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

Persia and the Persian Question, volume I

by George N. Curzon

previous chapter chapter 13 start page single page chapter 15 next chapter

Chapter 14

THE GOVERNMENT

I do not like the fashion of your garments. You will say, They are Persian. But let them be changed. — SHAKESPEARE, King Lear.

FROM what was said at the beginning of the previous chapter, it may be inferred that the government of Persia would, nominally at any rate, be classified by constitutional writers as an absolute monarchy. In theory the king may do what he pleases; his word is law. The saying that 'The law of the Medes and Persians altereth not' was merely an ancient periphrasis for the absolutism of the sovereign. He appoints and he may dismiss all ministers, officers, officials and judges. Over his own family and household, and over the civil or military functionaries in his employ he has power of life and death without reference to any tribunal. The property of any such individual, if disgraced or executed, reverts to him. The right to take life in any case is vested in him alone, but can be delegated to governors or deputies. All property, not previously granted by the crown or purchased — all property in fact to which a legal title cannot be established — belongs to him, and can be disposed of at his pleasure. All rights or privileges, such as the making of public works, the working of mines, the institution of telegraphs, roads, railroads, tramways, &c., the exploitation, in fact, of any of the resources of the country, are vested in him, and must be purchased from him before they can be assumed by others. In his person are fused the threefold functions of government, legislative, executive, and judicial. No obligation is imposed upon him beyond the outward observance of the forms of the national religion. He is the pivot upon which turns the entire machinery of public life.

Such is, in theory, and was till lately in practice, the character of the Persian monarchy. Nor has a single one of these high pretensions been overtly conceded. The language in which the Shah addresses his subjects and is addressed by them,


[page 434]

recalls the proud tone in which an Artaxerxes or Darius spoke to his tributary millions, and which may still be read in the graven record of rock-wall and tomb. He remains the Shahinshah, or King of Kings; the Zil Allah, or Shadow of God; the Kibleh Alem, or Centre of the Universe; 'Exalted like the planet Saturn; Well of Science; Footpath of Heaven; Sublime Sovereign, whose standard is the Sun, whose Splendour is that of the Firmament; Monarch of armies numerous as the stars.'[394] Still would the Persian subject endorse the precept of Sadi, that 'The vice approved by the king becomes a virtue; to seek opposite counsel is to imbrue one's hands in his own blood.' The march of time has imposed upon him neither religious council nor secular council, neither ulema nor senate. Elective and representative institutions have not yet intruded their irreverent features. No written check exists upon the royal prerogative.

And yet the power of the Persian king by no means corresponds to its arrogant definition, nor is it now equal to what it once was. In the first place, the Shah is no longer the religious head even of the Shiah community of the Mussulman world. At no time have the sovereigns of Persia enjoyed the spiritual supremacy that was conceded to the Khalifs of Baghdad, and that is still claimed for the Sultan of Constantinople. But the Sefavi monarchs, by virtue of their descent from a famous saint, who was himself a Seyid, or descendant of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, were invested with a semi-sacred character, to which alone can we attribute the passiveness with which, for a whole century, their subjects submitted to the rule of a succession of capricious and dissolute drunkards. Chardin says that they were regarded as vicars or successors of the Imams; and Kaempfer records that the water in which they had washed was deemed holy, and was eagerly sought after as a cure for all complaints. No such pretensions, however, have been made, or could be made, on behalf of any subsequent dynasty; least of all on behalf of a family like the Kajars, of Turkish extraction. The Shah of Persia, therefore, must be dissociated from any claims of personal


[page 435]

sanctity; and both the scope and limitations of his prerogative must be sought on purely secular grounds.

Although ostensibly supreme, the practical restraints upon the sovereign's power are many. Respect for the religious teachers and law might have been predicated with greater truth of his predecessors than of the reigning Shah, who, without either insulting or alienating the ecclesiastical element, has yet contrived its subordination to the civil authority to a degree unequalled in any previous reign, except that of a man of blood and iron, such as Nadir Shah. Regard for established usage has been found a stronger deterrent in the present reign. So long as the revenue is collected and robbery is suppressed, the complete assertion of the royal power is not, in hazardous cases, too rigorously pressed. In other words, political expediency, acts as a further deterrent. But, strongest of all, in the case of the reigning monarch, and of great interest as proving the extent to which Persia has been drawn into the vortex of civilised states, is the deterrent of foreign opinion, which, in the absence of any indigenous public opinion worthy of the name, has taken its place, and has operated as a safeguard for which the Persian people are probably quite without gratitude, and of which they are, it may be suspected, wholly unaware. It may safely be predicted that any extravagant or savage exercise of the royal prerogative, such as has been a familiar incident in the Persian history of the past, will rarely occur, if at all, in the future, and that in any case it will prove an exceptional, instead of a normal, feature of government. This remarkable change is to be attributed to the permanent presence of foreign Ministers and to the electric telegraph.

The administrative régime of Persia is in essence the same at this day as under the Achaemenian kings. The empire is divided into satrapies or provinces, ruled by governor-generals who are appointed by, and are directly responsible to, the Crown, and these are further subdivided into beluks, or districts, cities and their dependencies, and towns, the lieutenant governors of which are either nominated directly by the sovereign or by the governor-general of the larger province to which they belong. Until the present century four of these satraps, of peculiar distinction and almost independent power, bore the title of Vali, viz., the rulers of Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, and


[page 436]

Luristan. Of these, the last-named alone retains either the title or any shadow of independence. Governor-generals and lieutenant-governors are usually called hakim, the latter sometimes naib-el-hukumah. Under the governors are the daroghah, or head of police; the kalantar, or mayor of a city, and the kedkhoda, who is either the chief of a ward or parish if in a town, or the headman of a village. The principal governorships are conferred upon the king's sons, brothers, uncles, or relations, but to nothing like the intolerable and almost criminal extent that prevailed at the beginning of the century. The governor is now also, as a rule, resident in his province, instead of being an absentee at the capital. He is commonly assisted in the work of administration, and more especially in the fiscal side of government, by a vizier or minister. Among the nomad and military tribes a different system of appointments and titles prevails, the governors of the Kurdish, Bakhtiari, and other clans being known as Ilkhani and Ilbegi, and their subordinate chiefs as khan, sheikh, tushmal, &c., all of these being responsible for the collection of revenue to the governor of the province in which they reside.

Ostensibly, in the creation of this governing hierarchy, the sovereign is absolute and supreme. Here again, however, in practice, very considerable checks are found to exist upon his prerogative. As I showed in my chapter upon Khorasan, in the case of the Ilkhanis of Kuchan and Bujnurd, and of the Amir of Kain, and, as I shall subsequently show in a chapter dealing with the Eeili and Bakhtiari Lurs, the Shah is practically compelled to choose a governor from the ruling family; nor is it easy for him to interfere with the custom of direct hereditary succession. Similarly, in the cases of local magistrates or head men, such as the kalantars in cities, and the kedkhodas in wards or villages, although nominally he has a free choice, yet in reality he must make a selection that is agreeable to the inhabitants. Otherwise the authority of government falls into abeyance; and, what is regarded as much more serious in Persia, the revenue fails to come in. Hence, the popular choice as a rule marking out some individual for the exercise of these offices, and the Shah for expediency's sake accepting it as his guide, some writers have seen in this fact an introduction of the elective or representative principle into Persian administration. In many cases it happens that the office is practically hereditary in a single


[page 437]

ruling family, much after the fashion of the Italian cities before the Renaissance.

There is no fixed principle or permanence in the administrative subdivisions of Persia. Their separation or combination is regulated by the ability or reputation of their governors, and by the scope that may be conceded thereto by the confidence or the fears of the sovereign. Thus, for instance, a larger number of provinces were collected under the rule of the Shah's eldest son, the Zil-es-Sultan, prior to his fall, three years ago, than have probably ever before been assigned even to a prince of the royal family. Abbas Mirza, at the height of his power, when Khorasan had been joined to Azerbaijan and placed beneath his sway, did not wield as extensive an authority as this prince. Since his disgrace the vast dominion under his rule has been resolved again into its constituent elements; and the following list of the Persian provinces and administrative districts at the time of my visit in 1889, probably exhibits a larger number of independent posts and functionaries than at any recent period of Persian history. It should further be remarked that no principle, geographical, ethnographical, or political, appears to be adopted in determining the borders and size of the various divisions, which vary in extent from a province larger than the whole of England, to a small and decayed town with its immediate surroundings.

I. LARGER PROVINCES OR DISTRICTS

Administrative Division

Capital

Administrative Division

Capital

Azerbaijan

Tabriz

Arabistan

Shushter

Khorasan and Seistan

Meshed

Gilan and Talish

Resht

Teheran and Dependencies

Teheran

Mazanderan

Amol

Fars

Shiraz

Yezd and Dependencies

Yezd

Isfahan and Dependencies

Isfahan

Persian Gulf Littoral and Islands

Bushire

Kerman and Persian Beluchistan

Kerman

II. SMALLER PROVINCES OR DISTRICTS

Administrative Division

Capital

Administrative Division

Capital

Kurdistan

Sinna

Kermanshah

Kermanshahan

Luristan

Khorremabad

Khamseh

Zinjan

Irak and Ferahan

Sultanabad

Malayer and Tusirkan

Dowletabad

Kazvin

Kashan

Hamadan

Astrabad

Gulpaigan and Khonsar

Nihavend

Semnan and Damghan

Mahallat

Natanz

Kum

Kezzaz

Biabanek and Jandek

Gerrus


[page 438]

III. INFERIOR TOWNS AND DEPENDENCIES

Administrative Division

Burujird

Joshekan

Talikan

Bostam and Shahrud

Khar

Saveh

Kamareh

Kharakan

Firuzkuh

Asadabad

Demavend

Tarum

I now come to that which is the cardinal and differentiating feature of Iranian administration. Government, nay, life itself, in that country may be said to consist for the most part of an interchange of presents. Under its social aspects this practice may be supposed to illustrate the generous sentiments of an amiable people; though even here it has a grimly unemotional side, as, for instance, when, congratulating yourself upon being the recipient of a gift, you find that not only must you make a return of equivalent cost to the donor, but must also liberally remunerate the bearer of the gift (to whom your return is very likely the sole recognised means of subsistence) in a ratio proportionate to its pecuniary value. Under its political aspects, the practice of gift-making, though consecrated in the adamantine traditions of the East, is synonymous with the system elsewhere described by less agreeable names. This is the system on which the government of Persia has been conducted for centuries, and the maintenance of which opposes a solid barrier to any real reform. From the Shah downwards, there is scarcely an official who is not open to gifts, scarcely a post which is not conferred in return for gifts, scarcely an income which has not been amassed by the receipt of gifts. Every individual, with hardly an exception, in the official hierarchy above mentioned, has only purchased his post by a money present either to the Shah, or to a minister, or to the superior governor by whom he has been appointed. If there are several candidates for a post, in all probability the one who makes the best offer will win. Upon his appointment he receives the kitabcheh, or official statement of the revenues of the province, with regulations for its management. Henceforward it is his business to collect the taxes, to see that the proper military quota is forthcoming, and to administer justice. But there appears in Persia to be a peculiar objection to a new assessment, no doubt arising from the universal and legitimate fear that it can only result in further exaction. Accordingly, the kitabcheh remains obsolete and unaltered; but in bargaining for his post, the would-be


[page 439]

governor engages to pay to the Shah a sum in excess of that mentioned in the kitabcheh — the prolonged duration of peace having increased the general productiveness of the whole country; such sum being determined by the competing bribes of the several candidates, one of whom will perhaps undertake to pay to the Crown 30,000 tomans above the official assessment (in order to cut out the existing governor, who may only be giving 20,000), and will presently find himself outbidden by a third, who offers 40,000. Every post of any importance in Persia being, in theory, tenable only for one year, and being renewable at the annual festival of the vernal equinox or No Ruz, then comes the moment at which the most minute and delicate calculation of the requisite bribe prevails. I extract the following account of the system in its actual operation from the excellent report upon the condition of modern Persia, contributed to Petermann's 'Mittheilungen'[395] in 1885, by Messrs. Andreas and Stolze, who were themselves for some years in official or other employment in Persia: —

Every official has to purchase his appointment and to pay for his continuance in office by a present once a year, frequently almost equivalent to the salary that he receives. To this rule there are few exceptions, from the governor of a province, whose present goes direct into the private purse of the Shah, down to the lowest servant of an under-governor. The governors of provinces are required every year to pay in to the government the taxes of their provinces at a sum determined at the beginning of the spring equinox. Now, by law each has the right of levying a certain sum beyond — the Hak-el-Hukumah. All this, however, will go in presents to the Shah and Ministers. He is, therefore, compelled, for the maintenance of his own state and household, to extort a much higher sum still. Careful investigations, instituted in Fars, during the several years of government of the Motemed-ed-Dowleh — justly celebrated as the best governor in the country, under whom Fars attained its zenith of order and prosperity — showed that, instead of the prescribed 6,360,000 francs, 10,000,000 francs were collected. It is an open secret in Persia that the excess of levies averages at least 66⅔ per cent. The method of collection is as follows. The sub-governors (zabit) have to deliver in instalments to their respective superiors on each occasion a higher sum than is entered on the tax-roll (kitabcheh). They, in their turn, receive the taxes from the different heads of districts (kalantars), and these from the village magistrates; the collector at each stage paying in more than


[page 440]

is due. All these supplements being regulated at best only by use and wont, there is ample scope for extortion; and terrible are sometimes the cases, complaints whereof are seldom of any avail, the complainant having probably to reckon with the bastinado.

The tax list (tumar) is often drawn out years beforehand, according to the number of taxable objects in each district: acres, fruit-trees, water-springs, beasts of labour, herds, &c. Not only is this sum exacted thenceforward year after year, though the taxed objects are meanwhile dwindling, but it is gradually raised. In these lists will figure villages which, from dearth of water or other causes, have been abandoned by their inhabitants. Although, in consequence of the silk-worm disease, and the dreadful famine of 1869-73, the economic condition of Persia became greatly reduced during the twenty years 1864-84, whence it is but recently, through the culture of opium, that it is beginning to revive, the taxes were yet continually going up, in many cases to an almost insupportable figure. Only the extreme frugality of the Persian peasant and of the lower classes in general, on whom presses almost exclusively the burden of the taxes, explains how they are got in at all.

I have quoted the above passage at length, because it is the evidence of eye-witnesses, who lived for years in the country and whose authority is not to be impugned. From a perusal of its contents, a glimpse will have been caught of that which, along with, and perhaps even more than, the bribe or gift required to secure or to retain office of any description, is a cherished national institution in Persia, viz. the mudakhil, i.e. consideration, recompense, or profit which is required to balance the personal account, and the exaction of which, in a myriad different forms, whose ingenuity is only equalled by their multiplicity, is the crowning interest and delight of a Persian's existence. This remarkable word, for which Mr. Watson says there is no precise English equivalent,[396] may be variously translated as commission, perquisite, douceur, consideration, pickings and stealings, profit,


[page 441]

according to the immediate context in which it is employed. Roughly speaking, it signifies that balance of personal advantage, usually expressed in money form, which can be squeezed out of any and every transaction. A negotiation, in which two parties are involved as donor and recipient, as superior and subordinate, or even as equal contracting agents, cannot take place in Persia without the party who can be represented as the author of the favour or service claiming and receiving a definite cash return for what he has done or given. It may of course be said that human nature is much the same all the world over; that a similar system exists under a different name in our own or other countries, and that the philosophic critic will welcome in the Persian a man and a brother. To some extent this is true. But in no country that I have ever seen or heard of in the world, is the system so open, so shameless, or so universal as in Persia. So far from being limited to the sphere of domestic economy or to commercial transactions, it permeates every walk and inspires most of the actions of life. By its operation, generosity or gratuitous service may be said to have been erased in Persia from the category of social virtues, and cupidity has been elevated into the guiding principle of human conduct. Examples, however, explain more clearly than can any verbal generalisation; and I will, therefore, proceed to show how the institution of mudakhil works in every channel and department of Persian life.

I have already shown that no office of distinction is conferred by the Crown except for a pecuniary consideration or price, which, in the case of a post bestowed by the Shah, goes into his private exchequer. This is the mudakhil of the sovereign. Some of the processes adopted for raising this branch of the revenue will hereafter come under discussion. Here I propose to follow the further ramifications of the system, as it spreads through the entire official hierarchy of which the Shah is the head and exemplar. In the next descending grade the governor who has paid a smart price for his appointment is not one whit behindhand either in the desire or in the capacity to indemnify himself. He farms out the taxes or customs to a third individual for a sum, perhaps, half as much again as that which he himself has given. The balance is his mudakhil. So too the kalantar or kedkhoda in his turn insists upon his squeeze; the 'farming' process, which is universal in Persia, affording an easy basis for


[page 442]

the realisation of the desired profit; and the system by which the mudakhil is extracted does not come to an end until the bottom of the descending scale has been reached, and there is no further victim from whom to grind out a gain. An Austrian, Baron von Teufenstein, was finance officer of the district of Saveh for a year, from 1881 to 1882, and published a most interesting account of his experiences, in which he said that his predecessor paid 25,000 francs for his office (the mudakhil of the sovereign, or of the minister who procured him the post), and cleared 80,000 francs by his year's tenure of it (his own mudakhil). If, however, in the sphere of administration this graduated scale of extortion be deemed either not extraordinary or normal, it will perhaps excite greater astonishment when observed in active existence in the army. It may safely be averred that no general officer obtains his post without a substantial money equivalent. His own profit consists in what he can extract from the colonels and majors under his command. They, in their turn, squeeze the captains and lieutenants; and these, not behindhand in resourcefulness, extract moisture from what one would, prima facie, imagine to be the flinty consistency of the Persian infantry soldier, by selling to him the privilege of furlough, or leave to work as an artisan in the bazaar. The last illustration which I shall give will be taken from domestic life. Here mudakhil is the commission exacted by your servant (in a Persian household usually by a member of the family, specially commissioned) upon every article that you purchase, or every order that you give. This is conceded to him, as a matter of right by the vendor, who accordingly names a price, ten per cent. or more, in excess of that which he requires for his own profit, the balance to go to the domestic; and by the master, who knows well enough that he is paying ten per cent. above the market value. Still, mudakhil must exist all round; and seeing that he himself is doubtless making it on a larger scale elsewhere, why should he be so unjust as to complain?

If we examine this system in the light in which it affects the pockets and the interests of the governed, it is obvious that it must result in wholesale and illicit extortion. Take the case of the tenant or farmer of any office who has had to pay a substantial price for his nomination. He requires, in the first place, to recoup himself for this outlay. Next he has to collect the stipulated annual revenue for the Royal or Ministerial


[page 443]

Exchequer. Thirdly, he must be ready to purchase a continuance of the ever-precarious favour of his superiors; and, lastly, not knowing when he may fall, he must provide for himself against a rainy day. Hereby is instituted an arithmetical progression of plunder from the sovereign to the subject, each unit in the descending scale remunerating himself from the unit next in rank below him, and the hapless peasant being the ultimate victim. It is not surprising, under these circumstances, that office is the common avenue to wealth, and that cases are frequent of men who, having started from nothing, are found residing in magnificent houses, surrounded by crowds of retainers and living in princely style. 'Make what you can while you can' is the rule that most men set before themselves in entering public life. Nor does popular spirit resent the act; the estimation of anyone who, enjoying the opportunity, has failed to line his own pockets, being the reverse of complimentary to his sense. No one turns a thought to the sufferers from whom, in the last resort, the material for these successive mudakhils has been derived, and from the sweat of whose uncomplaining brow has been writing the wealth that is dissipated in luxurious country houses, European curiosities, and enormous retinues. In one of Sir Lewis Pelly's reports upon Southern Persia, penned while he was British Resident at Bushire, I have come across the following passage, which tersely depicts the effect of this system upon the cultivators of the soil: —

One of the consequences of this system of farming is that the agriculturist is called on for a much larger rent than the State receives from him; e.g. A. farms a governorship from the Shah for an amount B. plus C. the douceur (the term of the annual contract remaining a constant quantity, while the douceur varies). A. in turn farms his circle of villages, of which D. takes one circle. D. again sublets a hamlet or one of his villages to E. who deputes F. to collect the rents. Each, of course, expects a profit on his contract, and consequently the agriculturist, instead of having to pay the amount B. which benefits the State, is called upon for his share of B + C, + D's + E's + F's profits. He cannot pay. F. complains to E. and E. to A., who is dunned for his contract sum from the capital. A. gives to his subfarmers permission to collect the revenue by force. This is done; next year some of the peasants have fled, some of the land is lying waste. The country, in brief, is revenued as if the Government were to end with the expiry of the governor's lease.[397]


[page 444]

It may be wondered why a system that seems to press so hardly upon the taxpayers, who are in a numerical majority, and which is attended with such obvious injustice, should be mildly acquiesced in by a people who have never been slow at rebellion. I conceive the reason in part to lie in the fact that, from one point of view, Persia is the most democratic country in the world. Lowness of birth or station is positively not the slightest bar to promotion or office of the most exalted nature. Nor must it necessarily, as in European countries, be compensated or supplemented by distinguished abilities. Interest or the capacity to pay is sufficient to procure a post for anyone, even of menial origin. Many a Persian governor has started by filling a subordinate post in the household or retinue of some great man, and has passed through every grade of society before arriving at the top. The present Grand Vizier, as I have shown, was himself of humble descent, while his father was an attendant in the royal household. The Prime Minister who accompanied the Shah on his first visit to Europe was the grandson of a barber, and the great Amir-i-Nizam, Mirza Taki Khan, was the son of a cook. Consequently, every man sees a chance of some day profiting by the system of which he may for the moment be the victim, and as the present hardship or exaction is not to be compared in ratio with the pecuniary advantage which he may ultimately expect to reap, he is willing to bide his time, and to trust to the fall of the dice in the future.

A second fact which may variously be regarded as a reason for the continuance, and as a product of the existence, of this system is the low and inadequate figure of official salaries in Persia. In most cases, the government allowance is sufficient for little more than household expenses, and takes no thought of the personal remuneration of the official. What a grudging treasury declines to give, mudakhil, it is well understood, is intended to supply, and were it conceivable that by some miraculous transformation of Persian character, or by a decree from some iconoclastic sovereign, this most sacred of institutions should perish without a corresponding rise at the same time of fifty per cent. in official salaries, the machine of government would be brought to a standstill. Quite apart, therefore, from the inherent popularity of a system by which all aspire to profit, so long as a miserly sovereign sits upon the throne, and the


[page 445]

treasury is administered in the present niggardly fashion, mudakhil remains an essential feature of public life in Persia, and no reform is to be anticipated.

Although it might be thought that the existence of the purchase system on so extensive a scale would render long tenure of office rare, it is not as a rule found in practice that this is the case. The official in possession is in a far better situation than the candidate who wishes to oust him, inasmuch as he has at his easy disposal the means of increasing his annual gift or purchase money to the Shah. Moreover, the test of good governorship in Persia being, not the amelioration or contentment or prosperity of the province, but the absence of highway robbery and the punctuality with which the taxes and customs are paid into the royal exchequer, personal merit plays a very small part in the bargain between sovereign and deputy, and dismissal or degradation by no means follows upon proven incompetence. Too often it has happened that when complaints against an oppressive governor have been manifold and just, the accused official has been able, by the prompt addition of a few thousand tomans to his annual money-offering to the Shah, to avert disaster and to continue with impunity in his career of maladministration.

That, which is known as mudakhil from the point of view of the recipient, is classified as pishkesh, or gift (lit. that which leads on or comes before), from the standpoint of the donor. Every money-bribe, or gift, made to secure a post or concession, to influence a judicial decision or to escape punishment, falls under the head of pishkesh. This mysterious and elastic term, which includes every form of donation, from the contribution paid in by a governor-general to the fine exacted from a petty delinquent, may be roughly divided into two headings: (1) the fixed, regular, and open payments, prescribed by usage and never relaxed; (2) irregular or extraordinary payments, made or extracted as the opportunity occurs. Among the former the most conspicuous are the so-called presents made at the festival of No Ruz, or the New Year, to the Shah. Every governor, minister, chief of a tribe, or official of any rank, then makes his offering, the minimum amount of which is determined by custom, and the maximum left to the means or ambition of the donor. As Malcolm put it, to fall short of the accustomed sum means loss of office, to exceed is increase of favour. In his day the sum thus


[page 446]

received amounted to two-fifths of the entire fixed revenue (which he estimated at 3,000,000l.), or to 1,200,000l. Madame Serena[398] makes a great mistake in calculating the receipts of the present Shah at No Ruz from these sources as 60,000,000 francs, or double the sum ascribed to Fath Ali Shah by Malcolm. As a matter of fact the presents received by the reigning Shah have never been more than a third, or at most a half, of those extorted by his great-grandfather, and the total is said to have dwindled in recent years to only a few thousand pounds. This reduction does not by any means imply that the receipts of the government have fallen, but only that there has been a redistribution of incidence, the greatly increased results from the assessed revenue producing a corresponding diminution in the cash money-presents of the governor and officials.

A device, more delicate in its regard for the scruples of the donor, but equally certain in its productiveness, is the gift of the Royal khelat. Once in each year every provincial governor receives from the sovereign the gift of a khelat, or robe of honour (as a sign of his continuance in office), to the bearer of which he must present a khelatt-beha, or equivalent price, the gift of which is in reality a relief to the pocket of the Shah.[399] The cost of the khelat is reckoned as a normal item of expenditure by every provincial governor in the calculation of his budget. Outside every Persian city of any size is a pavilion, or place, known as the Khelat Pushan, whither the governor rides out at the head of a brilliant cavalcade to receive the royal present, and whence, having donned the garb or mantle, he returns to the town, the remainder of the day being given up to public rejoicing. The happy recipient knows that he is safe for another year. Extraordinary khelats are frequently solicited and paid for on a larger scale, in order to insure the continued favour of the sovereign. The same system is repeated in a descending scale among the lower grades of the official hierarchy, the provincial governor also sending a yearly khelat to his subordinate, and being equally gratified by the petition for an extraordinary khelat.

These are the more familiar and recognised resources of royal


[page 447]

finance. They are supplemented by a variety of proceedings which may be classified under the head of irregular or extraordinary pishkesh, to which I promised a little while ago to devote the tribute of a paragraph. Of these presents, I have already described the most habitual, in the shape of the gifts which precede, and often follow, every appointment, according as they represent the aspirations or the gratitude of the nominee. But even when installed in office, the latter is not safe against rumours of the withdrawal of his post, in which case he must take the necessary steps to secure his position. Or let us suppose that a governor is accused of committing some offence against the central authority. A few thousand tomans are straightway despatched to the capital, and thus, by the payment of a voluntary fine, the dignity of the Government is satisfied, and the anxiety of the offender relieved. Other methods also exist. The Shah announces his intention of honouring a subject with a visit, and the latter loyally prepares an offering for his royal guest. Sometimes the high distinction of a present arrives from the sovereign, whose condescension is gratefully acknowledged by the return of a gift worthy of its royal destination. Sometimes, after a successful day's sport, there is the exhibition of a head of game that has fallen to the royal rifle. The defunct animal, let us say an ibex or a leopard, is taken round and shown to a select number of wealthy or eminent personages, who make, as a matter of course, a handsome present to the official who has given them the privilege of seeing the quarry of so illustrious a sportsman. It can be readily understood that one of the results of this system of presents from inferiors to superiors is that everyone of any standing in the official hierarchy is relieved of the irksome necessity of paying salaries to the bulk of his personal retainers. If he desires to discharge the arrears of pay of a member of his retinue, he has merely to send him with an ornamental gift to someone whose sense of etiquette may be trusted to make him bestow a substantial acknowledgment upon the bearer. One stone thus kills two birds. The recipient of the gift is pleased with the compliment implied, while the bearer gets a present which he accepts as a form of payment from his master. Manifold are the means by which the gift of a compliment can thus be translated into the compliment of a gift. Occasions have been known when the Shah, in a playful mood, has entered the bazaars, established a temporary partnership with a shopkeeper, and sold off his wares


[page 448]

at suitable prices to his courtiers, dividing with the delighted tradesman the proceeds of the sale. Enough has perhaps been said to give some idea of the system. Truly the maxim 'Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's' stands in no need of being pressed in a country where Caesar takes such very good care of himself.

It is an obvious result of the administrative system which I have described, and of the proud predominance of pishkesh, that there is no guarantee, beyond the wisdom or the apprehensions of the sovereign, for the best men filling the right places. So long as the gift of office is largely determined by the length of purse, corrupt administration must prevail, and honest men will go to the wall. Even if a good man gains an appointment, the intrigues or the bribes of a rival behind his back may oust him at any moment, and he falls because at Rome he failed to do what the Romans do. Of the effect upon the governed, who are the ultimate source from which the successive mudakhils and the stipulated pishkeshes are drawn, I have already spoken. But the country does not suffer only from the greed of officials in respect of what they extort, but also in respect of what they withhold. Sums of money are assigned from the Royal Treasury for a definite public object — e.g., the payment of an army, the construction of public works, the building of a bridge, the repair of a road. These sums either never reach their destination at all, or only reach it in sadly diminished volume, having been arrested on the way in the pocket of some official responsible for the distribution. The Shah, meanwhile, is quite unaware of, or is powerless to detect, the embezzlement practised by his subordinates, upon whom, in the absence of responsible supervision from above or free criticism from below, it is almost impossible to keep a watch. The rapacity of the entire official world being thus enlisted in the maintenance of the existing system, it will easily be understood how stubborn a barrier is opposed to any administrative reform, and how faint is the hope that Persia will ever, unaided, work out her own salvation.

It is also to the peculation engendered by this system that must be attributed the neglect, or the total absence, of public works which so constantly arrests the traveller's attention in Persia. When I think over my long journeys, and recall how many caravanserais, or bridges, or post-houses in the entire country I saw in at all an efficient state of repair, I am bound


[page 449]

to say that they can be counted on the fingers of the two hands. The same applies to the mosques, which, with a few exceptions in the great cities, are dilapidated and crumbling to ruin; to the madressehs, or religious colleges, whose exterior of itself would invite no students; to the abandoned palaces and deserted gardens, in whose unsightly decay the dignity of the reigning monarch appears to find a vengeful solace at the expense of his predecessors. If anywhere a fine modern caravanserai, or a road which shows signs of labour, or a new bridge be encountered, it is almost certain to have been the work of some private individual, who, whether minister or merchant, defrayed the cost out of his own pocket, and thought thereby to gain the grateful prayers of pilgrims or to enhance his personal reputation. The productions of this somewhat spurious public spirit are the only structures that modern Persia can show, to compare with the superb and almost indestructible relics of the Sefavean rule. About the neglect of roads and railroads I shall speak hereafter. But of all illustrations of the dearth of administrative energy, resulting from a system where every man is squeezing his neighbour and being squeezed by somebody else, perhaps the most significant is the indifference that has hitherto been displayed to the mineral resources of Persia, which three centuries of travellers have pronounced to be exceptionally rich, but which, until the formation of an English company a year ago, no systematic or scientific effort has been made to explore or to utilise.

Among the features of public life in Persia that most quickly strike the stranger's eye, and that indirectly arise from the same conditions, is the enormous number of attendants and retainers that swarm round a minister, or official of any description. In the case of a functionary of rank or position, these vary in number from 50 to 500. Benjamin says that the Prime Minister in his time kept 3,000. Now, the theory of social and ceremonial etiquette that prevails in Persia, and indeed throughout the East, is to some extent responsible for this phenomenon, personal importance being, to a large extent, estimated by the public show which it can make, and by the staff of servants whom on occasions it can parade. But it is the institution of mudakhil and of illicit pickings and stealings that is the root of the evil. If the governor or minister were bound to pay salaries to the whole of this servile crew their ranks would speedily dwindle. The bulk of


[page 450]

them are unpaid; they attach themselves to their master because of the opportunities for extortion with which that connection presents them, and they thrive and batten on plunder. It may readily be conceived how great a drain is this swarm of blood-suckers upon the resources of the country. They are true types of unproductive labourers, absorbing but never creating wealth; and their existence is little short of a national calamity.

The same feature that prevails in the private household of an important functionary is carried into the official departments and into the service of the State. Every minister, every governor, every petty official, is surrounded by an immense staff of munshis, mirzas, and mustofis, i.e. clerks, secretaries, and accountants. There is no proper division of labour; confusion and lack of system prevail everywhere. This enormous staff of civil servants justifies itself by no reports, and produces no statistics; official returns, tables, schedules, or calculations either do not exist at all or, if they do, exist in a deceptive shape. There is no means of arriving even at in approximate estimate of so elementary a fact as the population of the country. The figures which I elsewhere print of revenue and taxation have been derived from official sources; but though probably correct in themselves, I cannot tell what omissions they may contain, or how far it is legitimate to make them a basis of induction. Baron Teufenstein, the Austrian Governor of Saveh, whom I have before quoted, thus described the routine of official life: —

A Ministry in Persia consists of the minister and some scribes, without any determinate place of office, or any of the apparatus that appears indispensable to Europeans. The bureau is set up at whatever spot the minister happens to be, whether in his house, or in an ante-room, or a court of the Royal Palace, or perchance in the street or in a coffee-house. A swarm of scribes buzzes after the chief on all his marches, each bearing with him in his pocket the necessary writing apparatus and documents. Accordingly, an office can be rigged up any or everywhere in a trice. In the pockets of such a mirza are often to be found the documents of a series of years past, consisting of little scraps of paper which he has come to regard as private, and in no sense official, property.[400]

My readers will not be surprised to learn that the reforms which Baron Teufenstein laboriously introduced into the administration of


[page 451]

Saveh during his year of office, were cancelled upon his resignation,[401] and that at the same time the improved state of the province was made a ground for screwing a higher pishkesh out of his successor.

I have already pointed out that the bulk of this bureaucratic horde are not paid by the State, but are expected to remunerate themselves, and that for the same reason the salaries of the higher officials are fixed at a notoriously inadequate figure. A further characteristic results from the combined dislocation and parsimony of the system, viz. that even the fixed and official salaries are frequently in arrears, or are not paid at all. Europeans in the service of the State are better paid or more regularly paid than Persians, because, if they do not get their salaries, they are apt to send in their resignations. But even they have often been put off with barats, or orders, payable some weeks or months from date, on some merchant in the bazaar; whilst the native official is frequently without even this compensation, and in the absence of any sign of an impending settlement of his little account with the State, makes up the deficit from other quarters. How fatally this condition of affairs operates in the case of the army will be seen later on. In somewhat ludicrous contrast with this sordid and despicable system are the brave and sonorous titles that are worn by the official hierarchy of whom I have been speaking. As will have been gathered from my narrative, ministers, or functionaries of any position, are seldom called by their proper names, but are known by the ornamental titles conferred upon them by the Shah. These titles are much sought after, inasmuch as they confer distinction, security, and the opportunity of lucre. They are divided into three classes: those with the suffix Sultaneh, i.e. of the Government, which are rarely conferred except upon members of the Royal Family; those with the suffix Dowleh, of the Empire or State; and those with the suffix Mulk, of the Kingdom. It is to be feared that the majority of their owners think of little else but plundering the government, state, or kingdom of which they are grandiloquently described as the Ornament, Support, Defence, Pillar, or Strength.


[page 452]

In a country where the judicial and executive functions of government are so constantly combined and confused, it behoves me to give some account of the law and its administration — a subject to which I now turn. It is well known that the law in Persia, and indeed, among Musselman peoples in general, consists of two branches: the religious, and the common law; that which is based upon the Mohammedan Scriptures, and that which is based on precedent; that which is administered by ecclesiastical, and that which is administered by civil tribunals. In Persia, the former is known as the Shar, the latter as the Urf. From the two is evolved a jurisprudence which, although in no sense scientific, is yet reasonably practical in application, and is roughly accommodated to the needs and circumstances of those for whom it is dispensed.

The basis of authority in the case of the Shar, or Ecclesiastical Law, consists of the utterances of the Prophet in the Koran; of the opinions of the Twelve Holy Imams, whose voice in the judgment of the Shiah Mohammedans is of scarcely inferior weight; and of the commentaries of a school of pre-eminent ecclesiastical jurists. The latter have played much the same part in adding to the volume of the national jurisprudence that the famous juris consulti did with the Common Law of Rome, or the Talmudic commentators with the Hebrew system. The body of law so framed has been roughly codified and divided into four heads, dealing respectively with religious rites and duties, with contracts and obligations, with personal affairs and with sumptuary rules and judicial procedure. This law is administered by an ecclesiastical court, consisting of mullahs, i.e., lay priests and mujtaheds, i.e., learned doctors of the law,[402] assisted sometimes by kazis or judges, and under the presidency of an official, known as the Sheikh-el-Islám, one of whom is, as a rule, appointed to every large city by the sovereign.

In olden days, the chief of this ecclesiastical hierarchy was the Sadr-el-Sadur, or Pontifex Maximus, a dignitary who was chosen by the king and placed


[page 453]

over the entire priesthood and judicial bench of the kingdom. But this office was abolished in his anti-clerical campaign by Nadir Shah, and has never been renewed. In smaller centres of population and villages, the place of this court is taken by the local mullah or mullahs, who, for a consideration, are always ready with a text from the Koran. In the case of the higher courts, the decision is invariably written out, along with the citation from the Scriptures, or the commentators, upon which it is based. Cases of extreme importance are referred to the more eminent mujtaheds, of whom there is never a large number, who gain their position solely by eminent learning or abilities, ratified by the popular approval, and whose decisions are seldom impugned. Those who have been brought into contact with these distinguished doctors have expressed a high opinion of their general integrity and of the merciful inclination of their sentences. In works upon the theory of the law in Persia, it is commonly written that criminal cases are decided by the ecclesiastical, and civil cases by the secular, courts. In practice, however, there is no such clear distinction; the functions and the prerogative of the co-ordinate benches vary at different epochs, and appear to be a matter of accident or choice rather than of necessity; and at the present time, though criminal cases of difficulty may be submitted to the ecclesiastical court, yet it is with civil matters that they are chiefly concerned. Questions of heresy or sacrilege are naturally referred to them; they also take cognisance of adultery and divorce; and intoxication as an offence, not against the common law (indeed, if it were a matter of precedent, insobriety could present the highest credentials in Persia), but against the Koran, falls within the scope of their judgment.

I have remarked that the authority of the ecclesiastical courts has varied at different epochs of history. The reason is to be sought in each case in the character and predilections of the sovereign, according to whose bigotry or liberal sentiments the Shar or the Urf has been invoked to settle both civil and criminal cases. Sometimes the mullahs and mujtaheds have been supreme; at other, as in the reign of Nadir Shah, they have been superseded and ignored. What I have said about the policy and inclinations of the reigning Shah will have prepared my readers for the statement that, during the present reign, they have suffered a steady decline. This new departure


[page 454]

was inaugurated, immediately upon his accession, by the great minister Mirza Taki Khan, who showed his contempt for the ecclesiastical order by seizing the person of the Sheikh-el-Islam at Tabriz, and by abolishing the privilege of affording sanctuary in his mosque, hitherto enjoyed by the Imam-i-Jama of Teheran. The complete assertion of the sovereign power, which ever since has been the keynote of the domestic policy of Nasr-ed-Din, is incompatible with the ascendency of an ecclesiastical court. Civil jurisdiction involves a final reference in every case to the sovereign; and one can easily understand the reluctance of a powerful monarch to admit a higher court of appeal. There is, however, in the constitution of the ecclesiastical bench, an inherent check upon their supremacy, of which the civil power can always take advantage to vindicate its own. They pronounce, but they cannot execute, judgment. The latter function devolves upon the officers of government; and although the decisions of the mujtaheds are seldom disputed, and are, as a rule, carried into effect, yet the final reference to the civil power is an acknowledgment of its superiority, while it opens the door to the lengthy process of negotiations and bribes that always supervenes when one of the parties engaged is a Persian governor or official.

From the Shar, I pass to the Urf, or Common Law. Nominally this is based on oral tradition, on precedent, and on custom. As such, it varies in different parts of the country. But, there being no written or recognised code, it is found to vary still more in practice according to the character or caprice of the individual who administers it; and so far from any attempt being made to hunt up precedents or to ascertain what has been done in parallel cases before, the decision is, as a rule, promptly given and as promptly executed by the civil officer before whom it comes, and whose sole guide, presuming him to be honest (perhaps a rash assumption in Persia), is a rough sense of right and wrong. The administrators of the Urf are the civil magistrates throughout the kingdom, there being no secular court or bench of judges after the Western model. In a village the case will be brought before the kedkhoda, or headman; in a town before the darogha, or police magistrate. To their judgment are submitted all the petty offences that occupy a city police-court or a bench of country magistrates in England. The penalty in the case of larceny, or assault, or such like offences, is, as a rule, restitution,


[page 455]

either in kind or in money value; while, if lack of means renders this impossible, the criminal is soundly thrashed. All ordinary criminal cases are brought before the hakim, or governor of a town; the more important before the provincial governor or governor-general. The ultimate court of appeal in each case is the king, of whose sovereign authority these subordinate exercises of jurisdiction are merely a delegation, although it is rare that a suppliant at any distance from the capital can make his complaint heard so far. The power of life and death, which was formerly wielded with freedom by the governor-general of a province, more especially if of royal blood, is now reserved by the Shah; and in an earlier chapter I have related an incident in which the Ilkhani of Kuchan, having attempted to revive the prerogative enjoyed by his predecessors, found himself in abrupt collision with his sovereign. Justice, as dispensed in this fashion by the officers of government in Persia, obeys no law and follows no system. Publicity is the sole guarantee for fairness; but great is the scope, especially in the lower grades, for pishkesh and the bribe. The daroghas have the reputation of being both harsh and venal, and there are some who go so far as to say that there is not a sentence of an official in Persia, even of the higher ranks, that cannot be swayed by a pecuniary consideration.

Theoretically, the secular court takes cognisance of civil, just as, according to the same criterion, the ecclesiastical court embraces criminal cases. But the distinction is not less fallacious in this than in the other instance. The dread of the civil court, or diwan-khaneh, with its crude justice and the long avenues of bribery and rascality that it opens up, deters suitors from submitting to its judgment civil cases of any complexity or importance; and such cases are, as a rule, referred in the first place to private arbitration. Dr. Wills, who has written a most interesting account of the Persian law in its every-day or working aspect,[403] names questions contracts, titles to landed property, disputed wills, intestate succession, the boundaries or shares of lands, the recovery of debts and bankruptcy, as among the cases which are commonly decided in this fashion. A mejilis, or informal council of leading merchants, is convoked in the house of a mullah or leading citizen. Both sides state their case; the documents are produced and inspected; and a decision, which is almost always in


[page 456]

the nature of a compromise, is given, and, if reasonably fair, is accepted. The verdict is signed and registered by the Sheikh-el-Islam or the Imam-i-Jama (the Chief Priest), and with a little present to the jury all round, the appellants conclude what is probably one of the cheapest and most effective forms of legal procedure in the world. If either party is dissatisfied with the sentence, an appeal lies to the local governor; or, in intricate cases of landed titles and testamentary disposition, the ecclesiastical court may be first invoked. The same system prevails in the lower grades and occupations of life. A dispute of the character above mentioned occurring in a country district, will be referred, in the first place, to a mejilis of farmers, village elders, or rish-sefid (literally white-beards), &c., with an appeal from them to the kedkhoda or to the mullahs, or, in the last resort, to the provincial governor. In spite of the shameless bribery that prevails directly the purlieus of the diwan-khaneh are reached, Dr. Wills gives us the consolatory assurance that substantial justice is done in the end; for what the Asiatic expends in bribes, we disburse in fees, costs, and charges; thus both reaching the same goal by different roads. This genial opinion appears somewhat to ignore the quality of the justice that is dispensed in either case.

Before I quit the subject of the Persian law and its administration, let me add a few words upon the subject of penalties and prisons. Nothing is more shocking to the European reader, in pursuing his way through the crime-stained and bloody pages of Persian history during the last and, in a happily less degree, during the present century, than the record of savage punishments and abominable tortures, testifying alternately to the callousness of the brute and the ingenuity of the fiend. The Persian character has ever been fertile in device and indifferent to suffering; and in the field of judicial executions it has found ample scope for the exercise of both attainments. Up till quite a recent period, well within the borders of the present reign, condemned criminals have been crucified, blown from guns, buried alive, impaled, shod like horses, torn asunder by being bound to the heads of two trees bent together and then allowed to spring back to their natural position,[404] converted into human torches, flayed while living. The latest case


[page 457]

in which I have heard of robbers being walled up alive in pillars of brick and mortar was in 1884.[405] Fortunately, the visits of the Shah to Europe, and the increasing influence of civilised opinion, have had a wonderful effect in mitigating the barbarity of this truly merciless and Oriental code, and cases of unnecessary torture are now rarely heard of. The worst criminals are strangled, or decapitated, or have their throats cut. Robbery and thieving are expiated by mutilation, a finger or thumb, a hand or an ear, paying the penalty for the offence of the body. But the standard and most cherished punishment is the bastinado, to which all are liable, from the king's sons downwards, and in which a Persian, even of high rank and station, does not see a much greater indignity than does an English public schoolboy in the birch-rod. Nowhere is the house of a governor, or official, or even of a private person of high degree, without the implements of this hallowed mode of castigation; the theory of hereditary transmission must almost be invoked to explain the phenomenal hardness of Persian soles; and cases have been known where 2,000 switches have been broken, or, in other words, some 6,000 blows have been delivered, upon the feet of a single delinquent. On these occasions, the ferashes who administer the flagellation find a welcome opportunity of mudakhil, the leniency with which they lay on the strokes being rigidly proportioned to the bribe which they are promised by the victim. In cases of murder, the Lex Talionis, or Law of Retaliation, 'an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth,' yet prevails; and the family of the murdered man may still claim the culprit upon his arrest, and kill him as they please. As late as the autumn of 1888 a case occurred in which a number of male collaterals of the royal family forced their way into the compound of the War Office, where a prisoner was confined who had murdered one of their relatives, hacked him to pieces with their weapons, and burned his body with petroleum. But in practice this bloody vendetta is seldom executed except among the nomad tribes of the south, where blood-feuds survive for generations, and sometimes result in the extinction of entire families. In ordinary cases the criminal escapes to the nearest sanctuary, from which secure retreat a bargain is conducted with the relatives of his victim as to the price of his free exit and


[page 458]

release from the pursuit of revenge. The majority of crimes perpetrated upon individuals are expiated in this fashion.

Concerning the Persian mode of imprisonment, the practice is as different from our own as in the case of penalties. There is no such thing as penal servitude for life, or even for a term of years; hard labour is unknown as a sentence; and confinement for any lengthy period is rare. There is usually a gaol-delivery at the beginning of the new year; and when a fresh governor is appointed, he not uncommonly empties the prison that may have been filled by his predecessor, one or two of the worst cases, perhaps, suffering the death penalty, in order to create a salutary impression of strength. There is no such thing as a female ward, women being detained, as also are male criminals of high rank, in the house of a priest. In Teheran there are said to be three kinds of prison: the subterranean cells beneath the Ark, where criminals guilty of conspiracy or high treason are reported to have been confined; the town prison, where the vulgar criminals may be seen with iron collars round their neck, sometimes with their feet in stocks, and attached to each other by iron chains; and the private guard-house, that is frequently an appurtenance of


[page 459]

the mansions of the great. It will be seen that the Persian theory of justice, as expressed both in judicial sentences, in the infliction of penalties, and in the prison code, is one of sharp and rapid procedure, whose object is the punishment (in a manner as roughly equivalent as possible to the original offence), but in no sense the reformation, of the culprit.

Not even the most generous estimate of the merits, or the most lenient consideration of the failings, of the judicial procedure which I have described in this chapter, can blind us to the fact that it is lamentably deficient in the two essentials of an effective legal system, viz., a compact and systematised code of law, and a competent tribunal to administer it. Although the Ecclesiastical Law has been subjected to a rough codification, this is neither scientific, exhaustive, nor suited to modern conditions. The Common Law has no written existence, and is moulded by the arbitrary idiosyncrasies of individuals. The jurisdiction of the clerical and secular courts overlap; nor is there any intelligible distinction between their prerogatives and functions. Cases are referred to one or the other according to the fancy of the appellant, and frequently pass through the two courts in succession, Even if it be thought hazardous or unwise to interfere with the law based upon the Koran, no voice can possibly defend the haphazard condition of the Common Law, which is in a state of disgraceful uncertainty, and, as an instrument of guidance to the civil magistrates, is practically useless. Finally, the confusion of the judicial and executive functions in the person of the same individual, who is at once governor, tax-collector, police-magistrate, and judge, is a mark of a radically defective system, and is incompatible with the honest administration of the law; whilst the proverbial venality of the Persian official renders litigation a farce unless backed by a well-filled purse and the adroit understanding how to use it.

In justice to the Shah, it must be said that he is thoroughly well aware of the crudities and abuses of the Persian system of law, which, during his reign, certain efforts have been made to diminish; but equally in justice to the stubbornness of Persian character, which no Shah is strong enough to override, must it be admitted that these efforts have so far resulted in dismal failure. Lady Sheil, in her book, speaks of the institution at the beginning of the present sovereign's reign of


[page 460]

Courts of Justice for the conduct of civil jurisprudence.[406] I can find no trace either of their subsequent or of their present existence. In 1875, after the return of the Shah from his first visit to Europe, he introduced Councils of Administration, which were intended to assist the local authorities in the task of government, to check injustice or corruption on their part, and to counteract the legal prerogative of the clergy. But the mullahs, who saw their reign threatened, succeeded in persuading the people that such European innovations would deprive them of the slender protection they now enjoyed against the arbitrary government of the official classes, and created such a storm of opposition that the project was abandoned. After the Shah's second visit to Europe, another equally well-meaning, but equally futile, endeavour was made. On this occasion it was the institution of bast, or sanctuary, which I have described in the chapter upon Meshed, that was most deservedly attacked; that which was originally designed as a safeguard against the arbitrary exercise of power having degenerated into a scandal of the worst description. Orders were issued from Teheran that 'sanctuary' was to be done away with; and that courts of justice were to be established. But the execution of the decree being committed to 'old hands' deeply pledged to the system under whose iniquities they had prospered, nothing more was heard of the projected reform, which quietly vanished from existence. Undeterred by these previous failures, and with a serenity that bespeaks either a very sanguine or a very careless disposition, the Shah, in May 1888, took another step in the direction of reform. He issued the following Royal Proclamation to all the provincial governors, by whom it was posted in the principal telegraph stations throughout the country: —

Forasmuch as Almighty God has endowed our blessed nature with the attributes of justice and benignity and ordained us the manifestor of his ordinances and power, and has especially committed to our all-sufficient guardianship the lives and property of the subjects of the divinely-guarded Empire of Iran; in gratitude for this great gift, we consider it incumbent on us, in discharge of the duties it imposes on us, to relax nothing in ensuring to the people of this kingdom the enjoyment of their rights and the preservation of their lives and property from molestation by oppressors, and to spare no efforts to the end that the people, secure in their per-


[page 461]

sons and property, shall, in perfect ease and tranquillity, employ themselves in affairs conducive to the spread of civilisation and stability.

Therefore, for the information and re-assurance of all the subjects and people of this kingdom generally, we do proclaim that all our subjects are free and independent as regards their persons and property; it is our will and pleasure that they should, without fear or doubt, employ their capital in whatever manner they please, and engage in any enterprises, such as combination of funds, formation of companies for the construction of factories and roads, or in any measures for the promotion of civilisation and security. The care of that is taken on ourselves; and no one has the right or power to interfere with, or lay hands on, the property of Persian subjects, nor to molest their persons or property, nor to punish Persian subjects except in giving effect to decrees of the civil or religious law.

This proclamation was accompanied by a Firman to each provincial governor, enjoining the strict observation of the edict, and severe penalties for its infringement. The Shah further commanded that both Proclamation and Firman 'be read in all musjids (mosques) and meeting-houses and thoroughly explained to the people; that they be circulated in all districts, small towns, and even villages and encampments; and that bonds be taken from all petty authorities, binding them to carry out the Royal commands.' The Firman concluded with these words: 'Anyone disregarding these orders will be punished in such a manner as to be the wonder of all beholders.' This declaration or charter of the rights of the subject is excellent in its way, and although it has made very little difference in the provinces, has been honourably observed by the sovereign himself; while its existence and public notification to the representatives of the European Powers afford the latter a reasonable ground for protest should any particularly scandalous case of injustice be brought to their notice, and therefore to some extent operate as a check upon the evilly-inclined.

It will be observed that the most needed reforms — viz., the codification of the law and the construction of an independent tribunal to confer a sanction upon the new decree and to administer the law already existent — were left entirely untouched by the Royal Proclamation. Once more, however, the Shah returned to the charge; and at the time of my visit to Teheran, in 1889, official circles in the capital were stirred to their foundations by the intelligence that the king had assigned to the Council of State the task of creating a new body


[page 462]

of law for the regulation of justice. In the 'Times' I wrote as follows of this undertaking, purposely couching my remarks in a hopeful strain, so that I might not seem everywhere to see the blacker side of the cloud: —

The Council, who have not the clearest notion of what is required of them, have commenced the translation of the Code Napoléon, and have also been supplied with copies of that code as modified to suit the exigencies of the French Mohammedan populations, and also of our own Indian Mohammedan code; but, beyond this, have come to no decision as to what is incumbent upon them. There are some who regard the Royal command as a mere passing caprice, and expect no practical result. It is to be hoped, however, that this will not be the case, but that the Shah may be encouraged to proceed with a not unpromising design. The new code, however, if it is to be of any service, must contain provisions for tribunals, as well as laws; such provisions being, indeed, embodied in the European codes, upon which it will probably be modelled. A difficulty may be experienced in procuring judges of integrity and worth, and no abrupt change can be expected in the habits or moral standards of an Oriental country. But the eyes of the West will, at least, be directed with interest towards this fresh attempt to emancipate Persia from herself; while the assistance of foreign Governments may legitimately be given both towards the compilation of the new body of law and towards its proper administration when completed.

In response to recent inquiries (1891), I am informed that nothing further has been heard of the new code, whence I am led to infer that one more excellent scheme has gone into the waste-paper basket, and that one more stone must be added to the cairn of abortive reforms that has been so conscientiously piled by Nasr-ed-Din Shah.

Under a twofold governing system, such as that of which I have now completed the description — namely, an administration in which every actor is, in different aspects, both the briber and the bribed; and a judicial procedure, without either a law or a law court — it will readily be understood that confidence in the Government is not likely to exist, that there is no personal sense of duty or pride of honour, no mutual trust or co-operation (except in the service of ill-doing), no disgrace in exposure, no credit in virtue, above all no national spirit or patriotism. Those philosophers are right who argue that moral must precede material, and internal exterior, reform in Persia. It


[page 463]

is useless to graft new shoots on to a stem whose own sap is exhausted or poisoned. We may give Persia roads and railroads; we may work her mines and exploit her resources; we may drill her army and clothe her artisans; but we shall not have brought her within the pale of civilised nations until we have got at the core of the people, and given a new and a radical twist to the national character and institutions. I have drawn this picture of Persian administration, which I believe to be true, in order that English readers may understand the system with which reformers, whether foreigners or natives, have to contend, and the iron wall of resistance, built up by all the most selfish instincts in human nature, that is opposed to progressive ideas. The Shah himself, however genuine his desire for innovation, is to some extent enlisted on the side of this pernicious system, seeing that he owes to it his private fortune; while those who most loudly condemn it in private are not behind their fellows in outwardly bowing their heads in the temple of Rimmon. In every rank below the sovereign, the initiative is utterly wanting to start a rebellion against the tyranny of immemorial custom; and if a strong man like the present king can only tentatively undertake it, where is he who shall preach the crusade?


[page 464]

previous chapter chapter 13 start page single page chapter 15 next chapter
Back to:   Books
Home Site Map Forum Links Copyright About Contact
 
.
. .