Persia/Chapter 39

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The Guebres are the relics of the ancient Persians,who have refused to embrace the doctrine of Mahomet, and retained the religion of Zoroaster, and the manners and customs of their ancestors, notwithstanding the lapse of ages and the revolutions of their country. In India, they are called Parsees.

The ancient differ as much from the modern Persians, in person and costume as in manners. They are short and stout, wear their beard and hair long, dress in a short vest, and cover the head with a cap of fine wool, which bears some resemblance to our hats. Their garments are of linen or woollen cloth, or stuff made of goats' hair; and they prefer that kind of brown colour which we call fillemot, to any other.

As to the women, it is easy to perceive that indigence and distress rather than nature have given them the coarse features which characterize the physiognomy of most of them; for there are some whose faces are delicate, beautiful, and intelligent. Their depressed state has also banished from their minds all fondness for dress, and disposition to coquetry. Nothing in fact is so destitute of taste, and so closely bordering on inelegance, as their costume.

Idleness is a vice unknown among the Guebres: all of them follow some occupation, and this active life preserves them from numberless vices which disgrace polished societies. Some cultivate the earth, others follow useful trades, dress skins, and make carpets, caps, and fine woollen cloths. They are strangers to the liberal arts, and despise commerce. Agriculture is in their opinion the noblest of the arts, and the most honourable of professions. This notion is instilled into them by their religion, which inculcates, that there is nothing more meritorious in the sight of God than to beget children, to bring waste land into cultivation, and to plant trees. May not this principle enable us to account for the difference between the flourishing state of Persia in ancient times, and its present situation? and is it not sufficient to justify the statements of ancient writers respecting the fertility of the soil, the population, and the wealth of that empire?

The manners of the Guebres show the influence of their way of life and occupations; they are mild and simple. Quarrels and disputes rarely disturb their tranquillity; they are adjusted by the elders, who officiate as magistrates, and are dependent on the Persian government.

The Guebres drink wine and eat all sorts of animal food, excepting that of the cow and ox, by what hand soever it may have been cooked.

They never intermarry with other nations: the wife of a Guebre must be a Guebre by birth. Their religion prohibits bigamy and divorce; yet they are allowed to take a second wife, when the first has been married nine years without having children.

The learning of their priests consists of astrology, a slight knowledge of Mahometanism, and a still slighter of their own religion, which is composed of an assemblage of absurd doctrines, superstitious practices, and ridiculous maxims. These priests are called destour; they are the Magi of the Greeks. Their high priest, who is styled destour destouran, destour of destours; resides at Atesh-gah, the principal fire-temple, situated on a mountain about 35 miles from Yezd; and he is assisted in his religious ministry by several subordinate priests, whose duty it is to keep up the sacred fire.

The Guebres carefully abstain from any explanation on the subject of the worship which they pay to fire. In ancient times, it was certainly relative; at the present day, ignorance may probably have rendered it direct, and they may adore what was originally but an emblem of the deity. When they pray they turn towards the sun, considering all prayers offered in any other position as idolatry. With them, as with the Musulmans, Friday is the day devoted to religion and rest; they hold besides particular festivals and fasts, and go on pilgrimage to the fire-temple of Yezd. Their chief festival, which is in honour of fire and light, falls in the second month in their year.



Shah Abbas I., the greatest monarch of Persia in latter times, kept two objects stedfastly in view, during the course of his long reign—to encourage commerce in his dominions, and to secure them from the inroads of the Turks. To this end, he depopulated Armenia, and removed its inhabitants into the interior of his kingdom, to Ghilan, Mazanderan, and Ispahan, where they exclusively occupied the suburb of Julfa, thus named after one of their native cities. It was, in fact, through Armenia that the Turks always entered Persia. Shah Abbas hoped to prevent their incursions, by interposing a desert between their country and his own.

The result proved the correctness of the views of that great prince. The Armenians, who had previously been husbandmen, soon distinguished themselves by their skill in commerce and the arts; and they particularly excelled in the manufacture of silks. After some time, their numerous caravans, laden with these commodities, traversed Asia, and penetrated even into Europe. A very brisk trade was established between Persia and the West. Persia exported large quantities of silk, and received in return English and Dutch cloths, brocades, Venetian mirrors, cochineal, watches, and other articles. Gold and silver, which had Been very rare in that country, began to circulate in abundance; and the Armenians, the agents of this trade, became the most opulent merchants in the world.

The Armenian possessed the qualities requisite to ensure the complete success. Insinuating, frugal, active, intelligent, he acquired, by incessant pains, attention, and industry, what he preserved by prudence, and a line of conduct very different from that of the generality of European merchants. When he set out on a long journey, he took with him a small stock of flour, biscuit, smoked meat, and dried fruit, part of which he frequently brought back with him on his return: and while he abode in cities, he took up his quarters with some of his countrymen, to save the expense of lodging. If his provisions were exhausted, he bartered pieces of jewellery for more. When he passed through places inhabited by Armenians, he was welcomed by them as a brother, and treated with hospitality: so that he could travel over a vast space at little cost, without ever swerving from his usual temperance and economy.

