Speed: Shah ‘Abbās . . and shoelaces

Shah ‘Abbās the First was a famously itinerant ruler: travelling up to a annual maximum of 4500km (in 1591-2 – and that’s not counting his prodigious hunting trips). On each of his average-thirty-odd annual moves, Melville has calculated that the Shah generally covered 34-45 km/day. ‘Abbās could, however, travel much faster: Pietro della Valle wrote of how the Shah “often goes alone, travelling with two or three others, travelling rapidly on the fastest horses, with which he often does thirty days journey or more in five or six days”.

Buying 39.9m (a tanab) of rope (also called tanab) for my fieldwork

Using Yazdi’s astrolabe (click here and here to see two other seventeenth century astrolabes, coincidentally produced by a different Yazdi), ‘Abbās was clocked at an impressive 13km/hr between Shiraz and Yazd: spending 28 hours and 39 minutes in the saddle, on a pregnant mare – “very good going for a party of horsemen”, as Melville commented.

Measuring distances using a tanab can be done at normal walking speed, when you've worked out the system

Merchants were slower: in 1618, the East India Company agent, Pettus, gave the distance between the coast and Isfahan as 550 or 560 miles [c.900km]; and reckoned that, including a rest allowance of two or three days, this could be covered by a horse in 30 days [so, c.30km/day], an ass in 40 days, and a camel in 45 days. Tavernier agreed that camels, although the cheapest option, were slow – suggesting that horse caravans were twice as fast, while men travelling with no merchandise could travel four times faster.  In 1665, Tavernier’s own journey from the coast to Isfahan took 40 days; while Kaempfer, travelling with an EIC caravan in 1685, took 37 days.

Ambassadors usually travelled at an even more leisurely pace. Figueroa – delayed especially by his difficulties in getting pack-animals and permissions – spent 36 days just getting from the coast to Shiraz, plus another 14 days travelling from Shiraz to Isfahan. In 1701, the Dutch Ambassador spent even longer on the road.

Assessment of speed is of course dependant on distance measurement. The Safavids generally used the farsakh as their distance-unit, and this is explicitly defined at just under 6km. For the 1601 pilgrimage, Yazdi used a (tanab-length: c.40m) measured rope to quantify each daily walk; and this was confirmed as part of my fieldwork as both exact and surprisingly easy to use.

In practice, however, Houtum-Schindler is clear that the popular farsakh may vary with the area (in the plains of Khorasan it is proverbially “as long as the intestines of ’Omar”); the gradient (shorter in hilly areas); whether one is on horseback or not (shorter for pedestrians); and even, for one Kurdish gentleman, the behaviour of his shoelaces (when they needed tying, he had walked one farsakh).

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