Asian and African studies blog

06 March 2019

The largest Javanese manuscript in the world? Menak Amir Hamza

The final manuscript to go online from the Javanese manuscripts from Yogyakarta digitisation project is probably the largest Javanese manuscript in the world, in terms of the number of folios in a single volume. This manuscript, Add. 12309, is a copy of the Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese tale about the uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Written in Arabic (pegon) script in black ink on Javanese paper (dluwang), the book contains 1,520 folios within its original brown leather binding. The front and end binding boards are stamped with frame bands and ornamental corner pieces and a central medallion, and the binding would originally have had an Islamic-style envelope flap. The 3-D image below gives an impression of the physical size of this book.

Menak Amir Hamza is an epic cycle of tales centred on Amir Hamza, the uncle of the prophet Muhammad, and recounts his numerous warlike and amourous adventures. Based on an Arabic-Persian original, the Javanese version has been developed and localised, with further invented and appended tales concerning Amir Hamza’s sons and grandsons. This manuscript originated from the court of Yogyakarta, and was written for Ratu Ageng (ca. 1730-1803), a wife of the first sultan of Yogaykarta, Sultan Hamengku Buwono I, and mother of Sultan Hamengku Buwono II.  In the introduction she is called prabu wanodeya / kang jumeneng Ratu Agung / kang ngedhaton Tegalreja, 'the female monarch / who reigns as Ratu Agung / and has her palace in Tegalreja'. Ratu Ageng was a daughter of an Islamic scholar and was known as a devout Muslim.  The manuscript was copied some time after 1792 (and before 1812, when it was taken by British forces from the palace of Yogyakarta), but it is not known how long was needed for this enormous task.

Menak Amir Hamza,  British Library, Add. 12309, ff. 335v-336r   noc

Javanese paper, dluwang, is made from the beaten bark of the paper mulberry tree (Broussonetia papyrifera).  This gives a highly polished surface, with paper of variable thickness, with the fibres of the wood still very evident on many pages. As shown above on the right-hand page, the scribe has made some corrections by applying a chalky white paint to cover up mistakes, which can then be written over if necessary. Javanese literary works are written in verse, and were composed in a sequence of cantos or sections, each to be sung according to a prescribed metre (pupuh). The coloured ornament on the left hand page is a pepadan, indicating the start of a new canto.

Another canto marker from Menak Amir Hamza. British Library, Add. 12309, f. 1494r  noc

Versions of Menak Amir Hamza can reach great lengths, especially when the long dialogue associated with night-long shadow-puppet performances is elaborated in full. A manuscript in Leiden University Library (Cod. Or. 1797) of the version composed by the Surakarta court scribe Raden Ngabehi Yasadipura (1729-1803) fills 12 volumes and nearly 5,200 pages. However, Add. 12309 remains probably the most voluminous single-volume Javanese manuscript known. There are two other copies of Menak Amir Hamza in the British Library, MSS Jav 45 and MSS Jav 72, both of which have also been digitised.

Photographing this enormous book proved a real challenge for British Library photographer Carl Norman, who had to plan and build a suitable support for the binding. Each page had to be made to lie as flat as possible, whilst ensuring that the spine of the open book was fully supported, through the use of firm back straps and foam supports.  It was only while Carl was photographing every page that he discovered that the 19th-century curator in the British Museum charged with numbering the folios made a mistake – the numbering jumps from 449 to 500 – hardly surprising in view of this enormous task. Moreover, although the final numbered folio is 1564, the numerals are written so faintly that this number was misread in the catalogue by Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 48) as 1504. Only after digitising the whole volume can we now confirm that there are 1520 folios of paper, hence 3040 pages, in this book.

Menak - Carl 11.5
British Library photographer Carl Norman photographing Add. 12309, Menak Amir Hamza.

Headband of binding of Menak Amir Hamza, sewn with red and white threads. British Library, Add. 12309, head.  noc

In the recent British Library exhibition on Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (19 Oct. 2018-19 Feb. 2019), amongst the very many superlative items on display, for many visitors the star of the show was the giant Codex Amiatinus. The oldest complete Latin Bible in the world, written at Jarrow in Northumbria in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716, this exceptional manuscript travelled back to Britain for the first time in over 1,300 years for the exhibition. While the Menak Amir Hamza cannot compete with Codex Amiatinus for physical size, great age, and beautiful illumination, it does contain many more folios!

Codex-amiatinus-biblioteca-medicea-laurenziana-64506a4 IMG_0093
(Left) Codex Amiatinus, 1030 folios of parchment, measuring 505 x 340 mm
(Right) Menak Amir Hamza, 1520 folios of Javanese paper, measuring 287 x 217 mm

Further reading:

Blog post: Menak Amir Hamza, the Javanese version of the Hamzanama

A.T. Gallop and B.Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia.  Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia.  London: British Library, 1991; p. 101.
Theodore G. Th.Pigeaud, Literature of Java.  Catalogue raisonné of Javanese manuscripts in the Library of the University of Leiden and other public collections in the Netherlands.  The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1968. 4 vols. Volume 1, pp. 212-215.
M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.
A. Sudewa, ‘Menak’. Sastra Jawa: suatu tinjauan umum, ed. Edi Sedyawati … [et al]. Jakarta: Balai Pustaka, 2001; pp. 317-323.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork