Preservation and digitisation of the manuscripts of the Avesta written with Persian alphabets (EAP888)

Aims and objectives

This project will aim to digitise and preserve a number of old unique manuscripts of the Persian Khorda Avesta (the Book of Common Prayers). The exact number of manuscripts is currently unknown, however, so far the project team have located and identified seven, and it is likely that there are at least ten that can be digitised, each with on average 150 pages. As there is currently no list or catalogue of these books, the identification of these books will be another important outcome of this project. The volumes proposed for this project form a substantial source for Iranian studies and are mostly unknown by scholars in this field. In addition, the project hopes to identify other historical documents, such as marriage certificates, title deeds, photographs, etc. belonging to the Zoroastrian community of Iran. Identification of these documents may result in a future application for a major research project.

The Avesta is a primary source of information in the field of ancient Iranian studies. Over centuries, and before teaching the Avesta and the script as an academic subject, many Zoroastrians of Iran found it difficult to read the Avestan texts. As a solution, the scribes employed the Persian alphabet to write down/transcribe the texts. This method was particularly important for the chapters which the people needed for daily rituals. The Khorda Avesta consists of several prayers such as Khorshid Niyāyish (prayer to the Sun), Mah Niyāyish (prayer to the Moon), Mihr Niyāyish (prayer to Mihr), Afrinagān prayers, Siroza, etc. The Khorda Avesta includes prayers for daily rituals, thus it has been an essential item for Zoroastrians. Generally speaking, the contents of the Khorda Avesta are categorized into 6 groups of prayers: 1) miscellaneous short prayers; b) gahs (prayers for different periods of the day); c) Niyayishs (litanies); d) Yashts (prayers to God and angels); e) Sirozas (dedications for each day of the month); f) Afringans (prayers for blessing). In different editions of the book, the number of the prayers and their order are different. In addition to Avestan and Persian texts, some of these books contain Pāzand texts as well. Since understanding the Avestan texts were sometimes difficult, the scribes wrote commentaries on the Avesta in Pahlavi. But, on the other hand, there are numerous Aramaic words in Pahlavi. Pāzand was a method of transcribing texts from Pahlavi into the Avestan script, substituting Persian for Aramaic words. Thus, these editions of the Khorda Avesta provide a treasure of Pāzand texts too. The oldest volume dates back to 150 years ago, while the newest volume dates back to approximately 75 years ago.


For this project, we managed to locate eight manuscripts, six of which we were allowed by the owners to digitise. Since there is no information recorded in any database or archival institute regarding these manuscripts, we had to ask the Zoroastrian people to help us find the materials. The major Iranian cities with Zoroastrian population are Tehran, Kerman and Yazd. Some of these volumes are family legacies and some of them are owned by private archivists and antiquarians.

This corpus deserves attention for more than one reason. Some of the volumes provide commentaries and Persian translations which are not contained in other available books. These books are also important from a phonological point of view. To be more specific, the Avestan script consists of 51 or 53 (according to different schools of Avestan studies) letters, whereas the Persian alphabet has 33 letters with three diacritic vowels. In other words, there is not a one-to-one correspondence between the Avestan and Persian sounds. Therefore, in order to transcribe the Avestan text into Persian, the scribes had to omit or alter some phones and phonemes. This can be an interesting study for phonologists to discover the Zoroastrian scribes’ preferences. In addition, the existing phonological nuances may be the influence of the scribes’ dialects. Furthermore, these manuscripts provide the names of a few scribes which can help scholars determine the genealogy of the scribes. It must be noted here that none of the manuscripts are copies of a same edition. Indeed, each Zoroastrian mobed has his own book of prayer which might be different from others. These differences can be seen in the selection and the order of the prayers. In sum, the corpus of the Persian Avesta opens up a field less explored by the scholars, and yet it provides supplementary materials for studying other manuscripts written in Avestan script.

The records copied by this project have been catalogued as: