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Friday, February 20, 2015

Renewed Exposure to the Presence of Africans in Persia: Digitizing the Collections of Antoin Sevruguin Photographs in the Archives of the Freer|Sackler, The Smithsonian’s Museum of Asian Art

This is the first of two blog posts written by Xavier Courouble, cataloger of the collections of Antoin Sevruguin Photographs and the Ernst Herzfeld Papers at Freer Sackler Archives, Smithsonian Institution. This post explores the presence of individuals of African descent at the royal court of Qajar Iran.



Nasir Al-Din Shah and his Eunuchs.
Antoin Sevruguin (d. 1933). Glass plate negative taken before 1896. Myron Bement Smith Collection of Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (FSA A.4 2.12.GN.51.02).

The group portrait photograph, taken by Antoin Sevruguin at the end of the nineteenth century shows Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar (ruled 1848-1896) among several of his personal attendants, many wearing the eunuch’s uniform, a high fur-skin hat and a long, loose robe over the trousers. Under Nasir al-Din Shah, the royal eunuchs, dominated by eunuchs of African descent, enjoyed power and wealth. Some of them obtained villages and lands belonging to the royal domain. Haji Sarvar Khan I'timad al-Harem, standing to the right of Nasir al-Din Shah, initially included in an imperial gift, held the eunuch most coveted position of chief of the royal harem from 1887 until Nasir al-Din’s Shah’s assassination in 1896. In that position Haji Sarvar Khan held the keys to the royal quarters and the harem doors. He controlled the other eunuchs of the royal harem, a total of 38 in 1887, and was an intermediary between the court officers and high ranking dignitaries, the royal women, and the shah himself. After 1896 he went to Tabriz to become Muhammad Ali Mirza's (the crown prince) head of the harem's eunuchs.

Nasir Al-Din Shah Supervising a Banquet for Ashpazan.
Antoin Sevruguin (d. 1933). Glass plate negative taken before 1896. Myron Bement Smith Collection of Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (FSA A.4 2.12.GN.17.02).

 Nasir al-Din Shah's Intimate Relationship with the Royal Attendants

Born July 17, 1831 in Tehran, Nasir al-Din Shah, a younger son of Mohammad Shah, was named heir apparent of the Qajar dynasty through the influence of his mother, Malik Jahan. According to Abbas Amanat, in his early years, Nasir al-Din received only a haphazard education, largely isolated from the outside. He was confined to his mother’s residential quarters, where a host of eunuchs, maids, and playmates compensated for the noticeable lack of parent care. An Abyssinian eunuch, Bashir Khan, a purchased slave of Malik Jahan, was in charge of overseeing the prince’s affairs. Bashir, like other black eunuchs in the Qajar harem, was treated with a peculiar mixture of awe and intimacy. He was a capable manager whose severe side was complemented by a sentimental, sometimes childish temperament. Later on, when he became the Shah’s chief eunuch, Bashir took pride in his personal attendance to Nasir al-Din over the years. By contrast, a combination of gratitude, pity, and old grudges best characterized Nasir al-Din’s ambivalent attitude toward his eunuch. Bashir was executed under order from Nasir al-Din in 1859 in an outburst of kingly rage! Intimacy with maids and servants and their children, who often were his playmates, may explain Nasir al-din’s unreserved reliance in later life on the servant class. It was this class that first introduced him to the outside world and taught him values of friendship and loyalty. In a society accustomed to treating children as miniature adults, princes even more than other children were in need of moral support to take them through the difficult passage of early adulthood. The sheer political demands on Nasir al-Din to behave majestically, particularly when his apparency was perpetually under question, required that he adopt a mask of solemnness and gravity that could only be put aside in the private company of his attendants. This self-imposed façade of grandeur, so characteristic of Nasir al-Din Shah’s public life, was a defense mechanism painfully developed in his childhood and rehearsed in the privacy of his inner court to conceal his shyness and vulnerability.

Standing Portrait of Nasir Al-Din Shah.
Antoin Sevruguin (d. 1933). Glass plate negative taken before 1896. Myron Bement Smith Collection of Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery   Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C. (FSA A.4 2.12.GN.51.08).

The Collections of Antoin Sevruguin Photographs

 The practice of photography was taken up in Iran soon after its invention in Europe, and Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar was an enthusiastic amateur himself. The glass plate negatives were taken by Antoin Sevruguin who, in the late nineteenth century, had fully established one of the most successful commercial photography studios in Tehran, Iran, with ties to the court of Nasir al-Din Shah Qajar. Despite numerous devastating incidents throughout Sevruguin’s career–the loss of more than half of the glass plates in a 1908 blast and fire, and the confiscation by order of the Shah of the remainder of the negatives in the mid-1920’s--695 glass plates negatives survived and were purchased in 1951-1952 from the American Presbyterian Mission in Tehran (Iran) by Myron Bement Smith. Ultimately the Myron B. Smith Papers and his collection of Sevruguin photographs were donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1973.They are included in the growing collections of Sevruguin photographs in the Freer Sackler Archives.

In Fall 2012, 1,072 photographs were digitized and cataloged from the collection of glass negatives from the Myron Bement Smith Collection, Subseries 2.12: Antoin Sevruguin Photographs; the collection of silver prints purchased by John Upton in 1928 in the Myron Bement Smith Collection, Subseries 2.12: Antoin Sevruguin Photographs; and the collection of albumen prints in the Stephen Arpee Collection of Sevruguin Photographs.

Nasir Al-Din Shah and Court with Bags of Money Owed to the Treasury.
Antoin Sevruguin (d. 1933). Glass plate negative taken in 1890. Myron Bement Smith Collection of Sevruguin Photographs. Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery   Archives. Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.
(FSA A.4 2.12.GN.19.01).

ONLINE RESOURCE

- AFRICANS IN PERSIA, photographs taken by Antoin Sevruguin, from the collections of Sevruguin photographs at National Anthropological Archives and the Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- IRAN IN PHOTOGRAPHS, an online exhibition part of the Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- SEVRUGUIN RESOURCE PAGE, Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- MYRON BEMENT SMITH COLLECTION OF SEVRUGUIN PHOTOGRAPHS, Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- STEPHEN ARPEE COLLECTION OF SEVRUGUIN PHOTOGRAPHS, Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- JAY BISNO COLLECTION OF SEVRUGUIN PHOTOGRAPHS, Archives of the Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery , Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
- SAILORS AND DAUGHTERS: EARLY PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE INDIAN OCEAN, an online exhibition part of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art’s programming for Connecting the Gems of the Indian Ocean: From Oman to East Africa.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

- AMANAT, Abbas, Pivot of the Universe: Nasir Al-Din Shah Qajar and the Iranian Monarchy, 1831-1896, University of California Press, 1997. Abstract available here
- BEHNAZ A. Mirzai, The Slave Trade and The African Diaspora in Iran, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, 2005. PDF file accessible here
- CACCHIOLI, Niambi, Disputed Freedom; Fugitive Slaves, Asylum and Manumission in Iran, 1851 – 1913, in The Slave Route. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. PDF file Accessible here
- FLOOR, Willem, Barda and Barda-dãri {Slaves and Slavery}, iv. From the Mongols to the Abolition of the Slavery.  Encyclopædia Iranica, III/7, p. 762; an updated version is available online at
http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/barda-iv (accessed on 27 May 2012).
- MOGHADDAM, Maria Sabaye, African Diaspora in Iran: Zar Ritual and African Cultural Influence. ASA 2013 Annual Meeting Paper. Abstract accessible here
- RICKS, Thomas, Slaves and Slaves Trading in Shi’I iran, AD 1500-1900, in Conceptualizing / Re-conceptualizing Africa; The Construction of African Historical Identity. Edited by Maghan Keita. Leiden; Boston; Koln: Brill, 2002. PDF file accessible here
- SHERIFF, Abdul, The Twilight of Slavery in the Persian Gulf, in  Monsoon and migration: Dhow Culture Dialogues, Zanzibar: Ziff Journal, 2, 2005. PDF file accessible here



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