THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

5 posts from February 2018

21 February 2018

Endangered heritage: cultural sites at risk from conflict on postage stamps

The appreciation of postage stamp designs transcends the mere aesthetic since their designs can be used to enhance our understanding on a range of contemporary concerns relating to heritage. This is best exemplified with the postage stamps of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen depicting heritage sites destroyed, or at risk of destruction from armed conflict.

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
The Afghanistan 16 July, 1972 9 afghanis stamp (Fig. 1) depicts the Graeco-Bactrian Temple amongst the ancient ruins at Ai-Khanoum situated in present day Takhar Province, Northern Afghanistan. Initially believed to have been the Alexandria on the Oxus, established after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the region, it is now known to date to around 280 BCE during the rule of King Antiochus I. French and Russian Archaeologists worked on the site between 1964 and 1978 but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced the excavations to be abandoned. Tragically, Ai-Khanoum was heavily looted and much of it destroyed during the ensuing conflict.

Afghanistan 2b  Afghanistan 2b
Figs. 1 and 2

The 3 afghanis stamp from the same issue (Fig. 2) depicts the Buddhist Stupa at Hadda, close to the Khyber Pass in Kandahar Province. Over twenty thousand Buddhist sculptures fusing Buddhist and Hellenic artistic traditions from the second or first century BCE were excavated at the site. Much of this site was destroyed in the Afghan Civil Wars between 1989 and 1986 which followed the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Afghanistan 4a  Afghanistan 4a
Figs. 3 and 4

The Afghanistan 21 March, 1951 20 poul (Fig. 3) and 27 September, 1985 10 afghanis (Fig. 4) stamps both depict the largest of the Bamiyam Buddhas, situated in the Hazarajat region of Central Afghanistan. Part of the historic silk-road trade route linking India and China, Bamiyan was an important Buddhist holy site. Statues of the Buddha were carved out of the sandstone cliffs during the sixth century. The largest being 55 metres in height was once renowned as the tallest Buddhist statue in the world. In March 2001 the Taliban’s Military and Spiritual leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, ordered the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Their destruction immediately sparked outrage and condemnation within the international community. In an interview Mullah Mohammed Omar stated that he ordered the destruction of the Buddhas as an act of protest and outrage against the vast sums of money being offered to conserve such ancient sites whilst millions of Afghans faced real privation. Nevertheless the act of destruction was widely regarded by the United Nations, UNESCO and others to be an act of iconoclasm by the Taliban.

Syrian Arab Republic
Elsewhere, the Syrian Arab Republic 10 October, 1968 Ancient Monuments issue also includes a number of stamps depicting heritage sites destroyed or at risk from conflict. The 15p stamp (Fig. 5), depicts the Monastery of St. Simeon the Stylite, established during the fifth century northwest of Aleppo. The Monastery is one of the oldest surviving Byzantine Churches in the world and consequently the church and village were designated a world heritage site by UNESCO in 2011. Initial fears for the site’s safety were raised during the Syrian conflict whilst it was under the control of Islamic State forces who have garnered widespread notoriety for their practice of destroying Islamic, Christian and other historical sites. Although safely recaptured by Kurdish forces in 2015, the monastery was heavily damaged by a possible air strike on 12 May 2016.

Syria 4_20170427_13510956 Syria 4_20170427_13510956
Figs. 5 and 6

The 50p stamp from the same issue (Fig. 6) depicts the Roman Theatre at Bosra situated in the district of Dar’a in south-western Syria. Carved out of black basalt in the mid second century CE, the theatre has a seating capacity for 15,000 people making it one of the largest and best preserved ancient roman theatres in the world. In March 2015, video footage was released showing rebel and Syrian Government forces battling amongst the ruins which resulted in the destruction of statues and shattered the stone work.

The second series of the Syrian Arab Republic 20 January 1969 Ancient Monuments Issue are also significant. The 25p stamp (Fig. 7) depicts the Baal-Shamin Temple in Palmyra which was consecrated in 32AD for worshipers of the Mesopotamian God Baal. Under Byzantine rule the temple was converted into a Christian Church before being again converted into a Mosque in 1132. The Mosque remained active until the 1920s when Franco-Syrian archaeological missions removed the post-classical additions to the site as part of a restoration process. The ruins were amongst the best preserved in Palmyra until August 2015 when Islamic State forces searching for hidden gold used explosives to demolish the site.

The 16p stamp from the issue (Fig. 8) depicts the Shrine of St John the Baptist housed in the Umayyad Mosque, Damascus. Built on the site of an old Christian Church in 634 CE, the Mosque is one of the oldest and largest in the world, widely regarded as Islam’s fourth holiest site. It houses the Shrine of St John the Baptist, a religious figure of importance to both Christian and Muslim believers. The tomb of the great Muslim leader, Saladin in also situated within an adjoining garden. For centuries the site has been a place where both Christians and Muslims have worshipped alongside one another peacefully. Although it remains undamaged, fears for the site's safety were raised in November 2013, after a mortar round landed perilously close to the mosque killing several people.

Syria 9_20170427_13540120 Syria 8_20170427_13533290Syria 9_20170427_13533290
Figs. 7, 8 and 9

Finally the 60p stamp (Fig. 9) depicts the Khaled ibn al-Walid Mosque in Homs, Syria. Although the current building was constructed in the twentieth century, the Mosque has been located at this site since 1265 CE. It is dedicated to and holds the mausoleum of Khalid ibn al-Walid, a military commander who led the Islamic conquest of Syria in the seventh century putting an end to Byzantine rule in the region. During the Syrian Conflict, the mosque was held by anti-government rebels and was consequently in 2013 shelled on a number of occasions causing significant damage to the building and tomb.

Republic of Iraq
A notable set of stamps depicting cultural sites impacted by the various conflicts in Iraq is the Republic of Iraq 1 December 1967 International Tourist Year Issue. The 15 fils stamp (Fig. 10) depicts the Minaret of the Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul. Established in 1172, the mosque was named after Nur al-Din Mahmoud Zangi, a Turkic ruler of Mosul and Aleppo who ordered its construction. Having undergone significant development over the centuries, the mosque was made famous by its leaning cylindrical minaret nicknamed ‘al-Hadba’ (the hunchback) which was covered with elaborate Iranian style brickwork and surmounted with a white dome. In July 2014 Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his first appearance as IS leader at the mosque and announced the establishment of a Caliphate. Sadly in July 2017, IS forces used explosives to demolish the site during their retreat from Mosul.
Iraq 1_20170427_14143661Iraq 1_20170427_14143661
Figs. 10 and 11

The 80 fils stamp (Fig. 11) depicts the Minaret of Samarra, originally part of the Great Mosque of Samarra constructed between 848 and 851CE. Although the mosque itself was destroyed in 1278 during the Mongol Invasion of Iraq; its outer wall and iconic minaret known as the Malwiya Tower survived. Constructed of sandstone, the minaret is a spiralling cone fifty-two metres high and thirty three metres wide with a spiral ramp. During the Iraq War, US troops used the top of the minaret as a lookout position, making the site a military target. Consequently in April 2005 Insurgent activity resulted in the top of the minaret sustaining bomb damage.

Yemen People’s Democratic Republic
The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic 15 December, 1998 International Campaign for the Preservation of Old Sana’a Issue, 75 fils (Fig. 12) depicts the city’s skyline. Yemen’s largest city is recognised to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world and contains many architectural wonders including the Great Mosque of Sana’a, the ancient clay walls and the Yemen Gate all of which are over a thousand years old. Declared a world heritage site by the United Nations in 1986, many of the city’s important historical sites including the ninth century mosque of the prophet Shuaibi are being destroyed or damaged by military action in the ongoing conflict in the country, largely a result of aerial bombardment by Saudi Arabia with the backing of other nations.

Yemen 5_20170427_14391657  Yemen 5_20170427_14391657
Figs. 12  and 13

The Yemen People’s Democratic Republic 28 August, 1985 UNSECO World Heritage Site, 50 fils issue (Fig. 13), depicts the iconic skyline of Shibam, another of Yemen’s cultural sites at risk from military conflict. The city is famous for possessing some of the oldest skyscrapers in the world, made from mud brick, many of which rise to between five and eleven storey’s high. Although the town has existed for almost two thousand years, many of these houses originated in the sixteenth century although they have been continuously rebuilt. These historic buildings have been at increasing risk from damage since 2009 when it was targeted in an Al-Qaeda attack- and remain so due to the ongoing conflict in the country. Sadly the destruction and damage sustained to many important heritage sites throughout these regions is set to continue for the foreseeable future. It is a sobering thought that many of the cultural heritage sites depicted upon postage stamps from these nations might not be with us for much longer.

