The article “700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online” was was posted on the Open Culture venue on April 5th, 2019. The Open Culture article was itself based on the article “Centuries of Persian Manuscripts, Now at Your Fingertips” written by Jonathan Carey for the Atlas Obscura on April 2, 2019. The version printed below has been slightly edited from the article posted in Open Culture.

For readers further interested in these topics, consult also the following sources:

As noted by Hirad Dinavari of the Library of Congress:

“From the 10th century to the present, Persian became the cultural language for a large region stretching from West Asia to Central and South Asia. Today, Persian is the native language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and some regions of Central and South Asia and the Caucasus.”


Too often those in power lump thousands of years of religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress (LoC) has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

As noted by Hirad Dinavari (Library specialist in the Library of Congress’ African and Middle Eastern Division):

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection …   Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.”

As further averred by Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey “ (The] deep, cosmopolitan archive…” consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.

A page from a Persian language epic the Shahname illustrating a battle scene (Source: Open Culture).

But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan” the LoC notes.

A page from a Persian language manuscript pertaining to Mughul emperor Shah Jahan (Source: Open Culture).

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Pages from a Persian-language manuscript (Source: Open Culture).

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

A page from the Quran with Persian translations (Source: Open Culture).

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

A page of the Shahname which narrates the exploits of the legendary hero Lohrasp (Source: Open Culture).