Eugène Boré: a letter from Azerbaijan

This letter, which I found recently in the British Library, is from Eugène Boré, one-time Lazarist superior general, penned from Julfa in Azerbaijan on 6 August 1841.

Boré, of course, needs little introduction. At least since 1894, when Léonce de la Rallaye wrote his first biography of the man (see Eugène Boré et les origines de la question d’Orient, Paris 1894), Boré’s contributions to the fields of education, philology and ethnography have been well established. Yet the fruits of his travels, which drew him successively from cities in the Middle East and the Ottoman Empire, deserve deeper scrutiny.

This letter, which seems to have escaped the notice of his biographers, serves as a suitable show-piece for a new project on information gathering and semi-official diplomacy by missionaries, especially the Lazarists, in the Middle East during the nineteenth century. As always the Lazarists were adept at weaving connections of high standing. Several features of this particular missive showcase this. For one, it was addressed to Sir Austen Layard (1817-1894), the famous British archaeologist and diplomat. It seems Boré had created strong links with Layard – who was busy excavating the famous cities of Nimrud and Ninevah near Mosul in the 1840s – for he addresses him in tender language and invites him to stay with him on his journey through Persia.

More importantly, however, is the network of information-gatherers that emerges from the epistle. European travellers were still scarce in this region, and much diplomatic information passed through letters between visiting clergy and hommes de lettres. In one part of the letter Boré writes: “I have learnt that the British Embassy is returning to Teheran near the end of September, or at least so the rumour goes and people are saying that the mission is still entrusted to M. MacNeil.”

The MacNeil in question was, of course, Sir John MacNeil (1795-1883) secretary of the special embassy in Teheran and envoy to Persia up to 1844. This was not the only illustrious name mentioned in Boré’s letter. Later, he mentions that the last letter he received from Layard was passed to him from “Monsieur the Baron de Bode”. The baron in question was Clemen Augustus, Baron de Bode (1806-1887), Russian aristocrat, traveller and writer. (See C.A. de Bode, Travels in Luristan and Arabistan, London 1845).

That two prominent names mentioned here should proceed from the realms of England and Russia is not surprising. Soon, the rivalry between the two nations in Asian politics would become known as the Great Game, a long period of Anglo-Russian confrontation in Iran and elsewhere. Boré was of course no stranger to this: he was famously deputed by Louis Napoleon Bonaparte to safeguard French interests at Holy Sites in the Middle East in advance of the Crimean War (1853-1856). On the wider work of travellers like Boré, Layard and de Bode in this prickly period, Elena Andreeva’s edited collection Russia and Iran in the Great Game: Travelogues and Orientalism(London and NY, 2007) is a good start.

To be sure, Boré’s role in many events in this period is well known, even if stray letters such as this one slumber in foreign repositories. As a group, however, the work of the entire Lazarist network in the Middle East remains untilled territory. More surprises may yet come from their labours!

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