Asian and African studies blog

60 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

09 May 2022

From Georgian Slave to Safavid Master: Some Possible Additions to the Corpus of Siyavush Beg Gurji

Today's guest blog is jointly written by Jaimee Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate) and Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher)

Siyavush Beg Gurji (c.1536–1616), a brilliant but elusive maestro from the Safavid era, has intrigued scholars for half a decade. Initiated by Anthony Welch in findings published nearly 50 years ago, some pages from a dispersed manuscript located in private German and Danish collections help widen our understanding of this individual, and the state of the arts in Iran at the turn of the sixteenth to the seventeenth century.

Fig 1 Garshasp and Zahhak. Or 12985  f74v Fig 2 Ardavan before Ardashir  IO Islamic 966  f.  360v
Fig. 1. Garshasp seated before Zahhak while the div, Minharas, is held prisoner (Or.12985, f. 74v). Public Domain
Fig. 2. Ardavan before Ardashir (IO Islamic 966, f. 360v). Public Domain

Born in Georgia, Siyavush Beg was brought to the first Safavid capital Tabriz where he trained to become a page. Upon the relocation of the Safavid court to Qazvin in 1548, Siyavush transferred there and continued his studies of calligraphy, illustration, painting, and poetry. He worked in the royal workshops to produce manuscripts for the shah and other courtiers and enjoyed royal support from subsequent Safavid monarchs up until 1590. He contributed three paintings to a copy of the Garshaspnamah of Asadi, which was an expansion of and complement to Firdawsi’s Shahnamah (dated 1573, fig. 1). Following these, Siyavush painted sumptuous illustrations for Shah Isma’il II's (r. 1576–1577) royal copy of the same work (dated 1576–77; dispersed), and afterward fulfilled non-courtly commissions.

During the lull in royal patronage of manuscript production in the late-1570s through the 1580s, Siyavush and his colleagues produced manuscripts for connoisseurs not related to the rulers. As a case in point, they worked on a copy of Khvandamir’s Habib al-Siyar (Friend of Biographies) that was produced in 1579 for Mirza Abu Talib ibn Mirza ʻAla al-Dawlat, a Tajik high official at the court in Qazvin (former Homberg collection, since dispersed). Elsewhere, a Khamsah of Nizami copied in 1549 for the Safavid financial secretary Ali Khan Beg Turkman (Morgan Library ms. M.836) has illustrations attributable to Siyavush c. 1579. Although not definitively associated with his hand, loose folios in his style are elsewhere scattered in collections (Pierpont Morgan Library ms. M.386.7r) and have appeared at auction (Christie’s, 10 October 2013, lot 29). It is believed that Siyavush Beg formally retired in the 1590s and headed to Shiraz where he is believed to have added to some projects prior to his death in around 1616.

In sum, up until now Siyavush Gurji’s official output has totalled fewer than thirty illustrations over a period of seven decades. However, it is hard to believe a richly gifted artist, passionately engaged with painting under four different Safavid monarchs (Tahmasp I, Isma’il II, Muhammad Khudabanda, and ʻAbbas I), and spending almost his entire life under royal aegis could produce work for only three manuscripts. To him we might also now credit illustrations in a second Khamsah of Nizami (Topkapi Palace Library ms. R.881, circa 1590–1610); and illustrations in two copies of Qazi Ahmad’s Gulistan-i Hunar, a treatise on calligraphers and painters (one in the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, and the other formerly in the collection of Clara C. Edwards). Furthermore, a group of Shahnamah manuscripts also reflect his artistic practices and stylistic details. Although they are unsigned, their illustrations repeating compositions and figures fit comfortably in his corpus, and suggest either his own participation or perhaps that of a colleague working closely alongside him.

These Shahnamah copies sharing common circumstances of production include the following:

  • British Library IO Islamic 966, with colophon dated 1604, page size 370 x 235 mm, figs. 2, 5, 9, 11
  • Kuwait’s al-Sabah Collection, Inv. No. LNS 233, no colophon, page size 350 x 235 mm
  • Yahuda Collection of the Israel Museum (ms. 120) dated 1617
  • Newly discovered illustrations, held in private collections, from a single dispersed Shahnamah manuscript (here labelled MS Exhibit 369 B) whose illustrations, compositions, and dimensions (averaging 355 x 240 mm) closely relate to the other Shahnamah works, as well as the above-mentioned Garshaspnamah  (Fig. 1, Or. 12985, page size 348 x 235 mm)

All these works have been attributed by scholars to be of Safavid origin and contain specific elements from the workshops of Qazvin on the cusp of artistic innovations originating in Isfahan. Although lacking an artist’s signature, they are apparently prepared in the late sixteenth century, and several folios across them have identical figures and compositional layouts.

Fig 3. Siyavashs fire ordeal. Exhibit 369 B Fig 4. Siyavash fire ordeal. LNS 233  f.42 r Fig 5 Siyavash fire ordeal  IO Islamic 966  f97r
The fire ordeal of Siyavush.
Fig. 3.  Exhibit 369 B, f. 114v © the owner
Fig. 4. LNS 233, f. 42r © The al- Sabah Collection, Dar al- Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait
Fig. 5. IO Islamic 966, f. 97r, Public Domain

Figs. 3–5 depict the famous fire ordeal of the character Siyavush, where he is asked to ride through the blazing fire in order to prove his innocence against accusations levied by his step mother. Siyavush rides through the flames with his head turned back in all three images. The galloping black horse with a yak tail hanging from the neck, the decorated saddle and the whip in rider's hand, the astonished solider with his raised hands are obvious similarities. One wonders if some pouncing or stencilling techniques were applied. The common painter of these is posited to be one individual who follows a composition from Shah Tahmasp's famous Shahnamah as a model (now held in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tehran). However, they are simpler versions, and could have been carried out by Siyavush Beg or his colleague.

Fig 6 Tus and Giv witht the maiden lady. Exhibit 369 B Fig 7. LNS 233  f.97r
Tus and Giv and the maiden lady.
Fig. 6. Exhibit 369 B, f. 109r © the owner
Fig. 7. LNS 233 MS, f. 97r © The al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah, Kuwait.

Other illustrations from ms. Exhibit 369 B, the British Library, and Kuwait collection have much in common. They share similar compositions, colour tones, heavily outlined backgrounds in which purple and pink towering masses of rocks at times overflow into the margins. Tadpole clouds populate golden and blue skies, dark green grounds are spotted with radiant flowers, above which short flame-like trees emerge (figs. 6-7). Old maple trees with bulky trunks brim with autumnal leaves (figs. 8-9).

Fig 8 Dying Rustam. Exhibit 369 B Fig 9 Death of Rustam  IO Islamic 966_f323v
The death of Rustam.
Fig. 8. Exhibit 369 B, f. 386v © the owner
Fig. 9. IO Islamic 966, f. 323v, Public Domain

In another famous episode of the Shahnamah, Tahmina is seen visiting Rustam's chamber in figs. 10 and 11 which again bear striking similarities. Upon close observation, the version in the private collection reveals some extraordinary features. A superbly sketched simurgh (the mythical bird of the Shahnamah) on Rustam's blanket (fig. 12) displays the artist’s genius and outstanding drawing skills (perhaps Siyavush’s), as he effectively connects the past with the present through a simple yet powerful image. In this folio as in the British Library’s copy, two towering cypress trees breach the upper margins above the richly decorated interiors with pink and lavender wall paintings. They both have elaborately detailed grounds covered in animal and foliate motifs. Cypress trees play an effective role in the images both visually and symbolically, for they are associated with the stature of heroes in classical poetry. The tree is also a symbol of immortality, eternity, grandeur, strength, and manliness. Tahmina's tryst with Rustam following her depicted arrival leads to the birth of their son Suhrab, one of the most known characters of the Shahnamah.

Fig 10. Daughter of the king of Samangan  Exhibit 369 B Fig 11. Rustam and Tahmina. IO Islamic 966_f79v
Tahmina visits Rustam.
Fig. 10. Exhibit 369 B, f. 93v © the owner
Fig. 11. IO Islamic 966, f. 79v, Public Domain

Fig 12. Close up of Simurgh
Fig. 11. Close up of Rustam's covering

There are many other parallels across these Shahnamah manuscripts that have been noted elsewhere, but it is worth exploring how their common illustrations came about. Regarding the style of Siyavush-like paintings in the British Library IO Islamic 966, Basil Robinson credits the unnamed artist as a “young Isfahani.” Isfahan became the site of the new Safavid capital in 1598 and an innovative artistic style popularized by Siyavush’s younger colleague, the artist Reza Abbasi, emerged there early on after the power shifted from Qazvin. The scholar Barbara Schmitz has since modified Robinson’s “young Isfahani” attribution to an “old Qazvini” artist working alone in a style that had by the early 1600s gone out of fashion. Whether or not it was Siyavush, this same individual executed the majority of the miniatures in this copy dated 1604. Robinson has also attributed three miniatures of the British Library’s Garshaspnamah to this same “young Isfahani” which Norah M. Titley has contested to be the work of Siyavush Beg. Aditionally, the scholars Adel T. Adamova and Manijeh Bayani have convincingly proposed Siyavush Beg as the possible illustrator of the Shahnamah copies in the British Library and Kuwait (see Ademova and Bayani, cat. 32, 459 - 486). They suggest that Siyavush set to work to illustrate the Kuwait version sometime prior to 1600, almost twenty years after he contributed to Shah Isma’il II’s Shahnamah. He would have next begun working on the British Library manuscript dated 1604. They stylistically justify their argument by noting how the artist followed conventions originating in the Qazvin school of painting. The hitherto never-before referenced paintings of MS Exhibit 369 B carry striking similarities to both the London and Kuwait manuscripts, and we can insert this new Shahnamah material and others into the trajectory delineated above.

