Asian and African studies blog

7 posts from August 2021

30 August 2021

Epic Iran: Some Zoroastrian Treasures

Epic Iran  general view

The British Library has an unrivalled collection of Zoroastrian manuscripts and therefore welcomed the opportunity to display three of its Zoroastrian treasures in the current exhibition Epic Iran organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. The exhibition is open until 12 September 2021 by ticketed admission only. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are released on Tuesdays at 12.00. 

The exhibition covers approximately five millennia of Iranian history and is the first of its kind since the Royal Academy's International Exhibition of Persian Art of 1931. Arranged in nine sections it explores and brings together the whole range of Iranian material cultures from the earliest known writing to the 1979 Revolution and beyond. Out of around 300 exhibits, the British Library contributed fifteen manuscripts which will be the subject of two blogs. In this first post I will focus on the three Zoroastrian items.

Zoroastrianism, the religion of the ancient Iranians, owes its name to Zarathushtra (Zoroaster) whose hymns (Gathas) are thought to have been composed 1500-1000 BCE. It teaches the importance of good thoughts, words, and actions, in a dualistic cosmos where the forces of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda, are constantly opposed by those of the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu. Originating in Central Asia, Zoroastrianism spread east to China and south to Iran where it became the main religion from the sixth century BCE until the mid-seventh century CE. After the arrival of Islam, Zoroastrian refugees from Iran established settlements in Gujarat, India, where they were called Parsis (‘Persians’). Zoroastrian diaspora communities have since become established worldwide.

Zoroastrianism is essentially an oral religion. The oldest scriptures, referred to as the Avesta or Zend, are in an Old Iranian language, Avestan. They were not written down, however, until around the sixth century CE during the Sasanian period, many centuries after their composition. Even after that, the main liturgical texts were transmitted orally. This is partly the reason that, apart from the Ashem vohu fragment mentioned below, there are no manuscripts surviving from before the end of the thirteenth century.

The earliest extant Zoroastrian text, the Ashem Vohu prayer

The Ashem Vohu  Or.8212:84
The Ashem vohu prayer transcribed in Sogdian script, dating from around the ninth century CE (British Library, Or.8212/84). Public domain

This fragment dates from around the ninth century CE and comes, not from India or Iran, the lands associated today with the Zoroastrianism, but from Dunhuang in Central China, where it was discovered in the Mogao caves by Aurel Stein in 1907. It contains a short text in Sogdian (a middle-Iranian language) about the prophet Zarathushtra followed by a phonetic transcription into the Sogdian script of one of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, composed originally in Avestan. Remarkably, the language of the prayer is neither recognisable as Sogdian nor Avestan, but is likely to represent a much older Iranian dialect, perhaps an archaic form of Avestan. The prayer must have been preserved orally in this ancient form, which remained unaffected by the codification of the Avesta in the Sasanian period, when the sacred texts were first written down (N. Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame, p.94).

Zoroastrianism was carried eastwards to China from the early centuries of the first millennium CE by Sogdian traders, whose homeland was the area of Samarkand in present-day Uzbekistan. This document provides written evidence for its continuation there up to the ninth century and, more importantly, it is the only example of its kind, dating from about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text.

An illustrated law book

Videvdad sadeh  RSPA 230
The opening to chapter nine of the Videvdad Sadah (British Library, RSPA 230, ff. 151r-152v). Public domain

The Videvdad Sadah is a liturgical presentation in Avestan of the most important of Zoroastrian legal works, the Videvdad (‘Law repudiating the demons’). The text, described as sadah (‘clean’), i.e. unaccompanied by any commentary, is recited in a ritual context. This opening shows the beginning of chapter nine which concerns the nine-night purification ritual (barashnum nuh shab) for someone who has been defiled by contact with a dead body.

Most of our Zoroastrian manuscripts originate from India, copied by and for the Parsi community which traditionally emigrated from Iran from about the eighth century onwards. This beautifully written and decorated copy, however, was made in Yazd, Iran in 1647 by a Zoroastrian Mihrban Anushirvan Bahram Shah who copied it for a Zoroastrian of Kirman called Marzban Sandal Khusraw. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured illustrations six of trees and one diagram. The heading here has been decorated very much in the style of contemporary illuminated Islamic manuscripts.

This copy was most likely brought to India from Iran by the Iranian poet and writer, Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar, himself a descendant of the original patron, in the mid-nineteenth century before being acquired by Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner (fl.1817-1895), a successful Bombay businessman who presented it the Royal Society, London in May 1864. Transferred to the India Office Library in 1876, it was incorporated into the British Library collection in 1982.

The Bundahishn (‘Primal Creation’) 

The book of creation  Mss Avestan 22  ff 82-83
Chapter 27 of the Bundahishn,‘On the nature of the plants’ (British Library, Mss Avestan 22, ff. 82v-83r). Public domain

The Bundahishn, or ‘Primal Creation,’ is perhaps the most important Zoroastrian work on cosmogony and cosmography. Composed in Pahlavi (Middle Persian) during the early Islamic period, it is conventionally dated to the ninth century. It presents the Zoroastrian world view beginning with a detailed account of the perfect creation of the All-knowing Lord, Ahura Mazda (Ohrmazd in Middle Persian), which was attacked by the Evil Spirit, Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), and contaminated with disease and death. The cosmic drama culminates in the resurrection of the dead and the defeat and removal of Evil from Ohrmazd’s world and its perfection at the end of time. The cosmographic parts of the text include descriptions of the world’s lands, rivers, lakes, mountains, plants animals, and human races.

The text of the Bundahishn is preserved in two distinct versions, an Indian and a more complete Iranian one. This manuscript gives the text of the Indian Bundahishn and is written in Pazand, a phonetic Avestan script. Copied in India in the seventeenth or eighteenth century, it was acquired by East India Company surgeon Samuel Guise (1751-1811) while working at the East India factory at Surat and was purchased by the East India Company Library after his death.

A published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture.

Readers who can visit the British Library can also see a small display of Zoroastrian manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library


Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian

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Further Reading

Domenico Agostini and Samuel Thrope (tr), The Bundahišn: the Zoroastrian Book of Creation, New York, 2020
Almut Hintze, ‘An introduction to Zoroastrianism,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Jenny Rose, ‘Zoroastrianism from the early modern period,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
Ursula Sims-Williams, ‘Zoroastrianism in late antiquity,’ in British Library, Discovering Sacred Texts, September 2019
–––––, ‘Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London’, in A. Cantera (ed.) The Transmission of the Avesta (Wiesbaden, 2012): 173-94
–––––, ‘Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library
Sarah Stewart with Firoza Punthakey Mistree, Ursula Sims-Williams, The everlasting flame: Zoroastrianism in history and imagination, London; New York, 2013

24 August 2021

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23 August 2021

Catch-up: Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

Two-page spread of a magazine featuring various black and white line drawings, two on left-hand side, with bottom left hand showing a cityscape, and one on the right hand side featuring an abstract image of a personCover of a magazine with Arabic-script text on it, with a light blue rectangle going down the right-hand side and a dark blue rectangle across the middle of the page and the title in Arabic calligraphy in white against the dark blue field
(Left) Art work by Sudanese artist Ibrahim El Salahi (b. 1930) in issue 13 of Ḥiwār (1964), edited by Palestinian poet Tawfiq Sayigh (1923-1971). (British Library, 14599.e.69)
(Right) Front cover of issue 7 (1963) of Ḥiwār magazine. (British Library, 14599.e.69)
CC Public Domain Image

Between April and June 2021, the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, hosted Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

The series was co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

Recordings from all four events in the series are now available to watch on the British Library’s YouTube channel and we have collated them below for your convenience.

We regarded the series as a space for collective learning. As such we invite anyone with an interest in the subjects and themes raised —both in Arabic and different linguistic and regional fields— to be in touch so we can explore potential activities and interventions that build upon this series. You can do this by emailing Hana and Daniel.

Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics
Ala Younis and Maha Maamoun appeared in conversation with Hala Auji

 

Archives of Design and Designing the Archive
Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès and Moe Elhosseiny

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War
Zeina Maasri and Fehras Publishing Practices

This session was organised in partnership with Delfina Foundation as part of their Collecting as Practice programme, and Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge. Fehras Publishing Practices current exhibition is Borrowed Faces: Future Recall is on at Mosaic Rooms, London, until 26 September 2021.

 

Fragmented Archives and Histories of Solidarity
Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri

 

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections, British Library
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19 August 2021

Motherhood: A Form of Emancipation in the Turkish Minority Press in Bulgaria (1878-1944)

Black and white photograph of six women in traditional Bulgarian dress with four standing in back row and two seated in front row
A portrait of urban women in traditional dress from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/7)

The fight for women’s rights, almost worldwide, is still unfinished business; sad but true.

Delving into the history of feminist activism and women’s rights with the Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights exhibition at the British Library was absolutely inspiring. All the more amazing, as a budding researcher interested in the emancipatory activities of women belonging to ethnic minority groups in the late Ottoman and early republican periods, was giving an ear to Turkish women’s voice from the ‘margin.’ For the first time, it provided me with a surprising perspective, through digitised periodicals from Bulgaria (EAP696). What problems did the Turkish women of Bulgaria have? From which ideas were their writings pertaining to the woman question influenced? Or were they limited by which socio-cultural dynamics? Well, then, let’s have a brief look at how women’s rights were defended in the publications of the Turkish minority group in Bulgaria between 1878-1944.

Newspaper page featuring text primarily in Arabic script with some in Latin script above a colour chart
A page from the Turkish-language newspaper Birlik, published in Bulgaria, showing the transition from Arabic to Latin scripts. (EAP696/1/16)

As is known, with the Berlin Treaty (made after the 1877-78 Ottoman-Russian War), the Principality of Bulgaria became autonomous, a Christian governor was appointed to Eastern Rumelia, and Macedonia was left to the Ottoman Empire on the condition of reform. Muslim Turks, who had constituted the overwhelming majority of the country’s population for centuries, became a minority for the first time. From this perspective, as a Turkish minority group in Bulgaria, little wonder that they constantly announced their national existence was in danger, mainly with the fear of losing their national identity as the overall discourse in the publications. That’s why their writings particularly emphasise the necessity of education, with the idea that their community should have had a national working system, too. The prevailing discussion is on the ideal of arranging a national way of life that responds to the contemporary needs of their community in Bulgaria.

Regarding women’s and girls’ education, their writings closely followed developments in Europe and Russia. But, they saw the Republic of Turkey as the most significant model in terms of reforms, which the Bulgarian Turks highly appreciated. While the countries of the world attached great importance to the upbringing and education of girls, disallowing sending Turkish girls to school by ignoring their education is presented as one of the biggest stumbling blocks. It was important to ensure that girls attend school, notably the rüşdiyye (Ottoman junior high school) which was opened in Istanbul for the first time in 1858. The school would affect their education and also their way of thinking and appearance.

Page of text in Latin script with a large black-ink masthead above a colour chart
The first page of the Turkish-language newspaper İstikbal's 5th issue, published in Vidin, Bulgaria on 25 January 1932. (EAP696/1/20)

Neriman Hikmet, Ulviye Ahmet, Emine Sıtkı and Mediha Muzaffer are the only four women who wrote in the publications. Actually, I got to know Ulviye Ahmet for the first time thanks to this project. But I think she deserves to be much better known today. As the prodigiously prolific one in matters on women’s issues, in one of her writings in the journal Istikbal (Future) dated 31 March 1932, she informs the reader that women who didn’t have political rights gathered under the flag of “feminism”. Feminists were establishing organisations and fighting for their political rights. However, the woman, who worked with men in every field as his companion, was not yet promoted to the position she deserved in the political world. I think it is quite essential that she directly uses the word “feminism” here. Although the word was typically associated with being like a “witch” as a locus for the cultural negotiation of genders, the women’s struggle united under the ideal of feminism seems to have inspired Turkish women in Bulgaria, too. On the other hand, their “sisters” in Turkey, like Halide Nusret Zorlutuna, advocated strongly nationalist ideas that rejected Western imperialism by emphasising the differences between Turkish and European women regarding women’s morality. Turkish women sometimes openly blamed those who, according to them, imitated European counterparts who were bad mothers, for instance. So, while the term feminism was somehow regarded as foreign, individualistic, and contrary to traditional family norms, Ulviye Ahmet’s text occupies a noteworthy place.

This quotation from her other text written on 10 April 1932 from the same journal is again radical: “Perhaps there will be obstacles for us to embark on a social and national life with great love and affection. There will be those saying that a woman cannot gain a place in society, cannot show national resistance, she is a house bird, men’s pastime. But never forget to hope; who knows how their delusions will turn out? Don’t we have the strength to withstand all this?” Since society expects a lot of work from women, Ulviye Ahmet underlines they should try to be helpful to and shape society in every way. In that sense, she invites intellectual women to write about women’s progress. The regular letters sent with the title of “To Our Sisters in Turkey” make it obvious that they had a targeted addressee in Turkey, as well. She defends women’s rights to raise Turkish girls, would-be mothers of the nation in the future. They were the mothers of future generations of their poor nation oppressed under the harsh conditions of that time. Yes, “the mothers of the nation…” While I was reading the text, I was anticipating the inevitable topic – Motherhood.

At the end of the 19th century, Ottoman women’s strike for their rights was espoused as a pre-requirement for civilisation. They were principally responsible as mothers and wives and their status needed to be improved for the welfare of the Ottoman men and creating the enlightened generations. To raise responsible citizens of the Ottoman Empire, first, mothers should have been educated and enlightened, at least to some extent. That is, one of the projects built in the hope of reversing the inexorable dissolution of the Ottoman Empire was the modernisation of women. Then, in the Republican period and during the Kemalist regime in Turkey, Turkish women’s primary role as mothers and the process of women stepping into social life were again central themes of state-sanctioned modernisation projects and nation-building processes.

Black and white photo of girls in a school sitting at pew-like desks and facing the front of the class. Many of the girls have their hair in pigtails and some are looking towards the camera. At the right background of the image are large windows
Girls at a school in Bulgaria in the early 20th century, from the archival collection of photographs taken by Rositza Angelova. (EAP618/3/1)

In line with the concern of reviving their national identity, the woman question was expectedly shaped around the same discourse among Turks in Bulgaria, too. Their following arguments for why girls should be educated may sound rather unbearable, at least they do to me, but it would also be good to bear in mind in some way that it was almost all they could do as a Turkish Muslim community at the turn of the century. According to the general attitude in the articles, written anonymously, the one born as a girl would “definitely” be a mother thereafter; they would be engaged in managing a house. The family life of an educated woman and an uneducated one couldn’t be the same. An educated woman would treat her husband in a much more pleasant way than an illiterate one. Women who have to know household management and the family economy well should have a bright mind. A woman needed to be educated to bring up her children properly by paying particular attention to their moral education. Therefore, mothers of the future should be raised as resilient women, capable mothers, and nurturers for the nation’s happiness - the most indispensable need of that time. The woman should never be humiliated because she is the mother of humanity; the future is in her bosom.

Black and white photo of two women standing and two seated, all in traditional Turkish dress and head coverings, in front of three children. The woman on the far right is holding a spindle and is pulling raw wool from it
Rural Turkish women in Bulgaria prepare wool in an archival photograph from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/7)

Ulviye Ahmet dwelled on the point that if women want to serve their nation as true mothers, they must be intensely concerned about schools, societies, and foundations, which constitute the cornerstone of their national existence. She reminds them that their sisters in Turkey had an enormous organisation called the Turkish Women’s Union (Türk Kadınlar Birliği). To establish cultural and social communities to assist their male friends, she thought that they must undertake a particular mission. “If we want Bulgarian Turkish women to be true mothers for generations, let’s work for our nation’s progress and rise. And let’s establish societies for the enlightenment of women,” she said.

There is no doubt that motherhood is a fascinating state, even just biologically. But to idealise motherhood nostalgically and evaluate the woman over a ‘blessing’ or ‘merit’ attributed to her by birth move the writings away from a feminist line in a sense we understand today. Women’s maternal role was an indispensable tool for the patriotic socialisation of the new generation and the Turkish community’s enlightenment and modernisation. To be a mother of the social existence, to represent her husband and children, to be the symbol of femininity and community is somehow to be imposed upon her to maintain traditionally constructed roles and the given ‘appropriate’ and ‘moral’ female identities imposed as ‘ideal’ by patriarchal society.

A black and white photograph of three women in traditional dress and head coverings, with the one in the middle looking at the camera and those on the left and right bent over. The middle woman is carrying a basket while the other two are engaged in picking items from bushes. They are against a background of rolling hills in a rural setting
Women at work harvesting in rural Bulgaria in the early 20th century, in an archival photograph from the Bulgarian Ethnographic Institute and Museum. (EAP103/1/2/1)

It seems that only motherhood was at hand as the pre-requirement for the development of the Turkish community in Bulgaria, as no significant rights or values had been entitled to women until then. All articles about the woman question were always contextualised in a nationalist framework, too. And there is always a consciously moderate feminist discourse. Even so, they had no choice but to implement this way of writing, didn’t they? Women’s demands for their rights were always justified and legitimised through the ideal of serving the nation and their given roles as mothers and wives providing the nation with patriotic sons. Isn’t this conceptualisation as the creator of the Turkish nation already reasonably expected for a Muslim community worried about losing its national identity, or any other community in the nation-building process? Was there any other way for them to do it at that time?

