Graduate Research in the Minasian Collection

Graduate Research in the Minasian CollectionThe Masjid-i Imam in Isfahan, Iran

Four years ago, when I began working on a project to catalog Persian manuscripts in the Minasian Collection of Middle Eastern manuscripts, I could not have imagined the journey of discovery upon which I had embarked.

By Ghazzal Dabiri

The goal of the project at its inception was to provide library patrons around the world with access to pertinent information regarding individual manuscripts in the collection via the World Wide Web. Housed in UCLA's Department of Special Collections, the Minasian Collection is one of the largest collections of Middle Eastern manuscripts in North America, hence its importance in the realm of Middle Eastern studies. Although this collection and other Middle Eastern manuscript collections at UCLA had been catalogued and published approximately 20 years ago by Mahmud Taqi Danishpazhuh, a visiting scholar from Iran, it was my task to represent the title, author, date of composition, copyist's name and manuscript date of Persian manuscripts according to Library of Congress rules of romanization for non-Western languages.

As the project progressed, my fellow graduate students (Hassan Hussain and Ahmed Alwishah who work on Arabic manuscripts, and Mehmet Er who works on Ottoman Turkish manuscripts) and I decided that for the time we were spending on the project, it would be prudent to include as much information as possible about each manuscript to facilitate the domestic and international researchers who could not venture to UCLA's Department of Special Collections. In addition to the above, we provide the subject(s) of the manuscript and the language and script in which it is written. We have also included an abstract, which has afforded us the opportunity to give a physical description of each manuscript and any pertinent information regarding provenance and subject matter not encompassed by the subject headings provided by the Library of Congress.

We have been determined to identify each and every manuscript despite the fact that only a portion of the manuscripts are easily identifiable. Because of our determination to accurately identify each manuscript, we began to develop a keen sense of how to search for telling details, from the incipit and dedication to rubrics and to the colophon and explicit, which might help us to appropriately identify each manuscript.

If information is missing regarding author, title or both, we mark the manuscript as "unknown" only after the most exhaustive research into other library catalogs, other online publications of Middle Eastern manuscript collections, and cross-referencing the most comprehensive published catalogs of Middle Eastern works. The catalogs we use for the Persian and Arabic manuscripts are the authoritative works of Danishpazhuh, Aqa Buzurg Tehrani and Ahmad Munzavi. These monumental compendia contain references to tens of thousands of known works from all periods of Islamic history.

Even if we have exhausted the above resources, we are able to arrive at a short list of possible authors and titles based on subject matter and when the manuscript was copied, and by paying careful attention to marginalia notes made by the many hands through which the manuscript has passed. If no manuscript date is given in the colophon, we are able to arrive at an approximate copy date based on the type(s) of script, cover designs and illuminations.

There are many manuscripts in the collection which have similar cover designs and decorations. Many of the older manuscripts predating the eighteenth century are generally bound in leather, while many of those dated to around the middle of the eighteenth century have lacquered covers with distinctive colors and floral patterns. Such details help us to identify when a manuscript was bound, but one must be careful to make sure that the folios, which perhaps date to an earlier period, were not rebound at a later time. The binding of the manuscript and the type of script usually intimate whether or not we have the original cover. Identifying the time period of the script has been the most challenging aspect of the project. Within a single manuscript, a copyist may use different scripts, blending styles from different periods. A copyist may write the rubrics in the naskh or thulth scripts, which is generally used in older manuscripts, while using one or more of the many different types of the nasta'liq script for the main body of the text and then quite a different style for the sharh, or commentary.

Applying such parameters for manuscript identification, it has been immensely satisfying to be able to correctly identify many works. Unfortunately, many still remain unidentifiable and we have marked them in the catalog as "unknown."

After a couple of years of research, cataloguing and editing, we decided that if our end goal was to provide the patron with information regarding these manuscripts, it would be quite a feat if we could provide such information in the original languages as well as in transliteration. Most websites provide a link to switch from the English site to the Arabic or Persian site. To be able to represent both and to be able to search in any of the three scripts on a single page was an exciting proposal. And as we launched the test version of the project's website, we were relieved to see that a patron can indeed search author and title in Persian or Arabic or in transliteration.

