700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in pow­er lump thou­sands of years of Mid­dle East­ern reli­gion and cul­ture into mono­lith­ic enti­ties to be feared or per­se­cut­ed. But at least one gov­ern­ment insti­tu­tion is doing exact­ly the oppo­site. For Nowruz, the Per­sian New Year, the Library of Con­gress has released a dig­i­tal col­lec­tion of its rare Per­sian-lan­guage man­u­scripts, an archive span­ning 700 years. This free resource opens win­dows on diverse reli­gious, nation­al, lin­guis­tic, and cul­tur­al tra­di­tions, most, but not all, Islam­ic, yet all dif­fer­ent from each oth­er in com­plex and strik­ing ways.

“We nowa­days are pro­grammed to think Per­sia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a mul­ti­re­gion­al col­lec­tion,” says a Library spe­cial­ist in its African and Mid­dle East­ern Divi­sion, Hirad Dinavari. “Many con­tributed to it. Some were Indi­an, some were Tur­kic, Cen­tral Asian.” The “deep, cos­mopoli­tan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, con­sists of a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem par­tic­u­lar­ly sig­nif­i­cant giv­en the enor­mi­ty of some oth­er online col­lec­tions.

But its qual­i­ty and vari­ety mark it as espe­cial­ly valu­able, rep­re­sen­ta­tive of much larg­er bod­ies of work in the arts, sci­ences, reli­gion, and phi­los­o­phy, dat­ing back to the 13th cen­tu­ry and span­ning regions from India to Cen­tral Asia and the Cau­cus­es, “in addi­tion to the native Per­sian speak­ing lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajik­istan,” the LoC notes.

Promi­nent­ly rep­re­sent­ed are works like the epic poem of pre-Islam­ic Per­sia, the Shah­namah, “likened to the Ili­ad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “writ­ten accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-cen­tu­ry Mughal emper­or who over­saw con­struc­tion of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Per­sian poets Saa­di, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Niza­mi Gan­javi.” Some read­ers might be sur­prised at the pic­to­r­i­al opu­lence of so many Islam­ic texts, with their col­or­ful, styl­ized bat­tle scenes and group­ings of human fig­ures.

Islam­ic art is typ­i­cal­ly thought of as icon­o­clas­tic, but as in Chris­t­ian Europe and North Amer­i­ca, cer­tain sects have fought oth­ers over this inter­pre­ta­tion (includ­ing over depic­tions of the Prophet Moham­mad). This is not to say that the icon­o­clasts deserve less atten­tion. Much medieval and ear­ly mod­ern Islam­ic art uses intri­cate pat­terns, designs, and cal­lig­ra­phy while scrupu­lous­ly avoid­ing like­ness­es of humans and ani­mals. It is deeply mov­ing in its own way, rig­or­ous­ly detailed and pas­sion­ate­ly exe­cut­ed, full of math­e­mat­i­cal and aes­thet­ic ideas about shape, pro­por­tion, col­or, and line that have inspired artists around the world for cen­turies.

The page from a lav­ish­ly illu­mi­nat­ed Qur’ān, above, cir­ca 1708, offers such an exam­ple, writ­ten in Ara­bic with an inter­lin­ear Per­sian trans­la­tion. There are reli­gious texts from oth­er faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Per­sian trans­la­tion, there are sci­en­tif­ic texts and maps: the Rare Per­sian-Lan­guage Man­u­script Col­lec­tion cov­ers a lot of his­tor­i­cal ground, as has Per­sian lan­guage and cul­ture “from the 10th cen­tu­ry to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tra­di­tion deserves care­ful study and appre­ci­a­tion. Begin an edu­ca­tion in Per­sian man­u­script his­to­ry here.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

15,000 Col­or­ful Images of Per­sian Man­u­scripts Now Online, Cour­tesy of the British Library

The Com­plex Geom­e­try of Islam­ic Art & Design: A Short Intro­duc­tion

800 Illu­mi­nat­ed Medieval Man­u­scripts Are Now Online: Browse & Down­load Them Cour­tesy of the British Library and Bib­lio­thèque Nationale de France

800+ Trea­sured Medieval Man­u­scripts to Be Dig­i­tized by Cam­bridge & Hei­del­berg Uni­ver­si­ties

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (14)
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  • betoche says:

    “Islam­ic art”?? LOL

    But there’s no such a thing exist!

