The rise to power of the Safavids constituted another Turkic invasion of Iran – one proceeding from the west rather than the east. The first Safavid “Shah” was Ismail I, a Turkish speaking warrior who seized power in Iran in 1501. He started to force Iranians to convert to Twelver Shiism, and killed anyone who rebelled against it. His successors continued with the forced conversion.
António Tenreiro, who was sent to Iran in 1524 as member of a delegation from Portugal, described “Shah” Ismail’s pathological cruelty to humans and animals: Ismail personally killed prisoners after the conquest of Isfahan, with the sword, whose hands and feet had been tied together. Tenreiro reports, that he has seen burnt bones and ashes resulting from a massacre that was perpetrated on 5000 people. He further describes, that Shah Ismail organized hunts, in which animals were rounded up in mass, of which he himself killed by as many as he could by hand, and left the rest over to his soldiers to be slaughtered.
The Safavids also imported Arab Shias to Iran, predominantly Sayyids, built religious institutions for them, including many Madrasas (religious schools) and let them participate in the government. Most came from Mesopotamia (Iraq), Jabal Amel (Southern Lebanon) and Bahrain and were supposed to indoctrinate Iranians and legitimize the Safavid leadership. Common Sayyids family surnames in Iran are Husseini, Mousavi, Kazemi, Razavi, Tabatabaei, Hashemi, Hassani, Ladjevardi, Zaidi and Imamzadeh.
How the Turkified and Islamized Iranians behaved
The following reports also date from the period of Turkish Safavid rule (1501-1722) in Iran. The extracts come from ambassadors, tourists, and travelers from around the world who visited our homeland Iran and reported about it. We can learn a lot from these notes. These events clearly show the black veil of hatred and superstition, which has spread through Islam in our Ahuric country.
A number of travellers describe the Shiite rituals as resembling animalistic or demonic features [De Chinon and Du Mans: “Howl like wolves”] or mere “fancies” and “ridiculous spectacle”.
The travel account of the Venetian diplomat Michele Membré marks the earliest recorded testimony of the ceremonies in the Safavid era under Shah Tahmasb 1542. Membré described Muharram as follows:
In the month May they perform the passion of a son of Ali, wherefore they call him Imam Husain, who fought with a certain race which they call Yazid, and had his head cut off […]. From evening to one hour of the night the companies go around through the city and through the mosques chanting in Persian the passion of the said Imam Husain. This they call ‘Ashura’. And that began on 1st May up to the 10th. I saw young men make their bodies black and go naked on the earth. I saw another thing on the square which they call after Begum, someone make a hole underground like a well, and put himself in it naked and leave only his head out, with all the rest in the hole, packed in with earth up to the throat; and that was to perform that passion. This I saw with my own eyes. In the evening all the ladies betake themselves to their mosques and a preacher preaches the passion of the said son of Ali, and the ladies weep bitterly.
In 1602-1604, the Portugese traveller António de Gouvea provides the first description of the public mourning in Shiraz.
The festival of ‘Achur’ (Ashura) was performed in the maydan (city square), where the governor, riding on a horse, accompanied the mourning procession amid a boisterous crowd and discordant music […]. The procession included symbolic representations of the characters of Karbala, as children and women, seated on animals, cried and wailed. Along with the realistic representations of wounds and injouries on the ritual participants heads and faces, male penitents engaged in ritual battles with long painted sticks. In the course of these ritual combats, they fought to the point of death, and their corpses left on the square. […] self-burial rituals continued to be present in the course of the ceremonies.
D. Garcia de Silva Figuerora was born in 1557 in Spain. He was the commander of the Spanish army against the Dutch. At the age of fifty-seven, he was sent by Phillip III. as an ambassador to “Shah” Abbas of Iran. His testimony from Isfahan (1618-19) provides an account about a new Muharram ritual – the camel sacrifice.
First, the most beautiful and well-bred female camel, embrellished with flowers, herbs, garlands of leaves, silk sheets, plates of gold, bells and carpets, was walked through the city. As the participants furiously beat themselves, the darugheh (chief of police) of Isfahan and other officials, accompanied by an armed croud of noisy men, gathered on a large platin near the river outside the city. They made a circle around the animal, and as the camel laid on the ground with its leg tied, the darugheh struck a lance into the camel. Immediately, a boisterous crowd with sharp sword ripped the camel into pieces. Some were injured, and others are killed, as mourners continued to fight among themselves for the flesh of the animal. Once a piece of the slaughtered meat was obtained, some participants took it to the cemetery, while others ran through the city, beating themselves, shouting and crying. The aggressiveness and the fury of the people were so intense that the darugheh and his men failed to control the crowd.
The rituals and ceremonies of Muharram evolved under different leaderships. Slicing oneself has become less common in Iran, however people still practice self-beating and mourning for Arab foreign masters.
These reports illustrate the miserable conditions of people who became Muslims, but once had a great culture. Just because we believe that an Arab named Mohamed flew to heaven on a donkey, or because we are proud that a Tazi named Ali was able to cut off the head of two Iranians with one strike. May intellect and reason triumph again, so that we may become what we were once…