An overview of the primary Persian manuscript collections in the United Kingdom.
We are now approaching what UK-based researchers lovingly call “the season,” meaning the time of year when academics from across the world descend on the British Library en masse and going for a mid-afternoon cup of coffee often results in a series of impromptu reunions. The British Library boasts an extensive collection of Persian and Indo-Persian manuscripts (some of which they are digitizing), but they are not the only show in town. Scholars too often overlook other Persian language archives in London and nearby that possess their own unique manuscript collections and frequently offer more progressive and researcher-friendly photography and reproduction policies. Here is a list to help you get started thinking beyond the BL.
Bodleian Library, Oxford
Special Collections at the Bodleian is a true gem among manuscript archives. Their Persian manuscripts number 2,530. The reading room is open for long hours (weekdays: 9 am-10 pm in term and 9 am-7 pm otherwise; Saturdays 10-4 in term and 10-2 during vacations). All readers must obtain a reader’s card that, depending on one’s institutional affiliation, may cost a small fee. Reproduction is offered at reasonable rates and personal photography is also allowed for hand-held cameras only, subject to staff approval. For Persian manuscripts, Volume 1 and Volume 3 of the catalogue are available online. Special collections have been temporally moved during the construction of the new Bodleian, so e-mail well in advance to reserve your desired manuscripts. For more information, see the more detailed report on the Bodleian available here.
Cambridge University Library, Cambridge
Cambridge University Library holds more than 1,200 Persian manuscripts. These can be viewed in the Manuscripts Reading Room, which is open from 9:00 am-6:50 pm Monday through Friday and 9:00-12:45 on Saturday. All users must obtain an admissions card. Cambridge lists the relevant catalogs and provides links to pdfs on the library website. Hand-held personal photography is allowed, and readers should also note the ongoing project to digitize Islamic manuscripts at Cambridge. Many Persian manuscripts are already available online in the Cambridge Digital Library and high-quality images can be downloaded free of charge.
Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London
Located just around the corner from Euston station, the Royal Asiatic Society has a fantastic collection of Indian manuscripts acquired from several major Orientalists, perhaps most famously James Tod. All of their Persian manuscripts have been integrated into their online catalog. Library hours are 10 am-5 pm on Tuesday and Friday and 2-5 on Thursday afternoons. Scholars are advised to e-mail before visiting. Current reproduction rates are 1 pound per image for the first 100 images and 50 pence per image thereafter. Personal photography of manuscripts is not allowed but is permitted for printed materials.
Wellcome Library, London
The Wellcome Library holds a number of Persian manuscripts, many of which are scientific works, but the collection also includes literature, religious texts, translations, and more. Researchers should first join the library (no cost). The Wellcome’s catalog of Persian manuscripts is available as a pdf. Manuscripts can be consulted in the Rare Books Room 10 am-6 pm on weekdays (open until 8 pm on Thursday) and 10 am-4 pm on Saturday. The Wellcome allows personal photography and has also put select low-quality images of individual folios online at Wellcome Images. (A detailed review of the Wellcome may be found here.)
And Many More…
For the creative there are plenty of other UK archives that house Persian manuscripts. At both Cambridge and Oxford, some individual colleges maintain their own collections of Oriental Manuscripts. One can also find Persian manuscripts in Manchester, Birmingham (some available online), and other places. Also note the young but growing online catalog for UK manuscripts in Arabic script, Fihrist. Happy hunting!
Gonville and Caius College
University of Cambridge
Image: Niẓāmī, Khamsa, MS Browne 1434 p. 267, St John’s College, University of Cambridge.
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