Dala’il al-Khayrat: Depicting Mecca Across the Islamic World

The hajj pilgrimage is a life-shaping experience for millions of Muslims around the world. It culminates with the arrival at the Holy Mosque in Mecca. These manuscripts from the collections of the National Library of Israel depict the Islamic holy sites in Mecca and Medina in colorful illustrations, an artistic expression of faith that continues to evolve…

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel.

Can a selfie be sacred? Every year, millions of Muslims from across the world travel to Mecca for the annual pilgrimage known as the hajj. These days, however, there is no need to make the journey to Saudi Arabia to be a part of the experience. Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms are flooded with pilgrim posts; #hajjselfie is always trending during the ten days of the pilgrimage, which began this year on July 7.

While some claim today that hajj selfies are narcissistic and defy the pilgrimage’s spiritual purpose, others argue that such images are an important way to remember a pivotal experience and share it with others. And, in fact, picturing the holy places–if in paintings and drawings rather than selfies–has served to connect Muslims with the pilgrimage for hundreds of years.

Dala’il al-Khayrat (Signs of Benevolent Deeds) is a fifteenth century Arabic work containing a series of prayers and blessings for the Prophet Muhammad. Written by the Moroccan Sufi mystic Muhammad al-Jazuli, it is the most-reproduced Islamic devotional text after the Qur’an. Alongside the devotional content, Dala’il al-Khayrat manuscripts from North Africa to India also include illustrations of the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina and the Holy Mosque in Mecca. But as the dozens of manuscripts in the National Library of Israel collections show, depictions of Mecca and ideas about its veneration have shifted across space and time; each Muslim community has pictured the sacred sites in light of its own culture.

The undated North African manuscript you can see here contains a two-page spread depicting Mecca on the right and Medina on the left. The image of Mecca shows the Holy Mosque with the dark cube of the Ka‘ba in the center. This is the most sacred site in Islam, and circumambulating the Ka‘ba, known as the House of God, is the central ritual of the hajj. The meeting-places of the four canonical Islamic schools of law, represented by rectangles with red triangular roofs, surround the Ka‘ba. The image’s calligraphic script, colors, and braided borders mark this image as distinctly North African.

Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, North Africa, seventeenth century. The white tape obscuring the Ka‘ba was added by a later owner. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

The use of abstraction and labeling in this image makes it look more like a map than a painting. The details show us that the artist is interested in mapping spiritual rather than physical space. For example, the buildings and minarets that surround the Ka‘ba are all oriented towards it. This emphasizes the role of the Ka‘ba as the spiritual center of the universe. In addition, the space around the Ka‘ba is divided into four quarters, each labeled with a geographic location, creating a global spiritual geography with the Ka‘ba at its heart. Through this illumination, we see that North African traditions venerated Mecca by emphasizing its centrality in Muslim spiritual geography.

Across the Middle East, in late eighteenth century India, Mecca was imagined in a markedly different way. This manuscript of the Dala’il perhaps originates in Kashmir, a region whose artistic style was heavily influenced by North Indian Mughal manuscripts as well as Persian manuscripts. The illumination of Mecca in this copy reflects both of these traditions.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, possibly Kashmir, nineteenth century. From the collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

In the image of the Sacred Mosque on the right, the Ka‘ba is again surrounded by the study-places of the four schools of Islamic law, here shown topped with domes. The decorations and color palette reflect both Persian and Mughal influence on local Kashmiri traditions. For example, the key-shaped multi-lobed arches that can be seen in some of  the small domed outbuildings are derived from North Indian Mughal architecture. The small, repeated floral patterns that form the background are also common in both Mughal and Persian manuscripts.

The elaborate decoration in this image highlights the importance of Mecca. Using decoration to indicate significance and holiness is a long-established tradition in Islamic manuscripts, beginning with the use of illumination in the Qur’an itself to highlight the importance of the text. Lavishing the image of Mecca with sumptuous decoration communicates the importance and holiness of this key site.

The last manuscript comes from Ottoman Turkey, the seat of the caliphate and the heart of the Islamic world when it was copied in 1795. The illustrations in this manuscript depict Mecca and Medina from a bird’s-eye view in a classic example of European-style perspective. The Ka‘ba and its outbuildings are shown as three-dimensional and the painting’s light shines from a single source. The colors are likewise naturalistic. The European influence on this illustration reflects the broader context of artistic exchange between the Ottoman Empire and its European neighbors. Beginning in the fifteenth century, the Ottoman Empire increased diplomatic relationships with Europe, creating new opportunities for artists to explore one another’s traditions. As part of this exchange, Ottoman artists became interested in the conventions of European illusionistic painting and began to incorporate techniques such as perspective, modeling, and shading into their work.

The Holy Mosque in Mecca (right) and the Prophet Muhammad’s Mosque in Medina (left). Dala’il al-Khayrat, Ottoman Empire, 1795. From the Collections of the National Library of Israel. Click to enlarge.

While the North African image of Mecca emphasizes spiritual geography and the Kashmiri illustration uses decoration as a form of emphasis and veneration, in the Ottoman illumination the veneration of Mecca is linked to Ottoman political power in the region. The Ottoman sultans gained control of Mecca and Medina and became khādim al-haramayn al-sharifayn, the “servants of the two holy sanctuaries,” in the fifteenth century, and depictions of Mecca became more and more popular in the Ottoman Empire immediately thereafter. Visually, this image reflects Ottoman cartography, which also used bird’s-eye view perspective derived from European maps, suggesting that depictions of Mecca were linked to depictions of other kinds of political territory in the expanding empire. Ottoman illustrations of Mecca venerate the holy city by portraying it as a key political territory and highlighting the sacred duty of the Ottoman Empire to protect the holy cities and all pilgrims who travel to them.



Further Reading:

Abid, Hiba. “The Birth of a Successful Prayer Book: The Manuscript Tradition of the Dala’il al-Khayrat in North Africa.” Journal of Islamic Manuscripts 12 (2021): 265-294.

Beyazit, Deniz. “Defining Ottoman Realism in the Uppsala Mecca Painting.” Muqarnas 37 (2020): 209–245.

Roxburgh, David J. “Pilgrimage City.” In The City in the Islamic World, edited by Renata Holod et al, 753-774. Vol. 2. Leiden: Brill, 2008.

Witkam, Jan Just. “The battle of the images. Mecca vs. Medina in the iconography of the manuscripts of al-Jazūlī’s Dalā’il al-khayrāt.” In Theoretical approaches to the transmission and edition of Oriental manuscripts. Proceedings of a symposium held in Istanbul, March 28-30, 2001. Ed. Judith Peiffer, Manfred Kropp, 67-82. Beirut: Ergon Verlag Würzburg in Kommission, 2007.


The Manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery: Now on the National Library of Israel Website

One of the world's greatest collections of manuscripts is now available to view in the online catalog of the National Library of Israel

St. Catherine's Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

A meeting in the desert.

The young scholar waited somewhat anxiously, for his counterpart to arrive. A negotiation was to be expected, and he was not entirely optimistic regarding his chances of success. In the meantime, at least, he was free to examine his fairly impressive surroundings.

It was the late 1960s, and Malachi Beit-Arié was head of the Jewish National and University Library’s Manuscripts Department. He had been sent to the Sinai Peninsula to negotiate with the local Greek Orthodox Archbishop. The Jewish National and University Library (today’s National Library of Israel) was seeking approval to microfilm the vast collection of manuscripts preserved at St. Catherine’s Monastery, where Malachi now waited in the midst of the Sinai Desert.  The monastery’s texts had survived for many centuries in this isolated location, but Beit-Arié’s aforementioned pessimism was rooted in the more recent history of the region.

After all, the Sinai Peninsula had just fallen under Israeli military occupation a year or so earlier during the Six-Day War. The monks of St. Catherine’s had grown accustomed to living under Egyptian rule and regarded the IDF soldiers who now roamed the surrounding desert peaks and valleys with suspicion. There was no guarantee they would agree to the Israeli library’s request.

Beit-Arié wandered through the monastery’s ancient grounds for some two days before Archbishop Porphyrios III of the Church of Mount Sinai and Raithu finally arrived from Cairo. Malachi was quickly summoned, and the two set out in the priest’s automobile for a nearby desert oasis. It turned out that Beit-Arié needn’t have been so concerned. The negotiations were held in good spirit, during that same drive. The Archbishop, Malachie soon learned, had studied Hebrew, and was surprisingly sympathetic to the idea of cooperation with Israeli academics, quickly agreeing to the Library’s proposal.

