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Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond

Love and Devotion: From Persia and Beyond

Susan Scollay on Persian poetry

Susan Scollay on Persian poetry

31:05

Enjoy an insight into the Library's exhibition Love and devotion: from Persia and beyond with co-curator Susan Scollay, an art historian specialising in Islamic culture.

Susan reveals the beauty of Persian poetry and its vibrant tales of human and divine love. The classic love stories found in Persian poetry have been reflected in western culture, with parallels in the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare and in the lyrics of rock stars today.

This talk was presented as a preview of Love and devotion.

Susan Scollay on Persian poetry transcript

[Over a painting depicting a couple in Persian dress sitting together in an ornate building is the title State Library of Victoria. Gardens of love: Persian poetry and its admirers. Below the title is the name Susan Scollay. The logos for the State Library of Victoria, the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford and the State Government of Victoria appear on the far left of the screen. This image appears on a large screen to the right of a podium bearing the State Library of Victoria’s logo. Susan Scollay, a dark-haired woman, stands at the podium.]

Susan Scollay: Thank you to everyone who’s come tonight. It’s amazing, actually, to see so many people so interested in a preview of an exhibition that’s still a year away. I think it shows the level of interest there’s going to be when the books get here. What I hope to do tonight is give you just a glimpse of the variety and beauty of the manuscripts from the Bodleian Library and from the State Library that will be exhibited next year and I’m going to do that by showing you a lot of images, but only telling you a few of the poetic stories so that you’ll have lots to discover when the exhibition arrives. So tonight we could say it will be like a quick look around the garden gate, if you like.

[The screen shows a quote over a decorated Persian manuscript binding- showing colourful flowers, trees and animals on a green background. The quote reads, The garden of Love is green without limit and yields many fruits other than sorrow or joy. Jalal al-Din Rumi, (1207–1237 AD), Masnavi, Book I]

Susan: The first part of our title – Gardens of love – is taken from some lovely lines written by a man who currently tops the bestseller list for poetry in the United States and who’s also very widely read throughout the rest of the world, including Australia.

[Information titled: Introduction: Rumi 'Masnavi' appears onscreen next to a Persian painting]

Susan: Surprisingly perhaps, this bestselling poet lived and wrote in the 13th century in the city of Konya in Central Anatolia – the Asian part of what is now the modern-day republic of Turkey. At that time, Konya was part of the great empire of the Seljuq dynasty that had taken over from the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines knew the city as Iconium – the name used since the days when it was ruled by the Romans. Now, you might be thinking this is not really a great time or a place to set yourself up to be an international bestseller poet for the next 800 years. But Rumi, as we call him today, has a story and a legacy that warrants retelling, partly because it helps explain why an institution like the State Library of Victoria would go to the considerable effort and expense involved in bringing out to Australia from Oxford a group of old and rare and very beautiful manuscripts, mainly of love poetry and stories from the great Persian literary tradition that spread during the Middle Ages and the centuries that followed far beyond the borders of Persian territory ...

[A map of the areas surrounding Iran appears on the screen. As Susan mentions places, red dots appear on the map]

Susan: … becoming, in fact – excuse me – part of the cultural fabric of neighbouring regions in northern India, very much so, in Central Asia and Turkey and intersecting with European culture in significant ways. By using the term 'Persian’, I’m using the European word for ‘Iran’. And I will just point out a few places on the map, so just bear with me while I find them. So we’re talking about Iran here. Can you hear me at the back? I’m off mic at the moment. We’re talking about Central Asia, where the influence of Persian poetry spread very much. We’re talking about northern India – an area where Persian literature and culture was taken up with great alacrity. And we’re talking about Anatolia and Konya, in particular, at the moment. And as I said, by using the term ‘Persian’, we’re using a European word for ‘Iran’, or rather the English-language word for ‘Iran’. ‘Persia’ comes from the word Persis used by the ancient Greeks to describe the territory of their so-called barbarian enemy. The Persians themselves called their nation Iran and they still do. Persians call their language Farsi, but when speaking English, it’s usual and correct to say ‘Persian’, and I hope our Persian friends who are here tonight agree with that explanation.

