A Light in Dungeon Darkness: the Siyah-Chal and the beginning of Bahá’u’lláh’s mission

light in the dungeon darknessChained, humiliated and conducted over fifteen miles in the heat of summer, Bahá’u’lláh had been cast into Tehran’s most notorious dungeon: Siyah-Chal – the Black Pit. In the city outside a pogrom was sweeping the city taking the lives of hundreds. Baha’u’llah’s own words describe what was done to him:

… from Niyavaran [they] conducted Us, on foot and in chains, with bared head and bare feet, to the dungeon of Tihran.  A brutal man, accompanying Us on horseback, snatched off Our hat, whilst We were being hurried along by a troop of executioners and officials.[1]

In God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi records:

On the way He several times was stripped of His outer garments, was overwhelmed with ridicule, and pelted with stones.[2]

Crowds gathered to revile him and as he approached the prison an old woman, shaking with rage, begged to be allowed to throw a stone in his face. Bahá’u’lláh said to the guards: “Deny her not what she regards as a meritorious act in the sight of God.”

Bahá’u’lláh was imprisoned in the Siyah Chal for 4 months. Again, his own words describe it.

As to the dungeon in which this Wronged One and others similarly wronged were confined, a dark and narrow pit were preferable. Upon Our arrival We were first conducted along a pitch-black corridor, from whence We descended three steep flights of stairs to the place of confinement assigned to Us. The dungeon was wrapped in thick darkness, and Our fellow prisoners numbered nearly a hundred and fifty souls: thieves, assassins and highwaymen. Though crowded, it had no other outlet than the passage by which We entered. No pen can depict that place, nor any tongue describe its loathsome smell. Most of these men had neither clothes nor bedding to lie on. God alone knoweth what befell Us in that most foul-smelling and gloomy place![3]

We were all huddled together in one cell, our feet in stocks, and around our necks fastened the most galling of chains. The air we breathed was laden with the foulest impurities, while the floor on which we sat was covered with filth and infested with vermin. No ray of light was allowed to penetrate that pestilential dungeon or to warm its icy-coldness.[4]

Every day Our gaolers, entering Our cell, would call the name of one of Our companions, bidding him arise and follow them to the foot of the gallows.[5]

entrance to the siyah chal

Original entrance to the Siyah Chal

Around Bahá’u’lláh’s neck and body were two chains, so notorious that they each had been given a name.

Shouldst thou at some time happen to visit the dungeon of His Majesty the Sháh, ask the director and chief jailer to show thee those two chains, one of which is known as Qará-Guhar, and the other as Salásil. I swear by the Daystar of Justice that for four months this Wronged One was tormented and chained by one or the other of them.[5]

One of these chains weighed 51 kilograms. So heavy were they that they were provided with a wooden fork to help support their weight.

On our neck We still bear the scar of chains, and upon Our body are imprinted the evidences of an unyielding cruelty.[6]

Adib Taherzadeh records that one day Abdu’l Baha was taken to visit his father (he was only nine years of age).

He had descended only half-way down the steps when Baha’u’llah caught sight of Him and ordered that the child be taken out immediately. He was permitted to wait in the prison yard until noon when the prisoners were allowed an hour of fresh air. When Abdu’l Baha saw His Father, He was in chains and tied to His nephew … He walked with great difficulty, His beard and hair were unkempt, His neck bruised and swollen from the pressure of a heavy steel collar, and His back was bent with the weight of the chain. On witnessing this sight Abdu’l Baha fainted and was carried home unconscious.[Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah: Baghdad 1853-63, p 8]

In this darkest moment, Bahá’u’lláh was not alone. He would lead his companions in chanting a verse. “God is sufficient unto me. He verily is the all sufficing.”

Bahá’u’lláh was not alone in another sense.

During the days I lay in the prison of Ṭihrán, though the galling weight of the chains and the stench-filled air allowed Me but little sleep, still in those infrequent moments of slumber I felt as if something flowed from the crown of My head over My breast, even as a mighty torrent that precipitateth itself upon the earth from the summit of a lofty mountain. Every limb of My body would, as a result, be set afire. At such moments My tongue recited what no man could bear to hear.[7]

One night, in a dream, these exalted words were heard on every side: “Verily, We shall render Thee victorious by Thyself and by Thy Pen. Grieve Thou not for that which hath befallen Thee, neither be Thou afraid, for Thou art in safety. Erelong will God raise up the treasures of the earth—men who will aid Thee through Thyself and through Thy Name, wherewith God hath revived the hearts of such as have recognized Him.”[8]

While engulfed in tribulations I heard a most wondrous, a most sweet voice, calling above My head. Turning My face, I beheld a Maiden—the embodiment of the remembrance of the name of My Lord—suspended in the air before Me. So rejoiced was she in her very soul that her countenance shone with the ornament of the good pleasure of God, and her cheeks glowed with the brightness of the All-Merciful. Betwixt earth and heaven she was raising a call which captivated the hearts and minds of men. She was imparting to both My inward and outer being tidings which rejoiced My soul, and the souls of God’s honoured servants.

Pointing with her finger unto My head, she addressed all who are in heaven and all who are on earth, saying: By God! This is the Best-Beloved of the worlds, and yet ye comprehend not. This is the Beauty of God amongst you, and the power of His sovereignty within you, could ye but understand. This is the Mystery of God and His Treasure, the Cause of God and His glory unto all who are in the kingdoms of Revelation and of creation, if ye be of them that perceive. This is He Whose Presence is the ardent desire of the denizens of the Realm of eternity, and of them that dwell within the Tabernacle of glory, and yet from His Beauty do ye turn aside.[9]

During the centenary of the passing of Bahá’u’lláh in 1992, Baha’is gathered from around the world in New York to pay tribute to Bahá’u’lláh’s life. Bahá’u’lláh’s description of the Maid of Heaven was put to music for that commemoration.

(This article is the 107th in a series of what I hope will be 200 articles in 200 days for the 200th anniversary of the birth of Bahá’u’lláh. The anniversary is being celebrated around the world on 21 and 22 October 2017, The articles are simply my personal reflections on Bahá’u’lláh’s life and work. Any errors or inadequacies in these articles are solely my responsibility.)

Selected Sources:

God Passes By, Shoghi Effendi, 1944

Call to Remembrance – Connecting Hearts to Baha’u’llah, compiled by Geoffry W. Marks 1992

The Revelation of Baha’u’llah – Baghdad 1853-63, Adib Taherzadeh

Image: The Siyah-Chal, wikimedia commons, public domain



  1 comment for “A Light in Dungeon Darkness: the Siyah-Chal and the beginning of Bahá’u’lláh’s mission

    July 22, 2017 at 11:25 pm


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