Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues


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

08 July 2024

A Who's Who of Early Saudi Statehood: The British Library's 'Wahhabi' Manuscript

Beige sheet of paper with writing in black in Arabic script arranged in rows with red and yellow alternative Arabic text at top of page organized in rows tapering at bottom
The opening text of Volume 1 of Ibn Bishr's 'Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 2v)
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A chance request from a colleague one day had me search our catalogues and Arabic subject guide for histories of the Arabian Peninsula. While I was initially looking for works on Bahrain and the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf, I ended up stumbling upon Or 7718, described as a history of Najd, Baghdad and Basra under the title ‘Unwān al-majd fī ta’rīkh najd (عنوان المجد في تأريخ نجد). The manuscript, when I consulted it, was beautiful if simple in its decoration. Sadly, it didn’t fit the brief, but something about its colour palette and its organization intrigued me. The resulting search about its contents has convinced me that it was well worth the fascination.

‘Unwān al-majd fī ta’rīkh najd was written by al-Shaykh ‘Uthmān bin ‘Abd Allāh bin Bishr (الشيخ عثمان بن عبد الله بن بشر), also known as Ibn Bishr, in 1251 AH (1835 CE; volume 1) and 1270 AH (1854 CE; volume 2). The work is a history (as written on the package) of the Najd (central Saudi Arabia) with elements of the history of Baghdad and Basra. Why these two cities? Because Ibn Bishr’s work is actually two in one: both a history of the Najd region and a life story of Muḥammad ibn Abd al-Wahhāb (محمد ابن عبد الوهاب), the founder of Wahhabism who teamed up with Muḥammad bin Sa‘ūd (محمد بن سعود) in 1744 to unify the states of the Arabian Peninsula. Bin Sa‘ūd was the founder of the first Saudi State, also known as the Emirate of Dir’iyah, based around Dir’iyah, contemporary Saudi Arabia, and established in 1727. The author starts his history in 850 AH (1445-46 CE) and ends in 1270 AH (1853-54 CE), allowing for both the early history of the region and a comprehensive overview of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s activities to come across. Over the course of the work, Ibn Bishr recounts ‘Abd al-Wahhāb journeys through the Najd to Basra and Baghdad, where he studies and takes action against what he perceives to be incorrect Islamic practices, before returning to Najd. Much of what we see in Volume 2 takes the form of a chronicle and is therefore crucial to understanding the formation, establishment and territorial expansion of what would eventually become Saudi Arabia.  

Half page of text in Arabic script tapering down to triangle, mainly in black ink with some words in red and yellow ink, along with red oval stamp at bottom of pageBeige sheet of paper with Arabic script text in black in in rows, tapering to a point three quarters of way down page. Two more lines of text are in black ink with red accents
(Left) The colophon of Volume 1, including the additional note on the original composition of the text (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 160r); (Right) The colophon of Volume 2 including a supplication to God. (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 258r).
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Ibn Bishr completed his text in 1853-54 CE. Dating Or 7718, however, is on the tricky side, as the copyist evidently wished to preserve as much of the source text they were using while still creating a unified and standalone work. The first part of the ‘Unwān (ff 2v-160r) ends with a colophon that identifies the author as being ‘al-faqīr ilá raḥmat rabbihi al-muqtadir ‘Uthmān bin ‘Abd Allāh bin ‘Uthmān bin [A]ḥmad bin Bishr al-Najdī al-Ḥanbalī’ (الفقير الى رحمة ربه المقتدر عثمان بن عبد الله بن عثمان بن حمد بن بشر النجدي الحنبلي), effectively identifying Ibn Bishr as both from Najd and a follower of the Hanbali school of Islamic jurisprudence. The main text goes on to state that the manuscript was copied on a Friday in the middle of the month of Rajab in the year 1270 AH, which we know to be the date of completion of the second volume of the work. A brief addendum to the side of the text reads “he said that he had completed it [the volume] in Rajab of the year 1251 AH.” The date of Sha‘bān 1270 AH is found on f 258r, the colophon of the second volume of the work. 

