Book Culture: Types and Tropes

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


Marianna Shreve Simpson


by Margaret Shortle / Boston University and the Freie Universität, Berlin

Illustrated Divans of Hafiz, on the whole, present a program of illustration that is often predictable. Generally, an illustrated Divan will include three to five single-page paintings and most often these images include a courtly/festive scene, a battle or hunt, an intimate celebration or drinking scene, a more solemn interior scene (perhaps madrasa or mosque) and culminate with a symmetrical battle or polo scene. The courtly/festive scene occurs most frequently and will often appear more than once in lieu of the other image types in a single manuscript. At times these entertainment scenes will include a pair of lovers in a garden, or a single princely figure seated in an interior or a garden setting and surrounded by a variety of courtiers and other figures. Due to the predictable and frequently generic nature of these images, embedding the images with specific meanings or associating them with specific events can be difficult. Instead, the images illustrate many of the activities appropriate for members of the court, and I propose to explore the possibility that the word-image relationships serve a potentially didactic purpose and loosely parallel the tradition of mirror-for-princes literature in the Persianate context. Alternatively, these decorated Divans may operate not to instruct but rather to reflect on a patron’s knowledge of proper courtly conduct. Either way, by exploiting the visual, material and literary contents of sixteenth-century decorated Divans of Hafiz and the historical narratives of court life, I argue that the combination of word and image points to an elite culture concerned with cultivating and displaying its poetic and artistic erudition and refined behaviors.

by Jake Benson / Thesaurus Islamicus Foundation, Cairo

Marbled paper, historically known as abri, meaning ‘cloudy’ or ‘clouded’ in Persian and often called abro bad, ‘cloud and wind’ in Iran today, is a type of decorative paper made by dispersing colors on the surface of a liquid bath, manipulating them with various implements, then carefully laying a sheet over top to capture the floating design. The popular use of this type of paper, especially for qiṭa’at calligraphy and poetic compositions, became widespread throughout the Persianate world during the 16th and 17th centuries CE.

The late Annemarie Schimmel published several Persian couplets referring to marbled paper and primarily interpreting the metaphor of clouds as representative of tears and rain. Najib Mayil Haravi, Iraj Afshar, and Hamidreza Ghelichkhani, among others, have subsequently published further couplets, expanding the range of themes discussed by Schimmel. Taken together, there are some thirty-five poems featuring this trope, prompting a fresh analysis.

Most of the couplets are of the shiveh-ye tāzeh or ‘fresh style’, also known as sabk-i Hindī, or ‘Indian style’ genre of Persian poetry. The appearance of this poetic trope coincides with the rise in popularity of marbled paper, likely due to technical advancements made in India at that time. Strikingly positive or intensely negative views are expressed by some of the poets, who either extol or deplore the qualities marbled paper evoking the art’s vibrant and colourful to strange, unfamiliar, and exotic qualities that is so often characteristic of the sabk-i Hindī genre. Other poems range from a panegyric by Danish Mashhadi to personal, even intimate descriptions of despair in exile by Salim Tehrani. Tughra-ye Mashhadi elevates marbled paper above music, while Sa’eb complains that such paper is cheap, miserly, and false; a cloud that bears no real rain.

Kalim Kashani makes a startling comparison between a scene of a duck on a frozen river in Kashmir to a type of marbled miniature painting, often ascribed to the Deccan, while in a wistful, self-deprecating satirical elegy written at the end of his life, Ashraf Mazandarani compares marbled paper to the frailty of his own body. The latter adds greater nuance to the interpretation of Indian marbled drawings of starving horses, sometimes ridden by equally emaciated, Majnun-like rider. Finally, one couplet written on the surface a marbled pattern refers directly it, furnishing valuable insight into the anonymous poet’s own personal view of the paper he used.

by Mahbobe Dr. Ghods / Columbia University, Teachers College,

This paper aims to present for the first time the innovative usage of text in the extraordinary compositions found in lithographic books from nineteen-century Iran. Calligraphy and the usage of text in contemporary art has become the symbol of the post-modern. Today it is not unusual to see visual artists presenting their ideas in pure text. In Iran calligraphy has always had an elevated status as an art form, and in fact beautiful handwriting was probably the only art form widely studied and practiced throughout Iranian history. Yet, text and calligraphy as visual compositional elements were quite an extraordinary and advanced usage of the medium for the early modern era. 

In the nineteenth century lithography added a new medium to the Iranian artistic heritage. Iranian scribes used a body of text to create landscapes, glacial charts and maps, and so fort. Artists' spatial understanding of both calligraphy and lithography allowed them to create complex compositions while conforming to the mechanics of reading. These abstract  compositions were an innovative way of applying the medium.  Garden design is the recurring theme of these compositions.

In what I would like to call ' the Garden of Text' Iranian artists use calligraphy in complicated, sophisticated, playful, interesting compositions. This metaphoric garden reminds one of the symbolic role of the garden in other art forms such as carpets, tapestry, and tile work. Scribes used text as a visual element shaping compositional forms  in lithographic books, which also made reading these texts interesting and playful. Most of these books were religious texts prepared and published by various publishers in nineteen-century Iran, and although the scribes are often unknown,  there is enough information about the publishers to distinguish between different scribes employed by them. The origins of this art might be found in what is called Hashie Negary, Zirnevis  or footnote scribbles. Along with the versatility of the medium of lithography, which allowed flexible ways of writing on stone, text is transformed into a new element of visualization. The complicated and imaginative use of space and layout took a great deal of spatial knowledge and imagination to develop. In this paper I will examine the history of text paintings, technical developments, spatial  knowledge, and the influence of this art form on the contemporary and modern aesthetic of Iranian art.

by Mehrdad Fallahzadeh and Forogh Hashabeiky / Uppsala University

Muhit al-Tavarikh, ‘The Sea of Chronicles’ is a unique historiographical work written during the seventeenth century in Bukhara, Central Asia, by Mohammad Amin b. Mirza-Zaman Bokhari. The seventeenth century is considered to be the climax of an era, during which the Islamic world was split into four main political zones, i.e. the Ottoman realm, the Safavid realm, the Mughal realm, the Shaybanid and later the Ashtarkhanid realm. Our knowledge of this period in general and of the Central Asian region, in particular, is unsatisfactory. Muhit al-Tavarikh can markedly contribute to better understanding of the history of the Central Asian region particularly during the last great Ashtarkhanid ruler Sobhan Qoli khan. The work is like an encyclopedia which contains very valuable information not only on the political and social life of that period, but also on the cultural one. Furthermore, the work is a valuable source for the study of the New Persian of this period; a transitional period that links the late Classical Persian of the thirteenth to fifteenth century to the Modern Persian of the twentieth century. A linguistic description of any work from this period is therefore of great importance, not only for understanding the diachronic processes of language change leading from late Classical to Modern Persian, but also for synchronic studies of dialectal variations of the period to which the work belongs.

Thus, the first and main purpose of the project has been to edit critically the ninth and tenth chapters of the Muhit al-Tavarikh with the aid of three extant manuscripts of the work at our disposal, namely: 1. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, supplément persan1548; 2. Tashkent, Abu Raihon Berunii Nomidagi SharqshunoslikInstituti, nos. 7351 and 835; 3. St. Petersburg, Institut Vostochnӯkh Rukopiseī RAN (ИВР РАН), no. D 89, (574agg). The second purpose has been to provide a linguistic description of the text by an analysis of the morphosyntactic structures of the text. The third purpose of the project has been to provide an English translation of the work.