THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from March 2017

28 March 2017

'South Asia Series' talks from April to June 2017

The British Library is pleased to announce the next set of talks in the ‘South Asia Series’, from April till the end of June 2017. This is a series of talks based around the British Library's South Asia collection and the ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ digitisation project. Speakers from the UK and the US will share the results of their research, followed by discussions facilitated by BL curators and other specialists in the field. The presentations will take place at the Foyle Learning Centre at the British Library, between 5.30-7.00pm.

The first talk, on Monday 24th April, will be by Francis Robinson, Professor of the History of South Asia at Royal Holloway, University of London. The talk entitled ‘Hasrat Mohani’s Diary’ examines the life of the poet, newspaper editor and politician Hasrat Mohani (1878-1951) in the tumultuous period of January 1947 to December 1949. Professor Robinson will use Hasrat Mohani’s diary to look at how the world changes for Muslims in the United Provinces after Independence and Partition, the discrimination they experienced and the attacks on their culture and position by a Hindu-dominated Congress.

Image 1 Hasrat Mohani
Image of Hasrat Mohani published by the Anjuman Aʿānat Naz̤ar Bandān-i Islām. British Library, SAC. 1986.a. 1967 Noc

The second talk will be on Monday 8th May, and will be given by Christopher Bahl, a PhD student at SOAS, University of London. His talk entitled ‘Cultural Entrepôts and Histories of Circulation: The Arabic Manuscripts of the Royal Library of Bijapur’ examines the historical circulation of Arabic manuscripts, which linked South Asia with other regions of the Western Indian Ocean world, including Egypt, the Hijaz, Yemen and Iran, during the early modern period. In particular, he will look at the historical development of the Royal Library of Bijapur in the Deccan, today among the India Office Library collections in the British Library, and how its collection of Arabic manuscripts provides crucial insights into the courtly circulation, social use and cultural significance of these texts in a local Indo-Persian environment.

Image 2 Bijapur
Arabic manuscript from Bijapur Library, 1617. British Library, Mss Bijapur 7 Noc

On Monday 22nd May 2017, Kamran Asdar Ali, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the South Asia Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, will talk about the 1951 Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, in which the Pakistan Government brought charges of sedition and of plotting a military coup against certain leaders of its own military and against members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Pakistan (CPP). The talk titled ‘Of Communists and Conspiracy: The Rawalpindi Case in Pakistan’ will discuss the conspiracy in detail to show the relationship between the Pakistani state and how it perceived the communist threat in the early years of Pakistan’s existence. In particular, Prof. Kamran Asdar Ali will demonstrate how external influences on the  leadership of the Communist Party of Pakistan may have left it in an ideological conundrum, and thus perhaps susceptible to engagement in a dialogue with the military on a potential coup-d’état.

Image 3 Rawalpindi
Front page of a pamphlet on the Rawalpindi Conspiracy Case, 1951. British Library, ORW.1986.a.3327 Noc

The fourth talk, which will be on Monday 5th June 2017, will be by Radha Kapuria, PhD student at King’s College London. Her talk ‘Musicians and Dancers in 19th Century Punjab: A Brief Social History’ excavates the material conditions of the lives of musicians and dancers, and analyses social perceptions around them, in the region of Punjab, during the long nineteenth century. She begins with the Lahore darbar of Maharaja Ranjit Singh and then moves on to the discourses by colonial scholar-administrators like Richard Carnac Temple, Anne Wilson, and others, in the mid-19th century. Furthermore, Radha Kapuria will offer a unique perspective by discussing relatively obscure authors writing about musicians and courtesans in the qissa genre, especially popular during this century.

Image 4 Punjab
An illustrated miniature of a courtly mehfil of musicians, from the ‘Guru Nānak Parkāsh’, 1891. British Library, Or. 13079 Noc

On Monday 12th June 2017, Simon Leese, PhD student at SOAS, London will discuss the Arabic poems of Shah Waliullah (d. 1176/1762), the Delhi intellectual best known for his formative contribution to Muslim revivalist thought in the 18th and 19th centuries. Simon in his talk titled ‘Visions of the Arabic Hejaz: Memory and the Poetics of Devotion in 18th and 19th century North India’ will demonstrate how Arabic was not only the language of scripture, but a site of memory and nostalgia. Alongside major works of exegesis, theology, and Sufism, Waliullah had composed a small body of sometimes highly innovative Arabic poems in which he drew on the language of Arabic poetic love to articulate his own devotion to the Prophet. The talk will examine some of Waliullah’s poems, their fascinating afterlife in manuscript and print, and what they reveal about the culture of the Arabic spoken and written word in South Asia.

