Persia/Chapter 45

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The Persians never attained a high degree of perfection in painting and sculpture. The figures at Persepolis, and in other monuments of antiquity in Fars, are extremely defective, both in regard to taste and proportions. In the structures at Kermanshah, the arts display superior excellence; but those appear to have been the work of Greek or Roman artists. At the present day, sculpture is so utterly neglected by the Persians, that it is doubtful whether there is a single statue in the whole kingdom.

In their paintings, nature and taste are always violated. They sacrifice grace and expression to brilliancy of colouring: they have some little knowledge of light and shade, but know nothing of perspective. It is no common thing in a Persian painting to see a man nearly as tall as a mountain; or in their representations of a battle, a line of guns, on which is formed a line of infantry, and over that a line of cavalry. The Persian artists are nevertheless very happy at catching a likeness, and paint portraits better than any thing else. Those who paint landscapes generally study some daub sent out from England, or perhaps from China; and these they look upon as masterpieces. They give the preference to our figures, but consider the colouring of the Chinese as much superior.

It is in the decoration of walls and ceilings, that their talents are most conspicuous. Their paintings commonly represent some subject of ancient history, such as the achievements of Roustam, the loves of Shireen and Khosru, or remarkable actions of princes of modern times. Their only merit consists in furnishing faithful likenesses of the persons whom they portray; as works of art, they are quite contemptible, merely exhibiting a confused multitude of disproportioned figures of men and horses intermingled in the most ridiculous manner.

In architecture, as well as sculpture, the ancient Persians surpassed their descendants. Such at least is the opinion we are authorized to form by the ruins of Persepolis, Shuster, and Kendjaver, and the remains of the palace of Khosru, and the ancient Ctesiphon. The principal architectural works of the present day are the domes and minarets of the mosques. The ceilings and the domes are so rich and so exquisitely finished as to excite astonishment, and it is frequently the case that more labour and expense are bestowed on the decoration of a ceiling than on all the rest of the edifice to which it belongs.

The most magnificent of the remains of antiquity in Persia, from which some inference may be drawn respecting the state of architecture in that country two or three thousand years ago, are indisputably the ruins of Persepolis. They are situated in the plain of Merdasht, one of the most fertile in Persia, to the left of the road leading from Ispahan to Shiraz. Let the reader figure to himself the side of a mountain of the hardest marble, presenting an unequal area or platform, 1200 feet in length and 1690 in depth, cut perpendicularly, and surrounded with a wall faced with marble, 4000 feet in circumference. Let the imagination place on this terrace porticoes, columns, walls, flights of steps, the whole of marble, without any apparent mixture of stone: edifices vying in dimensions, and in the majesty of their details, with the most perfect works of antiquity extant; aqueducts hewn out of the solid rock; lastly, a mountain cut perpendicularly throughout its whole length, and forming its eastern wall. Such was in past ages the general appearance of the temple or palace of Persepolis. The genius of destruction now hovers round this terrace; earthquakes have changed the face of it; the hand of man has assiduously overthrown what they had spared: the eye now discovers nothing but fragments of walls, detached door-ways; columns, partly in ruin; the ground strewed with fragments of shafts, capitals and blocks of marble; while heaps of sand and dust are daily covering more and more of these structures, whose remaining masses astonish the imagination. The mosque, the caravanserai, and the dwelling of the Persian, are decorated with their spoils; the names of the Musulman conqueror and of the European traveller are placed beside those inscriptions, the origin, signification and wedge-shaped characters of which will exercise to no purpose the sagacity of the learned. The aqueducts are become receptacles of rain-water, or the haunts of noxious animals; the camel and the mule crop the wild herbage that grows among the ruins; while the stork peacefully builds her nest on the column of the temple of the deity, or of the palace of kings.

Sufficient remains are yet let, to prove that the Persians had carried architecture to a high degree of perfection long before the Greeks. The figures which adorn the surface of all the walls, if not sculptured according to the strict rules of design and perspective, nevertheless bespeak an able and experienced hand. Their number, throughout the whole of the ruins, is estimated at about 1300.

The ruins of Persepoli are now known by several denominations, as Takhti-Djemshid, Throne of Djemshid; Kanshi-Dara, House of Dara, or Darius; Hezar soutoun, the thousand Columns; Tchehel-minar, the forty Columns. The last two of these denominations express by a precise number a considerable but undetermined number of columns. The oriental historians are not agreed respecting the founder of these magnificent structures: the most generally received opinion attributes them to Djemshid, a sovereign of the Pishdadian dynasty. The principal figure, which occurs several times on the walls, is even said to represent that great monarch; but as the ancients frequently ascribed to one man the exploits of several to form a hero or a demigod, so the Persians are accustomed to refer to some eminent Pishdadian prince the foundation of cities the origin of which is unknown. It cannot therefore be assumed as a fact, that the structures of Persepolis were erected by Djemshid. The same observation applies to the statement of the writers who attribute the colonnades to Homai, the Persian Semiramis.

