A Bamboo cart to the source of the Karun

Major Herbert Sawyer was an Indian Army officer who, in 1890, carried out a geographical-military reconnaissance in West Persia, including a mapping of the Bakhtiari territories.  Even though a detailed version of his map was publicly available in 1894 (click here and scroll down); copies in the India Office collection (now in the British Library) were splendidly marked, in large red letters, as SECRET.

Hand-drawn elevations of the Zagros mountains, on the map presented by Sawyer to the Royal Geographical Society in 1894

Reputed to be brave and intelligent, Sawyer was 38 and “a great breeze”.  Considered extremely handsome, the Bakhtiari women were especially fascinated by his height.  He was said to be “distracted” by the recent death of his wife – though Mrs Bishop, who travelled with him over the Bakhtiari territories, was less than impressed: “I cannot spend much sympathy on him . . the more distracted men are the sooner they remarry!”.

Following his expedition, Major Sawyer was blithely confident that “everything appertaining to the Bakhtiaris may now be said to be known”.

The source of the Karun: a waterfall from the side of the Kuh Rang mountain. 1890, Major Sawyer.

He especially explored the tortuous route of the Karun river: it flows 250 miles to cross 75, and has been described as “the most winding stream in the world after the Orinoco”.   The river’s true source was found on the Kuh-i Rang mountain; even if “local savage perversity” had misplaced it at a “fountain spring jutting out of the side of the Zard-Kuh, some 10 miles down the valley” (click here for a panorama and Google Earth location).

These fountain springs, “gushing out of a smooth rock mountain side with torrent rapidity”, are to be found across the Bakhtiari territories.  They mean that the Karun becomes “a formidable river” almost at once.  Its steep and deep banks – up to 1000-3000 feet high – mean that its waters are useless for local irrigation, although the river is now used for hydroelectric power.

Although Mrs Bishop apparently spent a large part of her time in Bakhtiari territory being shot at, robbed, threatened with robbery, close to death or a witness of various other dreadful events; Sawyer minimised any possible difficulties or dangers in local travel: “A strong bamboo cart could be used all the way to the foot of [the Kuh-i-Rang mountain].  Here a base camp could be pitched in perfect safety by arrangement with the Ilkhani and neighbouring petty chiefs”.

The Major suggested that “A party of ladies and gentlemen, guarded by only a few armed servants and a few watch-dogs, could spend a pleasant healthy three months amongst these people [the Bakhtiari] in their mountain homes”; and even fondly imagines that the area could “become a favourite resort for the intelligent globe-trotter, who delights in visiting beauties and anomalies formed by contortions of nature”.

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