Asian and African studies blog

27 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

04 July 2019

125 More Arabic Scientific Manuscripts in the Qatar Digital Library

Add comment

The second phase of the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership digitisation project has now come to a successful close. You can find lists of the 80 manuscripts digitised during the first phase of the project here and here, and as we enter the project’s third phase, we are delighted to present an overview and complete list of the 125 Arabic scientific manuscripts digitised during the second phase.

Diagram from al-Mawṣilī’s al-Durr al-naqī fī fann al-mūsīqī showing the interrelations between the musical modes, the letters of the alphabet, the four elements, the days of the week, the hours of the day, the celestial spheres and the signs of the zodiac (Add MS 23494, f. 6r)

In this phase of the project, we have continued to digitise such classics of Arabic scientific literature as Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (i.e. Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine: Or 3343, Or 4946 and Or 6537), Ibn al-Haytham’s, Maqālah fī ṣūrat al-kusūf (e.g. Alhazen’s, Epistle on the Image of the Solar Eclipse: Or 5831), al-Rāzī’s, al-Ḥāwī fī al-ṭibb (i.e. Rhazes’ Liber continens or All-containing Book, Arundel Or 14), Bahāʾ al-Dīn al-ʿĀmilī’s Khulāṣat al-ḥisāb (Summa of Arithmetic: Delhi Arabic 1919) and Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī’s al-Tadhkirah fī al-hayʾah (Memoirs on Cosmology, Add MS 23394).

Magic square (wafq) of 28 x 28 cells from the Dīwān al-ʿadad al-wafq (Delhi Arabic 110, ff. 108v-109r)

We have also digitised manuscripts pertaining to the subsequent commentary traditions inspired by major texts such as those inspired by Ibn Sīnā’s al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (Or 5931, Or 3654, Or 14154, and IO Islamic 854), al-ʿĀmilī’s Khulāṣat al-ḥisāb (Delhi Arabic 1896 and IO Islamic 1362) and al-Ṭūsī’s al-Tadhkirah fī al-hayʾah (IO Islamic 1715, Or 13060, IO Islamic 1715, Delhi Arabic 1934, Add MS 7472, and Add MS 7477).

Title page of al-Qaṣrānī’s Kitāb al-masāʾil dated 768/1367, with patron statement of the Mamluk amir Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur al-Nāṣirī (d. 769/1368) (Delhi Arabic 1916, vol. 1, f. 1r)

Arabic continued to be a language of fertile scientific discourse well beyond the time period and geographic range traditionally associated with the so-called ‘Golden Age of Islam’. In order to illustrate this, we have digitised Arabic scientific manuscripts preserving texts written from the 9th to the 18th centuries that showcase the scientific endeavours of Islamicate peoples from Islamic Spain, across North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Near East, Anatolia, Iran, Central Asia and India.

Title page of the Kitāb fī al-shaṭranj wa-manṣūbātihi wa-mulaḥih on which the seal of the Ottoman sultan Bāyezīd II (reg. 1481-1512) can be seen in the lower left corner (Add. MS 7515, f. 1r)

You will find medical, astronomical and mathematical works produced in thirteenth-century Rasūlid Yemen (Or 3738, Or 9116, Delhi Arabic 1897); a commentary on Euclid’s Elements by al-Kūbanānī, court astronomer and mathematician to the Aq Qoyunlu sultan Abū al-Muẓaffar Ya‘qūb ibn Uzun Ḥasan (reg. 1478-90: Or 1514); Ottoman works such as, a medical text by Ibn Sallūm, personal physician to the Ottoman sultan Mehmet IV (reg. 1648-87), which responds to the ‘new (al)chemical medicine’ (al-ṭibb al-jadīd al-kīmāwī) of Paracelsus and his followers ( Or. 6905) and a book of astronomical tables for Cairo by the eighteenth-century astronomer Riḍwān Efendi al-Razzāz (Or 14273); and seventeen manuscripts from the British Library's Delhi collection , which cast light on the collection, copying and production of Arabic scientific literature in Mughal India.

Astrolabe quadrant produced in 1256/1840-1 and signed by its maker, Aḥmad ibn Ibrāhīm al-Sharbatlī (Or. 2411/2, Side A)

We have also expanded the boundaries of what we consider to be ‘scientific’ literature to include related subjects such as zoology, veterinary medicine and animal husbandry (Delhi Arabic 1949, Add MS 21102, Add MS 23417, Or 15639 and Or 8187) and two works on chess (Add MS 7515 and Or 9227). Hoping to go beyond what is expected from our digitisation project, we have even digitised a scientific instrument: a quadrant we discovered boxed with a earlier manuscript of a user’s manual for such a device (Or 2411/2 ).

Bio-bibliographical note in the rough draft of an Arabic translation of Gnomonices libri octo by Christophorus Clavius (d. 1537 or 38). The translation is by Rustam Beg al-Ḥārithī al-Badakhshī ibn Qubād Beg (d. 1705) and the note is by his son, Mīrzā Muḥammad – more on this in our earlier post East-West knowledge transfer in Mughal India (IO Islamic 1308, f. 1v)

Colophon of a copy of Saʿīd ibn Hibat Allāh’s al-Mughnī fī tadbīr al-amrāḍ wa-maʿrifat al-ʿilal wa-al-aʿrāḍ produced at Baghdad 1172 (IO Islamic 3810, f. 105r)

We are currently finalising the scope of the third phase of the British Library and Qatar Foundation Partnership, which will include such highlights as early copies of the Rasāʾil Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʾ, a large and early manual of dream interpretation and the British Library’s second oldest Arabic scientific manuscript (click here to see the oldest). Keep your eye on the Qatar Digital Library to see the newest manuscripts as they are digitised and posted.

For a complete list of the 125 manuscripts together with hyperlinks to the images download Qatar-scientific-mss-phase-2

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership

24 June 2019

Naskhi-divani: a little-recognized sultanate script

Add comment

Today's guest blog is by Vivek Gupta, a historian of Islamic and South Asian art who is completing his PhD thesis “Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600),” at SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology. Vivek is currently based at the British Library for a research placement on illumination in Persian Manuscripts.

The art of the book in sultanate India, particularly of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, is notable for its eclecticism. Because of the sultanates’ evolving political terrain, the search for a coherent narrative of manuscript patronage and production is a challenge. In comparison to painting, one relatively overlooked feature of sultanate books is calligraphy. Here, we examine a script found in sultanate manuscripts that scholars have started to call naskhī-dīvānī.

Fig 1_1500
Fig. 1. Qur’ān, Sūrat al-Falaq, India, ca. 1450-1500, 26.5 x 18.4 cm (BL Add. 5551, f. 189r). Public domain

Appearing in the late fourteenth century, two styles of writing seldom seen outside of India are bihārī and naskhī-dīvānī. Bihārī is characterized by thick horizontal strokes specifically in terminating letters and thin verticals; diacritical markers are horizontal, rather than at a slant. In the Indian Qur’an manuscript (ca. 1450-1500) shown in Fig. 1, bihārī is in black. Bihārī evidently associates the script with the northeastern Indian region of Bihar[1], but the name remains a mystery, especially as it appears far beyond Bihar in places such as Bengal and the Deccan; by early-modern times it also reached Ethiopia. The British Museum’s catalogue, published in 1879, describes the script in the example here as “large and angular Naskhi” and dates it to the fourteenth century[2]. The name for this script is also unresolved in the catalogue of Khuda Bakhsh Library, Patna. The first volume of 1918 describes the script of a bihārī Qur’an as thuluth-i kūfī. The third volume of 1965 calls the script baḥr, which means ‘sea,’ while the fourth volume of 1995 designates it as khaṭṭ-i bihār (bihārī calligraphy)[3].

Even less understood than bihārī is naskhī-dīvānī. Naskhī-dīvānī, as the name implies, is a combination of a standard naskh and a dīvānī script often used for chancellery documents. In her pioneering research coining naskhī-dīvānī as a calligraphic style, Éloïse Brac de la Perrière describes it as such:

The bar of the kāf often terminates with a small hook, as with the alif that features a lower tail curving left of its vertical line. Some letters like the kāf are almost angular, however the ḥā’ and khā’ in the initial position and the final ligature of the yā’ with letters preceding it have a rounded appearance with a loop; the dāl is large and open[4]

As seen here in red, naskhī-dīvānī is often used in interlinear Persian translations of Qur’ans in bihārī script. It often appears in marginal glosses of such Qur’ans as well. Since it is frequently diminutive or paratextual to the bihārī script, it has a special affinity with bihārī. In many cases, the scribes responsible for both the bihārī text and naskhī-dīvānī paratext would have been the same individual.

One manuscript copied in a naskh script closely resembling a naskhī-dīvānī is an anthology of Persian poetry (Or.4110) assembled during the reign of the Sharqi Sultan Mubarak Shah of Jaunpur (r. 1399-1402). The manuscript is datable to the beginning of the fifteenth century. In these diagrams for reading poetry the script possesses the angularity of the naskhī-dīvānī and distinctive terminating letters (fig. 2). In the spiraling diagrams shown on the right we see a thick black stroke akin to the bihārī script. The orange and red floral decoration and blue roundels also are typical of bihārī Qur’āns. The craftsmen responsible for this manuscript thus were certainly familiar with the calligraphy and decorative programme of a bihārī manuscript.

Fig 2b Fig 2b
Fig. 2. Anthology of Persian Poetry, Jaunpur, India, beginning of the fifteenth century, folio: 37 x 26 cm (BL Or. 4110, ff. 153v-154r). Public domain

Beyond Arabic and Persian manuscripts, naskhī-dīvānī was also the leading script for the earliest Hindavi vernacular premākhyān, or story of love, the Chāndāyan (1379) of Mullāh Dā’ūd. This was a story told in a highly Sanskritized idiom that borrowed from Persian poetics. Although there has been no critical analysis of the paleography of the Chāndāyan manuscripts to date, it is clear that the script of the majority of these manuscripts is a naskhī-dīvānī adapted for the vernacular (fig. 3). Further, the layout of these texts borrows directly from Persian poetry collections (dīvāns). That these manuscripts were produced in a number of regions (Gujarat, Malwa, Delhi-Agra) over the course of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries attests to the spread of this script. Here, it is worth questioning whether or not the scribes of these vernacular manuscripts were the scribes of bihārī Qur’ans. If this were the case, this offers evidence of a multilingual literate culture in which trained scribes could produce manuscripts in varying scripts.

Fig 3b Fig 3b
Fig. 3. “The Breaking of Chāndā’s Pearl Necklace,” Chāndāyan of Maulānā Dā’ūd, Malwa, India, ca. 1520-40, folio: 24.4 x 14. cm (John Rylands Library Hindustani 1, ff. 132v-133r). Copyright University of Manchester

In addition to manuscripts of deluxe quality, naskhī-dīvānī appears in unillustrated and unilluminated books from the sultanate world. For example, a copy of the Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī, the fourteenth-century Persian translation of Varāhamihira’s sixth-century Sanskrit encyclopedia the Bṛhatsaṁhitā, is inscribed in naskhī-dīvānī (fig. 4)[5]. We know the manuscript passed through the Deccan sultanate of Golkonda because it bears a seal of Muhammad Qutb Shah (r.1612-26), so it must date from before the end of his reign.

IO Islamic 1262_f1v
Fig.4. Preface, Tarjumah-i kitāb-i Bārāhī of ‘Abd al-‘Azīz Shams-i Tahānisārī, 29.3 x 16.2 cm (BL IO Islamic 1262, f.1v). Public domain

With the substantial and intriguing evidence of naskhī-dīvānī in Qur’ans, Hindavi poetry, and secular works, this script was widespread in a number of languages and genres. This opens up possible lines of inquiry about the scribes’ level of literacy in these languages. For the moment such questions remain unanswered although while it is clear that there are very few cohesive threads in the manuscript culture of sultanate India, naskhī-dīvānī may well prove to be a primary one.

Further reading:
Brac de la Perrière, Éloïse. “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî: remarques sur deux calligraphies de l’Inde des sultanats.” In Ecriture, calligraphie et peinture, Studia Islamica, eds. A.L. Udovitch et H. Touati, Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 2003, pp. 81-93.
— “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy: Preliminary Remarks on a Little-Known Corpus.” Muqarnas 33 (2016): 63-90.
—, and Burési, Monique, eds. Le Coran de Gwalior: Polysémie d’un manuscrit à peintures. Paris: Éditions de Boccard, 2016.
Mirza, Sana. “The visual resonances of a Harari Qur’ān: An 18th century Ethiopian manuscript and its Indian connections.” Afriques 08 (2017): 1-25.
Siddiq, Mohammad Yusuf. “An Epigraphical Journey to an Eastern Land.” Muqarnas 7 (1990): 83-108.

With thanks to Emily Shovelton and Eleanor Sims

Vivek Gupta, SOAS University of London, History of Art and Archaeology

[1] Brac de la Perrière, “Manuscripts in Bihari Calligraphy,” p. 64.
[2] Rieu, Catalogue of Persian Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 1, p. 7.
[3] These catalogues were published from 1918-1995 and are collectively called Miftāḥ al-Kanūz al-Khafiyah.
[4] Brac de la Perrière, “Bihârî et naskhî-dîwânî,” 89. “La barre du kâf se termine souvent par un petit crochet, de même que l’alif est doté d’une queue inférieure placée à gauche du trait vertical de la lettre. Certaines lettres, comme le kâf sont presque anguleuses; a contrario, leâet le khâà l’intiale et la ligature du yâ final avec les lettres précédentes ont l’aspect arrondi d’une boucle; les dâl sont grands et ouverts.” I thank Hugo Partouche for checking my French translation.
[5] See Orthmann, "Tarjuma-yi kitāb-i Bārāhī (occult sciences),” for a description of this text.

20 June 2019

Islamic Painted Page: Growing a Database

Add comment

Today's post is by Stephen Serpell announcing the launch of the new version of his online database Islamic Painted Page, now hosted with the University of Hamburg. In a world where individual institutions still maintain their idiosyncratic approaches to locating and displaying digitised images, this resource is a major breakthrough.

Since its launch in 2013, Islamic Painted Page (IPP) has grown into a major online database of Islamicate arts of the book, with over 42,000 references to paintings, illuminations and bindings from over 270 collections around the globe – of which the British Library is one of the most important.


IPP is found at and it does two things. First, it enables users to locate and compare works worldwide using a single database, displaying images wherever possible; and second, it signposts users onward to more authoritative sources, with hotlinks direct to the specific image pages of collection websites where available, and page-specific references for printed publications.

The website enables users to search by picture description, collection, accession number, date, place of origin, manuscript title or author, or publication – or any combination of these. So it is possible, for example, to find with a single search 77 different interpretations of the famous scene where Khusrau sees Shirin bathing, with IPP itself showing images of 36 of them.

4 out of 77: Five British Library versions of “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing” (BL Add. 6613, f.42r, IO Islamic 138, f.75r, Or. 2265, f.53v, Or. 2933, f.19v)

Or one could look into the development of non-figurative illumination and page decoration during the reign of Sultan Ḥusayn Bāyqarā in Herat, 1469-1506 (70 different results); or search under an accession number to locate reproductions of works not currently published online, such as the paintings from the Topkapi Royal Turkman Khamsah H762; or search by a particular classical author, for example to study the star charts in different manuscripts of the Ṣuwar al-kawākib of al-Ṣūfī. And one can even search the contents of a publication, perhaps to check if it contains relevant illustrations, or to cross-check for metadata that was left out of the printed text (IPP is good for filling in missing details).

IPP aims to help users find not just images of works, but also articles and commentaries about them; so its search results list all the publication references it holds on each item, with the collection website location topmost if one exists. This means that well-known works return multiple “hits” in a search; for example the Miʻraj painting in the British Library’s celebrated Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (Or. 2265, f.195r) is one of the most-published of all Islamicate miniatures and comes up with 25 references. However very few works achieve such fame, and in fact the database currently holds about 42,500 references for its total of about 30,000 separate items - so on average, each item only appears in 1.4 publications.

Multiply published: “The Miʻraj of the Prophet” from the Khamsah of Shah Tahmasp (BL Or. 2265 f.195r). Public Domain

This illustrates a further use of the database; its very large size means that it could be used as a starting point for statistical analysis, for example to chart the production of particular illustrated works against place of production or by date, or how the popularity of certain scenes has varied over time.


Finding needles in haystacks: Islamic Painted Page, main search page

The database originated simply from one individual’s frustration over the difficulties of studying Islamicate miniature paintings and illuminations, since they are dispersed all over the planet and references to them are scattered throughout a daunting corpus of literature; and even though many are now published online, it can still be very laborious to find relevant links. This led to a personal database that soon grew to point where it seemed likely to be useful to others, if only it could be placed online. A grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation made the website possible in 2013 with an initial 12,300 entries. Subsequent support from the Islamic Manuscript Association in 2015 improved the website’s utility for manuscript studies, including proper attention to transliteration. By this time the database had already grown to 20,600 references and had built in item-specific links to VIAF, WORLDCAT and FIHRIST so that users can just click to find fuller, authoritative information on authors and works, print publications, and - for UK items - manuscript details. Needless to say, a private sideline had by then become a mega-hobby.

However the most exciting subsequent step has been adding actual images of the paintings, illuminations and bindings wherever possible. Copyright prevents the database from reproducing illustrations in printed works, but IPP also covers works published online; and in many cases this has enabled IPP to show images that have been published as Creative Commons or Public Domain, or where a collection has given special permission.

Example search results (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

Flyout details for one result (from a global search for “Khusrau sees Shirin bathing”)

It was a particular pleasure in 2018 to receive permission to incorporate images for the British Library, since it houses one of the world’s most important collections of Islamicate manuscripts and has been digitizing many of its finest holdings. Together with coverage of 19 other collections, IPP is now able to display thumbnails and larger images for about 50% of its references so far; and it is the inclusion of images that transforms the usefulness of the site for most researchers. It should be stressed that every thumbnail and every flyout image in IPP acknowledges the collection source and provides a folio-specific weblink to the relevant collection webpage, together with a recommendation to proceed to the collection website for authoritative images and other details.

Along the way, IPP has had to confront some difficult issues. Users need to be able to search efficiently, especially if they are trying to find a painting of a particular scene; but this requires consistent descriptions, whereas different authorities give different titles to the same scene (eg Khusrau sees Shirin bathing; Khosrow spies Shirin bathing; Shirin bathes observed by Khusrau….). To help manage this, IPP uses just one consistent description for each scene, but also holds the corresponding alternative descriptions. This ensures that users who cannot find what they want among the “consistent descriptions” can still search among the “alternative descriptions” if necessary.

The price for this simple-sounding device is that IPP not only has to check for consistent titling across the entire database for every new entry, but also has to maintain entire sub-databases of descriptions listing every scene encountered in each of about 30 of the most popular painting cycles, such as those illustrating the Khamsah of Niẓāmī (where artists have represented over 300 different scenes), the Haft Awrang of Jāmī and the Shāhnāmah of Firdawsī (which extends to over 1,000 scenes and where the work of the Cambridge Shāhnāmah project must be fully acknowledged). Hobbyists, beware!

RAS239-7r RAS239-16v RAS239-32v RAS239-44r
Four scenes from the Shāhnāmah painting cycle (Royal Asiatic Society MS 239, ff. 7r, 16v, 32v, 44r)

Different authorities also ascribe different dates and places of origin to the same items. IPP respects this but it does result in inconsistent metadata between the relevant IPP references. And even authorities can make mistakes, or fail to provide essential details, and publications can suffer misprints; IPP has filled in a lot of missing accession numbers and corrected a lot of wrong ones.

IPP includes thousands of references to non-figurative illuminated pages and bindings, as well as covering figurative pictures; and an important upgrade is in hand to improve the detail of its 2,500 references to decorated Qurʼan pages.

Non-figurative examples – bindings, illuminations, decoration (BL Add. 16561, Add. 18579, IO Islamic 843 f.34v, Or. 12988 f.2r)

IPP is an academic resource and its future clearly needs to lie with an academic institution, not with an individual. For that reason, about a year ago IPP began a relationship with the University of Hamburg’s Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures that aims to enrich the database’s features and extend the coverage of works published online as well as in print. One of the first fruits of this collaboration has been the re-launch of the IPP website hosted and supported by the University of Hamburg, with a new look and a number of improvements to the user interface.

Meanwhile the database continues to grow and it is planned to include more images, enlarge its coverage of collections and secondary sources from the Muslim world, and extend its geographical scope. In this way, it is hoped that IPP can act as a multi-disciplinary resource and assist not only art historians and manuscript scholars, but also contribute to digital humanities and wider cultural studies.

The author would like to thank Dr. Barbara Brend, Professor Charles Melville and Dr. Teresa Fitzherbert, as well as his own wife Elizabeth, without whose support, encouragement and patience Islamic Painted Page would never have come into being.

Stephen Serpell, Islamic Painted Page
Research Associate, Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC), University of Hamburg

13 June 2019

Same-Sex Relations in an 18th century Ottoman Manuscript

Add comment

            June is Pride Month, which means we celebrate the histories and experiences of LGBTQQ2SA+[1] people. A common complaint that we hear during the month is that the acronyms attached to it are unwieldy and incomprehensible; a criticism that’s easily dispelled through a quick explanation of each letter or symbol. But this discussion obscures a far more complex, and trickier, question: what does it mean to be gay (or, for that matter, lesbian, trans, queer or two-spirit)? Is it just a matter of who you fancy, or is it much deeper, a nexus of desire, outlook, self-image and social relations? Answers aren’t always easy to give for those of us who live in the post-Stonewall era, and they’re even thornier when we try to apply contemporary terms to historical content.

  Stamped and gilded binding of the Hamse-i Atā’ī (Or. 13882), alongside f. 1v with one of its magnificent ‘unvāns  Stamped and gilded binding of the Hamse-i Atā’ī (Or. 13882), alongside f. 1v with one of its magnificent ‘unvāns
Stamped and gilded binding of the Hamse-i Atā’ī (Or. 13882), alongside f. 1v with one of its magnificent ‘unvāns.  noc

            That is, in essence, one of the most perplexing issues in dealing with Or. 13882, an 18th-century Ottoman recension of the Hamse-yi ‘Atā’ī, ‘Atā’ī’s four extant mesnevis. The work is a beautiful specimen of the Ottoman arts of the book, featuring four illuminated ‘unvāns, thirty miniatures, marbled end-papers and black and maroon morocco binding that has been stamped with gilded cartouches and rope patterns. The presence of two seals and three inscriptions attest to the circulation and desirability of this particular volume; hardly surprising, given its beauty and the slightly scandalous nature of the content. The poetry itself is an oblique response to the earlier Khamsah of Nizami, but takes up local themes. Wine and music in the Imperial court; moral and ethical issues; and social mores and values such as heroism are treated in the first three mesnevis, the ‘Alemnüma, the Nefhatül’Ezhar and the Sohbet-ül-Ebkar. While these topics were often raised in mesnevis for the purpose of Sufi education and instruction, it does not appear that this was always the case in ‘Atā’ī’s work. The fourth mesnevi, Heft Han, is perhaps the most interesting for our purposes. Gibb, in the third volume of his A History of Ottoman Poetry, described it as follows: “The Heft Khwán or Seven Courses is more purely mystical in tone… I have never seen this poem, but Von Hammer describes it as a most unhappy work, consisting simply of a series of trivial stories and trite moralities.”[2] As Andrews and Kalpaklı explain in The Age of Beloveds, it contains seven accounts, the first six of which are moralistic tales, while the seventh relates the story of two male lovers. This final installment tells of the two young men’s “frolics” in Istanbul, of their eventual capture and enslavement by Europeans during a pilgrimage by sea to Egypt, and of the two European men who in turn fall in love with them.[3] This is a fairly original text, an example of ‘Atā’ī’s creativity and imagination.[4]

Examples of the colourful, dynamic illustrations of the Bosphorus (left) Or 13882 opening showing  group of men in a mosque, gathering around the minbar
Examples of the colourful, dynamic illustrations of the Bosphorus (left) and of a a group of men in a mosque, gathering around the minbar.  noc

That, however, is the beginning, rather than the end, of this queer tale. The British Library’s acquisition record for the item reads: “Some [miniatures] illustrate historical events and scenes, others various anecdotes. Those on folios 103r, 108v, 158r and v, 161r, 166r and v are of a pornographic nature. The double miniature depicting the Bosporus, ff. 68v-69r, is of fine quality.” Given that the manuscript was purchased in 1979, this mention of “pornographic” material likely relies on an understanding of the term closer to our own usage, rather than that of the Victorian age. Of course, the line between pornography and art is a blurry one. In 1964, it caused US Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart to explain that a precise definition of the boundary was unnecessary, as “I know it when I see it.” The American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag was perhaps more helpful when, writing about morality and artistic expression, she argued that art appealed to contemplation, while pornography, in turn, sought to excite.[5]

