Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xi (continued)

Kashan is one of the hottest places on the great Persian plateau, but has the rare luxury of a good water supply brought from a reservoir some distance off in the Kuhrūd mountains. It has a much-diminished population, said now to number 30,000 souls. Much of it is in ruins, and much more is ruinous. It has a thriving colony of Jews. It is noted for its silks and velvets; but the modern productions are regarded by judges as degenerate. It is still famous for its work in copper and for its great copper bazar.

Silk produced at Resht is brought here to be spun and dyed. Then it is sent to Sultanabad to be woven into carpets, and is brought back again to have the pile cut by the sharp instruments used for cutting velvet pile, and the finished carpets are sent to Tihran for sale. They are only made in small sizes, and are more suitable for portières than for laying on the floor. The colouring is exquisite, and the metallic sheen and lustre are unique. Silk carpets are costly luxuries. The price of even a fairly good one of very small size is £50, the silk alone costing £20.

Kashan is a great place for curio buyers, who enlist the Jews in their service. There are some valuable antiques in this house — embroideries, carpet squares in silk, glass whose greenish colour and grace of form remind me of Venetian glass, enamels on porcelain, tiles, metal inlaying and damascening, pierced brasswork, and many other articles of vertu, the art of making which is either lost or has greatly degenerated.

It is unaccountable, but it is certain that the secret of producing the higher types of beauty in various arts, especially the Keramic, died out more than one hundred and fifty years ago, and that there are no circumstances of that date to account for its decease, except that it is recorded that when the Afghan conqueror Mahmoud destroyed Isfahan he massacred the designers of reflêt tiles and other Keramic beauties, because they had created works which gave great umbrage to the Sunni sect to which he belonged.

These reflêts, for which collectors give fabulous sums, are intrinsically beautiful, both in the elegant conceptions of their designs and the fantastic richness of their colouring. There are designs in shades of brown on a lapis-lazuli ground, or in blue and green on a purple or umber ground, some of them star-shaped, with a pure white border composing the rest of the square, on which are inscribed phrases from the Koran. Looked at from above or frontwise, one exclaims, “What a beautiful tile!” but it is on turning it to the light that one’s stereotyped phrases of admiration are exchanged for silence in presence of a singular iridescence which transfigures the tile, making it seem to gleam from within with golden purples and rosy gold.

The mosaic tiles are also beautiful, especially where the mosaic is on a lapis-lazuli or canary-yellow ground, neither of them reproducible at this day; and this also refers to other shades of blue, and to various reds and browns of exceeding richness, the art of making which has been lost for a century. But enough of art!

Possibly there may be a resurrection for Persian art; but in the meantime aniline dyes, tawdry European importations, and Western models without either grace or originality are doing their best to deprave it here, as elsewhere.

Roads from Tihran, Gulpaigan, Yezd, and Isfahan meet here, and it is something of what the Americans call “a distributing point,” but it is a most uninviting place, in situation and general aspect, and its unsightly mud ruins, as in other Persian cities, are eloquent of nothing but paralysis and retrogression.

Murcheh Khurt, Palm Sunday, March 30.— Three very pleasant marches, equal to seventy-six miles, have brought me here, and now Isfahan is only two days off, and it will end my palmy days of Persian travelling.

The first day’s march from Kashan was only seven farsakhs (the parasang of Xenophon), twenty-eight miles, but it is equivalent to thirty-five, owing to the roughness of the road and the long ascent. There was scarcely any ground for galloping, the way was lost once, and the march took over eight hours.

The track, for only in places did it attain to the dignity of a bridle-road, lay for hours over a stony desert, and then entered the mountains, where I halted for an hour at the once magnificent caravanserai of Gaberabad, in a romantic situation, but falling fast into ruins, and deserted for no reason, so far as I could make out, but that people used to be robbed and have their throats cut there.

