A Thousand Years of the Persian Book

The article below A Thousand Years of the Persian Book” was originally posted on the US Library of Congress website.


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 (1526–1858) 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.

Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazvīnī. عجايب المخلوقات و غرائب الموجودات (Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence). Persia, 1565. Manuscript. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (016.00.01).

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.

Zakariya ibn Muhammad Qazvīnī. عجايب المخلوقات و غرائب الموجودات (Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence). Persia, 1565. Manuscript. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (016.00.01).

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 (1778–1841). 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.

James Skinner. کتاب تشريح الاقوام (Book of Indian Castes and Kinsfolk). India, 1825. Manuscript. Page 2. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00, 20.00.01).

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 (1826–1973), 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.

Ṣāliḥ ibn Ṣāliḥ Muḥammad and Gul Muḥammad Khān Muḥammadzāī. کتاب عمل الصالحين (Book of Effects [Medicinal Plants]). Kabul, 1898. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00).

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.

‘Abd al-Sabur Mirzā Muhammad.‏ تشريح البشر و توضيح الصور (Pictorial Explanation of Human Anatomy). Tabriz, Iran, 1855–1856. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00).

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 (224–651) located in the vicinity of modern Baghdad.

Muhammad Hasan-Khān. مرآة البلدان ناصرى (Mirror of the Lands, A Geographic Survey of Persian Lands). Volume 1. Tehran: Nasiri Publishing House, 1877. Near East Section, African and Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00).

Khwarazmi: The Father of Algebra

The article below was originally posted on the Al-Jazeera News Outlet on October 20, 2015. Excepting the video, the version posted below contains pictures and accompanying captions not featured in the original Al-jazeera report.

Kindly note that in recent decades, especially after 1979, there while there has been a tendency to de-emphasize the Iranian origins of “Islamic” scholars, original Arab and Muslim sources themselves have been clear as to the contributions of the Iranians to Learning, Mathematics, Sciences and Medicine.

A statue of Arabo-Islamic historian, Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406) in Tunisia. Ibn Khaldun emphasized the crucial role of the Iranians in promoting learning, sciences, arts, architecture, and medicine in Islamic civilization.

Arab scholar and historian Ibn Khaldun (1332-1406 CE) ranked among the greatest in history, on par with the earlier Greco-Roman historians such as Plutarch or Xenophon; states the following in his work, The Muqaddimah Translated by F. Rosenthal (III, pp. 311-15, 271-4 [Arabic]; R.N. Frye (p.91):

“…It is a remarkable fact that, with few exceptions, most Muslim scholars…in the intellectual sciences have been non-Arabs…thus the founders of grammar were Sibawaih and after him, al-Farisi and Az-Zajjaj. All of them were of Persian descent…they invented rules of (Arabic) grammar…great jurists were Persians… only the Persians engaged in the task of preserving knowledge and writing systematic scholarly works. Thus the truth of the statement of the prophet becomes apparent, ‘If learning were suspended in the highest parts of heaven the Persians would attain it”…The intellectual sciences were also the preserve of the Persians, left alone by the Arabs, who did not cultivate them…as was the case with all crafts…This situation continued in the cities as long as the Persians and Persian countries, Iraq, Khorasan and Transoxiana (modern Central Asia), retained their sedentary culture.”

For more on the historical role of Iranians in the promotion of progress see: Learning, Science, Knowledge, Technology & Medicine

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None of the great achievements of modern science would be possible without the mathematisation of science and the development of algebra.

The word algebra stems from the Arabic word al-jabr, which has its roots in the title of a 9th century manuscript written by the mathematician Al-Khwarazmi.

Statue of Khwarazmi in Tehran’s Amir Kabir University in Tehran (Source: M. Tomczak in Public Domain). Khwarazmi was born around 780 CE in the Persianate-region of Khwarezm (one of the regions that Khaldun described as being among the Persian countries). He passed away in Baghdad in around 850 CE.

Al-Khwarazmi’s Kitab al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wal-muqabala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) was a pioneering piece of work – offering practical answers for land distribution, rules on inheritance and distributing salaries.

A page from Khwarazmi’s al-Kitāb al-mukhtaṣar fī ḥisāb al-jabr wa-l-muqābala (The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing) (Source: Public Domain taken from John L. Esposito. The Oxford History of Islam. Oxford University Press).

Originally Persian, Al-Khwarazmi spent his academic life in the city of Baghdad from where the Abbasid caliphs ruled and established the Bayt al-Hikma (The House of Wisdom), a renowned center of learning.

In this episode of Science in a Golden Age,theoretical physicist, Jim al-Khalili explores Al-Khwarazmi’s 9th century treatise that also underpins the science of flight and the engineering behind the fastest car in the world.

With Professor Ramazan Sesen and Dr Peter Starr, Jim discusses the origins of the House of Wisdom and how the translation of Greek, Persian and other texts was central to the progressive scientific and mathematical revolution that originated in Baghdad.

And, in the Sulemaniye Library in Istanbul, Jim uncovers a rare text by Al-Kindi, a philosopher, polymath, and musician – and perhaps the world’s earliest mathematical code breaker.

A postage stamp of Khwarazmi printed in the former USSR on September 6, 1983 in commemoration of his (approximately) 1200th birthday (Source: Public Domain).

Khwarazmi is one of Iranian/Persianate civilization’s foremost scholars who has contributed to progress in mathematics, science and learning in not just Islamic but also greater human civilization.

UNESCO: Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System

The article below “Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System” is written by UNESCO. Kindly note that two of the photos below are not from the UNESCO site regarding the Shushtar hydraulic system.

For more on these topics consult:

Learning, Science, Knowledge, Technology & Medicine


Shushtar, Historical Hydraulic System, inscribed as a masterpiece of creative genius, can be traced back to Darius the Great in the 5th century B.C. It involved the creation of two main diversion canals on the river Kârun one of which, Gargar canal, is still in use providing water to the city of Shushtar via a series of tunnels that supply water to mills. It forms a spectacular cliff from which water cascades into a downstream basin. It then enters the plain situated south of the city where it has enabled the planting of orchards and farming over an area of 40,000 ha. known as Mianâb (Paradise). The property has an ensemble of remarkable sites including the Salâsel Castel, the operation center of the entire hydraulic system, the tower where the water level is measured, damns, bridges, basins and mills. It bears witness to the know-how of the Elamites and Mesopotamians as well as more recent Nabatean expertise and Roman building influence.

The historical Hydraulic System of Shushtar (Source: Darafsh in Public Domain); note waterfalls and dams remaining operational despite the passage of centuries.

The Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System demonstrates outstanding universal value as in its present form, it dates from the 3rd century CE, probably on older bases from the 5th century BCE. It is complete, with numerous functions, and large-scale, making it exceptional. The Shushtar system is a homogeneous hydraulic system, designed globally and completed in the 3rd century CE. It is as rich in its diversity of civil engineering structures and its constructions as in the diversity of its uses (urban water supply, mills, irrigation, river transport, and defensive system). The Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System testifies to the heritage and the synthesis of earlier Elamite and Mesopotamian know-how; it was probably influenced by the Petra dam and tunnel and by Roman civil engineering. The Shushtar hydraulic system, in its ensemble and most particularly the Shâdorvân Grand Weir (bridge-dam), has been considered a Wonder of the World not only by the Persians but also by the Arab-Muslims at the peak of their civilisation. The Gargar canal is a veritable artificial watercourse which made possible the construction of a new town and the irrigation of a vast plain, at the time semi-desert. The Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System sits in an urban and rural landscape specific to the expression of its value.

The Shushtar Hydraulic System is testimony to a remarkably accomplished and early overall vision of the possibilities afforded by diversion canals and large weir-dams for land development. It was designed and completed in the 3rd century CE for sustainable operation and is still in use today. It is a unique and exceptional ensemble in terms of its technical diversity and its completeness that testifies to human creative genius.

The UNESCO Map of Shushtar (Source: UNESCO).

