History, more specifically medieval history, is full of travellers who traversed the world with a notebook on their pockets. These observers left testimonies of everything they saw and afterwards those impressions, experiences and memories turned into books. One of the best-known travellers of all history is, of course, Marco Polo. As a general statement, there is a generous number of examples of people travelling far and wide through the known world that wrote books about their journeys.
In particular, one of the routes most repeated by occidentals was the journey to the Orient, both near and far. The Orient has always been a source of exoticism, mystery, legend and extravagance for Europe. For example, Afanasy Nikitin, a Russian-origin traveller from the 15th century, narrated in his tales that on India lived a monkey king with an army of apes under his service. In the collections signed by John Mandeville, a fictional character, it was written that in the Orient have been spotted mice bigger than dogs, blue lions the size of an ox, people with animal tails and a long list of fantastic and marvellous creatures.
But what if it was the other way around? This article tells the story of a traveller that parted from the Orient, from the Safavid Persian empire, and embarked on a journey to the four corners of Europe that finalised in Spain. From Don Juan de Persia’s point of view the political and cultural situation of Persia is discovered, from the end of 16th century to the beginning of 17th century, from a quite interesting perspective. It is not the occidental vision about the Orient, but the contrary: the perception of the Occident from the Orient and, after, the mixture of cultures of the west.
|Shāh Abbās’ first embassy to Europe |
Carlo Caliari, 1595. Doge’s Palace, Venice
Ulugh Beh, the protagonist
Juan of Persia is one of the most relevant characters of the international panorama from the last third of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century. His real name was Ulugh Begh, found in the texts like “Uruch Bech” from an incorrect transcription of his name in Spanish —the same happens with Ibn Sīnā and Avicenna—. He was born in 1560. His father, Sultan Ali Beh, held an important military position but died in 1585 after the failed campaign of the siege of Tabriz, at that moment under the Ottoman rule. After his father’s death, Ulugh Begh took over his responsibilities and initiated a successful military career. Thus, he became someone very close to Shāh Abbās I the Great, who ascended the throne in 1585. This king was the grandson of Shāh Ismā’īl I (1487-1524), the founder of the Safavid Persian dynasty.
Despite his work Relaciones de don Juan de Persia is an indispensable document for a better understanding of the political situation and contacts between Europe and Iran at that time, the truth is that this author is mostly unknown in the West.
|Abbās I as a new Caesar being honoured by |
the Trumpets of Fame, together with the Persian embassy.
Allégorie de l'Occasion, by Frans II Francken, 1628
Portugal, Spain and the Ottoman Empire
From the 15th century on, Portugal had established relationships with the oriental powers in the search of a stable trade route for its boats. One of the first contacts was the arrival of Vasco de Gama (c. 1460-1524) to India in 1498. This trip not only opened a new transitway for the Portuguese boats but also made possible the contact between the western kingdom with the Islamic monarchies, especially with Persia which happened to be geographically in the middle of the route the Portuguese intended to circulate. By the end of the 16th century, Portugal counted on a solid route that went down from eastern Africa, the south of the Arabian Peninsula and the Indian Ocean. In order to protect their ships and to serve as provisioning points, different fortifications were built along the way. Juan II from Portugal sent various embassies to Persia, to the Safavid court, precisely for this reason. However, the construction of these settlements was not always carried out the peaceul way. In 1507 Francisco de Almeida conquered the isle of Ormuz and that generated tensions tried to ease with the embassies of Miguel Ferreira (1513) and Fernão Gomes de Lemos (1515) to the court of Ismā’īl I.
For the whole 17th century the Portuguese embassies continued their activities in the Safavid court, especially because both powers had a common enemy: The Ottoman Empire. The “Turkish menace” extended itself over the seas and threatened both the trading points from Portugal and some Iran’s strategic cities, like Tabriz aforementioned. Thus, the intention of both parts was counting on mutual support to keep the Turks at bay. In the case of the Safavids, they also wanted to recover the territories conquered by the Ottomans. The situation for Persia will lead into what later on would be known as the Ottoman-Safavid Wars that followed each other in different moments —one of the first conflicts was the battle of Chaldiran that confronted Selim I and Ismā’īl I, and it was only a small part of a war that will go on until 1821, confronting the Ottoman dynasty with the Qājār.
Miniature from the Süleyman-nāmah depicting |
Suleiman marching with an army in Nakhchivan,
summer 1554, at the end of the Ottoman-Safavid War.
Nevertheless, the political situation in the Iberian Peninsula changed all of a sudden with the rise to the throne of Philip II. In 1580 the Spanish king annexed Portugal to his dominions and, with it, all the territories and commercial routes controlled in the orient. The Ottomans were one of the greatest concerns of Spain, so their intention was maintaining the contacts with the Safavids by sending embassies regularly. Unfortunately, none of the two that finally set journey had satisfactory outcomes —the first one shipwrecked and the second one didn’t reach any agreements with the Persians.
One of the many Ottoman-Safavid Wars was taking place just at that moment, with the Ottoman sultan Murad III and the recently crowned Shāh Abbās I. The result of this battles was absolutely not favourable for the Persians. They were forced to cede an important number of their lands at the Treaty of Constantinople or the Peace of Istanbul in 1590. With both the political and the military situation against him, I considered important to recover his western contacts to ask for support and help against the Turks. And then appeared at the court of Isfahan the Shirley brothers.
Anthony Shirley and the embassy of Isfahan
In 1598-99 Anthony and Robert Shirley, two English-origin brothers, appeared before the Shāh and presented themselves as relatives of the King of Scotland and servers of the Queen of England. Sir Anthony Shirley had already a career in Europe as ambassador and he had worked for the British crown in various occasions. One of the reasons for his trip to Persia was promoting the commercial relationships between England and Iran on the one hand. On the other, he intended to emphasise the need of a general cooperation of the European powers and the Safavid empire against the Turks.
Shirley’s arrival was extremely convenient for the Shāh, and quickly and an embassy was organised. Leading the group was Robert Shirley himself and Ḥusayn ‘Alī Begh. The party would visit eight different courts through all Europe —Russia, Germany, Rome, England, Scotland, Poland, Venice, Spain and Portugal—, and a second ambassador was sent in advance to Astrakhan, in Russia. There he will receive Shirley and ‘Alī Begh to head for Moscow and represent the Safavid king before the tsar Boris Godunov. Ulugh Begh, who by that time was nearly forty years old, was named First Secretary of this embassy.
By the way, after this long journey, Shirley wrote his own book under the title Sir Anthony Sherley: his Relation of his Travels into Persia. It was published in 1613 and the original manuscript is currently kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, United Kingdom.
Engraving of Robert Shirley|
Aegidius Sadeler II, 1605
The journey: from Isfahan to Valladolid
In July 1599 the embassy set off towards their first destination: the court of the tsar in Moscow. After some months of travelling not without trouble, the main one being the freezing of the Volga river, according to the Relaciones of Juan of Persia the party arrived at the capital in November and they stayed for the winter. Afterwards, they continued towards Bohemia and they stopped in Prague, but the journey was different from expected —map available below.
The embassy was recommended to take a maritime route instead of the usual terrestrial, probably due to the heavy cargo they transported with gifts and presents for the different courts. So, they headed to the port of Archangel in northern Russia and from there a various month's long voyage started. The next scale would be the port of Embden in northwest Germany. From this moment on the journey followed terrestrial and occasionally fluvial routes. Finally, in autumn of 1600, the emperor Rudolph II received the ambassadors in Prague.
The next spring, they travelled to Munich where they held a meeting with the Duke of Bavaria, William II the Pious —who, by the way, had abdicated not that long ago. The journey continued south entering Italian territory and stopping in Mantua, in the residence of Duke Vincenzo Gonzaga. From there they tried to contact the Doge of Venice to plan their future visit, but he excused himself replying that at that moment he was hosting an Ottoman embassy and receiving the Persians would not be the smartest move. Then, Begh and his companions went to Florence. Duke Fernando de Medici was in Pisa when they arrived, so the embassy moved there.
|Map of the journey of Ulugh Begh made by |
L.G. Strange for the English version of the text, 1925
Problems started on the trip from Pisa to Rome. Ḥusayn ‘Alī Begh, leader of the Persian expedition, and Anthony Shirley did not really get along. During the travel, they had a violent quarrel because the Englishman accused the Persian of stealing and selling on his own some of the presents Shāh Abbās reserved especially for the Pope. In the end, Clement VIII ended up receiving both ambassadors separately and finally, Shirley abandoned the diplomatic mission and set off for Venice in solitary.
After passing through Genoa and Avignon, the Persian embassy —who’s some members had already converted to Christianism— arrived in Spain and sojourned for some months at the court of Philipp III in Valladolid. Ḥusayn ‘Alī Begh considered then coming back home since he had already accomplished half of his objectives and embarking on a new journey to visit England, Scotland, France and Venice seemed unrealistic. Thus, he went south and then west, to Lisbon. Philipp III provided a generous amount of money to fund the trip. But one night, while they were staying in Merida, one of the members of the embassy was stabbed and killed. After presenting the case to Spain’s viceroy in Lisbon, ‘Alī Begh was sent back to Valladolid to speak directly to the king.
Finally, at the beginning of 1602, Ḥusayn ‘Alī Begh parted from Lisbon to follow the Portuguese trade route towards the island of Ormuz, to where he arrived probably in the summer. Nevertheless, Ulugh Begh remained in Spain. Both he and his nephew had converted to Christianism in Valladolid and the main sponsor of the Persian traveller was queen Margaret of Austria herself. He was given another name, don Juan de Persia, but unfortunately, his life in Spain wouldn’t be that long. The 15th of May 1605, while he still lived in Valladolid, he was caught up in a fight with some men and an Alcalde de Corte. During the quarrel, he was stabbed many times and, finally, his body was thrown into a gulley for the dogs to devour it and thus saving the murderers from giving explanations.
Engraving of Ḥusayn ‘Alī Begh, |
Aegidius Sadeler II, 1605
The Relaciones de don Juan de Persia
The work of Don Juan de Persia saw the light as a printed book in 1604, just shortly before the first edition of the first part of Don Quijote de la Mancha. The manuscript surged from the travel diary Begh kept writing during his European epopee. Once settled in Spain, his friend the Licentiate Alfonso Remón helped him with the translation and the edition and he explains the process in his letters.
The first chapter appears to be completely written by don Alfonso since it is explained the joy don Juan experienced for embracing the Christian faith. The long journey of the Persian embassy is compared to the one Marco Polo completed some centuries ago. The next chapter describes some Persian provinces, but the information seems to be fundamentally based on a geography treatise written by Giovanni Botero by the end of 16th century. The third and fourth chapters were directly written by Don Juan and provide with very interesting descriptions of the governing mode of de Shāh Abbās I and some Persian traditions. Weddings, burials, family celebrations and military life curiosities are mentioned. The rest of the book is divided between the accounts of his journey through all the European courts on the one hand and, on the other, a quite extensive explanation about the history of Islam and the Persian dynasties. The emphasis is mostly on the relationship between Persia, the Turks and the Christian kingdoms.
Through Ulugh/don Juan a whole world is discovered, but this is not exempt of complications. It must be remembered that Begh arrived in Valladolid without speaking a single word in Spanish and the actions of don Alfonso Remóns were present, modifying some of the impressions the Persian ambassador may have expressed in his native language.
Cover of the 1604 edition of the Relaciones de Don Juan de Persia
The Relaciones are an extraordinary document that show many things. Firstly, it gives a less romantic vision of Persia and closer to reality since its author knew well his land and his people. Thanks to the book we can understand the perception of Persian in Modern Ages, and at the same time we can discover a little better how the diplomatic missions were carried out and how embassies, that constantly travelled from one corner to the other of the world, were organised. It is really interesting counting on sources from different backgrounds to reconstruct a historical moment more accurately. Trusting the vision of just one of the parts leads to misconceptions quite commonly.
CUTILLAS Ferrer, José Francisco: “Las Relaciones de don Juan de Persia: una imagen exótica de Persia narrada por un musulmán shií convertido al cristianismo a principios del s. XVII”, Sharq al-Andalus 16/17, 2005, pp. 213-227.
GARCÍA BLANCO, Javier: “La odisea asiática de Juan de Persia”, Historia de Iberia Vieja, 22-07-2013, http://www.historiadeiberiavieja.com/secciones/personajes/odisea-asiatica-juan-persia
LE STRANGE, G. (trans.), Don Juan de Persia, a Shia Catholic, London, Harper & Brothers, 1925.
LOCKHART, Laurence and JACKSON, Peter: The Cambridge History of Iran, vol. 6, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1986.
PODDAR, Prem: “From Uruch Beg to Don Juan de Persia”, Wasarifi, 16/34, 2008, pp. 5-9.