Sa’di’s Gulistan and the Middle Eastern Manuscript Collection

The Middle Eastern Manuscript Collection of the University of Melbourne was acquired mostly by Professor John Bowman throughout the 1960s, and is made of approximately 190 manuscripts, of both secular and religious texts. Since Bowman’s retirement in the early 1970s, the collection remained largely untouched and unstudied, despite its significance. Throughout the past few years, the collection has been the subject of multiple PhD projects, with the aim of developing greater understandings of the texts as material objects and reconnecting them with their cultural context.

Sa’di was a 7th century (of the Islamic calendar)/ 13th century (of the Gregorian calendar) Persian writer and poet. He is recognised as a master of his literary tradition, and is known for his works Bustān and Golestān, both completed in the 1250s. Golestān or Gulistān, meaning “The Rose Garden”, expanded beyond its Persian context into the rest of the Islamic world, and was particularly popular during the 15th-18th centuries within the Ottoman Empire. As Rastegar remarks, ‘It was commented upon not only as a work of ethics but also for its style and poetics’ (300).

Gulistān comprises of eight chapters:

Of the Customs of Kings;
Of the Morals of Dervishes;
On the Preciousness of Contentment;
On the Benefit of Being Silent;
On Love and Youth;
Of Imbecility and Old Age;
Of the Effects of Education;
Of the Duties of Society

Each of these chapters is comprised of several stories, written mostly in prose with punctuations of poetry. Golestān strikes a balance between entertaining anecdotes about Sa’di’s travels, and moral lessons. In the tenth story of the first chapter “Of the Customs of Kings”, he tells of being at a mosque in Damascus, when a prince known for his injustices and tyrannical rule arrives, and asks to pray along with him, as he fears a powerful enemy. Sa’di scorns the prince, and admonishes him to instead ‘[…] Have compassion on your own weak subjects […] Is he not afraid who is hard-hearted with the fallen that if he slip his foot will nobody take him by the hand? (91). The solution to the prince’s fear is not to only pray for his own safety, but rather to act morally and care for others, and they will them grant him their support and protection in return. This short anecdotal story demonstrates Sa’di’s ability to impart his thoughts on the abuse of power, and how successful leaders understand that a rejection of self-serving behaviours will ultimately be to their advantage, within a comprehensible and modest autobiographical tale.

Saʻdī, Gulistān, [1836], MUL 59.
Saʻdī, Gulistān, [1836], MUL 59.
The Middle Eastern Manuscript collection contains several beautiful editions of Sa’di’s Gulistan. MUL 59 SADI (1252? [1836]) contains a note in English, handwritten in pencil, scrawled in its opening pages, saying ‘The Gulistan of Sadi, a beautiful written copy done by Ahmed Ali for Charles Marriott Caldedott […] copied in 1836’. Due to the Gulistan’s reputation as a great work of literature, and the popularity of Orientalism in the 19th-century, it was not uncommon for Western book collectors to commission or purchase copies as notable additions to their libraries. The opening pages of this work are beautifully illuminated with gold, blue, and red paint. For some of those studying the texts of the Middle Eastern Manuscript collection, making their own paint in order to understand the methods which create such vibrant and long lasting colours is a central part of their research.

Saʻdī, Gulistān, [1836], MUL 59.
Saʻdī, Gulistān, [1836], MUL 59.
While the following pages are not decorated as elaborately, the calligraphy of the work itself is a work of art. The rules of calligraphy were set down by Ebn Moqla in the 10th century (fourth Islamic century). For the sake of avoiding a proliferation of disjointed styles, the established fourteen styles and twelve core rules for the discipline, centred balancing straightness (sath) and roundness (dawr) (Yūsofī 1990). This manuscript features Nasta’līq script, a popular and respected style of Islamic calligraphy developed in 14th century Iran. This is an elegant script featuring elongated, curved horizontal lines, and almost casually placed dot work. There are various inks used in Islamic calligraphy, most commonly carbon ink and iron gall ink. Carbon ink is a simple mixture of soot and Arabic gum as binder, while the slightly more complex iron gall ink sources its colourant from a chemical reaction between metal sulphates and gall nut extracts. Other inks can be created from a mixture of these colourants along with other spices and dyes to create variations on the tone of black. The quality of the calligraphy can vary from manuscript to manuscript depending on their purpose. For example, one commissioned by a wealthy patron would be of the highest quality by a master calligrapher, whereas one put together for teaching texts to students would not require the same careful attention.

Saʻdī, Gulistān-i Saʻdī, [1125? [1711?], MUL 62
Saʻdī, Gulistān-i Saʻdī, [1125? [1711?], MUL 62
The marginal annotations in MUL 62 SADI (1125? [1711?]) are potentially the result of some such student, analysing and commenting on the content and structure of the work. Use of Sa’di’s Gulistān as a valuable example of Persian poetry was widespread across Iran and Farsi-speaking areas for a long time, and these annotations demonstrate the considerable extent of the engagement with this text. A scribbled-in English note in the opening pages of MUL 62 reads ‘The Gulistan of Sadi in Persian with a Turkish commentary. Very nice binding’. This note provides no insight as to how it came into the hands of an English-speaking owner, or exactly which Turkish-speaking scholar owned it previously. However, it provides a reminder of how many hands one manuscript may pass through, to be intrigued by its pages and ink. The more research is done on collections like the Baillieu Library’s Middle Eastern Manuscript collection, the more these texts can be understood and respected as they ought to be. Modern research creates links with ancient traditions, minds, and words, once again bringing illumination to the beautiful manuscripts of old.

Adelaide Greig

Print Room Intern


Alhagh, Leila. The Grimwade Centre of Cultural Materials Conservation (University of Melbourne), PhD Candidate, questions via email

Rastegar, Kamran. “Gulistan: Sublimity and the Colonial Credo of Translatability” in Migrating Texts: Circulating Translations around the Ottoman Mediterranean, edited by Marilyn Booth. (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press), 2019. 300-317.

Sa’di. Gulistan or Flower Garden, translated by Charles Sayle (London, Walter Scott), 1823.

Sloggett, Robyn, Lewincamp, Sophie, Tse, Nicole et. al., “Using a Cross-Disciplinary Investigation to Inform Questions about an Insecurely Provenanced Middle Eastern Manuscript: A Case Study of a Middle Eastern Manuscript”,. The International Journal of Science Society, 4.3, 2012. 33-34

Yūsofī, Golām-Hosayn. “Calligraphy”, Encyclopeadia Iranica, 1990.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *