Persia/Chapter 20

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The Persians have a great number of religious festivals in celebration of the birth and death of their prophets and saints, the principal mysteries of their faith, and the most memorable events of their religion. None of them is obligatory; their observance is purely optional, and some of them are not even distinguished by any ceremony. It would be too long to enumerate all these festivals; we shall therefore confine our notice to a few of them.

We have seen that the conclusion of the Ramazan furnishes occasion for a religious festival, kept with the greater enthusiasm and piety because it terminates the strictest fast. The Aid-el-corban, or festival of the sacrifice, is also attended with great rejoicings: it has been instituted in commemoration of Abraham, who, out of obedience to the Almighty, would have sacrificed his son Ishmael, whom the Arabs regard as their progenitor, and whom they substitute in this instance for Isaac. Some days before the corban, every family buys a sheep without spot or defect, an emblem of the corporeal and spiritual purity of Ishmael. On the day of the festival, this victim is decorated with ribbons, pearls and ornaments of every kind; its forehead, feet, and other parts of the body, are stained with henna, a powder made of the leaves of the cyperus; after being thus adorned and paraded about, it is slaughtered, and pieces of the flesh are sent by the family to its friends and the poor.

In large cities, instead of a sheep, the governor slaughters a camel; and the ceremony is performed out of the town, on a spot appropriated to the purpose. The governor inflicts the first blow; on which the bystanders instantly fall upon the victim, and cut it in pieces; and happy are they who can secure one of them for their share, because it is a pledge of good luck. On the return of the people from the sacrifice, scaffolds are erected before the governor's palace, in the public places, and in the streets; and rope-dancers, wrestlers, musicians, singers, and dancers, amuse the multitude there during the rest of the day.

On the 21st of Ramazan, a solemn festival is held in honour of Ali. For this purpose, a covered gallery is constructed somewhere out of the town, where the chief men of the place take their station. In front of this gallery is a kind of pulpit, eight feet high, covered with cloth. Here the preacher appointed to pronounce the panegyric of the sacred personage, reads for an hour or two in a book intituled Moctel-nameh, book of the murder, containing a history of the death of Ali, chanting without intermission, in a loud, clear, and doleful voice. There are certain passages of which he pronounces only the first word, leaving some of the congregation to finish. At the end of each passage, they repeat this imprecation: "May the curse of God be upon the murderer of Ali!" and all the people respond: "Rather more than less." It is rarely that the assembly is not melted into tears, when the preacher draws the affecting picture of Ali, apprizing his children that he shall soon fall by the hand of one of his servants, and receiving the fatal blow in the mosque while engaged in prayer. After the sermon, the people return in procession to the town; three camels bear representations of the tombs of All, and his two sons, Hassan and Hossien. These are followed by three chests covered with blue cloth, containing the spiritual treatises which they wrote; horses, carrying bows, turbans, and flags; and men, bearing on their heads little boxes covered with feathers and flowers, and containing the Koran. The procession is closed by musicians and young men, performing a variety of dances.

The first ten days of the month of Moharrem are devoted to a solemn mourning, in memory of the death of Hossein, the son of Ali. During this period, the Persians dress themselves in mourning, affect all the external appearances of sorrow, abstain from shaving their heads, from bathing, and even from changing their clothes. On the eve of the first of Moharrem, the mosques are hung with black. The next day, the pulpits are dressed in the same manner, the akhond and pish-namaz, inferior ministers of religion, ascend them, and narrate the particulars of the murder of Hossein with all the inflections voice that are calculated to render them more pathetic. The congregation from time to time beat their breasts, ejaculating: Ya Hossein! Ez Hosein heif! "O Hossein! Alas, Hossein!" Parts of the history of this Imam are in verse, and are chanted to a doleful tune. Various episodes of this history are daily represented by itinerant minstrels, as the circumstances,of the passion of Christ are exhibited in the Catholic countries of Europe. Banners, to which are fastened pictures relating to this history, are carried about the streets, followed by a concourse of men and boys, some personating Hossein's soldiers, and others his enemies. The two parties sometimes come to blows, and these sham-fights terminate in the death of one or two of the combatants.

The representation of the marriage of young Cassem, Hassan's son, with the daughter of his uncle, Hossein, forms one of the amusing incidents of this funeral festival. A young man acts the part of the bride, who is attired in a rich wedding-dress, and accompanied by her relatives, who sing a mournful elegy on the death of the bridegroom; for it should be observed, that the Imam Cassem was slain before the consummation of the marriage. At parting from his bride to go to the fight, Cassem takes the most affecting farewell of her; and, with a presentiment of his fate, he gives her, in token of his love, a mourning robe which she puts on. At this moment the people, transported with rage, rush upon the effigy of the caliph Yezid, the murderer of the Ali family, and tear it in pieces.

It is impossible to give an adequate description of the fanatic phrenzy of the Persians, during the days of mourning; nay, it could scarcely be credited, did not history teach us that the human mind knows no bounds in its aberrations. Death then appears a blessing of heaven; and those who perish in the combats which take place, are accounted martyrs. On the last day of the festival, their bodies are deposited in sepulchres, which are profusely decorated, and carried with great pomp to the cemetery. Many Persians even inflict voluntary wounds on themselves, in commemoration of the sufferings of the Imams, and in expiation of their own sins.

On the 28th of Jefer, the death of the Imam Hassan, brother of Hossein, is celebrated, but with less pomp, though with the same ceremonies.

Mr. Scott Waring mentions a festival celebrated by the Persians for the death of the caliph Omar. They erect a large platform, on which they fix an image, disfigured and deformed as much as possible. Addressing themselves to the image, they begin to revile it for having supplanted All, the lawful successor of the Prophet: at length, having exhausted all their expressions of abuse, they suddenly attack the image with stones and sticks, fill they have shattered it into pieces. The inside is hollow and full of sweetmeats, which are greedily devoured by the mob who attend the ceremony.

We shall say nothing of the festivals instituted in commemoration of some of Mahomet's miracles, such as the cleaving of the moon, the parturition of the stone, the speaking camel, &c. The reader who is not intimately acquainted with the history of that impostor, may not be aware that one of the chief miracle attributed to him is that of cleaving the moon in two. The parturition of the stone is not less surprising. A poor man, having lost a camel, which was all that he possessed, was overwhelmed with grief. Mahomet, moved with compassion, struck a stone; a camel instantly sprang from it, and he gave the animal to the poor fellow. The story of the camel seems to be an allegory, in which the Arab is exhorted to have compassion on that useful animal when it is grown old. A wealthy merchant of Medina kept several camels for his commercial pursuits, and when age and hard work had reduced their strength, he turned them out to shift for themselves. A camel which had experienced this treatment, went to Mahomet and complained to him of the injustice and cruelty of his master. Mahomet sent for the merchant reprimanded him for his conduct, and commanded him in future to keep every camel worn out in his service till its death.