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The Persian Envoy, Mirza Mohammad-Reza Qazvini
being received by Napoleon in 1807.
Painting by François Mulard. (Courtesy Souvenir Napoléonien)

Mehraban brother, Napoleon
Early Franco-Iranian relations

By Iradj Amini
August 30, 1999
The Iranian

Excerpts from Iradj Amini's Napoleon and Persia: Franco Persian Relations Under the First Empire (1999, Mage Publishers). Amini was Iran's last ambassador to Tunisia under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. A French citizen since 1992, he lives in Paris.


- Preface
- "Your power, your needs"
- "Our empires are the same"
- "Sword and shield of Persia"
- "Our mehraban brother"
- "Three deep bows"
- The Marie Petit affair


- Drawings and portraits from "Napoleon and Persia"

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No, Napoleon never went to Persia. But his relations with that country form an important aspect of his oriental policy. And as such they deserve a detailed study not only to satisfy the curiosity of (particularly) the general French and Iranian public, but also to contribute to the vast growing field of Napoleonic studies. This seems all the more appropriate since the publication of this book in its original French version coincided with the bicentenary of the renewal of France-Persian relations.

It was in 1796 that both countries started to emerge from a period of uncertainty, France having acquired a semblance of a government under the executive Directory, and somewhat later under the Consulate; and Persia leaving behind more than three quarters of a century of internal unrest to find relative stability under the auspices of the Qajar dynasty.

The time had come to renew the promising relations that had started under the resign of Louis XIV, but had been interrupted in 1722 as a result of the fall of the Safavid dynasty and the brief occupation of Persia by the Afghans. This rapprochement was all the more desirable since it was in the interests of France, at that time as enemy of both Russia and Britain, to ally itself with a country that was at war with the former and had everything to fear from the ambitions of the latter.

It was with this situation in mind that in 1795 the Directory dispatched two naturalists to Tehran, who, under cover of a scientific mission, were to draw the Shah into an alliance against Russia. They failed in their venture, having no diplomatic experience. Nevertheless, the contact was re-established in 1796, and in addition the information furnished since 1793 to the Shah and his ministers by Jean-Francois Rousseau, France's head of commercial relations in Baghdad, a great friend of the Persians, gave them a certain idea of France and of its growing power.

No wonder then that the Shah, disappointed as he was by the negative attitude of the British, whom he had considered as his allied following the treaty of January 1801, should have turned to Napoleon to shield his country from Russia's repeated attacks. The appeal of Fath Ali Shah Qajar came just at the right time. The Treaty of Amiens of 27 March 1802 having fallen through after hardly a year, it was only a question of days before hostilities resumed between France and Britain.

This conflict would most certainly be joined by Tsar Alexander I of Russia. Since his expedition to Egypt, the First Consul was aware of Britain's vulnerability in India on the one hand, and on the advantages of an Asian diversion against Russia on the other. So he was only too pleased to respond favorably to the Shah's overtures.

The result was a diplomatic ballet between Paris and Tehran, leading, on 4 May 1807 to the signature of a Franco-Persian treaty of alliance at Finkenstein and to the dispatch of the Gardane mission to Tehran.

"It was at Finkenstein", to quote Edouard Driault, "that Napoleon glanced furthest towards the Orient." Indeed, in the decisive battle he meant to fight against Russia, Turkey was to form his nearer right wing and Persian his further right wing. But Napoleon's keen interest in the Orient between the battles of Eyalau and Friedland died down as soon as he made peace with Alexander I at Tilsit. If he nonetheless sent Gardane to Tehran, it was merely to implement the anti-British aspect of the Franco-Persian treaty.

For the Persians, however, the part which no longer appealed to Napoleon was the one they were most concerned with, for it contained the clauses guaranteeing their country's territorial integrity.

With their different perceptions of their respective interests, France and Persia were to experience two years of almost passionate relations which, from hopes to disillusions, were dashed against the rivalry of Britain and the intransigence of Russia. Are we therefore to conclude that Napoleon abandoned Persia to its fate although he had promised to save it from Russia's designs? This at any rate was not his own opinion. Mediating on his oriental policy on Sanit Helena, he blamed the Persians themselves for the breakdown. I leave it to the readers to decide ...

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"Your power, your needs"

Napoleon's letter to Crown Prince Abbas Mirza on the 29th of March, 1805:

"The Russians, annoyed with their deserts, encroach upon the most beautiful parts of the Ottoman Empire, the English, relegated to an island which is not worth the smallest province of your Empire, and incited by the thirst for riches, establish a power in India which grows more formidable every day. Those are States to be watched and feared, not because they are powerful, but because they have an extreme need and passion to become powerful.

"One of my servants must have brought you the first tokens of my friendship. The one I am sending today is especially assigned to inquire about everything regarding your glory, your power, your needs, your interests, your dangers. He is a man of courage and judgment. He will find out what your people lack so that their natural intrepidity may be supported by the aid of those arts are not well known in the Orient, but which the knowledge has been rendered indispensable for all the peoples of the world because of the present conditions of the northern and western nations.

"I am familiar with the character of the Persians and I know that they will gladly and easily learn whatever their glory and safety requires them to learn. Today, an army of twenty-five thousand well-disciplined foreigners might ravage and even subjugate Persia. But when your subjects know how to manufacture arms, when your soldiers have been taught how to split up and reassemble in a series of rapid and well-ordered movements, when they will have learnt how to back up a vigorous attack with the fire of a moving artillery; when your frontiers are secured by numerous fortresses and the Caspian Sea has the flags of a Persian flotilla fluttering on its waves, you will have an unassailable empire and invincible subjects.

"I always wish to have fruitful relations with you. I bid you to welcome the servant I am sending you. I shall receive with benevolence those whom you will send to my imperial court; and I wish, etc."

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"Our empires are the same"

Napoleon's letter to Fath Ali Shah on the 14th of March, 1807:

"I have received your letter. Each time I receive news of your achievements, my heart fills with joy. Jaubert, whom I set to you, is back. He has informed me of the warm welcome you gave him and of the wishes you have, which are also mine. You will have learnt that I am on the borders of Russia. I have taken from the Russians, in two battles, seventy-five cannons; I made so many prisoners among them and struck such alarm in their midst that they resorted to a mass levy to defend their capital. Your ambassador has arrived in Warsaw, and as I am at the head of my army, eighty miles in front, I have not been able to see him yet.

"As I shall soon go back to that city, I will make him the spokesman of my feelings for you, and I will send him to my capital, so that he may report to you the true idea of my power and of my nations. Part of the Russian army, especially the cavalry which was on the frontier, has been recalled and is being directed against me. Benefit from those circumstances. I am sending you this letter by all ways and means. We must have frequent communications, in order to unite the policy of our empires, which is the same, against our common enemies."

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"Sword and shield of Persia"

Napoleon's letter to Crown Prince Abbas Mirza on the 14th of March, 1807:

"I have received your letter in which you announce your achievements against the enemies of the Persian empire. Accept by congratulations. The valor of Mohammad Khan put him on the throne; your august father inherited his glory; and you show yourself worthy of both. In the West you are called the sword and the shield of Persia, and new efforts and new victories are expected from you. Uphold your reputation of valor; trust in the forces of your army. Fortune is for the brave. I wish you the blessings of heaven, longlasting prosperity and a happy end."

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"Our mehraban brother"

Fath Ali Shah's letter to Napoleon on the 20th of July, 1807:

"In this year, it has reached the ears of our mehraban [dear] brother [i.e. Napoleon] that the Russian government has several times sent persons charged with negotiating peace with us and determining its conditions; but we have sent them back with the answer that the affair of peace can only be broached when the Russians have completely left Persian territory, and when they are assured of the approval of our dear brother by making him, too, proposals that will satisfy him and that are in keeping with what we are to expect.

"May it be above all recognized and manifest that the Kings of Europe who speak seek and cultivate the friendship of this Prince (who only aims at unity and harmony) are by that very fact assured of our affection, but let it also be known that we have broken relations with the enemies of his Empire."

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"Three deep bows"

Askar Khan Afshar, Persia's Ambassador to France, had his first audience with Napoleon (see drawing) on Sunday the 4th of September 1808, at the Saint-Cloud palace. The occasion was reported by the Moniteur Universal and the Journal de l'Empire as follows:

"At ten o'clock in the morning, the Grand Master, a Master and an Assistant of Ceremonies went to fetch him at his residence with six coaches of the Court, each harnessed to six horses, and an escort of fifty horsemen, to lead him to the Saint-Cloud Palace.

"The first coaches contained the presents, in the other coach were the first secretary of the Embassy, the assistant of ceremonies and an interpreter of the Embassy; the following coach was occupied by Their Excellencies the Ambassador and the Grand Master of Ceremonies, the master of ceremonies and H.M.'s interpreter [Amédée Jaubert]. The Ambassador's two nephews and the other officers of the suite were placed in the coaches of H. Exc. which followed those of the Emperor.

"H. Exc. was introduced with the usual formalities in the Throne Room, where the Emperor was present, surrounded by the prince s, ministers and high officers, the officers of his house and the members of the Senate and the Council of State. H. S. H. the Prince Vice-Grand Elector [Talleyrand], performing the functions of the arch-chancellor of State, presented the Ambassador to H.M. and the former having made three deep bows, pronounced a speech in Persian which was immediately translated by H.M.'s interpreter. H. Exc. then spoke in the name of the Crown Prince of Persia."

"When the audience ended, the Ambassador again bowed three times and retired to the Mars room, where the presents were being carried on trays by Persians. When H.M. was on his way to mass, the Ambassador presented him with these gifts, among which figured several objects in Cashmere material, a large quantity of fine pearls of different sizes, a bridle with its bit decorated with pearls, turquoises, emeralds and garnets from Syria; and lastly the sabres of Tamerlane and Thamas Kouli Khan [Nader Shah].

"The first of the two sabres is decorated with pearls and precious stones; the second is very simply mounted. Both have blades from India, of very fine grain, with arabesque inlaid in gold. H. Exc. was accompanied and led back to his residence in the same order as had been observed at his arrival."

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The Marie Petit affair

At the beginning of the 18th century, Louis XIV and his ministers decided to send an ambassador to Persia. Their choice fell on Jean-Baptiste Fabre, a merchant from Marseilles who had lived in Constantinople for a long time but was then in France. To impress the court of the Sophy they conferred on him the title of Ambassador Extraordinary. He left Marseilles in March 1705...

To combine business with pleasure, Fabre also decided to take his mistress, the adventurous Marie Claude Petit, with him to Isfahan. An account of the extravagant incidents and scandals that followed as a result would lead us too far from our subject. Suffice it to say that the sudden death of Fabre, some time after his arrival in the Persian city of Erivan, far from subduing Marie, fanned the flame of her ambitions.

Snapping her fingers at the traveling companions' choices of a successor for Fabre, she proclaimed herself head of the mission "in the name of the princesses of France" and took possession not only of the over's personal effects, but also of the presents for the Shah and the documents of the mission.

Meanwhile news of Fabre's death and of the subsequent events in Erivan had reached Ferriol, the French ambassador to Constantinople. Without waiting for orders from France, he at once dispatched his young secretary Pierre-Victor Michel to Persia, with orders to overtake the mission, to take charge of it and to send Marie Petit back to France.

Michel caught up with the mission in Tabriz. However, he was unable to dislodge Marie, as she was now under the protection of the city's Governor, as a result of a letter of recommendation from the Khan of Erivan. Having talked to her and thinking that he had persuaded her to stay in Tabriz while he went to see the Shah, Michel proceeded to the Persian court, which was then encamped some distance to the south of Tehran.

On his way, he stopped in Qazvin, where he was well received by the Governor. However, his satisfaction was short-lived, for the day after his arrival Marie Petit also reached that city, armed with letters of recommendation from the Khans of Erivan and Tabriz. As a result, she was allowed to go on to the court, while Michel had to remain in Qazvin.

On her arrival at court she was received by the Prime Minister, who conducted her to the royal harem, where according to her own account she received "all possible honors". On the following day, after being given her congé by the Shah, she returned to Tabriz.

In the meantime Michel, after some delay, had also been able to make his way to court. However, having been prevented by his enemies from seeing anyone of importance, he was forced to retrace his steps. In Tabriz, he found Marie. She had been ill, and was in a chastened and contrite mood. Upon her humble request, he provided her with an escort and traveling money to return to France...

... Marie Petit was arrested upon her return to Marseilles in February 1709, and imprisoned in in a convent on charged of having scandalized the Orient by her behavior, planned to embrace Islam, misappropriated the presents intended for the Shah and caused the death of several Frenchmen. It was more than enough to have her condemned to the burnt at the stake.

However, upon Ferriol's recall from Turkey in 1711, Fabre's widow returned from Constantinople, and although she had every reason to hate her late husband's mistress, she gave evidence on her behalf. It was probably her intervention which led the judicial authorities to take a more lenient view of Marie's conduct, and in 1713 she was released.

* Drawings and portraits from Iradj Amini's Napoleon and Persia

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