Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
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New Year's Day – Wool! Wool! – Various kinds of derveeshes, and their ceremonies – Freedom of religious opinions – Custom of sending corpses to Kerbella – Disagreeable companions – Ali-Illāhism – Visit to the Shah's palace – Conjugal present – The Shah's sister – The deserted camel.
January, 1851. – This year opened very agreeably with a reminiscence of Europe, in the shape of tableaux vivans, given at the Russian Mission with great success by Princess —. Only the Europeans of Tehran were invited and a few privileged Persians, who had been in Europe, and were therefore accustomed to our manners. They seemed enchanted with the groups, which were really arranged with much taste. Even trifles like these are of use in this country, for they tend gradually to effect a change in their exclusive and Asiatic modes of thinking. I cannot say the same of the waltz and polka, which although few have seen, yet they all have heard of, and which fill them with astonishment at the ladies who join in those dances.
January 15th. – "Pashm! pashm! Wool! wool!" In passing through the bazar, I had constantly remarked a wild-looking young man, so wild as to seem almost insane. He was dressed in white, with a small conical red cloth cap on his head, and a trident in his hand to mark his profession of derveesh. He was the son of a merchant, who, having spent his substance in extravagance and dissipation, had
"abandoned the world," and devoted himself to idleness and derveeshism. His day was spent in roving through the bazar, exclaiming with a loud voice the above word, "Pashm! pashm!" which seemed to comprise the whole extent of his vocabulary. In this compendium of moral ethics, this philosopher tried to excite the liberality of the wealthy, and pronounced his opinion of the vanity of sublunary things – that all was "wool!" The little understanding he ever possessed seemed to be constantly under the influence of chers, an extract from hemp, which raises its partakers to ecstatic bliss while under its influence, and, like the opium-smoking of China, finally destroys all the faculties of the mind and body. Another of these worthies had adopted a very different appreciation of worldly wealth. His mode of attracting attention was to approach a passenger, and exclaim, "Hazār toomān; yek deenār kemter neh mee geeram" (A thousand tomans; I won't take a fraction less). A third used to pace up and down the bazars, vociferating, the word "Aleeyan" (Oh Ali!) and nothing else. He was said to be successful in obtaining contributions. The character of these derveeshes is exceedingly low in general estimation, and yet a sort of reverence is attached to the profession. Under the pretence of abandoning the vain cares of a fleeting world, they devote their lives to idleness and the inebriation arising from chers, roving from city to city, by the orders of their moorshids, or spiritual chiefs, and levying contributions from the multitude. I have already described one mode of exaction at the Nowrooz. Another of their devices is to make use of the most fearful imprecations and denunciations of evil on those who refuse to submit
to their extortion. Persian women, and even the greater part of the men, are seldom able to resist the weight of these anathemas. It appears that nominally they all preserve their original Mahommedanism, but that they assume to themselves such a degree of perfection as dispenses them from the observance of its forms of prayer, fasting, &c. With this creed they combine ideas of soofeeism, or mysticism, on the nature of the First Cause, his attributes, his relations with man, with matter, creation, with evil, and with good, quite unintelligible to me, and I hear even to themselves. Aiming at sublimity, they lose themselves in a bewilderment of words and ideas. Tehran is naturally a Kibleh of attraction to these successors of the sages of Greece. The Persian meerza or secretary of the Mission, who has been in England, and who is my constant cicerone, tells me that in Tehran there are seven fraternities of derveeshes, each of which has a different system with reference to the subjects above mentioned. Their names are – Ajem, Khāksār, Niāmet-oollāhee, Zehabee, Jellālee, Kemberee, Dehree. Ajem and Khāksār originated with Hassen of Bassora, who lived in the reign of the Caliph Ali; Niāmet-oollāhee, which is the fraternity most prevalent in Persia, was founded by Maaroof e Kerkhee, derbān, or porter, to Imām Reza, who lived in the reign of the Caliph Mamoon. Zehabee is derived from Owēs e Kerrem (a town in Yemen), one of the early disciples of Mahommed. Jellālee springs from the pseudo-Imām, Jaafer Kezzāb (the Great Liar), who lived about 150 years after Mahommed. Kemberee originated with Kember, a black slave of Ali "Ameer il Moomeneen," the "Commander of the Faithful." Dehree is rather a system of
atheism than anything else, the name of whose founder, if it had one, I forget. Whoever desires to enter a fraternity must take some sheereenee (sweetmeats) to the chief, and say to him, "Aï wallāh, ya Moorshid tālibam" (Yes, by the Lord, O Moorshid, I am a seeker). The moorshid tells him to kiss his hand, and then those of the rest of the disciples, after which he gives the neophyte a certificate assuring him a reception among the fraternity. Some of them beg for the moorshid, others travel. For the thousand and one names of God, the moorshid imposes on the novice a thousand duties for a thousand days. Among the Niāmet-oollāhees the novice must present the moorshid, in addition to the sheereenee, with a coin called an abassee, on which are engraved the words "Lā illāh illallāh" (There is no God but God). The moorshid repeats to him an ayah, or verse, of the Koran, to be recited daily. In performing every act, the mooreed, or disciple, must meditate on the moorshid. It is lawful for him to smoke chers. Among the Zehabees it is the practice to mesmerise the novice, if it may be so called, by staring him out of countenance. They are divided into two classes, of which one abstains from forbidden things. These last assemble on Monday nights, and, sitting in a circle, they repeat Zikrs – that is, Lā illāh illallāh – for hours; they then rise and move round until they foam at the mouth and become half mad. The other class abstains from nothing forbidden. Everything is lawful. They practise neither Zikr nor Fikr (meditation on God), but they must reflect constantly on their moorshid. The Jellālees have neither prayer nor fasting. On entering the fraternity, the novice must buy food and feast the derveeshes, and
this they call the deegjoosh, or pot-boiling. After the feast the moorshid puts a piece of copper of the size of a crown into the fire until it is red-hot, and then places it on the wrist of the mooreed. Some among them have twelve of these brands on each arm. The moorshids send the mooreeds once a year on begging excursions. The Kemberees seem to devote themselves to the praise of Ali, and of his wars, and of the valour of Kember. The Dehrees appear to recognize no divinity. Matter in their creed is eternal, and whatever now exists has existed from all eternity.
Notwithstanding that the government of Persia is a despotism, there is considerable latitude in the profession of religion in that country; for, however Jews and Christians may suffer from local oppression, neither the maxims of religion, nor of the common law, nor the wishes of the government, sanction their ill-treatment. With the exception of an open profession of either of the above-named religions, a Persian Mahommedan may avow any opinions he pleases. Atheism and pure deism are freely at his choice in his own circle of society. He may revile and ridicule with impunity in the above limits all systems of religion, including Mahommedanism, though of course he would suffer castigation were he indiscreet enough to profess his opinions in public. Atheism is said to be rare, but deism, it is supposed, is widely diffused among the upper classes of society. It is, however, suspected that this latitudinarianism seldom survives youth and health, and that with the approach of years or infirmity a return to old opinions is generally found. A Persian gentleman who was very intimate with the members of the Mission,
Caravan of Pilgrims, with Corpses, going to Kerbella. Page 197.
was remarkable for the freedom with which he gave utterance to his infidel opinions. The simple existence of God was all he could persuade himself to admit. Being attacked by cholera, before his death he left an injunction that his body should be deposited in the holy ground of Kerbella. This is the ardent desire of every Persian, for whatever may have been his crimes, he then feels certain of an advocate who will ensure his eternal rest. Should a journey to Kerbella exceed his means, or the devotion of his relations, Meshed and Koom, the shrines of descendants of Imām Hoossein, both of which cities are in Persia, are the next chosen spots for interment. At the latter town a woman, Fatma, not however the daughter of Mahommed of the same name, is the presiding saint. The consequence is that dead bodies are constantly travelling from one end to the other of Persia.
Not long after our arrival in Tehran, when riding outside the town, on the road to Hamadan, which leads to Bagdad, we were interrupted and detained by a large caravan proceeding to the former city. A number of the mules were laden with long narrow boxes attached upright, one on each side of the mule. A most dreadful and almost unendurable smell proceeded from the caravan. On inquiry I found that these boxes contained corpses which had been collected from various towns for a length of time, and were now on their way to Kerbella for interment. It is a revolting practice. The boxes are nailed in the most imperfect manner, admitting of the free exit of the most dangerous exhalations.
