The Kavir salt desert
Quoted from: George Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question, vol. 2
Yezd and Kerman both stand, as has been seen, on the outskirts of a desert, and north of both, for league upon league, extends the appalling waste that has here stamped upon deserts Persia the imprint of an eternal desolation. From the haunts of busy life and commerce I turn, therefore, to the contemplation of a Sahara as funereal and more unique than any that Tartary or Africa call display. ln existing works upon Persia there will be found hesitating, and often conflicting, accounts about both the extent, the ramifications, and the limits of the main Persian desert or deserts, arising from the scant and often untrustworthy information upon which those descriptions have been based. The more reliable intelligence that has lately been procured enables us to formulate a more accurate conception. There are, practically speaking, two great deserts, covering a combined length, from north-west to south-east, of over 500 miles, but separated from each other, between the thirty-second and thirty-fourth parallels of latitude, by a belt of hilly country, along which runs one of the main caravan tracks from the centre to the north-east. Of these deserts, the more northerly, extending from 33' to 36' north latitude, and from 52' to 57' east longitude, is that generally known as the Great Salt Desert, or Dasht-i-Kavir. The second or southerly, extending from 29' to "0'2' north latitude, and from 57' to 60' east longitude, is that described on the maps as the Dasht-i-Lut. Both are salt, in so far as nemeksar, or saline swamp, is found in the depressions of each, which average about 1,000 feet above the sea ; but the far greater proportion of kavir in the northern desert and the almost complete absence of vegetation have procured for it the unenviable monopoly of the name.
By some the name Dasht-i-Kavir has been simply translated Great Desert, kavir being presumed to be a local modification of the Arabic kabir, great. Such a derivation, however, altogether loses sight of the saline characteristics, which are an essential connotation of the term as used in Persia. General Schindler, examining the various words from which it may be derived-(I) the Persian gav, a depression or hollow, (2) the Persian gur or kur, a grave, pool, hollow, or plain (whence gurkhar, the wild ass or ass of the plain), and (3) the Arabic kttfr, or kafreh (plural kufur), a word still in use to express a desert in Africa and Arabia-gives, the preference to the last. (Proceedings of the R. G. S. (new series), vol. x. p. 627.) In its Persian application it invariably signifies a salt desert or saline swamp, and is bestowed both upon the Great Salt Desert of which I am now speaking, and also upon smaller kavirs or patches of saline waste, which are to be found in other parts of the country, and which may be regarded, in some cases as repetitions of the same phenomenon in detached localities, in others as bays or inlets of the Dasht-i-Kavir.
(The best known of these are the kavir south of Khaf, that to the east of Lake Niriz, and the kavir whose western limits used to be passed on the road between Teheran and Kum, but are now occupied by the lake which appeared there in 1883, and which is described in cap. xviii.)
The theory has sometimes prevailed that the latter owes its origin solely to the drainage of saline streams from the highlands depositing, as they evaporate, a white crust or efflorescence upon the ground, and in some cases forming pools and swamps; and there is this to be said in favour of the hypothesis, that the streams of Persia are very frequently and largely impregnated with salt. On the other hand, tradition is so unanimous that the site of the Dasht-i-Kavir and, in fact, the entire, centre of Persia, were once occupied by a salt sea, and the present physical conditions accord so well with the theory, that we shall probably not err if we accept it. Legend asserts that this inland sea once extended from Kazvin to Kerman and the borders of Beluchistan. The ancient city of Rhages is said to have been upon its northern shore, Yezd to have been an island, and Kerman to have been upon its southern coast. The tower of Saveh is even identified as one of the lighthouses built to guide the mariners who navigated its waves. Sir F. Goldsmid mentions, as confirmatory evidence, that upon the other or eastern edge of the kavir he found a village named Yunsi, from a fixed tradition that Yunas, i.e. Jonah, was there cast up by the whale - a fiction which could hardly have been localised upon dry land. Guides and superstitious villagers, living near the various kavirs, tell marvellous tales of the circumstances under which they ceased to be seas and were dried up; but these are interesting only to students of folklore, and need not be here repeated.
In different parts, the kavir presents a different aspect, according to the nature of the soil and the amount of salt water that refuses to be drained. Sometimes it is quite dry and soft, with a thin glazed crust on the top, which kavir crackles beneath the horse's hoof, and with powdery soil beneath. Sometimes it presents an expanse of hard baked clay. Again it will take the form of mobile hillocks and dangerous quicksands. When the water is lying upon the surface, particularly in winter, it will in one place resemble a great lake, in another it will be a slimy swamp; while after the evaporation of the early summer suns the saline incrustation on the dried up patches will glitter in the distance like sheets of ice. (Vide the description given by Colonel C. E. Stewart, Proceedings of the R. G. S. (new series), vol. iii. (1881), p. 518.)
Of travellers who have crossed or skirted the Great Kavir there are few. Marco Polo has been said to have traversed a portion of it on his supposed route from Tabbas to Damghan about 1272 ; although it is more probable that he marched further to the east, and crossed the northern portion of the Dasht-i-Lut. Dr. Buhse, a Russian, crossed a portion of on a journey from Yezd to Damghan in 1849, and was said by Sir 0. St. John to have been the sole European who had done So. Sir F. Goldsmid and the Seistan Boundary Commission were near to its eastern fringe in 1872. Sir C. MacGregor, on his march from Yezd to Tabbas, via Khur, in 1875, was upon its southern border. Finally, in 1887 and 1888, two young Indian officers, Lieutenant R. E. Galindo and Lieutenant H. B. Vaughan, travelling, the former from Khiir to Damgban, the latter from Anarek to Semnan, alighted at intervening points upon the true Dasht-i-Kavir. The experiences of each were somewhat different. Lieutenant Galindo speaks of perfectly level ground, at first principally black mud, with isolated patches of white salt, and slimy pools of green water. Gradually the salt increases till it becomes a hard, almost unbroken, white crust, still with the green pools standing on it, and looking something like the little pools left by the sea in the hollows of a rocky coast at low water. It is no exaggeration to say that the whole of this track (about twenty-six miles) is marked out by carcasses of camels, averaging one for every 200 yards, in various stages of pickle.
Elsewhere, there was little or no saline efflorescence, but it appeared as if very liquid black mud had been suddenly arrested and hardened, while in a state of violent ebullition or effervescence. The ground is thickly pitted and honeycombed with round holes, from eight to twelve inches in diameter, and generally about the same depth, though some go down two or three feet. Between these are rounded nodules or ridges of mud, some of which are solid, but some are merely bubbles or blisters of earth, with a thin crust covering a treacherous bole. On the path a horse has to move with slow circumspection, stepping from knob to knob, or he would soon be lamed. Off the beaten track, of course, it is simply impassable.
Lieutenant Vaughan, more to the west, wrote as follows:-
'As we quitted the defile, a sudden turn in the road presented to our astonished gaze what at first sight looked like a vast frozen sea, stretching away to the right as far as the eye could reach in one vast glistening expanse. A more careful examination proved it to be nothing more than salt formed into one immense sheet of dazzling brilliancy, while here and there upon its surface, pools of water, showing up in the most intense blue, were visible. Away to the north of it stood a distant range of low red hills. A peculiar haze, perhaps caused by evaporation, hangs over the whole scene, which, thou-ii softening the features of the distant hills, does not obliterate their details. This is the Great Salt Swamp, which, lying at a low level in the ceiitre of the great desert, receives into its bed the drainage from an immense tract of territory. All the rivers flowing into it are more-or-less salt and carry down to it annually a great volume of water. The fierce heat of the desert during the summer months causes a rapid evaporation, the result being that the salt constantly increases in proportion to the water, until at last the ground becomes caked with it.'
(Proceedings of the R. G. S. (new series), 1886, vol. viii. pp. 141-3. Lieutenant Vaughan thinks that the Dasht-i-Kavir contains two great depressions, one at the south base of the Kuh-i-Gugird, the other at the point formed by the junction of the Kal Mura and Kal Lada rivers, both containing vast sheets of water in the rainy season.)
In the past year (1891), yet another section of the Great Kavir, and itself a new phenomenon, has been for the first time brought to light by the same officer, travelling in company with Mr. C. E. Biddulph. This is no less than a great expanse of solid rock salt, the deposit for countless centuries of numerous salt streams, called by the natives Daria-i-Nemek, or Sea of Salt. It has apparently been traversed for long years by native caravans, crossing from the Meshed-Teheran road to Kashan, from which its southern border is distant less than 40 miles to the north-east; but during all this period no hint of its existence has reached European ears. The two English travellers suddenly came upon it, having climbed a crest of the Siah Kull, a prominent ridge that rises from the heart of the desert. This is what they saw:-
'At our feet lay what looked like a frozen sea, but was in reality a deposit of salt, which entirely filled the hollow in the plains towards the south, and stretched away as far as the eye could reach on either side, glittering in the sun like a sheet of glass.'
Descending to the brink they marched across it till they came to the actual sheet of salt.
