I am Xerxes the King, the Great King, the King of Kings, the King of the many-peopled countries, the Upholder of the Great World, the son of Darius the King, the Achæmenian”; and on the tablets on the rock of Besitun is inscribed in language as august the claim of Darius the Mede to a dominion which in his day was regarded as nearly universal.

The twenty-four centuries which have passed since these claims were made have seen the ruin of the Palace–Temples of Persepolis, the triumph of Islam over Zoroastrianism, the devastating sweep of the hordes of Taimurlane and other semi-barbaric conquerors, the destruction of ancient art and frontiers, and the compression of the Empire within comparatively narrow limits.

Still, these limits include an area about thrice the size of France, the sovereign has reassumed the title of King of Kings, Persia takes her own place — and that not a low one — in the comity of nations, and the genuine Persians retain vitality enough to compel the allegiance of the numerically important tribes included within their frontiers, though scarcely more than 30,000 soldiers are with the colours at any given time.

Still, under a land system fourteen centuries old, Persia produces cereals enough for home consumption with a surplus for export; her peasants are thrifty and industrious, and their methods of tillage, though among the most ancient on earth, are well adapted to their present needs and the conditions of soil and climate.

Her merchants are able and enterprising, and her sagacious liberality in the toleration of Christians and Jews has added strength to her commercial position.

Though she has lost the high order of civilisation which she possessed centuries before Christ, she has in no sense relapsed into barbarism, and on the whole good order and security prevail.

The condition of modern Persia has to be studied along with that of the configuration of the country. The traveller through Khorasan and Seistan, from the Gulf to Yezd, or from Bushire to Tihran, views it as a sparsely-peopled region — a desert with an occasional oasis, and legitimately describes it as such. The traveller through the “Bakhtiari mountains,” and from Burujird through Western Persia up to the Sea of Urmi, seeing the superb pasturages and perennial streams of the Zard–Kuh, the Sabz–Kuh, and the Kuh-i-Rang, and the vast area of careful cultivation, sprinkled with towns and villages, which extends from a few miles north of Burujird to the walls of Urmi and far beyond, may with equal fidelity describe it as a land of abounding waters, a peopled and well-watered garden.

The direction of my journey has been fully indicated. It is only from the descriptions of others that I know anything of the arid wastes of Eastern Persia or of the moist and malarious provinces bordering on the Caspian Sea, with their alluvial valleys and rice grounds, and their jungle and forest-covered mountains, or of the verdureless plains and steppes of Kerman and Laristan.

Persia proper, the country which has supplied the race which has evinced such a remarkable vitality and historic continuity, may be described as a vast plateau from 3500 to 6000 feet in altitude, extending on the east into Afghanistan, on the north-west into Armenia, and overlooking the Caspian to the north, and the Persian Gulf and the vast levels of Mesopotamia to the south and south-west.

To reach this platform from the south, lofty ranges, which include the kotals of Shiraz, must be crossed. From the Tigris valley on the west it is only accessible by surmounting the Zagros chain and lesser ranges; and to attain it from the north the traveller must climb the rocky pathways of the Elburz mountains. This great “Iranian plateau,” except in Eastern Persia, is intersected both by mountain ranges and detached mountain masses, which store up in their sunless hollows the snowfall on which all Persian agriculture depends, the rainfall being so scanty as to be of little practical value.

Thus the possibility of obtaining supplies of water from the melting snows dictates the drift of population, and it seems unlikely that the plains of Eastern Persia, where no such supplies exist, were ever more populous than now. It was otherwise with parts of Central Persia, now lying waste, for the remains of canals and kanaats attest that a process of local depopulation has been going on. It is the configuration of the country rather than anything else which accounts for the unpeopled wastes in some directions, and the constant succession of towns and populous villages in others.

