xxii. Clothing of the Caspian area
In several aspects the traditional dress (Gīlaki lebās; Ṭāleši ḵalā) of Gīlān and Māzandarān bears a structural resemblance to that of other rural regions of Persia. It is constructed in successive layers, often of similar pieces superimposed, like women’s skirts or men’s shirts in winter. The greatest possible protection for the head and the torso—particularly the back—is considered desirable (for this tendency throughout Persia, see Polak, I, p. 138). Children have no specific costume but wear clothing similar to that of adults, though with several variations. Straight garments, composed of quadrangular pieces with edges stitched together and triangular subsidiary pieces attached, are worn along with more closely fitted tailored garments, the majority of which are derived from European models. In the first category are tunics, gathered skirts, and shepherds’ cloaks, in the second the caftans (qabā) with lapped front closings that were worn at the beginning of this century and the waistcoats and European-style jackets that have become essential parts of daily dress.
In addition to these shared characteristics, however, the traditional dress of the Caspian area exhibits an unmistakable originality that clearly reflects the distinctive way of life in this peripheral region of Persia (Bromberger, 1989, pp. 21, 24). In the majority of communities on the Persian plateau cultural behavior is determined by an enclosed life style: Houses are surrounded by blind walls to protect them from the intrusive view of outsiders; women live secluded in the interior (andarūn) and wear the veil (čādor) in the presence of strangers (bīgāna) or possible spouses from within the family (nā-maḥram) and when they go outside the home. Along the Caspian littoral, on the other hand, the predominant life-style is more open. Houses are not hidden behind walls, there is relatively little sexual division of domestic space, and the čādor is worn only for trips to large cities and for religious ceremonies. The absence of the veil, which is even more marked among the Gāleš and Ṭāleš of the mountains than among the Gīlānis and Māzandarānis of the plains, has struck travelers in all periods. For example, Jonas Hanway (I, p. 185) noted that peasant women were “often seen abroad without veils,” and Keith Abbott (fol. 34) remarked that “the female peasantry in this part of the country do not conceal their faces.” Modern historians of the region (e.g., Faḵrāʾī, 1354 Š./1975, p. 186) and ethnologists (e.g., Vil’chevskiĭ, p. 233) confirm these reports. As for the general style of dress, certain components and methods of constructing garments are sufficiently distinctive to have become identified with the Caspian population. Particularly noteworthy in this connection are šāl, a type of cloth; very thick stockings (jūrāb, gūrāve); cowhide shoes (čūmūš); and the čādəršāb, a piece of cloth that women wear tied around the waist.
Šāl is a coarse material of sheep’s wool in plain weave (in which each weft is passed alternately over and under single warps), made either on a horizontal loom with one heddle rod or on a pedal loom with two heddle rods (for description and classification of these types of loom, see Bazin and Bromberger, pp. 68-72). It is then scrubbed energetically in soapy water, which gives it the properties and appearance of European loden cloth. Among the Ṭāleš and the Gāleš the main parts of the male costume (trousers, waistcoat, jacket, and cap) are made from this cloth. Šāl has become even more closely identified with the Caspian provinces since members of the Jangalī revolutionary movement, which dominated the region from 1333/1915 to 1339 = 1300 Š./1921 (see communism i), wore “uniforms” made from it. According to photographs (Faḵrāʾī, 1344 Š./1965, pp. 115, 242) and eyewitness accounts (Edmonds, fol. 12), the leader Mīrzā Kūček Khan most often wore the traditional Caspian costume made from šāl. In fact, a Jangalī cooperative produced both the fabric and the uniforms.
The shoes and stockings worn until very recently by men of the Ṭāleš and Gāleš were also specific to the region. The woolen stockings, which could be either in plain colors or polychrome, were knitted on five needles and worn especially by shepherds. The traditional shoes (čūmūš, čāroḵ) consisted of cowhide soles folded up to envelop the lower parts of the feet (Figure 71). The leather, after being stretched, dried, and salted, was cut in the shape of the foot; the edges of this sole (zol) were pierced with holes, through which a thong (šīrī) was passed in and out, then folded up to enclose the foot. A second thong was then passed through the holes in the opposite direction to help hold the leather in place, and finally the two side edges were pulled together by means of woolen or leather bands across the instep (for another method of making čūmūš, see Vil’chevskiĭ, p. 235). Another characteristic type of shoe also deserves mention: the katele (or pā-kettel; MacKenzie, fol. 24), a bare wooden platform with a peg that was clasped between the first two toes or a thong over the instep. The thick stockings, the leather shoes with neither uppers nor closed backs, and the wooden clogs seem also to be common cultural traits in the various regions of the Caucasus (for Armenia, see, e.g., Lisicʿyan, pl. LXX).
The most distinctive element of the women’s costume in the Caspian area is the čādəršāb (variants: čāršāb, čāršo), a rectangular piece of cloth folded into a triangle and worn knotted around the waist with the point in back for daily work or wrapped around the bosom to carry an infant on the back. In the eastern part of Gīlān the čādəršāb is made from strips (taḵtə) of cloth woven of silk floss (kəj) on a pedal loom with two heddles. A čādəršāb of this type, with polychrome checks, is a characteristic element of the women’s costume of Qāsemābād on the eastern plain and has been incorrectly assumed to be typical of clothing from the whole region (see, e.g., Behnam, p. 34).
Aside from these identifying elements, the major items of Caspian clothing are presented here in descending order of the body parts on which they are worn: head, shoulders, hips, feet (for the principles of this classification, see Leroi-Gourhan, p. 214).
Women’s clothing (plate clii, plate cliii, plate cliv, plate clv). In the domestic setting women wear a scarf (leček, lāčak, sardabād, pišāsar), usually covering only the top of the head; the face, ears, and neck are thus left exposed, an indication of the minimal segregation of women among Caspian social groups. The color of the scarf and the way in which it is arranged vary with the region and age of the wearer. In ʿAmmārlū, the Deylamān district, and the eastern Gīlān plain a black cloth folded into a triangle (ca. 185 cm long and 70 cm wide at the point) is worn in several ways. It can be wrapped around the forehead and knotted at the back, with the free ends used to cover curls, braids, or a chignon on top of the head (plate clii); sometimes the braids are brought up and knotted on top of the scarf. The most common way of wearing the scarf is in a sort of turban constructed of two tiers, with the ends knotted on the forehead or sometimes wrapped around a braid that hangs down the back (plate clii, second and fourth figures from the left). Elsewhere in the Caspian lowlands the scarf, which is rarely of a bright color, is folded into a triangle, then wrapped around the head above the ears; the two ends are crossed above the nape and usually knotted atop the head, and the point hangs free or is wrapped around the hair.
Outside the home women wear a white shawl (dastmāl-e sefīd, kuldabād, or yaylıḵ in the Turkefied part of Ṭāleš), a square folded into a triangle and knotted or simply crossed under the chin, with the sides billowing over the shoulders (plate clii), wrapped around the neck, or fastened at the top of the head (for example, when the women are transplanting the seedlings in the rice fields). In eastern Gīlān this shawl is worn on top of the leček, whereas on the coast and among the Ṭāleš it replaces it. The way in which the leček or the dastmāl is arranged can serve as an indication of the age, status, and circumstances of the wearer. Young girls wear the leček farther back on the head, allowing part of their hair to show; married and older women wear it farther forward, thus hiding almost all the hair. In certain areas (northern Ṭāleš in particular) married women cover the lower portion of the face with the ends of the leček or the dastmāl, which they cross over the chin, fastening the ends together above the ears (plate cliii). For marriage ceremonies the lečeks are decorated with coins, and fringed dastmāls with embroidered designs are preferred (plate cliv).
As has been mentioned, women wear the čādor only in exceptional circumstances: on pilgrimages, during the ceremonies for Moḥarram and Ṣafar, and at their own weddings. The Ṭāleš have a saying, “Our women wear the čādor only when they are being married, in order to go from the houses of their fathers to those of their husbands.” At that time the young bride is wrapped in a veil, which is draped over her head like a bell and hides her entire face. According to Maḥmūd Pāyanda Langarūdī (pp. 75-76), the status of the young bride in the eastern mountains of Gīlān used to be indicated by another costume detail: a strip of cloth (yāsmāq) that she wore covering her mouth during the period between the signing of the marriage contract (ʿaqd) and her installation in her husband’s house. Among garments worn on the head, finally, the bonnet worn by all young children, regardless of sex, until they are weaned should be included. It covers the ears and is tied with strings under the chin.
