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Chapter 12

A loud explosion--Persian military officers--Dr. Abbas Ali Khan,
British Agent in Birjand--His excellent work--Gratefulness of the
natives--A quaint letter--The Russian Agent--A Russian temporary
score--More British Consulates needed--Visits returned--Altitude
and temperature of Birjand--Cossacks and their houses--A bright
scene in a graveyard--Departure of Indian pilgrims for
Meshed--British Consular postal service--Russian post--Making up
a second caravan.

Early in the morning of the 26th I was awakened by a fearful explosion that shook the caravanserai and made everything in the room rattle. A few minutes later there was a second report and then a third and fourth, twelve altogether, but these fortunately not quite so loud. Evidently my military friends of the previous day were firing off their artillery.

Shortly after this, in their gaudy uniforms and with a guard of soldiers, the officers came to call upon me at the caravanserai.

"Have you heard the guns being fired?" was their first anxious question. Indeed I had. It appears that to make sure that I should hear them a double charge of powder was placed in the first gun. When it was let off in the very small court of the citadel the concussion had most disastrous effects upon the mud walls all round, as well as upon some of the spectators who were close at hand and who were nearly stunned by the fearful report.

The officers were extremely civil, intelligent and full of humour. Intense astonishment and interest was shown in my repeating rifles. They had never set their eyes upon, nor ever heard that there was such a thing as, a repeating rifle! I was, nevertheless, much struck by their quickness compared with that of the average European, in grasping the mechanism and the way to use the weapons.

They seemed fully to realize that it would be of little practical use to defend Birjand city in case of an attack, because it could be commanded from several excellent positions close at hand to the north-east, north and north-west. Furthermore, the water supply could easily be cut off. They told me, if I remember right, that it was the intention of the Persian Government to strengthen this place and that some more pieces of artillery were expected.

We have in Birjand an Indian doctor, by name Abbas Ali Khan, who acts as British Agent. He is a young fellow of uncommon ability and education, a capital doctor, and a most gentlemanly man, who has had great experience of the world, having travelled with several political missions in various parts of Asia, including the Pekin Syndicate Survey expedition under command of J. W. Purvis, Captain R. E., where not only did he look after the medical necessities of a large party of Europeans, Indians and Chinese, but helped to manage a large transport of mule carts. Captain Purvis testifies to Abbas Ali having performed his professional duties with zeal, and extraneous duties cheerfully, during a journey of some 2,000 miles through China.

It was in April, 1897, that Abbas Ali Khan, at twenty-four hours' notice, accompanied Major Brazier Creagh's Mission to Sistan, when British influence in that part of Persia was non-existent. The Mission returned to India in October of the same year, but Abbas Ali was sent on a second journey to Sistan in charge of a small party from December, 1897, to July, 1898, when he was entrusted with political business which required great discretion and tact.

It is greatly to his credit that he managed--in spite of many difficulties and obstacles--to win the confidence and friendship of officials of a district where all British subjects were regarded with undisguised suspicion and distrust. No better proof of this could be furnished than by reproducing here a literal translation of a quaint document, dated May, 1898, given him, unsolicited, by Mir Masum Sar-tip, Deputy Governor of Sistan, whose official seal it bears:--

"God is acquainted with what is in the minds of men. Beyond doubt
and without hesitation it is rightly and justly stated that
Military Doctor Mirza Abbas Ali Khan has during the period of his
stay in Sistan displayed his personal tact and natural ability.
He has treated with great civility and politeness any person who
has applied to him for medical attendance and treatment of
diseases, and has in no case whatever demanded payment or
anything from anybody. He has never hesitated to give gratuitous
medical aid with medicines or personal attendance, and all the
natives from the highest to the lowest are well satisfied and
under great obligation to him. It is hoped that the trouble taken
and the pecuniary loss suffered by him will be appreciated by his
Government. I have personally greatly benefited by his treatment
of my personal diseases and ailments and I trust that he will
receive great favour from his Government."

Naturally the medicines are supplied to him by the Government, but it would be becoming if the Government saw its way to reward men of this type for the "soul" which they put into their work, for this it is after all that wins the esteem of the natives more than the actual cost of the medicines. A few grains of quinine, or a few ounces of castor oil have often been the means of obtaining information and advantages for the British Government, which, if properly used, may be worth millions of pounds sterling.

It is to these pioneers that the nation should be grateful, to these people who build sound foundations on which the Empire can spread without fear of collapsing we are indebted far more than to the folks who stop at home and reap with little trouble the credit of the work which has been done by others.

Abbas Ali has gained a most intimate knowledge of the country and people, which gives him enormous influence, and he has been the means of smoothing the way to a considerable extent for the new trade route to Quetta. Major Chevenix Trench, Consul at Meshed, fully testifies to this, and speaks very highly of Abbas Ali's political work, and so does Captain Webb-Ware, in charge of the Nushki-Sistan road, who writes that in his belief the growth of British influence in Sistan and Birjand is due in no small degree to the tact, discretion, and conscientious discharge of duties of Abbas Ali.

Abbas Ali was ordered again to Persia in August, 1899, and has remained there since, stationed at Birjand.

The Russians have established a rival agent to look after their own interests, in the person of Veziroff Gazumbek, a Perso-Russian subject and a Mussulman. This man very politely called upon me in great state, wearing a decoration of the third class which had just been bestowed upon him by the Shah, and accompanied by four Cossacks who were on their way to the Russian Consulate at Sistan to relieve the escort there. He and Abbas Ali were socially and outwardly on excellent terms, but great rivalry necessarily existed in their work.

The Russian had gained a temporary advantage in the eyes of the natives by the honour conferred upon him by the Shah, and it was a pity that an exception to the general rule could not be made and a similar or higher honour obtained for Abbas Ali, whose work certainly deserves--one would think--some consideration. Matters of that sort, although of absolutely no significance in themselves, are of great importance in a country like Persia, where appearances cannot altogether be neglected.

The British Government, one feels, makes a primary and most palpable mistake in not being represented by more English Consular officials, not necessarily sent by the London Foreign Office, but rather of that most excellent type, the military Political servants, such as those who are now found in some few Persian cities. The establishment of a vice-Consulate here at Birjand instead of a Medical Political Agency would, I think, also, be of very great help at the present moment and would increase British prestige there.

The afternoon of that day was spent in returning the visits of Abbas Ali Khan, the Russian Agent, and the Karghazar. Everywhere I met with extreme civility. Both the British and the Russian Agent lived in nice houses, handsomely carpeted and furnished, only Abbas Ali's place had a more business-like appearance than that of the Russian because of the many books, the red cross trunks of medicine and surgical instruments and folding camp furniture. The house of the Russian was practically in Persian style, with handsome carpets and cushions, but with hardly any European chairs or furniture.

Birjand is very high up, 5,310 ft. above sea level, and we did not feel any too warm. The thermometer was seldom more than 60° in the shade during the day, and from 40° to 50° at night.

In the evenings the four Cossacks of the Sistan Consular escort, who had been detained here, and occupied one of the rooms of the caravanserai, sat out in the open singing with melodious voices in a chorus the weird songs of their country. These men were really wonderful. They had come down from Turkestan, a journey of close upon five hundred miles, riding their own horses, with only a few roubles in their pockets, and little more than the clothing they wore, their rifles, and bandoliers of cartridges. The affection for their horses was quite touching, and it was fully reciprocated by the animals. One or two of the men slept by the horses so that no one should steal them, and the animals were constantly and tenderly looked after.

There was a bright scene in the graveyard behind the caravanserai, the day that all the women went to visit the graves and to lay offerings of food, rice and dried fruit upon the tombs of their dead. Little conical white tents were pitched by hawkers, and dozens of women in their white chudders prowled about like so many ghosts, or else squatted down in rows beside or upon the graves. The doleful voices of blind beggars sang mournful tunes, and cripples of all kinds howled for charity.

A Persian crowd is always almost colourless, and hardly relieved by an occasional touch of green in the men's kamarbands or a bright spot of vermilion in the children's clothes. The illustration representing the scene, shows on the left-hand side of the observer, the ruined fortress at the western end of the city of Birjand, and the near range of hills to the north-west which, as I mentioned, would afford most excellent positions for artillery for commanding Birjand. The domed building in the centre of the photograph is one of the dead-houses adjoining every cemetery in Persia, to which the bodies are conveyed and prepared previous to interment.

The Persian Government have a Belgian Customs official in Birjand, but he generally spends much of his time travelling along the Afghan frontier. He had left Birjand when I arrived.

With more pity than regret I watched at the caravanserai the departure of the Indian pilgrims for the Shrine at Meshed. They had obtained a number of donkeys and mules, and were having endless rows with the natives about payment. Eventually, however, the caravanserai court having been a pandemonium for several hours, all was settled, their rags were packed in bundles upon the saddles, and the skeleton-like pilgrims, shivering with fever, were shoved upon the top of the loads. There was more fanaticism than life left in them.

The four Cossacks, also, who were at the caravanserai received orders to leave at once for their post at Sistan, and gaily departed in charge of the British Consular courier who was to show them the way.

This courier travels from Meshed to Sistan with relays of two horses each, in connection with the Quetta-Sistan postal service. The service is worked entirely by the Consuls and by the Agent at Birjand, and is remarkably good and punctual considering the difficulties encountered. There is also a Persian postal service of some sort, but unfortunate is the person who rashly entrusts letters to it. Even the Persian officials themselves prefer to use the English post. The Russians have established a similar service from their frontier to Sistan, but it does not run so frequently.

The making up a second caravan in a hurry was no easy matter, but eventually I was able to persuade one of the men who had accompanied me across the Salt Desert to procure fresh camels and convey me there. This he did, and after a halt of three days we were on the road again to cross our third desert between Birjand and Sistan, a distance of some 210 miles.