A Persian Peepshow


THERE are various degrees of pleasure, and most of them have ‘tags’ attached to them; when I bought the chassis for my trek from Cairo to Persia and back, the proper ‘tag’ for me was ‘as pleased as a child with a new toy.’ I had owned treble-voiced motor cars — all very secondhand — for more years than I care to recall; but now, in Cairo, which was to be my starting point, I was the proud possessor of a basso profundo — a brand-new 24-horsepower Ford lorry; and in the month before my solitary traveling companion, Captain Roy Shepheard Walwyn, was due to join me from London, I had to build the caravan body for our desert purposes and to engage a servant to accompany us. I got busy at once.

My servant hunting was a complete failure. Mohammed Saleh survived only one hectic week. Twice I caught him hitting the carburetor with a spanner, and when he mixed pepper in my breakfast porridge I had done with him, and he, incidentally, had all but done for me.

But there was ample compensation for this domestic tragedy in the fun of building the body for the lorry. Years ago in Cairo a comic little Egyptian carpenter, by name Mohammed Mohammed Omar, used to make my tables and chairs; now I asked him whether he could make a motor body, and handed him my design. He took one whole day to master what a motor body was, and another to learn the right-side-up of the design; and then suddenly light dawned and he kissed my hand fervently. ‘I am your servant,’ he exclaimed, ‘and the honor of my house is engaged.’

His house — videlicet his workshop — was a cavernous niche in a blank wall of one of the dirtiest slums in Old Cairo; but when I visited it a week later it looked like a prize fighters’ camp. There were heavyweights with hammers, welterweights with saws, middleweights with planes, lightweights with chisels; and for the bantams — the two latest additions to Mohammed’s family—the fun of boiling the gluepot over heaps of shavings. Day by day the first chapter of Genesis repeated itself. First, the double roofing; then the sprung front seat; then the spare-wheel fitting; then the petrol lockers; then the side curtains; then the lock-up cache for valuables; and on the seventh day, with divine pomposity, I said that it was good, and Mohammed and his team sang like the Sons of the Morning.

So when Roy Walwyn joined me, although we were servantless, our desert caravan, which incidentally looked rather like a hearse, — a joke which Mohammed Mohammed Omar deplored as ominous, — was ready for the road; and away we went, into the east across Sinai, up the Levant to Aleppo, over the Syrian desert to Mosul, down the Tigris to Bagdad; and two months later the road into Persia lay open before us. I cabled our safe arrival to Mohammed Mohammed Omar. His answer was perfect. ‘By the mercy of Allah, a safe return to those who love you.’


Customs and passports are always nervous ordeals, but, like punishment, must be taken smiling. We faced our Persian ordeal in the spirit of dear old Ella Wheeler Wilcox — ‘Laugh, and the world laughs with you; weep, and you weep alone.’ To our relief there was nothing in the Persian Customhouse at Kanikin to weep about. Everything was simplicity itself — no nagging inquiries about horsepower and the like; only our engine and chassis numbers, and then we were sold sixty days’ travel, at a flat rate per day, on the Persian highway. Meanwhile our Customs host had already given us three services of Persian tea, — highly spiced and sugared, and served milkless in tiny colored-glass tumblers, — and, far from showing any interest in contraband, had lapsed chattily into discourse on Persian folklore. A pair of swallows were building a nest directly over his office desk. ‘Swallows in the house,’ he said, ‘mean peace in the house.’ ‘But,’ I commented, ‘won’t they make a frightful mess of your papers?’ His answer was to produce the lid of a biscuit box bored at each corner, and, climbing on his chair, he hung it under the nest like the tray of a bird cage. ‘We Persians,’ he said bravely, ‘are great engineers. No problem defeats us.’

From the Valley of the Euphrates the road climbs like a ladder, — first a wide range of foothills and then a much steeper step, the great mountain massif of Western Persia, — and four hours after entering the land of the Shah of Shahs we were breasting the Pai Tak Pass, which in five miles climbs 4000 feet up to the Great Central Plateau. Persian roads had been described to us as awful, and we had dreaded the climb — but quite unnecessarily. The roadway, though severe, was tolerable, and to our surprise we met four road-repairing gangs at work. They are phenomena of New Persia; for before the days of the present Shah, Riza Khan, Persian roads were left to take care of themselves.