Beyond it the scenery became very wild, and the rocks and mountains highly coloured and snow-patched, and after ascending along the side of a stream and up a causewayed sort of stair past the reservoir which supplies Kashan with water, we entered the rising valley of Kuhrūd, where the snow came nearly down to the road, and every slope was terraced and every level cultivated, and young wheat was springing and fruit orchards flourished, with green sward under the branches, and great poplars in picturesque groups towered above the lower woods.

We lost the way in the snow, and then took to the pebbly river as the safest track, and had an hour of fumbling in water and snow under apple and pear trees for the halting-place. The twilight of a frosty evening was coming on when we reached the village of Kuhrūd — 500 houses in terraces on a mountain side, and clustering round a fort on a projecting spur.

It is surrounded and interpenetrated by groves of walnut, apricot, cherry, peach, plum, apple, pear, poplar, and vine, with roses climbing over everything and planted in rows like vines, and through it passes a fair, bright stream of living water, a stream “whose waters fail not,” turning the mountain valley into an oasis. But at that altitude of something like 7000 feet, the buds are only just swelling, and the crimson catkins of the hazels were the only reminder of spring. It is the one place that I should care to revisit.

The snow was piled in great heaps in the village and against the wall of the very wretched, ruinous chapar khana in which I sought rest and shelter. Mahboud went up to the loft over the gateway, and came down looking dejected, mustering English enough to say, “No, no, mem Sahib!” I actually had to occupy one of the two gateway rooms, an inferior stable, without the smallest window hole, and no door except two unconnected boards with which one could cover a part of the doorway. Even when these were not put up a candle was necessary. It was freezing hard, but one could not have a fire because there was no smoke-hole. The walls were slimily and inkily black from the smoke of the fires of people who were less particular than I am. The dust and rubbish of the floor were swept into one corner. If one wanted a place to store boxes in, and looked into that room, one would exclaim dubiously, “Well, it might do for glass and china!”

Mahboud put a rug on the floor and brought a bowl of delicious milk, and with an inverted saddle for a pillow I rested quite comfortably, being too tired to be impatient, till Mirza Yusuf arrived with my luxuries, and the news that the caravan could not get in for another hour, for that several of the mules had fallen and the loads were slipping round constantly. Indeed it was ten before I had dinner. It is very fortunate to have an attendant always cheerful, never fussy, caring nothing for personal comfort, and always ready to interpret.

The ketchuda called with the usual proffer of service, “I am your sacrifice,” etc., and induced me to buy some of the specialties of Kuhrūd, rose-water in bottles without corks, and a paste made of rose-water, pounded walnuts, and sugar. The rose-water is not very clear, but it has much of the overpowering, lingering odour of attar of roses.

Kuhrūd seems prosperous. Besides exporting large quantities of rose-water and walnut paste formed into blocks and done up in white skins, it sends wheat and fruit in abundance to Kashan.

Freedom, good sleep, and satisfactory travelling make up for all annoyances but vermin, and these are still hybernating. In that precarious privacy I slept soundly, and got the caravan off at eight the next morning — a glorious winter morning, the icy roads and the snow-covered valley glittering with frost crystals. We lost the way again among the pretty orchards, then got into a valley between high mud mountains, whose shapelessness is now judiciously concealed by snow from one to three feet deep, through which a track has been broken a foot wide. It is six miles from Kuhrūd to the summit of the Kuhrūd Pass, which is over 8000 feet, and it grew very cold and gray, and ragged masses of cloud swept angrily round the mountain-tops.

On the steepest part of the ascent it was extremely slippery, and the horses not being roughed slipped badly, and I was just fearing an accident to my borrowed horse and planning some method of dismounting when down he came on his nose and then on the side of his head, and fell several times again in his struggles to get up, his feet slipping from under him. When he did succeed in getting on his legs I was convinced that he had cut his knees, and slipped off him somehow to examine them; but my fears were groundless, and I had great difficulty in getting out of the drift into which I had descended, which was nearly up to my shoulders. His nose was bleeding a little, but that was all.

There was no way of remounting on a path a foot wide between walls of snow, and besides I was afraid of another accident, so I slipped the snaffle rein over his head and led him. It was horribly slippery, and having nails in my boots I fell several times just under his feet, but the sweet creature always stopped when I fell.

From the top there was a truly fearful view of “blackness, darkness, and tempest,” inky mists, white mountain-tops showing momentarily through them to be lost again, and great sheets of very deep snow. Soon the gathering storm burst, a “blizzard” in which the snow was quite blinding, snow drifting and hissing as it went by, the wind tempestuous, mountains, valleys, path obliterated, even the soldier in front of me constantly lost to sight. An hour of this and I could walk no more, and somehow scrambled into the saddle.

At the foot of the descent the sky cleared, the sun shone, and we picked up the caravan, which had had rather a hard time. The succeeding route was through an absolutely uninhabited and uninhabitable country, clay and mud hills, purple, red, gray, pink, brown, an utter desolation, till we came in sight of the good-sized and at a distance imposing-looking village of Soh in a keen wind with frequent snow showers. Soh is a telegraph testing station.

The electrician was absent, but had kindly left directions that I was to be received, and I found a most comfortable guest-room quite ready. A little later an Englishman riding chapar to Isfahan threw a packet of English letters in at my door — a delightful surprise, which made havoc of the rest of the evening.

The desolation of this part of the route may be judged of from the fact that except the village of Kuhrūd there is not an inhabited house for forty-six miles. The country traversed reminds me much of the least interesting part of the route from Lesser Tibet into Kulu.

Yesterday morning there was ice, and the roads were very slippery on the gradual descent from the plain which opens out after passing Bideshk, the chapar station, an hour from Soh. The twenty-four miles’ ride over this gravelly waste, quite uninhabited, was very pleasant, as it was possible to gallop much of the way, and besides the beauty of the atmospheric colouring the mirage occurring in most remarkable forms rendered monotony impossible.

There were no caravans on the road, but I met several dervishes, and there is one here to whom I have given what he demanded — a night’s lodging. He carries a large carved almsholder; and the panther skin on his shoulders, the knotted club, and his lean, hungry, fanatical face give him a dangerous look. All I have seen on this march have worn long matted bushy hair, often covering their shoulders, an axe in the girdle, and peculiar turbans decorated with phrases from the Koran. They are the “mendicant friars” of Persia, and are under vows of poverty. Some are said to be learned; but they object to discussing religious matters with infidels, and almost nothing is known as to their beliefs. They hold universally the sanctity of idleness, and the duty of being supported by the community. The lower classes hold them in reverence, and the upper, though they are apt to loathe them, treat them with great respect, for fear of laying themselves open to the charge of laxity in religious matters.

A Dervish.

Many of them deal in charms, and are consulted as astrologers. Some are professed tellers of stories, to which I am told no European could degrade himself by listening, but which are most palatable to a village audience; and at this moment this unwelcome guest of mine has a crowd listening to a narrative partly told and partly acted.

They are credited with many vices, among the least of which are hazy ideas as to mine and thine, opium and bhang smoking to excess, and drunkenness.

They have recognised heads or chiefs, to whom they show great deference. One of their vows is that of obedience; and besides paying to the chief a part of the alms they receive, he gives them orders as to the houses they are to infest, and though the nuisance is not so common as formerly, a dervish at the door is still a sign of being great or rich, or both. Their cries, and their rude blasts on the buffalo horn, which is a usual part of their equipment, are most obnoxious. In the larger towns, such as Kûm and Kirmanshah, there are shops for the sale of their outfit — the tiger and panther skins, the axes, the knotted clubs, the almsbowls, etc.

