Historiographical Relevance of Travelogues

  January 04, 2022   Read time 4 min
Historiographical Relevance of Travelogues
Among the Russian travelogues dealing with diplomacy, there are several of special interest. These include the accounts of the diplomatic missions sent to Iran between the two Russo-Iranian wars.

The missions of General Aleksei Ermolov in 1817, described in the previous chapter, and of Prince Menshikov in 1826 were sent to Iran in order to negotiate the final terms of the Treaty of Gulistan (1813). Ermolov refused to return any of the newly obtained territories to Iran and left a detailed account of his embassy’s operations. In 1826, a Russian Mission led by Major-General Prince A. Menshikov was sent to Iran in order to settle the dispute between the two countries concerning their borders. The mission was unsuccessful because it reached Iran and engaged in negotiations with ‘Abbas Mirza and Fath ‘Ali Shah on the eve of the second war between Iran and Russia (1826–28). The ongoing negotiations and the difficult situation of the Mission after the war started are described in the travel account by Lieutenant-General Fedor Bartolomei, who was attached to the Mission. Simultaneously with the Menshikov Mission, Lieutenant Noskov went to Iran bringing the famous crystal bed, a gift from the Russian Emperor Nicholas I to Fath ‘Ali Shah. He describes the troubled journey of his group in the hostile atmosphere of Iran.

The story of the famous crystal bed is amazing in itself and is referred to in several Russian travelogues.46 The bed was made at a glass factory in St. Petersburg; the inhabitants of the city admired it.47 A picture of the crystal bed with several fountains around it is included in Noskov’s account and he tells how he delivered it to Tehran and personally assembled it in accordance with the drawings and notes given to him in St. Petersburg, the two masters sent to accompany him to Iran having died along the way. “‘Ali Shah Mirza [son of Fath ‘Ali Shah], who was present several times during the assembly of the bed, was amazed at the perfection of the work and also at its safe delivery from such a remote place.” The chief artisans of the Shah’s court were ordered to be present in order to learn the skill of assembling and disassembling the bed. The bed was placed in the Gulistan Palace in a private hall of the Shah, across from the room “where the crystal pool and the other objects sent to the Shah by the Russian Court in 1817 and 1819 were placed.” Fath ‘Ali Shah was delighted and is reported to have said: “This really magnificent thing is the best decoration of my palace; I am sure that even the Chinese Shah does not possess such a rarity.”

Baron Fedor Korf tells the following anecdote about the subsequent events involving the bed: Fath ‘Ali Shah could not look enough at his gorgeous bed, and all his courtiers were holding their fingers in their mouths in amazement as they looked at it. Persian poets were writing odes to that bed; in Tehran everybody was talking about the crystal bed which “shines like one thousand and one suns.” Meanwhile, the war against Russia had started. Erevan and Nakhichevan were taken [by the Russians]. The Russians were approaching Tabriz. One morning, the Shah, upon returning from his walk, was passing by the hall where the gifts of the Russian Emperor were placed. The beauty of the bed enticed the Sanctuary of the World [the Shah]; in spite of the war, he desired to lie on it. He did so. Not more than fifteen minutes after the “Shadow of Allah” lay down and let his tired limbs rest, a chapar (messenger) arrived from Tabriz with the news that the major cities of Azerbaijan and the residence of the Crown Prince had been seized by the Russians. The fury of the Shah when he learned the news had no limits. Being superstitious, he blamed the loss of Tabriz on the unfaithful bed, on which he had lain for the first time that very day. He immediately ordered it to be disassembled, put into the boxes in which it had been brought and placed in the basement. The Shah’s servants were trying so hard to obey his order as quickly as possible that in their hurry they broke many parts. Since then, nobody has seen the famous bed, and probably nobody will ever see it again.

Other interesting travelogues written by diplomats are the accounts of two Russian Ministers Plenipotentiary who served in Iran in succession: Count Ivan Simonich (1832–38)50 and Alexander Diugamel’ (1838–41).51 Simonich gives a detailed account of his relationship with the Iranian court of Muhammad Shah. He emphasizes his own importance and his influence on Iranian government affairs, as well as his triumph over his British rivals. Simonich also makes no secret of his support for the Iranian army in the war for Herat in 1837–38, which led to the confrontation of Iran and Russia with Britain.

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