THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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12 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

14 February 2017

Romancing the Tome: Love in Illustrated Persian Manuscripts

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For anyone inspired by celebrations of St Valentine’s day, Persian literature has much to offer. Whether it be platonic adoration, romantic affection, or star-crossed disappointment, Persian poetry in particular has something to say about it. With a written tradition stretching over a millennium, much of it still preserved in manuscripts, we explore here a few select examples of epic and romantic compositions from the British Library’s growing collection of digitised Persian manuscripts available online to observe wonderful and alternative responses to love, physical and spiritual.

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Illustration to a ghazal celebrating love and music from an undated Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ. The painting is unsigned (BL Grenville XLI, f. 66v noc

We begin with a painting (Grenville XLI, f. 66v) illustrating a lyric poem or ghazal (rhyming a-a, b-a, c-a, and so on) by one the genre’s most distinguished exponents, Ḥāfiẓ of Shīrāz (d. circa 1202). Although its tone is initially celebratory, the composition continues by examining different aspects of the lover’s condition, gradually moving toward the melancholic. Couplets 1, 2, and 6 illustrate this shift:

Love's musician possesses an amazing instrument and sound / every air composed strikes a chord.
May the world never empty of lovers’ laments / their sound possesses a delightful harmony.
Showing tears of blood, doctors commented / it is the disease of love, requiring heartrending medication.

The painting is broadly consistent with the ghazal’s narrative arc, showing seated musicians in the foreground facing several figures on a canopied stone platform. The mature male on the left is presumably Ḥāfiẓ addressing his patron, seated on the right, notionally depicted here as a youth absorbed in love’s sorrows.

Although the manuscript is not dated, it is thought to have been transcribed around 1600-1605 in Timurid/Mughal India, and illustrated very soon after. Some of the damage caused to other figures in the same scene is due to the partial obliteration of faces and strategic overpainting (now partially removed), ordered by later owners. Another Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ (Or 14139, f. 47r) refurbished with decorated margins just a few years earlier at the same court isolates the celebratory theme of the first couplet interpreted more straightforwardly as a European musical entertainer playing a fiddle-like instrument while dancing on the spot, and enclosed within an ornamental cartouche.

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Ghazal celebrating love and music from a Dīvān of Ḥāfiẓ dateable to circa 1470, with illumination added in the margins as part of later refurbishment (BL Or 14139, f. 47r)  noc

Epic poetry and romances play an important role in distilling specific personal traits and emotional states in the characters of the heroes, heroines, and lovers they seek to celebrate, and thereby humanising the ghazal’s expressive and frequently abstract repertoire of conceits and metaphors. The exploits of the archetypal hero, Sasanian ruler Bahrām Gūr (Bahrām V, d. 438), are the subject of several works of epic poetry, notably the Haft Paykar, part of the Khamsah or Quintet of poems by Niẓāmī of Ganjah (d. 599/1203). In one of the finest manuscript treasures at the British Library, the interpretation of a distinctly amorous scene has been the source of some confusion (Or 2265, f. 221r).

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Scene from the tale of King Turktāzī and Turktāz, queen of the faeries, as told by the Princess of India in the Haft Paykar from Shāh Ṭahmāsp Ṣafavī's Khamsah of Niẓāmī. Signed by Muḥammad Zamān, dated 1086/1675-76. For more on this painting see Some paintings by the 17th century Safavid artist Muhammad Zaman (BL Or 2265, f. 221v)  noc

The Haft Paykar’s allegorical narrative describes Bahrām Gūr’s encounters with seven princesses over the period of seven evenings. An illustration close to the beginning of the narrative appears at first to depict the first of the seven encounters, specifically, with the Princess of India dressed in black, representing Saturn. A closer reading of the text indicates the painting is an illustration from an edifying tale told by the Indian princess of King Turktāzī entertained by Turktāz, queen of the faeries.

After a lengthy description of Turktāzī awaking in an enchanted garden, the mas̲navī (couplets rhyming a-a, b-b, c-c, and so forth) gradually recounts the impression made be the queen’s magical arrival and unveiling to expose her European (literally Rūmī or Byzantine) features and complexion. Following tender exchanges, the romantically-charged feast of duck (replaced in the painting by pomegranates) and wine takes on a renewed intensity. It is at this point the surge of passion is delicately summarised by the use of familiar musical metaphors establishing the convivial mood:

The musician entered and cup bearers departed / joyousness hardly needed an excuse.
Every imperforate pearl was pierced (in sequence) / every song followed another.
Dance opened the field to form a circle / entering on foot, skipping and gesturing.

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Zayd revives the fainting Laylá and Majnūn (Qays) in the wilderness in Laylá va Majnūn from the Khamsah of Niẓāmī written for  the Timurid/Mughal Emperor Akbar I. Ascribed to Farrukh Chelah (BL Or 12208, f. 123r)  noc

In another mas̲navī from the same work, but a different illustrated manuscript (Or 12208, f. 122v), Niẓāmī records with particular sensitivity the doomed relationship of two pre-Islamic lovers, Laylá and Majnūn (originally known as Qays). Qays, distracted with love’s ardour for his beloved since childhood, Laylá, is driven to the wilderness where he is reduced to rags. It is at this point he is given the epithet majnūn, Arabic for ‘possessed by jinns’ or ‘maniac.’ Later, a mutual friend, Zayd, momentarily reunites Majnūn with Laylá in the vicinity of her tents. The scene of their dramatic meeting is evoked in the following selection of couplets:

Majnūn, upon seeing his beloved / glimpsing his soul in a dark veil.
He, alive, though spiritless / she, withholding her life, yet dead.
The two lovers collapsed, senseless / worldly sounds evade their ears.
Bloodthirsty beasts encircle / sharpening their claws in the dead.
The two fallen lovers remained / until midday on the path.

We see in the exquisitely detailed painting by Farrukh Chelah (ascribed in the lower border) that Laylá and Majnūn are being revived by Zayd with a bottle of perfume, just as the text specifies. However, Farrukh Chelah has used this illustration as an opportunity to fill his composition with an array of vegetal, animal, and topographical features that go beyond the text, to make a visually stimulating whole.

Returning to the ghazal genre, a perennial concern to literary critics is the degree to which poets and their audiences, including later illustrators of their works, interpret meaning. Insofar as the Persian language is essentially gender neutral, that is, you cannot automatically infer from a text whether the subject is male or female in the absence of a gendered attribute, poets have in the past been able to encode into their compositions both heterosexual and homosexual references. Such constructive ambiguity, to borrow a recent term, has in turn been exploited by illustrators to respond to the demands of their patrons, in determining the male or female gender of the beloved as described.

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An older man clasps the hand of a departing adolescent boy, based on a ghazal from the Kullīyāt of Saʿdī, dated 1624 (BL IO Islamic 843, f. 322r)  noc

In a painting from a lavishly illustrated copy of the Kullīyāt or compendium of collected works by Saʿdī (d. 690/1291), dated 1624 and made in Safavid Shīrāz, the poet’s place of birth (IO Islamic 843, f. 322r), we witness the interplay between words and the painted image. The scene shows men seated around a pool, several of them with books in hand, indicating a genial poetic gathering. The bearded man seated in a recess clasps the hand of an adolescent boy about to depart. The relevant couplet illustrated here does not, however, mention either the gathering of men, the reading of poetry, or the detention of a boy specifically, except for the daring khvājah, who is in this context a mature man. It is evident from the range of certain visual interpretations of gender in illustrated manuscripts of poetry that patrons and readers generally approached such nuanced subjects with latitude.


Sâqib Bâburî

Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project
 ccownwork

16 January 2017

The curious tale of Solomon and the Phoenix

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One of the more enigmatic manuscripts now in the British Library (IO Islamic 1255) from the rich library of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore (d. 1213/1799), is the untitled qiṣṣah or tale featuring a figure popular across the range of Persian literature, the Prophet Sulaymān (the biblical Solomon, son of David). In this tale, the prophet-king is confronted by the head of the ranks of birds, the Sīmurgh (Phoenix), expressing its disbelief in the doctrine of predestination (qaz̤āʾ va qadr). Having angered Allāh, Jibrāʾīl (the archangel Gabriel) is sent to inform Sulaymān of a prophecy foretelling the birth of the Prince of the East (Malikzādah-′i Mashriq) and the Princess of the West, daughter of the Malik-i Maghrib, who together bear a child out of wedlock. The Sīmurgh believes it can prevent this outcome. Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh conclude an agreement (qawl) to reassess the situation after fifteen years, by which time the accuracy of the prophecy would be apparent.

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The Prophet Solomon and the Phoenix’s agreement is witnessed by members of his court; the two yogis in the foreground represent the assembled jinns. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 2v. Noc

The tale additionally interweaves several digressive subplots focussing on the adventures of the Prince of the East from his minority to adolescence. In the process, his development into a pious youth is mapped through a succession of episodes where he interacts with magical beasts, Satan, kings, courtiers, merchants, and sages. This didactic tale may be part of the ‘mirror for princes’ tradition, but as we shall later discover, there is more to it than appears at first glance.

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The Prince of the East (not shown) overhears a king’s angry exchanges with his courtiers while seated amid special trees. Note the lengthy jamahs and sweeping turbans that indicate eighteenth-century courtly fashions, while the patterned floorcoverings attempt to capture the rich texture of contemporary embroidered and brocaded soft furnishings. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library. British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 8r. Noc

Profusely illustrated, the manuscript IO Islamic 1255 has surprisingly eluded scholarly attention. Although it ends without a dated colophon, the distinctive style and details of its 63 illustrations on 26 folios offer sufficient evidence to locate its origins in mid-eighteenth-century Deccan, possibly even the Carnatic, ruled by the Nawabs of Arcot. On the other hand, the coarse nastaʿlīq script tending toward taʿlīq makes it clear that this is not the product of an élite or royal workshop. The absence of gold illumination and the use of a muted colour palette further strengthen this impression. The unusually tall and narrow format underscores the peculiarity of the volume as a whole. Though the paintings have oxidised in areas, the manuscript must have been a valued item in Tipu’s library, as the work was bound in a contemporary finely-tooled, gilded, and painted leather binding.

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The Prince of the East is discovered by his two Arabian horses while sheltering under the hide of a horse at the foot an isolated tree. This image shows the increased levels of pigment oxidation in paintings towards the end of the manuscript. Untitled tale of Solomon and the Phoenix from the Tipu Library, British Library, IO Islamic 1255, f. 22r. Noc

The tale’s literary significance is heightened when considering the version in another British Library manuscript catalogued recently, entitled Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr (IO Islamic 4806). We encounter the familiar characters of the Prophet Sulaymān, the Sīmurgh, the Prince of the East and Princess of the West, with the narrative sharing the same basic structure. Like the version in the Tipu manuscript, the tale’s author is not named. Differences lie in the laconic style of the substantially abridged account, with some passages and episodes rearranged, and others omitted. Occasionally, the simplicity of prose is abandoned in favour of a more formal style and additional poems, while adjectives and titles take on a distinctly courtly flavour. Notwithstanding, the overall feel is that of a relatively faithful retelling of the Tipu version.

The most original feature of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr is its introductory matter (ff. 1v-3r), which elevates it to the status of pseudo-history and prophetic tradition. Accordingly, when the Prophet Muḥammad was troubled by Meccan groups, Jibrāʾīl appears and gives him the seal of Sulaymān, a gift from Allāh. Jibrāʾīl is asked if it prevents death. He clarifies that there are two kinds of death, qaz̤ā-′i muḥkam or conspicuous (avoidable?) death and qaz̤ā-′i mubram or certain death. After a few days, Jibrāʾīl reappears and narrates the tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh to demonstrate how nothing escapes the certainty of fate. The tale begins from this point forward in much the same way as the Tipu manuscript.

