The Metropolis of the Persian Monarchy

Sir Thomas Herbert 1606 – 1882: as painted in 1642, when he was 36

Lord Curzon has described Thomas Herbert’s work as: “by far the most amusing work [on Persia] that has ever been published”[1]. Although Herbert visited Iran in 1626-29 – so, after della Valle and Figueroa – his account was made publicly available much more quickly. The first edition of A relation of some yeares travaile.. Into Afrique and the greater Asia, especially the Territories of the Persian Monarchiewas published in 1634. Herbert’s book was then reprinted and augmented five times, with additional Dutch and French translations appearing in 1653 and 1668 respectively[2].

The frontispiece of the Herbert's 1634 edition. From gallica. BNF image
The frontispiece of the Herbert’s 1634 edition. From gallica. BNF image

The date and popularity of Herbert’s publications make them important early influences on the symbolic image of Persia. I’m most interested in Herbert’s writings, though, because of the significant changes between the various editions.

About Isfahan, these include differences in tone as well as in how much is written about the city. In 1634, in his five-page Description of Spawhawn [Isfahan], Herbert seems unimpressed with the town:

“But he that wrote… that [Isfahan] was and is the most stately citie in the Orient… I cannot believe him, for I… could see no such strengthe, bulke or rareness in her”[3].

In 1638, he not only devotes twice as much descriptive text to the town[4] but is also much more enthusiastic:

“Spahawn .. the Metropolis of the Persian Monarchy; yea the greatest and best built City throughout the Orient”[5].


[1] George N. Curzon, Persia and the Persian Question (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1892), I/18.
[2] John Butler, “Herbert, Thomas (2)”. Worldcat lists 70 editions published between 1626 and 1976 in English and French.
[3] TH 1634, 83.
[4] “if I seem prolix, impute it to my desire to give you everything usefull and observable”. TH 1638, 153.
[5] TH 1638, 153. The 1665 edition retrenched slightly: “Spahawn, the Metropolis of this great Kingdom, yea [is] not inferior to the greatest and best built City throughout the Orient” TH 1665, 168.

1 thought on “The Metropolis of the Persian Monarchy”

  1. From Caroline:
    Here starts the first of a series of postings about Isfahan (with some other stuff mixed in as I go along, just in case anyone could possibly not be fascinated by Safavid Isfahan).
    I think lots of the work on Safavid Isfahan sees it as it is now – and not as the work-in-progress that many of the Isfahanis, and the European travellers, saw when they visited thoughout the seventeenth century.
    This is surely wrong!
    The postings will aim to bring out some of this – focusing especially on some less well known points. This week, something from one of my favourite authors – who wrote, according to Lord Curzon, “by far the most amusing work [on Persia] that has ever been published”. It’s Thomas Herbert’s A relation of some yeares travaile.


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