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The Bab in the World of Images

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This paper traces the history of the portraits drawn of the Bab, the founder of the Babi religion. The dramatic success of the Bab in attracting a large number of followers from different social strata generated a great deal of interest in him. His reformist ideas captured the imagination of Shi’ites and Europeans alike. His movement was soon a subject of enquiry by orientalists, academicians, politicians, missionaries, merchants and others alike. Over time, several artists – mostly unknown to date – decided to render portraits of him. Of these, only one actually met the Bab: Aqa Bala Bayg of Shishvan, the chief painter of Qajar Prince Malek-Qasim Mirza (1807–62), the governor of Urmia (Orumiyeh) who hosted the Bab for a brief period in 1848. While the works of other artists were based on imagination, Aqa Bala Bayg’s original sketch of the Babi leader was rendered through a series of face-to-face meetings with the young prophet. He later produced multiple other copies from his original. Thus, Aqa Bala Bayg’s work appears to be the only genuine images of the Bab left to posterity. Nonetheless, the story of the Bab, the artist from Shishvan, and the Qajar prince who hosted the Bab has not been fully examined. This will be a focus of the current research. We will also explore the intriguing possibility that one or more actual photographs of the Bab might exist. Additionally, we will attempt to reconcile the at times contradictory historical accounts of the various copies of the Bab’s portrait, drawn by Aqa Bala Bayg. Finally, we will briefly discuss the works of other unknown artists who have produced imaginary portraits of the Bab and conclude with suggestions for further inquiry.

Keywords: Bab; Babi; Malek-Qasim Mirza; Qajar; images

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Austin, Texas

Publication date: June 1, 2013

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