You have probably heard of Marco Polo, but did you know that an Iranian traveller who took very detailed and exact notes of his travels was one of the pioneers of travelogue writing centuries before his Venetian counterpart? Nāsir Khusraw Qubādiyānī was a Persian poet, philosopher, scholar, traveller, mathematician and natural scientist. He was born in 1004 AD, in Qubadyan, a village in the eastern Iranian province of Khorasan (present day Afghanistan) near the city of Balkh during the golden time of what is known as Islamic Civilization, when science and philosophy was at its zenith. He is considered one of the seven great Persian poets alongside Ferdowsi, Khayyam, Anvari, Rumi, Sa’adi and Hafiz. At the time of his birth, Avicenna (a polymath and father of modern medicine) was 24 years old and Ferdowsi was about to finish the Shahnameh (Book of Kings). He started his travel in 1046 at the age of 42 and he returned on 1052 from his journey covering much of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa. Two years before his return, Abu Rayhyan Biruni (Astronomer & mathematician) had passed away and Khayyam, the famous Persian poet and mathematician was four years old. Nasir Khusraw passed away in 1081. He was contemporary to many of the famous scholars of his time.
He was familiar with mathematics, medicine, Greek philosophy, astronomy, interpretation of Koran and all the branches of the natural sciences. He also studied the writings of Islamic philosophers such as al-Kindi, al-Farabi, and Avicenna and mentions them in his works. He knew written and spoken Arabic very well and was familiar with Greek, and vernacular of languages of India and Sindh and had visited India (Multan and Lahore which are now located in Pakistan). Apart from his Safarnama (The Book of Travels), which is his famous and most read book, he wrote books on philosophy, poetry, and logic. In his book of mathematics he deals with equations which only centuries later mathematicians began to understand and solve.
Nasir Khusraw was working until 1046 AD as a financial secretary and revenue collector for the Jughra Beg, brother of Toghrul Beg, who was emir of Khorasan and under the Calipha of Baghdad. Toghrul Beg had conquered Merv in 1037. At around this time, Nasir Khusraw who was 42 years old dreamt that a person told him, “How much you want to drink wine that ruins the wisdom of the people, if you are the sober is better”. He replies that hakims or philosophers cannot make anything better than this which decreases the sorrow of life or the world. That person replied back: “There is no comfort in drunkenness and unconsciousness, you cannot call hakim a person who leads people to the unconsciousness and drunkenness, but something should be sought that increases the wisdom and intelligence”. Nasir Khusraw asks that person: “where can I get this?” The person says: “seekers are finders” and points to Mecca. Inspired by this voice in a dream, he left his luxurious court life, and decided to go Mecca to find the solution to his spiritual crisis.
Safarnama (The Book of Travels) is the account of Nasir Khosraw’s journey to Mecca and Egypt and return, which covers a distance of 19,000 km in about seven years of his life. It contains the most accurate account of the state of social, political and economic state of the Islamic world in the middle of the eleventh century and includes detailed descriptions of Cairo, Jerusalem, Mecca and Medina. The reason for its accuracy is that he took notes while he was traveling and later compiled Safarnama for Persian travellers; this is the book we have today. In his Safarnama he described the exact reason of an eclipse, about six centuries before Isaac Newton. He visited about one hundred cities and villages in those seven years (March 6th, 1046 – October 23rd, 1052) and wrote comprehensively about them, including details about colleges and madrasa, caravanserais, churches, mosques, castles and palaces, ordinary people, scientists, kings, different professions, climates, fruits and commodities, the population, the area of the cities, and ceremonies. After 1000 years, his Safarnama is still readable for Persian speaking people and is part of education in primary and secondary schools, and to this day, seminars are held and books are written about him. This short book contains a vast amount of information. However, what is important is his style and method of travelogue writing and his attitude.
