CHAPTER VIII. SHIRAZ - BUSHIRE.
"The gardens of pleasure where reddens the rose,
And the scent of the cedar is faint on the air."
Shiraz stands in a plain twenty-five miles long by twelve broad, surrounded by steep and bare limestone mountains. The latter alone recall the desert waste beyond; for the Plain of Shiraz is fertile, well cultivated, and dotted over with prosperous-looking villages and gardens. Scarcely a foot of ground is wasted by the industrious inhabitants of this happy valley, save round the shores of the Denia-el-Memek, a huge salt lake some miles distant, where the sun-baked, briny soil renders cultivation of any kind impossible.
Were it not for its surroundings - the green and smiling plains of wheat, barley, and Indian corn; the clusters of pretty sunlit villages; the long cypress-avenues; and last, but not least, the quiet shady gardens, with rose and jasmine bowers, and marble fountains which have been famous from time immemorial - Shiraz would not be what it now is, the most picturesque city in Persia.
Although over four miles in circumference, the city itself has a squalid, shabby appearance, not improved by the dilapidated ramparts of dried mud which surround it. Founded A.D. 695, Shiraz reached its zenith under Kerim Khan in the middle of the eighteenth century, since when it has slowly but steadily declined to its present condition. The buildings themselves are evidence of the apathy reigning among the Shirazis. Incessant earthquakes destroy whole streets of houses, but no one takes the trouble to rebuild them, and the population was once nearly double what it now is - 40,000.
There are six gates, five of which are gradually crumbling away. The sixth, or Ispahan Gate, is the only one with any attempt at architecture, and is crenellated and ornamented with blue and yellow tile-work. A mean, poor-looking bazaar, narrow tortuous streets, knee-deep in dust or mud, as the case may be, and squalid, filthy houses, form a striking contrast to the broad, well-kept avenues, gilded domes, and beautiful gardens which encircle the city. Shiraz has fifteen large mosques and several smaller ones, but the people are as fanatical as those of Teheran are the reverse. Gerome, who had a singular capacity for getting into mischief, entered one of these places of worship, and was caught red-handed by an old moullah in charge. Half the little Russian's life having been spent among Mohammedans, he quickly recited a few verses of the Koran in perfect Arabic, which apparently satisfied the priest, for he let him depart with his blessing. Had the trick been discovered, he would undoubtedly have been roughly treated, if not killed, for the Shirazis have an unmitigated contempt for Europeans. There are few places, too, in Asia where Jews are more persecuted than in Shiraz, although they have their own quarter, in the lowest, most poverty-stricken part of the town, and other privileges are granted them by the Government. Shortly before my visit, a whole family was tortured and put to death by a mob of infuriated Mohammedans. The latter accused them of stealing young Moslem children, and sacrificing them at their secret ceremonies. [A] Guilty or innocent of the charge, the assassins were left unpunished.
The climate of Shiraz is delicious, but dangerous. Though to a new-comer the air feels dry, pure, and exhilarating, the city is a hot-bed of disease, and has been christened the "Fever Box." Small-pox, typhus, and typhoid are never absent, and every two or three years an epidemic of cholera breaks out and carries off a fearful percentage of the inhabitants. In spring-time, during heavy rains, the plains are frequently inundated to a depth of two or three feet, and the water, stagnating and rotting under a blazing sun, produces towards nightfall a thick white mist, pregnant with miasma and the dreaded Shiraz fever which has proved fatal to so many Europeans, to say nothing of natives. Medical science is at a very low ebb in Persia; purging and bleeding are the two remedies most resorted to by the native hakim. If these fail, a dervish is called in, and writes out charms, or forms of prayer, on bits of paper, which are rolled up and swallowed like pills. Inoculation is performed by placing the patient in the same bed as another suffering from virulent small-pox. Under these circumstances, it is scarcely to be wondered at that the Shirazis die like sheep during an epidemic, and indeed at all times. Persian surgery is not much better. In cases of amputation the limb is hacked off by repeated blows of a heavy chopper. In the case of fingers or toes a razor is used, the wound being dipped into boiling oil or pitch immediately after the operation.