Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from June 2020

29 June 2020

Two Miscellanies in the Manuscript Collection of Sir William Jones

Sir William Jones collected a large array of manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Sanskrit during both his life as a student and lawyer in London, and also as a puisne judge in Bengal. Collecting primarily Persian and Arabic materials and mostly commissioning Sanskrit materials, Jones picked up quite a number of oddities along the way. By far the biggest part of the collection is made up of well-known or popular works of Arabic and Persian science, literature and grammar as well as standard reference works in Islamic law; his collection is replete with such wonders as a beautifully illustrated copy of Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (MS RSPA 31), three separate copies of Rūmī’s Mas̱navī (MSS RSPA 34-41), and six manuscripts of works by Jāmī (MSS RSPA 46-50), including a Kulliyāt-i Jāmī (the complete, or collected, works of Jāmī; MS RSPA 46).

The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 369v-369r)
The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (Dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 368v-369r)

In this blog post, however, I would like to shine a light on two of the most unusual and most difficult to classify manuscripts in the collection. Perhaps the most strikingly individual manuscript is MS RSPA 55, written on a mix of poor-quality coloured paper by a variety of hands. Impossible to classify or name, RSPA 55 is made up of miscellaneous segments of texts with no clear order or internal principles. Composed largely out of selections of poetry from a range of Persian authors, there are several sections which are devoted to the Dīvān-i ʻUrfī of the 16th century Indo-Persian poet ʻUrfī Shīrāzī, whose work is the most frequently reproduced in the manuscript.

Beyond ʻUrfī, there appears to be little to no rhyme nor reason behind the selections; there are anecdotes referring to Hārūn al-Rashīd followed immediately by a story of three travellers who share ten loaves, shortly after which we find a description of ten different kinds of script (Arabic, Greek, etc.), sayings in Persian by Plato and quotations in Arabic from the ḥadīth. This is all spread over just 4 folios, ff.87-91.

Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reighn of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)
Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reign of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)

The manuscript continues to spool its way over 469 folios, replete with ghazals, rubāʿīs, letters, witticisms and anecdotes, as well as qaṣīdahs, mars̱īyahs and qiṭʻahs of varying renown; perhaps one of the most striking things about this hodge-podge manuscript is the number of lesser known poets among the ones quoted. Rarely today will students of Persian poetry study in depth (if at all) the Dīvān of, say, Ghanī Kāshmīrī, Mīrzā Jalāl Asīr, Fighānī or Āṣafī, all featured in this miscellany of poetry.

There is no clear indication from the manuscript of how (or why) Jones acquired the work and no reason to suppose he commissioned it. Indeed, there are no annotations on the manuscript that can positively be traced back to him; unusually, the manuscript does not even include title and author details at the beginning in his hand. Who assembled it, and perhaps more importantly why they did so in the way they did, remains, therefore every bit as much of a mystery as how it wound its way into the collections of an English puisne judge in Kolkata.

Jones also owned another miscellany of poetical works, MS RSPA 109. This very small manuscript, measuring only 200 x 65mm, is a collection of Arabic poetry about love, that Jones entitles Dīwān al-ʻāshiq, with the gloss, “A collection of Arabick poems some of which are extremely beautiful – Anthologia Amatoria.” Including poems written by a wide range of poets, including Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, Ibn Maṭrūḥ, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and Maḥmūd ibn Fahd al-Ḥalabī. These poets come from all periods of Arabic literature, with perhaps a slightly greater number from the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods than from the earlier periods. This is indeed his only manuscript that would have provided him access to post-Abbasid poetry, as the majority of his Arabic poetry collection was composed of copies of the Muʻallaqāt and other pre-Islamic poetry (MSS RSPA 103-5 and 110), a copy of Abū Tammām’s Ḥamāsah (MS RSPA 106), the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (MS RSPA 107) and the Dīwān of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (MS RSPA 108).

Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)
Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)

This manuscript also includes the only specimens of Turkish literature of the entire collection. Famously a scholar of Arabic and Persian, Jones’s scholarship is not so focused on Turkish (see Cannon, Life, 44-5). Whilst his letters make it clear he at one time viewed himself eligible for the role of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a job posting that never materialised, he only ever published one work of any significance on Turkish literature, this being “A Turkish Ode on the Spring,” a verse based upon Mesihi, which he augmented with a transliteration of the original and a prose translation. This poem and translation were found within Jones’s 1777 publication of Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, before he embarked on his trip to India. In this anthology, however, which does mostly consist of Arabic poems, there are short extracts of poetry by Navāʼī, Nasīmī, Fahmī and others, in both Chagatay and Ottoman Turkish.

Beyond the poetry, the manuscript is also of interest for two further reasons. Firstly, it contains a number of folios dedicated to the writing out of glyphs for numbers of more than one digit, what appears to be several folios of handwriting practice and a folio which lists abbreviations found throughout the manuscript. Whose handwriting practice this is remains a mystery, especially given that the Turkish poetry and these miscellaneous pages were written in a hand different from the Arabic poems.

Finally, the manuscript also includes a page in English that names General John Carnac, a soldier in the East India Company and, later, after returning to India in 1773, a member of the council of Bombay (now Mumbai). This page is a short list of some of his eastern manuscripts with some brief descriptions; it seems likely that this manuscript once formed part of Carnac’s collection of manuscripts; we do not know whether Carnac himself commissioned the manuscript or if he purchased it. Carnac’s work in India did briefly take him to Bengal (in the 1760s), but by the time Jones was resident in India, Carnac was resident in Mumbai and then, Manguluru, both of which are on the western coast of the Indian subcontinent, along the Arabian Sea. It does not appear that Jones ever travelled to the western coast of India. Did Carnac bring the manuscript back to England and give it to Jones before India? Did they meet in India and exchange the manuscript? Did the manuscript go through others’ hands before Jones?

General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)
A former owner? General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)

It seems most probable that Carnac might have given Jones the manuscript in India, possibly in Bengal. In May 1787, for example, John Carnac, also a member of Jones’ Asiatic Society, despite being resident in Mumbai, gave six ancient plates to the society that he had come across (Asiatick Researches, 1:356). Unfortunately, MS RSPA 109 remains unmentioned in both Jones’ letters and the volumes of Asiatick Researches, but the interaction proves the two men certainly knew each other and were part of a broader culture among the English colonial officers of manuscript exchange.

These miscellanies, then, are two of the more curious aspects of the collection that both warrant further study and highlight the diverse nature of the collection. Jones was not only set about collecting classic works that today would form part of a Persian Poetry 101 class at university; instead, he was collecting literary works in a wide array of genres and styles, including these miscellaneous manuscripts that would have given him access to a great amount of literature not represented elsewhere in his collection.

Jonathan Lawrence, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, and former doctoral placement at the British Library

Further Reading

Lawrence, Jonathan, “Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah
Society of Bengal, Asiatick Researches, Volume the First , London, 1799-1839.
Cannon, Garland, The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones. Cambridge, 1990.
Dennison Ross, E. and Browne, E.G. Catalogue of Two Collections of Persian and Arabic Manuscripts Preserved in the India Office Library, London, 1902.
Jones, William Letters of Sir William Jones, ed. Garland Cannon, 2 v., Oxford, 1970.
——— Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, London, 1777; second edition
Sitter, Zak, “William Jones, ‘Eastern Poetry’ and the Problem of Imitation” in Texas Studies in Language and Literature 50:4 (2008), pp 385-407

24 June 2020

Radicals and Rebels: The published works of Issachar Jacox Roberts

In this blogpost, we return to an item discussed last year on the British Library Conservation Care blog in Consider the Cover: Conserving a Chinese Book, when it was being prepared for the exhibition ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (26 April – 27 August 2019). We then learned about the story told by the book’s binding, and now we look closer at its contents and context within the dramatic events of 19th-century China.

A book of Chinese characters open inside a display case
Zi bu ji jie on display in ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (2019). (15344.c.24) (Image credit: © Tony Antoniou)

Aside from being the second American Baptist missionary to set up in China and the first to establish a Protestant mission outside the foreign 'factory' corner  of Canton (Guangzhou), Issachar Roberts was also the religious teacher of Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全. Hong was the man who, in 1851, proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and led a 13-year rebellion against the Qing dynasty as ruler of the Taiping tianguo (太平天囯 ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’).

‘An Explanation of Radical Characters’

Zi bu ji jie is a short text which acts as a guide to the pronunciation and general category of meaning associated with each of the 214 Kangxi radicals (the classifiers used most famously in the dictionary completed in 1716, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor). These descriptions seem to be taken, either wholly or in part, from entries in the Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典 Kangxi zidian), which in turn draws upon earlier sources such as the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 and the Guangyun 廣韻.

Each entry gives the pronunciation first in the form of a homophone character, with variations in tone denoted by the position of a small circle, followed by a short definition in classical Chinese. The character 口 ‘mouth’, for example, is described as人所以言食也 “the means by which people speak and eat.”

The text may be classical in origin and formulaic in structure but it still reveals some of the context of its creation. For instance, it would appear that Roberts was unable to source a satisfactory definition of the eighth Kangxi radical 亠 ‘head’ and instead wrote: 亠字冇乜解法 “The character亠 has no explanation”, using local the Cantonese characters 冇乜 (= 沒有什麽 = ‘without any’).

A page of a printed Chinese book with ruled columns containing bold characters
A page from Zi bu ji jie (15344.c.24) containing local character variants.
CC Public Domain Image

The copy of this work held in the British Library is stamped with “I. J. Roberts” and also includes a handwritten dedication to another prominent missionary, Walter Medhurst, and the date “October 13th, 1840”.

Little did the Reverend Roberts know when he published this ‘Explanation of Radical Characters’ that seven years later he would meet a ‘radical character’ of a very different kind.

‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’

A printed Chinese book with yellowing pages and text arranged in vertical columns, beginning with the title on the right
The first page of another of Roberts’ publications, Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
CC Public Domain Image

Wen da su hua is translated as ‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’ and serves as an introduction to Christian doctrine presented in the form of a series of questions and answers. Given its title and more vernacular style, it is not surprising that local characters feature once again. In addition to the frequent use of the character 乜 (= 什麽 = ‘what/any’) in the phrasing of the questions, you can also find the third person pronoun 佢 and the verb 係 ‘to be’, such as:

“Question: What is the name of his [God’s] son? Answer: [He] is called Jesus.”

This publication also includes a map of Asia and other geographical descriptions, which has been said to reflect Roberts’s “interest in spreading knowledge about the world”, and may well have formed part of Hong Xiuquan’s educational syllabus when he studied under the missionary in 1847.

This volume is signed by the author with the character 孝 ‘The Filial’, which is part of Roberts’s Chinese name, Luo Xiaoquan (羅孝全). It also appears to have been gifted to someone, although the ink has bled and the name is obscured.

A map of Asia in Chinese that unfolds from inside the book and has areas shaded in different colours
The hand-coloured map of Asia from inside Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
CC Public Domain Image

‘The Chinese Revolutionist’

It is not clear whether these works were shown to Hong Xiuquan when he studied under Roberts in 1847. It seems likely that the catechism in particular may have been used, especially as Roberts himself refers to employing his own materials as well those prepared by other prominent missionaries. One thing we do know is that, despite his formal Christian education being cut short when his baptism was “postponed indefinitely”, the two months Hong spent with Roberts at his chapel in Canton (Guangzhou) had a profound and enduring effect on the soon-to-be Taiping leader and his ideology.

The meeting of Hong and Roberts was a turning point in Chinese history, falling halfway between two other crucial moments in the story of the Taiping rebellion. The first was in 1843, when Hong used certain Christian tracts as the basis for interpreting visions he had had following his fourth failure in the civil service examinations. Through this he perceived his divine purpose – to purge the earth of demons and idolatry – and lineage – as the second son of God and younger brother of Jesus Christ. The second crucial moment was on 11 January 1851, when he stood before thousands of his followers established himself as the leader, or Taiping Wang (太平王‘King of Great Peace’), of a rival Chinese dynasty.

In an article published in Putnam’s Monthly in October 1856, Roberts referred to both Hong’s examination failures and his postponed baptism as formative moments, or instances in which “all-wise Providence overruled”. He writes:

“Had he gained his literary degree, to become a mandarin under the Tartar rule would have been his highest aim; had he been baptized, to become an assistant preacher under his foreign teacher was the object in view; but now how widely different his present position!”

Roberts had been unaware of what had become of his one-time student until 1852 but spent much of the next eight years gathering support for the Taiping movement and trying to reach their capital at Nanjing (or Taijing 太京 ‘Heavenly Capital’, as it was known by the Taipings). Once there, he hoped to make use of his unique personal connection and the Christian fervour behind the rebellion in order to further his religious mission in China.

Detail of printed article from magazine
Detail from “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase” by I. J. Roberts, as published in the Primitive Church Magazine in January 1855. (P.P. 429)
CC Public Domain Image

Roberts expressed his support of the Taiping regime in a circular dated June 1854 entitled “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase in China”, which was published the following January in The Primitive Church Magazine. A bit of a rebel himself, he went as far as to challenge what he saw as the “unequal and oppressive” actions of the Mission Board (which had dismissed him in 1852) and propose an alternative “committee of co-operation” to be based among the Taipings at Nanjing. Although aware of the disparities between his own beliefs and those of the Taipings, he was convinced that he could convert them to “true Christianity” and claimed that: “the Tartar dynasty will become defunct and the Tae-ping dynasty will be established in its stead… the Christian religion will not only be tolerated but promoted throughout China”.

It was not until 1862 that, having reached Nanjing and spent more than a year among the Taipings, Roberts finally gave up on his “grand plan”. Hong continued to express deep respect for his former teacher, granting him the exclusive honour of a personal audience and issuing orders for his protection, but Roberts came to realise that their religious differences were both substantial and irreconcilable. He left Nanjing in January 1862, “thoroughly disgusted with their proceedings”.

Emma Harrison
Curator, Chinese Collections

CCBY Image

Historical sources

Alexander Wylie, Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese: Giving a list of their publications, and obituary notices of the deceased. With copious indexes. (American Presbyterian Mission Press: Shanghae [sic], 1867): pp. 94-97. (4766.dd.).

Issachar Jacox Roberts, “Tae Ping Wang” in Putnam's Monthly, v.8 (Jul-Dec 1856).

The Primitive Church Magazine , Volumes XI-XII. (Arthur Hall & Co.: London, 1854-55). (P.P.429)


Further reading

Yuan Chung Teng, “Reverend Issachar Jacox Roberts and the Taiping Rebellion”. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (November 1963): pp.55-67.

George Blackburn Pruden, Jr., Issachar Jacox Roberts and American Diplomacy in China during the Taiping Rebellion. PhD dissertation in modern history. (The American University, 1977).

Prescott Clarke and JS Gregory, Western reports on the Taiping: A Selection of Documents. (Australian National University Press: Canberra, 1982). (X.809/54928)

Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. (W. W. Norton: New York, 1996). (YC.1996.b.6425)

19 June 2020

An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq

A recent post on the Kaifeng Torah Scroll, a seventeenth century Torah scroll from Kaifeng, Henan province, featured the British Library’s Judaeo-Persian letter Or.8212/166 dating from the end of the eighth century as one of the earliest records of the Jewish community in China. Our post today coincides with Silk Road Week 2020 to celebrate the anniversary of the Silk Road - from Chang'an to the Tianshan Corridor - becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site on June 22, 2014. It highlights the long-term collaboration between the British Library and the National Library of China as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) by focussing on our Judaeo-Persian document and a comparatively recent acquisition of the National Library of China BH1-19.

Judaeo-Persian letter discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
The Judaeo-Persian document discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)

The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (National Library of China BH1-19)
The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (BH1-19, image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of China)

The earliest of these two to be widely-known is the British Library document which was discovered early in 1901 during M.A. Stein’s first expedition to Central Asia. A group of his workmen were indulging in some independent ‘treasure-seeking’ after the completion of formal excavations at Dandan-Uiliq, the site of a former Buddhist monastery and Imperial garrison located to the northeast of Khotan between the Khotan and Keriya rivers in what is now the autonomous region of Xinjiang. While searching the debris left in the sand outside the broken east wall of an ancient dwelling-house (Stein’s D.XIII), they came across a document which Stein described (Margoliouth, p. 737):

as it then presented itself, was a lump of thin brownish paper, so closely crumpled up that in the absence of proper appliances I found it quite impossible to attempt its opening and unfolding. Only where one edge of the paper could be partially loosened was I able to make out some characters which manifestly looked like cursive Hebrew.

Map of Dandan-Uiliq, after Stein Sand-buried ruins of Khotan
Map of Dandan-Uiliq based on M. A. Stein's Map showing portions of Chinese Turkestan, Survey of India 1900-1901, scale 1 : 760,000 (Sand-buried ruins of Khotan, London, 1904)

The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner (Margoliouth, pp. 742-3) which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.

The letter proved to be written in Judaeo-Persian, i.e. Persian written in Hebrew script. However since the beginning and end of each line was missing, there was only a limited amount of contextual information to be deduced (for an edition and translation see Utas, 1968 below). Mention of sheep trading and cloth indicates the document’s commercial nature and a reference to the author having written “more than 20 letters[1]” attests perhaps to a thriving trade. There is also an intriguing request for a harp required for instructing a girl how to play (see Yoshida, pp. 389-90 for a possible explanation of this).

In 2004, however, an almost intact leaf (BH1-19) of a similar document was acquired by the National Library of China. Published in 2008 (Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang), it appears to be the initial page of possibly the same letter and gives a more detailed historical context by referring to the defeat of the Tibetans at Kashgar which happened around 790.

The letter (translated by Zhang Zhan in Hansen, pp. 381-2) is from a Persian speaking Jew of Khotan to the ‘lord master’ Nisi Chilag, Abu Sahak and others on the subject of sheep trading. It lists bribes to officials, arranged no doubt in order of sociological importance and headed by a local ruler (dihgān) who can perhaps be identified with the King of Khotan or someone of equal status (Yoshida, p. 392). The gifts include a vase, scent, silk cloth, raw silk, sugar and other items which are not yet fully understood. Perhaps the most important information was the news from Kashgar that “They killed and captured all the Tibetans”. The writer himself contributed “a sum worth 100 strings of coins, or 100,000 coins” for the war effort.

Montage showing the two letters Or.8212/166 and BH1-19 superimposed for comparison
Montage showing the two letters BH1-19 and Or.8212/166 superimposed for comparison

As demonstrated by the montage above, the two documents are almost certainly part of the same letter with the National Library fragment forming the opening page and the British Library fragment a subsequent folio. From a morphological, palaeographical, and content-wise point of view we can be fairly certain that both were written by the same Judaeo-Persian trader. The author is identified in the second letter as ‘Sogdian,’ and despite being written in Persian, Yutaka Yoshida has convincingly argued on the basis of various sogdianisms in the letter itself that he was most likely a Persian speaking Sogdian Jew (Yoshida, pp. 390-92).

Taking both parts together the Dandan-Uiliq letter is probably the oldest surviving document of substance to be written in early New Persian, marking the first phase of the Persian language after the Islamic conquest. As such it provides important evidence for the development of the Persian language in addition to documenting the history of eighth-century Khotan.

Ursula Sims-Williams
Lead Curator, Persian, Asian and African Collections


Further reading

Margoliouth, D.S., “An early Judæo-Persian document from Khotan, in the Stein Collection, with other early Persian documents; with an introductory note by M.A. Stein and communications from W. Bacher, A.E. Cowley and J. Wiesner”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1903), pp. 735-60.
Utas, Bo, “The Jewish-Persian fragment from Dandān-Uiliq”, Orientalia suecana 17 (1968) pp. 123-136 (republished in From Old to New Persian: Collected essays, Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 25-38).
Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang, “Yijian xinfaxian Youtai-Bosiyu xinzha de duandai yu shidu [A newly-discovered Judeo-Persian letter]”, Dunhuang Tulufan Yanjiu 11 (2008), pp. 71-99.
Hansen, V. The Silk Road: a new history with documents. Oxford: OUP, 2017, pp. 357-9, with Zhang Zhan’s translation of BH1-19, pp. 381-2.
Yutaka Yoshida, “Some new interpretations of the two Judeo-Persian letters from Khotan”. In A thousand judgements: Festschrift for Maria Macuch, eds. A. Hintze, D. Durkin-Meisterernst and C. Neumann, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019, pp. 385-94.


[1] Literally “more than twenty and …[word missing]”

15 June 2020

The First Gaster Bible: a fine Hebrew manuscript from a Muslim land

The Hebrew Bible, known in Christianity as The Old Testament, and as TaNaKh in Judaism, comprises the sacred texts of the Jewish people. It is a profuse and unique compilation of laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, royal chronicles, decrees, tales and much more. Its content and structure evolved over a lengthy period extending from the Babylonian exile of the Jewish population in Judea in the 6th century BCE, until about the 2nd century CE.

The word TaNaKh is an acronym based on the first consonantal letters representing its three principal divisions, namely: Torah known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im denoting Prophets, and Ketuvim or Writings. The TaNaKh consists of 24 books in all.

In antiquity, the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was copied on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Codices (singular: codex) i.e. bound books with pages, emerged in Judaism around the 8th century CE, although they may have been in use before then. The 10th century in particular witnessed an upsurge in the production of TaNaKh codices, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Psalms (64:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 14v))
CC Public Domain Image

Named after its distinguished last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was most probably created in Egypt. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript giving details about its production – is missing, and so, nothing is known about the original commission. Its estimated date and place of production have thus been determined by comparing it with extant Hebrew Bibles copied about the 10th century in Egypt and the Middle East.

The First Gaster Bible shows unmissable signs of wear and tear. Its thousand-year old parchment folios displaying fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded embellishments, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What originally may have been a complete manuscript of Ketuvim (Writings), has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just portions from the Books of Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.


Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Top) Ruth (3:15- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. Or 9879, f. 31r (detail)
CC Public Domain Image

(Bottom) . Ecclesiastes (beginning of ch.3). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 32v (detail)))
CC Public Domain Image

When leafing through the manuscript, one notices right away the small script annotations that surround the scriptural text. These are collectively termed as masorah from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ msr’ meaning to hand down. The masorah is fundamentally a corpus of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the biblical text that safeguarded the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible over the centuries. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The Masoretes’ greatest contribution was the compilation of a system of signs and vowels that set up in writing the accurate way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously filled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation, both visible in the First Gaster Bible. The large masorah (masora magna) copied usually at the top and foot of pages, and the small masorah ( masora parva) penned between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from alterations. The latter is more copious and includes lists of whole sections from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other characteristics.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
End of Esther, beginning of Daniel. (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 40r))
CC Public Domain Image

It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript provides a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art.

Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is essentially functional. Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include golden chains, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and undulating scrolls and spirals.

Illuminated page with Hebrew textIlluminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Psalms (69:4 - ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 16r))
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Psalms (71:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 17r))
CC Public Domain Image

It is interesting to point out that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th – 11th centuries are incomplete. One such exception is the Leningrad Codex, preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg. Copied most probably in Egypt around 1008 or 1009 CE, it is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

Among the extant fragmentary specimens, the Aleppo Codex kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, qualifies as the oldest and most authoritative Hebrew Bible. It was copied c. 930 CE in Tiberias, the Holy Land, and has apparently lost 196 of its 491 original pages.

Apart from the First Gaster Bible, the British Library holds a few other very early, incomplete Hebrew biblical codices. The most prestigious is the London Codex, a Pentateuch with masorah that was created probably in Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. The scribe’s name - Nissi ben Daniel ha-Kohen who, in all likelihood was also the masorete and vocaliser of the manuscript, is hidden within the masoretic notes on folios, 40r, 113v and 139r.

Or 4445  f.40r Illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Pentateuch. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. (Or 4445, f. 38v))
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Pentateuch; Scribe’s acrostic in masoretic notes, left margin. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-959 CE. (Or 4445, f. 40r))
CC Public Domain Image

The Second Gaster Bible comes also from Dr Moses Gaster’s former library. Furnished with masorah and delicate ornamentation, it was probably crafted in Egypt towards the last quarter of the 11th century CE. Despite its poor condition, it is evidently a beautiful example of Islamic influence on Jewish manuscript decoration.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Pentateuch; Deuteronomy (19:6- ). (The Second Gaster Bible, Egypt, 11th -12th century CE. (Or 9880, f. 34r))
CC Public Domain Image

Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a particularly interesting Hebrew Pentateuch of Persian origin that lacks entirely the Books of Genesis and Exodus. This early codex is provided with masoretic rubrics, the Aramaic translation, and vowel points placed above the consonantal text. This vocalisation system was developed in Babylonia during the 6th and 7th centuries CE and was eventually superseded by the sublinear pointing developed and perfected by the Tiberian Masoretes.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Numbers (7:87- ). (Pentateuch, Iran, 10th -11th century CE. (Or 1467, f. 44r)).
CC Public Domain Image

The First Gaster Bible is a highly significant codex included in the Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition whose opening has been deferred until further notice.

The British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts described in this blog have been digitised cover to cover as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the Library, 2013-2020. They are discoverable on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
CCBY Image

Further readings

Dotan, Aron . Reflection towards a Critical Edition of Pentateuch Codex Or. 4445'. In.Estudios masoreticos (X Congreso de la IOMS). Dedicados a Harry M. Orlinsky (Textos y estudios 'Cardenal Cisneros' 55) (Madrid: Instituto de Filología CSIC, Departamento de Filología Bíblica y de Oriente Antiguo, 1993). pp. 39-51.

Friedman, Matti. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible . Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012

Gaster, Moses. Hebrew Illuminated Bibles of the IXth and Xth Centuries (Codices Or. Gaster, No. 150 and 151)……… Reprinted from the “Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology,” June, 1900. .London: Harrison & Sons, 1901.

Narkiss, Bezalel. Kitve-Yad ʿIvriyim Metsuyarim ; mavo me-et Sesil Rot ; [ʿIvrit, Daliyah Shaḥaḳ ; ʿarikhah, Daliyah Ṭesler].'Mahad. ʿIvrit ḥadashah u-Metuḳenet. Jerusalem: Keter, 1984. (in Hebrew)

Ortega-Monasterio, Maria-Teresa. Some Masoretic Notes of Mss. L and Or 4445 Compared with the Spanish Tradition'. Sefarad 57, no. 1 (1997), pp. 127-133.

10 June 2020

The Politics of Prognostication in the Cairo Sultanate

In today’s complex and ever-changing circumstances, who wouldn’t want infallible means for interpreting the world around them and even predicting future events? While today’s leaders look to their medical, economic, military and other expert advisers, historically rulers across the world have also consulted astrologers, dream-interpreters and specialists in other forms of divination and occult sciences.

The Mamlūk sultans of late-medieval Egypt and Syria were no different in this regard. Many manuscripts copied within the Cairo Sultanate have survived and a number of them are on various methods of interpreting the present or foretelling the future. Since some of these manuscripts were produced for politically high-ranking patrons, we are in the privileged position of being able to read over the shoulders of Mamlūk sultans and amīrs (military commanders) and get a feeling for the place of prognostication in Mamlūk politics.

Patron statement in the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon
Patron statement in the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon: ‘Intended for the exalted, lordly, sultanic and felicitous treasury – may God dignify and exalt it by Muḥammad and his pure family’ (برسم الخزانة السامية | المولوية السلطانية | السعيدية أجلها | الله وأسماها بمحمد وآله | الطاهرين) (British Library Or. 7733, f. 1ar, recto side of unfoliated flyleaf after f. 1)

One such manuscript is Or. 7733, a manual of dream interpretation called the Book of the Full Moon on the Science of Dream Interpretation (Kitāb al-badr al-munīr fī ʿilm al-taʿbīr), written by Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAlī ibn ʿUmar ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Baṣrī al-Maṣrī, known as Ibn Jaydān. The manuscript is a holograph (i.e. the copy was made by its author, Ibn Jaydān), completed on Wednesday 2 Rabīʿ II 727/25 February 1327 for the Sultan’s treasury (see ff. 1ar and 260r, lines 4-7). Ibn Jaydān explains in the preface that he composed the manual for the Mamlūk prince ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl (b. ca 725/1325, see f. 6v, lines 12-13). Since, however, this prince was still an infant in 1327, the true dedicatee must have been the boy’s father, the reigning Sultan al-Malik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ibn Qalāwūn (reg. 693-741/1293-1341 with gaps). Ibn Jaydān, claims that ‘the most deserving person concerning this science is the sultan because God bestowed His sovereignty upon him and entrusted him with custodianship of His creation, so of all people after the prophets, his dream is the most true and veracious’ (أَوْلَى الناس بهذا العلم السلطان لما آتاه الله من ملكه وكلّفه رعاية خلقه فكانت رؤياه أصحّ من كافة الناس بعد النبيين وأصدق, f. 4r, lines 10-13), and even tells us that he had dedicated other writings on dream interpretation to al-Nāṣir Muḥammad (see f. 3v, lines 5-7).

It seems, then, that the all-but-forgotten Ibn Jaydān was the personal dream-interpreter (muʿabbir) to al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, or at least that he repeatedly sought this sultan’s patronage. Given the relatively stable political climate in which al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ruled – his third reign, during which Ibn Jaydān wrote the Full Moon, lasted 31 years – it is not surprising that Ibn Jaydān wrote in support of the Sultan’s dynasty, the Qalāwūnids (678-784/1279-1382). In his preface to the Full Moon, Ibn Jaydān takes the opportunity to stress the crucial role dream interpreters have played in foretelling and protecting a ruler’s lineage. To do this, Ibn Jaydān presents a series of examples of dream-interpreters correctly predicting the deaths of presumptive heirs to the throne and the births of future rulers. These stories served to remind al-Nāṣir Muḥammad of the importance of dream-interpreters to the illustrious rulers of earlier Islamicate history, and more importantly of the reliability of their interpretations in foretelling the fortunes of their dynasties.

Ibn Jaydan on dream interpretation
Ibn Jaydān lists his other works on dream interpretation: (1) an abridgement composed at Hamadhān in 716/1316-7 of The Book of The Elixir on the Science of Dreams (Kitāb al-iksīr fī ʿilm al-manāmāt), (2) an unnamed didactic poem (urjūzah), (3) The Book of Glad Tidings Concerning The Science of Dream Interpretation (Kitāb al-tabshīr fī ʿilm al-taʿbīr) dedicated to al-Malik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, and (4) another didactic poem named after the same sultan (British Library Or. 7733, f. 3v, see lines 1-8)

This is the context in which to understand Ibn Jaydān’s dedication of the work to an infant prince. The dedicatee, ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl, was not much more than one or two years old when Ibn Jaydān presented his dream interpretation manual, and he was not necessarily the heir apparent. In fact, his half-brother, al-Malik al-Manṣūr ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī, as first son of al-Malik al-Nāṣir’s first marriage had been heir to the throne until he died aged 7 and was buried in his father’s royal mausoleum in 710/1310. In the preface to the Full Moon, Ibn Jaydān refers to the late crown prince as ‘the martyred ruler ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn’ (ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī al-malik al-shahīd). Ibn Jaydān correctly predicts that ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl would one day become sultan, and indeed he lived to reign as al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ (reg. 743-6/1342-5). Ibn Jaydān’s dedication of the Full Moon to ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl was not only a vote of confidence in the viability of the prince’s future reign as sultan and thus the continuation of the Qalāwūnid dynasty, but perhaps more importantly a statement of Ibn Jaydān’s loyalty to the sultan.

Colophon of the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon (Or. 7733, f. 260r)
Colophon of the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon completed at the end of Wednesday 2 Rabīʻ II 727/25 February 1327 (آخر نهار الأربعاء لليلتين خلت من ربيع الآخر | سنة سبع وعشرين وسبعمئة هلالية, see lines 5-6) (British Library Or. 7733, f. 260r)

When the long and relatively stable reign of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad came to an end with his death in 741/1341, the subsequent forty-one years witnessed twelve of his descendants accede to the throne before the Qalāwūnid dynasty ended with the accession of al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Barqūq in 784/1382. Between al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s death and the accession of Ibn Jaydān’s dedicatee, al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ Ismāʿīl (then about seventeen years old) the following year, no fewer than three of his brothers had taken the sultanate and either died or been deposed in factional intrigues. These tumultuous final years of the Qalāwūnid dynasty were dominated by the short reigns of very young sultans – often legal minors. Meanwhile, powerful Mamlūk amīrs wrestled for power as kingmakers and regents.

One of these young sultans was al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s grandson, al-Malik al-Ashraf Shaʿbān II (b. 754/1353, reg. 764-778/1363-1377). He was only ten years old when he assumed the sultanate, but he held an uncharacteristically long reign for the period. In the early part of this reign, the real power was wielded by his regent and Commander-in-Chief (atābak al-ʿasākir), the ‘slave-soldier’ (mamlūk) Yalbughā al-Khāṣṣakī. Three years after al-Ashraf Shaʿbān’s accession, the child Sultan conspired with a group of six amīrs to overthrow Yalbughā and had him murdered in Rabīʿ II 768/December 1366.

Patron statement in Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations
Patron statement in Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations: ‘Intended for the treasury of the honourable, most illustrious, sublime Lord Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur, Commander-in-chief of the victorious troops – God fortify His partisans!’ (برسم خزانة المقر الأشرف العالي | المولوي السيفي اسندمر | أتابك العساكر المنصورة | أعز الله أنصاره) (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 1, f. 1r , lower half)

In the ensuing turmoil, one of the six conspirators, the amīr Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur al-Nāṣirī (d. 769/1368), consolidated his power, winning military victories first against mamlūks formerly owned by and still faithful to Yalbughā and then against the Sultan’s own supporters. By the summer of 768/1367, Asandamur al-Nāṣirī had assumed the title of Commander-in-Chief, a position second in rank only to the Sultan. He was now master of the Cairo Sultanate as regent and power behind the throne of al-Ashraf Shaʿbān, who at around 14 years old was only just coming of age.

al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations
al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations contains historical examples of horoscopes for pre- and early Islamic rulers, such as this horoscope cast for the coronation (ʿiqd al-tāj) of the Byzantine usurper Leontius (reg. 484–488) at sunrise on Wednesday 18 July 484. Note that, despite its shelfmark, Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 2 is not actually the second volume of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s set of the Book of Interrogations and was copied over a century earlier, in 640/1243 (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 2, f. 137v ; see text and translation in Pingree 1976, Horoscope VII, pp. 139-42)

It may seem surprising that during his dramatic rise to power Asandamur al-Nāṣirī could have found time to consult a copy of the Book of Interrogations (Kitāb al-masāʾil) by the late third/ninth-century astrologer Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb ibn ‘Alī al-Qarshī al-Qaṣrānī. The text is a multi-volume treatise on ‘interrogations’, an astrological practice in which a question is answered by means of a horoscope cast for the time and place the interrogator poses the question. Since this practice was commonly used to predict the political fortunes of newly enthroned monarchs, and al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations contains many historical examples of such royal horoscopes, it is not difficult to see why the book would have appealed to Asandamur al-Nāṣirī as he assumed authority over the sultanate.

Colophon of vol. 1 of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations
Colophon of vol. 1 of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations, dated first 10 days of Shawwāl 768/late May-early June 1367: ‘The Book of Interrogations is finished with the praise and help of God in the first tenth of Shawwāl 768. May the prayer of God be upon our lord Muḥammad, seal of the prophets and apostles, and upon his family and all his companions. God suffices for us – truly He is the perfect authority’ (تم كتاب المسائل بحمد الله وعونه | في العشر الأول من شوال سنة ثمان وستين وسبعمائة | وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد خاتم النبيين والمرسلين وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين | وحسبنا الله ونعم الوكيل). At either side of the top line of the colophon, another hand has written the following: ‘The first part of … is finished. It is followed by Chapter Seven: Concerning the Matter of Two Adversaries’ (Right: تم الجزء الأول من; Left: يتلوه الباب السابع في أمر الخصمين) (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 1, f. 193v)

Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations  was completed during the first 10 days of Shawwāl 768/late May-early June 1367, just as he was defeating the Sultan’s forces to achieve total dominance over the Mamlūk sphere. We do not know if Asandamur al-Nāṣirī or, more likely, an astrologer under his patronage actually used the techniques taught in the Book of Interrogations to foretell what would become of the new master of Egypt and Syria. Despite any astrological support he may have received, Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s regency was short-lived, and in Ṣafar 769/October 1367 his troops suffered a catastrophic defeat by those of the Sultan. Asandamur al-Nāṣirī fled to Alexandria, where he met his end shortly after in obscure circumstances.

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
Thanks to Prof. Jo Steenbergen (University of Ghent) and Dr Noah D. Gardiner (University of South Carolina) for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.

Further reading
Bauden, Frédéric, ‘The Sons of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad and the Politics of Puppets: Where Did It All Start?’, Mamlūk Studies Review 13.1 (2009), pp. 53–81.
Flemming, Barbara, ‘Literary Activities in Mamlūk Halls and Barracks’, in Barbara Flemming, Essays on Turkish Literature and History (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 105-16.
Franssen, EÏlise, ‘What was there in a Mamlūk Amīr’s Library? Evidence from a Fifteenth-century Manuscript’, in Developing Perspectives in Mamlūk History. Essays in Honor of Amalia Levanoni , ed. by Yuval Ben-Bassat (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 311-32.
Mazor, Amir, ‘The Topos of Predicting the Future in Early Mamlūk Historiography’, in Mamlūk Historiography Revisited – Narratological Perspectives, ed. by Stephan Conermann (Göttingen: Bonn University Press, 2018), pp. 103-19.
Pingree, David, ‘Political Horoscopes from the Reign of Zeno’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30 (1976) pp. 133 and 135-50.
Van Steenbergen, Jo, ‘“Is Anyone My Guardian…?” Mamlūk Under-age Rule and the Later Qalāwūnids’, Al-Masāq 19.1 (2007), 55-65.
———, ‘The Amir Yalbughā al-Khāṣṣakī, the Qalāwūnid Sultanate, and the Cultural Matrix of Mamlūk Society: A Reassessment of Mamlūk Politics in the 1360s’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 131.3 (2011), 423-43.

05 June 2020

A Thai royal edition of Pannasa Jataka (ปัญญาสชาดก)

Paññāsa Jātaka are extra-canonical Birth Tales of the Buddha. Their origin is usually associated with northern Thailand, or the former kingdom of Lānnā. However, many such extra-canonical Birth Tales found their way into the literatures of neighbouring peoples, such as the Thai of central Thailand and the Lao of Laos and northeast Thailand. Motifs that appear in some Paññāsa Jātaka can also be found on ninth-century reliefs at the Borobudur monument in Java, which suggests that some Paññāsa Jātaka may be derived from older pre-Buddhist Southeast Asian folklore. Various Paññāsa Jātaka have parallels with Sanskrit literature as well as Tamil, Chinese, Tibetan, Khotanese and Southeast Asian folk tales (Fickle, 1978).
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868
Wooden covers of a Thai royal manuscript containing a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka from central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)

Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka
Detail from the black lacquered back cover with gilt floral decoration of a Thai royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)

The Pali expression Paññāsa Jātaka literally means “fifty Birth Tales”. Varying in numbers and order of arrangement, several collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are known in the northern Thai (Lānnā), Lao, Tai Lue, Tai Khuen, central Thai, Cambodian, Burmese and Mon traditions. Although there is no evidence as to which is the original or standard collection, it is thought that most of the Paññāsa Jātaka were written down by Buddhist monastics in the Lānnā kingdom between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, mostly in the local northern Thai (Lānnā) dialect, with some phrases in Pāli language. Centres of Buddhist scholarship in the Lānnā kingdom were Wat Pā Daeng, Wat Phra Sing, Wat Mahābodhi in Chiang Mai and Wat Phra Thāt Haripunjaya in Lamphun, but many of the learned monks fled to Luang Prabang before and during the Burmese conquest of Chiang Mai in 1558, and others were taken to Burma. This explains not only the spread of the Paññāsa Jātaka but also the increase in production of manuscripts containing Paññāsa Jātaka across mainland Southeast Asia. The collections of Paññāsa Jātaka are also known as Jātaka nǭk nibāt and Hāsip chāt in the Lānnā and Lao traditions, and Zimmè pannātha in the Burmese tradition (Zimmè referring to Chiang Mai). Most of the surviving manuscripts containing one or more Paññāsa Jātaka date back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but many of them appear to be copies from older manuscripts. Pali language versions of Paññāsa Jātaka can be found in the central Thai, Khmer and Burmese traditions.

Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles
Paññāsa Jātaka in Khmer script on palm leaves in ten bundles, written in ink on gilt background (first leaf of each bundle) and incised on plain palm leaves. With small lacquered and gilded illuminations in ovals on the second leaf. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)

A royal edition of a selection of Paññāsa Jātaka was commissioned by King Mongkut (Rama IV, r.1851-1868). The text was written mainly in Khmer script which was commonly used for Pali Buddhist scriptures in central Thailand up until the end of the nineteenth century. Only a few words on the first two leaves are written in Khom script, a variant of Khmer script used in Thailand. The manuscript consists of ten bundles with altogether 235 palm leaves, held between two wooden covers which were decorated with black lacquer and gilt floral patterns. The text was incised and blackened on the plain dried palm leaves, except the first leaf of each bundle which are gilded with text applied in black ink or lacquer. All the palm leaves have gilded edges. The title leaves of each bundle are decorated with two illuminations in ovals; one on the left side showing a vihāra (Buddhist assembly hall), and one on the right depicting the royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) with a crown between two parasols (below).

Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV)
Royal seal of King Mongkut (Rama IV) on the title leaf of the first bundle of a royal manuscript containing Paññāsa Jātaka. Central Thailand, c.1851-1868 (British Library, Or 12524)

A set of northern Thai Paññāsa Jātaka transliterated from Dhamma script into Thai script was published in 1998 under the auspices of Chiang Mai University. The international team of researchers involved in this project point out that the original manuscript version written in northern Thai Dhamma script is mainly in the Lānnā dialect with added words and phrases in Pali. The text of these Paññāsa Jātaka is in prose and largely follows the structure of the Jātaka in the Pali canon. Whereas central Thai manuscript versions of the Paññāsa Jātaka were compiled in Pali language, early printed works usually contain translations of these stories in Thai language to make them available to wider audiences in central Thailand. The first printed Thai translation was published in 1923 under the direction of Prince Damrong Rajanubhab, a son of King Mongkut (Rama IV) and founder of the modern educational system of Thailand.

05 first Thai publication
"Paññāsa Jātaka phāk thī 12 prachum nithān nai prathēt nī tǣ borān 50 rư̄ang worawong chādok". A translation of Paññāsa Jātaka into Thai published in Bangkok, Vajirañāna Library, 2470 (1923 CE). Source: National Library of Thailand (accessed 31/03/2020)

To understand the dissemination of a relatively small extra-canonical collection of stories with a Buddhist motif over a wider geographical area one has to take the role of oral tradition and performance into consideration. Although monks and novices may have collected folktales and written them down for the first time, and even translated them into Pali and then back into various other vernacular languages, the spread of these stories will also have to be credited to the oral traditions and performing arts. Not only monks travelled forth and back between centres of Buddhist worship, education and art, but also royals, artists, singers and musicians, theatre troupes, craftsmen, traders and ordinary people who would have helped to make their own folkloristic heritage known in foreign lands. And even when texts had been written down, the manuscripts did not necessarily stay in one place, but were often donated to Buddhist temples in faraway cities, regions and countries.

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


Baker, Chris and Pasuk Phongpaichit: From the fifty Jātaka: Selections from the Thai Paññāsa Jātaka. Chiang Mai: Silkworm, 2019
Fickle, Dorothy H.: An historical and structural study of the Paññāsa Jātaka. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1978
Niyadā Laosunthō̜n: Panyāsa chādok : prawat læ khwāmsamkhan thī mī tọ̄ wannakam rō̜ikrō̜ng khọ̄ng Thai. Bangkok: Mǣkhamfāng, 1995
Skilling, Peter: Jātaka and Paññāsa-jātaka in South-East Asia. Journal of the Pali Text Society vol. 27, 2006, pp. 113–174.
Udom Rungruangsri: Wannakam chādok thī mī laksana pen “Lānnā”. Wannakam phutthasāsanā nai Lānnā. Ed. Phanphen Khruathai. Chiang Mai, 1997, pp. 51-60

01 June 2020

Written in your palm, just read it!

We all wish to know the future. Wouldn’t it give us peace of mind if we knew what is waiting for us? Our Hebrew collection offers a fair number of manuscripts discussing different kinds of divination techniques. Perhaps the most well-known form of foretelling the future is palmistry, or chiromancy (from the Greek words kheir = hand and manteia = divination). If you want to know your future, you just have to consult a palmistry manual or show your hand to a person knowledgeable in this field.

This ancient divination technique appeared first in Judaism in late antique mystical circles, and became popular much later among medieval kabbalists. The most fundamental kabbalistic work, the Zohar ( The Book of Splendour) discusses hand and face reading at length, but many other sources also mention hokhmat ha-yad (the science of the hand). The early 13th-century kabbalist Asher ben Saul relates about the following custom:

“[At the conclusion of the Sabbath] they used to examine the lines of the palms of the hands, because through the lines on the hands the sages would know a man’s fate and the good things in store for him.” (Sefer ha-Minhagot)[1]

Even a harsh critic of the kabbalah, the famous Venetian rabbi Leon Modena, mentions palmistry in his autobiography: “The time of my death is predicted for the age of fifty-two, approximately, and I am fifty now. Palmistry also indicates that it will occur about the age of fifty.” [2] He died in 1648 at the age of 77.

Our forthcoming exhibition entitled Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word will display a short treatise on the topic from a Jewish manuscript from 18th-century Tunis.

Illustration of palm and palm lines.Explanation of palm illustration
A North African guide to palmistry. (Treatise on palmistry. Tunis, 1775. Or 10357, ff. 91v-92r.)
CC Public Domain Image

The treatise is indeed very short, occupying two pages (ff. 91v-92), and is located at the end of a medical work by the physician Isaac Haim Cantarini. It was placed here perhaps because palmistry was often considered as a useful supplement to medicine. This work discusses merely six major lines of the palm: table line, wisdom line, honour line, fate line, life line, and wealth line, and is accompanied by a full-page diagram. Here is the translation of the entire work (except for half a sentence in the explanation of the table line, which is rather cryptic for the author of this blog. All solutions are welcome!).

1. The table line: when lines like these [three downward curving lines] coming out of it, they show that … ; when there is a line like this [forward slash] at the end, it shows [that he has] great influence.

2. When this line reaches from one edge to the other edge through the width of the hand, it shows great wisdom, and according to its length it will show if he is wise or an imbecile.

3. When this line begins at the wisdom line and finishes at the life line, it shows that every one of his days will be spent in honour and if there is a line coming out of it reaching the fortune line, it shows that he will die in honour.

4. If this line stretches from the top of the palm to its bottom, it shows great fortune. But if there are smaller lines coming out of it at the upper end where the fingers are, it shows that his fortune comes and goes. However if at its end there lines horizontally and vertically and one of them intertwines with the life line, he will die poor. And if a line comes out of the honour line and intertwines with the fate line, he will die rich.

5. The length of the life line corresponds to the length of his days. And if it there is a line coming out at the end closer to the arm and [crosses(?)] the fortune line, his days will be long.

6. The wealth line: if there are no smaller lines on its width, he will be rich, and if there are lines coming out of it, he will be poor in all his days; and if these lines are all coming out on one side, he will sometimes be rich sometimes poor. God will save us.

The manuscript does not mention the author of this short treatise. The hand diagram is, however, almost identical to that in a printed treatise on palmistry, physiognomy and astrology composed by t    he famous German-Jewish scholar Jacob ben Mordechai of Fulda composed a treatise on palmistry, physiognomy and astrology sometime in the late-17th or early 18th century. Jacob claims that he based his work on ancient authors, among others Aristotle, who - according to Jacob - was converted to Judaism. Could perhaps the diagram in our manuscript be copied from this printed book?

A printed illustration of a hand and palm lines
A printed palmistry diagram. (Jacob ben Mordechai of Fulda, Shoshanat Yaakov. Amsterdam, 1706.) (Source:
CC Public Domain Image

There is one more example of a palmistry diagram in the Hebrew collection. The late 13th-century North French Miscellany offers a more elaborate mapping of the human hand. Here, the short explanations of the lines are inserted into the diagram itself. Although, palmistry is often integrated with astrology, none of these Jewish examples seem to have any connection to it.

A large hand with palm lines illustrated
A palmistry diagram. (Northern French Miscellany, France, 13th century. Add MS 11639, f. 115r)
CC Public Domain Image

Palmistry is by no means a Jewish invention, and was popular in many cultures. In the British Library collections, you can find some beautifully illustrated works from Christian works on the subject, for instance. Christian authors often justify the use of such divination technique on biblical grounds, quoting the Book of Job: “Is as a sign on every man’s hand, that all men may know His doings.” (Job 37:7); or the Book of Proverbs: “In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honour.” (Proverbs 3:16).These two hand diagrams – a left and a right hand – illustrate a Latin chiromantic treatise in a late 12th or early 13th-century scientific miscellany. It is a pretty early example, since the first Latin manuscripts mentioning the subject are from the 12th century.

Sloane MS 2030 ff. 125v-126r
An example of palmistry among Christian scholars. (Latin scientific miscellany, England, 12th-13th century. Sloane MS 2030, ff. 125v-126r).
CC Public Domain Image

And if you are interested in the relationship between palmistry and astrology, have a look at Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes, in chyromantiam, physiognomiam, astrologiam..., by the Carthusian monk Johannes ab Indagine (or Johannes Bremer von Hagen, died in 1537). Here you can see a digitised version of the Latin edition, but the British Library holds several copies of the English translation from as early as 1558 entitled Briefe introductions, both naturall, pleasaunte, and also delectable vnto the art of chiromancy, or manuel diuination, and physiognomy with circumstances vpon the faces of the signes.

A printed illustration of a hand and its lines explained in Latin
Johannes Bremer von Hagen’s guide to the palm and its lines. (Johannes ab Indagine, Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes, in chyromantiam, physiognomiam, astrologiam naturale[m]. Frankfurt: David Zöpfel, [1560]. Digital Store 1606/313).
CC Public Domain Image

Both Hebrew manuscripts mentioned in this blog have been fully digitised as part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project. So if you do not want to turn to a professional palm reader, consult instead these “ancient” sources, and discover the truth written in your palm by yourself!

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections
CCBY Image

Further reading:

Burnett, Charles S. F. “The Earliest Chiromancy in the West.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 50 (1987): 198-195.

Scholem, Gershom. “Chiromancy.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, v. 4 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Pub. House, 2007), 652-654.

Thorndike, Lynn. “Chiromancy in Mediaeval Latin Manuscripts.” Speculum 40 (1965): 674-706.

[1] EJ “Chiromancy”, v. 4 p. 653.

[2] Lawrence Fine, Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages Through the Early Modern Period (Princeton, N.J.; Oxford : Princeton University Press, 2001), 461.