Pietro Della Valle was an accomplished traveler as well as a literary figure in his own right. Other great names of Middle Eastern exploration came after him, but he was one of the very first pre-modern Westerners to gain first-hand experience in the region. As the reader will discover, he was also undoubtedly the most eccentric. He was born in Rome on April 11, 1586, to a distinguished family that was able to provide him with a good education. Developing a flair for literature at an early age, he thirsted for the glories of the sword as well as the glories of the pen; and to this end, he signed up for adventure with a Spanish fleet in 1611 on an expedition to the North African coast.
The expedition accomplished little, and Della Valle returned home in disappointment. He then experienced miseries of a different kind, those related to the dashed hopes of love. His biographers relate that he sunk into a deep depression after having been rejected by a woman he was pursuing; and, to revive his spirits, he resolved to travel far beyond the borders of his country. So it is that the great enterprises of men often owe their beginnings to those tumescent emotions so fundamental to his nature. His plan was to explore the famous cities and regions of the East, beginning with the Ottoman domains, and then moving on to Persia and India.
The Travels Begin
His ship left Venice in June of 1614 and sailed for Constantinople. His first order of business after reaching the Ottoman capital was to acquire as thorough a knowledge of Turkish as he could. This was not difficult for him, as he had demonstrated a facility with the classical languages in his youth. Once one already knows a language or two, acquiring another one becomes less difficult. He was also able to taste coffee for the first time in his life; the beverage had not yet become fashionable in Europe. When an epidemic of the plague broke out, however, he found it advisable to relocate to Egypt.
After arriving in Alexandria, he saw the sights of ancient and modern Egypt in and around Cairo. From there he moved through the Sinai and on to Jerusalem. It was at this time that he began to formulate a new plan: a trek across the desert wastes from Jerusalem to what is now northern Iraq. In those days, such a journey required thorough preparation. In September 1616, he and his small caravan left Aleppo in Syria for Iraq. They had to take care to avoid certain routes, as some bedouins in that proud age took it as a point of honor to relieve well-equipped strangers of their possessions. They reached the banks of the Tigris near the end of October. The day before they entered Baghdad, however, the party was robbed during a night raid, and Della Valle found himself facing severe hardship.
At some point during his stay he became acquainted with a prominent local Nestorian (Assyrian) Christian. The man’s eldest daughter was a beautiful girl named Sitti Maani, and our passionate young Italian, now so far from home, found himself swept away by her charms. He was fluent in Turkish, but possessed little Arabic; but this seemed to be enough, and the two became married. A dangerous problem developed for him when one of his party murdered another member after a dispute; fearing that the local pasha would detain all the foreigners and hold them all accountable, Della Valle and his men concealed the body and left the murder unreported.
He then set out to explore the ancient ruins in the area, as well as parts of Kurdistan. He left Baghdad in January 1617, this time bound for Persia. Ispahan he found much more to his liking than the Ottoman domains; Persia was more densely populated, had better accommodations, and presented less of a personal risk for foreign travelers. His wife was with him, too, as well as her sister. His party moved from Ispahan to the Caspian Sea, and around this time he faced another serious problem. His wife Maani, after having been insulted by a local Persian man, recklessly ordered one of her servants to give the man a verbal dressing-down. He took things too far, a fight broke out, and the Persian was killed in the ensuring brawl. Worse still, he turned out to be a military officer.
Della Valle used all of his diplomatic skills to resolve the situation with a local magistrate, and the affair was patched up, probably with the assistance of a monetary payment to the dead man’s family. There was nothing to do but keep moving, and in 1618 he presented himself to the court of Shah Abbas. The shah received him cordially, but paid him little mind; his attentions were focused on fighting the Turks, with whom he was engaged in a contest for control of the Iraqi provinces (a joust that continues to this day). After a victory over the Turks, the shah took his leave to Casbin; Della Valle could sense that his presence there served no purpose, so he returned to Ispahan. Sickness and fatigue had taken their toll on him, and he longed for a period of rest.
Further disappointments awaited. Maani was by now pregnant, and in no condition to travel, but she and Della Valle insisted on visited the coastal regions of Persia that were often afflicted with pestilence. This turned out to be a serious mistake. It was not long before they both came down with fever; he recovered, but she did not, dying at the age of twenty-three. So he was left alone in a foreign land. And it was at this point that he began to reflect on the transitory nature of all earthly riches. He sunk into a deep depression that rendered him nearly immobile for months. And when he emerged from it, he would be a changed man.
The experience must have permanently damaged his psyche, for at this point he took a step that cannot be considered rational under any circumstances. Unable to part with his beloved, he arranged to have her embalmed, encased in a coffin, and fitted in a trunk that he continued to carry with him on his travels. Corpses in Islam are considered unclean, and his action must have been greeted with horror by his servants; but his mind was made up, and it was done. The grisly task was accomplished through the assistance of several old women Della Valle hired for the purpose. They removed the organs from the body and filled it with camphor and other preservatives; it was then set out to dry for seven days and nights in the open air. During this time, he kept an armed vigil over the body to prevent its being carried off by wild animals. At this point he decided to continue with his travels, rather than return to Italy. In January 1623 he boarded a ship and headed for Surat and Goa in India.
After various adventures in India, he boarded a ship from Goa to Muscat in November 1624. From there he moved up the Arabian Gulf to Basra. In May 1625 he set out for Aleppo, finally resolved to return home. After long journeys he finally returned to Rome at the end of March in 1628. He had almost lost the corpse of Maani to bandits in the Syrian desert. But, after explaining to them the contents of his chest, they were touched by his piety and devotion, and lessened their demands on him. In Alexandretta, he had to conceal his wife’s embalmed body from the authorities; such a cargo would never be permitted aboard ship, so Della Valle secreted it between bales of cotton.
On his return to Rome he gained an audience with Pope Urban VIII. He was the talk of the town for some time; during a funerary mass he held for Maani, he burst into tears and was unable to continue with his address. He still had sufficient means to live the remainder of his days in comfort, but the evidence suggests that his experiences had loosened his hold on reality. He remarried, apparently to a Georgian girl that had returned with him on his travels; yet she could not soothe the fires that burned within him. He killed his coachman in a dispute, but the record is silent as to the specific details. While he was not prosecuted, his fellow Romans gave him a wide berth thereafter.
When he died in April 1652, he was not a favored citizen. His wife moved to Urbino, and his children were banished from Rome. We cannot say that he was a good man; but the evidence suggests that he was daring, and that his contributions to geographic knowledge were significant. The personal attributes of this strange traveler remind us that while travel can open new horizons for the soul, it can never really expunge that soul’s inherent defects. He remains both a pioneer, and a cautionary tale.
Read more in Stoic Paradoxes.