By Håkan Wahlquist

Sven Hedin is well known for his relationship to the mountains of Central Asia. In 1890 he struggled across the Alai Mountains to reach East Turkestan from West Turkestan, an arduous crossing that he repeated in 1894 (Hedin 1898 and 1903). These early encounters with high alpine terrain were followed by his mapping of the Pamir juncture of immense mountain ridges in 1894-95, and simultaneous attempts to climb Mount Mustagh Ata (five attempts, which all failed). In 1897 he crossed the Kun Lun mountains to reach the northern flank of the Tibetan plateau, which he surveyed with all its individual isolated mountains, like the Koko Chili range (which he later regretted having named “King Oscar’s Mountains” – Sven Hedin strongly favoured finding and using indigenous names of mountains, rivers and lakes.). In 1901 he again crossed the Kun Lun Mountains to enter the Tibetan plateau, striking south then to cross it from east to west. 1906-1908 he devoted to the complicated landscape of West and South-western Tibet, crowned by what he considered to be the discovery of a mountain ridge north of the Yarlung Tsangpo river valley (upper Brahmaputra) which he named “Transhimalaya” (Hedin 1909-1912) Both the discovery and the name were quickly challenged (see Forêt 2004), but the existence of the ridge is clear on modern maps, though it is nowadays given the name Gangdise. Hedin´s view of orographic processes was then still the one held at the time; mountain ridges were the result of our earth’s crust slowly crumbling as the earth cooled off. The modern Wegener view of plate tectonics, though, did reach him as soon as it was published, In his library there are copies of the 1922 2nd edition as well as its first Swedish translation of 1926 (Wegener 1922 and 1926), and the analysis of the results of his last expedition were increasingly influenced by that framework (primarily through the main geologist on that team, Erik Norin).

Dreams of Central Asia were, however, preceded, by dreams of Arctic expanses of ice and water, and undiscovered islands. Those areas had been the goals of generations of Swedish explorers, not the least of one of his role models, Adolf Eric Nordenskiöld, whose triumphant “conquering of the North-East Passage” in 1879-80 had greatly inspired the young boy.

Asia was though to be “his fate”, as he often wrote. An opportunity in 1885 to go to Baku opened his eyes for that continent, and seas of ice and water were to be replaced by seas of sand and gravel. After finishing an assignment as private tutor to a young Swedish boy in Baku, where the Swedish Nobel family was engaged in the booming oil (“nafta”) business, he grasped an opportunity to go for a tour through Persia, as Iran was then still known. Having already experienced the grandeur and beauty of the Caucasus he was now introduced to mountains of a different kind, including the slumbering volcano of Dāmavānd (or Demavend as Sven Hedin spelt Iran’s mightiest mountain .) Mountains were henceforth to attract, inspire and challenge him in such ways that he without hesitation was to expose himself as well as his men to deadly dangers to explore them and make them known to science and mankind.


His first journey into and through Iran in 1886 (Hedin 1887 and Wahlquist 2007) did not, however, expose him to any really challenging encounters with mountains. He entered the country from the Caspian Sea via the port of Rescht, from where he by horse followed the well-trodden caravan road to Tehran. It took him from Rescht, which he characterises as “hot, humid and unhealthy”, through the Elburs mountains, and then along their southern flanks to the capital. From his description of this crossing it is evident that he henceforth was to favour mountains, high altitudes, low temperatures and dry conditions to the shores of oceans and the sticky climate of places like Rescht. The narrative of his ascent towards the emerging landscape of high mountains is full of positive valuations, once he had left bogs and marshlands behind. He enjoys the greenery, noting how thick and mighty forests give way for more alpine tree covers. Rushing rivers and precipices at the side of the path rather attract him than threaten him. And above all he comments on the mountains that he is to cross: “In the background the high, massive Elburs mountains become more and more visible. To your left you have the peak Derfakh, to the right, in the far distant, you have the colossal Ramatabad, its top covered with snow, reflecting the sun light with a silver like shimmer.” At one place he stops just to capture the mountain scenery in his sketch book. Amazed he notes how the mountain sides vary in a multitude of beautiful colours, connecting this phenomenon to what he has read on minerals deposits found there. Before he reaches Kasvin he has to struggle though deep snow and a blinding blizzard. He hangs on to the tail of his horse not to loose track of the path. This is not to be his last adventure of this type. In fact his travelogues are replete with incidents of this kind, described as dangerous bordering to near death.


