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Chapter 25

Villages between Sher-i-Nasrya and Kuh-i-Kwajah--The last of the
Kayani--Husena Baba--Thousands of sheep--The Patang
Kuh--Protecting black walls--A marsh--Sand dunes--Warmal--Quaint
terraces--How roofs are built--A spacious residence built for
nine shillings--Facial characteristics of natives--Bread
making--Semi-spherical sand mounts--Natural protections against
the northerly winds.

We were benighted on the mountain and did not reach the village of Deh-i-Husena till nearly nine o'clock, our friend and guide having lost his way in the dark and having taken us round the country for a good many more miles than was necessary. It is true the night was rather black and it was not easy to see where the low mud-houses of his village were.

The distance in a direct line from Deh-i-Husena to the foot of the Kuh-i-Kwajah mountain was 4 miles, and the village of Deh-i-Husena was about 15 miles from Sher-i-Nasrya, the village of Dadi we had passed being 9 miles off, and Sanchuli 14¾ miles from the city and only a quarter of a mile from Deh-i-Husena. To the south of the latter village was Deh-i-Ali-Akabar.

We spent the night at Deh-i-Husena, Mahommed Azin, the head village man and guide, being so entertaining in his conversation that he kept us up till all hours of the morning. He professed to be one of the only two surviving members of the Kayani family which formerly reigned over Sistan, his cousin being the other. According to his words--which, however, could not always claim to be models of accuracy--his family had a good deal of power in Sistan up to about forty years ago (1860). They were now very poor.

Mahommed Azin had well-cut features and bore himself like a man of superior birth, but he was very bitter in his speech against fate and things in general. It was, nevertheless, wonderful how a man, living in a small village secluded from everybody and everywhere, had heard of flying machines, of submarine boats, of balloons that ferenghis made. His ideas of them were rather amusing, but he was very intelligent and quick at grasping how they worked when I explained to him. Surgery interested him intensely, and after that politics. The Ruski and Inglis he was sure would have a great deal of trouble over Sistan. He could not quite make up his mind as to which was the bigger nation. When he heard Ruski's accounts of themselves he certainly thought the Ruski were the greater people, but when he listened to the Inglis and what they could do he really believed they must be stronger.

"Who do you think is the most powerful?" he inquired of me.

"Of course, the Inglis, without doubt."

"Then do you think that your king will grant me a pension, so that I can live in luxury and without working to the end of my days?"

"The king does not usually grant pensions to lazy people. Pensions are granted to people who have done work for the country."

"Well then, you see," exclaimed Mahommed Azin, in thorough unreasonable Persian fashion, "you say your king is greater than the Ruski king, and he would not grant me a pension, I the last of the Kayanis!" He was sure the Ruski potentate would at once if he knew!

I left Husena at 9.30 a.m. on January 11th, striking south for Warmal. There were a good many wretched villages in succession half a mile or so apart from one another, such as Dubna, Hasan-Jafa, Luftulla and Husena Baba. The ground was covered with white salt which resembled snow.

Husena Baba was quite a large and important village. The inhabitants came out in great force to greet us. Although wood was extremely scarce at this village, nearly all the houses had flat roofs supported on rough rafters. Matting on a layer of reeds prevented the upper coating of mud from falling through. I came across several horses laden with bundles of long reeds which they dragged behind them, and which they had carried, probably from the Naizar, where they were plentiful.

We had altered our course from south to east, and here I parted with useful Gul Khan and the escort, who had to return to the Consulate. I mounted my riding camel and started off, this time south-east, on my way to Warmal.

Again we saw thousands of sheep grazing on the flat desert of dried mud and salt cracked in innumerable places by the sun. Here and there a close examination showed tiny tufts of dried grass, some two inches in circumference, and not more than half an inch tall, and at an average distance of about ten feet from one another. It was astounding to me that so many animals could find sufficient nourishment for subsistence on so scanty a diet, but although not very fat the sheep seemed to be in pretty good condition.

To the west we had a high ridge of mountains--the Patang Kuh--and between these mountains and our track in the distance an extensive marsh could be distinguished, with high reeds in profusion near its humid banks.

To the east some miles off were Dolehtabad (village), then Tuti and Sakawa, near Lutok.

South-east before us, and stretching for several miles, a flat-topped plateau rose to no very great height above the horizon, otherwise everything was flat and uninteresting all around us. Some very curious walls of black mud mixed with organic matter, built to shelter sheep from the fierce north winds while proceeding from one village to another, can be seen in the lut. These black dashes on the white expanse of salt and sand have about the same effect on the picturesqueness of the scenery as coarse scrawls with a blunt pen on a fine page of calligraphy. You see them here and there, scattered about, all facing north, like so many black dashes in the otherwise delicate tones of grey and white of the soil.

When we had gone some miles on this flat, hard stretch of ground, where the heat was terrible, we had to make a detour round a large marsh. Then beyond it stood five parallel banks of sand, 25 feet high, with horizontal layers of half-formed stone up to half the height of the dunes. The dunes were about 200 yards apart.

In the afternoon we arrived at Warmal, where water seemed plentiful and good. Here too, as in the centre of most villages and towns of Persia, a pond of stagnant filthy water could be seen. The pond at Warmal was of unusually ample proportions and extended through the whole length of the village, which was built on both sides of this dirty pond. Numerous canals branched off from this main reservoir, and in fact, had one had a little imagination, one might have named this place the Venice of Sistan. At sunset swarms of mosquitoes rose buzzing from the putrid water, but from a picturesque point of view the effect of the buildings reflected in the yellow-greenish water was quite pretty.