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Illuminated sarlawḥ and opening passage of the Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr. British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 1v. Noc

The tale’s connection with the Prophet Muḥammad is established on the authority of a tenuous chain of transmission, mentioning the names of Ibn Saʿd (d. ca. 66/686), who heard it from Ḥasan Baṣrī (d. 110/728), who heard it from one of the unidentified muʿtamadān or confidants of the Prophet. Whether or not the chain of transmission is authentic, such details are unnecessary for the purpose of a mere adventure tale, indicating the intention to emphasise its moral and pious message. While subsequent details correspond closely with the Tipu manuscript, these extraordinary passages do not appear in that version.

The Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr manuscript is not dated and owners’ marks have been erased. It consists of 26 folios commencing with a gilded and painted sarlawḥ or headpiece, and has gold rulings throughout, with scribal nastaʿlīq on thin burnished paper. The nine brightly coloured illustrations are painted with sparsely populated simplistic compositions. Only the King of the West and the Prince of the East are depicted wearing Persian (Safavid) costume, while the remaining characters are dressed in eighteenth-century Hindustani attire. Neither manuscript has chapter or section headings, making it difficult to follow the programme of illustration in both manuscripts without closely reading adjacent text. A comparative list of illustrations in both manuscripts can be found here: Download Solomon and the Phoenix illustrations.

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The King of the West’s men shoot at the Phoenix stealing the Princess’s cradle. Note the differentiation in status between figures reflected in their costume. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 3v. Noc

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The Princess of the West falls in love with the Prince of the East, who finds his way to the foot of the isolated tree where she is held captive by the Phoenix. The Princess here is dressed in the Hindustani peshvaz and dupattah, while the Prince sports a turban in a distinctly Safavid style with the ends of the qamarband always tucked in. Qiṣṣah-′i qaz̤āʾ va qadr, British Library, IO Islamic 4806, f. 19r. Noc

Given that both manuscripts discussed here are associated with South Asia, one might be forgiven for taking this as an indication of the tale’s origins, perhaps traceable to some obscure Sufi source of moralistic parables. Evidence to counter this regional association is found in a fragile Judaeo-Persian manuscript from the British Library’s Gaster Collection (Or 10195). Although the fragmentary volume has several compositions in poetry and prose, one of these comprises yet another prose rendition of the same tale of Sulaymān and the Sīmurgh. While the work needs to be studied in detail, it would be particularly revealing if it could be verified that this version commences with or without the prophetic tradition, and whether it consists of the lengthier or abridged version. The systematic comparison of all texts may form the basis of future research to identify a common Urtext, which might not even be in Persian at all. It is hoped this article may mark the start of the process.

Bibliographical note on IO Islamic 1255
Charles Stewart, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the Late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, Cambridge, 1809, p. 84, where it is listed as the third of the Persian fables. Hermann Ethé, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the Library of the India Office, Oxford, 1903, vol. 1, coll. 544, no. 854. Another undated manuscript (IO Islamic 1627), also from Tipu Sultan’s library, reproduces over ff. 106v-111v an independent work based on a fragment of the same tale comprising episodes 14-28 (Ethé, no. 853).

Dr Sâqib Bâburî
Curator, Persian Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

Acknowledgements
I am grateful to Ursula Sims-Williams for referring me to IO Islamic 1255. I would also like to thank Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda for their research and help with Judeo-Persian.

04 November 2016

Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic

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In a recent post in our Medieval Manuscripts blog (Every People Under Heaven), Cillian O'Hogan wrote about the early 13th century Harley Greek Gospels and the 12th century Melisende Psalter and its ivories which are currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in a stunning exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. With some 200 exhibits from 60 lenders from all over the world, the exhibition tells the story of Jerusalem, a polyglot city and cultural centre during the Crusades, the rule of the Ayyubids and the Mamluk Empire. In this post I will highlight one of our Arabic loans, Add.MS.11856, a translation of the four Gospels, copied in Palestine in 1336.

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Double page opening to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, ff. 1v-2r)
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Portrait of St. Matthew followed by the translator's prayer and introduction to the Gospel of St. Matthew. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, ff. 2v-3r)
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Although the Bible may have been translated into Arabic as early as the late seventh century, it was during the eighth and especially the ninth centuries that translations were made under Christian patronage. These were produced in the multilingual monastic communities of Palestine. The earliest surviving dated manuscript of the Gospels in Arabic is dated 859 and is in the library of the Monastery of St. Catherine at Mount Sinai (Griffith, p. 113). In his 'Abridged List of the Arabic Gospel Manuscripts' Hikmat Kashouh (below, pp. 55-8) lists 18 copies in the British Library collections of which the oldest, Add.MS.14467, dates from the 10th century. Add.MS.11856 is a copy of what became known as the Arabic Vulgate version which, translated from Greek, Syriac and Coptic, developed by the 13th century and remained the standard Arabic version until modern times.

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Opening to the Gospel of St. Mark. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 59r)
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Portrait of St. Mark. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 59v)
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Our manuscript, Add.MS.11856, was completed on 20 Jumada I AH 737 (25 Dec. 1336) and includes four portraits of the evangelists, a double page illuminated heading at the beginning and three single page headings at the start of the following Gospels. The copyist was Yūsuf ibn Walī al-Dawlah Mīkhāʼīl ibn Faḍl Allāh, the Treasury scribe (kātib al-khizānah). Originating in Palestine, the manuscript had various owners, one being the early Albanian writer and national hero Peter Bogdani (ca. 1630-89), Archbishop of Skopje and alumnus of the Collegio di Propaganda Fide, Rome, to which he subsequently presented it. It was acquired in 1841 by the British Museum as part of the collection of Samuel Butler (1774-1839), Bishop of Lichfield.

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Opening to the Gospel of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95r)
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Portrait of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95v)
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Perhaps the most striking feature of this manuscript is its illumination and decoration which clearly demonstrate the cosmopolitan nature of the community in which it was written. Each Gospel is introduced by a portrait of its author holding a copy of the book, but whereas these portraits are based on Byzantine models, the opening and the introductory leaves to each Gospel are richly decorated in a carpet page design - so called because of its close resemblance to intricately woven carpets - which is in keeping with Qur'ans dating from the Mamluk period. The opening of each Gospel consists of two illuminated bands containing the title above and below while the central panel is filled with an abstract geometrical pattern. Decorative rosettes in the margins complete the design.

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Opening to the Gospel of St. John. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 157r)
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Portrait of St. John. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 157v)
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The exhibition Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven is open at the Met. until 8 January 2017. If you don't have the opportunity to go in person, there is a detailed catalogue available by the exhibition curators Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb.

This manuscript has now been digitised and will shortly be available on our Digitised Manuscripts site, so watch this space for more details!


Further reading

W. Cureton and C. Rieu, Catalogus codicum manuscriptorum orientalium qui in Museo Britannico asservantur. Pars secunda, codices arabicos amplectens. London: British Museum, 1846-71, pp. 11-13.
Barbara Drake Boehm and Melanie Holcomb, Jerusalem, 1000-1400 : every people under heaven. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2016.
Hikmat Kashouh, The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: the Manuscripts and their Families, Berlin: De Gruyter, c2012.
Sidney H. Griffith, The Bible in Arabic: the Scriptures of the "People of the Book" in the Language of Islam. Princeton: Princeton University Press, c2013.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies, with thanks, for help, to Colin Baker
 CC-BY-SA

01 August 2016

An in-depth look at the British Library’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa

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In his previous blog, PhD student Paul Naylor introduced the BL’s collection of Arabic manuscripts from West Africa, on which he has been working. In part two of this blog series, and with the cataloguing of the collection almost complete, Paul looks at the collection in more depth, picking out some particularly interesting items.

Religious Works
Most of the material in the collection is of a religious nature, reflecting the strong link between literacy in the Arabic language and Islamic learning in 19th century West Africa. There are five complete copies of the Qur’an – the holy book of Islam – and many more incomplete sections. (In a forthcoming blog I will reflect on some unique features of the BL’s collection of illuminated Qur’an copies produced in West Africa.)

Other religious works include copies of biographies and praise poems of the Prophet Muhammad, many of which are recited on the occasion of the Prophet’s Birthday (Mawlud). There are also many devotional and mystical works from the Qadiri and Tijani Sufi orders, founded in 12th century Baghdad and 18th century Aïn Madhi (present-day Algeria) respectively and popular in West Africa.

The collection also features spiritual works from West African religious movements. In 1804, the teacher and social reformer Usman dan Fodio embarked on a military campaign resulting in what we know today as the Sokoto Caliphate, in the area of present-day northern Nigeria. Usman’s movement had a profound effect on West African society and for many Muslims he is a figure of immense spiritual importance. The British Library’s collection includes a fine copy of the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān). This is a work of 'miracle literature' about Usman written by Gidado dan Layma, one of his closest associates, and compiled sometime in the 1840s. Its presence in this material, which is almost certainly from a region beyond the Sokoto Caliphate, is testament to the extent of Usman’s influence throughout the West African region. A page from this work is shown below.

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Page from the 'Meadows of Paradise' (Rawḍ al-Jinān), by Gidado dan Layma. Or 6953 f. 297v.

Educational Works
For the British Library’s recent ‘West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song’ exhibition, we showcased items from the collection demonstrating the breadth of the Islamic ‘core curriculum’  still being taught to students in centres of Islamic learning across the West African region (Hall & Stewart 2011: 109-74). These works include canons of Maliki law (the branch of Sunni Islam followed in West Africa) and texts on Islamic beliefs and  practices, as well as classical works on Arabic grammar and syntax such as the Ājurrūmiyya.

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Page from a West African copy of the Ājurrūmiyya, a work on Arabic grammar by the Moroccan scholar Ibn Ājurrūm al-Ṣanhājī (1273-1323). Or 6953, f. 255v. Noc

There are also many works authored by West African scholars on subjects such as the preparation of halal meat and the eating of kola nut, as well as obituaries for local scholars who passed away. This page is from an obituary for one such scholar, al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami, from a town called Touba, a common name for settlements of Muslim scholars in the Senegambian region. This personage is listed as the owner of several manuscripts in the collection, some of which may be written in his hand or the hand of his students. The author laments, ‘Knowledge has left Touba and Futa. The time of grammar, inflectional endings (iʿrāb) and conjugation is over’ and compares the death of this scholar to a disaster rivalling the Biblical flood.

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Obituary for the Senegambian scholar al-Haj Salim al-Zaghawi al-Kasami. Or 6473, f. 105r. Noc

Fawāʾid
Most of the remaining material comes under the category of ‘Fawāʾid’. This term is an Arabic word meaning ‘benefits’ and constitutes a practice or ritual said to result in a supernatural effect. This practice could be something as simple as reciting a Muslim prayer or section of the Qur’an on a certain day, at a certain time or in a certain place. Other documents explain how to manufacture talismans (Ar. aḥrāz). In an Islamic context, a talisman is usually a small piece of paper with a passage of Arabic writing on it. Depending on the intended effect, the paper could be worn about the person as a protective amulet (Ar. khātim), buried in a special place or, most commonly, written out in ink on a slate and then washed off with water, milk or plant extracts. This mixture is either drunk or applied to the body. The image below shows a religious scholar writing an amulet for a widow.

