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Chapter 21

The London of the East--A city eighty-six miles long--The village
of Bunjar--An ancient tower--Iskil--The Kalantar of
Sistan--Collection of ancient jewellery from the buried
city--Interesting objects--A romantic life and tragic death--A
treacherous Afghan--Strained relations between the Sistan and
Afghan Governors--Sand-barchans--Flat roofs and gable roofs--The
pillar of Mil-i-Zaidan--A conical ice-house--The imposing fort of
Zaidan--A neighbouring modern village.

The Consul, Mrs. Benn and I, started off early one morning on horseback to inspect the ruins of the ancient London of the East, the great city of Zaidan, which in the days of its glory measured no less than eighty-six miles--from Lash Yuwain on the north to Kala-i-Fath on the South--ruins of the city being traceable the whole distance to this day, except in the portion which has been covered by the waters of the Hamun Halmund.

On the way there was little to be seen for the first four miles until we reached the village of Bunjar, the biggest trading village in Sistan and the residence of the Iman Jumeh, the next holiest man to the head priest of Sher-i-Nasrya. This village and neighbourhood supply Sher-i-Nasrya entirely with wood and very largely with food. There are many stunted trees about, all curved southwards by the wind, and much cultivated land, the ground being intersected by numerous natural and artificial water channels.

A very curious ancient tower, split in two, and the portion of another very much corroded at its base, and looking like a big mushroom, are to be seen on the south near this village. We cut across, almost due east, to Iskil, wading through several canals and channels into which our horses dived up to their saddles.

On approaching Iskil from the west one was impressed by the unusual height of some of its buildings, most of which were two-storied and had domed roofs, the domes being of much larger proportions than usual. A quadrangular tower of considerable loftiness stood prominent above the height of all the other buildings. For a Persian village Iskil had quite a clean, fresh appearance, even from a short distance. On getting near we entered the main road--one might more accurately call it a canal--walled in on both sides and filled with water some eight or ten inches deep. Our horses waded through, and having rounded another large pond of dirty green water--such as is always found in the more prosperous villages of Persia--we came to a high wall enclosing a garden and an Andarun near the residence of the Kalantar of Sistan (Kalantar means the "bigger one"), the title taken by the head of the tribe who in by-gone days were the masters of the whole of Sistan.

The Kalantar is a large landowner, and has the contract for all the grazing tax of East Sistan. Among the villages owned by him are Iskil, Bunjar, and Kas-im-abad, the three richest in Sistan. The name of Kalantar is taken by each of the family as he succeeds to the possession of these villages, lands, and rights.

The Kalantar, previous to the one now in possession, was a man of most commanding presence, very tall and very stout--the biggest man in Sistan--and much respected by everybody. He was extremely friendly towards the English. He had planted an entire garden of English flowers and fruit at Iskil, and took the keenest interest in horticulture and agriculture. Above all, however, he was renowned for a magnificent collection of ancient seals, coins, jewellery, implements, beads, and other curiosities, of which he had amassed chests and chests full that had been dug up from the great city of Zaidan and neighbourhood. Some of the cameos were very delicately cut in hard stone, and reminded one of ancient Greek work. Symbolic representations in a circle, probably to suggest eternity, were favourite subjects of these ornamentations, such designs as a serpent biting its own tail, or three fishes biting one another's tails and forming a circle, being of frequent occurrence. So also were series of triangles and simple circles. The gold rings were most beautifully delicate and simple in design, and so were all the other ornaments, showing that the people of Zaidan had a most refined civilisation which is not to be found in Persian art of to-day. Personally, I have certainly never seen modern Persian work which in any way approached in beauty of line and execution to the articles excavated from the great city of Zaidan.

A great profusion of beads of amber, jasper, crystal, turquoise, malachite, agate, had been found in Zaidan and some that we saw were handsomely polished and cut, some were ornamented, others were made of some composition like very hard enamel. All--even the hardest crystal ones--had clean holes drilled through them.

The Kalantar had built himself a fine residence at Iskil, with huge rooms and lofty domes, and here he kept these collections. His generous nature had caused him to build a handsome guest house in front of his dwelling in order to put up and entertain his friends, native or foreign.

It was on the steps of his guest house that the last act of a terrible tragedy took place only a short time before we visited Iskil. About ten years ago, in 1891, a man called Mahommed Hussein Khan, an Afghan refugee, came to live in Bunjar, bringing with him a sigah wife (concubine), her mother and a child. Shortly after his arrival he left his family in Bunjar and went on a pilgrimage to Meshed. No news was received of him for a very long time, and the wife wrote to him--when her money and patience were exhausted--that if he did not return on a certain date or answer her letter she should consider herself divorced from him. He replied that she might consider herself free from the date of receipt of his letter, and requested her to send her mother in charge of his child to Meshed.

During Mahommed Hussein's absence rumour says that Kalantar Mir-Abbas had an intrigue with the lady, and on receipt of her husband's letter from Meshed he forcibly removed her from Bunjar and compelled her to marry him, Mir-Abbas, at Iskil.

Unluckily, the lady was a Suni and Kalantar Mir-Abbas was a Shia, which made it difficult to overcome certain religious obstacles. Such a union would anyhow be greatly resented by relations on both sides. In fact, about a year ago, 1900, the lady's brother, a native of Girisk, near Kandahar, enraged at his sister marrying a man who was not an Afghan, and of a different persuasion, came to Iskil with characteristically treacherous Afghan ways and sought service with the Kalantar, assuring him of the great affection and devotion he entertained towards him. The good-hearted Kalantar immediately gave him employment and treated him most generously.

On the night of September 19th, 1901, the Kalantar had been entertaining some friends in the Durbar building opposite his residence, among whom was the Afghan, who left the room before Mir-Abbas and went to conceal himself in the darkness at the entrance. When the Kalantar was joyfully descending the steps after the pleasant night assembly, the treacherous Afghan attacked him and, placing his rifle to Mir-Abbas' head, shot him dead. The assassin then endeavoured to enter the Andarun to kill his sister, but the lady, having her suspicions, had barricaded herself in, and an alarm being given he had to make his escape across the Afghan frontier only a few miles distant from Iskil.

It was rumoured that the murderer had been sheltered by the Afghan Governor of the Chikansur district, who goes by the grand name of Akhunzada, or "The great man of a high family." The Governor of Sistan, angered at the infamous deed, demanded the extradition of the assassin, but it was refused, with the result that the Afghan official was next accused of screening the murderer. There was much interchange of furious correspondence and threats between the Persian and Afghan Governors, and their relations became so strained that a fight seemed imminent.

The shrewd Afghan then offered to allow five Persian soldiers, accompanied by twenty Afghans, to search his district--an offer which was very prudently declined. Persian and Afghan soldiers were posted in some force on both sides of the river--forming the frontier--and devoted their time to insulting one another; but when I left Sistan in January, 1902, although the relations were still much strained, the affair of the Kalantar, which seemed at one time likely to turn into a national quarrel, was gradually being settled on somewhat less martial lines.

The death of such a good, honest man has been much regretted in Sistan, and great hopes are now built on his son and successor, a young fellow much resembling his father both in personal appearance and kindliness towards his neighbours.

We next came to a second and smaller village four miles further on--after having waded through numberless water-channels, ponds and pools and our horses having performed some feats of balancing on bridges two feet wide or even less. Some of these structures were so shaky that the horses were not inclined to go over them except after considerable urging.

The country between was flat and uninteresting, except that here and there some low mounds had formed where the sand blown by the N.N.W. wind had been arrested by some obstacle, such as a shrub of camel-thorn or tamarisk. Most of these sand-barchans had a striking peculiarity. They were semi-spherical except to the S.S.E., where a section of the sphere was missing, which left a vacuum in the shape of a perfect crescent.

By the numberless waves on the sand surface it seemed evident that the sand had accumulated from the N.N.W. side.

