Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia:
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Return to Goolahek – Attempt to murder the Shah – General flight into town – Fate of the conspirators – Strange punishments – Arrival of the Turkish ambassador – Farewell breakfast with the Grand Vezeer's wife.
August, 1852. – Goolahek felt very sultry when we returned to it from our pretty encampment at the "Sublime Well." My husband, however, did not wish to be long absent from the neighbourhood of the Court, so we could not prolong our stay by its cool waters. A few days after our return, when seated in the coolest chamber of a house in the village, the heat having driven us from our tents, Meerza Hoossein Koolee, the first Persian Secretary of the Mission, entered the room ghastly and gasping.
"The Shah has been killed!" faltered the Meerza, who used himself frequently to assert that he was the most timid man in Persia. "We shall all be murdered," I immediately exclaimed.
We were quite alone in this moment of deep anxiety, all the members of the Mission having happened to go to town that day, though in a few minutes two or three princes came to our camp, thinking it the safest place in such a crisis. We had, it is true, a guard of Persian soldiers, but on them no dependence could be placed; perhaps they would be the first to plunder us. No time was lost in despatching three messengers: one to the Shah's camp, two miles distant, to learn the state of
affairs; another to Tehran, to purchase ammunition and bring out some fifty carbines and pistols from the Mission stores; and a third was despatched to an Afghan friend, a pensioner of the Indian Government, to send us some of his countrymen to resist the marauders, who would certainly soon make their appearance. In three hours thirty or forty trusty horsemen were in our camp, and we were promised one hundred and fifty before night.
I know not if I ever experienced greater relief than when a note arrived from the Prime Minister, saying that the Shah had been only slightly hurt, and that all was well. His Majesty, just after mounting his horse to proceed on a hunting-excursion, had been attacked in the midst of his guards by four Bābees, who had approached him under the pretence of delivering a petition. The King had been thrown from his horse, and slightly wounded by a pistol-shot, and was on the point of being despatched, when some of his guards, recovering from their stupor, seized the assassins, one only of whom was killed in the scuffle. The two Missions, English and Russian, immediately proceeded to wait on the Shah, to offer their congratulations, which were assuredly most sincere. Notwithstanding his wound, they found his Majesty seated as usual. He was pale, but looked more angry than alarmed. The Shah said that such a thing had never been heard of as the attack he had suffered. In condoling on the event, it was easy, though scarcely appropriate, to allude to Nadir and to the founder of his own dynasty; so his Majesty was reminded that occurrences like this were not uncommon in Petersburg, and that our own gracious Sovereign had not been free from
such attempts. The Shah did not, however, seem to derive any consolation from companionship in his danger.
It appeared that a party of Bābees in town had organised a conspiracy, and had held nightly meetings to mature their schemes. These were simple enough. Their plan was to murder the Shah, sally out, sword in hand, in the midst of the confusion and commotion, seize the government, and then commence the reign of terror and the reign of the saints on earth. Four of the conspirators were chosen to execute the behest of the plotters. What a fearful state of things had we providentially escaped from!
The panic at Shemeroon became general; no one thought himself safe unless within the walls of Tehran. Every bush was a Bābee, or concealed one. Shah, ministers, meerzas, soldiers, priests, merchants, all went pell-mell into Tehran, although a month of the country season still remained. The Russian Mission fled too, so that not a being was left in Shemeroon excepting ourselves, nor a tent excepting those of our camp. Colonel S— declared he did not think it creditable to take flight and that he would remain the usual time in his summer-quarters; moreover, if there were any danger, the English Mission would be the last to suffer injury. He was warned by some Persian friends that perhaps the result of this "recklessness" would be like that of a similar resolve, made some years ago, when a violent cholera broke out, and one of the Mission fell a victim to the malady. Still we remained, and no evil followed. Indeed the measures adopted to repress Bābeeism removed all danger for the moment, whatever retaliation the Bābees
may hereafter inflict should their faith ever acquire the ascendancy.
A number of the conspirators had been seized, whose fate it was easy to anticipate. The Prime Minister was reminded that now was the time for a practical display of the advance Persia had made in civilisation, and that on whomsoever death was to be inflicted, it ought to be without the addition of torture. Fear has no mercy. His answer was that this was not a time for trifling; and that the punishment, however severe, of the criminals who sought to spread massacre and spoliation throughout the length and breadth of Persia, was not to be deprecated, or to be included under the designation of torture, which had been defined to be the infliction of pain to extort a confession of guilt.
About thirty persons were put to death, and, as is customary in that sect, or, perhaps, in all new sects, they met their doom without shrinking. Suleiman Khan, the chief of the conspirators, and two others suffered torture previously to execution. The two last were either cut to pieces, or shot or blown from mortars. Holes were pierced in various parts of Suleiman Khan's body, into which lighted candles were placed, and allowed to burn down to the flesh, and, while still alive, he was divided into two parts with a hatchet. During these horrible tortures he is said to have preserved his fortitude to the last, and to have danced to the place of execution in defiance of his tormentors, and of the agony caused by the burning candles. Among the conspirators was a moolla of some reputation. After the attack on the Shah had failed, he had persisted in urging on the accomplishment
of the plot. He told the disciples that the work must not be left incomplete, and that he was resolved to bare his arm, and, sword in hand, to attack the Shah on his entrance into Tehran; that if they saw him lying as if dead, they were not to believe it; they were to fight, and he would rise and be among them.
Strange was the device adopted by the Prime Minister to elude the danger personal to himself of slaying so many fanatical Bābees. Their vengeance was to be apprehended, as about this time many persons were unaccountably murdered in Tehran, who, it was supposed, had been too explicit in the expression of their feelings against Bābeeism. His Excellency resolved to divide the execution of the victims among the different departments of the state; the only person he exempted was himself. First came the Shah, who was entitled to khissās, or legal retaliation, for his wound. To save the dignity of the crown, the steward of the household, as the Shah's representative, fired the first shot at the conspirator selected as his victim, and his deputies, the ferashes, completed the work. The Prime Minister's son headed the Home Office, and slew another Bābee. Then came the Foreign Office. The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, a pious, silly man, who spent his time in conning over the traditions of Mahommed, with averted face made the first sword-cut, and then the Under-Secretary of State and clerks of the Foreign-Office hewed their victim into pieces. The priesthood, the merchants, the artillery, the infantry, had each their allotted Bābee. Even the Shah's admirable French physician, the late lamented Dr. Cloquet, was invited to show his loyalty by following the
example of the rest of the Court. He excused himself, and pleasantly said he killed too many men professionally to permit him to increase their number by any voluntary homicide on his part.11 The Sedr was reminded that these barbarous and unheard-of proceedings were not only revolting in themselves, but would produce the utmost horror and disgust in Europe. Upon this he became very much excited, and asked angrily, "Do you wish the vengeance of all the Bābees to be concentrated upon me alone?"
The following is an extract from the 'Tehran Gazette' of that day, and will serve as a specimen of a Persian "leader:" –
"Some profligate, unprincipled individuals, destitute of religion, became disciples of the accursed Seyed Ali Mahommed Bāb, who some years ago invented a new religion, and who afterwards met his doom. They were unable to prove the truth of their faith, the falsehood of which was visible. For instance, many of their books having fallen into our hands, they are found to contain nothing but pure infidelity. In worldly argument, too, they never were able to support their religion, which seemed fit only for entering into a contest with the Almighty. They then began to think of aspiring to sovereignty,
and to endeavour to raise insurrections, hoping to profit by the confusion, and to pillage the property of their neighbours.
"A wretched miserable gang, whose chief, Moolla Sheikh Ali of Toorsheez, styled himself the deputy of the former Bāb, and who gave himself the title of High Majesty, collected round themselves some of the former companions of Bāb. They seduced to their principles some dissolute debauchees, one of whom was Hajee Suleiman Khan, son of the late Yaheya Khan of Tabreez. In the house of this Hajee it was their practice to assemble for consultation, and to plan an attempt on the auspicious life of his Majesty. Twelve of their number, who were volunteers for the deed, were selected to execute their purpose, and to each of them were given pistols, daggers, &c. It was resolved that the above number should proceed to the Shah's residence at Neeaveran, and await their opportunity."
