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Chapter 7

Menzil and the winds--The historical Alamut mountain--A low
plateau--Volcanic formation--Mol-Ali--A genuine case of
smallpox--Characteristic sitting posture--A caravan of
mules--Rugged country--The remains of a volcanic commotion--The
old track--Kasvin, the city of misfortunes--The Governor's palace
and palatial rest house--Earthquakes and famine--Kanats, the
marvellous aqueducts--How they are made--Manufactures--Kasvin

Perhaps Menzil should be mentioned in connection with the terrific winds which, coming from the north-east and from the south, seem to meet here, and blow with all their might at all times of the year. The traveller is particularly exposed to them directly above the river course on crossing the bridge. Menzil is celebrated for these winds, which are supposed to be the worst, in all Persia, but unpleasant as they may be to any one who has not experienced worse, they are merely gentle breezes as compared, for instance, with the wind storms of the Tibetan plateau. To the east there is a very mountainous region, the Biwarzin Yarak range, or Kuse-rud, averaging from 6,000 to 7,000 ft.; further north a peak of 7,850 ft., and south-west of the Janja, 7,489 ft., the high Salambar, 11,290 ft. On the historical Mt. Alamut the old state prisons were formerly to be found, but were afterwards removed to Ardebil.

From Menzil we have left the Sefid River altogether, and we are now in a very mountainous region, with a singular low plateau in the centre of an extensive alluvial plain traversed by the road. We cross the Shah Rud, or River of the King, and at Paichinar, with its Russian post-house, we have already reached an altitude of 1,800 ft. From this spot the road proceeds through a narrow valley, through country rugged and much broken up, distinctly volcanic and quite picturesque. It is believed that coal is to be found here.

Perhaps one of the prettiest places we had yet come to was Mol-Ali, a lovely shady spot with veteran green trees all round. While the horses were being changed I was asked by the khafe-khana man to go and inspect a man who was ill. The poor fellow was wrapped up in many blankets and seemed to be suffering greatly. He had very high fever and his was a genuine case of smallpox. Next to him, quite unconcerned, were a number of Persian travellers, who had halted here for refreshments. They were squatting on their heels, knees wide apart, and arms balanced, resting above the elbow on their knees--the characteristic sitting posture of all Asiatics. Very comfortable it is, too, when you learn to balance yourself properly and it leaves the free use of one's arms. The kalian was being passed round as usual, and each had a thimble-full of sugared tea.

I was much attracted by a large caravan of handsome mules, the animals enjoying the refreshing shade of the trees. They had huge saddles ornamented with silver pommels and rings and covered over with carpets. Variegated cloth or carpet or red and green leather saddle-bags hung on either side of the animals behind the saddles. The bridle and bit were richly ornamented with shells and silver or iron knobs.

The few mud houses in the neighbourhood had flat roofs and were not sufficiently typical nor inviting enough for a closer internal inspection.

We are now on a tributary of the Shah-rud on the new road, instead of the old caravan track, which we have left since Paichinar.

The country becomes more interesting and wild as we go on. In the undoubtedly volcanic formation of the mountains one notices large patches of sulphurous earth on the mountain-side, with dark red and black baked soil above it. Over that, all along the range, curious column-like, fluted rocks. Lower down the soil is saturated with sulphurous matter which gives it a rich, dark blue tone with greenish tints in it and bright yellow patches. The earth all round is of a warm burnt sienna colour, intensified, when I saw it, by the reddish, soft rays of a dying sun. It has all the appearance of having been subjected to abnormal heat. The characteristic shape of the peaks of the range is conical, and a great many deep-cut channels and holes are noticeable in the rocky sides of these sugar-loaf mountains, as is frequently the case in mountains of volcanic formation.

We rise higher and higher in zig-zag through rugged country, and we then go across an intensely interesting large basin, which must at a previous date have been the interior of an exploded and now collapsed volcano. This place forcibly reminded me of a similar sight on a grander scale,--the site of the ex-Bandaisan Mountain on the main island of Nippon in Japan, after that enormous mountain was blown to atoms and disappeared some few years ago. A huge basin was left, like the bottom part of a gigantic cauldron, the edges of which bore ample testimony to the terrific heat that must have been inside before the explosion took place. In the Persian scene before us, of a much older date, the basin, corroded as it evidently was by substances heated to a very high temperature and by the action of forming gases, had been to a certain extent obliterated by the softening actions of time and exposure to air. The impression was not so violent and marked as the one received at Bandaisan, which I visited only a few days after the explosion, but the various characteristics were similar.

In the basin was a solitary hut, which rejoiced in the name of Kort. These great commotions of nature are interesting, but to any one given to sound reflection they are almost too big for the human mind to grasp. They impress one, they almost frighten one, but give no reposeful, real pleasure in gazing upon them such as less disturbed scenery does. The contrasts in colour and shape are too violent, too crude to please the eye: the freaks too numerous to be comprehensible at a glance. Here we have a ditch with sides perfectly black-baked, evidently by lava or some other hot substance which has flowed through; further on big splashes of violent red and a great variety of warm browns. The eye roams from one spot to the other, trying to understand exactly what has taken place--a job which occupies a good deal of one's time and attention as one drives through, and which would occupy a longer time and study than a gallop through in a post landau can afford.