The Shushtar Historical Hydraulic System is a synthesis of diverse techniques brought together to form a remarkably complete and large-scale ensemble. It has benefited from the ancient expertise of the Elamites and Mesopotamians in canal irrigation, and then that of the Nabateans; Roman technicians also influenced its construction. Its many visitors marvelled at it and were in turn inspired. It testifies to the exchange of considerable influences in hydraulic engineering and its application throughout antiquity and the Islamic period under the various Iranian dynasties.

Shushtar is a unique and exceptionally complete example of hydraulic techniques developed during ancient times to aid the occupation of semi-desert lands. By diverting a river flowing down the mountains, using large-scale civil engineering structures and the creation of canals, it made possible multiple uses for the water across a vast territory: urban water supply, agricultural irrigation, fish farming, mills, transport, defense system, etc. It testifies to a technical culture dating back eighteen centuries serving the sustainable development of a human society, in harmony with its natural and urban environment.

Integrity and Authenticity

The integrity of the hydraulic footprint is good, but its functional integrity compared with the original model is only partial and reduced, notably for the dams; it remains good for irrigation and water supply. The authenticity of elements reduced to archaeological remains is certain, but has been affected by 20th century works and materials so far as the civil structures and sites still in use are concerned. Efforts directed to the restoration of attributes that demonstrate authenticity must be pursued.

Archways in the Roman style at at the historical hydraulic system at Shushtar (Source: 4Gress.com).

Management and protection requirements

The components of the management plan are satisfactory, but they need to be improved in terms of the interpretation of the sites and the involvement of the local population.

Two New courses for Fall 2018

Kaveh Farrokh is offering two new courses for the of Fall 2018 at the Paris-based Methodologica Universitas at the Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques.  See also the Institution’s Encyclopedic project:

Analytica Iranica: The Multidisciplinary Journal of Iranian Studies … Kaveh Farrokh is one of the Academic Advisors of this Encyclopedia project …

The first of these is the first course offered on the military history of ancient Iran or Persia:

Course HIS/CP/202: The Military History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/SP/202):

This course examines Iran’s pre-Islamic military history with respect to political relations, wars, battles with Greece, Rome, Central Asia. These topics are examined in the Achaemenid (559-333 BCE), Parthian (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanian (224-651 CE) epochs. Methodology of the course utilizes scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The strengths and weaknesses (military, political and social) of each dynasty is examined up to the downfall of ancient Iran to the Arab conquests of Iran (637-651 CE). Detailed analysis is made of developments from the early Achaemenid era to the end of the Sassanian era with respect to equipment, technology, military architecture, military doctrine, and martial culture. Influences upon and from Greece, Rome, Central Asia and Eastern Europe are also examined. The course concludes with a survey of post-Islamic sources reporting of the extensive military literature pertaining to Sassanian weapons and tactics (battlefield tactics, siege craft, etc.) and its influence upon Islamic warfare.

Kaveh Farrokh meeting the late Professor Ehsan Yarshater (1920-2018) during the Honoring ceremony for the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014) in the Greater San Francisco area in 2008.

The second is a comprehensive course on the History of ancient Iran or Persia, which will incorporate modern research and academic methodologies incorporating anthropology, archaeology, the study of sources, numismatics, etc:

Course HIS/CP/203: The History of Ancient Iran: 559 BCE-651 CE [Fall 2018, Methodologica Universitas, Départment de Méthodologie des Sciences Historiques]Click here for Registration Information

Three Books published in 2017-2018 on the military history of Ancient Iran or Persia (from left to right): The Armies of Ancient Persia: the Sassanians (2017; see book review by the Military History Journal in 2018); A Synopsis of Sassanian Military Organization and Combat Units (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Gholamreza Karamian, 2018); and The Siege of Amida (Kaveh Farrokh, Katarzyna Maksymiuk & Javier Sánchez-Gracia, 2018).

