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Chapter 24

Severe wind--Kum, the holy city--Thousands of
graves--Conservative Mullahs--Ruin and decay--Leather
tanning--The gilt dome--Another extortion--Ingenious
bellows--Damovend--The scenery--Passangun--Evening prayers--A
contrivance for setting charcoal alight--Putrid water--Post
horses--Sin Sin--Mirage--Nassirabad--Villages near Kashan.

On a deserted road, sleepy and shaken, with the wind blowing so hard that it tore and carried away all the cotton curtains of the carriage, I arrived at Kum (3,200 feet above sea level) in the middle of the night. The distance covered between Teheran and Kum was twenty-four farsakhs, or ninety-six miles.

As we approached the holy city there appeared to be a lot of vegetation around, and Sadek and the coachman assured me that this was a region where pomegranates were grown in profusion, and the castor-oil plant, too. Cotton was, moreover, cultivated with success.

Kum is, to my mind, and apart from its holiness, one of the few really picturesque cities of Persia. I caught the first panoramic glimpse of the shrine and mosque at sunrise from the roof of the post house, and was much impressed by its grandeur. Amidst a mass of semi-spherical mud roofs, and beyond long mud walls, rise the gigantic gilded dome of the mosque, two high minarets, and two shorter ones with most beautifully coloured tiles inlaid upon their walls, the general effect of which is of most delicate greys, blues and greens. Then clusters of fruit trees, numerous little minarets all over the place, and ventilating shafts above the better buildings break the monotony agreeably.

Kum, I need hardly mention, is one of the great pilgrimages of Mahommedans. Happy dies the man or woman whose body will be laid at rest near the sacred shrine, wherein--it is said--lie the remains of Matsuma Fatima. Corpses are conveyed here from all parts of the country. Even kings and royal personages are buried in the immediate neighbourhood of the shrine. Round the city there are thousands of mud graves, which give quite a mournful appearance to the holy city. There are almost as many dead people as living ones in Kum!

Innumerable Mullahs are found here who are very conservative, and who seem to resent the presence of European visitors in the city. Access to the shrine is absolutely forbidden to foreigners.

Immense sums of money are brought daily to the holy city by credulous pilgrims, but no outward signs of a prosperous trade nor of fine streets or handsome private buildings can be detected on inspecting the bazaar or streets of the town. On the contrary, the greater part of the residences are in a hopeless state of decay, and the majority of the inhabitants, to all appearance, little above begging point.

Leather, tanned with the bark of the pomegranate, and cheap pottery are the chief industries of the holy city. On inquiring what becomes of all the wealth that comes into the town, a Persian, with a significant gesture, informed me that the Mullahs get it and with them it remains.

The handsome dome over the shrine was begun by order of Hussein Nadir Shah, but the gorgeous gilding of the copper plates was not finished till a few years ago by Nasr-ed-din Shah. A theological college also exists at this place. There is a station here of the Indo-European Telegraphs, with an Armenian in charge of it.

Much to my disgust, I was informed that the owner of the post-house had the monopoly of the traffic on the track for six or seven farsakhs more, and so travellers were compelled to submit to a further extortion by having to hire another wheeled conveyance instead of being able to ride. This time I chartered a victoria, and off we went as usual at a gallop.

Two horses had to be sent ahead while the carriage was driven with only two animals through the narrow streets of the bazaar, covered over with awnings or with domed perforated roofs. The place had a tawdry, miserable appearance, the leather shops being the only interesting ones, with the many elaborate saddles, harness, saddle-bags, and horses' ornamentations displayed on nails along the walls.

I saw in a blacksmith's shop an ingenious device to create a perpetual draught with bellows. The big bellows were double and allowed sufficient room to let two boys stand between the two. The boys clinging to handles in the upper part of the bellows and using the weight of their bodies now to the right, then to the left, inflated first one then the other, the wind of each bellow passing through a common end tube and each being in turn refilled with air while the other was blowing. This human pendulum arrangement was carried on with incredible rapidity by the two boys, who dashed their bodies from one side to the other and back, keeping steady time and holding their feet stationary, but describing an almost complete semicircle with the remainder of the body, the whole length of the boy forming the radius.

There was a shop or two where glass was being blown, and numerous fruit-shops with mountains of pomegranates, water-melons and grapes. At the entrance of the mosques crowds of people stood waiting for admission, some praying outside.

Once out of the town the extra two horses, which were waiting at the gate, were harnessed, and as we sped along, the lungs rejoiced in the pure air of which the stuffy, cellar-like bazaar had afforded none.

Behind, in the far distance, Damovend Mountain, covered with snow, could still be seen rising high above everything. It was undoubtedly a good-looking mountain. To the south-west and west lay indented hills of the most curious shapes and colours--one, particularly, like a roof, with a greenish base surmounted by a raw-sienna top; a twin-sister hill further west presented the same peculiarities. In the distant mountains to the west the same characteristics were apparent, the greenish stratum below extending all along and increasing in depth towards the south.

The road--if one may call it so--was extremely bad and hardly fit for wheeled traffic. After leaving Kum the vegetation ceased, and it was only at Langherut village that a patch of green refreshed the eye.

A few strolling wayfarers crowded round when the carriage stopped to give the horses a rest under the shade of a tree, and Sadek was cross-examined about the Sahib whom he was accompanying. It was quite amusing to hear one's self and one's doings commented upon in the most open manner, regardless of one's personal feelings, which are better discarded altogether while travelling in Persia. There is absolutely nothing private in the land of Iran. One's appearance, one's clothes, the quantity of food one eats, the amount of money one carries, where one comes from and where one goes, whom one knows, one's servants, one's rifles, one's cameras,--everything is remarked upon, as if one were not present. If one possesses no false pride and a sense of humour, a deal of entertainment is thus provided on the road.

Passangun could be perceived in the distance, and a dreary, desolate place it was when one got there. In the way of architecture, we found a large tumbling-down caravanserai, a tea-shop, and the Chappar Khana (the post-house). As to vegetation, thirteen sickly trees, all counted. Barren, uninteresting country surrounded the halting place.

I spent here a pleasant hour while waiting for my luggage to arrive on pack animals. A caravan of some fifty horses and mules had halted at sunset, and a number of pilgrims, with beards dyed bright-red, were making their evening salaams towards Mecca. Having removed shoes and duly washed their feet and hands, they stood erect on the projecting platform of the caravanserai, and after considerable adjusting of caps and head-scratching, assumed a meditative attitude, head bent forward, and muttered prayers with hands down. Then the hands were raised flat before the face, with a bow. Kneeling followed, with hands first resting on the knees, then raised again to cover the face, after which, with the palms of the hands resting flat on the ground, the head was brought down until it touched the ground too. A standing position was further assumed, when the temples were touched with the thumb while prayers were recited, and then the petitioners stooped low and fell a second time on their knees, saying the beads of their rosaries. The forehead was made to touch the ground several times before the evening prayers were over.

Next, food was cooked in the small fire places of the caravanserai, and tea brewed in large quantities. The inevitable kalian was called for, and the caravanserai boy brought out his interesting little arrangement to set charcoal quickly alight for the large cup of the kalian. To a string three feet long, hung a small perforated iron cup, which he filled with charcoal, one tiny bit being already alight. By quickly revolving the contrivance as one would a sling, the draught forced through the apertures in the cup produced quick combustion, and charcoal was at once distributed alight among the kalians of the impatient guests.

Much amusement and excitement was caused among the pilgrims by a fight between a puppy-dog and five or six small goats. Only one of these at a time fought the dog, while the others occupied a high point of vantage on which they had hastily climbed, and from that place of security displayed a keen interest in the fight.

The water at Passangun was extremely bad. There were two tanks of rain water drained from the hillside along a dirty channel filled with animal refuse. The wells were below the ground level, and were walled and domed over to prevent too rapid an evaporation by the sun's rays. The water was pestilential. It had a nasty green look about it, and patches of putrid matter decomposing visibly on its surface. The stench from it when stirred was sickening. Yet the natives drank it and found it all right! There is no accounting for people's taste, not even in Persia.