At Agha Baba we were again on the old track, quite flat now, and during the night we galloped easily on a broad road through uninteresting country till we reached Kasvin, 185 versts from Resht.

Kasvin, in the province of Irak, is a very ancient city, which has seen better days, has gone through a period of misfortune, and will in future probably attain again a certain amount of prosperity. It is situated at an altitude of 4,094 feet (at the Indo-European telegraph office), an elevation which gives it a very hot but dry, healthy climate with comparatively cool nights. The town is handsome, square in form, enclosed in a wall with towers.

The governor's palace is quite impressive, with a fine broad avenue of green trees leading from it to the spacious Kasvin rest-house. This is by far the best rest-house on the road to the Persian capital, with large rooms, clean enough for Persia, and with every convenience for cooking one's food. Above the doorway the Persian lion, with the sun rising above his back, has been elaborately painted, and a picturesque pool of stagnant water at the bottom of the steps is no doubt the breeding spot of mosquitoes and flies, of which there are swarms, to make one's life a misery.

The palatial rest-house, the governor's palace, a mosque or two, and the convenient bath-houses for Mahommedans being barred, there is nothing particular to detain the traveller in Kasvin.

One hears that Kasvin occupied at one time a larger area than Teheran to-day. The remains of this magnitude are certainly still there. The destruction of the city, they say, has been due to many and varied misfortunes. Earthquakes and famines in particular have played an important part in the history of Kasvin, and they account for the many streets and large buildings in ruins which one finds, such as the remains of the Sufi Palace and the domed mosque. The city dates back to the fourth century, but it was not till the sixteenth century that it became the Dar-el-Sultanat--the seat of royalty--under Shah Tamasp. It prospered as the royal city until the time of Shah Abbas, whose wisdom made him foresee the dangers of maintaining a capital too near the Caspian Sea. Isfahan was selected as the future capital, from which time Kasvin, semi-abandoned, began its decline.

In 1870 a famine devastated the town to a considerable extent, but even previous to that a great portion of the place had been left to decay, so that to-day one sees large stretches of ruined houses all round the neighbourhood and in Kasvin itself. The buildings are mostly one-storied, very few indeed boasting of an upper floor. The pleasant impression one receives on entering the city is mostly caused by the quantity of verdure and vegetation all round.

One of the principal things which strike the traveller in Persia, especially on nearing a big city, is the literal myriads of curious conical heaps, with a pit in the centre, that one notices running across the plains in long, interminable rows, generally towards the mountains. These are the kanats, the astounding aqueducts with which dried-up Persia is bored in all directions underground, the canals that lead fresh water from the distant springs to the cities, to the villages, and to irrigate the fields. The ancient process of making these kanats has descended unchanged to the modern Persian, who is really a marvellous expert--when he chooses to use his skill--at conveying water where Nature has not provided it. I watched some men making one of these kanats. They had bored a vertical hole about three feet in diameter, over which a wooden windlass had been erected. One man was working at the bottom of the shaft. By means of buckets the superfluous earth was gradually raised up to the surface, and the hole bored further. The earth removed in the excavation is then embanked all round the aperture of the shaft. When the required depth is attained a tunnel is pierced, mostly with the hands and a small shovel, in a horizontal direction, and seldom less than four feet high, two feet wide, just big enough to let the workman through. Then another shaft has to be made for ventilation's sake and to raise to the surface the displaced earth. Miles of these kanats are thus bored, with air shafts every ten to twenty feet distant. In many places one sees thirty, forty, fifty parallel long lines of these aqueducts, with several thousand shafts, dotting the surface of the ground.

Near ancient towns and villages one finds a great many of these kanats dry and disused at present, and nearly everywhere one sees people at work making fresh ones, for how to get water is one of the great and serious questions in the land of Iran. Near Kasvin these kanats are innumerable, and the water carried by them goes through the streets of the city, with holes here and there in the middle of the road to draw it up. These holes are a serious danger to any one given to walking about without looking where he is placing his feet. It is mainly due to these artificial water-tunnels that the plain of Kasvin, otherwise arid and oppressively hot, has been rendered extremely fertile.

There are a great many gardens with plenty of fruit-trees. Vineyards abound, producing excellent stoneless grapes, which, when dried, are mostly exported to Russia. Pomegranates, water-melons, cucumbers, and cotton are also grown. Excellent horses and camels are bred here.

Kasvin being the half-way house, as it were, between Resht and Teheran, and an important city in itself, is bound--even if only in a reflected manner--to feel the good effects of having through communication to the Caspian and the capital made so easy by the completion of the Russian road.

The silk and rice export trade for Bagdad has gone up during the last two years, and in the fertile plain in which Kasvin lies agriculture is beginning to look up again, although not quite so much as in the Resht district, which is naturally the first to reap benefit from the development of Northern Persia.

The chief manufactures of Kasvin are carpets, a kind of coarse cotton-cloth called kerbas, velvet, brocades, iron-ware and sword-blades, which are much appreciated by Persians.

There is a large bazaar in which many cheap European goods are sold besides the more picturesque articles of local manufacture.

From a strategical point of view, Kasvin occupies a position not to be overlooked, guarding as it does the principal entrance from the south into the Ghilan province.