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Chapter 35

The British Consul-General in Isfahan--Russia's influence in
Southern Persia--H.R.H. Zil-es-Sultan--Departure for Yezd--Pigeon
towers--A Persian telegraph line--Ghiavaz--Characteristics of the
scenery--A village in ruins--Types--Saigsi--Mud dunes--Mirage--A
reservoir--Kanats--Scarcity of fodder.

I only halted a few days in Isfahan, during which time I was the guest of Mr. Preece, the British Consul-General. Mr. Preece's hospitality and popularity are proverbial among Europeans and natives all over Persia. A step in the right direction was taken by the British Government in making a Consulate-General in Isfahan, and another good step was that of furnishing the Consulate with a guard of mounted Indian soldiers. Prestige and outward show go much together in Persia, and no matter to what extent one's private feelings may rebel at the idea, we must make a display, I suppose.

We have in Mr. Preece a very able and intellectual officer; a man who understands the Persians thoroughly, and a gentleman of uncommon tact and kindliness. His artistic taste has served him well, so that the Consulate and grounds have been rendered most comfortable and delightful, and the collections of carpets and silver which he has made during his many years' residence in Persia are very interesting.

It is true that Russian influence is spreading fast towards the south, and that the establishment of a Russian Consulate in Isfahan, with its guard of Cossacks, has made considerable impression on the population, but no doubt Mr. Preece will be able to maintain British prestige high, if the Government at home show grit and enable him to do so.

It is most important, I think, to come to some sound conclusion on the policy to be followed towards Russia in Persia, either to check her advance immediately and firmly, or to come to some satisfactory agreement with her so that her interests and ours may not altogether clash; but it cannot be impressed too often upon our minds that our present policy of drift and wavering is most disastrous to our interests. We have lost Northern Persia. Southern Persia will soon slip from our grip unless we pull up soon and open our eyes wide to what is happening.

We place too much reliance on the fact that Zil-es-Sultan, the Shah's brother and now Governor of Isfahan, was once extremely pro-British. We have a way of getting ideas into our heads and nothing will drive them out again, but we forget that things and people change in Persia as everywhere else, and what was accurate fifteen years ago may not be so now. Also it must be remembered that Zil-es-Sultan, although in high power, does not occupy the same high position politically as before the late Shah's death. He and his family are kept under strict control of the Shah, and any pro-English ideas which they may still have are discouraged, if not promptly eradicated. His Highness's sons have been forbidden to be educated in Europe or to travel abroad, although a visit to Russia only might be allowed. Beyond the secondary power of a High Governor, Zil-es-Sultan has no other influence, and has to conform to superior orders. He is now no longer very young, and his popularity, although still very great, cannot be said to be on the increase.

While in Isfahan I had an audience of his Highness. One could not help being struck at first glance by the powerful countenance of the Prince, and the mixture of pride and worry plainly depicted on his face. He spoke very intelligently but was most guarded in his speech. One of his sons Baharam Mirza--a wonderfully clever young man, who spoke French and English fluently although he had never been out of Persia--interpreted. I was much impressed by the kindliness of the Zil-es-Sultan towards his children, and in return by the intense respect, almost fear, of these towards their father. After a pleasant visit and the usual compliments and refreshments, coffee was brought, the polite signal that the audience should come to a close. The Prince accompanied the Consul and myself to the door of the room--a most unusual compliment.

There were many soldiers, and servants and attendants with silver-topped maces who escorted us out of the grounds, where we found the Consular guard again, and returned to the Consulate.

Two days later I departed for Yezd. There is no high road between the two cities; only a mere track. No postal service and relays of horses are stationed on the track, but, by giving notice some days previous to one's departure, horses can be sent out ahead from Isfahan to various stages of the journey, until the Kashan-Nain-Yezd road is met, on which post horses can again be obtained at the Chappar Khanas. This, however, involved so much uncertainty and exorbitant expense that I preferred to make up my own caravan of mules, the first part of the journey being rather hilly.

On leaving Isfahan there are mountains to the south, the Urchin range, and also to the east, very rugged and with sharply defined edges. To the north-east stand distant elevations, but nothing can be seen due north. We go through a great many ruins on leaving the city, and here, too, as in other cities of Persia, one is once more struck by the unimportant appearance of the city from a little distance off. The green dome of the Mosque, and four minarets are seen rising on the north-east, five more slender minarets like factory chimneys--one extremely high--then everything else the colour of mud.

The traffic near the city is great. Hundreds of donkeys and mules toddle along both towards and away from the city gate. The dust is appalling. There is nothing more tantalizing than the long stretches of uninteresting country to be traversed in Persia, where, much as one tries, there is nothing to rest one's eye upon; so it is with great relief--almost joy--that we come now to something new in the scenery, in the shape of architecture--a great number of most peculiar towers.

