Sunday, July 12, 2015

The portrayal of the historical figure of Aga Mohamed in the novel 'Zohrab, the Hostage' (1832)

Aga Mohamed was a real person. He is portrayed, partly fictionalized, in Zohrab, the Hostage (1832) by James Justinian Morier, who served as British ambassador to Persia 1810-1816. In the article below, emphasis is placed on how this character is portrayed, without regard to possible "spoilers" of the three-volume novel.


Although the author acknowledges that all of Persia is full of stories – some within living memory – of "the famous Aga Mohamed Shah, famous for his cruelty, his wisdom, and his wars" and "the ominous aspect of his ferocious countenance," nevertheless he says that his story changes some historical facts. Amima was really Mohamed's mother, but in the novel, she is his niece. Mohamed really killed one brother and blinded another, but in the novel their fates are combined in a character called Hussein Kuli. The attack on Asterabad is fictitious, but inspired by "the enormities of his cruelty" during the siege of Kerman, the facts of which can be found in Sir John Malcolm's History of Persia, Vol. II. The novel contains anecdotes about a bloody handkerchief (Vol. II) and counting eyes with a whip handle (Vol. III), which he says "were related to me by creditable witnesses."

But it has not been my object to draw a miniature picture of his character; I have only attempted a sketch. He is my prototype, and I have placed him in my narrative, as a painter sometimes inserts a dragon or some such monster in the foreground of his landscape.
* * *
We are told, – Either follow tradition, or invent such fables are consistent with themselves:
"Aut famam sequere, aut sibi convenienta finge."

Volume I

The chief eunuch is called the Khajeh Bashi; he lives in the palace. He "served Aga Mohamed with great zeal, although he dreaded the violence of his character with a feeling amounting to something more than womanish fear." (p. 152) He is addressed with terms of respect, for example, "Almas Aga" (diamond lord), but he responds by acknowledging his humble status: "Almas is her slave, and only waits her commands to show her the excess of his devotedness," he says to Amima, addressing her in the third person. (p. 154) The king, Aga Mohammed Shah, calls him to appear whenever anything important happens. He is, for example, in charge of supervising the Shah's nephew Fatteh Ali's goodbye to his sister. (p. 54) He is also in charge of maintaining the Corook, which is a clear path in front of the Shah's women when they are allowed to take a journey. The public is notified in advance not to cross the Corook on pain of death. "...the whole being marshalled by the royal eunuchs, who with loud shrill voices, and angry words and gestures were casting about the eyes of watchfulness and suspicion, in order to discover any audacious trespasser who might have transgressed the awful Corook. The whole was closed by the person of the Khajeh Bashi or eunuch in chief and a numerous suite, who were ready at the smallest signal to scour the country, and inflict immediate death on any unfortunate offender." (p. 29)

"the reader will perhaps be curious to become more intimately acquainted with the person of the extraordinary being who will form one of the principal features of the following narrative.

Nature, in forming Aga Mohamed Shah, intended to have installed a mind of uncommon vigour into a body capable of seconding its energies, by making it full of activity and strength; but the whole scheme was frustrated by the cruelty of man. Whilst the sharpness of intellect was preserved, it became diseased with ill-humour and moroseness, for every time that his body became an object of contemplation, he entertained such disgust towards himself that he feeling finished by placing him at enmity with all mankind. What would otherwise have been tall and erect, was now bent with the curve of apparent age; – what would have been strength of muscle and breadth of shoulder, seemed blighted and shrivelled. His face, particularly in a country where beards are universally worn, appeared like a blotch of leprosy, for it was almost totally hairless, – it could only boast of a few straggling bristles, which here and there sprouted at irregular distances, like stunted trees upon a poor soil. The skin which covered it resembled wetted parchment, hanging in baggy furrows down the cheeks, under the chin, and about the neck. This spectral countenance, for so it might be called, was, however, lighted up by a pair of small grey eyes of more than human lustre, which, from under two ragged curtains of eyelids, flashed all their intelligence abroad, and as they expressed rage, jealousy, or cruelty, made those who were exposed to their fire feel as if they were under the fascination of some blood-seeking monster. But with all this there were moments when this face would smile, and would even relax into looks of pity and benevolence, but so treacherous were these symptoms esteemed, that at length they were only looked upon as signals of some extraordinary disaster, or as beacons to warn those in danger to be upon their guard. (pp. 10-12)

"It is impossible to describe the expression of the face upon which the eyes of all present were turned, for bereft as it was of its native manliness, all that could be read in it was distrust, envy, and hatred." (pp. 33-34)

On another occasion, his niece's servant reports that "the Shah looked in a vastly killing humour". (p. 148)

"At length he came, and though but slightly attended, still his presence produced a sensation of awe that nothing could suppress, which might be likened to the instinct of smaller animals, that feel the neighbourhood of some large and venomous snake, without actually seeing it." (pp. 174-175)

The Shah has a "hideous" humpback as an attendant and, in particular, as a barber, and "it was generally supposed that the Shah had selected him for his important office, in order to keep himself in good humour with his own deformities." (pp. 12-13) The arrangement "was the ichneumon waiting upon the crocodile," and the humpback was "hated as a spy, and dreaded as an informer." (p. 13) Similarly, the chief eunuch, the Khajeh Bashi, was "many shades uglier than his master" and that, the author commented, "perhaps might have been the reason of his preservation." (p. 153)

The Shah has a falling out with his nephew on a hunting trip, because they both shoot at the same animal, and the Shah's first gunshot does not kill it, but the nephew's second shot fells it. "As soon as the successful result of it was seen, the envy and rage of the Eunuch at once started into active passion." (pp. 43-44) Even hours after the incident, he seems "not unlike a venomous snake coiled up within itself, ready to dart upon its unconscious prey." (p. 47) Because of this incident, he essentially threatens his nephew with death – letting him know that he killed his father and will easily kill him, too – and sending him away into a kind of temporary exile.

Contemplating the prisoner Zohrab, the Shah is "like the bloodhound, which, though muzzled, still snarls and snaps at what he thinks ought to be his prey". (pp. 98-99)When Zohrab approaches the Shah, "he obeyed and stood nothing daunted, with head erect and a firm countenance, exhibiting in his person a specimen of manly beauty which strongly contrasted with the degraded form before whom he stood." (p. 111) Zohrab says he does not mind if the Shah insults him or destroys him, "but when thou abusest my father, he who is thy equal, and to whom thou partly owest thy elevation, he, whom compared to thee is as the finest gold to the vilest copper, then I will speak; then I will tell thee, base dog! that I throw back thy odious words to thy face, and that I spit upon thy odious presence. And now do thy worst." (p. 116)

The chief huntsman had the idea to make a pillar of skulls (kelleh minar) of animals he slaughtered and to place Zohrab's head at the top. When he presents this delightful idea to the Shah, the Shah unaccountably turns the idea of violence against the loyal huntsman. "'What head can be better than thine?' roared the tyrant, in savage merriment." He instructs the chief executioner, the Nasakchi Bashi, "who was always in attendance," to "go complete the minar" and behead the huntsman. (p. 123) The Shah's strange order is not immediately believed by those present. "His horrid face broke into a demoniacal expression of fury when he saw that there was hesitation in obeying his commands. The ragged skin which fell in furrows down his cheeks began to bloat; the eyes seemed to roll in blood, and the whole frame, from which in general all circulation seemed to fly, wore a purple hue..." He is about to behead the huntsman himself, when the executioner steps up quickly behind the doomed huntsman and does his duty "with one blow of his deadly black Khorassan blade." (p. 124) The sight of the "streams of gore flowing and spouting in all directions" caused the Shah immediately "to be soothed into quiet," and "his features resumed their wonted dull and leaden expression." (p. 125) He then turns against the executioner for having fulfilled his command: "'Dog and villain,' he exclaimed, 'why did you slay my chief huntsman? what demon impelled your officious hand in this deed? well is it for you that there is such a feeling as compassion, and that the Shah can spare as well as he can spill! Go, go! clear up your work, and finish it by wiping your own self from our presence.'" (p. 126)

After the death of the chief huntsman, the Shah is regretful, but falls short of contrition, blaming the events on the appearance of Zohrab and lamenting his own loss of face in the eyes of his subjects.

"And thus I lost that poor old Hussein! – where shall I get such another servant? Evil was the hour when the Mazanderani youth came across my path. We have committed a crime which but for him never would have been; we have lost a servant whom we shall never replace; and my subjects look upon Aga Mahomed as a monster of injustice!" (p. 184)

Zohrab's life will be spared, but he must marry Zulma, the chief executioner's daughter.

Volume II

The second volume focuses on the unrequited love of Zohrab and Amima and on Zohrab's dilemma in being forced to marry Zulma.

There is a comment about how eunuchs look older than they are:

"Upon the frame and countenance of an eunuch, an appearance of premature age settles the cast of his features even from youth, and the changes are not so strong as upon the man, whose beard, like the verdant foliage of nature, shews by the variety of its tints..." (p. 98)

The Shah is described:

He was seated on his throne surrounded by a throng of the most brilliantly arrayed courtiers and attendants. He himself was dressed so entirely with jewelry, that as the sun glanced upon him, the eye could scarcely meet the beautiful and magnificent refulgence. A crown, in the front of which shone conspicuous a diamond of immense size, was placed on his head, whilst a pair of armlets or bazûbends, those distinguishing badges of Persian royalty, also composed of stones of immense value, were distinguished on the upper limb of each arm; here glistened those two famous diamonds the koh nûr and the deriah nûr, the mountain, and the sea of light, which had been seized by Nadir Shah among the spoils of the Moguls at the siege of Delhi, and upon which the Persians now looked as talisans which gave their possessor a lawful claim upon the throne.

His sword was placed across his knees; nothing could exceed the richness of its belt and sheath; a resplendent dagger glittered in a girdle of incalculable value, whilst he was backed by a pillow, so inlaid with precious stones, that it looked like a work of mosaic. But with all this his appearance was scarcely human; a dressed skeleton would have filled his place as well; at best he became a living illustration of the vanity of life. The jewels in which his person was incased, were contrasted with the ghastliness of his features, whilst those same features seemed to destroy the value of the jewelry.

But still how dreaded a king was he to his subjects! They could not attach ridicule to any thing belonging to one who had gained power and a throne by superiority of intellect, and which he had exercised in elevating their country to great eminence among the nations of Asia. There was something so uncommon in the circumstance of a being, so degraded in his person, raising himself to kingly power, that that circumstance alone gave a character of the marvellous to his appearance, and surrounded him by feelings of awe and mystery, highly conducive to the establishment of his power. (pp. 103-104)

Amima, while receiving advice from a dervish behind a curtain, faints, and in the commotion that includes the arrival of the Khajeh Bashi (chief eunuch), the curtain is pulled back and the dervish accidentally sees her face. More women and eunuchs come to solve the problem, and the dervish turns and leaves. (p. 130)

The first mention of the race of of eunuch – somewhat surprising, as the palace eunuchs were racially segregated in Persia – occurs in this sentence: "he perceived a well-veiled and richly dressed woman alighting from a finely caparisoned mule, held by a young black eunuch." (p. 136)

Zohrab had a little adventure in which he manages to enter the area of the palace that contained the women's apartments by dressing as a woman escorted by a servant, Ali. Zohrab was forced to stop and leave Ali when "they came to the wicket where a guard of eunuchs was stationed" and then he tried to find his way out of the palace, fearing "instant death" if he attracted the attention of more eunuchs. (p. 152) Two eunuchs were suspicious and were about "to lay violent hands upon him" when Amima's servant Mariam silences them, pretending to recognize the unknown figure as a woman, and invites Zohrab in. (p. 153) His arrival startles Amima, but, after she recovers from her faint, she begins to warm to him. Just then, they hear that the Shah, accompanied by "impatient eunuchs," wished to pass through the room to go to he turret (he is actually seeking the dervish, whom he distrusts), and they fear for their lives. Zohrab had nowhere to hide in the room, and he could not put his costume back on because harem women were not allowed to veil themselves in front of the Shah. They quickly knot scarves together and lower Zohrab off the turret to a nearby roof. The Khajeh Bashi finally bursts in, "foaming with rage at the impediments placed in the way of the performance of the Shah's commands," and Mariam responds to him: "And who are you, you old carcass without a soul! you old scabbard without a sword!" He argues back that he must do the Shah's bidding, because "by a nod of his head he may take off mine," and Mariam retorts, "We'll all teach the Shah to nod...and there let us trust may your hated noddle be nodded off." (pp. 163-164) The Khajeh Bashi sees the knotted scarves on the turret and he says, "In any other harem, a katl-i-âm, a universal massacre, would ensue." Mariam says that the women may tie their scarves any way that they like, and that if the eunuch speaks any more, they will hang him with the rope. (p. 165) They untie the scarves, and the Shah enters and is none the wiser.

Zohrab meanwhile has an interview with Zulma, who professes to be mad with love for him, but he rebuffs her and tells her he never consented to the marriage and will never marry her.

Through an act of trickery, Zohrab's father, Zaul Khan, rescues him from captivity and brings him home. The Shah is furious. "He was accustomed to look upon himself as the most quick-sighted and penetrating of human beings; what then was his mortification to find himself thus completely outwitted, and by one whom he so entirely despised! The feeling was maddening to the highest degree – he could scarcely contain his wrath from falling upon the whole city at once, so enraged was he at the situation of a dupe in which he thought he was placed." (p. 261) He orders the chief executioner and the head guard to be whipped for their negliglence, and they are bastinadoed into unconsciousness. (pp. 262-263)

The Shah then calls a witness to the activities of the "dervish" and of Zulma. The witness is identified as a Kechekchi (also spelled Keshekchi, meaning unknown) and a servant of the Shah. He says he saw the pair but admits that he was too "afraid" to do anything. At this time, the Humpback reveals that he found Amima's armband under Zohrab's pillow; it had once belonged to Amima's father, but the Shah had given it to Amima, and she had given it to Zohrab as a token of her affection.

His first impulse was to order instant execution upon her who had excited his wrath; but so malignant were his present feelings that he seemed to have pleasure in dwelling upon them, in order hat he might devise a more sweet and perfect revenge. The pause, the awful pause, which ensued during these his cogitations was felt by those present as if they stood on the verge of eternity – as if they were awaiting the signature of their death-warrant, so sure were they that none but the most dire results could accrue from the delay.
* * *
At length rousing himself from his apparent stupor, like the deadly boa rising from torpor and preparing for a fresh victim, he wreaked the first effects of his rage upon the poor keshekchi. "Strike his neck," he roared out to the full extent of his terrible voice, as he looked upon the offender. "Go, and let others know what it is to be negligent of the Shah's affairs."

Upon this a ferash ghazeb, a most ferocious monster, stepped up, and with one blow of his sword, severed the wretched man's head from his body. (pp. 267-8)

The "odious king" proceeds with more executions of the innocent along with the guilty, and his subjects respected his authority. "'Tis true they would call him a shaitan, a devil, a blood-drinker, a despot, but then at the same time they would add the epithet ajaîb, wonderful, which in most of their minds would also imply "admirable." (p. 269)

The Humpback reveals to the Shah that a man was seen climbing down from the turret, exiting the harem. The Shah calls for the Khajeh Bashi, addressing him as "Pander." The Khajeh Bashi is terrified by the allegation. (p. 274) The Shah is angry because he had previously felt toward Amima "a devoted tenderness, a sense of gratitude towards her for allowing him to feel that at least there was one creature in the world who cared for him," but now he sees that as "a mere illusion". (p. 276) He fantasizes throwing Amima off the turret with his own hands. The Khajeh Bashi goes to Amima's quarters late at night to fetch her and bring her before the Shah. She finds this highly irregular, and tells him, "the first words I utter will be complaint of thee. Will the Shah consent to see his niece exposed to the gaze of man without her veil?" (p. 281) In response, "the hideous creature indulged in a malignant exulting chuckle". (p. 282) Instead of bringing her to the Shah, however, he brings her to a horseman, and she is left exposed in the wilderness to die. She is rescued by a man who says that his brother was castrated by Adil Shah, a rival of his father's, and that he would have met the same fate soon after had Adil Shah not died. (p. 312)