But back to Rumi. He was born in the year 1207 in Balkh, a part of Central Asia that was then an eastern Persian territory and is now a province of modern-day Afghanistan, due east of Mashhad and south of Samarqand. I’ll just point out where that is. We’re talking about round here – quite a way over on that map. So his name then was Jalal al-Din Balkhi, because he came from Balkh. His father was a religious scholar and a preacher – what we would call a theologian – and he was also a member of a mystical dervish community. During the 13th century, as the Mongol armies of Genghis Khan and his descendants began to invade in waves from the east, many people left that region to escape the certain destruction that would follow any attack on their communities. And so when Rumi was still a young boy his family fled towards the south-west, eventually settling in the more peaceful city of Konya that I showed you there in Anatolia. The family stayed there in what was a vibrant and cosmopolitan, multilingual and multi-faith community just as many people today leave politically unstable or war-torn areas in search of a more peaceful life.

Now, the Seljuqs who ruled Konya at that time were a group of Turks from Central Asia who had conquered parts of Iran starting in the 11th century and they had become great patrons of Persian culture, art and literature. Like all the aspiring and actual Muslim leaders in the region, the Seljuqs used Persian as their language of administration and as the language of the court and the language of the cultured elite. So Turkish was the language of everyday life, but it was Persian that was the language of the elite society and of cultural life. The name ‘Rumi’ – the one that we use – means ‘from the territories that were once governed by Rome’, and the people from Anatolia in Rumi’s time were generally described in this way. When we refer to Rumi with this name, we’re using the name that he was referred to later in his life, his nisba – the part of his name that tells you where he was from or what he did for a living. In the West, we still use this name Rumi today, whereas in Turkey, where he mostly lived and died, he is also honoured and known by the name Mevlana, meaning ‘our lord’, and amongst Persian-language speakers he’s known as Maulana – the same word with a different pronunciation.

Rumi became a religious scholar and a conventional Islamic preacher like his father until, at the age of 37, he formed a deep and spiritual friendship with a wild and wandering dervish called Shams of Tabriz, at which point we might say from a modern-day perspective that Rumi ‘went off the rails’, or we could say that he found his true calling, because the result of this meeting with a fellow human who seemed to Rumi to embody all the qualities of divinity was that he – that is, Rumi – adopted his new friend’s less orthodox approach to religion, and that is, Rumi became a mystic Sufi. Here’s a nice manuscript from the State Library’s collection. Rumi began to engage in devotional music and singing and the ecstatic turning movements that we know today as the sema, or ceremony, of the Mevlevi Sufi order, better known in the West as the ‘whirling dervishes’. This brotherhood of Sufis was formed by Rumi’s many followers after he died, but long before then he produced a huge body of lyrical poetry about mystical love – a ‘torrent of verse’, according to one scholar – much of it dedicated to his friend Shams of Tabriz and collected in a vast work of rapturous love poems called simply Divan, or ‘Compilation’.

Rumi mostly wrote in his native language, Persian, and occasionally in the local languages of his adopted home – that is, in Turkish and also occasionally in Greek. This was not just because he was Persian and Persian was his mother tongue, but because, as I mentioned previously, this was a time when Persian was the language of the court and administration and of elite cultural life and literature, way beyond the boundaries of Iran itself. If you were a cultured person in Anatolia at this time, even if your mother tongue was Turkish, you would know Persian and appreciate Persian literature, especially poetry. In fact, the oldest presently recorded illustrated manuscript written in the Persian language was produced in Konya during Rumi’s lifetime. Here’s a detail on the screen here from one of its folios. It’s a copy of a poem that was originally composed in the 10th century by the Persian poet ‘Ayyuqi. The verses tell the story of Varqa and Gulshah and this copy, which at present is thought to be the only copy, was made in Konya in the middle of the 13th century, written in Persian and painted in this charming, distinctive figural style that you see here that at that time extended from Iran right across to Egypt. The manuscript, like Rumi himself, is part of a wider cultural phenomenon of Persian language and culture, having a very wide reach. Now, this manuscript, by the way, is not part of the exhibition coming next year. It belongs to the Topkapi Palace Library in Istanbul and it’s rarely displayed. But I think it’s very interesting to understand that the oldest Persian illustrated manuscript that we know about actually comes from what we call today Turkey.

