Montesquieu

Ibben1 to Usbek in Paris


Three ships have arri­ved here without brin­ging me any news of you. Are you ill, or do you enjoy making me worry ?

If you do not love me in a coun­try where you have no ties, what will it be in the middle of Persia and in the bosom of your family ? But maybe I am mis­ta­ken : you are amia­ble enough to find friends eve­ryw­here. The heart is a citi­zen of every coun­try : how can a good soul keep from making new com­mit­ments ? I admit that I though I res­pect old friend­ships, but I am not unhappy to make new ones eve­ryw­here.

In wha­te­ver land I have been, I have lived as if I had to spend my life there ; I have had the same zeal for vir­tuous peo­ple, the same com­pas­sion or rather the same kind­ness for the unfor­tu­nate, the same esteem for those whom pros­pe­rity has not blin­ded. That is my cha­rac­ter, Usbek ; whe­re­ver I find men, I shall pick myself some friends.

There is a Gheber2 here who, after you, I think, holds the first place in my heart ; he is the very soul of pro­bity. Particular rea­sons have obli­ged him to retire to this city, where he lives tran­quilly from the pro­duct of an honest trade, with a wife he loves. His life is cons­tel­la­ted with gene­rous deeds ; and although he aspi­res to a life of obs­cu­rity, he has in his heart more heroism than the grea­test monarchs.

I have spo­ken to him a thou­sand times of you. I show him all of your let­ters ; I note that that plea­ses him, and I already see that you have a friend whom you do not know.

You will find his prin­ci­pal adven­tu­res here. However reluc­tant he was to write them down, he could not refuse them to my friend­ship, and I confide them to yours.

The Story of Aphéridon and Astarté3

I was born among the Ghebers, in a reli­gion that is per­haps the most ancient in the world. I was so unfor­tu­nate that love came to me before rea­son. I was scar­cely six when I could not do without my sis­ter ; my eyes were always fixed on her, and when she left me for a moment she found them bathed in tears ; my love increa­sed by the day no less than my age. My father, mar­vel­ling at so strong a sym­pa­thy, would like to have seen us mar­ried, in kee­ping with the Ghebers’ ancient cus­tom intro­du­ced by Cambyses ; but fear of the Muhammadans, under whose yoke we live, pre­vents those of our nation from thin­king of these holy allian­ces4 which our reli­gion less per­mits than com­mands, and which are such naive ima­ges of the union already for­med by nature.

Therefore my father, seeing that it would have been dan­ge­rous to fol­low my incli­na­tion and his, resol­ved to extin­guish a flame he thought inci­pient, but which was already at its apo­gee ; he pre­tex­ted a jour­ney, and took me with him, lea­ving my sis­ter in the hands of a woman who was a rela­tive of his, for my mother had died two years ear­lier. I will not tell you the des­pair of this sepa­ra­tion ; I embra­ced my sis­ter, who was bathed in tears, but I shed none, for grief had made me vir­tually numb. We arri­ved at Tiflis,5 and my father, after entrus­ting my edu­ca­tion to one of our rela­ti­ves, left me there and retur­ned back home.

Some time later, I lear­ned that he had, using the influence of one of his friends, got my sis­ter into the king’s bei­ram,6 where she was in the ser­vice of a sul­tana. Had I been noti­fied of her death, I would not have been more bewil­de­red ; for besi­des the fact that I lost hope of seeing her again, her entrance into the bei­ram had made a Muhammadan of her ; and fol­lo­wing the pre­ju­dice of that reli­gion, she could now look at me only in hor­ror. Meanwhile, una­ble to live any lon­ger in Tiflis, weary with myself and with life, I retur­ned to Isfahan. My first words to my father were bit­ter ones ; I reproa­ched him for put­ting his daugh­ter in a place where one does not enter without chan­ging reli­gion. You have drawn the wrath of God upon your family, I said, and of the sun which lights your way ; you have done worse than if you had defi­led the ele­ments, since you have defi­led your daugh­ter’s soul, which is not less pure : it will kill me with grief and love, but may my death be the only punish­ment God will make you feel ! With these words I left, and for two years I spent my time going to watch the walls of the bei­ram and contem­plate the place where my sis­ter might be, expo­sing myself a thou­sand times every day to being mas­sa­cred by the eunuchs who mount the guard around those fear­some pre­mi­ses.

