Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

19 January 2018

“The Hero’s Rock”- When the Kurds Rebelled

Along the road from the oil-rich multi-ethnic Iraqi city of Kirkuk towards the modern cosmopolitan Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, there sits a rather large boulder. For the most part this boulder is unremarkable, probably shaken from the mountain above it by an earthquake in times past. Yet, to the inhabitants of Iraqi Kurdistan this boulder has become a symbol of the injustices they have faced in the 20th century and their on-going struggle for Kurdish self-governance and independence. The Kurds of Iraq have nicknamed the boulder “Barda Qaraman” or the “The Hero’s Rock”.

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Monument to the Barda Qaraman or “The Hero’s Rock” (back central) and Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji between Kirkuk and Sulaymaniyah. Photo: General Board of Tourism of Kurdistan Iraq

It was behind this boulder, at the end of the First World War, that the leader of the first Kurdish nationalist uprising, Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, personally took on the British Empire in the name of Kurdish statehood. This is the untold story of the first Kurdish rebellion by the self-proclaimed ‘King of Kurdistan’ against British rule as preserved within the India Office Records at the British Library.

Image 1- Map
Map: ‘Kurds and Kurdistan,’ 1919, showing the road from Kirkuk to Sulaymaniyah (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 117 noc

As the grip of the Ottoman Empire eased at the end of the First World War the British found it difficult to establish control over the rugged and mountainous terrain of the Kurdish provinces of the old Empire that now became into their sphere of influence. The Kurdish people are often quoted saying they “have no friends but the mountains” and for the early years of engagement with the British the mountains served them well. The lack of a railway line into Kurdistan and the inhospitable terrain made communication and the movement of troops difficult. Moreover, mounting economic pressure on the British treasury to reduce spending on imperial projects meant the need for a railway in Kurdistan was never met. This allowed the Kurds a much needed political space to contemplate their post-war future.

At the end of the First World War, the Kurds had initially asked for British rule and protection on account of their impoverished state. Previous Turkish and Russian rule had left many villages desolate and in a state of famine. Needing to remedy their inability to hold Kurdistan the British agreed to Kurdish requests and installed a colonial system of indirect rule. They worked to reinforce Kurdistan’s feudal and tribal structures by giving tribal elders the ability to feed their people, and rebuild their villages.

To have some semblance of control the British also decided to appoint a local Kurdish notable Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji as governor of lower Kurdistan in 1918 to act as their regional representative. To support Sheikh Mahmud’s governance and in some part to pacify his known rebellious nature, British officials travelled to the west and north of Sulaymaniyah to garner support for the new system of British rule. They replaced Arab and Turkish officials with Kurdish ones, in effect giving the Kurds their first taste of self-rule.

Sheikh Mahmud Barzanji, 1920s  noc

At the end of 1918 doubts began to arise about the wisdom of allowing Sheikh Mahmud to increase his power in the region. This excerpt from a Military Report of 1919 titled ‘The Kurds and Kurdistan’ documents the changing British attitude towards him (p. 81):

Unfortunately, he is a mere child as regards intellect and breadth of view, but a child possessed by considerable cunning and undoubtedly inspired by an inordinate ambition. Moreover, he was surrounded by a class of sycophants who filled his head with extravagant and silly notions, leading him to style himself ruler of all Kurdistan and encouraging him to interfere in affairs far beyond the borders of the sphere allotted to him.

Image 3
ʻKurds and Kurdistanʼ, 1919 (IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22, p. 81)  noc

Realising that giving Sheikh Mahmud more power and broadening his rule could be dangerous the British decided to restrict his authority. They prevented the incorporation of the Iraqi towns of Kifri and Kirkuk into his jurisdiction and removed the powerful Jaff tribe from under his rule, deciding instead to deal with them directly. This influenced other tribes to seek direct contact with the British and thus support for Sheikh Mahmud quickly waned retracting his zone of influence to the immediate vicinity of Sulaymaniyah city. Responding to this challenge and in an attempt to force the creation of separate southern Kurdistan under his rule he rebelled against the British on 22nd May 1919.  

With the support of a tribal coalition of men and horses Sheikh Mahmud defeated a small group of Kurdish levies and imprisoned the British officers and their staff in their houses in the city of Sulaymaniyah. He then appointed his own mayor, seized the government archives and money from the treasury. He also cut the telegraph-line between Sulaymaniyah and Kirkuk, essentially annexing southern Kurdistan from British rule. The next day a British aerial reconnaissance of the area in revolt noted that the city of Sulaymaniyah was filled with armed men. What is more, the imprisoned British officers made themselves known to the aviators by signalling to them from their houses.

