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.

prince with hawk (2)

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,



12. A double-dealing king and crafty Carmelites


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].

shah abbas

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!


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,


[1] See blog no.8 – Tales of Jealousy


It’s all happening in the maidan

maidan and Ali KapuOctober 1674

My dear father,

The great Maidan-i-Shah must have sounded like a deserted show-place from what I said in my last letter, but it is far from that, being a hive of activity from dawn to dusk.

In the middle of the square is a great mast, used for shooting at the cup, often seen at festivals. At each end are two thick marble columns which are polo posts. Both men and women participate on horseback which shows that neither time nor religion can change habits derived from the Persians’ Parthian ancestors. On occasions of public rejoicing, little earthen lamps are lit on the facades of the houses and in niches on the main buildings, creating the most beautiful spectacle.


Outside the palace is a balustrade of painted wood enclosing 110 cannon, mostly small campaign pieces but the two nearest the palace gate are great mortars, which the Persian call “camels”. The cannon are all stamped with the arms of Spain, also taken from the fortress of Hormuz.

The square empties for festivals or ceremonies like ambassadorial audiences, but otherwise it is full of traders who spread carpets on the ground, shading themselves with awnings of matting or linen. They leave their wares in the square overnight, shut up in trunks. Nothing ever happens to them because of the severe punishment meted out to robbers. The officer of the watch sends his guards around from time to time during the night.



These ancient documents come from my thesis (1965). I reconstructed a map of the lay-out of the maidan and the location of the traders, as recorded by Chardin.

In the evening the square is occupied by entertainers, puppet-shows, jugglers, tellers of tales, preachers and prostitutes. By day and night each craft or commodity has its own area so people know where to find everything. For example, near the Royal Mosque are the places to sell donkeys, camels, horses and mules. This livestock market only takes place in the morning and later the space is occupied by carpenters and joiners, selling wooden fittings for houses. Next comes the poultry market, dried fruit peddlers, sellers of harness, furriers and wool merchants. The latter are divided into Muslim and Christian because the Persians believe that wool conducts impurity from infidels because it absorbs moisture. No Muslim would buy woolen material from a Christian. Following on come money changers with little iron chests at their sides and leather cloths for counting out; doctors (most are also apothecaries and sell medicines), green grocers, butchers and fruiterers, selling sliced melons.

I remain, your devoted son,



10. The most beautiful square in the world


Maidan.-i-Shah in the 1960s

September 1674

My dear father,

The focal point of Isfahan is the Royal Square – Maidan-i-Shah – one of the most beautiful in the world, with plane trees and water channels to provide relief from the summer heat.

(Abbas 1 spent a considerable sum on embellishing this square in 1611-1612, putting a continuous façade of buildings around it, incorporating the pre-existing mosques and the palace gate (Ali Qapu). By the 19th century the Maydan-i-Shan was a sorry sight – the houses were shut up and decaying, the trees and canals had practically disappeared. It has now been completely restored.)

It is surrounded by 200 houses, all alike in height and structure. The lower storey contains shops, one opening onto the square and the other into the bazaar behind. The upper floor has two rooms facing the square, with a little balcony, and two behind. There are terraces on the roof of the houses where people can take the air.

I sheikh lutfullah mosque2 D

The Sadr Mosque is now known as the Shaykh Lutfullah Mosque, built between 1598 and 1620.

The line of the houses around the square is broken by great buildings, the Palace Gate on the west, which I described before, the Royal Mosque and Sadr mosque on the south and east and the entrance to the royal market on the north. This gateway is painted with a battle scene of Abbas the Great fighting the Uzbegs. Below are pictures of European men and women at table with glasses in their hands, but very badly painted. On top is a great clock, at present dismantled for lack of a clock-smith to maintain it and because the Persian religion forbids the sound of bells. One large bell, high above the gate has an inscription, “Sancta Maria, ora pro nobis mulieribus” which leads me to believe it was brought from a Spanish nunnery in Hormuz.

Main mosque

Royal Mosque

Above the entrance to the Royal Market are two covered galleries, which, towards dusk and at midnight, resounds with the sound of trumpets and great kettle-drums (three times large in diameter than ours), making a terrible din.

Mosque facade

You obviously did not receive my letter with the description of the Royal Mosque No matter, the detail may well have bored you and I have my notes, to be used in a publication when I return. There is just one more interesting point which I left out. Although the mosque has four towers, rising as high as the dome, which were built for calling the people to prayer, they were never used for this purpose. Instead the mullahs use a wooden canopy on one of the small domes. This is because those who climbed the high towers could peep into the royal harem – another example of the inconceivable jealousy of the Persians when it comes to their women.

I remain, your devoted son,


(The Royal Mosque in the Maidan-i-Shah was built over several decades in the early 17th century. It appears that its foundations were inadequate and the building began to crack, especially after an earthquake in 1846. This required very basic reconstruction in the 1930s.)

9. The royal “boss” and his workers        

September 1674

My dear father,

You asked how special items are produced for the court rather than being traded by foreign merchants. The king employs many master craftsmen. Each trade has its own workshop and every worker his set place.


A caravanserai workshop

Each workshop has an overseer; a shop-steward, who is the oldest worker; a clerk, who keeps accounts of the workers and their production as well as receiving and giving out materials; and a messenger. The king has 32 workshops with an average of 150 workers in each. At present there are 72 painters and 180 tailors. The numbers of silk dyers have been reduced and much of the work sent out into the town, as is the case for other kinds of cloth and carpets. Peasants on royal land pay their rent in the form of carpets.

I carpet-making at fine art school

Women working on a carpet

There are diamond workers and diamond mines in Persia, but the local people are not as skilled as Europeans in the art of cutting. They hold the stone on the wheel by hand, like soft stones, which makes their work defective. This means that every stone has to be recut in Europe, hence the value of our trade.

The royal workers are paid at variable rates and some receive their food in addition. It is customary to raise the wages or give the workers presents every three years, depending on the generosity of the king and the integrity of the royal officials. Craftsmen whose work is exceptional or who have presented the king with a fine example of their art may receive as much as a year’s wages as a bonus.


Generations working together

Each worker receives a deed or certificate, authenticated by the seals of the sovereign and his ministers. The workers are maintained all their lives and never demoted. If they are unable to work through sickness or accident, they not only receive full pay, but they are treated by the court physician, without a fee. If the king has no work for them they are still paid and are allowed to work for other customers. The craftsmen follow the court and so each workshop is provided with camels or horses and with barley or straw to sustain them. The workers’ sons are taken into service at the age of 12 or 14 and when his father dies the son is given his salary, if he is in the same trade.

brass shop

Copper workers- production and retail

Perhaps I have bored you with all this detail, but you will appreciate that this is an interesting comparison with the deplorable conditions suffered by some workmen in Europe. The working arrangements in the Persian court are not as backward as some Europeans would presume.

I remain, your devoted son,


8. Tales of jealousy

Isfahan, June 1674

My dear father,

The seclusion of women in Persia, which I told you about in my last letter is not just based on protection but on excessive jealousy.


Travelling by camel in the 1960s

The story is related of how Abbas the Great himself curtailed the liberty of his palace women after a strange event befell in Hyrcania. The harem ladies hardly ever went out except at night. They were usually carried in a kind of basket or cradle, two feet wide and three feet long with an arched roof covered with cloth. A camel carried two of these cradles, one on each side.


Passenger camel

The eunuchs helped the women into them then closed the curtains all around. Then the drivers  attached the beasts to each other by the tail, leading the first by a halter. One dark night, Abbas was travelling with his harem and saw camels halted a little off the road. One basket was leaning heavily to one side. He ordered it to be put right and found the camel driver inside with the lady. He was as surprised as he was outraged and ordered them both to be buried alive on the spot.

This jealousy extends to men of less elevated rank. A royal artillery commander previously occupied the house where the Carmelites now stay. This officer, along with all his family, was put to death by Abbas the Great at the beginning of the century.

He was a man of violent jealousy. Whenever one of his neighbours appeared on the roof in the evening, quite customary on hot days, he ordered his eunuchs to shoot at them with harquebus, on the pretext that they might look down at the Commander’s harem.

KT Yazd looking W D

Roof terraces

After complaints to the king the Commander was warned and told to keep his women inside night and day. He ignored this, and one night a neighbour, also a royal officer, was killed as he sat on his roof. His family went to demand justice from with king, with witnesses to the effect that more than twenty people in the neighbourhood had been killed in the same way. The king cried out in a great rage:

“Will someone go and kill this mad dog, his wives, children and servants, so that not a soul remains of this wretched crew.”

Thus the whole household was killed and their bodies buried indiscriminately in a trench in the corner of the garden. I need hardly add that the king confiscated his property. When the Carmelites arrived in Persia in 1604 they asked for a house and chose this one.

Little did they know that the graves of the unfortunate former occupants were walled off in a corner of the garden. Usually, the graves of Muslims must not be profaned by the proximity of Christians.

I remain, your devoted son,


7. Guarding the king’s women

Isfahan, May 1674

My dear father,


Generally speaking, the Persians are very protective of their women and go to great length to ensure that they do not stray and that no other male can even catch a glimpse of them. This is especially the case for the royal harem.

Consequently, I could not see any of the women’s section when I visited the palace, even though it covers a large part of the royal precinct.

You can only get into such places as a very great favour or by disguising yourself as a workman. Whenever repairs are to be done the occupants are moved and the workmen are watched over by eunuchs who do not allow them to lift their eyes from their immediate task.


The reality of a Persian royal harem, from 19th century, rather than glamourised western interpretation – see previous blog

Here is an interesting tale. The mother and father of Safi I‘s doctor were both doctors. The woman was allowed to practice in the harem. When the husband was over 70 he was allowed to enter the harem to attend difficult or dangerous cases. They considered there was nothing to fear from an old man.

However his wife realised that if her husband’s advice was sought she would lose her practice. So one day she told the king that her husband had made a slave girl of 18 pregnant. He had no access to the harem ladies after that. She clearly knew what cards to play!

I have heard a little about the harem from the palace eunuchs or from women who go there to sell goods. The whole seraglio is surrounded by walls higher than those of any monastery in Europe. The gates are guarded by eunuchs and even they do not come and go at will. The young ones rarely enter and if they are white they never do so, unless commanded by the king.

The eunuchs who serve the harem are lodged outside, far away from the women and only old black eunuchs mix with them and carry their messages.

I am told there are four large buildings in the seraglio. In one female guests are received, noble ladies, married princesses and young girls brought to be shown to the king for their beauty.


Mirror work in Qajar palace in Tehran

The others are called Imarat Firdous, meaning Paradise; the Hall of Mirrors, all covered with mirror glass; and Imarat Darya Shah – the Royal Sea, where there is an island in a lake and a little boat, decorated with scarlet linings, for expeditions to it.



The palaces have the most voluptuous furnishings, I hear, with quilted mattresses spread over rich carpets, galleries and recesses and little staircases in the walls forming a gilded labyrinth.

There is said to be a grotto three storeys high where water flows down in cascading sheets. A special enclosure houses the royal children too old to be allowed to mix safely with the women and another is a sanctuary for old women, those out of favour and the wives of former kings.

I remain, your devoted son,