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27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

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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

03 May 2021

Bollinger Singapore digitisation project completed

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In 2013, through the generous support of William and Judith Bollinger, the British Library embarked upon a five-year project, in collaboration with the National Library Board of Singapore, to digitise materials in the British Library of interest to Singapore. The project initially focussed on Malay manuscripts, early maps of Singapore, and archival papers of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, who had founded a British trading settlement in Singapore in 1819. The project later also encompassed Bugis manuscripts, reflecting the cultural heritage of a distinctive community within the broader Malay population in Singapore, and the small collection of Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The digitised materials are being made accessible through the websites of both the British Library's Digitised Manuscripts and the National Library of Singapore's BookSG.

Malay manuscripts
The complete collection of Malay manuscripts in the British Library, comprising about 120 volumes and about 150 letters and documents in Malay, has now been fully digitised. The manuscripts date from the 17th to the late 19th centuries, and originate from all over Southeast Asia where Malay was the common language of trade, diplomacy and religious education. Highlights include the oldest known copy of the earliest Malay historical chronicle, Hikayat Raja Pasai (Or 14350), copied in Semarang in north Java in 1797, and two copies of the history of the great sultanate of Melaka, Sulalat al-Salatin or Sejarah Melayu, one copied in Singapore around the 1830s (Or 16214) and one in Melaka in 1873 (Or 14734). The collection is rich in literary works, both in prose and in poetic (syair) form, and also has a few finely illuminated manuscripts, including an exquisite copy of a ‘mirror for princes’ containing advice on good governance, the Taj al-Salatin or ‘Crown of Kings’ (Or 13295), commissioned in Penang in 1824 by Ralph Rice for his 'bibliomanist' brother, Rev. Rice of Brighton. While technically admirable, of greater cultural significance is a nicely decorated copy of the story of the Prophet Joseph, Hikayat Nabi Yusuf (MSS Malay D.4), copied in Perlis in 1802, as this is the only illuminated Malay manuscript known to identify the artist by name: Cik Mat Tok Muda, or, in more formal terms, Datuk Muda Encik Muhammad.  The Malay manuscripts can be accessed here and through BookSG.

Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, the Malay story of the Prophet Joseph, copied in Perlis, 1802.
Hikayat Nabi Yusuf, the Malay story of the Prophet Joseph, copied in Perlis, 1802. British Library, MSS Malay D.4, ff. 3v-4r. Noc

Many of the Malay letters in the British Library were written to Thomas Stamford Raffles, who spent nearly two decades in Southeast Asia in the service of the East India Company, initially in Penang and then as Lieutenant-Governor of Java (1811-1816) and of Bengkulu in Sumatra (1818-1824). The majority of the letters date from around 1811 when Raffles was based in Melaka making preparations for a British invasion of Java, as the Napoleonic wars in Europe spilled over into the Indian Ocean arena and Southeast Asia. Other letters were sent to Raffles at later dates, including a collection of formal farewell letters on his departure from Java in 1816.

Illuminated farewell letter in Malay from Sultan Cakra Adiningrat of Madura to T.S. Raffles on his departure from Java in 1816.
Illuminated farewell letter in Malay from Sultan Cakra Adiningrat of Madura to T.S. Raffles on his departure from Java in 1816. British Library, MSS Eur E378/7. Noc

Early maps of Singapore
Tom Harper, Lead Curator, Antiquarian Maps, describes this part of the project:
"Approximately 250 early maps and charts featuring Singapore have been digitised. Ranging in date from the late 15th to early 20th centuries, these were sourced from across the British Library’s collections including the India Office Map Collection and the Topographical Collection of George III. Of particular significance are the maps of Singapore Island and town drawn by the governor of Singapore William Farquhar a mere five years after the foundation of the British settlement in 1819. Other included maps illustrate the strong continuity and tradition of maritime charting of the Singapore strait from the chart drawn by the Frenchman Jean Rotz and presented to Henry VIII in 1542 (Royal MS 20 E IX), to British Admiralty charts of the straits surveyed and published three centuries later.  Finally, the hand-drawn atlas of 1700 by William Hack, formally owned by George III (Maps 7.TAB.125), containing 85 charts of the coasts between South Africa and Japan and prominently featuring the Singapore Strait and surrounding area, was digitised in its entirety for the first time." The map collection can be accessed here.

A chart of the coast of Asia, from Cochin China on the east, to Ormus on the west, with Sumatra, Java, and part of Borneo; drawn in 1578, by Joan Martines of Messina.
A chart of the coast of Asia, from Cochin China on the east, to Ormus on the west, with Sumatra, Java, and part of Borneo; drawn in 1578, by Joan Martines of Messina.  British Library, Harley MS 3450, f. 7r Noc

Papers of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles
Antonia Moon, Lead Curator, India Office Records (Post-1858), writes:
"27 volumes were digitised from the India Office Private Papers. These included 14 volumes of Raffles’s own correspondence, journals, notes and observations, which most interestingly reflect his administration of Java, his interest in the history and culture of the people, and his early explorations of Singapore. Also digitised was correspondence with Lord Minto, Governor General of Bengal, which contains Raffles’s narratives of the natural history and antiquities of South East Asia. Five items were digitised from the Raffles Family Papers, including the list of Raffles’s personal possessions lost on board the ship ‘Fame’. Copyright clearance was achieved on most of the material including, importantly, that created by Raffles."  The Raffles Papers can be accessed by searching for 'Mss Eur' on BookSG.

