Journey through the Caucasus and the Interior of Persia
London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1872
Some twenty years ago — in 1850, I think — there was brought out one morning from the State prison a prisoner well bound with ropes and well guarded by soldiers. He was led to the Great Maidan, and there
securely attached to a stout stake. A platoon of soldiers fired a volley at him; but when the smoke cleared away, instead of a lifeless corpse, the prisoner was seen scampering away over the open space to the nearest shelter. The musket-balls had cut his bonds, but left his person untouched. The bazaar was not far distant: had he once gained its labyrinths, he would in all probability have found friends to assist in hiding him, and thus have escaped; but bewildered, no doubt, by his critical position, he turned in an opposite direction, to a building nearer to him. It was a guard-house; and there he was at once recaptured, once more led to execution, and shot down by a second volley.
By name Mirza Ali Mahommed, this individual was a native of Shiraz, who, after passing the earlier years of his manhood as a dervish, had, some time previously to the date above mentioned, given himself out to be a prophet, assumed the name of Báb, a gate, — or Báb Eddin [Bábu'l-Dín], the Gate of Faith, — and propounded doctrines [footnote: This is the account, current in the country, of the doctrines of the Báb. A very different light is thrown on them by M. de Gobineau in his interesting work, Les Religions et Philosophies de l’Asie Centrale.] as alluring to the minds of certain classes in Persia as those of the Communists were to the Sans-Culottes of Paris. There was nothing very original or new in these doctrines, even in Persia; and it is probable that a perusal of the history of his own country first introduced them to the notice of the Báb, for
they appear to be more or less analogous to the tenets of the "Assassins" (of whom more later), and the means employed to render them popular were somewhat similar to those used by the founder of that sect. The emancipation of women, and the equal distribution of all the property of non-Bábees amongst the followers of the Báb, were the chief inducements held out by the new prophet. To attain them he inculcated, as far as I could learn, the necessity of renouncing the Koran, and believing in the universality of God and the unreality of death. God was in everything, he said, and everything was God. Virtue and vice had therefore no existence, since all actions, moral and physical, were emanations of the Deity. Death was simply the immediate passage of the soul and body to a better state. The Bábees, however, I need hardly add, were alone entitled to the privileges of thus enjoying total irresponsibility for their actions in this world, and of feeling perfect security as to their happiness in, the next.
Imprisoned and bastinadoed for doctrines so subversive of Oriental despotism, the Báb had several times recanted his errors, and as often reverted to them. His teaching found favour in many parts of the kingdom, especially with the Seyeds and women; and his adherents, as they increased in numbers, were emboldened to declare themselves openly, to raise the standard of the Báb — i.e. revolt, and to seize upon several towns and villages. Zenjan became their headquarters, and there, after all their other conquests had
been retaken by the royal troops, and for months after the execution of their chief, they defended themselves with a courage which in a better cause would be called heroic, and only succumbed at last to famine and quasi-extermination.
That the Báb had great influence with his followers is proved by the fact that most of them fell fighting, and that the few who were taken prisoners refused their pardon at the price of recantation. If then he had not taken that, for him and them, unlucky turn towards the guard-house, all Tabreez would at once have attributed his escape through the bazaar to divine interposition, and having thus seen his claim to be a prophet substantiated by a miracle patent to all, would have been converted to his doctrines. It is, perhaps, futile now to speculate upon the consequences which the conversion of one of the most populous towns of the kingdom might have had upon an imaginative nation like the Persian.
After the fall of Zenjan a fierce persecution ensued against all suspected of Bábeeism, and for a time it was thought that the sect had been utterly destroyed. But in 1852 it again reappeared, and an attempt was made on the life of the Shah by a band of its adherents. Four of them lay in wait for him as he was riding out from his country palace, near Tehran; they threw him from his horse, and, but for the bravery of his attendants, would have murdered him. One of the assassins was killed on the spot, the others were taken prisoners; and terrible indeed was the fate of the
latter, and of those who were inculpated as the confederates of their crime and sharers of their belief. Some were blown from mortars, some hewn to pieces; one was horse-shod and danced to death, and several had lighted candles inserted in holes drilled in their flesh, and were thus dragged by the neck through the bazaars of the capital until life became extinct. But notwithstanding these examples, so dreaded had the sect become and so fearful was the prime minister of the day of its future vengeance, that he shrank from bearing alone the responsibility of these executions, and with a view to distribute it over as many heads as possible, had recourse to the expedient of causing one victim to be killed by a superior employé of each of the chief government offices.
A second general persecution followed, resulting in the death and flight of many guilty, and, I dare say, as many innocent persons. For Persians have no scruples and covet each other's property; and much was, no doubt, made of this golden opportunity for those in power to enrich themselves with the goods of their enemies. But still Bábeeism is not extinct; twenty years after these events, I have frequently heard such and such a one denominated a Bábee, and there are still not a few persons who believe that the Báb did really escape death and will shortly reappear.