Memory of Iran in Köprülü 01589, a Library in Miniature

By Sarah Bowen Savant
Submitted to Session P4132 (Imagining the ummah: Texts, culture, and the creation of community in early Islam, 2015 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The premodern Middle East offers an unrivaled opportunity for consideration of cultural memory, including the cultural stores of knowledge from which groups derive awareness of their unity and particularity. Thousands of texts pertaining to all aspects of cultural history survive for the period from 750 to 1400; these are widely available in open-access digital formats on the internet. Hundreds or perhaps thousands more survive in manuscript collections across the Middle East. To these may be added other evidence of cultural memory, such as epigraphy and numismatics. This storehouse of memory can now be studied in completely new ways using digital technology that measures text reuse (i.e., the repetition of textual units). Arabic and Persian authors frequently made use of past works, cutting them into pieces and reconstituting them to address their own outlooks and concerns. Texts and fragments of texts thus flowed within profoundly intertextual circulatory systems that can be reconstructed and analyzed.

This paper investigates memory of the early Muslim community in Iran as it was passed on in a fascinating 14th century multi-text compilation held in the Fazil Ahmed Pasha collection of the Köprülü library in Istanbul (01589). Like other such majmūʿāt, it is not a “book” in the conventional sense, but instead represents the collecting efforts of later times, and in its scope, something of a library in miniature. Among the 107 fragments that it contains, are several in Arabic and Persian pertaining to pre- and early Islamic Iran, e.g, a piece of a Persian translation of the Middle Persian Jāmāsp-nāmag, a Persian treatise on Pahlavi, an astrological treatise, and a history treating Abū Muslim.

My team and I are transcribing this manuscript and using algorithms to trace its units within a large corpus. We are visualising this data so as to show how one text arose out of many others. In the paper, I will highlight the manuscript’s historiographical layers and the wider processes of repetition, fragmentation, and mobility that ultimately produced it. With reference to the Iranian materials, I will argue that texts such as it provide an important and under-considered entrée into cultural memory in the pre-modern Middle East, as they preserve evidence for the reading interests of educated audiences, the associations that they made between disparate topics, and their expectations for how transmission should work.