        Whether according to Stewart’s guidelines, or those of Sontag, a quick view of some of the illustrations included in the Hamse make it clear that these images would likely be kept behind the 18+ bar of any corner store’s magazine rack. Those highlighted in the acquisition slip contain graphic depictions of female and male genitalia; masturbation and vaginal and anal penetration; and sex between couples and in groups. Of importance for this article, a number of the illustrations narrate encounters between men; some bearded, others not. The pictures themselves often tell a story. One pair shows five men seated to eat together, after which three of them are engaged in a menage-à-trois. Another depicts two men having sex while a large group of onlookers spy on the lovers, ultimately exposing them to the authorities. Given what we know of the plot, these images are doubly queered: first, because they involve sex between men; and secondly, because everyone in them is in Ottoman costume, despite the setting of the tale in Europe. Boone interprets the Heft Han as, partly, an allegorical tale about morality and policing of sexuality in the Ottoman Empire (rather than Europe), and this geographical displacement might be the most visual evidence yet supporting his claim.[6]  

Or 13882 opening showing two horsemen, part of one of the other tales in the Hamse Or 13882 opening part of the infamous dinner scene from the Heft Han
Two horsemen, part of one of the other tales in the Hamse, along with the first part of the infamous dinner scene from the Heft Han.  noc

            Moreover, the images raise important questions about sexuality and identity in 17th- and 18th- century Ottoman circles. Were the characters depicted in these stories gay? Were their sex acts deemed to be indicative of their identities and self-perceptions? What of the male readers: can we infer anything about their desires? Did a female audience enjoy these stories too, and how does that inform our understanding of their sexuality? Such questions are hard to answer without the input of the individual readers themselves, highlighting the intensely personal and subjective nature of identity in the first place. What’s more, as Serkan Delice has shown in his work “‘When female friends increase, lovers decrease’: Gender, Sexism and Historiography in the Ottoman Era”, such questions can easily become fodder for those with political agendas about contemporary citizens.[7]  

            The act of asking such questions isn’t without its pitfalls. To start with, 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century European observers were apt to insist upon a widespread Ottoman practice of pederasty, despite a lack of firm evidence to suggest that it was any more common than in Western Europe.[8] This Islamophobic trope has survived in contemporary discourse, but it was tempered in 19th- and 20th-century scholarship by another trend: that of erasing sexual non-conformity. Translators and commentators have played down the presence of same-sex desire in Ottoman poetry. They instrumentalize authors’ predilection for allusion and allegory, as well as Turkish’s lack of gendered pronouns, to gradually nudge English versions of classical Ottoman poems into the realm of heterosexual love.[9] Similar dynamics are just as visible in 20th-century Turkish scholarship.[10] To paraphrase Shakira, however, these pics don’t lie. Both figurative and literal imagery pointing to same-sex desire and intercourse motivated scholars in the latter part of the 20th century to begin discussing more openly homosexual themes within the Ottoman canon. This is no niche field: a whole genre of Ottoman poetry, the şehrengîz, contains plenty of examples of the male poet’s love or lust for another man. It was interwoven into broader Sufi schools of expression and enunciation, a genre that is not as easily tied to specific segments of the population or identities as would be contemporary LGBT fiction.[11]

Or 13882 An unlucky ship on the rolling waters of the Mediterranean Or 13882 Colophon
An unlucky ship on the rolling waters of the Mediterranean, alongside the manuscript’s colophon, including date it was copied: 10 Rebiülahir 1151 AH / 28 July 1738 CE). noc

            This leads us back to our original question: is it gay? Who knows if a definitive answer that satisfies everyone will ever be formulated. In some ways, even posing the question says more about us than it does about 17th- or 18th-century Ottomans. Identity is something intensely personal, and the categories that we choose or that we have chosen for us never manage to capture in full the reality of our existence. What is clear, though, is that sexual diversity is not something new; nor is it something that has been enjoyed only in recent years. As the miniatures of this version of the Hamse-i ‘Atā’ī demonstrate, desire has long come in many shapes and forms. As long as we avoid any ill-fated journeys by sea, it’s up to us to describe and celebrate it in any way we choose. 


Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections, @BLTurkKoleksyon


[1] LGBTQQ2SA+ stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Queer, Questioning, 2-Spirit, Allies and Others.

[2] E. J. W. Gibb. A History of Ottoman Poetry by the Late E.J.W. Gibb: Volume III. Ed. Edward G. Browne (London: Luzac & Co., 1904), p. 234.

[3] Joseph Allen Boone. The Homoerotics of Orientalism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), pp. 10-16.

[4] Rukiye Aslıhan Aksoy Sheridan. “Anlatıcının Rekabet Taktikleri: Nev’i-zade Atâyî’nin Heft-Hân Mesnevisine Anlatıbilimsel Bir Bakış,” in Prof. Dr. Mine Mengi Adına Türkoloji Sempozyumu (20–22 Ekim 2011) Bildirileri (Adana: Çukurova Üniversitesi, 2004), pp. 3-13).

[5] Susan Sontag. “On style” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 2009), pp. 26-27.

[6] Boone, The Homoerotics of Orientalism, pp. 10-16

[7] Serkan Delice. “‘Zen-Dostlar Çoğalıp Mahbûblar Azaldı’: Osmanlı’da Toplumsal Cinsiyet, Cinsellik ve Tarihyazımı” in ed. Cüneyt Cakırlar and Serkan Delice, Cinsellik Muamması: Türkiye’de Queer Kültür ve Muhalefet (Istanbul: Metis Yayınları, 2012), pp. 329-363.

[8] Stephen O. Murray. “Homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire,” in Historical Reflections, vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 2007), pp. 103-105.

[9] Stephen O. Murray. “Homosexuality in the Ottoman Empire,” in Historical Reflections, vol. 33, no. 1 (Spring 2007), p. 106.

[10] Tunca Kortantamer. Nev’î-zâde Atâyî ve Hamse’si (Izmir: Bornova, 1997).

[11] İrvin Cemil Schick. “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” in The Turkish Studies Association Journal, vol. 28, no. 1/2 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), pp. 88-90.

03 May 2019

Jesuit Mission Press ‘Feiqe monogatari’ now online

Add comment

One of the most important items in the British Library’s Japanese collections is a small, rather ordinary-looking, leather-bound volume, generally known as Feiqe monogatari (BL shelfmark Or.59.aa.1). Despite its appearance, it is, in fact, a remarkable work in a number of ways. Firstly, it was one of the earliest books printed in Japan using movable type rather than the traditional woodblocks, secondly, it is the first non-religious text printed in colloquial Japanese transcribed into the Roman alphabet, offering valuable insights into the phonology of the Japanese language in the 16th century, and thirdly, it is the world’s only extant copy.

Now, thanks to a collaborative project between the British Library and the National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics (NINJAL), Tokyo, a fully digitised version of this unique work is available online along with transcriptions, as part of NINJAL’s  Corpus of Historical Japanese, Muromachi Period Series II : Christian Materials.  In addition to a full set of images, NINJAL has also provided transcriptions of the Romanised text and in mixed Japanese kanji/kana script.

The book contains three different texts bound together: Feiqe monogatari a version of the Heike monogatari 平家物語 or Tale of the Heike, a famous medieval epic about the rivalry between the Taira and Minamoto clans, Esopo no fabulas the first Japanese translation of Aesop's Fables, and an anthology of maxims, drawn from Chinese classics, called the Qincvxv (Kinkūshū 金句集).

First page of Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, p.3)
First page of Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, p.3)Noc

First page of Esopo no fabulas (Or 59.aa.1, p.408d)
First page of Esopo no fabulas (Or 59.aa.1, p.408d)Noc

First page of Qinquxu (Or 59.aa.1, p.507)
First page of Qinquxu (Or 59.aa.1, p.507) Noc

All three were printed on the Japanese island of Amakusa by Jesuit missionaries using a movable-type printing press in late 1592/early 1593. Feiqe monogatari has a preface dated 10 December 1592, the title page of Esopo no fabulas is dated 1593 and a general preface added at the front of  the volume was completed on 23 February 1593.

The three texts are accompanied by a printed glossary of ‘words difficult to determine’ (funbetsv xinicuqi cotoba) found in Feiqe monogatari and Esopo no fabulas.  At the end of the book is a handwritten Japanese-Portuguese vocabulary.

Handwritten Japanese-Portuguese dictionary (Or.59.aa.1, p.597)
Handwritten Japanese-Portuguese dictionary (Or.59.aa.1, p.597) Noc

From the preface of Feiqe monogatari we know that it was the work of the Christian convert - and later apostate - Fabian Fucan (Fukansai 不干斎, c. 1565–1621). Fabian was baptised in 1583 and joined the Jesuits in 1586, teaching Japanese to missionaries in the Jesuit College in Amakusa. He later rejected Christianity and in 1620 published the anti-Christian tract Deus Destroyed (Ha-Daiusu 破提宇子).

When the first Christian missionaries arrived in Japan in the 1540s they immediately set themselves to learning the Japanese language. Their aim, of course, was to convert the population to Christianity and to do this they needed to be able to communicate its teachings in the local language. They made rapid progress and with the help of Japanese converts, soon began translating Christian texts into Japanese. To assist with their work, Alessandro Valignano, head of the Jesuit Mission in East Asia, had a movable-type printing press brought from Portugal. It reached Japan via Goa in July 1590 and was set up at the Jesuit College in Kazusa 加津佐, on the Shimabara Peninsula, where the first work, a life of the apostles and saints entitled Sanctos no gosagyveono vchi nvqigaqi (Sanctos no go-sagyō no unchi nukigaki サントスの御作業の内抜書), was printed in 1591. Shortly afterwards, in the face of official persecution, the College and press were moved to the more remote and safer location of Amakusa 天草 where printing resumed in 1592. The College on Amakusa was suppressed by the Japanese authorities in 1597 so the Jesuits moved again, this time to Nagasaki, taking the press with them and books continued to be printed there from 1598 to 1611.

The books produced by the Jesuit Mission Press in Japan between 1591 and 1611, almost exclusively religious in content, are known collectively in Japanese as Kirishitan-ban or “Christian publications”. The majority were translations of Christian texts widely read in Europe such as Doctrina Christaã, Guía de pecadores and parts of Introducción del símbolo de la fe, in some cases adapted to the Japanese context with additional explanations or omission of doctrines which might have provoked controversy.

The Japanese authorities increasingly came to regard Christianity as subversive and, following a series of repressive measures, it was eventually suppressed and all remaining missionaries expelled from Japan in 1639.

The precise number of Kirishitan-ban titles printed in Japan is not certain.  With the suppression of Christianity and the destruction of images and artefacts connected with it, most of the Jesuit printings were lost.  In his pioneering work The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, 1591–1610 published in 1888, Sir Ernest Satow identified 14 titles. Kirishitan Bunko: A Manual of Books and Documents on the Early Christian Mission in Japan (1940) by Johannes Laures, identifies 30 books published by the Jesuit Mission Press but this includes 5 printed in Macao, Goa or Manila. A more recent publication, Kirishitan to Shuppan (2013), lists a total of 41 Kirishitan-ban (including 5 fragmentary texts) with 92 extant copies identified worldwide, 7 of them in the British Library.  For the 35 works published in Japan, it lists a total of 72 known copies.

Besides its rarity, Feiqe monogatari is important in that it is a literary rather than a religious text..  It was not intended for the education of Japanese Christians but for the missionaries themselves as an aid to learning the language and to understanding the history and values of the Japanese for whom the warrior code (bushidō), reflected in Heike monogatari, and the Chinese classics represented by Kinkūshū had great significance.

First page of preface to Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, ftpr)
First page of preface to Feiqe monogatari (Or 59.aa.1, ftpr) Noc

The spelling conventions of Portuguese, together with differences in pronunciation of the time, mean that the Romanised texts appear unfamiliar to those used to Hepburn, Kunrei-shiki and other later systems. For example, comparing spellings to the Modified Hepburn transliteration system most widely used today: ‘c’ and ‘q’ are used instead of ‘k’ depending on the following vowel (‘c’ before ‘a,’ ‘o’ or ‘u’, ‘q’ before ‘e’ and ‘i’), while ‘x’ represents ‘sh’ before ‘’i’ and, unlike modern standard Japanese, also before ‘e’. The letter ‘v’ can represent either the vowel ‘u’ or the semivowel ‘w’. The bilabial fricative sound now Romanised as ‘h’ (or ‘f’ before a ‘u’) is written as ’f’ in all positions, presumably reflecting the pronunciation of the time. ‘tçu’ is the equivalent of ‘ts’. As in Portuguese spelling, ‘u’ is inserted after ‘g’ to maintain a hard sound before ‘e’ or ‘i’.

The opening sentence on the first page reads: Nifon no cotoba to historia uo narai xiran to fossvrv fito to tameni xeva ni yavaragvetarv Feiqe no monogatari [The Tale of the Heike made easy to help those wishing to learn the language and history of Japan] which would be written in Modified Hepburn as Nihon no kotoba to historia o naraishiran to hossuru hito no tame ni sewa ni yawaragetaru Heike no monogari, or in Japanese script as 日本の言葉とhistoria [歴史]を習い知らんと欲する人の為に世話に和らげたる 平家の 物語.

Another interesting aspect of Feiqe monogatari is that while not the oldest, it was the first book in the British Museum/British Library’s Japanese collections. The preliminary pages of the volume bear a succession of shelfmarks and annotations from which it appears that the book was acquired by the eminent collector Sir Hans Sloane (1662-1753) in the first years of the 18th century. The earliest number is R3594, one of many sequences used by Sloane. Research published by Amy Blakeway in The Library Catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane: Their Authors, Organization, and Functions (, suggests that the R-sequence was used for a rather random can be dated to between 1712 and 1723.  Sloane has also added the erroneous description in his own hand “Fables in the Language of Tonquin” (i.e. Vietnam). After Sloane’s death his vast collections became the foundation of the British Museum and its library and were installed in Montagu House. The number on the titlepage (3Ib) is a Montagu House location, showing that the book was stored in room 3, press I, and on shelf b with other works on Mythology. The book was given the general shelfmark 1075.e. but was later considered to be important/valuable enough to be moved to a case pressmark C.24.e.4.  A subsequent reorganisation of the British Museum Library saw it being transferred to the Department of Oriental Manuscripts and Printed Books (OMPB) where shelfmarks beginning “Or.” were assigned - Or.59.d.6 and, later, its current number Or.59.aa.1.  As part of OMPB Feiqe monogatari passed to the custodianship of the British Library in 1973.

Its role as a teaching tool for non-Japanese missionaries gives Feiqe monogatari is greatest significance today - that it is written in colloquial, rather than literary Japanese and is printed in the Latin alphabet, not in Japanese script.  The Japanese written language was, and is, extremely complicated combining many thousands of Chinese characters and two different syllabaries.  Using the 26 letters of the Latin alphabet made the task of writing and printing much simpler and meant that the text was easier for the Jesuits to read.  Since at that time there was no standard way of transcribing Japanese, the missionaries simply wrote down what they heard often using the spelling conventions of their native Portuguese.  For the study of Japanese historical linguistics, therefore, Feiqe monogatari is a very valuable source of information for how the language was actually spoken and pronounced in the late 16th century.

In a way that will be familiar to all who have ever tried to learn a foreign language, whenever they were unable to find the correct Japanese translation of a word the missionaries and their Japanese helpers seem to have simply used the Portuguese word instead. So "Aesop's Fables" becomes "Esopo no fabulas” and “history” is “historia” rather than the expected Japanese words gūwa 寓話 and rekishi 歴史respectively.

Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages) Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages)
Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages) Noc

Sadly, no record has been found of how Sloane acquired the book or from whom. Between 1723 and 1725, Sloane purchased a substantial collection of Japanese books, manuscripts, natural history specimens and other material from the family of the German physician Engelbert Kaempfer (1651-1716) who had lived in Japan from 1690-92 as physician in the Dutch East India Company’s trading base in Nagasaki. However, as noted above, a study of the shelfmarks and other annotations suggest that Feiqe monogatari was acquired by Sloane before the Kaempfer collection. It is known that the Jesuits sent some of their publications back to Europe – either to Rome or to their influential benefactors. Recent research by Peter Kornicki has shown that Japanese books reached England during the 1620s, sent to wealthy patrons by the East India Company through its trading factory in Hirado. Dutch traders also continued a supply of books back to Europe, some of which would have circulated among collectors like Sloane.

