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Islamic History Sourcebook

S. G. W. Benjamin:

Life in Persia, 1885

[Tappan Introduction]

PERSIA is the land of ceremony, and serious offense is sometimes the result of transgressing some minute requirement of etiquette. For the rule of courtesy that demands promptness in meeting an engagement the Persians have no regard, and appear mildly surprised and aggrieved that it should be expected of them. On the other hand, they are generous and hospitable, and almost invariably kind to their servants and animals.

The Persian House.

IT may be a surprise to learn that even the most costly mansions are constructed of sun-dried bricks, and that the flat roofs are of mud. But in a climate like this, these bricks are very durable. Some of the towers of Rhei, still standing after twelve centuries, are of this seemingly perishable material. Lightness, combined with strength, is often gained in Persia by ingeniously building a wall of square sun-dried bricks, arranged in hollow cubes as in a block-house. They are cemented by a layer of mud mixed with straw, over which in turn follows a coat of white plaster. Where great strength is required, the angles are fortified by a layer of burnt bricks. Such a wall will stand for ages. It is interesting to watch the builders at work. They wear long tunics, which are tucked into their girdles when working, displaying a length and muscular development of limb I have never seen equaled elsewhere. The one above sings out in musical tone, "Brother, in the name of God, toss me a brick!" The one below, as he throws the brick, sings in reply, "Oh, my brother! [or, ' Oh, son of my uncle!'] in the name of God, behold a brick!"

Less can be said, however, in favor of the roofs of mud. The only reason why they should be used is the rarity and costliness of wood in central Persia; perhaps, also, because a roof of great density better protects the house from the long dry heat of summer. In that temperature, also, lies the safety of these roofs. Heavy undressed timbers are laid across the walls. Over these comes the lathing, or a layer of dry twigs. In the better houses, square, broad burnt bricks are laid on the lathing, and over these is put a layer of mud ten to twelve inches thick. But generally the bricks are dispensed with. During the summer such a roof becomes very hard; and when the surface is slightly inclined to allow the water to run off, long and heavy rains are required to penetrate it. After the wet season the surface is rolled again for the next winter. With these precautions such roofs last a long time in Persia. But there comes a time with most of them when a little seam appears in the ceiling; then follows a trickling stream, and the occupants, thus warned, remove the furniture without delay to the adjoining apartment. If the rain continues, the ceiling falls in. Occasionally one hears of fatal accidents, or very narrow escapes, from falling roofs in Teheran. But accidents may generally be avoided by proper precaution.

The Audience Chamber of the Shah.

THE most imposing portion of the palace of the Nasr-ed-Deen Shah is the grand audience chamber, which in dimensions and splendor of effect is one of the most imposing halls in the world. The ceiling and mural decorations are of stucco, but so were those in the Alhambra. The floor is paved with beautiful glazed tiles, arranged in the most exquisite mosaic. In the center of the hall is a large table overlaid with beaten gold, and a long row of armchairs are massively splendid with the same costly material covering every inch of space. At the end of the hall, facing the entrance, is the famous Peacock Throne, brought from Delhi by Nadi-Shah, covered with gold and precious stones in a profusion that places the lowest estimate of its value at not less than thirteen millions of dollars.

The magnificence of the shah's audience hall is still further heightened by the fact that here also are stored many of the crown jewels. The reserve of coin and bullion which the shah has saved from his revenues, equal, it is said, to a sum of thirty millions of dollars, is safely locked up in the vaults of the palace. But one need only see the treasures in the audience hall to obtain an idea that Persia is still a land of wealth, and that the tales of splendor recounted in Oriental story were not wholly the fictions of a fancy steeped in opium or b'hang. Among the spoils of ages gathered in the shah's treasury are superb crowns and jeweled coats-of-mail dating back four centuries, to the reign of Shah Ismael. In a glass case one sees a large heap of pearls dense as a pile of sand on the seashore. Diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires catch the eye at every turn, sometimes flashing forth like a crimson or a green fire on the boss of a buckler or a helmet worn at the front of battle ages ago. One ruby there is in that mine of splendor which, on being placed in water, radiates a red light that colors the water like the blood of the vine of Burgundy. There, too, is a globe of the world, twenty inches in diameter, turning on a frame of solid gold; the surface of the earth is represented by precious stones, different colors being used to indicate the divisions of land and sea. The ocean is entirely of turquoise, and Persia is represented by a compact mosaic of diamonds. The famous Dar-i-noor, or Sea of Light, the second of known diamonds in quality, size, and value, is kept carefully locked in a double iron chest, but is shown on rare occasions, and is worn by His Majesty on great state days.

How to Make Calls.

THE afternoon or the early morning is the time when the gentlemen of Teheran exchange calls; never in the evening. A Persian gentleman never calls on a Persian lady; he does not even venture to inquire after her health, or even to mention her to her husband. But after her death it is proper to call on the male relatives of the deceased, to express condolence. A father or a brother may visit a daughter or sister, unless forbidden by the husband. Notwithstanding these restrictions, the exchange of visits among the ladies, or among gentlemen, is a common custom at Teheran, and is a most formidable affair, affording a complete display of the elaborate etiquette for which Persia has always been famous. All the ceremonies attending such a visit are shaded down to the finest point, and form part of the education of every Persian, becoming in fact a second nature to him.

Before making a social call, a servant is sent (generally the previous day) to announce it. The rank of the servant who is sent is suited to the rank of the gentleman who is to receive the visit. If a person of very high degree is to call on one of similar position, it is considered eminently proper to announce and accept the visit in an autograph note. If the caller be of the higher rank, he simply states that he proposes to call at such an hour; if of equal or lower rank, he asks permission to call. The call must be made on horseback or in a carriage, and the number of mounted attendants depends on the rank of the person visited.

On approaching the house, the visitor, if of high rank, is met by mounted heralds, who immediately return at full speed to announce the approach of the guest. If the host be of very high rank, he will try sometimes to see the effect on his guest of coming into the reception room after the arrival of the guest. Supposing he has not tried such a maneuver, a courteous skirmish occurs when the guest enters the door; each seeks to outdo the other in politeness, while each is exceedingly careful not to accept or allow a position to which he is not entitled by rank. The corner of the room the most remote from the entrance is the place of honor; the guest, if he outranks the host, while strenuously declining to take that seat, will be very careful that his host does not occupy it instead, and quite as careful not to accept it if infenor in rank, although urged, for to do so under such circumstances would be to affront the host, and invite an affront in return. The host, when in the apartment on the arrival of the guest, advances outside of the door of the reception room to receive one of superior rank; meets him at the door if of equal rank, and leads him by the hand to his seat; goes halfway the length of the apartment to meet one of slightly inferior rank, but does not condescend to advance a step for a guest far below in social or official position. When the host and guest are of equal rank, chairs or cushions are arranged in corresponding position opposite the refreshment table,---and so on through all the various social grades. Other things being equal, the left hand, and not the right, is the place of honor.

The serving of refreshments is another important question regulated by undeviating custom. The nazir or head steward of the household, enters in his stocking feet, ushering a number of servants equal to the number to be served. If host and guest be of equal rank, the cup is presented to each at exactly the same moment; but if one outranks the other, he is first served. When there is present a member of the royal family, or one of the cabinet or council of the shah, or a foreign minister, the servants must always retire backward to the door. The number and character of the refreshments depend on the rank, the hour, and the season. In the morning tea is served once. In the afternoon, the guest being of equal or higher rank, he is first served with tea in dainty glasses. This is followed by the kalean, or water-pipe. When several persons of equal rank are to be served, it is the proper thing to bring an equal number of lighted pipes; but if one present outranks all the others, only one pipe is brought in, which is handed to him. Before smoking, he makes a feint of offering it in turn to all present; but woe to him who incautiously accepts before he of higher rank has smoked, for in that case he will be made to feel the withering scorn of which a Persian gentleman is capable.

After the first kalean, tea is served again, followed by a second pipe. After a proper interval, the length of which is regulated by the acceptability of the visit, coffee is served in tiny cups, followed in turn by the pipe. This is the signal that the limit of the entertainment has been reached, and soon the guest in honeyed words expresses his acknowledgment for the courtesy of the host, and requests permission to depart. When the Persian New Year begins, with the spring equinox, the season is indicated by the substitution of a cool sherbet for the first cup of tea, and sometimes of an ice in the place of coffee; but after the September equinoctial the tea and coffee are resumed. These may seem trivial matters, but in Persia they have great weight; and not only is the taste of the host indicated by the quality and style of the refreshments, but the savoir-faire and the rank of the guest are weighed by his bearing on such an occasion. It is of no slight importance that a European in Persia should understand the force of these laws of etiquette, otherwise he is liable to have his breeding as a gentleman misunderstood; while by strongly asserting his claim to all the privileges which he has the right to demand, suitable to his rank, he receives the respect which is his due, but which no Persian will give except when he sees him firm on these points.

Making a Present to an Official.

