Persian travel sketches


Sunday morning. Rome has been packed for the feast of the Immaculate Conception. The crowd is emanating from the station, police must direct traffic in the subway, and it is not possible to board the buses. So I walk in the bright sunlight to the Piazza dei Santi Apostoli, the Odescalchi Palace, where, for three days, one can see the items prepared for the book auction of Minerva Auctions. Including one, which is extremely important from both the Hungarian and the Orientalist perspective: the Oriental travel album of Count Fedor Karacsay.

This album, so writes the auction catalog, includes thirty-eight colored drawings on Anatolian and Persian folk costumes, soldiers, cities. What makes them special is their date and the person who compiled them. The cover of the album bears the date “1853, 1854, 1855”: this is the age of Persia’s opening to the West. And its compiler, or, in fact, as we shall see, artist, was a Hungarian aristocrat who played a prominent role in this opening. And moreover, one decade before the journey of Arminius Vambery, he is generally considered the first great Persian traveler.

In the library of the palace I am received by the expert of the auction house Silvia Ferrini. She personally shows me the album, whose drawings were mounted on low quality Eastern cardboard, which breaks even if touched too forcefully. To my great delight, she agrees that I can take a photo of each page of the album. I appreciate the historical significance of the moment. These hastily made photos will testify to a unique historical document, which emerged only for three days from the obscurity of a private collection in Rome, to most likely disappear again for at least one generation into another private collection.

While I am ordering my photos in my hotel room in Rome, Dani Kálmán in Budapest is compiling the author’s biography:

Portrait of Count Fedor Karacsay from the picture archive of the Austrian National Library.

Hungarian travelers have long wandered the paths of Persia. Initially only with political purposes, to forge a coalition against the emerging, and then powerful Ottoman Empire, but later a new scientific interest has also joined these efforts. However, while the journeys of such great Orientalists as Ármin Vámbéry or Sándor Kégl are well documented, the history of Hungarian-Iranian connections has a less well-known key figure as well: Count Fedor Karacsay of Vályeszáka.

Fedor Karacsay (1787-1859) is today perhaps best known as a painter, if he is known at all. The various online art databases, copying each other, close short his biography by mentioning his activity as a painter and graphic artist, who “illustrated ethnographic works”, and one aquarelle of him is kept by the Hungarian Historical Gallery. However, he also produced maps, and he was a fertile writer as well. The multi-volume Szinnyei Lexicon of Hungarian authors mentions eight of his works in German and French, but by
searching on the web you can also find some works not figuring in Szinnyei. These include military handbooks, a treatise on the popular Bell-Lancaster teaching method, and several guide books in French on Sicily, Rome, Naples, London, and last but not least, Moldavia, Bukovina, Wallachia and Bessarabia.

Map of Sicily drawn by Fedor Karacsay in his guide book

However, about his life we do not know much more than what Szinnyei writes. He graduated in the Theresianum, the Military Academy of Wiener Neustadt, and then he had a varied career. In 1805 he was a cadet of the Liechtenstein hussar regiment, and in 1813 he served as a lieutenant in the Dresden battle ending with Napoleon’s victory. Later he was the chamberlain of Archduke Miksa József of Hapsburg-Este, more or less of his age, then commander of space of the 1st Lanceman’s Regiment in Mantova. In the 1830s he was the town commander of Cattaro (today Kotor in Montenegro). At this time he drew vedutas on the Kotor Bay, reported the Viennese court about the internal situation, and he allegedly had good relations with Petrović-Njegoš Petar II, Vladika (Prince-Bishop) of Montenegro. His book on Montenegro was first published in 1836, heavily censored for current political reasons. On 15 July 1849, in the last days of the Hungarian War of Independence against Austria, the Hungarian government sent him as an envoy first to the Pasha of Belgrade, then the Serbian government, and finally, at the end of September, he was already in Istanbul, as the representative of the Hungarian nation.

Our last European report about Fedor Karacsay is the letter sent by him on 25 May 1853 from Brünn to the great Hungarian politician Ferenc Deák, which was read by the academician Ferenc Kubinyi at the meeting of the Department of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The literature makes references to this letter, but its content is not known in detail, only in the summary that appeared in the 1853 yearbook of the Academy. According to this, Karacsay was ready to research and collect any material concerning “the origins and ancient representatives” of Hungarians. By the time of the reading, he also sent his first report from Tehran, mentioning that he would be soon sent to Herat, Balkh and Bokhara, and that he also hopes to reach Samarkand, which was the seat of the Uighurs, whom he considered the ancestors of Hungarians. We do not know how much he was able to realize from these great plans, certainly initiated with great enthusiasm, during the six years standing before him. What is certain is that six years later he died with the rank of General, on 2 July 1859 in Tehran.