Beige paper with Arabic script text in black ink in rows with some text scribbled out in red and black ink and a few words in the margin to the rightBeige sheet of paper with Arabic script text in black ink and some words in red or yellow ink, with a gap between the penultimate and ultimate line of text of a few centimetres
(Left) A folio of Volume 2 showing text crossed out with a reader's addendum. (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 255v); (Right) A folio of Volume 2 with a gap in the body of the text. (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 181v).
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The note on f 160r about the date of the first work being 1251 AH is in a different hand from the main text and matches a number of annotations throughout the codex. I suppose that these additions to the text imply that it was copied after 1270 AH from an earlier complete version against which corrections could be made. Indeed, there is an odd gap in the text on f 181r where the copyist appears to have stopped mid-sentence before starting on a new section of text a few centimetres below. For a tabyīḍah or fair copy of the text, as the copyist is wont to call it in the colophons, there seem to be an awful lot of mistakes or gaps. 

Beige sheet of paper with alternating lines of Arabic-script text in red and yellow ink tapering to a point a quarter down the page followed by black ink Arabic-script text in a blockBeige sheet of paper with large Arabic-script text in the middle of the page written in black ink
(Left) The title of the text with Bin 'aybān's tarjamah and a note on the identity of the copyist. (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 2r); (Right) An ownership note and a shakier attempt at copying out the tarjamah. (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 1v)
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Corrections, or perhaps emendations, to the main body of the work aren’t the only textual additions we find. Four notable inscriptions at the front of the volume provide additional information about the history of the manuscript. One of them (f 1v) is obviously a learner practicing copying out the text on f 2r. Just above this is a brief ownership inscription stating the volume belongs to "‘Alī Abū Niyān wakīluhu Nāṣr bin ‘Abd ‘anna[hu] (or ‘Abdān?) min ahl al-Riyāḍ," (علي أبو نيان وكيله ناصر بن عبد ان من اهل الرياض) placing the work in Riyadh, capital of contemporary Saudi Arabia, at some point in the late 19th century CE. It must have made its way from there to Cairo, where it was acquired by Maurice Naaman and eventually sold to the British Museum in 1912, at some point in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. 

Before making that trip, however, another Saudi Shaykh, ‘Abd al-‘Azīz bin ‘aybān (عبد العزيز بن عيبان), wrote a tarjamah or brief biography of Ibn Bishr on f 2r, just before the start of the actual text and below the title written by the copyist. Bin ‘aybān is himself mentioned in the text of the ‘Unwān, in an episode from 27 Rabī' al-Thānī 1265 AH (17 June 1849 CE) when Imām Fayṣal (Fayṣal bin Turkī Āl Sa'ūd) orders him to remain at Riyadh with his son, 'Abd al-Allāh bin Fayṣal Āl Sa'ūd, whom Fayṣal has just appointed his successor. Although I haven't found 'aybān died, this note is like not from long after the manuscript was copied. Just above his tarjamah is a brief note that "I say it clearly and openly: what you see here from beginning to end was written by Muḥammad bin ‘Umar al-Fākhrī (محمد بن عمر الفاخري)." This undoubtedly refers to the famed Saudi historian and contemporary of Ibn Bishr of the same name who lived between 1188 and 1277 AH (1772/73-1860/61 CE). We therefore have a definite range of some six years within which the manuscript could have been copied, provided that the person who wrote this note was truthful. 

Largely blank beige piece of paper with eight lines of Arabic-script text tapering to a point with alternate lines in red and yellow ink
The title page for Volume 2 of the work showcasing the red and yellow inks used for decoration throughout. (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 161r)
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The British Library’s copy of ‘Unwān al-majd fī ta’rīkh najd is remarkable for more than just its content and the individuals attached to it. A quick look through the volume shows even and exceptionally legible naskh. The handwriting is clearly practiced and smooth with similarities to other Najdi hands. The fluidity of the text highlights al-Fākhrī’s mastery of the copyist’s practice, especially when compared to the shakier letters of al-‘aybān’s text. More impressive is the use of colour in the manuscript. The main text is copied in black with section headings and important words highlighted in a light red, almost orange, quite distinct from the deep, bold red of manuscripts from Anatolia and Syria. Even more striking is the use of a dark yellow in titles and important words and phrases. Red and yellow are employed in alternation, sometimes in odd and even lines like those for the title of the work and the sections; or even within phrases, as in the title of the work in the colophon of the first part. A similar, but not identical, alternating use of light red and yellow is found in another one of the Library’s manuscripts, Sabā'ik al-laḥīn (سبائك اللحين) by Ḥumayd bin Muḥammad bin Ruzayq (حميد بن محمد بن رزيق) (Or 6563), sourced from Oman in 1903. Indeed, a colleague (thanks, Jenny Norton-Wright!) remarked that the colours remind her of Omani manuscripts that she's seen. The use of lighter shades of yellow and red can also be seen in the collection of Zaydī manuscripts from Yemen at the University of Leiden (thank you for this tip, Dr. Annabel Gallop!). A closer match might be the collection of Minhāj al-sunnah al-nabawiyah fī naqḍ kalām al-shī‘ah wa’l-qadariyah by Ibn Taymiyyah held at the King Fahad National Library in Riyadh. These were copied later than Or 7718 and by two different scribes, neither of whom was al-Fākhrī.

Or 7718 has not been the subject of any studies in English or other Western European languages, at least not that I’ve been able to find. It has, however, elicited a fair amount of excitement among Saudi scholars and X users, starting in 2018 when an article that mentioned the work appeared in the Saudi newspaper al-Iqtiṣādiyah. Excitement peaked again after images of the manuscript were posted by Dr. Muḥammad bin Turkī al-Turkī, a scholar of fiqh and ḥadīth at King Saud University in 2021, and again in 2023 by another Saudi account dedicated to resources on Saudi history. For Saudi readers, the British Library manuscript forms an interesting counterpart to a work held in Riyadh, housed in the King ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Library. This copy has formed the basis of multiple edited volumes of the text published in Arabic, including a 2002 edition edited by ‘Abd Allāh bin Muḥammad al-Munīf

The text has also been an important source for Anglophone scholars of Wahhabism and the history of the Arabian Peninsula, although they have tended to cite the printed versions and only mention the British Library manuscript: George Rentz and his The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia; former University of Jordan and McGill University professor Ahmad M. Abu Hakima, who referred to it in his History of Eastern Arabia, 1750-1800; Michael Cook, whose 1992 paper ‘On the Origins of Wahhabism’ compares multiple sources of ‘Abd al-Wahhāb’s life and inspiration; Cole M. Bunzel, for his Wahhabism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement; UCLA Middle East, South Asia and Islamic Studies Librarian Sohaib Baig’s 2020 doctoral dissertation ‘Indian Hanafis in an Ocean of Hadith’; Bilal Tahir’s 2020 introduction to Wahhabi history, ‘Wahhabism and the Rise of the Saudis: The Persecuted Become the Persecutors’; Jörg Matthias Determann in his Historiography in Saudi Arabia; and, most recently, Shahajada M. Musa for his Masters thesis ‘The Emergence of a Scholar from a Garrison Society’ at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David. Perhaps the enthusiasm in KSA will lead more Anglophone scholars to take a closer look at Or 7718 as an object study in and of itself, beyond the content of the text. 

Or 7718 'Unwān al-majd fi ta'rīkh al-Najd f 177v inset
Section of a folio from Volume 2 showing additional information added by a reader about the identities of two individuals mentioned in the text and the nature of a particular run-in with enemies. (Ibn Bishr, Unwān al-majd fī ta'rīkh najd. 1850s. Saudi Arabia. Or 7718, f 177v)
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There is clearly much more to be done to understand this remarkable example of Najdi cultural heritage in the British Library’s Arabic manuscript holdings. While there can be no doubt that Ibn Bishr’s text is of great value to understanding the early history of Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia, the additional information found through the work appears to be no less valuable in tracking out the country’s intellectual history. 

Dr. Michael Erdman, Head, Middle East and Central Asia
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Sources and Further Reading

Abu Hakima, Ahmad M. 1965. History of Eastern Arabia 1750-1800: The Rise and Development of Bahrain and Kuwait (Beirut: Khayats).

Abu Hakima, Ahmad M. 1988. History of Eastern Arabia 1750-1800: The Rise and Development of Bahrain, Kuwait and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia (London: Probsthains).

Bunzel, Cole M. 2023. Wahhabism: The History of a Militant Islamic Movement (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

Cook, Michael. 1992. ‘On the Origins of Wahhabism’, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 2(2): 191-202.

Determann, Jörg Matthias. 2021. Historiography in Saudi Arabia: Globalization and the State in the Middle East (London: IB Tauris).

Ibn Bishr, ‘Uthmān bin ‘Abd Allāh. 1983. ‘unwān al-majd fī ta’rīkh najd, eds. Āl al-shaykh, ‘Abd al-Raḥmān bin ‘Abd al-Laṭīf bin ‘Abd Allāh and Al-Shithrī, Muḥammad ibn Nāṣir ibn ʻAbd al-ʻAzīz (Riyāḍ: Dār al-Ḥabīb).

Rentz, George S. 2005. The Birth of the Islamic Reform Movement in Saudi Arabia (London: The London Centre of Arab Studies).

Sā‘ātī, Yaḥyá Maḥmūd. 1414/1993. Waṣfīyat al-makhṭūṭāt fī’l-mamlakah al-‘arabīyah al-sa‘ūdīyah ilá ‘ām 1403h (al-Riyāḍ: Maktabat al-Malik Fahd al-waṭanīyah).

01 July 2024

Henry Alabaster’s “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts” (2): miscellaneous texts, novels and dramas

Henry Alabaster (1836-84) started his career as an interpreter for Thai in the British consular service in Bangkok where he was in close contact with King Mongkut (Rama IV). He helped to organise the solar eclipse observation event in August 1868 that was attended by various foreign government officials, including British and French. Shortly after the King died from malaria a few weeks after this event, Alabaster had to return to the UK. Thanks to his language skills and his in-depth knowledge of Thai literature he was employed by Reinhold Rost, librarian of the India Office Library, to catalogue seventeen Thai manuscripts that had been sitting in the IOL collection unexamined for two or more decades. Alabaster returned to Bangkok in 1872 to become King Chulalongkorn’s (Rama V) adviser. In the first part of this blog post, four legal manuscripts from Alabaster’s “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts”, first section, were introduced. Now we will look at the remaining thirteen manuscripts.

Henry Alabaster standing next to King Mongkut on occasion of the solar eclipse observation event at Wa Kor observatory in southern Thailand
Henry Alabaster standing next to King Mongkut on occasion of the solar eclipse observation event at Wa Kor observatory in southern Thailand, on 18 August 1868 (detail on the right). Photo source: ณ หว้ากอ : อดีต ปัจจุบัน อนาคต [Na Wākō̜ : ʿadīt patčhuban ʿanākhot], Bangkok 2018. British Library YP.2023.b.318 (front cover)

The handwritten catalogue has three sections: 1) Royal edicts and books of laws; 2) Miscellaneous; and 3) Novels and dramas.

In the second section, there are only three records for literary works.

The first item (MSS Siamese 5) is described as “Suphasit. Elegant sayings or Poverbs” (สุภาษิต), written with white chalk pencil on black paper in folding book format, 56 fols. He explained that this work contains 222 secular and Buddhist proverbs, commonly known as “Suphasit Thai”, which were also mentioned in Pallegoix’s “Grammatica linguae Thai” (Bangkok, 1850). Alabaster did not explicitly say that this manuscript may be related to Pallegoix in terms of provenance, but Pallegoix may have had access to this or a similar manuscript after he became vicar apostolic of Eastern Siam in 1838.

The second record (MSS Siamese 6) is for a black paper folding book, 60 fols., containing a text with the title “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat. A fable” (กระต่ายกับแพะ), with unrelated drawings of naga (serpents) and floral designs. Alabaster included a summary of the story and established 1811 as the year of creation thanks to a note in this manuscript saying that the scribe saw a comet for eleven nights (this must have been the Great Comet of 1811).

A small unfinished drawing in a black folding book containing the story “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat
A small unfinished drawing in a black folding book containing the story “Kratai kap Phë. The Hare and the Goat. A fable”, dated 1811. British Library, MSS Siamese 6, f. 59

Next follows a description of another black folding book (MSS Siamese 7), 56 fols., containing two texts written with white ink: “Phra Samutha Khlong Wuta Chindamani Chan – Prosody (an extract)” (จินดามณี) and “Kaiya Nakhon, the City of the Body, a Buddhist Allegory” (กายนคร). Chindamani, or Jewels of Thought, is one of the most important literary treasures in Thai language going back to the 17th century. The other is a Thai version of a Pali text (kāya nagara) dealing with contemplation of the human body, which is one of the fundamental four meditations (satipatthāna) in Theravada Buddhism. Alabaster noted the inconsistent use of accents (tone marks) which may point towards a creation date around 1800 or earlier.

Extract from the “Chindamani” written in white ink in a black paper folding book
Extract from the “Chindamani” written in white ink in a black paper folding book. British Library, MSS Siamese 7, f. 14

The third section of Alabaster’s catalogue on “Novels and Dramas” is the most extensive part, containing descriptions of ten manuscripts:

- MSS Siamese 8 “Hoi Sang vol. 1. The Adventures of Prince Hoi Sang. His escape from the city of the genies and his marriage with Princess Ruchana” (หอยสังข์), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Prince Hoi Sang is born in a conch shell, similar to the hero of the story of Sang Sinchai.
- MSS Siamese 9 “I-hnao vol. 4. A Drama founded on Malayan or Javanese legends” (อิเหนา), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster gives a summary of the text which is a popular Thai version of the Javanese Panji tales.
- MSS Siamese 10 “Phra Unarut vol. 5. The fight of King Unarut with the Genie King whose daughter has eloped with him” (พระอุณรุท), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster notes that this is a Thai version of the story of King Anirut (Aniruddha) and Queen Usa.
- MSS Siamese 11 “Dara Suriwong vol. 1. The loves of Prince Dara and the Princess with the fragrant hair” (ดารา สุริวงศ์), black paper folding book, 66 fols., no date. Story of a prince who finds a casket containing a lock of fragrant hair and his search for the hair’s owner who turns out to be the daughter of the King of Benares.
- MSS Siamese 12 “Suwannahong vol. 13. Prince Suwannahong and his angel wives” (สุวรรณหงส์), black paper folding book, 56 fols., no date. Alabaster provides a summary of the story of the prince and his three jealous wives.
- MSS Siamese 13 “Samut Niyai Phra Si Muang vol. 1. The Story of Prince Si Muang and the wonderful Hong Bird” (พระศรีเมือง), white paper folding book, 82 fols., no date. Story of a prince who possesses a talking bird (hamsa) that leads him to study with a hermit, who then seeks a wife for the prince.
- MSS Siamese 14 “Thao Sawatthi Racha vol. 1. The King of Sravasti and his white elephant” (ท้าวสาวัตถีราชา), white paper folding book, 56 fols., contains a later added date, 1817, “which is probably the time at which it passed into foreign hands”. Story of the King of Sawatthi, whose twin sons were born while he spent many years in the jungle to look for his escaped white elephant.
- MSS Siamese 15 “Thepha Lin Thong vols. 1 and 2. The Adventures of Prince Thepha Lin Thong” (เทพลินทอง), white paper folding book, 76 fols., no date. Alabaster notes that it was “written by some foreigner, probably a Portuguese in romanized Siamese”.
- MSS Siamese 16 “Another volume of the same work” (MSS Siamese 15), white paper folding book, 58 fols., no date. “Written in ink in Siamese character, the form of the letters slightly differing from the forms now in vogue. Mentioned by Pallegoix in his list of Siamese Books as ‘King Lin Thong’”. Alabaster gives a detailed two-page summary of this story.
- MSS Siamese 17/a-b “Sang Sin Chai vols. III and V. The story of Prince Sang Sinchai, possessor of the magic shell, the magic bow, and the magic sword” (สังข์ศิลป์ชัย), black paper folding books, 44 fols. (a) and 42 fols. (b), date not stated. Alabaster provides a very short summary of the story and mentions that “The first, second and fourth volumes have got separated and are now in the British Museum numbered 12261, 12262a; and 12264 of the Additional manuscripts”. What he refers to are three manuscripts acquired for the British Museum in January 1842 from Thomas Rodd, a London bookseller, as part of the collection of Scotsman Sir John MacGregor Murray (1745-1822) who served in the British establishment in Bengal from 1770 to 1797 and brought back a vast collection of Persian, Arakanese, Pali-Burmese and few Thai manuscripts. It is certain that MSS Siamese 17/a-b, and possibly other manuscripts described in Alabaster’s catalogue, were originally part of Murray’s collection – especially the legal texts in section 1 since Murray had a particular interest in such.

One opening of the Romanised version of “Thepha Lin Thong” written in black ink in a white paper folding book
One opening of the Romanised version of “Thepha Lin Thong” written in black ink in a white paper folding book. British Library, MSS Siamese 15, f.9

After completion of his “Catalogue of Siamese manuscripts”, Alabaster was determined to return to Bangkok. He rejected offers of posts in Cayenne and Saigon, and by April 1872 was deemed to have resigned from the British consular service. The reason was that he had been invited back to Siam by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) to work in the King’s service. In May 1872 he was on a ship back to Bangkok, and on 15 November 1872 Alabaster wrote in a letter to MP Charles W Dilke that the Siamese government had recognised his position and that he was helping to facilitate the conclusion of the Chiang Mai Treaty (British Library, Add MS 43885, p. 247).

In the years until his untimely death in 1884 due to a sudden illness, Henry Alabaster made significant contributions to the modernisation of Thailand. In an announcement of his death in the Straits Times Weekly, 10 September 1884, his achievements were highlighted as follows:
“This gentleman who has been in the country for almost thirty years, was known and highly esteemed by everybody. He might, indeed, claim to have been for a long time the most prominent foreign personage in Bangkok, on account of his great influence as well as for the high offices he held for many years. He was His Majesty’s librarian, the director of the Royal Museum, the Royal Surveyor, the Administrator of Royal Parks and Gardens, the Superintendent of Roads and Bridges, and the First Official Interpreter of the King. In this delicate position especially he knew well how to command the full confidence and the highest esteem of the Sovereign, who often applied to him for advice …”

Watercolour sketch of Wa Kor observatory by Palacia Alabaster
Watercolour sketch of Wa Kor observatory by Palacia Alabaster, 1868. The National Archives, TNA, FO 69/46. Photo courtesy of Padej Kumlertsakul.

Especially for the future of the Thai library sector, Henry Alabaster played a crucial role as the King’s librarian who took the lead in cataloguing the royal collection of manuscripts and books. He instructed his Thai assistants in Western standards of cataloguing and classification, which he had learned from Reinhold Rost in order to create the “Catalogue of Siamese Manuscripts” for the India Office Library.

Alabaster left behind two families: three children by his English wife, Palacia; and two by his Thai wife, Perm. In a handwritten condolence letter  to Mrs Alabaster, King Chulalongkorn informed her, in English, that the funeral was to be conducted with all the honours of the First Class Phya, and a monument of European style would be erected at the place of Alabaster’s burial. Nearly three decades later, when King Vajiravudh (Rama Vl) introduced the use of surnames in 1913, Alabaster’s Thai family was given the name ‘Savetsila’, a literal translation of the word ‘alabaster’.

Henry Alabaster’s memorial inscription at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok reads:
“To Henry Alabaster, formerly of H.B.M.’s Consular Service, afterwards in that of His Majesty the King of Siam by whom this monument was erected in recognition of faithful service.
Born A.D.1836 - Died A.D.1884.
A prophet is not without honour, save in his own country.”

Henry Alabaster’s memorial erected by King Chulalongkorn (left) and bust (right) at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok
Henry Alabaster’s memorial erected by King Chulalongkorn (left) and bust (right) at the Protestant Cemetery in Bangkok, just a short distance from his grave, 2024. Photos courtesy of Jason Rolan.

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

References and further reading
Igunma, Jana: Reunited at last: a classical Thai verse novel from Ayutthaya (published 25 April 2022)
Alabaster, Henry. Henry Alabaster of Siam: correspondence 1857-1884 and career. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2009.
Alabaster, John S. Henry Alabaster of Siam 1836-1884: serving two masters. [Great Britain]: Alabaster Society, 2012.
Correspondence of Henry Alabaster and Palacia Alabaster (accessed 14 May 2023)

24 June 2024

Art Fund New Collecting Award: Collecting Arab Visual Cultures (1960 to Today)

In 2022, I was awarded Art Fund’s New Collecting Award to support a two-year research-based collecting project.

Aiming to support curators and their professional development, the New Collecting Awards provide individuals with funding to research and buy works that will grow their museums’ collections in new directions or deepen existing holdings. The programme responds to the need for ongoing collections development in museums, underpinned by curatorial experience, vision and ambition.

My project, ‘Collecting Arab Visual Cultures (1960 to Today),’ has aimed to enhance the British Library’s collections of modern and contemporary visual culture from the Arab world. Taking a research-based collecting approach and through network-building in the Middle East and North Africa, the project has acquired book-objects in diverse formats, such as artists’ books, photobooks, zines, comics and graphic novels, children’s books and print ephemera. Produced by established as well as new and emerging artists and creatives in the region and diaspora communities, this material conveys urgent local and universal issues. These new acquisitions contribute to diversifying and globalising UK museum and library collections. As part of the project, I have received the generous expert guidance and mentorship of Dr Zeina Maasri, Senior Lecturer in History of Art at the University of Bristol.

Since 2022, over 200 new items for the British Library’s collections for the British Library’s collections. This blog post isn’t intended to give an exhaustive list of acquisitions (since they will all be discoverable in due course in the British Library’s catalogue), rather it aims to provides a window into some of these new acquisitions.


Artists’ Books

Artists around the world use the form of the book as a mode of artistic expression, often collaborating with writers, poets and other artists. As part of the project, we have added to the collection a number of artists’ books and other artist-led publications by creative practitioners from the Arab world, often produced in small print runs or limited editions. For example, Abdallah Benanteur (1931-2017) was one of Algeria’s leading painters and printmakers who produced over 1300 artist’s books over the course of his career. Previously, the British Library did not hold any of his artist’s books in its collection. However, through the project we have acquired three.


Four pages of map-like patterns arranged in quadrants with various earth tones showing patches of colour of various opacities

Abdallah Benanteur and Henri Kréa, Désespoir des causes, exigences pratiques: poème (Paris : L'Astrolabe1964), ORB.30/9463, ©Abdallah Benanteur and Henri Kréa; Abdallah Benanteur and Monique Boucher, Abdallah Benanteur: gravures (Paris : Galerie Herbinet, 1964), ORB.30/9464, ©Abdallah Benanteur and Monique Boucher (presented by the Art Fund)


Zines are often small-circulation, self-published works, including original and appropriate texts and images, often produced using DIY methods by individuals or collectives. The British Library has been actively collecting zines from the United Kingdom, yet our collection of zines from the Arab world has been relatively undeveloped. This project has allowed the Library to grow its collection of zines from the Arab world, helping it to better-reflect the publishing landscape of the region.


Three covers and one two-page spread of zines, all with text in English and Arabic, some featuring text in red, otherwise with black and white imagery

Haven for Artists, ManbouZine = Manbūẓīn (Beirut : Haven for Artists, 2022-23), ©Haven for Artists (presented by the Art Fund)


Photobooks and Photozines

Photobooks and photozines are books and zines in which photographic images make a significant contribution to the overall content of publication. Often documenting and bearing witness to historic events, communities, subcultures or narrating the author’s lived experience, they have been published in the Arab world and diaspora communities since the 1960s and are a growing form of publication today.

For example, I don't recognize me in the shadows (2020) by the Yemeni documentary photographer and storyteller Thana Faroq explores her own journey leaving war-torn Yemen and seeking asylum in the Netherlands. In the photozine Marrākush fawqa skīt būrd [Marrakech on a skateboard] (2022), the Moroccan photographer Yassine Sallame documents the skateboarding scene in Morocco. While in Cacti = Ṣubār (2023), which sits somewhere between a photobook, photozine and artist’s book in its form, Rasha Al Jundi and Michael Jabareen create a visual protest against the silencing of Palestinian voices in Germany.

Black and white portait of an individual in tradition maghribi dress with Arabic text in the foregroundBlack and white images of a person’s face with small area of colour photograph to the left and black and white image beside herBlack and white image of man looking at the camera through crack in masonry with text in English and Arabic vertically on right-hand side

(Left) Yassine Sallame, Marrākush fawqa skīt būrd (Paris: Á la Maison, 2022), ORB.30/9525, ©Yassine Sallame (presented by the Art Fund); (Middle) Rasha Al Jundi and Michael Jabareen, Cacti  = Ṣubār (Ramallah, Berlin : 2023), ©Rasha Al Jundi and Michael Jabareen (presented by the Art Fund); (Right) Thana Faroq, I don't recognize me in the shadows ([Eindhoven] : Lecturis, 2020), ©Thana Farooq (presented by the Art Fund).


Comics and graphic novels

The British Library’s Arabic section has been actively collecting comics and graphic novels from the Arab world since 2015 and this was the subject of an exhibition, Comics and Cartoon Art From The Arab World, which was held in 2017 as part of the Shubbak Festival. The New Collecting Award project has allowed the Library to further develop this area of the collection through acquiring recently published comics and graphic novels, as well as filling gaps in the collection of previously published materials.


Colour image of accordion book with drawings and text in French Colour two-page spread of printed items with 8-bit style graphic of heart with swords through it on left and panels of comic on right

(Left) Mazen Kerbaj, Une partie de scrable (Beirut: La Cd-thèque, 2003), ORB.30/9529, ©Mazen Kerbaj (presented by the Art Fund); (Right) Comic strip by Mloukhiyyé Al Fil in Samandal's Cutes: Collected Queer and Trans Comics (Berlin : Distanz, 2023), ©Mloukhiyyé Al Fil (presented by the Art Fund)


Children’s books

The British Library has not traditionally collected children’s books in Arabic. However, an exception to this has been made for the purpose of this project because children’s books are often sites of exciting and innovative collaboration between writers and artists, particularly since the 1960s in the Arab world. For example, the publishing house Dār al-Fatá al-ʻArabī, founded in Beirut in 1974 through the Palestine Liberation Organization, brought together prominent writers, artists and designers to produce children’s books combining striking visuals with radical politics. Today, the award-winning independent Lebanese publisher, Dar Onboz, founded in Beirut in 2006 by Nadine Touma and Sivine Ariss, works with artists, writers and designers to produce children’s books which can often been seen as art objects in their own right.


Two-page spread in colour with drawings of munitions on green background on left and large numeral nine over auburn background on rightTwo-page colour spread of knight attacking mythical beast with sword on right and text in Arabic in black ink on left

(Left) Joan Baz, Count to 10 with: I went looking for Palestine but I found (Beirut: Dar Onboz, 2014), ©Joan Baz (presented by the Art Fund); (Right) Ḥasan Sharīf, al-Fallāḥ wa-al-tanīn, illustrated by Nazir Nabaa (Beirut: Dār al-Fatá al-ʻArabī, 1977), ©Ḥasan Sharīf (presented by the Art Fund).


Print ephemera

Beyond the book, other more ephemeral print-objects, such as posters and pamphlets have been acquired through the project. These have been collected both for their informational and documentary value as well as for their visual and artistic value. For example, a poster produced by the Plastic Arts Section of the Palestine Liberation Organization documents the Art for Palestine exhibition held at the Beirut Arab University between 21 March and 5 April 1978 and includes visuals by the Moroccan artist Mohammed Melehi. A pamphlet documents a 1985 exhibition in Kuwait by the Jordanian sculptor, artist and activist Mona Saudi who was the former head of the PLO’s Plastic Arts Section. While a curious set of ‘cinderella stamps’—labels that resembles postage stamps not issued for postal purposes—issued by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine documents the organisation’s visual politics in early 1970s.

Black and white two-page spread of text and imagesColour poster with text in black and white at top and vertical bands of black, green, red, and white and flames of same colours at bottomA sheet of colour stamps each featuring portraits of different individuals, twenty-five images in total

(Left) Mona Saudi (Kuwait: National Council for Culture, Arts & Letters, 1985), ©National Council for Culture, Arts & Letters of the State of Kuwait (presented by the Art Fund); (Middle) Plastic Arts Section, Art for Palestine (Beirut: PLO, 1978), ©Palestine Liberation Organization (presented by the Art Fund); (Right) PFLP, Sheet of ‘cinderella stamps’ (1970?), ©Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (presented by the Art Fund)


Daniel Lowe, Arabic Curator


The Collecting Arab Visual Cultures Project was supported by the Art Fund.

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Further reading

Lena Bopp, ‘Dar Onboz' cases full of exquisite Arabic picture books’,, [accessed 13/05/2024]

Hassan Khan, Mohieddin Ellabbad and Nawal Traboulsi, ‘Revolution for Kids: Dar El Fata El Arabi, recollected’, Bidoun, [accessed 13/05/2024]

Kristine Khouri and Rasha Salti (eds.), Past disquiet: artists, international solidarity and museums in exile (Warsaw: Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, 2018)

Zeina Maasri, Cosmopolitan radicalism: the visual politics of Beirut's global sixties (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020)

Maha Maamoun and Ala Younis (eds.), How to maneuver: shapeshifting texts and other publishing tactics (Abu Dhabi : Warehouse421, 2021)

Venetia Porter, Artists making books: poetry to politics (London: British Museum, 2023)