Saturday, March 7, 2015

Aga Mohamed Khan, 18th century Persian eunuch

Sir Percy Sykes wrote:

The memory of few Persians is so universally execrated as that of Aga Mohamed Khan, the founder of the Kajar dynasty. The eldest of the nine sons of Mohamed Husayn Khan, he was captured and castrated by Adil Shah when a boy of five, and this misfortune would sufficiently account for the vindictiveness and cruelty which have branded the Eunuch-Monarch for all time. (Sykes, p. 289)

Aga Mohamed lived at the court of Karim Khan, who was married to Aga Mohamed’s sister. Karim Khan referred to the boy as “Piran-wisa, after the celebrated Vizier of Afrasiab, the legendary King of Turan.” When he learned that Karim Khan was dead, he rode over three hundred miles north in three days, continued to Mazanderan where he seized a caravan, and contended with his half-brother Murtaza Kuli until he was able to become “master of the Caspian provinces.” (Sykes, p. 276)

In 1783, he conquered the province of Georgia. John Piggot wrote:

"The neighbouring provinces were awed into submission, after the sack of the capital, and now Aga consented to assume the crown; for though he had enjoyed supreme power more than a year, he objected to be crowned until he had subdued the enemies of Persia. He told the assembled courtiers that if they wished him to wear a crown, they must agree to help him to regain 'as much power as had been enjoyed by the greatest sovereign of Persia.' Even then he would not assume the magnificent crown of Nadir Shah, but merely a pearl-studded circlet. To the great delight of the religious, he pledged himself to the advancement of the Shiah faith, by wearing a sword consecrated at the tomb of the monarch who established that belief in Persia, Ismail Shah." (Piggot, pp. 67-68)

Stephen Howarth wrote:

Agha Mohammed Khan has an unpleasant person in every way. To look at, he was slight and wasted; a portrait of him shows a thin, morose, lined face wearing an enormous jewelled crown, spindly shoulders supporting heavily jewelled robes, the outsize garments making the mean body look even smaller. His sole loves were jewels and power; both his avarice and his cruelty became legendary. He was incapable of other loves; at the age of five he had been castrated by Ali Quli Khan, Nadir's [nephew and] successor, for he was the eldest son of an antagonistic and powerful tribal prince. It has been suggested that this personal disaster was the motive for all his later viciousness, but this seems superficial psychology. Evil can become a successful way of life for more easily than good; Agha Mohammed was one of those personalities whom weaker people follow for their own safety.

But not even his own people were safe from his capricious acts. One of his less disgusting habits was personally to disembowel any servant who might displease him. With this man, the use of blinding as a punishment – and as a means of making his enemies as impotent as himself – reached a kind of climax. In 1794, the city of Kerman, in south Persia, was taken by Agha Mohammed's forces. With his own hands he dug out the eyes of his last rival; and then he ordered that 20,000 pairs of eyes be brought to him from the conquered city. When they were duly delivered, heaped on trays, he counted them with the point of his dagger, saying to the officer who brought them, 'If one be missing, your own will make up the account.' But all the 40,000 eyes were there. (Howarth, pp. 91-92)

In over 300 pages, Piggot does not mention that Persia generally had eunuchs and does not mention any particular eunuch, save Aga Mohammed.

"...Aga Mohammed Khan, who, by the defeat of Lootf Ali, last monarch of the Zend dynasty, ascended the Persian throne.

This event took place in 1794, and the conduct of Aga, in his contest with Lootf Ali, prepared the country for a cruel government. Early in life this king had fallen into the power of Nadir Shah's nephew and successor, Adil Shah, who ordered him to be made an eunuch. We have mentioned his captivity at Shiraz under Kureem Khan, and his escape from the city on the death of that monarch, at which time he was thirty-six years of age. His confinement at Shiraz gave him plenty of opportunity for study, which he knew would be of use to him in the high position he longed to occupy. Though treated more as the friend than the captive of Kureem Khan, he never lost sight of the fact that to his captor he was indebted for the ruin of his house, and, when he had the opportunity, gratified his thirst for revenge. That opportunity occurred when, at the age of fifty-one he mounted the throne of Persia, and ordered every one of the tribe of Zend who was even remotely connected with the late royal family to be put to death, or to be deprived of their eyes. It is only fair to mention that he did not treat in the same manner the rival branch of the Kajar tribe, though it was chiefly owing to the conduct of its chief that his father had been slain. But Aga Mohammed saw that by reconciling the two branches of the Kajar tribe he should consolidate his power, and by blinding or killing members of the blood royal of the house of Zend he should prevent any member of that dynasty from aspiring to the throne." (Piggot, pp. 63-64) "But Aga gratified a revenge of a most contemptible nature, when he had the bones of Nadir Shah and Kureem Khan disinterred and buried at the entrance of his palace, so that he might daily have the satisfaction of trampling upon them." (Piggot, p. 65) "Aga Mohammed removed his capital from Shiraz to Teheran, which city was in a much more convenient situation for the government of the country. * * * In Teheran Aga Mohammed buit several of these ["large inns or caravanserais for the accommodation of travellers"), one or two of very large size. In almost every city in Persia a large building, or series of buildings, was strongly fortified and called the ark or citadel. In this the garrison retired when the walls had been stormed, and sustained a second siege. A parallel to this in our own country [England] is the keep of a mediƦval castle. The ark at Teheran occupied about a fourth of the city, and contained the king's palace." (Piggot, p. 66)

After Aga Mohamed was crowned Shah of Persia in 1796, he pursued Nadir's grandson, the 61-year-old Shah Rukh Mirza. Both men had suffered misfortunes as small children. Just as Aga Mohamed had been castrated at the age of five, Shah Rukh had been blinded at the age of five.

Shah Rukh had nominally come to the throne as a boy of five following the brief rule of Adil Shah (Ali Kuli), 1747-1748; Adil Shah was blinded by his brother Ibrahim and then assassinated by Ibrahim’s soldiers, who also killed Ibrahim. The next ruler, the small boy Shah Rukh Mirza, was vulnerable as Mirza Sayyid Mohamed (Sulayman) incited fear that the five-year-old Shah Rukh would grow up to “continue his grandfather’s policy of subverting the Shia doctrine”. Sulayman captured and blinded Shah Rukh, but then Shah Rukh’s general, Yusuf Ali, rescued him and was installed as regent for Shah Rukh. (Yusuf Ali subsequently captured, blinded, and executed Sulayman and also executed Sulayman’s two sons in retribution.) (Sykes, p. 276)

At the approach of Aga Mohamed, Shah Rukh's two sons fled to Afghanistan. Aga Mohamed then set his sights on Shah Rukh's hidden jewels. These Shah Rukh would not reveal, so he was put to torture.

“On the fall of Shahrukh, Ahmed Shah had allowed him to reside in Meshed, and govern it and the surrounding district. Thousands of pilgrims annually resorted to the sacred tomb or shrine of the Imam Riza. Aga Mohammed, who advanced with a force to that city, pretended to be merely one of these. His real reason for the expedition was this: when Shahrukh went to Meshed, the fallen monarch took with him many jewels of great value, part of the spoils which Nadir had brought from India. Aga Mohammed, like Nadir, was passionately fond of jewel,s and after he had prayed at the holy tomb, he requested the blind monarch to deliver up the gems. He, however, protested that he had none, so he was ordered to be tortured, and revealed the hiding-places of stones of great value. The last torture was diabolical: a circle of paste was put on his head and boiling oil was poured in, its effect being that an immense ruby, which had been in the crown of Aurungzebe, was given up. The poor king died soon after from the injuries he received.” (Piggot, p. 68)
“Day by day, under the influence of the agony inflicted, he revealed the secret hiding-places of his hoarded wealth. The celebrated ruby of Aurangzeb was produced only when a circle of paste had ben put upon his head and molten lead poured on to it. Aga Mohamed, with whom love of jewelry was almost a mania, was overjoyed at securing this priceless stone. He gave orders for the tortures to cease; but they had been too much for the descendant of Nadir Shah, who died soon afterwards from their effects.” (Sykes, p. 294)

Similarly, Howarth wrote:

The eunuch was not a person to hesitate at torture, and one by one the hiding-places of the gems were revealed. The process went on for several days; after each revelation Shah Rukh swore he had no more to give, but each new torture brought new treasures to light. So though the Koh-i-noor [a famous diamond] was actually in Afghanistan, Agha Mohammed remained convinced that the Shah still had it. The last gem to be disclosed was a great ruby taken by Nadir at the sack of Delhi; and to gain this, the final torture in the hunt for the crown jewels was a macabre mimicry of coronation. Shah Rukh's head was shaved, and a circle of thick paste as put around his bare scalp; then, into the circle, Agha Mohammed poured a pitcherful of molten lead. (Howarth, pp. 92-93)

Piggot:

"Persians love to think that this stone [the Deryai Noor, or Ocean of Light], with our Koh-i-noor, decorated the sword of Afrasiab, who lived three thousand years before our era. They add that Timour (or Tamerlane) carried them to India, where they remained until Nadir Shah's memorable expedition." (Piggot, pp. 291-292)

Aga Mohamed went on to capture the fortress at Shisha (Sykes, p. 294).

He was assassinated in the spring of 1797 at age 63. He had sentenced two personal attendants to death, but as it was Friday evening, a sacred time to Muslims, he said that they should not be executed until the morning. For some reason, the condemned men were not imprisoned, and they convinced a third man to help them stab Aga Mohammed in his tent. Piggot suspects "that one of the leading generals, Sadek Khan Shekaki, knew something beforehand of this deed, for he protected the assassins, and received from them the crown jewels, including the celebrated diamonds, the Taj-Mah (or crown of the moon) and the Derya-i-noor (or sea of light)." (Piggot, p. 70)

Sources

Stephen Howarth, The Koh-i-noor Diamond: The History and the Legend. London: Quartet Books, 1980.

John Piggot, F.S.A., F.G.S., F.R.G.S. Persia: Ancient & Modern. London: Henry S. King & Co, 1874.

Sir Percy Sykes, A History Of Persia, Volume 2 (1915), third edition (1969), reprinted 2004 by RoutledgeCurzon in Oxon, England. Chapter LXXIV, “The Founding of the Kajar Dynasty.”

Notes on further sources:
- A footnote in Sykes (p. 289) says: “The character of Aga Mohamed is well portrayed in the historical novel Zohrab the Hostage by James Morier. G. A. Olivier in vol. v. of his Voyage en Perse also gives an excellent contemporary account.” Sykes includes a quote from Olivier who refers to Aga Mohamed as "atroce" (atrocious).
- James Justinian Morier's novel Zohrab the Hostage was published in 1832 in three volumes: Vol. I, Vol. II, Vol. III
- A picture of Aga Mohamed appeared in Sir John Malcolm’s History of Persia, 1815, vol. ii and was reprinted in Sykes, p. 296.
- Selected pages of Sykes' work are available free online through Google Books. However, crucial pages about Aga Mohamed are missing from the Google Books version. It is recommended to find a print copy. It can also be purchased or rented through Amazon Kindle: Vol. I, Vol. II.

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