Images have been taken from the British Library, Philatelic Collections: UPU Collection: Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Access to these collection items can be made by booking an appointment with the British Library’s Philatelic Collections on philatelic@bl.uk.

Richard Scott Morel, Curator, Philatelic Collections
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15 February 2018

Happy Chinese New Year: Year of the Dog!

Fig. 1 puppy
Puppy. From Seihō ippinshū by Takeuchi Seihō. 1938 (British Library ORB. 99/68 ser. 1 pt. 10)

The lunisolar calendar is used traditionally in China and other East Asian and South East Asian countries. According to it, on the 16th of February we celebrate the arrival of a New Year: the Year of the Earth Dog. In fact, the lunisolar calendar consists of 12 cycles associated with 12 zodiac animals, which are combined with one of the Five Elements of traditional Chinese cosmology (Wu xing: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water), together forming cycles of 60 years. This is why the upcoming Chinese New Year is the year of the “Earth Dog”.

Fig. 2 Chinese almanac
Detail from a Chinese Almanac dating from c. 956 by Zhai Fengda (British Library Or 8210/s.95). The item has been fully digitised by the International Dunhuang Project and can be discovered here

According to the Chinese horoscope, people born in the year of the Dog are responsible, practical and faithful. They show persistence and loyalty.

Fig. 3 Dog Sloane
Illustration of a dog from the album “Coloured Drawings of Chinese Flora and Fauna”, 18th century, China (British Library Add. 15503)

Many Chinese Emperors kept dogs as pets and treated them as if they were members of the imperial family! Emperor Qianlong even commissioned a series of paintings of his “Ten Prized Dogs” (Shijun quan十駿犬) from the Italian missionary and artist Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766).

Fig. 4 Ten Prized Dogs
Picture of Shanxing Wolf (睒星狼), a Chinese greyhound, from Ten Prized Dogs Album by Giuseppe Castiglione. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Fig. 5 Philatelic 1  Fig. 6 Philatelic 2
Hong Kong stamps for “Year of the Dog” 1970 designed by R. Granger Barrett. Both the 10c and $1.30 stamps depict a Chow. (British Library Philatelic Collections: FCO Collections, vol. 6, Hong Kong)

The Year of the Dog in Japan

Fig. 7 Inudoshi_Oyo manga
Zodiac symbol for the year of the Dog from Ōyō manga by Ogino Issui, 1903 (British Library ORB.30/6167)

In Japan, dogs are traditionally regarded as symbols of loyalty and protection. They are entertaining playmates and faithful companions.

Fig. 8 Seiro bijin awase
Courtesan playing with a pet dog. From Seirō bijin awase, 1770 (British Library Or.75.g.34 v.1 fol. 11r)

Dogs are also traditionally associated with easy childbirth and the protection of pregnant mothers and young children. This can be seen in the ritual of ‘obi-iwai’ in which on the first ‘Day of the Dog’ of the fifth month of a woman’s pregnancy a cotton belt (obi) is tied around her abdomen to protect the baby and ensure a safe delivery. Small dog figurines called ‘inu hariko’, often made of papier-mâché, are sold at many shrines and temples and are given to young children to protect them from ill health and bad luck.

 Fig. 9 Ema Dog
A votive plaque (ema) showing a papier-mâché dog or ‘inu hariko’. Detail from Shokoku emashū, edited by Nishizawa Tekiho 1918 (British Library ORB.30/8097 vol. 1)

At the Sumiyoshi Grand Shrine in Osaka worshippers often purchase clay figures of two entwined dogs as amulets to ensure marital harmony, fertility or easy childbirth.
Fig. 10 Sumiyoshi_dogs
Mutsumi-inu
from Unai no tomo, a compendium of Japanese toys, by Shimizu Seifū. 1917 (British Library ORB.30/8075 vol. 7)

Fig. 11 Seiho junishi
A dog playing with a straw sandal. From Seihō gahakuhitsu junishi-jō, an album of 12 images, one for each of the zodiac animals, by Takeuchi Seihō. Ca. 1900-10 (British Library ORB.40/710)


The Year of the Dog in Thailand

Year of Dog Thai OR_3593_f011v
Folio of a Thai Phrommachāt manuscript dealing with predictions for people born in the Year of the Dog. Dated 1885 A.D. (British Library, Or.3593 f.22). This item has been digitized and can be discovered here.

In the Thai tradition the Chinese zodiac was adopted for the purpose of divination and horoscope making, laid down in manuscripts called Phrommachāt. For each year, certain predictions are associated with the animal of the zodiac in combination with the constellations of planets, sun and moon.

For the Year of the Dog, the following predictions were made:  

‘A yakkhini [female ogre, demon] rides the Dog, and the element is Earth. The khvan [life essence, soul] lives in wild almond trees or in royal lotus. Mercury is the mouth, which cannot speak pleasantly, except to serve its own ends. Venus is the heart: brave-spirited and would like to serve the rulers, enjoying scenes of battle, but will be handicapped by bodily weakness. Moon is the loins: weak sensuous desires. Jupiter and Saturn are the hands: skilful and expert in crafts. Sun and Mars are the feet: no desire for travel. Liable to facial sores and to indigestion. Will have adequate wealth and enough slaves. Garden cultivation would be profitable. Will have a son as a support.’
(Wales, H. G. Quaritch, Divination in Thailand. The Hopes and Fears of a Southeast Asian People. London/Dublin: Curzon Press, 1983, p. 17).

Year of Dog Thai or_16799_f025r
Various types of dogs illustrated in a 19th century Thai medical treatise (tamrā phāēt). This medical treatise contains illustrations of animals that are believed to have a certain influence on peoples’ health and wellbeing. (British Library Or 16799, f025r). This item is fully digitised and can be discovered here

We wish all our readers a wonderful Year of the Dog!

Curators of East Asian and South East Asian Collections
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12 February 2018

Shifting Landscapes: mapping the intellectual writing traditions of Islamic Southeast Asia

For the past century, studies of the languages, literatures, history, culture and writing traditions of the Malay world of maritime Southeast Asia – comprising present-day Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, and the southern parts of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and the Philippines – have been fundamentally shaped by the collections of manuscripts held in European institutions, primarily those in the UK and the Netherlands, and those formed under colonial auspices, such as the National Library of Indonesia.  These collections themselves reflect the interests of their collectors, who were mainly European scholars and government officials from the early 19th century onwards, whose interests were focused on literary, historical and legal compositions in vernacular languages such as Malay and Javanese.  Relatively little attention was paid to works on Islam written in Arabic, or in Malay and Arabic, and hence such manuscripts are very poorly represented in institutions such as the British Library.

EAP117_11_1_4-RWG_MSR_0808_A_3910_a_L
Map of the holy sites of Mecca, probably acquired in the Hijaz and brought back to Sumatra by a returning pilgrim, in the Mangku Suka Rame collection, Kerinci, Jambi. British Library EAP117/11/1, digitised in 2007 by Uli Kozok.

In 2004 the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP), funded by Arcadia, was established at the British Library, for the preservation of cultural material in danger of destruction. The hundreds of manuscript collections worldwide which have been documented and digitised include 16 relating to Islamic Southeast Asia, located in areas ranging from Aceh to the Moluccas, and from Sri Lanka to Cambodia.  Even the most cursory survey reveals that the profile of manuscripts still held ‘in the field’, in private and mosque collections, differs radically from those held in Western libraries, primarily through the very high proportion of Islamic texts, which probably account for around 95% of the manuscripts digitised.

EAP531_Pub003
Custodians of Islamic Cham manuscripts from Vietnam digitised in 2012 by Hao Phan, British Library EAP531.

The British Library and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) are now pleased to invite applications for a three year PhD Studentship, tenable at SOAS available from 24 September 2018, funded through the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) under its Collaborative Doctoral Programme. The doctoral program Shifting Landscapes: Mapping the intellectual writing traditions of Islamic Southeast Asia aims to investigate these digitised collections of manuscripts from Islamic Southeast Asia, to trace how our understanding of the landscape and ecology of the intellectual writing traditions of the region needs to be radically redrawn in the light of these newly-accessible primary source materials. The successful candidate will therefore undertake a thesis that centres on analysing collections of manuscripts written in Arabic script from Southeast Asia that have been digitised through the EAP, with reference to other collections as necessary. The thesis will be jointly supervised by Dr Mulaika Hijjas of the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at SOAS and by Dr Annabel Teh Gallop, head of the Southeast Asia section at the British Library. 

 EAP144_1_7_part_1-EAP144_DMMCS_BT_07_DMMCS_057_L  EAP144_5_21-EAP144_DMMCS_MALS_21_DMMCS_058_L
Two manuscripts from West Sumatra on the recitation of the Qur'an (tajwīd), with charts of makhārij al-ḥurūf, ‘the places of emission of the letters’, showing the physiognomic points of articulation of the phonemes of Arabic in relation to the lips, mouth, tongue and throat. On the left, MS from the Surau Baru Bintungan Tinggi collection, EAP144/1/7, and on the right, MS from the Surau-surau Malalo, EAP144/5/21, digitised in 2007 by Zuriati.

The main digital EAP collections relating to Islamic Southeast Asia are the following:
• EAP061 The MIPES Indonesia: digitising Islamic manuscript of Indonesian Pondok Pesantren
• EAP117 Digitising 'sacred heirloom' in private collections in Kerinci, Sumatra, Indonesia
• EAP144 The digitisation of Minangkabau's manuscript collections in Suraus
• EAP153 Riau manuscripts: the gateway to the Malay intellectual world
• EAP205 Endangered manuscripts of Western Sumatra. Collections of Sufi brotherhoods
• EAP211 Digitising Cirebon manuscripts
• EAP212 Locating, documenting and digitising: Preserving the endangered manuscripts of the Legacy of the Sultanate of Buton, South-Eastern Sulawesi Province, Indonesia
• EAP229 Acehnese manuscripts in danger of extinction: identifying and preserving the private collections located in Pidie and Aceh Besar regencies
• EAP276 Documentation and preservation of Ambon manuscripts
• EAP280 Retrieving heritage: rare old Javanese and old Sundanese manuscripts from West Java (stage one)
• EAP329 Digitising private collections of Acehnese manuscripts located in Pidie and Aceh Besar regencies
• EAP352 Endangered manuscripts of Western Sumatra and the province of Jambi. Collections of Sufi brotherhoods - major project
• EAP365 Preservation of Makassarese lontara’ pilot project
• EAP450 Manuscripts of the Sri Lankan Malays
 EAP531 Preserving the endangered manuscripts of the Cham people in Vietnam
• EAP609 Digitising Malay writing in Sri Lanka
• EAP698 Digitisation of the endangered Cham manuscripts in Vietnam

As noted above, the majority of the manuscripts digitised are Islamic in content, with about half written in Arabic, and the others in Malay and Javanese. Texts include copies of the Qur’an and commentaries (tafsīr), ḥadīth collections of prophetic traditions, works on fiqh (observance of Islamic law) and on Sufism, prayers, sermons and Arabic grammars. In comparison, the historic British Library collection of approximately 250 manuscripts from Southeast Asia in Arabic script, written in Malay, Javanese and Bugis, consists of predominantly literary, historical and legal texts, with only about 30 theological works including only a few in Arabic.

EAP061_1_4-23b_L-crop   EAP061_2_15-084b_L-crop
Detail of the calligraphic opening lines of copies of the Arabic grammar al-Ajurumiyya from two East Javanese Islamic boarding schools, on the left from Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyya al-Talabah, Keranji, British Library EAP061/1/4, and on the right from Pondok Pesantren Langitan, Widang, Tuban, British Library EAP061/2/15, digitised in 2006 by Amiq Ahyad.

The successful applicant will be encouraged to take advantage of the unique research opportunities afforded by the EAP collections.  This may include investigating not individual texts, as has usually been the case with dissertations on Malay manuscripts, but groups of texts, whether demarcated by genre, place, social milieu, or material features such as binding, illumination or palaeography and calligraphy.  The study may also investigate the EAP collections as sets of texts—libraries, or remnants of libraries—from known geographical and social locations. That both the EAP collections and the Malay manuscript holdings of the British Library are digitised opens up a variety of digital humanities approaches.

