FIRE AND SWORD IN THE CAUCASUS
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RUSSIA’S NEW ROUTE TO PERSIA
THE access to Northern Persia from Europe is now within the Russian sphere of influence. When nervous politicians and journalists express fears lest Russia should obtain control over Northern Persia and suggest means whereby her progress in that direction may be interrupted, a glance at the map will supply the only possible answer. Until Russia is reduced to a state of absolute impotence she cannot be prevented from dominating Northern Persia. Her geographical position makes that inevitable. Unless England or some other Power is prepared to go to war with Russia, Northern Persia is bound to fall within her orbit of control. Nowadays, however, Russia’s position in the Middle East is so much shaken, that even if she were to advance into Persia, that would not constitute the danger for the balance of power that it would have done a few years ago. It might, therefore, seem not inexpedient to leave her a free hand in that region, and there is reason to believe that some understanding has been arrived at between England and Russia whereby the respective spheres of influence of the two Powers have been defined.
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That should lead to an Anglo-Russian entente—a consummation devoutly to be wished.
A traveller wishing to go from Europe to Teheran has the choice of two routes. There is the usual route by rail across Russia to Baku, by steamer across the Caspian to Resht, and thence on by a road built, financed, and kept up by Russia to the Persian capital. A second route is viâ Tiflis, Erivan, and Nakhitchevan to Djulfa on the Araxes, across that river, and on to Tabriz by another Russian road. Section by section the Djulfa railway has advanced, first to Alexandropol where it branches off to Kars, then to Erivan, a few months ago to Nakhitchevan, and a little later to Djulfa. The Russian road from the Persian village opposite Djulfa to Tabriz has been so constructed that a railway could be laid upon it at very short notice. A bridge across the Araxes would complete the chain, and St. Petersburg would thus be in direct railway communication with Tabriz. Such a state of things is sooner or later inevitable, but when Russia finally emerges from her troubles as a civilized and liberal Power, her dominion over Eastern peoples will be less exceptionable and more beneficial from the point of view of the general welfare of humanity than it has been hitherto.
A year ago, according to all accounts, a foreigner visiting the Russo-Persian frontier would have aroused the greatest suspicion on the part of the Russian authorities, and might indeed have been summarily expelled, causing quite an international complication. Now all that is changed, and neither G. B. nor I ever received the least molestation. But the conditions of
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travel on the Nakhitchevan railway are such as to discourage all who have once experienced them to venture again on that line. If the Government really wishes to keep out the foreigner, all it has to do is to run the new railway as it was being run when I travelled over it; that is a far more effective barrier than any number of prohibitions.
The new section does not start from Erivan, the old terminus of the line, but from Ulukhanlu, a station about eight miles from that town on the Tiflis line. By one of those delightful idiosyncrasies of Russian administrative methods, the morning train from Erivan to Tiflis reaches Ulukhanlu about an hour after the tri-weekly Nakhitchevan train has left, and the only means by which Erivan passengers can avail themselves of it, is by taking the evening train to Ulukhanlu, sleeping there, and going on the next morning to Nakhitchevan. The obvious remark which the reader will make is, Why not drive the eight miles to Ulukhanlu? The reply is equally obvious : there is no road, and the state of the country is such that it is quite impossible to get over the fields and ditches and rivers in any vehicle capable of carrying luggage. To sleep at Ulukhanlu does not seem a very formidable undertaking—to those who have not seen Ulukhanlu. The only place where one can pass the night is the station waiting-room, an apartment about twenty feet by fifteen into which a couple of hundred malodorous Asiatics are packed on the evenings preceding the departure of a train. Fortunately for ourselves we were spared this ordeal, as we started not from Erivan, but from Etchniadzin.
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The station for Etchniadzin—a great many miles from the monastery, of course, but connected with it by a road—is on the north or Tiflis side of Ulukhanlu, so that it was possible to take the Tiflis train to the latter station, and then perhaps catch the Nakhitchevan connection—it was by no means a certainty, for nothing ever is in Russia. The good monks of Etchniadzin at first told us that we should have to get up at 3 a.m. to catch the train, but on closer investigation it appeared that 6 was sufficiently early. We bade farewell to the great sanctuary, where we had enjoyed the friendly hospitality of the Armenian Church, and drove off at 7 a.m. to Etchniadzin station. A supplementary breakfast occupied the long wait for the Tiflis train, which picked us up and brought us about an hour later to Ulukhanlu junction. Here the wildest confusion prevailed. Wooden sheds, unfinished buildings and building material, the wretched waiting-room afore-mentioned, several sidings, long rows of trucks, and a large crowd of people shouting and yelling filled the scene. We had not missed the train which was still waiting. The ticket-office was a tiny wooden hovel where several dozen Asiatics of the most unsavoury description were struggling to purchase tickets. I had a regular free fight before I could reach the booking-clerk; when I had got to him he informed me that there was no first-class, only second and third. I took second with some misgivings, knowing what the seconds on the Transcaucasian were like, but was only too glad to have got out of the press of verminous Tartars. For a long time yet we had to wait on the platform before the carriages
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were opened, and when that was done there was a terrific rush for the two second-class cars, and in spite of the assistance of a porter we could not get in until all the best places were taken. I use "best" in a very relative sense, meaning merely window-seats, for I never saw such filthy cars before. They had been built at Ivry in France (oh, shades of Henry IV. and Macaulay!), but long residence in the Tzar's dominions and usage by the Tzar's subjects had made them quite Russian (Asiatic side) in every sense. They were very dirty, old, broken-down, and as uncomfortable and airless as possible. The narrow seats were covered with canvas that had once been white but was now dark yellow varied by lurid spots where nameless insects had been done to death. We were packed in as tight as herrings, a miscellaneous crowd of Tartars, Persians, Armenians, and a few Russians, all of us more or less unclean, and all very perspiring. The heat was most oppressive and the atmosphere pestilential. After some further delay the train, consisting of two second and four third-class cars, half a dozen goods-vans, and several trucks, got under weigh.
The scenery is very fine during the whole journey. The line, after traversing some vineyards and orchards, descends the Araxes valley to the south-east of Mount Ararat. This valley assumes the appearance of a continuation of the Erivan plain. It is of considerable width at first, although it becomes narrower after the first fifty miles, and ranges of mountains rise up on each side of the river. To the right is the wild chain of Zangezur, whose peaks, of many brilliant hues, assume fantastic shapes recalling
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those of the Dolomites, On the opposite side beyond the Araxes are the Sokar Dagh and Khosan Dagh mountains in Persia, less bold and picturesque in form. The valley itself is of the same glorious colours as the Erivan plain, with those same wonderful grasses, golden sands of the desert, and little green oases of vineyards and poplars. The country is even more desolate than that between Alexandropol and Erivan. The only signs of life for many miles are the rare caravans of camels. The stations are few, but they make up for their fewness by their strange names— Kamarliu, Ararat, Nurashen, Shakh-takh-ti, Bozbashi. For the most part they consist merely of a wooden shed and a log-hut. One of them is nothing more than a couple of disused railway-vans. But there is always a large crowd, composed partly of passengers, with quantities of belongings wrapped up in bits of carpet or canvas, but chiefly of loafers, who come to gaze at the strange, fiery monster. The mixture of races is very considerable, but the Tartar and Persian elements become more and more prevalent the further south we proceed. There are also numerous Armenians, a few Georgians, Turks, and Kurds, and, of course, Russians. Cossacks and other soldiers are on duty at several stations, frontier guards and mounted police, and the ubiquitous blue-clad gendarmes ; all the station-masters are Russians, and one meets a few other officials, and occasionally a commercial traveller. Tartar women also travel by train ; one lady gorgeously attired in a bright purple robe of silk, with satin shoes, and a veil so thick that she could not see at all, rode to the station on horseback,
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her steed led by a retainer; she had a look at the train, and went off. At every station we see some Moslem gentlemen on prancing horses, a few queer-shaped carts, and in one place even a public conveyance. There are a few villages along the line, even more primitive than those of the Karabagh steppe. Buffets are unknown—a strange omission in Russia—but at two stations we found small hovels where tea, wine, and mineral waters were obtainable, and in one there was even some meat of a most uninviting appearance; but the staple refreshments are eggs, huge melons, and grapes. Nowhere does the train stop less than half an hour, while at some halting-places it rests for over an hour. Consequently the journey of about eighty miles takes practically a whole day. The permanent way seems very badly laid, and of the flimsiest material, the trestle bridges, which will no doubt be replaced with stone viaducts, creak and groan and quiver most alarmingly as the train creeps across them. The whole line will have to be relaid, and every bridge rebuilt before heavy traffic and express trains can make use of it.
We travel for some distance along the bank of the river, and gaze across at the Persian shore where neither house nor man nor camel are visible. The call of the East is almost irresistible, and we long to continue our journey into the Shah's dominions. But this time it is not to be ; “ ce sera pour une autre fois” let us hope. On the Russian bank there are guard-houses and frontier-posts at fairly frequent intervals, and green-clad sentries appear on the tops of ridges above the stream. But I was told that in spite
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of these precautions there is a vast amount of smuggling. The Tartars have succeeded in getting hold of large quantities of arms in this way, not always, it is said, without the complicity of the Russian authorities. The Araxes is a broad, sluggish stream, thick with mud, and exhaling mosquitoes and malaria. Its waters might no doubt be utilized for irrigation, and a much larger area of land on both banks be cultivated, for the soil is very rich ; but want of initiative on the part of the inhabitants, neglect on that of both Governments, and a total absence of security, has hindered all attempts of this kind. On the one bank is a Government which does little and does it badly, on the other one which does nothing at all and does it worse. The heat during the day had been very trying and the dust stifling. But towards sunset a cooler air sets in, and the landscape is all lit up with an exquisite golden glow. Mount Ararat has become a small and almost insignificant peak in the far distance. The valley again broadens out, and we leave the river a few miles to our right. The Zangezur peaks, the Kavjik, and the Kuki-dagh, in particular, are the most striking features of the landscape, huge isolated blocks rising straight up out of the plain. There is our goal approaching, Nakhitchevan. From a distance it looks attractive and pleasant, a little white township built on rising ground nestling amidst trees and greenery, with its slender minarets pointing skywards. By the time we arrive it is almost night, and an indigo pall has descended over the land. We look forward to streets intersected with cool streams, and mosques with shady courts and plashing
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fountains. But what a disappointment is in store for us! There seems to be no station, for the sheds are several hundred yards away from where the train stops. The moment we put our feet out of the car, they sink deep down into the dust. The whole of the wide open space is thick with dust, such dust as I have never seen or dreamed of in my most hideous nightmares. Every vehicle or horse that moves raises clouds of it which penetrate into the innermost recesses of one’s being. As usual there are crowds of people about, wild confusion, and very few cabs ; these are promptly seized by some of the more canny travellers, and we are left cabless and forlorn. Eventually a wretched linyeika was raised—a knife-board between two pairs of wheels. Our belongings having been fastened with bits of string, we got on to it ourselves. We literally waded through dust, and everything in our bags as well as our clothes was soon white. We were driven slowly up a steep incline on a road that was no road, between high mud walls above which the ghostly forms of tall poplars stood out against the sky. Suddenly there is loud shouting ; a group of wild-looking Tartars in white skull caps and variegated costumes dash past us. We are nearly upset at the turn of the road, and cannot see four yards ahead on account of the dust and darkness. We pass through the Tartar quarter, across a bridge spanning something that may be a river or a gully, then some better-built houses, a large church, and at last the inn.
Nakhitchevan will be reserved for another chapter, but a few more words on the railway are required.
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When we were in that part of the country the train service ceased at Nakhitchevan, but the line had been continued to Djulfa on the Araxes, about 25 versts (15 miles) further on, and trains are now running the whole way. Here, for the present, the railway will have its terminus, and it will probably be a long time before the bridge across the Araxes and the line to Tabriz will be commenced. Djulfa is now a little town of a few thousand inhabitants, but it had a population of 40,000 in the XVII. century, when it was one of the most important trading centres of the Middle East. According to some writers it gave its name to the Ruga Giuffa in Venice, a little street where goods from Persia are supposed to have been stored, and it is frequently mentioned by old travellers in their accounts of journeys to Persia via Tabriz. At the time of the rivalry between Persia and Turkey, the Persian Shah Abbas wished to create a desert in the country between his own territories and those of his enemies. The people of Djulfa were ordered to emigrate en masse into the interior of Persia, and the town of New Djulfa was founded near Ispahan for their benefit. Those who did not leave with sufficient haste were thrown into the river, and Djulfa was subsequently razed to the ground. All that survives of the old city are some towers and the remains of an ancient stone bridge.
Now it is reviving. The building of the carriage road from the Persian shore opposite to Tabriz promoted traffic on this erstwhile abandoned trade route, and the completion of the railway from Tiflis will undoubtedly promote traffic still more. For the
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present, however, trade for Teheran and Eastern and Southern Persia will continue to go via Baku and Resht, as there is no carriage road from Tabriz to Teheran. But the whole commerce of the Azerbajan province (North-Western Persia) is bound to come more and more under Russian control.
The distances from Moscow to the Persian frontier (by rail) are as follows :—
|Total||3,377||„||or 2,200 miles.|
The return journey from Nakhitchevan was an even more trying experience than the outward trip. If we travelled second-class in coming, we had to go third on the way back as the seconds were full. At first we were not uncomfortable, for the bare boards were cleaner than the cushions, and the guard promised to keep us alone in our half compartment. We made friends with a pleasant young gendarme who was escorting his fiancée to Erivan and occupied the next compartment to ours. But first we lost our provisions, and insufficiently boiled eggs and unripe fruit remained our only sustenance. Then at a wayside station our car was invaded by Asiatic hordes, with their inevitable huge bundles tied up in filthy cloths that we suspected must contain the rampant germs of a dozen unspeakable Eastern diseases ; of course they came during the very hottest part of the
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day. The problem which loomed before us now was how to get back to Erivan that night. The train was due at Ulukhanlu exactly an hour after the Tiflis train had left, and there was the same impossibility of getting to Erivan in any way as there was of getting from Erivan to Ulukhanlu. Even the Etchmiadzin refuge was cut off because we should only reach the station about midnight, and one cannot drive at night in the Caucasus. But there was one opening. The last station before the junction was, Kamarliu, where we were due at 5 p.m.; an Armenian friend assured us that there we could get a carriage to convey us to Erivan in about two and a half or three hours. Unfortunately the train was an hour and a half late, and when we had descended at Kamarliu with our numerous belongings, the station-master told us that as it would be ten o'clock before we reached Erivan and the road was not considered safe after dark, no driver would convey us across country. Expostulation, bribes, and abuse being in vain, we hurried back to the train and eventually reached that cursed Ulukhanlu junction once more. The guard told us that a goods train from Tiflis was expected that night, in which we might return to Erivan.
At Ulukhanlu no One could tell us when the tovarny poiezd (goods train) was due. The supercilious young lady in the telegraph office (why are the young ladies of the telegraph always supercilious, whether it be in St. Martin’s-le-Grand or in the Araxes valley?) said it might be in at ten, or eleven, or twelve, or even later, or it might not arrive at all. The situation seemed hopeless ; a glance and a whiff at the waiting-
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room convinced us of the physical impossibility of passing the night there. Then I went out in search of forage, for we were starving. A wild rumour reached us that there was a buffet somewhere about, and at last we discovered it. It was a small wooden shed, but it was spotlessly clean; it had long tables with cloths, and an abundance of good food and wine. “I had almost forgotten that such places existed,” was G. B.'s remark on contemplating this palatial eating-house. We fed sumptuously, after which life assumed a more cheerful complexion. The wretched tovarny poiezd was still a mystery, but our friend the gendarme held out further hope; a military train from Alexandropol was expected, and if we asked nicely we might be allowed to travel in it. The station-master said nielzya (impossible), but we determined to try, and sure enough at about 10.30 in steamed the military train. I rushed down the platform and asked the colonel if he would allow us as a special favour to travel in that train to Erivan. He was most friendly and said: “There is the officers' carriage, go and fetch your things and come in.” I summoned G. B. and a porter, and we were soon comfortably installed, the officers giving up the two best places to us.
The Russian officer is a strange contrast. When one reads of his cruelty and brutality, even if only half of what is written is true, he seems to be utterly devoid of any sense of humanity. Yet when one meets him and talks to him he is often a most perfect gentleman and a charming fellow in every way.
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Even now our tribulations were not quite ended; for on reaching Erivan at midnight, as our train was not a passenger one, there were no cabs, and we had to wait a long time before a few appeared on the scene. Here we did a piece of politeness of which we afterwards repented. Seeing that our gendarme friend and his fiancée were also stranded, we asked him if the young lady would care to be driven to her house in our cab. He thanked us effusively and accepted; a few minutes later he came back and said that he had found a vehicle, but as there were several people in it, there was not room for all the luggage, so would we mind taking some of it ? We agreed, expecting a couple of bags or perhaps a small box. Instead of which first came a huge basket trunk occupying the whole of the floor of the cab ; next an even larger bundle wrapped up in a sheet ; then a couple of bulky bags, some cardboard bonnet-boxes, a sewing-machine, and finally the gendarme's own rifle. This in addition to ourselves and own things! Our somewhat ramshackle conveyance staggered under the weight. The road being very bad we could hardly get along at all and nearly broke down several times; once, much to our delight, the sewing-machine fell off, and although we stopped to pick it up, we hoped that its constitution was irretrievably injured. It was nearly 1 a.m. when we reached the Hotel d'Orient, which, after our past experiences, seemed almost like a Ritz establishment.
Table of contents
Cover and pp. 1-4 | Prefatory note | Table of contents (as in the book) | List of illustrations
“Chronological table of recent events in the Caucasus”
1. The Caucasus, its peoples, and its history | 2. Eastward ho! | 3. Batum
4. Kutais and the Georgian movement | 5. The Gurian “republic” | 6. Tiflis
7. Persons and politics in the Caucasian capital
8. Armenians, Tartars, and the Russian government
9. Baku and the Armeno-Tartar feud | 10. Bloodshed and fire in the oil city
11. The land of Ararat | 12. The heart of Armenia | 13. Russia's new route to Persia
14. Nakhitchevan and the May massacres | 15. Alexandropol and Ani
16. Over the frosty Caucasus | 17. Recent events in the Caucasus | Index
Villari, Luigi. Fire and Sword in the Caucasus by Luigi Villari author
of “Russia under the Great Shadow”, “Giovanni Segantini,”
etc. London, T. F. Unwin, 1906
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