    These are IRANIAN arts.
    You can’t find any­thing like these made by non-Ira­ni­ans.

    In Islam art is “haram”
    Nowruz is “haram” either.
    Almost every Islam­ic Imam ordered their fol­low­ers to not cel­e­brate Nowruz, b/c it’s “HARAM”

  • No.. be TOH che says:

    betoche, you are an idiot

    Art is not haram in Islam. Haven’t you seen the beau­ti­ful works of cal­lig­ra­phy and archi­tec­ture that span the entire Mus­lim world? Not one schol­ar from the Shia nor Sun­ni schools of thought has ever banned that type of art.

    There are numer­ous exam­ples of cal­lig­ra­phy done by non-Iran­ian artists. Just look at the Ottoman art to see exam­ples of it.

    Also, there are some nar­ra­tions, attrib­uted to some of the 12 Imams, that speak high­ly of Nowrooz..

    Only thing Haram here is your igno­rance of arthis­to­ry

  • BeToChe says:

    “Mus­lim world”???
    That make no sense! It’s like: “Nazis world”, “Satan world”, “Chris­tians world” etc, … These are not places, but thoughts, ide­olo­gies and reli­gions! You can live any­where and have your own reli­gion!
    But if you mean the islam occu­pied lands, then yes! Any­where islam did go, it did geno­cide, destroyed the natives cul­ture of the occu­pied lands, and replaced them with their own ide­ol­o­gy; Ottomans also did the same thing. Unlike the 7 thou­sand years old coun­try of Iran, Ottoman was just a empire/dynasty and not a spe­cif­ic coun­try! Under the Ottoman empire and in their occu­pied lands, they hired great archi­tects and artists to build mosques for them. Though the artists did­n’t have oth­er choice; they need­ed to live their life in peace and not mess with the bar­bar­ic rulers of 13th cen­tu­ry!

    By the way, the old­est mosque by the Ottomans is Hudav­endi­gar which is prob­a­bly from less than 600 years ago — while islam is 1400 years old!
    Obvi­ous­ly Iran­ian arts also made by great Iran­ian artists!
    Based on the rules of islam when a baby born in a mus­lim fam­i­ly, he/she can’t con­vert to oth­er reli­gion, oth­er­wise the islam­ic rulers would order to kill him/her! The Iran­ian artists of 700 years ago also had no bet­ter choice than to not fight with the rulers and the soci­ety to live in peace; Even nowa­days in Iran, if you don’t want to go jail or AT LEAST if you want your art­work to be let to be released in pub­lic, you need to PRAISE ISLAM (or attack Jews/Israel for exam­ple) in your art­work! NOW Imag­ine that you live on 13th cen­tu­ry; Despite from to not prais­ing islam, you’d be burned alive by the islam­ic rulers if you don’t con­vert to their reli­gion!
    If there is a word from islam (like allah) in those pieces, it does­n’t make it “islam­ic art”.

    Right! I have seen many mosques, paint­ings, books, art pieces, music tracks, movies that praised islam in it! Even nowa­days new groups of sly mus­lims are join­ing LGBT and fem­i­nist com­mu­ni­ties to keep their islam­ic pro­pa­gan­da alive and fresh to export it to the Unit­ed States! It’s 2019, man; You can’t preach peo­ple by your swords or squeeze peo­ple’s throat and force them to con­vert! But every­body knows that islam is against the Nowruz the Per­sian new year, no mat­ter the new mus­lims how hard try to say this is the reli­gion of peace! LOL

    Again! Tell me where we can find any “islam­ic art” or text from 1400 years ago by Muham­mad or his part­ners from the Ara­bi­an land the source of islam?


    Oh, and thanks for call­ing me “idiot” LOL
    Guess it’s a part from the “reli­gion of peace”! :))

  • Ali Tabesh says:

    One of read­ers talked about Ottoman arts and cal­lig­ra­phy. If you vis­it Istan­bul you eas­i­ly can see every­thing is writ­ten in Per­sian (Far­si), not one Turk can read them. So, yes, ottoman Empire hired Iran­ian artist to shine. So, their food and many oth­er aspects.

