18. Crime and Punishment

Isfahan   October 1675

ArkTileworkHarem - Copy

My dear father,

You rightfully expressed horror at my comments about how young boys were prostituted in this part of the world. Another example of the heinous sin of sodomy is the story of Saru Taqi. I was told about this when I remarked on the decayed state of a palace he used to occupy, which had been one of the most handsome in Persia.

Saru Taqi started off the son of a baker who first sought his fortune as a soldier. He attracted the attention of a royal officer who made him his secretary.

Unfortunately he become friendly with a debauched group, who, not content with practising their hateful aberration, went so far as to violently abduct boys who took their fancy.

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Saru Taqi

A child who had been lost for eight days was found in Saru Taqi’s room. The outraged parents threw themselves at the king’s feet, begging for redress. The king was in a jocular mood and, with a smile on his face replied “Well, go and castrate him.”

In their fury the parents did not see this as a joke. They rushed to Saru Taqi’s house and when he came out they threw him to the ground, tore off his clothing and carried out the king’s command, with all the ferocity which can be imagined for people in their position. In Persia people often take vengeance with their own hand if the courts sanction it.

Saru Taqi’s employer had been beside the king when the complaint was made and, seeing that the king had spoken lightly, with a smile on his face, he took the liberty of laughing and saying:

“Surely, Sire, it is a pity that this poor man should die. He is intelligent and may one day render good service to his majesty.”

The king replied: “Very well let him be saved if there is still time.” The royal pardon came too late; the sentence had been carried out, but the victim did not die, as he might well have done. The story of Saru Taqi’s subsequent career and ultimate fall is stranger than fiction, but that is for another time.

I remain, your devoted son,

Jean-Baptiste

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17. The Turkish Vice

Persian boys

Persian Boys 1960s

                                                               Isfahan, August 1675

My dear father,

The longer I stay in Persia the more I experience the diversity and contradictions of this country. I have already mentioned hypocrisy when it comes to religious observance. I could tell you some other tales of incongruity and paradox. I wonder what you will make of them.

In the days of Shah Abbas II the coffee shop of Zaynar was known for the young boys displayed there, with painted faces and curled hair.  The king had been given a beautiful Georgian boy about 12 years old. The Chief of the Militia told the king how Zaynar could train boys in all kinds of acrobatics, dances and clowning. He was persuaded to send the Georgian boy to be taught these skills. Instead he was prostituted and grievously hurt. Zaynar imagined that the king had so many other beautiful boys that he would not be concerned about this one.

But eventually the boy’s complaints reached the king’s ears. When he found out the truth he   ordered that Zaynar be disembowelled. The condemned man was tied to a tree by his arms and legs but did not know his fate. He thought he would be let off with foot whipping (bastinado).

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Bastinado

He cried out: “This is not the way to tie me. Lay me on my back and lean my feet against the tree.”

When he saw one of the guards draw his sword, Zaynar fainted and the sentence was carried out.

As a result the king prohibited young boys being exhibited in this way and I believe this order has been observed in Isfahan, as I have not seen it. However, in the north there are coffee houses full of young boys acting as prostitutes. This follows the bad example of the neighbouring Turks.

I remain, your devoted son,

Jean-Baptiste

16. Awesome treasures  

Isfahan, June 1675

My dear father,

By a lucky chance I was recently able to visit the King’s Treasury, housed in a somewhat derelict citadel called Qal’eh Tabarak, (see note below). The strong rooms are rarely entered but I had the opportunity to see them the day before King Suleiman was going to show it to his wives, so the richest and most interesting pieces were laid out. The Chamberlain, or Nazir, showed me around.

King

Fath Ali Shah with jeweled sword

In the first room was a tremendous pile of armoury, heaps of swords, muskets, bows and quivers full of arrows. The more precious pieces were stored in large chests – damascened and engraved weapons decorated with gold and gems; suits of armour for men and horses, including fine European pieces, decorated with rubies and turquoises and some covered with solid gold.  I saw sabres whose handles were of coral, amber, agate and crystals. There were also rich and curious clocks; one seven feet high; cabinets and tables worked in opulent materials from Germany, Italy and China given to Persian kings by monarchs and trading companies; great mirrors, taller than a man; precious vases of all shapes and sizes. It surprises me greatly that so many rich and interesting articles are left to deteriorate and crumble into dust.

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Nader Shah in his finery

Even more startling was the second room, with a cupboard full of turquoises, the uncut ones thrown on the ground like grain and the worked ones in huge sack of leather. I would not have believed there could be so much wealth had I not opened drawers full of gold chains, precious boxes, bracelets and gems. In one there were more than 60 aigrettes set with diamonds and other jewels. Another room was full of gold plate, even golden buckets and cooking pots larger than a man could carry.

I was shown an ornate frame, like those which Greek Christians use to protect their icons. I was told that Jesus Christ’s shirt had been kept in this frame for centuries. But when I asked where it was now they could not show it to me. I told the Nazir I had heard that the banner of Imam Husayn, a very sacred relic of the Muslims, was kept in the Treasury and asked to see it. He replied: “Do you wish to become one of the Faithful?”  He meant did I wish to change my religion, which was his condition for showing it to me.

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More modest turquoises

I asked the Chamberlain what this treasure was worth. He told me: “We know the value of each piece but no one has bothered to find out the total.”

I swear that nothing was counterfeit. I do not believe there is anywhere else in the world where so much wealth is gathered together. I was so overawed with what I saw that I can hardly remember it all. And I certainly did not see all of it or I would still be there.

I remain, your devoted son,

Jean-Baptiste

I moat of Tabarak Citadel

Moat of Tabarak fortress in 1960s

NOTE. There is doubt about who built the Qaleh Tabarak fortress but it may date back to the time of the Seljuk king, Malik Shah who died in 1092. The Turkish Seljuq dynasty made Isfahan their capital in the mid-11th century until the dynasty fell, around 1200. A mud building of this type could have been built and rebuilt many times. It was probably rebuilt at the end of Abbas II’s reign. The walls continued in a very ruined state until the 1930s. The area has now been built over but the outline of the ditches can be traced on three sides.

 

15. Making it legit

 Isfahan, May 1675

My dear father,

You asked about the caravanserai which notable citizens construct for income and prestige.

Caravansaray_Shah-Abbasi_Karaj_Panorama

Yes, there are two varieties. Some are workshops used by a particular trade, as I have mentioned. Yesterday I passed the iron-workers’ caravanserai. So many working together make the most deafening noise. I was so dazed that I vowed never to go that way again, even if it meant a long detour.

18_Chardin_Caravanseray_in_Kashan

Other caravanserai are reserved for travellers and merchants from a particular area. This is very convenient because if one wants to find someone from a distant area all you have to do is go to the caravanserai which bears the name of the city or region and you will find him, or find out how to reach him. It is the same for every article traded, so it is easy to find the goods you need and make comparisons.

The largest caravanserai in Isfahan is called Halal, meaning lawful or legitimate. You may be interested in the meaning behind this. Strict Muslims maintain that any income derived dishonestly will bring inescapable damnation. Any nourishment bought by ill-gotten wealth, associated with fraud or violence, is forbidden because it becomes part of your bodily substance and you will share its evil. So your prayers, instead of being worthy, will be rejected. Because of this belief many of the great nobles seek to earn money for their food by their own efforts.

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Royal caravanserai to support madraseh

Even the great Aurangzeb, fearing that there could be one dishonest penny among the millions in his revenue, set himself to write Korans and sell them secretly in the streets. He only ate what was bought from what he earned.

The Persian king Abbas II used a less laborious method, which was to build this caravanserai and ensure that the revenue from it was legitimately acquired, keeping the rents and charges low. This superstition only applies to personal food. These men of devotion do not care how their household expenses are obtained so long as they are sure of what passes their lips – another example of hypocrisy.

I remain, your devoted son,

Jean-Baptiste

14. Persian Cures – Breathe the good air. Or do something drastic

I oasis from Ateshgah

Clear air in the Isfahan oasis

Isfahan, March 1675

My dear father,

To return to something more serious, you asked how sickness is dealt with in Persia. Well, I can give you an example. A friend of Mirza Reza built a caravanserai, now occupied by pewterers, and a hospital so that the revenue from the former could support the latter. The hospital is a cloister around a garden with about 80 small rooms. The staff consists of a doctor, a druggist, a preacher, a cook, porter and sweeper.

Strangely enough there is no surgeon. Surgery is not a special profession in the east and is little known. Barbers practice bleeding but no other surgical operations. The favourable climate heals wounds and it is sufficient to keep them clean. Operations such as trepanning, amputation, cutting out stones and making incisions in the flesh are unknown.

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Where the doctor might have stood

The hospital doctor stands at the gate from eight in the morning until midday on a little portable platform and gives free advice and prescriptions to anyone who comes to consult him. Medicine and food are paid for by bequests but actually there seem to be very few patients. When I visited there were only 7 or 8 wild madmen chained up in bare rooms by their arms, legs and necks.

I think there are several reasons for this. Firstly there are fewer kinds of illness compared to our country, nor are they so long-lasting, because the air is so good. Secondly, the hospital treatment is hardly humane. Lunatics and invalids are very badly treated and die in misery, which leads the Persians to say “the House of Healing is the House of Death.”

I should end with a more positive anecdote about Persian doctors. Sultan Malik Shah was once travelling the country and, at dinner in his tent, he swallowed a bone which could not be dislodged from his throat. He was suffering terribly and something had to be done quickly to save his life, but the doctors had tried all they could.

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Sultan Malik Shah

The chief doctor had an idea. He rushed into the royal tent shouting angrily, with a sword in his hand. He threw himself on the king’s son and cleverly slit a pouch of blood which he held in his other hand so that the boy was covered with it. The father, hearing the noise and seeing blood flowing, thought his child had been killed, whereupon he gave such a cry that the effort loosened the bone in his throat. Drastic, but effective.

