Monthly Archives: October 2011

Sanctuary outside England: Iran

Although the focus of the project is upon London from around 1660 to 1725, sanctuaries existed in various forms beyond this city and outside that period. Indeed, how and why sanctuaries disappeared from much of England but persisted in the capital is an important question. A parallel concern is how the English experience differed to those of other countries.

Having biblical roots, one would expect to find sanctuary in some form throughout Christian Europe, and so far I’ve found evidence of it in Scotland, Spain, France and Malta. It’s also possible – I’m not clear on this at the moment – that it was established by the Spanish church in the Americas.

But sanctuary is not solely a Christian or Western tradition, and other cultures have had something similar, existing long after it disappeared from the West. The following lines on the Persian băst come from Surgeon General Edward Balfour’s work The Cyclopaedia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia, commercial, industrial, and scientific, of 1885.

BAST, Pers, From băstăn, to fasten, a sanctuary, a refuge. Like Kedeah of Galilee, Shechem of Samaria, and Hebron in Judea, the sanctuaries of Kum, and the Great Mosque in particular, are famous places of refuge (or băst, as it is termed) for all persons who have committed crimes, or fallen under the royal displeasure. Such is the sanctity of the holy Fatima’s mosque, that the king himself dare not arrest a criminal who has there sought protection. The Persian custom of băst somewhat resembles that of the Jewish cities of refuge, the Alsatia of London, the precincts of Holyrood at Edinburgh and Westminster, etc. The custom prevailing in the East, of having places of asylum, owes its origin probably to Mosaic law concerning the six cities of refuge. Formerly the whole mahalah, or quarter of Bidabad, was reckoned băst, or sacred. The principle mosque, the stables of the king and nobles, and other places, are asylums, Kum, in lat. 84° 41′ N., long. 50° 29′ E., is a ruined town in Irak-i-Ajam in Persia, 80 miles on the road from Teheran to Isfahan. It was taken by the Afghans in 1772. The tomb of the sister of Imam Raza is there, its bars of solid silver and gates gold plated. Kum is the most celebrated of the sanctuaries of Persia, and Shias frequently fly to it for shelter.

This encylopaedia is one of those compendiums of colonial investigation, cataloguing the diverse lands and peoples encountered by the British Empire. As such, it shouldn’t be taken at face value; in referencing British and Biblical precedents, it could be translating an indigenous practice into an idiom understandable by administrators. It’s rather vague on why someone would have to take refuge, just mentioning unspecified crimes and royal displeasure. That debtors also availed themselves of băst is noted by the Russian Pierre Ponafidine in his Life in the Moslem East (1911):

the bast becomes the refuge of criminals and evildoers, and of debtors who live year after year quietly in this small town within itself until, losing patience, the creditors generally come to some understanding with them, preferring to receive a small part of what is due than none at all.

There was also a political usage of băst, as the following account of the constitutional revolution of 1906, from Shuster’s The Strangling of Persia illustrates; note also its adaptation to include foreign embassies:

The Crown Prince, Muzaffaru’d-Din Shah Qajar, was made Shah on June 8, 1896, and reigned until January 4, 1907, when he died. Some six months before his death the Persian people, whose discontent with the tyranny of their rulers had been constantly increasing, commenced an open agitation for the granting of a constitution, and in July, 1906, by a measure which was as remarkable as it was successful, they brought about this result.

Some 16,000 people of Teheran, from all walks in life, after being exhorted by the Mullahs or priests, took refuge or sanctuary – bast it is called in Persia – in the vast compound of the British Legation, and in the mosques and other sacred places. The crowds gathered there in the utmost good order; they established their commissariat and sanitary arrangements, and by these purely passive measures succeeded in compelling the Shah to dismiss an obnoxious minister, the Aynu’d-Dawla, and to grant them a code of laws or constitution. After various attempts to break up this peculiar form of resistance, the Shah and his government were compelled to yield, partly through the strange humiliation which the adoption of this course by the people conveys to the minds of the Persian governing class against whom it may be directed, and partly through fear of further and more active measures of opposition. On August 5, 1906, the so-called constitution was granted and the people resumed their homes and ordinary avocations.

A similar story is told some 55 years later in Time magazine’s report on demonstrations against fraudulent elections in 1961:

When an Iranian wants to be safe from the police, he reverts to an old custom called bast, or asylum. The recognized sanctuaries are Parliament buildings, mosques, the royal palace and stables, and, curiously enough, telegraph offices. As Iran last week reeled through its second national election in seven months, citizens were scampering in all directions seeking bast.

Sanctuary then has a far wider history – geographically, chronologically and socially – than is generally supposed. Is there any commonality in all its different forms? How does it change over time, and how is it used for different ends? Is it some sort of Foucauldian heterotopia, a ‘counter-site’, some sort of limit to the State and law? Although the focus of the project is upon London from around 1660 to 1725, it requires asking much larger questions.