skip to primary navigationskip to content

History and Historiography of Iran

The Illustration of History

The illustration of Persian historical literature (Prof Charles Melville)

This research project builds on the methodology and analytical insights of the Shahnama Project, to explore the illustration of historical texts, that is, manuscripts of Persian chronicles. Much of the iconography developed to illustrate stories of the deeds of Kings in the Shahnama is carried over to illustrate historical writing, which also largely concerns the activities of the ruler and his court. Persian histories written between the ninth and the 19th centuries have been illustrated in manuscripts dating from the 13th century onwards, although rather few texts from the whole corpus of historical literature have been selected for illustration. Thus, the choice of text and the level of illustration, the scenes chosen the depiction, their relation to the text, and the development of a corpus of illustrations of individual chronicles are all matters for consideration, and form part of the investigation of the uses of history, the nature of the audience and the reception of the texts concerned. This research has so far generated two or three articles and will be subject of applications for research grants the future.


Safavid History

Edition of a Fazli Beg Isfahani’s Afdal al-tawarikh (Prof Charles Melville)

Small grants have so far been awarded by the British Institute of Persian Studies and the Thriplow Trust to work on a facsimile and a printed edition of a Safavid period chronicle of the reign of Shah ‘Abbas (1587–1629), long thought to have been lost but recently discovered in Corpus Christi College library. This unique manuscript is of interest not only for the text it contains, providing a considerable amount of new information on this critical period of Safavid history, but also as it appears to have been the author’s working copy, containing numerous annotations in the margins in the author’s own hand, erasures in the text, and signs of inserted passages. It therefore gives an interesting insight into the composition of the work, which was completed in India, or perhaps left incomplete. The preparation of a digital, searchable facsimile will allow the peculiarities of the manuscript to be studied more widely than would be possible with a printed text, which nevertheless serves a different purpose in bringing this important work to the academic public. The printed edition is being prepared in collaboration with Dr Mansoor Sefatgol from Tehran University, for whom funding has been sought for a research visit to Cambridge in the summer of 2014. It is important and useful to have the unique manuscript also of volume 1 of this chronicle in the University library, covering the reign of the first Safavid Shah, Isma‘il (1501–1524).

Sources for Architectural history (Prof Charles Melville)

One aspect of the valuable information contained in the Afdal al-tawarikh is a certain amount of detail about building works and architectural patronage undertaken in the reign of Shah ‘Abbas, which supplements existing knowledge about some of the major landmarks in the development of Isfahan as the capital city, as well as gardens and palaces in the provinces. A small research project is being undertaken to extract systematically such information from this and other Safavid chronicles, in the course of a research fellowship to be taken up at the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) at Harvard University for three months in 2014. This will result in a published article that should be of interest for architectural historians.

Iran and India (Prof Charles Melville)

A final research initiative arising both from the study of manuscripts of the Shahnama and historical texts concerns the literary and artistic links between Safavid Persia and Moghul India from the 16th to the 18th century. Although valuable work is being done elsewhere, notably in France, this field is surprisingly neglected in the UK, where the interest in Indian history falls predominantly on the colonial and imperial periods. The Persianate cultural sphere extended into central Asia and North India well into the period of British and Russian expansion into the region, witnessing the triangular interplay of diplomatic and political interests that were reflected also in cultural exchanges (the movement of poets, artists and scholars) and the recognition of a common, mutual heritage of Irano-Turkish concepts of kingship and government. Some funding has been available from the British Institute of Persian Studies for two one-day workshops to discuss collaborations in this field with colleagues in Europe and bids for more substantial funding have been made, though so far unsuccessfully. Research on the interactions between Iran and central Asia and India will be promoted by a major conference at the end of 2014/early 2015.


Architectural History in Fifteenth and Sixteenth Century Iran and India 

Patronage and the Architecture of the Khānaqāh (Peyvand Firouzeh, PhD Student)

This research focuses on the patronage of Sufi shrines and complexes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries through a study of the Ni‘matullahi Sufi order, which was founded in central Iran in the fourteenth century, and established a branch in India during the fifteenth century under the patronage of the Bahmanids of the Deccan. The aim of this project is to examine key examples of the architecture made for the order – in Mahan (Iran), Taft (Iran), and Bidar (India) – by contextualizing them in their artistic, mystical, social, and political milieu(x), and in relation to each other, through a particular emphasis on the role of patronage.