100 Years Ago: April 1921
This is the seventy-fifth entry in my series of reviews of National Geographic magazines that were produced one hundred years ago.
The first article in this month’s issue is entitled “Modern Persia and Its Capital” and was written by F. L. Bird, American college instructor in Teheran. It has the subtitle “And an Ascent of Mount Demavend, the Persian Olympus”. The article contains forty-seven black-and-white photographs, of which ten are full-page in size.
Persia had a long history of conflict. The Greek, Roman, Arab, Mongol, and Russian armies never quite remove Persia from the world stage. Babylon, Assyria, and Chaldea rose to power in rapid sequence, and quickly disappeared. Persia followed in their footsteps, elevating southwestern Asia to a center of civilization; struggled with Greece; disintegrated; but maintained its entity. Darius would fail to recognize his empire. No longer stretching from the Oxus and Indus to the shores Mediterranean, and down to the plains of Mesopotamia. By 1921, it was confined to the narrow limits of Modern Iran. The nucleus was still there in territory, race, language, and customs. Persia, in 1921, had a territory three times that of France. It contained ancient Media, mountainous Parthia, and the province of Fars, whence sprang the first great dynasty. The ruined capitals of Susa, Persepolis, and Ekbatana still stood on Persian soil. The population was mostly comprised of the original Iranian, or Aryan, people, and spoke a language based on the ancient Persian tongue. The Mohammedanism of their Arab conquerors penetrated the foundations of Persian life, yet their national characteristics and culture have survived. Time after time, Persia has drawn together her scattered provinces, had forced back the constricting circle of encroaching enemies. But in the last century, the increasing power of her neighbors, combined with her own decay, had turned the scales against her, and she had drawn behind her last barriers – the mountains and deserts which guarded the western portion of the Iranian plateau, the lone remaining part of the former empire. Sultan Ahmed Shah, the 156th “king of kings” sat on the tottering Persian throne.
Modern Persia, with the exception of Turkish speaking Azerbaijan and the semi-tropical region by the Caspian Sea, was a vast, mountain-ribbed desert plateau, studded here and there with oases forming ribbons of fertile green fringing the desert at the bases of sterile mountains. The encircling mountain wall shut out the rain from the central tableland. Rivers with sources, but no mouths, flowed half the year, and lost themselves in the parched desert waste. The population density was less than that of Texas, with half of the country uninhabited. Most of the remaining half was only suitable for sheep-grazing part of the year. That forced a fourth of Persia’s ten million people into a semi-nomadic existence, going from the high, well-watered mountain valleys in summer, to the warm plains in winter. Cities were few and small, there being only two or three of more than 100,000 inhabitants. Lower mountain valleys and oases were the centers for both towns and agricultural populations. Water was the chief concern of the Persian peasant. By diverting streams and building crude canals, a small portion of the desert had become a paradise, among the most fertile in the world. They produced the finest wheat and barley, grapes, apricots, peaches, nectarines, pomegranates, figs, and melons. In addition to foodstuffs, cotton, tobacco, and roses were grown. It was the desert contrast that had made the Persian poets sing of rose gardens and nightingales. Persia was beginning to learn from the British not only how to reclaim more desert by building better aqueducts and dams; but also, how to establish closer communication with the outside world, and to develop her resources.
Secluded by natural barriers, and suffering from a jealous rivalry with her neighbors, the Persians lacked the energy, initiative, and cooperative spirit necessary to develop their country themselves. The first Persian highway was built in 1900 by a Russian company. It ran from the port of Enzali, on the Caspian Sea, to capital city of Teheran. By 1916, only three or four roads, and a narrow-gauge railway running 5½ miles from Teheran to a suburban shrine, were the only competition for the picturesque, but slow-moving caravans. Then came the war. The Russians built a railroad to Tabriz, the provincial capital of Persian Azerbaijan. It was a more famous road that tested Persia’s neutrality. Almost from the dawn of history, a great international highway threaded its way through the plains of Mesopotamia from Babylon, Ctesiphon, and Bagdad to the Zargos Mountains, spiraling up that mountain stairway, and continued its way down mountain valleys, over wind-swept passes, and through cities across the Iranian plateau – Meshed, Merv, and Bokhara – on its way to the borders of China. The war chariots of Cyrus and Xerxes rumbled over it, Alexander led his armies along its course. Arabs surged through its gateway in the seventh century. Still later, it gave ready passage to the Mongol hoards of Hulagu and Genghis Khan. With the outbreak of the World War, German, Turkish, Russian, and British armies fought along that crumbling highway, where retreating Turks in ox-carts outdistanced advancing Russians in motor trucks. Before the war had ended, the British Royal Engineers had built a new macadamized road, the forerunner of a railway that would eventually connect Teheran and the rest of Persia to the Bagdad Railway.
