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Cornelis de Bruijn

Cornelis de Bruijn, after a painting by Godfrey Kneller.
Cornelis de Bruijn
painting by Godfrey Kneller (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
Cornelis de Bruijn (c.1652-1727) was a Dutch artist and traveler. He is best known for his drawings of the ruins of Persepolis, the first reliable pictures of this palace to be accessible for western scholars, but his visits also included the Ottoman Empire, Egypt, Jerusalem, Russia and the East Indies. (The first part of this article can be found here.)


Persia was no longer what it once had been when Cornelis de Bruijn arrived in Derbent on 21 July 1703. For a century, it had been a superpower and had expanded its frontiers beyond the Caucasus, to the Aral Sea, and into Afghanistan. Its kings had favored the Shi'a Islam, but had been generally tolerant, and had done much to promote trade and develop agriculture. European merchants were well-known in the Iranian capital Isfahan. However, in 1694, shah Sultan Hussein had come to power, a deeply religious man who once allowed his palace to burn down as the fire was obviously the will of God. Even De Bruijn, who usually refrains from harsh criticism, mentions how the Persians complained about their king's unpractical attitude.

Sultan Hussein persecuted religious minorities -De Bruijn mentions how three Dutchmen converted to Islam- and was eventually forced to abdicate by an army of rebellious Afghanis (1722). So, during De Bruijn's visit, Persia was becoming unstable. For the first time in a century, the roads were no longer safe, and De Bruijn sometimes complains about it. In Shemakha, for example, he was forced to stay inside. On another occasion, he mentions how four Armenian travelers were killed in their sleep.

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Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of a serail in Isfahan. From Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie (1711).
Caravnserai, Isfahan

Still, even though he experienced a terrible dust storm, he could continue to Ardabil, crossed the Elburz, and reached Zanjan. After visits to the holy city of Qom (where he visited the mausoleum of Fatima and the tomb of shah Abbas the Great) and the ancient town of Kashan (where he saw the famous Fin gardens) De Bruijn finally reached Isfahan on 15 November. He was to stay for almost a year in Iran's beautiful capital, taking his residence in the house of an important official of the VOC,  François Kastelein. The painter and the merchant became close friends. De Bruijn also met Edward Owen, chief of the English East Indian Company, and was no stranger to the Armenian quarter of Isfahan. Visiting the Armenian quarter may have been a euphemism for visiting a prostitute, but De Bruijn had other motifs to visit this place - the Armenians had an excellent international network and cold offer him lots of useful information.

Page from Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie (1711).
The summary of the Shahname

As usual, De Bruijn's pictures of Isfahan were splendid, and he carefully listened to the stories that people told him. One of the chapters if his Travels into Moscovy, Persia, and the East Indies deals with Persian history as the Persians themselves told it. It is, essentially, a very brief summary of the famous poem by Iran's national poet Firdausi, the Shahname, the "Epic of Kings", although stripped of its most mythological elements. It was not the first attempt to explain Persian history, from a Persian point of view, to a European audience: in 1610, a Portuguese sailor named Pedro Teixeira had published a translation of the Tārīkh-i rawz̤at al-ṣafā  ("History of the kings of Persia") by Mīr Khvānd, Muḥammad ibn Khāvandshāh (1433-1498). This Portuguese book was to be translated into English by John Stevens in 1715.

De Bruijn's account also includes descriptions of Isfahan's famous shaking minarets, an arrival of the shah, and the Persian wine, which is favorably compared to French, Tuscan, and Cypriot wine. De Bruijn describes the sacred month Moharram, the Iranian New Year (No Ruz), and dedicates a full chapter to Ashura,  in which the Shi'ites commemorate the tragedy of Kerbala, the historical fight in 680 in which imam Huseyn, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was killed.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of the Sharestan bridge in Isfahan. From Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie (1711).
Sharestan bridge, Isfahan

The description of Isfahan itself is typical for De Bruijn's method. After a big panorama of the city, he mentions the most important buildings, including the ones he was not allowed to visit. The interior of  the Sheikh Lotfollah mosque, Isfahan's most lovely monument,  is a square, he tells, "forty passes wide, as I asked someone to find out, because no one belonging to a Christian nation is allowed to enter". Probably, De Bruijn was told a convincing lie: Christians could even enter the mausoleum at Qom, and the real reason why he was not allowed to enter the Lotfollah mosque probably was that this was the place where the members of the royal family said their prayers.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of a lady from Isfahan. From Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie (1711).
A Persian lady (note the elegant shoes)

De Bruijn, who was fascinated by music, describes the Persian instruments, mentions the bridges of Isfahan, dedicates a chapter to the Persian government, describes how the Iranians dress themselves, and can of course not ignore the way in which the Persians paint. Iranian customs are mentioned and we learn about flora and fauna. De Bruijn tells about the Armenian quarter ("shameless women", he adds) and enumerates Christian religious orders. There's not a single aspect of topography, botany, zoology, or ethnography that he has left out.


