Monday, August 15, 2011

Murder in the Bathhouse

Bagh-e Fin, Kashan
It’s never a good idea to insult your boss’s mother. Especially if your employer is the king. It’s even worse if the lady in question is also your mother-in-law. You could very well end up exiled to the provinces and eventually find yourself bleeding on the floor of a bathhouse with a knife in your heart.

Sounds like an intriguing mystery, doesn’t it? This one, however, happened in real life.

The king in our story was Nasser-ed-Din, the fourth Qajar shah, who ruled Persia from 1848 until his assassination in 1896. His mother, Mahd Ulya, considered it her duty to run his personal life with a firm hand, and she saw no reason why affairs of state should be beyond her sphere of influence. The third member of this unfortunate triangle was Nasser-ed-Din’s prime minister (also his tutor and mentor), Mirza Taghi Khan Amir-Nezim, also known by the far more manageable name of Amir Kabir.

Amir Kabir
Mahd Ulya launched her feud with Amir Kabir almost from the moment her husband died and her son ascended the throne. According to Qajar tribal custom, the Queen Mum expected to marry her son’s prime minister. But Amir rejected her in favor of her fourteen-year-old daughter, Malekzadeh Ezzatodoleh.

Nasser-ed-Din, who was only seventeen when he became shah, inherited a country on the verge of chaos. Mismanagement and two costly wars with Russia and England had left Persia in bad shape, and the young king relied on his prime minister for advice.

Always a reformist, Amir Kabir’s approach to solving the country’s problems included bolstering the army to defend the national borders, improving education (he founded the first modern university), and reorganizing the central government along more efficient and less despotic lines. The latter included cutting the lavish salaries that the royal family drew from the Treasury. The prime minister’s reforms did not sit well with Mahd Ulya, the new shah’s mother.

Mahd Ulya, the Queen Mum
Her battle with Amir Kabir came to a head when he accused her of promiscuity and convinced her son to banish her to Qom, one of Iran’s most conservative, religious cities.

Mahd Ulya fought back with a smear campaign of her own. She convinced the king that his prime minister was plotting to overthrow him. (According to one version of the story, Nasser-ed-Din was drunk at the time.) Amir Kabir’s own personality played right into her hands. His arrogance and disregard for royal protocol made it easy for the king to accept the truth of the accusation.

The young king, who was twenty by now, sent his prime minister into exile in Kashan, a desert town 150 miles south of Tehran. Amir Kabir spent his final months in the Bagh-e Fin, a garden palace that had been a royal vacation getaway for centuries.

Nasser-ed Din Shah
I can easily believe that any banishment from the center of power would be an intolerable hardship for a man like Amir Kabir, bordering on torture. Not for me, though. Bagh-e Fin is a green oasis in the unforgiving desert, filled with shady trees, bubbling streams, and quiet reflecting pools, all of it surrounded by high stone walls.

On one side is a hamam, or bathhouse, dug deep into the ground and fed by the same ancient spring that flows through the garden. The hamam features a series of subterranean chambers with blue-tiled pools for bathing, some filled with hot water, others with cold. Within the complex is a warm-up room with lockers for storing clothes and shoes, a sauna, and an area with shallow basins for scrubbing away the dirt of the day.

Site of Amir Kabir's Murder
Amir Kabir didn’t have long to enjoy such pampering—or to plot for release from his prison, as the case may be. Six weeks after arriving in Kashan, two assassins entered the hamam while the deposed prime minister was enjoying his bath. One held him down while the other slashed his wrists. They waited for him to bleed to death and then the deed was done: the Queen Mum won the war.

Ever since I visited Bagh-e Fin and its infamous hamam, the image of this great and powerful man in his bath, naked and helpless, his blood staining the marble floor, has fired my imagination. How would things have turned out had Amir Kabir accepted tradition and married Mahd Ulya after all?


  1. This story is truly incredible, and the pictures just gave me the chills! How did the rest of Nasser ed-Din's rule go?

  2. But the garden is gorgeous, isn't it? Definitely a memorable place for a murder.

    Nasser-ed-Din did make a lot of reforms even after he got rid of Amir Kabir, but he became unpopular later in his reign when he gave a lot of favors to foreign powers. Never a good thing to do in Iran...