To facilitate transit from one side of the village to the other, a primitive bridge of earth had been constructed across the pond, but as the central portion of it was under water it was necessary to remove one's foot-gear in order to make use of the convenience.

Characteristic of Warmal were the quaint balconies or terraces, in shape either quadrangular or rectangular, that were attached to or in close proximity of each house. They were raised platforms of mud from 2 to 4 feet above the ground, with a balustrade of sun-burnt bricks. On these terraces the natives seek refuge during the summer nights to avoid being suffocated by the stifling heat inside their houses.

A difference in the construction and architecture of some of the roofs of the houses could be noted here. The roofs were oblong instead of perfectly circular, and when one examined how the bricks were laid it seemed extraordinary that the vaults stood up at all. These were the only roofs in Persia I had seen constructed on this particular principle.

The bricks were laid round the vaults for two-thirds of the roof at an angle of 45° and the other third in a vertical position. There was the usual upper central aperture and occasionally one or two side ones.

The natives were very civil and obliging, and as usual they all crowded round to converse.

"Sahib," said one old man, "you must come to settle here."

"Why should I settle here?"

"It is very cheap to build houses at Warmal."

"How much does it cost to build a house?"

"Come and see and you will tell me whether you can build a house cheaper in your country."

He took me to a spacious new residence, 14 feet by 14 feet inside, and 18 feet high.

"It is a fine house, is it not, Sahib?"

"Yes, very fine."

"It cost me exactly two tomans, four krans (about nine shillings) to build it, as it stands."

Enumerating the various items of expenditure on the tips of his fingers:--"Sun-baked bricks 1 kran (5d.) per thousand," he continued; "carpenter 1 kran a day for 5 days, and mason 1 kran a day. The people who helped were not paid as they were relations!"

The dome of this house was very scientifically constructed, as can be seen by the diagram, and formed a very strong vault. To make these vaults, four workmen begin at the four corners of the quadrangular base to lay bricks in successively enlarging concentric arcs of a circle, each higher than the previous one, till each section meets the two side ones. The small portion that remains above is filled in with bricks, laid transversely, and these vaults are really of remarkable strength.

I have seen some built on this principle, and several centuries old, standing in good preservation and as good as new.

The type of natives was quite different again from that in other places already visited, and was most interesting. The men, like most men of the desert, had elongated faces, with long, regular noses, slightly convex and somewhat drooping. The nostrils were rather swollen and lacking character, and not sharply cut. At the bridge the nose was very narrow, but broad in its lower portion and quite rounded, which looked better in profile than full face. The nostrils drooped considerably towards the point of the nose and were high up where joining the cheek. The faces of these fellows formed a long smooth oval with no marked cheek-bones and vivid, dark, intelligent eyes, small but well-open, showing the entire iris. The lips were the most defective part of their faces, being unduly prominent, thick and coarsely-shaped.

The hair grew in a very normal way on their faces, and they possessed very good arched eyebrows, slightly coarse but well-defined, and in most cases meeting at the root of the nose. In fully-formed men the beard was thick and curly, but did not grow to any great length. On the skull the hair was jet-black and was soaked in oil, so that it had the appearance or being perfectly straight.

Ample trousers, the usual long shirt and Afghan boots (which are not unlike European military boots), made up the attire of the masculine members of the community.

The women had, on a smaller scale, very similar features to those of the men, and at a distance their oval faces appeared quite handsome, but on a closer inspection the lineaments were much too elongated to be attractive. They had a somewhat pulled appearance. Both men and women were tall, slender and of very wiry build.

After sunset the women, with their heads wrapped up in a sort of white chudder, thrown gracefully behind the shoulders and reaching down to the feet, began to prowl about in a great state of excitement, carrying big balls of flour paste and small wicker work plates, like shields, covered over by a cloth. They lighted a big fire in one of the small domed ovens, and after beating the paste on the wicker shields till it had spread into a thin layer, they quickly took it up with their hands and, kneeling over the blazing furnace, stuck the paste against the roof of the oven. They used long leather gloves for the purpose. While being baked the bread was constantly sprinkled with water from a bowl close at hand.

Nearly each house has its own outer oven, but the one I was near seemed to be used by several families, judging by a string of clamouring women who impatiently--and did they not let the others know how impatiently!--waited with all necessaries in hand to bake bread for their men. The respective husbands and sons squatted around on their heels, languidly smoking their pipes and urging their women to be quick. A deal of good-natured chaff seemed to take place during this daily operation, but the women were quite in earnest and took themselves and the process very seriously. They seemed much concerned if one piece got too much burnt or another not enough.

To the east by south-east of Warmal, about a mile and a half off, were four semi-spherical sand mounts standing prominent against the sky-line, and a great number of sand hills of confused formation. The several sand-banks which I had observed in the morning on our march to this place extended to a great length towards the east, and were a great protection to Warmal against the periodic northerly winds of the summer. Hence the lack here of the familiar wind-catchers and wind-protectors, found further north, the sight of which one missed on the roof tops after having become accustomed to Sher-i-Nasrya and adjoining villages where no roof was without one. Here there were only one or two wind-catchers visible on the roofs of the few two-storeyed houses of the richer folks.

Another characteristic of dwellings in Warmal was that over each front door there was a neat little fowl-house, subdivided into a number of square compartments. The place was simply swarming with chickens.