Finally my father died, and the sul­tana whom my sis­ter ser­ved, seeing her grow in beauty by the day, became jea­lous of her, and mar­ried her off to a eunuch7 who wished for her pas­sio­na­tely. By this means my sis­ter left the sera­glio, and with her eunuch took a house in Isfahan.

For more than three months I could not speak to her ; the eunuch, the most jea­lous of all men, fore­ver put me off under various pre­texts. Finally I ente­red his bei­ram, and he had me speak to her through a jalou­sie ; the eyes of a lynx could not have made her out, so enve­lo­ped was she in clo­thing and veils, and I could reco­gnize her only by the sound of her voice. What was my emo­tion when I found myself so near to her and so far from her ! I control­led myself, for I was being obser­ved. For her part, it appea­red to me that she shed some tears. Her hus­band tried to make some lame excu­ses to me, but I trea­ted him like the last of the sla­ves. He was befudd­led when he saw that I was spea­king with my sis­ter a lan­guage he did not know : it was ancient Persian, which is our sacred lan­guage. Really, dear sis­ter, I said, is it true that you have renoun­ced the reli­gion of your fathers ? I know that upon ente­ring the bei­ram you had to make a pro­fes­sion of Muhammadism ; but tell me, could your heart have consen­ted as your lips did to renounce a reli­gion that allows me to love you ? And for whom do you renounce this reli­gion which we ought to che­rish ? For a poor wretch still mar­ked by the chains he has worn ; who, were he a man, would be the lowest of them all ? Dear bro­ther, she said, this man of whom you speak is my hus­band : I must honor him, howe­ver unwor­thy he seems to you, and I would be the lowest of women if… Ah, dear sis­ter ! I said, you are a Gheber : he is not your hus­band, nor can he be ; if you are fai­th­ful like your fathers, you must regard him only as a mons­ter. Alas, she said, I can see that reli­gion only from afar ! Scarcely did I know its pre­cepts when I had to for­get them. You see that this lan­guage which I speak with you is no lon­ger fami­liar to me, and I have the grea­test dif­fi­cult expres­sing myself ; but be sure that the memory of our child­hood still charms me ; that I have had nothing but false joys since that time ; that not a day has gone by but I have thought of you ; that you had a big­ger share in my mar­riage than you think ; and I was per­sua­ded to do it only by the hope of seeing you again. But how dear this day that came to me so dear will yet be ! I see you all beside your­self ; my hus­band is trem­bling with rage and jea­lousy : I will not see you again ; I am spea­king with you no doubt for the last time in my life. If that were the case, dear bro­ther, it would not be long. With these words she broke down, and fin­ding her­self una­ble to conti­nue the conver­sa­tion, she left me the most ubhappy of all men.

