Malek Library, a Jewel in the Heart of Tehran
The elegant Malek Library Building is nestled behind the beautiful Melli Gate in the heart of Tehran's historic center.
The elegant Malek Library Building is nestled behind the beautiful Melli Gate in the heart of Tehran's historic center. Located in the old Barg-e Melli Avenue, and perfectly integrated with its environment among the recently renovated buildings of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, it is a fine example of traditional Iranian architecture of the Qajar period.
Origins of the Malek Collection
Hossein Agha Malek (1875-1971) was a great lover of antiquities and precious books. He had started collecting Arabic-language study books and had, over the years, assembled a large collection of manuscripts and old books. The head of his library, Mr. Soheyli, who himself had an excellent knowledge of the world of books, was in charge of buying the books. These purchases were made mainly with princely families qadjares. Ezzat Malek Soudavar admits to Mr. Soheyli the great merit of having been the main actor in the enrichment of his father's library.
The Malek Foundation was founded in 1937, when Hossein Agha Malek, who wanted his property to be kept in a museum for preservation purposes, bequeathed his fortune to Astan-e Qods Razavi, a religious institution that manages the bequests and donations made for the benefit of the tomb of the eighth Imam in Mashhad. These donations will last several years, the first, that of 1937, concerned the works of the library. To moveable property composed of various works of art, was added a considerable property fortune; these lands, situated in Khorasan, are more extensive than the territory of Switzerland. The income from these lands must, according to the terms of the Malek donation, allow the maintenance of the museum and the library and the few medical institutions created by Hossein Agha Malek to treat the people who work on his land.
Before the current museum was built, the library was housed in the family house which is still located in the bazaar of Tehran, in the district called Beyn-ol-haramein, (Between the holy places), because located between the Masjed -e Shah, the mosque of the Shah (now the mosque of the Imam) and the Masjed-e Jom'eh, the Friday mosque. This house belonged originally to the father of Hossein Agha Malek. Abol'ala Soudavar remembers that his grandfather enjoyed having his house in such a difficult place, that even the king had to come on foot to visit him. This house is currently in restoration, its destination has not yet been stopped, it could become a place of exhibitions or craft school on the techniques of the book, illumination, restoration, binding, etc.
The Bagh-e Melli Avenue Museum was inaugurated in 1997 and opened immediately to visitors. The land on which it is built had been exchanged between the city and Hossein Aghaa Malek for another piece of land near the future palace of Sa'ad Abad, which Reza Shah coveted. In the time of Hossein Agha Malek, this land had been abandoned, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had occupied it to install its helicopter base there. After the Islamic Revolution, Ezzat Malek Soudavar took steps to make this land available to the Malek Foundation. After some difficulties, the land was recovered and the Malek Foundation was able to build the new building to transfer the museum and library.
The Malek family
In the 19th century, this family of great Turkish-speaking Iranian merchants was based in Tabriz. It was dedicated to trade with Asia, and mainly with Russia, Iran's most important trading partner at that time.
In 1834, on the death of Fath Ali Shah, the Crown Prince who, by tradition, was established in Tabriz, was Mohammed Mirza. The future Mohammed Shah, not fortunate enough to go to Tehran, borrowed money from Hossein Agha Malek's grandfather. A relationship was established on this occasion between the Qadjar family and the Malek family, and Hossein's grandfather Agha Malek was appointed by the new king Malek-ot-Tojjar, king of the merchants. This title made him the most powerful supplier of the kingdom. Thus he participated in the universal exhibitions of France and England. Certificates attesting to the family's participation in these exhibitions can be found in the collections of the Malek Museum.
Later, his son, a man of keenness, a little troublemaker and manipulator of the bazaar, organized the revolt against tobacco control granted to the English. Put several times in prison, but considered by Nassereddin Shah as the most influential person in the bazaar, he was eventually fired to entrust him with the revocation letter of the board. After these events, he made his fortunes and bought, with the revenues of his business, the lands which the king and the nobles sold to Khorasan.
Hossein Agha Malek was sent by his father to Mashhad to administer his lands in Khorasan. In order to secure a decisive alliance in the region, he married the daughter of the most important religious family in the city. This family was that of the motevali (the head) of an independent foundation, that of the Goharshad Mosque, near the tomb of Imam Reza, attached to Astan-e Qods Razavi. By tradition and until the Islamic revolution, the motevali of Astan-e Qods Razavi was still the king. Since he was never present, the motevali family of the Goharshad Mosque was the largest in the city.
Shortly before the constitutional revolution, Hossein Agha Malek's father, Hajj Kazem Malek-ot-Tojjar, created the first multi-shareholder company, Sherkat-e Melli, in Tabriz to exploit the possibilities of trade with Russia. At the cost of a donation to the king, he obtained a concession to build a toll road which he transferred to the said company. The king granted it all the more willingly that the Iranian government, despite its interest in trade with Russia, was not sufficiently organized to carry out this project. This road connected Tabriz and Astara, and was to continue in Russia. The project, supported in part by the Russians, took a political turn when the English tried to make it fail. Debacle, lawsuits and bankruptcy followed and finally Hajj Kazem had to compensate all the parties involved.
Despite embezzlement of profits by unscrupulous agents, placed in the provinces, then the bankruptcy of the company that maintained it, due to its other activities, this road could be maintained for a long time and released a significant profit. In the last years before the Islamic revolution, it was a great success. It allowed Iran to stock up on Russian raw materials, such as paper.
