Asian and African studies blog

55 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

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

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
CCBY Image

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.
CCBY Image

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 (

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.
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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.
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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
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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.
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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.
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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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21 June 2021

Black Sea Noir: Who was Ian MacPherson and Why Was He in Crimea?

Off-white paper with black faded typed text in Latin script, with a drawing of concentric circle in the centre and Hebrew script copied by hand in black ink in the rings of the circles
The final page of Ian MacPherson's report from his travels to Crimea, including a copy of a Hebrew-script inscription and the legend to his map of Kezlev. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927. Or 17013 f 39)
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With summer having arrived for those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to find a quiet green space and relax in the pleasant weather for a few hours – preferably with a good mystery. While I can’t offer you something along the lines of Zühal Kuyaş, Pınar Kür, Osman Aysu, Ümit Kıvanç, or even the pastiche but playful crime stories of Peyami Safa, I do have a bit of a conundrum that might help while away a humid hour or two. My Noir tale comes from deep inside one of the Library’s safe cupboards. Late in 2019, I found a stack of handwritten and typed notes from a man named Ian MacPherson (Or 17013). Some of the jottings related to library collections in Crimea; others were maps of Kezlev (Yevpatoria in Ukrainian and Russian) with the sites of interest marked; some had rubbings and sketches of inscriptions and “tamghalar” (tamgalar); and a final piece provided a translation of a report to the Crimean Academy of Sciences. But who was Ian MacPherson, and what was he doing in Crimea for four weeks during the summer of 1927?

A hand drawn map ink and pencil of a square in Kezlev with various buildings numbered and Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic script text hand written on it, as well as typewritten Latin-script text in the top left corner
A hand-drawn map of Qanglıq or Kaklyk Square (now Metalistiv Square), showing the bazar and Tatarok Street (today Tatar'ska Street), along with numbered buildings corresponding to those included in the legend provided by MacPherson. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 f 39)
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To answer the first question, I don’t really know. That is, I don’t have precise details on his dates of birth and death, or about his education and profession. But from the notes that he left, we can gather a few details. Let’s do our best Saga Norén and go through some of them. Given that these seemingly bureaucratic notes were found in a safe cupboard at the British Library, I’m willing to guess that Mr. MacPherson was employed by the British Museum (the Library’s predecessor institution) to acquire materials from the Soviet Union, the former Ottoman Empire, or both. While it’s true that these notes could have been deposited by a third party at any point between 1927 and 2019, this situation seems unlikely. The fact that they speak of libraries of interest; archaeological and historical conferences attended; and meetings with various local scholars and officials all point to the BM as being Ian’s most likely place of employment. Indeed, wherever he worked, it was certainly a “museum” (f 38) that contained a library. In a note from 8 November 1927, MacPherson remarks that he will check the lists of English-language materials at the Yevpatoria Library with those held at “our library” in London. MacPherson also states (f 38) that “were any collaborator of the British Museum” to pursue in-depth research in Kezlev in the coming years, they would be able to count on his assistance as a fixer and a translator. Perhaps, then, he was a former employee of the Museum, now freelancer (of a sort) eager to use his connections to finance his continued travels.

A foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x'sA foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's
The first two pages of Ian MacPherson's report on his trip to Crimea, including descriptions of the Peninsula, Kezlev, the people he met, and some of the institutions in the region. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 35-36)
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It’s the varied and wide-ranging interests encapsulated in Ian’s activities that point most firmly to him working in a position touching upon history, archaeology, anthropology, museology, and archival research. This might seem like a broad swathe of the social sciences and humanities, impossible to contain within anything other than personal interests. But the mix is not far from what Curators at the Library are asked to touch upon even today. MacPherson gathered information on historic and contemporary communities as well as those conducting research on them. His notes provide us with detailed descriptions of the ethnic and religious communities present in northern Crimea in the 1920s (Muslim Tatars, Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox Slavs, Qaraim, Turkic-speaking Jews or Krymchaks, Ashkenazi Jews, Armenians). These missives are clearly enmeshed within imperialist understandings of racial anthropology. Nonetheless, they collate valuable information about Crimean society before the devastating changes brought about by the purges of the 1930s; Nazi occupation; and wholesale deportation and ethnic cleansing during the Soviet reoccupation.

