Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

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

02 August 2021

How to Digitise Scrolls: A Step-by-Step Guide from the Lotus Sutra Project

Photograph of man with back to camera in black shirt looking over long yellowed scroll in front of machinery with many cables
Jon Nicholls, Senior Imaging Technician, digitising a scroll on the Lotus Sutra Project.
CCBY Image

Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is an international collaborative project based at the British Library and with centres around the world. The Project aims to preserve and digitise collections from archaeological sites along the Eastern part of the ancient trade routes known as the Silk Roads, including the Mogao caves near Dunhuang (present day Gansu province in China).

As part of this, the Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at the British Library is cataloguing, conserving, and digitising Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra from the British Library’s Stein Collection.

These scrolls were procured by the British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), when he travelled to Dunhuang. He was followed by several other foreign explorers who also took away a large number of manuscripts and other items. By digitising this corpus of texts, we can facilitate access to these historic items and bring them together digitally, after they were scattered around the globe.

The Lotus Sutra collection

The Lotus Sutra is a sacred text that contains important early teachings on Buddhism. It was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. Its popularity in China, in particular at Dunhuang, is attested by the over 1,000 copies that are now in the British Library’s custodianship.

Although a few of these were digitised in the past, a total of 793 paper manuscripts are yet to be imaged. They are dated roughly between the 5th to 11th centuries, based on dated items at both ends of the spectrum.

Most, except for three booklets, are in the scroll format. Each scroll varies in size and condition. We have some scrolls that are incredibly long as well as some that are just fragments. We also have some very fragile scrolls that our fantastic Conservation team are working hard to preserve so that they are available for years to come.

We have calculated that collectively there is roughly 17km of scroll that needs to be conserved and digitised. That’s the distance from the British Library in North London to Wimbledon in Southwest London!

Thanks to the support from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation based in Hong Kong, we are steadily working through the entire collection, one scroll at a time. The digitised collection will be made freely available on the IDP website (http://idp.bl.uk/).

Equipment and Imaging Standards

To digitise the scrolls, we use specialist equipment at the British Library’s St Pancras site. Below details the equipment I use:

  • Phase One XF medium format camera on a copy stand
  • Phase One IQ3 80 MP Digital back
  • Phase One 120mm lens
  • LED lighting
  • Long and height-adjustable table
  • Capture One Software
  • Adobe Photoshop

To ensure consistency and reliability, we adhere to these imaging standards:

  • Aperture F.16
  • Shutter speed 0.6 Seconds
  • ISO 50

To further ensure quality and accuracy, we use the same equipment and standards for every image.

Step 1. Digitising the scrolls

Once the scrolls have been through conservation and are in stable condition they can be digitised. Digitising scrolls is quite a difficult process. As mentioned before, there are some very long scrolls (one even measuring up to 13 meters) and I have very limited space at my workstation.

At the beginning of this project, I was given specific scroll handling training from our wonderful Conservation team.

Equipped with the knowledge to handle the scrolls safely, I shoot the scrolls bit by bit, un-rolling and re-rolling onto a scroll core as I go, both as a space saving technique but also to avoid damage to the scrolls. Luckily the scrolls themselves are long horizontal rolls, which are made of several rectangular sheets of paper or ‘panels’ attached together. I photograph every panel individually, which makes it a lot easier to capture each part.

I try to lie the scroll down as flat as I can, but it is not always possible. Some of the scrolls undulate naturally and we need to be sympathetic to the item’s condition. When undulation of the scrolls occurs, I use various weights approved by our Conservation Team to hold either side of the panels to flatten them without putting undue pressure.

If need be, I use pins to flatten the scrolls. *We do not use pins directly on any part of the scrolls. Instead, I pin around the scroll and using transparent, acid free tabs in-between the pin and the scroll to protect the item.

Collection of white objects including bead-like string, white scroll, white pouch and other small white squares on a black background
Tools used for holding the item whilst digitising: scroll core, conservation ‘penny weights’, snake weights, weight bags, pins and acid free tabs.
CC Public Domain Image

I include a ruler in the image for size reference as well as a colour chart to calibrate colours and a focusing target to set up the control shots. These are cropped out of the final images.