New Persia’s next phenomenon was less agreeable. Apparently the quickest ladder to promotion in the New Persian Police Force is up steps of official ledgers filled from cover to cover; and every village we passed had its uniformed Pooh-Bah, positively aching to write something — anything — about us on the rungs of his ladder. In the one hundred and thirty miles between Kanikin and Kermanshah, where we were to spend our first night, no less than twenty times did I call my father ‘Yusuf’ and my mother ‘Mariam,’ ending up fortissimo with ‘tay, wow, yay, dal, yay,‘ which, when you know it, is the Persian way of spelling ‘Tweedy.’ And then broad grins all round.

Thirty miles before Kermanshah, we experienced yet another revelation of New Persian methods. When Shah Riza gives military movement orders to small units, he economizes in transport, leaving it to the soldiers themselves to find their way to their new posts; and they calmly commandeer. Midway in a highland village we were commandeered, and, willy-nilly, were forced to embark three young warriors, accoutred like Christmas trees, who had been ordered to Kermanshah. Thanks again to Ella Wheeler Wilcox, the five of us were bosom friends in no time. When we got to our destination, they all accompanied us to the hotel, — which, of course, was called the ‘Bristol,’ — and introduced us to the proprietor as notables whom Persia should be delighted to honor. Awaiting our arrival was a servant of the British Consulate, and, after handing me an invitation to dine that night, he produced a fat turnip watch with which he invited us to synchronize. It was the cook’s watch, for in Kermanshah time is controlled from the kitchen. Thus we arrived at our host ’s house, not when the Persian Chronological Department — if there is such a thing — said it was 8 P.M., but when the cook’s watch said that he was due to serve the soup.


So far we had seen only New Persia; but, leaving Kermanshah two days later, we made a welcome contact with antiquity. Five miles from the town is the famous Tagh-i-Bustan (the Arch of the Garden), which celebrates the fame of the Sassanian monarch Chosroes II. The Arch is hewn thirty feet sheer into the granite rock face of a huge razor-backed mountain, and contains a life-size equestrian statue of the king which has been much damaged by Arab vandals, and on either side two marvelously preserved bas-reliefs. On one, the king is spearing a wild boar cowering in a clump of reeds; on the other, he appears in three stag-hunting scenes. Mounted and under an umbrella, he leaves his court for the meet; next, he pursues the stag with his pack of coursing elephants in full cry; finally, he returns satisfied but without his umbrella.

Twenty miles farther on, we reached the towering Rock of Bisitun. Carved three hundred feet from its base are the celebrated cuneiform tablets in Persian, Babylonian, and Susian, setting out the fame of Darius, the Achæmenian, who allowed the first rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. In 1847, from a brilliant comparison of the three texts, the British archæologist, Sir Henry Rawlinson, solved the cuneiform alphabet, and the tablets of Bisitun are to Babylonian and Assyrian archæology what the Rosetta stone, with its revelation of the secret of hieroglyphics, has been to Egyptology.

Our road to Hamadan was barred by Western Persia’s second line of defense, the 8700-foot-high Assadabad Pass. Halfway up we found the wreck of a touring car which had just crashed down the cliffs, and inquired solicitously regarding the driver’s fate. The answer was very Persian. ‘He is dead; but he was a foolish man, for he had paid the last installment on his car.’

This heartless comment is eloquent of New Persia’s attitude toward its newest toy, the motor. The Persian chauffeur knows nothing about his machine and drives like a son of Nimshi, with complete indifference to the road rights of other motorists. Nor are there any Persian overloading laws. So the Persian lorry proprietor has adapted a trade slogan to suit his own outlook: ‘Big profits, quick returns, and let Allah look after the bits.’ And he buys only on the hire-purchase system, leaving Allah to look after the next installment as well. He then loads his lorry. First, merchandise flush with the tailboard; then, on top, human beings as tight as asparagus in a tin; then, on the wings and running boards, as many packages as can be tied on with string; finally, on the roof, half-fare passages to any who are intrepid enough to risk life or limb in company, perhaps, with a goat or a sheep. The life of the Persian lorry is short and exciting.

