As part of the Muslim World Manuscript project’s scholarly engagement plan, I sat down with History PhD candidate Zeinab Azarbadegan and spoke to her about her interests in the history of the book, specifically her interests in Persian lithographs, and in the Nafisi book collection at the Columbia University Libraries. Our conversation took us on an exciting journey, where the numerous silences and gaps in our library collections are read against the grain, and used to illuminate interesting aspects of scholarship.
Welcome, Zeinab: can you please introduce yourself and your field of study?
Sure. My name is Zeinab Azarbadegan and I am a PhD candidate in the Department of History at Columbia University. I am interested in exploring the relationships between non-European empires in the late 19th and early 20th c. More specifically, my dissertation focuses on the relationship between the Ottoman, Qajar (Iranian) and British empires in Ottoman Iraq, with a special focus on the Province of Baghdad. I pay particular attention to the evolution of the concept of sovereignty in international relations going beyond its mainstream definition of assertion of authority within the confines of a bounded territory to include its early modern symbolic aspects.
My interest in the topic was coincidental and began with a serendipitous discovery in a historical document. In one of the first specialized courses I took on Ottoman history during my final year of undergraduate studies at SOAS, we read the text of the Treaty of Berlin 1878. While the Qajars were not a party to the negotiations at the Congress of Berlin, two articles in the treaty grant several parcels of disputed Ottoman land to the Qajars. That piqued my interest. There were no substantial studies on the Ottoman-Qajar relations at the time so I started piecing together disparate information, including a wealth of published Qajar diplomatic documents. I found Ottoman Iraq to be one of the most disputed areas in the region, the ramifications of these disputes can be traced to later border disputes leading to the Iran-Iraq War 1980-1988, as well as to the continuing complex political push and pull between the two countries.
How important are archives and manuscripts to your research, and why?
The core of my research is based on state archives, including Ottoman, Qajar, and British archives. Through an examination of these documents, I try to address how these empires asserted their symbolic and substantial sovereignty first over the space of Ottoman Iraq and second over its population through tipping into emerging ideas of nationality and extraterritorial rights, or protection of their subjects beyond their borders. So, with respect to archival research I had to focus for the most part on reading and deciphering Ottoman and Qajar state documents. This left little room for looking at manuscripts. In fact, from the perspective of my first year of graduate studies, manuscripts were indeed intimidating objects: I knew very little about manuscripts, and codicology, and I felt a bit hesitant to approach and handle manuscripts! My comfort level, as well as my outlook–even on archives in general– was about to change. In fact, my interest in manuscripts owes a lot to the Muslim World Manuscript Project. Getting involved in the cataloging of Persian, Arabic and Ottoman manuscripts at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (RBML) opened a new world to me, and had a transformative effect on my education. It even led me to look at the state documents I was examining, differently. I started to consider questions of the materiality of my sources, the structure of the archives housing my documents, and the trajectories of how a certain document, manuscript, or lithograph ended up at a certain archive, how and why. It was an eye opener!
What primary resources (manuscripts, archives, etc.) are at your disposal in the States, and specifically at Columbia? Is there any resource that stands out for your research and why?
I focus on state archives: I spent two years researching and collecting documents in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and the United Kingdom. There is also a wealth of selected published documents and catalogs available at Columbia or through the Libraries’ system, which I used for my preliminary research. One of the most interesting resources we hold is the collection of Persian lithographs, which in fact brought me to get more engaged with the Muslim World Manuscript Project. I kept coming across references to a little studied lithograph, called Jām-i Jam by Farhad Mirza (1818-1888) published in 1856 in Tehran. To my surprise, I found out that the Columbia Libraries owned a copy of the book. When I examined the lithograph, which is a large item with fragile paper numbering near 700 pages, I was even more surprised to find an ownership stamp on its first page, attesting to it once having been a part of the Library of Said Nafisi, one of the most prominent scholars of Persian literature in the early twentieth century.
Nafisi owned one of the largest private libraries in Tehran in the early 20th c.. I learned through my conversations with Jane Siegel, RBML Librarian and through further research that part of this collection was acquired by Columbia in the early 1960s but was not tracked through the cataloging process across the library. So the existence of this collection had remained largely unknown except by a small number of people who would serendipitously encounter individual items in the stacks, and then perhaps notice the Nafisi ownership stamp on one of the pages.
In fact, it may come as a surprise to some that the Columbia Libraries houses a rare collection of early printed books from the region. Many of the early Persian printed books, which are lithographs, are either part of the Nafisi collection or were acquired in the late 50s and early 60s, when Columbia hired the late Ehsan Yarshater as its first chair of Iranian Studies. The Ottoman early printed books, which are typographs, were gifted to Columbia by the Government of Turkey, I believe sometime in the 20s before the change of the Turkish script. Some Arabic lithograhs from our collections have been digitized as part of the Arabic Collections Online project with NYU. Along with the manuscripts, these are invaluable objects to study the history of the book and the intellectual history of the Islamic world.
What distinguishes early printed Persian and Arabic books in terms of design, circulation, history of printing? What can they tell us about the eco-system of knowledge production and circulation from and about the Middle East?
Printing technologies, either typography or lithography, became popular in the Islamic world quite late, as manuscript production was ongoing till the early twentieth century. What is unique about early Persian and Arabic printed books is the prevalence of lithography instead of typography. Typography is using movable type and the printing press. Lithography, however, only needs transferring a transcribed text from a paper to a stone through applying a mixture of gum and acid, and then having only the transcribed parts ready to keep ink, which then would be transferred to a page by being pressed to the stone. The process was cheaper than typography. More importantly it allowed for a continuity in manuscript production practices, as the same scribes and artists continued their work with minimal adjustments. The aesthetics and look of the manuscript were replicated in the lithographs, as well as the practices of commenting and correcting in the margins. Up to the early twentieth century, lithography, typography and manuscript production co-existed as methods of production of the book in the Middle East. For more information on Persian lithographs, I refer you to the excellent article by the late Olimpiada P. Shcheglova, “LITHOGRAPHY IN PERSIA,” Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, 2012.
