There is an accelerating demand to access the visual content of documents stored in historical and cultural archives. Availability of electronic imaging tools and effective image processing techniques makes it feasible to process the multimedia data in large databases. A framework for content-based retrieval of historical documents in the Ottoman Empire archives is presented. The documents are stored as textual images, which are compressed by constructing a library of symbols occurring in a document, and the symbols in the original image are then replaced with pointers into the codebook to obtain a compressed representation of the image. The features in wavelet and spatial domains, based on angular and distance span of shapes, are used to extract the symbols. In order to make content-based retrieval in the historical archives, a query is specified as a rectangular region in an input image and the same symbol-extraction process is applied to the query region. The queries are processed on the codebook of documents and the query images are identified in the resulting documents using the pointers in the textual images. The query process does not require decompression of images. The new content-based retrieval framework is also applicable to many other document archives using different scripts.