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.

Example of Cuneiform Script

Bakhtiyari History. Tehran, 1909. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress

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Example of Pahlavi Script

Pūr Davūd’s The Hymns of The Holy Gathas. Bombay: Fort Printing Press, 1927. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)

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Example of Modern Persian Script

Verses by Baba Tahir. Calligraphy sheet, Iran, sixteenth–seventeenth centuries. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress

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The Cyrus Cylinder

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.

نسخۀ باز تولید شده منشور کوروش (Modern replica of the “Cyrus Cylinder”), 2010, original, 539–530 BCE. Resin. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)

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