“Je traversai l’Araxe. J’étais en Perse.”
In these simple words, Tinco Lycklama captures the deep emotion that he felt when he crossed the border that separates Azerbaijan from Persia. The night before, he had arrived at Julfa, on the banks of the Aras (Araxe), and could contemplate Persia on the other side of the river (where the settlement is called Jolfa).
Exactly 200 years before, in 1666, the 22-year old French traveler Jean Chardin (1643-1713) reached Persia, and later wrote one of the finest observations of the region (through western eyes). There is no doubt that Tinco had Chardin in mind when he conceived his own plans to explore Persia.
In 1866, Tinco Lycklama à Nijeholt was just 28 years old. He was a young Dutch aristocrat, very wealthy and educated, and with a burning passion for the Middle East (at a time when his Dutch contemporaries were more interested in the Americas and the Dutch colonies in the Far East). It is always hard to tell (especially 150 years later) what really drove the enthusiasm of a young man. But, through his own writings, we know what he wanted to achieve. Let us simply quote him (our translation, from French):
“Persia is one of the great names of antiquity and, until the 17th century, it sometimes played a primary role in the history of the world. Its borders have often changed. Once one of the most powerful empires in the Orient, Persia has been reduced to a nation of less than 10 million people, following a series of many revolutions. But, even if it has lost its ancient importance, it has kept its laws, its morals and its customs, and it is of great interest to study these whilst reminding ourselves of such a glorious past. When traveling its provinces and visiting its cities and monuments, I will recall the historical facts that are attached to them, in my own usual way. As an observer of a silent and empty scenery, readers will appreciate, like me, to see the people that lived it coming back to life. […] I am not writing as much for those who have already visited Persia, but rather for those who know little about it.” (“Voyage…”, Volume II, pages 5-6).
Let us consider Tinco’s observations as the expression of his personal perception, regardless of whether they are exact or fair. What transpires from his writings is an unusual openness to absorb and learn. He is rarely condescending (if ever) towards the people and the customs. In fact, he is a real observer who reports the things as he saw them, obviously fascinated by the sheer experience of seeing things with his own eyes.
The choice of his itinerary
Besides finding inspiration in Jean Chardin’s travels, another famous 17th traveler was high in his mind: the merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605-1689), renown for his part in the history of the Blue Hope diamond.
In fact, Tinco wanted to accomplish what Tavernier had in mind, but never succeeded in doing as he died during his last journey: traveling to Persia via Russia and the Caucasus. Travelers typically traveled by sea or over land to Constantinople, and then onwards through the Levant.
By April 6, 1866, Tinco had thus spent a year traveling from Paris over Berlin, Riga, Saint Petersburg and Moscow, and then along the Volga river towards the Caspian Sea. He explored the Caucasus, Georgia, and stayed the winter in Tiflis. He then crossed Armenia towards Persia via Azerbaijan.
April 5, 1866 – Arrival at Julfa
Prior to his arrival on the Persian border, Tinco spent about two weeks in Armenia. He recounts its ancient civilisation. He observes to what extent the capital Yerevan still perspires the Persian influences, mixed with the growing Russian (and Western) influences that resulted from recent political events. He comments on how little remains from the traditional Armenian culture and reports on how that culture had systematically been eradicated by successive invaders.
Tinco was not travelling alone. Along his journey, he hired carriers and guides, and even cooks, that travelled with him for stretches. Then, he hired new people who would prove to be useful for their knowledge of the culture, the customs, and the language.
When he arrived at Jolfa, the last outpost on the Aras river (before entering Persia), he had an unspecified number of people with him, as well as horses and two horse-drawn carriages. The carriages had been very useful on the Armenian roads. But, he knew that the route in Persia would not be convenient for carriages, so he sold them off.
Tinco is not very impressed by what he sees at Julfa. Little remains from what must once have been a very important and strategic city, in ancient times. Tinco ascribes Julfa’s demise to the sacking by Abbas the Great (1571-1629), the safavid king of Persia who retreated from Armenia in 1606 and didn’t want to leave any spoils to the Turks. The population of Julfa (as well as tens of thousands of other Armenians) were displaced to Isfahan where even today the “New Julfa” quarter remains one of the most important Armenian quarters in the world (but more on that later, when we reach Isfahan).