[A recording of Persian singing plays quietly]

Susan: I think we need ... [laughs]. The music wasn’t intended to be part of this, but it’s very nice, if you can hear it.

[Man speaks indistinctly]

[Music stops]

Susan: Thank you [laughs]. So that’s Varqa – a nice send-off for Varqa and Gulshah. Back to Rumi.

[A Persian style painting on the screen features a white bearded man in a blue robe surrounded by other men. A man in pink kisses his feet.]

Susan: There he is again in the detail from the manuscript I showed you before. I think you can see him clearly there in the blue robe. Now, Rumi died in his 60s, having just completed his masterwork, the epic six-volume Masnavi – a title which simply means ‘spiritual couplets’. He dictated the entire work to a scribe just as he approached the end of his life. It was a mixture of everything from mystic religious poetry and interpretations of the Koran to very earthy stories that acted as parables and tales from folklore. Scholars have observed that the work synthesised everything that Islamic culture had incorporated in the first 700 years of its existence – that is, things from Arab sources as well as Hellenistic sources, Jewish, Christian, Persian and Indian traditions. The work was written in both poetry and prose and ranged from practical advice to risqué jokes and to some of the most sublime descriptions of spiritual and ecstatic love ever written.

Now, Rumi often signed his verses with the name Khamush, meaning ‘the Silent’ in reference to the ultimate mystery of the union with the divine to which his verses alluded. In this way, his writing somehow then went beyond his own culture and time, even transcending his Islamic faith, creating what’s been referred to by other poets and philosophers as the ‘religion of love’.

By the time of Rumi, poets had already added a mystical overlay to love stories that had been known in Persian literature for centuries, but which had started off as more conventional romantic tales. Some of these had originated in the Arabic language tradition or in the culture of the Zoroastrian religion that predated the arrival of Islam in the middle of the 7th century in Iran.

Some of these tales have been recounted in the Shahnama – the epic work of the Persian poet Firdausi who you see here on the screen –which he completed in the year 1010. That’s 1010 AD – early 11th century. The Shahnama, or ‘Book of kings’, is widely acknowledged as the national epic of Iran and the longest poem, by the way, ever written. It has 60,000 couplets. Last year, 2010, was the 1,000th anniversary of this great work that’s been credited with helping create and maintain Persian identity in the face of increasing rule by outsiders from the 11th century on. Many of the Shahnama’s exciting and romantic stories are taken from mythology and Iran’s ancient history and are still recounted today throughout the Persian-speaking world. Just a couple of weeks ago at Nowruz – Persian New Year – I was lucky enough to be at a Persian community celebration in Melbourne and saw students from Melbourne’s Iranian Cultural School dancing and reciting the story of the birth of Rustam – perhaps the greatest of the warrior heroes of Firdausi’s great work.

[A painting shows a man with a scimitar fighting a demon with white skin and a blue beard.]