Image 5 Simon Leese
Shah Abdul 'Aziz, Takhmīs amplifications on the Bāʾīyah and Hamzīyah by Shah Waliullah. British Library, Delhi Arabic 895 Noc

Please do come along, listen and participate. No advance booking is required, and the sessions are free for all to attend. For further information, please contact:

Dr. Layli Uddin, Project Curator of ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’
layli.uddin@bl.uk

  Ccownwork

20 March 2017

First Impressions: The Beginnings of Ottoman Turkish Publishing

One of the hottest topics on every economist’s lips is the rising price of housing in the United Kingdom. At last count, the average home price in Great Britain was £220 000. For roughly the same price, however, you could also acquire a book on the history of the Americas. This would be no ordinary history, however: İbrahim Müteferrika’s edition of the Tarīkh al-Hind al-Gharbī ul-müsemma bi-Hadis-i nev, or The History of the Western Indies, also known as the New Hadith is the first book by a Muslim about the Americas, and among the first Ottoman Turkish books printed in Istanbul. The Tarīkh is an exceedingly rare item. Of the 500 copies that were produced by İbrahim Müteferrika in 1730, only 17 are known to exist around the world. The British Library is lucky enough to be one of only a handful of institutions in Europe and North America to have two copies of the work. One, at shelfmark Or.80.b.11, contains twelve of the thirteen original black and white woodcut illustrations, as well as the two colour woodcut maps of the world. The other, at shelfmark Or.80.b.7, contains all thirteen black and white illustrations, but neither of the two maps. Both copies are lacking the celestial chart and the chart that are contained in the copy at the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris.

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On the left (BL Or.80.b.7), flora and fauna of Hispaniola, including the mermen and their splendid pearls, brought back to Europe by a man named Castellón, as well as the tree with fruit like women (BL Or.80.b.11)
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The Tarīkh is a unique publication for reasons that are far more profound than the paucity of surviving copies. It is not an original creation, but rather based upon the 16th century manuscript of the same name believed to have been authored by Emir Mehmet ibn Emir Hasan el-Suudi in 1591. Nevertheless, the fact that it was a printed work, rather than a handwritten one, established İbrahim Müteferrika as a pioneer in Ottoman Turkish cultural history. Between the issuance of an imperial ferman on commercial activities related to “certain of printed Arabic, Persian and Turkish books and writings” (Neumann, p. 229) and the 1720s, printing was conducted only by the Jewish and Christian communities, whose works were in non-Arabic scripts. The 17th century saw the importation of Ottoman Turkish works printed in Europe, but both the typography and the language of the content itself were the subjects of derision. The Arabic script requires that some – but not all – letters be attached to those that follow them (to their left), and this characteristic bedevilled European typesetters and those who sought to sell presses to Ottoman clients. At best, the technology created comical mistakes or miscomprehension. At worst, the resulting errors in holy texts led to charges of blasphemy and the befouling of God’s word (Sabev, pp. 107-9).

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The first page and the end of the chapter on the History of the Western Indies. The text begins in Persian, with an explanation of the real nature of these fantastical images and descriptions, and ends in Ottoman Turkish with information about the culinary delights of the islands (BL Or.80.b.7)  noc

The man who appears to have broken this deadlock was known as İbrahim Müteferrika. He is believed to have been a Transylvanian Christian who converted to Islam and migrated to the Imperial capital of Istanbul at the end of 17th century, possibly to escape religious persecution at the hands of the Hapsburgs (Erginbaş, pp.63-4). His personal history is an apt analogy for the printing press that he popularized: a Christian European invention that was imported and nativized to the Ottoman Empire, ultimately serving to further, rather than harm, the cultural development of the Well-Guarded Domains. İbrahim Müteferrika printed numerous different titles at his workshop in Istanbul, many of which are currently held in the British Library. Apart from the Tarīkh al-Hind al-Gharbī, the Library also holds copies of his Tarih-i seyyah der beyan zuhur-i Agvanian (758.e.9), Tercüme-yi sɪhah-ɪ Cevheri (758.k.7), Takvim üt-tevarih li-Kâtip Çelebi (Or.80.a.8) and Usul ül-hikem fi nizam ül-ümem (758.e.1). Many of these are secular histories or manuals of geography. They demonstrate a concern for steering clear of religious and moral controversy regarding the content of his works and the effect of typography on the text. Some were even presented as serving in the interests of Islam, because of the importance of education holy warriors on the geography of neighbouring regions (Sabev, p. 109). In spite of this, the mere presence of depictions of flora and fauna was enough to raise the ire of some zealots, who sought to destroy his books.

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On the left, the famed Chagos tree, the juice of whose fruits is reputed to cure illnesses. On the right, images of native agriculture in South America, including the usage of oxen-like animals to plough fields (BL Or.80.b.7) 
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Why would someone want to destroy a history book of the Americas? One particular reason might be the sheer number of woodcut illustrations of the people, animals and plants of the Western Hemisphere. Some of these images feature semi-nude members of indigenous communities, while others provide readers with an idea of the wondrous plants and animals to be found in the Americas. Much like Dürer’s rhinoceros, these illustrations are as much representations of Europeans’ imaginations as they are accurate depictions of the flora and fauna they claim to be. Whether or not graven images are permissible under Islamic law, and, if not, how strictly this prohibition was enforced, are issues of great debate among scholarly communities. What is clear from the Tarīkh, however, is that they did appear in the first Ottoman Turkish-language printed publications; and that they likely made the works more controversial than they would have otherwise been.

Or80b11 map
A map of the world, including California as a green island in the top left quadrant of the map. The “Sea of Peru” is also listed as being along the coast of Central America, while the Gulf of Mexico is labelled the “Sea of Mashigho”. (BL Or.80.b.11)  noc

Even more spectacular than the illustrations, however, is the world map included in one of the copies held at the British Library (Or.80.b.11). One of its most striking features is the depiction of California as an island separated from the mainland of North America by a channel of water. Given that the southern tip of this “island” extends to the middle of Mexico’s Pacific coastline, it is fair to assume that İbrahim Müteferrika’s mapmaker did not know that the Gulf of California had only one outlet to the Pacific Ocean. The map is plagued by various inaccuracies: the St. Lawrence River is too deep and the Gulf of Mexico too shallow; the Great Lakes are merged into one, while North America seems to be in various pieces. Nevertheless, it is difficult to contain one’s awe at the manner in which the world as we now picture it – thanks to satellite imagery and enhanced modeling – came together in the minds of cartographers and dreamers from 1492 onwards.

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The varied history of the books as items of pleasure and prestige are recorded through the ownership stamps and marginalia of their readers. On the left (BL Or.80.b.7) is a poetic exhortation to readers about the content of the books, while the right-hand image (BL Or.80.b.11) is the ex libris of Shaykh Tirabi (1210 AH/1795 CE)
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It should also not be a surprise that these maps are of particular interest to collectors: a reason why so many copies of the Tarīkh are incomplete, including one of those held at the British Library (Or.80.b.7). The Tarīkh al-Hind al-Gharbī ul-müsemma bi-Hadis-i nev is not a roof over your head, or a little corner to call your own, but, just like a home, it has served as a symbol of identity and personality for various owners. The presence of various signs in the works held at the Library – marginalia, ownership stamps and the like – bears witness to this fact. The names of individuals and libraries through whose hands these volumes passed tell as much of a story as the text itself. So too, do the poetic messages scrawled on the opening pages of the work; a testament to the way the written word, in whatever its form, has given rise to dreams and imagination for centuries on end.


Further reading
Neumann, Christoph K. “Book and Newspaper Printing in Turkish”, in ed. Eva Hanebutt-Benz, Dagmar Glass and Geoffrey Roper, Middle Eastern Languages and the Print Revolution: A Cross-Cultural Encounter (Mainz: Gutenburg Museum, 2002), pp. 227-248
Sabev, Orlin, “Waiting for Godot: The Formation of Ottoman Print Culture,” in ed. Geoffrey Roper, Historical Aspects of Printing and Publishing in the Languages of the Middle East (Leiden: Brill, 2014), pp. 101-120.
Erginbaş, Vefa, “Enlightenment in the Ottoman Context: İbrahim Müteferrika and his Intellectual Landscape,” in Roper, Historical Aspects, pp. 53-100.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
 CC-BY-SA