The course description for the above is as follows (HIS/CP/203):

Course begins with the pre Indo-European era of ancient Iran and the rise of proto-Iranian peoples and arrivals onto the Iranian plateau. Recent archaeological works and research of pre Indo-European Iran, such as the Burnt City and Elam are surveyed. This is followed by detailed historical surveys of the three epochs of ancient Iran: Achaemenids (559-333 BCE), Parthians (250 BCE-224 CE) and Sassanians (224-651 CE). Course material is integrated with methodology utilizing scientific methodology in archival analysis (primary and secondary sources), numismatics (study of coins), archaeological analysis (analysis of equipment and technology), and statistical methodology (e.g. compiling data for analysis, factor analysis, etc.). The political relations and cultural exchanges of the Achaemenid, Parthian and Sassanian dynasties with the Greco-Roman, Central Asian, Indian subcontinent, Caucasian, European and Chinese realms are examined. Each epoch is also examined with respect to developments in legal systems, societal development and the role of women, the arts, architecture, learning, medicine, technology, theology and religious philosophy, communications, shipping, commerce and the Silk Route.

[Above] Kaveh Farrokh’s second textShadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War-Персы: Армия великих царей-سایه‌های صحرا-” cited by the BBC-Persian service as theBest History Book of 2007(November 5, 2008), as well as the by Kayhan News Service of London (November 12, 2008). The text was nominated by the Independent Book Publishers’ Association (Benjamin Franklin Award) among the top finalists for the Best textbooks of 2008. The book has been recognized by world-class scholars such as the late Professor Emeritus Richard Nelson Frye (1920-2014), Harvard University, Dr. Geoffrey Greatrex, Department of Classics and Religious Studies, University of Ottawa, Dr. Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones, School of HistoryUniversity of Edinburgh and Dr. Patrick Hunt. The book was reviewed in the world-class academic (peer-reviewed by top Iranian Studies scholars) Iranshenasi journal in 2010: Shadows in the Desert: Ancient Persia at War, by Dr. Kaveh Farrokh. Iranshenasi, Volume XXII, No.1, Spring 2010, pp.1-5 (see document in pdf). [Below] Translations of Shadows in the Desert [A] Persian translation by Taghe Bostan Publishers (2009) [B] Persian translation by Qoqnoos Publishers (2009) [C] the original textbook (2008) and [D] Russian translation by EXMO Publishers.

Book Binding in Persia

The article below “Bookbinding” written by Duncan Haldane was originally published in the Encyclopedia Iranica on December 15, 1989 and last Updated on December 15, 1989. This article is also available in print (Vol. IV, Fasc. 4, pp. 363-365). Kindly note that the images and accompanying descriptions below do not appear in the original Encyclopedia Iranica posting.


Bookbinding (tajlīd, ṣaḥḥāfī) in Iran at first followed the pattern of previous Near Eastern book covers, but subsequently Persian craftsmen developed new types reflecting the luxury and refinement of courtly life. The edges of traditional bookbindings from the Islamic world are even with the text block, and the spine is always flat, without raised bands. A flap (lesān) attached to the rear cover folds over the text block to protect its edge and is tucked under the front cover. In Iran the leather most commonly used was goatskin, which had traditionally been tanned by means of immersion in a solution of ground-up plant materials. One of several technical innovations credited to Persian craftsmen, however, is mineral tanning, which involved soaking the skins in a solution of potash alum at a temperature between 20Xᵛ and 30Xᵛ C. Leather pro­duced by this method is very soft and white. Designs were applied by means of blind tooling, in which simple tools were used to mark on slightly dampened leather.

Very few Persian bookbindings survive from the 8th/14th century or earlier. Among them is the binding of the Manāfeʿ al-ḥayawān (M. 500) in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, which was produced at Marāḡa at the end of the 7th/13th century (Ettinghausen); a fragmentary book cover said to have been found in the congregational mosque at Nāʾīn may also be of the 7th/13th century (Gratzl, 1938, p. 1976, pl. 951A). At this early stage in Persian bookbinding, the arts of the book were at their peak in Egypt and the Arabic-speaking world, and their influence was much in evidence in Persia. It was not long, however, before Persian binders began to develop their own individual styles. At the beginning of the 15th century, when artistic leadership of the Islamic world moved eastward to Persia, new methods were introduced. At Herat in about 1420 Prince Bāysonḡor Mīrzā, minister at the court of his father, Šāhroḵ Mīrzā (807-50/1405-47), and a great bibliophile, founded an academy and library that were to have a significant impact on subsequent Persian bookbinding. At the academy, which lasted for just over one hundred years, craftsmen were trained in all the arts of the book. During this period there was considerable interchange among the major Persian cultural centers. For instance, at Herat a calligrapher called Jaʿfar Tabrīzī prepared reports for Bāysonḡor, in one of which (now in the Topkapı Sarayı in Istanbul), there are four references to the art of bookbinding (Aslanapa, 1979, p. 59). Some extraordinary technical advances were made during the Timurid period. More sophisticated stamping and elaborate forms of tooling with gold began to supersede blind tooling.

The Khamsa or Quintet of Nizami (Ilyas Abu Muhammad Nizam al-Din of Ganja, lived c. 1141–1217) currently housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (Source: Fateme Toorani in Pinterest). This was most likely bound in Shiraz, Iran sometime in 1509-1510.

There is a Persian binding dated 838/1434-35, now in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin (CBL 5282), which has been estimated to have required 550,000 blind stamps and 43,000 gold stamps and to have taken about two years to complete (estimates first published by Martin, p. 29, and subsequently repeated many times, e.g., Gratzl, 1938, p. 1978; see pls. 954, 955A). Undoubtedly the number of stamps has been greatly overestimated, but there is no denying the extraordinary degree of workmanship, and technical skill involved in the manufacture of this binding. Another major development was a cut­work technique (monabbatkārī, as it was called by Dūst-­Moḥammad, who wrote in 951/1544), in which intricate filigree patterns were cut out of leather. There is no technical evidence for how craftsmen were able to cut and paste such finely wrought patterns. The major characteristics of later Persian bookbinding became established during the Timurid period. The front and back covers were normally decorated with matching designs, but the interior faces were usually more elaborately decorated than the exterior faces. In the Timurid period the normal pattern for both faces was a central scalloped medallion in the center, echoed by four medallion segments in the corners. The medallions were frequently cut out of the leather and filled in either with paper or with leather filigree patterns. Although stamps of ovoid shape (toronja “citrus-shaped”) had been known before, they became especially popular among Timurid craftsmen, who developed them considerably. In addition to this basic style of binding, which endured throughout the Safavid period and even lingered on into the Qajar period, bookbinders at Herat introduced figural decoration as well. These designs usually consist of landscapes containing real and mythical animals, often of Far Eastern inspiration, reflecting the strong artistic connections that existed between China and theTimurid capital.

Book binding from 16th century CE Iran (Source: Jacques Safavi in Pinterest and Fateme Toorani in Pinterest).

With the establishment of the Safavid dynasty in the 10th/16th century, there was a cultural and political shift from Herat in the east of Tabrīz in the northwest and Shiraz in the south. One of the major changes in bookbinding technique involved the widespread application of a method of embossing that had been introduced at the end of the Timurid period. Whole designs were engraved on single metal plates, which were then pressed onto the leather; symmetrical designs, which were most often floral, were engraved on dies half the size of the binding surface. They were then impressed twice to form the complete design, often leaving a noticeable join across the middle of the cover. This kind of embossing was often combined with gilding; the dampened leather was covered with gold leaf before the hot metal plate was hammered or screwed down, thus simultaneously impressing and gilding the design. These embossed designs, which could be repeated on a large number of book covers, mark something of a decline in the craft of bookbinding. Hand craftsmanship became a rarity. In addition, instead of cutting filigree designs out of leather, craftsmen began to use paper, which was both cheaper and easier to handle, pasting it onto painted paper or sometimes silk or other material.

Persian book binding from Isfahan from the 17th century (Source: Jacques Safavi in Pinterest and Fateme Toorani in Pinterest).

In the 11th/17th century the art of binding in Persia declined still further, both technically and in design. Sometimes designs were painted directly onto the leather, rather than stamped, and fine filigree additions became rarer. Despite the general decline in Safavid book art, however, one major technique already known under the late Timurids (Aslanapa, pp. 63-64) was perfected by the craftsmen of the period. The earliest bindings of this sort were of leather, heavily chalked and primed for illumination; designs were then painted on and finished with several coats of protective varnish. As the paint flaked off the leather rather easily, papier-mâché boards became the material most commonly used. The surface was fixed with gypsum or chalk and polished, then given a layer of colorless varnish before the design was painted in water-based paints. When dry the painting was covered with several coats of transpar­ent varnish to fix and protect the design. Opinions have differed as to whether these final coats were in fact varnish or lacquer of the kind known to have been used by the Chinese. The technique attained great popularity in the 10th/16th and 11/17th centuries in centers like Tabrīz and Isfahan (the Safavid capital after 1006/1598) and continued to play a significant part in the cultural life of the Qajar period. It was emulated by Ottoman and Indian craftsmen as well. It is not known whether this so-called “lacquer work” had been introduced by Chinese craftsmen or by Persian visitors to China who had returned with knowledge of it; it is clear from such bindings, however, that illuminators and miniature painters played as important a part as the binders. By the 11th/17th century, binding designs had become rather stiff and wooden compositions. During the Qajar period, particularly the reign of Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah (1212-50/1797-1834), European influences and somewhat harsher colors came to predominate. Although some very fine bindings continued to be produced, they do not compare in quality with those of the 9th/15th and 10th/16th centuries.

Persian lacquered book binding from 1878 (Source: Jacques Safavi in Pinterest and Fateme Toorani in Pinterest).

As a general rule Persian bookbinders worked anony­mously. In the Timurid period, however, the names of several binders are documented in Dūst-Moḥammad’sḤālāt-e honarvarān, a Persian account of calligraphers and book craftsmen of the 9th/15th and 10th/16th centuries (“Dūst Muhammad’s Account,” p. 185). This work includes a reference to Ostād Qewām-al-Dīn Tabrīzī, to whom the invention of cut-pattern, or filigree, work is ascribed. In a discussion of Shah Ṭahmāsb’s royal library, Dūst-Moḥammad refers to two 10th/16th-century binders, Kamāl-al-Dīn ʿAbd-al-Wahhāb (Ḵᵛāja Kākā) and Moḥsen. References to other names can be found in the work by C. Huart.


O. Aslanapa, “The Art of Bookbinding,” in B. Gray, ed., The Arts of the Book in Central Asia, Paris and London, 1979, pp. 58-91.

G. Bosch and J. Carswell, Islamic Bindings and Book­making, Chicago, 1981.

“Dūst Muhammad’s Account of Past and Present Painters,” in L. Binyon, J. V. S. Wilkinson, and B. Gray, Persian Miniature Painting, Oxford, 1933, repr. New York, 1971, pp. 183-91.

R. Ettinghausen, “The Covers of the Morgan Manafi Manuscript and Other Early Persian Book Bind­ings,” in Studies in Art and Literature for Belle da Costa Greene, ed. D. Miner, Princeton, 1954, pp. 459-­73.

F. R. Martin, A History of Oriental Carpets Before 1800 I, Vienna, 1906.

E. Gratzl, “Book Covers,” in Survey of Persian Art, pp. 1975-94.

Idem, Islamische Bucheinbände des 14 bis 19 Jahrhunderts, Leipzig, 1924.

D. Haldane, Islamic Bookbinding, London, 1983.

T. Harrison, “A Persian Binding of the Fifteenth Century,” The Burlington Magazine 34, 1924, pp. 31-32.

C. Huart, Les calligraphes et les miniaturistes de l’Orient musulman, Paris, 1908.

A. Sakisian, “La reliure persane au XVe siècle sous les Timourides,” Revue de l’art ancien et moderne 66, 1934, pp. 145-68.

F. Sarre, Islamische Bucheinbände, Berlin, 1923.

W. Watson, ed., Lacquerwork in Asia and Beyond, Colloquies on Art and Archaeology in Asia 11, London, 1982.