Missionary work in Persia--Educational and medical work--No
settlement--Conservative customs--Armenian women--Their
education--The Armenian man--Europeans--A bird's-eye view of
Isfahan--Armenian graveyard--A long bridge--The Rev. James
Loraine Garland--Mission among the Jews.
There is little to say of interest in connection with Missionary work in Persia, except that a considerable amount of good is being done in the educational and medical line. There are well-established schools and hospitals. The most praiseworthy institution is the supply of medicinal advice and medicine gratis or at a nominal cost. As far as the work of Christianising is concerned, it must be recollected that Missionaries are only allowed in Persia on sufferance, and are on no account permitted to make converts among the Mahommedans. Any Mussulman, man, woman, or child, who discards his religion for Christianity, will in all probability lose his life.
If any Christianising work is done at all it has to be done surreptitiously and at a considerable amount of risk to both convert and converter. Some interest in the Christian religion is nevertheless shown by Mussulmans of the younger generation--who now are practically atheists at heart--but whether this interest is genuine or not it is not for me to say. There is much in the Bible that impresses them, and I understand that constant applications are made for copies of translations into the Persian language. To avoid the great waste which occurred when Bibles were given away for nothing, a nominal charge is now made so as to prevent people throwing the book away or using it for evil purposes.
In Isfahan itself there are no missionaries among the Mahommedans, but some are to be found at Julfa, a suburb of Isfahan, on the south bank of the Zindah-rud (river). Julfa was in former days a prosperous Armenian settlement of some 30,000 inhabitants, but is now mostly in ruins since the great migration of Armenians to India.
There is an Armenian Archbishop at Julfa. He has no real power, but is much revered by the Armenians themselves. He provides priests for the Armenians of India.
A handsome cathedral, with elaborate ornamentations and allegorical pictures, is one of the principal structures in Julfa.
One cannot help admiring the Armenians of Julfa for retaining their conservative customs so long. Within the last few years, however, rapid strides have been made towards the abandonment of the ancient dress and tongue. At Julfa the Armenians have to a great extent retained their native language, which they invariably speak among themselves, although many of the men are equally fluent in Persian; but in cities like Teheran, where they are thrown into more direct contact with Persians, the Armenians are almost more conversant with Persian than with their own tongue. The men and women of the better classes have adopted European clothes, in which they might easily be mistaken for Southern Italians or Spaniards.
But in Julfa such is not the case, and the ancient style of dress is so far maintained. One is struck by the great number of women in the streets of Julfa and the comparative lack of men. This is because all able-bodied men migrate to India or Europe, leaving their women behind until sufficient wealth is accumulated to export them also to foreign lands.
The education of the Armenian women of the middle and lower classes consists principally in knitting socks--one sees rows of matrons and girls sitting on the doorsteps busily employed thus,--and in various forms of culinary instruction. But the better class woman is well educated in European fashion, and is bright and intelligent.
The Armenian woman, in her ample and speckless white robes, her semi-covered face, and beautiful soft black eyes, is occasionally captivating. The men, on the other hand, although handsome, have something indescribable about them that does not make them particularly attractive.
The Armenian man--the true type of the Levantine--has great business capacities, wonderful facility for picking up languages, and a persuasive flow of words ever at his command. Sceptical, ironical and humorous--with a bright, amusing manner alike in times of plenty or distress--a born philosopher, but uninspiring of confidence,--with eyes that never look straight into yours, but are ever roaming all over the place,--with religious notions adaptable to business prospects,--very hospitable and good-hearted, given to occasional orgies,--such is the Persian-Armenian of to-day.
The more intelligent members of the male community migrate to better pastures, where they succeed, by steady hard work and really practical brains, in amassing considerable fortunes. The less enterprising remain at home to make and sell wine. Personally, I found Armenians surprisingly honest.
In Julfa the Europeans--of whom, except in business, there are few--have comfortable, almost luxurious residences. The principal streets of the Settlement are extremely clean and nice for Persia. The Indo-European Telegraph Office is also here. But the best part of Julfa--from a pictorial point of view--is the extensive Armenian cemetery, near a picturesque background of hills and directly on the slopes of Mount Sofia. There are hundreds of rectangular tombstones, many with neatly bevelled edges, and epitaphs of four or five lines. A cross is engraved on each grave, and some have a little urn at the head for flowers.
From the roof of a house situated at the highest point of the inclined plane, one obtains a magnificent bird's-eye view of Isfahan, its ancient grandeur being evinced by the great expanse of ruins all round it. The walls of Isfahan were said at one time to measure twenty-four miles in circumference. Like all other cities of Persia, Isfahan does not improve by too distant a view. The mud roofs are so alike in colour to the dried mud of the streets that a deadly monotony must follow, as a matter of course; but the many beautiful green gardens round about and in Isfahan itself are a great relief to the eye, and add much attraction to the landscape.
Most prominent of all buildings in the city are the great semi-spherical dome of the Mesjid-i-Shah, with its gracefully ornamented tiles; the Madrassah; the multi-columned, flat-roofed Palace, and the high minarets in couples, dotted all over the city. Then round about, further away, stand any number of curious circular towers, the pigeon towers.
The bed of the river between Isfahan and Julfa is over six hundred feet wide, and is spanned by three bridges. One of these, with thirty-four arches, is no less than 1,000 ft. in length, but is much out of repair.
The Armenian Christians of Julfa are enjoying comparative safety at present, but until quite recently were much persecuted by the Mahommedans, the Mullahs being particularly bitter against them.
One sees a great many priests about Julfa, and as I visited the place on a Sunday the people looked so very demure and sanctimonious--I am speaking of the Armenians--on their way out of church; taciturn and with head low or talking in a whisper, all toddling alongside the wall--as people from church generally do,--that I must confess I was glad when I left this place of oppressive sanctity and returned to Isfahan. Somehow, Julfa impresses one as a discordant note in Persian harmony--although a very fine and pleasing note in itself.
Until quite recently the Persians objected to foreigners residing even in Isfahan itself. The officials of the Bank of Persia were the first to take up their abode within the city wall, then soon after came Mr. Preece, our able and distinguished Consul-General.
There is now a third Englishman residing in Jubareh, the Jewish quarter, the Revd. James Loraine Garland, of the London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews of Isfahan. Why such a Society should exist at all seems to any one with a sense of humour bewildering, but on getting over the first shock of surprise one finds that of all the Missions to Persia it is probably the most sensible, and worked on practical, sound, useful lines. Much as I am unfavourably inclined towards religious Missions of any kind, I could not help being impressed with Mr. Garland's very interesting work.
The first time I saw Mr. Garland I was nearly run over by him as he was riding a race with a sporting friend on the Golahek road near Teheran--raising clouds of dust, much to the concern of passers-by.
The same day I met Mr. Garland in Teheran, when he was garbed in the ample clothes of the sporting friend, his own wardrobe having been stolen, with his money and all other possessions, by robbers on the Isfahan-Kashan road. In fact, he was the Englishman referred to in Chapter 26.
Being somewhat of a sportsman myself, this highly-sporting clergyman appealed to me. Extremely gentlemanly, courteous, tactful, sensible and open-minded, he was not a bit like a missionary. He was a really good man. His heart and soul were in his work. He very kindly asked me to visit his Mission in Isfahan, and it was a real pleasure to see a Mission worked on such sensible lines.
The first Mission to the Jews of Persia and Chaldea was established in 1844 by the Reverend Dr. Stern, who resided part of the year in Bagdad, and the remainder in Isfahan. The work was up-hill, and in 1865 the Mission was suspended.