Asian and African studies blog

21 posts categorized "Gulf"

05 December 2014

George Percy Churchill’s Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables

In 1906, the Government of India Foreign Department published (and republished in 1910) an index of prominent Qajar statesmen, compiled by George Percy Churchill, Oriental Secretary at the British Legation in Tehran. According to Cyrus Ghani, this collection of notes and genealogical tables, entitled Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables, is the only document of its kind and serves an ‘indispensible source to ascertain who the British held in high regard and who they considered to be pro-Russian or independent’ (Ghani, pp. 78-79). Indeed, the importance of the work is attested to by numerous references in monographs and in entries in, for example, the invaluable reference tool Encyclopædia Iranica.

'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746) 'Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables', 1910 (British Library, IOR/L/PS/20/227)

Left: 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
Right: 'Biographical Notices of Persian Statesmen and Notables', 1910 (British Library, IOR/L/PS/20/227)

Copies of the Biographical Notices are available in the records of the India Office and Foreign Office held at the British Library and National Archives respectively. Only three further copies appear to be held in libraries at Bamberg, Cambridge and Canberra, though a 1990 translation into Persian is more widely available (Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ, 1990).

Churchill’s Draft Text
However, a little-known manuscript draft of the Biographical Notices exists in the archive of the Bushire Residency, a part of the India Office Records (‘Biographical Notes’, IOR/R/15/1/746), and is now digitised and available online.

Manuscript note in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3v)
Manuscript note in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3v)

In a signed note (f. 3v), Churchill remarks that he compiled his work from a variety of sources, in particular from Lieutenant-Colonel H. Picot’s, Biographical Notices of Members of the Royal Family, Notables, Merchants and Clergy (1897), which he endeavoured to update and amplify. The draft has the appearance and feel of a scrap-book, with cut-outs of entries from Picot’s work and other printed reports, juxtaposed with up-to-date information written in Churchill’s own hand, as well as seal impressions, signatures, photographs and other elements pasted in.

'Tree of the Royal Kajar House' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff. 28v-29r)
'Tree of the Royal Kajar House' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff. 28v-29r)

In addition to the biographical entries, the draft includes an impressive hand-written genealogical ‘Tree of the Royal Kajar House’ (ff. 28v-29r); a list of words used in the composition of Persian titles (ff. 4r-5v); a list of Persian ministers, provincial governors and others receiving Nowruz greetings in 1904 (ff. 33v-34r); and a list of the principal of Persian diplomatic and consular representatives (ff. 30v-31r). Appearing on folios 32v-33r, quite incidentally with notes written on the back, is a seating plan for a dinner of the Omar Kháyyám Club on 23 November 1905.

Seating plan for the Omar Khayyam Club Dinner, 23 November 1905 (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff 32v-33r)
Seating plan for the Omar Khayyam Club Dinner, 23 November 1905 (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, ff 32v-33r)

An Abundance of Seals
What stands out most in Churchill’s draft is the abundance of seal impressions – over 300 of them –  that appear to have been cut out from Persian correspondence and envelopes. These appear next to the biographical entry of the seal owner, and, in some cases, a single entry is accompanied by multiple seal impressions reflecting the use of different seal matrices at different dates and containing personal names or official and honorific titles. In addition, there are three clusters of seal impressions that are not associated with specific biographical entries, and these include seals of Qajar rulers, such as Fath ‘Ali Shah (r. 1797-1834) and Muhammad Shah (r. 1834-1848), as well as other Qajar statesmen.

Draft entry and print entry for Arfa' ud-Daulah (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 66v; IOR/L/PS/20/227, p. 10)
Draft entry and print entry for Arfa' ud-Daulah (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 66v; IOR/L/PS/20/227, p. 10)

Entry for  Mirza ʻAli Asghar Khan Amin us-Sultan in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 55r)
Entry for  Mirza ʻAli Asghar Khan Amin us-Sultan in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 55r)

Seals Set within Illuminated Frames
Two clusters of seal impressions on folios 2v and 29v contain three examples of seals set in ornately decorated illuminated frames that have been cut out from firmans of Farmanfarma Husayn ‘Ali Mirza, Governor-General of Fars, dated 1229 AH (1813/14 CE). This art form developed in Iran during the later Safavid and Qajar eras, spreading throughout the Islamic world. Annabel Gallop and Venetia Porter note such illuminated framed seals with ‘their own architectural constructs’ or else ‘nestling within a bed of petals, sitting at the heart of a golden flame or sending forth rainbow-hued rays’ (pp. 170-172).

