Iranian Jewish Culure
Yousef Bakhshi: Nasseraddin Shah’s Double

Yousef Bakhshi: Nasseraddin Shah’s Double


Yousef Bakhshi was born in 1852 C.E., 1231 of the Persian Calendar, henceforth P.C., to a Jewish family of Tehran, Iran. His father, a violinist, made a living as an entertainer.

From an early age, Yousef took music lessons from his father. He also received his elementary education at the traditional schools of the time known as maktab-khaneh. Given his manifest enthusiasm and gifts, he soon mastered tombak, a Persian percussive instrument, as well as violin.

As a young man, he played violin in his father’s ensemble. Soon afterwards, he formed a band for himself and commenced his independent artistic endeavors. He also directed and performed in the traditional Persian plays known as the Rou-Howzi, that is, plays which were typically staged above covered pools at the Iranian courtyards. But his job as a musician and his other artistic activities couldn’t satisfy the restless soul, the ambitious quests, and the adventurous spirit of this young Jewish man. So, side by side his career as an artist, he gradually began to trade in gold and jewelry.

In 1875 C.E., 1254 P.C., on a business trip to Merv, a Russian city near the border, he met a Georgian girl, married her, and took her with him to Tehran. The couple brought a daughter and a son to the world. Sadly, the marriage didn’t last long, as his wife passed away after 12 years of shared life, due to heart ailment, and the children were left in their father’s care. This was too heavy a shock for this young, sensitive and artistic man, so far as for years afterwards, he lived in solitude. Eventually, in 1894 C.E., 1273 P.C., pressured by friends and family, he agreed to marry again, this time to his maternal cousin Ghamar Khanom. The couple brought four sons and three daughters to the world.

For long, a propensity for music in general, and for violin in particular, has been a prominent concern of the Bakhshi family line, a legacy preserved among them from one generation to another. The Bakhshi children were no exception to this rule, and after one of the girls, Aghdas Bakhshi, got married into the Khorramian family, playing tar, a Persian plucked instrument and the favorite instrument of her husband’s family line, became customary for her family, as well.

As time went by, Yousef Bakhshi mastered the jewelry trade, earned himself a credible name among the merchants, and kept climbing the ladder of success. Meanwhile, he spent his spare time playing the violin and singing poetry. Then in 1890 C.E., 1269 P.C., by happenstance, he found his way to the Qajar Royal Court. And thenceforth, at every available opportunity, he took a collection of precious jewels to sell to the members of the Court.

Over time, Bakhshi’s good manners and his honesty in business led to offers coming down to him from the person of the King. This helped his business thrive, and it earned him even more credit among the members of the Court, especially the Royal family. On the other hand, given his striking resemblance to the King, not to mention his awesome penetrating eyes, several members of the Royal Court advised the King to train Bakhshi in the ways, manners and etiquette of the Court, to teach him the King’s salient traits, and to use him as the King’s Double. Thus, when the need be, especially in the absence of the King at certain ceremonies or formal events of the Court, Bakhshi could appear in his stead and perform his role as the ringer convincingly. Nasseraddin Shah agreed with the plan, the negotiations persuaded Bakhshi to accept the mission, and he was hired officially by the Qajar Court to serve as the King’s Double.

First, experts taught Bakhshi in the ways of the Qajar Court. Next, they worked on his speech, so that besides his physical resemblance, he would sound and behave similar to the King. After all, he had to be fully prepared to fulfill the upcoming crucial assignments without leaving behind the slightest trace of doubt or suspicion.

It’s certain that the trainee made fast progress, for Bakhshi had passed the six grades of the elementary school, a rather high education for the time, besides that he was familiar with the Azari and Russian languages, as well. Moreover, he was a gifted man with an artistic personality, and with a flair to compose poetry. Warm and kind in person, he could successfully connect to people. The training required of him to meet with the King in person, to better get to know his model’s moods and character. Soon enough, thanks to his appropriate and upbeat behavior during these meetings and his timely wit offered directly to the King, the conversations between the two men grew into a deeper friendship. At times, when present at the royal gatherings, he could read poetry in the praise of the King and even engage in poetry matches known as mosha’ereh against the Court members, even against the person of the King. And when given a chance, he’d display his artistry on the violin.

On payroll as the King’s Double, he was first assigned to unofficial gatherings in the absence of the King, especially those that took place outside the Capital. He then served on more sensitive missions, such as when he traveled to remote Iranian cities and visited the military quarters and government offices, or when he visited Iranian villages and attended to the lords’ complaints and the subjects’ grievances, and so on. As time went by, and as he gained more experience at the job, he was also assigned to serve in Tehran, particularly when Nasseraddin Shah was away from the Capital, such as when he was abroad on unofficial trips. One such important mission came when the King of Qajar had been gone to France in the 1880’s C.E. The voyage took more than a month, a rather long period by the Royal time, and thus, to prevent the enemies from taking advantage of the King’s absence, Yousef Bakhshi put on the disguise, pretended to be at the helm of the reign, and lived the role excellently until the King’s return. For the remainder of his life, the mission would remain among Bakhshi’s proudest moments, and for good reason, for Nasseraddin Shah gifted one of his royal capes to his Double as a reward for a job well done.


In 1896 C.E., 1275 P.C., at the beginning of the celebrations for the fiftieth anniversary of the coronation of the fourth king of the Qajar dynasty, Nasseraddin Shah, the reigning King of Qajar, was assassinated as he was visiting the holy Shrine of Shah Abdol-Azim, in the city of Rey, near Tehran. The King was shot by the pistol of Mirza Reza Kermani, a follower of Seyyed Jamaladdin Assadabadi, and provoked by his guru. The documented Iranian history for the past century tells us that during the subsequent interrogations, the assassin Mirza Reza Kermani made certain statements concerning the Jewish people, which could no doubt show the humanity and caring nature of the man in regards to supporting the rights of the oppressed and the innocent, especially those of the religious minorities. Accordingly, Mirza Reza Kermani said in his confessions that “Before that day, I’d had a better chance to kill Nasseraddin Shah without myself getting caught. I learned that the King was expected to visit and take a walk at a garden that belonged to one of the nobilities. So I got there as soon as I could to hide myself. The King arrived. It was easy to kill him, and my escape route was open. But I didn’t kill him then, because a number of Jews had gathered there to picnic — on a Jewish Holiday. Had the King been killed and had I escaped, they would blame the King’s death on the Jews who were there at the garden. Therefore, I decided not to carry out the task.”

Certainly, Mirza Reza Kermani was aware that the King had a trained Double, but also that he always visited the Shrine of Shah Abdol-Azim in person.

In the aftermath of the assassination, there was no more need for Yousef Bakhshi at the Royal Court. Thence, he was retired after more than a decade of serving as the King’s Double, and he left the Royal Court behind. He spent his years of retirement at his own home with his family on a government pension. On occasion, he would also take some violin students.

Yousef Bakhshi passed away in 1928 C.E., 1307 P.C., at the age of 76, due to heart illness.


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