Samuel van de Putte - 2

To foreword and part 1

From Persia to India


Worried, he looks back. Under the moonlight the desert looks more like a snowy plain. From a ridge three silhouettes wave him goodbye. His best friends, by now they surely are. Even their robes wave a little in the still cool desert wind.

Soon after the crossing from Italy to Egypt, they had switched from their French robes and trousers, their Italian hats and shoes, to simple djellabas, keffiyehs and sandals.

On the other side of the Mťditerranťe, one needs to blend in with the couleur locale, the new-fashioned travel booklets warned (without making the crossing themselves), lest one will be the chance of the day for any bandit, burglar or beggar over there.

With broad arm gestures Samuel waves back to them. So that they may distinguish him as long as possible amidst the dusty caravan that’s heading for daylight. After all, it could easily take a few years before they would meet again.


karavaan - versie 2

When Egmond and he set foot ashore in Alexandria a year earlier, the ancient capital of Egypt hardly lived up to its name and fame as a metro-polis with 400,000 inhabitants. The present number was closer to 4000.

Together with two English young men, they decided to go for Syria. To reach Aleppo by way of the Red Sea, Jerusalem, Beirut and the deserts in-between. Perhaps Samuel would continue on his own and follow the silk route ‘upstream’ as far as possible. Something of the sort was at least on his mind.


Alexandriakopie


Alexandria bazar

In previous centuries, Aleppo had grown into a renowned, rich and cultural centre. Located at a crossroads of several caravan routes, East and West met in its bazaars.

After Constantinople Aleppo became the most important city of the Ottoman Empire.

The many Venetian warehouses testified to the very profitable transhipments, ultimately making spices in Europe very expensive.

Mohmoud Farshchian

Iran painting

Possibly the recent French translation of the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) appealed to the young men’s imagination as well.

While in Paris and Rome, the emerging Turkomania†– not to be confused with the much-earlier Tulipmania – had not remained hidden from them: the colourful paintings with eastern themes, the masked Oriental-style parties with Ottoman clothing like embroidered vests (mintan), puff pants (zibin), caftan (qafṭān), puffy turbans (tŁlbend),together with Turkish compositions by Brahms, Rossini, Gluck, Hšndel and Mozart….

Turkish Kaftan woman

J. E. Liotard

The elites and artists in European capitals projected a rich, melancholic, romantic, erotic fantasy on the Ottoman Empire, that had little to do with the Orient, but all the more with European culture – in other words, the early days of Orientalism.

Louis IV sultan Husayn perziŽ - versie 2

In Aleppo, however, the consulates of Venice, France, England and Holland had been closed for a long time. Several Ottoman invasions and six famines within fifty years, had not left the†city with much grandeur.

Dali Columbus

Her downfall, however, already began in 1488 when Bartolomeu Dias discovered the sea route around the southern tip of Africa. Four years later Columbus set foot on American shore. The world of money and merchandise was tilted as it were: Europe was no longer an end market but one that was situated in the middle.

Soon transport turned out to be much more profitable by sea than overland. At the time an average ship was able to carry as much as a caravan with six thousand camels – and with less inconvenience of customs, extortion, robbery, and so forth.

Salvator Dali

What accelerated the downfall as well was that the Portuguese did not miss any opportunity to sabotage or even attack the traditional caravan routes.

Co-operating would have been more profitable, but short-sighted greed wished for a monopoly. The same with the Dutch, English and French a few decades later.

Only much later, after their failing passport system for, mind you, local merchants, it dawned on the Heeren Zeventien, the VOC directors in Amsterdam, that free trade could be more lucrative after all.


Heeren Zeventien

Kamer Hoorn by Joahn de Baen 1682

Within half a century after 1524, after Vasco da Gama was the very firstto sail around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope to India, the generous commissions for Indian, Persian, Arab and Italian merchants – who traditionally traded per caravan from East to West all the spices, silk, pearls, gems and textile to Europe – started to shrink rapidly.

