ETIQUETTE (Pers. nazākat, ādāb-e moʿāšarat), defined as the observance of conventional decorum particularly among the elite, is itself part of the wider topic of adab (q.v.).
The distance in time and the paucity of primary sources from the pre-Islamic period make it hard to establish the boundaries of etiquette in Sasanian culture and to distinguish between what belonged to the sphere of public morality, ethics, and religious duties and what were the rules of etiquette and personal behavior among the higher classes of society. This lack of sources drives us to use, alongside the few allusions found in the Pahlavi texts, early Arabic and Persian texts that contain materials probably derived directly or indirectly from Sasanian literature. It is, however, often impossible to make a clear distinction in post-Sasanian literature between genuine reports of Sasanian practices and fictionalized accounts of customs and norms which were projected back to the Sasanian era as an idealized golden age of fine ceremonies and perfect decorum. This study focuses on a few examples dealing with etiquette in conduct and the art of conversation, table manners, and courtly behavior.
Etiquette in conduct and the art of conversation. An eminent person coming from afar would be met at some distance by a welcoming party (e.g., Wolff, Glossar, p. 186, s.v. “paδīre”; Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag 4.1). When two people met, the one belonging to an inferior rank, or if of equal status the younger of the two, would dismount first. For instance, Zāl dismounts on seeing his father Sām. Gēv and his entourage dismount upon reaching Rostam (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, p. 227 v. 938, II, p. 143 vv. 308-10), but it is Rostam who dismounts first on meeting Esfandīār (ibid., V, p. 331-32 vv. 475-88); when Pīrān meets Rostam, he remains seated in the saddle because he is unaware of who he is; but he quickly gets off his horse as soon as he finds out Rostam’s identity (ibid., III, p. 206 v. 1665). After dismounting, those of more or less equal status would kiss the ground before the other. Other features of the manners of encounters included extolling each other and inquiring after each other’s well being and that of their relatives and about the hardships of the journey (ibid., I, p. 239 v. 1100, III, pp. 165, vv. 970-76, 173 vv. 1119-125, V, pp. 331-33 vv. 475-94; Wolff, Glossar, pp. 134, s.v. “burdan,”no. 7 and p. 817, s.v. “namāz”). On meeting each other, or bidding each other farewell, a son would kiss his father’s hands and feet while the father would embrace the son’s head, face and eyes (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, p. 273 v. 1546). In front of their elders, the young would stand with hands on their chests and heads lowered downwards in respect (ibid., IV, p. 76 v. 1197; Wolff, Glossar, p. 382, s.v. “dast,” no. 45; Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag 1.20). A guest would be met and greeted by the host on entering the house (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, p. 198 v. 509; Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag, 3.7, 4.1; Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 71). On departure, a high-ranking guest or a person dear to the host would be accompanied for several stations on his way and they would embrace at the point of separation (e.g., Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, p. 275 v. 1578).
As for clothing and the dress-code, observance of religious rules required that a person should not go around without wearing the kustīg (the sacred girdle), or without shoes, or with just a single shoe (e.g., Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag, 17.9, 12, 25.3; Pahlavi Rivayat, ed. Dhabhar, 11.1-2; Junker, ed., p. 31, tr. p. 42; Sad dar-e naṯr, 82; Sad dar-e Bondaheš, 60, 85, 89). The wearing of hat was also a part of etiquette; the hat would be removed in front of notables as a token of respect or repentance and at times of mourning and worship (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, II, p. 57 v. 780, IV, p. 162 v. 2470; Wolff, Glossar, p. 510, s.v. “sar,” no. 177). The cleanliness of the body and the clothes was stressed, and the wearing of scent was approved of (Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag 2.12, 17.9, 12; Sad dar-e Bondaheš, 85.1). Flowers were used for general decoration, for decorating dining cloths and votive spreads, or as gifts (Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag 15.10; Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, pp. 191 vv. 393-96, 196 vv. 472-73, V, p. 20 vv. 243, 247; Pahlavi Rivayat, ed. Dhabhar, 56.6-8, 58.11, 19, 29; Īrānšāh, p. 593 v. 10,252). On festive occasions men and women would carry flowers in their hands. Each flower would have its own symbolic connotations (Unvala, tr., pp. 31-34; Faḵr-al-Dīn Gorgānī, pp. 165 vv. 82-84, 403 vv. 17-18; Ḥoṣrī, pp. 209, 211). On a festive occasion at the time of Bahrām Gōr (q.v.), according to Abū Ḥanīfa Dīnavarī (p. 57), the price of a bouquet of flowers rose to one dirham. This illustrates the importance of flowers and their role in matters of etiquette in Sasanian culture in general and in the reign of Bahrām in particular. Apart from flowers, the bestowal of gifts, especially to a harbinger of good news, was part of the rules of etiquette (Wolff, Glossar, p. 772, s.v. “mužde”; Eʿtemād Moqaddam, I, pp. 339-53; see also GIFT GIVING).
It was regarded as bad manners to criticize a person for having given the wrong advice, or, on the other hand, to make a person feel beholden to one after following one’s sound guidance; a person who had suffered as a result of not following good advice was not to be admonished (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936, p. 116). Good behavior, however, required that one express his gratitude (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, II, p. 121 v. 39, III, p. 393 vv. 1217-221; Wolff, Glossar, p. 491, s.v. “sipās”).
It was important to know one’s place at any meeting and not rise above one’s station (Andarz ī Ādurbād, no. 88; Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1961, p. 74). According to Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ (1936, p. 97), one should sit at a station beneath one’s status, while according to Meskawayh (pp. 27, 39), a person should know his place and should sit neither above nor below his rightful seat; arguments about seating positions were discouraged (for seating arrangements at royal courts, see BĀR).
One should be amicable and courteous, but courtesy and affability should not degenerate into submissiveness and lowliness (Pahlavi Rivayat, ed. Dhabhar, 62.20; Meskawayh, pp. 14-15, 26-27, 32-33); one should not appear cheerful in front of a sad person (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936, p. 113); on leaving the bath, one should not walk in the street or visit people while one’s hair is still wet; in chess and backgammon, the player of higher social rank should be given the choice of pieces and the option of starting; when hunting, kings and notables should not ride with cheetahs lodged on the backs of their horses (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, pp. 77, 89, 95).
