Rare Islamic manuscripts offer a glimpse of the distant past

Yasmeen Khan credits her father, a collector of Islamic manuscripts in Pakistan, for her appreciation of old books with flowing calligraphy and intricate, hand-painted illustrations. He “had a deep appreciation for art that he imparted to me,” she said.

Ornate cover of ancient manuscript (© Yasmeen Khan/Library of Congress)
Painted, lacquered front cover of the Azan-i Sobh (Call to Morning Prayers), Arabic, Qajar Period, Iran, 18th century. (© Yasmeen Khan/Library of Congress)

Khan — a conservator with 30 years’ experience — is part of a Library of Congress team in Washington that focuses on rare books. She has worked with individual leaves of Qurans written on parchment from as early as the 8th century, though most often she focuses on manuscripts on paper dating from the 14th to 19th centuries.

The manuscripts are from the Middle East, North Africa, Central and West Africa, Turkey, Central Asia, Persia, South Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines and follow the spread of Islam to these lands from South Arabia.

Quranic texts typically feature general forms of design and ornamentation, Khan explained, but embellishments “are often specific to each geographic area, to the aesthetics of the local population and the time period.”

“The part of conservation that really excites me is to feel a connection to the past — to feel how people made, used and valued these objects,” she said.

Khan helped preserve an example of the Ajaib-e Mukhluqat (“Marvels of Creation and Oddities of Existence”), a book of cosmography by Zakariya ibn Muhammad al Qazwini (1203–1283), from a Persian manuscript copied by hand in 1567. “The first part of the manuscript was beautifully illuminated,” she said, “but when it came to us, it was in very bad condition.”

At some point, the manuscript had been repaired without the benefit of today’s materials and techniques. While many of its illuminations (miniature paintings) were obscured, the delicate illustrations “were clearly prized by the Muslim society that produced the manuscript, and somebody cared enough to do what they could to keep it alive,” Khan said.

Many conservators worked over a span of 11 years to save the manuscript. “One person might work on a single page, which would take weeks or months to repair.”

The project involved just one item in the vast collection of the Library of Congress, which comprises materials in 470 languages. The library spends two-thirds of its acquisition budget on non-U.S. items to create a collection of world knowledge that is accessible to anyone who visits the Library — all you need is an ID, or you can access the materials online.

Old manuscript with signs of the zodiac (© Yasmeen Khan/Library of Congress)
Zodiac signs within the Ajaib-e Mukhluqat (clockwise, from top right): Gemini (the twins), Cancer (the crab), Virgo (the maiden) and Leo (the lion). (© Yasmeen Khan/Library of Congress)

Do you have what it takes to be a conservator?

The Library’s Conservation Division has an internship program that trains young conservators from all over the world. Khan offers you a head start with this primer on the basics of preserving rare manuscripts:

      • The first step in protecting a manuscript is to establish the best environment for it (usually, secure storage space within preservation-quality housing).
      • A manuscript is examined and described before treatment through written and photographic documentation. Conservators test the ink and look at the parchment to identify what type of animal skin was used. Documenting old manuscripts creates a baseline for other items of that time period, and by comparison, helps experts authenticate those items.
      • Next, a conservator begins preservation treatment if a manuscript — in its untreated state — cannot be handled without risk to its integrity. The manuscript is taken apart, mended with thin tissues and conservation-quality adhesives, possibly immersed in aqueous solutions through washing and de-acidification, and finally rebound in new leather.