Excited by this development, I became more aware than ever before of the international patron and of the possibilities of advancing Persian and Arabic studies via technology. I believe that so long as a person has access to the internet, whether they live in a cosmopolitan city such as Tehran or Beirut or in a small village, they should be able to have access to the actual manuscripts—not just information regarding them. Toward such an aim a grant proposal to the National Endowment for the Humanities has been developed which would allow us to digitize most of the manuscripts in this collection.

If we succeed in digitizing a large portion of the collection, the website, hosted by UCLA's Digital Library Initiative, will allow patrons to create their own "collection" of manuscripts to be viewed at their leisure. Once a patron has created a username and password, s/he may be able to annotate a manuscript in a public "comment box." The significance of this is that the manuscripts we have been unable to identify thus far might be positively identified by experts and researchers from across the globe.

During the initial phase of the grant writing process, I was assigned the task of researching the provenance of the collection. It was donated to the UCLA Library's Department of Special Collections by Dr. Caro Minasian, an Armenian-Iranian physician living in New Jolfa, Isfahan, during the early to mid-twentieth century. While researching, I hoped to find references to his methodology and why he began collecting these manuscripts. I hoped to discover from whom he had bought the manuscripts or if he acquired them in exchange for medical services rendered. It became clearer that while I might not find the answer to these questions, I had become more acutely aware of Isfahan as a reservoir of manuscripts. Though the manuscripts in this collection originated from many regions of the Middle East, the collection as a whole is a reflection of Isfahan's role not only in the manuscript tradition and transmission, but as a city whose students were steeped in the tradition of erudition and scholarly endeavors. The collection reflects the standard and now rare texts that students in the madrasahs used to learn of history, theology, Islamic jurisprudence, Persian and Arabic literature, philosophy and various aspects of the sciences including medicine and veterinary sciences.

Upon my last visit to Isfahan in the Summer of 2004, I went in search of manuscripts to assess the state of manuscripts today in a city that had propagated the tradition in centuries past. The most logical place I could think of to look for such manuscripts was in Isfahan's main bazaar located in the city square known as the Maydan-i Imam (formerly known as Maydan-i Shah).

Built under the Safavid ruler Shah `Abbas I (1588-1629), the Maydan, one of the largest plazas in the world, was situated in the center of the city until the latter half of the twentieth century when the city was forced to expand due to over-population. The rectangular-shaped Maydan connects a palace (known as the Ali Qapu Palace) to the Masjid-i Imam (formerly known as the Masjid-i Shah) situated to its right and to the Mosque of Shaykh Lutfallah situated directly across from it. The interior space connecting these three buildings houses the bazaar itself. A whirling blend of sights, sounds, fragrances and aromas, the bazaar—due to its proximity to the mosques and the old palace—is one of the keys to understanding the fate of many manuscripts.

The Maydan's bazaar and mosque are inseparably bound to the manuscript tradition by virtue of the fact that until the eighteenth century it was within the mosque that madrasahs were held. As a place of learning, the madrasah housed students, instructors and manuscripts until the latter half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth when the modernization of the madrasah as a state-sponsored institution, extricated from within the mosque, was begun and finalized. It was only natural to assume that a significant portion of the manuscripts, now in disuse, would find themselves in the adjacent shops of the bazaar—for sale.

With this picture in mind, I began to comb the art shops of the bazaar in search of these manuscripts. What I found, to my dismay, was that hundreds (perhaps thousands) of manuscripts had been systematically unbound and only the illuminated folios remained for sale at exorbitant prices in disregarded heaps. It was rare to find an intact manuscript.

On my way back to my uncle's house from the bazaar, I remembered that one of the manuscripts in the Minasian Collection was a copy of the Rubayat of Omar Khayyam. The copyist, living in Isfahan, had the same name as my great-grandfather and completed the manuscript at around the time when my great-grandfather would have been in his forties. When looking at the manuscript in Los Angeles, I thought it was a coincidence and brushed it off. But in Isfahan, I was intrigued. I inquired of my uncle as to the possibility of the roles our distant relatives might have played in the manuscript tradition. He quietly led me into his storage room and pulled thirty or so manuscripts and lithographs out of a cardboard box. Though none of the manuscripts were written by any known relatives, after the death of my grandfather my uncle had begun gathering and collecting all the manuscripts our family possessed. Thus I found myself in the storage room of my uncle's house in Isfahan performing the same tasks I perform at UCLA. I began to identify and catalog medieval Persian manuscripts. I imagined that this, perhaps, was the way Minasian started his collection.

The great value of the collection lies not only in its provenance and what we can gather and understand of Isfahan and its importance in manuscript transmission and scholarly endeavors, but in the texts now preserved for posterity. As I mentioned above, the works contained in the collection belong to the innumerable fields of study as they developed throughout the Middle East from pre-Islamic times to the beginning of the twentieth century.

Examples of significant literary works are the Mu'allaqat al-Sab', a collection of pre-Islamic Arabic poems; Majnun-Layla as transmitted by al-Walabi (this particular copy contains one of the only known Persian translations of this popular Arabic love-story); Ferdowsi's Shahnamah, the preeminent mytho-historical national epic of Iranians; several rare and heretofore unpublished works by `Attar; Husayn Va'iz Kashifi's Anwar al-Suhayli; the Persian translation of the Kalila wa-Dimna fables (translated by Ibn Muqaffa' into Arabic from the Sasanian translation of ancient Indian tales); and Dastan-i Shahzadah Niyaz va Shahzadah Khanum Naz, a narrative prose tale of the lives of princesses dating to around the Qajar period.

The collection contains some of the standard and rare works of science and mathematics from the fields of geometry, astronomy, astrology, geology, gemology, veterinary sciences (equitation and falconry) and alchemy by preeminent scholars such as Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, Shushtari, Baha' al-Din al-`Amili and Husayn Nishaburi. It also contains a vast number of works on ethics and philosophy as well as commentaries on many primary works by scholars such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Kammuna and Aristotle.

The topics encompassed within the field of history range from pre-Islamic Iran to eighteenth-century Afghanistan. Among the most important of these works are Tarikh-i Afghanistan, The History of Napoleon (translated from the French), Tarikh-i Jahan-Gushay Nadir, Habib al-Siyar, Nigaristan, Rawzat al-Safa and the oldest and most complete copy extant of Mirza Nishat's Ganjinah.

Greatly represented are the subjects of fiqh (Islamic law and jurisprudence), hadith and its related field, `ilm al-rijal, Shi`i customs and practices, martyrdom, the five pillars of Islam, Islamic ethics, Judeo-Christian-Islamic relations, tafsir, tajvid and qira'at. To a lesser extent we find Persian-Persian and Arabic-Persian dictionaries, dictionaries of difficult terms used in popular works such as Rumi's Masnavi and Sa'di's Gulistan, treatises on Arabic morphology and trilateral root system and grammar, the poetic arts, rhetoric, calligraphy, and translations of early twentieth-century newspapers from around the world.

The collection is an invaluable source of information regarding manuscript transmission, paleography, calligraphy, iconography, iconoclasm, art history, paper-making and the history of manuscripts, as well as the development of many fields such as history, literature and fiqh. The collection has also provided us with clues to the curricula of madrasahs and the role Isfahan has played in the manuscript tradition. Also, by inter- and intra-textual study of multiple copies of the same work found within the collection, one can gain a clearer picture of oral transmission and the dissemination of oral and written texts in the Middle Eastern tradition.

The magnitude of the collection establishes its importance for Middle Eastern studies. The possible avenues of intellectual and scholarly endeavors are vast, should one be able to visit UCLA. With online access available to the world, the possibilities seem limitless.

Ghazzal Dabiri is a graduate student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures.

Published: Friday, July 01, 2005