One final mystery is the illustration on the front page of the volume which depicts a crowned classical figure in a chariot pulled by lions. Neither the image nor the Latin inscription have no obvious connection to the content of any of the contained works. Perhaps this was an etching or woodcut that had been used in another work and was simply inserted here as decoration. If any readers of this blog recognise it, I would be delighted to hear from them.


Hamish Todd,

Head of East Asian Collections

With thanks to Dr Karen Limper-Herz, Lead Curator for Incunabula and 16th Century Books, British Library.



Blakeway, Amy, “The library catalogues of Sir Hans Sloane: their authors, organization, and functions”. eBLJ (2011).

Elison, George, Deus Destroyed: The Image of Christianity in Early Modern Japan, Harvard University Press, 1973.

Kornicki, Peter, Umi o watatta Nihon shoseki : Yōroppa e, soshite Bakumatsu, Meiji no Rondon de 海を渡った日本書籍 : ヨーロッパへ、そして幕末・明治のロンドンで. Tokyo: Heibonsha, 2018.

Laures, Johannes, Kirishitan Bunko: A manual of books and documents on the early Christian mission in Japan. Tokyo: Sophia University, 1940.

Orii, Yoshimi, “The dispersion of Jesuit books printed in Japan: Trends in bibliographical research and in intellectual history”. Journal of Jesuit Studies 2 ; 2 (2015).

Satow, Ernest., The Jesuit Mission Press in Japan, Privately printed, 1888.

Toyoshima, Masayuki 豊島正之 (ed.), Kirishitan to Shuppan キリシタンと出版. Tokyo: Yagi Shoten,


28 December 2018

Download Hebrew Manuscripts for free, in partnership with BL Labs

Add comment

We are delighted to announce that five more downloadable datasets containing a total of 139 digitised Hebrew Manuscripts have just been published online here, bringing the total number of Hebrew datasets to 22, and 723 manuscripts. These manuscripts were digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts (2013-2016), and we are able to provide them to download and reuse as part of the British Library Labs project (BL Labs).

Festival Prayer Book, Italy, 1427-11499. Harley MS 5686, ff. 28r: miniature on the top shows a congregation praying in a synagogue, and the miniature on the bottom depicts the allegorical ‘Shabbat Bride’ under a wedding canopy. The manuscript can be found in dataset Heb19

Formed in 2013, BL Labs is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project which supports and inspires the use of the British Library’s digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways, through competitions, events and collaborative projects around the world. The team provides a digital research support service (you may apply for up to 5 days’ support service using this form) and promotes engagement with the Library’s digital collections and data through a series of events and workshops around the UK.

Each autumn, the British Library Labs Awards recognises exceptional projects that have used the Library’s digital collections and data in four awards categories: Research, Artistic, Commercial, and Teaching/Learning (If you know of someone who has done outstanding work using British Library digital collections and data, please encourage them to apply).

What’s in the datasets?
The digitised manuscripts are provided as 300ppi JPEGs, divided into small datasets of around 50GB each, sorted alphabetically by shelfmark (20 to 30 manuscripts per dataset). They contain a huge variety of Hebrew manuscripts, including Kabbalistic works, linguistic works, prayer books, biblical texts and commentaries, marriage certificates, charters and scrolls. The manuscripts also contain texts in many different languages, including Latin, Greek, Yiddish, Persian, Italian, Arabic and Syriac. The catalogue records for all of these manuscripts can be found in dataset Heb1 (TEI XML files).

All of the manuscripts are Public Domain, but we would appreciate it if users could read our Ethical terms of use guide before reusing the Hebrew manuscripts datasets.

Below is an overview of each of the new datasets, and a full list of all of the manuscripts included in the datasets can be seen here. We'd love to hear what you've done or made with the manuscript images and/or metadata, so please email us at

Heb18. This dataset includes 22 manuscripts ranging from Add MS 27141 to Arundel Or 50. It includes commentaries on the Talmud and Midrash, Kabbalistic works, two German prayer books (Add MS 27208 and Add MS 27556) and a collection of medical prescriptions ‘Sefer Refu’ot’ from the 15th century, Germany (Add MS 27170). The miscellany Arundel OR 50 (1400-1799) includes a Hebrew Grammar in Latin, with a translation of the Lord's Prayer and the Christian confession of faith.

This dataset also includes ‘The Polyglot Bible’ (Add MS 5242), created in England in 1665. As well as having beautifully detailed illustrations, this manuscript, will be of great interest to linguists. It contains excerpts from the Old and New Testament and liturgical pieces translated into many different languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Spanish, Italian, French and German.

The Polyglot Bible, England, 1665 Add MS 5242, ff. 7v-8r: the commandment of keeping the Sabbath

The Polyglot Bible, England, 16, Add MS 5242, ff. 14v-15r: Canticum B Virginis

Heb19. This dataset includes 20 manuscripts from Harley MS 1743 to Or 12983. It contains many manuscripts looking at language and translation, including several Hebrew-Latin dictionaries and grammars, a 17 – 18th-century copy of the Psalms with Greek and Latin translations (Harley MS 2427), and Harley MS 7637, an 18th-century gospel of St Matthew in Hebrew translation. It also contains the 18 – 19th-century German manuscript ‘Perek Shirah’ (Or 12983), a midrashic commentary with a Yiddish translation.

Perek Shirah, Germany, 1750 – 1899, Or 12983, f. 1r: a depiction of the world God created at the beginning of Chapter 1 of ‘Perek Shirah’: “The Heavens are saying: ‘The Heavens speak of God’s glory, and the skies tell of His handiwork.’ (Ps. 19:2)”

The dataset also includes two early copies of parts of the Talmud – one of the central texts in Judaism. Harley MS 5794* (this manuscript has since been renamed in the British Library catalogue as Harley MS 5794A) contains sections of the Mishnah of Tractates Avot and Zeva’im, and was written in Spain in the 12th century. The manuscript Harley MS 5508 contains eight tractates of Seder Mo’ed from the Babylonian Talmud, and it was written in Spain in the 12th or 13th-century.

Heb20. This dataset includes 32 manuscripts from Or 2486 to Or 2508. It includes many different biblical commentaries and Midrashim (biblical exegesis) in Persian, Arabic, and Judeo-Arabic. Some of these range from as early as the 13th century (such as Or 2494 – Or 2497).

The dataset also includes the Torah scroll Or 13027. This 30 metre, 18-19th century scroll was digitised alongside its silk mantle, which was extensively restored by the British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose. An article discussing her work can be seen here. As part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project’s digital scholarship activities, this Torah mantle was 3D modelled by Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert. You can read more about 3D imaging within the British Library here, and the 3D image of the Torah Mantle can be viewed, annotated and downloaded from Sketchfab.

Pentateuch Scroll, Or 13027, unknown, 1750–1899. Silk brocade mantle after conservation

Heb21. This dataset includes 33 manuscripts from Or 2518 to Or 5834. It includes many Arabic and Judeo-Arabic commentaries ranging in age from the 10th to the 16th centuries, such as on the Psalms and other biblical books from the Prophets and the Hagiographa. The earliest of these (Or 2552) is a collection of commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, and Japheth ben Ali's Arabic commentary on Job. Japheth ben Ali is considered to be the foremost Karaite commentator on the bible, and he lived during the ‘Golden Age of Karaism’ in the 10th century. He died sometime in the second half of the 10th century, and so this manuscript, dated between the 10th and 11th century, could feasibly have been copied during his lifetime, or by someone who knew him directly.

9_or_2672_f067r 9_or_2672_f067r
Sefer ha-Peli’ah, unknown, 1562. Or 2672, ff. 31r and 67r: two folios from ‘Sefer ha-Peli’ah’ (The Book of Wonder), a Kabbalistic biblical commentary

Heb22. This dataset contains 32 manuscripts from Or 6236 to Stowe Ch 297. As well as several commentaries, a magic spell, and the Revelation of St John in Hebrew translation (Sloane MS 237), this dataset includes six different Jewish marriage certificates (Ketubot) dating from between 1711 and 1835, and a discussion on marriage law from the 15th century (Or 6358).

Stowe Ch 297 is part of the British Library’s fascinating collection of English charters dating to before the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. It is a French quitclaim with a Hebrew docket dating from 1266, in which Beatriz of Rattlesden, the prioress and the convent of Flixton is released from any obligation on the lands she and her convent acquired from Oliver Buscel.

Or 6360 is a 17-18th-century collection of astrological, kabbalistic and magical fragments. It includes ‘Sefer ha-Levanah’, an astrological book about the stages of the moon’s orbit, and ‘Mafteah Shelomoh’, a Hebrew translation of part one of the 14th or 15th-century grimoire ‘Key of Solomon’, one of only two versions that exist in Hebrew (part two, in Or 14759, is in the process of being digitised as part of Phase 2 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project). The text is attributed to King Solomon, and it would have been written originally in Latin or Italian. It includes invocations to summon the dead or demons, and compel them to do the reader’s will. It also includes curses and spells such as for finding stolen items, invisibility, and love.

Collection of Astrological, Kabbalistic and Magical Fragments, unknown, 1600–1700. Or 6360, f. 1r: the first page of ‘Sefer ha-Levanah’, with an Astrologer

Miriam Lewis, Project Manager Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project

23 December 2018

Christmas at Lahore, 1597

Add comment

Based at the Portuguese settlement at Goa, the Jesuits would be the earliest Europeans to visit the Mughal court at Fatehpur Sikri in the late sixteenth century. Receiving an invitation from the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1608), they made three visits to the court from 1580-95. The agenda of the three missions was to indoctrinate the Mughals to Christianity. During the third mission to the court at Lahore, Father Jerome Xavier (1549–1617) collaborated with the Mughal court writer Abd al- Sattar ibn Qasim Lahori (fl. 1590–1615) to prepare a Persian text based on the Old and New Testaments known as the Mirʼāt al-Quds (‘Mirror of Holiness’). This text was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602. Father Xavier presented a copy of the text to both Emperor Akbar and his son Prince Salim (the future Emperor Jahangir). Although the proselytization was not very successful, there was a clear impact on local artists. With both Akbar and Salim establishing rivaling artistic studios at Agra and Allahabad respectively, they would commission their artists to produce illustrations to accompany their individual copies of the Mirʼāt al-Quds.

In terms of the illustrated version of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, Jéronimo Nadal’s Evangelicae Historiae Imagines (1593) has been identified as the primary source of Biblical imagery that was either directly copied or adapted for their scenes on the life of Christ (Carvalho 2012, pp. 49-62). What remains of Akbar’s copy, as confirmed by the presence of his seal that signifies imperial ownership and patronage, is in the Lahore Museum (Stronge 2002, p. 105). (Carvalho debates and does not corroborate this information.) The remnants includes only ten rather damaged folios with illustrations. According to the art historian Susan Stronge, Prince Salim desired a far superior illustrated version and ordered his artists to execute double the number of pictures for his volume (Stronge 2002, p. 105). The surviving part of Salim’s commission consists of 160 pages of text and 24 illustrations; this manuscript is held in the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The Adoration of the Magi from Mirʼāt al-Quds, Allahabad, India, c. 1602-04
The Adoration of the Magi from Mirʼāt al-Quds, Allahabad, India, c. 1602-04. Cleveland Museum of Art, CCO.

The British Library’s collection includes an un-illustrated manuscript of the Mirʼāt al-Quds, that was copied and dated 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 August 1618) which falls into Jahangir’s reign (r. 1605-27).

Jerome Xavier’s Mirʼāt al-Quds, copied on 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 Aug 1618). Xavier’s translation was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602 with assistance from Mawlavi ʻAbd al-Sattār ibn Qāsim of Lahore, British Library, Harley 5455
Jerome Xavier’s Mirʼāt al-Quds, copied on 8 Ramazan 1027 (29 Aug 1618). Xavier’s translation was made at the request of the Emperor Akbar and was completed at Agra in 1602 with assistance from Mawlavi ʻAbd al-Sattār ibn Qāsim of Lahore, British Library, Harley 5455  noc

As Father Jerome Xavier arrived in Lahore in 1595 and remained at court until 1615, his letters document his perceptions of life at the Mughal court and in particular, how the Mughals celebrated Christmas at Lahore in 1597. Father Xavier, reporting from Lahore to the Provincial in Goa in 1598, Xavier wrote (Maclagan, pp. 72-3):

At Christmas [1597] our brother Bendict de Goes prepared a manger and cradle as exquisite as those of Goa itself, which heathens and Muhammadans, as well as Christians, thronged to see. In the evening masses were said with great ceremony, and a pastoral dialogue on the subject of the Nativity was enacted by some youths in the Persian tongue, with some Hindūstānī proverbs interspersed (adjunctis aliquot Industani sententiis).… At the conclusion of the sacred office, the gates were opened to all…. Such was the crowd of spectators in those days that the cradle was kept open till the 8th day after Epiphany the fame of the spectacle spread through the town and brought even outsiders to see the sight.

In another letter, Xavier describes some of the decorations they used at the Christmas crib (Bailey, p. 32, quoting from British Library Add. 9854, f. 164b):

…a [mechanical] ape which squirted water from its eyes and mouth, and above it a bird which sang mysteriously...and a globe of the world supported on the backs of two elephants...and above this a large portrait of the King [Jahangir] which he sent us when he was a prince. . .and next to this figure was placed a large mirror at the front of the crib. . .[At the gates] were the Angel, i.e. Gabriel, with many angels, who were accompanied by placards proclaiming ‘Gloria in Excelsis Deo’ or ‘Nolite Timere’ in Persian. Around the Holy Infant in the crib were some sayings of the Prophets who pretold the coming of God into the World.

Although there are no paintings of the Christmas celebrations at the Mughal court that have been documented, nor are there any individual illustrations or detached folios to the Mirʼāt al-Quds in the British Library's collection, there are a number of drawings that document the experimentation with Christian iconography by Mughal artists. This genre of painting would become popular by the early seventeenth century during Jahangir’s reign. Artists were appropriating imagery from European engravings as well as received information from the Jesuit priests on how to convert the cross-hatching of engravings into wash in preparing their nim-qalam drawings (Losty and Roy 2012, 119). Below is an example of an engraving of the Virgin and Child that was pasted into a Mughal album page and compiled into an album for Prince Dara Shikoh and another showing a nim-qalam drawing of the Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess.

Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century in a Mughal album page, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129
Engraving of the Virgin and Child by a Dutch or Italian artist, 16th or 17th century in a Mughal album page, c. 1630. British Library, Add Or 3129, f.42v  noc

Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess, Mughal school, c. 1605-10. British Library, Johnson Album 14,4.
Virgin and Child with Anna the prophetess, Mughal school, c. 1605-10. British Library, Johnson Album 14,4.  noc

Further reading:

Gauvin Alexander Bailey, “The Lahore Mirʼāt al-Quds and the Impact of Jesuit Theater on Mughal Painting,” South Asian Studies 13 (1997), pp. 95-108

Pedro de Moura Carvalho and Wheeler M. Thackston, Mirʼāt al-quds (Mirror of Holiness): a Life of Christ for Emperor Akbar: a Commentary on Father Jerome Xavier's Text and the Miniatures of Cleveland Museum of Art, Acc. no. 2005.145; edited and translated by W. M. Thackston. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2012

J.P. Losty., 'Further Deccani and Mughal drawings of Christian subjects', Asian and African Studies Blog, 16 November 2015.

J.P. Losty and M. Roy, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire – Manuscripts and Paintings in the British Library, London, 2012

E. D. Maclagan,  “The Jesuit Missions to the Emperor Akbar”, Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal 65, part 1 (1896), pp. 38-113

S. Stronge, Paintings for the Mughal Emperor, Victoria and Albert Museum Publications, London, 2002.


By Malini Roy and Ursula Sims-Williams

12 June 2018

Thirty-leaved Qur’ans from India

Add comment

Manuscripts of the Qur’an exist in many different sizes and forms: in single volumes and also in multi-volume sets ranging from two to seven, ten, thirty or sixty volumes. However it was not until recently, while working on Qur’ans in the Tipu Sultan collection, that I became aware of the popularity of thirty-leaved Qur’ans, described as ‘si-varqī’ which were popular in South Asia from the seventeenth century onwards. These copies are based on the thirty equal sections juz’ (pl. ajzā’), designed to be read over a single thirty-day month, notably the fasting month of Ramadan, with one juz’ spread over two facing pages.

