The Shah and the Wheelman
by Thomas Stevens

Thomas Stevens' account of the first around the world trip by bike, from 1884-1886, has been republished by Gazelle Books. This excerpt recounts his meeting with the Shah of Persia.


Always on the lookout for something to please the Shah, the news of my arrival in Tehran on the bicycle no sooner reaches the ear of the court officials than the monarch hears of it himself. On the seventh day after my arrival an officer of the palace calls on behalf of the Shah, and requests that I favour them all, by following the soldiers who will be sent tomorrow morning, at eight o'clock, Ferenghi time, to conduct me to the palace, where it is appointed that I am to meet the 'Shah-in-shah and King of kings', and ride with him, on the bicycle, to his summer palace at Doshan Tepe.

'Yes, I shall, of course, be most happy to accommodate; and to be the means of introducing to His Majesty, the wonderful iron horse, the latest wonder from Frangistan,' I reply; and the officer, after salaaming with more than French politeness, takes his departure.

Promptly at the hour appointed the soldiers present themselves; and after waiting a few minutes for the horses of two young Englishmen who desire to accompany us part way, I mount the ever-ready bicycle, and together we follow my escort along several fairly ridable streets to the office of the foreign minister. The soldiers clear the way of pedestrians, donkeys, camels, and horses, driving them unceremoniously to the right, to the left, into the ditch -- anywhere out of my road; for am I not for the time being under the Shah's special protection? I am as much the Shah's toy and plaything of the moment, as an electric light, a stop-watch, or as the big Krupp gun, the concussion of which nearly scared the soldiers out of their wits, by shaking down the little minars of one of the city gates, close to which they had unwittingly discharged it on first trial.

The foreign office, like every building of pretension, whether public or private, in the land of Lion and the Sun, is a substantial edifice of mud and brick, inclosing a square court-yard or garden, in which splashing fountains play amid a wealth of vegetation that springs, as if by waft of magician's wand, from the sandy soil of Persia wherever water is abundantly supplied. Tall, slender poplars are nodding in the morning breeze, the less lofty almond and pomegranate, sheltered from the breezes by the surrounding building, rustle never a leaf, but seem to be offering Pomona's choice products of nuts and rosy pomegranates, with modest mien and silence; whilst beds of rare exotics, peculiar to this sunny clime, imparts to the atmosphere of the cool shaded garden, a pleasing sense of being perfumed. Here, by means of the Shah's interpreter, I am introduced to Nasr-i-Mulk, the Persian foreign minister, a kindly-faced yet business-looking old gentleman, at whose request I mount and ride with some difficulty around the confined and quite unsuitable foot-walks of the garden; a crown of officials and farrashes look on in unconcealed wonder and delight. True to their Persian characteristic of inquisitiveness, Nasr-i-Mulk and the officers catechise me unmercifully for some time concerning the mechanism and capabilities of the bicycle, and about the past and future of the journey around the world.

In company with the interpreter, I now ride out to the Doshan Tepe gate, where we are to await the arrival of the Shah. From the Doshan Tepe gate is some four English miles of fairly good artificial road, leading to one of the royal summer palaces and gardens. His Majesty goes this morning to the mountains beyond Doshan Tepe on a shooting excursion, and wishes me to ride out with his party a few miles, thus giving him a good opportunity of seeing something of what bicycle travelling is like. The tardy monarch keeps myself and a large crowd of attendants waiting a full hour at the gate, ere he puts in an appearance. Among the crowd is the Shah's chief shikaree (hunter), a grizzled old veteran, beneath whose rifle many a forest prowler of the Caspian slope of Mazanderan has been laid low. The shikaree, upon seeing me ride, and not being able to comprehend how one can possibly maintain the equilibrium, exclaims: 'Oh, ayah Ingilis!' (Oh, the wonderful English!)

Everybody's face is wreathed in smiles at the old shikaree's exclamation of wonderment, and when I jokingly advise him that he ought to do his hunting for the future on a bicycle, and again mount and ride with hands off handles to demonstrate the possibility of shooing from the saddle, the delighted crowd of horsemen burst out in hearty laughter, many of them exclaiming 'Bravo! Bravo!' At length the word goes round that the Shah is coming. Everybody dismounts, and as the royal carriage drives up, every Persian bows his head nearly to the ground, remaining in that highly submissive attitude until the carriage halts and the Shah summons myself and the interpreter to his side.

I am the only Ferenghi in the party, my two English companions having returned to the city, intending to rejoin me when I separate from the Shah.

The Shah impresses one as being more intelligent than the average Persian of the higher class; and although they are, as a nation, inordinately inquisitive, no Persian has taken a more lively interest in the bicycle than His Majesty seems to take, as, through his interpreter, he plys me with all manner of questions. Among other questions he asks if the Koords didn't molest me when coming through Koordistan without an escort; and upon hearing the story of my adventure with the Koordish shepherds between Ovahjik and Khoi, he seems greatly amused. Another large party of horsemen arrived with the Shah, swelling the company to perhaps two hundred attendants.

Pedaling alongside the carriage, in the best position for the Shah to see, we proceed toward Doshan Tepe, the crowd of horsemen following, some behind and others careering over the stony plain through which the Doshan Tepe highway leads. After covering about half a mile, the Shah leaves the carriage and mounts a saddle-horse, in order to the better 'put me through some exercises.' First he requests me to give him an exhibition of speed; then I have to ride a short distance over the rough stone-strewn plain, to demonstrate the possibility of traversing a rough country, after which he desires to see me ride at the slowest pace possible. All this evidently interests him not a little, and he seems ever more amused than interested, laughing quite heartily several times as he rides alongside the bicycle. After a while he again exchanges for the carriage, and at four miles from the city gate we arrive at the palace garden. Through this garden is a long, smooth walk, and here the Shah again requests an exhibition of my speeding abilities. The garden is traversed with a network of irrigating ditches; but I am assured there is nothing of the kind across the pathway along which he wishes me o ride as fast as possible. Two hundred yards from the spot where this solemn assurance is given, it is only by a lightning-like dismount that I avoid running into the very thing that I was assured did not exist -- it was the narrowest possible escape from what might have proved a serious accident.

Riding back toward the advancing party, I point out my good fortune in escaping the tumble. The Shah asks if people ever hurt themselves by falling off bicycles; and the answer that a fall such as I would have experienced by running full speed into the irrigating ditch, might possibly result in broken bones, appeared to strike him as exceedingly humorous; from the way he laughed I fancy the sending me flying toward the irrigating ditch was one of the practical jokes that he is sometimes not above indulging in. After mounting and forcing my way for a few yards through deep, loose gravel, to satisfy his curiosity as to what could be done in loose ground, I trundle along with him to a small menagerie he keeps at this place. On the way in he inquires about the number of wheelmen there are in England and America; whether I am English or American; why they don't use iron tires on bicycles instead of rubber, and many other questions, proving the great interest aroused in him by the advent of the first bicycle to appear in his Capital.

The menagerie consists of one cage of monkeys, about a dozen lions, and two or three tigers and leopards. We pass along from cage to cage, and has the keeper coaxes the animals to the bars, the Shah amuses himself by poking them with an umbrella. It was arranged in the original programme that I should accompany them up into their rendezvous in the foot-hills, about a mile beyond the palace, to take breakfast with the party; but seeing the difficulty of getting up there with the bicycle, and not caring to spoil the favourable impression already made, by having to trundle up, I ask permission to take my leave at this point.

The request is granted, and the interpreter returns with me to the city -- thus ends my memorable bicycle ride with the Shah of Persia.