Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xviii

A descent of 5000 feet brought us into the grand and narrow gorge of the Sahid stream, with willow, walnut, oak, maple, pear, and crab along its banks, knotted together by sprays of pink roses, with oaks higher up, and above them again overhanging mountains of naked rock, scorched, and radiating heat.

Quite suddenly, after a steep ascent, there is a view of a steep slope below, where a lateral ravine comes down on the Sahid, green with crops of wheat and barley, poplars, willows, and a grove of fine walnuts, and more wonderful still, with an imamzada in good repair, and a village, also named Sahid, in which people live all the year. The glen is magnificent, and is the one spot that I have seen in Persia which suggests Switzerland.

It is a steep and difficult descent through a walnut grove to the village, and before I knew it I was on the roof of a house. The village is built in ten steps up the steep hillside, the posts which support one projecting roof resting on the back of the roof below.

The people were timid and suspicious, gave untrue replies to questions at first, said we were “doing talisman to take their country,” and consulted in Aziz’s and Mirza’s hearing how they might rob us. It was even difficult to get them to bring fodder for the horses. They were fanatical and called us Kafirs. Some of the women have never been out of their romantic mountain-walled hole, in which they are shut up by snow for four months every winter. Ten families live there, each one possessing a step. They said they owned sixty-five goats and sheep, five cows, and seven asses; that they sell their wheat, and salt from a salt spring at the back of the hill, and that their food is chiefly acorn flour made into bread, curds, and wild celery.

This bread is made from the fruit of the Quercus ballota, which is often nearly three inches long. The acorns are not gathered, but picked up when they fall. The women bruise them between stones to expel the bitter juices. They are afterwards reduced to flour, which is well washed to remove the remaining bitterness, and dried in the sun. It is either made into thin cakes and baked, or is mixed into a paste with buttermilk and water and eaten raw. The baked cakes are not very unpalatable, but the paste is nauseous. Acorn flour is never used from choice.

The grain is exchanged for blue cottons and tobacco. It is not possible to imagine a more isolated life. Tihran and Isfahan are names barely known to these people, and the Shah is little more to them than the Czar.

Near the imamzada of Sahid is a burial-ground, rendered holy by the dust of a pir or saint who lies there. It has many headstones, and one very large gray stone lion, on whose sides are rude carvings of a gun, a sword, a dagger, a powder-flask, and a spear. On a few low headstones a peculiar comb is carved, denoting that the grave is that of a woman.

To several stones long locks of hair are attached, some black and shining, others dead-looking and discoloured. It is customary for the Bakhtiari women to sacrifice their locks to the memory of their husbands and other near male relatives.

I think that they have a great deal of conjugal and family affection, though their ways are rough, and that they mourn for their dead for a considerable time. On one grave a young woman was rocking herself to and fro, wailing with a sound like the Highland coronach, but longer and more despairing. She was also beating her uncovered bosom rhythmically, and had cut her face till the blood came. So apparently absorbed was she in her grief that she took no notice of a Feringhi and an Indian. She had been bereaved of her husband for a year, his life having been sacrificed in a tribal fight.

The next two days were occupied in what might well be called “mountaineering” on goat tracks; skirting great mountain spurs on shelving paths not always wide enough for a horse’s two feet alongside of each other, with precipitous declivities of 1000 or 2000 feet; ascending on ledges of rock to over 9000 feet, then by frightful tracks descending 2000 or 3000 but to climb again; and at every descent always seeing in front dizzy zigzags surmounting the crest of some ragged ridge, only, as one knows, to descend again. Screw nearly fell over backwards with me once and again, and came down a smooth face of rock as mules sometimes come down a snow slide in Switzerland. I was told that I should “break my neck” many times, that no Bakhtiari had ever ridden over these tracks, or ever would, but my hurt knee left me no choice. These tracks are simply worn by the annual passage of the nomads and their flocks. They are frightful beyond all description. The worst paths in Ladak and Nubra are nothing to them.

