Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxv (continued)

The following morning the Sartip turned out in my honour all the road-guards then in Sain Kala to the number of twelve to escort me to the castle of Muhammad Jik, a large village, the residence and property of the Naib Sartip. This was the wildest escort I have had yet. These men were dressed in full Kurdish finery, and besides guns elaborately inlaid with silver and ivory, and swords in much-decorated scabbards, they carried daggers with hilts incrusted with turquoises in their girdles. They went through all the usual equestrian performances, and added another, which consists in twirling a loaded and clubbed stick in a peculiar manner, and throwing it as far ahead as possible while riding at full gallop, the one who picks it up without dismounting being entitled to the next throw. Very few succeeded in securing it in the regulation manner, and the scrimmage for this purpose was often on the point of becoming a real fight. They worked themselves up to a pitch of wild excitement, screamed, yelled, shouted, covered their horses with sweat and foam, nearly unhorsed each other, and used their sharp bits so unmercifully that the mouth of every horse dripped with blood.

After they received bakhsheesh they escorted me two miles farther “to honour the Khanum,” fired their guns in the air, salaamed profoundly, and with shrieks and yells left me at a gallop.

The village of Muhammad Jik has a well-filled bazar and an aspect of mixed prosperity and ruin. The castle, a large, and, at a distance, an imposing pile, a square fort with flanking towers, is on an eminence, and has a fine view of the alluvial plain of the Jagatsu, studded with villages and cultivated throughout.

Here, for a rarity, the Seigneur lives a stately life among those who are practically his serfs in good old medieval fashion. Large offices are enclosed within an outer wall, and are inhabited by retainers. Rows of stables sheltered a number of fine and well-groomed horses from the sun. Bullocks were being brought in from ploughing; there were agricultural implements of the best Persian type, fowls, ducks, turkeys, angora goats; negroes and negresses, grinning at the stranger; mounted messengers with letters arriving and departing; scribes in white turbans and black robes lounging — all the paraphernalia of position and wealth.

It was nearly nine, and the great man had not risen, but he sent me a breakfast of tea, kabobs, cracked wheat, curds, sharbat, and grapes. The courtyard is entered by a really fine gateway, and the castle is built round a quadrangle. The andarun and its fretwork galleries are on one side, and on another is what may be called a hall of audience, where the Sartip hears village business and decides cases.

He offered me a few days’ hospitality, paid the usual compliments, said that no escort was needed from thence to Sujbulāk, where my letter to the Governor would procure me one if “the roads were unsettled,” hoped that I should not suffer from the hardships of the journey, and offered me a kajaveh and mule for the next marches.

A level road along the same prosperous alluvial plain leads to Kashava, a village of 100 houses embosomed in fruit trees and surrounded by tobacco and cotton. It has an old fort, a very fine spring, and a “resident proprietor,” who, as soon as he heard of my arrival, sent servants with melons and tea on silver trays, stabled my horse, and provided me with a strong guard, as the camping-ground was much exposed to robbers. Such attentions, though pleasant, are very expensive, as the greater the master the greater are the expectations of the servants, and the value of such a present as melons must be at least quadrupled in bakhsheesh.

While halting the next day the horses eagerly ate the stalks and roots of a strongly-scented bulb which lay almost on the surface of the ground, and were simultaneously seized with a peculiar affection. Their hair stood out from their bodies like bristles, and they threw their heads up and down with a regular, convulsive, and apparently perfectly involuntary motion, while their eyes were fixed and staring. This went on for two hours, Boy following me as usual; but owing to this most distressing jerk, over which he had no control, he was unable to eat the dainties which his soul loves, and which I hoped would break up the affection — a very painful one to witness. After the attack both animals perspired profusely. The water literally ran off their bodies. The jerks gradually moderated and ceased, and there were no after effects but very puffy swellings about the throat. Both had barley in their nose-bags, but pawed and wriggled them off in order to get at this plant, a species of allium.

When Boy was well enough to be mounted we descended into an immense plain, on which were many villages and tracks. This plain of Hadji Hussein is in fact only another part of the alluvial level of the Jagatsu, which, with a breadth of from four to ten miles, extends for nearly forty miles, and is fertile and populous for most of its length. At the nearest village all the men were busy at the threshing-floor, and they would not give me a guide; at the next the ketchuda sent a young man, but required payment in advance.

After crossing the plain, on which villages occur at frequent intervals on gravelly islands surrounded by rich, stiff, black soil, we forded the broad Jagatsu and got into the environs of, not an insignificant village, as I expected, but an important town of 5000 people. A wide road, planted and ditched on both sides, with well-kept irrigated gardens, shaded by poplars, willows, and fruit trees, runs for a mile from the river into the town, which is surrounded by similar gardens on every side, giving it the appearance of being densely wooded. The vineyards are magnificent, and the size and flavour of the grapes quite unusual. Melons, opium, tobacco, cotton, castor oil, sesamum, and bringals all flourish.

Miandab is partly in ruins, but covers a great extent of ground with its 1000 houses, 100 of which are inhabited by Jews and twenty by Armenians. People of five tribes are found there, but unlike Sain Kala, where Sunnis and Shiahs live peaceably, the Mussulmans are all Shiahs, no Sunni having been allowed to become a permanent inhabitant since the Kurdish attack ten years ago, when Sunnis within the city betrayed it into the hands of their coreligionists.

It has several mosques, a good bazar with a domed roof, a part of which displays very fine copper-work done in the town, and a garrison of 100 men. I saw the whole of Miandab, for my caravan was lost, and an hour was spent in hunting for it, inquiring of every one if he had seen a caravan of four yabus, but vainly, till we reached the other side, where I found it only just arrived, and the men busy tent-pitching in a lonely place among prolific vineyards. Sharban had lost the way, and after much marching and counter-marching had reached the ford of the Jagatsu, which I had been told to avoid, where the caravan got into deep strong water which carried the yabus off their feet, and he says that they and the servant were nearly drowned. Mirza had to go back into the town to obtain a guard from an official, as the camping-ground was very unsafe, and it was 11 P.M. before dinner was ready.

The next day I was ill, and rode only twelve miles, for the most part traversing the noble plain of Hadji Hussein, till the road ascends by tawny slopes to the wretched village of Amirabad — seventeen hovels on a windy hill, badly supplied with water. Partly sunk below ground, this village, at a short distance off, is only indicated by huge stacks of the Centaurea alata and tall cones of kiziks, which, being neatly plastered, are very superior in appearance to the houses which they are intended to warm.

The western side of the great plain was studded with Ilyat camps of octagonal and umbrella-shaped tents with the sides kept out by stout ribs. Great herds of camels, and flocks of big fat-tailed sheep, varying in colour from Vandyke brown to golden auburn, camels carrying fodder, and tribesmen building it into great stacks, round which, but seven feet off, they place fences of a reed which is abundant in swampy places, gave life and animation. Ilyat women brought bowls of milk and curds, and offered me the hospitality of their tents.

As I passed through a herd of grazing camels, an ancient, long-toothed, evil-faced beast ran at Boy with open mouth and a snarling growl. Poor Boy literally gasped with terror (courage is not his strong point) and dashed off at a gallop; and now whenever he sees camels in the distance he snorts and does his best to bolt to one side, showing a cowardice which is really pitiable.

It was very cold when I left Amirabad the next morning at 6.30, and hoar-frost lay on the ground. The steadiness with which the mercury descends at this season is as interesting as its steady ascent in the spring, and its freedom from any but the smallest fluctuations in the summer. The road to Sujbulāk passes over uplands and hill-slopes, tawny with sun-cured grass, and after crossing some low spurs, blue with the lovely Eryngium cæruleum, descends into a long rich valley watered by the river Sanak. This valley, in which are situated Inda Khosh and other large villages, is abundantly irrigated, and is cultivated throughout. Well planted with fruit trees, it is a great contrast to the arid, fiery slopes which descend upon it.

Long before reaching Sujbulāk there were indications of the vicinity of a place of some importance, caravans going both ways, asses loaded with perishable produce, horsemen and foot passengers, including many fine-looking Kurdish women unveiled, and walking with a firm masculine stride, even when carrying children on their backs.

A few miles from the town two sowars met me, but after escorting me for some distance they left me, and taking the wrong road, I found myself shortly on a slope above the town, not among the living but the dead. Such a City of Death I have never seen. A whole hour was occupied in riding through it without reaching its limits. Fifty thousand gravestones are said to stand on the reddish-gray gravel between the hill and the city wall, mere unhewn slabs of gray stone, from six inches to as many feet in height, row beyond row to the limit of vision — 300,000 people, they say, are buried there. There is no suggestion of “life and immortality.” Weird, melancholy, and terribly malodorous, owing to the shallowness of the graves, the impression made by this vast cemetery is solely painful. The tombs are continued up to the walls and even among the houses, and having been much disturbed there is the sad spectacle of human skulls and bones lying about, being gnawed by dogs.

The graveyard side of Sujbulāk is fouler and filthier than anything I have seen, and the odours, even in this beautiful weather, are appalling. The centre of each alley is a broken channel with a broken pavement on each side. These channels were obviously constructed for water, but now contain only a black and stagnant horror, hardly to be called a fluid, choked with every kind of refuse. The bazars are narrow, dark, and busy, full of Russian commodities, leather goods, ready-made clothing, melons, grapes, and pop-corn. The crowds of men mostly wore the Kurdish or Turkish costume, but black-robed and white-turbaned Seyyids and mollahs were not wanting.

Sujbulāk, the capital of Northern Persian Kurdistan, and the residence of a governor, is quite an important entrepôt for furs, in which it carries on a large trade with Russia, and a French firm, it is said, buys up fur rugs to the value of several hundred thousand francs annually. It also does a large business with the Kurdish tribes of the adjacent mountains and the Turkish nomads of the plains, and a considerable trade in gall-nuts. It has twenty small mosques, three hammams, some very inferior caravanserais, and a few coffee-houses. Its meat bazar and its grain and pulse bazars are capacious and well supplied.

It has a reputed population of 5000 souls. Kurds largely predominate, but there are so many Turks that the Turkish Government has lately built a very conspicuous consulate, with the aspect of a fortress, and has appointed a consul to protect the interests of its subjects. There are 120 Armenians, who make wine and arak, and are usurers, and gold and silver smiths. The Jews get their living by money-lending, peddling drugs, dyeing cotton goods, selling groceries, and making gold and silver lace. There is a garrison, of 1000 men nominally, for the town and district are somewhat turbulent, and a conflict is always imminent between the Kurds and Turks, who are Sunnis, and the small Persian population, which is Shiah. The altitude of Sujbulāk is 4770 feet. Here I have come upon the track of Ida Pfeiffer, who travelled in the Urmi region more than forty years ago, when travelling in Persia was full of risks, and much more difficult in all respects than it is now.

Kurd of SujbulāK.

The Sanak, though clear and bright, is fouled by many abominations, and by the ceaseless washing of clothes above the town; there are no pure wells, and all people who care about what they drink keep asses constantly bringing water from an uncontaminated part of the river, two miles off. Even the Governor has to depend on this supply. Sujbulāk looks very well from this camp, with the bright river in the foreground, and above it, irregularly grouped on a rising bank, the façade, terraces, and towers of the Governor’s palace, the fort-like Turkish consulate, and numbers of good dwelling-houses, with balakhanas painted blue or pink, or covered with arabesques in red, with projecting lattice windows of dark wood, and balconies overhanging the water.

This shingle where I am encamped is the Rotten Row of the town, and is very lively this evening, for numbers of Kurds have been galloping their horses here, and performing feats of horsemanship before the admiring eyes of hundreds of promenaders, male and female, most of the latter unveiled. As all have to cross the ford where the river is some inches above a man’s knees, the effect is grotesque, and even the women have no objection to displaying their round white limbs in the clear water. The ladies of the Governor’s andarun sent word that food and quarters had been prepared for me since noon, but I excused myself on the plea of excessive fatigue. This message was followed by a visit from the Governor’s foster-mother, an unveiled jolly woman, of redundant proportions, wearing remarkably short petticoats, which displayed limbs like pillars. A small woman attended her, and a number of Kurd men, superbly dressed, and wearing short two-edged swords, with ebony hilts ornamented with incrustations of very finely-worked filigree silver. These weapons are made here. The lady has been to Mecca, and evinces much more general intelligence than the secluded women. She took a dagger from one of the attendants, and showed me with much go how the thrusts which kill are made.

All were much amused with Boy’s gentle ways. He had been into the town for supplies, and, as usual, asked me to take off his bridle by coming up and putting his ears under my chin, when, if I do not attend to him at once, he lifts his head and gives me a gentle push, or rubs his nose against my cheek. The men admired his strong, clean limbs, which are his best points. Last night I heard snoring very near me, and thinking that the watchmen were sleeping under the flys, I went out to waken them, and found the big beast stretched out fast asleep in the verandah of the tent, having retired there for warmth. I accompanied my visitors to the ford, followed by Boy, to their great amusement, as it was to mine to see the stout lady mount nimbly on a Kurd’s back, and ride him “pickaback” through the water!

This has not been a comfortable afternoon. The Governor has been out all day hunting, and his deputy either at the bath or a religious function. Milk can only be got in the Jewish quarter, where smallpox is prevailing; the Sanak water is too foul to be used for tea, and no man will go two miles so late for a pure supply. Johannes, who is most disobedient as well as incompetent, has brought no horse food, and poor Boy has been calling for it for two hours, coming into my tent, shaking the bag in which the barley is usually kept, and actually in his hunger clearing the table of melons and grapes. These, however, are only among the very small annoyances of travelling.

9 P.M. — The Governor has returned, and has sent a guard of twenty-five soldiers, with an invitation to visit the ladies before I start tomorrow.

I. L. B.

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