That night we slept in Hamadan, the ancient Ecbatana where Ahasuerus and Esther and Haman and Mordecai lived so dramatically centuries ago. Outside the modern town stands a low mound, covering the reputed site of Ahasuerus’s Citadel, which, thanks to the liberality of Shah Riza, is shortly to be excavated; but our interest in Hamadan was domestic and not archæological. So far we had traveled servantless, but we now published in the bazaars a vacancy on our staff for an interpreterhandyman. Three candidates arrived in quick time — an Armenian with a yellow waistcoat, a Jew with a diamond ring, and ‘George.’ We took George.

That, of course, was not his name. He had been christened Mohammed Ali Khan Lotfallian, a mouthful far beyond our capacity; and at first he was quite bewildered. So I explained that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But he seemed to resent the reference to smells. Then I had a brain wave. ‘And our King is called George.’ At that he beamed all over, for at heart he was a snob, although his exterior was far from ornamental. Two days later I had to protest against his unshaven chin. ’But, sir, I cannot shave because I have lost my scissors.’ I told him that men, if they were men, used razors. He grinned. ‘I don’t. They make my teeth ache.’ As we were to learn in the next two months, George always got in the last word.

We reached Teheran two days later, and our arrival gave us our first sight of the mediæval Persia of the miniatures. We entered by the Kasvin gate, a long, graceful building faced with a perfect blend of tiles — greens, blues, browns, and yellows — and pierced in the centre by a deep towering archway, above which, tapering into the blue sky, were six slender minarets. But, once inside the town, all mediæval glory faded. Teheran, to put it politely, has been modernized. Through what used to be a rambling Oriental town, garish boulevards of ridiculous width have been carved, and in the matter of traffic control Persian ingenuity has run riot. White-gloved policemen control every road junction, and, by law, on-coming traffic signals its direction by klaxon. One hoot means ‘right’; two hoots, ‘left’; three hoots, ‘straight on’ — and the donkeys look after themselves. We copied the donkeys and survived breathlessly.

Cheek by jowl with this veneer of up-to-dateness is an unhygienic horror which appalled us. Teheran’s drinking-water supply runs unprotected along the boulevard gutters and is open to pollution of all kinds, of which the least nauseating is the washing of the household linen; and how Teheran avoids epidemics goodness knows. We took full precautions for ourselves. The British Legation has water laid on by pipe from a mountain spring and sells it from a water cart which tours the houses of a privileged clientele. We were put on the list and bought a canful daily.


A closer acquaintance with Teheran quickly demonstrated the astounding work which Shah Riza has accomplished for New Persia. He is a romantic figure. Born of yeoman stock, he started life as a gatekeeper in a foreign legation in Teheran, was conscripted into the army, and later became an officer of outstanding distinction. Finally, in 1921, with the army behind him, he organized the successful coup d’état which ousted the Kajar Dynasty and eventually placed him on the famous Peacock Throne. But he inherited an Augean stable of corruption and inefficiency. National finances were in a chaos which even Dr. Millspaugh and his American Mission had been unable to reduce to order; government had ceased in all but name; peculation was everywhere rife. Now, in his New Persia, his law runs in the farthest corners of his dominions; communications have been improved out of all knowledge; and corruption has notably decreased.

In the realm of finance he has been less successful — and for two main reasons. First, Persia has not escaped the world slump; secondly, both the Shah and his advisers were, and still are, complete amateurs in national, to say nothing of international, finance, and in their ignorance drifted into the illusion that the effect of world problems on Persia could be neutralized by strokes of a Persian pen. This illusion arose out of the Shah’s first international success — the abolition of the Capitulations by which foreigners resident in Persia enjoyed extraterritorial rights. Copying Mustapha Kemal in Turkey, he canceled them out of hand.

His financial difficulties, which have their origin outside Persia, have not proved so readily soluble by a stroke of his pen. The two main problems were currency and the balance of trade. Persian currency is on a silver basis and depreciated enormously with the world fall in the value of the metal; to combat this world fact, Shah Riza decreed official rates of exchange, and of course failed in his object. When I was in Persia, I and everybody else could and did get in the bazaars the world rate of 120 krans to the pound sterling, as against the official rate of 90.

His handling of the trade balance has been almost more fantastic. Resorting to simple arithmetic, he announced that henceforth imports would only be by government license, and that licenses would only be granted to importers who undertook to export Persian goods to an equivalent value. The scheme might have worked if Persia had had anything to export. In practice, however, this legislation has not only decreased the customs revenue disastrously, but is also slowly starving the country of essential imports which Persia itself cannot produce. The following story will explain its inconveniences. A friend of mine ordered a new gear box for his very ancient car, and in due course the Customs announced its arrival, adding that delivery would be granted on his production of receipts for Persian goods to an amount equivalent to the grossly overassessed value of the spare part. In the end he had to buy thirty dollars’ worth of unwanted carpets in the bazaars.

Speaking generally, this legislation is inspired by Soviet Russia; for, although Russia is still Persia’s traditional enemy, Soviet dare-devilry in the face of world opinion has appealed strongly to New Persia’s perfervid nationalism, which incidentally is intensely fostered by Russian propaganda. Russian newspapers and Russian wireless have readily familiarized the intelligentsia of the towns with ‘Capitalism’ and ‘Imperialism,’ and even my short experience of the Teheran press quickly revealed the slogan of New Persia — ‘Liberation from the foreign yoke.’ This type of propaganda goes to extraordinary lengths. I was told of a government inspector’s visit to a school where he asked the scholars to define ‘civilization.’ Naturally none knew what the word either meant or implied, and eventually he had to supply the answer himself. ‘Civilization,’ he said, ‘exists in a country which buys nothing from any other country.’


An excellent German air service, which has since failed through lack of Persian support, carried me the five hundred miles from Teheran to Meshed, thus saving ten days of tedious road travel. I started beautifully — for my plane, the Bulbul (Nightingale), was a twin sister of the famous Bremen which made the first east-to-west crossing of the Atlantic; and into the bargain I was a pilgrim to Meshed, the holiest Shiah town in Persia. The Shiahs are, after the Sunnis, the most important sect of Islam. They recognize as their founders Ali, Mohammed’s son-in-law, and the eleven imams (prophets) who carried on his doctrines. Since the Sefavi Shahs, the Shiah belief has been the state religion of Persia, and Meshed, where the eighth Imam Riza is buried, has been the goal of pious Shiah pilgrimage. My Persian pilot was a Shiah, and when we halted midway to refuel haphazardly from the nonchalant back of a camel, I asked him whether, in this brave new world, pilgrims now flew. He laughed. ‘Alive, no,’ he said, ‘but I generally have a coffin or two to be buried in Meshed. As a matter of fact, one was booked with you, a Karachi Shiah who died a year ago; only he must have been mislaid somewhere.’

Arrived at Meshed, I still felt myself a pilgrim, but once in the town I was anything but at home. The feast of Moharrem was imminent and the streets were full of real pilgrims, wild dark men from Afghanistan and Turkistan and the four corners of Persia, and as I walked toward the golden dome under which the Imam is buried I felt uncomfortably the cynosure of hostile fanatical eyes scowling under black beetling brows. In other days my nervousness would have been very real; for Meshed used to be a hotbed of fanaticism and a stronghold of the mullahs (priests), who, under the Kajars, were omnipotent in political as well as religious matters. But Shah Riza has changed all that. Although he has not treated religion as drastically as Mustapha Kemal, he has put the mullahs in their place and looks askance at blind fanaticism. Around the Shrine where ten years ago there sprawled an unhygienic cemetery of Shiah graves, he is building a great circus, paved — and this is the greatest testimony of his unique power in every direction — with naught else than the tombstones of the departed faithful.

But the tension of Moharrem was not the sole cause of my uneasiness in Meshed. The town lies only a few hundred easy miles from the dreaded Russian frontier, and in exterior is almost as Russian as it is Persian. The shop signs and cinema captions were in Russian, and in the streets I met more Russian blouses than Persian coats. In fact, everywhere there were signs of the enemy within the gates. Shah Riza is fully aware of all this; and not only did I see Persian troops everywhere, but morning and evening from my hotel I listened to the garrison parade, ending with the National Anthem and cheers for the Shah and his dynasty. What I heard was equally audible to everyone, Russian and Persian alike, in Meshed, and conveyed to them, as to me, the new fact that Persia is no longer a Russian pawn, but a force with the articulate will to decide its own destiny.