These are the pigeon towers--a great institution in Central Persia. They are cylindrical in shape, with castellated top, and are solidly built with massive walls. They stand no less than thirty to forty feet in height, and possess a central well in which the guano is collected--the object for which the towers are erected. A quadrangular house on the top, and innumerable small cells, where pigeons lay their eggs and breed their young, are constructed all round the tower. These towers are quite formidable looking structures, and are so numerous, particularly in the neighbourhood of Isfahan, as to give the country quite a strongly fortified appearance. The guano is removed once a year. After passing Khorasgun, at Ghiavaz--a small village--one could count as many as twenty-four of these pigeon houses.

Some amusement could be got from the way the Persian telegraph line had been laid between Isfahan and Yezd, via Nain. There were no two poles of the same height or shape; some were five or six feet long, others ten or fifteen;--some were straight, some crooked; some of most irregular knobby shapes. As to the wire, when it did happen to be supported on the pole it was not fastened to an insulator, as one would expect, but merely rested on a nail, or in an indentation in the wood. For hundreds of yards at a time the wire lay on the ground, and the poles rested by its side or across it. Telegrams sent by these Persian lines, I was told, take several days to reach their destination, if they ever do reach at all; and are usually entrusted for conveyance, not to the wire, but to caravan men happening to travel in that particular direction, or to messengers specially despatched from one city to the other.

Some two farsakhs from Isfahan we went through a passage where the hills nearly meet, after which we entered a flat plain, barren and ugly. In the distance to the south-east lay a line of blackish trees, and another in front of us in the direction we were travelling, due east. Then we saw another bunch of pigeon towers.

Leaving behind the hills nearer to us to the north-west, west, and south-west, and the more distant and most fantastically shaped range to the south, my mules gradually descend into the plain. For an angle of 40° from east to S.S.E. no hills are visible to the naked eye, but there is a long range of comparatively low hills encircling us from N.N.W. to S.S.E. and N.E. of the observer, the highest points being at 80° (almost N.E.E.). To the north we have a long line of kanats.

Following the drunken row of telegraph poles we arrive at Gullahbad (Gulnabad)--a village in ruins. From this point for some distance the soil is covered with a deposit of salt, giving the appearance of a snow-clad landscape, in sharp contrast with the terrific heat prevailing at the time. This road is impassable during the rainy weather. As one nears the hills to the N.E. tufts of grass of an anæmic green cover the ground (altitude 5,250 feet).

Under a scorching sun we reached Saigsi (8 farsakhs from Isfahan) at six o'clock in the afternoon, and put up in the large caravanserai with two rooms up stairs and ten down below around the courtyard. The difference in the behaviour of the natives upon roads on which Europeans do not frequently travel could be detected at once here. One met with the greatest civility and simplicity of manner and, above all, honesty, which one seldom finds where European visitors are more common.

There are few countries where the facial types vary more than in Persia. The individuals of nearly each town, each village, have peculiar characteristics of their own. At Saigsi, for instance, only 32 miles from Isfahan, we find an absolutely different type of head, with abnormally large mouth and widely-expanded nostrils, the eyes wide apart, and the brow overhanging. The latter may be caused by the constant brilliant refraction of the white soil in the glare of the sun (altitude of Saigsi 5,100 feet).

About four miles east of Saigsi and north of the track we come across five curious parallel lines of mud-heaps or dunes stretching from north to south. Each of these heaps is precisely where there is a gap in the mountain range to the north of it, and each has the appearance of having been gradually deposited there by a current passing through these gaps when the whole of this plain was the sea-bottom. These mud heaps are flat-topped and vary from 20 to 40 feet in height, the central row of all being the highest of the series. This is a grand place for wonderful effects of mirage all round us. To the W. spreads a beautiful lake in the depression of the plain--as complete an optical deception as it is possible to conceive, for in reality there is no lake at all.

Water is not at all plentiful here. One finds a reservoir made for caravans along this track. It is a tank 25 feet by 10 feet sunk deep into the ground and roofed over with a vault. The water is sent to it by means of a channel from the small village of Vartan north of it.

We gradually rise to 5,550 feet and again we have before us another beautiful effect of mirage in the shape of a magnificent lake with a village and cluster of trees apparently suspended in the air. My caravan man assures me that the village, which appears quite close by, is many miles off.

Long rows of kanats, ancient and modern, to the south-east warn us of the approach of a small town, and on the road plenty of skeletons of camels, donkeys, and mules may be seen. Fodder is very scarce upon this track, and many animals have to die of starvation. Also animals caught here during the rains cannot proceed in the sinking soft ground, and eventually die.