Kautilya, a teacher at the ancient University of Taxila (300 BC) and author of the Arthashastra — a survival guide for statesmen — describes the role of an ambassador: he must be of noble birth, above suspicion, well-read, well-informed and eloquent. He must have an impressive personality, feel no fear and, even if under threat, must faithfully deliver the message of his king.
The ambassador’s role, according to Kautilya, was to maintain treaties, issue ultimatums, gain friends, intrigue, sow dissension, gather information and befriend the enemy’s officers. He should make military assessments of the country he was in, its strengths and weaknesses, and establish a spy network disguised as ascetics, merchants, physicians and heretics. He should note any intrigues, loyalties and disloyalties amongst the people, gather information by observing the talk of beggars and the intoxicated, or at places of pilgrimage and temples, and by deciphering paintings and writings. The emissary must unite the disunited, disunite the united and create dissension in the enemy’s camp.
While later descriptions are not in such chilling detail, the role of the ambassador has not changed. The Turkic Khanate of Central Asia from the 9-13 AD, whose cultural influence spread both east and west, presents a more idealised role for an ambassador. He must be handsome, neat and trim, soft-spoken and honey-tongued. He should be valiant and high-minded, intelligent and well-educated, proficient in foreign languages and scripts, well versed in poetry and science, archery and hunting, polo and chess, have good manners and refrain from intoxicating drinks.
Hermes, the messenger of the Greek Olympian gods, is considered the father of all ambassadors. He was the herald of the gods of Mount Olympus, conveying messages between the gods, the underworld and to mortals.
In ancient times, the ambassador, a sole representative of his ruler, with a handful of staff and servants, undertook long and arduous journeys through dangerous lands, unsure of the reception he would receive. It became essential to establish rules of conduct to protect the emissary — in today’s terms, diplomatic immunity. The earliest example of rules for protection were applied to Wen Amun, emissary of the Pharaoh Ramesses XI around 1000 BC. Disregarding this rule could have consequences — the Mongols invaded and destroyed the Khwarezmid Empire after their ambassadors were mistreated.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) sent and received envoys, and strictly forbade harming them. Ambassadors were an important aspect of the expansion of Islam. The Quran recounts that Bilquis, Queen of Sheba, sent a delegation bearing gifts to Hazrat Sulaiman, who saw it as an insult and an intention to bribe him, and sent back the gifts and the delegation. This creates a precedent for the expulsion of a diplomat, while preserving his legal immunity.
The Arabic word for ambassador is safeer, one who arbitrates peace between nations from the root word safr, to lift off a veil and make evident. The role of the safeer is to bring out what is in both the proponents’ hearts and clear up the matter.
This noble intention does not preclude the subtle exchange of insults, of which an interesting example is the story of an Ottoman Sultan who ran out of funds to complete a masjid. His rival, the Shah of Persia, sent rubies and emeralds to sneer at his predicament. The Ottoman Sultan had them ground up and mixed in the mortar.
As the European Age of Discovery got underway, delegations to distant lands gained prominence. While most were intended as cultural encounters and to make nations understand one another, there was also a dark side of deception and political expansion. The Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortez, posed as an ambassador but, in reality, intended the destruction of the Aztec Empire.
Sir Thomas Roe worked tirelessly in the court of Emperor Jahangir, paving the way for the establishment of the East India Company. The Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta was pressurised by Muhammad Tughlaq to be his ambassador to China, but it took him over two years of dangerous adventures before he arrived in Beijing.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s painting ‘The Ambassadors’ (1553) is full of visual symbols — navigational instruments, a globe, an Ottoman carpet, a book of mathematics — that suggest the political, mercantilist, colonial, scientific and religious matters that occupied Renaissance Europe, which an ambassador would have to be knowledgeable about.
By the 17th century, the ambassador became a permanent presence in countries. In 1930, the Russian Alexandra Killontai became the world’s first female ambassador. Rana Liaquat Ali Khan became Pakistan’s first female ambassador in 1954.
Modern diplomacy is governed by the need for balance of power, as the world’s superpowers compete with each other for global influence. The role of the meeting of nations has been entrusted to cultural ambassadors in the arts, cinema, sports or goodwill ambassadors appointed by the United Nations. In the age of global travel, travellers become ambassadors for their country, religion or culture, challenging or reinforcing stereotypes.
Durriya Kazi is a Karachi-based artist.
She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 15th, 2022