Following upon a period in Teheran, exploring its sites and sights, Hedin continued southwards, leaving a glimpse of Demavend behind, then still not knowing that that perfectly shaped, slumbering volcano in five years time would present his main encounter with the mountain world of Iran. By horse he reaches Kum, commenting upon its importance as a pilgrimage centre and its beautiful Islamic architecture. As its centre with Fatima’s grave is out bounds for him as a Christian he instead turns his interest to the ingenious system to supply water to the Kashan plains, which he traverses on his continued ride to the town with the same name. Trapped by a dam spanning a ravine in the Kahrud mountains the water feeds a beautiful lake, Bænd-i-Kahrud, and a waterfall, admired by Hedin as well as others passing by.

Isfahan, with its world renowned architecture and fascinating history was next on the agenda, demanding more days, more attention and a long description in the book he was to write on his first Persian journey (Hedin 1887). Hedin’s special interest in Isfahan was further triggered by the fact that the Swedish nobleman Bengt Bengtson Oxenstierna already in 1617 visited the city then ruled by its main architect, Shah Abbas (Hedin 1921). Isfahan is though a city situated on the plains, at the river Zendeh-Rud with its striking bridges, mountains at the best showing up in the background.


His onward journey to Shiraz, via Pasargade and Persepolis, would, however, take him through mountainous regions. Hedin stops by in the telegraph stations manned by staff expected to keep the line between London and Calcutta open. On the plateau where the station Dehbid was situated he is told about exceptionally harsh winters and eternal snows on the high mountains around. Hedin, though, travelled in May, and found the temperate climate much to be preferred to the heat lower down, a preference that he observes being shared by the nomads, whose black tents dot the landscape. They have migrated into the mountains with their herds to escape the heat and lack of grazing grounds further south. Hedin is soon to see these areas. Leaving the mountains behind him he enters the plains where the fabled city Shiraz is situated, whose existence is anyway utterly dependent on the mountains surrounding it, from where the water for its gardens, ponds, wine yards and townspeople is led, often underground. He remains in Shiraz for some time, describing it as “without doubt the most beautiful city in Persia”, visiting the graves of its great poets Hafis and Saadi. He even attempts to render some of the former’s poetry into Swedish.

Hedin’s last encounter with mountains before reaching the Persian Gulf will be on route from Shiraz to the harbour of Bushir. He vividly describes the hardships this passage offers the traveller, claiming that “without doubt the route through the mountains of Farsistan is one of the most tiring and dangerous in the world”. He even claims that English travellers knowledgeable about conditions in the Himalayas and the Rocky mountains maintain that the road from Shiraz to Bushir is by far the most dangerous they have met. Later on having himself trod the paths of the Tibet and Central Asia it is doubtful whether he would maintain such a judgement.


From Bushir Hedin travelled by boat to Basra and then by a paddle steamer up the Tigris to Bagdad, before again entering Persia, this time from the West. Once more he is pleased to leave hot, low-lying plains for more temperate plains among the mountains. He is happy to note snowfields on the mountains around. The journey around Persia is coming to its end. After a pleasant period in Kirmanschah he returns to Teheran. He has been two months on the road, looks like a beggar and is virtually penny-less. But he has gained valuable experience and knowledge and he has entered a life of long periods in the saddle, broken by periods at home; behind the desk writing books and scientific reports or touring towns and cities in Europe lecturing or receiving honours. On the way home he again passes through the Elburs mountains, this time around its eastern extensions and catches glimpses of the snow capped Demavend. Little does he now that he in four years time will be able to survey the landscape below from its windy, icy summit.