On 8 November 1704, Cornelis de Bruijn and VOC-official Adriaan de Backer arrived in Persepolis, where the painter was to stay until 23 January 1705. He was not the first westerner to visit the site: it is situated along the main road from the Persian Gulf and Shiraz to Isfahan. Several European travelers had already offered descriptions of Chehel Minar, "forty columns", but none of them spent two and a half months amidst the ruins, was so well-acquainted with the site, or added such marvelous illustrations. Unfortunately, when De Bruijn returned home, there were suddenly three books that contained information about and illustrations of Persepolis, and his masterpiece did not immediately receive the attention it needed.

Cornelis de Bruijn's signature on the Gate of All Nations. Photo Jona Lendering.
De Bruijn's signature (on the Gate of All Nations)
Persepolis with the Gate and Stairs of all Nations and the Palace of Darius. Drawing by Cornelis de Bruijn (1704/1705; published 1711).
Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of the Tomb of Artaxerxes II Mnemon, Persepolis. From Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie (1711).
The Tomb of Artaxerxes II

De Bruijn's book, however, offered the first reliable description of the ancient ruins, which he correctly identified as the remains of the capital of the ancient Achaemenid Empire, something that was still contested. The Frenchman Jean de Thévenot (1633-1667), for example, had believed that the site was too small and had suggested that it was a temple. De Bruijn realized that the terrace was only a part of the city, and that the people had lived in the plain: an idea, he admits, that was suggested to him in a Persian book.

Unlike earlier visitors but like a good artist, De Bruijn was able to watch at the things themselves, and postponing the interpretation. For example, there was a discussion about the headless animals that guarded the Gate of All Nations - were they elephants or horses? De Bruijn simply made a good drawing and let the statues speak for themselves. Others had described the columns and wanted to interpret them according to the classical typology, but De Bruijn only believed his eyes, could ignore the Dorian, Ionian, and Corinthian orders, and stated that they were altogether different. When he wrote that earlier visitors had lacked diligence and concentration, he was right.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of the Palace of Darius the Great, Persepolis. From Reizen over Moskovie, door Persie en Indie (1711).
The palace of Darius

His account consists of several parts. In the thirty-ninth chapter, he describes the terrace and its buildings, which can easily be identified with the remains that are visible today. De Bruijn is not always able to interpret the buildings, but recognizes that the rock reliefs belonged to royal tombs. In the second half of this chapter, he mentions the four Achaemenid tombs at Naqš-i Rustam and the Sasanian rock reliefs, which he believes to be representations of the legendary Persian hero Rustam. (This must be information from a local guide.) In the fortieth chapter, De Bruijn compares his observations to what is written by the ancient authors. For example, he is able to identify Median and Persian dresses. In chapter forty-one, with 68 pages the longest in his book,  De Bruijn recounts the history of the Achaemenids, and in the following chapter, he tells about the customs of the ancient Persians. All this is based on Greek and Latin sources, and impartiality makes him include a forty-third chapter with the Persian side of the story.

The first more or less reliable rendering of XPb: Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing from 1704.
De Bruijn's copy of the Royal inscription now known as XPb.

Of course, De Bruijn sometimes makes errors, but his account is purely scientific and by the standards of his age excellent. He clearly separates sources of information: first, he describes what he has seen, then he offers an interpretation, and only then does he write a history of the Persians. It needs to be stressed that this combination of antiquarianism and history was rare in the early eighteenth century; in fact, De Bruijn was one of the first to attempt to strengthen a historical account by using artifacts. (In fact, even today, it is possible to be an ancient historian without taking part in an archaeological excavation.)

After two and a half months in Persepolis, De Bruijn in February continued to Shiraz, where he could, as usual, stay with an official of the VOC. He had wanted to proceed to Gamron (modern Bandar Abbas), but returned to Isfahan, and traveled to Shiraz again in July. He visited Jahrom and Lar, finally reached Gamron (=Bandar Abbas), and fell ill.

to part five

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