Waiting for me at the aerodrome were Roy and George, with the news that they had everything ready for our start to the Caspian next morning. Dawn saw us pass through another of Teheran’s twelve perfect gates, and when the sun came up we were already climbing steadily through mountains over which I had flown in the Bulbul. But at 6000 feet rain began; at 7000 we were in the clouds; and at 8000 I was perched on the bonnet wiping driving snow off the wind screen to give the unfortunate Roy some view of what the map called a road, which was actually a boulder-strewn torrent bed. Once over the Pass, the downhill was ten times more dangerous and difficult; and finally night caught us high in the mountains wondering where we should find shelter.

Eventually we reached a charcoal burners’ village. The inhabitants were very rude to George, our unwilling emissary, and, pale of face, he staggered back to the car mumbling, ‘Sir, it is not possible.’ The same thing happened at the next village, and the next and the next; and then I lost my temper. ‘ George,’ I stormed, ‘ if you dare to say “It is not possible” again, I’ll leave you behind with the charcoal burners.’ Poor George! He was frozen and hating life, but the threat worked; and from his next parley he returned with a much relieved smile. ‘Sir, it is possible, and there is a grand hotel.’ The ‘grand’ hotel was a long, dilapidated cowshed, and our suite was normally occupied by chickens. However, it was shelter from the storm. We dried over a brazier, and our insecticide powder proved lethal to the normal denizens of the place. I have often gone farther and fared worse.


Next morning it was still pouring, and, once on the Caspian flats, we found a wide river in spate with its only bridge badly breached by the floods. But the future proved less desperate on second sight. A working gang was repairing the damage under the supervision of a very pleasant German, and he informed me that, by hook or by crook, the bridge must be open by noon next day, when the Persian Governor of the Province had announced his intention of crossing on an inspection tour. ‘And,’ added my friend, ‘in Persia Governors are Governors and punishments are Persian.’ In Persia, also, workmen do work; and when, next morning, I went to ascertain progress, a bridge — at least the German said it was a bridge — was extended across the gap. It consisted of two rickety gangways balanced on a madly yawing barge anchored midway across the breach, and from the way workmen were slamming nails everywhere it looked as though our roadway would finally consist mainly of nails.

Then arrived the Persian Governor. After one look at the crazy contrivance, he turned to me with a bow. ‘The road is now open,’ he said, ‘and it is my pleasure — nay, my duty — to accord you, as a stranger, honored rights of precedence.’ (In other words: ‘ If this is going to be a funeral, it won’t be mine.’) So off we went. The first gangway tipped sharply downhill, the barge rolled like a whale, and all the nails shot into the air like rockets. But Roy drove magnificently, and to the noise of loud machine-gun fire, as the now loosened planks leaped and rattled, we struggled off the second gangway and were safe.

An hour later I realized a fervent wish of my schoolroom days. Always three lonely waters on the map of the world had attracted me irresistibly. I have bathed in African Lake Chad; now I was seeing the Caspian; and one day, Insha’ Allah (Please God), I shall sledge across Siberian Baikal. Like all large waters in flat country, the Caspian was dull. Not so its foreshore. We were in Hyrcania, where the Romans collected lions for the Games, and for four hours we labored through utter jungle, which might have been Africa. Forest trees, wall-papered with creepers, overhung our track; the villages were palisaded and the houses conically roofed as in Equatoria; the river canoes were Congo ‘dugouts.’ One thing alone was of the East. The African oils himself, the Asiatic washes; and every village had a Turkish bath, which we were told functioned once weekly.

Naturally our progress was desperately slow, and once again we were caught in unhospitable country by the falling night with no prospect of lodging, and were just resigning ourselves to our camp beds in the open when the deus ex machina appeared. A voice hailed us out of the darkness asking for a lift, and when we explained our dilemma its owner slapped his paunch loudly. ‘This night,’ he shouted, ‘you are the fortunate ones! Take me with you, and ten miles along this track I will bring you to a fine village where the headman has a fine house, and he will be our host and our night will be blessed. I am the local tax collector and he is two years in arrears! ’ After that, life became chaotic. The ‘fine’ village was a group of tumble-down shacks, and the headman’s ‘fine’ house might have belonged to Robinson Crusoe. Out jumped the tax collector, and from inside rose a commotion as though they were killing the pig. Then a sudden stillness. At last a boom from the tax collector: ‘The headman says you are very welcome.’