13 March 2017

British ‘Islamic’ style seals from the Malay world

The presence of an inscription in Arabic script is such a defining characteristic of seals used by Muslims that it tends to mask the fact that similar ‘Islamic’-style seals were also used by myriad other groups, including Christians in Ethiopia and Syria, Samaritans in Palestine, Hindu subjects of the Mughal emperor, European scholars of Arabic and Persian, and British officials of the East India Company. Examples from the British Library were featured in a recent blog post on Some British ‘Islamic’ style seals in Persian manuscripts from India by Ursula Sims-Williams, and in an earlier post on Performing Authority: the ‘Islamic’ seals of British colonial officers in the Persian Gulf by Daniel Lowe. In this post I have gathered together a small number of British ‘Islamic’-style seals from Southeast Asia, with inscriptions in Malay in Jawi (Arabic) script.

The earliest known of these British Malay seals is that of Francis Light (1740-1794), who on behalf of the East India Company negotiated with the Sultan of Kedah to establish a trading settlement at Penang in 1786. By that time Light had spent over twenty years as a private or ‘country’ trader in the Malay world, and was on close terms with the sultan. In 1771 he had been granted the title of Kapitan Dewa Raja by Sultan Muhammad Jiwa of Kedah (r. 1710-1778), with the attendant right to a seal, which is found stamped in red ink on his Malay correspondence today held in the Library of the School of Oriental and African Studies.

#322
Malay seal of Francis Light, inscribed Laik Kapitan Dewa Raja di negeri dār al-amān 1185, ‘Light, Kapitan Dewa Raja, in the Abode of Security, 1185' (1771/2) (#322), on an undated letter to Sultan Abdullah Mukarram Syah of Kedah. School of Oriental and African Studies, MS 40320/6, f. 60.

Light became the first ‘Superintendant’ of Prince of Wales Island, as Penang was named by the British, and subsequent governors also used seals inscribed in Malay. Official Malay seals were usually engraved in the name of an individual office holder, but the seal shown below, engraved in 1789/90 for the British ‘ruler’ of Penang, appears to have been used by successive incumbents of the office until at least 1805. It was perhaps in that year that a new seal was engraved for Philip Dundas, Governor from 1805 to 1807. In terms of language, calligraphy, shape and medium, the seals used by British officials in Penang represent a continuation of the Kedah Malay tradition, with typically round or petalled lotus-shaped seals stamped in red ink.

#327
Malay seal of the British governor of Penang, inscribed Gurnadur Raja Pulau Pinang 1204, 'The Governor, ruler of Penang island, 1204' (AD 1789/90) (#327), stamped on a record of the sale of a Keling slave named Abdul Rahman by Fakir Sahib to Malim Sahib for 40 rial, 2 Rabiulakhir 1206 (29 November 1791). British Library, IOR: R/9/22/11, f.437  noc

R-9-20-37, f.175
Record of the sale of a female Batak slave named Dima by Nakhoda Licu of Pane to Mr. Peter Clark for $53, witnessed by Syaikh Muhammad and Mualim Kandu and written by Hakim Abdul Taif, 1 Jumadilakhir 1220 (27 August 1805), and signed and sealed the next day by the [acting] Governor W.E. Phillips, with the same seal as used in 1791. British Library, IOR: R/9/22/37, f. 175  noc

 #323
Seal engraved Guburnur Raja Pulau Pinang, ‘The Governor, ruler of Penang island’ (#323), stamped on a letter from Philip Dundas, Governor of Penang, to the sultan of Kedah, 5 Muharam [1221] (25 March 1806). British Library, MSS Eur.D.742/1, f. 9  noc

It was in Penang that Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826) began his Southeast Asian career, arriving on the island in September 1805 as Assistant Secretary to the government. In December 1810 Raffles moved to Melaka following his appointment by Lord Minto as ‘Agent of the Governor-General with the Malay States’, his secret mission being to prepare for the British invasion of Java, then held by Napoleonic forces. In his Malay correspondence with neighbouring states, Raffles wrote in the name of Lord Minto, and stamped his letters with the seal of the Governor-General of Bengal. Two such seals are known: the earlier seal, used in 1810 and the first half of 1811, is written in sloping nasta ‘liq script, and may have been brought from Calcutta. The second seal is more typically Malay in its 12-petalled lotus shape and naskh calligraphy, and was probably designed in Raffles’s secretariat in Melaka either by his head scribe, Ibrahim or by Ismail, uncle of the young Munsyi Abdullah, who also worked for Raffles as a junior writer.

