Persia/Chapter 35

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CHAPTER XIII.

OF THE HOUSES OF THE PERSIANS.

Nothing can have a duller appearance than a Persian city. Most of the houses are built of bricks baked in the sun, and covered with a plaster made of mud and chopped straw; so that a stranger would conceive them to be wholly constructed of earth.

Mr. Morier, speaking of Ispahan, says: In forming his idea of this city, let not the reader bring it in comparison with any of the capitals of Europe. Here are no long or broad streets, no architectural beauties, and few monuments of private wealth or public munificence. At Ispahan, (and it is nearly the same in all despotic countries) the interior of houses is much better than their exterior would indicate. Indeed, where scarcely any thing of the house is seen from the street, but a dead wall, as is the case with the generality of Persian houses, there is not much room for exterior ornament. The constant succession of walls unenlivened by windows, gives a character of mystery to their dull streets, which is greatly heightened by now and then observing the women, through the small apertures made in the wall, stealing a look at the passengers below.

The entrances to the houses from the street are generally mean and low. A poor man's door is scarcely three feet in height; and this is a precautionary measure, to hinder the servants of the great from entering it on horseback, which, when any act of oppression is going on, they would make no scruple to do. But the habitation of a man in power is known by his gate, which is generally elevated in proportion to the vanity of its owner. A lofty gate is one of the insignia of royalty; such are the Allah Capi at Ispahan, and the Bab Homayan, or Sublime Porte, at Constantinople. Such an ornament to a dwelling so much attracts the public eye, that it is carefully avoided by those who fear to be accounted rich, lest it should excite the cupidity of their governors. The merchants of Ispahan, for instance, some of whom are very rich, have purposely mean entrances to their houses, whilst the interior is ornamented with great luxury.

The houses of Ispahan are one story in height, but composed of so many apartments, that even the meanest of them covers a considerable area: for the extent that we occupy in our high houses, is in Persia laid out horizontally. They are built either of earth or brick, end their uniformity in height and colour produces a very dull appearance when seen collectively.

The traveller just quoted gives a humorous enumeration of the noises characteristic of a Persian city. First, at the dawn of day, the muezzin are heard in a great variety of tones, calling the people to prayers from the tops of the mosques: these are mixed with the sounds of cow-horns, blown by the keepers of the hummums, to inform the women, who bathe before the men, that the bathe are heated and ready for their reception. The cow-horns set all the dogs in the city howling in a frightful manner. The asses of the town generally beginning to bray about the same time, are answered by all the asses in the neighhourhood: a thousand cocks then intrude their shrill voices, which, with the other subsidiary noises of persons ceiling to each other, knocking at doors, and cries of children, complete a din very unusual to the ears of a European. In the summer season, as the operations of domestic life are mostly performed in the open air, every kind of noise is heard. At night, all sleep on the tops of their houses, their beds being spread upon their terraces, without any other covering over head than the vault of heaven. The poor seldom have a skreen to keep them from the gaze of passengers; and as we generally rode out on horseback, says the traveller, at an early hour, we perceived on the tops of houses people either still in bed or just getting up, and certainly no sight was ever stranger. The women appeared to be always up the first, while the men were frequently seen lounging in bed long after the sun was risen. The universal custom of sleeping on the house-top, speaks much in favour of the climate of Persia; and indeed we found that our repose in the open air was much more refreshing than in the confinement of a room.

On entering the door of a house of any consequence, a long passage generally leads to a spacious court, which has a fountain at the farthest extremity, while the sides are bordered by canals and alleys of trees. Each house has a divan-kaneh, or an apartment for the reception of' visitors. When it is of, large dimensions, there are two fire-places adorned with paintings and window-glass; and on each side there is a closet, of which no use seems to be made.

It is difficult to form a correct notion of the extent of buildings in Persia. The women have their particular apartments; called harem-kaneh, or zenaneh; and the servants, who are frequently very numerous, also have rooms for their exclusive occupation.

The furniture of a Persian house 'is extremely simple,,when compared with ours. We find in them neither beds sumptuously decorated, nor tables and chairs of costly wood, nor chandeliers and lustres, nor those numberless articles of various forms and materials, with which European luxury decorates our apartments. In Persia, the furniture consists of a thick coarse felt which covers the floor, and over which is spread a rich Persian carpet. People in middling circumstances content themselves with the felt alone. Instead of chairs, small mattresses about a yard wide are placed on the floor round the room, and covered with chintz, silk, or cloth gold. Cushions set on end close to the wall serve to lean against.

When it is time to retire to rest, a mattress is spread upon the carpet, with a blanket or counterpane, and two pillows of down. This is all the bed used by the Persians, and they lie in it without undressing. The mattress is of velvet, and the counterpane of silk brocade, or cloth of gold or silver. Articles of this kind are not changed perhaps for a century; for these velvets and brocades never wear out, owing in part to the extreme dryness of the atmosphere.

In Persia, a native never enters a room in boots or slippers; and when a foreigner attempts any transgression of this usage, it is looked upon as the height of ill-breeding, if not quite a premeditated insult. As these people use the carpet not merely for domestic purposes, but to kneel down on when they say their prayers, it is considered in some measure sacred; and hence arises the custom of a visitor always leaving his slippers at the room-door. The term door here means whatever denotes the way of ingress to the apartment; for though, in general, there is a double door of carved or painted wood, which may be closed at pleasure, yet it is so seldom shut in the day, that we usually find a silk curtain filling the vacant space of the entrance; its light drapery being not only a cooler but a more elegant appendage than a thick heavy door. An attending servant raises the curtain at the approach of a visitor, and drops it on his having entered. That the custom of such draperies is of great antiquity, we find in various authors. Plutarch, for instance, informs us that "Alexander, snatching a spear from one of his guards and meeting Clytus as he was drawing back the door-curtain, ran him through the body."

Mr. Morier relates, that at an interview which took place between the prince-royal of Persia and the Russian governor-general of Georgia, the latter, unaccustomed to the manners of the Persians, dressed himself in full uniform, which comprises a pair of tight pantaloons and military boots. The English ambassador had previously intimated to him in a friendly manner, that it would be but a common mark of respect to the Persians, whose carpet was not only their seat but their table, to substitute for his boots the chakchour, or red cloth stockings usually worn on such occasions. The general, alleging that the only costume in which he could appear was that which he wore in the presence of his own sovereign, persevered in his full dress, and was seated, boots and all, on the prince's carpet. The prince was so incensed, that as soon as the general was gone, he ordered his master of the ceremonies to be bastinadoed almost to death.

The Persians have no candles for lighting their houses. For this purpose, they use brass cups, fixed upon rods of the same metal, which they fill with pure white tallow, having a cotton wick in the middle. Sometimes they burn scented tapers, the wax of which has been mixed up with oil of cinnamon or cloves, or some other aromatic.

The mode of warming houses is economical, but unwholesome. As wood is scarce, the Persians are strangers to the use of fireplaces and chimneys. In their stead, a sorry expedient presents itself in the shape of a large jar, called a kourcy, which is sunk in the earth, generally in the middle of the room, with its mouth on a level with the floor. This the people fill with wood, dung, or any other combustible; and when it is sufficiently charred, the mouth of the vessel is shut in with a square wooden frame, shaped like a low table. The whole is then covered with a thick wadded quilt, under which the family, ranged round, place their knees, to allow the hot vapour to insinuate itself into every fold of their clothing. When very cold, they draw the borders of the quilt up as high as their chins, and form a group something resembling our ideas of a wizard incantation. This mode of warming is very disagreeable and often dangerous, owing in the first place to the immovable position necessary to receiving the full benefit of the glowing embers; secondly, to the nauseous and often deleterious effluvia from the smoke; and thirdly, to the head-aches which are almost always the consequence. Many of the natives put the head and shoulders under the quilt at night; but if the fuel have not been previously charred to the proper height, suffocation is the usual effect, and the incautious sleepers are found dead in the morning. This singular kind of chauffoir answers a double purpose; that of preparing the frugal meal of the family, either as an oven, or to admit on its embers the pot which boils the meat or pottage. Barbarous as the usage may seem, the kourcy is not confined to the wild inhabitants of the mountains; it is found in the noblest mansions of the cities, but burning more agreeable fuel; and then the ladies sit from morning till night under the rich draperies spread over the wooden cover; awakening their slumbering senses from the soporific influence of its vapours, by occasional cups of coffee or the delightful fumes of their kalliouns.