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The Photography of the Naseri Harem (Part 2)

Naser al-Din Shah and His Collaborators Outside the Royal Harem

Naser al-Din Shah with consorts and African eunuchs. Photo by Naser al-Din Shah, 1880s (detail of Figure 42).

Pedram Khosronejad


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part may be viewed here.

All of the images below are part of a set of photographs of the Naseri harem featured in the new publication by Pedram Khosronejad, The Royal Lens: Naser al-Din Shah’s Photography of his Harem.

To see a full listing of the set with detailed captions, click here.



The King’s Collaborators Outside the Royal Harem

As mentioned previously, with the arrival of Francis Carlhian at the king’s court, Naser al-Din Shah ordered the construction of the royal photography studio on the roof of the Dar al-Fonoun (Abode of the Sciences).1 My estimate is that between 1858, the date of the creation of this studio, and 1873—that is, a minimum of fifteen years—Naser al-Din Shah and his collaborators used its facilities for developing and printing the photographs of the royal harem. This very important and unique document dated to 1867 can be used to support this idea:

There are several small and big boxes full of negative glass plates of His Majesty’s harem which were left behind in the royal studio, to which various people have daily access. It is the duty of your servant (khanehzad) to inform His Majesty: please order the removal of these boxes to the harem (andaroun) or erase the negatives. It is not a good idea to keep photographs of His Majesty’s harem outside the harem, but please do this with great caution so that no one finds out that I informed you about this case. I will follow His Majesty’s order.2

From the words of the author of this letter, Aqa Reza (d. 1890), who was one of the most important royal court photographers (Akasbashi3), one can also imagine that whoever had access to the royal studio could print photographs of the royal harem and take them outside the court. Maybe Aqa Reza was even aware of such activities; in the daily reports of the court there are some indications in this regard which accuse Mouchoul Khan of such breaches of trust.

Very recently I found several photographs of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem which are quite unique in their style and also in the way they are printed, which may confirm that Aqa Reza did have cause for concern.

Images of royal consorts and women of the harem. Left, two images of Shams al-Dowleh, Golestan Complex, Tehran; photographer unknown, 1870s. Right, images of Soltan Khanom (L) and Anis al-Dowleh and her attendants (R), both photos probably by Naser al-Din Shah and developed and printed by Mir Sayyid-Ali, 1890s (Figures 13 right and 14 right).

The first two photographs (Figure 13 right) depict Shams al-Dowleh (d. 1896), one of the royal consorts, sitting on a chair outside a building probably inside the royal harem. My supposition is that one photographer took both photographs, one after the other. The composition and style of these two photographs are dissimilar from what is normally known of photographs of the royal harem taken by Naser al-Din Shah,4 most notably the visibility of the camera in the mirror while the photographer remains unseen. However, what is particularly interesting regarding these two photographs is the fact that one of them was printed on the visiting card of Amir Qajar, who was one of the official photographers of the court.

There are two more such cases (Figure 14 right) in which two photographs of the royal harem were printed on the visiting cards of one of the official photographers of the Dar al-Fonoun, a man known as Mir Seyed Ali, although this time his name was removed from the cards.5 With such examples, would it be possible to say that photographers such as Amir Qajar or Mir Seyed Ali could go to the king’s harem for photography, or did they simply print these photographs for the king but in the royal studio outside the harem? And if this was the case, why did Amir Qajar not remove his name from his visiting card as Mir Seyed Ali did?

Perhaps gradually, when the photographic activities of the royal harem became more popular, or because of abuses such as those of Mouchoul Khan and also to better control the royal studio, Naser al-Din Shah ordered the creation of two photography studios inside his royal harem within a one-year interval. Some scholars of the field suggest that after the creation of the royal harem studios, some royal consorts and ladies were also involved in the photographic activities of the king, but again there are no official documents remarking upon such activities. Related documents can prove only the involvement of Amineh Aghdas (d. 1894) as the person responsible for managing the royal harem studios, but not her or others’ activities in the actual act of photography, or developing and printing the photographs inside the royal harem.