Raffles seal
Maharaja Gurnur Jenral Benggala, Maharaja Governor-General of Bengal (#263), seal impressed on a letter addressed to the rulers of Java from T.S. Raffles in Melaka, 22 Zulkaidah 1225 (19 December 1810). British Library, MSS Eur.D.742/1, f. 133v  noc

#99 (2)
Inilah cap Paduka Seri Maharaja Gilbetelet Lard Minto Gurnur Jenral Benggala raja pada sekalian tanah Hindustan atas angin bawah angin adanya, ‘This is the seal of Paduka Seri Maharaja Gilbert Elliot Lord Minto, Governor General of Bengal, ruler of the whole of Hindustan, above the winds [and] below the winds’ (#99), stamped on a proclamation of the British capture of Batavia, issued by Lord Minto and signed by T.S.Raffles, 11 August 1811. British Library, Or. 9484  noc

In later years, with the expansion of British colonial rule across the Malay peninsula, seals with Jawi inscriptions sometimes accompanied by elements in English continued to be used by senior British officials, including Residents of Malay states and the Governor-General of the Straits Settlements.

#2000
al-a‘azz al-‘azīz Gunur dan Komandar in Cif serta Wis Admiral yang memerintah Singapura Pulau Pinang dan Melaka // GOVERNOR / STRAITS SETTLEMENTS, ‘The most powerful of the powerful, Governor and Commander-in-Chief and Vice-Admiral who rules Singapore, Penang and Melaka // Governor / Straits Settlements’ (#2000), stamped on a letter of 1883. Image courtesy of John Klein Nagelvoort.

In contrast to British practice of using Malay seals, Dutch officials in Southeast Asia – whether during the period of VOC rule of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th and 18th centuries, or in the service of the Netherlands East Indies in the 19th century and later – never used ‘Islamic’-style seals.  Only one example has been recorded, found in an album of seals from Palembang,  but without evidence that it was ever actually used on official correspondence.

#677
Resident Gupernament Nederland fî balad Palembang sanat 1238 // RESIDENT VAN PALEMBANG JAAR 1823, 'Resident of the Dutch Government in the state of Palembang, the year 1238 // Resident of Palembang, the year 1823' (#677). Seal album from Palembang ('Stempels uit de Residentie Palembang'). Leiden University Library, Cod.Or.6663.b

The earlier post on the seals of British orientalists in India also throws light on an unusual seal in a fine Javanese Pawukon divination manuscript in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Jav. d. 2). Each of the thirty wuku or weeks of the Javanese calendar is associated with a particular god, tree, bird, foot, house and pennant, which can be used to predict the character and fortune of those born in that week. In the corner of one illustrated page of the Bodleian Pawukon is a small oval seal written in muthanna symmetrical mirror script, previously assumed to be the seal of a Javanese artist or owner of the book. Thanks to Ursula's research, this seal can now be identified as that of William Yule (1764-1839), an East India Company official who had served in Lucknow and Delhi. Yule built up an important collection of Arabic, Persian and Urdu manuscripts which were given to the British Museum by his sons in 1847 and 1850, and some of the manuscripts contain impressions of exactly the same seal, and his related bookplate, in English and Persian, also composed in muthanna script. Although William Yule was never in Southeast Asia, his brother Udny Yule (ca. 1765-1830) served with the British administration in Java and in 1815 was the commanding officer in Banten, and may have acquired the Pawukon for his bibliophile brother. Before entering the Bodleian the book was owned by James Thomson Gibson Craig (1799-1886), renowned for his library in various languages. 

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Javanese Pawukon manuscript, with the seal of William Yule in the bottom right corner. Bodleian Library, MS Jav. d. 2, f. 56r

#1222 
Seal of William Yule, inscribed with his name (w.l.y.m y.w.l) in symmetrical mirror-image muthanna script and dated 1213 (AD 1798/9).

Further reading:
Abdur-Rahman Mohamed Amin, Koleksi surat-surat Francis Light.
A.T. Gallop, The legacy of the Malay letter.  Warisan warkah Melayu.  With an essay by E. Ulrich Kratz.  London: published by the British Library for the National Archives of Malaysia, 1994.
Ann Kumar, Java and modern Europe: ambiguous encounters. Richmond: Curzon, 1997. [On the Pawukon calendar, see pp. 144-158.]
Marcus Langdon, Penang: the fourth Presidency 1805-1830. Penang: Areca Books, 2013.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

09 March 2017

The Book of Esther and the Jewish Festival Purim

Purim is undoubtedly one of the most boisterous, cheerful and joyous festivals in the Jewish calendar. It takes place in early spring on 14th of Adar which this year starts at sundown on March 11th. Purim celebrates the salvation of the Jews of Persia during the reign of King Ahasuerus. The moving and dramatic story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai is told in the Book of Esther, known in Hebrew as Megilat Ester (Scroll of Esther).

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Exotic animals in an illustrated Esther Scroll. Holland, c. 1630 or 1640  (BL Or.1047)  noc

The Book of Esther belongs to Ketuvim (Writings), which is the third division of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). Haman, the conniving chief minister at Ahasuerus’ court, decreed to kill all the Jews in the King's vast empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia and included 127 provinces. Lots (in Hebrew purim) were cast to determine the date when the Jews would be exterminated, hence the festival’s appellation. Esther, the King's Jewish consort, was warned in time by Mordecai, and they both managed to thwart the annihilation of their people. The King punished Haman and rewarded Mordecai who sent letters throughout the kingdom, urging Jews to observe Purim every year with merrymaking and gift offerings.

The historic origin of the Book of Esther and its authenticity have been the subject of much debate and conjecture over the years. There have been chronological difficulties with King Ahasuerus, even though some researchers have claimed that he was in fact the Persian king Xerxes I, who ruled 485 - 465 BCE. The Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) and Josephus (Jewish scholar and historian who lived 37-100 CE), maintained that the king in the story was actually Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE).

According to recent research the Book of Esther was written in the middle of the 4th century BCE during the reign of Artaxerxes III (359-338 BCE), however the absence in Persian sources of any references to a king that had a Jewish consort created a new problem. Some scholars have contended that given the striking resemblance between the names Esther and Mordecai to the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, the story was rooted in Babylonian worship practices, which the Jews would have adapted and transformed into the story of Esther. The well-known German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) for example, argued that the Book of Esther was written at the time of the Maccabean struggle (167-160 BCE) against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in order to boost the spirit of the Jews at that critical time, and to show that God does not abandon its people.

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Esther Scroll with floral decorations. Europe, 16th century (BL Egerton MS 67A)  noc

As a matter of interest, the Book of Esther does not feature among the Dead Sea Scrolls (spanning 150 BCE – 70 CE) and references to Purim do not feature in the Jewish literature before the 1st century CE. What can be said with some certainty is that since the Talmudic period (c. 500 CE) the Book of Esther has been customarily written on parchment in the form of a scroll, and that the festival had long been established by the 2nd century CE as evidenced in the tractate Megilah of the Mishnah (corpus of the oral tradition of Jewish law). The tractate contains details on the festival’s observance and the rules governing the reading of the Scroll of Esther.

As God’s name is not explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, it was considered permissible to illustrate it. Scrolls of Esther read in the synagogue during the festival services had to be plain, however, scrolls intended for personal use could be illustrated with scenes from the narrative or ornamented with other motifs.

Esther Scroll decoration flourished particularly in the 17th, and especially in the 18th century, in Italy, Holland and to a lesser extent in Germany. The tradition of decorating and illustrating the Scroll of Esther continued in the centuries that followed, with fine specimens being produced in Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa. In Italy, especially, Esther Scrolls were lavishly decorated. In fact, the earliest surviving embellished Esther Scrolls were created in the second half of 16th century Italy.

The Marelli Scroll held in the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection, is a beautiful and rare example of Esther Scroll ornamentation from that period. Its decoration consists of eight different types of copperplate engraved borders that frame the handwritten text of the Book of Esther. The borders bear no relation whatsoever to the story, featuring instead a lavish array of putti, grotesque telamons and pagan goddesses holding heraldic shields, and real and fabulous animals hand-coloured in bright hues. The creator of those impressive borders was Andrea Marelli, a book illustrator and printmaker who was active in Rome and Sienna around 1567-1572.

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Segment of The Marelli Scroll, Italy c. 1573 (BL Or.13028)  noc

Finely engraved specimens from 17th and 18th century Holland have also survived. Some of these have grand arched portals encasing the text. The portals are supported by columns on high pedestals between which stand the principal characters of the Esther tale: Ahasuerus, Mordecai, Esther and Haman. Episodes of the Esther narrative are confined to the lower borders, whereas the upper borders are populated by female figures bearing palm leaves. These specific pictorial schemes typify scrolls created by Salom d’Italia (1619-1655). A native of Italy as suggested by his name, he most probably acquired his drawing and engraving skills from his uncle, the Mantuan printer Eliezer d’Italia. In 1641 Salom moved to Amsterdam and worked there until about 1648, creating some exquisite pieces among them portraits of prominent figures and Esther Scrolls.

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Esther Scroll with engraved borders by Salom d’Italia, Holland, 17th century (BL Or.4786)  noc

Often, embellished special cylindrical containers in silver, gold or ivory, were made to hold and protect the scrolls. We do not know exactly when special cases were first used, however, a brief mention to a case can be found in Bernard Picart’s Ceremonies and Religious Customs (Amsterdam, 1723). That might not be the earliest reference to a Scroll of Esther case, yet it is the only one I have managed to find.

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Esther Scroll enclosed in an ivory case with an ivory puller. Europe, 17th century (BL Add MS 11831)  noc

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Minute Esther Scroll (50 x 94 mm) written on a single strip of vellum wound on a silver-plated roller. Europe, 18th century (BL Or.4670)  noc

Throughout the generations, the story of Esther has been cherished by Jews everywhere for its message of bravery, resolve and faith. The eventful and theatrical narrative which is reminiscent of an Arabian Nights story, and the exuberance and merriment associated with the Purim celebrations, have lent themselves to an outburst of literary activity. The carnival spirit of the festival and the Book of Esther’s striking protagonists have been captured and immortalised in drama, poetry and prose, with virtually hundreds of surviving works in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and other Jewish languages, spanning many centuries. The British Library’s Hebrew collection abounds in printed material dedicated exclusively to the festival. This is just a small cluster of some noteworthy pieces:

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Left: Shir na’eh ba-hadurim. A Purim poem in Judeo-Italian. Mantua, 1619 (BL 1979.d.36)  noc
Right: Akta Ester mit Ahashverosh. A Purim play in Yiddish.  Prague, 1774. (BL 1980.c.39)  noc


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Left: Pizmonim. Purim songs in Judeo-Greek according to the custom of the Jews of Yanina. Salonica, 1875 (BL 1977.bb.27(2))  nocRight: Cantares y elevasiyones  para alavar ah el Diyo en la festividad de Purim. Poems for Purim in Judeo-Spanish [Ladino].
[Leghorn?], 1850 (BL 1979.d.8)  noc


IMG_5695 11_Purim Pictures (8)_2000
Left: Esterace pustaka=Megilat Ester. The Scroll of Esther in Hebrew and Marathi. Mumbai, 1886. (BL 1946.d.45)  noc
Right: Esther (The story of Purim) in five acts, by Abraham Levinson. London, 1938. 11782.bb.75  noc

 

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
 CC-BY-SA

03 March 2017

Vietnam and Dragons

In Vietnamese culture, as in many other East and South East Asian societies, the dragon plays a very prominent role. It is arguably the most sacred of the four mythical creatures - the dragon, the phoenix, the unicorn and the turtle - and its pre-eminence is closely related to the birth of the nation. Legend has it that Lạc Long Quân, king of the dragons who lived in the water, married Âu Cơ, a fairy from the bird kingdom. She gave birth to 100 sons and her first-born son became King Hùng Vương of Lạc Việt, the first dynasty of Vietnam. The word 'Long' in the name of the legendary Lạc Long Quân (Dragon Lord of the Lac) is a Hán-Việt word which also means 'dragon', or rồng in modern Vietnamese. Hence there is a proverb saying that the Vietnamese are con rồng cháu tiên or “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy”.

Fig 1
Gilded dragon on the reverse of an Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh, 1924. British Library, Or.14665 Noc

From the very birth of the country, the dragon has thus been closely associated with Vietnamese kings or rulers, but it is believed that in even earlier times the dragon was used as a symbol at clan level to represent talent, noble and beauty. There are proverbs which refer to the dragon in this context, such as chữ viết đẹp như rồng bay phượng múa, 'handwriting is as beautiful as a flying dragon and a dancing phoenix'. However the increasing use of the word 'dragon' and objects with dragon patterns by feudal lords led to this creature becoming a symbol of the authority of the imperial clan. In China, it is believed that an emperor of the Han dynasty (B.C.206-A.D.220) was the first ruler to use the dragon to represent his authority.

Vietnamese tales and legends also reinforce a close association between this creature and the country’s rulers. For example, when Lý Công Uẩn took power from the Early Lê dynasty in A.D. 1009, he is said to have seen a golden dragon descending from the sky over Đại La citadel. He therefore renamed Đại La as Thăng Long ('Rising Dragon'). Lý Công Uẩn  became Emperor Lý Thái Tổ, the founder of the Lý dynasty (A.D. 1009-1225) and Thăng Long, which later became Hà Nội, was chosen as the capital. It is believed that both the new emperor and the capital city were blessed by this mythical creature right from the very beginning. Lý Thái Tổ was not the only emperor who claimed to see a golden dragon during his reign, for Emperor Lý Nhân Tông (A.D. 1066-1127) and Emperor Lê Thanh Tông (A.D. 1442-1497) were also said to have seen golden dragons several times during their reigns (Zeng Zen 2000: 46).

Or_14844_ffront cover-red  Or_14844_fback cover-red
The Imperial dragon depicted on the yellow silk front and back covers of a manuscript of KimVăn Kiều, 19th c. British Library, Or.14844 Noc

The dragon is regarded as immortal and even though its appearance can seem frightening, it does not represent evil. On the contrary, in Vietnam the dragon was always regarded as a symbol of power and nobility, and thus became the chief attribute of the person highest in nobility and greatest in power: the emperor or king (Buttinger 1983: 20). The Vietnamese imperial throne is called bệ rồng or 'dragon throne', while the throne hall in the palace where the emperor granted public audiences or worked, such as that in the former imperial capital city of Huế, was also decorated with dragons. Imperial attire and accessories were also related to the dragon; for example, the imperial gown was called a long bào and his hat was called a long quân. The dragon with five claws was reserved for imperial use, while one with four claws was for the use of royal dignitaries and high ranking court officials. For commoners, their dragons could only have three claws.

From a geographical aspect, the shape of Vietnam, which resembles a letter S, also enhances the dragon myth. The Vietnamese consider the shape of their homeland to be similar to a winding dragon: the northern part is its tail, central Vietnam is its body with the Trường Sơn mountain range (the Annamite Range) as its back and spine, and the dragon’s head lies in the southern part, with its open mouth spraying water into the South China Sea. It should be noted that when the Mekong River reaches the south of Vietnam and branches into nine tributaries in the Mekong River Delta, it is called Sông Cửu Long or the 'Nine Dragon River'.

Fig 4
Gilt dragon on the Imperial edict of Emperor Khải Đinh,  25 July, 1917. British Library, Or.14631 Noc

Dragons also appear in many other aspects of Vietnamese life and culture. On auspicious occasions such as the Vietnamese New Year, a dragon dance will be organised. The Nguyễn court (A.D. 1802-1945) also declared the Dragon Boat Day, originating from Chinese traditions, as one of the 'three great holidays' in Vietnam along with the lunar New Year (Tết Nguyên Đán) and the emperor’s birthday. The boat race festival was celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month by peasants in South China and Vietnam, to ward off poisonous spirits (Woodside 1988: 36-37). Many Vietnamese proverbs and children's plays relate to dragons, and many place names in Vietnam also contain the word “Long”, or 'Dragon'.

DSCN0684
Dragon Boat Race, Thiếu nhi vẽ.  Hà Nội: Văn hóa, 1977, [21]. British Library, SEA.1986.a.4004

In Hồ Chí Minh City (formerly Sài Gòn), there is an historic building called Nhà Rồng, or the Dragon House, located at the old port of Saigon. The house was built by the French in 1862-1863 in a French colonial style, but on the roof top there were two symmetrical ceramic dragons facing each other and looking at the moon, hence the name Nhà Rồng. It was from here that the young Hồ Chí Minh embarked on a ship to sail to France in June 1911, on his search to find methods to fight French colonialism and seek independence for his motherland. Symbolically, dragons seem to appear in some critical junctures in Vietnamese history.

Further reading:
A.B. Woodside. Vietnam and the Chinese model. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University press, 1988.
Joseph Buttinger. A Dragon Defiant. Newton Abbot, Devon: David and Charles, 1983.
Phùng Hồng. ‘Rồng trong đời sống Việt Nam’  in  Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp. 63-66. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)
Zeng Zen. ‘Năm thìn bàn chuyện rồng’ in Hồn Việt vol.25, no.196/197, January-February 2000; pp.45-48. (BL shelfmark: 16641.e.5)

Sud Chonchirdsin, curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork