Poland and Persia during the Safavid Period
The waning of the Middle Ages and the demise of the idea of the "Christian Commonwealth" paved the way for new conceptions shaping the political order in Europe. There arose states approximating the modern sense of the term, and the nascent awareness of national separateness meant that alliances between them came to be predicated largely by the specific interests of each one. The search for a workable balance of power led the continent's statesmen further and further afield, even to countries as faraway as Persia which, under the rule of the Safavids (1501-1736), was gradually regaining her might.
The ever-developing political configurations led to gradual emergence of the diplomatic service. Envoys and emissaries set out upon the highways of Europe and Asia in the names of their masters, often accompanied by magnificent trains numbering hundreds of retainers. These resplendent delegations headed mostly to the east, bearing precious gifts as a sign of respect. By gist of such diplomatic exchanges, treaties, commercial intercourse, and developing travel links, Christian Europe became familiar with the Orient - with a world amazing on account of its wealth, culture, and sheer variety.
Long before the first envoys of the Polish Commonwealth arrived at the Safavid court, news of this exotic land called Persia permeated back to Poland thanks to merchants travelling to the farthest reaches of the commercial routes. Their tales, oftentimes embellished with elements of the fantastic, left a trace in the imagination, serving to bring Persia - with all its wealth, alternately an object of wonderment and of fear - somewhat closer to the realm of experience. Archaeological finds of coins bear testimony to lively commercial exchange with Persia thriving in as early as the 9th and 10th centuries; Samanid dirhems are well-represented among them. At that time, the Iranian rulers of the Samanid dynasty (864-1005) held sway over vast expanses of eastern Persia and Central Asia - right up to Kashgar, subordinated to the Arab caliphs on a nominal basis only. Samanid cities such as Bukhara or Samarkand were important centres of culture and commerce; it is from them that the 10th century silver Samanid coins unearthed in Poland, among other places in Piwonice by Kalisz, originate. In the Middle Ages, this district was crossed by a trading route linking Silesia and Pomerania which, most probably, overlapped the old Amber Route once plied by the Romans. Merchants travelling to the Samanid state from eastern Europe carried furs, honey, wax, and amber; another prized commodity was constituted in Slavic captives, much valued as slaves. In the Middle Ages, Poland was connected to Persia by two principal routes, one running through Moscow, and the other - to Lvov by way of Wallachia and then along the northern shore of the Black Sea to the Crimea, then on to Erevan, Djulfa, and Tabriz.
This booming commerce notwithstanding, the times were not propitious for the forging of closer ties with Muslim countries. Quite on the contrary - the fighting with the Saracens and the Crusades put a damper on any possibilities for mutual exploration. While the participation of Poles in the Crusades was, all in all, a modest one - the Church exempted Polish knights from expeditions to the Holy Land in consideration of the fact that they were busy fighting pagans closer to home, namely the Pomeranian Slavs and the Prussians - Poland went down in history as a defender of the Christian faith facing the Mongol onslaught of the 13th century. Thus, Polish knowledge about Persia during Mediaeval times was very limited. The earliest mentions of Persians in the Polish literature refer to their pre-Muslim glory. The 13th century chronicles by Wincenty Kadlubek, Chronica Polonorum, includes information about the great Persian rulers Cirrus, Darius, and Xerxes (6th-5th century BC). The Muslim period of Persian history, in turn, did not arouse much interest and was left undiscussed as was, for that matter, the cultural splendour of the Muslim world as a whole.
