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Chapter 20

Laid up with fever--Christmas Day--A visit to the
Amir--Hashmat-ul-Mulk--An ancient city over eighty miles
long--Extreme civility of Persian officials--An unusual
compliment--Prisoners--Personal revenge--"An eye for an eye, a
tooth for a tooth"--Punishments and
criminals from a gun--Strangling and decapitation.

It was my intention to remain in Sistan only four or five days, but unluckily my fever got so bad--temperature above 104°--that, notwithstanding my desire to continue the journey, Major Benn most kindly would not allow me. I was placed in bed where, covered up with every available blanket, I remained close upon three weeks. The tender care of Major and Mrs. Benn, to whom my gratitude cannot be expressed in words, the skilful treatment of Dr. Golam Jelami, the Consulate doctor,--not to speak of the unstinted doses of quinine, phenacetin, castor-oil, and other such delightful fare, to which may also be added some gallons of the really delicious water of the Halmund river,--at last told upon me and eventually, after twenty-one days of sweating I began to pull up again and was able to get up.

The fever was shaken off altogether, but strange to say, whether it was that I was unaccustomed to medicine, or whether it was due to the counter-effects of the violent fever, my temperature suddenly went down and remained for several months varying from two to three degrees below normal. Medical men tell me that this should mean physical collapse, but on this point I can only say that I have never in my life felt stronger nor better.

I was just out of bed on Christmas Day, when the Consulate was decorated with flags, and Major Benn in his uniform had his escort of Bombay Lancers on parade. There was an official Christmas dinner in good old English style, with a fine plum pudding and real sixpences in it, followed by fire-crackers; while illuminations were burning bright on the Consulate wall and roofs. Official visitors were received, the doctor of the Russian Vice-Consulate and the Belgian Customs Officer forming the whole European community of Sher-i-Nasrya.

Sadek, who was great on charity, especially when it went to my account, in order to thank Providence for my recovery sacrificed two sheep, and their meat was distributed to the clamouring poor. Such an expedient was necessary, Sadek said, or I should certainly get fever again!

Owing to the Russian calendar being in disagreement with ours, the Consul, Mrs. Benn and I were most cordially entertained to a second Christmas dinner by the Russian Consul, who had just returned from Meshed, and we had a most delightful evening. For a convalescent, I could not help thinking so many Christmas dinners coming together might have been fatal, but fortunately, owing entirely to the charming and thoughtful kindness of my hosts, both English and Russian, I managed to pull through with no very ill effects. The Consular escort of Cossacks looked very business-like and smart as they paraded in the yard which had been duly illuminated for the occasion.

The Amir expressed a wish to see me, and as I was just able to get on a horse the Consul and I paid an official visit to the Governor in the citadel. We rode in full state with the escort of Lancers, and traversed the town along the main street, entering from the South gate.

I was again much struck by the intense respect shown by the natives towards Major Benn, all rising as we passed and making a profound salaam. We traversed the greater portion of the city by the main street, and then arrived at the gate of the citadel in the north-west part of Sher-i-Nasrya.

The door was so low that we had some difficulty in entering without dismounting, and just as we were squeezing in, as it were, through this low passage, one of the disreputable-looking soldiers on guard fired his gun--in sign of salute--which somewhat startled our horses and set them a-kicking.

In the small court where we dismounted was a crowd of soldiers and servants, and here another salute was fired by the sentry. Through winding, dilapidated passages and broken-down courts we were conveyed to the Amir's room--a very modest chamber, whitewashed, and with humble carpets on the floor. A huge wood fire was burning in the chimney, and the furniture consisted of a table and six chairs, three folding ones and three Vienna cane ones, arranged symmetrically on either side of the table.

The Amir sat on a folding chair on one side of the table, and the Consul, Ghul Khan and myself in a row on the opposite side. We were most cordially received by Hashmat-ul-Mulk, the Amir, who--this being Ramzam or fasting time--showed ample evidence of mis-spent nights. He had all the semblance of a person addicted to opium smoking. His Excellency was unshaven and unwashed, and seemed somewhat dazed, as if still under the effects of opium. His discoloured eyes stared vaguely, now at the Consul, now at Ghul Khan, now at me, and he occasionally muttered some compliment or other at which we all bowed.

Presently, however, his conversation became most interesting, when, having gone through all these tedious preliminary formalities, he began to describe to me the many ruined cities of Sistan. He told me how at one time, centuries and centuries gone by, Sistan was the centre of the world, and that a city existed some twenty miles off, named Zaidan, the length of which was uninterrupted for some eighty or ninety miles.

"The remains of this city," he said, "are still to be seen, and if you do not believe my words you can go and see for yourself. In fact," added the Amir, "you should not leave Sistan without going to inspect the ruins. The city had flat roofs in a continuous line, the houses being built on both sides of a main road. A goat or a sheep could practically have gone along the whole length of the city," went on the Amir, to enforce proof of the continuity of buildings of Zaidan. "But the city had no great breadth. It was long and narrow, the dwellings being along the course of an arm of the Halmund river, which in those days, before its course was shifted by moving sands, flowed there. The ruined city lies partly in Afghan, partly in Sistan territory. In many parts it is covered altogether by sand, but, by digging, houses, and in them jewellery and implements, are to be found all along."

I promised the Amir that I would go and visit Zaidan city the very next day.

When we had once begun talking, the Amir spoke most interestingly, and I was glad to obtain from him very valuable and instructive information. One hears accounts in some quarters of the Persian officials being absolutely pro-Russian and showing incivility to British subjects, but on the contrary the Amir positively went out of his way to show extreme civility. He repeatedly inquired after my health and expressed his fervent wishes that fever should no more attack me.

"What do you think of my beloved city, Sher-i-Nasrya?" he exclaimed. I prudently answered that in my travels all over the world I had never seen a city like it, which was quite true.

"But you look very young to have travelled so much?" queried the Amir.

"It is merely the great pleasure of coming to pay your Excellency a visit that makes me look young!" I replied with my very best, temporarily adopted, Persian manner, at which the Amir made a deep bow and placed his hand upon his heart to show the full appreciation of the compliment.

He, too, like all Persian officials, displayed the keenest interest in the Chinese war of 1900 and the eventual end of China. He spoke bitterly of the recluse Buddhists of Tibet, and I fully endorsed his views. Then again, he told me more of historical interest about his province, and of the medical qualities of the Halmund water--which cures all evils. More elaborate compliments flowed on all sides, and numberless cups of steaming tea were gradually sipped.

Then we took our leave. As a most unusual courtesy, the Consul told me, and one meant as a great honour, the Amir came to escort us and bid us good-bye right up to the door,--the usual custom being that he rises, but does not go beyond the table at which he sits.

Out we went again through the same narrow passages, stooping so as not to knock our heads against the low door-way, and came to our horses. The soldier on guard fired another salute with his gun, and Ghul-Khan, who happened to be near at the time, nearly had his eye put out by it.

As we rode through the gate a number of prisoners--seven or eight--laden with chains round the neck and wrists and all bound together, were being led in. They salaamed us and implored for our protection, but we could do nothing. I could not help feeling very sorry for the poor devils, for the way justice is administered in Sistan, as in most parts of Persia, is not particularly attractive. The tendons of the hands or feet are cut even for small offences, hot irons are thrust into the criminal's limbs, and other such trifling punishments are inflicted if sufficient money is not forthcoming from the accused or their relations to buy them out.

Here is an example of Persian justice. While I was in bed with fever, one day Major and Mrs. Benn went for a ride along the wall of the city, with their usual escort. On reaching the city gate they saw several people come out, and they were startled by a shot being fired close by them, and a dead body was laid flat across the road. The dead man, it appeared, had been himself a murderer and had been kept in chains in the Amir's custody, pending trial. The verdict might have possibly turned in his favour had he been willing to grease the palms of the jailors, in accordance with old Persian custom; but although the man was very well off, he refused to disburse a single shai. He was therefore there and then handed over to the relations of the murdered man so that they should mete out to him what punishment they thought fit.

The man was instantly dragged through the streets of the city, and on arriving outside the city gate they shot him in the back. The body was then left in the road, the Persian crowd which had assembled round looking upon the occurrence as a great joke, and informing Major Benn that the corpse would remain there until some of his relations came to fetch it away. On referring the matter to the Governor the following day, he smilingly exclaimed: "An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!"--a quotation from the Koran that quite cleared his conscience.

This is a very common way of disposing of criminals in Persia by allowing personal revenge to take its course. Although such ways of administering justice may not commend themselves to one, the moral of it as looked upon by Persian eyes is not as bad as it might at first appear. The honest, the well-to-do man, they reason, has nothing whatever to fear from anybody, and if a man chooses to be a criminal, he must take the consequences of it. The more severe the punishment the less crime there will be in the country. Persian law prevents crime.

In a province like Sistan, where the people are not quite up-to-date as in other parts of Persia, naturally, ways which to us may seem very cruel have to be applied by the Amir to impress the people. If fines to the maximum of the prisoner's purse are excepted, the usual way of satisfying the law for almost any offence, the next most common punishment is the bastinado applied on the bare soles of the feet. When an option is left to the prisoner of undergoing the bastinado or paying a fine, he generally selects the sticks, which he feels much less than the anguish of disbursing the smallest sum in cash. Minor crimes only are so punished--it is considered the lightest punishment. Occasionally it is used to obtain confessions. People are seldom known to die under it.

Disfigurement, or deprivation of essential limbs, such as one or more phalanges of fingers, or the ears or nose, is also much in vogue for thieves, house-breakers and highwaymen. For second offences of criminals so branded the whole hand or foot is cut off. Blinding, or rather, atrophizing the eyes by the application of a hot iron in front, but not touching them, such as is common all over Central Asia, is occasionally resorted to in the less civilised parts of Persia, but is not frequent now. I only saw one case of a man who had been so punished, but many are those who have the tendons of arms and legs cut--a favourite punishment which gives the most dreadfully painful appearance to those who have undergone it.

Imprisonment is considered too expensive for the Government, and is generally avoided except in the bigger cities. The prisoners have a very poor time of it, a number of them being chained close together.

To burn people or to bury them alive are severe punishments which are very seldom heard of now-a-days, but which occasionally take place in some remote districts and unknown to his Majesty the Shah, who has ever shown a tender heart and has done all in his power to suppress barbarous ways in his country; but cases or crucifixion and stoning to death have been known to have occurred not many years ago--if not as a direct punishment from officials, yet with their indirect sanction.

Strangling and decapitation are still in use, and I am told--but cannot guarantee its accuracy--that blowing criminals from guns is rarely practised now, although at one time this was a favourite Persian way of disposing of violent criminals.

A Persian official was telling me that, since these terrible punishments have been to a great extent abolished, crimes are more frequent in Persia than they were before. The same man--a very enlightened person, who had travelled in Europe--also remarked to me that had we to-day similar punishments in Europe instead of keeping criminals on the fat of the land--(I am only repeating his words)--we should not have so much crime in the country. "Your laws," he added, "protect criminals; our ways deter men and women from crime. To prevent crime, no matter in how cruel a way it is done, is surely less cruel than to show leniency and kindness to the persons who do commit crimes!"

That was one way of looking at it. Taking things all round, if blood feuds and cases of personal revenge are excepted, there is certainly less crime in Persia than in many European countries.