Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxii

It was as I thought. The sowar sent with me was only a harmless peasant taken from the plough, mounted on his own horse, and provided with a Government gun. The poor fellow showed the “white feather” on the first march, and I was obliged to assert the “ascendency of race” and ride in front of him. The villagers at once set him down as an impostor, and refused him supplies, and as his horse could not keep up with mine, and the road presented no apparent perils, I dismissed him at the end of three days with a largesse which gladdened his heart. He did not know the way, and the afternoon I left Burujird he led me through ploughed fields and along roadless hillsides, till at the end of an hour I found myself close to the garden from which I started.

The early part of the first march is over great bare gravelly slopes without water. Then come irrigation and villages. The hills have been eaten nearly bare. Nothing remains but a yellow salvia and the beautiful Eryngium cæruleum. There, as in the Bakhtiari country, the people stack the Centaurea alata for winter fodder. The road is good, and except in two places a four-wheeled carriage could be driven over it at a trot.

The camping-ground was outside Deswali, an unwalled village of 106 houses, with extensive cultivated lands and a “well-to-do” aspect. The people raise cereals, melons, cucumbers, grapes, and cotton, but in bad seasons have to import wheat. There, as at every village since, the ketchuda has called upon me, and some of these men have been intelligent and communicative, and have shown such courtesies as have been in their power. It is an unusual, if not an unheard-of, thing for a European lady, even if she knows Persian, to travel through this country without a European escort; but there has been no rudeness or impertinent curiosity, no crowding even; the headmen all seemed anxious for my comfort, and supplies at reasonable rates have always been forthcoming.

The heat at Deswali was overpowering, the mercury in my tent standing for hours on 17th August at 120°, the temperature in the shade being 104°.

It is vain to form any resolution against making a pet of a horse. My new acquisition, “Boy,” insisted on being petted, and his winning and enticing ways are irresistible. He is always tethered in front of my tent with a rope so long as to give him a considerable amount of liberty, and he took advantage of this the very first day to come into the tent and make it very apparent that he wanted me to divide a melon with him. Grapes were his next penchant, then cucumber, bread, and biscuits. Then he actually drank milk out of a soup plate. He comes up to me and puts his head down to have his ears rubbed, and if I do not attend to him at once, or cease attending to him, he gives me a gentle but admonitory thump. I dine outside the tent, and he is tied to my chair, and waits with wonderful patience for the odds and ends, only occasionally rubbing his soft nose against my face to remind me that he is there. Up to this time a friendly snuffle is the only sound that he has made. He does not know how to fight, or that teeth and heels are of any other use than to eat and walk with. He is really the gentlest and most docile of his race. The point at which he “draws the line” is being led. He drags back, and a mulish look comes into his sweet eyes. But he follows like a dog, and as I walk as much as I can I always have him with me. He comes when I call him, stops when I stop, goes off the road with me when I go in search of flowers, and usually puts his head either on my shoulder or under my arm. To him I am an embodiment of melons, cucumbers, grapes, pears, peaches, biscuits, and sugar, with a good deal of petting and ear-rubbing thrown in. Every day he becomes more of a companion. He walks very fast, gallops easily, never stumbles, can go anywhere, is never tired, and is always hungry. I paid £4:15s. for him, but he was bought from the Bakhtiaris for £3:14s. as a four-year-old. He is “up to” sixteen stone, jumps very well, and is an excellent travelling horse.

Redundant forelocks and wavy manes, uncut tails carried in fiery fashion, small noses, quivering nostrils, small restless ears, and sweet intelligent eyes add wonderfully to the attractiveness of the various points of excellence which attract a horse-fancier in Persia. A Persian horse in good condition may be backed against any horse in the world for weight-carrying powers, endurance, steadiness, and surefootedness, is seldom unsound, and is to his rider a friend as well as a servant. Generally speaking, a horse can carry his rider wherever a mule can carry a load, and will do from thirty to forty miles a day for almost any length of time.

The clothing of horses is an important matter. Even in this hot weather they wear a good deal — first a parhan or shirt of fine wool crossed over the chest; next the jul, a similar garment, but in coarser wool; and at night over all this is put the namad, a piece of felt half an inch thick, so long that it wraps the animal from head to tail, and so deep as to cover his body down to his knees. A broad surcingle of woollen webbing keeps the whole in place.

The food does not vary. It consists of from seven to ten pounds of barley daily, in two feeds, and as much as a horse can eat of kah, which is straw broken in pieces about an inch and a half long. While travelling, barley and kah are mixed in the nose-bag. No hay is given, and there are no oats. It is customary among the rich to give their horses an exclusive diet of barley grass for one month in the spring, on which they grow very fat and useless. Old horses are fed on dough-balls made of barley-flour and water. A grape diet is also given in the grape-producing regions in the autumn instead of kah. Boy eats ten pounds of grapes as a mere dessert.

I admire and like the Persian horse. His beauty is a constant enjoyment, and, ferocious as he is to his fellows, he is gentle and docile to man. I cannot now recall having seen a vicious horse in seven months. On the whole they are very well cared for, and are kindly treated. The sore backs of baggage horses are almost inevitable, quite so, indeed, so long as the present form of pack-saddle stuffed with kah is used. Mares are not ridden in Persia proper.

The march from Deswali to Sahmine is a pretty one, at first over long buff rolling hills and through large elevated villages, then turning off from the Kirmanshah road and descending into a broad plain, the whole of which for several miles is occupied by the trees and gardens of the eminently prosperous village of Sahmine, whose 500 families, though they pay a tribute of 2400 tumans a year, have “nothing to complain of.”66

I was delighted with the oasis of Sahmine. It has abundant water for irrigation, which means abundant fertility. Its walnut trees are magnificent, and its gardens are filled with noble fruit trees. The wheat harvest was being brought in, and within the walls it was difficult to find a place to camp on, for all the open spaces were threshing-floors, piled with sheaves of wheat and mounds of kah, in the midst of which oxen in spans of two were threshing. That is, they drew machines like heavy wood sleds, with transverse revolving wooden rollers set with iron fans at different angles, which cut the straw to pieces. A great heap of unbound sheaves is in the centre, and from this men throw down the stalked ears till they come up to the bodies of the oxen, adding more as fast as the straw is trodden down. A boy sits on the car and keeps the animals going in a circle hour after hour with a rope and a stick. The foremost oxen are muzzled. The grain falls out during this process.

On a windy day the great heaps are tossed into the air on a fork, the straw is carried for a short distance, and the grain falling to the ground is removed and placed in great clay jars in the living-rooms of the houses. All the villages are now surrounded with mounds of kah which will be stored before snow comes. The dustiness of this winnowing process is indescribable. I was nearly smothered with it in Sahmine, and on windy days each village is enveloped in a yellow dust storm.

Sahmine, though it has many ruinous buildings, has much building going on. It has large houses with balakhanas, a Khan’s fort with many houses inside, a square with fine trees and a stream, and a place with a stream, where madder-red dyers were at work, and there are five small mosques and imamzadas. The gardens are quite beautiful, and it is indeed a very attractive village.

The people also were attractive and friendly. After the ketchuda’s official visit the Khan’s wives called, and pressed me very hospitably to leave my tent and live with them, and when I refused they sent me a dinner of Persian dishes with sweetmeats made by their own hands. The kabobs were quite appetising. They are a favourite Persian dish, made of pieces of seasoned meat roasted on skewers, and served very hot, between flaps of very hot bread. Each bit of meat is rubbed with an onion before being put on the skewer, and a thin slice of tail fat is put between every two pieces. The cooks show great art in the rapidity with which they rotate a skewer full of kabobs over a fierce charcoal fire.

In the evening, at the ketchuda’s request, I held a “reception” outside my tent, and it was a very pleasant, merry affair. Several of the people brought their children, and the little things behaved most graciously. It is very pleasant to see the devotion of the men to them. I told them that in England many of our people are so poor that instead of children being welcome they are regarded ruefully as additional “mouths to feed.” “Ah,” said the ketchuda, a handsome Seyyid, “your land is then indeed under the curse of God. We would like ten children at once, they are the joy of our lives.” Other men followed, expatiating on the delights of having children to pet and play with on their return from work.

Sahmine not only dyes and prints cottons, but it exports wheat, barley, opium, cotton, and fruit, and appears a more important and prosperous place than Daulatabad, the capital of the district.

The fine valley between Sahmine and Daulatabad is irrigated by a kanaat and canals, and is completely cultivated, bearing heavy crops of wheat, cotton, tobacco, opium, bringals, and castor oil. The wheat is now being carried to the villages on asses’ backs in great nets, lashed to six-foot poles placed in front and behind, each pole being kept steady by a man.

The heat on that march was severe. A heavy heat-haze hung over the distances, vegetation drooped, my mock sowar wrapped up his head in his abba, the horses looked limp, the harvesters slept under the trees, the buffaloes lay down in mud and water. Even the greenery of the extensive gardens in and around Daulatabad scarcely looked cool.

Daulatabad is a walled city of 4500 souls, has a fort, and is reputed to have a large garrison. The bazars, which contain 250 shops, are indifferent, and the five caravanserais wretched. It and its extensive gardens occupy the eastern extremity of a plain, and lie very near the steep rocky mountain Sard Kuh, through which, by the Tang-i-Asnab, the Tihran road passes. Another road over the shoulder of the mountain goes to Isfahan. The plain outside the walls has neither tree nor bush, and was only brought into cultivation two years ago. The harvest was carried, and as irrigation had been suspended for some weeks, there was nothing but a yellow expanse of short thin stubble and blazing gravel.

There was no space for camping in any available garden, and an hour was spent in finding a camping-ground with wholesome water on the burning plain before mentioned. I camped below a terraced and planted eminence, on which a building, half fort and half governor’s house, has so recently been erected that it has not had time to become ruinous. It is an imposing quadrangle with blank walls, towers with windows at the corners, and a very large balakhana over the entrance. A winding carriage-drive, well planted, leads up to it, and there is a circular band-stand with a concrete floor and a fountain. The most surprising object was a new pair-horse landau, standing under a tree. Barracks are being built just below the house.

While my tent was being pitched, the Governor’s aide-decamp, attended by a cavalry escort, called, and with much courtesy offered me the balakhana, arranged, he said, in European fashion. The Governor was absent, but this officer said that it would be his wish to offer me hospitality. As I felt quite unable to move he sent a skin of good water, some fruit, and a guard of four soldiers.

It was only 11 A.M. when the tents were pitched, and the long day which followed was barely endurable. The mercury reached 124° inside my tent. The servants lay in a dry ditch under a tree in the Governor’s garden. Boy several times came into the shade of my verandah. The black flies swarmed over everything, and at sunset covered the whole roof of the tent so thickly that no part of it could be seen. The sun, a white scintillating ball, blazed from a steely sky, over which no cloud ever passed. The heated atmosphere quivered over the burning earth. I was at last ill of fever, and my recipe for fighting the heat by ceaseless occupation failed. It was a miserable day, and at one time a scorching wind, which seemed hot enough to singe one’s hair, added to the discomfort. “As the hireling earnestly desireth the shadow,” so I longed for evening, but truly the hours of that day were “long drawn out.” The silence was singular. Even the buzzing of a blue-bottle fly would have been cheerful. The sun, reddening the atmosphere as he sank, disappeared in a fiery haze, and then the world of Daulatabad awoke. Parties of Persian gentlemen on fiery horses passed by, dervishes honoured me by asking alms, the Governor’s major-domo called to offer sundry kindnesses, and great flocks of sheep and goats, indicated by long lines of dust clouds, moved citywards from the hills. Sand-flies in legions now beset me, and the earth, which had been imbibing heat all day, radiated it far into the morning. I moved my bed outside the tent and gave orders for an early start, but the charvadar who was in the city over-slept himself, and it was eight the next day before I got away, taking Mirza with me.

The heat culminated on that day. Since then, having attained a higher altitude, it has diminished.67 The road to Jamilabad ascends pretty steadily through undulating country with small valleys among low hills, but with hardly any villages, owing to the paucity of water. The fever still continuing, I found it difficult to bear the movement of the horse, and dismounted two or three times and lay under an umbrella by the roadside. On one of these halts I heard Mirza’s voice saying in cheerful tones, “Madam, your horse is gone!” “Gone!” I exclaimed, “I told you always to hold or tether him.” “I trusted him,” he replied sententiously. “Never trust any one or any horse, and least of all yourself,” I replied unadvisedly. I sent him back with his horse to look for Boy, telling him when he saw him to dismount and go towards him with the nose-bag, and that though the horse would approach it and throw up his heels and trot away at first, he would eventually come near enough to be caught. After half an hour he came back without him. I asked him what he had done. He said he saw Boy, rode near him twice, did not dismount, held out to him not the nose-bag with barley but my “courier bag,” and that Boy cantered out of sight! For the moment I shared Aziz Khan’s contempt for the “desk-bred” man.

