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Ganj-Ali Khan
Dr. Mohammed Ibrahim Bastani Parizi  

Book Review

Historical Events

Dr. Mehrborzin Soroushian

The Author
Historical Perspective

The Book

Author: Bastani Parizi

The Author: Mohammad Ibrahim Bastani Parizi, a prolific Iranian writer, currently in retirement from his chairmanship of the History Department of Tehran University was born in the village of Pariz in the province of Kerman at the turn of the 20th century. Parizi undertook his initial schooling in Pariz, Kerman city, and Tehran before going to France to pursue his graduate studies leading to a doctorate degree in History and literature from University of Paris.  Upon his return to his motherland and his appointment at the University of Tehran, Bastani distinguished himself by his prolific writings and analysis of historical events. 

A very humble man, Bastani has a unique style of writing that makes his books very readable as he manages to analyze historical information filled with real life experiences that gives the reader an interesting perspective of the historical accounts he covers.  A review of the title of the books he has authored gives a perspective on his creative mind-set, and his unique ability to personalize for the readers the otherwise academic topics of his discourse.  In one of his books from Pariz to Paris, Bastani gives a very revealing account of his experiences.  

From a painting at the ceiling of the 40-Column Palace in Isfahan, depicting Shah Abbas with his distinct long Mustache and his courtiers being entertained by dancers while enjoying wine. The Safavids, in strict accordance with religion decrees had banned alcoholic drinks and the use of musical instruments for the general public. However, as the painting shows the ban did not apply to them.

In addition to numerous articles he has published in Farsi and French in various journals, Bastani has the authorship of 45 books in Farsi to his credit. Most of his books have been re-published several times.   13 of his books are about the various aspects of history and geography of Kerman amongst those one could mention, The prophet of the thieves (13 re-prints), History of Kerman (3 re-prints), Ganj Ali Khan (3 re-prints), The records of Safavids in Kerman (1360 YZ release).  Eight of his books have titles revolving around the number 7, including Goddess of the Seven Forts, The seven stoned mill, The seven layered bread, The seven headed dragon, The seven bent Alley, Under the seven skies, The seven layer Carved Stone, and The seven in Eight.    The remaining 24 books that he has published  covers a wide range of topics of interest in the history of post-Islamic Iran.  

Being from Kerman, and having made the acquaintance of many Zarathushtis, Bastani references the Zarathushtis in the context of a number of his books.  In so doing he goes further that many other non-Zarathushti Iranian writers in acknowledging the contribution of this native minority and their plight in post Islamic-Iran.  However, he does not go far enough in acknowledging all that befell the Zarathushtis in their ancestral lands under the guise of religion. Bastani takes the view that the ugliness that befell the Zarathushtis was an unfortunate reflection of the times past, and was commensurate with the difficulties all Iranians faced.   That  view, he reinforced in his last book “The Green-Clad old Sage” published five years ago.

Although Bastani fails to address the institutionalized atrocities committed against the Zarathushtis in their ancestral land in the course of the past millennium, he makes a few references in some of his books that conveys a sense of the scope and severity of the calamity that befell this demised minority in their ancestral land.

One such account can be found in his book on Ganj Ali Khan written about the powerful and influential governor of Kerman whose governorship coincided with the rule of Shah Abbas, one of the most powerful rulers of the Safavid dynasty of Iran.  

Historical Perspective: The Safavid rule in Iran from 1501 to 1723 A.D. was one of the longest continuous dynastic rule in the post-Islamic Iran. It started off with the Zarathushtis in Iran still numbering in millions, and by the end of their tenure that number had dwindled to less than hundred thousand due to massacres, forced conversion and mass movements of the followers of the ancient religion. 

The Safavids formalized Shia'ism as the state religion of Iran and used it as an effective instrument of State. Besides Zarathushtis, the Sufis and other religions minorities suffered persecution during this period.   Interestingly the Safavids had Sufi origin but embraced Shia'ism as an effective instrument  of consolidating their hold on Iran that was surrounded by  Sunni dominance on all  sides.  With Safavid power on the rise and despite its religious fervor, the European powers were competing with each other for forming alliances with the Safavids as an active way of keeping the Ottomans at Bay.

A painting by Riaz-i-Abbasi completed on January, 28, 1633, four years after Shah Abbas's death, and currently on display at the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia, shows Shah Abbas passing a drink to Alam Khan after a hunting episode.

