Asian and African studies blog

30 November 2020

A Golden Legacy: Vakfiyeler and Evkâf in the British Library Collections

Donations and legacies are part and parcel of cultural institutions across Europe. Galleries, libraries, archives and museums have named collections, exhibition halls, cafeterias, and atria - among other objects and spaces - for generous benefactors. The British Library is no stranger to this tradition, and a number of our spaces bear the names of the individuals and families whose contributions, whether pecuniary or in-kind, have helped create what the Library is today. Over time, some associations have proven to be far more controversial than others, but none of them can be ignored when assessing how the Library came to be, and how it presents to the public at the current moment. Legacies, however, also feature in our holdings in much more subtle ways. In the Turkish and Turkic collections, they appear in vakfiyeler, texts that document the establishment of legacies, bequests, trusts and other financial instruments and institutions intended to outlive their donors. Given these documents’ connections to accumulated wealth, it should be no surprise that many, but not all, are lavishly illuminated. In this blog, I’m going to take you through a tour of some of our most spectacular examples, as well as a few that point to the value of the content of the vakfiye beyond the valuation of its form.

The word vakfiye comes from the Arabic waqf (وقف). The Arabic original is connected through its root consonants to concepts such as standing (وقّف) and stopping (توقّف). In this instance, the word refers to an indefinite endowment of some sort of physical asset (often property and/or a building) for religious and charitable ends. Thanks to the spread of Islamic legal system, waqf has made its way into various languages spoken in Muslim-majority societies with this particular connotation. While the vakıf (its Turkish form; plural vakıflar/evkâf) is a concept deeply rooted in Islamic societies, it has also impacted the structure of societies that are not Muslim-majority but that have been profoundly influenced by Islam. Within many states, vakıflar are inextricably linked to tax codes, and no small number of families across the spatial and temporal reaches of the Ottoman Empire sought to use these instruments to keep their accumulated wealth from ending up in Imperial coffers. Thanks to the vakıf, and these families’ aversion to taxation or expropriation, the former Ottoman lands are dotted with exquisite architectural sites as well as a strong tradition of social welfare systems outside of the state’s control.

Double page of text in Arabic script surrounded by intricate gold floral illumination and gold borders. At the top right of the image is copious floral illustration in red, blue, green, white, black, purple, pink and gold inks.
The unvan and opening text of Mehmet Ali Paşa's Vakfiye, featuring floral illumination in the unvan with an aesthetic reminiscent of Western European styles of illustration. (Vakfiye. Cairo, 1813. Or 16280, ff 1v-2r)
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The beauty that can be found in many of the mosques, schools, soup kitchens, and other physical monuments of the vakıf is easily reflected in the documents that underpin such social institutions. After consulting with the Mohamed Ali Foundation, the British Library recently digitized one of its most beautiful examples. Or 16280 is the vakfiye of Mehmet Ali Paşa, known in Arabic as Muḥammad 'Ali Bāshā (محمد علي باشا), Hıdiv (Khedive) of Egypt from 1805 until 1848. Mehmet Ali Paşa was born in Kavala, contemporary Greece, to a family that was ethnically Albanian. After the death of his father, he was taken in by his uncle, and soon started to work as an Ottoman tax collector in his hometown. In 1798, Napoleon I invaded and occupied Egypt, prompting Ottoman authorities to send Imperial reinforcements to the territory in order to push out the French army. Ali arrived in Egypt in 1801 as part of this effort, and quickly parlayed his relationship with both Istanbul and the French occupiers to make himself the most suitable candidate for the post of Vali (Governor). He was awarded the post in 1805, and soon set about on a radical program of social, economic, cultural and political reform, leaving a controversial and contested legacy.

Colour photograph of a statue of a man in Ottoman clothing atop a horse, made of cast ironBas-relief inscription in Ottoman Turkish in white marble, in rectangle subdivided into four sections
(Left) The statue dedicated to Mehmet Ali Paşa by the Katikia Mehmet Ali Museum in Kavala, Greece. (© Michael Erdman)

(Right) An inscription in Ottoman Turkish identifying Mehmet Ali Paşa as the benefactor of the complex at the Katikia Mehmet Ali Museum in Kavala, Greece. (© Michael Erdman)

Mehmet Ali Paşa’s impact on Egypt is not the focus of the vakfiye, but it is worthwhile noting that even during his transformation of Egyptian society, the Paşa was still focused, in part, on his hometown of Kavala. Indeed, his house remains a tourist attraction in the city, testifying to the continued links between his family and the region well past Mehmet Ali’s departure for Egypt. In 1813, he had the above document drafted in Cairo, establishing a medrese, library and other charitable structures (known as the Imaret) in Kavala. The Imaret still exists, albeit as a luxury hotel catering to an exclusive clientele. The document, which outlines the legal framework for the endowment, the financial sums at play, and the eventual management of the site, is an exquisite example of text production from Ottoman Egypt. The unvan or header is particularly attractive, and bears witness to what might be Western European influences in the selection of colours and the design of the floral patterns throughout the start of the text. The sheer volume of the gold itself is another indicator of the value – both financial and legal – of the text, as it is used liberally throughout.

