Shirvani was born to a family of a Muslim cleric Isgandar Shirvani in Shamakhy (then the capital of the Shirvan Khanate, now a city in Azerbaijan). In 1785 the family moved to Karbala (present-day Iraq) where Zeynalabdin Shirvani was admitted to a religious school and studied mostly Islamic subjects as well as Persian, Arabic and Turkic languages (Azerbaijani Turkic, Anatolian Turkish and Turkmen). In 1796, he moved to Baghdad where he spent a year studying geography, literature, philosophy, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. At the age of 17, he went on his first journey. By the end of his life he will have travelled over 60,000 kilometres within 37 years.
Zeynalabdin Shirvani had keen interest in exploring Asia and almost never visited Europe. He was attached to his homeland and turned down many offers of local lords who were fascinated by his erudition and wanted him to settle on their lands (in Egypt, Turkey, etc.).
In between those journeys, Shirvani also went on several small trips within Iran and Azerbaijan. He wrote reflections on all of his travels in three main works (all of them in Persian):
- Riyadh as-Sayahat (The Flower Garden of Journeys). It consists of two volumes written in 1822 and 1827 respectively. Parts of the book are now kept at the British Museum and the St Petersburg branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Volume I contains brief historical overview of Iran (including a complete list of ancient and medieval royal dynasties, and biographies of Mazdak, Babak and of over 60 poets), as well as detailed geographic material on Iranian Azerbaijan, Armenia, Shirvan, Talysh, Mughan, Khorasan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Gilan, Kurdistan, and Fars. Volume II (thought to have been lost but rediscovered in mid-20th century) contains similar information on Central Asia, Turkey, Arabia and India.
- Hadaiq as-Sayahat (The Gardens of Journeys) is an alphabetised list of geographic localities (including states, cities and rivers) in the Middle East, and their detailed description. Shirvani worked on this book for 30 years. The copies of Hadaiq as-Sayahat are kept at the British Museum, the Bibliothèque nationale de France and a private library in Iran.
- Bustan as-Sayahat (The Flower Bed of Journeys). This book was written in 1832 but was first published 65 years later. In the first three chapters of the book, the author talks about prominent Middle Eastern scholars, literati and clergy. The fourth chapter contains geographic, cultural and ethnographic information on virtually all regions visited by Shirvani. In Bustan as-Sayahat, he also mentioned countries he did not visit (mainly Russia, France, Austria and the United States) but has done research based on written sources of the time, as well as on his discussions with the scholars. At the end of the book, Shirvani introduces an educational program aimed at encouraging wealthy classes to sponsor education for talented youths who came from poor families, and proposed ways of facilitating living conditions for lower classes. The copies of this book are kept in the United Kingdom, Russia, Georgia, and Iran.
Philosophical & Other Works
As well as his famous travel works, Shirvani also composed the Kashf ul-Maarif (The Discovery of Enlightenment), a rather philosophical piece of writing. It consists of Shirvani's biography in the preface, his meetings with famous scholars, and their beliefs and theories. The only copy of the book that is known to have survived to our era was discovered by Azerbaijani historian Agamir Guliyev in Kabul in 1973. The book was never published and the manuscript remained at Guliyev's private library.
Some scholars believe that Shirvani wrote a biographical reflection on the great sufi poet Rumi under the pen name Rahmat Ali Shah. The work was not published during Shirvani's lifetime but was later used in the introduction of an 1895 Bombay edition of the Masnavi.
It is important to note that Shirvani warned readers that inaccurate statements might have been included in his works as he was often persecuted by Islamic feudals who regarded his books as a "threat to the religion". In one case, a study on which he had been working for 25 years was stolen from him and burned by Muhammad Qasim of Gumsha. It took Shirvani a long time to partially restore the lost data.
Shirvani got married in Shiraz in the early 1820s. He had two sons one of whom died early and the other, Husamaddin Ali, followed his fathers footsteps and also became a geographer.