Purchase of rare manuscript facsimile enhances study of Islamic art


- Robie Liscomb

For UVic students learning about the history of Islamic painting, it’s the next-best thing to a trip to Paris. The university has recently purchased a very high-quality facsimile of one of the most important surviving illustrated manuscripts from the high period of Arab manuscript painting in the 12th and 13th centuries: the Maqamat of al-Hariri, copied and illustrated by Yahya al-Wasiti. The original is in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

“This is a tremendous resource for teaching,” says Islamic art historian Dr. Marcus Milwright (history in art). “When we teach manuscript painting, one of the frustrations is that we can’t take people to see the originals. With this facsimile, you can do almost everything you can do with the original manuscript.”

Being able to examine the facsimile offers many advantages to studying the document online. “The images and details available online are quite limited, and you can’t see all the pages,” says fourth-year student Natalie Gilson, a member of Milwright’s Islamic painting class, which examined the facsimile last term.

“The manuscript includes more than 100 illustrations, and the facsimile allows us to see the text pages not available online and to examine the important relationships between the images and the text,” explains Milwright.

The Maqamat of al-Hariri is one of the masterpieces of Arabic secular literature. The book reveals much about medieval Iraq, reflecting the cultural and ethnic diversity of the country during that period. It contains 50 stories about a merchant and a rogue called Abu Zayd, whose elaborate speeches are one of the literary high points of the book. The stories are set around the Islamic world, and the illustrations depict a range of settings: city scenes, mosques, boats, caravansarais, villages, governors’ residences, and merchants’ houses.

The manuscript, copied and illustrated by al-Wasiti in 1237, is generally regarded as the finest of all the illustrated manuscripts of the Maqamat, and the most inventive Medieval Arabic secular manuscript.

The book was purchased using funds from the Dean Halliwell Library Enrichment Fund and the Owen Padmore Memorial Fund, established by the family of Owen Padmore in memory of the history in art student, who was fascinated by Islamic visual culture. Since 2002 the fund has helped purchase over 120 books on Islamic art, architecture and archaeology.

The McPherson library has been collecting Islamic art books since the 1970s, and with the significant contribution of the Padmore Fund, it houses one of the most important collections in this field of study in Canada.


Video: Faces of UVic Research: Marcus Milwright


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Keywords: Islamic, world culture, languages and literature

People: Marcus Milwright

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