Experience literature in miniature in Baku

February 19, 2012 23:08 0 comments

Genuine antiquities and rare and unique texts adorn this singular museum, one of the most precious symbols of Azerbaijan, along with caviar and oil.


Nubia Piqueras Grosso *

Founded on the 23rd of April 1992, in the historic capital of this Euro Asiatic nation, located in the Caucasus region on the border of the Caspian Sea, the Baku Museum of Miniature Books is the only private museum in the world which displays miniature printed editions.

Zarifa Salahova, an avid reader since childhood – a useful exercise which would later lead to the practice of collecting – is the founder and curator of this cultural institution. She explained to the Latin American News Agency how this fascinating idea came about, during her second visit to Cuba.

“It all began in 1982 when I bought a complete collection of the Russian writer Iván Krilov, which dates from 1835. On arriving at the store I was fascinated by a miniature book which was in the corner of the room. That was when my passion for these specimens began”, recalled the President of the Board of the Society of Books of Azerbaijan.

Following this chance encounter, Salahova now preserves more than six thousand miniature books as precious treasures, published in 68 countries and representing a dozen languages, including a copy of the Koran from the 17th century.

Numerous collections, organised by themes, countries, continents and authors are exhibited in the Museum’s 37 showcases as a tribute to the historical, cultural and literary memory of each nation.

Among the most outstanding miniature texts are works by Alexander Pushkin, the leading exponent of modern Russian literature, Soviet and European classics, children’s books and works published in Azerbaijan, including 11 jealously guarded miniature books published in Cuba.

“I was studying pedagogy in Russian language and literature when the revolution triumphed in Cuba, and Fidel Castro became a symbol of liberty and peace for us. When I learned of the festivities for his 85th birthday, I decided to publish a miniature book about him and the achievements of this Caribbean nation”, recalled Salahova.

In this way “Fidel Castro: eminent leader of the Cuban people” was born, the Spanish version of which contains 320 pages and 54 colour illustrations associated with the leader of the Revolution as well as the geography, history, health and other social and economic aspects of the island.

Awarded the national Humay 2001 laureate in recognition of her work for culture and literature, she told the Latin American News Agency that the idea for this miniature bibliographic production, also published in Russian, came about by chance in the summer of 2010.

“After many dealings with the “Cuban Institute for friendship with the people” in order to access the articles and photographs which make up the work, the cultural counsellor of the Caribbean (Caribbean is not a country, do you mean the Cuban Embassy ?) Embassy in Azerbaijan, Marcelo Caballero, made the dream a reality with the help of the sponsoring company Halal and publishers company Indigo”, she added.

Made by hand, due to the impossibility machine-binding the minute pages, the text is one of 142 miniature books published by the museum and dedicated to world-famous political, academic and religious people.

However, it is not only curiosity and the opportunity to appreciate unique works, some on a microscopic scale, which attracts visitors, but also the skill with which the staff – true artisans of binding work – are able to weave together the pages of a story.

Little treasures

According to the size of the book, the works can be divided into four categories: Macro-mini (3.4 inches), Miniature (1.3 inches), Micro-mini (0.75 inch) and Ultra-mini micro (less than 0.25 inch).

The “History of England”, published in 1815, stands out among the oldest miniature works which the museum displays, as well as a bible and a pocket volume published in 1468 by Peter Schöffer, assistant and successor to Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press.

A series of five volumes in French is also noteworthy, which was published under the title of “The adventure of the young in Greece” in 1817, was bought by Salahova in an antiques store during a visit to Paris, the European city to which belongs a copy of the Fables of La Fontaine published in 1850.

Another of the antiquities which the museum exhibits is a miniature work called “The biography of my Lérmontov”, one of the foremost Russian romantic poets of the 19th century, added to which is a collection of 320 texts related to Pushkin.

Among the rarities are the world’s three smallest books (each of 2mm x 2mm): “The language of flowers, Stones of the month”, and “The signs of the Zodiac”, published in 1978 in Tokyo by Toppan Publishing House, whose texts can only be read with a magnifying glass.

This category also contains the only miniature book (6mm x9mm) published in the old Soviet Union, under the title “The most miraculous thing” (Moscow, 1985), and includes a selection of the works of Pushkin and Máxim Gorki, translated into four languages: English, Italian, French and German.

A series of about twenty international exhibitions in cities such as Kabul, Paris, Kiev, Moscow, Sidney, Ankara, Minsk and Shanghai have allowed a promotion of the love of books since 1988, said Salahova, who, unlike the majority of women, buys books instead of perfumes and jewellery.

“In my case, a short while ago I paid $350 for a miniature book which contains a prayer of Saint Ana and Saint Francisco of the Vatican, published in 1540, while in London I spent £230 for an complete edition of the works of Shakespeare”, added Salahova.

But behind each book, there is a story which reveals how it came to be part of her collection. Such is the case with a small work by Pushkin, published in his lifetime, which she bought in 1990 during a visit to Paris, for the price of two thousand rubles.

Various displays and materials protect the pages of these works, from traditional leather-skins to snake skin, wood and silver, which reflect the beauty of this art, which won great popularity in the 17th and 18th centuries, especially in Europe. (PL)

(Translated by Mark Stokes – email:   mark_y_stokes@hotmail.co.uk)

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