Travelogues as Historical References

  August 17, 2021   Read time 3 min
Travelogues as Historical References
The travelogues serve as a valuable source on the history of Iran (called Persia up to 1935) during the rule of the Qajar dynasty (1797– 1925). It is particularly important to collect information on that period because until recently it has not been studied and has been misunderstood.

It was considered a relatively dull period of stagnation and weakness hardly worthy of serious study, somewhat reminiscent of the way the Middle Ages, the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance, was perceived till recently by scholars of European history. The Qajars were indeed dominated by the overwhelming incursions of Russian and British colonialism but they were able to preserve the formal independence and integrity of the country (although they lost some territories to Russia). It was also during this period, at the beginning of the twentieth century, that the first Iranian constitution was adopted, the first parliament created, and modernization began. By now, the Qajar period has acquired scholarly recognition – long overdue – as an era in which significant social, political, economic and cultural changes took place. Since this rediscovery of Qajar history has occurred only in the past three or four decades, there are still many gaps to be filled. This work tries to fill one of them by introducing a new unique primary source on the history of Qajar Iran.

So far, there have been two main groups of sources available – Persian and British – with the latter including some travelogues. As usually happens with primary sources, however, like the Russian travelogues, they are biased or one-sided. It stands to reason, therefore, that only a combination of different sources can help historians assemble a reasonably complete picture of the past. The main value of the Russian travelogues introduced in this book is that they offer a fresh perspective, even if a prejudiced one, on the history of Qajar Iran. The message delivered by the travelers is unique in the sense that it has been recorded by eyewitnesses to the events and by participants in them. They help to reconstruct the social history of ordinary people as opposed to the history of rulers and heroes – adding Rashomon-like testimonials to the puzzle that is Qajar Iran.

The travelogues were written by a somewhat homogeneous group. In spite of a variety of forms, goals and degrees of reliability, they share many common features in the selection of the material and the way it is presented. Therefore, they can be examined as an integral body of information on Iran and its relations with the Russian and British Empires. Some of them are exceptionally well written and contain vivid descriptions, charming details and unique observations, while others are dull and full of self-glorification. For this book, the most representative authors and passages have been selected in order to keep a balance between generic and idiosyncratic features.

Most of the travelogues were written in the last quarter of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the next largest category dating back to the 1850s and 1860s. There are just a few accounts produced in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was during the nineteenth century that Russia began losing its prestige and influence in Europe and had to shift the direction of its imperial ambitions to the East. One of its culminating successes there was the defeat of Iran in two wars (in 1801–13 and 1826–28) with subsequent territorial gains. The pacification of the Caucasus was over by the early 1860s and Central Asian territories were being brought under Russian control throughout the second half of the century. By then, Russia had become particularly interested in northern and northeastern Iran and, as a result, many Russian were sent there on various government missions. The authors of the travelogues were among them: with one or two exceptions, each traveler was charged with a military or diplomatic task and was supposed to report back.

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