The nineteenth century witnessed a dramatic increase in the output of Persian travelogues. Along with the growing British and Russian intervention, the geographical span of the journeys widened, and Iranians began to record their travels to Europe. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of travelers still reported on familiar destinations, either within Iran or in the neighboring Muslim countries.
This project analyzes the impressions gathered by Iranian travelers among their Muslim neighbors and compares them to those of visitors from Central Asia, Afghanistan, and India. It is my contention that travelogues produced within the Persophone world in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries bear witness to the development of spatial, political and social demarcations that prefigure the break up of the vast Indo-Persian realm into national affiliations. The narrative issuing from individual perceptions yields important data for understanding the relationship between encounters abroad and the construction of (internal) spaces. The travelers’ observations, interactions and verbal exchanges are articulated within the meta-narrative of their time, while shaping it in return. The position assigned to the homeland within the regional setting further provides indications as to the nascent conception of the nation state.
On a certain level, travelogues may be read as repositories of data on local circumstances. But the focus of this project is on the travelers’ perceptions and projections of geographical, political and social entities. The analysis is geared to the travelers’ perspective and assesses the mode in which they order and communicate their experience: How do the actors position themselves in relation to the foreign environment, and how do they represent their fellows? Space is shaped by the claims and the discussions of the authors. The attributes they attach to unfamiliar settings are of crucial importance. By selecting noteworthy items and reporting them to their compatriots, they act in many ways as translators.
Borders are an important element in the construction of space. In nineteenth-century travelogues, their designation assumes an unprecedented importance. From these accounts, the present-day international borders become tangible, decades before they were actually delineated in the international treaties. Furthermore, we may speak of the shaping of inner boundaries. The encounter with foreign phenomena brings out the contours of the homeland and helps to define its place within larger regional, confessional and cultural denominations. This trend can be observed in the travelogues of two Iranian missions that were conducted to Bukhara and Khiva in 1844 and 1851 respectively. Rather than attempting to decode and domesticate Central Asian attributes, the authors, ʿAbbās Qulī Khān and Riżā Qulī Khan Hidāyat, emphasize those divergences which highlight their own cultural and political identity. The Central Asian khanates, they locate within a hierarchy of civilization and statecraft which is determined according to European parameters. Although never explicitly referred to as such, Europe figures implicitly as a point of reference throughout these narratives. The resulting image is that of a downward spiral of globalization, the lower end of which is apportioned to Bukhara and Khiva. In this attempt at locating “home” within the global setting and the corresponding dissociation from Central Asia, we may already detect an early figure of the Iranian nation as “imagined community” in the mid-nineteenth century.