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Abstract:
Notes from travels to Baha'i holy places in Iran in 1964, on a trip made with special permission from the House of Justice; includes descriptions of the architecture of the house and shop of the Bab, the birthplace of Baha'u'llah, and the Síyáh Chál.

A Visit to Persia

by Guy Murchie

published in Bahá'í News
1965 March/April
Springtime in Shíráz

March 21, 1964

The history proper of the Bahá’í Faith began on the evening of May 22, 1844, in Shíráz in southern Persia (now called Irán) when the inspired seeker, Mullá Husayn, met and accepted the Báb. So it is appropriate to begin a visit to Persia in the garden city of Shíráz. in spring and precisely at the site of the southern or Kaziran Gate where the two actually saw each other for the first time at sundown on that fateful day.

An old caravanseri or inn still stands near the historic spot with its ample courtyard surrounded by vaulted rooms, and near by are several big plane trees (some six feet in diameter) which must have cast their shade on resting caravans at that time. Mullá Husayn, it seems, had walked in the last few miles from Búshihr on a dirt road through grassland with a few scattered trees since cut down, probably wild almonds, olives, ash, poplars and willows, with here and there flat-roofed mud huts some of which are still standing. The Kaziran Gate, one of six gates of the old city, is no longer there, but merchants and peddlers are still selling vegetables, fruits, clothing and pottery on wooden stands at the base of the big planes probably about as they did in the Báb's time. . . .

Next we saw in the southern (now Jewish) quarter of Shíráz, the small mosque called Masjid-i-Ilkhani where Mullá Husayn met with the future Letters of the Living and told them to disperse and find the Báb, Whom he had already found. This we reached through many narrow alleys with overhanging roofs of sheet metal, which I was told were quite old as the metal came from Russia in the time of the Báb. Some houses were propped against others across the alley at the second story level. A public bath stood near by where Mullá Husayn used to bathe with his followers in a tiled pool about six feet square and three feet deep. The mosque is built of brick with vaulted roof, has wooden doors arched at the top, and is now virtually empty of furnishings. . . .

We visited the Báb's own house in the afternoon, reaching it through a series of narrow alleys and finally a tunnel, a common sort of passage in olden times for reasons of secrecy and defense and still helpful for the same reason today. Two Afnán brothers, great-grandsons of the Báb's brother, live there and are custodians, dwelling and receiving pilgrims in adjoining quarters purchased for the purpose. They are very gracious, quiet and hospitable. After tea we were shown the holy house. First the little patio, perhaps just over twenty feet square, with a small square pool in the center filled through a pipe from a forty-foot well in one corner with revolving drum to take the bucket rope. By the well is a block of stone on which the Báb used to sit and a tall orange tree which He Himself planted. The house and lower quarters (for the Báb's wife, mother, servants, etc.) have a checkered tile design on their walls, mostly blue and white. Doors are of carved wood. The living room (or, as Persians say, guest room for receiving visitors) is upstairs. This is where the Báb took Mullá Husayn on the fateful night of May 22, 1844, to announce His Cause. The stairs consist of nine steep steps, then one more above the upper landing. Before entering the room which is about twelve feet square, we knelt and touched our foreheads to the threshold, one by one, then silently entered, having left our shoes outside the patio below. Prayers appropriate to the occasion were chanted. The wall design (white on blue) carved in the plaster just above where the Báb had sat in the northwest corner of the room beside the window showed the ancient traditional Persian design of a lion attacking a bull. The next day in Persepolis, not far from Shíráz, we were to see the same design carved in several places on the ancient palace walls, for it is said to be symbolic of the power of regal or divine authority over mere brute strength. Although enemies of the Cause demolished much of the woodwork and some masonry in this house in mob action in 1957, it has been restored with great care and accuracy. Five wooden windows face west out of the holy upper room toward the setting sun, and we walked out upon the flat mud roof overlooking and partly surrounding the patio. The roof contains straw to bind the mud, and salt to prevent grass growing. Wooden rafters let it overhang the courtyard. We could see the purplish gray mountains to the north and a crow's nest in a tall plane tree about thirty feet to the south in a neighboring patio. Swallows flitted overhead and hooded crows cawed near by. The latter have gray bodies with black heads, wings and tails. White-cheeked nightingales are common here too, both wild and as pets in cages. A young pear tree is growing in the adjoining courtyard to the north, now owned by Bahá’ís but half demolished. A few cracks in the Báb's house dated from the earthquake that destroyed many buildings in Shíráz in 1850 shortly after His martyrdom. We picked a few leaves from the thorny orange boughs as we talked of the Báb and Mullá Husayn.

The Báb’s Shop in Búshihr

March 23

At 6 a.m. a group of five of us set off in a Landrover for Búshihr on the Persian Gulf about 150 miles west of Shíráz to see the shop of the Báb who, being a merchant, had used it in His business of transporting tea, spices and other goods imported from India and more distant places. We roared and bounced over the very rough gravel road, winding over high mountain passes, fording rivers and stopping briefly at an oasis for breakfast where, in a small caravanseri, an old man squatted smoking his bubble pipe and warming himself over a tin brazier. Passing an occasional camel caravan, at about 9 o'clock we got to Kaziran which used to be well known as a lion hunting center — even as recently as the Báb's day, though the number of lions left was small by then — and the area still has plenty of leopards, wild boar, deer, antelope, wolves, foxes, jackals, wild goats, rabbits, quail, pheasants, and other game.

When we arrived in Búshihr at noon it was hot on the arid, treeless flatland and when we made our way through the low city (no building more than two stories high) strewn along the shore, it was refreshing to view the green gulf with its big breakers rolling in over the undredged shoals. The Báb's shop is in an alley one block away from the sea, the main doors through which caravans would pass being of wood with lions and other figures carved in them. The buildings themselves, warehouses etc., are made of stone plastered with mud as is common all over Persia. We walked into the courtyard and washed the dust off our hands and faces while children and a cat played around us. Red bougainvillea and jasmine grew out of the small flower bed next the salt water well attended by a pitcher boy who poured directly on our soapy hands according to custom. Salt water is only seven or eight feet deep here which discourages the digging of cellars, a serious drawback in such a hot climate. Drinking water comes by collecting rain from the flat roofs which is piped into cisterns.

Before inspecting the office, we repaired upstairs to the relatively new quarters built for the custodian and for receiving pilgrims and there, on magnificent Persian rugs, sat cross-legged on the floor for lunch. First we had tea in tiny glasses and cookies, then delicious hazel nuts, almonds and pistachios, followed by rice with raisins, fried shrimp, egg cakes, paper-thin "bread," fried potatoes, sweet jelly and soft drinks in original bottles, all served on a patterned blue oil cloth laid flat on the rug.

Although a slight sea breeze kept us reasonably cool, one could easily imagine the intense heat of summer here where shops then traditionally close at ten o'clock in the morning not to reopen until about five and office workers often sit waist-deep in barrels of salt water which, they say, was the custom in the Báb's office also, the indoor temperature sometimes reaching 115° F. Out in the blazing sun of course it was much hotter but the Báb Himself regularly on Fridays went out upon His roof to chant His noon prayers at considerable length. He sometimes remained at Búshihr a month or more, requiring from a week to 10 days to travel to or from Shíráz with His goods. Finishing our meal with fruit, someone spoke of the Báb's fondness for tangerines and a kind of sweet grapefruit that the Persians call "sweet lime." His Ethiopian servant Mobarak carried a large basket of them on to the ship when the Báb sailed out of here for Mecca in 1844, there being no fresh water on the vessel.

After some more tea and a few prayers, we made our pilgrimage downstairs to the Báb's personal office, a rather dark little room about thirteen by eleven feet in area and perhaps twelve feet high. Three wooden grilled windows, which can be slid up out of the way, shielded the room from the semi-public passageway between the yard and the street. Oil lamps were on the table and one could almost see the young Báb sitting there working on His accounts, a barrel of salt water perhaps standing in one corner.

Before leaving Búshihr we walked along the quayside where a number of wooden ships were moored or docked, most of them about seventy-five feet long built with spiked planking, single masts, no gaffs, canvas sails, engines (probably diesel), long upsweeping bows and tiller chains running aft to T-shaped rudder posts — likely similar to the ship the Báb embarked on, although that may well have been larger. At Borázján (some forty miles inland) where we spent the night we went to see the famous ash tree under which the Báb was resting when He saw the mounted guardsmen of the governor of Shíráz passing by on their way to Búshihr to arrest Him after His return from Mecca, whereupon He immediately offered Himself as a willing prisoner. The old tree was cut down several years ago but new shoots from its stump have already grown into a clump of trees some thirty feet high. The story goes that the old man owning this land told his sons and heirs before he died that it was his will for them never to cut down this holy tree under which such a "famous siyyid" had rested, but later one of them heedlessly chopped it down, only to die himself the very next day. Returning to Shíráz we zigzagged our way up over the "Old Woman Pass," reportedly almost 10,000 feet high, over which the Báb walked barefoot as a prisoner, having refused to ride the stolen horses respectfully offered Him by the governor's men. The narrow stone-paved road built by Shah Abbas the Great some 300 years ago, skirting the newer gravel road, is plainly visible still, and we stopped to pick wild forget-me-nots appropriately growing there amid dark red poppies, yellow asters, camomiles and wild grape hyacinths, while numerous scraggly wild almond trees covered the lower mountainsides, probably having provided welcome sustenance to the illustrious Prisoner and His escort as they are still offering to wayfarers today.

Birthplace of Bahá’u’lláh

April 2

Bahá’u’lláh's House in Tihrán was built about a decade before His birth in what was then the fashionable northeastern section of the city. Invited to visit it, I was first cautioned to speak no English as we walked through the streets and to keep my camera concealed because of the many and dangerous enemies of the Cause in the area who, if they realized it were a place of pilgrimage venerated by Bahá’ís, would likely attack and demolish it as they have so recently done to the Báb's house and others.

Leaving a broad street we made our way for three or four hundred yards through circuitous alleys where boys were playing ball, finally entering an ordinary-looking door which opened into a large courtyard. There we were greeted by the unpretentious custodian and his family who conducted us without delay to the holy Home, which was actually built by Mírzá Buzurg, Bahá’u’lláh's father, as the first of seven houses in a family compound. This walled enclosure of several acres, typical among the oriental nobility, included when completed a central kitchen building where meals for all the homes were prepared before being carried to their destinations by the ubiquitous servants. The courtyard of Bahá’u’lláh's house is about sixty feet long by fifty wide with a small grape arbor, rose bushes and many small fruit trees such as apple, pear and pomegranate, and flanked in some places by colonades of thin spiral columns. Walls are mostly of buff-colored brick with red windows rounded at the top, arched doorways, circular decorations here and there, and blue tile latticework at ground level to ventilate the basement rooms and keep them cool in summer. Several bedrooms upstairs open upon flat roof areas while still higher rise special towers serving as the upper vents of the basement circulation system.

We soon climbed up the very steep three brick steps that led to the main parlor or receiving room, the steps being comparable in height and steepness to those of a railroad coach when you mount from the level of the rails, the accepted thing in the old days and presumably requiring a strong helping hand or boost for ladies and children. Touching our foreheads to the threshold, we entered the large parlor without shoes, stepping silently upon the exquisite pale carpets that covered the floor from wall to wall, some thirty feet one way and twenty feet the other. This was the room Bahá’u’lláh was actually born in, appropriately just before sunrise on the morning of November 12, 1817. It was traditional to use the best parlor for such an important event as a birth. The most conspicuous feature of the room is the south wall facing the courtyard with its three great windows with fairly large panes of glass between wooden muntins, most of the panes transparent but a few colored bright red, blue, yellow and green. Since the house was ransacked in 1852 at the time Bahá’u’lláh was put into the dungeon of Síyyáh-Chál, and remained in Muslim hands for some half a century, the present windows are only copies of the originals. Other features in the room, appear of high standard, the general style giving prominence to the Romanesque arch with not only the windows rounded at the top but the pale blue plastered walls lined with niches, each rounded at the top and ending at the bottom in a shelf or mantel about three feet from the floor. There is also a small fireplace about fourteen inches wide and two feet high in the middle of the north wall, a mantelpiece above its arched top also. The theme of round-topped niches continues throughout the mansion apparently, for all the basement rooms have it, including the luxurious bath suite.

We found the basement rooms pleasantly cool with their vertical ventilating shafts and vaulted brick ceilings of a pinkish but varicolored hue, and I noticed that the main room directly below the birth chamber has nine niches arrayed along its north side. In the west basement is a small kitchen with a chimney above the arched stove niche, evidently used before the central kitchen building was built or perhaps for minor meals. The bath suite of three rooms was especially interesting. At the bottom of the steep flight of stairs extending about eight feet below ground, we came first to a sort of dressing room, roughly octagonal with a central footbath of blue tile (also approximately octagonal) about two feet deep, then farther on, a bigger washing room likewise more or less octagonal but with alcoves that have attractive floral tracery in the tiled lower levels of their niches and, last of all, a short flight of steep steps leading up into a smaller pool room kept four or five feet deep in hot water and, if desired, filled with steam. The steps all around the pool could accommodate children of various ages and no doubt Bahá’u’lláh played there with His brothers when they were growing up.

This mansion was unusual, having been designed for Bahá’u’lláh's father as one of the Sháh's important ministers whose specific assignment was to advise and look after the Shah's eldest son, a young prince who then had the title of governor of the province of Luristán. As Bahá’u’lláh grew to manhood, the house was more and more used for guests who were particularly attracted by its provisions for escaping summer heat, not only in the vaulted basements by day but while sleeping upon its extensive roofs by night, usually beneath specially-made mosquito net canopies, these insects being plentiful in Tihrán throughout most of the year. After His father died when Bahá’u’lláh was twenty-two, He grew accustomed to spending more of His time at His various country houses to the north, usually leaving the Tihrán house entirely in the hands of guests.

The Black Pit

April 3

This morning we drove to the Shah's old summer palace high up toward the foothills of the Elburz Mountains and saw the approximate place where Bahá’u’lláh was arrested in August 1852, stripped of His outer clothing and driven barefooted and bareheaded before an abusive mob all the many miles down to the dungeon to be imprisoned in heavy chains for four months. We drove over the same road He trod in His bare feet. It was probably a dirt road then but is now asphalted. Along both sides remain many old trees that were there on that terrible day and younger ones that have grown up since. Most of them are ash, I believe, with occasional planes and mulberry trees among them.

There is not much to see of the dungeon of Síyyáh-Chál, which means Black Pit, because it is underground and inaccessible because of the large modern buildings now being erected around it, but from the third story of one of these a few rubble-strewn ruins and portions of brick wall could be glimpsed behind a row of poplars. These ruins, however, are undoubtedly the remains of a domed building constructed above the Síyyáh-Chál after Bahá’u’lláh was there and which collapsed relatively recently. The actual dungeon is entirely underground, having originally been built as a water reservoir for one of the city's public baths, then later adapted as a place for confining the most dangerous criminals and enemies of the state. It is described as about eighteen feet deep, watertight and undrainable, with no opening but a small aperture at the top of three flights of very steep stairs. It was almost pitch dark and reeked with the foul stench from nearly 150 prisoners kept there under heavy chains and their legs in stocks without any provisions for sanitation. There was no structure above ground at that time but an open "prison yard" to which the prisoners were hauled up each day at the time of the noon prayer for a little air and exercise — presumably so they wouldn't just rot away in the pestilential vermin-infested hole and thus spoil the program of torturing and killing them. The Sháh evidently took some personal interest in their treatment for his city palace and its ample gardens adjoin the Síyyáh-Chál on its north side and stand there today as a public museum with glittering hallways of millions of tiny mirrors and elaborate exhibits of royal gifts from the crowned heads of Europe and Asia. It is said that in 1852 the Sháh in his bed at night must have actually heard the prayers chanted by Bahá’u’lláh and His many fellow Bábís who were exultantly awaiting martyrdom just beyond his garden wall.

Leaving the Síyyáh-Chál, we visited a near by large circular public square where many Bábís were beheaded during that same period of persecution, there having been a raised brick platform there at the time so the large blood-thirsty crowds could see every detail without obstruction. We also saw the garden where Táhirih was martyred, apparently some half a mile northwest of the Síyyáh-Chál. The area belonged then to the "chief of the nomads" in the Tihrán region who, I understand, lived in a comfortable house near by. The garden probably contained many large pine trees, ashes, elms, etc. for tall and beautiful old pines still stand there and many other trees, though now the city is closing in. A "modern" hospital is already there and tennis courts and a swimming pool. Yet birds continue to enjoy the garden and I noticed wagtails, hooded crows and sparrows. The well where Táhirih was buried is now unmarked and unknown but, I'm told, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá reasonably predicted it would be discovered in time and made into an appropriate and beautiful shrine.

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