The first two illuminated pages of Jām-i Jam. On the right is the foreword by Maḥmūd Khan Kāshī and on the left is the introduction by Farhād Mirza.
Printing is considered as one of the harbingers of modernity, democratizing access to textual knowledge. This interpretation is very much based on the European experience, leading to neglect and presuppositions about the history of the book and knowledge production practices in the Middle East and the larger Islamic world. One of the presuppositions is that only “modern” knowledge gets printed. My preliminary studies for Persian and substantial studies by both Kathryn Schwartz and Ahmed El Shamsy regarding Arabic printing practices demonstrate that in fact, many printed texts actually reprinted “classics” from existing manuscripts.
Circulation of lithographs also followed and strengthened pre-existing networks of the book market. What is interesting about Persian lithographs is how global the production and circulation networks were. There were substantial centers of Persian lithographic production in Istanbul, Cairo, Bombay, Lucknow, Tehran and Tabriz, among other cities! They were also intricate networks of booksellers and scribes connecting these centers. Scholars have been considering the nineteenth century mainly as a period of change and advent of modernity but considering the continuities of practices and networks would give us a much better picture of the past. It would help illuminate the myriad ways and reasons for production and consumption of written knowledge in much more useful and accurate ways, emphasizing the continuities and complexities of change, rather than for the most part the ruptures, as is often done.
Have you focused on a specific manuscript/collection/rare book in your studies and why? Please speak specifically to the manuscript we have at Columbia, what is interesting about it, what makes it unique? how have you used it in your research?
I am co-editing a special issue about the Columbia Muslim World Manuscript collections and for my contribution to the issue, I have focused on a copy of Jām-i Jam, the lithograph which I mentioned earlier as part of Said Nafisi’s collection, currently housed at the Libraries. Jām-i Jam, which means “the world revealing goblet”, is a translated treatise on modern geography. Apart from its fascinating ownership and acquisition history, Jām-i Jam reveals so much about the political and intellectual context of nineteenth century Qajar Iran. Though it is considered a translation of a single English book, it actually includes translation of a variety of English books on geography and history as well as knowledge from Persian and Arabic geographical treatises. It is a study in active and contested reception of European knowledge. It was widely read and referenced in the nineteenth century, from the Shah himself to those studying at modern schools to members of the ulama teaching in Ottoman Iraqi seminaries calculating the direction of Mecca for Muslim prayers. It transliterates every single place-name from English, including names of places such as Egypt (Misr) and Persia (Iran) then stating their translation into Persian. It is therefore important in not only geographic knowledge production but along with another book of its author, in teaching English to its Persian-speaking audience.
What makes Columbia’s Jām-i Jam particularly unique are items left among its pages from the first decade of the twentieth century, pointing to one of its original owners, a prominent Qajar diplomat. This will all be covered in the upcoming special journal issue on the MWM project. Lots to look forward to!
Can you comment on the significance of teaching Islamic cultures and art within the context of material culture, within the general academic eco-system at Columbia? What could be transformative for the field in your view?
One of the strengths of the Muslim World Manuscripts Project at Columbia has been its collaborative nature, which has created a unique learning opportunity for graduate students. The project was initiated through the collaboration of librarians, graduate students and faculty from across departments. This has meant that the project in all its facets, including the conference that was organized around it and that counted as the spark behind the project, namely “Rediscovering Words and Worlds: Arabic Script Collections at Columbia University”; the cataloging of the collection, the digitization and preservation project, and the various graduate and undergraduate courses on the manuscript cultures of the Muslim World, have all benefitted from multi-disciplinary approaches to material culture. For example, the priorities of librarians and catalogers are different from historians and art historians. As I mentioned at the beginning, these different approaches have enriched my own intellectual journey and study of sources.
Cultivating these collaborations can be transformative for the field by widening our scope of types of material culture we study and how we approach them. Another important aspect is considering the complicated history of existence of such collections at North American university libraries, which brings to the fore questions of archives, power, and the creation of regional disciplines in the United States. This underlies whatever research we conduct at these institutions, whether we use these collections or not, as they are part of a history of why these disciplines exist in a university such as Columbia and how they came to be configured. In a world where most archival materials are accessible only through digitized format, which has been my experience in the Turkish and Iranian archives, the significance of the Columbia Libraries’ collections for teaching becomes ever more important for the study of material culture. Through access to the actual objects, we can teach why different papers and bindings were used, how, where, and why an object was rebound, why different scribal practices were employed, and examine various methods of studying and commenting on these manuscripts by looking at their marginalia. These are indispensable when considering the political, intellectual, and socio-economic contexts of production, circulation, and consumption of these objects, which were the main medium of transmission of knowledge in the Islamic world for so long.
Thank you, Zeinab!
For inquiries regarding the Muslim World Manuscript project at Columbia, please contact: Jane Siegel: Librarian for Rare Books & Bibliographic Services: RBML: email@example.com; Peter Magierski: Middle East and Islamic Studies Librarian: firstname.lastname@example.org, Kaoukab Chebaro: Global Studies, Head: kc3287@ columbia.edu
Kaoukab Chebaro, Global Studies, Head, Columbia University Libraries