Henry Layard – and Bakhtiari poetry

I’ve been re-reading Henry Layard’s 1887 ‘Early Adventures in Persia’; after I noticed that this apparently included identifying details of the events and individuals in one of the Bakhtiari poems translated by DLR Lorimer.

Henry Layard 'in Bakhtiyari costume'. Frontispiece in 'Early Adventures in Persia'. 1887

I was especially interested by Layard’s descriptions of Bakhtiari poetry recitations:

“I frequently witnessed . . the effect which poetry had [on the Bakhtiari warriors] . . When the wonderful exploits of Rustem [in the Shahnameh] were described – how with one blow of his sword he cut horse and rider into two, or alone vanquished legions of enemies – [the warriors’] savage countenances became even more savage.  They would shout and yell, draw their swords, and challenge imaginary foes . . But when they listened to the moving tale of the loves of Khosrau and his mistress, they would heave the greatest sighs – the tears running down their cheeks – and follow the verses with a running accompaniment of ‘Wai! Wai!’ . . Mehemet Taki Khan himself was as susceptible to it as his wild followers.  I have seen him, when we were sitting together of an evening in the enderun at Kala Tul, cry and sob like a child as he recited or listened to some favourite verses. When I expressed to him my surprise that he, who had seen so much of war and bloodshed, and had himself slain so many enemies, should be moved to tears by poetry, he replied, ‘Ya, Sahib! I cannot help it. They burn my heart!’.”

Kala Tul, the castle of Mehemet Taki Khan, where Layard stayed - and heard poetry recitations

I was myself invited to a Shahnameh reading, when I was staying with Morteza Faridgi and his family.  This was held at a waterfall, which I was told was the actual site of the events being described.   Although I knew none of the men gathered there, sitting on old carpets laid out close to the cooling mist, I was quickly designated an honorary man and welcomed to sit with them.

There was much disagreement as to whose copy of the Shahnameh should be used – in community which is otherwise book-free – but Mahmoud, one of Morteza’s sons-in-law, was unanimously agreed to be the best reciter.  When he eventually stood up to speak, it was in a mixture of singing and the voice-throwing that the Bakhtiari can use to talk to each other across even the hugest of valleys.

No-one brandished swords or sobbed – the story was of a romantic meeting.  Instead we all sat spellbound, intoxicated and enthralled, propelled into another world.  For Mehemet Taki Khan was right – it does indeed burn your heart.

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