Asian and African studies blog

128 posts categorized "Digitisation"

16 May 2022

Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project: 120 more Javanese manuscripts to be digitised

With the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, 120 Javanese manuscripts in the British Library are being digitised. The manuscripts date from the 18th to the late 19th centuries, and cover a wide range of subjects, from Javanese literature, history and calendrical traditions to Islamic texts on theology, law and Sufism, and include some finely illuminated or illustrated volumes. A full list of the manuscripts to be digitised can be found here. On completion of this project by 2023, a great milestone will have been reached: all the Javanese manuscripts written on paper in the British Library will have been digitised, and will be freely and fully accessible online.

This project continues and complements the Javanese Manuscripts from Yogyakarta Digitisation Project (2017-2019), supported by Mr S.P. Lohia, which digitised 75 manuscripts originating from the Palace (Kraton) of Yogyakarta, which had been seized by British forces in 1812 and are now held in the British Library. In the present Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project, the great majority of manuscripts to be digitised – over a hundred of the 120 – were also acquired during the British administration of Java from 1811 to 1816, and are thus substantially earlier than most other Javanese manuscripts held in libraries today.

Serat Angling Darma, undated but written on English paper watermarked 1808, with ‘temple’-style illuminated frames with brick pedestals, columns and domes
Serat Angling Darma, undated but written on English paper watermarked 1808, with ‘temple’-style illuminated frames with brick pedestals, columns and domes. British Library, Add 12285, ff. 1v-2r Noc

In this new digitisation project, 41 of the Javanese manuscripts are from the collection of John Crawfurd, who was Resident of Yogyakarta from 1811 to 1814. While these manuscripts are not from the Kraton library in Yogyakarta, many of them have royal connections through the Pakualaman, the minor court set up in Yogyakarta under British patronage in 1812 in return for support during the attack on the Sultan's palace. Crawfurd and Prince Paku Alam I enjoyed warm relations founded on a shared interest in Javanese literature and history. The Pakualaman court became renowned as an artistic centre, and many of the manuscripts presented to Crawfurd by Paku Alam are illuminated in the characteristic candi or ‘temple’ style, with decorated frames (wadana) in the form of distinctly architectural constructs, as shown above (Behrend 2005; Saktimulya 2016).

Another British official with an interest in Javanese history was Colin Mackenzie, Chief Engineer in Java from 1811 to 1813, and 43 manuscripts to be digitised in this project come from the Mackenzie collection. In contrast to the Crawfurd collection, which mostly comprises manuscripts from Yogyakarta, a considerable number of manuscripts owned by Mackenzie originate from other regions of Java including the pasisir, the northern coastal strip. Mackenzie received manuscripts from Kudus and Rembang (MSS Jav 90, 99), from the Adipati of Gresik (MSS Jav 12), and from the son of the Panembahan of Sumenep in Madura (MSS Jav 25, 31). Five of Mackenzie’s manuscripts came from Kyai Adipati Sura Adimanggala, the erudite Regent of Semarang (MSS Jav 1, 2, 3, 18, 67), including a divination almanac, Papakem Watugunung, dated 1812 (MSS Jav 67), written and illustrated by Sura Adimanggala himself.

Papakem Watugunung, with illustrations of attributes of each of the thirty wuku or weeks
Papakem Watugunung, with illustrations of attributes of each of the thirty wuku or weeks, written and illustrated by Kyai Adipati Sura Adimanggala of Semarang, 1812. British Library, MSS Jav 67, f. 38r Noc

From the Dutch official F.J. Rothenbuhler, former Governor (Gezaghebber) of the Eastern Coast of Java, based in Surabaya, Mackenzie received two of the finest early illustrated Javanese manuscripts known, which appear to have been commissioned by Rothenbuhler’s wife, named in the text as Nyonya Sakeber (i.e. Gezaghebber). Serat Sela Rasa (MSS Jav 28), copied in 1804, was one of the first Javanese manuscripts in the British Library to be digitised, since when its wayang-style drawings have attracted wide attention and adorned numerous book covers published internationally. Much less known is its equally lavishly illustrated sister manuscript, Panji Jaya Kusuma (MSS Jav 68), but its planned digitisation will bring this beautiful manuscript too into the limelight, and is certainly one of the highlights of the project.

Mss_jav_68_f024v-ed
Prince Dewakusuma (father of Panji) entering his wife's bed-chamber; her presence is only hinted at, tantalizingly, by her foot peeping out from under the bed-covers. Panji Jaya Kusuma, Surabaya, 1805. British Library, MSS Jav 68, f. 24v Noc

The Mackenzie collection is also rich in Islamic works, written in Javanese in both Javanese script (hanacaraka) and modified Arabic script (pegon). Manuscripts may include texts in Arabic, in some cases with interlinear translations in Javanese. Subjects range from stories of Islamic saints and heroes such as Anbiya (MSS Jav 51) and Carita satus (MSS Jav 73), texts on mysticism and prayer, and Sufi silsilah or chains of transmission of teachings, as well as compilations of prayers and vows. There are also a number of primbon, compendia of religious teachings combined with divination guides, mantras and protective prayers.

Mystical presentation of the name Allah, in a compendium of Islamic works, late 18th-early 19th century
Mystical presentation of the name Allah, in a compendium of Islamic works, late 18th-early 19th century. British Library, MSS Jav 69, f. 40v Noc

The manuscripts to be digitised also include 13 from the collection of Raffles, comprising fragments of literary works, copies of Old Javanese inscriptions, and notes on language. Raffles, Mackenzie and Crawfurd all collected manuscripts in order to support their researches. In their publications – such as Raffles’ History of Java (1817) and Crawfurd’s Grammar and Dictionary of the Malay language (1852) and his Descriptive Dictionary of the Indian Islands and Adjacent Countries (1856) – references to the manuscripts in their own collections can be traced, but many other ‘works in progress’ remained unpublished. Mackenzie never published anything of substance arising out of his Javanese collections, while among Crawfurd’s manuscripts to be digitised are three volumes of materials for a planned grammar and dictionary of Javanese which never fully materialised.

English-Javanese dictionary compiled by John Crawfurd
A glimpse of an English-Javanese dictionary compiled by John Crawfurd, before 1851. British Library, Add 18577, f. 123r Noc

Account of the family of the late regent of Tuban, in Javanese
Punika atur pratela kawula Adipati Sura Adinagara Bupati ing Lasem, ‘Account of the family of the late regent of Tuban’, collected by Raffles. British Library, MSS Jav 100, f. 3r Noc

The Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project will also digitise around 17 manuscripts mostly dating from the second half of the 19th century, comprising more recent acquisitions in the British Library. These include an illustrated volume of Panji stories, probably from the north coast of Java, a collection of drawings of wayang figures, and a number of Islamic texts copied on local treebark paper (dluwang), most likely from an educational (pesantren) milieu.

Illustration from a Panji romance, 1861
A foreign Balinese soldier confronting Urawan, who is actually Panji's wife in male disguise; an illustration from a Panji romance, 1861. British Library, Or 15026, f. 69r Noc

Over the coming year, the British Library will be working with partners in Indonesia, especially with the National Library of Indonesia (Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia or Perpusnas), the very active Indonesian Association of Manuscript Scholars MANASSA, and DREAMSEA (Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia), to broaden awareness and usage of these new resources, including through a conference to be held in Indonesia.  Selected newly-digitised Javanese manuscripts from the British Library will also be transliterated in cooperation with the Lestari Literary Foundation (Yayasan Sastra Lestari) and will be made accessible through the pioneering portal for Javanese literature, Sastra Jawa.

All the manuscripts to be digitised over the coming year through the Bollinger Javanese Manuscripts Digitisation Project are listed on the Digital Access to Javanese Manuscripts page. As each manuscript becomes accessible, the shelfmark will be hyperlinked directly to the digitised images. This post has highlighted some of the most interesting and beautiful manuscripts which will soon be available online to be read in full – or even just to be gazed at and enjoyed as a visual feast.  