Of the population thus distributed along hill slopes and on the plains at the feet of the ranges, there is no accurate record, and the total has been variously estimated at from six to nine millions. Estimates of the urban and village populations were in most cases supplied to me by the Persian local officials, but from these I am convinced that it is necessary to make a very liberal deduction. General Schindler, a gentleman for some years in the Persian Government service, who has travelled over a great part of Persia with the view of ascertaining its resources and condition, in the year 1885 estimated its population at 7,653,000. In his analysis the Christian and the Bakhtiari and Feili Lur populations are, according to present information, greatly under-estimated.

If I may venture to hazard an opinion, after travelling over a considerable area of Western Persia, it would be that the higher estimate is nearest the mark, for the natural increase in time of peace, as accepted by statists, is three-quarters per cent per annum, and Persia has had peace and freedom from famine for very many years.89

The country population consists of rayats or permanent cultivators, and Ilyats or nomadic pastoral tribes. Coal-fields and lead and iron may hereafter produce commercial centres, but the industry of Persia at present may be said to be nearly altogether agricultural.

The settled peasant population, so far as I am able to judge, is well fed and fairly well clothed, and the habitations suit the climate. The people are poor, but not with the poverty of Europe — that is, except in famine years, there is no scarcity of the necessaries of life, with the single exception of fuel.

The wages of the agricultural labourer vary from 5d. a day with food to 9d. without; a skilled mason earns 1s. 6d., a carpenter 1s. 4d. Men-servants get from 17s. to £2 per month, nominally without board, but with modakel and other pickings; female servants much less. Prices are, however, low. Clothing, tea, coffee, and sugar cost about the same as in Europe. The cotton worn by the poor is very cheap. Wheat, which is sold by weight, costs at harvest-time from 7s. 6d. to 15s. per load of 320 lbs. I have been told by several cultivators that a man can live and bring up an average family on something under £6 a year.

I did not see anything like “grinding poverty” in the villages. If it existed, the old and helpless could scarcely be supported by their relatives, and the women, in spite of the seclusion of custom and faith, would be compelled to work in the fields, a “barbarism” which I never saw in Persia among Moslems.

In both town and country the working classes appeared to me to be as comfortable and, on the whole, as happy as people in the same condition in life in most other countries, with the exception, and that not a small one, of their liability to official exactions. The peasants are grossly ignorant, hardy, dirty, bigoted, domestic, industrious, avaricious, sober, and tractable, and ages of misrule have developed in them many of the faults of oppressed Oriental peoples. Of the country outside of the district in which they live they usually know nothing, they detest the local governors, but to the Shah they willingly owe, and are ready to pay, a right loyal allegiance.

My impression of the Persians of the trading and agricultural classes is that they are thoroughly unwarlike, fairly satisfied if they are let alone, unpatriotic, and apparently indifferent to the prospect of a Russian “occupation.” Their bearing is independent rather than manly; their religious feelings are strong and easily offended; their sociability and love of fun come out strongly in the freedom of their bazars. Europeans do not meet with anything of the grovelling deference to which we are accustomed in India. If there be obsequiousness in stereotyped phraseology, there is none in manner. We are treated courteously as strangers, but are made to feel that we are in no wise essential to the well-being of the country, and a European traveller without introductions to the Provincial authorities finds himself a very insignificant person indeed.

Governors and the governed are one. They understand each other, and are of one creed, and there is no ruling alien race to interfere with ancient custom or freedom of action, or to wound racial susceptibilities with every touch. Even the traditional infamies of administration are expected and understood by those whom they chiefly concern.

The rich men congregate chiefly in the cities. It is very rare to find any but the poorer Khans, Aghas or proprietors of villages, men little removed from the peasants around them, living on their own properties. The wealthy Seigneur, the lord of many villages, resides in Tihran, Kirmanshah, or Isfahan; pays a nasr, who manages his estate and fleeces his tenants, and spends his revenues himself on urban pleasures. The purchase of villages and their surrounding lands is a favourite investment. This system of absenteeism not only prevents that friendly contact between landowner and peasant which is such a desirable feature of proprietorship, but it leaves the villages exposed to the exactions of the nasr, and without a semblance of protection from the rapacious demands of the provincial authorities. It is noteworthy that fortunes made in trade are seeking investment in land.

