09 agosto, 2008

The little prince

Ahmad Mirza Persian Crown Prince, a year later Ahmad Qajar Persian Shah on a postcard of 1908
In the Objects found section of the blog A vajszínű árnyalat. we have found this postcard, portraying Crown Prince Ahmad Mirza one year before his ascendence to the throne of Persia on July 16, 1909 as Ahmad Qajar Shah, the last ruler in his dynasty. The date of the postmark is March 1911, but this is only ante quem. In the collection of Darius Kadivar we find the other side of the card as well – happy times when it was enough to write for an address as few as “to Mr. Seid Rahim in Tehran” – bearing, oddly enough, another stamp and postmark with a three months earlier date. But this is just an ante quem as well. The quo is printed with Eastern Arabic numbers immediately under the image: ۱۳۲۶ that is 1326, indicating the period between February 4, 1908 and January 22, 1909 according to the Islamic calendar. During the reign of Ahmad Shah, just like in all times since the acceptance of Islam, this was the official calendar. Only after his overthrow in 1925 was it officially changed by Reza Pahlavi – at odds with the clergy and in favor of the country’s ancient roots – for that Persian calendar of Zoroastrian origin, also polished by Omar Khayyam, which counted in solar instead of lunar years the time that had passed since the hijra, thus setting back by forty years the calendar of the country. By when the number of the years could have made up for the loss, his son Mohammed Reza Shah also translated the starting point of the calendar at the year of the foundation of the ancient Persian Empire, so that the pro-Shah emigration even today writes 2567. After the Islamic Revolution – who knows why – they did not return to the Islamic calendar, only the starting point of the Persian calendar in vigor was set again to the year of the Hijra. It is an odd impression to read in the date of the Islamic newspapers, above the name of Allah, the names of the twelve Zoroastrian archangels with which the Persian calendar marks the twelve months – or, more precisely, the twelve zodiacal signs.

Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia in 1909The Crown Prince – here to the left already shahinshah, King of the Kings – on these pictures looks with that infinitely melancholic glance into a world accessible only to him, which is the attribute of a nation fatigued under the burden of twenty-five centuries of a highly refined civilization. Of a nation whose very verbal infinitives serve, in an unparalleled way, to express the past time, so that they have to create a separate stem to express the present. This characteristic melancholy is felt everywhere among Persians. And it is not just the consequence of the current political situation, not that “hopelessness that rules the heart of every young Iranian” as The Labyrinth writes, or as the letter quoted by him puts it: “in our 20s and 30s we are already old and will become older still.” For in the non-Persian regions of the country, among the energetic Kurds, in the Armenian quarter of Isfahan, or in Tabriz inhabited by the lively Torkis, Azeri Turks, there is no trace of this melancholy which, on the other hand, was already noted a hundred and fifty years ago by the great Hungarian orientalist Ármin Vámbéry arriving from Turkey to Persia. And this same melancholy radiates from the poems of Khayyam, Rumi or Hafez. And even the predecessor of Ahmad Shah, King Xerxes, while inspecting his army that surpassed any other in number before the great campaign of his life

pronounced himself a happy man, and after that he fell to weeping. Artabanos, having observed that Xerxes wept, asked him: “O king, how far different from one another are the things which thou hast done now and a short while before now! for having pronounced thyself a happy man, thou art now shedding tears.” He said: “Yea, for after I had reckoned up, it came into my mind to feel pity at the thought how brief was the whole life of man, seeing that of these multitudes not one will be alive when a hundred years have gone by.” (Herodotus, Histories, 7.46)

Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia on a stampBut Ahmad Shah – described by his contemporaries as “an extremely intelligent young man, highly educated, with a wide knowledge of both Eastern and Western culture, and well read in history, politics, and economic theory” – had even more reasons for melancholy. In Persia the Russian imperialists on the north and the English to the south had been competing with each other for a century in seizing the resources of the country, until in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 they divided Persia in spheres of interest, obstructing any development since the times of the shah’s great-grandfather, inciting to anti-government riots the tribes making up almost a quarter of Persia’s population, and extracting exclusive concession on the Iranian oil discovered in 1908. In this vacuum since the 1870’s the most bewildering adventurers, fools and agents had been appropriating the political and cultural stage, preparing the way to the so-called Constitutional Revolution between 1905 and 1911, during which the father of the shah was forced to abdicate, and Ahmad “ascended weeping to the throne”. In the following three years he put on thirty kilos. During his reign the English, “for safety’s sake”, occupy and in the WWI use as a hinterland the country that had previously declared its neutrality, contributing to the great famine of 1918-19 which killed a tenth of the population, and then, at the sight of the gradual development of parlamentarian democracy, they convinced the illiterate general of the only efficient Persian military force, the Persian Cossacks, to seize the power, taking advantage of the absence of the shah who in 1925 traveled to France to the funerals of his father. The general establishes his dictatorship in the service of the English interests under the self-created name Reza Pahlavi Shah. Ahmad Shah dies five years later, at the age of thirty-two in Paris.

Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia in 1909
In the best summary of twentieth-century Persian history, in his less than hundred pages long The Shahinshah, Ryszard Kapuściński portrays the reign of Reza Pahlavi and of Mohammed Reza by narrating about a dozen of photos, from the illiterate Cossack sergeant accompanying a prisoner to his son escaping from the revolution at the airport. I have always been fascinated by this narrative, not only because of the sharp eye and precise style of Kapuściński, but also because of the ingenuity of the method. However, since I have made better acquaintance of old Persian photos, although my acknowledgement towards Kapuściński has not decreased, nevertheless I see better how much they offer themselves to such an analysis. In Persia, before the arrival of photography, there was hardly any tradition of the portrait, thus the early photos do not mirror those centuries-old, detailed and inconscious rules of composition and closedness that have been pointed out even in the photos of Hungarian peasants by Ernő Kunt. These photos possess some kind of a magic spontaneity, by which they promise to tell something more, deeper and more personal about their subjects than contemporary Western photographies do.

Mozaffar al-Din Shah QajarThe grandfather of Ahmad Shah, Mozaffar al-Din Shah Qajar (1896-1907)

Photo of Ahmad Shah Qajar in the Niavaran Palace (Tehran)
The children of Ahmad Shah QajarThe children of Ahmad Shah

The figure of Ahmad Shah still represents the end of the real Persian imperial rule for many Persians, and even the monarchist emigration is divided between the Qajar party and the Pahlavi party. Essays, a romantic film (Homayun Shahnavaz’s Shah-e kamoush [The silent shah], 2005), and even a separate blog is dedicated to his memory, several families keep at home one of his official ruler’s portraits, and his image, accompanied by the symbol of the Empire, the shir o khorsid, also pops up in the Persepolis of his distant descendant Marjane Satrapi, the second best summary of twentieth-century Persian history.

Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia
Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia
Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia
Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia
Ahmad Shah Qajar of PersiaFront-page of the Illustrated London News not much before
the English, in order to save the world peace threatened
by Persia, in 1915 occupied the country
(or: nothing new under the sun)

Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia
Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia
Ahmad Shah, with Reza Khan in the backgroundAhmad Shah. Behind him, wearing a cloak, General Reza Khan, shortly before his takeover

Ahmad Shah Qajar of Persia in the Persepolis of Marjane Satrapi

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