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Chapter 29

The square of Isfahan--The Palace gate--The entrance to the
bazaar--Beggars--Formalities and etiquette--The
bazaar--Competition--How Persians buy--Long
credit--Arcades--Hats--Cloth shops--Sweet
shops--Butchers--Leather goods--Saddle-bags--The bell

The great square of Isfahan is looked upon as the centre of the city. It is a huge oblong, with the great and beautiful dome of the Mesjid-i-Shah on one side of the long rectangle, and another high domed mosque with two high minarets at the end. The very impressive red and white quadrangular palace gate, flat-topped, and with a covered blue verandah supported on numerous slender columns, stands on the side of the square opposite the Mesjid-i-Shah mosque.

To the north of the great square one enters the bazaar by a high gate, handsomely tiled with flower ornamentations; this gateway has three lower windows and a triple upper one, and a doorway under the cool shade of the outer projecting pointed archway. To the right of the entrance as one looks at it, rises a three-storied building as high as the gate of the bazaar. It has a pretty upper verandah, the roof of which is supported on transverse sets of three wooden columns each, except the outer corner roof-supports, which are square and of bricks. In front is an artistic but most untidy conglomeration of awnings to protect from the sun pedlars, merchants and people enjoying their kalians, or a thimbleful of tea.

There are men selling fruit which is displayed upon the dirty ground, and there are tired horses with dismounted cavaliers sleeping by their side, the reins fastened for precaution to a heavy stone or slung to the arm. One sees masses of children of all ages and conditions of health, from the neatly attired son of the wealthy merchant, who disports himself with his eldest brother, to the orphan boy, starving, and in rags covered with mud. There is a little cripple with a shrunken leg, and further, an old man with lupus in its most ghastly form. Disreputably-clothed soldiers lie about in the crowd, and a woman or two with their faces duly screened in white cloths may be seen.

The sight of a sahib always excites great curiosity in Persia. Followed by a crowd of loafers and most insistent beggars, one forces one's way into the crowded bazaar, while the ghulams of the Consulate--without whom it would be indecorous to go anywhere--shove the people on one side or the other without ceremony, drive the donkeys, laden with wood or panniers of fruit, into the shops--much to the horror of the shopman,--and disband the strings of mules and the horsemen to make room for the passing sahib.

It is very difficult, under such circumstances, to stop any length of time at any particular spot to study the shops, the shop-people, and the buyers, for instead of being an unobserved spectator, one is at all times the principal actor in the scene and the centre of attention, and therefore a most disturbing element in the crowd.

There are so many complicated and tiresome formalities to be adhered to in order to avoid offending the natives, or the officials, or the susceptibilities of foreign residents, who seem to feel responsible for the doings of every traveller--and who, at all events, remain to suffer for the untactful deeds of some of them,--and there are so many things one must not do for fear of destroying the prestige of one's country, that, really, if one possesses a simple and practical mind, one gets rather tired of Persian town life, with its exaggerated ties, its empty outward show and pomp and absolute lack of more modest aims which, after all, make real happiness in life.

As for European ladies it is considered most improper to be seen with uncovered faces in the bazaar. In fact, walking anywhere in the town they are generally exposed to insult.

I once took a walk through the various bazaars, but the second time, at our Consul's recommendation, was advised to ride in state, with gold-braided, mounted Consulate ghulams preceding and following me, while I myself rode a magnificent stallion presented by Zil-es-Sultan to our Consul. The horse had not been ridden for some time and was slightly fresh. The place to which we directed our animals was the brass bazaar, the most crowded and diabolically noisy place in the Shah's dominions.

The sudden change from the brilliant light of the sun to the pitch darkness of the vaulted bazaar, affected one's sight, and it was some few seconds before one could distinguish anything, although one could hear the buzzing noise of an excited crowd, and the cries of the ghulams ordering the people to make room for the cavalcade.

In nearly all bazaars of the principal cities of Persia a very good custom prevails. One or more streets are devoted entirely to the same article, so that the buyer may conveniently make comparisons, and the various merchants are also kept up to the mark by the salutary competition close at hand thus rendered unavoidable. A Persian does not go to a shop to buy anything without going to every other shop in the bazaar to ask whether he can get a similar article better and cheaper. Such a convenience as fixed prices, alike for all, does not exist in the Persian bazaar, and prices are generally on the ascending or descending scale, according to the merchant's estimate of his customer's wealth. It is looked upon as a right and a duty to extort from a rich man the maximum of profit, whereas from a poor fellow a few shais benefit are deemed sufficient.

To buy anything at all in the bazaar involves great loss of time--and patience,--excessive consumption of tea plus the essential kalian-smoking. Two or three or more visits are paid to the stall by Persian buyers before they can come to an agreement with the merchant, and when the goods are delivered it is the merchant's turn to pay endless visits to his customer's house before he can obtain payment for them. Long credit is generally given by merchants to people known to them. There is comparatively little ready money business done except in the cheapest goods.

