State Library of Victoria Launches Appeal to Purchase Rare Persian Manuscripts

Layla and Majnun Faint on Meeting, from Nizami, Khamsa, 1509–10 State Library of Victoria, RARESF 091 N65K, fol. 170v After being forbidden to marry his beloved Layla, Majnun retreats to the wilderness, where he has only wild animals for company. Attempts to arrange a rendezvous between the pair are generally unsuccessful because Majnun faints at the sight of Layla. In the episode shown here, both faint in each other’s presence.

A public appeal has been launched to raise $100,000 to purchase two Persian manuscripts for the Rare Book Collection at the State Library of Victoria.

The State Library of Victoria Foundation has launched the appeal to help purchase two items: a 16th-century manuscript copy of the Khamsa or quintet of classic Persian stories written by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami of Ganja; and a 19th-century manuscript copy of the Tutinama or ‘Book of the parrot’.

The Khamsa manuscript was made in Astarabad, known today as Gurgan, in north-east Persia in 1509–10 by the scribe al-Abd Ibrahim. It is decorated in the Shiraz style with 15 full-page hand-painted illustrations by an unnamed artist (identified by scholars as ‘Artist B’). ‘The Khamsa will be the finest Persian manuscript in an Australian collection,’ said the Library’s Director of Development, Shane Carmody‘The work of this artist is found in manuscripts of the same period in the Freer Gallery of Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, in the India Office Library in London, and in the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford. The book comes from the high point of Shiraz-style painting and will be a significant addition to the State Library’s collection.’

The second book, the Tutinamaor ‘Book of the parrot’, is a collection of 52 moral tales told by an enterprising parrot to distract his mistress from her lover during the long absence of her husband. The story was taken from an ancient Sanskrit tale and translated into Persian around 1335 by Ziya’ al-Din Nakhshabi, a Persian physician and Sufi mystic who served at the court of a pre-Mughal Islamic ruler in India. Made in 1808–09 in northern India, it is a beautiful example of how the tradition of the handmade Persian book continued into the 19th century.

Mr Carmody said complete manuscript copies of the Tutinama are very rare and this will be the only copy in an Australian collection, ‘The Tutinama will be a rich addition to our collection. It shows how stories were repeated, told and retold in Persia and how the luxurious handmade illustrated book had an enduring place in the Persian tradition long after the advent of printing in the western world. I believe both books have great significance for the Iranian and Indian communities in Victoria. Their purchase will build upon the Library’s small collection of Persian manuscripts and help reflect the diversity and cultural richness of our state.’

The appeal coincides with the landmark exhibition Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond  (details) showing at the State Library of Victoria from 9 March to 1 July 2012. This free exhibition will bring to Melbourne over 60 beautiful examples of Persian handmade illustrated books from the collections of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford to create the largest exhibition of Persian manuscripts in Australian history.

Throughout the appeal period, 14 February to 1 July 2012, both manuscripts will be on public display in the foyer of the State Library of Victoria.

Details on how to make a tax-deductible donation can be found online at