Delights of the Exotic: Engelbert Kaempfer Travels to Persia

Introduction.

In 1795 the Bishop of Worcester, Rev Richard Hurd, donated to the Cathedral Library two books by Engelbert Kaempfer. One of these was “Amoenitatum Exoticarum” (Delights of the Exotic) in Latin, published in 1712.

 

“The names of the Benefactors contributing towards furnishing the Library of Cathedral Church of Worcester” (WCA A399i) for the year 1795. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

 

Engelbert Kaempfer

Engelbert Kaempfer (1651 –1716), was a German naturalist and physician, diplomat and explorer who, between 1683 and 1693 travelled in Russia, Persia, India, South-East Asia, and Japan.

On his return to Germany in 1695, he wrote about his travels. His first book, Amoenitatum Exoticarum (Delights of the Exotic) is important for observations made in Persia which did much to enhance Western knowledge of the Safavid court and the ancient site of Persepolis.

Engelbert Kaempfer was born at Lemgo in Germany, the second of three sons of a Lutheran pastor. He studied in Germany and Danzig and after graduating at Kraków, spent four years at at Königsberg in Prussia, studying medicine and natural science.

In 1681, he registered at Uppsala University in Sweden and in 1683 was offered the post of secretary to the Swedish ambassador Ludvig Fabritius, sent by Charles XI to Persia. The purpose of the Swedish legation was to gain access to Oriental goods and raw materials, avoiding the Dutch East India Company’s carrying trade and the long sea route round Africa. In addition, there was an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the Shah of Persia to join the Christian armies of Europe against their common enemy, the Ottoman Turks.

The embassy travelled overland through Russia. They crossed the Caspian Sea, then followed established caravan routes to Isfahan, the capital of Safavid Persia, which they reached on March 29, 1684.

Throughout his travels, Kaempfer exhibited great interest in historical sites, landscapes, and natural curiosities. He interviewed inhabitants, travellers and soldiers, asking for information about local features. In addition, he sketched people, objects and towns, sketches which were turned into engravings in Amoenitatum Exoticarum by F.W. Brandshagen.

 

A Description of the Court and State of Persia

The first section of the work is devoted to a description of the Royal Court. Kaempfer describes the coronations (he had two) of Suleiman 1 (Safi II). He writes a chapter on the appearance and character of the King, including an engraving of a portrait of Suleiman (looking rather like a seventeenth century European monarch!) between Tamurlane (Timur) and Sheikh Safi, an eminent leader of an Islamic Sufi order established by the Safavids and whose dynastic name Suleiman adopted, ruling from 1 November 1666 to 29 July 1694.

 

Portrait of Suleiman between Timur and Sheik Safi. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Kaempfer goes on to describe the role, responsibilities and character of the Prime Minister, the weaponry and training of the Persian army, and the Persian court administration and legal system. One chapter is devoted to the income and expenditure of the court and the sources of the kingdom’s wealth, another to spiritual and religious matters. He explains the primacy of Islamic (religious) laws, the role of Imams and describes religious buildings.

Education, he writes, is undertaken in madrasas where the topics studied include not just Arabic and the Koran, but also arts, mathematics and science. Kaempfer tells us how the court is provisioned, he describes the royal library, he tells of the royal horses and the menagerie (lions, tigers, lynxes and “similar ferocious wild beasts”), a falconry and a special hospital for patients with tuberculosis.

Kaempfer turns his attention to the buildings, geography and people of Persia and provides a magnificent (now rather damaged) engraving of the Persian Safavid capital, Isphahan.

 

Landscape view of Isphahan, detail below. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The artist in full-bottomed wig and dress coat with a slave in attendance. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Turning his attention to the daily life of the people of the town and countryside, Kaempfer describes their houses and the appearance of different classes of citizen.

 

Dress worn by various inhabitants of Isphahan. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

He describes the palace complex, the function of its different sections and gates, the women’s quarters and its many gardens.

Kaempfer made a trip to ancient Persepolis, capital of the Achaemenid Empire (500-300BCE) which was in ruins by the seventeenth century.

He describes the monuments and carvings of the city, giving an account of the principal features, history, geography and religion of Persepolis quoting biblical and ancient Greek as well as local sources.

 

The Palace at Persepolis. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The language of Persepolis was Old Persian and the writing was in cuneiform, which was not deciphered until the nineteenth century, but is beautifully illustrated by Kaempfer.

 

Illustration of Old Persian Cuneiform. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Kaempfer then describes the city of Shiraz, its famous roses and even more famous wine production. He describes the medical qualities of balsam from the mountainous region of Benna whose fauna includes leopards, bears, hyenas and wolves.

 

The fauna of the mountains. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

Kaempfer describes the history and importance of the date palm, and its cultivation in Persia. He explains the regular cycle of visits to the palm tree groves throughout the year. There is an account of the challenges, pests (eg scorpions) and diseases (eg dracunculiasis), the difficulties of working in the palm groves and of the way of life which grew up around the plantations.

 

Work in and around the palm grove. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

     

He gives an account of the organisation of trade. Kaempfer describes the caravanserais (karwaansera) built to accommodate traders, the arrangement for a water supply and buildings are described and an account given of entertainments, dancing and music and the manner of travel for people and goods.

 

Persian merchant travellers. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

 

The last chapter considers international trade. It includes a description of the town of Ghamron (now Bandar Abbas) on the “Island of Ormus” (Straits of Hormuz) and an illustration showing the fortifications of different nationalities indicated.

 

Gamron nel Bander Abayi. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)ge copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

   

The book ends with a more than full page map of the Persian Gulf and the Straits of Hormuz, as important to international shipping then as it is today.

 

Diana Westmoreland

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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