The two then boarded a flight to Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airport, where Beit-Arié soon found himself loaded onto the Archbishop’s private limousine. During the drive to Jerusalem, the priest conveyed his price for the exchange: a full set of the Talmud in English. This was quickly procured, and the contract was duly signed.


St. Catherine’s Monastery contains the world’s oldest continually functioning library, hidden behind immense walls which tower over all who approach its secluded location.

The monks of St. Catherine’s take their vows seriously. Life in such an isolated place is not for those lacking in faith, of one kind or another. The monastery was built in the southern Sinai Peninsula, surrounded by dramatic mountainous desert landscapes. It sits at the foot of what is considered by Christian tradition to be Mt. Horeb, the place where Moses was given the Ten Commandments. The monastery even holds and nurtures what some believe to be the actual Burning Bush.

A view from inside the walls, St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great built St. Catherine’s, completing construction in the year 565 AD. Over a millennium and a half, the monastery’s library has accumulated one of the world’s most famous collections of early codices and manuscripts. It consists of some 3,400 manuscripts, among them a wide variety of Christian religious texts. These include early bibles, religious poetry and church music, writings by the various Church Fathers and different works of monastic literature. Also included are Greek classics, correspondence, writings on grammar, arithmetic exercises, rhetorical works, historiographical texts and other forms of secular literature.

Psalms and Cantica, 1504, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

While the vast majority of manuscripts were written in Greek (the monastery is part of the Greek Orthodox Church), there are also texts in Arabic, Syriac, Georgian and even languages that are no longer in use, such as Christian Palestinian Aramaic and Caucasian Albanian. The monastery’s oldest manuscripts date to the third century AD. All these works have been preserved thanks in large part to the aforementioned isolation, the impressive fortifications (Justinian’s walls are 36 feet / 11 meters high) as well as the dry desert climate.

Lately, however, there has been reason for concern. Though history has left St. Catherine’s largely untouched, the past few years have seen new unrest come to the Sinai Peninsula, with ISIS terrorists fighting an insurgency against the Egyptian military in the region’s northern areas. In 2017, an ISIS attack on a checkpoint near the monastery left one policeman dead and three others injured.


Skulls of long-dead monks from St. Catherine’s past, 1975, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This is one of the reasons behind a recent push to document and digitize the historic treasures of St. Catherine’s Monastery, guaranteeing the survival of the priceless information and cultural heritage contained within. The National Library of Israel is part of this multinational effort.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the Six-Day War of 1967, Israel captured the Sinai Peninsula, a territory it would control for well over a decade. Shortly after the war, Dr. Batya Bayer, at the time the director of the Music Department at the National Library of Israel, took note of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s. Bayer was interested in the study of early musical instruments and realized that the monastery’s manuscripts contained valuable information in this respect. She soon formulated an official proposal to microfilm approximately half of the texts preserved at St. Catherine’s. “The team should be as small as possible,” she wrote in her proposal, “preferably one microfilm machine and one photographer, to be augmented whenever conditions permit.”

Lives of the Saints, Canons to St. Catherine, by Ioannikios, 17th century, Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

By this point, around half of the monastery collection had already been microfilmed by a team from the Library of Congress in 1950. Following Beit-Arié’s successful negotiation, an Israeli team set out in 1968 to complete the earlier project and microfilm the rest of the monastery’s collection– meaning manuscripts which were written from the 12th century onwards.

The dramatic landscape surrounding the monastery, 1971, photo by IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Israel Weiser, a former employee of the National Library of Israel who worked on the project and who has since passed away, recalled that the team worked for four hours a day, five days a week (excluding Saturdays and Sundays) for around three months, only to be replaced by another team. Beit-Arié noted that this process continued for some two years.  According to Weiser, the many hours of free time were spent in relative boredom in the isolated desert outpost (“They were eating rocks!” said Weiser). The project was a difficult one and those taking part had to make do without a regular supply of electricity. IDF generators were brought in to facilitate the work, and these were later left to the monastery’s monks.


