The Mosque


‘Shukr’ Allah,’ grunted the charvadars as the carriage creaked over the last stony ridge and we could say that we had crossed the Sirdar Kuh. The horses, even in that chill air of mountain-top and early dawn, were hot and panting from their exertion. Only the camels seemed tireless, lumbering on down the mountain-side, soon lost in the lavender blur of tumbled rock.

The morning light began to pour over the edge of the horizon like an advancing mist. The sun rose, a giant in shining armor, until on the floor of the plain before us the city toward which we had been journeying lay revealed, shimmering like a mirage. Above the waving foliage and expanse of flat roofs could be seen distinctly, like a huge inverted cup, the blue dome of a mosque.

No one understands the mosque, certainly no Christian — least of all this poor wayfarer in a land of cupolas and enchanted turrets. It is not a temple, as was the tabernacle of the Lord round which the seraphim hovered. No incense burns before a mystic shrine porticoed over some sleepy deity. Allah to these people is no sculptured lord dwelling in an habitation of stone, but an invisible Everpresent having the Universe for his abode. Neither is the mosque a house of prayer, although prayers be chanted there, for wherever the True Worshiper may be at the stated hour of his orisons, there he kneels down. It is tended by no sacred priesthood as are the temples farther east, and to a less extent the orthodox churches of the West. But, whatever place it may fill in the lives of the prophet Mohammed’s followers, there is no dweller in these parts but feels its unseen powerful influence, and I was to spend the better part of a year seeking to analyze, understand, and crystallize this elusive essence.

With the coming of day the semiarid desert that stretched before us began to be dotted with life. The roads that radiated from the city were silvery skeins of a spider’s web, upon which, threaded like beads upon a string, traffic began to appear, now discerned, now disappearing in tiny puffs of dust.

The road down the mountain-side now began to drop in sheer descents that were no more than rough stairways. How beasts and vehicles came up from this side, only Allah knows. Of course, neither in the ascent nor in the going-down were our wagons and carriages loaded. Long ago it seemed, though only the night before, we had put those burdens on the camels, and they with their soft padded feet were now plodding among the rocks far below, unmindful of burden, unmindful of mountain and rock, unmindful of master, unmindful, it seemed to me, of time and eternity.

The horses were dumbly brave. It was bravery to have a juggernaut shackled behind, which at any momentary slip might come crashing down, crushing and carrying to destruction in the bottomless abyss below. Brakes were of no avail; a pole set between the spokes helped but little. With staves and hobnailed boots it was hard enough to keep footing for two feet, much less four.

The road tumbled on down in cascades. The drivers grunted, and kept trudging on. Our great relief was to turn our eyes from these hills to the immense plain sweeping before us, to the city, and particularly to this silent blue dome which rode so calmly on its bosom. Within its shadows must be rest! The nearer edge of the plain ran up into these mountains, the farther edge dissolved into the vast void which was the horizon. Midway between lay the city, a broad field of green oasis against a yellow haze. Yet it was not green — the combination of flat adobe roofs and the green of gardens is a blend which is closer to shell-pink than anything I know.

The rocky path which we had been treading finally began to yield to a broad graveled highway that curved in and out among the slopes of the mountain; what we had been on was apparently the last mile which the Persian authorities had never summoned the energy to finish. Instead of dropping straight, this highway followed the convolutions of the mountain so as to gain the easiest approaches. It was only at intervals that we could catch visions of the plain, but each time the city glowed more precisely and more enchantingly on its surface. At other times we looked across the valleys to the forbidden ranges that reared there, snow-capped and awful. We could catch glimpses of a vista where they curved and led seemingly into the very bowels of the universe. There in this chaos of nature the snow crests became blue in their iciness and blended in the deeper blue of the sky, while below the hard bare surfaces caught the sunlight and returned it in a constantly changing panorama of color. Here, where Nature rolled her tremendous drama, surely the people were possessed of some of this restless volcanic spirit, ready to break forth in warfare or flaming fanaticism.

By noon we had reached the bottom and were moving across the flat tableland. As the mountain range receded we seemed to be in a great saucer, surrounded, save where this range was thrust out like the prow of a ship, by the encircling level of the horizon. By dusk we had become a part of the mêlée of traffic in the city, caught in the jam of donkeys, camels, beggars, shopkeepers, and bawling porters. By the time we had forced a way through the streets of the markets and the dark vaults of the bazaars to the haven of the mission compound, the last glancing rays of the sun had turned the city into a violet dust. When we had refreshed ourselves in the cool shadows of the garden and I was considering the experiences of that day, — the mad descent down the mountain, the dreary ride across the plain, — I began to realize that the mosque rising lightly over the city, which had first caught my eye as dawn appeared that morning, was the only thing that had really interested me and piqued me. It had been tiny then, and now its dark shape above the garden wall was not large; but it was the spirit of this people rising to meet and understand this force which in nature moved and revealed itself so tremendously in the mountain and desert which screamed without. And that is no small thing.


Mornings I was awakened before daybreak by a high chanting cry proceeding from the near-by roof. It was the muezzin, calling, ‘Come to prayer, come to prayer; prayer is belter than sleep.’ As the cry was taken up by others among the Faithful, it spread from roof to roof, and ran through the bazaars like coals carried by runners in the mountains, until its message reverberated to the edge of the city to ripple across the illimitable sea of waste land that lay without.

Five times a day that cry could be heard — in the early dawn before the last twinkling stars had disappeared, thrice during the day, and at night when quiet had again dropped over the city. Like the church bells which once were heard in every village and city in our own country, this cry had in it an appeal to the spirit — only it was finer, for no thing of brass or iron can rival the sound of the human voice crying to its Lord.

Of all the muezzins who issued the call to prayer the one that strode the gateway of the mosque fascinated me most. He was a white-bearded old man with a bright-green sash and a blue turban — the sash indicating that he was a sayid and a lineal descendant of the Prophet. For all his age his voice was still strong, with a moving quality that seemed to command, if it did not invite, the True Followers of the Faith to enter within the sacred enclosure with their petitions.

Not being one of the Faithful, I had not as yet been permitted to enter that gate. Often I passed through the great square running before it, where merchants under little awnings squatted among their wares, and beggars cried for alms, and long lines of camels passed and repassed. The gateway with its two slender minarets was very ancient — how old I do not know — and its high Gothic arch was encrusted with a marvelous blue tiling scrolled in designs of flowers and verses from the Koran.

The dome of the mosque rising behind was of this same indescribable blue — a blue the art of making which has been lost in Persia these many years. Around the base were inscriptions done in tiles of black and yellow, and from it also sprang enameled jasmines to clamber up the curving surface; the tiling had, however, fallen away in many places, leaving vegetation to creep through the crevices.

There was nothing remarkable about the size of the mosque. Indeed there are finer ones in a dozen different parts of the world. There is, for example, that marble gem in the deserted palace of Agra, with its delicate cupola like a rare suspended pearl. And, not twenty miles from Agra, that sandstone replica of the Mecca mosque which the Moghul Akbar built in his play city of Fatehpur Sikri. There is Haggia Sophia, within the shadowed recesses of which one can still almost hear the fault wailing of the imprisoned priest. But these are all show places to which any Feringi may gain admittance, while this, set here in this cloistered Persian city, exists but for these people, and on them alone does it shed its benign influence.

Although I was later admitted, at present I was to feel its spell only through the life of the people about me, in the sounding cries of the muezzin calling to prayer, and in the solitudes of my garden. And of that garden I must speak a word, for to the Persian, whose empire is an empire of dry plain and barren mountain, these gardens are sweet havens of refuge; and has not the Prophet also made the garden the symbol of Paradise, when he says: —

But for those who dread the majesty of their
Lord shall be two gardens,
With o’erbranching trees in each,
In each two fountains flowing,
In each two kinds of every fruit?

My garden was such as is contained in every Persian home. A large square pool, flanked on either side by willows and poplars, and at the end a tiny fountain, which played save when Abbas diverted the water for the more mundane uses of the melon and lettuce patch. There was an arbor over which a rose vino clambered, and here of evenings Abbas would bring tea, while we sat and talked or listened to the muffled sounds of the street outside. Abbas moved about quietly, sprinkling the flowers with water from a goatskin bag, plucking with suppressed mutterings an intruder worm from the satin petal of a rose, or a stray weed that dared to grow in the presence of the garden queen. The sounds of traffic in the streets rose to an inchoate murmur at times, and of evenings there would be dogs barking at the occasional wayfarer, or a Persian lover strumming on a lute. There were arrivals. Persian guests, wrapped solemnly in their long abbas, would drink tea, puff a while at the kalyan, and then discuss in dignified tones the events at Teheran, the beauties of some rare rug, or favorite passages from the Persian poets. Finally they would depart, leaving the garden quiet again as the deserted halls of Xerxes.

I often wondered what gave the garden its calm, why it soothed so mysteriously. Was it the sharp contrast to the heaving world of nature outside the city? When I thought of that remorseless desert and the terrifying mountains, I questioned if this peace could be real — whether there were not sleeping in this city, in this garden, savage forces which one day would take shape as suddenly and as fearfully as some desert whirlwind. But because it was so like all other Persian gardens, because they all seemed so other-worldly, because they seemed to typify the East that slept about me, I looked for another explanation than that of enclosing walls, running water, and softly moving leaves. And Marden, the lean missionary, whose two children used to tug at my coat-tails and clamber over me demanding that I tell them stories, gently chided me because I gazed at that large round dome, and blamed it on the mosque.

Marden was right. That savage force which sleeps in the very nature of things here did rise, and it was from the mosque itself that the tocsin was sounded.


Whether because of some nonchalance toward me, or because of some feeling near kin to affection which I inspired among these people, they fortunately permitted me to enter the enclosure of the mosque. It was an experience I shall not forget. Heretofore I had been playing around the edge of things, and until I had penetrated the reserves of their religion I could not say that I had known these people. Here, within this ancient court, in the shade of these broad-spreading chenars, would I feel and taste this mysterious sense to its depth.

The interior of the mosque was a large square open court, enclosed at one end by the Gothic gate, at the other by the mosque proper, opening on the court and covered by the turquoise-tiled dome, and on the sides by pavilions where sat the mullahs and lawyers, teachers, clerks, and doctors. The court held a long pool of water which reflected on its quiet surface the chenars which bordered it and the waving outline of the dome. There was a small fountain where worshipers might wash their feet and hands before praying. A few were making their genuflections toward Mecca, but under the chenars a group of boys were playing, and in one of the stalls a number of students were listening to a mushtahid expounding the Koran. Some of the students, on seeing a Christian enter, eyed me askance, but turned again to their studies when they saw that I was escorted by one of the most reverend of their number. The boys playing greeted me, however, with a respectful ‘Salaam, Sahib,’ as I stopped to watch their game.

I remember distinctly the graybearded old mullah who was kneeling, his toes curled under him, reading one of the holy books, moving his body in a gentle swaying rhythm as he counted the verses, and murmuring to himself in a subdued monotone. I asked him what he read, and he, raising his eyes from his book and seeing that I was an infidel, betrayed no disdain or resentment, but told me the story.

‘It is a story, Sahib, of a certain rich khan who had a servant, and this servant’s wife fell sick. The doctor who was called looked gravely at the woman and declared that the only medicine that would save her was the liver of a certain horse. You know our customs, Sahib — what low esteem a woman receives and in what high regard a fine horse is held. But the khan commanded three of his horses to be killed that the woman might be cured. The doctor was astonished, and demanded of the khan where he had learned such manner of doing. The khan’s reply, Sahib, I recommend for your thought. He said: “Such, O servant of the world, is to be learned from looking into the face of the Lord.”’

The old mullah in telling the story had used more words than I have here set down, and when he finished his eyes were flashing with a prophetic fire.

‘Would you care to climb to the top of the minaret with me?’ he asked. ‘It is time for the azan, when I must call the Faithful to prayer. Come.’

The narrow curving staircase leading to the top of the tower was very dark, being lighted here and there only by the tiny vent-holes that had been pierced through the masonry. Moreover the steps, built high in the rise and narrow in the step, were broken in many places, so that it was only with much panting that we finally rested under the parapet at the top. The city spread before us, a receding terrace of flat roofs over which the poplars and chenars cast dappled shadows, while at the edge the level plain began, a moving sea of pastel tints and shades that tapered off into the airy void of the horizon. This minaret rising into the air was the highest point in the city, and from it we seemed to dominate the little world that wavered before us.

‘As this minaret mounts unsupported above the city, so must the soul in seeking its God grope Heavenward alone,’ said the old man. ‘Supported by buttresses, or joined to other structures, it ceases to be a tower. And so it is with man. No priest can guide, no tongue but his alone can utter his soul’s cry.’

As he talked, I began to understand the democracy of the East. He explained why there is no vested and privileged priest-caste here, why no man has special entry into the divine presence, why no one may pray for another, why there is no apostolic succession and none ordained to pronounce even a benediction. Within the following of the Prophet exists a brotherhood which — though it extends no further — is capable of bringing into union the Aryan Persian, the Semitic chieftain, and the savage from Africa, to kneel without let or hindrance side by side in the same mosque, or to marry their daughters with the others’ sons. I began to understand that species of democracy which Loti so well describes, which I have often coveted for the West, and which I myself have seen manifested in the sitting down together of the khan and his servant to drink tea in the same tea house or to smoke from the same kalyan.

But more vivid to me than this opening-up of his faith was the ardor with which he seemed to be inspired, and which in truth glowed so warmly everywhere about me. Whether or not this light that I saw was one which, kindled to love or wrath, consumes us quite, I was certain that its fierce burning was much more to my liking than that cold phosphorescence which lies pale on so many of the altars of our own faith. How was I to know that, when it had been lit in the night camps of Genghis Khan a thousand years before, it burned of conquest and swept down out of the steppes to harry the known world so that the Eastern Church to-day still yields the prayer, ‘Deliver us, O Lord, from the scourge of the Tatar’? Or to know that though it was now no more than a smouldering coal laid on the lips of the Believers, giving them tongues of prophecy, the mosque had never tamed the savage motions in the breasts of those who worshiped there, and that at certain seasons of the year there issued forth from its Gothic doorway the raging fires of fanaticism and religious bigotry that stirred even onlookers to trembling?


For several nights in early spring, when the rest of the living world was joyous and putting on new garments, when the nightingales were busy in the tree-tops and the brown branches began to bud, when even the rough bare desert was here and there touched with green, I had heard sounds of lamentation in the streets. An incoherent babbling rose above the city like a giant groaning in slumber. Passing one evening near the mosque, I heard within the high-pitched voice of a mullah and the doleful wailing of a large throng. The court was so crowded that the women were forced to crouch among the dogs in the street outside.

During the day too there was a strange excitement in the air — not the hushed expectancy of joyful news, not the pleasant spirit of the Persian New Year’s, that happiest of festivals, but the taut and agonized nervousness that precedes a bullfight or a leading out to execution. Processions of men began to appear in the streets, shouting incoherent names, gowned in black, with backs bared, and carrying in their hands peculiar lashes made of chains. The crowds of Mohammedans in the streets thickened, moved with more than ordinary tension, the Christian population began to stay indoors, and the governor increased the number of police. The ton days of Moharram had begun.

Moharram is the name of the month in which Hosein, son of Ali, who was son-in-law to the Prophet and contender for the Caliphate, lost his life in battle with the opposing force of the Ommayad dynasty. That struggle for the mantle of Mohammed created a hundred years later the schism which has ever since divided the Moslem world into two great parties. The bitterness it engendered is so powerful that it proved during the war a successful barrier to that grandly conceived scheme of uniting all Islam into holy war against the Infidel, and particularly prevented the coming together into one Pan-Turanic empire of the scattered elements of the Turkish world which the Young Turks, with Soviet assistance, so strenuously fostered a few years ago. The anniversary of that unsuccessful struggle for the temporal dominion of a spiritual empire is here a festival of barbaric and fanatic mourning against which the enchanted spirit of peace is unavailing.

Hosein was killed on the tenth day of Moharram; for nine days the people mourn and display their grief with increasing abandon, and the tenth day is the climax of this terrible crescendo, when the scene of the massacre is reënacted in bloody detail. More vivid than memory of that celebration are the words of my diary written at the time, which I now quote: —

Wednesday, April 11. — For nine nights the city has been filled with the wailing of the crowds listening to the stories which the mullahs tell them of the martyrdom of the early leaders, while during the day processions have filled the streets, shouting the name of Hosein.

This morning Crothers and I went down into the bazaars where the chief processions pass. Never have I seen such masses of people moved by the single idea of grief. We could hardly push through the crowd, and only by means of the sharp command ‘ Yohl vers!’ (Give way!) and the fact that we were Americans did we manage to pass.

In the streets the people were in constant motion, but in the caravanserais and open spaces they stood about mimbars that had been erected, from which mullahs recited the story of the massacre of Hosein and his followers. At intervals the people would break out in great sobbing, and would show their grief by universal swaying and beating of the heads.

Crothers and I found a vantage point on a quoin of the street where two of the chief bazaars intersect. Processions of these festal mourners moved up and down both streets, and a cordon of Persian gendarmerie was vainly trying to regulate the traffic. A porter bound toward his master’s with a basket of melons had been caught in the press. He was a pitiful figure, helpless as the swaying of the crowd carried him first one way and then another, at any moment threatening to crush his pannier into a ruddy juicy pulp. For a moment there was an open space through which he might escape, but it was not in the direction he desired, and he persisted, with a donkey’s stubbornness, in his efforts to make his way through. Finally he was irresistibly caught by an eddy and swirled off into a side street.

A procession larger than the others now appeared down the maddening vista. A man bearing an odd branching standard surmounted by a number of queer objects — lighted candles, tinkling bells, a hand of brass, a banner — was at the head, followed by a mullah chanting the names of the imams. Behind them came a long double row of men facing each other, with bared breasts which they beat in unison with the mullah’s chanting. Like waves enchanted by witches’ music, the line of white arms rose into the air, poised, and descended upon the expanse of breasts, with a sound resembling the beating of a stormy sea upon a coast. Here and there breasts broke out in bleeding from the repeated striking of bare fists.

A rhythmic swish could now be heard in the turmoil. As the long line of mourners moved slowly on, the sound drew nearer and increased, swelling above even the roar of the traffic, the wailing, and the thuds of flesh against flesh. Down the vaulted avenue appeared a long column of men with bared backs instead of bared breasts. Each man carried a lash which we could see was made of many strands of steel chain. It was the swinging of these chains that made the terrible sound we heard. In rhythm the lashes swung into the air and, as the name of Hosein sounded, came down with heavy force upon the bared backs. Flesh quivered as the lashes came down first upon the right shoulder and then upon the left, and then rose into the air, trembling, to descend with the reiteration of the martyr’s name.

The column moved slowly on, and for a moment the din seemed slightly to diminish. But only for a moment, for the blare of trumpets sounded and a band, with cymbals, drums, and horns, burst forth in a wild music. The effect of this new provocative was to double the exultant crying of the people, and the force and frenzy with which the flagellants beat themselves. Across the way an old fellow, who had until now watched the spectacle unmoved, burst out weeping.

Thursday, April 12. — To-day is the Tenth of Moharram. Everyone is in the streets. Even Abbas, the very acme of faithfulness, who works day in, day out, early and late (though never very hard), to-day refuses to toil, as he must go and join the throngs. All the shops, even of the Armenians, are closed tight. The winding processions can hardly pass, the streets are so crowded. To-day the breasts and backs are covered, the black gowns and lashes have been discarded, and in their stead appear long processions of men gowned in white, with shaven heads, and bearing unsheathed swords in their hands. As they rigorously chant the litany they raise the swords and strike their bared heads until their garments are spattered with blood.

We watch the processions from the roof, as it is hardly safe to go below. On the roofs along the way the women, forbidden on the streets to-day, have taken vantage place to gaze. The horrible sound of the chanting, the sodden intonations as the host of swords waves in the air above the mass of white heads and swishes downward, is a gigantic discord. The scene overpowers one like a heavy smoke; the spectacle, blood-spattered and dusty, swims before the eyes in a nauseating blur. Shut out the sight, close the ears to the sound, stop the nostrils to that horrible odor of bodies, sweat, blood, and dust, and even the atmosphere seems dense and heavy with tragedy. As far as we can see are these processions winding through the streets; everywhere the packed masses of white devotees, flanked by the steaming mob, crying in madness over the awful chastisement, weeping over the loss of Hosein, calling aloud his name, until it seems as though pandemonium has broken loose.

