Persian gained prominence as a literary language and a lingua franca—a common cultural language—about a thousand years ago.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
In the past millennium, a rich and varied written and spoken heritage has developed in the Persian language, elevating the visibility of Persian civilization among world intellectual traditions. That tradition is particularly strong in the fields of storytelling, poetry, folklore, and literature, with additional important contributions in historiography, science, religion, and philosophy.
From the tenth-century seminal Shahnameh (Book of Kings) by Ferdowsi to the works of contemporary writers, the Persian language has changed very little in the last millenium. A Thousand Years of the Persian Book examines the richness and variety of the Persian book and its literary tradition. It showcases the Library’s unique collections, which are among the most important in the world today outside of Iran. The exhibition focuses on Iran but also includes items from the greater Persian-speaking lands of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, as well as from Central and South Asia and the Caucasus, illustrating the international nature of the Persian language. In addition to examining the diversity of literary styles, the exhibition demonstrates the continuity of the written word as a unifying cultural force in Persian-speaking lands.
The Persian Language
Along with ancient languages such as Sanskrit and Latin and living languages such as English, French, Russian, and Hindi, Persian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages, specifically to the Iranian (Iranic) branch. Persian is also referred to by local regional names such as Farsi in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan, and Tajiki in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. However in English the historic name for the language has always been “Persian.”
The literary and cultural language of the Iranian plateau, the highlands, and plains of Central Asia has been Persian, a language also used extensively throughout South Asia. For centuries, rival empires from the Indian Mughal Empire in the east to the Ottoman Empire in the Mediterranean and the Balkans used Persian language and aesthetics, which formed the basis of a common tradition that over time culturally united these vast regions. Today, Persian is spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.
Writing Systems and Scripts
Persian scripts have evolved over the last 3000 years, with three major historic stages of development, all on display in this exhibition. In ancient Persia (650 BCE–330 BCE), Old Persian was inscribed in the cuneiform script, adapted from the Mesopotamian cultures of the ancient Near East. During the pre-Islamic classical period of the Parthian and Sassanid Persian Empires (248 BCE–651), the Aramaic language gained prominence in many regions of the Persian Empire, influencing the language and writing system of Pahlavi, the middle Persian language. The script used for writing Pahlavi was adapted from the ancient Aramaic script. After the Islamization of Persia, (651–present), a modified Arabic script replaced the older scripts.
Modern Persian is a continuation of the pre-Islamic Pahlavi language that has incorporated many Arabic and Islamic terms. Other writing scripts have also been used for modern Persian. In medieval Persia among Persian-Jewish communities, the Judeo-Persian language, which combines Persian with Hebrew and Aramaic terms, was written using the Hebrew script. In Central Asia during the late Czarist Russian period, a region subsequently controlled by the Soviet Union, the Persian-speaking populations used both the Latin and Cyrillic (modified Russian) script that has since resulted in the modern Tajik-Persian script.
In 539 BCE, after the invasion and incorporation of Babylon into the Persian Empire, Cyrus the Great (ca. 580–529 BCE), founder of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, put forth this decree etched on a cylinder in Akkadian cuneiform script, pronouncing that he was the new king of Babylon. The cylinder’s text is significant because it shows Cyrus’s treatment of conquered nations. To some experts, the cylinder represents the world’s first document declaring human rights. Others view it as a primary document showcasing the Persian Empire’s system of federal governance that allowed local languages, faiths, and traditions to be preserved. The original cylinder is in the collections of the British Museum.
The Epic of Shahnameh
The seminal work of Persian literature is the Shahnameh, an epic poem that recounts the history of pre-Islamic Persia or Iranshahr (Greater Iran). The Shahnameh contains 62 stories, told in 990 chapters with 50,000 rhyming couplets. It is divided into three parts—the mythical, heroic, and historical ages. Written in modern Persian, the Shahnameh is a work of poetry, historiography, folklore, and cultural identity and is a continuation of the age-old tradition of storytelling in the Near East.
Under the patronage of the Samanid dynasty, Hakīm Abul-Qāsim Firdawsī Tūsī (Ferdowsi) began his epic poem in 977, taking thirty-three years to complete it. The Shahnameh was written at a time when modern Persian had started to flourish and the structures and standards for the language were being set.
After its first appearance in 1010, the Shahnameh directly affected the epic and poetic works of all Persian speakers and writers for centuries. A number of scholars credit the continuity in modern Persian to the Shahnameh. It influenced not just Persian speakers but also the cultures of Turkic peoples in Central Asia, Azerbaijan, and the Ottoman Empire, as well as the Georgian, Kurdish, and Pashto literary traditions. The Shahnameh continues to be one of the main pillars of the modern Persian language.
The Shahnameh, the seminal Persian literary work, is based primarily on a prose translation of an earlier Pahlavi work, known as the Xvatāynamāk (Book of Kings), from the pre-Islamic Sassanid era (224–651). The poet Daqiqi (942–980), a contemporary of the poet Ferdowsi (940–1020), began rendering the Shahnameh in verse, and, in turn, Ferdowsi included many of Daqiqi’s couplets in his version of the Shahnameh. Although the manuscript’s place of publication is not noted, it is in an Iranian style with text written in the Persian Nasta‘liq calligraphic style, one of the oldest and most prized styles of Persian calligraphy used for manuscripts. The displayed page showcases a painting of an epic battle scene.
This rare Shahnameh manuscript, copied in India in a regional Indian provincial style, demonstrates the popularity of the epic throughout South Asia as well as in the central Persian lands. The manuscript has highly decorated illuminated chapter and section openings in gold ink and numerous illustrations and miniature paintings that fuse Persian, Mughal Indian, regional Indian, as well as European styles. Although the manuscript is not dated, the work reflects a late-seventeenth-century to early-eighteenth-century aesthetic prevalent in India. The text is written in the Persian Nasta‘liq calligraphic style.
As communication and contact between Zoroastrian communities in Iran and India expanded throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Indian Zoroastrian Parsi community began reconnecting to their ancestral homeland in Iran. Produced in the Iranian Qajar style, characterized by a more realistic treatment of portraiture, this twentieth-century Shahnameh includes an additional chapter introducing the notables of the Indian Parsi community to Persian speakers. Illustrated here is the court of Sultan Mahmud, to whom the Shahnameh was dedicated, surrounded by notable Persian poets including Ferdowsi.
The religious works in the exhibition represent confessional and philosophical traditions of the various faiths practiced in the Persian-speaking world today. By 650 BCE, the Zoroastrian faith, a monotheistic religion founded on the ideas of the philosopher Zoroaster, had become the official religion of ancient Persia. Later Judaism and then Christianity came to Persia via Mesopotamia, with both developing vibrant faith communities in Persian lands. To the east of the Persian Empire, the regional kingdoms of what is now Afghanistan and Central Asia adopted Buddhism from India in the third century, blending it with Zoroastrianism and Greek traditions.
With the spread of Islam in the mid-seventh century, the Persian-speaking world became predominantly Muslim although vestiges of the earlier pre-Islamic religious and philosophical traditions remained. Sufism, a meditative and mystical path of Islam, evolved in the region in the tenth century, while the Ismaili Shi`ite doctrine became prominent in Persia by the eleventh century. Later, during the Safavid dynasty (1501–1722), much of present Iran and Azerbaijan converted to the Twelver Shi`ite sect of Islam. Newer faiths like the Baha’i Faith developed as late as the nineteenth century in Persia expanding to the Near East and beyond.
The religious texts of the Zoroastrian faith of ancient Persia are referred to as the “Avesta.” The oldest part is the Gathas, which includes a collection of hymns and one of the oldest examples of religious poetry attributed to the prophet Zoroaster (ca. 630–550 BCE). Displayed is a page from the Gathas, in the Middle Persian language Pahlavi, and its translation into modern Persian. The Faravahar, a man and a winged disc that symbolizes the Zoroastrian faith adorns the opening of the page. The Zoroastrian faith has survived from ancient times with followers worldwide, mainly in Iran and India. The Zoroastrians who settled in India more than one thousand years ago, referred to as the Parsi (Persian) community, are very influential in Indian society today.
This unique illuminated book of psalms, alternating between Hebrew and Persian, is a modern work produced in Tehran to highlight the importance and value given in Iran to all Abrahamic faith traditions. The Persian translation written in the Nasta‘liq calligraphic style makes the Jewish holy book accessible to Persian speakers and celebrates the historic presence of Jewish religious communities in Iran. Persian Jews have been in the region since antiquity and along with the Zoroastrians constitute the most ancient faith communities that remain in Persian lands.
A number of Christian communities, particularly Armenian and Syriac, maintained a strong presence in Persian lands. The Syriac or Aramaic-speaking people in western Persia constitute one of the oldest Christian communities of Persia and are referred to as the “Assyrians.” The language used for communication and liturgical writings is modern Aramaic. This rare Assyrian Christian gospel contains the first four books of the New Testament and is from the Urmia region of Iran.