THE mehmendar, or entertainer of the guests of the shah, who received me on arriving in Persia, and accompanied me to the capital, was a man of agreeable disposition. He had lived many years in Europe; he spoke French with facility, and his manners were easy and gracious. On brief acquaintance, one would have set him down as a gentleman comparing favorably with gentlemen and men of affairs in Europe; and it was easy to believe that he would resent any attempt to present him with a trifling gift as a recompense for the services he rendered officially for his Government, and for which he had, presumably, been compensated by the shah. This would have been the conclusion reached by one unacquainted with Oriental character; but my experience in the East led me to think otherwise. I felt that it would be safer to venture to offer him an official tip than to risk offending him by showing too much delicacy in the matter. On arriving at Teheran, I therefore presented him with a new saddle and bridle I had brought with me. He showed not the slightest hesitation at the proposal of such a present, but returned the saddle after inspection, on the plea that it was shopworn, and that out of respect to me he would prefer not to show to his friends a gift that seemed to be unworthy of a Minister of the United States. As the saddle was entirely new and in perfectly good condition, I saw at once that his object was to receive a more valuable present, possibly in the shape of money. I therefore sent the saddle back to him with a message that I did not need instructions as to what kind of a present I should give, and that he ought to be thankful that I had remembered him at all. A European gentleman, who might have been consul for ten years, and held the rank of general and receiver of the royal guests, to whom such a message should be sent, would probably reply with a challenge; but I had not mistaken the Oriental character. The saddle was accepted with a profusion of thanks.

Getting a Glass of Milk.

TOWARDS evening we were able to creep out of the tent; the cooler air suggested that a glass of milk would meet our wants better than anything else. But in Persia it would never do to send for the milk, for it would have been simply impossible to get it without water. Therefore, after much difficulty, we succeeded in having a cow brought to our tent. But even now the difiiculties did not vanish. According to Persian notions, a cow may not be milked without the presence of its calf; it is a disgrace for a man to milk a cow, so a woman had also to come; her husband was obliged to come likewise to look after her. She was greatly embarrassed to conceal her face while milking, as the mantle would not remain in place; but she at last avoided the difficulty by sitting on the farther side of the cow, while we discreetly kept on the other side!

How a Persian Says His Prayers.

FIVE times a day are appointed for prayer---dawn, middle of the morning, noon, middle of the afternoon, and sunset. Morning and evening the muezzin mounts a minaret or the roof of a mosque, and gives the azan, or call to prayer: "God is great! I testify that there is no God but God; I testify that Mohammed is the apostle of God, and Ali is the vicegerent of God. Come to prayer! Come to security! Prayer is better than sleep." The muezzin may be an educated mullah or an ignorant man. A wealthy neighbor had the call given from his housetop by an illiterate scavenger or porter, who had simply memorized the Arabic words, and was paid for his trouble with some loads of wheat. The preparations for prayer are somewhat elaborate. Certain ablutions are preparative. The ablutions are performed, not by dipping the hands in a basin, but by pouring water from a ewer or from the palm of the hand. The Sunnis and Shia wash the hands differently. One rubs toward the elbow, the other downward. They can be distinguished from each other by the direction of the hair on the arm. The toes are also carefully rubbed with water, the ears moistened, and the teeth cleaned. A spot of ink, or other defilement, may invalidate the prayer.

When preliminaries have been finished, the worshiper takes his position on a prayer-rug, with head uncovered and shoes removed, faces toward the Kebla, the Kaaba at Mecca, and places a tablet of pressed earth from Kerbela before him, and holds a string of beads of the same earth in his hands. These beads number ninety-nine, according to the attributes of God. A long one at the end is called the molla; two double ones are called the caliphs. With the beads he keeps tally of his petitions. The tablet is placed before him because Mohammed enjoined that the worshipers should bow their heads to the earth. The prayer is said according to a fixed rote, every motion being prescribed. With the repetition of certain words the devotee raises his hands to heaven, with others his eyes; at one time he kneels, at another prostrates himself with his forehead on the earth; again he touches his knees, toes, palms of the hands, and forehead, to indicate his absolute submission. He must not look backward during the exercise. He may, however, keep an eye on those round about him, and on his goods lest they be stolen, or ejaculate a curse on his apprentice, or tell a passing customer to wait a little while and he will attend to him. He may interject a greeting to a guest or an order for tea, provided he proceeds without mistake. The prayer consists of certain suras of the Koran in Arabic, which are understood by few in Persia, the same words being repeated day after day.

All places are regarded as suitable for prayer. When the call sounds, the man stands up among his guests, or in his shop, in the midst of the noise of manufacturing, or on the housetop, or on the street-corner. The workmen throw aside the pick and shovel and begin their devotions. The Gospel idea of closet prayer is unknown to them. At first acquaintance a Christian is an enigma to them, never being seen to engage in prayer. A native describing a Christian lady, said, "She does not revile, she does not steal or lie, yet she has no religion."


From: Eva March Tappan, ed., The World's Story: A History of the World in Story, Song and Art, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1914), Vol. II: India, Persia, Mesopotamia, and Palestine, pp. 446-460.

Scanned by Jerome S. Arkenberg, Cal. State Fullerton.

Note: Many Western sources about Islamic countries exhibit what has come to be known as orientalism. The terms used ("Mohammedan" for instance rather than "Muslim"), and the attitudes exhibited by the writers need to be questioned by modern readers.

This text is part of the Internet Islamic History Sourcebook. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts for introductory level classes in modern European and World history.

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