“This is some kind of a small time bureaucrat from Erivan on his own private mission, whom Pontchatrain* has disguised as an ambassador; and he failed to fool anyone except our king,” writes Saint-Simon about Mehmet Riza Beg. Baron of Breteuil begs to differ: according to him Mehmed Riza Beg is an important dignitary who at all meals has at least 16 people at his table, not to mention that he changes his clothes six times a day.
As far as Louis XIV goes, it is his last public function, he will die in six months, and his gangrened body can hardly support the weight of all the pearls which decorate it, not to mention the lengthy harangues of some Persian. “He could barely drag himself around,” comments Saint-Simon. Breteuil, on the other hand, finds that the king does quite well, displaying as much majesty as ever.
Everything irritates Saint-Simon about the visitor, especially the low quality of presents: pearls of which there is a little over a hundred, the two hundred stones of turquoise that the duke earmarks as shabby, “two boxes of the balm of Merci…,” and the elixir of longevity which nobody dares to taste, “These presents are as much a disgrace to Pasha of Persia, as they are to our king.”
Nevertheless, the impression of the visit must had been pretty strong, for when some forty years later Montesquieu has published his Persian Letters, there is enough of collective memory lingering in the salons to ensure the book’s success. This is what the anthropologists of the seventies liked to call a culture shock, and we feel it in all of Breteuil’s descriptions, be it the smoking of a water-pipe while riding, or his mention of the henna-colored beard and hands of Mehmed Riza Beg.
I wonder what the Ambassador’s guests thought when they were watching their host remove his fancy clothes to perform a prayer? After the prayer they’d be invited to partake in a meal, all eighteen seated in a circle on a Persian carpet, some twelve platters (Breteuil’s count) loaded with the saffron-colored pilaf, dolma, baklava… replacing each other in a sequence, while the belly dancers performed to the sound of kemancha.
I can appreciate Breteuil’s sang froid as the Court’s Master of Ambassadorial Ceremonies; but the adventure did not start at Versailles: the Ambassador had landed in France over a month ago and Monsieur Saint-Olon has been dispatched to receive and conduct Mehmed Riza Beg from Marseilles; therefore, it is Saint-Olon who is the true protagonist of the encounter, for this was not a simple task.
Upon Saint-Olons’ arrival, the Persian guest performed a wind-mill gesture with his saber to convince his audience that he was his own master and would leave the city only when ready! “It would be an accomplishment for us to move him as far as Lyon in a course of two weeks,” writes Saint-Olon to the Minister. Finally His Excellence quits Marseilles leaving behind a debt of 24, 000 francs and a memory of someone very honorable, although somewhat pricy (G. Lenotre).
Not everyone had a pool of ill-will accumulated toward Mehmed Riza during his sojourn. In Paris he has earned a reputation of a ladies’man. Quite a few of them came to see him at the Hotel Des Ambassadeurs Extraordinaires; and when on 13 September 1715 Saint-Olon was bidding farewell to his friend at Havre, he has witnessed Mehmed Riza’s domestics load aboard the ship a large box with holes in its side; the box contained a certain Marquise d’Epinay who agreed to follow Mehmed Riza to Isfahan. But this is another story which takes a flight of imagination the few facts in our possession would have trouble to support.
*Jérôme Phélypeaux, count of Pontchartrain, Scretery of State and the Navy from 1699 till 1715