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)

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)

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.

“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)

Aga Mohamed went on to capture the fortress at Shisha (Sykes, p. 294). He was assassinated in 1797.


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

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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