He Came From the Near East

(The following is a guest post written by Anchi Hoh, a program specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

If you read last month’s Christmas-related blog post “An Armenian ‘Three Magi’ at the Library of Congress” by Levon Avdoyan, you may be wondering how the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division acquired some of its collections. Avdoyan wrote that the Three Magi calligraphy sheet and other items were procured in the 1930s from Kirkor Minassian (1874-1944), a renowned dealer in fine Islamic and Near Eastern art, with establishments both in New York and Paris and who was an authority on Near Eastern manuscripts. One cannot answer the question of how the Library acquired some of its Near Eastern treasures without mentioning Minassian’s story and his importance to the nation’s library.

The prelude of this story was set in 1921 when the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States were transferred from the Department of State to the Library. The Library built a shrine to hold these two documents in the Great Hall of the Thomas Jefferson Building. These two documents were housed in the Library until 1941, when they were moved for safekeeping to the U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox in Kentucky.

Sometime in the beginning of 1929, Minassian decided to make his first visit to the Library to pay homage to the two documents. This encounter was captured in the Annual Report of the Librarian of Congress 1929:

“His first visit to the Library of Congress, where he saw the originals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States in their specially constructed shrine, so impressed Mr. Kirkor Minassian, of New York City, that immediately upon his return to his home he sent us what proved to be the first of a series of gifts, totaling 90 separate items.”

This series of gifts started with mainly Arabic manuscripts, calligraphy sheets and clay tablets in the cuneiform writing of the Sumerian civilization. That very first visit by Minassian and his first group of donations to what he called “our Library of Congress” marked the beginning of his decade-long relationship with the Library.

Cuneiform tablet no. 35. One of the 12 school exercise tablets, with transcription and drawing. Some of the tablets were probably used for teaching boys and girls in the temple schools of Sumeria (today’s southern Iraq). 2200-1900 B.C.

Cuneiform tablet no. 35. One of the 12 school exercise tablets, with transcription and drawing. Some of the tablets were probably used for teaching boys and girls in the temple schools of Sumeria (today’s southern Iraq). 2200-1900 B.C.

Herbert Putnam (1861-1955), then Librarian of Congress, described Minassian’s gifts as “striking examples and forms of literary, historical and artistic expression, which have been heretofore lacking in our collections and exhibits.” Putnam further said that the contribution of Minassian’s own initiative to the enrichment of the national Library was recognition of its aims and service.

The materials the Library acquired from Minassian were brought together over a period of 40 years during his numerous visits to the Near East, Egypt, Persia, Afghanistan, India and even to the borders of Tibet. In addition to his work dealing Near Eastern and Indian antiquities, Minassian maintained a personal collection of Islamic manuscripts, textiles, sculptural objects and ceramics. He was very generous in lending his personal collection for exhibition and publication purposes. The Art Institute of Chicago, the Morgan Memorial Museum in Connecticut and the Brooklyn Museum were among the institutions that exhibited his collection items.

This single sheet of a Fal-i Qur'an (divination by the Quran) lays out in rhyming Persian distichs (couplets) the means of divination by letters selected at random when opening to a page of the Qur'an. 1550-1600.

This single sheet of a Fal-i Qur’an (divination by the Quran) lays out in rhyming Persian distichs (couplets) the means of divination by letters selected at random when opening to a page of the Qur’an. 1550-1600.

Between 1930 and 1937, Minassian made a series of supplementary gifts of a related nature to the Library. Among these was a collection of manuscript treasures. This collection consists primarily of Arabic and Persian manuscripts, mostly single pages dating from the eighth to the 18th centuries, with material illustrative of Arabic and Persian calligraphy of different periods, as well as characteristic examples of Near Eastern book decoration and illumination.

The Library at the time did not have the means of acquiring any serious number of materials such as these and the then division of manuscripts had remained almost exclusively a collection of manuscripts illustrative of American history, politics, economics and culture. Minassian’s gifts thus represented a major landmark in the Library’s collection development history.

In 1931, Minassian placed in the Library as a loan his collection illustrating Near Eastern bookmaking. In preparation for an oriental bookmaking exhibition of these materials, he came personally to work with Library staff to unpack, sort, and prepare captions of exhibition materials.

The Library acquired this collection in 1937. It is a comprehensive collection of rare and original specimens of exquisite workmanship, pertaining to the development of writing and the book arts from the fourth to the 18th centuries in the Middle East. This remarkable collection covers an important field in the history of bookmaking. The Library could not have developed such a collection piecemeal.

Between 1929 and 1938, the Library also procured manuscripts and rare materials in English, French, Greek, and Latin from Minassian. But it was his collection of Near Eastern manuscripts and rare materials that laid a solid foundation for the continuing development of the Library’s Near Eastern collections. In 1938, the Library made a black and white photographic record of all the Near Eastern items, as well as some Indo-Persian manuscripts and handcrafts in the Minassian collection.

An elaborate display of brightly enameled flowers highlights this lush 18th-century Islamic book binding from the Kirkor Minassian collection.

An elaborate display of brightly enameled flowers highlights this lush 18th-century Islamic book binding from the Kirkor Minassian collection.

In 1945, the Near Eastern manuscripts acquired from Minassian were supplemented by a corps of approximately 1,300 manuscripts and 3,700 books assembled by Shaykh Mahmud al-Imam al- Mansuri, professor of religion at the al-Azhar University in Cairo, purchased by the Library. Fast forward to the 1970s – after several Library reorganization efforts, the African and Middle Eastern Division was established in 1978 and has since become home to most of Minassian’s Near Eastern manuscripts. Today, the Minassian collection at the Library continues to be one of the finest in the world, and Minassian has become an indispensable part of the Library’s history.

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