What about now? In every corner of the world, a life where women are unburdened by and relinquish all the roles assigned them by ‘others.’ One where they have got rid of the social pressure that forces them to assume and maintain these roles; a life where they have no need to struggle to exercise their human rights and can freely underpin them when needed; a life where girls don’t emulate a passivised ‘princess’ against active ‘witches’ from childhood, ride their own horses, and gallop wherever they want instead of waiting for the Prince Charming: is such a life still too far away?

Seda İzmirli-Karamanlı, EAP PhD Placement Holder

The images in this blog are for research purposes only. We ask that you not share them without express permission of the rights holder.
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Bibliography :

Burçak, B. (1997). ‘The status of the elite Muslim women in İstanbul under the reign of Sultan Abdulhamid II (1876-1909).’ (Doctoral dissertation, Bilkent University).

Dayıoğlu, Ali (2005), Toplama Kampından Meclis’e, Bulgaristan’da Türk ve Müslüman Azınlığı , İstanbul: İletişim Yayınları.

Ergin, O. (1977). Türk Maarif Tarihi [History of Turkish Education]. İstanbul: Eser Matbaası.

Haskins, E. V., & Zappen, J. P. (2010). Totalitarian visual “monologue”: Reading Soviet posters with Bakhtin . Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 40(4), 326-359.

Metinsoy, E. İ. M. (2013). “The Limits of Feminism in Muslim-Turkish Women Writers of the Armistice Period (1918–1923).” In A Social History Of Late Ottoman Women (pp. 83-108). Brill.

Somel, S. A. (2012). Abdülhamit devri eğitim tarihçiliğine bir bakış: 1980 sonrasında taşra maarifi ve gayrı müslim mekteplerinin historiografik bir analizi .

Tekeli, Ş. (1982). Kadınlar ve siyasal-toplumsal hayat (Vol. 6). Birikim Yayınları.

Tuncer, Hüner (2011), Osmanlı’nın Rumeli’yi Kaybı (1878-1914), İstanbul: Kaynak Yayınları.

16 August 2021

Real Sultans of the Ottoman Empire

Painting of a middle-aged man with a dark beard in a white turban, topped with gold band, and wearing a red, gold, and green robe, holding the hilt of his sword, inside of a grey oval frame
Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 4v).
CC Public Domain Image

What did people do before Hello! brought the latest royal gossip into the comfort of their homes? How did the average pleb manage before the gods of reality television took a handful of sanitized suburban clay, fashioned the Real Housewives series, and blew the life-giving breath of audience-tested PR into it? Illustrated manuscripts, obvs. In any case, most regular people were probably too busy with the relentless crush of survival to while away hours each day watching someone else live their best life. But for those who weren’t, Or 9505 would have been a treat.

Known as the Hadikatü’l-müluk or Garden of Kings, this late 19th-century work is a richly illustrated guide to the Ottoman dynasty. The original work dates from the early 18th century and was composed by Osmanzade Ahmet Tayip, who died in 1724 CE. The version held by the British Library, however, was expanded by Seyit Abdusamet, who sought to include Sultan Abdülmecit (reigned 1839-61). The text is beautifully copied, with an elaborate unvan, and 32 full-page portraits of 31 Emperors, from Sultan Osman I (reigned 1280-99 CE; f 3v) up to Sultan Abdülmecit (f 71v). The Padişahlar are each found inside an oval frame, with the exception of the final, then-reigning monarch, whose mounted personage is permitted to occupy the entirety of the page. This treasure of Ottoman portraiture was acquired by the British Museum in 1924, when it was purchased from the Cairo-based Maurice Nahman, the source of many of the Museum’s (and then Library’s) West Asian manuscripts.

Full-page painting of a man mounted upon a cantering black horse with white legs, atop of an ornate saddle, wearing a black cape and red fez topped with a lavish standard. The man is bearded and looking at the viewer
Abdülmecit atop his steed. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 72r).
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The content of the Hadikatü’l-müluk is far from novel or unique. While national histories of the Ottoman Empire began in earnest towards the end of the 19th century, biography and dynastic history had long been common. Among the best known are Aşıkpaşazade’s Tevarih-i Âl-i Osman or Menakıb-i Âl-i Osman, a 15th-century account of the quasi-mythical origins of the Ottoman dynasty. A similar work, occasionally known as the Tarih-i Âl-i Osman, but whose author might have been Muhyiddin Mehmet İbn-i Ali el-Cemali, can be found at Add MS 5969 (with an extract at Add MS 7870). Over time, other works appeared as well, including the Tacu’t-tevarih (Or 856 , Or 3210, Or 7285, Or 7286, Or 7287, Or 7908, Or 8764, Add MS 18811, Add MS 19628), a 16th-century work by Hoca Sadettin Efendi; the Tarih-i Peçevi (Or 7353, Add MS 18071, Add MS 24961), a two-volume history of the Empire by Ottoman Bosniak scholar İbrahim Peçevi; and the Tarih-i Raşit (Or 9470, Or 9670, Or 9720, Add MS 23585), an 18th-century text by Mehmet Raşit that brings this narrative closer to the present. To this we can add a whole host of works that speak to histories of regions, people, and events crucial to the continued stability of the Ottoman regime. Koca Mehmet Ragıp Paşa’s Fethiye-yi Belgrad ( Or 6248, Or 7182, Or 7198, Or 9472, Or 10952, Or 12185) and the Tarih-i Sefer-i Kandia (Or 1137, Or 11154), which recounts the Ottoman capture of Crete in 1667-69, are just two well-represented texts of this genre found in the British Library’s collections. Historiography was a lively and crucial component of Ottoman statecraft, and a core tool of imprinting the dynasty’s legacy on the palimpsest of time.