We shoved our way along through the very narrow streets with a long row before us of sun columns, piercing through the circular openings in the domed arcade of the bazaar, and projecting brilliant patches of light now on brightly-coloured turbans, now on the black chudder of a woman, now on the muddy ground constantly sprinkled with water to keep the streets cool.

There are miles of bazaar, in Teheran and Isfahan, roofed over in long arcades to protect the shops and buyers from the sun in summer, from the rain and snow in winter. The height of the arcade is from thirty to sixty feet, the more ancient ones being lower than the modern ones.

To any one well acquainted with other Eastern countries there is absolutely nothing in a Persian bazaar that is worth buying. The old and beautiful objects of art have left the country long ago, and the modern ones have neither sufficient artistic merit nor intrinsic value to be worth the trouble and expense of sending them home. For curiosity's sake--yes, there are a few tawdry articles which may amuse friends in Europe, but what I mean is that there is nothing that is really of intense interest or skilful workmanship, such as one can find in Japan, in China, in Morocco or Egypt.

We ride through the street of hatters, each shop with walls lined with piles of kolah hats, black and brimless, shaped either in the section of a cone or rounded with a depression on the top. They are made of astrakan or of black felt, and are worn by the better people; but further on we come to cheaper shops, where spherical skull caps of white or light brown felt are being manufactured for the lower classes.

As we ride along, a stinging smell of dyes tells us that we are in the cloth street, indigo colours prevailing, and also white and black cottons and silks. One cannot help pitying the sweating shopman, who is busy unrolling cloths of various makes before a number of squatting women, who finger each and confabulate among themselves, and request to have the roll deposited by their side for further consideration with a mountain of other previously unrolled fabrics,--just like women at home. The rolls are taken from neat wooden shelves, on which, however, they seldom rest. Soiled remnants of European stocks play a very important part in this section of the bazaar.

On turning round a corner we have shoes and boots, foreign made, of the favourite side-elastic pattern, or the native white canvas ones with rope soles--most comfortable and serviceable for walking. The local leather ones have strong soles with nails and turned-up toes, not unlike the familiar Turkish shoe; while the slippers for women have no back to them at the heel and have fancy toes.

Then come the attractive sweet-shops, with huge trays of transparent candy, and the Pash mak pulled sugar, as white and light as raw silk, most delicious but sticky. In bottles above, the eye roams from highly coloured confetti to Abnabad and Kors or other deadly-looking lozenges, while a crowd of enraptured children deposit shais in the hands of the prosperous trader, who promptly weighs and gives in exchange a full measure of rahat-ul-holkoom, "the ease of the throat," or candied sugar, duly packed in paper bags.

There is nothing very attractive in the butchers' bazaar; the long rows of skinned animals black with flies, and in various degrees of freshness, made even less artistic by ornamentations of paper rosettes and bits of gold and silver paper. Beef, camel, mutton, game and chickens, all dead and with throats cut--the Mahommedan fashion of killing--can be purchased here, but the smell of meat is so strong and sickening that we will promptly adjourn to the leather-work bazaar.

For a man, this is probably the most typical and interesting section of the Persian retail commerce. There is something picturesque and artistic in the clumsy silver or brass or iron mounted saddles, with handsome red, or green, or brown ample leather flaps, gracefully ornamented with more or less elaboration to suit the pockets of different customers. Then the harness is pretty, with its silver inlaid iron decoration, or solid silver or brass, and the characteristic stirrups, nicely chiselled and not unlike the Mexican ones. The greater part of the foot can rest on the stirrup, so broad is its base. Then come the saddlebags of all sizes, the horjin, in cloth, in sacking, in expensive leather, in carpeting, of all prices, with an ingenious device of a succession of loops fastening the one into the other, the last with a padlock, to secure the contents of the bag from intrusive hands.

These horjins--or double bags--are extremely convenient and are the most usual contrivance in Persia for conveying luggage on horseback or mules.

Then in the lower part of the shop there is a grand display of leather purses, sheaths for knives, and a collection of leather stock whips, gracefully tied into multiple knots.

In this same bazaar, where everything in connection with riding or loading animals can be purchased, are also to be found the bell shops. These confine themselves particularly to horses', mules' and camels' neck decorations. Long tassels, either red or black, in silk or dyed horsehair, silk or leather bands with innumerable small conical shrill bells, and sets of larger bells in successive gradations of sizes, one hanging inside the other, are found here. Then there are some huge cylindrical bells standing about two and a half feet high, with scrolls and geometrical designs on their sides. These are for camels and are not intended to hang from the neck. They are slung on one side under the lighter of the two loads of the pack.

Next, one is attracted by a shop full of leather trunks, of the reddest but not the best morocco, stretched while wet upon a rough wooden frame. Primitive ornamentations are painted on the leather, and the corners of each box are strengthened with tin caps and rings. The trunks for pack animals are better made than the others, and are solidly sewn, with heavy straps and rings to sling them upon the saddles. Gaudy revolver pouches, cartridge belts, and slings for daggers are to be purchased in the same shop.