THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

2 posts categorized "Medieval history"

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
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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
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