On the art of conversation only the more important points will be mentioned here: one should not be too eager to talk; one must be more willing to listen than to speak, for there is an art of listening as well as an elegant way of speaking, and it entails waiting until the speaker finishes his speech, and looking intently at the speaker in a way that makes it clear that one is paying full attention to the speech; one must speak sedately and eloquently (Andarz ī Ādurbād, nos. 62, 63, 85; Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936 pp. 26, 63, 115, 118; Meskawayh, p. 27; Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 49; Wolff, Glossar p. 287, s.v. “čarb” and p. 805, s.v. “narm”); one should not suddenly abandon one’s speech for another date (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936, p. 62), for an unfinished speech was considered as bad as a long one, or, in the words of Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar (pp. 159-160), both “docked-tail” and “long-tailed” speeches were to be avoided; one should reply only when asked directly (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936, pp. 44, 67; idem, 1961, p. 74); over-eagerness in agreeing with a speaker and confirming his words and thereby giving the impression that one claims to be an authority on the subject were discouraged; parading one’s eloquence among people ignorant and oblivious of it was to be avoided (Ebn Moqaffaʿ, 1936, pp. 69, 118 ff.); in the company of strangers, any criticism of other lands or derision of personal names should be avoided lest somebody belonging to that particular land or sharing that name happened to be present; one should not talk in whispers to another one in the presence of others; startling tales and seemingly incredible anecdotes were best avoided (Ebn Moqaffaʿ, 1936, pp. 42, 104, 121; Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, pp. 41-43); those obsessed with particular subjects should bear in mind that not everyone shares their enthusiasm and should therefore avoid repeating and dwelling on them (Ebn Moqaffaʿ, 1936, pp. 54, 103 ff.); self-adulation, boasting, cursing, swearing oaths, belittling others, contradicting oneself in speech, idle chatter, criticizing people in their absence, threatening and menacing talk, should all be avoided (Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag 29.3, 66.3; Mēnōg ī xrad 20.11-17, 40-44, 35.26; Andarz ī Ādurbād, nos. 16, 40, 44, 62, 63, 65, 85, 88, 92, 93, 96; Wāzag ī ēčand, no. 69; Sad dar-e Bondaheš 65, 74.8; Meskawayh, pp. 12, 27, 37, 68, 82; Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, pp. 110, 149); joking and teasing should be avoided unless it is mild and inoffensive (Meskawayh, pp. 12, 38). It should not be regarded as demeaning to apologize; when someone’s misdemeanors have been forgiven and pardoned, there should be no reminding of them; one should not obstinately keep to one’s position; on seeing a beautiful object, God’s name should be recited (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, pp. 77 ff., 153; Sad dar-e naṯr, 15; Wolff, Glossar, p. 334, s.v. “xᵛāndan,” no. 9).
Table manners. Certain rules of conduct were recommended for both the host and the guest: moderation in invitations was recommended (Meskawayh, p. 26), or in the words of Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar (p. 71), it was more fitting to invite once rather than thrice in a month, but be flawless in one’s hospitality. The most important obligation of the host was the fulfillment of the custom of kerām (see EIr. I, p. 432b). Other duties included welcoming guests according to their rank and status; when the cloth was spread and the guests had sat down, the host at first remained standing and did not sit until he was asked by the guests (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, pp. 71-72). Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar points out that the custom at his own birthplace, Gorgān, as well as among Arabs, was for the host to be absent from the feast and appoint someone else to serve the guests. As for laying out the meal, he mentions two customs (pp. 65-66). One was to place the food first in front of the host and then in front of the guest, and the second was the reverse. The author preferred the second and labeled the first custom expedient and the second gracious. From this we can deduce that in feasts given by kings and rulers, the food would be placed first in front of the host, and in other feasts the guests would have the priority. Other manners included refraining from constantly apologizing to the guests for shortcomings and pressing them to have more (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 72); the host should not elaborate on the relative merits of different dishes in relation to health (Asadī, pp. 28 v 11. 131-32); the host shouldt look cheerful at the feast; after the meal, when the drinking began, the host had to make sure that he did not become drunk before the guests and when they became somewhat tipsy, he was to pretend that he too felt light-headed with wine and drink to the company (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, pp. 66, 74).
The major principle was never to go to a feast uninvited (Meskawayh, p. 39). One should go to a feast feeling neither too full nor too hungry and know one’s place and position at the host’s table (Wāzag ī ēčand, no. 17; Sad dar-e naṯr, 13.3 ff.; Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 75); one was to pray and thank God both before and after the meal (Sad dar-e Bandaheš, p. chap. 59); one should not help oneself to food before others and not look in the direction from which the food was being brought in (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1961, p. 75 ff.); the meal should be eaten slowly and one should engage others in conversation, but the head must be lowered and one should refrain from watching others while they eat (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 65). Conversation at meal time is, however, regarded as a major sin in Zoroastrian religious texts. According to them, a deity stands and at the sides of each guest, and if the guests talk while eating, the deity departs and a demon takes his place (Kotwāl, ed., chap. 18.4; Mēnōg ī xrad 1.33; Pahlavi Rivayat 56.10 ff.; Sad dar-e naṯr 21.2 ff.; Sad dar-e Bondaheš 94.8). It is, however, possible that the religious texts were concerned primarily with votive meals (mezd). Guests should not quarrel (Andarz ī Ādurbād, no. 28) or insult the host (Meskawayh, p. 39) or give orders to the servants of the house (Asadī, p. 216 v. 60), so that, in the words of Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar (p. 75), a guest might pretend to others that he was himself a part of the household. When drinking, one should not reach the state of intoxication, which manifests itself by exaggerated behavior like excessive chatter, over-indulgence at eating side-dishes, singing and dancing too much, being over solicitous, and laughing and crying a great deal (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 76). At the end of the feast, someone sould briefly thank the host. There is a short text in Pahlavi which provides an example of this kind of discourse (Pahlavi Texts II, p. 155-59).
Courtly etiquette (for a detailed discussion see BĀR). Important practices included: the custom of kissing the ground; holding one’s hand or handkerchief in front of the mouth when speaking to the king; always beginning one’s address to the king with the words “anošag bawēd” (may you live forever); using the toothpick; carrying a pleasant scent but not a strong perfume; not spitting; refraining from coughing and sneezing as far as possible; not speaking except to answer a question from the king; speaking in a measured tone and not repeating oneself; never attempting to correct the king. Laughter, backbiting, mentioning adverse omens, and relating unpleasant events or impossible adventures, were all to be shunned. On leaving the king’s presence, one should avoid turning one’s back at him; one should not look at the servants and wine-servers lest the king become suspicious (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 205); not only criticizing the king but also praising his good deeds was against courtly etiquette (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936, p. 58); if the king addressed someone as “brother,” he should call the king “father” and if the king showed him greater respect, he should also show the king greater respect (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936, p. 26). The king in his turn had to conform to certain rules. He should not swear oaths (Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, 1936, p. 21); he should not laugh to such an extent as to show his teeth but be content with a smile; he should not use rude and vulgar words even when angry (Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, p. 234).
Much subtlety was shown in courtly and aristocratic circles in conveying intentions obliquely. There are many instances in the Šāh-nāma. For example, when the priests and notables do not approve of Zāl’s love for Rūdāba, they say to him, “The fact that we remain silent and with heads bowed is a token of our obedience and not a sign of our amazement at your conduct” (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khalegh, I, p. 204 v. 602). Or when Zāl wants to convey the message to his father that if he talks roughly to him on the question of his proposed marriage, he too will respond roughly, he says, “If my father speaks to me with reason, the conversation will not take long; but if he speaks in anger, my eyes will be filled with tears of his shame” (Sāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, p. 228 vv. 945-46).
See also: AḴLĀQ; ANDARZ; BĀR; ETHICS.
Bibliography (for cited works not given in detail see “Short References”):
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Ardā Wīrāz-nāmag, ed. and tr. Ph. Gignoux as Le Livre d’Ardā Vīrāz, Paris, 1984.
Asadī Ṭūsī, Garšāsp-nāma, ed. Ḥ. Yaḡmāʾī, repr., Tehran 1354 Š./1975.
Abū Ḥanīfa Dīnavarī, Aḳbār al-ṭewāl, ed. ʿA. ʿĀmer, Cairo, 1960.
ʿA. Eʿtemād Moqaddam, Āyīn o rasmhā-ye Īrānīān-e bāstān bar bonyād-e Šāh-nāma-ye Ferdowsī, Tehran, 2535 (=1355) Š./1976.
Ebn al-Moqaffaʿ, Adab al-kabīr, ed. and tr. M.-H. Qāyenī Bīrjandī, Tehran, 1315 Š./1936.
Idem, (attributed), Adab al-wajīz, Pers. tr. attributed to Naṣīr-al-Dīn Ṭūsī, ed. Ḡ. Āhanī, Isfahan, 1340 Š./1961.
F. Gabrieli, “Etichetta di corte e costumi Sāsānidi nel kitāb Ahlāq al-Mulūk di al-Gāḥiz,” Rivista degli Studi Orientali 11, 1926-28, pp. 295-305.
Faḵr-al-Dīn Asʿad Gorgānī, Vīs o Rāmīn, ed. M. A. Todua and A. A. Geakharia, Tehran, 1349 Š./1970.
Abū Esḥāq Ebrāhīm Ḥoṣrī, Zahr al-adab wa ṯamar al-albāb, ed. Z. Mubārak, Cairo 1925.
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ʿOnṣor-al-Maʿālī Kaykāvūs b. Eskandar, Qābūs-nāma, ed. Ḡ.-H. Yūsofī, Tehran, 1345 Š./1966.
F. M. P. Kotwal, ed. and tr., The Supplementary Texts to the Šāyest nē šāyest, Copenhagen, 1969.
Aḥmad b. Moḥammad Meskawayh (Meskoya), al-Ḥekma al-ḵāleda (Jāvīdān ḵerad), ed. ʿA.-R. Badawī, Cairo, 1952.
Pus ī dānišn-kāmag, ed. and tr. H. F. J. Junker as Der Wissbegierige Sohn, Leipzig, 1959.
Sad dar-e naṯr and Sad dar-e Bondaheš, ed. E. B. N. Dhabhar as Saddar Naṣr and Saddar Bundehesh: Persian Texts Relating to Zoroastrianism, Bombay, 1909.
J. M. Unvala, ed. and tr., The Pahlavi Text “King Husrav and His Boy,” Paris, n.d.
“Wāzag ī ēčand ī Ādurbād ī Mahrspandān,” in Pahlavi Texts, ed. Jamasp-Asana, II, pp. 144-53.
Etīket in Persian is a loan-word from French etiquette commonly used in both senses of the French word: (1) a label, tag, or sticker and (2) ceremonial, custom (Dehḵodā, II, p. 1000). The latter meaning gained currency in the press and in bureaucratic language during the beginning years of the Pahlavi period, or slightly earlier, and is used in the contemporary language of Persia to denote the socially accepted ways of speaking and behaving, the observation of which marks an individual as moʾaddab (“polite”), mowaqqar (“dignified”), ẓarīf (“refined”), and bā-nazākat (“courteous”); and the failure to observe it is perceived as evidence of being bī-adab (“impolite”), ḵašen (“gruff”), nā mardom (“antisocial”), šalaḵta (“messy”), or bī band o bār (“non-conformist”).
Historical Background. Though the prevailing manners and customs of Persian are more or less Islamic in character, Persian etiquette is a patchwork of various influences, the fundamental features of which can be traced to the Sasanian times, as attested in the Šāh-nāma and other sources. Despite the demographic changes brought about by foreign invasions and immigration; the political domination of an Arab, Turkish, and then Mongol ruling class; the recent influence of the West; and changes in material culture, all of which influenced contemporary Persian etiquette, most of the rituals and ceremonies of the Sasanian court and administration were, excepting those features which seemed to conflict with Islamic practice, either adopted by the caliphs at Baghdad and the courts of the Islamic dynasties of Persia in the early centuries after Islam or adapted to local conditions.
