three pairs of lovers with space

GREEK LOVE IN MEDIAEVAL AND MODERN PERSIA

 

Greek love in ancient Persia is the subject of a separate article. Confusion reigns over the contradiction between its prevalence there as reported by ancient writers and the hostility to it that one would expect to have emerged from the rise of Zoroastrianism.

 

Zoroastrianism

Zoroastrianism was so exceptionally vociferous in its denunciation of pedication that some have contended that, through influencing the Jews, who were exiles in Babylon in the sixth century BC, it could have been the effective source of Jewish and consequently Christian hostility to Greek love.

Gold dinar of the Sasanid King Shapur III (reigned AD 383-8), showing a Zoroastrian fire altar on the reverse

Zoroastrianism held that pedication had been instituted by the forces of evil to misdirect semen from its desirable purpose of renewing and furthering life in the service of good.[1] According to the Videvdat, the prescribed code of behaviour, even a male who had been pedicated against his will was to be punished with “eight hundred strokes with the horse whip, eight hundred with the bastinado”,[2] while allowing it willingly was, like taking the active role, an inexpiable sin for which the penalty was always death.

Pedication was the only homosexual sin addressed by Zoroastrianism, but this must be understood in the context of a general historical assumption that it was the way Greek love was expressed sexually and that it was certainly to be the usual means of consummation in Islamic Persia. Interestingly, the only pedication forbidden was between sexually mature males (aršan), not pedication of women or pre-pubescent boys, though the latter was to be common in Islamic Persia. Only much later Zoroastrian texts, long after Islam had taken over as the dominant religion, banned pedication of little boys, and then still as a much lesser sin.[3]

See Homosexuality in Zoroastrianism for a detailed scholarly description of the relevant doctrines. There is considerable uncertainty as to the dates at which they were espoused or became influential.  In view of the strong evidence for the practice of Greek love in ancient Persia, it looks as though they had little effect on Persian attitudes or behaviour outside the ranks of rural devotees in the south, except perhaps under Sasanid rule (AD 224-651), when Zoroastrianism was most predominant. However, and probably significantly, nothing is known about Greek love during that period.

 

Traditional Islam

Persian soldiers in the army credited by al-Jahiz with having popularised pederasty in the Islamic world, AD 747

The Islamic conquest of Persia in 651 transformed the country. With the introduction of Islamic law, lavāt (pedication) became a capital crime, and tafkhiz (intercrural sex) a minor sin, but Persian society either continued or resumed expecting that men and boys would be romantically and sexually drawn together. Greek love emerged abruptly in the late 8th century as a prominent feature of the Islamic world, which may have been influenced in this by Persians.  Writing soon afterwards in explanation of its sudden rise, the Baghdad litterateur al-Jahiz (776-868/9) described how the troops sent from Khorasan in Persia to conquer the caliphate in 747 were forbidden to take their wives with them and therefore found sexual solace with their boy pages, thus setting an enduring fashion.[4]

The religious drew a sharp distinction between having sexual feelings and acting on them in violation of Islam. Among the mystically devout, loving boys without sex was seen as enabling men to avoid worldly pleasures in pursuit of the beloved. In Sufi poetry, the word shahed was used to mean both “loved-boy” and “witness”, so that the beautiful boy was seen as a representation or witness of the beauty of God. Though attacked by conservatives who saw Sufism as a cover for licentiousness, the tradition endured and was responsible for some of the special character of Persian love lyrics.

Two loves of the Sufi poet ʿIrāqī are anecdotes taken from the anonymous mediaeval biography of this thirteenth-century Sufi master, which illustrate how erotic feeling for boys was harnessed by Sufism for spiritual ends.

More broadly, sympathy towards this form of love was such that tolerance usually extended to discreet sexual acts as well. Some of the time the government itself was tacitly condoning them by taxing boy brothels. Conviction for lavāt required that four adult male Moslems witness the act, which was nearly impossible and encouraged the belief that transgressions not publicly observed were a secret between the individual and God.

The ban on pedicating boys could anyway be part of the attraction. As the eleventh-century poet Manuchehri put it:

     I like my slave-boy and my wine glass
     This is no place for blame or contempt
     I know that both are forbidden
     It’s this very “forbidden” that makes them so pleasurable.[5]

Religious transgression aside, the desire to pedicate boys was seen as completely normal. Only maʿbun, grown men who desired the passive role, were considered sick and contemptible. No incompatability was perceived between desiring boys and women, as is clear, for example from the fourteenth-century poems of Obeyd-e Zakani, a good source for attitudes. Rather, lust for both was considered a sign of extra masculinity. Mediaeval sexual mores were thus very much like those in the Arabic countries of Islam.

