The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxviii.

Of Taican, and the Mountains of Salt. Also of the Province of Casem.

After those twelve days’ journey you come to a fortified place called TAICAN, where there is a great corn market.1 It is a fine place, and the mountains that you see towards the south are all composed of salt. People from all the countries round, to some thirty days’ journey, come to fetch this salt, which is the best in the world, and is so hard that it can only be broken with iron picks. ’Tis in such abundance that it would supply the whole world to the end of time. [Other mountains there grow almonds and pistachioes, which are exceedingly cheap.]2

When you leave this town and ride three days further between north-east and east, you meet with many fine tracts full of vines and other fruits, and with a goodly number of habitations, and everything to be had very cheap. The people are worshippers of Mahommet, and are an evil and a murderous generation, whose great delight is in the wine shop; for they have good wine (albeit it be boiled), and are great topers; in truth, they are constantly getting drunk. They wear nothing on the head but a cord some ten palms long twisted round it. They are excellent huntsmen, and take a great deal of game; in fact they wear nothing but the skins of the beasts they have taken in the chase, for they make of them both coats and shoes. Indeed, all of them are acquainted with the art of dressing skins for these purposes.3

When you have ridden those three days, you find a town called CASEM,4 which is subject to a count. His other towns and villages are on the hills, but through this town there flows a river of some size. There are a great many porcupines hereabouts, and very large ones too. When hunted with dogs, several of them will get together and huddle close, shooting their quills at the dogs, which get many a serious wound thereby.5

This town of Casem is at the head of a very great province, which is also called Casem. The people have a peculiar language. The peasants who keep cattle abide in the mountains, and have their dwellings in caves, which form fine and spacious houses for them, and are made with ease, as the hills are composed of earth.6

After leaving the town of Casem, you ride for three days without finding a single habitation, or anything to eat or drink, so that you have to carry with you everything that you require. At the end of those three days you reach a province called Badashan, about which we shall now tell you.7

NOTE 1. — The Taican of Polo is the still existing TALIKAN in the province of Kataghan or Kunduz, but it bears the former name (Tháîkán) in the old Arab geographies. Both names are used by Baber, who says it lay in the Ulugh Bágh, or Great Garden, a name perhaps acquired by the Plains of Talikan in happier days, but illustrating what Polo says of the next three days’ march. The Castle of Talikan resisted Chinghiz for seven months, and met with the usual fate (1221). [In the Travels of Sidi Ali, son of Housaïn (Jour. Asiat., October, 1826, p. 203), “Talikan, in the country of Badakhschan” is mentioned. — H. C.] Wood speaks of Talikan in 1838 as a poor place of some 300 or 400 houses, mere hovels; a recent account gives it 500 families. Market days are not usual in Upper India or Kabul, but are universal in Badakhshan and the Oxus provinces. The bazaars are only open on those days, and the people from the surrounding country then assemble to exchange goods, generally by barter. Wood chances to note: “A market was held at Talikan. . . . The thronged state of the roads leading into it soon apprised us that the day was no ordinary one.” (Abulf. in Büsching, V. 352; Sprenger, p. 50; P. de la Croix, I. 63; Baber, 38, 130; Burnes, III. 8; Wood, 156; Pandit Manphul’s Report.)

The distance of Talikan from Balkh is about 170 miles, which gives very short marches, if twelve days be the correct reading. Ramusio has two days, which is certainly wrong. XII. is easily miswritten for VII., which would be a just number.

NOTE 2. — In our day, as I learn from Pandit Manphul, the mines of rock salt are at Ak Bulák, near the Lataband Pass, and at Darúná, near the Kokcha, and these supply the whole of Badakhshan, as well as Kunduz and Chitrál. These sites are due east of Talikan, and are in Badakhshan. But there is a mine at Chál, S.E. or S.S.E. of Talikan and within the same province. There are also mines of rock-salt near the famous “stone bridge” in Kuláb, north of the Oxus, and again on the south of the Alaï steppe. (Papers by Manphul and by Faiz Baksh; also Notes by Feachenko.)

Both pistachioes and wild almonds are mentioned by Pandit Manphul; and see Wood (p. 252) on the beauty and profusion of the latter.

NOTE 3. — Wood thinks that the Tajik inhabitants of Badakhshan and the adjoining districts are substantially of the same race as the Kafir tribes of Hindu Kúsh. At the time of Polo’s visit it would seem that their conversion to Islam was imperfect. They were probably in that transition state which obtains in our own day for some of the Hill Mahomedans adjoining the Kafirs on the south side of the mountains the reproachful title of Nímchah Musulmán, or Half-and-halfs. Thus they would seem to have retained sundry Kafir characteristics; among others that love of wine which is so strong among the Kafirs. The boiling of the wine is noted by Baber (a connoisseur) as the custom of Nijrao, adjoining, if not then included in, Kafir-land; and Elphinstone implies the continuance of the custom when he speaks of the Kafirs as having wine of the consistence of jelly, and very strong. The wine of Kápishí, the Greek Kapisa, immediately south of Hindu Kúsh, was famous as early as the time of the Hindu grammarian Pánini, say three centuries B.C. The cord twisted round the head was probably also a relic of Kafir costume: “Few of the Kafirs cover the head, and when they do, it is with a narrow band or fillet of goat’s hair . . . about a yard or a yard and a half in length, wound round the head.” This style of head-dress seems to be very ancient in India, and in the Sanchi sculptures is that of the supposed Dasyas. Something very similar, i.e. a scanty turban cloth twisted into a mere cord, and wound two or three times round the head, is often seen in the Panjab to this day.

The Postín or sheepskin coat is almost universal on both sides of the Hindu Kúsh; and Wood notes: “The shoes in use resemble half-boots, made of goatskin, and mostly of home manufacture.” (Baber, 145; J. A. S. B. XXVIII. 348, 364; Elphinst. II. 384; Ind. Antiquary, I. 22; Wood, 174, 220; J. R. A. S. XIX. 2.)

NOTE 4. — Marsden was right in identifying Scassem or Casem with the Kechem of D’Anville’s Map, but wrong in confounding the latter with the Kishmabad of Elphinstone — properly, I believe, Kishnabad — in the Anderab Valley. Kashm, or Keshm, found its way into maps through Pétis de la Croix, from whom probably D’Anville adopted it; but as it was ignored by Elphinstone (or by Macartney, who constructed his map), and by Burnes, it dropped out of our geography. Indeed, Wood does not notice it except as giving name to a high hill called the Hill of Kishm, and the position even of that he omits to indicate. The frequent mention of Kishm in the histories of Timur and Humayun (e.g. P. de la Croix, I. 167; N. et E. XIV. 223, 491; Erskine’s Baber and Humayun, II. 330, 355, etc.) had enabled me to determine its position within tolerably narrow limits; but desiring to fix it definitely, application was made through Colonel Maclagan to Pandit Manphul, C.S.I., a very intelligent Hindu gentleman, who resided for some time in Badakhshan as agent of the Panjab Government, and from him arrived a special note and sketch, and afterwards a MS. copy of a Report,1 which set the position of Kishm at rest.

KISHM is the Kilissemo, i.e. Karisma or Krishma, of Hinen Tsang; and Sir H. Rawlinson has identified the Hill of Kishm with the Mount Kharesem of the Zend–Avesta, on which Jamshid placed the most sacred of all the fires. It is now a small town or large village on the right bank of the Varsach river, a tributary of the Kokcha. It was in 1866 the seat of a district ruler under the Mír of Badakhshan, who was styled the Mír of Kishm, and is the modern counterpart of Marco’s Quens or Count. The modern caravan-road between Kunduz and Badakhshan does not pass through Kishm, which is left some five miles to the right, but through the town of Mashhad, which stands on the same river. Kishm is the warmest district of Badakhshan. Its fruits are abundant, and ripen a month earlier than those at Faizabad, the capital of that country. The Varsach or Mashhad river is Marco’s “Flum auques grant.” Wood (247) calls it “the largest stream we had yet forded in Badakhshan.”