The state of the Armenians of Persia has been equally affected with that of its other inhabitants, by the late revolutions. These people, whose naturalization so speedily enriched the kingdom, now live in deplorable indigence, and the remnant of them is daily dwindling away. Julfa is still their principal abode; but instead of the 3400 houses which it could boast in the days of Shah Abbas, at present it can scarcely reckon 300. The vast extent of the ruins which surround it, and the remains of magnificence still apparent in the walls of some of its former houses, confirm the accounts given by Chardin and other travellers of its ancient splendour. Though the few Armenians who still remain, have had a great patron in the present prime minister, who, while he held the post of Ameen-ad-dowlah and governor of Ispahan, encouraged others to settle at Julfa, yet there is an appearance of misery about them, which indicates a want of confidence in the government under which they live.

Their principal church is a fine building, handsomely ornamented within, and, what is esteemed a great privilege in Mahometan countries, enjoys the use of a bell. Some of their other churches, for notwithstanding the smallness of their community, they still have twelve, also have bells: but others, as well as that belonging to the convent of nuns, have only a board suspended between two wooden pillars, which is beaten by a mallet to call the people to prayers.

The Armenians profess a Christianity differing but little from that of the Roman Catholics. Like the latter, they have seven sacraments; but they deny the existence of Purgatory, though they offer up prayers for the dead.

The tombs of the Armenians are generally composed of one oblong block of black stone, with an inscription, and frequently an emblematical designation of the trade or profession of the deceased sculptured upon them. Thus, if a carpenter, a saw and hammer are designed; if a tailor, his shears and measure; and if a learned man, a book and reading-board.

The persons of the present Armenians of Persia, whether male or female, possess nothing of the dignity or sweetness which mark their Persian neighbours. So lamentably has neglect quenched their spirit, and their consequent self-abasement degraded their forms and features, that they could not be known for the same race whose ancestors sat at the same board with Shah Abbas.

The costume of the men nearly resembles that generally worn by the Persians: but the women differ considerably in theirs from the fashions of the Mahometan ladies. The Armenians bind their heads with silk handkerchiefs of various colours, the ends falling loose down the back; and under this sort of head-mantle they wear another kerchief of white linen, which passes behind the ears over the chin and hangs down on the breast. When they go out, this piece of drapery is occasionally drawn up over the mouth, leaving nothing of the face to be seen but the eyes and the too often very floridly shining nose. A kind of jacket reaches nearly to the knee; it is made of different sorts of stuff, and enriched with lace and embroidery, according to the wealth of the husband. A pair of rather tight trowsers, of flowered velvet, trimmed also, with a fine shawl round the waist, completes the dress of an Armenian lady. Sometimes, however, old women and children wear the ancient national girdle, namely a broad belt ornamented with knobs and buttons, and clasped in front by an oval piece of silver of great size and weight and heavily embossed. The sheet, or chadre, with which they envelope themselves when going abroad, is white. In summer, their feet are naked; in winter, covered by a sock. They seldom adopt the walking-boot of the Persian ladies, which is yellow, of the Hessian shape, and reaches half-way up the leg. The children of both sexes dress in the same style as their parents; only with this addition, that the caps of the girls are ornamented with rows of ducats and toomauns.

Such is the description of Sir Robert Porter. Mr. Morier gives us to understand, that the piece of drapery with which the women cover the lower part of the face, passes over the nose, and is so very tightly compressed that the nose of every Armenian woman is flattened as broad as a negro's: in the house, as well as abroad, they wear this nose-band, which is never laid aside even in bed. Their features are broad and coarse, their complexions fair and ruddy, and their eyes black; but their faces in general excite little interest. They allow none of their hair to be seen, excepting a long plaited tail that hangs over the back to the ground; and on their heads they place a species of cushion, which expands at the top. See the opposite plate.

The custom of veiling themselves is observed by the Armenian females with such care, that a man marries without having ever seen the face of his bride. Hence Tournefort remarks with rather more of pleasantry than truth, that there are Armenians who would not know their own wives were they to find them in the arms of another man. "Every night," says he, "they extinguish the light before they unveil, and most of them never uncover their faces in the day-time. An Armenian, returning from a long journey, is not sure to find the same wife; he cannot tell whether she may not be dead, and whether some other woman may not have stepped into the place' of the deceased."

The religion of the Armenians is not that of the heart, but consists in the observance of ceremonies and an external show of piety: they hurry through the duties which it enjoins, as they would the most irksome task. Their priests themselves
Armenian Lady (Persia).jpg

Armenian Lady.

encourage these dispositions, by their ignorance and bigotry. With them, the forms of religion are every thing: they never view it according to its true nature, as a gift bestowed by the deity on men to sanctify in their eyes the principle of morality, and to make them happy in this life through fear of the punishments and hope of the rewards of a future existence. "Let an Armenian," says Thevenot, "confess that he has committed robbery, murder, or any other heinous offence, the confessor tells him that God is merciful: but, should he accuse himself of having eaten butter on a Wednesday, Friday, or fast-day, oh! this is a most atrocious crime, for, which nothing but the severest penance can atone."

