Review of Some Travel Logs: IRAN THROUGH OTHERS’ EYES

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Mostafa Mostafazadeh 

During thousands of years, some people have been avidly trying to know about the life and customs of this nation. The mysteries of the Iranian plateau has attracted many researchers and swashbucklers from other lands, especially the West. Their logs can be divided into three major categories:

  • Texts written by historians and chronologists;
  • Travel logs compiled by globetrotters, politicians, and businesspeople; and
  • Research results by Orientalists as well as east and Iran studies institutes.

Of course, in some cases, travelers have been Orientalists, politicians, or ambassadors too. However, they have depicted subtle angles of our lifestyle, manners and other issues. Their viewpoints, however, have not been totally seamless and sometimes they have not been just in their conclusions.

Perhaps, the ancient great historian, Herodotus, was the first person to start writing about the Iranians. He has been the first Westerner to study Iranian culture and traditions to improve general viewpoints about Iran in his country. The Greeks considered Iranians as barbarians and that misunderstanding gave rise to bloody wars between the two nations. His book “Iran-Greek Wars” is perhaps the first book of history and has brought him the nickname, “Father of History”. Other people wrote on Iranians at that time, but most of them were not positive accounts. They included Xenophon, the Athenian historian, who preceded the final fall of the Persian Empire by 20 years, a Greek physician who served Iranian king, Xerxes, and a navy commander of Alexander the Great, who has written an account of pearl hunting in the Persian Gulf.

After Alexander conquered Iran, the Greek came to know more and more about the Iranians. After that, in the time of Seleucids and Parthian kings, the Silk Road gained an importance and was a conduit for information flow into Greece. Then scientific research in Europe became dormant until about 12th and 13th centuries AD.

Middle Ages

One of the first European globetrotters to visit Iran in Middle Ages was the Spanish Benjamin Todlaei who arrived here for trade in about the middle of the 12th century AD (sixth century AH). The great Venetian globetrotter of the 13th century AD (7th century AH), Marco Polo, arrived in Iran in 1271 (670 AH) from the east. He crossed such cities as Tabriz, Soltaniyeh, Saveh, Kashan, Yazd, and Kerman and has written a detailed account of geographical conditions as well as arts of Iran, including the Iranian gardens. Interestingly, he was the first European to inform the West that Mongols had invaded Iran.

After Marco Polo, many European travelers visited Iran including Odorico da Pordenone. He arrived in Iran in about 1316-1318 AD (716-718 AH) and was the first European who has talked about the Persepolis. Another important travel log about Iran was written by Gonzales Clavijo (1403 AD, 806 AH) who headed a delegation sent by Henry III to Tamerlane’s court in Samarkand. He crossed the cities of Khoi, Tabriz, Zanjan, Soltaniyeh, Tehran, Rey, Esfarayen, Neishabour, Mashhad, Tous, Semnan, Varamin, and Qazvin. He has written valuable things about people and customs of Iran in his travel log.

Travel logs remaining from the Middle Ages are mostly written by businesspeople who have mostly praised the Iranian architecture with no more accounts. On the whole the travel logs depicted Iran as a land of mystery to Europeans at that time.

Safavid Era

The Safavid rule as well as the social and economic stability and security created by Shah Abbas I, turned the Iranian capital city of Isfahan into a major trade and tourism hub of the world. During that time, many businesspeople from across the world went to Isfahan and lived there. Shah Abbas had turned the city into an international center for economic and cultural exchanges and accepted people from different nationalities.

There are many travel logs written at that time because the Iranians kings had close ties with the European counterparts. Their accounts are in most instances superior to those written by royal secretaries. Major travel logs written at that time belonged to Pietro Della Valle, Thomas Herbert, Jean Chardin, Engelbert Kaempfer, Adam Olearius, Tavernier and other people. Due to their importance, three of those travel logs will be explained in brief.

Della Valle Travel Log

Pietro Della Valle (1586 AD, 995 AH) was born in a noble family in Rome and studied law at Umoristi Academy of Rome where he graduated. After learning some eastern languages including Turkish and Persian, he sat out for the east. He called himself a pilgrim and lived for some years in Asia Minor, Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia. He married an Assyrian girl in Mesopotamia before setting off to Fars and Kerman. Della Valle started his journey to Iran in 1617 AD which coincided with the rule of Shah Abbas the Great.

He reached Isfahan through Qasr-e Shirin and Hamedan. Isfahan was being developed when Della Valle visited there and his account about the city is valuable. He maintained that when finished, the city would be more elegant than many big cities of that time, including Constantinople and Rome. After staying in Isfahan for 11 months for a meeting with Shah Abbas, Della Valle and his family went to Mazandaran through Kashan, the former being described as a “land of legends” by him. His account of Farah Abad, the second capital of Shah Abbas is also valuable. After meeting with Shah Abbas, he accompanied him to Ardebil in his war against Ottomans. He has described many cities on the way and has called Tehran as the city of plane trees.

Back in Isfahan, he lived in a house given to him by Shah Abbas for three years. In 1621, he left Isfahan for India and in the meantime, lived in Shiraz and Lar for two years. His wife died in Minab and he took the mummified body of his wife with him to Rome.

Della Valle visited Iran at a time that two major power centers, that is Shah Abbas and Pope, were trying to establish closer ties and make a united front against the Ottoman Turks. Della Valle’s accounts of the situation in Iran under Safavid rule as well as the court of Shah Abbas are meticulous and trustworthy. For the first time, he introduced Europeans to cuneiform and took a lot of precious manuscripts of Persian books to Europe most of which are still being kept at Vatican Museum. In addition, he has written a small article about Shah Abbas.

Travel log of Della Valle has been translated into various European languages and published in various cities of Europe. The book was published five times in Venice during 17th century AD and was translated into and published in French, English, Dutch, and German during the same century.

Herbert’s Travel Log

Thomas Herbert was born in England in the first decade of the 17th century AD (1038 AH). He visited Iran through Persian Gulf and Bandar Abbas heading a British delegation and went to Lar through Shiraz. He has called Shiraz the most beautiful city in Asia and the second biggest city of Iran. After living in Shiraz for a month, he went to Isfahan through Persepolis and three weeks after arriving in Isfahan, he headed north to meet with Shah Abbas. Herbert has written an account on the road which took him to north Iran, saying, “More than half of the night, we were riding over a cobblestoned path which was so wide that 10 horsemen could ride on it at the same time.” He was also amazed at attractions of Ashraf City and its gardens. He then returned to Isfahan before a trip to Baghdad and India.

Although young when visiting Iran, Herbert proves to have been very knowledgeable. He was neither a merchant, nor a politician and only embarked on the trip due to his curiosity. He was a professional writer too. He has focused on social and economic aspects of Iran, cities, gardens, as well as such scientific fields as geography, history and archeology. He has even talked about taming wild animals.
Herbert’s travel log published in many European languages in the 17th century and thereafter, presents a documentary picture of Iran at his time. Famous pictures drawn in his book are those of Shah Abbas, garments of various social classes in Iran, the cover of the Iranian women and clothes worn by various Iranian peoples. Also, the oldest picture of Naqsh-e Jahan Square, which may be considered unique, can be found in his book.

Chardin Travel Log

Jean Chardin was born to a wealthy family in Paris. To continue his father’s trade in precious stones, he traveled east for the first time when he was still 20. He arrived in Iran in 1665 AD (1074 AH) through Istanbul and Asia Minor and stayed in Isfahan for 18 months. After leaving Iran through Bandar Abbas he returned to Iran two years later and went to Isfahan. In Isfahan, he was known as “royal merchant” or “goldsmith of the king court”. Chardin visited Iran for the third time in 1671 AD (1082 AH). Back in England after his 10-year journey (four years of which was in Iran) he was knighted by the king of England and became minister a few years later.

Chardin visited Iran in different phases of Safavid rule. It was a golden time when many European representatives had gathered in Isfahan, where the wealthiest world merchants met. Chardin marked the acme of a process which started with Stephan Kakash, continued by Pietro Della Valle, Thomas Herbert and Adam Olearius, and ended in him as one of the most intelligent of those globetrotters. No other European has introduced Iran, especially the Safavid Iran, to Western countries.

Chardin’s travel log is the most exhaustive and the best travel log of the 17th century Europe.

The book is a valuable source for studying the Safavid era from various aspects. He was an educated person who constantly increased his knowledge by reading various books. He had good command of Turkish and Persian languages and wrote in them. Chardin is painstaking and exemplar in his impartial and objective judgments. Most of what was written in Chardin’s travel log was confirmed by most travel logs which were written later and researchers of our time still use his book as a good source for study.

In addition to details about Iranian cities, peoples and their traditions, Chardin’s travel log contains valuable pictures some of which are really unique documents about history and culture of this country. An example is the picture he has given of Tabriz city, which is the sole picture of the city before the 19th century. Another example is a picture of the way Iranians used to sit, that is, with their legs crossed.


More trips were made to Iran by Western globetrotters, traders, politicians and Orientalists under Qajar rule. However, this time Tehran was the capital city and a center for modernity. Not all travel logs about Iran have been written by Westerners. An example is the travel log written by the first Japanese ambassador to Iran who arrived here in later years of the 13th century AH. Comparing travel logs written by foreigners who visited Iran with travel logs written by Iranians visiting Europe, and attention to points which took the attention of either of the two groups will have positive outcomes which have been largely ignored thus far.


  • Illustrated Documents of Europeans on Iran
  • Tavernier Travel Log
  • Chardin Travel Log
  • Della Valle Travel Log
  • Clavijo Travel Log
  • Marco Polo Travel Log
  • Thomas Herbert Travel Log
  • Nematollah Fazeli Doctori – personal website
  • Mohammad Reza Javadi Yeganeh – personal website
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