Asian and African studies blog

10 posts from October 2013

31 October 2013

Opening up the Hebrew manuscript collection

This summer saw the beginning of a major project to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held in the  British Library.  Funded mainly by the Polonsky Foundation, the three-year project aims to make these invaluable manuscripts freely available to scholars and the public worldwide.  The manuscripts are being photographed in-house by the Library’s Imaging Services team, and stored in preservation format.  Detailed catalogue records will be available for each manuscript, to enable users to search by various fields such as date, place of origin, author/scribe and keywords to find manuscripts of relevance to their work. All manuscripts will be displayed in their entirety on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site free of charge.  We will also create a special ‘tour’ of the manuscripts on the website, highlighting aspects and themes of the collection in order to introduce it to wider audiences.

Acknowledged as one of the finest and most important in the world, the British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts collection is a vivid testimony to the creativity and intense scribal activities of Eastern and Western Jewish communities spanning  over 1,000 years.  In the collection there are  well over 3,000 individual objects, though for this project we are focusing on just 1,250 manuscripts. 

Hebrew Bible, Italy, 13th century, decorated opening  to the Book of Isaiah.  British Library, Harley 5711, f.1r.  noc

The collection is strong in all major areas of Hebrew literature, with Bible, liturgy, kabbalah, Talmud, Halakhah (Jewish law), ethics, poetry, philosophy and philology being particularly well represented. Its geographical spread is vast and takes in Europe, North Africa, the Middle and Near East, and various countries in Asia, such as Iran, Iraq, Yemen and China. Included in the project are codices (the large majority), Torah scrolls and Scrolls of the Book of Esther.  Hebrew is the predominant language of the material to be digitised; however, manuscripts that were copied in other Jewish languages utilizing Hebrew script, such as Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic,  Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish,  Yiddish, and others, have also been included in the project.

The Duke of Sussex’s Italian Bible, Italy, 1448, The Song of the Sea, Exodus 15.  British Library, Add. 15251, f. 49v.  noc

The collection contains numerous items of international significance, including the following:
  • Over 300 important biblical manuscripts including the London Codex dating from c. 10th century, one of the oldest Masoretic Bibles in existence and the Torah Scroll of the Jewish community of Kaifeng.
  • Anglo-Jewish charters in Hebrew and Hebrew/Latin attesting to the Jewish presence in England before the expulsion of the Jewish population in 1290 by King Edward I. They include debt acquittances (releases from debt), attestations (formal confirmations by signature), and other types of contractual transactions between Jews and non-Jews.
  • A collection of 142 Karaite manuscripts, one of the best Karaite resources in the world, comparable only to the Abraham Firkovitch Karaite manuscript collection in St. Petersburg.
  • Some 150 illuminated and decorated manuscripts representing the schools of medieval Hebrew illumination in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Treasures include the Golden Haggadah, the Lisbon Bible, the North French Hebrew Miscellany, the Duke of Sussex German Pentateuch, the Harley Catalan Bible, and the King’s Spanish Bible.
  • About 70 manuscripts containing texts of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Jewish legal code),  and  about 130 manuscript compendia and commentaries on Talmudic and Halakhic topics by some of the greatest Jewish luminaries such as Moses Maimonides, Rashi, Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, Isaac of Corbeil, and others. Many of these manuscripts date from the 14th and 15th centuries, with some dating back to the 12th century.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies 


28 October 2013

War cartoons and propaganda from North Vietnam

During the early stage of the Vietnam War in the 1960’s, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) had two urgent tasks.  The first was to produce enough food to supply their armed forces as well as the population as a whole, in order to ease the early days of the transformation of North Vietnam into a communist state.  The second task was to prepare the country for war, especially after the United States of America became involved.  To achieve these two goals, the regime in Hanoi tried various means of communicating with the people in order to maximise their capability to contribute to the successes of the country.  It was stressed that it was not only men who could contribute to this noble task, but all sectors of society, including women, youths and the various ethnic groups.

Under the strict socialist regime, different forms of regulated and controlled media, including newspapers and magazines, were used to help the government to meet this objective. Both content and illustrations in the media always emphasized the successes of the war and of food production, to boost the morale of the public during a difficult period. At the same time, they never failed to ridicule their enemies, whether the American or South Vietnamese administrations.

The British Library holds a small but rich collection of provincial and local newspapers from North Vietnam, published by local branches of the Vietnamese Workers’ Party from 1964 to 1965.  Illustrations from newspapers and journals in this collection demonstrate how the communist regime in the North used printed media in light-handed way to encourage the population to assist the state in achieving these two goals, in the form of cartoons and drawings.  Some of these are shown below; the English translations of the Vietnamese captions are my own.

‘US territory stretches to the 17th parallel of Vietnam,’ President Ngô Ðinh Diệm of the Republic of Vietnam announces at New York on 13 May 1957.  Văn, no. 5, 7 June 1957, front page.  British Library, SEA.1986.c.60.   noc

Madam Ngô Ðình Nhu presents her female army: ‘Your Excellency, my female soldiers are all virgins. They all have a doctor’s certificate to prove it, and are ready to be handed over to Your Excellency for “practice”’.  Văn Nghệ Quân Ðội, no.12, December 1962, page 27.  British Library, 16684.a.3.  noc

‘You join the army to kill the enemies / You go to the frontier zone / We have to say good-bye now, wait for the victory day / At home (we) women will manage to take care of other business.’  Hải Dương Mới, no.314, 12 May 1965, page 4.  British Library, SU224/18.  noc

‘Applying fertilizer to the soil to get a good yield of winter crops.’ Hà Giang, no.355, 9 September 1965, page 2.  British Library, SU224/17.  noc

‘Protected from the rain and kept out of the heat during the day / To allow us to thresh and dry out crops / To fulfil our responsibility to the country / ‘Fighting America’ to save the country – we have contributed.’ Hải Dương Mới, no.318, 26 May 1965, page 4.  British Library, SU224/18.  noc

‘Push up production, prepare for fighting the war’.  Hải Dương Mới, 21 July 1965, front page.  British Library, SU224/18.   noc

‘President Johnson’s toast for peace.’  Khoa Học Thường Thực, no.177, 15 May 1965, page 8.  British Library, SU220/13.   noc

Further reading

Sud Chonchirdsin, ‘Cartoons and propaganda from North Vietnam during the early stage of the Vietnam War’, SEALG newsletter, no.44 December 2012, pp.6-21

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese

25 October 2013

Ramayana Re-Imagined

Mon 28 Oct 2013, 18.30-20.00

Centre for Conservation, British Library

Price: £7.50 / £5 concessions

Book now

The Ramayana is one of the great epics of the ancient world, with versions spanning the cultures, religions and languages of Asia. Its story of Rama’s quest to recover his wife Sita from her abduction by Ravana, the Lord of the Underworld, has enchanted readers and audiences across the Eastern world for thousands of years.


Hanuman was perplexed as to how he could speak to Sita, surrounded as she was by demon guardians. Perched in his tree, he began to recite Rama’s praises. Sita was at first confused by him and thought he might be Ravana in one of his disguises. But she is then comforted by Hanuman, when he reveals himself to her as Rama’s messenger and gives her Rama’s ring. (I.O. San 3621, f. 4 recto)


Award-winning poet Daljit Nagra, reading from his new version of the Ramayana, is joined by storyteller Vayu Naidu and musician, Ranjana Ghatak, for an evening of poetry and music to mark the British Library’s involvement with Indian partners to digitally reunify one of the most lavishly produced manuscripts of this story.

Daljit Nagra was born and raised in West London, then Sheffield. He currently lives in Harrow with his wife and daughters and works in a secondary school. His first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover!, won the 2007 Forward Prize for Best First Collection and was shortlisted for the Costa Poetry Award. In 2008 he won the South Bank Show/Arts Council Decibel Award. Tippoo Sultan’s Incredible White-Man-Eating Tiger Toy-Machine!!! was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize 2011. Captivated by versions of the Ramayana his grandparents regaled him with as a child, he has created a vivid and enthralling version of this own.

Vayu Naidu is an accomplished storyteller, writer, performer and teacher. Her art of storytelling is derived from the Indic oral tradition and its energy comes quite simply through the telling, not reading, of a story. She has written for radio, television and theatre; appeared in films and her short stories have been published by The Critical Quarterly and Virago. Her novel, Sita’s Ascent, launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival this year, is an exposition on one of the key characters at the heart of the Ramayana.