Two page spread of manuscript in Arabic script with gold bands between text and gold margin lines. Top right hand corner features floral illumination in red, green, blue, black, white, pink and purple inks as well as gold.
The unvan and opening text of the zeyl or codicil to Mehmet Ali Paşa's Vakfiye, featuring floral illumination in the unvan clearly inspired by the aesthetic of the original vakfiye. (Zeyl. Istanbul, 1817. Or 16281, ff 1v-2r)
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In 1817 CE, this vakfiye was amended by a codicil, known as a zeyl, by a scribe in Istanbul. The zeyl is found at Or 16281 and provides us with an exceptionally interesting counterpoint to the original document. This text was created in Istanbul, not Cairo, but it shows a clear desire to mimic, at least in part, the illumination found on the original vakfiye. It too features floral scrolls within the unvan that are reminiscent of European styles of painting, as well as a heavy usage of gold through the first few folios. Unlike Or 16280, we can easily identify the scribe who created this beautiful example of Ottoman illumination and calligraphy. Mustafa Vasıf Efendi was gainfully employed as the Royal Scribe and Türbedar of Sultan Abdülhamit I, indicating just how important legal documents sponsored by Mehmet Ali Paşa must have been considered at this time. In some ways, the content of the zeyl – which stipulates that revenue from property at Thasos should be used to finance a charitable institution for boys in Kavala – would appear to be out of sync with the grandeur of the decoration and the stature of the artists. But both point to the importance of rank and hierarchy in the Ottoman Empire, and the manner in which these influenced decisions about cultural production.

Single page of Arabic-script text among considerable gilded illumination in various geometric forms, incorporating ownership seals in black. These surround a naturalistic illustration of roses, some of which have blossomed and others still budsPage of Arabic-script text with gold bands between the lines, surrounded by heavily gilded illumination in various shapes and floral illustrations in pink, green and black
Opening text to a 17th-century vakfiye (right) and explanations of the terms of the vakfiye, as well as signatures and seals of witnesses (left) among heavily gilded floral illumination and the illustration of a rose. (Vakfiye. Thessaloniki, 18th century CE. Or 16615) 
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Mehmet Ali Paşa was obviously an important figure in Ottoman history, and that undoubtedly accounts for the richness of both the vakfiye and the zeyl. But other figures, including those less prominent, were able to finance equally exquisite pieces. Or 16615, an 18th-century document from Thessaloniki, contemporary Greece, is another unique example of gold meets art meets legal document. Commissioned by Eminzade el-Hacc Ahmet Ağa ibnü’l-Hacc Mehmet Ağa İbn-i Yahya Çavuş, a resident of İsa Bey Mahallesi in the Tuzcu Sinan Bey area of Kara Firya, this vakfiye features delicately illustrated roses among heavy gilding. There are also gilded crown-like illumination, gilded cloud bands, and plenty more bling in and among the text, signatures, and seals. The content of the vakfiye is just as captivating. It establishes the source of funds for the creation of a largely self-sufficient charitable, educational and religious community in the İsa Bey Mahalle, all of which would service young men seeking to pursue religious studies. Beyond this, however, it also lists the titles of some 33 books that formed part of a library included in the vakıf as well as their valuation. The document thus provides us with greater insight into the construction of libraries in the Ottoman Empire and their perceived value, at least in monetary terms. These terms, which are included in the main text, are made even more generous following an addendum to the original endowment. In this zeyl, the sponsor, who is now resident in Istanbul as the Director of the Imperial Gunpowder Magazine, gifts further financial support for various institutions of religious education across the centre of the Empire.

Double page of text in Arabic script, primarily in red ink, organized on the left-hand side in a grid with numbers in black ink
The opening of a copy of Köprülü Mehmet Paşa's vakfiye, including a listing of the contents of the document according to the locations of the property disposed of within the text. (Vakfiye. Istanbul?, 18th century. Or 6353 ff 3v-4r)
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Importance of content was not always signalled by ostentatious illumination. Or 6353 contains a series of vakfiyeler that all relate to the Köprülü family in the late 17th century and early 18th century CE. Among the best-known clans of Ottoman bureaucrats and literati, the Köprülü family members contributed to the creation of Ottoman civil and military bureaucracy. An ethnically-Albanian group from the town of Köprülü, now Veles, North Macedonia, they had a profound impact on the articulation of Ottoman court and literary culture. The manuscript itself is an 18th-century copy of the original vakfiye documents, which related the legacies of Grand Vizier Köprülü Mehmet Paşa; his son Fazil Ahmet Paşa; Ayşe Hanım, wife of Mehmet Paşa and mother of Köprülüzade Mustafa Paşa (Mehmet Paşa’s second son); and Mustafa Paşa’s son Vizier Abdullah Paşa. Their vakfiyeler, therefore, show how rich and well-connected men and women acquired and disposed of their wealth in the late Ottoman period, and how such actions were influenced by both social conventions and public perceptions. The vakfiyeler address the disposition of a wide range of movable and immovable properties, including, in that of Fazıl Ahmet Paşa, a complete listing of the manuscripts contained within his library bequeathed as part of the vakıf.

Page of Arabic-script text surrounded by a gold borderPage of Arabic-script text surrounded by a gold border and featuring a small band of gold and red and blue floral designs towards the end of the page
The start of Şemseddin Ahmet İbn-i Abdülmuin's vakfiye, featuring understated gilded illumination, and disposing of property across Istanbul. (Vakfiyename. Istanbul, 920 AH [1514 CE]. Or 12871, ff 1v-2r)
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Similarly, Or 12871, a vakfiye copied in Cemaziülevel 920 AH (June 1514 CE), speaks to the wealth and influence amassed by members of the Ottoman Islamic religious bureaucracy. This manuscript records the legacies of Şemseddin Ahmet İbn-i Abdülmuin, the Mütevelli of the Aya Sofya Mosque, and bears understated illumination in gold, blue and red inks. These take the form of bands with small floral details, or golden stars atop delicate floral illustration. But the real value of Abdülmuin’s legacy is the information that it provides us regarding the urban landscape and demographics of Istanbul in the 16th century CE. As the donor appears to have owned a considerable amount of property across the city, the document speaks of this immovable wealth, its uses and endowment, and the ethno-religious composition of the neighbourhoods in which Abdülmuin’s properties were located. Although not intended as such, this vakfiye is a rich source of social history of the city during its first century under Ottoman rule.

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with occasional use or red ink for catchwords, surrounded by a border in goldSingle page of Arabic-script text in black ink with occasional use or red ink for catchwords, surrounded by a border in gold. The top of the page features a triangular illumination showing comprise of small floral image all very detailed, painted in red, blue, green, purple, black and gold inks
The first pages of Ahmet Reşit Efendi's vakfiye describing the establishment of charitable institutions in the Arabpaşa quarter of Lefkoşa, Ottoman Cyprus. (Vakfiye. Lefkoşa?, 1235 AH [1819-20 CE]. Or 13142, ff 1v-2r) 
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The last of the vakfiyeler of interest in the collection is Or 13142, which comes to us from Lefkoşa (Nicosia) in Cyprus. Cypriot manuscripts are relatively rare within our holdings, and the fact that one of them refers to the island’s economy, social organization, and legal structure is exciting. The gold margins seem tame when compared to Or 16615, but the veritable garden of floral illumination found in the unvan is a spectacular example of Ottoman decorative arts. The wide range of hues and tones give the image considerable depth, which is only complemented by the irregular shape of the unvan. Right at the bottom, we find the seal of el-Seyit Mehmet Salim, the copyist of the manuscript. Or 13142 opens a window onto the manner in which families used the institution of the vakıf to keep their wealth in the clan’s hands in all but legal title. The document calls for income from a property owned by Ahmet Reşit Efendi in the Arabpaşa District of Lefkoşa to be used for a medrese at which Kâtip Ahmet Efendi is to be mütevelli (trustee), succeeded, throughout time, by his sons. Ahmet Efendi’s son-in-law, Sufi Mehmet Efendi İbn-i Abdullah, meanwhile, would be the müderris (teacher) at this medrese, as would his sons after him, all of whom would be paid a stipend from the endowment established by Ahmet Reşit Efendi. Whether perceived as nepotistic at the time or not, it is clear that the vakıf helped protect accumulated wealth from seizure by the state, while also providing future generations with relatively secure access to the fruits of that wealth over the years to come.

A single page with Arabic script in black ink and two ownership seals, one of which is large and features ornate Arabic calligraphy
A page from a copy of the Nasihatu'l-müluk featuring an ownership seal identifying this volume as part of the vakıf of eş-Şehit Ali Paşa. (Salihi?, Nasihatu'l-müluk. Cairo, 967 AH [1559-60 CE]. Or 9728, f 1r)
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There are, undoubtedly, other vakfiyeler waiting to be fully catalogued and explored within the British Library’s Turkish and Turkic collections. Even when this is complete, however, it will only reflect part of the story of legacies as contained within our holdings. Or 9728, a copy of the treatise on political science known as Nasihatu’l-müluk, helps to explain why. Among the various ownership seals found throughout the text, one of them identifies the work as being part of the vakıf of eş-Şehit Ali Paşa. As seen in Or 16615 and Or 6353, entire libraries, and therefore individual books, often formed parts of evkâf. A comprehensive survey of the seals and ownership inscriptions in the Library’s manuscripts, therefore, is the only way in which to determine, grosso modo, the extent to which the British Library’s holdings are tied, indirectly, to the institution of the vakıf as practiced throughout the Ottoman Empire.

Until such a monumental feat of manuscript research can be undertaken, we will simply have to satisfy ourselves by remaining in awe of the bold, ostentatious beauty created by many of the Ottoman Empire’s crafters of vakfiyeler.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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