THAILAND-IRAN RELATIONS. Iran’s cultural and trade relations with Southeast Asia date back far into the pre-Islamic period. With regard to the Sasanid and the early Islamic periods, the studies by Colless and Tibbetts (see bibliography) are essential. However, official diplomatic relations between the two regions, exemplified by the exchange of non-permanent missions rather than by permanent extraterritorial embassies, become traceable only during the Safavid period (1501-1722).

Contacts between Persians (whether via the Indian subcontinent or from Iran proper) and the Thai people became possible only after the latter’s gradual settlement and domination of the central plains of present-day Thailand. This process of migration culminated in the foundation of Ayutthaya in 1351 by King U Thong (r. 1351-69, under the throne name Ramathibodi) as the capital of a Thai kingdom which became known as Siam. Ayutthaya is situated about 80 km to the north of modern Bangkok. It is strategically located on the navigable Chao Phraya river system which leads to the Gulf of Thailand and was destined to become one of the region’s most important trade emporia, situated equidistant from East Asia, China and India.

In the 1st half of the 15th century, the Muslim Chinese writer Ma Huan, who accompanied the famous Ming admiral Cheng Ho on some of his explorations in the Indian Ocean region, also visited Siam (Hsien-lo) and reported on the presence in Ayutthaya (Yu-ti-ya) of “five or six hundred families of foreigners,” however, without explicitly mentioning Persians among them (Ma Huan, tr. Mills, p. 106). In 1442, however, ʿAbd al-Razzāq Samarqandi, in his Matla’ al-Sa’dayn (English tr. in Browne, vol. 3, pp. 397-8), refers explicitly to close trade connections between the Persian Gulf emporium of Hormuz and Šahr-e Nāv, a synonym for Ayutthaya. Arab sources of the 15th century, too, such as Ebn Mājid, refer to the same Šahr-e Nāv, calling it Šahr Nawā (Tibbetts, tr. Arab Navigation, ‘index of place names’ and ‘Arabic index’).

I have elaborated elsewhere (Marcinkowski, “The Iranian Siamese Connection,” p. 25-29) on the circumstance of Ayutthaya being referred to by a Persian name - Šahr-e Nāv – among foreigners, non-Thais, as well as on the existence of a variety of different spellings for it. Here it can only be mentioned briefly that Šahr-e Nāv – ‘City of Boats and Canals’ – appears to be the correct form (see also Persian Presence in Islamic Communities of South-East Asia; Al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri, pp. 3 ff.; Abdul Rahman Haji Ismail (ed.), Serajah Melayu. The Malay Annals, pp. 110 ff.; English tr. in Brown, (tr.), pp. 45 ff.; Hobson-Jobson, pp. 795-96, entry “Sarnau, Somau”).

In order to understand the background of the presence of Persians in Siam, it is important to consider the wider setting. The insubordinate status of the principality of Malacca (a vassal of Ayutthaya on the Malay Peninsula) during the 15th century, and especially its final extinction by the Portuguese in 1511, had forced its Siamese sovereigns to look for additional gateways for trade with the western Indian Ocean region. During the 1460s Siam took control of Tenasserim, followed in 1480 by Mergui (Sunait, pp. 104-18), thus gaining direct access to the Gulf of Bengal and Mughal India. Further west, the 16th century saw major political changes in northern India with the gradual establishment of the Mughals. Towards the beginning of the 17th century the Mughals had gained full control over Bengal and Orissa, by which they obtained access to the Bay of Bengal. A formidable power in the southern Indian region was the Deccan kingdom of the Qotb-Shahi dynasty (1512-1687)in Golconda (see the studies by Sherwani and Minorsky), a successor-state of the Bahmanid kingdom (1347-1525). The Qotb-Shahi rulers were Twelver Shi’ites with political links to the Safavid shahs of Iran, whose names where even mentioned alongside the names of the Twelve Imams in the sermon during Friday prayers. Their highly Iranized kingdom was not only a major trading power but also was to become a haven for Shi’ites, in most cases Persians from Persia but also from northern India, who were at times subjected to persecution under the Sunni Mughals. In his study of the migration of Persians from Persia to India and Southeast Asia, Subrahmanyam (see bibliography) has provided abundant evidence for their massive economic, political and literary presence in the Qotb-Shahi kingdom. By the 2nd half of the 16th century intensive trade links existed between Golconda’s main port Masulipatam (or Matchlibandar) and Siamese Tenasserim (see Alam and Arasaratnam). The Qotb-Shahi kingdom thus also served as an important gateway to Southeast Asia, and the Thai empire of Ayutthaya in particular, since merchant-ships bound for the east used its harbors as stopover ports. In spite of the existence of Bengali, Gujarati, and Hadrami trade networks in the Indian Ocean region, the role of the Persians should be seen as beyond that of pure merchants. This last aspect, i.e. the various additional educational and cultural activities of the Persians, however, still needs further investigation and clarification since similar activities are due also to the Hadramis with regard to their role in spreading Sufism in Southeast Asia. In the light of the dominating role of Persianized Muslim states on the subcontinent, however, it is not surprising that the Siamese trading emporium of Ayutthaya should have been known to the mainly Muslim merchants under a Persian name. Politically and militarily, the Qotb-Shahi kingdom was on the decline from the 2nd half of the 17th century on, due particularly to Mughal pressure from the north. To the knowledge of the present writer, Indo-Persian historiographical literature (especially from the Deccan) has not yet been investigated with regard to Siamese-Deccan relations from the 15th century onwards. (For an overview of Persian literary activities in that kingdom see the excellent, but often neglected, study by Devare).

The first Persians in the Ayutthaya kingdom might thus have settled in Tenasserim and Mergui (Subrahmanyam). There is evidence, at least, for Persians in Siam’s Burmese neighboring state Pegu and in Malacca for the early 16th century (Ferrier, p. 423, based on assertions by the early 16th-century travelers Ludovico de Varthema and Tomé Pires). The presence of Persians in the Siamese capital Ayutthaya, however, seems to have remained limited in number up to the beginning of the 17th century. Several factors appear to have contributed to an emigration of Persians (mainly from southern India, but perhaps also directly from Iran) to Siam, in particular during the 17th century. These include political instability in the Deccan, the extension of international Safavid trade under Shah ʿAbbās II (r. 1642-66) and the expansion of Siamese trade with East Asia, in particular Japan (see the works by Yoko Nagazumi and Hiromu Nagashima). This latter resulted in Ayutthaya becoming an important entrepôt of its own for trade with that region, and thus attracted foreign immigration. Up to the end of the 17th century Shi’ite Persians, whether immigrants from India (in particular the Shi’ite kingdoms of the Deccan) or from Iran proper, might have even have constituted the majority of the Muslims resident at Ayutthaya. The French traveler and diplomat Guy Tachard (part 2, pp. 214-15) reported taʿzia processions during the 1680s in that city, sponsored by the Siamese (Buddhist!) monarch (for the text see my “Shi’ism in Southeast Asia,” “Persian Presence in Islamic Communities of South-East Asia”).

One obstacle to research on the Iranian community in Ayutthaya using the surviving fragments of Thai ‘Royal Chronicles’ is the circumstance that non-Siamese individuals, whether subjects or foreign residents and visitors, are for the most part hidden under Thai official titles and are referred to throughout as khaek if they are of Middle Eastern or Indian ethnic origin. In the latter case non-Muslims are included (see Cushman tr., ed. Wyatt, index of proper names, “khaek”). Interestingly, in the ‘Royal Chronicles’, when referring to events from the 16th century until today, the Thai language refers to Westerners by the expression farang (ibid., “farang”). In that form farang is derived from Persian, where it has the same connotation. Apparently there exist other fragments of Thai chronicles which survived the sack of the Ayutthaya in 1767 at the hands of Burmese invaders but to which the present author has had no access. Thai historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries have based their works on them (see Chao Phraya Thiphakorawong Maha Kosa Thibodi). They refer to a certain “Shaikh Aḥmad Qomi” or “Kuni,” an immigrant who is said to have arrived toward the beginning of the 17th century as a merchant “from the West,” perhaps via India. He is said to have risen to favor with Song Tham (r. 1610/11-1628), who appointed him to the highest administrative positions and who put him in charge of Siam’s entire trade with the Middle East and Muslim India (Wyatt, Thailand, p. 108). Under the Thai title chualarajmontri, the Muslim office of Shaikh al-Islām (Marcinkowski, “Iranians, Shaikh al-Islāms and Chularajmontris”; idem, Mirza Rafi’a’s Dastur al-Muluk, pp. 86-87 and 268-78) was introduced to Siam by Shaikh Aḥmad, who was appointed to this position by the king as its first holder (for details see shiʿites in southeast asia). The necessity for this action might be seen in the increase of Ayutthaya’s Muslim (Shi’ite?) population (Marcinkowski, “Iranians, Shaykh al-Islāms and Chularajmontris”; Yusuf, “Islam and Democracy in Thailand: Reforming the Office of Chularajmontri/Shaykh al-Islām”). Remarkably, his Shi’ite descendants who became known as the Bunnag family, continued to be appointed to this position up to 1945. Since that year, Sunnites had held that office. From about 1750 onwards, the majority of his descendants, however, converted to Buddhism in order to be allowed to be present at court permanently, and many of them hold influential positions in Thai public life even today.

The fortunes of Ayutthaya’s Iranian community rose under King Narai (r. 1656-88) who opened the kingdom further to foreign trade and who was also interested in cultural contacts. For this period we have the late 17th-century Persian travel account Safine-ye Solaymani of a Safavid embassy to Siam (see Safine-ye Solaymani, and bibliography), written by Ebn Moḥammad Ebrāhim. To our present knowledge, the SS appears to be the only extant Persian source for the extensive Safavid contacts with the region in question. In it we read that “[s]ince Siam is close to the ports of India and is situated on the sea route to China and Japan, merchants have always been attracted to settle there” (ibid., tr. O’Kane, p. 94). Ayutthaya’s becoming an emporium of international trade in Asia, the presence of numerous foreign merchants there, and political and strategic considerations might have driven the Siamese rulers, apparently on the advice of the resident Iranian community, to seek diplomatic contacts with other countries with an interest in Indian Ocean trade, perhaps also as a counterbalance to Mughal India. In 1664, for instance, the court of Golconda received a splendid Siamese embassy (Alam, “Masulipatam,” p. 178). In 1669, another Siamese embassy, sent by king Narai (r. 1656-88), arrived at the court of the Safavid Shah Solayman (r. 1666-94) (Records of the Relations Between Siam and Foreign Countries in the Seventeenth Century, vol. 2, pp. 92-98.). Another Siamese trade mission was in Iran in 1680/81 (Hutchinson, p. 11 n. 2, and pp. 127-28.). A letter by the Apostolic Vicar and titular bishop François “of Caesaropolis,” a French missionary based in Isfahan, to his sovereign Louis XIV, dated 20 January 1683, also refers to a Siamese embassy which was present during that year at the Safavid court (Du Mans, ed Schefer, p. 339). Engelbert Kaempfer, too, who visited Iran prior to his sojourns in Siam and subsequently Japan, reports in July 1684 of (another?) Siamese embassy present at the shah’s court at the Bāḡ-e Saʿdābād, referring to a “native-born Persian” as the leader of the Siamese delegation (Kaempfer, Am Hofe, p. 199). This individual was most probably the Hajji Salim Māzandarāni referred to by Ebn Moḥammad Ebrāhim (

Ibn Muhammad Ibrahim, The Ship of Solayman, tr. O’Kane, pp. 20, 104, 105; see also Aubin, “Les Persans,” pp. 121-22). The Iranian embassy of 1685/86 to Ayutthaya (of which Ebn Moḥammad Ebrāhim was a member) was thus rather a return visit, responding to the Siamese mission to Isfahan of 1684 and thus not to the earlier Siamese visit of 1669.

Ayutthaya’s development as a major trading power in the 2nd half of the 15th century resulted in an influx of foreign merchants, many of whom were to stay permanently. This necessitated the introduction of maritime laws and of clearly marked responsibilities for officials dealing with foreigners (Breazeale, “Thai Maritime Trade and the Ministry Responsible,” in idem, ed., From Japan to Arabia, pp. 1-54). A similar situation prevailed with other states on the Indian Ocean rim such as Malacca on the Malay Peninsula and Masulipatam, where officials with the Persian title šābandar were to be found (Subrahmanyam, “Iranians Abroad” p. 345; Barbara Watson Andaya, “Malacca”). The maritime relations of Ayutthaya were the responsibility of a minister known in Thai as Phra Khlang, rendered by Breazeale (loc. cit., p. 5) as ‘Ministry of External Relations and Maritime Trading Affairs’. The title Phra Khlang became known to European traders of the time under various corrupted forms such as ‘Berklam’ or ‘Barcalon’ (Kaempfer, A Description, p. 39; Smithies, ed. and tr., The Chevalier de Chaumont, p. 111). This ministry was organized in four main departments: the “Department of General Administration, Appeals and Records;” the “Department of Western Maritime Affairs;” the “Department of Eastern Maritime Affairs and Crown Junks,” and the “Department of Royal Warehouses.” The “Department of Western Maritime Affairs” was concerned with the Indian Ocean trade and was called in Thai Krom Tha Khwa (literally: the Harbor Department of the Right). At court, the official in charge of it sat to the right of the king, higher than his colleague of the “Eastern Department” who sat to the left of the monarch and who was regarded as lower in rank. The holder of the “Western Department” was usually a Muslim. The Iranian Shaikh Aḥmad, whom we shall consider below, was in charge of the Krom Tha Khwa. Apparently, the Krom Tha Khwa department also had various territorial responsibilities, in particular with regard to the Siamese Indian Ocean ports on the west coast of the peninsula. The power of the “Western Department,” which was larger and more complex than its “Eastern” counterpart, declined towards the later 18th century. Leonard Andaya has referred to the office of Phra Klang as “king’s merchant” and noticed apparent similarities between the Malek al-Tujjār (‘king of merchants’, see Marcinkowski, Mirza Rafi’a’s Dastur al-Muluk, quick-reference) in Iran and comparable offices in the Southeast Asian trading world, such as that of šāhbandar (L. Andaya, “Ayutthaya,” p. 127).

In 1610, presumably towards the beginning of the rule of the Siamese king Song Tham, a contemporary of Shah ʿAbbās I. the Great (r. 1588-1629), the Phra Khlang ministry is said to have been reformed with the help of two Iranian immigrants (Chao Phraya Thiphakorawong Maha Kosa Thibodi, Chotmaihet [...], p. 3). Apparently, the division of the ministry into a “Right” and “Left” department happened under their influence. Leonard Andaya (“Ayutthaya,” p. 125) refers to these two men, (in fact Shaikh Aḥmad and his brother), as originating “from southern India,” unfortunately without presenting evidence for this assertion. According to him, Ahmad was to stay in Ayutthaya and to become head of the Krom Tha Khwa, the “Right Department” in charge of trade with the Indonesian world and the western Indian Ocean area. His brother is said to have returned to India. Aḥmad and his followers were granted a village site for their houses, a mosque and a cemetery which is still known today as Ban Khaek Kuti Chao Sen (Chao Phraya Thiphakorawong Maha Kosa Thibodi, loc. cit.).

Wyatt’s genealogical studies into the origins of Thai nobility (Thailand, p. 108; idem, “Family Politics in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Siam,” p. 96) provide more detailed information on the mysterious Shaikh Aḥmad. According to this scholar, Shaikh Aḥmad together with his younger brother, Moḥammad Saʿid, arrived at Ayutthaya in 1602 “from the Persian Gulf” (again without giving evidence), where they took Thai wives. Aḥmad was soon appointed “Head of the Department of the Right.” Early under Song Tham he was promoted to the position of Phra Khlang. By the end of the reign of that monarch he rose to the position of prime minister or Samuhanaiyok, with the rank of Chaophraya. About 1630, his eldest son (known under the Thai name Chün) succeeded him in that position, holding the official title Chaophraya Aphairacha, until 1670. He, in turn, was succeeded by his eldest son Sombun, the later Chaophraya Chamnanphakdi. Elsewhere, Wyatt also supplies a genealogical table of Shaikh Aḥmad’s descendents (“Family Politics in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Siam, p. 96, “stemma”).

The 16th- and 17th-century trade-network of Iranian merchants virtually controlled the eastern Indian Ocean maritime trade and operated from southern India (Subrahmanyam, “Iranians Abroad”; Aubin, “Les Persans”). Subrahmanyam’s study contains rich material on the biographies of eminent Iranian merchants of southern India, the most successful of them being Mir Moḥammad Sayyed Ardestāni (1591-1663), who grew up in Isfahan and went to the Golconda kingdom during the 1620s. Contemporary Western observers, as well as Ebn Moḥammad Ebrāhim, state that up to the middle of the 17th century the presence of Persians in Siam, in particular at Ayutthaya, seems to have been limited in number (Caron and Schouten, A True Description, p. 134; Ebn Muhammad Ibrahim, The Ship of Solayman, tr. O’Kane, p. 94). Significantly, Ebn Moḥammad Ebrāhim never refers to Shaikh Aḥmad by name or as the alleged “founder of the Iranian community” in Siam.

During the 1680s, the fortunes of Siam’s Iranian community were checked by the rise to royal favor of another foreigner, the Greek Konstantinos Gerakis, or Constantine Phaulkon. This occurred about the time of Ebn Moḥammad Ebrāhim’s visit to Siam. As a result of the sack of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767, surviving Thai historical writing on this period is rare (Charnvit, “Thai Historiography”; Wyatt, “Chronicle T raditions”). Wyatt has worked on the ancestry of the Bunnag family. From this we learn that Shaikh Aḥmad, who is said to have arrived at Ayutthaya in 1602, features as the ancestor of the Bunnag family in 19th and 20th century Thai works on the genealogy of Siam’s nobility. At times, he is referred to as “Shaikh Aḥmad-e Qomi,” i.e. “of Qom.” His actual place of origin, however, must be considered as far from being established since we also come across the expression “from Arab lands” (L. Andaya, “Ayutthaya,” p. 125). Thus, an origin “from Qom,” such as stated on a recently erected commemoration tablet at his tomb in Ayutthaya, cannot be verified. The same must be said concerning the nesba “Qomi.”

King Narai himself is said to have been under Iranian cultural influence in terms of his daily food and dress and his preferred architectural styles (Subrahmanyam, op. cit., p. 349). Apparently, the services and the cooperative attitude of the Iranian community towards their host-country were appreciated by Ayutthaya’s rulers. According to Reid, Persian Shi’ites were among Narai’s closest advisers, especially as commercial counterweights to the more dangerous European companies (Reid, p. 190, Dhiravat, pp. pp. 176-83). The issue of Shi’ism in Ayutthaya is dealt with in a separate entry (see shi’ites in southeast asia).

The usually reliable Engelbert Kaempfer, who visited Ayutthaya in 1690, refers to the Persian language as a lingua franca among Muslims in Siam (Kaempfer, Am Hofe, p. 135). Perhaps this refers to matters concerning the trade with the Muslim states in India, since the Malay language seems to have been employed in dealing with the Malay-Indonesian world. It cannot be established with certainty how many Iranian Muslims actually lived in Ayutthaya during the 2nd half of the 17th century and up to the destruction of the city and kingdom by Burmese invaders in 1767. At any rate, trade, cultural and religious relations with Iran and the rest of the Persian-speaking Shi’ite world were severed in 1722 when Safavid power was ended and Iran’s capital, Isfahan, suffered the same fate at the hands of the Afghans as did Ayutthaya 45 years later at the hands of the Burmese. Furthermore, as we have seen, Phaulkon’s rise to power and the annexation of the Shi’ite kingdom of Golconda in 1687 by the Mughals might have slowed or stopped the steady influx of Persians (or at least Persian-speaking Muslims) to Siam. Nevertheless, Kaempfer (A Description, p. 24), who visited Ayutthaya in 1690, referred to the Phra Klang of that time as an “Indian Muslim” (i.e., an Iranian from India?). Muslims, along with countless others of their Buddhist compatriots, must have suffered during the total destruction of Ayutthaya by the Burmese in 1767. Some of Shaikh Aḥmad’s descendants must have survived this disaster, however, since political influence exercised by personalities originating from families of Iranian descent continued even in the subsequent Bangkok period. The main branch of Shaikh Aḥmad’s family is said to have converted to Buddhism later in the 19th century, when it featured in the court society of the “Bangkok period” (i.e. under the Chakri dynasty which has ruled in Thailand since 1782) as the Bunnag family (Wyatt, “Family Politics in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Siam,” pp. 96-105, and idem, “Family Politics in Nineteenth-Century Thailand,” pp. 106-30). Another branch of Shaikh Aḥmad’s family, however, remained Twelver Shi’ites, since we have already seen that until 1945 the office of Chularajmontri or Shaikh al-Islām used to be bestowed upon a descendant of Shaikh Aḥmad.

Shaikh Aḥmad and the history of the presence of Persians in Siam have been the subject of two conferences in Thailand: the first was held in 1994 at the Historical Study Centre Ayutthaya. It resulted in the publication of a volume of proceedings in Thai, somewhat limited in academic and editorial quality, with selected English abstracts (Cultural Center of the Islamic Republic of Iran [Bangkok] (ed.), Sheikh Aḥmad). A similar meeting took place on March 1, 2003 at the Asia-Pacific Institute of Bangkok’s Srinakharinwirot University under the title Conference on the Thai-Iranian Relations: Past-Present-Future. The Cultural Center of the Iranian Embassy at Bangkok was actively involved in the organization of both meetings.

It appears that the embassy described by the SS was the last diplomatic contact between Iran and Siam until diplomatic ties between Tehran and Bangkok were resumed in the 20th century. Now there are permanent embassies in both countries, the one in Bangkok, established in 1956, being the first between Iran and any Southeast Asian country. (see also safine-ye solaymani, shi’ites in southeast asia, persian presence in islamic communities of south-east asia).



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(M. Ismail Marcinkowski)

Originally Published: July 20, 2002

Last Updated: July 20, 2002