A Millennium of Persian Literature

(The following is guest post by Mark Hartsell, editor of the Library of Congress staff newsletter, The Gazette.)

"The Book of Shah Jahan" explores the life of the 17th-century ruler of India during whose reign the Taj Mahal was built. African and Middle Eastern Division.

“The Book of Shah Jahan” explores the life of the 17th-century ruler of India during whose reign the Taj Mahal was built. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Persian first gained prominence a thousand years ago, a language of literature, poetry and folklore that connected people across vast stretches of Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.

The Library of Congress today opens “A Thousand Years of the Persian Book,” the first major U.S. exhibition to make such a wide-ranging study of the Persian language and literature. The landmark exhibition features 75 items drawn primarily from the Persian collection of the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division, one of the most important such collections assembled outside of Iran.

“A Thousand Years of the Persian Book” will take visitors on a visual journey of the rich literary history of Persian language,” said Cynthia Wayne, a senior exhibits director in the Interpretive Programs Office. “Materials that will be on display have been rarely seen by the public. The show gives visitors an exciting opportunity to learn about the depth and breadth of the Library’s extensive Persian collections, which hopefully will lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the important contributions of Persian literary achievements.”

The exhibition is made possible through the support of the Public Affairs Alliance of Iranian Americans, former Iranian Ambassador to the United States Hushang Ansary, Jawad Kamel, Nazie Eftekhari and other donors.

Twentieth-century religious text shows the Farvahar, a man and winged disc that symbolize the Zoroastrian faith. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Twentieth-century religious text shows the Farvahar, a man and winged disc that symbolize the Zoroastrian faith. African and Middle Eastern Division.

The Library marks the opening — timed to coincide with the Persian new year season of Nowruz — with a lecture and panel discussion about Persian manuscripts and the tradition of manuscript-making in Persian-speaking lands. Those programs kick off a lecture series of 13 events, hosted by the Library and the Roshan Institute for Persian Studies at the University of Maryland, that explore aspects of Persian literature. The series is made possible by the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute in Hawaii.

Persian gained prominence as a common cultural language across Central and South Asia and parts of the Middle East about 1,000 years ago. Just as French at one time served as the common language for educated elites across Europe, so Persian served as the preferred tongue for writers of literature and history from what is now Turkey to India.

“Persian had a similar role: It was a language of poetry and history,” said curator Hirad Dinavari of the African and Middle Eastern Division. “Persianate courts taught Arabic for religious material, for science, for philosophy. But Persian was often used for literature and history.”

The exhibition opens and closes with the seminal work of Persian literature: the “Shahnameh,” an epic 10th-century tale of kings, heroes and devils told in 50,000 rhyming couplets that took poet Ferdowsi 33 years to complete.

“‘Shahnameh’ is our ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey,’” Dinavari said. “It shows the world the legacy of the Persian kings and civilizations. All stories come from the pre-Islamic era – the era of Cyrus and Darius and the ancient kings.”

In between early and modern versions of “Shahnameh,” the exhibition explores works of religion, science, modern literature, children’s books, women’s literature and the highly illustrated masterpieces of classical poetry for which Persian literature is most famous. From the 10th through the 16th centuries, poets such as Omar Khayyám, Rumi and Sa’di produced works that resonated down through the ages.

Shahnameh, or "Book of Kings." African and Middle Eastern Division.

Shahnameh, or “Book of Kings.” African and Middle Eastern Division.

“The Moving Finger writes: and, having writ, Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it,” Khayyám wrote in “Rubaiyat,” a work that centuries later still would inspire artists from Eugene O’Neill to Agatha Christie, from Woody Guthrie to Van Morrison.

Persian has evolved somewhat over the centuries, Dinavari said, but not so much that it can’t be easily understood today – as might be the case with Shakespearean English. Thus, Persian speakers still can appreciate the words of the poet Rumi as readily as his 13th-century audience: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

The language of Rumi, Khayyám and Ferdowsi served, and still serves, as a unifying cultural force in a vast region of many faiths, ethnicities and ideas.

“You had these amazing crossroads, philosophically and religiously,” Dinavari said. “That adds to the richness.”

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