For example, the Sasanian etiquette of kissing the ground at the feet of the ruler (Widegren, Fr. ed., p. 351) was apparently practiced at the caliphal court, although at the Samanid court, either by preference or by necessity, the ʿolamāʾ were exempted from this custom (Moqaddasī, pp. 338-39). In the pre-Islamic period it was also considered a breach of etiquette to move, speak, or look away from the shah without permission in the royal presence (Christensen, 1944, p. 466). This practice was scrupulously observed by individuals admitted to the presence of shahs and caliphs and was still in force at the early Qajar court (Dubeux, p. 459; Malcolm II, p. 554). The story of the commander of Khorasan, Amīn Abū Bakr Moẓaffar Čagānī, who remained motionless and showed no discomfort despite multiple stings inflicted by a scorpion that had crawled into his shoes as he listened to commands being issued by the Samanid ruler Amīn Saʿīd, Naṣr Aḥmad (Ebn al-Aṯīr VI, p. 330), serves as an example of the rules of comportment followed at the Islamic courts in Khorasan and Transoxiana. Similar stories are told about other rulers and even about disciples in the presence of Sufi shaikhs (F. Meier, pp. 102-3; cf. also the verse translated by Friedrich Rückert as “Der Skorpionstich”), suggesting the prevalence of such standards of etiquette.
Some aspects of non-Persian etiquette appear to have been introduced into the Samanid court by Abū ʿAbd-Allāh Jayhānī, the famous vizier of al-Amīr al-Saʿīd Naṣr II (r. 301-31/91443; Gardīzī, p. 150). Bayhaqī’s history and the Qābūs-nāma also provide information about the decorum observed at the courts of that era. In the Saljuq period, Neẓām-al-Molk, whose Sīāsat-nāma contains recommendations of prescriptions for reform of the structure and rules of the court and administration, was enthusiastic about reviving the practices of the “Persian monarchs” (molūk-e ʿajam) as described in the “annals of our predecessors” (korrāsa-ye pīšīnīān). These customs, later amalgamated in the Il-khanid and Timurid periods with the yāsā and Tatar customs, were again altered in the Safavid era in accord with the requirements of the Shiʿite foqahāʾ. They underwent further change in the Qajar period, impelled first by the skirmishes between Persia and Russia and, later, by political progressives who succeeded in forcing the adoption or adaptation by the court and dīvan of some of the rules, customs, and regulations prevalent in the military and government administration of Western countries and the protocol observed at Western courts.
Ebn Moqaffaʿ, the Barmakids, and the Āl-e Sahl were all important agents in the introduction of Sasanian culture to the Islamic domains during the ʿAbbasid period, especially the rules and principles of refined comportment, which eventually came to be subsumed under the rubric of adab (q.v.), a term which gradually took on a broader connotation than that of “custom and tradition,” obtaining during the Omayyad period and apparently even in pre-Islamic Arabia (Nallino, p. 4). These rules of comportment, referred to in Middle Persian as ēwēn (NPers., āʾīn; see ĀʾĪN-NĀMĀ), covered in great detail every aspect of individual and social behavior, i.e., speech, eating, correspondence, travel, etc.) These rules were adopted at the caliphal courts, particularly by the ʿAbbasid court at Baghdad, in conjunction with the Arab etiquette of chivalry (morowwat, farūsīyat) and eloquence, all of which together constituted the behavior governed by adab. Thus, the court and administration etiquette of the early Islamic period, especially insofar as it concerned the cultivation of eloquence in speech and composition and of decorous behavior in society, was largely the heritage of Sasanian culture (Nallino, pp. 8-9).
Etiquette of exchanging visits. The traditional Persian etiquette of exchanging visits with friends and relatives at their homes (dīd o bāz-dīd), the ceremonials of greeting and leave-taking, conveying congratulations on holidays and special occasions, conveying condolences to the relatives of the recently departed, the hosting of parties and weddings all have assumed more or less their present form since Safavid times, as attested by the remarks of foreign travelers (e.g., Chardin, Tavernier, Della Valle, Drouville, Malcolm, Franklin, Polak and Madame Dieulafoy). The ceremonies of greeting and farewell, perhaps because of the time constraints of modern life and the lack of interaction between various social classes, have been somewhat abbreviated by the younger generation and the modernized strata of society. Common formulae for leave-taking now include rūz be-ḵayr (“good day”), šab be-ḵayr (“good night”), be-omīd-e dīdār (“hope to see you” [soon]), Ḵodā negahdār (“May God preserve you”), whereas among the more “old-fashioned” strata of society, especially the mollās and those who frequent the mosques, sermons, and rawża-ḵᵛānī performances, the older salutations noted by the above-mentioned travelers, such as salām ʿalaykom (“peace be upon you”), ṣabbaḥakom Allāh be’l-ḵayr (good morning), massākom Allāh be’l-ḵayr (good evening), fī amān Allāh (“May God protect you!”), etc., are still exchanged. The same expressions of ritual politesse (taʿārof) which Polak reported during the Qajar period, such as loṭf-e šomā kam na-æavad (“May your kindness be with us always”) and sāya-ye šomā kam na-æavad (“May we remain forever in the shade of your protection”), are likewise still employed among virtually all strata of Persian society.
When paying social visits, it is still considered proper behavior, as it was in the Safavid and Qajar times according to the European travelogues, to remove one’s shoes before entering the sitting room, to sit on one’s knees, not to remove one’s headgear, and not to stretch out one’s legs in the presence of others. The origins of most such customs stretch back to pre-Mongol times. For example, during the Buyid period, it was considered a social faux-pas to remove one’s turban or headgear in company, or even when walking through the streets or the bāzār (Faqīhī, pp. 707-8). In the poetry of Ḥāfeẓ (ḡazal 114, line 2), doffing of the headgear was considered undignified and a breach of etiquette. Kneeling down and sitting on the knees is mentioned in the poetry of Ḵāqānī, Rūmī, Saʿdī, and Ḥāfeẓ (Dehḵodā, XVII, pp. 61-61, s.v. zānū) and the phrase zānū zadan (lit., “kneeling”) is used metaphorically with the meaning “to show respect.”
