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Chapter 11

My caravan disbanded--Birjand--Ruined fortress--The city--Number
of houses--Population--The citadel--Artillery--Trade
routes--Birjand as a strategical position--A trading centre--No
fresh water--The Amir--Indian pilgrims--Birjand
carpets--Industries--A pioneer British trader--Imports and
exports--How business is transacted--Russian and British
goods--Long credit--A picturesque caravanserai--Afghan
soldiers--Beluch camel men.

At Birjand, my camels being utterly exhausted, I disbanded my caravan, paid up Ali Murat, and attempted to make up a fresh caravan to proceed to Sistan. This would take two or three days at least, so I employed my time at first by seeing all that there was to be seen in the place, then by receiving various official callers, and last in trying to shake off the fever, which I partially did by very violent but effective methods.

We entered Birjand from the west by a wide, dry river bed which formed the main street of the city. A ruined fortress which seemed at one time to have been of great strength, was to be seen on the western extremity of the town on a low hillock. The interior was quite interesting, with several tiers showing how the walls had been manned for defensive purposes.

The general view of Birjand reproduced in the illustration was taken from the fort and gives a better idea of the place than any description. It can be seen that the city is unequally divided by the combined river-bed and main street, the northern portion (to the left of observer in the photograph) having merely an extensive graveyard, a few houses, the large caravanserai at which I had halted, and a row of shops; whereas, on the southern side was the bulk of the houses, two, three and some even four storied, all of a monotonous greyish colour, the buildings being mostly of sun-dried mud bricks. The little windows in sets of threes and fives, with brown wooden shutters, relieved to a certain extent the dulness of the architecture, while a certain relief to the eye was afforded by a dome and another building, both painted white, in marked contrast to the mud walls. Many houses had long verandahs and balconies, on which the women spread their washing.

As the city was built in terraces upon undulating ground and two higher hills, it covered a greater area than it at first appeared to do. The streets were very tortuous and narrow, arched over in some places, forming long dark tunnels, many of the dwellings having rooms over them directly above the roadway.

Making a rough guess, there were, I daresay, some 3,500 to 4,000 houses in Birjand and its suburbs, with a population of not over 30,000 souls. These figures, the natives said, were about correct, but no exact statistics existed.

The higher point of Birjand was at its south-east portion, and at the most extreme south-east point of the town at the bottom of the hill was the high, square, fortress-like enclosure with bastions and a high tower, as represented in the illustration. It was in a dilapidated condition, but was, nevertheless, the only structure in Birjand which had a claim to some picturesqueness. It was the old citadel, inhabited at one time by the Amir. The wall of the citadel facing south had a large window with musharabeah woodwork, and a lower building to the side. The adjacent building also had quaint balconies.

A good view of the whole city was obtained from a high, isolated building to the south of the town, in the centre of a large but somewhat untidy fruit garden, an official residence, but now very little used except in cases of emergency to accommodate passing officials or distinguished people.

There were some Persian military officers staying there and they most kindly showed me all that there was to be seen, after having entertained me to some refreshments. They conveyed me inside the citadel where they proudly showed me a battery of six nine-pounder guns of obsolete Austrian manufacture; an eighteen pounder bronze gun and another gun of a somewhat smaller calibre, both of Persian make. They were very carelessly kept, there being apparently only a ragged boy or two to look after them.

The officer told me that the garrison of Birjand consisted of one thousand men, about one hundred of whom were stationed in Birjand itself, the rest being scattered in the villages around and at one or two posts along the Afghan frontier. For the accuracy of this statement, however, I leave the entire responsibility to the officer.

He was much distressed when I inquired whether the soldiers were ever drilled in artillery practice, and he said it could not be done because they had not sufficient ammunition, but they possessed some gunpowder. He agreed with me that artillery would be of little use if there was no one who knew how to use it, and no ammunition at hand!

Birjand being so near the Afghan frontier and having direct roads to Meshed, Herat, Sabzawar, Anardar, Farah, Lash, Sistan, Beluchistan, Bandar Abbas, Kerman, Yezd, Isfahan, and Teheran, is a place of interest from a strategic point of view. In its present condition it could not possibly offer any resistance. The city and citadel can be commanded from many points on the hills to the north-east and east, and the citadel--even allowing that it were strong enough to make a resistance--could be shelled with the greatest ease at close range from the hill on which now stands the ruined fortress west of the city. This point could be reached in perfect safety and would afford absolute cover under fire from the citadel, but with modern artillery even of moderate calibre would prove fatal to the citadel itself.

Birjand is probably the greatest commercial centre in Eastern Persia, its transit trade at various seasons of the year being very extensive from all the routes above-mentioned. Agriculturally, Birjand could not even support its own population, for the water supply is scanty and bad. There is no fresh water obtainable in the city, but brackish water is a little more plentiful. A small spring of good water is, however, to be found some two miles from the city, and there I daily sent a man to bring us a supply.