Volume III

Volume III opens with the Shah's rage:

"The violence of feeling which had urged the Shah to the destruction of his niece, was succeeded by acts of unprecedented barbarity, as if he were anxious to stifle the feelings of remorse which the one had raised in his heart, by others still more atrocious. In losing Amima he had lost the only tie in which the affections of his heart were engaged; having once surmounted this, he overthrew every barrier, and like a wild beast breaking from his confinement, spread terror and alarm wherever his steps carried him. The first ravings of his fury turned towards the Khajeh Bashi."

The people gather quickly when they hear the Shah is about to sit on the throne, "for in the presence oft he tyrant, who could say that his turn for destruction might not be the next upon the book of fate?" In this case, the Shah speaks pointedly to the prime vizir Mirza Hajji Ibrahim to demonstrate to everyone that "he had arisen blameless, and that the confidence reposed in him had not in the slightest degree diminished." (p. 23) The Shah then gives military orders about clothing, provisions, and weapons. "His sagacity awed almost as much as his cruelty. Every one felt that, under the scrutiny of such an eye and such a mind, to do one's duty was inevitable, and therefore none flinched, but went heartily to work in its accomplishment." (p. 24)

Shir Khan Beg was summoned, and "the eyes of all were turned towards him, as one destined to receive a further infliction of punishment. ...he could scarcely stand, so truly was he terrified (in common let it be said with all the Persians of his day) by merely knowing himself to be near the presence of the Shah. He made his proper bow, and left his shoes at the door." (p. 40) Later, however, Shir Khan Beg is honored with rich dress, including a ceremonial diamond-hilted dagger whose honor he has always dreamed of. The Shah is thus able to assign him to a dangerous expedition. (pp. 98-102)

Zohrab has an opportunity to kill the Shah. Ali points his musket at him, but Zohrab orders him down.

"The moment of vengeance elapsed, and once of serious meditation succeeded. Zohrab was lost in a thousand reflections upon the sigh of hte being whose life he had just spared. His own persecutor, the murderer of his Amima, the invader of his country, the announced murderer of himself, his father, mother, and family; the proclaimed shedder of the blood of thousands of innocent people. All this had gone by, and he had refrained from taking vengeance into his own hand. The Mussulman youth felt that such destinies were to be wielded by the hand of an all wise Providence, and not placed at the disposal of a weak and erring mortal such as himself." (pp. 132-133)

Zulma tells the Shah that, one day, Ali arrived from Asterabad to deliver a letter to the humpback. Ali repeatedly refused to tell Zulma what the letter contained, but finally, Zulma seized it from him, discovered its "treachery," and reported it to the Shah. The Shah asked the executioners to ready the rope on a lightning-struck pine tree, as Ali waited, pinned by guards, and he also sent for the humpback.

"There sat the king, coiled up as it were in the folds of his power, like the dragon of the wilderness spreading terror around; above him reared the towering stem of the pine, scathed and blackened, overtopping all the trees of the forest, stretching out its burnt and withered ranches in stiff and rigid outlines, and presenting no bad emblem of the withered person of the Shah himself." (pp. 158-159)

As soon as the humpback is brought to him and the Shah reads the letter, the humpback is hoisted up on the rope and swings from the pine tree. The Shah then asks for Ali. (pp. 164-165)

"After the defeat of the royal army at the attack of the Tehran gate, the Shah had solemnly sworn on the Koran and by his own head, that he would deliver up the city for three successive days to the pillage of his troops; and that he would not be satisfied unless at the end of that time twenty mauns of human eyes were placed before him. Humanity shudders at this recital, but true it is that in Persia, now as in ancient times, the extraction of eyes was always a punishment resorted to when death was not inflicted. Noses and ears were also frequently commanded to be brought before the conqueror, upon sacking a city; eyes almost always." (p. 198)

The Shah hates Zaul, "and he determined never to sheathe his sword until dead or alive he had both father and son in his possession." In the Shah's tent, surrounded by his supporters, "his face beaming with ferocious malignity, he pronounced the awful sentence of the katl-i-aum, or general massacre, and to give it an appearance of lawful and religious severity, he caused a firman for that purpose to be issued, sanctioned by a fetvah of the Mushtehed of Persia." (p. 199-200) It was the Siege of Kerman, and there was "heard the uplifted voices of a whole city in malediction of the tyrant." (p. 200)

From his horse, the Shah yelled, "A hundred tomauns for the head of Zaul, and five hundred for Zohrab alive." Everyone takes up the call for arms. (p. 202)

Zohrab sees his father slain, and then he cuts a pursuer in half (p. 204) and manages to rescue his father's body before being beaten and brought to the Shah. The Shah tells him it is his last day. Zohrab asks to be killed immediately so that he can "die without being grateful to thee for any thing." Then he asks the Shah if he may be the "atoning sacrifice" for the innocent people so that the bloodshed will stop. "If thou hast a heart, let my words reach it; and if thou hast a soul, let the fear of a future life and future retribution overtake it." The Shah calls him a "dog" and orders him to stop preaching. Zohrab retorts that he is the "father of dogs". (p. 213) To increase his suffering, the Shah orders: “Let his confinement be so strict, that the Shah will be jealous if even a ray of light visits him.” (p. 214)

Eyes of victims are brought to the Shah. Sadek assures the Shah that it is the requested number. The "unfeeling" Shah warns him that, if there are not enough, Sadek's own eyes will be taken to meet the request. The executioner shows him the tray of eyes and begins to count them, then the Grand Vizir Hajji Ibrahim bursts out with a plea for mercy for the innocent victims. "The perverseness of the Shah's mind, acting upon his hot and ardent nature, was like a parasitical plant, which is seen to entwine itself, cover over, and take possession of a large tree in the forests of tropical climates..." He then dismisses his executioner from his responsibilities. (pp. 216-218)

When the Shah's nephew Fatteh Ali appears, older than everyone remembers him, they long for his kingship. (pp. 234-235) The Shah cannot abide hearing complimentary words about his nephew because he feels that he is being negatively compared to his nephew. (p. 238) When the Shah tells his nephew that he killed his sister Amima, his nephew curses him, and the Shah orders him killed. (pp. 248-249) Fatteh Ali is taken to prison, lamenting Amima’s death. Sadek longs to tell him the truth but can’t. (pp. 253-254)

The Shah tells Sadek that "my liver is turned into blood," but Sadek prostates himself and begs: "Your slave is too great a lover of his Shah to commit such an act. Let the Shah kill him, but let him stay his hand from th blood of the innocent youth." The Shah calls Sadek a "base reptile" and dismisses him, but privately, the Shah worries that he is losing favor among his own servants. (pp. 259)

The Shah orders Zohrab to be paraded backwards on a donkey, spit on, then impaled. (p. 265)

Then he tells Zulma: Her father, the chief executioner, must kill Sadek before dawn. He doesn’t tell her why. Meanwhile, Sadek finds his name on a kill list, and Sadek and Hussein conspire to stab the Shah in his sleep. The Shah awakens enough to run around the room first before he’s stabbed in the heart and falls, still declaring he is the Shah. “And thus fell the scourge of Persia’s fair kingdom, and of her soft and thoughtless sons.” (p. 280)

Sadek removes the Shah's head and also takes the kill list. He then breaks the news to the confined prince Fatteh Ali that his uncle, the Shah, is dead, and that his sister, Amima, lives. Sadek puts the severed head in the Grand Vizir's room as a prank. (p. 285)

When Zulma hears the news of the Shah's death, she wants to tell the imprisoned Zohrab. Fatteh Ali gives him the news about the Shah and Amima. Fatteh Ali is bedecked with the koh noor and deriah noor jewels on his arms. (p. 320)

Zohrab marries Amima. Zulma settles for a quarrelsome marriage with Shir Khan Beg. Sadek chooses voluntary exile.


James Morier. Zohrab, the Hostage. London: Richard Bentley, New Burlington Street, 1832.

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