Upon entering the room at a dinner party (majles), as was related by Tavernier and Drouville, a guest should, after sitting down, place his right hand on his chest and with a slight bow of the head towards the host and others present, say quietly, so as not to interrupt the conversation in progress, salām ʿalaykom, to which the host responds, ʿalaykom al-salām, ḵoš āmadī [āmadīd] (“welcome”) or ṣafā āvordī [āvardīd] (“you brought joy/pleasure”) or with a Turkish equivalent. Then, after becoming gradually familiar with the subject under discussion, the new arrival may, if need be, participate in the conversation, though without interrupting anyone else or whispering to his neighbors; both these acts are considered breaches of the etiquette of conversation. It is also considered decorous for those present to rise when a new guest arrives, or sometimes also to grasp his hand in both hands (moṣāfaḥa). This practice is also affirmed by Shiʿite law, except in the case of infidels (koffār) and non-Muslim “people of the book” (ahl-e ketāb; Majlesī, pp. 226-27, 243) and is still generally practiced at social gatherings. In social gatherings and even in the home, laxness in observing proper attire is considered a breach of etiquette. A concern for cleanliness in clothes and neatness in appearance can be deduced from the remarks of Tavernier and Polak and remains a principle of contemporary Persian etiquette. Proper attire for Persian men at social occasions or even in the street and bāzār has traditionally been long and loose-fitting. At least until the beginning of the Qajar period, it was, as Ḏakāʾ-al-Molk Forūḡī recalled (p. 329), “considered impolite not to wear a long outer garment, such as an ʿabā [q.v.] or labbāda in the presence of notables” (see CLOTHING xxvii).
Hospitality and entertainment. At dinner parties or even during social calls (dīd o bāz-dīd), where meals are not being served, the offering of a narghile (ḡalyān), and Turkish coffee or tea to the guest has been a cardinal principle of Persian hospitality. The qalyān, which seems to have become popular in Persia in the early Safavid period, was prohibited or condemned by some of the Safavid shahs but later found many partisans, especially among the ʿolamāʾ, poets, and other artists (Pūr Dāwūd, pp. 208-12, 218-19); it developed a special etiquette of its own. Refreshing drinks (šarbat), sweets, and fruits were also placed before the guest, whom the host must then verbally urge to partake. Failure of the host to conform to this etiquette (taʿārof), or of the guest to partake of the refreshments offered before departing, was considered disrespectful or unfriendly, and the aggrieved party would take offense at and/or complain to others about this breach of manners. During brief or ceremonial visits, tea and the narghile would be brought for the guest three times at reasonable intervals, the third serving signaling the conclusion of the visit. This custom, which is still more or less in effect today, has been noted by the European tourists and travelers in Persia at least since Qajar times. However, the practice, typically perceived as a mark of the guest’s importance and social standing, is now out of deference to the other guests and, because it has become customary to specify the hour of invitation, falling out of fashion.
In such gatherings, after all the guests have arrived and refreshments of fruit and sweets have been served, the food is spread on the table, either in the presence of the guests or in another room. Then the host announces that dinner is served, usually with the phrase besmellāh (In the name of God), or inviting and encouraging all to partake, befarmāʾīd (please proceed). In the rather rare gatherings where food is still served without forks and spoons, pouring tepid water from an ewer over the hands of the guests into a basin (āftāba lagan) before a meal and once again after the meal using warm water, often also with soap, is considered part of the etiquette of the table. In addition to being considered impolite, breaking the silence while eating is proscribed by religious manuals. Once the meal is finished, it is customary for important guests, the elderly, and the host to remain seated at the table somewhat longer than the other guests. At the end of the evening, the older and more respected guests depart first and the other guests consider themselves obliged to remain until they leave. The etiquette of serving and eating food, leave-taking, thanking and blessing the host, etc., practiced today by the more traditional classes of Persian society are predominantly the same as those described by European travelers to Persia during the Qajar period.
If an invitation to dinner were either private or informal, the occasion would be typically the initiation (faṭh-e bāb) or reaffirmation (tajdīd-e ʿahd) of a friendship, but such invitations would be offered with insistence, sincerity, and humility among all classes of society. Though obliged to conform to these formulae of ceremonial politesse (taʿārof) in issuing invitations, the host usually would do so sincerely without affectation or hypocrisy, and would scrupulously observe the etiquette of invitation. In cases where it obviously would not be possible for the invitees to accept the invitation, etiquette would oblige the host as a display of friendship to insist that they attend anyway. Since the late Qajar period, the expression taʿārof-e Šāh ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīmī (an invitation from a resident of Šāh ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm) has referred to an insincere invitation made solely for the purpose of appearing polite (Dehḵodā, X, p. 751). A country dweller from the suburb of Šāh ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm who visited the home of an acquaintance in the city of Tehran, wishing to observe the etiquette of reciprocal hospitality, would, at the time of leave-taking, invite his Tehrānī host to his home in Šāh ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm whenever the Tehrānī should happen to be visiting the shrine of one of the descendants of the Imams there. This invitation was, however, perfunctory and if he saw the Tehrānī acquaintance in Šāh ʿAbd-al-ʿAẓīm, he would feign not to recognize him. Of course, this insincerity stemmed from the poverty of country dwellers and their lack of facilities to entertain comparatively wealthy guests from the city, but the people of Tehran have made a pleasantry of it. The famous tale of the city dweller told by Rūmī in his Maṯnawī (III, pp. 236ff ;tr. Whinfield, pp. 115-16), illustrates the antiquity of such contrasts between the manners of the rustic and the urbanus. However, invitations issued in the cities according to the dictates of ceremonial politesse (taʿārof) were usually sincere, elaborate, and insistent, sometimes even extended to total strangers. The visit of Bahrām-e Gūr (q.v.) to the house of Lonbak-e Ābkaš related by Ferdowsī (Šāh-nāma [Moscow] VII, pp. 310ff.) and some of the stories related in The Thousand and One Nights, though fictional, illustrate the actual norms of hospitality among the people in those days. For example, Ebn Baṭṭūta (q.v.) was invited to someone’s house in Isfahan for bread and yogurt, but was served instead a full spread of a variety of delicious foods (p. 191).
Exchange of Gifts. The exchange of gifts and the custom of sending fruit, food, or sweets to the home of a friend or neighbor recently returned from a journey have long been a feature of Persian etiquette, as attested by the behavior of some of the local residents near Qom toward the Arab immigrants newly-arrived in the area during the vicegerency of Ḥajjāj over ʿErāq (Qomī, pp. 247-48). The recipient of a gift was expected to reciprocate in kind, at least since Safavid times, and the failure to do so commensurately was considered to be a slight to the person offering the gift. Some of the European visitors to Persia express their surprise or dismay when their failure or negligence to conform to this expectation of reciprocity in the exchange of gifts led to misunderstandings, as Della Valle recounts about his short stay in Hamadān (letter from Isfahan dated 17 March 1617).
Individuals were also expected to issue invitations to commemorate special occasions, such as public festivals, memorial meetings for the departed, weddings, circumcisions, return from a pilgrimage, birth of a child, purchase of a home, store (dokkān), or garden, etc. Invitations were usually extended to neighbors, colleagues, relatives, mollās, merchants, and possibly well-known people of the neighborhood, quarter, or city, with the extent of hospitality and formality of the gathering being determined by the social and financial status of the host, the status of the guests, and the importance of the occasion. Among the upper classes, such gatherings (and, for that matter, the social exchange of visits referred to above) were observed in accord with an even more intricate protocol and etiquette, the breach of which would usually be taken as an affront.
Wine-drinking and merriment. In private parties among friends, especially among the upper classes—such as high officials in government administration, military commanders, regional governors, princes, notables, and their families—who were not always strict about observing the religious law, it was often customary to drink wine. The Persian etiquette of wine-drinking, which extends back to antiquity, demanded moderation (cf. Sheil, pp. 340-43). Those who violated this provision would eventually be excluded from the circle of drinking companions. The Qābūs-nāma recommends that when partaking of wine (specifically nabīḏ), one must always rise from drinking with room for yet two more glasses (Kay Kāvus, p. 48). A much later writer observed that in wine parties “drunkenness and boisterous conversation, overeating of condiments (noql), constant singing of songs, and excess of laughter are the habits of the ill-bred and the behavior of the vulgar” (Šojāʿ, p. 189). The descriptions of wine drinking parties found in the poetry of Rūdakī, Farroḵī, Manūčehrī, Ḵāqānī, and Ḥāfeẓ accord with the reports of later European travelers like Clavijo, Della Valle, Drouville, etc., who saw similar gatherings first hand. This etiquette doubtless reflects Sasanian drinking etiquette, to which has been amalgamated the practices of the caliphs and sultans in the earlier centuries of Islam, along with later accretions.
Greetings, apologies, circumlocutions and attenuating phrases. Embracing friends upon their return from a journey or when meeting them after a long hiatus is an expected sign of friendship. Upon meeting elderly or distinguished people, it was considered polite to lower one’s head (sar nehādan) to the chest as a sign of respect, and perhaps also to grasp the honored person’s hand with both hands (see above, moṣāfaḥa). This practice was also common with Sufi shaikhs (Aflākī, pp. 153, 494). The ceremonial politesse governing conversation and the exchange of compliments, which can often lead to hyperbole, caused the partners to a conversation to pay careful attention to the other’s remarks, a practice much remarked upon by foreign travelers (e.g., Franklin, pp. 157-61).
Taking care not to hurt or give offense to the person to whom one is speaking has been and still is considered a principle of etiquette; the failure to observe it is considered discourteous. For this reason, when the idea one wished to express might aggrieve the hearer, etiquette would demand the use of various circumlocutions and euphemisms. For example, the following expressions (or very similar to them), employed by speakers both in the past (e.g., Ḥāfeẓ) and today, are considered a mark of elegance and refinement in speech: dūr az jān-e šomā (“May it be far from you!,” used when mentioning the death or illness of someone); golāb be rūyetān (“may your face be perfumed with rosewater,” used when describing something filthy); časm-e bad dūr or časm-e došman kūr (“May the evil-eye be averted/may the enemy’s eye be blinded”) used when admiring or praising the qualities or possessions of someone because the act of praising them could rouse the jealousy or envy of others; rūz-e bad na-bīnīd (“may you never meet misfortune”; used when recounting someone’s troubles or hardship, this phrase arouses sympathy); ʿomraš rā be šomā dād (“he/she gave his life to you”; a euphemism used to convey news of someone’s death); harče ḵāk-e ūst, ʿomr-e šomā bāšad (“May your life be plentiful as is his/her dust”; said when mentioning a departed person who had some connection with the speaker); be časm-e barādarī or ḵᵛāharī (“with the eye of a brother/sister”; said when remarking upon the beauty or virtues of an unrelated person of the opposite sex). There are also a number of similar expressions commonly used in colloquial speech, some of which are also seen in the literary language: sobḥān Allāh (“God be praised”), mā šāʾ Allāh (“What God intends!”), enšāʾ Allāh (“God willing”), časm-e ḥasūd be-tarakad (“may the jealous person’s eye burst”), časm-e bad-andīš bar kanda bād (“May the ill-intentioned eye be plucked out”), haft daryā/kūh/qorʾān dar mīān (“seven seas/mountains/korans separate this from that”). Similar expressions can be found in classical Persian literature, but are now obsolete, such as be nām(-e)īzad (“in the name of God”; see, e.g., Ḥāfeẓ, ḡazal 31, line 9); tabārak Allāh (“God Bless”; see, e.g., Saʿdī, IV, p. 48 ; Ḥāfeẓ, ḡazal 22, line 2); ḥāšā’l-majles (“God forbid it should happen to the present company,” Ḵāqānī, p. 44); lawḥaš Allāh (“may he never know fear,” Ḥāfeẓ, ḡazal 279, line 2). A speaker uses these and similar formulas to avoid misunderstanding or to lighten the mood when discussing misfortune.
Various circumlocutions are also used to preserve the sanctity of the family and avoid mentioning the names, particularly of women members of the household, to those not privy to their company (nā-maḥram). For example, in public gatherings or in the presence of strangers, a husband refers euphemistically to his wife as wāleda-ye baččahā (the mother of the children; see Franklin, p. 165) or ahl-e bayt/manzel/ḵāna (the occupants of the house). A father will refer to his son as banda-zāda or ḡolām-zāda (born of your servant) and to his daughter as ṣabīya (the Arabic word for daughter). A child will refer to his father as wāled (lit. progenitor) or abawī (Arabic for “my father”) and to his mother as wāleda (lit. progenitrix) and his brother as aḵawī (Arabic for “my brother”).
Special etiquette for the ʿolamāʾ and others. In addition to the etiquette mentioned above, the observation of which is generally recognized by all classes of society as good manners and refinement, various social groups observed special standards for polite behavior pertaining to their profession. Examples of this can be found in ʿOnṣor-al-Maʿālī’s Qābūs-nāma, Ḡazālī’s Naṣīḥat al-molūk, Saʿdī’s Golestān and Būstān. For instance, the ʿolamāʾ, who have shown themselves more concerned about the dictates of religious law (šarʿ) when assessing most matters of etiquette, have particularly considered those manners that concern them, including special respect for elders (pīrān), whether in their presence or not, and for the departed (sābeqān, as being a necessary part of etiquette (Tonokābonī, p. 31). Likewise, athletes and wrestlers, while practicing or performing in the gymnasiums (zūr-ḵāna), were obliged to follow a special etiquette of their own (Franklin, pp. 66-70), or risk being considered ill-bred and unmannered. Pūryā-ye Walī, considered by Persians to be the epitome of the virtuous athlete, is remembered in the gymnasiums as a virtual saint (Jostojū dar taṣawwof, pp. 350-56. Sufis also practiced a special ethic (Hojvīrī, p. 444) of their own, which included the ideals of service (ḵedmat), magnanimity (īṯār), kindness/mercy (šafaqqat), humility (tawāżoʿ), the prescriptions for which were codified in manuals such as Hojvīrī’s Kašf al-maḥjūb, Qošayrī’s Resālat al-qošayrīya, Sohravardī’s Meṣbāḥ al-hedāya, and Ḡazālī’s Kīmīā-ye saʿādat. They are also mentioned in Saʿdī’s Golestān and Būstān under rubrics such as the etiquette of conversation, the etiquette of seclusion (ḵalwat), table manners, the etiquette of listening to music (samāʿ), etc.
Introduction of western manners in the 20th century. The penetration of western etiquette and protocol into Persia beginning in the Qajar period met with resistance and even hostility from the common people (Lewis, p. 287), as in other Islamic countries. The descriptions of Western customs and mores given by the first Persian-speaking travelers to Europe (and also those of Egyptian and Ottoman emissaries and travelers to Europe) were seldom favorable, especially as far as the behavior, status, and modesty of women were concerned. The play Jaʿfar-Ḵān az Farang āmada (Jaʿfar Khan has returned from Europe) written in 1300 Š./1921-22 by ʿAlī Nowrūz (the pen-name of Ḥasan Moqaddam) criticized the excessive regard for things Europeans in Persia and was an illustration of the nationalist tendency to reject and resist the hegemony of Western culture; it is reminiscent of ʿArabīyon Tafarnaja (the Europeanization of an Arab) by the Egyptian writer ʿAbd-Allāh Nadīm (d. 1896; see Amīn, p. 215)
In spite of this, some Western habits and customs, which did not conflict with or threaten the national identity and mores of Persians, were gradually accepted in a positive light (Taqīzāda, pp. 22-25). Examples of the influence of Western etiquette in Persia include the simplification of bureaucratic language, the omission of elaborate titles and forms of address in correspondence, the need to observe schedules in official visits, the posting of the hours of business on the door of offices, and various changes in the dress of government bureaucrats, all of which were introduced by the grand vizier Mīrzā Ḥosayn Khan Sepahsālār during the reign of Nāṣer-al-Dīn Shah (Ādamīyat, p. 425).
The adoption of certain aspects of Western etiquette by government offices and the court led to further adoption of other European customs that eventually engendered a strong popular reaction against the West, which was one of the factors contributing to the fall of the Pahlavi regime. Resistance to the spread of Western manners and customs became a focus of popular sentiment, in part because of the hostility of the Shiʿite clergy to non-Islamic practices, but primarily, it would appear, because of the belief or impression that Western practices had permeated Persia. This concept is now expressed in Persia by the phrase tahājom-e farhangī-ye ḡarb, (the invasion of Western culture). However, this reaction to foreign customs is not unique in Persian history; living side by side with the Arab tribes in Persia after the Islamic conquest was a source of displeasure to the Persians (Naršaḵī, p. 42; Tārīḵ-e Sīstān, p. 82; Qomī, p. 254). Persian resistance to foreign ways can be found, for example, in the disgust expressed in the Middle Persian poem Matan-e šā Vahrām-e varzāvand (“The Arrival of the Mighty Shah Bahrām,” Jamasp-Asana, pp. 160-61) over the way Arabs ate bread and, similarly, in the general refusal of the Muslims of Khorasan and Transoxania to accept the Mongol yāsā (Jovaynī, ed. Qazvīnī, pp. 162-63). In the Qajar and Pahlavi periods, the murder of Griboedov (q.v.) in 1244/1829, the protest over the Tobacco Régie in 1309/1891-92, and the opposition of the population of Mašhad to Reżā Shah’s law requiring the use of the international brimmed hat, which resulted in security forces firing upon civilians at the Gowhar-æād mosque in 1314 Š./1935 (see CLOTHING, xi) are some precedents of this kind of reaction.
See also the articles on ADAB; ALQĀB WA ʿANĀWĪN; ANDARZ; ADMINISTRATION; CLOTHING, esp. viii-xi; GIFT-GIVING.
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(Based on a longer article by ʿAbd-al-Ḥosayn ZARRĪNKŪB)
The conventional rules of polite personal behavior in Afghanistan are known collectively as ādāb-e moʿāšarat (social manners). In Pashto, the apt term nasta wālaṛa (lit., “sitting and standing”) can also be used. A person respected for his or her good manners is referred to as bā adab or moʾaddab, as is the case in Persia.
By disregarding social niceties, a person brings discredit upon himself and thereby diminishes the reputation of both his immediate family and his extended family or group. Conversely, individuals gain respect, maintain status, and enhance their standing in the community through polite behavior. Much of etiquette, therefore, is designed to preserve ʿezzat (“honor”). Consequently, Afghan society places much emphasis on correct behavior.
There is no uniform set of rules prescribing good manners in Afghanistan. No printed work provides a guide. Instead, the elder females of the household carry the responsibility of teaching etiquette; male elders see to its enforcement. The criteria for appropriate behavior, therefore, vary from group to group and often within each group or even within extended families. In addition, changes have taken place over time. Increased rural/urban migrations since the 1960s have brought about refinements; increasing social equality in urban settings has resulted in simpler codes, particularly among educated elites.
The revolts that initiated the civil war in the late 1970s were in part inflamed by the social insensitivities of the young, urban, western-oriented cadres sent to introduce reform in rural areas after the leftist coup in 1978 (see COMMUNISM iv). On the other hand, Afghan refugees in Pakistan have adhered diligently to the norms of polite behavior in order to maintain their good name as a group living among strangers, as well as to preserve their own sense of identity while residing in exile.
Despite the lack of uniformity in practices, certain patterns are similar enough to permit some generalizations. The practice of standing when a person, especially an elder, enters the room is a primary necessity observed by all Afghans. An equally paramount rule requires that greetings be exchanged when meeting either friends or strangers. Al-salāmʿalaykom (Ar., peace be upon you) is most frequently used, to which the reply is wa ʿalaykom al-salām (Ar., and upon you peace). Other forms used in passing include: mānda nabāšī (Pers., may you not be tired), to which the reply is zenda bāšī (Pers., may you stay alive); staṛay mašī (Pashto, may you not be tired), to which one replies ḵᵛār mašī (Pashto, may you not be poor) or ḵayr owsay (may you be well).
Male friends and colleagues usually embrace one another on meeting and then shake hands, or vice versa. Women kiss each other twice or three times, and they may or may not shake hands. In urban areas women may shake hands with men, but in the rural areas they never shake hands with male strangers. When a woman is introduced to a man, however, she customarily keeps her eyes lowered. It is improper for a woman to establish eye contact while passing males in the street. Without exception, women are expected to act with decorum and grace at all times. Loud laughter, for instance, is considered most unseemly.
A formalized set of questions is mandatory before initiating business. These questions can go on for some time, particularly in rural areas: “How’s your health?”; “How do you feel?”; “How is everything?”; “How is life?”; “Are you fine?”; “How is your work?”; “How is your family?”; and so on. Only relatives and very close friends, however, should inquire about wives or other female members of the family.
To show respect, people refer to others by titles rather than by their first names. This applies particularly to elders and superiors. Fathers are addressed as bābā or dādā (Pashto), father’s brothers as kākā, father’s sisters as kakay (Pashto), mother’s brothers as māmā, mother’s sisters as mamay (Pashto), elder brothers as lālā, and grandmothers as mādar-e kalān or mādar-e bozorg in Persian and ana or nīā in Pashto. Husbands refer to wives as the mother of their eldest male child. Wives refer to husbands as the father of their eldest child, whether female or male. Children do not refer to elders by their names. Superiors are addressed by their official titles.
The complex and meticulously observed courtesies extended to guests create a sense of exclusiveness and status. Even unexpected guests must be welcomed, no matter how inconvenient their arrival may be. Tea is always offered, and the host must wait for the visitor to bring up the reason for his or her visit. Never should guests be turned away, asked how long they might stay or asked to leave.
A male visitor will never enter a room without knocking or coughing to announce his presence. A distinguished visitor arriving with a group enters first or he may defer to an elder as a gesture of courtesy. Visitors remove their shoes before entering the sitting room for guests. The guest of honor is then invited to sit at the far end of the room (Pers. bālā bešīn, Pashto pūrta kīna), away from the entrance. Others are seated in order of precedence, elders first, with artisans, tradesmen, and those of lesser status generally relegated to places near the door.
This same seating order is followed when guests are entertained at meals. If only family members are present, however, age always takes precedence. When passing by others who are eating, it is polite to wish them a good appetite (Pers. nuš-e jān, Pashto dārūdeyša); and the passerby will then be asked to share the meal. Afghans serve and eat only with the right hand.
Rules relating to visiting are combined with a maze of individual preferences, but it is incumbent on all children to visit their parents on special occasions. Anyone setting out on a journey should call on friends and relatives to bid farewell; reciprocal visits take place on the traveler’s return.
Proprieties requiring head coverings for men differ widely. Hats or turbans, often worn during prayer, are not obligatory except at condolence services. A man will usually cover his head when visiting his father or attending ceremonial functions. It is obligatory for women to cover their heads while praying or entertaining guests. Many families require females to cover their heads at all times, even inside the home.
Breaches of etiquette include sitting with legs stretched out toward others, abusive language, loud laughter, joking or singing during meals, interrupting others in conversation, disturbing others when praying or working, passing in front of someone who is praying, smoking in the presence of elders or in public transport, and failing to assist kin and neighbors. Strangers are seldom reproached, but elders will severely admonish (Pers. ṭaʿna, Pashto pīḡōr) family members for bringing them shame or sullying their respected status within the community.
(Note: much of the above applies in general to traditional and rural Persia as well as Afghanistan. Elr.)
V. Doubleday, Three Women of Herat, London, 1988 (passing references).
L. Dupree, Afghanistan, Princeton, 1980, pp. 181-247.
M. Elphinstone, An Account of the Kingdom of Kabul I, repr. of 1815 ed., Karachi, 1992, pp. 295-331.
J. Gray, My Residence at the Court of the Amir, London, 1895.
A. Shalinsky, “Women’s Relationships in Traditional Northern Afghanistan,” Central Asian Survey 8, 1989, pp. 117-29.
N. Tapper, Bartered Brides: Politics, Gender and Marriage in an Afghan Tribal Society, Cambridge, 1991.
E. and A. Thornton, Leaves from an Afghan Scrapbook, London, 1900.
(Nancy H. Dupree)
Originally Published: December 15, 1998
Last Updated: January 20, 2012
This article is available in print.
Vol. IX, Fasc. 1, pp. 45-54