Then follows an account of the attack, which I have already given in sufficient detail.
"Six persons, whose crimes were not so clearly proved, were condemned to perpetual imprisonment; the remainder were divided among the priesthood, the doctors of the law, the chief servants of the court, the people of the town, merchants, tradesmen, artizans, who bestowed on them their deserts in the following manner: –
"The moollas, priests, and learned body slew Moolla Sheikh Ali, the deputy of Bāb, who gave himself the title of Imperial Majesty, and who was the author of this atrocity.
"The princes slew Seyed Hassan, of Khorassan, a man
of noted profligacy, with pistol-shots, swords, and daggers.
"The Minister of Foreign Affairs, full of religious and moral zeal, took the first shot at Moolla Zeyn-ul-âbedeen of Yezd, and the secretaries of his department finished him and cut him in pieces.
"The Nizam ool Mulk (son of the Prime Minister) slew Moolla Hoossein.
"Meerza Abdul Wahab, of Sheeraz, who was one of the twelve assassins, was slain by the brother and sons of the Prime Minister; his other relations cut him in pieces.
"Moolla Fetoollah, of Koom, who fired the shot which wounded the royal person, was killed thus. In the midst of the royal camp candles were placed in his body (by making incisions) and lighted. The steward of the household wounded him in the very place that he had injured the Shah, and then the attendants stoned him.
"The nobles of the court sent Sheikh Abbas of Tehran to hell.
"The Shah's personal attendants put to death Mahommed Baukir, one of the twelve.
"The Shah's master of the horse and the servants of the stable horse-shod Mahommed Tekkee of Sheeraz, and then sent him to join his companions.
"The masters of the ceremonies and other nobles, with their deputies, slew Mahommed of Nejjeffabad with hatchets and maces, and sent him to the depths of hell.
"The artillerymen first dug out the eye of Mahommed Ali of Nejjeffabad, and then blew him away from a mortar.
"The soldiers bayoneted Syed Hoossein, of Meelan, and sent him to hell.
"The cavalry slew Meerza Reffee.
The adjutant-general, generals, and colonels slew Syed Hoossein."
No people love jesting and bantering more than the Persians. In Tehran, when any one is installed in office, it is usual for his friends and those under his authority to send him sheereenee, sweetmeats, as a token of congratulation. When these executions were over, it was said that the Shah's meerghazabs had presented sheereenee to all the ministers of state, as a mark of their admission into the brotherhood. The chief executioner at the Shah's court is a very important personage. Hateful as he is to every one, it is curious, I hear, to observe the deference with which he is treated. As the highest of the courtiers may one day fall into his fangs, and his eyes or feet be in jeopardy, they do the utmost to propitiate him beforehand by flattering civilities, something on the principle of the Indians' worship of his infernal majesty.
There was still another victim. This was a young woman, the daughter of a moolla in Mazenderan, who, as well as her father, had adopted the tenets of Bāb. The Bābees venerated her as a prophetess; and she was styled the Khooret-ool-eyn, which Arabic words are said to mean, Pupil of the eye. After the Bābee insurrection had been subdued in the above province, she was brought to Tehran and imprisoned, but was well treated. When these executions took place she was strangled. This was a cruel and useless deed.
It was said that the general impression produced on
the people by all this bloodshed was not favourable. Indignation at the attempt on the Shah's life was lost in sympathy for the fate of so many sufferers. The common opinion was, that the poor misguided conspirators of mean condition, whose poverty more than any sentiment of disloyalty or irreligion had enrolled them in the ranks of Bābeeism, might have been spared. It thus appears that, even in Persia, a vague undefined feeling of liberality in religion is taking root.
November 2nd. – Tehran was enlivened this month by the arrival of an Ottoman Embassy, at the head of which was a very distinguished person, Ahmed Vefeek Effendi. This gentleman was a most agreeable addition to our small society. His conversation, manners, and perfect knowledge of French would enable him to pass for a highbred Frenchman; and I was informed that his talents were on an equality with his accomplishments. It was a constant theme of surprise to us all, how a person of his capacity could be condemned to the obscurity of so remote a country as Persia; and the only solution to the enigma was found in the well-known intrigues of Constantinople.
I am informed that there is a great contrast between the manners of an Ottoman and a Persian of the higher classes. Both are perfectly like gentlemen, but in a different way. The Osmanli is calm, sedate, polished, perhaps a little effeminate; the Persian is lively, cordial, witty, and amiable; perhaps a little boisterous, for he is still an eelyat. The Turkish courtier spends his time in roaming up and down the Bosphorus, leading a life of luxury and ease, never quitting the capital. The Persian
courtier is constantly on horseback, hunting with his sovereign in weather of all kinds, or accompanying him in journeys from one end of Persia to the other. The Osmanli may be more refined; the Iranee is more original.
One can hardly imagine a grave Osmanli seated at the piano playing European and Turkish airs; yet one of the gentlemen of the Turkish Embassy sometimes did us this favour, and showed considerable power on the instrument. What would his grandsire say, I sometimes thought, if he could see him? The next step will be emancipation of the women from seclusion, and from the present pretence of a veil.
In Persia, for want of more important subjects of contention, trifles assume a magnitude unintelligible in Europe. Samee Effendi, the predecessor of the present ambassador, fought (on paper) two arduous battles, one about a pair of shoes, the other concerning a chair. Ahmed Vefeek Effendi is obliged to expend his diplomatic powers in a struggle to display an Ottoman flag over his door, like his colleagues. Great pugnacity and dexterity were arrayed on both sides; and I believe the contest had not ceased up to the moment we left Persia. Diplomatic life in that country seems made up of things like these.
February, 1853. – My husband finding it useless to struggle against bad health, we resolved to quit Persia at once, and so avoid the enervating effects of another summer. We had a great deal to arrange before our departure, and Colonel S— had numerous visits to pay. As for me, I had only three or four. The Sedr Azim, or
Grand Vezeer's wife, when she heard I was going away, wrote to ask me to breakfast with her on an appointed day. I of course accepted the invitation, and spent a pleasant morning in her society. She is such a good woman, besides being a remarkably clever and intelligent one, that she is highly esteemed and respected. The Sedr Azim treats her as a European husband treats his wife; and she has no rivals in her anderoon. The déjeûner was spread on a table, and served on handsome porcelain, with knives and forks for all the party. I observed she and a friend of hers who sat beside me were very much embarrassed by these gastronomic implements, so I begged they would put them aside. They instantly adopted my suggestion, and tore off great pieces of a savoury stewed lamb, and swallowed handfuls of rice which had been cooked in fat. They took the precaution of squeezing a portion of the fat out of it with their fingers, before eating it. Wishing to show me particular attention, the Khanum tore off a delicate morsel, and with her own hands put it into my mouth. There were six or seven of her children seated round the table, fine healthy boys and girls, who ate like Europeans without any difficulty, and two of the boys spoke French. When the ladies had washed their hands and smoked their kalleoons, we went to look at the house and garden. It was a fine mansion, built in the usual fashion of the country, of courts leading into other courts. All the rooms were on the ground-floor; but underneath there were immense apartments, nearly dark, where the family lived in warm weather. All the good Tehran houses have these zeerzemeens, as they are called. The floor of the room
where she received me was covered with fine Cashmeer shawls; and there were cushions embroidered with gold, and others covered with gold brocade, placed against the wall all around the room. The children ran about laughing and playing, just like English young folks. They all seemed very happy and gay, more so than any family I had seen in Tehran. The Sedr Azim's wife is a Mazenderanee, of the tribe of Nooree, and a first cousin of her husband, who, as I said before, always calls her "my uncle's daughter."
11 The fate of this gentleman was most melancholy. Returning one evening from attending on the Shah, he called for a glass of wine. His servant, an Armenian, brought him a bottle of liquor, of which he drank a glass, and only then discovered that it was a deadly poison. He died in great agony ten days afterwards. He was highly valued among all classes.
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