Sometime between 1579 and 1604, the “young Isfahani”/ “old Qazvini” Siyavush Beg may have busied himself with yet another magnificent Shahnamah, that of MS Exhibit 369 B. Perhaps up until his final days, he might have contributed to the Shahnamah copy in the Israel Museum that was completed a year after his death. Though not much can be said with absolute certainty about the production of manuscript Exhibit 369 B, on stylistic grounds the illustrations appear to have been produced by Siyavush Beg or a painter working alongside him during the last quarter of the sixteenth century. Their sumptuousness vouches for an expensive production affordable to a prince or an aristocrat who could employ elite artists and cover the expenses of their studio.

Our conclusions are based on stylistic comparisons and the upsurge of sub-royal patrons who were commissioning richly illustrated manuscripts in parallel or in competition with princely ateliers during the second half of the sixteenth century. Economics impact arts, and one reason for the increase in such sub-royal productions was the lack of reliable royal patronage during the reign of the feeble and almost blind Safavid Shah Muhammad Khudabanda (r.1578–1587). Another possible owner of the manuscript in question could be that of the artist producing it himself; having made other copies to sell, perhaps he enjoyed his own compositions so much that he directly duplicated them.

Within these four manuscripts, the same figures frequent compositions, clad in rich garments with delicately sketched hands and rendered movements, bulky turbans and fur collars. Animals populate compositions, especially the meticulously drawn horses and foxes with fluffy tails. There are soldiers in helmets, kings in crowns, archers, and musicians. Stylistically, the most decisive element that links all of the paintings is the near perfect sense of weight and balance by the painter. Also common is the unbroken brush movement and the use of colour that is thoroughly typical of the Qazvin palette, and the painter’s penchant for transgressing the text frame and extending images into the margins. Although he did not physically sign these works with letters comprising his name, Siyavush’s hand and influence can be identified in these illustrations and bear his hallmarks.

With special thanks to Katja Preuss for her generous contributions & guidance, the Cambridge Shahnama Project and some wonderful friends.

Asim Saeed (Independent Researcher) and Jaimee K. Comstock-Skipp (Leiden University PhD candidate)
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Contact Asim: artmusekhi@gmail.com

Contact Jaimee: Academia.edu

Further reading:

Adamova, Adel T., and Manijeh Bayani, Persian Painting: the Arts of the Book and Portraiture. Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyyah: The Al-Sabah Collection, Kuwait. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2015.
Babaie, Sussan, et al., Slaves of the Shah: New Elites of Safavid Iran. London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.
Qazi Ahmad,  Golestān-e honar, tr. Vladimir Minorsky as Calligraphers and Painters: A Treatise by Qāḍī Aḥmad, Son of Mīr-Munshī, Washington, D.C., 1959.

Robinson, B.W. “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama.” Iran 14 (1976): 1-8.
———— “Shah Ismail II's Copy of the Shahnama: Additional Material.” Iran 43 (2005): 291-299.
Schmitz, Barbara. Islamic and Indian Manuscripts and paintings in The Pierpont Morgan Library. New York: The Pierpont Morgan Library, 1997.
Titley, Norah. “A Manuscript of the Garshāspnāmeh.” The British Museum Quarterly 31:1/2 (Autumn 1966): 27-32
————Persian Miniature Painting and its Influence on the Arts of Turkey and India. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.
Welch, Anthony. Artists for the Shah: Late Sixteenth Century Painting at the Imperial Court of Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1976.

10 April 2022

Christian Bibles in Muslim Robes with Jewish Glosses: Arundel Or.15 and other Medieval Coptic Arabic Bible Translations at the British Library

Today's guest post is by Miriam L. Hjälm, Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology

One of the most impressive Christian Arabic manuscripts at the British Library is Arundel Or.15. This beautifully ornamented codex, presented like a Mamluk Quran, contains a carefully copied translation of the Psalms into Arabic preceded by an elaborate introduction on the use and perception of this biblical book.

1.Beginning of Psalm 1
Beginning of Psalm 1, c.1350 (BL Arundel Or. 15. ff. 38v-39r)
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The codex is undated and anonymous but the handwriting of the main text appears to be identical with that of the Arabic translation of the Pentateuch in Paris (BnF. Ar. 12). The latter was composed by Jirjis b. al-qass Abū al-Mufaḍḍal b. Amīn al-Mulk Luṭf Allāh and dated 1353. It was copied from a manuscript copied by (bi-khaṭṭ) al-Shams ibn Kabar (f. 290r), a known Coptic writer who served as the secretary of a Mamluk minister. Ibn Kabar died in 1324, around thirty years before the copy was made, but it is likely that both he and Jirjis belonged to the same scribal elite and shared common views on the literature they produced.

The ornamented frames and calligraphic style used for the rubrics in the two copies differ somewhat, but both codices are exactly the same size, are arranged in groupings of five sheets (quinions) with the quire number written in conjunction with the word kurrās (quire) and are foliated using Coptic Epact numbers.

2. The end of Psalm 40:41
The end of Psalm 40/41 (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 106r)
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Yet another luxurious copy produced by Jirjis is found in Copt. Museum, Bibl. 90. Here he is called Jirjis Abū al-Faḍl ibn Luṭf Allāh, yet the handwriting in the main text appears to be identical to that in Arundel Or.15 and the Paris manuscript, which are both written in elegant naskh and include headings in muḥaqqaq and other scripts associated with Qurans. This Gospel translation was produced in 1340 (Hunt, p.122) during the time of Buṭrus, the metropolitan of the Copts in Jerusalem and Syria.

Both the Paris manuscript and Arundel Or.15 contain a similar text critical apparatus. The scribe collated the main text with several different copies and marked alternative renderings preceded by various sigla in red color. The same system is described in detail in another manuscript at the British Library: Or. 3382, dated 1264–65. This copy contains the Gospels in Arabic, which are carefully compared with the Coptic text and with Arabic translations from Greek and Syriac. In an epilogue appended to the translation, we learn that the text was originally composed by Ibn al-ʻAssāl. The text-critical system in these three copies can thus be associated with Ibn al-ʿAssāl and his text-critical projects of the thirteenth century.

The system is described in the epilogue to the Gospels: the letter qāf is used for Arabic translations of Coptic, sīn for Arabic translations of Syriac, and rāʼ for Arabic translations of Greek. A Coptic translation is also referenced. Combinations of letters, such as sīn- rāʼ, indicates that both the Syriac-based and the Greek-based translation share a reading. This interpretation makes perfect sense if applied to Arundel Or. 15. In the latter, we also find the siglum ʻayn, which almost certainly stands for Hebrew. From this and other various sigla used, we know that the scribe collated a considerable number of texts, some of which represented standard versions in Jewish and Christian communities in the Middle East. Most notably, the Hebrew-based version coincides with Rav Saadiah Gaon’s (d. 942) tafsīr of the Psalms, and Syriac-based glosses often match the Arabic translation by the East Syriac polymath Abū al-Faraj ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. 1043).

3. From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 39v–40r)
From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 39v–40r)
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A beautiful illustration of king David precedes the Psalm translation. The illustration does not imitate typically Coptic iconography but rather resembles Byzantine images. David is featured as a scribe, in the process of composing his psalms.

4.King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  f. 38r)
King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 38r)
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In format the codex resembles a Mamluk Quran, and the scribe used terms associated with Islam, such as al-fajr for ‘morning prayer’. The iconography, however, is Byzantine while the Psalm translation itself was compared with Coptic, Rūm (Orthodox), East Syriac, and Jewish bible versions. The manuscript thus testifies to an astonishing openness to other communities among the Copts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. We understand from his ecclesiastical encyclopedia Miṣbāḥ al-Ẓulmah wa Īḍāḥ al-Khidmah (The Lamp of Shadows and the Illumination of Service) that Ibn Kabar was questioned for his inclusive approach to other people’s texts and traditions and to counteract such claims, he explains (my italics):

Also included are those later writers … who composed anything on religion, whether from those sects that are joined with us in confession, or those that are separated from us in creed. But we have not listed the compositions of this latter group, unless we have received thorough knowledge of them and grown in understanding from them, even though something differing from the views of the orthodox and inconsistent with the aims of the Jacobites [i.e. miaphysites] might be mixed in among them, for eminent men do not gather gems, without being interested in pearls: they pick out what is suitable without harping on the differences (Abū al-Barakāt, Catalog of Christian Literature in Arabic; tr. A McCollum).

5. Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 2v-3r)
Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 2v-3r)
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The same or a similar scribal Coptic workshop produced several other impressive manuscripts. In addition to those already mentioned above and without the text-critical apparatus, British Library, Or. 1327 contains a beautifully ornamented Arabic Gospel translation, dated 1334.