The first cracks in the wall of animosity and indifference separating the Muslim and Christian realms began to appear when a new power, Ottoman Turkey, began to rise in the east. In the wake of the Turkish victory at Varna in 1444 and of the taking of Constantinopole in 1453 there transpired a shift in the political consciousness of Europe. A new view was being taken of history, partly through the influence of the Reformation. Common political interests took the fore over religious differences, and it was demonstrated that collaboration among adherents of different faiths is by all means possible. Alliances transcending religion were being sought by the European powers, erstwhile enemies of Islam, and Persia was one of the countries whose favour was being curried. This change of thinking had much to do with a tangible fear of the nascent power of Turkey which came to threaten not only Persia, its archenemy of long standing, but also all of south-eastern Europe. The Italian city-republics of Venice and Genoa were particularly proactive in seeking to build an anti-Turkish alliance. Naturally enough, any efforts towards mounting an initiative against the Turks brought the European states closer to Persia, a country which had its own disagreements with the Ottomans. Diplomatic missions began setting out from Europe to Persia with increasing frequency. The European overtures were addressed to the Turkmen ruler of the Ak Koyunlu confederation, Uzun Hassan (1453-1478), master over well-nigh all of Persia. The negotiations usually proceeded through the good offices of Catholic missionaries who were entrusted with the establishment and maintenance of contacts; in their travels to and fro, many of them passed through Poland. In 1474, the court of King Kazimierz the Jagiellon (1447-1492) received a fully fledged Persian delegation, the first in the history of contacts between Poland and Persia. The delegation was headed by Ambrosio Contorini, legate of the Venetian Republic; he delivered to Kazimierz a letter from Shah Uzun Hassan in which the Polish king was assured of the shah's friendship and was asked to provide military assistance in the fight against the Turkish Sultan Mehmed II. The Persian hope was that Poland can be enlisted in attacking Turkey from two sides, from the east and west. This plan had the wholehearted support of Venice and Poland, whose King Wladyslaw fell at the hands of the Turks during the Battle of Varna, and was the repository of much hope.
Kazimierz the Jagiellon, however, declined the offer made by Uzun Hassan; his foreign policy was one of avoiding direct confrontation with the Turks and, at least as importantly, of maintaining his alliance with the Crimean Tartars. The Polish monarch was also anxious to protect Moldavia, a land which - while sparsely populated and bare of as much as decent fodder - was of considerable strategic importance in that it constituted a natural buffer protecting the approach to Poland. "If Moldavia is defended, the Crown will be defended as well", as Primate Zbigniew Olesnicki said. Furthermore, Kazimierz was worried that, should matters come to a head, Poland may be left as the sole combatant facing Turkey in that the support of Hungary's king Maciej Korwin as well as of the Holy See for a war with the Turks was far from unequivocal. Accordingly, Poland's diplomats strove to maintain some semblance of good relations with the Ottomans, and the envisaged anti-Turkish coalition came to naught.
The interest in all things Persian, meanwhile, continued unabated. What's more, the merchants and adventurers travelling eastwards, to Persia and to India, were increasingly often joined by missionaries. The comparatively liberal stance adopted by Persia's consecutive shahs towards different religions meant that Christian missions were established in Persia in as early as the 14th century. The first to arrive were the Dominicans and the Franciscans, followed by the Jesuits; all of them produced chronicles, accounts, and memoirs. These writings, however, did little to increase the general knowledge about Persia back in Europe in that, during those times, the average European was illiterate and had no time for such concerns. Fantastic and make-believe stories of the East continued to dominate.
The situation in Poland was somewhat different in that, here, the Muslim cultures were not some unknown, mysterious, and exotic world but, rather, a real-life presence. Muslim Tartars played an important role in the country's political life; the Armenians settling in Poland continued to use Turkish (in the form of an Armenian-Kipchak dialect) and, in many instances, also Persian. The Polish merchants returning from voyages to the east brought back Persian carpets, textiles, Persian arms, horse trappings, precious stones, roots, and sweets; sometimes, they came back in the company of craftsmen, most usually of Armenian stock, who took up residence in Poland's cities, principally in Lvov. It is thanks to them that the local weaving shops developed; it is no coincidence that such establishments were known as persjarnie.
The close contacts with the diverse cultures of the East left their indelible mark on the art of the Polish Commonwealth as well as on the mentality of its inhabitants. A strong cultural current known as Sarmatism took hold of the Polish nobility for several centuries; it featured as its central tenet the conviction that Poles are descended from the ancient Sarmatians, a nomad people of Iranian origin living between the Don and Volga rivers as of the 3rd century BC. This proud people, belonging to the federation of Scythian tribes, was renowned for its fierce warriors who "never swore fealty to Alexander the Great nor to the Roman state". The Polish knights and nobles - the story continues - were descended from these indomitable fighters. Whether the fact that the various Scythian traditions form part of a greater whole, the Persian heritage as set out in the Royal Book by Ferdousi, was known in Poland at that time, we cannot tell. All that is known on this subject is that Poles learned about the Sarmatians not from the Persians, but from the ancient historians of Rome. The designation "Sarmatia" is first used by Claudius Ptolemy in the 2nd century to refer to the lands of central and eastern Europe; Ptolemy called the various peoples inhabiting this area "Sarmatians". The durability of the conviction about the Sarmatian lineage of the local peoples and the acceptance of the genealogy associating their origins with the Asian steppes presents a point of considerable interest.