References:

T.E. Behrend, Frontispiece architecture in Ngayogyakarta: notes on structure and sources. Archipel, 2005, (69): 39-60.
M.C. Ricklefs, P. Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
Sri Ratna Saktimulya, Naskah-Naskah Skriptorium Pakualaman periode Paku Alam II (1830-1858). Jakarta: KPG (Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia), Ecole française d’Extrrême Orient, Perpustakaan Widyapustaka, Pura Pakualaman, 2016.
Donald E.Weatherbee. An inventory of the Javanese paper manuscripts in the Mackenzie Collection, India Office Library, London, with a note on some additional Raffles MSS. SEALG Newsletter, 2018, pp. 80-111.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

 

22 February 2022

Technical challenges of digitising Batak manuscripts

The main aim of manuscript digitisation programmes in the British Library is to enable books and documents to be viewed and read online, freely and fully, from anywhere in the world, without the need to travel long distances to the Library’s reading rooms in London to consult the original objects. Photography for digitisation aims to capture the full object, from cover to cover, including blank pages, so that viewers can be confident that they are seeing every detail that would be visible if they were to consult the manuscript ‘in real life’. In many cases, the very high resolution images and zoom facilities of the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal enable aspects of the manuscript to be studied even more easily than through a personal inspection. What digitisation cannot capture though, of course, is the materiality of the manuscript: what it feels like to touch, what it weighs, what it smells like, and how it opens and closes. Such material features are particularly important in the case of Batak manuscripts, which are all written on organic materials which have not been highly processed.

Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761
Batak pustaha, written on a strip of tree bark folded concertina-style, with two wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string. British Library, Or 11761 Noc

The British Library’s collection of 37 Batak manuscripts has just been fully digitised in collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The collection mostly comprises pustaha, manuscript books written on long strips of treebark that are folded concertina-style, and often provided with two wooden covers. Batak script is read from left to right, and the text is written in lines parallel to the folds of the book. In practice, the Batak scribes actually wrote the text – whether on treebark books, or pieces of bamboo – vertically from bottom to top (Kozok 2009: 35), and this probably explains why most illustrations in pustaha are oriented at 90 degrees to the direction of writing, as shown below. Therefore, reading an illustrated Batak manuscript ‘in real life’ involves rotating the book as necessary, an experience which is not possible to replicate in the current British Library Digitised Manuscripts portal.  However, over the next few years, all the digitised Batak manuscripts will be migrated to the British Library's more flexible Universal Viewer, which allows rotation of images and uses the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Format) standard.  This allows users to choose different viewers and tools to interact with cultural heritage content, and enables the comparison and annotation of digital content. 

Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v
Batak script is written and read from left to right, but the Batak scribe would have held the strip of bark widthways as shown above, and written the text from bottom to top, whilst drawing the illustrations from his current perspective. British Library, Add 19381, f. 119v Noc

In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r
In the digital portal, Batak manuscripts are presented in the correct orientation for reading the script from left to right, but this means that the orientation of the illustrations is usually perpendicular to the direction of writing. British Library, Add 19382, f. 11r Noc

Some older pustaha which have previously been damaged may have been repaired by being sewn together. Sometimes these older sections may be missing parts of the text, and even be orientated in the opposite direction (upside down) to the rest of the manuscript. When reading a Batak pustaha ‘in real life’, it is easy to work out what has happened. But when reading a digitised manuscript online, when a page with text in one direction is followed by a page with a different text, presented upside down – as in Or 12587, shown below – it is easy to assume that there has been a mistake in processing the digital images. Therefore in photographing the Batak manuscripts, care was taken to ensure that a few lines of the preceding or following page are always visible in each image, so that anyone reading the digital manuscripts can be reassured that they are really seeing the manuscript as it is.

Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r.
Batak pustaha, with a text copied by Guru Morhabong Aji, with a few lines visible of the next page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 44r. Noc

The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down.
The next image of the same Batak pustaha has text upside down. However, checking carefully the two lines of text visible at the top from the preceding page, with a portion of the drawing of a square, confirms that this is indeed the following page. British Library, Or 12587, f. 45r. Noc

In published catalogues of Batak manuscripts, scholarly convention generally refers to the two sides of a pustaha as sides A and B, with the pages numbered from ‘1’ on each side (Putten and Zollo 2020: 90). However, in digitising Batak manuscripts at the British Library, we were severely constrained by the strict filenaming conventions associated with the Digitised Manuscripts portal. This portal had been originally developed about ten years ago for a Greek manuscripts project, and was therefore predicated upon the norm of manuscripts in codex form, with folios or leaves each consisting of two pages, the first (recto) and second (verso). While the portal had successfully been adapted for Malay manuscripts in Arabic script, reading from right to left, Batak pustaha in concertina form brought their own challenges, for we were not able to assign filenames of the form ‘A 1’ or ‘B 2’ for Batak manuscripts. As our priority was to ensure that the images were presented on the portal in the correct order, replicating the actual manuscript, we devised a system whereby all the pages of side A were assigned ‘recto’ image numbers, while side B images were numbered in the same consecutive sequence, but as ‘verso’ images. Thus a pustaha with 34 leaves would have images on side A numbered f001r to f034r to represent pages A 1 to A 34, while after turning the manuscript over onto side B, pages B 1 to 34 would be numbered f035v to f068v. This unconventional ‘manipulation’ of the existing filenaming system has allowed us to present the images in the correct order, but it means the filenames of each image are not easily correlated with the contents lists in catalogue information.

The beginning of a text on protective magic
The beginning of a text on protective magic, pagar balik hontas na bolon, described in Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977: 14) as beginning on page B 1, but with the image filename f033v. British Library, MSS Batak 5, f. 33v Noc

Some Batak bamboo manuscripts presented different problems. Or 5309 is a bamboo cylinder inscribed with a Batak syllabary and a few other writing exercises, which was given to the British Museum by Lord Crawford in 1897.  As Ludovic Crawfurd was an avid collector of Batak manuscripts, especially bamboo ones, this one was probably given away because it was already broken into two at the time. On both sides of the cylinder, the split has occurred across a line of text, but the two pieces of bamboo have warped so much over time that it was not easy to fit them back together for digitisation. Indeed, it took the combined efforts of the digitisation team (pictured below) to help to prop the two pieces together, and rotate them slowly, to allow the text to be read.

Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together so that the text across the break could be read.
Bamboo inscribed with a Batak text, in two pieces and warped, carefully positioned together and held in place so that the letters along the break could be read. British Library, Or 5309 Noc

_L2C0668
The team effort to position the two parts of Batak manuscript Or 5309 together for photography: from left to right, conservator Samantha Cawson, curator Annabel Gallop, photographer Elizabeth Hunter, and digitisation officer Adelaida Ngowi. Photograph by Eugenio Falcioni, 20 January 2022.

This blog post has tried to give a behind-the-scenes glimpse of some the technical problems we had to wrestle with in the course of digitising the collection of Batak manuscripts in the British Library. Every single manuscript was checked before digitisation by Conservator Samantha Cawson, who cleaned the manuscripts and made some essential repairs. Next the manuscripts were all photographed by Senior Imaging Technician Elizabeth Hunter, who had to learn a little about Batak script so she could be sure to position the manuscripts correctly. The digital images were then all checked by Digitisation Officer Adelaida Ngowi, who looked at image quality, focus and orientation, and ensured that the filenames correlated with the intended sequencing of images. As curator, I was responsible for creating online catalogue records for all the manuscripts, based on the published catalogue (Ricklefs, Voorhoeve and Gallop 2014), and for checking all the manuscripts as they were published online. We are also very grateful to our colleagues at Hamburg University and elsewhere who enabled this project, in particular Michael Friedrich, Arlo Griffiths, Jan van der Putten, Roberta Zollo, Christina Kaminski and Karsten Helmholz. We hope you will enjoy browsing through the digitised manuscripts, which are all listed here.

References:
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014. [Includes a facsimile of the 1977 edition.]

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

18 February 2022

Batak manuscripts in the British Library digitised in collaboration with Hamburg University

The British Library holds the oldest dateable Batak manuscript (Add 4726), which entered the British Museum collections in 1764. Until recently, this was the only Batak manuscript in the Library accessible online. However, the complete collection of 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library has now been fully digitised, thanks to a collaboration with the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC) at the University of Hamburg. The digitization was funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) under Germany´s Excellence Strategy – EXC 2176 ‘Understanding Written Artefacts: Material, Interaction and Transmission in Manuscript Cultures’, project no. 390893796. A full list of the digitised manuscripts is available on the Digital Access to Batak Manuscripts page.

Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381
Pustaha in Mandailing Batak script, with many drawings in red and black ink, before 1844. British Library, Add 19381 Noc

The Batak peoples of north Sumatra live in the mountainous area around Lake Toba, and comprise a number of ethno-linguistic subgroups. The Angkola-Mandailing traditionally live in the area south of the lake; the Toba Batak, who are the largest groups, live in the central lake agrea; the Dairi-Pakpak are found to the west; the Karo to the north; and the Simalungun to the north-east. Originally animist but with Hindu influences evident in their religious practices, in the course of the 19th century nearly all the Batak peoples came under the sway of Muslim or Christian (Protestant) missionaries.

Map of Batak regions
The Batak regions of north Sumatra, showing how the different ethno-linguistic groupings are clustered around Lake Toba. [Map from Putten and Zollo 2020: 10.]

The Batak are associated with a distinctive writing culture, with manuscripts written on a range of organic materials, primarily tree bark, bamboo and bone, in a variety of Batak languages and forms of the script linked to the different ethnic groups. The Batak script (surat Batak) is derived from the Indian Brahmi script, and is written from left to right with evenly-spaced letters, without longer divisions between words or sentences.

Most characteristic of Batak manuscripts are the bark books known as pustaha, written on strips of bark of the alim (Aquilaria malaccensis) tree, folded concertina-fashion, some with beautifully carved wooden covers. These pustaha were the private notebooks of datu or shaman, and contain texts on divination and white and black magic, often with illustrations. The language used in the pustaha is an archaic form of the Batak language called hata poda, ‘the language of instruction’, invariably mixed with regional words and elements of Malay.

Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on purbuhitan, divination from the stars; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196
Pustaha in Toba Batak script with a text on pangarambui, divination based on the observation of signs in the sky; before 1918. British Library, Or 8196 Noc

Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761
Simalungun Batak pustaha with two finely carved wooden covers, a plaited bamboo clasp band, and a carrying string tied through two holes on the front cover. British Library, Or 11761  Noc

Manuscripts on bamboo could take the form of whole pieces several joints or nodes in length, or splints made from split bamboo. Texts found on bamboo may also be on divinatory practices, such as calendars, or may comprise letters or notes.

Or_16736-ed
Divination text in Karo Batak script inscribed on a bamboo container, which has a wooden lid. British Library, Or 16736 Noc

Shoulder and rib bones of water buffaloes were also used as writing materials, and often contain magical or amuletic drawings alongside writing.

A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text

A piece of bone inscribed with magical drawings
A piece of bone inscribed on one side with Batak text, and on the other with magical diagrams including the ‘Ring of Solomon’ in the centre. British Library, Or 13330 A Noc

Of the 37 Batak manuscripts in the British Library, there are 33 pustaha of folded treebark, three inscribed pieces of bamboo, and one manuscript comprising two bone amulets. The tradition of compiling pustaha and other manuscripts had already begun to die out from the mid-19th century onwards under pressure from initially Muslim, soon followed by German Protestant Christian, missionary efforts. However since the early 20th century there has also a been a thriving industry of creating ‘new’ Batak manuscripts for sale to tourists.

It has been estimated that around 2,000 Batak manuscripts are preserved today in public and private collections around the world. Perhaps the largest number in any one country are in Germany, home to about 580 Batak manuscripts, owing to the historically prominent role of German Protestant missionaries in Batak lands. The recent publication of a detailed and fully illustrated catalogue of 54 Batak manuscripts, together with state-of-the-art essays on Batak history and writing culture (Putten and Zollo 2020), is a major contribution to Batak studies, and highlights the important role of the the CSMC of Hamburg University in developing and supporting scholarship on Batak manuscripts.

HORAS!

Further reading
Uli Kozok, Bark, bones, and bamboo: Batak traditions of Sumatra. Illuminations: writing traditions of Indonesia, ed. Ann Kumar & John H. McGlynn. Jakarta: Lontar Foundation, 1996; pp.231-246.
Uli Kozok, Surat Batak: sejarah perkembangan tulisan Batak. Jakarta: Ecole française d'Extrême-Orient; KPG, 2009. (Naskah dan dokumen Nusantara; Seri XVII).
Jan van der Putten and Roberta Zollo, ‘The power of writing: the manuscript culture of the Toba Batak from North Sumatra / Die Macht der Schrift: die Manuskriptkultur der Toba-Batak aus Nord-Sumatra.’ Manuscript cultures, 14, 2020.
M.C.Ricklefs, P.Voorhoeve and Annabel Teh Gallop. Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain: a catalogue of manuscripts in Indonesian languages in British public collections. New Edition with Addenda et Corrigenda. Jakarta: Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient,Perpustakaan Nasional Republik Indonesia, Yayasan Pustaka Obor Indonesia, 2014.
R. Teygeler, Pustaha: a study into the production process of the Batak book. Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde, 1993, 149(3): 593-611.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

24 January 2022

Accessing West African Manuscripts in the British Library

The importance of the manuscripts of West Africa to scholarship, history, heritage and religion has long been recognised, and is of increasing interest to researchers and the public. Across the region, the manuscript collections of many libraries testify to long traditions of Islamic scholarship – not only in Mali, where the people of Timbuktu joined forces to rescue their manuscripts from Islamist occupiers in 2012–2013, but in many other countries, including Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger and Ghana. Numerous manuscript collections also exist in ajami – African languages written in Arabic script.

Colour illustration of a man and a woman in traditional West African dress seated beneath a tree in front of a building, with the man on the left writing on a sheet of paper with a pen or pencil
Arabic writing in West Africa: a marabout (or Muslim religious leader) writes an amulet for a widow. Note the ink-pot at his feet. (P. D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises (Paris, 1853). 10096.h.9)
CC Public Domain Image

In this context, the British Library’s small collection of West African manuscripts in Arabic script is significant. The catalogue records for the manuscripts were produced in 2016–2017 by then PhD student Paul Naylor, who described them here and here.

Most of the manuscripts have been digitised, and are freely available online via the British Library’s website. This digitised material, summarised below, consists of thirteen items: five bound composite volumes of manuscripts, five Qur’ans and three other works. Catalogue records for these works can be found in Explore Archives and Manuscripts.

The West African manuscript collection consists of:

1) Five illuminated Qur’an volumes, digitised as follows:

  • Or 16751 and Or 13706, both with leather carrying cases. You can see a 3D view of the case for Or 13706 here. There is a blog on the conservation work carried out on Or 16751 here.
  • Or 6992, Or 13284, and Or 8746 (a section only).

A sixth Qur’an (Or 16992), acquired shortly before lockdown, is still being processed. Sections of the Qur’an are also found in some of the composite volumes.

Single page of Arabic script text in black ink with vowels and geometrical illumination in red and gold inks
A page from an illuminated Qur’an, probably from Nigeria, showing chapter 14, Surat Ibrahim, verses 36-41. (British Library, Or 6992 204r, mid-19th century)
CC Public Domain Image

2) Two illuminated copies of the Dalāʾil al-Khayrāt, a popular Islamic devotional work, Or 6575 and Or 16924

3) The Kitāb al-Balagh al-Minan, a book of number squares (Ar. awfāq) considered to have spiritual power, Or 6576.

4) Five bound collections of Arabic works from West Africa:

  • Two volumes from the Senegambian region, Or 6473 and Or 4897
  • Or 6559, a volume of material from the Asante Kingdom, Kumasi (modern Ghana), consisting of 75 manuscripts, many of them single-page prayers and other devotional texts.
  • Two volumes probably from northern Nigeria, Or 6953 and Or 6880

These five composite volumes all contain a variety of works, many of which are very short, some even consisting of only one folio. The total number of individual manuscripts is therefore considerably higher than fourteen: I estimate that we hold 239 West African manuscripts in total.

Double-page spread of Arabic-script text in a volume in black and red ink with a page weight running down the far right of the book
Pages from a composite volume from Senegambia: obituary poem for a scholar of Touba, Sālim al-Zāghāwī al-Gasamī. (British Library, Or 6473 f. 105v-106r, early 19th century)
CC Public Domain Image

In West Africa, manuscripts were (and are) normally loose leaf, often with a leather carrying case. Some of the British Library’s manuscripts have been kept in loose-leaf format, and some have their original leather case. However, during the nineteenth century some were bound on acquisition by the British Museum Library (which joined with other libraries to become the British Library in 1973): this applies to all the composite volumes, and two of the Qur’ans. When, recently, the covers of the bound Qur’an at shelfmark Or 6992 were found to have broken away, we decided that, rather than replace a binding which was not of West African origin, it would be appropriate to disbind the manuscript completely. Today, it is in its original loose-leaf form, protected by a specially constructed buckram box.

Double-page spread of a manuscript with a three concentric circles in red and blue ink with black ink spokes and Arabic text on the right-hand page, and a four-by-four grid of squares with Arabic-script text on the left hand side, all in black ink. The binding of the book is in red leather and a page weight runs down the left hand side
A loose-leaf work on numerology, probably from Ghana, in its original leather case. (British Library, Or 6576 f. 33v-34r, mid-19th century)
CC Public Domain Image

The manuscripts are all written in Arabic script, and almost all the text is in Arabic. African languages, notably Soninke and Fulfulde, also feature. They were written here in Arabic script, a practice called ajami in Africa. Most of them date from the 19th century.

The majority of the manuscripts were acquired by the British Museum Library between 1895 and 1917, with a few being added in more recent years. Provenance research (noted in the catalogue records) has revealed the names of many of the donors or vendors, some of whom were in the British armed forces and colonial civil and diplomatic services. However, we usually have little idea of the circumstances in which each item was acquired. An exception is Or 6559, whose donor wrote that it ‘was brought from Kumasi (West Africa) in 1874 by a bluejacket’ (that is, a British sailor). Since the British invaded Asante and sacked its capital, Kumasi, in 1873–1874, this volume seems to have been acquired in the context of war, although we do not know exactly how.

The British Library also hosts other extensive digital collections in the form of manuscripts and archives digitised through funding by the Endangered Archives Programme. These are rich in West African manuscripts, including extensive collections from Djenné in Mali and documents in ajami from Senegal. They also include an important collection from Bamum, Cameroon, in the Bamum language and script. (Note that the British Library only holds digital copies of these items, not the originals.)

The British Library is keen to share information about our collections, and to make them available for research as widely as possible, particularly in the countries from which they originate. In addition to the digital versions available online, readers are welcome to view the West African manuscripts in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room at St Pancras, London. Here’s how to get a Reader Pass.

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa
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Further reading

British Library, West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song. Insights into this vast region’s fascinating heritage.

English, Charlie, The book smugglers of Timbuktu : the quest for this storied city and the race to save its treasures (London: William Collins, 2018)

Hammer, Joshua, The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu and their race to save the world's most precious manuscripts (London: Simon & Schuster, 2017)

Hill Museum and Manuscript Library – digital Islamic manuscript collections

Jeppie, Shamil and Souleymane Bachir Diagne (eds), The meanings of Timbuktu (Cape Town: HSRC Press in association with CODESRIA, 2008)

Krätli, Graziano and Ghislaine Lydon (eds), The trans-Saharan book trade: manuscript culture, Arabic literacy, and intellectual history in Muslim Africa (Leiden: Brill, 2011).

Naylor, Paul, From rebels to rulers: writing legitimacy in the early Sokoto state (Martlesham: James Currey, 2021)

West African Arabic Manuscript Database (WAAMD)

06 December 2021

Two Centuries of Indian Print: South Asia Seminar Series at the British Library 2016-2021

The ‘Two Centuries of Indian Print’ Project has successfully digitised rare and unique books from the British Library’s South Asian collections dating from 1713-1914. Launched in late 2015, the project was funded by the AHRC Newton-Bhabha Fund and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. During Phase 1 of the project, over 1000 unique and rare Bengali books were digitised, and a further 600 books printed in Assamese, Sylheti and Urdu languages were made available online in Phase 2.

A range of highlights that have been digitised through this project can be seen here: https://www.bl.uk/early-indian-printed-books

The project has promoted Digital Humanities research in addition to generating new perspectives on the British Library’s extensive South Asia collections through a network of international collaborations, including our project partners Jadavpur University and the Shristi Institute.

Learn more about the project here.

To complement the Two Centuries of Indian Print Project, a series of South Asian seminars were hosted by the Library, whereby academics and researchers from the UK and abroad shared their research and knowledge, including discussions chaired by curators and specialists in the field. The talks were inspired by the Two Centuries of Indian Print project and often referenced the British Library collections, covering topics relating to South Asian history.

The first series took place in November 2016 and continued every month throughout 2017 and 2018. In 2019 the series took place in the Knowledge Centre, running from June to October. As a result of the pandemic the series was paused in 2020 and the seminars resumed online in 2021.

The South Asia Series talks from 2016-2019 are available to listen to through SoundCloud.

Recordings from seminars that took place in 2021 are available on YouTube.

Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2016

The first talk of the series was presented by Dr Richard David Williams, formerly a cultural historian of South Asia and a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the Faculty of Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. Dr Williams is now a Senior Lecturer in Music and South Asian Studies at SOAS. The title of this talk was ‘Forgotten Music and Muted Women: gender, performance and print in the British Library’ . Dr Williams examined Mughal and colonial era sources in a variety of languages to draw particular focus to female musicians, dancers, poets, and patrons, and demonstrated how women were deeply involved in pre-modern musical culture.

You can listen to this talk here.

Lithographed black and white page with five scenes inside octagonal frames, two at the top, two at the bottom, and one in the middle of the page. The scenes show two woman seated; three women standing together; one woman playing an instrument among four peacocks and a snake; one woman in profile seated beneath a tree; and one woman seating facing the viewer among plants. The frames are surrounded by floral illumination.
An illustrated page from the Sarmayah i 'ishrat , an Urdu musciological treatise, by Sadiq Ali Khan Dihlavi (1875). (British Library, VT 638)
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In November 2017, Dr Priyanka Basu, former Project Curator of Two Centuries of Indian Print Project and currently Lecturer in Performing Arts at Kings College London, presented a talk titled ‘The ‘High' and ‘Low’ of the Farce in Colonial Bengal: Bat-tala, Proscenium and Beyond’. The second half of the nineteenth century in Bengal saw a number of new and recurring themes in dramatic/literary productions. Social themes were best represented through the genre of farce. Bat-tala or the veritable Grub Street of Calcutta, was prolific in the production of ‘low-life print’. Dr Basu looked at the texts from the two divisions of ‘high’ and ‘low’ tastes in order to understand the marginal and subversive nature of the Bat-tala farces in comparison to the colonial Bengali dramatic canon, and more broadly the cultural and literary politics surrounding the farce in colonial Bengal.

This talk can be heard here.

 

Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2017:

In May 2017, Dr Christopher Bahl, a former PhD student at SOAS, and currently Assistant Professor of South Asian History at Durham University, examined Arabic manuscripts from the Royal Library of Bijapur in his talk. Cultural Entrepôts and Histories of Circulation: The Arabic Manuscripts of the Royal Library of Bijapur’ examined the historical circulation of Arabic manuscripts, which linked South Asia with other regions of the western Indian Ocean world, including Egypt, the Hijaz, Yemen, and Iran during the early modern period. In particular, Dr Bahl looked at the historical development of the Royal Library of Bijapur in the Deccan, today among the India Office Library collections in the British Library, and how its collection of Arabic manuscripts provided crucial insights into the courtly circulation, social use and cultural significance of these texts in a local Indo-Persian environment.

Listen to this talk here.

A page with highly cursive Arabic script in various positions and angles along with four black ink seals in Arabic script.
Arabic Manuscript from Bijapur Library. (1617, British Library, Bijapur 7)
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In August 2017, Lubaaba Al-Azami, an AHRC funded doctoral candidate from the University of Liverpool presented her talk: ‘Writing Empire: The Memoirs of Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, Founder of Mughal India’. The founder of the Mughal Empire, Zahirunddin Muhammad Babur was an accomplished poet and writer as well as fulfilling his role as a prince and military commander. Among his writings are his renowned memoirs, the Baburnama, rare manuscripts which can be found in the British Library collection. This talk focused on Babur’s use of Chagatai Turkic in writing the memoirs, arguing that this choice of language is a marker of the Mughal Empire’s celebration of matrilineal imperial heritage.

Listen to this talk here.

A full page painting of a court scene involving Babur seated on his throne meeting a crowd of courtier, most of whom are standing, and some of whom are active in speaking or gesticulating. At the bottom of the painting is a a collection of men on horseback in front of the court building, as well as men standing around them, and the background outside the building's walls shows a landscape scene with a building in the distance that contains two men conversing. The image is surrounded by a gilt floral border.
Babur greets courtiers at the Id Festival (1595, British Library, Johnson 2, 12)
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Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2018:

The 2018 South Asia Series included a fascinating talk given by Dr Katherine Butler Schofield, Senior Lecturer in South Asian Music and History at Kings College London. ‘The Maestro: Remembering Khushhal Khan “Gunasamudra” in Eighteenth-Century Delhi’, examined the life of the court musician Khushal Khan (great grandson of the most famous Mughal musician Tansen). He was chief musician to the Emperor Shah Jahan (r.1627-58) and was written about extensively in his lifetime as a virtuoso classical singer of exceptional merit and serious character. In this talk Katherine retells the story of Khushal Khan from the vantage point of the 1750’s, looking back over the canonical Mughal writings on music of Shah Jahan’s and Aurangzeb’s reigns. In doing so, she considers what they tell us about the role and power of music at the Mughal court at the empire’s height, before everything began to unravel. This talk was also part of a series conducted by Katherine called Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing about Music in Late Mughal India 1757-1858.

Listen to this talk here.

Double-page spread of a manuscript text in Arabic script with an elaborate illuminated header in blue, gold and red inks, and a thick border including similar illumination. The lines of text are separated by gilt cloudbands.
Opening pages of Sahasras, the 1000 dhrupad songs of Nayak Bakhshu. (British Library, IO Islamic 1116)
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In May 2018, Dr Saqib Baburi, a former member of the African and Asian Studies project 'Digital access to Persian Manuscripts' delivered a talk titled ‘Sufism and Persian Manuscripts from the Delhi Collection, British Library’ . The British East India Company’s victories in 1858 ending the Indian Mutiny also signified the end of the Great Mughals. With their demise, the new Government of India acquired the famed Mughal Imperial Library along with other manuscript collections from Delhi, the former imperial capital. Transferred to the India Office Library, the ‘Delhi Collection' was inherited by the British Library. In this talk Saqib Baburi focusses on his recent study of works specifically dealing with Sufism, mysticism and metaphysics in the Delhi Persian collection. This illustrated paper presented new findings, and examined ways in which extant manuscripts helped to illustrate Delhi’s diverse spiritual traditions.

Listen here.

A page of a manuscript text with writing in Arabic script in red ink arranged in two columns.
List of contents from the opening of a late-sixteenth-century collection of letters teaching mystical principles. (British Library, Delhi Persian 1129B)
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Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2019:

In August 2019, Farha Noor, research fellow and PhD student at the University of Heidelberg, presented on the Progressive Movement of female writers in North India. In her talk ‘Witnessing History, Writing Nostalgia: the Progressive Women’ , Farha explored literary revolutionaries such as Rashid Jahan and Ismat Chughtai and how they broke new ground, inspiring many women to write within the Progressive milieu. Within this talk, Farha investigated the entanglements of genre and gender while rethinking ‘Nostalgia’ and its relationship with forms of life writing. Works by writers such as Shaukat Kaifi and Hamida Salim were also considered.

Listen to this talk here.

A black and white photograph of a woman in profile, with much of her back in shadow, showing her from the waist up
A potrait of Shaukat Kaifi (1928- ). (Kaifī, Shaukat, Yād kī rahguzar, Naʾi Dihlī : Sṭar Pablīkeshanz, 2006. YP.2006.a.7145) (Not for reuse)

In August 2019, Christin Hoene, formerly a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the School of English Literature at the University of Kent and currently Assistant Professor in Literary Studies at Maastricht University, gave a talk titled ‘Jagadish Chandra Bose and the Politics of Science in India’. Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937) was an Indian scientist and polymath who first gained an international reputation for his work as a physicist in the 1890s. Throughout his scientific career, which spanned four decades, Bose had to fight prejudices amongst his colleagues in the west concerning his skills and credibility as a scientist. Moreover, western scientists were suspicious in regard to Bose’s interdisciplinary approach to science. Christin Hoene examined how Bose attacked these prejudices repeatedly in his writings, and particularly in his numerous public speeches.

Listen to this talk here.

A black and white photograph containing a portrait of a man from the chest up. The man is in a black jacket and vest with a white collar, is facing the camera, and has spectacles.
A portrait of Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937). (British Library, V 21994) (Not for reuse)

 

Highlights from South Asia Seminar Series 2021:

In February 2021, Kanupriya Dhingra, research scholar at the Centre for Cultural, Literary, and Postcolonial Studies, at SOAS, University of London, presented a talk with the title ‘Locating Daryaganj Sunday Book Market’. This talk engaged with the spatiality of Daryaganj Sunday Patri Kitab Bazar (or, Daryaganj Sunday Footpath Book Market). This local weekly market for used, rare, and pirated books has been operating in Old Delhi, every Sunday, for the past fifty years. Kanupriya discussed its stop-go history and traced the bazar’s location on the streets over the years, whilst examining its recent relocation to a rented, gated complex run by the civic authorities, in September 2019.

You can watch a recording of this online talk here.

A black and white photograph of a street scene with an Indian building in the background, low-rise shops with awnings on the left and right, and scant pedestrians on the street in the middle.
'Street behind the Jama Musjid, Delhi, 1880s'. (S C Sen, 'Earl of Jersey Collection'. Photo 807/2(20))
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In February 2021, Vebhuti Duggal Assistant Professor of Film Studies at Ambedkar University Delhi, delivered the talk ‘Becoming a Listener in Mid-Twentieth Century North India’. Here Professor Duggal unpacked the idea of becoming a listener as it emerged in narratives of ‘Main shrota kaise bana/ bani (How did I become a listener)’ that peppered Hindi-language magazines. These magazines, referred to as shrota sangh patrikayen (listeners’ club magazines) were produced, circulated and consumed largely in the ‘Hindi heartland’ of North India during the mid-twentieth century.

Watch a recording of this talk here.

 

The South Asia Seminar Series has been an important forum for presenting research, facilitating discussions and engaging audiences with the British Library’s South Asian collections whilst promoting the Two Centuries of Indian Print Project. By making these seminars accessible online it is hoped that global audiences can gain new insights on South Asian history and develop their understanding of the British Library collections. The Two Centuries of Indian Print: South Asia Seminars have paved a valuable path for similar events in the future.

Paramdip Khera, Project Manager, Two Centuries of Indian Print
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18 October 2021

Who reads digitised Malay manuscripts?

The British Library holds a small but important collection of about 120 manuscripts written in the Malay language and the Jawi (Arabic) script, originating from all over maritime Southeast Asia. These Malay manuscripts have always – in theory – been accessible publicly in the reading rooms initially of the British Museum and the India Office Library, and latterly in the British Library, but in practice access was restricted to those who could afford to travel the long distance to London. Microfilm was the standard reprographic medium at this time, which could at least enable manuscripts to be shared, but only the most dedicated philological scholars were prepared to tackle the cumbersome microfilm readers. In the 21st century, digitisation has been a game changer: now anyone, anywhere, can read a centuries-old Malay manuscript, on a computer at home, or on their smartphone while waiting for a bus.

Through the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, over a two-year period from 2013 to 2015 the British Library was able to digitise its complete collection of about 120 Malay manuscripts in a collaborative project with the National Library Board of Singapore. The digitised manuscripts can now be accessed online, both through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal and on the National Library of Singapore’s BookSG site. A full list of the 120 digitised manuscripts can be found here.  Many of these Malay manuscripts were displayed in the National Library of Singapore’s exhibition Tales of the Malay World in 2017, and in the accompanying book edited by curator Tan Huism, which featured 14 manuscripts from the British Library.   

Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘The Story of the Prophet Joseph’, copied in Perlis in 1802 by Muhammad Lebai-Mss_malay_d_4-ff.3v-4r
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘The Story of the Prophet Joseph’, copied in Perlis in 1802 by Muhammad Lebai. British Library, MSS Malay D.4, ff. 3v-4r

However, in the crowded digital universe, it was also important to find effective ways of bringing this valuable resource to the attention of the audiences who would most appreciate it, in the Malay world of Southeast Asia. Fuelled by a conviction that all manuscripts have a unique story to tell, each Malay manuscript was given its Warholian '15 minutes of fame' through posts on the British Library’s Asian and African blog. The blog posts, which were further promoted through social media such as Facebook, gained a faithful audience, and in 2020 Malaysia and Indonesia were the two top countries for readers of the BL Asian and African blog after the UK, US and India.

The impact of the project may be judged by some of the varied and creative uses to which the digitised Malay manuscripts in the British Library have been put over the past few years, some of which are outlined below. Or rather, these are the stories we know about, for the manuscripts are freely accessible online to all. Digitising a manuscript is like opening the door of a bird cage: once the bird flies off into the world, we do not know where it will alight.

Among the most traditional outcomes of the project are scholarly editions of Malay texts. The British Library collection is particularly rich in literary manuscripts, quite a few of which appear to be unique. Thus Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, 'The Story of the Serpent Nangkawang', only known from two British Library manuscripts – Add 12382 and MSS Malay A.1 – was published in 2019 by the Language and Literary Bureau of Malaysia (Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka), edited by Fathenawan Wan Mohd. Noor.

A new romanised edition of the Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, published by Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka in 2020  Hikayat Ular Nangkawang, first page of British Library manuscript MSS Malay A.1
(Left) A new romanised edition of the Hikayat Ular Nangkawang (Kuala Lumpur: Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, 2019), British Library, YP.2019.a.7399, based on (right) British Library manuscript MSS Malay A.1, f. 1v

The digitised manuscripts are regularly used all over the world for teaching and research.  At Goethe University, Frankfurt, Prof. Ulrich Kratz and his postgraduate class on Malay philology are currently working together to transliterate a unique manuscript of Hikayat Raja Dewa Maharupa, MSS Malay D.2.  Each year, Asep Yudha Wirajaya S.S., M.A., a lecturer at Universitas Sebelas Maret (UNS, University of the Eleventh of March) in Surakarta, Central Java, sets his philology students to work on a digitised Malay manuscript from the British Library, including those accessible through the Endangered Archives Programme. I frequently receive emails directly from Pak Asep’s students with queries: for example, in 2019, Muhammad Zulkham asked about watermarks, and Siti Nafi'ah Nur Halimah enquired how the shelfmark MSS Malay B.10 was assigned. It is rewarding to see lasting outcomes from these academic exercises, and the British Library manuscript, Hikayat Selindung Delima (MSS Malay C.6) – containing the rare prose (hikayat) version of a tale more commonly found in poetic (syair) form – was published in 2019 by the National Library of Indonesia, edited by Dita Eka Pratiwi with Asep Yudha Wirajaya.

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Asep Yudha Wirajaya S.S., M.A. (centre) with his Malay philology class at Universitas Sebelas Maret, Surakarta, in December 2019.  Image source: Facebook page of Asep Yudha Wirajaya, 8.12.2019, reproduced with permission.

A new romanised edition of Hikayat Selindung Delima (Jakarta: National Library of Indonesia, 2019)  British Library manuscript MSS Malay C.6, showing the final page with the colophon and date
(Left) A new romanised edition of Hikayat Selindung Delima (Jakarta: National Library of Indonesia, 2019), based on the (right) British Library manuscript MSS Malay C.6, f. 65v , copied in Melaka in 1223 (1808), showing above the final page with the colophon and date.

Studies on British Library digitised Malay manuscripts are also recorded in academic journals.  In the National Library of Indonesia journal Jumantara, Nurhayati Primasari discusses a popular catechism by al-Samarqandi with Malay translation (MSS Malay C.7), copied in Batavia in the early 19th century (Jumantara 8(2), Aug. 2019), while in the same journal Hazmirullah published a farewell letter to Raffles from the Bupati of Cianjur in west Java (Add 45273, f. 36r), unusually written in romanised Malay (Jumantara 11(1), June 2020). 

Many of the Malay literary manuscripts in the British Library originate from the collection of John Leyden (1775-1811), who spent several months in Penang in 1806 in the house of Thomas Stamford Raffles (1781-1826). The Malay poem, Syair Jaran Tamasa (MSS Malay B.9), appears to have particularly caught Leyden’s attention, for in a notebook he had begun an English translation. In a blog post in 2016 I noted that this Malay poem, of  which no other manuscript is known, to that day remained unpublished. This ‘challenge’ was picked up by Dr Mulaika Hijjas at SOAS, who devised the innovative Jawi Transcription Project to crowd-source the romanised transliteration of this manuscript.

The Jawi Transcription Project, initiated by Dr Mulaika Hijjas of SOAS to romanise the Malay poem Syair Jaran Tamasa, British Library, MSS Malay B.9
The Jawi Transcription Project, initiated by Dr Mulaika Hijjas of SOAS to romanise the Malay poem Syair Jaran Tamasa, British Library, MSS Malay B.9.

The involvement of the Malaysian ‘indie’ publisher Fixi is particularly gratifying in extending the reach of Malay manuscripts beyond a traditional scholarly audience, and bringing alive these centuries-old tales for a modern audience. Two British Library Malay manuscripts have been published by Fixi in innovative formats, both transliterated by Arsyad Mokhtar. With its many fight sequences, Hikayat Raja Babi, ‘The Story of the Pig King’ (2015) - based on a manuscript written in Palembang in 1775 by a writer from Semarang, Usup Abdul Kadir, Add 12393 - has been designed to appeal to silat or kung fu martial arts afficianados, with comicbook manga-style illustrations by Arif Rafhan Othman. The same artist opted for a different approach in the Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, ‘Story of the Prophet Joseph’ (2018) - an edition of a  manuscript copied in Perlis in 1802, MSS Malay D.4 - which is a deluxe hardcover production on glossy paper with a sumptuous palette evoking the setting of the story in Pharaonic Egypt. Recently, the Hikayat Raja Babi has been reborn as a children’s book in English, The Malay tale of the Pig King (2020), retold by Heidi Shamsuddin with dreamy illustrations by Evi Shelvia, published by Fixi with crowdsourced funding.

Romanised edition of Hikayat Raja Babi (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2015)  The_malay_tale_of_the_pig_king_front-1597541540
(Left) Romanised edition of Hikayat Raja Babi (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2015).  British Library, YP.2016.a.2565. (Right) A children’s version in English, The Malay tale of the Pig King (Kuala Lumpur: Matahari Books, an imprint of Fixi, 2020).  British Library (shelfmark pending).

Hk Nabi Yusuf stack
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf (Kuala Lumpur: Fixi Retro, 2018). British Library, YP.2019.a.2275.

It is a particular pleasure to see Malay manuscripts used as sources of artistic inspiration. One of the first artists to be inspired by the British Library corpus was Hafizan Halim, an acclaimed illuminator from Kedah, now with many royal Malaysian patrons. He was entranced by a beautiful golden letter from Temenggung Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, written in Singapore in 1857 (Or 16126), the only known traditional Malay example of chrysography, writing in gold. Hafizan has copied and adapted the illuminated borders of this letter in many guises in his artworks, often as the setting for Surat Yasin of the Qur’an.

Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 1857, British Library Or 16126  golden frame around Surat Yasin drawn by Hafizan Halim of Kedah
(Left) Malay letter from Temenggung Daing Ibrahim of Johor to Emperor Napoleon III of France, 1857, British Library Or 16126, inspired the golden frame around Surat Yasin drawn by Hafizan Halim of Kedah (right).

Detail of Hafizan Halim’s drawing based on the illuminated headpiece from of the royal Johor letter of 1857, Or 16126.
Detail of Hafizan Halim’s drawing based on the illuminated headpiece from of the royal Johor letter of 1857, Or 16126

This same golden letter from Johor also provided the setting for the invitation to a illustrious  wedding held on the island of Pulau Penyengat in Riau on 6 September 2018, of Raja Sufriana - daughter of Raja Hamzah Yunus, an eminent aristocrat and cultural figure - and Aswandi Syahri, a local historian who was involved in the EAP153 project to digitise Riau manuscripts.  It was especially poignant to see how these beautiful royal Johor patterns and motifs, preserved in Or 16126, were revived to celebrate a marriage at the very centre of the historic Malay kingdom in which these art forms would have evolved.

FB-MalikHamzah-9.9.18#
Wedding invitation of Raja Sufriana and Aswandi Syahri, 6 September 2018.  Reproduced courtesy of Aswandi Syahri.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia

Further information:

Why we need to digitise our history, talk by Annabel Gallop at TEDxUbud, September 2014

 

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).’ (Masters 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.

27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

As the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) uploads its two millionth image this week, we’d like to celebrate the nearly 80,000 images of British Library Arabic scientific manuscripts that contribute to this achievement.

One of the most fascinating of these manuscripts and one of the oldest is a thousand-year-old fragment of a Christian Arabic miscellany in Or. 8857. Enhanced cataloguing facilitated by the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership has provided a glimpse of the scientific interests and texts available to readers in the monasteries of the Near East around AD1000 and also of the diverse communities that produced these manuscripts in monastic scriptoria. Creating a digital surrogate of this fragment for the QDL has also allowed us to virtually reorder its folios and even remotely reunite it with another, larger fragment from the same manuscript held in another collection.

 

Acquisition and condition

On 30 May 1921, the British Museum acquired five folios of a Syriac manuscript along with thirty-three folios of a very ancient Arabic manuscript from F.W. Bickel, an antiquities dealer in Zürich specialising in Christian oriental manuscripts.

Off-white paper with two lines of cursive text in the Latin alphabet
Acquisition note: ‘Bought of F. W. Bickel. 30 May, 1921.’ (British Library, Or. 8857, endleaf verso [ii-v]) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00004e
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When this purchase was recorded in the British Museum acquisition register, the fragmentary Arabic manuscript was given the shelfmark Or. 8857 along with a typically brief description: ‘Or. 8857. A fragment of a work on the calendar, followed by some prescriptions. 33ff. XIth. cent. 8o Arabic’. Clearly the manuscript was old – 5thAH/11th AD century according to the acquisition register. But details about its contents were scanty, and nothing was said about its provenance.

Off-white paper divided into three with small boxes on left and right and large one in the centre, all of which are filled with cursive text in the Latin alphabet in black ink
Entry for Or. 8857 in the British Museum acquisition register ( List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034, p. 275 [British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7])
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When the thirty-three paper folios that comprise Or. 8857 entered the British Museum, they were evidently in disarray. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that the folios arrived with a binding, but worse – the sewing that held the quires had disintegrated and the loose bifolia had broken apart along their spine-folds to become individual folios. At some point, probably shortly after their acquisition, all thirty-three folios were mounted on paper guards and sewn into a new binding with little regard to their original order but perhaps preserving the order in which they had arrived at the British Museum.

Off white manuscript folio with two columns of text in black ink in the Arabic script and red stamp with British Museum seal at bottom
The first folio, according to the manuscript’s present arrangement, is not what it seems. Its layout suggests either poetry or two columns of prose but, in fact, it is a list of the planets that rule each hour of the day, and it runs horizontally across the page despite the columns. What appears to be an eastern Arabic five (٥) in the upper left corner – perhaps explaining the western Arabic five in the lower right-hand corner – is actually a Coptic seventy (𐋰), which indicate that this is really not the first but the penultimate folio (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 1r) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00000b
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After this conservation work, the manuscript seems to have rested unnoticed until a more complete list of its contents was prepared for the Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library (pp. 353, 357, 385 and 389). But it was not catalogued in detail until it was selected for digitisation for the QDL.

 

Date and context of production

The manuscript is written in a squat and angular script that has been described as ‘Kufic’. This script is now considered one of a loosely defined group of scripts generically called Abbasid Bookhand because they were developed in the early Abbasid chancery and employed for copying books on both sacred and secular topics from roughly the 3rd/9th to 5th/11th century. They were then replaced by the maghribī script in the extreme west of the Islamic world and by the naskh script almost everywhere else.

Apart from the manuscript’s archaic script and paper, other features help to define the time and place it was copied. Chief amongst these are its quire signatures, numbers that tell the bookbinder the correct order in which to bind the quires that make up a manuscript. In this manuscript two sets of quire signatures are found on the first and last folio of each quire. These quire signatures are written using two separate systems of alphabetic numerical notation: Greek and Georgian. The use of these two numeral systems alongside an Arabic text written in Abbasid Bookhand and featuring the distinctive punctuation marks displayed in this manuscript all attest to the collaboration of multi-ethnic and multilingual artisans in the Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian monastic scriptoria of the early Abbasid period. The particular combination of quire signatures found here, however, is most typical of the scriptorium of the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, especially during the late-4th/10th and early-5th/11th century.

Double page spread of manuscript on off-white paper with writing in Arabic script in black ink, with several features highlighted by red, green and blue circles placed over the text
Opening from the Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azmina), which displays a variety of punctuation and space-filling marks as well as Greek quire signatures (circled in green, Η = 8 right and Θ = 9 left), Georgian quire signatures (circled in red, Ⴆ = 7 lower right and Ⴇ = 9 upper right) and Coptic folio number (circled in blue, 𐋯𐋩 = 69) (British Library, Or. 8857, ff. 10v and 17r)

Or. 8857, ff. 10v: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00001e
Or. 8857, ff. 17r: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00002b
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Reordering the folios

The quire marks demonstrate that Or. 8857 is a fragment containing the remains of quires 5–9 of a larger original manuscript. But without putting the folios back in their original order, it would be impossible to know how much of each quire has survived. Luckily, each folio also has a number in its head margin. Although these folio numbers are likely to have been added somewhat after the quire signatures, they are early and they also attest to the multilingual context in which the manuscript was produced and consumed since they are written using the Coptic epact alphabetic numerals. The use of these numerals was not restricted to the Coptic community, and they are commonly referred to as ‘register letters’ (ḥurūf al-zimām) since they were favoured by merchants and administrators for use in their registers and account books.

Like the Arabic alphabetic numerals (ḥurūf al-jumal, commonly called abjad) – the numerical values of which happen to be explained on ff. 1v–2r of this manuscript – the Greek, Georgian and Coptic (zimām) alphabetic numeral systems all have a base of ten (unlike Roman numerals, which also have a sub-base of five) and they are additive (unlike Roman numerals, which also subtractive) rather than positional (like Arabic numerals). This means that to write the number 123 in alphabetic numerals, one does not write the letter representing 1 in the hundreds place, 2 in the tens place and 3 in the ones place as done with Arabic numerals. Rather, one writes the letters representing 100 (+) 20 (+) 3.

Table with first column and row in grey background with Greek letters in the central cells
Greek majuscule alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Georgian letters in the central cells
Georgian majuscule (Asomtavruli) alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Coptic letters in the central cells
Coptic epact or zimām numerals 1–900

Reading the Coptic (zimām) foliation along with the quire signatures, it becomes clear that Or. 8857 is a fragment of five quaternions (quires 5–9) comprising folios 37–71 of a larger manuscript of unknown extent. Quires 5, 6 and 8 are still complete with eight folios each, while quire 7 is missing the two folios of its inner bifolium, and only the first three folios from quire 9 are preserved.

Five schematic diagrams of thick or hatched blue lines forming concentric c-shaped items flipped so that they are open to the left
Visualisation of the original quire arrangement of the folios in Or. 8857. Historic Coptic (zimām) foliation at left and modern British Museum foliation in brackets at right. Note that the Georgian signatures for quires 7 and 8 are erroneously reversed. (Visualisation produced with Viscodex)
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Diverse monastic reading material

Once we know the original order of the folios, we can see that Or. 8857 contains a variety of texts on subjects more or less obviously suited to the monks of Monastery of St Catherine.

1) Fragment of a Christian prayer (f. 37r–37v [British Museum f. 18r–18v]);

2) Prayer Taken from the Book of the Prophet David (Duʿā mustakhraj min Kitāb Dāwūd al-nabī, ff. 37v–41r [BM ff. 18v–22r]);

3) Prayer Composed by One of the Righteous Christian Believers (Duʿā allafahu baʿḍ al-muʾminīn al-muḥiqqīn min al-Naṣārá, ff. 41r–47v [BM ff. 22r–28v]);

4) Three recipes for incense (ff. 47v–49v [BM ff. 28v–30v]);

5) The Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azminah, ff. 49v–70v, ff. 56–57 missing [BM ff. 30v–33v, 11r–16v, 3r–10v, 17r–17v, 1r and 1v]);

6) Fragment of an astrological text (ff. 70v-71v [BM ff. 1v-2v]).

The prayers that occupy the first eleven folios are clearly appropriate in a monastic context although certain features may seem jarring to the modern eye. One prayer ends with the invocation ‘O Lord of the Worlds!’ ( yā Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn, f. 18v), for example, and another is preceded by the basmala ( bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, f. 22r), both phrases which occur in the Qurʿān and appear distinctly Islamic today. But during this early period, and for centuries after Or. 8857 was copied, these phrases were used in common by the Arabic-speaking adherents of all the Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, although incense does not necessarily imply church ritual, the Trinitarian formula ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (bi-sm al-Ab wa-al-Ibn wa-rūḥ al-qudus, f. 28v) at the beginning of the incense recipes attests to their Christian context.

The last two texts in the fragment, however, seem less typical of a monastic library. The Book of Seasons is a sort of almanac containing information about the calendar, the heavens, weather phenomena, human illness and health and agricultural matters as they pertain to the twelve months of the year. This genre of literature, in which titles like the Book of Seasons or the Book of Asterisms ( Kitāb al-anwāʾ) are common, provided important guides for living in harmony with the natural rhythms of the year – especially useful for monastic communities surviving in often harsh and semi-isolated conditions. Indeed, one of the earliest authors of this genre was Abū Zakarīyā Yūḥannā ibn Māsawayh (d. 243/857), a Nestorian Christian hospital director at Baghdad, personal physician to the Abbasid caliphs and teacher of the Nestorian physician and translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873).

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with several words in red ink on off-white paper
Information on the names of the months in Syriac, Greek and Persian from the beginning of the Book of Seasons, preceded by the basmala (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 30v) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x000046
CC Public Domain Image

The fragment ends with an anonymous introductory text on astrology, which includes an unusual method for determining a person’s ascendant not by observing their natal horoscope chart, but through numerological analysis of their name and that of their mother. While this text may seem the least appropriate in a monastery, there was considerable legal and theological disagreement about which of the various astrological practices were licit or illicit, and knowledge of the planets' influences on the environment and the human body was generally considered an important part of maintaining good health and wellbeing.

 

Fragments reunited

A much larger fragment of the same manuscript of which Or. 8857 is also a fragment is now held at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan under the shelfmark X 201 sup. According to a note by Mons. Enrico Rodolfo Galbiati (Doctor of the Ambrosiana 1953–84, Prefect of the Ambrosiana 1984–89) written in the margin of the Ambrosiana’s copy of Löfgren and Traini’s Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (vol. 1, p. 33), X 201 sup. was amongst a lot purchased in 1910 from an unknown dealer in Munich by Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, then Prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (1907-14), but soon to lead the Catholic Church as Pope Pius XI (1922–39).

X 201 sup. has also been digitised and is now available on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, where I stumbled upon it, immediately recognising its similarity to Or. 8857. Like Or. 8857, the Milan manuscript is a miscellany combining Christian material with texts on herbal remedies, medicine, astrology and related topics. Likewise, the same Abbasid Bookhand and number of lines per page are found in both manuscripts. But it is the Greek and Georgian quire signatures alongside Coptic foliation found in both manuscripts that prove they are two pieces of the same puzzle.

According to the Coptic foliation and bilingual quire signatures, Or. 8857 contains ff. 37–71 (ff. 56 and 57 are missing) of the original manuscript, and its last quire signature is 9 on f. 17r (f. 69r of the Coptic foliation). The Milan manuscript contains 227 folios (beginning at ff. 97 and ending at f. 337 of the Coptic foliation, with some gaps), and its first quire signature is 13 on f. 101r (f. 5r of the modern Ambrosiana foliation).

We know that the quires in Or. 8857 were quaternions, which have eight folios each, so we would expect the Milan manuscript to be composed of quaternions too – although it should be pointed out that irregular quires are not unusual in manuscripts. Between the beginning of quire 9 (the last in Or. 8857) and the beginning of quire 13 (the first to begin in the Milan manuscript) there were four quires, which if they were all regular quaternions, should equal thirty-two folios (4 quires x 8 folios in each quire = 32 folios). When we count from the beginning of quire 9 on f. 69 of the Coptic foliation and to the end of quire 12 on f. 100 there are, indeed, exactly thirty-two folios, confirming that the two manuscripts are fragments from the same original manuscript.

Even though 77 folios have been lost from the original manuscript (ff. 1–36, 56–57 and 72–96 of the Coptic foliation, plus another 14 within the body of X 201 sup.), a very substantial 260 folios have now been identified, and this will no doubt form the basis for future studies into Abbasid scientific traditions amongst Christian monastic communities.

Thanks to international digitisation projects, the magic of IIIF, and the Mirador viewer there are fewer barriers than ever before to studies of this kind. In fact, anyone with a computer and access to the internet can virtually reunite the two fragments of this manuscript by following the steps below.

1) Navigate to X 201 sup. on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, and click on the words ‘Visualizza la copia digitale’. The images will open in the Mirador viewer via your web browser. Open the dropdown menu at the top left corner of the viewer window and choose a location in the viewer window at which to display Or. 8857.

A screen shot showing the cover of a book with a red binding, with thumbnails of pages on the bottom, and the file menu in the top left hand corner dropped down and highlighted in a red box with rounded edges

2) You will now see that a blank canvas has opened at your chosen location.

Screen shot with a book with a red binding atop thumbnails of pages on the left-hand side and a dark grey area with a red-outlined oval on the right-hand side

3) In another browser window, navigate to any page on the QDL displaying images of Or. 8857 and expand the tab marked ‘Use and Share this Record’.

Screen shot showing a white page with thumbnails of book spines in the centre and text on the bottom third, some of which is on a grey background. The lowest grey background is inside an oval outlined in red

4) Under the heading ‘IIIF details’, locate the IIIF logo next to the IIIF manifest for Or. 8857, drag the logo to the Mirador window in your web browser and drop it anywhere on the blank canvas (see step 2).

Screen shot with a black banner at the top and text with a grey background in the middle, with some of the text highlighted by lines and hollow boxes in red and light blue

5) Alternatively, you can copy the IIIF manifest (https://www.qdl.qa/en/iiif/81055/vdc_100073295641.0x000001/manifest) located next to the IIIF logo on the screen in step 4 and click on the blank canvas in the Mirador viewer (see step 2). This will open the screen below, where you can paste the IIIF manifest into the field marked ‘Add new object from URL’ and click ‘Load’.

Screen shot showing a primarily white screen with a series of thumbnails of manuscript pages on the top third of the screen

6) You can now use the dropdown menus to choose how you would like to view each of the manuscripts and even repeat the steps above to add more canvases and view other IIIF compliant objects at the same time.

Screen shot of a black background with a matrix of thumbnails showing various pages of manuscripts

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Thanks to Dr Adrien de Fouchier, OP (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) and Dr Stefano Serventi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) for their generous help and advice with my research for this blog.

Bibliography:

Chrisomalis, Stephen, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 135–37, table 5.1 (Greek and Georgian); 139, table 5.3 (Greek); 150, table 5.5 (Coptic/ zimām, the numerals for 600 [𐋸] and 700 [𐋹] are erroneously reversed) and 178, table 5.20 (Georgian)

Ifrah, Georges, The Universal History of Numbers from Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer , trans. by D. Bellos, E.F. Harding, S. Wood and I. Monk (New York–Chichester–Weinheim–Brisbane–Singapore–Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pp. 220 (Greek), 225 (Georgian), and 545 (Coptic/zimām),

Kawatoko, Mutsuo, ‘On the Use of Coptic Numerals in Egypt in the 16th Century’, Orient 28 (1992) 71, fig. 3 (helpfully, gives variant forms for most numerals)

List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034 (British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7)

Löfgren, Oscar and Renato Traini,Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, 3 vols, Fontes Ambrosiani LI, LXVI and Nuova Serie II (Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 1975–95) vol. 1, item 33, pp. 33–35

Pataridze, Tamara, ‘Les Signatures des cahiers unilingues et bilingues dans les manuscrits Sinaïtiques (Georgiens, Arabes et Syriaques)’, Manuscripta Orientalia 18.1 (2012) 15–35

Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks, ed. by Colin Baker (London: British Library, 2001)

Varisco, Daniel, ‘The Origin of the Anwāʾ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica 74 (1991) 5–28

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