Continuing the story of Persia's first great embassy to the West.
The embassy has crossed the Caspian Sea and arrived at the mouths of the Volga. To the north lies the city of Astrakhan, once the capital of a Muslim Khanate, now a frontier city of the expanding power of Russia.
One of our Persians and an Englishman, with some of the sailors to row, now got into a small boat and went to wait on the captain-general of the town, which lay thirty leagues above where the ship had come to anchor, for the water above here is so shallow that she could not have passed the bar without running aground.
Hm, it sounds like the Volga delta was one vast shallow swamp. I wonder when the Russians got around to draining a channel?
Now as we lay here, by a change of wind our vessel was in great risks, for though of considerable size, when a squall fell on us, she was all but overset, and we already accounted ourselves as doomed men. Immediately we began to throw overboard first a thousand bushels of wheat and flour, next many provisions with which we had been supplied, many boxes of clothes, lastly some chests of valuable gifts, whereby finally, and by the loss thereof, the tempest came to be appeased, and the ship saved.
This danger being overpassed, those who had gone up to the city returned, and with them the captain-general had sent down to us many gentlemen, aboard four galleys, with provisions and refreshments. We now trans-shipped and were taken aboard their galleys, and our ship weighing anchor, sailed away, leaving us. On arriving at the city we disembarked from the galleys, when they gave us a very great and solemn reception, for there was a mighty assembly of folk present. Here we found another ambassador from the King of Persia, especially accredited to Muscovy, who was on his way thither, and in his suite 300 persons.
Remember, our boy's embassy is a general one to various kings of the West. They're just passing through Russia en route.
300 persons? Wow. Persian rulers did go in for conspicuous consumption but I wonder if there wasn't something more here. Perhaps Shah Abbas was hungry for an ally against the Turks. (He was just a couple of years away from launching a major war against them.) Or maybe he wanted to make sure the Russians wouldn't get ideas about expanding down either coast of the Caspian, in the direction of Persia. Which, of course, is exactly what they'd be doing in the following century. But in 1599 that was still a distant ambition, so probably it was more about the upcoming war with the Ottomans.
In Astrakhan we sojourned for sixteen days, for they gave us excellent entertainment, and it being the autumn season, there was in that country an abundance of melons and apples of very good quality. Also not only was the land pleasant, but the people likewise, for the captain-general, whom the Grand Duke of Muscovy had appointed here as governor, had caused it to be proclaimed that no one should presume to demand money for anything that we might need or desire, and this under pain of 200 lashes for disobedience...
Well, that gives us an idea of how things were done in Russia back in the day. It's also pretty suggestive of how important the Russians considered these embassies to be.
This must have been pretty sweet for the ambassadors! For the local merchants of Astrakhan, maybe less so.
Having sojourned sixteen days in Astrakhan, and the five galleys being now ready which had been prepared for our accommodation, and for that of the other Persian ambassador whom we had joined company with in Astrakhan, we all now came together and embarked -- namely, we Persians and the Englishmen and the Friars. Along with us were sent a hundred soldiers of the Duke of Muscovy, who were to serve us as guard and escort, by order of the captain-general at Astrakhan. The galleys were very well built, and each had a crew of a hundred rowers. We got on board down at the strand of that river [the Volga], the stream here having a width across of half a Spanish league.
Five hundred rowers plus a hundred soldiers. Astrakhan probably didn't have more than 20,000 inhabitants, so this was a pretty big commitment of manpower.
The land is well inhabited on either bank by the Tartar folk, who are divided up into hordes or tribes, and who for the most part live out in the countryside among their folcks, which supply them with their chief sustenance and livelihood... They live as do the nomad Moors of Morocco, changing their habitations with the four seasons, even as those men are wont to do. They go by the name of the Nogay...
The Nogai are still around, although there are a lot fewer of them now. They're a people of mixed Mongol and Turkish descent, speaking a language that's very close to Turkish.
In the mid-16th century, around the time the Russians captured Astrakhan, the Nogai split in two. The Great Horde stayed on the lower Volga and accepted Russian rule (which was pretty light at first). The Lesser Horde moved west to the lower Don and the lands north of the Sea of Azov. This region was under the control of the Crimean Tartars, who in turn were tributary allies of the Ottoman Empire; presumably the Lesser Horde preferred Istanbul's rule to Moscow's.
The Great Horde had about a century of relative peace. The embassy passed through right in the middle of this period. Then in the mid-1600s, more and more Russian colonists came floating down the Volga to settle the lower valley. The Great Horde was forced south and west into much less desirable territory in the north Caucasus. That's where they are today.
(Well, most of them. Some ended up in Turkey, some in Jordan. And one branch of the Lesser Horde ended up in the Dobrudja -- the lower Danube, in Romania. Several thousand Nogais live there yet. They even have their own representative in Romania's Parliament.)
We get one interesting glimpse of life with the Great Horde:
[S]ince there are no bridges... it is their custom to make the passage over the river breadth during the month of August, when the river is at its lowest. To accomplish this fording of the river, they have contrived a method as follows. The horses and camels are tied together by their tails one to the another, thirty by thirty, or fifty by fifty, and then being driven into the water their number enables them to struggle against the force of the current, and thus to get over... But as the distance across the stream is very great, it is not uncommon for half the flock to get drowned, for, indeed, in the narrowest places the river here is a league from bank to bank...
1599: Shakespeare was writing Richard III, Queen Elizabeth was an old lady in London, and the first English settlement of America was still a generation away. And from Romania to Central Asia, it was still a nomad world. The Russian state hadn't reached the Black Sea or the Caucasus, and had just gained a tentative foothold at the top of the Caspian. The Russian expansion, which would reduce the mighty Hordes to tiny enclaves in Siberia and the Caucasus, was just getting under way. The embassy travelled through a world of herds and horsemen, river and earth and sky. It's a world that's hard to imagine today, because it has absolutely disappeared.
Next: up and up and up the Volga. Lions and tigers, oh my.