Classics and Archaeology Virtual Museum

Middle Eastern Manuscripts

Largely comprised of single bound texts but also including several volume sets, some unbound or incomplete textual material and an ornate book cover. The collection is catalogued in the sequence in which they were grouped when received by the Baillieu Library from the Department of Middle Eastern Studies.

Most items date from the c.19th AD, but some texts may be as early as c.15th A.D. MUL 35 has a date equivalent to AD 1581. Primarily Muslim religious texts or associated theory, the collection also includes poetry, educational primers and works on subjects as wide-ranging as astrology and weaponry.

Apart from the scholarly and historical value of certain individual items and of the collection as a whole, numerous manuscripts are significant for their bibliographical or artistic content. Many contain extensive marginalia and other notations both in Middle Eastern and English which make them unique and in some cases irreplaceable (MUL 137). Inserted items, early labels , dealers inscriptions and bookplates are to be found in many volumes (MUL 61). Although many works have undergone restoration in the past, the collection includes some outstanding examples of original Islamic binding. Boards are covered with embossed and tooled leather and further decorated with inlaid medallions, paint and gold leaf. There are numerous decorative headbands and leather doublures. The lacquered cover of MUL 80 and the Turkish cover decorated with velvet MUL 168) are unusual examples in the collection. Many covers are made of pasteboard consisting of old manuscript leaves. Other unusually constructed items include the small Ethiopic manuscript with wooden boards (MUL 156), an Arabic limp binding (MUL 132) and the Mongolian folded scroll (MUL 127).

The textblocks of numerous manuscripts in the collection contain fine examples of Islamic illustration and further book decoration. Many works have highly decorative 'unwan' (decorative frontispieces) illuminated with gouache and gold and silver leaf. Some texts are accompanied by illuminations and miniatures. MUL 134 has a total of thirty-four intact miniatures. Many others contain illustrations and diagrams (MUL 157). The paper in many works is highly burnished, dyed, flecked with gold, inlaid with gold-beaters skin or other papers, and decorated in the margins (MUL 86, 87). Middle Eastern, Italian and English watermarks were found in the leaves of manuscripts (eg. MUL 81, 118, 166). In the script of many works more than one hand can be identified.

Dr M.J.L.Young, from the University of Leeds, spent a sabbatical in 1990 revising and expanding the catalogue of these manuscripts. Unfortunately, he died soon after his return to Leeds and it has not been possible to find his notes.

113 Middle Eastern manuscripts were described in the 1971 Catalogue. In the files is a photocopy of a typescript, with the title "Melbourne University Oriental MSS". The typescript, which has the last two entries in the Persian section and some corrections and notes written in by hand, may have been the source for the Catalogue. There are traces of style markup symbols. The typescript includes some additional reference numbers in to the right of the page which were not reproduced in the 1971 Catalogue.

A document drawn up by the Baillieu Library in November 1977, listing 168 works, indicated that the descriptions were based on the 1971 Catalogue or "from the sale catalogue entries found in the items or from other identification as possible". Apart from a photocopy of the 1971 Catalogue, this document comprised a photocopy of index cards which also assigned an MUL number and recorded the shelf number of each manuscript.

The M.E.m/s Conservation Report dated 2.11.93 identified, described and reported on the condition of 168 Middle Eastern manuscripts numbered MUL 1 - MUL 168. The full Report includes shelf number, language, dimensions, title, author and date, where available, "from the original catalogue 1977, except for dimensions" - dimensions in the catalogue being in inches but in centimetres in the Report. The Report gives a detailed physical description of each work and and details of the condition of the volume in general and the textblock in particular. For future purposes the Conservation Report has been edited into a database (mesmss.fp3). 17 photographs illustrated the Conservation Report.

From this evidence it would seem that the 55 additional manuscripts were acquired between 1971 and 1977. But it is also possible that they were simply not all catalogued at the time.

The manuscripts are housed in the Baillieu Library. The Library's response to the Conservation Report is in a document called "Condition 1.12.93". The Library budgeted some $6000 for conservation work, and some of the manuscripts were in Conservation in May 1996. In October 1998 Conservator Robyn Sloggett presented a seminar paper on some of the art work on these manuscripts and early books.

A list has been drawn up showing the correspondance between the MUL card numbers and the 1971 Catalogue numbers. The 55 items not listed in the 1971 Catalogue are MUL 39-54 and MUL 130-168; the correspondance list identifies the language of the new items. Here is a summary of the correspondance list:


Cat 1971

MUL cards
CR 1993


A1-A38 = MUL 1-38

77 (= 39 more)


P1-P63 = MUL 55-117

72 (= 9 more)


T1-T3 = MUL 123-125

6 (= 3 more)


U1-U5 = MUL 118-122




2 (=2 more)



1 (=1 more)


S1 = MUL 128




1 (=1 more)


PR1 = MUL 126



M1 = MUL 127



K1 = MUL 129


From the Conservation Report a database has been constructed, in anticipation of future developments. From this database has been extracted a more detailed list of the Middle Eastern Manuscripts, including their date and a brief indication of their contents.

The manuscripts have not been accessioned by the Museum of Art or photographed for the Virtual Museum.

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