Seal impressions on folios 2v (left) and 29v (right) from 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746) Seal impressions on folios 2v (left) and 29v (right) from 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
Seal impressions on folios 2v (left) and 29v (right) from 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)

Embossed Seals and Printed Stationery
The other cluster of cut-outs found on folio 3r are in fact not ink seal impressions, but impressions of embossed (blind-stamped) seals and decorative printed letterheads of specially-printed stationery. These are variously dated and include those of Amin al-Dawlah and Mas‘ud Mirza Zill al-Sultan, and contain decorative symbols such as laurel reefs, crowns, and the lion and sun national emblem (shir u khurshid).

A collection of embossed and printed seals in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3r)
A collection of embossed and printed seals in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746, f. 3r)

Embossed seals made with metal presses came into use in Europe in the latter part of the eighteenth century mainly among companies and institutions, but also by individuals. In the nineteenth century, this practice had become widespread in Ottoman bureaucracy. This collection, taken together with seal presses in museum collections in Iran (Jiddī, p. 75), demonstrates that the practice had become well-established in Qajar administration. Moreover, the embossed seals juxtaposed with traditional ink seal impressions in this volume point towards the ‘changing relations of production and advancing commercialization’ as a result of colonialism and globalisation that affected Islamic diplomatics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Messick, pp. 234-235). Indeed, it has been noted that such embossed seals appeared at around the same time as other developments, such as the widening use of printed letterheads and rubber stamps (Gallop and Porter, p. 122).

Photographic Images
A number of the biographical entries are also accompanied by photographs of the subject in official dress. These are found on folio 48 for Mirza ‘Ali Asghar Khan Amin al-Sultan; two cut out photographs of Hakim al-Mulk Mirza Mahmud Khan and one of Hakim al-Mulk Ibrahim Khan on folio 114v; and one of Muzaffar al-Din Shah Qajar (r. 1896-1907) on folio 163v.

Photographs found in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)
Photographs found in 'Biographical Notes' (British Library, IOR/R/15/1/746)

The Importance of Churchill’s Work
In one sense, Churchill’s work represents an important work in the context of British colonial knowledge of the political landscape of Qajar Iran at the beginning of the twentieth century. Yet, as has been noted by Gallop and Porter (p. 154), the presence of an abundance of seal impressions reflects the keen eye of an enthusiastic collector. However, we should not necessarily view collecting and colonial intelligence gathering as mutually exclusive fields. As Carol A. Breckenridge has noted: ‘The world of collecting was considerably expanded in the post-enlightenment era. With the emergence of the nineteenth-century nation-state and its imperializing and disciplinary bureaucracies, new levels of precision and organization were reached. The new order called for such agencies as archives, libraries, surveys, revenue bureaucracies, folklore and ethnographic agencies, censuses and museums. Thus, the collection of objects needs to be understood within the larger context of surveillance, recording, classifying and evaluating’ (p. 195-96).

Indeed, seal impressions were collectable not only as objects of Orientalist curiosity and research, but also as the preeminent symbol of personal and political authority, power and hierarchy, as well as ownership. Although Churchill’s collection of seal impressions was absent from the final printed version of the Biographical Notices, the draft text provides researchers with a valuable source for the study of Qajar seals and sealing practices at the turn of the twentieth century, at a time in which the Islamic seal was being replaced by other instruments of textual and visual authority, such as embossed seal and photographs.


Primary Sources
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Biographical Notes’, IOR/R/15/1/746
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Biographical notices of Persian statesmen and notables’, IOR/L/PS/20/227
British Library: India Office Records and Private Papers, ‘Persia: biographical notices of members of the royal family, notables, merchants and clergy’, Mss Eur F112/400
The National Archives (TNA), ‘PERSIA: Biographical Notices. Persian Statesmen and Notables’, FO 881/8777X and FO 881/9748X