6. Frontispiece to the Gospel of John (BL Or.1327  ff. 185v-186r)
Frontispiece to the Gospel of John, dated 1334 (BL Or.1327, ff. 185v-186r)
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Another manuscript from the same time period is Add. MS 11856, a Gospel translation dated 1336–1337. This copy was presented to the Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa and includes, besides the Gospel texts, short summaries of each book. Add. 11856 is less lavishly decorated than Arundel Or. 15 but includes beautiful frontispieces and  illustrations (Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic):

7.Add MS 11856 Portrait of St Luke
Portrait of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95v)
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The examples provided in this blog represent a peak in Christian Arabic Bible production. Despite the political hardship the Coptic communities faced in the fourteenth century, scribal workshops thrived and produced expensive and scholarly advanced copies of the Bible, which impress their readers still today. These copies are not only aesthetically appealing but also show us how Bible translations could be used to mediate –or dominate– in socio-religious conflicts. By dressing their Bibles in typically Muslim robes, the robes were no longer Muslim, but an expression of holy Scriptures, and by using Jewish translations as one of several authoritative sources, the Jewish claim to Scripture was partially disarmed. It appears that for Ibn Kabar, ‘eminent men’ were those bold enough to delve into other peoples’ traditions and confident enough to decide what was good in them, regardless of origin. The ‘Coptic renaissance’ was indeed a bold project.

This post was written with the support of the Swedish Research Council (2017-01630)

Miriam L. Hjälm. Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology
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Further reading

Wadi Awad, ‘al-Shams ibn Kabar’, in Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, vol. 4 (1200-1350), ed. Thomas et al. (Brill: 2012), 762–766.
Miriam L. Hjälm, ‘1.2.12 Arabic Texts’, in The Textual History of the Bible, vol. 2A, ed. Feder and Henze (Brill, 2020), 483–495.
Lucy-Anne Hunt, ‘Christian Arab Gospel Book: Cairo, Coptic Museum MS Bibl. 90 in its Mamluk Context’, Mamlūk Studies Review 13, no. 2 (2009): 105–132.
Duncan B. MacDonald (ed. and trans.), ‘Ibn al-ʿAssāl’s Arabic Version of the Gospels’, in Homenaje á D. Francisco Codera en su Jubilación del Profesorado, ed. Saavedra (M. Escar, 1904), 375–392.
Ronny Vollandt, ‘The Conundrum of Scriptural Plurality: The Arabic Bible, Polyglots, and Medieval Predecessors of Biblical Criticism’, in Editing the Hebrew Bible in the Variety of its Texts and Versions, ed. Lange et al. (Brill, 2016), 56–85.
————————, ‘Flawed Biblical translations into Arabic and How to Correct Them: A Copt and a Jew study Saadiah’s Tafsīr’, in Studies on Arabic Christianity in Honor of Sidney H. Griffith, ed. Bertaina et al. (Brill: 2018), 56–90.
Vevian Zaki, ‘Al-Asʿad Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʿAssāl: His Contribution to the Formation of New Identity of Copts in Egypt Through his Critical Translation of the Gospel of Luke’. MA thesis, Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, 2011.
——————, ‘The business of copying manuscripts: Tuma al-Safi and his elite clients’ (forthcoming).

24 January 2022

Accessing West African Manuscripts in the British Library

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

Colour illustration of a man and a woman in traditional West African dress seated beneath a tree in front of a building, with the man on the left writing on a sheet of paper with a pen or pencil
Arabic writing in West Africa: a marabout (or Muslim religious leader) writes an amulet for a widow. Note the ink-pot at his feet. (P. D. Boilat, Esquisses sénégalaises (Paris, 1853). 10096.h.9)
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In this context, the British Library’s small collection of West African manuscripts in Arabic script is significant. The catalogue records for the manuscripts were produced in 2016–2017 by then PhD student Paul Naylor, who described them here and here.

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

The West African manuscript collection consists of:

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

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

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

Single page of Arabic script text in black ink with vowels and geometrical illumination in red and gold inks
A page from an illuminated Qur’an, probably from Nigeria, showing chapter 14, Surat Ibrahim, verses 36-41. (British Library, Or 6992 204r, mid-19th century)
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2) Two illuminated copies of the Dalāʾil al-Khayrāt, a popular Islamic devotional work, Or 6575 and Or 16924

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

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

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

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

Double-page spread of Arabic-script text in a volume in black and red ink with a page weight running down the far right of the book
Pages from a composite volume from Senegambia: obituary poem for a scholar of Touba, Sālim al-Zāghāwī al-Gasamī. (British Library, Or 6473 f. 105v-106r, early 19th century)
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In West Africa, manuscripts were (and are) normally loose leaf, often with a leather carrying case. Some of the British Library’s manuscripts have been kept in loose-leaf format, and some have their original leather case. However, during the nineteenth century some were bound on acquisition by the British Museum Library (which joined with other libraries to become the British Library in 1973): this applies to all the composite volumes, and two of the Qur’ans. When, recently, the covers of the bound Qur’an at shelfmark Or 6992 were found to have broken away, we decided that, rather than replace a binding which was not of West African origin, it would be appropriate to disbind the manuscript completely. Today, it is in its original loose-leaf form, protected by a specially constructed buckram box.

Double-page spread of a manuscript with a three concentric circles in red and blue ink with black ink spokes and Arabic text on the right-hand page, and a four-by-four grid of squares with Arabic-script text on the left hand side, all in black ink. The binding of the book is in red leather and a page weight runs down the left hand side
A loose-leaf work on numerology, probably from Ghana, in its original leather case. (British Library, Or 6576 f. 33v-34r, mid-19th century)
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The manuscripts are all written in Arabic script, and almost all the text is in Arabic. African languages, notably Soninke and Fulfulde, also feature. They were written here in Arabic script, a practice called ajami in Africa. Most of them date from the 19th century.

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

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

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

Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa
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Further reading

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

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

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

Hill Museum and Manuscript Library – digital Islamic manuscript collections

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

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

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

West African Arabic Manuscript Database (WAAMD)

22 December 2021

A farewell to Jerry! J. P. Losty (1945-2021).

One of our most active contributors and colleague, J.P. Losty (1945-2021), passed away on the 29th of September. We are heartbroken by the news and will miss Jerry for his unfaltering generosity, sense of humour and his exceptional knowledge on the collections. Our thoughts are with his wife Kate and daughters Cat and Ellie.

Jerry started his career at the British Museum in 1971, joining as the Assistant Keeper of Sanskrit in the Department of Oriental Manuscripts. From 1986, Jerry worked in the Print, Drawings and Photographs section of The British Library; first as Curator and retiring as Head of Prints, Drawings and Photographs in 2005. His exhibition Art of the Book in India (1986) brought together an encyclopedic collection of South Asian manuscripts from across the world and the accompanying catalogue is still a valuable resource for researchers.

Jerry has left us an incredible legacy at the British Library, from shaping the collection with his ambitious programme of acquisitions over a 34-year career, arranging our internal storage of the paintings in such a detailed fashion (by style and then in chronological order), and also leaving copious details in the catalogue records and articles on the breadth of the collection. Since retirement, Jerry’s impressive range of publications – more than 26 books – has opened our eyes to fresh approaches to Indian painting. His ability to write accessible articles, whether for the British Library’s Asia and Africa Blog, or his countless monographs, really demonstrates his dedication to the field and ensures that his information is as helpful to the academic scholar as for a general audience. 

As Jerry's extensive career can be better outlined by one of his many peers, this blog post looks at Jerry's contributions post-retirement. On retiring in May 2005, Jerry spent the initial months devoting time to his other interests such as music, travelling and spending time with his family. This respite was short lived as Jerry was invited back to the Library to guest curate The Ramayana: Love and Valour in India's Great Epic and wrote the accompanying publication which launched in 2008. 

Jerry looking at decorative objects to be displayed at the Ramayana exhibition in 2008. Photo credit: Janet Benoy.
Jerry looking at decorative objects to be displayed at the Ramayana exhibition in 2008. Photo credit: Janet Benoy.

After wrapping up the Ramayana project, Jerry started to focus on his research on later Mughal paintings. From 2008 through 2012, Jerry was exceptionally busy working on a range of projects. He completed his research on Mazhar Ali Khan's Panorama of Delhi and published a monograph titled Delhi 360 (Roli Books, 2012). This detailed publication cross-checked the illustrated monuments with extant buildings that were drawn in 1846 by the artist Mazhar Ali Khan from the viewpoint of the Lahore Gate at the Red Fort. Jerry also supported my first major British Library exhibition, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire, giving me guidance on early Mughal manuscripts and graciously co-authored the book in a record 4 month window. Jerry also supported the South Asia section curators Marina Chellini and Leena Mitford with the ambitious Digital Re-unification of the Mewar Ramayana in 2014. In acknowledgement of his lifetime work on Indian art, Jerry was awarded the Colonel James Tod award at the Maharana of Mewar Annual Function in Udaipur in March 2016.

Jerry and Maharana of Mewar
Maharana Arvind Singh of Mewar and J.P. Losty, March 2016. Photo credit: Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation.

In terms of publications, between 2010-2021, Jerry was regularly invited to contribute to a range of exhibition catalogues including The Indian Portrait (National Portrait Gallery, 2010), Princes and Painters in Mughal Delhi (Yale University Press, 2012), Masters of Indian Painting (Artibus Asiae, 2015), and Forgotten Masters (Wallace Collection, 2019). Aside from his many articles, Jerry also published the following books:

  • Sita Ram's Painted Views of India: Lord Hastings's Journey from Calcutta to the Punjab, 1814 - 15 (Roli Books, 2015)
  • Indian Paintings of the British Period in the Jagdish and Kamla Mittal Collection (Museum of Indian Art, Hyderabad, 2016)
  • Mystical Realm of Love: Pahari Paintings from the Eva & Konrad Seitz Collection  (Francesca Galloway, 2017)
  • Indian life and people in the 19th century: Company paintings in the Tapi Collection (Roli Books, 2019)
  • Court and Courtship: Indian Miniatures in the Tapi Collection (Niyogi Books, 2020)

For the followers and readers of the Asian and African Studies Blog, Jerry was one of our key supporters from the launch of the Blog in 2012. Jerry immediately joined in and offered to contribute short articles on parts of the collection that he had continued to research during his retirement. As a fitting tribute, here is a roll call of his contributions since 2012. 

Image: Nawab ‘Abd al-Rahman of Jhajjar in his court in cool weather with his two young sons and various courtiers and attendants. By Ghulam ‘Ali Khan, dated January-February 1852. British Library, Add.Or.4681. The Search for Alexander Hadarli.
The first blog post Jerry authored was on his research on Alexander Hadarli, a European at the court of the Nawab of Jhajjar who featured in this durbar scene in 1852. Jerry's chance discovery of archival information helped him realise that this this figure was in fact the noted Urdu poet Azad who flourished in Delhi during the mid-19th century.
Image: Robert Smith, Aurangzeb’s Mosque at Varanasi, 1814.  Watercolour on paper, 19 by 35 cm.  WD2089 Disentangling the Robert Smiths
Jerry was keen to explore and understand the careers and artistic styles of the two Robert Smiths that flourished in the 19th century. This blog post looks at the works of Colonel Robert Smith (1787-1873), of the Bengal Engineers, who was the controversial architect who repaired the Qutb Minar between 1825-30 after previous damage caused by an earthquake.
Portrait of Raja Shamsher Sen of Mandi Pahari Paintings at The British Library
While the strength of the British Library's South Asian paintings collections are without doubt Mughal paintings and manuscripts, Jerry highlighted the small collection of Pahari paintings that had been acquired by the Library since the early 19th century through the present day.
Portrait of Gervase Pennington by Jivan Ram

A new portrait miniature by Jivan Ram acquired
Jerry was interested to learn more about the artist Raja Jivan Ram that the art historian and British Library (India Office) Curator Mildred Archer had documented in one of her publications. On acquiring a new portrait by Jivan Ram of the British officer Gervase Pennington in 2013, Jerry started to piece together Jivan Ram's career and stylistic use of oil on board and watercolour on ivory for both a short blog post and an article in the eBLJ: Raja Jivan Ram: A Professional Indian Portrait Painter of the Early Nineteenth Century (bl.uk)

Detail of a Mughal painting of flower studies, c. 1635
Mughal flower studies and their European inspiration
Possibly one of Jerry's most popular blog posts; this post looked at the influences for Mughal flower studies produced for Prince Dara Shikoh during the middle of the 17th century and discussed connection to Adriaen Collaert, Florilegium. 
Hanuman is brought bound before Ravana and his tail set on fire.  Ramayana, Sundara Kanda.  Mewar-Deccani style, Udaipur, c. 1650.  British Library, IO San 3621, f.9r Curator's perspective: accessing the Mewar Ramayana
Jerry wrote a candid article on working on the Mewar Ramayana, a 17th century manuscript that consisted of 8 volumes, 6 of which are held by the British Library. The blog post was to complement the Digital Re-unification of the Sanskrit epic with CSMVS in Mumbai.
Nayaka ko prakasa biyoga sringara, Krishna’s ‘open’ love in separation (Rasikapriya 1, 27-28).  301 x 217 mm.  Deccan, perhaps Aurangabad, 1720-30. British Library, Add.21475, f.4

For a particular album of Martha and Deccani paintings, Jerry wrote two blog posts:

 

The Takht Sri Harmandir Patna Sahib.  Inscribed: ‘N2 Gunga Govind Sing’s Temple at the confluence of the Baugrutty and Jalangi Rivers.  Augt 1820.’  WD4404, f.2.  noc Charles D'Oyly's voyage to Patna
Jerry often researched and wrote about amateur artists that worked for the East India Company, such as Charles D'Oyly who was employed by the Bengal Civil Service and was influenced by the English artist George Chinnery.
A model of a lion.   By Gangaram, 1790.  Wax, possibly dhuna, the aromatic gum of the shal tree (Shorea robusta), painted; size of wooden base: 20.5 x 9.75 x 2cm; animal 12.5cm at highest point of mane.  F872  noc

'A very ingenious person': The Maratha artist Gangaram Cintaman Tambat
On joining as Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Library in 1986, Jerry started to work on the artist Gangaram who was employed by Sir Charles Warre Malet of the Bombay Civil Service, including his detailed illustrations of rare animals in Pune. 


A lady meant to be Shaukat Begum, perhaps the great-granddaughter of Akbar II.  By Muhammad ‘Azim, Delhi, c. 1840-50.  Watercolour on ivory.  106 x 85 mm.  British Library, Add.Or.5719

Artistic Visions of the Delhi Zenana
Jerry researched the rise of portrait miniatures on ivory in 19th century Delhi. The acquisition of a set of watercolour paintings on ivory gave him the opportunity to explore a few lesser known Delhi artists and their portraits of women of the Mughal household.

A Khawtee Ghiljie in his Summer dress. By a Delhi artist, 1808-10.  Watercolour; 20.5 by 15.25 cm.  Elphinstone’s Caubul, pl.  IX, opposite p. 443. Add.Or.4675

New evidence for the style of the "Fraser artist" in Delhi: Portraits of Afghans 1808-10
Jerry avidly wrote about 19th century Delhi and the so-called Fraser artist in Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire (British Library, 2012).  

Two oxen fighting.  Deccan, probably Bijapur, early 17th century.  Marbled paper, wash and gold.  100 by 130 mm (page 190 x 295 mm).  British Library J.53, 3 (detail)

Jerry wrote several blog posts on Deccani paintings including:

Detail of the Taj Mahal from Or 16805

The 'Agra Scroll': Agra in the early 19th century
After the British Library acquired s seven-metre long panoramic view of the Agra riverfront, Jerry and the eminent art historian Dr. Ebba Koch (Vienna) started their in-depth research to document the architectural views. Jerry and Ebba's full article can be read via the eBLJ: The Riverside Mansions and Tombs of Agra: New Evidence from a
Panoramic Scroll Recently Acquired by The British Library

 

Bridge of boats across the Ganga at Kanpur and Major Gilbert’s house. By Sita Ram, 1814-15.  BL Add.Or.4747


The Gilbert Artist: A Possible Pupil of Sita Ram
Jerry's last contribution for the Blog in 2019 by no means was his last article or monograph. Continuing on from his extensive research on the artist Sita Ram, Jerry wanted to delve deeper into the collection to document the connections between Sita Ram's picturesque painting style to others in the collection.

Jerry's full list of publications can be found via the British Library's Research Repository or Academia.edu. 

 

Malini Roy, Head of Visual Arts

22 November 2021

A Tale of Two Enigmas: A Magtymguly Pyragy Manuscript in the British Library Collections

Cream coloured paper with red lines outlining black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns
The opening of the Divan-i Makhtumquli, a late 18th-early 19th-century Turkmen manuscript. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 3v)
CC Public Domain Image

Of all the languages of state included within my curatorial bailiwick, Turkmen is undoubtedly the most neglected. It doesn’t help that the name is often applied to two divergent linguistic communities. For those interested in historical uses of the word, it often refers to Turkic or Turkophone communities between the Balkans and Central Asia practicing nomadic or semi-nomadic socio-economic organization. In this usage, it can sometimes be replaced by Turcoman or Turkoman, although the rule is far from hard and fast. Various dynasties that established polities in Anatolia, the Caucasus, and Iran are often described as Turkmen; think of the Aqqoyunlular, the Seljuks, and even the Qajars, to name a few. Today, the designation is still used by and for communities in some West Asian states. Many of these peoples still practice nomadic or semi-nomadic social and economic organization. In Turkey, a geographical determinant is often used to distinguish them from historic or Central Asian communities, especially with respect to those in Iraq. For those members of these groups resident in the Republic, other endonyms are now used for some communities previously referred to as Turkmen, such as the Yörük.

There is, of course, another use of the word Turkmen, applied to a Central Asian people linked by language, culture, and history to the Turkmen of West Asia and the Balkans. Independent since 1991, Turkmenistan is at the centre of a linguistic community numbering some 11 million from northern Iran to Uzbekistan and from Afghanistan to Russia. This Turkmen language, also a member of the Oghuz branch of the Turkic family, was standardized in the 1920s and 30s by Soviet specialists, and was made the official language of the Turkmen Soviet Socialist Republic in 1924. Currently written in the Latin alphabet, the language boasts a well-documented, if understudied, literary corpus that extends back several centuries. This tradition is best exemplified by an 18th-century poet named Magtymguly Pyragy. He is the Turkmen equivalent of Alisher Navoiy or Shakespeare, both for the influence of his poetry on later Turkmen creatives, and for his position in state-driven literary historiography. While published and translated editions of Pyragy’s poetry are relatively common in Euro-Atlantic libraries (thanks, in part, to Turkmen state institutions’ drives to promote him), manuscripts are rare. We at the British Library, however, are exceedingly lucky to hold such a copy under the shelfmark Or 11414. And I was fortunate enough to have had it brought to my attention by Dr. Anton Ikhsanov, who completed his doctorate on Turkmen intellectual history at St. Petersburg State University.

