Friends and Enemies: Wormwood Khan

In contrast, Babur harbored a lifelong grudge against his enemies, the Uzbeks, who had ousted him from his ancestral lands. He describes the Uzbek leader “Wormwood” Khan as a crude, vain man who writes pretentious poetry. This caricatured image of an Uzbek ruler, attributed to early sixteenth-century Iran, demonstrates similar sentiments. Greedily clutching a flask while playing a bowed instrument, the figure has heavy features and a bushy beard. But much like the young man, these features are generic traits rather than a study from life.

Caricature of Ubaydallah Khan
Attributed to Aqa Mirak
Iran, possibly Tabriz, ca. 1535
Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper
Lent by The Art and History Collection

In the words of Babur…

Read Babur’s scathing description of his enemy Wormwood Khan:

“When Wormwood Khan took Herat, he maltreated the princes’ wives and children. Not only with them but also with all the people, even rustics and insignificant little people, he left behind a bad name for his love of this fleeting world. First among his improper deeds in Herat was that for the sake of this filthy world he turned over Khadija Begim to Shah Mansur Bakshï’s wife for safekeeping and let her be tormented in all sorts of ways. He had the Moghul Abdul-Wahhab hold a saintly person like Shaykh Puran prisoner, and each of Shaykh Puran’s sons was handed to a different person. All the poets and literati were put in Mulla Banna’I’s charge. In this connection the following occasional piece became famous among the wits of Khurasan:

‘Except for Abdullah the donkey’s prick no poet today has seen the face of gold. / Banna’I craves gold from poets: perhaps he will get the donkey’s prick.’

As soon as Wormwood Khan seized Herat he married Muzaffar Mirza’s wife, Khanzada Khanïm, without waiting for the prescribed interval to elapse. His illiteracy notwithstanding, [Wormwood Khan] presumed to give lessons in Koranic interpretation to Qazi Ikhtiyar and Muhammad Mir Yusuf, who were among Herat’s renowned and talented mullas. To the calligraphy of Sultan-Ali Mashhadi and the painting of Bihzad he took his pen and made corrections. Moreover, every few days he would compose insipid poetry and have it recited from the pulpit and hung in the marketplace to receive accolades from the populace. He rose with dawn and never neglected the five daily prayers, and knew how to recite the Koran well, but he nonetheless said and did a multitude of stupid, imbecilic, audacious, and heathenish things.”

Thackston, Wheeler M., trans. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor. New York: Oxford University Press in association with Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, 1996. 249.