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46 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

30 November 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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23 November 2020

Christian Arabic Bible Translations in the British Library Collections

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The British Library holds an impressive collection of Christian Arabic texts, including many Bible translations which served a variety of communal interests. The character of the translations varies greatly. Most were based on Greek and Syriac Vorlagen but Hebrew, Latin, and Coptic source texts were also sometimes consulted. The communities were often bilingual – or even trilingual – which is reflected in many manuscripts.

Folio from an early translation of the Pauline Epistles in Arabic
Folio from an early translation of the Pauline Epistles in Arabic (Or. 8612, fol. 1r)

Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic
Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic (Add. Ms. 26116, fol. 1r)

The two earliest Bible manuscripts are dated on paleographical grounds to the latter half of the ninth century: Or. 8612, which represents an early version of the Pauline Epistles, and Add. Ms. 26116, a translation of the Book of Job.  The scripts, characterized by their horizontal extension and many angular shapes, are often referred to as ‘Christian Kufic’ or ‘Early Abbasid’ style and are typical of the earliest Christian Arabic manuscripts produced in Palestine.

Alongside the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles, the Book of Psalms is the most widely reproduced biblical text in Arabic[1]. There are several examples in the British Library, including the version commonly attributed to the famous translator and theologian ʻAbd Allāh ibn Faḍl al-Antākī. Ibn Faḍl was active in Antioch in the eleventh century and the translation attributed to him was widely used in the Rūm (Greek) Orthodox communities although it in fact dates from an earlier period and is found in the earliest attested Arabic versions. From the early stage of Arabic Bible production to the modern era, many extant translations of the Psalms show an affinity with the translation attributed to (or revised by) Ibn Faḍl and as such, they probably represent the most homogenously transmitted biblical book in Arabic. Yet, whereas some psalms in these manuscripts are highly similar or even identical to one another, others display notable variations.

Greek-Latin-Arabic Psalter. Harley Ms 5786 f.159v
Greek-Latin-Arabic Psalter (Harley Ms. 5786, fol. 159v)

A relatively early copy of this translation is found in the polyglot Psalter Harley Ms. 5786, copied before 1153 CE.  A similar version became part of the Biblia Sacra Arabica, the official Roman Catholic Bible in Arabic issued in the seventeenth century. Similar (but not identical) to the latter are Harley Ms. 6524; Add. Ms. 3056; Harley Ms. 5476; Or. 14976; Or. 4055; and Arundel Or. 19 – all seemingly copied in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these copies are psalters divided into twenty divisions (kathisma) indicating the daily recitation of psalms.

Psalms with Latin words added above the Arabic (Harley Ms. 6524, fol. 2v–3r)
Psalms with Latin words added above the Arabic (Harley Ms. 6524, fol. 2v–3r)

Another version of the translation attributed to Ibn Faḍl was included in the London Polyglot compiled by Walton in 1654–57 CE and it is interesting to note that the wording in Walton’s polyglot is very similar to that in the magnificent codex Arundel Or. 15. This codex, which is undated, is written in a style typical of Mamluk Qurʼans. As with many translations of the Psalms, it contains the Biblical Odes and some additional prayers prefaced by a lengthy explanatory introduction written for the benefit of the reader and the preacher. It discusses the authorship of the various psalms, their genres, historical and theological aspects, as well as their liturgical use. In addition, the scribe, or team of scribes, added text critical notes to the translation in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Arabic. 

 Arabic Psalms written in Mamluk style
Arabic Psalms copied in Mamluk style (Arundel Or. 15. fols. 38v-39r)

A further example which appears to be loosely related to the above version is the bilingual Greek-Arabic Or. 5007 dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century.

Another important manuscript in the collection is Add. Ms. 9060 dated 1239 CE and written in Maghribi script. The introduction, which represents a revision of an earlier text, may originally have been composed by the Andalusian author Ḥafṣ ibn Albar al-Qūṭī (fl. 889 CE), who is known for his poetic translation of the Psalms into Arabic. The text of the Psalms in this copy is similar to Ibn Faḍl’s translation.

Psalms in Arabic from al-Andalus (Add. Ms. 9060, fol. 41v–42)
Psalms in Arabic from al-Andalus (Add. Ms. 9060, fol. 41v–42r)

Of great interest also is the commentary on the Psalms by the famous East Syriac physician, philosopher, and exegete Abū al-Faraj ʻAbd Allāh Ibn al‑Ṭayyib (d. 1043 C.E.). The British Library has two copies of Abū al-Faraj’s commentary: Arundel Or. 4, dating from the thirteenth century, and Add. 15442 dated 1188 CE. A similar version of the Psalms, without a commentary, is transmitted in Or. 5469 (at least for Psalm 1). Ibn Ṭayyib’s philosophical works were known to famous philosophers such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Maimonides and he is often described as the most important Christian Arabic exegete, yet his exegetical works remain largely unstudied. Ibn Ṭayyib’s commentaries mainly focus on moral and historical aspects of the biblical texts, rather than Messianic ones, in contrast to Ḥafṣ ibn Albar and the author of Arundel Or. 15. He also wrote a commentary on the Gospels and an example of this is found in Or. 3201 dated 1805 CE.

The introduction to the Book of Psalms by Abū al-Faraj ibn al‑Ṭayyib (Add. Ms. 15442, fol. 2)
The introduction to the Book of Psalms by Abū al-Faraj ibn al‑Ṭayyib (Add. Ms. 15442, fol. 2)

A particularly interesting manuscript as regards the history of the Bible in Arabic is Or. 1326, reportedly the second of two volumes containing biblical books. This manuscript, dated 1585–90 CE, includes, for instance, al-Ḥārith ibn Sinān’s translation of the Wisdom books. We know little about al-Ḥārith besides the fact that he most likely translated the Wisdom books and the Pentateuch from the Syriac Syrohexapla and supplied the latter with an introduction. Or. 1326 furthermore contains an Arabic translation of the Gospels, associated with al-Asʻad Abū al-Faraj Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʻAssāl. Hibat Allāh belonged to a famous Coptic family, which contributed greatly to the intellectual and literary life of the Coptic Orthodox church in the thirteenth century. The British Library has a very early example of his translation, Or. 3382 dated 1264 CE, and a later copy, Add. Ms. 5995 dated 1474. Or. 1326 furthermore contains the Pauline Epistles according to the Egyptian Vulgate and the version of the book of Job attributed to a certain Fatyun/Pethion who is mostly known for his translation of the Major Prophets (cf. Or. 5918, dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth century). Despite the wide circulation of his texts, the only thing we know about him is that he translated from the Syriac Peshitta and that he inserted explanations and so-called ‘alternate renderings’ into the text, so that one passage in the source text is represented by two or more different renditions in the target text. The version of the Prophets transmitted in Or.1326, however, is that attributed to a certain al-ʻAlam al-Iskandarī. The same version of the Prophets occurs in Or. 1319 dated 1806 CE which became widely known to biblical scholars through its incorporation into the London Polyglot. Al-ʻAlam translated the Prophets from an old Greek majuscule text, apparently in Alexandria, before or during the fourteenth century, from when the earliest extant copy is attested. This copy is also located at the British Library, Or. 1314, an ornamented bilingual Coptic-Arabic text, dated 1373/4 CE.

The book of Daniel in Coptic and Arabic
The book of Daniel in Coptic and Arabic (Or. 1314, fol. 164r)

Finally, the most widely circulated version of the Gospels in Arabic, the so-called Alexandrian or Egyptian Vulgate, is well-represented at the British Library. It was widely disseminated among the Copts but also among Syriac communities from the thirteenth century onwards. An early example is Or. 1315, dated 1208 CE  and an especially beautiful copy is Add. Ms. 11856, dated 1336/7 CE (see an earlier post in this blog Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic). Other examples include Arundel Or. 20/1 dated 1280 CE; Or. 426 dating from the thirteenth century; Or. 425 dated 1308 CE; Or. 1327 dated 1334 CE; Or. 1316 dated 1663 CE; Or. 1001 dating from the eighteenth century and Or. 1317 dated 1815 CE.

The Gospels in Arabic dated 1336/7 CE (Add. Ms. 11856, fols. 1v-2r)
The Gospels in Arabic dated 1336/7 CE (Add. Ms. 11856, fols. 1v-2r)


Miriam L. Hjälm. Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology
This post was written with the support of the Swedish Research Council (2017-01630). My gratitude to Meira Polliack, Camilla Adang, Colin Baker, and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Further reading

Major catalogues of the British Library Arabic manuscripts can be found at Find Arabic manuscripts.

Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History, vols. 1–4 edited by D. Thomas et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2009–2012).
Kashouh, H. The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families (New York: De Gruyter, 2012).
van Koningsveld, P. S. The Arabic Psalter of Ḥafṣ ibn Albar al-Qûṭî: Prolegomena for a Critical Edition (Leiden: Aurora, 2016).
Moawad, S. Al-Asʿad Abū al-Faraǧ Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʿAssāl: Die arabische Übersetzung der vier Evangelien (Kairo: Alexandria School, 2014).
Monferrer-Sala, J.P. Liber Iob detractus apud Sin. Ar. 1 Notas en torno a la Vorlage siriaca de un manuscrito árabe cristiano (s. IX)’, Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 1 (2003), 119–142.
Senses of Scripture, Treasures of Tradition: The Bible in Arabic among Jews, Christians and Muslims, ed. M. L. Hjälm (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
Vollandt, R. ‘Making Quires Speak: An Analysis of Arabic Multi-Block Bibles and the Quest for a Canon’, Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 4 (2016), 173–209.
Zaki, V. ‘The Pauline Epistles in Arabic: Manuscripts, Versions, and Text Transmission’, (Ph.D. thesis, University of Munich 2019).


[1]. The categorization of the Psalms in this blog is mainly based on an examination of psalms 1, 3, 21 [MT 22] and 22 [MT 23] and sometimes 77 [MT 78]:20–31 and in need of further refinement.


26 October 2020

Libraries and manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)

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This blog post is written by guest contributor Prof. Dr. Volker Grabowsky, who has been Professor for the Language and Culture of Thailand at the University of Hamburg since 2009, and advisor to the Buddhist Archive of Photography in Luang Prabang Since 2006.  Grabowsky’s blog looks at the photographs taken by Hans Georg Berger of libraries in Laos, that were acquired by the British Library in August 2020.

 The ancient and exceptional manuscript culture of Laos has survived colonial rule, war and revolution as well as rapid modernization in a globalized world. Unlike in many parts of the world, production of manuscripts did not stop during the 20th century in Laos, where traditional ways of writing have been preserved by monks and lay scribes until present times. The oldest dated manuscript, a mono-lingual Pali palm-leaf manuscript containing parts of the Parivāra of the Vinaya Piṭaka, was made in 1520/21 and is kept at the National Museum of Luang Prabang (formerly the Royal Palace). It is also the first documentary evidence of the Dhamma (Tham) script in the Lao Kingdom of Lan Sang. This sacred script is a special feature of Lao literature. It originated in the neighboring northern Thai kingdom of Lan Na – probably as a derivative of the ancient Mon alphabet of Hariphunchai - in the late fourteenth century and made its way south through the Mekong river basin. As its name indicates, this script was used for the writing of the Buddhist scriptures and other religious texts. Next to this script, the Lao also developed a secular script nowadays called “Old Lao script” (Lao Buhan script).

Cabinet with palm leaf manuscripts
Opening of a cabinet with palm-leaf manuscripts, Manuscript Preservation Project of the National Library of Laos, Vat Muen Na Somphuaram, Luang Prabang, 1996. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994-2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(6). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Lao manuscripts were mostly inscribed with a stylus on rectangular cut and cured palm-leaf sheets varying in length. Each sheet had two holes; a cotton string was passed through the left one, making it possible to bind several palm-leaf sheets together as one bundle, or fascicle (phuk). Recent research estimates that more than ninety percent of Lao manuscripts are “palm-leaf books” (nangsü bai lan). The number of leaves in a given fascicle depend on the length and/or the number of text pages. All fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts are fastened by a string (sai sanὸng). Generally, numerous fascicles of palm-leaf manuscripts which contain the same version of a literary text are fastened together in bundles, called sum. Two wooden boards are frequently added to such a bundle for protection. The bundle usually is wrapped in a piece of cloth and tied with a cotton string. It is called mat.

Palm-leaf is not only the most widely used but, in this region’s subtropical climate, also the most durable “soft” writing support of the Lao cultural area. It was mostly used for Buddhist text. The leporello format was used for secular texts such as chronicles, legal texts, medical and astrological treatises, official documents, non-religious literary works, and only occasionally, Buddhist texts. For these leporello manuscripts, a cardboard-like paper made out of the bark of the sa tree (Broussonetia papyrifera L. vent.) was used. The grayish sa paper was inscribed on both sides, often with black ink. Sometimes it was first painted with a layer of lampblack and then written on with yellowish ink, or white chalk. The covers of both phap sa, as such leporello manuscripts are called in Lao, as well as palm-leaf manuscripts, were often decorated with lacquer and gold. The manuscripts were kept in elaborately fashioned wooden boxes. In addition, bound books exist, notably in the Tai Lü areas of northern Laos, such as Müang Sing, where each piece of paper has been folded over once vertically, so that it becomes much longer than it is broad. By folding the paper, both the front and the back page of one sheet can be used for writing. These sheets of paper are sewn together along one of the vertical sides. This kind of manuscript is called phap hua. In the manuscript tradition of the Tai Lü, pap sa manuscripts play a very important role and are even more widespread than palm-leaf manuscripts, the latter being restricted to the writing of religious texts.

Sa-Paper manuscripts
Sa-Paper manuscripts of the Lü of Müang Sing at the collection of Vat Mai Suvannaphumaram, Luang Prabang, 1994. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(12). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

The vast majority of Lao manuscripts are not kept in private households but in monasteries. The most precious manuscripts are stored in small and elegant buildings devoted solely to the conservation of manuscripts. They are called hò tham (“House of the Dhamma”) or hò trai (“House of the three [baskets]) because they are dedicated homes to Buddhist scriptures. These libraries are integrated into the monastic site (vat) of which they embrace the organization and architectural style. According to traditional Buddhist belief, no matter whether they were written carefully or not, manuscripts should not be treated disrespectfully, or kept in a demeaning place. The texts that manuscripts contain, especially the ritual ones, should not have any insertions or other writing added to them. Any person who breaks this rule would lose the respect of devout Buddhists. Traditionally, laywomen were not supposed to touch religious manuscripts directly, even if very often they were the persons who donated them to the monasteries. This tradition came to an end during the country-wide effort of manuscript preservation of the National Library of Laos since the 1990s, where laywomen were prominently involved.

Historic wooden Library of Vat Nong Lam Chan photograph by Hans Georg Berger
The historic wooden library of Vat Nong Lam Chan at Ban Nong Lam Chan, Champhon District, Savannakhet Province, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(21). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

It is the sponsor or donor, not the scribe, who is called the “maker” (phu sang) of a manuscript. Usually, its “making” is recorded in the colophons following the end of the text. Here, the names of the leading monastic or lay supporter(s) or mūlasaddhā who took the initiative in commissioning the writing of the manuscript is mentioned. This person provides the writing support and pays the scribe, usually a learned monk or ex-monk. The main aim of that pious deed is to help support the Teachings of the Buddha to endure for 5,000 years. As such, it is expected to bring in return to the sponsors, donors, and – in the case of manuscripts – scribes important karmic benefit. Scribes were exclusively male; recent research found that a surprisingly high number of principal donors were women. In the case of Luang Prabang, we noted a substantial number of manuscripts donated by royalty and members of the aristocracy.

Between 1992 and 2002 the Preservation of Lao Manuscripts Programme, run by the National Library of Laos and supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs, surveyed the manuscript holdings of 830 monasteries all over Laos and preserved almost 86,000 manuscripts. Of these, around 12,000 manuscripts were selected for microfilm recordings which are now accessible in the Digital Library of Lao Manuscripts. More recently, a number of digitization projects supported by the British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP)  and the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts (DREAMSEA) focused on the particularly rich manuscript collections in Luang Prabang’s monasteries, the royal city which since the 14th century has been the centre of Lao Buddhism.

A novice reads from a palm-leaf manuscript written in Tham Lao script, Vat Ban Müang Kang, Champasak Province, Southern Laos, 1999. Hans Georg Berger "Libraries and Manuscripts of Laos (1994–2012)", British Library, Photo 1401(19). Image reproduced by permission of Hans Georg Berger

Hans Georg Berger, a photographer and writer born in 1951 in Trier, Germany, surveyed the situation of Lao manuscripts in the context of his photographic documentation of Lao ceremonies, rituals, meditation and everyday life since 1993. From 2006 to 2011 he was grant-holder of three projects of the Endangered Archives Programme which resulted in the digitization, identification and safe storage of more than 33,000 photographs taken and collected by the monks of Luang Prabang for over 120 years.

His collaboration with the Buddhist sangha, the National Library of Laos and the Buddhist Archives of Luang Prabang created a unique corpus and overview on Lao manuscript culture from which 60 photographs, both digital and printed, were acquired for the Library's Visual Arts collections. Hans Georg Berger's work for the Endangered Archives Programme was documented in the short film "Theravada Vision".


By Volker Grabowsky


Further reading

Berger, Hans Georg: The floating Buddha: the revival of vipassana meditation in Laos. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009, c2006

Berger, Hans Georg. Meditation colors: nine digital color photographs. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Berger, Hans Georg. Sacred dust from the Buddha's feet: Theravada Buddhism in Laos. Ulbeek: Salto Ulbeek, 2010

Berger, Hans Georg. My sacred Laos. Chicago: Serindia Contemporary, 2015

Berger, Hans Georg (photographs), Christian Caujolle et al. (texts). Het bun dai bun: Laos - Sacred Rituals of Luang Prabang. London: Westzone, 2000

Berger, Hans Georg, Khamvone Boulyaphone. Treasures from the Buddhist Archive of Photography : historic photographs taken or collected by the monks of Luang Prabang between 1890 and 2007. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2010

Farmer, John Alan. The Self-in-Relation: on Hans Georg Berger's photographs. New York / Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2011

Lingham, Brian (ed). The learning photographer: scholarly texts on Hans Georg Berger's art work in Laos and Iran. Luang Prabang: Anantha Publishing, 2009

Pha One Keo Sitthivong, Khamvone Boulyaphone; foreword by Hans Georg Berger. Great monks of Luang Prabang 1854 to 2007. Luang Prabang: Publications of the Buddhist Archive of Photography; Anantha Publishing, 2011


19 October 2020

A Family Affair: The Dukagjinis in the British Library’s Ottoman Turkish Collections

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(Sorry, but there’s no RnB to be found here; you’ll have to exit now if you’re looking for some Mary J. Blige)

Manuscript page with text in Arabic script in two columns and floral illumination around the margins and at the header in gold, red, green, blue and black
The first page of a copy of Şah u Geda from a 17th century CE manuscript featuring illumination that was likely added in the 19th century CE. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Şah u Geda, 26 Zulkâde 1020 AH [16 January 1612 CE]. Or 16422, f 1v)CC Public Domain Image

Sometimes, large collections of data can only find their way into electronic databases through the mind-numbing, but essential, process of manual data entry. In the case of the British Library’s Ottoman manuscripts, the transfer of details by hand from acquisition slips into our online catalogue is the quickest means of making information about our holdings available to the widest number of people possible. There is, of course, an additional benefit to going through hundreds of these slips of paper. In doing so, I’ve been able to pick out patterns of acquisition, and to connect volumes of similar or identical content purchased by or bequeathed to the Museum or Library over the course of its history. In this blog, I’m going to explore one such group of items, all of which are in some way related to members of the Dukagjini family.

To be fair, the vast majority of the works in question are collections of poetry or prose by one Dukagjini, Dukaginzade Taşlıcalı Yahya Bey (Jahja bej Dukagjini in Albanian). Yahya Bey was born in 1498 CE in Taşlıca, today known as Pljevlja, Montenegro. The Dukagjin family were a fairly well-known Christian Albanian group in northern Albania and western Kosova. They are reputed to be descendants of the Progoni, founders of the Principality of Arbanon, the first state in Albanian history. While a branch of the family fled Ottoman rule and established themselves in the Venetian-controlled city of Koper (contemporary Slovenia), the rest stayed, gradually integrating into Ottoman suzerainty. A number of their children found their way to Istanbul in a pattern similar to that of Yahya Bey. Dukaginzade Ahmet Paşa achieved the rank of Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire in 1514-15 CE. His son, Dukaginzade Mehmet Paşa, went on to great feats too, becoming governor of Egypt in the mid-16th century CE. Aleppo even has a Dukaginzade Mehmet Paşa Mosque complex, which is known in Arabic as al-Adiliyah Mosque (جامع العادلية).

Yahya Bey was brought to Istanbul as part of the Devşirme, an Ottoman institution of forcible recruitment through which non-Muslim boys were selected by Imperial authorities, taken from their families, converted to Islam, and then entered into Imperial service. Yahya Bey therefore moved to Istanbul at an early age. He originally trained to be an archer, but eventually impressed Kemalpaşazade (Şeyh-ül-İslam and author of the Tevarih-i Âl-Osman) with a kaside he had written. He thus began his path through Imperial educational structures and into the bureaucracy. He was known as a sâhib-i seyf ü kalem, or master of the sword and pen, meaning a man who was both a warrior and a poet. Apart from his prolific poetical oeuvre, which we’ll see below, he was also a respected soldier, participating in the Battle of Çaldıran in 1514, the Ottoman-Mamluk War in 1516-17 CE, and even the Siege of Szigetvár in 1566 CE. But luck could be fickle for Ottoman civil servants and warriors. When Yahya Bey wrote a poem elegizing Kanunî Süleyman's first-born, Şehzade Mustafa, Grand Vizier Rüstem Paşa, Mustafa’s murderer, lashed out at the poet. When the dust settled, Yahya Bey was exiled to the Balkans. Some say that he took up residence in Zvornik, in present-day Bosnia and Hercegovina. Others claim that he actually spent his final days in Timișoara/Temesvár, Romania. Wherever it might have been that Yahya Bey lived in exile, it was there that he eventually died at some point between 1575 and 1582 CE.

Manuscript page with text in Arabic script in two columns surrounded by gold margins and topped with a floral-themed header in gold and blue
The first page of another copy of Şah u Geda, this time from a late 16th century CE manuscript. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Şah u Geda, 998 AH [1590 CE]. Or 1159, f 1v)
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The Library holds at least 15 different volumes containing works by Yahya Bey. Most of these are not combined with the works of other writers, although Add MS 7936 (ff 28v-106v, Gülşen-i Envar) and Or 1154 (ff 59-136v, Gencine-i Raz) are both mecmualar or codices containing poetry by Yahya Bey and other poets. The other volumes cover the breadth of his oeuvre, including his Hamse ( Or 1147 and Or 7222); Şah u Geda ( Or 1159, Or 7223, Or 7224, and Or 16422); Gencine-i Raz ( Or 37, Or 1162, Or 7225, Or 16390, Add MS 5979); Gülşen-i Envar (Add MS 19446); and Usul-name or Kitab-i Usul (Add MS 5978). The Hamse (which comes from the Arabic word khamsah خمسة, meaning 5) contains the other named poems, as well as a fifth work, Yusûf u Züleyha. The Library does not appear to hold separate copies of his other works, Edirne Şehrengizi and İstanbul Şehrengizi, and it is likely that other poems that feature in his Divan are scattered in various mecmualar forming part of the Library’s holdings, waiting to be catalogued in full and connected to his name.

A two-page spread of a manuscript text in Arabic script, with text in two columns on each page, written in black ink with red headers and margins

The first two pages of Gülşen-i Envar from a Hamse-i Yahya Efendi, likely copied in the 17th century CE. (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Hamse-i Yahya Efendi, 17th century CE. Or 7222, ff 373v-374r)
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Yahya Bey is well-represented within the Library’s holdings in part because of the high esteem in which he was held by contemporary literati and soldiers as well as by future generations of scholars. Even while in exile, he impressed the Ottoman soldier, poet and historian Mustafa Ali, then stationed in Bosnia, who was later inspired by Yahya’s story in writing his own poetic works. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his popularity was encouraged by the English Orientalist E. J. W. Gibb , a prolific collector of West Asian manuscripts and a giant in Anglophone Ottoman Studies. The full impact of his and other British Orientalists’ collecting and analytical practices has been succinctly reviewed by Dr. Nagihan Gür in a number of her published papers. Gibb claimed that Yahya Bey was a particularly creative and innovative poet, borrowing and adapting themes and styles from Persian poetry. He further elevated the poet for his mastery of Istanbulite Ottoman Turkish, claiming that it was not possible to find any hint of Yahya’s Albanian origins in his use of the Ottoman language. As Gibb’s six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry (OIF 894.351) became a staple of literary criticism for the Anglophone world in the 20th century, so too would Yahya Bey find a place within the Orientalist pantheon of Ottoman poets established by European and American scholars.

A manuscript page with a series of concentric circles subdivided by arcs and filled with Arabic letters and esoteric symbols in black ink
A geometric diagram featuring Arabic letters and esoteric (?) symbols from the start of a Gülşen-i Envar text found in a late 16th century CE Hamse-i Yahya (Dukaginzade Yahya Bey, Hamse-i Yahya, Safer 988 AH [March-April 1580 CE]. Or 1147, f 1r)
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In 1901 and 1909, the British Museum (whose text-based collections passed to the Library in 1973) received dozens of Ottoman Turkish (as well as Persian and Arabic) manuscripts from Gibb’s estate. It should be no surprise, then, that four of the Library’s holdings of Yahya Bey’s poetry and prose are from Gibb (Or 7222, Or 7223, Or 7224, and Or 7225). But there are, of course, other sources. Nine volumes pre-date Gibb’s bequest. Two were received from Hilgrove Turner (Add MS 5978 and Add MS 5979), while one (Add MS 7936) came from the Rich Collection, amassed by the Franco-British businessman and diplomat Claudius Rich. The copy of Gülşen-i Envar at Add MS 19446 entered the British Museum’s holdings thanks to H(endrik?) Edelman, and Or 37 was sold by George Cecil Renouard. In 1872, four volumes were purchased from the Polish-Russian diplomat and famed Orientalist (particularly within the realm of Kurdish Studies), Alexandre Jaba or Żaba. The volumes (Or 1147, Or 1154, Or 1159 and Or 1162) speak to Jaba’s broader interest in the languages and literary cultures of West Asia and the Caucasus, as well as the formation of a distinct school of Oriental Studies in the Russian Empire. His legacy, and that of the other scholars who worked on such texts within the Tsars’ realms, are taken up in The Heritage of Soviet Oriental Studies (ELD.DS.18320), edited by Dr. Michael Kemper and Dr. Stephan Conermann.

Manuscript page with numerous seals and couplets and inscriptions written in Arabic script in all directionsManuscript page with numerous seals and couplets and inscriptions written in Arabic script in all directions
Two final pages from an early 17th century CE copy of the Gencine-yi Raz produced by Abdi İbn-i Mustafa of Demirtaş (Teymurtaşı), featuring numerous ownership seals, couplets and inscriptions in Ottoman Turkish. (Dukaginzade Yahya Efendi, Gencine-yi Raz, 1034 AH [1624-25 CE]. Or 7224, ff 83v-84r)
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Another two items would join this list thanks to acquisition activities in the late 20th century. Both Or 16390 and Or 16422 are works that were previously held by C. S. Mundy, another of Great Britain’s well-known Turkologists, this time resident at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. These men, of course, were the final stop for the manuscripts before they entered the Museum or the Library. Before them, countless Ottoman and other readers bought, enjoyed, shared, and sold these works. Some of them left their names or seals on the pages and fly-leaves of the volumes, attesting to the great popularity of a number of the items. Much research is still needed to understand just what paths these texts followed throughout their lives, and how such histories reflect reading and collecting habits of Ottoman audiences.

A manuscript page of Arabic-script text in black ink with headers and margins in red inkA double-page spread of manuscript pages with Arabic-script text in black ink and headers and margins in red
A copy of a letter written to Dukaginzade Osman taken from a collection of compositions attributed to Veysi. (Münşeat-i Veysi-yi Merhum, 18th century CE. Or 7466, ff 39v-40v)
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The story of Ottoman Dukagjinis and the British Library’s Ottoman manuscripts does not end with Yahya Bey. Nor, apparently, did the story of the Dukaginzadeler in the Ottoman bureaucracy. Or 7466 is a münşeat of the late 16th-century Ottoman poet Veysi, which was purchased from I. E. Gégou on 9 April 1910. A münşeat is essentially a collection of letters and other texts that can be used as models for future correspondence. The genre is fairly common within our holdings. The general idea was popular in many cultures until fairly recently; I remember having a French correspondence manual in the 1990s as a supplementary text for high school and university French class. In this particular volume, we find a copy of a letter addressed to Dukaginzade Osman (died 1603 CE), Kadı of Cairo. While Dukaginzade was not nearly as well-known as his relatives, his name does appear in a number of different münşeat held in various locations and penned by different authors. Most recently, he came up in the chapter “The law school of Mehmed II in the last quarter of the sixteenth century: a glass ceiling for the less connected Ottoman Ulema” by Dr. Baki Tezcan, found in Ottoman War and Peace (ZA9.9.a.6407(68)). The British Library’s own holdings, then, would appear to mirror the broader fortunes of the Dukagjini family in the ebb and flow of the Ottoman Imperial order.

As more of our acquisition slips enter the online catalogue, it is possible that further volumes of Yahya Bey’s work will be reconnected to those already identified. Perhaps items relating to other members of the Dukagjini family might be found too. Whatever happens, those manuscripts already documented paint a picture of how one extended family had a profound effect on Ottoman society and history in the 16th century. They also show how collecting practices impact scholarship and our later understanding of the evaluation and appreciation of cultural products in Ottoman society. Finally, the Dukagjinis shine a light on the complexity of kinship, forcible recruitment, and ethnic origins in the Ottoman Empire. At times, statecraft and literary prowess are more than just learned skills; they’re a family affair.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator of the Turkish and Turkic Collections
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05 October 2020

Defining Dialects: Accounting for Turkic Languages in the British Library Collections

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Several weeks ago, I wrote about the provenance and curation of the 150-odd works in our Chagatai collections. In that blog, I promised that I would return with a related piece about the languages of our holdings. In this piece, I'll be looking at where the name "Chagatai" comes from, why we use it to describe our holdings, and why it isn't an ideal way to refer to what we have on hand. 

Double-page spread of text in Old Turkic script in black and red ink
Two pages from the 8th-century CE divination book Irq Bitigwritten in Old Turkic script. (Irq Bitig. Dunhuang. 8th century CE. Or 8212/171)
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The earliest written records in a Turkic language come to us in the form of the Orkhon inscriptions, which were produced some time in the 8th century CE. Turkic lects were obviously spoken long before this, but the inscriptions are among the first written records that we have by which to measure their spread and evolution over the following thirteen centuries. The inscriptions were written in the Old Turkic script, which I wrote about in this blog. It is replicated in Or 8212/76(1) and Or 8212/76(3), military inventories, as well as in Or 8212/161, the famous 9th-century CE Irq Bitig divination manual. These documents are part of the British Library’s Stein Collections and provide an exceptionally rare look at the early history and worldview of the Turkic languages and people. While there is remarkable uniformity between the language of the Orkhon inscriptions and the manuscripts in the Library’s collections, orthographic idiosyncrasies point to the great influence that individual writers exerted in defining early written Turkic expression. Such peculiarities would grow to reflect dialect divergences over the coming centuries.

During this time, the Turkic peoples underwent some pretty fundamental changes. In the 8th century CE, Islam began to take root among Central Asian communities, radically altering worldviews as well as linguistic patterns. It led to the introduction of new words, concepts and paradigms into Turkic lects and literatures. The 11th century CE saw two different milestones of importance for Turkic historical linguistics. In the 1070s, the Qarakhanid polymath Kaşgarlı Mahmud compiled his Divan-ı Luğati’t-Türk (YP.2007.a.173), a compendious dictionary of the Turkic dialects, and an invaluable window on linguistic diversity within the language family. In the same century, the Seljuqs, a clan from the Oğuz confederation, swept through Persia into West Asia. They brought with them the dialects that would eventually come to dominate Turkic communities throughout the Ottoman Empire and Azerbaijan.

A page of handwritten text in Arabic script in black ink surrounded by an intricate geometrical and floral border in blue, red, white and gold, with gold margins
The first page of the Nusratnama, greatly faded, with showing the intricacy of the illumination. (Nusratnama. Central Asia. 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 1v)
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In the 13th century CE, a different invasion – that of the Golden Horde – brought another seismic shift. Genghis Khan and his Mongolian armies whipped across Eurasia, subjugating Turkic states caught in their path. While there is some Mongolian input into the development of many Turkic languages, its influence over Central Asian and western Turkic languages over subsequent centuries was not nearly as great as that of Persian. Language does not exist outside of a historical vacuum, however, and Genghis Khan’s invasions did effectively tip the scales of fortune in favour of certain dialect groups. The Chagatai Khanate, established under the sovereignty of Genghis Khan’s second son Chagatai Khan, is such an example. Originally Mongolian in language, the state was gradually Turkicized. As it reached the zenith of its political and military power under Timur, the Turkic dialects of the region gradually began to coalesce as a language of state power. Add MS 7851, Al-Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya, reflects this stage of transition and the emergence of Chagatai as a language of literature and statecraft. The Khanate’s military prowess waned over the next three centuries, but its cultural legacy only continued to grow. From the 14th century CE right up to the advent of Soviet power in Central Asia, Chagatai was a medium of literary creation and historical recording from Delhi to Siberia, and from Iran through to Bengal.

The problem, however, is that what was written in 15th-century CE Samarqand wasn’t necessarily the same dialect as that found in a 19th-century CE manuscript from Qazan or Qashgar. As a language, Chagatai never had a state-sponsored, institutionally-regulated standard in the way that Turkish, French, Filipino or Korean do. Moreover, there is no body of active, native speakers on whom to rely for intelligibility tests, as one would use for lects without global standards, such as English, Southern Quechua or Yoruba. As a result, the tag “Chagatai” is used by the Library – and many orientalists, but not linguists – to describe a body of works that exhibit a breathtaking amount of linguistic variation. The great poet Mir Alisher Navoiy, a giant in the canon of Chagatai literature, helped to set a benchmark for composition in the language. So too did Babur, the founder of the Mughal Dynasty. But without an active insistence on these examples being prescriptive, as well as admirable, there was little to discourage writers from including social or geographical variants as they sought fit. I’m not a linguist, and I am by no means competent in determining which alternative label might be better to affix to some of the works in our Chagatai collections. Nonetheless, with what follows, I hope to elucidate why we have grouped so many disparate works together, and why improved access to them might help me and future curators in understanding just how to describe them.

A page of text in Arabic script written in black and red inkDouble page of text in Arabic script with various words underlined in red
(Left) Words in the Kyrgyz dialect of Bukhara along with Arabic and Persian translations indicated in red. (Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari. Sabab-i Taqviat. Kazan. 19th century CE. Or 11042, f 57r)
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(Right) Explanations of various Turkic dialects in Persian with examples from the dialects themselves. (Sindh, Pakistan. 1253 AH [1837 CE]. Or 404, ff 17v-18r)
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The authors of some texts make this task relatively easy by stating overtly which lects they are using or discussing. Numerous manuscripts contain vocabularies of different dialects, as well as explanations of the divergences in pronunciation, morphology, syntax and semantics between the different Turkic communities. Or 11042, for example, gives us a glossary of the words used by Kyrgyz-speakers around Bukhara. Compiled by Muhammad Karim al-Bulghari of Qazan in the 19th century CE, it was intended to provide Tatar students in Bukhara with a key to the peculiarities of local speech patterns, translating these words into Persian and Arabic. Or 404 , by contrast, goes even deeper into the question of linguistic diversity, as Dr. Paolo Sartori has highlighted for me. A Persian and Turkic codex, the author of the first text, Ashur Beg, aimed to distinguish seven different dialect groups: Turani, Uzbeki, Irani, Qizilbashi, Rumi, Qashgari, and Nogay. While it is easy to guess how some of these map onto contemporary linguistic groups (Rumi is probably Ottoman; Qashgari is probably related to Uyghur; and Nogay might be Nogay and other Caucasian Qipchaq varieties), others are more difficult. Is “Irani” the Turkmen varieties of north-east Iran and Central Asia? And where does Turani fit in? Evidently, we still have quite long strides to make in order to understand how to reconcile the worldviews of the authors of these texts with those of the speakers of the languages discussed, both past and present.

Similarly, Or 1912, a Chagatai-Persian codex that contains numerous linguistic tracts, presents us with a few more issues of nomenclature. Copied in India in the mid-19th century CE, the work demonstrates Mughal scholars’ interest in various Turkic dialects. The first three texts present grammars and vocabularies of Chagatai, Azerbaijani, Nogay and Qashgari, none of which pose too many problems when it comes to identifying, roughly, contemporary linguistic communities. The fourth text, however, creates a bit of confusion. The author, who might have been Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi, states that Turkic peoples are divided between two camps: the Aimaqs, who say things like qayda, qanday,qali and tash, and the Turkmen, who say hayda, handay, ghali and dash. These divisions do appear to mark some phonological differences that we know of today. Consider, for example, Kazakh (Qipchaq) qajet and Turkish (Oğuz) hacet (meaning “need”); or Kazakh taw and Turkish dağ (meaning “mountain”). But beyond this, the lines start to get fuzzy. Today, Aimaq primarily designates Dari-speaking communities in Afghanistan; some members do claim descent from Turkic-speakers of Central Asia. Are these the same people described in the text? Did Aghur bin Bayram Ali Bi retain a record of their ancestors’ speech patterns, or is he describing a completely different group of people? Only further research of this and related manuscripts might help us to get closer to the truth.

Chagatai, of course, isn’t just a language of manuscripts. For much of the 19th century CE, lithography was also used for the reproduction of texts. Lithography, unlike early movable type, helped replicate more faithfully the nastaliq style of calligraphy common in many Central Asian manuscripts. Movable type was also used, however, particularly within the context of Europeanisation programs imposed by various colonial empires. In the early 19th century CE, presses existed at Qazan (a history of it by R. I. Yakupov is available here ) as well as St. Petersburg, and were soon established in Tashkent, Orenburg, and Bukhara. The earliest example held in the British Library is the Makhzan al-asrar, published in Qazan in 1858 (ITA.1986.a.1077). It isn’t particularly beautiful, but it does embody some of the important history of Chagatai publishing. The monograph was published by Joseph Gottwaldt (there’s only a German-language biographical page for him), a professor of Arabic and Persian at Kazan University from 1849 until 1897. Gottwaldt became the University’s Oriental Librarian in 1850 and headed up its publishing house from 1857, showing, once again, the deep links between orientalist scholarship and the publishing of Chagatai literature.

Lithographed title page with text in Arabic script and many small illustrations of different outdoor settingsLithographed page of text in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and a page of poetry (right) showing the heights of lithographed calligraphy and imager from a Central Asian publisher. (Mashrab, Divan-i Mashrab (Tashkent: Tipografiia Bratsei Portsevykh", 1900).) (ORB.30/8204)
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Not all printed editions of Chagatai literature were created within the Imperial academy. A copy of the Divan-i Mashrab (ORB.30/8204), the collected poetry of Boborahim Mullah Wali, a 16th-17th century CE Sufi intellectual also known as Mashrab, was likely produced for the enjoyment of a Central Asian readership. This beautiful edition was lithographed in Tashkent in 1900 and demonstrates the aesthetic heights attainable for late 19th-century CE Central Asian artisans. It also provides us with a clear contrast to contemporary works produced by Turkic speakers, putting into relief the growing chasm between literary and vernacular modes of expression.

Printed text in Arabic script with small illustrated header showing fields and a treePrinted text in Arabic script with small illustrated header
Articles from the magazine Shura about sex work (left) and original works of creative writing with more vernacular linguistic features (right). (Shura (Orenburg: Vakit Nashriyati, 1908-1917).) (
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Vernacularization was already a trend by the final years of the Tsarist Empire. Turkic intellectuals across the Romanov lands were publishing in dialects influenced more by how people spoke than by traditional literary convention. In some cases, the result was written language that aligned somewhat closely with languages used today. The early 20th -century CE periodical Shura (, published in Orenburg by the Bashkir and Tatar Jadid Rizaeddin Fakhreddinov (Ризаитдин Фәхретдин), provides an example that shows Chagatai and Tatar features. Among them are the use of -ymyz instead of-ybyz for the first person plural (a feature of Chagatai), and the appearance of tügel for the negative copula (common in Tatar). It seems that Fakhreddinov operated on a sliding scale, with a more literary style preferred for social commentary, and, ironically, a more vernacular one for literary pieces.

Title page with a calligraphic title in Arabic scriptText in Arabic script in black ink
The title page (left) and introduction (right) to a book about the travels of Abdurreshit Ibragimov and their importance for Turkic national development. (Davr-i Alim (Kazan: Tipografiia gazety Bayan'ul-khak", 1909).) (14499.p.5)
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Contrast this to the book Davr-i Alim (14499.p.5), an account of Abdurreshit Ibragimov’s (Габдрәшит Ибраһимов) travels around the world and their impact on national development. It contains elements that are common in Oğuz dialects (olmak, ile) as well as features that can be found in Qarluq or Qipchaq ones (-gan past and -a tur constructions). It’s not Chagatai, but it’s also not proto-Uzbek or Turkmen or Tatar. What’s going on here?

Cover page of a magazine lithographed in Arabic script with a floral border and illustrations of flora and fauna
The cover page of the periodical Oyna (Mirror), published in Turki (called Uzbek in Russian), Persian and Russian by the Jadidist intellectual Mahmud Hoja Behbudi. (Oyna (Samarqand: Makhmud Khwaja Behbudi, 1913-1915).) (ITA.1986.a.1625)
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Perhaps what we’re seeing is something new – an emergent lingua franca for Muslim Turkic communities across Eurasia. Occasionally, it is referred to by the simple moniker of Turki, a name that was, incidentally, used to refer to Chagatai as well. We see on the cover of an issue of Oyna (ITA.1986.a.1625) from 1914. Other types of common Turkic systems had certainly been proposed – the most famous of which was pushed by İsmail Gaspiralı – but none seemed to gain unconditional support among intellectuals and the average Turkic-speaker alike. A scholar of Eastern Turkic texts, literary culture and multilingualism, Ahmet Hojam Pekiniy, alerted me to the widespread presence of an inter-dialect Turki in Eastern Turkestani documents too. There is still so much more for us to understand about this phenomenon, and how it relates to Chagatai linguistically, historically, socially and politically.

In the end, it wasn’t the printing press or mass communication that forced standardization, but rather the process of Sovietization. Soviet authorities, informed by Stalin’s Nationalities’ Policy, set about demarcating the languages of distinct Soviet peoples. Chagatai lost out to a host of semi-vernacular, heavily-managed languages – Uzbek, Tatar, Bashkir, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, and Turkmen, among others – which became the new literary norms. Chagatai, or maybe Turki, didn’t die out completely, but lived on for a while longer in exile. I’ve written about Yangi Yapon Mokhbire elsewhere, but it’s worth mentioning once more as an example of the continued use of the language as a common denominator amongst exiles from various Turkic communities, at least until the late 1930s. Nonetheless, Chagatai’s quiet disappearance from the world stage has denied us the opportunity to understand truly what it was and was not, and to see its place within the rich tapestry of Turkic cultural production. And for the community of cataloguers and curators, it means a continued struggle to categorize these works in a way that makes them discoverable and useable by readers from around the globe. In time, we hope, a greater public interest in them and the language itself will help revive some of Chagatai's importance in understanding the history of Eurasia.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further Reading

Eckmann, János, Chagatay Manual ([London?]: Taylor and Francis, [2017]). (DRT ELD.DS.166473)

Khalid, Adeeb, The Politics of Muslim Cultural Reform: Jadidism in Central Asia (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Schluessel, Eric, An Introduction to Chagatai: A Graded Textbook for Reading Central Asian Sources (Michigan: University of Michigan Press Services, 2018). (YP.2019.b.567)

The Turkic Languages, edited by Lars Johanson and Éva Á. Csató (London: Routledge, 1998). (YC.1999.b.2111)

21 September 2020

Curating Curation: Making Sense of the British Library’s Chagatai Collections

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Full-page painting showing a man dressed in Central Asian clothing seated before his courtesans in similar dress
Chagatai Khan at in council with his courtesans. (Nusratnama, Central Asia, 970 AH/1563 CE. Or 3222, f 86r)
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In March of this year, when the necessity of lockdown became painfully apparently to those in positions of authority, the British Library closed its doors to the public. Curatorial staff were asked to work from home. We were lucky; unlike many of our peers in other cultural institutions across the country – not to mention millions of other workers throughout the United Kingdom – we were not furloughed. We were asked, however, to begin working on tasks that did not require access to the Library’s physical collections. I decided to use this time to create long-overdue digital records for our Chagatai holdings, among other things. In this blog post, I’m going to share a few insights that I gained from this work about the composition of the collection.

The British Library holds nearly 150 manuscripts containing text in Qipchaq and Qarluq Turkic lects. Within the Library’s structures, these are generally referred to as “Chagatai manuscripts,” despite the fact that such nomenclature is at best controversial, and at worst wrong. Chagatai is a literary language used from the 15th to early 20th centuries CE. Its lack of a documented standard meant that some degree of variation was tolerated, but not to the extent that it might include works in all regional lects spoken by communities from Tabriz to Ürümqi. The use of “Chagatai” was convenient as an analog to Ottoman, however, even if it wasn’t correct, and it stuck as a label for these items throughout the latter part of the 20th century. For this reason, I’ve decided to leave the term relatively unchallenged for now, and to reserve a discussion of the collection’s linguistic diversity for a later date.

A page featuring text in Uyghur script inside multicultural angular waves, and text in Arabic script in the margins
Two texts grace this page: one in a Turkic lect written in the Uyghur script; and one in Persian in Arabic script, written in the margins. (Yazd, 835 AH/1431 CE. Or 8193, f 16v)
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Of the 150 items held, only five have been digitized. I wrote about two of them in this blog post from early 2019. To these, we can add three other volumes: the Nusratnama, a history of the Shaybanids from Genghis Khan down to Shaybani Khan (Or 3222); an incomplete copy of Gharaib al-sighar, a collection of poetry by the great Chagatai poet Navoiy (Or 13069); and an exquisitely illustrated majmua of poetry, moral tracts and religious doctrine in a Turkic language written in Uyghur script and Persian (Or 8193). This means that the vast majority of the Chagatai works held by the British Library can only be consulted at our St. Pancras Asian and African Studies Reading Room, and thus remain heavily restricted to the public for the time being.

Black and white image of typed text on rectangular paper
A black and white image of the acquisition slip for Or. 9660, the Tazkirat ul-cinān. 
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A number of obstacles present themselves in the cataloguing of these items, only some of which are unique to the collection. To start, the metadata that exists for this collection is fragmentary at best. Items acquired by the British Museum prior to 1888 are included in Charles Rieu’s 1888 Catalogue of the Turkish Manuscripts in the British Museum. Given the early date of this catalogue, it only carries those items marked as Additional Manuscripts or with Oriental Manuscript references less than 3300. To this we may add a skeletal handlist compiled by my predecessor, Muhammad Isa Waley. The list provided me with bare-bones descriptions of the Chagatai works held by the Library. On occasion, I was able to add information gleaned from our blue slips, or acquisition slips, for some of the items given Oriental (Or.) shelfmarks. Such data was sparse, but it does provide further indications about content, script, materials, and, on occasion, source and date of acquisition. In sum, the quality and length of the records added to the online system is highly variable, but at least it marks a start to the process of making the items more visible.

One of the pieces of data that is often missing from many of these sources is provenance. This often-overlooked part of the manuscript’s story can contain incredible narratives of knowledge transfer and trade, as well as dispossession, theft, and alienation. As a literary language, Chagatai was used primarily in Central Asia, Iran, Siberia, East Turkestan, and Northern India. It is no surprise, then, that many of the volumes in the Library’s possession come from these regions, although a few others were copied as far afield as Istanbul. Our holdings, however, demonstrate a unique distribution of origins compared to many other collections, owing largely to the history of the British Empire. Over a quarter of the items held by the Library are in some way connected to India, either as their place of creation or as a transit route. Compare this to the Jarring Collection in Lund, where most manuscripts are from East Turkestan; or the Bibliothèque nationale de France, with most of its holdings from Dunhuang; or the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, rich in Central Asian manuscripts. This makes the BL’s collection a fascinating object revealing as much about British desire for Turkic cultural heritage as it does about the context in which such heritage was created.

Page of text in Arabic script with red inked title at top Page with Arabic-script text and seals in black ink
Left: The start of the Vaqiat-i Baburi, the Chagatai-language version of the Baburnama, or autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. (Add MS 26324)
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Right: Ownership seals and inscriptions from the Vaqiat-i Baburi. (Add MS 26324, f 118v)
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British commercial and colonial actions in South Asia from the 17th through to the 20th centuries ensured a pronounced interest on the part of the British elite in the languages, history and cultures of the region. Sometimes directed towards scholarly pursuits, sometimes motived by political or military strategies, the sum of this fascination was the acquisition and transportation of South Asian physical heritage to the Imperial centre. Here, it was housed in museums and libraries, both public and private. These objects included Chagatai literary and scientific works penned by Mughal literati or copied by scribes for their influential patrons. The importance of the language for South Asian history is exemplified by two Chagatai versions of the Vaqiat-i Baburi (also known as the Baburnama), the autobiography of Zahir-ud-Din Muhammad Babur, founder of the Mughal Empire. One copy, Add MS 26324, was purchased by the Museum from William Erskine in 1865. Erskine, a well-known Scottish orientalist and first translator of the Baburnama into English, occupied several colonial posts in India in the first half of the 19th century. Another, more complete 16th-century copy exists at IO Islamic 2538 (formerly part of the India Office Library). The presence of English annotation leads us to believe that this copy might have been used extensively by Annette Beveridge. Beveridge, a member of the late 19th-century British colonial elite in India, translated the Baburnama and the Humayun-nama into English, relying on both Chagatai and Persian sources.

Page featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patternsPage featuring Arabic-script text inside elaborate illumination in gold, blue and red inks with floral patterns
The double-page seccade from the start of the Divan-i Navā'ī. (Iran. Or 1374, ff 1v-2r)
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India also appears to have been an important market for imported manuscripts before the advent of British colonization. Or 8193, for example, was originally created in Yazd, Iran in 835 AH (1431 CE). At some point, however, it was acquired and moved to India, where it later passed into the possession of a British official, A. Seton. Other Iranian items likely arrived in the UK directly from Persia. Many of the men charged with an Imperial mission were apparently avid collectors of manuscripts. These manuscripts were eventually sold or bequeathed to the British Museum and the India Office Library during financial difficulties or after the men's passing. Add MS 7910, Divan-i Nava’i, for example, was acquired from Claudius Rich. Rich was a former British consular and commercial agent who had worked in India, Iraq, the Persian Gulf, Syria and Egypt. A similar story can be told for Or 1374, an exquisite copy of Navoiy’s Divan featuring lacquered hunting scenes on its binding and a double-paged seccade. The volume was bequeathed to the Museum by Sir Charles A. Murray, British Ambassador to Qajar Persia from 1854 to 1859 and, just possibly, one of the instigators of the Anglo-Persian war of 1856-57.