By a back street — filled, it is true, with the frenzied mob, but less infuriated than elsewhere — Crothers and I come to the Ali Gapou, where, in the great maidan of the governor’s palace, all the processions must pass sometime during the morning to be reviewed by the dignitaries of the city. Through Riza Khan, chief of the gendarmerie, a sheltered spot on the roof has been given to us.

Column after column staggers through the great gate — staggers, for they have become so wearied by their selfmutilation and loss of blood that the lines swerve and falter. The processions of the boys are the more vigorous, and several still beat their heads with such zeal that the gendarmes are forced to take their swords away from them. Relatives of others walk behind with staves to ward off the intoxicated blows, but some, crazed by the general fanaticism, evade these well-meant protectives by suddenly stooping and striking their heads with redoubled force, as if to make up for the strokes they have lost. My attention is called to one more maniacal than the rest, but as I watch he collapses and is carried away by friends.

Two men come who do not strike their heads with swords, but to show their ardor walk along with swords fastened about them that prick with every step they take, while tiny fleshhooks hang from every part of their naked bodies.

‘Let’s get out of here, or we don’t know what we shall be seeing next. I’m getting nauseated.’

The grand frenzy continues unabated until noon, but when the sun crosses the meridian it begins to die away, and the white columns disappear from the streets. Back in the garden, the shouting in the streets becomes a low murmur of weeping, and finally a peculiar hush in strange contrast to the preceding cacophony settles upon the city. Abbas returns, his bloodshot eyes gazing at me sullenly.

Friday, April 13. — The city is again quiet, but it is as though a great storm had passed. The atmosphere is still electric. The tension is evidenced by the rumors that early in the day are brought to us of mutterings against the Christians. Some fearful ones beat at our gate.

‘The mullahs are saying that the Armenians must be done away with. May we stay here, Sahibs?’

The gendarmes pace restlessly up and down the street, watching for any outbreak. But nothing happens.

The tension of the city is like that eternal dripping of water endured in the Middle Ages. I have moved about all day trying to compose my thoughts, but they are broken as, precisely at the stated hours, like a well-timed clock, the flutelike voice of the muezzin pierces the air. Everywhere I look I see the mosque. Its dome rising above the wall reflects the gleaming sunlight like a thing of flint and brass. Its blue surface in this spring air is icy, the two slender minarets like forbidding watchtowers. Where is the peace my fancy beheld spread like a net around it? Was it a mirage of the mind, reflected by the longings of a fretful spirit, or does it still exist in reality, with this unrest but the movings of an unseasoned soul?

Marden drops in to ask me over to supper. What a contrast to the atmosphere of the city is that of this pleasant missionary home! In the cool, well-stocked library Marden and I talk before supper of the work that is being carried on by the mission. Over the mantel hangs the picture of a Man. As I gaze at that saintly face and feel the divine peace radiating from it and pervading the room, I forget that once there was more blood shed over the hanging of His pictures than in all the terrible celebration of yesterday. After all, the divine presence is eternal; if the struggles of Leo the Iconoclast against the clergy were cruel as this festival of yesterday was bloody, it only means that we still are all barbarians struggling to pierce the mists of the mountain-top.

Supper is announced. The children laugh as they dabble with their milk and bread, while Marden and I talk and their mother vainly tries to quiet them. After supper they are put to bed.

‘Uncle Dubie must tell us a story,’ they demand; so Marden lets me lumber up to the nursery — like a bear in a fairies’ house.

We all sing a song, — ‘Now the day is over,’ it is, — the children say their prayers, and then they tumble under the quilts to be put to sleep by ‘Once upon a time.’ As I remain silent, they grow insistent.

‘Well, then, peace, and I will tell you a story.’

But as I say the word ‘peace’ I realize it is superfluous. For here is that brooding dove itself which with my net I had sought to catch under the mosque and in my Persian garden.