Thursday, November 24, 2005


A Scribe's Lament
A scribe was asked, "What is pleasure?"
He answered, "Parchment, papers, shiny ink, and a cleft reed pen."

A card bearing this quotation sits in a glass case among precious manuscripts and instruments of writing.

Celebrating Scribes, Scholars, and Conservators
An exhibition of rare Islamic manuscripts is presently on display in the McLennan Library Lobby from September 1st to November 30th, 2005. The selection includes bound Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts, some of which reveal the finest examples of book illustration and illumination. In addition, the exhibition features early fragments of the Qur'an on parchment, wooden writing tablets, a miniature scroll, lacquer pen boxes, and beautiful calligraphic pieces.

The works are housed in 4 display cases — a disappointingly small exhibit, but a rich one.

One case features Koran excerpts; another samples some figurative illustrations for works of poetry and other books; the third showcases writing materials, a variety of parchment and paper, tablets, lacquered book boards, and a lacquered pen case.

The fourth case is devoted to documenting the process of preservation, showing reinforced scrolls and explaining the failures of previous preservation techniques (scotch tape glue that can't be removed). Conservation boxes are being custom built for the pieces in this collection.

I learn of the talismanic inscription ya kabikaj, contained on many manuscripts to protect the book from worms and insects.

While the majority of texts, outside the Qu'ran, purportedly are scientific and medical, none were in obvious evidence.

Descriptions of the material on display also inform as to the preparations undertaken by a scribe before copying the Qur'an; the vast number of script styles; the usual parts and formats of books; and the illuminations therein, over the last millennium; the differences in style and colour in Persia and India; and the rarity and quality of figurative illustrations, disapproved of in many Muslim circles.

This last point gives me a visual reference for Orhan Pamuk's My Name is Red (excerpt). The mystery that is the novel's reason for being was not nearly so engrossing as the exposition of the philosophy of the miniaturist's art and the difference in attitudes toward art in the East and West, particularly through the filter of religion.

A highlight is the illuminated manuscript of the Persian epic Book of Kings. The exhibition was a pleasant way to spend 40 minutes, leaving me in awe of my vast ignorance (McGill's Islamic library is at my disposal to rectify this).

1 comment:

Pearl said...

Thanks for giving wider access to these manuscripts. Interesting.