The Motovun Group of International publishers (MGIP) have given their Silver Award in the category history to Russell Harris and Marjan Afsharian for their innovative work on the illustrated diary of a late 19th-century British soldier, John Compton Pyne. A Journal of Three Months’ Walk in Persia in 1884, published by the prestigious Leiden University Press in the Netherlands, reproduces the diary of an English soldier as he walked across Persia, complete with his charming and accomplished watercolour illustrations along with many complimentary photographs and engravings of the time.
The Journal had remained unseen at least since the writer’s death in 1893 fighting against the Mahdists in the Sudan when it ended up, along with some other papers and notes, in the archives of the Military Museum of Devon and Dorset. When they first saw the Journal, Harris and Afsharian were convinced that the delightful narrative of exploration, adventure and discovery, along with its illustrations, would be of interest to the public in the UK and Iran, and they set about transcribing, annotating and contextualising the narrative.
Speaking about the MGIP Silver Award, Russell Harris said: “We are thrilled that our work has been recognised with this Silver Award in the history category and we thank Leiden University Press for having faith in the value of this Journal and devoting their resources to producing such a handsome book.”
The Journal tells the story of an English soldier with a smattering of Persian who decided, rather than returning directly from India to England, to take a steamer up the Persian Gulf, disembark at Bushehr on the southern Persian coast, and then travel by horse the almost 800 miles to the Caspian Sea. His journey back home to Basildon takes him through Baku, Astrakhan, Moscow and St. Petersburg.
On Pyne’s ride through Persia, hints of the politics of the time appear — such as the Great Game, the rivalry between the Russian and British empires for influence in Central Asia. He also comes across the pleasurable company of the British telegraph operators stationed in remote parts of the countryside who to a man were hospitable to travellers and who represented both the inroads of modernity and a by-product of Empire-led technological achievement. The Journal, lavishly illustrated with Pyne’s own expert watercolours, executed on the spot, reports in an honest and charming manner on the sites of Persia as well as on a variety of characters, consuls, missionaries, colourful local personalities and the small band of European experts busy harvesting antiquities for their institutions’ growing collections.
In preparing the Journal for publication, Russell and Marjan decided to augment the watercolour illustrations with photographs, engravings and other visual material of the time in an endeavour to convey the attraction of Persia to a late-Victorian soldier. As well as providing a commentary on Pyne’s Journal they throw his narrative into greater relief by providing many, sometimes amusing, quotations from the works of other doughty travellers and illustrators of the time who took the same route and saw things through different eyes. The editors have also written an introduction to the work, setting Pyne’s journey against a background of the prevailing British cultural awareness of late-Qajar Persia, highlighting Persian-inspired works in the fields of music, literature and the popular arts and recreating the late-19th century British view of Persia, whose ruler, Nasir al-Din Shah had visited London in 1873 to a find a rapturous reception and a lively interest in all things Persian.
Before joining the Institute of Ismaili Studies in 2011 as an editor on the Encyclopaedia Islamica project and other works, Russell Harris, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, curated exhibitions of late-Victorian studio photography in museums across Europe. He has also published translations from Arabic of works by the great Egyptian writers Alaa Al Aswany and Naguib Mahfouz. At the IIS he is currently preparing two works on the Shari’a for publication as well as consulting on the Epistles of the Brethren of Purity series.
Marjan Afsharian, who hails from Mashhad, Iran, is also an editor on the Encyclopaedia Islamica. Marjan is currently working on the Persian translation of the Journal for publication in Iran where she believes the readership will be gripped by the voice, and commentary, and extraordinary illustrations of an ordinary visitor from the past.