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Persian poetry knows no frontiers

The Persian language and its poetry are intertwined with the history of Central Asia. Although some mediaeval poets were later claimed by an individual state, their influence knew no frontiers. This is what Gabrielle van den Berg, Professor of Cultural History of Iran and Central Asia, argues in her inaugural lecture on 29 November.

Page from an illustrated manuscript of the Shahnama (ca. 1525, Iran). Faridun crosses the River Dijla. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gabrielle van den Berg illustrates the importance of poetry in Central Asia with a personal anecdote. She was a third-year student of Persian in Leiden in 1988 when she went to study in the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. There she chanced upon a popular pastime of her fellow students: quoting Persian poems that were often centuries old. The students spoke Tajik (Persian) as their native language and Russian as the official language of the country. Van den Berg explains: ‘Central Asia is an enormously big and diverse area with a wide variety of languages and cultures. For centuries, Persian was the language of the literate class and the lingua franca of the caravan cities along the Silk Road.’

Poetry legitimised power 

The popularity of written Persian is thanks in part to a number of epic poems that are still much-loved today. One aspect of Van den Berg’s research was into the impact of the Shahnama, a Persian epic of 50,000 couplets about kings and heroes. The original poet, Ferdowsi (940-1020), was born in Tus, a city in present-day Iran, which is on the edge of Central Asia. In its thousand years of existence, the Shahnama has already fulfilled several roles, says Van den Berg. Various rulers placed themselves within the tradition of certain kings and heroes in order to increase their own legitimacy.

Promoting Islam

From the 16th century onwards, the Shahnama was also used to promote Shia Islam, whereas since the beginning of the 20th century, it has mainly been presented as the national epic of Iran. In the 1930s, an enormous mausoleum complex was built even, at the burial site of Ferdowsi. Van den Berg: ‘The Iranians wanted to draw more attention to his role for Persian and the Iranian nationality.’

The Ferdowsi Mausoleum in Tus, Iran. Photo: Mostafameraji/Wikimedia

Persian increasingly popular

For centuries, however, Ferdowsi’s epic crisscrossed the borders of the empires that emerged in Central Asia. Persian became one of the main written languages in large parts of Asia and the Middle East. The geographical border of the language continued to shift, as the emerging Turkish dynasties embraced Persian. The 14th century represented a golden age in the production of illustrated Persian manuscripts. Van den Berg: ‘Persian became a cosmopolitan language that wasn’t linked to one area or ethnicity.’

Literary heritage

But this cosmopolitan language began to lose ground in the 19th century. With the European and Chinese colonisation of India and Central Asia and the introduction of Islamic printing, other languages such as Urdu and various Turkish languages became more important. The role of Persian also dwindled with the creation of nation-states that cherished their own language, Uzbek for instance. Van den Berg: ‘Trans-regional Persian was contained and framed once again as a national language for three nation-states: Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Each pursued its own identity in its own particular way.’ The literary heritage has not been lost, however, says Van den Berg. Poetry not only links these three nation-states but also forms an important part of the cultural heritage of a much larger area. 

More nuanced view of Iran and Central Asia 

Strong echoes of the past still reverberate in present-day Iran and Central Asia, Van den Berg is keen to note. ‘Poetry counts in this region: it opens doors and offers unexpected insights.’ She thinks that we in the Netherlands often take a too one-sided view of developments in Central Asia and Iran. We mainly focus on political and religious developments, and tend to interpret these negatively. ‘I see it as an important part of my assignment to add nuance to that one-dimensional perspective.’

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