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Volume 46, Number 6November/December 1995

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Treasures From the Neva

Written by Richard Covington
Photographs courtesy of ARCH

The scene at left, and others like it, appear in an illustrated book of picaresque tales from 13th-century Iraq known as the Maqamat, and it is a highlight among some 190 rare Arabic miniatures, Persian and Mughal paintings, decorated copies of the Qur'an and illustrated manuscripts that have lain hidden for more than a century in the Institute for Oriental Studies in St. Petersburg, Russia. After enthusiastic receptions at exhibitions in Lugano, Switzerland, and in Paris, some of the best of the St. Petersburg collection is on view through December 10 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

This is a jewel-like assemblage, comparable only to the better-known collections in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the British Library in London and Topkapı Sarayı in Istanbul. But this trove has been almost a secret, with few items published in any language but Russian, and none put on public view, in the 176 years of its existence.

As a whole, the collection evokes an Islamic millennium passionately devoted to the propagation of beauty, literature and science. The exhibition actually covers roughly 1400 years, starting with a fragment from a seventh-century copy of the Qur'an transcribed on parchment, and ending with exquisitely patterned 19th-century Qur'an copies from Syria, Nigeria and present-day Tajikistan.

As witness to the breadth of Islamic culture, the display encompasses traveler's tales and cosmological myths, love stories and tableaux of life at court, poetry anthologies and books on ethics, a charming and an eerily accurate bestiary portraying a sawfish, a rhinoceros—its horn somewhat misplaced—and other oddities, as well as manuals of horsemanship and the arts of war. Some 900 years after the earliest known printed text in Arabic (See Aramco World, March-April 1981) the Islamic tradition of the handwritten, illuminated manuscript continued to thrive, testimony to the great care lavished on texts as objects of art as well as knowledge or entertainment. To layman and scholar alike, the exhibition is a revelation.

"Pages of Perfection: Islamic Paintings and Calligraphy from the Oriental Institute, St. Petersburg," was curated by the Metropolitan Museum's Marie Lukens Swietochowski and Stefano Carboni; they describe it as the most historically significant display of Islamic art in the US or Europe in more than 60 years. It premiered last fall at the Petit Palais in Paris and was shown this summer at the Villa Favorita in Lugano.

"The Maqamat is exceedingly rare," explains Harvard University professor Stuart Cary Welch, former head of the Islamic Department at the Metropolitan Museum. "It is filled with an astoundingly vivid description of life in 13th-century Iraq. The artist—or artists—put their heart and soul into the illustrations. You can almost hear and smell their world, with the people gossiping, the animals braying. It's the observation of humanity almost in the raw that makes the manuscript so buoyant."

Welch is also an international authority on the Persian Shah-namah, The Book of Kings, on Mughal paintings and other Islamic arts. His own latest book, to be published in the fall, concentrates on the "St. Petersburg Muraqqa'," or royal album, a group of Persian and Mughal paintings and calligraphies from the 16th through the 18th centuries. Like the Shah-namah, many rulers commissioned such albums and, although two are on view at the exhibition, it is the St. Petersburg copy that is one of the stand-out masterpieces of the entire collection.

"In these manuscripts, you find people whose humanity comes right out at you in an appealing and friendly way," says Welch. "One hopes an exhibition of this sort reveals not only the responsible, serious scholarship of people in the former Soviet Union, but also, through these works of art, the human appeal of the cultures that they represent and which we need to learn about. You can see it. You don't have to be an expert to sense it.

"I think it's terribly important not to be intimidated by this material," Welch advises. "Some people groan and say: 'Oh, I know nothing about Islam and I can't read Arabic. Why should I go?' They should use their eyes and delight in the works. Look at the calligraphy in terms of a kind of visual music. The changes in size of script, the shading and color of ink, the few accents of red and the brown-black ink against the creamy white paper—these are wonderful things to contemplate."

The exhibition appears thanks to a combination of serendipity and determination. Swiss-born Archduchess Francesca von Habsburg, daughter of Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the world's most influential art collectors, and herself a respected collector, was in St. Petersburg at the Institute for Oriental Studies in 1989 doing research that led to an exhibition of Tibetan art. As she worked, she gradually became aware of the extent of the Institute's mostly hidden and closely guarded holdings. She won the trust of the curators only when she invited them to view her Tibetan exhibition at the family's Villa Favorita Museum in Lugano, where, she says, they were sufficiently impressed that they "practically begged" her to return to St. Petersburg to see the rest of their vast collection.

There, after she had pored over everything from papyrus manuscripts to Chinese scrolls, the curators at last brought out the incomparable Muraqqa'.

"It had taken me two trips to St. Petersburg and three months before I could even get my foot in the door of the Institute," she recalls. "When I finally laid eyes on the miniatures, I was in awe." On the spot, she determined to bring the cream of the Islamic collection to the Villa Favorita.

Awed, too, was the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Only days after the arrival of hasty Polaroids and black-and-white photocopies of slides from von Habsburg, and urged on by its Islamic Department, the museum's exhibitions office dispatched Stefano Carboni to Lugano for a closer look. This was August of last year; only two months later, the Metropolitan had committed itself to an exhibition for the following September—an extremely quick turn-around in the museum world, where exhibition calendars are often filled years in advance. "We decided to do it as soon as possible," Carboni explains. "We didn't want the exhibition to circulate too much before we had it."

In mounting the exhibition, von Habsburg's overriding concern—apart from making the Islamic treasures available for public viewing—was to use the show to generate desperately needed funds for the Institute for Oriental Studies itself. When she began negotiating the show, the scholars in St. Petersburg were earning a mere $25 a month, and even those meager salaries dried up after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian government has since resumed paying partial salaries, but the Institute's budget has been drastically cut. Through Arts Restoration for Cultural Heritage (ARCH), von Habsburg's Lugano-based foundation dedicated to the preservation of cultural treasures in Eastern Europe and the former USSR, she drummed up funds to improve salaries and pay for manuscript restorations.

Now, the Institute budget is supplemented by fees charged for lending the works and by royalty payments for postcards and catalog reproductions, and senior scholars earn the equivalent of $400 a month. "This is considered a good salary," says von Habsburg. "The loan fees keep these people, many of whom are reaching retirement age, alive. It's the ARCH foundation's greatest achievement."

Oleg Akimushkin, head of the Middle Eastern Department of the Institute for Oriental Studies, was "amazed and curious" to witness the reaction the paintings have evoked in the West—and deeply grateful that ARCH is restoring his beloved manuscripts. "Previously, the Russian government financed this conservation," explains Akimushkin, "but our Institute has suffered greatly under the present budget. Francesca's proposition came at a very opportune time."

So far, the ARCH foundation has raised more than $200,000 from sponsors to stabilize flaking paint, consolidate crumbling bindings, repair tears and fumigate against bugs. In the case of the Muraqqa', each page of the 98-page manuscript was unbound and encased in a separate mounting a centimeter (0.4") thick.

As the extensive restorations progress, Akimushkin expects manuscripts now undergoing conservation to be placed on exhibit in either St. Petersburg or Moscow in the coming years. "With Islamic countries on Russia's borders, the interest in this exhibition should be very high," he predicts.

Situated on the banks of the Neva River a few doors down from the Hermitage, the Institute for Oriental Studies occupies the former Romanov palace of Grand Duke Michael, the son of Czar Nicholas I. Designed in the spirit of the age, it is a grand, rambling 19th-century structure, and its colonnaded ballroom, with its majestic crystal chandeliers, is now a huge library of some 80,000 manuscripts in 45 languages. At the heart of the collection are the 10,000 Islamic works, all little-known outside a small circle of mostly Russian scholars.

A look at world figures quickly shows just how staggeringly large this collection is: Of the roughly five million manuscripts estimated to have been produced in both the pre-Islamic Middle East and the Islamic world, only 630,000 survive, and of these, only 200,000 date from the period before 1600. The earliest pre-Islamic manuscripts are written on vellum, made from the hide of gazelles, sheep and calves. There are works on Egyptian papyrus, on paper imported from China, and on the Samarkand paper that dominated the region from the ninth to the 14th century (See Aramco World, September-October 1982).

