CHAPTER V. TEHERAN.
A brilliant ball-room, pretty faces, smart gowns, good music, and an excellent supper; - thus surrounded, I pass my first evening in Teheran, a pleasant contrast indeed to the preceding night of dirt, cold, and hunger.
But it was not without serious misgivings that I accepted the courteous invitation of the German Embassy. The crossing of the Kharzan had not improved the appearance of dress-clothes and shirts, to say nothing of my eyes being in the condition described by pugilists as "bunged up," my face of the hue of a boiled lobster, the effects of sun and snow.
One is struck, on entering Teheran, with the apparent cleanliness of the place as compared with other Oriental towns. The absence of heaps of refuse, cess-pools, open drains, and bad smells is remarkable to one accustomed to Eastern cities; but this was perhaps, at the time of my visit, due to the pure rarified atmosphere, the keen frosty air, of winter. Teheran in January, with its cold bracing climate, and Teheran in June, with the thermometer above ninety in the shade, are two very different things; and the town is so unhealthy in summer, that all Europeans who can afford to do so live on the hills around the capital.
The environs are not picturesque. They have been likened to those of Madrid, having the same brown calcined soil, the same absence of trees and vegetation. The city, viewed from outside the walls, is ugly and insignificant, and, on a dull day, indistinguishable at no great distance. In clear weather, however, the beehive-like dwellings and rumbling ramparts stand out in bold relief against a background of blue sky and dazzling snow-mountains, over which towers, in solitary grandeur, the peak of Mount Demavend, [A] an extinct volcano, over 20,000 feet high, the summit of which is reported by natives to be haunted. The ascent is gradual and easy, and has frequently been made by Europeans.
Teheran is divided into two parts - the old city and the new. In the former, inhabited only by natives, the streets are narrow, dark, and tortuous, leading at intervals into large squares with deep tanks of running water in the centre. The latter are characteristic of Persia, and have in summer a deliciously cool appearance, the coping of the fountain being only an inch or so in height, and the water almost flush with the ground. The new, or European quarter, is bisected by a broad tree-lined thoroughfare, aptly named the "Boulevard des Ambassadeurs," for here are the legations of England, France, and Germany. The Russian Embassy, a poor building in comparison with the others, stands in another part of the town. Hard by the English Embassy is the Hotel Prevot, kept by a Frenchman of that name, once confectioner-in-chief to his Majesty the Shah. Here we took up our quarters during our stay in the capital.
At the extremity of the Boulevard des Ambassadeurs is the "Place des Canons," so called from the old and useless cannon of various ages that surround it. The square is formed by low barn-like barracks, their whitewashed walls decorated with gaudy and rudely drawn pictures of Persian soldiers and horses. Beyond this again, and approached by an avenue of poplar trees, lit by electric light, is the palace of the Shah, with nothing to indicate the presence in town of the sovereign but a guard of ragged-looking, unkempt Persians in Russian uniform lounging about the principal gateway.
The Persian soldier is not a credit to his country. Although drilled and commanded by European officers, he is a slouching, awkward fellow, badly paid, ill fed, and not renowned for bravery. The ordinary infantry uniform consists of a dark-blue tunic and trousers with red facings, and a high astrachan busby with the brass badge of the lion and sun. To a stranger, however, the varied and grotesque costumes in which these clowns are put by their imperial master is somewhat confusing. One may see, for instance, Russian cossacks, French chasseurs, German uhlans, and Austrian cuirassiers incongruously mixed up together in the ranks on parade. His army is the Shah's favourite toy, and nothing affords the eccentric monarch so much amusement as constant change of uniform. As the latter are manufactured in and sent out from the countries they represent, the expense to the state is considerable.
The first Europeans to instruct this rabble were Frenchmen, but England, Russia, Germany, and Austria have all supplied officers and instructors within the past fifty years, without, however, any good result. Although the arsenal at Teheran is full of the latest improvements in guns and magazine rifles, these are kept locked up, and only for show, the old Brown Bess alone being used. The Cossack regiment always stationed at Teheran, ostensibly for the protection of the Shah, and officered by Russians, is the only one with any attempt at discipline or order, and is armed with the Berdan rifle.
The Teheran bazaar is, at first sight, commonplace and uninteresting. Though of enormous extent (it contains in the daytime over thirty thousand souls), it lacks the picturesque Oriental appearance of those of Cairo or Constantinople, where costly and beautiful wares are set out in tempting array before the eyes of the unwary stranger. Here they are kept in the background, and a European must remain in the place for a couple of months or so, and make friends with the merchants, before he be even permitted to see them. The position is reversed. At Stamboul the stranger is pestered and worried to buy; at Teheran one must sometimes entreat before being allowed even to inspect the contents of a silk or jewel stall. Even then, the owner will probably remain supremely indifferent as to whether the "Farangi" purchase or not. This fact is curious. It will probably disappear with the advance of civilization and Mr. Cook.