The Bonardi photo sheds light on 11th century Afghanistan

Marriage as an 11th century business accord 

Until the New Manuscripts from Afghanistan (NMA) were purchased by the National Library of Israel a few years ago and made publically available on their website, the oldest surviving Persian document in Arabic script was thought to be the one photographed by Francesca Bonardi (its whereabouts are currently unknown).

The document is a page long, written on a scroll-like paper rotulus, dated to Dhu al-qa’da 470 of the Islamic era, i.e. May or June 1078 C.E. [In comparison, the earliest NMA doc is from 395 A.H., i.e. in 1005 C.E. which is just before Firdawsi completed his Shahnama epic in 1010 C.E.]

Francesca was a young photographer working with the Italian archaeological mission in Afghanistan, Iran, and South Asia in the 1950s and 60s. She became the wife of the famous Tibet scholar Giuseppe Tucci.

The “Bonardi photo” is of a marriage with a statement of a dower promised by the groom, Ilyas, to his bride, Shahrnāz. Although it starts with a statement of marriage, the rest is written like a typical business document.


E.g. by spelling out the limits of each parcel of land, and of the houses she is to buy, and e.g. using impersonal formulaic phrases you would find in a typical deed of sale.

We are boggled, because Ilyas has given Shahrnāz 3,000 dirhams as his dower-- a handsome amount--but she has decided to spend it on buying land and houses in the Bamiyan area which he actually owns.

It is a curious arrangement because, why wouldn’t he just give her the land directly as was commonly done? And why pre-empt the financial fallout from divorce at this early stage? It kind of takes away the romance, but then again, this is not too different from modern-day prenups.

bonardi photo of bamiyan doc

There are lots of other little things that get us excited, like scribal corrections and additions; and we can’t wait to compare this one with marriage documents in the set of New Manuscripts from Afghanistan and Ghur.

bonardi photo


G. Scarcia, “A Preliminary Report on a Persian Legal Document of 470-1078 found at Bāmiyān,” East and West, Vol. 14, No. 1/ 2, 1963, pp. 73- 85. G. Sarvar Humāyūn, “Kābīn-nāma, ki dar Bāmiyān ba sāl-i 470 h.q. nigāshta shuda,” Āriyānā, 22/ 11- 12, 1343, pp. 1- 13.

G. Sarvar Humāyūn “Takmila bar maqāla-yi ‘kābīn-nāma’,” Āriyānā, 23/ 3- 4, 1344, pp. 215- 220. G. Scarcia, “An Edition of the Persian Legal Document from Bāmiyān,” East and West, Vol. 16, No. 3/ 4, 1966, pp. 290- 295.

Credits photo courtesy of Ms Bonardi (fourth from left): ISMEO Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan. Thank you to Luca Oliviera (ISMEO Italian Archaeological Mission in Pakistan Director), for furnishing us with the details on the photo.

Written by Pejman Firoozbakhsh and Arezou Azad, 25/09/2020

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