Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter iii10

Whether for “well or ill” the journey to Tihran is begun. I am ashamed to say that I had grown so nervous about its untried elements, and about the possibilities of the next two months, that a very small thing would have made me give it up at the last moment; but now that I am fairly embarked upon it in splendid weather, the spirit of travel has returned.

Much remained for the last morning — debts to be paid in complicated money, for Indian, Turkish, and Persian coins are all current here; English circular notes to be turned into difficult coin, and the usual “row” with the muleteers to be endured. This disagreeable farce attends nearly all departures in the East, and I never feel the comfortable assurance that it means nothing.

The men weighed my baggage, which was considerably under weight, the day before, but yesterday three or four of them came into the courtyard, shouting in Arabic at the top of their loud harsh voices that they would not carry the loads. Hadji roared at them, loading his revolver all the time, calling them “sons of burnt fathers,” and other choice names. Dr. Bruce and Dr. Sutton reasoned with them from the balcony, when, in the very height of the row, they suddenly shouldered the loads and went off with them.

Two hours later the delightful hospitalities of Dr. and Mrs. Sutton were left behind, and the farewell to the group in the courtyard of the mission house is a long farewell to civilisation. Rumours of difficulties have been rife, and among the various dismal prophecies the one oftenest repeated is that we shall be entangled in the snows of the Zagros mountains; but the journey began propitiously among oranges and palms, bright sunshine and warm good wishes. My mule turns out a fine, spirited, fast-walking animal, and the untried saddle suits me. My marching equipment consists of two large holsters, with a revolver and tea-making apparatus in one, and a bottle of milk, and dates in the other. An Afghan sheepskin coat is strapped to the front of the saddle, and a blanket and stout mackintosh behind. I wear a cork sun-helmet, a gray mask instead of a veil, an American mountain dress with a warm jacket over it, and tan boots, scarcely the worse for a year of Himalayan travel. Hadji is dressed like a wild Ishmaelite.

Captain Dougherty of H.M.S. Comet and his chief engineer piloted us through the narrow alleys and thronged bazars — a zaptieh, or gendarme, with a rifle across his saddle-bow, and a sheathed sabre in his hand, shouting at the donkey boys, and clearing the crowd to right and left. Through the twilight of the bazars, where chance rays of sunshine fell on warm colouring, gay merchandise, and picturesque crowds; along narrow alleys, overhung by brown lattice windows; out under the glorious blue of heaven among ruins and graves, through the northern gateway, and then there was an abrupt exchange of the roar and limitations of the City of the Caliphs for the silence of the desert and the brown sweep of a limitless horizon. A walled Eastern city has no suburbs. It is a literal step from a crowded town to absolute solitude. The contrast is specially emphasised at Baghdad, where the transition is made from a great commercial city with a crowded waterway, to an uninhabited plain in the nudity of mid-winter.

A last look at gleaming domes, coloured minarets, and massive mausoleums, rising out of an environment of palms and orange groves, at the brick walls and towers of the city, at the great gate to which lines of caravans were converging from every quarter, a farewell to the kindly pilots, and the journey began in earnest.

The “Desert” sweeps up to the walls of Baghdad, but it is a misnomer to call the vast level of rich, stoneless, alluvial soil a desert. It is a dead flat of uninhabited earth; orange colocynth balls, a little wormwood, and some alkaline plants which camels eat, being its chief products. After the inundations reedy grass grows in the hollows. It is a waste rather than a desert, and was once a populous plain, and the rich soil only needs irrigation to make it “blossom as the rose.” Traces of the splendid irrigation system under which it was once a garden abound along the route.

The mid-day and afternoon were as glorious as an unclouded sky, a warm sun, and a fresh, keen air could make them. The desert freedom was all around, and the nameless charm of a nomadic life. The naked plain, which stretched to the horizon, was broken only by the brown tents of Arabs, mixed up with brown patches of migrating flocks, strings of brown camels, straggling caravans, and companies of Arab horsemen heavily armed. An expanse of dried mud, the mirage continually seen, a cloudless sky, and a brilliant sun — this was all. I felt better at once in the pure, exhilarating desert air, and nervousness about the journey was left behind. I even indulged in a gallop, and except for her impetuosity, which carried me into the middle of a caravan, and turning round a few times, the mule behaved so irreproachably that I forgot the potential possibilities of evil. Still, I do not think that there can ever be that perfect correspondence of will between a mule and his rider that there is between a horse and his rider.

The mirage was almost continual and grossly deceptive. Fair blue lakes appeared with palms and towers mirrored on their glassy surfaces, giving place to snowy ranges with bright waters at their feet, fringed by tall trees, changing into stately processions, all so absolutely real that the real often seemed the delusion. These deceptions, continued for several hours, were humiliating and exasperating.

Towards evening the shams disappeared, the waste purpled as the sun sank, and after riding fifteen miles we halted near the mud village of Orta Khan, a place with brackish water and no supplies but a little brackish sheep’s milk. The caravanserai was abominable, and we rode on to a fine gravelly camping-ground, but the headman and some of the villagers came out, and would not hear of our pitching the tents where we should be the prey of predatory hordes, strong enough, they said, to overpower an officer, two zaptiehs, and three orderlies! Being unwilling to get them into trouble, we accepted a horrible camping-ground, a mud-walled “garden,” trenched for dates, and lately irrigated, as damp and clayey as it could be. My dhurrie will not be dry again this winter. The mules could not get in, the baggage was unloaded at some distance, and was all mixed up, and Hadji showed himself incapable; my tent fell twice, remained precarious, and the kanats were never pegged down at all.

The dhurrie was trampled into the mud by clayey feet. Baggage had to be disentangled and unpacked after dark, and the confusion apt to prevail on the first night of a march was something terrible. It opened my eyes to the thorough inefficiency of Hadji, who was so dazed with opium this morning that he stood about in a dream, ejaculating “Ya Allah!” when it was suggested that he should bestir himself, leaving me to do all the packing, groaning as he took up the tent pegs, and putting on the mule’s bridle with the bit hanging under her chin!

The night was very damp, not quite frosty, and in the dim morning the tent and its contents were wet. Tea at seven, with Baghdad rusks, with a distinctly “native taste,” two hours spent in standing about on the damp, clayey ground till my feet were numb, while the men, most of whom were complaining of rheumatism, stumbled through their new work; and then five hours of wastes, enlivened by caravans of camels, mules, horses, or asses, and sometimes of all mixed, with their wild, armed drivers. The leader of each caravan carries a cylinder-shaped bell under his throat, suspended from a red leather band stitched with cowries, another at his chest, and very large ones, often twenty-four inches long by ten in diameter, hanging from each pack. Every other animal of the caravan has smaller bells, and the tones, which are often most musical, reach from the deep note of a church bell up to the frivolous jingle of sleigh bells; jingle often becomes jangle when several caravans are together. The katirgis (muleteers) spend large sums on the bells and other decorations. Among the loads we met or overtook were paraffin, oranges, pomegranates, carpets, cotton goods, melons, grain, and chopped straw. The waste is covered with tracks, and a guide is absolutely necessary.

The day has been still and very gloomy, with flakes of snow falling at times. The passing over rich soil, once cultivated and populous, now abandoned to the antelope and partridge, is most melancholy. The remains of canals and water-courses, which in former days brought the waters of the Tigris and the Diyalah into the fields of the great grain-growing population of these vast levels of Chaldæa and Mesopotamia, are everywhere, and at times create difficulties on the road. By road is simply meant a track of greater or less width, trodden on the soil by the passage of caravans for ages. On these two marches not a stone has been seen which could strike a ploughshare.

Great ancient canals, with their banks in ruins and their deep beds choked up and useless, have been a mournful feature of rather a dismal day’s journey. We crossed the bed of the once magnificent Nahrwan canal, the finest of the ancient irrigation works to the east of the Tigris, still in many places from twenty-five to forty feet deep and from 150 to 200 feet in breadth.

For many miles the only permanent village is a collection of miserable mud hovels round a forlorn caravanserai, in which travellers may find a wretched refuge from the vicissitudes of weather. There is a remarkable lack of shelter and provender, considering that this is not only one of the busiest of caravan routes, but is enormously frequented by Shiah pilgrims on their way from Persia to the shrines of Kerbela.

After crossing the Nahrwan canal the road keeps near the right bank of the Diyalah, a fine stream, which for a considerable distance runs parallel with the Tigris at a distance of from ten to thirty miles from it, and falls into it below Baghdad; and imamzadas and villages with groves of palms break the line of the horizon, while on the left bank for fully two miles are contiguous groves of dates and pomegranates. These groves are walled, and among them this semi-decayed and ruinous town is situated, miserably shrunk from its former proportions. We entered Yakobiyeh after crossing the Diyalah by a pontoon bridge of twelve boats, and found one good house with projecting lattice windows, and a large entrance over which the head and ears of a hare were nailed; narrow, filthy lanes, a covered bazar, very dark and ruinous, but fairly well supplied, an archway, and within it this caravanserai in which the baggage must be waited for for two hours.

This first experience of a Turkish inn is striking. There is a large square yard, heaped with dirt and rubbish, round which are stables and some dark, ruinous rooms. A broken stair leads to a flat mud roof, on which are some narrow “stalls,”—rooms they cannot be called — with rude doors fastening only from the outside, for windows small round holes mostly stuffed with straw near the roof, for floors sodden earth, for fireplaces holes in the same, the walls slimy and unplastered, the corners full of ages of dusty cobwebs, both the walls and the rafters of the roof black with ages of smoke, and beetles and other abominations hurry into crannies, when the doors are opened, to emerge as soon as they are shut. A small hole in the wall outside each stall serves for cooking. The habits of the people are repulsive, foul odours are only hybernating, and so, mercifully, are the vermin.

While waiting for the “furniture” which is to make my “unfurnished apartment” habitable, I write sitting on my camp stool with its back against the wall, wrapped up in a horse-blanket, a heap of saddles, swords, holsters, and gear keeping the wind from my feet. The Afghan orderly smokes at the top of the stair. Plumes of palms and faintly-seen ridges of snowy hills appear over the battlements of the roof. A snow wind blows keenly. My fingers are nearly numb, and I am generally stiff and aching, but so much better that discomforts are only an amusement. Snow is said to be impending. I have lunched frugally on sheep’s milk and dates, and feel everything but my present surroundings to be very far off, and as if I had lived the desert life, and had heard the chimes of the great caravans, and had seen the wild desert riders, and the sun sinking below the level line of the desert horizon, for two months instead of two days.

Yakobiyeh is said to have 800 houses. It has some small mosques and several caravanserais, of which this is the best! It was once a flourishing place, but repeated ravages of the plague and chronic official extortions have reduced it to decay. Nevertheless, it grows grain enough for its own needs on poorly irrigated soil, and in its immense gardens apples, pears, apricots, walnuts, and mulberries flourish alongside of the orange and palm.

Kizil Robat, Jan. 14.— It was not very cold at Yakobiyeh. At home few people would be able to sit in a fireless den, with the door open, on a January night, but fireless though it was, my slender camp equipage gave it a look of comfort, and though rats or mice ate a bag of rusks during the night, and ran over my bed, there were no other annoyances. Hadji grows more dazed and possibly more unwilling every day, as he sees his vista of perquisites growing more limited, and to get off, even at nine, I have to do the heavy as well as the light packing myself.

There was a great “row,” arising out of an alleged delinquency of the katirgis concerning payment, when we left Yakobiyeh the following morning. The owners of the caravanserai wanted to detain us, and the archway was so packed with a shouting, gesticulating, scowling, and not kindly crowd, mostly armed, that it was not easy for me to mount. The hire of mules always includes their fodder and the keep of the men, but in the first day or two the latter usually attempt to break their bargain, and compel their employer to provide for them. So long as Arabic is spoken Hadji acts as sole interpreter, and though soldiers and zaptiehs were left with him he was scared at being left behind with the baggage. The people stormed and threatened at the top of their voices, but doubtless it was not so bad as it sounded, for we got through the bazars without molestation, and then into a perplexing system of ancient water-courses whose high broken banks and deep waterless beds intersect each other and the road. In contrast to this magnificent irrigation system there are modern water-channels about a foot wide, taken from the river Diyalah, which, small as they are, turn the rich deep soil into a “fruitful field.”

