A trip to Central Asia was a long cherished desire of Vámbéry. The search for the Eastern roots of the Hungarians stimulated the imagination of not a few Hungarians since the travel of Sándor Kőrösi Csoma. His national sentiments which flared up on the wake of his experiences in 1849, were an important incentive in his turning towards the East, but his real goal crystallized in his Constantinople years. He recognized, that the development, transformation and interaction of peoples can be traced back through the study of the development of the language. In the foreword of his travelogue, written in September 1864, he specifically stated his mission:

“It is known, that the Hungarian language belngs to the so-called Altaic family of languages; but whether to the Finnish or to the Tatar branch, this question is yet to be concluded. To find an answer to it, which is so interesting and important to us Hungarians both from national and scientific point of view, was the main and decisive reason of my Estern journey. I wished to ascertain the actual grade of relationship between the Hungarian and Turco-Tatar languages by way of the practical study of the living languages…” 1

With the Latin letter of recommendation of the Hungarian Academy 2 and their support of 1000 forints in his pocket, at the end of 1861 he set to Istanbul, where he spent several months with the preparations of his Eastern journey. His start was also delayed by the cholera epidemic which broke out at the Iranian border. 3


Among other things, he took language lessons from az Uzbek from Majman, a certain Khalmurad Mullah, 4 and in private libraries he had access to Eastern Turkic literary works and manuscripts. He reported about his joy over these discoveries in his letters written to his Hungarian friends, especially to József Budenz (1836-1892).

Through his Turkish acquaintances he obtained two more letters of recommendation. These already do not recommend the Hungarian scholar Vámbéry on his way to study the Turco-Tatar language, but Reshid efendi from Constantinople, to the attention and benevolence of its readers, especially of Haidar efendi, the Porta’s ambassador to Teheran.

His capital consisted essentially from his knowledge of the Turkish language, perfected for four years, and of the successfully learned and practised behavioral patterns. In their possession not only could he act the role of the educated Ottoman efendi, but these also helped him in the communication with his Muslim environment, and even in finding his ways in the Shiite society of Persia, whose culture was different from the one he learned.


In March 1862 he left Istanbul on a steamship for Trapezunt, where he enjoyed for a few days the hospitality of the Governor, Muhlis Emin Pasha. On 21 May 1862 he joined a caravan, continuing his way on horseback to Erzurum. There he was received for three days by his Istanbul patron, Husein Daim Pasha.

Vámbéry, who wandered about in the role of a Sunni Turk, had to pass through the various manifestations of the aversion of the Shiites in the Persian world, which was for him a totally different environment in contrast to the friendly Ottoman world. In the searing July heat he reached through the city of Khoj the Azeri-inhabited Tabriz, and after two weeks of rest he moved forward on donkeyback to Tehran. He expressed his new impressions by a continuous comparison of the Turkish and Persian customs, and while on the former he gives an image idealized in every respect, he most often condems the latter because of their way of living and religious fanaticism. In a letter written to Budenz from this period he bitterly reports that he “instead of Ottoman Turkish speaks in a rough Tatar language”. 5

Persia. Map by W. Darton Jr., London, 1811 (full map here, 5 MB)

Along the way, in Tabriz and Tehran, he met several Europeans, whose companionship was a refreshing experience for him in Persia, which he regarded as more closed, more Oriental, and thus stranger than the Ottoman civilization. His new acquaintances, in addition to trying to dissuade him to continue his trip, also provided useful information on the local conditions. Among others, he met Keith Edward Abbott (1814–1873), the former British consul in Tehran and Tabriz. He summed up his stay in Tabriz like this: “The two weeks spent here, on the one hand introduced me deeper into the Oriental world, but on the other hand, by the frequent contact with westerners, revived in me the memories of European life.” 6


Vámbéry arrived in Tehran on 13 July 1862, where he immediately went to visit Haidar efendi, who was already waiting for him. Through him he met the French and British ambassadors, Gobineau and Sir Charles Alison. The Persian capital had a deep, but mixed impression on Vámbéry, who provided valuable details about the local customs.

The continuation of his way was temporarily blocked by a local armed conflict affecting the planned Mashad–Herat route, the attack of the Afghan Emir Dost Muhammed Khan (1793–1863) against his son-in-law and vassal ruling Herat. As he wanted to avoid crossing the desert in the winter, he postponed his Central Asian journey until March 1863. In order not to get too much used to the pleasant Tehran conditions – as he wrote: “to avoid tranquility, which may have become harmful for my future”, in September 1862 he traveled to southern Persia, Isfahan and Shiraz, from where he returned to Tehran only in January 1863.

He described his travels in Persia in a separate volume. 7 This detour of his Eastern journey led through the important Shiite pilgrimage city of Qom – where he visited the tomb of the daughter of the seventh imam Musa al-Kadhim, Fatima, revered as a saint –, Kashan and Isfahan to Shiraz. This unscheduled section of his travel had few scientific results, it may be of interest rather for his observations and vivid pictures of life, rich in detail, published in his travelogue. Vámbéry, who in this part of Persia was already preceded by several other European travelers, was led to this forced detour by his personal curiosity and the will of maintaining his fitness for the long Central Asian journey. 8

He did not have to see major atrocities as a Sunni pilgrim, but the derision and argumentative passion of the Persians was his constant and unpleasant follower along the way. The ancient ruins of Persepolis had a deep inpact on him. He also used several European descriptions as a scientific complement to his observations. 9 His enthusiasm is shown by his signature carved in stone, written under that of his fellow compatriot, the physician and amateur Orientalist István Maróthi István (1799–1845), who visited the ruins in 1839. 10 He spent three months in Shiraz, the native land of the great Persian poets Hafez (1326-1390) and Sadi (1210-1291), and due to his acquaintance with the locally active Swedish doctor Fagergreen he “had a good occasion to study the customs and morals of this southern city”. 11 Through Fagergreen he got in contact with the attaché of the French embassy in Tehran visiting the city, and accepting his generous offer, he returned to Tehran in a much greater comfort than his coming to Shiraz.

In the Persian capital he managed to position himself as a benevolent intermediary between the Turkish ambassador hosting him again, and the poor Sunni pilgrims patronized by the Ottomans. His popularity helped him to get closer to a group of Eastern Turks from Khokand, Jarkand and Aksu, coming back from their Mecca pilgrimage. In his letter from Tehran he informed József Budenz that he would not give up his original intention of traveling to Central Asia despite the fact that the support of the Hungarian Academy deposited at the Istanbul consulate could not be forwarded to him in Tehran. 12 On 22 March 1863 he finally could set on the way of his original mission.

The pilgrims of Kashgar choose from the three potential routes the one they considered the safest, leading along the western border of the Turkmen desert, parallel with the coast of the Caspian Sea, then turning to East, and going through Khiva to Bokhara. Started from the station of Karatepe (Qaratappah) they left the territory of Iran, and by bypassing the promontory separating the open water of the Caspian Sea from the Iranian coastline they headed towards Gümüstepe (Gomishan). Crossing the Atrek river, Vámbéry made a long desert road, either on horse- or on camelback, or by foot, as a member of the caravan of an estimated 40 members and 80 camels.

The Turkmen desert, and especially the Central Asian khanates were extremely dangerous for non-Muslim, European travelers. The dangers menacing the travelers in these very closed Sunni communities which, on the border of the Russian and English spheres of influence, loked with an increased suspicion on all strangers, and seeing a spy in every European, are well attested by the tragic fate of the two travelers arriving here a couple of years before Vámbéry, and mentioned in his memoirs. In Bokhara the British diplomat and officer Charles Stoddart (1806–1842) was put in prison in 1838 with the charge of espionage on the command of Emir Nasrullah, and beheaded in 1842 together with the British traveler Arthur Conolly (1807–1842) coming to Bokhara to request his release. Nevertheless, the missionarian Joseph Wolff (1795–1862) coming to find them a year later could return alive from Bokhara. The French officer in Iranian service Henri Blocqueville de Couillebeuf was kidnapped by the Turkmens, but he was finally released for a ransom of 12,000 gold. 13

The authentic performance of Vámbéry was so difficult not only because his appearance, skin color and facial features, which looked out of place in this environment. His role-playing required permanent presence of mind and divided attention, a constant control of his speech and gestures, and it is hardly surprising that, in spite of his best efforts, this was not always perfect.

Vámbéry successfully acted the role of the mendicant dervish, but he reported that some people nevertheless discovered, or at least suspected his being a European (“frengi”). Already at an early stage of his journey, at the station of Demarend he assumed some Persians to be aware of his European identity. His role had a number of separate layers. The group of pilgrims got to know him as an Ottoman efendi, and accepted him in their confidence as “the secretary of the Sultan” on the recommendation of the Turkish ambassador in Tehran, so they could have no doubts as concerning his dervish incognito. However, they could surely not imagine that Reshid efendi is not even Muslim. A much-traveled Afghan member of the caravan, as well as the leader (kervanbashi) of the caravan passing through the desert suspected him to be a European spy, and the latter, fearing the wrath of the Khan of Khiva, did not want to take him with the group. 14

Unfortunately, his incognito significantly impeded him in his scientific objectives. Because of the suspicion surrounding him, he could make notes only in secret and on rare occasions. In addition, it would have been incompatible with his role to buy a larger amount, or non-religious manuscripts in the bazaar of Bokhara. This was anyway made impossible by the lack of money, a companion of his ascetic lifestyle. The direct memories of his journey include the largest part of his Eastern Turkic manuscripts – Vámbéry mentions 18 such works 15 –, and the small, litographed Quran, now in the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, whose role is remembered by a barely visible note by its owner on the first page: “...dervish incognito [...] hanging around my neck in a Persian flat bag.” And: “This Quran, purchased in Tehran, hung around my neck all along my Central Asian journey in this same green bag, and was with me day and night.”

The vicissitudes of the weather – rainfall, in the desert the grueling alternation of daytime heat and cold nights, sand storms, water shortage –, as well as the insects and vermins were a great trial to Vámbéry, as during the three-week desert march he arrived from the Atrek river to Khiva. On 3 June 1863 he entered through the gates of the city. Familiar with the Istanbul conditions, and up to date in the relationships of the elite, Reshid efendi successfully won the confidence of Sükrullah, the leading dignity of the Khan, and through him he made it to the Khan’s court.  The name of Istanbul, also due to the Sultan who was the Caliph of all the Sunnis, had a high prestige among the Central Asian turks, commanding respect and appreciation, and also a conveniently remote city, which in the imagination of Reshid efendi’s hosts intertwined with mythical beliefs. The respect and ignorance surrounding the imperial city played to a non-negligible extent to Vámbéry’s benefit, when he presented himself as coming from there. As he wrote: “His Majesty the Emperor of Turkey was here imagined as a Muslim wearing an at least fifty haberdasher long turban, whose beard hangs down under his chest, and whose clothes cover his toes; and whoever would dare to say that the Sultan has his hair cut à la Fiesco and his clothes are made by Dusetoye in Paris, would certainly risk his life.” 16

Vámbéry spent one month in the territory of the Khanate of Khiva, but the larger part of this time outside of the city itself. He succintly remembers the 18-day long excursion he made in the companionship of Sükrullah to Kungrat, there on boat along the Oxus, and back on land. 17 The group of pilgrims left Khiva on 27 June 1863. The relatively short section leading from here to Bokhara had no little danger in store for the members of the caravan, the scorching sand storms and dehydration nearly proved fatal for Vámbéry. In Bokhara the leading dignity of the Emir, Rahmet Beg tried to test Vámbéry’s credibility, but he successfully went through these exams. He provided a detailed account not only about the town, but also on the Emir, Muzaffaraddin bin Nasrallah (1860–1886) and his court. 18 18 days later he said farewell to the members of the group heading to Khokand, and he went to Samarkand with a smaller group of only two wagons. There he visited not only Timur Lenk’s turbe and mosque, but it was a must to him as a pilgrim to visit several shrines, too. The local Emir personally received him. Vámbéry then returned to the northeastern areas of Iran through the city of Karsi in the Emirate of Bokhara, and the western borderland of today’s Afghanistan.

In Samarkand he said farewell to the other pilgrims, and by joining another group he took the road to home. They went through Karsi to the Oxus, and crossed it at Kerki (today Atamurat in Eastern Turkmenistan). Among his new companions he got in closer acquaintance with a young “mullah”, who first joined the group in Kungrat, and later became a faithful disciple of Vámbéry. His devoted and sincere readiness won Vámbéry’s sympathy, and by giving up his original goal, Mecca – and surely also by overcoming his shock over the change of role of his master – he eventually followed Vámbéry to Pest. They proceeded to the south in the western part of Afghanistan, through the Khanate of Maymana to Herat, which just a few months ago was still under siege, and bore the traces of the battles. On the way leading to the Iranian border, the increasingly cold night, the ransoms of the Afghans and the raids of the Turkmen Tekke tribe were a constant threat. The traveler, having exhausted his last financial resources, turned to the local ruler, the young Muhammed Yakub Khan (1849-1923) to ask for his support in reaching Mashad. Due to his stranger features, the young Khan was suspicious of Vámbéry, of whom they could not prove to be an Englishman, but he could not get rid of the annoyances. A good example of the above mentioned complexity of Vámbéry’s incognito is, that the smallest self-forgetfulness was enough to being unveiled. From the later recollections of Warburon we know, that Muhammad Yakub noted the custom, unknown in the East, that Vámbéry involuntarily beat the rhythm with his foot when the military band marched in the Khan’s court. 19

The closer the possibility of returning home was, the more the homesickness and tiredness fell on Vámbéry. He had to stay long in Herat, until finally he could join a caravan to Mashad. He left Herat on 10 November 1863, and twelve days later arrived in Mashad. In this last section of his journey he suffered a lot from the gritty cold November nights, so reach the Persian city was a great relief for the exhausted discoverer, who expressed this feeling in his letter written from Mashad. 20 He rested for two months in Tehran, and on 28 March 1864 he left the Persian capital, to return through Tabriz and Trapezunt to Istanbul.

His travel experiences enriched him with unique knowledge covering several fields (linguistics, history, ethnography, geography), and basically determined his further career.

His successful return first to Tehran and then to Istanbul attracted great interest, especially among the representatives of the European states. In Tehran he informed Nasreddin Shah at an audience about his experiences. The British ambassador Alison asked him for a report, and he also gave him letters of recommendations to Lord Palmerstone, Lord Strangford, Sir Justin Sheil and Sir H. Rawlinson. His discoveries also elicited the curiosity of the Russian diplomacy, but Vámbéry, staying true to his political views, refused the invitation of Nikolai Girsh, Russian ambassador to Tehran.

Iran and Turan (Persia and Central Asia). Map by Stieler, 1850 (full map here, 11 MB)