Read CHAPTER III - THROUGH THE CAUCASUS, PERSIA, AND MESOPOTAMIA (1885-6) of From Pole to Pole A Book for Young People , free online book, by Sven Anders Hedin, on


On August 15, 1885, I went by steamer to St. Petersburg.  There I entered a train which ran south-eastwards through Moscow to Rostov, at the mouth of the Don, and thence on to the Caucasus; and for four days I sat in my compartment, letting my eyes rove over the immense steppes of Russia.  Hour after hour the train rolled along.  A shrill whistle startles the air when we come to a station, and equally sharply a bell rings once, twice, and thrice when our line of carriages begins to move on again over the flat country.  In rapid course we fly past innumerable villages, in which usually a whitewashed church lifts up its tower with a green bulb-shaped roof.  Homesteads and roads, rivers and brooks, fruitful fields and haystacks, windmills with long revolving arms, carts and wayfarers, all vanish behind us, and twilight and night four times envelop huge Russia in darkness.

At last the mountains of the Caucasus appear in front of us, rising up to the clouds like a light-blue wall.  The whole range seems so light and impalpable that we can scarcely believe that the very next day we shall be driving up its valleys and over heights which are more than 16,000 feet above the sea-level.  The distance is still great, but the white summit of Mount Kazbek shines out amidst the blue.

At length we arrive at Vladikavkas, the end of the railway, and begin our journey of 130 miles over the mountains.  My travelling companions hired a carriage, and at every stage we had to change horses.  I sat on the box, and at the turns I had to hold on lest I should be thrown off down into the abyss at the side of the road.

We constantly meet peasants with asses, or shepherds with flocks of goats and sheep.  Now comes a group of Caucasian horsemen in black sheepskin coats and armed to the teeth; then the post-cart, packed full of travellers; then again a load of hay drawn by oxen or grey buffaloes.

The higher we ascend, the grander and wilder the mountains become.  Sometimes the road is blasted out of perpendicular walls of rock, and heavy masses of mountain hang like a vault above us.  At dangerous slopes, where the road is exposed to avalanches in spring, it runs through tunnels of masonry.  When an avalanche dashes furiously down the mountain it leaps over these tunnels and continues down on the other side without doing the road any harm.

We have now reached the highest point of the road, and after a journey of twenty-eight hours we arrive at Tiflis, the largest town in Caucasia, and one of the most curious towns I have seen.  The houses hang like clusters of swallows’ nests on the slopes on both sides of the Kura River, and the narrow, dirty streets are crowded with the fifteen different tribes who dwell in Caucasia.

While the road leading to Tiflis over the mountains is grand, a more dreary country can hardly be conceived than that crossed by the railway between Tiflis and Baku:  endless steppes and deserts, greyish-yellow and desolate, with occasionally a caravan of slowly moving camels.  A violent storm arose as we drew near the sea.  Dust rose up in clouds and penetrated through all the chinks of the compartment, the air became thick, heavy, and suffocating, and outside nothing could be seen but a universal grey veil of impenetrable mist.  But the worst was that the storm struck the train on the side, and at last the engine was scarcely able to draw the carriages along.  Twice we had to stop, and on an ascent the train even rolled back a little.

However, in spite of all, we at last reached the shore of the Caspian Sea, where clear green billows rose as high as a house and thundered on the strand.  At seven o’clock in the evening we were at Baku, and drove ten miles to Balakhani, where I remained seven months.

I remember that time as if it were yesterday.  I struggled hopelessly with the Russian grammar, but made great progress in Persian, and learned to talk the Tatar language without the least difficulty.  Meanwhile I indulged in plans for a great journey to Persia.  How it was to be managed I did not know, for my means were not large.  But I made up my mind that through Persia I would travel, even if I went as a hired servant and drove other people’s asses along the roads.