Further Reading
Carol A. Breckenridge, ‘The Aesthetics and Politics of Colonial Collecting: India at the World Fairs’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, Vol. 31, No. 2 (April, 1989), pp. 195-216
Encyclopædia Iranica, online edition, New York, 1996-
Cyrus Ghani, Iran and the West: A Critical Bibliography (London: Kegan Paul International, 1987)
Annabel Teh Gallop and Venetia Porter, Lasting Impressions: Seals from the Islamic World (Kuala Lumpur, 2012)
Muḥammad Javād Jiddī (trans. M. T Faramarzi), Muhrhā-yi salṭanatī dar majmūʻah-i Mūzih-i Kākh-i Gulistān [Royal seals in Golestan Palace Museum collection] (Tihrān, 1390 [2011])
Brinkley Messick, Calligraphic State: Textual Domination and History in a Muslim Society (Berkley, 1993)
George Percy Churchill (trans. Ghulām Ḥusayn Mīrzā Ṣāliḥ), Farhang-i rijāl-i Qājār (Tihrān, 1369 [1990])


Daniel A. Lowe, Arabic Language and Gulf History Specialist (@dan_a_lowe)

06 November 2014

The Brutal End of Persia’s Zand Dynasty

In 1779, the ruler of Persia and founder of the Zand dynasty, Karim Khan Zand, died of natural causes without nominating a successor. Karim Khan had ruled Persia for the previous 30 years and his failure to appoint an heir created a dangerous power vacuum in the country. A number of rivals from within his own family quickly emerged. The most prominent contenders initially were Karim Khan’s half-brother Zaki Khan Zand (Zackey Caun) and his brother Sadiq Khan Zand (Sadoo Caun or Sadoo Khan).

Add.24904_back cover
An early 19th century lacquer binding  showing Sadiq Khan surrounded by his family and courtiers. Jafar Khan is the second from the left (see Some Portraits of the Zand rulers of Iran). Add.24904

Zaki Khan and Sadiq Khan
Zaki Khan was a powerful and ruthless warrior who – as a general in the service of Karim Khan – had brutally suppressed Qajar tribal territories in the north of Persia in 1763-64. He had even attempted to form a personal fiefdom in central and southern Iran. Although he was the head of a faction that claimed to support the ascension of one of Karim Khan’s infant sons, Muhammad Ali Khan Zand (who was married to Zaki Khan’s daughter), it was clear that he harboured his own ambitions for power.

Sadiq Khan was another  prominent member of the Zand ruling elite and had led the Persian attack on Ottoman-controlled Basra in 1775-6. He was part of a faction that stood in opposition to Zaki Khan and supported another of Karim Khan’s infant sons, Abul Fath Khan Zand, to succeed his father.

Both of these rivals had military experience, armed followers and a desire to replace Karim Khan as ruler of Persia. Serious tension swiftly developed between them and the prospect of a major confrontation between their forces loomed.

The British Get Word of the Death of Zaki Khan
As John Beaumont, the East India Company’s (EIC) Political Resident in Bushire, observed in a letter dated 11 May 1779, this tension would not end ‘but with the death of one of them’.

Image 1 - IOR_R_15_1_3_p24
 The final part of Beaumont’s letter to his EIC colleagues in Basra. IOR/R/15/1/3, p. 24

Beaumont’s observation proved to be prescient as not long after he received news from Shiraz (referred to in the letter as Schyras) that Zaki Khan had been killed at the hands of his own men.

In a letter dated 23 June 1779 he described the event in detail to William Hornby, the Governor of the EIC’s Council in Bombay. Beaumont states that it has ‘pleased the almighty to save Persia and rid the world of such a cruel monster’. The letter describes in gruesome detail how, after Zaki Khan had ordered a massacre of villagers while on the move with his army, his generals were so outraged at his actions (and concerned for their own lives) that they conspired to kill him.

Beaumont’s account explains the death:

[the conspirators] proceeded to Zackey Caun’s tent who was at prayers, he asked them what they wanted, they boldly replied they came to take his life, upon which he snatched up a blunderbuss he always kept by him ready loaded with 5 or 6 balls, but before he could use it, Jaffer Caun cut off his right arm. Nasirulla Mirza observing that was not the proper way to use a sword, drew his and cut him right down the middle. His head was then cut off and immediately despatched to Sadiq Khan before his body was burnt.

Concluding his letter, Beaumont stated that soon as Sadoo Cahn returns to Schyras  the Persians have not a doubt but peace will be restored everywhere and affairs conducted quietly again in their usual channel.

John Beaumont’s letter describes the killing of Zaki Khan. IOR/R/15/1/3, p. 26

Beaumont Hopes for Renewed Stability
Five months after Zaki Khan’s death, Sadiq Khan appeared to be in the ascendancy and in a letter from 20 November 1779 Beaumont was able to report that ‘Sadoo Khan maintains his power at Schyras and seems at present to be firmly established in power’.

He was keen for political stability to be restored in the country so that the EIC could resume its activity in the silks and woollens trade. Unfortunately, Beaumont was to be disappointed and despite his optimistic interpretation of events, Zaki Khan’s brutal killing turned out to be the first of many others.

Rather than marking the start of a new period of calm under the rule of Sadiq Khan, it instead marked the beginning of a long and brutal internecine struggle from which the Zand Dynasty never recovered. Despite his dominant position in 1779, two years later, Beaumont learnt that Sadiq Khan had been defeated by another rival for power, Ali Murad Khan (here referred to as Ally Morad Khan), and blinded and that ‘in a fit of despair on the loss of his sight’ he had poisoned himself with opium and subsequently died.

Image 3 - IOR_R_15_1_3_p88
John Beaumont reports the blinding and subsequent suicide of Sadiq Khan. IOR/R/15/1/3, p. 88

Further Deaths and the Rise of the Qajars
Ali Murad Khan ruled from 1781 until 1785 when he, in turn, was defeated and killed by Sadiq Khan’s son, Jafar Khan. Throughout the 1780s and early 1790s, the Qajar tribe in the north of Persia grew in power and began to threaten the Zand dynasty’s rule, a rule that had come to be characterised by weakness and destructive internal conflicts.

By 1794, the Qajars were dominant and Lutf Ali Khan, son of Jafar Khan and the last Zand ruler of Persia was defeated and killed by Muhammad Khan Qajar, the Chief of the Qajar tribe. This event marked the beginning of the Qajar Dynasty’s rule over Persia, a period of domination that was to last until 1925.         

Add24903_back cover inside Add24903_front cover inside
Inside front and back of an early 19th century lacquer binding showing Lutf Ali Khan Zand (far left) with his minister Mirza Husayn, and Agha Muhammad Khan Qajar (far right) with Haji Ibrahim, the Governor of Shiraz who turned against Lutf Ali Khan ultimately bringing about his downfall. Add.24903


British Library, London, ‘File Vol 3 Letters Outward (from Bushire)’, IOR/15/1/3

John R. Perry, Karim Khan Zand (London: Oneworld, 2006)
Ursula Sims-Williams, Some portraits of the Zand rulers of Iran (1751-1794)


Louis Allday, Gulf History and Arabic Specialist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
Twitter: @Louis_Allday

03 November 2014

Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library

The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership has launched the Qatar Digital Library, a new bilingual, online portal providing access to previously undigitised British Library materials on two major themes: Gulf history, and the history of the sciences in the Arabic-speaking world. The portal hosts content ranging from archives, maps and manuscripts to sound recordings, photographs and much more. All of the content will be complemented with explanatory essays in both Arabic and English.

An early 13th century illustration of the horse’s good points from Kitāb al-bayṭarah by Aḥmad ibn ‘Atīq al-Azdī (Or 1523, ff.22v-23r)

A key part of this project is the digitisation of a selection of Arabic manuscripts from the British Library Collections dealing with scientific subjects such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, chemistry and many others. It was by no means an easy task to prioritise the manuscripts for digitisation. With over 500 Arabic scientific manuscripts in the British Library, there were just too many to choose from!

Our rationale in the selection below was to digitise important seminal texts and authors within a continuous narrative that spans from the late 8th century to the 19th century and from Islamic Spain to the Indian subcontinent. To provide the groundwork for the scientific advancements made within the Islamic world, we have digitised representative manuscripts containing all the Arabic translations of Greek scientific texts. For particularly important texts, like the Almagest of Ptolemy (Add MS 7474 and Add MS 7475), we have digitised all our copies.

Beyond these early translations, we have digitised scientific treatises that reflect scholarly activity down to the 17th century, such as astronomical texts by Bahāʼ al-Dīn al-ʻĀmilī. We have also digitised scholars’ notebooks, which offer a glimpse into the research interests of individual Arabic-speaking scholars, while providing a snapshot of the texts they found most interesting or useful (see for example this notebook on physics and mathematics Add MS 23570, and this one on alchemy and chemistry Or 13006).