An essential element of female dress is a long tunic (pirhan, Ṭāleši šey, in Turkefied Ṭāleš köynak), which is pulled on over the head and reaches to the thighs or the knees (in eastern Gīlān and Māzandarān) and sometimes even to the ankles (among the Ṭāleš). Two slits at the sides allow greater fullness at the bottom (plates clii, cliv, clv). The top, with a straight, narrow band collar, has a placket in front to permit nursing; this opening is provided with buttons and buttonholes, framed in braid or ribbon, or emphasized still further by bands of appliquéd ribbon. The tunic generally has long and relatively narrow sleeves (āstīn, qol), which close at the wrists; in summer women roll them up to the elbows (plate cliv), though sometimes in the lowlands they may switch to a garment with short sleeves. These essential elements of female costume are usually made of printed cloth (čīt), on which floral motifs predominate; plain colors are preferred for ceremonial occasions: a white tunic for the bride, bright red or blue for other women who participate in the wedding (plate clv), black for mourning. A special feature of the region of Qāsemābād is the variegated braids (pāre) on the lower part of the garment.
The tunic is generally worn with a skirt (plates clii, cliv, clv), but sometimes a dress (šalīte) is substituted for this combination. The dress consists of a bodice stitched to a gathered skirt; it is fairly short and is always worn over trousers. It is doubtless a provincial vestige of an urban fashion that was introduced at the end of the last century by Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah (1264-1313/1848-96), who was delighted by ballerinas’ tutus that he had seen on his European travels and imposed them on the women at his court. The new fashion must subsequently have been adopted throughout the country (Tual, p. 96; cf. Behnam, p. 35).
Over the tunic or the bodice of the dress women wear a waistcoat (jelez, jelīqe, Ṭāleši jərqa) or, less often, a straight jacket open at the front, which was originally borrowed from European male dress. The choice between these two pieces of clothing helps to distinguish the generations: Young women more willingly wear the waistcoat, older women the jacket (plate clii). The waistcoat worn every day is black, but for special occasions bright colors and ornaments are preferred; the waistcoat worn for marriage ceremonies may be edged with coins (sake; plate clv). Jackets, too, are dark and somber for ordinary daily wear, but those for special occasions are of red velvet.
As already noted, the čādəršāb is a distinctive regional garment; several examples are customarily included in the dowry (jahāz). It is most often worn knotted around the torso, either over or under the jacket or waistcoat and thus functions both to protect the lower back, supposedly the most sensitive part of the body, and to cinch the long tunic (plates cliii, cliv). This role as a sash is underscored by the terms used to designate the garment on the borders of Gīlān, all of which include the word kamar “belt” as a component: kamaršāl, kamardabenezār in southern Ṭāleš, and so on.
The skirt (tūmān) is long, full, and gathered; with the tunic it constitutes the basic Gīlaki female dress (plates clii, cliv, clv). It is cinched to the body by means of a cord, which is drawn through a waistband (tūmān qūže, Ṭāleši līfa) to gather the cloth. The density of the gathers (čīn), like the length and color of the skirt, indicates the wearer’s age. Young girls and women use much more material in their skirts than their mothers and grandmothers do, so that the gathers are very dense, which is considered quite attractive. The length of the skirt can also vary with age, often reaching only to the calves among the youngest women but falling to the toes among older ones. But it is the color of the skirt that most clearly distinguishes the generation of the wearer. The printed cottons preferred by the young women have red (a symbolic color in female clothing, connoting fertility in the Caspian world; cf. Jackson, p. 86) or white backgrounds with contrasting floral motifs in bright colors (plates clii, cliv); those worn by older women generally have dark backgrounds patterned all over with small motifs.
