Gmelin’s Persia & Persians

EXCERPT from “Travels Through Northern Persia: 1770-1774” by Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin, translated by Willem, M Floor (2007, Mage Publishers).

Publisher’s Note: In 1770 the young German scientist and explorer Samuel Gottlieb Gmelin embarked on a journey on behalf of the Russian Academy of Sciences and in the service of Catherine the Great. These heretofore little-read accounts of his travels and broad research in Northern Persia, first published in German in St. Petersburg in the 1770’s, have now been translated for the first time into English by renowned scholar Willem Floor.

In the two voyages recounted in this volume, Gmelin kept journals describing the customs, industry, political world, warfare, geography, and plant and animal life of Northern Persia, until his capture and imprisonment in the village of Parakay near the Caspian Sea in 1774 — a misfortune that he also was able to record, and which is included here in the final volume of his travelogue.

Includes the third and fourth volumes of Gmelin’s four-part travelogue,

Travels through Russia to Investigate the Three Natural Realms , as well as the 1784 preface, and an appendix with further accounts by Gmelin’s student. Gmelin’s entries describe, among many things, the political situation and wars in Persia; the temperament and physical characteristics of the Persians; the people’s table manners and hygiene; Persian money, weights and measures; the court of the Khan of Gilan; the Gilani language; Persian monks; Persian medical science; Shi`a Islam; the Jews of Rasht; the Persian attitude toward Christians; treatment of women; the plant and animal life of Persia; the Turkmen tribes of the east Caspian; the mountain peoples of Daghestan; the potential for Russian trade with the peoples of Persia; the Persian Armenians and their mercantile activity; and Persian methods of fishing, farming and preparing various foods. With thirty-eight illustrations.

PAGES 161-164
The twenty-third and fourth. I busied myself at home due to the incessant rain, and on the twenty-fifth I accepted the Khan’s invitation to go with him once again to Pasikhan (Bassa Chan). Today and during the following days things were much better, because I stayed in Pasikhan until the twenty-ninth. At least I got a better idea of Persian merrymaking than before, irrespective of the fact that I cannot yet say that they roused the kind of feeling that it engendered among the Persians.

The first thing that I have to describe is the camp, which constituted the theater for these delights. The circumference amounted to about two Russian wersts and the tents were pitched on it, a free open place through which two streams ran. The tents were pitched without order. They were neither erected in rows nor placed in any other regular manner. What one clearly saw was that the immediate area where the Khan resided remained free of other tents [296] and those that were closest to the Khan’s were only occupied by the most important persons and his minions. Among them I was also allocated a rather spacious one for me and my company.

The tents of the Khan and of important people were oblong in general and were supported by two or three poles. The exterior sides were covered with a finer or coarser kattan and the interior ones with silken or woolen fabrics. Several carpets of greater or lesser value were spread out and on the sides lay felts interwoven with flowers, on which the Persians are wont to sit. Larger tents were subdivided into two or more rooms by means of curtains. Next to the Khan’s tent and those of important people there were holes dug in the ground screened with broadcloth and kattan where one could relieve oneself.

The Khan’s tent was distinguished from others only in that it was bigger and that the upper part as well as its sides had been covered with taffeta on which cutout flowers had been attached. Above the middle of the upper part, where he sat, hung a baldachin covered with damask. On either side of the tent there was a small corridor through which the servants could go around the tent. The front part of the tent was entirely open; nevertheless, because the weather was not the most pleasant, braziers (mangals) were placed in most tents. Mangals are iron, copper or metal braziers342 that are filled with glowing, smokeless coal [343] to thereby provide some heat. As far as I am concerned, those braziers give benefit to those who love an open fire without the draft of a chimney, or those who are not susceptible to the effect of the fumes.

Finally, I further remark that the tents of lower persons were not all triangular, but various forms and mostly were no better than the tents of our soldiers. In this camp in which the Khan and the core of the Gilani aristocracy stayed one would expect modest behavior of all present. But, as the arrangement of the tents was disorderly, so was everything else. The delight of the Persians consisted in this very disorder. Some rode so maniacally that if one was outside one’s tent, one was in danger every moment of becoming dangerously wounded on any part of one’s body. Some young people were really ridden down and killed on this occasion. Others, by their horrible uproar, made it so difficult for people to think in peace and quiet that they would have sought their pleasure anywhere but here. Again others practiced shooting, or shot with arrows at a target, while in the meantime goings-on in the tents were not so quiet either, for in there, under the clang of different musical instruments, some heavy drinking took place.

I will dwell somewhat on the Khan’s music. Just as with us, as the ear loves different sensations, likewise the Persians have a taste thereof. Their invention-pleasing spirit of our passions has conceived shawms, bassoons, violins, pandora, harps, fifes and the like. Depending on the revelry of the moment, one chooses this or that kind of musical instrument accordingly. A kamancheh (kamantschin) is that kind of a Persian violin that has three or four strings, which are fastened with screws at both ends to a long, narrow body that is almost conic in form. The sound board is round, three or four fingers wide, covered with a piece of skin. Below, it either ends without a point or it ends in a metal point. One plays this instrument with a bow of horsehair and when playing the sound board rests on the ground, like a viola di gamba.

The tschefesde [344] is a kind of pandora that consists of many brass wire strings, of which the two closest ones always have the same tone. It is plucked with the fingers when played. There is one kind of harp, which is called tschie. [345] It looks like a blunt triangle and consists of six strings, and one also plays it with the fingers. Another one has many strings, but has an unequal quadrangular shape, and is struck with sticks specially made to that end. It is almost the same instrument that is called tsimbali (zimbal) in Russian. The karnay (gurnai) or shawm is entirely the same as ours, both in tone and form. The sanj (sinschi), real Turkish metal cymbals that look like big dinner plates, are bashed together so that they produce a vibrating ring. These are the real Persian music instruments that musicians play in homes and which on this occasion I have found altogether at Hedayat Khan.

In addition kettledrums are also often heard. They are called naqqareh (nagarn), and they are always in pairs, made of copper, covered with leather and tightly bound together and played with drumsticks. There are trombones, either straight or crooked, of undetermined length, and likewise the mouth is of underdetermined circumference. On these one plays the reveille in the morning and the tattoo in the evening. They belong to the field music, as does a single large metal kettledrum, which is distinguished by its size and the same pompous tone as the previously mentioned double ones. There are all kinds of fifes, either our fifes or at the most similar to the flötedouse. [346]

I have depicted some Persian music instruments in the 29th Figure with a short explanation. By the way, there are other kinds of various musical instruments that have come to my notice. Only the ones indicated may be sufficient to give my readers an understanding of Persian music. [347] Depending on the disposition of the lovers of music, these instruments, made in more or less a costly fashion, are often inlaid with motherof- pearl, silver, gold and precious stones.

Further, music is never played if the singers do not sing along. Often a dance is added, but this dance neither represents German nor French taste. Those who perform them only have in mind how they may express the power of the music by the wonderful turns and rotations of their bodies. It is due to this that they then bend backwards and then again fall down headlong with their arms outstretched on the ground, and often also clap their hands together over the head, until they finally get up to again make the most violent movements by another theme of the music, turn around in twirls and yes even tumble with their head over their bodies, all the while hand-clapping.

Finally I recall, which is almost superfluous, that only males dance together; the fair sex remains excluded as from everywhere also from this rejoicing, probably to its chagrin, and certainly to the dissatisfaction of the European guests. Daily there was hunting and fishing in the camp. Only the Khan himself did not go on the hunt, but captured boars were brought alive into the camp and killed there with spears. Fishing likewise happened quite naturally, without putting too much effort into it, and nevertheless one could be assured that one would get enough fish. The Pasikhan (Passachan) river namely had been dammed a few days before and this construction enclosed the fish as in a prison. Gradually, one caught many thousands, partly with nets and partly with hooks. Most of the time it was only kutum.

The Khan also had me watch people fighting several times. Slim men who had been specially trained in fighting undressed completely naked except for a cover of the private parts, and in this condition they appeared at the front part of the Khan’s tent to exhibit their strength and guile. Each one watched the postures and movements of the other and when he thought he saw an advantage he made use of it. Meanwhile it may have been a trap to lure him and he might count himself lucky when he was able to pull back from it in time. And thus, initially their main skill just consisted of grappling the body and its limbs, for which they had already prepared themselves. Finally the greater guile of an experienced man or a careless movement by the other resulted in victory. This was determined by the one who threw the other on the ground, but was contested when both fell at the same time.

The Khan gave presents to the victor. I really had to admire the particularly canny attacks, as well as the various body positions in which this engine was forced to fit to accomplish the fighter’s intention. To be sure, I am by no means comparing their dexterity with the Roman fights, but I cannot help remark on the great similarity between the old Russian and the Persian tastes. How great I say this similarity is, and how much more animated it must appear to the eyes, when one would take the trouble to cast a glance at the conditions of Russia that still existed before the government of Tsar Iwan Wasilijewich. [348] The Khan also has a ropewalker with him, but I do not think it worthwhile to mention his skills. After I had stayed in this camp until dullness, I took my leave from my friendly host, thanked him for this new proof of his kindness and traveled with my company back to Rasht, while the other only arrived in the town a few days later >>> Lithographs

Available from “Travels Through Northern Persia: 1770-1774”

342 The term used in the german text, krappen, does not occur in the dictionaries consulted by me.
since a mangal is a charcoal brazier i have assumed that this is what gmelin meant.
343 gmelin refers to charcoal.
344 This is the chasdeh, a five-stringed round-bodied lute.
345 This is probably the chang, a large, triangular harp with a varying number (up to 40) strings.
346 This term does not occur in any of the dictionaries consulted by me. The word suggests that it is
a kind of box for a flute, but the context clearly indicates that it should be a type of flute.
347 For a discussion of contemporary Persian musical instruments and music making, see Floor-
Faghfoory, Dastur al-Moluk, pp. ??. on Persian music in general, see, Jean During, La Musique
iranienne: Tradition et évolution (Paris, 1984); lloyd miller, Music and Song in Persia: The Art of Avaz
(salt lake City, 1999).
348 Tsar ivan vasilijvich or ivan iv or ivan the Terrible (r. 1547-1584)


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