Thursday, February 22, 2018

Eunuchs in 'In the Land of the Lion and Sun' (1883)

In the Land of the Lion and Sun, or Modern Persia is Dr. Charles James Wills' 1883 travel memoir. The book is hundreds of pages, and the word "eunuch" appears only several times. These two excerpts are noteworthy. Page numbers are from the 1893 Ward, Lock and Bowden, Ltd. version.

“I was handed over to a white eunuch, who seemed to be troubled with all the ills that flesh is heir to, and who grunted and grumbled a good deal as he led me towards the part of the house set apart for the habitation of the ladies.

After passing through several yards and passages, we came to a low door with a curtain. My guide entered, and raised the curtain, previously shouting ‘Bero! Bero!’ (Be off, be off).

* * *

The eunuch now returned, seated himself on the ground at my side...

* * *

After talking to the eunuch for some minutes, in which the old fellow evidently was calling these very gushing ladies to order, they suddenly plumped down on their knees in front fo me, and compelled me to feel both their pulses, look at both their tongues, examine their throats, and a second time to feel their pulses at the other wrist.

As I understood very little Persian, and neither they nor the eunuch anything but that language it was very difficult to make out what was the matter. One thing was very certain — they looked upon the whole matter as a very good joke; and seemed inclined to torment the eunuch and make great fun of me." (pp. 38-41)

And here:

...the ragamuffin attendants on the royal ladies always used to shout “Begone,” “Be off,” and their postilions would always drive as close as possible, and pass one as if they wished a collision, or to take a wheel off.

The custom of the kūrūk is dying out. It used to be death for any man to be in the neighbourhood of the royal wives when on their numerous outings. The people always fled, or stood with faces to the wall ; and Europeans, when they saw the eunuchs' procession approaching, and heard the cry of "Gitchen" (Turkish "Begone"), to avoid unpleasantness and possible rows, used to turn down the first street. A very eccentric Austrian, the Baron Gersteiger Khan (the latter title being, of course, a Persian dignity ; for many years instructor to the Persian army, and at last general; principal officer of engineers, and constructor of roads, in which latter work he has really left some striking marks of his success), on meeting the ladies when he was on foot, turned his face to the wall like a native, and as each carriage passed, deliberately saluted from the back of his head. This delighted the ladies, and they informed the Shah. The Shah sent for Gersteiger, and made him repeat his salutes, and after laughing a good deal, gave him a handsome present. (p. 370)

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