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.
The History of Tabari
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.
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The Book of Shah Jahan
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.
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The Monuments of Ancient Persia
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.
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The Sea of Benefits
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).
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Travelogue of a Qajar King
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.
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The Anguish of Nations
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.
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