Three or four days later I asked to see my sis­ter ; the cruel eunuch would have liked to pre­vent me, but besi­des the fact that these sorts of hus­bands do not have over their wives the same autho­rity as others, he loved my sis­ter so des­pe­ra­tely that he could not refuse her any­thing. I saw her again in the same place, and in the same finery, accom­pa­nied by two sla­ves, which made me have recourse to our pri­vate lan­guage. Dear sis­ter, I said, how is it that I am una­ble to see you without being in a dread­ful situa­tion ? The walls that keep you all impri­so­ned, these bolts and these gra­tings, these wret­ched guards who observe you, put me in a rage ; how have you lost the sweet liberty which your ances­tors enjoyed ? Your mother, who was so chaste, gave her hus­band no war­rant of her vir­tue but her vir­tue itself ; they both lived hap­pily in mutual confi­dence, and the sim­pli­city of their beha­vior was for them a trea­sure a thou­sand times more pre­cious than the false glit­ter you seem to enjoy in this sump­tuous house. By losing your reli­gion, you have lost your liberty, your hap­pi­ness, and that pre­cious equa­lity that is the honor of your sex. But what is still worse is that you are not the wife, for you can­not be, but the slave of a slave who has been demo­ted from huma­nity. Oh, dear bro­ther, she said, res­pect my hus­band ; res­pect the reli­gion I have embra­ced. According to that reli­gion, I have not been able to hear you or speak to you without crime. What ? dear sis­ter, I said, furious ; so you believe this reli­gion is true ! Oh, she said, how advan­ta­geous it would be to me if it were not ! I am making for it too great a sacri­fice to be able not to believe in it ; and if my doubts… With these words she fell silent. Yes, your doubts, dear sis­ter, are well foun­ded, wha­te­ver they are. What do you expect from a reli­gion when it makes you unhappy in this world and lea­ves you no expec­ta­tion for the next ? Remember that ours is the most ancient on earth ; that it has always flou­ri­shed in Persia, and has no other ori­gin than this empire whose begin­nings are unk­nown ; that it is only chance that intro­du­ced Muhammadism here ; that that sect has been esta­bli­shed here, not by the path of per­sua­sion, but of conquest. If our natu­ral prin­ces had not been weak, you would still see the cult of those ancient wizards pre­vai­ling8 here. Think back to those dis­tant eras : eve­ry­thing will speak to you of wizar­dry and nothing of the Muhammadan sect, which seve­ral thou­sand years later was not yet even in its infancy. But, she said, even if my reli­gion were more modern than yours, it is at least purer, since it wor­ships only God, whe­reas you also wor­ship the sun, the stars, fire and even the ele­ments. I see, dear sis­ter, that you have lear­ned from the Muslims to slan­der our holy reli­gion. We wor­ship nei­ther hea­venly bodies nor the ele­ments, and our fathers have never wor­ship­ped them ; never have they rai­sed tem­ples to them, never have they offe­red sacri­fi­ces to them ; they merely devo­ted a reli­gious reve­rence to them, but infe­rior, as the han­di­work and mani­fes­ta­tions of the deity.9 But, dear sis­ter, in the name of God who enligh­tens us, receive this holy book I bring you. It is the book of our law­gi­ver Zoroaster10 : read it without pre­concep­tions ; receive into your heart the rays of light that will light your way as you read it ; remem­ber your fathers, who have so long hono­red the sun in the holy city of Balk11 ; and finally, remem­ber me, who have no hope for rest, for­tune, or life except in your change. I tur­ned away exal­ted, and left her to decide alone the most impor­tant mat­ter I could ever have in my life.

I retur­ned there two days later. I did not speak to her ; I wai­ted in silence my decree of life or death. You are loved, dear bro­ther, she said, and by a Gheber. I have long strug­gled, but oh how many dif­fi­culties love resol­ves ! How relie­ved I am ! I no lon­ger fear loving you too much ; I am free to put no limits on my love : its very excess is legi­ti­mate. Oh how this concurs with the state of my heart ! But you, who have mana­ged to break the chains which my mind had for­ged for itself, when will you break those that bind my hands ? From this moment I give myself to you ; show me your quick accep­tance of me how much you value this pre­sent. Dear bro­ther, the first time I am able to embrace you, I think I will die in your arms. I would never express ade­qua­tely the joy I felt at those sweet words. I felt and indeed was in an ins­tant the hap­piest of all men. I almost saw the rea­li­za­tion of all the desi­res I had concei­ved in twenty-five years of life, and the vani­shing of all the concerns that had made it so labo­rious. But when I had got­ten a lit­tle used to these sweet thoughts, I saw that I was not so close to my hap­pi­ness as I had at once ima­gi­ned, although I had sur­moun­ted the grea­test of all the obs­ta­cles. I had to fool the vigi­lants of her guards ; I dared confide the secret of my life in no one : we had to do eve­ry­thing, she and I ; if I fai­led in my attempt, I ran the risk of being empa­led, but I saw no more cruel punish­ment than to fail. We agreed that she would send to me for a clock which my father had left to her, and I would place in it a file for sawing the jalou­sies on her win­dow that faced the street and a knot­ted cord for coming down ; I would see no more of her, but would go every night beneath her win­dow to wait until she could carry out her plan. I spent fif­teen entire nights without seeing anyone, because she had not found the right moment. Finally, on the six­teenth night, I heard a saw at work ; every now and then it was inter­rup­ted, and in those inter­vals my fear was inex­pres­si­ble. Finally, after an hour’s work, I saw her atta­ching the cord : she lowe­red her­self and slid into my arms. I had no more awa­re­ness of the dan­ger ; I and remai­ned a long time without moving from there. I led her out of the city, where I had a horse at the ready ; I moun­ted her behind me, and fled with all pos­si­ble haste a place that could be so fate­ful to us. We arri­ved before day­light at the house of a Gheber in a lone spot to which he had with­drawn, living fru­gally by the labor of his hands. We did not deem it oppor­tune to remain with him, and fol­lo­wing his advice we ente­red a dense forest and hid in the hol­low of an old oak until the news of our flight had dis­si­pa­ted. We were living toge­ther in this remote abode without wit­nes­ses, repea­ting cea­se­lessly that we would love each other for ever, awai­ting the oppor­tu­nity for some Gheber priest to per­form the mar­riage cere­mony pres­cri­bed by our holy books. Dear sis­ter, I would say, how holy is this union : nature had uni­ted us ; our holy Law will unite us fur­ther. Finally a priest came to quell our amo­rous impa­tience : in the pea­sant’s home he per­for­med all the cere­mo­nies of mar­riage ; he bles­sed us and wished us a thou­sand times all the vigor of Gustaspe and the holi­ness of Hohoraspe.12 Soon after we left Persia, where we were not safe, and with­drew into Georgia. We lived there for a year, each day more enchan­ted with each other ; but as my money was going to run out, and I fea­red misery for my sis­ter, not for myself, I left her to go seek some assis­tance among our rela­ti­ves. Never was a fare­well more ten­der. But my jour­ney was not only fruit­less, but fatal : for having found on the one hand all our pro­perty confis­ca­ted, and on the other my rela­ti­ves nearly pre­ven­ted from assis­ting me, I only brought back pre­ci­sely the money requi­red for my return. But what was my des­pair : I no lon­ger found my sis­ter. A few days before my arri­val, some Tartars13 had made an incur­sion in the city where she was ; and as they found her comely, they took her, and sold her to some Jews who were going to Turkey, and left only a small daugh­ter to whom she had given birth some months ear­lier. I fol­lo­wed these Jews, and caught up with them three lea­gues from there. My prayers and my tears were vain ; they always deman­ded of me thirty tomans,14 and never conce­ded a sin­gle one. After trying eve­ryone, implo­ring the pro­tec­tion of Turkish and Christian priests, I tried an Armenian mer­chant : I sold him my daugh­ter, and sold myself also for thirty-five tomans ; I went to the Jews, I gave them thirty tomans, and took the five remai­ning to my sis­ter, whom I had not yet seen. You are free, I said to her, dear sis­ter, and I can embrace you ; here are five tomans I bring you ; I regret that I was not pur­cha­sed for more. What, she said, you have sold your­self ? Yes, I said. Oh poor man, what have you done ? Was I not unfor­tu­nate enough without you wor­king to make more so ? Your free­dom was conso­ling me, and your sla­very is going to put me in the grave. Oh dear bro­ther, how cruel is your love ! And my daugh­ter ; why do I not see her ? I have sold her also, I told her. We both broke into tears, and had not the strength to say any­thing. Finally I went to find my mas­ter, and my sis­ter got there almost as soon as I. She drop­ped to her knees. I ask you for ser­vi­tude, she said, as others ask you for free­dom : take me, you will get more for me than for my hus­band. A contest ensued that drew tears from my mas­ter’s eyes. Poor man, she said, did you think I could accept my free­dom at the price of yours ? My lord, you see two unfor­tu­na­tes who will die if you sepa­rate us. I give myself to you, pay me : per­haps that money and my ser­vi­ces can some day obtain from you what I dare not ask of you. It is in your inte­rest not to sepa­rate us : be sure I hold his life in my hands. The Armenian was a kind man, who was moved by our mis­for­tu­nes : Serve me both of you with loyalty and zeal, and I pro­mise you that in one year I will give you your free­dom. I see that nei­ther of you deser­ves the mis­for­tu­nes of your situa­tion. If, once you are free, you are as happy as you deserve to be, if for­tune smi­les on you, I am cer­tain that you will make good to me the loss I will sus­tain. We both embra­ced his knees, and fol­lo­wed him on his jour­ney. We relie­ved each other in the labors of ser­vi­tude, and I was deligh­ted when I had been able to per­form the work that was my sis­ter’s lot.

The end of the year came ; our mas­ter kept his word and freed us. We retur­ned to Tiflis. There I found an old friend of my father’s who was suc­cess­fully prac­ti­cing medi­cine in that city ; he loa­ned me some money, with which I did some tra­ding. Some busi­ness later cal­led me to Smyrna, where I set­tled. I have been living here for six years, where I enjoy the most amia­ble and agreea­ble com­pany in the world ; unity rei­gns in my family, and I would not change my situa­tion for that of all the kings in the world. I was for­tu­nate enough to find the Armenian mer­chant again to whom I owe eve­ry­thing, and have ren­de­red him signal ser­vi­ces.

Smyrna this 27th day of the moon of Gemmadi II, 1714

The only letter from Ibben – unless we count Supplementary Letter 3 – who remains in Smyrna, and who on the other hand is the recipient of numerous letters from both Rica and Usbek.

“Gheber, a Persian word signifying particularly a Zoroastrian, a fire worshipper, and one who professes the ancient Persian religion” (d’Herbelot, art. “Ghebr”) ; also called Parsee in English. Paul Vernière has shown (p. 138-148) that Montesquieu derives most of his information about them from Thomas Hyde’s Historia religionis veterum persarum (‘History of the religion of the ancient Persians’, 1700).

The name of a Semitic goddess (Ashtart), assimilated through various paths with the Ishtar of Mesopotamia, and even with the Iranian Anahita and the Greek Aphrodite.

According to Herodotus (III, 31), Cambyses II, king of Persia from 530 to 522 B.C.E., married two of his sisters without authorization by the law. According to the Life of Gushtasp by the Arab historian Abu Muhammed Mustapha, quoted by Thomas Hyde, it is Zerhudst (Zoroastre) who allowed incest (Hyde, ch. xxiv, p. 313-314.)

Today called Tbilisi.

A term perhaps confused with haram ; Montesquieu’s usual term is sérail (cf. letter 2, note 2).

See letters 9 and 51 on the possible marriage of a eunuch.

They are the Sassanians or Sassanides : “Thus did the Persians call the kings of their fourth dynasty” (d’Herbelot, art. “Sassanian,” p. 761-762).

On the question of whether the Ghebers worshipped the sun, Tavernier’s answered : “they say they recognize but one God, creator of heaven and earth, and worship him only. As for fire, they keep and revere it in thankfulness for the great miracle by which their Prophet was delivered from the flames.” (book IV, ch. viii, vol. I, p. 490). The worship of the sun is ordained in Zoroaster’s rule XCVI.

The Zend-Avesta was, according to various sources, written by Zoroaster or sent from heaven, affirms Shahristâni, quoted by Hyde (ch. xxii, p. 299). Cf. Chardin : “ This Zerdoucht, or Zoroaster, was the first to write methodically on the sciences, and the religion of the Persians. The Ghebers tell a thousand fables about him, making him a wholly divine man” (IX, 145).

According to Hyde, Zerdusht converted Gushtâsp in Balch (p. 314-315).

Hyde devotes his chapiter xxiii (p. 301-307) to Gushtasp (son of Lohrasp), whose name is evoked by the priest in nuptial ceremonies (“Be strong like king Gushtap”, p. 303).

Muslims “who inhabit almost the whole northern part of Asia” (Encyclopédie, art. “Tartares,” vol. XV, p. 920).

Tavernier values the toman at 46 livres (book I, ch. xii ; vol. I, p. 136).