Footage of the manuscript collection at St. Catherine’s Monastery, filmed in the early 1970s:


While researching this article, we discovered that another former employee of the Jewish National and University Library, cinematographer and photographer Jacques Soussana, had filmed rare color footage at the monastery in the early 1970s (see the Youtube clip above to view an excerpt of this footage). Jacques Soussana unfortunately passed away in 2019, but his widow Betty was kind enough to donate the 16 millimeter films he shot in Sinai to the National Library of Israel. They have since been digitized with the help of the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive and the Jerusalem Cinematheque. These films include footage of the famous manuscript collection, as well as scenes of monastic life in the desert. You can view this footage in the clip seen above.

Horologion, 1375 Holy Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai, Egypt. Click here to see the full manuscript on the National Library of Israel website

Over the past two years, the microfilm material collected by the National Library of Israel team in the late 1960s has been scanned and uploaded to the Library’s catalog, where the general public can now freely view some 1,700 manuscripts in digital form. This was necessary because the microfilm material itself had begun to disintegrate, representing a real threat to the survival of the information contained within. There is also a separate project underway, being led by the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library (EMEL) in collaboration with the UCLA library, to produce new high quality color photographs of St. Catherine’s manuscripts.

These initiatives will ensure that future generations will be able to access these cultural treasures that were once the reserved privilege of those who trekked across the barren desert sands.


Read more about the manuscripts of St. Catherine’s Monastery, and browse through thousands of digitized manuscripts on the National Library of Israel website, here.

The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture Comes to the National Library of Israel

Irreplaceable documentation of ancient nomadic culture to be saved and made freely available online

Clinton Bailey interviewing a Bedouin elder, 1972 (Photo: Boris Carmi). From the Meitar Collection, National Library of Israel archives

  • 100s of hours of singular audio recordings, photos and slides from fifty years of research
  • Materials document a lost ancient culture; do not exist elsewhere and will not be found in the future
  • The collection will be made freely accessible online by the National Library of Israel

Over the course of more than five decades, Dr. Clinton Bailey has conducted research throughout the deserts of Sinai and the Negev, establishing himself as a world-renowned expert on the Bedouin, Arabic-speaking nomads whose ancient culture survived largely unchanged for thousands of years.

Bedouin men riding camels by the Gulf of Eilat (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is now coming to the National Library of Israel. The archive includes one-of-a-kind treasures, including approximately 350 hours of interviews and recordings from Dr. Bailey’s research, as well as hundreds of images, slides and video clips documenting Bedouin tribal culture over the past half century.

Dr. Bailey collected these materials immediately before his elderly Bedouin interlocutors passed away, taking their knowledge and memories with them. The archive therefore presents invaluable authentic primary-source materials from the last generation of elderly Bedouin who grew to maturity in the pre-modern period of Bedouin culture.

These materials will not be found in the future. They are a treasure of orally transmitted ancient culture now irreplaceable, and not available via the younger generations of Bedouin who grew up exposed to modernity.

Traditional Bedouin milk churning (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

According to Dr. Raquel Ukeles, Head of Collections at the National Library of Israel, “The irreplaceable materials in the archive will serve members of the Bedouin community interested in learning about their past, as well as scholars in Israel and abroad for generations to come. Safeguarding and opening access to these materials is central to the mission and mandate of the National Library of Israel, as we work diligently to preserve the treasures of all of Israel’s communities and share them with diverse audiences locally and internationally.”

The materials cover a range of facets of ancient Bedouin tribal cultures, making their preservation that much more significant. Subjects recorded include: traditional poems; legal trials; oral traditions and histories; information about economic life, social organization, values, laws, religious practices, poetic creativity, knowledge of the environment, and more.

Bedouin panel of judges in court (Photo: Clinton Bailey)
Unmarried Bedouin women (Photo: Clinton Bailey)

The archive presents a remarkable asset reflecting the singular mission of the National Library, an open and inclusive institution dedicated to preserving diverse expressions of cultural heritage and encouraging engagement with them by audiences in Israel and around the world.

The materials will be made freely accessible online through a comprehensive process that will include:

  • Transcribing all audio materials in order to make them searchable and easily accessible
  • Comprehensively describing and cataloguing their contents in Arabic and English, including explanations of specific vocabulary and customs encountered in the recordings, many of which are not familiar to modern scholars
  • Converting audio materials from analog to digital, optimizing sound quality and undertaking quality assurance measures
  • Opening full digital access to the materials via a dedicated online portal in three languages (English, Arabic, Hebrew) and the National Library of Israel’s catalogue

Preserving and opening access to the Clinton Bailey Archive of Bedouin Culture is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Charles H. Revson Foundation, Marcie Polier Swartz/Grantors Foundation and other donors.