Ever since Peter the Great, the czars had campaigned to obtain artifacts offering cultural insight, the better to fathom the cultures and beliefs—and ultimately the politics—of Russia's many Central Asian and Middle Eastern neighbors. In 1819, French diplomat Jean-Louis Rousseau, a descendant of the philosopher and a veteran of many Middle Eastern postings, sold the first 700 Islamic books and manuscripts to what was then called the Asian Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences, precursor of the present institute. In the years that followed, directors of the Asian Museum pressured the czarist government to instruct foreign consuls posted to the Middle East to acquire manuscripts wherever and whenever they could. Russia's annexation of the Central Asian provinces in the 1880's brought several thousand additional invaluable works to St. Petersburg.

On a bitter February day shortly after the 1917 Russian Revolution, Institute curator Ignatii Krachovski arrived at the Winter Palace in an open sleigh to spirit away a priceless collection of 40 manuscripts—a tiny fraction of Czar Nicholas II's private library—to the safety of the Asian Museum. Tucked under the curator's fur cape were Arabic translations of Christian works, given to the czar as a present by the Patriarch of Antioch, Grigori al-Hadad—among them a three-volume Arabic Bible unmatched even in the Vatican Library.

During the Stalinist purges of the 1930's, dozens of Islamic specialists were either shot or deported to the gulags: Stalin feared they could become defenders of the Muslim populations in the southern Soviet Union that the regime was bent on subduing. But the books themselves remained untouched, and the Asian Museum was restructured as the Institute for Oriental Studies in 1930. Since Stalin's era, bureaucracy and lack of funds have hobbled Russian scholars far more than outright suppression.

Now, the international scholarly community can turn its attention to these works through the exhibition. According to Carboni of the Metropolitan Museum, knowledge of miniature paintings from the 14th through the 16th century is expected to make particular strides. For instance, a copy of the Christian Epistles translated into Arabic in 1341 in Damascus is a prized piece in a scholarly puzzle. Pinpointing the date and place of its creation has allowed other, similar manuscripts to be grouped definitively into a 14th-century "school of Damascus" style. A 16-line letter written in 719 by a local ruler in Sogdiana, in modern Uzbekistan, confirms historical accounts about the period immediately after the Arab conquest whose accuracy had been questioned, and also gives paleographers a valuable fixed point in their studies. Another 14th-century manuscript, a panegyric for the Egyptian sultan Al-Nasir Nasir-al-Din Muhammad—and for his nephew, who commissioned the work—is assisting scholars in dating other Egyptian works with greater accuracy.

At its height in the 10th century, the Islamic caliphate stretched nearly 10,000 kilometers (6200 miles) from Andalusia in southern Spain to the Indus River Valley. By the 12th century, when the largest libraries in Europe—in the monasteries of Durham in England and Cluny in France—could claim no more than 500 volumes, there were collections in mosques and in private hands in Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo, Cordoba, Bukhara and elsewhere that comprised 10,000 books or more. In many of them, readers were provided writing paper and pens without charge to enable them to copy the works for their own libraries.

In Islamic tradition, the acquisition of knowledge is regarded as essential: "Seek knowledge, even as far as China," the saying goes. Muslim cultures of the Middle Ages, through their translations of texts, preserved Greek and Roman medicine, philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and other sciences—and achieved as well unprecedented intellectual and technological innovations of their own, which they passed on.

"It is impossible to imagine the European Renaissance without access to the discoveries of Islamic civilization," observes Akimushkin. And without Arabic translations of classical Greek and Roman texts, the pace of civilization in Western Europe would surely have been set back centuries, with vital knowledge likely lost forever. A 12th-century manuscript in the exhibit, of unknown provenance, is a translation of Euclid's Elements in 280 pages of text and precise diagrams. Almost 500 exquisite, botanically accurate illustrations of healing plants come from Kitab al-Hasha'ish, The Book of Medicinal Herbs, another manuscript virtually unknown to international scholars in the Persian version. Its lineage goes back to the Materia Medica of the first-century Greek physician Dioscorides, a work that was very widely copied and translated for hundreds of years (See Aramco World, March-April 1987). The 17th-century Persian text on display is itself a translation of an Arabic version made in the late ninth or early 10th century by Ishaq ibn Hunayn.

Similarly, European poetry owes a profound debt to a popular, itinerant Arab bard. The 12th-century poet claimed by the Spanish as Ibn Guzman—whose works inspired Provencal troubadours and contributed to the revival of the art of poetry in early Renaissance Europe—was in fact Ibn Quzman, a Muslim who lived in Andalusia. A volume of his poems, with the prosaic title A Guide to Achieving Goals by Remembering Various Situations, was donated to the Institute's collection in 1896 by the German baron David Ginzburg, a Berlin sugar refiner and connoisseur of Arabic poetry. The St. Petersburg Arabist Viktor Rosen wrote that this unique manuscript, with its many Romance loan words, shed light on the cross-fertilization of Arabic and Romance literature in the early Middle Ages.

In addition to the pursuit of knowledge, many of the royal courts of the era also spent great resources either waging or preparing for war. The quaintly illustrated 15th-century Mamluk Book of Sciences is in fact a manual of martial techniques that elucidates, for instance, the proper way to hold a lance to avoid breaking one's hands; how to confound enemy cavalry with spiraling formations; and, in recipe form, how to prepare explosives. One panel depicts soldiers bearing the precursors of Molotov cocktails, fuses lit, guaranteed "to enable 10 men thus equipped to rout an entire army, however powerful." (See Aramco World, March-April 1995)

The artists and calligraphers who produced such works were greatly honored in the Arab world; the ninth-century Abbasid caliph al-Ma'mun is said to have paid one calligrapher the weight of his work in gold. So vital was the transmission of both holy writ and secular artistic expression that the qalam, the reed pen used to copy the manuscripts, became known as a "second tongue." Aesthetically inclined rulers maintained manuscript studios employing 25 or more masters in calligraphy, miniature painting, bookbinding and decorative arts. The shops of zvarraqs, where writing materials and books were sold, often became intellectual oases where the cultivated elite could discuss literature, philosophy, science and religion.

Among the geniuses produced by the era was the early 16th-century Safavid Persian painter Sultan Muhammad Tabrizi, an artist Welch compares to Raphael in his finesse and power and to Picasso in his unpredictable stylistic inventiveness. In the exhibition, Sultan Muhammad is represented by a Shah-namah executed in Tabriz in 1524. "He was a painter-mystic," Welch declares, "a very religious person, and that spirit emerges most gracefully in his mature work."

Not every work from his hand was a masterpiece, however. In the miniature depicting a rebellious Persian prince playing polo with his father's enemies, the figures appear stiff and off-balance. "There's good reason for that," Welch maintains. "The picture was one of Sultan Muhammad's moonlighting efforts. Here he's earning a little money, maybe in the bazaar." Marie Swietochowski, however, points out that the manuscript's colophon says it was made in the "Dar al-Sultana."

By embracing more than a thousand years of creative effort across the Islamic world, the exhibition also points up the range of stylistic diversity from one region to another. In one Uzbek volume from Bukhara, for instance, two lovers in a garden offer one another gifts as the wind rustles through a cypress tree and a maple with leaves of autumnal red, yellow and gold.

"There is a kind of arabesque rhythm surging through the miniature," Welch observes. "In this sense, most Persian painting—and I could add Uzbek as well—compares to rhymed verse. It's formal and restrained, whereas Mughal painting is closer to very sensitive prose, more reportorial. The figures in Persian paintings are not individualized, they are types. In Mughal works, every individual is a clear portrait, a spitting image. You know their ages, personalities, practically where they were born, just by studying the paintings."

To make his case, the professor cites a characteristic example from the Muraqqa'. The painting focuses on a sadhu, or mystic, who is being visited by a Mughal nobleman. But there is much more in the picture. "You've got everything under the sun going on," whoops Welch. "You've got camels, goats, elephants and musicians playing kettledrums—and in the center sits this regal sadhu, a skeletally-thin gentleman with a long white beard, receiving a nobleman as if he himself were the emperor. Such a portrait of a spiritual royal encampment gives tremendous insight into the ways of these respected men. It brings Persian aesthetic technique together with the knowledge of the indigenous peoples that fascinated their Mughal rulers."

The incisive characterization in the portraits—particularly in the 17th-century Mughal and Persian miniatures—turns out to be one of the exhibition's unexpected strengths. In one painting from Isfahan, a young Safavid ruler sits serenely puffing on a water pipe as his courtiers kneel around him, one watchful, another treacherous, a third browbeaten and wearied. The expressiveness of this dubious court is worthy of a Rembrandt or Frans Hals, and in fact, what appears to be a Dutchman, dressed in gold brocade and lace, leans forward with a match to relight the shah's pipe.

The Mughal courts first viewed Western art thanks to the arrival of 16th-century Jesuit missionaries, who were followed by traders from the Dutch East India Company and other merchant enterprises. The Mughal emperors Akbar, Jehangir and Shah Jahan all encouraged the painters in their ateliers to copy the European works. "It was the appeal of the exotic," explains Welch, "the equivalent of French artists incorporating chinoiserie."

The Islamic painters quickly absorbed Western influences, assimilating techniques of chiaroscuro and perspective, and even going so far as to place their subjects in front of idealized landscape backgrounds. Some of their works, such as "The Sacrifice of Abraham" in the exhibition, are unabashed imitations of Flemish paintings, except that they are rendered in reds, golds and blues far more flamboyant than on any northern European palette. In a spare ink drawing of a turbaned man with kind, melancholy eyes, aquiline nose and sparse goatee (See inside back cover), a 17th-century Persian master, Rida'i 'Abbasi, pays uncanny homage to Albrecht Dürer. In his time, observes Welch, 'Abbasi was "roundly criticized for consorting with lowlife characters, frequenting taverns and places of ill repute—a sort of Caravaggio of his era—but he was utterly brilliant in his psychological insights."

In addition to the miniatures and other illustrated texts, the illuminated copies of the Qur'an, with their astonishing range of calligraphy and their ornately flowered frontispieces, are another striking find. Among the unusual volumes is one copied out with a Byelorussian interlinear translation—but the Byelorussian too is written in Arabic script. "The heart of Islam is of course the Qur'an," explains Gilles Chazal, chief curator of the Petit Palais. "Calligraphy was invented to render the holy text as beautiful as possible. In Paris, it was a great discovery for many people that calligraphy had an aesthetic side, almost like abstract art." Even Arabic speakers, however, find reading the medieval texts slow going, just as an English speaker might slog through a handwritten copy of Chaucer.

Apart from the Qur'an, perhaps the most widely-known book in the exhibition is the Persian Shah-namah, which every Iranian schoolchild still uses as a reader. In it, the Persians poached the character of Alexander the Great from the Greeks and transformed him into their own national hero, a practice followed in other epics as well. "It was a way of asserting that Persia was the center of the world," observes Chazal. In one brilliantly executed miniature by Sultan Muhammad Tabrizi, Alexander, on a quest for the fountain of life (See Aramco World, May-June 1992), listens to a group of men giving him directions. Behind them loom mottled, lavender-hued mountains being transformed into demons. "It's extremely curious," puzzles Chazal, "as if Hieronymus Bosch had taken over the painting." According to the legend, Alexander never reaches his goal, but his guide, al-Khadir, who is shown in the miniature taking a different path, finds and drinks from the fountain of life.

In New York, as in Europe, "Pages of Perfection" comes as a unique and welcome view of the vast historical expanse of Arab and Islamic civilizations. "We have such a distorted idea of the Middle East," says von Habsburg. "This exhibition is a chance to open the eyes of people in the West to the inextinguishable richness of Arab art."

Paris-based writer Richard Covington specializes in the arts and media. He is a correspondent for The International Herald-Tribune and Smithsonian.

This article appeared on pages 30-39 of the November/December 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for November/December 1995 images.