Other scientific manuscripts were chosen for digitisation not just because the texts they contain are so significant within the history of science, but because the manuscripts themselves are objects of beauty and masterpieces of Islamic book arts. The British Library collections boast such treasures as ʻAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ṣūfī’s Book of Constellations (Or 5323) and an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica (Or 3366).

To help contextualise these manuscripts, short essays are also available on the portal. You can find articles (and even videos) on such diverse topics as early translations into Arabic, ‘Islamic’ bookmaking techniques, wonders of engineering, and manuscript collectors.

Below you will find a list of the first 40 manuscripts. Over the coming weeks we will be adding more fascinating manuscripts and treasures. Please keep an eye on the Qatar Digital Library.

Add MS 6903: Hippocrates, Aphorisms. 18th century.

Add MS 7474: Ptolemy, Kitāb al-Majisṭī, books 1-6 of the Almagest, heavily illustrated by diagrams and tables. 28 Jumādá I 686 (11 July 1287).Add7474_f11v
Astronomical diagram from the Almagest of Ptolemy (Add MS 7474, f.11v)

Add MS 7475: Ptolemy, Kitāb Baṭlamyūs fī al-ta‘līm al-ma‘rūf bi-l-Majisṭī naqala Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn, books 7-13 of Ptolemy's Almagest. Dated 3 Sha‘bān 615 (25 October 1218).

Add MS 7480 : Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar fī maʿrifat al-taqāwīm. Dated 29 Dhū al-Qa‘dah 1174 (2 July 1761).
Diagram of the spheres (Add MS 7480, f. 39v)

Add MS 7481: Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Fa‘altu fa-lā talum. Dated 14 Jumādá I 826 (25 April 1423).

Add MS 7511: Aristotle, Kitāb fī ma‘rifat ṭabā’i‘ al-ḥayawān al-barrī wa-al-baḥrī, a compilation of translations of three treatises on zoology by Aristotle. 13th-14th century.

Add MS 9602: Ibn al-Naṭṭāḥ and Ibn al-Samḥ, two technical treatises on the use of the flat northern astrolabe. 14th century.
Beginning of a treatise on the use of the astrolabe by Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Yaḥyá ibn al-Naṭṭāḥ (Add MS 9602, f. 1v)

Add MS 14055: Ibn Mankalī, Kitāb al-ḥiyal fī al-ḥurūb wa-fatḥ al-madāʾin wa-ḥifẓ al-durūb, described as ‘the Book of War Machines found amongst the Treasures of Alexander Son of Dārāb the Byzantine (al-Rūmī), known as the Two-Horned (Dhū al-Qarnayn), translated from Greek into Arabicʼ. 16th-17th century.
Diagram of a mechanical device from a manual on the military arts supposedly discovered in the tomb of Alexander the Great at Alexandria and translated from Greek into Arabic. 16th-17th century (Add MS 14055, f.152r)

Add MS 23387: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Taḥrīr kitāb uṣūl al-handasah wa-al-ḥisāb, an Arabic version of Euclid's fundamental introduction to geometry. Dated 15 Rabī‘ II 656 (21 April 1258).
Add MS 23387_f9v
Diagrams from Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī's work on Euclid's Elements, copied within his lifetime (Add MS 23387, f. 9v)

Add MS 23391 : Kitāb Arshimīdas fī al-binkāmāt, on the hydraulic and pneumatic machinery of water-clocks with thirteen diagrams, attributed to Archimedes and Ṣan‘at al-zāmir, on the design and construction of a hydraulic flute playing machine attributed to Apollonius the carpenter and geometer. 16th century.
Top section of water-clock, showing a man's head whose eyes change colour on the hour a bird's head that drops balls onto a cymbal, and the mechanisms that drive these devices (Add MS 23391, f2r)

Add MS 23393: Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, al-Tuḥfah al-shāhīyah fī al-hayʾah, a commentary on Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī's Kitāb al-tadhkirah fī al-hay’ah. Dated 22 Ramaḍān 737 (18 September 1356).

Add MS 23406: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Kitab Jālīnūs fī ‘amal al-tashrīḥ, an Arabic version of Galen's major work on anatomy the De anatomicis administrationibus. Dated 887 (1482).

Add MS 23407: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Alexandrian summaries of eight medical treatises by Galen. 17th century.

Add MS 23409: Ibn al-Quff, Kitāb al-‘umdah fī ṣinā‘at al-jirāḥah, a general introduction to the art of surgery. Dated 1052 (1642/43).

Add MS 23416: Ibn Akhī Ḥizām, Kitāb al-furūsīyah wa-shiyāt al-khayl, a treatise on hippiatrics, one of the earliest Arabic texts on veterinary medicine. 14th century.

Add MS 23570: Mathematical compendium. Copied in Jumādá II 1014 (Oct/Nov. 1605) at Yazd and Dhū al-Qa‘dah 1018 (Jan./Feb. 1610) at Qom.

Arundel Or 17: Kitāb ikhtiṣār al-sittat ‘ashr li-Jālīnūs talkhīṣ Yahyá al-Naḥwī, epitome of the sixteen books of Galen. Dated 25 Jumādá II 615 (18 September 1218).

Delhi Arabic 1926: Theodosius of Bithynia, Kitāb al-ukar, an Arabic version of the De sphaericis. 18th century.

IO Islamic 1249: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Arabic versions of seven Greek mathematical treatises. Copied in 1784.

IO Islamic 924: Kitāb Abulūnīyūs fī al-makhrūṭāt Apollonius of Perga. Dated Ramaḍān 1198 (July/August 1784).

Or 1523: Aḥmad ibn ‘Atīq al-Azdī, Kitāb al-bayṭarah, a treatise on hippiatrics, discussing their good and bad points, training, diseases and treatment. Dated 10? Rajab 620 (9? August 1223).

Or 15643: Sulaymān ibn Aḥmad al-Mahrī, Tuḥfat al-Fuḥūl fī tamhīd al-uṣūl fī ‘ilm al-biḥār, a manual on the principles of navigational theory. Dated at Ṣuḥār, 15 Jumādá II 1153 (7 September 1740).

Or 3366: Kitāb Dīsqūrīdis fī mawādd al-‘ilāj, an Arabic version of Dioscorides De materia medica. Dated at Baghdad, 10 Rabī‘ I 735 (8 November 1334).
Early 14th century botanical illustration from Dioscorides De materia medica (Or 3366, f. 35r)

Or 5323: al-Ṣūfī, Kitāb ṣuwar al-kawākib al-thābitah, an illustrated description of the 48 classical constellations discussed by Ptolemy in his Almagest. Dated, possibly at Maragha, between 1260 and 1279/80.
Ursa major (الدب الأكبر) as viewed on a celestial globe (upper) and as viewed in the sky (lower) (Or 5323, f.8v)

Or 5593: al-Bīrūni, Kitāb istī‘āb al-wujūh al-mumkinah fī ṣan‘at al-asṭurlāb, One of only three recorded copies of an influential treatise on the construction and use of astrolabes, containing 122 diagrams. 14th century.

Or 5596: Ibn al-Nafīs, Sharḥ Kitāb al-Qānūn lil-Qurashī. Dated Dhū al-Ḥijjah 902 (July/August 1497).

Or 6888: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Kitāb fī al-‘ayn mi’atān wa-sab‘ masā’il, a medical treatise on ophthalmology. Dated 2 Sha‘bān 891 (3 August 1486).

Or 7368: Avicenna, Sharḥ al-Majisṭī,  a commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest. Dated at Damascus, Ramaḍān 628 (July/August AD 1231).

Or 7499: Ibn Jazlah, Minhāj al-bayān fīmā yastaʿmiluhū al-insān, an alphabetically arranged handbook on pharmacology, copied during the author's lifetime. Dated Rajab 489 (June/July 1096).
Opening of Ibn Jazlah's work on pharmacology, copied during his lifetime in 1096 (Or 7499, f. 1v)

Or 8293: Ibn al-Tilmīdh, Aqrābādhīn madīnat al-salam, a collection of pharmaceutical texts. Dated, possibly at Baghdad, 625 (1227/28).

Or 8349: al-Bīrūnī, Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm, Comprehensive introduction to the principles of astrology. Includes numerous diagrams and tables. Dating from before 1436.

Or 9202: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Alexandrian Summaries of three medical treatises by Galen, the second volume of a set of the treatises of the Greco-Roman physician Galen of Pergamon. 12th century.

Or 9587: Ibn al-Raqqām, two treatises on the construction and use of sundials. Dating from before 1315.

Or 9649: Mūrisṭus, three technical treatises on the construction of musical organs. 19th century.

Or 11209: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Kitāb al-tadhkirah fī al-hay’ah, a treatise on astronomy which summarises, rationalises and improves upon the system presented in the Almagest of Ptolemy. Copied at Ḥamāh, 11 Shawwāl 688 (28 October 1289).

Or 1198: Aḥmad ibn Yūsuf al-Tīfāshī, Kitāb manāfi‘ al-aḥjār wa-qīmatihā wa-usūlihā, a treatise on precious stones. Dated 15 Jumādá II 799 (16 March 1397).

Or 12802: Sahl ibn Bishr al-Isrā’īlī, Kitāb al-aḥkām ‘alá al-nisbah al-falakīyah, a treatise on interrogatory astrology. Dated 5 Dhū al-Ḥijjah 1093 (5 December 1682).

Or 13006: Compendium of alchemical treatises in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman. 16th and 18th centuries.

Or 13127: Aḥmad ibn Abī Sa‘d al-Harawī, Kitāb Mānālāwus fī al-ashkāl al-kurrīyah, a revised edition of the Arabic translation of Menelaus of Alexandria's (fl. ca AD 100) Greek treatise on spherical trigonometry. Dated at Damascus, 4 Rabī‘ II 548 (29 June 1153).

Sloane MS 3032: Ḥubaysh al-A‘sam, al-Maqālah al-thālithah min Kitāb Jālīnūs fī ḥīlat al-burū’ Jālīnūs, an Arabic version of Book three of Galen's De methodo medendi. 14th century.


Colin F. Baker, Lead Curator, Middle Eastern Studies
Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership

24 June 2014

‘The Kuwait Cat’s Meat Crisis’ & British Imperial Control

On 11 January 1937, the British Political Agent in Kuwait, Gerald Simpson De Gaury (1897-1984) returned to Kuwait City from a tour of the interior. Upon his arrival at the Agency, De Gaury was informed by his Head Clerk that a British subject had been arrested and detained by the local authorities. The subject in question, a Pathan [Pashtun] restaurant owner named Abdul Muttalib bin Mahin, had been charged with “selling cat in his restaurant instead of mutton”.

As Muttalib was a British subject, his arrest was contrary to the provisions of the Kuwait Order-in-Council, the agreement between the British Government and Kuwait’s rulers that governed the relationship between the two states. De Gaury’s response to this breach of the agreement was decisive and illustrates well the extent of the British Empire’s control over Kuwait during this period.

According to a letter De Gaury sent to his superior, Trenchard Craven Fowle (1884-1940), the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, within half an hour of his return to the city, he had successfully secured Muttalib’s release from prison and temporarily detained him in the Agency instead.

The first page of De Gaury’s letter to Fowle reporting the details of Muttalib’s case, 18th March 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 207)
The first page of De Gaury’s letter to Fowle reporting the details of Muttalib’s case, 18th March 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 207)

‘A Herd of Eight Fat Cats’

The next day, the ruler of Kuwait, Shaikh Ahmad Al Jabir Al Sabah apologised to De Gaury in person for the “error in procedure” and then sent a letter to the Agency that presented the ‘evidence’ against Muttalib. According to the letter, the Kuwait Town Watch had visited Muttalib’s house and “found a herd of eight fat cats there”. The letter ended with a request for De Gaury to approve Muttalib’s deportation from Kuwait. In the words of De Gaury, “His Excellency or his officers had thus in effect tried, and convicted the man and I was to be merely his executive official for the deportation”.

Subsequently, De Gaury called for Shaikh Ahmad’s Lieutenant (who was head of the Town Watch) to come to the Agency. Once the Lieutenant arrived, De Gaury informed him that he intended to try Muttalib the following day at 3pm and asked for the witnesses to be ready at that time. In his letter to Fowle, De Gaury states that as he had previously seen an unusual number of cats in the Lieutenant’s own home, he “sharply” asked him how many he himself kept, to which the Lieutenant fearfully responded that his household had “about fourteen, including those in the harem” (the area of a house reserved solely for women).

Evidence: A Dead Cat’s Hair

The next day, De Gaury was told that Shaikh Ahmad had gone away on a hunting trip and that it was not possible to call the witnesses to trial without the Shaikh’s permission. Undeterred, De Gaury held the trial regardless and swiftly dismissed the case against Muttalib due to a lack of evidence. In his letter to Fowle, De Gaury mentions that the American Mission[1] had become involved in the case “with their habitual elan” when Dr. Charles Stanley Mylrea from the Mission’s hospital had analysed a hair found by the Mayor on a table in Muttalib’s restaurant and certified it to be the same as that on a dead cat from a dustbin in the neighbourhood. However, much to the chagrin of the Mission, De Gaury decided that, in the absence of all other witnesses, Mylrea’s assessment carried no weight as evidence.

Dr. Mylrea’s Gravestone at the Old Jewish & Christian Cemetery in Kuwait City. Courtesy of Julia & Keld
Dr. Mylrea’s Gravestone at the Old Jewish & Christian Cemetery in Kuwait City. Courtesy of Julia & Keld

Playing on the Shaikh’s Weakness

According to De Gaury, by this point, the town had split into pro- and anti-Muttalib factions as a result of the controversy and in order to show his support, De Gaury visited Muttalib’s restaurant and publicly rebuked the Mayor of Kuwait who had initially brought the case against the restaurateur. De Gaury’s actions, combined with pressure from Kuwait’s religious establishment (who also supported Muttalib, “owing to his past charity”), soon led the local authorities to lose interest in the case. 

De Gaury believed that the Mayor had initiated the case against Muttaliib in order to try and gain control of his restaurant and had been assisted in this effort by the Town Lieutenant, said by De Gaury to be an “ambitious, jealous man who plays on the Shaikh’s weakness”. At this time, a large number of Indian merchants had recently been expelled from Iran and Iraq and in the words of a British official “were keen to try their luck in Kuwait”. This eventuality worried Shaikh Ahmad as he was concerned that an influx of these merchants into Kuwait would bankrupt their local competitors and cause instability. It is possible that he supported the Mayor’s call for Muttalib’s deportation due to this broader concern.

De Gaury explained to Fowle that the Mayor made the error of attacking a British subject thinking that foreigners would be “easier game” than Kuwaitis and since the Shaikh had “concealed the provisions of the Kuwait Order-in-Council from most of his subjects”, had not realised “that he would in the end encounter me”.

Diplomatic Humour

After receiving De Gaury’s letter, Fowle reported the details of the case onwards to the British Government in India in a letter of his own on 5 May 1937.  In this letter, Fowle joked that by using the ‘capital’ of 14 cats, the Lieutenant and the Mayor “could doubtless have started a flourishing business in the restaurant line”. 

Fowle’s light-hearted commentary on the final page of his letter to the Government of India regarding Muttalib’s case, 5 May 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 214).
Fowle’s light-hearted commentary on the final page of his letter to the Government of India regarding Muttalib’s case, 5 May 1937 (IOR/R/15/1/506 f. 214).

Although the charges against Muttalib were dropped, under the belief that his business would suffer as a result of the accusations nevertheless, he wound up his affairs and left Kuwait. Fowle sardonically remarked that it was not known whether he left “with or without his eight cats”. Thus ended what was known while it lasted as the ‘Kuwait Cat’s Meat Crisis’, and in De Gaury’s words “at one time threatened to be rather serious”.

Although De Gaury may have sympathised with Muttalib’s plight on a personal level, the underlying motivation for the decisive action he took in his support clearly had a wider context. As De Gaury observed, many Kuwaiti subjects were unaware of the depth of Britain’s imperial control over the country and the extent to which the Kuwait Order-in-Council infringed upon on the country’s sovereignty. The crisis therefore served to visibly underline the British Empire’s commanding presence in Kuwait. Muttalib’s almost immediate release from prison and the dismissal of the case against him the next day sent a strong message that all British subjects in Kuwait, even those accused of a crime, were under their government’s protection and could not be arrested or prosecuted by the local authorities.

Primary Sources
London, British Library, ‘File 53/32 V (D 128) Kuwait Miscellaneous', IOR/R/15/1/506

Further reading
al-Ḥātim, ‘Abd Allāh ibn Khālid, Min hunā bada’at al-Kūwayt, 2nd edn (al-Kūwayt: Maṭba‘ah Dār al-Qabas, 1980)


Louis Allday, Gulf History & Arabic Specialist
British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership


[1] The Arabian Mission of the Reformed Church in America.

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