March 8, 2010

Prisoner in the Siyah-Chal

Having been forced to walk before royal horsemen and at their pace from Niyavaran to Tihran, a distance of about fifteen miles, in the burning heat of a summer day, barefoot, in chains and without His hat, which in those days was the very symbol of a man's dignity, Baha’u’llah was cast together with some eighty Babis into the capital’s infamous Siyah Chal – the Black Pit of Tehran.

The Siyah-Chal (Black Pit) was no ordinary prison, but a huge underground pit which no ray of sunlight ever penetrated. It once had served as a reservoir for one of the public baths of the city and had only one entrance. It was situated in the heart of Tihran close to a palace of the Shah and adjacent to the Sabzih-Maydan, the scene of execution of the Seven Babi Martyrs of Tihran. This dungeon was occupied by many prisoners, some of whom were without clothes or bedding. Its atmosphere was humid and dark, its air fetid and filled with a loathsome smell, its ground damp and littered with filth, and these conditions were matched by the brutality of the guards and officials towards the Bábí victims who were chained together in that dismal place.

Many years later, Baha’u’llah recalled His experience in the Siyah-Chal:
“Upon our arrival We were first conducted along a pitch-black corridor, from whence We descended three steep flights of stairs to the place of confinement assigned to Us. The dungeon was wrapped in thick darkness, and Our fellow-prisoners numbered nearly a hundred and fifty souls: thieves, assassins and highwaymen. Though crowded, it had no other outlet than the passage by which We entered. No pen can depict that place, nor any tongue describe its loathsome smell. Most of these men had neither clothes nor bedding to lie on. God alone knoweth what befell Us in that most foul-smelling and gloomy place!” (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, pp. 20-1)

This prison prized highly and was famous for two of its chief instruments, the dreaded chains known as Salbil and Qara-Guhar. Qara-Guhar, which was heavier than Salasil, weighed about fifty-one kilograms, about 112 pounds! One of these two chains was placed around Bahá'u'lláh's neck at all times. The weight of the chains cut through Baha’u’llah’s flesh and left their marks on His blessed body till the end of His life. They were so heavy that a special wooden fork was provided to support their weight. Baha'u'llah declared that for four months He was 'tormented and chained by one or the other of them'. (Baha’u’llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 77)

The prisoners were placed in two rows, facing each other over the stocks in which their feet were held. The air they breathed was foul; the stone floor was covered with filth and infested with vermin and no warmth relieved the dungeon's icy gloom, and these conditions were matched by the brutality of the guards and officials towards the Bábí victims who were chained together in that dismal place. Baha’u’llah’s chains were tied to His nephew, Mirza Mahmud.

Every day one of the Babi prisoners was released from his stocks and chains and taken to the gallows. Baha'u'llah related how He taught the facing lines to sing verses in response to each other. One row would sing, 'God is sufficient unto me; He verily is the All-Sufficing!', and the other would reply, 'In Him let the trusting trust." (Nabil-i-A’zam, the Dawn-Breakers, p. 461)

Through the kindness of one of the prison officials who was friendly towards Bahá'u'lláh, His eldest son 'Abdu'l-Bahá, then eight years old, was taken one day to visit His Father at the Siyah-Chal. ‘Abdu’l-Baha related that half-way down the steps to the cell it became so dark that He could not see anything. He heard Baha'u'llah call out, 'Take him away.' He was taken out and permitted to wait in the prison yard until noon when the prisoners were allowed to come out of the Pit for an hour of fresh air.

The Master recalled:

“I saw Baha'u'llah's neck in chains, and another [Baha’u’llah’s nephew], both chained to the same links, a link about His neck and another about the person who was chained with Him. The weight of the chain was so excessive that His neck was bent; He walked with great difficulty, and He was in a very sad condition. His clothes were tattered and battered; even the hat on His head was torn. He was in the most severe ordeal and His health was quite visibly failing. They brought me and seated me, and they took Him to the place where there was a pond in order that He might wash His face. After that they took Him back to the dungeon and, although I was a child, I was so overcome ..” (Talk given by ‘Abdu’l-Baha in Los Angeles, 19 October 1912, Star of the West vol. VII)

On witnessing this sight 'Abdu'l-Bahá fainted and was carried home, unconscious.

While breathing the foul air of the Siyah-Chal, with His feet in stocks and His head weighed down by the mighty chain, Bahá'u'lláh received, as attested by Him in His Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, the first intimations of His station as the Supreme Manifestation of God -- He Whose appearance had been foretold by the Prophets of old in such terms as the 'reincarnation of Krishna', the 'fifth Buddha', the 'Shah Bahram', the 'Lord of Hosts', the Christ returned 'in the glory of the Father', the 'Spirit of God', and by the Báb as 'Him Whom God shall make manifest'.

‘Abdu’l-Baha explained many years later in a gathering in Paris that “A prison official made an attempt to poison Him [Baha’u’llah] but, beyond causing Him great suffering, this poison had no effect.” (‘Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 76)

Although most of the Bábís were taken from the prison, one by one, and martyred in the adjoining market square of Sabzih-Maydan, Bahá'u'lláh's life was providentially spared. After four months He was released, but was ordered to leave Persia within a month.

When Bahá'u'lláh came out of prison, stripped of His possessions, His back bent by the weight of the fetters, His neck swollen and injured and His health impaired, He did not intimate to anyone His experience of Divine Revelation. Yet those who were close to Him could not fail to witness a transformation of spirit, a power and a radiance never seen in Him before.

The following is an extract from the spoken chronicle of the Greatest Holy Leaf, the daughter of Bahá'u'lláh, recounting her impressions of Him at the time of His release from the Siyah-Chal:

“Jamal-i-Mubarak [literally, the Blessed Beauty, referring to Bahá'u'lláh] had a marvellous divine experience whilst in that prison. We saw a new radiance seeming to enfold him like a shining vesture, its significance we were to learn years later. At that time we were only aware of the wonder of it, without understanding, or even being told the details of the sacred event. (Bahiyyih Khanum, quoted by Adib Taherzadeh, in The Revelation of Baha'u'llah v 1, pp. 8-9)

(Adapted from ‘Baha’u’llah the Prince of Peace’, by David Hofman, pp. 53-56 and ‘The Revelation of Baha’u’llah’, by Adib Taherzadeh, Vol. 1, pp. 8-9)