As to the nature of the entire edifice, some argue from the figures on the walls that it was a temple, others a palace: for these figures sometimes represent a kind of procession, in which some have thought they discovered traces of the fire-worship; at others, a monarch seated on his throne, guards, combats, &c. These opposite opinions might perhaps be reconciled, by supposing that the platform contained both a temple and a palace.

A curious specimen of the architecture of the middle age is found at the ruinous city of Sultania, in an unfinished building, begun by Sultan Mahomed Khodabund in the 14th century, as a shrine for the remains of the caliph Ali and his son Hossein, which he intended to translate thither from their former burial-place, and thus make Sultania a point of future pilgrimage for the faithful of his own empire, as Medina had heretofore been' for Musulmans in general. The sultan, however, did not live to complete his design, and his own ashes occupied the place.

The centre of this once splendid but now mouldering edifice, is surmounted by a dome upwards of 130 feet in height. The whole interior of the building presents one uninterrupted space; but to the south is a large distinct chamber, choked up with rubbish, under the floor of which, as Sir R. Porter was informed, are three immense vaulted rooms, the entrance to which is buried under the superincumbent rubbish, and in one of which stands the tomb of the founder. The inside of the whole mosque is beautifully painted, and tiled with varied porcelain. Much gilding is yet to be seen upon the upright and transverse lines of decoration, among which it is said the whole Koran is written in ornamented characters; but it requires a Musulman's eye to find it out, in the labyrinth of arabesque patterns by which it is surrounded. The whole building was formerly inclosed within a square of 300 yards. All .the proportions and decorations of this vast structure are in the most splendid Asiatic taste; but the blue, green, and golden tiles, with which it has been coated, are rapidly disappearing; yet enough remains to give an idea of the original beauty of the whole.

In illustration of the present state of architecture in Persia, we shall subjoin a brief account of two palaces erected within these few years by the reigning sovereign.

The first of these, Takhti-Cadjar, the throne of the Cadjar, is situated two miles north-east of Teheran. If it does not display that royal magnificence which characterizes the edifices erected by the Sofis, still it cannot be denied that the situation and still more the arrangement of this summer-palace render it a truly delightful retreat.

Takhti-Cadjar, when viewed at a distance, appears to be of prodigious height: but as you approach it the ill,ion is dispelled, and what you took for stories of one and the same building, are found to be terraces raised one above another. The entrance is a simple gateway, surmounted by a pavilion: it leads into a spacious court, the middle of which is occupied by a principal alley, bordered on each side by young cypresses and poplars, and intersected at right angles in its centre by a stone canal, Here runs a stream of limpid water, which forms several well-contrived cascades. The first terrace supports an octagon building, open on all sides in piazzas, and the ceiling of which is supported by. pillars. The floor is crossed by a stream, which cones from" the top of the building, and passes along all the terraces, forming several waterfalls. This little edifice, though of rude materials and its decorations bad, is built on an excellent plan, well adapted to afford. shelter from the heat of summer. Under the building are subterraneous apartments. From this terrace you proceed to another, on which stands a pleasure-house of great extent, likewise well arranged for summer, but not on so good a plan as the preceding. The stream mentioned above passes through this house also, before which there is a square sheet of water. This terrace leads to several others, much more elevated than the first, and the platform of which is occupied by reservoirs only. At length. you reach the principal habitation, composed, like all the Persian houses, of a quadrangular court, around which is a series of halls and apartments of different dimensions, for various purposes. But the most agreeable part of the Takhti-Cadjar, is a pavilion or belvidere at the top. It is built in a simple style, but highly decorated, and commands a most delicious view. The ablest native artists have been employed to adorn this retreat with paintings, mosaic-work, and varnishing; and it is worthy of remark, that here are to be seen the portraits of several European ladies, among those of Persian females. The windows are admirably painted; the doors, of exquisite workmanship, are lined with quotations from the poets engraved upon ivory. On the walls of the other apartments, are to be seen several portraits of the sovereign and of his female favourites.

Takhti-Cadjar is built entirely of brick, and a wall of mud mixed with chopped straw encompasses this royal habitation.

The Negauristan is another royal palace, in the same direction, but only hall' a mile distant from the city. Its proximity, as well as its superior beauty, often induces the Shah to walk thither, to enjoy relaxation from the cares and ceremonies of state. The general character of the garden is like that of Takhti-Cadjar, only the grand avenue is much wider, and is terminated at the higher extremity by a view of the palace, while a temple appears here also between the spacious arcade of trees. Narrow secluded walks shaded above and enamelled with flowers below, with cuts of clear and sparkling water, silvering the ground and cooling the air, vary the scene from parts which neglect, or taste assuming graceful negligence, has left in a state of romantic wildness. The trees are all full grown and luxuriant in foliage, while their lofty stems, nearly covered by a rich underwood of roses, lilac, and other fragrant and aromatic shrubs, form the finest natural tapestry of leaves and flowers.

