The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, by James Justinian Morier

Chapter xxi

He describes the manner in which the Shah of Persia takes medicine.

The doctor’s visit to the king had taken place late in the evening; and as soon as he returned from it he called for me. I found him apparently in great agitation, and full of anxiety. ‘Hajji,’ said he, when I appeared, ‘come close to me’; and having sent every one else out of the room, he said in a whisper, ‘this infidel doctor must be disposed of somehow or other. What do you think has happened? The Shah has consulted him; he had him in private conference for an hour this morning, without my being apprised of it. His majesty sent for me to tell me its result; and I perceive that the Frank has already gained great influence. It seems that the king gave him the history of his complaints, of his debility, of his old asthma, and of his imperfect digestion, but talked in raptures of the wretch’s sagacity and penetration; for merely by looking at the tongue and feeling the pulse before the infidel was told what was the state of the case, he asked whether his majesty did not use the hot baths very frequently;37 whether, when he smoked, he did not immediately bring on a fit of coughing; and whether, in his food, he was not particularly addicted to pickles, sweetmeats, and rice swimming in butter? The king has given him three days to consider his case, to consult his books, and to gather the opinions of the Frank sages on subjects so important to the state of Persia, and to compose such a medicine as will entirely restore and renovate his constitution. The Centre of the Universe then asked my opinion, and requested me to speak boldly upon the natures and properties of Franks in general, and of their medicines. I did not lose this opportunity of giving utterance to my sentiments; so, after the usual preface to my speech, I said, “that as to their natures, the Shah, in his profound wisdom, must know, that they were an unbelieving and an unclean race; for that they treated our Prophet as a cheat, and ate pork and drank wine without any scruple; that they were women in looks, and in manners bears; that they ought to be held in the greatest suspicion, for their ultimate object (see what they had done in India) was to take kingdoms, and to make Shahs and Nabobs their humble servants. As to their medicines,” I exclaimed, “Heaven preserve your majesty from them! they are just as treacherous in their effects as the Franks are in their politics: with what we give to procure death, they pretend to work their cures. Their principal ingredient is mercury (and here I produced my pill); and they use their instruments and knives so freely, that I have heard it said they will cut off a man’s limbs to save his life.” I then drew such a picture of the fatal effects likely to proceed from the foreign prescription, that I made the Shah promise that he would not take it without using every precaution that his prudence and wisdom might suggest. To this he consented; and as soon as the Frank shall have sent in the medicine which he is preparing, I shall be summoned to another interview.

Now, Hajji,’ added the doctor, ‘the Shah must not touch the infidel’s physic; for if perchance it were to do good, I am a lost man. Who will ever consult Mirza Ahmak again? No, we must avert the occurrence of such an event, even if I were obliged to take all his drugs myself.’


“The Shah (Futteh Ali Shah) seated on his throne,” etc.

(From a miniature painting on a pen case.)

We parted with mutual promises of doing everything in our power to thwart the infidel doctor; and three days after Mirza Ahmak was again called before the king in order to inspect the promised ordonnance, and which consisted of a box of pills. He, of course, created all sorts of suspicions against their efficacy, threw out some dark hints about the danger of receiving any drug from the agent of a foreign power, and, finally, left the Shah in the determination of referring the case to his ministers. The next day, at the usual public audience, when the Shah was seated on his throne, and surrounded by his prime vizier, his lord high treasurer, his minister for the interior, his principal secretary of state, his lord chamberlain, his master of the horse, his principal master of the ceremonies, his doctor in chief, and many other of the great officers of his household, addressing himself to his grand vizier, he stated the negotiations which he had entered into with the foreign physician, now resident at his court, for the restoration and the renovation of the royal person; that at the first conference, the said foreign physician, after a due inspection of the royal person, had reported that there existed several symptoms of debility. That at the second, after assuring the Shah that he had for three whole days employed himself in consulting his books and records, and gathering from them the opinions of his own country sages on the subject, he had combined the properties of various drugs into one whole, which, if taken interiorly, would produce effects so wonderful, that no talisman could come in competition with it. His majesty then said, that he had called into his councils his Hakîm Bashi, or head physician, who, in his anxiety for the weal of the Persian monarchy, had deeply pondered over the ordonnances of the foreigner, and had set his face against them, owing to certain doubts and apprehensions that had crept into his mind, which consisted, first, whether it were politic to deliver over the internal administration of the royal person to foreign regulations and ordonnances; and, second, whether, in the remedy prescribed, there might not exist such latent and destructive effects, as would endanger, undermine, and, finally, overthrow that royal person and constitution, which it was supposed to be intended to restore and renovate.

‘Under these circumstances,’ said the Centre of the Universe, raising his voice at the time, ‘I have thought it advisable to pause before I proceeded in this business; and have resolved to lay the case before you, in order that you may, in your united wisdoms, frame such an opinion as may be fitting to be placed before the king: and in order that you may go into the subject with a complete knowledge of the case, I have resolved, as a preparatory act, that each of you, in your own persons, shall partake of this medicine, in order that both you and I may judge of its various effects.’

To this most gracious speech the grand vizier and all the courtiers made exclamations, ‘May the king live for ever! May the royal shadow never be less! We are happy not only to take physic, but to lay down our lives in your majesty’s service! We are your sacrifice, your slaves! May God give the Shah health, and a victory over all his enemies!’ Upon which the chief of the valets was ordered to bring the foreign physician’s box of pills from the harem, and delivered it to the Shah in a golden salver. His majesty then ordered the Hakîm Bashi to approach, and delivering the box to him, ordered him to go round to all present, beginning with the prime vizier, and then to every man according to his rank, administering to each a pill.

This being done, the whole assembly took the prescribed gulp; after which ensued a general pause, during which the king looked carefully into each man’s face to mark the first effects of the medicine. When the wry faces had subsided, the conversation took a turn upon the affairs of Europe; upon which his majesty asked a variety of questions, which were answered by the different persons present in the best manner they were able.

The medicine now gradually began to show its effects. The lord high treasurer first, a large coarse man, who, to this moment had stood immovable, merely saying ‘Belli, belli,’ Yes, yes, whenever his majesty opened his mouth to speak, now appeared uneasy, for what he had swallowed had brought into action a store of old complaints which were before lying dormant. The eyes of all had been directed towards him, which had much increased his perturbed state; when the chief secretary of state, a tall, thin, lathy man, turned deadly pale, and began to stream from every pore. He was followed by the minister for the interior, whose unhappy looks seemed to supplicate a permission from his majesty to quit his august presence. All the rest in succession were moved in various ways, except the prime vizier, a little old man, famous for a hard and unyielding nature, and who appeared to be laughing in his sleeve at the misery which his compeers in office were undergoing.


The Prime Vizier, a little old man.

(From an original drawing by James Morier.)

When the Shah perceived that the medicine had taken effect, he dismissed the assembly, ordering Mirza Ahmak, as soon as he could ascertain the history of each pill, to give him an official report of the whole transaction, and then retired into his harem.

The crafty old doctor had now his rival within his power; of course, he set the matter in such a light before the king, that his majesty was deterred from making the experiment of the foreign physician’s ordonnance, and it was forthwith consigned to oblivion. When he next saw me, and after he had made me acquainted with the preceding narrative, he could not restrain his joy and exultation. ‘We have conquered, friend Hajji,’ would he say to me. ‘The infidel thought that we were fools; but we will teach him what Persians are. Whose dog is he, that he should aspire to so high an honour as prescribing for a king of kings? No, that is left to such men as I. What do we care about his new discoveries? As our fathers did, so are we contented to do. The prescription that cured our ancestors shall cure us; and what Locman and Abou Avicenna ordained we may be satisfied to ordain after them.’ He then dismissed me, to make fresh plans for destroying any influence or credit that the new physician might acquire, and for preserving his own consequence and reputation at court.

37 [ This is the most approved form of speech among well- educated Persians whenever any allusion to the mysteries of the harem is intended.]

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Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 23:09