In the context of post-Islamic Iran, the Safavids earned the distinction of having created the first centrally controlled  Federal system that brought all of Iran under one rule. Shah Abbas I’s rule from 1588 – 1629 saw the rise of the Safavid power to its peak due to his great statesmanship.  His rule coincided with the expansion of European powers into Asia.  The Portuguese first excursion into Asia occurred as they landed on the Persian Gulf coast of Iran and in Bahrain.  Although, Iran lacked naval forces, Shah Abbas forged an alliance with the British, and enlisted the help of their naval forces to dislodge the Portuguese from Persian Gulf, and that resulted in their sailing further East and making their landing on the shores of India.   Shah Abbas also fought  successful wars against the Ottomans on the West and against the Uzbeks on the Northern boundaries of Iran. European powers were in competition with each other to forge alliances with the Safavids against the Ottomans.

An avid hunter, with a taste for the finer things in life, Shah Abbas excelled in using religion as an effective instrument of his rule.  

The Book: The book covers the rise and the historical events surrounding one of the best known governors of Kerman in the post Islamic Iran.  The main Bazar and the oldest surviving public bath turned into museum in Kerman bearing the name of that governor is a living testimony to the legacy of that once powerful governor. 

The rise of that family to the position of influence is attributed to the first Ganj Ali Khan, the patriarch of the family and the father of the famed governor. It is believed that the first Ganj Ali Khan un-earthed what turned out to be a small buried treasure.  Putting his precious find to good use, he was able to build the family fortune and leverage it for his rise to a position of prominence in Kerman that warranted their governorship appointment by the Safavid court looking for effective and influential local chieftains who could have enforced Safavid authority over the province.

In his book, Bastani describes the events that unfolded during the long tenure of  the governor and the skills he brought to bear in dealing with them.   One event that Bastani makes a passing reference to is of great historical significance to the Zarathushtis of Kerman.  This event eventually sealed the faith of that powerfull governor at the hand of his patron  in the capital city of Isfahan, Shah Abbas.  Although Bastani’s motive in coverage of this event may have been for recording of significant events, the accounting serves the purpose  of conveying the scope of the calamities that befell the Zarathushtis in Iran during that period, the great injustices the political establishment dispensed towards them, and the helplessness of that demised minority in facing incredible odds.

The rest of this book review is dedicated to the coverage of that event based mostly from Bastani’s book. But for the sake of completeness information from other sources is used so as to construct a complete accounting of the event. 

Bastani reporting of the episode is as follow.

1.    Two Zarathushti laborers being constantly harassed by their  foreman got into a physical braw with the Moslem man resulting in the death of the foreman.  The two Zarathushti man fearful of the grave retribution try to hide the body of the dead foreman.

2.    The accidental death of the foreman is uncovered and the two guilty man are reported to the office of the governor.  Ganj Ali Khan calls in the high Shia'ite Mullah of Kerman considered to be the judge to make a ruling.  The high Mullah seeing this to be an opportunity to deal with the Zarathushtis in Kerman finds the two Zarathushti guilty of killing a Moslem man, considered a high crime. 

3.    To render the punishment, he asks for a jar filled with honey  and a bag full of barley to be brought in his official quarters.  Under the watchful eye of all those present, he immerses his right hand up to his wrist in the jar of honey until it is completely covered.  Withdrawing his hand from the jar of honey, he  thrusts his hand into the bag of barley and leaves it immersed for a short while.  Then he withdraws his hand, and asks the officials of his court to take an exact count of barley stuck to his hand.  

4    After the counting is completed, the Mullah declares that for every barley counted, one Zarathushti person must be killed to avenge the death of the Moslem foreman.  The officials soon realize there are not that many Zarathushtis in Kerman city to make up the exact count.  The judge orders that additional Zarathushtis must be brought it from surrounding areas in the Kerman province to make up the count.

5.    Ganj Ali Khan endorses the ruling, and orders that public announcements to be made across the provinces for all Zarathushtis to report to the provincial capital city.  A week’s timeframe is set to allow the Zarathushtis in the far reaches of Kerman to arrive at the site of their execution.  The news spreads across the city like wild fire.

6.    The next event unfolds  in Isfahan two nights later following the public announcements in Kerman.     Past mid-night, a sudden outcry from the Royal headquarter echoes across the forty Column Palace, the official residence of the Safavids.

7.    Courtiers, including powerful Shia'ite high Ayatollahs of Iran associated with the palace rush to the bedroom of Shah Abbas from where the outcry has emanated.  Shah Abbas with his distinct long mustache, apparently shaken declares he had a horrible nightmare, and saw half of Kerman city aflame.*  The courtiers tried to assure the king, that all is calm in Kerman according to an official courier arriving back in the Capital the previous week.   [*Shah Abbas, following the example of an earlier Iranian ruler, Darius the Great, regularly dispatched personal spies to all parts of the country with instruction to report back to him immediately in the case of unusual  events shaping up in the provinces.  It is reputed that every night, he would secretly slip out of his palace in disguise and meet his returning spies at pre-determined locations in the Isfahan Bazar.   The belief is that, as soon as the public execution announcement was made in Kerman, one of Shah Abbas’s spies departed for Isfahan expediently and met the King two nights later. Shah Abbas being careful not to alienate the Shia'ite establishment by any appearance of sympathy towards the Zarathushti minority had to stage that dramatic scene in his bedroom later that night.

8.    Shah Abbas rejects the claims and insists that something is eminent.  He declares to assure himself he must depart for Kerman city at the crack of dawn to reach the province expediently.  The courtiers try to calm the King, but facing his persistence, depart to make preparation for immediate departure.

9.    At the dawn hours, the Royal entourage departs in the direction of Kerman, and reaches the outskirt of Kerman in record times. 

10.   Within few miles of the entrance to the city, Shah Abbas stops and ask a passing villager what is happening in Kerman.  With his entourage listening in, the old man reports, Ganj Ali Khan has ordered all Zarathushtis to report in by the following day for a mass execution. 

11.   At this point Shah Abbas declares if that is all, we can now return to the Capital. [This is believed to have been a well calculated political move by the King, in order not to appear to be sympathetic to the minorities.

12.   As they turn back, Shah Abbas calls one of his trusted officials for a private audience, and hands him his Royal ring, the seal of Safavid authority.  He asks, his trusted official to gallop to Kerman city and hands the ring  to Ganj Ali Khan, and to inform the governor that the bearer of this ring is passing by the city on his way back to Isfahan.

13.   Shah Abbas informs his entourage, they will return to Isfahan at a leisurely pace since all seems to be in order.

14.   Back in Kerman city, Ganj Ali Khan receives the royal emissary, and on recognizing the ring, declares that he will depart immediately  to catch up with the Royal entourage in an attempt to invite Shah Abbas to grace the city with his presence.

15.   A few hours later, Ganj Ali Khan has caught up with the Royal entourage, and presents himself at the foot of King asking him to grace the city so the Kermanis can show Shah Abbas the extent of their affection for him.

16.   Shah Abbas dismounts his horse, thanks the governor, and tells him instead of hosting in Kerman, he should construct a Caravan Camping quarters at that location they both stood.  [Something that Ganj Ali Khan orders immediately and dedicates to Shah Abbas upon completion.  The ruins of that Caravan camping grounds stand to this day

17.   Shah Abbas asks Ganj Ali Khan to take a brief stroll with him and to report on the condition of the province to him.  It is believed that once they were outside the hearing range of the rest of the Royal entourage, Shah Abbas changes the subject, and asks about the massacre that is about to unfold in Kerman city the next day.  Hearing the report, Shah Abbas must have instructed the governor to stop the madness.

18.   As they walk back towards the waiting entourage, Shah Abbas embraces the governor, wishing him well, and orders immediate departure for Isfahan.

19.   The rest is history.  Ganj Ali Khan on returning to Kerman city declares his previous decree on mass execution of the Zarathushtis is cancelled.  The two Zarathushti laborers guilty of killing the Moslem foreman are hang in public the following day. Ganj Ali Khan declares justices has been carried out. 

20.   Less than a year later, a Royal courier arrives from Isfahan bearing a decree to the governor of Kerman.  It is read in the presence of prominent Kermanis.  In thanking Ganj Ali Khan for his years of service and in recognition for the same, the Royal decree informs Ganj Ali Khan that he has been appointed as the new governor of Herat (part of present  Afghanistan prior to its split from Iran centuries later).  Those familiar with the political realities of Iran realized, this was a serious reprimand for Ganj Ali Khan, and was in effect the downfall of his career, and his fall from the hey day of his family fortune in Kerman.

21.   Years later, Shah Abbas orders the relocation of many of the Zarathushtis of Kerman to Isfahan. [This move is believed to have been a measure by the Shah to minimize similar risks to the Zarathushtis.]  The Zarathushti arrivals from Kerman mostly farm hands, are credited for beautifying Isfahan, thereby justifying its reputation as one of lush cities in Iran. The descendents of the same Zarathushti migrants from Kerman numbering more than two hundred thousands were massacred a century later by the last of the Safavids in an event that brought about his downfall as much as the event in Kerman had brought about the downfall of Ganj Ali Khan a century earlier.

22.   In observance of  Shah Abbas’s intervention that saved the Zarathushtis of Kerman, an annual offering (Aash-e-Shah Abbasi) dedicated to the memory of Shah Abbas has been held continuously by the Zarathushti community of Kerman until the later part of the twentieth century.