On my first entering this bower of fairy land, says Sir Robert Porter, I was struck with the appearance of two rose-trees full fourteen feet high, laden with thousands of flowers, in every degree of expansion, and of a bloom and delicacy of scent that imbued the whole atmosphere with exquisite perfume. Indeed, I believe that in no country of the world does the rose grow in such perfection as in Persia; in no country is it so cultivated and prized by the natives. Their gardens and courts are crowded by its plants, their rooms ornamented with vases filled with its gathered bunches, and every bath strewed with the full-blown flowers plucked from the ever-replenished stems. Even the humblest individual, who pays a piece of copper money for a few whiffs of a kallioun, feels a double enjoyment when he finds it stuck with a bud of his dear native tree. But in this delicious garden of Negauristan, the eye and the smell are not the only senses regaled by the presence of the rose. The ear is enchanted by the wild and beautiful notes of multitudes of nightingales, whose warblings seem to increase in melody and softness with the unfolding of their favourite flowers. Here, indeed, the stranger is more powerfully reminded, that he is in the genuine country of the nightingale and the rose.

At the upper end of the garden is a small and fantastically built palace, inclosed in a little paradise of sweets. The Shah often retires thither for days together at the beginning of summer, before he removes to more distant and temperate regions, and, accompanied by the females of his family, forgets awhile that life or the world have other seasons than the gay and lovely spring. This building is of light architecture, nearly circular, full of elegant apartments, brilliantly adorned with gilding, arabesques, looking-glasses, and flowers, natural and painted in every quarter. Some of the largest saloons are additionally ornamented with pictures; portraits of the Shah and his sons, of the chief personages at court, also of foreign ministers, and among the rest Sir John Malcolm, Sir Harford Jones, Sir Gore Ouseley, General Gardanne, &c. all portrayed in high costume and like one and the same original. The carpets and nummuds of these apartments are of the most delicate fabric.

But the place of greatest attraction to an oriental taste is the summer-bath. This bath-saloon, or court, is circular, with a vast basin in the centre, of pure white marble, of the same shape, and about sixty or seventy feet in diameter. This is filled with the clearest water, sparkling in the sun, for its only canopy is the vault of heaven; but rose-trees, with other pendent shrubs bearing flowers, cluster near it, and at times their waving branches throw a beautifully quivering shade over the excessive brightness of the water. Round the sides of the court are two ranges, one above another, of little chambers looking towards the bath, and furnished with every refinement of the harem. These are for the accommodation of the ladies, who accompany the Shah during his occasional sojourns at the Negauristan. The royal master frequently takes his noontide repose in one of the upper chambers which encircle the saloon of the bath; and, if he be inclined, he has only to turn his eyes to the scene below, to behold the loveliest objects of his tenderness sporting like naiads in the crystal stream, and glowing in all the bloom and brilliancy which belong to Asiatic youth. In such a bath-court, it is probable that Bathsheba was seen by the enamoured king of Israel. As he was "walking at eventide on the roof of his palace," he might undesignedly have strolled far enough to overlook the anderoon of his women, where the beautiful wife of Uriah, visiting the royal wives, might have joined them, as is often the custom of these countries, in the delights of the bath.

A brief notice of a very extraordinary natural phenomenon will scarcely be deemed an inappropriate conclusion to this chapter, inasmuch as it relates to the production of a material employed in the principal buildings of Persia.

Near the village of Shirameen, not far from the lake of Shahee, are ponds or plashes, whose indolent waters, by a slow and regular process, stagnate, concrete and petrify, and produce the beautiful transparent stone, commonly called Tabreez marble, so remarkable in most of the burial-places in Persia, and which forms a chief ornament in all the buildings of note throughout the country. These ponds, which are situated close to one another, are contained in the circumference of about half a mile, and their position is marked by confused heaps of stone which have accumulated as the excavations have increased. On approaching the spot, says Mr. Morier, the ground has a hollow sound, with a particularly dreary and calcined appearance, and when upon it, a strong mineral smell arises from the ponds. The process of petrifaction is to be traced from its first beginning to its termination. In one part the water was clear, in a second it appears thicker and stagnant, in a third quite black, and in its last stage white like hoar-frost. Indeed, a petrified pond looks like frozen water; and before the operation is quite finished, a stone slightly thrown upon it breaks the outer coating, and causes the black water underneath to exude. Where the operation is complete, a stone makes no impression, and a man may walk on it without wetting his shoes.

Wherever the petrifaction has been hewn into, the curious progress of the concretion is clearly seen, and shows itself like sheets of rough paper placed one over the other in accumulated layers. Such is the constant tendency of this water to become stone, that where it exudes from the ground in bubbles, the petrifaction assumes a globular shape, as if the bubbles of a spring, by a stroke of magic, had been arrested in their play and metamorphosed into marble. These stony bubbles, which form the most curious specimens of this extraordinary quarry, frequently contain portions of the earth through which the water has oozed. The substance thus produced is brittle, transparent, and sometimes very richly streaked with green, red, and copper-coloured veins. It admits of being cut into immense slabs, and takes a good polish.

The present royal family of Persia, whose princes do not spend large sums in building, have not carried away much of this stone; but some immense slabs, cut for Nadir Shah, and now lying neglected among innumerable fragments, show the object that he had in view. None but the king, his sons, and persons privileged by special firman, are permitted to excavate; and such is the ascendancy of pride over avarice, that the scheme of farming it to the highest bidder does not seem to have ever come within the calculation of its present possessors.