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Celebrating Scribes, Scholars and conservators
An Exhibition of Arabic, Persian, and Turkish Manuscripts
in the McGill Library

Texts written by Dr. Adam Gacek
Head librarian of the Islamic Studies Library at  McGill University

The McGill Library Collections
The Koran (Qur'an)   
Piety and popular culture  
Writing surfaces 
Writing Implements
Scripts and hands 
Calligrapher's diploma 
The composition of the text  
Painted decorations  
Painted illustrations  
Preservation project

The composition of the text

Most manuscripts from the Islamic world (irrespective of the language) share certain common characteristics. The text almost always begins on the verso of the first folio, about a quarter of the way down from the top of the page.

In illuminated manuscripts this space is occupied by a headpiece, which may carry the title of the book in its central panel or the propitiatory formula “In the name of God, the Merciful the Compassionate”, technically known as the basmalah or tasmiyah. This formula constitutes a standard superscription in most manuscripts. It is followed by the doxology proper (“Praise be to God”), the amdalah. Sometimes alongside the basmalah we find other invocations, such as ya Fatta (“O Opener”), one of the numerous epithets of God, or ya kabikaj – an expression used for protection from worms and insects, the enemies of books.

It was traditional to end the text with a colophon, otherwise known as “the tail of the text”. Colophons may contain such information as the title of the book, the author’s name, the date and place of transcription and the like. These colophons come in all sorts of forms and sizes, the most common being an inverted pyramid or a triangle.


Islamic manuscripts were traditionally bound in leather with their covers flush with the edges. The typical book cover was blind-stamped with a central motif, such as a pointed star or mandorla, pendants and corner pieces. The lower cover was provided with an extension in the form of a pentagonal flap (lisan, lula), which served as a protection for the fore-edge of the volume and as a bookmark. Cover designs having whole panels brushed with gold paint are associated especially with Turkish and Persian bindings of the 15th to 17th centuries.

Influenced by European binding techniques, later books are often found without these flaps. Iranian and Indian covers of the 18th and 19th centuries were often made of lacquered papier maché with elegant floral and faunal designs, and, not infrequently, human figures.

Painted decorations

Manuscripts produced for patrons were often elegantly decorated (illuminated) using geometrical and vegetal (arabesque) motifs. The areas especially favoured for illumination were the verso of the first and the recto of the second folios, the last page, and the title page, especially the ex libris. Numerous manuscripts, especially those of the Qur’an, feature double-page (mirror image) frontispieces, richly decorated incipit pages, and chapter headings.

Manuscripts of Persian and Indian provenance are often characterized by richly illuminated headpieces or entire double-page openings. Persian illuminators tended to use more lapis lazuli than other colours. On the other hand, we encounter a lot of brick red ink and yellow gouache in Indian productions, and generous use of gilt in many Ottoman productions.

Painted illustrations

Although figurative illustration was disapproved of in many Muslim circles, it features in a sizeable number of Persian, Turkish, and Indian manuscripts with miniature paintings. The most admired of all Persian books, as regards illustrations, was the Iranian epic Shahnamah (“The Book of Kings”) by Firdawsi. Some of the most outstanding book illustrations were made for this text.

Persian books of poetry and anthologies were also favourites among book illustrators. The Khamsah by Nizami Ganjavi (d.1202 or 3), as well as Yusuf va Zulaykha (the well-known story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife) and Panj Ganj (“The five treasures”), both by Jami (d.1492), are just three of the most outstanding examples of books illustrated by many famous artists.

Scientific works too were often heavily and expertly illustrated, especially those on Medicine, Astronomy, Cosmography, and Zoology. Interest in hunting and animals in general prompted authors to write books on falcons and horses and the artists to illustrate them. The famous cosmographical work (“The wonders of creation”) by al-Qazwini (d.1283 or 4), for example, contains numerous illustrations of plants, animals and minerals.

the Preservation Project

A collaborative preservation project between ARA and McGill came into being as a result of a mini-workshop in the fall of 2003. The aim of this collaboration was to construct custom-made book boxes for one hundred manuscripts of significant cultural, historical and artistic value. The project was developed over several months in order to establish the participating members, acquire conservation supplies, identify funding sources for these supplies, and decide upon the precise model for the boxes, based on rare books conservation requirements.

From a preservation point of view, conservation boxes are an effective, permanent enclosure that keep any book or object protected, stable and secure. They are constructed based on the exact dimensions of each book: height, width and depth. In general, conservation boxes are a relatively low-cost alternative for collection level stabilisation in comparison to repairing the books. More specifically, such boxes protect the items from environmental elements such as dust, sun, and fluctuations in temperature and humidity. They also prevent abrasion and migration of degraded leather from neighbouring items and offer protection during handling and re-shelving. This is particularly of value for Islamic bindings which traditionally were not designed for vertical storage.

Thanks to the talented and enthusiastic ARA members, but especially Anne-Marie Saint-Onge and Saskia Roukema, the project got under way last June, so that today we have over 60 manuscripts enclosed in tailor-made-boxes, with more to come. We are very grateful to Sylvie Bompis (National Archives of Canada) for leading the training seminar, as well as to the production team: Heidi Roukema, Hannah Solway, Renée Lévesque, Annie Breard, Madeleine Lajambe, Kevin Cohalan, Maria Sotériadès, Jennifer Garland, Cécile Côté, Donald Hogan, Nicole Chalifoux, Terry Rutherford, and Sacha Veillette.

Finally, we greatly appreciate the contributions of the following donors, whose generosity made this effort possible: Ismaili Community of Québec, Canadian National Railway, IBM Canada, Scotiabank , Woolfits Art Enterprises, and Lee Valley Tools.

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