It is very notable that in Ramusio, in Pipino, and in one passage of the G. Text, the name is written Scasem, which has led some to suppose the Ish-Káshm of Wood to be meant. That place is much too far east — in fact, beyond the city which forms the subject of the next chapter. The apparent hesitation, however, between the forms Casem and Scasem suggests that the Kishm of our note may formerly have been termed S’kashm or Ish–Kashm, a form frequent in the Oxus Valley, e.g. Ish–Kimish, Ish-Káshm, Ishtrakh, Ishpingao. General Cunningham judiciously suggests (Ladak, 34) that this form is merely a vocal corruption of the initial S before a consonant, a combination which always troubles the Musulman in India, and converts every Mr. Smith or Mr. Sparks into Ismit or Ispak Sahib.

[There does not seem to me any difficulty about this note: “Shibarkhan (Afghan Turkistan), Balkh, Kunduz, Khanabad, Talikan, Kishm, Badakhshan.” I am tempted to look for Dogana at Khanabad. — H. C.]

NOTE 5. — The belief that the porcupine projected its quills at its assailants was an ancient and persistent one —“cum intendit cutem missiles,” says Pliny (VIII. 35, and see also Aelian. de Nat. An. I. 31), and is held by the Chinese as it was held by the ancients, but is universally rejected by modern zoologists. The huddling and coiling appears to be a true characteristic, for the porcupine always tries to shield its head.

NOTE 6. — The description of Kishm as a “very great” province is an example of a bad habit of Marco’s, which recurs in the next chapter. What he says of the cave-dwellings may be illustrated by Burnes’s account of the excavations at Bamian, in a neighbouring district. These “still form the residence of the greater part of the population. . . . The hills at Bamian are formed of indurated clay and pebbles, which renders this excavation a matter of little difficulty.” Similar occupied excavations are noticed by Moorcroft at Heibak and other places towards Khulm.

Curiously, Pandit Manphul says of the districts about the Kokcha: “Both their hills and plains are productive, the former being mostly composed of earth, having very little of rocky substance.”

NOTE 7. — The capital of Badakhshan is now Faizabad, on the right bank of the Kokcha, founded, according to Manphul, by Yarbeg, the first Mír of the present dynasty. When this family was displaced for a time, by Murad Beg of Kunduz, about 1829, the place was abandoned for years, but is now re-occupied. The ancient capital of Badakhshan stood in the Dasht (or Plain) of Bahárak, one of the most extensive pieces of level in Badakhshan, in which the rivers Vardoj, Zardeo, and Sarghalan unite with the Kokcha, and was apparently termed Jaúzgún. This was probably the city called Badakhshan by our traveller.2 As far as I can estimate, by the help of Wood and the map I have compiled, this will be from 100 to 110 miles distant from Talikan, and will therefore suit fairly with the six marches that Marco lays down.

Wood, in 1838, found the whole country between Talikan and Faizabad nearly as depopulated as Marco found that between Kishm and Badakhshan. The modern depopulation was due — in part, at least — to the recent oppressions and razzias of the Uzbeks of Kunduz. On their decline, between 1840 and 1850, the family of the native Mírs was reinstated, and these now rule at Faizabad, under an acknowledgment, since 1859, of Afghan supremacy.

1 Since published in J. K. G. S. vol. xlii.

2 Wilford, in the end of the 18th century, speaks of Faizabad as “the new capital of Badakhshan, built near the site of the old one.” The Chinese map (vide J. R. G. S. vol. xlii.) represents the city of Badakhshan to the east of Faizabad. Faiz Bakhsh, in an unpublished paper, mentions a tradition that the Lady Zobeidah, dear to English children, the daughter of Al–Mansúr and wife of Ar–Rashid, delighted to pass the spring at Jauzgún, and built a palace there, “the ruins of which are still visible.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24