Aleppo map 2

To arrange the trip to Aleppo, the four engaged a sharif or madouga. Such a caravan chief did not only need to determine the route through the desert, ensuring their safety, but also to arrange everything that a group of voyageurs might need along the way: water and food for the young men and the animals, wine, servants, kitchen staff, and so on.

It came a something of a shock how much was needed for their small distinguished caravan – while the main choice still had to be made: do we travel on horseback or are we taking that hump, that ‘horse designed by a committee’?

Clearly, the locals were of a different opinion since camel originates from the Arabic جمل ǧamal, which literally translates as 'graceful beast’.


Camel sharif


A unique animal that by itself can carry an average of three hundred pounds through the desert and, if necessary, continue for weeks without any drinking. Per day camels only perspire one and a half litres of moisture while other animals easily steam away twenty litres or more.

Horses - a rider needs more than one replacement during the tour - could be resold at the end of the journey, but by then the animals would need half a year to recuperate. Camels at the end of a long journey need only two months of recovery.


Camels

However, no horse rider gets truly used to bouncing that far back on the animal’s ass, with his legs dangling over the cargo to each side and with a seemingly endless bridle as the only hold to a pedantic head somewhere all the way out-front.

However, with nostrils that can close, an extra eyelid that horizontally clears any grain of sand like a high-tech windscreen wiper, lasciviously long eyelashes that dim bright sunlight and wide callus cushions to avoid sinking into desert sand, there could hardly be a better design for a 'desert ship’.


Kooien

E. Rouergue

The young men would not be seen dead in a hawdaj (also called mahoffi or kajawa): a square bin in which the traveler has to somehow manoever himself around or on the top of the hump in the middle.

Kooi 3

The parasol may protect against the ruthless sunbeams, but the reflection by the sand scorches the skin just as much.

Besides, there were stories galore about how a hawdaj suddenly came to hang under the camel – without any other kārwān member noticing right away.

In short, the 'desert ship' was and remains the best means of transport, but most caravan members prefer walking alongside the camel. Riding the animal would be more tiresome.

‘Those who want to travel cheaply need only employ three camels per person,’ the travel booklet suggested.

Behind the young men about ten camels followed, tied nose to tail. The last animal wore a bell around the neck. To raise alarm in case someone tried to steal part of the†camelcade.


karavaan schaduwen

For Samuel’s friends the turning point is reached at Aleppo. Their return trip will take them as much as possible by sea. For three years they have been gone from home and they no longer have the time nor the desire to cross Italy and France once again.

For Egmond it will not be too difficult to adjust again to the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands. After the golden age, the country has transformed into a ‘republic of the nobility' with a†predominantly†farming community.

Effortlessly he will reclaim the social position that he occupied†before†he left. But at times the wanderlust keeps gnawing. For a while, he becomes ‘Representative of the States of Holland and West Friesland at the Court of the Kings of Naples and Sicily.’

In Samuel, however, the wanderer has awoken.


karavaan ochtend


It’s quite a small caravan that takes him from Aleppo: a few hundred animals, mainly camels and donkeys, and some horses for the sharif and his men.

A few miles further on, where the caravan route makes a wide bend around Aleppo, they join the actual, larger†caravan stream. At gathering places in the vicinity of a larger city, caravans stay a little longer so that members may visit markets, money changers or brothels while the animals rest and recuperate.

In the early morning some two thousand camels stand in rows, ready to leave. Four hundred of them have been packed with merchandise. A few more hundred more carry passengers, with or without their luggage. A large number of camels is for sale, at the spot or in a next place. Dozens of owners of just a few camels are waiting for a last-minute assignment.

Portret man baard

A few sheikhs with their own security and servants join as well. At the back, a few hundred packed donkeys follow and at the very end poor travellers clandestinely find some shelter.

The bigger the caravan, the more guarding horse riders and presumably the safer for all. On the go, other caravans may join, causing the number of animals to suddenly double and even rise above five thousand.

The biggest threat to nomads and caravans are obviously the boundaries of newly formed nations – which in itself often forces new groups to start wandering. No paradise without exclusion.


map Savafit PerziŽ

Samuel's guide buys protection with the chief sharif and his armed horse riders†who survey the caravan by riding up and own alongside it.

To ward off attacks and robberies as much as possible, a sharif selects his men preferably from among the distressed nomadic group of the area. Keep your friend close, but your enemy closer. In the mobile community named caravan the sharif is both chief and judge.

karavaan kopie

The most important task, however, is to keep the caravan going. Not only would it invite easy attacks, any small delay would break up the procession. At once camels will start looking for a coppice or a shrub and the donkeys will promptly call it a day.

Hoofddoek 4 portret

Stopping leads to feeding, which leads to repackaging and not arriving before darkness falls.

Not that this never happens. In case of sandstorms the camels lie down - with travellers sheltering behind them. Once in a while the storms are so sudden and fierce that caravan members drop to the ground, covering their faces with their hands.†

Sometimes the sharif deliberately shortens the day to create distance with a caravan in front.†

† † † † † † † † † † †K.E. Makovsky

A third of the caravan bends down to Baghdad. The rest has the port of Basra as its final destination, which is a thousand kilometres or 350 camel-hours away from Aleppo. Not only is the port regularly looted by surrounding tribes, within the past thirty years the population was halved twice by the plague.

Samuel prefers to continue to Isfahan. Perhaps he will be able to get in touch with one of the leading doctors who for centuries have been making the universities of Baghdad, Samarkand and other ‘pearls along the silk road’ famous worldwide.

isfahan

Among the kārwān members, the ancient capital of Persia is known as Nesf-e-Jahan, as ‘half the world’. From all regions everything and everyone comes together to trade anything: food, animals, silk, textiles, tools, spices, precious stones, prisoners, and more.

At times, Isfahan counted a million inhabitants. Traders from peoples around the Mediterranean, Caspian Sea and the Persian Gulf all built trading houses in this caravan junction.

Brug met bogen

As a consequence, Isfahan has many great, beautiful buildings: mosques, cathedrals and bridges that may have as much as†33 arches.

Khwaju bridge


Meidam emam isfahan

And on top of that the already world-famous Meidan Emam: a 500 by 200 meter city square lined with shopping malls that in the evening are lit with thousands of oil lamps.

A century earlier, the VOC also tried to establish a trading house. After fifteen years, the Heeren Zeventien in Amsterdam decided the outpost was not profitable enough. Isfahan was too deep inland.Trade got too much entangled with surrounding cultures, i.e. with political interests and wars.

Meidan Emam

Samuel does not get a lot of time to sightsee Isfahan.


Isfahan drawing


Since a century the Safavid Shahs have been ruling Persia as one of the so-called gunpowder empires, but they are on the verge of losing control. From the east, the Afghan Hotaki are attacking. In the north, Peter the Great constantly tries to gain more territory around the Caspian Sea.


Savid Empire 2

The revival of Shia Islam causes domestic intolerance towards Sunni, Zoroastrians, Jews, Armenian and Georgian Christians. Meanwhile, the Shah dynasty falls into decadence and decay.


sultan Husayn perziŽ

The young Sultan Husayn started his government with strict orthodox measures for the people, but surrounded himself with women, wine and song.†Despite all the blood on his hands, politics doesn't not interest him.

Without any reliable information, Samuel has to make a decision. He has to make choices that may extend his journey with a few years.

No longer can he follow his great example, the Italian doctor Gemelli Careri, and try to get to China in a more or less straight line. An accidental advantage: the route through Afghan deserts and mountains is among the toughest and most dangerous ones.

kaart centraal AziŽ kaar map perziŽ

He wants to bypass all the violence – the prelude to the ever-lasting†Great Game in Central Asia – by somehow encircling it via India.

If he would journey along the Persian Gulf coast, he might visit Gamron in a few months (the present Bandar Abbas in Iran). It is the port to which the VOC Trade Office for Persia†ultimately retreated.

Homing Pigeons

Probably it will be more reliable to send letters through their office than via one of the many homing pigeon services that Isfahan offers. Every hundred†kilometers or so he spotted a†dovecot in the shape of a tower†along the route.

Despite all the dangers, the Compagnie so far sends most of its mail from Persia and India over land rather than by sea. The VOC office in Gamron makes grateful use of merchants and missionaries, who arrive in the Iranian port of Basra and travel overland to the Turkish port of İskenderun, and thence proceed by boat to Marseille.

In addition, he might be able to cash a letter of credit. With the extended route to go, he’d better have some extra money in his pocket. Who knows what other unexpected political clashes will block his way? His purse – in spite of what his friends have lent him upon his departure – shrunk considerably over the past year.


karavaan


Among caravan members there is an iron rule that one does not rob the other. Once inside the caravanserai even criminals are safe for the night, allegedly even when they are each other’s enemy.

Karavanserai doornsee

Anyone who tries anything, immediately finds the whole community against him and is no longer certain of his life. Without mutual trust, daily travel is impossible – the surrounding area provides enough hazards by itself.



Karavanserai 2


Not without reason a caravan prefers to travel from caravanserai to serai. Whoever is inside for the night, must feel safe to sleep. As far as ticks, piggybacking on camels, and rats allow.

Karavanserai

Around the tenth century, caravanserais were conceived as military fortresses. In general they were a day trip of thirty to forty kilometres apart. The basic lay-out is a wall that shields a central square.

At the gate armed guards keep watch. In the walls are niches to sleep. The animals remain on the central grounds. Part of the payment is the animal dung, being costly as manure and fuel.


painting karavanserai

In a larger caravanserai Samuel can wash himself. The warm desert wind keeps his skin very dry, so it is mainly by external dirt that his clothes soiled. At the most a shirt, djellaba or keffiyeh needs to be washed once every two weeks.

Doek

Hot wind with zero per cent moisture not only dries out the skin but also the eyes, ears and armpits. He’d better not touch his nose, inside hairs can prick like pins.

More often, however, the caravan has to set up and break down its own tents. With a shortened night's sleep as a result. Like everybody else, Samuel drags a carpet of his own along. Some nights he rolls himself into it, for however hot it may get during the daytime, at night, two quilted blankets can prove not to be enough.

Skilled as he is by now, he knows how to select the right spot: away from the smelly camels and out of the smoke from the cooking fires, but not too close to the risky periphery of the mobile village.

Scorpions and snakes pose some danger as well. Rubbing oneself with crushed garlic apparently helps against a bite of the first, the cry La ilaha illa Allah! against the second.

Hoofddoek 1

As a rule, caravans leave in the darkness of the early morning. In the surrounding villages the elderly keep a close watch. They may even stay up all night. In order to prevent the disappearance of tools around the house, clothes from the line or possibly a playing child.

Hoofddoek 2

Around ten or eleven o’clock in the morning, when the heat of the day truly starts, the procession halts. Only at two or three in the afternoon, does everybody get up again to continue until twilight.

During sandstorms, Samuel finds protection close to his loyal camel, whose capriciousness and moods he has grown familiar with by now and in whose ruminating face, during the long hot siestas, he sometimes seems to recognize family members from Vlissingen.

He knows that his camel only turned adult at seven years, but in the end may reach thirty. During the route the animal made it clear that it can do for weeks without drinking but not without food. On the third day, it will start to complain loudly, on the fourth it regularly collapses through its knees and on the fifth day it simply refuses to get up. But with a few dates they may soon become friends again.

Camel head

The time-consuming loading and unloading he prefers to do himself. To ensure a good balance and prevent precarious situations during the heat inbetween thousands and thousands of moving stilts.

Like the others, Samuel wets his metres – long headscarf, a kind of turban really. It cools the brain, but never for long. As a rule the water is dirty and smelly and at best sieved through a piece of linen.

Hoofddoek 3

The dirt comes from the sharif not always managing to keep the thousands of animals away from the water on arrival at a lake or oasis.

Often sharifs are seriously moustached men. Any map or compass they wave away, the stars tell them plenty - apparently during the day as well.

Samuel notices that old guides faithfully rely on beacons like abandoned ruins and wells, on what wind blows in what direction and when, and on the angles and direction of the ripples in the desert sand. And then remain profoundly silent.


Desert colours

Over the years, Samuel not only develops an eye for which sand colours could be risky - the gypsum stone surfaces, for example, or the paths with mica-rich stones - but for their sheer beauty as well.

In the morning, the desert may show all shades of red, rust and orange for miles on end, only to merge into strips of soft and dark yellow during the afternoon.

Utterly soundless, the quietness at times quivers during the heat of noon. Whenever a bird flies over his head, there is the vibrating sound of somong tearing up letters next to his ear.

Every now and then he finds a stone that he just must pick up. Looking daily at the slowly advancing pack animals, he realizes how unvaringly mankind has been displacing itself thus for thousands of years.

Zeeland is far away.

slang woestijn

Scattered along the route, bones and fragments from other ages are lying around. Occasionally the convoy passes a dilapidated village, possibly abandoned after a bloody raid or after the well ran dry. Nobody clears the bones, breaks down the ruins and reuses the loose stones. As if it were a ghost village, occupied by snakes and other pests.

At two hours from Gamron, the caravan is stopped. The local sheik's customs come to sell city passes and tax the merchandize.

Within a travelling village full of strangers, headscarves, beards and burqas, he may keep a low profile and disguise himself. But at major stops he cannot escape being singled out.

To skip the long wait – and the sweet-tea-consuming negotiations – he puts his cards on the table with some bravado. After two desert years amongst merchants, he knows how to settle the rate for a pass.

VOC emblem

He wants to pay a short visit to Gamron, more specifically to the VOC-comptoir. Here, Dutch merchants initially bought up silk, but since the direct sea link with China, the settlement mainly traded rose oil and wool against sugar from Java or textile from India.


Gamron port


From the first chief merchant in 1630, virtually no director has lasted longer than a year or two. About ten per cent of them because they died within that period.

VOC ship

When Samuel knocks at the door, there has just been another†changing of the guard. Director De Croeze had not been in charge for half a year when he died. The second man, assistant De Backer, does not know how to address this Dutch private person, who claims to travel overland by himself. Is he the man he pretends to be? Is he not a trade spy for the French or the English?

VOC coin

The reception is quite a sobering experience for Samuel. He is greeted with so much suspicion and insinuation that he feels offended. His brother Carel nota bene is 'commies at the offices of the convoys' in Amsterdam and brother Reinier is 'captain at sea at the Admiralty of Amsterdam'. But all of this the assistant cannot verify and the introductory letters he does not trust either. In short, he doesn’t want or dare to take any responsibility.


VOC soldaten

VOC-soldiers

Annoyed, Samuel decides to stay overnight at the competition, the 'English Lodge'. Not a smart move, it makes him even more suspicious. It damages the credibility of his travel documents, which is based on reputation as well as gossip – as he will discover later on.

The next morning he rejoins the caravan, which is still bivouacking at a few miles from Gamron’s harbour. Deep in southern India the much larger VOC trade post Cochin is situated. There he can take the boat to Vlissingen or still decide to travel even further.†To China.

He still has about a year to think about it.


Caravan early morning



Continue to part 3

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Main sources:

Lequin Meijer





Desert route to India book





James Michener









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