Statement of personal property of Sir Stamford Raffles lost on board the Fame, 1824.
Statement of personal property of Sir Stamford Raffles lost on board the Fame, 1824. British Library, Mss Eur D742/4, f. 6. Noc

Bugis manuscripts
Singapore is home to a substantial Malay community of Bugis/Makassar descent, who maintain a strong interest in the language, culture and traditions of their ancestral homeland in Sulawesi, Indonesia. The 32 Bugis and 2 Makasar manuscripts which have been digitised, listed here, were taken in 1814 during the British attack on the kingdom of Bone in south Sulawesi, and entered the possession of John Crawfurd, a senior East India Company official. The collection includes an important series of royal diaries kept by senior court officials, including some belonging to the former king of Bone himself, Sultan Ahmad al-Salih Syamsuddin (1775-1812).

Bugis diary of the Maqdanreng (most senior court official) of Bone, showing the entry for March 1729, with a detailed account of activities on 15th March written in a square spiral.
Bugis diary of the Maqdanreng (most senior court official) of Bone, showing the entry for March 1729, with a detailed account of activities on 15th March written in a square spiral. British Library, Or 8154, f. 77r. Noc

Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts
The Bollinger-Singapore project enabled the completion of the digitisation of the British Library’s small collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, making publicly accessible a selection of Qur’ans representing three distinct regional traditions of the Malay world, from Aceh, Java and Patani on the East Coast of the Malay pensinsula.

Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century, collected by John Crawfurd
Qur’an from Java, 18th-early 19th century, collected by John Crawfurd. British Library, Add 12312, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

The Bollinger-Singapore Digitisation Project was initiated when William and Judith Bollinger moved from London to Singapore in 2012, and extended their already generous patronage of the British Library to a project which they envisaged would enhance collaboration between the British Library and the national library of their new home.

Liz Jolly, Chief Librarian of the British Library, describes the impact of the project: “We are so grateful for this visionary support from William and Judith Bollinger, which has allowed the British Library to make freely and fully accessible a highly significant part of its collections relating to Singapore and the Malay world, benefitting not only the scholarly community but also reaching new audiences, especially in Southeast Asia."

Tan Huism, Director of the National Library of Singapore, expresses appreciation of the project and outlines some of the beneficial outcomes: “It takes a special person, in this a case a special couple, to support digitisation work. While digitisation is largely unseen work done by libraries, it is crucial work in enabling access and the sharing of collections with people all over the world when put online. The National Library of Singapore is grateful to Bill and Judy for their generous support in this project which has not only enabled the Singapore public to engage with these wonderful treasures held by The British Library digitally but the digitisation had also facilitated the loans of some of these materials for exhibitions in Singapore.”

This digitisation project was one of the first to make widely accessible such a range of primary source material for the study not only of the history of the Malay world, but also for its literature, art, calligraphy, book culture and writing traditions.

Further interest:

A video of Judy Bollinger speaking in 2018 at the National Library of Singapore.

Tales of the Malay world, an exhibition of Malay manuscripts at the National Library of Singapore in 2018.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia Ccownwork

22 March 2021

A beautiful Qur’an manuscript from Kampar, Riau, digitised through EAP

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A recent Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) project in Indonesia – EAP1020, ‘Preserving and digitising the endangered manuscript in Kampar, Riau Province, Indonesia’, led by Fikru Mafar and colleagues – has digitised one of the finest illuminated Qur’an manuscripts documented in Sumatra. The manuscript, EAP1020/5/1, which is written on Dutch watermarked paper and probably dates from the 19th century, is owned by Mr Muamar in the village of Air Tiris in Kampar. He inherited it from his parents, descendants of Datuk Panglima Khatib, a local hero of Kampar whose tomb is a popular attraction. Today Kampar is a small district (kecamatan) within the regency (kabupaten) of the same name in the province of Riau, but historically the Kampar is known as one of the great rivers of the kingdom of Siak, running from the Minangkabau highlands down through the central eastern seaboard of Sumatra to the Straits of Melaka. Siak was founded in the 17th century by Raja Kecil, a prince of Johor-Malay and Minangkabau heritage, and Kampar features prominently in the Malay chronicles of the period.

