The book contains descriptions of 35 unique manuscripts from the Persian manuscript collection of St Petersburg University. Many of these manuscripts have been presented to the scholarly community for the first time.
Russian and Iranian codicologists, academics and librarians contributed to the publication. The album was compiled by Olga Yastrebova, Associate Professor in the Department of Persian Philology at St Petersburg University. We asked her how the manuscripts were selected for the publication, what mysteries they have yet to reveal and why it is important to study them.
The Persian manuscript collection of St Petersburg University comprises over 600 manuscripts. Only 35 of them, however, were included in this album. How were they selected?
In this album, we wanted to present manuscripts that would illustrate the history of the Persian manuscript tradition in Iran and beyond its borders: from the earliest examples (the oldest in the University collection date back to the 13th century) to the latest.
While studying the collection, I selected manuscripts that meet various criteria. The oldest manuscripts, indeed, deserve special attention – primarily because of their age. A number of later manuscripts were selected for their decoration, calligraphy, miniatures, well-preserved original binding, and rare or even unique content. The criteria and rationale for selecting each manuscript are different.
Also, we wanted to present different genres of Persian literature. And since this is not a catalogue, but an album, we opted for the content that would provide striking illustrations. The publication features 35 manuscripts. The number did not occur by design – it happened just by chance. However, to everyone who contributed to the publication, it appeared adequate in terms of information presented to the reader, given that the publication is both scholarly academic and popular.
Tell us about the title – ‘The Treasury of Mysteries’? What mysteries have the manuscripts yet to reveal?
The title alludes to one of the monument of classical medieval Persian literature – a poem by Nizami Ganjavi ‘The Treasury of Mysteries’ (‘Makhzan ol-Asrar’). At the same time, it implies that the Persian manuscript collection of St Petersburg University has yet to be fully described, even though it has drawn research interest from scholars. Some of the manuscripts in the collection have been studied by researchers and published. Yet, there are many hidden gems in there waiting to be discovered.
The publication was supported by the Ibn Sina Islamic Culture Research Foundation.
The collection is known in scholarly circles, but, in my experience, most of the researchers do not have a clear idea about its contents. When the album was published, many colleagues expressed surprise that they had been unaware of its true potential. Thus, the title gives off some hints and signals to both Russian experts and Persian-speaking readers of the book.
Do we know who authored the texts and miniatures, or Persian medieval literature was anonymous?
For the vast majority of Persian medieval texts, and Muslim texts in general, the authorship is known.
Anonymous texts and texts of disputed authorship are rather exceptions to the rule. Traditionally, the name of the author, the title of the work, and quite often the name of the author’s patron (a member of the ruling dynasty, or a powerful nobleman) are mentioned in the introductory part of the work. Indeed, exceptions do occur, and since manuscripts do not contain pages where in printed books bibliographic information is found, it could be difficult to determine the content and authorship of the text. Moreover, first pages of a manuscript are often lost. This can also create difficulties in authorship attribution of the text.
What challenges did you face while preparing the publication?
Firstly, I would mention the challenge of time constraints. It took me about two months to browse through the entire Arab-graphic collection, comprising approximately 1,500 manuscripts in the Arabic, Persian and Turkic languages. The fact of the matter is that a language-based classification of manuscripts can be rather arbitrary. ‘Arabic’ and ‘Turkic’ manuscripts can also contain Persian texts. It was therefore necessary to become familiar with the entire Arab-graphic collection. It is a shame that due to the pandemic restrictions, we were unable to access the collection more than once. Hence, we could not re-evaluate and edit our original selection. Furthermore, due to the specific theme of the album it was quite a challenge to make a quality translation into Persian. For this reason, we asked our colleagues from Iran – codicologists and palaeographers who are the real experts in medieval illuminated manuscripts – to become involved in translating and editing.
There was another difficult matter that I would say was a challenging but rewarding experience. It has to do with the scholarly interpretation of the selected material: the content description and authorship attribution of previously undescribed texts, the attribution of the miniatures, dating of the manuscripts when the dates of copying were not provided in the text. Dealing with these matters led to some amazing discoveries.
For instance, it had been previously thought that the earliest manuscript in the University Persian manuscript collection was a compilation of texts rewritten in 1280. We were able to establish, however, that one previously undescribed manuscript in this compilation predates 1280. It must have been copied no later than in 1256.
This manuscript contains a major treatise in Arabic, with a large number of Persian poems inserted in the Arabic text, and a few smaller treatises in Persian. Professor Alexander Kazembek, the first Dean of the Faculty of Oriental Languages at St Petersburg University, once owned this manuscript. In his private annotation to it, he wrote in Arabic: ‘An amazing book that I have never heard of.’ The content of the manuscript remained unknown until we selected it for our publication. We found out the title of the original text and the name of its author. It was a prominent Sufi sheikh who died in 1251–1252. This manuscript was once owned by one of his disciples. The manuscript contains proofreader’s marks and notes that show that the text was checked against an earlier copy, perhaps against the autograph manuscript. Upon completing his education, the owner of the book received initiation from the author’s son, another prominent Sufi sheikh. A handwritten record of this is found in the first free pages of the book.
There were other unexpected discoveries related to both the content and illustration materials of the books. They are represented in the album.
What makes the University Oriental collection unique? Why is it important to study these manuscripts?
There are three major collections of Muslim manuscripts in St Petersburg. They have quite different histories and acquisition sources. The Oriental manuscript collection in the M Gorky Scientific Library of St Petersburg University was mainly acquired from the University professors and lecturers. Only few manuscripts were received as gifts. The two major sources were manuscript collections of Professor Alexander Kazembek and Professor Muḥammad ʻAyyād Ṭanṭāwī. The collection of Kazan Imperial University, which formed the basis of our University Oriental collection, is also academic in nature. The collectors’ main concern was a wide repertoire of texts to cover all spheres of Muslim scholarship and various genres of literature of the Islamic Near and Middle East. The artistic value of manuscripts might have been overlooked. In the University collection, there are therefore few illuminated manuscripts and a significant number of old copies, including several unique and autograph manuscripts.
Compared to the other two major Oriental manuscript collections in St Petersburg – the collections of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Sciences and of the Russian National Library – the University collection is not fully described and is largely unknown among scholars. Only about a third of Persian manuscripts containing historical, geographical and biographical works have a complete description, mainly thanks to the catalogue published by Professor Abdurahman Tagirdjanov in 1962. No doubt, the situation needs to be addressed. I hope our publication will spark interest in our collection among both experts and students.
Ideally, we should create a group of expert researchers and young scholars who would develop a complete digital catalogue of the collection available online. It is of utmost importance that we facilitate transfer of experience and expertise in working with handwritten manuscripts and maintain continuity in source studies. This has always been one of the strongest points of the St Petersburg (Leningrad) school of Oriental studies.
The Iranian colleagues have expressed their interest in the University Oriental collections – not only in our Persian collection, but also in Islamic manuscripts written in the Arabic script. This is a part of their cultural heritage and they devote particular attention to manuscript studies. In Iran, a great deal of work has been carried out on studying, describing, cataloguing and publishing ancient manuscripts. This is a priority area of humanities research. That is why our publication is bilingual, with parallel text in Russian and Persian. I am certain that the album will be of keen interest to Iranian scholars and will promote scholarly collaboration between our two countries.