700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized & Free 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.

Note: An ear­li­er ver­sion of this post appeared on our site in 2019.

via Atlas Obscu­ra

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dis­cov­er the Per­sian 11th Cen­tu­ry Canon of Med­i­cine, “The Most Famous Med­ical Text­book Ever Writ­ten”

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

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

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

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Comments (9)
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  • Anonsense says:

    Too often those in pow­er lump thou­sands of years of Mid­dle East­ern reli­gion and cul­ture into mono­lith­ic enti­ties to be feared or per­se­cut­ed


  • Holly says:

    His­to­ry is art, and even the coins uti­lized by humans all through­out time. Jews, Mus­lims, and Chris­tians are three trees of the same roots of Abra­ham. Israel is a coun­try of peo­ples who read, write, and speak Hebrew. This is why I think The Abra­ham Accords is so help­ful in the new mil­len­ni­um. Anoth­er term for Prophet is teacher. Observ­ing the scrip­tures through a philo­soph­i­cal and poet­ic point of view leads to greater under­stand­ing of them too.

  • Khalid says:

    All your infor­ma­tion is wrong, this his­to­ry maned by fake, par­sion is not from iran, no lands name iran this is oth­er nation­al­i­ties land , kurd, has kur­dis­tan, lur has lurstan, turko­manstan, arab­stan, but all ways we dont have a par­sis­tan, thos peo­ple came from tajik­stan, its jer­man and eng­lish peo­ple made fars, .. we have to cor­rc­tion the 700 years wrong his­to­ry??? it is a big work but some peo­ple start­ed to fix this fake his­to­ry

  • Unonsense says:

    Huh, I guess by that log­ic we should still be per­se­cut­ing Chris­tians for the holo­caust.

  • Milad mousavi says:

    Most of neigh­bour­ing coun­tries had wars with each oth­er in the past but the Ara­bi­an peo­ple still have con­flict with Iran­ian peo­ple, you know it was belonged the past and you should fin­ish it.

    Speaks about peace and human­i­ty

  • M. R.Hadian says:

    Unfor­tu­nate­ly, I have to reply to an une­d­u­cat­ed indi­vid­ual who is try­ing to write in the Eng­lish lan­guage; where­as, he does not know about the his­to­ry of the world at least about the his­to­ry of Per­sia. First, this man should learn that Per­sia was an empire for three thou­sand years. The name of the coun­try was not the name of a group of peo­ple and it was cov­er­ing all of the peo­ple who were liv­ing and build­ing a pros­per­ous and peace­ful civ­i­liza­tion under this great umbrel­la. This une­d­u­cat­ed man should read his­to­ry at least read­ing the William Durant his­to­ry book.

  • S. McCandlish says:

    The word “enor­mi­ty” does­n’t mean what you think it means. It means ‘trans­gres­sion against law or moral­i­ty’, ‘extreme wicked­ness, cru­el­ty, or nefar­i­ous­ness’, or more loose­ly ‘devi­a­tion from a norm or stan­dard’. It does­n’t have any­thing to do with size or scope.

  • Mohammad says:

    Well done & a big THANK YOU.

  • armin says:

    The ene­mies of Iran and the arabs behind 9/11 no noth­ing about cul­ture. No sci­en­tist has ever come from hejaz just bru­tal fight­ers… Ask some­one to read shah­nameh for you and you will find Iran. You can not ignore 7000 years of civ­i­liza­tion of IRAN. Pray God for the wealth of oil and Mohammed the prophet else you were eat­ing man­tis till today and no one would hear of arab

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