It must be said from the outset that the gorgeous images and elegant calligraphy on show in this exhibition, based around love and devotion, are themselves enough to justify the show alone. More than sixty manuscripts from the Bodleian’s collection are packed in, to delight the senses and prompt introspection, including rare examples of 13th- to 18th-century Persian, Mughal Indian and Ottoman-Turkish illustrations.
But there’s more to the proceedings than meets the eye. Indeed, there’s a curious story here, from the teasing of the manuscripts out of the 400-year-old library's restricted access section by Australian historian Susan Scollay, to the creation of an exhibition around them for the National Library of Victoria, in Melbourne earlier this year. Only after all this effort did the Bodleian recognise the potential for a showing in Oxford.
Thank goodness it did. Because there’s a rich narrative behind many of these beautiful images. There's the turbulent history of an area that saw first the Greeks, then Islam, and later the Mongols tramp through, then adopt so much of Persian civilisation. Or the world's longest poem, Shahnama by Firdausi, which was commissioned by a Persian prince and delivered — 60,000 verses and 33 years later — to a Mongol, to become part of everyday recitation, even in today's Iran.
Finally, there's the forgotten influence of texts like Layla & Majnum and The Conference of the Birds on Western culture. The former tragedy of undying love can be found everywhere, from Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet to Eric Clapton's Layla, while the latter creeps into Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Dante's Divine Comedy.
We, of course, tend to think of Edward FitzGerald's 1859 translation of the 12th Century Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam — made in Oxford from a Bodleian manuscript — as our introduction to Persian literature. The exhibition, though, reveals how we nearly missed out: had DG Rossetti not bought a remaindered copy for a single penny and set the pre-Raphaelites to work illustrating the text just as Khayyam would have done, we could never have known what the genre had to offer.
The exhibition runs from November 29th 2012 until 28th April 2013 in the Exhibition Room at the Bodleian Library.
By Jeremy Eccles (Jesus, 1964)