Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
.
>>   Books

Persia and the Persian Question, volume I

by George N. Curzon

previous chapter chapter 12 start page single page chapter 14 next chapter

Chapter 13

THE SHAH — ROYAL FAMILY — MINISTERS

Where the word of a king is there is power; and who may say unto him, What doest thou? — Ecclesiastes, viii. 4.

I NOW approach the discussion of the political conditions under which Persia at present subsists. In a country so backward in constitutional progress, so destitute of forms and statutes and charters, and so firmly stereotyped in the immemorial traditions of the East, the personal element, as might be expected, is largely in the ascendant; and the government of Persia is little else than the arbitrary exercise of authority by a series of units in a descending scale from the sovereign to the headman of a petty village. The only check that operates upon the lower official grades is the fear of their superiors, which means can usually be found to assuage; upon the higher ranks the fear of the sovereign, who is not always closed against similar methods of pacification; and upon the sovereign himself the fear, not of native, but of foreign opinion, as represented by the hostile criticism of the European Press. In the earlier part of the Shah's reign an indigenous controlling influence existed in the power of the clerical order. But the gradual reassertion of the civil authority, at which the present Shah has constantly aimed, and the introduction of lay administration of Church property, have considerably detracted from the former power of the mullahs; and, except in places where a spirit of fanaticism either exists or can easily be kindled, such as Meshed and Isfahan, their prejudices, which are invariably enlisted on the side of reaction, cannot be regarded as a serious deterrent upon the prerogative of the sovereign. The Shah, indeed, may be regarded at this moment as perhaps the best existing specimen of a moderate despot; for within the limits indicated he is practically irresponsible and omnipotent. He has absolute command over the life and property of every one of his subjects. His sons have no independent power,


[page 392]

and can be reduced to impotence or beggary in the twinkling or an eye. The ministers are elevated and degraded at the Royal pleasure. The sovereign is the sole executive, and all officials are his deputies. No civil tribunals are in existence to check or modify his prerogative. Enormous, therefore, is the importance attaching to the character of the individual in whose person is concentrated such a wealth of plenary powers.

Nasr-ed-Din Shah, as I have before said, is not a Persian, but a Turk, by descent, and is the fourth sovereign of the Kajar Dynasty which has occupied the throne of Persia for close upon one hundred years. The Kajars, whose family history has been written by more than one Persian biographer, and has even been translated into English,[363] are not content with any more modest descent than from Japhet, the son of Noah. Even if we question the authenticity of so illustrious a pedigree, it is yet indisputable that for 700 years the Kajar tribe have been heard of in history. A chieftain of that race ruled the country from Rhey to the Oxus, as deputy for one of the Mongol descendants of Jenghiz Khan. Timur is said to have banished them to Syria, but afterwards to have suffered them to return. Later on they espoused the cause of the Sefavi Shahs and assisted in raising them to the throne, in return for which service they were included in the Kizil-bash or seven Red-Head tribes, so called from the scarlet head-covering which they were permitted to wear. According to one account the mother of Shah Ismail himself was of Kajar blood.[364] Under his successor, Shah Tahmasp, we hear of a Kajar governor of Kandahar, and of a Kajar ambassador to the Porte, demonstrating the prominence to which the tribe had already attained; whilst in the reign of Abbas the Great their power had become so considerable that that monarch found it expedient to divide them into three branches, whom he settled respectively in Merv and Khorasan to fight against the Tartars, in Georgia to fight against the Lesghians, and on the Gurgan and at Astrabad to fight against the Turkomans. The latter became the main Persian settlement


[page 393]

of the tribe, whose chieftain, Fath Ali Khan, a little more than 150 years ago, having been made joint Commander-in-Chief with Nadir Kuli Khan, by Shah Tabmasp II., was speedily put out of the way by the ambitious soldier of fortune,[365] thereby bequeathing to his posterity a blood feud which was not satisfied until Nadir's descendants had all been removed by death or torture, and a Kajar sovereign was firmly seated upon the throne of Persia. Agha Mohammed Shah, the grandson of Fath Ali Khan, could not himself perpetuate the race, having at an early age been made a eunuch by order of Adil Shah, the nephew and successor of Nadir. But his nephew, Fath Ali Shah, to whom he transmitted the crown, and his successors after him, have proved so extraordinarily prolific of male offspring that the continuity of the dynasty has been assured; and there is probably not a reigning family in the world that in the space of one hundred years has swollen to such ample dimensions as the royal race of Persia. The Kajars have, indeed, been mainly distinguished for five characteristics, which have been uniformly noticeable in the princes of the blood: a genius for paternity, a fairly high level of intelligence, handsome features, sporting instincts, and a remorseless economy. How true a Kajar is the reigning monarch will be evident as I proceed.

Since his two visits to England in 1873 and 1889 the personality and many of the idiosyncrasies of the Shah have become familiar to the British public. Nasr-ed-Din (Defender of the Faith) was the eldest son of Mohammed Shah, and was born on July 17, 1831. Consequently, he is now just sixty years of age. Upon his father succeeding Fath Ali Shah in 1834 (Abbas Mirza, Mohammed's father, and for so many years Vali-Ahd or Heir Apparent, having died in the previous year), Nasr-ed-Din became Vali-Ahd and, after the fashion of the Persian Royal Family, was, at the early age of twelve, made nominal Governor of Azerbaijan, residing at Tabriz. In that province, at Deran near Urumiah, he was seen in 1835, and described as follows by Colonel Stuart, who accompanied Sir H. Ellis as private secretary on his mission to Teheran: —

The Walee Ahud was, like his uncle, seated at an open window. I never saw so beautiful a child. The expression of his countenance is mournful, and the poor thing was evidently shy. We were given


[page 394]

sherbet, sugar candy, and tea, presented by servants who knelt. The ablutions of the Walee Ahud were carefully performed after he had drunk his tea. He wiped his little chin, where, Inshallah, his beard will be, with most dignified gravity.[366]

And again in 1836: —

The little prince is grown since we last saw him. He has a beautiful but mournful cast of countenance, and was terribly bored, most likely, poor child.

As a fact, the Vali-Ahd was very much neglected by his father, over whom the young prince's mother had ceased to exercise any charm. He lived in very difficult circumstances, often being compelled to borrow money in order to pay his daily expenses. Mohammed Shah favoured his younger son, Abbas Mirza, then styled Naib-es-Sultaneh, who retired from the country soon after his elder brother ascended the throne, and only returned to Persia in later years after a long exile at Baghdad.

So much for the Shah in his early years. Soon after reaching man's estate, his appearance was described by Mr. Binning in terms which hardly ratify the promise of his childhood: —

The Shah is now (1851) in his twenty-second year, but looks older. His complexion is very sallow, and his countenance, though not disagreeable cannot be pronounced handsome. He wears moustaches, with but the rudiments of a beard.[367]

In middle life, the Shah's appearance is so familiar throughout Europe as to need no lengthened description, and may be judged of from the illustration which accompanies this text. The Kajars are a handsome race, and if Nasr-ed-Din cannot equal the majestic appearance of his great-grandfather, Fath Ali Shah, or even of his grandfather, Abbas Mirza, both of whom were famous for their long-bearded beauty, his mien and deportment are, at any rate, kingly and pleasing. He, and his sons after him, have abandoned the fashion of the beard that was set by his Kajar predecessors, and have reverted to the shaven cheeks and chin which we see in the portraits of most of the Sefavi sovereigns. Though sixty years of age, the Shah is erect, active, and robust, making the most of a middle stature, and walking with a slow step and a peculiar jaunty movement of the hips, which has a certain air of distinction.


[page 395]

Black eyes and hair and clear complexions have been common to all the Kajars, both male and female, and the Shah is no exception in these particulars. It is probably, however, to the assistance of dye that his hair and moustache owe the raven hue, which as yet shows no tinge of grey. His younger brother, the Rukn-ed-Dowleh, whom I saw at Meshed, was equally black upon the head, but a white stubble besprinkled his duplicate chin.

On his return from Europe in the autumn of 1889, the Shah very nearly died at Tabriz, his life at one time being despaired of by the physicians; but his general health is excellent, and his habits of life are simple. It is possibly to their descent that the Kajars owe a manliness, amounting almost to a brusqueness of bearing, that is uncommon in the smooth and polished Persian; while the Turanian blood also asserts itself in a passionate love of the chase and a taste for nomad life, which have in no wise succumbed to the inroads of western civilisation. The Shah frequently absents himself from the capital on hunting excursions in the mountains, which abound with ibex, deer, and other four-footed game, immense tracts of country being preserved for the royal sport; while upon the plains the antelope is hunted with hounds, or hawks are flown after herons, bustards, francolin, quail, and partridge. Many of the kings of Persia have been great hunters; one of the Sassanian monarchs, Bahram V., being surnamed Gur, or wild ass, from the animal which he loved to pursue, and in hunting which he lost his life; and the later Sefavi sovereigns having divided their existence in about equal proportions between the chase, the harem, and the bottle. Fath Ali Shah and his son Abbas Mirza were both fine riders and excellent shots; and in these respects Nasr-ed-Din follows in their footsteps. He may frequently be encountered riding out of the city to one of his numerous shooting boxes in the mountains, attended by a large camp-following, and solaced by a selection from his extensive seraglio. In manner and address the Shah gives the impression of a man habituated to authority; and whether seen in public state or in private audience, he both acts and looks the monarch. He is believed to be naturally shy, which may account for a somewhat abrupt and fidgety manner, and for an utterance rapped out in short, incisive periods. In an interview with which I was favoured, he was continually shifting the spectacles which he wore from his eyes to the front of his sheepskin


[page 396]

kolah, and his short, jerky sentences resembled a forensic cross-examination rather than a conversation. He is extremely affable and well-disposed towards Europeans, and few foreigners leave his capital without the honour of an audience with the sovereign. In earlier life he was more partial to show and pomp; but his tastes appear to have grown simpler with advancing years. The representative of a monarchy that has long been one of the most gorgeous in the East, the heir of sovereigns whose court ceremonial, up till the last fifty years, was a blaze of splendour, and the possessor of jewels unnumbered, he now affects a simplicity of costume in striking contrast to his predecessors. The bediamonded sword and the flashing aigrette, which were so familiar on his first visit to England in 1873, had disappeared in 1889; and in Teheran I have seen him walking in the streets in a braided frock coat, with prodigious skirts (a speciality of the Persian Court), holding a walking stick in his hand. Upon other occasions he either appears on horseback, or, more commonly, is driven through the streets of the town in a sort of coach with glass panels, not unlike the carriage of a City sheriff, drawn by six or eight white horses with henna-dyed tails. In front and behind ride a small detachment of the royal bodyguard, or gholams, whose full number stands at 2,000, or two corps of 1,000 apiece, and who are recognisable by their gold-braided tunics and by the muskets, wrapped up in red cases, which they wear slung across their shoulders. A number of the liveried harlequins, or royal runners, whom I have previously described, are also in attendance to clear a way, while the less ornamental ferashes, with their long switches, keep back the crowd. The Shah does not allow of any redundant zeal on the part of the ferashes, and is accessible to any one of his subjects who may press forward to offer him a petition.

While Heir Apparent and when resident at Tabriz, Nasr-ed-Din Mirza[368] received the usual education of Persian princes. In other words, he was taught to read, write, pray, ride and shoot. The governorship of Azerbaijan, though nominally vested in the Vali-Ahd, being as a rule exercised by some minister of weight and years, the heir to the throne has few other occupations except those of the harem and the chase. Accordingly,


[page 397]

it is not surprising to learn that the young prince was a father at sixteen, and that the chief reputation he left at Tabriz was that of a great hunter. Called to the throne at the early age of seventeen, and surrounded therefore from youth upwards by the sycophants and flatterers who buzz round an Oriental crown, it is surprising that Nasr-ed-Din Shah has turned out so well. This happy development he owes to abilities considerably above the average, and to decided strength of character. When he came to the throne he only knew the Turkish language, which is spoken in Azerbaijan; but he soon learnt both to speak and to write Persian well, and has since acquired a tolerable familiarity with French and Arabic. He is well versed in the Persian poets and in Oriental works of history, philosophy, and art. Nor is the Shah by any means destitute of artistic accomplishments. He can draw well, and is reputed to write passable verses, or, to adopt the Persian hyperbole, 'he can make the nightingale of the pen flutter about the full-blown roses of the harem.' He is assured by his courtiers, as was his great-grandfather Fath Ali Shah, that his poetical effusions are superior to those of Hafiz.[369] But he is probably too sensible a man to believe that whatever immortality he may attain to, it will be among the lords of song. Well informed, and thoroughly au courant with passing events, he is full of inquisitiveness, and has a thirst for new information, which he acquires by closely questioning those with whom he comes in contact. His published journals, if they can with justice be attributed to his own pen, show decided originality, and a vein of native shrewdness.[370] A private secretary translates to him the French newspapers; the 'Times' he regards


[page 398]

with great respect; he is well posted in European politics, and the personal criticism of the Continental journals is generally reported to his ears. That the freedom of speech which he there encounters, and of which he has occasionally found himself the victim, does not quite harmonise with his own ideas of the licence that should be accorded to a press, will be evident when I come to an account of the newspapers of Teheran.

That the Shah is not without artistic tastes is shown by his fondness for music. In the Royal Museum is quite a collection of musical boxes; and the sound of military airs is peculiarly agreeable to his ears. To gratify this propensity, he keeps both a French and an Austrian bandmaster. Another respect in which he and his predecessors have so far conquered native prejudice as to rely upon foreign assistance, is in the employment of medical science. Abbas Mirza was the first to set the example by appointing Dr. Cormick, an Englishman, to be Physician of his Household. Mohammed Shah followed, with Dr. Labat, a Frenchman, who on one occasion saved his life, and later with Dr. Cloquet. Dr. Dickson, of the British Legation, acquired a great reputation during the present reign; but the personal physician of the Shah has, for many years, been another Frenchman, Dr. Tholozan, whose name and personality are familiar to most visitors to Teheran. Among the more trivial, but not uninteresting characteristics of the monarch whom we are discussing, there are three, which in this context are worthy of mention. These are the Shah's childlike passion for novelty, his incurable love of a joke, and his fondness for animals, about all of which many good stories are current in the society of the capital. Just as, in the course of his European travels, he picked up a vast number of what appeared, to the Eastern mind, to be wonderful curiosities, but which have since been stacked in the various apartments of the palace, or put away and forgotten; so in the larger sphere of public policy and administration he is continually taking up and pushing some new scheme or invention which, when the caprice has been gratified, is neglected or allowed to expire. One week it is gas; another it is electric light. Now it is a staff college; anon, a military hospital. To-day it is a Russian uniform; yesterday it was a German man-of-war for the Persian Gulf. A new army warrant is issued this year; a new code of law is promised for the next. Nothing comes of any of these


[page 399]

brilliant schemes, and the lumber-rooms of the palace are not more full of broken mechanism and discarded bric-a-brac than are the pigeon-holes of the government bureaux of abortive reforms and dead fiascoes.

More curious, and, in a sense, more, childlike still, is the Shah's well-known partiality for a pun, or still more for a practical joke. His sense of humour is easily operated upon, and does not err on the side of refinement. It is recorded that he was immensely tickled upon one occasion, when he asked the reason for the removal of some lamps which had lighted the approach to one of the palaces, and received the reply that it was 'parce que le chat (Shah) voit toujours mieux dans la nuit.' He is even more pleased, however, when he can victimise his ministers or courtiers by some successful ruse. Having procured a number of skates and bicycles, he compelled the luckless grandees to perform upon these strange instruments in the palace garden, to his own intense amusement. Well known, too, is the story of the collapsible india-rubber boat, which was presented to him by an English officer, and in which he sent a dozen A.D.C.'s and chamberlains out for a row, on the tank in the royal garden. Meanwhile, he had secretly ordered the valve to be opened, and the boat duly collapsed in mid-lake, leaving the richly-dressed courtiers floundering in the water. Nor do the titled members of the royal household by any means fill sinecure offices, for the Shah will sometimes, when out in the country, require them to prepare his meal with their own elegant hands.

Strongest of all these proclivities is the extreme fondness of the Shah for animals, which is pushed to a point that recalls the story of Caligula and his horse. Cats have been the especial object of this strange attachment. For one of these creatures was kept a baggage horse, which carried a specially constructed cage with velvet-padded wires. On another occasion, one of the royal cats fell asleep on the coat-tails of a courtier, who, with true diplomacy, cut off the offending skirt rather than disturb the slumbers of the favourite. Another cat had a pension of 400l. a year settled upon it in old age. One of the Shah's wives is said to have originally commended herself to his fancy by her devotion to the feline favourite of the hour. Quite the funniest, however, of the anecdotes illustrating this innocent, if uncommon taste, is that of the lioness who gave birth to cubs in the royal menagerie


[page 400]

at Doshan Tepe. The Shah was so consumed with anxiety for the welfare of the mother that, being detained by the ceremonies of the Tazieh in Teheran, he had the telegraph wires in the capital connected with an improvised bureau opposite the cage of the animal, so as to be in possession of the latest news and finally cashiered an unsympathetic clerk who telegraphed, 'The beasts are doing well,' on the ground that 'the true beast was not the lion, but the man who could call the lion by such a name.' Almost the same in kind, if superior in degree, is the intense fondness which the Shah has developed in recent years for the little boy, known as the Aziz-es-Sultan, whom he brought with him to England, and whom he seldom allows out of his sight at Teheran. This child, whose name is Gholam Ali Khan, is a nephew of the Amin-i-Akdas (Trusted of the Sovereign), one of the Shah's favourite wives. She was only a Kurdish slave, and her brother, the father of the child, was a peasant, as his appearance and manner sufficiently indicated when he came over to England in the retinue of the Shah. There seems to have been no truth in the stories circulated throughout Europe of a superstitious origin of the Shah's attachment to this boy, which would appear to be no more than one of the peculiar caprices of the royal nature. The child, who is eleven or twelve years of age, is a Field-Marshal, and wears a huge portrait of the Shah, set in diamonds, round his neck. While in Teheran, I saw him driving about in a state and style second only to that adopted by the sovereign; and he was deputed by the latter as a special compliment to make a call upon the British Minister. If the lad is not well, the Shah is at once in a bad humour, and is incapable of attending to affairs of State.

