Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond at Oxford's Bodleian Library

By Ben Miller | 04 December 2012
An image of a colourful illustration of various figures from centuries ago in a Persian book
A beggar before Iskandar, enthroned with his court© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Exhibition Preview: Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond, Bodleian Library, Oxford, until April 28 2013

We’ve already seen one amazing trip to the faraway exotic open its parchment-enshrined pages in the form of the British Library’s Mughal India show this winter (see our Review).

Now the University of Oxford’s famous public library is widening the field, showcasing some of its incredible collection of Oriental material in an adventure through more than 60 rare illustrated manuscripts crossing Persia and Ottoman Turkey, as well as more of India.

A photo of an intricate illustration of various figures from ancient Persia
Shahnamah, or Book of Kings, is thought to be the lengthiest poem ever produced by a single writer© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford
“They transcend the bounds of language, culture and religion,” says Curator of Islamic Manuscripts Alasdair Watson, describing “timeless epics, tales and romances” and "the sublime artistry of the literature itself.”

“They have all come down to us in the most beautiful of forms from a culture which really was a culture of the book.”

Taken from the period between the 13th and 18th centuries, the Persian tales include a poetic history of Alexander the Great, the love story of a 6th century King and his Armenian princess and, in a 60,000-couplet work standing as the longest poem ever written by a single person, the entire history of humanity within the Iran-centred Shahnamah (Book of Kings).

There’s also the story of Layli and Majnun – aka the Romeo and Juliet of the East – and the biblical travails of Zulaykha and Joseph, better known to western readers in its guise as a tale of slavery and far-flung loyalty in the Book of Genesis.

“The shapeliness and beauty of the calligraphic script, the illuminations in gold and lapis-lazuli, the exquisite motifs of flora and fauna and the delicately-painted images are all testament to the love, care, dedication, and devotion of all those who were involved in their production,” adds Watson, who has counted Melbourne’s State Library of Victoria among his collaborators on a glittering exhibition.

  • Open 9am-5pm (4.30pm Saturday, 11am-5pm Sunday, closed December 24 – January 2). Admission free. Follow the library on Twitter @bodleianlibs.
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