After these glimpses of a prosperity which once was and might be again (for these vast alluvial plains, which extend from the Zagros mountains to the Euphrates and up to the Syrian desert, are capable with irrigation and cultivation of becoming the granary of Western Asia), the road emerges on a level and somewhat gravelly waste, on which after a long ride we were overtaken by a zaptieh sent by the Persian agent in Yakobiyeh, to say that the baggage and servants were being forcibly detained, but shortly afterwards with a good glass the caravan was seen emerging from the town.

The country was nearly as featureless as on the preceding day, and on the whole quite barren; among the few caravans on the road there were two of immense value, the loads being the best description of Persian carpets. There were a few families on asses, migrating with all their possessions, and a few parties of Arab horsemen picturesquely and very fully armed, but no dwellings, till in the bright afternoon sunshine, on the dreariest stretch of an apparently verdureless waste, we came on the caravanserai of Wiyjahea, a gateway with a room above it, a square court with high walls and arched recesses all round for goods and travellers, and large stables. A row of reed huts, another of Arab tents, and a hovel opposite the gateway, where a man with two guns within reach sells food, tobacco, and hair ropes, make up this place of horror. For, indeed, the only water is a brackish reedy pool, with its slime well stirred by the feet of animals, and every man’s hand is against his brother.

We proposed to pitch my tent in a ruined enclosure, but the headman was unwilling, and when it was suggested that it should be placed between the shop and the caravanserai, he said that before sunset all the predatory Arabs for ten miles round would hear that “rich foreigners were travelling,” and would fall upon and plunder us, so we must pitch, if at all, in the filthy and crowded court of the caravanserai. The balakhana, or upper room, was too insecure for me, and had no privacy, as the fodder was kept in it, and there was no method of closing the doors, which let in the bitterly cold wind.

We arrived at 3 P.M., and long before sunset a number of caravans came in, and the courtyard was full of horses, mules, and asses. When they halted the loads were taken off and stacked in the arched recesses; next, the great padded pack-saddles, which cover nearly the whole back, were removed, revealing in most cases deep sores and ulcers. Then the animals were groomed with box curry-combs, with “clatters” like the noise of a bird-scarer inside them. Fifty curry-combs going at once is like the din of the cicada. Then the beasts were driven in batches to the reedy pool, and came flying back helter-skelter through the archway, some fighting, others playing, many rolling. One of them nearly pulled my tent over by rolling among the tent ropes. It had been pitched on damp and filthy ground in a corner of the yard, among mules, horses, asses, dogs, and the roughest of rough men, but even there the damp inside looked like home.

After this brief hilarity, the pack-saddles, which serve as blankets, were put on, the camels were made to lie down in rows, most of the mules and horses were tethered in the great stable, where they neighed, stamped, and jangled their bells all night, and others were picketed in the yard among the goats and donkeys and the big dogs, which wandered about yelping. Later, the small remaining space was filled up with sheep. It was just possible to move, but no more, and sheep and goats were even packed under the flys of my tent. The muleteers and travellers spread their bedding in the recesses, lighted their fires of animal fuel, and cooked their food.

At sunset the view from the roof was almost beautiful. Far away, in all directions, stretched the level desert purpling in the purple light. Very faintly, on the far horizon to the north-east, mountain ranges were painted in amethyst on an orange sky. Horsemen in companies galloped to tents which were not in sight, strings of camels cast their long shadows on the purple sand, and flocks of big brown sheep, led by armed shepherds, converged on the reedy pool in long brown lines. The evening air was keen, nearly frosty.

The prospects for the night were not encouraging, and on descending the filthy stair on which goats had taken up their quarters, I found the malodorous, crowded courtyard so blocked, that shepherds, with much pushing, shouting, and barking of big dogs, with difficulty made a way for me to pass through the packed mass of sheep and goats into the cold, damp tent, which was pitched on damp manure, two or three feet deep, into which heavy feet had trampled the carpet. The uproar of katirgis and travellers went on for another two hours, and was exchanged later for sounds of jangling bells, yelping and quarrelling dogs, braying asses, bleating sheep, and coarsely-snoring men.

At 9 P.M. the heavy gates, clamped with iron, were closed and barred, and some belated travellers, eager to get in from the perils of the outside, thundered at them long and persistently, but “the door was shut,” and they encountered a hoarse refusal. The seraidar said that 400 horses and mules, besides camels and asses, 2000 sheep, and over 70 men were lodged in the caravanserai that night.

The servants were in a recess near, and Hadji professed that he watched all night, and said that he fired at a man who tried to rob my tent after the light went out, but I slept too soundly to be disturbed, till the caravans and flocks left at daybreak, after a preliminary uproar of two hours. It was bitterly cold, and my tent and its contents were soaked with the heavy dew, nearly doubling their weight.

I started at 9 A.M., before the hoar-frost had melted, and rode with the zaptieh over flat, stoneless, alluvial soil, with some irrigation and the remains of some fine canals. There are villages to be seen in the distance, but though the soil is rich enough to support a very large population, there are no habitations near the road except a few temporary reed huts, beside two large caravanserais. There was little of an interesting kind except the perpetual contrast between things as they are and things as they were and might be. Some large graveyards, with brick graves, a crumbling imamzada, a pointed arch of brick over the Nahrud canal, a few ass caravans, with a live fowl tied by one leg on the back of each ass, and struggling painfully to keep its uneasy seat, some cultivation and much waste, and then we reached the walled village of Sheraban, once a town, but now only possessing 300 houses.

Passing as usual among ruinous dwellings and between black walls with doors here and there, by alleys foul with heaps of refuse, and dangerous from slimy pitfalls, in the very foulest part we turned into the caravanserai, its great courtyard reeking with filth and puddles, among which are the contaminated wells from which we are supposed to drink. The experience of the night before was not repeated. There were fairly good rooms, mine looking into a palm garden, through a wooden grating, cold truly, but pleasant. I fear we may never have such “luxury” again. I remarked to my fellow-traveller that our early arrival had fortunately given us the “choice of rooms,” and he replied, “choice of pig-styes — choice of dens!” but my experience at Wiyjahea has deprived me of the last remnants of fastidiousness!

I walked through the ruinous, wretched town, and its poor bazar, where the very fine physique of the men was in marked contrast with their wretched surroundings, and gives one the impression that under honest officials they might be a fine people. They are not genial to strangers, however. There was some bad language used in the bazar, and on the roads they pass one in silence at the best, so unlike the Tibetans with their friendly Tzu. At Sheraban one of the muleteers forced his way into my room, and roughly turned over my saddle and baggage, accusing me of having taken his blanket! Hadji is useless under such circumstances. He blusters and fingers his revolver, but carries no weight. Indeed his defects are more apparent every day. I often have to speak to him two or three times before I can rouse him from his opium dream, and there is a growing inclination to shirk his very light work when he can shift it upon somebody else. I hope that he is well-meaning, as that would cover a multitude of faults, but he is very rough and ignorant, and is either unable or unwilling to learn anything, even how to put up my trestle bed!

Open rooms have sundry disadvantages. In the night a cat fell from the roof upon my bed, and was soon joined by more, and they knocked over the lamp and milk bottle, and in the darkness had a noisy quarrel over the milk.

The march of eighteen miles here was made in six hours, at a good caravan pace. The baggage animals were sent off in advance, and the zaptieh led a mule loaded with chairs, blankets, and occupations. I ride with the zaptieh in front of me till I get near the halting-place, when M—— and his orderly overtake me, as it might be disagreeable for a European woman to enter a town alone.

The route lies over treeless levels of the same brown alluvial soil, till it is lifted on a gentle gravelly slope to a series of low crumbling mounds of red and gray sandstone, mixed up with soft conglomerate rocks of jasper and porphyry pebbles. These ranges of mounds, known as the Hamrin Hills, run parallel to the great Kurdistan ranges, from a point considerably below Baghdad, nearly to Mosul and the river Zab. They mark the termination in this direction of the vast alluvial plains of the Tigris and Euphrates, and are the first step to the uplifted Iranian plateau.

Arid and intricate ravines, dignified by the name of passes, furrow these hills, and bear an evil reputation, as Arab robbers lie in wait, “making it very unsafe for small caravans.” A wild, desolate, ill-omened-looking region it is. When we were fairly within the pass, the zaptieh stopped, and with much gesticulation and many repetitions of the word effendi, made me understand that it was unsafe to proceed without a larger party. We were unmolested, but it is a discredit to the administration of the province that an organised system of pillage should be allowed to exist year after year on one of the most frequented caravan routes in Turkey. There were several companies of armed horsemen among the ranges, and some camels browsing, but we met no caravans.

From the top of the descent there was a striking view over a great brown alluvial plain, watered by the Beladruz and the Diyalah, with serrated hills of no great height, but snow-covered; on its east side a silent, strange, weird view, without interest or beauty as seen under a sullen sky. There are no villages on this march, but ancient canals run in all directions, and fragments of buildings, as well as of brick and pottery, scattered over the unploughed surface, are supposed by many to mark the situation of Dastagird, the residence of Khosroe Parviz in the seventh century. I have no books of reference with me, and can seldom write except of such things as I see and hear.

Farther on a multitude of irrigation ditches have turned a plain of dry friable soil into a plain of mud, through which it was difficult to struggle. Then came a grove of palms, and then the town or village of Kizil Robat (Red Shrine), with its imamzada, whose reputation for sanctity is indicated by the immense number of graves which surround it. The walls of this decayed and wretched town are of thick layers of hardened but now crumbling earth, and on the east side there is an old gateway of burned brick. There are said to be 400 houses, which at the lowest computation would mean a population of 2000, but inhabited houses and ruins are so jumbled up together that one cannot form any estimate.

So woe-begone and miserable a place I never saw, and the dirt is appalling even in this dry weather. In spring the alleys of the town are impassable, and people whose business calls them out cross from roof to roof on boards. Pools of filthy water, loathsome ditches with broad margins of trodden slime full of abominations, ruins of houses, yards foul with refuse, half-clothed and wholly unwashed children, men of low aspect standing in melancholy groups, a well-built brick bazar, in which Manchester cottons are prominent, more mud and dirt, some ruinous caravanserais, and near the extremity of the town or village is the horrible one in which I now am, said to be the best, with a yard a foot deep in manure and slush, in the midst of which is the well, and around which are stables and recesses for travellers.

At first it seemed likely that I should fall so low as to occupy one of these, but careful investigation revealed a ruinous stair leading to the roof, up which were two rooms, or shall I say three? — an arched recess such as coals are kept in, a small room within it, and a low wood hole. The open arch, with a mangel or iron pan of charcoal, serves as the “parlour” this January night, M—— occupies the wood hole, and I the one room, into which Hadji, with many groans and ejaculations of “Ya Allah!” has brought up the essential parts of my baggage. The evening is gray and threatening, and low, snow-covered hills look grimly over the bare brown plain which lies outside this mournful place.

Khannikin, Jan. 15.— This has been a hard, rough march, but there will be many worse ahead. Rain fell heavily all night, converting the yard into a lake of trampled mud, and seemed so likely to continue that it was difficult to decide whether to march or halt. Miserable it was to see mules standing to be loaded, up to their knees in mud, bales of tents and bedding lying in the quagmire, and the shivering Indian servants up to their knees in the swamp. In rain steadily falling the twelve animals were loaded, and after the usual scrimmage at starting, in which the bakhsheesh is often thrown back at us, we rode out into a sea of deep mud, through which the mules, struggling and floundering, got on about a mile an hour.

After a time we came to gravel, then relapsed into deep alluvial soil, which now means deep mire, then a low range of gravelly hills on which a few sheep and camels were browsing on artemisia and other aromatic herbs gave a temporary respite, then again we floundered through miles of mud, succeeded by miles of gravel and stones. The rain fell in torrents, and there was a cold strong wind to fight against. There was that amount of general unpropitiousness which is highly stimulating and inspiriting.

When noon came, there was not a rock or bush for shelter, and turning our backs to the storm we ate our lunch in our saddles. There was nothing to look at but brown gravel, or brown mud, brooded over by a gray mist. So we tramped on, hour after hour, in single file, the zaptieh leading, everything but his gun muffled in his brown abba, splashing through mud and water, the water pouring from my hat and cloak, the six woollen thicknesses of my mask dripping, seeing neither villages nor caravans, for caravans of goods do not travel in such rain as this. Then over a slope we went down into a lake of mud, where the aide-decamp of the Governor of Khannikin, in a fez and military frock-coat and trousers, with a number of Bashi Bazouks or irregulars, met M—— with courtesies and an invitation.