A youth seeking his father's advice on love, from the late 15th-century Haft Awrang of Jāmī

The literary genre of Mirrors for Princes, wherein fathers gave advice to their sons often touched on Greek love. For example, in the Qabus Nameh, written in 1082/3, the Ziyarid ruler Keikavus advised his son Gilanshah:

As between women and youths, do not confine your inclinations to either sex; thus you may find enjoyment from both kinds without either of the two becoming inimical to you … During the summer let your desires incline toward youths, and during the winter toward women.[6]

Persian culture seems to have become rather more richly infused with Greek love than most Arab lands. A long tradition of ghazals (love poems) shows that love of boys was a far more common source of poetic inspiration than love of women, though it is sometimes impossible to tell whether a woman or a boy was being described, and the difference might indeed be a matter of indifference. Similarly,  a profusion of fine miniatures depict courtship and physical affection between men and boys as an everyday part of life. Often, vows of brotherhood (sigheh-ye baradar khandegi) were exchanged between man and boy.

“From the Middle Ages to the Safavid period, the rulers and the great men of the kingdom possessed, in addition to their harems, greater or lesser numbers of male slaves, the ghelman (plural gholam) boys acquired at a tenderest age from the Turkish tribes of Central Asia, and later from the Caucasus. The prices paid for these boys were often very high … [in some cases around] 2000 pieces of gold … They were undoubtedly a costly luxury. Often, it is true, the merchants who traded in these ghelman educated them with great care just as they taught music, dancing, and poetry to the most beautiful girls who were destined for princely harems – so that intellectual accomplishments should be added to their physical attractions and thus enhance their price.”[7]

The greatest early modern shah, Abbas I, who reigned from 1588 to 1629, was particularly fond of boys, as is attested in both contemporary art and the accounts of Europeans such as the Carmelite friar John Thaddeus and Thomas Herbert, who also described the general prevalence of Greek love. George Manwaring likewise reported Abbas's execution of a nobleman who importuned one of his pages without understanding the cause of his wrath.

Until the mid-17th century boy brothels (amrad khaneh) were recognised tax-paying establishments, and boy prostitutes could also be found in bath-houses and coffee-houses.

A New Account of East India and Persia by John Fryer, an English doctor who lived in Persia in the 1670s, makes it clear that Persian men were generally as sexually enthusiastic about boys as women.

Describing coffee-houses, Jean Chardin, a French jeweller there at the same time, reported:

Persians smoking water-pipes in a coffee-house, 17th century

These Houses were heretofore very infamous Places; they were serv’d and entertain’d by beautiful Georgian Boys, from ten to sixteen Years of Age, dress’d after a Lewd Manner, having their Hair ty’d in Wefts, like the Women; they make ’em Dance there, and Act and say a thousand immodest Things, to move the Beholders, who caus’d these Boys to be carry’d, every one where he thought Proper; and this fell to the Lot of those who were the most beautiful and engaging; in such sort, that these Coffee-Houses were nothing else in Reality, but Shops for Sodomy, which was very terrible to Wise and Virtuous People. Calif Sultan, Primier Minister of Abas the Second in the fiftieth Year of the last Age,[8] brought the King, as debauch’d as he was himself, to Abolish these vile Practices, which he did, and since that time, there has been nothing of that to be seen in those Places.[9]

In 1694, by when religious orthodoxy was ascendant, a decree proclaimed that the word of God was to be enforced. Many common practices such as music and dancing in mixed company and wine were prohibited. “Sodomy, prostitution, and gambling were banned. Coffee houses were closed down. Opium and ‘colorful herbs’ were declared illegal”.[10] Such activities were now deemed illegal and could incur fines and punishments, but though life at court became noticeably more puritanical, “it remains doubtful that this decree was heeded any more than every other ordinance that had preceded it.”[11]

Lavāt depicted on a 19th-century lacquer Persian mirror-case (sold at Bonhams of London in 2012)

In 1914, the German homosexual activist Hirschfeld noted that lavāt was punishable by death under “Shiite religious laws”, but that “in recent years, the religious penal code has been implemented very negligently in practice. No one at the German embassy has heard about a conviction as a result of the crime in question.”[12]  But though the law was to continue showing a blind eye for another sixty-five years, and there were few signs that the practice of Greek love was declining under hostile  European influence, as it already was in the Ottoman Empire, all no longer bode well.

 

Twentieth-century decline

The story of the relatively recent successful repression of Greek love in a society in which it had flourished offers invaluable insight into the broader tragedy.

In 1906, protests against the Qajar regime led to constitutional monarchy and ushered in rapid social change and modernisation on European lines that was inevitably lethal to the popularity of pederasty.