No one knew how long there had been a city where the modern capital stood. It had not always been called Teheran, and it had not always been at quite the same location; but a city had existed in that locality as far back as Persian history recorded. The city stood 3,810 feet above sea-level, at the foot of the Elburz Mountains, which rose to nearly 13,000 feet. To the south was the great, lifeless desert, 900 miles in length, from the Elburz range, almost to the Indian Ocean. That desert dictated the location of this junction of the great trade route from Mesopotamia, the north and south road through central Persia, and the caravan trail through Kazvin and Tabriz to the Black Sea. Passes through the Elburz converged upon Teheran from the east and west. All-important water was abundant in the capital. It only got about ten inches of rain each year, but the overshadowing mountains were full of springs, wells, and rushing streams. To the northwest and northeast, the Karaj and Jajrud rivers burst from their mountain gorges and irrigated the plains surrounding the city which provided its food supply. The district lied at about the latitude of Cape Hatteras, but has a temperate climate, pleasant nine months of the year, and excessively hot and dry in summer. Although occupying an ancient site, Teheran was a modern city. It had been the capital of Persia for only a little more than century. When Agha Mohammed Khan founded the dynasty which ruled over Persia, he did not want to establish the seat of government so far from the pasturelands of the Kajars as Shiraz, the former capital. Teheran was ideally located, commanding the highways of the plateau and the entrances of the Elburz passes. In 1723, when the Afghans wiped out the city, it consisted of not more than 3,000 houses. By 1796, a European traveler reported a population of 15,000, including a garrison of 3,000. Once the dynasty was established, the city had grown to 300,000 by 1921. The rise of Russian commerce had largely restricted Teheran’s commercial importance to that of a local distributing center. The Persians commonly referred to Teheran as “The Foot of the Throne”. All the chiefs, nobles, land-owners, and generals crowded into the city. The merchants, architects, and skilled artisans found ready employment. The bazaars resounded with the tapping of silversmiths and coppersmiths, and were filled with the scent of products of the tanners. Naser-ed-din Shah ruled for 47 years, until he was assassinated in 1896. He had traveled extensively throughout Europe and modernized and beautified his capital. During his rule the city outgrew its surrounding mud walls which had enclosed it withing a four-mile circuit.
Nine-tenths of all travelers to Teheran use the Caspian port of Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. In peace time, Baku could be reached from Constantinople, and thence by rail through Tiflis, the capital of Georgia. From Baku, Persia was reached by Russian steamers, landing in the leading Persian seaport of Enzali. The author’s first glimpse of Persia was of thatched or red-tiled roofs of the low-lying town. Then he noticed the wide-branching trees of the dark, enveloping mass of jungle. Behind them were the cloud-mantled mountains, on whose other side was the desert, the real Persia. He traveled past orange groves and lily-padded lagoons, and through flower-carpeted jungles; and arrived at the city of Resht, a twenty-mile journey. Sixty inches of rain per year made that region a Garden of Eden, but had made the city an odorous, undrained mud-hole. Teheran was only 70 miles south of the Caspian, but the road climbed and twisted for 240 miles to arrive there. The author rode in a debris, pulled by four ponies harnessed abreast, along the well-built Russian road to Teheran. In theory, the journey required a day and a half, but with the many delays it took twice as long. From the humid region of the rice field the road ascended through the deep forest belt, home of the fierce Hyrcanian tigers used by the Roman emperors in the arena. Sometimes the road followed the Sefid Rud, or White River; other times it followed the brink of a canyon. The road got steeper and the forest was left behind. Vineyards covered the hillside, with occasional clumps of olive trees. Soon all signs of habitation disappeared, and the old coach climbed over barren rocks to the bleak summit of the pass, 7,000 feet above sea level. Broad, brown, rolling plains extended beyond the limit of vision. The naked southern scarp of the mountain showed no vestige of green. At the lower levels, irrigation ditches fed orchards and mud-walled gardens. Before long, the city of Kazvin came into view. Passing through a gaudily tiled gateway, the route led alone a wide avenue shaded by trees to a post-house/hotel. A large portion of the last ninety mile from Kazvin to Teheran was a stone-covered waste. The road ran parallel to the great northern mountain rim of the plateau. The only sign of approach to a major city was an increase in traffic. That included mule and camel caravans and primitive prairie schooners.
So sudden was the transition from desert to city that, before the author realized it, the journey had ended, and he found himself clattering across the stone causeway over the moat towards a multicolored gateway, overlayed with tiles. In Teheran, East and West had met, but had not mixed. Mr. Bird got a strong impression of the Orient upon entering the city, with its wide avenue bordered by walled gardens and palatial residences. The street life itself was noisy and primitive. Most of the homes of the middle class were one- or two-story, flat-roofed, adobe constructions. The northern of the city, built up during the last generation, was quite different from the southern, older section. That newer part was the product of western influence. It had wide, well-graded streets, some lined with elms. It boasted a tramway electric lights, movie theaters, hotels, restaurants, European shops, and buildings of semi-Western architecture. In that area were located government buildings, foreign residents, and most of the wealthy Persians. In the southern part of Teheran were the great bazaars amidst narrow, twisted alleys with filthy gutters and adobe houses. That major portion of Persian city life was yet untouched by Western ways. The city centered around a large public plaza, the Maidan-e-Toop Khaneh, or Artillery Square, which had been developed into a public park. At its eastern end was the British-managed Imperial Bank of Persia. Six important avenues led, through arched gateways, from the park. The royal palace, with the treasury, foreign offices, telegraph department, and other government buildings, were located withing an old, mud-walled citadel. There was an abundance of clear, flowing water in the well-kept, palace gardens. The author was unimpressed by the brick buildings’ architecture, but he found the exterior and interior decorations bizarre and fantastic. He felt the royal museum was well worth a visit. The one thing Teheran seemed to lack was fine historical institutions. There were no mosques or religious colleges of any antiquity or holiness, although modern ones were numerous. The great Maiden-e-Mashk, or Drill Square, was a forty-acre parade ground not far north of the central square. It was used as a racecourse, a football field, and a flying field for airplanes. From the field there was a clear, unobstructed view of the mountain range to the north, as well as the snow-clad cone of Demavend, which stood four miles high, off to the northeast.
