November 12, 2014

The Strangling of Persia

William Morgan Shuster (1877−1960) was an American lawyer and financial expert who served as treasurer general to the government of the Persian Empire in 1911. In 1910, the Persian government asked U.S. president William Howard Taft for technical assistance in reorganizing its financial system. Taft chose Shuster to head a mission of American experts to Tehran. The Strangling of Persia is Shuster’s account of his experiences, published soon after his return to the United States. In the Anglo-Russian convention of August 31, 1907, Britain and Russia had divided Persia (present-day Iran) into a Russian sphere of influence in the north of the empire and a British sphere in the south (with additional arrangements for Afghanistan and Tibet). Each power was to have exclusive commercial rights in its sphere. Under this agreement and other arrangements, Persian customs revenues were collected to guarantee the payment of interest and principal on foreign loans. Seeking to defend the interests of the Persians, Shuster clashed repeatedly with Russian and British officials, until his mission was forced to withdraw in early 1912. The book provides a detailed account of the background to the mission, of political and financial conditions in Persia in the early 20th century, and of the rivalry among Russia, Britain, and eventually Germany for influence in the country. The narrative covers the Russian military intervention of 1911, the atrocities committed by Russian troops, and the coup and dissolution of the Majlis (parliament) carried out under Russian pressure in December 1911. The book includes numerous photographs and a map, an index, and an appendix with copies of key documents and correspondence

A Complete Map of the Mountains and Oceans of the World

Sankai yochi zenzu (A complete map of the mountains and oceans of the world) is a Japanese map of the world, created around 1785 by Sekisui Nagakubo (1717−1801). The map is based on the 1602 edition of Matteo Ricci’s Great Universal Geographic Map in Chinese, first produced in 1584. It is a hand-colored wood-block print, showing the world’s continents and seas, with relief shown pictorially. An alternative title, Chikyū bankoku sankai yochi zenzusetsu (A complete illustration of the globe, all the countries, and the mountains and oceans of the earth), appears at the head of the text on the top of the map. Nagakubo was an official, geographer, cartographer, and Confucian scholar, who in 1779 made the first Japanese map of the Japanese islands to use the Western system of longitudinal and latitudinal lines. Copies of Ricci’s world map were very popular in Japan during the early 18th century, and several versions of it, with different scales and features, were produced by Nagakubo. Although by the late 18th century newer and more accurate world maps by Dutch cartographers were introduced to Japan, copies of Ricci’s map remained in demand, in part because of conservative resistance to the use of double globes or hemispheres, which were employed in the newer maps.


Angus Hamilton was a British journalist who reported for a number of newspapers and journals between 1894 and 1912. Among the events he covered were the Boer War in South Africa, the Boxer uprising in China, and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5. Like most books of this period, Afghanistan approaches its subject through the prism of the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for influence in Central Asia, the so-called “Great Game.” The first chapter is devoted to the Orenburg−Tashkent Railway (in present-day Russia, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan) recently completed by the Russians. It is followed by chapters devoted to the khanates, provinces, and districts to the north of Afghanistan, notably Bukhara, Tashkent, Samarkand, and Merv, territories located in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. Subsequent chapters cover Herat, Kandahar, Seistan (Sistan), and Kabul. Hamilton also devotes separate chapters to the provinces and ethnic groups in the country; administration, law, and revenue; trade and industry; and the army. The author highly praises Abd al-Rahman Khan, ruler of Afghanistan from 1880 to 1901, for his work in creating a modern army, but concludes: “It is to be regretted that the late Amir, while evolving out of a heterogeneous collection of warring tribes a settled and independent country, failed to bequeath to his son any portion of his own singular abilities.” His son and successor was Habibullah Khan (1872–1919, reigned 1901–19). Presented here is a second edition of the book, published in Boston and Tokyo as part of the “Oriental Series.” The first edition was published in London in 1906.

A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun

Josiah Harlan (1799−1871) was an adventurer and soldier of fortune who possibly was the first American to travel to Afghanistan. Born in Pennsylvania into a large Quaker family, he went to Asia in 1823, where he found employment as a surgeon with the British East India Company. In 1827 he entered the service of Shah Shooja-ool-Moolk, the former leader of Afghanistan who had been deposed in 1810. Harlan remained in Afghanistan for 14 years, where he engaged in various intrigues with rival Afghan leaders, several times changing allegiances. During the First Afghan War (1839–42) his activities infuriated the British authorities, who expelled him from the country. A Memoir of India and Avghanistaun is Harlan’s account of his adventures in South Asia, published in 1842, shortly after his return to the United States. The book and a series of interviews that Harlan gave to newspapers at the time stoked American interest in Afghanistan and the war then underway. The book begins with a discussion of the disastrous defeat of the Anglo-Indian force at the hands of Afghan tribesmen in January 1842. Six of the book’s seven chapters deal with British India, its foreign policy, and its relationship to Afghanistan. The seventh, and by far the longest, chapter is a detailed description of Amir Dōst Moḥammad Khān (1793–1863), based in part on Harlan’s service to and interactions with the amir. The book has three appendices. The first and third are concerned with the British defeat of 1842; the second is an 18-page essay that attempts to explain contemporary historical events with reference to a prophecy in the Bible (Daniel xi, 45). The book has several maps and a portrait, in profile, of Dōst Moḥammad.

Cabool: A Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City, in the Years 1836, 7, and 8

Cabool: A Personal Narrative of a Journey to, and Residence in that City, in the Years 1836, 7, and 8 is an account of an 18-month voyage undertaken by Sir Alexander Burnes and three companions by order of the governor-general of India. The purpose of the journey was to survey the Indus River and the territories adjoining it, with the aim of opening up the river to commerce. Following a route that took them up the Indus from its mouth in present-day Pakistan, Burnes and his party visited Shikarpur, Peshawar, Kabul, Herat, and Jalalabad, before completing their journey in Lahore. The book contains detailed information about the ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups living in Afghanistan and parts of present-day Pakistan, and observations about the war underway at that time between the Sikh Empire and the Emirate of Afghanistan. Also included is a brief account of the formal audience with the amir of Afghanistan, Dōst Moḥammad Khān, who cordially received the visitors as representatives of the governor-general of India. Of particular interest is the economic and demographic data compiled by Burnes and his party, which is presented in striking detail. The book notes, for example, that the bazaar at Dera Ghazee Khan (present-day Dera Ghazi Khan City, Pakistan) had 1,597 shops, of which 115 were sellers of cloth, 25 sellers of silk, 60 jewelers, 18 paper sellers, and so forth. Equally detailed information is given about the prices of grains and other commodities, the production of dates and pomegranates, and the number of Hazaras living in the region between Kabul and Herat, which is put at 66,900. Burnes was killed in Afghanistan in 1841, and this book was published posthumously.

Campaign of the Indus: In a Series of Letters from an Officer of the Bombay Division

Campaign of the Indus: In a Series of Letters from an Officer of the Bombay Division is a privately published collection of letters, written by Lieutenant T.W. Holdsworth between November 27, 1838, and April 21, 1840. Holdsworth’s division was part of the Anglo-Indian force that invaded Afghanistan during the First Anglo-Afghan War of 1839–42. Most of the letters are addressed to Holdsworth’s father, A.H. Holdsworth, who wrote the introduction and edited and published the book. The introduction sketches some of the history of Afghanistan, from the campaigns of Alexander the Great to the recent involvement of the British in the country, and their attempt, temporarily successful, to install the pro-British Shāh Shujāʻ as ruler. The letters recount the journey by sea of Lieutenant Holdsworth and his unit to the mouth of the Indus River, the march to Afghanistan, and encampments at Kandahar and other locations. Holdsworth was severely wounded in the capture of the fort and citadel of Kelat on November 13, 1839, which he recounts in his letter to his father of December 8. The letters contain descriptions of the Afghan countryside; reports and speculations on Dōst Moḥammad, the leader of the resistance to the invaders; and details about the workings of the Anglo-Indian army that included British officers, Indian troops, and Indian sirdars (noblemen) engaged on the British side. The appendix reproduces official dispatches relating to the campaign, the numbers of men killed and wounded from the different units, and the names of British officers and Baluchi sirdars killed and wounded.

The Cradle of the War: The Near East and Pan-Germanism

The Cradle of the War: The Near East and Pan-Germanism is a study of the origins of World War I. The author, Henry Charles Woods (1881−1939), argues that the main cause of the conflict was “the Pan-German desire for domination from Hamburg to the Persian Gulf.” The book offers an overview of political and military developments in the Near East (defined as the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor), with chapters on Serbia and Montenegro, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, and Albania. Later chapters cover military highways in the Balkans, the Dardanelles campaign, the port of Salonica (present-day Thessaloniki, Greece) and its hinterland, and the attempt by the German Empire to build a Berlin-to-Baghdad railroad in the period before World War I. The final chapter, entitled “Mittel-Europa” (Central Europe), deals with German policy toward the region, based in part on writings by Prince Karl Max von Lichnowsky (1860−1928), the former German ambassador to Great Britain. In a privately circulated pamphlet of 1916, Lichnowsky claimed that his efforts from London to prevent war had not been supported by the German government. Lichnowsky’s pamphlet was published in January 1918 under the title Revelations of Prince Lichnowsky and widely circulated by the allies as proof of Germany’s responsibility for the war. Woods’s book, which is based on a series of lectures at the Lowell Institute in Boston in 1916−17, reflects British and American thinking of the time. Historians have since concluded that many countries besides Germany played a role in Europe’s slide toward war.

Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis

Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis (The Stockholm papyrus) is a codex consisting of 15 leaves containing 154 recipes for the manufacture of dyes and colors used in fashioning artificial stones. Written in Greek around AD 300, it is one of the earliest complete treatises of its kind and an important vehicle for the transmission of practical information from the Alexandrian (Old Egyptian) world to Byzantium and Western Europe. The manuscript appears to have been written by the same scribe as a similar codex in the Rijksmuseum van Oudheden in Leiden, also containing different recipes for the manufacture of materials. Both texts clearly include the recipes of practitioners. Papyrus Graecus Holmiensis was presented to the Swedish Royal Academy of Antiquities in 1832 by the consul general of Sweden and Norway at Alexandria. It most likely had been discovered shortly before that date, possibly at Thebes.

The Travels of Marco Polo

This manuscript from about 1350 is one of the oldest extant copies of Les voyages de Marco Polo (The travels of Marco Polo), the account by the Venetian merchant Marco Polo (circa 1254−1324) of his adventures in Central Asia and the Far East during the latter part of the 13th century. It is possibly one of five manuscripts relating to Marco Polo’s journey that belonged to King Charles V of France (reigned 1364−80). Later it was part of the library of the French book collector Alexandre Petau. It was sold to Queen Christina of Sweden (1626−89) in 1650. Accompanied by his father Niccolò and his uncle Maffeo, Marco Polo travelled overland to China in 1271–75. He then spent 17 years serving Kublai Khan (1215–94), grandson of Genghis Khan and conqueror of China, for whom he undertook assignments in China as well as in South and Southeast Asia. The three Venetians returned to their native city by sea in 1292–95. Marco Polo soon was caught up in the war between Venice and Genoa, for which he equipped and commanded a galley in the Venetian navy. He was taken prisoner by the Genoese in 1296. According to tradition, while in prison he dictated the stories of his travels to a cellmate, Rustichello da Pisa, who wrote them down in Old French. Marco Polo’s account was not just a simple record of the journey, but a description of the world—a mixture of a travel report, legend, hearsay, and practical information. For these reasons, Les voyages de Marco Polo is sometimes called Divisament du monde (Description of the world) or Livre des merveilles du monde (Book of the marvels of the world). The work was an important introduction for Europeans to the history and geography of Central Asia and China. At the end of the Stockholm manuscript is a mappa mundi, a medieval schematic zonal map of the world, which, however, may be a later addition.

Book of Different Things

This codex, entitled Livre de plusieurs choses (Book of different things), contains 120 poems in French. The title, now hardly visible, is on the upper cover of the manuscript. Comprising 252 extant paper leaves, it was compiled without any discernible structure or organization by a number of different scribes sometime between 1475 and 1500. The manuscript includes parts of the renowned Le Lais (Le Petit Testament) and Le Grand Testament of François Villon (1431−63) and is one of the principal sources of the former work. It also contains poems by Guillaume Machaut (circa 1300−1377) and Christine de Pisan (circa 1364−circa 1431), two well-known French poets, and other French medieval authors, some of whom are unidentified. Several of the poems are known only from this manuscript. The codex was owned by the famous French collector, Claude Fauchet (1530−1601) and later, by Paul Petau (1568−1614). In 1650, Queen Christina of Sweden (1626−89) bought it from Alexandre Petau, the son of Paul Petau.