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

The Qur’an manuscript has a beautifully illuminated frame in red, green and gold surrounding the beginning of the second chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Baqarah. Sadly, this manuscript has lost its initial folio, which would have contained the first chapter of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, set within a symmetrically matching illuminated frame. The rectangular border surrounding the text box contains a stylised representation of the shahadah, the profession of faith, la ilaha illa Allah, 'There is no god but God', repeated on all four sides in gold on a red ground. Calligraphic panels in gold on a green ground within ogival arches on the three outer sides give (above) the title of the surah from Mecca, (below) the number of verses, and (left) tanzil min rabb al-‘alamin (Q.56:80), ‘a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds’.

Although very damaged, detached fragments of one of the final leaves of this manuscript survive, and show that a similar double illuminated frame also occupied the final two pages, enclosing the last eight surahs of the Qur’an. The decorated frames comprised a rectangular calligraphic border on the three outer sides with the stylised shahada reserved in white against a blue ground, continuing with a floral scroll on the inner vertical side; on the three outer sides are ogival arches containing floriate motifs in gold on a red ground.

Digitally reconstructed image of the illuminated frame around the right-hand page at the end of a Qur’an manuscript in Kampar, 19th century
Digitally reconstructed image of the illuminated frame around the right-hand page at the end of a Qur’an manuscript in Kampar, 19th century. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 540, 542

The text of this finely-written Qur’an is set within ruled frames of red-red-black ink, and is laid out according to an Ottoman model popularised on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, with each juz’ or thirtieth part of the Qur’anic text filling exactly 20 pages, while each page of 15 lines ends with a complete verse. Thus in this Qur’an each new juz’ starts at the top of a right-hand page, with the first few words highlighted in red ink, and is marked with three beautiful illuminated medallions in the margin. The top roundel is inscribed al-juz’ in gold against a red or green ground, while the two lower roundels bear elegant foliate or floral patterns. On other pages, similar roundels mark the fractions of each juz’, respectively inscribed nisf (half), rub‘ (quarter) or thumn (eighth), while others bear the letter ‘ayn and indicate places where the reciter should bow (ruku’). However, apart from those for nisf, most of the other medallions are unfinished and uncoloured, and have been left in black ink outline.

Qur’an, showing on the right-hand page the start of juz’ 5 (Q.3:93), with three illuminated marginal roundels; on the left-hand page an uncoloured roundel with ‘ayn-EAP1020-5-1.78-79
Qur’an, showing on the right-hand page the start of juz’ 5 (Q.3:93), with three illuminated marginal roundels; on the left-hand page an uncoloured roundel with ‘ayn. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 78-79

Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.58-juz Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.67-det Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.72-rub Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran-EAP1020-5-1.74-thumn
Marginal medallions indicating the parts of a juz’ or thirtieth portion of the Qu’ran; from left, al-juz’, nisf (half),rub‘ (quarter) and thumn (eighth). EAP1020/5/1, p. 78

Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.38-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.38-juz-b Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.58-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.58-juz-b

Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.78-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.78-juz-b Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.98-juz-a Illuminated marginal medallion indicating the start of a new juz’-EAP1020-5-1.98-juz-b
Eight illuminated marginal roundels with delicate floral motifs, each pair marking the start of a new juz', exactly 20 pages apart. Left to right, from top: juz' 3 (p. 38); juz' 4 (p. 58), juz' 5 (p. 78), juz' 6 (p. 98).  EAP1020/5/1

As is apparent on the pages shown above, this Qur’an was written with black irongall ink, which unfortunately in time always slowly corrodes the paper it is written on, especially in hot and humid conditions. The original pages of this Qur’an are badly affected, and in fact the manuscript reveals evidence of careful efforts to replace damaged pages with new leaves written in a more stable black ink, perhaps already in the 19th century. This conservation project appears to have been carried out initially using a commendably ‘minimally interventionist’ approach of only replacing the most damaged pages. Thus, after verse 91 of Surat al-Baqarah on p. 10, newly-copied replacement pages were inserted on pp. 11-22, before reverting to the original manuscript on p. 23. However, the image below of pp. 22-23 shows some stubs of paper in the gutter of the book indicating further missing folios. These two detached folios, of replacement pages, are in fact located at the end of the manuscript, and have been digitised as pp. 535-6 and 537-8. On closer examination, it can be seen that the text on p. 23 – which ends with Q.2:181 – has been crossed out, while the replacement page p. 538 contains only two verses, Q. 2:180-81, widely spaced out over three lines. Thus we can surmise that the replacement pages were carefully planned for Surat al-Baqarah verses 92-181, reverting to the original manuscript, on p. 24, with Q.2:182. However, because the new scribe did not follow the same finely-judged page layout system, he did not manage to fit the text onto exactly the same number of pages as in the original, and the final lines needed to be spaced out on the last page of the replacement section in order to connect with verse 182 in the original version.