At last, from this point, the positive torture of driving in carriages was over, and Chappar horses were to be obtained. The saddles were got ready, and with five horses we made a start that same evening for Sin Sin. After the wretched bumping and thumping and being thrown about in the wheeled conveyance on the badly-kept road, it seemed heavenly to be ambling along at a fairly good pace, even on these poor, half-starved animals, which could not in all honesty be considered to afford perfect riding. Indeed, if there ever was a society for the prevention of cruelty to animals, it should have begun its work along the Persian postal roads. The poor brutes--one can hardly call them horses--are bony and starved, with sore backs, chests and legs, with a bleeding tongue almost cut in two and pitifully swollen by cruelly-shaped bits, and endowed with stinking digestive organs and other nauseous odours of uncared-for sores heated by the friction of never-removed, clumsy, heavy pads under the saddles. It requires a pretty strong stomach, I can tell you, to ride them at all. Yet the poor devils canter along, when they do not amble, and occasionally gallop clumsily on their unsteady, skeleton-like legs. So that, notwithstanding everything, one generally manages to go at the rate of six or seven miles an hour.

If the horses at the various post-stations have just returned from conveying the post-bags, an extra sorry time is in store for the traveller. The poor animals are then so tired that they occasionally collapse on the road. I invariably used all the kindness I could to these wretches, but it was necessary for me to get on, as I intended to proceed in the greatest haste over the better known parts of Persia.

It is important to see the horses fed before starting from all the post-houses, but on many occasions no food whatever could be procured for them, when, of course, they had to go without it.

Changing horses about every 20 to 28 miles, and being on the saddle from fourteen to twenty hours out of the twenty-four, I was able to cover long distances, and kept up an average of from 80 to 120 miles daily. One can, of course, cover much greater distances than these in one day, if one is fortunate enough to get good and fresh horses at the various stations, and if one does not have to keep it up for a long period of time as I had to do.

From Sin Sin we go due south along a flat trail of salt and mud. We have a barrier of mountains to the south-west and higher mountains to the south. To the south-east also a low ridge with another higher behind it. To the north we leave behind low hills.

Sin Sin itself is renowned for its water-melons, and I, too, can humbly certify to their excellence. I took a load of them away for the journey.

From here we began to see the wonderful effects of deceitful mirage, extremely common all over Persia. One sees beautiful lakes of silvery water, with clusters of trees and islands and rocks duly reflected upside down in their steady waters, but it is all an optical deception, caused by the action of the heated soil on the expanding air immediately in contact with it, which, seen from above and at a distance, is of a bluish white tint with exactly the appearance and the mirror-like qualities of still water.

Although in Central Persia one sees many of these effects every day, they are sometimes so marvellous that even the most experienced would be deceived.

The country is barren and desolate. Kasimabad has but two buildings, both caravanserais; but Nassirabad, further on, is quite a large village, with domed roofs and a couple of minarets. On the road is a large caravanserai, with the usual alcoves all round its massive walls. Except the nice avenue of trees along a refreshing brook of limpid water, there was nothing to detain us here but the collision between one of my pack-horses and a mule of a passing caravan, with disastrous results to both animals' loads. But, with the assistance of one or two natives commandeered by Sadek, the luggage scattered upon the road was replaced high on the saddles, the fastening ropes were pulled tight by Sadek with his teeth and hands, while I took this opportunity to sit on the roadside to partake of my lunch--four boiled eggs, a cold roast chicken, Persian bread, some cake, and half a water-melon, the whole washed down with a long drink of clear water. Riding at the rate I did, the whole day and the greater part of the night, in the hot sun and the cold winds at night, gave one a healthy appetite.

As we got nearer Kashan city, the villages got more numerous; Aliabad and the Yaze (mosque) and Nushabad to my left (east), with its blue tiled roof of the mosque. But the villages were so very much alike and uninteresting in colour and in architecture, that a description of each would be unimportant and most tedious, so that I will only limit myself to describing the more typical and striking ones with special features that may interest the reader.

In the morning of October 9th I had reached the city of Kashan, seventeen farsakhs (sixty-eight miles) from Kum, and forty-one farsakhs or 164 miles from Teheran, in two days and a half including halts.