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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Miniature Masterpieces: Brezhnev to the Koran

BAKU, Azerbaijan -- Perched on the hill in Baku's Old Town between the 15th-century Shirvanshahs' Palace and an old woman selling bars of pink soap stands a little-known museum that's the only one of its kind in the world.

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It's so small you could easily miss it, which is apt, I suppose, because it's a museum entirely dedicated to miniature books.

Inside, there are thousands of tomes ranging from the size of a bar of pink soap to the size of a toenail clipping. The smallest is just 2 millimeters long and even with a magnifying glass, you'd be hard-pressed to read its 16 tiny pages.

Zarifa Salakhova, the curator of the museum, has been collecting miniature books for the past 20 years. Her first acquisition -- Brezhnev's "Communist Party of the Soviet Union in the Struggle for Unity of All Revolutionary and Peaceful Forces" -- cost 23 rubles at a bookshop in Moscow and since then, she hasn't looked back.

Poring over Brezhnev's ordinary-sized works would be enough to send most people to an early grave, so why anyone should want to peer through a microscope at a miniature version is beyond me. No wonder the publishers only produced 50 copies.

"I haven't put all my books on display, because a lot of them are the same as the ones you see here," Zarifa told me. It wouldn't surprise me if she had the other 49 copies of Brezhnev in a box under her bed.

Her most precious book, she said, is "Pictures of English History in Miniature," designed by Alfred Mills and published in 1815. The pages are as thin as parchment and the leather-bound cover is beginning to crack, but the illustrations are still as striking as they were almost 200 years ago.

One display cabinet is dedicated to religious books -- Catholic missals, Bibles, Torahs and tiny copies of the Koran, one of which comes with a leather pouch just big enough to hold a sugar lump.

In other cabinets, there are children's books and volumes on art and works from the 15 former Soviet republics. There's a whole set of poems, from Armenia to Uzbekistan -- Russia's come in two thick volumes, Estonia's barely fill 10 pages.

Zarifa is rarely at the museum herself -- she's too busy traveling the world in search of new books and running the Book Lovers' Club of Azerbaijan. In her absence, the museum is managed by a friendly woman called Saida, who wears fluffy slippers and thick jam-jar spectacles.

"Do you ever read any of the books in here yourself?" I asked Saida. But she was too busy mopping up the large pot of tea she had just knocked over to reply.

Chloe Arnold is a freelance journalist based in Baku, Azerbaijan.