Volume VII. No. 12
Veadar 5610 March 1850
Notes on the Jews of Persia Under Mohammed Shah.
Obtained From One of Themselves.
By the Rev. Abraham De Sola.
“Singula quaeque locum teneant sortita decentern.”—Hor. ars. Poet.
Habitations — Etiquette—
Domestic Economy —Hyperbolical
The streets of Hamadan present, on each side, a mere series of walls, in which are the court gates of the various houses; the houses themselves not being visible but over this wall. As there are no bells, we will make use of one of the knockers which we perceive on almost every door, that we may have some idea of what takes place on the other side. A boy answers our summons; sometimes an elderly female, her face covered with a shawl; sometimes one of the male members of the family. We wish to see Rabbi N., but he is not within; the boy, however, carries our message to the lady of the house; she is prepared for our visit; for, as soon as she heard our knock she took from the wall a shawl, which always hangs there for such occasions, and has so covered herself with it that her eyes alone are visible. We remain standing at the court gate, since we dare not enter the house without invitation. She makes signs to us from the house door that her husband is not within. If we have something of importance to communicate, we beg of her to favour us, by coming to a parley. In consideration of the importance of our business she consents. Stooping occasionally to the boy, who is the medium of communication between us, she gives few and brief replies to our queries. It may sometimes occur that neither the boy, the elderly woman, nor any of the male relatives, are at home. We then knock for some time, and finding that the door is not opened, we conclude that only the mistress of the house is within, and we take our departure.
But let us suppose that we are more fortunate, and that R. N is at home. We shall now have an opportunity to learn something of his domestic <<597>>arrangements. We enter the gate and find ourselves in a spacious court-yard. (It will be borne in mind that in describing one house we describe all the houses in Hamadan, the only difference between them being, that some are larger and richer than the others, as is also the case with the orchards and gardens.) At the extreme limit of this courtyard lies the garden, which almost universally produces sufficient fruit and vegetables for the use of the family. Besides a plentiful supply of garden products, almost every house is beautified and enriched with a vine, the grapes of which are of an agreeable and perfect description.
The Persians have generally been described as privately transgressing, more than any other Mahometan nation, that precept of their prophet, which forbids them the use of wine; but this charge does not seem well founded, and it is doubtless because it is not, that the Jews and Christians in Hamadan are enabled to purchase for less than twenty panabat, i. e., say two dollars,* half a dozen large earthen kegs of very good wine.
We observe that some estimate
the sachab krahu at twelve cents.
Returning from the garden we observe, at some distance from the dwelling-house, a smaller building, from which smoke, and the odour accompanying cooking, are issuing. We enter and find ourselves in the culinary division of our host’s establishment. Most of the utensils, we notice, are made of copper tinned over. In the centre of the floor we observe an oven or cooking furnace, which is formed after this fashion: A circular hole is made in the ground, like <<598>>a well, about a foot and a half deep; it is then plastered round with a strong adhesive cement, a small orifice being made transversely through the ground so as to admit the air. Over the mouth of the cavity is placed a cover formed of iron bars placed across, the spaces being occupied by various cooking dishes. These establishments are situated at some distance from the house, that the odours they emit may not offend the occupants.
Attached to the dwelling-house are several two-storied buildings which, we learn, are devoted to various purposes. One occasionally serves for a dwelling-place for some of the members of the family; another is appropriated to the wayfarer and stranger; and another to the domestic animals belonging to the establishment. To each of these is a kind of ladder, by which means only the upper stories can be reached, there being no stairs found within the houses. The domestic animals consist of lambs, goats, and cows, from which they obtain an abundant supply of milk and butter.
We now enter the dwelling-house, the door of which, like the court gate, is fastened by several large wooden bars sliding across. We find ourselves in a spacious room, exceedingly lofty, its ceiling and the roof of the house being identical. There are no windows, but light is admitted from a skylight in the roof. The skylight is mostly in the form of a dome, and around it is lattice-work covered with paper greased over, so that when rain descends it may not enter the room below. Glass is only used in the better description of houses. Off the principal room are generally smaller ones, used for keeping trunks, apparel, &c. The large chamber is used as a dining-room; it has no other furniture but some carpets spread on the floor and the various utensils used at meals, the etiquette of which we shall now proceed to consider.
Their principal meal is taken at seven or eight o’clock in the evening, and we propose watching how it proceeds. A large copper tray, about two inches in height, is brought in, and placed with its white cloth on the ground. On it are placed plates and spoons for as many as are expected to dine. Knives and forks are of those superfluous articles with which they dispense. They then seat themselves in their usual fashion around the tray. If there are several females in a house they eat together in a separate room, as do also the children; but, if there be only one, the mistress of the house, she eats with her husband. If there be both a male and female domestic in the house, the male servant takes round the ewers and basin, that the company may wash their hands previous to dining, while the female attendant is occupied with other with other matters. When no servants are present he children carry the jug to their father, and in their absence the duty devolves upon the <<599>>wife. The female servant then takes away, it may be, two of the plates at a time from off the tray, and presently returns with them filled. Other plates and spoons are then repeated, according to the number of courses, but these are generally limited to one.
The rule for ascertaining the extent of a guest’s appetite is this:—the appetite of the master of the house being known, give to the guest double the portion you give him. This rule rarely fails in securing a more than sufficient supply. But the master of the house does not fail to press his guest to eat and drink heartily; nor does the guest lack an infinite number of compliments in return for his host’s attention. “I have eaten, am satisfied, and have even left,” is generally the reply. “May your table be like the table of Abraham, our father, your wife like the fruitful vine, and your children like olive branches around your table. May the Eternal bless you from on high with male children, that your name may be maintained in Israel; and may He spread the pavilion of His peace over you and your descendants, unto the thousandth generation,” &c. &c. To the unmarried they express their hope to see them speedily under the bridal canopy, &c.*
After the meal, some <<600>>time is silently spent in smoking, after which, as they do not again go forth abroad, they repair to enjoy the coolness of the evening on their roofs, and engage in conversation with their neighbours.
The more learned generally improve this opportunity by engaging in a discussion concerning certain passages in the Talmud and Rabbinical writings generally; those whose tastes and capabilities are of a less grave and intellectual character, pass the time in relating or listening to some of the innumerable tales and legends to which their fertile invention has given birth, and in which they blend, ad libitum, truth with fiction, the comic with the tragic.
The roofs serve eight months out of the twelve for the sleeping domicil of the Hamadanites generally. Hence, were the Persian Israelite to build himself a new house, he would be careful to build for it a battlement, or balustrade, not only that none may fall therefrom, but also, that he may be secured from the gaze of curiosity. It is rarely that rain compels them to abandon the cool roof for the oppressive house; some have a tent, which, on the first appearance of rain, they draw over them by means of a cord attached, The Shah has a beautiful tower, supported by pillars containing precious stones;—the Mirzas have also their towers, but, of course, of an inferior kind.
Having enlarged on the domestic arrangements of the Persian Israelites, we proceed to remark, somewhat more briefly, on their dress. The men’s costume consists of a loose cloth overcoat, or rather gown, of which there are two kinds; one, with long, narrow sleeves, called Tshuchah, worn in the house, and the other, with wider sleeves, used abroad, called Dshubah. Under this is a close-fitting jacket, embroidered on the breast, around which is worn the dshar-geshoort.* This is a leathern belt, under which is generally the secret purse, a leathern bag, divided into some half-dozen compartments; the whole is covered with a shawl tied round in the form of a girdle. These shawls are usually of a very beautiful description, and are worn of all colours by Jews and Mahometans, but by Christians of white only. The Christian clergy, however, dress entirely in black, not even wearing the turban, which is so much esteemed by the Israelite and Mahometan, but a black hat, manufactured from the skins of the sheep of Bukhara, narrow round the head, wide at the crown; with the laity the shape is reversed.
To distinguish the follower of the prophet front the unbeliever, Jews and Christians are obliged to wear a badge, consisting of a piece of cloth of a different colour from their garments, to <<601>>which it is sewed. Christians must wear two badges, a large one on the chest, which must not be covered with their beard, and a smaller one on their back. The Israelites wear one on their right shoulder only;—but this must suffice for a description of the men’s dress.
Of the female costume we cannot speak understandingly; still we will endeavour, for the edification of our fair readers, to attempt a description, meagre and unsatisfactory as it must necessarily be, but conveying all the information on this subject with which our informant favoured The ladies of Hamadan dress accordingly as they are Jewesses, Christians, or Mahometans. The Christian ladies, over a gown of red or white silk, wear a short jacket called Archalech, and over this a long, plain garment, called Antari, which descends to the feet and is fastened with metal buttons round the waist; where it is open to the neck, that the under-dress may be visible. The dress of the Jewish and Mahometan ladies is very similar. Their Archalech is shorter than that of the Christian ladies, and instead of the Antari, they wear a kind of long cloak, with close-fitting sleeves. This is called Daria. On the Daria they wear sometimes a shorter cloak, called Ketebah.
In place of the turban they wear a silk kerchief tied closely round the head. When they go into the streets they cover themselves with an opaque veil of woollen, linen, or silk, which descends from the back of the head, and again in front, down to the feet, there being made in it merely two circles for the eyes. Their ornaments are silver or gold bracelets for the hands, and an abundance of rings for the fingers. They also wear, but not the Jewesses, enormous nose ring, which hang from the right nostril down to the chin. When the fair wearer desires to eat, she attaches this ring to a small chain, pendent from the head-dress for the purpose, and after eating, resumes it.
Besides these ornaments they have the Zugguli, which are two silver plates attached to each side the head dress. From these are suspended thin chains, to which are attached small. bells of silver or gold. These are perhaps all the ornaments they wear, and with their enumeration we must beg to close our remarks on the subject of dress, and proceed to one of a somewhat more important character, to wit, the system of education pursued by the Israelites of Persia.