THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

8 posts from February 2021

25 February 2021

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

I have recently been writing on the British Library’s collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, which have all been digitised. These eight manuscripts represent three regional traditions in the Malay world, with one fine Qu r’an from Patani on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, three from Aceh and four from Java. However, many more Qur’an manuscripts, mostly still held in private collections in Southeast Asia, are available digitally on the British Library website through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP). Some of these Qur’ans are in poor condition, with losses of text, but are nonetheless of great interest in representing certain manuscript traditions not otherwise easily accessible in public collections or publications.

EAP061_2_35-269b-270a
Illuminated pages at the end of a Qur’an from Java, 19th century. Pondok Pesantren Tarbiyya al-Talabah, Keranji, East Java. EAP061/2/35, pp. 538-539.

To date, around 30 Qur’an manuscripts (or surviving parts) have been digitised through five EAP projects in Indonesia. There is one Qur’an from a madrasah (pesantren) in East Java (EAP061), two from Cirebon (EAP211) on the north coast of Java, and one from Buton (EAP212) off the southeast coast of Sulawesi. Larger numbers have been digitised in Sumatra, with six in Kerinci (EAP117) in the highlands of Jambi, 12 in West Sumatra (EAP144) and eight from Kampar (EAP1020) in Riau. In many cases it can be presumed that the Qur’an manuscripts were copied in locations local to where they are still held today, but a few may have been brought from elsewhere. An important contextual factor which helps to paint a fuller picture of reading and writing cultures is that some projects, such as that in Kerinci, have also documented large numbers of printed Qur’ans, many recognizable as lithographed copies published in Bombay in the second half of the 19th century, which were widely distributed thoughout Southeast Asia.

EAP212-3-27.591-592
Qur’an manuscript from Buton, 19th century. EAP212/3/27, pp. 591-592.

One of the most recent EAP projects in Indonesia – EAP1020, collections in Kampar, Riau – has digitised a number of significant Qur’an manuscripts. The finest, EAP1020/5/2, has a beautifully illuminated frame in red, green and gold surrounding the beginning of the second chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah. Sadly, like many other Qur’ans digitised through EAP, this manuscript has lost its initial folio, which would have contained the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, set within a similar illuminated frame.

EAP1020_PDEMK_AIT_02_MMR_001
Illuminated frame around the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah; the first surviving page of a Qur’an manuscript in Air Tiris, Kampar, 18th or 19th century. EAP1020/5/1, p. 1

Another important Qur’an from Kampar, EAP1020/3/2, is actually a fragment consisting of only six folios. These 12 pages contain verses from the first two chapters of the Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah and Surat Al 'Imran (pp.1-2 Q.2:278-283; [missing 1 folio]; pp.3-10 Q.3:7-49; [missing 1 folio]; pp.11-12 Q.3:61-73). This manuscript is immediately recognizable as a ‘Sulawesi diaspora’ style Qur’an, belonging to a distinctive school of Qur’anic manuscript art produced in locations all over the Malay archipelago associated with Bugis diaspora communities. However, no other examples of this school have so far been digitised, and so even though EAP1020/3/2 is only fragmentary it is useful to have a selection of openly accessible leaves available for further study.

EAP1020-3-2 (7)-3.26-30  EAP1020-3-2 (6)-3.20-26
Two consecutive pages from Surat Al 'Imran (Q.3:20-30) from a Sulawesi-style Qur’an copied in 1740 by a scribe born in Zabid, Yemen; the rest of this manuscript is held in the Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, 07.001.2007. EAP 1020/3/2, pp. 6-7

In fact, EAP1020/3/2 can be identified as originating from a Qur’an manuscript now held in the Museum Sang Nila Utama in Pekanbaru, the provincial capital of Riau, as 07.001.2007 (writen on the final page; the volume also has reference numbers on the covers of 07.5194.95 and 07.15/17). This volume is lacking the beginning, with the text starting in the middle of Surat Al 'Imran, Q.3:82, and thus continues – after a lacunum of one folio – from the fragment that is EAP1020/3/2. The volume is complete at the end and contains a colophon giving the date of completion as 4 Jumadilawal 1153 (28 July 1740), and identifying the scribe as Ibrahim al-Zabidi, who was born in Zabid, in Yemen.  This is a fascinating and rare piece of codicological evidence linking the manuscript tradition of the Malay world and  Yemen; although it is quite common to encounter Islamic manuscripts in Southeast Asia copied in Mecca, it is much rarer to find Yemeni connections attested to in writings.

MSNU  07-15-2017 (1)-ed
First page of the Sulawesi-style Qur’an, starting at Surat Al 'Imran (Q.3:82), Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, Riau, 07.001.2017. Photograph by A.T.Gallop, Nov. 2018.

MSNU  07-15-2017 (24)-small
Colophon of the Sulawesi-style Qur’an, dated 4 Jumadilawal 1153 (28 July 1740), naming the scribe as Ibrahim, as being of the Shafi'i school of law, and from Zabid in Yemen where he was born (al-Shafi'i madhhaban al-Zabidi baladan wa-mawlidan, with thanks to Colin Baker and Oman Fathurahman for this reading). Museum Sang Nila Utama, Pekanbaru, Riau, 07.001.2017.  Photograph by A.T.Gallop, Nov. 2018.

A considerable number of the Qur’an manuscripts digitised in West Sumatra, Kerinci and Kampar share the characteristics of the ‘Minangkabau’ Qur’an tradition. Very few decorated elements have survived, and in many cases, as in the case of the Kampar Qur'an above, only constitute the right-hand page of what would have been a double decorated frame across the opening two pages. The few examples do however illustrate the defining features of Minangkabau illuminated Qur’an manuscripts, namely a marked emphasis on the colour red, used in combination with the ubiquitious black (ink) and reserved white (of the background paper).

EAP144-2-8
Illuminated initial second page of a Minangkabau Qur’an, framing the start of Surat al-Baqarah, from Surau Tanjung, Limau Sundai, Nagari Ampek Koto Hilia, in the kecamatan of Batang Kapeh, kabupaten Pesisir Selatan, West Sumatra. EAP144/2/8, p. 1

Qur’an manuscripts in the Minangkabau tradition are generally plain, with simple textframes of two or three red ruled lines, or red and black lines, while verse markers are often hand-drawn black or red circles. Surah headings are in red ink and are sometimes set in ruled frames, while the start of a juz’ may be marked with a marginal inscription in red ink and the first few words highlighted in red ink. The hand is small and neat, and usually totally competent, and the text is written in strong black ink.

EAP117_22_1_1-PLT_MKR_0908_A_6970_a_L
Opening pages of a Qur’an manuscript, from Mesjid Keramat, Kerinci, Jambi. EAP 117/22/1/1, p. 4

In my 2017 article ‘Fakes or Fancies?’ I wrote about some recent ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia, particularly Qur’an manuscripts, which needed careful analysis for a proper evaluation. A number could be classified as ‘enhanced’ manuscripts, namely original usually 19th-century manuscripts with recently-added decoration or text designed to increase the commercial value of the book. Others were evidently ‘new’ manuscripts, often written on non-traditional materials such as wood, leather or palmleaf, or in unusual formats such as scrolls or books of stitched palm leaves, usually with a deliberate blurring of clarity around the date of creation. The Kampar project digitised three examples of such ‘new’ Qur’an manuscripts, accurately dating them to the early 21st century, but recording the inclination of all the owners to regard these as ‘old’ manuscripts. These digitised 'new old' Qur’ans, all three of which are pictured below, therefore stand as a useful record of this recent market phenomenon, which is also discussed in Dr Ali Akbar’s aptly-titled blog series, Qur'an kuno-kunoan, 'So-called 'old' Qur'ans' and Jangan langsung percaya, ‘Don’t be so quick to believe’.

