BLTC Press Titles

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Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll

The Secret Doctrine, Volume II Anthropogenesis

H. P. Blavatsky

The Characters of Theophrastus


Shakti and Shakta

John Woodroffe

On the outskirts of empire in Asia

by Lawrence John Lumley Dundas Zetland (Marquis of)


Look how wide also the East is from the West! The feverish throbbing centres of the West take small stock of those things which lie not to their hand: the call of the East comes for the most part unheeded across the waste. Yet to those who listen is borne that hum which tells of mighty workings.

The East, indeed,—the real East, that is, and by the real East I mean more especially those kingdoms of Asia which can still lay claim, theoretically at any rate, to political independence of the West,—is known by personal experience to comparatively speaking so small a portion of the English public that I make no apology, however humble be my credentials, for trying to arouse an increased interest therein, or for taking up my pen once again in an endeavour to lay before the public mind some idea of those countries of which I speak, and to call attention to some of those problems to which their existence has given rise. And I do so with all the more willingness because of my firm belief in the truth of those lines which I have caused to be inscribed on the title-page of this book, that it is in Asia once again that will be decided the destinies of the world; that that nation which succeeds in making its voice heeded in the East will be able also to speak in dominating accents to Europe. If a further excuse for these pages is demanded, it may be found in the fact that it is comparatively few to whom is given either the time or the opportunity, or perhaps even the inclination, to put away for a prolonged period the ties which bind them to their own country and, leaving the highroad of convention, to strike deep along the devious pathways of alien and not always hospitable lands.

I have never attempted to deny that the countries of Asia have for me an extreme fascination, but at the same time it would be absurd to suggest that a journey such as that which forms the thread upon which the following chapters are strung—a journey, that is, of upwards of 10,000 miles by railway, steamboat, raft, wheeled conveyance of many kinds, and pack-pony, through such countries as Asiatic Turkey, Persia, Transcaspia, Turkestan, Siberia, and Manchuria —is by any means one which is productive of unalloyed pleasure and amusement. There is nothing even remotely amusing in long hours in the saddle at caravan pace across the desert steppe of Mesopotamia. On the contrary, there is a grim reality about the limitless and forbidding expanse of an Asian desert which inspires feelings of anything but merriment.

The vastness of it fills you with awe, the silence and absence of life weigh heavily upon you, the hovering vulture and the staring white skeleton of pony or camel speak only of death. Everything is so real and so stern, you feel that to smile or to laugh would be impossible in these surroundings; the inexorable reality of life and death is on all sides forced upon you. These are the lands where you

"Fold your tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away."

But even the desert has an end, and haltingly at first and then with more confidence signs of humanity reappear. The waters of a great river roll placidly by, the most priceless blessing in a thirsty and dry land. The bleak steppe-land is behind, and before you rise the remnants of mighty nations. The glory and magnificence, it is true, are of the past; the present is squalid in comparison with what was. But the mounds beneath which lie buried all that remains of a remote antiquity stand imperishable witnesses of the splendour of a bygone age. Two thousand five hundred years ago Nineveh, the gorgeous capital of the Assyrian empire, fell never to rise again; but the vast mass of debris which is to be seen on the left bank of the Tigris to-day is an object far more imposing than the collection of highwalled houses and narrow tortuous alleys, which make Mossul on the right bank a city of the unregenerate East. To the south the ruins of ancient Babylon tell of an age so remote as to bewilder the brain as it tries to gaze down the dim vistas of time at the achievements of a highly civilised race six thousand years ago, or peers uncertainly into that earlier period which hovers darkly through a legendary haze, when Oannes, the fish god, came up from the sea to teach wisdom to the children of men. Baghdad remains now as the counterpart of the old capitals of Shumir and Accad, but modern Baghdad is not the Baghdad of the 'Arabian Nights' or of the golden days of the Kalifate. It is, in fact, hopelessly commonplace, and is of chief interest to the traveller as affording him an excuse for a rest and the congenial society of his fellow-countrymen. The halo of romance over the Baghdad of our imagination has been dimmed by the exigencies of modern trade and commerce.

As you journey eastward into Persia along the old highway from Media to Babylonia, you rise at one bound from the level plains of Assyria and Chaldsea to the elevated tableland of the Iranian plateau, ascending the rock walls of the historic "Zagros Gates." Here, on the western extremity of the Persian highlands, a series of gorges, mountain-ranges, and elevated plateaux confront you, forming a barrier as it were between the level stretches of Mesopotamia on the one side and the vast inhospitable reaches of Central Persia on the other. No difference will be found by the traveller in his mode of procedure, and as you ride slowly along on your daily march you agree with the sapient remark of the seventeenth-century traveller, Tavernier, that "the best inns are the tents which you carry along with you, and your hosts are your servants that get ready those victuals which you have bought in good towns." There is, however, one great drawback to a tent, — you cannot always use it. You cannot pitch your tent in two feet of snow, and even hoisting it in six inches of mud is a doubtful experiment; and then you must seek what accommodation is to be had in the serai, if there is one,

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