A page of Arabic-script text inside a gold frame topped with a header with floral illumination in red, blue, green and gold inks
The opening page of the Hadikatü'l-müluk, featuring an elaborate unvan. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 1v).
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Or 9505 clearly borrows from this tradition, but it also departs from it in a few very special ways. The Library holds another copy of the original text by Osmanzade (Or 7302), which is devoid of frills. It’s clear that Or 9505 is a luxury copy intended for a patron of considerable means, if not a member of the Imperial household. The highly ornate poetry at the start of the text, replete with complicated Persian and Arabic phrases, is laid out among gold text frames and separators. The unvan, or header, found on f 1v is a further indication of the pomp and ceremony with which this text was copied. It bears the name of the work inside a golden egg, surrounded by lush foliage and floral illumination in vivid pinks, blues, greens, and gold. A Baroque unvan is hardly something new or unique in an Ottoman manuscript. But this particular example does depart, in some ways, from what we usually see. For one, the floral components are not attached to the pink and yellow frame, but rather floating in empty space. And rather than containing the usual geometric or architectonic elements – so often reminiscent of towers, minarets, or palaces – this layout seems to be mimicking a crest, not unlike what we might see in European heraldry.

Painting of a middle-aged man with dark beard in yellow kaftan with red belt and dark blue vest, wearing a large white turban. The man is raising his right hand
Murat I, who reigned 1362-89 CE. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 10v).
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But it’s not the formatting, or the illumination, that is the real showstopper of this volume. Clearly, the most attractive aspect of Or 9505 is its 32 images of the Sultans of the Ottoman dynasty. These are unmistakably bold and provocative portraits. That might not seem particularly shocking, but these images do stand out from the broader tradition of Ottoman manuscript painting reflected in the British Library’s collections. The Library houses a number of items bearing portraits of both real personalities and fictional characters. What marks Or 9505 apart is the way that the subject of the portrait dominates the image itself. Whether an illustrated copy of Navoiy’s Gharaib al-sighar (Or 13061); an 18th-century Hamse-yi Atayi complete with raunchy scenes (Or 13882); or an early 17th-century Hadikatü’s-suada (Or 12009), people were included in narrative paintings, depicted as part of a scene, surrounded by flora, fauna, and buildings. In her overview of albums created by Vassal Kalender, Dr. Günsel Renda has identified this as a particularly salient aspect of 18th century products, influenced by both Iranian and Chinese preferences and techniques, as well as some European ones. But the same can also be seen in Turkic manuscripts from outside of the Ottoman Empire and from earlier periods, including a late 16th-century Divan-i Xǝtai (Or 11388) or the exquisite 16th-century Nusratnāmah (Or 3222). Rulers, specifically, and people, in general, were often portrayed in a social or historical context.

A painting of a middle-aged man in a green tunic with a white turban and black tassel upon his head sitting atop a black horse. The man is bearded and the horse is covered in a richly decorated saddle. The image is set within a page that features gold-wash illuminations in floral patterns
Sultan Ahmet I (?) on his black steed. (Ottoman poetry and painting album, late 16th century. Or 2709 f 4v). 
CC Public Domain Image

A different point of comparison might be with Or 2709, a late 16th-century album of poetry and painting. This murakka might originate from Tabriz, Iran, which would have been under Ottoman control at roughly the same time. Regardless of the vagaries of war and conquest, it’s clear that Safavid centers of artistic production also influenced creatives in Istanbul greatly. What’s more, it contains what is clearly a portrait of a Sultan, identifiable from the black aigrette (sorguç) on his white turban, mounted on his black steed, not terribly dissimilar from Abdülmecit’s pose in Or 9505. The work doesn’t reflect the European-style portraits of the 15th and 16th centuries (such as Titian’s famed portrait of Kanunî Süleyman or Gentile Bellini’s painting of Sultan Mehmet II in the National Gallery). It’s probably a much better precursor to the Safavid- and Chinese-influenced Ottoman portraiture and costume books produced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries; books about which Dr. Serpil Bağcı has provided an excellent overview. What does seem to mark this portrait off from those of Or 9505, though, is the interactions between the object and the viewer. The one in Or 2709 is set further back, and, while sullen, the Padişah isn’t all that imposing. He seems to lack the piercing gaze – a challenge to the impertinent stare of the viewer – that we see in the portraits in Or 9505.

Painting of a younger man in a blue kaftan under a red vest with ermine trim and a white turban with a black tassel. The man in holding a bow in his left hand
Sultan Osman II, with bow in hand. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 40v).
CC Public Domain Image

We can, of course, pursue another track of inquiry regarding the Hadikatü’l-müluk. There is a long tradition of European influence on Ottoman painting, especially portraiture. Nearly 50 years ago, the late Dr. Esin Atıl provided us with a wonderful overview of the links between Italian Renaissance and Ottoman portraiture, detailing artistic exchange in the court of Sultan Mehmet II. These transfers of knowledge continued into the reign of Kanunî Süleyman, as Dr. Gülru Necipoğlu has explored, but eventually tapered off, re-emerging periodically thereafter, and with force during the 19th century. The period of Sultan Abdülmecit II’s reign is perhaps the best known for its adoption of Western European visual technologies for the purpose of statecraft, although Dr. Mary Roberts has also demonstrated the profoundly important usage of them during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz as well.

An elderly man with a white beard in a green kaftan and gold belt under a yellow vest with an ermine trim. the man is wearing a white turban with a black tassel and is holding his right hand up
Selim II, Sultan from 1566 to 1574. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 30v).
CC Public Domain Image

Coming back to Or 9505, while we do know the name of the author of the original Hadikatü’l-müluk, and that of the individual who expanded it, we don’t know who painted these exquisite works. What we do know is that they were operating during the Tanzimat, a time of great social and political change in the Ottoman Empire. Among the characteristics of the Tanzimat was Ottoman intellectuals’ importation and adoption, if not assimilation, of Western European tastes and habits. Might this particular manuscript be a product of that desire for aesthetic Europeanisation? Even if this is true, these portraits still bear clear affinities with the Ottoman tradition of manuscript painting. They provide us with a solid and fascinating counterpoint to the realism of European Orientalist painting, and later Ottoman manifestations of the Western European traditions.

A middle-aged man in a blue robe under a green cape with his hand on the hilt of his sword. He is wearing a striped black and white turban with a red cloth tied around it, topped with a gold and feathered standard, and large gold triangles on either side of his head
Sultan Murat IV, who reigned 1623-40. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 42v).
CC Public Domain Image

These diversions into art history take me beyond my accumulated knowledge, or indeed my faculties of perception. For those of us not schooled in the disciplines of Ottoman painting and aesthetics, though, Or 9505 does hit upon a final truth we know all too well from the Age of Instagram. Portraiture can be a powerful stimulant to our sense of self. Whether a filtered selfie or a delicate painting, pictures reflect more than just how we look. They embody how we wish to be seen, remembered, and experienced. And for their viewers, they can elicit a wide range of emotions: envy, lust, admiration, and even schadenfreude. So come take a stroll through the Hadikatü’l-müluk, and forget your mundane worries for an hour or so – commercial breaks not included.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Works Cited :

Akın-Kıvanç, Esra, “Mustafa Âli’s Epic Deeds of Artists and New Approaches to Written Sources of Ottoman Art,” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, 2:2 (November 2015), pp. 225-258.

Atıl, Esin, “Ottoman Miniature Painting Under Sultan Mehmed II,” Ars Orientalis, 9, Freer Gallery of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Volume (1973), pp. 103-120.

Bağcı, Serpil, “Presenting Vaṣṣāl Kalender’s Works: The Prefaces of Three Ottoman Albums,” Muqarnas, 30 (2013), pp. 255-313.

Necipoğlu, Gülru, “Süleyman the Magnificent and the Representation of Power in the Context of Ottoman-Hapsburg-Papal Rivalry,” The Art Bulletin, 71:3 (September 1989), pp. 401-427.

Renda, Günsel, “An Illustrated 18th-Century Ottoman Hamse in the Walters Art Gallery,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 39 (1981), pp. 15-32.

Roberts, Mary, “Ottoman Statecraft and ‘The Pencil of Nature’: Photograph, Painting, and Drawing at the Court of Sultan Abdülaziz,” Ars Orientalis, 43 (2013), pp. 10-30.

Titley, Norah M., Miniatures from Turkish Manuscripts: A Catalogue and Subject Index of Paintings in the British Library and British Museum (London: The British Library, 1981). (Open Access PDP 17)

09 August 2021

The art of small things (3): Surah headings in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

Some of the most impressive examples of Islamic calligraphy from the Malay world are the headings of the surahs or chapters set within the elaborate illuminated frames sited at the beginning or end of Qur’an manuscripts. Shown below is the heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a manuscript from Aceh, which is almost modernist in its design, with the inscription in reserved white against a ground of red and yellow, interwoven with further purely decorative elements. However the focus of this blog post will not be on exceptional artworks such as these, but on the standard surah headings encountered on the inner pages of Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia.

Heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, f. 255r (detail)-det.
Heading for the final chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Nas, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, f. 255r (detail)  noc

Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r
Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r  noc

In all Qur’an manuscripts, a certain amount of information is usually conveyed at the start of a new chapter, namely the name or title of the surah, whether it was revealed in Mecca or Medinah, and the number of verses it contains. Considerable care is taken to signal graphically the difference between this ‘metadata’ and the text of the Divine revelation itself.  Thus the information is usually written in a different coloured ink, and sometimes in a different style of script, and often the surah heading is placed in a separate panel.

The best places to study surah headings are the final pages of a Qur’an manuscript, as the chapters of the Qur’an are ordered not chronologically but inversely by length. Thus the shortest surahs are clustered together at the end of the volume, usually with several on a single page. In these penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, we see how the scribe has paced his writing carefuly, with increasingly large, widely-formed letters with deep stretched bowls, in order to fill the space exactly, leaving the two final chapters to be presented overleaf in special frames. On the other hand, the scribe of the Acehnese Qur’an seen below has not judged his pace quite so well: the first surahs on the right-hand page have been written with standard spacing, but on the left he is forced to leave large gaps between the lines in order to fill the page, thus enabling the final two chapters to be placed within ornamental frames overleaf.

Penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 188v-189r
Penultimate pages in a Javanese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Add 12343, ff. 188v-189r  noc

Penultimate pages in an Acehnese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 312v-313r
Penultimate pages in an Acehnese Qur’an, with multiple surah headings. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 312v-313r  noc

Presented below are the headings and first line of the same Meccan chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q. 101, 'The Calamity'), in eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia held in the British Library, arranged by region. Starting with four Qur’an manuscripts from Java, in each case the surah heading is written in red ink and placed within ruled black frames that largely mirror the composition of the text frames of the pages. The first three manuscripts are written on Javanese paper, dluwang, made from the beaten bark of the mulberry tree. In each case the surah heading is written in a dashing calligraphic hand, with elegantly knotted final letters. Although the final letter ta' marbuta is often written with knots – and is also found in one of the Acehnese Qur’ans – the most stylised and extravagant examples are indeed associated with Java. The fourth manuscript is written on European paper, and is in a much poorer hand.

