THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

106 posts categorized "Middle East"

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
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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).

 

27 September 2017

A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest)

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While art historical research has focussed on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a dialect or dialects of Persian heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic and written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

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Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, gouache on paper, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century. The elaborate raised halo over Joshua's turban is a motif borrowed from Persian iconography, where it is especially associated with prophets (British Library Or 13704, f. 15r)
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A major change occured in 1985 when a scholarly study exploring the socio-historical and cultural factors that influenced the development of Judeo-Persian manuscript painting was published. This study by Vera Basch Moreen included a detailed inventory of miniatures in Judeo-Persian manuscripts held in major library collections. In it, she described twelve accessible Judeo-Persian manuscripts containing a total of 179 miniatures, as well as numerous additional decorative elements.

Persian manuscript art flourished particularly under the Safavid rulers (1502-1642) who deliberately encouraged the artistic expression of various population groups within their kingdom. The Safavid shahs not only patronized manuscript art, but some were gifted calligraphers and painters in their own right. As a result, during the Safavid period, the art of miniature painting spread from the royal workshops to the smaller aristocratic courts and ateliers, eventually reaching the marketplaces of Persia’s major cities. It was in these centres that the popular, provincial style of Persian manuscript art – to which the Judeo-Persian paintings belong – was born. Judeo-Persian manuscript illustration reached its pinnacle between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some art historians have argued that Judeo-Persian manuscripts commissioned by Jewish patrons were actually illustrated and decorated in Muslim workshops. Their view is based on the stylistic similarities existing between Persian and Judeo-Persian miniatures. The identity of the artists who created them remains uncertain, essentially because none of the existing Judeo-Persian miniatures found in these manuscripts were signed.

In terms of their content, Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscripts can be divided into two main categories: a) Hebrew transliterations of Persian classic works such as those of Jami (1414-1492) and Nizami (1140-1202), two giants of the Persian literary tradition; and b) original works by prominent Jewish-Persian poets such as Mawlana Shahin Shirazi (Our Master the Royal Falcon of Shiraz, 14th century) and Imrani of Isfahan (1454–1536). Among Shirazi’s epic compositions are the Musa Nama (the Book of Moses) dated 1327 which contains narratives from the Pentateuch and has around 10,000 couplets (consisting of two rhyming hemistiches), and the Bereshit Nama (Book of Genesis) which he completed in 1358, comprising over 8,000 verses.
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Seven Priests blowing seven horns in front of the Walls of Jericho, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library Or 13704, f. 31v)
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Composed around 1474, Imrani’s epic Fath Nama (Book of Conquest) is a poetical paraphrase of narratives from the biblical books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, consisting of about 10.000 verses.   Imrani endeavoured to uplift the biblical story to the level of the Persian epic, combining in his works Jewish and Islamic legendary and literary material. He is known to have written ten full compositions all of which except three deal with Jewish themes. Imrani’s works are permeated with a deep sense of exile and isolation and a pessimistic view of human condition. While composing the Fath Nama, Imrani had the support of a patron – Amin al-Dawlah (Trustee of the State) who was most probably a wealthy man, perhaps an official in the city of Isfahan. When his patron passed away, Imrani abandoned his work, resuming it only after he had found another patron named Rabbi Yehuda.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the People of Jericho (British Library Or 13704, f. 32r)
Right: Joshua and the Israelites at the battle of Ai (British Library Or 13704, f. 50v)
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Or 13704, the Fath Nama manuscript illustrated here, contains seven coloured illustrations[1] and numerous floral and faunal designs. The manuscript is incomplete, and, since it lacks a colophon, the exact date of its production and the names of its patron and creators are unknown. The assumption that the manuscript was written and decorated at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteenth century is based largely on the style of its paintings and on the names of former owners’ inscriptions found within its pages. Several scribes were responsible for copying the text in a writing style characteristic of Persian Jews.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the enemies of the Gibeonites (British Library Or 13704, f. 75r)
Right: The death of the King of Makkedah (British Library Or 13704, f. 85r)
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This manuscript is one of two known illustrated copies of this work. Acquired in 1975, it was purchased from the estate of David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), a renowned bibliophile of Baghdadi origin, who travelled extensively in search of books and manuscripts for his private library. His collection of 1,153 manuscripts is described in a two-volume catalogue published by Oxford University Press in 1932 under the title Ohel Dawid (David’s Tent). Thanks to the Polonsky Foundation, this manuscript has now been digitised and is available digitally on our Digitised Manuscripts site to explore cover to cover.

