Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan, by Isabella Bird

Letter xxxv

The journey from Erzerum to Trebizond in the winter season occupies from ten to twelve days, and involves a transition from an altitude of 6000 feet to the sea-level, and from treelessness, aridity, and severities of cold to forests and moisture, a temperate climate, and the exquisite greenness of the slopes which descend upon the Black Sea. There is a well-made waggon road, carefully engineered, for the whole distance, with stone bridges in excellent repair; many of the khans are tolerable, supplies can be procured, and the country is passably safe.

I left Erzerum on the 2d of December, escorted by my kindly hosts as far as Elijeh, having an Armenian katirgi, who in every respect gave me the greatest satisfaction, and the same servants as before. The mercury fell rapidly the following night, was 2° below zero when I left Elijeh for Ashkala the next morning, and never rose above 15° during the whole day. The road follows the western branch of the Euphrates, the Frat, a reedy and winding stream. The horsemen and foot passengers were mostly muffled up in heavy cloaks with peaked hoods, and the white comforters which wrapped up their faces revealed only one eye, peering curiously out of a cavern of icicles. Icicles hung from the noses and bodies of the horses, it was not possible to ride more than half an hour at a time without being benumbed, and the snow was very deep for walking. After crossing the Euphrates twice by substantial stone bridges, I halted at Ashkala, a village of khans, at a clean but unfinished khan on the bank of the river, and in a room with unglazed windows and no possibility of making a fire experienced a temperature of 5° below zero. My dinner froze before I could finish it, the stock of potatoes for the journey, though wrapped in a fur cloak inside my yekdan, was totally spoilt, and my ink froze. The following day was cloudy and inclined to snow rather than frost, and the crossing of the much-dreaded Kop Dagh was managed without difficulty in five hours, in snow three feet deep. There is a refuge near the summit, but there are no habitations on the ascent or descent. It is a most dangerous pass, owing to the suddenness and fury of the storms, and only last winter sixty fine camels and ten drivers perished there in a blizzard. My zaptieh was left behind ill at the refuge, and I made the remainder of the journey without an escort. The Kop Dagh, 7500 feet in altitude, forms the watershed between the Euphrates valley and the Black Sea, and on such an afternoon as that on which I crossed it, when wild storms swept over successive mountain ranges, and yet wilder gleams lighted up the sinuous depression which marks the course of the Frat, the view from its lofty summit is a very striking one.

It was dark when I reached the very miserable hamlet on the western side of the Kop, and as earlier caravans had taken up the better accommodation, I had to content myself with a recess opening out of a camel stable. The camels sat in circles of ten, and pleasant family parties they looked, gossiping over their chopped straw, which, with a ball of barley-meal dough in the morning, constitutes their slender but sufficient diet. Nothing gives a grander idea of the magnitude and ramifications of commerce than the traffic on the road from Erzerum to Trebizond. During eleven days there has scarcely been a time when there has not been a caravan in sight, and indeed they succeed each other in a nearly endless procession, the majority being composed of stately mountain camels, gaily caparisoned, carrying large musical bells, their head-stalls of crimson leather being profusely tasselled and elaborately decorated with cowries and blue beads. The leader of each caravan wears a magnificent head-dress covering his head and neck, on which embroidery is lavishly used in combination with tinsel and coloured glass, the whole being surmounted by a crown with a plume set between the ears. There is one driver to every six animals; and these men, fine, robust, sturdy fellows, are all dressed alike, in strong warm clothing, the chief feature of which is a great brown sheepskin cap of mushroom shape, which projects at least nine inches from the head. The road is a highway for British goods. The bales and packing cases are almost invariably marked with British names and trade marks. The exception is Russian kerosene, carried by asses and horses, of which an enormous quantity was on the road.

I was glad to leave Kop Khané at daybreak, for caravan bells jingled, chimed, tolled, and pealed all night, and my neighbours the camels were under weigh at 3 A.M. The road descends gently down the wide valley of the Tchoruk, the ancient Acampsis, and then ascends to Baiburt, a town with a population of about 12,000 souls, 1800 being Christians. It is very picturesquely situated at the junction of two or three valleys, the houses rise irregularly as at Bitlis tier above tier, and the resemblance is heightened by a great reddish-yellow rock which rises in the centre, the long and varied contour of which is followed by the walls of a fortress imposing even in its ruins, round and square towers cresting the remarkable eminence. A handsome military college on a height, wide streets lined by well-built houses with projecting upper stories, and well-supplied and busy markets, in which an enormous quantity of mutton is exposed for sale, are among the chief features of this very striking town. A domiciliary visit from a courteous chief of police, who assured me that an escort was not needed, and resealed my passports, was my only contact with Turkish officialism between Erzerum and Trebizond.

After leaving Baiburt I diverged a little, in spite of very deep snow, to visit the ruined Armenian ecclesiastical edifices at Varzahan, a village from which a mountain road to Trebizond passing near the Greek monastery of Sumelas branches from the main road. The most interesting and best-preserved of these buildings is an octagonal chapel of a very elaborate design, with remains of a circle of slender shafts, a very fine west window, round arches, and some curious designs in fresco. In another a pointed arch, and a fragment of a blind arcade with niches on its outer face, remain, along with some very carefully-executed cable and twisted moulding. It was truly refreshing to come upon such very beautiful relics of Christian art in so wild a country. These edifices are attributed to the eleventh or twelfth century. In an ancient and adjacent cemetery there are several monumental stone rams, very much like the stone lions of the Bakhtiari country.

I quite broke down on that march, and was obliged to bribe the Turkish occupants of a most miserable hovel to vacate it for me, and on the following day was only able to ride three hours to Getchid. The sky was grim and threatening, and the snow deep, and when after a long ascent we descended into a really magnificent defile, so narrow that for a long distance the whole roadway is blasted out of the rock, a violent snowstorm came on, with heavy gusts of wind. There were high mountains with a few trees upon them dimly seen, walling in the wildest and most rugged part of the defile, where some stables offered a shelter, and I was glad to be allowed to occupy the wood house, a damp excavation in the mountain side! No words can convey an impression of the roughness of Asia Minor travelling in winter!

It was lonely, for the stable where the servants were was a short distance off, and the khanji came several times to adjure me to keep the bolt of the door fastened, for his barley was in my keeping, and there was a gang of robbers on the road! I fell asleep, however, but was awakened at midnight by yells, shouts, tramplings, and a most violent shaking of my very insecure door. It was the Turkish post, who, being unable to get into the stable, was trying to bring his tired horses into my den for a little rest! Fine fellows these Turkish mail riders are, who carry the weekly mail from Trebizond into the interior. The post drives two horses loaded with the mail bags in front of him at a gallop, urging them with yells and his heavy whip, the zaptieh escort galloping behind, and at this pace they dash up and down mountains and over plains by day and night, changing at short intervals, and are only behind time in the very worst of weather.

Snow fell heavily all night, and until late in the afternoon of the following day, but we started soon after seven, and plodded steadily along in an atmosphere of mystery, through intricate defiles, among lofty mountains half-seen, strange sounds half-heard, vanishing ravines and momentary glimpses of villages on heights, fortress-crowned precipices, suggestive of the days of Genoese supremacy, as in the magnificent gorge of Kala, and long strings of camels magnified in the snow-mist, to the Kala village, with its dashing torrent, its fine walnut trees, and its immense camel stables, in and outside of which 700 camels were taking shelter from the storm. We pushed on, however, during that day and the next, through the beautiful and populous Gumushkhané valley to Kupru Bridge, having descended almost steadily for five days.

The narrow valley of the Kharshut is magnificent, and on the second day the snow was only lying on the heights. The traveller is seldom out of sight of houses, which are built on every possible projection above the river, and on narrow spurs in wild lateral ravines, and wherever there are houses there are walnut, pear, apple and apricot trees, with smooth green sward below, and the walnut branches often meet over the road. The houses are mostly large, often whitewashed, always brown-roofed, and much like Swiss châlets, but without the long slopes of verdure which make Switzerland so fair. Instead of verdure there is the wildest rock and mountain scenery, a congeries of rock-walls, precipices, and pinnacles, and the semblance of minarets and fortresses, flaming red, or burnt sienna, or yellow ochre, intermingled with bold fronts of crimson and pale blue rock, the crimson cliffs looking in the rain as if torrents of blood were pouring over them. The roadway has been both blasted out of the rock and built up from the river. Far up picturesque ravines oxen were ploughing the red friable soil on heights which looked inaccessible; there was the velvety greenness of winter wheat; scrub oak and barberry find root-hold in rocky rifts, and among crags high up among the glittering snows contorted junipers struggle for a precarious existence.

The road was enlivened by local as well as through traffic, and brightened by the varied costumes of Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Lazes. The latter do not resemble the Turks in physiognomy or costume. All of them carry rifles and sabres, and two daggers in their girdles, one of which always has a cloven hilt. They are on their way to their native province of Lazistan with droves of horses, and are much dreaded by both the katirgis and khanjis on the road for their marauding habits. The Turkish Government has a very difficult task in ruling and pacifying the number of races which it has subjugated even in Asiatic Turkey. Between the Arabs of the Chaldæan Plains and the Lazes of the shores of the Black Sea I have met even in my limited travels with Sabeans, Jews, Armenians, Syrians, Yezidis, Kurds, Osmanlis, Circassians, and Greeks, alien and antagonistic in creed and race, but somehow held together and to some extent governed by a power which is, I think, by no means so feeble as she is sometimes supposed to be.

The Kharshut is crossed at Kupru Bridge by a very fine stone arch. This village, at the foot of the Zigana Mountain, is entirely composed of inferior khans, food shops, and smiths’ shops. The clang of hammers lasted late into the night, for the road was reported as “icy,” and more than 400 horses and mules were having their shoes roughed for the passage of the Zigana Mountain. I arrived late in the evening, when all the khans were full, and had to put up in a hovel, the door of which was twice attempted during the night by a band of Lazes, about whose proceedings Stephan, my katirgi, had been very suspicious. After the servants and katirgis, roused by my whistle, had rushed out of an opposite stable upon the marauders, I lay awake for some time trying to realise that my ride of 2500 miles was nearly at an end, and that European civilisation was only five days off; but it was in vain. I felt as if I should always be sleeping in stables or dark dens, always uttering the call to “boot and saddle” two hours before daylight, always crawling along mountain roads on a woolly horse, always planning marches, always studying Asiatic character, and always sinking deeper into barbarism!

From the summit of the Zigana Mountain to Trebizond is a steady descent of twelve hours. The ascent from Kupru Bridge occupied five hours and a half. It was a much more serious affair than crossing the Kop Dagh, for the snowstorm had lasted for three days, the snow was from four to nine feet deep on the summit, and the thawing of its surface at the lower altitudes, succeeded by keen frost, had resulted in the production of slopes of ice, over which I had to walk for two hours, as Boy could scarcely keep on his feet.

The early snow has a witchery of its own, and it may be that the Zigana Mountain and the views from it are not so beautiful as I think them, but under the circumstances in which I saw them, I was astonished with the magnificence of the scenery, and with the vast pine forests which clothe the mountain sides. Villages of châlets, with irregular balconies, and steep roofs projecting from two to six feet, are perched on rocky heights, or nestle among walnuts with a blue background of pines, above which tower spires and peaks of unsullied snow; ridges rise into fantastic forms and mimicries of minarets and castles; pines, filling gigantic ravines with their blue gloom, stand sentinels over torrents silenced for the winter; and colossal heights and colossal depths, an uplifted snow world of ceaseless surprises under a blue sky full of light, make one fancy oneself in Switzerland, till a long train of decorated camels or a turbaned party of armed travellers dissipates the dream.

The last hour of the ascent was very severe. The wind was strong and keen, and the drifting snow buffeted us unmercifully. The mercury fell to 3° below zero, and the cold was intense. Murphy complained of “trembles” in his knees and severe pain in his legs, and when we reached the summit was really ill. The drift was not only blinding and stinging but suffocating. I was quite breathless, and felt a chill round my heart. I could not even see Boy’s neck, and he cowered from the blast; but just as all things were obliterated I found myself being helped to dismount in the shelter of a camel stable full of Lazes, but was so benumbed that I could not stand. Some zaptiehs had the humanity to offer me the shelter of a hovel nearly buried in the snow, and made a fire and some coffee, and I waited there till the wind moderated. It came in such fierce gusts as actually to blow two of the baggage horses over on their sides. Murphy was really ill of fever for two days from the cold and exposure. The altitude of the pass is about 6627 feet.

The first part of the descent was made on foot, for the snow had drifted on the road to a height of fully twenty feet, leaving only a path of shelving ice on the brink of a precipitous slope. Earlier in the day twenty laden camels had gone over, and were heaped in the ravine below, not all dead. The road dips with some suddenness into a deep glen, dark with pine and beech forests; large rhododendrons and the Azalea pontica forming a dense undergrowth. Long gray lichen hung from the branches, Christmas roses and premature primroses bloomed in sheltered places, the familiar polypody and the Asplenium adiantum nigrum filled every crevice, soft green moss draped the rocks, there was a delicious smell of damp autumn leaves, and when we reached the Greek village of Hamzikeuy clouds were rolling heavily up the valley from the not far distant ocean.

The two days which followed were easy and pleasant, through a prosperous and peopled valley brightened by the rushing waters of the Surmel, the ancient Pyxites. Orchards and tillage beautify the lower slopes of the mountains, the road is excellent, the homesteads are in good repair, the people are bright and cheery-looking, and Greek villages with prominent churches on elevated spurs add an element of Christian civilisation to the landscape. The exceeding beauty of natural forests, of soft green sward starred with the straw-coloured blossoms of the greater hellebore, of abounding ferns and trailers, of “the earth bringing forth grass, the herb yielding seed, and the tree yielding fruit after his kind,” of prosperous villages with cheerful many-windowed houses and red-tiled deep-eaved roofs, can only be fully appreciated by the traveller who has toiled over the burning wastes of Persia with their mud villages and mud ruins, and across the bleak mountains and monotonous plateaux of the Armenian highlands, with their ant-hill dwellings, and their poverty-stricken population for ever ravaged by the Kurd.

“Tilled with a pencil,” carefully weeded, and abundantly manured, the country looks like a garden. The industrious Greek population thrives under the rule of the Osmanlis. Travellers on foot and on horseback abound, and khans and cafés succeed each other rapidly. When the long descent alongside of the Surmel was accomplished, the scenery gradually became tamer, and the look of civilisation more emphasised. The grass was if possible greener, the blossoming hellebore more abundant, detached balconied houses with their barns and outhouses evidenced the security of the country, the heat-loving fig began to find a place in the orchards, the funereal cypress appeared in its fitting position among graves, and there was a briny odour in the air, but, unfortunately for the traveller, the admirable engineering of the modern waggon road deprives him of that magnificent view of the ocean from a height which has wrung from many a wanderer since the days of the Ten Thousand the joyful exclamation, “Thalatta! Thalatta!

The valley opened, there was a low grassy hill, beyond it, broad yellow sands on which the “stormy Euxine” thundered in long creamy surges, and creeping up the sides of a wooded headland, among luxuriant vegetation, the well-built, brightly-coloured, red-roofed houses of the eastern suburb of Trebizond, the ancient Trapezus.114 It was the journey’s end, yet such is the magic charm of Asia that I would willingly have turned back at that moment to the snowy plateaux of Armenia and the savage mountains of Kurdistan.

I. L. B.

114 The itineraries will be found in Appendix B.

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