Book cover with text in yellow on a black rectangle on a red background with traditional Turkmen designs in black and yellow, and a green spineBlack and white woodcut illustration reproduced in printing featuring a man in Turkmen traditional dress standing in the foreground and a seen of various other men at work in the background
(Left) The cover of a Soviet-era collection of Magtymguly Pyragy's poetry. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) A woodcut illustration of the poet. (Magtymguly, Saĭlanan Goshghular (Ashgabat: Turkmenistan Neshriiaty, 1976. 14499.n.231)
CC Public Domain Image

Magtymguly Pyragy was born around 1730 CE in Haji Qushan, Golestan province, contemporary Iran. He passed away in 1807 CE close to the current Iranian-Turkmenistani border, and was laid to rest in Aq Taqe-yi Qadim, Golestan Province, Iran. He received his education in Turkmen, Persian and Arabic at home and in the great centres of learning in the region, including Khiva and Bukhara, before traveling widely in Central Asia, the Caucasus, Iran, and West Asia. Pyragy’s peripatetic life and widespread impact exemplify the reach and diversity of Turkmen culture, and of the fluidity of boundaries among Oghuz-speaking peoples prior to the 20th century. It’s clear that this poet’s work was influential among speakers at the eastern fringe of the Oghuz linguistic space and beyond. But during the Soviet period, Magtymghuly Pyragy was elevated, along with a number of other pre-Revolutionary Turkic literati (including Navoiy, Abai, and Mirzǝ Fǝthǝli Axundzadǝ) to the rank of proto-Socialist visionaries. Their works were woven into the dominant (and state-sanctioned) socialist realist criticism, and libraries were written on the presence of anachronistic Marxist-Leninist dogma within their works.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page with a red seal towards the bottomCream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script in the middle of the page
(Left) An incomplete (?) poem or prose text, possibly on prayer or repentance, preceding the main Divan
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) A series of religious invocations in Arabic in nestalik script.
CC Public Domain Image

In a way, this later trend is what makes Or 11414 so special. The manuscript is a relatively bare and simple one, with red pencil text boxes for some of the pages. The majority of the text is written in nestalik in black ink with a relatively thick-nibbed pen. It is arranged into two columns, and there are occasional dividers in red reading “va li-hi ayzan (وله أيضاً)”. At the start and end of the work, we notice texts written in a different hand and using a different pen. The first of these, on f 2r, is an odd addition that is difficult to read because of both smearing of the ink and the irregular handwriting. I’m unsure whether this is intended as another poem, or if this an account of an individual’s attempt at prayer and repentance. On f 140v, in contrast, there are religious invocations in beautifully ornate and elaborate nestalik, all of them in Arabic. In between these two poles, we find mostly the work of Magtymguly Pyragy, but also poems by other Turkmen poets, including Döwletýar Beg, Seýitnazar Seýdi, Gurbandurdy Zelili, Bende Murad, and Abdulnazar Şahbende.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page
An unruled page of Magtumguly Pyragy's poetry. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 63r)
CC Public Domain Image

What makes this so important? We’re used to seeing manuscripts lauded and promoted because of their ornate illumination and illustrations. Sometimes, they’re publicized because of the high monetary value attributed to them through the commoditization of authors’ legacies and calligraphers’ pedigrees. But Or 11414’s worth lies in the fact that it most likely reflects the copying and circulation of Turkmen texts for the enjoyment and edification of as wide an audience as possible. It provides us with a rare view into the reading, writing, and copying cultures of Turkmen-speakers in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. And, more importantly, it creates a window onto their usage of the language and their estimation of Pyragy and his work before the heavy-handed intervention of Soviet authorities in the 1920s and 30s. The manuscript creates a counterpoint for the study and hypothesizing of a language and literary tradition that are both frequently overlooked by individuals and institutions outside of Central Asia.

There is, of course, another part to this story, one about provenance. How did this rare work make it into the British Library’s collections? A note in the back of the manuscript states that it was purchased from M. E. Denissoff on 10 February 1934. This likely refers to Elie Denissoff or Ilya Denisov, a Russian émigré who was the Secretary of the Russian Prime Minister in 1917. Denisov fled the Soviet Union to Paris and then Belgium, where he eventually engaged in scholarship on ecclesiastical history. Such biographical details would fit those of individuals who often sold manuscript material to the British Museum and similar institutions at the time. But it doesn’t explain how the volume came into Denisov’s possession in the first place. Thanks to Dr. Hugh Olmsted and his enlightening “Two Exiles: The Roots and Fortunes of Elie Denissoff, Rediscoverer of Mikhail Trivolis,” we have at least a glimpse into the possible origin of the manuscript.

Denisov was from an old Cossack family that had first come into the Imperial household’s good graces through its contributions to the Siege of Azov. When the October Revolution resulted in the downfall of the Romanov dynasty and the Imperial system, Ilia escaped from St. Petersburg south to his family’s ancestral lands near Kuban. This provided only temporary respite, but it did ensure that he did not suffer the same fate as the rest of his family in St. Petersburg, who succumbed to war and persecution. He gradually made his way out of Russia via Baku into Persia. From Tehran, he requested temporary permission to re-enter Russian territory, and did so on the eastern shore of the Caspian, making his way to Ashgabat before crossing by sea again to Baku, and thence out to Istanbul, Bulgaria, and eventually France. Given this brief sketch, it is entirely possible that Denisov acquired the Divan-I Makhtumquli in Turkmenistan proper, and that the manuscript originated from Central Asia. What’s more, from a description of Denisov’s memoirs in Olmsted’s work, we know that the former visited the British Museum in the mid-1930s as part of his doctoral research on Maximus the Greek. The pieces of the puzzle are beginning to fall into place, but only at the terminal end of the manuscript’s provenance.

Cream coloured paper with black text in Arabic script arranged in two columns in the middle of the page and a red seal at the bottom
The final page of the Divan, likely with a final poem added in a different hand. (Divan-i Makhtumquli, Central Asia?, late 18th century or early 19th century CE. Or 11414 f 140r)
CC Public Domain Image

There is one last clue that is proving to be far more difficult to decipher. In addition to the note about Denissoff at the end of the manuscript, an annotation reads “Tina Negan”chik” (Тина Неганъчикъ)”. It’s not clear to me whether this is intended to be a name, and, if so, what role this person might have played in the item’s history. The use of the hard sign at the end of the word might point to a pre-Revolutionary orthography, or perhaps to nasalized and glottalized consonants, as in common in the current orthography of Crimean Tatar. Whatever the case, the all-powerful tool of Google searching has produced nothing of note, and it does appear that we might yet have to wait a bit longer before we’re able to know to what this refers.

Sometimes, big gifts come in small boxes. While Or 11414 doesn’t look like the type of manuscript that would leave us plenty of avenues for further study, that’s exactly what it has done. And at a time when increasing demands are made for the massaging and manipulation of cultural heritage to satisfy the demands of the social media machine, it bears remembering that there is value beyond being the perfect Instagram post. It just takes a bit of time and quietude to find it.

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

Clement, V. (2018). Learning to Become Turkmen: Literacy, Language, and Power, 1914-2014, Pittsburg: University of Pittsburg Press. (YC.2019.a.1438)

Edgar, A. L. (2004), Tribal Nation: The Making of Soviet Turkmenistan, Princeton: Princeton University Press. (YC.2006.a.7110)

Frank, A. (2020), ‘Turkmen Literacy and Turkmen Identity before the Soviets: the Ravnaq al-Islām in Its Literary and Social Context,’ JESHO, 63 (3) : 286-315. (P.P.3779.hdd.)

Ikhsanov, A. (2016), 'Turkmenistan: Literatura', Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopediia, 32, Moskva: Nauchnoe Izdatel'stvo Bolshaia Rossiiskaia Entsiklopedia, 548-549.

Ikhsanov, A. (2020), 'A Community of Linguists Does Not Create a Language, but a Society Does: Dichotomies in Central Asian History,' Bulletin of the International Institute for Central Asian Studies, 29, 124-136. 

Taylor, P. M. (2017), ‘Turkic poetic heritage as symbol and spectacle of identity: observations on Turkmenistan’s Year of Makhtymguly celebrations,’ Nationalities Papers, 45 (2) : 321-336. (ELD Digital Store Document Supply 6033.449000)

13 September 2021

Epic Iran: Manuscripts from the Islamic era

Epic Iran display

In a recent blog I wrote about three of our Zoroastrian treasures which were part of the  Epic Iran exhibition organised by the V&A with the Iran Heritage Foundation in association with The Sarikhani Collection. Sadly the exhibition is now over, but this second blog on the Islamic period manuscripts which we loaned can serve as a reminder for those who were lucky enough to visit, or as a visual reference for those who weren't so fortunate.

The exhibition was organised into broad themes, the first four on Iran up to the advent of Islam, the fifth section, The Book of Kings, acted as an introduction to Islamic Iran primarily through the epic Shahnamah (Book of Kings) completed by the poet Firdawsi around AD 1010.

Bahram Gur hunting with Azadah
This detail from Firdawsiʼs Shahnamah shows the Sasanian ruler Bahram Gur (Bahram V, r. 420-38) hunting with the slave girl Azadah. Iran, 1486 (BL Add MS 18188, f. 353r). Public Domain

Tracing the history of the Iranian people from the beginning up until the defeat of the Sasanian ruler Yazdegird III in 651, the Shahnamah combines myth and tradition in what is perhaps the best known work of Persian literature. Many hundreds of illustrated copies survive today dating from the Mongol period onwards. The story depicted here, in a manucript dating from the Turkman/Timurid period shows Azadah, a slave-girl who was a fine harpist, riding behind Bahram on his camel on a hunting expedition. On this occasion Bahram performed the remarkable feat of shooting two arrows into one gazelle's head,  cutting off the antlers of another and hitting a third as it raised its foot towards its ear. When Azadah expressed sympathy for the gazelles instead of praise for Bahram’s skill, he took offense, flung her to the ground, and let his camel trample her.

