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Chapter 9

Teheran--The seat of the Kajar family--The square of the
gun--Sanctuaries--The Top Meidan--Tramways--A railway--Opposition
of the Mullahs and population--Destruction of a
train--Mosques--Habitations--Extortion and blackmail--Persian

A description of Teheran is hardly necessary here, the city being so well-known, but for the help of people unfamiliar with its character a rough sketch of the place may be given.

Teheran, it must be remembered, has only been the capital of Persia for the last hundred years, when the capital was removed from Isfahan. Previous to that it was merely a royal resort and nothing more. In shape it was formerly almost circular--or, to be strictly accurate, polygonal, the periphery of the polygon measuring a farsakh, four miles. Like all Persian cities it was enclosed in a mud wall and a moat. Since then the city has so increased that an extension has been made to an outer boundary some ten miles in circumference, and marked by an uneven ditch, the excavated sand of which is thrown up to form a sort of battlement. Twelve gates, opened at sunrise and closed at night, give access to the town. The citadel, the ancient part of the city, contains the principal public buildings, the private residences of high officials, and the Shah's Palace. To the south of this are found the extensive domed bazaars and the commercial portion of Teheran. To the north lies the European quarter with the Legations, Banks and European shops.

We will not go as far back as the Afghan invasion in 1728 when, according to history, Teheran was looted and razed to the ground by the Afghans, but we will only mention the fact, which is more interesting to us, that it was not till about 1788 that the city was selected on account of its geographical position and of political necessities, as the seat of the Kajar dynasty by Agha Mohammed, who in 1796 became the first King of his family. The Kajar, as everybody knows, has remained the reigning dynasty of Persia to this day.

The most interesting point of Teheran, in the very centre of the city, is the old "Place du Canon," where on a high platform is a gigantic piece of ordnance enclosed by a railing. In the same square is a large reservoir of more or less limpid water, in which at all hours of the day dozens of people are to be seen bathing. But the big gun attracts one's attention principally. A curious custom, which is slowly being done away with, has made this spot a sanctuary. Whoever remains within touch or even within the shadow of the gun--whether an assassin, a thief, a bankrupt, an incendiary, a traitor or a highwayman,--in fact, a criminal of any kind cannot be touched by the police nor by persons seeking a personal revenge--the usual way of settling differences in Persia. A number of distinctly criminal types can always be observed near the gun and are fed by relations, friends, or by charitable people. Persians of all classes are extremely charitable, not so much for the sake of helping their neighbours in distress, as for increasing their claims to a seat in Paradise, according to the Mussulman religion.

These sanctuaries are common in Persia. The mosques, the principal shrines, such as Meshed, Kum, the houses of Mullahs, and in many cases the bazaars which are generally to be found adjoining places of pilgrimage, afford most convenient shelter to outlaws. The Mullahs are greatly responsible for the protection of miscreants. By exercising it they are able to show their power over the authorities of the country--a fact which impresses the masses. That is why in the neighbourhood of many mosques one sees a great number of ruffianly faces, unmistakable cut-throats, men and boys whose villainy is plainly stamped on their countenances. As long as they remain inside the sacred precincts--which they can do if they like till they die of old age--they can laugh at the law and at the world at large. But let them come out, and they are done for.

The Shah's stables are considered a very safe sanctuary. Houses of Europeans, or Europeans themselves, were formerly considered sanctuaries, but the habit has--fortunately for the residents--fallen into disuse. I myself, when driving one day in the environs of Teheran, saw a horseman leading a man whose neck was tied to a substantial rope. Much to my surprise, when near enough, the prisoner jumped into my carriage, and it was only after some persuasion on my side and a few pulls at the rope from the rider at the other end that the unwelcome companion was made to dismount again.

When in the company of high Mullahs evil characters are also inviolable.

The largest square in Teheran is the Top Meidan or "Cannon plain," where several small and antiquated pieces of artillery are enclosed in a fence. Two parallel avenues with trees cross the rectangular square at its longest side from north to south. In the centre is a large covered reservoir. The offices of both the Persian and Indo-European Telegraphs are in this square, and also the very handsome building of the Bank of Persia.

The square is quite imposing at first sight, having on two sides uniform buildings with long balconies. The lunettes of the archways underneath have each a picture of a gun, and on approaching the southern gates of the parallelogram a smile is provoked by the gigantic but crude, almost childish representations of modern soldiers on glazed tiles. To the west is the extensive drill ground for the Persian troops. Another important artery of Teheran runs from east to west across the same square.

One cannot but be interested on perceiving along the main thoroughfares of Teheran a service of horse tramways working quite steadily. But the rolling stock is not particularly inviting outwardly--much less inwardly. It is mostly for the use of natives and Armenians, and the carriages are very dirty. The horses, however, are good. The Tramway Company in the hands of Russian Jews, I believe, but managed by an Englishman and various foreigners--subalterns--was doing pretty fair business, and jointly with the tramways had established a capital service of "Voitures de remise," which avoided all the trouble and unpleasantness of employing street cabs. The carriages, mostly victorias, were quite good and clean.

Among other foreign things, Teheran can also boast of a railway--a mere steam tramway, in reality--of very narrow gauge and extending for some six miles south of the city to the shrine of Shah Abdul Hazim.

The construction of even so short and unimportant a line met with a great deal of opposition, especially from the priestly class, when it was first started in 1886 by a Belgian company--"La Société des Chemins de Fer et des Tramways de Perse." The trains began to run two years later, in 1888, and it was believed that the enormous crowds of pilgrims who daily visited the holy shrine would avail themselves of the convenience. Huge profits were expected, but unluckily the four or five engines that were imported at an excessive cost, and the difficulties encountered in laying down the line, which was continually being torn up by fanatics, and, most of all, the difficulty experienced in inducing pilgrims to travel in sufficient numbers by the line instead of on horses, mules or donkeys were unexpected and insoluble problems which the managers had to face, and which made the shareholders grumble. The expenses far exceeded the profits, and the capital employed in the construction of the line was already vastly larger than had been anticipated. One fine day, furthermore, a much-envied and respected pilgrim, who had returned in holiness from the famous shrine of Kerbalah, was unhappily run over and killed by a train. The Mullahs made capital of this accident and preached vengeance upon foreign importations, the work of the devil and distasteful to Allah the great. The railway was mobbed and the engine and carriages became a mass of débris.

There was nearly a serious riot about this in Teheran city; the trains continued to run with the undamaged engines, but no one would travel by them. Result? "La Compagnie des Chemins de Fer et des Tramways de Perse" went bankrupt. The whole concern was eventually bought up cheap by a Russian Company, and is now working again, as far as regards the railway, in a more or less spasmodic manner.

The tramway service connects the three principal gates of the outer wall of Teheran with the centre of the city "the Place des Canons" (Meidan-Top-Khaned).

Although there are a great many mosques in Teheran city there is not one of great importance or beauty. The Mesjid-i-shah, or the Shah's Mosque, is the most noteworthy, and has a very decorative glazed tiled façade. Then next in beauty is probably the mosque of the Shah's mother, but neither is in any way uncommon for size, or wealth, architectural lines, or sacredness. Several mosques have colleges attached to them, as is the usual custom in Persia. Access to the interior of the mosques is not permitted to Europeans unless they have embraced the Mahommedan religion.

Outwardly, there are few native houses in Teheran that impress one with any remarkable features of wealth or beauty; in fact, they are nearly all wretchedly miserable,--a plastered mud or brick wall with a modest little doorway being all one sees from the street of the dwellings of even the richest and noblest of Persians. Inside matters are different. Frequently a miserable little tumbling-down gate gives access, after going through similarly miserable, narrow, low passages, to magnificent palaces and astoundingly beautiful and luxurious courts and gardens. I asked what was the reason of the poor outward appearance of these otherwise luxurious dwellings. Was it modesty,--was it to deceive envious eyes?

There are few countries where blackmail and extortion are carried on on a more extensive and successful scale than in Persia; all classes and conditions of people are exposed to the danger, and it is only by an assumed air of poverty that a certain amount of security is obtained. A miserable-looking house, it was explained by a Persian, does not attract the covetous eye of the passer-by; an unusually beautiful one does. "It is a fatal mistake," he added, "to let anybody's eye rest on one's possessions, whether he be the Shah, a minister, or a beggar. He will want to rest his hands upon them next, and then everything is gone. Besides," he said, "it is the inside of a house that gives pleasure and comfort to the occupier and his friends. One does not build a house to give pleasure and comfort to the people in the street. That is only vainglory of persons who wish to make their neighbours jealous by outward show. They usually have to repent it sooner or later."

There was more philosophy than European minds may conceive in the Persian's words--at least, for Persian householders.