The whole country round Baku is impregnated with petroleum, which collects in vast quantities in cavities in the earth.  To reach the oil a tower of wood 50 to 65 feet high is erected, and a line with a powerful borer runs over a block at the top.  A steam-engine keeps the line in constant motion, perpendicularly up and down, and the borer eats deeper and deeper into the earth.  The first section of piping which is forced down into the bore-hole is about 40 inches in diameter.  When this can go no farther the boring is continued with a smaller borer, and a narrower tube is thrust down within the first.  And so the work is continued until the petroleum level is reached and the valuable oil can be pumped up.

But it often happens that the oil is forced up through the pipe by the pressure of gas in the bowels of the earth, and when I was at Balakhani we often used to go out and look at this singular display.  With a deafening roar, a thick greenish-brown jet shot up out of the ground and right through the derrick (Plate III.).  It was visible from a long distance, for it might be as much as 200 feet high, and the oil was collected within dams thrown up around.  If there was a strong wind the jet would be dispersed, and a dark mist would lie like a veil over the ground to leeward.  In Balakhani one can hardly look out of the door without one’s clothes being smeared with oil, and the odour can be perceived a dozen miles away.  Not a blade of grass grows in this neighbourhood; all that one sees is a forest of derricks.  Lines of pipes convey the oil from the borings to the “Black Town” of Baku, which is full of oil refineries (over 170 in all) emitting vast volumes of smoke, black and greasy buildings, and pools of oil refuse.  When the crude natural oil is purified, it is distributed far and wide in special railway trucks like cisterns, and in special tank steamers, into which the petroleum is pumped, and which carry nothing else.

In the Baku oil-fields there are now (1910) no fewer than 4094 bores, of which 2600 are productive.  Last year they yielded about eight million tons of raw petroleum, some of them having sometimes given nearly 300 tons in twenty-four hours by pumping, and 2000 when the oil shot out of the ground itself.  The value on the spot is now about 20 shillings a ton.  The deepest boring is sunk 2800 feet into the earth.

Late one evening in February, 1886, the dreadful cry of “Fire!  Fire!” was heard outside our house.  The very thought of fire is enough to raise terror and consternation throughout this oil-soaked district.  We hurry out and find the whole neighbourhood illuminated with a weird, whitish light, as bright as day.  The derricks stand out like ghosts against the light background.  We make for the place and feel the heat increasing.  Bright white flames shoot up fantastically into the air, sending off black clouds of smoke.  One derrick is in flames and beside it a pool of raw petroleum is burning.  A Tatar had gone to the derrick with a lantern to fetch a tool.  He lost his lantern, and only just escaped with his life before the oil-soaked derrick took fire.

It is vain to fight against such a fire.  The fire-engine came, and all the hoses were at work, but what was the use when the jets of water were turned to steam before they reached the burning surface of the oil pool?  The chief thing is to keep the fire from spreading, and if that is done, the oil is left to bubble and burn until not a drop is left.


It was an adventurous journey that I commenced from Baku on April 6, 1886.  I had a travelling companion, a young Tatar, Baki Khanoff, about L30 in my pocket, two changes of clothes and underclothing, a warm coat, and a rug all, except what I wore, packed in a Tatar bag.  In a small leather bag suspended by a strap from the shoulder I kept a revolver, a sketch-book, a note-book, and two maps of Persia.  Baki Khanoff had a large cloak, a silver-mounted gun, and a dagger.  Half the money we had was sewed up in belts round our waists.  The equipment was therefore small for a journey of 2000 miles, through Persia and back.

For two days and a night we were compelled by a violent storm on the Caspian Sea to wait on board before the vessel could take us to the Persian coast.  As soon as we landed we were surrounded by Persians, who, with loud voices and lively gestures, extolled the good qualities of their horses.  After a cursory examination we chose two small, squat steeds, secured our baggage behind the saddles, mounted, and rode through dark woods and fragrant olive groves higher and higher towards the Elburz Mountains.

We passed a night up on the heights in a village called Karzan.  When we set out next day it was snowing fast, and had snowed so thickly all night that all the country was buried under deep drifts.  We muffled ourselves up as well as we could, mounted our horses, and rode on, accompanied by their owner.

The snow fell silently in large, whirling flakes.  Down in the valley it melted off our clothes, but higher up on the open, windy heights it froze to a cake of ice, and before long our clothes on the windward side were converted into a thick cuirass which prevented every movement.  At last we were practically frozen fast in the saddle.  Our hands were benumbed, the reins fell on the horses’ necks, our eyes were sore from the snowstorm which dashed straight into our faces.  I was so stiff that I lost all feeling in my arms and legs, tumbled off my horse, and went on foot, but I had to hold on to the animal’s tail lest I should lose my way in the blinding snow.

We could not go on long in this way, for we could not see where we were going, so we decided to turn in at the first village on the road.  Some squalid huts soon came in sight through the snow.  Outside one of them we tied up our horses, shook off the snow, and entered a dark cabin with an earthen floor.  Here a large fire was lighted, and we sat down beside it in a close circle with some other travellers who arrived at the same time.  The place had a low roof and was small, damp, and full of vermin, but at any rate it was pleasant to warm ourselves and dry our clothes.  When Baki Khanoff had made tea, cooked eggs, and brought out bread and salt, it was almost cosy.  The company consisted of four Tatars, two Persians, and myself, and the seven of us had to share the space for the night.  When the fire died down the close heat was succeeded by a damp coolness, but at twenty-one years of age one is not particular.

Eventually we reached Teheran, the capital of Persia, safe and sound, and there I stayed a short time as the guest of a fellow-countryman.  When I continued my journey southwards I had to travel alone, for Baki Khanoff had caught fever and had to turn back to Baku.

Our journey to Teheran had been very expensive, but my good countryman replenished my purse, so that I had again about L30 sewed up in my waistbelt when I started off once more on April 27.  The road is divided by stations where horses are changed and you can pass the night if you wish.  A man accompanies you on every stage, and for a small silver coin you can buy eggs and bread, a chicken, melons and grapes.

Sometimes the stable-boy who accompanies a traveller takes the best horse for himself and gives the other to the traveller.  This happened to me on the road between the town of Kashan and the mountain village of Kuhrud.  As soon as I became aware of the trick, I exchanged horses with my attendant, who dropped behind after some hours’ journey, for his sorry jade could go no farther.  For four hours I rode along narrow paths in complete darkness.  I feared that I had gone astray, and, tired and sleepy, I was on the point of coming to a halt, intending to tie the horse to a tree and roll myself up in my rug for the night, when I saw a light gleam through the darkness.  “Hurrah! that is the station-house of Kuhrud.”  But when I came nearer I perceived that the light came from a nomad’s tent.  I rode up and called out to the people.  No one answered, but I could see by the shadows on the cloth that the tent was inhabited.  After shouting again without receiving an answer, I tied up the horse, lifted up the tent-flap, and asked my way to Kuhrud.  “Cannot one sleep in peace in the middle of the night?” came a voice from inside.  “I am a European and you must show me the way,” I returned sharply.  Then a man came out; he was as silent as a dummy, but I understood that I was to follow him, leading my horse by the rein.  He wound about in the dark among bushes, and when he had led me to a brook a foot deep, skirted on both sides by thick olive woods, he pointed uphill and vanished in the darkness without saying a word.  I mounted again and let the horse take care of himself, and two hours later he stopped all right before the station-house.  It was pleasant to have reached my journey’s end at last, for I had been riding for fifteen hours, and the evening meal tasted better than usual.  Then I lay down full length on the floor, with the saddle for a pillow and the rug over me.  I made use of no other bed on this journey.

A few days more on the great caravan road and we rode into the old capital of Persia, Ispahan, with its many memorials of departed greatness, its mosques with tall, graceful minarets, and its bazaars full of the products of Persian handicrafts and industries carpets, silken materials, embroideries, shawls, lacquered work, water-pipes, porcelain, and bronze vessels representing peacocks and elephants.

Farther south I came to Persepolis, so famous in ancient times, where the great Persian kings, Xerxes and Darius, had their palaces.  The country round about is now inhabited only by some poor shepherds and their flocks, but fine remains of the palaces still stand, in spite of the 2400 years which have passed over them.  Not far from Persepolis lies one of the most noted towns of Persia, Shiraz, abounding in rose gardens and country-houses, spring water and canals.  The town is famous above all, because here the immortal poets of Persia sang their most beautiful songs.

When we came near the Persian Gulf the climate became hotter, and one day the temperature was 102 deg. in the room where I was staying.  People therefore travel in the night.  On the last stage the groom, who was an old man, could not keep up with me, for I rode fast; so I went on all night alone, keeping my revolver handy in case robbers showed themselves.  I was glad when the sun rose, lighting up the smooth mirror of the Persian Gulf, and on May 22 I arrived at the town of Bushire, on its eastern coast.

The Persian Gulf is an inlet of the Indian Ocean, and is enclosed between Persia and Arabia.  The island of Bahrein on the Arabian coast is well known; it is under British protection, and here in summer and autumn pearl fishing is carried on, the annual export of these beautiful precious stones being now about L900,000.  As many as a thousand boats, with crews of thirty thousand men, are engaged in the industry.  The owner of each boat engages a number of divers, who work for him, and he sells his pearls to the Indian markets.  The diver seldom goes down to a greater depth than seven fathoms, and remains at most fifty seconds under water.  He has wax in his ears, his nose is closed by a clip, and with a stone at his feet and a rope round his waist he jumps overboard and disappears into the depths.  When he reaches the bottom of the sea he gathers into a basket tied in front of him as many shells as he can get hold of, and at a given signal is hauled up by the rope to the surface again.  Then the owner of the boat opens the shells and takes out the costly pearls, which are of different values, according to their size and other qualities.


Between the Persian Gulf on the north-east and the Red Sea on the south-west, the Mediterranean on the north-west and the Indian Ocean on the south-east, lies the long, bulky peninsula which is called Arabia, and is as large as a third of Europe.  Most of the coast-land is subject to the Sultan of Turkey, but the people in the interior are practically independent.  They are a wild and warlike pastoral people, called Beduins.  Only certain parts of the country are inhabited, the rest being occupied by terrible deserts and wastes, where even now no European has set his foot.

Near the coast of the Red Sea are two Arab towns which are as holy and full of memories to Mohammedans all over the world as Jerusalem and Rome to Christians.  At Mecca the prophet Mohammed was born in the year A.D. 570, and at Medina he died and was buried in 632.  He was the founder of the Mohammedan religion, and his doctrine, Islamism, which he proclaimed to the Arabs, has since spread over so many countries in the Old World that its adherents now number 217 millions.

To all the followers of Islam a pilgrimage to Mecca is a most desirable undertaking.  Whoever has once been there may die in peace, and in his lifetime he may attach the honourable title of Hajji to his name.  From distant countries in Africa and from the innermost parts of Asia innumerable pilgrims flock annually to the holy towns.

Adjoining Arabia on the north-east lies the country called Mesopotamia, through which flow the rivers Euphrates and Tigris.  An English steamer carried me from Bushire up the turbid waters of the Tigris, and from the deck I could see copper-brown, half-naked Arabs riding barebacked on handsome horses.  They feed their flocks of sheep on the steppe, holding long lances in their hands.  Sometimes the steamer is invaded by a cloud of green grasshoppers, and one can only escape them by going into one’s cabin and closing both door and windows.  Round the funnel lie heaps of grasshoppers who have singed themselves or are stupefied by the smoke.

After a voyage of a few days up the river I come to Baghdad, which retains little of its former magnificence.  In the eleventh century Baghdad was the greatest city of the Mohammedans, and here were collected the Indian and Arabic tales which are called the Thousand and one Nights.  Not far from Baghdad, but on the Euphrates, lay in early ages the great and brilliant Babylon, which had a hundred gates of brass.  By the waters of Babylon the Jewish captives hung up their harps on the willows, and of Babylon Jeremiah prophesied:  “And Babylon shall become heaps, a dwelling place for dragons, an astonishment, and an hissing, without an inhabitant.”


When I reached Baghdad I had only a little over L5 left, all in Persian silver kran, a kran being worth about seven-pence; and I could not get any more money until I reached Teheran, 600 miles away.  I knew that if I could only get as far as the town of Kermanshah, a distance of 200 miles, I could then take service in a caravan; but it would be unpleasant to tramp on foot the whole way, and receive no pay other than a little bread and a few cucumbers and melons.

Just in the nick of time, however, I made the acquaintance of a caravan owner who was starting immediately for Kermanshah with English merchandise.  The goods were loaded on fifty asses, and were accompanied by ten Arab traders on horseback.  Eight pilgrims and a Chaldean merchant had joined the party.  I, too, might go with them on paying fifty kran for the hire of a mule; food and drink I must provide for myself.

It was a pleasant journey which began at ten o’clock on the evening of June 6.  Two Arabs led me on my mule slowly and solemnly through the narrow streets of Baghdad in the warm summer night.  An oil lamp flickered dully here and there, but the bazaars were brisk and lively.  Here sat thousands of Arabs, talking, eating, drinking, and smoking.  It was the month of fasting, when nothing is eaten until after sunset.

The two Arabs conducted me into the court of a caravanserai, where the traders were just making preparations to start.  When I heard that they would not be ready before two o’clock in the morning, I lay down on a heap of bales and slept like a top.

Two o’clock came much sooner than I wished.  An Arab came and shook me, and, half asleep, I mounted my mule.  To the shouts of the drivers, the tinkle of the small bells, and the ding-dong of the large camel-bells the long caravan passed out into the darkness.  Soon we had the outermost courts and palm groves of Baghdad behind us, and before us the silent, sleeping desert.

No one troubled himself about me; I had paid for the mule and might look after myself.  Sometimes I rode in front, sometimes behind, and occasionally I almost went to sleep in the saddle.  The body of a dead dromedary lay on the road, and a pack of hungry jackals and hyaenas were feasting on the carcase.  When we came near them they ran away noiselessly to the desert, only to return when we were past.  Farther on some fat vultures kept watch round the body of a horse, and raised themselves on their heavy wings as we approached.

After a ride of seven hours we reached a caravanserai, where the Arabs unloaded their animals and said that we were to stay there all day.  It was as warm as in an oven, and there was nothing to do but lie and doze on the stone floor.

Next night we rode eight hours to the town of Bakuba, which is surrounded by a wood of fine date-palms.  Here we encamped in the court of a huge caravanserai (Plate IV.).  I was sitting talking to one of my travelling companions when three Turkish soldiers came and demanded to see my passport.  “I have no passport,” I replied.  “Well, then, pay us ten kran apiece, and you shall pass the frontier all the same.”  “No, I will not pay you a farthing,” was the answer they got.  “Take that rug and the bag instead,” they cried, and made for my things.  This I could not stand, and gave the man who seized my bag such a blow on the chest that he dropped his booty, and the same with the man with the rug.  The scoundrels were making to rush at me together, when two of my Arabs came up to my assistance.  To avoid further unpleasantness I went to the governor, who for six kran gave me a passport.

I had now become so friendly with the Arabs that I obtained the loan of a horse instead of a mule.  We set out again at nine o’clock, and rode all night in the most brilliant moonshine.  I was so sleepy that sometimes I dozed in the saddle, and once, when the horse shied at a skeleton on the road, I was roused up and fell off, while the horse ran off over the steppe.  After much trouble one of the caravan men caught him again, and I slept no more that night.

As usual we stayed over the day at the next village.  I was tired of travelling in this fashion, moving so slowly and seeing so little of the country.  When, then, an old Arab belonging to the caravan came riding up from Baghdad on a fine Arab horse, I determined to try to get away from my party with his assistance.  He consented to accompany me if I paid him twenty-five kran a day.  At first we kept near the caravan, but as soon as the moon had set we increased our pace, and when the sound of the bells grew faint behind us we trotted off quickly through the night.

We arrived safely at Kermanshah on June 13.  After paying the old Arab I had only sixpence left!  I could not engage a room or buy anything to eat, and the prospect of going begging among Mohammedans was certainly not attractive.  Fortunately I had heard of a rich Arab merchant, Agha Hassan, who lived in this town, and I directed my steps to his handsome house.  In my dusty riding-boots, and whip in hand, I passed through many fine rooms until at last I found myself in the presence of Agha Hassan, who was sitting with his secretary in the midst of books and papers.  He wore a white silk mantle embroidered with gold, a turban on his head and spectacles on his nose, and looked both friendly and dignified.

“How are you, sir?” he asked.  “Very well, thank you,” I responded.  “Where have you come from?” “From Baghdad.”  “And where are you going?” “To Teheran.”  “Are you an Englishman?” “No, I am a Swede.”  “Swede?  What is that?” “Well, I come from a country called Sweden.”  “Whereabouts does it lie?” “Far away to the north-west, beyond Russia.”  “Ah, wait, I know!  You are no doubt from Ironhead’s country?” “Yes, I am from the country of Charles XII.”  “I am very glad to hear it; I have read of Charles the Twelfth’s remarkable exploits; you must tell me about him.  And you must tell me about Sweden, its king and army, and about your own home, whether your parents are still living, and if you have any sisters.  But first you must promise to stay as my guest for six months.  All that I have is yours.  You have only to command.”  “Sir, I am very thankful for your kindness, but I cannot avail myself of your hospitality for more than three days.”  “You surely mean three weeks?” “No, you are too good, but I must go back to Teheran.”  “That is very tiresome, but, however, you can think it over.”

A servant conducted me to an adjoining building, which was to be mine during my stay, and where I made myself at home in a large apartment with Persian rugs and black silk divans.  Two secretaries were placed at my disposal, and servants to carry out my slightest wish.  If I desired to eat, they would bring in a piece of excellent mutton on a spit, a chicken boiled with rice, sour milk, cheese and bread, apricots, grapes, and melons, and at the end of the meal coffee and a water-pipe; if I wished to drink, a sweet liquor of iced date-juice was served; and if I thought of taking a ride in order to see the town and neighbourhood, pure-blooded Arab horses stood in the court awaiting me.

Before the house lay a peaceful garden surrounded by a wall, and with its paths laid with marble slabs.  Here lilacs blossomed, and here I could dream the whole day away amidst the perfume of roses.  Gold-fishes swam in a basin of crystal-clear water, and a tiny jet shot up into the air glittering like a spider’s web in the sunshine.  I slept in this enchanting garden at night, and when I awoke in the morning I could hardly believe that all was real; it was so like an adventure from the Thousand and one Nights.  My rich host and my secretaries did not suspect that I had only sixpence in my pocket.

When the last day came I could no longer conceal my destitute condition.  “I have something unpleasant to confide to you,” I said to one of the secretaries.  “Indeed,” he answered, looking very astonished.  “Yes, my money has come to an end.  My journey has been longer than I expected, and now I am quite cleared out.”  “What does that matter?  You can get as much money as you like from Agha Hassan.”

It had struck midnight when I went to take farewell of my kind host.  He worked all night during the fasting month.  “I am sorry that you cannot stay longer,” he said.  “Yes, I too am sorry that I must leave you, and that I can never repay your great kindness to me.”  “You know that the road through the hills is unsafe owing to robbers and footpads.  I have therefore arranged that you shall accompany the post, which is escorted by three soldiers.”

Having thanked him once more, I took my leave.  A secretary handed me a leather purse full of silver.  The post rider and the soldiers were ready; we mounted, rode slowly through the dark, narrow streets of the town, at a smart trot when the houses were scattered, and then at full gallop when the desert stretched around us on all sides.  We rode 105 miles in sixteen hours, with three relays of horses and barely an hour’s rest.  We stayed a day at Hamadan, and then rode on to the capital, with nine relays of fresh horses.  During the last fifty-five hours I never went to sleep, but often dozed in the saddle.  At length the domes of Teheran, its poplars and plane-trees, stood out against the morning sky, and, half-dead with weariness, and ragged and torn, I rode through the south-western gate of the city.