The sixth section, Change of Faith explored Islam in Iranian culture, the transition from Arabic to Persian and the important Iranian contribution to Islamic science.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise
The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. Pursued by a figure with a club, Adam and Eve are accompanied by the peacock and dragon who, at Satan’s instigation, had been responsible for their fall. From the Qisas al-anbiya (Stories of the Prophets) by al-Naysaburi. Shiraz, Iran, 16th century (BL Add MS 18576, f. 11r) Public Domain

There are several different collections in Arabic and Persian with the title Qisas al-anbiyaʼ, stories adapted from the Qur’an and other Islamic literature. One of the best-known and most illustrated is the collection composed in Persian by the 12th century writer Ishaq ibn Ibrahim al-Naysaburi. Add MS 18576 illustrated here is one of sixteen known illustrated copies of al-Naysaburi’s compilation, all produced in Safavid Iran between 1565 and 1585. The portrayal of Adam and Eve agrees with a passage in the Qurʼan (Surah 20, verses 120-21) ʻSo the two of them ate of it, and their shameful parts revealed to them, and they took to stitching upon themselves leaves of the Garden.ʼ Their fiery haloes, however, indicate that they still had some phrophetic status.

  The constellations Aquila and Delphinus
The constellations Aquila and Delphinus from the Kitab suwar al-kawakib (Book of the Images of the Fixed Stars) by al-Sufi. Iran, possibly Maragha, 1260-80 (BL Or 5323. f. 28v). Public Domain

The tenth-century Iranian astronomer ʻAbd al-Rahman al-Sufi (903–86) is the author of several important Arabic texts on the stars and is regarded as one of the greatest Islamic scientists. His most important text, represented here, is the Kitab suwar al-kawakib al-thabitah, based on Ptolemy's Almagest, in which he gives a full description of the classical system of constellations, observed both from the earth and from outside the celestial globe. The outlines of each constellation and the stars belonging to it are therefore drawn twice, their image mirrored in the second drawing.

Describing the rise of Persian poetry, the seventh section, Literary Excellence, was devoted to how Persian emerged as a literary language from the tenth century onwards. As a result of royal patronage poets flourished at court and workshops developed in which calligraphy, illumination and painting were practiced at the highest levels.

Collection of divans
Lyrical poems of Adib Sabir, the panegyrist of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1118-57). Tabriz, 1314 (BL IO Islamic 132, f. 49r) Public Domain

This manuscript, an anthology of poetry by Muʻizzi, Akhsikati, Adib Sabir, Qamar, Shams Tabasi and Nasir Khusraw, was very likely copied in Tabriz in the scriptorium of the Ilkhanid historian and vizier Rashid al-Din. Copied by ʻAbd al-Muʼmin al-ʻAlavi al-Kashi between Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 713 and Dhuʼl-qaʻdah 714 (February 1314–February 1315), it closely resembles other secular manuscripts prepared for Rashid al-Din during the same period. The manuscript contains altogether 53 illustrations in a simplified Mongol style, mostly depicting, as here, the poet receiving a robe of honour from Sultan Sanjar.

The Divan of Hafiz (Add MS 7759)
Facing pages of the Divan of Hafiz on Chinese paper. Possibly Herat, Afghanistan, 1451 (BL Add MS 7759, ff. 60v-61r). Public Domain

This early copy of the Divan of Hafiz (d.c.1389) was copied by Sulayman al-Fushanji in Ramazan 855 (October 1451). Although no place is mentioned in the colophon, the name of the scribe may be connected to Fushanj in the province of Herat, Afghanistan, possibly suggesting Herat as a place of origin. The paper is unusually heavy and includes 31 pages decorated with Chinese ornamentation containing designs of bamboos, pomegranates and other plants while twelve show Chinese landscapes and buildings. The decorated Chinese paper had originally been in the form of large sheets which were painted on before being cut up. The paper is dyed various shades of orange, pink, blue, yellow/green, grey and purple.

Prince Humay reaches Princess Humayun's castle
Humay arrives at the gate of Humayun’s castle. From Humay u Humayun  (Humay and Humayun) of Khvaju Kirmani. Baghdad, Iraq, late 14th century (BL Add MS 18113, f. 18v). Public Domain

Add MS 18113 contains three poems from the Khamsah (Five Poems) by Khvaju Kirmani (1290-1349?). The first, the story of the lovers Humay and Humayun, was completed in 1331 in response to a request to enchant Muslim audiences with a supposed ʻMagianʼ theme. The poems were copied by the famous calligrapher Mir ʻAli ibn Ilyas al-Tabrizi al-Bavarchi in 798 (1396) at the Jalayirid capital Baghdad. The paintings most probably belonged to another copy and were added afterwards. The artist of one of them was Junayd, a pupil of Shams al-Din who worked under the Jalayirid sultan Uways I (r. 1356-74), who inscribed his name on an arch in an illustration on folio 45v. The manuscript stayed in royal hands at least until the Safavid era when it was refurbished for the Safavid prince Bahram Mirza (1517-49), the youngest of the four sons of Shah Ismaʻil (r. 1501-24).

The construction of the palace at Khavarnak
The building of the palace of Khavarnaq. From Nizami's Khamsah. Painting attributed to the master-painter Bihzad. Herat, late 15th century (BL Or.6810, f. 154v). Public Domain

This beautiful copy of the Khamsah (Five Poems) by the 12th century Persian poet Nizami entered the Mughal Imperial Library in Akbar's reign and was regarded as one of the most treasured possessions in his collection. Its importance lies chiefly in its decoration and illustrations which include paintings by the master-painter of Herat, Bihzad (flourished during the reign of the Timurid Husayn Bayqara, 1469-1506). ‘The building of the palace of Khavarnaq,’ ascribed to Bihzad in a note underneath, shows the structure of the pavilion: the scaffolding, a ladder, men chipping bricks, transporting them and actually positioning them on the building.

The opening of Shah Tahmasp's Khamsah
The opening of Nizami's Makhzan al-asrar, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Tabriz or Qazvin, (BL Or.2265, ff. 2v-3r). Public Domain

Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad; Khusraw sees Shirin bathing
Left: Khusraw listens to the minstrel Barbad. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin, one of the five poems forming his Khamsah. Painting ascribed to Mirza ʻAli (BL Or.2265, f. 53v). Public Domain
Right: Prince Khusraw spies Shirin bathing. From Nizami's Khusraw Shirin. Painting ascribed to Sultan Muhammad (BL Or.2265, f.77v). Public Domain

Or.2265, a 16th century copy of Nizami's Khamsah (Five Poems), is perhaps the most spectacular of our manuscript loans. Originally copied between 1539 and 1543 for the Safavid ruler Shah Tahmasp (r. 1524-76), it was augmented by the addition of 14 full page illustrations by some of the most famous court artists of the mid-16th century. Further pages were inserted probably during the 17th century, and again at a later stage, perhaps when the manuscript was rebound in the early 19th century at the court of Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar (r. 1797-1834) who in 1243 (1827/28), according to a note inside, presented it to his forty-second wife Taj al-Dawlah.

The ninth section The Old and the New focussed on the Qajar dynasty (1789-1925), introducing an element of modernisation and developing new relationships with Europe.

The Iranian army defeats the Russians
Fath ʻAli Shah's heir ʻAbbas Mirza about to slay the Russian general Gazhadand with the Russian army in flight. From the Shahanshahnamah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Iran, 1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f. 387v). Public Domain

With Firdawsi's Shahnamah as a model, Fath‘Ali Shah commissioned the Shahanshahnamah (Book of the King of Kings) by the court poet Fath ‘Ali Khan Saba. Presented to the East India Company, this was one of several equally sumptuous copies given as diplomatic gifts to various European dignitaries.

Portrait of Nasir al-Din Shah
Portrait of Nasir al-Din (r. 1848-1896), seated on a European style sofa, by Muhammad Isfahani. Iran, 1856 (BL Or.4938, f.4r). Public Domain

Although the exhibition has now closed, the published catalogue of Epic Iran is available by the three curators: John Curtis, Ina Sarikhani Sandmann and Tim Stanley Epic Iran: 5000 years of culture

Ursula Sims-Williams, British Library, Lead Curator Persian
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Further reading 

Most of these manuscripts have been digitised and can be explored by following the hyperlinks given above or by going to our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts page. The following blogs also give further information:

An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani
The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani
Two Persian ‘Ming’ manuscripts on view at the British Museum
A Jewel in the Crown: A 15th century illustrated copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.6810)
The Khamsah of Nizami: A Timurid Masterpiece

16 August 2021

Real Sultans of the Ottoman Empire

Painting of a middle-aged man with a dark beard in a white turban, topped with gold band, and wearing a red, gold, and green robe, holding the hilt of his sword, inside of a grey oval frame
Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 4v).
CC Public Domain Image

What did people do before Hello! brought the latest royal gossip into the comfort of their homes? How did the average pleb manage before the gods of reality television took a handful of sanitized suburban clay, fashioned the Real Housewives series, and blew the life-giving breath of audience-tested PR into it? Illustrated manuscripts, obvs. In any case, most regular people were probably too busy with the relentless crush of survival to while away hours each day watching someone else live their best life. But for those who weren’t, Or 9505 would have been a treat.

