From Iran to Persia (and back) by armchair

Inner court of the grand mosque, at Isphan, 1857, published in the The Illustrated London News on 10 January 1857 (volume 30, no. 839, page 21). SOAS University of London, Archives and Special Collections, MCA/01/03/07 (SOAS Archives reference number) MCA/E/7 ( Collector's reference )

Put it down to the Saharan heatwave on 25 July but a plan to try and find out more about what was happening in the Strait of Hormuz (between the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman and only 39km across at its narrowest), foundered on Level B, by the shelves NT (Iran), in the cool of SOAS University of London Library.  How easy it is to get distracted:

It was the time I loved best in the tea-house, the chill early morning when the sunlight streamed like thin smoke between the pillars, filling the vast room mysteriously; when the air was sharp with the tang of a wood fire, and the few customers sat alone and withdrawn to themselves, and the only sound was the click of glasses and the rhythmic sweep of the boy’s brush on the floor.

(Michael Carroll, Chapter 1:  Tea-house in Isfahan, From a Persian Teahouse (John Murray, 1960).

The late 1920s and 1930s appear to have been fertile years for British interest in Persia (as Iran was known in the West till 1935).  They saw the publication of The Persians (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1931) by Sir Edward Denison Ross – SOAS’s first Director.  He wrote that it was to remedy ‘The lack of a short comprehensive work on Persia in all its aspects’ and that it was being published in time for ‘the forthcoming International Exhibition of Persian Art to be held in London in 1931’.

Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana (Macmillan, 1937), now a classic of travel writing, took the form of diary entries that vividly conjured up his journey from Venice through the near and middle East to Peshawar , travelling by car and horseback, on bumpy roads or non-existent tracks, lodging one minute in diplomatic comfort, the next under the stars or in a caravanserai, visiting and recording details of sites of archaeological and architectural interest:

Shiraz (5000ft, February 17th  Beyond this lie the gardens of Hafiz and Saadi each containing the poet’s tomb, and many others equally delicious for their cypresses, pines and orange trees a-flutter with white pigeons and orchestras of sparrows. On the bare earth outside, lambskins were drying or being packed in bundles; so early is the lambing season in the South.  (p.154).*

G. H. Ebtehaj, A Guide Book on Persia (Parliament Press, Tehran, 1931) states it was written to meet the need for a handy guide to the country. On the opening page is a black-and-white portrait of H.I.M. Reza Shah Pahlavi and, left-facing, an advert for the Banque Nationale de Perse, established on 8 September 1928.  The Foreword thanks ‘Mr Arthur W. DuBois, an American, who travelled widely throughout Persia during his three years sojourn in connection with railway construction, for his helpful collaboration of this book.’  At the back of the guide is an advert for Mashaal & Co., distributors for Ford Motor Car Company.

New Shah of Persia, his majesty Muzafer-Ed-Din Published in The Illustrated London News on 9 May 1896 (volume 58, issue number 2977) SOAS University of London Archives and Special Collections MCA/01/03/07 (SOAS Archives reference number ) MCA/E/7 ( Collector's reference )
New Shah of Persia, his majesty Muzafer-Ed-Din
The Illustrated London News, 9 May 1896

On a shelf above, is Ella C. Sykes Through Persia on a side-saddle (London:  John Macqueen, 1901), who concludes her travel book:

… To the end of my days I shall be every grateful for those happy years, so rich in friends and experiences, and the ‘Land of the Lion and the Sun’ will never lose its charm for me.’

The UK/US English language publications, which sit alongside Russian and French titles on the bookshelf, reflect the West’s long-term political, economic and cultural interests in Persia/Iran.  The picture is of shifting power balances; ideological differences; and alternating diplomatic rapprochement – or sparring – centred on land, the trade of goods, and most recently oil.  While diplomats in Iran and the West are engaged in resolving the current crisis in the Strait of Hormuz, the titles are a reminder that the ebb and flow of relations between each now stretch back centuries.

Further information

Persian (Farsi):  ‘Persian is remarkably simple in terms of formal grammar’…  and another enticing feature ‘is the small extent to which it has changed over the thousand years or more of its existence as a literary language… a modern reader should have no difficulty in reading and comprehending the poems of Rudaki, the first Persian poet of note, who died in the year AD 940.’

Degree programmes in the Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Middle East


Other British writers (with a SOAS link) who travelled to Persia include:

Gertrude Bell, whose book Safar Nameh. Persian Pictures. A Book of Travel first published anonymously (1894) was reissued posthumously under her name as Persian Pictures (1928), with a preface by E. Denison Ross.

Or Freya Stark The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels, London (1934), who studied for a period in the 1930s at SOAS.

*’The Monuments on the Road to Oxiana’, 23 May 2017,  Square

Visit SOAS Archives*, for maps, engravings and other Persian-related material: Digital SOAS 

And … (the original reason for going into the library)

Mr Burzine Waghmar, (European Foundation for South Asian Studies and Research Fellow; SOAS):

Iran’s ‘trump card, if I may put it, pun unintended, is the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20% of universal fuel consumption floats every day.  We’re looking at 21 million barrels.  And that is a stranglehold point.’  Full interview BBC Radio Scotland

Andrew Serdy, Professor of the Public International Law of the Sea, University of Southampton ‘Iran: what the law of the sea says about detaining foreign ships in transit’, 23 July 2019, examines the legal implications of ‘overheated’ charge and countercharge – The Conversation

Iran tanker seizure: What is the Strait of Hormuz?   29 July 2019, BBC


Inner court of the grand mosque, at Isphan,1857, The Illustrated London News, 10 January 1857 (volume 30, no. 839, page 21). SOAS University of London, Archives and Special Collections (ref:  MCA/01/03/07, collector’s ref:  MCA/E/7).

New Shah of Persia, his majesty Muzafer-Ed-Din In The Illustrated London News, 9 May 1896 (volume 58, issue number 2977).  SOAS University of London, Archives and Special Collections (ref:  MCA/01/03/07, Collector’s ref:  MCA/E/7)

Dr Cyrus Ala’i’s Historical Maps of Persia Collection at SOAS Library is now fully digitised and is available online.



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