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112 posts categorized "Middle East"

19 January 2018

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

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‘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
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15 January 2018

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

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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).

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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)
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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.

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

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

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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)
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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
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[1] Illustrating the cultivation of indigo and tobacco.

02 January 2018

A papyrus puzzle: an unidentified fragment from 4th century Oxyrhynchus

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The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project team has just started working on five papyrus fragments, which are some of the earliest Hebrew texts we have at the British Library. The fragments are a fascinating mystery, one that we hope you can help us solve.

In 1922, the almost 70-year old Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered some papyrus fragments written in Hebrew script during an excavation in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. These fragments were acquired by the British Museum that year, and are now held in the Oriental Collection of the British Library under the shelfmarks Or 9180A, B, C, D, and E.

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Five papyrus fragments, Oxyrhynchus, c. 4th Century CE (BL Or 9180A, Or 9180B, Or 9180C, Or 9180D, Or 9180E) 
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As you can see here, the papyrus fragments are housed all together in one glass frame. Papyrus documents have been traditionally housed in glass since the late 19th century, when people first started to think about how to study them without handling them directly. It is still considered the most suitable storage method for papyri as glass is inert - papyrus requires a highly stable chemical environment due to its high salt content. Static is also problematic as papyrus is very fibrous, and the rigid nature of glass frames means that they can be handled without disrupting the material. The imaging team at the British Library were able to produce incredibly high quality images of the fragments through the glass, which has enabled us to research them fully without risking damaging them.

We are not able to precisely date these fragments, but the current consensus is that they are from the fourth century CE. Three of them (A, B and E) are poems, all written in Hebrew language and script. Fragment D is a Greek contract, with Hebrew text in the margins, which is probably also of a legal nature. Fragment C is written in Hebrew characters however the language – except the last three lines –is yet unidentified. This is where our mystery lies – and perhaps it is about to be uncovered by one of you.

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Our ‘mystery’ as it appears in its current housing (BL Or 9180C)
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As you can see here fragment C actually contains two pieces: a small piece on the left and a larger one on the right. Photographs of the Or 9180 fragments have been published in various articles over the years, in 1923, 1971 and 1985, and we have been able to use these to ascertain that the position of the two pieces of C have changed over time. In all of these publications, the smaller piece was attached to the lower left side of the larger piece. Today however, the smaller piece is situated at the upper left side of the larger one.

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Photograph of Or 9180C from The Hebrew Scripts by S. A. Birnbaum (London: Palaeographia, 1954-1957), no. 152.
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If you have a closer look at the arrangement above,  you can see the matching strands of the fibres within the papyrus, and that the three lines of text on the smaller fragment are perfect continuation of the last three lines of text in the larger piece. This shows that the earlier arrangement of the fragment was correct, and that what might have happened is that the left part of the fragment had broken off from the larger piece when the fragment was rehoused at some point after 1985. Thanks to the digitisation project, we were able to prove this theory by virtually reconstructing fragment C without risking damaging the original fragment.

   
Virtual reconstruction of the original arrangement of the fragment
 CC-BY-SA

In its reconstructed form, the last three lines of the papyrus, first deciphered by Hartwig Hirschfeld in 1923, become once again legible:

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The so-called colophon - the last three lines of Or 9180C
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These lines were written in Aramaic and have been identified as a colophon[1]:

אנה שא[ול] בי לעזר כת[ב]ת אלין כת[בי]ן שלום על ישראל אמן ואמן סלה

I, Saul son of [E]leazar have written these wri[tings]. Peace be upon Israel. Amen and amen, selah

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The reconstructed arrangement of Or 9180C
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The 14 lines above the colophon are a real mystery though, both in terms of language as well as content. It seems that this fragment was originally a list of words in two columns, but now only the right column has remained more or less intact, with just small traces of the left column visible. For us, the real challenge is to identify the content of this fragment. Over the years various suggestions have been made, such as: a kind of Latin and Greek vocabulary; a list of gnostic charms; magical incantations; an inventory of articles; and a list of Latin names.[2]

Although Fragment C contains Hebrew characters, unlike the other fragments in Or 9180, the language is not easily identifiable. It was not uncommon for Jews to use Hebrew script when writing in a language other than Hebrew. Among the most widely used are Judeo-languages are Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Ancient Jewish Greek literature however was almost always written in Greek script.

Our initial approach to deciphering this fragment was by looking into what languages the Jews of Egypt spoke in the Late Antique period:

Four languages are of value: loaz (‘foreign language’, i.e. Greek) for song, romi (i.e. Latin) for war, sursi (Aramaic/Syriac) for dirges, and Hebrew for speaking
(Palestinian Talmud, Sotah 7)

We can see here in this quote from the Palestinian Talmud, compiled in the 4th century CE, that the Jews of the period were multilingual. Evidence shows that the Jewish population would have been exposed to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, although they may not have been equally fluent in all of them. Greek became one of the main languages if not the main language of Egyptian Jewish communities of the time. They used the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the Septuagint, which was mostly compiled by Alexandrian Jewish scholars in the 3rd century BCE -2nd century CE.

The language of this fragment was discussed further at a workshop organized by Platinum (specialists researching Latin papyrus fragments) at the University of Naples Federico II in May 2017. The participants there concluded that the language could not be straightforwardly identified as Aramaic, Greek or Latin. There were some reservations though. Rabbinic literature of the Hellenistic period is rich in Latin and Greek loanwords, but they are often very different from their original forms. For example: a word may not have simply been transliterated, but would have gone through some phonetic and accentual changes. They can preserve lower register (colloquial or slang) words of spoken Greek or Latin that are unattested in literary sources, and were not recorded in dictionaries. Consequently, the fragment we are dealing with could contain such low register Greek or Latin words written in Hebrew script. On the same basis, it could also have been written, perhaps, in a local Aramaic dialect. A further possibility, which as far as we know has not yet been looked into is that the text of the fragment could be the local Egyptian language (Coptic) in Hebrew script.

As well as the mystery of the language, another question to consider is why this text would have a colophon with a blessing at the end? It would seem unnecessary at the end of a list of articles, or a list of names. This might be more plausible if the text was of a magical or mystical nature.

Such a small fragment and so many questions. Our aim with this blog post is to draw attention to this fascinating and mysterious text. Perhaps one of you can solve the puzzle? If you think you have a solution, or further questions, please get in touch with us on Twitter @BL_HebrewMSS. We look forward to hearing from you!


Zsofi Buda and Miriam Lewis, BL Hebrew Project

 CC-BY-SA

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[1] Colophon is a kind of inscription recording information relating to the circumstances of the production of a manuscript, which were usually placed at the end of a work.
[2] For studies discussing this fragment, see ‘Publications’ in the full catalogue record.

13 December 2017

A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art

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Currently on display in our exhibition Harry Potter: History of Magic are two intriguing items from Ethiopia: an amulet (Or.12859) and a magical manuscript (Or.11390). Ethiopian amulets and magical recipe books such as these are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian Christian material culture, yet they remain a relatively poorly understood and understudied topic. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations which were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and evil spirits, making the invisible visible for all believers.

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An Ethiopian magical recipe book, 1750. These pages contain talismans and geometric images used for making amulet scrolls, and are accompanied by prayers for undoing spells and charms (BL Or.11390, ff. 12-13)
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Practitioners’ handbooks such as the recipe book portrayed above, are remarkably difficult to decode for the reason that they were intended as purely personal documents for personal use only. This annotated, magical recipe book is written in Ge’ez, also known as classic Ethiopic. It contains a rich collection of amulets, talismans, charms and incantations. From the marginal notes, we can guess that it belonged to a practitioner of magic, an exorcist (dabtara), who would have been a highly educated, ordained layman. Dabtaras typically study for several years or come from families of clergy. Since medieval times, they have worked in the courts or have taught in small parish schools, supplementing their income by producing amulet scrolls and practising traditional medicine.

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Amulet scrolls, one with a protective cylindrical case. Ethiopia, 18th century (BL Or.12859)
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Handbooks are the main source used for producing amulets and talismanic drawings. Amulets, written on leather or metal, have been worn by Ethiopians and other peoples in the Horn of Africa for thousands of years. This practice remains strongest in the northern Highlands of Ethiopia, where amulets are believed to bring health, to protect babies and to ward off the evil eye. The parchment scrolls themselves are known as Ketab, and they vary considerably in length. They are kept in leather cases, or, as shown above, in a cylindrical silver case, which can be hung up at home or worn around the neck, depending on their size. This particular scroll contains prayers for undoing spells (maftehé seray), after which the talismanic drawings were added, giving effect to its powers. The drawings have a specific purpose: they are intended to cure sickness, to exorcize demons and to protect those taking long and difficult journeys.

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Examples of amulet scrolla (BL Or.13228, above; BL Or.15594, below)
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An example of a talisman, is the eight-pointed star below, with four vertical and horizontal arms and a human face in the centre. The magical properties of this figurative drawing lie in the hidden symbolism. The eight-pointed star is a common motif, but has no traceable roots, appearing also in Islamic and Jewish Kabbalistic tradition.

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Image of an eight-pointed star (BL Or.15594, detail)
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Harry Potter: A History of Magic is open in the British Library PACCAR Gallery until Wed 28 Feb 2018.


Further reading

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997.

———, Ethiopian Magic Scrolls. New York: G. Braziller, 1979.

 

Eyob Derrillo, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

24 November 2017

The latest from the British Library’s Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project: Introducing Phase 2

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Our followers will be pleased to learn that the second phase of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP2) started last year, and we are delighted to announce that we have now published 173 newly catalogued and digitised manuscripts online. This phase of the project is part of the International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts (Ktiv), an initiative of the National Library of Israel in cooperation with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society. Ktiv is a project to make tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from hundreds of collections around the world available via a single platform. To date, the project has made available approximately 50% of all known Hebrew manuscripts in the world!

As part of HMDP2, we aim to digitise at least 1250 Hebrew manuscripts, in addition to the 1302 already digitised through phase 1 of the project, which was funded by The Polonsky Foundation. Manuscripts from both phases will be made available online via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and NLI’s Ktiv: International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts.

