Adam Olearius: Amazing Travels And Explorations In Russia And Persia

In the early seventeenth century, the steppes of Russia were almost entirely unknown to western Europeans.  Forests were thicker than they are now, roads were fewer and more difficult to navigate, and travel required much more money and resources than it does now.  One had to be sponsored by a wealthy patron, or be an official representative of a government.  It is to this latter category that the German explorer Adam Olearius (1599–1671)  belonged; he was one of the first westerners to penetrate deeply into Russia and Persia, and the account he left behind is one of the more fascinating works of travel literature that I have seen in recent years.

He was born Adam Ölschläger (or Oehlschlaeger) near Magdeburg, the largest city in Saxony-Anhalt.  We know very little about his early life, but he must have shown great promise as a youth, for he was able to secure a position with Frederick III, Duke of Holstein-Gottorp as a mathematician and librarian.  He must also have been seen as a man of diplomacy, tact, and linguistic ability; in 1633 he was asked to take part in an expedition to Russia (called in those days “Muscovy”) and Persia.  The purpose of the delegation was commercial:  Frederick was interested in the financial opportunities presented by the silk trade, and felt that good relations with the Russians and Persians was a means to this end.  From his writings it seems clear that, besides the expected fluency in Latin, Olearius had at least a working knowledge of Russian, Turkish, and Persian.

The party left Germany in 1634 and reached Moscow in August 1634, stopping at Reval, Narva, and Novgorod along the way.  At Moscow they secured an audience with Tsar Michael I.  Olearius’s wonderful account of these happenings was translated into English by John Davies in 1662 under the title Voyages and Travels from the Duke of Holstein to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia.  

The book has apparently never been reprinted in modern English, so I must ask for the reader’s patience as he or she works through the quoted passages in this article.  Olearius had to be intrepid in his explorations; and we, reading him four centuries later, must be intrepid in reading his words.  I have decided to retain the original orthography and punctuation in the quotes below; they add the necessary charm and antiquity to the account.  Readers should keep in mind that the letter “ſ” represents the elongated “s” and should be pronounced as the letter “s.”  With a little bit of practice and an open mind, the prose becomes easy to read.

The title page of Olearius’s book, published in English in 1662.
A page from Olearius’s “Travels” in the English translation by John Davies.

Here Olearius describes his first days in Moscow:

The Muſcovites celebrated the Feaſt of our B[lessed] Lady’s Aſcenſion, and the ſame day ended a Faſt they had begun the firſt of that moneth.  The 17th was deſign’d for our firſt Audience [with the Great Duke of Muscovy]; but the Great Duke being gone out of the Citie to do his Devotions, we ſpent the day in giving God our humble thanks for his happy conduct of us to the place for which our Embaſſy was deſign’d. We caus’d Te Deum to be ſung, with Muſick, and our Miniſter to make a Sermon, at which, as alſo at the Dinner which follow’d it, was preſent, by permiſſion of the Great Duke, M. Balthazar Moucheron,who manag’d the Affairs of the Duke of Holſtein at Moſcow, in the quality of Commiſſary. He told us,that the Muſcovites thought our entrance very handſome, and wondred much that Germany ſhould have Princes able to ſend ſo conſiderable an Embaſſy…

What emerge from Olearius’s account of Muscovy are:  the deeply religious nature of the Russian people in that era; the absolute power of the tsar; and the wild, beautiful appearance of the Russian wilderness.  Here he describes in fascinating detail an audience with the Great Duke of Moscow.  We get an unmistakable idea of the Russian sovereign’s absolute power, for it was considered a great honor to kiss the Great Duke’s hand:

The Great Duke ſate in his Chair, clad in a long Coat, embroider’d with Perls, and beſet with all ſorts of precious Stones. He had above his Cap, which was of Martins-skins, a Crown of Gold, beſet with great Diamonds, and in his right hand a Scepter of the ſame metall, and no leſs rich, and ſo weighty, that he was forc’d to relieve one hand with the other.  On both fides of his Majeſties Chair ſtood young Lords, very handſome, both as to Face and Body, clad in long Coats; of white Damaske, with Caps of a Linx’s-skin, and white Buskins, with Chains of Gold, which, croſſing up on the breaſt, reach’d down to their hips.

They had laid over their ſhoulders, each a Silver Ax, whereto they put their hands, as if they had been going to give their ſtroke. On the right ſide of the Chair, upon a Pyramid of Silver carv’d thorough, ſtood the Imperial Apple, of maſſy Gold, repreſenting the World, as big as a Canon bullet of 48 pound weight: and at a like diſtance on the ſame ſide, a Baſin and Ewer and a Napkin, to waſh and wipe the Great Duke’s hands, after the Ambaſſadors and thoſe of their retinue had kiſs’d them. The principal Bojares [boyars] or Lords of the Court, to the number of fifty, were all ſet upon Benches by the wall-fide, on one ſide, and oppoſite to the Great Duke, very richly clad, with great Caps, of a black Fox furr, a good quarter of an ell high. The Chancellor ſtood on the right hand, ſome five paces from the Chair.

They having made a low reverence at their Entrance, they were plac’d in the midſt of the Hall oppoſite to the Great Duke, and about ten paces from him, having behind them the Officers and Gentlemen of their retinue, on the right, the two Gentlemen who carried the Credential Letters, which 1634. The Ceremonies of the audience they field before them, and on the left, the Interpreter john Helmes. This done, the Great Duke made a ſign to the Chancellor, that he ſhould tell the Ambaſſadours, that his Majeſty granted them the favour to do him reverence.

The Ambaſſadors went one after another, and kiſs’d his right hand, which he very gracefully reach’d to them, and with a ſmiling countenance, taking the Scepter in the mean time in his left hand. Now it is to be obſerved, that in theſe ceremonies, he who kiſſes the Great Duke’s hand is not to touch it it with his own, and that only the Ambaſſadors of Chriſtian Princes have the honour to kiſs it, which the Turks and Perſians, much leſs the Tartarians, have not.

Olearius spends many pages talking about the habits, customs, and rituals of the people of Muscovy.  Here he describes the people themselves; and we may smile at how human nature does not change, even if technology and the centuries do:

But it is time we return to our Muſcovites, whom we ſhall confider, firſt, in relation to their habit and ſtature, then to that of their humour and manner of life. They are for the moſt part corpulent, fat, and ſtrong, and of the ſame colour the Muſcovites as other Europeans. They much eſteem great beards (when the muſtaches hide the mouth) as alſo great bellies; ſo that thoſe who are well furniſh’d about the mouth, and have good fat paunches, are very conſiderable among them. The Goſes, or Great Duke’s Merchants, whom we found in the Antichamber, when we were brought to our publick Audience, had been choſen particularly for thoſe two perfections, for the greater honour of their Prince.

The great Lords ſhave their heads; perſons of lower condition cut their hair, and Prieſts, and others belonging to the Church, wear their hair ſo long, that it hangs down over their ſhoulders to half their backs. Thoſe Lords that are out of favour at Court , let their hair grow and hang negligently about their heads, thereby expreſſing their affliction; no doubt after the example of the ancient Greeks, whom the Muſcovites are apt to imitate in all their actions.

Olearius’s transcription of the Cyrillic alphabet, published in his “Travels.”

The Women are well proportion’d, neither too big, nor too little, having paſſable good faces, but they paint ſo palpably, that if they laid it on with a bruſh, and had a handful of meal caſt in their faces when they had done, they could not disfigure themſelves as much as the paint does. But the cuſtome is ſo general, that the moſt handſome muſt comply, left they ſhould diſcredit the artificial, beauty of others: whereof we ſaw an example in the wife of Juan Boriſowits Cirkaski, who was the handſomeſt Lady of all Muſcovy, and was loath to ſpoil with painting, what the reſt of her Sex took ſo much pains to preſerve thereby:  but the other women inform’d againſt her, and would not be quiet, till their husbands had forc’d that Prince to give way that his wife might dawb her face after the ordinary manner. So that painting is ſo common in Muſcovy, that when any are to be married, the Bridegroom, that is to be, ſends among other Preſents ſome paint to his Bride, as we ſhall ſee anon when we come to ſpeak of their marriages.

