Asian and African studies blog

8 posts from April 2016

28 April 2016

An A-Z of Arabic Propaganda

The British Government’s Arabic-Language Output during WWII

Throughout the Second World War, Britain’s Ministry of Information (MOI) produced and disseminated a remarkable assortment of propaganda material in Arabic. The material that it produced was intended to counter pro-Axis sentiment in the Arab World and bolster support for Britain and its allies. This propaganda effort arose largely in response to the German and Italian Governments’ own large scale propaganda campaigns that, with some success (more so Germany than Italy), targeted the Middle East and North Africa from the 1930s onwards.

Abjad al-ḥarb ʻThe alphabet of warʼ (British Library, COI Archive, ‘Arabic A.B.C.’ PP/1/28L).
© British Library, 2016

The German Government broadcast Arabic language radio programmes to the region seven days a week before and throughout the duration of the war. These broadcasts portrayed the Nazis as friends of Islam and staunch supporters of anti-imperialist movements, especially those that were opposed to the British Empire. Unsurprisingly, they found a receptive ear amongst some individuals then under the control of British colonial authorities; notably so after the fall of France in May 1940, when the prospect of Britain losing the war appeared a likely outcome to many. Pro-German sentiment in Iraq and other areas has been well-documented, but the broadcasts also had an impact on the periphery of the region. For example, in Sharjah on the British controlled Trucial Coast (present day UAE), pro-German graffiti was written on walls and large crowds gathered around the palace of its ruler, Shaikh Sultan bin Saqr al-Qasimi, to listen to the German radio broadcasts.

Ministry of Information poster (British Library IOR/R/15/1/35). © British Library, 2016

A wide selection of this MOI material is preserved in the archive of its successor organisation, the Central Office of Information (COI) that since 2000 has been held at the British Library. The contents of the MOI archive – hundreds of pamphlets and posters produced in Arabic, Persian, French, Italian, Russian, Dutch, Spanish and many other languages – demonstrate the large scale and broad scope of the MOI’s propaganda activities during the war. The Arabic language propaganda material produced by the MOI is interesting for the diversity of its form as well as its content. This material includes posters (copies of which have been preserved by chance in the British Library’s India Office Records), pamphlets, satirical cartoons and even lavishly illustrated short stories for children.

One of the most fascinating examples of this propaganda is a pamphlet entitled Alphabet of the War (Abjad al-ḥarb) that contains an illustrated entry for each of the letters of the Arabic alphabet. The entries are a curious assortment of geographical locations (England, USA, Iraq, Egypt and London), people (Churchill, Roosevelt and Hitler), armaments (Battle Ships, Tanks and Fighter Jets) and concepts (including Freedom, Bravery, Corruption and Honesty) that project an image of Britain as the last ‘bastion of freedom’ that is on the path to victory against the Nazi regime and its allies. Unlike many of the MOI’s other publications that were written for a general audience and then simply translated into different languages, this particular pamphlet was clearly written specifically for the Arab world.

Inkiltirā: England – a bastion of freedom and the focal point of the war against injustice and aggression.
Ḥurrīyah: freedom – what Britain fights to defend and secure for all the peoples of the world.
Khiyānah: treachery – Hitler’s favourite weapon with which he tries to enslave the world.

ʻIrāq – an independent Arab state with total independence that is allied to its friend, England and refused to ‘enjoy the privileges’ of the new Nazi regime because it holds fast to its freedom and independence’.
Fasād: Corruption – the primary characteristic of the Nazi Government and what Hitler wants to spread around the world.
Qūwah: force – the only thing that is understood and feared by the Nazis.

Miṣr: Egypt – a completely sovereign and independent state that is Britain’s sincere ally in war and peace.
Hitlar – he is the arch-enemy of God and humanity’s greatest enemy.
Ya’s: despair – the feeling in Hitler’s heart whenever he sees Britain and her allies increasing their force and power, when it is clear to him that the decisive victory will be on the side of the Democracies.

In the entry for Hitler, the Nazi leader is described as the ‘arch-enemy’ of God, and the entry for treachery (khiyānah) states that he is trying to ‘enslave the world’. In another entry (corruption/fasād) the Nazi regime is portrayed as morally degenerate; its soldiers depicted drinking alcohol and dancing with scantily clad women, an image presumably intended as an affront to the religious beliefs and perceived social conservatism of the Arab world.

The pamphlet appears to have been produced after Britain’s mass aerial bombardment of German cities had commenced, as the entry for planes (ṭā’irāt) describes British bombers as ‘messengers of wrath raining down woe and destruction on the heart of Germany’. This is a sentiment remarkably reminiscent of the official aims of Britain’s bombing campaign on Germany that stated:

The ultimate aim of the attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger. The immediate aim, is therefore, twofold, namely, to produce (i) destruction, and (ii) the fear of death.

This violent tone is also contained in the entry for force (qūwah), which is described as the only thing that the Nazis understand and fear. The final entry in the pamphlet, despair (ya’s), leaves the reader with little doubt that Hitler will eventually be defeated and that Britain and its allies will be victorious.

The MOI also produced cruder, humorous style propaganda, notably a series of satirical cartoons entitled Adolf and his Donkey Benito which depict Hitler as a bumbling fool riding his unfortunate donkey, Benito (an obvious anthropomorphic representation of Mussolini). As well as being distributed as pamphlets, these cartoons were also inserted into local newspapers in the Arab World, including the Bahraini newspaper, al-Baḥrayn which was controlled by the British authorities at this time. The MOI’s Director of Middle East Propaganda, Professor L. F. Rushbrook Williams, had previously demonstrated that he was not averse to propaganda of this kind when he had encouraged the British Embassy in Baghdad to disseminate material that depicted Hitler and Mussolini as a pig and a jackal respectively.

Fig13 Cartoon
Adolf and His Donkey by Kem (British Library, COI Archive, PP/1/20). © British Library, 2016

The Adolf and Benito cartoons were drawn by Kimon Evan Marengo (1907-1998), better known by his pen name, Kem, who was an Egyptian–born British cartoonist whose work appeared in the Daily Herald and the Daily Telegraph. Kem was heavily involved in the work of the MOI and produced hundreds of cartoons in Arabic as well as in Persian - for example the famous Shahnamah cartoons described in a previous blog. One of the cartoons in the series depicts Mussolini as afraid of confronting a tiny mouse (labelled the Greek mouse), a not too subtle reference to the Italian military’s unsuccessful invasion of Greece in the Greco-Italian War of 1940-41.

In a clear attempt to target children, the MOI also produced of a series of short stories named Ahmad and Johnny. These stories were illustrated by William Lindsay Cable, an illustrator most widely known for his work in the books of the famous children’s author, Enid Blyton.

14 Fig17
‘Ahmed and Johnny’ (British Library, COI Archive, PP/1/8 and 7). © British Library, 2016

In a manner reminiscent of Blyton’s work, Ahmad and Johnny follows the adventures of Ahmad, a Sudanese boy living in England with Johnny and his family. In one issue of the series, it is explained that Johnny’s father had worked in Sudan and brought Ahmad (presumably an orphan) back with him to Britain. In the same issue, Ahmad and Johnny go for a walk in the Kent countryside where they bump into a farmer whose son is said to be serving with the British military in Sudan. Britain is described as the ‘home of freedom’ and the ‘source of hope of the future’. Ahmad and the peasant compare life in England and Sudan and the ostensibly friendly relations between the two nations are stressed.

In 1938, as a response to the aforementioned Arabic-language radio broadcasts of the German and Italian Governments, Britain established the BBC Arabic radio station. Subsequently, the MOI produced a pamphlet entitled ‘This is London’ that promoted the new station and its radio broadcasts.

‘This is London’ (British Library, COI Archive, PP/12/27A). © British Library, 2016

The pamphlet gives details of the station’s broadcasts including its lineup of announcers and its first ever news broadcast. It also contains details and photos of the official opening of Cardiff Mosque in 1943. An event that was attended by Hafiz Wahba (then Saudi Arabia’s representative in London) and was broadcast by BBC Arabic.

Official opening of Cardiff Mosque in 1943 (British Library, COI Archive, PP/12/27A). © British Library, 2016

Ultimately, the diverse MOI materials now held at the British Library are testament to the multi-faceted propaganda effort that was carried out by the ministry, one which utilised the skills and expertise of British academics, cartoonists, authors and many other skilled professionals. It was a campaign which sought to belittle Britain’s enemies and project an image of the country as a righteous, commanding military power that was close to victory against the forces of evil. In the context of the Middle East, this entailed a wholly cynical attempt to portray Britain’s military occupation and colonial domination of the region as merely ‘brotherly’ friendships between allies.

Ironically, in 1948, a British official in the Persian Gulf bemoaned the manner in which the MOI had popularised self-expression as a counter to Nazism as a ‘weapon of war’. He argued that this effort had served to increase the Gulf’s inhabitants knowledge of the world’s problems, ‘particularly of the rights of small nations and the independence of Arab nations’ and was causing them to question Britain’s dominant position in the region.[1]

Those interested to learn more about the MOI will be pleased to hear that in September 2016, the British Library is releasing a publication entitled Persuading the People, in which the renowned expert on Propaganda, Professor David Welch of the University of Kent, explores the role of the MOI and its propaganda output in closer detail.


Louis Allday, Gulf History/Arabic Language Specialist

[1] National Archives, FO 924/695, ‘Education problems in the Middle East and Persian Gulf’

24 April 2016

Razmnamah: the Persian Mahabharata

One of our most important Mughal manuscripts is Or.12076, the Razmnāmah (ʻBook of Warʼ), copied in AH 1007 (1598/99) and containing the concluding part, sections 14-18, of the Persian translation of the Sanskrit epic the Mahābhārata. It is currently on display at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, in the exhibition Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts curated by Amy S. Landau of the Walters Art Museum Baltimore where it was originally exhibited. As a result of the Library's participation in the exhibition the whole volume has now been digitised and is available online for everyone to look at — whether they are lucky enough to be able to visit the exhibition or not!

While Arjuna and Tāmradhvaja fight against each other for seven days, the gods enjoy the spectacle (tamāshā), watching safely from the sky. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Paras (Or.12076, f.76r)  noc

Commissioned in 1582 by the Emperor Akbar, the Persian Razmnāmah is a prose translation of all 18 books of the Sanskrit Mahābhārata in addition to the Harivaṃśa appendix. It is not a literal translation though the content is relatively unchanged. For those interested in the storyline, a detailed summary of the Persian version is given by T.H. Henley in his preface to Memorials of the Jeypore Exhibition, 1883. vol. 4: The Razm Námah (London, 1885).

The reasons for its composition, as outlined in Abū ʼl-Faz̤l's preface of 1587, were primarily to make the stories and ideologies of the Mahābhārata more accessible. At the same time it invited both Muslims and Hindus to question some of their traditional beliefs while, of course, simultaneously glorifying Akbar's role as the perfect ruler (Cosmopolitan encounters, pp. 227-238).

The blind king Dhṛtarāṣṭra, led by Kuntī, leaves the city of Hastinapur and retires to the forest. His wife Gāndhārī, blindfolded, supports him following behind. From the 15th book, the Aśramavāsikaparva (ʻRetirement to the Hermitageʼ). Painting attributed to Dhanū (Or.12076, f.110v)  noc

The translation process

The logistics of how the Mahabhārata was translated are described in the contemporary author Badāʼūnī's Muntakhab al-tavārīkh who writes somewhat disparagingly (M. Athar Ali's translation, p. 40):

Collecting together the learned men of India, His Majesty directed that the book Mahabharat should be translated. For some nights His Majesty personally (had it) explained to Naqib Khan, who wrote out the resultant text in Persian. On the third night His Majesty summoned me and ordered me to translate it in collaboration with Naqib Khan. In three or four months out of the eighteen chapters (fan) of that stock of useless fables... I wrote out two chapters. ... Thereafter Mulla Shiri and Naqib Khan completed that section, and one section Sultan Haji Thanesari ʻMunfaridʼ brought to completion. Shaikh Faizi was then appointed to write it in verse and prose, but he too did not complete more than two Chapters (fan). Again, the said Haji wrote out two sections and rectified the errors which were committed in the first round, and fitting one part with another, compiled a hundred fasciculi. The direction was to establish exactitude in a minute manner so that nothing of the original should be lost. In the end upon some fault, His Majesty ordered him (Haji Thanesari) to be dismissed and sent away to Bhakkar, his native city, where he still is. Most of the interpreters and translators are in hell along with Korus and Pandavs, and as for the remaining ones, may God save them, and mercifully destine them to repent.... His Majesty named the work Razmnaama (Epic), and had it illustrated and transcribed in many copies, and the nobles too were ordered to have it transcribed by way of obtaining blessings. Shaikh Abul Fazl... wrote a preface of the length of two quires (juzv) for that work.[1]

Equally important are details preserved at the end of the translation itself. As can be seen below, our manuscript, Or.12076, is partially damaged but fortunately the crucial passage is preserved in several other copies (Truschke’s translation, Cosmopolitan encounters, p.187 - the names have been Sanskritised):

Naqīb Khān, son of ʻAbd al-Laṭīf Ḥusaynī, translated [this work] from Sanskrit into Persian in one and a half years. Several of the learned Brahmans, such as Deva Miśra, Śatāvadhāna, Madhusūdana Miśra, Caturbhuja and Shaykh Bhāvan…read this book and explained it in hindī  to me, a poor wretched man, who wrote it in Persian.

The conclusion to Naqīb Khān's translation of the Mahābhārata (Or.12076, f.138v)  noc

This process is also confirmed in an illustration (Lewis M18) preserved in the Free Library of Philadelphia (one of 25 leaves from the now dispersed earlier part of the same manuscript) which shows the two groups of linguists, Muslim and Hindu, translating and discussing together (Pearls on a String, p. 146).

The British Library manuscript

Or.12076 consists of 138 leaves which are numbered continuously in an earlier foliation which begins at 715. There are several leaves missing, but the last numbered leaf is folio 131 which is numbered 846 suggesting that our volume represents the last of a possible six volumes altogether. It was purchased by the British Museum on 11 December 1954 from the dealer A. Garabed who had himself bought it at Sotheby's a few weeks earlier (Lot 230, Sotheby's sale 8 Nov. 1954). It is not known who owned it immediately before that but we do know that it had previously been sold anonymously at Sotheby’s in London in 1921. The Library's annotated copy of the 1921 Sotheby sale catalogue (S.C.Sotheby(1), 24-25 Oct. 1921, lot 203) has not to my knowledge been studied before, but shows that it was purchased for £76 by the British collector and art historian Gerald Reitlinger (1900-1978).

 1921 Sotheby catalogue26
Lot 203 of Catalogue of Persian, Indo-Persian and Indian Miniatures, Manuscripts & Works of Art from various sources & private collections, Southeby, Wilkinson & Hodge, 24-25 October 1921 (S.C.Sotheby(1), 24-25 Oct. 1921)  noc

The original manuscript had already been divided up when it was sold in 1921. In addition to our volume, lots 204 to 278 included 125 separate paintings from the same work. These are now in museums and libraries all over the world. In an appendix to his article on three illustrated copies of the Razmnāmah (Model and Copy, pp. 56-62), John Seyller lists the locations of 161 identified illustrations. The attached descriptions with the buyers' names in our annotated copy may provide further details on some of them. Sadly, we'll probably never know what happened to lot 279  “the remaining portions of the work, loose leave, incomplete,” sold to Gazdar (presumably the art dealer  J. Gazdar) for £1. Several leaves were purchased by the Persian scholar C.A. Storey. These are now in the library of the Royal Asiatic Society, London. A further 8 individual leaves were acquired subsequently by the India Office Library from Maggs (British Library Add.Or. 2776-2783).

The artists of the 1598 Razmnāmah

Candrahāsa kneeling before the Raja of Kuntala on being presented to him by the minister Dhṛṣṭabuddhi after Candrahāsa’s victory over the king’s enemies. The elephants, horses and hawk are booty from the enemy. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Kanhar (Or.12076, f.83v)  noc

Our manuscript contains 24 illustrations which are all attributed beneath the paintings to individually named artists. The fact that several of them also contributed to known imperial manuscripts suggests that it was completed at court, no doubt one of the many copies transcribed by order of Akbar which Badāʼūnī mentions in the passage quoted above.

  Razmnāmah (Or.12076) Bāburnāmah (Or.3714) Dārābnāmah (Or.4615)
Aḥmad Kashmīrī 23v    
Ās son of Mahēsh 35v; 62v    
Banvārī Khvurd 26v; 95r 270v, 306r  
Bhagvān 17r 195r, 322r 19v, 23r, 23v, 52r, 52v, 62r, 91r, 91v, 119v
Bhavānī 13v 6v, 52r, 468v, 492r  
Būlāqī son of Ghulām ‘Alī 67r    
Da’ud, brother of Daulat 48r    
Dhanū 87v; 110v 173v, 386r, 389v, 393v 38r, 41r, 41v, 75r, 104v
Dharamdās Lunj 56r   45r, 45v, 114r, 114v (Dharamdās, a different artist?)[2]
Hājjī 106r    
Ibrāhīm Kahhār (Qahhār) 80v 137v, 405r, 405v 29r, 29v, 70v, 102r, 102v, 105r
Kanhar 83v    
Khēm 44r 504v  
Lōhankā 20r 395v (?)  
Mākar 51r 379r (Makrā)  
Mohan son of Banvārī 4v    
Narāyan 130v 385v 33v, 43v, 112v
Narāyan Khvurd 7v    
Paras 76r 54r, 299r, 347v 21r, 21v
Qābil son of Maqbūl 90v    
Sanghā 71v    

Table based on Meredith-Owens and R. H. Pinder-Wilson (“A Persian translation ...”, p. 65) giving a list of artists of the Razmnāmah showing which ones also worked on the Mughal Bāburnāmah and Dārābnāmah (follow the hyperlinks to go directly to the digitised images)

One of  Rama's servants overhears a washerman quarrelling with his wife. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Daʼūd, brother of Daulat (Or.12076, f.48r noc

Kusa and Lava defeating Bharata, Lakshmana and the monkey army. European-type Gothic spires are visible on the skyline. Episode from the 14th book, the Aśvamedhikaparva (ʻhorse sacrificeʼ). Painting attributed to Ās, son of Mahesh (Or.12076, f.62v)  noc

Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts is on view at the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco until May 8th. A catalogue with the same title is available which includes details of all the exhibits in addition to several lengthy contributions by scholars in the field.

Further reading

Amy S. Landau,  Pearls on a String: Artists, Patrons, and Poets at the Great Islamic Courts (Baltimore, 2015),  especially Adamjee and Truschke's chapter “Reimagining the ʻIdol Temple of Hindustanʼ,” pp. 141-65
Audrey  Truschke, Culture of Encounters: Sanskrit at the Mughal Court (Columbia University Press, 2016). Unfortunately at the time of writing I haven't yet had access to this newly published work but have referred instead to her PhD thesis: Cosmopolitan Encounters: Sanskrit and Persian at the Mughal Court  (Columbia University Academic Commons, 2012)
Yael Rice, “A Persian Mahabharata: The 1598-1599 Razmnama,” Manoa 22/1 (2010): 125-131
John Seyller, “Model and Copy: The Illustration of Three Razmnāma Manuscripts,” Archives of Asian Art 38 (1985): 37-66
J. P.Losty and Malini Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (British Library, 2012), pp. 55-8
G. Meredith-Owens and R. H. Pinder-Wilson,“A Persian translation of the ‘Mahabharata’, with a Note on the Miniatures,” The British Museum Quarterly, 20/3 (1956): 62-65
M. Athar Ali, “Translations of Sanskrit Works at Akbar's Court,Social Scientist 20, no 9/10 (1992): 38-45

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


[1] ʻAbd al-Qādir Badāʼūnī, Muntakhab al-tavārīkh, ed. Mawlavī Aḥmad ʻAlī,  W. N. Lees (Calcutta, 1865-1869), vol 2, pp. 319-21.
[2] Dharamdās, if he is the same artist as Dharamdās Lunj, also illustrated the Khamsah Or.12208 (ff. 52r, 102r, 195r, 254r) and the Akbarnāmah Or 12988 (ff. 50r, 59v, 73r, 73v, 76r, 115r).

21 April 2016

Mythical creatures in Vietnamese culture

Like other East and South East Asian peoples, the Vietnamese believe in mythical and sacred animals, the most significant being the dragon, the phoenix, the turtle or tortoise, and the unicorn. These four sacred animals, which all represent auspicious blessings such as longevity and happiness, can be found on various objects in Vietnam ranging from imperial edicts and paintings, decorative figures in palaces and temples, to clothes and utensils. The four sacred animals illustrated below are depicted on two early 20th-century imperial Vietnamese illuminated scrolls held in the British Library.

Dragon (rồng)
The Vietnamese believe they are descendants of a dragon, and the birth of the first kingdom of the nation was closely related to this animal; therefore this mythical creature is probably the most important figure among the four sacred creatures (Quê Me 1988: 8). Legend has it that Lạc Long Quân, king of the dragons who lived in the water, married Âu Cơ, a fairy from the bird kingdom. She gave birth to 100 sons and the first-born son became King Hùng Vương of Lạc Việt, the first dynasty of  Vietnam. Hence there is a proverb saying the Vietnamese are “con rồng cháu tiên” or “children of the dragon and grandchildren of the fairy”.

To the Vietnamese, the dragon symbolises power, nobility and immortality. Since it represents power, it is a special symbol of the Vietnamese emperors. The dragon with five claws was reserved for imperial use, while one with four claws was for the use of royal dignitaries and high ranking court officials. For commoners, their dragons could only have three claws.

The Vietnamese dragon combines features of the crocodile, snake, cat, rat and bird. There are many Vietnamese legends or tales which are related to dragons; for example, the world-famous natural heritage site, Hạ Long Bay in northern Vietnam, is believed to be a creation of a dragon. Thăng Long, the former name of Hà Nội, also means “rising from a dragon”. Legend has it that in 1010, a golden dragon appeared alongside Emperor Lý Thái Tổ’s boat while he was visitting Đại La, and hence the place’s name was changed to Thăng Long.  

Dragon, on Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1917. British Library, Or. 14631
Dragon, on Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1917. British Library, Or. 14631 Noc

Phoenix (Phượng Hoàng)
Whereas the dragon represents the emperor, a phoenix is used to represent the empress. Vietnamese folklore describes the phoenix as having the neck of a snake, the breast of a swallow, the back of a tortoise, and the tail of a fish. The phoenix’s song includes all the five notes of the pentatonic musical scale and its feathers include the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, green, and yellow. This elegant mythical bird symbolises grace, nobility, virtue and pride. According to myth, the phoenix burnt its nest and days later rose again from the ashes, and it therefore symbolises rebirth, regeneration and survival. It normally hides itself in time of trouble and appears only in calm and prosperous times, hence it also symbolises peace. During the Vietnam War, the CIA launched  Operation Phoenix in South Vietnam from 1968 to 1972, with the aim of eradicating the Việt Công.

Phoenix, illuminatd on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924.British Library, Or. 14665
Phoenix, illuminatd on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924.British Library, Or. 14665 Noc

Turtle (rùa)
The turtle has a special place in Vietnamese culture and history. It symbolises longevity, strength and intelligence and is also closely related to the independence of Vietnam in the 15th century. Legend has it that Lê Lời, who led the Vietnamese to fight against the Chinese invaders in the 15th century, borrowed a sword from the dragon king. After he defeated the Chinese, he returned the sacred sword to the king via the latter’s disciple, a turtle which lived in a jade water lake. The Vietnamese, especially the Hanoians, believe that this lake is the Hoàn Kiếm Lake (Returned or Restored Sword Lake) in the middle of the city. Until recently, there was a highly revered resident, an old soft-shell turtle, named locally as Cụ Rùa (Grandfather Turtle) living in the lake. Cụ Rùa, who was actually female, was one of only four turtles of this breed known to survive in the world and it was believed that she was over a hundred years old. Sadly, on 19th January 2016, her lifeless body was found floating in the lake. The cause of her death is unknown and some Vietnamese have interpreted it as an inauspicious omen.

At the Temple of Literature (Văn Miếu) in Hà Nội, there are 82 figures of stone turtles with steles of doctoral graduates on the turtles’ backs. This was a mark of honour for those who achieved the highest degree of education in traditional Vietnamese society during the Lê dynasty. It also signified the importance of education in the society.

Turtle, illuminated on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924. British Library, Or. 14665
Turtle, illuminated on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924. British Library, Or. 14665 Noc

Unicorn (Kỳ lân)
The unicorn symbolises peace, mercy and good fortune. Some also believe that it represents intelligence and goodness, and that the creature only appears on very special occasions. The unicorn is a composite creature combining elements of the horse, buffalo and dragon. The Vietnamese believe that it is a very strong and faithful creature, and therefore suitable for guarding temples and places of worship.

Unicorn, illuminated on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924.British Library, Or. 14665
Unicorn, illuminated on the reverse of Emperor Khải Định’s scroll, 1924.British Library, Or. 14665 Noc

Further reading:
Ai Hoa.” Năm thìn kể chuyện Rông” in Quê Me. Số 88-89, 1988, pp.7-8. (BL shelf mark: 16641.e.6)
Hà Y. “Rồng : vật tổ của dân Việt”. In  Quê Me. Số 88-89, 1988, pp.9-10. (BL shelf mark: 16641.e.6)
Sacred animals in Vietnamese culture and architecture, July 12, 2013.
Cu Rua: Vietnam mourns revered Hanoi turtle, BBC News, 20 January 2016

Sud Chonchirdsin, Curator for Vietnamese Ccownwork

18 April 2016

The Polonsky Foundation and the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project at the British Library

To celebrate Passover 2016 and the launch of our new website 'Hebrew Manuscripts', Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies, writes about the Polonsky Foundation and its role in the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project.

A family celebrating Passover, from the Barcelona Haggadah.  Service book for Passover eve. Catalonia, Spain, c. 1370  (British Library Add MS 14761, f. 28v noc

Philanthropy plays a vital role in our modern world. When the resources of arts, heritage and cultural organizations are limited, the gaps can sometimes be filled by those who have the means to do so; in this way, the contributions of benefactors and philanthropic bodies have done much to advance and improve the business, culture, education and welfare of many communities around the globe.

Among the philanthropic organisations the British Library has collaborated with more recently is The Polonsky Foundation, which aims at advancing higher education in the humanities and social sciences, and equally, at promoting the arts in the UK, USA and Israel.  Digitisation of rare collections in major libraries of the world is a signature programme of The Polonsky Foundation and reflects its commitment to the preservation and democratization of knowledge.

I have been very fortunate to meet Dr Leonard Polonsky on several occasions in the past. My first and most memorable encounter took place in November 2011 when he paid a visit to the British Library. Showing guests treasures from the Library’s Hebrew collections has always been an immense privilege, and throughout all the years I have been working for this amazing organisation, I have unfailingly done my utmost to showcase collection items that would not only impress the guests with their illuminated embellishments, but would also generate questions and a lively discussion.

The Barcelona Haggadah,  service book for Passover eve. Historiated initial word panel with  Barukh (Blessed)  opening the Havdalah benediction (Separation) recited at the end of the Sabbath. Note the lush marginal foliage scrolls, interwoven with humans, birds and hybrids. Catalonia, Spain, c. 1370  (British Library Add MS 14761, f. 26r)  noc

Dr Polonsky showed genuine interest in what was on display that day – a volume of the sumptuous Lisbon Bible, the intriguing San’a Pentateuch, and the unparalleled Barcelona Haggadah. Following that meeting and the subsequent submission of proposals, the Foundation agreed to support the Hebrew manuscripts project in 2012. This significant three-year project, which started in earnest in the summer of 2013 after dedicated project staff had been recruited (a Project Manager, a Cataloguer and a Project Support Officer), is due to end in June this year. It has focussed on digitizing cover to cover some 1300 unique manuscripts from the Library’s Hebrew collection, making them freely accessible on-line to a global audience.

Delivering the project has been challenging but we have learnt a great deal, particularly how to resolve problems swiftly, meet deadlines, and work efficiently as a team and collaborate with colleagues across the Library. So far we have made excellent progress and the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project is nearing completion.   Almost 800 out of the 1300 manuscripts digitised as part of the project, including nearly 70 scrolls, are already available on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

A new Hebrew web space will be launched at the end of April and will contain articles and images on specific themes, collection items, items of the week, videos and 3D modelling of selected objects. We are confident that this hub will be a great success and will showcase the gems of the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection.

I would like to extend a huge thank you to my colleagues who have been working assiduously to deliver the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, and by so doing have facilitated worldwide access to a valuable and unmatched learning resource. This worthy initiative would not have been possible without the immense kindness and judicious vision of The Polonsky Foundation, to which goes our profound and wholehearted gratitude.

Some of my favourites—which I showed Dr. Polonsky back in 2011—are featured below. Click on the hyperlinks to go directly to the digitised images.

The San'a Pentateuch. San'a, Yemen, 1469. Section from Shirat Ha'azinu (Give Ear; Deuteronomy:32) the lyrical poem Moses recited in front of the Israelites before his death. The central decoration consists of micrography (patterns outlined in minute script) and medallions inspired by Islamic art (British Library Or.2348, f. 152r )  noc

Detail of Or.2348, f. 152r,  showing the decorative medallions inspired by Islamic art

Illuminated borders at the opening of Isaiah, from the Lisbon Bible, volume 2. Lisbon, Portugal, 1482 (British Library Or 2627, f. 136v)  noc

The Lisbon Bible, volume 2. Embellished opening with juxtaposed borders to the Book of Amos. Lisbon, Portugal, 1482  (British Library Or 2627, f. 252r)  noc


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies

14 April 2016

A gold letter from Bali

Currently on display in the exhibition case just outside the Asian and African Studies Reading Room in the British Library at St Pancras is a small letter from Bali, written entirely on a sheet of gold.  The letter was sent in 1768 from two princes of Bali – Kanjeng Kyai Angrurah Jambe of Badung (site of the present-day capital Denpasar) and Kyai Angrurah Agung of Mengwi – to Johannes Vos, the Dutch Governor of Semarang, on the north coast of Java.  In the letter, the princes affirm their everlasting friendship with the Dutch, and agree not to allow any enemies of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to pass through their territory without an official pass from the Company. The manuscript, Egerton 765, has just been digitised and can be read here.

Balinese letter on gold, 1768. Egerton 765, f.1r
Balinese letter on gold, 1768. Egerton 765, f.1r  noc

The letter’s shelfmark, Egerton 765, links it to Francis Henry Egerton, 8th Earl of Bridgewater, who on his death in 1829 bequeathed his collection of manuscripts to the British Museum together with a legacy for purchasing additions to the collection. Our little Balinese letter has in fact no direct connection with Francis Egerton himself, for it was acquired after Egerton’s death through his bequest. According to departmental records, on 4 December 1839 the MS was offered to Sir Frederic Madden, Keeper of the Department of Manuscripts at the British Museum, by one J. Sams of Darlington and Great Queen Street, Lincoln’s Inn, London.  Mr Sams wrote that he “having sometime ago met with a curious Eastern MS., written on a sheet of Gold - & thinking a specimen or two of such an object, would be interesting, & desirable in our national repository, he writes a line to Sir F.M., as the respected Principal of the MS department, to mention that he gave for this scarce, & curious article, five pounds, without the case, which cost him some four shillings, - & that, if Sir F. please, it shall be the property of the Museum, at the price J.S. paid for it.” There is no further information on how J. Sams acquired the letter.

The letter is written in Balinese language and script, with the text incised with a thin stylus on both sides of the sheet of gold, with six lines on the front and five lines on the reverse.  Although the small size of the letter forms and the reflective nature of the gold sheet make the letter hard to read, the Dutch scholar J. Kats persevered, and in 1929 published the entire text in Balinese script with Dutch translation (Kats 1929). The little letter is well-travelled: as well as having been on public display at the British Library in London, it was shown in New York in 1990 at the ‘Court Arts of  Indonesia’ exhibition, and also in Rotterdam in 1993 (Jessup 1990: 30-31, 236-7).  In 1991 it travelled back to Indonesia for the exhibition ‘Golden Letters: writing traditions of Indonesia’, and was displayed at the National Library of Indonesia in Jakarta and at the Palace of Yogyakarta (Gallop & Arps 1991: 104).

Measuring 5.5 cm high and 24 cm wide, in its proportions the letter emulates a piece of palm leaf, the standard writing material throughout Southeast Asia before the wide availability of paper, and still the main medium for sacred texts in Bali today.  The use of gold as a writing material has a long tradition in Southeast Asia.  The National Museum in Jakarta has examples of Buddhist texts in Sanskrit from the 10th century inscribed on gold strips similar in size to the Balinese letter, and comparable Buddhist gold inscriptions are known from Burma.

Pali Buddhist text from Burma, written on a strip of gold. British Library, Or. 5340
Pali Buddhist text from Burma, written on a strip of gold. British Library, Or. 5340  noc

Gold was also used for diplomatic letters, and its use can be interpreted as honouring the recipient while also emphasising the status of the sender. Perhaps the most exceptional example known today is a Burmese letter on gold from King Alaungphaya sent to George II of Great Britain in 1756. Dating from just a decade earlier than our Balinese letter, the Burmese epistle is however immeasurably grander: not only was it written on a sheet of gold, but each end was studded with a row of 12 rubies, and a gold impression of the king’s seal was affixed to the letter, which was then rolled and placed within an ivory receptacle for delivery. King George was of German origin, and he prized this letter enough to send it back to his ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ in home town of Hanover, where it is still held today in the Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library.  Recently, with the support of the British Library, this letter was inscribed on the UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ Register.

Burmese letter on gold from King Alaungmintaya to King George II, 1756. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.
Burmese letter on gold from King Alaungmintaya to King George II, 1756. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.

Detail of the Burmese letter showing the king's seal stamped in gold, with the row of rubies at the beginning of the letter. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.
Detail of the Burmese letter showing the king's seal stamped in gold, with the row of rubies at the beginning of the letter. Copyright Gottfried Willem Leibniz Library, Hanover.

Further reading

J. Kats, Een Balische brief van 1768 aan den Gouveneur van Java’s Noordkust. Festbundel uitgegeven door het Koninklijk Bataviaasch Genootschap van Kunsten en Wetenschappen bij gelegenheid van zijn 150 jarig bestaan, 1778-1928. Vol. I, pp. 291-6. Weltevreden, 1929.
Helen Ibbitson Jessup, Court arts of Indonesia.  New York: The Asia Society, 1990.
Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia.  Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia.  London: British Library; Jakarta: Yayasan Lontar, 1991.
Jacques P. Leider, King Alaungmintaya’s Golden Letter to King George II (7 May 1756): the story of an exceptional manuscript and the failure of a diplomatic overture. Hannover: Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek, 2009.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

11 April 2016

Further Delhi paintings on ivory

Previous posts on the subject of late Mughal or Delhi miniature paintings on ivory have dealt with portraits, with which the Visual Arts collection is well endowed. Not so well represented in the earlier collection are topographical paintings on ivory, so it was especially gratifying to be able to acquire two superb examples of the genre during my time as Curator of Visual Arts.

A view of the Qutb Minar from the east. By the Delhi artist, Ismail Khan, 1860-65. Water-colour on ivory: oval, 175 x 140 mm, within a gilt frame, and framed in a velvet-lined case, 34 by 30 cm. Engraved on a gilt strip inside frame: The Khutub Minar Delhi. Ismail Kahn. Royal Painter (British Library, Add.Or.4692)  noc

A view by Ismail Khan of the Qutb Minar from the east is especially rich in topographical details. The tower was begun by Qutb al-Din Aybak in 1193 as a minaret to his adjacent mosque and as sign of his victory over Prithviraj Chauhan, the Hindu king of Delhi and Ajmer. Three more storeys were added by his son-in-law and successor Iltutmish. The topmost storey was struck by lightning in 1368 and the repairs by Firoz Shah Tughluq divided that storey into two and partly faced them in marble. The screen of the Quwwat al-Islam mosque also built by the first two monarchs stretches across the background. In front of the central arch of the mosque screen is the famous Iron Pillar, a 4th-century wonder of Gupta-period metallurgy, brought from elsewhere and placed in this site most probably by one of the previous Hindu rulers. On the left is the octagonal Mughal tomb of Adham Khan built in 1562 in the style of the previous Lodhi dynasty. Adham Khan (d. 1562) was the son of Akbar’s wet-nurse Maham Anga and killed on his orders after he assassinated Akbar’s general Ataga Khan. Despite his transgressions, Akbar built him this lavish tomb, which is now surrounded by the buildings of Mehrauli. Nearer is the gateway known as the Alai Darwaza built by Ala al-Din Khilji in 1311 along with part of his colonnade of re-used temple pillars in his bid to double the size of the mosque. In the foreground is Major Robert Smith’s re-sited cupola that crowned the top of the Minar in his repairs to earlier damage in 1828 and taken down and re-sited here in 1847. It was moved again in 1914 to a garden south-east of the Minar.

A letter accompanying the painting dated 21 September 1881 records the gift of the painting to Arthur Tite by the original purchaser D.A. Traill Christie, both men having worked for the Bengal Central Railway in India:

Meantime I send herewith for your acceptance the Indian miniature I spoke of the framing of which was delayed in consequence of my own exigeances (sic) & which I think you will like. It is a genuine work of Ismail Khan’s bought by myself from Delhi in 1865 and has been pronounced by several connoisseurs one of the finest examples of the art. Its Eastern origin & associations will be an appropriate souvenir to recall to you the establishment of the Bengal Central.

Ismail Khan was one of the famous artists of Delhi in the second half of the 19th century. Val Prinsep, who visited India in 1876-7, wrote in his journal (Prinsep 1879, p. 47):

Today I have received visits from the artists of Delhi: they are three in number, and each appears to have an atelier of pupils. The best is one Ismael Khan. Their manual dexterity is most surprising. Of course, what they do is entirely traditional. They work from photographs, and never by any chance from nature. Ismael Khan showed me what his father had done before photography came into vogue, and really a portrait of Sir C. Napier was wonderfully like, though without an atom of chic or artistic rendering. I pointed out to the old man certain faults - and glaring ones - of perspective, and he has promised to do me a view of the Golden Temple without any faults. “These”, he said, pointing to his miniatures, “are done for the sahibs who do not understand. I know they are wrong, but what does it matter? No one cares. But I will show you that I can do better.” This better miniature I never received; perhaps my friend Ismael found it not so easy to do a perfect picture

Lockwood Kipling suggests in the Delhi Gazetteer of 1883 that photographs were photographically enlarged or diminished to the right size, before having their outlines traced on transparent talc: ‘this tracing is then retraced in the reverse side of the talc with transfer ink and transferred to a thin sheet of ivory, the features, etc., are then touched up and finally shaded and coloured. ... As the whole work is done with water-colour any part can be washed out and redone.’ (Archer and Archer 1955, pp. 70-71)

Add.Or.5638  Mw83269
Left: Sir Charles James Napier. Attributed to Ghulam Husayn Khan, c. 1850, after Comte Hippolyte Caïs de Pierlas. Watercolour on ivory, 55 by 45 mm (British Library, Add.Or.5638)  noc  Right: Sir Charles James Napier. By Richard James Lane, after Comte Hippolyte Caïs de Pierlas. Lithograph, 1849. 203 by 163 mm (National Portrait Gallery NPG D21721)

A recently acquired portrait miniature of Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) gives visual expression to Prinsep’s opinion. Napier was Commander-in-Chief of the Bombay Army famous for his capture of Sind in 1843 (‘peccavi’ he is supposed to have telegraphed to Calcutta). He left India in 1847 but returned as Commander in Chief in 1849. The face is fine, but the shoulders are too close together and the decorations are worn too high up on the chest. He is wearing the star and sash of a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath (GBC) conferred in 1843 and the Sind Campaign Medal of that same year, as well as other medals connected with his earlier career in the Peninsular War. The long forked beard has gone awry, since the artist is dependent not on a photograph, as Prinsep suggests, but on a lithographic print.

The original artist of the portrait, Caïs de Pierlas, was a plantsman and amateur artist based in Nice and he seems to have met Napier in 1848 - the inscription states that the original drawing was done in that year. An oil painting by him of Napier on a rearing horse meant to be at the Battle of Miani in 1843 appeared at Christie’s South Kensington on 29 September 2011, lot 239. The details of the beard are not clear in the lithographic portrait nor are there any medals, but the latter must have been copied from other prints. The artist of our miniature is almost certainly Ghulam Husayn Khan, who painted both in oils and in watercolour on ivory in the mid-century, although Ismail Khan is thought to be the son of the topographical artist Mazhar ‘Ali Khan (see below).

Bourne 1860s Photo 11(68)
The Qutb Minar. Albumen print by Samuel Bourne, mid-1860s (British Library, Photo 11(68))  noc

At first sight Ismail Khan’s view reproduces the photographs of the Qutb Minar taken by John Murray and by Robert and Harriet Tytler in 1858 and by Samuel Bourne in the 1860s. All three images are almost identical in composition: reproduced above is the Bourne version. Only one structure would have allowed this viewpoint at that time, the so-called Garhgaj (literally ‘elephant-house’), near the Mughal caravanserai to the east of the Qutb enclosure, a stepped pyramidal structure constructed by Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe when Agent at the Delhi Court, who had converted the nearby Mughal tomb of Adham Khan’s brother, Muhammad Quli Khan, into a summer retreat. All 19th century photographs of the Qutb Minar taken from this point show a tangle of trees intervening across the foreground, making a picturesque view, but not appealing much to an artist trained in the Mughal tradition. Ismail Khan has therefore opened up the foreground, by reducing the size of the trees, thus allowing him to incorporate part of the southern colonnade of ‘Ala’ al-Din’s early 14th century extension to the mosque enclosure to the east of his gateway, as well as a pathway coming in from the viewer’s left; both innovations increase the sense of depth in the painting, as well as conforming to the higher viewpoint beloved of Indian artists.

Ismail Khan must not, however, be supposed to have been so radical an innovator that he actually stood on the Garhgaj to record the view. The lower part of the painting is based on views by Delhi artists of the 1840s, first taken for Syed Ahmed Khan’s publication on the monuments of Delhi Asar al-Sanadid, published with woodcut illustrations in 1847. The woodcut of the Qutb Minar between pp. 128-9 is of this same view, complete with the broad path and the colonnade; the latter also appear in two large water-colours, one in the Visual Arts collections (Add.Or.3100, Archer 1972, no. 162) and another in the Marquis of Dufferin and Ava’s collection (reproduced Welch 1978, no. 51). While making use of both sources, the early photograph for the upper part of the painting and the earlier Indian artists’ views for the foreground, Ismail Khan has imposed his own sense of proportion and landscape.

The second topographical painting on ivory shows a view of the Mughal city of Shahjahanabad or Delhi from the north-west with the River Yamuna beyond.

Delhi from the north-west. Attributed to Mazhar ‘Ali Khan, c. 1845. Water-colour and body-colour on ivory; 105 by 210 mm (British Library, Add.Or.5476)  noc

The view is taken from the Ridge and encompasses the northern and eastern walls of the city: St. James’s Church (built by Col. James Skinner and consecrated 1836), Shah Jahan’s Red Fort itself (finished 1648) and the older fort of Salimgarh (built 1545-54) beside it, and Shah Jahan’s Jami‘ Masjid (built 1650-56) are prominent. Lesser mosques visible include the Akbarabadi Masjid (to the right of the Fort, demolished in 1858) and the Fatehpuri Masjid (far right), both built by two of Shah Jahan’s wives.

Outside the walls along the river, there are seen the back views of the Qudsia Bagh (a garden built by Qudsia Begum c. 1748) and two British structures: Metcalfe House and Ludlow Castle on the extreme left, which were the private residence and the official home of the Agent and Delhi Commissioner Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe from 1835-53. For details of these buildings, see Losty 2012, figs. 2 and 16. The tents visible on the tract outside the north wall are those of the military cantonment. Perspective is most skilfully handled in the recession of the foreground dotted with trees, rocks and animals. A second version of this view also on ivory is in the Victoria and Albert Museum (Dalrymple and Sharma 2012, no. 71). 

Sir Thomas Metcalfe's ‘Delhi Book’ illustrating Delhi from the north-west. Attributed to the studio of Mazhar ‘Ali Khan, c. 1842-44. Water-colour on paper. Folio size: 25 by 19 cm; painting 8 by 13 cm (British Library, Add.Or.5475, f. 11v, detail)  noc

A similar view of Delhi from further back along the Ridge is placed in the ‘Delhi Book’ of Sir Thomas Theophilus Metcalfe, about which Metcalfe complains: ‘The artist in his endeavour to do much has been more minute than clear in his delineation.’ The two versions on ivory seem a riposte by Mazhar ‘Ali Khan himself, availing himself of the minute and delicate brushstrokes possible on this medium. He was the major topographical artist in late Mughal Delhi, painting many of the topographical views in Metcalfe’s ‘Delhi Book’ and also the great panorama of the city of 1846 (Add.Or.4126, see Losty 2012). While there is no direct evidence that Metcalfe was the patron of this view, any more than there is for the panorama, since both begin their views with Metcalfe House on the left it would seem very possible.

Further reading:

M. Archer, Company Drawings in the India Office Library, 1972
M and W.G. Archer, Indian Painting for the British 1770-1880, London, 1955
Dalrymple and Y. Sharma, Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857, Asia Society, New York, 2012
J.P. Losty, Delhi 360°: Mazhar Ali Khan’s View from the Lahore Gate, Lustre Press Roli Books, New Delhi, 2012
Prinsep, Imperial India: an Artist’s Journals, London, 1879
Y.D. Sharma, Delhi and its Neighbourhood, Archaeological Survey of India, New Delhi, 1974
S.C. Welch, Room for Wonder, New York, 1978

J.P. Losty, Curator of Visual Arts (Emeritus)

07 April 2016

The British Library’s oldest Qur’an manuscript now online

The British Library’s oldest Qur’ān manuscript, Or.2165, dating from the eighth century, has now been fully digitised and is available on the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts site. Among the most ancient copies of the Qurʼān, it comprises 121 folios containing over two-thirds of the complete text and is one of the largest of known fragments of an early Qurʼān written in the māʼil script.

The end of Sūrah 7 (Sūrat al-A‘rāf, ‘The Heights’) and the beginning of Sūrah 8 (Sūrat al-Anfāl, ‘The Spoils of War’). The heading in red ink gives the title of the Sūrah and says that it contains 77 verses (British Library Or.2165, folio 7v)  noc

This manuscript was purchased by the British Museum in 1879 from the Reverend Greville John Chester (1830-1892) as noted on a fly leaf at the back of the manuscript. Chester was an ordained clergyman interested in archaeology, Egyptology and natural history and made numerous trips to Egypt and the Near East, where he acquired objects and manuscripts, which are now in the collections of major UK cultural and library institutions. It is very likely he acquired this Qur’ān when he was in Egypt.

Acquisition details recorded at the end of the manuscript (British Library Or.2165, endpaper)  noc

The earliest Qur’ān manuscripts were produced in the mid-to-late seventh century, and ancient copies from this period have not survived intact and exist only in fragments. Or.2165 contains three series of consecutive leaves (Sūrah 7:40 – Sūrah 9:96; Sūrah 10:9 – Sūrah 39:48; Sūrah 40:63 – Sūrah 43:71) from the so-called mā’il Qur’ān, which is about two-thirds of the Qur’ān text and is one of the oldest Qur’āns in the world. It probably dates from the eighth century, and as far as can be ascertained, was produced in the Hijaz region of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Arabic word mā’il (by which this Qur’ān is known) means ‘sloping’ and refers to the sloping style of the script – one of a number of early Arabic scripts collectively named ‘Hijazi’ after the region in which they were developed. The main characteristic of mā’il is its pronounced slant to the right. It can also be recognised by the distinctive traits of some of its letters, for example, the letter alif does not curve at the bottom but is rigid, and the letter yā’, occurring at the end of a word, turns and extends backwards frequently underlying the preceding words.

   Fig 1               Fig2
Left: the letter alif; six small dashes mark the end of the verse
Right: the letter yā’; the Sūrah heading in red ink was added later

In early Qur’āns there are no vowel signs, and this early style of script is also notable for its lack of diacritical marks to distinguish between letters of similar shape. Verse numbering had also not yet been established; the end of each verse was indicated by six small dashes in two stacks of three. The sūrah headings were added much later in red ink in the recognisable space purposely left blank to distinguish between the end and the beginning of chapters. Red circles surrounded by red dots to mark the end of every ten verses were also added later.

The beginning of Sūrah 12 (Sūrat Yūsuf, ‘Joseph’) showing the verse markers and also the red headings and circles which were added later (British Library Or.2165, folios 23v-24r)  noc

As with all early Qur’āns, the text is written on vellum and would have been bound into a codex or muṣḥaf – originally a collection of sheets of vellum placed between two boards. Each double sheet was folded into two leaves, which were assembled into gatherings then sewn together and bound as quires into a codex.

The importance of Or.2165, in addition to all other known early Qur’ān fragments, cannot be overestimated. They provide the only available evidence for the early development of the written recording of the Qur’ān text and help towards our understanding of how early Qur’ān codices were produced.        

Further reading

Rieu, Charles, Supplement to the Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts, London, The British Museum 1894, Item 56, pp. 37-38.
Déroche, François and Noseda, Sergio Noja, Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique I, Les manuscrits de style ḥiǧāzi, Volume 2, tome 1, Le manuscrit Or.2165 (f. 1 à 61) de la British Library, Lesa, 2001.
Baker, Colin F., Qur'an manuscripts: Calligraphy, Illumination, Design, London, 2007, pp.15-18.

Colin F. Baker, Head of Middle Eastern and Central Asian Collections


04 April 2016

Eighth and ninth century versions of the Rustam cycle

Stories of the hero Rustam and his trusty steed Rakhsh, immortalized by the tenth century poet Firdawsi in his epic poem the Shahnamah (ʻBook of kingsʼ), are among the best loved in the whole of Persian literature. Not so well-known, however, are unique versions of the same story dating from the eighth and ninth centuries which are currently on display in the international exhibition The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination at the National Museum, Delhi (More on this exhibition in my recent post Celebrating Noruz in Delhi with new 'Everlasting Flame').

Introducing the Rustam story in the eighth century Panjikent wall paintings to Dr. Najma Heptulla, Minister of Minority Affairs, at the exhibition opening in Delhi. Photo: National Museum

Rustam's Rakhsh in Firdawsi’s Shahnamah
Rakhsh was no ordinary horse. The Shahnamah tells us how Rustam inspected the horses of Zabulistan and Kabul and finally selected a colt with the chest and shoulders of a lion, as strong as an elephant, and the colour of rose leaves scattered on a saffron background. This colt, already known as ‘Rustam’s Rakhsh’, was, it seems, pre-destined to carry the defender of the land of Iran.

Rakhsh was not only fast and strong, he was intelligent and an active protagonist. Perhaps his best-known exploit was the first of the seven ‘trials’ which Rustam underwent on the quest to liberate king Kavus from the demons of Mazandaran. Exhausted by his long journey, Rustam fell asleep. Nearby, however, hidden in the reeds was a fierce and hungry lion. The lion attacked but Rakhsh pounded the lion’s head with his hooves, bit his neck and tore the lion into pieces. When Rustam woke, the lion was dead.

Rakhsh kills a lion. From Firdawsi’s Shahnamah. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f. 90v)  noc

In future, Rustam ordered, Rakhsh was to wake him if an enemy drew near. However, during the third ‘trial’, Rustam, while asleep, was approached again, this time by a monstrous dragon. Twice woken by his horse Rakhsh, in the darkness of the night he failed to see any danger and went back to sleep. Woken a third time, however, Rustam finally saw the dragon and with Rakhsh’s help succeeded in killing him.

Rustam and Rakhsh in the third ‘trial’ when together they defeat a dragon, Rakhsh biting the dragon while Rustam cuts off his head. Copied in 891/1486, Turkman/Timurid style (British Library Add.18188, f 91v)  noc

The Sogdian Rustam fragment
The Middle Persian Xwaday-namag ‘Book of kings’ (de Blois, “Epics”), one of the sources on which Firdawsi drew, was probably not a poem, but rather a prose compendium of legendary and historical traditions put together toward the end of the Sasanian empire. Although it is referred to frequently in Arabic sources, no extant copy survives as such. The name Rustam, however, began to be common at the very end of the Sasanian period, in the seventh century, no doubt reflecting the fact that by this time the Rustam legend had become widely popular in the Western Iranian lands, especially in Sogdiana (modern day Tajikistan and Uzbekistan) the homeland of the Sogdians (Sims-Williams, 2015).

The British Library is fortunate in having in its collections part of a fragment of the story written in Sogdian (an eastern Iranian language spoken by the Sogdians), which probably dates from the ninth century. It was discovered in 1907 in cave 17 at Dunhuang, China, during Stein’s second expedition to Central Asia. The upper part of the same manuscript was subsequently acquired by Paul Pelliot the following year and is now in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. Together these two fragments form the only surviving textual evidence for an early Rustam cycle, copied some 200 years before Firdawsi completed his epic poem.

[Paris fragment] ... [The demons] immediately fled towards [the city]. Rustam went in pursuit right up to the city gates. Many demons died from being trampled; only a thousand managed to enter the city. They shut the gates. Rustam returned with great renown. He went to a good pasture, stopped, took off the saddle and let his horse loose on the grass. He himself rested, ate a meal, was satisfied, spread a rug, lay down and began to sleep.

The demons stood in malevolent consultation. They said to one another: It was a great evil, a great shame on us, that we should have taken refuge in the city from a single horseman. Why should we not go out? Either let us all die and be annihilated or let us exact vengeance for our lords! The demons, who were left a meagre remnant of their former strength, began to prepare great heavy equipment with strong armour and with great ...

They opened the city gates. Many archers, many charioteers, many riding elephants, many riding monsters, many riding pigs, many riding foxes, many riding dogs, many riding on snakes and on lizards, many on foot, many who went flying like vultures and ..., many upside-down, the head downwards and the feet upwards: they all bellowed out a roar, they raised a mighty storm, rain, snow, hail, [lightning] and thunder, they opened their evil mouths and spouted fire, flame and smoke. They departed in search of the valiant Rustam.

Then the observant Rakhsh came and woke Rustam. Rustam arose from his sleep, quickly donned his leopard-skin garment, tied on his bow-case, mounted Rakhsh and hastened towards the demons. When Rustam saw from afar the army of the demons, he said to Rakhsh [beginning of the London fragment]: Come, sir, run away little [by little]; let us perform [a trick] so that the demons [pursue us] to the flat [plain ...]. Rakhsh agreed. Immediately Rustam turned back. When the demons saw, at once both the cavalry and the infantry quickly hurled themselves forward. They said to one another: Now the chief’s hope has been crushed; no longer is he prepared to do battle with us. By no means let him escape! Do not kill him either, but take him alive so that we may show him evil punishment and harsh torture! The demons encouraged one another greatly; they all howled and departed in pursuit of Rustam. Then Rustam turned round and attacked the demons like a fierce lion attacking a deer or a hyena attacking a flock or herd, like a falcon attacking a [hare or] a porcupine attacking a snake, and he began [to destroy] them ...

(translation N. Sims-Williams)

The murals of Panjikent
Additional archaeological evidence for an early Rustam cycle is to be found in wall-paintings discovered by the archaeologist B. Stavisky in 1956-7 in a two storeyed house in the south east of medieval Panjikent, Tajikistan.

Rustan frieze_Hermutage_2000
The Rustam frieze from Panjikent, Room 41/VI now on display in the State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

Rustam frieze_Panjikent
Reconstruction of the Rustam frieze, made at the time of excavation by artists Gremyachinskaya and Nikitin, now in the Museum of History of Culture of Panjikent, Tajikistan. Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

The friezes are attributed to the first half of the eighth century and depict a series of episodes in which Rustam and Rakhsh are engaged in battle with demons. While identifications with known episodes in the Shahnamah are difficult it is tempting to think that one of the scenes may correspond to that described in the Sogdian fragment discovered at Dunhuang.

Currently on display in the National Museum Delhi: Rustam, mounted on Rakhsh, fights an adversary. Wall-painting on dry loess plaster from Panjikent, Tajikistan, c. 740 AD (The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, SA-16223). Photo: Ursula Sims-Williams

Further reading
Firdawsi, Shahnameh: the Persian book of kings; tr. Dick Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2007.
Nicholas Sims-Williams, “The Sogdian Fragments of the British Library,” Indo-Iranian Journal 18, 1976, pp. 43-82. Transcription and edition of Paris and BL fragments on pp. 54-61.
Nicholas and Ursula Sims-Williams, “Rustam and his zīn-i palang.” In: From Aṣl to Zāʼid: Essays in Honour of Éva M. Jeremiaś, ed. I. Szánto. Piliscsaba: Avicenna Institute of Middle Eastern Studies, 2015, pp. 249-58.
Guitty Azarpay and others, Sogdian Painting: The Pictorial Epic in Oriental Art. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
Boris I. Marshak, and V. A. Livshits, Legends, Tales, and Fables in the Art of Sogdiana. New York: Bibliotheca Persica Press, 2002, especially pp. 25-54.
Boris I. Marshak, “Panjikant”, Encyclopaedia Iranica online.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies