Holding the fort

Gianni Izzo’s excellent article on jesters of the Persian Safavid and Zand courts shines a light on additional Persian jesters (that is, perhaps ‘new’ to a Western audience).  Rich new seams of anecdotes, primary sources, mini-biographies and great analysis.

The Safavid king, Shāh ʿAbbās I (r. 1588-1629), seems to have had a number of jesters, and striking among them is Dalāleh Qezi, as much for being a female jester (relatively unusual outside Europe), as for defying conventions governing the behaviour of women.  She had the jester’s licence to mock and speak out, and was duly feared and respected, even by powerful people in the court.

As with other jesters, she would accompany the Shah on his travels, without following the general rules for women – for example, she wore neither a chador nor a veil.  She was also exempt from the Shah’s prohibition of alcohol during Ramadan in 1620, a privilege which others sought to secure through her (unsuccessful) intervention.

Izzo also shares an extraordinary episode in her career, in which the Shah ordered her and a group of prostitutes to occupy a fort he had won from the Mughal emperor, in a curious form of comedic messaging to an enemy:

In 1622, Shāh ʿAbbās’ troops attacked and seized a fortress in Kandahar held by the fourth Mughal Emperor, Nūr al-Dīn Muḥammad Salīm Jahāngīr (d. 1627). Prior to his loss, Jahāngīr boasted that after recapturing Kandahar, he would take the fight to the then Safavid capital, Isfahan.  Before ordering his Qizilbāsh troops to deploy in Kandahar, Shāh ʿAbbās ordered Dalāleh Qezī and a band of prostitutes to occupy the fortress. Soon, the intended rumour spread that the so-called invincible castle of Kandahar, guarded by Mughal commanders, had been taken by a group of Safavid women led by a female clown.  Answering bravado with ridicule, we see that Shāh ʿAbbās’ political theatre did not exclude humour.


While at face value, Shāh ʿAbbās’ positioning of his favourite clown in Kandahar appears an elaborate taunt to a political foe, it has implications for the underlying gender and social coding of Safavid society. Its outrageousness involves not only the position of the jester whose very presence is mocking and absurd, but also female prostitutes.

We welcome further anecdotes about this remarkable woman.

Sources: Gianni Izzo, ‘Playing the fool: jesters of the Safavid and Zand courts’, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies (August 2023), pp. 5-6, citing: Nasrollah Falsafī, Zindigānī-yi Shāh ʿAbbās-i Avval (Tehran: Intishārāt-i Dānishghāh-i Tehran, 1955), vol. 2, p. 251; Pietro Della Valle, Safarnāmeh-yi Pietro Della Valle, trans. Mahmoud Behfurūzī, vol. 2 (Tehran: Nashre Ghatreh, 2002), pp. 954 and 1218–19; Muhammad-Reza Javadi Yeganeh, Irāniyn dar zamneh-yi pdishh, vol. 8 (Tehran: Shūrā-yi Ijtimaʿī-yi Kishvar, 1394 (2016)), p. 187; Rasul Jafarian, Ṣafavīyya dar ʿarṣa-yi dīn, farhang va siyāsat, vol. 1 (Tehran: Pizhūhishkadeh-yi Ḥawza va Dānishgāh, 2000), p. 382.

Image credit: The ruins of old Kandahar citadel (c. 1881), photo by Sir Benjamin Simpson (1831-1923), in Bellew Collection: Photograph album of Surgeon-General Henry Walter Bellew, The British Library online gallery, public domain


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