The village was small and miserable, with a few scraggy trees bowing low, like all trees of Sistan, towards the S.S.E., owing to the severe, N.N.W. winds. Here instead of the everlasting domes, flat roofs were again visible--wood being, no doubt, available close at hand. More curious, however, were actual gable roofs, the first I had noticed in Persia in purely native houses. The ventilating apertures were not in the roof itself, as in the domed houses, but in the walls, which were of a much greater height than in the domed habitations. The doors and windows were invariably on the south wall, but to the north at the lower portion of the roof in each house one could observe a triangular, projecting structure, usually in the centre of the upper wall. This was a different type of wind-catcher, but in winter blocked up with sun-dried bricks and mud.

Between this village and Zaidan there was again a good deal of water to be crossed, and in some spots it was so deep that our horses sank into it up to their chests and we had to lie flat, with our legs resting on the animals' backs, to escape a ducking.

To our left--to the north--could be seen in the distance a high tower, which is said to have a spiral staircase inside, and must be of very great height, as even from where we were--eight miles away--it rose very high above the horizon, some 70 feet, as we guessed, and looked very big. This tower stood alone several miles to the North of the principal Zaidan ruins for which we were steering, and I had not therefore time to visit it.

The pillar is locally called Mil-i-Zaidan, and is circular in shape, made of kiln-baked bricks cemented together by clay. On the summit, above a broad band with ornamentations and a much worn inscription can be seen the fragments of two smaller structures, also cylindrical, which may have been the supports of the dome of the minaret. There is said to be another illegible inscription about thirty feet from the ground.

According to Goldsmid, who visited this place in 1872, the tower then stood on a square foundation, and its circumference was 55 feet at the base and only 28 feet at the summit. The lower portion of the tower, as seen through powerful glasses, seemed very much corroded, and it will not be long before it collapses. There are various theories regarding this tower, which now rises directly above the flat desert. It is said by some to be one of a number of isolated watch towers, but this, I think, is incorrect.

According to Major Sykes, who quotes from the Seljuk history: "Every three hundred paces a pillar twice the height of a man was built and two minars between Gurz and Fahraj, one forty gaz high, the other twenty-five, and under each minar a caravanserai and a tank." By the word "under" the historian evidently meant directly underneath the tower--which was the customary way of constructing such buildings. The minars seldom rose from the ground, but were and are generally constructed on the roofs of buildings. A proof that this was the case in this particular instance was that when Goldsmid visited it in 1872, he stated that it "was built on a square foundation."

The caravanserai underneath this tower and the tank are evidently buried by the sand, as is the case with a great portion of the City of Zaidan. That there is underneath the sand a city connecting the southern portion of Zaidan--still partly above ground--with the northern portion of Zaidan, and that this minar rises above buried habitations, there can be little doubt, for all along the several miles of intervening sandy stretch the earth is covered with debris, ruins and fragments of tiles, bricks, &c., &c., showing the remains of a great city.

As we went along, leaving the pillar to the north and steering south-east for the main ruins of Zaidan, we saw close by on the north a very large structure forming the section of a cone--the lower portion buried in sand and the upper portion having collapsed,--which a Sistani who accompanied us said was an ancient ice-house. This theory may be correct, for it is probable that the climate of Sistan may have greatly changed; but it is also possible that the structure may have been a large flour-mill, for to this day mills are built in Persia on similar exterior lines to the ice-houses. Structures of the same kind are also to be observed as far south as Kala-i-Fath, the southern terminus of the great city.

No ice to speak of can be collected nowadays, either in Sistan or within a very large radius of country, and snow is seldom, almost never seen.

Near this mill or ice-house, whichever it was, another high building in ruins was to be observed, but I could not afford the time to deviate from my route and inspect it. It appeared like a watch-tower, and was not dissimilar to two other round towers we had seen before on the south,--very likely they were all outer fire-signalling stations, so common all over Asia.

After a brisk ride of some four hours we arrived at the main portion of the ruins of Zaidan--an imposing fort on a clay hill, which must have formed the citadel. At the foot of the hill was the modern village of Zaidan--about fifty houses, some with flat, others with gabled, roofs, such as we had seen at the previous villages, and a few with domed roofs. There were a few cultivated fields in which wheat was raised.