7 December 2021

Tuesday, 18:22



Which manuscripts of Nizami Ganjavi are stored at the Azerbaijan Institute of Manuscripts



The Muhammed Fuzuli Institute of Manuscripts of the National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan is located at 8 Istiglaliyyet Street of Baku known for its attractive historical buildings. It has been working as an institute since 1986, and in 1996 was named after the prominent national poet of Fuzuli. In fact, the organisation has been in operation since 1950 as a republican fund responsible for the collection, systematisation, protection and publishing of medieval oriental monuments of literature. Today there are 17 research departments and one laboratory of hygiene and restoration. It is a place for studying, examining and translating ancient manuscripts written in Turkic languages, Arabic and Persian to modern Azerbaijani language, including old printed books. Based on the results of scientific research, the institute publishes scientific articles telling the world about the cultural, historical, linguistic, philosophical identification of the ethnos.

The building was built in 1901 by the oil tycoon and philanthropist Haji Zeynalabdin Taghiyev as a school for Muslim girls. In the 20th century, it hosted the parliament of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic and the Supreme Council of the Azerbaijan SSR. Today it is a working space for hundreds of people who gradually and painstakingly work to reveal for their compatriots and the whole world the secrets of centuries manifesting the high level of development of the philosophical and moral thought in the East and Azerbaijan. In fact, anyone can immerse in the atmosphere of centuries-old mysteries by visiting the exposition or reading room of the institute to see rare exhibits, listen to a fascinating stories about the ancient letters and authors. And most importantly–to communicate with interesting people who know what they do. Their knowledge is so extensive that the day is not enough to retell about different areas of activities and work of the institute.

We had an opportunity to see some of these rare editions of the national cultural heritage thanks to the experts of the institute: researcher Samira Ganjavi, Assoc. Prof., Candidate of Philological Sciences, Deputy Head of Scientific Fund Naila Mustafayeva, and Research Secretary of the Institute, Candidate of Philological Sciences, Docent Azizagha Najafzade.


Just one book!

I must admit that Azizagha is a wonderful storyteller. In two hours that we spent with him in the exposition hall and Zeynalabdin Taghiyev’s room, we learned many extremely interesting facts and details on the history of manuscripts and the ancient technologies used for making them. After all, we rarely think of how books were created 800 or even 300 years ago! It turned out that this process was so time consuming that it could take years. Hand-making a book was a process involving a large number of people. It would start with a man who had to make paper first. It was not an easy task and was time-consuming. Sometimes they used egg white to cover the surface of paper to make the sheets sliding. Then these sheets were handed over to a person who would cut them in the proper format. Another person would draw frames–text boxes–on each page of each sheet. Then another person would make ink from soot. Since the ink was poisonous, early inkmakers would die in younger age. Finally, a scribe would begin working on the book. He was an intermediary between the author of the actual text and the paper page, which would determine the accuracy of the text. By the way, scribes were also considered the authors of the book! Today it is known that they would often add their own thoughts into the original text! But we yet to hear about the final stage of the whole process. After that, the book would be handed over to another person responsible for the design of the book, or applying decorations and various patters on the book cover. This guy was not called an artist yet, just a designer. It was the next person who would fill in the pages of the book with artistic miniatures that was called an artist. It is well-known that  the birthplace of Persian miniatures is the city of Tabriz in South Azerbaijan. Miniatures were painted with a special brush made of wool taken from the forehead of a kitten and inserted into a goose quill. When the pages with texts and pictures were ready, the book would be taken care of by the next brigade, who would stitch the sheets to make them look like a conventional book. There was also a special person to make a cover for the book. It was made of 10-20 sheets of cardboard covered with the gazelle skin, which were very good a material for embossing the so-called medallions (oval or circular decorative paintings) on them. That’s how they made books in leather bindings, which would remain in excellent condition for many centuries to come. It is a known fact that fathers would give a book to their daughters as a dowry. A book was considered a capital investment for centuries!


"What is the age of the most ancient manuscript at your institute?"

Azizagha Najafzade: “It is the surah Al-Nisa from the Qur’an. It is written on the skin and dates back to the 9th century. Unfortunately, we do not know the author of this piece. As to the authored manuscripts, then the ancient one is the book written in 1117 by Ismail Jovhari on the linguistics of the Arabic language. The manuscript is in Arabic too.”

"How many manuscripts are stored at the institute?"

"We have more than 40,000 copies. Of these, up to 12,000 are manuscripts written in Arabic alphabet. These are unique works that belong to the authors of the Middle East and North Africa, including, for example, the Laws of Medicine by Abu Ali Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Surgery and Surgical Instruments by Abu al-Qasim Al-Zahrawi, Divan by Nasimi, Bustan by Saadi, and so on. These manuscripts are from the 12-16th centuries. We have absolutely unique manuscripts included in the UNESCO World Memory Program register in 2015."

"Are these intellectual and moral monuments of national identity available only to scientists? May any national of Azerbaijan see or work with these materials?"

"We conduct informational lectures in the exposition hall for these purposes. They can be accessed by a wide range of people interested in the intellectual heritage of our people. Our institute is digitalising everything that should be the property of mankind. We continue to work on creating an Internet portal E-Library of Manuscripts."

"How many manuscripts of Nizami do you have and what period do they cover?"

"As you know, this year was declared the Year of Nizami in Azerbaijan to celebrate the 880th anniversary of Nizami. We reviewed the entire repository of our institute and found more than 30 manuscripts of Nizami. These are the most ancient manuscripts, including the one written in 1421. We have other very interesting manuscripts from 17th and 19th centuries. For example, the manuscripts made by scribe Dawoodi, who included in one book two works with the same name Khamsah, which belong to two different authors - Nizami Ganjavi and Amir Khosrov Dahlavi. The manuscript was made in the 16th century. There are manuscripts made in 17th and 19th centuries that contain perfectly made miniatures. We do not always know the names of the artists, yet we can easily attribute their works to the Tabriz school of miniatures. Very interesting miniatures indeed! Khamsah by Nizami (1421) is the most ancient and the most complete copy. The latest manuscript of Khamsah was made in the 19th century. It is also an excellent copy decorated with beautiful miniatures. But, unfortunately, we do not know the name of the scribe."

"Do you mean in ancient times a person scribing the text of the author was also considered the author of manuscript?"

"Exactly. He was considered an author of the text re-written (copied) by him. Works written by poets, philosophers, historians, doctors or linguists are called autographs. That is, a work written with one’s own hand. This is what we call the primal, fundamental authorship."

"Given the human factor, can we exclude any chance of ‘intellectual invasion’ in the product of thoughts of genuine authors?"

"No we can not. We also store the samples of such ‘invasions’ in our institute. But this is a subject of scientific research!"

"Is there anything from the handwritten heritage of Nizami addressed to a specific reader?"

"Certainly. It is the Summary of Khamsah, which contains individual parts of different works included in the Khamsah. This is a kind of ancient anthology providing a brief introduction to the plot of all the works within Khamsah."

"What about manuscripts with unexpected or original content of Nizami’s works?"

"Indeed, we have a manuscript rewritten by an unknown scribe in the Hebrew alphabet but in the Persian language. We showed it to Israeli scholars but they could not understand what the manuscript was about."

"How come?"

"You better ask Prof. Teymur Kerimli, the famous researcher of Nizami, author of many scientific works on the poet, director of our institute. This year he published yet another article on Nizami named Nizami and History."

"Thank you. Which of the works by Nizami is the most valuable for the institute?"

"In fact, each of them has unique characteristics manifested in decorations, miniatures, fonts, ‘invasion style’, etc. Each of them features the characteristics of the time they were made in. For example, we have Khamsah from the personal library of the last government of Garabagh, Natavan Khurshudbanu, whom we call Princess Usmiyeva."

"What are your plans during the Year of Nizami?"

“We are going to release a batch of works written on Nizami, which have not been published previously for various reasons. These include Mammad Said Ordubadi’s Nizami: His Era and Life and Mammad Alakbarov’s Nizami and the Azerbaijani Folk Culture. We also plan to hold the conference Nizami: His Predecessors and Successors."


Rare beauty and harmony

Miraculously, we were allowed to see some unique exhibits in the reading hall of the institute. We were accompanied by Samira Ganjavi and Naila Mustafayeva.

Naila-khanym carefully unfolded a huge cardboard folder, which contained a masterpiece made by an unknown ancient master. It was part of the Quranic surah made on the snake skin. It is impossible to look at this narrow skin strip that still retains all the paints and shades without admiration. But it is even more difficult to imagine a person whose hands created this miracle.

Here is the poem Khosrow and Shirin by Nizami copied in 1245 of Hijra (1829-1830) by Mohammed Ali Ibn Ibrahim. There is also a copy of the Gospel made in the Aramaic language (1753) in the city of Kefe/Caffa (Feodosia) by the scribe named Nicogaikh in 1667. Here one can see a script on one of the darkened pages of the book: "This gospel was redeemed by a Garabaghi merchant from gentiles in 1752 and was framed in silver in 1753." The cover of the gospel is a real work of art: with faces and figures of the apostles surrounding their Teacher... Here are the Khamsah by Nizami in a decent, brown, thin leather binding; Diwan of Hafez with a beautifully coloured cover; an elegant and sophisticated book of Quran. It is small but very convenient to hold and read. Inside are sheets of paper decorated with beautiful textures and holding text written in calligraphic Arabic. All these works remind us of the infinity of time, when the past and present merge together, giving the feeling of eternity and peace. For a moment I could imagine someone’s thin fingers gently turning the pages of the Quran. And an idea struck my mind: all the periods are connected in Time as long as a human soul is alive...