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A marabout or Muslim religious leader writing an amulet for a widow. P.D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises, etc. (Paris, 1853). British Library, 10096.h.9. Noc

Many fawāʾid are accompanied by number squares (Ar. awfāq) in which each row and column add up to the same number, not unlike a Sudoku. The squares, which are common throughout the Islamic world, are said to have come to the Middle East from China. They originally consisted of 3 lines of 3 small squares, before being enlarged and made more complex by medieval Arab mathematicians (Camman 1969). Later they were combined with the science of numerology, in which each letter of the Arabic alphabet is assigned a numerical value, so that the squares could also be used to express words. When filled with a name of God or a Prophet - in letters or in their numerical value - the square was thought to have very powerful spiritual properties. When filled in with a personal name, the square could be used to tell one’s fortune or to protect (or alternatively curse) that person. The earliest Europeans to visit West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries commented on the ubiquitous nature of these devices, which were used by Muslim and non-Muslim alike and made by specialists called mallams (Ar. muʿallim, a learned person).

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Examples of number squares. Or 6576, ff. 11v and 12r. Noc

In the past, this material was deemed to be of little interest to scholars. However, in more recent times, the value of these documents is being recognised (Brenner 1985; Epelboin 2016).  As well as being a fascinating record of West African trees and plants used in such preparations, what we must remember is that each talisman was made at the request of a ‘patient’ for a specific malady or problem.

Thus, these documents are perhaps the most personal of the collection. They reflect preoccupations we can all relate to: the relief of back pain, a guarantee of a happy marriage, the conception of a child, an aide for students to memorise their lessons, or even a husband’s appeal for his wife to come back to him. There are also many ‘love amulets’ with space left for the name of a man and a woman. A detailed study of these talismans will undoubtedly tell us much about the social history of the societies that produced them. The image below is a page from a fāʾida (singular of fawāʾid) to make all who see the bearer love them, ‘as a Muslim loves paradise, as a faithful person loves prayer, as a stomach loves food, as fields love the rain, as infidels and wolves love unclean meat’.

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A love fāʾida or amulet. Or 6880, f. 334r. Noc

In the next few months, detailed descriptions of every one of the Arabic manuscripts from West Africa held in the BL’s collection will be uploaded onto the British Library’s online catalogue of manuscripts. This will make it easy for readers to know what is in the collection and facilitate access and study.

Further reading:

Bruce S. Hall and Charles C. Stewart, ‘The Historic “Core Curriculum” and the Book Market in Islamic West Africa’, in Graziano Krätli and Ghislaine Lydon (eds), The Trans-Saharan Book Trade (Leiden: Brill, 2011), pp. 109-74.

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part I’, History of Religions, 8, 3 (1969): 181-209

Schuyler Cammann, ‘Islamic and Indian Magic Squares. Part II’, History of Religions, 8, 4 (1969): 271-299.

Louis Brenner, ‘The Esoteric Sciences in West African Islam’ in Brian M. Du Toit and Ismail Hussein Abdalla (eds), African Healing Strategies (Buffalo: Trado-Medic Books, 1985), pp. 20-28.

Alan Epelboin, ‘Amulettes et objets magiques du Musée de l'Homme collectés dans les ordures du Sénégal Collection ALEP (1983-‐2016)’ (2016). The author spent many years collecting more modern devices from rubbish dumps in Senegal; this collection can be found online.

 Paul Naylor  Ccownwork

27 June 2016

Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah (IO Islamic 3214)

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While recently looking for documentation on the Library of Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799), my eye fell on this entry in Charles Stewart's Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore (Cambridge, 1809), pp. 72-3:

XCIV. Diwāni Sindbād Hakīm. Thick quarto, common hand, ornamented with pictures, &c. The instructions of the philosopher Sindbād to his pupil, the ignorant son of a king; in a series of interesting and facetious stories. The author is unknown; but it is dedicated to Shāh Mahmūd Bahmeny of the Dekhan, A.D. 1374.

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The philosopher Sindbad promises the king to teach his son (BL IO Islamic 3214, fol. 18v)
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Immediately I was reminded of the Sindbādnāmah about which I had written in an earlier blog (The Story of Sinbad or the Seven Sages). Circumstantial evidence had given this manuscript an origin in South India, probably Golconda, between 1575 and 1585 (Weinstein, p. 127), but how it arrived in the East India Company Library remained a mystery.

Thanks to the manuscript being digitised, I was immediately able to look for mention of a date of composition and found the year 776 (1374/5) of Stewart's description mentioned in the introduction on folio 8v  — although the patron was definitely Persian (tāj bakhsh-i ʻajam) rather than Bahmanid. I then had the good fortune to discover that a volume in the India Office Records and Private Papers described as Tipu Sultan papers (Mss Eur E 196) included copies of lists of books allocated by the Prize Agents to the Asiatic Society of Bengal and the East India Company Library. Sure enough, not only was the volume mentioned in a list of manuscripts designated for the East India Company Library in 1799, but it also occurred in a list of books due to be despatched from Calcutta in February 1807.

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Above: List of Selected Manuscripts for the Honble. the Court of Directors, submitted by the Prize Agents at Seringapatam in December 1799
Below: “Kitab Hakeem Sindbad, the Poetical works of Hakeem Sindbad, with Paintings” (BL Mss Eur/E196, ff.70r and 74v)
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Although 197 volumes of Arabic and Persian manuscripts were deposited in the Library on 16 July 1806 (Library Day Book for 1806), it wasn't until 1807 (204 vols) and April 1808 (68 vols) that the full allocation was received. Of almost 2000 volumes of the original library, the East India Company received an estimated total of 469 while the rest were divided between the Asiatic Society and the College of Fort William, Calcutta.