The opening section (juz’) of a thirty-leaved Qur’an, copied on an unusually thick paper (BL IO Islamic 1267 ff.1v-2r)

The earliest reference to this format that I have come across is in the Tazkirah-ʼi khvushnivīsān, a biographical dictionary of calligraphers by the late eighteenth-century calligrapher Ghulam Muhammad Raqim Haft-qalami (Haft-qalami, pp 125-6, quoted by Bayani, pp.172-3). Haft-qalami writes that in the reign of Shah Jahan (r. 1628-58) a scribe called ʻAbd Allah, better known as ʻAbd al-Baqi Haddad, a particularly famous naskh calligrapher, came to India from Iran and presented prince Awrangzeb with a thirty-leaved Qur’an and other manuscripts for which he was awarded the title Yāqūt-raqam before returning home again.

The earliest thirty-leaved Qur’an that I have detailed information about is CBL Is 1562[1], in the Chester Beatty Library, which dates from before 1083 (1672/73) – the date of an inscription following the colophon. The illuminated opening contains the Sūrat al-Fātiḥah spread over two pages, while throughout the manuscript margins, delineated by ruled borders, are filled with stemmed flowering plants in gold (similar to those found in the margins of many seventeenth-century imperial Mughal albums) and simple gold medallions marking divisions of the text. The British Library has altogether four thirty-leaved Qur’ans, three of which belonged formerly to Tipu Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-99). Although undated, one, IO Islamic 1267, is stamped with the octagonal seal of a previous owner Zu’l-Fiqar ʻAli Khan 1141 (1728/29). The other two, IO Islamic 1376 and IO Islamic 3250 are probably more recent, but Tipu Sultan’s death in 1799 places them in the eighteenth century or earlier. A fourth Qur’an, IO Islamic 3534, dated 1266 (1849/50), is much later and includes a Persian commentary in the margins.

Unlike the Tipu Qur’ans, this copy dated 1266 (1849/50) by the scribe Vali, includes a half-page ornamental heading (sarlawḥ). The margins contain an as yet unidentified Persian commentary. The text block is divided by three lines of larger calligraphic script on a gold ground (BL IO Islamic 3534, ff.1v-2r)

These Qur’ans share many features typical of Indian Qur’ans such as the division of the text into quarters or eighths of a juzʼ[2] and the use of interlinear rulings between each line of text. However one especially striking feature is the use of the letter alif at the beginning of each line, which occurs in two of our four copies. Such Qur’ans are today much prized and termed ‘alifi’. A search on the web reveals any number of deluxe printed editions. However ‘alifi’ manuscript Qur’ans seem to be comparatively little known, or at least they have not been the subject of written research.

Details showing (above) an initial alif in red ink at the beginning of each line of the main text. In the lower image, which occurs at the beginning of the second juz’, the alifs were never inserted, leaving an empty space. The fact that the first two lines begin with a black alif, suggest that perhaps the scribe ran out of red ink and then forgot to finish off the copy later. Also visible in the margins is the juz’ eighth marker (thumn al-rubʻ) and medallions which in this Qur’an serve a purely decorative purpose (BL IO Islamic 1376, ff. 1v and 2v)

The double page opening of an undated thirty-leaved Qur’an from Tipu Sultan’s library. The initial alifs, the use of gold, the marginal devices and the calligraphic panels at the top, middle and bottom of each page, suggest that this was a particularly valuable Qurʼan (IO Islamic 1376, ff. 1v-2r)

The largest of our four thirty-leaved Qur’ans, IO Islamic 1376 (pictured above), is 43 x 23.2 cms, so from a practical point of view it would be quite easy to hold. The limitations of the thirty-leaved format, however, required that the text be proportionally small making it therefore correspondingly difficult to read. Our copies were written in a small naskh hand although in IO Islamic 1376 and IO Islamic 3534 the top, middle and bottom line of each page has been copied in a larger script. This tri-partite division is particularly noteworthy, shared, for example, by only one of the thirteen thirty-leaved Qurʼans in the Salar Jung collection[3]. To save space the headings in three of the four are also quite minimal, placed in the upper margin above the text block so as not to interfere with the basic design of one juz’ per opening.

Illuminated heading placed in the upper margin above the text block. The sūrah headings and the juzʼ indications are written inline in red ink and each line is separated by a double interlinear ruling (BL IO Islamic 1267, f. 1v)

Here a scalloped triangle forms the basis of the heading which is repeated on the facing page. The sūrah heading, in gold, and the first verse are in a larger calligraphic script. Note also the raised gold verse markers and the interlinear rulings (BL IO Islamic 1376, f. 1v)

A similarly scalloped heading is outlined above the two opening pages at the beginning of this Qur’an. Here the sūrah headings are marked inline in red and the juz’ indications are given in the margins (BL IO Islamic 3250, f. 1v)

The half-page sarlawḥ of a thirty-leaved Qur’an dated 1266 (1849/50). The dimensions of the heading have had the effect of displacing the division of the sections (juz’) which begin mid-page rather than at the top right of each opening (BL IO Islamic 3534, f. 1v)

In terms of marginal decorations, only IO Islamic 1376 has the typical medallion-shaped devices which are a regular feature of Qur’anic illumination. The margins of IO Islamic 1267 are decorated with gilt floral arabesques on a blue ground in the opening and on a clear ground in the subsequent pages. The margins of IO Islamic 3534 contain a Persian commentary enclosed within gilt leaf-inspired edges, with occasional flowers and leaves interspersed.

Detail showing the final sūrahs and colophon (BL IO Islamic 3534, f. 30r)

Marginal decoration half-way through section two (BL IO Islamic 1267, f. 3r)

Thirty-leaved Qur’ans were clearly a popular format. Although only four are preserved at the British Library, Charles Stewart's 1809 Descriptive Catalogue of the Oriental Library of the late Tippoo Sultan of Mysore mentions six (out of a total of seventy-nine Qurʼans or parts of the Qur'an in Tipu Sultan's collection). There are descriptions of a further five in the Khuda Bakhsh Oriental Library, Patna, one of which (no. 1171) was copied in Muharram 1112 (1700) by the same calligrapher ʻAbd al-Baqi Haddad mentioned in the Tazkirah-ʼi khvushnivīsān referred to above. Muhammad Ashraf, in his catalogue of the Salar Jung Qur'ans, describes thirteen copies which include one (Ms 202, no 108), an alifi Qur’an dated 1109 (1697/98), copied by Muhammad Baqi in the island of Socotra. Four of the Salar Jung copies date from the seventeenth century, eight from the eighteenth and one from the nineteenth. Three of these are alifi Qur’ans.

For those interested in Qur’anic illumination and decoration in general there is an extensive literature available and Qur’ans have been the subject of several recent exhibitions including Sacred at the British Library and The Art of the Qur’an: Treasures from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Arts at the Freer Sackler. However the study of Indian Qur’ans has been much neglected with even less written on manuscripts from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries apart from Manijeh Bayani and Tim Stanley’s work on the Khalili Collection (see below: The decorated word). There is a vast amount of material available, however, leaving plenty of scope for future research by enterprising scholars.

Further reading
Bayani, Manijeh, Anna Contadini, and Tim Stanley. The decorated word: Qurʼans of the 17th to 19th centuries, part 1 (The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art. 4). London: The Nour Foundation in association with Azimuth editions and Oxford University Press, 1999.

Annabel Teh Gallop. “The Boné Qur’an from South Sulawesi”. In Treasures of the Aga Khan Museum: Arts of the book and calligraphy, ed. Margaret S. Graves and Benoît Junod. Istanbul: Aga Khan Trust for Culture and Sakip Sabanci University & Museum, 2010, pp.162-173.

Salar Jung Museum and Library. A catalogue of the Arabic manuscripts in the Salar Jung Museum and Library; v. 2: The glorious Qurʾan, its parts and fragments, by Muhammad Ashraf. Hyderabad: Salar Jung Museum & Library, 1962.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian
with thanks to Elaine Wright and my colleagues Colin Baker, Annabel Teh Gallop and Sâqib Bâburî


[1] I thank Elaine Wright for sending me details of this Qur’an.
[2] Many of these features are also shared with Qur’ans from Southeast Asia as described in Annabel Teh Gallop’s “The Boné Qur’an from South Sulawesi” (see above).
[3] Ms 175, no. 213 in Salar Jung, catalogue (see above).