Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxiii

I came for four days, and have been here nearly three weeks, which I would willingly prolong into as many months if the winter were not impending. Illness, the non-arrival of luggage containing winter clothing from Tihran, and the exceeding difficulty of finding a charvadar willing to go to Urmi by the route I wish to take, have all detained me. For some time I was unable to leave the house, and indeed have been out very little, and not outside the city at all.

I am disappointed both with Hamadan and its autumn climate. It stands at an elevation of 6156 feet [Schindler], and on the final slope of the Kuh-i-Hamadan, an offshoot of Mount Elwend, overlooking a plain about fifteen miles long by nine broad, populous and cultivated, bounded on the other side by low gravelly hills. At this altitude, and with autumn fairly begun, coolness might be expected, but the heat, which a fortnight ago seemed moderating, has returned in fury, with that peculiar faintness about it which only autumn gives. Mount Elwend attracts masses of clouds, and these tend to hang over the town and increase the stagnation of the air, about which there is a remarkable closeness, even in this high situation overlooking the plain. Intermittent fever and diphtheria are prevailing both in the city and the adjacent villages. Not only is the air close and still, but the sun is blazing hot, and the mercury only varies from 88° in the day to 84° at night. Brown dust-storms career wildly over the plain, or hang heavily over it in dust clouds, and the sand-flies are abundant and merciless. In the winter the cold is intense, and the roads are usually blocked with snow for several weeks.

Water is abundant, and is led through open channels in the streets. The plain too is well supplied, and the brown villages, which otherwise would be invisible on the brown plain, are denoted by dark green stains of willow, poplar, and fruit trees. The town itself has fine gardens, belonging to the upper classes, but these are only indicated by branches straying over the top of very high walls.

My first impressions have received abundant confirmation. Important as a commercial centre as Hamadan doubtless is, it is as ruinous, filthy, decayed, and unprosperous-looking a city as any I have seen in Persia. “Ruinous heaps,” jagged weather-worn walls, houses in ruins, or partly ruined and deserted, roofs broken through, domes from which the glazed tiles have dropped off, roadways not easy by daylight and dangerous at night, water-channels leaking into the roads and often black with slime, and an unusual number of very poor and badly-dressed people going about, are not evidences of the prosperity which, in spite of these untoward appearances, really exists.

The high weather-worn mud walls along the alleys have no windows, in order that the women may not see or be seen by men. A doorway with a mounting-block outside it, in “well-to-do” houses, admits into a vaulted recess, from which a passage, dimly lighted, conducts into the courtyard, round which the house is built, or into the house itself. These courtyards are planted with trees and flowers, marigolds and autumnal roses being now in the ascendant. Marble basins with fountains, and marble walks between the parterres, suggest coolness, and walnuts, apples, and apricots give shade. The men’s and women’s apartments are frequently on opposite sides of the quadrangles, and the latter usually open on atriums, floored with white marble and furnished with rugs and brocaded curtains. I have only seen the women’s apartments, and these in the houses of rich traders and high officials are as ornamental as the exteriors are repulsive and destitute of ornament. Gilding, arabesques in colour, fretwork doors and panelling, and ceilings and cornices composed of small mirrors arranged so as to represent facets, are all decorative in the extreme. These houses, with the deep shade of their courtyards, the cool plash of their fountains, and their spacious and exquisitely-decorated rooms, contrast everywhere with the low dark mud hovels, unplastered and windowless, in which the poor live, and which the women can only escape from by sitting in the heaped and filthy yards on which they open, and which the inhabitants share with their animals. The contrast between wealth and poverty is strongly emphasised in this, as in all Persian cities, but one must add that the gulf between rich and poor is bridged by constant benevolence on the part of the rich, profuse charity being practised as a work of merit by all good Moslems.

