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Nicolas, Alphonse (A.-L-.M. Nicolas)

by Nader Nasiri-Moghaddam

published in Encyclopaedia Iranica
New York: Columbia University, 2021
NICOLAS, ALPHONSE (or A.-L-.M. Nicolas, see below; b. Rasht, 27 March 1864, d. Paris, 28 February 1939, PLATE I), French diplomat and Orientalist.

Alphonse Nicolas was born on 27 March 1864 in Rasht (q.v.), where his father Jean-Baptiste Nicolas had just been named vice-consul. During his childhood, besides the French spoken at home, he also learned Persian and Russian. In 1873, when Jean-Baptiste Nicolas was appointed to the position of 1st dragoman at the French Legation in Tehran, the Nicolas family left Rasht to go to the capital. On September 30, 1874, Alphonse Nicolas was accepted as a student at the École des Jeunes de Langues with a scholarship (ADMAE, Classeur II. Promotions, MAE to J.-B. Nicolas, 2 October 1874) and went to Paris to continue his studies. In October 1875, when Nicolas was just eleven, his father died. His mother, Clotilde Bonnal, who had been living in Iran for more than twenty years, was very anxious that her son should continue his studies in France in order to later become a dragoman like his father. Consequently, after the death of her husband, she and her two daughters, Josephine and Augustine, both born in Persia, joined Alphonse Nicolas in France. He received a bachelor’s degree on 24 November 1883. On 1 January 1884, he was accepted as a boarding student of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministère des affaires étrangères [MAE]) at the School of Oriental Languages (École des langues orientales) in Paris to study Arabic, Persian and Turkish (ADMAE, Classeur II. Promotions, MAE to Mme. Nicolas, 30 November 1883). Charles Schefer (q.v.) was one of his professors. Nicolas graduated from this school in 1887. He began his diplomatic career on 12 August 1887 as a student-dragoman in Tehran (ADMAE, Classeur II. Promotions, MAE to A. Nicolas, 10 August 1887). From then on, he took care of his mother and two sisters.

Plate I. Alphonse Nicolas (1864-1939)
Plate I.
Alphonse Nicolas

During the first year of his career as a diplomat, Nicolas, in parallel with his work as interpreter, made a study of the turquoise mines in Khorasan and wrote a report on it. He also examined the state of commerce in southern Iran in 1886-87. At the end of 1888, he passed the end-of-year exam, organized by Gaston Audibert, then 1st dragoman of the French Legation in Persia, and obtained a certificate (ADMAE, Classeur I. Notes des chefs de poste, certificate signed by G. Audibert, 30 December 1888). In 1889, Nicolas wrote a report on the salt lake near Qom as well as on the market for matches in Persia, addressed to the Quai d’Orsay. It was also in 1889, when he was twenty-five, that he began to study Babism (q.v.; Sanderson, p. 885).

Inspired by his father’s criticisms and reflections on the work of Joseph Arthur Comte de Gobineau (q.v.), Les Religions et les philosophies dans l’Asie centrale (1865), which remains a fundamental source on Babism, Nicolas decided to study more seriously the life and doctrine of Sayyed ʿAli-Moḥammad Širāzi, the Bāb (q.v.). Together with a young Iranian follower of the Bāb, he began to read and translate the Bayān (q.v.), the Babi sacred text, which he published a few years later. After two or three years of study and reflection on the Babism, Nicolas became “little by little Bābi through and through” (Sanderson, p. 885). He also established contacts with Bābi circles (mafel) through an Iranian secretary of the French Legation in Tehran, a certain Mirzā Ebrāhim who himself was a follower of Bāb.

René de Balloy, then minister plenipotentiary of France in Tehran (1881-98), fully supported Nicolas in his activities. When in December 1889 a dispute arose between the latter and the chargé d’affaires, G. Paulze d’Ivoy de la Poype (stationed in Persia from 21 April 1889 to 30 April 1890), de Balloy supported his young interpreter and asked his ministry for the transfer of the chargé d’affaires (ADMAE, Classeur IV. Réservé, R. de Balloy to MAE, 14 May 1891).