Photography and Photographs among Naseri Elites

As a king, Naser al-Din Shah was a great patron of art and artists, whom he encouraged to travel abroad to learn and refine their artistic knowledge, at his court. In this regard, he promoted photography and encouraged photographers inside his court in two ways: first, by inspiring his courtiers and actively engaging them in photographic activities, and second, by providing the Dar al-Fonoun with professional foreign photographers as teachers to prepare a solid generation of students who would strengthen the basis of the new invention in Iran. Some were even given the opportunity to refine their skills in government-sponsored training in Europe.

Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek with his son Doust-Mohammad, 1865. (Figure 6 right).

Besides Naser al-Din Shah, Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek (d. 1873)6 and his son Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer al-Mamalek (d. 1913), the shah’s son-in-law, should be considered the most important patrons of art and artists during the Naseri period and the years following (Figure 6). The most important among Naser al-Din Shah’s court photographers, people such as Mirza Ahmad Khan Sani al-Saltaneh (b. 1848), Amir Qajar and Abdollah Mirza Qajar (d. 1913),7 enjoyed close friendship with the Moayer family and had relationships with their household. With his financial support, Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek encouraged most of them to go to Europe to study and complete their knowledge of photography, and, on their return, all of them became official photographers of Naser al-Din Shah’s court.

Very recent photographs of Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek’s household prove that parallel to Naser al-Din Shah’s photographic activities in his royal harem (at least during the first period beginning in 1858), Doust-Ali Khan Moayer also was very active in this field and may have had several cameras and photographers among his household. In this collection we can also observe possible connections between his photography in the private quarters (andaroun) of his household and the king’s photography of his harem.8

During the same periods, Naser al-Din Shah took very interesting photographs of Mah-Nesa Khanom (d. 1875), the wife of Doust-Ali Khan, inside his royal harem, which demonstrates that these two families certainly had common activities regarding photography of their own private quarters.

Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer al-Mamalek also learned photography from Mirza Ahmad since his childhood and completed his knowledge of photography during several trips to Europe. Like his father, on his return from Europe (October 1884) Doust-Mohammad became one of the most important amateurs and patrons of art, including photography.

My detailed examination of Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer’s photography of the women of his household and also prostitutes of the Naseri period confirms the fact that he was the most important photographer of the Naseri period to be involved in this genre of photography.9 My visual investigations may also prove that between 1885 and 1889 Naser al-Din Shah had been influenced by his son-in-law in photographing the women of his royal harem (Figure 7).

More intimate images of royal consorts. Top, from left to right, Anis al-Dowleh, Shams al-Dowleh, Shokouh al-Saltaneh, and Shirazi Kuchikeh, all inside the royal harem studio, Golestan Complex, Tehran. All photos by Naser al-Din Shah, 1864. Bottom, four intimate photos of the consort Shams al-Dowleh inside the royal harem, Golestan Complex, Tehran. All photos by Naser al-Din Shah, 1870s (Figures 37 and 38).

In 1858, with the arrival of Carlhian at the court, the twenty-seven-year-old king began his career in photography by taking photographs of his royal harem. Young Naser al-Din was certainly under the influence of his first master and learned rapidly from him to develop his personal talents in taking photographs of his wives. My archival research and visual investigation confirm the fact that Carlhian was probably the first photographer to take photographs of nude Iranian women between 1858 and 1861, and Naser al-Din Shah certainly had several copies of those photographs.10

Up to today I could not find any photographs by Naser al-Din Shah in which a nude figure may be observed in its entirety, even though I think he did his best (Figure 5 left). If he could not take such photographs directly, he surely encouraged all the people of his royal harem, including his consorts, to dress and pose in provocative and erotic positions in front of his camera (Figure 37-41; 48; 50 right). Visual evidence also exists that during his travels outside Tehran, Naser al-Din Shah encouraged his companions, mostly his court jesters (moghaled), to engage in sexual behavior to be registered by court photographers (Figures 3 and 4).11

I believe that between 1858 and 1873, from the date of Carlhian’s arrival at the royal court until Naser al-Din Shah’s first trip to Europe, the king followed his own interests and desires in the photography of his royal harem, and perhaps from time to time he was able to benefit from some advice from the foreign photographers who worked for his court and those who had close relationships with him. Foreign erotic photographs and postcards also could be considered as visual resources for him in photographing his own royal harem during these periods (Figure 1).12 This is entirely observable in Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem photography of those years (Figure 9).

However, after the king’s travels to Europe, we can observe many changes in the style of his photography and also in the details of those who can be observed in his photographs. These changes can primarily be observed between 1885 and 1889, after Naser al-Din Shah’s third journey; at this time, many of his talented young court photographers were also returning to Iran from foreign countries as well.

Naser al-Din Shah drew on diverse resources in cultivating his photographic interests. Left, a postcard from the collection of an aristocratic Qajar family of the Naseri period depicting a geisha in Kyoto. Right, photograph of Shams al-Dowleh and her servant inside the royal harem. Golestan Complex, Tehran. Photograph by Naser al-Din Shah, 1871 (Figure 9).

Concluding Remarks

What I have presented in this work should be considered as one of the first contributions to the field of photography of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem in which the photographs themselves are used as the main resources and material evidence.

It took several years to gain access to these photographs, and I should confirm here that I think I was able to collect only very few of these images. I believe that many of these photographs should be classified in the category of harem photography, of a particularly important kind since these images were produced, managed, and filtered by the king himself.

Certainly, some of these images formed part of Naser al-Din Shah’s long-term visual project, for example the album of African eunuchs and ladies of the royal harem that he made between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-one (Figure 17 left; 25 left; 36; 37 first three; 45 last three; 51).13

Through analysis of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem photographs and their captions, I have discovered new information regarding the king and his personal character as well as further details about the people of the royal harem, including consorts, their servants, slaves, and those who could visit them.

An aging Naser al-Din Shah, Lar royal complex, near Tehran. Photo by Haji Ebrahim Khajeh, 1879 (Figure 22).

My visual surveys also reveal a king who discussed his cares and humor, anxieties, health, and sickness. Remarks about these subjects are repeatedly found written around some of his harem self-portraits, presumably addressed to whoever could be the viewer of these photographs, who were perhaps primarily some of his consorts at that time.

The king realized that he was becoming older, losing the charms and attractiveness of his youth, and becoming sick more frequently. He was losing his teeth, had pain deep in his bones, and suffered serious hemorrhoid problems as well (Figure 22).14 I believe the margins of the royal harem photographs should be considered to be the intimate pages of Naser al-Din Shah’s unwritten diary of his royal harem.

Naser al-Din Shah’s captions also demonstrate how he might have been interested in a wife, a group of consorts, or those who were living and working inside the royal harem. He did not name all of those depicted in the photographs; interestingly, in the majority of cases he mentioned only the names of some young boy or girl servants, or those of some eunuchs. It is also interesting to point out that he never named the children that we can see in these photographs as his own daughters, rather always introducing them by the names of their mothers.

Until now I have been unable to find any photograph in which Naser al-Din Shah is depicted alone with a woman, not even his mother, Mahd Oliya, or with one of his own children. There is only one photograph in which he appears with his mother and sister (Figure 46 right), and also a single photograph with Aziz al-Soltan Malijak.

Furthermore, the king is rarely found pictured among his wives, and when he does come onto the scene, the image is surprisingly different (Figure 48). In the majority of cases, most of the group photographs depict Anis al-Dowleh and her household, who are shown very openly in a joyful and lavish manner (Figure 17 right; 18 left; 23 right; 35). In this series, and certainly with the encouragement of the king, ladies are captured in more intimate positions with sexual gestures and behavior: wearing transparent clothes to reveal their breasts, hugging and touching each other’s bodies (Figures 37-39), and—rarely—gently holding one another’s breasts in their hands (Figure 40). As I have said, such scenes are rare and perhaps took place far from the eyes of other members of the harem. My observations allow me to believe that very few wives of the king could or desired to participate in such visual games; Anis al-Dowleh, Shams al-Dowleh, and Shokouh al-Saltaneh are those who appear most often in these series.

Very few of the king’s wives were willing to cooperate with his requests that they participate in his visual games, but some were. Left, two consorts inside the royal harem, Niyavaran Complex, Tehran. Right, Taj al-Dowleh (left) and Shams al-Dowleh in a mountainous area, Shahrestanak Complex, near Tehran. Both photos by Naser al-Din Shah, 1866 (Figure 40).

