Continuing the story of Persia's first great embassy to the West.
As fine weather had set in we again put to sea, in two days retraced the way already gone, and in another day, proceeding forward, reached a port where there were indeed no houses, but a settlement of folk of divers tribes. These men were all living, as is the fashion we see among the nomad Moors of Morocco, in the midst of their flocks and camels; they are of the Tartar nation, and the country goes by the name of the Land of the Great Tamerlane of Tartary; though, in fact, it is subject to the King of Persia.
The manner of life of these people is quite barbarous, and they talk little that is matter of sense; they go almost naked, wearing only fisher-breeches, or a very short shirt. They are poor and very humble folk in their ways, and welcom anybody who comes to their country. They treated us well, giving us of their flocks a liberal and sufficient entertainment during the fortnight that we were dlayed here, for by reason of the dead calm which lay upon the sea, it was impossible for the ship to set sail all this time. In this country, which otherwise is called Manqishlagh (and lies on the east coast of the Caspian) there is a native Persian Idol very greatly venerated by the folk of the land, also by strangers, and to this Idol, we, offering many gifts, forthwith made sacrifice, that the Idol might grant to us a favourable wind.
Some interesting stuff here.
First, where the hell were they? "Manquislagh" might be the modern Mangyshlak penninsula, but that's 500 miles northeast from their port of departure -- pretty good sailing for just three days. Also, it's unlikely that Mangyshlak was even nominally subject to the Persians... it's pretty far north.
On the other hand, Mangyshlak would fit his description tolerably well. You know how the Caspian Sea sort of curls over at the top, like a head with a bouffant hairdo, facing right? Mangyshlak is the bit inside the bouffe. It's the southwest corner of modern Kazakhstan, and there ain't a lot there. It's basically a Wisconsin-sized hunk of dusty steppe.
In 1850 the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko -- Ukraine's greatest literary figure -- was sent into exile there, and it was pretty much the back of beyond even then; a small fort guarding the end of a caravan trail, and nothing else. In Soviet times a closed city was built there around a nuclear reactor, and today an oil and gas boom is making the place look up a bit, but it's still pretty desolate and empty.
Second, the bit with the Idol. The eastern Caspian shore is just the sort of place you'd expect to find that kind of pagan survival, and it's really not surprising; Rebecca West saw villagers in the rural Balkans sacrificing to a fertility stone in 1937. What's interesting is how readily the Persians, presumably good Muslims, were to make an offering. Possibly Persia was going through one of its relatively cosmopolitan and mellow phases; Persian history is long, and includes episodes of both fanaticism and relaxation.
It's also possible that the Persians were desperate. This would have been August, when temperatures on the steppe go over 40 degrees Celsius (105 Fahrenheit) in the shade. No buildings, no food but dried fish and mutton, no shelter but the stinking tents of the nomads; no civilized conversation, nothing but the sun, the dry steppe, and the brackish motionless waters of the Caspian... yeah, by the second week these courtly gentlemen might be getting a little heat-dizzy. One little sacrifice, Allah, for just a tiny breeze. I know You'll understand.
I do wish the Persians had written a bit more about this stop. Like the Plains Indians that Lewis and Clark would meet two centuries later, those simple Tartar herdsmen were enjoying their last generation of peace and solitude. Russia's relentless expansion south and east was lapping around the top of the Caspian, and the Cossacks would be arriving soon.
Anyway, they got a good wind, and off they went. But:
During the next two months we were constantly set back by foul weather; so we coasted the shore, and had we but a favorable wind, in twleve days we should easily have accomplished this our journey across the Caspian.
So, maybe the business with the Idol wasn't such a good idea.
At the end of these two months we came into what is an arm of the Caspian, where the water is clearer and less salt than out at sea, and, indeed, Giovanni Botero has already remarked this matter in his book, but this gulf is a separate arm of the Caspian and it is no part of the main sea.
That's Giovanni Botero the liberal Catholic Counter-Reformation intellectual (sic), best known for his criticism of Machiavelli but also no mean geographer. The Persians might even have met him; he would be in Spain in the early 1600s.
And here it is proper to point out that the water is thus less salt here by reasons of the rivers which flow into this bay or estuary; but, as proving clearly that the water of the Caspian is truly salt, when a storm wind drives the water back through this estuary... into the river mouths, their waters then become as bitter as gall, and of this fact I satisfied myself by experiment. The people of this country call the river, which is the Volga, by the name of Idel.
The Volga Delta is big even today. 400 years ago, it must have been immense. "Idel" is a Turkish name. In 1599, the north Caspian shore was still inhabited by various sorts of Turkic peoples; the Russians had only arrived in force about forty years earlier, and were still a minority.
Thirty leagues up this bay or estuary, sailing north we began to enter the territories which the Muscovites occupy in Asia, and the first inhabited place we came to was a town of the Christians, which is called Astrakhan.