Married Women put up their hair within their Caps or Coifs, but the Their Habit. Maids let theirs hang down their backs in two treſſes, and tyit at the ends with a piece of Crimſon-ſilk. Children under 10 years of age, as well Girls as Boys, have their hair cut, all except two muſtaches which are left over the temples; ſo that there being no difference in their habits, that of their Sex is diſcovered only by the braſs or filver Rings, which the Girls wear in their ears. Their habit is ſomewhat like that of the antient Greeks. Their ſhirts are broad, but ſo ſhort that they hardly cover the thighs.

They are not gather’d at the neck, but lin’d with a triangular piece from the ſhoulders to the reins, which piece is ſow’d down with Crimſon ſilk. Some have under the Armpits, and in the ſeams, a frindge of ſilk of the ſame colour. The more rich have the neck piece, which in an inch broad or better, the end of the ſleeves, and the breaſt, embroider’d with ſilk of ſeveral colours, and ſometimes Gold and precious ſtones, and leave open ſo much of their waſcoats, that the embrodery, and the two great Perls, or buttons of Silver or Gold, which faſten the ſhirt before, may be ſeen.

Their Breeches are large, and gather’d towards the waſte, ſo that they may be made larger or ſtreightned, as our Drawers., upon theſe they wear a kind of Waſtcoat, which they call Kaftan, reaching to the knees, with the ſleeves ſo long, that they’cannot thruſt their hands through without making many folds upon the arm. The Collar of this waſtcoat is above half a quarter both in height and breadth, ſo that it covers the head behind. And becauſe that is very much ſeen, the better ſort face it with Pluſh or Satin upon the Kaftan they wear a cloſe Coat, which falls down to the mid-leg, and is called Feres. Theſe are adorn’d with cotton; and indeed, both the Kaftas and Feres are made of Cotton, Taffeta, Damask, or Satin, according to their quality who wear them.

When they go abroad they put on a Garment that reaches down to their heels, made of a violet colour, or darkgreen cloath, with buttons behind, down to the bottom. Thoſe of the Knez and Bojares are made of Damask, Satin, or other rich fluff. Of this laſt kind are all the cloaths taken out of the Great Duke’s Wardrobe, for thoſe perſons, by whom he is attended at publick ceremonies.

Glorious title page of Olearius’s “Offt begehrte Beschreibung der orientalischen Reise,” showing the refinement of 17th century German printing

Olearius returned to Hamburg, then set out again for Moscow in 1635; this time his intention would be to navigate the Volga River, one of the world’s great waterways.  He must have been one of the first–if not the first–western European to do so.  He and his party left Moscow in 1636 and piloted vessels from the Volga across the Caspian Sea to Persia.  It is a great pity that an artist was not taken along to record the appearance of the natural environment.  Here he describes traveling down the Volga River:

The Wolga, whereof we gave a ſhort accompt in the precedent book, is, in my opinion, one of the nobleſt and greateſt Rivers in the World, its courſe being of a vaſt extent, from its ſource to the place where it falls into the Caſpian Sea, below Aſtrachan. Whence it came that I took a delight to obſerve all the particularities thereof, from League to League, and from Werſte to Werffe, with all poſſible exactneſſe, and with the aſſiſtance of a Dutch Matter’smate, named Cornelius Nicholas, one of the moſt able I ever came acquainted with in that Science, as alſo of ſome Muſcovian Pilots, I have drawn a very exact Map of it, which I had made the World a promiſe of ſome years ſince, but now part with it, ſo well done, that I hope the Judicious Reader will be ſatisfy’d therewith.

