Historical Narratives and Travelogues

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals.


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While Safavid Persia (1501-1736) was flooded with Early Modern European travelers whose travel accounts have survived to this day, travel accounts by Persians/Iranians to Early Modern Europe (1400-1700) seem not to have been produced. Such an allegedly unilateral European interest in the Other has led many Western commentators, past and the present, to conclude that Safavid Iranians were perhaps not as "curious" about or keen on travelling as their European counterparts. While many Early Modern European travelers like Chardin have regarded the Safavids as people without the urge to travel and Thomas Herbert is struck by ability of the Persians to sit still, there do exist a number of voluminous narratives by Safavid travelers to Mecca, India, China and other 'Eastern' lands. The urge to travel 'East', therefore, was not solely a European prerogative. In this paper, I will analyze Iranian travel customs as they emerge in the travel accounts of Safavid travelers in order to portray the complex concept of travelling and its significance for the Iranian Safavid worldview.

Safavid narratives provide instances of Iranian travel rituals and customs that have survived and are even practiced to this day in Iran. Centering my paper on the travel narrative of an early 18th century Isfehani female traveler-poet who ventures on a pilgrimage to Mecca, in the context of other contemporary Safavid travel narratives, I intend follow both Said and Foucault in order to identify a discourse to analyze Iranian (Eastern) travel writing and how it informs/challenges the narratives by Western travelers to Iran.

As present academic studies mainly deal with the perceptions of Early Modern European travelers to Iran, this paper will contribute to the discourse of travel writing by revealing Safavid views of the West and by exposing the possible reasons underlying the bulk of Safavid travelers’ decision to travel East. I aim to achieve this through a Foucauldian analysis of domination and resistance within the Western and Eastern discourses of travel writing.

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In the conventional historical narrative of the Safavid dynasty, there were two periods of civil war – the first at the beginning of Shah Tahmasp's reign, from 1524 to 1534, and the second in the years following Tahmasp's death, from 1576 to 1590. Scholars attribute both conflicts to rivalry among the Qizilbash tribes who had brought the dynasty to power and who formed its main bulwark during the sixteenth century.

The notion of a civil war in the years 1524–34 is based on the work of Roger Savory, who first characterized this period as a civil war in his Ph.D. dissertation of 1958 and carried it through all his subsequent work. He argued that Shah Ismail attempted to marginalize Qizilbash power, and when he died the Qizilbash took advantage of Tahmasp's minority to reassert themselves. Savory further argued that because the Qizilbash were organized into tribes, they were jealous of each other's power and inevitably fell into conflict, resulting in the First Safavid Civil War. While the study of Safavid history has greatly expanded in recent years, modern scholars have largely neglected this early period of the dynasty and still often rely on Savory for their understanding of Tahmasp's reign.

Using the sixteenth-century Safavid chronicles, this paper shows that Savory's argument is unwarranted and there was in fact no First Safavid Civil War in the conventional sense. While there were two brief episodes of inter-tribal fighting, the ten-year period as a whole did not see continuous armed conflict among the tribes. For most of these years, the Qizilbash were united under the Safavid leadership in their fight against Uzbek and Ottoman invasion. Moreover, even in those cases where intertribal conflict occurred, it always involved one tribe or a subset of a tribe against all other tribes and the Safavid central authority put together, which suggests that these are better understood as isolated rebellions rather than elements of a wider war.

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This paper will examine and compare two works by the Qajar courtier, historian, and writer Mirza Hasan Khan E’temad os-Saltaneh, an important historian during the reign of Naser od-Din Shah (1848-96). Among E’temad os-Saltaneh’s many works are two books which deal with the same subject. That is, the prime ministers of Iran from the beginning of Qajar dynasty until the the reign of Naser od-Din Shah. The first, entitled Sadr ot-Tavarikh, is a historical account of all of the prime ministers from the time of Aqa Mohammad Khan until Mirza Ali Asghar Khan Atabak. The other, bearing the title The Rapture (Khalseh), deals with exactly the same subject. There are several important differences between them. The Sadr was an official history of the prime ministers of Iran. The Rapture is fictional, though it is set within a historical context, i.e. the return of Naser od-Din Shah and his entourage from their pilgrimage to the shrine cities in Iraq. A large part of its story takes place in a dream. Hence, the subtitle, Khābnāmeh (The Book of Sleep). The Sadr is straight forward in its accounts of the terms and lives of the prime ministers. The Rapture, however, is much more judgmental about their contributions, especially Mirza Hosayn Khan and Atabak. The Sadr represents an official history of the prime ministers. The Rapture was kept secret by its author, much like his famous Ruznāmeh. The Rapture has as its central query the cause of Iranian decline. For that, the bulk of the blame falls on Atabak, whose section takes up half of the book. Only three pages of the Sadr are devoted to Atabak. That also reflects E’temad os-Saltaneh’s personal animosity toward Atabak. A comparison of these two texts reveals much about the inside workings of Iranian politics during Naser od-Din Shah’s reign. It also reveals something about the politics of writing history and the use of fiction in 19th century Iranian political writings. Therefore, these two starkly different books by the same author and on the same subject reveal much not only about their author, but about many important individuals in 19th century Qajar Iran.

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This paper deals with the complex dynamics of social class and gender and how they affected women’s mobility and opportunities for action in Qajar society within private and public spheres. It also raises the question of concepts of space which will be approached by a focus on women on the road: How was private and public space perceived? Considering the travel narration, the matter of female authorship in the context of 19th-century Iran is important: Who had the authority to write and how was it obtained? In which “spaces” were women allowed to write? For which kind of audience did women write their texts – “private” or “public“ readership? Ultimately, how far did a female authored text transgress the border of public and private spaces – both regarding readership and the act of writing itself? These questions will be examined based on two Hajj-pilgrimage reports written by Qajar women: the first report is the account of Ḥāǧǧiye Ḫānum ʿAlaviyyeh Kermānī (1882), a woman from a royal provincial family in Kerman, with ties to the court in Tehran. The second case is that of the travel narrative of Sakīneh Sulṭān Vaqār ad-Douleh (1900), who was one of the wives of Nāṣer ad-Dīn Shāh.
Recent scholarship increasingly considers the diversity of Qajar women’s identities (along religion, ethnicity, age, social class etc.) and the ways how this defined women’s worlds. However, I suggest that important nuances within allegedly one and the same social group are still neglected. Revealing how these nuances are relevant in understanding women’s lives and particularly women’s modes of travelling will be the purpose of comparing the two travel accounts. Basic information such as the origin of the author/traveller, family and marriage ties, being part of networks, and living at the centre or the periphery provide important insight. It will be demonstrated, that these small differences of social status and the resulting differences in behaviour on the road affected the opportunities of action within the public and private sphere. Being on the road created a unique situation for women given the circumstances of mobility and physical space such as accommodation and means of transportation.