  • Chittaranjan panda says:

    I will come back to u.

  • Jaheira says:

    Be to Che has con­tributed to the edu­ca­tion­al util­i­ty of his page by demon­strat­ing the ugli­ness of Per­sian nation­al­ism (an ide­ol­o­gy based on the con­cept of the supe­ri­or­i­ty of the “Aryan nation” — sound famil­iar?).

    Be to, being Iran­ian does not give you the inborn right to insult the world’s Mus­lims. The vast major­i­ty of Mus­lims are not in Iran but are in Indone­sia, India, etc. The branch of Islam prac­ticed in Iran is a minor­i­ty branch and I won­der if you even know any­thing about Sun­ni cus­toms or prac­tices. (I am say­ing this as a non-Iran­ian Shii — gasp, do such things exist?? — so I’m not insult­ing Shi­is.)

    As a rem­e­dy for, dare I say, racism and igno­rance, I pre­scribe a long trip around the “Mus­lim world” (or what­ev­er you wish to call places that Mus­lims have his­tor­i­cal­ly lived) maybe stop­ping at land­marks like the Alham­bra. If you’re still not impressed by the art, at least the fresh air should do you good

  • Muhammad Bahrul Ulum says:

    Won­der­ful resource!
    A lot of thanks to every­body who con­tributes in prepar­ing this great site.
    I belief this site will give many impor­tan infor­ma­tions and ben­e­fits to every one who needs to under­stand the rich old Per­sian glob­al civil­i­sa­tion.

  • patricia gonzalez says:

    Islam made Al Alan­daluz a cadlle of arts, med­i­cine astron­o­my, and Jews Cris­tians and Arabs lived in peace.
    Took sci­ence to many coun­tries.
    Per­sia is one of the old­est cul­tures of the world.
    Otomans could have been destroyed by the Mon­gols or the Cris­tians but they had very strong war­riors who fought beleiv­ing their souls would be saved if they fought for Ala.

  • Jamiela says:

    Betoche, you have lived a very shel­tered life, my cousin is a very tal­ent­ed Islam­ic Artist.

    What a won­der­ful idea, to make this rich his­to­ry avail­able online. Sad­ly, mush of Arab his­to­ry was lost due large­ly to the recent war for con­trol of oil reserves and nat­ur­al resources, and these invaders showed no respect for cul­tur­al her­itage, loot­ing muse­ums, etc. it is a sad sit­u­a­tion, to lose your her­itage. More should be done to reassem­ble and make these records avail­able for care­ful study and online view­ing.

    A good start. I am hope­ful that once we take the time to under­stand each oth­er, we will want to build bridges instead of fight­ing.

  • Dr Rehaman Patel says:

    A very well work done by digi­tis­ing the Per­sian work.

  • Dr Rehaman Patel says:

    Be pos­i­tive and don’t dis­cuss which is not relat­ed to the top­ic. Just appre­ci­ate the work which is digi­tised ànd avail­able for us.

  • Richard Wade says:

    Do you know if there are any ref­er­ences to astro­nom­i­cal obser­va­tions cir­ca 1270’s in this col­lec­tion. And how do I access it?

  • Nahid Khan says:

    Many thanks to the Library of Con­gress for dig­i­tiz­ing this col­lec­tion. I look for­ward to more such dig­i­tiz­ing of the book arts of the Mus­lim world, both by the LC and all the oth­er major libraries and muse­ums who have such col­lec­tions. It would be won­der­ful if there were projects to reunite loose pages now scat­tered in dif­fer­ent col­lec­tions, at least vir­tu­al­ly, through these dig­i­tized for­mats, so that we could be able to bet­ter appre­ci­ate the com­plete work of book art that orig­i­nal­ly might have been.

  • Ali Rassoul says:

    Hi, I have a very old per­sian man­u­script in my fam­i­ly from Neza­mi Ghan­jawi. I could pro­vide pic­tures of illus­tra­tions and inter­est­ed to sell.

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