In war time, therefore, the city could not support nor aid an army, which would fare badly if locked up here. Possibly in some seasons it might supply some camels, horses and mules, but no food.

That the Persians themselves believe this an untenable place in time of war is evident, as this is one of the few large cities in Persia which is not surrounded by a wall.

The Amir, or Governor, does not live in Birjand itself but half a farsakh, or two miles, across the plains to the S.S.E., where he has a handsome residence in a pretty garden. Much to my regret I was too unwell to go and pay my respects to him, although I carried an introduction to him from H.R.H. Zil-es-Sultan, the Shah's brother. He very kindly sent to inquire after my health several times during my stay, and the Karghazar was deputed to come and convey these messages to me.

One cannot speak too highly of the extreme civility of Persian officials if one travels in their country properly accredited and in the right way. If one does not, naturally one only has to blame one's self for the consequences.

One hears a good deal about the advantages of being a Britisher in any country, and one could not help being amused at the natives of Birjand who could not distinguish a European from the blackest Bengalese. They were all Inglis to them. Some natives came to announce that a caravan of twenty of my own countrymen had just arrived--which gave me quite a pleasant surprise, although I could hardly credit its truth. On rushing out of my room to greet them, I found myself confronted with a crowd of black-faced, impudent, untidy Indian pilgrims from Bengal, on their way to the Sacred Shrine of Meshed. Most of them were fever-stricken; others, they told me, had died on the way.

These caravans have caused a good deal of friction both with the Persian and Russian authorities, for fear that they should bring plague into Persia and Transcaspia. When one saw these fanatics--religious people can be so dirty--one could not with any fairness blame the authorities for making a fuss and taking stringent measures to protect their own countries and people from probable infection. True, it should be remembered that the journey of 600 miles across the hot Baluchistan desert to Sistan, and the 500 more miles to Meshed, ought to have been a sufficient disinfectant as far as the plague went, but their wretched appearance was decidedly against them.

These pilgrims were a great nuisance; they traded on the fact that they were under British protection; they lived in the most abject fashion, continually haggling and quarrelling with the natives, and decidedly did not add to our popularity in Eastern Persia, to say nothing of the endless trouble and worry they gave to our officials at the Consulates and on the route.

As I have said, the natives do not know the difference between these men and Englishmen, and believe that all British subjects are of the same stamp--by which one cannot quite feel flattered. If these pilgrimages could be gradually restricted and eventually stopped, I think everybody all round would benefit,--even the pilgrims themselves, who might possibly not feel so holy, but whose health would not be impaired by the fearful sufferings they have to endure to gain--and often obtain very prematurely--a claim to a seat in heaven.

The opening up of the Nushki route from Quetta to Sistan and Meshed is responsible for the great influx of pilgrims, who have been attracted by the glowing reports of how easy it is to travel by this route. And so it is very easy, for men accustomed to that particular kind of travelling, like myself or like traders or Government officials, who can travel with all they want, and just as they please, but not for people who have to live from hand to mouth and who are destitute of everything. Those fellows have no idea whatever, when they start, of what they will have to endure on the road.

There is not much local trade in Birjand, but quite a brisk transit trade. The industries are practically confined to carpet-weaving, the carpets being renowned all over Persia for their softness, smooth texture, and colours, which are said never to fade, but the designs upon them are not always very graceful nor the colours always artistically matched. The most curious and durable are the camel-hair ones, but the design, usually with a very large medallion in the centre, does not seem to appeal to European eyes. Even the smallest rugs fetch very large sums. Although called Birjand carpets they are mostly manufactured in some of the villages north of Birjand, especially at Darakush.

Among the shops there are a few silversmiths', some blacksmiths', and some sword and gunsmiths'. The latter manufacture fairly good blades and picturesque matchlocks.

The trade caravanserais in the town are quaint, but to me most interesting of all was the one approached by a sharp incline--a very old one--where an Indian British trader had started business, attempting to further British trade in these regions. This man, by name Umar-al-din Khan, of the firm of Mahommed Ali of Quetta, was really a remarkable fellow. If Russian trade has not yet succeeded in getting a fair hold in Birjand, if British trade has it so far almost altogether its own way, we have only to thank the tact, energy, patience, and talent of this man. The patriotism, enterprise, and hard labour of Umar-al-din and his firm deserve indeed the greatest credit and gratitude.

Birjand is a most interesting point commercially because it will be here that Russian and British competition in Eastern Persia will eventually come into collision.

The main imports of the province of Kain, of which Birjand is the capital, are now English and Russian made merchandise. English goods are so far preferred and realize higher prices, because of their better quality. The articles principally required, and for which in retail the natives are ready to pay well, are ordinary cotton, woollen and silk cloths, household iron, copper, brass vessels, loaf-sugar, glass-ware and crockery, especially of shapes suitable for Persian uses. Indian tea sold very well at first, but the market is greatly overstocked at present and great caution should be exercised by Indian exporters.

Russian sugar, being of a much cheaper quality, is rapidly driving out of the place French and Indian sugars, but the quality of Russian sugar is so bad that of late there has been rather a reaction in favour of Shahjahanpur Rosa (Indian) sugar.

There are in Birjand several native merchants having fair amounts of capital at their disposal, but it appears that the prices which they are willing to pay are so low and the credit required so long, that it is most difficult to do business with them. The retail business is, therefore, more profitable than the wholesale.

The competition in Russian-made cotton cloths and tea is getting very keen and the Russians can sell these things so cheaply that it is not possible for Indian traders to sell at their prices. Also the Russians have learnt to manufacture the stuff exactly as required by the natives.

The glass ware and fancy goods are chiefly sold to the better class people, but no very great profits, especially to passing trading caravans, can be assured on such articles.

The exports consist of wool and skins to Russia, and to Bandar Abbas for India; carpets to Russia, Europe and India; Barak, a kind of woollen cloth, to various parts of Persia; opium to China via Bandar Abbas; saffron, caraway seeds, onaabs, etc., to India, also via Bandar Abbas, and some English and Russian merchandize to Herat.

Birjand is the commercial pivot, not only of the trade of North-eastern Persia, but also of Western Afghanistan. The commercial supremacy of this town will decide whether we are able in the future to hold our own in the south or not; but once driven back from this centre we may as well--commercially--say good-bye altogether to the northern and central Persian markets; while even the southern markets will be very seriously attacked, as far as goods coming overland are concerned.

Umar-al-din has made a most careful and serious study of the trade of Eastern Persia, and I am certain that if we were to encourage a number of other Indian traders of the same type to establish themselves in Birjand, with possible branches in Meshed, England could make rapid headway against any foreign competition. Being an Asiatic himself, although Umar-al-din has travelled, I believe, in Australia, England, etc., and speaks Hindustani, Persian and English perfectly, he is able to deal with the Persians in a way in which a European would not be so successful. He is on most friendly terms with H. E. Shan-kal-el-Mulk, the Governor, and all the local officials, by whom he is held in much respect and who have at various times made most extensive purchases in his shop to the amount of several thousand tomans' (dollars) worth of British goods.

On one occasion he imported for the Amir and his son a first-class double barrel English gun of the latest type, some revolvers, a bicycle, with a lot of European furniture for which he received immediate payment in cash of 4,000 rupees.

Umar-al-din was the first Indian trader to open a shop in Birjand. By this means he has exercised great influence over the Persian merchants of the place, and has induced the leading ones to trade with India, in preference to Russia, by the Nushki-Quetta route. His good work has been reported to Government by Major Chevenix Trench, then H. B. M. Consul in Sistan, now Consul in Meshed, by Lieutenant-Colonel Temple, Major Benn, and others.

On his arrival in Birjand he acted as Agent for the British Government, and was for ten months in charge of the Consular postal arrangements from Sistan to Meshed, while advising the Government on the best ways of promoting trade in those regions, a work which he did mostly for love and out of loyalty.

He has experimented a great deal, and his experience is that indigo is the article which commands the greatest sale at present, then plain white and indigo dyed cottons of two qualities, a superior kind with shiny surface for the better classes, and one rather inferior with no gloss for the lower people. Fancy articles find no sale.

One of the greatest difficulties that a trader has to contend with is the impossibility of selling anything for ready money, and thus making small but quick profits. Credit has to be given generally for one year, eighteen months, and even as long as two years. Even in the few cases where credit has been allowed for one or two months the greatest difficulty is experienced in obtaining payment for the goods supplied, threats and applications to the Amir being often necessary. Delays are constant, although the money is always paid in the end.

This necessitates keeping the prices very high to compensate for the loss, but by careful handling good profits can be made, if sufficient capital is at hand to keep the concern going.

The caravanserai in which Umar-al-din had hired several rooms which he had turned into a shop was now known by the name of the English Caravanserai, and nearly all the caravans with Indian and Afghan goods halted there. When I went to visit the place there were a number of Afghan soldiers who had conveyed some prisoners, who had escaped into Afghan territory, back from Herat to Birjand. Their rifles, with bayonets fixed, were stacked on the platform outside, and they loitered about, no two soldiers dressed alike. Some had old English military uniforms which they wore over their ample white or blue cotton trousers. These fellows looked very fierce and treacherous, with cruel mouths and unsteady eyes. They wore pointed embroidered peaks inside their turbans, and curly hair flowed upon their shoulders. At a distance they were most picturesque but extremely dirty.

A number of Beluch mari, or running camels, were being fed with huge balls of paste which were stuffed down their mouths by their owners. These camel men were the first Beluch I had come across, and although they wore huge white flowing robes, long hair, and pointed turbans not unlike the Afghans, the difference in the features and expression of the faces was quite marked. One could see that they were fighting people, but they had nice, honest faces; they looked straight in one's eyes, and had not the sneakish countenance of their northern neighbours.