The upper classes in Persia appear to me to differ widely from Orientals, as they are supposed to be, and often really are. They love life intensely, fill it with enjoyment, and neither regard existence as a task to be toiled through nor as a burden to be got rid of. Handsome, robust, restless, intelligent, imaginative, accumulative, vivacious, polished in manner and speech, many of them excellent linguists, well acquainted with their own literature, especially with their poets; lavish, alike in expenditure on personal luxuries and in charity to the poor; full of artistic instincts, and loving to surround themselves with the beautiful, inquisitive, adaptable; addicted to sport and out-of-doors life, untruthful both from hereditary suspiciousness and excess of courtesy — the Persian gentleman has an individuality of his own which is more nearly akin to the French or Russian than to the Oriental type.

My impressions of the morals both of the Persian peasantry and the Bakhtiari Lurs are, as to some points, rather favourable than the reverse, and I think and hope that there is as much domestic affection and fidelity as is compatible with a religion which more or less effectually secures the degradation of woman. The morals of the upper classes are, I believe, very easy. In various carefully written papers, one of them at least official, very painful glimpses have been given incidentally into the state of Persian upper-class morality, and undoubtedly the intrigues of the andarun are as unfavourable to purity as they are to happiness.

For the traveller the greater part of Persian territory is absolutely safe. I have ridden on horseback through it at every season of the year, in some regions without an escort, in others with Persian or Kurdish guards supplied by the local authorities, and was never actually the victim of any form of robbery, except the pilfering from an unguarded tent. Though travelling with only an Indian servant, I found the provincial authorities everywhere courteous, and ready to aid my journey by every means within their power, though in Persia as elsewhere I never claimed, and indeed never received, any special favour on the ground of sex.

A few darker shadows remain to be put in. There is no education truly so called for Persians, except in Tihran, and under the existing system the next generation is not likely to be more enlightened than the present. All the towns and the larger villages possess mosque schools, in which the highest education bestowed is a smattering of Arabic and a knowledge of the tales of Saadi. The Persian characters are taught, and some attention is paid to caligraphy, for a man who can write well is sure to make a fair living. The parrot-like reading of the Koran in Arabic is the summum bonum of the teaching. Very few of the boys in the village schools learn to write, but if a clever lad aspires to be a mirza or secretary he pays great attention to the formation of the Persian characters, and acquires that knowledge of compliment, phrase, and trope which is essential to his proposed calling.

Pleading, waiting, and the elements of arithmetic are usual among the bazar class and merchants, but with the rest the slight knowledge of reading acquired in childhood is soon forgotten, and the ability to repeat a few verses from the Koran and a few prayers in Arabic is all that remains of the mosque school “education.” School discipline is severe, and the rope and pulley and bastinado are used as instruments of punishment.

A few young men in the cities, who are destined to be mollahs, hakīms, or lawyers, proceed to the Medressehs or Colleges, where they acquire a thorough knowledge of Arabic, do some desultory reading, and “hang on” to their teachers, at whose feet they literally sit on all occasions, and after a few years have been spent in rather a profitless way they usually find employment.

Government employés, courtiers, the higher officers in the army, diplomats, and sons of wealthy Khans receive the rudiments of a liberal education in the College at Tihran, where they frequently acquire a very creditable knowledge of French.

The admirable schools established by the American and English missionaries at Urmi, Tihran, Tabriz, Hamadan, and Julfa affect only the Armenians and Syrians and a few Jews and Zoroastrians. Outside of these there is neither intellectual nor moral training, and even the simplest duties of life, such as honesty, truthfulness, and regard for contract, are never inculcated.

It may be supposed that in conformity with the Moslem axiom, “not to open the eyes of a woman too wide,” the bulk of Persian women are not thought worthy of any education at all. A few of the daughters of rich men can read the Koran, but without comprehending it, and can both read and recite poetry.

