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Chapter 23

A short historical sketch of Zaidan city--How it was pillaged and
destroyed--Fortresses and citadels--Taimur Lang--Shah
Rukh--Revolutions--The Safavi dynasty--Peshawaran, Pulki,
Deshtak--Sir F. Goldsmid's and Bellew's impressions--The extent
of the Peshawaran ruins--Arabic inscriptions--A curious
ornamentation--Mosques and mihrab--Tomb of Saiyid Ikbal--The
Farah Rud and Harut Rud--The "Band" of the Halmund--Canals and
channels old and new of the Halmund delta--The Rud-i-Nasru and
the Rud-i-Perian--Strange temporary graves--Ancient prosperity of
Eastern Persia.

It is not for me to go fully into the history of this great city of Zaidan, for so much of it rests on speculation and confused traditions that I would rather leave this work to some scientist of a more gambling disposition than my own; but now that I have described what I myself saw I will add a few historical details which seem correct, and the opinions of one or two other travellers in that region which add interest to the place as well as strengthen my statements. With the many photographs which I took and which are reproduced in this book, I hope that a fair idea of the place will be conveyed to the reader.

The following short historical notes were furnished to me by the Katkhuda (or head village man) of the present village near the Zaidan ruins. I reproduce them verbatim, without assuming any responsibility for the accuracy of the historical dates, but the information about the great city itself I found to be correct.

When Shah Rukh Shah was ruler of Turkistan, and one Malek Kutuh-ud-din was ruler of Sistan and Kain, Shah Rukh Shah was engaged in settling disturbances in the northern part of his dominions, and Malek Kutuh-ud-din, taking advantage of it, attacked Herat and plundered it. Shah Rukh Shah, hearing of this, collected an army and marched on Sistan. During this march he devastated the country, which was then very fertile and wealthy, and captured and dispersed the inhabitants of the endless city of Zaidan--which extended from Kala-i-Fath, to the south (now in Afghan territory on the present bank of the Halmund), to Lash Yuwain on the north (also in Afghan territory on the bank of the Farah Rud), a distance, according to the Trigonometrical Survey Maps, of 86 miles as the crow flies. This would agree with the account given me by the Amir of the extent of the city.

The city of Zaidan was protected by a large fortress at every six farsakhs (24 miles). Each fortress was said to be strongly garrisoned with troops, and had a high watch tower in the centre similar to that which I saw at a distance on the north-east of Iskil, and which has been described in previous pages.

Another historical version attributes the destruction of Zaidan and adjoining cities to Taimur Lang (Tamerlane) or Taimur the lame (a.h. 736-785), father of Shah Rukh whose barbarous soldiery, as some traditions will have it, were alone responsible for the pillage of Zaidan city and the devastation of all Sistan. The name of Taimur Lang is to this day held in terror by the natives of Sistan.

But whether Zaidan was devastated twice, or whether the two accounts apply to the same disaster, it is not easy to ascertain at so distant a date. There are obvious signs all over Eastern Sistan that the country must have undergone great trouble and changes--probably under the rule of Shah Rukh and his successors (a.h. 853-873), after which revolutions seem to have been rampant for some sixty years, until Shah Ismail Safavi conquered Khorassan and the neighbouring countries, founding a powerful dynasty which reigned up to the year a.h. 1135.

Under the Safavi dynasty Sistan seems to have been vested in the Kayani Maliks, who are believed to be descendants of the royal house of Kai. (I came across a village chief claiming to be the descendant of these Kayani rulers.)

To return to the Zaidan ruins, as seen to-day from the highest point of the citadel wall, the ruined city stretches in a curve from north to south-east. It is to the south-east that the ruins are less covered with sand and in better preservation, the citadel standing about half way between its former north and southern termini. There is every evidence to show that the present extensive ruins of Peshawaran to the north, Pulki, Deshtak (Doshak described by Bellew) and Nad-i-Ali were at one epoch merely a continuation of Zaidan the great city, just as Westminster, South Kensington, Hammersmith, &c., are the continuation of London, and make it to-day the largest conglomeration of houses in the world. It was evidently necessary to subdivide such an enormous place into districts.

Notice top of Castellated Wall behind.]

Bellew, who visited the ruins in 1872, speaks of Zaidan as "extending as far as the eye can reach to the north-east, and said to be continuous with the ruins of Doshak (Deshtak), about nine miles from the Helmund. These ruins, with those of Pulki, Nadali and Peshawaran, are the most extensive in Sistan, and mark the sites of populous cities, the like of which are not to be found at this present day in all this region between the Indus and the Tigris."

Doshak or Deshtak is situated about fourteen miles south by south-east of Sher-i-Nasrya, on the right bank of the main canal which extended from the Halmund towards the west. It was a large walled town, with towers and a square fort in the centre. Deshtak is said to have been the residence and capital of the first member of the Safavi dynasty in Sistan, which, like all other cities of Sistan, was pillaged and razed to the ground by the terrible Taimur Lang. On its ruins rose the smaller city of some 500 houses which we have mentioned--also called Jalalabad--and which eventually became the seat of Bahram Khan, the last of the Kayani chiefs. The city was built by him for his son Jalaludin, after whom it was named. Jalaludin, however, was expelled from the throne, and from that date the Kayani family ceased to reign in Sistan.

Pulki was also located on this main canal, east of Deshtak, and Peshawaran was situated due north of Zaidan. They consist of an immense extent of ruins. Both Sir F. Goldsmid and Bellew, who travelled in that part testify to the whole country between Jalalabad, Buri-i-Afghan and Peshawaran being covered with ruins.

The ruins at Peshawaran I was not able to visit, they being in Afghan territory--now forbidden to Englishmen--and, being the guest of the British Consul, I did not wish to cause trouble. Sir F. Goldsmid, who visited them during the Perso-Afghan Frontier Mission, describes them as covering a great area and being strongly built of alternate layers of sun-burnt and baked brick. The ruins of a madrassah, with a mosque and a mihrab, were most extensive, and had traces of ornamentations, and an inscription, said to be Kufic. The walls of the citadel were (in 1872) in fairly good repair. "The citadel," Sir F. Goldsmid relates, "was of a circular form, somewhat irregular in shape, with a diameter of from two to three hundred yards. The walls are about fifty feet high, built strongly of baked brick, with a species of arched covered gallery, five feet high and five feet wide, running round the summit of the ramparts."

A very similar arrangement was to be seen on the Zaidan fort, as can be noticed in the photograph which I took and which is reproduced in the full page illustration (facing page 206).

"Two massive round towers guard the gateway approached by a narrow steep ascent. In the centre of the fort on a mound stood a superior house, probably the residence of the Governor. To the south,[6] dense drifts of sand run to the summits of the ramparts."

If these drifts can rise so high on the high wall of the citadel, it is certain that a great many of the smaller buildings must be rather deep under the sand level by now, but that they are there, there can be little doubt, for fragments of tiles, bricks, vases, &c., strew the ground. No doubt the usual critic will wonder how it is that, if the houses are buried, these fragments are not buried also. The wind principally is responsible for their keeping on the surface of the sand. They are constantly shifted and are blown from place to place, until arrested by some obstacle such as a wall, where a great number of these fragments can generally be found collected by the wind.

"The great characteristic of these ruins"--continues Sir F. Goldsmid--"is the number of accurately constructed arches which still remain, and which are seen in almost every house, and the remains of strongly built windmills, with a vertical axis, as is usually the case in Sistan."

This again, as we have seen, is also one of the characteristics of the Zaidan buildings.

The ruins of Peshawaran are subdivided into several groups, such as the Kol Marut, Saliyan, three miles east of the fort, Khushabad, Kalah-i-Mallahun, Nikara-Khanah, &c.

Bellew, who camped at Saliyan, describes this section of the ruins "which cover many square miles of country, with readily distinguishable mosques and colleges (madrassahs), and the Arabic inscriptions traceable on the façades of some of the principal buildings clearly refer their date to the period of the Arab conquest, and further, as is evidenced by the domes and arches forming the roofs of the houses, that then, as now, the country was devoid of timber fit for building purposes. The most remarkable characteristic of these ruins is their vast extent and excellent preservation."

I, too, am of Bellew's opinion about these points. The several inscriptions I found at Zaidan, photographs of which I have given in this book, were, as we have seen, in Arabic; the ornamentations of which I took tracings were Arabic in character.