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15877, f. 295r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15877, f. 295r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12343, f. 187r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12343, f. 187r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12312, f. 198v
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an. British Library, Add 12312, f. 198v  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an, with a ruled sin-mim ligature in the basmala. British Library, Or 16877, f. 320r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in a Javanese Qur’an, with a ruled sin-mim ligature in the basmala. British Library, Or 16877, f. 320r  noc

In three Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts in the British Library, here too the surah heading is written in red ink, and is set in ruled frames which largely mirror the red-black-red-black composition of the text frames. It can be noted that while the Javanese surah headings shown above all give the number of verses in Surat al-Qari‘ah as eight, in the Acehnese Qur’ans the first two shown below give a figure of ten verses, while the last states that there are eleven verses. Variation in counting the number of verses in the Qur’an is not uncommon, and different traditions are known to have prevailed around the world. A difference of one is usually accounted for by whether or not the opening basmala is counted as a separate verse, while a larger differential probably indicates variant regional traditions.

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 311r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 311r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an, located at the bottom of a page, with the chapter itself found overleaf. British Library, Or 16304, f. 257r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an, located at the bottom of a page, with the chapter itself found overleaf. British Library, Or 16304, f. 257r  noc

Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 16915, f. 253r
Heading for Surat al-Qari‘ah (Q.101) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 16915, f. 253r  noc

All the examples of surah headings shown above are carefully prepared, with the title information in red ink, set within ruled borders. It is a common experience, though, when looking through Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, to encounter unfinished surah headings, and in fact such incomplete examples are extremely helpful in casting light on the order in which the scribe worked.

One of the Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, Or 15406, illustrates well all the different stages of the process. Firstly, the scribe would write out the complete Qur’anic text in black ink. If the end of a surah did not fit completely onto one line, the scribe could decide either to just use part of the next line, or to position the final words in the centre (as shown below), or to arrange them at the two ends of the line.

Beginning of Surat Hud (Q.11) in an Acehnese Qur’an, without the title or ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 105v
Beginning of Surat Hud (Q.11) in an Acehnese Qur’an, without the title or ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 105v  noc

The next stage would be to fill in the information about the surah in red ink. It is interesting to note that while there are many examples of Qur’an manuscripts missing these red ink surah headings, there are are no known examples of the missing first words of a juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text, which are also often traditionally written in red ink. This implies that the scribes took good care to ensure that the Qur’anic text itself was complete, changing colours of ink as necessary, but completing the surah headings was clearly a lower priority.

Beginning of Surat al-Anfal (Q.8) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title but without the ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 84v
Beginning of Surat al-Anfal (Q.8) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title but without the ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 84v  noc

The final stage would be to add ruled borders around the surah heading. The same work order probably also applied to Javanese Qur’ans, for in Add 12312 shown above, the ruled frames break around the spikes of the kotted letter ta' marbuta, showing that they were added after the surah heading had been written.

Beginning of Surat al-Ma'idah (Q.5) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title and ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 50v
Beginning of Surat al-Ma'idah (Q.5) in an Acehnese Qur’an, with the title and ruled frames. British Library, Or 15406, f. 50v  noc

Compared with the strongly distinctive regional characteristics noticeable in some minor decorative elements in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts, such as text frames and verse markers, surah headings are remarkably similar all over the Malay archipelago: the surah heading is written in red ink, and often set in discrete frames. It can either fill a full line, or share it with the final words of the preceding surah, either by flanking them in the middle, or being flanked by them at either end, as seen above.

It is really only in the most elaborate Qur’an manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula and a few from Java that we encounter elaborate illuminated surah headings. Fine examples can be seen in a small Patani Qur’an in the British Library, which has been left till the end because it is a show-stealer. In this manuscript, the surah headings are all picked out in reserved white against a ground of coloured bands of alternating red and blue or green.  The skill of the scribe can also be seen in the superbly controlled elongated sin-mim ligature of the basmala.

Heading for Surat al-Qari’ah (Q.101) in a Patani Qur’an, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 301v
Heading for Surat al-Qari’ah (Q.101) in a Patani Qur’an, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, f. 301v  noc

Penultimate pages in a Patani Qur’an, with multiple illuminated surah headings. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r
Penultimate pages in a Patani Qur’an, with multiple illuminated surah headings. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 302v-303r  noc

This is the third of a five-part series on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the second on Text frames; the fourth on Juz’ markers; and the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Blog posts:
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

 

02 August 2021

How to Digitise Scrolls: A Step-by-Step Guide from the Lotus Sutra Project

Photograph of man with back to camera in black shirt looking over long yellowed scroll in front of machinery with many cables
Jon Nicholls, Senior Imaging Technician, digitising a scroll on the Lotus Sutra Project.
CCBY Image

Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is an international collaborative project based at the British Library and with centres around the world. The Project aims to preserve and digitise collections from archaeological sites along the Eastern part of the ancient trade routes known as the Silk Roads, including the Mogao caves near Dunhuang (present day Gansu province in China).

As part of this, the Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at the British Library is cataloguing, conserving, and digitising Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra from the British Library’s Stein Collection.

These scrolls were procured by the British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), when he travelled to Dunhuang. He was followed by several other foreign explorers who also took away a large number of manuscripts and other items. By digitising this corpus of texts, we can facilitate access to these historic items and bring them together digitally, after they were scattered around the globe.

The Lotus Sutra collection

The Lotus Sutra is a sacred text that contains important early teachings on Buddhism. It was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. Its popularity in China, in particular at Dunhuang, is attested by the over 1,000 copies that are now in the British Library’s custodianship.

Although a few of these were digitised in the past, a total of 793 paper manuscripts are yet to be imaged. They are dated roughly between the 5th to 11th centuries, based on dated items at both ends of the spectrum.

Most, except for three booklets, are in the scroll format. Each scroll varies in size and condition. We have some scrolls that are incredibly long as well as some that are just fragments. We also have some very fragile scrolls that our fantastic Conservation team are working hard to preserve so that they are available for years to come.

We have calculated that collectively there is roughly 17km of scroll that needs to be conserved and digitised. That’s the distance from the British Library in North London to Wimbledon in Southwest London!

Thanks to the support from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation based in Hong Kong, we are steadily working through the entire collection, one scroll at a time. The digitised collection will be made freely available on the IDP website (http://idp.bl.uk/).

