Centuries of Persian Manuscripts, Now at Your Fingertips - Atlas Obscura

Centuries of Persian Manuscripts, Now at Your Fingertips

A deep, cosmopolitan archive appears online for the first time.

In an image from James Skinner's book on life in India, a surgeon works on the leg of a patient as he takes opium.
In an image from James Skinner’s book on life in India, a surgeon works on the leg of a patient as he takes opium. Library of Congress, African and Middle East Division, Near East Section Persian Manuscript Collection

In the weeks leading up to the vernal equinox, it’s common to see people across Iran busily clearing their homes of clutter. Rugs hang outside in preparation for a good beating, to rid them of a year of dust. This is all done in preparation for Nowruz, also known as the Iranian or Persian New Year. The holiday typically falls around March 20 but is celebrated for weeks with a variety of celebrations, ceremonies, and traditions. So who says the Library of Congress can’t get in on the festivities?

To wish you a Nowruz Pirouz, the library has made 155 rare Persian manuscripts, lithographs, and books dating back to the 13th century available online for the first time. The collection of illuminated manuscripts includes texts such as the Shahnameh, an epic poem about pre-Islamic Persia likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey, along with written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal. Other manuscripts focus on religion, philosophy, and science. Some are written in multiple languages, with passages in Arabic and Turkish. This wide range highlights just how cosmopolitan the collection is.

These two images come from the miniature book, <em>Ghazalīyāt-i shaykh Saʻdī</em>, containing excerpts of classical Persian poetry.
These two images come from the miniature book, Ghazalīyāt-i shaykh Saʻdī, containing excerpts of classical Persian poetry. Library of Congress, African and Middle East Division, Near East Section Persian Manuscript Collection

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says Hirad Dinavari, reference specialist for the collection at the library’s African and Middle Eastern Division. “It’s not homogenous, many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian. Various people of various ethnic groups contributed to this tradition.”

One example of the mashed-up diversity with the collection is History of the Origin and Distinguishing Marks of the Different Castes of India, by James Skinner, an Anglo-Indian lieutenant-colonel in the British military in the early 19th century. The book is a true “cultural fusion,” says Dinavari. About two-thirds of the manuscript focuses on the tribes, traditions, and professions unique to Hindu India—yet the book is written in Persian, but with terminology popular in languages used in India. It addresses the lives of everyday people, who weren’t often featured in such exquisitely assembled and illustrated books.

Animal handlers in the Skinner book. He would also write his autobiography in Persian.
Animal handlers in the Skinner book. He would also write his autobiography in Persian. Library of Congress, African and Middle East Division, Near East Section Persian Manuscript Collection

Most of the collection was acquired by the library during the 1930s, from Kirkor Minassian, an art dealer. Around 40 items were showcased in 2014, just before the digitization process began, with a special focus on materials that are too fragile for display. The project is almost entirely done; there are just 15 or so manuscripts left to get the digital treatment. The idea is that putting all of these materials up together will help connect past and present.

“What we are trying to do is show a writing tradition of the Persian world, essentially going back to look at the ancient manuscript, but also bringing it into the modern world,” says Dinavari, “We are trying to show continuity, we don’t want it to seem like it’s some antique relic.”