November 12, 2018

An Italian scientist extols the Báb: – one of the very first documentations made by a European of the episode of the Báb – by Ugo R. Giachery

Among the apostles of modern science and liberty of thought, a prominent place belongs to Michele Lessona, an Italian, whose sincere and courageous words inspired and helped mold the character of at least two generations of Italians.

A scientist, a writer, a philosopher, an explorer and an educator, Professor Lessona stands out - with a stature that towers above that of many a well-known scientist - as one of the foremost thinkers of the nineteenth century.

He was born September 20, 1823, in Venaria Reale, a suburb of Turin. His father, Dr. Carlo Lessona, was at the time the director of the well-known veterinary school of Venaria, and this fact might explain the boy's early interest in scientific study. In 1846 Michele Lessona obtained a degree of medicine and surgery from the Royal University of Turin. Immediately after graduation he went to Egypt and, although rather young, was appointed Chief of the Khan Kah Hospital in Cairo.

In 1849 he returned to Italy and became an instructor in Natural History, first in Asti and then in Turin. In 1854, at the age of 31, he was appointed Professor of Mineralogy and Zoology at the Royal University of Genoa. In 1864, after his return from Persia, he taught first at the University of Bologna and then at the University of Turin. Here he occupied in 1865 the Chairs of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, becoming in 1877 the Rector of that University.

Professor Michele Lessona
During his life Michele Lessona produced a variety of scientific and literary works. Among his classical publications are to be remembered an illustrated treatise on natural history, in several volumes; his masterpiece on ethics, Power and Will; Confessions of a Rector; Memoirs of an Old Professor; and the translation into Italian of the best known works of Darwin, Samuel Smiles, John Lubbock, and many others.

In 1892 King Humbert of Italy made him a Senator for life, a well-deserved recompense for his patriotism, leadership and learning. He passed away, amidst universal sorrow, on July 20, 1894, in his beloved Turin.

In 1862 Professor Lessona had been appointed physician to the diplomatic delegation that went to Persia at that time to establish relations between the newly created Kingdom of Italy and the government of Nasird-Din Shah. Immediately on his arrival in Tabriz, he met a Persian of high lineage, Daud Khan who, having lived for many years in Italy spoke Italian perfectly. From this gentleman Lessona learned of the Bábí movement, and he became fascinated with the life of the Báb and His heroic ministry. When opportunity permitted, he tried to visit places connected with the history of the Báb, and he had the opportunity to converse, many times and at length, with Count de Gobineau, the French ambassador to the court of the Shah. When he returned to Italy Professor Lessona wrote a book ‘Hunting in Persia’ and a precious little monograph of sixty-six pages entitled ‘I Babi’.

Fernando Morosi, a Baha'i of Rome and a book dealer by profession, recently found a copy of this book, which was immediately dispatched to Haifa and is now in the custody of Shoghi Effendi. It represents one of the very first documentations, made by an European, of the episode of the Báb.

The little book was printed in 1881 by the Royal Typographer Vincenzo Bona of Turin and contains a good narrative of the life of the Báb and other personal considerations of the author concerning the Bábí movement. Some of the episodes he relates differ slightly from the accounts in the well-known histories by Browne, de Gobineau, and Nabil-i-Zarandi. [1] There are, however, other parts of the book which I would like to bring to the attention of the reader.

After presenting his informant, Daud Khan, the author comments: "Religious discussions are of comfort to the misfortunate who are oppressed by tyranny and always stripped, or about to be stripped, of everything they own."

Presenting the figure of the Báb, he says:

"Forty years ago, in the city of Shiraz, there left childhood and entered puberty a youth that for his singular potency of intellect, for his extraordinary application to study, his profound religious tendencies, his loving nature, for his energy of character, grace of body and beauty of countenance, awakened admiration and affection in everyone who had occasion to deal with him, and captivated all the love of his teachers and relatives. The name of this youth was Mirza 'Ali-Muhammad. It was said later that his family was of the high nobility, one of those descending from the Prophet by way of the Imam Husayn . . . It is certain that his family was wealthy and that he was encouraged in every manner in his most ardent desire to learn. Mirza 'Ali-Muhammad showed ardor similarly in religious practices..." "He would converse with the Rabbis of Shiraz. He would investigate the doctrine of the Gabras [2] … It is also certain that he studied the Gospels, a rather easy matter, thanks to the volumes of the Bible and the Gospel translated into the Persian language which the British disseminated in all of Persia . . . A bad translation in poor style, without the imagination and the floweriness of these sacred books."