Known as the Hadikatü’l-müluk or Garden of Kings, this late 19th-century work is a richly illustrated guide to the Ottoman dynasty. The original work dates from the early 18th century and was composed by Osmanzade Ahmet Tayip, who died in 1724 CE. The version held by the British Library, however, was expanded by Seyit Abdusamet, who sought to include Sultan Abdülmecit (reigned 1839-61). The text is beautifully copied, with an elaborate unvan, and 32 full-page portraits of 31 Emperors, from Sultan Osman I (reigned 1280-99 CE; f 3v) up to Sultan Abdülmecit (f 71v). The Padişahlar are each found inside an oval frame, with the exception of the final, then-reigning monarch, whose mounted personage is permitted to occupy the entirety of the page. This treasure of Ottoman portraiture was acquired by the British Museum in 1924, when it was purchased from the Cairo-based Maurice Nahman, the source of many of the Museum’s (and then Library’s) West Asian manuscripts.

Full-page painting of a man mounted upon a cantering black horse with white legs, atop of an ornate saddle, wearing a black cape and red fez topped with a lavish standard. The man is bearded and looking at the viewer
Abdülmecit atop his steed. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 72r).
CC Public Domain Image

The content of the Hadikatü’l-müluk is far from novel or unique. While national histories of the Ottoman Empire began in earnest towards the end of the 19th century, biography and dynastic history had long been common. Among the best known are Aşıkpaşazade’s Tevarih-i Âl-i Osman or Menakıb-i Âl-i Osman, a 15th-century account of the quasi-mythical origins of the Ottoman dynasty. A similar work, occasionally known as the Tarih-i Âl-i Osman, but whose author might have been Muhyiddin Mehmet İbn-i Ali el-Cemali, can be found at Add MS 5969 (with an extract at Add MS 7870). Over time, other works appeared as well, including the Tacu’t-tevarih (Or 856 , Or 3210, Or 7285, Or 7286, Or 7287, Or 7908, Or 8764, Add MS 18811, Add MS 19628), a 16th-century work by Hoca Sadettin Efendi; the Tarih-i Peçevi (Or 7353, Add MS 18071, Add MS 24961), a two-volume history of the Empire by Ottoman Bosniak scholar İbrahim Peçevi; and the Tarih-i Raşit (Or 9470, Or 9670, Or 9720, Add MS 23585), an 18th-century text by Mehmet Raşit that brings this narrative closer to the present. To this we can add a whole host of works that speak to histories of regions, people, and events crucial to the continued stability of the Ottoman regime. Koca Mehmet Ragıp Paşa’s Fethiye-yi Belgrad ( Or 6248, Or 7182, Or 7198, Or 9472, Or 10952, Or 12185) and the Tarih-i Sefer-i Kandia (Or 1137, Or 11154), which recounts the Ottoman capture of Crete in 1667-69, are just two well-represented texts of this genre found in the British Library’s collections. Historiography was a lively and crucial component of Ottoman statecraft, and a core tool of imprinting the dynasty’s legacy on the palimpsest of time.

A page of Arabic-script text inside a gold frame topped with a header with floral illumination in red, blue, green and gold inks
The opening page of the Hadikatü'l-müluk, featuring an elaborate unvan. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 1v).
CC Public Domain Image

Or 9505 clearly borrows from this tradition, but it also departs from it in a few very special ways. The Library holds another copy of the original text by Osmanzade (Or 7302), which is devoid of frills. It’s clear that Or 9505 is a luxury copy intended for a patron of considerable means, if not a member of the Imperial household. The highly ornate poetry at the start of the text, replete with complicated Persian and Arabic phrases, is laid out among gold text frames and separators. The unvan, or header, found on f 1v is a further indication of the pomp and ceremony with which this text was copied. It bears the name of the work inside a golden egg, surrounded by lush foliage and floral illumination in vivid pinks, blues, greens, and gold. A Baroque unvan is hardly something new or unique in an Ottoman manuscript. But this particular example does depart, in some ways, from what we usually see. For one, the floral components are not attached to the pink and yellow frame, but rather floating in empty space. And rather than containing the usual geometric or architectonic elements – so often reminiscent of towers, minarets, or palaces – this layout seems to be mimicking a crest, not unlike what we might see in European heraldry.

Painting of a middle-aged man with dark beard in yellow kaftan with red belt and dark blue vest, wearing a large white turban. The man is raising his right hand
Murat I, who reigned 1362-89 CE. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 10v).
CC Public Domain Image

But it’s not the formatting, or the illumination, that is the real showstopper of this volume. Clearly, the most attractive aspect of Or 9505 is its 32 images of the Sultans of the Ottoman dynasty. These are unmistakably bold and provocative portraits. That might not seem particularly shocking, but these images do stand out from the broader tradition of Ottoman manuscript painting reflected in the British Library’s collections. The Library houses a number of items bearing portraits of both real personalities and fictional characters. What marks Or 9505 apart is the way that the subject of the portrait dominates the image itself. Whether an illustrated copy of Navoiy’s Gharaib al-sighar (Or 13061); an 18th-century Hamse-yi Atayi complete with raunchy scenes (Or 13882); or an early 17th-century Hadikatü’s-suada (Or 12009), people were included in narrative paintings, depicted as part of a scene, surrounded by flora, fauna, and buildings. In her overview of albums created by Vassal Kalender, Dr. Günsel Renda has identified this as a particularly salient aspect of 18th century products, influenced by both Iranian and Chinese preferences and techniques, as well as some European ones. But the same can also be seen in Turkic manuscripts from outside of the Ottoman Empire and from earlier periods, including a late 16th-century Divan-i Xǝtai (Or 11388) or the exquisite 16th-century Nusratnāmah (Or 3222). Rulers, specifically, and people, in general, were often portrayed in a social or historical context.

A painting of a middle-aged man in a green tunic with a white turban and black tassel upon his head sitting atop a black horse. The man is bearded and the horse is covered in a richly decorated saddle. The image is set within a page that features gold-wash illuminations in floral patterns
Sultan Ahmet I (?) on his black steed. (Ottoman poetry and painting album, late 16th century. Or 2709 f 4v). 
CC Public Domain Image

A different point of comparison might be with Or 2709, a late 16th-century album of poetry and painting. This murakka might originate from Tabriz, Iran, which would have been under Ottoman control at roughly the same time. Regardless of the vagaries of war and conquest, it’s clear that Safavid centers of artistic production also influenced creatives in Istanbul greatly. What’s more, it contains what is clearly a portrait of a Sultan, identifiable from the black aigrette (sorguç) on his white turban, mounted on his black steed, not terribly dissimilar from Abdülmecit’s pose in Or 9505. The work doesn’t reflect the European-style portraits of the 15th and 16th centuries (such as Titian’s famed portrait of Kanunî Süleyman or Gentile Bellini’s painting of Sultan Mehmet II in the National Gallery). It’s probably a much better precursor to the Safavid- and Chinese-influenced Ottoman portraiture and costume books produced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries; books about which Dr. Serpil Bağcı has provided an excellent overview. What does seem to mark this portrait off from those of Or 9505, though, is the interactions between the object and the viewer. The one in Or 2709 is set further back, and, while sullen, the Padişah isn’t all that imposing. He seems to lack the piercing gaze – a challenge to the impertinent stare of the viewer – that we see in the portraits in Or 9505.

Painting of a younger man in a blue kaftan under a red vest with ermine trim and a white turban with a black tassel. The man in holding a bow in his left hand
Sultan Osman II, with bow in hand. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 40v).
CC Public Domain Image

We can, of course, pursue another track of inquiry regarding the Hadikatü’l-müluk. There is a long tradition of European influence on Ottoman painting, especially portraiture. Nearly 50 years ago, the late Dr. Esin Atıl provided us with a wonderful overview of the links between Italian Renaissance and Ottoman portraiture, detailing artistic exchange in the court of Sultan Mehmet II. These transfers of knowledge continued into the reign of Kanunî Süleyman, as Dr. Gülru Necipoğlu has explored, but eventually tapered off, re-emerging periodically thereafter, and with force during the 19th century. The period of Sultan Abdülmecit II’s reign is perhaps the best known for its adoption of Western European visual technologies for the purpose of statecraft, although Dr. Mary Roberts has also demonstrated the profoundly important usage of them during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz as well.

An elderly man with a white beard in a green kaftan and gold belt under a yellow vest with an ermine trim. the man is wearing a white turban with a black tassel and is holding his right hand up
Selim II, Sultan from 1566 to 1574. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 30v).
CC Public Domain Image

Coming back to Or 9505, while we do know the name of the author of the original Hadikatü’l-müluk, and that of the individual who expanded it, we don’t know who painted these exquisite works. What we do know is that they were operating during the Tanzimat, a time of great social and political change in the Ottoman Empire. Among the characteristics of the Tanzimat was Ottoman intellectuals’ importation and adoption, if not assimilation, of Western European tastes and habits. Might this particular manuscript be a product of that desire for aesthetic Europeanisation? Even if this is true, these portraits still bear clear affinities with the Ottoman tradition of manuscript painting. They provide us with a solid and fascinating counterpoint to the realism of European Orientalist painting, and later Ottoman manifestations of the Western European traditions.

A middle-aged man in a blue robe under a green cape with his hand on the hilt of his sword. He is wearing a striped black and white turban with a red cloth tied around it, topped with a gold and feathered standard, and large gold triangles on either side of his head
Sultan Murat IV, who reigned 1623-40. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 42v).
CC Public Domain Image

These diversions into art history take me beyond my accumulated knowledge, or indeed my faculties of perception. For those of us not schooled in the disciplines of Ottoman painting and aesthetics, though, Or 9505 does hit upon a final truth we know all too well from the Age of Instagram. Portraiture can be a powerful stimulant to our sense of self. Whether a filtered selfie or a delicate painting, pictures reflect more than just how we look. They embody how we wish to be seen, remembered, and experienced. And for their viewers, they can elicit a wide range of emotions: envy, lust, admiration, and even schadenfreude. So come take a stroll through the Hadikatü’l-müluk, and forget your mundane worries for an hour or so – commercial breaks not included.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Works Cited :

Akın-Kıvanç, Esra, “Mustafa Âli’s Epic Deeds of Artists and New Approaches to Written Sources of Ottoman Art,” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, 2:2 (November 2015), pp. 225-258.

Atıl, Esin, “Ottoman Miniature Painting Under Sultan Mehmed II,” Ars Orientalis, 9, Freer Gallery of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Volume (1973), pp. 103-120.

Bağcı, Serpil, “Presenting Vaṣṣāl Kalender’s Works: The Prefaces of Three Ottoman Albums,” Muqarnas, 30 (2013), pp. 255-313.

Necipoğlu, Gülru, “Süleyman the Magnificent and the Representation of Power in the Context of Ottoman-Hapsburg-Papal Rivalry,” The Art Bulletin, 71:3 (September 1989), pp. 401-427.

Renda, Günsel, “An Illustrated 18th-Century Ottoman Hamse in the Walters Art Gallery,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 39 (1981), pp. 15-32.

Roberts, Mary, “Ottoman Statecraft and ‘The Pencil of Nature’: Photograph, Painting, and Drawing at the Court of Sultan Abdülaziz,” Ars Orientalis, 43 (2013), pp. 10-30.

Titley, Norah M., Miniatures from Turkish Manuscripts: A Catalogue and Subject Index of Paintings in the British Library and British Museum (London: The British Library, 1981). (Open Access PDP 17)

02 August 2021

How to Digitise Scrolls: A Step-by-Step Guide from the Lotus Sutra Project

Photograph of man with back to camera in black shirt looking over long yellowed scroll in front of machinery with many cables
Jon Nicholls, Senior Imaging Technician, digitising a scroll on the Lotus Sutra Project.
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Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is an international collaborative project based at the British Library and with centres around the world. The Project aims to preserve and digitise collections from archaeological sites along the Eastern part of the ancient trade routes known as the Silk Roads, including the Mogao caves near Dunhuang (present day Gansu province in China).

As part of this, the Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at the British Library is cataloguing, conserving, and digitising Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra from the British Library’s Stein Collection.

These scrolls were procured by the British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), when he travelled to Dunhuang. He was followed by several other foreign explorers who also took away a large number of manuscripts and other items. By digitising this corpus of texts, we can facilitate access to these historic items and bring them together digitally, after they were scattered around the globe.

The Lotus Sutra collection

The Lotus Sutra is a sacred text that contains important early teachings on Buddhism. It was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. Its popularity in China, in particular at Dunhuang, is attested by the over 1,000 copies that are now in the British Library’s custodianship.

Although a few of these were digitised in the past, a total of 793 paper manuscripts are yet to be imaged. They are dated roughly between the 5th to 11th centuries, based on dated items at both ends of the spectrum.

Most, except for three booklets, are in the scroll format. Each scroll varies in size and condition. We have some scrolls that are incredibly long as well as some that are just fragments. We also have some very fragile scrolls that our fantastic Conservation team are working hard to preserve so that they are available for years to come.

We have calculated that collectively there is roughly 17km of scroll that needs to be conserved and digitised. That’s the distance from the British Library in North London to Wimbledon in Southwest London!

Thanks to the support from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation based in Hong Kong, we are steadily working through the entire collection, one scroll at a time. The digitised collection will be made freely available on the IDP website (http://idp.bl.uk/).

Equipment and Imaging Standards

To digitise the scrolls, we use specialist equipment at the British Library’s St Pancras site. Below details the equipment I use:

  • Phase One XF medium format camera on a copy stand
  • Phase One IQ3 80 MP Digital back
  • Phase One 120mm lens
  • LED lighting
  • Long and height-adjustable table
  • Capture One Software
  • Adobe Photoshop

To ensure consistency and reliability, we adhere to these imaging standards:

  • Aperture F.16
  • Shutter speed 0.6 Seconds
  • ISO 50

To further ensure quality and accuracy, we use the same equipment and standards for every image.

Step 1. Digitising the scrolls

Once the scrolls have been through conservation and are in stable condition they can be digitised. Digitising scrolls is quite a difficult process. As mentioned before, there are some very long scrolls (one even measuring up to 13 meters) and I have very limited space at my workstation.

At the beginning of this project, I was given specific scroll handling training from our wonderful Conservation team.

Equipped with the knowledge to handle the scrolls safely, I shoot the scrolls bit by bit, un-rolling and re-rolling onto a scroll core as I go, both as a space saving technique but also to avoid damage to the scrolls. Luckily the scrolls themselves are long horizontal rolls, which are made of several rectangular sheets of paper or ‘panels’ attached together. I photograph every panel individually, which makes it a lot easier to capture each part.

I try to lie the scroll down as flat as I can, but it is not always possible. Some of the scrolls undulate naturally and we need to be sympathetic to the item’s condition. When undulation of the scrolls occurs, I use various weights approved by our Conservation Team to hold either side of the panels to flatten them without putting undue pressure.

If need be, I use pins to flatten the scrolls. *We do not use pins directly on any part of the scrolls. Instead, I pin around the scroll and using transparent, acid free tabs in-between the pin and the scroll to protect the item.

Collection of white objects including bead-like string, white scroll, white pouch and other small white squares on a black background
Tools used for holding the item whilst digitising: scroll core, conservation ‘penny weights’, snake weights, weight bags, pins and acid free tabs.
CC Public Domain Image

I include a ruler in the image for size reference as well as a colour chart to calibrate colours and a focusing target to set up the control shots. These are cropped out of the final images.

Black background behind a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it and a black and white focus target with a multicoloured colour palette and black and white strips at bottom of image
Focus target, ruler and colour chart.
CC Public Domain Image

I shoot all the panels’ front (rectos) and back (versos) to capture the entire length of the scroll. As Chinese text is written and read vertically, top to bottom and right to left, I capture the panels from right to left.

I always overshoot either side of the panel and usually include 3 to 4 columns of text overlap (as seen in the photo below). This helps in the stitching process later.

Close view of yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with black bars above and below
Digitising a panel of a scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Once all the panels are shot, I process each image file from RAW files into TIFF files.

Step 2. Post-production

I edit every TIFF image in Photoshop. This task can take a long time if you have 40+ images to edit.

Firstly, I digitally remove any pins or other unwanted objects in the shot using the lasso tool to select around the item, then delete using the ‘Content aware’ function. Please note this can only be done when the layer is locked.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of digital edit in Photoshop.
CC Public Domain Image

I then select and cut out the background and replace with a digital black background. This is done for aesthetic reasons and something that we inherited from the previous team. We continued with this for consistency with the historical images.

You can achieve a similar goal by shooting directly onto black fabric.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of the end of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Replacing background with digital black background.
CC Public Domain Image

I change the height of every image. This is done for the purposes of ingesting the images onto our website, which requires specific sizes and ensures consistency.

To speed the process up I have created ‘Actions’ in Photoshop to save me some time and partially automate the majority of the postproduction.

Step 3. Stitching

I use automatic stitching to generate the stitched TIFF. Having trialled a few software packages, I can say the Adobe’s Photoshop ‘Photomerge’ seems to be the best at the moment.

Whilst it is the best on the market, it unfortunately it can be very hit and miss, and depends on the length, curvature and condition of each scroll. Most recently I have discovered that dramatic change in colour on the scroll also confuses the software.

Seven scrolls of yellowed paper of various lengths atop a grey and white checkerboard background
Example of a stitched image gone wrong.
CC Public Domain Image

For this example above, I was forced to manually stitch all the separate parts together. This is a much longer process but is occasionally needed.

Automatic stitching works better when there are more reference points, which is why I include extra columns of text either side when shooting the image, as mentioned before.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a very long and thin yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of a smaller scroll successfully digitally stitched together
CC Public Domain Image

If I am lucky there won’t be many changes required (known as post edits), but often I have to automatically stitch the scroll in parts or even manually stitch each image.

Step 4. Editing stitched image

The automated stitch image often produces some arched or warped images. I use ‘puppet warp’ and guidelines in Photoshop to subtly straighten the scroll, being careful to not over edit or make it look unnatural. There are some very helpful YouTube vlogs explaining how to use the Puppet warp function.

Lastly, using the TIFF files, I create three types of JPEG to be ingested to the IDP website, this includes: a large JPEG, a medium JPEG and a thumbnail.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters covered with light grey lines attached to one another at random angleson it with a black background
Example of Puppet warp in action to subtly straighten the scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Step 5. Quality control

I finally quality check the images and make sure I adhere to our specific naming conventions before I move them to another server. From here they are quality checked by a Digitisation Officer in view of ultimately being uploaded to the IDP website.

Screen shot with light blue frame showing website with yellowish-grey left side bar, white background, images of yellowed scrolls with Chinese characters on them and a greyish yellow text box
Example of digitised scroll displayed on the IDP website.
CC Public Domain Image

I hope you found this guide interesting and useful.

Jon Nicolls, Senior Imaging Technician, IDP

(All images were shot by Jon Nicolls)

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To find out more about the Lotus Sutra Project and the International Dunhaung Project visit:

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