AMUSEMENTS AND EXERCISES
Conversation is a favourite recreation of the Persians: they season it with stories, in which the fertility of their imagination is strikingly displayed; they enliven it by literary discussions; they diversify it with the recitation of the finest passages of their best poets; and they frequently prolong it, taking no note of time, which meanwhile glides swiftly. away, till the night is very far advanced.
Several grandees keep for their amusement a number of young Georgians who can sing, play on different instruments, and perform feats of tumbling and agility. Persons of inferior rank employ hired musicians and dancers. Besides these, there is a class of people called Looties, who go from house to-house, amusing their auditors with relating numberless stories, either true or fictitious, but always grossly indecent. They also perform a variety of tricks, similar to those of our jugglers and tumblers.
Though they have no theatre, the Persians are not without a species of dramatic exhibition. There are persons who recite and act passages of the Shah Nameh of Ferdousee, such as the battle between Roustam and Sohrab, and between the same hero and Isfendiar.
In summer, when the approach of night terminates the labours of the villagers, they assemble around a fountain or on the margin of a stream, spread their mats, and highly enjoy the supreme delight of breathing a fresh and pure air. To the Persian, there is no enjoyment equal to this: yet there are other amusements which enliven the village circle, and banish from it lassitude and care. Sometimes an itinerant bard charms his auditors with the recital of the loves of Medjnoun and Leilah; at others, a kisseh-kon, or story-teller, declaims the history of the heroes of Persia. Here, a dervise edifies his hearers with a delineation of the virtues, misfortunes, and miracles of Ali and his family; there, the reisi-deh, or village bailiff, relates the history of the great men of the province, and considers the motionless attitude, the fixed gaze, the stupefaction of his auditory, as the most flattering tribute to his rustic eloquence. In another place, a mollah, at once a minister of religion and a priest of the muses, repeats, with due emphasis, pieces from the Gulistan of Saadi, or the Divan of Hafiz; while a few paces distant, a buffoon, by his sallies, or a juggler by his tricks, excites the laughter and admiration of the junior classes.
When night has shrouded the earth, and its refreshing coolness has succeeded the heat of day, the villagers join in the dance, accompanied by instruments: each person frisking about and following the measure more or less closely, according as his or her ear is more or less correct. At other times, the peasants remain spectators, and leave the exercise to troops of dancers of both sexes who stroll about the country.
The exercises of the Persians consist in shooting with the bow, managing the sabre, and playing at jureed-bazee, a game very common among the military men. It is played in the following manner.
A number of men on horseback, each armed with a jureed, or dart, three cubits long, divide into two opposite troops. Two or three gallop away from their,troop, and are pursued by the like number of the other party, who throw the jureed at them while going at full speed. The person at whom the jureed is thrown, either catches it in his hand, or slipping under the horse's belly allows it to fly over him. This feat, which is by no means easy, at the rate the horse is going, they perform very expertly. The jureed comes with sufficient force to break an arm. They also amuse themselves with riding at full speed, throwing the jureed on the ground, and catching it as it rebounds.
The king’s cavalry are also trained to an exercise called the keykaj, which consists in turning about on the saddle at full speed and firing a carbine backward. This they learn from their childhood, and it gives them great confidence and dexterity on horseback. It is probably a remnant of the old Parthian custom so frequently alluded to in ancient authors; with this difference, that fire-arms are now used instead of bows and arrows.
The modern exercise of the bow is likewise performed on horseback. The horsemen gallops away with a bow and arrow in his hand, and when he has reached a certain point, he inclines either to the right hand or left, and discharges his arrow, which, to win the prize, must hit a cup fixed at the top of a pole one hundred and twenty feet high.
Another species of exercise, which seems to be less cultivated than the preceding, is thus mentioned by Kotzebue:—When the review was ended, the master of the horse came forward, standing upon a wild Arabian, and turned himself round while the horse was bounding about in every direction at full speed, not in the measured canter of our riding-schools. Sometimes he would suspend himself by either foot, while his head and arms hung down to the ground; then swinging himself on the horse, he would stand in the saddle upon both legs or one: in short, he went through a great variety of feats, the sight of which was really alarming. This man's performances certainly surpassed any thing of the kind that I had ever witnessed in my own country: and when the minister asked my opinion of them,I assured him that we had nothing equal to them in Russia. "And yet," added he, "this is not our best tumbler; the best is sick." I did not, however, give much credit to this assertion: and I afterwards learned that this man was the only performer at the king's court, and indeed superior to any in Persia.
The game of the mall is also known to the Persians, who play at it on horseback. At the extremity of the place appropriated to this exercise, there are two posts which serve for a wicket. The ball is thrown down in the middle of the place, when the players, provided with a short stick, pursue and strike it while going at a gallop, and endeavour to drive it between the two posts.
Scarcely any but people of superior rank play at these games, in which they display great skill as well in the sport itself as in riding.
In many cities of Persia, particularly at Shiraz, there are houses called zour-kaneh, where bodily exercises are practised. They may be compared with the gymnasiums of the ancients. The zour-kaneh consists of a room, the door of which is sunk two feet below the level of the soil. They have no air or light, but what is admitted at small apertures in the dome; and hence, it is unwholesome to remain long in them. A broad smooth terrace is the arena where the exercises are performed, while the spectators and musicians are stationed in a kind of boxes or rather niches.
Niebuhr, who visited these gymnasiums, gives a faithful description of their different kinds of exercises, all of which are designed to develope the physical powers and natural dexterity. The champions enter the arena stark naked, with the exception of a pair of light drawers. They begin with a short prayer and prostration, for the Musulman never engages in any thing, not even amusement, without praying. Having performed this duty, some extend themselves at full length, but without allowing the belly to touch the ground, and in this posture describe a circle with the head, yet without stirring either hands or feet, by which they are supported. Others take thick wooden clubs, about a foot and a half long, and cut into the shape of pears, place one on each shoulder, brandish them about in cadence with the music, at the same time stamping with their feet, and continuing this exercise for half an hour. These stand on their hands, with their heels in the air, and leap up by a plank set against the wall, or even without the assistance of the plank; those dance to the sound of lively music, sometimes turning round, sometimes leaning against the wall, sometimes standing on one hand, sometimes on the other. Some lie down on their backs with cushions under the head and arms, and raise in cadence heavy pieces of wood; while others, standing upright, shake their bodies in every direction, up, down, forward and backward. These postures are varied to infinity, and they are generally succeeded by wrestling. The combatants never try their strength, till they have paid each other a thousand compliments. They first clap their hands one against another, then cross them over their foreheads; they next lie down on the ground, each seeking the means of attacking his antagonist to the greatest advantage. The contest is thus prolonged till the victory is decided, and the vanquished party kisses the hand of the conqueror. When the champion has beaten all his adversaries, he solicits some donation of the spectators. If he can prove that he has overcome the most eminent champions of the great cities, he has a right to have a lion placed on his tomb.
These violent exercises cause, as may be supposed, a profuse perspiration; there are, therefore, persons always in attendance at the zour-kaneh who, for a gratuity, rub those who resort thither to practise, compressing the muscles and stretching the joints, all in cadence.
These gymnasiums, like those of antiquity, have each their gymnasiarch, who is called pehlevan hero. Superior strength, skill, and dexterity, are the qualifications for this office. The pehlevan must have vanquished all competitors in the different exercises. He is then invested with the superintendence over them, adjudges the victory, encourages emulation, keeps good order, and in eloquent harangues, in which the names of Ali and Hossein frequently occur, he reminds them of the good humour, friendship and respect, which, though rivals, they ought mutually to show to each other.
HUNTING, FIELD-SPORTS, AND HORSE-RACING.
The Persians are passionately fond of the chase; it is an exercise to which they are addicted from their youth, and in which they excel. All the people of distinction keep falcons, sparrow-hawks, and other birds of prey, for sporting. In Chardin's time, the hunting establishment of the sovereign contained eight hundred of those birds. Upon the whole, the Persians make but little use of dogs in hunting, considering them as the most impure of animals; hence they employ birds in their stead.
They have brought their hawks to a great degree of docility, particularly one class which they call the churkh, and which is trained to catch antelopes. It is hunted with in this manner:—When a herd of deer is discovered, one is separated from the rest by the dogs, and the bird, being let loose, almost immediately pounces upon it, flapping its wings over the eyes of the antelope. The animal endeavours to rid itself of the churkh, by beating its head against the ground; but as the bird is perched on the upper part of the head, this attempt is of no avail. As the antelope stops the instant the churkh pounces on it, the dogs soon come up to secure their prey. One of these birds will kill two, seldom three antelopes in a day. This manner of catching deer affords much amusement.
The churkh is reared with infinite pains and trouble. Fryer calls this bird the Muscovy hawk, and says that in his time one of them cost from one hundred to four hundred pounds. If it has not been well attended to, and taken the usual medicines, it becomes lazy, and often flies away. There are different kinds of hawks for catching partridges, quails, pigeons, and other game.
The wild ass is sometimes hunted, though rarely, on account of its very great speed. Whenever it is, horses are stationed in places where it is most likely to run; and by continually changing horses, the hunter sometimes overtakes this surprisingly fleet animal.
The Persians delight in keeping fighting rams. A more bloody or cruel contact can scarcely be witnessed, than two of these furious animals engaging each other. On these occasions, the passions of the Persians are worked up to the highest pitch; and it often happens, that a quarrel among the men succeeds a baffle between the beasts.
Near Khoi are to be seen two pillars, called kelleh minar, or pillars of skulls, which are the memorials of an extraordinary hunt of Shah Ismael, who is said to have killed in one day a multitude of wild goats, the heads and horns of which were arranged round two massive pillars of brick, where they still remain. Some, less credulous, affirm that these heads were the produce of the sport of a year, which seems much more probable; though it is allowed, that the flocks of goats and antelopes on the mountains to the northward of Khoi are more numerous than it is easy to conceive. Another singularity belonging to these pillars is, that they are thrown considerably from their perpendicular, and the next strong earthquake will most likely complete their fall.
Quails abound in some parts of Persia. This bird the Persians hunt in a very curious and successful manner. They stick two poles in their girdle, and place upon them either their outer coat or a pair of trowsers, which are intended to look at a distance like the horns of an animal. They then with a hand-net prowl about the fields; and the quail, seeing a form more like a beast than a man, permits the hunter to approach so near that he can throw his net over it. The rapidity with which the Persians catch quails in this manner, is truly astonishing. Mr. Morier says, that in one of his rambles with a gun, he met a shepherd-boy, who, laughing at the few birds he had killed, erected his horns and presently caught more birds alive than he had shot.
The horse-races of the Persians are very different from ours. The horses start at the distance of perhaps fifteen miles, and pursue a direct course to the post. No care is taken to level the ground; and as it often happens that more than twenty horses start together, there are frequent accidents. Purses of gold are given to the first, second, and third horses. They take great pains in training their horses, which they do for a much longer time than is practised in Europe.
The Persian horses never exceed fourteen or fourteen and a half hands; but upon the whole, they are taller than the Arabian. Those of the desert and country about Hillah run very small, but are full of bone and very swift. It is the practice to feed and water them only at sun-rise and sun-set, when they are cleaned. Their usual provender is barley and chopped straw; hay is a kind of food not known here. The bedding of the animal consists of his dung, after it has been carefully exposed to the drying effect of the sun during the day; it then becomes quite pulverized, and in that state is nightly spread under him. Little of it touches his body, which is covered by his clothing, a large nummud, from the ears to the tail, and bound firmly round his belly by a very long surcingle. Jut this apparel is only for cold weather; the night-clothes are of a lighter substance in the warmer season, and during the heat of the day the animal is kept entirely in the shade. At night, he is tied in the courtyard; his head being attached to the place of security by a double rope from the halter, while the hinder legs are cord]nod by cords of twisted hair, fastened to iron, rings and pegs driven into the earth. These precautions are used to prevent them from attacking and maiming each other, the whole stud generally consisting of stallions. Their keepers also sleep on their rugs among them, in case of such accidents; and sometimes, notwithstanding all their care, the animals contrive to break loose, and a combat ensues. A general neighing, screaming, kicking and snorting, soon rouse the grooms, and the scene for a while is terrible: indeed no one can conceive the sudden uproar of such a moment, who has not been in the eastern countries to hear it. They seize, bite, and kick each other with the most determined fury, and frequently cannot be separated before their heads and haunches stream with blood. Even in skirmishes between the natives, their horses take part in the fray, tearing each other with their teeth, while their masters are at close quarters on their backs.
The Turcoman breed of horses is preferable to the pure Persian race; they are of a larger size, commonly standing from fifteen to sixteen hands high; they have considerably the advantage in hone, are inexhaustible under fatigue, and their powers of speed are very great. A fine pure-blooded horse from Turcomania is worth two or three hundred toomauns.
The Mahometan religion interdicts games of chance, and the police fines those who transgress this prohibition: the Persians, nevertheless, pay but little attention to this precept. They cannot, however be charged with a particular fondness for gambling, which they never pursue to excess.
The Persians are acquainted with tennis and dice; the game of backgammon is common among them, but they know little of chess. Their cards, called kandjafeh, are of wood, ninety in number; they are very cleverly painted, and marked with eight colours. They have also a game which is very common in Turkey, by the name of mangala.
Most of these games are confined to the lowest classes of the people. The priests hold persons who play, especially if for money, in little estimation, and believe that they will suffer in a future world for these acts of impiety.