At the end of the year 1890, Nicolas wrote a report for the Quai d’Orsay on the economic situation in Persia. He also assessed the feasibility of the road from Tehran to Moḥammara (see KHORRAMSHAHR) in another report. Impressed by the quality of these works, de Balloy asked his department on 19 January 1892 to promote Nicolas (ADMAE, Classeur I. Notes des chefs de poste, R. de Balloy to MAE, 19 January 1892]). Thus, on 9 December 1893, four years after his appointment as student-dragoman, the young diplomat became dragoman 2nd class in Tehran. A month later, on January 20, 1894 he received the Silver Medal of Honor (la médaille d’honneur en argent). This decoration was granted to him as the result of a special request by de Balloy, who specified in his letter to his ministry that Nicolas had contracted cholera (q.v.) on 4 September 1892, during the great cholera epidemic, while on duty and in the process of making an inventory of French nationals affected by it (ADMAE, Classeur I. Notes des chefs de poste, R. de Balloy to MAE, 23 January 1893). The silver Medal of Honor was thus granted to thank Alphonse Nicolas for his dedication in the service rendered to the Republic. However, the illness left his health in a fragile state and during the rest of his life he suffered from liver attacks.

On 26 July 1894, Nicolas was appointed dragoman-chancellor at Larnaca in Cyprus with an annual salary of 6,000 francs. Still single, he took care of his mother and his unmarried sister. His other sister, Augustine, had married F. M. Knobel, chargé d’affaires for the Netherlands in Tehran. During his stay of two years (1894-95) in Larnaca, he was in contact with Mirzā Yaḥyā Nuri Ṣobḥ-e Azal (1831-1912), one of the successors of the Bāb and founder of Azali Babism (q.v.).

From 2 December 1895 to 28 September 1896, Nicolas was in charge of the Tangier chancery in Morocco with an annual salary of 6,500 francs. After his service in Tangier, in the autumn of 1896, he went to Smyrna as 1st dragoman with an annual salary of 7,000 francs. Finally, on 10 October 1898, after he had been away from Persia for four years, he returned to his country of birth, but this time as the 1st dragoman of the French Legation in Tehran, a position with an annual salary of 10,000 francs.

Like his father, Nicolas was interested in Persian literature. As a result, he published La divinité et le vin chez les poètes Persans (1897) and a translation, Quelques odes de Hâfiz (1898). These two slim volumes, each about 60 pages long, were signed A.-L.-M. Nicolas.  Nicolas usually went by the name Alphonse, and his full name was Alphonse Louis Daniel. The anomaly in the case of his published work, i.e. the use of the initials “A.-L.-M.” can be explained by material from the French diplomatic archives and more specifically in two personal files of the second series, no. 1127, in the name of Alphonse Louis Marie Nicolas. In each of these two files a hundred administrative documents are classified chronologically. They concern both Nicolas the father (Louis Jean-Baptiste) and Nicolas the son (Alphonse Louis Marie). We learn that at the birth of Nicolas, the son, his parents chose for him as first name “Alphonse” and they also added, out of respect for his grandparents, the names, “Louis and Marie”. Alphonse Louis Marie Nicolas therefore chose as his signature, “A.-L.-M. Nicolas”. His dispatches are signed this way and his writings are also published under this name. According to a note in this file, in 1904 after his marriage, he modified his birth certificate and took the following names in this order: “Louis Alphonse Daniel”. There is no document in the file to explain why he made this modification.  However, despite this rectification, Nicolas continued to use his previous signature for all his future administrative documents and his other publications.

On 19 September 1899, still in Tehran, Nicolas was promoted again and became dragoman first-class with the same annual salary. In 1902, he published his first work on Babism: a translation of the Bāb’s Dalāyel-e sabʿa as Le Livre des Sept Preuves de la Mission du Bab. A year later, he published an article concerning two Bābi manuscripts.

On October 18, 1904, Nicolas married a Belgian national, Céline Adèle Hubertine Vroonee. She lived with her mother and stepfather, Joseph Beckers, a justice of the peace. Less than a year after this marriage, on 16 July 1905, Nicolas’ first child was born in Teheran, a girl named Suzanne. It was also in that year that he published two new works on the subject of Babism: a monograph of 458 pages in two volumes titled Seyyèd Ali Mohammed dit le Bâb; and then a translation from Arabic into French of the sacred text of Babism, Le Béyan, which was published in 235 pages in Paris.


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