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
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.
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 ...
"Your power, your needs"
Napoleon's letter to Crown Prince Abbas Mirza on the 29th of March,
"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
"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."
"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."
"Sword and shield of Persia"
Napoleon's letter to Crown Prince Abbas Mirza on the 14th of March,
"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."
"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."
"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
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
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.
and portraits from Iradj Amini's Napoleon and Persia
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