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Online at the Library of Congress, a Taste of Iranian Treats

04/30/10 By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Ancient manuscripts, artwork and full books await scholars and tourists

Washington - The main building of the Library of Congress is a landmark of Beaux Arts architecture as well as of scholarship. Flocks of tourists pass through its Great Hall and into the vast Main Reading Room of the building, named for Thomas Jefferson, the scholarly president whose personal library became the bulk of the collection in 1815.

The constellation Draco, the Dragon, appears in a 10th-century astronomy text. Arabic was the language of science in the Middle East.

Hirad Dinavari says he wishes more people would climb the stairs of the Great Hall, wend their way through the northwest gallery exhibit space (now showing: Exploring the Early Americas) and enter the reading room of the African and Middle East Division to explore his Persian treasures. Some scholars do so, and they find one of the world's greatest collections of material on what the library calls the Iranian World: counting books alone, about 60,000 volumes in Persian and perhaps 10,000 in Kurdish, Pashto, Baluchi, Gilaki, Luri, Tajik and Osset.

For those who can't make the trip, though, the library has a few of its treasures waiting at the click of a computer mouse. Dinavari, the reference librarian for the Iranian World collection, is eager to show them off.

Here the visitor finds sterling examples of Islamic scholarship; early volumes of Persian folklore; art objects, and manuscripts rendered as art; and historic photographs of an Iran long gone.

A guide is helpful for finding them; so are a sense of history and a sense of adventure.

Part of a library's task is to preserve, catalogue and organize. Yet Dinavari recognizes the limitations of the delineations that are necessary in making sense of what has been a very messy few thousand years in Iran and the surrounding region. What, after all, should the Library of Congress place in its category of the Iranian World?

Manuscripts are categorized by language, but here is a text of Quran with lines of Persian translation between the lines of Arabic. Here are Persian texts from the Moghul court of India. Here is a Jewish marriage contract from Mashhad, Iran, written partly in Hebrew, partly in Aramaic and partly with Persian words written in Hebraic letters (Judeo-Persian). Here is a manuscript from the Ottoman period - one of 10,000-plus titles in manuscript and lithographic form from that era in Turkish, but written in Arabic script. Here is The Shahnameh, the great Persian epic poem by Ferdowsi, but written in Georgian and produced in 1932 in the style of Iran's 19th-century Qajar rulers. The library explorer, Dinavari said, needs to cross boundaries among languages, cultures and nations within the library's Near East section, with excursions to the African and Hebraic sections of the African and Middle Eastern Division, to find what the library has to offer in the reading room or online.

"Arabic was a lingua franca used from China all the way to Morocco. So some of our Arabic, especially our treasures, our rare items that are medieval, were from Persia, from India, from China, from central Asia, where Arabic was used - primarily for science ... and for religious writings," Dinavari said.

This Quranic fragment, probably from the late 18th century, includes a Persian translation in red between the lines of Arabic text.

Similarly, Persian extended far beyond the bounds of modern Iran.

"A lot of these books that are in Persian were published in Istanbul, in Samarkand, in Bombay. A lot of this doesn't come from Iran itself, even though it's in Persian. It comes from the Persianate or Persian-speaking lands," Dinavari said.

"Persian had become a lingua franca of literature in this whole region. And so what ended up happening is that a lot of the poetry and historical-cultural books that were poetic came from this whole area."

And because Hebrew was an essential language of the Jews, in Persia and Iran as elsewhere, some of the treasures of the Hebraic collection are Persian as well. Dinavari said many documents from Persian Jews are written in Persian but with Hebrew letters. The Jews of Bukhara still use this Judeo-Persian, he said.

For a good starting point for an online explorer, Dinavari points out the online illustrated guides for the African, Hebraic and Near East sections.

The library also offers a wided-ranging digital exhibit in World Treasures of the Library of Congress, which examines how different cultures looked at the same issues: myths of creation from different parts of the world, for instance, or a Persian text on herbal medicine alongside a German Renaissance physician's handbook.

The process of putting materials online is costly and time-consuming, and most of the specialized collections on the Library of Congress website focus on the United States.  But Dinavari pointed out an important collection for Iranian scholars: a selection of 373 examples of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman calligraphy ranging from the ninth to the 19th centuries, with photos that can be magnified easily "for those people who really want to see line by line." Extensive scholarly notes explain each document, and the collection can be searched by the name of the calligrapher as well as by the subject or title. And Dinavari recommends an illustrated essay on the site as well: "Calligraphers of the Persian Tradition."

The library has thousands of prints and photographs available online, and a search will turn up hundreds from Iran or Persia. And it has a much smaller collection of much older items: tablets in cuneiform, the oldest known writing system, from ancient Mesopotamia, some of which date to more than 4,000 years ago.

With the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the Library of Congress has led the international effort to put valuable cultural materials online; it proposed the establishment of the World Digital Library, which has been offering high-resolution images of books and other documents since April 2009. The World Digital Library offers high-resolution images that can be magnified greatly without losing clarity.

"The goal is to get all the countries to join in and upload their best gems," Dinavari said.

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

Related Article:  America's Endless Bookshelf on Iran - The Library of Congress is looking for a few thousand good Persian books. What's already one of the largest collections of Iranian-related and Persian-language materials in the world - 60,000 books in Persian alone, part of the world's largest library - has been growing steadily in recent years.

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