Meeting the king

For centuries the only contact Iranians had with the west happened through merchants, predominantly rug dealers, who travelled from east to west and on return to the east told stories of the west to friends and family. The difference in culture between the two sides and the observations made, often made for comical tales. One such tale is that of the first visit of an ambassador of Iran to Britain.

Mr Mirzah Abul Hasan Khan Shirazi was the ambassador of the Qajar Dynasty of Iran and the first to visit Britain. His uncle, Ibrahim Shirazi, was the main character who helped the Qajar Dynasty to take over power from the Zand Dynasty and was the Prime Minister for the first two Qajar kings. Historically they were landlords and a wealthy family of Shiraz. This helped Mr Shirazi to be chosen as the ambassador of Persia.

The Persian delegation to Britain was tiny, only eight members made the trip: Mr Shirazi as ambassador, a chef - since the Persians were very concerned about the quality of the food they might have to eat in Britain, two servants, a secretary and three heavily armed guards - since the Persians were worried about their safety when travelling in an unknown country. Mr Shirazi kept account of all events as was required by the king of Iran, in his journal. The trip lasted from 1807 to 1816. Persians always chose an auspicious day as the day of departure for such a long journey and for Mr Shirazi’s convoy it took a good 20 days before such a day arrived (with the king’s permission of course), where all celestial signs confirmed that the journey would be favourable if they left on the particular day.

When they reached British soil they slept in the best hotel of Plymouth. The foreign affairs ministry of Britain made sure that the management of the hotel understood that the ambassador of Iran is a very important man and that he should be treated like a king. The poor manager assumed that because the visitors came from the Middle East they would be very cold in Britain, so he put multiple blankets and heaters in the rooms to emulate the scorching Middle Eastern heat. Mr Shirazi mentions in his journals that it was so hot in the hotel that he couldn’t sleep and instead walked around his room and the hotel with a whole host of hotel staff following him around (in case he needed anything).

The following day the Persian party of eight travelled to London by coach  The Persian guards were heavily armed since they didn't know what dangers might befall them in this unknown land. What they were blissfully unaware of was the frightening spectacle they were to onlookers who observed the foreigners travelling through their country with such weaponry. Mr Shirazi wrote how impressed he was with the speed of the British coaches but his amazement soon turned to dismay when on their arrival in London there were no Londoners lining the streets to greet them. This was one of the elaborate customs in Iran, the entire population of the capital would come out to meet any foreign king or dignitaries on their arrival. Mr Shirazi interpreted the lack of such a spectacle as a "cold welcoming" by Britain of Iran and as much as the British reps tried to explain that it is not British custom and thus the lack of Londoners welcoming the ambassador is not a sign of disrespect, the ambassador was convinced that this is indicative of Britain giving Iran the cold shoulder. He repeatedly told the British rep that he himself is not upset by the cold welcoming of the Londoners, but he would not know how to explain this to the Persian king without causing trouble in the relations of the two countries.The British Foreign Affairs provided the best hotel to the Persian delegation and even though they received the best service, the ambassador never stopped complaining about the cold welcoming in Britain that he received. After two days of arrival, Mr Shirazi became anxious to take the letter of the Persian king to the king of Britain, since any delay would show even more disrespect and he may be beheaded for this on his return to Iran if he records this in his journals. As luck would have it, the king of Britain was ill at the exact time of the visit and that is what caused the delay in meeting the Persian delegation. After a few more days, the ill king of Britain made an effort to meet with the Persians.

Mr Shirazi thought that the British king George III would be exactly like the kings of Persia with the same customs, for example the king of Persia is not easy to meet in his palace. When a person is lucky enough to get the opportunity to meet the king, he should walk very cautiously towards the king and constantly bow to the king, at a certain point he needs to remove his shoes and await permission to approach the king whilst the king is sitting on his throne. If he is lucky enough to be granted this permission by the king only then would he be allowed to move closer. If any foreign ambassador visits Iran, they would never be granted permission to give their king’s letters directly to the king as they would deal with the prime minister instead.

So when the ambassador of Iran entered the room in the palace that he was shown to, he assumed that the old man waiting in the middle of the room was the butler to the king, who would tell him when to remove his shoes and direct him to the king’s throne room where he would await permission to approach the king to hand him the letter of the king of Iran. Imagine his shock when the British rep told him that the “old butler” is in fact the king of Britain. How amazed he was to be granted such close unsupervised contact with the king so easily. After this trip, he returned to Iran and luckily did not lose his head. Instead he became the foreign minister of Iran some years later.