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Binding of IO Islamic 3214 labelled “Kitab Hakeem Sindbad”
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Above: Packed ready for despatch, a List of Books selected by the Prize Agents at Seringapatam for the Honorable Court of Directors and not yet transmitted, included in a letter from Wm. Hunter, Secy. to College Council, Fort William, dated 17 February 1807, to Thomas Brown, Chief Secy. to Government
Below: Details of manuscripts sent (BL Mss Eur/E196, ff 90r and 91r)
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Folio 1r of the Sindbādnāmah contains several abraded seals. One is the East India Library stamp which was deliberately effaced when the book was stolen from the library (see my earlier post). Jerry Losty (Art of the Book,  p.71) and Laura Weinstein (Variations on a Persian theme, p. 127) had already suggested that at least one of the others might be a seal of the Qutbshahi dynasty. Examination using sophisticated filters at RetroReveal.com and comparison with other Qutbshahi seals show that it is likely to be the seal of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, Sultan of Golconda, 1565-1612, and is probably dated 1012 (1603/4). The fact that many of Tipu Sultan's manuscripts had belonged previously to the Qutbshahi dynasty only serves to strengthen this connection.

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Folio 1r showing the abraded Qutbshahi seals (BL IO Islamic 3214, f. 1r)
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Above: Seals of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah, Sultan of Golconda, 1565-1612, from another Tipu manuscript (BL IO Islamic 550)
Below: Seal of IO Islamic 3214 viewed with help from RetroReveal, revealing the letters مهر ز on the lower right side

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This research has resulted in some exciting discoveries of new source material on the royal library at Seringapatam. I'll be posting the results during the next few months as we digitise selected manuscripts from Tipu Sultan's collection.

Further reading
Charles Stewart, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, Cambridge, 1809
Laura S. Weinstein, Variations on a Persian theme: adaptation and innovation in early manuscripts from Golconda. PhD diss., Columbia University, 2011
Jeremiah P. Losty, The Art of the Book in India, London, 1982
Mss Eur/E196, ff.70-82: Copy of List of Selected Manuscripts for the Honble. The Court of Directors, dated 1 & 28 December 1799, signed by D. Price, S.W. Ogg
Mss Eur/E196, ff 90-94: List of Books selected by the Prize Agents at Seringapatam for the Honorable Court of Directors and not yet transmitted. Signed W. Hunter, Secy. C.C.
Mss Eur/F303/1: Library Day Book 1801-1814

 

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
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The story of Sinbad or the seven sages
Tipu Sultan’s dream book (IO Islamic 3563)

18 April 2016

The Polonsky Foundation and the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project at the British Library

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To celebrate Passover 2016 and the launch of our new website 'Hebrew Manuscripts', Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies, writes about the Polonsky Foundation and its role in the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project.

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A family celebrating Passover, from the Barcelona Haggadah.  Service book for Passover eve. Catalonia, Spain, c. 1370  (British Library Add MS 14761, f. 28v noc

Philanthropy plays a vital role in our modern world. When the resources of arts, heritage and cultural organizations are limited, the gaps can sometimes be filled by those who have the means to do so; in this way, the contributions of benefactors and philanthropic bodies have done much to advance and improve the business, culture, education and welfare of many communities around the globe.

Among the philanthropic organisations the British Library has collaborated with more recently is The Polonsky Foundation, which aims at advancing higher education in the humanities and social sciences, and equally, at promoting the arts in the UK, USA and Israel.  Digitisation of rare collections in major libraries of the world is a signature programme of The Polonsky Foundation and reflects its commitment to the preservation and democratization of knowledge.

I have been very fortunate to meet Dr Leonard Polonsky on several occasions in the past. My first and most memorable encounter took place in November 2011 when he paid a visit to the British Library. Showing guests treasures from the Library’s Hebrew collections has always been an immense privilege, and throughout all the years I have been working for this amazing organisation, I have unfailingly done my utmost to showcase collection items that would not only impress the guests with their illuminated embellishments, but would also generate questions and a lively discussion.

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The Barcelona Haggadah,  service book for Passover eve. Historiated initial word panel with  Barukh (Blessed)  opening the Havdalah benediction (Separation) recited at the end of the Sabbath. Note the lush marginal foliage scrolls, interwoven with humans, birds and hybrids. Catalonia, Spain, c. 1370  (British Library Add MS 14761, f. 26r)  noc

Dr Polonsky showed genuine interest in what was on display that day – a volume of the sumptuous Lisbon Bible, the intriguing San’a Pentateuch, and the unparalleled Barcelona Haggadah. Following that meeting and the subsequent submission of proposals, the Foundation agreed to support the Hebrew manuscripts project in 2012. This significant three-year project, which started in earnest in the summer of 2013 after dedicated project staff had been recruited (a Project Manager, a Cataloguer and a Project Support Officer), is due to end in June this year. It has focussed on digitizing cover to cover some 1300 unique manuscripts from the Library’s Hebrew collection, making them freely accessible on-line to a global audience.

Delivering the project has been challenging but we have learnt a great deal, particularly how to resolve problems swiftly, meet deadlines, and work efficiently as a team and collaborate with colleagues across the Library. So far we have made excellent progress and the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project is nearing completion.   Almost 800 out of the 1300 manuscripts digitised as part of the project, including nearly 70 scrolls, are already available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

A new Hebrew web space will be launched at the end of April and will contain articles and images on specific themes, collection items, items of the week, videos and 3D modelling of selected objects. We are confident that this hub will be a great success and will showcase the gems of the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection.

I would like to extend a huge thank you to my colleagues who have been working assiduously to deliver the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, and by so doing have facilitated worldwide access to a valuable and unmatched learning resource. This worthy initiative would not have been possible without the immense kindness and judicious vision of The Polonsky Foundation, to which goes our profound and wholehearted gratitude.

Some of my favourites—which I showed Dr. Polonsky back in 2011—are featured below. Click on the hyperlinks to go directly to the digitised images.

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The San'a Pentateuch. San'a, Yemen, 1469. Section from Shirat Ha'azinu (Give Ear; Deuteronomy:32) the lyrical poem Moses recited in front of the Israelites before his death. The central decoration consists of micrography (patterns outlined in minute script) and medallions inspired by Islamic art (British Library Or.2348, f. 152r )  noc

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Detail of Or.2348, f. 152r,  showing the decorative medallions inspired by Islamic art

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Illuminated borders at the opening of Isaiah, from the Lisbon Bible, volume 2. Lisbon, Portugal, 1482 (British Library Or 2627, f. 136v)  noc

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The Lisbon Bible, volume 2. Embellished opening with juxtaposed borders to the Book of Amos. Lisbon, Portugal, 1482  (British Library Or 2627, f. 252r)  noc

 

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
 ccownwork

07 April 2016

The British Library’s oldest Qur’an manuscript now online

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The British Library’s oldest Qur’ān manuscript, Or.2165, dating from the eighth century, has now been fully digitised and is available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Among the most ancient copies of the Qurʼān, it comprises 121 folios containing over two-thirds of the complete text and is one of the largest of known fragments of an early Qurʼān written in the māʼil script.

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The end of Sūrah 7 (Sūrat al-A‘rāf, ‘The Heights’) and the beginning of Sūrah 8 (Sūrat al-Anfāl, ‘The Spoils of War’). The heading in red ink gives the title of the Sūrah and says that it contains 77 verses (British Library Or.2165, folio 7v)  noc

This manuscript was purchased by the British Museum in 1879 from the Reverend Greville John Chester (1830-1892) as noted on a fly leaf at the back of the manuscript. Chester was an ordained clergyman interested in archaeology, Egyptology and natural history and made numerous trips to Egypt and the Near East, where he acquired objects and manuscripts, which are now in the collections of major UK cultural and library institutions. It is very likely he acquired this Qur’ān when he was in Egypt.

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Acquisition details recorded at the end of the manuscript (British Library Or.2165, endpaper)  noc

The earliest Qur’ān manuscripts were produced in the mid-to-late seventh century, and ancient copies from this period have not survived intact and exist only in fragments. Or.2165 contains three series of consecutive leaves (Sūrah 7:40 – Sūrah 9:96; Sūrah 10:9 – Sūrah 39:48; Sūrah 40:63 – Sūrah 43:71) from the so-called mā’il Qur’ān, which is about two-thirds of the Qur’ān text and is one of the oldest Qur’āns in the world. It probably dates from the eighth century, and as far as can be ascertained, was produced in the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Arabic word mā’il (by which this Qur’ān is known) means ‘sloping’ and refers to the sloping style of the script – one of a number of early Arabic scripts collectively named ‘Hijazi’ after the region in which they were developed. The main characteristic of mā’il is its pronounced slant to the right. It can also be recognised by the distinctive traits of some of its letters, for example, the letter alif does not curve at the bottom but is rigid, and the letter yā’, occurring at the end of a word, turns and extends backwards frequently underlying the preceding words.

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Left: the letter alif; six small dashes mark the end of the verse
Right: the letter yā’; the Sūrah heading in red ink was added later

In early Qur’āns there are no vowel signs, and this early style of script is also notable for its lack of diacritical marks to distinguish between letters of similar shape. Verse numbering had also not yet been established; the end of each verse was indicated by six small dashes in two stacks of three. The sūrah headings were added much later in red ink in the recognisable space purposely left blank to distinguish between the end and the beginning of chapters. Red circles surrounded by red dots to mark the end of every ten verses were also added later.

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The beginning of Sūrah 12 (Sūrat Yūsuf, ‘Joseph’) showing the verse markers and also the red headings and circles which were added later (British Library Or.2165, folios 23v-24r)  noc

As with all early Qur’āns, the text is written on vellum and would have been bound into a codex or muṣḥaf – originally a collection of sheets of vellum placed between two boards. Each double sheet was folded into two leaves, which were assembled into gatherings then sewn together and bound as quires into a codex.

The importance of Or.2165, in addition to all other known early Qur’ān fragments, cannot be overestimated. They provide the only available evidence for the early development of the written recording of the Qur’ān text and help towards our understanding of how early Qur’ān codices were produced.        


Further reading

Rieu, Charles, Supplement to the Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts, London, The British Museum 1894, Item 56, pp. 37-38.
Déroche, François and Noseda, Sergio Noja, Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique I, Les manuscrits de style ḥiǧāzi, Volume 2, tome 1, Le manuscrit Or.2165 (f. 1 à 61) de la British Library, Lesa, 2001.
Baker, Colin F., Qur'an manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design, London, 2007, pp.15-18.

Colin F. Baker, Head of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections
 ccownwork

 

08 March 2016

A Digital Revolution - hundreds of Hebrew manuscripts go on-line

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Our followers and readers will be delighted to learn that over 760 Hebrew manuscripts have now been uploaded to the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts. Generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project aims at digitising and providing free on-line access to well over 1250 Hebrew handwritten books from the Library’s collection. The project, which began in 2013 is due for completion in June 2016, when the full complement of manuscripts will be available to a global audience.

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Festival prayer book,  Mahzor, according to the rite of Provence. Opening of the morning prayer (Shaharit). Sephardic (Provencal) vocalised square and semi-cursive script of the 17th century. (Or. 5466, f. 7r
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The host of digitized surrogates released to-date, represents the vast geographical expanse of Hebrew manuscript production, and offers many interesting examples of handwriting styles. Hebrew and other Jewish languages such as Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish and others, use an alphabet consisting of 22 consonantal letters, 5 of which are shaped differently when used at the end of words. These are known as otiyot sofiyot, literally, ‘final letters’. The Hebrew alphabet which lacks case letters and is written from right left, evolved from the Phoenician alphabet. Its ancient form (c. 10th to 6th century BCE)  was known as the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet or script.  Around the 6th century BCE, it was replaced by a square form of lettering known as ‘Ashuri’ (a stylized form of Aramaic script) that had allegedly originated in Assyria and has survived to this day. The vowels system (nikud in Hebrew) was developed between the 8th and 10th centuries CE in Tiberias (city located on the western shore of the Sea of  Galilee in the Holy Land), by scholars known as the Masoretes and has been used since then. Initially devised to facilitate the correct pronunciation and transmission of the Masoretic Bible, the Tiberian vocalization system was subsequently extended to other Hebrew texts and writings.

The main modes of Hebrew styles of script distinguishable in manuscripts are: square, semi-cursive and cursive. The semi-cursive mode is also known as rabbinic, a misleading term coined by Christian scholars in the 16th century. The principal difference between the three modes lies essentially in the number of strokes required to form the shape of a single letter. The amount of strokes needed to create square letters is higher than that required for semi-cursive characters, decreasing virtually to a single stroke when cursive letters are executed. The speed of writing can also very often determine how many strokes or serifs are needed to create a particular style of script.

Developed in the Orient, most probably before the 10th century CE, square lettering has been formally used for copying the text of the Hebrew Bible, for liturgical works, as well as for Torah scrolls, mezuzot (singular mezuzah - parchment scroll containing Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 & 11: 13-21, placed in a case and affixed to a door post) and tefilin (phylacteries). 

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Page from the Duke of Sussex's Portuguese Pentateuch. Lisbon, Portugal, 1480-1490 CE (Add MS 15283, f. 42r)  noc

The three major modes of Hebrew script were used in most geo-cultural zones associated with medieval Hebrew book production, namely Ashkenazic (Franco-German lands), Byzantine, Italian, Oriental, and Sephardic (Iberian peninsula). Each zone had its own characteristic types and sub-types of scripts that were strongly influenced by trends prevalent in the host environment. For example, Jewish scribal practices that developed in Oriental and Sephardic territories under Muslim rule (i.e. Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Yemen, as well as Spain from 711 to 1491 CE, Provence), show great affinity with Arabic calligraphy. Likewise, types of Hebrew script that crystalized in the Ashkenazic geo-cultural entity where Christianity was the dominant religion (England, France, Germany, Italy, post-1492 Spain) display similarities with archetypes of Latin script that were prevalent in those areas. A very good example of how Gothic handwriting affected the Hebrew square script is found in this codex made in Germany:

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Festival prayer book, Mahzor , according to the Askenazi rite. Askenazic 'Gothic' square script, Germany, 1st half of the 14th century (Add MS 26896, f. 337v)  noc

The influence of early Arabic cursive writing is clearly noticeable in this 14th century hand-copied book in which the text was penned in a Sephardic current cursive script. The shapes of the Hebrew letters, the order and direction of the strokes, and the general layout of the calligraphic text bear remarkable similarities with Arabic script. Half down the page, a word was written diagonally. This scribal practice intended to keep the left margins aligned, was most probably borrowed from Muslim copyists, and became a fashionable decorative device particularly in Hebrew manuscripts copied in the Yemen.

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Moses Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed in the Hebrew translation of Samuel ibn Tibbun. Spain, c. 14th century (Royal MS 16 A XI, f. 187v)  noc

Local trends determined also the type of writing instruments medieval Jewish scribes adopted for plying their trade. Thus, the quill was the popular implement for copying books in Christian territories, while in Muslim lands the reed was the scribes’ preferred tool. The former tended to produce tapered serifs, the latter more homogenous strokes.

The Persian and Yemenite square and semi-cursive sub-types are exemplified in two 15th century biblical manuscripts, as seen in the images below. It is important to mention that the semi-cursive and cursive modes failed to properly develop in medieval Yemen.

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The Pentateuch, Haftarot (reading from the Prophets) and Psalms in Persian vocalised semi-cursive script. Hebrew & Judeo-Persian. Qom, Persia, 1483 CE (Or. 2451, f. 204v)  noc

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The Former Prophets penned in square, vocalised Yemenite script. Yemen, 1460 CE (Or. 2370, f. 53r)  noc

The Italian Hebrew writing, like its Latin counterpart, appears to have preserved the Caroline style (a Latin calligraphic script used in Europe in the early Middle Ages and during the Renaissance). The rounded shape of the Italian Latin scripts is equally noticeable in the Hebrew scripts from that area, particularly in the semi-cursive style of writing. Our first example comes from a sidur (daily prayer book) written by the well-known scribe, scholar and geographer, Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol (1451-1526). He penned the text in a fine square hand. The letters are vocalised and slightly tilted. Note the flourishes shaped as question marks which were added after the Divine name represented by two ‘yod’ letters.

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Decorated daily prayer book according to the Italian rite. Opening of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism, declaring the faith in one God. Scribe: Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol.
Ferrara, Italy, 1478 (Add MS 18692, f.37v)  noc

The second example is taken from an autograph manuscript written by the Italian rabbi Mordechai ben Judah Dato (1527-1585), and shows Italian Hebrew cursive script at its best. The rotundity of the characters is particularly evident here.

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Collection of liturgical poems with a commentary by Mordechai Dato. Scribe: Mordechai ben Judah Dato. Italy, 1575-1599 (Add MS 27096, f. 3v)  noc

Our next blog will cover further significant items from the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection which have been digitised since 2013.


Further reading

Ada Yardeni. The Book of Hebrew script: history, palaeography, script styles, calligraphy and design. Newcastle: Oak Knoll Press, 2002

Malachi Beit-Arié. The Making of the Medieval Hebrew Book: Studies in Palaeography and Codicology. Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1993.

 

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
 ccownwork