Bellew reckons the great extent of the Peshawaran section of the ruins as covering an area of about six miles by eight. He states that they were the outgrowths of successive cities rising on the ruins of their predecessors upon the same spot, and, like the other few travellers who have intelligently examined the ruins, came to the conclusion that in point of architecture and age the whole length from Lash Yuwain to the north to Kala-i-Fath to the south, and including Peshawaran, Zaidan and Kali-i-Fath were absolutely identical.

Goldsmid supplies information similar to Bellew's regarding the Peshawaran ruins, and he writes that on his march north to Lash Yuwain he had to go three or four miles to the west on account of the ruins. He speaks of seeing a place of worship with a mihrab, and, curiously enough, on the wall above it he found "the masonic star of five points surrounded by a circle and with a round cup between each of the points and another in the centre." He also saw the tomb of Saiyid Ikbal, also mentioned by another traveller, Christie.

Eight miles west by north-west from the ruins rises a flat-topped plateau-like hill, called the Kuh-i-Kuchah, not dissimilar in shape to the Kuh-i-Kwajah to the south-west of Sher-i-Nasrya. Four villages are found near it. To the east of it is found the Farah Rud, and to its west the Harut Rud,--two rivers losing themselves (when they have any water in them) into the lagoon. The Harut is not always flowing. To the south is the Naizar lagoon forming part of the Hamun-Halmund. (This lagoon was mostly dry when I went through.) It has formed a huge lake at various epochs, but now only the northern portion, skirting the southern edge of the Peshawaran ruins, has any permanent water in it, and is principally fed by the delta of canals and by the overflow of the Halmund, over the Band, a kind of barrage.

Some explanation is necessary to make things clear.

On the present Afghan-Perso boundary, at a place called the "Band-i-Sistan," is the great dam across the Halmund, completely turning the waters of the stream, by means of semi-artificial canals, for the irrigation of Sistan. Hence the fertility of that district. The dam, "the Band," as it is called by the natives, is a barrier slightly over 700 feet long, constructed of upright wooden stakes holding in position horizontal fascines of tamarisk interwoven, strengthened by stones and plastered with mud to form a semi-solid wall. In olden days the Band was so feebly constructed that it was generally carried away every year at the spring floods, but now greater attention is given to its construction and it is kept in fairly good repair, although portions of it usually collapse or are carried away by the force of the current during the floods. The height of the Band is not more than eighteen or twenty feet. Practically the actual river course comes to an end at this Band, and from this point its waters are spread into a delta of canals, large and small, subdivided into hundreds other tortuous channels. The Hussein Ki Canal is one of the most important, and feeds Zaidan, Iskil, Bunjar and Sher-i-Nasrya, Husseinabad, and other places, and is subdivided into minor channels during its course. It flows roughly in a north-west direction.

In 1896, according to Major Sykes (Royal Geographical Society's Journal), a new canal, known as the Rud-i-Perian, was formed, and destroyed Jahanabad, Ibrahimabad and Jalalabad. This canal, he says, is not far from the Rud-i-Nasru, which he seems to think was at one time the main stream and flowed in a natural bed past Zaidan to the west of it, but personally I have my doubts about the accuracy of this statement. I believe that the Rud-i-Nasru was merely a shallow canal that passed to the west of Zaidan, but that the river course of the Halmund itself was always to the east of Zaidan as well as of the other adjoining cities north of Zaidan. The Canal to the east of Nad-i-Ali is no doubt a naturally cut channel, the obvious continuation under natural circumstances of the river course. The same remark might apply to the small channel self-cut to the west of that place. There are other important channels, such as the Madar-Ab, which supplies water to Chiling, Pulki and Sekhuka; the Kimak canal and the Kasimabad. Before the present dam was constructed some eighty years ago, a previous "Band" existed, as we shall see, further up the course of the Halmund to the south, and secured the irrigation of the southern portion of Sistan, which is now absolutely dry and barren. Dried up canal beds of great length are still to be found in southern Sistan.

by A. Henry Savage Landor.]

