Plants and Stuff: About the Austrian Botanical Missions to Iran in the 1880s

By Heidi Walcher
Submitted to Session P4972 (Transactions of Knowledge and Power: East-West and West-East, 2017 Annual Meeting
Hist
Iran;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Paper proposal: MESA, Washington 2017

Plants and Stuff: About the Austrian Botanical Missions to Iran in the 1880s

Through European as well as Persian travel descriptions and large amounts of photographs we have a good idea of Iran's nineteenth-century landscapes, at least about the topography, climate and some of the vegetation. Some of this information is personal-sentimental to embellish moods or convey a sense of tangible and intangible environments; some of it is pragmatic-utilitarian, about business opportunities, how to get through certain terrain and climate, how to delineate territory, recognize access or natural resources with potential commercial value, including mineral resources, animals and plants.
Most of the information about nineteenth-century geology and botany in Europe has been gathered in the context of diplomatic and political interaction or archaeological expeditions, less through missions expressly tagged as botanical in purpose.
Starting from this context this paper examines two of the first explicit botanical missions to Iran, organized and dispatched from Vienna, comprising the 1882 expedition, which included some highly respected figures like J.E. Polak, T. Pichler, F. Wähner and the young O. Stapf exploring the botany of the Alvand Kuh region as well as a second such research mission privately funded by J.E. Polak.
Among botanists of the region a little is known about these missions, valued for their contribution to the knowledge of the plant world of a botanically understudied region. While both expeditions were driven by a sheer keenness about plants and geology, both were obviously also part of the nineteenth-century hunt for natural resources. Little attention has thus far been paid to these expeditions.
This paper discusses the environmental implications, the political and academic aims of these two Austrian projects and particularly focus on a critical investigation of the personal ambitions and goals of the participants involved.
The paper is based on published materials, accessible European archival repositories (i.e. BNA, IOL, HHStA, IFO) in the UK, Austria and Iran.