The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan, James Morier
The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan
James Morier
21:36 h Novels Lvl 7.75
The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan is an 1824 book by James Morier. In Ispahan, Persia, a barber named Hajji Baba is leaving his father's shop to find a great fortune. At the same time, the Princess Fawzia is trying to talk her father into giving her in marriage to Nur-El-Din, a prince known far and wide. Her father intends for Fawzia to marry a friend and ally, and makes plans to send her to him.

The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan

James Morier

The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan


In the first decade of the present century Persia was for a short time the pivot of the Oriental interest of English and Indian statesmen. But little known and scarcely visited during the preceding century, it suddenly and simultaneously focussed the ambitions of Russia, the apprehensions of Great Britain, the Asiatic schemes of France. The envoys of great Powers flocked to its court, and vied with each other in the magnificence of the display and the prodigality of the gifts with which they sought to attract the superb graces of its sovereign, Fath Ali Shah. Among these supplicants for the Persian alliance, then appraised at much beyond its real value, the most assiduous and also the most profuse were the British, agitated at one moment by the prospect of an Afghan invasion of India, at another by the fear of an overland march against Delhi of the combined armies of Napoleon and the Tsar. These apprehensions were equally illusory; but while they lasted they supplied the excuse for a constant stream of embassies, some from the British sovereign, others from the viceregal court at Calcutta, and were reproduced in a bewildering succession of Anglo-Persian Treaties. Sir John Malcolm, Sir Harford Jones, Sir Gore Ouseley, and Sir Henry Ellis were the plenipotentiaries who negotiated these several instruments; and the principal coadjutor of the last three diplomats was James Justinian Morier, the author of “Hajji Baba.”

Born and nurtured in an Oriental atmosphere (though educated at Harrow), he was one of three out of four sons, whom their father, himself British Consul at Constantinople, dedicated to the Diplomatic or Consular service in Eastern Europe or in Asia. His Persian experience began when at the age of twenty-eight he accompanied Sir Harford Jones as private secretary, in 1808-1809, on that mission from the British Court direct which excited the bitter jealousy and provoked the undignified recriminations of the Indian Government. After the Treaty had been concluded, James Morier returned to England, being accompanied by the Persian envoy to the Court of St. James, who figures in this narrative as Mirza Firouz, and whose droll experiences in this country he subsequently related in the volume entitled “Hajji Baba in England.” While at home, Morier wrote the first of the two works upon Persia, and his journeys and experiences in and about that country, which, together with the writings of Sir John Malcolm, and the later publications of Sir W. Ouseley, Sir R. Ker Porter, and J. Baillie Frazer, familiarised the cultivated Englishman of the first quarter of this century with Persian history and habits to a degree far beyond that enjoyed by the corresponding Englishman of the present day. Returning to Persia with Sir Gore Ouseley in 1811-12 to assist the latter in the negotiation of a fresh Treaty, to meet the novel situation of a Franco-Russian alliance, Morier remained in Tehran as charge d’affaire after his chief had left, and in 1814 rendered similar aid to Sir H. Ellis in the conclusion of a still further Treaty superseding that of Ouseley, which had never been ratified. After his return to England in 1815, appeared the account of his second journey. Finally, nearly ten years later, there was issued in 1824 the ripened product of his Persian experiences and reflections in the shape of the inimitable story to which is prefixed this introduction. “Hajji Baba” at once became a favourite of the cultured reading public, and passed speedily through several editions. That popularity has never since been exhausted; and the constant demand for a new issue is a proof not merely of the intrinsic merit of the book as a contemporary portrait of Persian manners and life, but also of the fidelity with which it continues to reflect, after the lapse of three-quarters of a century, the salient and unchanging characteristics of a singularly unchanging Oriental people. Its author, having left the Diplomatic service, died in 1849. The celebrity of the family name has, however, been revindicated in more recent diplomatic history by the services of his nephew, the late Sir Robert Morier, who died in 1893, while British Ambassador at St. Petersburg.

James Morier was an artist as well as an author. The bulk of the illustrations in his two journeys were reproduced from his own drawings; and he left upon his death a number of scrap-books, whose unpublished contents are, I believe, not unlikely to see the light. In the Preface to the second edition of Hajji Baba he also spoke of ‘numerous notes which his long residence in Persia would have enabled him to add,’ but which his reluctance to increase the size of the work led him to omit. These, if they ever existed in a separate form, are no longer in the possession of his family, and may therefore be presumed to have ceased to exist. Their place can now only be ineffectually supplied, as in the present instance, by the observations of later travellers over the familiar ground, and of inferior gleaners in the same still prolific field.

Such was the historic mise-en-scène in which James Morier penned his famous satire. I next turn to the work itself. The idea of criticising, and still more of satirising, a country or a people under the guise of a fictitious narrator is familiar in the literature of many lands. More commonly the device adopted is that of introducing upon the scene the denizen of some other country or clime. Here, as in the case of the immortal Gil Blas of Santillane, with whom Hajji Baba has been not inaptly compared, the infinitely more difficult plan is preferred of exposing the foibles of a people through the mouth of one of their own nationality. Hajji Baba is a Persian of the Persians, typical not merely of the life and surroundings, but of the character and instincts and manner of thought of his countrymen. And yet it is from his lips that flows the delightful stream of naïve confession and mordant sarcasm that never seems either ill-natured or artificial, that lashes without vindictiveness, and excoriates without malice. In strict ratio, however, to the verisimilitude of the performance, must be esteemed the talents of the non-Oriental writer, who was responsible for so lifelike a creation. No man could, have written or could now write such a book unless he were steeped and saturated, not merely in Oriental experience, but in Oriental forms of expression and modes of thought. To these qualifications must be added great powers of insight and long observation. James Morier spent less than six years in Persia; and yet in a lifetime he could scarcely have improved upon the quality of his diagnosis. If the scenic and poetic accessories of a Persian picture are (except in the story of Yusuf and Mariam and a few other instances) somewhat wanting, their comparative neglect is more than compensated by the scrupulous exactitude of the dramatic properties with which is invested each incident in the tale. The hero, a characteristic Persian adventurer, one part good fellow, and three parts knave, always the plaything of fortune — whether barber, water-carrier, pipe-seller, dervish, doctor’s servant, sub-executioner, scribe and mollah, outcast, vender of pipe-sticks, Turkish merchant, or secretary to an ambassador — equally accepting her buffets and profiting by her caresses, never reluctant to lie or cheat or thieve, or get the better of anybody else in a warfare where every one was similarly engaged in the effort to get the better of him, and equipped with the ready casuistry to justify any transgression of the moral code, Hajji Baba never strikes a really false chord, or does or says anything intrinsically improbable; but, whether in success or adversity, as a victim of the roguery of others, or as a rogue himself, is faithful to a type of human character which modern times and a European surrounding are incapable of producing, but which is natural to a state of society in which men live by their wits, where the scullion of one day may be the grandee of the next, and the loftiest is not exempt from the extreme vicissitudes of fortune, and in which a despotic sovereign is the apex of a half-civilised community of jealous and struggling slaves.

Perhaps the foibles of the national character upon which the author is most severe are those of imposture in the diverse and artistic shapes in which it is practised by the modern Persian. He delights in stripping bare the shâm piety of the austere Mohammedan, the gullibility of the pilgrims to the sacred shrines, the sanctimonious humbug of the lantern-jawed devotees of Kum. One of his best portraits is that of the wandering dervish, who befriends and instructs, and ultimately robs Hajji Baba, and who thus explains the secrets of his trade: —

‘It is not great learning that is required to make a dervish; assurance
is the first ingredient. By impudence I have been a prophet, by
impudence I have wrought miracles, by impudence I have restored the
dying to health — by impudence, in short, I lead a life of great ease,
and am feared and respected by those who, like you, do not know what
dervishes are.’

Equally unsparing is his exposure of the reputed pillars of the Church, mollahs and mûshteheds, as illustrated by his excellent stories of the Mollah Bashi of Tehran, and of the mollah Nadân. He ridicules the combined ignorance and pretensions of the native quacks, who have in nowise improved since his day. He assumes, as he still might safely do, the venality of the kadi or official interpreter of the law. He places upon the lips of an old Curd a candid but unflattering estimate of the Persian character, ‘whose great and national vice is lying, and whose weapons, instead of the sword and spear, are treachery, deceit, and falsehood’ — an estimate which he would find no lack of more recent evidence to corroborate. And he revels in his tales of Persian cowardice, whether it be at the mere whisper of a Turcoman foray, or in conflict with the troops of a European Power, putting into the mouth of one of his characters the famous saying which it is on record that a Persian commander of that day actually employed: ‘O Allah, Allah, if there was no dying in the case, how the Persians would fight!’ In this general atmosphere of cheerful rascality and fraud an agreeable climax is reached when Hajji Baba is all but robbed of his patrimony by his own mother! It is the predominance in the narrative of these and other of the less attractive aspects of Persian character that has led some critics, writing from the charitable but ill-informed distance of an English arm-chair, to deprecate the apparent insensibility of the author to the more amiable characteristics of the Iranian people. Similarly, though doubtless with an additional instigation of ambassadorial prudence, Sir Harford Jones-Brydges, Morier’s own chief, wrote in the Introduction to his own Report of his Mission to the Persian Court these words: —