It would be a great undertaking to describe accurately all these canals and the various positions they have occupied at different epochs, and the task would at best be most thankless and useless, for, with the exception of the larger ones, the minor ones keep constantly changing their course by cutting themselves new beds in the soft soil. Anybody who has visited eastern Sistan, even in a very dry season, as I did, knows too well how the ground is intersected in all directions by myriads of natural water channels, all fed by the Halmund, so that, unless one had months of time at one's disposal, it would hardly be possible to map them all out exactly.

During flood time the water flows over the Band and into its natural channel due north up into the Hamun, where it loses itself.

There is a good deal of verdure, trees, and high reeds near the banks of the river at the Band, with many snakes, while fish is plentiful in the water and myriads of wild fowl are to be seen.

Curious conical temporary graves of mud can occasionally be seen, some six feet high, the body being, it is said, buried standing within these cones previous to proper interment with due ceremony. On the outside, clear imprints made while the mud was still soft of several sized hands--presumably of the deceased's relations or friends--were left on the surface of the cone, the imprints being one above the other in a line.

Among the ruins of Peshawaran, Bellew found traces of several canals, now dry, one of which, however, had been restored by the chief of Hokat and brought a stream of good water up to the Silyan ruins for irrigation purposes.

As for the southern end of the great city at Kala-i-Fath, we have very good accounts from Ferrier, Goldsmid, and Bellew, all testifying to its great extent. Here, too, there is a strong citadel standing on an artificial mound, and seeming to have been repaired some twenty-five or thirty years ago. Bellew says that the ruins extend over several miles of country, and Goldsmid speaks of a circumference of ruins of some two and a half miles at Kala-i-Fath, with a large citadel and fine arched buildings within. He mentions spacious courtyards and the remains of reservoirs, caravanserais, and large buildings in abundance, but no vestige of anything approaching magnificence.

This, however, is the case with everything Persian, whether ancient or modern, especially in regard to architecture, and a great deal of the humbleness of the buildings is, I think, due to the facts that the inhabitants of Persia are nomads by nature; that the shifting sands drive people from their homes; that rivers constantly alter their courses, and that the water supply is a constant source of difficulty in most parts of Iran; moreover the terrible wars and invasions made the natives disinclined to construct themselves very elaborate houses which they might at any moment have to abandon.

These reasons account for the extraordinary number of abandoned villages, towns, fortresses, and whole ruined suburbs of towns all over Persia, a sight which I think cannot be seen on such a large scale in any other country in the world.

At Kala-i-Fath the question of the water may not have been the principal one, but the fear of constant attacks must have deterred the natives from erecting magnificent buildings. Or else how could we account for these enormous fortresses which are found all along to protect the great city?

Goldsmid describes a fine caravanserai at Kala-i-Fath, built of large baked bricks, each brick eleven inches square, and displaying a nicety of design foreign to Sistan. The caravanserai seems to have been domed over a large central courtyard, with wings for rooms and stabling; and an adjoining ice-house of mud bricks. In the graveyard fragments of alabaster and tiles were found.

The wall round the city which Goldsmid describes--six feet at the base tapering to one foot at the summit--is somewhat different in character from that of Zaidan, and is, to my mind, of much later construction, as are many of the buildings.

"Some of the streets," he says, "which all run from east to west, are in excellent preservation and as if they were of recent construction."

It is quite possible, in fact, very probable, that this portion of the great city--which, by the bye, is said to have been the last capital of the Kayani Kings, and was deserted by them when attacked by Nadir Shah--has, owing to its favourable geographical position on the east bank of the Halmund, been inhabited to a certain extent until a much later date. The local accounts, at least, would point to that conclusion.

A dry canal exists, which we shall cross on our way to the Beluchistan frontier; it is fed by the Halmund, north of Kala-i-Fath, and strikes across the plain in a westerly direction.

If all the accounts given by people who have been there are taken into consideration, together with the photographs here given, which seem to me to show that the place was one of unusual grandeur; if the fact is grasped that, whether considered as a single city or a conglomeration of adjoining successive cities, Zaidan was undoubtedly a continuous and uninterrupted row of houses of no less than eighty-six miles; I think that whatever theories may be expounded by the usual scientific speculator at home, the fact must remain that this ancient London of Asia marks a period of astounding prosperity in the history of Eastern Persia.


[6] I think this must be a mistake; it should be to the north.--A.H.S.L.