Taken together, all this would suggest that the concept of the East, of the Orient, carried positive connotations for the Polish gentry. They also had their bearing on aesthetic standards in Poland - here, Oriental influences ran deep. Garb based on Oriental models, as worn by Polish nobles of the 16th century, became almost a national costume and, with time, was enshrined as a symbol of attachment to Polish tradition and customs; the Persian influence in this realm is beyond dispute. The quality of craftsmanly production in Persia was among the highest in the known world; the risk entailed in trips to Persia was deemed worth taking when one considered the magnificent goods which were to be had there.
The 16th century brought a renewed threat on the part of Turkey which, having completed a series of conquests in Asia and Africa, undertook a push towards Europe; this was the reign of Sultan Suleyman I the Magnificent (1520-1566). Soon, the idea of an anti-Turkish alliance incorporating Persia was again circulating in the halls of power. European states had already made advances in this direction earlier, during the reign of King Zygmunt I (1506-1548), seeking to gain Persia's acquiescence; in reply, the Persians dispatched (in 1516) an envoy to Poland - Petrus de Monte Libano, a Maronite monk from Syria. Petrus carried letters from the Shah addressed to the European monarchs in which the drawing up of anti-Turkish treaties was proposed. The Polish king, however, displayed limited enthusiasm for similar solutions; in spite of low-intensity aggressive actions on the part of the Turks, he adhered to a policy of maintaining sound relations at all costs.
The idea of a wider anti-Turkish alliance assumed a more concrete shape under the rule of Stefan Batory (1576-1586). The king was planning a great crusade leading through Moscow and on to Istanbul; he secured subsidies from the Holy See and permission of the noblemen's assemblies to wage war on Poland's eastern neighbour. It is reputed that negotiations in this regard were carried on with the Persian shah through the intermediation of Marcin Broniowski; this secretary to the king, much experienced in diplomatic negotiations, is supposed to have sojourned at the court of the Persian shah, Mohammed Khodabande (1577-1581) on a mission. Yet the far-reaching plans of the combative king came to naught, interrupted as they were by the sudden death of Stefan Batory in 1586. The friendly relations between Poland and Persia struck up during this time, however, survived, assuming a special character during the reign of his successor, King Zygmunt III Vasa (1587-1632). The escalating conflict with the Ottoman Porte brought an end to the lively commercial exchange with the Turkish cities, and it became necessary for Poland to seek new markets as well as allies for her military endeavours; Persia was a natural, if geographically distant, candidate.
Meanwhile, Persia was undergoing momentous political change with profound implications for her future. The Safavid dynasty (1501-1738) was established in power, and a new era in the country's history began. The long years of political fragmentation came to an end; Persia became a strong, centralised state, perfectly able during the high point coinciding with the rule of Shah Abbas I (1581-1629) to compete with the Ottoman Empire and with Mameluke Egypt in the political and military spheres as well as in the cultural one, most notably in the area of architecture. Artistic handicrafts, such as weaving and carpet making, also reached unprecedented heights in their development. The Safavids underscored their distinctiveness in the Islamic world by imposing Shiism as Persia's state religion. Surrounded by hostile Sunni powers, Turkey to the west and the Uzbek-Shaibanid state in Central Asia - and waging protracted wars with both - the Safavids opened themselves to contacts with the countries of Europe, regarding them as potential friends in their fight with the Ottomans. Commercial initiatives by Western merchants were stepped up, as were diplomatic contacts. The memoirs and accounts written by travellers to Persia and by diplomats assigned there during this time - to mention only the Frenchmen Jean de Chardin and Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, Adam Olearius, secretary of the mission of Holstein, or Sefer Muratowicz, the Polish merchant - have proven to be a source of much valuable information, replete with descriptions of the sumptuous receptions held in welcome of arriving envoys. Sefer Muratowicz has recalled how, in the course of the audience, Shah Abbas I sent for some wine and, raising a toast, proclaimed "'o guest, I drink with you to the good health of his Majesty the great and famous King, your lord and my dear brother' and drank the half. He then had them pour a full goblet for me and quoth, 'if you do love his Majesty the King, your lord and my brother, than down this at one go'
Contacts with the West were very much eased by the policy of tolerance pursued by Abbas I the Great with regard to the Jews and Christians living in Persia. It is likely that such accommodating attitudes towards these religions were the result of the Shah's foreign as well as domestic plans for undermining the position of the Turkmenian aristocracy. It is for similar reasons that the Persian army recruited increasing numbers of Georgians and Armenians. The Safavid court began to solicit foreign advisors; their knowledge and skills were held in great esteem. These included two Englishmen, Anthony and Robert Sherley, and - later on - the Polish Jesuit Tadeusz Krusinski.
This enlivening of diplomatic relations with Persia meant that Poland, always a convenient transit point on the East-West trail, became frequent host to passing diplomatic missions, Persian ones travelling West as well as European ones headed in the opposite direction. And the proximity of Turkey constituted yet another reason why the Polish Commonwealth, already a country of considerable importance in international politics, found itself at the centre of the diplomatic stage.
In those days, any voyage to Persia, what with the need to circumvent the Ottoman state and all areas inhabited by its supporters, was a time-consuming and perilous undertaking. Most travelling parties chose to pass through Astrakhan. All carried letters of safe passage and substantial sums of cash as well as including many wagons and an armed escort; all the same, not all missions reached their destinations. Such a sad fate befell the Persian delegation dispatched to Rome by Shah Abbas I, who kept up close ties with Pope Clemens VIII and Pope Paul V. In 1599, Abbas sent out a mission with instructions to call on King Zygmunt III and then to proceed through Germany to Rome, to Clemens VIII. The Shah, his interest piqued by the offer of forming a common front against Turkey delivered to him by the English envoy Anthony Sherley, was hoping to convince the Pope to incite the various Christian countries to a war against Turkey and to assist Persia in bringing together an anti-Turkish league. The mission was led by Hussein Ali Bek and by Robert Sherley. The envoys never reached Poland; according to some sources, the Russian Tsar Boris Godunov, acting in collusion with the Ottoman Porte, intercepted the mission and imprisoned its Persian leader, with only Sherley being permitted to make his way to England.
The papal mission of 1602 travelling through Poland and on to Russia in hopes of reaching Persia was likewise arrested by the Tsar. This mission was headed by Paul Simon of Jesus, a Barefoot Carmelite. On his way eastward, the friar spent two weeks as a guest at the court of Zygmunt III, receiving from the Polish monarch letters recommending him to the Shah. The interference of the Russian sovereign and the subsequent death of the Pope, however, translated into a delay of five years. When Paul Simon of Jesus and his train did finally reach Persia, the Shah lavished a warm welcome on the Carmelites, not only permitting them to erect a monastery, but actually providing them with financial aid.
One is thus inclined to agree with the historians who maintain that the next expedition to Persia, this one by merchants, had political goals in addition to its overt commercial objectives. In 1601, Zygmunt III, a consummate lover of the arts, sent Sefer Muratowicz - an Armenian living in Warsaw, supplier of carpets to the royal court - on the long voyage to Persia, more specifically to Kashan (now in north-western Iran), a major carpet-making centre. The instructions issued to Muratowicz were simple enough: he was to order carpets with the King's coat-of-arms from the local craftsmen.
Surviving in part to this day is the account of Sefer Muratowicz's journey in which he describes his contacts with the highest Persian officials as well as with the Shah himself. His was the first Polish report to dwell in such detail on the relations prevailing in Persia's ruling house.
What was ostensibly a commercial journey did not arouse the suspicions of Poland's enemies and Muratowicz, carrying an assortment of letters of safe passage, was allowed to continue eastwards unmolested. "Having a free letter from his Majesty the King", he relates, "so that I am permitted to pass by all countries with such things as I may have purchased in Persia, I travelled from Warsaw to Lvov. Without pausing there, I continued across Volynia, crossed the Danube, and travelled to the Turkish city on the shore of the Black Sea known as Mangalia. Having rented a ship there, I set sail for Trapezand prima aprilis anno 1601". Arriving safely, the merchant continued overland to Erzerum, Kars, then on to Erevan and Nahichevan, "a great city which the Turks had likewise taken from the Persians a while back". After 158 days on the trail, Muratowicz safely reached Kashan and set about procuring the carpets requested by his monarch: "There, I had made for His Majesty the King a few carpets with silk and with gold, also a tent and a damascene sabre". Some of the carpets brought back by Muratowicz were incorporated into the dowry of the king's daughter and are preserved at Munich's Residenz Museum to this day.
In addition to its commercial dimension, the voyage of Sefer Muratowicz had a less patent purpose - a diplomatic one. Historians believe that the main purpose of his trip lay in sounding out the real Persian attitudes with regard to the anti-Turkish league, in assessing her military potential, and in appraising the possibilities for establishing permanent diplomatic relations between the Polish Commonwealth and Persia. Muratowicz was also charged with mapping out the safest and most direct route between Poland and Persia for use by the anticipated papal mission as well as with exploring the feasibility of attempting missionary activity in the land. Muratowicz, taking advantage of his command of the Persian language and of his familiarity with the Orient, disposed himself very well, gaining the favour of the shah. In his account, as edited by the castellan of Smolensk - Kazimierz Ignacy Niesiolowski (1752), Muratowicz proudly recounts the words addressed by Persia's supreme ruler to the vizier: "Haten beg, I have had in my halls many different envoys, Muscovite, English, Venetian, and papal, but with none was I more content than with this man with whom I can converse in my own tongue - one has little taste for speaking through an interpreter". After Muratowicz's return to Poland, the king recognised his services by bestowing upon him the title of servitor ac negotiator which placed him outside the jurisdiction of the ordinary courts.
The successful mission of the Polish merchant-cum-diplomat blazed new paths and dispelled the lingering doubts. Persia, led by its energetic ruler, stood open for an alliance with the Christian states and for friendly relations with the Polish Commonwealth. Muratowicz quotes the shah as enjoining him to "remember what I discussed with you and please tell this to His Majesty the King, your lord and my brother, assuring him that he has in my person a faithful friend".
The information about the fabulous wealth of the Persian court, the magnificence of the shah's capital - Isfahan, and of the Persians' kind attitude towards the Christian religion all augured well. There ensued a vigorous exchange of envoys between the courts of the two countries. It wasn't long before the shah personally reaffirmed his friendship and his desire to work together with Poland in a letter delivered to the court of Zygmunt III by Mahdi Kuli Bek Turkman, royal dragoman, in 1605; in it, Abbas I declared his friendship, recounted his recent military victories, and proposed an alliance against the Turks, making much of their status as a common enemy. In this letter, the shah writes "we recount this so that friendship and love arise between us two lords, as deep as it does between the Christian lords. The Turk is a foe to us as well as to all you Christians". These portentous developments notwithstanding, history again foiled the plans for a joint anti-Turkish undertaking. Resolutions adopted by the Polish Parliament (Sejm) in 1605 and 1606 with a view to securing peace with the Ottoman Porte pushed the perspective of joint military enterprises with the Persians further away. King Zygmunt, anxious to preserve the promising contacts with Persia in spite of this setback, again dispatched the Carmelite Paul Simon on a mission to the shah; this time around, the envoy carried a fine gift from Cardinal Bernard Maciejowski, the Bishop of Cracow - an illuminated bible from France dating to the middle of the 13th century. The shah welcomed this priceless book, ordering the miniatures appearing therein to be supplemented by Persian-language captions. Following the downfall of the Safavids, the book was shipped to England; today, it ranks among the most valuable holdings of the Pierpont-Morgan Library in New York.
Although Persia lost increasing swaths of territory to the Turks during the conflicts continuing across the 16th and 17th centuries, it continued to put up a steadfast resistance. In 1609, yet another mission sent forth by the shah travelled to Europe in hopes of arranging an alliance with Spain, England, France, the Roman Empire, Poland, and Muscovy so as to mount a joint defence against the Turkish onslaught. Zygmunt III, however, was loath to wage war on Turkey; his reply to the shah, while courteous and teeming with protestations of friendship, was rather short on specifics concerning the proposed anti-Turkish effort. Subsequent overtures made by the Persians over the coming years met with similar replies, both on the part of the Poles and on that of other European nations. No consensus regarding a common struggle was reached.
Diplomatic efforts pursued towards this end by Wladyslaw IV, successor to Zygmunt III, were likewise unsuccessful. The mind-set of Poland's new king was belligerent enough; he surreptitiously promulgated legal instruments preparing for war, amassed funds, and sent his envoys out to countries which might conceivably be interested in joining an anti-Turkish alliance. Venice and the Papal States pledged financial aid; an alliance with Moscow also seemed a real possibility, and negotiations were underway with the Cossacks. The king also dispatched an embassy to Persia. In the year 1639, Count Teofil Stahremberg spent some time at the court of the shah, endeavouring to fathom the current political situation and to gauge the chances for a joint enterprise as well as seeking protection for Polish missionaries.
Diplomatic intercourse with Persia was on the upswing again, with many a delegation from Poland, Venice, and from the Pope making their way thither. In 1647, an embassy on a grand scale to Shah Abbas II (1642-1666) was headed by the nobleman Jerzy Ilicz. As with Count Stahremberg before him, the purely diplomatic aspect of Ilicz's mission was augmented with an assignment relating to a Jesuit facility in the shah's domain; while the shah declined to mount a joint initiative against the Turks, he did accord multiple privileges to the order.
Albeit the anti-Turkish designs of King Wladyslaw IV encountered staunch resistance on the part of the Polish nobility, he laboured stubbornly towards their execution. The king's death in 1648 moved the spectre of war with Turkey further to the future. Soon enough, however, it became manifest that a confrontation with the Ottomans is inevitable. After 1650, what was heretowith a stable balance of power in Central and Eastern Europe began to shift; the expansive policies pursued by Turkey as well as the absence of an agreement with Russia was generating new alliances. While the spectacular triumph of King Jan III Sobieski at Vienna temporarily checked the Turkish advance, effective counteraction of the Ottoman threat required further military measures. The king believed it necessary to mount a concentric offensive against Turkey. "This is the time", he wrote, "that the ages have been leading up to, and should we neglect it, we will answer to the Lord".
While King Jan III Sobieski did conclude an alliance with Austria and with Venice under the auspices of the Pope, he also sought allies in the Muslim world. His greatest hopes were associated with Persia; in the course of his reign, no less than eleven Polish missions made their way to the court of the shah. Surely the greatest authority on all things Persian working in the king's diplomatic service was Bohdan Gurdziecki, a Georgian by origin. Already during the rule of King Jan Kazimierz was he sent on missions to Isfahan, and King Jan III Sobieski availed himself of Gurdziecki's talents in like manner (in 1668, 1671, 1676-1678, in 1682-1684, and in 1687). Gurdziecki remained at the court of the shah for several years in the capacity of special resident and representative of the Polish king; it was him who delivered to the shah news of the victory at Vienna. Other Polish envoys to Persia included Stanislaw Swiderski, Grzegorz Ortalowicz, Zukowski, Count Suski, and - on several different occasions - Konstanty de Syri Zgórski. The latter made no less than three trips to Isfahan, and this as a representative of not only Poland, but also of the Republic of Venice.
The long months of negotiations with the Persian shah, however, did not bring the hoped-for results. The envoy Zgórski and the archbishop Knab, ambassadors of the Holy League representing Poland, the Emperor, and Venice, had to return home empty-handed. In the course of a gala audience held on March 20, 1686, Shah Sulayman (1666-1694), a vacillating ruler who was very much under the sway of his viziers and who was interested in the arts much more than in politics, officially refused to participate in a joint effort against the Ottomans.
