National Geographic : 1946 Mar
Mountain Tribes of Iran and Iraq BY HAROLD LAMB IT WAS a drowsy day in Isfahan when the invitation came. "The Governor will expect you in his house on Saturday," said the matter-of-fact voice of the British consul general over the telephone. "I suppose you can get there?" "Certainly I'll get there," I assured the consul. In this Iranian (Persian) city, men of affairs pedaled about on bicycles or jogged around in droshkies, automobiles being almost nonexistent because of the shortage of tires. But, somehow, I would find transportation to reach the house of the governor of the Bakh tiari tribe, Murtesa Kuli Khan, in the moun tains above and beyond Isfahan, the range which runs along the boundaries of Russia, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran (map, pp. 396-7). This was my first formal bid to never-never land, one of the few remaining blind spots on our globe. Geography of "Never-Never Land" The blind spot is formed by a mountain chain which extends for about a thousand miles from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf. These mountains jut often above cloud level and rise at times above 13,000 feet. They have escaped a name on many maps, although they are sometimes called the Zagros Mountains. The inhabitants-the mountain folk of this no-one-man's land-have also generally es caped attention, for several reasons. Usually they are called, loosely enough, "the tribes," because they have followed the herder way of life, grazing their herds and planting their few crops on this mighty midriff above the workaday world. Actually they form at least four great tribal groups: the Kurds, Lurs, Bakhtiari, and Kashgais. They have been given a bad name as raid ers, a reputation that they seem to enjoy. We have known them chiefly through hearsay as perpetual wild men of the mountains. Within the memory of living men, the Kash gais' armed riders had raided Isfahan, and the Bakhtiari khans had marched to Tehran during the troubles of 1911. Tribal commandos had the time-honored custom of gathering supplies of tea, sugar, manufactured lamps, and ammunition by holding up trucks on the highways below the mountains. So, few travelers have made their way up into the heights of Kurdistan (the land of the Kurds) or Luristan.* I use these terms in the traditional sense, as applying to the historic areas occupied by these peoples. The roads thither were of the mule and horse-cart variety, usually under deep snow in winter (page 393). Police posts, if any, were apt to be of the blockhouse type, prepared to withstand a siege. Also, within these mountains the inner frontiers of four countries meet-Soviet Rus sia, eastern Turkey, Iraq, and Iran. At least, these frontiers meet on the map. Actually, few frontier posts are to be encountered up along the cloud level. I had paid one visit to the northern edge of the mountains, where Mount Ararat stands above the Armenian plateau. This plateau today, while still keeping its fine churches and medieval libraries of the past, is being modernized with water-power development and regional planning of agri culture by the Armenian Soviet Socialist Re public (page 390). I had also looked in on the southern tip, where the Kashgais, a vigorous, combative tribe of Turkish stock, herd their sheep in the gorges above Isfahan. Now I wanted to visit the chiefs of the mountain folk, the khans, ilkhans, begs, and agas, who are probably the oldest landed aristocracy of the world. They were certainly the oldest inhabitants of this mountain wall of the Middle East, having been there since Babylon was Babylon and before glory came to Greece-feudal lords in the flesh, served by retainers, entertained by troubadours. Derebeys, Lords of the Valleys, the Turks had called them. Many still held court in medieval donjons, overlooking their villages and herds. Their family portraits were carved in rock on the face of the mountains. Few Changes Since Marco Polo's Day These feudal Lords of the Valleys had ruled over their domains when monkish mapmakers of medieval Europe had charted the moun tains as the Earthly Paradise, next door to Heaven itself, or when travelers like Messer Marco Polo skirted this hinterland, looking for the Christian domain of Prester John of * In 1924 an American, Merian C. Cooper (later a colonel in the Army Air Forces), with Ernest B. Schoedsack, cameraman, filmed the fine motion pic ture "Grass" when he accompanied the migratory portion of the Bakhtiari tribe on its 46-day journey over the snow passes of the Zardeh Kuh (Yellow Mountains) from winter pastures west of the range to summer grazing on the eastern slopes.