Sean McConnell
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The Long Road to Oxiana

Published by Sean on March 27, 2023

Welcome to my first post, readers! I created this website for a few reasons: to develop some tech skills, to practice some writing skills, and to share my interests with likeminded people. The blog will focus on Iranian history.

I could never be a specialist. The world is too interesting. I stumbled through college getting degrees in English, philosophy, history, and archival administration. I got a few student loans too. Iran captured my interest after a chance encounter with a book in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a decade ago. History captured my interest as a child. I enjoyed living in an imaginative past more than the present. Perhaps that is why I became an archivist. I moved from Michigan to Texas to preserve historical materials and provide them to researchers.  I’ve lost count of how many items I’ve digitized and cataloged over the years—maybe 7,000 photographs and 4,000 pages of manuscripts.

We interpret the past. We uncover the stories waiting to be told. Remnants from the past, whether they be photographs or letters or something else, tell us what we’re willing to ask and learn. Historical materials rarely arrive at the archive organized and described. We must figure out the who and the what and the why. We investigate.

I hope to share things I’ve collected or encountered that shed light on Iranian history. I’d like to share the stories these things tell. The more you engage with the past and with other cultures the more you discover how interconnected we are. I hope you find pleasure in discovering these connections. I am neither a specialist nor an expert, and I encourage readers, wherever you are, to correct my mistakes or share your own thoughts and stories. I may write about other things too. I’m using this website to practice tech skills (and move into the 21st century).

So, let’s start. I present an old photograph taken from a rooftop near a golden dome. Another dome, straddled by minarets, sits opposite. You can see a courtyard between the domes and a pile of white objects. Look closely and you can see scaffolding under the iwan, or vaulted arch, between the minarets. A broad road leads to mountains in the distance. The Associated Press (AP) released the photograph in 1941—an example of the AP’s then novel invention called the Wirephoto. The AP sent wirephotos, or images delivered across telephone lines, to newspapers worldwide. Numerous newspapers could then publish the same photographs of worldwide events and places. The AP released this photograph after the Anglo-Soviet invasion of Iran in August 1941.


I intended to write about the invasion, an event rarely if ever discussed in American classes on World War II. The Soviet Union entered an alliance with the United Kingdom in July 1941, a month after the Nazis invaded its borders. The Soviets and British, who years earlier established spheres of influence in northern and southern Iran respectively, pressured Iran to dismiss thousands of Germans within the country. Both feared a Nazi pact with Iran would jeopardize supply routes into the Soviet Union and British control of oil fields. The Soviets and British invaded on August 25th, 1941.  The AP quickly sent the photograph to newspapers. The message on the back states that “Soviet airplanes bombed the airport and barracks at Tabriz.” Iran’s surrender days later led to the shah’s abdication.

Tabriz sits in the Azeri Turkic-speaking heartland of northwestern Iran. I asked my friend Belal, who lives in Tabriz, if he recognized the buildings in the photograph. He said it looked like Mashhad, the holy city in northeastern Iran. I responded that it was Tabriz. He wondered if someone took the photograph from Tabriz’s medieval Arg, or fortress. Belal mentioned that that conical shapes at the bottom of the photo resembled parts of an Armenian church while the building with minarets resembled a mosque. But he did not recall seeing either building standing in Tabriz today.

I was intrigued.  I looked at older photographs and paintings of the Arg, but none showed a mosque or church nearby. Time for further investigation. I searched for articles published on August 25th and 26th, 1941. Countless newspapers reported the invasion, and many included a photograph. Most newspapers published the same photograph of a courtyard taken from the Arg. Nothing resembled the buildings in my photograph. I eventually found my photograph in one newspaper, the Syracuse Herald-Journal, which identified the city as Tabriz but did not record a specific location.

Time for more digging. I searched old maps for churches near mosques. The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee maintains a wonderful collection of maps, including an Iranian army map from circa 1949. I looked for a ﻛﻠﯿﺴﺎ (church) and مسجد (mosque) in proximity. There was an Armenian church near the Baghe-Golestan but I didn’t see a nearby mosque. کٯ چه ها ,or alleys, surrounded the church. These did not resemble the wide boulevard leading to mountains in the photograph. Did the church and mosque still stand in 1949?

From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

Perhaps they fell during an earthquake or were victims of urban development. A map that the Iranian firm Sahab published in 1963 shows new streets cutting through the maze of alleys found in the older map. The Armenian church is still there though, along with a tempting number of bookshops. My kind of place.

From the American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries.

I’ll condense the story here. I spent weeks tediously looking at maps and images of Tabriz online. Belal emailed the image to history professors. My friend Ramin, whose family came from Tabriz, showed others. Everyone was stumped. I also faced Google’s limitations. Google “Tabriz mosque” and you’ll find countless photos of the famous Blue Mosque, which does not match my photograph. Googling عکس هاى قدﯾﻤﻰ  تبرﯾﺰ (old Tabriz photos) led me to a Persian website full of old images. Nothing matched though. I decided one night to look at the website’s old Mashhad photographs. And then I found the mosque.

Old photographs of the Imam Reza Shrine show the same conical coverings on its roof. Perhaps the ones in my photo did not cover a church. A gold dome sits atop the Imam Reza Shrine. You can see a gold dome in my photo. If you stand near the shrine’s gold dome, you’ll overlook the adjacent Gohar Shad Mosque. I looked closely at the minaret’s tiles. They matched the tiles in the photos. The iwan in the courtyard featured the same Kufic script. I matched all the architectural details of the Gohar Shad Mosque to the mosque in my photograph. Then I found definitive proof, thanks to Annemarie Schwarzenbach.

Annemarie Schwarzenbach, born in 1908 to a wealthy Swiss family, epitomized wanderlust during the Depression era. She visited various countries and continents, from Iran and Afghanistan to the American South. Her photographs bear witness to her adventures and her keen eye. You can find her photographs on Wikicommons. I searched through her images of Mashhad and found one of the Gohar Shad Mosque. You can see the same scaffolding under the iwan and the same white tiles lined up in the courtyard. Schwarzenbach must have taken her photograph around the same time the photographer took the wirephoto. Did they know each other? Did they cross paths?

Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/105

I don’t always have this luck. Sometimes I can’t identify a building or place in a photograph. Every so often though luck happens. Let me expand on that. I knew the name Gohar Shad. I traveled to Uzbekistan in October 2022. I read many books about Uzbekistan and Central Asia, including Wilfrid Blunt’s The Golden Road to Samarkand. Blunt, brother of Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, wrote about Gohar Shad, the 15th century wife of a Timurid ruler. Gohar Shad commissioned the Mashhad mosque that bears her name along with a mosque and college in Herat, Afghanistan. Blunt recounted Gohar Shad’s journey into Iran with her husband and an invading army. Gohar Shad, unlike her husband, survived the campaign. She returned to Herat and assumed a position of power, which led to her execution when she was in her eighties.

I traveled to Uzbekistan hoping to see the haunts of Gohar Shad and her family. I brought with me Robert Byron’s The Road to Oxiana. I met a woman who visited Iran at a Persian language Meetup some years ago. She told me a couple times “You must read The Road to Oxiana.” Byron’s memoir of his journey to Iran and Afghanistan in the 1930s remains a classic of travel literature. Byron, a British aesthete, recorded his journey through Pahlavi Iran in a diary format. Adventures and misadventures awaited him.

Robert Byron Papers. General Collection, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

He encountered Gohar Shad’s buildings and pondered her “artistic instinct.” Byron initially did not know her life story. I smiled when he speculated that her “taste, character, and riches” meant she had power, “and powerful women, apart from charmers, are not common in Mohammadan history.” He later discovered that as “a person, more is known of Gohar Shad than I thought.” He visited her mosque in Mashhad. “Amber lights,” he wrote, “twinkled in the void, glowing unseen from the mighty arch before the sanctuary…” The mosque’s “sight, sound, and trespass conspired to swamp the intelligence.” Byron marveled at the “arabesques so liquid, so delicately interlaced” and concluded that “Gohar Shad herself…ruled the night.” His description adds imaginative color to my wirephoto.

A single photograph can take you on a journey. I discovered Tabriz alleyways, Armenian churches, the mosque of a powerful Timurid woman, the photographs of Annemarie Schwarzenbach. I think of Byron and Schwarzenbach crisscrossing Central Asia, discovering Gohar Shad’s architecture. Both visited Gohar Shad’s mosque and mausoleum in Herat. Although I don’t know if their lives intersected, they seemed to run parallel. Both came from wealthy European families, both opposed Nazism, both traveled to Iran and Afghanistan at a young age. Both were gay and both “cross-dressed.” Byron apparently attended parties dressed as Queen Victoria, whom he thought he resembled—an image that doesn’t quickly leave my mind. Both died young. Schwarzenbach died in 1942 at age 34 after a bicycle accident. Byron drowned a year earlier, age 35, after traveling on a ship sunk by Nazi torpedoes. I feel some sadness when I look at the photograph of Gohar Shad mosque and think of these two travelers.

If you made it to the end, thank you. I wrote more than intended. This is what happens though! I recently met with a digitization equipment distributor at work. He spoke of how we can instantly send our scans to the cloud, where AI programs can instantly recognize buildings and faces. No longer would I have to search and research. What took me weeks can take mere seconds. Progress! But there goes the journey. Sometimes I prefer the long road.

Gohar Shad's Mausoleum in Herat, Annemarie Schwarzenbach, Swiss National Library, SLA-Schwarzenbach-A-5-19/162

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