The Blue Mosque at Tabriz, like Tinco saw it

Tinco Lycklama stayed thirteen days in Tabriz. There was a lot to see. In his own estimation, the city had a population of about 150,000 people. It was the second city of the Persian empire after Tehran (not counting Isfahan, which was a capital and rich in monuments, but of far lesser importance in terms of commerce and industry).

Tabriz is a place where an erudite traveler like Tinco would feel at his best. Lots of bazars and street-sellers, from whom he could buy rare objects and souvenirs for his collection. The city also counted many craftsman who made and sold a very diverse trade – such as clothing, rugs, jewelry…

Mozaffar al-Din Shah
Mozaffar al-Din Shah, crown prince of Persia and governor of Tabriz

Tabriz was also rich in history. The earliest mention of the city dates from the 8th century BC. In the 16th century of our era, it was the first capital of the Safavid dynasty king, Ismail I (1487-1524). He unified Iran and is considered to be responsible for the conversion of the region from sunni to shia islam. After the establishment of the Qajar as rulers of Persia, and more precisely starting with prince Abbas Mirza (1789-1833), Tabriz became the traditional seat for the heir to the Qajar throne. Thus, the Qajar shah at Tinco’s time, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar (1831-1896), had a son and heir, Mozaffar ad-Din (1853-1907)- who was governor at Tabriz since 1861 (at the age of eight years old).

Whilst in Tabriz, Tinco made several excursions to places in the vicinity – such as Kohmabad and Metabad. And he offers us many insights into the spread of shi’a islam throughout the region – often relying on the analysis by leading scholars in his time.

One of the places that he covers extensively in his diaries, is the so-called “Blue Mosque”. Like many other monumental buildings, the Blue Mosque was built under the Sunni ruler Muzaffar al-Din Jahan Shah ibn Yusuf (1397-1467). Tinco relates how the 16th century traveler  Jean-Baptiste Tavernier had described (around 1670) the magnificence of the mosque – where Jahan Shah was buried. However, when Tinco visited the place, almost nothing was left of it. Not only because of neglect, but also because of a major earthquake that hit Tabriz in 1721 – an event that left an indelible mark on the city.

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The images above illustrate what had survived of the mosque at the time of Tinco’s visit. The drawing is by Eugène Flandin (1809-1889) and dates from 1851. The photograph is by Antoin Sevruguin (1830-1933), from around 1880. The latter shows probably very well what Tinco saw. The third picture gives us the present and restored state from the same entrance gate – seen from within. It’s a view that Tinco could only imagine from what the writings of Tavernier and the people of Tabriz told him.

Tinco’s stay in Tabriz is coming to an end. In his diaries, he spent forty pages on describing the history and local customs of the city. A worthwhile read to learn about how the city was a hundred fifty years ago!


08/04/1866 – Tinco arrives in Tabriz

“Dès le début, je rencontrais en Perse cet accueil affable et bienveillant que (j’aime à le dire en commençant cette relation) j’ai retrouvé partout.”

(Source: “Voyage…”, Vol. II, page 31)


Right after entering Persia at the border post of Jolfa, two days ago, Tinco and his caravan (two servants, his Armenian cook and six horses) set off towards their next stop at Ayerandibi (Errandibil).

The mountains and the countryside were inhospitable, and the winter (which had taken some toll of Tinco’s health) wasn’t over yet. Still, as the opening sentence above from his journal states, Tinco affirms right away that he found the Persians friendly and kind wherever he went.

But, he certainly was not too happy with the disposition of the chapar khaneh (courier house) at Ayerandibi, where he arrived the same evening. He had to share his room with his companions! Fortunately, he found more agreeable lodgings at the next stops on his journey towards Tehran.

Remnants of the caravanserai near Marand

In the morning of April 7, he left for Soufian (Sofian). Thirteen kilometers north of Marand, he contemplated the ruins of a caravanserai that was constructed under king Abbas the Great (1571-1629). Marand itself is an interesting town, where the Armenian influences are still strongly felt. It is also one of the places reputed to hold the tomb of the wife of Noah (of the “arc”) – but Tinco didn’t see any evidence of that (nor did anyone before or after him). After a short halt, he traveled further and came across another one of king Abbas’ caravanserai. Two centuries before, the French traveler-merchant Jean-Baptiste Tavernier had reported this place to be in a perfect state, but Tinco found it was now derelict. Tinco spent the night at Soufian, in far better conditions.

The next morning, Tinco sent one of his servants ahead to assure proper lodgings in Tabriz – the first major stop on his discovery of Persia, where Tinco planned to stay two weeks. Historically, Tabriz played an immense role in the political and cultural shaping of Iran. Together with Tehran, it was the commercial heart of Persia, with numerous foreign agents and companies trading in the broadest variety of goods. It is strategically located on on ancient trading routes. And, starting with Abbas Mirza (1789-1833), Tabriz was also the traditional residence of the heir to the throne in Qajar Persia.

At Tabriz, Tinco Lycklama recounts the rich events and the people that mark the history of the city. He visited many places in and out of town, met various people, observed local customs and experienced the heartbeat of this bustling city. We will cover some of these aspects in our next blogs.

As a final note, let’s quote Tinco himself to understand the state of mind of this young traveling Dutchman and his intentions in exploring (and recounting) Persia (our translation):

“The cities and monuments in Persia look very alike, more so than anywhere else, but their history differs : it seems to me (and I have experienced this when reading travel stories that were short on historical context) that one must seek to bring alive the events and the people that have made famous the places that one visits.”

Les villes et monuments en Perse se ressemblent plus encore que partout ailleurs, mais leur histoire diffère : il me semble (je l’ai éprouvé à la lecture de relations de voyage trop sobre sur le passé le passé) qu’on doit aimer à voir revivre les événements et les hommes qui ont fait la célébrité des lieux que l’on parcourt. (Source: “Voyage…”, Vol. II, page 75)

Sketch of Tabriz (Tauris) by Jean Chardin in his “Journal du Voyage du Chevalier Chardin”, published in 1686

This article appears as an episode in a series that recounts the chronology of the travels through Persia of Tinco Lycklama à Nijeholt (1837-1900) , the first Dutch orientalist. Articles appear exactly hundred fifty years after Tinco’s travel.