Some are respectable, and enjoy much consideration, and I hope that many even of those whom a careful writer has called “disgusting vagabonds” are not humbugs; but the presumption is so much the other way that I am always glad when the ground admits of galloping past them, otherwise the dervish comes forward, with his knotted club much en évidence, with many compliments and good wishes, or else silently extends his almsholder, ejaculating Huk (“my right”). I usually have the means of appeasing, if not of satisfying him, but on the rare occasions when I have had no money the yells and maledictions have been awful.

The light and profane use of the Divine name is universal. The dervishes curse, but every one uses the name Allah wherever they can bring it in. The Ya Allah, as an expression of fatigue, or discontent, or interest, or nothing, is heard all day, and the boy who drives a cow, or a team, or a mule in a caravan, cries Ya Allah incessantly as an equivalent of “go along,” and the gardener pushing his spade into the ground, the chopper with every blow of the axe, the labourer throwing up bricks, ejaculates the same. Mashallah, Inshallah, interlard all conversation. When men are building, the perpetual sing-song of phrases such as these is heard, “Brother, in God’s name toss me a brick,” the other replying, “Brother, in God’s name here is a brick.”

The vocabulary of abuse is also very large, and often involves serious reflections on the female relatives of the person abused. I hear such harmless phrases as “son of a burnt father,” “son of a dog,” “offspring of a pig,” etc., on all occasions.

Murcheh Khurt is a large village with a good deal of cultivation about it, a mosque or more, a hammam, a chapar khana, and a caravanserai. Here again I found that the smart foreign soldier attracted all the notice, and that before the people ceased to wonder at him I had passed them. The chapar khana was full of men, so I have had to sink to the level of a recessed den with a manger in front in a ruinous caravanserai crowded with Persian travellers, muleteers, mules, horses, and asses, and the courtyard half-choked with ruins. I had not seen the inside of one of these dens before. Travellers have exhausted the vocabulary of abuse upon them; possibly they deserve it in the “vermin season”; but there is nothing worse than a square and perfectly dark room, with unplastered walls blackened by the smoke and cobwebs of ages, and a door which will not fasten.

The air is cool and the sky blue, and sitting at the open door is very pleasant. Mahboud and two of the servants caught cold at Kuhrūd and are ill, and my Arab has a chill too. He is a very stupid horse. His gentle eyes never change their expression, and his small ears rarely move. He has little sense or affection, but when he is patted his proud neck takes on a loftier arch. Gentle as he is to people he is a brute to other horses. He would like to fight every one of them, to stand on his hind-legs and grapple them round the shoulders with his fore-feet and bite their necks, roaring and squealing all the time. He and Mahboud’s horse are inveterate enemies, and one of the few difficulties of the journey is the keeping them from a regular stand-up fight.

This village is an oasis in the desert. I have been through its gates, barely wide enough to admit an ass loaded with brushwood, with the seraidar and Mirza, walked through its narrow alleys, and inadvertently stumbled into a mosque where a great crowd of women were listening to a story of one of the twelve Imams told by a mollah, looked down upon it and over the adjacent country from a house roof, visited several houses, in which some of the inmates were ill and desired “Feringhi medicine,” had a long conversation with the ketchuda, who came to see me to ask for eye lotion, and with the seraidar, and altogether have had quite a pleasant day.

Chapar Khana, Gez.— I am sitting in one of the three doorless doorways of my loft, grieving that the journey is just over, and that this is the last night of the exhilarating freedom of the desert. I rode twenty-four miles before one o’clock today, over a level uncultivated plain, bordered as usual by ranges of mountains. In fact, while I write of levels and plains it must be understood that Persia is chiefly a land of hills rising from a table-land from 3400 feet to 6000 feet in altitude, and that the traveller is rarely, if ever, more than fourteen or fifteen miles from mountains from 2000 to 6000 feet above the plain from which they rise, crowned by Demavend, whose imposing summit is 18,600 feet above the sea. The hills beyond Isfahan have assumed lofty proportions, and some of the snowy mountains of Luristan are to be seen in the far distance.

