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Travel Literature:The venerable method of historiography

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2011. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


Background: The Global Communication Association’s conference in Krakow, Poland, October 2010, organized by several Polish and American Universities, provided me with an opportunity to present an academic framework for my travel writings. The choice of venue was propitious. The earliest written mention of Krakow, indeed the Polish state under Mieszko I, its first historical ruler, came in the memoirs of his journey by a 10th century Hispanic-Arabic traveler, Ibrahim ibn Yaqub (al-Tartushi).

abstract: The use of travel writing to inform the audience at home about the world abroad is not new. The History by Herodotus offers an ancient example. Written some 2,500 years ago, this was history based on what the author personally saw and heard as he traveled throughout his world (which was essentially the region around the Mediterranean), as well as what he had read. Herodotus is noteworthy for two other reasons. He was a storyteller whose narrative was not limited only to military and political happenings. Furthermore, although he aimed at covering actual events, he also drew upon folklore and myth. He thought that the imaginative record of the past mattered for the present. His method, I suggest, is a good working definition for travel literature.

Certain special values distinguish travel “literature” from other writings. Far more than merely keeping journals, it requires an attentive and diligent traveler. Physical presence on the location allows a unique possibility for insight. Conversation with the local inhabitants enhances that sense of the place. Their narrative provides context for what others can merely read about it. The traveler’s focus is harnessed as observing the place becomes his purpose. The process of reflection that follows brings in similarities and contrasts with other places. This leads to new general perceptions and conceptualization.

The importance of travel literature for global education has grown substantially in our time. This is because traveling has become unusually easier. Furthermore, the creation of the World Wide Web has created a forum for true global interactive communication. The travelers’ reports about everywhere may now be heard and responded to in all corners of the world. Imagine the change from the time Herodotus told his tales only in Greek forums!

I have been traveling and writing almost exclusively in the past six years. When I compare my understanding of places and events now with when I talked about them in the first year I taught (1962 at Colby College, Maine. U.S.A.), I find the difference truly dramatic. I will share with you today as evidence some examples from my journeys.


This paper consists of five segments entitled: The Cooperation Model, The Domination Model, Idols, Ethnicity Identity and Religion, and The Role of Women. These topics are loosely related. The cohesion of the five segments, however, is based on their serving as disparate illustrations of the value of travel for education. In each I attempt to show how on-site observation focused my attention to what the object signified, how conversations with the residents helped provide the meaning of that message for those most directly affected, and how reflection thus stimulated provided me with a fresh and perhaps new perspective on the broader encompassing subjects. Whenever possible I will show illustrating pictures taken on these trips.

The Cooperation Model

The wall separating the two great civilizations of the ancient world, Persia and China was real; it was physical. The Pamir Mountains are so called, meaning the “foot of Mitra”, because they were so high: they were the closest that man got to the Sun God of Mithraism, the ancient Persian religion. Passage through these mountains is still extremely difficult . I experienced this on the morning of September 12, 2005. I was at the Irkeshtam Pass. We had to cross the Kyrgyz Republic on a rutted segment of the Silk Road to get from China to Uzbekistan.

The real miracle was that people had done it as early as a few centuries before Christ. A good evidence for this is the Manichaean manuscripts found in the ancient city of Goachang Continue reading