A child’s war 1 – Babyhood was a serious matter


Studio photo at 2 months

The first photo I have of me, at two months, shows me open eyed and open mouthed, lying prone on a blanket and wearing a satin gown with a large bow at the neck and a lacy knitted matinee coat (are these garments even heard of these days?). Few people had their own cameras in the 1940s. So you went to a “studio”, and the black and white photos came framed and mounted on luxurious cream card.

I was born in the middle of World War II – well, not in the middle of a battlefield, but during wartime. I often wondered what possessed my parents to have a baby in those uncertain times, when invasion was a strong possibility and occupation by Nazi forces was a harsh reality for much of Europe.  But I realise that this is modern thinking. Nowadays couples can and do plan their families. At that time you married and before you knew it, you were parents. I doubt if my mother and father ever did anything to prevent pregnancy at that stage. I know they would not have made love together before they were married, that was a very strong belief of both of them.

So there I was! Born around the time of the Battle of Britain in a small private nursing home in York. This had to be on the same side of the river as where we lived, because if the bridges had been bombed we could have been in trouble. When I was born my parents – Molly and Albert – were living with my mother’s parents. It was not unusual for newly married couples in those days to live with their parents or in-laws until they could find their own home.

It must have been very difficult and inhibiting – perhaps some more modern thinking! The house was very small, just two-up and two-down, with no electricity and no bathroom. I was probably conceived at Scarborough, on the Yorkshire Coast. Dad was in the Royal Engineers working on coastal defences. Wives could join their men when possible; it must have been something of a holiday for Mum – and an opportunity to get me started.


Four months, in wicker chair

As time went on, I graduated to a wicker chair, propped up with cushions. I never looked happy in these early photos, perhaps because the studio atmosphere was intimidating. My little mouth was always turned down, my eyes filled with suspicion and miniature frown creasing my brow. My features were set in a round face with expansive cheeks and forehead and very little chin. As a small baby I had “bracelets’ of chub at wrists and ankles. Goodness knows where it all came from as I was exclusively breast-fed until seven months, when I was introduced to Groats and Farex (baby cereal). By the time I was a year old I was standing for photos, expressing my disgust at the stuffed dog used as a prop.

focus groupQ 20190416_0002

Back in the studio at 13 months


Au revoir Jean-Baptiste’s travels – bonjour to Judith’s

Since 2015, I have been posting blogs based on Jean-Baptiste Chardin’s “Description of Isfahan”, presented in the form of letters to his father in Paris, during the period 1673 to 1677.

The source for this was Chardin’s “Description of Isfahan”, which I translated into English for the first time in the early 1960s as material in for my Ph.D. thesis at Durham University, U.K.

YAB Kamalbek D

The blogger in Iran 1960s

As well as valuable research material, Chardin’s work included a vast amount of material on all aspects of life in the Persian Empire, especially in Isfahan, the then capital city. For many years I looked for a way to publish Chardin’s anecdotes and descriptions and then hit upon the idea of this blog and the way to present them as letters so that his comments could also be aired.

I consider the source is now depleted. I have very much enjoyed writing these letters and also finding appropriate illustrations, including my own photographs. I can’t say that I have had a huge response, but I must thank those few who read the pieces and provided comments. The posts will remain for people interested in Persia in the 17th century – please continue to comment.

I now turn my blogging focus to my own travel experiences – the “present” of my title. Some of these will be memoir and some “stories” – shifting into what might have been and into my imagination. I hope to meet more bloggers out there!

P.S. Jean-Baptiste Chardin was born in Paris in 1643 and died in London in 1713. He travelled widely in Asia on his father’s business, buying and selling pieces of jewellery to the high and mighty. His Protestant Huguenot views did not accord with the atmosphere of religious intolerance then prevalent in France and in 1681, he settled in London. He served his adopted country as representative of the British East India Company in Holland and was knighted by Charles II as “Sir John”.

