A narrative of a Residence in Kurdistan
A review of the first travel guide to Kurdistan already in 1820
A review of the first travel guide to Kurdistan already in 1820
Claudius James Rich was for twelve years a resident of the British East India Company in Baghdad in early 19th century. Apart from his public duties, he used the leisure days of his stay in the Pashalik of Baghdad in collecting historical, geographical and statistical data of the Pashalik. The narration of his residence in Kurdistan was published posthumously in two volumes in 1836 in London under the title “Narrative of a Residence in Koordistan, and the site of Ancient Nineveh; with journal of a voyage down the Tigris to Baghdad; and an account of a visit to Shiraz and Persepolis”.
Mr. Rich started his journey in Kurdistan in 1820. He then passed the border with Persia and went as far as Shiraz to visit the ruins of Persepolis in the city’s vicinities. While in Shiraz, he was struck by cholera that had appeared in the city. He fell a victim to the disease and passed away 5th of October 1821.
Before Rich, one can hardly find any Western relation with thorough description about the Kurds and their country. Kurdistan was almost unknown to Europeans; although there were scattered notices in the journals of travelers who passed casually and hastily through different parts of it. Rich’s narrative placed the geography of Kurdistan and the manners of the inhabitants in a new and strong light. In April 16, 1820, Rich and his party left Baghdad, trav- elling in a northerly direction on the river Diala and continued along its banks as far as the pass of Hamrin hills. He gives an account of his journey to Kifri and Derbendi Bazian and the mountains in the area. His description gives an idea how untouched and different the Kurdish nature in this part of the country was at that time:
“Behind Derbent rises the mountain of Peer Omar Goodron (by this he probably means Mount Pire Megroon) forming of a higher range, to all appearance bare and rocky. Goodroon is the highest mountain in these parts and is said to contain a glacier, which supplies all Koordistan with snow or rather ice; the store of which is inexhaustible and never melts.”
As far as I know there are no glaciers remaining in Pire Megroon anymore, but Rich’s relation of the geology of the area indicates another atmosphere than the one generally experienced in Kurdistan.
Rich gives also an account of Sulemani in 1820 at the time when it constituted the capital of Kurdish Baban Principality: “The ordinary houses in Sulimania are mere mude hovels … they are perfectly exposed, but the people do not seem to regard this, the women going about with the men and performing their domestic labours without any veil. This town contains five khans, two good mosques and a very fine bath. The population of Sulimania is estimated by the best judges among the Koords at ten thousand souls, including officers of government and retainers of princes residing here.”
On the manner of people of Sulemani rich narrates that: “the Koords are the only orientals I ever knew who sit up late at night and rise late in the morning. Few gentlemen in Sulimania go to bed till two or three o’clock or show themselves abroad till nine or ten in the forenoon. Their chief visiting time is at night. When it grows dark they begin going about to each other’s houses, where they amuse themselves with conversation, smoking and music. They will pay two or three visits of this kind in the course of a night. About an hour before sunset also, a kind of club or assembly is held before the house of the Masraf … Friends meet and chat on various subjects; arms or horses are displayed; and sometimes matches are made of wrestling and partridge fights. The Koords appear to me to be a remarkably cheerful social people… they are neither envious of one another, nor have I ever heard a Koord speak an ill-natured word of another; however different they may be in party or interest.”
August 13, 1820, on his way to Persia, Rich enters Penjwin and stays there for a while, describing Penjwin as “a large village, beautifully situated in glen in the hills, on the south side of the plain of the Kizzeljee river… The peasantry of Penjween look well and comfortable which is rare in these parts. Their houses are separated by wattled enclosures, and have a neater appearance than I have seen in other parts of Koordistan.”
He then arrives to Sine (Sanandaj), the capital of the Kurdish Principality of Erdelan on the Persian side. Rich gives us a demographic as well as historical description of Sine pointing out that the new town was built by an ancestor of Amanullah Khan, the prince of Sine at the time. On the inhabitants of Sine, he relates that “there are hundred families of Jews, and fifty houses of the Chaldean Catholic rite, dependent on the Patriarch of Diarbekir, and all are tradesmen or merchants in a very small way. The Mahometan inhabitants of the town are Sunnis of Shafei sect. The Vali (pointing the governor, prince Amanullah Khan) and his family affect to be Shiyyahs in order to please the King of Persia.”
This Amanullah Khan was later succeeded by Khosro Khan; whose consort Mastoura of Erdelan compiled a comprehensive history of the ruling dynasty of Erdelan principality. Mastoura was the first Kurdish historiographer and probably even the first female scholar in Middle East who compiled historical material of significance.
After a long stay in Persia, Rich returns to Kurdistan and this time travels toward Erbil via Sulemani and Koya. Towards the end of October 1820 he approaches Erbil: “On the following day we came in sight of Arbil …, soon after which I took a sketch of it, the view of the high flat mount, probably the burial-place of the Arsacidae, crowned by a castle, and backed by the Carduchian mountains, being really impressive.” Giving a historical account of Erbil, Rich relates that “Arbil was once evidently very large, probably about the size of modern Bagdad. It is situated at the foot of the artificial mount, principally on the south side, and contains a bath, caravanserais, and bazaars. Some portions of the town is situated on the mount, or what is called the Castle.”
Rich later on travels to Mosul and neighboring Christian villages and townships and finally he takes the Tigris route to Baghdad by a raft or Keleck. Rich makes a second journey to Persia at the time of the irruption of Cholera in that country. He manages to pay a visit to the site of ancient Persian kings in Persepolis. But Shiraz is the end of his journey, though he still hopes to escape from the dreadful irruption of cholera in Shiraz: “I hope to take Shapoor on my way to Bushire (today’s Bushehr), for which I shall set out in a few days, please God.” He intended to take a boat from Bushehr to escape the disease, but his will did not come true. Rich died of the Cholera infection on the 5th October 1821, at the early age of thirty-four years.
Rich provided the Europeans with the best description of southern Kurdistan and inspired many others to discover the country. His work contains collection of fragments of routes, of observations and bearings and distances throughout his routes. His book was the first travel guide for Europeans who were about to travel in Kurdistan. His relations of the geography, history and the contemporary political structure of southern Kurdistan is a valuable source even for Kurds today, who did not have any tradition of historiography.