Women often wear two or three skirts, one on top of the other (for seven or eight worn in the 19th century, see Guilliny, p. 91), the newest worn on top of those that are more worn or faded. Sometimes skirt and underskirt are differentiated; the latter, called kafalī, is shorter, made from a single piece of cloth with a gathered ruffle around the lower part (plate cliii). Superimposing skirts in this fashion confers a striking and much sought-after fullness to the lower part of the costume. Finally, under their skirts women wear close-fitting ankle-length black pantaloons (šalvār) or, at home, a kind of pajama (bījāmā) with wide legs. The fabrics of the trousers, as of the rest of the costume, are no longer as fine as they were in the 19th century. C. Beresford Lovett (p. 1072) dated this decline in quality to the 1860s, when a crisis in Persian silk production resulting from the spread of pébrine (see abrīšam) was aggravated by massive imports of “cheap Russian fabrics of gaudy colouring and design.” In more comfortable households the pantaloons were formerly made of “sturdy blue or ponceau silk” (Fraser, p. 361; Chodzko, p. 202).
Traditionally peasant women went barefoot. The Gīlak still boast, “From birth to death our women do not know what shoes are” (Vil’chevskiĭ, p. 236). Today the majority of women wear molded rubber shoes, the galoshes (gāləš, from Russian galosha “rubber”) that were first imported to Persia from Riga and St. Petersburg at the beginning of this century (Rabino, 1910, p. 9; plate clv).
Overall, then, female clothing in the rural Caspian area is characterized by a certain unity, especially notable in the čādəršāb, the gathered skirt, floral-patterned cloth, and bright colors. Small differences among districts can be noted in particular details—variegated braids stitched to the tunic and skirt of the Qāsemābādi costume, the black leček worn east of the Safīdrūd, and so on—but they are not as sharply distinct as in some other regions of the Old World (e.g., central Europe). Age differences are expressed not through a strict and explicit style of dress but rather through nuances (e.g., the color and length of the skirt and the density of the gathers); as for differences in social status, they are reflected mainly in the quality of the materials used, the frequency with which garments are replaced (women in general buy new clothes at the Nowrūz season), and the adoption of European fashions. Poorer women, who can seldom afford new clothes, are thus the reluctant guardians of ethnic tradition. Finally, there are no fundamental differences between winter and summer outfits; the only variations are in the combination and number of superimposed pieces. For example, in high summer a woman in the lowlands might wear loose trousers, possibly also a skirt, and a tunic (plate cliv); during the cold season she might don a combination of trousers, skirts, woolens, and jacket or waistcoat, but there is no specific winter garment (like a coat) for women. Customs related to women’s clothing in the Caspian are quite flexible and adaptable to specific circumstances; for example, women hitch up their skirts and tuck them into their čādəršābs while they are at work transplanting or weeding the rice fields.
Men’s clothing (plate clvi, plate clvii, plate clviii). Among men the contrast between the clothing of the mountain herders and that of the peasants in the lowlands is much greater than among women. The shepherds of Ṭāleš and Gāleš wear garments made from locally woven šāl, cut out and stitched by the tailor (ḵayyāṭ) of the nearest hamlet (plates clvi, clvii), whereas the farmers on the plains of Gīlān and Māzandarān wear European-style clothing purchased in the bāzārs. Clothing made of šāl thus serves to identify the ethnic group and simultaneously to mark status within mountain society (plate clviii).
As almost everywhere in Persia, there is great morphological variety in male headgear. The predominant forms have changed profoundly since the mid-19th century, when chroniclers described the men of the Caspian area as wearing tall conical or semiconical hats (kolā; cf. Fraser, p. 147; Chodzko, p. 202; Lovett, p. 1071; Orio, fig. 1). Charles Francis Mackenzie (fol. 18) noted that these hats were shaped like “inverted flower pots,” and Polak (I, p. 140) pointed out that the conical black models, which were of Tartar origin, had been widespread in the region since the advent of the Qajars. These hats were made of felt or formed from a paper core lined with calico and covered with sheepskin, goatskin, or cotton cloth. The peasants wore such hats in winter but only simple skullcaps in summer. The height of the hats diminished progressively during the course of the century, and the conical type was gradually replaced by a tall cylindrical version in felt with a rounded crown. After World War I tall hats gave way to lower cylindrical hats and especially to close-fitting skullcaps (kolā, kəlā, börk in the Turkefied part of Ṭāleš) made either of four pieces of šāl stitched together or of felt (plates clvi, clviii), the latter more common east of the Safīdrūd. One village in Eškevarāt, Šavak, specializes in the manufacture of these caps; the craftsmen (kolāmāl) press and shape the felt (namad), using wooden molds (qāleb) of different heights.
Among other garments worn on the head the mufflers (kolāgoš) and capes (bāšlaḵ) of šāl in which older shepherds and woodcutters wrap themselves during the cold season must be mentioned; they wind the mufflers around their heads and pull the hoods of their capes over them (plate clvi). The type of head covering is thus a good indicator of social status among men. The skullcap is worn by mountain herders and peasants in the lowlands, the muffler and cape of šāl by older and poorer forest dwellers, the visored cap (kolā pahlevī) by prosperous farmers on the plain and the middle-class population of the cities, the hat (šāpo < Fr. chapeau) by merchants in the bāzārs, and so on.
In the second half of the 19th century (cf. Polak, I, p. 144) European-style shirts were introduced, and their popularity continued to grow during the first decades of the 20th century; previously men had worn short tunics (pirhan, Ṭāleši šey) of raw silk or blue cotton cloth (the distinctive color of traditional male dress) reaching to the navel. The fabrics used in making these tunics were woven at home (Lovett, p. 1071). Depending on the weather, men put on over the tunic a waistcoat (jelīqe, jelezqa), a doublet (alḵāleq), and/or a qabā, a long-sleeved garment, either cut straight and worn open or partly lapped and fitted to the waist with a flowing knee-length skirt. The qabā was worn especially by merchants, master craftsmen, and town dwellers (Faḵrāʾī, 1354 Š./1975, p. 188), whereas mountain herders wore a doublet of šāl or felt, with the ends tucked into the trousers (Fraser, p. 147). The European-style jacket (kūt), which has gradually replaced the qabā and the doublet, is nonetheless still tailored of black šāl among the Ṭāleš and Gāleš (plates clvi, clviii); in southern Ṭāleš it is always called šəkā. The waistcoats, too, though shorter and more closely fitted than formerly, are still made of this traditional material. Over these garments shepherds wear a wide cape (šawlā, šūlā) without sleeves or sleeve holes. It is made from a simple folded sheet of felt, open in front and laced together along the upper edges; at the two corners over the shoulders the laces are knotted and pulled tight, which lends the cape a slightly rounded shape. The most common type, in natural color, is knee length (plate clvii). A shorter version, the kalak, is also found in the mountains of Māzandarān (Pūrkarīm, p. 50). This cape, which provides effective protection against the cold, is not normally personal property but is said “to belong to the herd.” That is, the shepherds take turns wearing it, wrapping themselves in it when they lie down to sleep.
Travelers’ descriptions from the 19th and early 20th centuries include mention of two types of trousers (šalvār). One, worn in summer by the peasants of the lowlands, was of light-blue cotton, calf length, and tied with a cord at the waist (Chodzko, p. 202; Guilliny, p. 90; Rabino, 1915-16, p. 28); the other, worn only in winter in the lowlands but all year round among the mountain pastoralists, was made of rough wool (šāl) or, in Māzandarān, cotton (qadak) and reached to the ankles (Fraser, p. 147; Abbott, fol. 16; Holmes, p. 35; Rabino, 1915-16, p. 28). Only the Ṭāleš and Gāleš shepherds continue to wear this latter type (šāl-šalvār; plates clvi-clviii), as European-style trousers have uniformly replaced traditional types in the towns, rural settlements, and mountain villages.
The pajama is an essential part of male dress; it serves as an undergarment in winter and is the standard at-home dress throughout the year, connoting rest and quiet. The lending of a pajama to a stranger who arrives wearing outdoor dress is still a common gesture of hospitality.
The trousers, and sometimes also the upper garment (e.g., the qabā), were formerly cinched at the waist with a belt (kamarband), which helped to identify the status of the individual. The Ṭāleš wore a leather belt from which a qāmma (a long, straight dagger; Fraser, p. 147; Holmes, p. 55) was suspended; in the lowlands “servants [wore] a belt of plaques, the people a muslin sash, the rich sashes made of Kashmir shawls, sometimes very costly” (Guilliny, p. 90). Cloth sashes are still worn in two instances. Certain sayyeds (who claim descent from the Prophet Moḥammad) wear a green cloth sash, green being the color associated with the Prophet and his family. On the other hand, sometimes peasants, in order to protect the lower back, wear a knitted wool sash (šāl) about 20 cm wide.
Puttees, bands of cloth (pātave) wrapped over the trousers up to the knees, are a distinctive feature of traditional male costume in the Caspian area. They were formerly worn especially by men living in the forest to protect themselves from being scratched by thorny bushes, and for that reason they were adopted as part of the “uniform” of the Jangalī guerrillas (cf. numerous photographs in Faḵrāʾī, 1344, e.g., pp. 86, 99, 190). Captain E. Noël, who was taken prisoner by the Jangalīs in 1336/1918, suffered from the lack of pātave when he attempted to escape from his place of detention: “I had gone but a short way before my trousers had been entirely torn away by thorns and my legs reduced to a bleeding pulp” (F.O. archives 248/1203, 1918, fol. 2). Although the pātave have disappeared, this protective function continues to be filled by thick stockings (jūrāb, gūrāve) pulled up over the trousers to mid-calf or tucked into them (plates clvi, clvii). In the former instance the leather thongs of the shoes (čūmūš; see above) are wrapped around the stockings in order to hold them in place; in the latter the lower parts of the trousers are provided with buttons and buttonholes, or more recently zippers, so that they can be closed tightly around the stockings. Nowadays rubber boots (čakme) are commonly worn by the Ṭāleš and Gāleš pastoralists (plates clvi, clvii), as well as by lowland peasants while they are working in the rice fields, which they formerly did barefoot.
Finally, it should be mentioned that, although knitted wool gloves (dastkeš) are known, they are rarely worn, even during the coldest weather. Shepherds hide their bare hands under their capes or hooded mantles.
With the exception of these latter garments, which are specially designed for the cold season, there is no marked structural difference between the winter and summer outfits; the differences are in the quality and quantity of the layered garments, rather than in type. In summer men wear trousers of light material, a shirt, and occasionally a jacket when they go to the bāzār or to the teahouse (qahva-ḵāna; see čāy, coffeehouses). In winter they put on several additional layers of clothing: a pajama, trousers of heavy material, an undershirt, two or three shirts, a waistcoat, and a jacket. Variations for festive or socially important occasions (e.g., Nowrūz, Sezda bedar, ʿĪd-e qorbān, marriage, departure for summer pastures) are less emphatic than among women; for those occasions men, even bridegrooms for their weddings, don the same type of clothing that they wear every day, though newer or seldom worn (plate clv). There is only one single ritual costume for men, one that is worn throughout Persia during the great mourning processions of Moḥarram and Ṣafar; for both youths and men it consists of a black shirt with two large openings in the back to permit the chains (zanjīr) with which they flagellate themselves to strike the bare skin.
Materials and functions. In the Caspian region in general variations in dress clearly reflect specific identifications and cultural differences. The materials from which they are made attest to the variety of available textiles and the uneven penetration of industrially manufactured cloth in different parts of the region. Wool is still in common use for home sewing on the piedmont and in pastoral districts; cotton has partly supplanted it in Māzandarān. Silk floss from damaged cocoons is used to make čādəršābs in the silk-producing regions (especially eastern Gīlān). The use of industrial textiles, which have spread very rapidly since the second half of the 19th century, is common throughout the lowlands but more limited in the mountains, where people are more conservative in the choice of clothing, as in many other aspects of culture. Aside from these major contrasts between lowlands and mountains, there are several significant differences between west and east; for example, the types of leček worn by women differ noticeably in color and function on the two sides of the Safīdrūd, and the čādəršāb is less and less commonly worn the farther east one goes in Māzandarān. But these differences in detail do not obscure the major characteristics that define the common style of clothing in the Caspian world: simplicity in construction, decoration, and functioning of the costume; expression of socioprofessional status and wealth through a rich variety of different garments, rather than a complex codification by age group; predominance of flexibility in daily dress over rigid norms; contrast between the bright colors of female clothing and the plain dark colors worn by men; and a tendency to hide the faces of women much less than elsewhere in the country, attesting to a less marked sexual division of space and a predominantly open life style on this northern margin of Persia.
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Originally Published: December 15, 1992
Last Updated: October 25, 2011
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Vol. V, Fasc. 8, pp. 840-848