Over the centuries, production of Qurʼān manuscripts with elaborate calligraphic and decorative motifs has evolved into a high art. Historically in Persian-speaking lands the Naskh calligraphic style was used for the Arabic Qurʼān text. Since the Il-Khanid dynasty (1256–1335), a tradition of interlinear Qurʼān, in which the original Arabic text, usually in Naskh, is followed in a smaller size font in Persian in the Nasta‘liq calligraphic style, has also flourished.
Prayer is at the foundation of the Islamic faith. The Library’s Near East Section manuscript collections include handwritten, illuminated prayer books and booklets and manuals featuring various prayers for different occasions. The morning prayers that set the tone for the day are highlighted in the seventeenth-century manuscript on display, which is illuminated and bound in embossed red leather. The Arabic text of the prayers is written in a very clear and bold Nasta‘liq calligraphic style.
Iran, Azerbaijan, and Iraq today are predominantly followers of the Shi`ite branch of Islamic faith. In Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Central Asia, where the Sunni branch of Islam dominates the religious Persian-language works reflect the Sunni school of Islamic thought. This lithographic book was published in the nineteenth century by the Royal Kabul Publishing House and is a source for judges who work on Islamic jurisprudence. The fine quality of the printing and binding attest to the importance given to Islamic law texts.
Sufism, a mystical and introspective interpretation of Islam that emerged after the initial spread of the religion, combines Islamic teachings with Gnosticism. The practice embraced the idea of enlightenment through spiritual knowledge, with pre-Islamic Greek, Zoroastrian, and Indian spiritual practices. By the thirteenth century in Persia, Sufi thought was expressed primarily through poetry or in poetic works of prose such as this Sufi treatise. The fine illuminated manuscript pages with animal and floral motifs and the highly prized Nasta‘liq calligraphy style of the manuscript demonstrate the importance of spiritual and philosophical works in medieval Persia.
At the request of Muhammad Taqi Mirzā, the son of Qajar dynasty monarch Fath ‘Ali-Shāh, the author compiled this ethical-philosophical treatise drawing on Sufi mysticism and Shi`ite doctrine. In three long chapters, the book presents a detailed discussion of reason (Arabic/Persian ‘aql) and its qualities. Numerous images illustrate the author’s argument concerning different spheres in which reason reigns in differing qualities. This book is noteworthy as a rare example of printing in gold.
Among the rare Persian manuscripts in the Library’s holdings are a number of unique Shi`ite Iranian prayer books that are ornately illuminated with floral motifs and gold ink. One such manuscript is this Persian and Arabic prayer book, which includes prayers intended to be read on pilgrimage to various Shi`ite holy sites in Iraq and Iran. Specific prayers read at the mausoleum of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad and the fourth caliph of Islam, are highlighted. The author Ibn Rustam Khān Ṣafī Qulī evokes his Safavid ancestors under whose reign (1501–1722) Iran became predominately Shi`ite.
One of the most revered religious and holy figures of Islam is ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (ca. 601–661), whose honorary name, Amīr al-Mu‘minīn, translates into Persian as the “prince of the believers.” Written works by ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib and sayings attributed to him are sacred to the Shi`ite faithful, particularly among Persian-speakers. This hand-written prayer manual displays the words of ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib in the original Arabic in the Naskh calligraphic style and in a smaller-font Persian translation in red in the Nasta‘liq calligraphic style by Abū al-Qāsim Shīrāzī.
The Babi religious and social movement, which had its origins in Shi`ite Islam, began in the mid-nineteenth century, and, after a number of upheavals, evolved into the Baha’i faith based on the teaching of Mírzá Ḥusayn-`Alí Núrí (1817–1892), better known as Bahá‘u‘lláh to his followers. He authored a number of religious and theological works in Persian and Arabic. Because of political turbulence in Iran, many Baha’is moved to neighboring lands and spread out across the world. This book, published in Europe, is a modern Persian publication of Bahá‘u‘lláh’s teachings to be studied with morning and evening prayers.
Science and Technology
Beginning in ancient times Persia has been a center of scientific achievement and was often the conduit of knowledge from China and India in the East to Greece and Rome in the West. Persian-speaking scholars have been active in furthering knowledge in fields of science and technology, such as astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, biology, botany, cosmology, mathematics, engineering, and architecture.
Ancient Sassanid Persia was home to some of the earliest universities and libraries of the ancient world. After the Islamization of Persia (651), middle Persian Pahlavi texts as well as Indian, Chinese, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin scientific texts were translated into Arabic. Although Arabic remains the primary language used for scientific writing in the Islamic world, many scholars have also produced a range of scientific manuscripts and works in the Persian language. The Mughal court in India (1526–1858) became a major center for the production of scientific works in Persian.
Over the centuries many scholars and scientists of Persian origin have written in Arabic, the preferred language for religious and scientific subjects. The iconic Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence, originally written in the thirteenth century, is a popular work of cosmography that has been translated into various Islamic languages. The Library holds manuscripts in the original Arabic, as well as Turkish and Persian translations. This sixteenth-century Persian text contains several unique illustrations, including these depictions of mythical creatures.
Over the centuries many scholars and scientists of Persian origin have written in Arabic, the preferred language for religious and scientific subjects. The iconic Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence, originally written in the thirteenth century, is a popular work of cosmography that has been translated into various Islamic languages. The Library holds manuscripts in the original Arabic, as well as Turkish and Persian translations. This sixteenth-century Persian text contains several unique illustrations, including a gold leaf map that clearly demonstrates how the world was viewed in the medieval Islamic period.
In India from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, during the reign of the Mughal court and the subsequent British Raj period, many manuscripts were written in Persian. The manuscript on display, illustrated in vibrant colors and detailing the distinguishing characteristics and customs of India’s various castes, religious communities, and the trades and technologies of each group, is by James Skinner (1778–1841). The son of a Scottish lieutenant colonel and an Indian Rajput princess, Skinner was fluent in Persian and wrote extensively in the language. His manuscript portrays professions ranging from surgery to papermaking with miniature paintings produced primarily by Mir Khalan Khan.
The study of medicinal plants and their effects on humans has been an age-old tradition in Persian-speaking lands. This publication, written by two commanding officers in the Muhammadzai Pashtun tribal confederacy during the Barakzai period (1826–1973), is a lithographic printing of a pharmacology. By the 1860s, lithographic book printing extended from India to the frontier territories of Afghanistan and was preferred to typographic printing because it better retained the traditional calligraphy. This book, the earliest work in the field of medicine printed in Afghanistan, contains a list of various substances, herbs, flowers, minerals, and potions used for healing purposes in traditional medicine.
This comprehensive manual in three volumes deals with the human body, ailments, and the medicinal properties of plants. The book was the first detailed handbook of modern medicine in Iran and was probably used for teaching purposes at the Polytechnical College (Dar al-Funun) in Tehran. The first volume contains numerous detailed images illustrating human anatomy, such as this one showing the lower half of the female body. The illustrations are most likely copied from a European book.
This lithographic book, of which apparently only volumes one, two, and four were published, aims at a comprehensive treatment of the geography of Iran in an alphabetical arrangement. The volume displayed here follows the model of the famous Mu‘jam al-buldān (Dictionary of Countries) compiled by thirteenth-century Arab author Yāqūt. It includes entries from Persian letters “alif” through “te,” including a lengthy entry on Tehran and its history from the early Safavid period through the 1870s. The image on display, most probably copied from a contemporary photograph, shows the Ayvān (or Tāq)-i Kasrā (Palace of Khusraw), which was the legendary palace for the Sassanid kings (224–651) located in the vicinity of modern Baghdad.
From the tenth century to the late nineteenth century, historical writing became one of the most revered and important literary traditions in the Persian language. These works were often written in prose as well as in verse. Most of the surviving historical works produced in the Persian-speaking world are from the Islamic period (651–present).
Historians, scholars, rulers, and elites from various regions of India, the Central Asian Khanates, the various city centers of Iran and Afghanistan, and the Ottoman lands have produced a wide range of historical manuscripts and lithographic printed books in Persian. Subjects covered include travel literature, world history, current events, and traditional subjects such as the history of Islamic civilization.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, as contact with the West increased, and as Western travel diaries and travel literature became available to readers in Persian lands, a new tradition of Safarnamah (travelogue) writing spread in the region. By the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Safarnamah literature became a mainstream genre in Persian historiography.
From the tenth to the fourteenth centuries a number of Persian historians wrote in Arabic, the common academic language of the time, including the Persian historian Abu Ja‘far Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari’s (839–923), author of Tarikh al-Rusul wa al-Muluk, more commonly known as Tarikh al-Tabari (History of Tabari). This pioneering work advanced the tradition of historical writing about the Islamic world and its schools of thought. In later centuries Persian historians influenced by these classic works began translating historical works from Arabic into Persian, building upon the older works. This copy, translated by the renowned tenth-century Persian historian Bal’ami, shows the original Arabic alongside the Persian translation.
One of the most important works in the Library’s Persian collections is this manuscript known as the Pādishāh‘nāmah, also referred to as the Shāhjahān‘nāmah, which contains the history of the reign of Shah Jahan (reigned 1627–1658), the Mughal ruler of India. The work addresses the life of Shah Jahan (1592–1666), during whose reign the Taj Mahal and other architectural glories were built in India. The manuscript highlights the importance and value the Indian Mughal court gave to the tradition of bookmaking, recording history, and to Persian literary and artistic traditions. The illustrations on display depict scenes from the emperor’s private and public life, shown against images of his unique architecture.
Originally published in 1896–1897, the second edition of Fursat al-Dawlah Shīrāzī’s (1854–1920) important work on the ancient monuments of Persia was later published in the early Pahlavi period. Shīrāzī’s book gained particular renown for its numerous faithful and detailed illustrations of historical sites and rock reliefs that introduced the results of nineteenth-century archaeological research to an Iranian audience. The illustration shown depicts two rock reliefs located at Tāq-i Bustān in the vicinity of present-day Kirmānshāh. The image illustrates the investiture of pre-Islamic Sassanian Persian rulers Ardashir II (reigned 379–383) by his predecessor Shāpur II (reigned 309–379). The figure to the far left represents the sun deity Mithra standing on a lotus flower and bearing witness to the pact.
Riyāz̤ī’s book, usually known as the Collected Works of Riyāz̤ī, includes twelve treatises covering topics related to the creed of Twelver Shi`ism, the belief in twelve imams who are the spiritual and political successors of the Prophet Muhammad. The compilation, which also includes subjects such as Islamic theology, mysticism, and religious law, was intended to educate Persian speakers on the classics as well as on current history and world events. On display are portraits of rulers of Iran and Afghanistan, highlighting noteworthy kings, such as Nādir Shāh Afshār (reigned 1736–1747) and Karim-Khān Zand (reigned 1750–1779), and various nineteenth-century Qajar dynasty kings of Iran such as Nasir al-Din Shah (reigned 1848–1896) and the important Bārakzaī rulers of Afghanistan, ending with Habib-Allâh Khān (reigned 1901–1919).
Travelogues or Safarnameh writings became a very popular genre in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The Library’s Persian book collection includes a range of lithographic and early movable type print books written by various regional rulers and Western travelers. On display is an example from the Qajar Iranian king Muẓaffar al-Dīn Shāh (reigned 1896–1907). Although the book was printed using moveable type, the opening and colophon are handwritten and designed in the traditional Persian manuscript and lithographic style, demonstrating both a desire to use modern printing methods and the initial discomfort with its use.
In the late nineteenth century, a number of books about contemporary issues in Persian-speaking lands and the world at large were produced in the lithographic book format, combining European printing technologies, modern photography, and maps, with classic Persian writing styles. The book on display is an autobiography by ‘Ālam Khān, the Amir of the Bukharan Emirate (present-day Uzbekistan). It recounts the recent history of the Turkestan region, relations with neighboring Iran and Afghanistan, and the Russian, British, and French involvement in the region now referred to by historians as the “Great Game.” It is written in the Persian Shikastah calligraphic style and includes photographs and a French map.
The richness of Persian literature, one of the world’s oldest, can be traced back to medieval classical Persian. Beginning in the tenth century and lasting well into the sixteenth century, classical Persian poetry and prose flourished. During this classical period, poetry became the dominant form of literary expression. It was the medium in which almost all intellectual pursuits were expressed, a tradition often supported by royal patronage.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, increased contact with Europe, especially with Russia and Britain, changed the traditions of writing poetry, literature, and history. However, Persian-speaking communities, which had for centuries prized Persian calligraphy as a high art form, did not immediately adopt the printing press. From the mid nineteenth century to the early twentieth century lithography became the preferred medium used to prin Persian books, since it could better replicate calligraphic styles.
During the early modern period, Persian literature evolved to include genres in prose such as short stories, novels, satire, and humor. Persian writers introduced new themes related to nationalism and national identity. Free verse poetry also found an audience among the new literary elites. Prose became an important literary form and flourished in the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. The number of authors greatly increased, and women writers gained much higher visibility. Today, Persian writers, some using regional and national variations of the Persian language, continue to create poetry, prose, novels, short stories, essays, and children’s stories.