APPROACHING Kermanshaw, one receives the impression that it is rather an imposing place built on a gentle slope, but once within this city of 80,000 inhabitants, you discover it is a mass of low gray mud buildings intersected by narrow rambling, uneven passageways walled in by houses, shops, bazaars, mosques, hostelries, etc. I climbed to the housetop of our hotel to get a better view of the city and in wandering about from one flat mud roof to another of the adjoining buildings, often walking on the ledges of mud walls enclosing small courts, I unknowingly stepped on a concealed chimney top which broke away with a portion of the wall and I narrowly averted a bad fall into someone’s Persian garden 25 feet below.
A traveler’s curiosity or inquisitiveness often leads him to prowl about into narrow alleys, vaulted passageways, into the sacred confines of shrines. or through archways leading into the interior depths of private courts, among smells, filth, and dark faces, the latter usually displaying surprise or equal curiosity at the intrusion of a strange white face which is often half masked behind a clicking camera.
Kermanshaw is situated on a gentle slope that lists to the north and faces a beautiful, colorful, though treeless, range of mountains that are only five or six miles away across the valley from which they rise abruptly. This valley extends east and west for several miles and is traversed by a small river bearing the waters of the melted snows of the mountains. The city is nearly encircled by mountains with peaks that are snow-capped at this period of the year although the valley is warmed by the genial warmth of a brilliant spring sun.
Tillers of the soil are plowing the fields with crude, wooden plows dragged by small oxen, for once inside the natural ramparts of Persia the traveler finds large tracts of fertile plains and valleys. It must be remembered, however, that there are even more extensive regions of desert, sand and salt and surrounding rock, “a land where no water is,” and great areas of salt marshes totally unfit for cultivation or human existence. In fact, one-half of Persia is a useless desert, and but for the mountains storing moisture in the shape of snow, nine-tenths of Persia would be arid.
Kermanshaw itself offers little of interest but there are near at hand two exceedingly interesting monuments of antiquity. One lies just across the valley at the base of the mountainsthe carved and sculptured rock of Tak-i-Bustan. The other, if I remember the distance correctly, is about 20 miles to the east of Kermanshaw, and is known as the Rock of Behistun.
It is a beautiful valley that stretches eastward from Kermanshaw, walled in by mountains on the north and south; mountains whose colorful tints are not dissipated even by the midday sun, a clear light revealing a land of rosy tint stretching from mountain range to mountain range. It lacks only trees to complete the picture, for Persia is generally speaking a treeless country, and a land without trees is like a home without children there is something vital missing.
The Behistun Rock is a famous landmark and a strikingly beautiful one, for it rises abruptly from this valley, almost perpendicular for 1700 feet, and reminded me somewhat of Gibraltar, due to its shape and commanding position. It stands at the very end or beginning of a range of mountains that forms the northern wall of the valley. Scarfs of clouds trailing in the wind were flung into the clear azure blue above this silent sentinel that in its day has looked down upon the hosts of Cyrus, Darius and Alexander marching over this important highway to or from their victorious fields of battle. I fancy many a weary warrior has slaked his thirst at the voluminous springs that flow from the foot of this rock, for immediately from its base as though a Moses had struck the rock with his staff, there appears before your vision a good-sized stream of clear, sparkling water. In the bubbling pools of this brook, we saw native women washing their clothes, while others were carrying to their homes in earthen jars or discarded petrol tins the cool, refreshing liquid.
This was the one and only place in Persia where I drank unboiled water. Elsewhere I confined myself to tea, tea, more tea. I have always taken this delicious beverage clear and without sugar, possibly a little lemon, but here I drank it as customarily served, knowing that the sugar possessed decided food value, which just at present was far more acceptable and palatable than some that I was obliged to consume. Tea is obtainable at every toll-gate or any little village, but these tea-houses, mud huts, I should say, in no way resemble those clean, charming little bamboo and mat tea-houses in far-away Japan. It is a far cry from a dainty Japanese miss serving you with tea, to the usual dirty male attendant in Persia, who also deals in hard-boiled eggs and tough lavash.
On the face of Behistun Rock, about 300 feet above the valley, is a bas-relief carving; a tablet executed by order of Darius I, king of Persia, and on which is represented the king returning from a victorious campaign of conquest, his foot upon a prostrate man and before him eight captive kings chained together by the neck. Far more important, however, is another tablet lower down which might easily be overlooked by a traveler of the highway unless previously informed of its location. It is stated that the inscription on this rock-tablet has served archæology as faithfully in solving the mysteries of the cuneiform characters used in the Babylonian inscriptions, as did the Rosetta Stone in revealing the secrets of the ancient steles of the early Egyptians. It was that earnest English savant, Rawlinson, who deciphered these inscriptions, which set forth the genealogy of King Darius, enumerates his 19 victories and pro-claims his gratitude to his God.
But we have earlier records of Persia than the Behistun Rock. Elam is the Biblical name of Persia, and it was Elam over which King Chedorlaomer, mentioned in Genesis XIVIX, ruled in Susa, the Sushan of the Bible. Tablets recovered at Babylon relate to Elam and the date ascribed to these documents is 2850 B.C.
While it was Cyrus in 600529 B.C. who raised Persia to the chief position in Asia by his victories, diplomatic skill and magnanimous character, it was Darius I, son of Hystaspes, a descendant of the Achoemenian princes, who became king in 521 B.C. that carried forward the work of Cyrus and raised Persia to the peak of her power. “A born leader of men, a great general, and a skillful ruler.” He extended his dominions eastward to the Indus by an expedition to India that brought the Punjab and Sind under Persian dominion.
In the zenith of her glory during the reign of Darius “The law of the Medes and Persians which altereth not” was enforced. We must not for-get that Persia was once an empire that stretched from the Indus to the Danube, from the Oxus to the Nile, and we read that “On the shores of the Narrows in the Dardanelles a Great King once sat on a marble throne at Abydos and poured a libation from a gold cup into the Hellespont as the Persian Immortals led the way across the bridge of boats to the conquest of Athens.”
This army was the most picturesque conglomeration the world had hitherto ever witnessed and which Herodotus relates numbered 1,700,000 infantry, 100,000 mounted men, 510,000 sailors and marines, a total of 2,310,000 men, to which must be added the 1200 Phoenician warships with crews, and 3,000 transports.
While this huge war machine was set in motion in the spring of 480 B.C., moving across two pontoons bridging the Hellespont near modern Chanak Kalessi, Xerxes poured a libation into the water praying that he might conquer Europe. It was a crushing defeat that was finally administered to Xerxes, including the heroic defense of the Pass of Thermopylae by Leonidas and his immortal three hundred. Xerxes, defeated, fled back to Asia after the last stand of the Greeks at Salamis, where they risked all upon a single battle.
Xerxes, who was the younger son of Darius, was his successor and is supposed to be the Ahasueras of the Bible and “which reigned from India even to Ethiopia over a hundred and seven and twenty provinces (Esther I-1).” Thus as we recall these pages of the early history of Persia our interest is quickened as we travel these same highways that were trod by the mighty conquerors of past ages.
Only on the northern slopes of the Elburz range next to the Caspian Sea, where plenty of rain falls, are there any forests in Persia. If trees are missed in these Persian landscapes of bare mountains and, treeless plains, and I always do feel their absence, then camels, some more camels, groups of camels, caravans of camels, shared with the landscape our interest. Never since my first glimpse, as a boy, of a camel and an elephant in a circus parade have I lost interest in these two so different and useful animals. Though I actually saw thousands of camels in Persia and nearly all in the faithful service of their masters carrying huge burdens weighing three, four, or even five hundred pounds on caravan journeys of hundreds of miles, nevertheless my interest never waned in this tall, swinging-gaited, hump-backed animal; this useful, silent-footed freight carrier of the desert. Please observe I did not employ the adjective “supercilious,” which is invariably applied to a camel as though it were part of a hyphenated word.
It was 3:30 P.M. when we arrived at the foot of the Zagros range. Before and far above us was the Assadabad Pass in a mantle of snow. It is this Pass that is the step-ladder that must be climbed to the highlands of Persia, for such they are, being situated more than a mile above the flat desert land of Mesopotamia to the west. Persia is almost everywhere traversed by lofty ranges, these ranges, generally speaking, running diagonally from the northwest to southeast with altitudes of eight to ten thousand, even sixteen to seventeen thousand feet. While I was busy taking a few snapshots, the chauffeur was paying toll, securing oil and a large can of water, and arranging for six or eight men to hurry ahead up a more direct trail than the road, to where their services would be required to assist in pushing the car over the more unfavorable places.
The road leading over Assadabad Pass, it would appear from what I have read, was, previous to the war, little more than a trail over which passed the caravans laden with freight from Baghdad; merchandise which had already journeyed from Europe via the Persian Gulf. The Pass was a place infested by brigands and it is recounted that tribute money was constantly being paid to Persian officials by England to keep the Pass open and to buy immunity from brigands, while Russia at the same time was doubling the stakes for keeping the Pass closed as her merchandise entered via the Caspian Sea. It is thus that diplomacy, influenced by commerce, connives with foreign potentates or their crafty officials with itchy palms to thwart one another’s schemes for extending and increasing commerce.