From the top of the next slope there was a view of Khannikin, a considerable-looking town among groves of palms and other trees. Then came a worse sea of mud, and a rudely cobbled causeway, so horrible that it diverted us back into the mud, which was so bottomless that it drove us back to the causeway, and the causeway back to the mud, the rain all the time coming down in sheets. This causeway, without improvement, is carried through Khannikin, a town with narrow blind alleys, upon which foul courtyards open, often so foul as to render the recent ravages of cholera (if science speaks truly) a matter of necessity. The mud and water in these alleys was up to the knees of the mules. Not a creature was in the streets. No amount of curiosity, even regarding the rare sight of a Frank woman, could make people face the storm in flimsy cotton clothes.

Where the road turns to the bridge a line of irregular infantry was drawn up, poorly dressed, soaked creatures, standing in chilly mud up to their ankles, in soaked boots reaching to their knees. These joined and headed the cavalcade, and I fell humbly in the rear. Poor fellows! To keep step was impossible when it was hard work to drag their feet out of the mire, and they carried their rifles anyhow. It was a grotesque procession. A trim officer, forlorn infantry, wild-looking Bashi Bazouks, Europeans in stout mackintoshes splashed with mud from head to foot, mules rolling under their bespattered loads, and a posse of servants and orderlies crouching on the top of baggage, muffled up to the eyes, the asses which carry the katirgis and their equipments far behind, staggering and nearly done up, for the march of seventeen miles had taken eight and a half hours.

An abrupt turn in the causeway leads to the Holwan, a tributary of the Diyalah, a broad, rapid stream, over which the enterprise of a Persian has thrown a really fine brick bridge of thirteen heavily-buttressed arches, which connects the two parts of the town and gives some dignity and picturesqueness to what would otherwise be mean. On the left bank of the Holwan are the barracks, the governor’s house, some large caravanserais, the Custom-house, and a quarantine station, quarantine having just been imposed on all arrivals from Persia, giving travel and commerce a decided check.

After half a mile of slush on the river bank we entered by a handsome gateway a nearly flooded courtyard, and the Governor’s house hospitably engorged the whole party.

The fully-laden mules stuck in the mud a few miles off, and did not come in for two hours, and in spite of covers everything not done up in waterproof was very wet. The servants looked most miserable, and complained of chills and rheumatism, and one of the orderlies is really ill. We cannot move till the storm is over.

The rain falls heavily still, the river is rising, the alleys are two feet deep in slush, travel is absolutely suspended, and it is not possible without necessity to go out. It was well indeed that we decided to leave the shelterless shelter of Kizil Robat. Nothing can exceed the wretchedness of Khannikin or any Turkish town in such rain as this. Would that one could think that it would be washed, but as there are no channels to carry off the water it simply lodges and stagnates in every depression, and all the accumulations of summer refuse slide into these abominable pools, and the foul dust, a foot deep, becomes mud far deeper; buried things are half uncovered; torrents, not to be avoided, pour from every roof, the courtyards are knee-deep in mud, the cows stand disconsolately in mud; not a woman is to be seen, the few men driven forth by the merciless exigences of business show nothing but one eye, and with “loins girded” and big staffs move wearily, stumbling and plunging in the mire.

After some hours the flat mud roofs begin to leak, water finds out every weak place in the walls, the bazars, only half open for a short time in the day, are deserted by buyers, and the patient sellers crouch over mangels, muffled up in sheepskins, the caravanserais are crammed and quarrelsome; the price of fodder and fuel rises, and every one is drowned in rain and wretchedness. Even here, owing to the scarcity of fuel, nothing can be dried; the servants in their damp clothes come in steaming; Hadji in his misshapen “jack-boots,” which he asserts he cannot take off, spreads fresh mud over the carpets whenever he enters; I shift from place to place to avoid the drip from the roof — and still the rain comes down with unabated vigour!

10 I present my diary letters much as they were written, believing that the details of travel, however wearisome to the experienced traveller, will be interesting to the “Untravelled Many,” to whom these volumes are dedicated.

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