Susan: And here he is on the screen about to slay a white div, or demon, so that he can take its liver back to cure his king – to whom he was devoted, of course – of his blindness. The king was blind and the liver was going to fix it. Another of the great heroes from the Shahnama is Iskandar, or Alexander the Great as we know him. And yet another is Bahram Gur who, like Alexander, was based on a real historical figure. These heroes appeared in stories that have been told and retold in the Persianate world over the centuries. Stories such as this one of Bahram Gur and his beloved slave girl Azada were retold by later poets who sometimes changed the details of the story and one or two of the poets who retold this exact story actually changed the girl’s name. In the Shahnama, a leaf of which you see here on the screen and which will be coming with the exhibition, Azada displeases Bahram Gur despite her skill in playing her harp while riding on the back of his camel while he hunts. So he throws her to the ground and she is left to die, trampled under his camel.. Now, later the poet Nizami of Ganja in the 12th century retold the same story, but he called the girl Fitna, which means ‘rebellious’ or ‘troublesome’, and he had her survive the ordeal of being left to die after which she, we are told, she trained herself to lift a cow over her head, as you can see here on the screen …

[A painting shows a woman on a building roof holding a cow across her shoulders. A bearded man sits nearby.]

Susan: … until Bahram Gur heard of this amazing skill and came to find her. Amir Khusrau, one of the poets who wrote in northern India from Delhi at the turn of the 14th century told yet another version of the tale. He called the girl Dilaram and she survives her altercation with Bahram by being set loose in the desert and finding a wise old man who teaches her to play the harp so beautifully that she enchants the animals – you can see her doing that there – and in the process she regains Bahram’s affections. Each time the story was retold, Bahram’s lady beloved becomes a bit more liberated or free. And some of the female protagonists, I have to tell you, in the earlier poetic stories were very liberated indeed. Rustam , the hero we met before, removing the liver of the white div, had his share of a kind of love with the bold and beautiful Princess Tahmina, who appeared in his room one night when he was staying at her father’s castle. She entered his chamber after being taken there by a servant and without further ado asked Rustam to father her child. In exchange, she offered to find his horse that had gone missing earlier in the day.

[Audience laughs]

Susan: And the story tells us – guess what – that Rustam took up her offer immediately. There’s a beautiful detail there. It’s a really gorgeous, gorgeous miniature painting on the page. Great Persian poets like Sana’i and later ‘Attar, who Rumi met as a boy, retold these old and well-loved stories in the 11th century and 12th century and added mystical meanings to these tales of romance and adventure. Rumi and other poets frequently referred and alluded to the work of these poetic masters, and in the process they created what is perhaps the major theme of Persian poetry – that is, the process of human love being transformed into divine love. The story of Yusuf and Zulaykha is a good example. There they are on the screen, married in a beautiful and highly symbolic garden setting. And when I say married, I mean both in an earthly sense and in the sense of being united in soul and spirit with each other and ultimately united with the Divine. Even if we can’t read the Persian language text, the people who commissioned copies of these books and often gave them as gifts or enjoyed them being read at special gatherings – poetry parties with music and food and wine – these people, as I said, even if they couldn’t read the words, they could certainly read or understand the power and the immediacy of the miniature paintings that often ornamented books of poetry in the Persian tradition. In this detail, we see the elegant flaming nimbus around Joseph’s head – the sign of his sanctity or his prophethood. And as I show you more images of this story you’ll recognise Joseph every time because of that beautiful flaming nimbus, which is particularly elegant in this manuscript.

[The image she is describing appears onscreen]

Susan: We also see if we look more closely at the garden the beautifully drawn cypress tree and its close companion, the flowering fruit tree, or the shrub, which stand for the ‘lover’ and the ‘beloved’, often rendered entwined with each other like real-life lovers, but on another level, a metaphor for the entwining of souls that is the hallmark of true love and, most importantly, the entwining with the Divine being that mystic thinkers of the time regarded as the highest love of all, the end result, of course, a natural progression of earthly love and in the end the goal of all spiritual pilgrims. Now, the basic plot of the story of Yusuf and Zulaykha is of course an archetypal one known throughout world literature – that of a young man who’s unusually handsome and unusually virtuous who resists the advances of his only slightly older stepmother. In this case, most of us know the tale from the biblical book of Genesis as the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. In the biblical story, Joseph, one of the sons of Jacob, is sold into slavery and he firmly resists the seductive approaches of the wife of his master, Potiphar. Now, I should add here that the American writer Mark Twain once famously said that both protagonists in this tale had given their side of the story and that he considered the lady’s as being plausible, but that Joseph’s was – and I quote – ‘outrageously shaky’ and was about as convincing as the story that Pharaoh’s daughter told about finding her baby in the bullrushes.

[Audience laughs]

Susan: He’s always good for a quote, Mark Twain. But the story of the virtuous slave had appeared earlier. It was previously in the Jewish commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and in that version the Egyptian official’s wife is named as Zulaykha. That’s how we know her name. In the version in the Qur’an the tale is introduced as ‘the most beautiful story’, and Yusuf, or Joseph as we know him, personifies – and I quote – ‘two-thirds of all the beauty in the created world’. The version in the Qur’an is also a little kinder to Zulaykha. Whereas the Bible story, as one writer put it, portrays her as an ‘unattractive hussy’, the Qur’an gives her a larger part in the narrative as in this often-illustrated scene where Zulaykha invites her friends over to see how handsome Yusuf is.

[A painting shows a group of women sitting around a woman lying on the floor. A man holding a tray stands among them. A figure sits on a small stage surrounded by a low screen.]

Susan: She hopes that when they see his beauty they will understand her love and desire for him. As the women sit peeling their fruit after a generous feast, Yusuf joins the party. You can see him there with his flaming nimbus. He’s carrying additional refreshments, but they faint at the sight of him or become so distracted by his beautiful appearance that they cut their hands on their sharp fruit knives. Eventually Yusuf is imprisoned, during which time, as in the biblical account, he interprets Pharaoh’s dreams, is released from prison and Zulaykha mends her ways by abandoning idol worship and paganism and eventually she reaches spiritual enlightenment.

Scholars tell us that at least 18 Persian poets wrote their versions of this story based on the account in the Qur’an and that they embellished it with added details of their own. Rumi mentions the story a lot in his poetry. The great poet Sa‘di from Shiraz retold it in the 13th century and one of the best- known later versions was written as a mystical allegory by the great religious authority Jami from Herat. He wrote his version of the story in 1484 while he was the grand master of a local order of dervishes.

Jami has been acknowledged as the last of the great classical poets of Persia, for in the 16th century a new era began with the so-called ‘gunpowder’ empires of the Safavids in Persia, the Ottoman Turks in Anatolia and south-east Europe and the Mughals in northern India. And while the courts of these political entities were luxurious and splendid on a level never seen before, and while the various rulers and other members of the imperial elite supported poets and writers at their courts, it was a time more noted for the flowering of the arts of the book and other decorative objects than it was for the composition of great new works or the emergence of great poetic figures such as ‘Attar, Hafiz, Jami and the other great Persian poets of the past.

Jami’s Yusuf and Zulaykha is regarded by many as the best example of a mystical love story in all Islamic literature. In his telling of the tale, Zulaykha, a Moorish princess, first sees the beautiful young man – the manifestation of divine beauty – in a dream where he appears to her to be a minister of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Zulaykha’s father dutifully arranges for her to marry the real-life minister Potiphar who, of course, turns out not to be the man of Zulaykha’s dreams. Meanwhile Yusuf, or Joseph, has been sold as a slave and he arrives to work in the household of Potiphar and Zulaykha as a servant. He, of course, is the man of Zulaykha’s dreams and she sets out to seduce him by various means, building a palace decorated with paintings of the pair in amorous poses and grabbing at the hem of his robe and tearing it in one well-known part of the story.

Here’s a detail of just the top of this manuscript here where you can see – I hope you can see it clearly – scenes of them embracing and so on that she’s had painted, hoping to entice him and encourage him to what she hopes to achieve with him. So this is an image that’s often painted in the story of Joseph and Zulaykha. It gave artists an opportunity to show their skill in various figural drawings. We are told in the story that at one point Yusuf is tempted, but he remains virtuous and he resists Zulaykha’s advances. After many twists and turns, here even accused of fathering her child, there’s poor Joseph down there at the lower right-hand side. Can you see him with his hands tied behind his back, flaming nimbus still in place? And here’s the detail of those curious observers that appear in many of these illustrations with the cypress tree and the entwined tree in blossom, symbolising the lover and the beloved.

Despite all these things, Yusuf goes on to become a high-ranking minister and Zulaykha is reduced to begging in the streets, an ageing, blind widow. On seeing her in this sorry state, still suffering from unrequited love for him, Yusuf shows mercy and she is miraculously rejuvenated – I like this bit – regaining her youth and beauty, adopting the true religious path and finally she and Yusuf are wed, as we saw at the beginning.

At the end, Jami adds a whimsical twist with Yusuf – the ultimate symbol of the beloved – so overcome with desire for Zulaykha that he tears the hem of her robe so that we know then that lover and beloved are now the same person, their souls entwined with each other just like the cypress and the flowering tree here and their souls entwined with the Divine. And interestingly, it’s Zulaykha to whom Jami gives the last words of his masterwork and this is what he says. Or rather, this is what she says. These are the words that Jami gave her to say at the end. She says, ‘In days of yore / Thy robe from off thy body once I tore / Thou hast my garment now from off me torn / And I my crime’s just punishment have borne / Of right and wrong I now no longer fear / In tearing robes we both stand equal here’.

Long before Jami wrote this great love story, [the 13th century poet Nizami grouped five of his poems together]. The best known are the narrative romance of Khusrau and Shirin; another one about Alexander the Great, or Iskandar as the Persians called him; and a really important one is the story of Bahram – that’s Bahram Gur who we already met – but the story of Bahram while still a prince entertaining seven lovely princesses in seven palace pavilions on each of the seven days of the week.

[Audience laughs]

Susan: This is a story that became a favourite for later poets to interpret and the one you see on the screen at the moment is a beautiful illustration from a version by Mir Ali-Shir who was widely known as Nava’i, meaning ‘melodious’ or ‘melody-maker’, in reference to the skill in which he wove words together as he translated from the Persian originals into a Central Asian form of his native Turkish. But the story from Nizami’s Khamsa that became best known was the sad tale of Layla and Majnun. ‘Layla and Majnun’ is probably the most famous of all the stories that circulated in Iran and the neighbouring territories that were so influenced by Persian culture.

[A painting shows a garden in which a couple sit on a carpet facing a large bearded man who is sitting in an ornately decorated tent. Colourfully dressed figures sit around the couple.]

Susan: It came to epitomise the poetic notion that earthly love could and possibly should lead to spiritual enlightenment. It’s a sad story, though, that came into the Persianate sphere from Arab sources. It begins with the ultimately hopeless lovers meeting as schoolchildren, as you see here on the screen. Like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the pair fall deeply in love but are forbidden to marry because they come from different tribes. Majnun loses his mind when the parents forbid them to marry – hence his name in the story, Majnun, which means ‘possessed by spirits’ or ‘crazy’ – and mad with love, he retreats to the wilderness where he tears off his clothes, pours dust on his head, calls out Layla’s name and refuses to eat. You can see him there in the centre of the screen without his shirt. Needless to say, wild animals are his only companions. Now, this part of the story became a favourite for illustrators and we have a number of different manuscripts that will be shown in the exhibition that depict this part of the story. Here’s another one – a very beautiful Mughul manuscript showing Majnun in the wilderness with his animals. Now, even though Layla is eventually married off to a nobleman she remains devoted to Majnun and visits him in the desert, arriving by camel, as you see here – here’s a detail.