About Dr. Clinton Bailey

Dr. Clinton Bailey has studied Bedouin culture firsthand for more than fifty years. Originally from the United States, Dr. Bailey holds a BA in Middle Eastern and Islamic History from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a PhD in Political Science with a focus on the Middle East from Columbia University. In 1994, he was awarded the Emil Grunzweig Human Rights Award for his life’s work in studying and preserving the history of the Bedouin in Israel and promoting their civil rights. He has received numerous research grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations throughout the world.

His many works on Bedouin culture, poetry and law include four highly-acclaimed books: Bedouin Poetry from Sinai and the Negev: Mirror of a Culture (Oxford University Press); A Culture of Desert Survival: Bedouin Proverbs from Sinai and the Negev (Yale University Press); Bedouin Law from Sinai and the Negev: Justice without Government (Yale University Press); and the recently published Bedouin Culture in the Bible (Yale University Press).


About the National Library of Israel

Founded in Jerusalem in 1892, the National Library of Israel (NLI) serves as the dynamic institution of national memory of the Jewish people worldwide and Israelis of all backgrounds and faiths. While continuing to serve as Israel’s pre-eminent research library, NLI has recently embarked upon an ambitious journey of renewal to open access to its treasures and encourage diverse audiences in Israel and around the globe to engage with them in new and meaningful ways. This is taking place through a range of innovative educational, cultural, and digital initiatives, as well as through a new landmark complex designed by Herzog and de Meuron. The new home of the NLI, currently under construction adjacent to the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) in Jerusalem, is on schedule to open its doors in 2022.

Simulated night image of the new National Library of Israel, now under construction next to the Knesset in Jerusalem, on schedule to open in 2022 © Herzog & de Meuron; Mann-Shinar Architects, Executive Architect

The Library’s treasures include the largest collection of written Judaica ever assembled, significant handwritten works by luminaries such as Maimonides and Sir Isaac Newton, exquisite Islamic manuscripts dating back to the ninth century, and archival collections of leading cultural and intellectual figures including Martin Buber, Franz Kafka, Natan Sharansky and Naomi Shemer. The National Library holds the largest collection of Jewish and Israeli music, as well as world-class collections of manuscripts, ancient maps, rare books, photographs, communal and personal archival materials, and more.

For English press inquiries and interview requests: [email protected]

The Story of Layla and Majnun – Romeo and Juliet of the East

This story which originated in 7th century Arabia has traveled across the world over the ages

A young Majnun embraces a blue-eyed doe. Illustration by Mohammed ibn Mula, 1603

In 1192, a Persian poet by the name of Nizami composed a poem based on the tragic story of another young poet named Qays ibn al-Mullawah, whose love for one Layla drove him completely mad. Centuries earlier, Qays had fallen in love with his classmate, Layla, and she with him, yet her parents objected to the relationship between the two. Even with the help of his friends and acquaintances, Qays was not able to unite with his great love. But he would not give up. Wherever he went and whomever he met, he was reminded of Layla. Whenever he got a chance, he would sing of his love for her. This soon won him the nickname Majnun (Arabic for ‘crazy’.)

The brokenhearted Majnun fled to the desert, where he continued writing poems for his loved one, tracing the words in the sand before they were carried off by the desert wind. Anguished and helpless, the thought of Layla kept Majnun awake at night. While he slowly grew out of touch with human beings, Layla remained loyal to Majnun. Her parents forced her to marry another man, though she refused to consummate the marriage, rejecting his attempts to woo her. With the help of a Persian nobleman (portrayed as the saint al-Khider, referred to in many stories in Islamic tradition), Layla was able to arrange to meet with Majnun. The two did not physically touch each other in that last encounter. Instead, they read love poems to one another from a distance; Majnun, enthralled by the perfect image he had constructed in his mind of his unattainable love, fled back to the desert. When Layla’s husband died, she was finally able to grieve publicly. Those around her believed she was grieving the death of her husband, while in fact she was crying over the ongoing separation from her great love, Majnun. Shortly after, she died of heartbreak and was buried, per her request, in her wedding gown. Majnun rushed to her graveside and died as soon as he saw it. And so, the two were buried side by side, their graves becoming a pilgrimage site – a symbol of their reunion, achieved only in death. Nizami’s poem ends with the dream of a common friend of the couple, in which the two are united in their love, living happily ever after in heaven, as a king and queen.


Lord Byron called the Persian lovers “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.” Much like the eternal lovers of Verona, the story of Majnun’s love for Layla appeared in oral legends as well as a number of manuscript fragments even before it was immortalized by a great writer – in their case, the Persian poet, Nizami.

Believed to date back to the 7th century, the story’s origins are not Persian, but Arabic. “The Book of Songs” (Kitab al-Aghani), written by Abu al-Faraj, a 9th century Arabic lexicographer and poet, tells the story of a poet who lived in the days of the Umayyad dynasty. Using his penname, ‘Majnun’, the anonymous poet was able to fearlessly express his unfulfilled love for his cousin, for whom he composed love poems that described the pain of being separated from her.

Short, anecdotal forms of the story of Layla and Majnun began to circulate in Arabic and Persian literature and poetry, every instance expressing a different aspect of the life and death of the two lovers. In one version, the pair meet in a field and not at school; some highlighted the companionship between Majnun and the wild animals he met while living alone in the desert; others focused on the correspondence between the married Layla and tormented figure of Majnun.

Hundreds of years before Nizami composed his famous version of the story, the legend of Layla and Majnun was already known throughout the Middle East. One reason the love story became so popular was its mystic features. Qays/Majnun was a perceived as something of a role model in Sufi mysticism. As the researcher Michal Hasson told us, “In Sufism, man seeks to unite with God, and the relationship between man and God is one of great love and yearning. Even the greatest mystics, who grow especially close to God over the course of their lives, can only fully unite with Him at death. Thus, the day of the passing of the Sufi saint Mu’in al-Din Chishti is celebrated every year and is called Urs, which means ‘wedding.’ Majnun, who spent his entire life searching and longing for his love, but would only unite with her in death, is the ultimate depiction of love and desire for God – and Layla, the reflection of the beloved divine one.”

In 1188, the Persian poet, Nizami, wrote his great poem, containing some 4,600 verses. Nizami replaced the original Arab-Bedouin setting with an urban Persian one, along with the secondary characters that accompanied the lovers – the Meccan governor who tried to help the two lovers reunite is presented as a Persian nobleman; the young lovers who originally met in the Arabian deserts – two commoners surrounded by camels and merchants – meet at the beginning of the Persian poem at school, as children of aristocracy.

Since Nizami published his poem in the 12th century, the story of Layla and Majnun has traveled far beyond the borders of the East. Many different versions were created and it became the most “reproduced” story in Persian history. Before it was translated into European languages in the 18th and 19th centuries, a range of Arab and Persian poets who hoped to achieve something approaching Nizami’s stature composed Layla-and-Majnun poems of their own. Later, the pattern was repeated in Turkish, Urdu, and many other languages. According to Michal Hasson, “Layla and Majnun can therefore be found in 17th century wall paintings in Rajasthan, in Mughal miniatures, in Arabic poetry and, of course, in Persian poetry, as well as in numerous other works in different languages. There is also a “tomb structure” dedicated to the lovers in a small town on the border of India and Pakistan.” Even the 1970 song Layla, written by British musician Eric Clapton, was inspired by the tale. Clapton became familiar with the story, and was able to relate to its theme of unattainable love, which reflected his own feelings toward Pattie Boyd, the wife of his friend George Harrison.


The National Library of Israel is in possession of five different versions of Nizami’s work. One of them is a beautifully illuminated manuscript copied by Mohammed Ibn-Mula, around the year 1603. It contains many marvelous pictures, like the one below showing a young Majnun embracing a blue-eyed doe, a symbol of his one and only, long-lost love, Layla.


Another beautiful example is this Kashmiri manuscript from 1798, which contains an illustration of Layla and Majnun meeting one another.

In 2018, Yuval Shiloach first translated the story of Layla and Majnun into Hebrew, not from the original Persian version, but from Rudolf Gelpke’s English translation, published in 1966.

Read more about Layla and Majnun at Encyclopædia Iranica.

Thanks to Dr. Michal Hasson and Dr. Samuel Thrope for their help in writing this article.