During the war, however, as I have before stated, Great Britain greatly improved this Persian artery of commerce, using it as a military road for an expedition which was dispatched into Northern Persia as an offensive operation against the Turks. While the highway reaches consider-able height in negotiating the Pass, something over 8,000 feet, and contains many crooks and hairpin turns, the road ascends and descends on rather gentle slopes that present no hair-raising precipitous places hewn from the face of the rocks, a condition which still jars upon my nerves when traversing.
We, too, met the same kind of bandits that an American author referred to as being perched on a rock of this Pass commanding the road, leaning on their rifles and looking like ruffians (a good description of the soldiers I found guarding this Pass). It appears that this writer later took a picture of these bandits and speaks of their astonishment and chagrin upon discovering that they were ferinjees (Europeans) with business-like automatics peeping from their holsters, which prompted the brigands’ explanation that they were guards protecting strangers from bandits : a statement on the part of the so-called Kurdish Captain Kidds which I have every reason to believe was true.
For be it known, there was stated to me by several American residents of Persia that this land had never been quite as safe from brigands as during the past three years, since in February, 1921, Riza Kahn, the present prime minister, also minister of war, had established an effective army. I was also told that 15 years ago this forceful man who now actually occupies the position of a dictator was doing sentry duty as a soldier before one of the foreign embassies at Teheran.
From observation and all I could learn, I believe that traveling today on the highways of Persia is safer than the streets of many of our larger American cities, especially since the wave of crime following the Great War. In an automatic lying beside me on the seat of the automobile, were also “six through billets to paradise,” although of a smaller caliber than those mentioned by the author previously referred to. This imaginative mind did not reveal having made any use of the billets, and the only occasion I had to use a weapon was in taking a couple of shots at a jackal that trotted from the roadway, and I missed him, which is what would probably have happened had I been shooting at a brigand, only I might not have been so fortunate in having the missiles from his gun miss me. After all, I have always found a good strong cane my best weapon.
This picturesque author referred to, recently made a journey to Persia and the Peacock Throne by camel and car, and stated that he was looking for adventure and referred to danger as an old friend. A good imagination thus saved him from disappointment. It is only fair to add, however, that his book is not lacking in interest, the story being fascinatingly told and presenting some interesting political sidelights.
But pardon my digressingI must get on or this tale will never land us in Teheran and it is 3:30 in the afternoon and we are still at the bottom of the Pass.
For about a half hour we succeeded in making fair time up the steep mountain road on our low gear. Soon we encountered snow and as we gradually rose from the spring season of the valley into the winter clime of the higher altitude, the snow increased. The motor car coughed once or twice, stopped dead, and it was then discovered that the chauffeur had neglected to replenish his gasoline supply at the village below. A coolie was dispatched to the village to secure the necessary petrol.
The Doctor and I walked to the top of the Pass through cuts that had been dug in the snow eight, ten and twelve feet deep. I am accustomed to snow, but more I have only seen in rare in-stances. At the top of the Pass we discovered a dugout with a passageway leading to its entrance walled by snow ten feet high. Into the darkness of this cave, we made our way. In the innermost depths we could barely discern the forms of two figures huddling about a koorsiea small fire of charcoal beneath a wooden framework covered with blankets around which Persians in cold weather huddle, thrusting their feet and limbs underneath the blankets. This warming device reminded me of an oversized chicken brooder or huddler. On a damp, dirty blanket lay some lavash. They offered to share some of their frugal fare. Their hospitality, expressed in signs, for neither understood the other’s language, was sincere.
We were hungry, so huddling in the dark near the koorsie, we ate the tough, leathery lavash, the Persian staff of life, and two hard-boiled eggs, along with two glasses of the ever ready, sweet, hot tea. The daintiness and service demanded by the epicurean in the homeland quickly disappears under such circumstances.
Presently some guards came in and by the faint light of the few glowing embers of charcoal in the samovar (a brass tea kettle and fire box combined) one would catch a glimpse of first one and then another of our companions in the dug-out as they came to the samovar and got their draught of hot tea. Finally at nightfall the car arrived; after a wait of more than two hours, relief was now at hand. The steep grade had been made; another hour or two and we should reach Hamadan.