Yet the intensive diplomatic contacts were engendering dynamic development in the commercial sphere. In the course of the seventeenth century, commercial expeditions travelling directly from Poland to Persia became increasingly common, although this was by no means tantamount to a neglecting of contacts with Turkey - Poland's traditional trading partner in the East. The conflict between Poland and Turkey was one factor contributing to the increasing turnovers between Poland and Persia; another lay in the commercial policies of Shah Abbas I geared at stimulating Persian exports to India on the one side and to Europe on the other. It was with a view to such growth in trade that the shah ordered the construction of many new roads and bridges. What's more, Persian goods were generally superior to Turkish ones in craftsmanship and decoration, characteristics which could only add to their appeal. The items imported to Poland included encrusted weapons, shields, textiles, belts, tents, as well as magnificent carpets and jewellery. Although Polish tradesmen could never attain the stature of their counterparts from England or from Portugal, the wiliness, in some instances even insolence, of Polish merchants kept up a healthy interchange between the two countries. Many Poles engaging in commerce with Persia were of Armenian extraction, and they made good use of the presence of their countrymen and relatives in this exotic land. And even though this commerce was essentially limited to luxury goods and, as such, could not have too much of an impact on the general economic picture, the importation of Persian handicrafts was not without significance as regards the development of Poland's own industries.
As mentioned above, while the demand for Oriental products was very large in Poland, the route by which importers of such products had to travel in order to actually deliver them was a long and perilous one.
Accordingly, there arose in Poland indigenous production emulating the styles and techniques familiar from Persian imports, eventually rarefying imitation into original styles, most famously in the workshops of Lvov. This city became the home of many talented tanners, embroiderers, weavers, goldsmiths, as well as of other specialists who drew on the repertory of Persian art in order to produce items which, while being original products, retained the refinement and subtlety of the Persian examples. At that time, the Persian art of decorating weapons, shields, and saddles, of weaving sashes and tents, or of tying carpets was without equal. Assets lists of noble families drawn up in the late 16th and early 17th centuries included many carpets imported from Persia. Some members of the aristocracy also collected Persian, Arabic, and Turkish manuscripts; many of these bibliophile items were owned by the Czartoryski family. It may be true that Armain of the Bibliothèque Nationale, travelling through Warsaw in 1747, issued a somewhat unenthusiastic pronouncement as to the quality of the Oriental collection of August Czartoryski, but the very fact that such collections existed testifies to prevailing interest in things Persian - suffice it to note that Jadwiga Zamoyska, lady of the palace in Kórnik, took lessons in Persian language and calligraphy.
While the primary motivation for diplomatic relations between Poland and Persia was certainly a political one, they had another aspect also- that of fostering outposts of the Christian religion. The tolerant policy with regard to Christians as well as the rights and privileges granted to the missionaries by Shah Abbas I (and affirmed by his successors) brought about a state of affairs where many people in the West gave credence to the rumours subsisting since Mediaeval times whereby there thrives, someplace in the East, a great Christian state. Abbas I himself - son of a Georgian mother, the generous protector of missionaries, a ruler who kept up lively relations with the Holy See - sat easily with these preconceptions, and returning merchants and travellers as well as the Church itself also did their part to fuel them.
Muratowicz, for one, has written in his accounts that Abbas I wore upon his chest "a gold cross framed in diamonds" and that he told the Polish envoy: "dear guest, let it be known to you that I am no longer a Muslim, but a Christian by the grace of God and that I have learned well by the teachings of the Holy Father, the Pope of Rome, about the true Messiah, the God and the Man, Jesus Christ. And that I am of that faith which the Roman Church preaches the world over and which your Lord, His Majesty the King, adheres to. Hence, it is my wish that His Majesty the King, knowing this, trusts me as he would a Christian. It is true that I do not show this openly yet, having more Muslims in my realm than Christians, but - with the aid of God one in the Trinity - I shall make effort to the ends of beautifully leading all people, with no tumult or coercion, unto knowledge of Christ the God". We can well entertain some doubts as to the true intentions of the shah and, for that matter, to the truthfulness of these words, yet the fact that the Persian attitude to Christianity was a special one is beyond dispute.
The Muslim Persians displayed much interest in the graphic renditions of religious themes disseminated by the Catholic missionaries. Being Shiites, the Persians did not abide by the proscription on images of living things in painting and in sculpture; they saw some of the Christian imagery presented to them as beautiful works and extended due esteem to their authors. The makers of such images, also from Poland, exerted no mean influence on the development of painting in Persia. It is believed that the Pointed Gate Madonna from Vilnius was copied many times over by Armenian miniaturists working in Isfahan; images of the Virgin and Child were actually credited with salubrious powers - they were believed to protect pox-stricken children from blindness. Another work much copied in Isfahan was the Lvov Bible by Lazarus of Babert, published in 1619 and illustrated with scenes from the Apocalypse of St John.
As the diplomatic ties between Poland and Persia grew stronger, the importance of Polish missionaries increased, and they pursued their activities on ever-wider levels. As mentioned above, King Wladyslaw IV took the issue of Polish missionaries working in Persia up with the Safavid court through the intermediation of his envoys arriving there in 1636 and in 1647. At this time, the principal Western orders active in Persia were the Barefoot Carmelites and the Jesuits. The first Polish Jesuit to organise, in 1654-1659, a mission in Persia was Tomasz Mlodzianowski; he was well-phrased in the Persian language as well as disposing of a thorough understanding of the customs and rules in force at the Persian court. With time, the Jesuits, by gist of this very knowledge of the political situation prevailing in Persia, came to be included in embassies as advisors, envoys, and as ambassadors. Over the years of 1690-1693, two Polish monks, Jan Gostkowski and Ignacy Franciszek Zapolski, parleyed with Shah Suleyman II concerning a war with Turkey; upon returning to Poland, they provided their principal with much information about the shah's intentions and about the political situation prevailing in Persia and in the Caucasus. Their competence is borne out by the fact that King Jan III Sobieski appointed Zapolski his permanent resident at the court in Isfahan, at which he remained until his death in 1703.
Jan III Sobieski was generous in extending his support to Christian missions in Persia. In the year of 1691, he donated one thousand red zloties from his private funds to the Jesuit mission in Shamaha (now in northern Azerbaijan). He appointed the members of this mission "chaplains of the embassy of his Majesty the Polish King" and obligated them to accompany his envoys from Shamaha to Isfahan (for a period of fifty days) as well as to remain with them at the court of the shah for two months.
Particularly noteworthy among the Polish Jesuits in Persia was Tadeusz Krusinski. A consummate expert on Persia, Krusinski arrived there in 1707 and remained for well-nigh twenty years; he was an eyewitness to the downfall of the Safavid dynasty. Father Krusinski's Persian activities were not limited to the religious sphere; he also contributed significantly to the improvement of relations between the two countries. Retained at the court of Shah Hussain (1694-1722) as a translator, he produced Persian-language versions of letters arriving from various European monarchs (among them from Louis XIV), of treaties, and of contracts. He also maintained an archive for the use of the shah, ordering and storing documentation pertaining to religious and diplomatic missions. Held in great esteem and respect by the shah and his officials, he became - in 1720 - the procurator general of the mission.
Father Krusinski travelled extensively in the Orient. Accompanying merchant caravans as a physician, he traversed the Caucasus and Syberia; he visited Kurdistan and Turkey, Palestine and Arabia, he reached Afghanistan. Adding constantly to his knowledge about the traditions and customs of the East, he gained renown as the first European researcher of Persian history. One of his many books discussing the past of Persia and her contacts with other countries and religions, Tragica vertenis Belli Persici Historia (about the mission of Durri Efendi of 1720-1721), was presented by the Polish government to Shah Reza Pahlavi as a coronation gift in 1926. Krusinski chronicled the onslaught of the Ghilzai tribe of Afghanistan which took Isfahan in 1722, overthrowing the Safavids and ruling Persia with a bloody hand for ten years; he recounted these tragic events in Relatio de Mutatinibus Memorabilibus Regni Persarum. In 1725, Krusinski left Persia and travelled to Italy; it is there that he set to paper his work about the Afghan-Persian wars. It is purported that he himself translated this work into Persian; the Persian-language version was put out in Istanbul in 1730 by the first Turkish printing shop, that of Ibrahim Müteferrik.
The civil war which broke out in Persia in the second decade of the 18th century upon the invasion of the Afghans not only precipitated the demise of the Safavid house, but also put an end to the Christian missions in Persia. The last official delegation of the Polish rulers set out for Persia in 1712 under the leadership of Stanislaw Chomentowski, Poland's last envoy to that country. In the end, the long-cherished designs of a joint Polish-Persian war on Turkey could not be brought to fruition. Soon enough, any further exchange of envoys was prevented by the partition of Poland. The various Christian missions likewise disappeared. History continued on her course, but culture and the arts retained the traces of close contacts between the Polish Commonwealth and Persia from their days of glory.