11/05/1866 – Finally in Tehran… but why?

Shrine of Abdol Azim by Eugène Flandin
Shrine of Shah Abdol Azim. Drawing by Eugène Flandin in “Voyage en Perse”, éd. Gide et Baudry, 1851

Tinco Lycklama catches his first glimpse of Tehran with the distant sight of the magnificent golden dome of Shah Abdol Azim‘s holy shrine. Against the backdrop of the Elbourz mountains, “the panorama is grandiose“, writes Tinco.

He continues his sentence by saying that “seen from this perspective, the city of the Qajars holds more promise than it really delivers.

That doesn’t sound very inviting, and more like a ‘showstopper’, doesn’t it? In the preceding hundreds of pages of his travel story, Tinco insists on how keen he is to reach Tehran. Once he gets there (today), he stays no less than five months. And, a year later, her returns for another month. Surely, if a city doesn’t live up to its promises, why not pick up your bags and go elsewhere?

There are certainly many mysteries as to what Tinco Lycklama really did during all those months in Tehran.

Any 19th century traveler to the Persian capital would know that Tehran doesn’t make any particular promise in terms of history or archaeology. For a period of about fifty years prior to the advent of the Qajar dynasty, around 1795, the capital of Persia was Shiraz. At that time, Tehran was barely a village, in the shadow of the ancient city of Ray which is just six kilometers to the west (and actually the location of the Abdol Azim shrine). Though the recorded history of the village of Tehran goes back to at least the 13th century, when its inhabitants were living in underground caves, there was nothing interesting about the place until the Qajars decided to build their capital there. By the time Tinco visited the city, it had grown in barely seventy years’ time to a population of about 100,000 people (and it had absorbed the ancient ruins of Ray as a suburb).

Tehran with overlay of the 1858 map by August Krziz
Modern Tehran with overlay of the 1858 map by August Krziz (Google Earth imaging)
Tehran with overlay of the 1858 map by August Krziz - Zoom
Zoom on the August Krziz map of Tehran of 1858

Our illustration is telling. By adding an overlay of an 1858 map by the Austrian lieutenant August Krziz on top of a current Google Earth satellite view of Tehran, we get a good idea of how small Tehran really was. We get a sense for the city’s fortifications and the location of official buildings and palaces.

So, what was so interesting for Tinco Lycklama to justify a five-month stay? We know how keen Tinco was to explore ancient sites likes Persepolis or Ctesiphon, and undertake some archeological digging there – so why did he linger in Tehran?

Of course, there were quite a few things to do in Tehran – including visiting the royal fortress (the arg) and admiring the many palaces and mosques that had been built in very little time by the ruling Qajar dynasty and its princes. In his writings, Tinco covers many interesting aspects of Tehran, including observations about Persia’s history and customs. But, in itself, Tinco isn’t telling us much new, and he actually duly refers to the writings of others from which he copied a lot of information.

Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896), King of Persia
Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896)

Over the next months, we will try and unravel the mysteries around Tinco. We will look into the people that he met and socially involved with – people that he explicitly mentions in his wirings, such as shah Naser al-Din himself. And, we’ll also look into the people that he doesn’t mention, for some strange reason.

One of the latter is the minister of the Russian legation – Nikolay Karlovich Girs (also called Nicholas de Giers). During all his months in Tehran, Tinco mingles with the foreign diplomats who constantly invite him to their residencies and their lively parties. He has excellent relationships with the three western legations – the Russians, the British, and the French. Actually, it is the Russian chargé d’affaires Ivan Zinoviev who takes Tinco along to meet with shah Naser al-Din. And Tinco is very involved with French Minister de Massignac and British minister Charles Alison. But, why not a single word about Nikolay Girs (1820-1895)? This was not an ordinary man. He was not only minister plenipotentiary of Russia in Tehran, in 1881 he also became the Foreign Minister of the Russian czar Alexander III and remained in that position for thirteen years. This obviously occurred after Tinco wrote his books, but the fact that he doesn’t even mention Nikolay Girs by name is absolutely startling.

There are many mysteries about Tinco’s life. Over the next few months, we may not be able to disclose many big secrets, yet. However, we will bring up all the right questions and run our investigations on the long run, if necessary. Perhaps state archives in Iran or in Western Europe may provide us with additional clues.

Tehran - Entrance to Bazar Emyr - Photography by Luigi Pesce, 1860
Tehran – Entrance to Bazar Emyr – Photography by Luigi Pesce, 1860 (Collection : Getty Research Institute)

One interesting aspect of our exploration of Tehran in Tinco’s days will be the encounter with a broad variety of people in its international community. Let’s have in mind that Persia used to be one of the most formidable empires in history. And, by the mid 19th century, Persia is still of crucial political and military importance, where all nations were vying for influence. Needless to say, to this day, Iran still has a very special place in world politics and in particular in the Middle Eastern region.

History books will be better than Tinco’s story to understand the facts and figures of 19th century diplomacy. However, the names that appear in the history books have real people behind them, and these people are often little known or understood. Tinco’s stories not only offer a glimpse into the social life of diplomats in Tehran, he also provides us with a good reason to dig deeper and to work on a more complete picture of how the geopolitical realities were often shaped by simple individuals with life stories of their own.

As such, when working our way through Tinco’s narrative, we may open new pêrspectives on previously ignored or under-explored areas of research. In the process, we will also look into the daily life of Qajar Tehran – the food, the shopping, the clothes, the harem… Tinco Lycklama is a most entertaining writer, with an excellent eye for good stories.


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