After rounds of heavy RAF bombing and machine-gunning of Sulaymaniyah city and the surrounding villages, Sheikh Mahmud’s rebellion was forced out of the city towards the surrounding hills and valleys. According to accounts, it quickly became clear that Sheikh Mahmud’s Kurdish forces were by and large ill-prepared to face trained soldiers on the battlefield let alone a sustained RAF air bombardment that resulting in heavy casualties and the gutting of entire villages and neighbourhoods. With the Sheikh’s ammunition supplies running low many of his allies began to lose faith, some switching sides as the battle went on. The rebellion culminated in the standoff at the ‘Bazian Pass’.

Image 4 - Bazian Pass
‘Bazian Pass. Road leading from Kirkuk to Sulaimani’, Edwin Newman Collection, 23 May 2012 (San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive, Newman Collection, Album AL4-B, p 32, no. 1)  noc

The ‘Bazian Pass’ is a gap between the Sulaymaniyah valleys and the Garmian plains, that is hemmed in by mountains. In the hope of stopping the British advance Sheikh Mahmud’s forces constructed a stone wall across the pass. However, a British pilot spotted that the wall was not effectively constructed and on the 8th of June 1919 pilots bombed the pass and its surrounding areas weakening the defences and hitting Sheikh Mahmud’s troops hard. This was followed on the 18th of June by a further attack which brought down the wall. Sheikh Mahmud’s men were then easily routed. Some were killed, but the majority were wounded and imprisoned. Sheikh Mahmud himself was found injured taking cover behind the large boulder on the east of the pass. Once they had control of the pass the British quickly returned to Sulaymaniyah and disarmed the local population freeing the imprisoned British officers. Sheikh Mahmud himself was tried, and imprisoned in India only to be released a few years later.

Primary sources
‘Kurds and Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers’, 1919, IOR/L/MIL/17/15/22
‘Mesopotamia: British relations with Kurdistan’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 27 Aug 1919, IOR/L/PS/18/B332
‘Persia: operations against Sirdar Rashid and Sheikh Mahmoud’, India Office Records and Private Papers, 23 May 1923-2 Aug 1923, IOR/L/PS/11/235, P 2756/1923

Shkow Sharif, Asian and African Collections



15 January 2018

Of unicorns and other oddities: an 18th century Persian medical manual

Visitors to our current exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic will doubtless be familiar with the unicorn and will have noted the exhibit, illustrated below, from the Histoire Générale Des Drogues, Traitant Des Plantes, Des Animaux Et Des Mineraux…. (Paris, 1694), by Pierre Pomet (1658-1699), chief druggist of Louis XIV. However they might be surprised, as I was a few weeks ago, to learn that this engraving had been faithfully copied in a Persian translation commissioned by Tipu Sultan of Mysore (r.1782-1799).

Above: Pomet’s engraving of five different kinds of unicorns including the camphur and the two-horned pirassoipi (more on this in our post “How many horns does a unicorn have?”).
Below: our copy followed by an explanation in Persian. The horn was apparently especially recommended as an antidote to poison.

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Part two, chapter two on unicorns (IO Islamic 1516, f. 99r)

Our manuscript, Mufradāt dar ʻilm-i ṭibb, ‘A dictionary of medicine’ (IO Islamic 1516), is a translation, or rather selective paraphrase, of the complete Histoire and contains almost exact copies of all Pomet’s engravings with the exception of two scenes[1]. Without any details as to translator or source, it is described on the flyleaf simply as a translation ordered at the request of Tipu Sultan (farmūdah az ḥuz̤ūr) and in a damaged English label on the binding as “translated from European works - with good etchings.”

The Persian text, following Pomet, is divided into three parts, the first containing nine books (kitāb) on seeds, roots, trees, the properties of bark, leaves, flowers, fruits, gums and juices. Each book is further subdivided into illustrated chapters (ṣūrat). The second part consists of 54 chapters on creatures (ḥayvānāt) and the third part, unillustrated, contains five books on minerals, metals, bitumen (gil'hā), stones and on the use of different kinds of earth for medicinal purposes and dyes.

IO Isamic 1516_f66v
Book seven, chapter 49, on pineapples (IO Islamic 1516, f. 66v)

Each section begins with a transcription of the French and English term, followed by a paraphrase of Pomet’s description. The paraphrase is usually considerably shorter than the original, omitting technical terms and sources presumably deemed irrelevant, and the details are often slightly different. The illustrations are not unlike the plants and animals which feature in the many copies of the popular encyclopædia ʻAjāʼib al-makhlūqāt ‘Wonders of creation’ by the 13th century al-Qazwīnī (see also our post “The London Qazwini goes live”). These would therefore have resonated well with the reader who would have been familiar with the genre and would also have appreciated the more exotic elements of Pomet's descriptions for entertainment value.

There are several drawings, however, which have no equivalent in Arabo-Persic traditions. One of these is an illustration of the techniques of mummification. The drawing is accompanied by a detailed account of different methods of embalming and a discussion of the medicinal properties and uses of parts of the body, especially the skull.

Part two, chapter one, illustrating the embalming process, mummified bodies and a pyramid (IO Islamic 1516, f. 97v)

Perhaps most intriguing are the ‘action’ scenes which illustrate collection and manufacturing processes. In the drawing below, for example, we see a hive, bees swarming, and a man ‘calling’ the swarm to follow him. At the foot are the rotting corpses of a lion and an ox from which bees are spontaneously self-generating.

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Part two, chapter 23 on bees (IO Islamic 1516, f. 109r)

The theory of spontaneous generation, put forward by Aristotle and other ancient philosophers, whereby some living organisms were created from non-living ones was prevalent in Europe until the 18th century. Certain insects, in particular, were thought to have originated from putrefying flesh though by Pomet’s time this theory was already becoming discredited through the work of scientists such as Francesco Redi. In his chapter on bees, Pomet makes no mention of the dead lion featured in his engraving (probably a biblical allusion), though he does refer by name to Virgil’s account (Georgics BkIV: 281-314) of the ‘autogenesis of bees’ from a dead bullock citing an apparently unsuccessful contemporary experiment in which a bullock was beaten to death, dismembered and its parts put in a box with ventilation holes to encourage the bees to develop. The Persian translation repeats all this — but without reference to Virgil!

Spontaneous generation also features in chapter 30 on silkworms:

Chapter 30: In French ‘Vers a soie’ (var ā swā) and in English ‘Silkworms’ (silk varms). Silkworms were and are in great demand in France. Someone who wants to cultivate silkworms should do the following: he should feed a female cow for a month before it is due to give birth on mulberry leaves and not give it anything else. When the calf is born the cow and calf should both feed on mulberry leaves for another month. After a month the calf is slaughtered and every bit of it from head to hoof, together with its bones and flesh, bit by bit should be put in a box. Holes should be drilled in the four corners and they should keep the box in a cold place. Then the worms will be produced…

IO Islamic 1516_36_Silkworms
Part two, chapter 30 on silkworms, showing the moths hatching, the cocoons being unravelled, a cow eating mulberry leaves and, top right, the dismembered calf (IO Islamic 1516, f.113v)

The cultivation of silkworms was one of Tipu Sultan’s great interests, though there is some evidence to suggest that a form of sericulture existed in Seringapatam prior to his father Hyder ʻAli’s death in 1783 (S. Charsley, “Tipu Sultan and sericulture for Mysore”). In 1785 and 1786 Tipu Sultan wrote to Mir Kazim, his agent at Muscat, with instructions to procure silkworms (Kirkpatrick, Select letters, pp. 188, 283). In another letter of 1786 to the Governor of the Fort at Seringapatam, he mentions that worms are being brought from Bengal and expresses a desire “to know, in what kind of place it is recommended to keep them, and what means are to be pursued for multiplying them.” According to Kirkpatrick a set of instructions issued to the Revenue Department in 1794 mentions 21 separate silkworm breeding stations throughout his kingdom.

However, it is doubtful whether Tipu Sultan ever experimented in sericulture along the lines recommended by Pomet. While testifying to the remarkably universal appeal of Pomet's pharmacopoeia, this translation should be seen rather as one of several undertaken by Tipu Sultan in an attempt to become familiar with European medicine. Further examples of translations of this kind in his library collection (unfortunately not illustrated) are IO Islamic 1649: Qānūn dar 'ilm-i ṭibb, a translation into Persian of A Compleat English Dispensatory by John Quincy (d. 1722), and IO Islamic 1452, Tarjumah-i firang, a translation of The Nature and Cures of Fluxes by William Cockburn (1669–1739).

Further reading
Pomet, Pierre. Histoire Générale Des Drogues, Traitant Des Plantes, Des Animaux Et Des Mineraux…. Paris, 1694.
English translation: A Compleat History of Druggs, Written in French by Monsieur Pomet, Chief Druggist to the Present French King; to Which Is Added What Is Further Observable on the Same Subject, from Messrs. Lemery, and Tournefort….  3rd edition. London, 1737.
Sherman, Sandra. “The exotic world of Pierre Pomet's A Compleat History of Druggs,” Endeavour
28/4 (December 2004): 156-160
Kirkpatrick, William. Select letters of Tippoo Sultan to various public functionaries… . London, 1811.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian

[1] Illustrating the cultivation of indigo and tobacco.

08 January 2018

The script of the Naxi, their religious literature and early translation attempts

This week’s guest blog post is by Dr Duncan Poupard, Assistant Professor (Translation) at The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Naxiologist. He sheds light on some of the most extraordinary, mysterious and visually interesting manuscripts we hold in the Chinese section of the Library: the Naxi dongba manuscripts, commenting also on some of their early translations in the Library

The British Library holds a modest but important collection of religious texts from a lesser-known people: the Naxi of the Himalayan foothills in southwest China. Among China's officially-recognised ethnic minorities, the Naxi are a relatively small group, especially when compared to their more populous neighbours to the north, the Tibetans. But the Naxi are nevertheless significant, not least for the unique way in which they record their religious literature: the dongba script.

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Example of Naxi script, from the British Library volume containing Or.11417A to Or.11426A

This script can probably be dated to at least as early as the Mongol period (1253 -1382). The Naxi ritual texts, hand-written in books and read from left to right, form the basis for what we know about the culture and beliefs of the Naxi people. The dongba script is often touted as the world's last living pictographic script, although this classification is problematic as they are not really in active use, and are not strictly pictographic either.

The graphs can be seen in and around the city of Lijiang (centre of the Naxi population in Yunnan province), on shop fronts and road signs, but as the general populace cannot read or write the script, these signs are mostly for show.

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Starbucks Coffee shopfront, Lijiang old town. Intercultural globalisation in action
© the author

In this picture, the Naxi (top) and Chinese (bottom) names for 'Starbucks' can be seen on the board above the English lettering. In Naxi, 'Starbucks' is translated as 'gee bbaq kee'.

Naxi picture 3.jpg
The first character above means 'star' (gee, depicted as three stars), the second and third graphs being phonetic loans, the flower (bbaq) and the dog (kee) together approximating the sound of the English 'bucks'; it is a combination of literal and phonetic translation.

In fact, the script was historically reserved for the dongba religious practitioners and was primarily used for ritual, not secular (or Starbucks-related!) purposes. The books are recited by a dongba during the performance of religious ceremonies such as funerary rites, or when appeasing a vast pantheon of gods and spirits. Looking at the Naxi manuscripts themselves, which are written on specially made paper, and knowledge of which was historically only passed down the male family line, we would be forgiven for thinking they looked like comic strips: especially as they are separated into clearly marked rectangular sections. Of course, however, there's a lot more to this writing than meets the eye.
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Detail from the opening page of British Library Or.11417A

The image above is from a manuscript titled Ssee zhul: El-miq Rherq Zhail (Increasing longevity: calling upon the power of great dongba El-miq), recited at a ceremony held after a funeral to prolong the life of the surviving members of the family. This particular book is a call to a powerful dongba from Naxi history, El-miq, entreating him to aid the dongba who is conducting the ritual by investing him with power. In the first section on the top left, after the page decoration on the left, there are a total of ten graphs.

Naxi picture 5.jpg
Here we have the character for the sky, beneath it three stars (just as in the Starbucks sign), beneath the middle star a piece of jade, to its right a svastika (a symbol of good luck in Naxi culture that was likely borrowed from Tibetan Buddhism), then an image that looks like a cross on a triangle that originally meant 'to hang (as an object hanging off a cross)', and below it the earth, sprouting tufts of luxuriant grass. To the right we have the more easily identifiable sun, above a person pointing to their left (but our right) and the moon above someone pointing to their right (our left). Lines emanating from the celestial bodies indicate light being cast (and for the sun, by extension, warmth).

This first section is an opening benediction, an incantation that is supposed to bring about good fortune for the ceremony to come, but also contains much of the cosmological wisdom of the Naxi people. These ten characters, when read out during a performance of this text (for all such ritual texts are to be orally performed, not read silently), will become 40 spoken Naxi words. How can this be so? Simply because the relationship between what is written and what is said follows no clearly defined rules. The characters are often called in to use more than once, and much of what is said is not actually written. Despite this, every dongba would be able to recite this section without any problems. An English translation might read,

The stars shine bright in the sky
And today they shine brightest
The grass grows green on the earth
And today it grows greenest
The sun comes from the left, giving off its warmth
The moon comes from the right, giving off its light

One may wonder why the sun is on the left and the moon is on the right. The Naxi have a creation myth that tells the story of how, after the heavens and the earth were separated, the people all came together to build the holy mountain Jjuqnalsheel’loq, which acted as an axis mundi, propping up the heavens. Once the mountain was completed, they used a giant iron chain to tie the sun to the left of the mountain and the moon to its right. Thus, in the Naxi cosmogony, the sun and moon rotate around the holy mountain, in between the sky and the earth, and these opening lines are a microcosm of the Naxi cosmogony.

Alongside 107 dongba manuscripts, the British Library holds a number of Chinese and English translations of several of the texts: these were in fact the first Chinese and English translations of Naxi manuscripts to be completed, making them especially important to the history of Naxi studies. The Library's translations were commissioned by the British Foreign Office after a recommendation by S Wyatt Smith (1887-1958). They were acquired by a Pentecostal missionary (probably James Andrews, a British missionary in Lijiang during the 1920s and 30s) on the consul's behalf, and translated into Chinese, with the help of a Naxi to read the manuscripts and a Chinese translator to translate them. Some of the manuscripts were subsequently translated into English at the consulate. As is the case in much of translation history, the translators remain invisible, as the identities of the Naxi, Chinese and English translators have, it seems, been lost to history. The translation work stopped in 1931 as it presumably became prohibitively expensive: three translators were required to get the final English translation, and prices of the original manuscripts in Lijiang were rising as Joseph Rock, the Austro-American explorer and Naxiologist, began to make bulk purchases in the region.

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First page of Or.11417C, containing an early Chinese translation of Or.11417A

In 1934 the collection was given to the British Museum and the India Office. The 1930s were an exciting time for translations of Naxi manuscripts: many of the English versions that we have today were completed in this decade. There was a serious popular interest in the Naxi during this period, fostered by Joseph Rock's National Geographic articles on the region which highlighted this ‘strange tribe’. Joseph Rock began seriously translating and publishing his work on the Naxi in the 1930s, and he eventually went on to monopolise the field, with a somewhat unassailable combination of exhaustive (some may say pedantic) scholarship, a knack for self-promotion, and deep pockets.

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Provenance note on the first page of Or.11417C to 11426C, containing the Chinese translations of the correspondent “A” volumes in Naxi

Rock is dismissive of the Library's translations, writing that they have ‘totally wrong titles and explanations in Chinese’. This is, I believe, an unfair assessment. Even a preliminary look at the translation of this first manuscript shows a quite accurate rendition, with the title, Si Chong, being the correct name of the ceremony in romanisation. Perhaps Rock was unhappy as to the nature of the Library collection's acquisition: some fifty Ssee Zhul texts were acquired by the missionary acting on behalf of the Foreign Office from the officiating dongba after the Ssee Zhul ceremony had been performed for Rock. This was a purchase that transpired without Rock's knowledge.

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Cover page of British Library manuscript Or.11417A

The British Foreign Office's translations were pioneering, despite being somewhat unilluminating. They are presented without introduction and without any exegesis, which, combined with the large number of proper names present in the texts, makes for slow and mystifying reading for the uninitiated.

Anthony Jackson has suggested that a dictionary (as yet undiscovered) was compiled from this translation work, which would have been used to translate more of the texts without going through a Naxi intermediary. This was probably wishful thinking; to this day, Naxi dongba are required to give a reading of a book before it can be translated. This is because the texts are fluid: there is so much that is not written, there are graphs that are written and not read, and there are incantations that are recorded in a phonetic system separate to the picture-based graphs.

Translation of the Naxi texts is a practice that has all but died out in the modern era, as the remaining dongba grow fewer in number and their traditions become less relevant to modern life in Lijiang. This makes the library's collection all the more invaluable, for there will come a time when such translations will be all but impossible to carry out.


Further reading:
Jackson, Anthony. 1966. “Mo-So Magical Texts,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 48: 141-74.
Poupard, Duncan. 2015. “Beyond the pictogram: echoes of the Naxi in Ezra Pound’s Cantos”. Neohelicon 43 (1): 233–249.
Rock, Joseph F. 1963. A Na-Khi - English encyclopedic dictionary. Rome: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.

Duncan Poupard, The Chinese University of Hong Kong