William Dalrymple talks about researching and writing history for lay readers, and the similarities between Afghanistan in the 1800s and today.

The low, barren desert hills on the disputed borderlands between Persia and Afghanistan are no place to get lost at night. Even today it is wild, arid, remote country, haunted only by soaring hawks, packs of winter-wolves and opium smugglers working the old caravan routes. Figures move small and slow through the immensity of the sun-blasted landscape. Two hundred years ago it was an area travellers tried to avoid even during the day, its valleys and passes the refuge of brigands who took full advantage of the debatable lands between the region’s warring principalities to pursue their trade.

It was the dog days of October 1837, and the end to a long week for Lieutenant Henry Rawlinson. For three years, he had been drilling a new regiment of the Persian army in a remote barracks near Kirmanshah in western Persia. During this time he had become fascinated by the trilingual inscriptions carved on the orders of the Achaemenid King Darius at nearby Behistan, the Rosetta Stone of ancient Persia. Every evening he would clamber his way up the near-vertical rock face, or even have himself lowered in a laundry basket, to take rubbings, then return to his tent to labour away into the night in an ultimately successful attempt to decode the Persian cuneiform script on the cliff wall.

But his studies had been interrupted when he had been sent on an urgent mission to north-east Persia, and since receiving his orders at the British Legation in Teheran he had ridden over 700 miles in six days. Normally the caravanserais lining the military road from Teheran to the shrine city of Mashhad on the Afghan border contained ample posthorses for travellers on official business. But the Shah of Persia was on his way to besiege Herat, and such was the volume of couriers passing between the camp and court that Rawlinson had been unable to change his mount for the entire journey.

Now, both his party and their horses were, as Rawlinson put it, ‘pretty knocked up, and in the dark, between sleeping and waking, we had managed to lose the road’. It was at this point, just as dawn was breaking over the jagged rim of the Kuh-e-Shah Jahan mountains, that Rawlinson saw another party of horsemen riding down on them through the half-light. ‘I was not anxious to accost these strangers,’ Rawlinson later reported, ‘but on cantering past them, I saw, to my astonishment, men in Cossack dresses, and one of my attendants recognised among the party, a servant of the Russian mission.’

Rawlinson knew immediately he had stumbled on to something. There was no good reason for a party of armed Cossacks to be on these remote desert tracks heading for the Afghan frontier, and at this particular moment there was every reason for a British intelligence officer to be suspicious of any Russian activity in these crucial border marches. Rawlinson had been recruited from his regiment in India to the new intelligence corps and sent to Persia specifically to try to counteract growing Russian influence there.

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So Rawlinson wheeled his escort around: ‘Following the party, I tracked them for some distance along the high road, and then found that they had turned off at a gorge in the hills. There at length I came across the group seated at breakfast by the side of a clear, sparking rivulet. The officer, for such he evidently was, was a young man of light make, very fair complexion, with bright eyes and a look of great animation.’ The Russian, Rawlinson continued, rose and bowed to me as I rode up, but said nothing. I addressed him in French — the general language of communication among Europeans in the East — but he shook his head. I then spoke in English, and he answered in Russian. When I tried Persian, he seemed not to understand a word; at last he expressed himself hesitatingly in Turcoman or Usbeg Turkish. I knew just sufficient of this language to carry on a very simple conversation, but not to be inquisitive. This was evidently what my friend wanted; for when he found that I was not strong enough in Jaghetai [Chagatai] to proceed very rapidly, he rattled on with his rough Turkish as rapidly as possible. All I could find out was that he was a bonafide Russian officer carrying presents from the [Russian] Emperor to [the Persian ruler] Mohammad Shah. More he would not admit; so after smoking another pipe with him, I remounted.

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Rawlinson reached the Persian camp beyond Nishapur after dark, and asked for an immediate interview with the Shah. Admitted to Mohammad Shah’s tent, he told him about the Russians he had encountered on the road, and repeated their explanation of what they were doing. ‘Bringing presents to me!’ said the Shah in astonishment. ‘Why I have nothing to do with him; he is sent direct from the [Russian] Emperor to Dost Mohammad in Kabul, and I am merely asked to help him on his journey.’

Rawlinson understood immediately the importance of what the Shah had just told him: it was the first proof of what British intelligence had long feared: that the Russians were trying to establish themselves in Afghanistan by forging an alliance with Dost Mohammad and the Barakzais, and to assist them and the Persians in extinguishing the last bastion of Shah Shuja’s Sadozai dynasty in Herat. Rawlinson also realised he needed to get back to Teheran as quickly as possible with this information.

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Rawlinson’s sighting of Vitkevitch seemed to validate all the over-heated fears of his boss, MacNeill, Lord Ellenborough and other British policymakers who had long feared that the Russians wanted to take over Afghanistan and use it as a base for attacking British India. Rawlinson’s description of Vitkevitch was immediately sent to intelligence officials at Peshawar, the Khyber Pass and the other crossing points to India in case the Russian was planning to continue on to British India, or enter into negotiations with Ranjit Singh.

But the mysterious officer was not heading to India. His mission was to undermine British interests in Afghanistan and forge an alliance between the Tsar and Dost Mohammad.