Occasionally we traversed deep ravines with noisy torrents where the shade was dense, and willows, ash, walnut, cherry, elm, plum, and oak were crowded together, with the Juniperus excelsa in rifts above. With a moist climate it would be a glorious land, but even where the scenery is finest there is always something lacking. There is no atmosphere. All is sharp, colourless, naked. Even many of the flowers are queer, and some are positively ugly. Many have thorns, some are leather-like, others woolly, a few sticky. Inconspicuous flowers and large leathery leaves are very common. The seed-vessels of some are far prettier than the flowers, and brighter in colour. In several the calyx grows after the corolla has withered, and becomes bright pink or orange, like a very gay but only partially-opened blossom. Umbelliferæ predominate this month. Compositæ too are numerous. All, even bulbs, send down their roots very deep.

After leaving camp yesterday and crossing a high pass we descended into the earth’s interior, only to ascend a second pass by a steep zigzag. Suddenly a wall of rock appeared as if to bar progress, but on nearing it a narrow V-shaped slit was seen to afford a risky passage, offering no other foothold than smooth shelving rock on the inside for a number of yards, with a precipice above on the right and below on the left. Ledges of slippery rock led up to it, and Screw was jumping and scrambling up these when the guides howled to me to stop, and I was lifted off somehow. The white Arab was rolling and struggling in the V, Screw following lost his footing, and the two presented a confusion of hoofs and legs in the air and bodies struggling and rolling through the slit till they picked themselves up with cut legs. The guides tried vainly to find some way by which the caravans which followed much later might avoid this risk, and the Agha went down the pass which had been so laboriously ascended to give directions for its passage.

The charvadars on reaching the difficulty made attempts to turn it but failed; some loads were taken off and carried by men, and each mule struggled safely through with one man at his head, and one or two supporting him by his tail. The passage of the V took the caravan an hour, but meantime there was the enjoyment of the sight of a confused mass of mountains, whitish precipitous ranges, sun-lit, with tremendous ravines between them, lying in the cool blue shadows of early morning; mountains with long straight summits, mountains snow-covered and snow-slashed, great spires of naked rock, huge ranges buttressed by huge spurs herbage-covered, with outcrops of barren rock — a mighty, solitary, impressive scene, an uplifted wilderness without a camp.

The descent of 4000 feet from this summit consists of any number of zigzag tracks on the narrow top of the narrow ridge of one of the huge rocky buttresses of Gartak, both sides being precipitous. Even on the horse I was dizzy, and he went down most unwillingly, not taking any responsibility as to finding the safest way, and depending solely on my eye and hand. Mirza, being hampered with the care of his own mule, was useless, and otherwise I was alone. These thready zigzags ended on what appeared to be a precipice, from the foot of which human voices came up, shouting to me to dismount. I did so, and got down, hanging on to Screw’s bridle, and letting myself down over the ledges by my hands for another hour, having to be careful all the time to avoid being knocked down by his slips and jumps. I could hardly get him to face some of the smooth broken faces of rock. A slide of gravel, a snow-bridge, worn thin, over a torrent, and some slippery rock ledges to scramble over by its side led to a pathless ascent through grass and bushes. The guides and Aziz roared to me from a valley below, by which roars I found my way down a steep hillside to the Gokun, a mountain river of a unique and most beautiful blue-green colour, abounding in deep pools from which it emerges in billows of cool foam.

I forded it by a broad ford where crystal-green water glides calmly over brown and red pebbles, with a willow-shaded margin, and as I crossed a flock of long-bearded goats swam and jumped from rock to rock from the other side, the whole scene an artist’s dream. This valley has magnificent pasturage, hay not yet “sun cured,” long grass, and abundant clover and vetches brightened by a profuse growth of a small helianthus.

The march over the Gokun Pass and down to the Gokun river is the worst I ever made. Had the track been in Ladak or Lahoul it would have been marked on the Government maps “impassable for laden animals.” Yet Hadji’s splendid mules, held at times by both head and tail, accomplished it, and only minor disasters occurred. One mule had his head gashed, Mirza had a bad fall, and broke my milk bottle, Hassan, leading his own horse, fell twenty feet with the animal and cut his arm, the ridge pole of my tent was broken, and is with difficulty bandaged so as to hold, and some of the other baggage was damaged. Hadji grumbles politely, and says that “in all time loaded mules were never taken over such tracks,” and I believe him. Aziz says that I must be “tired of life,” or I should never ride over them, and certainly Screw carried me at the peril of his life and mine.

The camps are pitched for Sunday at an altitude of 8000 feet, high above the river — mine under the befriending shade of a colossal natural sphinx, so remarkable that two photographs and a sketch by Mirza were taken of it. It confronted us in a startling way, a grand man’s head with a flowing wig and a legal face, much resembling the photographs of Lord Chancellor Hatherley.

The mules have been poorly fed for the last few days, and it is pleasant to see them revelling in the abundant pasturage. After this tremendous nine hours’ march they came in quite cheerily, Cock o’ the Walk leading the caravan, with his fighting face on, shaking his grand mane, and stamping as if he had not walked a mile.

The Sunday has been a very quiet one, except for the fighting of the horses, which seem intent on murdering each other, the fussiness of Aziz about a cut which his mare got yesterday, and for which he expects my frequent attention, and the torment of the sand-flies, which revel in the heat which kills the mosquitos.

Kalahoma, July 11.— On Monday it was a pretty march from the shadow of the sphinx through a well-irrigated and cultivated valley with many camps, and by a high pass, to the neighbourhood of the Kuh-i-Shahan, on which I rested for some hours at a height of 12,010 feet, the actual summit being somewhat higher. On its north-east side the view was hideous, of scorched, rolling gravel hills and wide scorched valleys, with two winding streams, and some patches of wheat surrounding two scorched mud villages.

The descent to Camp Kamarun, a deep ravine with a rapid mountain stream, was blessed by a shower, which cooled the air, and resulted in the only grand, stormy, wild sunset that I have seen for months. This valley is blocked at the east end by Gargunaki, on the west by the Kala Kuh, and the rocky ranges of Faidun and the Kuh-i-Shahan close in its sides.

Long, long ago tradition says a certain great chief had eleven sons. They quarrelled and divided into hostile factions of four and seven, forming the still hostile groups of the Chahar Lang and the Haft Lang of today. For some time past the ruling dynasty has been of the Haft Lang division; Aziz also belongs to it, and we have been almost entirely among its tribes hitherto. This ancient feud, though modified in intensity, still exists. At this camp we were among tribes of the Chahar Lang, and there was reason to apprehend robbery and a night attack; so careful arrangements were made, and the men kept guard by turns.

The following day’s march, which was also pretty, included a long descent through a cultivated valley, with willows, plums, and walnuts growing along a stream, and a steep ascent and descent to the two villages of Masir on well-cultivated slopes, belonging to Taimur Khan, the chief of the powerful Magawe tribe, to whom the villagers pay what they call a moderate “rent” in sheep, goats, and grain. They are of the Chahar Lang, and deny that they are under the Ilkhani’s rule. They had a fight with a tribe of the Haft Lang ten days ago, killed twelve men, had seven killed and wounded, and took some guns and horses. These, however, they have restored at the command of the Ilkhani, which contradicts their assertion.

They have a burial-ground with several very white lions rampant upon it, of most noble aspect, boldly carved, and with the usual bas-reliefs on their sides.

The camps were on a gravelly slope with a yellow glare, and the mercury reached 105°. The presence of villages in this country always indicates a comparatively warm climate, in which people can live throughout the winter. The Scripture phrase, “maketh the outgoings of the morning and evening to rejoice,” has come to bear a clear and vivid meaning. In this country, in this fiery latitude, life is merely a struggle from the time the sun has been up for two hours until he sinks very low. “There is nothing hid from the heat thereof.” One watches with dismay his flaming disc wheel into the cloudless sky, to blaze and scintillate mercilessly there for many terrible hours, scorching, withering, destroying, “turning a fruitful land into a desert,” bringing eye diseases in his train. With sunset, but not much before, comes a respite, embittered by sand-flies, and life begins to be possible; then darkness comes with a stride and the day is done.

Among the many people who came to the Hakīm was a man who had received a severe sword cut in the recent fight. I disliked his expression, and remarked on it to Mirza. On the next day’s march, though there were twelve men with the caravan, this man seized and made off with the handsome chestnut horse Karun, which was being led. The horse had a sore back and soon kicked off his rider and was recovered. On the same march Mujid was attacked, and under the threat of being stripped was obliged to give up all the money he had on his person. On the same day some women clamorously demanded bracelets, and when I did not give them two took hold of my bridle and one of my foot, and were dragging me off, when on Mirza coming up they let me go.

Marching among lower hills and broader valleys, irrigated and cultivated, with much wood along the streams and scattered on the lower slopes, we passed the inhabited villages of Tarsa and Sah Kala, surrounded by patches of buckwheat, vetches, and melons, and with much provision of kiziks for fuel on their roofs, and camped by the richly-wooded river Guwa, in a grove of fine trees, crossing its vigorous torrent the next morning by a wicker bridge, the Pul-i-Guwa. A long ascent among oaks, where the views of mountains and ravines were grand, an upland meadow where I found a white bee orchis, and a steep ascent among stones, brought us to the top of a pass 9650 feet in altitude. On its south-west side there is a very striking view of gorges of immense depth and steepness, through which the Guwa finds its way. To the north-east the prospect is of a very feeble country, which we entered by a tiresome gravelly descent, very open, composed of low hills with outcrops of rock at their summits, irrigated rolling valleys and plains, with deep rifts indicative of streams, and some Magawe villages.

Our route lay across the most scorched and gravelly part of the upper slopes of a wide valley, scantily sprinkled with blue eryngiums and a woolly species of artemisia, a very repulsive region, where herds of camels, kept for breeding purposes, were grazing. On the other side of this valley a spur of the fine mountain Jalanda projects, and on it are the two villages and fort of Kalahoma, the residence of Taimur Khan.

We halted below the hill while a spring was being searched for, and I was sitting on horseback eating my lunch, a biscuit in one hand and a cup in the other. I have mentioned the savagery of the horses, and especially of Hakīm, who has become like a wild beast. He was standing fully four horse-lengths away from me, with his tail towards me, and the guide had let go his bridle, when there was a roar or squeal, and a momentary vision of glaring wild-beast eyes, streaming mane, and open mouth rushing down upon me and towering above Screw’s head, and the next thing I remember is finding myself on the ground with my foot in the stirrup and three men lifting me up.

I was a good deal shaken, and cut my arm badly, but mounted again, and though falling on my head has given me a sickish headache for two days, I have not absolutely required rest, and in camp there is no use in “making a fuss”— if indeed there ever is.

I shall not have pleasant memories of this camp. The tents were scarcely pitched before crowds assembled for medicine. I could get no rest, for if I shut the tent the heat was unbearable, and if I opened it there was the crowd, row behind row, the hindmost pushing the foremost in, so that it was 8 P.M. before I got any food. Yesterday morning at six I was awakened by people all round the tent, some shaking the curtains and calling “Hakīm! Hakīm!” and though I kept it shut till eleven, and raised the mercury to 115° by doing so, there was no rest.

From eleven o’clock till 9 P.M., except for one hour, when I was away at the Khan’s, I was “seeing patients,” wishing I were a real instead of a spurious Hakīm, for there was so much suffering, and some of it I knew not how to relieve. However, I was able (thanks to St. Mary’s Hospital, London) to open three whitlows and two abscesses, and it was delightful to see the immediate relief of the sufferers. “God is great,” they all exclaimed, and the bystanders echoed, “God is great.” I dressed five neglected bullet wounds, and sewed up a gash of doubtful origin, and with a little help from Mirza prepared eye-lotions and medicines for seventy-three people. I asked one badly-wounded man in what quarrel he had been shot, and he replied that he didn’t know, his Khan had told him to go and fight.

In the afternoon several very distressed people were brought from an Armenian village ten miles off, and were laid by those who brought them at the tent door. At five the crowd was very great and the hubbub inconceivable, and Mirza failed to keep order in the absence of Aziz Khan, who had gone on a pilgrimage to a neighbouring imamzada. The mercury had never fallen below 100°. I had been standing or kneeling for six hours, and had a racking headache, so I reluctantly shut up my medicine chest and went by invitation to call on the Khan’s wives, but the whole crowd surrounded and followed me, swelling as it moved along, a man with a mare with bad eyes, which had been brought ten miles for eye-lotion, increasing the clamour by his urgency. “Khanum! Khanum!” (lady) “Chashma!” (eyes) “Shikam!” (stomach) were shouted on all sides, with “Hakīm! Hakīm!” The people even clutched my clothing, and hands were raised to heaven to implore blessings on me if I would attend to them.

The whole village of Kalahoma was out, thronging, pressing, and almost suffocating me, and the Khan’s servants who came to meet me did not or could not disperse the people, though every man holds his life at the Khan’s disposal. These villages, which are surrounded by opium fields, are composed of the rudest of human habitations, built of rough stones, the walls being only five feet high. There is much subterranean room for cattle. The stacks of such winter fodder as celery and Centaurea alata, and those of kiziks for fuel, are larger than the dwellings. The latter are of conical form, and many of them are built on the house roofs.

Taimur Khan’s fort and serai are in the midst of all this, and are very poor and ruinous, but the walls are high, and they have a balakhana. As I approached the ladies came out to meet me, veiled in white cotton chadars. The principal wife took my hand and led me through a hole in the wall, not to be called a doorway, into a courtyard littered with offal and piled with stacked animal fuel, and up some high dilapidated steps, into a small dark room, outside of which are a very small “lobby” and a blackened ladder against the wall, leading to the roof, on which the ladies sleep in the hot weather. Some poor rugs covered the floor, and there were besides some poor cotton-covered bolsters. Everything, even the dress of the ladies, indicated poverty. The dark hot room was immediately packed with a crowd of women, children, and babies, all appallingly dirty. It was a relief when the Khan was announced in the distance, and they cleared out like frightened sheep, leaving only the four wives, who stood up at his approach, and remained standing till he was seated.

No “well-bred” Khan would pay me a visit in his andarun without sending first with his “homage” to know if I would receive him, nor did Taimur Khan violate this rule or the other of remaining standing until I asked him to be seated. He is a tall, very melancholy-looking man, with a Turkish cast of face, and is dressed in the usual Persian style. After a few ordinary commonplaces he talked politics and tribal affairs, apparently frankly, but who can say if truthfully? He knows that I have letters from the Prime Minister, and he hoped that I might do him some good at Tihran. As soon as important subjects superseded trifles, the wives relapsed into complete indifference, and stared into vacancy.

His tribe, the Magawe, is estimated at 500 families, and has been powerful. Taimur Khan is a staunch adherent of the Ilkhani, but at this point there is a change as to the tribute, half of which is paid to the Ilkhani and half to the Governor of Burujird. He has many grievances, and complains most bitterly that he and his tribe are being ground into poverty by exactions which, he asserts, have this year raised the tribute from 700 to 4000 tumans.

He asks me to do something to help him, adding that his house is in ruins, and that he is so oppressed that he cannot build a new one, or have any surroundings suitable to his rank. I said that I could only send his statements to the British “Vakil” in Tihran, and he at once asked how many horses he should present him with. I replied that the “Vakil” would not accept anything, and that he had lately declined a superb diamond setting in which the Shah desired to send him his picture. The Khan raised his hands, with the exclamation “God is great!”

Isfandyar Khan and Taimur Khan were at war some years ago, and fought from mountain to mountain, and Taimur Khan was eventually captured, taken to Burujird, and sent to Isfahan, where he was kept in irons for some years, the redoubtable Aziz Khan being one of his captors. This accounts for the disappearance of Aziz on “pilgrimage” to a neighbouring imamzada, and the consequent dulness of the camp.

Among a people at once simple and revengeful, it is not unlikely that such severities may bear their legitimate fruit if an occasion presents itself, such as the embroilment of Persia with any other power. Another Khan who was thrown into prison and irons by the Zil-es-Sultan expressed himself strongly on the subject. “Five years,” he said, holding out his muscular wrists, on which the marks of fetters are still visible, “I wore the chains. Can I forget?” The Bakhtiaris do not love the Persians, and are held, I think, by a brittle thread.

I have written of the extreme poverty of the surroundings of the Khaja Taimur or Taimur Khan. It is not a solitary instance. Throughout this journey I am painfully impressed with the poverty of the tribesmen. As compared with the wealth of those farther south when visited by Sir A. H. Layard and the Baron de Bode, their condition is one of destitution. The Ilkhani and Ilbegi have fine studs, but few of the Khans have any horses worth looking at, and for some time past none at all have been seen except a few belonging to the chiefs, and the men either walk or ride very small asses.

Their cattle are few and small and their flocks insignificant when compared with those of the Arab tribes west of the Tigris. Their tents and furnishings are likewise extremely poor, and they live poorly, many of them only able to procure acorn flour for bread, and this though they grow a great deal of grain, and every yard of land is cultivated if water is procurable.

The hospitality which those two travellers mention as a feature of the character of the more southerly Bakhtiaris does not exist among these people. They have, in fact, little to be hospitable with. They all speak of better days in the times of their fathers, when they had brood mares and horses to ride, much pastoral wealth and plenty of roghan, and when their women could wear jewels and strings of coins.

On this point I believe them, though there may possibly be exaggeration in Taimur Khan’s statements. Persia has undoubtedly tightened her grip upon them, and she is sucking their life-blood out of them. This becomes very evident now that we have reached a point where the government of Burujird comes in, with the infinite unrighteousness of Persian provincial governors. It is not the tribute fixed by the Amin-es-Sultan which these Khans complain of, but the rapacious exactions of the local governors.

There is a “blood feud” between Taimur Khan and Aslam Khan, the chief of the Zalaki tribe, on whose territory we shall enter today. A nephew of Taimur killed a relation of Aslam, and afterwards Taimur sheltered him from legitimate vengeance. Just now the feud is very active, and cattle-lifting and other reprisals are going on. “Blood feuds” are of three degrees, according to the nature of the offence. In the first a man of the one tribe can kill a man of the other wherever he finds him. In the second he harries his cattle and goods. In the third he simply “boycotts” him and refuses him a passage through his territory. The Bakhtiaris have often been called “bloodthirsty.” I doubt whether they are so, though life is of little account, and they are reckless about spilling blood.

They have a great deal of family devotion, which in lesser degree extends to the members of their tribe, and a Bakhtiari often spares the life of a man who has aggrieved him owing to his fear of creating a blood feud, which must be transmitted from father to son, and which must affect the whole tribe. As a deterrent from acts of violence it acts powerfully, and may account for the singular bloodlessness of some of the tribal fights. Few men, unless carried away by a whirlwind of fury, care to involve a tribe in the far-reaching consequences alluded to, and bad as the custom of blood feuds is, I think there can be no doubt that it acts as a curb upon the passions of these wild tribesmen. “There is blood between us and them,” is a phrase often heard.

Punishments are simple and deterrent, well suited to a simple people. When a homicide is captured he is handed over to the relatives of the slain man, who may kill him, banish him, fine him, or pardon him. In point of fact, “blood-money” is paid to the family of the deceased person, and to save his life from their vengeance a homicide frequently becomes a mendicant on the other side of the mountains till he can gain the required sum. Moslem charity responds freely to a claim for alms to wipe out a blood stain. The Ilkhani has a right to fine a homicide. “Blood for blood” is a maxim very early inculcated.

The present feud between the Magawe and the Zalaki tribes is of the first degree. It is undoubtedly a part of the truly Oriental policy of Persia to foment tribal quarrels, and keep them going, with the object of weakening the power of the clans, which, though less so than formerly, is a standing menace to the central government.

On reaching camp after this visit I found a greater crowd than ever, and as “divers of them came from far,” I tried to help them till nine o’clock, and as Aziz had returned the crowding was not so severe. He said, “You’re very tired, send these people away, you’ve done enough.” I answered that one had never done enough so long as one could do more, and he made a remark which led me to ask him if he thought a Kafir could reach Paradise? He answered “Oh no!” very hastily, but after a moment’s thought said, “I don’t know, God knows, He doesn’t think as we do, He may be more merciful than we think. If Kafirs fear God they may have some Paradise to themselves, we don’t know.”

I. L. B.

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