In the Land of the lion and the Sun
Being Experiences of Life in Persia From 1866 to 1881.
Illustrated by Full-page plates from Photographs and from Native Drawings
By C. J. Wills, M.D.
Late one of the Medical Officers of Her Majesty’s Telegraph Department in Persia
… the C.M.S. has done really good educational work; as to the proselytising, no Mussulman convert has ever been made. Many fanatics of the Baabi sect have sought and obtained temporary protection, to which they owe their lives, but as a Christianising influence it is at present a failure, though the enterprise has been carried out regardless of cost, even in the most liberal manner.
I made the acquaintance of three brothers who were Syuds, or holy men, but who had the reputation of being freethinkers; these men called on me and insisted on my breakfasting with them in the town: they were wealthy landed proprietors and merchants. I found their house beautifully furnished and their hospitality was great; they discoursed much on the subject of religion, and were very eloquent on the injustices perpetrated in Persia. They were nearly related to the Imám-i-Juma, or high priest, a very great personage indeed, who ruled the town of Ispahan by his personal influence. It was said that any one who incurred his displeasure always, somehow or other, lost his life.
Under the shadow of such a relation, the Syuds Hassan and Houssein and their brother openly held their very liberal opinions. They were, in fact, sectaries of the Baab.
This impostor has succeeded in establishing a new religion, the tenets of which are very difficult to get at — a community of property being one. Mahornmedans state that a community of women is also observed ; this is, however, very doubtful.
The execution of their prophet, far from decreasing their numbers, has had an opposite effect; many among the Ispahanis and Zinjanis still secretly profess Baabiism.
A few years before my arrival in Ispahan (1867), a determined attempt was made on the life of the present Shah by a few of the fanatics of this sect, and the unsuccessful conspirators were put to death with horrible tortures. (For details see Lady Shiel's work.) In these latter days (1880), when I was in Ispahan, a priest was denounced by his wife as a Baabi. I saw him led to prison ; he avowed his Baabiism and declined to retract, though offered his life; he, however, denied the statements of his wife and daughter, who accused him of wishing to prostitute them to others of his co-religionists.
On being taken to the public square for execution, after having been severely bastinadoed, and when in chains, knowing his last hour was come, he was offered his life if he would curse Baab.
He replied, "Curses on you, your prince, your king, and all oppressors. I welcome death and long for it, for I shall instantly reappear on this earth and enjoy the delights of Paradise." The executioner stepped forward and cut his throat.
A few days after his execution, my friends the three brothers were arrested, their valuables looted by the king's son the Zil-es-Sultan, the then Governor of Ispahan, and by the Imám-i-Juma, the successor of their former protector in the office of high priest of Ispahan. Their women, beaten and insulted, fled to the andarúns (harems) of friends and relations, but were repulsed by them for fear of being compromised. They then came to the telegraph-office in Julfa and sat in an outer room without money or food. After a few days the relatives, rather than let the (to them) scandal continue of the women being in the quarters of Europeans, gave them shelter.
The real cause of the arrest of these men was not their religion; the Imám-i-Juma owed them eighteen thousand tomans (seven thousand two hundred pounds); they were sent for and told that if they did not forgive the debt they would be denounced and inevitably slain. But habit had
made them bold; they declined to even remit a portion of the sum owing; they were politely dismissed from the high priest's presence, and a proposition made to the prince that the whole of their property should be confiscated by him, and that they should be accused of Baabiism and executed. This was agreed to. They were sent for and taken from the prince's presence protesting their innocence, the youngest brother cursing Baab as proof of his orthodoxy.
The next day all were savagely beaten in prison, and it was generally given out that they would be executed; but being men of wealth and influence, no one believed in this.
The English missionary in Julfa, [footnote #1: i.e. Rev. Bruce (Note Bábí and Bahá'í Religions p. 275n)] the assistant superintendent of the telegraph, [footnote #2: i.e. Mr. Hoeltzer (q.v.) (Note Bábí and Bahá'í Religions p. 275n)] and a few Armenians, addressed a letter to the prince which, while apparently pleading their cause, really, I fear, accelerated their fate (if it had any effect). The prince was furious, and vouchsafed no reply.
I happened to see him professionally, and he asked me why I had not signed this letter. I replied that I had not been asked to in the first place; and that I should hesitate to mix myself up in the politics of the country, being a foreign official. He appreciated my motives, and asked if I knew the three men.
I replied that all three were my intimate friends, and I trusted that their lives were not really in danger.
I never have been able to ascertain if his reply was merely given to quiet me or not; it was this: —
“The matter is really out of my hands — it has been referred to the king; he is very bitter against Baabis, as you know; nothing that sahibs in Julfa may do will have any effect. Why, sahib, what would your Prince of Wales say if he were interviewed, and letters written to him about confessed criminals by obscure Persians? The missionary, the missionary, he only troubles me to make himself notorious.”
I explained that these Syuds were really personal friends of the missionary as well as my own.
“All disaffected people are friends of missionaries, as you very well know.”
I again asked him if they would be spared or not?
“I can tell you nothing more,” he said; “one has cursed Baab, he will not die. As for the others the king will decide; for me, I wish personally to kill no one; you have known me
long enough to know I dislike blood. I am not the Hissam-u-Sultaneh” (the king's uncle, a very severe Governor). He changed the subject and declined to return to it. I cannot tell if the two elder brothers had been offered their lives or not. I went back to Julfa hoping that they would all be spared. The town was in great excitement. Next morning at dawn their throats were cut in the prison, and their bodies flung into the square. The prince had not dared to execute them publicly for fear of a tumult.
Employment is sought to be given to the less gifted among the scholars in a factory where various arts are taught, such as weaving, but this does not appear a success. The clever artisans, Baabis, nominally Mussulmans, employed by Dr. Bruce as decorators and builders, have made a really handsome series of buildings, perhaps a little florid. These men have been able to show their great skill in decoration, and the beautiful geometrical patterns on the outer wall of the church, the hand-painted screen which runs round the eaves of the courtyard,
and the incised decorations in stucco in the interior of the church, representing parrots, flowers, etc., are curious in the extreme.
Or I make a visit to my friends the Baabis. Here, however, I have to eat such a tremendous breakfast that a siesta is needed, and I only am allowed to start homewards at six, after pipes and tea have been taken, and much information extracted from me.
Another grandee of Shiraz was Mirza Naim, the paymaster of the forces of Fars, a military officer of high rank and great age. (He was the general who in the time of the Baabi revolt besieged the walled city of Zinjan, the capital of a province of Persia held by those fanatics; the place was obstinately defended, the women even appearing on the walls, and fighting and dying for the sake of their ridiculous creed. On the taking of the city by assault, a kuttl-i-aum, or general massacre, was ordered, and the atrocities committed were too horrible to mention.)
Among the educated classes many are infidels, others pure theists, while communism as a religion is followed by the numerous secret sectaries of the “Baab;” among whose tenets is undoubtedly, though the Baabis deny the fact, that of community of wives and property.