Bahá'í Library Online
. . . .
>>   Book excerpts
TAGS: History (general); Iran, General history; Modernity; Nasirid-Din Shah; Qajar dynasty; Shahs
LOCATIONS: Iran (documents)
add tags
Passing references to the Babis in Amanat's introduction to, and in the autobiography of, Nasir al-Din's daughter.

Crowning Anguish:
Memoirs of a Persian Princess from the Harem to Modernity 1884-1914

by Taj al-Saltana

edited by Abbas Amanat
translated by Anna Vanzan
pages 59, 74, 83-84, 98-99, 209, 309-10, 328-32, 339-40
Washington DC: Mage Publishers, 1993
[page 59 — from Amanat's introduction]

      Taj's self-proclaimed independence, even before the Revolution, of family and husband permitted her to augment her life of luxury and entertainment with the cultural experiences of study, music, French, painting, and above all socializing. It goes without saying that only her privileged position as the sister of the reigning monarch enabled her to venture into activities almost entirely denied to the average woman of her time. Educated women of her generation were adept at literature, music, and fine arts in the privacy of their homes but few, if any, had emerged from the harem to engage publicly in social life, at least not since the Babi heroine Qorrat al-'Ayn half a century earlier, and then under a very different set of circumstances. However, the matriarchal residue of the bygone Qajar nomadism was not altogether dead. Like many matriarchs of the royal family, Taj, too, displayed a spirit of assertiveness and independence; but unlike them (or at least unlike the stereotype that comes to mind) she managed to modernize somewhat this spirit of grandmotherly domineeringness into a championing of women's emancipation.

[pages 74, 76 — from Amanat's introduction]

      In the years that followed the Régie protest the shah, whose authority was seriously challenged by so popular a movement, resorted further to a police apparatus which under his favorite son, Kamran Mirza, had became more efficient and therefore more oppressive. Taj's efforts to put all the blame on the shoulders of her brother's henchmen notwithstanding, Mirza Reza Kermani, the shah's assassin, was actually a victim of Kamran Mirza's military police. Sharpening the edge of popular discontent was the random persecution of political dissidents, many of them of Babi persuasion. They were sympathizers with a messianic religion that had survived decades of pressure to represent one of the few avenues of dissent against the political and religious authorities. Likewise, the images of the libertine Qajar court—corrupt and crafty ministers amassing private fortunes, foreign concessionaires robbing the nation of its resources—though sometimes exaggerated beyond proportion, reduced the old prominence of kings as the defenders of the faith and protectors of the land in the eyes of the public. Such images no doubt helped undermine the more positive aspects of Naser al-Din's rule: his able, if not always effective, conduct of foreign policy, and his remarkable command of intricate details of his administration, a command which frequently obscured in his view the urgency of addressing the broader and more essential questions. His political perspective remained fundamentally conservative while his patience with advocates of justice, the constitution, and political reforms grew shorter.

[pages 83-84 — from Amanat's introduction]

      It is an injustice to the aims of the Revolution of 1906—1911 if we label it as merely "constitutional." As the example of Taj demonstrates, the Constitutional Revolution was a widespread movement of protest, broad enough to inspire not only the educated folk but commoners as well against the political system that for long had resisted even limited popular participation. Like other modern revolutions, the Persian Constitutional movement not only objected to the absence of civil and judicial institutions, but also to the endemic material backwardness, religious conservatism, and economic difficulties that by the early part of the twentieth century had reached a new point of crisis. Though at its center lay a critique of arbitrary rule for which it sought, sometimes naively, the panacea of "constitutionalism," the Revolution was also shaped by the other great ideals of modern times: patriotism and individual liberty.

      Championed by indigenous activists, many of them of Babi background, and by Western-style intellectuals, the Constitutional Revolution was led by an alliance of enlightened clergy who were lionized by the lower ranks, merchants who were supported by the guilds of the bazaar, and some younger members of the nobility who were inspired by the ideals of European constitutionalism. The Revolution's broad base thus collided with the privileges of the monarchy, the conservative ulama, the nobility, and above all the encroaching imperial powers. Of lasting consequences, the Revolution brought Iran onto the threshold of modernity while allowing her to carry along a large bundle of her old beliefs, institutions, and social divisions. Though like any other revolution it brought to the political stage a new class of actors, mostly from the emerging bourgeoisie, and though it made possible greater political participation by ordinary people, it did not eradicate the old institutions entirely. 'While it helped weaken the old order's twin pillars—the Qajar monarchy and the Shi'ite clerical establishment—it did not remove the nobility. By 1909 the Qajar monarchy and its immediate dependents were all but ruined and the conservative religious establishment was severely degraded, losing its popular base and its prestige. Yet at least in part the landed nobility and bureaucratic elite managed to keep a safe enough distance from the ancien régime to allow them to survive and even thrive in the post-Revolutionary days.

[pages 98-99 — from Amanat's introduction]

      Taj's call for women's rights thus anticipated a decade of women's activism that began in earnest in the 1910s and culminated in the 1920s. Like most other early reforms under Reza Shah women's emancipation in the 1930s, too, became a non-political endeavor left over from the Constitutional period. That it was implemented by the state at least partly deprived it of its earlier sociocultural vigor. When Taj was writing her memoirs, the press of the time, including some women's journals, began to advocate with diminishing hesitancy women's education, legal rights, and even unveiling, a call echoed in the romanticism of poets such as 'Aref, Iraj and 'Eshqi. However, the perception of sensuality that was associated with the image of the unveiled or even thinly-veiled woman did not subside, particularly since freedom in the post-Constitutional period allowed for greater sexual indulgence.

      Taj's perceived religious affiliation may reflect something of this popular image. As she tells us, her mother accused her of being a Babi when she heard Taj's atheistic pronouncements. Whatever her religious sentiments, by the time she was writing her memoirs, Taj seems to have been experiencing a crisis of faith. With some trepidation she had parted with the folk religion of her mother and nanny and opted for her mentor 's irreligiosity. But her new convictions did not bring her spiritual satisfaction. "I suffered a loss for having knowledge," she declares with nostalgia for her old beliefs. "Lacking fear of anything and freed from any particular beliefs," she was transported to a hedonistic plane of living where "there was nothing in life I considered bad."

[page 209 — from Taj al-Saltana's memoir]

      The Sultan agreed. On the day that Sayyid Jamal was at court all his writings were brought in. On perusing them, the Sultan realized that the premier had been right. However, unable to have Sayyid Jamal executed outright, he had him poisoned instead. The poison did not result in death instantaneously but over a course of time. Detained for over a year in the house that served as his residence, Sayyid Jamal finally lost his speech to a debilitating condition, his ears fell off, and he died.

      While Sayyid Jamal was detained in Istanbul, slowly succumbing to poison, this man (called Mirza Reza) went to him. Describing Aqa Bala Khan's cruelty, he wept and complained before Sayyid Jamal, who replied, "Go and pull out tyranny by its root. So long as you don't, and the root rests in water, the stem has the promise of bearing fruit. For every one of its branches that you hack off, it will spring two new shoots."

      Determined, this man came to Tehran and gave Sayyid Jamal's written instructions to Sani' al-Dawla. Housed in the shrine of 'Abd al-'Azim, the man was strengthened in his resolve to murder my father. The oppression the man had suffered from Aqa Bala Khan was truly beyond human endurance. Arrested as a Babi, he was kept in prison for many years. In his captivity, his daughter was violated before his eyes. His son, too, was raped and whipped. There were several other atrocities that Aqa Bala Khan committed. After the man was released from government detention, he threw himself under my brother's carriage and ripped out his own bowels with a knife. Instead of listening to his grievances, my brother had him imprisoned again. After several years he was again set free, whereupon he went to Sayyid Jamal. Now he had returned.

[pages 309-10 — from Taj al-Saltana's memoir]

      Right up to my eighteenth year, I had held the beliefs taught me by my nanny that the heavens were pulled by a chain in an angel's hand, or that when God's wrath was incurred, the sound of thunder came. This esteemed teacher of mine, however, told me, "This is all absurd. Thunder and lightning are generated through collision of clouds," and gave me the scientific proofs. Or he said, "You claim the earth rests on a yellow bull's horn. That's false. The earth is spherical and rests on nothing."

      As I progressed in my studies day by day, my irreligiosity grew, until I was a complete naturalist myself. Since these ideas were all new to me, I was eager to impart them to my mother, my relatives, and my children. As I would begin to talk, however, my mother would curse at me, "You have turned Babi!" My relatives would invoke God's forgiveness and keep their distance, refusing to listen. The only ones who were happy about it were the mischievous flatterers and enemies, goading me on, "Yes! This is the path to progress."