While Persia was slowly changing, Western civilization had, as yet, merely touched the surface. The streets and bazaars of Teheran were examples of all stages in the transformations taking place. A luxurious motor car dodged a camels and donkeys, and drew up to the Hotel de Paris. The occupants made a break for the doorway, but, before they could reach it, they had to run the gauntlet of beggars, who clawed at their garments and wailed for alms. A peddler of Persian rugs, loaded on back of his donkey, hawked his wares on the corner of the avenue. The corner of the southeastern end of the stately British Legation garden was a favorite haunt of the proletariat. At such vantage points a mendicant dervish, garbed in a tattered crazy-quilt, was usually on hand to croak “Ya Hakk” at passersby. A narrow cross-street from that corner passed a number of typical native groceries. They were merely large stalls set in the street wall. Fruits and vegetables, soap and matches, were all on display. Khiaban-e-Lalehzar was Teheran’s Fifth Avenue. In the evening it was thronged with fastidious, self-important Persian gentlemen of leisure. Persian women were conspicuous by their absence. Modern shops, with show-windows, displayed European wares, from opera hats to telescopes. A vendor sold rose-flavored ice cream, while another sold hot-boiled potatoes. At one corner was a wandering magician, while at another was a professional storyteller. The bazaar possessed a never-failing interest to Mr. Bird. There a large part of the city’s trade transpired in what he described as one immense, primitive department store. More than twenty-five miles of narrow, arched passages wound and twisted past thousands of small shops. Here and there were archways opened to caravanserais, where caravans could be loaded and unloaded, and the goods safely stored.
Since Teheran was the capital and had drawn its population from throughout the whole country, it afforded the author an opportunity to acquire a general idea of the religious groups found in Persia. Nearly 97% of Teheran, and over 98% of all Persia was Moslem. There were about 5,000 Jews in Teheran, and 4,000 Armenians. Nearly all of the fewer than 100,000 Christians in Persia lived in the western part of the province of Azerbaijan. A remnant of Zoroastrians, or Fire Worshipers, still lived in Persia. Of the 11,000who had remained faithful to that ancient Persian religion, 400 lived in the capital. They were better businessmen and more honest than the Moslem Persians, and their women had greater freedom. Two million people of predominantly Tatar blood lived in northwestern Persia. In Teheran, they were chiefly found in the military. Every city, town, and district had sent citizens to the capital. The easiest way to distinguish them was by their distinctive headgear. The Kurds, of whom there were 600,000 in the country, wore hats which looked like huge, inverted black coffee pots. The Bakhtiaris, from the mountains in southwestern Persia, wore white felt preserving kettles. Women were not allowed to wear hats. Hats were used to denote class, the mullahs wore a huge, pillow-like turban, while the middle- and upper-class urban residents wore a round brimless felt or lambskin cap.
The great masses of the Teheran population lived in apartment-houses. The typical apartment-house was a one-story, mud-brick building, surrounding a court with a tank or pool of water in the center. The doors of the apartments all opened upon the central court. The single street entrance was a tunnel-like passageway into the courtyard. The rich, airy palaces of the grandee were quite a contrast. Their white columns and porticos gleamed through the luxuriant foliage of the gardens. Wheat bread was the most important, almost the only, food of the Persian masses on the plateau. Rice was the staff of life in the Caspian Sea region, and a favorite delicacy throughout the country. Bread was prepared in a number of ways. The most approved way was in the large ovens of the public bakeries. So important was bread that bakers had been put to death for overcharging their customers. The public baths of Persia were an important institution. Religious law required the devout Moslem to bathe at least once in ten days. The fuel employed in heating the baths was dung collected from the street and dried into cakes. The tea-house was the democratic Persian’s political and social club. They were everywhere – in the city, in the villages, and even along the caravan trails. The businessman or traveler could relax with a glass of tea, a cigarette or water-pipe, and a bit of gossip. The ice factory was merely a mud wall, two stories high throwing a shadow on a puddle in winter. The stored product served to cool many a glass of Persian sherbet during the withering summer’s heat.
The problem of food and water supply for a city the size of Washington D. C., without railway of steamship communication, without modern machines, without even farm wagons and cast-iron pipes, had been solved ingeniously by the people of Teheran. The water system was a marvel of primitive ingenuity. Row after row of earthen craters led toward the mountains. They marked the courses of underground aqueducts which brought the mountain waters a distance from five to ten miles to the city. When a source of water was found in the mountains a series of wells were dug by professional diggers. The bottoms of the wells were connected by tunnel through a stratum that was impervious to water. Thirty or more of those burrowed channels conveyed the entire water supply to Teheran, including water for irrigation. The delivery end of the system was deficient. The water was run about the city in open ditches, collected in pools, and impounded in huge underground reservoirs. The little brooks that appeared and vanished along the city streets were a refreshing sight when it hadn’t rained for months. The common use of water for drinking and laundry, led to much otherwise avoidable illness. The average flow year-round was nearly a million gallons per hour, but in winter it was too large and the summer too small. With waste from open ditches and leakage so great, there were parts of the city which received no water whatever in the dry season. The first Persian railway was an abbreviated narrow-gauge line that ran from the southern end of Teheran, five and a half miles, past the ruins of ancient Rei, to the village of Shah Abdul Azim, with its golden-domed shrine. The shrine attracted great crowds on every holiday.
The old city of Rhages, or Rei, founded in the fourth millennium B. C., was the capital and metropolis for many dynasties. It was an advanced base for Alexander the Great in his campaign against Darius III. It was the birthplace of the mother of Zoroaster and of Haroun-al-Raschid. All that remained were a few ruined, still massive, walls. A noted spring, Chashmah-i-Ali, or The Fountain of Ali, gushed from under the broken ramparts. It was named for Ali, the son-in-law of Mohammed. Nearby was a palimpsest commemorating the reign of Fath Ali Shah, who ruled a hundred years prior. To the northeast of Rei, on a bare, shelving hillside, the Zoroastrian Tower of Silence stood, visible from all the surrounding country. It was a circular, whitewashed tower, fifty feet in diameter and thirty feet high. There, modern Zoroastrians exposed the bodies of their dead to the vultures and the weather. The shaded avenue from the northern gate of Teheran led mountainward through bare, rolling foothills, past a deserted palace, and ascended through cultivated fields, brown walled villages, and the summer gardens of the Persian aristocracy and royal family, to the very base of the Elburz. Then, a narrow bridle-path climbed skyward, around boulder-strewn promontories, into a hollow, green with stunted willows and a spring. From there, a zigzag path along a snow-fed rivulet climbed to the snow-streaked crest 12,600 feet above sea level. The view from that spot commanded a sweeping area of the plateau to the south, and, to the north, the second great range in the triple wall which barred Persia from the sea. On the open slopes of the low-lying foothills, irrigated patches of wheat and barley stood out like the squares of a checker board, and well-watered villages gleamed like emeralds in their yellow desert setting. A dusty haze overhung Teheran. Beyond where the ghostly burial tower and the gilded dome of Shah Abdul Azim. To the west, the Karaj River flowed down to the glimmering salt marshes to the south. Distant mountains enclosed the scene in a giant, bowl-like hollow.
Within a twenty-five-mile radius of Teheran, a complete panorama of developing civilization unfolded, from primitive to modern. The railroad and the motor car had not yet won the competition with the camel and the donkey. While modern schools were increasing in number, the religious schools, with the Koran as the textbook, were still a national institution. While Teheran experimented with representative government, the surrounding villages were part of an oriental feudal system, with property owned by the crown or wealthy nobles. The peasants lived in dreary, unsanitary, adobe villages, far removed from modern life. They worked the surrounding fields using the tools and methods of their forebears. Within the same limited area roved nomads, self-dependent and prosperous in terms of flocks and herds. They lived in tents woven by their un-secluded wives and daughters, and were unconcerned with the affairs of state. From the progressive centers of Teheran and other important cities, waves of enlightenment moving slowly in wide, concentric circles. The rise of the current Kajar Dynasty was a final attempt to restore a conservative oriental despotism in the midst of a swiftly progressing modern world. In 1906, the progressive element among the Persians demanded and secured a constitutional form of government, but they were ill-prepared to combat internal anarchy and Russian aggression. But now, as though Aladdin had rubbed his magic lamp, the natural resources of Persia promised wealth and a new status in the world. Oil, as well as copper, lead, and iron, had attracted foreign capitalist. In these days of dollar diplomacy there were bound to be railways and valuable concessions. An overland rail route to India might soon become a reality. Plans were already completed for a railroad to Teheran. The old Persia was swiftly passing; the new Persia was bound to be economically prosperous.
