It's a mind-blowing and inspiring picture, perhaps taken in the late 1960's or early 1970's judging from the quality of the photograph, with a Iranian sage in his crude laboratory, dressed in traditional Persian garbs, holding an old style Alembic against his hand, which is taking heat from a coal fed Athanor and distilling some golden liquid into a flask. Notice especially the attitude of the alchemist, his affection and love for the contents in the receiving flask. He's like a father affectionately taking care and sustaining his children. It's really inspiring to watch.
This picture of the Iranian alchemist is timeless in its atmosphere and is very much reminiscent of this following modern painting of 1893, taken from Adam McLeans web page which depicts three Persian alchemists at work.
I haven't found anything anywhere though which clarifies this matter any further on the web besides this reference in Neil Powell's book. Unfortunately he doesn't expound upon it in his text; only shows this photograph. Besides the so called "modern" painting on MacLeans web page, I haven't seen anything at all regarding this subject anywhere else.
This aside, in my world it seems as the old and traditional alchemical tradition newer has died out in Iran. It would be a fascinating project to seek out an old Persian master alchemist as a teacher. I suspect that the oral tradition which follows with this kind of living tradition and unbroken chain of master alchemists back to Geber or Jabir ibn Hayyan (c. 721–c. 815) must be substantial.
Regarding Geber himself, the facts are conflicting about his true origin. Some sources claim Arabian ancestry, some others Persian. He was in fact born in Tus, Khorasan, in Iran. He spent most of his time however operating in Kufa, Iraq, where he studied the Royal Art. Thus his works were written in Arabic. Obviously there must have existed close ties between the alchemical traditions of Persia and Arabia, practiced under the auspices of Islam. Perhaps we may assume that this tradition has survived until today? This photograph seems to substantiate this assumption.
We must however consider the possibility of an European influence as some of the alchemical students of the Middle East actually has received their learning from modern sources in Europe, for example teachers as Jean Dubuis who founded Le Philosophes du Nature (LPN) in 1979. Dubuis wrote a full corresponcende course in French which covered both spagery and mineral alchemy, i.e. the Minor and Major Opus. This material eventually found its way to the Middle East through Marocco attracting esoteric minded Arabs which, according to a source, would dress in traditional clothing and use old style and locally manufactured Alembics in their venture to apply the teachings of Dubuis and Frater Albertus.
Obvioulsy we cannot be sure about the existence of a old and authentic lineage back to Geber. But it seems reasonable for me that the old Persian tradition (as represented by the photograph and the painting) has survived until today in Iran rather than being imported from Europe, which seems a bit forced and far fetched in my ears. It seems more unlikely that the alchemical tradition died out after the crusades, was taken to Europe in the aftermath of the crusades, and then several centuries later was exported back to its source of origin (i.e. middle east) during the 20th Century.
The painting from the 19th Century alludes to a living tradition in Iran at the turn of the Century. The photo in the book we know is taken before LPN even existed or prior to the wide dissemination of the works of Frater Albertus or Manfred Junius, i.e. before the times of open teachings as we are accustomed to today in the West.
Looking at the painting and photograph you will notice the crude devices and Alembics, more likely manufactured at local work shops. Occams Razor suggest a living and continuous tradition in Iran. But of course one has to consider the possibility of this tradition succumbing to religious persecution. On the other hand, if Sufism has survived religious persecution, why shouldn't the Hermetic tradition?
Posing some questions about this matter on the Rubellus Petrinus Alchemist Group I came across this interesting information from someone calling himself Juan:
The interest in alchemy never died out in the Muslim world. Chemistry, as understood by 18th century Europeans, was introduced in the Islamic world around the 19th century. In the 20th century there still were people making alchemical experiments in the Islamic world. Holmyard reported that he was invited to a subterranean alchemical laboratory in Morocco (see Holmyard's "Alchemy", page 104 of the Dover edition.) In the 1920s Holmyard even invited a Muslim alchemist to put some of his claims and ideas to the test at Cliftons College's laboratories.
It's pretty obvious that interest in alchemy among Muslims has been quite independent from Western Europe, and it's based on their much older involvement with the subject (Christian Western Europe became acquainted with alchemy around the 12th century AD, and due to translations of Arabic texts; the Muslims were acquainted with the subject since the 8th century AD, when they started translating Alexandrian and Byzantine alchemical texts into Arabic.) And unlike most of us, literate people from those parts of the world who are interested in alchemy can still read the old texts in Arabic or Persian, without any need of translation (these languages have changed little since those times, and unlike Latin they are not "dead" languages, but still spoken and read by millions of people.)
John Hillelson AgencyRegarding that Iranian Alembic in the photograph there's to be found a really interesting reference to it in Instruments and Experimentation in the History of Chemistry, edited by Frederic L. Holmes and Trevor H. Levere, M.I.T., 2000. On page 11, in the chapter called The Archaeology of Chemistry, it says:
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(...) One however, has excellent provenance (figure 1.4). It was collected in 1975, along with a curcubit from the alchemist Azad Manesh, who was operating at the time in Isfahan, Iran. When it was acquired, the curcurbit was wrapped in clay, but this fell off when the vessel was en route to London. The technique of surrounding vessels of inferior-quality glass with clay to prevent them cracking druing heating is mentioned in many texts. No fundamental difference distinguishes the design of this Isfahan apparatus from that which could date from a millenium earlier.
So, this subject of Persian alchemist is still shrouded in a mist of mystery. We still don't know much and lack any hard evidence besides the photograph and painting. Thus all we have is circumstantial evidence. Therefore I am calling out there for any help which can enlighten us all on this highly fascinating and interesting subject.
Not that I am saying that any old and Persian or Arabic tradition would turn out to be more valuable compared to the modern European Hermetic tradition, but I am sure it would be different. If the old Persian and Arabian Hermetic tradition actually has survived, the chances are high it may have retained its older precepts and practices. This makes it highly interesting, as well as our modern alchemical currents of Hermetic Alchemy in Europe. I believe that the latter has undergone some development and christianisation, which makes it somewhat different compared to the old Hermetic tradition. If the old Persian lineage has survived, I believe the chances are greater that it has retained its pre-Christian form, hence more "true" to its Hermetic sources. On the other hand, it may of course have become "islamatized" or blended with Sufism, etc. Still, it would make an interesting comparative study.
In Europe the outer alchemical paths of the Black and Red Dragons, especially the latter, has undergone a "translation" within a Christian cultural context. I'm not saying that this is wrong, on the contrary as it speaks deeply to my Christian heart. I highly value the western paths of Antimony and Cinnabar, the dry and humid ways respectively. What I am saying is that it is extremely interesting, at least for me, to compare the Christian-Hermetic tradition with the Islamic-Hermetic, just to be able to see what has been developed and added in Europe since the crusades.
One also has to remember that there is a difference between alchemy and Hermetic Alchemy in Europe. Most of the public alchemy that we know of today, if I am not mistaken, is a modern reconstruction since the early 20th Century. Even though I value highly modern translators of the hermetic tradition, like Frater Albertus, Manfred Junius and Jean Dubuis, we have to understand that it is their own personal rendition. There has though existed true Alchemical Masters with an unbroken line as valid as the supposed Iranian alchemical sages. But there is very, very few of us that can get a connection with the old Hermetic Alchemical tradition of Europe. If there existed Persian alchemists which openly practiced the Royal Art, this could be an interesting way of learning it through the traditional oral way (i.e. between master and apprentice) instead of through correspondence courses and books.
But I suspect that it must have become more difficult to practice alchemy openly after the Iranian revolution. Thus we have to consider all those difficulties posed by the regime that anyone will encounter in a search for these survived alchemists in Iran. And even if a reasercher would finally find one of them, there is also the question of convincing him to teach you anything. There is also the question of cultural differences, nationality and language barriers wich will pose a great hindrance on a quest of this magnitude.
I am fully aware that all this sounds like some novel from Paul Coelho. I also admit that I am a incurable romanticist, sometimes a naive one at that. And also that I have a soft spot for quests. Though people (including occultists) have ventured on adventures into distant countries on lesser grounds than this. Just look at the life stories Aleister Crowley and Allan Bennet.
Besides, I believe it has a general significance if it turns out that there actually has survived an old tradition in Iran. Perhaps it is something for the younger tradition to consider, as I have a family to raise which makes this kind of project unrealisable for the next 20 years or so, and then I'm probably to old.
I am considering something of a anthropological research, i.e. meeting people in the flesh as opposed of reading about historical personages in books. Perhaps a documentary, or a book, could come out of this. But then again, I don't know if I am the man for this project. But I like to think about it, and gladly share my dreams with you on this blog.