Here he describes some of the wildlife in and around the Volga, which in his day was completely wild.  The animal (“dog-fishes”) he describes appears to be some kind of dolphin:

At night, we came to another Fiſhing-place, 15, werſles from the Sea, where the river is ſhut in with a Palizadoe, and kept by a hundred Muſcovian Muſketteers, who keep aguard there againſt the Coſaque Pirates. In this place we ſaw a great number of Dog-fiſhes, or Sea-hounds, as alſo of that kind of Fowl which Pliny calls Omocratalus, whoſe Beaks are long, round, and flat at the extremity, as a Spoon beaten out. Putting its Beak into the water, it makes a noiſe not much unlike that of an Aſs, whence it hath the name: but particularly we took notice of a kind of Geeſe, or rather Cormorants, whereof we made mention before. The Muſcovites call them Babbes, the Perſians, Kuthum, and the Moores of Guiny, Bombu.  As to their feet, leggs, neck, and colour, they are like other Geeſe, but they are bigger in body than Swans.

They reached Persia in 1637 and were received by the Safavid king, Shah Safi.  Olearius notes the customs, religious sites, and dress of the Persians in detail.  The passage below reminds us just how dangerous travel could be in his era, where even a scorpion sting could prove fatal.  The remedy used to treat his bite would make the modern traveler squirm.  He then describes the menace of tarantulas, which his day would have been unknown to the average western European:

It was my misfortune to be the only man of all our retinue that had occaſion to make triall how venemous this Creature is.  For lying down upon my Bed at Scamachie, in our return from Iſpahan, a Scorpion ſtung me in the throat, where it made immediately a ſwelling about the length of my finger, which was attended with inſupportable pain. As good fortune would have it, our Phyſician, who lay in the ſame Chamber, immediately appli’d thereto the Oyl of Scorpion, gave me ſome Treacle, and put me into a ſweat; which deliver’d me from the greateſt of my pains at the end of three hours, but I had ſtill ſome pain for the two daies following, but by intervalls, and it was as if I had been prick’d with a Needle: may indeed for many years afterwards I have been troubled with the ſame pains at certain times, eſpecially in Autumn, much about the Sun’s entrance into Scorpio.

There is alſo in theſe parts another ſort of inſect of a making much like a Spider, about two inches in compaſs, and mark’d with ſeveral ſpots. This inſect is commonly found lodg’d in ſtony places, under a kind of Herb, which the Perſians call Tremme, and the Turks, fauchſchan, which is like Worm-wood, or Abſynthium, but the leaves are much larger, and the ſmell much ſtronger. The Perſians call this inſect Enkurek; and it is that animal which, in Latin, is called Stellio, and a kind of inſect, which the Italians and Spaniards call Tarantola.

This Creature, inſtead of ſtinging or biting, lets fall its venom like a drop of water, which immediately cauſes inſufferable pain in the part where it faſtens, and ſuddenly making its way to the Stomack, ſends up Vapours into the Head, and theſe put all the Members of the ſick party into ſnch a profound ſleep, that it is impoſſible to awake him, ſave by this only remedy, which is, to cruſh one of theſe Creatures upon the wound; out of which all the venom is by that means drawn out.

After leaving Persia, Olearius and his party made their way back to Moscow.  Impressed by his detailed chart of the Volga, the Russian tsar asked him to enter his employment; Olearius, missing Germany, decided to return home, but promised the tsar he would return soon.  This never came about, however; Olearius was a scholar at heart and wanted nothing more than to be surrounded by his books and manuscripts.

From Olearius’s “Offt begehrte Beschreibung der orientalischen Reise”

It is an interesting for us to note that all of the German explorers chronicled in these pages have also been men of great scholarly erudition.  He settled in Gottorp and became a master librarian there, eventually dying in 1671.  Besides his travel works, he published a translation of the Persian poet Saadi of Shiraz’s Gulistan; and a Persian–Latin dictionary remained unpublished at his death.

There are precious few seventeenth-century European travel accounts of Russia and Persia; we are fortunate to have so faithful a chronicler in this hardy German scholar.  In whatever the age or era, the spirit of exploration and discovery will find its voice.


Be sure to read On Duties today, in the most complete and readable translation available in English: