Kochanes, Oct. 23.
The Kurdish katirgis turned out very badly. They came at twelve instead of eight, compelling me to do only a half-day’s march. Then they brought six horses instead of the four which had been bargained for, and said they would “throw down the loads” if I did not take them. Each night they insisted on starting the next morning at daybreak, but no persuasions could get them off before eight. They said they could not travel with a Christian except in broad daylight. They would only drive a mile an hour, and instead of adhering to their contract to bring me here in four days, took four to come half-way. On the slightest remonstrance they were insolent and violent, and threatened to “throw down the loads” in the most inconvenient places, and they eventually became so mutinous that I was obliged to dismiss them at the half-way halt at the risk of not getting transport any farther.91
The “throw on the road” from Urmi was a very large one, and consisted of nearly all the English and American Mission clergy and two Syrians, all on screaming, biting, kicking horses. It was a charming ride through fruitful country among pleasant villages to Anhar. The wind was strong and bracing. Clouds were drifting grandly over the splendid mountains to the west, the ranges to the north were glorified by rich blue colouring, purple in the shadows; among mountains on the east the Urmi sea showed itself as a turquoise streak, and among gardens and vineyards in the middle distance rose Zoroastrian cones of ashes, and the great mound, which tradition honours as the scene of the martyrdom of St. George.
When all my kind friends left me, and I walked alone in the frosty twilight on the roof of my comfortable room in the Qasha’s house, and looked towards the wall of the frontier mountains through which my journey lay, I felt an unwonted feeling of elation at the prospect before me, which no possible perils from Kurds, or from the sudden setting-in of winter could damp, and thus far the interest is much greater even than I expected.
The next morning I was joined by Qasha — — a Syrian priest, a man of great learning and intelligence, a Turkish subject and landed proprietor, who knows everybody in this region, and speaks English well. He is fearfully anxious and timid, partly from a dread of being robbed of his splendid saddle mule, and partly from having the responsibility of escorting an English lady on a journey which has turned out full of peril.
On the long ascent from Anhar a bitter wintry wind prevailed, sweeping over the tattered thistles and the pale belated campanulas which alone remain of the summer flora, but the view from the summit was one of rare beauty. The grandly drifting clouds of the night before had done their work, and had draped the Kurdish mountains half-way down with the first snows of winter, while the valley at their feet, in which Merwana lies, was a smiling autumn scene of flowery pasturage and busy harvest operations under the magic of an atmosphere of living blue.
Merwana is a village of 100 houses, chiefly Christian, though it has a Kurdish ketchuda. It is a rich village, or was, being both pastoral and agricultural. The slopes are cultivated up to a great height, and ox sleds bring the sheaves to the threshing-floor. The grain is kept in great clay-lined holes under ground, covered with straw and earth. I write that the village was rich. Lately a cloud of Kurds armed with rifles swooped down upon it towards evening, drove off 900 sheep, and killed a man and woman. The villagers appealed to Government, after which Hesso, a redoubtable Kurdish chief in its pay, went up with a band of men to Marbishu, a Christian village in Turkey, drove off 1460 sheep, and offered to repay Merwana with the stolen property. As matters now stand 700 of the poorest of the sheep have been restored to Marbishu, Merwana loses all, and Hesso and his six robber brothers have gained 760. The sole hope of the plundered people of both villages is in the intercession of Dr. Cochrane with the Governor of Azerbijan.92
As I reached Merwana at 10 A.M., and the katirgis, after raging for an hour, refused to proceed, I took Mirza and Qasha Bardah, the priest under whose hospitable roof I lodged, with me, and went up the valley to Ombar, the abode of Hesso, with the vague hope of “doing something” for the poor people. The path lay among bright streams and flowery pastures, the sun was warm, the air sharp, the mountains uplifted their sunlit snows into a heaven of delicious blue, the ride was charming. Hesso’s village, consisting of a few very low rough stone houses, overshadowed by great cones of kiziks, is well situated on a slope above a torrent issuing from a magnificent cleft in the mountain wall, at the mouth of which is a square keep on a rock.
Hesso’s house is just a “but and a ben,” with a door which involves stooping. Its rough stone walls are unplastered, and the only light admitted comes from a hole in the roof, which serves to let out the smoke. I confess to a feeling of trepidation when I asked to see the Kurdish chief, and I felt the folly of my errand. A superbly-dressed Kurd took us into a room dense with tobacco smoke, which, from its darkness, the roughness of its walls, and the lowness of its rude roof, resembled a cave rather than a house. Yet Hesso receives £200 a year from the Persian Government, and has apparently unlimited opportunities for plunder.
There were some coarse mats on the floor, and a samovar with some Russian glass tea-cups. Two Persian officials and a number of well-armed and splendidly-dressed Kurds, with jewelled khanjars and revolvers in their girdles and rifles by their sides, sat or reclined against the wall. Hesso himself leaned against a roll of bedding at the upper end of the room, and space was made for us on the floor at his left hand. A superb stage brigand he looked, in fitting surroundings, the handsomest man I have seen in Persia, a large man, with a large face, dark prominent eyes, a broad brow, a straight nose, superb teeth, a fine but sensual mouth, a dark olive complexion, and a false smile. A jewelled Kurdish turban with much crimson, a short jacket and full trousers of a fine cream-coloured woollen fabric, an embroidered silk shirt, socks of an elaborate pattern, a girdle of many yards of Kashmir stuff, with eight knots, one above another, in the middle, and a khelat or coat of honour of rich Kerman brocade formed his striking costume. In his girdle he wore a khanjar, with an ebony hilt and scabbard ornamented with filigree gold knobs incrusted with turquoises, attached to the girdle by a silver chain two yards long, of heavy filigree balls, a beautiful piece of work. Hesso’s brothers, superb men, most picturesquely dressed, surrounded him. The Kurds who handed round the tea and the jewelled kalians looked fantastic brigands. The scene was a picture.
Of course my errand failed. I could not speak about the sheep through the priest of the robbed village, and Hesso said that he could not speak on any “political” subject before the Persians who were present. The conversation was not animated, and Qasha Bardah was very nervous till Hesso turned round, and with an awakened expression of face asked how it was that “England had allowed Turkey to grow so feeble that her frontier and Armenia are in a state of anarchy”? Hesso’s handsome face is that of a villain. He does not look more than thirty. He has 200 well-mounted marksmen at his disposal. The father of this redoubtable Kurdish chief died in prison, where he was confined by order of the Shah, and the son revenged himself by harrying this part of the Shah’s dominions, and with sixty men, including his six brothers, successfully resisted a large Persian force sent against him, and eventually escaped into Turkey, doing much damage on his way. Hesso on arriving in Kerbela obtained a letter from the Sheikh, or chief Mollah there, saying that he offered his submission to the Shah, and went to Tihran, where after seeing the Shah’s splendour he said that if he had known it before, he would not have been in rebellion.
Before this the Persians took a strong castle from the Kurds, and garrisoned it with an officer and a company of soldiers. Up to it one day went Hesso boldly, keeping the six men who went with him out of sight, and thumped upon the gate till it was opened, saying he was a bearer of despatches. He first shot the sentry dead, and next the officer, who came to see what the disturbance was about. Meantime the six men, by climbing on each other’s shoulders, scaled the castle wall, and by confused shouts and dragging of the stone roller to and fro over the roof they made the garrison believe that it was attacked by a large force, and it surrendered at discretion. The lives of the soldiers were spared, but they were marched out in their shirts, with their hands above their heads.
The Merwana threshing-floor was guarded at night by ten men. The following morning we were to have started an hour before daylight, but the katirgis refused to load, and the Kurdish ketchuda, with his horsemen, declined to start till an hour after sunrise, because he could not earlier “tell friends from foes.” The ground was covered with hoar-frost, and the feathery foliage of the tamarisk was like the finest white coral.
Turning into the mountains, we spent nine hours in a grand defile, much wooded, where a difficult path is shut in with the Marbishu torrent. The Kurds left us at Bani, when two fine fellows became our protectors as far as a small stream, crossing which we entered Turkey. At a Kurdish semi-subterranean village, over which one might ride without knowing it, a splendidly-dressed young Khan emerged from one of the burrows, and said he would give us guards, but they would not go farther than a certain village, where two of his men had been killed three days before. “There is blood between us and them,” he said. After that, for five hours up to Marbishu, the scenery is glorious. The valley narrows into a picturesque gorge between precipitous mountains, from 2000 to 4000 feet above the river, on the sides of which a narrow and occasionally scaffolded path is carried, not always passable for laden mules. Many grand ravines came down upon this gorge, their dwarf trees, orange, tawny, and canary-yellow, mingled with rose-red leafage. The rose bushes are covered with masses of large carnation-red hips, the bramble trailers are crimson and gold, the tamarisk is lemon-yellow. Nature, like the dolphin, is most beautiful in dying.
The depths were filled with a blue gloom, the needle-like peaks which tower above glittered with new-fallen snow, the air was fresh and intoxicating — it was the romance of travel. But it soon became apparent that we were among stern and even perilous realities. A notorious robber chief was disposed to bar our passage. His men had just robbed a party of travellers, and were spread over the hill. They took a horse from Johannes, but afterwards restored it on certain conditions. Farther on we met a number of Kurds, with thirty fat sheep and some cattle, which they were driving off from Marbishu. Then the katirgis said that they would go no farther than the village, for they heard that robbers were lying in wait for us farther on!
In the wildest part of the gorge, where two ravines meet, there is fine stoneless soil, tilled like a garden; the mountains fall a little apart — there are walnuts, fruit trees, and poplars; again the valley narrows, the path just hangs on the hillside, and I was riding over the roofs of village houses for some time before I knew it. The hills again opened, and there were flourishing breadths of turnips, and people digging potatoes, an article of food and export which was introduced by the missionaries forty years ago. The glen narrowed again, and we came upon the principal part of Marbishu — rude stone houses in tiers, burrowing deeply into the hills, with rock above and rock below on the precipitous sides of a noisy torrent, crossed by two picturesque log bridges, one of the wildest situations I have ever seen, and with a wintry chill about it, for the sun at this season deserts it at three. Rude, primitive, colourless, its dwellings like the poorest cowsheds, its church like a Canadian ice-house, clinging to mountain sides and spires of rock, so long as I remember anything I shall remember Marbishu.
Steep narrow paths and steep rude steps brought us to a three-sided yard, with a rough verandah where cooking and other operations were going on, and at the entrance we were cordially welcomed by Qasha Ishai, the priest. After ascertaining that it would be very dangerous to go farther, I crossed the river to the church, which is one of the finest in the country, and a place of pilgrimage. The village is noted for its religious faithfulness. The church is said to be 850 years old — a low, flat-roofed, windowless stone building. Either it was always partially subterranean, or the earth has accumulated round it, for the floor is three feet below the ground outside. The entrance is by a heavy door two feet six inches high. Inside it is as nearly dark as possible. Two or three circular holes at a great height in the enormously thick wall let in as many glimmers, but artificial light is necessary. There are several small ante-chapels. In two are rude and ancient tombs of ancient bishops, plain blocks of stone, with crosses upon them. In another is a rough desk, covered with candle droppings, on which the Liturgy of the Apostles lay open, and on it a cross, which it is the custom to kiss. A fourth is used for the safe keeping of agricultural implements. Two are empty, and one of these serves the useful purpose of a mortuary chapel. The church proper is very small and high. The stone floor has been worn into cavities by the feet of worshippers; the walls, where not covered with lengths of grimy printed cotton, are black with the candle smoke of ages. The one sign of sacred use is a rude stone screen at the east end, at openings in the front of which the people receive the Eucharist. Behind this is the sanctuary, into which the priest alone, and he fasting, may enter. Old brass lamps and candelabra, incrusted with blackened tallow, hang from the roof, and strings of little bells from wall to wall, which are plucked by each recipient of the sacred elements as he returns to his “stand.”
In this gloomy vault-like building prayers are said, as in all Nestorian churches, at sunrise and sunset by the priest in his ordinary clothing, the villagers being summoned by the beating of a mallet on a board.93
The church is a place of refuge when a Kurdish attack is expected. Nine years ago the people carried into it all their movables that they valued most, believing it to be secure, but the Kurds broke in in force and took all they wanted. The few sacred treasures of the village and the Eucharistic leaven are hidden in an elevated recess in the wall. The graveyard, which contains only a few flat slabs imbedded in the soil, is the only possible camping-ground; but though it is clean and neat, it looked so damp and felt so cold that I preferred to accept a big room with walls six feet thick in the priest’s house, even though it overhangs the torrent with its thunder and clash.
Many a strange house I have seen, but never anything so striking as the dwelling of Qasha Ishai. Passing through the rude verandah, and through a lofty room nearly dark, with a rough stone dais, on which were some mattresses, and berths one above another, I stumbled in total darkness into a room seventy feet by forty, and twenty feet or more high in its highest part. It has no particular shape, and wanders away from this lofty centre into low irregular caverns and recesses excavated in the mountain side. Parts of the floor are of naked rock, parts of damp earth. In one rocky recess is a powerful spring of pure water. The roofs are supported on barked stems of trees, black, like the walls, wherever it was possible to see them, with the smoke of two centuries. Ancient oil lamps on posts or in recesses rendered darkness visible. Goat-skins, with the legs sticking out, containing butter, hanging from the blackened cross-beams, and wheat, apples, potatoes, and onions in heaps and sacks, piles of wool, spinning-wheels, great wooden cradles here and there, huge oil and water jars, wooden stools, piles of bedding, ploughs, threshing instruments, long guns, swords, spears, and gear encumbered the floor, while much more was stowed away in the dim caverns of the rock.
I asked the number of families under the roof. “Seven ovens,” was the reply. This meant seven families, and it is true that three generations, seventy-two persons, live, cook, sleep, and pursue their avocations under that patriarchal roof.
The road is a bad one for laden beasts, and very dangerous besides, and the few travellers who visit Kochanes usually take the caravan route from Urmi viâ Diza, and the fact of an English person passing through Marbishu with a letter to the Turkish authorities was soon “noised abroad,” and I was invited to spend the evening in this most picturesque house. All the inmates were there, and over a hundred of the villagers besides; and cooking, baking, spinning, carding wool, knitting, and cleaning swords and guns went on all the time. There were women and girls in bright red dresses; men reclining on bedding already unrolled on the uneven floor, or standing in knots in their picturesque dresses leaning on their long guns, with daggers gleaming in their belts; groups seated round the great fire, in the uncertain light of which faces gleamed here and there in the dim recesses, while the towering form of Qasha Ishai loomed grandly through the smoke, as the culmination of the artistic effect.
The subject discussed was equally interesting to the Syrians and to me — the dangers of the pass and the number of guards necessary. We talked late into the night, and long before I left the female and juvenile part of the family had retired to their beds. Again I heard of Hesso’s misdeeds, of the robbery of 1400 sheep; of the driving off on the previous morning of thirty sheep which they were about to barter for their winter supply of wheat; of the oppressive taxation, 100 liras (nearly £100) on 100 houses; of the unchecked depredations of the Kurds, which had increased this summer and autumn, leaving them too poor to pay their taxes; of a life of peril and fear and apprehension for their women, which is scarcely bearable; of the oppression of man and the silence of God. Underlying all is a feeling of bitter disappointment that England, which “has helped the oppressed elsewhere, does nothing for us.” They thought, they said, “that when the English priests came it was the beginning of succour, and that the Lord was no longer deaf, and our faces were lightened, but now it is all dark, and there is no help in God or man.”
I now find myself in the midst of a state of things of which I was completely ignorant, and for which I was utterly unprepared, and in a region full of fear and danger, in which our coreligionists are the nearly helpless prey of fanatical mountaineers, whose profession is robbery.
Looking round on the handsome men and comely women, who would greet the sunrise with Christian prayer and praise, and whose ancestors have worshipped Christ as God for fourteen centuries in these mountain fastnesses, I wondered much at my former apathy concerning them. It is easier to feel them our fellow-Christians on the spot than to put the feeling into words, but writing here in the house of their Patriarch, the Catholicos of the East, I realise that the Cross signed on their brows in baptism is to them as to us the symbol of triumph and of hope; that by them as by us the Eucharistic emblems are received for the life of the soul, “in remembrance of Christ’s meritorious Cross and Passion”; that through ages of accumulating wrongs and almost unrivalled misery, they like us have worshipped the crucified Nazarene as the crowned and risen Christ, that to Him with us they bend the adoring knee, and that like us they lay their dead in consecrated ground to await through Him a joyful resurrection.
There were five degrees of frost during the night, and as I lay awake from cold the narratives I had heard and the extraordinary state of things in which I so unexpectedly found myself made a very deep impression on me. There, for the first time in my life, I came into contact with people grossly ignorant truly, but willing to suffer “the loss of all things,” and to live in “jeopardy every hour” for religious beliefs, which are not otherwise specially influential in their lives. My own circumstances, too, claimed some consideration, whether to go forward, or back to Urmi. It is obvious from what I hear that the bringing my journey to Erzerum to a successful issue will depend almost altogether on my own nerve, judgment, and power of arranging, and that at best there will be serious risks, hardships, and difficulties, which will increase as winter sets in. After nearly coming to the cowardly decision to return, I despised myself for the weakness, and having decided that some good to these people might come from farther acquaintance with their circumstances, I fell asleep, and now the die is cast.
We were ready at daybreak the next morning, but for the same reasons as those given at Merwana did not start till seven for an eleven hours’ march. I took two armed horsemen and six armed footmen, all fine fellows used to the work of reconnoitring and protecting. Three of them scouted the whole time high up on the sides of the pass, not with the purposeless sensational scouting of Persian sowars, but with the earnestness of men who were pledged to take us safely through, and who live under arms to protect their property and families.
After five hours of toiling up the Drinayi Pass, taking several deep fords, and being detained by a baggage horse falling fifty feet with his load, we crossed the summit, and by a long descent through hills of rounded outlines covered with uncut sun-cured hay, reached the plain of Gawar, where the guards left us. On the way we passed the small Christian hamlet of Eyal, which was robbed of its sheep with the sacrifice of the shepherd’s life the following night. At the village of Yekmala on the plain the Kurdish katirgis by a shameful exaction got us into great trouble, and there was a fight, in which Johannes’s gun was wrested from him, and some of my things were taken, the Kurds meantime driving off their animals at a fast trot. The aspect of affairs was so very bad and the attack on my men so violent that I paid the value of the Kurdish depredations, and we got away. A little farther on the katirgis were extremely outrageous, and began to fulfil their threat of “throwing down their loads,” but I persuaded Qasha — — who was alarmed and anxious, to leave them behind, and they thought better of it.
The mountain-girdled plain of Gawar is a Paradise of fertility, with abundant water, and has a rich black soil capable of yielding twenty or thirtyfold to the cultivator. On it is the town of Diza, chiefly Armenian, which is a Turkish customs station, a military post, and the residence of a Kaimakam. There are over twenty Christian as well as some Moslem villages on Gawar, and a number of Kurdish hamlets and “castles” on the slopes and in the folds of the hills above it.
The sun was sinking as we embarked on the plain, and above the waves of sunset gold which flooded it rose the icy spires and crags of the glorious Jelu ranges and the splintered Kanisairani summits. The plain has an altitude of over 6000 feet, and there was a sharp frost as we dismounted at the village of Pirzala and put up at the house of the Malek David, having been eleven and a half hours in the saddle. After consulting with him and other village worthies I dismissed the katirgis and paid them more than their contract price. The next morning they swore by the Prophet’s beard, and every other sacred thing, that they had not been paid, and when payment was proved by two respectable witnesses, they were not the least abashed. Poor fellows! They know no better and are doubtless very poor. I was glad to get rid of their sinister faces and outbreaks of violence, but for some days it was impossible, being harvest-time, to obtain transport to Kochanes, though I was able to leave Pirzala for other villages.
The next day mists rolled down the mountains, and a good cold English rain set in, in which I had a most pleasant ride to Diza, which was repeated the following day in glorious weather, the new-fallen snow coming half-way down the mountain sides. I was surreptitiously on Turkish soil, and it was necessary to show my passport to the Diza officials, get a permit to travel, and have my baggage examined. Ishu, the present Malek of the plain, through whom all business between the Christians and the Government is transacted, accompanied us to the Mutessarif of Julamerik.
Diza is an unwalled town on an eminence crowned by barracks. The garrison of 200 men was reduced to six during the summer. The Kurds evidently took the reduction as a hint to them to do what they liked, and they have mercilessly ravaged and harried the plain for months past.94 An official assured me that 15,000 sheep have been driven off from the Gawar Christian villages between the middle of June and the 17th of October, partly by the nomad Herkis. There are now sixty soldiers at Diza, and the Mutessarif of Julamerik is there, having come down to capture Abdurrahman Bey, one of the great oppressors of the Christians — an attempt rendered abortive (it is said) by a bribe given by the Bey to the commanding officer of the troops.
I was interested in my first visit to a Turkish official. His room was above a stable, with a dark and difficult access, and the passages above were crowded with soldiers. The Mutessarif sat on a divan at the upper end of a shabby room, an elderly man much like Mr. Gladstone, very courteous and gentlemanly, with plenty of conversation and savoir-faire. He said that the letter I carry is “a very powerful document,” that it supersedes all the usual formalities, that my baggage would not even be looked at, and that I should not require a teskareh or permit. By his advice I called on the Kaimakam, and in each room a soldier brought in delicious coffee. The Kaimakam was also very courteous, and talked agreeably and intelligently, both taking the initiative, as etiquette demands.
In this and in the general tone there was a marked difference between Persian and Turkish officialdom. The Persian Governor is surrounded by civilians, the Turkish by soldiers, and in the latter case the manner assumed by subordinates is one of the most profound respect. The sealing of my passport took a considerable time, during which, with Qasha — — I paid several visits, was regaled with Armenian cookery, tried to change a mejidieh at the Treasury, but found it absolutely empty, and went to see a miracle-working New Testament, said to be of great antiquity, in an Armenian house. It was hanging on the wall in a leather bag, from which depended strings of blue and onyx beads. Sick people come to it even from great distances, as well as the friends of those who are themselves too ill to travel. The bag can only be opened by a priest. The power of healing depends on a sum of money being paid to the priest and the owners. The sick person receives a glass bead, and is forthwith cured.
On Gawar Plain I lodged in the village houses, either in semi-subterranean hovels, in which the families live with their horses and buffaloes, or in rooms over stables. Very many sick people came to me for medicines, and others with tales of wrong for conveyance to “the Consul” at Erzerum. No one seemed to trust any one. These conversations were always held at night in whispers, with the candle hidden “under a bushel,” the light-holes filled up with straw, the door barred or a heavy stone laid against it, and a watch outside.
The Gawar Christians are industrious and inoffensive, and have no higher aspiration than to be let alone, but they are the victims of a Kurdish rapacity which leaves them little more than necessary food. Their villages usually belong to Kurdish Aghas who take from them double the lawful taxes and tithes. The Herkis sweep over the plain in their autumn migration “like a locust cloud,” carrying off the possessions of the miserable people, spoiling their granaries and driving off their flocks. The Kurds of the neighbouring slopes and mountains rob them by violence at night, and in the day by exactions made under threat of death. The latter mode of robbery is called “demand.” The servants of a Kurdish Bey enter and ask for some jars of oil or roghan, a Kashmir shawl, women’s ornaments, a jewelled dagger, or a good foal, under certain threats, or they show the owner a bullet in the palm of the hand, intimating that a bullet through his head will be his fate if he refuses to give up his property or informs any one of the demand.
In this way (among innumerable other instances) my host at — — 95 a much-respected man, had been robbed of five valuable shawls, such as descend from mother to daughter, four handsome coats, and 300 krans in silver. In the last two years ten and fifteen loads of wheat have been taken from him, and four four-feet jars filled with oil and roghan. Four hundred and fifty sheep have likewise been seized by violence, leaving him with only fifteen; and one night while I was at his house fifty-three of the remaining village sheep, some of which were his, were driven off in spite of the guards, who dare not fire. I was awakened by the disturbance, and as it was a light night I saw that the Kurds who attacked the sheepfold were armed with modern guns. The reis of that village and this man’s brother have both been shot by the Kurds.
Testimony concurred in stating that the insecurity of life and property has enormously increased this summer, especially since the reduction of the Diza garrison; that “things have grown very much worse since the Erzerum troubles;” that the Kurds have been more audacious in their demands and more reckless of human life; and that of late they have threatened the Christians as such, saying that the Government would approve of “their getting rid of them.” Very little of any value, the people said, was left to them, and the extreme bareness of their dwellings, and the emptiness of their stables and sheepfolds, while surrounded with possibilities of pastoral and agricultural wealth, tend to sustain their statements. “The men of Government,” they all said, “are in partnership with the Kurds, and receive of their gains. This is our curse.”
Many women and girls, especially at Charviva and Vasivawa, have been maltreated by the Kurds. A fortnight ago a girl, ten years old, going out from — — to carry bread to the reapers, was abducted. It became known that two girls in —— were to be carried off, and they were hidden at first in a hole near ——. Their hiding-place last week was known only to their father, who carried them food and water every second night. He came to me in the dark secretly, and asked me to bring them up here, where they might find a temporary asylum. Daily and nightly during the week of my visit Gawar was harried by the Kurds, who in two instances burned what they could not carry away, the glare of the blazing sheaves lighting up the plain.
The people of Gawar express great anxiety for teachers. The priests and deacons must work like labourers, and cannot, they say, go down to Urmi for instruction. A priest, speaking for two others, and for several deacons who were present, said, “Beseech for a teacher to come and sit among us and lighten our darkness before we pass away as the morning shadows. We are blind guides, we know nothing, and our people are as sheep lost upon the mountains. When they go down into the darkness of their graves we know not how to give them any light, and so we all perish.”
This request was made in one of the large semi-subterranean dwellings, which serve for both men and beasts in Kurdistan. The firelight flickered on horses and buffaloes, receding into the darkness, and the square mud-platform on which we sat was framed by the long horns and curly heads of mild-eyed oxen.
I answered that it would be very difficult to raise money for such an object in England. “But England is very rich,” the priest replied. I looked round, and the thought passed across my mind of Him “who though He was rich yet for our sakes became poor,” whose life of self-denial from the stable at Bethlehem to the cross on Calvary is the example for our own, and whose voice, ringing down through ages of luxury and selfishness, still declares that discipleship involves a love for our brethren equal to His own. Yes, “England is very rich,” and these Syrians are very poor, and have kept the faith through ages of darkness and persecution.
This plain, the richest in Kurdistan, is also most beautiful. In winter a frozen morass, it is not dry enough for sowing till May, and even June. This accounts for the lateness of the harvest. The Jelu mountains, the highest in Central Kurdistan — a mass of crags, spires, and fantastic parapets of rock, with rifts and abysses of extraordinary depth — come down almost directly upon it. There is no wood. The villages are all alike, surrounded just now by piles of wheat and straw on their threshing-floors, with truncated cones of fodder, and high smooth black cones of animal fuel. These are often the only signs of habitations. One may ride over the roofs without knowing that houses are below.
Being entirely baffled by the difficulty of obtaining transport, I went on to Gahgoran, and put up at the house of the parish priest, where the subterranean granary allotted to me was so completely dark that I sat all day in the sheepfold in order to be able to write and work, shifting my position as the sun shifted his. A zaptieh had been sent from Diza, who guarded me so sedulously that Qasha —— dared not speak to me, lest the man should think he was giving me information.
Gahgoran was full of strangers. The Patriarch had come down from Kochanes, and occupied the only room in the village, whither I went to pay my respects to him. The room was nearly dark, and foggy with tobacco smoke, but a ray of light fell on Mar Gauriel, Bishop of Urmi, a handsome full-bearded man in a Nestorian turban, full trousers, a madder-red frock with a bright girdle in which a khanjar glittered, and a robe over all, a leader of armed men in appearance. I had met him in Urmi, and he shook hands and presented me to Mar Shimun, a swarthy gloomy-looking man. In his turn he presented me to Mar Sergis, Bishop of Jelu, a magnificent-looking man with a superb gray beard, the beau-ideal of an Oriental ecclesiastic. Maleks and headmen of villages sat round the room against the wall, not met for any spiritual conclave but for stern business regarding the taxes, for the Patriarch is a salaried official of the Turkish Government. All rose when I entered, and according to a polite custom stood till I sat down. They held out no hope of getting baggage animals, and I returned to the sheepfold.
It was a long day. The servants did not arrive till night, and Kochanes receded hourly! Many people came for medicine, and among them a very handsome man whose house was entered by Kurds a month ago, who threatened him with death unless he surrendered his possessions. After this he and his brothers fled and hid among the wheat, but fearing to be found and killed, they concealed themselves for a fortnight in the tall reeds of a marsh. He is now subject to violent fits of trembling. “My illness is fear,” the poor fellow said. Three hundred sheep had been taken from him and twenty-five gold liras; his grass had been burned, “and now,” he said, “the oppressor Hazela Bey says, ‘give me the deeds of your lands, if not I will kill you.’” He had been a Malek, and was so rich that he entertained travellers and their horses at all times. Now his friends have to give him wheat wherewith to make bread.
The house of Qasha Jammo has granaries at each side of the low door, a long dark passage leading into a subterranean stable with a platform for guests, and a living-room, on a small scale, like the one at Marbishu. A space was cleared in the granary for my bed among wheat, straw, ploughs, beetles, starved cats, osier graintubs coated with clay, six feet high, and agricultural gear of all sorts. It was a horrid place, and the door would not bolt. After midnight I was awakened by a sound as if big rats were gnawing the beams. I got up and groping my way to the door heard it more loudly, went into the passage, looked through the chinks in the outer door, and saw a number of Kurds armed with guns. I retreated and fired my revolver in the granary, which roused the dogs, and the dogs roused the twenty strangers who were receiving the priest’s hospitality. In the stable were fourteen horses, including my own two, and several buffaloes. The Kurds had dug through the roof of the granary opposite mine, and through its wall into the stable, and were on the point of driving out the horses through the common passage when the hardy mountaineers rushed upon them. The same night, though it was light and clear, another house in Gahgoran was dug into, and a valuable horse belonging to a man in the Patriarch’s train was abstracted. A descent was also made on the neighbouring village of Vasivawa, which has suffered severely. Eight zaptiehs employed by the villagers at a high price to watch the threshing-floor, and my own zaptieh escort, were close at hand.
Horses having at last been obtained from a Kurdish Bey, I left on Tuesday, the Gahgoran people being stupefied with dismay at the growing audacity of the Kurds. The mountain road was very dangerous, but I travelled with Mar Gauriel and his train, thirteen well armed and mounted men, besides armed servants on foot. The ice was half an inch thick, but the sun was very hot. The mountain views were superb, and the scenery altogether glorious, but the passes and hillsides are not inhabited. We were ten hours on the journey, owing to the custom of frequent halts for smoking and talking.
In the afternoon a party of Syrians with some unladen baggage mules came over the crest of a hill, preceded by a figure certainly not Syrian. This was a fair-complexioned, bearded man, with hair falling over his shoulders, dressed in a girdled cassock which had once been black, tucked up so as to reveal some curious nether garments, Syrian socks, and a pair of rope and worsted shoes, such as the mountaineers wear in scaling heights. On his head, where one would have expected to see a college “trencher,” was a high conical cap of white felt with a pagri of black silk twisted into a rope, the true Tyari turban. This was Mr. Browne, one of the English Mission clergy, who, from living for nearly four years among the Syrians of the mountains, helping them and loving them, has almost become one of them. He was going to Diza to get winter supplies before his departure for one of the most inaccessible of the mountain valleys, but with considerate kindness turned back to Kochanes with me, and remains here until I leave. This fortunate rencontre adds the finishing touch to the interest of this most fascinating Kurdistan journey.
Crossing the Kandal Pass, we descended on the hamlet of Shawutha, superbly situated on a steep declivity at the head of a tremendous ravine leading to the Zab, blocked apparently by mountains violet-purple against a crimson sky, with an isolated precipitous rock in the foreground, crowned by an ancient church difficult of access. Below the village are fair shelving lawns, with groups of great walnut trees, hawthorn, and ash, yellow, tawny, and crimson — a scene of perfect beauty in the sunset, while the fallen leaves touched the soft green turf with ruddy gold. The camping-grounds were very fair, but the villagers dared not let me camp. The Kurds were about, and had exacted a ewe and lamb from every house. Owing to the influx of strangers, it was difficult to get any shelter, and I slept in a horse and ox stable, burrowed in the hillside, the passage to the family living-room, without any air holes, hot and stifling, and used my woollen sheets for curtains. The village is grievously smitten by the “cattle plague.” In telling me of the loss of “four bulls” within three days, my host used an expression which is not uncommon here, “By the wealth of God, and the head of Mar Shimun.”
Yesterday we descended 1500 feet, alongside of a torrent fringed with scarlet woods, and halted where the Shawutha, Kochanes, and Diz valleys meet at the fords of the Zab, here known as “the Pison, the river of Eden.” The Zab, only fordable at certain seasons, is there a fast-flowing dark green river, fully sixty yards wide, deep enough to take the footmen up to their waists, and strong enough to make them stagger, with a lawn bright with autumnal foliage below the savage and lofty mountains on its right bank.
From the Zab we ascended the gorge of the Kochanes water by a wild mountain path, at times cut into steps or scaffolded, and at other times merely a glistening track over shelving rock, terminating in a steep and difficult ascent to the fair green alp on which Kochanes stands at the feet of three imposing peaks of naked rock — Quhaibalak, Qwarah, and Barchallah.
Thus I beheld at last the goal of my journey from Luristan, and was not disappointed. Glorious indeed is this Kurdistan world of mountains, piled up in masses of peaks and precipices, cleft by ravines in which the Ashirets and Yezidis find shelter, every peak snow-crested, every ravine flaming with autumn tints; and here, where the ridges are the sharpest, and the rock spires are the most imposing, on a spur between the full-watered torrents of the Terpai and the Yezidi, surrounded on three sides by gorges and precipices, is this little mountain village, the latest refuge of the Head of a Church once the most powerful in the East.
Kochanes consists of a church built on the verge of a precipice, many tombs, a grove of poplars, a sloping lawn, scattered village houses and barley-fields extending up the alp, and nearly on the edge of a precipitous cliff the Patriarch’s residence, a plain low collection of stone buildings, having an arched entrance and a tower for refuge or defence. The houses of his numerous relations are grouped near it. Everything is singularly picturesque. The people, being afraid of an attack from the Kurds, would not suffer me to pitch my tent on their fair meadow, and Sulti, the Patriarch’s sister, has installed me in a good room in the house, looking across the tremendous ravine of the Terpai upon savage mountains, the lower skirts of which are clothed with the tawny foliage of the scrub oak, and their upper heights with snow.
I. L. B.
91 I have since heard that these Kurds, a short time afterwards, betrayed some Christian travellers into the hands of some of their own people, by whom they were robbed and brutally maltreated.
92 I give the story as it was repeatedly told to me. It was a very shady and complicated transaction throughout.
93 Dr. Cutts, in his interesting volume, Christians Under the Crescent in Asia, gives the following translation of one of the morning praises, which forms part of the daily prayer. The earlier portion is chanted antiphonally in semi-choirs —
“Semi-choir — 1st. At the dawn of day we praise Thee, O Lord: Thou art the Redeemer of all creatures, give us by Thy mercy a peaceful day, and give us remission of our sins.
“2d. Cut not off our hope, shut not Thy door against our faces, and cease not Thy care over us. O God, according to our worthiness reward us not. Thou alone knowest our weakness.
“1st. Scatter, O Lord, in the world love, peace, and unity. Raise up righteous kings, priests, and judges. Give peace to the nations, heal the sick, keep the whole, and forgive the sins of all men.
“2d. In the way that we are going may Thy Grace keep us, O Lord, as it kept the child David from Saul. Give us Thy mercy as we are pressing on, that we may attain to peace according to Thy will. The Grace which kept the prophet Moses in the sea, and Daniel in the pit, and by which the companions of Ananias were kept in the fire, by that Grace deliver us from evil.
“Whole choir.— In the morning we all arise, we all worship the Father, we praise the Son, we acknowledge the Holy Spirit. The grace of the Father, the mercy of the Son, and the hovering of the Holy Spirit, the Third Person, be our help every day. Our help is in Thee. In Thee, our true Physician, is our hope. Put the medicine of Thy mercy on our wounds, and bind up our bruises that we be not lost. Without Thy help we are powerless to keep Thy commandments. O Christ, who helpest those who fulfil Thy will, keep Thy worshippers. We ask with sighing, we beseech Thy mercy, we ask forgiveness from that merciful One who opens His door to all who turn unto Him. Every day I promise Thee that tomorrow I will repent: all my days are past and gone, my faults still remain. O Christ, have mercy upon me, have mercy upon me.”
94 About Christmas 1890 in Constantinople I had an opportunity of laying the state of the Gawar Christians and the reduction of the garrison of Diza before His Highness Kiamil Pasha, then Grand Vizier. He appeared deeply interested, and said that it was the purpose of his Government to send troops up to the region as soon as the roads were open. Since then I have heard nothing of these people, but today, as this sheet is going to press, I have received the following news from Dr. Shedd of Urmi: “You will be glad to know that Gawar is very much changed for the better. The Turkish Governor has been removed, and another of far better character and ability has the post. The Kurdish robbers have been arrested, and their leader, Abdurrahman Bey, killed.”—November 2, 1890.
95 The complaints to which I became a listener were made by maleks, bishops, priests, headmen, and others. Exaggerations prevail, and the same story is often told with as many variations as there are narrators. I cannot vouch for anything which did not come under my own observation. Some narratives dissolved under investigation, leaving a mere nucleus of fact. Those which I thought worthy of being noted down — some of which were published in the Contemporary Review in May and June in two papers called The Shadow of the Kurd— were either fortified by corroborative circumstances, or rest on the concurrent testimony as to the main facts of three independent narrators.
In some cases I was asked to lay the statements before the British Consul at Erzerum, with the names of the narrators as the authority on which they rested, but in the greater number I was implored not to give names or places, or any means of identification. “We are in fear of our lives if we tell the truth,” they urged. Sometimes I asked them if they would abide by what they told me in the event of an investigation by the British Vice–Consul at Van. “No, no, no, we dare not!” was the usual reply. Under these circumstances, the only course open to me is to withhold the names of persons and places wherever I was pledged to do so, but as a guarantee of good faith I have placed the statements, confidentially, with the names, in the hands of Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs.
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