"The present Shah, Nasiri'd-Din, sometimes during his luncheon requests the reading of the Bible in Persian and sometimes he laughs, and then the courtiers burst into a clamorous laughter and for a few days they speak only of that verse, or word, which has provoked the hilarity of the sovereign."

Speaking of the clergy, Lessona observes: "The clergy of Persia is extremely corrupt; at the same time it administers religion and justice - the first badly, the second worse; it falsifies wills, defrauds of possessions, sells justice, practices usury and indulges in debauchery… The powerful ones are in fear of it, the lowly scoff at it, the masses despise and exploit it, ready to deride and ridicule it or to rise up at its call to revolt. Every mosque has a larger or smaller number of beggars who live off scant charity and become instruments of violence, plunder and death in the hands of the priests."

Professor Lessona then speaks of Dr. Polak [3] who, at the time, was physician to the Shah and who wrote books of medicine in Persian. Relating in detail the history of the Bábís, he mentions the eighteen Letters of the Living [4] of one of whom, Mulla Husayn, he writes: "He was a very learned man, both in religion and jurisprudence: daring, austere and fiery."

Returning to the beginning of the ministry of the Báb, he says:

"... His style was imaginative and sublime, not like anything human; thus to his quality of a most eloquent orator he added that of an inimitable writer. And while he preached, discussed and taught in the mosques, in the colleges, in the streets, in his house, everywhere they were reading aloud his verses, often interrupting with cries of the most ardent admiration. In all of Shiraz they did not speak of anything else but the Báb, everyone was filled with enthusiasm for him . . . The house of the Báb was crowded, night and day, with new converts to his faith; to him came men rich in possessions, men of intellect and energy, and among the very first many mullas enrolled under his banner."

The author speaks of Qurratu'I-'Ayn [5] and the siege of Tabarsi, [6] and, having visited Zanjan [7] he states: "I visited that city ten years after the happenings I have related, and I still found frightening traces of the devastation which had taken place."

Referring to the difficulty of securing more information on the Bábí movement, he adds:

"... In Persia it is impossible to speak of the Bábís or to learn something about their affairs. The terror which this name awakens is such that no one dares to speak, or even think, of it. The Italians whom I found in Tihran, and who proved extremely kind in every way, wanted to tell me little or nothing about the Bábís, or were unable to do so; the same was true of Europeans of other nationality in Tihran, Tabriz or Rasht. Nicolas, [8] with whom I made the long journey from Tihran to St. Petersburg, started to speak to me about them only after we passed the Persian frontier . . . Count de Gobineau, in the village of Gezer near Tihran, would narrate to me episodes about this sect, making the hours of the evening pass as lightning while he wrote its history and read to me some chapters . . . Gathering material for the history of the Báb, which he was doing at the time, was fraught with danger in the heart of Persia, even for a Minister of the French Emperor..."

Referring to Vambery's critical comments on the episode of Shaykh Tabarsi, [9] Lessona states: "... this judgment is entirely unjust and a thousand miles from the truth, if we want to apply it to the precepts of the Báb . . . These precepts are in a symbolical language and, amidst mystic formulas, we found the sweet doctrines of the Báb, respectful of the past but made to contrast with formalism and to make the spirit of goodness prevail... The Báb and Qurratu'l-'Ayn were purified from any thought of violence and their lives were filled with love for their fellow men and with enthusiasm for the Faith...

In relating the atrocious tortures inflicted on the Bábís, Lessona relates: "... The Shah and the Sadr-i-A'zam (Prime Minister) feared a revolution, seeing conspirators all around them; they thought therefore to devise some scheme that would involve the largest number of persons. The Shah then schemed to deliver the Bábís to the various civil and military employees, charging them to put said Bábís to death. From the type of torture inflicted on the victims, from the most heinous manner in which they would be put to death, he could judge their zeal . . . Those who had not enough imagination to find new tortures went to the Kalantar (Mayor) who knew how to suggest others . . . That Kalantar then acquired many titles to the Shah's benevolence…" [10] "From that day," the author continues, "eighteen years have passed and in Persia the same sovereign, Nasiri'd-Din Shah, reigns, always diffident, always suspecting, always in fear of the Bábís. From time to time they arrest someone, condemn him very often to despoliation for the reason that he is a Bábí but more often using this as an excuse. The governors of the provinces thus have an easy method of taking all the possessions of a poor victim who has put something aside. The government says that Bábísm is extinguished, but it operates as if it were alive ..."

"A new Báb, successor to the first, lives in Baghdad, outside the government of the Shah. From there he is in touch with all Persia and has disseminated Bábísm in all those provinces and even in the Indies of the Orient."

This correspondent was thrilled in reading these words, because of all the early European historians of the Faith Michele Lessona makes a direct and unmistakable reference to Baha’u’llah, Who the following year in Baghdad made His Declaration in the Ridvan.

The author ends his monograph by putting before the reader the question whether the Bábí doctrine would survive and propagate. Wisely he answers it himself by quoting one of Manzoni's verses: "To posterity the arduous judgment!"

The great friendship born in Persia between Lessona and Count de Gobineau had its strange epilogue in Turin. After the fall of the French Empire, de Gobineau, exiled from his native France, spent part of the year in Italy and part in Germany.

On the evening of October 12, 1882, a distinguished looking and elegantly dressed gentleman, on his way to Pisa, became ill in a hotel bus in Turin. He was taken to the Hotel Liguria and there this traveler died, the early morning of October 13, attended by the hotel owner and some of the servants. The hand of fate had made it possible for Count Arthur Joseph de Gobineau to sleep forever in Italian soil and in the same town where Michele Lessona lived and where Lessona, himself, twelve years later was laid to rest.


[1] Edward G. Browne, translator and editor of ‘A Traveller's Narrative’; M. le Comte de Gobineau, author of ‘Les R eligions et les Philosophies dans l' Asie Centrale’; and Muhammad-i-Zarandi, surnamed Nabil-i-A'zam, author of ‘The Dawn-Breakers’.

[2] Gabr (or guebre), a term used contemptuously to designate the Zoroastrian priesthood.

[3] Dr. J. E. Polak, author of Persien Das Land und seine Bewohner (1865), was also a professor at the Medical College of Tihran.

[4] "The Bab's chosen disciples"

[5] Qurratu'l-'Ayn, "the only woman enrolled by the Báb as one of the Letters of the Living", given the title Tahirih (the Pure One) by Baha'u'llah, "the lovely but ill-fated poetess of Qazvin" (Curzon) became well known throughout Europe for her efforts in behalf of the education of the women of Persia.

[6] The siege of 313 followers of the Báb at the shrine of Shaykh Tabarsi, a few miles south of Barfunlsh, by the army of the Shah. It was during this siege that Mulla Husayn and later Quddus were killed.

[7] The uprising against the followers of the Báb at city of Zanjan.

[8] Monsieur J. B. Nicolas, Interpreter of the Imperial French Embassy in Tihran and father of A. L. M. Nicolas, author of ‘Siyyid 'Ali-Muhammad dit Ie Báb, Paris’, Dujaraic & Co., 1905.

[9] Hermann Vambery, author of ‘Meine Wanderungen und Erlebnisse in Persien (1867)’, writes concerning the siege of Shaykh Tabarsi pp. 286-303), according to Browne, in ‘A Traveller's Narrative’, Note A, p. 206.

[10] This system of persecution is attested also by Nabil and by Browne.

(The Baha'i World 1950-1954)