But we had more difficulties awaiting us, for a short distance further on we found the road was blocked by a caravan of horse-drawn vehicles. Again we came to a stop to take reconnaissance and to decide upon our next step. It developed that the car could not possibly pass the jam of wagons in the narrow snow canyon, but we learned that the next toll gate was only about a mile further down the Pass, and that here we could at least be housed and warmed, for the night had come and the sky scintillated with the brilliancy of the stars. We were in a high, dark, cold land of mountains, snow, and stars. Now and then there squeezed past the blockade a caravan of a few camels piled high with bales, their heads swaying up and down as though on the end of a pendulum, and hung with bells that jingled as they passed in the dusk of the night, while beside them moved dark figures urging them on with a mushi-mushi, while gradually the music of the tinkling bells faded into an indistinct whisper. Even the blustering wind had hushed itself to sleep. This night with the sky so close to the mountain top, is indelibly printed upon my memory; even things not seen become vivid at night.
The chauffeur was to remain with the car hedged in by a ten-foot wall of snow on each side. Served him right, we thought, for his neglect had been the cause of our trouble. Coolies who had helped to push the car up the steep snow trail now carried our bedding rolls through the canyons of snow to the toll gate lower down the pass. The guard who accompanied us to the hut hammered on the door which was shortly opened and we were admitted into an outer room about eight by ten feet, which gave access to another room to the rear, of the same proportions, in which there was a small sheet iron stove, two cots, a table, two chairs and three men; the air permeated with the odors of smoke, onions, and unidentified smells. One of the men was a Persian, one a Caucasian, and one an Armenian. They were not lacking, however, in hospitality. The Armenian spoke a little English and acted as the interpreter. Upon learning that we were Americans, the Persian said : “We love Americans in Persia; they are our friends.” The Armenian added: “I would give my life for an American; ours is a humble mountain hut, which you great Americans will pardon, but what we have is yours, any service we can render is our pleasure.”
About that time further knocking on the door took place and as the door was now unbarred, in walked the Swiss gentlemen, Mr. Schuster, and his wife, and the Persian representative of his firm, Mr. Kafaroff, a most energetic fellow, who also appeared upon the scene. Their two cars which had more leisurely followed ours were also marooned on the snow-bound, caravan-jammed, Assadabad Pass, Persia. They were welcome reinforcements to the two stranded Americans.
A merry party ensued. The Armenian played a mandolin, Mr. Kafaroff sang lively native songs, hot tea was served, all drinking from the only two glasses. A coolie was dispatched to Mr. Schuster’s car and soon returned carrying a large hamper. Its contents made my heart beat with joy, for soon Mrs. Schuster was serving us with hot beef bouillon made from concentrated cubes, sardines, Libby’s tinned corned beef, cold boiled eggs, Huntley & Palmer biscuits, and as dessert, the piece-de-resistance Del Monte canned California peaches. The hut added lavash, tea, and a Turkish liquor (a lightning juice called botry) and the champagne supply in the hamper had not yet been exhausted. It was a merry party that took place in those most unusual surroundings.
It was some time after midnight when we all turned in. There was a narrow, single bunk in one corner of the room which was assigned to Mr. and Mrs. Schuster, while on a similar cot in another corner slept Mr. Kafaroff and the Persian. The big bulky Caucasian and the much smaller Armenian slept on the floor. I drew an upper berth and spread my bedding roll on the top of the table and crawled between the blankets; the Doctor took the lower berth under the table and did likewise. He and I were the only guests who removed our coats and shoes.
To complete the narrative, I must add that our quietude was a signal for the fleas and other insects’ activities, but such is seeing Persiaa land with-out railroads, and in which, outside of the high-ways built by the English for military purposes from Baghdad to Teheran, and Kazvin to the Caspian Sea, few if any serviceable roads for motor cars exist, while its transportation facilities consist of trails and caravans.
The morning broke clear and bright. The sun-light glistened on the great snow fields surrounding us on the mountain tops. The air was dry and exhilarating, with an incredible visibility possible, which is characteristic of Persia. The country as surveyed from our height appeared like a great spacious map.
I took a photograph of the group standing before the hut, which was nearly excluded from view by snow. The wagons of the pack-train that obstructed the highway had at the first break of dawn been pulled to one side and our mighty Ford touring car now came rolling down through a canyon of snow 12 to 15 feet deep. It looked like a familiar friend to me. We bade good-bye to our genial companions of the hut and to our fellow travelers of the broad highway, and were once again threading our way past camels, horses, mules and donkeys, as we rapidly dropped down the pass and away from the snow on to the high-lands surrounding Hamadan. I never again saw Mr. and Mrs. Schuster, but traveling in Persia is surely no pleasant pastime for a woman.