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An example of the typical bird and flower decorations in Or 13074
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Further reading
Moreen, Vera Basch, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), pp. 40, 49-50.
–––, A Supplementary List of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts”, British Library Journal, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 72 and plate II.
Moreen, Vera Basch and Orit Carmeli, The Bible as a Judeo-Persian epic: an illustrated manuscript of Imrani's Fath-Nama (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2016). On Ms 4602 of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
David Yeroushalmi, Emrānī”, in Encyclopædia Iranica (1995).

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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[1] Folio 90v, the only illustration not included here, contains an unfinished sketch in outline of Joshua in battle against the five Amorite kings.

29 August 2017

A Hindu munshi’s ‘Chain of Yogis’: a Persian manuscript in the Mackenzie Collection

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Reading about the recently opened exhibition ‘Collector Extraordinaire, Mackenzie Collection exhibition’ at Lews Castle, Stornoway, in the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides - see our recent post Colin Mackenzie, collector extraordinaire -, I was reminded that there was a small but significant number of Arabic and Persian manuscripts in Colin Mackenzie’s collection which is often overlooked. In this post I will feature one which is especially interesting, the Silsilah-i jogiyān (‘Chain of Yogis’) which played an important role in Western understanding of Indian religious groups.

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Descriptions of the 12th, 13th and 14th groups of Shaiva ascetics: the Rukhara, the Ukhara  and the Aghori (BL IO Islamic 3087, ff. 24-25)
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Colin Mackenzie (1754-1821) was born in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis but spent most of his life from 1783 until his death 38 years later working for the East India Company. His most important work was as a military engineer and surveyor in Mysore (1800-1809), in Java (1811-1812/13) and from 1815 until his death in 1821 as the first Surveyor General of India. During his long career Mackenzie built up a unique collection consisting of 1,568 manuscripts, 2,070 ‘local tracts,’ 8,076 inscriptions, 2,159 translations in addition to 79 plans, 2,630 drawings, 6,218 coins, 106 images and 40 antiquities (Wilson, vol 1, pp. 22-23). This collection today is divided between several different institutions in India and the UK including the British Library.

At the time of his death Mackenzie had been hoping to complete a catalogue of his manuscripts and books but this task was left to Horace Hayman Wilson to complete in 1828. Wilson gives details of 10 Arabic and 87 Persian mss (Wilson, vol. 2, pp. 117-144) which he rather dismissively described as (vol 1 p.lii) “of little consideration, but some of them are of local value”. In fact we have 94 Persian items in our collections at the British Library. These are mostly historical works, biographies, collections of letters in addition to a few volumes of poetry, tales, and philosophical and religious works.

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H.H. Wilson’s 1828 catalogue of Mackenzie’s Persian manuscripts, including no 81, Silseleh Jogiyan
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In 1828, in what was the first major work in English on the religions of India, Wilson published the first of two articles “A sketch of the religious sects of the Hindus”. The second, a continuation with the same title, was printed in 1832. Wilson’s account was based on two Persian works, both written by Hindu authors, one of which was Silsilah-i jogiyān (‘Chain of Yogis’) by Sītal Singh, Munshi to the Raja of Benares (Wilson, 1828, p.6). This was no 81 in Wilson's catalogue, now numbered IO Islamic 3087.

Sītal Singh (see Carl Ernst’s chapter on him, below) had been commissioned to write an account of the different religious groups in Benares in 1800 by a British magistrate John Deane. Also titled Fuqarā-yi Hind, it includes descriptions of 48 different types of ascetic groups divided into 5 chapters on Vaishnavas, Shaivas, Shaktas, Sikhs and Jains. The descriptions are followed by a short philosophical defence of the Vedanta and an early census of the different religious and professional groups to be found in Benares. In addition to this work, Sītal Singh wrote several other philosophical works and poetry under the name Bīkhwud.

IO Islamic 3087 includes 48 miniature portraits painted in the margins next to the relevant descriptions. Unlike the typically more sophisticated company paintings which occur in similar works, these are comparatively simplistic in style. Although the manuscript is not dated, the paper is watermarked J. Whatman 1816 so it must have been copied after that but before Mackenzie's death in 1821. Several of the paintings are dated between 13th and 27th January, but without any year. Perhaps these were the dates when the paintings were added in the margins.

