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A Calligrapher's Story

The story of Laylah and Majnun is a Persian tale of two star-crossed lovers much like Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” Forcibly separated by their respective tribes’ animosity, forced marriage and years of exile into the wilderness, the two meet again for the last time before their death, thanks to the intervention of Majnun’s elderly messenger. Upon seeing each other in a palm grove immediately outside of Laylah’s camp, they faint of extreme passion and pain. The old man attempts to revive the lovers, while the wild animals, protective of Majnun (“The King of Wilderness”), attack any unwanted intruders.

The fainting of Laylah and Majnun. ca. 1550-1600 Illustrated card for ceremonial use

This well-known passage from the tragic story of Laylah and Majnun is described in the third book of Persian poet Nizami's “Khamsah” or “Quintet,” a collection of five books of stories on romantic and heroic themes. His story has been passed through generations of Middle Eastern folklore, even inspiring American culture. The story is used metaphorically in the song “Layla,” by Eric Clapton. Another song, “I Am Yours,” which is on the same album as “Layla,” was so greatly inspired by Nizami’s text that Clapton gave the poet co-songwriting credit.

Stories, such as those of Nizami, were often transcribed as calligraphy, which was widely used to express religious sentiment and many other aspects of personal and cultural life. Calligraphic art developed gradually over the centuries and has been the subject of numerous studies analyzing its role in the faith, culture and art of Arabic-, Persian- and Turkish-speaking lands.

The online presentation of “Selections of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Calligraphy” showcases stunning examples of calligraphic art, including illuminated panels, albums and poems. In addition to the individual calligraphy sheets, this presentation contains essays on Ottoman and Persian calligraphic styles, an in-depth look at Quranic calligraphic fragments and an essay discussing some of the Library's notable Arabic script calligraphy sheets and illuminations. Some 370 sheets are made available by the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.

Presented as part of Global Gateway, the calligraphy collection joins other world history collections such as “Islamic Manuscripts from Mali” and “Selections from the Naxi Manuscript Collection,” both of which highlight script used as part of the cultures’ traditions.

A. The fainting of Laylah and Majnun. ca. 1550-1600. African and Middle Eastern Division. Reproduction Information: Call No.: 1-86-154.123

B. Illustrated card for ceremonial use. Asian Division. Reproduction Information: Call Nos.: LC Number: 2601, Zhu Number: NZO013