What first drew you to Iran?
It was in my blood. My grandfather learnt Persian in India--it was the language of administration in the north, so he introduced me to the culture as a child. I studied Persian and Turkish at Balliol before taking a year out to go to Shiraz University in 1969. Later, I lived there and tramped a lot of the country Sykes had tramped the previous century.
Sykes was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, wasn't he?
Yes. He was awarded a gold medal for his exploration work and mapping. He did the most wonderful, detailed maps of southeastern Persia. And the RGS has a set of stunning photographs taken by him. In 1893, during his first trip to northern Iran, the Turkoman area, a Turkoman chief stopped him from continuing. I imagine the chief thought he'd get attacked by bandits and didn't want the responsibility. Thereupon Sykes tried to impress him by saying he was an RGS fellow. The tribesman was understandably bemused.
Do you feel an affinity with Sykes?
Because I've met the sort of people that he dealt with, he and I could have enthused easily, but he was rather a disagreeable character, so I should answer your question carefully [laughs]. Sykes was one of the few Englishmen at that time who went out as a typical Indian army cavalry officer, full of the arrogance of empire, but fell under the Persian spell. He learnt their language, which is incredibly difficult. He fell for the Persian character, their civilisation and literature.
What aspect of Iran do you cherish most?
The huge open space. It is the most stunning country. People often think of it as desert, but it's ringed with spectacular mountains. There is a range running down the northern edge, and the Alborz and Zagros run along the west, with a vast plateau in the middle. There ale also minor ranges wherever you go. Nowhere is under about 1,000 metres, except for the coast.
The dramatic scenery must affect the people
The isolation yes, particularly in the east. In the area Sykes was, there's desert with villages and small towns dotted about. With the Turkomen raiders coming over from the north and the Baluchi raiders coming from the southeast, you must feel defenceless and exposed.
What attracted you to the Turkomen?
I was impressed by their self-reliance, their independent spirit and toughness. They were quite suspicious at first, as they are of all strangers, but I taught them to race with Jockey Club rules. It was a question of riding out to their villages--riding a horse helped--and sitting down, talking with them, drinking their tea and eating their sheep. …