Poor man! I think he thought we had come to arrest him. But his hospitality was perfect. With many salaams he escorted us up two flimsy ladders on to a verandah, out of which opened the same sort of mud-walled cell in which Saint Jerome and his pet lion translated the Bible. In less than no time, however, its austerity had vanished. Carpets on the floor, two lamps, and two braziers; and George bought a pound of butter and twentyfour eggs (total cost twenty-five cents), and scrambled the lot in a saucepan. We ate the result with gusto. Then arose the problem of sleep. It was complicated, because I snore; and, if we shared a room, either Roy woke me up, and I got furious, or he had to listen wide-eyed, and he got furious. By this time we knew what to do, and now I lost the toss. So out I went on to the verandah, and, before a row of goggling villagers, I de-concertina’d my camp bed, put up my mosquito net, undressed, and retired. An hour later I stirred uneasily. Unbeknown to me, my verandah roofed the family farmyard, and its inmates had never heard British snores before. First two cows mooed, then six goats maaed, then two calves baaed, and finally two perch loads of chickens went off like alarm clocks. My night was far from blessed. Indeed, whether I was awake or asleep, I was haunted with the obsession that I was a prisoner in a zoo.

Next day we were clear of jungle and in dull rice country; and rice country is just as dull as rice puddings. So it was a positive relief to turn our backs on the Caspian for the climb back to the Central Plateau and Teheran. George expressed his relief vocally. He was yearning for the fleshpots of civilization and caroled lustily about some lady who walked like a panther and cooed like a dove. I stood it for an hour. Then, ‘George,’ I said, ‘whoever she is, she won’t look at you with a beard like that.’ Once more George won. ‘You don’t know her,’ he said. ‘She likes bearded men. Only the bearded are strong.’ And that perhaps had something to say to the lost scissors.


Back in Teheran, we planned to start for Shiraz at once, but we overlooked red tape; final departure from Teheran is by permit only. The first day we left our passports with the authorities; the second day we were told to come again; the third day, fearing our passports had been lost, we toured the desks of one ‘Pooh-Bah’ after another in a frantic search; and eventually we, and not the Persian Government, found them. The ‘Pooh-Bah’ who had been sitting on them for those three days sucked his teeth placidly. ‘Oh! Is that what you want? Of course!’ — and he stamped them all over the place and we were at last free.

Just outside Teheran lie the ruins of the city of Rhey, which, according to tradition, dates from the days of the Patriarch Seth. But invasion, fire, and earthquake have reduced it to a mere jumble of earth mounds planted with willows and fed by delicious little streams; and, as such, it has become the favorite picnic haunt of the Teherani. We visited it on a Friday, and whole families were out en bloc, each on its carpet strewed under the willows, and each boasting a family samovar for family tea drinking. And while Mother brought it to the boil, Father read or played chess, the daughters sewed, the sons played ball, and the babies rolled in and out of the water. The Persians, like the Egyptians, do their family outings whole-heartedly.

Then away into the south, through grim volcanic country, to Kum, which, after Meshed, is the holiest town in Persia, containing the Shrine of Fatima the Immaculate, the martyred sister of Meshed’s Imam Riza. Kum marks the dividing line between Persia’s steppelike north and the blank aridity of the south, and when, two days later, we reached Isfahan, we discovered, to our surprise, that it was a sheer oasis in the middle of utter desert.

Historically and picturesquely, Isfahan is by far the most interesting town in Persia. Founded by Shah Abbas in the days of Queen Elizabeth, it remained the national capital until the Kajars seized the throne and moved to Teheran. Shah Abbas was an ideal town-planner. He built a vast Midan (square), about the size of ten baseball grounds on end, as the centre of his capital, and round it concentrated the Musjid es Shah (the Shah’s mosque), the most perfect example of Persian tiling and Persian architecture in the world; the Lotfallah Mosque, another masterpiece; the great vaulted bazaars which are only surpassed by those of Shiraz; and his own Palace, from the verandahed terrace of which he used to watch his nobility playing polo in the Midan below. For polo was invented in Persia.

But Isfahan to-day is a reproach to Persia. Its monuments have been scandalously rifled and desecrated by vandals for the benefit of the antiquity markets of the West. To-day, thanks to Shah Riza, these sixteenth-century masterpieces are listed as national monuments; and I hope that those who made money out of their wanton destruction are now suffering the tortures of the damned.

The three hundred miles from Isfahan to Shiraz were in other days the terror of every traveler; the country was the playground of bandits, and every village we passed was eloquently walled and turreted for defense. But we traveled without a qualm, for Shah Riza has defeated banditry with rare skill. Shock tactics on military lines were useless against such guerrilla masters, so, instead of attacking them, he has built for the defense of that lonely desert stretch a continuous chain of police blockhouses, and always we were under welcome supervision. On our third day out we were able to show our gratitude to four policemen who had foolishly gone on patrol with empty water bottles. We slaked their thirst in a manner which not only satisfied but vastly entertained them. Instead of unpacking our containers, amid bellows of laughter we siphoned the water down their throats through an India-rubber tube. ‘All motors are devils,’ said the corporal, ‘but yours is a good devil. It has wheels instead of legs, but no cow ever gave sweeter milk.’

A day before Shiraz the desert yielded to broken country, and that night I had the sound of running waters in my ears, and a bulbul sang in a lilac bush outside. Next day we reached Persepolis. It was built by Darius and Xerxes as their Washington, the official capital where the great ceremonies of state were staged. It stood on a vast stone-faced platform looking south across the plain of Mervdasht, but its halls and palaces have suffered the scourge of centuries of earthquake and fire and foreign invasion, and little save ruin remains. Only the Porch of Xerxes has survived in anything approaching preservation, and its four towering pylons are still vividly chiseled with the famous man-faced and bearded winged bulls. On a tablet set high on one of the pylons, Xerxes has immortalized his pride in his creation: —

I am Xerxes, the Great King, the King of Kings, the King of the many-tongued countries, the King of this Great Universe.

Twenty miles south of Persepolis we broke a front spring in a pothole, and when at length we spied Shiraz through a cleft in the hills, both of us shouted in unison, ‘Thank God!’ By chance we were echoing the age-long gratitude of all travelers along the bandit-ridden stage from Isfahan; and the gate by which we entered the town was called Teng-i-Allahu-el-Akhbar (The Gate of God the Omnipotent). Shiraz, like Meshed, was very military, and our stay was punctuated with bugle blasts and the rat-tat-tat of machine-gun practice.

The charm of the town is its gardens. A Persian garden is not a flower garden, for Persia is not a flower country; instead of flowers there are trees and shrubs and ornamental water, and an unorthodox spaciousness which is quite lovely. I must describe one which we visited. A long grass-grown avenue of towering Scotch firs sloped slowly up to a wide terrace, in the centre of which, shaded by poplars, was a large hexagonal stone-faced pool of crystal-clear water; and when I looked back there were rows and rows of grafted fruit trees in full bloom sheltering under the firs, and the exquisite blend of the heavy green above with the transparent brilliance of the young blossom below made me realize to the full where Omar Khayyám got his inspiration.


Our next stage to Tabriz in the northwest was a matter of one thousand miles, and as far as Isfahan we were on our old road. There we branched northwest and were in mountainous country, where the roads were crooked and climbed; and that, after a fortnight of flat desert and interminably straight tracks, was a tremendous relief. But our exhilaration was nothing compared with George’s excitement; for our road lay through Daulatabad, where he lived, and he had invited us to lunch at his home. We had accepted with rather patronizing superiority, but, approaching Daulatabad, we soon began to wonder whether after all the boot was not on the other leg. George greeted a lovely view down a wide well-cultivated valley with a shrill shout from the rumble: ‘Welcome! You are now in the country of my family!’ A mile farther on, after passing a large village where all the inhabitants bowed like mandarins to George, — not to us, — he remarked casually, ‘That village belongs to me.’ And from then on everything was either his or his mother’s or his uncle’s or his aunt’s, and in Daulatabad itself his progress was positively royal.

Then we reached his house, which was about as large as Buckingham Palace. And for the next four hours we lived in a world of fairy tale. For our George, our interpreter-handyman, was in reality a prince in masquerade. Not that it is difficult in Persia to be a prince: every descendant of a Shah — and that is a large order, since every Shah had at least thirty wives — is automatically a prince; and George’s grandmother had been a Shah’s daughter.

His banquet room was about the size of a golf green and beautifully carpeted, and on the floor was an enormous white tablecloth covered with vast brass platters supporting pyramids of brown rice, pink rice, and yellow rice, and round them, like pawns on a chessboard, nestled smaller pyramids containing violent-tasting delicacies such as bullock’s heart, chicken’s gizzard, and cow’s heel. We disposed ourselves on the floor like self-conscious Romans with our elbows supported by sausageshaped cushions, and were given what looked like brass ping-pong rackets with which we shoveled a macédoine of bits and pieces on to our plates. I was too polite to refuse anything and amassed a panorama map of Switzerland; and all there was to wash it down was buttermilk, which I have loathed since childhood. Somehow I struggled through, but in the end I felt and looked like a Zeppelin.

I next remember our departure. Four heavily veiled forms — George’s mother and his three sisters — watched us leave from the battlements, and, leaning out of the car, I doffed my hat. George was delighted. ’I will tell them that you mean to be polite, and they will understand and be happy.’

At Hamadan we joined the road from Bagdad, and a hundred miles short of Teheran branched northwest again on the final stage to Tabriz. In other days there was no motor road; travelers from Teheran took a Caspian boat to Baku in Russia, and from there reached their destination through the Caucasus by train. But such inconvenience is intolerable to New Persia, and the old packway is being remade and has been mapped in vivid red as first class. The map maker was decidedly optimistic. In the higher ground it was a ribbon of loosely laid shingle, in the valleys it was a heavy morass, and we had to cross three rivers in roaring spate. The third revealed Persian virtuosity at its best. On the brink stood a row of semi-naked rascals who, for a fee of a dime, stepped on board as pilots and steered us, fortissimo, round the worst potholes and boulders.

Nor were our caravanserai nights lacking in incident. One village was called the home of the ‘Enemy of the Stranger.’ Neither Roy nor I slept a wink there, and next morning we had huge weals to show to George. He only laughed: ‘Haw-haw! The “Enemy” made no mistake about you, the strangers; but I, the Persian, never had a bite. I’m sure he is far cleverer than the bugs in your houses in England.’ Our next night was more subtly tragic, for it completely destroyed one of my oldest illusions. We had cooked a hen for the road ahead and my room was the larder. I was just asleep when I was awakened by a frightful crash, to see our hen disappearing into the night in the jaws of a monster Persian cat. But neither that cat nor any of the other millions of cats which we saw in Persia had the slightest resemblance to the traditional Persian cats; and I now know that the smoke-blue, long-haired aristocrats are arrant impostors without a drop of real Persian blood in their veins. The true Persian cat is a slum scavenger, the most unattractive breed of that species.

Tabriz, like Meshed, was Russian rather than Persian. Though it produced caviare at twenty cents the bucket, it was totally unproductive of any information about Kurdistan, whither we were next bound. Indeed our inquiries only caused eyebrows to arch as though we were mad or fugitives from justice. For Kurdistan is still wild Old Persia, with caravanserais like fortresses, and Kurds like walking arsenals, and roads such as I had never experienced even in Central Africa.

There had been a month’s rain, and when we were not ploughing morasses we were skidding dizzily up and down hill on butter-slides. It was weary, anxious work, and all to no purpose; for after surviving two hundred miles we reached Sakkis, the headquarters of the province, only to find that its river, which normally was a purling brook, was in swirling flood. All Sakkis bestirred itself in sympathy. A horseman tried the normal ford, but in the middle the horse was swimming. Another wellwisher collected his buffalo herd on the farther side and hitched two ropes to the car to drag it through the water like a torpedo, but luckily the ropes broke when they took the strain and not when we were in midstream. A third built a raft of packing cases, but one look was enough to dissuade us. So Sakkis became to us what Moscow was to Napoleon; and instead of joining the Bagdad road direct at Kermanshah, a matter of one hundred and fifty miles, we had to beat a retreat and go back on our tracks over old ground, a dreary, unnecessary retrogression of seven hundred miles.

At Hamadan we bade George a sad farewell. I shook him by the hand and asked him if he had learned anything. ‘Yes,’he said with a grand grin, ‘two things. To get up early in the morning like an Englishman, and to swear like an Englishman.’ Dear old George! Ave atque vale.