His first book (Hedin 1887) was quickly written, prefaced by one of his role-models, Hermann Vámbéry . It gained Hedin a national reputation as “someone who knew Persia well”. Quickly passing a BA in geosciences, in Stockholm and Uppsala, he enrolled with Ferdinand von Richthofen’s seminar in Berlin, his mind from this time forth evidently bent on researching Central and Esat Asia. Richthofen was a leading authority on the geography and geology of these areas.


Hedin’s entry on the Central Asian scene would, however, be preceded by yet another journey to Persia, this time as a member of a Swedish diplomatic mission to the Shah of Persia entrusted to present the Shah with a prestigious Swedish order (Hedin 1891). When the ceremonial part of the mission was over its members returned to Sweden. Hedin, however, stayed behind. His plans were to continue on what one could call a reconnaissance expedition to Central Asia, in preparation for future research there. It would eventually bring him all the way to Kashgar gaining him invaluable experience and creating valuable ties with important persons for the future; like General Kurupatkin, Baron von Wrewskij (Russian Governor of Turkestan) and the legendary Russian Consul Petrovskij of Kashgar (Hedin 1892a).

Before then, however, Sven Hedin was to tackle Iran’s highest mountain, Demavend. The Shah every summer escaped the heat of Teheran for the Elburs mountains, moving with his sizeable entourage from one valley to another. Hedin was allowed to join this spectacular outing as a guest of Dr. Hybinnet, the Shah’s Swedish dentist, who was expected to follow his master into the field. 2000 horses, camels and mules reportedly moved 1.200 followers, including the Shah’s substantial harem, to be camped in not less than 300 tents. During a meeting with the Shah (Hybinnet had to see him every day or so) Hedin mentioned that he intended to scale Mount Demavend. The Shah responded that “This will be a tough venture. We will have to find you reliable guides” (Hedin 1891:313). The Shah admitted that he himself had only managed to reach half its height.

After almost a week moving with the Shah’s camp, watching and recording its well regulated routines, it was finally time for Hedin to attempt climbing Demavend. It was a feat that would require stamina and determination, not alpine climbing technique. Hedin was aware that he would not be the first one to reach its summit. In his description of the adventure (Hedin 1891: 344-93) Hedin included a detailed chapter on the growing knowledge of the mountain; based on the Greek geographer Strabo, many early Arabic accounts as well as every conceivable Western source he could identify. Based on them he reckoned that at the most fifteen known people had succeeded in reaching its summit before his own challenge. The first known attempt by a Westerner to climb the mountain ended only halfway, however. That was in 1627 and the pioneer was Sir Thomas Herbert. The first successful ascent was achieved in 1837 only, by the then British Minister to the Persian court Sir W. Taylor Thomson.


Hedin’s reasons for this bold attempt were surely of two kinds. His first book on Persia had met with quite some acclaim in Sweden and it had established a growing reputation of his, that he was eager to continue building. It had also earned him some welcome remuneration, making him recognize that writing popular books could in fact be a source of income that in the future could sustain him and his research. Travelogues, to be successful, though, require adventure and suspense, and his journeys to far off places would have to present such episodes. During this journey he was continuously sending reports to Norwegian and Swedish newspapers , material that he intended to use for a book for the general public (Hedin 1991). Taking part in the diplomatic venture would provide material for colourful descriptions of life at the court of the Shah, bordering on the genre of “Orientalism” much in vogue, but hardly for any adventure. A daring ascent of a mountain much higher than any mountain found in Europe would considerably spice his book, and add to his reputation.

The other reason was that he would have to return to Richthofen in Berlin with material indicating that a budding explorer and scientist, not only a 19th century traveller, had been to Persia (and later all the way to Kashgar). Accordingly, he was equipped with a set of basic instruments for such tasks as recording the temperature, studying the salt crust of Persia’s deserts, and in this case most importantly studying the altitude along his route. (Hedin was, however, not yet making any field maps.) Apart from thermometers his trunks thus contained an aneroid and a hypsometer. As the first one proved unreliable it was with the help of the other instrument, that he was to attempt fixing the correct height of mount Demavend. This was the scientific conquest he aimed at, which in turn would require the physical conquest of the mountain. Hedin had noted that previous attempts at determining its absolute height had resulted in “estimates” ranging from 5476 to 6559 (Hedin 1892b: 31). Delivering a correct height would thus be a feat well worth aiming at.


Perhaps Hedin already then planned to use the field material, thus collected, for a dissertation. This is anyway how he in a few years was to use it. Well back in Europe after his first Central Asian exploits he returned to Berlin and von Richthofen. It should be noted that Hedin’s postgraduate studies at the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin were brief indeed. Later in life he had no qualms admitting that his scientific training was inadequate, that he in Berlin actually chose to become an “explorer” tracing the sources of rivers, mapping mountains and lakes, rather than becoming a geologist with academic reputation and career. In a letter written to Hedin (2nd September 1890) Richthofen congratulates his young student upon his ascent of Demavend but cautions him that unless he devotes more time to the study of geology he will remain an “autodidact” (Tiessen 1933:74-75.) He recognises that Hedin is a gifted and conscientious observer and that his work is guided by a clear mind coupled with exceptional doggedness in the field. But for Richthofen academic recognition would require more time and effort than Hedin was prepared to invest . And the time Hedin had at his disposal for a dissertation was surely not enough. Time in Central Asia was running up. It is not known whether Hedin tried his plans for a quick dissertation on Richthofen, but it is well known that Richthofen sent Hedin to Halle for further studies in the University there; with the geographer Alfred Kirchhof . In less than four weeks Hedin surprises not only his family with the news that he has gained the degree of Doctor of Philosophy in Halle. The main hurdle, it turns out, was the requirement to pass examinations in philosophy, while the actual dissertation consisted of hardly twenty nine printed pages on Mount Demavend (Hedin 1892b). They were easily compiled by Hedin since the main bulk of the text had been written already some years before. It is indeed even identical to the lecture he had just delivered in Berlin (Hedin 1892c), indicating that he had the entire text in his luggage when travelling to Halle. The dissertation consists of an account of all earlier descriptions of and attempts on the mountain that Sven Hedin knew about. Then there is a discussion of its volcanic character and an account of various attempts to understand its name, finally followed by a narrative of his own ascent of the mountain 10-11 July 1890. All this had essentially been published before in his book on the mission to the Shah of Persia (Hedin 1891) or even in his newspaper articles. Remains roughly three pages in which his scientific observations and calculations are accounted for . He calculated the height of Demavend to be 5.465 m. Current scientific methods place its summit at 5.671 meter above sea level.

Hedin’s ascent of Demavend had not provided any real adventure, not if compared with future experiences on Mustagh Ata and the Tibetan Plateau. But, as already noted, it provided material for two articles to be cabled to Scandinavian newspapers and two chapters in a future book (Hedin 1891) in which we can follow his struggle to reach the summit, “listen” to his account of what he observes and records on the way. He carried a powerful letter of introduction from the Grand Vesir (“Emin-e-Sultan”) written at the order of the Shah, providing him all the assistance he could ask for. Two guides (“beläde”), Kerbelaï Tagi and Ali were deputed to escort him and the man, Djafar, sent with him from the Shah’s camp. A horse and a mule carried provisions, initially also Hedin himself. Camp was struck on the mountain side high above the valley below. Men and animals alike had struggled through a steep and stony landscape to reach as high as possible before it was necessary to find a place where some protection from the wind could be found. It was not an ideal campsite, offering hardly any comfort, but a small stream provided fresh water.


