One Persian Friday

So many people look with commiseration on the poor benighted mortal who chooses to bury himself in Persia that I am driven to protest. Sometimes I am able to carry my point with a dissertation on the beauty of Persia or the charm of its people, but generally no sooner do I consider the battle won than the skeptic comes back at me with, ‘But what on earth do you do to pass the time out there?’ as who should say, ‘Answer me that it you can.'

Fortunately or not, we members of the American Financial Commission have not as yet been able to catch up with our work. Every evening we stagger home under six or eight pounds of voluminous dossiers, which we tell ourselves we will wade through before morning. Where there is so much to be done, time cannot drag, but every now and then we lay aside our dossiers and take a day off anyhow. On these days we have learned from the Persians that pleasure can be found in simple things.

To-day is Friday, the Persian Sabbath. It is the New Year season, which comes in early spring. There is a popular legend that trouble will follow throughout the year for all whom this day finds indoors, and so my good friends Gholam Ali and Abdorreza have asked me to go out into the country with them.

Gholam Ali, who is back on vacation from Cambridge, is the most remarkable young Persian I know. He, of all my friends, has most successfully combined the wisdom of the East with the learning of the West. I never cease to marvel at his amazing knowledge of English literature. He is familiar, not only with the poets and the novelists, but with the biographers and the historians as well. He has read scientific works which I have always thought well of myself for knowing by name. And the delight of him is that he is so unspoiled. He loves Persia. He loves his family. He loves their ways and traditions. He fits in when he comes back; he knows that he fits in, and he is wise enough to rejoice in that knowledge. He will never have to work for a living, but he wants his ability and training to count for something. Just at present he is at a loss to know in which direction he will best be able to apply his energy.

Abdorreza is an orphan, who has come up to the capital from Ispahan. He too has an income. He has never been outside of Persia, but he has been through the American High School in Teheran. He is ambitious in a political way. Just at present he has a job in the Ministry of the Interior.

There is a toy railroad which runs from Teheran a few miles out to the gold-domed mosque at Shah-abdulAzim. A Belgian company built the railroad. I believe it pays them. On holy days and Fridays the train is crowded with a cheery band of pilgrims going out to acquire merit at Shahabdul-Azim. The best mast, too, can be obtained, by the way, at Shah-abdulAzim. Mast is a species of whey very popular with the Persians, and the Shah-abdul-Azim product is always cool and fresh and fragrant in its earthen jars.

There is much good-natured jostling and confusion at the toy station, but Gholam Ali, Abdorreza, and I, being personages, are shown through a special passage, and find seats in the train before the crowd is let loose on us. The cars are open, and on all sides the warm spring air blows through. Finally everyone who can possibly find space is aboard, and with an impressive premonitory whistle we are off.

The train rolls along out into the open plain. The snow-covered mountains smile down on us, glistening in the morning sunlight. The atmosphere is clear and invigorating. We can see impossibly far.

Our neighbors smile and talk among themselves. We pass a graveyard on the right; a blind beggar praying by the wayside, pilgrims walking barefoot to the shrine; a string of camels bearing silks from Ispahan. On the left we can see where the Judas trees make a scarlet path to Doshantappeh, and farther along a splash of white on the dark hillside — the Tower of Silence, where the Parsees hang their dead.

A rider on a white Turkoman stallion dashes up and challenges the train to a race, but the train has outgrown such childishness and prefers to puff along at its own pace. The horseman laughs and wheels, and the passengers crane their necks, watching the glint of sun on stirrups and white flanks as the rider draws away. They smile among themselves and resume their conversations. What do Persians find to talk about so interminably, I wonder?

Almost before we know it, pomegranate flowers and apricot blossoms are brushing our shoulders, and we have reached the end of our journey. We are swept a little way by the crowd, but soon the rest are headed for the golddomed mosque, while we strike out into the fields. This air never knew smoke, and will know no moisture until the rainy season comes, months hence.

We pass a group of houses. On the stoop of one a venerable dervish is sunning himself. Then we come upon an ancient hollow tower, perhaps twenty feet in diameter and a hundred feet high, set in a grove of fruit, trees. We walk around it and through it.

‘What is it for, anyhow?’ I ask.

Neither of my companions seems to be quite certain.

‘I think it was for storing grain,’ suggests Gholam Ali helpfully.

‘ I think it was rather a signal tower, or watchtower of some sort,’ says Abdorreza.

I do not know to this day the history of that tower, and I make no apologies for my ignorance. I derived just as much pleasure from it as if I had known all about it.

