THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

3 posts from September 2017

27 September 2017

A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest)

While art historical research has focussed on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a dialect or dialects of Persian heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic and written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

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Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, gouache on paper, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century. The elaborate raised halo over Joshua's turban is a motif borrowed from Persian iconography, where it is especially associated with prophets (British Library Or 13704, f. 15r)
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A major change occured in 1985 when a scholarly study exploring the socio-historical and cultural factors that influenced the development of Judeo-Persian manuscript painting was published. This study by Vera Basch Moreen included a detailed inventory of miniatures in Judeo-Persian manuscripts held in major library collections. In it, she described twelve accessible Judeo-Persian manuscripts containing a total of 179 miniatures, as well as numerous additional decorative elements.

Persian manuscript art flourished particularly under the Safavid rulers (1502-1642) who deliberately encouraged the artistic expression of various population groups within their kingdom. The Safavid shahs not only patronized manuscript art, but some were gifted calligraphers and painters in their own right. As a result, during the Safavid period, the art of miniature painting spread from the royal workshops to the smaller aristocratic courts and ateliers, eventually reaching the marketplaces of Persia’s major cities. It was in these centres that the popular, provincial style of Persian manuscript art – to which the Judeo-Persian paintings belong – was born. Judeo-Persian manuscript illustration reached its pinnacle between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some art historians have argued that Judeo-Persian manuscripts commissioned by Jewish patrons were actually illustrated and decorated in Muslim workshops. Their view is based on the stylistic similarities existing between Persian and Judeo-Persian miniatures. The identity of the artists who created them remains uncertain, essentially because none of the existing Judeo-Persian miniatures found in these manuscripts were signed.

In terms of their content, Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscripts can be divided into two main categories: a) Hebrew transliterations of Persian classic works such as those of Jami (1414-1492) and Nizami (1140-1202), two giants of the Persian literary tradition; and b) original works by prominent Jewish-Persian poets such as Mawlana Shahin Shirazi (Our Master the Royal Falcon of Shiraz, 14th century) and Imrani of Isfahan (1454–1536). Among Shirazi’s epic compositions are the Musa Nama (the Book of Moses) dated 1327 which contains narratives from the Pentateuch and has around 10,000 couplets (consisting of two rhyming hemistiches), and the Bereshit Nama (Book of Genesis) which he completed in 1358, comprising over 8,000 verses.
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Seven Priests blowing seven horns in front of the Walls of Jericho, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library Or 13704, f. 31v)
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Composed around 1474, Imrani’s epic Fath Nama (Book of Conquest) is a poetical paraphrase of narratives from the biblical books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, consisting of about 10.000 verses.   Imrani endeavoured to uplift the biblical story to the level of the Persian epic, combining in his works Jewish and Islamic legendary and literary material. He is known to have written ten full compositions all of which except three deal with Jewish themes. Imrani’s works are permeated with a deep sense of exile and isolation and a pessimistic view of human condition. While composing the Fath Nama, Imrani had the support of a patron – Amin al-Dawlah (Trustee of the State) who was most probably a wealthy man, perhaps an official in the city of Isfahan. When his patron passed away, Imrani abandoned his work, resuming it only after he had found another patron named Rabbi Yehuda.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the People of Jericho (British Library Or 13704, f. 32r)
Right: Joshua and the Israelites at the battle of Ai (British Library Or 13704, f. 50v)
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Or 13704, the Fath Nama manuscript illustrated here, contains seven coloured illustrations[1] and numerous floral and faunal designs. The manuscript is incomplete, and, since it lacks a colophon, the exact date of its production and the names of its patron and creators are unknown. The assumption that the manuscript was written and decorated at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteenth century is based largely on the style of its paintings and on the names of former owners’ inscriptions found within its pages. Several scribes were responsible for copying the text in a writing style characteristic of Persian Jews.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the enemies of the Gibeonites (British Library Or 13704, f. 75r)
Right: The death of the King of Makkedah (British Library Or 13704, f. 85r)
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This manuscript is one of two known illustrated copies of this work. Acquired in 1975, it was purchased from the estate of David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), a renowned bibliophile of Baghdadi origin, who travelled extensively in search of books and manuscripts for his private library. His collection of 1,153 manuscripts is described in a two-volume catalogue published by Oxford University Press in 1932 under the title Ohel Dawid (David’s Tent). Thanks to the Polonsky Foundation, this manuscript has now been digitised and is available digitally on our Digitised Manuscripts site to explore cover to cover.