It is nearly an unmitigated waste between Murcheh Khurt and Gez, destitute even of tufts of wormwood; but the latter part of the march is through a stoneless alluvial desert of dry friable soil, soft springy galloping ground which water would turn into a paradise of fertility; and water there has once been, for not far from the road are the remains of some kanaats.

The questions naturally arise in a traveller’s mind, first, what becomes of the enormous amount of snow which falls on the mountains; and next, how in a country so arid as the plateaus of Central Asia water for irrigation, and for the basins and fountains which abound in rich men’s houses, is obtained.

Wells, unless the artesian borings shortly to be begun in the Tihran desert should be successful, are all but unknown, except for supplying drinking water, and there are scarcely any reservoirs, but ingenuity has devised a plan of subterranean water-channels, which besides their other advantages prevent loss by evaporation. Tihran has thirty-five of them, and the water which they distribute is naturally expensive, as the cost of making them is great.

It is on the slope of a hill that the spring is found which is the original source of supply; this is tapped at some depth, and its waters are led along a tunnel about four feet high by two feet wide lined with baked pottery where the ground is soft, and having a slight fall to the next spring or well, which may be from twenty-five to even sixty yards off.

As the labourers dig they draw up the earth and arrange it in a circle round the shaft, and as they come to water they draw up the mud and pour it on the top of the earth, where it dries and hardens, and below, the water is conducted as a running underground stream across great plains, its progress marked by mounds which have been compared to ant-hills and craters, but to my thinking are more like the shafts of disused mines.

Hundreds of these kanaats are seen, ruined and dry, and are the resort of porcupines and jackals. To construct a kanaat may call a village or series of villages into being. The letting it fall to ruin is one cause of deserted villages. Those which are not lined require annual repairs, which are now going on, but frequently the complete fall of the roof destroys the fall of the water, and the tunnel becomes irreparable.

The peasants are obliged to buy the water, for they cannot steal it, and the making of a kanaat is often a lucrative speculation. Pigeons live in them, and many of them are full of fish, which foreigners amuse themselves by poisoning by throwing a mixture of cocculus indicus with dough down the wells, when the poisoned but wholesome fish rise to the surface. They usually recover when they are left in the water. Dr. Wills describes them as having a muddy taste. The kanaats are a feature of Persia.

Ever since leaving Kûm all the dry and hard parts of the road have been covered with the industrious “road beetle,” which works, like the ant, in concert, and carries on its activities at all seasons, removing from the road to its nest all the excreta of animals, except in regions where even animal fuel is so exceptionally scarce that boys with asses and ponies follow caravans for the same purpose. These beetles hover over the road on the wing, and on alighting proceed to roll the ball towards the nest, four or five of them standing on their hind-legs and working it forwards, or else rolling it with their heads close to the ground. Their instinct is wonderful, and they attract the attention of all travellers. They are about the size of a small walnut. Otherwise there is little of animated life to be seen on this route.

No day has had fewer noticeable objects. Two or three abambars, several caravanserais in absolute ruins, and a magnificent one in partial ruins are its record.

Gez consists of this post-house and a decaying caravanserai. From the roof as I write I watch the grooming of a whole row of chapar horses. As each pad is removed there is a horrid revelation of wounds, deep ulcers, sores often a foot long, and in some cases the white vertebræ of the spine are exposed. These are the wretched animals which often carry men from fourteen to seventeen stone who ride fifty miles in a day. It is hard enough even with extreme carefulness to keep the back of a horse all right on a continuous journey, but I never before saw animals ridden in such a state. They wince pitifully when their pads are put on again.

The desert is all around, purpling in the sunset, sweeping up to low broken ridges, and to some higher hills in the north-west covered with new-fallen snow. That the waste only requires water to make it prolific is apparent, for below these walls wheat is growing luxuriantly in some deep pits, irrigated from a dirty ditch out of which the drinking water comes. Nothing can be got, except by sending to a village a mile away.

Four of the men are ill, one with inflammation of the eyes, another with an abscess, and a third, a very strong man, with something like bilious fever, and a charvadar with malarial fever. The strong man’s moans often become howls. He insists that he shall die to-night. These two afternoons have been much taken up with making poultices and medicines, and I shall be glad for the poor fellows to reach Isfahan and the care of a competent doctor.

Julfa, April 2.— I daresay this journey seems longer to you than it did to me. It was very pleasant, and its goal is pleasant, and a most kind welcome and the refinement of cultured English people go far to compensate for the loss of the desert freedom and the easy stride of the Arab horse.

I started the caravan at nine yesterday, with two men with bandaged eyes, and other two hardly able to sit on their mules; Mahboud, who is really more seriously ill than any of them, keeping up his pluck and capableness to the last. The man who threatened to die at Gez was very much better the next morning.

Soon after leaving Gez the country changes its aspect, the road becomes very bad, and passes through nine miles of rich cultivation — wheat, barley, opium, and vegetables growing abundantly; orchards are numerous, villages with trees and gardens succeed each other rapidly, water abounds, and before the gate of Isfahan is reached, domes and minarets rising among cypresses, planes, and poplars indicate the remains of the former capital of Persia.

Inside the shabby gateway the road to Julfa lies among rows of mean mud houses, heaps of ruins, and shabby provision bazars; and that mile or more of Isfahan was the one disagreeable part of the journey.

It was about the last day of the holidays, and the bazars, alleys, and open spaces were full of men in gay attire, and companies of shrouded women were moving along the quieter roads. It was too warm for the sheepskin coat which had served me so well at Kûm, and I had dressed with some regard to European sensibilities. The boys began to shout “A Feringhi woman! a Nazarene woman!” and then to call bad names; then men began to make up fiendish laughs,32 and the howls and outcries gathered strength as I went on at the inevitable foot’s pace, spitting being quite common, poor Mahboud constantly turning to me a perturbed wretched face, full of annoyance at the insults of his coreligionists, which it would have been dangerous to resent. It was a bad half-hour.

Before passing the residence of the Amir-i-Panj (the commander of 5000) near the Julfa gate the uproar died away, and once through the gate and in the Chahar Bagh (four gardens) there was peace. A bad road of cobble stones, with a double avenue of once magnificent planes, some once ornamental tanks, very high walls, pierced by storied gates, ornamented with wild designs on plaster in flaring colours, above which a blue dome is a conspicuous object, leads to a handsome bridge of thirty-three arches, with a broad level roadway, and corridors for foot passengers on either side, over the Zainderud, then came fields with springing wheat, a few houses, a narrow alley, and two or three miles from Isfahan the gate of its Armenian suburb, Julfa.

At once on crossing the bridge there was a change. Ruddy, cheery-looking unveiled women in red gowns, and pure white chadars completely enveloping their persons, moved freely about, and the men wore neither the becoming turban nor the ominous scowl of Islam. In the quaint narrow streets were churches with open vestibules, through which pictures of the thorn-crowned Christ and of sweet-faced Madonnas were visible; priests in black robes and women in white glided along the narrow roads. There was the fresher, purer air of Christianity, however debased and corrupted. In the low-browed churches divine honours are paid to a crowned and risen Christ, and the white-robed women have been baptized into His name. Never again will the Julfa alleys be so peaceful and lovable as yesterday, when they offered a haven from the howling bigots of Isfahan.

Dr. Bruce has not returned from Baghdad, but Mrs. and Miss Bruce welcomed me very kindly, and I am already forgetting my unpleasant reception. I. L. B.

32 I can imagine now what a hellish laugh that was with which “they laughed Him to scorn.”

I was a month in Julfa, but never saw anything more of Isfahan, which is such a fanatical city that I believe even so lately as last year none of the ladies of the European community had visited it, except one or two disguised as Persian women.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:52