Travelogues from times long since passed are treasure troves of information, providing rare insight into the culture and traditions of people through unfiltered eyes of non-natives.
Nestled between the continents of Asia, Africa, and Europe, Iran enjoyed a reputation as a hotspot for traders and a must-see destination for explorers traveling from far ends of the Earth. Being a major country on the Silk Road didn’t hurt either.
From Herodotus to Valle, some of history’s most renowned explorers traveled to Persia and wrote firsthand accounts of their encounters.
Due to a lack of space and in attempt to avoid writing a tediously long article, we have selected only four explorers who visited old Iran in different eras.
- The Bond Between Yalda and Christmas! What Mythology Says?
- Let There Be Light – a Tale of Zoroastrianism and Quantum Physics
- Lorraine Pobel presented her book titled ”Une voyageuse en Iran” to PersiaPort
Herodotus – The Achaemenid Empire
Famed Greek historian wrote extensively about Persia and the battle fought between the Achaemenid Empire and the Greek city-states.
In Book I of his book Histories, Herodotus wrote about Persian customs he observed in Susa around 430 BCE. Many of his observations still ring true, such as Iranians’ love of birthdays, fascination with foreign trends, and acquisition of customs deemed “luxurious”.
“There is no nation which so readily adopts foreign customs as the Persians,” he wrote.
Herodotus also noted Persians’ disdain for lying: “They hold it unlawful to talk of anything which it is unlawful to do. The most disgraceful thing in the world, they think, is to tell a lie.”
Despite what Herodotus had to say about Persia, his observations have to be taken with a grain of salt because there are some who allege his writings were not so much as personal observations but rather retelling of other people’s stories.
Marco Polo – The Ilkhanate
Possibly the most well-known explorer in history, Marco Polo traveled through Iran on his way to and from China in the mid- to late 13th century.
Traveling on the Silk Road, Polo passed through Tabriz, Yazd and Kerman. He also journeyed across the Persian Gulf coast in southern Iran.
The Italian explorer visited Iran during the reign of the Ilkhanate, a division of the Mongol Empire, which ruled most of Asia at the time.
The emergence of a unified Mongol Empire helped restore calm in Iran, propelling the country as a major trade hub on the Silk Road, which did not go unnoticed by Polo, who described Tabriz – or Tauris, as it was known back then – as a well located city which received goods from India, Baghdad, Mosul, and Hormuz.
From Tabriz, Polo moved south toward Yazd – or Yasdi, as he referred to it in The Travels of Marco Polo. “It is a good and noble city, and has a great amount of trade,” he wrote.
On his way to Kerman, which he said took “seven marches”, Polo came across vast palm groves which he said provided merchants passing through an opportunity for hunting birds.
Kerman impressed him the most, as it was the seat of nobility at the time. He was particularly taken by the local handicrafts.
“The ladies of the country and their daughters also produce exquisite needlework in the embroidery of silk stuffs in different colors, with figures of beasts and birds, trees and flowers, and a variety of other patterns,” he wrote of Kerman.
Polo’s final destination in Iran was Hormos (modern day Hormuz), a fortified port in southern Iran on the coast of the Persian Gulf. He noted that merchant ships from India brought all sorts of goods from the East, but what stole his attention was the local wine: “…They make a wine of dates mixed with spices, which is very good.”
Perhaps, the most striking feature of ancient Persia that piqued Polo’s interest was the natural baths on the Hormos – Kerman route, which he felt the need to broach at the very end of his account of Persia in his book.
“The baths that I mentioned have excellent virtues; they cure the itch and several other diseases,” he claimed.
Pietro Della Valle – The Safavid Dynasty
Roughly four centuries after Polo traveled to Persia, another Italian by the name Pietro Della Valle made set out for the Middle Eastern country at a peculiar time in Persia’s history.
Accompanied by his wife, Valle joined Shah Abbas I of the Safavid dynasty in his war campaign against the Ottomans, which Persia ultimately won.
Valle was one of many European travelers that visited Persia during the reign of the Safavids, who ruled Iran from 1501 to 1736.
He stayed in Isfahan, the seat of power at the time, and was treated as a valued guest in Shah Abbas’ court for most of his six-year stint in Persia, during which time his wife passed away. It is said that he mummified her remains and took her on his travels until he returned to Rome, where he buried her.
Valle documented his time in Iran in Travels in Persia, a two-volume book published posthumously by his sons in 1658.
Iranian historians praise Valle for not only his detailed description of various sites, particularly Persepolis, in Iran, but also his intelligence. In his book, Valle, who was ostensibly oblivious to Persia’s history and its languages, mentions that the scripts on Persepolis’ walls were written from left to right, unlike the region’s Islamic scripts.
Some Iranian sources also credit him with taking the first Persian cat to the Western world.
Jane Dieulafoy – The Qajar era
Pioneering French archeologist Jane Dieulafoy broke down barriers as she traveled to Persia not once, but twice.
Jane along with her husband, the explorer Marcel Dieulafoy, made two trips to Persia in the 1880s during the reign of the Qajar dynasty (1785 – 1925) — first as a self-described “collaborator” to her husband and second as the head of an archaeological expedition to Susa in Khuzestan Province.
During the Dieulafoy’s first trip they were so enthralled by Persia and its people that they vowed to return, and so they did.
Jane published the account of her journey to and around Persia in Le Tour du Mond, in which she described customs and traditions she encountered. More detailed descriptions of Persian culture were published separately. Of course, not everything in her writings was entirely accurate.
Jane and Marcel helped pave the way for European archeologists to study Iranian sites and dig up valuable artifacts, many of which are kept in renowned museums worldwide. Furthermore, her works include some of the oldest photos of Iranian people and sites, all taken by her on her trips.
These are but four adventurers who traveled to Persia and wrote detailed accounts of their travels. Many more explorers, such as French traveler Jean Chardin (knighted as Sir John Chardin) and British explorer Sir Thomas Herbert, have written books on Iran. Funnily enough, both Chardin and Herbert’s books have the same title as Valle’s book: Travels in Persia.
Have you read travelogues by other explorers? What do you think of their portrayal of ancient Persia? Let us know in the comments below.