Map of Nasir Khusraw’s travel route | Source: ‘The Book of Travels’
Nasir Khusraw was the first person to write a Hajj (Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca) diary or travelogue and started a tradition which is continued until now: hundreds of people have followed his tradition over the last millennium since his Safarnama, by writing their own Safarnama or travelogue. The second person who wrote a Hajj diary is Ibn Jubayr from Granada in Spain who went to Mecca and wrote his travelogue 137 years after Nasir Khusraw. His journey took 2 years. The third one is Ibn Battuta that wrote his travelogue 279 years after Nasir Khusraw. It is interesting to know that Marco Polo travelled 226 years after Nasir Khusraw. Although another European called Benjamin of Tudela (1130 – 1173) wrote his travel diaries before Marco Polo by about 100 years, but he did not get the fame of Marco Polo. Benjamin of Tudela was a Jew who lived in Spain under an Islamic government and culture. He travelled along North Africa, Southern Europe, Levant, Mesopotamia, and Western Iran.
Marco Polo’s journey took him to central Asia and China and he returned after 24 years to Venice. However, Marco Polo’s travelogue is not comparable with Nasir Khusraw’s at all. Nasir Khusraw took notes daily and wrote his diary as he was traveling which later was compiled into Safarnama. The Safarnama we have is a short version of his original diary written as a Hajj guide book for ordinary Persians. Marco Polo told his memories to his cell mate named Rustichello of Pisa while in prison after he returned back home. Rustichello wrote down Marco Polo’s memories and added some of his own stories and some of others’ and some current affairs from China. Marco Polo’s diary contains description of cities he never saw and events never witnessed or happened to him. However Marco Polo’s report is the most factual European travelogue. The Europeans who wrote books about the East before him described people in the East as monsters who are three meters tall and two meters wide, men without heads whose eyes are in their chest, the women had hooves and men whose head was like a dog’s and children with two heads.
Ibn Battuta also told his story 27 years after he returned to Morocco to a secretary. He had a good memory and he recited poems from Sa’adi in Shiraz; many years after visiting the tomb of this Persian poet. However, many believe the secretary copied part of the travelogue from other earlier writers such as Ibn Jubayr, which had been written more than 150 years earlier or other writers. Nasir Khusraw’s Safarnama is very accurate and descriptive of places, measures and numbers, since he was a great mathematician and a court accountant.
The first Westerner who went on a Hajj is the Italian, Ludovico Di Varthema, who as a Mamluk soldier went to Mecca with a Damascus caravan under disguise in 1503. His travelogue is more realistic than his European predecessors. The Europeans thought the tomb of Prophet Mohammad was in Mecca and is miraculously hanging in the air. The travelogue of Varthema is the first written European travelogue that rejects this story and says that he has seen the tomb of Prophet Mohammad in Medina and is not hanging in the air.
Nasir Khusraw, started his Journey from Merv with his younger brother and a Hindu servant and over six years, seven months, and twenty two days he first went to Mecca, then to Egypt therefrom. Over the three years stay in Egypt he travelled two more times to Mecca by crossing the Red Sea by boat and travelling inland from Medina to Mecca. On his return journey from Cairo, he went to Awan, crossed the red sea and did the Hajj, passed through the Saudi Arabian desert, then went to Basra in Iraq and through Abadan and Isfahan in Iran he returned to Balkh in Afghanistan and settled there. When he returned to Khorasan, the muftis and ulama started to oppose his teachings and forced him to flee from Balkh. After wandering from place to place, he finally settled in Yamgan province, in the mountain village of Hazrate Saeed, in Badakhshan (about 1060 AD) where he spent the last decades of his life, as a hermit, teaching his students and writing books and poems. His tomb is still there and has not changed over the last millennium except for three repairs.
During his lifetime and centuries after his death not much attention has been paid to him. One reason was that he wrote all his books in Persian, except a collection of his poems in Arabic.
Was his dream the sole motivator to leave such a good life and job in the court of Jughra Beg? Surely it had an influence on his thoughts and decisions. That dream was a turning point. He had a dislike for the political and religious system of the Turkic sultans and Arab Caliphate. He was a middle age man, and if we do not say he suffered a midlife crisis, we can say he wanted to find meaning in his life of comfort. The change of attitude was years in the making. Khorasan province always has been a centre of Persian culture and the birthplace of many poets, philosophers, and mathematicians; such as: Rudaki, and Avicenna, Al-Kharazmi, Zamakhshari, Abu Rayhan, Abu Moslem, Ferdowsi, Attar, Khayam, Moulana, and hundreds of others. At this time there were many centres of Persian culture and Shiite pockets in Khorasan, and as Seljuk Turkic tribes were gradually conquering Iran city by city, Nasir Khusraw was watching them. Khorassan at the time was a big province of Iran, comprising most of Afghanistan and many Central Asian countries.
The author in front of Nasir Khusraw Tomb while under repair.
Nasir Khusraw was a learned man and administrator who had contacts with the Ismaili community and also had access to plenty of Zoroastrian literatures. There were still many Zoroastrian temples and communities, as well as Shiite, Jews, and Christians especially in that part of the country. One of the Zoroastrian centres was in Merv in present day Margiana in Turkmenistan where a huge temple has been discovered. He compared the primitive Turkic tribes with the court of Persian kings and he disliked them and thought that they are ruining his country. He describes them as a bunch of desert dwellers who tried to imitate the court of Persian kings. His animosity towards the Seljuks was because they were not Persian and took order from the Calipha in Baghdad, which was a Sunni Arab. All these are reflected in his poems. I think his nationalistic attitude and resentment of ruling Turkish tribes and his tendency toward Shi’ism which offered a more rationalistic and nationalistic worldview eventually caused his break away from the Seljuks and his decision to travel to Cairo, wherein Shiite Fatimid were ruling the north of Africa and most of the Levant (Western Turkey, Syria, Palestine) and Saudi Arabia. At the time, the Caliph of Egypt was al-Mustansir Billah, who was also imam of Ismaili Shi’a Muslim. He had the spiritual and political power in his hand. Al-Mustansir Billah and Fatimid were at their zenith of their time and the countries under their rule had a time of prosperity.
He started his journey by pretending to go to Mecca by taking the Damascus caravan instead of the Baghdad caravan which is a shorter and quicker route. He chose the longer route to get more information about roads and the ways of travel to Egypt and to find a guide to go to Egypt and get more education in the doctrine of Ismaili Shi’ism. He wanted to learn under the great Fatimid dai “missionary” al-Mu’ayyad fid-Din al-Shirazi, another Persian, and get Shia Ismaili education. Over the three years stay in Cairo he was raised to the position of Hujjat-i Khorasan, which is the third of seven positions of Ismaili Shiite rank.
However, during his lifetime and centuries after his death not much attention has been paid to him. One reason was that he wrote all his books in Persian, except a collection of his poems in Arabic. In those times, if one wanted to be recognized academically in the Islamic world, or for that matter in the whole world, one would need to write in Arabic, which was the language of communication amongst all scholars in the Islamic world, as Latin was in the Middle Ages. Persian scholars such as Avicenna, Al-Biruni, or Al-Ghazali and many others who wrote books in Persian, also wrote in Arabic so they were well known during their time and afterwards. We do not have any books in the Arabic language from him, aside from the Divan, a collection of his poems. Most of these authors either cooperated with the ruling political system or did not fight against them. However, Nasir Khusraw became a serious missionary after his conversion to Ismaili Shiism, and he rebelled against Turkic Seljuks who ruled Khorasan and followed the directions of Abbasid Calipha in Baghdad. His belief in Shi’ism was another reason that caused animosity of the rulers and religious leaders toward him and they went after his head while he was living. So he had to run from city to city and was always on the run. Even after the Safavid dynasty who ruled Iran in sixteenth century and Jafari Shi’ism became the official religion of Iran, he was still ignored except amongst the Ismailis.
Around his time, the Medieval Europe was poor, ignorant, and diseased and the Islamic renaissance had already started. The Islamic societies were more equalitarian and more liberal than European societies. He visited mosques of different sects in the Islamic world and visited Church of Resurrection and Church of Nativity and gave a detailed description of both churches. At his time almost all Jewry in Europe, except in Spain which was an Islamic country, had been forced out of Europe to the Islamic countries and many had occupied high position in the politics, administration, science, philosophy and art. This is reflected in Benjamin of Tudela’s travelogue who visited Jewish communities in different cities of Islamic world. Nasir Khusraw went to Hebron and visited the tomb of Abraham, Sara, and Hajar, and other Jewish prophets.
He reported of women playing an important role in the society such as a business woman in Cairo who owned about 5000 water vessels and when her customers borrowed the vessels, they had to return it intact and undamaged. When boats could not pass through a river near Basra without being drowned in a whirlpool, a woman in Basra who owned many boats sent 400 of her boats filled with date stones so that they will be drawn and fill the ditch.
The Islamic world was militarily superior to the European. He reports when Cesar of Rome had visited Jerusalem clandestinely, Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah the Fatimid Caliph who ruled Levant and knew of his presence sent a courier and ordered him to tell the Cesar that, “do not think I am not aware of your presence here but do not worry, I am not going to harm you”. Nasir Khusraw had seen the lighthouse of Alexandria and says the Egyptians used to concentrate light by the huge mirror which was on top of it on the Roman ships and burned them. The Romans tried many times to break those mirrors and eventually they succeeded. Nasir Khusraw says that a man came to Al-Hakim Bi-Amr Allah, Sultan of Egypt, and said that he can reconstruct the mirrors, but he told the man, there is no need for that. Romans annually send us money and gold so that our troops do not get near them.
In 2004, on the occasion of his 1,000th birthday, I decide to follow his route to see how much the world has changed since the report of his travel. I travelled by airplane and car to get to the nearest point to his route, then I continued following his footsteps. He mainly travelled by mules, camels or on foot. I travelled by bus, car, taxis, trains, and a few short distances on motorcycle, donkey, camel and carriage. The world I saw was totally changed since his time. At his time, the whole Islamic world was under two Caliphates: Fatimid in the west and Abbasid in the centre and the east. The main language of communication was Arabic, but in the eastern part Persian was used. People travelled easily across these lands.
The author in front of shrine of Nasir Khusraw
Now when I compare my time with his time I see a great change on the reverse. Now, the Islamic world is fragmented to many countries. There are still a lot of magnificent historical sites to see and different cultures to experience but the most significant phenomena that is unchanged is the people. I hope the next traveller who goes to celebrate the second millennium of his birthdate, if man has not destroyed his environment or himself, sees a better world. a world wherein there is no war, poverty and suppression; and if there is religion, there would be one, wherein people live peacefully and happily. If that person saw that this is the case, then I hope she/he put their new Safarnama on my grave. My dreams would have come true then, and I will rest peacefully and happily till end of the time. And I am sure Nasir will be too!
Mohammad Reza Tavakoli Saberi has travelled over the path of Nasir Khusraw gradually over seven years. He has published the report of his journey in a book titled “This Fleeting Journey, Following Nasir Khusraw Footsteps on the Silk Road on the Occasion of his Thousand’s Birthdate”(1). He has also visited the tomb of Nasir Khusraw in the remote mountains of Badakhshan in Hazrate Saeed village and published his travelogue in a book titled “The Visiting Journey” (2).
1سفر برگذشتنى، پا به پاى ناصرخسرو بر جاده ابريشم در هزارمين زادروز او.
2- سفر ديدار، سفر به كوهستان بدخشان و ديدار از مزار ناصرخسرو