One may allow oneself to smile at some of the pages of “Hajji Baba”;
but it would be just as wise to estimate the national character of the
Persians from the adventures of that fictitious person, as it would be
to estimate the national character of the Spaniards from those of Don
Raphael or his worthy coadjutor, Ambrose de Lamela…. Knowing the
Persians as well as I do, I will boldly say the greater part of their
vices originate in the vices of their Government, while such virtues as
they do possess proceed from qualities of the mind.

To this nice, but, as I think, entirely affected discrimination between the sources respectively of Persian virtues and vices, it might be sufficient answer to point out that in “Hajji Baba” Morier takes up the pen of the professional satirist, an instrument which no satirist worthy of the name from Juvenal to Swift has ever yet dipped in honey or in treacle alone. But a more candid and certainly a more amusing reply was that which Morier himself received, after the publication of the book, from the Persian envoy whom he had escorted to England. This was how the irritated ambassador wrote:

What for you write “Hajji Baba,” sir? King very angry, sir. I swear
him you never write lies; but he say, yes — write. All people very angry
with you, sir. That very bad book, sir. All lies, sir. Who tell you all
these lies, sir? What for you not speak to me? Very bad business, sir.
Persian people very bad people, perhaps, but very good to you, sir.
What for you abuse them so bad?

There is a world of unconscious admission in the sentence which I have emphasised in bold print, and which may well stand in defence of Morier’s caustic, but never malicious, satire.

There is, however, to my mind, a deeper interest in the book than that which arises from its good-humoured flagellation of Persian peccadilloes. Just as no one who is unacquainted with the history and leading figures of the period can properly appreciate Sir Thomas More’s “Utopia,” or “Gulliver’s Travels,” so no one who has not sojourned in Persia, and devoted considerable study to contemporary events, can form any idea of the extent to which “Hajji Baba” is a picture of actual personages, and a record of veritable facts. It is no frolic of imaginative satire only; it is a historical document. The figures that move across the stage are not pasteboard creations, but the living personalities, disguised only in respect of their names, with whom Morier was brought daily into contact while at Tehran. The majority of the incidents so skilfully woven into the narrative of the hero’s adventures actually occurred, and can be identified by the student who is familiar with the incidents of the time. Above all, in its delineation of national customs, the book is an invaluable contribution to sociology, and conveys a more truthful and instructive impression of Persian habits, methods, points of view, and courses of action, than any disquisition of which I am aware in the more serious volumes of statesmen, travellers, and men of affairs. I will proceed to identify some of these personages and events.

No more faithful portrait is contained in the book than that of the king, Fath Ali Shah, the second of the Kajar Dynasty, and the great-grandfather of the reigning Shah. His vanity and ostentation, his passion for money and for women, his love of flattery, his discreet deference, to the priesthood (illustrated by his annual pilgrimage, in the garb of penance, to the shrine of Fatima at Kum), his royal state, his jewels, and his ambrosial beard, form the background of every contemporary work, and are vividly reproduced in these pages. The royal processions, whether in semi-state when he visited the house of a subject, or in full state when he went abroad from the capital, and the annual departure of the royal household for the summer camp at Sultanieh, are drawn from the life. Under the present Shah they have been shorn of a good deal of their former splendour. The Grand Vizier of the narrative, ‘that notorious minister, decrepit in person, and nefarious in conduct,’ ‘a little old man, famous for a hard and unyielding nature,’ was Mirza Sheffi who was appointed by Fath Ali Shah to succeed if Ibrahim, the minister to whom his uncle had owed his throne, and whom the nephew repaid by putting to death. The Amin-ed-Dowleh, or Lord High Treasurer, ‘a large, coarse man, and the son of a greengrocer of Ispahan,’ was Mohammed Hussein Khan, the second personage of Court. Only a slight verbal change is needed to transform Hajji Baba’s master, Mirza Ahmak, the king’s chief physician into Mirza Ahmed, the Hakîm Bashi of Fath Ali Shah. Namerd Khan, the chief executioner, and subsequent chief of the hero, whose swaggering cowardice is so vividly depicted, was, in actual life, Feraj Ullah Khan. The commander of the King’s Camel Corps, who had to give up his house to the British Elchi, was Mohammed Khan. The Poet Laureate of the story, Asker Khan, shared the name of his sovereign, Fath Ali Khan; and the story of his mouth being filled on one occasion with gold coins, and stuffed on another with sugar-candy, as a mark of the royal approbation, is true. The serdar of Erivan, ‘an abandoned sensualist, but liberal and enterprising,’ was one Hassan Khan; and the romantic tale of the Armenians, Yûsûf and Mariam, down to the minutest details, such as the throwing of a hand-grenade into one of the subterranean dwellings of the Armenians, and the escape of the girl by leaping from a window of the serdar’s palace at Erivan, is a reproduction of incidents that actually occurred in the Russo-Persian war of that date. Finally, Mirza Firouz Khan, the Persian envoy to Great Britain, and the hero of “Hajji Baba in England”, is a portrait of Mirza Abul Hassan Khan, a nephew of the former Grand Vizier, who visited London as the Shah’s representative in 1809-10, and who was subsequently sent on a similar mission to Petersburg. This individual made a considerable sensation in England by his excellent manners and witty retorts, among which one is worthy of being quoted that does not appear in Morier’s pages. When asked by a lady in London whether they did not worship the sun in Persia, he replied, ‘Oh yes, madam, and so would you in England too, if you ever saw him!’

The international politics of the time are not without their serious place in the pages of “Hajji Baba.” The French ambassador who is represented in chapter lxxiv. as retiring in disgrace from Tehran, was Napoleon’s emissary, General Gardanne, who, after his master had signed the Peace of Tilsit with the Tsar, found a very different estimate of the value of the French alliance entertained by the Persian Court. The English embassy, whose honorific reception is described in chapter lxxvii., was that of Sir Harford Jones. The disputes about hats, and chairs, and stockings, and other points of divergence between English and Persian etiquette, are historical; and a contemporary oil-painting of the first audience with the Shah, as described by Morier, still exists on the walls of the royal palace of Negaristan in the Persian capital. There may be seen the portraits of Sir Harford Jones and Sir John Malcolm, as well as of General Gardanne, grouped by a pardonable anachronism in the same picture. There is the king with his spider’s waist and his lordly beard; and there are the princes and the ministers of whom we have been reading. The philanthropic efforts of the Englishmen to force upon the reluctant Persians the triple boon of vaccination, post-mortem examinations, and potatoes, are also authentic.

Quite a number of smaller instances may be cited in which what appears only as an incident or an illustration in the story is in reality a historical fact. It is the case that the Turcoman freebooters did on more than one occasion push their alamans or raids as far even as Ispahan. The tribe by whom Hajji Baba is taken captive in the opening chapters is seemingly rather the Yomuts beyond Atrek River than the Tekke Turcomans of Akhal Tekke. I have myself ridden over the road between Abbasabad and Shahrud, where they were in the habit of swooping down upon the defenceless and terror-stricken caravans; and the description of the panic which they created among vastly superior numbers of Persians is in nowise exaggerated. The pillar of skulls which Aga Mohammed Shah is represented as having erected in chapter vii. was actually raised by that truculent eunuch at Bam in Persian Beluchistan, and was there noticed by an English traveller, Sir Henry Pottinger, in 1810. I have seen the story of the unhappy Zeenab and her fate described a review of “Hajji Baba” as more characteristic of the seraglio at Stamboul than of the harem at Tehran. This is an ignorant remark; for this form of execution was more than once inflicted during the reign of Fath Ali Shah. At Shiraz there still exists a deep well in the mountain above city, down which, until recently, women convicted of adultery were hurled; and when I was at Bokhara in 1888 there had, in the preceding year, been more than one case of execution by being thrown from the summit of the Minari-Kalan or Great Minaret. It is an interesting but now well-nigh forgotten fact that the Christian dervish who is represented in chapter lix. as publicly disputing with the mollahs in a medresseh at Ispahan, and as writing a refutation of the Mohammedan creed, was no other than the famous Henry Martyn, who created a prodigious sensation by the fearlessness of his polemics while at Shiraz, and who subsequently died at Tokat, in Asiatic Turkey, in 1812. The incidental mention of the great diamond or ‘Mountain of Light’ that was worn by Fath Ali Shah in one of his bazubands or armlets, though historically inaccurate, is also of interest to English readers; since the jewel alluded to is the Daria-i-Nur or Sea of Light, the sister-stone to the Koh-i-Nur or Mountain of Light, which, in the previous century, had been carried from Persia to Afghanistan, and in this century passed through the hands of Runjit Singh, the Lion of the Punjab, into the regalia of the British crown. The ‘Sea of Light’ is still at Tehran.

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