The Qajar Period, the “long 19th century” of Persia, the age of the opening to the West, which later proved so fatal to the country, reached its peak in the three European journeys of Shah Naser al-Din (reigned 1848-1896) in 1873, 1878 and 1889, during which he also touched Budapest. One of the most important events, which determined the whole cultural life of late 19th-century Persia, was the foundation of Dar al-Fanum, the first Iranian institution of higher education, in 1851. The polytechnic was founded by Amir Kabir (1807–1852), the controversial and short-lived vizier of Naser al-Din, who, during his five-years (1848-1852) of employment proved to be one of the main motors of modernization. Although the shah, because of court intrigues, let him to be killed in 1852, the college could go on operating. In addition to arts education, it focused on natural sciences. The professors, coming from Europe, initially mainly from Austria, taught medicine, mathematics and geology, but photography also had its faculty. This science, which in Europe was considered a “bourgeois art”, appeared in Persia only a few years after its invention, and enjoyed the personal patronage of the Shah. Great emphasis was placed on military and engineering education, aiming at the strengthening of the Iranian fortresses and the reform of the army. We do not exactly know the reason which brought Count Karacsay to Persia, but his professional experience undoubtedly played an important role. It is certain that, in addition to his tasks of military organization, mapping and teaching, in 1854 he was also appointed General Staff of the Shah. Today’s Iranian history considers him the organizer of modern Iranian army.


The special feature of the album is, thus, that it was put together by someone who knew contemporary Persia from inside and thoroughly, and nevertheless he was able to watch it with the eyes of the outsider, and represent it with a European perspective for the European viewer.


The collection, bound in blue velvet and entitled “ALBUM” in metal letters, consists of forty numbered pages. The first page is the frontispiece, showing the title in Persian and French: یادآوری برای ولایت شرقی, Yâdâverî-ye barâye vilâyet-e sharkî (Remembering the Eastern province[s]), and Souvenirs d’Orient, and the author’s name: dessinés par le Comte F. Karacsay en 1853, 1854, 1855. The second page is the French-language contents of the volume. The third page, the first drawing of the volume represents the young Naser al-Din Shah, as if to increase the “official” character of the volume. It is further enhanced by adding the caption also in Persian: ناصرالدین شاه ایران, Nâsir al-Din Shâh-e Îrân, Naser al-Din, King of Persia. We do not know whether it was drawn by Karacsay. It is missing the signature “Ky”, figuring in all the other drawings, and its style is also different from them. This can be also due to the fact that the portrait was not made after life, but copied from a Persian miniature, a version of Muhammad Isfahani’s recent monarchial portrait. An important difference is that, in the drawing in the album, he wears the insignia of the Persian chief military commander, a light blue ribbon.


Muhammad Isfahani: The young Naser al-Din Shah, early 1850s

The following fourteen, and then three more drawings (4-17, and 23-25) represent ethnographic types, whom Karacsay must have met on his way from Constantinople to Persia, or later in the country: Turks from Constantinople, Trapezunt, and Sinope, Anatolian and Persian Kurds, Nestorian Assyrians from Greater Armenia (who, during the genocide of 1915, would eventually flee to Persia, around Lake Urumiya), Persians, Turkmens from Tehran.

The next five drawings (18-22) represent the figures of the new, European-type army, whose modernization was Karacsay’s assigned task.

And finally the remaining fifteen drawings (26-40) show cities from Trapezunt through the Anatolian mountins to Tehran, and one (39) from Khorasan, which, together with no. 23 representing an Afghan warrior from Herat, refers to the fact that Karacsay, immediately after reaching Persia, went to the Eastern borders of the country. It is interesting that Arminius Vámbéry walked along the same path, described in detail in his Persian Travelogue, and he also reports about his encounter with Shah Naser al-Din, but he does not mention a single word about Karacsay, although he must not have been indifferent to the fact that, from the point of this reception, that the name of Hungarians had already been introduced at the Court of Persia.


The starting price of this extraordinary document of Oriental and Hungarian studies is fixed in 3-4 thousand euros in the auction catalog. It would be very good if it found its deserved place in a Hungarian public collection. However unlikely this might be, we want to give it a chance with this entry.