Some interesting passages from “Persia” by Frederic Shoberl (1775–1853), an English journalist who visited the Qajarist Iran in early 1800’s. Some of the accounts are surprisingly fair and objective, while others are clearly colonial minded. Shoberl was what they called an “Orientalist”, which had a rather positive meaning at the time. But he was also a journalist and the thoroughness of the work is almost clinical, covering everything from customs to court to military and a large portion dedicated to religion of the Iranians.
For being written almost 100 years before William Schuster’s The Strangling of Persia, his account was influential in the colonial circles that dominated Iran for decades to come. This is most obvious in his description of Iranian women. Here are some of the more interesting excerpts I have read so far:
Mannerisms in comparison to Turks
Passionately fond of pleasure and luxury, and voluptuous to excess, the Persians are unboundedly prodigal. Hence they acquire merely to expend: with them the enjoyment of the present day is every thing, and the morrow belongs to God.
A Persian will never blaspheme the name of God, but he will invoke him without occasion. He will one moment pronounce that sacred name with the same lips which the next are pouring forth the grossest obscenities: he will punctually recite his prayers; he will purify himself several times a day; he will avoid all corporeal contamination, the contact of a person of a different religion, or the admission of such a person into his house in rainy weather, since the wet from his clothes would render impure whatever it touched, whether persons or furniture: but he will bear false witness for the sake of filthy lucre; he will borrow without returning, or even deny his debt; he will seize every opportunity of cheating; he will be destitute of sincerity in the service of his friend, of fidelity in his engagements, and of honesty in trade: in short, while he outwardly exhibits the bark of all the virtues, the sap of vice will circulate through all his actions.
A French traveller, M. Olivier, has drawn a very just comparison between the Turks and Persians, from which we shall quote a few passages.
In Turkey, every thing bears he stamp of barbarism and cruelty: in Persia, every thing bespeaks a mild and civilized nation. The Turks are vain, supercilious, inhospitable: the Persians polite, complimentary and obliging.
Though at the present day equally superstitious with the Turks, the Persians are not so fanatical: in some particulars, they carry their scruples to a greater length than the former; in general, they will not eat with a person of a different religion; they will not drink out of a cup or a glass which has been used by a Christian, a Jew, or an Indian, and yet they admit any one into their mosques. They listen with patience to all the objections you have to urge against their religion, and to whatever you may say against their prophet and their Imams; whereas the Turk would murder you, if in his hearing you were to speak irreverently of Mahomet and his laws. The Persian looks at you with pity, and prays to heaven that the truth may be revealed. to you in all its lustre. He avoids the subject of religion, but continues to treat you with the same kindness and friendship as ever.
Equally brave with the Turk, more active but less patient, he is, like the other, cruel in battle and implacable towards his armed foe; but more tractable after the combat, and more sociable after peace.
Insurrections for overthrowing the sovereign or his ministers, for plundering caravans, or for laying a city or a province under contribution, are less frequent in Persia than in Turkey. The Persian, however, ranks beneath the Turk in point of morals and perhaps also of character. If the first is better informed, more polite, more gentle, than the second; if he less frequently disturbs the tranquillity of the-state; if he does not so often threaten the lives and property of his fellow-citizens; if he pays more respect to weakness in either sex; he possesses neither that pride nor that magnanimity, neither that self-esteem, that confidence in friendship, nor that devoted attachment to his benefactor, which occasionally produce great things in the Turk.
The Persians seem to be a degenerate people, whose vices have increased during the troubles of the country; whose virtues are perhaps at present but the shadow of what they once were, when the laws were in full vigour, when talents were encouraged, when integrity was honoured, and when each, secure in the possession of his property, could augment it by honest exertions.
The Turks, on the other hand, are a new nation, having all the coarseness, rudeness, and ignorance, of one which civilization has not polished, and which instruction has not meliorated. Under an able government, the Persians would rebuild their cities, re-establish their commerce, and repair the-injuries which their agriculture has sustained. With a vigorous, active, and intelligent government, the Turk would perhaps once more strike terror into Europe.
From these different traits we are authorized to conclude, that the society of the Persians is agreeable, if the connexion between the parties is disinterested: but we must not expect from them either sincere friendship, strict integrity, or refined delicacy.
On Iranian Women
The women of Persia, like those of all Mahometan countries, receive no moral education whatever. When they have learned reading, writing, and embroidery, their education is finished; and those things they are taught either by females hired for the purpose, or at the schools which they frequent till they have attained such an age as not to he permitted to go abroad without a veil.
Neither dancing, music, and other accomplishments, nor reading and study, ever develope or heighten their natural graces, or enrich their minds. Living shut up in a harem and being visited by none but females, society never forms their manners; the power of human respect opposes no barrier to their passions, to the vices of their hearts, and to the extravagances of their disposition: the intercourse with women perverts rather than purifies their morals.
The mother exclusively superintends the education of her daughter, and faithfully transmits to her defects which were not corrected when she was herself young: virtue and modesty are terms which she never utters in her hearing, for they are terms as unmeaning to the one as to the other. She familiarizes her with but one idea—that she is one day to belong to an absolute master, whose love she must strive to acquire, not by practising the virtues of her sex and condition, but by the arts of refined coquetry, which, though they may excite passion, are an antidote to true conjugal tenderness, which is founded on mutual esteem and regard. She does not teach her how to become a good wife and mother, or inculcate that modesty and that chaste reserve in all her motions, language, and actions which adorn beauty and embellish plainness; but she enjoins her not to go abroad without muffling up her face and her whole person; not to look at a man, nor to engage in any intrigues; if, however, she does not instruct her in the art which she has herself learned by experience, of bringing them to a fortunate conclusion.
Thus the females of Persia receive no other than a physical education, the care of their morals being left to nature, till the moment when example corrupts them. Hence we need not be surprised at the unfavourable character given of them by travellers. The Persian women, like the Indian, says Mr. Scott Waring, are totally devoid of delicacy: their language is often gross and disgusting, nor do they feel less hesitation in expressing themselves before men, than they would before their female associates. Their terms of abuse or reproach are indelicate to the highest degree: it may safely be averred that it is not possible for the imagination to conceive, or language to express, more indecent or grosser images.
We never think of the women of Asia, without deploring the severity of their lot. We figure them to ourselves thwarted in all their inclinations, restrained in all their actions, watched with degrading vigilance, exposed to the caprices, the insults and torments of jealousy: compelled to regulate their habits and actions by the wishes of an imperious master; torn from their parents, the protectors of their childhood, and the companions of their early years; disappointed in the hopes which their youthful imaginations had fondly indulged; floating incessantly, according to the whim of their lord, between the condition of mistress and that of slave; lastly, doomed to live imprisoned in a harem, and to receive the caresses of an object for whom they can feel no other sentiment than hatred—what pleasures could ever make amends for the horrors of such a life? ****
On Military Discipline
The serbaz, or infantry, were placed under the command of Major Christie, of the Bombay army, an officer of the greatest merit, who inspired his troops with an esprit de corps, which manifested itself on many occasions. Abbas Mirza, who was partial to the corps disciplined partly by the French and partly by himself, thinking that it had acquired more steadiness from being longer embodied than Major Christie’s, one day proposed a sham-fight, in which he would lead his corps, and Christie his. They were drawn out, and the prince’s troops vigorously attacked those of Christie, who however, ordering a charge of bayonets, put the others to flight. Christie’s men, perhaps not fully understanding that this was intended for play, and warmed by their success, were heard to exclaim: “Oh, that we had ball-car-tridges!”
The prince complained to the ambassador, that the new system which he had introduced had still many enemies, and that the most powerful of them was his brother, Mahomed All Mirza, who had endeavoured to render him and his nezam(discipline) odious to the Persians, by attempting to show that, in adopting the customs of the infidels, he was subverting the religion of Islam, which, till his day, had been upheld by the same sword and the same discipline that had served Mahomed in its establishment. In order to counteract this, the prince caused a passage in the Koran, that is favourable to the improvement of the means of attack and defence in the cause of religion, to be copied, sealed, and approved by the chiefs of the land in Persia, and disseminated throughout the country.
The English officers employed in Persia still found many impediments in their way, originating from the confined ideas which the prince himself had of military science. The necessity of a strict subordination of ranks, seemed to him incomprehensible. But the greatest difficulties encountered by our officers, arose from the knavery and intrigue of the Persian officers appointed by the prince to aid them in their different commands. The men themselves they found most docile and tractable, receiving the discipline more quickly than even Englishmen: but the moment a mirza or a khan interfered, all was trouble and dispute. Thus, for instance, a mirza who was appointed to pay the men, would keep a per-centage from each man for himself: sums which he received for the supplies of dress, furniture, &c. he would detain to trade with, or put out to usurious interest: nay, a man of some consequence was one day discovered to have stolen two muskets; and similar instances of knavery might be cited without end.
The Persians are greatly deficient in the soldier’s first art, the art of dying. A Persian talking to one of our officers on that subject, said very ingenuously: “If there was no dying in the case, how gloriously the Persians would fight!” Their ideas of courage, indeed, are totally different from ours: they look upon it as a quality which a man may have or not, as he may feel at the moment. One of the king’s generals, who has the reputation of being a courageous man, was not ashamed to own that he and a large body of troops had been kept at bay by two Russian soldiers, who alternately fired their muskets at them, and at length obliged them to move away. In talking of the Russians, they say that they are so divested of feeling, that rather than run away they will die on the spot.
Abbas Mirza, the prince-royal, is said to be personally brave; and in his different encounters with the Russians, he has risked himself farther than necessity required. He punishes cowardice: the following instance was witnessed by the British embassy. One of his generals, Mahomed Bey, had, on some emergency, quitted his post, and run away. The prince degraded him from his rank, tied his hands behind his hack, put a wooden sword by his side, seated him on an ass, with his face towards the tail, and thus paraded him through the streets of Tabriz.
The citadel of Tabriz is the most interesting structure in that city, principally because it contains a proof of what the labour and ingenuity of a few Englishmen will accomplish, under all the disadvantages of a bad administration and want of resources. The prince originally intended to make it his own place of residence, but changed its destination, and converted it into an arsenal, where many of the European trades are in full activity. In the first yard are seen a range of guns, and all the accompaniments of artillery: a numerous body of carpenters and wheelwrights work with European tools, under the superintendence of a European. Farther on is a blacksmith’s forge, and in another yard are piles of shot: while a series of apartments form workshops fer saddles and other artisans, and neatly ranged store-rooms. The Persians are delighted with this place, and it is frequently visited by the prince, who takes great pleasure in inspecting the works, and learning the uses and properties of every article. His chief delight is a machine for boring cannon, which is worked by a buffalo, and enables him to make guns of any calibre.
On minority populations
Let us now proceed to the nations not of the Mahometan religion, dwelling in Persia. The Guebres are a remnant of the ancient Persians, who have retained the fire-worship and the doctrine of Zoroaster, amid all the revolutions which have so frequently changed the face of their country. In Chardin’s time, but a small number of them remained: the late wars have nearly completed their extermination: the villages which they inhabited to the south of Ispahan are swept away, and a few families, which escaped death, have sought refuge at Yezd, and in Kerman. Kinnier informs us, that there are still at Yezd four hundred Guebre families, who groan under the tyranny of Persian agents. Each family pays a capitation-tax of twenty piastres, and is nevertheless liable to all sorts of extortions.
The Christians settled in Persia, are mostly Armenian schismatics, and chiefly dwell in the northern provinces. Their patriarch resides at the convent of Etschamiazin, near Erivan. These Armenians, so opulent under the Sofys, and especially under Abbas the Great, who planted a colony of them at Julfa, a suburb of Ispahan—the same people who had at one time nearly monopolized the commerce of all Persia and part of its manufactures—now lead most of them a vagrant life, bowed down by oppression and indigence. Julfa, formerly so populous, is now but a heap of ruins, and contains no more than five hundred inhabitants. A darogah, appointed by the beylerbey or governor of Ispahan, is charged with the office of fleecing these wretched people for the benefit of his master; and it is natural to suppose that he does not neglect his own interest. The tribute which they pay amounts to 15,000 toomauns, (a toomaun is equal to about eighteen shillings) and as much more is squeezed out of them by extortions. Some Armenians are likewise to be met with in Adherbijan, and in the districts of Meragah, Ourmiah, Sahnas, Tabriz, Carabagh, and Erivan. Their total number is computed at 60,000 souls, which perhaps exceeds the truth.
The Catholic churches of Nakshivan, and other places in Persian Armenia, no longer exist: the Catholics who live in the kingdom are in very small number, and are natives of India or Turkey.
It is the lot of the Jews in Persia, as in all the rest of the East, to live in degradation, poverty, and contempt. There are Jews at Ispahan, at Shiraz, and at Kashan, in Adherbijan: their number in these different places is estimated at about 35,000. Poverty depresses them more and more, and familiarizes them with vice and infamy. Some of them are artisans brokers, and usurers; the rest live by selling wines, procuring women, and all sorts of intrigues. Many addict themselves to medicine and magic; and as the populace of all countries have a great deal of credulity, and the Persians, high and low, are subject to that disease of the mind, they derive a great profit from their impostures. The Jewesses gain admittance into the seraglios of which they are the oracles. From them beauty purchases the art and the means of withstanding the ravages of time; the coquette, the gift of pleasing and of exciting love in her tyrant; the female solicitous to become a mother, the speedy accomplishment of her wishes. They also foretell future events, and sell potions possessing virtues of all kinds, to produce love and hatred, to ruin a rival, and so forth.
These Jews are the most ignorant in the world. Travellers distinguish two classes of them: the one descended from the wretched Samaritan captives, whom the Assyrians carried from Judea during the reign of Hosea, king of Israel, and who were dispersed over Media and Parthia; the other from the Jews who were led into captivity to Babylon. Both wear external marks by which they may be known: these are caps of a particular colour, or square patches of cloth of a different hue from their garments. At Ispahan the Jews are not permitted to wear cloth stockings.
On climate and agriculture
From the middle of May, to the end of September, the heat is excessive along the Gulf and the Indian Ocean, in the Kuzistan, the deserts of Kerman, and even in some parts of the interior, as at Teheran. The summers are generally temperate in tracts of middling elevation. Mr. Kinnier found the mountains covered with snow in July 1810, and the cold was so severe in some of the valleys between Shiraz and Ispahan, that two or three blankets were scarcely sufficient to protect him from it in the night. The winter nevertheless generally begins in November and lasts till March. To the north of Shiraz, in the vicinity of Teheran and Tabriz, that season is very cold, and frequently interrupts for months the communication between those cities and their dependencies. From May till September, the atmosphere is serene, and cooled by the breezes which blow morning and evening.
One striking peculiarity of Persia, is, that a kingdom of such extent contains not a single navigable river, to impart fertility to the country and to facilitate the communication between different provinces. All the mountains, excepting those which run parallel to the Gulf and the Caspian Sea, are destitute of trees, the hills exhibiting nothing but bare and dreary crags. In summer no refreshing dew gives moisture to vegetation, no vapour veils the face of heaven, no fog hovers over the hills. Notwithstanding this general drought, the soil richly remunerates the toil of the cultivator. Wherever despotism has not wholly paralysed the energies of man, and wherever he seconds by his industry the bountiful dispositions of Nature, the earth produces abundance of exquisite fruit and succulent plants. Wheat, barley, millet, rice, grow almost every where. Melons and culinary vegetables of all sorts are plentiful and excellent. The grapes of Basan, the dates of Kerman, the pomegranates and figs of Yezd, the plumbs of Khorasan, the pistachio-nuts of Casbin, the pears, apples, oranges, and quinces, of Mazanderan—in short, almost all the fruits of Europe, and many which we have not, are of exquisite flavour. From September to the end of April, Mazanderan is covered with flowers and fruit. The jessamine, the carnation, the tulip, the anemone, the hyacinth, the lily, the myrtle, surpass in the splendour, the variety, the richness and the purity of their colours, and in their exquisite perfume, the most renowned productions of the kind that the West can boast of. The queen of the garden, the constant object of the tender love and the melodious strains of the nightingale, the rose, whose charms, whose blandishments, and whose fickleness have been described in harmonious verse by the most eminent Persian poets, here attains unrivalled luxuriance and beauty: and after adorning the gardens in the spring, she comes in the form of an ethereal essence to charm Europeans and Asiatics with her perfume.