A Thousand Years of the Persian Book

October 8, 2019 by  

Kaveh Farrokh – Reviews

(January 19, 2019- Education, Learning, Science Technology)
Beginning in ancient times Persia has been a center of scientific achievement and was often the conduit of knowledge from China and India in the East to Greece and Rome in the West. Persian-speaking scholars have been active in furthering knowledge in fields of science and technology, such as astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, biology, botany, cosmology, mathematics, engineering, and architecture.
Ancient Sassanid Persia was home to some of the earliest universities and libraries of the ancient world. After the Islamization of Persia (651), middle Persian Pahlavi texts as well as Indian, Chinese, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin scientific texts were translated into Arabic. Although Arabic remains the primary language used for scientific writing in the Islamic world, many scholars have also produced a range of scientific manuscripts and works in the Persian language. The Mughal court in India (1526–۱۸۵۸) became a major center for the production of scientific works in Persian.

Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence
Over the centuries many scholars and scientists of Persian origin have written in Arabic, the preferred language for religious and scientific subjects. The iconic Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence, originally written in the thirteenth century, is a popular work of cosmography that has been translated into various Islamic languages. The Library holds manuscripts in the original Arabic, as well as Turkish and Persian translations. This sixteenth-century Persian text contains several unique illustrations, including these depictions of mythical creatures.
This sixteenth-century Persian text contains several unique illustrations, including a gold leaf map that clearly demonstrates how the world was viewed in the medieval Islamic period.

The Book of Indian Castes and Kinsfolk
In India from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, during the reign of the Mughal court and the subsequent British Raj period, many manuscripts were written in Persian. The manuscript on display, illustrated in vibrant colors and detailing the distinguishing characteristics and customs of India’s various castes, religious communities, and the trades and technologies of each group, is by James Skinner (1778–۱۸۴۱). The son of a Scottish lieutenant colonel and an Indian Rajput princess, Skinner was fluent in Persian and wrote extensively in the language. His manuscript portrays professions ranging from surgery to papermaking with miniature paintings produced primarily by Mir Khalan Khan. 

The Study of Medicinal Plants
The study of medicinal plants and their effects on humans has been an age-old tradition in Persian-speaking lands. This publication, written by two commanding officers in the Muhammadzai Pashtun tribal confederacy during the Barakzai period (1826–۱۹۷۳), is a lithographic printing of a pharmacology. By the 1860s, lithographic book printing extended from India to the frontier territories of Afghanistan and was preferred to typographic printing because it better retained the traditional calligraphy. This book, the earliest work in the field of medicine printed in Afghanistan, contains a list of various substances, herbs, flowers, minerals, and potions used for healing purposes in traditional medicine.

Explanation of Human Anatomy
This comprehensive manual in three volumes deals with the human body, ailments, and the medicinal properties of plants. The book was the first detailed handbook of modern medicine in Iran and was probably used for teaching purposes at the Polytechnical College (Dar al-Funun) in Tehran. The first volume contains numerous detailed images illustrating human anatomy, such as this one showing the lower half of the female body. The illustrations are most likely copied from a European book.

Geographic Survey of Persian Lands
This lithographic book, of which apparently only volumes one, two, and four were published, aims at a comprehensive treatment of the geography of Iran in an alphabetical arrangement. The volume displayed here follows the model of the famous Mu‘jam al-buldān (Dictionary of Countries) compiled by thirteenth-century Arab author Yāqūt. It includes entries from Persian letters “alif” through “te,” including a lengthy entry on Tehran and its history from the early Safavid period through the 1870s. The image on display, most probably copied from a contemporary photograph, shows the Ayvān (or Tāq)-i Kasrā (Palace of Khusraw), which was the legendary palace for the Sassanid kings (224–۶۵۱) located in the vicinity of modern Baghdad.

Title of the book: Persian Fire and Steel: Historical Firearms of Iran
Author: Dr. Manouchehr Moshtagh Khorasani
Publisher: Niloufar Books, Frankfurt am Main
The book presents a thorough and detailed analysis of the introduction and development of historical firearms in Iran. The present book is a result of years of study on historical Persian manuscripts on firearms making, classification and usage and as well as an analysis of the Persian firearms kept in the Military Museum of Tehran.
These artifacts are described, analyzed and presented in the catalogue by showcasing magnificent colored pictures of 100 artifacts which belonged to the personal royal collection of Nassereddin Shah Qajar. The first chapter of the book, titled “Matchlock Muskets”, deals with the history of the introduction and development of matchlock muskets in Iran. The next chapter, “Flintlock Muskets”, describes the flintlock mechanism and flintlock muskets. Then the third chapter, “Percussion Cap Lock Muskets”, analyzes Persian muskets equipped with the percussion cap system. The next chapter, “Pistols in Iran”, analyzes Persian flintlock and percussion cap pistols.
The following chapter, “Gun and Pistol Accessories”, describes the accessories to load the guns and pistols. Chapter six, “Cannons and Rockets”, analyzes the history and development of cannons and rockets in Iran. The next chapter titled “Persian Manuscripts on Firearms” offers a complete translation, annotation and explanation of three important Persian manuscripts on firearms. The manuscripts are as follows:
 a) An untitled Safavid manuscript on casting bronze cannons – This is the earliest known Persian manuscript on firearms from the Safavid period and deals with casting bronze cannons. This manuscript is kept in the Central Library of the University of Tehran with the number 2085. The end of the manuscript is signed with the inscriptions Kamtarin bande-ye dargāh Soleymān qurči-ye mezrāq (the Lowest Servant of the Court, Soleymān who holds and takes care of a short spear [for the king]). Thus it can be assumed that it is written by Soleymān. The manuscript consists of 51 pages and seventeen drawings.
b) Another manuscript is titled Resālei dar Fešang [Treatise on Rockets] and is written by Mohammad Rezā Tabrizi in 1256 hijra (1840 C.E.) who was a mohandesbāši (head of engineering units). This manuscript is a combination of a translation of two different Congreve manuscripts and the writer translates some parts directly and some parts are written and added by Mohammad Rezā Tabrizi himself as he says that he was under the impression that Congreve did not explain clearly and wanted to hide important aspects. It has ten plates. Although the paintings resemble the paintings of Congreve books on rockets, all soldiers in Tabrizi’s book are depicted with Qajar-period uniforms of the Persian army holding the Iranian flag of the lion and the sun. The enemy is shown holding the Ottoman flag and wearing Ottoman uniforms. The manuscript consists of 99 pages.
c) Another Persian manuscript is titled Resāle-ye Qurxāne [Treatise on Arsenal] and  is written by Mohammad Bāqer Tabrizi in 1257 hijra (1841 C.E.). This manuscript is kept in the National Library of Iran with the number 1766.
The first part consists of several chapters about the gunnery tools for cannons . This part offers a detailed account about how cannons were loaded and shot. Additionally, it provides information about how gunnery tools were made and how they functioned. It also provides information on mortars and howitzers.
The second part is about the rockets and their accessories. This part offers valuable information about war rockets and how they were shot. Finally, the third part is about the fireworks that were used during celebrations. The manuscript has 258 pages. At the end of the book some other important Persian manuscripts on firearms are introduced and explained briefly.
The second part of the book has a catalogue describing and showcasing 112 examples of Persian firearms with colored pictures. These consist of matchlock muskets (26 examples starting from the ones made during the Shah Abbas period with the help of the Shirley brothers), flintlock muskets (26 examples) and percussion cap muskets (13 examples), flintlock pistols (5 examples) and percussion cap pistols (12 examples), bronze and iron cannons (11 examples), swivel guns (4 examples), mortars (2 examples), howitzers (3 examples) and gun accessories (10 examples of gunpowder and primer flasks, and gunpowder measure). The first part of the book has 220 pictures accompanying the text. The catalogue has over 400 colored pictures on 112 historical arms and armor from Iran. 100 items are from the Military Museum of Tehran (Saa’d Abad Palace Museum) and 12 items from the Military Historical Museum of Artillery in St. Petersburg (Russian Federation).

The Garden of Amazement Scattered Gems After Saeb
Robin Magowan
Long house
Saeb (1590-1676) was the outstanding Islamic poet of his era, celebrated for his jewel-like couplets and for a highly innovative “Indian” style that brought an enlivening sparkle to Persian poetry. But posterity has not treated well a writer whose 7,000 ghazals far outnumber those of any other Persian poet. Saeb’s prolixity and the convoluted intricacies of his two-line distichs have combined to deny this poet the readership his work at its best deserves.
“It surprises me:’ Saeb observes, “how scattered remarks, once placed in a book, attain coherence.” But unordered aphorisms don’t automatically become memorable, let alone aesthetically satisfying. An editorial eye may not be enough to rescue Saeb from the “hundred thousand mirrors “ in which he lies to this day “entombed.” But it can be of help in organizing an introductory cento of gem-like couplets.
In partnership with Reza Saberi I have devised an unusual process to introduce Saeb’s poetry to Western readers. I have chosen several hundred distichs from Saberi’s bilingual Selected Verses from Saeb Tabrizit hat he culled from a two volume Iranian edition containing 3,168 ghazals. This has not been, or proven, an easy task; diction that seems clear enough to an Iranian metaphysician can require substantial decoding before its poetry comes into play. Yet the formal means required to turn aphoristic prose into verse inevitably distorts the literal towards the literary. This, then, is not so much a translation in the usual sense as an adaptation, imitation, or collage. I have adapted two-line “gems” from Saberi’s text and rearranged them by subject (i.e. the Pearl, the Rose and its entourage of Dewdrops and Nightingales, Wine, Tavern, Night Owls, the Caged Court-bird, the questing Road, the apocalyptic Flood). The resulting collage conveys the contours of Saeb’s poetic world: both the personae that propel it and what I intuit of a richly experienced life.
Such surgery goes against much of what we have been taught about an organicity so rigorous that the merest shift of punctuation can dismantle its intricate balance. I would agree that I may be depriving the reader of all that can accrue, couplet by couplet, in a ghazal. But such an aesthetic does not always translate well. Our poems proceed often enough by developing multi –leveled arguments, line by line. They build towards the resolution of a last line, an image or disquieting revelation that perhaps clarifies a title. Classical Persian ghazals, always untitled, feature a more meditative circling, couplet upon closed couplet (see “Poisonous Remorse,” “Self-Portrait”) with little more than a repeated monorhyme to keep the perimeter from wobbling out of control. Form is more flexible and far more repetitious than in its Western counterpart. Content may expand in a non -organic way. Ghazals were writ ten to be read aloud, if not sung, and singers still draw a syllable out to stunning length, conveying infinite yearning in a melisma of mirrors.
Instead of exploring an image, a list, a confession, or a metaphorical sequence, Saeb proceed s by way of a couplet by couplet unburdening. The ghazals move from their charged starting point (the same word reverberates through the first two end-rhymes) towards a dismissive self-reference in the closing couplet.
Theme is to be inferred, as in a set of variations. Such indirection brings out the courtly virtues of cleverness, wit, and exuberant improvisation. Face to face with poetic mystery-the Unknown Beloved, the Almighty himself, if you like-Saeb prefers a hermetic discretion. Secrets, like women, are best kept veiled: “Beauty/strip her as we must/ stays concealed.”
Such restrictions apply equally well to the closed form of a Persian bayt or couplet. In classical poetry, the verse unit comprises two hemistichs, each called a mesra. Unlike the nominally end-stopped Western line-often enough, broken or enjambed-the bayt commands an inviolable unity:

The couplet striking the ear
that fails to enrapture,
may be less than mature.

Composing, couplet by couplet, Saeb sees himself as a miniaturist, a jeweler setting pearl-like tropes into the strands of a ghazal’s necklace:

In my book no word stands unexamined.
My pearls arrive, well-pierced, from their oyster.

A ghazal’s couplets are strung in a 4 to 20-plus strand, each presumably more amazing than the last. Yet nothing kept memorable couplets from assuming a life of their own, set in a song, or anthologized. Iranians to this day, from all walks of life, pride themselves on the number of bayts they can cite at will, from a personal treasure chest.
Saeb’s revolutionary impact stems from the highly-embellished syntax he imparts to this basic two-line unit. Often a chain will unwind from within a negative assertion:

Silence does not veil a secret’s truth. Musk,
borne from a far room,
makes its effects felt.

The assertion is a binary one. It begins with a pithy, “Silence does not veil a secret’s truth.” Then, seizing in the erotic, forbidden aspect of “veil,” there follows an almost Schubertian modulation, “Musk, borne from a far room, makes its effects felt.” We may not get to see Beauty herself in her out -of-bounds room, but we certainly feel her erotic impact. To capture such ricocheting intensity, I have resorted to a 3-or-4 stepped line, cadenced when possible for rhythmic effect.
Because Saeb is an intensely spatial poet, as concerned as any contemporary with issues of freedom and flight, the steps give his condensed articulations the lifting power they need.
A later couplet from the same ghazal reads:

Were my feet less entangled
in their earthly shroud
would they find under their soles
sky’s red carpet?

In Saeb’s metaphysical style, the hypothetical “were” and “less” create a withheld space within which the second mesra can ascend, from terrestrial “feet” to the spiritual stratosphere invoked by “sky’s red carpet.” “Carpet,” moreover, returns the mystical insight to the very feet from whence it levitated; in a mere couplet, quite a flight!
It was not Saeb, but two poets of the previous generation, Fayzi and Urfi, who launched the “fresh” style he inherited. Their achievement, as Marshall G.S. Hodgson points out, lay i11 the novel ways they maneuvered “metaphors that have become stock poetic devices … to take advantage of the metaphors themselves.” (The Venture of Islam, v. III, 80). Saeb, in turn, elevated the play to where the stock metaphor s become masks, personae if you want, for the poet himself: the moth forever circling its beloved candle; the entourage of dewdrops and nightingales surrounding their prince-like Rose. Where earlier poets stood unimplicated by the strings they manipulated, Saeb’s persona and the stock images intersect in a dance of exchanges between apparent equals, no setting too small: “Awareness, in a drop of water/ discerns the ocean.”
As these figures recur, in ever more astonishing settings, they take on a metaphysical complexity. I’ve cut and pasted to give them a ghazal-like stage.​
And I’ve rearranged the selections to reveal the contours of a life. “Truth,” Saeb writes, “is more than an affair of words.” Its time-frame ranges from the amniotic memories of “Ocean Days” to the “celibate dungeon” of the teen-age cleric, to the “chalky-locked” elder enviously eyeing the “roaring waters” that will bring him back to his maternal ocean. These diverse identities belong to a poet rightfully proud of the selves to which, in the course of an unusually long life, he has given voice.
** *
Mirza Mohammad Ali Saeb was born in Tabriz, the capital of Azerbaijan province in northwest Iran, the son of a local merchant. In 1603, when Saeb was thirteen, the family became one of a thousand Shah Abbas drafted to help in the building of the new Safavid capital in Isfahan.
It is not easy to interpret Saeb’s self-portraiture, but a picture emerges in “Poisonous Remorse,” of an almost obnoxiously curious child, more than a bit hyper-an eccentric in the making. Religious schooling, the only kind available in most Persian communities, led Saeb to assume, upon graduation, the role of a cleric. He must have embarked soon thereafter for Mecca. Disillusion, nonetheless, set in, accompanied by a life-long disgust with clerical venality and hypocrisy. Then came, if we are to believe “Ocean Days,” an awakening not unlike Rumi ‘s, as erotic as it was spiritual. Those “thirsty lips” liberating his “fountain” led Saeb to the mystical Sufi branch of Shiite Islam and the life of a dervish.
We spot him in Rumi’s Anatolia, in Najaf, in Baghdad, and then for a time in northwestern Iran. From the holy city of Mashad he travels, by way of Kabul, to Delhi. There follow two lengthy sojourns at the court of Shah Jahan, the patron of the Taj Mahal and a beacon for artists from across the Islamic world. The four to five years Saeb spent as a young man in India could not help but exert a liberating effect both on the poet and the ambition of his poetry. The life of a wine-bibber and man about town would not have been so available elsewhere. Nor would the paradise gardens that the Moghul emperors, taking advantage of a water-blessed climate, built as meeting places for sexual intrigue and personal display. With the gardens came new imagery-partridges, parrots, snakes. Perhaps also Indian culture encouraged a more tightly packed, not to say crammed, aesthetic. An inevitable spiritual widening led to Saeb’s embrace of Hindu karma and the whole spectrum of reincarnated existence, down to moths and ants. In a culture that admired gurus, Saeb became another revered mentor, offering advice and encouragement to those setting out on the mystical road.
Saeb doesn’t make clear what occasioned his two departures from Shah Jahan’s court. Judging from the admissions collected in “Silent Lips,” a less than politic tongue may have made departure expedient. Saeb lived, though, in a time of ever-increasing instability, both in Moghul India and Safavid Iran. Having seen the handwriting on Jahan’s wall, Saeb may have judged the time right to return to Isfahan as the second Shah Abbas’s “King of Poets.”
For all the uncertainty that surrounds Saeb’s life and work, he is not, like Hafez, a poet of teasing opacities. Instead he brings a confessional directness that feels almost Western. Identity is always something slippery for poets to project and readers to infer; hence the recourse to masks behind which verbal outrage can thrive. Saeb’s tone can seem at times overly preachy, offering advice that may grate as condescending. But poetry in his day was didactic; advice provided the currency a poet needed to survive.
In a society where speaking the truth-about virtually anything-was little short of suicidal, Saeb clearly needed the stock figures to which he gives voice with such soulful brio. Yet, side by side with the masks, lies something very personal, with all its perceived slights, comeuppances and pratfalls.
Moreover, the bar Saeb raises and insists on jumping over-in a mere two lines! becomes a medium for comic exuberance, of how to be outrageous and somehow or other get away with it. On one side, we see a restive wine-swigging portly bon-vivant and ladies’ man.
On the other, a Pierrot tearfully insisting that the only life worth living is an inner one- penitent, and thus always available.
Such contrary selves may seem impossible to reconcile, but with an admirable straight face that’s what we see this virtuoso of the two-line couplet again and again bringing off. To combine in a miniature, form a subversive wit with a sensibility of truly baroque grandeur represents no mean achievement. I have collaged these scattered gems to introduce one of the world’s great comic poets to an audience I’m convinced he deserves.


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