[pages 328-32 — from editor's glossary]

      Naser al-Din Shah (1831—1896), the fourth king of the Qajar dynasty (1785—1925) whose rule over Iran for close to half a century (1848—1896) was a mixed record. The insecurity of his early life was exacerbated by dislike of his father, Mohammad Shah (r. 1835—1848), and a struggle for succession which made him aware of the influence of the European powers. The early years of his reign were dominated by the premiership of the celebrated Mirza Taqi Khan Amir Kabir, a fatherly figure for the shah, whose authoritarian reform program to create a centralized and efficient administration and army and to introduce Western-style education, press and industry ran against the vested interests of the Qajar nobility and the conservative religious establishment. Though Amir Kabir succeeded in consolidating Naser al-Din's throne by putting down internecine revolts within the royal house and crushing the revolutionary Babi movement, he lost favor with the shah. In 1851, under the influence of his mother, a matriarch with a powerful personality and an intriguing mind, the monarch dismissed the premier and soon after secretly put him to death. The low-intensity struggles between the shah and his paternalistic prime ministers remained a hallmark of his reign in the following years. They led to numerous dismissals and humiliations in the ensuing decades, and to intermittent intervals that witnessed the abolition of the office of the prime minister.

      Though from the late 1850s the shah periodically toyed with reformist ideas, his measures, when actually put into practice, never extended beyond the bureaucracy and material improvements into the realm of social or political change. His deep fears of social upheaval, abetted by a capricious temperament and sheer greed, offset much of his goodwill, administrative competence, and intellectual aptitude, and turned him, increasingly by the end of his reign, into a reactionary ruler with some traits of modern absolutism. Recurring persecutions of dissidents—the most severe of all carried out against the Babis, who once tried to assassinate him in 1852—and a reluctance to incorporate any meaningful political and judicial reforms or to rationalize the government had long-term consequences, leading to the Constitutional Revolution.

      In his much-publicized European tours of 1873, 1878, and 1889 (during all of which he kept diaries), the shah's attention was largely directed toward royal opulence, entertainment, and nature. Treated as an exotic ruler of a land of faded glory, he nevertheless was persuaded by his entourage and his hosts to grant sweeping economic concessions with far-reaching consequences. The ill-fated Reuter concession of 1873; which granted major economic, commercial, and financial rights to a private financier, became a pretext for a conservative revolt within the ruling elite and for the temporary ousting of the shah's reformist prime minister, Mirza Hosayn Khan Moshir al-Dawla. The famous Régie concession in 1891—1892 led to a popular protest of revolutionary proportions, mobilizing the bazaar and the secular dissidents under the aegis of the religious establishment. The shah's success in avoiding a full-scale revolt lay largely in his political savvy and ability to compromise whenever necessary.

      The shah's tenuous record of domestic reforms, however, was counterbalanced by his steadfast resistance to territorial intrusions and his efforts to preserve Iran's political integrity in the age of high imperialism. This hard-earned advantage secured Iran's relative independence, but at the cost of material development and the reforming of tattered institutions. The shah perceived his own survival as the ransom in a complex game of diplomacy and intrigue to maintain a precarious balance on all grounds, a game at which he was a master and which became a hallmark of his reign.

      A man of complex character, the shah had much of the veneer of a modern monarch while retaining some earmarks of the Qajar tribal culture. In private he was a consummate admirer of the good life and leisurely pursuits, which he seldom allowed to be spoiled by the pressing demands of government. A great hunter and a true lover of camp life and the countryside, his endless days in the saddle, wandering about in the picturesque resorts in the vicinity of his capital, bore discrete signs of a melancholic solitude. Escaping the pressures of government and the irritations of the harem, he became increasingly haunted by memories of his tormented past, for which he found consolation in the company of his favorite page boy, Malijak.

      The shah's relations with the women of his harem were often dominated by the presence of a matriarch—first his own mother, Malek Jahan Mahd 'Olya, and later his influential wife, Anis al-Dawla. But it was his amorous love for his attractive favorite, Jayran Forugh al-Saltana, to whom he was married in his late twenties, that left a deep impression on him. Years after her early death the shah sought traces of Jayran among his wives. Though generally kept in strict isolation, some of the powerful wives of the shah exerted much political influence on him as well as on the high-ranking officials of his government. The shah's long period of infertility, perhaps a psychosomatic trauma, came to an end when he reached his mid-fifties. A host of princes and princesses born to him in the 1880s, with the exception of Taj, did not enjoy the shah's affection. The shah's relations with his two senior sons, Zell al-Soltan and Mozaffar al-Din, were not free from emotional trouble.

      Naser al-Din's artistic taste and intellectual pursuits were comparatively modern. An amateur sketcher of some originality himself, he was the royal patron to an efflorescence of Persian painting, culminating in the works of the protoimpressionist Mahmud Khan Saba and the realist-romanticist Kamal al-Molk. The remarkable development of Persian calligraphy, music, religious performing art (ta'ziya), and PersoEuropean architecture (and to a lesser extent poetry and historiography) also benefited from his patronage, though he often actively barred his people from exposure to liberal ideas and tried hard to eradicate political and doctrinal dissent through coercion.

      Naser al-Din Shah was assassinated by Mirza Reza Kermani on the eve of his royal jubilee while visiting the shrine of Shah 'Abd al-'Azim on 1 May 1896. The epithet of the "Martyr King" gained currency posthumously when the relative tranquility of his time was contrasted nostalgically to the chaos and revolutionary upheavals of the later decades.

      Zell al-Soltan (shadow of the sovereign) (1850—1918), Mas'ud Mirza, Naser al-Din Shah's senior son and long-time, powerful governor of Isfahan. He was born to a commoner mother and thus denied the status of heir apparent, according to the Qajar rule of succession. A man of strong character and commanding capabilities, he soon demonstrated his potential for running a harsh but efficient provincial government when, at the age of thirteen, he was appointed to the governorship of Fars province. Playing on his father's weaknesses and sense of guilt he soon managed to monopolize not only the government of the central and prosperous province of Isfahan in 1874—a tenure he kept for the rest of his active career and up to the time of the Constitutional Revolution—but extended his control to neighboring provinces to include, in 1886, fourteen governorships in southern and western Iran. His virtual autonomy over the domestic affairs of a large chunk of southern Iran was accompanied by ambitions for independent rule over the southern part of a partitioned Iran under the aegis of the British, with whom he developed intimate relations. His ambitions were nipped in the bud in 1886 when he was forced by his frightened father to resign from all offices except the governorship of Isfahan. Though in the following years he tried in vain to cancel off the growing influence of the shah's premier, Amin al-Soltan, he never regained the omnipotence and military capability of the earlier years. His ruthless, and at times highly intriguing, control over Isfahan was challenged by influential ulama, the Bakhtiyari tribal chiefs and the notables of the city. It resulted in endless power struggles, repeated persecutions of the Babis, and recurring mob violence.

      Zell al-Soltan's downfall came not in 1896 with the accession of Mozaffar al-Din Shah—to whom the prince declared his unconditional loyalty in spite of their former bitter rivalries—but in 1907. Facing popular opposition in Isfahan and pressure from Constitutionalists who criticized him for cruelty and despotism, he resigned from his post and soon after the coup of 1908 left Iran for a tour of Europe. On his return the next year he faced increasing pressure from the Constitutionalist militia in Rasht and was forced to return to Europe. The virtual absence of Zell al-Soltan from Taj al-Saltana 's memoirs may be explained by his political eclipse in the postConstitutional period. In 1917 he returned to Iran and spent his remaining years as a recluse in Isfahan.

[pages 339-40 — from editor's glossary]

      Babi: follower of Sayyid 'Ali Mohammad Shirazi (1819—1850), more commonly known as the Bab (the gate to the Hidden Imam). Claiming that he was the Imam expected by the Shi'ites, the Bab launched a revolutionary messianic movement, Babism, and proclaimed that his advent marked the beginning of a new prophetic cycle. His followers challenged the entrenched authority of the Shi'ite clerical establishment and later the Qajar government, leading to a series of bloody confrontations with Qajar forces in the late 1840s and early 1850s and the Bab's execution in 1850. Their unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Naser al-Din Shah in 1852 intensified the persecution of the Babis and laid them open to charges of anarchism and heresy. In the ensuing decades Babism served as the medium for the emergence of two rival factions, of which the present-day Bahá'í faith is one.
Back to:   Book excerpts
Home Site Map Links Copyright About Contact
. .