Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxxi

Van and its surroundings are at once so interesting and picturesque that it is remarkable that they are comparatively seldom visited by travellers. Probably the insecurity of the roads, the villainous accommodation en route, and its isolated position account for the neglect.104 Here as elsewhere I am much impressed with the excellence of the work done by the American missionaries, who are really the lights of these dark places, and by their exemplary and honourable lives furnish that moral model and standard of living which is more efficacious than preaching in lifting up the lives of a people sunk in the depths of a grossly corrupted Christianity. The boys’ and girls’ schools in Van are on an excellent basis, and are not only turning out capable men and women, but are stimulating the Armenians to raise the teaching and tone of their own schools in the city, with one of which I was very greatly pleased. The creation of churches, strict in their discipline, and protesting against the mass of superstitions which smother all spiritual life in the National Armenian Church, is undoubtedly having a very salutary effect far beyond the limited membership, and is tending to force reform upon an ancient church which contains within herself the elements of resurrection. Great honour is due to Dr. Reynolds for the way in which, almost single-handed, he has kept the valuable work of this Mission going for years, and now that colleagues have arrived a considerable development may be hoped for.

I have confessed already to a prejudice against the Armenians, but it is not possible to deny that they are the most capable, energetic, enterprising, and pushing race in Western Asia, physically superior, and intellectually acute, and above all they are a race which can be raised in all respects to our own level, neither religion, colour, customs, nor inferiority in intellect or force constituting any barrier between us. Their shrewdness and aptitude for business are remarkable, and whatever exists of commercial enterprise in Eastern Asia Minor is almost altogether in their hands. They have singular elasticity, as their survival as a church and nation shows, and I cannot but think it likely that they may have some share in determining the course of events in the East, both politically and religiously. As Orientals they understand Oriental character and modes of thought as we never can, and if a new Pentecostal afflatus were to fall upon the educated and intelligent young men who are being trained in the colleges which the American churches have scattered liberally through Asia Minor, the effect upon Turkey would be marvellous. I think most decidedly that reform in Turkey must come through Christianity, and in this view the reform and enlightenment of the religion which has such a task before it are of momentous importance.

Islam is “cabined, cribbed, confined.” Its forms of belief and thought and its social and political ideas remain in the moulds into which they were run at its rise. Expansion is impossible. The arrogance which the Koran inculcates and fosters is a dead weight on progress. If the Turk had any disposition to initiate and carry out reforms his creed and its traditions would fetter him. Islam, with its fanaticism, narrowness, obstructiveness, and grooviness is really at this moment the greatest obstacle to every species of advance both in Turkey and Persia, and its present activity and renewed proselytising spirit are omens of evil as much for political and social progress as for the higher life of men.

The mission houses and schools are on fairly high ground more than two miles from Van, in what are known as “the Gardens,” where most of the well-to-do Armenians and Turkish officials reside. These gardens, filled with vineyards and all manner of fruit trees, extend for a distance of five miles, and being from two to three miles wide their mass of greenery has a really beautiful effect. Among them are many very good houses, and the roads and alleys by which they are intersected are well planted with poplars and willows, shading pleasant streams which supply the water for irrigation.

The view from the roof is a glorious one. Looking west over the gardens, which are now burning with autumn tints, the lofty crests of the huge crater of Nimrud Dagh are always visible across the lake of Van, intensely blue in the morning, and reddening in the sunsets of flame and gold. In the evenings too, the isolated rock on which the castle of Van is built bulks as a violet mass against the sinking sun, with a foreground of darkening greenery. The great truncated cone of the Sipan Dagh looms grandly over the lake to the north; to the east the rocky mass of the Varak Dagh, with white villages and monasteries in great numbers lying in its clefts and folds, rises precipitously to a height of 10,500 feet; and to the south the imposing peaks of Ardost, now crested with snow, and Mount Pelu, projecting into the lake, occupy prominent positions above the lower groups and ridges.

The town of Van is nearly a mile from the lake, and is built on an open level space, in the midst of which stands a most picturesque and extraordinary rock which rises perpendicularly to a height of about 300 feet. It falls abruptly at both extremities, and its outline, which Colonel Severs Bell estimates at 1900 yards in length, is emphasised by battlemented walls, several towers, and a solitary minaret rising above the picturesque irregularity of the ancient fortifications. Admission to the interior of the castle is refused, consequently I have not seen the chambers in the rock, supposed to have been the tombs of kings. The most celebrated of the cuneiform inscriptions cut on tablets smoothed in the rock is on the south side in an inaccessible position, and was with difficulty copied by the murdered traveller Schulz with the aid of a telescope. It is well seen from below, looking, as has been remarked, like an open copy of a newspaper. Like the tablets of Persepolis and Mount Elwend, it relates in august language the titles and deeds of Xerxes.

The founding of Van is ascribed to Semiramis, who, according to Armenian history, named it Shemiramagerd, and was accustomed to resort to its gardens, which she had herself planted and watered, to escape from the fierce heat of the summer at Nineveh. The well of Semiramis and other works attributed to her bring her name frequently into conversation — indeed she is mentioned as familiarly as Queen Elizabeth is among us!

Rock and Citadel of Van.

The town, which is walled, is not particularly attractive, but there is one very handsome mosque, and a very interesting Armenian church, eleven centuries old, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul. The houses are mean-looking, but their otherwise shabby uniformity is broken up by lattice windows. The bazars are poorly built, but are clean, well supplied, and busy, though the trade of Van is suffering from the general insecurity of the country and the impoverishment of the peasantry. It is very pleasant that in the Van bazars ladies can walk about freely, encountering neither the hoots of boys nor the petrifying Islamic scowl.

Kurds of Van.

Fifty years ago Venetian beads were the only articles imported from Europe. Now, owing to the increasing enterprise of the Armenians, every European necessary of life can be obtained, as well as many luxuries. Peek and Frean’s biscuits, Moir’s and Crosse and Blackwell’s tinned meats and jams, English patent medicines, Coats’ sewing cotton, Belfast linens, Berlin wools, Jæger’s vests, and all sorts of materials, both cotton and woollen, abound. I did not see such a choice and abundance of European goods in any bazar in Persia, and in the city of Semiramis, and beneath the tablet of Xerxes, there is a bazar devoted to Armenian tailors, and to the clatter of American sewing machines stitching Yorkshire cloth! One of these tailors has made a heavy cloth ulster for me, which the American ladies pronounce perfect in fit and “style!”

The Armenians, with their usual industry and thrift, are always enlarging their commerce and introducing new imports. Better than this, they are paying great attention to education, and several of their merchants seem to be actuated by a liberal and enlightened spirit. It is, however, to usury not less than to trade that they owe their prosperity. The presence of Europeans in Van, in the persons of the missionaries and vice-consuls, in addition to the admirable influence exerted by the former, has undoubtedly a growing tendency towards ameliorating the condition of the Christian population.

In the vilayet of Van it is estimated by Colonel Severs Bell that the Christians outnumber the Moslems by 80,000, the entire population being estimated at 340,000. In the city of Van, with a population estimated by him at 32,000, the Christians are believed to be as 3 to 1.105

The formalities required for Turkish travelling are many and increasing, and from ignorance of one of them Johannes has been arrested, and Mirza marched to the Consulate by the police. I have been obliged to part with the former and send him back to Hamadan, as it would not be safe to take the risky journey to Erzerum with such an inexperienced and untrustworthy servant. Through Mr. Devey’s kindness I have obtained an interpreter and servant in Murphy O’Rourke, a British subject, but a native of Turkey, and equally at home in English, Turkish, and Armenian, though totally illiterate.

I. L. B.

103 Van may be considered the capital of that part of Kurdistan which we know as Armenia, but it must be remembered that under the present Government of Turkey Armenia is a prohibited name, and has ceased to be “a geographical expression.” Cyclopædias containing articles on Armenia, and school books with any allusions to Armenian history, or to the geography of any district referred to as Armenia, are not allowed to enter Asia Minor, and no foreign maps which contain the province of Armenia are allowed to be used in the foreign schools, or even to be retained in the country. Of the four millions of the Armenian race 2,500,000 are subjects of the Sultan, and with few exceptions are distinguished for their loyalty and their devotion to peaceful pursuits.

The portion of Armenia which lies within the Turkish frontier consists for the most part of table-lands from 5000 to 6000 feet in elevation, intersected by mountain ranges and watered by several rivers, the principal of which are the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the Aras. Of its many lakes the Dead Sea of Van is the principal, its dimensions being estimated at twice the area of the Lake of Geneva, and at eighty miles in length by twenty-five in breadth. From its exquisitely beautiful shores rise the two magnificent extinct volcanoes, the Sipan Dagh, with an altitude of over 12,000 feet, and the Nimrud Dagh, with a crater five miles in diameter and 1600 feet in depth, the top of its wall being over 9000 feet in height.

The Armenians claim an antiquity exceeding that of any other nation, and profess to trace their descent from Haik, the son of Togarmah, the grandson of Japhet, who fled from the tyranny of Belus, King of Assyria, into the country which in the Armenian tongue is known by his name, as Haikh or Haizdani. It may be said of the Armenians that the splendour and misery of their national history exceed those of any other race. Their national church claims an older than an apostolic foundation, and historically dates from the third century, its actual founder, S. Gregory the Illuminator, having been consecrated at Cæsarea as Bishop of Armenia in the second year of the fourth century. In the fifteenth century a schism brought about by Jesuit missionaries resulted in a number of Armenians joining the Church of Rome, and becoming later a separate community known as the “Catholic Armenian Church.” Within the last half-century, under the teaching of the American missionaries, a Reformed Church has arisen, known as the Protestant Armenian Church, but with these exceptions the race and the national church may be regarded as one. The Armenians have had no political existence since the year 1604, but form an element of stability and wealth in Turkey, Russia, and Persia, where they are principally found.

Their language is regarded by scholars as an off-shoot of the Iranian branch of the Indo–Germanic group of languages. Their existing literature dates from the fourth century, and all that is not exclusively Christian has perished. Translations of the Old and New Testaments dating from the fifth century are among its oldest monuments, and the dialect in which they are written, and in which they are still read in the churches, known as Old Armenian, is not now understood by the people. During the last century there has been a great revival of letters among the Armenians, chiefly due to the Mekhitarists of Venice, and a literature in modern Armenian is rapidly developing alongside of the study and publication of the works of the ancient writers.

104 It has, however, received due attention both from scholars and antiquaries, and among the popularly-written accounts of it are very interesting chapters in Sir A. H. Layard’s Nineveh and Babylon, and in a charming volume by the Rev. H. F. Tozer, Turkish Armenia and Eastern Asia Minor.

105 An estimate by Mr. Devey, Her Britannic Majesty’s Vice–Consul at Van, gives a population of only 250,000 for the whole vilayet.

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