At Julfa, in 1866, Tinco counted the presence of just 30 families. A once rich city was now a “hideous place”. So, Tinco was quite happy to leave it the next day and start his exploration of Persia.
However, what may surprise the reader is that Tinco never mentions the old Armenian cemetery of Julfa. We remain clueless as to why he has ignored this ancient monument to Armenian culture – which is, today, the subject of a very sad controversy. Even though the cemetery may once have counted up to 10,000 remarkable funerary monuments, at least 2,000 of those must still have been in place at the time of Tinco’s passage. The cemetery was about 4 miles to the west of Julfa. Admittedly, not on the road down from Yerevan, but it is certainly something he must have read about so that it must have sparked his interest. Was Tinco too eager to cross the Aras river and reach Persia?
April 6, 1866 – Crossing the Aras river, into Persia
Tinco Lycklama recalls the writings of the 17th century writer Jean Chardin to describe what used to be at Julfa: a few bridges to cross the Aras river. But, they had been destroyed by Abbas the Great, along with the town of Julfa.
But, there was a pond, which Tinco took early in the morning of April 6th. On the other side of the river, there was a Persian station – a “chapar khaneh” (tshaparkhaneh, or “courier house”). Along his route towards Tehran, Tinco would stop at these chapar khanehs, as these were places where you could stay overnight but also leave your horses and rent new ones – and hire people to travel along with you.
When in Tiflis (Georgia), Tinco had acquainted Mirza Yusuf Khan (1813-1895) (see German Wikipedia… and note below), the Persian consul in Tiflis. The consul had provided Tinco with an official recommendation, which served as an introduction to “naïbs” – the station chiefs at the chapar khanehs. This would prove to be extremely useful and facilitate Tinco’s travel, as the consul was a powerful man.
In Persian Jolfa, Tinco thus acquired 6 horses, four for himself and his servants, and two for his luggage. He was also carrying with him a metal folding bed (with mattress) for his comfort. An adventurous traveler he was, but he was prepared for the roughness of the places he was traveling!
The naïb at Jolfa, very impressed by the recommendation from Mirza Yusuf Khan in Tiflis, also wanted to make sure that nothing serious would happen to Tinco when traveling the inhospitable mountains ahead of him, so he gave him an escort of fifteen riders, headed by a captain called Abdul Khan, to accompany him for the next few miles. Then, the escort returned back to Jolfa and left Tinco and his caravan to its own devices.
Tinco was ready for Persia.
About our coverage of Tinco’s travels
Tinco Lycklama published the story of his travels through Russia, the Caucasus, Persia, Mesopotamia and the Levant, in 4 volumes spanning over 2,200 pages – in French (check the links to the books on Gallica/BnF…). None of this was ever translated.
Hundred fifty years later, we offer a first glimpse to a non-French audience, and start with the location where he was today, on 6 April 1866 – setting foot for the first time on Persian soil. Over the next eight months, we will highlight the places he visited, the people he met, and recount interesting (and sometimes, funny) anecdotes. Our purpose is not to be complete or extensive. We will publish short posts as we travel along the journey, with Tinco.
We hope that the places, people and facts may spark interest from readers about politics, culture, art, literature, genealogy… – which may encourage further research by anyone who wishes to be involved in this project. As such, the story of Tinco could be a catalyst for many other things.
From the broader perspective of our endeavour, namely to capture the life and work of Tinco Lycklama à Nijeholt, his travels are as much part of the story as are his upbringing and education in The Netherlands and his later life, as a collector, socialite and philanthropist. Largely forgotten – until now.
Note on Mirza Yusuf Khan Mustashar al-Douleh (1813-1895)
- 1862-1863, Consul in St Petersburg
- 1863-1867, Consul in Tiflis
- 1867-1871, Consul in Paris
- He served in the justice ministry in Tehran and was a leading proponent of building railways in Persia
- Joanna Clare de Groot, “Religion, Culture and Politics in Iran: From the Qajars to Khomeini“, 2007, I.B. Tauris & Co, London.
- Afshin Marashi: Nationalizing Iran: culture, power, and the state, 1870–1940, 2008, University of Washington Press, Seattle
- Ali Gheissari, Iranian intellectuals in the twentieth century p. 140, 1998, University of Texas Press, Austin