On the left, pages of the original portion of the Qur’an, written in irongall ink, and now badly corroded; on the right, replacement pages-EAP1020-5-1.22-23
On the left, pages of the original portion of the Qur’an, written in irongall ink, and now badly corroded; on the right, replacement pages. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 22-23

The two sides of one of the replacement pages detached from between pp. 22-23, showing how the lines have had to be spaced out on the final page in order to match up with the text remaining in the original portion of the manuscript-EAP1020-5-1.538-ed  The two sides of one of the replacement pages detached from between pp. 22-23, showing how the lines have had to be spaced out on the final page in order to match up with the text remaining in the original portion of the manuscript-EAP1020-5-1.537-ed
The two sides of one of the replacement pages detached from between pp. 22-23, showing how the lines have had to be spaced out on the final page in order to match up with the text remaining in the original portion of the manuscript. EAP1020/5/1, pp. 537-538

This newer portion of the manuscript includes an elaborate double decorated frame in black ink marking the start of Surat al-Isra’ (Q.17), which was probably designed to be coloured but has been left unfinished. As noted above, these newly-copied pages do not follow the same clearly-defined page layout system of the original portion, and thus a new juz’ may commence in the middle of a page, and is indicated simply by writing the first words in red ink. Even in this new portion of the manuscript there have been losses of text, and the Qur’an ends abruptly in the middle of the 26th juz’, in Surat al-Fath (Q.48:20) on p. 534.

EAP1020-5-1.288-289
Uncoloured decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, marking the start of Surat al-Isra’. EAP1020/5/2, pp. 288-289

A number of factors such as the use of the Ottoman page layout model and the location of decorated double frames in the middle of the Qur’an at the beginning of Surat al-Isra’ - and even the use of irongall ink - suggest the influence of Qur’an manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula. Terengganu Qur’ans were the finest in Southeast Asia and were exported all over the Malay archipelago, and their influence was magnified from the 1860s onwards with the publication in Singapore of lithographed Terengganu-style Qur’ans, which were also widely distributed throughout the Malay world. However, the particular artistic influences noted in the Kampar Qur’an point to the other nexus of Qur’anic arts along the East Coast, towards the north in Patani, in southern Thailand. The Patani style of manuscript illumination is on the one hand less technically accomplished than that of Terengganu, but artistically more original and imaginative. This is particularly evident in decorative calligraphic panels in Patani Qur’ans, where great play is made of the massed parallel ranks of the upright lines of letters in the shahadah, often with fanciful looped flourishes to the tips, and the similarities are highlighted below.

Detail of the side arch in the Kampar Qur'an, inscribed tanzil min rabb al-‘alamin (Q.56:80), ‘a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds’, in gold on green, and below, the shahadah in gold on red
Detail of the side arch in the Kampar Qur'an, inscribed tanzil min rabb al-‘alamin (Q.56:80), ‘a revelation from the Lord of the Worlds’, in gold on green, and below, the shahadah in gold on red. EAP1020/5/1, p. 1

Detail of calligraphic panel containing the shahadah in reserved white on a blue ground, in the illuminated frames at the end of the Kampar Qur’an
Detail of calligraphic panel containing the shahadah in reserved white on a blue ground, in the illuminated frames at the end of the Kampar Qur’an. EAP1020/5/1, p. 540

PNM MDetail of a calligraphic panel with the shahadah in gold on a red ground, in the intial illuminated frames of a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. National Library of Malaysia, PNM MSS 328
Detail of a calligraphic panel with the shahadah in gold on a red ground, in the intial illuminated frames of a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. National Library of Malaysia, PNM MSS 328

However, the replacement pages are made in a completely different idiom, incorporating elements from Minangkabau practice. This is particularly evident in the double frames in the middle, which even though unfinished are very comparable in structure to examples in Qur'an manuscripts from west Sumatra, with their localised articulations of the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style, with its characteristic triangular arches and pyramidal clusters of circles. This melange of Malay and Minangkabau influences is in fact a defining feature of the mixed or kacukan society of east Sumatra, 'with constant shifting and interaction between groups' (Barnard 2003: 2), and the different traditions reflected in the creation and preservation of this beautiful Kampar Qur'an can thus be seen as symbolising the fluid and diverse cultural ecology of the historic Siak empire.

Further reading:
Timothy P.Barnard, Multiple centres of authority: society and environment in Siak and eastern Sumatra, 1674-1827. Leiden: KITLV, 2003
A.T. Gallop, The spirit of Langkasuka? Illuminated manuscripts from the East Coast of the Malay peninsula. Indonesia and the Malay World, July 2005, 33 (96): 113-182.

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia 

01 February 2021

Highlights from the British Library’s Collection of Ethiopian Manuscripts

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image of manger with Joseph, Mary and Baby Jesus with cattle beside them and the the three kings in attendance, with adult Jesus and an angel in the clouds in the top-right of the image announcing the miracle to three men seated and laying in the bottom right of the image; with text in Geez script in red and black in above
The Nativity of Jesus, from an 18th-century hymnological composition. (ጥበበ ጠቢባን [Wisest among the Wise], Ethiopia, 18th century. Or 590, f 41r)
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Eyob Derillo, Curator of Ethiopian Collections
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28 January 2021

Digitisation in Asian and African Collections 2019 to 2021: what’s new online and where to find it

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In the past year and a half we’ve made over 650 items from the Library’s Asian and African collections newly available online. To make it easier for you to find and explore our wonderful collections, we’ve put together a list of recently digitised items with links to their online versions for you to download here: Download AAC Jan2021. They are arranged by collection area/project, so you can easily search and filter to your heart’s content!