From these anecdotes of personal idiosyncrasies which I have related, not so much because of the interest attached in popular estimation to the deeds and fancies of sovereigns, as because they illustrate the bent of a character which could hardly have been moulded in any other surroundings than those of an Asiatic throne, I turn to a contemplation of Nasr-ed-Din Shah in his more important capacity as a monarch and a statesman. Here he possesses many excellent business qualities, and betrays a voracious appetite for any and every affair of State. Rising early in the morning, he devotes the forenoon to audience with his ministers and to matters of State. The smallest detail is


[page 401]

submitted to him, and is not decided except upon his authority. His ministers disavow all initiative, and tremble at any executive responsibility. Imperious, diligent, and fairly just, the Shah is in his own person the sole arbiter of Persia's fortunes. All policy emanates from him. He supervises every department with a curiosity that requires to be constantly appeased; and his attention both to foreign and domestic politics is constant and unremitting. There is a consensus of opinion in Persia that he is the most competent man in the country, and the best ruler that it can produce. Nor will anyone deny him the possession of patriotism and of a genuine interest in the welfare of the nation. He is, however, placed in a most unfortunate situation by the rivalry of Great Britain and Russia — a question which I shall discuss in a later chapter — while he is further impeded by the intrigues that swarm about the Court and person of the monarch, by a tendency natural to humanity, and particularly to a man who has passed the middle of life, to let things abide in his time, and by a sense of powerlessness against the petrified ideas and prejudices of an Oriental people.

Perhaps a special sympathy is due to a sovereign, the exigencies of whose rank and position render it almost impossible for him to receive the assistance which tried and independent counsellors can afford even to the wearer of a crown. Such is the divinity that doth hedge a throne in Persia, that not merely does the Shah never attend at state dinners or eat with his subjects at table, with the exception of a single banquet to his principal male relatives at No Ruz, but the attitude and language employed towards him even by his confidential ministers are those of servile obeisance and adulation. 'May I be your sacrifice, Asylum of the Universe,' is the common mode of address adopted even by subjects of the highest rank. In his own surrounding there is no one to tell him the truth or to give him dispassionate counsel. The foreign Ministers are probably almost the only source from which he learns facts as they are, or receives unvarnished, even if interested, advice. With the best intentions in the world for the undertaking of great plans and for the amelioration of his country, he has little or no control over the execution of an enterprise which has once passed out of his hands and has become the sport of corrupt and self-seeking officials. Half the money voted with his consent never


[page 402]

reaches its destination, but sticks to every intervening pocket with which a professional ingenuity can bring it into transient contact; half the schemes authorised by him are never brought any nearer to realisation, the minister or functionary in charge trusting to the oblivious caprices of the sovereign to overlook his dereliction of duty.

Nevertheless, whilst admitting the difficulties with which Nasr-ed-Din Shah is surrounded, let us not fail to do full justice both to his character and to his reign. He is unquestionably the best sovereign that has sat upon the throne of Persia since Kerim Khan Zend in the last century. He is the first king of his race, and one of the few kings in Persian history, against whom the charge of cruelty and arbitrary indifference to injustice or suffering cannot fairly be brought. It is true that his reign has been disfigured by one or two acts of regrettable violence; worst among which was the murder of his first Prime Minister Mirza Taki Khan, the Amir-i-Nizam — a man who, although of humble origin, was endowed with lofty sentiments, and who, in the short space of three years (1849-1851), established a reputation for statesmanship that constitutes him one of the most remarkable figures of the century. The brother-in-law of the Shah, and the first subject in the kingdom, he owed to the vindictiveness of court intrigue and to the maliciously excited jealousy of his youthful sovereign, a disgrace which his enemies were not satisfied until they had fulfilled by the death of their fallen, but still formidable victim.[371] It should be said, however, that the Shah was only twenty years of age at the time; that it was inevitable, under the circumstances, that a young ruler without experience should be the instrument of unscrupulous advisers; and that he is believed ever since to have repented of the act. The terrible acts of cruelty that followed the suppression of the Babi conspiracy against the life of the Shah in 1852, and of the Babi sedition in general throughout the country, come under a different category.[372] For not


[page 403]

only had the life of the sovereign been attempted, but the existence of the dynasty was believed to be at stake; and it must be remembered that studied refinements of torture are an immemorial tradition of the East.

There was less excuse for the execution of the soldiers suspected of having conspired against the life of the Shah, just before his second European journey, in 1878. The story is a tragic one, illustrating both the abuses of the Persian administrative system and the perils attaching to the irresponsibility of an Oriental sovereign.[373] Some soldiers of an Isfahan regiment, who, according to the Persian custom, had received no pay for three years, and had yet been ordered to remain under arms, seized the opportunity of a pilgrimage of the Shah to the shrine of Shah Abdul Azim to approach his carriage and present a petition. The Shah was in a bad humour, and ordered his ferashes to drive back the supplicants. An émeute ensued, in which stones were thrown, some of which struck the royal equipage. The apprehensions of the Shah were further excited by the wicked assurance of one of his suite that it was a Babi conspiracy against his life. He ordered the arrest of the soldiers, and, on his return to the palace, ten of their number were strangled without further inquiry, and their bodies dragged through the streets. The remainder were sentenced to have their ears cut off, and to be bastinadoed. A few days later, when starting for Europe, the Shah read the petition of the suspected soldiers, and ascertained his fatal mistake. He at once took steps to redress the injustice that had been done; but the dénouement is even more Persian in its characteristics than the earlier incidents of the story. The culprits were released, and their arrears paid, with a small indemnity of five tomans to each man for his unmerited sufferings. But the offending chamberlain, who had started the false cry of a Babi rebellion, was mulcted in a sum of 18,000 tomans, so that the whole transaction resulted in a gain to the Royal Exchequer of 7,000l. I do not think it would be possible in the space of a short paragraph to narrate a more profoundly illustrative tale.


[page 404]

Notwithstanding these cases of cruelty and injustice, for which some palliation may in each case be found, the Shah is admittedly a man of humane disposition. Since his visits to Europe, the instances of such unlicensed exercise of power have been rare, if they have not altogether ceased to exist. We have only to contrast his reign with that of his predecessors, to say that on the whole it has embraced the most bloodless forty years in modern Persian history. Only a century ago the abominable system prevailed of blinding possible aspirants to the throne, of savage mutilations and life-long captivities, of wanton slaughter and systematic bloodshed. Disgrace was not less sudden than promotion, and death was a frequent concomitant of disgrace. The old fashion which made the kings of Persia the executioners of their subjects, the deed of blood being enacted before their very eyes, has been abandoned. The bastinado has lost somewhat of its consecrated ubiquity of infliction. Provincial governors are no longer allowed the immunity of savage punishments which made the rule of some of the king's uncles and great-uncles so dreaded although so superficially successful. Under the Sefavi kings, when the ladies of the royal harem desired an outing in the country, a kuruk was ordered, which meant that every man was to absent himself from the neighbourhood of the prescribed route; and we read of poor wretches, straying by accident on to the road, or caught sleeping in its vicinity, being hewn to death by the guards or eunuchs. In the present reign males are expected to turn to the wall when the royal cortège passes, but the old horrors of the kuruk have disappeared. Similarly, a labourer, who, pursuing an underground kanat found himself in the anderun of the royal palace, was spared by the Shah, although his life would certainly have been forfeited in any previous reign. We may attribute this fortunate amelioration of manners both to the character of the sovereign and to the immense, though perhaps grudgingly acknowledged, influence of foreign opinion, and of the representatives of foreign Powers at the Persian Court.

It is no mean criterion of the strength and also of the general popularity of the Shah, that he is the first Persian monarch who has ventured to leave his dominions and to journey in foreign and infidel land, not as conqueror at the head of an army, but as a friendly visitor, if not as a volunteer tourist. During the last three centuries for certain no Persian


[page 405]

sovereign could have hazarded such a step. Nadir Shah, before he started out for India, had removed every possible competitor for the throne. Moreover, he took his army with him, and the prospect of the great Afshar returning at the head of a victorious host was enough to make the blood of any would-be upstart run cold. Nasr-ed-Din Shah had to contend with many obstacles in arranging the first of his European journeys, of which there have now been three, in 1873, 1878, and 1889. The project was obstinately resisted by the clergy; great difficulty was experienced in settling the problem of the seraglio, the solitary wife who accompanied His Majesty in 1873 being ultimately sent back from Moscow; and the putting of the government into commission in his absence was also not unattended with hazard. It is to the credit of the Shah that then, and indeed throughout his reign, he has shown a commendable independence of the fanatical element among the mullahs and mujtaheds of Islam. Though a careful observant of the forms and rites of the Mussulman creed, and though reposing a superstitious credulity in astrology and divination, he has uniformly asserted the superiority of the temporal over the spiritual power, and there was probably never a moment in the history of Persia when the ecclesiastical ascendency, that is of the essence of Islam, was so much in abeyance as at present. The immense amount of money spent by the Shah in the purchase of furniture and curiosities in Europe also excited a feeling of discontent; and his second tour was unquestionably unpopular among his subjects. That he was able to venture upon a third is a proof of the absolute security of his position, but it is also due to the sentiment which he has taken care to diffuse among his subjects, that the princes of Christendom vie with each other in anxiety to entertain so great a potentate and squabble for the honour of his alliance.

Finally, I will apply the double test of a comparison, firstly, of the general state of the country during the Shah's reign with its state under his predecessors; and, secondly, of its condition now with its condition at his accession forty-three years ago. The record of previous reigns is one of internal warfare, yearly renewed against insurgent tribes or recalcitrant chieftains, of tribute refused, of brigandage rampant and unpunished, of ambitious nobles struggling with each other for the ascendency, of the royal authority frequently insulted and sometimes wholly ignored. Such is not the picture which is presented by the Persia of to-day.


[page 406]

Its condition is bad enough viewed from the standpoint of public works, education, or internal development. But life and property are fairly secure, brigandage is scarcely known, robbery and violence (at any rate upon Europeans) are rarely attempted; revenue is exacted even from the nomad and mountainous tribes; the provincial Governors are thoroughly under control and quake at the vibrations of the telegraph wire from Teheran; the Shah is supreme from the Caspian to the Gulf, and from the Kurdish mountains to Seistan; and there is not a single man in the kingdom who dare venture either his voice or his position against the sovereign. Hitherto, again, the death of the monarch has almost invariably been the signal for a general outbreak; rival candidates for the throne have appeared in arms; and there has been a horrid interval of anarchy and turbulence until the superior genius or resources of one competitor have enabled him to win the day. When Fath Ali Shah died in 1834, there were two claimants of the throne in the field in addition to the rightful heir, Mohammed Shah; and it was only owing to the inexhaustible energy and influence of Sir John Campbell, then British Minister, and to the assistance of the British officers in command of the Persian troops, that he was able so soon to establish his legitimate claim. Similarly, when Mohammed Shah died in 1848 rebellions broke out in Khorasan, Kerman, Yezd, and Isfahan, and it was mainly to the joint co-operation of the British and Russian Ministers that Nasr-ed-Din was indebted for his speedy recognition. Such has been the experience of the last two accessions to the crown. If the present Shah were to die to-morrow there might be isolated acts of lawlessness or violence, but I do not credit the likelihood of any general insurrection; I foresee no warring competition for the throne; and I believe that the Heir Apparent would succeed without firing a musket or shedding a drop of blood.

Secondly, if we take the period covered by the present reign and contrast the state of Persia at the beginning and end of this epoch, we shall note a marked advance in many of the resources of civilisation, culture, comfort, and security. In the year after Nasr-ed-Din Shah ascended the throne the following sentences were penned by the greatest living authority on the Persian question: —

In every quarter there is abundant cause for anxiety, and few, very few, faint glimmerings of hope. The treasury has been drained of its last ducat, and we see little chance of its being replenished. The


[page 407]

sustaining or motive power of the Government no longer exists, nor can it be renewed. The general condition of the provinces is hardly less unfavourable to the consolidation of the young monarch's power than an empty treasury and impotent and divided councils. In no quarter is there any feeling of confidence in the stability of the Government. A domestic crisis may be imminent, and cannot be very far distant.[374]

Nevertheless, the subsequent period has not ratified these gloomy vaticinations. There is a balance in the Royal Exchequer, regrettable though it be that it should swell by idle increment instead of being devoted to the service of the people. The Government is secure, strong, and respected. The provinces, as I have shown, are in thorough subordination. No member of the Royal Family has ventured to dispute the supremacy of the Shah. Simultaneously there has been a considerable, even if inadequate, expansion of commerce. The telegraph wire has been stretched between all the principal towns; regular posts have been inaugurated; newspapers of an official character are published in the capital; a miniature railway, which may perhaps become the nucleus of a great undertaking, has been built; gas is manufactured at Teheran. The critic of the present finds plenty that is backward and a good deal that is deplorable in the condition of the country. Of these abuses I shall presently speak. But the historian, contrasting the Persia of the two periods, will record all advance, small as measured by European ideas, but by no means contemptible according to the standards of the East.

Before I quit the subject of the Shah and his personality, I may briefly recapitulate the incidents of an interview with which I was honoured in the Palace at Teheran. The Shah, to whom I had been previously introduced in England, received me in the room in which stands the so-called Peacock Throne. There was no other article of furniture in the chamber, and the King was standing alone in the middle. He wore black trousers and a black coat, edged with astrakhan, thick with gold cording in front, and equipped with voluminous skirts. Upon the face of his kolah, or sheepskin hat, was a small Lion and Sun in diamonds, a recent commission from a Parisian jeweller. Whereas in England he had employed French, which however he is shy in using in conversation, he now spoke in Persian, through an inter-


[page 408]

preter. He looked extraordinarily hale and well, and was in the best of tempers. Hearing that I had entered Persia viâ Ashkabad and Kuchan, his curiosity was at once excited, and for ten minutes I sustained a cross-examination conducted in short, jerky sentences, which fairly elicited from me all that I knew about the position of the Russians, the road that they had made, and the unfinished works on the Persian side of the frontier. 'What was Ashkabad like? How many streets, houses, inhabitants, barracks, soldiers, did it contain? What of the water-supply?' Next about the Kuchan road: 'Was the Russian section finished? Was it well engineered? How many men were at work on the Persian section? How broad was it? Were the gradients easy and the work good?' It was fortunate that I had made a special study of this question while passing over the road, and was therefore able to give His Majesty a more unvarnished account than he probably receives from his own officers.

The domestic life of the Shah is shrouded in the mystery common to Mussulman countries. No glimpse of the Harem is caught by males, either Persian or European, with the exception of doctors of both nationalities, save what may be derived from the passage of a closed litter with silken curtains, or of an ancient coach containing undistinguishable masses of drapery. European ladies have, however, frequently been admitted to the royal anderun, and its features and occupants are tolerably well known. The actual number of the Shah's wives and concubines cannot accurately be determined, but is believed to be about sixty. This is exclusive of those who have died, been sent away, or otherwise parted with. All these ladies live in the palace, and most of them have separate establishments, with equipages, servants, and jewels of their own, and an allowance varying from 200l. to 2,000l. a year, which is often doubled in value by the presents which beauty or complaisance knows how to extract from an uxorious lord. The Shah is reported to be a kind master in his harem, for on so extended a scale of matrimony it is scarcely possible to apply the European nomenclature of a good husband. By the law of the Koran every Mohammedan is allowed four regular wives or akdis, and as many sighehs or concubines as means or inclination permit. Three only of the Shah's wives belong to the former category. Two of them were his cousins, both princesses of royal blood. The elder of the two, known as the Shukuh-es-


[page 409]

Sultaneh (Glory of the Empire), is the mother of the Heir Apparent and consequently the first lady of the harem. In Oriental and Mussulman countries it is absurd to speak of any individual wife as queen. The third akdi, and the favourite wife of the Shah, is known as the Anis-ed-Dowleh (Companion of the King). She was originally a sigheh, being a miller's daughter, of the Shimran district, who lifted her veil to the Shah while out riding, and so fascinated the monarch that she was removed next day to the royal harem. She has had no children, but her influence over the Shah has procured her elevation to the rank of a lawful wife and of first favourite, and has secured lucrative positions at court for all her relations. European ladies have on several occasions been courteously received by her, and a description of one of these visits is contained in the pages of Madame Carla Serena. She was the wife who was chosen to accompany the Shah on his first European journey, but who was sent back in high dudgeon from Moscow. In earlier life the Shah made another girl of humble origin an akdi, she having given birth to a son whom he named Vali-Ahd. But mother and child both died.

Among the sighehs, all of whom bear high-sounding titles of very similar import, I need only mention the Iffat-ed-Dowleh (Chastity of the Kingdom), who is the mother of the Zil-es-Sultan, eldest surviving son, but not the heir, of the Shah. I owe an apology to His Royal Highness for having described his mother in a letter to the 'Times,' which the prince saw, and at which he was very furious, as 'a poor village girl — a carpenter's daughter, who accidentally attracted the notice and won the affections of the Shah.' Of this parentage I had been informed on high authority, and it was, moreover, confirmed by Dr. Wills, who lived fourteen years in Persia, and was on intimate terms with the Zil-es-Sultan, and who, in his books, described the prince's mother, no doubt confusing her with the Anis-ed-Dowleh, as 'a poor Kurdish girl — the daughter of a miller, who caught the Shah's eye while washing clothes at the brookside.'[375] I hasten to make the reparation that is due — even at this distance of time — by informing English readers that the mother of the prince was the daughter, neither of a carpenter nor a miller, but of Musi Reza Beg, who was gholam, i.e. mounted attendant or outrider, of Bahman Mirza, son of Abbas Mirza, and uncle of the Shah. Next among the


[page 410]

sighehs must be counted the Munir-es-Sultaneh (Grandeur of the Empire), daughter of the late, and sister of the present, Chief Architect of Teheran, who is the mother of the Naib-es-Sultaneh, third son of the Shah, of whom I shall speak presently. The only other sigheh who merits attention in this place is the Amin-i-Akdas (Trusted of the Sovereign), a Kurdish slave who has acquired the confidence of the Shah by her business capacity and honesty, and who is the aunt of the little boy favourite already alluded to. She originally owed her position to having been the devoted attendant of the Shah's favourite cat, which I have before mentioned. In the past year (1890) the Shah sent her to Vienna to submit to an operation for cataract which, unfortunately, was not successful. Deeper into the secrets of the seraglio, or into a further enumeration of Stars, Suns, Lights, and Glories of the Empire, it is unnecessary to advance. Regarding the indoor costume of these ladies, I can, of course, only speak from hearsay. But it is well known that, while in the days of Fath Ali Shah the ladies of high rank wore silk or muslin shifts, loose velvet pantaloons, and an embroidered vest, the reigning sovereign has introduced a more liberal fashion of toilette. The upper part of the dress consists of a chemise under a short jacket; below which are worn very short, and very much puffed-out petticoats.[376] In their excursions abroad the ladies of the Harem, as I have before said, are as closely veiled as are Mohammedan women in general, and more closely veiled than the favourites of the Seraglio at Constantinople.

