Bonhams : Prince of Persia

Prince of Persia

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 58, Spring 2019

Page 12

Fath-Ali Shah understood that a glittering image was everything. William Dalrymple on the wasp-waisted, bejeweled and prodigiously bearded ruler who fathered 260 sons

Fath-Ali Shah (1772-1834) – Persian King of Kings, Master of the Ages, Compass of the Universe and Shah of the Qajar Kingdom – was a man who liked to make an impression.

On 21st March 1818, the British artist and traveler Sir Robert Ker Porter saw the Shah enthroned in the Gulistan Palace during the Nau Roz, or New Year ceremony, and was astonished at the grandeur and magnificence of the Qajar court. "He was one blaze of jewels," wrote Ker Porter, "which literally dazzled the sight on first looking at him; but the details of his dress were these; a lofty tiara of three elevations was on his head, which shape appears to have been long peculiar to the crown of the great king.

"It was entirely composed of thickly-set diamonds, pearls, rubies and emeralds, so exquisitely disposed as to form a mixture of the most beautiful colors in the brilliant light reflected from its surface. Several black feathers, like the heron plume, were intermixed with the resplendent aigrettes of this truly imperial diadem. The vesture was gold tissue, neatly covered with a similar disposition of jewelry, and crossing the shoulders were two strings of pearls, probably the largest in the world."

There was nothing accidental about the display which dazzled Ker Porter. Fath-Ali Shah reigned for nearly 40 years immediately after one of the most terrible civil wars in Persian history. He saw his destiny as Shah to bring back the ancient grandeur of Persian culture after a period which had seen the country devastated by tribal wars and invasions from the Afghans and Turkman.

His family had seized power through the sword; on four sides the country was surrounded by aggressive Empires – Ottoman, Russian, Barakzai Afghan and finally India that had recently been seized and subjugated by the militarized merchants of the East India Company.
All longed to add Persian territory to their own. Fath-Ali Shah was determined to stop them; but as a refined and cultured ruler who loved fine objects and beautiful images, and who had few skills on the battlefield, he was aware how far art, and a carefully cultivated imperial image of stunning might and power, could compensate for lack of military prowess.

He therefore set about creating a bejeweled royal and dynastic image of fabulous gravity and splendor. For instance, the portrait of the Shah, offered at Bonhams sale, The Lion and the Sun: Art from Qajar Persia, in April, shows him two-dimensional, full-frontal, grim-faced, broad of shoulder and wasp-waisted, magnificently dressed, armed and armored, with enormous, hypnotic, black eyes and a long, dark ambrosial beard, the whole lot spangled with glittering jewels. These magnificent images of the Shah's reign, mixing for the first time a modulated western influence on Persian art, have only recently begun to receive the attention they deserve. Often the Shah appeared alone, sometimes with his regiment of sons, and occasionally with the frogged and braided envoys of foreign powers. Courtiers, subjects and foreign ambassadors were expected to perform obeisance to them, as they would to the Shah himself.

Fath-Ali Shah came to power in 1796 at the age of 24, succeeding his much-feared uncle, Agha Mohammad Shah. Agha Mohammad had been captured by his Afshar enemies in his youth and painfully castrated; much of his adult life was spent taking a peculiarly bloody revenge on those who removed his manhood. When he finally captured Mirza Shah Rukh, the head of the House of Afshar, he extracted his prisoner's hidden treasure – including the legendary Darya-i-Noor diamond – by a long process of especially gruesome torture. Agha Mohammad had his victim tied to a chair, and his head shaved. A crown of thick paste was built up on Mirza Shah Rukh's bald pate. Then in a ghoulish coronation ceremony, reminiscent of an episode of Game of Thrones, Agha Mohammad personally poured a jug of molten lead into the crown.

Soon after, when he captured the southern Persian capital of Kerman which had revolted against him, Agha Mohammad ordered that the women and children should be given to his soldiers as slaves, and that any surviving men be either blinded or killed. To make sure none of his men skimped on his orders, he commanded that the men's eyeballs be brought to him in baskets and poured on the floor. He stopped counting only at 20,000. Thirty years later, British travelers found hundreds of blind beggars stumbling around the region as living evidence of this atrocity. Agha Mohammad was eventually assassinated by two of his personal servants. The Darya-i-Noor found its way into the Qajar crown jewels. There it remains, in the state treasury in Tehran.

Fath-Ali Shah seemed almost psychotically single-minded about showing the world that whatever the disabilities of his uncle, he was personally a most potent and fecund fellow, indeed a world-class prodigy of sexual potency. In contrast to his sallow-cheeked, eunuch uncle, he cultivated a spectacularly luxuriant beard that was modeled on the elaborately curled, finely flowing facial hair of the ancient Sasanian rulers. In an age when many rulers built sizeable harems, he collected one of the largest: 158 wives and concubines, by whom he fathered at least 260 sons. When he died in 1834, he had brought forth more than one thousand descendants, who between them went on to form the core of the Persian aristocracy that dominated the country until the Ayatollah's revolution in 1979.

Fath-Ali Shah demanded that not only his imperial person but his likeness be revered by all his people. When his portraits were carried around the Empire, the populace bowed flat before them. In particular, he was determined that his image impressed foreigners who throughout his reign were circling Persia like vultures. In this they had some success.

Soon after seeing off Napoleon in 1812, the Russians moved their frontier south and eastwards at Persia's expense almost as fast as the East India Company had moved theirs north and westwards. It was becoming increasingly evident that the two empires would collide. Only a year after the Retreat from Moscow, in 1813, the Russian artillery had ambushed and massacred Fath-Ali Shah's army, proclaimed the 'liberation' of the Eastern Christians of Armenia and Georgia, and annexed great swathes of modern Armenia and Azerbaijan – what had been until then the Persian Empire in the Caucasus: "Persia was delivered, bound hand and foot, to the Court of St Petersburg," wrote the British ambassador.

This turned out to be only the first of a series of defeats which marked the Russian army's relentless advance southwards. Fourteen years later, following a series of further catastrophic Persian losses in the Russo-Persian war of 1826-7, the Persians were forced to cede all that was left of their Caucasian empire – and 10 per cent of their population – as well as the passes controlling the road to Azerbaijan. It seemed only a matter of time before the Russians seized both Tehran and Constantinople.

These humiliating defeats abroad only made Fath-Ali Shah more determined than ever to dazzle at home. Understanding the propaganda value of a striking imperial image, he had his portraits distributed around his dominions, his image not just portrayed in oils, but in fresco, ceramic tile, lacquer and sculpted in relief on rock faces like the Sassanian kings of old. When my great great-grandfather, the diplomat George Keppel, arrived in Tehran in 1824, he was shown lines of portraits of the Shah and other Qajar grandees not only hanging from the walls of the Suleymanieh Palace, but also frescoed in niches and painted over walls, some showing Fath-Ali Shah hunting, others depicting the Shah waging war, a few in repose.

Imperial portraits were also sent abroad as diplomatic gifts to overawe Fath-Ali Shah's fellow rulers, and to introduce him to his Russian and European contemporaries as the King of a major world power. In 1809, when the Persian ambassador Abu'l Hasan saw one such portrait of his master hanging beside that of King George III in the City of London Tavern, the envoy fell down and performed full obeisance before the image, embarrassing his English hosts into doing likewise.

Historians of Persia remember Fath-Ali Shah as an economic and military failure; but also as a major cultural catalyst. In his bid to create a suitably imperial court and image, the Shah sponsored poets and historians: the leading poet of his court, Fateh Ali Khan Saba, was ordered to compose a Shahanshah-nameh – the book of the King of Kings – for the Qajar dynasty, in which the Shah's own exploits were made to mirror those of the heroes of Ferdowsi's national epic, the Shahnameh. Massive architectural programs, both secular and religious, ornamented the cities of his realm. Ateliers of painting, calligraphy, book-making, silken textiles, music and architecture were all lavishly patronised.

The two panels offered at Bonhams are especially fine and rare specimens. They form unique records of one of the least explored but most fascinating moments in Persia's past, just as it was beginning to grapple with modernity, and the Qajars were turning from tribal rule to a stabilized and centralized monarchy based on the old imperial model. Most of all, these wonderful panels are records of a great artistic and cultural revival of Persian history.

William Dalrymple's latest book, The Anarchy: The Fall of the Mughal Empire and the Rise of the East India Company, 1599-1803, will be published in October.

Sale: The Lion and the Sun: Art from Qajar Persia
Tuesday 30 April at 11am
Enquiries: Oliver White +44 (0) 20 7468 8303

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