The Story of a murder
It was a Wednesday and the beginning of the summer of 1908. A 34-year-old journalist was dragged in chains to the “King’s Garden” in the center of Tehran.
Two executioners put a noose around his neck. As they pulled the rope from the side, blood came out from his mouth. A third henchman stabbed him in the heart. The victim was the editor in chief of one of the most popular weekly papers in Tehran in the midst of the Constitutional Revolution of Iran (1905–1911). He was executed 111 years ago, without a trial, all the while the king watching his death. His name was Mirza Jahangir Khan and this is his story.
Who was Mirza Jahangir khan?
Mirza Jahangir Khan Sur-e Esrafil (also known as Mirza Jahangir Khan Shirazi, and Mirza Jahangir Khan) was an Iranian intellectual who was one of the pro constitutionalism forces and contributed to the press publications during the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-1911. He was the editor in chief and founder of the newspaper Sur-e Esrafil which was popular at the time and contributed to changing the political paradigm from monarchism to constitutionalism.
Mirza Jahangir Khan was executed along with several other revolutionaries and intellectuals following the coup by the King (Mohammad Ali Shah) of the Qajar dynasty in June 1908. During this coup attempt against the first ever constitutionalparliament in Iran, the king ordered the bombardment of the parliament and arrest of revolutionary forces using Persian Cossack forces, commanded by Russian Officers.
Mirza Jahangir Khan’s last words before execution were:” Long Live the Constitution”
Jahangir Khan Sur-e Esrafil was born into a poor family in the southern city of Shiraz and studied literature, mathematics, philosophy, and logic at school. He later gained admission to an elite school (Dar-al Fonoon) in Tehran and studied modern sciences. During this time he joined the revolutionaries who wanted to establish a constitutional parliament within the Iranian governing system of monarchism in order to control the unlimited despotic power of the king. In 1907, and one year after the establishment of the first ever constitutional parliament in Iran, Jahangir Khan published his newspaper (Sur e Esrafil) which enjoyed the highest circulation of printed copies of that time. Many distinguished intellectuals wrote for his paper including Ali Akbar Dehkhoda (1879–1956) Iranian intellectual, linguist and the author of Dehkhoda Dictionary.
Sur-e Esrafil published many articles in support of the Constitutional Revolution. The paper exposed many corruption cases and promoted the rule of law, freedom, rights of minorities and women. The style of the paper was in simple Farsi and was read by many ordinary Iranians in a country that at that time had a low rate of literacy.
The success of Sur e Esrafil did not last for long. Following the coup d’état in 1908, by the king and with the help of Russians the king bombard the parliament and arrested many of the revolutionaries. The following day by the order of the king (Mohammad Ali Shah) the paper Sur-e Esrafil was shut down, Jahangir Khan was arrested and subsequently executed.
The Iranian constitutional revolution started in 1905 when Tehran’s governor bastinadoed (foot whipped) two sugarcane merchants in public, over the high price of sugarcane. Iranians were already dissatisfied with corruption, economic policies and foreign influence on Iran. The humiliation of public punishment of the two merchants led to widespread protests. Intellectuals, the clergy, and merchants were in the front line of the protests. The main demand was to seek the establishment of a House of Justice (Edalatkhaneh). This was followed by demands for a constitutional monarchy, a written code of law and a parliament. On Aug 15th, 1906, Muzzafar al-Din Shah issued a royal proclamation declaring the creation of a Parliament (Majlis).
The first parliament was inaugurated in October 1906. The King, Mozaffar ad-Din Shah, died the following year and his son Muhammad Ali Shah became the new monarch. The new king was openly hostile to the constitution. In a Coup, he dissolved the parliament. One year of civil war led to the deposition of the king and a second parliament was opened. This second attempt was less successful than the first due to domestic turmoils and the foreign pressure from the British and Russians. The parliament was dissolved by the ministers in December 1911, after the arrival of Russian army units on the borders of Tehran and their threat to invade the building. It was the end of the Constitutional Revolution era.
Trumpet Call of the Archangel
Press and newspapers appeared in Iran in the mid 19th century. They promoted patriotism, reform, freedom, democratic values and secularism.
Sur-e Esrafil was one of the pioneers amongst Iranian newspapers. It explained the new concepts of “law” and “politics” in a simple language for ordinary people. The first issue of Sur-e Esrafil was released in May 1907 in the Persian capital, Tehran.
The name Sur-e Esrafil refers to a religious term “Trumpet call of the Archangel” and is linked to the day that the dead are resurrected by the call of the Archangel. It was thus a metaphor for the awakening of Iranians and their raising their awareness to control their own fate. The logo was an angel holding a banner depicting the French revolution slogan of “Liberty, equality, fraternity”.
The newspaper was highly circulated, initially with only five thousand copies but reportedly increased at its peak up to 24 thousand copies. Sur-e Esrafil became rapidly important, effective and very popular. People read it in the coffeehouses for the illiterates.
The editors of Sur-e Esrafil including Mirza Jahangir Khan were under much pressure. They were repeatedly accused of being “apostates” and were threatened constantly as such.
Following the coup and the execution of Mirza Jahangir, one of the editors of Sur-e Esrafil, Dehkhoda, fled Iran. He lived in in Europe for a year and published three more issues of the paper while in Switzerland. The newspaper permanently folded in March 1909.
Importance of Sur-e Esrafil
Asad Seif, the Iranian writer and researcher argues that the most important aspect of Sur-e Esrafil was its contribution to the Iranian enlightenment.
“The paper started publishing ten months after of the order of Mashruteh (royal proclamation declaring the creation of a Parliament by Muzzafar al-Din Shah) in order to protect the demands of the constitutional movement— the demands which had not yet been fulfilled at that time. We can view Sur-e Esrafil as a child of the constitutional movement.”Seif told Zamaneh.
“The paper had an eye on the modern world. In the first issue, we read that the goals included ‘completing the constitutional movement’, ‘supporting the parliament’ and ‘supporting the poor, the underdogs and laborers’. The paper constantly attacked the resilience of the autocracy and discussed issues such as land reform, as well as seeking justice for workers and the oppressed classes within society.” Asad Seif told Zamaneh
He explained that Sur-e Esrafil was unique because of its use of simple language that could be readily understood by the people of the lower classes. For the first time in Iranian history, there was a satire column written by Dehkhoda beautifully. This column set the basis for the satire tradition in the Iranian press that continues to the present day.
The legacy of Mirza Jahangir Khan
Seif emphasizes that the legacy of Sur-e Esrafil and its editors (Jahangir Khan and Dehkhoda) remains present in the Iranian media. The story of presecution of intellectuals, writers and journalists continues in Iran to this day. Similar stories are being repeated today with the substitution of other names. “Putting aside the years after the fall of Reza Shah in the 1940’s, the situation has always been the same. No paper has survived for a long time in this country, and no journalist was able to write in freedom.” Seif said. “It seems we have inherited the culture of suspensions and bans from the Constitutional Revolution times as well as harsher treatments leading to prison and even death,” He added.
Seif believes that, despite this, the voice of Iranian journalists has not been silenced. Even now, at a time when Iran is one of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists, this voice is louder than at any time.
“Mirza Jahangir Khan was killed when he was in his 30s but his name will never be forgotten from the memory of history,” Seif said
A National treasure and a best Friend
Ali-Akbar Dehkhoda was an Iranian intellectual, writer, poet, diplomat, university professor and journalist who was also a revolutionary during the 1907-1909 constitutional revolution.
He was a defender of women’s rights and minorities, a labor activist and a seeker of educational reform. Later he wrote the first Persian Lexicon Dictionary (Loghatnameh) which is considered a national treasure in Persian literature.
In the spring of 1906, Mirza Jahnagir Khan invited Dehkhoda to join the editorial team of Sur-e Esrafil. He accepted and became a prominent writer with the satirical column Charand-o Parand. Even after the execution of Mirza Jahangir Khan, Dehkhoda continued to publish his column whilst in exile.
Dehkhoda, was a close friend of Mirza Jahangir khan. He wrote after the death of his friend:
“one night I saw the blessed Mirza Jahangir Khan in a dream. He was dressed in a white attire (which he used to wear in Tehran), he told me: ‘Why did you not say: He fell young?’ I thought he meant: why have you not spoken or written of my death? And in my sleep this quote came to my mind: ‘Remember the dead candle, remember’. When I woke up I turned the light on and wrote this poem. It was printed in the first issue of Sur-e Esrafil which was published in Switzerland.
Dr. Ahmad Karimi Hakkak has translated this poem to English and gave permission to Zamaneh to publish it here:
O bird of the dawn! when this dark night
has put aside its black deeds,
and at the life-giving breath of the dawn
slumber has departed from the heads of the sleepers, when the beloved of the indigo throne
has loosened knots from her golden tresses, God in His perfection has become manifest,
and the evil-natured Ahriman has withdrawn to its citadel, remember the dead candle, remember.
O friend of Joseph in this bondage!
when the truth of your dream has become evident to you, when, your heart full of joy, your lips full of sweet laughter, envied by your foes, fulfilled as your friends might desire, you are gone to the arms of your loved ones and your kinsmen freer than the breeze and the moonlight,
remember him who for a while through nights of longing for union with the loved ones
sat with you counting the stars.
When the garden turns green again, O poor, distraught nightingale!
and the landscape becomes like a Chinese painting gallery, with hyacinths, oleander, and marjoram,
when the rose has turned red, dewdrops like sweat on its face, when you have grown restless and unyielding,
remember the budding rose, bloomed before its time, which, before it could tame the flame of desire, withered in sorrow at the chill of winter.
O companion of the son of Emran in the desert! when these numbered years are passed,
and that choice witness of the feast of wisdom has made manifest His promise,
when every morning, from the golden altar
the scent of ambergris and aloe has risen to the heavens, remember him who, yearning for a glimpse of the promised land, has, for the sin of an ignorant people,
yielded up his life in the desert.
When times have turned propitious once again, O child of the Golden Age!
and God, gladdened by the obedience of His servants
has resumed His divinity,
when there remains not the fashion of Eram nor the name of Shaddad, when mud has stopped the tongue of spite,
remember him who, for the crime of praising the truth
has drunk the draught of union
from the point of the headsman’s sword.
*This poem has been published in “Recasting Persian Poetry: Scenarios of Poetic Modernity in Iran”