EAP1020-3-1.386-387
Closing pages of a very large new Qur'an manuscript, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar, Riau. EAP1020/3/1, p. 386

EAP1020-3-13.482-det
Detail from a new Qur'an written in 'gold' (felt-tip) ink, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar, Riau. EAP1020/3/13, p. 482

EAP1020-3-12.11
Part of the Qur'an newly copied on paper in scroll form, 21st century, held in Bangkinang, Kampar. EAP1020/3/12, p. 11

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised through EAP
Each manuscript can be accessed though the EAP website by inserting the shelfmark below into the ‘Search all endangered archives’ box. Alternatively, a pdf with direct links to each manuscript can be found here: Download EAP Qurans-2021

EAP061 – East Java (1)
EAP061/2/35
EAP211 – Cirebon, Java (2)
EAP211/1/2/36; EAP211/1/2/37
EAP212 – Buton (1)
EAP212/3/27
EAP117 – Kerinci, Jambi (6)
EAP117/8/1/1; EAP117/22/1/1; EAP117/22/1/2; EAP117/23/1/3; EAP117/23/1/4; EAP117/30/1/3
EAP144 – Minangkabau (12)
EAP144/1/9; EAP144/1/13; EAP144/2/1; EAP144/2/5; EAP144/2/8; EAP144/2/10; EAP144/2/17; EAP144/2/19; EAP144/4/22; EAP144/4/29; EAP144/3/35; EAP144/5/49
EAP1020 – Kampar (8)
EAP1020/3/1; EAP1020/3/2; EAP1020/3/3; EAP1020/3/5; EAP1020/3/12; EAP1020/3/13; EAP1020/5/1; EAP1020/6/3

References:
A.T. Gallop, 'Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia'. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

22 February 2021

Patchwork for a Prince: Exploring Persian Anthology British Library Or.13193

Many Persian poetry anthologies – particularly those produced during the 15th and early 16th century - display a kaleidoscopic use of decorated papers, and reveal an engaging celebration of color with every turn of the page. This ‘patchwork’ approach calls to mind the patched garments worn by ascetic figures in some Persianate paintings. Traditionally worn to signal their renunciation of material wealth, these patched robes and shawls are similar in spirit to the pieced kasaya cloths sometimes worn by their Buddhist ascetic counterparts. Ironically, a number of these patched kasaya cloaks are made from extremely luxurious materials – including silk textiles, sometimes given to monasteries by wealthy donors seeking favor. This translation of a modest patchwork into one composed of sumptuous materials transforms their original ‘recycled’ intention into an elegant transmutation. When viewed as works of art (instead of works of piety), these robes become refined visual ‘allusions’ to the idea of poverty and renunciation, rather than actual reflections of it. They are markers of asceticism, but elevate the original idea of patching by necessity, to one of luxury.

Marbled decoration Silvered decoration
Examples of so-called  ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) and  ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) pages (Or.13193, ff. 13r and 13v). Public Domain

We can detect a similar visual conceit at work in many of the ‘patchwork’ Persian poetry anthologies produced in the 15th and early 16th century. These manuscripts exhibit a ‘patched’ appearance, but often not from necessity. Rather, it is achieved only through a highly labor-intensive process of multi-layered artistic collaboration that transforms the manuscript into an elaborate and luxurious visual pun. This kind of  assembled ‘patchwork’ occurs in both upright-format manuscripts and albums as well as oblong-format manuscripts in 15th and 16th century. These oblong format manuscripts typically comprise anthologies of poetry and are referred to in contemporary texts as safina. The term safina is often translated as ship or boat - but it may be better understood as vessel or ark – that is, as a carrier of disparate cargoes.

An example of this type of safina poetry anthology is held today in the British Library, it contains 144 folios that measure about 8 x 20.5 cm, bound along their short side. The textual content is primarily ghazal-form poetry by about twenty poets. Two folios bear the name of the Aq Qoyunlu prince ‘Abu’l-‘Izz [Yamin al-Din] Yusuf Bahadur Khan. Yusuf was one of the sons of Sultan Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, and brother to Sultan Ya’qub Aq Qoyunlu. In the 15th century, the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty controlled much of Persia, as well as parts of present-day Iraq and eastern Turkey. A distinctive style of manuscript production emerged under their reign in centres including Shiraz and Tabriz; a number of surviving safina manuscripts may be connected with their patronage. Given the inscription naming Yusuf ibn Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, the production of the British Library safina has been dated sometime between 1470 and 1480 CE - prior to his death around 1490 CE.

Horizontal view of a 'black' page
Fig. 3: Horizontal view of a black coloured page (Or.13193, f. 3v). Public Domain

Although ‘patched’ in appearance, this manuscript would have been very costly to produce. Multiple layers of work were involved in the production of its multicolored paper supports – which often involved the application of various decorative techniques – including stencilled designs. The papers in the British Library safina are of various hues, some with additional painted elements. Some pages have been described as ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) – although not technically accurate. Some are entirely or partially ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) and subsequently tarnished - a feature seen in other safina manuscripts of the period.. A few folios are coloured black (fig. 3) or deep blue, but most folios exhibit softer pastel tones. The British Library safina also features a broad range of stencilled folios, which are among its most engaging aspects. With almost each turn of the page, one encounters a new motif or color combination. It seems that the artists who created these books derived pleasure in creating new and captivating juxtapositions.

Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif
Fig. 4: Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif (Or.13193, f. 27v). Public Domain

Looking closely at some of the stencilled and painted pages in the British Library safina, one notes folios that display figures of animals – flying ducks, swimming fish, and even wonderous creatures, such as blue dragons (fig. 4). Sometimes, human figures are playfully inserted within the stencilled designs.

In figs. 5 and 6, the figures are juxtaposed with calligraphic designs. In the scholarly literature, such stencilled and painted imagery in anthological manuscripts often has been overlooked or dismissed as mere ‘decoration.’ But, what significance could this imagery have held for the contemporary reader - and to what sources did the artists look for their inspiration? What relationship does this imagery have with the manuscript? In short - what is the function of these images, if not mere decoration?

A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages, Or13193 f16r A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages,Or13193, f15v
Figs. 5 & 6: A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages (Or.13193, ff. 15v and 16r). Public Domain

Turning to the stencilled calligraphy of these pages (figs. 5 & 6), the individual letters are written against swirling golden vine scrolls, making it somewhat difficult to decipher. Yet, if one is already familiar with these well-known lines from a poem by Hafez, the text is relatively easy to read:

Dar īn zamāna rafīqī kih khālī az khalal-ast
Ṣurāḥī-yi may-i nāb u safīna-i ghazal-ast

This may be translated as:

These days, the only friend[s] without fault[s]
are a bottle of wine and a safina of ghazals…

The decision to highlight this verse within the manuscript is, of course, to create a punning reference back to the manuscript – which is, itself, a safina of ghazals and the reader’s companion at that moment. The placement of these lines evokes the very act of reading the anthology at hand. It is as if the book itself is speaking directly to its reader.

In addition to such ‘meta-textual’ references, we find other stencilled imagery which alludes to well-known works of Persian literature located ‘outside’ of the manuscript. That is, these stories are often not mentioned in the surrounding text of the anthology but are easily recognized by those who are conversant with the popular literature of the period. Another stencilled folio – for example – shows a painted figure gesturing towards a strange tree with branches terminating in human and animal heads (fig. 7). The appearance of this so-called waqwaq tree is likely a reference to the story of Alexander the Great (Iskandar), as related in Firdausi’s Shahnama. In this portion of the Shahnama epic, Iskandar encounters the waq waq - or talking tree – a tree which bears the fruit of human heads. The tree speaks to Iskandar, foretelling of his death. In this stencilled depiction, however, the tree is shown not only fruiting with human heads, but also with a diversity of animal heads – a bull, a horse or donkey, a dragon, and others.

Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r) Ouseley MS: Iskandar and the talking tree
Fig. 7: Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r). Public Domain
Fig. 8: The same subject from Firdausi's Shahnama (Bodleian Library MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f.311b). © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0. F

If we compare this stencilled page with a manuscript folio in the Bodleian library collection, the similarity becomes clear. In a painting (fig. 8) from a Shahnama dated to the 1430s (Ms. Ouseley Add. 176), Iskandar raises his finger to his lip, in a state of surprise and likely dismay. The figure in the British Library safina, by contrast, seems to reach out and tickle the chin of the face in front of him. While the stencilled image is likely an allusion to the story of Iskandar found in the Shahnama, there may be more significance to this image. The tree with multiple talking heads might also be seen as a reference to the anthology itself. That is, the book as a gathering of many and diverse voices into one vessel - each of which speaks to us individually as we read through the pages of the manuscript.

Finally, returning to the double page in the British Library safina mentioned above, we see two small painted figures – a male figure above and a female below – within the stencilled designs (see again figs 5 & 6). Both hold books in their hands. The female figure – appearing to be a young girl – looks up across the empty space of the open book towards the boy above. Their placement activates the space – with one figure gazing at another across the open book – only made possible when the book is held in the hand. It may be that the two figures represent the young Layla (or Layli) and Qays – at their first meeting at school – according to the poet Nizami’s telling of their love story. While this identification may seem tenuous, further examination of the surrounding poem by the poet Ashraf reveals a reference to someone not going mad – or becoming ‘majnun.’ Accordingly, the small female figure – likely Layla - gazes up at the figure of the boy - who would later in their love story come to be known as Majnun. This placement may be coincidental, but if we imagine that these two figures do represent Layla and Majnun, this alignment of verse and image suggests an extremely sophisticated orchestration of the elements contained within this safina. Such coordination would allow for these small painted elements to reflect the text on the page, and the surrounding folios. The ‘shorthand’ appearance of the painted elements also requires that the anthology’s reader be familiar with not only Layla and Majnun’s story, but also with the imagery connected with illustrated manuscripts of Nizami’s text.

These types of representational references – the visual equivalent of intertextual allusions - are frequent in these safina manuscripts. Other paintings and stencilled imagery within this and other anthologies display similar connections between the ‘internal’ image and ‘external’ texts - demanding that their viewers possess a sophisticated familiarity not only with the popular literature of the period, but also with its common visual vocabulary. As David J. Roxburgh has noted in discussing the numerous surviving Persian anthologies created for the fifteenth-century Timurid ruler Iskandar Sultan: “The anthologies offered Iskandar Sultan…a range of visual idioms that equaled the textual genres in variety and complexity; reading and looking demanded of him a series of shifts in perceptive and cognitive engagement…in order for the visual puns, these subtle games and inventions to be discerned… This assumed a fair degree of visual literacy on the part of the viewer because the visual events are in fact a series of extremely subtle mutations and hybrids…” (Roxburgh, “Aesthetics,” 130). Rather than mere decoration, the visual elements of these safina anthologies approach the multivalent complexity of the texts that they accompany. Furthermore, many of these safina manuscripts function on the whole as a visual conceit – a patchwork translated into pages – perhaps making reference to the multicoloured, patched cloaks of Sufi adherents. How appropriate then, that their poetical content often embodies the works of this same group.

Denise-Marie Teece, Assistant Professor of Art History, NYU Abu Dhabi
 noc copy


Further reading

Meredith-Owens, G. M. “A New Illustrated Persian Anthology” British Museum Quarterly 34 (1970), pp. 122-125.

Richard, Francis. “Un manuscript méconnu, l’anthologie poétique de la Bibliothèque nationale illustreée et signée par Behzad,” Studia Iranica 20 (1991), pp. 263-74.

Roxburgh, David. “The Aesthetics of Aggregation: Persian Anthologies of the Fifteenth Century,” in Islamic Art and Literature, ed. Oleg Grabar and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001): 119–142.

Teece, Denise-Marie. “‘Compassionate Companion, Familiar Friend’: The Turin Safina (Biblioteca reale Ms. Or. 101) and its Significance,” Muqarnas 36 (2019), pp. 61-84.

——— Vessels of Verse, Ships of Song: Persian Anthologies of the Qara Quyunlu and Aq Quyunlu Period, Ph.D. diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2013.

18 February 2021

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library

On 3 December 2020, the British Library opened its exhibition of Khadija Saye’s last photographic series: ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’.

The opening had been postponed from its original date in May because of the pandemic. With great good fortune, we emerged from the second national lockdown just in time to hold the virtual private view on its rescheduled date. For nearly two weeks thereafter, the nine beautiful, challenging and intricate photographs in the series were open to the public. But then London went into Tier 4, and we had to close again.

Curators seated in front of the Khadija Saye exhibition
Setting up for the virtual private view, 3 December 2020
Photographer: Luisa Elena Mengoni
CC Public Domain Image

The exhibition will reopen at the British Library as soon as possible. It’s free, but because of Covid restrictions advance booking will be necessary. The exhibition run has been extended to 8 August 2021.

Photo of display of four works by Khadija Saye with accompanying text
‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ at the British Library
Photographer: Jean-Philippe Calvin
© British Library corporate events

Khadija Saye (1992–2017), an artist of extraordinary promise, was British-born and of Gambian parentage. She was tragically killed in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, at the age of just 24. At the time, she was exhibiting works in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and on the cusp of major success. Her mother, Mary Ajaoi Augustus Mendy, also died in the fire.

This blog reproduces all nine of the powerfully evocative self-portraits in this series, along with the captions for each work which we, as curators, researched and wrote as we explored the multi-layered meanings the artist presents.

Into these eloquent photographs, Saye weaves symbols of her Gambian heritage, most with spiritual significance. The nine works form an extended meditation on spirituality, trauma and the body. They reference both The Gambia and religious faith as sources of strength in the face of trauma – which, for Saye, included the experience of racism in Britain. As she wrote: ‘In these questionable times we need positive imagery to push against the vile xenophobia and trash headlines.’ The works also weave connections to indigenous religion, and to her Christian mother and Muslim father and their ancestors.

Photograph developing in chemical bath, held by Khadija Saye
Khadija Saye developing her work
Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye, London
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The works have a particularly atmospheric quality, created by Khadija Saye’s decision to use the wet collodion photographic process, invented in 1851. This is laborious, involving the use of glass plates and unstable chemicals, and its results are unpredictable.

Saye wrote about this process: ‘…Image-making became a ritual in itself. [In] making wet plate collodion tintypes no image can be replicated and the final outcome is out of the creator’s control. Within this process, you surrender yourself to the unknown, similar to what is required by all spiritual higher powers: surrendering and sacrifice.’

Saye printed these photographs onto metal sheets, producing artworks known as tintypes, which were digitally scanned before the Grenfell fire. The six tintypes on display in Venice survived the fire; others were destroyed in it, along with a suitcase containing some of the objects featured in the artworks. The tintype of ‘Peitaw’ will be on display in our major exhibition, Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, when it reopens.

In 2017, Khadija Saye worked with master printer Matthew Rich to produce ‘Sothiou’ as a silkscreen print. The remaining prints were made after her death. It is the artist’s proofs of these prints, on loan from the estate of Khadija Saye, that are displayed in the British Library exhibition of the ‘in this space we breathe’ series.

The artworks below are presented with (in slightly edited form) the labels and quotations that accompany them in the exhibition.

Khadija Saye, her back to the camera, regards different-sized sticks in her left hand
Sothiou
(Chewing-sticks/toothbrush)
Khadija Saye (2017)
Printed by Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye photographs herself here with branches of the salvadora persica, the tree from which chewing-sticks, used as toothbrushes, are taken. These signify purification, as well as invocation of the spirits of the ancestors. She was introduced to indigenous ritual practices in The Gambia by her mother.

Sothiou was the first of six works in this series displayed by the artist in the Diaspora Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2017.

The artist associated the photographic process with the idea of purification, writing that ‘The process of submerging the collodion-covered plate into a tank of silver nitrate ignites memories of baptisms, the idea of purity and how we cleanse in order to be spiritually sound.’

The titles of the works in this series are in Wolof, a language of The Gambia and Senegal.

Khadija Saye with three small light-coloured squares, strung together, across her closed eyes
Tééré
(Amulet)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The string of protective amulets Saye uses in this image belonged to her father. Wearing amulets – words from the Qur’an written onto paper, here sewn into leather packets – is a common Islamic practice in Africa. In this work, Saye openly displays items usually concealed under clothing.

The artist’s pose and expression suggest a moment of prayer. Saye said that she created this series ‘from a personal need for spiritual grounding’.

Khadija Saye holds a pot to her ear
Andichurai
(Incense pot; usually andi churai)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a red clay pot with white decoration, made using techniques specific to the SeneGambia region. Universal in Gambian homes, the andi churai burns incense to drive away evil spirits in order to provide protection. In Gambian culture, the strong scent of the incense is closely associated with women and femininity.

Khadija Saye with several dark and light oval shapes in front of her face
Limoŋ
(Lemon)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

In this surprising and ambiguous image, the artist holds a string of plastic lemons in her mouth. In The Gambia, the lemon is seen as a Western fruit, but it also implies cleansing the body and protection from evil spirits.

Saye may have intended a reference to Beyoncé, one of her role models, and her influential 2016 album Lemonade, with its historical vision of a liberated, Black, matriarchal society.

A person only partially visible places a cow horn on the back of Khadija Saye’s neck
Nak Bejjen
(Cow’s horn)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Gambian healers use cows’ horns in rituals to suck impurities from a person’s body. Cows’ horns are also associated with desolation and famine, when cows cannot survive. This work may speak of both trauma and healing.

The ‘healer’ in this image carries a small bag, perhaps containing medicinal equipment. The illusion of smoke from the horn may be a result of the wet collodion photographic process.

Khadija Saye wrote of the relationship between her art, the body and trauma: ‘We exist in the marriage of physical and spiritual remembrance. It’s in these spaces…[that] we identify with our physical and imagined bodies. Using myself as the subject, I felt it necessary to physically explore how trauma is embodied in the black experience.’

Khadija Saye’s hand, palm outward and with small goat horns on her thumb and fingers, obscures her face
Ragal
(Fear)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye wears goats’ horns on her fingers as she shields her face. These objects are used in divination, the process of discovering the reasons for life’s events and problems, and what can be done to change them. This image may suggest both fear of the future and the possibility of drawing on Gambian knowledge and spirituality to find a way through difficulties.

Throughout this series, the artist wears black – an unusual choice for a young Gambian woman.

Khadija Saye, only her arm and the side of her body visible, holds a long string of beads
Kurus
(Prayer beads)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

These Muslim prayer beads reference spiritual support in a time of difficulty. Prayer beads are also used by Christians. The mingling of Islam, Christianity, Rastafarianism and, in Saye’s words, ‘African spirituality’ is common in The Gambia.

Women are not usually seen in public with Muslim prayer beads in The Gambia. In her work Saye, who ‘thought a lot about the traditional roles African women take within the male-dominated space’, subverts expectations around gender roles.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, holds a large bunch of cowrie shells in her mouth
Peitaw
(Cowrie shell(s))
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

Saye holds a bunch of cowrie shells, strung together, in her mouth, and wears a cowrie-shell bracelet on her arm. In Gambian culture, her pose, supporting her chin on her hand, suggests unhappiness or discontent.

Used as currency for centuries, cowrie shells represent wealth and fertility and are used in divination as well as jewellery. For Africans in the diaspora, they symbolise connection with the continent.

Khadija Saye, facing the camera, with the blurry outlines of plastic flowers found her neck
Toor-Toor
(Sprout, grow)
Khadija Saye (2018)
Printed by the Estate of Khadija Saye in collaboration with master printer Matthew Rich, Jealous and The Studio of Nicola Green
Courtesy of the Studio of Nicola Green and Jealous
© The Estate of Khadija Saye, London

The artist has draped herself in strands of plastic flowers. These are often used to decorate homes in The Gambia, found on shrines, and worn by practitioners of indigenous medicine. The flowers may also link with Saye’s interest in popular culture, particularly her love of RuPaul, who plays with floral drag.

This work experiments with contrast and balance between her life in Britain and The Gambia, and between her personal and professional growth.

In conclusion, we quote Khadija Saye’s own moving words on her legacy: ‘Whether it’s now or ten years down the line, I have this idea of opening doors – like previous artists of colour… I feel I have the potential to do the same.’

Khadija Saye has unwittingly spoken for so many young people struggling to find themselves in the world today. The resounding message of her work is that if she can do it, others can too. Visits with her mother to her Gambian home enabled her to embrace her family and cultural heritage to weave into her art, root herself, make herself stronger and map out where she was going.

For more on Khadija Saye and her art, watch this film.

The British Library’s set of Khadija Saye’s ‘Dwelling: in this space we breathe’ series (shelfmarks P3394-3402) will be available to researchers in the Print Room of our Asian and African Studies Reading Room when it reopens – appointment necessary (please contact apac-print@bl.uk).

‘Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe’ runs at the British Library until August 2021. Find out more.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa, British Library
Kadija George Sesay, External Curator, Khadija Saye: in this space we breathe
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The British Library would like to thank all those who made the exhibition possible: The Estate of Khadija Saye, The Family of Khadija Saye, David Lammy, Nicola Green, Lucy Cartledge, Ana Freitas, Marloes Janson, Hassum Ceesay, Njok Malik Jeng, Victoria Miro, John Purcell Paper, Erica Bolton, Jealous, Almudena Romero, Christie’s and M.A.R.S.

The Khadija Saye Arts programme at IntoUniversity provides schoolchildren with visual arts experiences and education in her memory.

15 February 2021

The Burmese Harp: (3) Heaven and Earth

In my two previous blogs on the Burmese harp - (1) Seduction of the Senses and (2) Matters of the Heart - I gave examples of how the Burmese harp or Saung was incorporated into Jātaka stories (stories of the previous lives of the Buddha). In this final instalment I will discuss how the Saung was intimately connected with the life of the Gautama Buddha.

The Buddha was originally born as a prince into a lavish lifestyle, and is described as having been accompanied by forty thousand dancing women and an all-female orchestra. In this depiction of the court (Or 14197) one can see alongside the dancer a full female orchestra with a fiddle, a xylophone, a harp (back row, next to the fiddle), a flute and a drum. Two of the women are clapping their hands in rhythm.

Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library
Prince Siddhartha Gautama enjoying the entertainment of his private orchestra and a dancer. British Library, Or 14197, f. 1r  noc

The orchestra played an important part in the Buddha’s disillusionment and decision to leave his princely life. One day, when he returned to his palace the orchestra started enthusiastically entertaining him. However, his mind was already detached from such pleasures and he fell asleep. Without its main audience, the orchestra also dozed off while still hugging their instruments. When the prince woke up and saw them lying around in a disorderly fashion, leg showing here, breast showing there, some sleeping with their mouths open, some grinding their teeth, he became even more disillusioned. He decided to bid goodbye to his sleeping wife and child and leave the palace for good in the Great Departure (Or 4762, Or 14197).

Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r
Siddhartha Gautama peruses the sleeping orchestra. The Saung player (on the right) has fallen asleep on her instrument. British Library, Or 14197, f. 3r  noc

Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1
Siddhartha Gautama, standing next to a mislaid harp, peers over the orchestra, strewn about in a disorderly fashion. British Library, Or 4762, f. 1  noc

Although the Buddha left his earthly orchestra behind, the Saung still followed him throughout his journey in heavenly form. In this rare illustrated Kammavācā manuscript (Or 13896), which is currently on display at the Treasures Gallery at the British Library, the deva Sakka plays the harp in order to lead the Buddha, who now has become a monk, to the Middle Path.

Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r
Sakka plays the Saung to the Buddha in order to lead him to the Middle Path. British Library, Or 13896, f. 16r  noc

The Saung was an integral part of the life in the heavenly realms, and is shown in cosmology manuscripts in all four heavenly realms of sensual pleasure - Paranimmita-vasavatti, Nimmānaratī, Tusita, and Yāma. In the depiction below, which describes the heavenly musicians of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm the Saung is accompanied by a bell and a dancer (Or 14004).

Harp 3 - picture 5 Paranimmita-vasavatti realm
The ruler of the Paranimmita-vasavatti realm accompanied by his heavenly musicians and a dancer. British Library, Or 14004, f. 15r  noc

The most impressive orchestra of all, however, could be found in the Tāvatiṃsa realm, or the realm of the thirty-three devas, located on top of the Sumeru world mountain. In the depiction below we can see two joined orchestras with a dancer in the middle. There are two harps and a bell in the left side orchestra, and a xylophone and a harp in the right side orchestra (Or 14004).

The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven.
The ruler and the heavenly orchestras of the Tāvatiṃsa heaven. British Library, Or 14004, f. 21r  noc

Until the 19th century the Saung was played exclusively within the royal court, and was considered the most valued of instruments. The most notable harpists were given posts at court, where they composed many famous pieces. Myawaddy Mingyi U Sa (1766-1853) was one of these great musicians, and added six more harp strings to the existing seven, thus producing a fuller range (of two and a half octaves). A fourteenth string was added by the famous and last court harpist U Maung Maung Gyi (1855-1933), who was appointed to King Mindon’s court in Mandalay, where he was given the title "Deiwa-Einda" (Heavenly Musician) already at the age of thirteen. The Saung gradually came out of the palace during the 19th century via small outlying courts and travelling troupes of actors and musicians. Since then it has found its way to the general public and can now be enjoyed by all.

The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise
The Buddha meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla next to him singing songs of praise. British Library, Or 14297, f. 18r  noc

The Saung returned at the pivotal moments of the Buddha’s life. The scene above depicts the beginning of the process of meditation that in the end led to Enlightenment. The Buddha is here shown meditating under the Bodhi tree, with the three devas Sakka, Brahma and Mahākāla from the three realms next to him singing songs of praise. Sakka blows the conch, while Mahākāla plays the harp and sings with over a hundred verses (Or 14297).

The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music
The Buddha’s Enlightenment, celebrated with harp music. British Library, Or 14297, f. 20r  noc

The devas ran away when Māra’s frightening troops arrived, and a difficult mental battle ensued which the Buddha eventually conquered. He had now attained Enlightenment, and the event was celebrated and rejoiced with much music. The Saung (with Mahākāla) is depicted here again right at his side (Or 14297).

Harp 3 - picture 9 Buddha descending
The Buddha descends from Tāvatiṃsa heaven with a heavenly retinue beside him. British Library, Or 5757, f. 17r  noc

After his Enlightenment the Buddha travelled around and taught the Dhamma to others. In the above illustration the Buddha is descending from the Tāvatiṃsa heaven, where he spent three months preaching the Dhamma to his mother, who was there. The Saung accompanies his descent to Earth (Or 5757). It has been said that the Saung was indeed the Buddha’s preferred instrument or even a symbol of him, and in temple murals he has been portrayed as a harpist in many of his previous incarnations.

References:

Muriel C. Williamson, The Burmese Harp: its classical music, tunings, and modes. Dekalb, Ill.: Southeast Asia Publications, 2000.

N.A. Jayawickrama (trans.), The Story of Gotama Buddha. Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 2002.

A documentary about the harp in Southeast Asia, by Patrick Kersalé, Sounds of Angkor, 2021, including music clips of the Burmese and Karen harps, can be viewed here.

Maria Kekki, Curator for Burmese  ccownwork

11 February 2021

An Earl, a collection, and a shopping list: Mail-order military manuscripts

A lithographed wish-list of titles on Arabic military science testifies to the frustrated literary ambitions of a king’s son.

Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī, p.76
Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb. London, s.n. 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
 noc copy

Shopping for books in the early nineteenth century

In these days of home delivery, we are used to the concept that (almost) whatever we wish to acquire, from takeaways and groceries to toys, clothes, and books, may be obtained without leaving the comfort – or confines – of the home. But two hundred years ago, for those with very specific literary interests, the acquisition of books or hand-written manuscripts could necessitate great dedication to the cause: months or years of foreign travel, tireless enquiry, and great expense.

Nonetheless, for those in possession of power, good contacts, and deep pockets, the pursuit of rare books could be conducted remotely, to a degree. And just as today’s shopping websites allow users to compile their ‘wishlists’, one remarkable document compiled at the behest of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster (1794-1842), tells a nineteenth-century tale of mail-order manuscripts.

The life and literary interests of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster

Eldest illegitimate son of Prince William (1765-1837, William IV from 1830), FitzClarence devoted much energy to appealing for funds and honours from his father, from whom he became estranged. Prone to drinking and gambling, publicly mocked in satirical sketches, and afflicted with depression, he has gone down in history as an unfortunate figure, committing suicide in March 1842 at the age of 48.

Caricature of FitzClarence as Bum Puff
Unflattering caricature of FitzClarence as ‘Bum Puff’, wearing Oriental slippers and accompanied by papers bearing pseudo-Arabic characters  (British Museum 1868,0808.9395.
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However, there was another side to FitzClarence, one overshadowed by his sad end.

After military service in India (1815-17) he travelled home via Egypt, later publishing his account of the journey. Pursuing his developing interest in Asian history and literature, FitzClarence became a founder member and from 1828, Vice-President of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, in which role he supported the publication and translation of Arabic texts via the Society’s Oriental Translation Fund, still operational today.

Anonymous portrait of the young George FitzClarence  Earl of Munster  c. 1810-20 (1918 0107.70)
Anonymous portrait of the young George FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, c. 1810-20 (British Museum 1918,0107.70)
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Subsequently, FitzClarence combined his interest in military matters with his scholarly and literary passions, initiating an ambitious project to author a comprehensive history of the military sciences in Muslim societies.

Military science in the Arabic written tradition

Hundreds of Arabic treatises on military science have been composed, re-arranged and translated into Turkish, Persian and other languages since at least the ʿAbbāsid period (750-1258). They are often categorised under the general label of furūsīyah (horsemanship), encompassing equestrianism, the mastery of mounted manoeuvres, polo, shooting at targets, and horseback hunting (a luxurious illustrated example of this genre is this copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah fī ta‘allum a‘māl al-furūsīyah (Add MS 18866).

Horsemen in combat Add MS 18866 f135r
Illustration of two horsemen wheeling around, with a sword in each one's hand on the horse's back. Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah by Muḥammad ibn ‘Īsá ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥanafī al-Aqṣarā’ī, dated 10 Muḥarram 773/25 July 1371 (BL Add MS 18866, f. 135r)
 noc copy

However, the Arabic military sciences also include subjects such as the manufacture and use of weapons like the bow and arrow, sword, mace, lance (Add MS 14056, ff. 1v-10v; ff. 11r-18v) and spear; equine medicine and horse-training (Add MS 14056, ff. 19r-123v, Add MS 23416); tactical theory and skills for the battlefield; war machines (Add MS 14055) and explosive devices; military management and bureaucracy (Or 9016), and the etiquette of engaging the enemy and dividing the spoils of conquest.

Many texts take the form of didactic, practical manuals, with many surviving manuscripts today dating to the highly militarised Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) as well as its Ottoman successor in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Add MS 20736).

Wishing to gather as many of these primary sources as possible towards his magnum opus, FitzClarence purchased extensively (Add MS 14056 and 14055). Not mastering the necessary linguistic skills, he enlisted the promising young Austrian Orientalist Aloys Sprenger (1813-93), who had recently relocated to London, as secretary and research assistant in his quest.

Loan note (BL Or 3631 f. 2v
Loan note (BL Or 3631 f. 2v)
 noc copy

In addition to FitzClarence’s acquisitions, he and Sprenger borrowed and compiled all that the libraries and private collections of Britain had to offer on the subject, as a note inside a copy of three treatises on military science (Or 3631) borrowed from the antiquarian and astronomer John Lee, Né Fiott (1783-1866), attests, its melancholy codicil ‘Returned August 1842’ hinting at the tragic event to come.

They also travelled across Europe together, visiting libraries in search of relevant texts in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian and Hindustani. During this period Sprenger also obtained a medical degree ‘on the side’ with a thesis on the development of Arab medicine.

The ‘Wishlist’ of military texts

But FitzClarence wanted still more, and in 1840 issued – with Sprenger as ghost-writer– a 160-page Catalogue of books that We desire to purchase and subject matter clarifying the type of books We desire to obtain – the titles and details of which We do not know – on the study of warfare (Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb).

Title page  Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī
Title page, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb, London, 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 1)
 noc copy

Written in Sprenger’s Arabic hand and lithographed, this veritable shopping list opens with a preface in ornate classical Arabic literary style (p. 1), followed by an explanation of FitzClarence’s aim in writing the list, and a long description of the subjects of interest (pp. 1-83). The latter range widely, from Qurʾānic and legal precepts relating to war; jihād; armies and warfare throughout the history of Islam from the early caliphates to the Seljuqs, Timurids, Ottomans and Mughals; military management and financing; terminology; different styles of warfare (mounted or on foot); horses; apparel; weaponry; armour; training; parades; manoeuvres; famous teachers; desired qualities in a soldier, and numerous other fields of enquiry.

Then are listed hundreds of known titles on warfare, horsemanship, and weaponry (pp. 84-106) and military and political history (pp. 106-156), followed by an author index (pp. 156-160). The titles, often cited alongside biographical details of the authors, testify to Sprenger’s exhaustive research and vast knowledge of the field. In a sense, this remarkable compendium saw the Sprenger/FitzClarence team take an unlikely honorary place in the rich history of Arabic bio-bibliographic writings.

Layout of a royal fortress from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah central part of this image in Fahrasat al-kutub
Diagram (left) of the layout of a royal fortress from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah  (BL Add MS 18866, f. ‎209v), and (right) the copy of the central part of this image in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
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The work also contains examples of diagrams sometimes found in the Arabic treatises sought, labelled images of weapons apparently functioning more as a terminological inventory for the author or reader’s benefit than as faithful reproductions from the manuscripts, and as some drawings apparently taken from European military texts.

‘winged’ insignia from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l ‘winged’ insignia
Diagram (left) of ‘winged’ insignia from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah (BL Add MS 18866, f. ‎214v), and (right) copies of this and other insignia in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 61)
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An untimely end

This document was clearly aimed at Arab book dealers and agents with access to Arabic manuscripts, but further research is needed to establish whether FitzClarence’s wishlist directly resulted in any acquisitions. His suicide only two years later stopped the project in its tracks, and the planned History of Military Science among the Muslim Peoples which by now had mushroomed into a vast account of warfare including the pre-Islamic societies of Persia, China, and Indian, never came to fruition.

Having lost his patron, Sprenger sailed to India as a surgeon, later continuing his scholarly career as principal of various colleges in Delhi and Calcutta, and researcher-cataloguer of Indian collections including the Imperial libraries of Awadh (Oudh). He also amassed a manuscript library of his own, at least part of which now forms the Sprenger Collection at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

FitzClarence’s son William, the second Earl of Munster (1824-1901), inherited his father’s debts but not his interests, and certain of FitzClarence’s manuscripts were soon auctioned on 6 April 1843 (Add MS 14056, Add MS 14055). The British Museum purchased some volumes, while others were obtained at a later sale on 27 March 1855 (Add MS 20736).

Although FitzClarence’s book never came to be, copies of the wishlist remain in many libraries as a testament to his thwarted literary ambitions. One can only wonder what he would have made of the digital, virtual libraries of today in which his dream of access to ever more of the world’s Arabic military texts – and millions of others – is increasingly coming to pass.

References

Chaghatai, M. Ikram, ‘Dr. Aloys Sprenger (1813–1893): His Life and Contribution to Urdu Language and Literature’, Iqbal Review, 36 (1995), pp. 77–99.

FitzClarence, George Augustus Frederick,  Journal of a Route Across India, Through Egypt, to England, in the Latter End of the Year 1817, and the Beginning of 1818  (London: John Murray), 1819.

The Earl of Munster's obituary in 'Proceedings of the nineteenth anniversary meeting of the society' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 7 (1843), pp. i-xxi.

Sprenger, Aloys and George Augustus Frederick FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb (London, s. n., 1840). British Library copy 14598.c.1. Digital copy at Princeton University Library, digitised by Hathi Trust

Sprenger, Aloys, A catalogue of the Arabic, Persian and Hindu'sta'ny manuscripts, of the libraries of the King of Oudh, Vol. 1 (Calcutta: J. Thomas for the Baptist Press), 1854.

Wright, Jo, 'Sir Thomas Reade: Knight, ‘Nincumpoop’ and Collector of Antiquities', Asian and African Studies Blog (2014).

— , An Earl, a Collection and a Gun: the Curious Provenance of a British Library Manuscript', Qatar Digital Library (2014).

Jenny Norton-Wright, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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08 February 2021

Boys, Boys, Boys: Enderunlu Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname

In June 2019, I shared with you the British Library’s beautifully illustrated copy of the Hamse-yi Atayi, which included copious illustrations of same-sex desire. In that post, I had the opportunity to tease out how we see and interpret homosexual love and sex in pre-modern Ottoman literature, and what that says about our worldview today. Of course, Atayi’s Hamse is far from the only work of Ottoman literature that speaks to this topic. I would be remiss if I did not make use of LGBT+ History Month to highlight another item that helps queer our collections.

Painted image of a park scene inside a palace with women and men in 18th century Ottoman dress engaged in various leisure activities, including conversation and music, with a body of water in the background
A view of Palace activities in the late 18th century taken from an illustrated copy of Enderunlu Fazıl Bey's Zenanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Zenanname, 1190 AH [1776-77 CE], Turkey. Or 7094, f 7r) 
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Frequent readers and fans of our blog might remember Dr. Sunil Sharma’s particularly popular post from November 2016 on the Zenanname, an Ottoman Turkish book on the women of the world penned by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey. The Zenanname is far from a work of women’s lib or a celebration of female feats and triumphs. Rather, it encapsulates an essentialist take on the characteristics of various women, their weaknesses and strengths, and constructs rigid typologies around class and country. Exceptionally misogynist at times, this literary piece was clearly destined for male readers. As Dr. Sharma points out, the Zenanname is actually a companion piece to the Hubanname, an earlier work by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, which discusses the qualities of the beautiful young men of the world. This latter poem falls into a category of literature known as the şehrengiz, works on the beauties of various cities.

Who was Enderunlu Fazıl Bey? Although no definitive date can be found for his birth, he is believed to have been born in the 1750s or 60s in the city of Akka, Liwa of Safad, Ottoman Palestine (today Acre, Israel) to a family both well-placed in the Ottoman bureaucracy, and with a rebellious streak against central authority. His given name was Hüseyin, but he took the mahlas or poetic pseudonym Fazıl, as well as the qualifier Enderunlu or Enderunî because of his education in the Enderun. This was the interior court of the Ottoman imperial bureaucracy, destined to service the imperial family, and was located inside Topkapı Palace. He was ejected from the Palace in 1783-84 for his behaviour and spent more than a decade in destitution in Istanbul before seeking out Selim III’s beneficence. He wrote poetry to curry the Sultan’s favour, and also took positions in Aleppo, Erzurum and Rhodes. It was in this last location that Fazıl Bey lost his sight, which eventually resulted in his return to Istanbul, where he died in 1810. His grave can today be found in the municipality of Eyüp.

A page of text in Arabic script written in rık'a calligraphy in two columns in black ink
The opening of a combined version of the Hubanname and the Çenginame, a work on the male dancers of Istanbul. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7093, f 1v)
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What was the behaviour that resulted in Fazıl Bey’s expulsion from the Palace? Sabahattin’s article in the Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi claims it was “addiction” or "fixations" (“düşkünlük”) and "love affairs" ("aşk maceraları"). Love and eroticism, indeed, are key themes in his poetry, and large motivators for his fame today as a poet. This history of same-sex desire is part of the reason for the poet’s appropriation today by some LGBTQI activists in Turkey, as well as the interest of various Ottoman literary scholars in Turkey and abroad. The Hubanname is perhaps the best example of this orientation in Fazıl Bey’s work.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The opening text of Fazıl Bey's Hubanname. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7095, ff 47v-48r)
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The British Library holds three copies of the Hubanname text. It can be found in Or 7093 and Or 7095, both of which are collections of Fazıl Bey’s works, as well as Or 7083, a mecmua also containing the works of Atıf Mustafa Efendi and Hazık Mehmet Erzurumi. Sadly, none of the British Library’s holdings are illustrated, which provides a disappointing contrast to both the exquisite illustrations of the Zenanname (Or 7094), and to the paintings in copies of the Hubanname in other collections. For those readers who understand Turkish, there is a wonderful video from December 2019 of Dr. Selim S. Kuru describing and analyzing a number of images from the copy held at the Library of İstanbul Üniversitesi. The text-heavy works present in the British Library collections were all bequeathed by E. J. W. Gibb, whose six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry has long been a foundational text for Anglophone studies of Ottoman literature. As Sharma has pointed out, Gibb was not a fan of Fazıl Bey’s skill as a poet, but he did give him credit for the originality of his work, and for the use and adaptation of popular poetry within his own oeuvre.

Gibb’s lack of appreciation is far from surprising, especially when we consider his disdain for Atayi’s bawdy tales. This disapproval, nonetheless, is hard to square with our own sensibilities or, perhaps, those of Fazıl Bey’s contemporaries. As Dr. İrvin Cemil Schick explains, homoerotic themes were far from rare in Ottoman literature, including descriptions of sexual acts, which are absent from the current work. The author’s decision to depart from the usual şehrengiz template and to describe the young men of the world by ethnicity and characteristics, on the other hand, is both his claim to fame, and the area in which Fazıl Bey might have found himself in hot water today. For several years, intense discussion within the gay community, as well as other groups under the LGBTQI umbrella, have focused on the prevalence and impact of implicit and explicit racism. Some of the descriptions included in the Hubanname would be sure to raise eyebrows, even if the ridiculousness of the broad brush strokes employed might also elicit a few chuckles.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The end of the description of Jewish men, and the one on Roma youths, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 54v-55r)
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In his presentation, Kuru focuses on the Hubanname’s exposition of the young men of Istanbul, where Greeks, Armenians and Jews are the first up for examination. Fazıl Bey is much taken with Greek men, claiming that they are the most beautiful of their peers. Nonetheless, these “roses” have peculiar accents, and their pronounced sibilants and confusion between sīn and shīn leave much to be desired. Armenians come next, charming Casanovas of the capital, followed up by Jewish men, who feel the poet’s particular wrath. While some light-skinned Jews take his fancy, our wily and fickle ways, and, apparently, horniness, make us “enemies to all nations”. Afterwards come the Roma, whose young men, with their dark features, are pretty, lithe, musically-inclined, commercially-oriented, and totally untrustworthy; which is why, Fazıl Bey tells us, they are unsuited to love. The list of Istanbul’s communities continues: Rumelians, Tatars, Bosniaks, Albanians, Georgians, and Circassians. These are surrounded, both before and after, by descriptions of men from other communities outside of Istanbul: Persians, Baghdadis, Damascenes (faces white as wax), Hejazis, Moroccans, Algerians (iron-hard, whether young or old), Ethiopians (lusty, strong, and charming), Black men (diamonds, coral, eyes of love), Frenchmen, Englishmen, Russians, Germans, Spaniards (each one exceptional in his beauty), and even the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (big-mouthed and wide-faced).

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
Description of Black men and Ethiopian ones, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 43v-44r)
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Fazıl Bey’s sharp-tongued review of the gifts and flaws of the world’s most beautiful young men feels like a late 18th-century Ottoman drag act, complete with the zingers you’d expect from a vicious queen taking hold of the stage for an evening’s roast. They could be dismissed as mere fun, or even as personal preference. But the truth is that some of his phrasing and stereotyping cuts close to home for those of us who have been both victims and guilty of the typecasting and casual racism of the gay dating scene. As much as Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname is a testament to the forms of same-sex desire in different times and places, it’s also a showcase of how sex, stereotype, and prejudice can easily blend into one hot sticky mess.

This LGBT+ History Month, revisiting the Hubanname lets us delve into the history of same-sex desire in the Ottoman Empire. It can also help us reflect on the power dynamics encoded in our own gaze. Enderunlu Fazıl Bey might have been maligned for his sexuality, but he was also still part of the Ottoman elite. His work, and others like it, is an opportunity for us all to problematize the boundary between predilection and prejudice, preference and persuasion. At the end of the day, love is love, and sex is sex, and they should be available to all, without detriment to one’s dignity or human worth.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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Further Reading and Listening:

Çil, Okan, “Osmanlı'nın eşcinsel şairi: Enderunlu Fâzıl”, Duvar Gazete, 21 October 2019. Last accessed: 10 January 2020. <https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/kitap/2019/11/21/osmanlinin-escinsel-sairi-enderunlu-fazil>

Kücük, Sabahattin, “Enderunlu Fâzıl: Mahallîleşme eğilimini ileri bir safhaya götüren divan şairi”, Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. Last accessed: 6 January 2021. <https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/enderunlu-fazil>

Schick, İrvin Cemil, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” The Turkish Studies Association Journal, 28:1/2 (2004), pp. 81-103. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43383697>

For the Ottoman History Podcast based on Schick’s study of eroticism in Ottoman literature, see here.

Yılmaz, Ozan, “Enderunlu Fazıl Divanı’nda Yahudilikle İlgili Unsurlar ve Andnâme-i Yehûdî-Beçe”, Türkbilig, 22 (2011), pp. 1-30. <https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/990142>

The Hubanname was most recently published in translation into modern Turkish by SEL Yayncılık. The work was translated by Reşit İmrahor, an alias that has been employed by a number of authors and translators for more than 30 years.

04 February 2021

Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

The British Library’s collections of manuscripts from the Islamic world of Southeast Asia were largely formed during the early 19th century by officials in the service of the East India Company. These early colonial philologists eagerly sought out original literary, historical and legal texts composed in local languages such as Malay, Javanese and Bugis, but paid little attention to the rich corpus of writings in Arabic, constituting the bedrock of Islamic scholarship in the region. Manuscripts of the Qur’an, commentaries and prayerbooks were usually ignored, being regarded as poor copies of canonical texts already well known from multiple ‘better’ and older prototypes from the Middle East.

Heading for the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, revealed in Mecca, in a manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 3v (detail).
Heading for the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, revealed in Mecca, in a manuscript from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 3v (detail).  noc

As a result of this narrow range of bibliographic interests, there are very few Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in British public collections. Indeed, until the late 20th century, only three complete copies of the Qur’an from the Malay world were known to be held in the UK: two in the British Library from Java, from the John Crawfurd collection, and one in the Royal Asiatic Society, possibly also from Java (Arabic No. 4), which is of particular interest as it includes a full interlinear translation in Malay. Over the past few decades, however, a few more examples have been acquired by the British Library, which now holds eight complete Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, representing three regional styles: from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, Aceh and Java. All eight manuscripts have now been digitised, and can be accessed through the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts portal.

The East Coast of the Malay peninsula is home to two closely-linked schools of manuscript art, one based in Terengganu and the other to the north, centred on the Malay kingdom of Patani, now part of Thailand. While Terengganu produced the finest illuminated Qur’an manuscripts in the whole of Southeast Asia, in a class of their own in terms of sumptuousness and technical finesse, Patani Qur’ans are notable for their artistry and perfect judgement of proportion and presentation on the page. An exquisite small Qur’an in the British Library, Or 15227, combines certain characteristically Patani motifs with regular repeating floral and foliate motifs and deep dark pigments reminiscent of Terengganu production.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an, enclosing Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left, probably from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an, enclosing Surat al-Fatihah on the right-hand page and the beginning of Surat al-Baqarah on the left, probably from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 3v-4r.  noc

The highly distinctive and easily recognizable Acehnese style of illumination is represented by three Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library. One manuscript, Or 16915, is indeed an exemplar of this artistic school, and is illuminated throughout with three double decorated frames and with each thirtieth part (juz’) and divisions thereof highlighted with marginal ornaments. The two other manuscripts are simpler creations, but both were also produced with decorated frames marking the beginning, middle and end of the Qur’anic text, although Or 16034 is now missing a few folios from the beginning. The third manuscript, Or 15604, has three pairs of double monochrome frames. These should not be regarded as ‘unfinished’ examples of manuscript art, for so many Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh with monochrome decoration can be found that this should be regarded as a standard variant of the Acehnese style. Neither of these two other Aceh Qur’ans have marginal ornaments for each juz’ or subdivisions of juz' similar to those found in Or 16915.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

Illuminated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Aceh, marking the start of juz’ 16 (Q. 18:75), 19th century. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.
Illuminated frames in the middle of a Qur’an from Aceh, marking the start of juz’ 16 (Q. 18:75), 19th century. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.  noc

Monochrome decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, enclosing the final two chapters, Surat al-Falaq and Surat al-Nas, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 313v-314r.
Monochrome decorated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, enclosing the final two chapters, Surat al-Falaq and Surat al-Nas, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 313v-314r.  noc

The remaining four Qur’an manuscripts are from Java. As noted above, two are from the John Crawfurd collection and were hence aquired in Java before Crawfurd left the island in 1816. Both are copied on dluwang, Javanese paper made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree, and both are relatively plain bibliographic productions. The decorated frames are executed simply in black and red ink, and illustrate a quintessentially Javanese architectural preference for superimposing diamond shapes upon a series of rectangles.

Simple diamond-rectangle double frames in black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 2v-3r.
Simple diamond-rectangle double frames in black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Decorated double frames in red and black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.
Decorated double frames in red and black ink, at the start of a Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Both the Crawfurd manuscripts probably date from the late 18th century or very early 19th century. A third Qur’an manuscript from Java probably dates from the second half of the 19th century. It is written on European paper, and has no ornamental features. The hand could not be described as good, but care has been taken with the normal Qur’anic conventions of page layout, text frames, red ink surah headings and verse markers, and the ruled extended sin-mim ligature in the word bismillah. Care has also been taken to check (tashih) the text, and errors and omissions noticed have been rectified, as shown in the image below.

Start of Surat Tatfif (Q. 83) in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, f. 312v (detail)
Start of Surat Tatfif (Q. 83) in a Qur’an manuscript from Java, 19th century. British Library, Or 16877, f. 312v (detail).  noc

The final Qur’an manuscript is from the island of Madura, off the northeast coast of Java, and is copied on dluwang. It is calligraphically one of the most impressive manuscripts in this group, written in a strong, stylish, cursive hand with a pronounced forward slope, and sweeping bowls of letters. There are striking decorated frames at the beginning, middle and end of the text. However, as has been discussed in a published article (Gallop 2017), this is an example of the commonly-encountered phenonmenon of ‘enhancement’, whereby original but essentially plain 19th-century Qur’an manuscripts from Java have had polychrome decoration added in the late 20th or early 21st century in order to raise the commercial value of the book.

Opening pages of a 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, with illuminated frames added in the late 20th century. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r.
Opening pages of a 19th-century Qur’an manuscript from Madura, with illuminated frames added in the late 20th century. British Library, Or 15877, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Opening lines of Surat al-Kahf (Q. 18), written in a stylish cursive hand, in a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, 19th century. Or. 15877, f. 146v (detail).
Opening lines of Surat al-Kahf (Q. 18), written in a stylish cursive hand, in a Qur’an manuscript from Madura, 19th century. Or. 15877, f. 146v (detail).  noc  noc

All eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library have now been digitised, and are listed below with hyperlinks to the digitised copies. The small Patani Qur’an, Or 15227, was in the first group of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the British Library to be digitised in 2012 with funding from the Ginsburg Legacy, while the Aceh Qur’an Or 16915 was digitised soon after its acquisition by the British Library in 2014. The other six Qur’an manuscripts were digitised through the support of William and Judith Bollinger in a project in collaboration with the National Library of Singapore, 2013-2019.

Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library

Add 12312 Qur’an, from Java, 18th-early 19th century
Add 12343 Qur’an, from Java, 18th-early 19th century
Or 15227 Qur’an, from Patani or Kelantan, 19th century
Or 15406 Qur’an, from Aceh, 19th century
Or 15877 Qur’an, from Madura, 19th century, with late 20th century decoration
Or 16034 Qur’an, from Aceh, 19th century, lacking beginning
Or 16877 Qur’an, from Java, 19th century
Or 16915 Qur’an, from Aceh, ca. 1820s

Further reading
Colin F. Baker, Qur’an manuscripts: calligraphy, illumination, design (London: The British Library, 2007).
A.T. Gallop, Fakes or fancies? Some ‘problematic’ Islamic manuscripts from Southeast Asia. Manuscript cultures, 2017, 10: 101-128.

Blog posts and web pages
Qur'ans in the British Library
An illuminated Qur'an manuscript from Aceh, 24 March 2014
Qur'an manuscripts from Java, 28 April 2015

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

01 February 2021

Highlights from the British Library’s Collection of Ethiopian Manuscripts

Painting of Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus on horse back followed by group of men and women, in colour, above text in red and black in Geez script
The Nativity of Jesus from an apocryphal text first written in Coptic in the 5th century. The full text only exists in the Ethiopian version. This 18th-century MS has 265 illustrations and was written for King Iyasu. The Holy Family is often depicted fleeing the persecution of Herod. (ነገር ማርያም [Nagara Māryām / History of Mary], Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 607, f 17r)
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Travelers, missionaries and military officials active within Ethiopia enabled western collectors to continually acquire manuscripts from the region since the fifteenth century. The exact number of such manuscripts housed within collections outside of Ethiopia cannot be determined. Nevertheless, many were acquired by European Cultural Institutions via donation, bequest, official transfer and commercial purchase. The three most significant of these bodies are the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in Rome, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris and the British Library in London possessing a combined holding of two thousand seven hundred Ethiopian manuscripts.

Image of child speaking to adult woman with people behind her in front of large fire, in full colour, outlined by red frame
Illustration of one of the most venerated martyrs in the Ethiopian Church, the child St. Kirkos & his mother St. Iyalota. (ገደለ፡ ቅዱስ፡ ቂርቆስ [The Acts and Miracles of Cyricus], Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 720, f 50r)
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In its entirety, the British Library’s Ethiopian Manuscript Collection covers all aspects of Ethiopian literature. Biblical and apocryphal literature, service books, prayers, music, poetry, theology, lives of saints and exegesis (commentaries) are well represented. There is also a rich diversity of secular works covering mathematics, science, grammars, vocabularies, astrology, magic, poetry, divination and medical texts. Official material taken from Ethiopia’s Royal archives can also be found. It also includes one of the most significant illuminated collections outside of Ethiopia, totalling one hundred and twenty individual manuscripts created between the fifteenth and early twentieth centuries. More than ninety of these are lavishly illuminated containing up to a hundred separate illustrations.

Image of man on grass in front of structure with thatched roof and trees in the background with sun, in full colour, with text in Geez script in red and black ink in top left-hand corner
In the 6th century, St Yared invented a musical notation system representing pitch/melody still used by the Ethiopian Church. He named his complex melodic layers after the three birds St Yared saw in paradise. This manuscript, copied in 1735, contains text in Ge'ez, Izil & Araray. (ድጓ [Dēggwä], Ethiopia, 1735. Or 584, f 232r).
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The first donation of Ethiopian manuscripts housed in the British Library was made by the Church of England Missionary Society which included seventy-four codices acquired by missionaries during the 1830s and 1840s. The largest was made in 1868, following the official transfer of three hundred and forty-nine manuscripts taken from Emperor Theodore’s capital at Maqdala by a British punitive expedition the previous year. The British Library’s Ethiopian Manuscript Collections are therefore culturally and historically significant.

Multiple scenes in frames including one showing small child talking to older man; man talking to an angel; man speaking to an assembled group under a tree, all in full colour, under text in Geez script in black and red ink
The movement of heavenly bodies and of the firmament, revealed to Enoch in his trips to Heaven guided by the angel Uriel. (መጽሐፈ መድበል [Mestira Zaman], Ethiopia, 1721-30. Or 790, f 9r)
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In 2016, the British Library launched its Heritage Made Digital Programme to digitise collections of particular national and international cultural significance in addition to fragile objects deemed unsuitable for physical use. The Programme’s long-term objective is to make this material available for global research and consultation via a single online platform. Given the significance of Ethiopian Manuscript Collections, the Maqdala Collection was one of the first to be selected for digitisation by the Heritage Made Digital Programme.

Full colour illustration of Jesus on yellow background inside octagonal frame surrounded by images of an eagle, lion, bull and human in the four corners of the page, and two people's face on either side of the inner frame
The Four Living Creatures - the lion, the ox, man, and the eagle - are venerated in the Ethiopian Church and considered to be nearer to God than all other celestial beings. (አብቀለምሲስ [The Revelation of St. John], Ethiopia, 1700-1730. Or 533, f 30r)
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This work not only provided an important opportunity to increase awareness about this collection leading up to the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Maqdala in 2018, it also enhanced our knowledge of the collection’s holdings leading to the discovery of several little-known illuminated manuscripts covering biblical, hagiographical and apocryphal themes. Currently, over fifty thousand pages from the library’s remarkable collection of Ethiopian manuscripts are now freely available online for researchers and the general public.

Full-page colour illustration of an elderly bearded man in a robe tied at the waist standing in front of lions and tigers all lying on the ground
St Gebre Menfes Kidus an Egyptian hermit, the founder of the 14th-century monastery of Zuqualla, in an extinct volcano mountain in Ethiopia. (ተአምረ ማርያም [Miracles of Mary], Ethiopia, 17th century. Or 639, f 174v)
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Users can find all relevant digitised manuscripts through the Digitised Manuscripts platform, www.bl.uk/manuscripts, by searching in the keyword(s) search box for the word "Ethiopian".

Image of manger with Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus with cattle beside them and the the three kings in attendance, with adult Jesus and an angel in the clouds in the top-right of the image announcing the miracle to three men seated and laying in the bottom right of the image; with text in Geez script in red and black in above
The Nativity of Jesus, from an 18th-century hymnological composition. (ጥበበ ጠቢባን [Wisest among the Wise], Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 590, f 41r)
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Eyob Derillo, Curator of Ethiopian Collections
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