Looking at the photographs of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem as a whole, I would like to suggest that these images present entirely new information regarding the events, stories, and people of His Majesty’s household, an ensemble that reveals its main patron’s feelings, emotions, love, and desire for those who were waiting on him, those whose very existence depended upon his. This series of photographs does not tell us anything about the conflicts, disputes, and problems that written Qajar diaries (and accordingly scholars of the field) mention; nor do we see any joyful ceremonies, dances, or entertaining moments of the royal harem.

The photographs of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem are unrelated to Orientalism, ‘self-Orientalism,’ or any school of colonial photography that some scholars of the field try to use to explain them. Indeed, it is much more complex and difficult to explain the thinking and worldview of Naser al-Din Shah in the creation of these photographs without enjoying access to the materials in their entirety.


PEDRAM KHOSRONEJAD is Farzaneh Family Scholar and Associate Director of the Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies Program (IPGS) at the Oklahoma State University. He obtained his Ph.D. at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. His research interests include cultural and social anthropology, the anthropology of death and dying, visual anthropology, visual piety, devotional artifacts, and religious material culture, with a particular interest in Iran, Persianate societies, and the Islamic world. He is chief editor of the journal Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia (ACME).

 

  1. A college founded in Tehran in 1851 by Mirza Ṭaqi Khan Amir Kabir, which marked the beginning of modern education in Persia. For more information on this topic, see John Gurney and Negin Nabavi, “Dār al-Fonūn,” Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/dar-al-fonun-lit).
  2. First published in Khadijeh Mohammadi Nameghi and Mohammad Sattari, “New Documents about the Royal Harem Studio,” Fine Art 36 (2009): 77-85 [in Persian], 80. Translation by the author.
  3. Literally, “Royal Head Photographer.”
  4. I am currently working on this topic.
  5. For more information regarding Mir Seyed Ali, see Shokoufeh Bayati and Mohammad Sattari, “Immortal Portraits from Unknown Qajar Photographers,” in Fine Art 22 (2017): 117-130 [in Persian].
  6. Also known as Nezam al-Dowleh.
  7. Regarding the date of birth of Abdollah Mirza Qajar, I am following Katia Salmasi’s analysis. For more information on this topic, see Katia Salmasi, “Photography: Misplaced Clichés, Remaining Photographs,” in Bokhara 39- 40 (2004): 232-248 [in Persian].
  8. I am deeply grateful to Leila Moayeri for providing me her family albums to be used in my research projects. For more information in this regard, see Pedram Khosronejad, “Two Photograph Albums from the Moayer Family,” Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia 4 (2018): 68-92.
  9. Until today, the majority of the students of the field have ignored the role of Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer in the development of photography during the Naseri period, especially his possible influence on Naser al-Din Shah and his court photographers regarding the photography of women. Doust-Mohammad had a circle of close photographer friends including Mirza Ahmad Sani al-Saltaneh, Abdollah Mirza Qajar, Amir Qajar, and Abdolhoseyn Khan Sartip (d. 1896), most of whom were Naser al-Din Shah’s official court photographers.
  10. In a private collection in Iran, I was introduced to two nude photographs of a young Armenian lady in Tehran taken by Francis Carlhian which are copies of the original pictures kept in the Golestan Palace. This young Armenian lady is the same one who can be seen in two other of Carlhian’s photographs (AP11172- AP11174) in the Album de Perse prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Victor-François Brongniart (b.1809-d.1868), which is kept today in the Guimet Museum of Paris.
  11. I am sure this is how other court photographers were encouraged to take photographs with sexual elements or nudity inside and outside the court (Figures 3-5).
  12. By the late 1860s the circulation of photographs and postcards of Western women in erotic positions and with sexual behaviour was a popular practice among Qajar aristocratic families, and it is certain that members of Naser al-Din Shah’s court and royal harem possessed and enjoyed this new genre of visual paraphernalia.
  13. Album 682 of Golestan Palace (1858-1862).
  14. All mentioned in his captions of royal harem photographs.

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The Photography of the Naseri Harem (Part 2)

Naser al-Din Shah and His Collaborators Outside the Royal Harem


Pedram Khosronejad


This is the second installment of a two-part essay. The first part may be viewed here.

All of the images below are part of a set of photographs of the Naseri harem featured in the new publication by Pedram Khosronejad, The Royal Lens: Naser al-Din Shah’s Photography of his Harem.

To see a full listing of the set with detailed captions, click here.



The King’s Collaborators Outside the Royal Harem

As mentioned previously, with the arrival of Francis Carlhian at the king’s court, Naser al-Din Shah ordered the construction of the royal photography studio on the roof of the Dar al-Fonoun (Abode of the Sciences).1 My estimate is that between 1858, the date of the creation of this studio, and 1873—that is, a minimum of fifteen years—Naser al-Din Shah and his collaborators used its facilities for developing and printing the photographs of the royal harem. This very important and unique document dated to 1867 can be used to support this idea:

There are several small and big boxes full of negative glass plates of His Majesty’s harem which were left behind in the royal studio, to which various people have daily access. It is the duty of your servant (khanehzad) to inform His Majesty: please order the removal of these boxes to the harem (andaroun) or erase the negatives. It is not a good idea to keep photographs of His Majesty’s harem outside the harem, but please do this with great caution so that no one finds out that I informed you about this case. I will follow His Majesty’s order.2

From the words of the author of this letter, Aqa Reza (d. 1890), who was one of the most important royal court photographers (Akasbashi3), one can also imagine that whoever had access to the royal studio could print photographs of the royal harem and take them outside the court. Maybe Aqa Reza was even aware of such activities; in the daily reports of the court there are some indications in this regard which accuse Mouchoul Khan of such breaches of trust.

Very recently I found several photographs of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem which are quite unique in their style and also in the way they are printed, which may confirm that Aqa Reza did have cause for concern.

Images of royal consorts and women of the harem. Left, two images of Shams al-Dowleh, Golestan Complex, Tehran; photographer unknown, 1870s. Right, images of Soltan Khanom (L) and Anis al-Dowleh and her attendants (R), both photos probably by Naser al-Din Shah and developed and printed by Mir Sayyid-Ali, 1890s (Figures 13 right and 14 right).

The first two photographs (Figure 13 right) depict Shams al-Dowleh (d. 1896), one of the royal consorts, sitting on a chair outside a building probably inside the royal harem. My supposition is that one photographer took both photographs, one after the other. The composition and style of these two photographs are dissimilar from what is normally known of photographs of the royal harem taken by Naser al-Din Shah,4 most notably the visibility of the camera in the mirror while the photographer remains unseen. However, what is particularly interesting regarding these two photographs is the fact that one of them was printed on the visiting card of Amir Qajar, who was one of the official photographers of the court.

There are two more such cases (Figure 14 right) in which two photographs of the royal harem were printed on the visiting cards of one of the official photographers of the Dar al-Fonoun, a man known as Mir Seyed Ali, although this time his name was removed from the cards.5 With such examples, would it be possible to say that photographers such as Amir Qajar or Mir Seyed Ali could go to the king’s harem for photography, or did they simply print these photographs for the king but in the royal studio outside the harem? And if this was the case, why did Amir Qajar not remove his name from his visiting card as Mir Seyed Ali did?

Perhaps gradually, when the photographic activities of the royal harem became more popular, or because of abuses such as those of Mouchoul Khan and also to better control the royal studio, Naser al-Din Shah ordered the creation of two photography studios inside his royal harem within a one-year interval. Some scholars of the field suggest that after the creation of the royal harem studios, some royal consorts and ladies were also involved in the photographic activities of the king, but again there are no official documents remarking upon such activities. Related documents can prove only the involvement of Amineh Aghdas (d. 1894) as the person responsible for managing the royal harem studios, but not her or others’ activities in the actual act of photography, or developing and printing the photographs inside the royal harem.

Photography and Photographs among Naseri Elites

As a king, Naser al-Din Shah was a great patron of art and artists, whom he encouraged to travel abroad to learn and refine their artistic knowledge, at his court. In this regard, he promoted photography and encouraged photographers inside his court in two ways: first, by inspiring his courtiers and actively engaging them in photographic activities, and second, by providing the Dar al-Fonoun with professional foreign photographers as teachers to prepare a solid generation of students who would strengthen the basis of the new invention in Iran. Some were even given the opportunity to refine their skills in government-sponsored training in Europe.

Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek with his son Doust-Mohammad, 1865. (Figure 6 right).

Besides Naser al-Din Shah, Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek (d. 1873)6 and his son Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer al-Mamalek (d. 1913), the shah’s son-in-law, should be considered the most important patrons of art and artists during the Naseri period and the years following (Figure 6). The most important among Naser al-Din Shah’s court photographers, people such as Mirza Ahmad Khan Sani al-Saltaneh (b. 1848), Amir Qajar and Abdollah Mirza Qajar (d. 1913),7 enjoyed close friendship with the Moayer family and had relationships with their household. With his financial support, Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek encouraged most of them to go to Europe to study and complete their knowledge of photography, and, on their return, all of them became official photographers of Naser al-Din Shah’s court.

Very recent photographs of Doust-Ali Khan Moayer al-Mamalek’s household prove that parallel to Naser al-Din Shah’s photographic activities in his royal harem (at least during the first period beginning in 1858), Doust-Ali Khan Moayer also was very active in this field and may have had several cameras and photographers among his household. In this collection we can also observe possible connections between his photography in the private quarters (andaroun) of his household and the king’s photography of his harem.8

During the same periods, Naser al-Din Shah took very interesting photographs of Mah-Nesa Khanom (d. 1875), the wife of Doust-Ali Khan, inside his royal harem, which demonstrates that these two families certainly had common activities regarding photography of their own private quarters.

Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer al-Mamalek also learned photography from Mirza Ahmad since his childhood and completed his knowledge of photography during several trips to Europe. Like his father, on his return from Europe (October 1884) Doust-Mohammad became one of the most important amateurs and patrons of art, including photography.

My detailed examination of Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer’s photography of the women of his household and also prostitutes of the Naseri period confirms the fact that he was the most important photographer of the Naseri period to be involved in this genre of photography.9 My visual investigations may also prove that between 1885 and 1889 Naser al-Din Shah had been influenced by his son-in-law in photographing the women of his royal harem (Figure 7).

More intimate images of royal consorts. Top, from left to right, Anis al-Dowleh, Shams al-Dowleh, Shokouh al-Saltaneh, and Shirazi Kuchikeh, all inside the royal harem studio, Golestan Complex, Tehran. All photos by Naser al-Din Shah, 1864. Bottom, four intimate photos of the consort Shams al-Dowleh inside the royal harem, Golestan Complex, Tehran. All photos by Naser al-Din Shah, 1870s (Figures 37 and 38).

In 1858, with the arrival of Carlhian at the court, the twenty-seven-year-old king began his career in photography by taking photographs of his royal harem. Young Naser al-Din was certainly under the influence of his first master and learned rapidly from him to develop his personal talents in taking photographs of his wives. My archival research and visual investigation confirm the fact that Carlhian was probably the first photographer to take photographs of nude Iranian women between 1858 and 1861, and Naser al-Din Shah certainly had several copies of those photographs.10

Up to today I could not find any photographs by Naser al-Din Shah in which a nude figure may be observed in its entirety, even though I think he did his best (Figure 5 left). If he could not take such photographs directly, he surely encouraged all the people of his royal harem, including his consorts, to dress and pose in provocative and erotic positions in front of his camera (Figure 37-41; 48; 50 right). Visual evidence also exists that during his travels outside Tehran, Naser al-Din Shah encouraged his companions, mostly his court jesters (moghaled), to engage in sexual behavior to be registered by court photographers (Figures 3 and 4).11

I believe that between 1858 and 1873, from the date of Carlhian’s arrival at the royal court until Naser al-Din Shah’s first trip to Europe, the king followed his own interests and desires in the photography of his royal harem, and perhaps from time to time he was able to benefit from some advice from the foreign photographers who worked for his court and those who had close relationships with him. Foreign erotic photographs and postcards also could be considered as visual resources for him in photographing his own royal harem during these periods (Figure 1).12 This is entirely observable in Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem photography of those years (Figure 9).

However, after the king’s travels to Europe, we can observe many changes in the style of his photography and also in the details of those who can be observed in his photographs. These changes can primarily be observed between 1885 and 1889, after Naser al-Din Shah’s third journey; at this time, many of his talented young court photographers were also returning to Iran from foreign countries as well.