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Festival prayer book according to the Roman rite, from the first half of the 15th century, Italy. This manuscript can be viewed in its entirety here (BL Or 10752 f. 58v)
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Continuing our digitisation work from phase 1 of the project, the range of manuscripts included in Phase 2 is vast and representative of the huge geographical and cultural scope of Jewish life and history around the world. It includes collection items from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Karaite traditions, and from as far afield as Yemen and India, and manuscripts also created in the UK.

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Festival prayer book according to the Western-Ashkenazi rite, from 1650-1, Worms. This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Or 10641 f. 32r
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Their age, size and material show great variety as well. The oldest items that are being digitised in Phase 2 are some small papyri fragments from 4th-century Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (Or 9180a-e). They were discovered by the Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie in 1922.

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A close up of BL Or 9180 fragment ‘A’, from c.4th century, Oxyrhynchus. This manuscript is yet to be published
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Kabbalistico-midrashic commentaries on the books of the Hebrew Bible, 1721-1758, Italy. This huge Kabbalistic work by Moses David Valle contains 1032 folios! This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Add MS 27165)
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The manuscripts in HMDP2 also represent the wide range of languages and dialects that developed in Jewish communities in the diaspora. These include Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish, and Judeo-Italian. And if it was not enough, we are also digitising our significant Judeo-Persian manuscripts such as the 18th-century collection of poetical works (Or 10196) and the illustrated Fath nama, a poetical account of the story of Joshua (Or 13704, see our recent blog A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama 'Book of Conquest'). We also have manuscripts written in Hungarian (Or 10134), Syriac (Or 9926), Judeo-Urdu (see our post A unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript, Or.13287), Judeo-Hindi (Or 14014) and Judeo-Gujarati (Or 13835).

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Anthology of Judeo-Persian poems, from 1775-1825, Iran. The collection includes poems by Hafiz and Rumi. This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Or 10194 f. 8v)
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The majority of the manuscripts we are digitising in Phase 2 derive from the British Library’s Gaster collection of Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts. The famed Romanian Jewish bibliophile, linguist, folklorist and communal leader Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), built up a vast library in his areas of expertise including Hebraica, Judaica, Samaritan, Rumanian and various other fields of scholarship. The largest segment of manuscripts from Gaster’s library (c. 1000 manuscripts) was purchased by the British Museum in 1924, but the objects were not accessioned until several years later. The Gaster manuscripts span nearly a millennium with the earliest examples dating from c. 10th-11th century. The full gamut of Jewish subjects is represented in the collection which includes among others, biblical, liturgical and legal texts, kabbalistic, polemical and scientific works.

Among Gaster’s many interests was the Samaritan community, and he became an authority on Samaritan language and literature. The Samaritans are an ethno-religious group living in Israel and the West Bank. Their religion ‘Samaritanism’, is closely related to Judaism, and based on the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritan alphabet is a direct descendent of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, which was a variant of the Phoenician alphabet. 88 of our 178 Samaritan manuscripts come from Gaster’s collection. The manuscripts we will be digitising during Phase 2 include Samaritan Pentateuchs (codices and scrolls), liturgies for different festivals, amulets, chronicles and historical works, calendars and marriage contracts.

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Samaritan liturgy for Passover from 1748, Nablus. This manuscript can be viewed it its entirety here (BL Add MS 19005 f.23r)
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For a list of all Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts that we have digitised to date as part of Phase 2, please follow this link (Phase 2 Digitised Manuscripts). We are also live-tweeting everything we publish, so please follow us on Twitter @BL_HebrewMSS to see all the manuscripts as they are available online. 

 

Ilana Tahan and Miriam Lewis, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project
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20 November 2017

Il Kaulata Maltia – The only extant copy of the first journal in Maltese

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Since September I have been working on the Maltese collection at the British Library, where I am tasked with cataloguing Maltese publications. The library boasts an impressive range of material ranging from 16th century publications by the Knights of Malta to books published in 2017. Amongst these there are some of the earliest references to the Maltese language as in Jean Quintin’s historical and geographical survey of the islands Insulæ Melitæ descriptio (1536, BL 795.g.6.(1.)), contemporary accounts of the Great Siege of Malta from 1565, some of the earliest works on the Maltese language by Agius De Soldanis from 1750, and a complete collection of Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s works from 1791.

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Map of the Maltese islands in Jean Quintin’s Insulæ Melitæ descriptio ex commentariis rerum quotidianarum (1536). (BL 795.g.6.(1.))
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The turning point in the history of Maltese publications was the liberalisation of the press in 1839, which formally came into force in March of that year following a wider drive for political autonomy in the British colony throughout that decade. The earliest wave of independent newspapers to be published in Malta came on the heels of this development. These newspapers were a largely multilingual affair, with the vast majority being in Italian or English, bilingual Italian and English (Il Mediterraneo, BL NEWS8160 NPL), and even trilingual in Italian, English and French (Il Corriere Maltese, BL NEWS8160 NPL). However, a number of short lived journals in Maltese started popping up at the same time, with one issue of the English-language publication The Harlequin published on the 6th of December, 1838, under the title L’Arlecchin, jeu Kaulata Inglisa u Maltìa, (Cassola, 2011,p. 22), being entirely in the vernacular. One month later, on the 15th of January, 1839, the first issue of the first Maltese journal Il Kaulata Maltia was published followed by two other issues. Only one copy of the first issue was thought to have survived in a private collection in Malta, and a reproduction of its frontispiece was first published by Ġużè Cassar Pullicino (1964). The second and third issues have thus far eluded researchers for decades until I recently discovered a copy of the full three-issue set in the British Library newspaper collection (view Kaulata pdf here).

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The frontispieces of issues 1 and 3 of Il Kaulata Maltia (1839) (BL NEWS8160 NPL)
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The editor of Il Kaulata Maltia was James Richardson[1], an Anglican missionary for the Church Missionary Society (CMS) who was also the editor of the aforementioned The Harlequin as well as The Phosphorous. The CMS was no stranger to publishing in Maltese in the years prior to the liberalisation of the press. In fact, the society’s own press, established by William Jowett in 1822, was one of the few allowed to operate before 1839 despite stringent press laws, and serviced other non-Catholic Christian denominations such as the Methodist Wesleyan Missionary Society. Its operations were nonetheless limited in the nature of the material which could be published, and were subject to the governor’s approval. The British government gave the green light to Anglican and other Protestant groups to operate and publish material in Malta yet pledged to protect the local Catholic population (Zammit, 2008, p. 258). This meant that no material of a religious nature intended for local circulation was allowed, and so output was limited to religious and educational material in Arabic, Turkish, Syriac, Italian and Greek and educational material in Maltese or about the Maltese language. Most notably, the CMS’s press was responsible for the publication of a number of works by Mikiel Anton Vassalli, known as “The father of the Maltese language”, including a revised edition of his Grammatica della Lingua Maltese (1827, BL 621.e.4), Motti, aforismi e proverbii Maltesi (1828, BL 14599.c.43), and Storja tas-Sultan Ciru (1831, BL 14599.b.58). All of these books fail to credit the CMS for their publication, instead using simply “Malta” or “Published by the author” despite their non-religious content, although this may have been done to avoid announcing Vassalli’s close ties with a Protestant group (Zammit, 2008, p. 259). In fact, Vassalli’s 1829 translation of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles (BL 14599.ee.17) was also published by the CMS, albeit in R. Watts’ press in London, thus circumventing the ban on religious material. Of particular note are the Wesleyan Missionary Society’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831, BL 14599.c.3) and Ktyb yl Qari fuq bosta h̡uejjeg mah̡tura myn kotba Kattolici (1832, BL 621.a.9), both written by Cleardo Naudi which despite their religious content, were allowed to be printed as they were intended for exclusive use in its Malta Charity School.

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Excerpt from Cleardo Naudi’s Ktyb -yl-Qari Ghat-tfal (1831), which uses Mikiel Anton Vassalli’s original orthography before the further Latinised variety used in Il Kaulata Maltia. BL 14599.c.3)
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The CMS’s focus on nurturing the Maltese language was a well calculated effort. In an article in the 1831 issue of CMS’s The Missionary Register, which compares the inhabitants of Malta and Syria, the linguistic situation is described thus (vol. 19, p.317):

The Maltese, in general, are not a reading people, and their language can scarcely be said to be a written language: it is only a few years since it was reduced to writing; and nearly all the books which have ever, to my knowledge, been published in it have been published within a very short time, and mostly by Mr. Jowett, or at his press […] and perhaps not twenty persons can be found, among the native population of the whole island, who are able to read them.

This may have been seen as a hindrance to the missionary efforts of the CMS which consequently undertook a role in education. It is in this context that Il Kaulata Maltia should be seen. Rather than a newspaper, it was meant to be a compilation of opinion pieces by its author George Percy Badger, together with poetry, idioms and aphorisms. The 13th December, 1838 issue of The Harlequin included an advert for it, saying (reproduced in Cassola, 2011, p. 30. My translation):

There is no need to spell out the usefulness and prestige of such a publication, these are obvious matters to everyone. Who is to say that this paper might not one day be the first to establish the Maltese language on a level and solid foundation, and produce a literature that could fill the Mediterranean with its praiseworthy and glorious revelations?

The second and third issues of the journal had scathing attacks on the Maltese educational system, in particular with regard to language instruction, perhaps acting as a precursor to Badger’s own publication Sullo stato della educazione pubblica in Malta (“On the state of public education in Malta”) later that year.

The second issue tackled suggestions brought forward by the Royal Commission of 1836, in which the two commissioners sent to Malta, John Austin and George Cornewall-Lewis, reviewed the educational system of the islands. In their report they had suggested that all elementary school children should first learn Maltese, followed by Italian, which they deemed to be the de facto language of the educated, through the medium of the former. Consequently, English should be taught on the basis of the country being a British colony, followed by Arabic. Badger criticised the idea of teaching students four languages and rubbished the need to learn Italian except for those businessmen who required it for their trade. He declared pro-Italianism as the domain of irredentists and Carbonari wanting to secede from the British Empire, and suggested that the Maltese people as a whole wanted to be British and should thus be taught English. His article highlights the vehemently pro-British nature of the publication.