The remaining parts of the collection came from majority Turcophone regions, most of which were never subjected to long-term direct British occupation or colonial rule. The Abushqa (Add MS 7886), for example, was copied in the Ottoman Empire (which was occupied, at various times and in various locales, by British forces, but never in its entirety). This Ottoman-Chagatai dictionary based on the poetry of the great Chagatai poet Alisher Navoiy likely arrived in London through commercial routes, highlighting the lucrative business of selling historic manuscripts to European visitors and residents.

Arabic-script text in black ink on marbled paper
A page of text from the Qisas al-anbiya' demonstrating the peculiarities of the language employed. (Add MS 7851)
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The manuscripts from Central Asia tend to be the stickiest in terms of identifying provenance. Only minimal information is provided in the handlists and the acquisition slips, and the source of the item isn’t always recorded in the volume itself. The Library holds 40-odd items from the region, some of which are absolute treasures. The Nusratnama, mentioned above, is a case in point. Recently made available online, it features breathtaking illustrations of each of the rulers in the Shaybanid line. Rieu informs us that this was a gift to the British Museum by Mr. Joseph King, but goes no further in identifying its putative journey to these shores. A similar lack of provenance information bedevils Add MS 7851, a 15th-century copy of Rabghuzi’s Qisas al-anbiya’. Rieu tells us it was formerly in the collections of Claudius Rich, and that’s where we lose its tracks. The work is of exceptional linguistic value, charting an intermediary stage between Khwarezmi Turkic and Chagatai, and its voyages over time have great importance in understanding intellectual history in the Turkic world.

Chinese and Arabic-script text with the latter enclosed in a stamped blue border and covered with Chinese calligraphy in red ink
A laissez-passer in Chinese and an Eastern Turkic lect granting travel permission to Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he can accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. (Kashgar, 1903. Or 13151)
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Finally, the approximately 40 items that were produced in East Turkestan/Xinjiang (combining the regions of Dzungaria and Altishahr) is a motley crew in terms of both provenance and content. Some of these items were brought – licitly or illicitly – to the Museum by Europeans who sought out the physical heritage of the Silk Road’s eastern branches. Chief among these was Aurel Stein, a Hungarian-British orientalist whose collections form a large part of the British Library’s International Dunhuang Project holdings. Only a small fraction of these items are in Turkic languages, including administrative or miscellaneous works that made their way back to the United Kingdom as packing materials (Or 12201). Other items speak to the social and political structures in place at the time of the expeditions. Or 13151 is a laissez-passer issued in 1903 in both Chinese and a local Turkic language to one Mehmet Ali Akhund so that he might accompany a Japanese expedition to Ürümqi. It is a rare window onto the life of one particular local participant in the global effort to understand the history of the region.

Unbound sheets with Arabic-script text inside a box
An unbound manuscript containing a Turkic translation of the Tārīkh-i Rashīdī. (East Turkestan. IO Islamic 4866)
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Another tranche of this subset likely came to the Library through the work of George Macartney, a British diplomat connected to the Chinese political elite through his mother. Macartney lived in Kashgar from 1890 to 1918 and was closely linked to various expeditions, including the Younghusband one. His wife, Catherine Macartney, worked with the Dunhuang Expedition regarding their acquisition of manuscripts. These might have included religious, literary or historical works such as IO Islamic 4846, 4848 and 4849, all of which relate the story of Ya’qub Beg, the leader of Yarkant who attained political independence for the region in the late 19th century.

From this overview of the British Library’s Chagatai collections alone, it’s clear that there is still so much more for us to learn about the origins and journeys of the individual pieces that make up the whole. What is obvious, however, is that collections reflect much more the proclivities and propensities of the personalities behind them than they do the total sum of a people’s creative output. The Chagatai holdings at the British Library provide us with insights into the linguistic, literary, religious, economic, political, social and intellectual histories of the Turkic peoples. But their selection and curation say much more about British officials’ and scholars’ engagement with this history, and the narratives they have woven about it, than they do about collectivities’ yearning to be seen and heard. In using this lens to understand and interpret a set of works, we can move beyond the idea of the archive as an objective monolith. In its place, we can reinvigorate our collections as one component in a broader effort towards an equal and mutually beneficial exchange of ideas and perspectives about the history of the Turkic world.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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28 August 2020

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word

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I am thrilled and delighted to inform our readers and followers, that the long awaited exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word will be opening to the public on Tuesday 1st September in PACCAR2, the newest gallery of the British Library.

The exhibition has been put together by Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda, who have worked diligently and tirelessly with colleagues from across the Library, to bring about its realization.

Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible, Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible  Catalonia  Spain  14th century (Harley MS 1528  f.7v)
Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible. Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)
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Showcasing 44 outstanding objects, including 39 manuscripts from the British Library’s remarkable Hebrew collection, the exhibition transports the visitor on an exciting journey of discovery, via four distinct sections:

  • The Bible and beyond
  • Living together
  • The Power of letters and words
  • Science and scholarship

What do all these treasured manuscripts have in common? They all share the same script, Hebrew; one of the oldest writing systems that has been in continuous use, from around the 10th century BCE to this day. This significant exhibition thus embraces the assiduous, unrelenting journeys of both the written word and the Hebrew script.
Micrographic masorah.  Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch.   Lake Constance, Germany, 14thcentury. Add MS 15282, f.28r
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 14th century (Add MS 15282, f.28r, detail)
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Viewers will come face to face with the centuries-long culture, history and traditions of Jewish people from various parts of the world. Rare handwritten texts, spanning from the 10th to the 19th century, some handsomely illuminated or decorated, will take audiences from Europe and North Africa, through to the Middle East and China, to explore the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours in the communities they lived in.

Calendrical calculations in the shape of a hand
Visual aid for calendrical calculations in Joseph ben Shem Tov ben Yeshu’a Hai’s She’erit Yosef (Joseph’s Legacy). Tlemcen, Algeria, 1804 (Or 9782, f.14r)
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The interplay, high points, as well as signs of conflict and discord in the relationships between these groups, are conveyed through a captivating display of writings on legal issues, calendrics, kabbalah , literature, music, philosophy, and science.

Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, Land of Israel, 17th-18th century
Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, 17th-18th century (Or 4114, f.2v, detail)
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Some of these works were created by prominent Jewish scholars, such as Moses ben Maimon (b.1135, Cordoba, Spain, d. 1204, Cairo, Egypt), and Abraham bar Hiyya (ca. 1065- ca.1136). The former, known in the Christian world as Maimonides , was not only a legal authority, compelling philosopher and accomplished physician, but also the most influential spiritual leader of his time. His Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for the Perplexed), completed ca. 1190, was probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era. Two important manuscript copies of this work are on view in the exhibition.

Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)
Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia, Spain, 14th century copy (Or 14061, f. 156v-157r)
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Abraham bar Hiyya , known by his Latin name as Savasorda, was an eminent Spanish Jewish philosopher and scientist, who is credited with writing the first works on astronomy and mathematics in Hebrew. Among these was his vastly popular astronomical treatise Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the earth), a 15 th century copy of which is included in the exhibition.

Diagram of phases of the moon
Diagram of the four main lunar phases in Abraham bar Hiyya’s Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the Earth). Byzantium, (now parts of Turkey and Greece), 15th century copy (Or 10721, f. 27v)
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Visitors will be in for a treat, particularly as many of the exhibits have never been on public view. Moreover, as part of the recently completed Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project, digital access to all 39 Hebrew manuscripts on display is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website .

Other British Library platforms, with wide-ranging Hebrew manuscript content are:

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open from 1st September 2020 until 11th April 2021. Follow the link for details about opening times, booking timeslots, etc.

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.

Further reading

The following posts feature manuscripts on display in the exhibition.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections
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19 August 2020

The Tree of Knowledge: magic spells from a Jewish potion book

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One of the items in our postponed exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is a tiny little codex from sixteenth-century Italy. It is entitled The Tree of Knowledge (Ets ha-Da’at) and contains a collection of some 125 magic spells for all sorts of purposes: curses, healing potions, love charms, amulets. There are a good number of such magical-medical manuscripts in the Hebrew collection, but this volume is special for at least two reasons. First, because of its neat layout and accuracy in its execution. Secondly, because it has an introduction in which Elisha the author tells the story of how he collected these spells.

Title page in Hebrew with architectural design
Title page of The Tree of Knowledge by Elisha ben Gad of Ancona. (Safed, 1535-1536 (Or 12362, f. 2r)).
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According to his introduction, Elisha is overcome with a great thirst for knowledge, and he starts on a journey to satisfy it. He is wandering from town to town until he arrives in Venice, the great city full of wise and knowledgeable sages. There, thanks to God’s mercy, he wins the trust of Rabbi Judah Alkabets, and gains access to the rabbi’s library. He soon discovers that the Rabbi’s collection contains precious kabbalistic volumes “that emerged for fame and praise, and all written with the finger [of God – Ex. 31:18].” So he swears in his heart that he will not leave the library until he has collected all its secrets. As he is looking through the books, he notices “a book hidden and sealed, in a chest within another chest covered with a cloth and sealed.” When he opens this hidden book, he finds in it all sorts of magic spells, and decides to copy them. After the death of Judah Alkabetz, Elisha leaves Venice and continues his journey, and eventually arrives in Safed, in the Land of Israel. He spends there a long time before he gains the trust of the sages of Safed, but at the end they share with him their secret wisdom. His book, which he calls the Tree of Knowledge, is based on the secrets he acquired in Venice and in Safed.

After relating his painstaking efforts to obtain such precious hidden knowledge, Elisha explains the way he organized the collected material and structured his book. He provides a table of contents for the users to facilitate their access to the spells they are looking for. The table of contents is divided into four sections:

1. Spells that use divine names;

2. Spells that use names of the “Spirit of Impurity” and those of the “Other Side” (that is, references to evil powers);

3. Medicines based on nature and experiment;

4. All the rest.

So what kind of secret knowledge did Elisha ben Gad acquire in Venice and Safed? Let’s see a couple of spells from each section. Oh, it is so difficult to choose!

Page with writing in Hebrew and title in ribbon
The First Section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 5r))
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Among the 52 spells using divine names contained in the first section, there are many amulets providing protection against illnesses like nose bleed, fever, and ear ache; spells for the enhancing intellectual capabilities such as facilitating learning, understanding, or improving memory; and various other spells.

Amulet in Hebrew with text in stylized scrolls
An amulet for fever. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 11r))
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The very first entry is an amulet against fever:

Av avr avra avrak avraka avrakal avrakala avrakal avraka avrak avra avr av – “The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down.” (Num. 11:2). Cure from heavens for all sorts of fever and consumption and fire for such and such [here to put the name of the specific person]. Amen a[men] a[men] selah.

It is easy to discover the well-known magic word “abracadabra” in this spell. It appears first in a second-century Latin medical poem by the physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus. The origin of this word is not clear. It may come from Aramaic avra ke-davra, meaning “I create as I speak”, but there are several other theories around.

Text of spell in Hebrew with floral illumination
A spell for shortening one’s journey (no. 39). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 27r))
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Spell no. 39 is for shortening a long road, and goes like this:

Shortening the road: write on a piece of kosher parchment made of deer and sew it into your robe. When you see the countenance of the town, mention these names and say this: “I adjure you, Kaptsiel, Malakhel, shorten for me the road and the country as you shortened them for Abraham. Cafefiel – and in the name of the Lord of the whole earth. Amen S[ela]”

Text in Hebrew of contents of section with title inside stylized ribbon
The second section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 7v))
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The second section is supposed to contain spells that use the names of evil spirits “the spirit of Impurity and the Other Side”, as Elisha puts it. To be honest, I did not always find such names in the charms of this section, though it may just be due to my limited knowledge and experience of the Other Side. Still, the section contains many useful spells – 19 altogether –, among others some that make you invisible, help you find scorpions and snakes, make you “snake-proof” or “sword-proof”, and quite a few that help you catch thieves. Here is an example of the latter (no. 80):

To find the thief write on a piece of kosher parchment these names [see words at the end of the spell], and hang them around the neck of a black rooster. Then circle around the suspects with the rooster, and it will jump on the head of the thief. And this has been tested.

Kematin kanit kukeiri ve-hikani yazaf

Text of spell in Hebrew with title inside ribbon
A spell for identifying a thief (no. 80). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 37r))
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While I was not able to identify these magical words at all – could some of them be names of evil spirits? – I had better luck with spell no. 97 for burns by fire:

A wonderful incantation, tried and tested many times. For small and big burns. With these words complete recovery without pain! Say these names [i.e. the incantation] seven times:

Agrifuk agrifar agripyri chi vol tu fer di pyro nocesti di acaro fosti generato, e elo fonti fosti portato, all'acqua fosti gettato, non fossi far più male qua (?) chi fai la!

And then blow on the burn with the breath of your mouth and repeat again the incantation seven more times, and the fire will not damage him.

As you can see, the actual incantation addressing Fire itself is in Judeo-Italian, that is, Italian written in Hebrew characters, and it reads something like this:

"Agrifuk agrifar agripyri whom did you want to hurt with fire? You were generated from an acarus [probably from Greek akarḗs, meaning “tiny”), you were brought forth from such a source, [and] you were thrown into the water. You cannot do any more harm...!"[1]

Text of spell in Hebrew with title in stylized scroll
A spell for burns (no. 97). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 41r))
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Text of section contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The third section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 8v))
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Elisha tells us that in the third section of his work we can find “remedies based on nature and experiment”. Among these 31 remedies, there are a few for fevers, suffering from worms, cancelling witchcraft, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, and so on. He also discusses the magical properties of snake skin. It seems, however, that quite a few of the remedies listed here are not based on nature but use some sort of incantation or magic words instead.

Text of spell in Hebrew under illustration of nude woman
A spell for a woman who does not have milk (no. 104). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 42v))
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Remedy no. 104 is a good example of the latter. It is a spell for a woman who does not have milk. The title of the spell is inscribed in a ribbon and it is illustrated with the bust of a naked woman.

To bring milk to the woman write the name of the woman or her brother or her son [on a piece of parchment?], and write on the woman’s right breast: AV SU SAS, and on her left breast write: AV HU SIA, and she will immediately have milk in abundance, and it will spill onto the ground as water.

Text of spell in Hebrew under title inside stylized ribbon
Spells using snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 45r))
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Entry 116 is about the magical qualities of snakeskin, and according to the title, this spell is based on “the words of Solomon the physician of Tulitul” (Tulitula is the Arabic name of Toledo). Elisha says that he read in an Arabic book that if you burn the skin of a snake during a certain period in March, you can use the ashes of the skin for all sorts of purposes. Then he lists the 12 magical qualities of snakeskin based on important Arabic magic spell books (number 12 is missing). Here are some of the best ones:

Hebrew textHebrew text
Text about the magical qualities of snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, ff. 45v-46r))
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No. 1 If you sprinkle some of the dust into your eyes, you will see but you will not be seen (invisibility!);

No. 6. If you hold some of the dust in your hand when you appear before a king or princes, and they will heed your words;

No. 10. If you put some of the dust into a plate and leave it on the table, if the elixir of death, or “poison weed and wormwood” [Deut. 29:17] gets there, the dust will scatter on the table and [then you would know to] avoid eating there.

Text of contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The fourth section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 10r))
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Section four is the shortest with its 17 items. It has several love spells and potions, spells to make a positive impression on rulers, on how to gain someone’s trust, and how to defeat your opponents. No. 58 is a spell that helps you to make a reluctant person answer your questions:

If you ask a question and they do not give you a reply, wash your hands in fresh water, and then write on your palm these words and characters. Then put your palm on the palm of the fellow, and ask your question. And this is what you have to write:

Here you can see a drawing of a palm with a same word written three times, and two characters from a cryptic alphabet. Two ribbons coming out from behind the palm. The inscription in the upper one contains further instructions:

Write this with a new pen.

The ribbon at the base of the hand contains the title of the next entry: no. 59, a spell about how to win a court case:

It is tried and tested many times. How to defeat your opponent in court even if he is a king. Take the tongue of a hoopoe and hang it on your right side close to the heart at the time when you go to speak with him.

Text of formula in Hebrew along with diagram of a human palm
Spells for extracting an answer and defeating the opponent at court (nos. 58 and 59). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536.) (Or 12362, f. 32r))
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You can certainly see even from this small selection of spells how valuable the Tree of Knowledge is! Elisha’s long journey from Italy to Galilee through the Mediterranean, his painstaking efforts to acquire hidden and ancient knowledge, were not in vain. And you, dear reader, are only one click away from all this treasure!

Disclaimer: We do not take responsibility for the endurance of these spells. Even strong magic can lose or modify its power over the centuries! Please, do not blame us if you turn into a frog. Try these spells only at your own risk.

Zsofi Buda, former Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Cataloguer, Asian and African Collections
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Further readings:

Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, ed. Gideon Bohak, Yuval Harari, and Shaul Shaked. Leiden: Brill, 2011. (YD.2011.a.4537)

Ortal-Paz, Saar. Jewish Love Magic: From Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2017. (OIC 133.4)

Harari, Yuval. “Magical Paratexts: Ms. London, The British Library Or. 12362 (Ets ha-Da‘at) as a Test Case.” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 42 (2018): 237-268. [Hebrew] (WZOR.1998.a.24)

Harari, Yuval. “‘Practical Kabbalah’ and the Jewish Tradition of Magic.” Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 19 (2019): 38-82. (ZA.9.a.2272)

[1] Thank you to Giulia Baronti for helping me with the translation!