What about Persia?

By Richard Hill

The Outlook; November 17, 1915

Mr. Richard Hill, for nearly ten years a missionary in the war-ridden province of Azerbijan, Persia, is a member of the Plymouth Brethren, an organisation of Bath, England, of which the late Lord Radstock was an ardent sponsor. Although Mr. Hill's home was in Tiflis, the nature of his work of conversion among the Mohammedans made him an itinerant preacher throughout the larger part of the province of Azerbijan. He enjoyed the friendship and confidence of men high in Russian and Persian governmental circles. Compelled temporarily to abandon his work by ill health, he is at present in New York.—THE EDITORS.

Persia, one of the oldest of the Old World empires, has an area: about equal to that of the German Empire, and a population which is variously estimated at from five millions to ten millions. It is bounded on the west by the Turkish Empire in Asia Minor, on the south by the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Arabia, and on the north by the Russian Empire. Its sparse population is partly explained by its great area of desert land and by the lack of modern methods of transportation, commerce, and irrigation. Under the right kind of political influences the welfare of its people could be enormously increased. It is at present bankrupt financially, physically, and morally. The present Shah is a young man. The present constitutional Parliament is a pure figment, although it exists nominally. The Shah is maintained in his position by the influence of the Russian and British Governments.

What has Persia to do with the war? On which side is she? Is she pro-German or pro-Ally? This is a question that many have asked in a bewildered way as they read of fighting taking place at Tabriz, Dilman, Urumiah, Maragha, and other, points in the Persian province of Azerbijan.

The Persians themselves might ask the same question, for they are not a whit better informed of the reason for the strange struggle going on within their borders, than were the poor peasants of Belgium when first their neutrality was violated.

Persia is still nominally at peace, with the world. She has maintained neutrality as best a nation can in whose provinces great battles have been fought, whose towns have been bombarded, villages wiped out, and whose inhabitants have suffered wholesale slaughter. Persia's has been the neutrality which stands impotent before the cold-blooded massacre of many hundreds of her Christian population.

A declaration of war—the alternative of infringed neutrality-—is not for such as Persia. Her army numbers only a few thousands, poorly, fed, miserably paid, badly equipped, and most woefully unorganized. Her soldiers in this day of efficiency would be a farce in an actual battle, her artillery popguns which eject peas as compared to "Busy Berthas" and French "75's."

Persia, then, must remain supine while Russia and Turkey thunder up and down the province of Azerbijan, thus sparing their own respective territories the horror of modern warfare. This willingness on the part of both Powers to use Persia as a battle-ground is really ascribable to a revolution which the Persians themselves conducted some few years ago.

To Persia belongs the distinction of being one of the worst-governed countries in the world. Bent on effecting economic betterment, the dissatisfied natives of the larger cities, under the spur of haranguing by mullahs and sayids, finally, demanded openly of the Shah the establishment of the Mashruta, or a governmental constitution.

Scornfully denied any relief, the people resorted to "force of arms," fortifying themselves in Tabriz, the capital of Azerbijan, under the leadership of Satta Khan, beneath whose standard Caucasian Armenians and Georgians had rallied. Here for nearly a year an unsuccessful siege was laid by the Shah's troops, commanded by Semad Khan, the Governor of Maragha.

The fighting savored much of light opera. Casualties there were, of course, but not of such consequence as to deter foreign residents from jocularly complaining that the revolutionists might at least be considerate enough to fire their "heavy" pieces during the day, rather than late at night, thus precluding peaceful sleep.

Interminably the siege dragged on without pronounced success for either side, when there came an incident which suddenly changed its complexion from a picayune internal disorder to grave international complications in which Persia was destined to be the "innocent bystander."

The crux came when Satta Khan, the revolutionist, foreseeing the fall of the city, gave notice that unless the besiegers withdrew he would order the massacre of the entire Christian population, not even sparing foreign consuls. This ultimatum gave Russia the opportunity she had long awaited. To relieve the city, not only did she occupy Tabriz with a considerable force of Cossacks, but, in addition, troops were despatched to other strategic points in northwest Persia; so that, prior to the outbreak of the great war, as if by some happy chance, some twenty thousand Russian soldiers were in readiness there. The revolution, it need not be said, was at an inglorious end.

Turkey and Persia had long engaged in a dispute over the boundary, and Russia had no desire to see Turkey get the better of the controversy, as probably would have been the outcome. Indeed, Russia had for years been aiming at a war with Turkey in which she hoped to add at least the balance of Armenia to her Caucasian territory.

The Cossack occupation of Tabriz was pushed on into other Persian territory by the Czar. The final result was war between Russia and Turkey, the latter acting under German influence.

Aside from the all-sufficient "reasons of state," it was partly for geographical reasons, also, that Persia was made the scapegoat. On the Russian-Turkish frontier but two main passes are at all available for the passage of large bodies of troops. One, at Kars, is defended by an exceptionally strong and well-garrisoned fortress; the other, near Batum, on the Black Sea, successfully repelled the Turkish assault, but only after a protracted struggle.

Turkey's easiest path, therefore, was through Persia, where, furthermore, twenty-five thousand of the wild mountain Kurdish tribesmen joined her forces. The Kurds bore their turbaned allies no special love; but Russia had incurred their enmity by punishing them, when she took control of Urumiah, for their raids down into the Urumiah plain.

As picturesque as they are treacherous, the Kurds are undoubtedly the Carduchi of Xenophon. From earliest times they have remained in a state of semi-independence on the borders of Turkey and Persia, subsisting on booty and evading one avenging government by crossing over into the territory of the other.

Since the Persian-Turkish border was unfortified and held by a comparatively small Russian force, a large number of Turks and Kurds marched upon Sauj-Bulak, at the southern end of Lake Urumiah. The Russians evacuated Urumiah, falling back first to Maragha, then to Tabriz, and finally—all in the space of ten days—to Julfa, on the frontier, "where they waited reinforcements. A month later the bloody pendulum of war's fortunes began to swing back and Tabriz and Urumiah were regained.

This bald statement of facts does not attempt to describe the unparalleled suffering caused by the invasion of Azerbijan. The religious fanaticism of a Mohammedan holy war has been visited upon the land, bringing in its train horrors unspeakable because of their heinousness, indescribable because of the limitations of language. A holy war—oh, the irony of the appellation!—means the legitimatizing of slaughter, rapine, and plunder. It elevates the murder of defenseless male inhabitants and the bestial and fiendish violation of women to a plane of religious ceremony designed to further the cause of Islam in the eyes of God!

Thousands of Armenians and Syrians were either killed or perished from typhus, typhoid, or other diseases. Hundreds of villages have been laid waste. On the Russian reoccupation of a village near Khai the mutilated bodies of seven hundred and twenty men and boys and old women were found littering the shattered streets. The young women and girls had been led off to a worse fate. In the American mission compounds of Tabriz and Urumiah many more than ten thousand refugees have found sanctuary.

Let those who rail against the Russian possession of Azerbijan remember that Russian rule in northwest Persia has made it possible for a Christian to live there without fear of murder and has opened up trade routes, thus encouraging a commercial revival and activity unknown previously.

Persia is absolutely unfitted for self-government, incapable of understanding the elementary principles of autonomy. It seems but a question of a short time before she must succumb to those Powers that will give her a government firm and efficient. She lies under the blight of Islam—Islam effete, decadent, and hopelessly behind in the family of nations. And, as the doom of Turkey in Europe has been sounded, it is inevitable that in Persia, too, Islam must learn that her days as a political force are numbered.

It is of course too early and too speculative to say now what will be the ultimate effect of the European war on Persia. The history of German activities in Persia, however, for many years before the war indicates that Germany has not overlooked the possibility of linking up Persia with her grand scheme for Germanizing the Turkish Empire. This would be a part of her programme of approach to Eastern domination. Germany established a few years ago schools in Teheran and large manufacturing enterprises in Tabriz, a city of more importance commercially to Persia than the capital. As I said at the beginning of this article, Russian and British influence is now paramount in Persia. The Persian people, if they think about it at all—and the mass of them do not think much about anything except the hardships of life—are inclined to fear the Russians because of the many visible manifestations of Russian power and the possible absorption of Persia by Russia. My own judgment is that even under such an absorption, however, they would be infinitely better off than under the present conditions. The thinking people have always had a friendly feeling toward England, especially during the Persian revolution, because England has a constitutional government on which they wish to pattern their own, and because they see that commercial freedom goes wherever the English flag goes. There is a bitter hatred between the Persians and the Turks on religious grounds. Although they are both Mohammedans, the Persians belong to the sect called Shiahs, while the Turks belong to the sect called Sunnis. It may therefore roughly be said that if the principles of the European war could penetrate into the general Persian mind the Persians would probably be inclined to sympathize with the Allies, rather than with the Turco-Germanic alliance.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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