'This at the edge was soft and sloppy like half-melted ice ; but, as we proceeded, it gained in consistency till at a distance of 3 or 4 miles it resembled nothing more than very solid ice, strong enough to bear any weight.'
The travellers tried to ascertain its depth ; but it was so hard that with iron tent-pegs they could only detach a few chips. The natives said it was several feet thick. Crossing this astonishing expanse by moonlight, in order to escape the blinding glare of the sun, they estimated its breadth as 25 miles, and its length as even greater. This sea of solid rock-salt is probably without a rival in the world.
Such, then, is the superficial aspect of the Dasht-i-Kavir. Traversed only with difficulty by routes lying higher than the general level, it may be said within the vast area of its limits absolutely to cut off northern from southern Persia, and to interpose a barrier between the two as grim and insurmountable as, at the opposite extreme of nature, do the mighty ramparts of the Himalaya between British India and Tibet. Should it ever be the fate of Persia to submit to territorial and political partition, nature has, in this part at any rate, saved the contracting or conflicting parties the expense and trouble of a Boundary Commission.
From the Dasht-i-Kavir, or Great Salt Desert, I turn to the Dasht-i-Lut, or Great Sand Desert, separating Khorasan in the south-east from Kerman, and occupying a sorrowful parallelogram between the towns of Neh and Tabbas on the north, and Kerman and Yezd on the south. Not that this sand desert is without salt. On the contrary salt is perhaps its chief ingredient ; but it is rarely kavir, i.e. it is rarely overlaid either with a saline incrustation or with a briny swamp; and it gives birth to a few miserable desert shrubs, which is a concession to respectability that no kavir has ever vouchsafed. The Lut, which some too ingenious critics have fancifully endeavoured to connect with the Lot of Holy Writ, but which is apparently a local synonym for a wilderness, is situated at a much lower level than the Dasht-i-Kavir; for its normal elevation is less than 2,000 feet, and in places it sinks to only 500 feet above the sea level. Upon the maps it occupies a staring and eloquent blank. Few travellers have crossed it, fewer still having done so would voluntarily repeat the experiment. Marco Polo was here, but where was not the invincible Venetian ? In the succeeding century Friar Odoricus thus described its charms, calling it the Sea of Sand:-
'Now that sea is a wondrous thing and right perilous. And there were none of us who desired to enter on that sea. For it, is all of dry sand, without any moisture, and it shifteth, as the sea doth when in storm, now hither, now thither ; and as it shifteth it maketh waves in like manner as the sea doth ; so that countless people travelling thereon have been overwhelmed and drowned, and buried in those sands. For when blown about and buffeted by the winds, they are raised into hills, now in this place, now in that, according as the wind chanceth to blow.'
Khanikoff crossed the Dasht-i-Lut from Neh to Kerman in 1859. Goldsmid's party were on its borders in 1871. Colonel Stewart made an expedition into it in 1882. Lieutenant Galindo twice crossed it, once in six days, and once in five days, in 1887 and 1888, traversing a belt of 120 miles entirely without water. His description is almost identical with that of the worthy Minorite friar 550 years earlier. He could not fail to notice the extraordinary resemblance presented by the blown sand to the waves of a chopping sea. These sand billows alternate with bare expanses of black gravel, and with a phenomenon not previously described. This is a region of curious square-cut clay bluffs, believed by the natives to be the ruins of an ancient city, and called by them the Shehr-i-Lut, but consisting in reality of 'natural formations of hard clay, cut and carved by the fierce north-west wind into strange shapes, suggestive of walls and towers.' Lieutenant Galindo found everywhere beneath the sand a substratum of hard rock-salt some eight or nine inches below the surface, thus proving the saline character of the desert, and here and there patches of genuine kavir, the ground being mapped out in irregular polygons with dividing walls of solid salt, or studded with hard round white bubbles of the same material, like a lot of half-buried ostrich eggs, or covered with a sort of moss of delicate looking salt spiculae, standing up like needles an inch long, but strong as steel spikes. The worst part of this desert is its southeast corner between Neh and Bani, which is one of the most awful regions on the face of the earth. Here the prevailing north-west winds have swept the sand together, and banked it up in huge mounds and hills, ever shifting and eddying. A fierce sun beats down upon the surface which is as fiery hot as incandescent metal and almost always the bad-i-sam or simoom is blowing, 'so desiccated by its passage over hundreds of miles of burning desert, that if it overtakes man or animal its parched breath in a moment sucks every atom of moisture from his frame, and leaves him a withered and blackened mummy.'
This horrible desert extends as far south as Bam-Narmasbir for long the frontier district of Kerman.