Socialising with Indian and Persian princes in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala

Ten soldiers were awaiting Tinco Lycklama as a guard of honour at the gates of Karbala. This was arranged by the Turkish kaymakam (governor) of the city who, impressed by the instructions of the Viceroy of Baghdad, did his best to please this special guest – a ‘simple tourist’ from The Netherlands. Karbala was very busy, as tens of thousands of pilgrims had descended on the holy city for religious celebrations. Including the heir to the Indian Kingdom of Oudh, as well as a rebellious Qajar prince-in-exile from Baghdad.

Tinco Lycklama had truly enjoyed his travel from Najaf (the other Shi’a holy city) to Karbala. He could actually claim to have done something quite unique: for thirty-six hours, he had sailed the deserts in a boat! Indeed, because of the most severe flooding of the century between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, the deserts had become a gigantic lake – and the only way to reach Karbala was by sailing the sands.


The city of Karbala dates from the earliest days of islam, built around the shrine of the Imam Hussain – son of Muhammed’s daughter Fatimah and her husband ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib – the first Imam of all muslims in the Shi’a belief system. After the deaths of both his father and his older brother, Hussain became the third Imam.

Karbala Imam Hussain shrine
Imam Hussain shrine, Karbala

Imam Hussain became a martyr when he died in battle at Karbala, in the year 680 CE. Hussain is a key figure in the original split between Sunni and Shi’a islam. And it explains why Karbala, like Najaf, are so important no only to the Iraqi Shia’s but also to Iran, which is largely Shi’a.

In fact, Karbala was essentially a Persian city in Iraq. At the time of Tinco Lycklama’s visit, most of the pilgrims travelled aal the way from Persia. Even by the end of the 19th century, it is estimated that seventy-five percent of the population was of Persian origin.

This helps to explain why Tinco met with an Indian prince from Oudh and a Qajar prince from Teheran. When Tinco heard about the presence of Birjis Qadr in the city, he promptly sent a message and asked for an audience with His Majesty. No way that Tinco would miss the opportunity to pay his respects to a crown prince who had just lost his last chance to recover his kingdom.

Birjis Qadr
Birjis Qadr (in The Illustrated London News, August 1, 1857)

In 1856, the Lord Dalhousie, Governor General of the East India Company, deposed Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Oudh (or Awadh), and his rich kingdom was annexed to British India. The princes and kings of Oudh had their origins in Persia and were followers of Shi’a islam. After the British annexation, Birjis Qadr, the son and heir to the deposed King, went into exile.

Birjis Qadr (1845-1893)
Birjis Qadr (1845-1893)

At the time of Tinco Lycklama’s visit, prince Birjis Qadr was living in Nepal. But, in 1867, as a devout muslim, he did his pilgrimage to the holy shrines in Karbala. There he was joined by Ilkhani Khan. This is how Tinco calls him, but the latter’s full name was Amir ‘Allah Quli Khan-e Qajar Quyunlu (1821-1892), and he was the Ilkhani (or ‘head’) of the Royal Tribe. A cousin of the Persian shah Naser al-Din Qajar, he was considered somewhat rebellious and sent into exile to Baghdad in 1846 (he returned to Persia in 1870 and occupied various posts as provincial governor).

There was a special relationship between the Kingdom of Oudh and the city of Karbala. The Oudh Bequest was a rich endowment by the kings of Oudh to the cities of Karbala and Najaf to meet the expenses for upkeep of the holy Shi’a shrines. Needless to say that prince Birjis Qadr was a most significant guest at Karbala.

Tinco Lycklama has fond memories as the guest of Birjis Qadr and Ilkhani Khan. In fact, their encounter was so gracious and friendly that he was invited to stay at their palace. Unfortunately, Tinco’s stay was short, so he had to decline the offer (and he was staying in quarters arranged by the governor of Baghdad, and refusing that honour would have been a political ‘faux-pas’).

By an interesting twist of coincidence, Tinco would later befriend another Earl Dalhousie in Cannes. James Broun-Ramsay, the Lord Dalhousie and British governor-general in India, had died in 1860. His cousin Fox Maule-Ramsay was the heir to the earlship of Dalhousie and a prominent guest in Cannes, where he attended Tinco Lycklama’s famous ‘bal masqué’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s