Throughout the country, law, that is the Urf or unwritten law, a mass of precedents and traditions orally handed down and administered by secular judges — is not held in any respect at all, and while the rich can override it by bribery, the poor regard it only as a commodity which is bought and sold, and which they are too poor to buy.

The other department of Persian law, the Shāhr, which is based upon the Koran, and is administered by religious teachers, takes cognisance chiefly of civil cases, and its administration is nearly as corrupt as that of the Urf. Law, in the sense in which we understand it, as the avenger of wrong and the sublimely impartial protector of individual rights and liberties, has no existence at all in Persia.

The curse of the country is venal mal-administration. It meets one at every turn, and in protean shapes. There is no official conscience, and no public opinion to act as a check upon official unscrupulousness. Of Government as an institution for the good of the governed there is no conception. The greed, which is among the most painful features of Persian character, finds its apotheosis in officialism. From the lowest to the highest rounds of the official ladder unblushing bribery is the modus operandi of promotion.

It is very obvious that the Shah himself is the Government. He is an absolute despot, subject to no controlling influences but the criticisms of the European press, and the demands of the European Legations. He is the sole executive. His ministers are but servants of the highest grade, whose duties consist in carrying out his orders. The lives and properties of all his subjects are held only at his pleasure. His sons are but his tools, to be raised or degraded at his will, and the same may be said of the highest personages in the Empire. The Shah is the State — irresponsible and all-powerful.

Nasred–Din is a most diligent ruler. No pleasures, not even the chase, to which he is devoted, divert his attention from business. He takes the initiative in all policy, guides with a firm hand the destinies of Persia, supervises every department, appoints directly to all offices of importance, and by means known to absolute rulers has his eyes in every part of his dominions. He is regarded as a very able man — his European travels have made him to some extent an enlightened one.

His reign of forty-two years has been disfigured, especially in its earlier portion, by some acts which we should regard as great crimes, but which do not count as such in Oriental judgment; neither are the sale of offices, the taking of bribes under the disguise of presents, the receiving of what is practically modakel, or exactions upon rich men, repugnant in the slightest degree to the Oriental mind.

Remembering the unwholesome traditions of his throne and dynasty, we must give him full credit for everything in which he makes a new departure. Surrounded by intrigue, hampered by the unceasing political rivalry between England and Russia, thwarted by the obstructive tactics of the latter at every turn, and with the shadow of a Russian occupation of the northern provinces of the Empire looming in a not far distant future, any step in the direction of reform taken by the Shah involves difficulties of which the outer world has no conception, not only in braving the antagonism of his powerful neighbour, and her attempted interference with the internal concerns of Persia, but in overcoming the apathy of his people and the prejudices of his coreligionists.

As it is, under him Persia has awakened partially from her long sleep. The state of insecurity described by the travellers of thirty and forty years ago no longer exists. Far feebler than Turkey, Persia, through the resolute will of one man, has eclipsed Turkey altogether in suppressing brigandage, in subduing the Kurds and other nomadic tribes, in securing safety for travellers and caravans even on the remoter roads, and in producing tolerable contentment among the Armenian and Nestorian populations.

Under him the authority of the central Government has been consolidated, the empty treasury has been filled, the semi-independence of the provincial governors has been broken, Persia has been recreated as a coherent Empire, certain roads have been made, posts and telegraphs have been inaugurated, an Imperial Bank with branches in some of the principal towns has been formed, foreign capital has been encouraged or at least permitted to enter the country, a concession for the free navigation of the Karun has been granted, and the Nasiri Company, the most hopeful token of native progress, has received Imperial favour.

But under all this lies the inherent rottenness of Persian administration, an abyss of official corruption and infamy without a bottom or a shore, a corruption of heredity and tradition, unchecked by public opinion or the teachings of even an elementary education in morals and the rudiments of justice. There are few men pure enough to judge their fellows or to lift clean hands to Heaven, and power and place are valued for their opportunities for plunder.

In no part of Persia did I hear any complaint of the tribute levied by the Shah. It is regarded as legitimate. But in most districts allegations concerning the rapacity and exactions of the provincial governors were universal, and there is unfortunately great reason for believing them well founded. The farming of the taxes, the practical purchase of appointments, the gigantic system of bribery by which all offices are obtained, the absence of administrative training and supervision, the traditions of office, and the absolute dependence of every official on the pleasure of a Sovereign surrounded by the intrigues of an Oriental court, are conditions sufficient to destroy the virtue of all but the best of men.

Where all appointments are obtained practically by bribery, and no one has any security in the tenure of an office of which slander, bribery, or intrigue at Court may at any moment deprive him, it is natural that the most coveted positions should be those in which the largest perquisites can be made, and that their occupants should feel it their bounden duty to “make hay while the sun shines,”— in other words, to squeeze the people so long as there is anything left to squeeze. The great drawback of the Persian peasant’s life is that he has no security for the earnings of labour. He is the ultimate sponge to be sucked dry by all above him. Every official squeezes the man below him, and the highest is squeezed by the Crown.

Little, if any, of the revenue drawn from the country is spent on works of public utility, and roads, bridges, official buildings, fortifications, and all else are allowed to fall into disrepair. In downright English the administration of government and law is execrable, and there can be little hope of a resurrection for Persia until the system under which she is impoverished be reformed or swept away.

But who is to cleanse this Augean stable? Who will introduce the elementary principles of justice? Are tools of the right temper to work with to be found among the men of this generation? Is the dwarfing and narrowing creed90 of Islam to be replaced or in any way to be modified by Christianity? It looks very much as if the men to initiate and carry out administrative and financial reforms are not forthcoming, and that, unless the Shah is willing to import or borrow them, the present system of official corruption, mendacity, bribery, and obstruction may continue to prevail.

The inherent weakness of Persia lies in her administrative system rather than in her sparse population and paucity of fuel and water, a paucity arising partly out of misgovernment. In the felt evils of this system, and in the idea that law, equitable taxation, and security for the earnings of labour are distinctively European blessings, lies a part of the strength of Russia in Persia. I have elsewhere remarked upon the indifference with which Russian annexation is contemplated. A reformed system of administration, by giving the Persian people something to live for and die for, would doubtless evoke the dormant spirit of patriotism, and render foreign conquest, or acquisition without conquest, a less easy task.

After living for ten months among the Persian people, and fully recognising their faults, I should regret to see them absorbed by the “White Czar” or any other power. A country which for more than 2000 years has maintained an independent existence, and which possesses customs, a language, a civilisation, and a nationality of its own, and works no injury to its neighbours, has certainly a raison d’être.

My early impressions of Persia were of effeteness and ruin, but as I learned to know more of the vitality, energy, and industry of her people, and of the capacities of her prolific soil, I have come to regard her resurrection under certain circumstances as a possibility, and cordially to echo the wish eloquently expressed by the Marquis of Salisbury on the occasion of the Shah’s last visit to England: “We desire above all things that Persia shall not only be prosperous, but be strong — strong in her resources, strong in her preparations, strong in her alliances — in order that she may pursue the peaceful path on which she has entered in security and tranquillity.” I. L. B.

89 On this subject there can be no better authority than the Hon. George N. Curzon, M.P., who after careful study has estimated the total population of Persia at over nine millions.

90 In The Caliphate, its Rise, Decline, and Fall, a valuable recent work, its author, Sir W. Muir, K.C.S.I., dwells very strongly on the narrowing influence of Islam on national life, and concludes his review of it in the following words: “As regards the spiritual, social, and dogmatic aspect of Islam, there has been neither progress nor material change. Such as we found it in the days of the Caliphate, such is it also at the present day. Christian nations may advance in civilisation, freedom, and morality, in philosophy, science, and the arts, but Islam stands still. And thus stationary, so far as the lessons of its history avail, it will remain.” In a chapter at the end of his book he deals with polygamy, servile concubinage, temporary marriages, and the law of divorce, as cankering the domestic life of Mohammedan countries, and infallibly neutralising all civilising influences.

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