Next morning Djafar and the animals were sent down to warmer altitudes. Still, the temperature was +9º, which would not scare many alpine climbers. Camp was broken 4.30 in the morning. Hedin only carried the aneroid, his compass and watch, a thermometer and then note books for drawing sketches and writing down observations. Ali carried the hypsometer with its thermometers, Kerbelaï Tagi provisions for the day. After an hour Hedin´s aneroid indicated a height of 3.520 m and soon thereafter got stuck. Hedin’s plans to scale Demavend had dawned upon him while already in Iran, and the aneroid was not appropriate for these heights. Hedin found the going increasingly tiring, was constantly thirsty and the men had to usher him on. The terrain was tough with snowfields around them. Vegetation had almost ceased, but spiders, beetles and flies were still around, as were occasional partridges. The steep slopes were dominated by gravel and stones of varying sizes, shapes and material. The party tried to follow small watercourses, but eventually no water was to be found. Thirst was quenched licking icicles. Clouds rushed by below them, ultimately also engulfing them. The summit was already hidden behind dark clouds. They were now accompanied by hailstorms, a type a weather that followed them right to the brim of the crater, to which point they reckoned that another two to three hours of “breathtaking” climbing would be required. Hedin was at this time utterly exhausted and the men tried to convince him that it would be better to beat the retreat. Hedin was tempted to follow their advice, but just imagining the chagrin it would mean to return unsuccessful made him mobilise new strength. Even if they were to camp in the snow they had to reach the summit! Hedin reports that it took them almost an hour to climb the last 150 meters, despite the fact that the inclination now tapered off. The snow was sometimes soft and deep, sometimes hard and icy. At one point Hedin laid down and immediately fell asleep. The men had to wake him up.


After more or less 12 hours of climbing the crater was finally reached. There was a strong smell of sulphur. In some places the snow had been blown away exposing the ground, which was distinctly yellow. Previous European visitors to this inhospitable place had reportedly left a bottle with visiting cards and a thermometer behind. Hedin looked for them, but in vain . At this point Hedin and his men were completely worn out. A strong wind swept from the north, the temperature was -1,7º and they were all three bitterly cold. Hedin had brought a measuring tape with him in order to determine the circumference of the shallow crater, found to be filled with snow, but cannot muster any strength to do so . The most important task, though, was not allowed to fail; to light the burner of the hypsometer, get the water boiling and carefully read its boiling point. Both the thermometers stopped at 82,5º C. Hedin calculated the height of Demavend to be 5.715 m (Hedin 1891:385), a figure he will have to substantially recalculate later. As already noted in his dissertation we find the figure 5.465 m (1892b:31). Hedin collects some samples from the rocks around him, his men fills some bundles with bits of pure sulphur to bring with them down. He finishes his sketches of the scenery. On his early journeys Hedin had no access to a camera. Before the descent his men then “laid the table”, but no one had any appetite. They were wet, they shivered and they wanted to start the long walk down to the valley. The descent, however, turned into an unexpectedly quick one. The party made use of several kilometre long snowfields sliding down with sometimes dangerous speed. In this way they quickly reached the bottom of the snowfields, wet but safe, most of their belongings intact. Then again the treacherous terrain of the lower reaches of the volcano, consisting of gravel and boulders. The descent so far had taken only a couple of hours, but it was growing dark. Eventually they were met by a boy bringing the horse. Hedin mounted it, only to soon realise that riding in the dark in this kind of sloping, stony and slippery landscape is not a particularly comfortable experience. After yet another couple of hours they reached a cave where they could reunite with Djafar and spend the night with seven herdsmen, also making use of this shelter. The aneroid indicated that they had reached an altitude of slightly less than 3.000 m..

After a short night’s sleep Hedin drew the portraits of his two guides, handed out tips and took an emotional farewell. Another few hours in the saddle and he could enjoy the comforts of Dr. Hybennet’s tent, sharing the adventures he had just been through. Next day, partly in French partly in Persian he was interviewed by the Shah and could again recount what he had endured, and what valuable observations he had made. His encounters with the mountains of Iran were over, for this time.


Sven Hedin was not to return to Iran until sixteen years later. He had then two major expeditions to Central Asia behind him resulting in numerous books and articles as well as scientific reports. This time he was heading for Tibet via India and he took the route via Iran. It was not Iran’s mountains in themselves that attracted him to choose this particular approach to the field, only indirectly; it was its deserts. Hedin had devoted two expeditions to the exploration of the Taklamakan and neighbouring deserts, to the study of shifting rivers and lakes, drain less basins and surrounding mountains – in short the postglacial landscape of nowadays dry areas, informing the observer of a shifting postglacial climate. In the deserts of Iran, kavirs, he predicted that he could study a landscape that had been subjected to similar processes. Thus he equipped a small caravan and headed east towards Baluchistan exploring a number of desert basins, following routes that had never or only inadequately been researched before (Hedin 1910; Gabriel 1952:243-246). The deserts with their layers of salt and sand were studied against the background of wind and waterborne sediments being transported from the mountains around. Hedin collected geological samples , and carefully he recorded the stratification of the dissected and denuded mountain ridges he passed by. To do so he made use of a technique he had started to develop already in 1897 and was to utilize to its extreme during the upcoming campaigns in Tibet; to draw panoramas of the landscape, in particular its mountains (Hedin 1916-1922, in particular the “Atlas of Tibetan Panoramas”). With minute detail he could with this method record the structure of the mountains, in a way neither his camera nor his note book could ever capture. Using watercolours he could even show their geological strata, turning his panoramas into small masterpieces of landscape painting, in which he could occasionally also include an oasis or his own camp. These panoramas bear witness to Hedin’s affection to the Iranian landscape testifying that it was not only a love driven by a scientific quest but also by a real attachment to the Iranian landscape with it alternation between the starkness of its wide deserts and the enchanting greenery of its irrigated gardens.


Alder, Lory and Richard Dalby
1979 The Dervish of Windsor Castle The Life of Arminus Vambery
Bachman & Turner Ltd. • London

Asklund, Bror
19?? Zur Geologie Ostpersiens
in: Hedin 1918-27 Vol. II: 381-532

Forêt, Philippe
2004 La veritable histoire d’une montagne plus grande que l’Himalaya Les resultants scientifiques inattendus d’un voyage au Tibet (1906-1908) et la querelle du Transhimalaya
Bréal • Paris

Gratzl, Karl
2001 Zur Entdeckungsgeschichte des Damavand
In Gratzl/Kostka 2001: 92-121

Gratzl, Karl/Robert Kostka (eds.)
2001 Damavand Der höchste Berg Irans
Weishaupt Verlag • Gnas

Hedin, Sven
1887 Genom Persien Mesopotamien och Kaukasien Reseminnen
Albert Bonniers Förlag • Stockholm
1891 Konung Oscars Beskickning till Shahen av Persien år 1890
Samson & Wallin • Stockholm
1892a Genom Khorasan och Turkestan Minnen från en Resa I Centralasien 1890 och 1891 Vol. I-II
Samson & Wallin • Stockholm
1892b Der Demavend nach eigener Beobachtungen Inaugural
Dissertation zur Erwerbung der philosophischen Doktorwürde auf der UniversitätHalle a. S.
Halle a. S./Berlin
1892c Der Demavend nach eigener Beobachtungen
in: Verhandlungen der Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin Bd 19. pp. 304-322
1898 En Färd genom Asien 1893-97 I-II
Albert Bonniers Förlag • Stockholm
1903 Asien Tusen mil på okända vägar I-II
Albert Bonniers Förlag • Stockholm
1909-1912 Transhimalaya Upptäckter och Äfventyr i Tibet I-III
Albert Bonniers Förlag • Stockholm
1910 Över Land till Indien Genom Persien, Seistan och Belutjistan
Albert Bonniers Förlag • Stockholm
1916-1922 Southern Tibet Discoveries in former times compared with my own researches in 1906-1908 Vols. I-IX, Maps I-II, Atlas of Tibetan Panoramas
Generalstabens Litografiska Anstalt and F.A. Brockhaus • Stockholm and Leipzig
1918-27 Eine Routenaufnahme durch Ostpersien Vols. I-II, Karten
Generalstabens Litografiska Anstalt and F.A. Brockhaus • Stockholm and Leipzig
1921 Resare-Bengt En Levnadsteckning
Albert Bonniers Förlag • Stockholm

Tiessen, Ernst
1933 Meister und Schüler Ferdinand Freiherr von Richthofen an Sven Hedin
Verlag von Dietrich Reimer • Berlin

Wahlquist, Håkan
2007 From Damavānd to Kevir Sven Hedin and Iran 1886-1906
Embassy of Sweden, Tehran and Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm •
Tehran and Stockholm

Wegener, Alfred
1922 Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane (2nd ed.)
1926 Kontinenternas och oceanernas uppkomst