Mirza is so good that one cannot be angry with him, but it was very annoying to hear him preach about “fate” and “destiny” while he was allowing his horse to grind my one pair of smoked spectacles into bits under his hoofs. I only told him that it would be time to fall back on fate and destiny when, under any given circumstances, such as these, he had exhausted all the resources of forethought and intelligence. My plight was a sore one, for by that time I was really ill, and had lost, as well as my horse and saddle, my food, quinine, writing materials, and needle-work. I got on the top of the baggage and rode for five hours, twice falling off from exhaustion. The march instead of being thirteen miles turned out twenty-two, there was no water, poor Mirza was so “knocked up” that he stumbled blindly along, and it was just sunset when, after a series of gentle ascents, we reached the village of Jamilabad, prettily situated on the crest of a hill in a narrow valley above a small stream.

To acquaint the ketchuda with my misfortune, and get him to send a capable man in search of the horse, promising a large reward, and to despatch Hassan with a guide in another direction, were the first considerations, and so it fell out that it was 10 P.M. before I was at rest in my tent, where I was obliged to remain for some days, ill of fever. The next morning a gentle thump, a low snuffle, and a theft of some grapes by my bedside announced that Boy was found, and by the headman’s messenger, who said he met a Seyyid riding him to Hamadan. The saddle-cloth was missing, and all the things from the holsters, but after the emissary had been arrested for some crime the latter were found in his large pockets. Hassan returned late in the afternoon, having been surrounded by four sowars, who, under the threat of giving him a severe beating, deprived him of his watch.

When I was so far better as to be able to move, I went on to Mongawi, a large walled village at an elevation of 7100 feet, camped for two days on an adjacent slope, and from thence rode to Yalpand by a road on a height on the east side of a very wild valley on the west of which is Elwend, a noble mountain, for long an object of interest on the march from Kirmanshah to Tihran. A great number of the mountains of Persia are ridges or peaks of nearly naked rock, with precipices on which nothing can cling, and with bases small in proportion to their elevation. Others are “monstrous protuberances” of mud and gravel. Mount Elwend, however, has many of the characteristics of a mountain — a huge base broken up into glens and spurs, among which innumerable villages with their surroundings of woods and crops are scattered, with streams dashing through rifts and lingering among pasture lands, vine-clothed slopes below and tawny grain above, high summits, snow-slashed even now, clouds caught and falling in vivifying showers, indigo colouring in the shadows, and rocky heights for which purple-madder would be the fittest expression.

In one of the loveliest of the valleys on the skirts of Elwend lies the large walled village of Yalpand on a vigorous stream. For two miles before reaching it the rugged road passes through a glen which might be at home, a water-worn ledgy track, over-arched by trees, with steep small fields among them in the fresh green of grass springing up after the hay has been carried. Trees, ruddy with premature autumnal tints and festooned with roses and brambles, bend over the river, of which little is visible but here and there a flash of foam or a sea-green pool. The village, on a height above the stream, has banks of orchards below and miles of grain above, and vineyards, and material plenty of all sorts. It was revelling in the dust storm which winnowing produces, and the ketchuda suggested to me to camp at some distance beyond it, on a small triangular meadow below a large irrigation stream. Hardly were the tents pitched when, nearly without warning, Elwend blackened, clouds gathered round his crest and boiled up out of his corries, and for the first time since the middle of January there were six hours of heavy rain, with hail and thunder, and a fall of the mercury within one hour from 78° to 59°. The coolness was most delicious.

Hadji Hussein’s prophecy that after I left him I should “know what charvadars are” was not fulfilled on this journey. I had one young man with me who from having performed the pilgrimage to Kerbela bears the name of “Kerbelai” for the rest of his life. He owns the fine and frisky animals he drives, and goes along at a good pace, his long gun over his shoulder, singing as he goes. Blithe, active, jolly, obliging, honest, kind-hearted, he loads as fast as three ordinary men, and besides grooming and feeding his animals well, he “ran messages,” got the water and wood, and helped to pitch and strike the tents, and was as ready to halt as to march. Hassan and Mirza are most deliberate in their movements; nothing can hurry them, not even the risk of being flooded out of their tents; and when the storm came on Kerbelai snatched the spade from them and in no time trenched my tent and dug a channel to let the water out of the meadow.

The next day was cloudless, and the sky, instead of having a whitish or steely blue, had the deep pure tint so often seen on a June day in England. The heat returned, and it was a fatiguing and dusty march into Hamadan, still mainly on the skirts of Elwend, among villages surrounded by vineyards. After pursuing a by-road from Jamilabad I joined the main road, two miles from Hamadan, and the number of men on good horses, of foot passengers, and of asses laden with fruit and vegetables, indicated the approach to a capital as plainly as the wide road, trenched on both sides and planted with young willows.

The wall as is usual is of crumbling, rain-eaten, sun-dried bricks, and a very poor gateway admits the traveller into a network of narrow alleys, very ruinous, with infamous roadways, full of lumps, holes, slimy black channels, stout mangy dogs, some of them earless, tailless, and one-eyed, sleeping in heaps in the hot sun, the whole overwhelmingly malodorous.68

It was no easy matter to find the way to the American Mission House, even though the missionary Hakīm is well known and highly esteemed, and I rode through the filthy alleys of the city and its crowded bazars for more than an hour before I reached the Armenian quarter. The people were most polite. There was no shouting or crushing in the bazars, and in some cases men walked with me for some distance to show me the way, especially when I asked for the Khanum’s house. Indeed they all seemed anxious to assist a stranger. Many of the children salaamed, as I thought, but I have since heard that they are fond of using to a Christian a word which sounds just like salaam, but which instead of meaning Peace is equivalent to “May you be for ever accursed!”

On reaching the Mission House I found it shut and that the missionaries were in the country, and after sending word that I had arrived I spent some hours in an Armenian house, where the people showed extreme hospitality and kindness.

They put a soft quilt down on the soft rugs, which covered the floor of a pretty whitewashed room, with many ornaments, chiefly Russian, and, finding that I was ill, they repeatedly brought tea, milk, and fruit instead of the heavy dinner which was at once cooked. The sight of several comely women dressed in shades of red, with clean white chadars, going about household avocations, receiving visitors and gracefully exercising the rites of hospitality in a bright clean house festooned with vines, was very pleasant to a dweller in tents. It is not Armenian custom for a daughter-in-law to speak in the presence of her mother-in-law, or even to uncover her mouth, or for young women to speak in presence of their elders. A wife cannot even address her husband in the presence of his mother, except in a furtive whisper. Owing to the custom of covering the mouth, which shows no symptom of falling into disuse, I did not see the face of a girl matron who, judging from her eyes, nose, and complexion, was the comeliest in the room.

Towards evening, as I lay trying to sleep, I was delightfully startled by a cheery European voice, and a lady bent over me, whose face was sunshine, and the very tone of her voice a welcome. Goodness, purity, love, capacity to lead as well as help, true strength, and true womanliness met in the expression of her countenance. Her spotless cambric dress, her becoming hat with its soft white pagri, the harmonious simplicity of her costume, and her well-fitting gloves and shoes were a joy after the slovenliness, slipshodness, and generally tumbling-to-pieces look of Oriental women. The Faith Hubbard School, one of the good works of the American Presbyterian Mission, was close by, and in half an hour Miss —— made me feel “at home.” Blessed phrase!

I. L. B.

66 On this journey of 400 miles from Burujird to the Turkish frontier near Urmi, I never heard one complaint of the tribute which is paid to the Shah. All complaints, and they were many, were of the exactions and rapacity of the local governors.

67 North of Daulatabad, the route of last winter from Nanej to Kûm, the winter route from Kangawar to Tihran, was crossed. Although it is a “beaten track” for caravans, so far as I know the only information concerning it consists in two reports, not accessible to the public, in the possession of the Indian authorities.

68 Hamadan is the fourth city in the Empire in commercial importance. She has a Prince Governor, 450 villages in the district, raises revenue to the amount of 60,000 tumans, of which only 11,000 are paid into the Imperial Treasury, and, as the ancient Ecbatana, the capital of the Median kings, she has a splendid history, but the few lines in which I recorded my first impressions are not an exaggeration of the meanness and unsavouriness of her present externals.

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