The bazars are shabby and partially ruinous, but very well supplied with native produce and manufactures, English cottons, Russian merchandise, and “knick-knacks” of various descriptions. The presence of foreigners in the town, although they import many things by way of Baghdad, has introduced foreign articles of utility into the bazars, which are not to be found everywhere, and which are commending themselves to the people, “Peek and Frean’s” biscuits among them. The display of fruit just now is very fine, especially of grapes and melons. The best peaches, which are large and of delicious flavour, as well as the best pears, come from the beautiful orchards of Jairud, not far from Kûm. The saddlery and caravan equipment bazars are singularly well supplied, as indeed they should be, for Hamadan is famous for leather, and caravans loaded with hides for its tanneries are met with on every road. The bark and leaves of the pomegranate are used for tanning. Besides highly ornamental leather for book-bindings and women’s shoes, the tanners prepare the strong skins which, after being dyed red, are used for saddles, coverings of trunks, and bindings for khūrjins.

Hamadan is also famous for namads or felts, which are used as carpets and horse-coverings, and as greatcoats by the peasants as well as by the Lurs. A good carpet felt of Hamadan manufacture is an inch thick, but some made at Yezd reach two inches. For rich men’s houses they are made to order to fit rooms, and valuable rugs are laid over them. The largest I have seen is in the palace of the Minister of Justice at Tihran, which must be fully a hundred and twenty feet by eighty feet, and formed fourteen mule-loads; but sixty by forty feet is not an uncommon size, and makes eight mule-loads. These carpet namads, the most delicious of floor-coverings, are usually a natural brown, with an outline design in coloured threads or in a paler shade of brown beaten into the fabric. Namads, owing to their bulk and weight, are never exported. The best, made at Hamadan, are about 20s. the square yard. Chairs spoil them, and as it is becoming fashionable among the rich men of the cities to wear tight trousers, which bring chairs in their train, the manufacture of these magnificent floor-coverings will probably die.

The felt coats, which protect equally from rain and cold, are dark brown and seamless, and cost from 10s. to 20s. They have sleeves closed at the end to form a glove, and with a slit below the elbow through which the hand can be protruded and used. These coats are cloak-like, the sleeve is as long as the coat, and they are often worn merely suspended from the neck.

Hamadan is also famous for copper-work, and makes and dyes cottons. The tanneries and the dye-works between them create a stench which is perceptible for miles. The neighbourhood produces much wine, white like hock, and red like claret, both being harsh and the first heady. The Armenians are the chief makers and sellers of wine. I wish I could add that they are the only people who get drunk, but this is not the case, for from the Prince Governor downwards, among the rich Moslems, intemperance has become common, and even many young men are “going to wreck with drink,” sacrificing the virtue to which Moslems have been able to point with pride as differentiating them from so-called Christians. I was unable to return the Prince Governor’s visit and courtesies in accordance with the etiquette for a European lady traveller, because of the helpless condition in which he and a party of convivial friends were found by the messenger sent by me to ask him to appoint an hour for my visit. Raisins, treacle, and arak are also manufactured. The rich prefer cognac to arak. It is spirit-drinking rather than wine-drinking which is sapping the life of the Moslems of Hamadan.

It is singular that in this Ecbatana, the capital of Greater Media, there should be so very few remains of an ancient greatness and splendour. Just outside the town a low eminence called Musala is pointed out as the site of the palace of the Median kings, but even this is doubtful. Coins of an ancient date are both dug up and fabricated by the Jews. Only two really interesting objects remain, and the antiquity of one of these is not universally accepted. The tomb of Queen Esther and her uncle Mordecai is the great show-place of Hamadan, and is held in much veneration by the Jews of Turkey and Persia, who resort to it on pilgrimage. The Jews are its custodians.

Tomb of Esther and Mordecai.

This tomb consists of an outer and inner chamber, surmounted by a mean dome about fifty feet in height. The blue tiles with which it was covered have nearly all dropped off. The outer chamber, in which there are a few tombs of Jews who have been counted worthy of burial near the shrine, is entered by a very low door, and the shrine itself by one still lower, through which one is obliged to creep. The inner chamber is vaulted, and floored with blue tiles, and having been recently restored is in good order. Under the dome, which is lighted with the smoky clay lamps used by the very poor, are the two tombs, each covered with a carved wooden ark, much defaced and evidently of great antiquity. There is an entrance to the tombs below these arks, and each is lighted by an ever-burning lamp. There is nothing in the shrine but a Hebrew Old Testament and a quantity of pieces of paper inscribed with Hebrew characters, which are affixed by pilgrims to the woodwork. The tombs and the tradition concerning them are of such great antiquity that I gladly accept the verdict of those who assign them to the beautiful and patriotic Queen and her capable uncle.

On the dome is this inscription: “On Thursday the 15th of the month Adar in the year of the creation of the world 4474 the building of this temple over the tombs of Mordecai and Esther was finished by the hands of the two benevolent brothers Elias and Samuel, sons of Ismail Kachan.”

The other object of interest, which has been carefully described by Sir H. Rawlinson and Sir H. Layard, is specially remarkable as having afforded the key to the decipherment of the cuneiform character. It is in the mountains above Hamadan, and consists of two tablets six feet six inches by eight feet six inches (Layard) cut in a red granite cliff which closes the end of a corrie. There are other tablets near them, carefully prepared, but never used. The three inscriptions are in parallel columns in the three languages spoken in the once vast Persian Empire — Persian, Median, and Babylonian, and contain invocations to Ormuzd, and the high-sounding names and titles of Darius Hystaspes and his son Xerxes.

Amidst the meanness, not to say squalor, of modern Hamadan, no legerdemain of the imagination can recreate the once magnificent Ecbatana, said by the early Greek writers to have been scarcely inferior to Babylon in size and splendour, with walls covered with “plates of gold,” and fortifications of enormous strength; the capital of Arbaces after the fall of Nineveh, and the summer resort of the “Great King,” according to Xenophon.

The Jews are supposed to number from 1500 to 2000 souls, and are in the lowest state of degradation, morally and socially. That bad act of Sarah in casting out “the bondwoman and her son” is certainly avenged upon her descendants. They are daily kicked, beaten, and spat upon in the streets, and their children are pelted and beaten in going to and from the school which the Americans have established for them. Redress for any wrongs is inaccessible to them. They are regarded as inferior to dogs. So degraded are they that they have not even spirit to take advantage of the help which American influence would give them to get into a better position. The accursed vices of low greed and low cunning are fully developed in them. They get their living by usury, by the making and selling of wine and arak, by the sale of adulterated drugs, by peddling in the villages, and by doing generally the mean and dishonest work from which their oppressors shrink. Many of them have become Moslems, the law being that a convert to Islam can take away the whole property of his family. A larger number have, it is believed, joined the secret sect of the Bābis. I never heard such a sickening account of degradation as is given of the Hamadan Jews by those who know them best, and have worked the most earnestly for their welfare.

There are a number of Armenians in Hamadan, and several villages in the district are inhabited exclusively by them. There are also villages with a mixed Persian and Armenian population. They all speak Persian, and the men at least are scarcely to be distinguished from Persians by their dress. They are not in any way oppressed, and, except during occasional outbreaks of Moslem fanaticism, are on very good terms with their neighbours. They live in a separate quarter, and both Gregorians and Protestants exercise their religion without molestation. They excel in various trades, specially carpentering and working in metals. Their position in Hamadan is improving, and this may be attributed in part to the high-class education given in the American High School for boys, and to the residence among them of the American missionaries, who have come to be regarded as their natural protectors.

The population of Hamadan is “an unknown quantity.” It probably does not exceed 25,000, and has undoubtedly decreased. Seyyids and mollahs form a considerable proportion of it, and it is one of the strongholds of the Bābis. It is usually an orderly city, and European ladies wearing gauze veils and properly attended can pass through it both by day and night. Several parts of it are enclosed by gates, as at Canton, open only from sunrise to sunset, an arrangement which is supposed to be conducive to security.

I. L. B.

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