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TITLEA History of Persia from the Beginning of the Nineteenth Century to the Year 1858
AUTHOR 1Robert Grant Watson
PAGE_RANGE347-352, 385-393, 407-410
PUB_THISSmith, Elder and Co.
ABSTRACTA review of the events that led to the establishment of the Qajar dynasty, with discussion of the Babis.
NOTES This book is online in a variety of formats at Also available as a Microsoft Word document, watson_history_persia_1858.doc.
TAGSIran, General history; Iran (documents)

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Εστι μὲν ἡμῖν ἡ ἀϱχὴ ἡ πατρώα πρὸς μὲν μεσημβϱίαν, μέχϱις οὗ διὰ
καῦμα οὐ δύνανται οἰκεῖν ἄνθρωποι, πρὸς δὲ ἄϱκτον, μέχϱις οὗ διὰ χειμῶνα
    Xenophon's Anabasis, I, 7.

[page 347]

At this time there occurs the first mention in the Persian records of a man whose name is destined to hold an enduring place in Persian history.[1] The East, so prolific in originators of creeds, had produced a fanatic who was able to obtain spiritual authority over the minds of hundreds of thousands of his countrymen. Syed Ali Mahomed, though boasting descent from the lawgiver of Mecca, was the son of a grocer of Sheeraz. Being of a religious disposition, he was sent in his youth to Kerbela, where he sat at the feet of a celebrated doctor of the Mahomedan law. From Kerbela he proceeded to Bushire, and at the latter place he endeavoured by

[page 348]

the practice of certain austerities to acquire the reputation of peculiar piety. One of his singular proceedings at this period was to expose himself bareheaded to the rays of the burning summer sun, in order that men might see that his power extended even over the orb that had been the object of the veneration of the Persians of old. It is said, however — and any one who has visited Bushire in summer will readily believe the statement — that the sun's influence had the effect of rendering his brain disordered. He now gave out that as Ali had been the gate by which men had entered the city of the prophets' knowledge, even so he was the gate through which men might attain to the knowledge of the twelfth Imam. It was in accordance with this doctrine that he received the distinguishing appellation of Báb, or gate; from which his followers were styled Bábis. His pretensions rose in proportion to the credulity of those who placed faith in his mission from above. We are not informed in what manner he reconciled his new statements with preceding declarations, with which they were not consistent; but we may infer that after each new revelation he told his disciples that it had been necessary to prepare them for it by the preceding one. Not contented with the character of the forerunner of the twelfth Imam, he presently gave out that he was no other than the long-looked-for Mehdi himself; and finding that the higher his pretensions rose the more his followers increased in numbers and in zeal, he next gave out that the holy prophet of Medina had revisited the earth, and appeared in his person. His impiety lastly reached the blasphemous height of his declaring that he was an incarnation of the eternal God.

[page 349]

The success which had attended the preaching of the Báb at Bushire induced that personage to attempt the dangerous experiment of endeavouring to bring over to his doctrines the inhabitants of his native place. He assumed the pretension of being able to work miracles; but the only two said to have been performed by him of which I can obtain any record were certainly of the most simple description. One was his foolhardy attempt to brave the power of the rays of the sun on the shore of the Persian Gulf; the other was the assertion of being able to write faster than merely mortal fingers could ply the pen. But if his actual performances would scarcely have entitled him to whatever credit may be due to a clever deceiver of men's senses, his deficiencies were fully made up for by the power of imagination and of belief possessed by his followers. These spread his fame far and wide throughout Persia, and his naib, or vicegerent, was sent to Sheeraz to pave the way for the approach of the Báb himself. But the naib was unfortunate enough to have to deal with a hardened unbeliever in Hussein Khan, who after his return from England had been appointed governor-general of the province of Fars. By his orders the naib was seized and bastinadoed, and, in order to prevent him from going from house to house, the governor ordered that the tendons of his legs should be severed. But this ungracious reception of his forerunner did not deter the Báb from carrying into execution his project of visiting Sheeraz. On his arrival there he was sent for by the governor, with whom he had a private interview. In order that he might the better prove the secret thoughts of the Báb, the governor pretended to be half disposed to believe in

[page 350]

his mission. He declared that a few days before, the Báb had appeared to him in a dream, and while reproaching him with his treatment of the naib had declared that he considered it beneath his dignity to punish him for the same. The Báb, it appears, had unlimited belief in the powers of credulity of those whom he encountered; it never occurred to him to suppose that Hussein Khan was not sincere in what he said, and he therefore determined to complete his conversion by affording him a proof of his superhuman power. “You have correctly stated what I said to you,” he replied; “but it was not in a dream that I appeared: I was present to you in the body.” Upon this Hussein Khan declared himself to be convinced of the heavenly mission of the Báb. This was a great accession to the ranks of the faithful, and the powerful neophyte was forthwith promised that he should one day sit on the throne of Stamboul. It was a satisfactory prospect for the future; but in the meantime Hussein Khan suggested that the Báb should come with him and confront the assembled moollahs and ulemah of Sheeraz. It would not have accorded with the Báb’s pretensions had he declined to accede to this proposal; and he faced the priests and doctors of the Mahomedan law with all the more confidence that he believed himself to be secure of the support of the strong arm of the governor of Fars. He boldly declared to the astonished assembly that the mission of Mahomed, which had served its purpose, was now at an end, and that he had come down from heaven to dwell amongst men for the purpose of inaugurating a new order of things. The doctors gave him an attentive hearing, and as some parts of his discourse were con-

[page 351]

fused, they requested, not unreasonably, that he would furnish them with a written statement of that which they were required to believe. The Báb made no objection to this request; but when the statement came to be read it was found to be written in some other language than the Arabic or Persian. Upon this the assembled priests declared that the fanatic was mad, and in conformity with this opinion, they decreed that, instead of the sentence of death which the Báb deserved to have passed upon him for having declared that he was God, he should receive the punishment of the bastinado, and be confined for life. The execution of the first part of this sentence is said to have had the effect of causing the Báb to acknowledge that he had been guilty of egregious folly; but it produced little or no effect on the spread of his fame and of his doctrine.

Many of the principal priests of Persia became secret converts to Bábism, and, while the Báb languished in prison at Sheeraz, and afterwards at Ispahan and at Chereck in Azerbaeejan, his naib, who had contrived to escape, was successfully engaged in preaching his religion at Yezd. So numerous in a short time were the followers of the Báb that a decree was issued by the chief religious authorities in Persia, making it a capital crime for any one to profess the tenets of the false prophet of Sheeraz. Some of the followers of the Báb, full of new-born zeal, thought that they were doing a service acceptable to the Almighty by assassinating some of the chief priests who had issued decrees condemnatory of Bábism; and, on the other hand, the priesthood authorized a persecution of the followers of the Báb. In this way the feelings and interests of a large body of

[page 352]

men were entirely engaged in this religious question, and the blood of those who were martyrs for the faith contributed greatly to the spread of the tenets of Bábism; since the fact that men were found willing to lay down life for the cause, convinced waverers that it must rest on the everlasting foundation of truth.

The reader of this volume will probably before reaching this page have made to himself the observation that the history of modern Persia is for the most part a mere record of deeds of violence and blood. Such deeds, it may be observed, occupy a large space in the annals of every nation, but it is painful for a writer to find so little else worthy of being recorded in the history of the modern occupants of a country which so early and for so long a period filled a conspicuous place in the world. But though fully aware of the monotonous nature of the task I have undertaken, I can find little or nothing in the pages of the Persian chronicler, or in the volumes and documents upon which I have drawn, that would either interest or instruct the European reader. I have therefore confined myself to the relation of such facts as seemed to me to show the spirit of the times of which I have written, and to have had more or less influence in shaping the destinies of the nation ruled over by the princes of the Kajar dynasty.

[page 385]

It was hoped that the capture of Meshed would usher in a period of calmness and security, during which the Ameer-i-Nizam might have leisure to perfect the system of general reform which he had introduced into Persia. But no sooner had order been established in one direction than revolt and disorder appeared in another quarter. At Yezd, the followers of the Báb assembled in such numbers in the spring of the year 1850, as to compel the governor of that city to take refuge in the citadel; to which they then laid siege. But the priests of Yezd, conscious that the spread of Bábism would be the signal for the downfall of their own power, lent to the governor all the weight of their influence. In the name of Mahomed, the messenger of God, they summoned the townspeople to attack the infidels, and they collected a force by which the Bábis were overthrown.

[page 386]

The zealots of the new religion then betook themselves to the adjoining province of Kerman.

The followers of the Báb looked upon the Ameer-i-Nizam, by whose orders their chief was kept in prison, as an enemy to the faith, whom it was lawful, and even proper, to slay. A conspiracy was accordingly organized for the purpose of taking the life of the Minister; but the plot was discovered ere it was ripe for execution, and the conspirators were seized. Seven of them were condemned to suffer death, and the occasion of their execution was taken advantage of for introducing the custom of conducting capital punishments openly at Tehran. Previously to this time it had been usual to cause condemned criminals to be strangled before the Shah. On one occasion, when the representative of Russia at the Persian court was waiting to be summoned to the presence of the king, he was alarmed by hearing loud cries in his immediate neighbourhood in the palace garden, and as he was proceeding to the audience chamber, he encountered a number of executioners dragging along the still-palpitating bodies of some men who had been strangled. The prince was shocked beyond measure, and he was, with reason, offended at the indignity which had been offered to him in his being summoned to the royal presence at such a moment; he, therefore, expressed in strong terms to the Shah and to his Minister, his opinion as to the barbarousness of the usage by which executions were conducted before the eyes of the sovereign. The Ameer-i-Nizam fully concurred in the opinion of the Russian Minister on this subject, and he accordingly at once determined to put a stop to the practice complained of. It was feared, how-

[page 387

ever, that a commotion might he excited by the unusual spectacle of men being publicly executed at Tehran; but on the occasion of putting the Bábi conspirators to death, no such commotion took place. Some doubts existed in the minds of the people as to whether the alleged intentions of the conspirators had been fully proved against them, or whether it was right to punish for a mere intention as if for a crime that had actually been committed; but it could not be denied that the sentence of death upon these Bábi backsliders from the Moslem faith was in accordance with Mahomedan law. Each of them was offered his life upon the simple condition of reciting the formula of the Moslem creed, but none of them consented to purchase pardon on such terms.

Another example was now added to those with which the history of the world abounds, of the utter inefficacy of persecution for the suppression of religious doctrines. The chief priest of Zinjan had embraced the tenets of the Báb, and under his guidance the Bábis of that place took possession of a portion of the town. On the news of this revolt reaching Tehran, measures were at once adopted by the government for suppressing the insurrection; and it is illustrative of the success which was already beginning to attend the Ameer's system for the amelioration of the army, that within five hours from the receipt at the capital of intelligence of the revolt, troops were already marching from Tehran upon Zinjan. The Persian soldiers, much, no doubt, to their own surprise, saw themselves for the first time properly clothed and cared for, and received with regularity their pay and their rations. Persian soldiers are beyond comparison the most hardy, enduring and patient troops in the world,

[page 388]

and had the administration of the Ameer-i-Nizam been prolonged, the King of Persia would have been the master of an army of one hundred thousand men, regularly drilled and accoutred. The Minister had announced his intention of maintaining such a force; and he was not likely to change his mind, or to neglect any precaution to ensure the efficiency of the army upon which depended the stability of the Kajar throne.

The insurrection at Zinjan took place in the month of May, 1850, and the Bábis long continued to defend themselves in that city against the troops of the king, with all the fiery zeal which is characteristic of the proselytes to a new religion. Zinjan is the capital of the district of Hamseh, and it lies on the direct road from Tabreez to Tehran. Whilst the siege was in progress, the founder of the new creed was taken from his prison in Azerbaeejan, and, after having been examined as to his religious belief, was condemned to death by the authorities of Tabreez for having renounced the faith of Islam. A circumstance that arose out of this sentence had nearly been the cause of setting the Báb high above the temporal powers of Iran. A company of soldiers was drawn up in the great square of Tabreez, and before it was a hapless man whose arms were tied together: that man was the Báb, and he was to be shot to death. On their captain giving the word to fire, the soldiers discharged a volley, the smoke from which threw a veil over the scene. When the smoke had been dispelled, great was the astonishment of the soldiers and of the lookers-on to find that the person of the Báb had altogether disappeared. There could now be no doubt, they thought, of his having ascended to the heaven,

[page 389]

which, when he was on earth, he had said was his home.

Nothing was wanted but this apparent miracle to establish Bábism on a sure foundation. But it happened, most unfortunately for the prospects of the creed of the Báb, that its originator (who had been unscathed by the bullets which had cut the ropes around him) had taken the wrong direction while endeavoring to effect his escape when concealed by the smoke of the volley of musketry. Had he gained the bazar he would have been safe; but he chanced to rush into the guard-room, from which place he was taken back to the square and shot. His death did not diminish the faith of his followers in his mission; for, according to the doctrines which they had learned from him, he could not really die: the form which his spirit animated might be altered, but his soul must still exist. It was, as he taught, undoubtedly true that his mortal body could not be annihilated but must be resolved into other forms of life; yet not the less were his followers shocked to see that body thrown into the ditch of Tabreez, by the orders of the brutal governor, to be a prey to the dogs and the jackals.

The main tenet of Bábism is utter indifference to, and disbelief in the existence of, good and evil. But nothing could be less in accordance with this theory than was the practice of the followers of the Báb. Far from looking on the course of events, and the changes and chances of this mortal life, with the calm eyes of unconcerned spectators, they attempted to impose their opinions upon others by force. The earth, they said, had been given to them for a possession, and it was, therefore, lawful for them to appropriate to themselves the goods

[page 390]

of unbelievers. They asserted that the time had come when Mahomedanism must fall, and that to them had been assigned the task of bringing about the decree of fate. In their opinion the restrictions imposed upon men by the Koran were too heavy to be borne. According to their creed all men were alike; none were impure, since all human beings, with all other created objects, whether animate or inanimate, formed so many portions of one all-pervading and everlasting God. It was probably when in possession of this idea, that the Báb had startled his disciples by the sudden announcement that he was God. The followers of the Báb were to have all their possessions, including their women, in common: marriage being one of the puerile observances of the Mahomedan code which it was now time to abolish. The Bábis admitted of no hereditary claims to high rank; nor did they see the necessity of any formal election of rulers or teachers: they admitted only such superiority as was conferred by the force of intellect, and that force, they held, would make itself felt without the adventitious aid of human laws. Hell was no longer a source of terror to men who had been enlightened by the teaching of the Báb. Their master had explained to them that there was to be no hereafter beyond this enduring world; he had laughed to scorn alike the Moslem prophet's description of the terror-striking bridge of Al-Sirath and of the black-eyed virgins who repose on green cushions and beautiful carpets, hidden from public view in the pavilions of paradise. This terrestrial globe was to be everlasting, and men need not fear what people falsely term death, since in truth they could not die.

These opinions explain the reckless bravery with

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which the Bábis of Zinjan continued to maintain a hopeless contest against the troops of the Shah. They were driven into the south-eastern corner of the town, where they erected barricades, loop-holed the walls, and defended themselves with much skill. Their numbers were by degrees reduced by casualties, but their spirit could not be quenched: their women are as deserving of being praised for their bravery as are the maids of Saragossa. To the existence of heroines at Zinjan, at least, no doubt attaches: at Zinjan the maidens shed no “ill-timed tears” for the fall of their lovers, but they took their share in the fearful task of defending their desperate position, and they were not backward in hurling the missile which was to be their love's avenger. Three hundred fanatics continued to defy the artillery and the troops of the Shah. By night and day the loop-holes were watched by sharp-shooters, who hastened on every occasion to take advantage of the slightest indiscretion on the part of the besiegers. Two guns were constructed from bars of iron to reply to the fire of those without, and the fact that these were damaged by every discharge in no way damped the energy of the defenders. The invitations to surrender which were held out by the Persian commander were treated by the Bábis with derision, and they put to death on the spot a well-meaning but rash individual who proposed to act as mediator between the contending adversaries. Terrible was the lot of the Persians who fell into the hands of the Babis: we are told that they were shod as horses, suspended from beams by one arm, or burnt to death. The priest who headed the defence seemed to expect a successful termination to the conflict, since he assigned to one of

[page 392]

his people, as a reward for bravery, no less a prize than the government of the land of Egypt, and to others the possession of such and such villages and towns. The siege continued to be prosecuted throughout the summer of the year 1850. The scene of operations was visited in the month of October by Sir Henry Bethune, who had come to die in the country where he had acquired his glory, and he expressed his opinion that the reduction of the defended portion of Zinjan ought not to occupy ordinary troops for a longer period than three hours. But it was not until the last days of the year that the siege was brought to a conclusion. Moollah Mahomed Ali, the leader of the defenders, received a wound from the effects of which he died, and this event so dispirited the survivors that they had no longer any care to resist the attacks of the assailants. The position occupied by the Bábis was at length carried, and all who survived of the defenders — men, women, and children — were ruthlessly butchered by the Persian troops, who now displayed as much ferocity as they had shown pusillanimity during the siege.

Whilst the disciples and followers of the Báb were endeavouring to undermine the faith of Islam, the priests of that religion were not blind to the expediency of doing something towards maintaining their hold over the minds of the Persian people. But the Ameer-i-Nizam was equally averse to tolerating the spread of Bábism and to encourage the Mahomedan priests in their ambitious views. He was the more anxious to weaken the influence of the Moslem doctors, inasmuch as he saw that no thorough reform could be carried out in Persia so long as the people retained their superstitious dread of incurring the displeasure of a band of selfish and

[page 393]

narrow-minded moollahs. He found much difficulty in bending to his will the privileged and rapacious Mahomedan doctors; but he did not recoil from the labour of subduing them. The priests of Tabreez, about this time, resolved to show the world who believed in miracles that such manifestations of a direct interference with the ordinary course of nature were not exhibited solely through the medium of the person of the Báb. They determined to try the effect of one in connection with a Moslem place of worship. A cow on the way to the slaughter-house twice took sanctuary in a mosque and was twice expelled; a third attempt to deprive the animal of the privilege of taking sanctuary was punished by the patron saint of the mosque, for the driver of the cow fell down dead. Such was the story that was noised abroad, and as it was received with credit, other miracles were attributed to the influence of the spirit who guarded the same holy place; blind men were said to have had their sight restored, and sick men to have been healed of their maladies.

[page 407]

The disciples of the Báb had been little heard of during the eighteen months that followed the conclusion of the siege of Zinjan. It was in the summer of the year 1852 that they next forced themselves upon public notice. A conspiracy against the life of the Shah was hatched at Tehran, under the auspices of two priests of distinction, and of Suleiman Khan, whose father had been master of the horse to Abbass Meerza. Men holding the Báb doctrines were in the habit of congregating, to the number of about forty, in the house of the above-named Khan, where their plans were concerted and where arms of every description were collected. On the 15th of August, the Shah, who was then residing in the neighbourhood of Tehran, at the Niaveran Palace, had mounted his horse, and was proceeding towards the Elburz on a hunting excursion, when four men pre-

[page 408]

sented themselves on his path. It is the custom for the Persian king to ride alone, all the attendants being some distance in front of, or behind, his Majesty; and it is a common thing for the Shah to be addressed by those of his subjects who have a grievance to be righted, and who are allowed by custom to approach the sovereign and hand to him written papers containing their petitions. Consequently it was not thought strange when one of the four men who appeared on this day on the king's path, approached the horse on which his Majesty was riding, as if for the purpose of handing a paper to the Shah. The Bábi, as he drew near the royal person, attempted to grasp the king's girdle, and when he found himself repulsed, he drew a pistol from within his dress and fired it at the Shah. His Majesty, however, had the presence of mind to throw himself to the opposite side of his horse, and the contents of the pistol inflicted no other injury beyond a slight wound in the thigh. So intent was the assassin on effecting his object, that, regardless of the presence of the Shah's followers, who now came up to the rescue, he drew from its sheath a formidable dagger, with which he assailed the Shah and those who defended him; nor did he cease his efforts until he was himself slain. Two of his confederates were captured, one of them having been severely wounded; the fourth Bábi contrived to effect his escape by jumping down a well. This occurrence was at once made known to the dwellers in Shimran, and the report got abroad that the king had been killed. Without waiting to hear this news confirmed, the people in the royal camp began to disperse, and there was a general rush towards Tehran. The shops of the city were immediately shut, and every one

[page 409]

strove to lay in a supply of bread, as a provision against the stormy future. On the following day, however, men's minds were reassured by the discharge of a salute of one hundred and ten guns, to announce the safety of the king. The priests and the persons of influence amongst the people were invited to proceed to the royal camp; and Tehran was illuminated during several nights.

The Babi conspiracy having been discovered, ten of the conspirators were at the first put to death; some of them under circumstances of the greatest cruelty. Lighted candles were inserted into the bodies of two or three of these men, and the victims, after having been allowed to linger for some time, were hewn in two by a hatchet. The requirements of the lex talionis were satisfied by the steward of the Shah, acting as his representative, blowing out the brains of one of the conspirators. Amongst those who suffered death was a young woman, the daughter of a celebrated teacher of the law, and who was considered by the Bábis to be a prophetess; on this account she had been for years detained a prisoner at Tehran. But ten victims were not enough to calm the fears of the advisers of the Shah, and a short reign of terror followed; no one being secure against suspicion, or being denounced as a follower of the Báb. If any one at this time imagined that the Shah's Ministers had any considerable amount of regard for their own dignity in the eyes of the world, the scene which now presented itself was well calculated to dispel the illusion. The prime minister, far from imitating the example set by Cicero in his orations against Catiline in taking to himself all the glory of having suppressed a dangerous conspiracy, was fearful

[page 410]

of drawing down upon himself and his family the vengeance of the followers of the Báb; and, in order that others might be implicated in these executions, he hit upon the device of assigning a criminal to each department of the State; the several ministers of the Shah being thus compelled to act as executioners. The minister for foreign affairs, the minister of finance, the son of the prime minister, the adjutant-general of the army, and the master of the mint, each fired the first shot, or made the first cut with a sabre, at the culprits assigned to their several departments, respectively. The artillery, the infantry, the camel-artillery, and the cavalry each had a victim assigned to them.[2] But the result of all this slaughter was, as might have been expected, to create a feeling of sympathy for the Bábis; whose crime was lost sight of in the punishment which had overtaken them. They met their fate with the utmost firmness, and none of them cared to accept the life which was offered to them on the simple condition of reciting the Moslem creed. While the lighted candles were burning the flesh of one follower of the Báb, he was urged by the chief magistrate of Tehran to curse the Báb and live. He would not renounce the Báb; but he cursed the magistrate who tempted him to do so, he cursed the Shah, and even cursed the prophet Mahomed, his spirit rising superior to the agony of his torture. . . . .

  1. Bábism, though at present a proscribed religion in Persia, is far from being extinct, or even declining, and the Báb may yet contest with Mahomed the privilege of being regarded as the real prophet of the faithful. Bábism in its infancy was the cause of a greater sensation than that even which was produced by the teaching of Jesus, if we may judge from the account of Josephus of the first days of Christianity. Far from foreseeing the future spread of that religion, the Jewish historian contents himself with observing — "And the tribe of Christians, so named from him (Christ), are not extinct at this day."
  2. “Even the Shah's admirable French physician, the late lamented Dr. Cloquet, was invited to show his loyalty by following the example of the rest of the court. He excused himself, and pleasantly said that he killed too many men professionally to permit him to increase their number by any voluntary homicide on his part.” — Glimpses of Life and Manners in Persia. By Lady Sheil, p. 277.
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