Sub-project Iranian Studies

From Manuscript to Print: The Social and Cultural History of a Media Change in Iran in the 19th Century

Principal investigator: Prof Dr Ludwig Paul

Research associate: Nafiseh Sajjadi, MA


This sub-project deals with the last significant phase of Persian manuscript culture in the 19th century and the media change that occurred from the manuscript to printing. Lithography became more widespread from the middle of the 19th century, although the manuscript remained an important medium of text transmission for several more decades. Towards the end of the century, the type print increasingly prevailed over the manuscript and lithography. The aim of this study is to use text comparisons from selected manuscripts and lithographies from approx. 1830 to detect textual dependencies and developments. The findings gained from these comparisons will then be embedded in a broader context of cultural and social history.

Lithography was initially preferred to type printing in Iran due to cultural and social conservatism, although there were also economic and technical factors. Lithography can even be described as a "printed form of handwriting, which imitates the latter's characteristics". Cultural and social conservatism were also the reasons why printing techniques were introduced so late to Iran: the "manuscript" medium in Iranian society did not merely serve to reproduce a text, it represented the culture of knowledge of the society, which resisted any changes to form.

The work in this project is divided into the study of primary texts (manuscript and lithography) and of secondary sources. In the text-related part of the study, we are concerned with finding out which of the medium forms featured the greater degree of care on the part of the scribes, based on the frequency of errors, for example. A further point of interest is to ascertain, by comparing sections of text and variations of verses, whether or to what extent the many prints that appeared from the middle of the 19th century had an influence on the text structure of manuscripts.

In the second part, the text-related findings will be set in the cultural and social context in which the texts were originally written. From a conceptual point of view, the bases of a cultural and social history of the media change shall be established. The source material for this is very substantial, although partly accessible through indexes or already prepared. It needs to be classified and selectively evaluated. Some of the important issues to be clarified include the economic conditions involved in the writing (commissioners, wages) and the organisational structures of the scribes' workshops (family business).

The two parts - the one related to text and the other to culture and society - complement each other. The replacement of the manuscript culture by the printing technique(s) can only be fully understood when we can show how the prints influenced the activities of the scribes (or even excluded them).

The emergence and development of the Persian-Islamic manuscripts also belongs to the wider context of Islamic cultural history. From the 11th century AD, Persian became the most important language of the Eastern Islamic region, the Eastern Caliphate, from which "Iran" was once again formed as a state unity, after the Mongol invasions of the 13th century. Despite the continuation of close ties to key Islamic regions (Mesopotamia, Syria), the Persian language and literature were set to assume a distinctive impact from this point onwards on the cultures of the regions bordering Iran, such as Asia Minor, Central Asia and India, and maintain this influence into the 19th century.

The Persian manuscript culture was an important element in this development. In 1309, the statesman and polymath Rašīdo'd-Dīn Fażl Allāh founded a pious foundation (Rabʿ-e Rašīdī) in Tabrīz, in which he also set up a workshop to copy important works. European travellers to Iran recorded the manufacture of manuscripts. For instance, the work of copying in 16th century Šīrāz was found to be run by family businesses (the wife copied, the husband painted, the daughter illuminated and the son bound). The 18th century French traveller Chardin reported an excess of copiers, which led to low prices and the work being carried too quickly and therefore containing too many errors.

Manuscripts were often written in the surroundings of royal courts or religious schools (madrasahs). The job of the scribe cannot be separated from the profession or craft of the calligrapher or the illuminator. A particular feature of Persian manuscript culture is its close connection to illumination, which reached its classic style under the Timurids (14th century) and had a lasting influence on Islamic Art.

Unlike in Europe, printing did not gain the upper hand on the manuscript in Iran until the 19th century. Up to this time, the manuscript, together with handed down forms of oral transmission and recitation of texts, was the medium for preserving and transferring knowledge, and remained so in some regions until well into the 20th century. Although Syrian and Armenian Christians printed a handful of works in their languages in the second half of the 17th century in Iran, the techniques of type printing they used was not adopted for the production of Persian books. Upon closer observation, the change from manuscript to printing can be seen to have been an ongoing, complex coexistence of the old writing technique and the two new printing techniques (type print and lithography), and lasted two to three generations.

A key innovator in calligraphy during the lithography period, and in the opinion of many the greatest master of calligraphy of all times, was Moḥammad Reżā Kalhor (died in 1893). It is generally recognised that the last highlight of Iranian manuscript production was the commissioning by the young Qāǧār sovereign Nāṣer al-Dīn Šāh, shortly after his ascension to the throne in 1847, of the six-volume, 2,279-page (half of which were illustrations) illuminated manuscript, completed in 1859, of a Persian translation of the Arabic classic “Arabian Nights”. 40 artists worked to produce it under the guidance of the well-known Abū Ḥasan Ḫān “Ṣanīʿo'l-Molk”; the production costs amounted to a sixth of the costs for the building and decoration of the magnificent Qāǧāren palace Šams al-ʿEmāre in Teheran.