‘Let’s go on top,’ says Gholam Ali.

‘How in the world do you get up it?’ I ask, as there seems to be no entrance, no stairway.

We walk around, looking up hopefully, and finally discover a small opening on one side, some thirty feet above the ground.

‘There’s where we start,’ says Abdorreza. The point now is to find some way of reaching the opening. We hail two peasants working in a field, and explain our predicament. They both become intensely interested in our problem, and each thinks he has found the best solution. We finally succeed in quieting them, and tell them to go off and find some poles. They readily fall in with the idea, and before long come back, dragging behind them two great poles, which with considerable difficulty and much exhortation they succeed in placing up against the wall, within easy reach of the opening. Gholam Ali, Abdorreza, and I in one way or another manage to reach the opening, and find in the obscurity of the walls some semblance of a circular staircase. Up this we crawl, feeling our way in the darkness, until suddenly we are blinded by sunlight, and find ourselves on top. A flock of white pigeons, startled by our approach, circles around us, while the two men below hail us with delight, expressing pride in our achievement.

From here we think we can see Ghoom, where Fatima is buried, but I doubt whether we actually do. At any rate we get a good view of Teheran against a white back-drop of mountain. It is very peaceful. Some chickens are quarreling near those houses, and on the stoop the old dervish basks contentedly in the sun. Perhaps a quarter of a mile away we see a wall of rock with carvings on it.

‘What is it?’ I ask.

‘Old Fath Ali Shah with his twelve sons,’ replies Gholam Ali. ‘Come along, we’ll just have time to make it before lunch.’ And so we clamber and slide down to earth again.

We thank the two peasants for their helpfulness and give them a few shahis apiece, for which good act we are assured we will find our reward in Paradise. We then pass through the little village and so on out into the open country again. Shade trees line the road, and it is pleasant walking. We talk of this and that, comparing notes, contrasting East and West, until we reach the wall of rock on which Fath Ali Shah is carved, with six of his sons on either hand. He is always shown this way, in painting and in sculpture. His sons all have long square beards, and one of them carries an umbrella on which a parrot perches.

A soldier is praying near a pile of rocks on the right. He has found a spot where the noise of life cannot reach him. I believe he is close to his God here. On the left a stream of clear water gushes out of the rock and falls five or six feet into a pool which fills the hollow of the hill. Opposite, where it grows marshy, there are lily pads and rushes. I crawl around to the waterfall and look down. Perhaps six or eight feet below the surface I can see fish when the sunlight strikes them.

Across the way, two men stand up to their knees in water, holding opposite ends of a great carpet. It is an unwieldy thing to handle, and it interests me to watch them wash it. They lift it, in and out, in and out, each time with greater effort as it grows water-logged. They have a little donkey waiting on the bank above them. He looks down with concern, because he knows what to expect. They fold their carpet now with much heaving and tugging and, having carried it up the bank, they succeed in completely hiding their donkey with it. The poor animal staggers under the first impact of its dripping burden, but finally gets its bearings and heads off up the hill, followed at a leisurely pace by its owners. I pursue the line of march to where above us, in the sunshine, a hundred square feet or so of hillside are gay with drying carpets.

‘Come along,’ calls Gholam Ali. ‘We’d best be getting on. It’s lunchtime.’

And so we wander back to the cluster of houses surrounding the gold-domed mosque — the village of Shah-abdulAzim. Here servants meet us bearing great hampers of food. Gholam Ali’s mother, who is very thoughtful and kind, has sent them, and we are to eat luncheon in a garden which a friend has lent for the purpose. The servants spread cloths under a willow tree beside a fountain. They lay out knives and forks and a number of porcelain dishes with the lids on, some of which are still warm. They set the samovar up beside us and retire to a respectful distance, from where they watch us interestedly. They are somewhat doubtful about me.

Gholam Ali’s mother has sent us partridges and lamb chops and various kinds of vegetables. She has, of course, sent us a dish of rice, and a pitcher of dukh, or curdled milk with saffron in it. She has told the servants to buy us a jar of the deservedly famous mast of Shah-abdul-Azim. We have a variety of homemade preserves and a bottle of pickles direct from London. The latter was probably sent along tactfully for my benefit.

After luncheon the servants remove the dishes and retire from view. They can doubtless eat more freely with no one to watch them. We three lie around smoking and drinking our tea. It is nice to look up at blue sky through willow branches on a spring afternoon. Time passes. Much later we decide to wander out to Rei and nose around among the excavations.

The archæologists who know about Rei would smile were I to attempt to give them any information on the subject, and those who have never heard of Rei would be no happier were I to tell them all I know. Suffice it, therefore, to say that in ancient times was once a city Raghes, or Rei, in the region where Teheran now stands.

Monuments of the past are few in Persia. Architecture there is not such as will stand the test of time. In the neighborhood of Kermanshah is the original prototype of Stone Mountain. There a king once carved his record high up on a wall of rock: ‘I am Darius . . . the King of Kings,’ for all to see even to this day. Hamadan, they tell me, is the ancient Ecbatana. There Queen Esther and Mordecai are buried; but the present population has no respect for Semitic queens, and the tomb is used as a refuse heap. In Hamadan too is the home of Avicenna, that pioneer among physicians. And a few hundred yards from Hamadan is an ancient lion carved of stone, placed on the brow of a hill where the road winds by. They say it guarded the entrance to Ecbatana. The poor animal is somewhat disfigured in looks now, because Persian maidens, in the hope of offspring, have for countless generations anointed his nose with oil. Then, of course, in South Persia close by Shiraz we have Persepolis, the marble city of Alexander.

But to return to Rei. I know nothing of Rei. Tobit, I believe, stopped there once on his way to Ecbatana, but of this I cannot be certain. I only know that its site, or rather one spot where enterprising Persians somewhat unsystematically discover treasures underground, lies within easy walkingdistance of the garden where we have just had lunch.

There are some men working there now in pits ten or fifteen feet deep, sifting the earth that they throw out, and burrowing around haphazardly. Occasionally one of the workmen, who seem to be simply peasants or field laborers, stoops to pick up a shining bit of pottery, the handle of a pitcher, or half a bowl. See, that one has found four pieces which fit together perfectly. If you look closely you can see the design of gold inlay coming together properly. The foreman — or leader of the expedition, if you like — tells us delightedly that some days ago he found a golden bowl which brought five thousand tomans.

From Rei we wander up the mountainside to the east.

‘There’s another rock-carving over here,’ says Gholam Ali. ‘ It’s harder to get to.’ We decide to see it anyhow and, crawling around the face of the cliff on a ledge of rock, we walk for perhaps a hundred yards along a narrow path, the plain well below us. A flock of goats is grazing down there. The shepherd is singing, but he pauses in his song to watch us. This is more of a distraction than he has had in many a day. His goats would stray far afield were it not for the two dogs that are continually rounding them up.

The carving resembles in workmanship the one we saw earlier, but I am glad we did not pass it up. It represents a figure on horseback. There is a platform of sorts hewn out of the rock below it. From the platform the rock slopes at an angle of about eighty degrees. I notice a groove or channel two feet wide, perhaps forty feet long, worn smooth in the rock.

‘That’s a curious thing,’ I volunteer.

‘Nasr-ed-Din Shah, I believe it was, built it,’ Gholam Ali informs me. ‘He spent one winter at St. Moritz, and was very much impressed with tobogganing. He decided to introduce it, or at least its equivalent, here. So he had this rock polished off, and he and his court used to drive out here on picnics. It proved quite the sensation. They used to slide down on cushions, I believe.’

‘Let’s try it,’ suggests Abdorreza.

‘You can if you like,’ Gholam Ali and I reply in unison. ‘We’re going back the way we came.’

Abdorreza sits down gingerly. Having suggested the thing, he feels he must see it through. After making up his mind two or three times, and then losing his nerve, he finally lets go, and shoots off down the rock, gaining speed with every foot. We can see from the way he waves his arms about that he is not enjoying himself. He is flat on his back now, and he lands in a heap in the field. Two or three goats take fright at this sudden intrusion on the privacy of their pasture. The old shepherd is delighted. He seems to have derived most pleasure out of the affair. Here indeed is something to break the monotony of an afternoon. He runs over to where Abdorreza is picking himself up. They exchange a few words and I hear them laugh. Then the shepherd turns back to his flocks. Abdorreza waves to us, and parallels our path as we make our way back to the road. When we join him we ask him how it felt.

‘It burned,’ he said, but he pretends that it was fun. We admire his spirit, for we see that the seat of his trousers is in shreds. We considerately refer to the matter no more.

A few yards up the road Gholam All’s carriage is waiting for us. His mother has sent it out for us, thinking that it would give us more pleasure to drive back in the cool of the evening than to sit in the crowded train. It is a comfortable old-fashioned victoria, drawn by two fat horses with whom the driver seems to have a special understanding.

The mountains behind Teheran are pink when at last we drive through the gates of the city.