Dance as prayer in Luristan, Northern Iran, 1340?

In that same year he died, and his son Atäbek Yüsuf ruled for ten years, and after that his brother Afräsiyäb. When I entered the city of Īdhaj I wished to see this sultan Afräsiyäb, but that was not easily come by as he goes out only on Fridays, owing to his addiction to wine. He had one son and one only, who was his designated heir, and who fell ill at this time.


   On a certain night one of his servants came to me and made enquiries of me about myself; when I told him he went away and came back later after the sunset prayer, bringing with him two great platters, one with food and the other with fruit, and a pouch containing money. Accompanying him were musicians with their instruments and he said to them ‘Make music, so that these poor brethren will dance and pray for the Sultan’s son.’ I said to him, ‘My associates have no knowledge of either music or dancing,’ but we prayed for the sultan and his son, and I divided the money among the poor brethren. In the middle of the night we heard cries and lamentations, for the sick boy had died.

Gibb, H.A.R. (ed. & transl.): The travels of Ibn Battuta, 1325-1354. Cambridge, Hakluyt Society, 1962, 2 vols.

Ten women dancing and singing at a feast given by the Lord Steward, Casbin, Persia, 1599-1627

So after some five or six days’ rest we were furnished with apparel and horses; and then the Lord Steward did invite Sir Anthony and all we of his company to a great banquet at the King’s palace, which Sir Antony did not refuse; when the Lord Steward did royally receive us, meeting us half the way, attended with forty gentlemen very well horsed; so coming to the palace we did behold there a sumptuous spectacle, which was the palace gate being curiously set, wrought and garnished with rich stones very bright, the like I think the world cannot afford.


   The going up unto the gate was seven steps, about some half dozen yards broad, of a very strong kind of stone; so when we were alighted from our horses, and come near unto the gate, the Lord Steward told Sir Anthony that it was the fashion that those that did enter into the gate, must kiss the first step, and especially strangers, but you shall be privileged to do as it shall please you. Sir Anthony replied, in honour of the Sophi thy king, I will do this; and so he made a low obeisance, and in the like sort did Mr. Robert Sherley his brother, but all we did kiss the step, which did greatly rejoice the Lord Steward and his company. So into the house we came, which was richly hanged in every room with gold carpets, and under foot with rich arras; but to tell the several sorts of dishes we had there I cannot express, and every dish trimmed with rice, coloured of all kind of colours.


   We had also the king’s music to attend us, both there and home or where we would command them. There was also at the feast ten women very gallantly apparelled, and very beautiful, who did dance according to their country manner, and sing all the time we were feasting. There we spent that day, and at our return to our house we were guarded very royally with all the citizens of worth, with the sound both of drum and trumpet. And in the like sort did the Governor feast us, and all men were willing to show us any pleasure we would.

Sherley, Sir Anthony & Sir Robert & Sir Thomas: The three brothers; or, the travels and adventures of Sir Anthony, Sir Robert and Sir Thomas Sherley, in Persia, Russia, Turkey, Spain… London, Hurst & Robinson, 1825.

Twenty women dancing in procession at Casbin, Persia, 1599-1627

The King swearing a great oath, which was by the soul of Mortus Ali, that he should sit in the chair, and if the best Persian of them all did grieve at it, he would presently cut off his head; and taking Sir Anthony by the hand, bid him sit down, without fear, which Sir Anthony did, and when he was set, the King kissed him, and said, “Brother, thou dost well become this place;” then he called for a stool for Mr. Robert Sherley, which was presently brought, and he sat him close by his brother Sir Anthony, and placing all of us of Sir Anthony’s company round about the throne, sitting on carpets cross-legged, according to the country fashion; then came there in a royal banquet with drums and trumpets sounding before it, which was brought in by twenty-four noblemen, and when the drums and trumpets departed, the music came in playing, with twenty women very richly apparelled, singing and dancing before the music.


   So when the banquet was ended, the King arose, taking Sir Anthony by the arm, and so they walked, arm in arm, in every street in the city, the twenty women going before, singing and dancing, and his noblemen coming after, with each of them one of our company by the hand, and at every turning there was variety of music, and lamps hanging on either side their streets of seven heights one above another, which made a glorious shew; and thus for the space of eight days and nights did we spend the time in sporting and banqueting with all the pomps they could devise.