Black background behind a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it and a black and white focus target with a multicoloured colour palette and black and white strips at bottom of image
Focus target, ruler and colour chart.
CC Public Domain Image

I shoot all the panels’ front (rectos) and back (versos) to capture the entire length of the scroll. As Chinese text is written and read vertically, top to bottom and right to left, I capture the panels from right to left.

I always overshoot either side of the panel and usually include 3 to 4 columns of text overlap (as seen in the photo below). This helps in the stitching process later.

Close view of yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with black bars above and below
Digitising a panel of a scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Once all the panels are shot, I process each image file from RAW files into TIFF files.

Step 2. Post-production

I edit every TIFF image in Photoshop. This task can take a long time if you have 40+ images to edit.

Firstly, I digitally remove any pins or other unwanted objects in the shot using the lasso tool to select around the item, then delete using the ‘Content aware’ function. Please note this can only be done when the layer is locked.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of digital edit in Photoshop.
CC Public Domain Image

I then select and cut out the background and replace with a digital black background. This is done for aesthetic reasons and something that we inherited from the previous team. We continued with this for consistency with the historical images.

You can achieve a similar goal by shooting directly onto black fabric.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of the end of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Replacing background with digital black background.
CC Public Domain Image

I change the height of every image. This is done for the purposes of ingesting the images onto our website, which requires specific sizes and ensures consistency.

To speed the process up I have created ‘Actions’ in Photoshop to save me some time and partially automate the majority of the postproduction.

Step 3. Stitching

I use automatic stitching to generate the stitched TIFF. Having trialled a few software packages, I can say the Adobe’s Photoshop ‘Photomerge’ seems to be the best at the moment.

Whilst it is the best on the market, it unfortunately it can be very hit and miss, and depends on the length, curvature and condition of each scroll. Most recently I have discovered that dramatic change in colour on the scroll also confuses the software.

Seven scrolls of yellowed paper of various lengths atop a grey and white checkerboard background
Example of a stitched image gone wrong.
CC Public Domain Image

For this example above, I was forced to manually stitch all the separate parts together. This is a much longer process but is occasionally needed.

Automatic stitching works better when there are more reference points, which is why I include extra columns of text either side when shooting the image, as mentioned before.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a very long and thin yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of a smaller scroll successfully digitally stitched together
CC Public Domain Image

If I am lucky there won’t be many changes required (known as post edits), but often I have to automatically stitch the scroll in parts or even manually stitch each image.

Step 4. Editing stitched image

The automated stitch image often produces some arched or warped images. I use ‘puppet warp’ and guidelines in Photoshop to subtly straighten the scroll, being careful to not over edit or make it look unnatural. There are some very helpful YouTube vlogs explaining how to use the Puppet warp function.

Lastly, using the TIFF files, I create three types of JPEG to be ingested to the IDP website, this includes: a large JPEG, a medium JPEG and a thumbnail.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters covered with light grey lines attached to one another at random angleson it with a black background
Example of Puppet warp in action to subtly straighten the scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Step 5. Quality control

I finally quality check the images and make sure I adhere to our specific naming conventions before I move them to another server. From here they are quality checked by a Digitisation Officer in view of ultimately being uploaded to the IDP website.

Screen shot with light blue frame showing website with yellowish-grey left side bar, white background, images of yellowed scrolls with Chinese characters on them and a greyish yellow text box
Example of digitised scroll displayed on the IDP website.
CC Public Domain Image

I hope you found this guide interesting and useful.

Jon Nicolls, Senior Imaging Technician, IDP

(All images were shot by Jon Nicolls)

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To find out more about the Lotus Sutra Project and the International Dunhaung Project visit:

You can read more articles about the Project here:

26 July 2021

Glorious chariots in Thai manuscript paintings

Chariots figure prominently in South and Southeast Asian art and architectural decoration. Borrowed from the Sanskrit word ratha, the chariot is called rot (รถ) in Thai and has a special importance in  religious traditions in Thailand, especially those related to royal ceremonies and funerals. Impressive funeral chariots on four wheels have been reserved for kings and members of the royal family since the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). Representing Mount Meru, the tip of which reaches the heavens according to the Thai Buddhist cosmology Traiphum, such ornate and lavishly gilded funeral chariots carried equally ornate urns containing the body of the deceased to the place of cremation. Four-wheeled chariots or chariot-like vehicles are also used in ceremonies to parade Buddha statues during Songkran (New Year) processions, as shown in the image below.

Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand
Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand, commissioned by James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.2v Noc

The coloured drawing of a procession of a Buddha statue in southern Thailand was commissioned in 1824 by Captain James Low who was based at Penang as an officer of the English East India Company. It depicts a realistically-drawn four-wheeled cart with a superstructure in the shape of a chariot on which a Buddha statue is paraded through town. The vehicle is pulled by twelve men and accompanied by monks and charioteers seated next to the statue, with additional men, women and children in various ethnic attires seen in southern Thailand at the time. Depictions of chariots with four wheels are rare in Thai manuscript paintings, however, two-wheeled chariots are frequently found in illustrations of scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (Jataka) in which the Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, uses the vehicles. They can also be seen carrying Lord Sun and Lord Moon (below) in Thai Buddhist cosmologies.

Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot
Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot. Detail from a drawing of Mount Meru and the Buddhist heavens. Copy from a Thai Buddhist cosmology made for James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.4r Noc

While some European influence is obvious in the illustration of Lord Moon travelling in a chariot – for example in the simplified depiction of the wheels – the parts of a typical chariot in the Thai painting style are visible: the shaft with a decorative element in the shape of a naga (serpent) head and a banner, a highly decorative seat and a “tail” in a popular design called kranok.

Illustrations of scenes from the last ten Jataka were often added to a Buddhist text on the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Pali: Mahābuddhagunā) and collections of short extracts from the Pali Buddhist canon. Each of the last ten Jataka symbolises one of the Buddha’s Great Perfections. These texts and images were often included in funeral and commemoration books made in folding book format (samut khoi) from mulberry paper in the fashion of the 18th and 19th centuries. In some of these Jataka stories chariots play an important role.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.4 Noc

The painting above depicts a scene from the Nemi Jataka in the style of the late 18th century. Although the Nemi Jataka - which symbolises the perfection of resolution - is not included in this manuscript, the illustration appears in the context of the Mahābuddhagunā. Before a vibrant red background with floral decorations one can see King Nemi (Pali: Nimi) on a two-wheeled chariot pulled by two horses. The wheel of the chariot has eight spokes, similar to the Dhammchakka whose spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way of Buddhism. On one horse kneels the divine charioteer Matali, who was sent from the heavenly realm of the god Indra to fetch Nemi for a visit to the Buddhist heavens, and Nemi is seen here sitting in the carriage with a small pavilion-like superstructure. However, Nemi ordered Matali to first take him to the realms of hell - shown in the lower part of the picture - so he could teach his subjects about the horrors that await evildoers.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14255, f.4 Noc

Although illustrations from the Jataka stories were relatively standardised in Thai manuscripts, there are always variations in the choice of colours and execution of details. The example above has a bright orange background with a deity hovering in the air. Two horses are jumping over a skeleton, but apparently the painter had some difficulty with perspective since the hind legs and tail of only one horse are visible. The chariot, harness and garments of the deity and charioteer are decorated with gold leaf.

During the 19th century, Thai painters seem to have enjoyed greater freedom to change details or to include their own ideas in their works. The illustration below depicts King Nemi on a glorious chariot that is pulled by only one horse. For the background, the artist chose plain black, perhaps to highlight the fact that hell is a dark and hopeless place. An interesting element in this illustration is the charioteer’s conical white hat  which is a traditional headgear worn by Thai nobility and royal Brahmins.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.13 Noc

The features of horses appear more realistic in 19th-century illustrations, and often some Western influence is visible in the painting style. The picture below has a bright blue background with white clouds executed with simple brush strokes. In the clouds, however, there are rooftops of heavenly palaces painted in the conventional Thai style. The chariot has no superstructure, but a wheel with a unique arrangement of spokes. Matali is depicted with green skin, possibly to emphasize the fact that he is a divine charioteer sent by the god Indra.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894. British Library, Or 16101, f.3 Noc

Another popular Jataka involving a chariot scene is the story of Prince Temiya, who as a child pretended to be “crippled and mute” so he would not have to become king, a role in which he might have to commit cruel acts leading to negative Karma. Ignorant Brahmins advised the king to send the apparently disabled child in a chariot to a graveyard and bury him there. Upon arrival at the graveyard, the young prince lifted the chariot with one hand to show his power and capabilities. The scared charioteer released Temiya at once, realising he was a Bodhisatta, who then chose a life in meditation as an ascetic. Temiya lifting the chariot is the most popular scene from this Jataka, shown in the illustration below in 18th-century painting style with a distinctive rocky landscape and a crooked tree. The scene is made particularly lively by the shocked, escaping horses.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.1 Noc

Another example of illustrating the Temiya Jataka, from a 19th-century manuscript, is shown below: the chariot waiting to pick up Prince Temiya, who sits motionless in meditation in front of a white stone building. The charioteer is depicted with green skin, perhaps to indicate that he was under the influence of Indra’s deities when they guided him to steer the chariot carrying Temiya through the Gate of Victory instead of the Gate of Death. The heavily decorated chariot is also equipped with two monastic fans (Thai: talaphat) and a golden offering bowl.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14559, f.4 Noc

The Vessantara Jataka, or Great Jataka, also contains important episodes involving chariots. It tells the story of the Buddha’s last existence before attaining Buddhahood as a generous prince who showed great compassion with the needy and the poor. One well-known episode is depicted in the painting below, from a 19th-century manuscript: when Prince Vessantara was banished from the kingdom, he departed with his wife and children in a horse-driven chariot to set up a hermitage in the forest. However, on the way some Brahmins asked for the horses which Vessantara gave them as a gift. Deities sent by the god Indra immediately transformed themselves into deer to replace the horses and pull the chariot.

Prince Vessantara is seen on the chariot which is only half shown. The realistically-painted deer that is pulling the chariot has a golden harness, similar to those worn by the white horses which are being taken away by the Brahmins. This excellently executed illustration in 19th-century painting style has a calm light pink and light green background.


Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.26 Noc

Another popular episode of the Vessantara Jataka is the return of the prince and his family to the royal palace, followed by his ascension to the throne. In contrast to the two-wheeled chariots in most Jataka illustrations, the scene below depicts an extravagantly decorated, glorious chariot with four wheels and a gilded pavilion-like superstructure in which Prince Vessantara is seated. Also kneeling on the chariot are his wife Maddi with their two little children, as well as Prince Vessantara’s parents who welcomed them back into the palace. They are wearing golden headgear as a sign of royalty. At the back of the chariot one can see two gilded monastic fans. Below are four attendants in commoners’ outfits accompanying the procession.

Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century, red background
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.78 Noc

In all these Jataka illustrations, chariots are more than just vehicles for transportation: they also fulfil symbolic functions. In the Nemi Jataka the chariot is a means to travel between the Three Worlds (Traiphum) of the Thai cosmos – human realm, heavens and hells. In the story of Prince Temiya, the chariot is used to express the hero’s physical power, and metaphorically his mental strength and moral stature as a Bodhisatta. The chariots that appear in the Vessantara Jataka are vehicles in which the Buddha-to-be goes through pivotal changes, from a life of luxury and convenience in the royal palace to a life of sacrifice and hardship as a hermit in the wilderness, and then back from a hermit to becoming a righteous Buddhist king.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

Further reading
Blurton, Richard, A processional chariot from south India. London: British Museum, 2018.
Terwiel, Barend J., Two Scrolls Depicting Phra Phetracha’s Funeral Procession in 1704 and the Riddle of their Creation. Journal of the Siam Society vol. 104 (2016), pp. 79-94.

 

19 July 2021

The Term 'Shater' and its Use in the India Office Records

1 Entry of Shah of Persia  Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar  into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters
Entry of the Shah of Persia, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar, into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters. Morier, A Second Journey..., after p. 386. Public domain

As part of cataloguing the India Office Records (IOR), we occasionally come across unfamiliar terms that make us question their origin and how they relate to the way they are used in the records. The case under consideration here is the term shater (pl. shaters), used in the IOR to refer to foot messengers. Shaters were employed to travel long distances, usually within Persia [Iran], in short periods of time to deliver letters to and from local governors, merchants, or the East India Company’s representatives. This post traces the possible roots of the term shater, and its development throughout history to bear the meaning of a foot messenger.

2 Two shotters carrying letters to Isfahan Nov 1708
Two shotters [shaters] carrying letters to Isfahan, Nov 1708 (IOR/G/29/2, f. 2r). Public domain

Arabic language dictionaries indicate that the term shater (Ar. shāṭir pl. shuṭṭar) has its origins in the root sh-ta-ra, which primarily means to distance oneself from family or tribe; someone who is shrewd at finding ways to do things, or overcoming obstacles. These meanings relate directly to a group known in Pre-Islamic Arabic literature as al-Sa‘alik [Brigands]. Members of this group were exiled by their tribes, and sometimes they chose to distance themselves. As they grew up alone, they developed their own life-style, and adopted certain characteristics that distinguished them from others. They were said to be ‘sharp, brave and as agile as horses’ (Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, pp. 375-378). An Arabic proverb indicates how agile a person is by comparing him to one of the Sa‘alik, who was also a famed poet, called al-Shanfara. The proverb says:

أعدى من الشنفرى
Swifter than al-Shanfara
(Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, p. 375)

Some Sa‘alik were also known to be crafty thieves and sometimes noble robbers who stole from the wealthy to feed the poor:

وعيّابةٌ للجودِ لم تدرِ أنني       بإنهابِ مالِ الباخلينَ موكَّلُ
And the critics of munificence are unaware that I am in charge of ripping misers off what they possess
(In the words of a thief, in Al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, p. 116)

The Sa‘alik’s lifestyle helped them to become familiar with trade routes, and some of them began to earn their living by protecting trade caravans instead of raiding them. Merchants recruited some of the Sa‘alik to walk ahead and protect them from possible attacks.

Several groups that were similar in nature to the Sa‘alik emerged in the early ‘Abbasid period (750-1258) under various names and characteristics. Among them were the shuttar. These were often associated with another group known as al-‘Ayyarin, vagabonds who appeared to drift aimlessly from one place to another. Besides sharing the Sa‘alik’s characteristics, the shuttar were well-organised, and worked collectively under an elected leader. They possessed a revolutionary spirit, leading popular resistance against corruption and social norms. Although some considered the shuttar to be anarchists (fawdawiyyin), the group was actually a socialist movement engaging in class struggle (al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 135 and 396). The shuttar were even condemned as ‘trouble makers’ by the authorities of medieval Baghdad (Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 126-127).

Nonetheless, the group became particularly popular during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), who won them over to use their strength to put down disorder in his capital. Reportedly, a large group of shuttar played a crucial role in the fitna ('dispute') of 811-812 CE, between al-Rashid’s two sons al-Amin (r. 809-813) and al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833). The shuttar’s rebellious nature enabled them to impose new laws where existing ones were unpopular, something which earned many of them public admiration and they eventually became more accepted by the authorities.

By the mid-ninth century, the role of a shater had evolved from being a trouble-maker to someone who worked closely with the authorities. Governors arranged festivals, where they enjoyed watching the shuttar engage in ritual combat where the winner would be offered a silk kaftan and join the governor’s special guards. Henceforth, the shuttar were recruited as soldiers with a distinctive uniform. Under their own leadership, they marched ahead of the royal army. Some shuttar, however, continued to work as paid guards of trade caravans in much the same way as the Sa‘alik of the pre-Islamic period.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the shuttar became familiar with landscapes, languages and dialects, which perhaps helped them to be recruited as foot messengers. This was particularly true of the Persian Court shaters, who in addition to their role as the Shah’s special guards, also worked as foot messengers. One of the foremost Arabic lexicons that defines the term shater as foot messenger is the Taj al-‘Arus by al-Zubaidi (d. 1790/1). In addition to the usual meanings of the term shater, al-Zubaidi equates the term with a courier who delivers mail over long distances in a short period of time.

It is most likely that al-Zubaidi was influenced by how the term shater was used in Persia at the time. Derived from the same Arabic root, in Persian the term shater means someone who is shrewd, fast, and fearless. In Safavid Iran (1501-1736), and probably before, the shater was said to act as a ‘bridge’, who ran before the horses of kings and other great men, opening the way for them to pass through the people. This continued to be the case in the Qajar period (1785-1925). Shaters were also appointed to the post of foot messengers during a special ceremony set for the occasion. References to shaters holding official positions as foot messengers in Safavid and Qajar Iran appear regularly in the IOR. One of the records gives a description of shaters, wearing special garments, during a special election ceremony as swift runners, who preceded the Shah of Persia’s retinue. 

Shaters’ outfit and their election ceremony
Shaters
’ outfit and their election ceremony (IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1, pp. 332-3). Public domain

While some Arabic dictionaries from the 18th century onwards described the term shater as a foot messenger, this was not how it was used by Arabic speakers. Instead, the term kept its initial meaning and developed an additional complimentary one. Today, describing someone as shater is considered a compliment. When translated into Persian, the term was first used with reference to a special guard who preceded the Shah’s army. However, the characteristics of a shater led to the development of a new position as part of an already well-established Persian postal system. Although the office of a shater seems very similar in nature to that of a chapar (horse-mounted messenger), the former would have differed by travelling on foot for most of his journey. Whether shaters had to occasionally use horses during their journey or not, a detailed study of the Persian postal system could answer this, something which is beyond the parameters of the present article.

5 Shotter delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory  Nov 1726
'Shotter' delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory, Nov 1726 (IOR/G/29/3, f. 4v). Public domain

6 Shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory  Nov 1732
The shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory, Nov 1732 (IOR/G/29/16, f. 131r). Public domain

It would be difficult to establish exactly when the term shater was first used to refer to a foot messenger, yet it can be assumed that this was the case at least since the early Safavid period. Although it originates from Arabic, the term shater with its new meaning became a particularity of Iranian culture. Similar to the Sa‘alik, and ‘Abbasid Baghdad’s shuttar, the Persian shaters were swift runners; brave; familiar with the landscapes and the languages of the people they met on their journeys; and above all, they were trusted by the ruling power who appointed them as foot messengers.

Primary Sources
James Morier, A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816... (London: Longman, Hurst, etc, 1818)
Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-ʿArab. (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1981)
IOR/G/29/2 ‘Diary and Consultations of Mr Eaton Dodsworth…’
IOR/G/29/3 ‘Diary and Consultation Book of Thomas Waters…’
IOR/G/29/16 ‘Letters and Enclosures etc., Received from Gombroon’
IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1 ‘Persia and the Persian Question by the Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon, M.P.
IOR/R/15/5/397 John Richardson, A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English; with a Dissertation on the Languages, Literature, and Manners of Eastern Nations
al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-A‘sha fi Kitabat al-Insha, vol 2 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Amiriyya, 1913)
al-Zubaidi, Taj al-‘Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus, vol 3 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Wahbiyya, undated)

Secondary Sources
Muhammad Rajab al-Najjar, Hikayat al-Shuttar wa al-‘Ayyarin (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-ʿAmma li-Qusur al-Thaqafa, 2002)
Shawqi Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi: al-‘Asr al-Jahili (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1960).

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist-Arabic Languages/ Britih Library Qatar Foundation Project
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