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"Trois ans en Asie" 
Three years in Asia, 1855-1858

Book Review

Dr. Mehrborzin Soroushian

Review of his book


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First issue published in French appeared in 1859 in Paris
First Farsi translation was published in 1988 in Tehran

Book Author Comte Joseph De Gobineau  
France’s Charge d’affaires at the court of Nassur ul'Din shah Qajar of Iran

Joseph De Gobineau, born on June 14, 1816 in a Parisian suburb, came from an aristocratic background.  His father was in command of Louis 18th’s Imperial guards, and the young Gobineau was attending military school, when the second French revolution unfolded in July 1830.  With his family fortune turning overnight, Joseph was forced to leave the military school and depart for sanctuary in Germany and Switzerland. 

With revolutionary fervor subsiding in France, the young Gobineau returned to Paris and took a few odd journalistic assignments as a way of making a living, while at the same time he pursued studying his favorite subject of ancient Western and Eastern civilizations. Following the February 1848  French revolution resulting in the abolishment of the monarchy, Gobineau became associated with Alexis de Tocqueville, the French foreign minister.  This move was the launch of De Gobineau’s career as a French diplomat at a time of great political upheavals in France and elsewhere.

His numerous foreign diplomatic assignments took him to Bern, Hanover, Frankfurt, and on a tour of duty to Tehran, Iran, from 1855 to 1858, as a first secretary of the French mission for half that period, and as Charge d’affaires for the rest of his assignment in Iran. In 1859 after his return to France, De Gobineau published his memoirs under the heading of “Trois Ans En Asie” (Three years in Asia).

In October 1861, Emperor Napoleon III dispatched Comte De Gobineau on his second diplomatic mission to Iran, where he stayed for another two years.  Following his last assignment in Iran, he served as the French diplomat in Greece, Brazil, and Sweden before his retirement in 1877, after which he moved to Italy to live the remaining years of his life.

During his tour of duty in Iran, this French diplomat took an interest in the remaining Zartoshties still surviving in their ancestral land under very trying conditions. His account of the plight of the Zartoshties has proved a valuable source of information. In addition, De Gobineau used his diplomatic influence with the court of Nassir ul'Dinshah Qajar in support of  Maneckji  Limji Hataria who had arrived from India on a mission to ameliorate the conditions of his co-religionists in Iran. The starting focal point of Hataria’s effort was the rescission of the Jazziya head tax imposed on the Zartoshties and attempts to gain them more civil rights and protection.  De Gobineau’s support proved valuable.  The help that this relatively obscure French diplomat rendered to the Zartoshty community of Iran, which was caught in a desperate struggle for survival, must be acknowledged.

Review of his book:   

De Gobineau’s fascination with ancient civilizations, his own life experience as a privileged Frenchman whose family fortunes suddenly overturned, his literary and journalistic skills and attention to details was a unique combination of factors that shaped the character of this French diplomat and gave him a unique sensitivity to the experience of the Zartoshties in Iran.  His book, reflecting his observations of his excursion in Asia, mainly in Iran, and his assessment of the characteristics of the Arabs, the Turks and the other neo-Iranians in shaping the plights of the countries in Western Asia is very revealing. One of his concluding chapters, entitled “The possible outcome of interactions between Europe and Asia” is very revealing as to De Gobineau’s outlook on the drastic changes Asia was subjected to as a result of the imposition of  Arab rule.

De Gobineau’s book contains informative observations on Iran in the second half of the 19th century.  He dedicates an entire chapter to a review of the three religious minorities, the Sufis, the Nassiries (branch of Eastern Christian church), and the Gabers (a degrading  term applied to Zartoshties by the Moslems).

A few of his narrations relative to the Zartoshties of Iran are included here to display the agony of the battered community.

1. Gobineau reports that one of the rules imposed by the Muslim clerics that impacted Kafirs (non-Muslims), which played havoc with the Zartoshty community, was the rule of inheritance.  If any member of a Zartoshty household would convert to Islam, he would automatically inherit all the family’s belongings, to the exclusion of the remaining Zartoshty family members.  This law was meant to attack the fabric of the minority community, and continued to take a heavy toll on the Zartoshties of his  time. 

2. Gobineau’s close observation, and intimacy with, the Zartoshty community of Yazd is revealed by his recounting that one of the big debates going on in that community was on consumption of meat in their daily diet, with some expressing strong views against it, while others favoring it.


3. Reporting on the great work of Maneckji Limji Hataria, Gobineau observes that only a miracle can save the Zartoshties of Iran, given their diminished state. Because of their lack of knowledge of their own religion, they faced not only external but also internal threat.


4. He continues his observation of the Zartoshties by stating the praise to be paid to these people is not solely for their intelligence but even more for their positive outlook on life given their circumstances.  He goes on to say, “the Zartoshties believe very soon a Syoshant will arrive and lift them out of their misery and will help restore Zoroastrianism to its greatness.”  As to where the savior will come from, there is difference of opinion, with some believing he will come from the direction of Afghanistan, others believing the liberating syoshant and his army will come from the West.  One Zartoshty man from Yazd was so consumed with his belief that the arrival of the Syoshant and his liberation army was imminent, that, fearing they would not have a sufficient supply of Sudreh and Kushti (the religious underwear and cord worn by Zartoshties), he sold all his belongings, buying all the Sudrehs and Kushtis he could. He loaded the Sudrehs and Kushties on a couple of camels and left Yazd in the direction of Afghanistan, and was never heard from again (a likely casualty of highway robbers).   Gobineau goes on to commend the Zartoshties for possessing free spirits and aspiring to great and high ideals.


5. He reports that on the death of a family member, Zartoshties in some locations found it necessary to completely cover and block the doors and other openings to their home before lighting up a fire for the performance of religious observances, out of fear of attack from the Muslim fanatics and ruffians roaming the neighborhoods and terrorizing the minorities.


6. Gobineau also reports his tally of the Zartoshties of Yazd, enumerated village by village, to consist of total of 1837 women, 1300 men,  1377 girls, and 1796 boys.  Gobineau’s recording of population of the battered Zartoshty community of Kerman indicates 239 women, 178 men, 219 girls and 189 boys in total. No significant population of Zartoshties could be found elsewhere in their ancestral land.


7. Gobineau relates: One of his Zartoshty friends (wearing the yellow colored outfit the Zartoshties were forced to wear for easy identification) was passing through a shabby and desolate alley in the city of Isfahan, when he heard a strange noise directed at him.  The Zartoshty man stopped and looked around, and noticed an old and strange looking woman motioning him to get close to her.  The man hesitated, but seeing that the woman insisted, walked towards her.  Standing at the doorway of her house, she insisted on his entering. The Zartoshty man was hesitant but entered. She led the way, and asked him to sit down on a stool in the middle of her front yard.  She rushed to bring him tea and a plate full of fruits, and invited him to eat.  As the Zartoshty man reached for the fruit plate, the woman sitting a short distance from him and staring at him, suddenly burst into tears. The Zartoshty man, shaken at this experience, froze in puzzlement, and asked the reason for her crying.  The woman, holding back her tears stated: alas, I wanted you to come to my house even for a short while, as I know you are the follower of a great religion that my ancestors also followed at one time.  She continues, maybe you are not well versed in the tenets of your faith, but my father would from time to time make reference to this great religion and get very emotional about it.  She went on to say, “I concur with my father’s view that what you have is much better than what I have been left with.”