Earliest manuscript of Persian verse, from Afghanistan

Earliest manuscript of Persian verse, from Afghanistan

Not all new manuscripts from the set of New Manuscripts from Afghanistan (NMA) are documents; some are pieces of literary writing. One fascinating poem stands out, not only because of what it says, but also because it is the oldest manuscript of Persian  verse known!

The qasida poem is a 21-verse panegyric written in praise of a rich Jewish merchant in 11th-century Bamiyan. His name is Simon-Tov, son of Abī Nasr, son of Daniel.

The unnamed poet is not writing without motive: he has thrown a big party he cannot afford, and wants Simon-Tov to cover the tab. To this end, he showers Simon-Tov with effusive praise. The verse-maker’s appeal to SimonTov’s generosity is probably somewhat disingenuous, considering his admission to the patron that, awkwardly, he had been out of touch for a long time. He explains this by self-deprecating statements about himself: “I'm not worthy of your company.” Judging from the use of Persian in Arabic script (rather than Persian in Hebrew script which is prevalent in the larger set of these manuscripts from Afghanistan), might it be that the poet was a Muslim?

The poem has been copied into Simon-Tov’s notebook over 4 sheets in oblong format (unusual for this time). How much Simon-Tov appreciated the lines might be discerned from the fact that he (or s.o. else) scribbled unrelated notes onto the verso sides of the first and last pages. From some of the documents, we know that Simon-Tov lived in the early 11th-century CE, had the kunya Abu ‘l-Hasan and wrote a number of notes in Hebrew and Arabic script Persian. For more, see Haim, ‘What is the Afghan genizah?’ (Afghanistan 2/1, 2019: 70-90). Whether Simon-Tov paid for the party we’ll never know. But what this fragment gives us is a rare insight into the interactions between patron and protégé and possibly  Jews and Muslims, in real-time, and outside of court circles, at a very local level in today’s Afghanistan.

Here are the first verses, in English:

  1. Praised is the shaykh, the learned
  2. the eloquent, Simon-Tov b. Abī Nar
  3. b. Dāniyāl
  4. may God prolong his life and vanquish his enemies.
  5. No one asks why this lover is crying/ for my two eyes are [full of tears] like April’s clouds.
  6. Neither do the tears extinguish the fire in my heart/ nor does the fire in my heart dampen these tears.
  7. [...] drowned in tears, and [...] fire/ […] is roasted.
  8. […] is yellow, thin, feeble and weak/ like a soul without body or a body that has lost its soul.
  9. Many people have asked me, ‘why are you not dying?’/ but the one who is hidden from the eye of death shall not perish.
  10. How can death see me, when I have no soul or body? / my body is the size of one-tenth of one [seed of] wild rue.


For the full poem and a more expansive discussion on it, see Pejman Firoozbakhsh's blog here.



Arezou Azad and Pejman Firoozbakhsh







For a variant reading of these excerpts, see Olga Yastrebova, “A Panegyric Poem dedicated to Abū al-asan Siman-Tov,” in Life in Medieval Khorasan: A Genizah from the National Library of Israel. Exhibition Catalogue (St Petersburg, 2019): 40-47, 132-5.