The collections of the library
The Malek Library is renowned for its valuable works. It has unique copies of world renown, dating from the 11th to the 14th centuries, which are of major interest to researchers and specialists. It has more than 19,000 titles of old books and manuscripts, and about 60,000 titles of printed books, which affect all areas, particularly the Islamic, human and political sciences. A short list, not exhaustive, of the most remarkable manuscripts:
- One hundred works of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) including his famous Canon of Medicine,
- A precise geometry of Euclid (Oqlidos in Persian) written in 343 H.A. (954),
- A manuscript of Arbain, the work of Sheikh Baha'i (scholar of the Safavid era), written by Molla Sadra,
- Some writings of Sheikh Baha'i including his famous poem entitled Kashkoul (as well as the only known portrait of this eminent person),
- A Koran written by Vesal Shirazi,
- The works of Farabi,
- A Koran manuscript in Kufic, attributed to Emam Hassan Mojtaba (the second imam of the Shiite tradition,
- Works by Attar Neyshabouri,
- A precious Shahnameh from Baysonghor dated 833 HA (1429),
- A very ancient Shahnameh written by Mahmoud Ebn-e Miran Ebn-e Ebrahim in the 8th century AD (14th century),
- The Shahnameh sangui illustrated and printed in Bombay,
- Manuscripts of Nasser-eddin Shah qadjar,
- The marriage contract of Amir Kabir with Malekzadeh Khanum, sister of Nasser-eddin Shah.
The vast premises of the library are composed of:
- two consultation rooms of 360 m², 230 seats and 70 reading tables, bringing together 40,000 titles,
- an old manuscripts conservation room, reserved for researchers, accessible by appointment. Each manuscript is microfilmed,
- a periodical room: 400 titles are kept there. Some copies are old, like those of Vaghaye Ettefaghieh (The Journal of Events), which was the first printed periodical in Iran. Its first release is dated February 7, 1851. Its original title was Small Gazette of Persian Information,
- a room for manuscripts and lithographs all digitized, searchable and printable from CD-Rom.
The museum collections
The works of the initial donation are presented in several rooms:
The art gallery: it contains beautiful pieces of furniture and paintings including some copies of French painters, fourteen paintings of Kamal-ol-Molk, mostly belonging to the time when the painter was studying in France. We can also admire the last two works of the master: the North of Teheran and Elderly Man studying (very moving when we know that these works could not be completed because meanwhile Kamal-ol-Molk had become blind).
A second room is devoted to the precious pen cases of Qajar period, made of Papier-mâché.
A third room, containing an exceptional collection of ancient Korans and paintings, notably from Sani-ol-Molk, was recently installed thanks to a donation made by Mrs. Ezzat Malek Soudavar, administrator of the library.
The coin gallery: 600 precious coins are presented but the museum has a larger number. The oldest date from the 6th century BC. One of the most remarkable is that of the consecration of Imam Reza (8th century). We can also admire coins of the Achaemenid Empire. Part of this gallery is devoted to commemorative medals, Iranian and international, such as those of Einstein and Beethoven or the coins of the Jewish prophets struck in the Vatican.
The Carpet Gallery: Unique carpets, including the 160-year-old Sanandaj Carpet, and another 116-year-old Kaishan embossed rug.
The stamp gallery: noteworthy are the Iranian stamps of the Bagheri series dating from 1868 and the historical stamps of General Franco (Spain).
The future of the Malek Foundation
Abol'ala Soudavar explains to us that institutionally, the donation Malek (Moqoufat-e Malek), carried out in the form of waqf, must be managed by a manager, the motevali. Originally, that chosen by Hossein Agha Malek was the motevali of Astan-e Qods Razavi (who was traditionally the king of Iran). In return, the donor had appointed two directors to ensure the control of Motevali's decisions. For the library, he had chosen two of his daughters, Ezzat Malek and Malek Malek to fulfill the tasks of nezarat. Malek Malek, now deceased, has not been replaced to date, which is contrary to the wishes expressed by Hossein Agha Malek.
Management difficulties began to manifest themselves under the Shah regime. When Hossein Agha Malek died in 1971, attempts to control the wealth of the foundation took place. The clauses of the donation were not respected, especially Ezzat Malek, administrator appointed by his father, was dismissed. However, the Motevali deputy of the Malek Foundation was the governor of Khorasan province. It was difficult under these conditions to take legal action because, to put a prosecution to the motevali's deputy, was to do it to the Shah of Iran.
Today, the situation is about the same. The resulting lack of management prevents a functional and optimum access of the researchers to the works, as Hossein Agha Malek wished it during the creation of the waqf. The considerable resources available to the Malek Foundation could be better utilized. New purchases to enrich the collection and set up a team of specialists able to assess the value of the texts are needed. Temporary exhibitions, such as the one organized by Hossein Agha Malek on the occasion of the millennium of Avicenna, would reveal to a large public the manuscripts hitherto reserved for researchers.
Despite these difficulties, Abol'ala Soudavar considers that having the donation under the aegis of Astan-e Qods Razavi was a wise decision on the part of his grandfather, since it allowed the preservation of the collection, while a large number of private donations have been irretrievably lost in recent decades. Vigilance however remains in place as regards the respect of the terms and conditions desired by the donor.