(The following is a guest post written by Yasmeen Khan, senior book conservator in the Conservation Division.)
Conservation staff recently treated I recently examined a rare Persian manuscript in preparation for display in the Library of Congress exhibition, “A Thousand Years of the Persian Book.” The bound 103-leaf manuscript, dated 1583 and attributed to Central Asia, forms the fifth tale in a seven-part work of poetry by Nasiruddin Jami (d. 1492) called the “Haft Aurang” (“Seven Thrones”). Titled “Yusuf wa Zulaykha,” the story follows Joseph and Potiphar’s wife based on the tale told in the holy Qurʼān.
The Library’s 1583 copy came to the Book Conservation Section with both covers missing and many tears and losses in the paper of the first and last few leaves of the manuscript. On the other hand, the calligraphy of Jami’s poetry was in a beautiful nasta’liq hand – a predominant style of Persian calligraphy in the 15th and 16th centuries – and the fine polished leaves of the book were painted in various styles and colors.
While documenting the manuscript, however, the inconsistencies of the decorative program immediately caught the eye.
Stencils of flora and fauna were used to decorate the margins with watercolors, while the text was framed with multiple lines of black, red, gold and blue. A blank column dividing the text area into two was also spattered with color using the same technique as the stenciled margins. Chapter headings were written in white, red and blue inks, respectively, on gold cartouches set into the text area. Occasional pages were more richly decorated with gold within the text and in the margins.
Upon further inspection, the first six leaves of the manuscript were of a much lower quality than the rest: the calligraphy was bad, the ink used was less opaque, the details of the multicolored illumination above the opening lines were badly executed, and subsequent leaves used large stencils that seemed more akin to Matisse’s collages than the delicate forms in the rest of the book. The sinuous and delicate stenciled margin decorations in the greater part of the manuscript were found in two configurations: with either the same color on both pages of an opening or with a different color on each page.
Disassembling the manuscript revealed more design inconsistences: some opening pages were decorated with the same stencil and color, others had different stenciled designs or colors and old catchwords under the margin paint had been crossed out over the paint and new catchwords had been inscribed. In addition, paper stubs along the spine showed that someone had removed a few leaves. It was clear that the book was not in its original order.
Understanding the original order of the pages was essential to gaining insight into the decorative inconsistency, the damage visible and the use that the manuscript had received. The Library’s manuscript was compared to another edition of “Yusuf and Zulaykha” printed in Bombay, India in 1884. It was discovered that approximately 50 leaves constituting 1,130 lines of rhyming couplets had been removed, mainly from the second half of the manuscript. The comparison also revealed that the graphite Persian numbering of the pages in the last half of the book was done in order to maintain the same color in the margin decorations for facing pages of the manuscript and not on maintaining the integrity of the text. For example, the leaf I had numbered 101 based on its order in the bound manuscript carried the earlier graphite Persian page number 83. After disassembly and review of the text, the page was found to follow the leaf I had numbered 89. There were many such instances that illustrate how complicated and puzzling a process this was.
Finally, after putting the manuscript back into the order of the text and looking at the evidence of the stenciled decoration, catchwords and Persian page numbers, a possible history of the use of the manuscript began to take shape. It was clearly rebound four times.
The manuscript was written and illuminated in a delicate style (a few of those pages are still extant), and it may have been bound. Over the course of its history it was likely rebound several times and edited and redesigned to include stenciling, trimming, adding and removal of the leaves. New catchwords were written along the lower inner margin of the leaves, the pages were numbered in graphite and the leaves were put in order based on the color of the opening leaves.
Occasionally manuscripts with artistic merit from this period and place show evidence of reinterpretation by subsequent owners and dealers. This is just another such manuscript.
Though more scholarly work needs to be done on the manuscript in terms of its relationship to other copies of 16th century “Yusuf wa Zulaykha” manuscripts from the Persian world, I had enough information to treat and prepare the leaves of the manuscript in their correct order for display in the exhibition on “A Thousand Years of the Persian Book.” In late September when the show ends, the leaves of the manuscript will be rebound with goatskin leather in a Persian-style binding appropriate to the time when it was written.
All photos are by Yasmeen Khan.
“A Thousand Years of the Persian Book” closes Sept. 20 in the South Gallery of the Library’s Thomas Jefferson Building. The exhibition is available online.