Applicants should have, or be about to complete, a Master’s degree in a relevant discipline, and must have knowledge of Malay/Indonesian and/or Arabic, and ideally proficiency in reading Arabic script. Applicants are also required to meet the UK Research Councils’ standard UK residency criteria (please refer to p.17 of the RCUK website for further details). For details on how to apply, see here.

Further reading:

For an example of a study of a manuscript digitised through EAP, see:
Mulaika Hijjas, Marks of many hands: annotation in the Malay manuscript tradition and a Sufi compendium from West SumatraIndonesia and the Malay World, July 2017, 45  (132), pp. 226-249.

Blogs:
26 February 2014, Indonesian and Malay manuscripts in the Endangered Archives Programme
14 April 2014, Sermons in the Malay world

Annabel Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

09 February 2018

Introducing Doctoral Students to the Asian and African Collections at the British Library

Curators of the Asian and African Collections recently welcomed 45 eager doctoral students to a training day at the British Library. The session, for students in the first year of their PhDs, provided an introduction to the research materials on offer at the BL. Students came from universities throughout the UK, including Glasgow, Strathclyde and Newcastle.

OR 13692 2  Johnson 59
On display at the doctoral open day: (left) Ganjifa card set featuring the avatars of Vishnu from 19th-century Orissa, India (BL Or 13,692); (right) illustration of animals, probably for a board game. Commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, c. 1780-82 (BL Johnson Album 5,9)

We know that our vast and wide-ranging collections may be a little daunting when starting out on research. The annual doctoral open day aims to give students an understanding of the overall picture, as well as helping them to start navigating the collections in the best way for their own research.

Arabic comic 2  OR 16442 Quran board
(Left) a comic from the British Library’s Arabic collections: Skefkef, issue 3, published in Morocco; (right) section of Qur’an board, probably from Somalia, used for learning the Qur’an (BL Or. 16442)

The day began with a talk on research at the British Library, and an overview of the Asian and African Collections ­from the Head of Department, Dr Luisa Mengoni. Curators then gave introductions to our holdings on and from:

There were also presentations on the India Office Records and from our Digital Research team. The British Library’s materials are in many formats – books, serials, newspapers, electronic resources, manuscripts and archives, maps, audio-visual items and philatelic material. The Asian and African Collections have material in all the major languages of Asia and Africa, and in many less widely spoken languages too.

IMG_4220  IMG_4216
A wide range of exhibits on display at the doctoral open day

After this glimpse of what’s available, students received practical help in using the catalogues as well as an opportunity to see displays of richly illuminated manuscripts, books, and other treasures from our collections. There was plenty of time to interact with curators and gain advice on individual research projects.

Turkish and Turkic Stand 2018 1
The Turkish and Turkic stand

The afternoon finished with a talk by Dr Richard Williams, Lecturer in Ethnomusicology at SOAS, University of London, who shared his experiences of using the British Library’s collections and provided plentiful tips for life after the PhD.

The day brought together students with a huge range of research interests, from women’s translations of the Qur’an to the medical history of refugee camps, and provided opportunities to get to know other doctoral researchers in similar or different disciplines.

95% of those completing feedback forms rated the day ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’. Most important, students’ confidence in their ability to do their research at the BL vastly increased. The proportion of those ‘confident’ or ‘very confident’ in using our collections rose from 27% beforehand to 100% at the end of the day. ‘Very useful & good day,’ one student commented. ‘Staff were very helpful and approachable.’

What next? The next Asian and African doctoral open day will be held early in 2019, for students starting their PhDs in autumn 2018.

In the meantime, current PhD students are invited to apply for a range of 3-month PhD research placements at the British Library.

These projects include:

The closing date for applications is 19 February 2018.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, African Collections, with thanks to colleagues for the wide range of photographs
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05 February 2018

African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia

February 6th marks the opening of a new display, “African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia,” in the British Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery. It will be the first exhibit to be held at the Library devoted entirely to Ethiopian manuscripts, exploring the culture of a manuscript tradition which extends back to the early centuries of the Christian era.

The Ethiopian collections in the British Library include over 500 manuscripts most of which are written in Ge'ez and were acquired from the mid-eighteenth century onwards. The collection is especially strong in illuminated manuscripts of the 16th and 17th centuries and also contains, in addition to biblical texts, an important collection of Ethiopian magical and divinatory scrolls. On display is a selection of twelve exhibits chosen to demonstrate the arts of painting and calligraphy besides serving as an introduction to Ethiopian literary traditions.

Or728_f80-81_1500
Christ, the Virgin Mary, Michael, Gabriel and the Twelve Apostles appearing to St. Takla Haymanot at Easter. From the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot. 18th century (BL Or. 728, ff. 80-81)
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Highlights of the display are:

The Four Gospels

Or_516_f100v_1500
St. Luke the Evangelist accompanied by two disciples. At his feet are two Abyssinian ground hornbills. Lasta, early 17th century (BL Or. 516, f.100v)
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The four Gospels are the central religious scriptures of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church which traces its history to the first century AD, when an Ethiopian court official on pilgrimage to Jerusalem was met on his way back by St. Philip who baptised him (Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40).


The Octateuch, the Four Gospels and other ecclesiastical works

Or_481_f101r_1500
The adoration of the Magi, 17th century (BL Or. 481, f. 101r)
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Written on parchment in Ge'ez during the second half of the 17th century, this manuscript consists of the first eight books of the Old Testament (Genesis-Ruth), the Gospels and other ecclesiastical works. It is decorated with coloured borders and contains many illustrations. This volume also contains copies of many 14th century deeds of gift and grants of various kings.


Deggwa or Hymnbook

Or_584_f154v_1500
A portrait of the 13th century St. Takla Haymanot, founder of the monastery of Debra Libanos and one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The priests are depicted in distinguishable turbans, colourful robes and holding crosses and multi-coloured umbrellas (BL Or. 584, f.154v)
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The Deggwa is the liturgical collection of hymns and chants used in the Ethiopian Church. The hymns are arranged according to the calendar and divided by the seasons of the liturgical year. The book also provides the orders of service for various feasts of saints, martyrs, angels, Sundays and festivals such as Antiphonary for the Fast of Lent. The composition of hymns in the Deggwa is attributed to St. Yared of Aksum (505-571 AD).


The Revelation of St. John

Or_533_f003r_1500
St John in the presence of God. Illuminated manuscript with 126 paintings illustrating the life and death of the apostle St. John. Gondar, Ethiopia 1700-1730 (BL Or. 533, f. 3r)
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The Revelation of St. John of Ephesus is the last book in the New Testament, traditionally called Abuqalamisis in Ethiopian. This copy was composed at the beginning of the eighteenth century for King ʻlyasu I (r. 1682–1706) and Queen Walatta Giyorgis. This volume is an exceptional example of Ethiopian art containing 126 paintings. This painting was inspired by a series of woodcuts depicting the Apocalypse by the 16th-century German artist Albrecht Dürer.


Carry case for a Psalter

Or9036_1500
Leather bag containing a manuscript Psalter (BL Or.9036)
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The Psalter is one of the most frequently copied texts. Used as a daily prayer-book in religious ceremonies, it needed to be portable. This example is preserved with its traditional carry case.


Copper gilt cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot

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Front cover of the Life and Acts of St. Takla Haymanot, one of the most revered saints of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. 18th century (BL Or. 728)
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This manuscript was copied during the reign of king ‘Iyasu II (r. 1730-55) and, like the majority of Ethiopian manuscripts in the British Library, has retained its original binding. This is the only known example, however, of a copper gilt cover, comprising carvings of figures and of the cross.

Digital Ethiopian
Some of our Ethiopian manuscripts are being digitised as we write and will shortly be made available on our website as part of Heritage made Digital. This is one of the Library’s five main focuses for the coming years and for the first time, the British Library has allocated a part of its government grant towards digitisation. During the next two years we aim to digitise some 250 manuscripts from the Ethiopian collection. The first 25 manuscripts have already been catalogued and imaged, and will soon be available online. We’ll be writing more about Ethiopian manuscripts as they go live so follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa and watch this space to keep in touch!

Eyob Derillo, Cataloguer, Ethiopian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
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