Asian and African studies blog

4 posts from November 2022

28 November 2022

Batik designs in a Javanese manuscript: Serat Damar Wulan

Serat Damar Wulan (MSS Jav 89) is probably the earliest surviving fully illustrated Javanese manuscript, and is full of lively and humorous scenes of everyday life in late 18th-century Java. In this guest blog Dr Fiona Kerlogue examines the clothes and textiles depicted in Serat Damar Wulan, extracted from her new book on the history of batik, Batik: Traces through time (2021), which is illustrated by collections in the National Museum of the Czech Republic.

The earliest compelling evidence indicating how batik was once worn is a copiously illustrated manuscript entitled Serat Damar Wulan (MSS Jav 89) presented to the library of the East India Company (and now in the British Library) by Lieutenant-Colonel Raban, the former Resident of Cirebon, in January 1815. Although the manuscript was said to be 200 years old, watermarks in the paper indicate that it more likely dates from the late 18th century. Whether the manuscript was written and illustrated in Cirebon or elsewhere is another question. The absence in the clothing depicted of three batik patterns generally regarded by modern commentators as quintessential and historic Cirebon designs – megamendung (clouds); taman arum (perfumed garden); and peksinagaliman (a mythical composite animal) – suggests that a Cirebon origin is unlikely.

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Figure 1. Damar Wulan kneels before Layang Setra and Layang Kumir, all three wearing jarit, or kain panjang. Serat Damar Wulan. British Library MSS Jav. 89, f. 10r Noc

The legend of Damar Wulan is associated with East Java, centring as it does on the Majapahit kingdom and especially its vassal state Blambangan (now Banyuwangi), which was located in the easternmost part of Java between the 13th and 18th centuries. The story seems to be based on events which took place in the early 15th century, when war broke out between Majapahit and Blambangan, ending in the defeat of Blambangan.

The story is particularly significant in relation to costume, partly because of the changes in status which the characters undergo and how these are reflected in the clothes they wear. The cast includes noblemen and their henchmen, an aristocratic lady, servants, both male and female, soldiers, stallholders and a blacksmith. The central character, Damar Wulan, is a nobleman but is appointed as stable boy to the ruler of Majapahit, and then imprisoned; eventually he himself becomes king of Majapahit. His changes in status are reflected in the clothes he wears; the clothing worn by other actors in the story also indicates their status (Coster-Wijsman 1953).

It seems likely that the clothing in the illustrations, which corresponds quite closely with the descriptions of clothing in Raffles’ slightly later History of Java, published in 1817, reflects quite accurately the type of clothing worn at the time the drawings were made. Had they been drawn to reflect clothing of the age in which the story is set, there would not be the European-influenced styles of buttoned long jackets, trews and hats which characterise the clothing of Damar Wulan’s opponents especially. Some of the batik designs depicted can be identified today.

The main characters in the story are Damar Wulan, the hero; Layang Setra and Layang Kumir, the sons of Patih (regent or chief minister) Logender of the Majapahit empire; and Damar Wulan and his servants (panakawan) Sabda Palon and Naya Genggong. Menak Jingga, Damar Wulan’s rival, who threatens the empire and is eventually slain by Damar Wulan at the request of the queen, plays a key role. When he first appears (Figure 1), Damar Wulan is kneeling before Layang Setra and Layang Kumir, wearing a batik jarit decorated in bands of different motifs, the bands drawn bent to follow his kneeling posture. Layang Setra and Layang Kumir also wear batik jarit, one (on the left) with a parang or ‘knife’ design, the other with a semen pattern. The parang design marks the wearer as a man of high status, an aristocrat, and Damar Wulan’s attitude is appropriately respectful. All three skirt cloths have a dotted or striped border along the lower edge. The elaborately wrapped headcloths worn by the two nobles have pengada borders. The two servants wear skirt cloths with simple triangular and check patterns, probably representing simple country-style batik.