The sects are arranged as below:

The sixteen Vaishnava sects
Gosain of Vindraban (f. 4v); Gosain of Gokul (f. 5v); Sakhibhava (f. 7r); Ramanandi (f. 8r); Vairagi (f. 8v); Virakta (f. 8v); Naga (f. 9r); Ramanuji (f10r); Kabirpanthi (f10v); Dadupanthi (f11r); Ravidaspanthi (f11v); Harichandi (f. 12r); Surnapanthi (f. 12v); Madhavi (f .13v); Sadhavi (f. 13v); Charandasi (f. 15r)

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Left: Gosain of Gokul (f. 5v); centre: Sakhibhava (f. 7r); right: Kabirpanthi (f. 10v)

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Left: Madhavi (f. 13v); centre: Sadhavi (f. 13v); right: Charandasi (f. 15r)
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The nineteen Shaiva sects
Dandi (f. 16r); Agnihotri (f. 17v); Yogi (f. 19r); Shankaracharya (f. 20r); Atit (f. 20v); Sanyogi (f. 22r); Naga (f. 22r); Avadhuta (f. 23r); Urdabahu (f. 23v); Akasmukhi (f. 24r); Karalingi (f. 24r); Rukhara (f. 24v); Ukhara (f. 24v); Aghori (f. 25r); Alakhnami (f. 25v); Jangama (f. 26r); Nakhuni (f. 26v); Chokri (f. 27r); Paramahansa (f. 28r)

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Left: Dandi (f. 16r); centre: Agnihotri (f. 17v); right: Atit (f. 20v)
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Left: Naga (f. 22r); centre: Urdabahu (f. 23v); right: Nakhuni (f. 26v)
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The four kinds of Shaktas
Bhakta (f .29v); Vami (f. 31v); Kanchuliya (f. 36v); Karari (f. 38r)

IO Islamic 3087_f31v.JPG_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f36v.JPG_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f38r.JPG_1500
Left: Vami (f. 31v); centre: Kanchuliya (f. 36v); right: Karari (f. 38r)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc

The seven kinds of Nanakshahis (Sikhs)
Udasi (f. 40r); Ganjbakhshi (f. 40v); Ramra’i (f. 41r); Suthrashahi (f. 41r); Govindsakhi (f. 42v); Nirmali (f.  46v); Naga (f. 47v)
IO Islamic 3087_f41r_a_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f42v_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f47v_a_1500
Left: Ramra’i (f. 41r); centre: Govindsakhi (f. 42v); right: Naga (f. 47v)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc

The two kinds of Sravakas (Jains)

IO Islamic 3087_f47v_b_1500 IO Islamic 3087_f48v_1500
Left: Sravaka (f. 47v); right: Jati (f. 48v)
(BL IO Islamic 3087)  noc 


Further reading
Blake, David M., “Colin Mackenzie: Collector Extraordinary”, in The British Library Journal, vol. 17, No. 2 (Autumn 1991): pp. 128-150.
Wilson, Horace Hayman, The Mackenzie Collection. A descriptive catalogue of the oriental manuscripts, and other articles ... collected by Lieut. Col. Colin Mackenzie, etc. 2 vols. Calcutta: Printed at the Asiatic Press, 1828. vol. 1vol. 2
––– “Sketch of the religious sects of the Hindus”, Asiatic Researches, vol. 16 (1828): pp. 1-136  and vol. 17 (1832): pp.169-313.
Ernst, Carl W., “A Persian philosophical defense of Vedanta”, in Refractions of Islam in India: Situating Sufism and Yoga. India: Sage Publications, 2016, pp. 461-476.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian

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25 August 2017

New Online Resources on the History of Kuwait

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A series of archival documents that contain a wealth of information about Kuwait during the 1930s and 1940s have recently been digitized and uploaded on to the Qatar Digital Library. These documents are preserved in a file from the archive of the British Political Agency in Kuwait (now a part of the India Office Records) and consist of several reports covering a broad range of topics including Kuwait’s geography, history, flora and fauna, climate, leading personalities and political structure. In addition to what the files themselves discuss, as colonial records, they also illustrate the extent of British influence in Kuwait at this time, as well as provide a rich illustration of how Kuwait was conceptualised and recorded by British officials that were based in the country

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'File 4/1 General Information regarding Kuwait and Hinterland'
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The majority of the reports in the file are written by Lieutenant-Colonel Harold Richard Patrick Dickson (1881-1959), who served as Britain’s Political Agent in Kuwait from 1929 until 1936. Dickson continued living in Kuwait after serving as Political Agent (a role he held again temporarily in 1941) and stayed in the country until his death in 1959. During this time, Dickson wrote two books about Kuwait and the surrounding area, the encyclopaedic – if shamelessly Orientalist – work The Arab of the Desert: a Glimpse into Badawin [Bedouin] Life in Kuwait and Sau'di Arabia (George Allen & Unwin, 1949) and the later Kuwait & Her Neighbours (George Allen & Unwin, 1956) that was edited by the writer Clifford Witting. Both books, notably the former, reveal Dickson’s near obsessive interest in the minutiae of the history, culture and everyday life of the people of Kuwait and Gulf region, with a particular interest in the customs and traditions of the Bedouin.

Dickson’s wife, Violet Dickson (1896-1991), commonly known as Umm Saud (Mother of Saud) in Kuwait, shared many of her husband’s interests and also wrote about Kuwait, authoring both The Wild Flowers of Kuwait and Bahrain (George Allen & Unwin, 1955) and Forty Years in Kuwait (George Allen & Unwin, 1971). She stayed in the country after Dickson’s death, living in the couple’s long-term residence (that formerly served as Britain’s Political Agency) for many decades until she was forced to leave due to the Iraqi invasion of 1990. The building is now open to the public as the Dickson House Cultural Centre in Kuwait City. The couple’s daughter, Zahra Freeth (1925-2015), also wrote a number of books on Kuwait including Kuwait Was My Home (George Allen & Unwin, 1956) and A New Look at Kuwait (George Allen & Unwin, 1972).

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Dickson House Cultural Centre, Kuwait City
© Louis Allday, 2015

The reports written by Dickson in 1933 contain a diverse range of detailed information including descriptions of car routes between Kuwait and various other settlements in the region (including Basrah, Riyadh, Hasa and Qatif), insightful and frequently scathing character assessments of prominent figures in the country, as well as sketches of the different types of boat used in the country and lists of the species of fish in its waters. It is likely that the information contained in these notes was used by Dickson at a later date to compile his published works. For instance, The Arab of the Desert contains drawings of the different types of sailing vessel in Kuwait that are very similar to the aforementioned sketches contained in Dickson’s notes from almost two decades before.

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Examples of boats used in Kuwait, 1933
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In addition to Dickson’s reports, the recently digitised file contains a secret report on Kuwait that the Australian explorer, Alan Villiers – author of the well-known study of Arab sailors, Sons of Sinbad – was commissioned by the British authorities to write in 1939 (folios 160-183). The file also contains reports written by two of Dickson’s successors as Political Agent in Kuwait in the 1940s, Major Tom Hickinbotham (folios 187-198) and Major Maurice O’Connor Tandy (folios 226-228) as well as a Who’s Who of the leading personalities in Muscat (Oman) written by Captain J B Howes, the Political Agent in Muscat in 1942 (folios 199-209).

The full contents of this fascinating file – all written by Dickson unless stated otherwise – are as follows:

Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist
@Louis_Allday
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17 August 2017

Illumination and decoration in Chinese Qur'ans

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A seventeenth-century Qur’an from China in the British Library recently attracted much interest in a belated Eid show-and-tell arranged for the local community. This provides an ideal opportunity to go into more detail about the British Library’s collection of Chinese Qur’ans.

Or15604_f2r copy
The opening leaves of a seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī (‘Chinese’) script, part five of a set originally in thirty volumes (BL Or.15604, ff. 1v-2r)
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Visitors are always surprised when we show them a Chinese Qur’an, as they don’t automatically associate Islam with China. But in the eighth century, Muslim merchants were already trading in China and a community is known to have been established in Xi'an, where a mosque was built in 742. The impact of Islam in China was, however, not strongly felt until several centuries later during the Song and Yuan dynasties: the network of routes, known as the Silk Road, became the conduit for the spread of religious and cultural influences as well as for goods and merchandise.

Chinese Qur’ans were often produced in thirty-volume sets rather than in a single-volume codex, and many of our Chinese Qur’ans are sections (juz’) from a number of different thirty-volume sets. The script used was a variation of muḥaqqaq and penned in a way which suggests that the pen strokes were influenced by Chinese calligraphy. This is often referred to as sīnī (‘Chinese’) Arabic. A central panel is a prominent feature of Chinese Qur’ans on their decorated pages, which usually contain as few as three lines of text, with only a few words on each.
Or15571_1v copy
The beginning of a late seventeenth-century Qur'an written in sīnī script. This volume is the third of an original thirty-volume set (BL Or.15571, f. 1v)
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The assimilation of local traditions in Islamic manuscripts produced in areas not normally associated with the art of Islamic calligraphy and illumination is evident in Chinese Qur’ans. While the illumination and decoration have the same function in all Qur’ans, the influence of local style and culture is manifest, without infringing Islamic practice in sacred art. The adaptation of symbols common to Chinese art and culture is therefore felt very strongly. In the final opening of a seventeen-century Qur’an, a lantern motif has become the visual vehicle for the text in the diamond design in the centre of the lantern. The impression of a Chinese lantern is further reinforced by pendulous tassels attached to the hooks on the outer side of the structure.

Or15256_1_f55-6 copy
The decorated final text opening with lantern motif from a seventeenth-century Qur'an (BL Or.15256/1, ff. 55v-56r)
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In the same Qur’an a decorative leaf, exemplifying the use of local flora, functions as a section marker indicating the halfway point in part six of a thirty-volume set.

Or15256_1_f30v copy
A decorative leaf serving as a section marker (BL Or.15256/1, f. 30v)
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Chinese Qur’ans often incorporate vibrant colours and gold for typical motifs such as crescents and banners. The impression of petals in the shamsah (sunburst) illumination below is produced by the intricate design of overlapping circles.

Or15604_1
A shamsah medallion placed before the beginning of the text (BL Or.15604, f. 1r)
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Chinese influence is also visible in the swirling lettering of the basmalah inscription in this shamsah medallion occurring in an eighteenth-century Qur'an, Or.14758, part ten of a thirty-volume set.

Or14758_2r copy Or14758_binding copy
Left: The shamsah containing the basmalah, and right: the same design used as part of the design of the binding (BL Or.14758, f. 2r and front binding)
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An  unusual Qur’an is a nineteenth-century volume of selections accompanied by a Chinese translation (IO Islamic 3440). The Chinese translations are placed sometimes at the beginning, sometimes at the end, sometimes in the middle of the lines and occasionally between them.

IO Isl 3440_f13-14 copy
The beginning of Sūrah 36, Yasin from a nineteenth-century Qur'an with Chinese translation, formerly belonging to the presumably Muslim Admiral at Amoy (BL IO Islamic 3440, f. 13v-14r)
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This Qur’an has an interesting history. It was presented to the India Office Library in 1883 by Hugh W. Gabbett, whose father Lt. (later Major General) William. M. Gabbett of the Madras Horse Artillery was Lord Gough’s aidedecamp when Amoy (Xiamen) was taken in 1841 during the First Opium War. A faded note in pencil on folio 1r by William Gabbett describes it as “A Koran found by me at Amoy found in the Admiral’s House. W. M. Gabbett” and “The most valuable Book yet found in China. W. M. G.”

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur'an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design. London: British Library, 2007.
Annabel Teh Gallop, “Was the mousedeer Peranakan?: In search of Chinese Islamic influences in Malay manuscript art”, in Jan van der Putten and Mary Kilcline Cody, Lost Times and Untold Tales of the Malay World. Singapore: NUS Press, 2009: pp. 319-339.

Colin F. Baker and Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

14 August 2017

Shubbak Literature Festival 2017: Catch-up Audio

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The weekend of July 15-16 saw the return of the Shubbak Literature Festival to the British Library with seven vibrant and engaging panel discussions, interspersed with readings and performances in both Arabic and English. The sessions were recorded and will be preserved for researchers to access through the British Library’s Sound Archive. As with the 2015 Shubbak Literature Festival, we are also making these recordings freely available online through the British Library’s Soundcloud.

Writing Against the Grain
What do we mean by Arabic writing against the grain in 2017? What are the inspirations, and the challenges, for engaged Arab writers today? How do the wider global context, regional events, national regimes, personal stories, and the myriad of other artistic influences shape their work? And what does it mean to be a literary activist? Robin Yassin-Kassab hosts a lively conversation exploring all this and more with three very different writers from across the region: Mona Kareem, Ali Bader and Ghazi Gheblawi.

 

Rasha Abbas: The Seven of Cups
Syrian journalist and author Rasha Abbas has undertaken a month-long creative residency commissioned by Shubbak and the British Library, where she focused on the period of the Arab Union, as part of the research for a planned historical novel. This short-lived union between Syria and Egypt from 1958 to 1961 had a major influence on the subsequent political scene in both countries as well as the wider region. The culmination of her research is presented in a narrative framed by specific tarot cards. The highly delineated lens of each card – Free Will, Forced Fate, Justice, and so on – will provide an idiosyncratic approach to the historical material in question.

Keepers of the Flame: Contemporary Arab Poetry
Celebrated British poet and multi-disciplinary artist Malika Booker returns to Shubbak to welcome four mesmerising poets for bilingual performances of their work: Iraqi-American Dunya Mikhail; Syrian Kurdish poet and translator Golan Haji; New York-based poet-writer-translator Mona Kareem; and Sudanese poet Al-Saddiq Al-Raddi.

The Waking Nightmare: Post-revolutionary Egyptian Dystopias
Six years after the revolution and in the current climate of suppressed dreams, a new wave of Egyptian writers and artists are blending horror, realism and black humour to reflect on this painful phase of their nation’s history. Hosted by celebrated literary translator Elisabeth Jaquette, three Egyptians – Basma Abdel Aziz, Mohammad Rabie and Ganzeer - working in the continuum from nightmare present realism to dystopian futurism read from and discuss their brave work and its troubling context.

Under the Radar: Women writing from outside the Arab literary mainstream
In a global literary market where even the major writers from the best known Arab literary countries – Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon – are not very widely read and translated, how does it feel to be a woman author from Yemen, or Libya? What is it like to write fiction from countries outside of the main literary geographies, whilst also being a woman in a patriarchal world? What are the pressures and the inspirations, the challenges and the opportunities of these multiple levels of marginalisation? Writers Najwa Benshatwan and Nadia Alkokabany were invited to participate in a conversation with Bidisha. However, both authors were denied visas. Instead, they addressed the audience by video and read from their novels. Bidisha was joined in conversation by poet and translator Mona Kareem who spoke about both novelists’ work.

Susan Abulhawa in conversation with Gillian Slovo
Palestinian-American novelist Susan Abulhawa is one of the most commercially successful Arab authors of all time. Her 2010 debut novel Mornings in Jenin, a multigenerational family epic spanning five countries and more than sixty years, looks unflinchingly at the Palestinian question – and became an international bestseller translated into thirty-two languages. In 2015 The Blue Between Sky and Water, a novel of family, love and loss centred on Gaza, also met a vast global readership and huge critical acclaim from across both the mainstream and literary media. Her powerful, political and romantic fiction is written in English, yet it is deeply rooted in the land and language of her ancestors. In this special appearance, Susan Abulhawa is hosted by South Africa born British novelist, playwright and memoirist Gillian Slovo, recipient of the 2013 Golden Pen Award for a lifetime’s distinguished service to literature.

Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections
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17 July 2017

Some bindings from Tipu Sultan's court

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In recent weeks I have been examining bindings of the British Library’s manuscripts which formerly belonged to Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799). The British Library collection probably constitutes about 25% of the original Library as it was in 1799 after the fall of Seringapatam. The manuscripts originate ultimately from a number of different, largely unspecified, locations, but fortunately there is a distinct corpus (23 out of 242 so far examined) which can easily be identified as belonging to Tipu Sultan's court. These are works bound in his own individualistic style of binding or else were copied or composed at Seringapatam.

I_o_islamic_3562_fblef_b copy
Front board of Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an with flap showing inscriptions 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6 below. This binding is unusual of Tipu bindings for its use of gilt decoration. Note also the diced patterned background which is a feature of several other manuscripts. (IO Islamic 3562
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One of the most lavish is Tipu Sultan’s personal Qur’an (IO Islamic 3562), illustrated above (more on this in a future blog). Decorated heavily in gilt on a diced patterned background, the binding also includes a number of inscriptions. These were described in general terms by Charles Stewart in A Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore, (Cambridge, 1809), p.v.

All the volumes that had been rebound at Seringapatam have the names of God, Mohammed, his daughter Fatimah, and her sons, Hassen and Hussein, stamped in a medallion on the middle of the cover; and the names of the Four first Khalifs, Abu Beker, Omar, Osman, and Aly, on the four corners. At the top is “Sirkari Khodādad,” (the government given by God); and at the bottom, “Allah Kāfy,” (God is sufficient).”

I thought it would be helpful to expand on these inscriptions which are stamped on the outside of the bindings. Typically, but not always, they consist of:

  1. Front top: Sarkār-i Khudādādī ‘God-given government’
  2. Front central medallion: Allāh, Muḥammad, ʻAlī, Fāṭimah, Ḥasan, Ḥusayn
  3. Back central medallion: Qur’an Surah 2:32: Subḥānaka lā ‘ilma lanā illā mā ‘allamtanā innaka anta al-‘alīm al-ḥakīm ‘Exalted are You; we have no knowledge except what You have taught us. Indeed, it is You who is the Knowing, the Wise.’
  4. Four corners: Ḥaz̤rat Abū Bakr Ṣiddīq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUmar al-Fārūq; Ḥaz̤rat ʻUsmān ibn ʻAffān; Ḥaz̤rat ʻAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib
  5. Pendants hanging from central medallion: Allāh kāfī ‘God is sufficient’
  6. Cartouches: Lā ilāha illā Allāh Muḥammad Rasūl Allāh ‘There is no God but God and Muhammad is his messenger’
  7. Spine: Qur'an Surah 56:79: Lā yamassuhu illā al-muṭahharūn ‘None may touch it except the purified’

I_o_islamic_3562_fbrig copy  I_o_islamic_3562_fbrigr copy
Left: back board with inscriptions 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6; right: doublure; below: flap with inscription 7 which currently, perhaps as a result of restoration, lies on the outside of the front board. (IO Islamic 3562)
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I_o_islamic_3562_fbspi_a copy

A similar binding occurs on IO Islamic 3351, a less ambitiously decorated Qur’an, possibly dating from the 17th century but rebound at Seringapatam. Its small size (16.5 x 10cm) accounts for it only being inscribed in the central medallion, on the spine and with the usual sarkar-i khudādādī. Unlike many of Tipu's bindings, which have been altered during subsequent restoration, this one has been preserved in its original state with the flap designed to go inside the outer cover.

IO ISlamic 3351_binding2 copy
Back board and flap showing inscriptions 3 and 7. (IO Islamic 3351)
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Less ambitious Tipu bindings show considerable variation and demonstrate that the inscriptions could be stamped quite carelessly as illustrated in the examples below.

IO Islamic 695_binding copy   IO Islamic 491
Left: IO Islamic 695, a late 18th century copy of works by Gīsū Darāz and ʻAṭṭār, with inscriptions 1, 2, 4 and 5 stamped somewhat inexactly on the binding; right: IO Islamic 491, Javāhir al-qur'ān, an index to bowing places (rukūʻ) copied for Tipu in 1225 of the Mauludi era (1797/98) with only inscription 1 at the head.
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Not all of Tipu Sultan's bindings included his characteristic inscriptions. Two examples of comparitively simple bindings are illustrated below.

IO Islamic 464 binding1 IO Islamic 464doublure
This manuscript is a translation into Persian from Dakhni by Ḥasan ʻAlī ʻIzzat of the love story of Lal and Gohar which was commissioned by Tipu Sultan in 1778. The binding is contemporary and still carries the Prize Agentsʼ label dating from when they were first examining the collection in 1799. (IO Islamic 464)
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IO Islamic 713 IO Islamic 713doublure
Another work commissioned by Tipu, his army regulations Fatḥ al-mujāhidīn by Zayn al-Dīn Shūshtarī. The scalloped flap is the only example I have found in the collection and unlike IO Islamic 3351 above, it was designed to lie on the outside. Note also the hole, presumably for ties. (IO Islamic 713)
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Altogether I estimate that the British Library has about 600 volumes from Tipu Sultan's collection. These consist of 197 volumes of Arabic and Persian manuscripts deposited in the Library on 16 July 1806, further volumes deposited in 1807 (204 vols) and April 1808 (68 vols) and a proportion of the 308 manuscripts sent to London in 1837 after the closure of Fort William College in Calcutta and the dispersal of its collections. For more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah. I'm hoping that by examining the whole collection I may be able to discover more about the provenance of each volume and establish certain regional binding styles, but this is very much work in progress, so watch this space!


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator, Persian
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