The Armenian clergy consist of a patriarch resident at the convent of Etschmiazyn, archbishops, bishops, doctors, secular priests, and monks. The patriarch is styled Catholicos, a denomination which the Armenians have borrowed from the Greeks.



The Hindoos who are scattered over Persia, and who are engaged in mercantile pursuits, are called Banians. This appellation is a corruption of the Indian word, vanik or banik, merchant.

The Banians were the chief agents of the trade between India and Persia: they rivalled the Armenians in activity, intelligence, industry, and wealth; and at the time of Shah Abbas, their number at Ispahan amounted to fifteen thousand. Their fortunes have followed those of the other inhabitants of Persia. So long as they found a market for their merchandise and enjoyed security of property, they continued to dwell in that country, which they enriched with the gold of India: but despotism drove them from it, and few of them are now to be met with, except in the southern provinces, on the shores of the Persian Gulf.

The Banians resident in Persia have retained the manners, customs, and religion of their native country.



The Courds, who once dwelt chiefly in the mountains situated between Turkey and Persia, and gave their name to a very extensive country, are now spread over the whole of the latter kingdom, where they retain the rude manners of a pastoral race.

Most of the Courds live in tents like the Arabs, subsisting on the produce of the soil and of their flocks, and by plunder, for they are a nation of robbers. They have a particular language, which partakes more of the Persian than of the Turkish. Each of their tribes is governed by a khan, in whom the chief civil and military power is vested.

The dress of the Courds differs more in hue than shape from the ordinary Persian. Instead of the black skin cap, the Courd has one of whitish felt, pointed at the top, but varying in height. It has flaps falling over the ears, to shelter them from the mountain cold. In winter, and in the keen higher regions, an additional garment is worn, called a kadack: its form is that of a short jacket, and its fabric and colour the same as the cap. They seldom stir without a heavy pear-headed stick in their hands, and frequently are armed besides with a sword. Whether they live in villages or towns, their hearts yearn after all that belongs to the open field; the boldest spirits long for the fray and the spoil; and they gladly seize whatever plunder fortune may throw into their hands.

The women of the Courdish race are generally of a pale mahogany hue, with very fine features; their nose is usually aquiline, with eyes bright as the antelope's, and the whole countenance expressive of a frank and amiable disposition. The men have nothing of that suspicion regarding their women, which distinguishes the Turks and Persians; hence their wives and daughters walk abroad in the security of innocence, without the great veil of chadre. Their only appendage which at all resembles such a covering, is a handkerchief, hanging loose from the back of the head, which they can pull at will quite over the face, or allow it merely to shade the cheek. Their persons are enveloped in a long blue garment shaped like a shift, and opening low down the bosom, where it is partly closed with loops fastened to buttons, usually formed of pieces of money, an ornament which they affect in profusion. Their ears too are decorated with large silver rings running through strings of the same. In the cottages or at the tent-doors, these women appear without restraint, and are as ready as any peasant girl in England to pay to a stranger the simple duties of hospitality. Modest when maidens and chaste as wives, they cultivate those vigorous habits in themselves which produce an athletic race of children, and set them a fearless example. "Our boys are to be soldiers," they say, "and they must learn to bear and to dare every thing. We show them the way."

The religion of the Courds is Islamism, corrupted by ignorance and superstition; they are either Sunnites or Shiites, according as they reside in Turkey or Persia.

A small number of Courds dwell in the towns and in fortified villages, under chiefs whose services are purchased in time of war by the king of Persia.

Kerim Khan, the predecessor of Aga Mohammed Khan on the throne of Persia, sprung from the Courdish tribe of Zends. This barbarous nation boasts of having produced several other great men, among whom they reckon Sultan Saladin, who belonged to the tribe of the Ravadieh.



Gypsies are found scattered in small bands over most of the provinces of Persia, where they are called Kara-Shee, or the black race. The complexions of both sexes are indeed much darker than those of the native Persians: and their physiognomy agrees with that of most of their brethren and sisters, who wander about in various parts of Europe. Sir R. Porter fell in, near the lake of Ouroumia, with an encampment composed of two tribes, both Mahometans, but of the rival sects. They have their own mollahs or priests. He inquired if they, like the Eelauts of the country, had any marked place or district in Persia, whence they originally came. They replied—"No, nor did they know to what country they had originally belonged, but were certain it was not Persia." They lead there the same vagabond life as their brethren do with us. The men steal, make sieves, hair-ropes and other trifling articles, from the produce of which they pay a yearly tribute to the government of two toomauns per family or tent. The women, when occupied in domestic affairs, beg and tell fortunes; the latter being generally muttered over a few torn leaves from a Frangy (European) book, or the blade-bone of a sheep, and accompanied with the thread of your life, which mysterious gift consists of a piece of worsted, knotted more or less, according to the mishaps and obstacles that are to occur in the real line of the destiny to which it is attached. Though living apparently unshackled by human law, and frequently without the visible profession of any religion, the men are seldom found engaged in very atrocious acts of depredation, nor are the women accused of want of personal virtue.

The traveller is of opinion that these outcasts are descendants from the captive tribes of Israel.