The last section of the article is a sub-article with its own heading “An Ascent of Mount Demavend, The Persian Olympus”. It has no byline, but, as stated in the main article’s heading, it was written by Mr. Bird. On most maps, Mount Demavend showed prominently. It outrivaled any mountain in Europe. It was the tallest mountain in southwestern Asia, at nearly 20,000 feet above sea level. It could be seen through the mists of the Caspian Sea, and the clear, thin air of the Iranian plateau. Its snow-ribbed volcanic cone was a vision of surpassing splendor. To enjoy its full splendor, one must see it from the crest of a neighboring range, where you can take in with a single sweep the unbroken rise from base to summit. It held a prominent place from the earliest times in the legend and the superstition of the Iranian people. As Mount Olympus in Greece was the home of the gods, so the paradise of Zoroaster was the summit of Demavend in Persia. Of the many legends, the most feared was that of the monster tyrant Zohak, who was chained, like Prometheus, upon this peak. That tale was found in the sacred writings of the Fire Worshipers and in Persian classical poetry. It was still cherished in the folk-lore of the inhabitants. Not only had this mountain hold a lofty place in mythology, but had cast its shadow over many events in history. Almost at its very base was born the mother of Zoroaster. It marked the eastern limit of raids by the Assyrians before the rise of the great Persian kings. It overlooked the rising Parthian Empire. Alexander the Great paused beneath it in his pursuit of Darius III. Following in his footsteps came Antiochus the Great, and westward along the same route came Genghis Khan, Hulagu Khan and Tamerlane with their Mongol hoards. Rising not far from a great international highway, Demavend had served as a gigantic guidepost for scores of generations of daring merchants, who exchanged the wares of the West and the East by means of slow-moving caravan. Within its shadow a score of great dynasties had risen and fallen.
The Elburz Mountain range, of which Demavend was an outstanding member, was a unit of the great mountain system that stretched from southern Europe to central Asia. With regard to Persia, it was the great dividing line between the Iranian plateau and the Caspian depression – a 12,000-foot wall separating a basin 81 feet below sea level from a tableland averaging 4,000 feet in altitude. It began in Azerbaijan and extended southeastward and eastward more than 500 miles along the southern shores of the Caspian Sea and into Khorasan. This great mountain wall gave northern Persia two almost contiguous but quite different climates. The moisture of the Caspian basin was excluded from the interior. The result was a semi-tropical climate with a rainfall of over 50 inches on the north side and a barren land with scarcely enough water to the south. Demavend was about 45 miles northeast of Teheran, in the central of three parallel chains. It towered high above those flanking mountains. All the other summits did not exceed two-thirds of Demavend’s elevation. It was conical shape with an even slope of about 45 degrees from top to bottom. There had been no eruptions in recorded history, but the volcano could not be deemed extinct, only quiescent due to the numerous hot springs about its base. Its cone terminated in a bowl-like crater one-hundred yards in diameter. The crater was almost filled with snow. The internal heat was sufficient to melt the snow about the summit, exposing masses of basalt and limestone, and huge deposits of Sulphur. Measurements of the height of Demavend ranged from 18,000 to 22,000 feet. Its accepted elevation was 18,464 feet.
For a mountain of that size, the ascent was not considered difficult; the few obstacles being the cold, the thin air, and fatigue. Due to superstition, few locals had tried to scale the volcano. It took a month’s salary to induce a guide for a climb. The first European to climb Demavend was William T. Thomson in 1837. Since then, it had been scaled by several Europeans, by three Americans, and, in 1914, by seven Persian boy scouts. Late summer, with settled weather and minimal snow, was the best time to climb. Teheran, being the nearest large city, was the logical starting point for an expedition, but the terrain forced a circuitous route to the mountain. It took the author three days to reach its base. His journey passed over the first range through the Afcheh Pass, at 9,000 feet. Then he went down between the two ranges to the well-watered Lar Valley. Skirting the southern base of the volcano, Mr. Bird reached the village of Rena, on the east side of Demavend and 6,000 feet in elevation. It made an excellent base camp for the climb. From that point there was a well-defined trail which wound 7,000 feet up the sloped, where a few shepherds pastured their flocks. That part of the ascent was made on horseback, and took the better part of a day. The camping facilities at 13,000 feet got mixed reviews from the author. There was water, being at the snow-line, and there was firewood in the form of clumps of dried camel-thorn. He felt the sleeping quarters were inadequate. He had to sleep on a rock shelve. He couldn’t sleep for fear of rolling off. The ascent from that camp to the crater rim required about ten hours of actual climbing. Due to the dry climate, it was no surprise that there were no great glaciers. The incline varied from 40 to 55 degrees, rendering the climb as monotonous and tiring as that of an endless ladder. The steeper portion of the snow-field had nature-built ladders of ice, molded into tier upon tier of tapered cones by the cycle of melting and refreezing. There was a sliding, shifting field of pumice not far below the summit. It took one and a half hours to ascend that last portion of the climb. It only took about four minutes to safely descend it.
The expanse of the great golden Sulphur cap, the edge of which was a hundred yards from the crater rim, was startling. Thousands of tons of Sulphur were exposed, and the fumes permeating the air was nauseating. The rocky rim of the bowl-like crater was practically level for a width of five yards, then sloped gradually inward. The crater was filled with snow, and the only signs of volcanic activity was the small fissures issuing the gaseous fumes in the Sulphur area. The lofty isolation of that great peak made it an admirable observation point. From there the country spread out in every direction like a giant relief map. Close at hand were the great inter-mountain valleys, and far to the south the green desert fringe and the vast desert itself were visible. To the north, mists and vapors rose over the Mazandaran jungles and the Caspian Sea. The author had a feeling of insignificance come over him. The grandeur of the view and the knowledge of the volcano’s history were overwhelming. He thought of all who had gazed upon Demavend – the greats of history, the camel-drivers, the sailors on the Caspian, the peasants in their rice field, the city-bred Persians of Teheran, the tent-dwellers of the transcaspian steppes, and their Aryan brothers, the shepherd nomads of the Iranian tableland.
Between the first and the last articles in this issue are the “Sixteen Pages of Illustrations in Full Color” documented on the cover. These sixteen, full-page black-and-white photographs have been colorized, or painted to look as close to natural as possible. They are numbered I to XVI in Roman numerals and represent pages 401 through 416 in this issue. Eight of the plates were personally colored by Harold F. Weston, the author of the next article and an artist. He also furnished the color charts for all sixteen illustrations. While photos on these plates are referenced in both articles, they are counted as part of the illustrations from the second (next) article.
The second, and last, article in this month’s issue is entitled “Persian Caravan Sketches”, and, as mentioned above, was written by Harold F. Weston. It has the subtitle “The Land of the Lion and the Sun as Seen on a Summer Caravan Trip”. The article has “63 Illustration”, of which sixteen are the aforementioned colorized plates. The author references some of these plates throughout the article; probably the ones he “painted”. Forty-six illustrations are black-and-white photographs, of which twenty-six are full-page in size. The last illustration documented on the cover is a sketch map of Persia, referenced by both articles, which appears on page 418.
Sketch Map courtesy of Philip Riviere
To most Americans, Persia, the “romantic East”, was a green or pink spot on a map, around India, past Turkey. Persia suggested Omar Khayyam, gardens, and rugs, the rugs seen in magazine advertisements or glimpsed in Fifth Avenue windows. Rarely did Americans have reason to travel there. Persia was almost the size of Germany, France, Italy, and the British Ilse combined. It was an arid plateau from 3,000 to 7,000 feet high, seamed by snow-capped mountains. The people were mostly Aryan. That was information read in any encyclopedia. After the Armistice, two young Americans, who had been with the “Y” in Mesopotamia, decided to cross Persia by caravan. The British military warned them that there were 2,000 brigands in control of one of the caravan trails, and that they were sending aid to Persia to round them up. By May, Mr. Weston and his traveling companion left Bagdad with a British military motor convoy through Kurdistan to the Caspian. They obtained a Kurdish lad as a servant, some emergency rations, a sixty-pound tent, and various incidentals. They left Bagdad by the little railroad that rain almost to the Persian border. By the second day they arrived at Khandikin. There was only one passable route from Mesopotamia through Kurdistan into central and northern Persia. The towns along that route were important due to location, and were visited by thousands of caravans and pilgrims. After a stay, their convoy of Ford cars was ready to leave. The cars bumped and chugged as they wound along the new macadamized road to Hamadan, 300 miles distance. The drivers were Indian. The journey was done in 20-miles-per-day stages, in the early mornings, before the heat of the day. That portion of the journey proved eventful. On one day, out of thirteen cars, one broke down, one caught fire, one broke its steering gear, and one ran over a Kurd. Over mountain passes, past villages, and over well-built, ancient stone bridges they drove. From a bluff, they looked down and saw the village of Huseinabad below. Mt. Elwend shouldered out the northern sky.
The Kurds were racially distinct from the Persians, and were rarely submissive to the central government. They were a semi-barbaric, nomadic tribe, that lived on their flocks, and by hunting in those wild mountain valleys. They had their own, picturesque national costume. Almost always armed to the teeth, the author felt that they looked romantic, with their rifles, on their ponies. They wore flowing purple turbans, bound around huge black felt hats; broad, colorful scarves about the waist; two or three bandoleers apiece; projecting hilts of knives; revolvers; baggy trousers; and embroidered saddle-cloths. The Kurdish women were generally somber in dress, but did not hide their beauty under veils as Persian women did. The author was fortunate to witness a wedding, with the gathering all decked out in their Sunday best. It was in the dilapidated town of Kasr-i-Shirin. The travelers were delayed for a week at Hamadan, so they stayed at one of the American Missions, and had time to climb Mt. Elwend (12,000 feet) and explore the historic sites – the tomb of Queen Esther and the Median Acropolis of Musallah. When the author sketched, if near a town, he drew a crowd of onlookers. The Persians of all ages, far more than the Arabs or the Kurds, show a great interest in pictures and photographs. The village people were often afraid of a camera, they were only used to guns being pointed at them. They also feared the “evil eye”. But, for the most part, Persian were anxious to pose. Women, on the contrary, were most difficult to photograph. The veiled ladies thought the camera had X-ray powers, and feared being seen naked.
Instead of going directly to Teheran, they decided to keep heading northward to the Caspian Sea. The author had many romantic notions about the lost sea, but found the journey there was the real joy. To reach the Caspian they had to cross the Elburz Mountains. In sixty miles, the road dropped 5,000 feet through a twisting river gorge down to a forest jungle. The pass through the Elburz was dangerous, as many British had been ambushed there. The driver in the car behind was shot and killed and his companion wounded. For the return trip though the jungle pass, the author’s convoy had an armed Indian escort. They had followed the British military road from Bagdad to the Caspian. They traveled back down and returned to Kasvin. A day’s run from there, in their Ford brought them to Teheran. They threaded the intrigues of Teheran and its spacious avenues, lined with chinar trees and embassies, for a week. Mr. Weston was ready for the more interesting parts of their trip, from Teheran to Ispahan by mail stage, and from that great city to the Persian Gulf by mule caravan. Anxious to cover the 300 miles to Ispahan as rapidly as possible, they decided to take passage by mail stage, the only regular link, aside from telegraph line, between the capital and the great cities of central and southern Persia. It was an old uncovered hay wagon pulled by four horses, all abreast, that were changed at each roadhouse, located at intervals of ten to twelve miles. Eleven Persians besides the duo rocked about the top, hanging on for dear life, as they rode over ditches and rocks. They were alternately frozen at night and blistered in the sun. As the sun rose, they stopped to change horses at a roadside inn. By the next relay, it was hot, with choking dust blowing across the desert. Toward noon, they arrived at a village of low, mud-built houses, clustered around a miniature mosque. Inside the roadhouse (menzil) they found one large smoky room. A wide platform seat, covered with rugs, skirted the edge of the room. The lounging occupants reeked of opium, and were roused by the author’s entry. Their lunch was tea, unleavened, pebble-baked bread, a thick buttermilk, raw cucumbers, and a melon.
One of the annoyances of traveling by Persian mail wagon was their fellow passengers’ hygiene. The Persian felt that bathing more than once a week was effeminate. After three and a half days, the travelers got off at the town of Kashan, and stayed for two days for the next mail-cart. One of the magic charms of Persia was the continual, unexpected contrasts – the green garden and the barren desert, the sight of snow peaks when plodding through sand at 110 degrees in the shade, the opulent dome of the mosque souring above mud-built houses. Kashan was the reputed home of the Wise Men of the East who set out for Bethlehem. While in Kashan, the author witnessed the execution of one of the brigands he had been warned about. He was hung in the central square. Mr. Weston was informed that seven men had been hung the day before. The travelers had passed ruined villages that the brigands had destroyed, killing hundreds of innocent peasants. They had looted countless treasure from caravans and hide it in the mountains. Nagar Aliche was the fourteen-year-old son of one of the robber chieftains. He was among a handful that knew the treasure’s location. He was captured and taken, in shackles, to the Governor, but refused to divulge its location. The travelers drove to the Maidan-i-Shah, where Shah Abbas used to compete in polo. In the center of a great square, a crowd gathered around a lone gallows. The body of Jaffar Khouli, one of the most notorious of the brigand chieftains, was still hanging to let everyone know he was dead. They continued on to Ispahan. The streets of the town were crowded and stank. The author was jousted by breaded men and camel alike. He was crushed against a wall by a mule loaded with hay. At times he had to leap to safety from horseback riders, who cursed at him.
After a week at Ispahan, they secured a muleteer, four mules and a donkey for the roadless 300 miles to Shiraz. Mules could carry up to 300 pounds. The author’s mule was loaded with a bulk of fodder sacks with bedding thrown over it. Mr. Weston rode precariously on top of that “throne”. The travelers carried letters for the principal chieftains along the route and were provided by them with road-guards to protect them from bands of robbers. The trip from Ispahan to Shiraz took about three weeks. They traveled by night to avoid the heat of the day. On their third night of travel, after the camels were loaded, they went ahead of the caravan and told the guards to follow with the baggage. They were crossing a plain with the route marked only by the dim white streaks of the paths trodden by years of caravans. A few hours later, the half moon sank and they realized they were alone; the guards were apparently delayed. They tried to find their way back and wandered aimlessly. Then they heard horses approaching. The author signaled with his flashlight. They saw four horsemen pointing rifles at them. They feared they were being robbed. They tried to explain who they were and the chieftain to whom they were going. Apparently afraid of the flashlight, the men rode off. Near dawn, the saw their guards approaching, galloping across the plain, followed by their servant. They borrowed the guards’ horses and rode toward their destination, Kumishah.
They came upon a cultivated field before sun-up and saw puffs of dust from grain tossed in the air by winnowers. One of their guards aimed ad shot at the peasants. The author’s companion shouted in horror and asked why. The guard said that, when searching for the travelers the prior night, they met them and asked if they had seen any foreigners. The guard said that the peasants insulted the travelers, so the guards shot at them but missed in the dark. He insisted that he must kill one. He was dissuaded with great difficulty. Three days later, after a weary night of caravan, they were abruptly presented with a view of Yezdikhast. After crossing the waterless, treeless tract, Yezdikhast was the most strikingly positioned town in all Persia. Approaching it from the plain, they saw only the tops of a few houses and the dome of a mosque.; but on reaching the edge of the ravine, formerly a river bed and covered with grain fields, they saw a sheer rock cliff topped by half-ruined mud-and-stone-built houses piled four stories high on its narrow crest. A single drawbridge spanned the deep breach between the town and the former river bank. It provided the only possible entrance. The Khan of Yezdikhast came out to meet them. They were escorted to the courtyard of the Khan’s house where they were provided a feast – rice cooked in grease, meat cooked in pomegranate juice, nuts and fruit, Persian bread, other dishes of rice, buttermilk, and “sherbet” (sweet tepid water). They ate with the fingers of their right hands, which was the custom. The author discovered later that the water used came from a little stream that was used to wash dead bodies.
Continuing on their journey, one of their road-guards shot a gray quail with varicolored feathers on its neck. They often stirred up small herds of gazelle, which the guards then chased, and once killed one. Persians often called America Yangi Dunya (New World), which reminded the author of Yankee Doodle. While allowed up to four wives, most Mohammedans only had one, or, if they had two, they would keep them at separate locales. As the saying went, “Better two tigresses in a single den then two brawling wenches.” They paused, a week later, during the heat of one day at a small encampment of Arab nomads. They lived in black tents made from camel hair. They moved from borders of Mesopotamia, where they passed the winter, to the high plateau of central Persia. There they grazed their flocks and raised grain. While they were primitive, they were peaceable and hospitable. They were taken into the tent of the chieftain of that obscure tribe. He was of enormous proportions, six foot three, with huge arms, a great drooping mustache, a large nose, bulging eyes, and shaggy black hair with the head shaven at the top. He wore a tiny, flat-topped hat. He had come back from killing and skinning a lamb, standing in sun, peering into the tent, a blood-dripping curved blade in one hand and the blood-soaked skin in the other, the author thought he looked like a nightmare out of the Arabian Nights. Persian villagers thought that every European was a doctor, so great was the reputation of the few mission doctors; consequently, they caried a stock of remedies in order to humor the locals. When they had arrived back in Gabarabad, they were swarmed by mothers with anemic babes, and by individuals with festering sores. Many there had died of malaria, so the travelers gave out quinine. For eight days, a peasant from Yezdikhast had attached himself to their caravan. He was walking the 180 miles and back to get leeches for a rich citizen of the town who was ill.
Three famous historical sites were along that caravan route – Pasargadae, where the only building left intact was the tomb of Cyrus; Naksh-I Rustam, where the tombs of Achaemenian kings and Sassanian carvings were cut in the face of a great cliff; and Persepolis, the most important of Persian ruins. As they crossed the plain of Mervdasht, the slender columns of Persepolis grew steadily taller and more distinct. The ruins laid on a great platform built out from the promontory of a mountain range. The stately palaces of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes could still be clearly distinguished. Once wonders of the world, they were torched by Alexander the Great in drunken celebration of victory. Their ruins were still impressive. The author wished he could have seen the Persian Empire in its glory. After threading caravan roads under barren mountains, across the desert plateau, sweltering days in filthy caravanserais, and nights traveling under the stars, the first sight of Shiraz impressed Mr. Weston. He saw it as an emerald island against the blue-violet hills. They entered the city from the north, through the Koran Gate. In Shiraz, there were rows of cypress and turquoise domes of mosques. The travelers had earned a week’s rest in the British consulate garden. They visited the tomb of Hafiz, the best-loved poet in Persia. They were entertained by the uncle of the current Shah of Persia, and by a British general and other officer, who thought the two to be secret agents for the American Government. One day, while in the garden of the British Resident, he invited the travelers to go swimming in an adjacent garden of a Persian grandee. The attractive garden, a hundred yards long, had rows of cypress on both sides. There were double side alleys with chinar, pine, and fruit-trees. At the lower end was a pillared garden-house, opened to the four winds. At the other end was a series of terraces, with fountains, flowers beds, and pools, leading down to a tank of blue-green water. The garden was called “The Envy of Heaven”. Other gardens that the author felt lived up to their names were “The Garden of a Thousand Nightingales” and “The Garden of Forty Colts”.
To reach the Persian Gulf, they had still a week of caravanning. The British had disposed of most of the robber bands in the area by bombing their strongholds from airplanes. They had also built small forts along the more unsettled lower section, 6,000 feet down steep passes to the sea. The British had started building a road, and had blasted a remarkable path winding up the sheer cliffs. About half way to the gulf, the author came down with malaria and spent a week in a tiny British fort. The last three days of caravan he did with a “sick convoy” of Indian soldiers bound for the gulf port of Bashire to await transport by hospital ship to India. On his last night on the Persian Caravan Road, the author had a fever and could not sleep. His cot was on the roof of an old caravanserai being used as a British garrison fort. The Indians play tablas and drums, and sang an endlessly repeating chorus to an endless verse. They stopped singing when the moon set, but five or ten dogs in a nearby camp of nomads started barking furiously. A night caravan passed, with much tinkling of bells and gruff calls of the muleteers. Later, the stillness was broken by the challenge of a sentry. A lone Persian, with three or four donkeys passed too close. The Indians started shouting and the Persian stole off into the night. As he did, he broke into song, a Persian melody. To the author, there was something sad and yet fascinating about that wailing refrain. It would always remain typical of the Persian Road for Mr. Weston, one of its greatest charms, that lonely Caravan Song fading into the night.
At the bottom of the last page of this issue (Page 468) there are two announcements. The first one states that a Map of Asia in six colors (size 28 x 36 inches) would be issued as a supplement with the May Geographic.
The second is a notice regarding change of address. If a member wanted the magazine to be mailed somewhere else, the Society needed a month’s notice in advance, starting on the first of the month. If a member wanted the June issue redirected, the Society needed to know by May first.
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