THE OLDEST MAN IN THE WORLD
OF HIS "INTERVIEW" WITH
The following story was copied from Seven League Boots (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1935)—a book by the truly remarkable American adventurer and author Richard Halliburton (1900, lost at sea 1939):
‘HE’S BEEN DRUNK FOR THE LAST HUNDRED AND THIRTY YEARS,’ sighed the great-granddaughter of the old Caucasian soldier who was seated before me clutching a vodka bottle. ‘I’ve given up all hope of reforming him.’
‘When did he first take to drink?’ I asked.
‘About 1803,’ she said, motioning her own grandson out of a chair so that I might be seated.
Zapara Kiut, either because of or in spite of his alcoholism, has lived to be a hundred and fifty-three years old. He is the oldest person in the world, if we accept the verdict of the Soviet scientists who came all the way from Moscow to the Caucasus to make a special study of this extraordinary case of longevity. Zapara had no birth certificate, but from things he remembered and historical events he took part in, the birth date of 1782 was agreed upon as being most probable.
As might be expected, the most long-lived race of people on earth—whose oldest member is Zapara—are mountaineers. They live in Abkhazia, a province of Georgia, in primitive villages perched on the Black Sea slopes of the Caucasus Mountains. From his shack Zapara can look directly down upon the sea, a thousand feet below, or up at the snow-covered peaks rising ten thousand feet above. For a century and a half he has been contemplating the sea and the snow. This contemplation, plus his mountain heritage, plus the everlasting sunshine, plus his vodka, seem to have combined ideally to prolong Zapara’s life to more than twice the length allowed the rest of us.
When I heard about this notable relic, I felt that an interview would be worth the long hard journey to Abkhazia. His country is too rugged to permit railroads. But there is a motor road of a sort along the coast, and donkey trails give access t the settlements. If a committee of scientists could reach his house, Fritz and I (having continued in our third-class coach on across Russia to Caucasia) could reach it too—and did.
We found Zapara living in a crude plank shack, the very same shack in which he was born in 1782. When we presented ourselves at his front door Zapara refused to see us. For the first time in his life, so his great-granddaughter reported, he was sick—bronchitis—and felt ashamed and unclean.
I sent a bottle of vodka in to him as a present. He drank half a tumbler of the potent liquor and decided his bronchitis wasn’t so bad after all. Another half tumbler and he decided to come on out and play. In fact, he would put on his best clothes in our honour.
And so this modern Methuselah appeared, wearing a goat’s hair turban and a long Cossack coat adorned with cartridges.
Zapara Kiut proved to be a rather small and slender man, no more than five and a half feet tall. (Among the many centenarians living in Abkhazia not one is more than five-feet-eight. The taller they grow the sooner they die.) He had a lean gnarled face with the usual Abkhazian hooked nose, and a short grey beard. In America he could have easily passed for no more than a mere hundred.
His eyesight was very dim, but he could still see well enough to get around. We had to raise our voices only slightly to make him hear. He was particularly proud of his teeth, some half of which remained.
Seating him in a chair in the sunshine, and pouring more vodka into his glass, Fritz managed to start him talking. His earliest recollections were of his father’s goat flocks which as a boy he shepherded on the higher slopes of the Black Sea coast. In those days he lived summer and winter in the open, and was blissfully unaware that George Washington was serving his first terms as President.
Young Zapara at an early age came into possession of a rifle, and with it he scoured the peaks and forests in search of deer and bear. Schools were unheard of in this mountain country, so he never learned to read or write. For a hundred and fifty-three years he has never signed his name. This fact started me wondering if illiteracy were the first requirement for longevity.
The end of the eighteenth century found Zapara’s native Georgia resisting conquest by the Russians. He joined the armed bands of mountaineers, and for several years kept up a guerrilla warfare against the invaders. But by 1805, when Zapara was twenty-three, these bands had all been defeated and dispersed, and the Russian Army was in complete control.
A few years later, the conquerors, in need of new regiments to fight Napoleon, offered Zapara money and glory and travel if he would join the Czar’s Cossack troops. He accepted, for the money.
When he came to this chapter in his early life, and mentioned Napoleon I’ll admit my pulse jumped a beat or two. For I believed I was about to hear the immortal story of Napoleon’s march to Moscow, and his retreat, from an eye-witness, the only eye-witness left alive in the world.
While I was practically holding my breath in anticipation, Zapara slowly helped himself to another hopper of vodka.
‘And did you see Moscow burning?’ Fritz asked impatiently. ‘Did you fight the French? Did you pursue Napoleon back to Paris?’
My hopes were too high. He had been actively engaged in 1812, but on the Turkish front in what is now Rumania.
Zapara’s memory of those dramatic days was growing very misty. He did not remember much about the war. Likewise the fact that regiments from his army had executed one of the most devastating military manœuvres in history—cutting Napoleon’s retreat five hundred miles west of Moscow and practically annihilating what was left of the French Army—was all news to Zapara.
‘They used to give us vodka on cold nights!’ was his contribution to history.
So I asked him questions more easily answered.
When did he marry? About 1815, soon after his return from the Turkish war. His wife had borne him eighteen children, the last in 1850 when he was sixty-eight. For the last forty years now he had been a widower, watching his seventy-five grandchildren dying of old ago, one after another. He didn’t expect to re-marry; modern women didn’t suit him.
What did he think of the younger generation?
Well—which younger generation? His own grandchildren had been pretty good, when one made allowances for the natural irresponsibility of youth; but their grandchildren had grown a little out of hand.
In 1882 Zapara had his hundredth birthday. In 1894 Czar Nicholas came to the throne, and Zapara, then a hundred and twelve, remembered a special celebration in honour of the coronation, when he got especially and scandalously drunk.
In 1904 he was already claiming to be the oldest man in Russia.
‘Have you heard about Zaro Agha?’ Fritz asked him for me. ‘The famous Turk who was invited to the World’s Fair in Chicago because he claimed to be the oldest man in the world?’
‘Oh yeah? How old?’
‘Around a hundred and thirty-four, as I remember.’
In 1914 all Zapara’s male descendants of fighting age left Abkhazia to take part in the war with Germany. Old Zapara, now a hundred and thirty-two, begged to be allowed to march beside his great-great-grandsons into Berlin.
The Revolution in 1917 more or less passed him by. Only when the Bolsheviks came swooping down to “liquidate” all owners of property and to seize all private lands for the collective farms, did he get out his century-old rifle and prepare to fight. Fortunately, fighting wasn’t necessary, for the Bolsheviks, out of respect for his years, allowed him to keep his little patch of potatoes and half-dozen pigs.
I was curious to learn about Zapara’s personal habits. Perhaps from them I could learn the secret of longevity.
Did he smoke?
Of course! Constantly!
Was he a vegetarian?
He looked completely blank.
Did he eat meat?
Certainly he ate meat. He ate everything, but mutton and pork and black bread mostly.
How often did he bathe?
He used to bathe when he was young, but hadn’t in the last fifty or sixty years—it was unhealthy. This bronchitis came from the scrubbing his great-granddaughter had given his neck a week before.
Since he couldn’t read, what did he think about?
He didn’t think about anything much—just dozed in the sun and watched the children playing.
Did he ever exercise?
Not if he could help it. For ten years he had not walked a kilometre. His mountain-side was too steep for his shaky legs. And anyway, in town, what was there new to see?
‘There’s the hospital,’ his great-granddaughter cackled. ‘He ought to be there now. I keep telling him that he can’t take a chance with a cough at his age. But he won’t listen to me—I can’t do a thing with him.’
I thought fast. Our own two burros were waiting at the foot of the hill. If we could get Zapara onto one of these we could lead him to the hospital. Fritz and I offered to carry him the half-mile down the hillside. He objected violently, but we kept on giving him vodka until he didn’t care what happened. The we lifted him onto my back, and fastened his hands with a handkerchief in front of my neck so he couldn’t fall off. I seized the old man’s knees and, feeling like Æneas escaping with his aged father from the sack of Troy, cautiously and with frequent stops descended the mountain-side. During his manback ride Zapara mumbled and slept. He wasn’t heavy, having far fewer pounds than years.
We sat his astride a burro, and reached the sea-coast highway.
Zapara was now sleeping soundly, and we had nothing to do except hold him in the saddle and amble along toward town.
When Fritz and I had passed this way before, we had met no one but a few Russian peasants. But now, walking toward us down the road, were a Negro man and woman as black as any that ever worked on a Mississippi plantation. They were dressed in exactly the sort of shabby Western clothes that any American country darky might wear.
What in the name of heaven were these American blacks doing over here in this hidden corner of the Caucasus? In English, as we met, I asked them just that question.
‘что 3то, товарNmв,’ replied Uncle Tom.
Except for a few Russian phrases, they spoke nothing but Georgian, nor had their ancestors, as I learned, spoken anything else for two hundred years. Local legend has it they are the descendants of a ship-load of slaves that were blown eastward from the Bosporus by a storm about 1700, and wrecked on the eastern shore of the Black Sea.
In any case here they are, a little Russian Harlem of thirty or forty Africans, in the midst of this wild race of semi-Oriental white mountaineers. When the Revolution gave absolute equality to all men without regard for race or colour, the eight black bucks in the colony promptly married white Russian girls. The new generation is entirely mulatto. These, too, will marry whites, so that in another thirty years this unique colony will have disappeared.
When we got old Zapara to the crude little hospital, he had sobered up considerably, and remonstrated loudly when his clothes were removed and he was put to bed between the first sheets that had covered him in a century and a half.
At the hospital Fritz and I had a talk with one of the doctors, who suggested that if we were collecting centenarians we ought to visit a certain eagle’s-nest village, forty miles deeper in the mountains, where, out of a population of ninety men and women, over one-third claimed to have passed the century mark, most of the younger people having left home during the Great War and the Revolution.
Much as I wanted to go to such a remarkable village, we could not, for the season was too advanced and the one trail hidden under ice and snow.
The doctor, being a good Bolshevik, explained enthusiastically the progress and advantages Bolshevism was bringing to Abkhazia. He spoke of his own hospital, of schools and commerce and comforts that were penetrating the most remote valleys, and related how the mountaineers had begun to eat from plates, slept on beds, drank less vodka, and sometimes even bathe.
But the good doctor did not mention the fact that since all these new-fangled improvements had been thrust upon them, the natives’ life-span was perceptibly dwindling. Instead of living on heedlessly to five score and ten years, the new generation is lucky if the doctors can get them to the century mark.
And worse is yet to come. The Soviets have decreed that all body-lice and fleas must be driven off these tough and hardy mountaineers (who were quite content with their company), to make way for vaccinations, tooth-brushes and pink soap. Cornflakes and cod-liver oil will come next. And then these champion long-lifers can be expected to die off at seventy-five just like the rest of us.
With the outlook for continued longevity among the Abkhazians so gloomy, I was lucky to have met Zapara Kiut in time—the oldest of them all. For surely, since the Army of the Light has descended upon his race, the world will never see his like again.
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