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

Chapter lxxvii

The ceremony of receiving a Frank ambassador at the court is described.

My chief, the Mirza Firouz, was received with great condescension by the Shah, who was pleased at the ready answers he received to his numerous questions concerning the nations of Europe. Never was man better adapted to fill the situation to which he had been appointed than the Mirza. Every question which the Shah put to him was received with a ready answer. Ignorance did not confound him, no difficulty stopped him. The words ’nemi danum, I don’t know,’ ever a sin in the hearing of a king, were never known to pass his lips. He discoursed upon every matter with a confidence that made his hearers believe that whatever he said must be conclusive; and upon the subject of Europeans, to listen to him, one could not but suppose he had been born and bred among them.

As I was known to have been employed under him in ‘seizing news’, as the phrase goes, concerning Europe, and also in writing its history, I in some measure enjoyed the reputation of being learned in whatever regarded its inhabitants. Although my assurance was nothing equal to my master’s, yet I managed to answer the questions put to me with tolerable readiness, although, in so doing, I was obliged to be very circumspect not to commit him: therefore, I passed my days in the double fear of appearing ignorant, and of having my ears cut off in case I happened to be too wise. However, as none among our own countrymen could contradict us, we were listened to as oracles, and we exemplified what the poet Al Miei has so justly remarked: ‘That in the country of the dumb the sound of one voice, be it even that of an ass, would be called harmony.’

The English elchi (ambassador) had reached Tehran a few days before we arrived there, and his reception was as brilliant as it was possible for a dog of an unbeliever to expect from our blessed Prophet’s own lieutenant. Indeed the city was almost shocked at the honours paid him, and some of the most violent of our mollahs declared, that in treating a Giaour so well, we were ourselves in some measure guilty of his infidelity, and preparing our own damnation. At different stations on the road, the throats of oxen had been cut before his horse’s feet, in many places his path was strewn with sugar-candy, and on the day of his entry he was permitted to have his trumpets sounded in the procession, all of which were honours that could be exacted by none, save our own princes.

Then all the proper attentions of hospitality were shown. The house of a khan was taken from him and given to the ambassador, and whatever furniture was wanting was demanded from the neighbours and placed therein. A handsome garden was levied upon another, and added to the house. The lord high treasurer was commanded to feed the strangers at his own expense as long as they chose, and clothes and shawls were collected from the courtiers and servants of the court, for the dresses of honour which it is the custom to make on such occasions. The princes and noblemen were enjoined to send the ambassador presents, and a general command issued that he and his suite were the Shah’s guests, and that, on the pain of the royal anger, nothing but what was agreeable should be said to them.

All these attentions, one might suppose, would be more than sufficient to make infidels contented with their lot; but, on the contrary, when the subject of etiquette came to be discussed, interminable difficulties seemed to arise. The elchi was the most intractable of mortals. First, on the subject of sitting. On the day of his audience of the Shah, he would not sit on the ground, but insisted upon having a chair; then the chair was to be placed so far, and no farther, from the throne. In the second place, of shoes, he insisted upon keeping on his shoes, and not walking barefooted upon the pavement; and he would not even put on our red cloth stockings. Thirdly, with respect to hats: he announced his intention of pulling his off to make his bow to the king, although we assured him that it was an act of great indecorum to uncover the head. And then, on the article of dress, a most violent dispute arose: at first, it was intimated that proper dresses should be sent to him and his suite, which would cover their persons (now too indecently exposed) so effectually that they might be fit to be seen by the king; but this proposal he rejected with derision. He said, that he would appear before the Shah of Persia in the very same dress he wore when before his own sovereign. Now, as there was not a Persian who had ever been at the court of a Frank king, no body could say what that proper dress was; and, for aught we knew, the elchi might put on his bed-gown and night-cap on the occasion. This was a difficulty apparently not to be overcome, when, turning the subject over in my own mind, I recollected that among the paintings in the palace of Forty Pillars at Ispahan, there were portraits of Europeans, who, in the days of the great Shah Abbas, flocked to his court, and even established themselves in the city. In particular, I well recollected one in the very same painting in which Shah Abbas himself is represented, whose dress was doubtless the only proper costume to wear before a crowned head. I immediately suggested this to my master, who mentioned it to the grand vizier, who ordered that a copy of it should, without loss of time, be made by the best artist of Ispahan, and sent to Tehran.

“Proper dresses should be sent to him.”

(Fancy sketch by James Morier, representing Sir Gore Ouseley, the English Ambassador, in Persian court-dress.)

So soon as it arrived it was officially presented to the English elchi, with a notification that the Shah was satisfied to receive him in the same dress he wore before his own sovereign, a model of which was now offered to him, and to which it was expected that he and his suite would strictly conform.

The shouts of laughter which the infidels set up, upon seeing the picture and hearing the message, are not to be described. They asked if we thought them monkeys, that they should dress themselves as such at our bidding, and were so obstinate in their resolution of keeping to their own mode of attire, that at length they were permitted to do as they chose.

The audience of the Shah passed off much better than could have been expected from such rude and uncivilized people, and we were all astonished that men, so unaccustomed to the manners and forms of the world, should have conducted themselves on this difficult occasion without committing some act that was flagrant and improper. The king was seated on his throne of gold, dressed with a magnificence that dazzled the eyes of the strangers, and made even his subjects exclaim, ‘Jemshîd? who was he? or Darab? or Nûshirvan? that they should be mentioned in the same breath?’ On the right and left of the throne stood the princes, more beautiful than the gems which blazed upon their father’s person. At a distance were placed the three viziers of the state, those depositaries of wisdom and good council; and, with their backs to the wall, each bearing a part of the paraphernalia of the crown, were marshalled in a row the black-eyed pages of royalty, who might be compared to angels supporting planets from the starry firmament. In the midst appeared the Franks, who, with their unhidden legs, their coats cut to the quick, their unbearded chins, and unwhiskered lips, looked like birds moulting, or diseased apes, or anything but human creatures, when contrasted with the ample and splendidly dressed persons by whom they were surrounded. And they stood their ground, not in the least abashed by the refulgent presence of the great king; but their attitude, manner, and expression of countenance, would have made us suppose they were as good and as undefiled as ourselves.

The speech made on the occasion by the elchi was characteristic of the people he represented — that is, unadorned, unpolished, neither more nor less than the truth, such as a camel-driver might use to a muleteer; and had it not been for the ingenuity of the interpreter our Shah would neither have been addressed by his title of King of Kings, or of the Kebleh of the Universe.

It would be taking up the pen of eternity were I to attempt to describe the boundless difference that we discovered between the manners and sentiments of these people and ourselves. Some of our sages endeavoured to account for it upon philosophical principles, and attributed much to the climate of those dark, watery, and sunless regions in which they were bred and born: ‘for,‘said they, ‘how can men living surrounded by water, and who never feel the warmth of the sun, be like those who are never a day without enjoying the full effulgence of its rays, and do not even know what the sea means?’ But the men of the law settled the question in a much more satisfactory manner, by saying ‘it was owing to their infidelity that they were doomed to be cursed even in this life; and that if the ambassador, his suite, and even his whole nation, would submit to become Mussulmans, and embrace the only true faith, they would immediately be like ourselves, their defilements would be washed clean, and they even might stand a chance of walking in the same story of the heavens as the genuine children of Islam would in the world to come.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:58