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Cataloguing Persian Manuscripts at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library

Jake Benson, Research Associate discusses his work of cataloguing the roughly 1,000 Persian manuscripts that are held in the John Rylands Research Institute and Library's collections.

Jake Benson, Research Associate

The library holds over 1,000 Persian manuscripts dating from the 13th to the 19th centuries, including many of considerable significance. They encompass a wide range of authors and topics that hail from the Persianate world spanning the Balkans to the Bay of Bengal.

Most of these volumes come from the Crawford Collection. Alexander Lindsay, 25th Earl of Crawford (1812–1880), one of the foremost 19th-century British bibliophiles, studied Persian at Oxford and subsequently acquired manuscripts for his Bibliotheca Lindesiana at Haigh Hall in Wigan, near Manchester. In 1866, Crawford acquired 364 volumes from the collection of scholar Nathaniel Bland (1803–1865) via the antiquarian bookseller Bernard Quaritch (1819–1899). Then in 1868, he purchased another 407 works that Colonel George William Hamilton (1807-1868) had collected in India. Crawford hired Michael Kerney to draft a descriptive handlist for the collection, then published a concise list of titles, authors, and scribes in Bibliotheca Lindesiana, Hand-list of Oriental Manuscripts: Arabic, Persian, Turkish in 1898. In 1901, the 26th Earl of Crawford, James Ludovic Lindsay (1847–1913), sold the collection to Enriqueta Rylands (1843–1908) for her newly-founded John Rylands Library, where she bequeathed it in 1908. Important later additions include the collection bequeathed to Owens College by  Professor Samuel Robinson of Wilmslow (1794–1884) and manuscripts formerly held at Manchester’s Chetham Library.

Collection Highlights

Persian MS 908
Gold-blocked and incised leather filigree doublure of Persian Ms 908 (note: rotated 90º counter-clockwise).

Manchester Digital Collections currently offers compelling images of several significant or lavishly illustrated and illuminated works drawn from the collection. They include the earliest manuscript, Persian MS 68, a version of Kalīlah va Dimnah-yi Bahrām Shāhī (Kalilah and Dimnah of Bahram Shah, r. 1117–52), known in English as the ‘Fables of Bidpai’ by the 12th-century author Abū al-Maʻālī Naṣr Allāh Munshī Shīrāzī. These animal fables originated in the Sanskrit Indian work Panchatantra (Five Treatises), later translated into Pahlavi Middle Persian then into Arabic, then this New Persian translation. Copied in 616 AH (1219 CE), this manuscript appears to be one of the earliest versions that predates the oldest surviving Arabic texts. The circulation of these works ultimately inspired popular French fabulist Jean de la Fontaine (d. 1695).

Persian MS 843 appears to be the earliest dated complete copy of the Ḥadīqat al-Ḥaqīqat (Enclosed Garden of Truth) by Ḥakīm Sanā’ī of Ghazna (d. ca. 1140–41). Copied in 681 AH (1282 CE), it contains more than 10,000 couplets in ten chapters. Sanā’ī’s distinctive mystical literary style and themes profoundly influenced later poets such as the renowned Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207–73). Other manuscripts contain delicate paintings and illuminations, such as Persian MS 856, a beautifully illustrated, Khamsah (Quintet) of Niẓāmī (d. ca. 1202–03) that depicts lively scenes. Commercial artists in late-16th-century Shiraz, a city then renowned as a burgeoning mercantile centre for manufacturing and exporting high-quality manuscripts, likely completed it. One of the five works entitled Haft Paykar (Seven Portraits), lavishly depicts the story of a young woman named Fitna—literally “Trouble”— who determinedly carries a bull calf up a ladder to the roof every day to the astonishment of onlookers, rendered in exquisite detail with a brilliant colour palette.

Fitna carries a zebu bull calf up a ladder, from a Haft Paykar (Seven Portraits) of Niẓāmī Ganjavī (d. ca. 1202–03). John Rylands Research Institute and Library, Persian MS 856 f. 106b, detail.

Cataloguing the Collection

Until now, the Persian manuscripts have not received systematic descriptive cataloguing. Basil Robinson (d. 2005) published descriptions of forty illustrated manuscripts in his catalogue Persian Paintings in the John Rylands Library in 1980. In 1992, the Rylands exhibition Gilded Word and Radiant Image and its catalogue, sponsored by the Altajir Trust, featured manuscripts from the Islamic world, including Persian poetry, history, and scientific works. Several years later, Reza Navabpour commenced electronically cataloguing the collection. The current project began in 2015, with funding from the Iran Heritage Foundation and British Institute for Persian Studies.  Yasmin Faghihi converted Navabpour’s records to the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI P5) standard to make them available on Fihrist, the union catalogue for Islamicate manuscripts held in the UK. In 2017–18, grants from the Soudavar Memorial Foundation supported James White to enrich the descriptions of poetical works and chronicles.

The Rylands hired me to fully catalogue the entire collection soon after I completed a doctoral fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2018–19. I commenced work under the supervision of Alan Williams, Professor of Iranian Studies in the School of Arts Languages and Cultures (SALC), and trained in TEI with Manuscript curator and archivist Elizabeth Gow. In addition to enhancing records on Fihrist, I also provide descriptions for digitized Persian manuscripts appearing in Manchester Digital Collections.

Regrettably, very soon after I moved to Manchester and commenced work, the COVID-19 pandemic closed the library and temporarily halted the project. After lockdown lifted, work resumed—masked and socially distanced—in the grand Historic Reading Room of the Rylands. Over the coming months, as the team processes and uploads further Persian manuscripts to Manchester Digital Collections, I will post again about these wonderful books and their stories.

3 comments on “Cataloguing Persian Manuscripts at the John Rylands Research Institute and Library

  1. Salima Ikram

    Wonderful to see what treasures exist here–please keep posting!

  2. Wonderful work, congratulations on your expert research of an invaluable treasure.

  3. Fantastic! About time someone looks at this magnificent collection in more details. I’d love to find out about Shahnameh collections there.

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