The Land of the Lion and the Sun as Seen on a Summer Caravan Trip
By Harold F. Weston, The National Geographic Magazine April 1921, pp417-468
Note that this copy of the article contains the sections on Kurds, pp417-425 only.
PERSIANS say, with a great feeling of envy, that the man who has seen the most of the world is the greatest liar. So when I am asked to tell “all about Persia,” 1 generally ask if I should not include Russia, too, having been there just six hours.
What counts most in enjoying, visualizing, or telling about the “romantic East,” or any strange place, is your power of imagination. I can but bring together a few faded petals; the reader’s imagination must arrange them and appropriately spray them with attar of roses.
Persia, for a surprising majority of people in America, is not much more definite than a hazy pink or green spot swimming around India “Oh, you know, beyond Turkey.”
Persia suggests Omar Khayyam, gardens and rugs, rugs remembered from colorful magazine advertisements or hasty glimpses into Fifth Avenue windows. Many dusty books lie on library shelves. All I propose to do is to offer a few sketches in rough outline, which may help to visualize Persia of today; to pin those green or pink spots onto the map by a few vivid incidents, border them with bleak mountain ranges. dot here and there with crumbling palaces and cypressed gardens, color with affable hosts in the form of rotund chieftains or fugitive brigands, enliven with m mysterious veiled ladies and equally hidden but more numerous minute “critters”; then sweep it all over with dust, heat, decay, and almost unbroken desert.
Persia is almost as large as Germany, France, Italy, and the British Isles combined. It is an arid plateau from 3,000 to 7,000 feet high, seamed by snowcapped mountains.
The people are mostly Aryan, but but you can read all this in any encyclopedia. So we will start in the good old fashioned way.
IN THE BEGINING
Once upon a time there was an armistice and two young Americans, who since ’16 had been with the “Y” in Mesopotamia, conceived the idea of crossing Persia by caravan. The British military authorities gave the casual that the 2,000 brigands still in possession of the one main caravan route through central Persia might have something to say about it, though the British were sending assistance to the Persian Government to round them up. That was naturally the straw that led the camel to drink, and by May we had left Baghdad with permission to travel on the British military motor convoys through Kurdish tan to the Caspian.
A Kurdish lad was obtained as a servant, sonic emergency rations, a sixty pound tent which was never used except to be reviled (by Persian muleteers, of course), and various other incidentals, such as medicines, camera films and cash.
A Sir Somebody wrote about his trip through Persia, that he had uselessly carried two articles a revolver and a large box of insect powder. In both cases he sighed, “Of what u se is one against so many!” Yea, verily; but lie who would venture into the land of “the lion and the sun,” let him go well armed with a goodly supply of patience and faith that all is the will of God, no matter what happens: water to drink in which countless pilgrims have performed perfunctory ablutions; mules that are to come tomorrow, you wait, but, “Inshallah” (if God wills it), there will be another tomorrow for God is indeed Great, “Allahu Akbar!”
THE GATEWAY TO KURDISTAN
Leaving Baghdad by the little railroad, which ran almost to the Persian border, by the second day we arrived at Khanikin. There is only one passable route from Mesopotamia through Kurdistan into central or northern Persia; hence the importance of the towns on the road used by thousands of caravans and pilgrims.
Let me present a brief sketch of the setting as we were waiting to cross the frontier:
Tents pure white against the autumn toned uplands; for, although it was May, the coarse grass, thistles, and wild flowers that carpet these desert hills in the spring had already been scorched by the sun. Behind’, the dark purple ranges that border the Persian plateau were still spotted with silver streaks of snow.
Black lines were slowly moving supply carts and cavalry of the British forces marching tip to cross Persia to the Caspian. Squads of khaki clad figures on the parade ground near the camp, balanced on the other side by the dark brown forms of camels, which were being loaded with bales of fodder to the accompaniment of an intermittent series of pathetic, enraged, impassioned roars and raucous gurgles from the protesting beasts.
Half a mile below lay the little mud built town of Khanikin, half Arab, hat half Persian, brilliant in the sun against a dark fringe of date palms. Along the dusty road between the high walled gardens there came out of the town a straggling group of donkeys and blue clad men, returning Persian pilgrims from the sacred cities of Kerbela and Nedief or caravans of merchandise for the bazaars of Hamadan or Teheran, all with thinking bells, Jangling bells, and clouds of dust.
At last our convoy of Ford cars was ready to leave, and, bumping and chugoring, we wound along the white line of the new macadamized road toward the Persian hills.
The journey to Hamadan some 300 miles was by stages of twenty miles a day, accomplished in the early morning, before the heat of the day. The cars were driven by unskilled Indian mechanice, which fact added zest to the scenery of successive mountains and rolling valleys. On one day, out of thirteen cars blessed Fords), one turned turtle, one burned up, one broke its steering gear on a c ass, and one ran over a Kurd!
The following outline of a combined two days’ journey is quite typical of the scenery: First, along tile, wide Kangavar Valley, past a small village with fine poplars and deliciously scented sweet brier. Over a three arched brick bridge, which, though built some hundreds of years ago and of little more than a foot’s thickness at the top of the arch, was so well constructed that loaded two ton motor lorries could cross with safety (see Color Plate XII). Then tip through the narrow defile of a pass, leaving a magnificent view of a snow range behind its, onto an undulating plain, where brown and white oxen were pulling crude wooden prows. Skirting another insignificant village with a picturesque ruined “château” perched on the top of a steep crag. Down to the side of a swift flowing stream, with witch elm, wild almond, and clusters of fruit trees apricots, peaches, and cherries where we camped.
With the dawn, out again onto the barren plateau, up and down a second pass to a deserted valley with shimmering silt deposits. Around a promontory of the range we were encircling, and, from the height of a bluff, there lay the village of Huseinabad below us. A characteristic heat or dust haze turned the clouds shell pink, the clouds that browsed on the towering snow form of Mt. Elwend, which shouldered out the northern sky.
THE KURDISH HORSEMEN
The Kurds are racially quite distinct from the Persians and have rarely been submissive to the central government. They are in reality semi barbaric, nomadic tribes that live on their flocks and by hunting ill these wild mountain valleys. They have their own national costume, which is perhaps the most picture esque in all Persia.
Almost always armed to the teeth, these tribesmen look particularly romantic when dashing down a boulder strewn hillside on their sure footed ponies: the gleam of a rifle slung over a shoulder; flowing purple turban loosely bound around a huge black felt hat; broad, colorful scarf about the waist, half hiding two or even three bandoleers and above which projects hilts of a knife and a locally made revolver or perhaps a German automatic Mauser; baggy trousers, gaily tasseled and embroidered saddlecloths, and a certain air of bravado withal that vividly recalls an Oriental, a more brilliant Velasquez, or those gallantly attired heroes so naïvely shown in old Persian miniatures.
A KURDISH WEDDING CELEBRATION
The Kurdish women are generally somber in dress, but do not hide the beauty of their faces under veils as strictly as the Persian women. We were, however, lucky in seeing a gathering all decked out in their Sunday best. The occasion was a wedding.
It was evening. I was seated on a grave stone, painting the dilapidated town of Kasr i Shirin, sprawled out over the brow of the opposite hill, ending in the ruins of a. third century castle. I could look into a courtyard over the enclosing walls and see a noisy wedding crowd.
“Hi, ya, ya, ya, ya,” the women cried, emphasizing the first and last syllables, to the accompaniment of a big drum. There was an orchestra; too, consisting of four weird instruments a guitar violin, a piccolo flute, a six foot brass trombone horn, and kettledrums which were being played apparently at random and intermittently. Now and then one or more of the players would stop for refreshments, and then resume hastily and with much added gusto, catching up, I suppose, the part of the unwritten score that he had missed!
The men and women had formed in separate lines, and with locked arms were swaying backward and forward in a sort of folk dance.
Finally a group of men guests left the wedding, trotting, down the hill, still keep lug in step and singing in unison that monotonous refrain of the Kurdish wedding march. They were going to a pile of merchandise under some willows by the banks of the river. Soon they would call their camels from where they were grazing on the near-by hills; their caravan was to move on with sitting sun.
*Accuracy in reproducing the vivid tints and tones in Persian costumes, architecture, and skies in the preceding color plates has been obtained through the cooperation of Mr. Weston, who is an artist as well as an author. He not only furnished color charts for all of the illustrations, but eight of the photographs have been colored by him.