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Figure 2. A woman of high status waxing a batik headcloth. Serat Damar Wulan. British Library MSS Jav. 89, f. 5r   Noc

Figure 2, showing a woman of high status waxing a batik headcloth, occurs early in the manuscript. She is the daughter of Ki Buyut Paluhomba, the wife of the minister Patih Udara, who was the brother of Patih Logender and his predecessor as chief minister of Majapahit. The cloth hangs over a wooden or bamboo rack, gawangan, which supports it while the wax is applied. It has a plain white tengahan in the centre, a main field where motifs are set against a ground filled with parallel lines as the filling motif, or isen, and a pengada with short stripes arranged in pairs, separated from the main field by a white border with uneven or wavy edges. Her father’s skirt cloth has a pattern of circular or floral motifs arranged at the intersections of the squares into which the field is divided.

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Figure 3. Four captive princesses wearing symmetrical designs arranged in squares on their skirt cloths. Serat Damar Wulan.  British Library, MSS Jav. 89, f. 136r  Noc

Symmetrical designs arranged in squares repeating across the field feature frequently in skirt cloths in the manuscript, as shown in Figure 3. This type of pattern is known as ceplokan, and was one of the most common design types in the 19th century, at least in Central Java. This type of design persisted into the 20th century.

In the manuscript there are frequent depictions of women’s breast cloths, or kemben, with patterned or plain lozenges. These are worn by nearly all the women, including stall holders and court ladies. In one scene Kencanawungu, the maiden queen of Majapahit, on a raised platform on the right, receives the widow of the ruler of Tuban, who is fainting on the left (Figure 4). She is accompanied by her daughter and other women, who wear a variety of designs on their kemben. The queen herself is wearing an exotic upper garment, probably intending to represent a richly embroidered cloth rather than batik. The tall woman at the centre is the bereaved mother. Her kemben is decorated with cemukiran around the tengahan, befitting her status. Elsewhere in the manuscript the most common kemben has a red central lozenge.

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Figure 4. The maiden queen of Majapahit receives the widow of the ruler of Tuban. Serat Damar Wulan. British Library, MSS Jav. 89 f. 59r Noc

All of the male characters of high status appear in dodot, in a variety of designs. In one scene, the villain Menak Jingga wears a dodot with a striking cemukiran (Figure 5). His dodot is lifted high, revealing a good length of trouser and reflecting his high status. Menak Jingga tends to wear ostentatious clothing, always with a huge parang design on his dodot as opposed to that worn by the ruler of the smaller polity, Tuban, whose lesser status is revealed in the smaller size of his motifs, and by Patih Logender.

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Figure 5. Menak Jingga wearing a dodot with a very large pattern. Serat Damar Wulan. British Library, MSS Jav. 89, f. 106v  Noc

Once his noble birth is revealed Damar Wulan wears a plain red dodot, perhaps symbolic of his courage, and towards the end of the story, when his status is elevated further, cemukiran appear. When Damar Wulan is visited in the stables by Patih Logender’s daughter, Anjasmara, he is wearing a humble lurik skirt cloth (Figure 6); later in the story, as king of Majapahit he wears a dodot (Figure 7).

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Figure 6. Damar Wulan (left) wears a simple lurik skirt cloth, while Anjasmara wears batik. Serat Damar Wulan. British Library, MSS Jav. 89, f. 18r  Noc

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Figure 7. Damar Wulan, now king, wears a red dodot. Serat Damar Wulan.  British Library, MSS Jav. 89, f. 179r  Noc

His two servants, Sabda Palon and Naya Genggong, begin the story in short trousers made of lurik (Figure 8) but by the end one of them, too, is wearing a dodot (Figure 9). There is humour in this pretentious adoption of the clothing of a man of power, but through his loyalty to his master he has earned the right to wear it.

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Figure 8. Damar Wulan’s servants in short trousers of striped lurik early in the story. Serat Damar Wulan. British Library, MSS Jav. 89, f. 116v  Noc

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Figure 9. Now ennobled, Damar Wulan’s servants have adopted superior garments, and have servants of their own wearing lurik. Serat Damar Wulan. British Library, MSS Jav. 89, f. 206r  Noc

The patterns drawn in these illustrations reveal the way in which clothing, and in particular batik clothing, was worn to express both status and character in Java at the end of the 18th century. In the century which followed, great changes took place, with the introduction of new ideas and techniques that led to the development of both commercially-produced, low-quality batik for the masses and batik of exceptionally high quality, workmanship and beauty.

Further reading

This blog has been extracted from: Fiona Kerlogue, Batik. Traces through time. Batik Collections in the National Museum – Náprstek Museum. Vydání první. (Prague: National Museum, 2021. ISBN 978-80-7036-673-8), pp. 56-63.

All the pictorial scenes in the Serat Damar Wulan (MSS Jav 89) are described in: Coster-Wijsman, L. ‘Illustrations in a Javanese manuscript’. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1953, 109 (2): 153-163.

Fiona Kerlogue Ccownwork

Fiona Kerlogue was formerly Assistant Keeper of Anthropology at the Horniman Museum.

21 November 2022

Three northern Thai manuscripts from Carl Bock’s collection

A currently ongoing initiative to add provenance details to catalogue records of manuscripts in the British Library’s Thai, Lao and Cambodian collections  has brought to light that three palm leaf manuscripts were previously part of Carl Bock’s collection of Southeast Asian artefacts. Carl Alfred Bock (1849-1932) was a Norwegian natural scientist and explorer, who travelled in Southeast Asia between 1878 to 1882. A zoological collecting trip took him first to Sumatra, followed by an expedition to gather information on the peoples of Borneo for Johan Willem van Lansberge, governor-general of the Dutch East Indies. In 1881 Bock travelled to Siam (Thailand) for fourteen months on a mission to collect botanical and zoological specimens, with the backing of the Zoological Society in London and the financial support of the Scottish Marquis of Tweddale, William M. Haye, an enthusiastic botanist. What Bock brought back from his expedition was much more than natural specimens though.

mpression of Carl Bock and his team during the expedition to Borneo
Impression of Carl Bock and his team during the expedition to Borneo. Lithograph by C. F. Kell of Castle St, Holborn, London, published in The head-hunters of Borneo by Carl Bock (London, 1881).  British Library, V10009, plate 29. Noc

With the permission and support of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), Bock travelled on a steamer up the Chao Phraya river, then continued on smaller boats on the Ping river to Chiang Mai, and finally by boat and elephant further north to Chiang Rai and Chiang Saen on the Mekong. He had to promise the king to refrain from any political allusions and was accompanied by Siamese soldiers. In the northern regions he passed through Tak, Lamphun, Lakhon, and Fang. Bock met Lao- and Shan-speaking people in the larger settlements along the rivers and was closely observed, and sometimes delayed, by local rulers. He noted that from Tak northwards it became increasingly difficult to move around and to purchase objects because Siamese money was not recognised, nor were the visa and letters issued by the Siamese government and the king. He concluded that the border between Siam and the polities of Lao-speaking people was running near Tak by the River Ping.

Bock’s travel route from Bangkok to Chiang Saen and back
Bock’s travel route from Bangkok to Chiang Saen and back, published in Temples and Elephants: The Narrative of a Journey of Exploration Through Upper Siam and Lao by Carl Bock (London, 1884). British Library, T 38901, p. [xv] Noc

During the expedition Bock acquired – normally by way of negotiations and purchase using Siamese Baht and Rupees of British Burma - objects of everyday use like textiles, hats, baskets, Bencharong porcelain, silverware, lacquerware, amulets, jewellery, small Buddha and Bodhisatta images, musical instruments, knives, daggers, opium weights, traditional medicines, an ivory seal, palm leaf manuscripts etc. Nearly 400 objects from Bock’s collection – including objects from Indonesia - are kept in the British Museum.

Text passage in Northern Thai Dhamma script from a text on Buddhist psychology, Mahawibak, incised on palm leaf, dated 1856
Text passage in Northern Thai Dhamma script from a text on Buddhist psychology, Mahawibak, incised on palm leaf, dated 1856. From the collection of Carl Bock. British Library, Or 2629, first bundle Noc

Three palm leaf manuscripts that were originally part of Bock’s collection at the British Museum were transferred to the British Library in or shortly after 1973. All three are incised in Dhamma (or Tham) script, seen in the image above, which was used in the historical kingdoms of Lanna (northern Thailand) and Lan Sang (Laos and north-eastern Thailand). They are not by the same scribe since the writing styles differ, and there are also some physical differences. Or 2629 consists of eleven palm leaf bundles with gilt and red lacquered edges. They contain a variety of Buddhists texts, mainly in Pali language, including one chapter from the Vessantara Jataka.

Nine palm leaf bundles containing the Mahosadha Jataka in Northern Thai Dhamma script, held together with wooden sticks to form one large manuscript, dated 1842
Nine palm leaf bundles containing the Mahosadha Jataka in Northern Thai Dhamma script, held together with wooden sticks to form one large manuscript, dated 1842. From the collection of Carl Bock. British Library, Or 2630 Noc

One manuscript that stands out in terms of binding methods is a palm leaf manuscript (Or 2630) consisting of nine bundles that are not bound with a cord, which is usually the case with palm leaf manuscripts in the Thai and Lao traditions, but stacked together using two wooden sticks (shown above). This method is well known in the Burmese manuscript tradition. However, the bundles probably were originally bound with a white-and-red cotton cord with human hair woven in, which was removed and is now kept alongside the manuscript. The edges of the palm leaves are covered with gold and black lacquer. Each bundle contains a chapter from the Mahosadha Jataka in Dhamma script, together with a colophon mentioning 1842 as the year of its creation.

The third manuscript (Or 2631, shown below) consists of palm leaves with gilt and red lacquered edges and wooden covers. The content, six chapters of the Vidhura Jataka (partially fragmented), is written neatly in Dhamma script, in a cursive calligraphy-like style. The leaves are held together with a black cord, however, this cord was inserted later as it is of a more recent make. Originally, the six chapters may have been bound in six separate bundles. Three of the six chapters mention 1860 as the year of creation.

Palm leaf manuscript with wooden covers, containing six chapters of the Vidhura Jataka in northern Thai Dhamma script, dated 1860
Palm leaf manuscript with wooden covers, containing six chapters of the Vidhura Jataka in northern Thai Dhamma script, dated 1860. From the collection of Carl Bock. British Library, Or 2631 Noc

From the shelfmarks with the prefix “Or” of these three manuscripts it was known that they were previously among a large number of manuscripts transferred from the British Museum’s library when it was absorbed into the British Library according to the British Library Act of 1972. To find out more details about the provenance of these manuscripts, the original records from the British Museum, now held in the corporate archive of the British Library, had to be consulted. With the help of Records and Archives Assistant Victoria Ogunsanya it was possible to establish that the three manuscripts were purchased from Carl Bock himself and accessioned into the British Museum collections on 22 November 1882, shortly after his return from mainland Southeast Asia.

We have no certainty as to where and how Bock acquired the manuscripts, but he reported that in Lakhon he was shown the temple library on stilts at Wat Luang: “Passing through a trap-door in this upper floor – the door is always religiously bolted against intruders – we enter a room containing a number of large chests, coloured red or black and decorated with figures or scroll-work in gold-leaf, in which the sacred palm leaf MSS are kept. Each volume is carefully wrapped in a gay-coloured cloth, and the chests are kept closely locked.” (Bock, 1884, p. 167)

Acquisition records for Or 2629 and Or 2630
Acquisition records for Or 2629 and Or 2630 in BLCA/S81/01 (DH40/1): British Museum, Department of Oriental Printed Books and Manuscripts: Registers of Oriental Manuscripts, Or.1 - Or.3480 (1867-1886)

Bock published his observations and experiences in a book with the title Temples and Elephants: The Narrative of a Journey of Exploration Through Upper Siam and Lao (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1884), which was translated into various languages (Norwegian 1884, German 1885, French 1889, Thai 1962) and re-published several times (Bangkok 1985, Singapore 1986, Geneva 2013, Nonthaburi 2019).
Other works by Bock include academic articles in Proceedings from the Scientific Meetings of the Zoological Society of London (1878, 1879, and 1881) and the book The Head-Hunters of Borneo: a narrative of Travel up the Mahakkam and down the Barito; also, Journeyings in Sumatra (London: Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington, 1881).

Bang Pa-In Palace on the Chao Phraya river near Ayutthaya
Lithograph depicting the Bang Pa-In Palace on the Chao Phraya river near Ayutthaya, published in Temples and Elephants: The Narrative of a Journey of Exploration Through Upper Siam and Lao by Carl Bock (London, 1884). British Library, T 38901, p. [70] Noc

Apart from natural specimens, cultural artefacts and information about the peoples of northern Thailand, Bock reportedly brought back a young girl named Krao who was born with hypertrichosis. Although there is no mention in Bock’s publications of Krao or of one Professor George G. Shelly who had apparently accompanied Bock on his expedition, newspaper articles and numerous advertisements featuring Krao were published upon their return to Europe. They believed that in Krao they had found Darwin’s “missing link between man and ape”, and she was exhibited in Farini’s “wonder shows” in London and New York. It soon became very clear that Krao, who after only a few months had learned to speak some English and German, had acquired basic reading and writing skills, and was able to entertain large crowds of people with wit and humour, was more human than those who had taken her from her family and her world. Later she had a successful career in the show business and toured the US and Europe until her death from influenza in 1926.

Advertisement for “Krao, the ‘missing link’” shows in London in January 1883
Advertisement for “Krao, the ‘missing link’” shows in London in January 1883. British Library, Evan.2474 Noc

After his expeditions in Southeast Asia, Bock joined the diplomatic service and became Norwegian-Swedish vice-consul in Shanghai in 1886, then consul-general in Shanghai in 1893, consul in Antwerp in 1899, and consul-general in Lisbon from 1900 to 1903. He travelled in Sichuan and Tibet in 1893. From 1906 until his death in 1932 he lived in Brussels.

Further reading
Men living in trees. Timaru Herald, vol. XL, issue 3198, 26 December 1884, p. 3.
Nielsen, Flemming Winther: Carl Bock: a scientist among ghosts and white elephants. Scandasia, 10 December 2011.
Nielsen, Flemming Winther: Carl Bock (2): the wilderness and the power. Scandasia, 28 February 2012.
Explorers of South-East Asia: Six Lives, ed. Victor T King, Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork

14 November 2022

Alexander, Meet İskender: Turkic Manuscripts on Alexander the Great

Two page spread from manuscript showing circular map in black, blue, gold, and red inks. Mecca is at its centre, with snaking bodies of water in blue and smaller gold-ringed circles identifying cities and countries. The map is covered in writing in Arabic script.
A map of the world taken from the Nevadirü'l-garâip ve mevaridü'l-acayip with the Wall of Gog and Magog in the bottom right quadrant, north-east of Istanbul. (Mahmud el-Hatip el-Rumi, Nevadirü'l-garâip ve mevaridü'l-acayip972 AH [1564-65]. British Library Or 13201 ff 2v-3r)
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In October, we celebrated the opening of the Library’s flagship exhibition Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. The show explores the depth and breadth of Alexander’s influence around the globe, both as a historical personage and as myth. It should be no surprise that his persona is far from uncommon in the Turkic manuscripts held at the British Library. After all, many Turkic peoples inhabit regions that were deeply impacted by Alexander’s military campaigns, and their creative output forms an integral part of broader Islamicate literary traditions.

A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in red ink.
The start of Ahmedi's İskendername as found in a (Ahmedi, Kitab-i İskendername1252 AH [1837 CE]. British Library Or 1376 f 1v)
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The most obvious place to start this investigation is with the İskendername or Iskendernāmah, Ottoman Turkish and Chagatai renditions of the more widespread Alexander Romance. Literally “The Book of Alexander” (İskender being the Turkish rendering of Alexander), it contains a mixture of historical fact and historicized myth. It takes as its source document the Shāhnāmah, the 10th century CE Persian Book of Kings. The poet Nizāmī Ganjavī is renowned for his creation of a standalone Persian version of the Romance based on the Shāhnāmah, but Turkic works are not necessarily translations of this 12th-century text. The most common Early Anatolian Turkish work, for example, was created by Taceddin Ahmet İbn-i İbrahim el-Ahmedi (an English stub is here) in the 1390s CE. Ahmedi was a member of the ulema during the reign of Sultan Bayezit I. He claimed to be inspired by Nizāmī, but that his own work was more than a mere translation of Nizāmī’s Iskandarnāmah. The British Library holds eight Anatolian Turkish İskendernameler, 6 of which can be identified as following from Ahmedi’s recension (Or 1376 , Or 7234, Or 13837, Add MS 7905, Add MS 7918, Harley MS 3273). The authorship of another recension has yet to be traced (Or 8699), while Or 11056 contains a mixture of Ahmedi’s version and unattributed additions. These might include extracts from Karamanlı Figani’s late 15th century recension, although further research would be needed to confirm this.

A single page from a manuscript with Arabic-script text above and below a painting in gold, light blue, navy blue, orange, pink, green, purple, red, and black. The painting has four individuals in robes, two of which are carrying a coffin on a bier. The coffin is elaborately illustrated in gold with a small dome and an arm waving out the side. The scene is atop a light-blue background with floral patterns and framed with a gold arch.
The coffin of Alexander as described in Navoiy's Sadd-i Iskandarî, with the deceased King's arm waving out the side of the vessel. (Alisher Navoiy, Ḥayrat al-abrār. 1006 AH [1598 CE]. British Library Add MS 7909 f 105v)
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The Alexander Romance also appears in the works Alisher Navoiy, perhaps the greatest name in Chagatai literature. A prolific poet and intellectual, and the central pillar of classical Chagatai literary history, Navoiy crafted a mesnevi entitled Sadd-i İskandarî, which is included in his Khamsa (Or 400, Or 16183, Add MS 7908). The mesnevi takes its name from the Gates of Alexander, purportedly built by the Macedonian monarch in the Caucasus to keep tribes from Gog and Magog out of his territories. The underlying Syriac tale is on display in the exhibition, but Navoiy’s mesnevi is based on Nizāmī’s work. While none of the British Library versions contain illustration, a copy of Navoiy’s Ḥayrat al-Abrār (the first of the five texts that make up Navoiy’s Khamsah) at Add MS 7909 does contain multiple illustrations. In one of the paintings, we see Alexander’s coffin (also featured in the current exhibition) carried by two servants with the King’s arm dangling out of it.

A single page from a manuscript with black ink Arabic-script text at the top two-thirds of the page, and a gold-inked circular labyrinth at the bottom centred around red-inked Arabic-script text.
A schematic drawing of the fortress of Qusṭanṭiniyah (Istanbul), established by Zulkarneyn, at the end of the description of his feats. (Nāṣir Rabghūzī, Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyā. 15th century CE. British Library Add MS 7851 f 178v)
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In various Islamic literary traditions, Alexander is often identified with Dhū al-qarnayn, or Zulkarneyn in Turkish orthography, a figure found in Surat 18 (Sūrat al-Kahf) of the Qur’an. It is in this form that we find him in some of the British Library’s other well-known Turkic holdings, particularly the Qisās al-anbiyā’. This work, originally ascribed to Ḥasan ibn Nāṣir al-Balkhī, contains the biographies of both prophets and kings, which explains Zulkarneyn’s inclusion. The British Library holds three complete or partial renditions of the Qisās, or Kısasu’l-enbiya, in Ottoman Turkish (Or 6372, Or 12815, Or 13020). By far, however, the best known of the BL’s Qisās ul-anbiyā’ copies is in a Central Asian Turkic language and found at Add MS 7851. Compiled in the 15th century and frequently referred to as the Rabghuzi, after the name of its author, Nāṣir Rabghūzī, the text is an essential source for the development of Turkic languages in the region. Rabghūzī himself states that he collected the work from various sources in the first decade of the fourteenth century CE, indicating the age of the underlying narrative. Zulkarneyn only gets twelve pages out of about 500 (ff 172v-178v), wedged between Jesus and the Asḥab al-kahf or Seven Sleepers, and ending with a schematic diagram of the fortress of Qusṭanṭiniyah (Istanbul) that he founded. The work hasn’t been digitized, but sections of it can be found on the Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts site. An abridged, later copy of the work can also be found at Or 5328, which is currently being digitized.

image from
Alexander the Great atop his black steed meeting the King of China. (Nevizade Atayi, Ḫamse-yi ʿAṭāʾī. 1133 AH [1721 CE]. Walters Art Museum, W.666 f 77r) 
CC Public Domain Image Rights held by the Walters Art Museum.

In 2019, I wrote about an illustrated copy of Nevizade Atayi’s Hamse that included homoerotic illustrations. As interesting as they might be, the images that accompany Atayi’s Heft Han aren’t the only reason to be drawn to the volume. One of the five poems contained in the work, Sohbetü’l-Ebkâr, or the Conversation of the Bachelors, includes a brief description of Alexander the Great’s march to China. Alexander never actually made it that far east, which gives us a clue to just how inflated the legends around him are. The British Library copy, sadly, doesn’t have an illustration of the ruler himself. Another volume, however, held at the Walters Museum in Philadelphia, does depict the Macedonian king at his legendary meeting with the King of China. In this painting, Alexander is atop a black steed and is adorned in a fur-trimmed gold coat with an elaborate crown.

A circular map of the world in black and red inks. The map is centred on Mecca identified by the black-inked Kaaba, with snaking bodies of water in red ink. Cities are identified by writing occasionally enclosed in black ink shapes. There is Arabic-script writing on the map.
A map of the world taken from the Tercüme-yi Haridatu'l-acayip with the Wall of Gog and Magog in the bottom centre, north-east of Istanbul (inside the fortified triangle). (Mahmud el-Hatip el-Rumi, Tercüme-yi Haridatu'l-acayip. 1047 AH [1637 CE]. British Library Or 7304 ff 3v-4r)
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A final source worth mentioning doesn’t really mention Alexander at all. But just as he entered people’s imaginations of divine kingship, so too did the geography of his campaigns influence their conception of the world. Perhaps this is the reason that Gog and Magog ( Ye’cûc ve Me’cûc in Ottoman Turkish) can be found on some Ottoman maps from the 16th and 17th centuries. While the origins of Gog and Magog are older than those of the Alexander Romance, their placement on maps nevertheless had to accord with their appearance in the stories. In Or 7304 and in Or 13201, Ottoman Turkish translations of the Arabic cosmology Kharīdat al-ᶜajāᵓib wa farīdat al-gharāᵓib (خريدة العجائب وفريدة الغرائب), for example, the map of the world contains the Wall of Gog and Magog at the bottom. Given the orientation of the maps and the rest of their content, this places it to the north-east of Istanbul but west of Azerbaijan; somewhere in contemporary Ukraine, perhaps. Just as Alexander was matched to the listing of prophets and kings, so too were the signposts of his story factored into a reckoning of the world.

A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in black and gold ink.A single page of text in black and red inks in Arabic script divided into two columns with double outlines in black and gold ink.
The Dastan-i İskender from Nevizade Atayi's Hamse, recounting his meeting with the Emperor of China. (Nevizade Atayi, Hamse.1151 AH [1738 CE]. British Library Or 13882, ff 139r-v).

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These are just a few of the examples of Alexander and the stories told of him found within the British Library’s Turkic-language manuscript collections. Their connections to Persian and other literatures gives us a hint of how İskender, or Alexander, formed one of many linkages between the literary traditions of Eurasia. For the full extent of the story, you’ll have to visit Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth. Luckily for you, it’s on until 19 February 2023.

We are indebted to the Kusuma Trust, the Patricia G. and Jonathan S. England – British Library Innovation Fund and Ubisoft for their support towards the exhibition, as well as other trusts and private donors.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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07 November 2022

Manuscript Textiles in the Southeast Asian collections

A Chevening Fellowship is currently being hosted for twelve months by the Library’s Asian and African Collections department with the aim of researching and cataloguing manuscript textiles in the Southeast Asian collections. The Library holds about 3000 manuscripts from Southeast Asia, forming the largest and most significant collection of Southeast Asian manuscripts in the UK. Highlights include illustrated paper folding books and gilded manuscript chests from Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand, rare palm leaf manuscripts from Cambodia, Laos and northern Thailand, royal letters in Malay from the courts of the archipelago, some of the earliest known Batak divination manuals from Sumatra, as well as unique royal letters and edicts from Vietnam and Thailand.

Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107
Palm leaf manuscript containing a Buddhist commentary, from central Thailand c. 1824-52, with a silk wrapping cloth with gold thread, of Indian origin, made to order for the Thai royal court. British Library, Or 5107 Noc

Within this body of material, recent digitisation projects and exhibitions have brought to light over one hundred manuscript textiles - either wrapped around or attached to manuscripts as a form of protective cover or binding - without or with only minimal documentation and cataloguing data. Often the textiles were custom-made for one particular manuscript, and such objects could be made from valuable hand-woven silk brocades, ikat fabrics, dyed or printed cotton and imported materials like chintz and silk damask. Specially designed textiles were commissioned to add meritorious value to a Buddhist manuscript or to an entire set of Buddhist texts. Sometimes discarded textiles like monks’ robes, used and unused clothes of deceased people, or leftover pieces of cloths made for other purposes were utilised to create beautiful manuscript textiles.

The provenance of these textiles is often difficult to establish due to the lack of recorded information in the Library's catalogues and acquisition records. Another reason is that some of the manuscript textiles appear to be of a different date than the manuscripts themselves, and some may originate from a different place than the manuscripts they belong to, since there was a practice to replace worn out or damaged manuscript textiles with new ones to provide protection to the manuscripts.

Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022
Methaporn Singhanan on her first day as Chevening Fellow at the British Library, September 2022

The Chevening Fellow who is currently surveying and assessing these under-researched and often fragile Southeast Asian manuscript textiles is Methaporn Singhanan, a Ph.D. student from the Social Science Faculty at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, where she is also running a volunteer project to conserve Buddhist arts in northern Thailand. Her upcoming dissertation focuses on Southeast Asian textiles and trade routes, highlighting the importance of textiles as a source of information about the world's economy and trade links between countries and continents. Methaporn Singhanan has over seven years of experience as a curator at the Money and Textile Museum, Bank of Thailand, Northern Region Office, where she worked with textiles and curated exhibitions. She holds a B.A. in History as well as an M.A. in Art and Cultural Management from Chiang Mai University. Before joining the Bank of Thailand in 2013, Methaporn Singhanan worked as a historian for the Northern Archaeology Center (NAC) at Chiang Mai University, where she assisted in the conservation of artifacts from temples and the establishment of a local museum in northern Thailand. Her knowledge and expertise will help to provide comprehensive catalogue records and to plan and inform future conservation work and public engagement with the manuscript textiles.

Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368
Shan paper manuscript bound with a patterned cotton cloth cover and a felt binding ribbon, Shan State, first half of the 20th century. British Library, Or 15368. From the collection of Søren Egerod. Noc

The aims of this project are not only to identify the Library’s holdings of Southeast Asian manuscript textiles dating mainly from the 18th to the 20th century, but also to document in detail the materials, size, estimated age, pattern, technique of creation, country of origin, provenance and general condition of each item and, where possible, to recommend which items should be prioritised for conservation treatment. Methaporn Singhanan works closely with the Library’s curators of Southeast Asian collections to share information about these manuscript textiles internally, especially with colleagues in the Library’s Conservation Centre, as well as externally with organisations in the UK and abroad that have an interest in the curation and conservation of Asian textiles.

Chevening is the UK government’s international awards scheme aimed at developing global leaders. Funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and partner organisations, Chevening offers fellowships to mid-career professionals to undertake a bespoke short course in the UK.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Collections Ccownwork
Methaporn Singhanan, Chevening Fellow at the British Library 2022-23 Ccownwork