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Adventures in Persia

Sweet Boy Dear Wife: Jane Dieulafoy in Persia 1881-1886
by Heather Rossiter (Wakefield Press, $AU39.95)
Reviewed by Judith Morrell Nathan

Sweet-Boy002_WebThis is a true story of a French couple’s amazing archaeological expeditions in the late nineteenth century in what is now Iran and Iraq. They travelled over 6000 kilometres, mostly on horseback with long mule trains carrying their baggage across country largely devoid of formed roads, usually in convoy with local travellers. Both Jane and Marcel suffered life threatening illnesses at times while travelling. These delayed but did not deter them. They excavated a vast quantity of antiquities and brought back spectacular examples to the Louvre. Though largely unknown outside France, Jane Dieulafoy received the Legion of Honour for her archaeological work: when she died in 1916 she was described in The New York Times as the “most remarkable woman in France and perhaps in all Europe”.

Heather Rossiter, who has studied Eastern and Oriental art and Islamic monuments and travelled extensively in North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia has based this book mainly on Jane’s diaries and another book that she published on her return to France. These incorporated engravings made from her many photographs, several of which Rossiter has reproduced in this book, to great effect. Jane was an avid photographer and took her unwieldy photographic equipment everywhere.

Taking photographs was often the passport to meeting with key people such as the shah, provincial governors and other influential people who could assist the Dieulafoys with safe passage through the many dangerous areas they visited. Such assistance was not always forthcoming and, even when the Dieulafoys were given a letter of support by the official authority, it was not necessarily acknowledged in the field. They went for days without food when locals refused to supply them and encountered a staggering amount of corruption. At times, Jane and Marcel faced incredible danger from rival tribal groups and it was only their proven skills with their pistols that saved them. Jane had become a good shot when, as a new bride, she went with her husband to fight in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.

In that war Jane dressed as a boy, a habit she maintained for the rest of her life for practical as well as safety reasons. This led to some interesting situations on occasions when she revealed her gender. She gained admission to several anderuns (harems where wealthy men kept a dozen or so women). With her fluent Farsi, Jane established good relationships with these women and hence this book casts light on areas of Persian life that were closed to most Western travellers.

The descriptions of the ruins at famous sites such as Shiraz and Isfahan emphasise the enormous investment that subsequent Iranians have made, and are still making, in restoring their wonderful buildings. One could have wished for more than the handful of photos of these sites today to emphasise the contrast with what the Dieulafoys saw.

Though Rossiter’s style is very readable, the book is not a quick read as it is packed with information. From time to time, she explains historical background or aspects of archaeology. As well as the bibliography, index, and list of the photos that you would expect, it has a short chronology of ancient Persia, a brief glossary and a list of the main people mentioned.

Unfortunately the only map is a very inadequate, small scale one at the front of the book that locates the main places the couple visited on their journeys, but does not show their actual routes. Detailed maps of the area around Susa in southwest Iran where they did most of their excavations – at times employing nearly 300 locals – would have helped to clarify the latter part of the book which focuses on the amazing finds they made there and the tremendous difficulties they faced getting themselves and their vast quantities of baggage safely to and from the area.

With the renewed interest in Iran following the lifting of the sanctions, this fascinating book should attract wide interest.