On the Edge: Eastern Khurasan in the Perception of Qajar Officials

It is a known fact that Persian accounts of travels within Iran and to the neighboring Muslim countries were solicited by the Qajar court: they served to shape and enhance official concepts of history and topography. Yet, opinions regarding the function of nineteenth-century travelogues within imperial agendas differ considerably. Was their production driven by ideas of inclusion and reclamation or were they meant to project and cement boundaries? Little attention has hitherto been paid to the analysis of authorial strategies and the context of literary production. This paper explores the ways in which Qajar envoys, military officers and officials portrayed the lands and people north and east of Astarabad and Mashhad. Based on a reading of Muhammad ‘Alī Khan Ghafur’s Ruznama-i safar-i Khvarazm (1840s), Riza Quli Khan Hidayat’s Sifaratnama-i Khvarazm (after 1857), Isma’il Mir Panja’s Ruznama-i mamduha-ye Khvarazm va Khivaq (1862) and Arfa’ al-Daula’s Khatirat (1936/37), I will attempt to identify the authors’ discursive strategies. The texts at hand offer parallel formulations of the Iranian space. The projection of an expansive “Ur”-terrain coincides with the reinvention of Iran as a modern, narrowly bounded entity. These two levels of argumentation will be analyzed within the framework of three thematic clusters. First, observations on geography in general and the terrain in particular highlight strategic considerations on the relationship between the Qajar domain and its eastern neighbors. Of special interest is the use of geographical terminology, with its connotations of inclusion and exclusion. Secondly, encounters and exchanges with the Turkmens and local elites bring regional relationships into focus and thus document the problem of Iranian statehood, its self-definition and the political claims arising therefrom. The third field concerns the uses of the past: References to historical precedents casting Iran as a timeless and stable entity provide a conceptual framework for Qajar activities in the region and offer an effective counter-narrative to the remoteness and forlornness the travelers experience on their missions.


Christine Noelle-Karimi
Austrian Academy of Sciences