Institut für Iranistik / Institute of Iranian Studies Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften
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Persianate Cultures of Documentation (15th – 20th Centuries):
An International Conference
Conveners: Paolo Sartori and James Pickett

23.-24. 06. 2016
Institute of Iranian Studies
Hollandstraße 11-13, 1020 Wien


States enact themselves through paper, leveraging the written word to project coercive authority outward – or the illusion of control. Producing, collecting, and cataloguing are simultaneously administrative acts and performative ones, shaping both the nature of the state and the historian’s perception of it. Over the past decade scholars of the Muslim world, and the Middle East in particular, have conferred greater epistemological significance on textual genres that conventionally go under the rubric of “documents.” However, the burgeoning field of Persianate studies remains overwhelmingly oriented toward literature – despite the existence of vast, largely untapped, repositories of documents. Can we speak of a common Persianate culture of documentation stretching from the Kazakh steppe to the Deccan, from Sarajevo to Kashgar?

Studies of Islamicate documentation outside the Ottoman Empire have been few and far between until very recently. The result is that most of the available studies on archives and documents in the Muslim world are based on legal sources, i.e. texts the documentary attributes of which reflect either a probative or a precedential value alone. The problem with this approach is that it predicates on a reified meaning of document thereby misidentifying other possible uses of the written word and overlooking other principles behind the preservation of texts. A number of recent studies begun to revise this status quo by historicising the production and preservation of certain texts in an effort to complicate a dominant (yet untenable) narrative predicated upon the purported absence of archives and the ostensibly limited patterns of textual consumption prior to the early modern period – illuminating, for instance, the existence of chancery practices and dynastic archives under the Abbasids and the Mamluks. While a great effort has been made to prove that in the early Islamic and medieval period Muslim states did in fact rely on central administrative apparatuses, little has been done to reflect on what we may term coeval cultures of documentation, by which we mean the assumptions that informed the functionality of writing and governed the preservation of texts in a certain period. By ignoring such questions, historians of the Islamicate world have risked their superimposing a commonsensical understanding of the documentary attributes of texts onto historical material that may well require a different hermeneutical approach.

We contend that a solution to this problem demands that we expand our informational basis and take a larger number of compositional genres into our purview. To achieve this goal, we propose to reflect on the meanings of documentation across a larger historical area of the Muslim world, which is termed “the Persianate”. With this symposium we thus bring together scholars who work on material either in Persian or in languages directly influenced by Persian such as Urdu, Chaghatay, Marathi, Ottoman, Tatar, Telugu, and Uyghur across the early-modern and modern period.

By addressing the following questions, the symposium sets for itself the task of outlining a comparative history of documentation early modern and colonial periods across the Middle East, Central and South Asia:

  • What makes an archive in the Persianate world, and what are the practices of documentation therein?
  • Should we distinguish between archives and private collections?
  • Why did dynasts preserve certain texts and how did they use them?
  • Was the creation and the preservation of archives reflective of a certain historical consciousness?
  • Did the preservation of texts alter their original meaning? How do we take stock of the aspirational aspect of recordkeeping?
  • What was the relationship between archival practices and public knowledge?
  • How did the culture of the spoken affect archival practices?
  • What was the nature of interaction between manuscripts and practical documents – in terms of authorship, worldview, functionality and genre conventions?


Proposals should include paper abstracts of up to 500 words and a short CV (no more than 2 pages) of each speaker. Please send your proposal to by 15 December 2015 at the latest. Travel and accommodation costs for invited speakers will be covered by the Institute of Iranian Studies. This is an initiative of the START Project “Seeing like an Archive”:

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Programme (PDF)
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