The Iranian World
Persia first grabbed the attention of the historic world in the
sixth century B.C. with the exploits and conquests of the near-legendary
Cyrus the Great, conqueror of the Medes, and of his successors
Darius and Xerxes, so strikingly described in the renowned fifth-century
B.C. classical Greek works of the historians Herodotus and Xenophon.
Powerful rulers dominated the Iranian world and influenced the
great ancient cultures that surrounded it, until the native dynasties
succumbed to the unrelenting push of Islam in the early seventh
century A.D. Persian culture and society were then fundamentally
altered, yet the interplay between the older era and the Islamic
era yielded a new, uniquely Iranian amalgamation.
Combining the legends and epic literature of the pre-Iranian
past with Islamic motifs, Firdawsi's Shahnamah (Book
of kings) has remained since its creation an integral part
of Iranian culture. This strikingly beautiful decorative
device, which reflects a modern interpretation of the pre-Islamic
tradition of geometric, floral, and foliar designs, is from
the 1971 royal edition of the epic, published in Tehran.
The growth of a new and strong dynasty under the Azerbaijani
Safavids (A.D. 1501-1736), with the backing of Anatolian and Syrian
Turkomen in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the importance
of Iran to European mercantile interests, especially under the
British East India Company, explain the growth of materials about
Iran and the countries held within its empire. The foreign relationships
which arose in that era, with the Ottoman Empire and Russia to
the north and the European countries of the west, still influence
contemporary events in Iran.
This accounts for the need for a comprehensive repository of
materials in Persian and in its related Indo-European languages--Pushto
and Dari in Afghanistan and Kurdish in Armenia, Georgia, Iran,
Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. These collections, allied with multiformat
research collections housed elsewhere in the Library of Congress,
form an invaluable treasury of knowledge on the religions, society,
culture, art, and architecture of the past and present Iranian
Isfahan, a vital center of trade in late medieval Iran,
is here depicted in two panoramic scenes from volume 4 of
the 1725 Paris edition of Voyages de Corneille Le
Bruyn par la Moscovie, en Perse, et aux Indes Orientals
by the Dutch traveler and artist Cornelis de Brun (1652-1726/27).
Le Brun's memoirs are profusely illustrated with portraits
of the people, the architecture, and the flora and fauna
of the countries he visited.
and Special Collections Division)
The growth of interest in Iranian studies in the United States
and the development of the collection at the Library of Congress
began almost simultaneously in the late nineteenth century. Persian
monographs collected by American missionaries in Persia were donated
to the Library in 1872-73. After United States and Persian diplomatic
relations were established in 1883, Persian citizens, too, began
to donate their works to the Library. Then, in 1945 the Near East
Section came into being, and staff were hired to ensure more systematic
acquisition of Persian, Afghan, Pushto, Kurdish, and other Iranian-language
The collection of Persian classical materials includes the literary
monuments of Firdawsi (A.D. 940-1020), author of the influential
Shahnamah (Book of kings), and the poetry of Omar Khayyam
(d. 1123) and of the moralist Sadi of Shiraz (1184-1291). The
Iranian rare book collection has many important modern publications
as well, such as the Ariyana Almanac from the 1920s,
the Safarnamah of the Qajar shah Nasir al-Din (1848-96),
and a thirteen-volume commentary on the Masnavi of Jalal
al-Din al-Rumi (A.D. 1207-73) by Muhammad Taqi Jafari. Afghan
rarities are represented by the Pushto Armaghan of Khwushhal
Khan, an anthology of seventeenth-century literary works.
Legends surrounding the fourthcentury B.C.
Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great were transmitted
by many Mediterranean peoples from antiquity to the present
in variants of the work titled The Alexander Romance.
These illustrations are from volume 4 of a lithographic
edition from Bombay, India (1767), of the Persian-language
Iskandernamah (The book of Alexander). In the first,
the hero Alexander is shown fighting a dragon. Displayed
in the other is a typically Persian decorative device, which
combines the artistry of the Persian past with the detailing
of the Islamic period.
The section possesses many Persian manuscripts, comprising all
disciplines, but dominated by the historical. Many of these are
exquisitely illuminated in the peculiarly beautiful amalgam which
is identifiably Iranian, especially copies of the previously mentioned
Shahnamah of Firdawsi. The collection also includes numerous
anthologies of poets that are remarkable for the beauty of their
calligraphy and miniatures as well as for their exquisite Persian
bindings. Indeed, a great number of the Islamic book bindings
acquired from Kirkor Minassian are Persian. These are both treats
for the eyes and important for what they tell us about early book
and manuscript production in the Islamic world.
In a photograph from the collection "Documentation of the
Ayatollah Khomeini before and after Iran's Islamic Revolution,"
Sharok Hatami captures Khomeini (seated) and his family
in a rare glimpse into the revolutionary leader's domestic
(Prints and Photographs
The Library's collection is strong, too, in monographs having
to do with contemporary Iranian political life. From works about
the Tudah (Communist Party movement) in the 1940s, to the nationalization
of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and through the dissident movements
during and after the reign of Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi, these
works document political movements of half a century. Well represented
are the revolutionary works of the Ayatollah Khomeini, of Bani-Sadr,
and of many others who became well known to the Western world
during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Especially
important is a collection of Islamic revolutionary photographs
from that era taken, both in Iran and abroad, by Sharok Hatami.
This collection is now housed in the Prints and Photographs Division,
which is also home to the intricate, beautiful, yet wickedly satirical
political cartoons about the same revolutionary era drawn by Ardeshir
The intricate monumental tomb of Ahmad Shah Durani, seventeenth-
century founder of the kingdom of the Afghans in Kandahar
in southeastern Afghanistan, is surrounded by the domestic
architecture of the period. An unpublished album of rare
nineteenth- century photographs includes rural scenes, portraits,
and architectural details of importance to ethnographic
and cultural research.
Persian serial titles number in the hundreds and are both historical
and contemporary. The Library holds important runs from the early
twentieth century, such as Salnamah-i Ariyan, Salnamah-i
Pars, and Armaghan. The importance of Persian serials
and newspapers manifested itself with the fall of the shah in
1979 and the need for accurate knowledge about the country, about
Khomeini and his revolutionary movement, and about the Iranian
people both in their native land and in exile. Not surprisingly,
much of the material from twentiethcentury Iran itself deals with
Islamic topics, among which are Itilaat (1926-present),
Kayhan (1941-present), and Jumhur-i Islam-i (1979-present).
Those from outside Iran deal also with secularism and democracy.
These, together with Iranian, Afghan, and Kurdish dissident materials
of all formats, written by expatriates and assiduously acquired
by the Near East Section since 1979, form an impressive and especially
potent part of the Persian collection.
An elaborate display of brightly enameled flowers highlights
this lush eighteenth- century Islamic book binding from
the Kirkor Minassian collection.
[Right] A grand array of
styles of scripts and Islamic ornamental and iconographic
motifs adorns this exquisite calligraphic sampler from the
Iranian world, which was executed by Husayn Qayin in 1797.
The collection also includes important Afghani titles from the
twentieth century, among them Adab (Kabul, 1930s), Ariyana
(Kabul, 1930s), and Pushto Almanac (Kabul, 1930),
as well as works of the Afghani Mujahidin starting with the early
1980s. The Kurdish collection, though spare, includes various
materials that underscore the contemporary importance of this
ancient Iranian people.
The contemporary Kurdish monthly journal Sarah (Tehran,
Iran, 1990-present) is an important witness to the resurgence
of political consciousness of the Kurdish people throughout
the lands in which they are scattered today--from Iraq,
Syria, and Turkey to the post-Soviet states of the Caucasus
and Central Asia.
The nonvernacular collections, including papers of United States
ambassadors and ministers in Iran such as Lloyd C. Griscom (1872-1959)
and Loy W. Henderson (1892-1986), are maintained in the Manuscript
Division and allow the researcher to examine the growth and nature
of United States foreign policy vis à vis Iran. The Persian
collection is also complemented in the Library's General Collections
by the ubiquitous travelogues, historical and political works
in Western languages, and art and archaeological treatises--such
as Erich Friedrich Schmidt's unsurpassed discussion of the Achaemenid
Persian capital, Persepolis. Other such materials are
retained in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, while
numerous antique and modern maps can be found in the Geography
and Map Division. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Motion Picture,
Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division acquired movies from
Iran by important Iranian cinematographers, both for their aesthetic
value and for the light they shed on contemporary Iranian society.
variety of artifacts entered the Library through acquisition
of the Kirkor Minassian collection. This finely executed enamel
pencil box is covered with portraits, flowers, architectural
scenes, and Islamic decorative devices and is illustrative
of a style prevalent in eighteenth century Iran.
Researchers of the complex Iranian world from the days of Cyrus
to the present are extremely well served by the comprehensive
scope of this custodial collection and the ancillary collections
that support it.