Naser al-Din Shah drew on diverse resources in cultivating his photographic interests. Left, a postcard from the collection of an aristocratic Qajar family of the Naseri period depicting a geisha in Kyoto. Right, photograph of Shams al-Dowleh and her servant inside the royal harem. Golestan Complex, Tehran. Photograph by Naser al-Din Shah, 1871 (Figure 9).

Concluding Remarks

What I have presented in this work should be considered as one of the first contributions to the field of photography of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem in which the photographs themselves are used as the main resources and material evidence.

It took several years to gain access to these photographs, and I should confirm here that I think I was able to collect only very few of these images. I believe that many of these photographs should be classified in the category of harem photography, of a particularly important kind since these images were produced, managed, and filtered by the king himself.

Certainly, some of these images formed part of Naser al-Din Shah’s long-term visual project, for example the album of African eunuchs and ladies of the royal harem that he made between the ages of twenty-seven and thirty-one (Figure 17 left; 25 left; 36; 37 first three; 45 last three; 51).13

Through analysis of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem photographs and their captions, I have discovered new information regarding the king and his personal character as well as further details about the people of the royal harem, including consorts, their servants, slaves, and those who could visit them.

An aging Naser al-Din Shah, Lar royal complex, near Tehran. Photo by Haji Ebrahim Khajeh, 1879 (Figure 22).

My visual surveys also reveal a king who discussed his cares and humor, anxieties, health, and sickness. Remarks about these subjects are repeatedly found written around some of his harem self-portraits, presumably addressed to whoever could be the viewer of these photographs, who were perhaps primarily some of his consorts at that time.

The king realized that he was becoming older, losing the charms and attractiveness of his youth, and becoming sick more frequently. He was losing his teeth, had pain deep in his bones, and suffered serious hemorrhoid problems as well (Figure 22).14 I believe the margins of the royal harem photographs should be considered to be the intimate pages of Naser al-Din Shah’s unwritten diary of his royal harem.

Naser al-Din Shah’s captions also demonstrate how he might have been interested in a wife, a group of consorts, or those who were living and working inside the royal harem. He did not name all of those depicted in the photographs; interestingly, in the majority of cases he mentioned only the names of some young boy or girl servants, or those of some eunuchs. It is also interesting to point out that he never named the children that we can see in these photographs as his own daughters, rather always introducing them by the names of their mothers.

Until now I have been unable to find any photograph in which Naser al-Din Shah is depicted alone with a woman, not even his mother, Mahd Oliya, or with one of his own children. There is only one photograph in which he appears with his mother and sister (Figure 46 right), and also a single photograph with Aziz al-Soltan Malijak.

Furthermore, the king is rarely found pictured among his wives, and when he does come onto the scene, the image is surprisingly different (Figure 48). In the majority of cases, most of the group photographs depict Anis al-Dowleh and her household, who are shown very openly in a joyful and lavish manner (Figure 17 right; 18 left; 23 right; 35). In this series, and certainly with the encouragement of the king, ladies are captured in more intimate positions with sexual gestures and behavior: wearing transparent clothes to reveal their breasts, hugging and touching each other’s bodies (Figures 37-39), and—rarely—gently holding one another’s breasts in their hands (Figure 40). As I have said, such scenes are rare and perhaps took place far from the eyes of other members of the harem. My observations allow me to believe that very few wives of the king could or desired to participate in such visual games; Anis al-Dowleh, Shams al-Dowleh, and Shokouh al-Saltaneh are those who appear most often in these series.

Very few of the king’s wives were willing to cooperate with his requests that they participate in his visual games, but some were. Left, two consorts inside the royal harem, Niyavaran Complex, Tehran. Right, Taj al-Dowleh (left) and Shams al-Dowleh in a mountainous area, Shahrestanak Complex, near Tehran. Both photos by Naser al-Din Shah, 1866 (Figure 40).

Looking at the photographs of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem as a whole, I would like to suggest that these images present entirely new information regarding the events, stories, and people of His Majesty’s household, an ensemble that reveals its main patron’s feelings, emotions, love, and desire for those who were waiting on him, those whose very existence depended upon his. This series of photographs does not tell us anything about the conflicts, disputes, and problems that written Qajar diaries (and accordingly scholars of the field) mention; nor do we see any joyful ceremonies, dances, or entertaining moments of the royal harem.

The photographs of Naser al-Din Shah’s royal harem are unrelated to Orientalism, ‘self-Orientalism,’ or any school of colonial photography that some scholars of the field try to use to explain them. Indeed, it is much more complex and difficult to explain the thinking and worldview of Naser al-Din Shah in the creation of these photographs without enjoying access to the materials in their entirety.


PEDRAM KHOSRONEJAD is Farzaneh Family Scholar and Associate Director of the Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies Program (IPGS) at the Oklahoma State University. He obtained his Ph.D. at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS) in Paris. His research interests include cultural and social anthropology, the anthropology of death and dying, visual anthropology, visual piety, devotional artifacts, and religious material culture, with a particular interest in Iran, Persianate societies, and the Islamic world. He is chief editor of the journal Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia (ACME).

 

  1. A college founded in Tehran in 1851 by Mirza Ṭaqi Khan Amir Kabir, which marked the beginning of modern education in Persia. For more information on this topic, see John Gurney and Negin Nabavi, “Dār al-Fonūn,” Encyclopædia Iranica, s.v. (http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/dar-al-fonun-lit).
  2. First published in Khadijeh Mohammadi Nameghi and Mohammad Sattari, “New Documents about the Royal Harem Studio,” Fine Art 36 (2009): 77-85 [in Persian], 80. Translation by the author.
  3. Literally, “Royal Head Photographer.”
  4. I am currently working on this topic.
  5. For more information regarding Mir Seyed Ali, see Shokoufeh Bayati and Mohammad Sattari, “Immortal Portraits from Unknown Qajar Photographers,” in Fine Art 22 (2017): 117-130 [in Persian].
  6. Also known as Nezam al-Dowleh.
  7. Regarding the date of birth of Abdollah Mirza Qajar, I am following Katia Salmasi’s analysis. For more information on this topic, see Katia Salmasi, “Photography: Misplaced Clichés, Remaining Photographs,” in Bokhara 39- 40 (2004): 232-248 [in Persian].
  8. I am deeply grateful to Leila Moayeri for providing me her family albums to be used in my research projects. For more information in this regard, see Pedram Khosronejad, “Two Photograph Albums from the Moayer Family,” Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia 4 (2018): 68-92.
  9. Until today, the majority of the students of the field have ignored the role of Amir Doust-Mohammad Khan Moayer in the development of photography during the Naseri period, especially his possible influence on Naser al-Din Shah and his court photographers regarding the photography of women. Doust-Mohammad had a circle of close photographer friends including Mirza Ahmad Sani al-Saltaneh, Abdollah Mirza Qajar, Amir Qajar, and Abdolhoseyn Khan Sartip (d. 1896), most of whom were Naser al-Din Shah’s official court photographers.
  10. In a private collection in Iran, I was introduced to two nude photographs of a young Armenian lady in Tehran taken by Francis Carlhian which are copies of the original pictures kept in the Golestan Palace. This young Armenian lady is the same one who can be seen in two other of Carlhian’s photographs (AP11172- AP11174) in the Album de Perse prepared by Lieutenant-Colonel Victor-François Brongniart (b.1809-d.1868), which is kept today in the Guimet Museum of Paris.
  11. I am sure this is how other court photographers were encouraged to take photographs with sexual elements or nudity inside and outside the court (Figures 3-5).
  12. By the late 1860s the circulation of photographs and postcards of Western women in erotic positions and with sexual behaviour was a popular practice among Qajar aristocratic families, and it is certain that members of Naser al-Din Shah’s court and royal harem possessed and enjoyed this new genre of visual paraphernalia.
  13. Album 682 of Golestan Palace (1858-1862).
  14. All mentioned in his captions of royal harem photographs.

The Photography of the Naseri Harem (Part 2)

Naser al-Din Shah and His Collaborators Outside the Royal Harem

The Photography of the Naseri Harem (Part 2)

Naser al-Din Shah and His Collaborators Outside the Royal Harem