One of the gentlemen attached to the Mission, travelling between Hamadan and Tehran, arrived late at night at a village where he lay down to sleep on the sakoo of
a large stable, very much fatigued by a long day's journey. A sakoo is a raised platform at one extremity of the stable, on which travellers repose, while their animals feed around them. During the night he awoke exceedingly unwell, having passed a harassing time in fever, tormented with frightful dreams. On striking a light an unpleasant cause of his illness was discovered. He found that while he slept a caravan had arrived with a cargo of corpses, some of which, emitting a horrible effluvium, had been placed on the sakoo close to his head. A person of weaker nerves than this gentleman would have been scared on discovering who his neighbours were.
This unceasing transfer of dead bodies from Persia to Kerbella and the neighbouring shrines of Cufa and Meshed e Ali, is a heavy drain on the revenue of Persia, and a source of profit to Turkey. The stream of pilgrims in the same direction flows with equal strength, and Bagdad may be said to exist by Persians alive and dead. It is also a common practice to make dying bequests to these shrines. Moreover there are pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina which draw money into Turkey, though to a much less extent, the devotion for the tomb of Mahommed's grandson far exceeding that for the sepulchre of the Prophet himself. The Persian government has often attempted to stem this torrent of pilgrims by endeavouring to substitute Meshed and Koom as objects of popular veneration. But nothing has sufficed to quench the enthusiasm for the memory of martyrs whose sufferings are renewed yearly before the eyes of the people. Thousands still flow on of the living and the dead. The difficulties and often the dangers of the road seem to be a source of attraction to the pilgrims, perhaps because they
enhance the merit. Reckless Koords and Arabs are sometimes to be encountered, and always the extortion and reviling of the Turkish authorities and their subordinates.
A conspicuous instance of religious toleration in Persia is to be found in the existence, in large numbers, of the sect called Ali-Illāhee, which implies that Ali is God. "The Lord protect us!" an orthodox Persian exclaims, on hearing this blasphemy asserted. These sectaries seem not to differ from other Mahommedans, excepting in affirming that Ali, the nephew and son-in-law of Mahommed, is an incarnation of the Deity. This belief appears to be an exaggeration of Sheeahism, of which the foundation is an excessive devotion to Ali and his descendants. The votaries of this creed are very numerous, though chiefly, if not entirely, confined to the genuine Persian tribes of Lek descent, as contradistinguished from the Koords, who, though also reckoned as a Persian race, yet are not supposed to be of the same family as the Leks. I am ignorant whether, among the Koords, Ali-Illāhism prevails or not. Although these tenets are perfectly well known as existing to a large extent among these tribes, not the slightest attempt is made to disturb their opinions. The Ali-Illāhees, on the other hand, do not openly proclaim their dissent from the prevailing religion of their countrymen. A member of the mission was acquainted with a chief of a tribe the whole of which professed Ali-Illāhism. This khan frequently asserted that among many of his creed it was believed that Christ and Ali were the same person. He gave a list of thirty Lek tribes, with the relative numbers of Ali-Illāhees and orthodox Mussulmans; but I do not think the subject of sufficient general interest to give
a detail of their names. Being all eelyats, and therefore men of the sword, this may be one reason why they do not suffer persecution. The Sheeahs and Ali-Illāhees of the same tribe live in harmony and intermarry.
Freedom of speech in Persia is on an equality with freedom of religion. It is the Persian substitute for liberty of the press, and the safety-valve of popular indignation. Every one may say what he likes. If needy, disappointed, or oppressed, the sufferer may seek consolation in reviling the Shah and his minister, and all their measures, to the contentment of his heart. At least until very recently he could do so; for during latter years more frequent intercourse with the Russian Mission has led to the introduction of some Russian ideas on the subject of liberty of speech. This has rather contributed to its curtailment in the capital, though in the provinces it subsists in full force. Some months after our arrival in Tehran, the Prime Minister established a newspaper; and, to ensure its diffusion in the capital and provinces, he made it obligatory on all employés of a certain rank to become subscribers. He placed the paper under the management of an English gentleman, whose duty it was to translate extracts from European newspapers suitable to Persian ideas. The "leaders" were often the composition of the Prime Minister himself, and were chiefly in praise of the Shah's government; but this practice is said not to be confined to Persia. Censure on any subject was rigidly excluded, exactly as if the 'Petersburg Gazette' had been adopted as a model. This Englishman enjoyed no sinecure; besides the above Gazette for the public, he had the superintendence of another newspaper, designed only for the eye of the Shah and his minister. The latter journal contained
all the European political intelligence deemed unsuitable for the Persian public, besides details of gossip and scandal likely to give amusement to the Shah. Such is the beginning of the free press to be established in Persia five hundred years hence; for within any less period it is hopeless.7 The Prime Minister, Meerza Tekkee Khan, was a remarkable man in many respects. He had a keen desire to elevate Persia in the scale of nations, and to rescue her from what he considered the thraldom she endured from her three more powerful neighbours. Having passed his life in Persia, his views necessarily were often wrong or contracted, though he tried to remedy the defects of education and want of experience by conversation with Europeans on the system of government in the Celtic and Germanic portion of the world. He failed from want of instruments to carry out his projects, and through pride, which led him to domineer not only over the entire body of courtiers, but over the Shah himself. This pride was founded solely on his own intellectual superiority to his countrymen. His origin was very humble; but in Persia and other Mahommedan countries there is a large fund of personal equality, and obscurity of descent is not an obstacle to advancement. His father was a cook of Tabreez, who gave his son a good education, and found the means of placing him among the meerzas, or scribes, of Azerbijan. Here he rose to a high post, and, at the suggestion of Colonel S—, was nominated Commissioner in Turkey
for the conclusion of a treaty between the two countries. Not long after his return, a new succession to the throne gave him an opportunity for the display of his capacity, and he rose to the office of Grand Vezeer, though he never assumed any other title than that of Commander of the Army. This was a whimsical distinction to confer on himself, the army having been at no time his profession. Not satisfied with this amount of prosperity, he aspired to a closer alliance with the Shah by contracting marriage with his Majesty's only full sister. This he effected, but it did not add to his power, which was already unbounded, nor did it contribute to his safety. I shall have to recount his tragical fate before the termination of these pages.
During the course of this month I paid my second and last visit to the Shah's mother. Various circumstances render it undesirable to form an intimacy with the inmates of any Persian anderoon. If it were only on account of the language they are said to be in the habit of using in familiar intercourse among themselves, no European woman would find any enjoyment in their society. On this occasion ceremony was dispensed with. After partaking of tea and coffee in her own apartment, therefore, she and all her attendants accompanied me through a variety of courts to a fine garden, where we met the Shah, unattended and alone. He conversed very agreeably for some minutes, and then came with us to the new part of the palace, of which he was very proud. Some rooms were decorated in the Persian fashion, having two rows of light pillars on each side, the pillars and ceilings being covered with small pieces of looking-glass. Some other rooms were exact imitations of European drawing-rooms; they were papered, and hanging round the walls
Nasr ood-deen, the shah of Persia. Page 203.
were some very inferior coloured engravings. One room was fitted up as a library, having glass cases filled with manuscripts, each manuscript in a handsome brocaded cover. Here we took leave of his Majesty and proceeded to the jewel-room. I am not a judge of precious stones, so I cannot pronounce an opinion on the value of the gems I there saw. Some of the diamonds and pearls seemed to me of an amazing size, but so badly set that they did not look to advantage. From thence we went to the china closet, and there I really did feel covetous. Such magnificent jars and bowls! and apparently quite thrown away and forgotten. On our return to the anderoon the Shah's mother made me observe that the walls of the court had been recently painted in fresco. Various subjects were represented but she paused before the one she liked best. I suppose it reminded her of some of the scenes of her youth: it was an encampment of eelyats in a green plain – goats and sheep were grazing; here and there women were to be seen, some cooking, some carrying water, and milking. "Ali!" said she, "there is a happy life – there is a charming picture." All the women joined with loud approbation in these sentiments. "Yes," said they, "life under a tent, with fine air and good water, and fresh lamb kebabs, is the best of all things." She also showed me a picture of her late husband, Mahommed Shah. She shed tears before it, and struck her breast as a sign of grief. I believe she was much attached to him at one time, until his neglect alienated her affection. She sought to render herself agreeable to him in a way which to Europeans seems extraordinary, but which is not uncommon in Persia. While living in Tabreez, when Mahommed Shah was only Crown Prince, she wrote a piteous letter to an English
gentleman, begging him to lend her a sum of money, saying she wished to join her husband, who had gone on a distant expedition and left her without funds. This gentleman believed her story and lent her the money. She, however, perhaps taking Sarah for her model, bought with it a Circassian slave-girl, whom she sent as a present to her husband, instead of going herself!
A few days afterwards I went to see the Shah's half-sister, a beautiful girl of fifteen, who lived with her mother in an obscure part of the anderoon, neglected by the Shah and consequently by every one else. She was really lovely; fair, with indescribable eyes, and a figure only equalled by some of the chef d'œuvres of Italian art. This is so rare among Persian women, that she was one of the few persons I saw in that country with an approach to a good figure. She was dressed in the usual fashion of trousers on trousers, the last pair being of such stiff brocade, that if put standing upright in the middle of the room, there they would remain. Her hair was curled, not plaited, and she was literally covered with diamonds. She was quiet in her manners and seemed dejected. She was most anxious to hear about European customs. What seemed to surprise her most was, that we took the trouble to undress every night going to bed; and she asked me, was it true we put on a long white dress to pass the night in? All Persian women are astonished at this custom, and are quite unable to account for it. They never undress at night; they untie their thin mattress from its silken cover, draw it out from its place against the wall, and roll themselves up in the wadded quilt which forms their blanket. The only time they change their clothes is when they go to the bath. If they go out to visit, they, of course,
put on their best garments, and take them off at night; but generally they lie down just as they are, and even in cold weather they wear their chadoor, or out-of-door veil, at night. This young princess afterwards sent me a piece of silk, with a request that I would allow my maid to make her a gown of it, as she wished to dress in the Feringhee fashion, to see how she looked. I felt great compassion for the poor young girl. I do not know what has become of her; but I suppose she is married to some one very inferior to herself in rank and position.
February 5th. – In taking a drive to-day outside the town, we passed a poor camel seated on the ground, who gazed at us with the melancholy look so habitual to that animal. It seemed to me he looked more distressed than usual, and on stopping the carriage to make inquiries, we found he had good reason for sorrow. He had received an injury which had rendered him useless for farther service, and his master had cruelly left him to die of hunger, the wretched creature being unable to rise and seek for food in the desert. This barbarous practice is general among Persians. All old and worn-out animals are discarded and driven out to find a subsistence as best they can: to destroy them would be regarded as inhumanity. Besides this there are some qualms lest at the general resurrection the murdered animal should take the slayer by the collar, gereebānesh begeered, and claim satisfaction. My husband used invariably to cause the old horses of the Mission to be shot, instead of following the custom of the country of selling them as packhorses, or turning them adrift to starve on the roadside. This gained him a reputation at Tehran, though not of a desirable kind. The kedkhoda, a very old man, of our village at Goolahek,
having committed some misdemeanor, he was threatened with punishment. "I dare say you will cause me to be punished," said the kedkhoda; "are you not that Vezeer Mookhtar who causes all the old horses to be shot after their faithful services: so why should not an old servant like me be punished?" Persian servants often give themselves a good deal of latitude of speech. A Persian gentleman complained that the previous night his cook made him ridiculous before a party of friends at dinner. The cookery being bad, he had sent for the cook to vent his feelings in a scolding, and told him that his dinner was like rotten dog's flesh. "Well, khan," said the cook, "if your mouth tastes of rotten dog, it is not the fault of my dishes." Every one laughed at the khan and applauded the cook. But to return to the poor camel. We went to the nearest village, where we complained of the inhumanity of leaving the camel to starve, and told the inhabitants they ought to kill it. In a moment twenty of them sallied out with their knives and daggers and killed the poor fellow, each returning with a piece of the flesh to cook for his dinner. Next day the owner came to the house and demanded the price of the camel, which had been slain contrary to the law. Wishing to see how the question would be decided, my husband told him to lodge his complaint with the moojtehed, and that he would abide by the decision of the law. Not long after a note arrived from the moojtehed, decreeing that as Colonel S— had acted on mere presumption, and moreover, as the owner was justified in doing as he pleased with his property, he was entitled to a tenth of the value, or ten shillings.
7 There are four or five lithographic printing presses in Tehran, where the Koran and the Persian classical productions are printed and sold at very moderate prices.
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