Neither in the number of his wives nor in the extent of his progeny, can the Shah, although undeniably a family man, be compared with his great-grandfather, Fath Ali Shah. To the high opinion universally held of the domestic capacities of that monarch must, I imagine, be attributed the divergent estimates that are to be found, in works about Persia, of the number of his concubines and children. Colonel Drouville, in 1813, credits him with 700 wives, 64 sons, and 125 daughters. Colonel Stuart, who was in Persia in the year after Fath Ali's death, gives him 1,000 wives and 105 children. Lady Sheil, in the next decade, mentions 80 sons, and innumerable daughters. Binning names 800 wives, 130 sons, 170 daughters, and 5,000 living descendants, at the time of his death. Madame Dieulafoy


[page 411]

also names the 5,000 descendants, but as existing at an epoch fifty years later (which has an air of greater probability); she reduces the wives to 700, but increases the children to 600. Rawlinson represents 3,000 direct descendants as existing at the time of his death. The two historians of modern Persia likewise fail to agree; for while Watson mentions 159 children, Markham allows for 300 wives, 150 sons, and 20 daughters. The estimate which appears in the Nasekh-et-Tavarikh, a great modern Persian historical work, fixes the number of Fath Ali's wives as over 1,000, and of his offspring as 260, 110 of whom survived their father.[377] Hence the familiar Persian proverb 'Camels, fleas, and princes exist everywhere.' The talent of paternity was by no means exhausted in the next generation, for several of Fath Ali's sons could boast of 40 or 50 male offspring; and one of their number — Sheikh Ali Mirza — used to ride abroad with a bodyguard of 60 of his own sons. No royal family has ever afforded a more exemplary illustration of the Scriptural assurance, 'Instead of thy fathers thou shalt have (A. V. shall be thy) children, whom thou mayest make princes in all lands;'[378] for there was scarcely a governorship or a post of emolument in Persia that was not filled by one of this beehive of princelings; and to this day the myriad brood of Shahzadehs, or descendants of a king, is a perfect curse to the country, although many of these luckless scions of royalty, who consume a large portion of the revenue in annual allowances and pensions, now occupy very inferior positions as telegraph clerks, secretaries, &c. Fraser drew a vivid picture of the misery entailed upon the country fifty years ago by this 'race of royal drones,' who filled the governing posts not merely of every province, but of every beluk or district, city, and town; each of whom kept up a court, and a huge harem, and who preyed upon the country like a swarm of locusts.[379]

In contrast to these surprising totals, it is with an air of relief that we learn that the reigning Shah has only had a family of about 40 children, of whom half are still living, viz., 9 sons, and


[page 412]

12 daughters. His eldest son as born forty-four years ago, his youngest during the present year. Of his grown-up daughters, who bear similar titles to their mothers, and are known as Pride, Purity, Chastity, Splendour, and Diadem of the Kingdom or Empire, one is married to the Chief Priest of Teheran — an ingenious method of annexing the ecclesiastical interest — and the rest are wedded to princes, or eminent subjects. It is with no special delight that one of the latter receives the intimation that he has been selected as a son-in-law of the sovereign; for although it may bring official promotion for himself, the distinction also involves a large ready-money present, followed by recurrent donations, to his royal father-in-law; it entails a great outlay in keeping up the requisite state for a Princess of the Blood; and it deprives the favoured husband of the liberty of taking any other wife. The Shah, as a rule, gives a dowry of 2,000l. a year to his married daughters.

Under the Sefavi kings there existed no rule determining the succession to the Persian crown. Differing from the practice that prevails among the Sunni Mussulmans, e.g. in the Court at Constantinople, of the heredity of the eldest surviving throne male, the Persian ruler selected which of his offspring he pleased, and often did not declare his choice till his deathbed. The Kajars have resumed what is an ancient Tartar or Turkish custom, by instituting the Blood-Royal qualification, and closely regarding the rank of the mother. Mohammed Husein Khan, the father of Agha Mohammed and grandfather of Fath Ali Shah, when a refugee with the Turkomans, refused to wed the daughter of one of their chiefs, on the ground that she was not of sufficiently exalted rank to give birth to a line of possible aspirants to the throne. Abbas Mirza was not the eldest son of Fath Ali, but was preferred above Mohammed Ali Mirza, his elder brother, because he was the son of a Kajar princess. It is true that early in his reign the present Shah departed from this custom, and gratified both the pride of irresponsibility and the instincts of love by nominating as Vali-Ahd, or Heir Apparent (after his first male child and bearer of that title, had died), the son of a favourite sigheh, who was of humble birth. But upon the death of this child he reverted to the more normal custom; his eldest surviving son, the Zil-es-Sultan, was passed over, and the junior of the latter by three years — being the son of a princess —


[page 413]

was named Vali-Ahd, and is now Heir Apparent to the Persian throne. Muzaffer-ed-Din (Victorious of the Faith) is the name of this prince, who was born in 1853, and who has now been Vali-Ahd (having succeeded three elder brothers in the title) for thirty-three years. In accordance with another fixed, but most impolitic tradition of the Kajar dynasty, the Vali-Ahd is appointed Governor-General of the north-western province of Azerbaijan, with his capital and palace at Tabriz. He cannot leave this province without the sanction of the Shah; and, immured there, he remains in total ignorance of the politics and statecraft of Teheran, of the ministers whom he may have to depend upon, the system which he may have to dispense, the people whom he may have to rule. He does not ordinarily even administer the province of which he is the nominal governor, but is a mere puppet in the hands of some trusted servant of the State. It is as though the Prince of Wales were compelled habitually to reside at Cardiff or Carnarvon and were never allowed to quit the borders of the Principality. Nay, it is worse; for Tabriz, which is the second city in the kingdom, cannot fairly be compared to a small provincial town; and a better simile would be that of an English Heir Apparent who, as heir of the Duchy of Lancaster, was compelled to hold his court at Liverpool, but was precluded from bearing any part in the administration of that great county or city. Placed, moreover, in the province which is nearest to the Russian frontier, and is overshadowed by Russian influence, the Vali-Ahd is apt to contract prepossessions or apprehensions which it is difficult to throw off, and which may affect his entire subsequent reign. The Shah has three times been to Europe himself, but, unfortunately, has never so far permitted his son to stir outside of Persia. The consequence is that but little is known of the character and capacities of the latter, which have been variously represented as those of a polished and well-informed gentleman and of a weak and harmless nonentity.

Dr. Wills has, I think, in his writings done a great injustice to the Vali-Ahd, whom, in passages to which, without quoting, I may refer my readers, he has described as physically weak and mentally imbecile, and as an impracticable and obstinate bigot.[380]


[page 414]

I believe (and I have taken steps to procure the best information on the subject) that this is a most unfair account of the personality of the future king of Persia. So far from being either an idiot or an imbecile, he is a man of good intelligence and considerable instruction, being well read in history, professing an interest in botany, and being withal of all amiable and unassuming disposition. The charge of bigotry appears to have arisen from the fact that he pays marked respect to the mullahs, and that he is believed to be more or less under the influence of the Sheikhi sect, which may be described as a fanatical agency.[381] Any such prepossession, however, which probably does not amount to more than serious orthodoxy, as contrasted with the free-thinking tendencies of his elder brother, is far from justifying a fear of active religious persecution in the future. If the prince is, as alleged, of weak character and easily led — although such a lack of individuality is denied by others — it is largely owing to the inexcusable position of subordination in which he, a man of nearly forty years of age, the second personage in the kingdom, and the future sovereign, has been placed by the shortsighted apprehensions of his father. Though nominally Governor-General of a great province, he has hitherto been allowed no more voice in the actual administration than a lacquey at his table; a child in leading-strings has more control over his own movements than this pseudo-ruler has had over his subjects.[382] The allowance given to him by the Shah has been


[page 415]

variously quoted to me as 40,000, 60,000, and 72,000 tomans, the lowest estimate being equivalent to 11,400l., the highest to 20,500l.; whichever it be, it is notoriously inadequate for the becoming maintenance of royal state, a great retinue, and a large harem; and the prince has continually found himself in the ignominious position of being indebted to his own Prime Minister for the means of defraying his expenses. From the Amir-i-Nizam he received all annual contribution towards this object of 40,000 tomans. Owing to his long residence in Azerbaijan, and to the close proximity of that province to Russian territory, he has frequently been credited with strong Russophile proclivities. There does not appear, however, to be any more ground for this than for the other damaging insinuations against his character; the Prince seeing so little of any Europeans that it is impossible to ascertain his real sympathies. The Amir-i-Nizam was reputed to be a strong Russophile, and in consequence to have encouraged the belief that his feelings were shared by his royal master. In the lack of any more serious occupation, the latter has devoted himself greatly to sport and shooting, being, like all the Kajars, a fine performer both with a rifle and a shot-gun; and being further devoted to artillery exercise, at which he is something more than an amateur, making excellent practice with the Austrian Uchatius guns in the arsenal at Tabriz. In appearance, as the accompanying photograph will show, he is of middle stature, and of handsome but careworn expression. He is the father of a large family, having more than twelve children living, several of whom are already married. His first wife — the daughter of Mirza Taki Khan, the great minister of whom I have spoken, and consequently his first cousin, her mother being the Shah's sister — he parted with, owing, it is said, to circumstances arising out of her father's assassination. One of her sisters was married to his elder brother, the Zil-es-Sultan, but died many years ago. Such is the information that I have been able to gather about the next king of Persia. He is emphatically what would, in sporting parlance, be termed 'a dark horse.' It is quite possible, however, that upon his succession to the throne, this unknown quantity may turn out somewhat of a surprise. The recent eclipse of his elder brother has added to his prestige and chances, which, approved by the reigning monarch, recognised by foreign Powers, and accepted by the country, may now be looked upon, humanly speaking, as absolutely secure.


