Historical Persian Shiite Cemetery in St. Petersburg

Arthur Ambartsumian

Every moment a breath of life is spent,
If I consider, not much of it remains.

The Gulistan of Sa’di

Many died, and others are afar,
As Sa’di someday said.

“Eugeni Onegin” Alexander Pushkin


Historical “Persian Cemetery” now forms a small sector of the Moslem part of the Novo-Volkovskoie Cemetery in St. Petersburg (Volkovskii Ave.; Salova St.). Moslem cemetery in St. Petersburg was opened in 1827 by the Tatar community between the Volkovo field and the river Volkovka. According to some sources in the time of Ekaterina Velikaia (Catherine the Great, 1762-1796) this place was primarily known as the Turkish cemetery where the Russians buried the prisoners of war against Ottoman Empire. The majority of the Moslems consisted of the Tatars. They had tree Moslem schools, two Moslem meeting-houses, and a special meeting-house for military men. Religious services were held in Arabic and in Tatar. Besides the Tatars and Persians, Moslem population included the Arabs, Afghans, Central Asians and Caucasian mountaineers.

The Persians have been reaching the new capital of the Russian Empire with merchants’ caravans and ambassadorial legations. The first foreign embassy that arrived to St. Petersburg in 1711 was Persian. Shortly after that many presents of the Persian shah were delivered to St. Petersburg, among them were wonderful elephants with Persian drivers. In first half of 18th century elephants were brought trice from Persia in 1714, 1736 and 1741. Persian guests paraded with elephants down the main streets. The elephants usually supplemented the collection of the Imperial zoological gardens. In these times first Persian merchants appeared in St. Petersburg. It is well known that as early as in 1692 in Astrakhan they had their own trade house along with the Armenians and the Greeks. Gradually a small Persian community was organized in the city. Approximately a half of the St. Petersburg Persians belonged to the the hereditary nobility.

In the end of 1841 Persian residents of St. Petersburg petitioned for a separate Persian cemetery to be opened near the Tatar or Sunnite one. Department of Spiritual Affairs supervising the Foreign Confessions addressed for the permission to the Minister of State Properties: “For the interment of the departing Muhammadans in St. Petersburg according to the State Decree a special place is alloted, that is known under the name of the Tatar cemetery. Confessing the teaching of Omar, the Tatars, as all other Sunnis, have an aversion for the Persians who are the followers of Alii, and on account of the fanaticism they can not see their burials on the same cemetery without evident displeasure”. After a short time Imperial command to acquire an area for the Persian cemetery in 400 square sazhens (1 sazhen=2 m 13 cm) near the Tatar cemetery followed. In 1843 plenipotentiary of the Persian Society mullah Aliakber Abdulaev, effendi of the proper Imperial Escort, had taken a new Persian Shiite part of the cemetery. In that way the Persian Shiite cemetery was opened in St. Petersburg in 1843.

According to population census of 1869 there were 50 Persian inhabitants in the capital of the Russian Empire. To 1910 number of the Persians who were permanent residents increased up to 260. As we can read from the last issue of the reference book “All Petersburg in 1913” there were several Persian stores, or stores where the Persian goods were sold. For instance, there was a large “Warehouse of the Persian Carpets” owned by Y. Khan-Pir in St. Petersburg (Ertelev St., 6): “carpets, rugs, blankets; carpet repairing, totally anew, by the special materials from Persia; carpet storage, protecting from moth”. There was also a special carpet shop “Teheran” owned by Karapet Jarakiants (Karavannaia St., 2). Native of the Central Asia Haji Isa-Muhammadov had his own “Bukharian Store” (Nevskii Ave., 72, “The Passage”: store 46). He was selling Persian, Bukharian and Turkoman carpets. Persian merchants also had stores on the St. Petersburg markets (Rynok, Bazar) and on the Russian trading centres modelled after the Persian caravanserais and known in Russia as “Gostinyi Dvor” (Guest Courtyard). The image of an enigmatic, but majestic and noble old Persian merchant was described by the Russian classical author Nikolai Gogol in his short novel “Portrait”.

There were many Persian representatives in St. Petersburg in 1913, such as Persian Insurance and Transport Society (Liteinyi Ave., 55), Discount and Loan Bank of Persia (Ekaterininskii Canal, 30-32), Persian Legation (Basseinaia St., 15), Consulate General of Persia (Nikolaievskaia St., 54). In 1910-1914 on the Kronwerk Ave. (Bld. 7), near the Peter-Paul Fortress (heart of St.Petersburg), with support of Bukharian emir and other Moslems, a new great mosque was erected. Its edifice became one of exotic buildings in the city. The St. Petersburg great mosque was modelled after the fameous Gur-Emir (Gur-e Amir) mosque and mausoleum in Samarqand of the 14th-century Mongol conqueror Timur, or Tamerlane (Timurlang). Its image was influenced by the nothern style: the facing was made from the grey Finnish granite. Symmetrical minarets, dome and entrance portal were decorated with blue ceramic tile and Koranic arabesques.

A great part of the graves in the historical Persian cemetery now are replaced by new and modern Tatar burials. From the old Persian burials only two preserved up to now. These are two graves of Persian merchants from Rasht (“tâjer-e Rashti”) with Arabic epitaphs on the black marble gravestones: the first one - of Haji Agha Muhammad (Hâji Âqâ Muhammad), who died 1843 (12 Jamadi-ul-awwal 1259); the second - of Agha Mirza Sadegh (Âqâ Mirzâ Sâdeq), who died in 1844 (10 Rabi-ul-awwal 1222 Hijri Shamsi, 1844 Sana Isawi). Presumably they were brothers, or father and son.

From more late Persian burials only one burial of the Persian prince Shafi-Khan preserved up to our days. His epitaph is as follows: “Major-general, Persian prince, Shafi-Khan. Born 19 April 1853, died 2 January 1909. From the son who is depressed of grief”. Near is buried also lieutenant-general Dudarov Temir-Bulatovich-Kazbekovich, who died in 1912.

From the burials of the Soviet period we found only one little grey marble gravestone of a Persian young woman named Sakineh Bozorg. She was killed in revolutionary Petrograd (St. Petersburg) in 1923. Her descendants as it seems lived in the city: “Here lies our dear mother, Sakineh Bozorg, born Mamed. She was killed on 6 March 1923 at the age of 37”, but the gravestone was laid more later.

Some historical gravestones are not preserved to our days: such as of state councellor Abedinov Mirza-Kazem-bek (1855-1912), a teacher of the Persian language at the Oriental courses in the Asian Department, and the grave of Nasyr (1785-1830), a dignitary from the khanate of Bukhara. The Sunnite part of the Muslim cemetery has the gravestones of such fameous personalities as titular counsellor Tantawi Sheikh-Muhammad-Ayad (1811-1861), a teacher of the Arabic language at the St. Petersburg University, and Mahmud-Ishan Khasani Afghani Hafiz Kalamulla, ascetic elder, who died in 1846.

At present the historical “Persian cemetery” (the Persian part of the Novo-Volkovskoie cemetery) like many other cemeteries in St. Petersburg needs special care and attention. Regretfully it can be recognized that the modern Persian community and Iranian visitors know nothing about this historical cemetery.

This brief article was published in Iran by Iran News Corporation, please see "Iran News" newspaper, Vol. VI, No. 1703, Monday, October 23, Tehran, 2000, p. 9.