[A close-up of one section of a painting shows animals surrounding a seated camel. Nearby, a woman cradles a man’s head in her lap.]

Susan: But he’s so overcome at the sight of her that he faints and doesn’t really recover consciousness until after she’s left again. Here she is trying to remind him. The same thing happens when an old woman acting as a go-between brings Majnun to Layla’s tent and so because he faints this time as well and they can’t seem to get together, she eventually dies from the grief of her broken heart. And as in the Romeo and Juliet story, her obsessed beloved follows her to the grave, dying in his turn as he mourns at her tomb.

Now, the story became popular in Iran in the early days of the Islamic era in the 7th century, but as I mentioned previously, it was the poet Nizami who wrote his exquisitely beautiful version at the turn of the 13th century who gave the tale its universal and long-lasting appeal – so long-lasting that in the late 1960s the English rock guitarist Eric Clapton was given a translation of Nizami’s ‘Layla and Majnun’ by a friend and he was struck by its relevance to his own situation at the time. Apparently, Clapton was in the throes of a painful and at that stage unrequited love for Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison, one of The Beatles, and in 1970 with a group called Derek & the Dominos Clapton recorded a song that he called ‘Layla’ after the female beloved of Nizami’s story. The track was part of an album called Layla and other love songs that at first did not enjoy great success, although for any rock music fans of a certain age out there – and I think I saw a few on the way in – it did launch the brief career of Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band who joined Clapton in the guitar duets on the eight-minute long track. Interestingly, the album notes inform us that one of the other songs – one called ‘I am yours’ – had lyrics written by Clapton along with a co-writer called Nizami, but no date or any other further details were given about Clapton’s mysterious collaborator. In 1972, a less strident and passionate version of ‘Layla’ went on to become a great hit for Clapton.

But Europeans had been aware of Persian poetry long before he recognised himself – that is, Eric Clapton recognised himself – in Nizami’s tale of unhappy and obsessive love. There had already been parallels in Dante and Chaucer and Shakespeare and increasingly in the 17th century small Persian texts began to be translated into European languages and more European travellers began to write their accounts of journeys to Iran. Adam Olearius travelled to Persia in 1637 as secretary to the embassy to Iran of the duke of the German state of Holstein and he later wrote about what he saw. And I quote, ‘There’s no nation in the world more addicted to poetry than the Persians. There you have poets in all the marketplaces and in all houses of good fellowship where they entertain and make sport for those that frequent them. Great lords think they cannot give their friends a better entertainment than by diverting them while they’re at dinner with a recital of some poem’, end of quote. Olearius translated the Gulistan by Sa‘di into German and this became in 1650 … Sorry. He did that in 1654. And this translation became an important source for Goethe’s Persian-influenced poetry in the early 19th century. English gentleman scholars such as Sir William and Sir Gore Ouseley in the late 18th century – about the same time as Goethe – also made important contributions, translating numerous works and publishing accounts of their travels and diplomatic missions in Persia and in India.

[A yellowed document appears on the screen. Titles on one side read, Voyages and travels of the ambassadors. Muscovy, Tartary, Persia, East Indies. The other side shows black and white portraits of five dignified men in period dress.]

Susan: The Ouseley brothers also actively collected manuscripts and the bulk of their Oriental collections are now held by the Bodleian Library at Oxford. So I hope you’ll come to see the exhibition when it opens next year for stories of many different kinds of love … to the legendary romance of Khusrau and Shirin and even dire warnings of the perils of love as we see here with this elderly gentleman so distracted by love that he falls from a lady’s terrace for, as Rumi reminds us, there are many fruits to be enjoyed in the garden of love and much to be learnt as well. Thank you.

[Applause]

[The logos of the State Library of Victoria and the State Government of Victoria appear on a black screen]

 

31:05
Enjoy an insight into the exhibition Love and devotion as co-curator Susan Scollay reveals the beauty of Persian poetry.
5:14
A preview of the Persian manuscripts that feature in Love and devotion, the Library's landmark 2012 exhibition.
17:17
Richard Ovenden discusses the Bodleian Libraries and the 'Love and devotion' exhibition.
1:23
Actor Helen Morse introduces lyrical works written by the great Persian poets of the past.
2:22
Hear Helen Morse read from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
24:57
Prof Charles Melville on illuminated manuscripts that address themes of love and devotion.
23:44
Prof Charles Melville on illuminated manuscripts that address themes of love and devotion.
46:39
Dr Mammad Aidani explores contemporary ways of understanding the poetry of Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi.
40:52
Dr Zahra Taheri discusses the role of the feminine in the life and teachings of the mystic Sufi poet Rumi.
40:53
Dr Barbara Brend discusses the illustrations in the 'Khamsa' of Nizami and the 'Khamsa' of Amir Khusrau.
8:57
Cameron Douraghy talks about the Rostam: Tales from the Shahnameh comic book series.
1:41
Hear Helen Morse read from Goethe’s West-eastern Divan.
1:49
Hear Helen Morse read from Lord Byron's The bride of Abydos.
1:41
Hear Helen Morse read Shakespeare's Sonnet no 54.
2:09
Hear Helen Morse read from the Divan of Hafiz.
1:46
Hear Helen Morse read from Dante's Divine comedy.
1:47
Hear Helen Morse read from the story of Layla and Majnun, as told in the Khamsa of Nizami.
2:19
Hear Helen Morse read from ʿAttar's Conference of the birds.
2:01
Hear Helen Morse read from Rumi's Masnavi.
2:42
Hear Helen Morse read from Firdausi's Shahnama.
2:01
Hear Helen Morse read from Rumi's Masnavi.
2:19
Hear Helen Morse read from ʿAttar's Conference of the birds.
1:47
Hear Helen Morse read from the story of Layla and Majnun, as told in the Khamsa of Nizami.
1:46
Hear Helen Morse read from Dante's Divine comedy.
2:09
Hear Helen Morse read from the Divan of Hafiz.
1:41
Hear Helen Morse read Shakespeare's Sonnet no 54.
1:49
Hear Helen Morse read from Lord Byron's The bride of Abydos.
1:41
Hear Helen Morse read from Goethe’s West-eastern Divan.
1:23
Actor Helen Morse introduces lyrical works written by the great Persian poets of the past.
2:22
Hear Helen Morse read from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.
2:42
Hear Helen Morse read from Firdausi's Shahnama.
23:44
Prof Charles Melville on illuminated manuscripts that address themes of love and devotion.
24:57
Prof Charles Melville on illuminated manuscripts that address themes of love and devotion.
40:53
Dr Barbara Brend discusses the illustrations in the 'Khamsa' of Nizami and the 'Khamsa' of Amir Khusrau.
40:52
Dr Zahra Taheri discusses the role of the feminine in the life and teachings of the mystic Sufi poet Rumi.
46:39
Dr Mammad Aidani explores contemporary ways of understanding the poetry of Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi.

Love & devotion in the UK

The Bodleian Libraries is showing its own presentation of the Love and devotion exhibition at the Exhibition Room, Bodleian Library, in Oxford, England, between 29 November 2012 and 28 April 2013.

Learn more about how you can visit this exhibition on the Bodleian Libraries website.

Conference

Love and devotion: Persian Cultural Crossroads

This two-day conference held in April 2012 featured distinguished international guests and Australian specialists exploring cultural convergences in literature, the arts and architecture, history and philosophy within Persia's cultural sphere and Europe, from the 11th century to the present day.

For information on keynote speakers & topics discussed, visit our conference page

Visit the exhibition

The Love and devotion exhibition took place from 9 March to 1 July 2012. In-depth information about the exhibits and themes can be found on this website.

State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street,
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Tel +61 3 8664 7000