Sherley, Sir Anthony & Sir Robert & Sir Thomas: The three brothers; or, the travels and adventures of Sir Anthony, Sir Robert and Sir Thomas Sherley, in Persia, Russia, Turkey, Spain… London, Hurst & Robinson, 1825.

Whores and boys at the British ambassador’s entrance into Ispahan, Persia, 10/04/1627

We entered Ispahan the tenth of April, and I shall truly relate the order of our entertainment. Three miles short of the great city, we were entreated to repose an hour in a garden of the King’s, where we had a banquet. Thither came the agent, and some English factors, to wait upon our Lord Ambassador. Thence, riding in good equipage, the Sultan of Ispahan, Meloym-beg, the Treasurer, Hodgee-Nazarr, the Prince of the Armenian Christians, with all the Beglerbegs and Coozel-bashaws of the city, accompanied with 4000 horsemen, came to welcome us. The fields and streets, for two miles, were filled, in our passage, with Bannyans and women from the city, ten thousand at the fewest, who, as we past, cried “welcome,” and shouted strongly: amongst the horse were above forty kettle-drums, and tabrets, nor wanted the whores and boys their places, all which, with antique dances, made the ceremony more notable.

Sherley, Sir Anthony & Sir Robert & Sir Thomas: The three brothers; or, the travels and adventures of Sir Anthony, Sir Robert and Sir Thomas Sherley, in Persia, Russia, Turkey, Spain… London, Hurst & Robinson, 1825.

Tabriz, Iran

But of all the pictures of harem life, which, during the progress of this work, it has been our fortune to read, none surpasses in vividness and vraisemblance the description given by M. Eugéne Flandin of a visit he paid at Tabriz to the private residence of Prince Malek-Kahassin Mirza, of which he gives the following account:

Tabriz, Iran

“In the centre of these Houris of the terrestrial Paradise which the Prince had created for himself, we seated ourselves at a little table, on which an elegant supper was served. During the repast, which was served with a research and gallantry quite harmonizing with our entourage, the dancing was not discontinued. Usually, only one lady danced; from time to time, a second joined her, but there were never more than two.  They held in their hands small cymbals, like castagnettes, of a sonorous metal, with which they marked the measure, and accompanied the instruments. One of the latter was a species of spherical bass viol, made of whalebone, it was provided with a very long handle, had only three chords, and rested on a foot. Sounds of a rather shrill nature were produced from it by means of a silken bow. The one figuring in the Prince’s orchestra, was in the hands of the only man who was with us, and who owed this exception in his favour to the fact of his being blind.  At his side a woman was scratching the metallic strings of madoline, with a tortoiseshell quill; another was beating with both hands a small tambourine which was held under her left arm; while a third accompanied her on another tabourine, precisely resembling those in use among Europeans.


   “The intervals between these dances were very short, and these women, who had at first appeared only to dance to amuse their master, ended by taking such pleasure in it and to become so animated that the vivacity and strangeness of their movements made them appear mad.  In these moments of excitement the orchestra played with unceasing speed and energy, so that the dancers reached the paroxysm of excitement, and fell back exhausted in the strangest nervous agitation.


   “These dances possessed such novelty for me that they attracted my entire attention, but I must confess that they were far from satisfying me. They were hurried and irregular movements, imprinted with a certain originality, but not possessing the slightest grace or lightness. I much preferred seeing these women in a state of repose, and in the attitude they assumed with that nonchalance so natural to them, than, when excited by this barbarous music, making these eccentric bounds which verged on frenzy.


   “When the dance had continued so long that the ladies felt inclined to rest, I was enabled to examine at my leisure that manner in which they were attired. Their dresses were all cut after the same pattern, which appeared to me remarkably simple. The Prince,, by his explanations, had the goodness supply that which I was not able to see. The Persian women do not wear chemises, they only have a tight fitting corsage, which confines the bust, and falls a little below it so as to fall on the petticoat. On the bosom the two sides of the corsage do not meet, there is a gap left somewhat larger than a hand, which is covered by a piece of stuff independent of the rest, and which is fastened with studs. A large petticoat, fastened upon the hips, descends upon the feet.  Their hair is dragged up from the forehead, and falls in large plaits behind. They add flowers, ribbons, and other ornaments. A great beauty much in vogue among the Persians is to have the eye-brows very long, and meeting above the nose. When nature is not bountiful, art is invoked to play its part.

Sir James Porter: Turkey, its history and progress. 2 volumes. London, Hurst & Blackett, 1854.

Bakhtiaree tribe near Ispahan, Persia, 01/1811

The Bakhtiarees are a brave and hardy tribe of mountaineers, who inhabit more particularly the high lads of Louristan, but are also to be found in the Yeylaks and Kishlaks, which extend from Kerman to Kauzeroon, and from Kom to Shouster. They have various and opposite traditions about their origin; for some in a vague manner assert, that they came from the eastward; others from Roum, (the name for Turkey common throughout Persia,) and thus at any rate that they are not of Persian origin. Their language would tend to contradict this last assertion, as it abounds in words of the old Farsee, and has great affinity to that of the Zends. Yet they have several customs which distinguish them from the modern Persians. Their national dance in particular, the Chuppee, resembles altogether the Arnaoutika of the modern Greeks, which is generally allowed to be of ancient Greek origin. It is performed by an indefinite number of persons, who form themselves into a close front, by holding each other fast by the girdle; and then swinging on sideways, mark the time by stamping the feet, which they alternately raise before them, with the toe upwards. They are led by a man, who dances independently of the others, and who flourishes a handkerchief about in the air, and sings as he dances. Bakhtiar sounds so much like Bactria, that this coincidence will bring to mind the Greek colony which was planted by Alexander there, and which De Guignes says was driven from thence to the westward by the Tartars (See Robertson’s Disquisition concerning Ancient India, and his XVIth note).

James Morier: A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816… London, Longman, 1818.

Representation of the death of Hossein, Persia, 1812

After a short pause, a body of fierce-looking men, with only a loose white sheet thrown over their naked bodies, marched forwards. They were all begrimmed with blood; and each brandishing a sword, they sang a sort of hymn, the tones of which were very wild. These represented the sixty-two relations, or the martyrs as the Persians call them, who accompanied Hossein, and were slain in defending him. Close after them was led a white horse, covered with artificial wounds, with arrows stuck all about him, and caparisoned in black, representing the horse upon which Hossein was mounted when he was killed. A band of about fifty men, striking two pieces of wood together in their hands, completed the procession. They arranged themselves in rows before the king, and marshaled by a maître de ballet, who stood in the middle to regulate their movements, they performed a dance, clapping their hands in the best possible time. The maître de ballet all this time sang in recitativo, to which the dancers joined at different intervals with loud shouts and reiterated clapping of their pieces of wood.

James Morier: A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816… London, Longman, 1818.

Dancing and singing women of the royal harem, Teheran, Persia, 1815

The heats of Teheran become insupportable by the middle of June, and the city is then abandoned by almost the whole of its inhabitants; those who are attached to the King and the court (forming perhaps the largest portion) follow the camp; the shopkeepers and merchants go to Shemiroun, and the different villages situated at the foot of the neighbouring mountains, and none remain but the very poor people, who cannot afford the luxury of a Yeylak. The women of those who follow the camp are left behind at Teheran during the summer, and it is said throw off all restraint. The King’s harem is dispersed throughout the villages at the foot of the mountains, in most of which there are houses purposely provided for them. At Jelalabad is a house entirely appropriated to the Bazigers, or the dancing and singing women.

James Morier: A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816… London, Longman, 1818.

Dancers at the king’s procession in Teheran, Persia, 1818

During all this time I had an opportunity of observing the King, and remarking the different stages of the procession. His Majesty was gaily dressed in a white close vest, embroidered with spangles. His sword, his dagger, and other ornaments were entirely inlaid with precious stones. The bridle, crupper, breast-plate, were all either rubies, diamonds, or emeralds, whilst a long thick tassel of pearls was suspended under the horse’s throat, by a cordon that went round his neck. At different intervals he called for his Kalioun, (the water pipe,) which was brought to him by his Shatir Bashi, or head of the running footmen, from which he took not more than one whiff, which was afterwards emitted in one long white stream of smoke, which he managed to conduct over his beard as a perfume. He was dignified in all he did, and seemed very attentive to all that was going on.