The stage had already been set by a few intellectual reformers advocating such change. For example, Mirza Aqa Khan Kermani, executed for sedition in 1896/7, wrote in his One Hundred Lectures:

In any nation where men are deprived of the great joy [of seeing women’s faces], the practice of pederasty [bacheh bazi] and sex with slaves [gholam baregi] has developed of necessity, because handsome boys look like women and this is one of the mistakes of nature. In Iran, this travesty has attained the ultimate … The reason for this practice is the veiling of women, which exists in Iran. As a result, men are deprived of that natural inclination that emerges after seeing women. Therefore they are drawn out of desperation to pederasty and love of boys. The poet Saʿdi of Shiraz, the pervert Khaqani, and other poets of Iran in their great divans simply prove this point.[13]

Dancing-boys: pederasty mocked in the modernist Azeri newspaper Molla Nasreddin, 1906

Significantly in the same year as the constitutional revolution, a new Azeri satirical newspaper, Molla Nasreddin, published in Tibilisi, but popular in Persia where its writers were viewed as expatriates, began attacking Persia’s patriarchal culture and mocking pederasty in particular, smearing conservatives with accusations of involvement in it.

The consequent contradiction between prevailing culture and aspiration among the elite was summed-up well, but with deep irony, by the prominent poet Iraj Mirza. Qajar prince and former boy-loving author of erotic ghazals, he was at the same time a strong advocate of reform, attacking decadent monarchy, the segregation of women and eventually boy-love itself. In his poem Aref Nameh, which appeared in 1921, he lambasted “this commonwealth” for “pedomania”, holding up as a model “The European with his lofty bearing [who] Knows not the ins and outs of garcon-tearing,” and attacking lavāt as unpatriotic: “How can you have your motherland at heart If you think kun [anus] and kos [vagina] exchangeable bodily parts?”[14]

The journal Kaveh, published in exile in Berlin from 1916 to 1921, was a similar influential voice demanding the abandonment of pederasty in favour of compulsory heterosexuality as part of the call of its editor, the constitutionalist Hasan Taqizadeh, for Persians to “become European in appearance and in essence, in body and in spirit.”[15]

Now they perform brotherhood vows! (Better say they get married): further mockery in the newspaper Molla Nasreddin, 1910

The arch-enemy of Greek love was, however, the prominent historian Ahmad Kasravi, who led a secularising movement called Pak Dini (Purity of Religion), which called for the elimination of poems with “culturally backward” pederastic themes, including well-known classics, from school textbooks, and instituted a festival of book-burning for “degenerate literature".[16] Kasravi argued that the revival of Persian poetry was a conspiracy concocted by British and German Orientalists to divert Persian youth towards useless and immoral pursuits instead of studies such as science that could build the nation.[17]

What Mirza, Taqizadeh and Kasravi hoped for was gradually realised under the Pahlavi shahs who overthrew the Qajars in 1925. Lavāt was criminalised in article 207 of the new Penal Code of that year, which replaced the shari’a courts, while that of 1933 penalised encouragement of youths under eighteen to be involved in such illegal sexual activities. Pederasty was further marginalised by censorship heavily tilted against it. Though Kasravi was isolated in academic circles by his enmity to classical poetry, the Literary Society acceded to his demand in 1935 that pederastic ghazals should no longer be written, and Mahmoud Jam, Prime Minister 1935-9, agreed to his demand that they should be banned from newspapers.[18]

Despite this, pederasty persisted in the 1930s in a more attenuated form in the more traditional sectors of society, the boy concubine retaining his importance in various professions:

In the royal court he would be known as the “gholam bacheh”; in the military, as the “orderly”; among the elite, as the “servant”; in the merchant community he was the “revenue collector”; the notary called his boy “the scribe”; the rich called him “servant”; . . . the peddler, hawker, porter, walnut seller, whey seller, berry seller, syrup seller called him “son”; the hoodlum, thief, gambler, and others [of similar professions] called their boys their mochul [snack]. At any rate, whoever earned a living and made enough to feed two people kept a boy. Some men remained loyal to their boys and would not leave them until the lads grew beards and became men with wives and children of their own.[19]

Steadily, however, Greek love was becoming less culturally acceptable in Iran (as from 1935 the government requested the country be called in foreign languages). The laws against it did not have much effect on daily life, but other modernisations certainly did. The enforced unveiling of women (enabling them to compete with boys for men’s gaze), the mixing of the sexes, the encouragement of monogamous companionate marriage and much greater exposure to European values through popular media wrought severe damage to its prevalence and standing.

