opium and the shah -- 2/26/19

Today's selection -- from Milk Paradise by Lucy Inglis. In certain parts of the world, opium has long been widely used. Note especially how members of the court in Persia used it to control the shah:

"The Safavids, one of the greatest Persian empires, were also cultivating and using large amounts of opium recreationally, and all attempts to curb it failed, even when restrictions were backed by strict Shiite Muslim ideology. It became commonly associ­ated with death in Persia in 1577 when Shah Ismail II was poisoned with it after a rowdy night out on the town. After 1600, when the East began to open up to travelers, tales of the won­ders of the Safavid Persian court began to filter back to western Europe. From opposing sides, they shared the common enemy of the quarrelsome and overbearing Ottomans, and so the stories of high culture and the astonishing sight of Isfahan held even more appeal for readers in the West. A French jewel dealer, Jean Chardin, arrived in the royal capital for the first time aged twenty-two, and later wrote that it 'consists particularly of a great number of magnificent palaces, gay and smiling houses, spacious caravanserais, very fine canals and bazaars and streets lined with plane trees ... from whatever direction one looks at the city, it looks like a wood'. He also observed that perhaps nine out of ten Persian men took opium pills.

Opium poppy, white flowers and seed capsule, about 1853

"Another visitor related how the young shahs were raised in tents, guarded by 'black eunuchs within and white eunuchs without', taught only about religion rather than politics or statesmanship and that they 'abandon him to women and indulge him in every kind of sensuality from his most tender years. They make him chew opium and drink poppy water into which they put amber and other ingredients which incite to lust, and for a time charm with ravishing visions but eventually cause him to sink into an absolute insensibility. On the death of his father they seat him on the throne and the court throw themselves at his feet in submission. Everyone tries to please him but no one thinks of giving him any good advice.

"The free availability of locally produced opium throughout these huge empires meant that it was not only an elite habit. Opium eating was particularly prevalent in all levels of Ottoman and Persian society. In the East Indies as a whole, opium eating had already become a generally accepted habit, even amongst the poor. As Portuguese writer Cristobal Acosta noted in 1592, they regarded it 'in the way that a worker looks upon his bread', although he thought the use of it as a sexual stimulant 'repellent'. He also noted, on his return journey when in charge of sick Turk­ish and Arab captives on the ship, that they were habitual users and in danger of dying if he could not supply them with the drug. Instead they had to make do with large quantities of wine.

"If even the most ordinary of men were enslaved to opium for survival, there were those who took it to new extremes, and to the east lay the most ostentatious opium eaters of all: the Mughals. The Great Mughal Empire of India was founded by Babur in 1526. The Mughals claimed ancestry to Timur and Genghis Khan, and were Muslims displaced from Central Asia. In creating a new empire, they retained some of their own cus­toms, but also adopted those from elsewhere and their court culture was heavily influenced by the splendour of the Persians."

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Lucy Inglis


Milk of Paradise


Pegasus Books


Copyright 2019 by Lucy Inglis


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