One of the biggest additions to our digital collections are the 300 Ethiopian Manuscripts digitised as part of the British Library’s Heritage Made Digital programme and made available in 2019. These rare and beautifully illustrated manuscripts date mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries and are predominantly written in the classical Ethiopian language Ge'ez.

ገድለ ጊዮርጊስ, The Acts of St. George, 18th century. Or 715, folio 2v
ገድለ ጊዮርጊስ, The Acts of St. George, 18th century. Or 715, folio 2v  noc

ተአምረ ማርያም, Miracles of Mary, 1717. Or 643, folio 2r
ተአምረ ማርያም, Miracles of Mary, 1717. Or 643, folio 2r  noc

2019 also saw the launch of the Discovering Sacred Texts online exhibition, which brings together expert articles and learning resources on the Library’s religious treasures. You can find many Asian and African collection items on the site, some of which have also been digitised in full. There are 21 now available, including Hindu, Islamic, Christian and Buddhist texts. The image below shows Add MS 11746, a Chinese manuscript containing the Buddhist Heart and Diamond Sutras with illustrations painted on fig leaves.

Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, with illustrations on fig leaves, 18th century. Add MS 11746, folio 1r.
Heart Sūtra and the Diamond Sūtra, with illustrations on fig leaves, 18th century. Add MS 11746, folio 1r  noc

We have now digitised the Library’s entire collection of Zoroastrian Manuscripts, with 34 made available in the last year and more to come over the coming months. Among these you can find Zoroastrian texts in Avestan, Middle Persian, New Persian, Sanskrit and Gujarati, decorated with floral and geometric designs. As well as this, we have published 32 Bugis Manuscripts from South Sulawesi in Indonesia. These manuscripts date from the 17th to early 19th century, and highlights include court diaries from Bone, where on particularly busy days the writing curves around the page to save space (see Add MS 12355). We have also made available 13 West African Manuscripts, including loose leaf manuscripts in leather carrying cases and five Qur’ans, mainly in Arabic.

Bugis diary from the court of Bone, 1774-1793. Add MS 12355, folio 86r
Bugis diary from the court of Bone, 1774-1793. Add MS 12355, folio 86r  noc

An 18th century copy of the Visperad, with floral decoration. MSS Avestan 27, folio 6v
An 18th century copy of the Visperad, with floral decoration. MSS Avestan 27, folio 6v  noc

Another exciting addition is our collection of Japanese Design Books, some of which featured in the Library’s ‘Exquisite Patterns: Japanese Textile Design’ exhibition in 2020. Around 80 have now been digitised, with 29 currently available and more to follow in the next year. These are visually stunning and well worth a look for textile, toy and even sweet designs.

呉竹 / 市田彌一郎, Kuretake / Ichida Yaichirō. Kimono design - ORB.40/1208, folio 53r
呉竹 / 市田彌一郎, Kuretake / Ichida Yaichirō. Kimono design - ORB.40/1208, folio 53r  noc

There are too many to mention here, but in the last year and a half we have also digitised and made available collections of Chinese Manuscripts, Japanese Manuscripts, Tibetan manuscripts, Korean Rare Books and a selection of photographs from the Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic project. You can find all these and more by downloading this excel spreadsheet, which lists all recently available shelf marks and hyperlinks: Download AAC Jan2021

And take a look at the blogs listed below for more in-depth information about our digitised collections.

There’s still more to come ...

There’s still more to look forward to in 2021, including more Zoroastrian Manuscripts, Korean Rare Books and Japanese Design Books, and new content from the on-going Lotus Sutra and Javanese Manuscripts digitisation projects. And don’t forget to check out content already available through the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project.

We are very much still open online and doing our best to make as much available as we can. So stay tuned and keep checking back for further updates @BLAsia_African and @BL_MadeDigital.

How to find digitised content

You can find digitised printed material via the main Explore catalogue. Search using the ‘Available online (beta)’ tab, select ‘I want this’ and ‘Go’ to view a collection item online.

For manuscripts, search the Explore Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. Again, select ‘I want this’ and ‘Go’ to view a digitised collection item.  You can also search directly in Digitised Manuscripts by shelf mark or keyword (e.g. ‘Ethiopian’).

Sara Hale  ccownwork
Digitisation Officer, Heritage Made Digital: Asian and African Collections
Follow us @BL_MadeDigital

Further reading

Ethiopian manuscripts
African Scribes: Manuscript Culture of Ethiopia
A handbook of Ethiopian magic incantations and talisman art
The Christmas Story: Images from Ethiopic Manuscripts

Zoroastrian manuscripts
Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library
The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination
Ovum Zoroastræum: ‘Zoroaster’s egg’
Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell

Bugis manuscripts
Digital access to Bugis and Makassar manuscripts
The Royal Library of Bone: Bugis and Makassar manuscripts in the British Library
Bugis flower power: a compendium of floral designs
Bugis manuscript art
Animal days: three Bugis amulets in British collections

West African manuscripts
The British Library’s West African manuscripts collection

Japanese design books
Zuan-cho – Japanese design albums in the late Meiji Period
Exquisite patterns: Japanese Textile Design Books
Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

Visual representations of the third plague pandemic
Bombay Plague Visitation, 1896-97

 

 

30 November 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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16 September 2020

Unsōdō and the evolution of design book publishing in Japan

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The Japanese Collection of the British Library includes around 50 Japanese pattern and design books.  Thanks to a grant from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation, the Library is digitising many of these and making them available online.  This series of blog posts features some of the items in the collection, the artists who created them and the publishers who produced them.  In this post Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator at the fine art publisher Unsōdō, explains the company’s origins and its significance in the development of Japanese design.

Unsōdō is a Japanese publishing company, specialising in art books, which was founded in Kyoto in 1891 and is still in operation today.  Established in the late Meiji Period (1868-1912) when Japan was rapidly modernising, Unsōdō sought through its publication of art books to educate Japanese society on design in the new age, and to highlight the direction of art publishing and the modernisation of the textile industry.

Unsodo store front

Unsōdō’s premises in Teramachi, Kyoto c. 1929. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Unsōdō was able to develop against a backdrop of change in Japanese society.  Key contributory factors were the rise of the textile industry, modernisation of crafts, establishment of department stores, systematisation of the art world.  The emergence of a middle class with an interest in culture and a willingness to buy created a growing market for Unsōdō’s publications. In this article I would like to give a brief outline of the history of Unsōdō, the changes in Japanese society, arts and crafts in Kyoto, and the expansion of Unsōdō’s achievements.

First, let us look at the history of Unsōdō. The firm was founded in 1891 in the Teramachi Nijō district of Kyoto by Yamada Naosaburō 山田直三郎 (1866-1932). He gained his knowledge of the workings of the book trade from Tanaka Jihei 田中治兵衛, proprietor of the Kyoto bookshop Bunkyūdō 文求堂, before setting up his own independent store specialising in art books. He asked the literati painter Tomioka Tessai 富岡鐡斎 to create a name for the new enterprise. The name he chose, Unsōdō 芸艸堂, was inspired by ‘unsō’ 芸艸, a Japanese name for the herb rue (Latin: Ruta graveolens). This strong-smelling plant, traditionally believed to be an effective insect repellant, was used to make bookmarks and was thus a fitting name for a bookshop.


Usondo founder
Yamada Naosaburō (1866-1932), founder of Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

 

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Unsōdō’s store of over 10,000 original woodblocks, still used to produce reprints. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD.

Yamada Naosaburō was born into the Honda family, proprietors of a book-binding business. Alongside book-binding, the eldest son Honda Ichijirō 本田市次郎 (1863-1944) and third son Honda Kinnosuke 本田金之助 (1868-1930), began to publish kimono pattern books which were very much in vogue at the time. From around 1889 the company was known as Honda Unkindō本田雲錦堂. Large numbers of kimono-related books were being published in Kyoto at that time and there was intense competition between Unsōdō and Unkindō, a rivalry which stimulated the creation of a great many design books. However, as they were brothers first and foremost, Naosaburŏ, Ichijirō and Kinnosuke eventually merged the two companies in 1906 under the name Unsōdō. From then on, all three brothers worked together in the publishing business. They focussed on works for the kimono industry, producing lavish publications which used not only traditional colour woodblock printing but also cutting-edge technology of the day such as collotype-printed photographic plates and heliotype colour plates. These luxurious books were expensive but proved profitable and were published in rapid succession. This momentum continued and in 1918 Unsōdō opened a branch in Yushima in Tokyo. 

woodblock for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902  Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902
Two woodblocks for printing Kairo (One hundred patterns of waves) by Kamisaka Sekka.1902. Left: Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD. Right: equivalent page from the British Library copy of Kairo ORB.40/838

Unsōdō also managed to acquire woodblocks for art books from other publishers in Kyoto, Osaka and Tokyo and to republish the works as Unsōdō imprints.

Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō.
Reprint of Hokusai manga from original blocks acquired by Unsōdō. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Despite the occasional periods of economic depression, Japanese society continued to develop, thanks to official campaigns to encourage new industries and also to the special demands of times of war. The textile industry was one of the first to attract the attention of business entrepreneurs. Modern textile factories were set up across Japan, long-established kimono dealers became department stores, textile wholesalers and brokerage businesses were established and a skilled workforce developed. Traditional local textiles came to be distributed through kimono dealers and department stores. The successful, affluent classes became art collectors and ordinary people were able to see works of art in museums or the art galleries of department stores. 


Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks
Modern edition of Kairo from original woodblocks. Image courtesy of UNSODO CO., LTD

Kyoto’s replacement by Tokyo as the national capital in 1869 and the resultant departure of the Emperor, Imperial Family and upper aristocracy, led to a period of uncertainty for the city. Yet this sense of crisis acted as a catalyst to the modernisation of the arts and crafts industry, taking advantage of a local population with a deep connection to traditional culture and the existence of large numbers of artisans skilled in various crafts. Descendants of court painters set up painting academies, and art schools were founded to promote the modernisation of art education. Cooperative associations were established for many industries including lacquer manufacturing, ceramics, dyeing and weaving. These organisations worked to improve standards and modernise designs in their respective industries, to stabilise distribution networks throughout Japan and to use the high levels of expertise developed over centuries to produce art objects for export. This was an important means of acquiring foreign currency for Japan at that time and was actively supported by the government.

Key reasons for the expansion of Unsōdō’s business were the appearance of “art books born from social change” and the increase in the number of “people who need art books”. An example of the former would be catalogues for displays of new works that were held in kimono dealers and department stores, or for exhibitions in the painting academies. “People who need art books” included those involved in the creation of art and craft objects as well as those selling them – artists, designers, craftspeople and teachers, and also merchants. Painting manuals, pattern books and picture albums had existed in the Edo Period (1600-1868), but in the later 19th century new publications were needed that took into account new tastes and Western influences. Art schools and industrial technology institutes across Japan needed textbooks and reference works. Then, as now, art books tended to be large format and require elaborate binding and printing techniques, resulting in higher prices. The reason these books ‘flew off the shelves’ was that they were not only bought for personal interest and pleasure but were used for work and were provided in the work place.

Orb_40!1080_hollyhock_576pxls  Orb_40!1080_wistaria_576pxls
‘Yellow hollyhock’ and ‘Wisteria’ from Jakuchu gafu, a collection of designs by Itō Jakuchū (1716-1800), published by Unsōdō in 1908. British Library ORB.40/1080

In other words, art books were an inseparable part of industrial development. As a Kyoto publisher, Unsōdō, played its part in disseminating the essence of Japanese history – the aristocratic culture with the emperor at its summit, the millennium of craftsmanship that produced ‘guides to traditional customs’ (yūsoku kojitsu), patterns and designs, cultural properties, handicrafts, collectables, and even the foreign art works and designs that were incorporated over the centuries.

In recent years, woodblock-printed design books of the late Meiji Period have been attracting growing attention. It was a time when Kyoto, the centre of Japan’s publishing culture since the Middle Ages, was full of skilled craftspeople. Although in terms of cost, print run and finish, woodblock printing was the only practical method of colour printing available, during the late 19th and early 20th centuries woodblock printing technology developed markedly. It is characterised by what can be called ‘high quality art printing’ and its ‘human touch’. Moreover, we still marvel at the creativity of the designers of the time. As well as the professional designers, artists who specialised in Japanese and Western-style painting also created designs as a side-line to their main careers. Today we cannot easily tell how many people were involved in the world of design at the time. This is because the modernisation of Japanese art has brought a division into ‘artists’, who created fine art, and ‘craftspeople’, who created practical wares. Designers themselves have not yet been appraised, and often artists’ design work has not been considered in an assessment of their careers.

Teruko Hayamitsu, Curator, UNSODO CO., LTD

(translation: Hamish Todd, Head of East Asian Collection, British Library)

 

Further reading

Hillier, Jack, The Art of the Japanese Book. London: Sotheby’s, 1987.

Johnson, Scott, “New Colours, a New Profession & a New Idea: Zuan Enrich Kyoto Design”. Andon 97, 2014.

Johnson, Scott, “Zuan Pattern Books: The Glory Years”. Andon 100, 2015.

Yokoya, Ken’ichiro, Fischbach, Becky (ed.), Zuancho in Kyoto: Textile Design Books for the Kimono Trade. Stanford: Stanford University, 2007 (exhibition catalogue)

15 June 2020

The First Gaster Bible: a fine Hebrew manuscript from a Muslim land

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The Hebrew Bible, known in Christianity as The Old Testament, and as TaNaKh in Judaism, comprises the sacred texts of the Jewish people. It is a profuse and unique compilation of laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, royal chronicles, decrees, tales and much more. Its content and structure evolved over a lengthy period extending from the Babylonian exile of the Jewish population in Judea in the 6th century BCE, until about the 2nd century CE.

The word TaNaKh is an acronym based on the first consonantal letters representing its three principal divisions, namely: Torah known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im denoting Prophets, and Ketuvim or Writings. The TaNaKh consists of 24 books in all.

In antiquity, the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was copied on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Codices (singular: codex) i.e. bound books with pages, emerged in Judaism around the 8th century CE, although they may have been in use before then. The 10th century in particular witnessed an upsurge in the production of TaNaKh codices, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Psalms (64:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 14v))
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Named after its distinguished last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was most probably created in Egypt. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript giving details about its production – is missing, and so, nothing is known about the original commission. Its estimated date and place of production have thus been determined by comparing it with extant Hebrew Bibles copied about the 10th century in Egypt and the Middle East.

The First Gaster Bible shows unmissable signs of wear and tear. Its thousand-year old parchment folios displaying fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded embellishments, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What originally may have been a complete manuscript of Ketuvim (Writings), has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just portions from the Books of Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.

 

Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Top) Ruth (3:15- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. Or 9879, f. 31r (detail)
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(Bottom) . Ecclesiastes (beginning of ch.3). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 32v (detail)))
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When leafing through the manuscript, one notices right away the small script annotations that surround the scriptural text. These are collectively termed as masorah from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ msr’ meaning to hand down. The masorah is fundamentally a corpus of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the biblical text that safeguarded the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible over the centuries. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The Masoretes’ greatest contribution was the compilation of a system of signs and vowels that set up in writing the accurate way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously filled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation, both visible in the First Gaster Bible. The large masorah (masora magna) copied usually at the top and foot of pages, and the small masorah ( masora parva) penned between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from alterations. The latter is more copious and includes lists of whole sections from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other characteristics.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
End of Esther, beginning of Daniel. (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 40r))
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It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript provides a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art.

Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is essentially functional. Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include golden chains, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and undulating scrolls and spirals.

Illuminated page with Hebrew textIlluminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Psalms (69:4 - ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 16r))
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(Right) Psalms (71:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 17r))
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It is interesting to point out that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th – 11th centuries are incomplete. One such exception is the Leningrad Codex, preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg. Copied most probably in Egypt around 1008 or 1009 CE, it is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

Among the extant fragmentary specimens, the Aleppo Codex kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, qualifies as the oldest and most authoritative Hebrew Bible. It was copied c. 930 CE in Tiberias, the Holy Land, and has apparently lost 196 of its 491 original pages.

Apart from the First Gaster Bible, the British Library holds a few other very early, incomplete Hebrew biblical codices. The most prestigious is the London Codex, a Pentateuch with masorah that was created probably in Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. The scribe’s name - Nissi ben Daniel ha-Kohen who, in all likelihood was also the masorete and vocaliser of the manuscript, is hidden within the masoretic notes on folios, 40r, 113v and 139r.

Or 4445  f.40r Illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Pentateuch. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. (Or 4445, f. 38v))
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(Right) Pentateuch; Scribe’s acrostic in masoretic notes, left margin. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-959 CE. (Or 4445, f. 40r))
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The Second Gaster Bible comes also from Dr Moses Gaster’s former library. Furnished with masorah and delicate ornamentation, it was probably crafted in Egypt towards the last quarter of the 11th century CE. Despite its poor condition, it is evidently a beautiful example of Islamic influence on Jewish manuscript decoration.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Pentateuch; Deuteronomy (19:6- ). (The Second Gaster Bible, Egypt, 11th -12th century CE. (Or 9880, f. 34r))
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Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a particularly interesting Hebrew Pentateuch of Persian origin that lacks entirely the Books of Genesis and Exodus. This early codex is provided with masoretic rubrics, the Aramaic translation, and vowel points placed above the consonantal text. This vocalisation system was developed in Babylonia during the 6th and 7th centuries CE and was eventually superseded by the sublinear pointing developed and perfected by the Tiberian Masoretes.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Numbers (7:87- ). (Pentateuch, Iran, 10th -11th century CE. (Or 1467, f. 44r)).
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The First Gaster Bible is a highly significant codex included in the Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition whose opening has been deferred until further notice.

The British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts described in this blog have been digitised cover to cover as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the Library, 2013-2020. They are discoverable on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings

Dotan, Aron . Reflection towards a Critical Edition of Pentateuch Codex Or. 4445'. In.Estudios masoreticos (X Congreso de la IOMS). Dedicados a Harry M. Orlinsky (Textos y estudios 'Cardenal Cisneros' 55) (Madrid: Instituto de Filología CSIC, Departamento de Filología Bíblica y de Oriente Antiguo, 1993). pp. 39-51.

Friedman, Matti. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible . Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012

Gaster, Moses. Hebrew Illuminated Bibles of the IXth and Xth Centuries (Codices Or. Gaster, No. 150 and 151)……… Reprinted from the “Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology,” June, 1900. .London: Harrison & Sons, 1901.

Narkiss, Bezalel. Kitve-Yad ʿIvriyim Metsuyarim ; mavo me-et Sesil Rot ; [ʿIvrit, Daliyah Shaḥaḳ ; ʿarikhah, Daliyah Ṭesler].'Mahad. ʿIvrit ḥadashah u-Metuḳenet. Jerusalem: Keter, 1984. (in Hebrew)

Ortega-Monasterio, Maria-Teresa. Some Masoretic Notes of Mss. L and Or 4445 Compared with the Spanish Tradition'. Sefarad 57, no. 1 (1997), pp. 127-133.