Equipment and Imaging Standards

To digitise the scrolls, we use specialist equipment at the British Library’s St Pancras site. Below details the equipment I use:

  • Phase One XF medium format camera on a copy stand
  • Phase One IQ3 80 MP Digital back
  • Phase One 120mm lens
  • LED lighting
  • Long and height-adjustable table
  • Capture One Software
  • Adobe Photoshop

To ensure consistency and reliability, we adhere to these imaging standards:

  • Aperture F.16
  • Shutter speed 0.6 Seconds
  • ISO 50

To further ensure quality and accuracy, we use the same equipment and standards for every image.

Step 1. Digitising the scrolls

Once the scrolls have been through conservation and are in stable condition they can be digitised. Digitising scrolls is quite a difficult process. As mentioned before, there are some very long scrolls (one even measuring up to 13 meters) and I have very limited space at my workstation.

At the beginning of this project, I was given specific scroll handling training from our wonderful Conservation team.

Equipped with the knowledge to handle the scrolls safely, I shoot the scrolls bit by bit, un-rolling and re-rolling onto a scroll core as I go, both as a space saving technique but also to avoid damage to the scrolls. Luckily the scrolls themselves are long horizontal rolls, which are made of several rectangular sheets of paper or ‘panels’ attached together. I photograph every panel individually, which makes it a lot easier to capture each part.

I try to lie the scroll down as flat as I can, but it is not always possible. Some of the scrolls undulate naturally and we need to be sympathetic to the item’s condition. When undulation of the scrolls occurs, I use various weights approved by our Conservation Team to hold either side of the panels to flatten them without putting undue pressure.

If need be, I use pins to flatten the scrolls. *We do not use pins directly on any part of the scrolls. Instead, I pin around the scroll and using transparent, acid free tabs in-between the pin and the scroll to protect the item.

Collection of white objects including bead-like string, white scroll, white pouch and other small white squares on a black background
Tools used for holding the item whilst digitising: scroll core, conservation ‘penny weights’, snake weights, weight bags, pins and acid free tabs.
CC Public Domain Image

I include a ruler in the image for size reference as well as a colour chart to calibrate colours and a focusing target to set up the control shots. These are cropped out of the final images.

Black background behind a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it and a black and white focus target with a multicoloured colour palette and black and white strips at bottom of image
Focus target, ruler and colour chart.
CC Public Domain Image

I shoot all the panels’ front (rectos) and back (versos) to capture the entire length of the scroll. As Chinese text is written and read vertically, top to bottom and right to left, I capture the panels from right to left.

I always overshoot either side of the panel and usually include 3 to 4 columns of text overlap (as seen in the photo below). This helps in the stitching process later.

Close view of yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with black bars above and below
Digitising a panel of a scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Once all the panels are shot, I process each image file from RAW files into TIFF files.

Step 2. Post-production

I edit every TIFF image in Photoshop. This task can take a long time if you have 40+ images to edit.

Firstly, I digitally remove any pins or other unwanted objects in the shot using the lasso tool to select around the item, then delete using the ‘Content aware’ function. Please note this can only be done when the layer is locked.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of digital edit in Photoshop.
CC Public Domain Image

I then select and cut out the background and replace with a digital black background. This is done for aesthetic reasons and something that we inherited from the previous team. We continued with this for consistency with the historical images.

You can achieve a similar goal by shooting directly onto black fabric.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of the end of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Replacing background with digital black background.
CC Public Domain Image

I change the height of every image. This is done for the purposes of ingesting the images onto our website, which requires specific sizes and ensures consistency.

To speed the process up I have created ‘Actions’ in Photoshop to save me some time and partially automate the majority of the postproduction.

Step 3. Stitching

I use automatic stitching to generate the stitched TIFF. Having trialled a few software packages, I can say the Adobe’s Photoshop ‘Photomerge’ seems to be the best at the moment.

Whilst it is the best on the market, it unfortunately it can be very hit and miss, and depends on the length, curvature and condition of each scroll. Most recently I have discovered that dramatic change in colour on the scroll also confuses the software.

Seven scrolls of yellowed paper of various lengths atop a grey and white checkerboard background
Example of a stitched image gone wrong.
CC Public Domain Image

For this example above, I was forced to manually stitch all the separate parts together. This is a much longer process but is occasionally needed.

Automatic stitching works better when there are more reference points, which is why I include extra columns of text either side when shooting the image, as mentioned before.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a very long and thin yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of a smaller scroll successfully digitally stitched together
CC Public Domain Image

If I am lucky there won’t be many changes required (known as post edits), but often I have to automatically stitch the scroll in parts or even manually stitch each image.

Step 4. Editing stitched image

The automated stitch image often produces some arched or warped images. I use ‘puppet warp’ and guidelines in Photoshop to subtly straighten the scroll, being careful to not over edit or make it look unnatural. There are some very helpful YouTube vlogs explaining how to use the Puppet warp function.

Lastly, using the TIFF files, I create three types of JPEG to be ingested to the IDP website, this includes: a large JPEG, a medium JPEG and a thumbnail.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters covered with light grey lines attached to one another at random angleson it with a black background
Example of Puppet warp in action to subtly straighten the scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Step 5. Quality control

I finally quality check the images and make sure I adhere to our specific naming conventions before I move them to another server. From here they are quality checked by a Digitisation Officer in view of ultimately being uploaded to the IDP website.

Screen shot with light blue frame showing website with yellowish-grey left side bar, white background, images of yellowed scrolls with Chinese characters on them and a greyish yellow text box
Example of digitised scroll displayed on the IDP website.
CC Public Domain Image

I hope you found this guide interesting and useful.

Jon Nicolls, Senior Imaging Technician, IDP

(All images were shot by Jon Nicolls)

CCBY Image

 

To find out more about the Lotus Sutra Project and the International Dunhaung Project visit:

You can read more articles about the Project here: