How to read a manuscript

The Persian language is written in the same alphabet as Arabic. It’s written from right to left, which means the pages are read and numbered from what seems like the back of the book for an English-language reader.

Persians learnt the art of paper-making from Chinese artisans, and began to make paper manuscripts from flax in the ninth century – much earlier than their European counterparts.

Scribes and illuminators copied the poems onto paper. They set the poems onto the page in columns (in contrast to prose, which ran across the page) using a distinctive, curving type of Arabic script called nasta‘liq.

As a decorative touch, they dyed paper in vivid colours or sprinkled it with gold flecks, burnishing it afterwards with special stone or glass tools.

Next, teams of highly trained artists drew images in the spaces left for this purpose by the scribes and illuminators. These painters of miniatures worked with very fine brushes, using inks and pigments ground from precious stones or natural materials. They painted on the same page as the poem, sometimes spreading their images into the margins of the page or even into the text itself. Their drawings summarised the story and sometimes added detail to it.

Yusuf and Zalaykha in a tiled pavilion within a garden setting, with Persian script under and above this central image – from the manuscript 'The marriage of Yusuf and Zulaykha'

The marriage of Yusuf and Zulaykha from a manuscript of Jami, AH 1004 (1595 AD), Yusuf u Zulaykha, Bukhara. Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, MS. Elliott 418, fol. 56r

1. This image, representing the ‘marriage’ of Yusuf and Zulaykha, is placed between bands of text. It projects upwards between the two outer columns of text, with just a single line remaining in the inner columns at the top of the page. At some point in the long life of this manuscript, the text in the bottom half of the page was smudged, but remains legible.

2. Like many of the loving couples featured in Persian manuscripts, Yusuf and Zulaykha are pictured inside an enclosed space, suggesting their intimacy. Here they sit on a soft carpet in a garden pavilion, before a doorway and arched niche. Surrounding the pavilion is a low garden wall and areas of patterned tiles, similar to those used in real buildings in the Persian world at the time this manuscript was painted.

3. Beyond the garden wall is a lush landscape beneath a clear blue sky, representing the idea of ‘eternal spring’. Two blossoming cypress trees on either side of the pavilion contribute to the painting’s formal symmetry and symbolise Yusuf and Zulaykha’s eternal love. Cypress trees were often planted beside graves as symbols of eternity in the Persian world, and were drawn by artists to represent ‘beloved’ characters in poetry.

4. Yusuf and Zulaykha kneel in an embrace on the soft carpet. Although their bodies face one another in a three-quarter pose, we can see their young faces and luxurious garments. Zulaykha’s brocaded cuffs and headdress are typical of the period’s luxurious court attire, as are the colours of the couple’s clothes. Yusuf’s turban is relatively modest but his head is surrounded by a wreath of magnificent golden flames symbolising both his faith and his role as a prophet. Its style reflects a Far Eastern-style of art that came into the Persian repertoire as a result of the Mongol invasions of the 13th century.

5. Unlike in comparable European paintings of this period, Yusuf and Zulaykha aren’t shown looking directly at each another or gazing out towards us. Neither does the painting show the kind of realistic perspective that European Renaissance artists had been using for more than a century – a technique introduced to Europe by the Islamic world. Persian painters were less interested in lifelike representation than an imaginary world of beauty and ideas.