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An example of the typical bird and flower decorations in Or 13074
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Further reading
Moreen, Vera Basch, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), pp. 40, 49-50.
–––, A Supplementary List of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts”, British Library Journal, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 72 and plate II.
Moreen, Vera Basch and Orit Carmeli, The Bible as a Judeo-Persian epic: an illustrated manuscript of Imrani's Fath-Nama (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2016). On Ms 4602 of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
David Yeroushalmi, Emrānī”, in Encyclopædia Iranica (1995).

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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[1] Folio 90v, the only illustration not included here, contains an unfinished sketch in outline of Joshua in battle against the five Amorite kings.

21 September 2017

The oldest example of Thai script printed in Europe

Formal relations between Great Britain and Thailand were established in 1612 when a letter from James I to the Thai King Songtham travelled on the ship The Globe via Patani in the Gulf of Siam, and finally arrived in the capital Ayutthaya in August or September 1612. Following this, permission was given to British merchants to trade in Siam, and subsequently to explore trading opportunities in the northern Thai kingdom of Lanna, which had been visited in 1587 by the adventurer Ralph Fitch, the first Englishman known to have set foot in Thailand.

In January 1684, during the reign of the pro-foreign King Narai, an embassy from Ayutthaya set sail for France via Great Britain. The ambassadors Khun Phichai Walit and Khun Phichit Maitri were accompanied by the missionary Bénigne Vachet, who spoke Thai. They met Charles II on 26 September 1684. The 17th-century writer, thinker and bibliophile John Evelyn noted in his diary: "26th of September [1684]. There was now an ambassador from the King of Siam, in the East Indies, to His Majesty" (Evelyn 1955: 4.388). On this occasion a manuscript Thai syllabary with numerals, with Romanised equivalents, all written in a sloping hand, was presented to Charles II.

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Detail of the first page of a handwritten syllabary listing the Thai consonants (first three lines) and some vowels (bottom line) with Romanised equivalents, circa 1684. British Library, Reg.16.B.IV, f.1 Noc

The scribe of the document is not mentioned – perhaps it was compiled by one or both Thai ambassadors working together with Bénigne Vachet. It can be assumed that its purpose was to further written communications between Great Britain and Siam. However, British trading activities in the Thai kingdom came to an abrupt end with the Siamese revolution and the overthrow of King Narai in 1688.

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Detail of the third page of the Thai syllabary listing certain syllables and numerals at the bottom, circa 1684. British Library, Reg.16.B.IV, f.3 Noc

The Thai syllabary passed into the possession of Thomas Hyde (1636-1703), the king's translator. Hyde was a Cambridge-educated Orientalist, who became Hebrew Reader at Oxford in 1658, and was appointed librarian-in-chief of the Bodleian Library in 1665. He had a strong interest in Asian languages and was well known for his knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew, Malay, Persian, Syriac and Turkish. After Hyde's death in 1703 the syllabary was one of many Oriental manuscripts purchased from his estate for the Royal Collection, and is listed in a catalogue as 'The Syam Alphabet, with their numbers' (Casley 1734: 248). The syllabary then remained in the Royal Collection until 1757, when George II gave the library to the British Museum which had been established four years earlier following the bequest of Sir Hans Sloane’s collection to George II for the nation. The approximately 2000 manuscripts and 9000 printed books of the Royal Collection are now held at the British Library.

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Front cover of a volume containing various engraved prints from copper plates of the Thai, Sinhalese and Tatar alphabets, and Chinese numbers, weights and measures, bound with a British Museum red leather binding. British Library, Or.70.bb.9 Noc

Hyde appears to have commissioned a copper-plate engraving of this handwritten Thai syllabary from Michael Burghers (1647/8 – 1727), a Dutch engraver who resided at Oxford for most of his life, and who was the printer used by Thomas Hyde for most of his experiments with typography. Burghers worked mainly for the university and booksellers, but was also employed by the English aristocracy. Although Burghers produced numerous portraits of scholars and aristocrats, including one of Charles II, he became known best for his engravings of antiquities, artefacts and ruins. In a letter of 19 April 1700 to Thomas Bowrey, compiler of the first Malay-English dictionary, Hyde states that he is sending him copper-plates of two Siamese and one Sinhalese alphabets, for which the engraver had charged £5 (British Library, MSS Eur E 192). 