Chardin book page

25. Segregating the Christians


i river and oasis d

Access to Julfa across the river

Isfahan, October 1676

My dear father,

In my description of the city of Isfahan, I must also mention the important suburb of Julfa. Having acquired a residence in the city itself, I do not have to endure the journey to and from Julfa, which is the fate of most foreigners, especially Christians. Persian kings have been happy to see the Armenian Christians settle here and have helped them financially, encouraging them to build fine houses and patronising them, attending their functions and giving them protection. The settlement has been only lightly taxed. In fact, it is said that the taxes from Julfa were assigned as the Queen Mother’s footwear allowance, according to the Eastern custom where all revenue is destined for some special use. As a result, the Armenian community has prospered and there are several very wealthy merchants among them. One of these, anxious to show off his wealth and his piety, made a stupid mistake, which I will come back to.

allahverdikhan bridge

Allah Verdi Khan Bridge

Julfa has some notable features. It is reached by crossing the river, over one of the impressive bridges. The finest is the Allah Verdi Khan Bridge, named after Abbas I’s commander in chief and friend (see note). It is a fine bridge of dressed stone with brick parapet walls. On either side are arcades through which you can see the river and capture a cooling breeze. There is a lower level where you can cross when the water level is low by jumping across the foundations.  Many Persians retire to this level in the evenings to meditate and converse.

Julfa is divided into the old and new colony. The new part has wider and straighter streets, running from the river to the mountains, all planted with trees, and with water flowing down them – but only in summer and on certain days of the week. The old part has bazars, markets, baths and caravanserais, just like in Isfahan. But it also has 11 Christian churches and a monastery. I will tell you more about them and the activities of the religious orders in my next letter.

bridge shahrastan 2

Khaju Bridge


The Allah Verdi Khan bridge is still in use for modern heavy traffic after some restoration and improvement of the approaches. It is also known as the Pul-i-Si-o-Cheshmeh – the Bridge of 33 Arches. Another old bridge has variously been named the Khaju, Zoroastrian, Shiraz and Hasanabad Bridge. It also is still in use and carries traffic on the Isfahan-Shiraz road. Its site and foundations might date back to Sassanian times. This bridge also served as a weir. The river could be dammed here to form a lake opposite the Sa’adatabad palaces.



26. Cultural confusion and its outcomes

My dear father,                                                                                         Isfahan, December 1676

Following up my comments on Julfa, one of the impressive churches there belongs to the monks of St. Basil and the archbishop is always selected from their ranks (Note 1) There are up to 30 monks and they seemed to me to be good men, leading an austere and humble life.

i julfa armenian cathedral

Armenian Cathedral, Julfa

Going into the monastery church, I was surprised to see the walls covered with paintings in the Italian style, because usually Armenian churches are bare, according to their custom of prohibiting images other than one of the Virgin and Child on the altar. There is an interesting story behind this.

A rich Armenian merchant, Avadik, had travelled to Italy and was much impressed by the decorated churches there. On his return he persuaded Archbishop David that churches with paintings were more pleasing to God than any others. He pestered the bishop and the monks to let him have the church painted. After considerable resistance the archbishop gave in but came to regret it.

The Muslims heard about the paintings and came to the church as if it were a theatre or an exhibition in dubious taste. They used the opportunity to curse the Christians and their religion, believing their picture were idols and the objects of their worship. I mentioned before that, strictly speaking all depictions of humans are forbidden to Muslims. They had to be let in at all hours, just to vent their spleen and they appeared to enjoy doing it. Several times when I was there the Armenians discussed removing the paintings. They would have done this, but they were afraid of the anger of the Muslims if their entertainment was taken away.

The Jesuits have a house in Julfa, having been unable to obtain one in the city like the other missions. They came to Persia in 1645 with letters of recommendation from the Pope, the French king and other Christian leaders, but with no gifts for the Persian notables. Without these no one receives a favourable welcome in the east. To this mistake Father Rigourdy, the Jesuit superior, added a ridiculous proposal for a great but impractical alliance between France and Persia to bring about the downfall of the Turkish Empire. You would not believe the conditions.


The proposal was that Mademoiselle de Montpensier would be given to the Persian king in marriage and that the Prince of Conde would bring her to Hormuz with a fleet and 20,000 men while another army attacked the Turks in Syria (Note 2). In exchange the Jesuit asked only for a house and letters of patent for the establishment of his order. The Persian king found the offers impertinent and the whole proposition so absurd that he postponed the question of giving them a house, although he allowed them to become established. It is hard to believe the arrogance and, what is more, the ignorance of these popish missionaries.


I remain, your devoted son,





  1. Some of the early Julfa churches can still be seen, such as the Vanak Cathedral, built 1606-1654, the Bethlehem and Maryam Churches.
  2. Anne Marie Louise d’Orléans (1627-1693) became the Duchess of Montepensier when she was five days old, after the death of her mother, Marie de Bourbon. Her father was the brother of King Louis XIII of France, known as Monsieur. She was heiress to her mother’s immense fortune, which included five duchies. Despite numerous proposals from European ruling families she died unmarried and childless. The Prince of Conde was a French aristocrat, who converted to Protestantism and became a hero of the Huguenots, leading them in the Wars of Religion in the 16th century.

24. Preparing for a travelogue

kt ateshgah and oasis

Isfahan Oasis from the Ateshgah (Fire Temple)

Isfahan, August 1676

My dear father,

I am making great progress on my “Description of Isfahan”, although I realise, now, I have set myself a formidable task. Isfahan is the largest as well as the most beautiful city in the east (Note 1). The Persians tell the tale of a merchant’s slave who ran away with everything his master had and settled in the furthest part of the town where he opened a shop in the same trade. It was ten years before his master found him! There are people of every religion in this great city – Christians, Jews, Mohammedans, Gentiles, Zoroastrians and merchants from all over the world. My notes tell me that within the walls there are 162 mosques, 48 colleges, 1802 caravanserais and 273 bath-houses.

j and cracks in iran

Effect of heat – cracks in the ground

The climate is the healthiest of any place I have been, because of the dryness of the air (Note 2). If you put a sheet of paper outside in the evening, the next morning it will be as dry as before. The heat and cold are extreme in their seasons, but the cold only lasts three months. There is snow, but little rain, mostly in March and April, coming, I think, from the vapours of melting snow. In summer there is always a mild westerly wind

yad flood yazd kerman d

Effect of rain – floods in the desert

rising at sunset and the nights are chilly enough to need a fur robe. Spring begins in February; by the end of the month the gardens are covered with flowers and blossom, especially the almond trees.  Mildew never spoils anything in Isfahan. It is not even known. Because buildings are all of earth, Isfahan is not subject to the scourge of fire, like European cities. A fire in one house will not spread to the next but simply die out having consumed the woodwork.

However impossible it might seem, the city derives most of its provisions, except for animals, from ten miles (16 kilometres) around. The Persians live frugally, eating much less than the Turks. If the tables of Isfahan were spread like those in London or Paris provisions would have to be brought from much further afield! Persians only eat meat in the evening and then accompanied by rice and vegetables. You can see that all this information will be useful when, as I hope, my “Description” is published.

I remain, your devoted son,



  1. It would have been difficult to estimate the population of Isfahan as the suburbs merged with the irrigated lands of the oasis and the whole city was, and is, obscured by trees. Following Chardin’s estimates, Isfahan in the 17th century covered about 50 square miles (approx.130 square kilometres). In its golden age, Isfahan was one of the largest cities in the world with a population of about half a million, perhaps a million including the surrounding tributary villages.
  2. According to modern information, Isfahan’s climate here is “desert”. The average annual rainfall is 125 mm. The average temperature is 15.6 °C. July is the warmest month, when the temperature averages 28.2 °C. The lowest average temperatures occur in January – around 2.2 °C.

23. Intrigue and Retribution            

kashan bagh e fin                                                                                                                          Isfahan, June  1676

My dear father,

When Saru Taqi was murdered he was 80 years old and had been prime minister for 13 years. Janikhan was allowed to dispose of Saru Khan’s property as he wished. What happened next was no less tragic and no less exemplary. Janikhan, publicly applauded by the king and the court and congratulated for his cowardly murder as if it had been a feat of war, believed he had reached the pinnacle of success.  He was made commander-in-chief of 30,000 men, given huge sums of money and valuable gifts. But don’t forget the Queen Mother, close ally of the late Prime Minister Saru Taqi. When the king returned to the harem she could see the horror in his face when he had been confronted with the severed head. She said:

“My dear son, why are you so upset? Has the venerable minister who is like a father to you somehow displeased you? Surely, after 60 years’ service to the crown and given his great age, he merits a pardon and could be allowed to retire gracefully from his duties.”

The king replied, “My lady mother, he has already gone.” You can imagine the Queen Mother’s fury at having lost her trusted agent. That night she sent one of her eunuchs to Janikhan to ask the reason for the cruel murder. Janikhan, dazzled by his success and carried away by his hatred of the Queen Mother and her ministerial ally, replied contemptuously:

“Someone should have killed Saru Tariq long ago. He was a bare-faced thief. Tell      that to the Queen Mother.”

The Queen was driven to distraction by these insults and spent all night inciting the king to vengeance. She plotted to kill Janikhan, but he, through his network of spies, found out. He retaliated with a counter-plot to seize the Queen Mother from the harem and kill her. This was beyond belief, as the harem, especially the king’s, is such a sacred place that it is a punishable offence just to look towards the gate.

The Steward of the Royal Bedchamber had been one of Janikhan’s conspirators, but thinking over the enormity of the assassination plot, he decided to inform the king. The Queen and the eunuchs panicked, thinking they would be cut to pieces at any minute. The next morning the king came into his audience hall, dressed all in red, which is the custom when some great lord is be condemned and said to Janikhan: “Traitor, rebel, by whose authority did you kill my minster?”

king domestic (2)

Janikhan was not given a chance to reply. The king raised his hand, shouted “Strike” and retired behind a glass partition. Immediately the guards fell upon Janikhan and hacked him to pieces on the beautiful silk carpets, in the full view of the king and court. At the same time guards and eunuchs hurried to kill the other plotters. Their bodies were thrown into the Royal Square and left there for three days before being buried in a common trench. Thus died four governors of provinces, high military commanders and other nobles. The Queen Mother’s vengeance was extended to their families. Their goods were confiscated, their daughters publicly sold and their sons made into eunuch slaves. An example of sublime justice and human futility if ever there was one.

I remain, your devoted son,


22. Sometimes probity does not pay   

Isfahan, May 1676

My dear father,

saru taki

Saru Taqi

I said I would tell you more about Saru Taqi. After his castration he was incapable of his former vice of sodomy (note 1). He applied himself, and became an expert in finance, rising to become a provincial governor, aide to the king and eventually Prime Minister (note 2). It is said that he knew the royal revenues down to the last penny and all the financial comings and goings of the aristocracy. He was vehemently opposed to the custom of giving “presents” to secure favours and appointments, which is customary in Persia. When he discovered that ministers had received or given such bribes he diverted the funds to the royal coffers. Safi I, who was then on the throne, was delighted with his wisdom and honesty and let him have his way. But he was soundly loathed by the courtiers who began to plot his downfall. An example of high principles not being universally acclaimed!


Abbas !! and vizier

In 1645, when Abbas II was on the throne, the governor of Gilan extorted huge sums of money and other governors thought they could do the same with impunity. Saru Taqi called the governor to court to give an account of himself. The governor refused and called in his relative, Janikhan, a general of the most powerful regiment in Persia. The general took his complaint to the king, asserting that provincial governors were not usually called to account in this way. The young king was inclined to listen, but was restrained by his mother, who was an ally of Prime Minister. This created bad blood between the Prime Minster and Queen Mother on the one hand, the governor and the general on the other.

During an ambassadorial audience, Janikhan, seeing the king was displeased with Saru Taqi for some reason, took the opportunity to accuse him of many things, some true and some false, and of losing respect for the throne. “I know that” said the king “it must be attended to.” It is not certain if this is all the king said, as there are several versions, but be that as it may, Janikhan took the king’s reply as an order to put the Prime Minister to death.

Early the next day, Janikhan gathered together the Prime Minister’s enemies and set off to his house. Saru Tariq appeared in his dressing gown and begged them to be seated until he could dress and re-join them. But instead Janikhan roared:

“Accursed dog, we have not come here to sit down but to cut off the old and wicked head which has filled Persia with evil and brought ruin to many good men.”

With that, he sank his knife into Saru Tariq’s body and brought him to his knees beside the ornamental pool in the middle of the room. Saru Tariq gasped:

“Why, my princes, are you treating me like this in my old age.”

Sassanian Persian Sardar Officer

Military commander

Janikhan exhorted his followers to finish off the job upon which one hacked off the unfortunate man’s head.  Janikhan washed his bloody hands in the pool, drank several handfuls of water and said: “Now my thirst is quenched.”

Leaving a garrison of his men in the Prime Minister’s palace, Janikhan remounted his horse, and, holding Saru Tariq’s head on one hand and a bare sword in the other, he rode back to the palace accompanied by a growing retinue of lords. He went before the king declaring:

“Here is the head of the old dog who lost respect for your majesty and became a traitor to his country. He was plotting against your majesty’s life and so we have deprived him of his.”

The king was appalled, but did not lose his head and replied wisely for a very young prince:

“You have done well, Janikhan. If you had informed me of this man’s treachery I would have done what you have done today long ago.”

A sad fate, but that was not the end of the story.

I remain, your devoted son,


Note 1 – See “Crime and Punishment” blog no.18.

Note 2 – Saru Taqi was a dominant political figure of Safi I’s reign, becoming Prime Minister/Grand Vizier in 1634. He was incorruptible and highly efficient at raising revenues for the state, but he could also be autocratic and arrogant. Safi 1 was less than ten years old when he became shah, so the job of governing Persia was placed in the hands of his mother, Anna Khanum, and the Grand Vizier.