CHAPTER VII. ISPAHAN - SHIRAZ.
The seven telegraph-stations, in charge of Europeans, between Teheran and Bushire, may be called the oases of Persia to the weary traveller from Resht to the Persian Gulf. He is sure, at any of these, of a hearty welcome, a comfortable bedroom, and a well-cooked dinner from the good Samaritan in charge. The latter is generally the best of company, full of anecdote and information about the country, and, necessarily, well posted in the latest news from Europe, from the last Parliamentary debate to the winner of the Derby. These officials are usually ci-devant non-commissioned officers of Royal Engineers. Some are married, for the life is a lonely one, and three or four months often elapse without personal communication with the outer world, except on the wires. By this means, when the latter are not in public use, the telegraphist can lighten his weary hours by animated conversation with his colleague two or three hundred miles away on congenial topics - the state of the weather, rate of exchange, chances of promotion, and so on. Living, moreover, at most of the stations is good and cheap; there is plenty of sport; and if a young unmarried man only keeps clear of the attractions of the fair sex, he soon makes friends among the natives. Love intrigues are dangerous in Persia. They once led to the massacre of the whole of the Russian Legation at Teheran.
Ispahan is a city of ruins. A Persian will tell you, with pride, that it is nearly fifteen miles in circumference, but a third of this consists of heaps of stones, with merely the foundation-lines around to show that they were once palaces or more modest habitations. Chardin the traveller, writing in A.D. 1667, gives the population of Ispahan at considerably over a million, but it does not now exceed fifty thousand, including the suburb of Djulfa. The Madrassa, or College, the governor's palace, and "Chil Situn," or "Palace of the Forty Pillars," are the only buildings that still retain some traces of their former glory. Pertaining to the former is a dome of the most exquisite tile-work, which, partly broken away, discloses the mud underneath; a pair of massive gates of solid silver, beautifully carved and embossed; a large shady and well-kept garden in the centre of the Madrassa, with huge marble tanks of water, surrounded by an oblong arcade of students' rooms - sixty queer little boxes about ten feet by six, their walls covered with arabesques of great beauty. These are still to be seen - and remembered. With the exception of the "Maidan Shah," or "Square of the King" - a large open space in the centre of the city, surrounded by modern two-storied houses - the streets of Ispahan are narrow, dirty, and ill-paved, and its bazaar, which adjoins the Maidan Shah, very inferior in every way to those of Teheran or Shiraz.
The palace of "Chil Situn," or "The Forty Pillars," is like most Persian palaces - the same walled gardens with straight walks, the usual avenues of cypress trees, and the inevitable tank of stone or marble in the centre of the grounds. It is owing to the reflection of the facade of the palace in one of the latter that it has gained its name. There are in reality but twenty pillars, the forty being (with a stretch of imagination) made up by reflection in the dull and somewhat dirty pool of water at their feet. The palace itself is a tawdry, gimcrack-looking edifice, all looking-glass and vermilion and green paint in the worst possible taste. From the entrance-hall an arched doorway leads into the principal apartment, a lofty chamber about ninety feet long by fifty broad, its walls covered with large paintings representing the acts of the various Persian kings. Shah Abbas is portrayed under several conditions. In one scene he is surrounded by a band of drunken companions and dancing-girls, in costumes and positions that would hardly pass muster before our Lord Chamberlain. This room once contained the most beautiful and costly carpet in all Persia, but it has lately been sold "for the good of the State," and a dirty green drugget laid down in its place. In one of the side chambers are pictures representing ladies and gentlemen in the costume of Queen Elizabeth's time. How they got to Ispahan I was unable to discover. They are very old, and evidently by good masters.
The way back to our comfortable quarters at Djulfa lay over the Zandarood river. There are five bridges, the principal one being that of Allaverdi Khan, named after one of the generals of Shah Abbas, who superintended its construction. It is of solid stonework, and built in thirty-three arches, over which are ninety-nine smaller arches above the roadway on both sides, enclosing a covered-in pathway for foot-passengers. The roadway in the centre, thirty feet wide, is well paved with stone, and perfectly level. Every thirty yards or so are stalls for the sale of kababs, fruit, sweetmeats, and the kalyan, for a whiff from which passers-by pay a small sum. Ispahan is noted for its fruit; apricots, peaches, nectarines, cherries, mulberries, and particularly fine melons, are abundant in their season.
There is a saying in Persia, "Shiraz for wine, Yezd for women, but Ispahan for melons."