   As he approached the town, long rows of well-dressed men at some distance from the road made low bows, and whenever he called one near to him he came running with great eagerness, and received whatever he had to say with the greatest devotedness. He was then received by a corps of Mollahs, and Peishnamaz (priests) who chaunted forth the Khot-beh (This is an oration delivered every Friday, after the forenoon service in the pincipal Mosques, in which the Mahomedans praise God, bless Mahomed and his descendants, and pray for the King) with all their might. Then oxen, and sheep in great numbers were sacrificed just as he passed, and their heads thrown under his horse’s feet. Many glass vases, filled with sugar, were broken before him, and their contents strewed on his road. Every where dervishes were making loud exclamations for his prosperity; whilst a band of wrestlers and dancers were twirling about their mils (clubs), and performing all sorts of antics to the sound of the copper drums of Looties. Nothing could be more striking than the variety of the scene that surrounded the King.

James Morier: A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816… London, Longman, 1818. Reprinted by Elibron Classics.

Dancers and jugglers in Tabriz, Persia, 1815

Our time was taken up during the few days that I remained at Tabriz, in attending the different entertainments given by the Persian noblemen on the occasion of the marriage. The Governor of the city, Fatteh Ali Khan, gave a breakfast, where dancers and jugglers were introduced. On the day in which the marriage was to be consummated, Abbas Mirza made a distant excursion to hunt, and did not return until two days after the ceremonies were over. With us, the bride and bridegroom escape from their friends to hide themselves; here it is the reverse. We formed part of a very numerous assembly, that was invited to the exhibition of fire-works in the great square of the city, and were entertained at the expense of the Prince by his Vizier. The room in which the bridegroom received his bride, was ornamented by large gold coins (five tomaun pieces), 500 of which were arranged on the shelves. Part of the Princess’s dowry consisted of gold enamelled slippers. We learnt that the bridegroom was so overawed by the presence of the Princess, that instead of hastening to receive her, he shrunk from her approach.

James Morier: A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816… London, Longman, 1818.

The princess of Persia watches a quadrille and waltz at Aleppo, 

Syria, 1843

In the spring of 1843, two Persian princes, Riza Koolee Mirza khan and Timour Mirza Khan, came to Aleppo, to accompany, on her way to Mecca, their aunt, the Princess Sultana, daughter of the late Shah of Persia, Futteh Ali Shah. They were pensioners of the British Government of India, had been in England, and generally resided at Bagdad.



   The princess wished much to see an European quadrille and waltz, which, coming from Persia, she had never seen; and her wish was gratified. The princess was extremely affable, pretty, and well instructed in Persian lore, writing poetry with the greatest facility; about twenty-one years of age. Her nephews were much older than she was, and the wife of the eldest was also much older than the princess.

Barker, Edward B. B.: Syria and Egypt under the last five sultans of Turkey. London, Samuel Tinsley, 1876, 2 vol. Reprinted by Elibron Classics.

Wedding at Alamut, Valley of the Assassins, Iran, 1931

The next day was that of the triple wedding, and the village was already buzzing with it by the time I got up. A visit to the bride was the first ceremony. My hostess arranged a tray for me, with nuts, raisins, nuhud, and a cone of sugar in the middle, to be borne ahead of us as an offering when we went to call. We followed, in our best: my hostess in a very starched chintz ballet skirt over black trousers, a yellow damask shirt, striped velvet waistcoat, and white lace coif fastened under the chin with a dangling ornament of cowrie shells. She had four bracelets and an amber necklace with silver coins, turquoises, and many little odds and ends attached to it: an amulet was fastened on her right arm. Her mother-in-law was even gayer, with a yellow silk shirt, green waistcoat with gold buttons, and one white kerchief with a red one above it tied into a point over the forehead.


   We climbed up among houses till we came into a room crowded with women, in a confused twilight lighted from the middle of the ceiling by a small round hole. The dower chest was being filled: an affair of gilt and coloured tin with three locks, and all the ladies were helping with the packing. The whole female part of the village was passing in and out, bearing gifts, looking over the bride’s trousseau, rushing into an inner room to give a hand with the pilau, and talking in high excited voices.


   In one corner, apart from it all and completely hidden under a pale blue chadur, or veil, stood the bride. She stands motionless for hour after hour, while the stream of guests goes by, unable to sit down unless the chief guest asks her to do so, and taking no part in the general gaiety. I went up and lifted the veil to greet her, and was horrified to see large tears rolling down her painted cheeks. The palms of her hands and her finger-nails were dyed with henna; her hair was crimped with cheap green celluloid shirt in atrocious taste, and a green velvet waistcoat brought specially from Qazvin; and all this splendour, covered away under the blue chadur, was weeping with fright and fatigue, thinking who knows what thoughts while it stood there like a veiled image at the feast. She was not to appear in public again for twenty-one days after the wedding, they told me.


   The male relatives of the bride sat round the guest room floor in a quieter and more dignified manner. They were being provided with food, and I was soon taken in to join them and given bowls of soup coloured with saffron, with pieces of chicken floating about it. When this was cleared away, and when the women had also eaten in their noisier part of the establishment, we began to enjoy ourselves. Two copper trays were brought to use as drums; the bride’s aunt, a lady with as many chains and bangles as an Indian idol, sat crosslegged to beat the time, and one after another the women danced to the clapping of hands. They held up a handkerchief which, at intervals, they threw to one or another of the company, who would wrap it round a piece of silver and toss it back. They danced with remarkable abandon, cracking their finger-joints and leaping into the air with both feet close together.


   In the corner the bride still stood, her face completely hidden. But it was soon time for her to start: already various messengers had come to say that the young men were on their way. The friends of the bridegroom would come to fetch her: they would be repulsed three or four times, to show that there was no indecent eagerness about the affair: but finally they would succeed and escort her to the new home.


   When we stepped out into the village, the young men were already galloping wildly up and down. Their mules, delighted to have no packs on their backs, and very gay under household carpets that covered them, were kicking their heels and tearing up and down the narrow beehive streets.


   Two weddings were now in progress. The bride from Pichiban was expected at any moment. She had a three hours’ ride down the precipitous track from Salambar to negotiate under her chadur. She was coming: a beating of wodden sticks and drums announced her; “Chub chini ham Iaria. Chub chini ham Iaria,” the boys cried, dancing round her. A vague and helpless look of discomfort made itself felt from under the chadur which hid the lady on her mule, all except her elastic-sided boots. Two uncles, one on each side, kept her steady on the extremely bumpy path. So, in complete blindness, the modest female is expected to venture into matrimony. The village seethed around, waiting. The lady approached, riding her mule like a galleon in a labouring sea. At a few yards from the door she was lifted down: a lighted candle was put into either hand: in front of her on trays they carried her mirror, her Quran and corn and coloured rice in little saucers, with lighted candles: these were all borne into her new home, but she herself paused on the threshold with her two lights held up in white cotton-gloved hands; and her bridegroom from the roof above took small coins and corn and coloured rice, and flung it all over her as she stood. The little boys of Garmrud were on the look out: a great scrum ensued for the pennies: the bride, unable to see what was going on and with the responsibility of the candles, which must not blow out in her hands, swayed about, pushed hither and thither, and only sustained by the buttressing uncles: it is as well to have relatives at such moments.


   With a great heave the threshold was transcended: in the shelter of her new home the lady unveiled, while the bridegroom, paying her not the slightest attention now he had got her, devoted himself to our reception. The bridegroom also has to stand at the end of the room till one of the guests takes pity on him, and asks him to sit down. This young man, however – he was just fifteen – bore it with more cheerfulness than his fiancée. His new boots and orange tie – for he was dressed as a Ferangi in honour of the occasion – were sufficiently glorious in themselves to make up for any other discomforts of matrimony.


   We had more dancing and a village idiot to come and tie himself into knots on the floor for our amusement; a revolting spectacle. And then, leaving the Pichiban bride to settle into her new house, we returned to our own show, which was just now reaching the dramatic moment of the meeting between bride and groom at the outskirts of the village.

Stark, Freya: The Valleys of the Assassins. London, Murray, 1934.