I remain, your devoted son,

Jean-Baptiste

13. An embarrassment and a life-saver

Isfahan, February 1675

My dear father,

74_Chardin_Safavid_Persia_women_customs Kashan, Isfahan, Iran-1673 (1)A strange thing happened when I was returning home yesterday. A veiled woman, followed by three or four others, stopped to look at me. She approached my horse and from the corner of her veil she took nuts and raisins and offered them, telling me to eat.

My valet signalled me to accept them, but I was much taken aback and could not understand what it was all about. I caught a glimpse of a fine robe as she lifted the corner of her veil, so she seemed a woman of some importance. My assumption was that she was a courtesan and she was inviting me to go with her, so I ignored her.  Afterwards I was embarrassed and annoyed as I discovered how distressed the lady must have been by my refusal.

Apparently barren and newly married women frequent a nearby tower to practice a very peculiar rite. Her relatives bring the barren woman, led by a horse’s bridle over her veil and carrying a new broom and a new earthenware pot full of nuts. She climbs the tower and breaks a nut on every step, putting the nut in the pot and leaving the shell. Coming down again she sweeps every step and puts the nuts, with some dried raisins in the corner of her veil.

MtsNorth_0022As she goes home, if she meets any man who pleases her she gives him some of the nuts and raisins and begs him to eat.  If he accepts, the Persians believe, her sterility is cured. If the man refuses their pious offering the women imagine that their barrenness will continue. What a blunder!

This reminds me of another tale I heard recently. The king had a white falcon, sent to him from the Caucasus, of which he was very fond. One day he wished to fly it but was told it was sick. He called the Chief Falconer and told him:

“Take care of my bird, for whoever brings me news of his death will be disembowelled.”

Eight days later the falcon died. The Chief Falconer was in despair, but he met the king’s jester, Kachal Anayat and begged him in tears to save him from death. Anayat was moved by this misfortune and went to the king, who had just dined and was luckily in a good mood.

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Prince with falcon

“Where have you come from, fool?” he asked. Anayat put on a cheerful air and replied:

“Sire, I was sweeping a place in front of a gilded cage. I sprinkled it with water, spread out a little silken carpet and scattered it with flowers. Then I took your white falcon and, with my tears streaming, I laid it down on its back. The falcon was stretched out, its wings spread, its legs stiff and its eyes closed.”

The king was surprised and interrupted, crying: “Why then, my bird is dead?” “Sire”, replied Anayat: “May your head be saved for you yourself have said it.”

How clever was that!

I remain, your devoted son,

Jean-Baptiste

12. A double-dealing king and crafty Carmelites

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Safavid Court

Isfahan, January 1675

My dear father,

It was good to have your letter with comments about my description of Isfahan and about life and business here. You asked why Catholic missionaries were allowed to live in the capital and how they were looked upon. Well, I have seen the Carmelites’ house, a large royal mansion which formerly belonged to the artillery commander. I told you about how his jealous protection of his women led to his downfall and death[1].

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Shah Abbas

Abbas the Great welcomed friendship with all who opposed his great enemies, the Turks. He considered Pope Clement among these and welcomed the pope’s “envoys”. They were housed and fed by King Abbas who used the Carmelites to exhort Christian princes to war against the Turks. But he was duplicitous.

He promised not to attack the King of Georgia if he did not favour the Turks, but then conquered and enslaved his country. It is hard to believe that Christian missionaries would go along with such a pernicious act against a Christian state. But the Carmelite journal records that Father Jean Thaddeus was sent with a message to the King of Georgia with assurances of friendship.

The Catholic missionaries in Persia wear their habits, encouraged by the king. He wants them to be noticed by other ambassadors and merchants to demonstrate his alliances with European kings, enhancing his military reputation. The missionaries, in their vanity, think that, as people became accustomed to their habits, they are well set for conversion, but in fact the opposite is happening. What a tale of manipulation and hypocrisy on both sides!

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Modern day Carmelites

The primary aim of the missionaries is to convert Muslims, but their hopes are baseless and their missions are maintained only for the glory and reputation of their order. Few members know the language – I can find only three or four capable of discussion with the learned men of Islam.

They have also been a miserable failure in their secondary aim of reuniting the schismatic oriental Christians to the Roman church. Those who do adopt their rituals do so only to gain from it – seeking food, lucrative jobs and free education for their children. They are known as “beef-soup Christians” among the Portuguese and “rice Christians” in India.

They are no more successful with the Armenian Christians, even though they continually call out to them that they are damned. The Armenians reply that they could never accept the dogma of a “universal and infallible bishop.” Quite right too. They are very firm in their religion and reason soundly. One day a Jesuit was arguing about Holy Communion, saying that only priests could take the chalice. Wisely, the Armenian replied:

“You say you are sacred and we, the lay people, are unclean. So it is more necessary for us than for you to drink the Lord’s blood because it will benefit our souls. Jesus Christ himself said that those who are well have no need of a doctor, but those who are sick.”

The Jesuit then called the English and the Dutch wicked heretics.

“Father”, replied the Armenian, “neither in Rome or Marseilles have you been willing to print the New Testament in our language, but this is allowed in Amsterdam.”

I remain, your devoted son,

Jean-Baptiste

[1] See blog no.8 – Tales of Jealousy