Conservation Corner: A Persian Manuscript

(The following is a guest post written by Yasmeen Khan, senior book conservator in the Conservation Division.)

Figure 1. Opening page showing tears and grime. The opening illumination on the right and the calligraphy are of poorer quality than the rest of the text. A chapter heading can be seen in the gold cartouche on the left.

Opening page showing tears and grime. The opening illumination on the right and the calligraphy are of poorer quality than the rest of the text. A chapter heading can be seen in the gold cartouche on the left.

Conservation staff recently treated 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.

An opening from the text showing two types of decoration: the sinuous stenciled decoration on the left, with a stenciled inner column; and gold painted decoration on the right which consists of a stenciled layer finished with a gold painted lines.

An opening from the text showing two types of decoration: the sinuous stenciled decoration on the left, with a stenciled inner column; and gold painted decoration on the right which consists of a stenciled layer finished with a gold painted lines.

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.

Untitled1b

The difference in the crispness of the ink and the calligraphy on the cartouche is clear. In addition, the blue used to outline the cartouche show that they are lapis lazuli of different quality.

The difference in the crispness of the ink and the calligraphy on the cartouche is clear. In addition, the blue used to outline the cartouche show that they are lapis lazuli of different quality.

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.

A crossed out catchword with the new catchword written next to it that show the new order of the pages after some pages had been removed. The blurred blue line by the text is evidence that the green paint from the stenciled design was applied later.

A crossed out catchword with the new catchword written next to it that show the new order of the pages after some pages had been removed. The blurred blue line by the text is evidence that the green paint from the stenciled design was applied later.

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.

Two designs for the colored stencils are found in the manuscript: the animal design shown above and the one shown here. Birds predominate in this image, though fish are shown in the rocky pond along the lower margin, as well as ducks and squirrels.

Two designs for the colored stencils are found in the manuscript: the animal design shown above and the one shown here. Birds predominate in this image, though fish are shown in the rocky pond along the lower margin, as well as ducks and squirrels.

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.

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.

All the extant sections or gatherings of the "Yusuf wa Zulaykha" laid to collate the text.

All the extant sections or gatherings of the “Yusuf wa Zulaykha” laid to collate the text.

Though more scholarly work needs to be done on the manuscript in terms of its relationship to other copies of 16th century “Yusuf and 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.

“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.

Out of the Ashes

(The following is an article written by Guy Lamolinara, communications officer for the Center for the Book, featured in the September-October 2012 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine. Aug. 24 was the 200th anniversary of the burning of the Capitol building and the Library.) The story of the phoenix that rises triumphantly from its […]

Abraham Lincoln’s “Blind Memorandum”

(The following is a guest post by Michelle Krowl, a historian in the Library of Congress Manuscript Division.) Could George B. McClellan have become the seventeenth President of the United States? It certainly appeared to be a possibility as Abraham Lincoln assessed the military and political landscape of the United States in the summer of […]

Library in the News: July 2014 Edition

The Library of Congress had two major announcements in July, featuring well-known public figures, that garnered several headlines. Billy Joel was named the next recipient of the Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Stories ran in Rolling Stone, the Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Today Show. Joel was also featured as […]

Semper Paratus, Always Ready

Most people know the United States Coast Guard as a military branch that provides local maritime safety and law enforcement, with service men and women patrolling America’s shorelines and answering distress calls after boating accidents. However, the USCG has incorporated a number of functions throughout its more than 224-year career as the “oldest, continuously serving […]

Junior Fellows Show Off Summer Finds

(The following is an article written by Rosemary Girard, intern in the Library of Congress Office of Communications, for the Library staff newsletter, The Gazette.) After weeks of researching, curating and unearthing some of the Library of Congress’s millions of artifacts, members of the Junior Fellows Program had a chance to present their most interesting […]

President Harding’s Letters Open to the Public

(The following is an article written by Mark Hartsell for The Gazette, the Library of Congress staff newsletter.) For most of two decades, a future president carried on an affair with a family friend. For 50 years, the love letters they wrote each other – discovered in a closet, sealed by a court order and, […]

See It Now: Historians Discuss Significance of President Harding’s Letters

The Library of Congress will open a collection of approximately 1,000 pages of love letters between 29th U.S. President Warren G. Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips, on Tuesday, July 29. The collection has been locked in a vault in the Manuscript Division since its donation in 1972. The letters were written between 1910 […]

LC in the News: June 2014 Edition

The Library of Congress welcomed Charles Wright as the institution’s 20th Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry for 2014-2015. Several major news outlets ran stories. “Our next poet laureate may end up speaking on behalf of the more private duties of the poet — contemplation, wisdom, searching — rather than public ones,” said reporter Craig Morgan […]