A youngling labourer by Arvari Majid

Though Kasravi was assassinated in 1946, his ideas for excising Greek love from the national culture were accelerated in the ensuing years. References to it in textbooks and new editions of classical poetry were cut and illustrations of women were used to deceive students into thinking the love objects in them were always women.

Unsurprisingly, such social engineering from the authorities had far more immediate effect on the elite and urban middle class. The following anecdote from a factory-owner in the late 1950s illustrates the cultural gap opened between them and the rural poor representing dying older values:

When we opened the Three Stars Shoe Factory on the south side of Tehran, we hired a large team of shoemakers from a nearby province for the sewing department. Each senior shoemaker worked with two or three young assistants, mostly teenage boys. Since the shoemakers were away from their homes, they asked to sleep in the factory at night, and we gave them permission to do so. One day there was a big fight in the sewing department. After some inquiries, we learned that two of the senior shoemakers had been quarreling over a boy. We called the boy to our office. He was about fourteen and was quite handsome, with blonde hair and blue eyes. He candidly revealed that the two older men were in love with him (khater khāh). We were disturbed by his account and wanted to fire the shoemakers. But the boy insisted that he was a willing participant in these relationships. So we let him off but told the men in the sewing department that they had to find other sleeping accommodations. The shoemakers were quite upset with the change and collectively decided to leave the factory.[20]

Tehran in the 1950s

According to a study of rural villages around Tehran in the 1960s:

eight out of ten boys was said to have had at least one homosexual experience of one form or another before marriage, whether with their peers or with much older men. The practice is thus transmitted from generation to generation, though it is in decline.[21]

Boys for Sale by Drew and Drake (1969) has a brief but interesting summary of boy prostitution in Iran not long before they were writing (but with unreliable references to the remoter past).

Though many of the changes pushed under the two Pahlavi shahs had always created resentment among devout Moslems, and this was the main cause of the Islamist revolution in 1979, the years of their rule had been enough to excise Greek love as a norm, and, despite their hostility to the modern values in whose name this had been done, the puritanical revolutionaries could hardly have more ill-disposed to tolerating its resurrection. Rather, they proved inclined to exploit the growing global demonization of so-called “pedophilia” as a gloss for their suppression of any Iranian manifestations of the gay lifestyle that was becoming politically correct elsewhere.

Immediately following the revolution, the death penalty was instituted for lavāt, in accordance with Islamic law. Many were hung for it thereafter, including teenage boys convicted of pedicating younger boys, so Iran soon became one of the more oppressive countries for Greek love as well as other homosexuality.[22]

Asked in September 1979 by Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci why homosexuals had to be shot, the new leader of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini, explained that it was to prevent the contamination of society.

Fallaci: "Imam, how Is it possible to compare a Savak murderer and torturer with a citizen who exercises his sexual freedom? Take the example of the boy they shot yesterday, for sodomy."
Khomeini: "Corruption, corruption. We have to eliminate corruption." [And when the discussion was extended to the shooting of a pregnant adulterous girl:] Stop talking about these things. I am getting tired. These are not important matters."[23]

The Islamic Penal Code in force since 1991 also prescribed lashing for all other homosexual acts, including mere lustful touching or kissing.[24]

Boys of 16 & 18 hung in 2005 for pedicating a boy who at 13 was deemed incapable of consenting

In 2007, the President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad told an outraged audience in the USA that “in Iran we don’t have homosexuals like in your country.” He was being imprecise rather than dishonest as the American phenomenon of gay men was not to be seen in his country and had never had much visibility there.[25] In reacting against his claim by referring not simply to the recent executions of homosexuals in Iran, but to the rich history of homosexuality there, American gay activists were being at least as hypocritical as Ahmadinejad, for the historical homosexuality which flourished in old Persia bore no resemblance to that they wished everywhere to see and was of a kind they themselves strongly decried: being focussed on boys, not men, as the objects of desire, and for men in general, not for a small minority. But they may have been ignorant rather than dishonest, for in twentieth-century Iran Greek love had suffered probably the most extreme of all its miserable reversals anywhere, popular  appreciation giving way to popular amnesia in only two generations.

 

[1] Dādestān ī dēnīg, questions 71-76 (ed. Anklesaria, 1958, pp. 140-47).

[2] Videvdad VIII 26-32.

[3] According to one rivāyat, pedication between males over fifteen was a sin worthy of capital punishment, but with a boy of eight fifteen times less of a sin. See B. N. Dhabhar, ed., The Persian Rivayats of Hormazyar Framarz and Others (Bombay, 1932) p. 291.

[4] A lost fragment of al-Jahiz’s Fi Al-Mu_allimin [On Schoolmasters] quoted in Hamzah al-Isbahani’s mediaeval recension of Abu Nuwas’s poetry and published in Diwan Abu Nuwas edited by Gregor Schoeler (Damascus, 2003), vol. 4, 185.

[5] Quoted by Dick Davis in the introduction to his Faces of Love. Hafez and the Poets of Shiraz (New York, 2013).

[6] A Mirror for Princes, The Qabus-Nama, translated by Reuben Levy, 1951) pp. 77-8.

[7] Robert Surieu, Sarv-e Naz: An Essay on Love and the Representation of Erotic Themes in Ancient Iran, translated by  James Hogarth (Geneva, 1967) p. 170.

[8] Abbas II reigned 1642-66, so “fiftieth Year” appears to be a mistake. “Calif Sultan” was his grand vizier from 1645 to 1654. Chardin first went to Persia in Abbas II’s reign. “In 1646, shortly after Khalifeh Soltan's appointment as grand vizier, [all] prostitution was prohibited and brothels were forced to shut their doors” according to Rudi Mathee, “Prostitutes, Courtesans, and Dancing Girls: Women Entertainers in Safavid Iran” in Iran and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honor of Nikki R. Keddie, ed. Rudi Matthee and Beth Baron, pp. 121–150. Los Angeles, 2000) p. 146.

[9] The text is taken from the 1720 English edition reprinted as Sir John Chardin, Travels in Persia 1673-1677 by The Argonaut, Press, London, 1927.

[10] Kathryn Babayan, Mystics, Monarchs, and Messiahs: Cultural Landscapes of Early Modern Iran (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002) p. 485.

[11] Rudi Mathee, “Prostitutes, Courtesans, and Dancing Girls: Women Entertainers in Safavid Iran” in Iran and Beyond: Essays in Middle Eastern History in Honor of Nikki R. Keddie, ed. Rudi Matthee and Beth Baron (Los Angeles, 2000) pp. 146-8.

[12] Magnus Hirschfeld, Die Homosexualität Des Mannes Und Des Weibes (Berlin, 1914).

[13] Mirza Aqa Khan Jermani, Sad Khetabeh, ed. Muhammad Jaʿfar Mahjoub (Los Angeles, 2006) p. 173, translated by Janet Afary in Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge, 2009) p. 118.

[14] Paul Sprachman, Suppressed Persian: An Anthology of Forbidden Literature (Costa Mesa, California, 1995), 82–83.

[15] Hasan, Taqizadeh, “Dowreh-ye Jadid.” in Kaveh 5(36) (January 22): 2.

[16] Ahmad Kasravi, Dar Piramun-e Adabiyat (Tehran, 1944) pp. 132-3.

[17] Ahmad Kasravi, Dar Piramun-e Adabiyat (Tehran, 1944) pp. 18-19.

[18] Ahmad Kasravi, Dar Piramun-e Adabiyat (Tehran, 1944) pp. 135.

[19] Jaʿfar Shahri, Tarikh-e Ejtemaʿi-ye Tehran dar Qarn-e Sizdahom (Tehran, 1990) VI 319, translated by Janet Afary in Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge, 2009) p. 160.

[20] Interview by Janet Afary 15 February 2002 published in her Sexual Politics in Modern Iran (Cambridge, 2009) p. 243.

[21] Paul Vielle, “Iranian Women in Family Alliance and Sexual Politics.” in Lois Beck and Nikki R. Keddie, editors, Women in the Muslim World, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1978) p. 165.

[22] The level of oppression cannot fairly be measured only by the harshest penalties ever applied. High standards of proof, such as confession or four male witnesses were required for conviction and implied an unwillingness to pry into unobserved private acts.  The numbers who suffered for Greek love in post-revolution Iran were minuscule compared to those suffering for it in the same period in the USA, for example.

[23] Interview of 12 September 1979 published in The New York Times Magazine, 7 October 1979, pp. 29-31.

[24] The Islamic Penal Code, 20 November 1991, articles 235-7.

[25] The visibility that the new gay kind of homosexuality had begun to have in the 1970s, expressed, for example, through the mockery in the press of the Prime Minister Amir Abbas Hoveyda for alleged gayness, and outraged news coverage of a mock wedding ceremony between two young men with ties to the Shah’s court, considerably fuelled public anger against the old regime and explains the virulence of the oppression of homosexuals following the consequent revolution. See Janet Afary, Foucault and the Iranian Revolution: Gender and the Seductions of Islam (Chicago, 2005).  This anger surely demonstrates how alien the modern gay was to most Iranian people and lends a kind of truth to Ahmadinejad’s claim.