The third issue picked up the issue of linguistic education by turning the spotlight onto the Maltese language. Here Badger criticised those who had wilfully neglected the language by discouraging its use. This was no doubt an attack on the Knights of Malta who had ruled the country until 1798, and was by extension a thinly veiled attack on the Catholic Church. Despite a seemingly anti-Catholic stance, the very same issue included a poem dedicated to St. Publius by the Catholic priest Dr. Ludovico Mifsud Tommasi, who, in spite of his religious differences, showed an overlap with the CMS’s support for the freedom of religion and press, and was also a pioneering translator of religious texts into Maltese.

Il Kaulata Maltia also sheds some light on another aspect of the Maltese language that was topical at the time of its publication: orthography. As written Maltese was still in its infancy there were different opinions on how it should be written, particularly in terms of the sounds that have no equivalent letters in the standard Latin alphabet, such as the għajn and the rgħajn, equivalent to the Arabic ع and غ respectively. Some writers preferred to use the Arabic letters mixed in with the Latin alphabet, while others like Vassalli added specially designed characters to it, as can be seen from the image reproduced above from the spelling book by Cleardo Naudi. More radically, others proposed the exclusive use of the Arabic consonantal script, an example of which can be seen below. 

Chtieb-ilkari Maltese_abjad

Left: An example of the Arabic ع , غ and ه mixed into the Latin alphabet from Francesco Vella’s Chtieb-ilkari yau dahla عal ilsien Malti (1824) (BL 14599.b.1)
Right: Excerpt of a dialogue in Maltese written in Arabic script from Rev. C. F. Schlienz’s Views on the improvement of the Maltese language and its use for the purposes of education and literature (1838) (BL 14599.c.4)
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The CMS, however, opted for a modified version of Vassalli’s Latin orthography which became the basis of its Maltese publications, including Il Kaulata Maltia. In fact, it seems that the journal was intended to introduce the orthographic system to the general population, as the second page of the first issue lists the whole alphabet with a guide to its pronunciation and an explanation. Different opinons gave rise to some animosity between their respective proponents, and in this description the author taunted Rev. Giuseppe Zammit, known as Brighella, by jokingly requesting that he bless his orthography. Brighella published a response in the journal Bertoldu in January, 1839 in answer to that taunt (Cassola, 1994, pp. 59-60), and a reply to that was in turn published in the third issue.


Further reading
Cassar-Pullicino, Joseph,  Kitba w Kittieba Maltin, it-tieni ktieb, l-ewwel taqsima. Malta: Università Rjali ta' Malta, 1964.
———, Il-kitba bil-Malti sa l-1870. Pieta: Pubblikazzjonijiet Indipendenza, 2001.
Cassola, Arnold,“Two Notes: Brighella and Thezan”,  Journal of Maltese Studies (1994): 25-26, 58-62.
———, Lost Maltese newspapers of the 19th century. Malta: Tumas Fenech Foundation for Education in Journalism, 2011.
Zammit, William, Printing in Malta, 1642-1839: Its cultural role from inception to the granting of Freedom of the Press. Malta: Gutenberg Press, 2008.

I would like to thank Dr. William Zammit and Dr. Olvin Vella from the University of Malta for the help and information provided.

Karl Farrugia, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

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[1] The final pages of each of the three issues, as well as The Phosphorus, say that they were published for the editor of The Harlequin. For this reason, I regard Richardson as the official editor and Badger as the author.

18 October 2017

Bestiary of Fears – an artist’s inspiration from illustrated Hebrew manuscripts

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Today's  post is by guest contributor Jacqueline Nicholls, a London based visual artist and Jewish educator. She uses her art to engage with traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She co-ordinates the Art Studio and other Arts & Culture events at JW3, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline’s art has been exhibited in solo shows and significant contemporary Jewish Art group shows in the UK, USA and Israel, and she was recently artist-in-resident in Venice with Beit Venezia. Jacqueline is a regular contributor to BBC R2 Pause for Thought

In the Jewish religion the seven weeks between the freedom festival of Passover and the festival of Pentecost is called the Omer. It is traditional to ritually count every day of these seven weeks and to use this time for personal spiritual transformation. For the last couple of years I have used this time for art projects, and I have undertaken this counting as a daily drawing practice, exploring different themes each year.

In 2016, I was invited to make use of the online digital Hebrew manuscript collection of the British Library and give feedback on how this resource could be useful for artists. I used this as an opportunity to explore the collection with a very personal project: The Bestiary of Fear. If this time is one of personal transformation, the focus for this project was to be on the things that terrify and paralyse the self and prevent growth. The etymology of the word ‘monster’ and the word ‘to demonstrate’ have the same root. They issue out an omen, bring forth a warning, and make visible that which is hidden in the dark. This Bestiary would be an externalising of the internal hidden fears, drawing them out to identify and demonstrate them, transforming the fears into finite monsters that can be contained, and hopefully, overcome.

The process of making this Bestiary was one of daily introspection; by contemplating my vulnerabilities, I was able to identify the fears I wanted to explore through this project. This introspection was followed by searching through the collection items included in The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts to find forms that resonated with the fears I had identified. I was drawn to the strange animals and fantastical beasts in the marginalia, and decided to focus on adapting them to develop the drawings for the Bestiary of Fears.

Seven manuscripts were selected for this project, exploring one each for a week of the seven-week Omer. They were: The Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761), The Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160, Prayer book (Add MS 26957), The Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639), The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah (Or 2737), The Sister Haggadah (Or 2884), and The Golden Haggadah (Add MS 27210). As the Omer begins during the festival of Passover when the Haggadot would have been used, it seemed appropriate to primarily focus on the illustrations within the Haggadot in the British Library’s collection.

The beasties and monsters within these manuscripts are delightful and charming. Sometimes the connection with the text is clear, fulfilling an interpretive role of commentary. And sometimes their inclusion seems decorative with very loose connections to the content. There are breaks and dividing markers within the long body of writing and playful insertions in the margins. One of my favourites is the depiction of a dog licking its bottom on the page containing some special festive prayers in the Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639 f.232v).

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Dog licking its bottom, The Northern French Miscellany, France, 1278-1324 CE (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 232v)  noc

This whimsical and vulgar treatment is not found in modern day printed Hebrew prayer books, and contemporary Jewish religious culture is poorer for its exclusion. These are manuscripts that were made for a particular audience and therefore they can be intimate and personal in a way that printed books for a wider readership cannot.

An example of this can be seen in the Italian Prayer Book (Add MS 26957). This manuscript was created in 1469 for the patrons Menachem ben Shmuel and his daughter Maraviglia bat Menachem ben Shmuel. In this manuscript, mindful that it is made for a woman, the stage-directions for the prayers depict a woman and not a man as the active participant who performs the rituals. This is something that would be unusual to find in a mainstream printed Hebrew prayer book today. I was inspired by the woman on folio 55v, who is pointing to the blessing to count the Omer, as the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity. To portray the fear I turned her pointing instructing finger into the gesture of an overbearing matriarch.

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Illustration of a woman pointing to the text for the counting of the Omer, Italy, 1469 CE (British Library Add MS 26957, f. 55v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity ©Jacqueline Nicholls

In the process of searching through the beasts in the marginalia looking for the right external form to match the inner emotion, I sometimes made connections with the text on that page. An example of this can be seen in Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval. This features a stern, condescending, and judgemental creature looking down his nose and frowning with contempt. The inspiration for this beastie was found in the Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761) accompanying the introductory passage of the Four Sons (f33v.), where it describes how a parent should tell the Passover story to their different types of children. It seemed fitting for this fear, because there is nothing more disapproving than the patriarch who judges his children, who pigeon-holes them and finds them lacking. 

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Introductory passage of the Four Sons, Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th Century CE (Add MS 14761 f. 33v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval ©Jacqueline Nicholls

I was particularly struck by the nuance and detail of expression that were captured in these small and delicate drawings. The high quality of the photography and the ability to examine close details on the computer screen meant that the subtleties and sleight touches in the drawings can be scrutinised without damage to the original manuscript. As the online digitised manuscripts do not have a scale on the screen, one can only estimate the size of the original manuscript and accompanying illustrations by noting the width of the pen strokes.

In the Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160), the text of the Five Books of Moses is decorated with micrography of patterns and beasts in the margins around the text. This unique Jewish scribal art form consists of weaving minute letters into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. In the section which tells the story of Jacob and Esau, there is a strange dopey looking dinosaur-like figure (f. 19v) that became the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up. The narrative of Esau and Jacob is one of a relationship that does not run smooth, with patterns of deceptions and mistakes.

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Micrographic dinosaur-like hybrid, Yonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160 f. 19v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up ©Jacqueline Nicholls

Discussions about definitions of Jewish Art tend to centre on the prohibition of making graven images in the Ten Commandments. This focus side-lines the history and existence of Hebrew illustrated manuscripts. It misinterprets a specific Rabbinic directive about idolatry, putting it into a wider context of disapproval of the plastic arts. This has resulted in a tendency to be suspicious of or to downplay the role of the visual within Jewish heritage. As an artist who engages with traditional Jewish texts, it was refreshing and inspiring to connect with the range and diversity of imagery within the Hebrew manuscript collection at the British Library, at the same time becoming familiar with the quirks, humour and artistry that exist within the tradition, a spirit that can be renewed for contemporary Jewish Art.

The complete Bestiary of Fears can be found online at Jacqueline Nicholls: Omer Drawings.

Jacqueline Nicholls
 ccownwork

 

04 October 2017

The Establishment of BBC Arabic & Egyptian 'Nahwy'

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On January 3rd 1938, the BBC’s first ever foreign language radio station – BBC Arabic – made its inaugural broadcast. The station was launched in almost direct response to Radio Bari, the Arabic-language radio station of the Italian Government that had been broadcast to the Arab world since 1934. Radio Bari’s broadcasts consisted of a mixture of popular Arabic music, cultural propaganda intended to encourage pro-fascist sentiment in the Arab world and news bulletins with a strongly anti-British slant. British officials had initially been largely unperturbed by Italy’s efforts, but from 1935 onwards as Radio Bari’s output became more overtly anti-British and specifically attacked British policy in Palestine, they became concerned and began to discuss how Britain ought to respond.

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Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941, a supplementary magazine produced by Radio Bari with details of its Arabic broadcasts (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

It was soon decided that Britain needed to establish its own Arabic radio station in order to counter Italy’s broadcasts. As the Secretary of State for the Colonies remarked in August 1937, “the time has come when it is essential to ensure the full and forcible presentation of the British view of events in a region of such vital Imperial importance”. Detailed discussions began over what form the station should take. In addition to logistical issues concerning content and where it should be based, British officials were concerned as to what type of Arabic should be used in its broadcasts. There was a keen awareness that in order for the proposed broadcasts to be both widely understood and taken seriously, making the appropriate choice linguistically was crucial. The Cabinet Committee that was formed to discuss the issue reported that the Arabic used in Radio Bari’s broadcasts in the past – speculated to be that of a cleric of Libyan origin – had been “open to criticism as being pedantic and classical in style and…excited the ridicule of listeners”. The potential for ridicule, in addition to the fact that many uneducated Arabs would struggle to understand it, made classical Arabic an undesirable choice. Yet given the significant variation in regional dialects that exists throughout the Arab world, the choice of a single dialect was equally problematic. British officials in the region possessed strong and sometimes divergent opinions about what course of action should be taken.

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Details of Radio Bari’s broadcast schedule as contained in Radio Araba di Bari January – April 1941 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214)  noc

Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait, Gerald de Gaury, believed that Nejdi Arabic was the ideal choice, arguing in March 1937 that the “Nejdi accent and vocabulary are accepted by all unprejudiced persons as the finest in Arabia” and form “the common denominator of the whole Arabic language”. He supported this assertion by providing quotations from the 19th century travelogues of Johann Ludwig Burckhardt (Notes on the Bedouins and Wahabys, 1831) and Charles Montagu Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta, 1888), both of whom stressed the supposedly uncorrupted nature of Nejdi Bedouin Arabic in comparison with – in Burckhardt’s words – “the low language of the Syrian and Egyptian mob”. De Gaury emphasised the importance of getting the decision right, noting that the Ruler of Kuwait – “who regretted the absence of an Arabic broadcast from London” – had commented to him on the poor grammar of the announcer used by Radio Bari. He argued therefore that there was “an excellent opportunity to be taken up by the British Arabic Broadcast Station of having a really first class man much more welcome than those of other foreign Arabic broadcasters”. In a further display of his simplistic understanding De Gaury concluded his argument by stating that “the Arab is far more language conscious than any other race”. De Gaury’s stance was more a reflection of a racist attitude then rife amongst British officials regarding the ostensible purity of Bedouin Arabs than of reality.

A more nuanced proposal was put forward by Robin Furness, a Professor of English at King Fuad University in Cairo who had been approached by the Foreign Office for his expert opinion. Furness had previously served as Deputy Director General of Egyptian State Broadcasting, as a Press Censor for the Government of the Mandate of Palestine and later served as Deputy Chief Censor in Egypt. He too stressed the importance of making the right decision, commenting that Radio Bari now employed a broadcaster who spoke "ungrammatical Arabic with a marked Levanese [sic] accent…those Palestinian Arabs who spoke to me about these broadcasts ridiculed the accent of the broadcaster: Egyptians…would have ridiculed it even more”.

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Programme of the inaugural BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938 (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4132) ©BBC

While Furness concurred with De Gaury regarding the importance of the decision, he did not agree as to what form of Arabic should be used. Furness explained that on Cairene radio, classical Arabic was generally used only for broadcasts that were related to religion, literature and history and that colloquial Egyptian was used only occasionally for stories or broadcasts intended for children. Otherwise, what Furness terms “Egyptian Nahwy” was generally used. Nahwy (literally ‘grammatical’) is a term used in Egypt to refer to classical Arabic (i.e. fusha), but it is clear that at this time it referred to something distinct. Furness elaborates on what he meant describing it as the way “an educated Egyptian would read prose, endeavouring to avoid grammatical errors, not indulging in what would be regarded as classical preciosities, and using so far as he can an accent which would be called ‘Egyptian’ but not e.g. ‘Cairene’, ‘Alexandrian’ or ‘Saudi’ [Sa’idi or Upper Egyptian]”. Furness gives the specific example of the pronunciation of ثلاثة أيام (three days) which, in Nahwy, would not be pronounced in the classical way as “thalāthatu ayāmin” nor in the fully colloquial Egyptian way of “talat ayām” but rather as “thalāthat ayām”. Furness argued that the announcer chosen for the British broadcasts should avoid colloquial dialects, eschew classical Arabic except for such purposes as Cairo radio used it (“otherwise he would generally be regarded as absurdly pedantic”), avoid grammatical mistakes as much as possible and use Egyptian Nahwy. He reasoned that as Egypt was “the largest and most advanced of the countries affected, and the centre of Islamic education. A broadcaster will be best understood by the most of the listeners, and least criticised, if he uses Egyptian Nahwy”. Aside from classical Arabic, he concluded, “it is the nearest approach to a common language”.

At this time, Britain already operated a local Arabic language radio station in the Mandate of Palestine and for this it utilised what the Cabinet Committee on Arabic Broadcasting referred to as Palestinian Nahwy. This committee acknowledged that although the type of Arabic to be used in the broadcasts for the Arab world as a whole “presents certain difficulties…these are not considered to be insuperable”. Through constructive comments on style and pronunciation it was believed that a “type of Arabic may gradually be evolved which would be palatable to the largest Arabic-speaking audience”. This succinct description brings to mind a form of Arabic that emerged in the 20th Century and is now usually referred to as Educated Spoken Arabic (ESA) or Formal Spoken Arabic (FSA).

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Details of BBC Arabic broadcasts for Sunday 23rd January – Thursday 27th January 1938. (India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214) ©BBC

Sir Miles Lampson, Britain’s Ambassador in Cairo, was receptive to Furness’ argument regarding the use of Nahwy but believed that there could “be a conflict of opinion between him and those who advocate the use of classical Arabic, except in the exceptional cases of broadcasts for children, popular stories, humorous items etc”. Lampson also feared that although Egyptian Nahwy “approximates very closely to classical Arabic minus the inflectional terminations, there may be many who hold the view that to give an Egyptian flavour to material which was intended for general consumption in the Arabic-speaking countries might well detract from its wider effectiveness”.

Notwithstanding Lampson’s concerns, it appears that Furness’ argument was influential, for the first chief announcer appointed by BBC Arabic was an Egyptian named Ahmad Kamal Suroor who had previously worked for Egyptian radio. The first ever broadcast of BBC Arabic, that was announced by Suroor, can be listened to here. After its launch, BBC Arabic quickly became popular, Suroor in particular, who was praised by listeners as having “forcible and clear delivery”.

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Ahmad Kamal Suroor delivering the first ever BBC Arabic broadcast, 3rd January 1938. Copyright BBC

By September 1938, a secret report produced by the BBC was able to report that “[n]ative opinion” unanimously approved of both the type of Arabic used and the quality of the announcing in BBC Arabic broadcasts, which were said to “compare favourably with the performance of other stations broadcasting in Arabic”. Interestingly, the only adverse comments reported had come from Europeans, criticism which the BBC report argued could largely be discounted as it was “based on hasty impressions and incorrect information”. For instance, the report claimed that the specific criticism by some Europeans that the Egyptian accent of the announcers was “displeasing outside Egypt” was “not endorsed by native opinion”. The report quoted at length the thoughts of a “well-informed Englishman in Baghdad” who stated:

A friend told me the other day that he and his friends really enjoy listening to an Egyptian talking correctly in contrast to the best of the announcers from the local Baghdad broadcast, who was always getting his (vowel) points wrong.

One of the Europeans highly critical of BBC Arabic’s broadcasts was James Heyworth-Dunne, a senior lecturer in Arabic at the School of Oriental and African Studies, who attacked the technique of the announcers. The report commented that although Heyworth-Dunne claimed to voice the opinion of “every Arab to whom he has spoken on the subject”, his view directly conflicted with a large volume of evidence gathered from all parts of the Arab world. The report argued that since modern literary Arabic was an “artificial and bookish language” with no universally accepted fixed standards, discussions on disputed questions of grammar and style were to be expected and that few “achieve unquestioned correctness”.

Debates around the appropriate use of classical and colloquial Arabic – often heated – continue to this day, but it is fascinating to consider whether BBC Arabic, that remains widely listened to throughout the Arab world, may have played a part in the development of media Arabic throughout the 20th century and the emergence of Educated Spoken Arabic as distinct from both classical Arabic and the numerous regional and national dialects that exist throughout the Arab world.


Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
@Louis_Allday
 ccownwork

 

Primary documents:
(These are all due to be digitised as part of the  Qatar Digital Library)

India Office Records, British Library, IOR/L/PS/12/4131-4134
India Office Records, British Library, IOR/R/15/5/214

Further reading:
Louis Allday An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda: The British Government's Arabic-Language Output during WWII Jadaliyya (May 2016).

Callum A. MacDonald “Radio Bari: Italian Wireless Propaganda in the Middle East and British Countermeasures 1934-38” Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 13, No. 2 (May, 1977), pp. 195-207.

F. Mitchell “What is educated Spoken Arabic?” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 61 (1986), pp. 7-32.

Andrea L. Stanton “This is Jerusalem Calling” State Radio in Mandate Palestine (Texas, University of Texas Press, 2013).

Kees Versteegh “The Emergence of Modern Standard Arabic” (Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Manuela A. Williams Mussolini’s Propaganda Abroad, Subversion in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, 1935-1940 (London/New York: Routledge, 2006).