Hyde's own copy of the two-page print of the Thai syllabary was also acquired for the Royal Collection, and entered the British Museum in 1757. Here it was bound in red leather together with prints of the Sinhalese and Tatar alphabets, Chinese numbers, weights, measures, directions etc., all engraved by Burghers. Each of the prints is marked with “MBurg. sculp.” in the right bottom corner. The prints were first published in a collection of Hyde’s works, edited by Gregory Sharpe, with the title Syntagma dissertationum quas olim auctor doctissimus S.T.P. separatim edidit (Oxford, 1767).

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Engraving of the Thai alphabet and syllables, based on the handwritten syllabary presented to Charles II in 1684. British Library, Or.70.bb.9, f.8 Noc

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Detail of Michael Burghers‘ copper print of the Thai syllabary with Romanised equivalents, and with numbers at the bottom, 1700. In the right bottom corner, Burghers signed his work: „Mburg. sculp.“ British Library, Or.70.bb.9, f.9 Noc

Burghers' work, which can now be dated to 1700, is the oldest known example of Thai script printed in the West. Older Chinese woodblock prints of Thai script were produced at the end of the 16th century as a part of multi-language vocabularies, known as Hua Yi Yi Yu, after a section for the Thai language was established at the translators’ institute of the Ming government in 1579.

Further reading

Anderson, John, English intercourse with Siam in the seventeenth century. London: Routledge, 2000 (reprint of the 1890 first edition).

Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit, A history of Ayutthaya: Siam in the early modern world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017.

Casley, D. A catalogue of the manuscripts of the King's Library. London, 1734.

Evelyn, John, Diary. Edited by Esmond Samuel de Beer, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1955.

Farrington, Anthony and Dhiravat na Pombejra, The English Factory in Siam 1612-1685. London: British Library, 2007.

Tyacke, Nicholas, The history of the University of Oxford. [Vol. 4, Seventeenth-century Oxford]. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Jana Igunma
Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian

With information on Thomas Hyde and Thomas Bowrey from Ursula Sims-Williams and Annabel Teh Gallop

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05 September 2017

Vietnamese traditional markets

One striking feature of South East Asia is its traditional markets. They can be easily set up in any available space in communities, with vendors laying out their goods on makeshift stalls or on street pavements. Despite global and international retail chains mushrooming in many parts of the region, traditional markets are still going strong and in many areas are making a comeback.

In Vietnam, traditional markets have played a vital part in daily life, especially in the past when people still lived under a self-sufficient and rural economy. Markets provided a place where they could trade their daily necessities, while socialising and exchanging local news. Their importance is best expressed by the Vietnamese proverb “A market has its regulations; a village has its customs.” Vietnamese traditional markets come in different forms and sizes, from a tiny and basic hamlet market, to a more substantial village market which takes place where roads meet, or a town market, which also has proper shop houses (buildings which combine a shop with simple living accommodation for the trader). Markets can be held on any day but are usually busiest on the 2nd, 6th, 12th, 16th, 22nd, and 26th of the lunar month (Hưu Ngọc 2012: 178) .

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Bà Chiểu vegetable market, Sài Gòn, from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.22. British Library, OIJ.915.97

The origins of the Vietnamese traditional market can be traced back from written records to the end of the 13th century. In 1293 Trân Phu, a Chinese envoy of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) who travelled through Vietnam during the Trầ n Dynasty (1226-1400), made a note in his records (An Nam tức sự) that “Vietnamese markets took place every two days. Hundreds of goods were laid out. A building of three rooms width with four bamboo benches was erected at every five (Chinese) miles as a place for a market.” (Trịnh Khắc Mạnh 2015: 6).

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Food vendor, from Oger 1909, p.75. British Library, Or. TC 4

According to Trịnh Khắc Mạnh, traditional Vietnamese markets before the modern period can be divided into two types, namely those managed by the local administration and those managed by a local temple. Profits from market management would thus go back either to local communities or to the temple (Trịnh Khắc Mạnh 2015: 7).

In the past, markets were not only a place for businesses but they served as a community’s centre where locals were able to socialise. In addition to being able to sell or buy goods, both traders and customers also had a chance to meet up and exchange or gather news about their neighbours and communities. A market was a place where other daily activities took place, as this folk song about a girl looking for a man of her dreams demonstrates: “I’m like a length of rose silk / Waiting in the market for the right buyer” (Hưu Ngọc 2012: 178).

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Poultry vendor from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.23. British Library, OIJ.915.97

Markets in small villages or communities required no permanent fixtures. They could be easily set up with makeshift stalls, benches or even just a piece of cloth laid out on the bare ground. Markets in towns were generally bigger and would also have permanent shop houses. In the 18th and 19th centuries in prominent towns such as Sài Gòn, Hà Nội or Huế there were markets that specialised in one particular trade, such as clothes, paper, tin and copper household utensils, and leather. Street names in the old quarter of Hà Nội clearly reflect the specific commercial history of parts of the city as each name gives you a clue as to what you could expect to buy from the area. For example, Phố Hàng Đào was a place where you could buy silk or fabric, Phố Hàng Bạc specialised in silver products whereas Hàng Chiếu would have plenty of sleeping mats for you to choose from. Some of these traditions still carry on to the present day.

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Paper shop, from Oger 1909, p.131. British Library, Or. TC 4

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A pharmacy, in Oger 1909, p.90. British Library, Or. TC 4

Records of western travellers to the region in the 19th century also give good accounts of what traditional markets were like. George Finlayson, a surgeon and naturalist attached to the Crawfurd Mission to Siam and Vietnam in 1821-1822, gave an account of the principal market in Huế, which he visited on 3rd October 1822, as follows:
“It consists of a spacious street about a mile in length, with shops on either side of the whole of its length. Many of the shops are mere paltry huts, made of palm leaves; the rest are more substantial houses, constructed chiefly of wood, and have tile or thatched roofs. Here also, the poverty of the shops was particularly striking. A very large proportion contained nothing but shreds of gilt and coloured paper used in religious ceremonies and at funerals. Chinese porcelain, of a coarse description; fans, lacquered boxes, Chinese fans, silks, and crapes, the two latter in small quantity; medicines without number, coarse clothes made up, large hats made of palm-leaf, and a sort of jacket of the same material; rice, pulse, and fruit; sago … were the common articles exposed for sale. There were but few, and those very coarse articles of manufactured iron, as nails, hatches, and chisels, which bore a high price …” (George Finlayson 1826: 371-2).

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Ceramics and pottery shop, from Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ, 2015, p.57. British Library, OIJ.915.97

The British Library is fortunate to hold some items which depict Vietnamese markets at the beginning of the 20th century. The three-volume set of Introduction générale a l’étude de la technique du peuple annamite by Henri Oger, published in Paris in 1909 (Or. TC 4) has detailed and informative drawings of daily activities of the Vietnamese in and around Hà Nội in the first decade of the 20th century. In addition to this finely illustrated item, the Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ (OIJ.915.97) depicts daily life activities of the Vietnamese in the Gia Định-Sài Gòn area in the 1920’s-1930’s. The item in our collection is a 2015 re-publication of the Monographie Dessinée de L’Indochine: Cochinchine, first published in Paris in 1930. It is a collection of beautiful drawings from the Gia Định School of Drawings (Trường vẽ Gia Định or Ecole de Dessin, founded in 1913, the predecessor of the present University of Fine Arts, Hồ Chí Minh City). Both items are wonderful historical records of the lives of Vietnamese commoners at the turn of the 20th century.

Further reading:
George Finlayson, The Mission to Siam and Hue, the Capital of Cochin China in the years 1821-2. London: John Murray, 1826.
Henri Oger, Introduction générale a l’étude de la technique du peuple annamite. Paris: Geuthner Librarie-Éditeur, [1909].
Hưu Ngọc, Wandering through Vietnamese Culture. Hanoi: Thế Giới, 2012.
Ký Họa Về Đông Dương: Nam Kỳ. TP. Hồ Chí Minh : Nhà xuất bản văn hóa văn nghệ, 2015.
Trịnh Khắc Mạnh. Chợ truyền thống Việt Nam qua tư liệu văn bia. Hà Nội: Khoa học xã hội, 2015.

Sud Chonchirdsin
Curator for Vietnamese