London born Ranjana Ghatak trained in North Indian singing, whilst immersing herself in the life and sounds of contemporary Britain. Her 2011 debut EP, Awakenin, juxtaposes the beauty of sacred Indian vocal music with dynamic yet sensitive arrangements. Having studied under Pandit Ajoy Chakrabarty, she has subsequently performed with Akram Khan and Nitin Sawhney, and toured nationally and internationally. In this performance Ranjana sings couplets from different versions of the Ramayana in various South Asian languages. She will be accompanied by the tabla.

In association with South Asian Literature Festival


24 October 2013

Hikayat Raja Pasai: the oldest Malay history

When in around 1345 Ibn Battuta spent two weeks in the kingdom of Pasai on the northeast coast of Sumatra, he wrote of the courtly treatment and rich hospitality he received from Sultan Malik al-Zahir. It was this ruler’s father, Merah Silau, who embraced Islam at the end of the 13th century and took the name Sultan Malik al-Salih.  Although Muslims had been present in Southeast Asia for centuries, this was the first time that a Malay ruler had converted, and thus Pasai is renowned as the earliest Islamic kingdom in Southeast Asia.

The story of the coming of Islam to Pasai is recounted in the Hikayat Raja Pasai, which is the oldest known historical chronicle written in the Malay language, and is believed to have been composed in the 15th century.  Only two manuscripts of this text are known: a copy made for Raffles in 1815, now in the Royal Asiatic Society in London, and an earlier manuscript in the British Library (Or. 14350), copied in Semarang on the north coast of Java in 1797, which has now been fully digitised. 

The opening page of Hikayat Raja Pasai.  British Library, Or. 14350, f.45v.  noc

The first part of Or. 14350 contains the Hikayat Raja Handik – in other manuscripts called Handak or Khandak – a well-known heroic tale in Malay about the early wars of Islam fought by the Prophet.  This text bears exceptionally detailed introductory and closing remarks that contribute greatly to our understanding of the context of production and consumption of Malay manuscripts.  The opening exhortations are addressed to a very mixed audience of men and women, Malays and Makassarese, and also peranakan: locally-born Chinese, who had often intermarried with indigenous Southeast Asians.  In the colophon, we are told that the manuscript was copied by Encik Usman, son of the Malay scribe in Makassar, in the house of Encik Johar in the Kampung Melayu of Semarang, at the request of Encik Usep of Kampung Belikang in Makassar, from an original manuscript owned by Abdullah, the Kapitan Melayu of Semarang.  This richly-detailed account affords us a tantalizing glimpse of a complex inter-island network of manuscript owners, patrons and scribes, linking the cosmopolitan ports of the archipelago.  The manuscript itself is well-thumbed, with little red crosses in the margins perhaps indicating the point of the tale reached in a night’s recitation.

The colophon of Hikayat Raja Handik, identifying the scribe, patron and owner of the original from which the present manuscript was copied, in the Malay quarter in Semarang on 8 Syaaban 1211 (6 February 1797). British Library, Or. 14350, f.45r.  noc

2013 June Aceh (85)
The grave of Sultan Malik al-Salih, the first Muslim ruler of Pasai, who died in 1297, and in the background the grave of his son Sultan Malik al-Zahir.  Photograph A. Gallop, June 2013.

Further reading

A.H. Hill, ‘Hikayat Raja-raja Pasai: a revised romanised version of Raffles MS 67, together with an English translation’, Journal of the Malayan Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1960, 33 (2): [1]-215.
E.U. Kratz, ‘Hikayat Raja Pasai: a second manuscript’, Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1989, 62 (1):1-10.
Russell Jones, (ed.), Hikayat Raja Pasai (Kuala Lumpur: Yayasan Karyawan and Fajar Bakti, 1999).
Hermansyah, ‘Terkuburnya naskah Hikayat Raja Pasai’, 2 Feb 2013 [blogpost]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asian studies


23 October 2013

Review of the 9th Annual Conference of the Islamic Manuscript Association

The Islamic Manuscript Association
is an organisation that promotes the cataloguing, digitisation, preservation, and research of Islamic manuscripts throughout the world.  This year’s conference focused on manuscripts of the Mamluk Empire and its contemporaries.  From September 2nd to the 4th, researchers, conservators, curators and librarians from across the world gathered to share their knowledge on this topic at Magdalene College, Cambridge.  The conference’s programme included 25 papers, of which I will discuss a selection in this blog.

Highlights included the presentation of Prof. Frédéric Bauden (Sorbonne – Paris IV), whose talk, “Manuscript Paper Formats of the Mamluk Period: The Contribution of Mamluk Chancery Paper,” identified the author of a unique manuscript on Mamluk-era chancery practice, al-Thaghr al-Bāsim fī Ṣina’at al-Kātib was al-Kātim , as al-Saḥmawī (d. 868/1464).  Using al-Qalqashandī’s well-known chancery manual, Ṣubḥ al-‘Āsha’ in conjunction with al-Saḥmawī’s work, Dr. Bauden established that certain of  J. von Karabaček’s calculations in his 1887 Das Arabische Papier were mistaken and are in need of revision. Throughout his paper, Dr. Bauden demonstrated the importance of chancery paper measurements for the study of Mamluk-era manuscripts.

Dr. Élise Franssen’s (University of Liège) paper, “Al-Ṣafadī: His Personality, Methodology, and Literary Tastes Approached Through His Tadhkira,”  received a very positive response from the audience and elicited much praise from those present.  Dr. Franssen focused on an autograph volume of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Khalīl Aybāk al-Ṣafadī’s (1297-1363) Tadhkira  that she described aptly as the author’s commonplace book, in which al-Ṣafadī recorded texts he found interesting, appreciated on an aesthetic level, or wanted to incorporate into his own work.   In her paper, Dr. Franssen demonstrated how the study of this autograph lends insight into a Mamluk scholar’s method of dealing with texts.

Dr. Muhammad Issa al-Sharafeen’s (Al-Bayt University, Jordan) paper, “The Copyist in the Mamluk Period,” examined the role of copyists – in contrast to calligraphers – in the production of manuscripts.  Dr. Sharafeen discussed many aspects of the manuscript production process that will interest codicologists, for instance the number of manuscripts that particular Mamluk-era scribes produced, the length of time it took for certain scribes to copy texts, and also the importance of accuracy in the professional practices of copyists and the mechanisms for correcting errors.  Dr. Sharafeen also established the identity of a scribe counterfeiting the famous calligrapher Ibn Bawwāb’s hand, casting light on an interesting example of historical forgery.  

Mr. Christopher Braun (Warburg Institute), currently pursuing a PhD, presented a paper entitled, “In Seach of Buried Riches: Arabic Manuscripts on Treasure Hunting in Medieval Islamic Egypt.”  While the extant manuscripts on treasure hunting date from the 18th and 19th century, the texts they contain are often much earlier, from the Mamluk and perhaps the Fatimid era.  These texts often included, in addition to instructions on where to locate the treasure, various incantations and techniques of divination in order to open the tombs in which the treasures were supposedly held.  His paper explored how these treatises may have been employed and some of the possible reasons for their creation, such as profiting from those gullible enough to purchase such manuscripts.

Dr. Osamu Otsuka’s (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) presentation, “A Forgotten Ilkhanid Historical Work: Abū al-Qāsim Kāshānī’s Zubdat al-Tawārīkh,” challenged the current understanding of Ilkhanid historiography by examining a neglected author, Abū al-Qāsim Kāshānī (d. 1335 AD) and his comprehensive history, the Zubdat al-Tawārīkh, written for the seventh Ilkhanid ruler, Ghāzān Khān (r. 1294-1304 AD) .   Dr. Otsuka compared this work with the well-studied Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh of Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1318 AD) and argued that through a process of textual borrowing (what we today would call plagiarism but was common practice in the writing of historical chronicles in the premodern world), Rashīd al-Dīn adapted large parts of Kāshānī’s more comprehensive Zubdat al-Tawārīkh into his Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh.  Because of the similarity between the two works, scholars have often deduced that the opposite was the case, that Kāshānī’s work was the less original of the two, and Rashīd al-Dīn was the great chronicler; however, Dr. Otsuka sought to establish Kāshānī’s rightful place in Ilkhanid historiography.

While the above brief description of a selection of papers from the conference does not give justice to the breadth and depth of scholarship presented in Magdalene College, it should give the reader an idea of the variety of topics that were addressed over the three days.  A suggestion to TIMA would be to publish the conference proceedings, as many of the papers are very useful manuscript curators and researchers.

Further events included a speech by Dr. Iman Ezz el-Din Ismail (General Director of the Egyptian National Library, Bāb al-Khalq) on the receipt of UNESCO protected heritage status for her institution’s collection of Mamluk Qur’ans.  Workshops were also offered on digitistion and on how to contribute to a new world-wide union catalogue of Islamic manuscripts.

 Next year’s conference will be held again at Madgalene College from August 31st to September 2nd, 2014, and the topic will be Manuscripts and Conflict.

TIMA poster_Arabic

Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies
Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork - See more at:
Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork - See more at:

17 October 2013

Early studies of the Malay language

Among the Malay manuscripts in the British Library collections which have been digitised and can now be accessed online are several studies of the Malay language by European scholars. 

The earliest is a Malay grammar by William Mainstone, who served with the East India Company in Banten, Makassar and Jambi in the 17th century.  Mainstone has also been identified as the owner of a Malay manuscript of the Hikayat Muhammad Hanafiah in Cambridge University Library.  In 1682 he compiled a ‘Gramatica Mallayo-Anglica’ which is now in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Ashmole 1808), but the British Library holds a copy (Add. 7043) made by John Haddon Hindley (1765–1827) in the early 19th century (although undated it is written on English paper watermarked ‘G Jones 1805’).  Hindley was librarian of the Chetham Library in Manchester, where he was inspired by the rich collections of Oriental manuscripts to study Persian, which may have awakened his interest in Malay.  In copying out Mainstone’s grammar, Hindley appears to have deliberately left blank pages in between, on which he could practise writing a few Malay words.

Personal pronouns, and their socially-appropriate use, from the Malay grammar by William Mainstone, 1682, copied by John Hindley, early 19th c..  British Library, Add 7043, f.57r.  noc

Next in date are two Malay vocabularies, contained in Egerton 933.  The first item in this composite volume, occuping ff.1r-23r,  is a romanised Malay and English vocabulary entitled Kitab Malayo, compiled by ‘F.E.’ and dated 1731.  A second Malay item in the manuscript, on ff. 27r-31v, is a work entitled Ingatan Deri Pada Commissaries Gouverneur, Ingatang dery Bahasa Engres dan bahasa Malaijoe. 1815.  Together with a Malay and English vocabulary and phrasebook is a diary of events for the month of Oct. 1815, called Ingatang dery apa jang suda djadij harij-harij, including the arrival of news of the escape and return to France of ‘Bonapartij’ and the activities of several Dutch and Englishmen.  Nothing is known of the authors of either work.  The volume was previously in the library of Dr Adam Clarke (1762-1832), a Methodist minister and noted Biblical and Oriental scholar, some of whose manuscripts were acquired by the British Museum in 1842.

Malay vocabulary by ‘F.E.’, 1731.  Egerton 933, f.1r (detail).  noc

The last manuscript, Or. 4575, is a  romanised French-Malay vocabulary, probably compiled in the early 19th century.  At the end of the volume are two pages with Malay pantun (quatrains), the last of which is the following (in modernised orthography):
kura-kura dalam perahu / kalau ginkgen mati bediri
pura-pura tidak mau / gelap buta datang sendiri
In the boat the turtle lies / the ginkgen expires if placed upright
she pretends to despise / but willingly comes at dead of night

Malay pantun at the end of a French-Malay vocabulary, early 19th c.  British Library, Or. 4575, f.35v (detail).  noc

The volume is accompanied by a letter from Sir Woodbine Parish to a Revd. W. Barnes of Dorchester, sending him ‘the vocabulary of a South American language – though of what language I cannot say – I obtained it accidentally without any further account of it’ (f.3r).  Parish (1796-1882) was a British diplomat active on the continent in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars, and who later served in Argentina.  William Barnes (1800-1886) was a Dorsetshire poet, and Parish’s gift of the mysterious unidentified vocabulary can be explained by Barnes’s profound interest in philology and etymology: his Philological Grammar of 1854 draws examples from more than sixty languages. 

Malay manuscripts from the India Office collections due to be digitised in 2014 include word lists collected by Thomas Stamford Raffles and John Leyden, and a proof copy of Thomas  Bowrey’s 1701 dictionary of Malay, with manuscript annotations by the Oxford scholar Thomas Hyde.  Watch this space!

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asian studies

14 October 2013

New exhibition opens on Zoroastrianism

Anyone who has been in the vicinity of the Brunei Gallery SOAS during the last few weeks could hardly have failed to notice the frenzied activity in preparation for ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’ which opened last Friday (see also my earlier post on this subject). Put together by Sarah Stewart, Lecturer in Zoroastrianism in the Department of the Study of Religions, SOAS, together with Pheroza Godrej, Almut Hintze, Firoza Mistree and myself, it is a first in almost every sense. Not only has the theme, Zoroastrianism from the 2nd millenium until the present date, never been presented in this way before, but the majority of the over 200 exhibits have never been on public view.

Bishop Eznik Kolbac‘i wrote this Refutation of the Sects around 440 AD. His criticism of Zoroastrianism was directed principally against the various forms of dualism. His work is valuable as a contemporary account of the religion at a time when the scriptures were still transmitted orally, a fact which Eznik mentions himself as a reason for the existence of so many conflicting views. The frontispiece of this first edition, published in Smyrna in 1762, shows Eznik instructing his pupils (British Library 17026.b.14)

I first met Sarah almost 30 years ago when we were students together in an elementary Pahlavi (a Middle-Iranian language) class at SOAS! Since then we have often discussed her dream of mounting an exhibition. The more familiar I became with the Zoroastrian material in the British Library, the more impressed I was with the incredibly wide range of materials we had. The Library's unique collection of Zoroastrian sacred texts, collected from the 17th century onwards, had been left untouched since the 19th century and I worked closely with our conservation department to restore them, hoping to get the opportunity to be able to exhibit them! The final choice of what to include was difficult, but I’m glad to say the British Library has made a significant contribution with over 30 major loans.

A 12th or 13th century copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmudic period in Babylonia largely overlapped with the Sasanian empire (224-651 AD) and during this period the Babylonian rabbis shared numerous intellectual and cultural concerns with their neighbours, the Zoroastrian priests at Ctesiphon, capital of the Sasanian empire. These affected matters of civil and criminal law, private law, theology, and even ritual (British Library, Harley 5508, ff.69v-70r)

Several people have asked me what my ‘favourite’ exhibits are! The 7th century BC cuneiform tablet from Nineveh, thought to contain the name of the principal Zoroastrian deity, Ahura Mazda (‘Wise Lord’), and a 4th century Achaemenid document from northern Afghanistan attesting the earliest use of the Zoroastrian day names and offerings for the Farvardin (spirits of the dead) must be amongst the most significant items. Equally impressive are the stunning ossuaries from 7th century Sogdiana and the beautiful Parsi portraits and textiles dating from the 19th century, the result of flourishing trade with China. A gallery on the top floor also includes works by the modern artists Fereydoun Ave, Mehran Zirak and Bijan Saffari. I mentioned a few British Library favourites in a previous post (The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination). Here are a few more:

Yates Thompson 28_f51r
The concept of Zoroaster as a magician or philosopher from the East is widespread in European literature, particularly after the Renaissance with its increased awareness of Greek and Hellenistic literature. This Italian translation by Bono Giamboni of Li Livres dou Trésor by Brunetto Latini (1230–94) dates from 1425. Of Zoroaster he writes: ‘And at that time a master called Canoaster [i.e. Zoroaster] discovered the magic art of spells and other wicked words and wicked things. These and many other things happened during the first two ages of the era that finished in the time of Abraham.’ (British Library, Yates Thompson 28, f. 51r)

‘The woman who didn’t obey her husband’. This engraving, dating from 1798, from the Persian Arda Viraf Nameh (the visionary journey of Viraf the Just to heaven and hell), is displayed in the exhibition alongside the original which is now part of the John Rylands Collection, Manchester (British Library, SV 400, vol. 2 part 3, facing p. 318)

The exhibition is free and open until 15 December, Tuesday- Saturday 10.30 - 17.00 (late night Thursday until 20.00, special Sunday opening on 15 December). For more details, follow these links to the exhibition website and facebook page.

The exhibition catalogue, edited by Sarah Stewart, includes 8 essays and photographs of every item in the exhibition. It is available from the publishers I.B. Tauris and from the SOAS bookshop (at a special discount price of £17).

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

Follow us on Twitter @BLAsia_Africa

10 October 2013

Another Malay ‘Mirror for Princes’

Last month I wrote about Or.13295, a beautiful manuscript of the Taj al-Salatin, ‘Crown of Kings’.  The Taj al-Salatin is a 17th-century Malay work modelled on the Persian genre of ‘Mirrors for Princes’, texts containing moral and ethical advice on good governance for rulers. Or. 13295, which was copied in Penang in 1824, is one of the finest illuminated Malay manuscripts known, and all my attention in that blog post was focussed on its artistic aspects: the exquisitely decorated frames, the accomplished and neat hand of the scribe, and the deluxe binding of red leather and gilt. 

The British Library also holds another manuscript of a shortened version of the Taj al-salatin, Add. 12378, which is much more typical of most Malay manuscripts in being quite plain in its presentation, the lines of text in black ink only enlivened by occasional dashes of red to highlight certain words, for example to indicate the start of a new section. Again, as is the case for most Malay manuscripts, there is no indication of where or when it was copied, but in view of the use of English paper watermarked ‘1803’ and ‘1806’, and the characteristic ‘Kedah’ shape of the letters jim, ca, ha and kha, it is likely that this manuscript was also copied in Penang, where its later owner, John Crawfurd,  was based from 1808 to 1811 in the service of the East India Company.


The opening lines of a shortened version of Taj al-Salatin, addressed firstly to rulers (raja), secondly ministers (menteri), thirdly subjects (rakyat), and fourthly, the readers and future copyists of the book (orang yang menurutkan kitab ini dan menyalinkan kitab ini).  British Library, Add. 12783, f.1v.   noc

Without the distraction of any beautiful decoration, we can focus on the contents of this text, which was written by Bukhari al-Johori in Aceh in 1603.  Its advice on ideals of behaviour for kings, ministers and subjects is illustrated by Qur’anic quotations and through anecdotes (hikayat) about role models such as ancient Sassanian kings, Islamic prophets and the early caliphs, with many references to Persian and Arabic works.  Taj al-Salatin became one of the most popular works in the Islamic courts of the Malay archipelago: over twenty Malay manuscripts are known, as well as translations into Javanese, and it was printed in Batavia (present-day Jakarta) by a Dutch scholar as early as 1827.  The full text of ‘The Crown of Kings’ contains 24 chapters, arranged in four sections, three major and one minor, and the scholar Vladimir Braginsky has suggested that the structural arrangement of the text can be likened to the shape of a traditional Persian crown itself (as depicted in the miniature below from the Shahnama), with the concept of justice as the apex from which radiate outwards the main sections of the text, and their further subdivisions.

Bahram Gur winning the crown, from the Persian epic Shahnama, a manuscript from India, 1437.  British Library, Or.1403, f.363v.   noc

Taj0001 Scan0001
Schematic representation of the structure of the Taj al-Salatin, recalling the radial form of a traditional Persian crown, with the concept of justice at the apex, by Braginsky (2000: 201).  Reproduced with permission from the author.

Chapter 12 of the Taj al-Salatin is devoted to the behaviour of envoys and diplomats, and their need for honesty and integrity.  A good example of the narrative style of the Taj al-Salatin is a cautionary tale retold from the Hikayat Iskandar Zulkarnain, of when Iskandar sent an envoy to King Dara.  On his return, the envoy read out Dara’s reply.  Something struck Iskandar as being suspicious, and he ordered another envoy to write down the statement and report the matter back to Dara.  The letter was returned to Iskandar with the offending word cut out, and Dara’s reply, ‘I cut out the word in the letter because that word is not my word. When I read your letter, your envoy was not present, otherwise I would have had his tongue cut out of his mouth, and so instead I have had the word cut out from the letter (Bermula aku mengeratkan kata ini di dalam surat itu karena kata itu bukan kataku, dan tatkala kubaca surat itu tiada ada hadir pesuruhmu supaya kusuruh kerat lidah pesuruhmu itu, maka aku mengeratkan kata itu yang bukan kata aku).’  Iskandar summoned the offending envoy and, as punishment, ordered his tongue to be cut out.

King Dara’s reply to Iskandar Zulkarnain, from Pasal 12 of Taj al-Salatin.  British Library, Add. 12378, f.42r (detail).

Both manuscripts of the Taj al-Salatin are amongst nearly fifty Malay manuscripts in the British Library now fully accessible online on the Digitised Manuscripts site.

Further reading

Vladimir Braginsky, ‘Tajus Salatin (The Crown of Sultans) of Bukhari al-Jauhari as a canonical work and an attempt to create a Malay literary canon’, The canon in Southeast Asian literatures, ed. D. Smyth (London: Curzon, 2000), pp. 183-209
P.P. Roorda van Eysinga (ed.), De Kroon aller koningen, van Bocharie van Djohor, naar een oud Maleische geschrift vertaald (Batavia: Lands Drukkerij, 1827).
Khalid M. Hussain (ed.),  Taj us-Salatin.  Bukhari al-Jauhari. (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 1992).

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asian studies