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Online Now: Rare Persian Language Lithographic Books from Afghanistan

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(The following is a post by Hirad Dinavari, Iranic World Specialist, Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division)

The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) houses a considerable number of splendidly illuminated manuscripts as well as a unique collection of lithographs and early imprints. To preserve the Persian language rare materials and make them accessible online, since 2015 I have been collaborating with the Library’s preservation and digitization specialists to digitize these materials and present them online under the title Persian Language Rare materials.  In the last Persian New Year (Nowruz), this digital collection was officially launched, with the release of 160 some manuscripts. For this year’s Nowruz, a set of Persian language lithographic printed books from Afghanistan are now part of the Persian Language Rare Materials collection and are available digitally for researchers to explore.

What are “Persian lithographs,” you may ask. The Persian term is chap-i sangi, or, a pre-modern printing press. It refers to a mass production technology used in the Persianate world, in which clay tablets were carved with elaborate text and illustrations and multiple prints were generated from the tablets until the tablets wore out, producing a number of unique copies of highly illustrated books with beautiful Persian calligraphy. This is a highly valued art form in Persian speaking and Islamic lands.

Modern book production, starting with the lithographic press, and the formation of the modern nation state of Afghanistan are closely interlinked. From the 1860s Afghanistan’s various modernizing elites and rulers used the lithographic and early printing press for the development of the newly forming Afghan civil society. In other words, these early prints were used to propagate a centralized national identity by spelling out Afghan views on various topics—ranging from Sunni Islamic law, the legal code, official guidance, Afghan historiography, literature and poetry—with the intention of educating the masses in the academic and scientific fields.

The Library of Congress is home to more than a hundred of these unique rare lithographs from Afghanistan or about Afghanistan from neighboring Central Asia, Iran, India and later Pakistan. Although the Near East Section holds roughly six hundred Persian language lithographic books from various countries, what makes the Afghan-specific lithographs stand out is the extent to which the founding Afghan governments and rulers invested in the local printing press and in the creation of official central publishing houses in Kabul, Herat, Balkh, and Qandahar, to name a few.

Some of the earliest lithographic works published in Afghanistan were about religion, Islamic Law, Jurisprudence, and teaching Arabic for Persian and Pushto speakers who were tasked with interpreting Arabic Islamic texts. Here are two noteworthy early examples from the late 1800s.

Tuḥfat al-ʻulamāʼ,” Kābul, 1875, Islamic Interpretation, Amīr Shīr ʻAlī Khān Period. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.
Asās al-quz̤āt,” Kābul, 1893, Hanafi Islamic Law and Jurisprudence. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

Also noteworthy is a number of lithographic books that were written by various rulers from the Barakzai and Durrānī ruling families, especially from the Afghan Amīr ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Khān period (1880-1901 AD).  As Pushtun elites, they wrote extensively in Persian but also introduced the publication of major works written in Pushto. These books here are on the history of Afghan tribes, memoirs, words of wisdom for the subjects and anthologies of poetry. One important anthology of poetry was written by an elite woman and an Afghan queen, ʻĀyishah Durrānī, who opened the first girls’ school in Kabul. This is the Library’s oldest original work written in Persian by a woman author.

In addition to memoirs and books penned by royal patronage and published by the central government to offer Afghan citizens guidance, there are also a number of independently published lithographs focusing on Afghan historiography. These lithographs capture the Pushtun linage and seek to connect Afghan history to the larger histories of the region and Islamic world.

Kullīyāt-i Riyāz̤ī,” Mashhad, 1906, Illustration of Anglo-Afghan war at Kabul. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.
Kullīyāt-i Riyāz̤ī,” Mashhad, 1906, Images of Iranian and Afghan rulers. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.
Tavārīkh-i khurshīd-i jahān,” Lahore, 1894, A classic historiography of Afghan and Pushtun tribes in Persian. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.
Āʼīnah-i jahānʹnamā,” Kābul, 1900, Selections from the classic Persian book of animal tales, “Anval-i Suhayli.” Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.
“Dīvān-i Mullā Raḥmat Badakhshānī Kābul,” 1894, Anthology of Persian poems by Mullā Raḥmat Badakhshānī. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

Over the millennia, Afghan society has expressed itself mainly through the medium of poetry and literature. A number of the Afghan lithographs focus on literature, works of Afghan and Persian speaking poets from the classic “Shahnamah,” “Anval-i Suhayli,” or “Masnavi” by Rumi to the anthology of Ghulam Muhammad Tarzi. Other lithographs in the collection show trends of modernization in Afghanistan from the first newspaper to works on the education of youth, cooking, herbal medicine, irrigation, military band music and weapon making.

It is worthy of mentioning that often many of these unique Afghan lithographs are bound in beautifully embossed leather, with the Afghan national emblem.

ʻUmdat al-farāʼiz̤,” Kābul, 1915, Laws of inheritance as described in the Qur’an in versified form with commentary. Library of Congress African & Middle Eastern Division.

Building upon these Afghan lithographs, I hope to develop an Afghanistan Treasures digital project to include materials in Pushto, English and European languages, as well as content in special formats such as maps and photographs.

Over the last few years, working with a handful of researchers and scholars focusing on Afghanistan and on lithographic printing has made it possible to host a few public programs pertinent to these topics. They are under the Persian Book Lectures series. You can view these lectures and presentations by clicking on the following links.

Comments (3)

  1. Will there ever be translations? Would love to read!

  2. I Want a 3rd grade Afghanistan book. Please send me a picture or just email me about it. Tell me your name and email so i can know its you Thanks,Yourinthewayz

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