[page 416]

I now turn to the best-known son of the Shah, Sultan Masud Mirza (Prince Felicitous), more commonly known by the title of the Zil-es-Sultan, or Shadow of the King — a misnomer in this case, seeing that he is very nearly double his father's size. Three years older than the Crown Prince, having been born in 1850, he is yet disqualified from the succession to the throne by reason of his plebeian origin on the maternal side, of which I have previously spoken. Though not destined to rule as sovereign, this prince has, from youth upwards, been allowed to ape the part, and to wield the functions of sovereignty with a freedom that could not fail to encourage extravagant pretensions, and that ultimately led to his downfall. At a very early age he was made Governor of Isfahan, and afterwards of Shiraz. As the years passed by, he grew in favour and authority. His stern and savage rule, which effectually repressed disorder and brigandage in the provinces under his control, and the punctuality of his remittances of revenue to Teheran, caused him to be regarded with peculiar gratification at Court. Province after province was added to his dominions, until Fars, Isfahan, Kurdistan, Luristan, Arabistan, and Yezd were all subject to his sway.[383] It was calculated that, prior to his fall, 250,000 square miles, or two-fifths of the whole of Persia, were beneath his rule. Simultaneously, he collected and controlled a great army at Isfahan, for which he adopted Prussian uniforms and pickelhaube helmets — a dress in which he was very fond of being photographed himself, in full general's uniform. In 1886 the troops under his command amounted (I give the actual, not the nominal, figures) to twenty-four regiments of infantry, containing 10,800 men, with 6,000 breech-loading rifles, 10 batteries of artillery, and 8 regiments of irregular cavalry, or a total of nearly 21,000 men and 7,000 horses. Residing, as Governor, at Isfahan, he was constantly interviewed by English travellers, to whom he invariably professed the most liberal and Anglophile sentiments. The severity of his administration, by which the turbulent tribesmen of the western provinces were kept in fair order, and his manly bearing, created


[page 417]

an impression of resoluteness and strength; and it was erroneously inferred that the prince thus gifted and smiled upon would ultimately both deserve the throne and win it.

These impressions have nowhere found a more emphatic spokesman than in Dr. Wills, who has already been proved to have cast as erroneous a horoscope for the Zil-es-Sultan as, I believe, he will also be proved in the future to have done for the Vali-Ahd. This is what he says in his two works before quoted: —

I suppose the time will come when His Royal Highness will make an effort for the throne, probably on the present Shah's death. It will be a lucky day for Persia if he succeeds, as he is clever, tolerant, and a good governor. His personal popularity is very great, and his luck as a governor proverbial. He has a dislike to deeds of blood, but is a severe governor.[384]

And later: —

There is no shadow of a doubt that the Zil will ultimately become Shah. He is a vigorous and fortunate governor, and his popularity is immense.[385]

I do not know whether, as a statement of facts or as a prediction of the future, these paragraphs are the more to be mistrusted. The Zil-es-Sultan was undoubtedly a ruler of vigour and determination. He held the reins in his own hand, and with a tight grip. Hating and despising the Mussulman clergy, he treated them with refreshing contempt. Never were the nomad tribesmen of the south-west provinces in a state of such acceptable subordination. But these merits, which were undeniable, and which are such as an Oriental respects, were compensated by faults of character and administration that in early days, when he was Governor at Shiraz, caused a popular outbreak which compelled him to fly, and in later times, at the very zenith of his power, were secretly preparing his downfall. Continued acts of violence and extortion on the part of officials to whose licence he appeared indifferent inflamed the public mind against his government. Several lamentable tragedies occurred during his administration — such, for instance, as the execution of the two Babi merchants in 1878[386] and the assassination of the Ilkhani of the


[page 418]

Bakhtiaris in 1882.[387] The astonishment, therefore, was not great when, in February 1888, the prince, being on a visit to the capital, was deprived of all his governorships, except that of Isfahan, and denuded of all but a fragment of the fine army on which he had so triumphantly relied. Acquiescing in his disgrace, he has since led a more humble and contracted existence, and is generally recognised as having, at least for the time being, lost all chances of future eminence or promotion. He has lately begun to exhibit a closer personal interest in the details of his government in Isfahan, where he acts as his own Vizier, and sits daily in one of the cabinets opening out of the Chehel Situn, to receive in audience any who may choose to come. The Zil was kind enough to accord me an interview at Teheran; and in the above remarks I must be understood to pass no personal sentence, but merely to reflect, with as much accuracy as I can, the verdict of the well-informed.

The palace of the Prince is one of the finest in Teheran, having an imposing facade relieved with stucco work, and broad large windows. At the door was standing a carriage richly adorned with gilt armorial bearings and drawn by four horses. Mounting a staircase, and passing through several rooms decorated with a comic mixture of the European and Oriental, I entered a long passage or corridor, one side of which consisted entirely of windows filled with geraniums, while the opposite wall was covered with pictures, chiefly replica photographs and portraits of the Zil, illustrations from Russian newspapers of Russian Emperors, generals, and battle scenes, interspersed with innumerable coloured prints of sparsely attired and languishing houris. The Zil was standing in the middle, attired in a loose frock coat or pelisse of Persian cashmere material, drab cloth trousers, and patent-leather boots. He took his seat on an iron bedstead — a culminating example of the bizarre furniture of a Persian palace — which supported a brocaded mattress, and in front of which were placed chairs. During the interview,


[page 419]

a younger son of the Shah came in, a nice little boy of eight years of age, with a pink velvet coat and an immense diamond buckle. His elder brother appeared to be very fond of him, and caressed the lad as he talked.

The Shadow of the King is short of stature, unusually corpulent for his years, and is a chronic sufferer from gout. A defect in one of his eyes detracts from the smart appearance that he has commonly been made to present in photographs; and his features wear an expression of mingled bonhomie and astuteness. Upon the present occasion he looked pallid and far from well. He talked a great deal in Persian, with a very rapid flow of language and constant laughter. Beginning with the stereotyped conversational overture that he always had been and would be the friend of England, which was the centre of civilisation and to whose interests he had devoted his life, he went on to say that he thought Lord Salisbury's Government the best in the world, and hoped it would remain in office for ever. On the other hand, he considered Lord Randolph Churchill not too loyal, and rather troublesome. I asked him what they would do with him in Persia. He replied, with some discretion, that a course of office might be expected to have a steadying effect. He added that he took in fifteen English as well as French, German, and Russian newspapers; and that he employed a special translator for the purpose. Turning the conversation on to general politics, with which he seemed creditably familiar, and on to the chances of peace and war, he expressed sentiments unfavourable to the two greatest neighbouring Powers. On the other hand, he told a Russian officer of my acquaintance, upon one occasion, that he was eagerly awaiting the Russians; and Mr. Stack, in his excellent book,[388] relates a story that casts similar doubt upon his Anglophile professions. It is supposed that his general predisposition is in favour of the English as against their rivals; but that expediency recommends an application of the same compliments to both. He then proceeded to pass an elaborate panegyric on the good government of the Shah, under whose administration life and property were secure, and no one was oppressed or murdered (an example, which, in these respects, it is still not too late for the Prince to follow). Persia he depicted as 'hungering and thirsting for civilisation,' emotions of very dubious existence, which I question if the Zil


[page 420]

would lift a little finger to appease. He added what was true, that he had come to Teheran in order to reingratiate himself with the Shah, to whom he had brought a fine present of money and horses. The attempt was so far successful — the prince having an alleged enemy in the ruling Grand Vizier, the Amin-es-Sultan — that the governments of Irak and Yezd were added to that of Isfahan. In the Fortune's wheel of Oriental politics, the degraded of one day is the uppermost of the next, and no revolution is too astonishing to be possible. But whatever be the ups and downs of the Zil's future career, he can no longer be regarded as a competitor for the throne, or as a formidable factor in the political future of Persia. It should be added that the prince shares to the full the masculine tastes of his family, being a great sportsman and passionately addicted to the saddle and the chase. His first wife died thirteen years ago; and his eldest son, the Jelal-ed-Dowleh, who, during the Zil's period of grandeur, ruled as deputy


[page 421]

at Shiraz, and was, in 1890, transferred to Yezd, now rules as his father's deputy in that city. The prince has also several daughters.

The third grown-up son of the Shah, by name Kamran Mirza, but more commonly called by his title of the Naib-es-Sultaneh, (Lieutenant of the Kingdom), with whom also I was granted an audience, holds the posts of Minister of War, Commander-in-Chief of the Persian Army (entitled Amir-i-Kebir, or Great Lord), and Governor of Teheran. He is now thirty-five years of age and is also unusually stout for his years. Though generally reputed to be the favourite son of the Shah and a young man of amiable disposition, he is deficient in capacity or political influence, and, except for the importance attaching to his military rank, fills no part on the public stage. Alone among the Shah's sons, he speaks very tolerable French, and can converse without the aid of an interpreter. He is understood to be very much afraid of his elder brother, the Zil, and to be on the reverse


[page 422]

of friendly terms with him. He possesses a fine palace at Teheran, as well as a summer residence in the country, the garden attached to the former being reputed the most beautiful in Persia. This prince is partial to the luxuries of life; and the appointments and furniture of his palace reflect these aesthetic inclinations. On the Shah's anniversary he has been in the habit for some years of giving a great dinner, in the French style, to the foreign Ministers, at which are to be noticed all the latest refinements of Parisian art. In youth he married a daughter of the Hissam-es-Sultaneh, who was Governor of Khorasan and was called the Victor of Herat. It was her brother, the present Hissam-es-Sultaneh, who represented the Shah at the Queen's Jubilee in 1887. The expenses necessitated by his various posts entail an outlay upon the Naib which his allowance is inadequate to meet; but in the administration of the Army he has discovered the wherewithal of a very substantial fortune. Of the audience with which I was favoured, I can recall nothing more important or perhaps more characteristic than the prince's declaration that he disliked the military parades in the Great Meidan, because they blew the dust in his eyes.

The remaining sons of the Shah are little boys of seven and eight years of age, and infants, the offspring of younger and later wives. It will be seen from what has been said that in none of the Royal Family is there any certain reproduction of the kingly qualities of their father; and that though the succession to the throne is not now likely to be disputed, yet it will place in power a personality whose character is still an enigma, and with regard to whom, if he turns out a feeble ruler, no one can be astonished; if a good ruler, most people will be surprised.

While speaking of the Royal Family I must not omit all mention of the brothers of the Shah, although none of these possesses any special importance beyond that which results from his rank. The eldest of them is Abbas Mirza, Mulk Ara. Regarded forty years ago as a possible pretender to the throne, he fled, on his elder brother's accession, to Baghdad, where he resided for thirty years, until reconciled to the Shah, who invited him back to Teheran. Here he became Minister of Commerce and Honorary President of the Council. He has also been Governor of Kazvin and other places. Soured, however, by his long exile, he is destitute of ambition, and has


[page 423]

finished his rôle in public life. The second brother, Abdus Samed Mirza, the Izz-ed-Dowleh, was till recently Minister of Justice. He accompanied the Shah on his previous tour to Europe, can speak both English and French, and was also sent to Moscow to congratulate the present Czar on his accession to the throne. Politically he exercises no influence, but is now for a second time Governor of Hamadan. The third and last surviving brother is Mohammed Taki Mirza, the Rukn-ed-Dowleh, of whom I have already spoken, in a previous chapter, as Governor-General of Khorasan. He was reputed not to be a strong governor and to be mainly in the hands of his Vizier, who was a strenuous Russian partisan; and it is to these reasons that his recall in the present year has been attributed. The three brothers are, therefore, in no case factors of political moment, and are said to be dependent for their fortunes upon the bounty of the Shah.

From the Palace I pass to the principal Ministers of the Crown. The Shah is nominally assisted in the task of government by a Council of State of fluctuating numbers — it at present contains thirty members — nominated by himself. The more prominent of these are ministers with portfolios, the departments being distinguished and named on semi-European lines, though an accumulation of several offices, with not the slightest connection between their functions, in the hands of a single person is a characteristic departure from the European model. It is, in fact, the greatest mistake to confuse this Council with the Cabinets of Western Constitutions, with which it has little in common. Perhaps the institution which it most closely resembles, and from which it was in all probability copied, is the Imperial Council in Russia.

It was after returning from his first voyage to Europe that the Persian Council of State assumed its present shape. The Shah on that occasion issued a Rescript to the Secretary of the Council in which the functions of the reorganised body were thus defined: —

The regular establishment of a Council of State is an affair of great importance, and is indispensable to the Government. It is our desire that this assembly shall be well constituted and well directed, and we are resolved to confer upon it unlimited powers and exalted influence. You will therefore communicate to the Council of State the following orders, which will serve as a basis for its reorganisation: —

(i.) Inasmuch as the affairs of Government are manifold, and as we


[page 424]

are anxious that they shall be promptly examined, and that our decision shall be immediately executed, two meetings in the week are insufficient. The Council will therefore in future be convened three times in the week.

(ii.) The members of the Council will enjoy full liberty of speech. They must fear nothing, and must deliberate with the greatest impartiality. If one of their number, occupying an inferior position in rank, desires to make observations or criticisms upon the manner in which certain affairs of government have been conducted by the higher officials, the latter will have no right either to be angry or to complain; but they will be able to defend and to justify themselves by reasons and remarks offered in polite language.

(iii.) Every member of the Council, of whatever rank, may submit for discussion any project of merit or public utility.

(iv.) All business will be decided by the majority of votes. The decisions, inscribed upon parchment, will be signed by all the members. Those that are verbally given will have no effect unless they are written out and signed.

(v.) Henceforward all the provincial governors and officers charged with high functions by the State shall be nominated and elected by the Council of State.

(vi.) The meetings of the Council will take place regularly, and all public matters will be laid before them.

This document possesses undeniable merits as a scheme for a powerful Cabinet of advice, in a constitutional monarchy; and might supply a very respectable charter of the rights of functions of such a body. But Persia is very far from being a constitutional monarchy, and accordingly it is not surprising to find that the Rescript has been either tacitly ignored or diplomatically forgotten, the fifth article in particular never having shown a spark of vitality.

The Persian Council of State, as it at present exists, has no ministerial responsibility and no collective authority, either executive or legislative. It is a purely consultative body, convened sometimes to advise the Shah beforehand, more commonly to discuss the fulfilment of his orders when already delivered. Its sole executive power is that of the individual men composing it, who are the Shah's servants, and can be shifted, promoted, or dismissed without any relation to their colleagues. There is a titular President of the Council who summons the meetings, but has no other presidential functions. He neither


[page 425]

takes the chair nor puts questions to the vote. Indeed, no speeches are made nor votes taken. The discussion is purely informal and conversational, and each minister is in the habit of reporting privately to the sovereign.

Of the general character and accomplishments of the ministers of the Persian Court, Sir J. Malcolm, in his History, wrote as follows in the early years of the century: —

The Ministers and chief officers of the Court are almost always men of polished manners, well skilled in the business of their respective departments, of pleasant conversation, subdued temper, and very acute observation; but these agreeable and useful qualities are, in general, all that they possess. Nor is virtue or liberal knowledge to be expected in men whose lives are wasted in attending to forms; whose means of subsistence are derived from the most corrupt sources; whose occupation is in intrigues which have always the same objects: to preserve themselves or ruin others; who cannot, without danger, speak any language but that of flattery and deceit; and who are, in short, condemned by their condition to be venal, artful, and false. There have, no doubt, been many ministers of Persia whom it would be injustice to class under this general description; but even the most distinguished for their virtues and talents have been forced in some degree to accommodate their principles to their station; and, unless where the confidence of their sovereign has placed them beyond the fear of rivals, necessity has compelled them to practise a subserviency and dissimulation at variance with the truth and integrity which can alone constitute a claim to the respect all are disposed to grant to good and great men.[389]

These observations are marked by the insight and justice characteristic of their distinguished author, and it is to be feared that to a large extent they hold as good of the present as of the old generation. Nevertheless, I hope I am not wrong in believing that the milder disposition and example of the reigning Shah, the results of European experience — most of the ministers having accompanied the king on one or other of his journeys — and the changing spirit of the times, recognisable even in Persia, have tempered some of the harsher outlines of the original picture; and that there is increasing scope for that honesty and integrity, whose absence Malcolm deplored, and which have hitherto been frightened out of existence by the danger attaching to honourable pre-eminence and by the universal complicity in fraud and corruption.


[page 426]

I at least shall assume the best in describing the character and conversations of those ministers whom I met in England and at Teheran.

There are at the present time seven ministers who may be described as possessing portfolios, the division or concentration of which will strike European readers as both arbitrary and eccentric. The rank of Sadr Azem, or Grand Vizier, which has occasionally been conferred by the Shah upon his leading adviser, is not strictly now enjoyed by any individual.[390] The present Prime Minister is known as the Amin-es-Sultan, or Trusted of the Sovereign, his name being Mirza Ali Askar Khan. He is a young man of now (1891) only thirty-four years of age, who, without the advantages of noble birth, has by his dash and ability won for himself the foremost position in Persia, and in 1889 accompanied the Shah on his European tour as the most important personage after his royal master. The grandson of an Armenian, and the son of an official who was originally abdar (the 'cup-bearer' of Nehemiah i. 11; the 'chief butler' of Genesis xl. 1) to the Shah on his travelling and hunting excursions, but who subsequently rose to high favour and office, the Amin-es-Sultan now unites in his own person the Ministries of the Interior, Court, Customs, and Treasury, besides being Administrator of the Mint and Governor of the Persian Gulf Ports. He is also practically Foreign Minister as well. I met him several times, and was favourably impressed with his intelligence, energy, and seeming force of character. His appearance is prepossessing, he has a frank and attractive manner, and he talks with great ease, rapidity, and emphasis. Having, like all Persian officials of high rank, attained a very large fortune, partly inherited, partly acquired, he inhabits a fine residence in the capital. He makes no concealment, at any rate to English ears, of liberal and Anglophile sympathies,


[page 427]

and spoke to me with the utmost freedom about the politics of his country. He said that what had struck him most in England was the wealth of the nobility, where each was a king, the education of the people, where all could philosophise, and the density of the population, where every village was a town and every town a city. Upon his return to his native country, the sight of the Persian roads had almost made him weep, and he considered the introduction of roads and railroads as the best method of expressing his indebtedness to Europe. He declared that he would like his two sons, the eldest of whom was twelve years of age, to be educated in England, but that their mother would not hear of their leaving the country. We discussed many political questions, to which I will not here refer, but in all of which I was struck by the grasp of the situation and by the ready comprehension of rival designs and standpoints exhibited by the Amin. He has now, in the face


[page 428]

of continuous intrigue and watchful opposition from the older official school, by whom he is regarded as a schemer and an upstart, held his own for several years. His administration has on the whole been marked by ability and success, and if he continues to receive the support of the king, if he can escape the deteriorating contagion of Persian official life, and if he can hold up his head amid the hurricane of intrigue that surges round a leading man in Persia, he may live to be a real benefactor of his country. At the time of going to press, in the winter of 1891-2, his position appears to be still unimpaired; nor does the jealousy of his rivals seem to have shaken the wise confidence of his sovereign.

The remaining ministers are for the nonce somewhat overshadowed by the ascendency of the Amin. The most honourable and capable among them is the Amin-ed-Dowleh, Mirza Ali Khan, a man of middle age, courtly manners, liberal sympathies, and great cultivation. Superseded in the first position by his younger rival, he is regarded as hostile to the latter, but still unites in his own person the Presidency of the Council with the Ministries of Posts, Pensions, and Church Property. He accompanied the Shah on his former visit to England, but not in the year 1889, having withdrawn from the suite in Germany, it was said, in consequence of strained relations with the Amin-es-Sultan. Were it not for a certain want of initiative and energy, possibly the result of too acute an insight into the stubbornness of the system with which would-be reformers are brought into collision, he might be regarded as the best man in Persia. I visited him in a fine house which was decorated in the European fashion. He conversed very fairly well in the French tongue, and struck me as the most attractive personality whom I encountered in Persia. His tone about his own country was that of a true lover of reform, whose enthusiasms were dead and who had lost all hope of regeneration in his time.

The portfolio of Foreign Affairs is in the hands of Mírzá Abbas Khan, the Kawam-ed-Dowleh (Support of the State), a man of rough manners and appearance, and a typical representative of the old school. He did not accompany the Shah to Europe, but was left in charge of his department at Teheran. He was formerly Minister of the Interior, and has the reputation of being straightforward and industrious, as well as enormously wealthy. In spite of his portfolio, he is little more


[page 429]

than a political cypher; the real control of the foreign relations of Persia being entirely in the hands of the Shah and the Prime Minister.

Among the most important of the ministers, although at present occupying only a secondary official rank, is Yahia Khan, known as the Mushir-ed-Dowleh. He is the younger brother of the famous Sadr Azem and Sipah Salar Mirza Husein Khan, who was Prime Minister at the time of the Shah's first visit to Europe, and who afterwards died in semi-exile at Meshed in 1881. From early years he attracted the favour of his sovereign.[391] He became a minister, received the Shah's sister in marriage,[392] was appointed Governor of Gilan and Mazanderan, and afterwards of Fars, was President of the Council of Regency during the Shah's second absence in Europe, and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1885 to 1887. In that year he forfeited the post by the intrigues which led to the flight of Ayub Khan from Teheran, and which rendered him a persona ingrata to the British Legation. This charge he resolutely denies; but it is to be feared that it is not without serious justification. He has also been sent on a special mission to St. Petersburg, where he was treated with great consideration, and where he is supposed to have imbibed Russian ideas. He is now Minister of Justice and Commerce. Speaking French admirably, the result of an early European education, and thoroughly versed in the politics and habits of the West, he is probably one of the cleverest of the public men in modern Persia. He inhabits a magnificent house, which he holds no loan from the Shah, who had confiscated it from his deceased brother. It adjoins the immense Sipah Salar Mosque, which I have described in my chapter on Teheran, and which he is completing in accordance with the instructions and bequests of the former Sipah Salar. At the time of my visit his eldest son was about to be married to one of the daughters of the Vali-Ahd, and the Mushir, who


[page 430]

does everything in the most lordly style, and is understood in consequence to be crippled with debt, was giving a series of entertainments that were the talk of Teheran. One day he entertained the Persian Ministers; on another the foreign element; on a third all the dervishes in the capital; on the day when I visited him the mullahs of Teheran were enjoying their share of the festivities, and I saw 200 of these holy and turbaned individuals seated round an immense room consuming an excellent déjeuner. On the night of the wedding he illuminated the main streets and big Meidan. Of all the ministers with whom I came in contact he was the least Oriental and the most European. Dispensing with the rotund phraseology of compliment, which, as a rule, occupies the first ten minutes of an interview with a Persian grandee, he conversed sensibly and pointedly about both the European and Eastern situations, making the just remark, that if England had spent half the money in conciliating the friendship of Persia that she has squandered in alienating that of Afghanistan, she would have gained a secure and invaluable bulwark for her Indian Empire. Rumour credits the Mushir-ed-Dowleh with strong Russian proclivities; but these, in conversation with me, he strenuously denied. It is possible that he may again come to the front; and in any case his personality is one that cannot be ignored in the future. (He has since died, January 1892.)

Of the Minister of War, the Naib-es-Sultaneh, I have already spoken. Jehangir Khan, an Armenian, was, till his recent death, Minister of Fine Arts. Mohammed Hasan Khan, the Itimad-es-Sultaneh, is interpreter to the Shah and Minister of the Press, without a portfolio. He translates the European papers daily to the Shah, and is in close and confidential attendance upon the sovereign. The sole remaining minister of distinction is the Mukhber-ed-Dowleh, Ali Kuli Khan, who combines the ministries of Public Instruction, Telegraphs, and Mines. In the second capacity he was brought into constant intercourse with the officials of the Indian Government and of the Indo-European Company during the first introduction of the telegraph wire into Persia twenty-five years ago, and was made a C.I.E.; while, in the third, he has again been in close relations with the English since the formation of the Persian Mining Rights Corporation. He also is a man of considerable ability and enlightenment, though deficient in ambition. He accompanied the Shah as far as London in 1889, but, owing to


[page 431]

jealousies among the suite, obtained permission to retire from there and undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca. One of his sons, who bears the title of the Sani-ed-Dowleh, is married to a daughter of the Vali-Ahd.

Among other prominent personages, though not actually a minister of the Crown, must be mentioned the Amir-i-Nizam, Hasan Ali Khan, who till lately was Vizier to the Heir Apparent in Azerbaijan, and was for years the real governor of that province. This remarkable man is a native of Bijar, a small town in the Gerrus district between Sinna and Kazvin. The country of Bijar, where his family have lived long and have some influence, is Kurdish, though they are Persians. It was no doubt owing to these patrimonial surroundings that he understood the Kurds so well and kept them, on the whole, in such excellent order. Formerly Persian Minister in Paris, he speaks French with perfect facility and is imbued with Western and progressive ideas. He has also been several times in London. Before being raised to his recent high office he was Minister of Public Works in Teheran. A man of very strong will and determination, he reduced turbulence in Azerbaijan to a minimum, and was the best provincial administrator in Persia. Though far advanced in years, being now seventy-five or seventy-six years of age, he is hale and robust, is frequently spoken of as a likely Minister of Foreign Affairs, and in a new reign would possibly be appointed Grand Vizier to the sovereign.[393]

Another powerful individual is the Sahib Diwan, Fathullah Khan, a wealthy nobleman of Shiraz, who has been both Vizier to the Vali-Ahd at Tabriz, and Governor of Isfahan and Fars, and who formerly held office in the capital. His administration at Shiraz was reported to be hard and avaricious, but strong. He is a man of enlightened views and intelligence, and, in spite of his years, is said to covet the post of First Minister, which he sees with reluctance in its present occupant's hands. In the spring of the present year he was appointed Governor-General of Khorasan, where it is to be hoped that he will prove less pliant than his predecessor.


[page 432]

In addition to the Council of State, there exists an imperium in imperio in the shape of a small Council of Five, specially constituted by the Shah in 1888 to advise him on matters of high political moment. This inner Council consists at the present moment of the Amin-es-Sultan, the Naib-es-Sultaneh, the Amin-ed-Dowleh, the Kawam-ed-Dowleh, and the Mukhber-ed-Dowleh.

These are at present the leading men in Persia. From my account of them it will be seen that there is no deficiency, either in capacity or (if assurances are to be believed) in will, to prevent the initiation of a policy of reform. Intrigue, however, is rampant, prejudices are powerful, fanaticism is not extinct, and both Shah and Ministers are caught in the meshes of a system which is characterised by many ingrained vices, and which in my next chapter I shall endeavour to describe.


[page 433]

previous chapter chapter 12 start page single page chapter 14 next chapter
Back to:   Books
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
 
.
. .