Persia/Chapter 16

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It is not without feelings of pain and disgust, that we enter upon this subject, which we would gladly have entirely omitted, were it not necessary to complete the portrait of a nation. Death, the idea of destruction, presents itself to man under an aspect so alarming, that there is no occasion to present it with all the circumstances which render it still more cruel. We should imagine, it is true, on considering the number of crimes committed in countries where executions are very frequent, that it could not be accompanied with too many horrors to deter man from guilt, since reason alone is incapable of recalling him to his duty: but the most consummate villain, enduring the horrid torments of a lingering death, ceases to be viewed as such: we forget his crimes, and behold in him only a fellow-creature suffering excruciating agonies. The emotions of the heart are not to be controlled either by reason or circumstances.

The kinds of punishment are numerous in the East, and vary according to the nature of the crime, and the quality of the culprit. The bastinado is the most common. The legs of the sufferer are tied together, and raised by means of a cord fastened to a tree or stake: the soles of the feet are then beaten with a stick. The rule is to give at least thirty strokes, but never more than three hundred. When a person is convicted of perjury, his throat is crammed with tow or rags, and melted lead poured into his mouth. Swindlers are branded on the forehead with a red-hot iron; house-breakers and coiners of counterfeit money have a hand cut off. Tradesmen using false weights, are put into a kind of walking pillory. A thick plank, with a hole in the middle to admit the head, rests upon the shoulders of the culprit; to this plank is fastened a bell: a straw cap is placed on his head, and thus accoutred he is paraded through the streets of the town.

The most common capital punishment, called shekeh kerden consists in cutting the body in two lengthwise with a sword, beginning between the legs and terminating on the side of the neck above the shoulder. For this purpose, the criminal is fastened by the heels to a pack-saddle on the back of a camel, with his head hanging nearly to the ground. After the horrid sentence has been executed, the camel with the bisected body is led through the whole town, preceded by an officer who proclaims the nature of the crime. The remains of the culprit are then hung to a pole or a tree, either in the country or in the suburbs, or even in the meidan, or open place before the palace.

Mr. Morier relates, that during the residence of the embassy which he accompanied at Shiraz, the report of a gun was one day heard, and on inquiry it was found to be the execution of a thief, who had been blown from the mouth of a mortar. Three men had been condemned to death by the prince-governor, for robbery: one was beheaded; the second blown up; and the third was cut in half, and the two parts of his body hung over two of the most frequented gates of the city, as a warning to other thieves. This horrid spectacle was displayed for three days.

Another cruel punishment reserved for robbers, who, since the accession of Feth Ali Shah, have been treated with peculiar severity, is the following:—The tops of two young trees are pulled down by means of a rope; one of the legs of the criminal is fastened to each of them, and the ropes are suddenly loosed: the force with which the trees return to their original erect position, tears the body of the unfortunate wretch in two. Impaling, cutting off the hands and legs, and immuring between four walls, were punishments usual in Persia in Chardin's time.

The death inflicted on grandees who have incurred the anger of the king, varies according to his pleasure. The most common is beheading: but if the fault be attended with aggravating circumstances, ingenious cruelty easily finds out refinements of suffering. A French gentleman relates, that during his residence in the camp of Feth Ali Shah, he witnessed the punishment inflicted on one of the king's officers, who had been convicted of peculation. His majesty caused the culprit's hands to be nailed together in his presence, over his breast, and two hundred strokes with a stick to be administered on his back. This punishment, nevertheless, was not considered as ignominious; and it was generally asserted, that this officer would appear again at court, as soon as he should be well enough.

When the reigning Shah aspired to the throne, the nation was divided into several parties, whose leaders were actuated by the same ambition of reigning. Saduk Khan Chegaughee, the richest and most powerful of them, was alone able to make any long resistance. Having been at length discomfited in a battle near Casvin, he was persuaded to surrender to the king, provided his blood should not be split. The king gave his solemn promise to this effect end kept it: for he caused him to be bricked up alive in one of the small rooms of a house at Teheran, in which he miserably perished of hunger, after having nearly eaten his own hands. The house in which this horrid scene occurred, was one of those assigned to the British embassy under Sir Gore Ouseley.

During the residence of this embassy in Persia, Mohamed Zemaun Khan, governor of Asterabad, having allied himself with the Turcomans,, threw off his allegiance to the king; but was seized and delivered up to the monarch by his own people, who dreaded the resentment of the latter. The king, on his arrival, ordered the chief of his camel-artillery to put a mock crown on the rebel's head, bazubends, or armlets on his arms, a sword by his side; to mount him upon an ass with his face towards the tail, and the tail in his hand; then to parade throughout the camp, and to exclaim: "This is he who wanted to be king!" After this was over and the people had mocked and insulted him, he was led before the king, who called for the looties, or buffoons, and ordered them to turn him into ridicule, by forcing him to dance and make antics against his will. He then ordered that whoever chose might spit in his face. He then received the bastinado on the soles of his feet, and some time afterwards had his eyes put out.

As to females, they frequently owe the preservation of their lives to the notion entertained by the Persians that their blood produces ill-luck. This notion has probably given rise to the punishment reserved for them, which consists in muffling them up closely in their veils, and precipitating them from the top of a tower.