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Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
With Notes on Russia, Koords, Toorkomans, Nestorians, Khiva, and Persia

by Lady Mary (Leonora Woulfe) Sheil

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Chapter 11

Intense heat – Excursion up the mountains – Frightful torrent – Welcome new moon – Rigorous Mussulman fast – Rebellion – Bābeeism or socialism – Curious incident at the execution of Bāb – A socialist king – Bābee executions – Insurrection at Zenjan.

July. – The summer drags its lazy length along, the heat increases, and our stream has dried up. The thermometer now rises to 110° in the tents; a degree of heat which, with its prostrating influence, to be understood must be endured. We therefore determined to seek refuge in the mountains to the north, in the district of Lavessan, four stages from our tents. The road being totally impracticable for wheeled vehicles, I chose a beautiful little ass for my steed. I found, nearly to my cost, that a more dangerous selection could not be made; for, unlike the horses, the asses of Persia are afflicted with a dreadful spirit of pugnacity. It was only by a most fortunate chance that mine on one occasion was prevented from rushing down a precipice with me to attack one of his kind who was braying a defiance in a field below. He was the smallest little fellow of his species, yet he never hesitated to attack the largest horses, of whom he had vanquished several. On being returned to the Persian gentleman from whom he had been borrowed, he was transferred to a moolla, whom, to the great mirth of his master, he nearly killed in one of his encounters. The


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exposure and fatigue of the journey were so great that I repented of the undertaking; but on reaching our destination, we found our tents in a cool spot at the foot of a great pass, leading to a lofty plain covered with the flocks and tents of the wandering tribes, who had ascended to that cool region from the torrid plains of Verameen, near Tehran.

We passed a month in Lavessan, which is ever memorable to me, from the intolerable fright I there received. Our camp was near a deep ravine, in which ran a stream. One afternoon a storm came on, accompanied by such a deluge of rain as I never before had seen. In a few minutes the tent was filled with water, and the air became nearly dark. Suddenly a rumbling and very appalling sound was heard; it increased, it approached, it roared, and shouts and yells went forth the whole length of the valley. We rushed in terror out of the tent into the drenching rain; I, at least, ignorant of the nature of the convulsion. Down it came, bellowing and pealing like the loudest thunder. The servants and villagers screamed "Syl Amed, Syl Amed," and cries and shouts preceded its course. It was a furious torrent which had broken loose. We groped about in the dark, not knowing where to go, or from what quarter the danger had come, and floundering through the ditches. So great was our terror that the waving of a field of yellow corn, not far off, was imagined to be the torrent in full rush towards us. The person least frightened of our forlorn group was the Persian nurse, who, with the baby asleep in her arms, endeavoured to reassure me. At last, it was ascertained to have deposited itself in safety in the deep ravine, and


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we ventured to return to our tents. At one time we were thinking of climbing up a tree, which would have been of little use if the mad torrent had reached us. Two of the members of the Mission had a narrow escape. Only that morning had they removed their tents from the dry bed of the stream, high up on the bank. Their horses were still picketed in the same spot; but a brave mehter or groom cut their head and heel ropes, or they would have infallibly been dashed to pieces. At dinner nobody could touch a particle of food, the gentlemen seeming to consider wine the best restorative after such a shock. In the morning I hastened to look into the ravine. It was terrible to behold, and inconceivable. Every other sound was inaudible in the mighty roar. Enormous rocks, six or eight feet in diameter, had been hurled down from the pass. The bridge had been carried away. Immense trees were torn up by the roots, and others which had previously been growing in the ravine, were snapped across like twigs. The sight alone of the ravine was fearful.

These torrents are common in Persia, though rarely on such a scale as the one I have described. The dry bed of a river is therefore not a safe place of encampment, but Persians seem generally to prefer that kind of locality.

One of the last days we spent in Lavessan brought joy to the villagers and to our servants, or, in more ambitious phraseology, brought joy from the Wall of China to Belgrade. It was the Eed e Ramazān, the eve of the feast, and closing of the fast of Ramazān. Out walking in the evening, we saw various groups peering into the sky to catch a view of the shadowy crescent of the new moon, before its rays are obscured by the darkness.


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A clear evening is of importance, for if the moon is rendered invisible by clouds, another day of penance must be endured. Generally, however, some observer blessed with a feeling heart and good eyes contrives, clouds or not, to see the Queen of Night, particularly as in doubtful cases a reward follows a well-authenticated attestation of the fact. In the present instance we were, I think, the first to announce the joyful tidings, and almost at the same moment we heard the sound of the Shah's gun in Shemeran, announcing that to-morrow was to be a day of rejoicing. The Mussulman fast is a severe trial at this season. It commences before the dawn, and does not terminate until twenty minutes after sunset. Neither food nor liquid must be touched, nor, sorest privation of all, the kaleeoun or chibouk. Considering that the use of tobacco and smoking are nearly a thousand years subsequent to Mahommed, it seems to me a nice point of casuistry, whether its observance is strictly necessary according to the "Law." The fast is rigidly observed in general, particularly by the lower classes, and by women of all ranks. The latter are so peremptory on this point, in which they have public opinion on their side, that few husbands even among the freethinkers venture to infringe the fast. They know what a storm of malediction discovery would bring down upon their heads. The drinkers of wine almost always abstain during this month, taking care to give themselves ample compensation the moment the fast expires. It is on the labourer in the fields that this observance weighs most heavily. Toiling in the blazing sun, he cannot and does not refresh his parched lips, and when night approaches he is so exhausted he


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cannot eat. His principal meal is just before the earliest dawn, when the fast begins. The servants of the foreign Missions are not remarkable for piety, yet, although allowable on a journey, not one of ours deviated from the injunctions of his faith in this matter. I hardly know which is to be considered as most severe, the Lent of catholics, when properly observed, or the Ramazān. In the former, liquids are not prohibited, but only a single meal is admissible in the twenty-four hours. A Mahommedan may eat and drink the entire night, if he can. The Persian women I have had in my service used to begin the night by smoking a little, then they would take tea, then eat a surprising quantity of fruit, and after their meal just before dawn would go to sleep, and sleep without intermission almost all day. It used to annoy me to see my nurses observe the fast, but no expostulation availed. "Kill me, Khanum," they used to say, "but we must fast." The mortality after the Ramazān is very great, showing how injurious it is to the health.

September 6th. – This year has been remarkable for civil and religious wars waged in various parts of Persia. At Meshed, on the eastern extremity of the kingdom, a son of a maternal uncle of the Shah had for many months raised the standard of rebellion, and sustained a vigorous siege against his sovereign's forces. It terminated in his capture, by treachery, which was succeeded by his execution, and that of one of his sons and two of his brothers. A few years ago a wholesale massacre would have followed this bold rebellion, but European influence and unceasing expostulation have softened Persian manners. It is curious, though I believe true, that the English press has


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had some share in producing this change. The strictures on Persian misgovernment, which sometimes appear in the English journals, are viewed with anger and alarm, particularly when the evil-doers are held up by name to public reprobation.

But a far more serious attempt at revolution has been in progress in various parts of the kingdom. Under the disguise of a new revelation, socialism and communism have made advances in Mazenderan, Yezd, Fars, and Zenjan, which would leave nothing to wish for in the aspirations of the reddest republican. Blood has flowed in torrents in crushing the malcontents, for terror and religious hate walked hand in hand. For the renegade there is no quarter in the Mahommedan code; far less when to apostasy are added the startling doctrines of universal spoliation, and, above all, of the relentless slaughter of all Mussulmans, in particular of moollas, kazees, &c. This amiable sect is styled Bābee, from Bāb, a gate, in Arabic, the name assumed by its founder, meaning, I suppose, the gate to heaven.

This celebrated person, whose real name was Syed Ali Mahommed, was born forty years ago in Sheeraz, where his father was a merchant. When fifteen years of age he was sent to prosecute his theological studies at Nejeff. Here he became acquainted with two derveeshes, with whom he was for a considerable period on terms of great intimacy. He was afterwards sent to Bushire to follow commercial pursuits, but he withdrew from society, and in a life of seclusion devoted himself to the religious exercises commonly observed by derveeshes. These mystic practices are supposed to have affected his intellect.


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After some changes he settled at Kazemein, near Bagdad, where he first divulged his pretensions to the character of a prophet. Incensed at this blasphemy, the Turkish authorities issued orders for his execution, but he was claimed by the Persian consul as a subject of the Shah, and sent to his native place. Here in a short time he collected so many disciples around him, that imprisonment followed an investigation into his doctrines. It was debated whether he was to be treated as a lunatic, or a blasphemer and unworthy descendant of the Prophet, but his life was saved by the voice of the Sheikh ool Islam on his making a public recantation of his errors from the pulpit of one of the principal mosques. He contrived to escape from prison, and made his way to Ispahan, where many people of distinction secretly embraced his opinions. Again arrested, he was sent to the fort of Cherek, in Azerbijan, and under the infliction of the bastinado he again recanted his errors. Six months afterwards, it having been ascertained that his doctrines were obtaining rapid diffusion among all classes, he was conveyed to Tabreez, and on the day of his arrival was brought out for execution in the great maïdan, or square. This was on the point of becoming a most remarkable event, which would probably have overturned the throne and Islamism in Persia. A company of soldiers was ordered to despatch Bāb by a volley. When the smoke cleared away, Bāb had disappeared from sight. It had so happened that none of the balls had touched him; and, prompted by an impulse to preserve his life, he rushed from the spot. Had Bāb possessed sufficient presence of mind to have fled to the bazar, which was within a few


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yards of the place where he was stationed, he would in all probability have succeeded in effecting his escape. A miracle palpable to all Tabreez would have been performed, and a new creed would have been established. But he turned in the opposite direction, and hid himself in the guard-room, where he was immediately discovered, brought out, and shot. His body was thrown into the ditch of the town, where it was devoured by the half-wild dogs which abound outside a Persian city. Bāb possessed a mild and benignant countenance, his manners were composed and dignified, his eloquence was impressive, and he wrote rapidly and well.

It would appear that in the beginning of his career he did not wholly reject the established forms and doctrines of the Mahommedan faith, but he reduced these to proportions so small as to be equivalent to their annulment, and thus rendered his speculations acceptable to the multitude. As his disciples increased so did his views enlarge. — — was acquainted with one of his proselytes, who, however, adopted the principle of never avowing his faith even to him. This man was in a respectable condition of life, and his statements were subsequently confirmed, though with some exaggeration, by a moolla of eminence, who had been converted to Bābeeism but had recanted his errors. His conversion, according to his own affirmation, had only been feigned in order to be able to dive into all the secrets of the system. It was a strange circumstance that among those who adopted Bāb's doctrine there should have been a large number of moollas, and even moojteheds, who hold a high rank as expounders of the law in the Mahommedan


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church. Many of these men sealed their faith with their blood. Bāb's notions did not contain much originality. Atheism, under the disguise of pantheism, was the basis of his principles. Every single atom in the universe, he said, was actually God, and the whole universe collectively was God; not a representative of, or emanation from God, but God himself. Everything in short was God. Bāb was God, and every living creature down to each lowest insect. Death was not real – it was only another form of divinity, if such language has any signification at all. Virtue had no existence, neither had vice; they were necessarily wholly indifferent, as being portions or emanations of the Godhead. Rights of property had no existence, excepting in the equal division of all things among the godly. But this was a fiction, the real doctrine being the reign of the Saints, – that is, of the Bābees, – and their possession of the goods of the ungodly, – in other words, the non-Bābees. It was the simplest of religions. Its tenets may be summed up in materialism, communism, and the entire indifference of good and evil and of all human actions. There was no antipathy, it was affirmed, on the part of the Bābees to Christians, or to the followers of any other creed excepting Mahommedans, who, as they slew Bābees, ought to be exterminated. When the Bābee meerza was reminded of this being somewhat contrary to the doctrine of indifference of all human actions, he had no reply to make.

One of the proofs alleged against Bāb's claim to a divine mission was the ungrammatical Arabic of his revelations, which could not consequently have descended


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from heaven. The Koran is regarded as a miracle of style and composition.

In the maxims of Bāb there does not seem to be a material difference from the doctrines alluded to in a former page, as inculcated by Hassan Sabāh at Alamoot. In the reign of Kei Kobad, five hundred years after Christ, Mazdak spread widely through Persia his atheistical doctrines, not dissimilar from those of Bāb. Among them was included the same principle of a division of property; and, strange to say, his creed was adopted by the monarch Kei Kobad. Nousheerwan, the son of that sovereign, put to death Mazdak, with thousands of his followers.

The present Shah shows no disposition to follow the example of his predecessor. Mazenderān, owing to its secluded position, is perhaps the province in Persia most infected with a fanatical attachment to the Mahommedan faith. It was here that, headed by the priesthood, the attack on the Bābees commenced; many hundred were slain in that province, fighting to the last, and sustaining with invincible fortitude all the barbarous inflictions which cruelty, fanaticism, and terror could invent. Scenes nearly similar, but with a diminution of cruelty and bigotry, were repeated in Fars and Yezd.

This year, seven Bābees were executed at Tehran for an alleged conspiracy against the life of the Prime Minister. Their fate excited general sympathy, for every one knew that no criminal act had been committed, and suspected the accusation to be a pretence. Besides this Bābeeism had spread in Tehran too. They died with the utmost firmness. Previously to decapitation they received an offer of pardon, on the condition of reciting


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the Kelema; or creed, that Mahommed is the Prophet of God. It was rejected, and these visionaries died stedfast [sic] in their faith. The Persian minister was ignorant of the maxim that persecution was proselytism.

In Zenjan the insurrection, or the religious movement, as the Bābees termed it, broke out with violence. This city is only two hundred miles from Tehran, midway to Tabreez. At its head was a moolla of repute and renown, who, with his associates, retired into an angle of the city, which they strengthened as best they could. For several months they defended themselves with unconquerable resolution against a large force in infantry and guns, sent against them from Tehran. It was their readiness to meet death that made the Bābees so formidable to their assailants. From street to street – from house to house – from cellar to cellar – they fought without flinching. All were killed at their posts, excepting a few who were afterwards bayoneted by the troops in cold blood.

Few believe that by these sanguinary measures the doctrines of Bāb will cease from propagation. There is a spirit of change abroad among the Persians, which will preserve his system from extinction; besides which, his doctrines are of an attractive nature to Persians. Though now subdued, and obliged to lurk concealed in towns, it is conjectured that the creed of Bāb, far from diminishing, is daily spreading; at the fitting time Bāb will come to life again. There will be either a resurrection, or else his successor will maintain that his death was a falsehood invented by the Mussulmans. Whenever that day of desolation arrives, wading in blood will not be a figure of speech in Persia.


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