A headshot of a balding man with no hat in black and white above a typed caption in Arabic scriptA reproduction of a black and white photograph of a group of 18 people including 2 women and 16 men, of whom 7 are seated in a front row, 9 are standing behind them, and a further two are standing behind that row, all of them in various forms of business or casual attire, with a bolded title in Arabic script above the photo and an Arabic-script caption below it
A portrait of the Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı (left) and a group photo of the participants at a 1926 Archaeological Conference in Kerch, Crimea, including Aqçoqraqlı seated on the far right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), pp. 44, 46) (
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MacPherson’s papers also record meetings with numerous scholars. These include Soviet scientists from outside the region (among whom was an unnamed Jewish doctor from Minsk unsuccessfully researching blood types among Qaraim communities); Boris Saadevich Elyashevich, Curator of the Qaraim National Library; Polina J. Chepurina, the Head of the Yevpatoria Museum; Professor Filonenko, a Ukrainian member of the Turko-Tatar Faculty at Simferopol’ University; an unnamed Armenian priest; and the well-known Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı. Ian was clearly seeking the latest information from these individuals on the expansion and development of the social sciences and humanities in the region; a veritable hotbed of scholarly activities in the 1920s. He attended the Second Pan-Union Archaeological Conference in Aqyar (Sevastopol’) on 11-12 September 1927, and made extensive notes on the activities of the Qaraim National Library and the Yevpatoria Museum, documenting the work done to catalogue and study the holdings within new Soviet structures.

A foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's and Arabic and Samaritan script texts also added in by handA foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's
MacPherson's report on the Yevpatoria Museum and their holdings of items relating to the history of Crimea. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 37-38)
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The lists and descriptions that MacPherson compiled are also invaluable for the information that they provide about Crimean culture and history. Among them, we have an overview of some of the treasures of the Qaraim National Library as compiled by Mikhail Nikolaevich Sokolov (f 36; originally a report for the Academy of Sciences in 1926). The gradual shift in ownership and control over cultural heritage is also documented, as MacPherson’s notes include a “List of property in the town of Eupatoria to become municipal property” (f 40), clearly sketching out the Soviet state’s desire to take ownership and assert control over the cultural heritage of the region’s various communities. And, most notably, the sheets are filled with sketches; short descriptions; rubbing and transcriptions of inscriptions; floor plans; and maps of important places and buildings found throughout this segment of the Crimean Peninsula. MacPherson was evidently very keen to bring back information about the Hebrew- and Arabic-script manifestations of faith and power in Kezlev and other towns. Given the shaky nature of much of the Arabic script used to copy down Crimean Tatar and Arabic inscriptions, it seems as though Ian himself engaged in this endeavour. He was likely helped considerably by local scholars, as the Crimean Tatar phrases are in an orthography characteristic of the 1910s and 20s, rather than Classical Ottoman.

Pencil rubbing of a three pronged figure with a pointed head alongside an ink sketch of a bird upon which the item might have been basedPencil rubbing of a three pronged figure showing only the outline of the prongs with a blank interior below a rubbing of the outline of a bar
Two examples of tamgalar taken from MacPherson's rubbings of the symbols from mosques and graveyards in Kezlev. On the left, an example that Aqçoqraqlı identified with Qaraqurt and that MacPherson labelled as "Ceni Mille", and on the right, one that he linked to Kezlev. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 11,19)
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A separate look should be devoted to the rubbings and sketches of tamgalar found throughout the sheets. These are stamps or seals that were employed by various communities – often Turkic or Mongolic speakers – across Eurasia. The expanse over which they are found is a tribute to their incorporation into nomadic cultures. They encoded many pieces of information, including family ties; socio-economic structures and relationships; and power dynamics. To this day, the Tarak tamga continues to be used as a national symbol of the Crimean Tatars. MacPherson wasn’t always accurate in his identification of these stamps, and some of what has been labeled “tamga” in the notes is clearly not related to this part of nomadic Eurasian heritage. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this aspect of Crimea’s semiotic culture fascinated our traveler, and that it was a big motivating factor in his further research into Crimean history.

A yellowed page with lithographed reproduction of a sketch featuring stone monuments each bearing a different tamga symbol on them, entirely in black and white, above and below typed Arabic-script text
An artist's rendition of tamgalar found across Crimea on various stone monuments, illustrating the typical settings in which such evidence of the Peninsula's Turkic heritage can be found. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Huner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926), p. 11). (11499.p.11)
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Another piece of the puzzle fell into place last autumn. A chunk of the mystery surrounding Ian MacPherson and his trip to Crimea had already become much less murky thanks to his detailed notes. But MacPherson’s relationship with the people mentioned in them continued to be unclear, not least because there were no indications of how he was received by those individuals mentioned in his missives. As luck would have it, though, I was able to find another clue while on one of my many exploratory trips to the Library’s basements. There, I stumbled upon a monograph without a record in our electronic catalog, Qırım'da Tatar Tamgaları (قریم'دا تاتار تامغالاری) (14499.p.11). This volume, authored by the very same Osman Aqçoqraqlı MacPherson met in 1927, is a beautifully illustrated and very detailed study of tamgalar. It documents an important stage in the development of the social sciences in Crimea, with a particular emphasis on the contributions of Indigenous scholars. Moreover, it provides us with clear indications of the spread of particular early Soviet opinions and ideas following the Bolshevik takeover.

Yellowed page with printed text in Arabic script showing a ruled table that includes the Syllabic system employed for Indigenous languages in Canada against their pronunciation in Arabic scriptYellowed page with printed text in Arabic script showing a ruled table that includes the Hangul system employed for Korean alongside the letters' pronunciation in Arabic script
Schemes showing the Hangul system (left) and the Syllabics system (right) and alleging similarities or direct lineages with the tamgalar employed by both Mongolic and Turkic peoples across Eurasia. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Huner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926), pp. 20-21). (11499.p.11)
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Although the majority of Aqçoqraqlı’s text is focused on the various tamgalar, their meanings, and their historical connections, the end of the work introduces a new, and highly dubious, deviation. In a twist that makes express use of Nikolai Marr’s theories regarding a “Japhetic” group of languages, he implies parallels between Mongolic tamgalar and early Hangul, the alphabet used for Korean, if not a clear line of inspiration (p. 20). Similarly, he draws readers’ attention to the similarities between the tamgalar and the syllabic system applied to various Indigenous languages spoken in Canada (p. 21). Whatever similarities exist, these are purely coincidental, as neither the Nêhiyaw history of the system nor that of European settlers speaks to any Turkic or Mongolic influence in the appearance of the writing system. The same logic is applied to the Phoenician, Himyarite and Ge’ez alphabets and syllabaries (p. 22). Such cross-cultural, and often ahistorical, approaches to historical linguistics were a hallmark of both Marr’s worldview and that of many Turkic nationalists, particularly those participating in the construction of the Turkish History Thesis in the 1930s. Their appearance in a Soviet work prior to the Stalinist crackdown makes this an especially valuable work from a historiographical perspective.

Printed cover page featuring printed Arabic calligraphy with small tamga symbols among the calligraphy and a handwritten inscription in Arabic script in blue-black ink at the top right of the page
The title page of Aqçoqraqlı's work on tamgalar, including a dedication of the work to the British Museum dated 24 July 1926. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Hüner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926)). (11499.p.11)
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But this isn’t quite what we’re interested in investigating, is it? Back to the matter at hand, and MacPherson’s connections to Aqçoqraqlı. On the title page of the book, we find a dedication written in a tight rık’a hand with black ink, probably using a fountain pen. It reads: “Londra’da Britanya Müzehanesine takdim olunur. Müellif: Osman Aqçoqraqlı. 24 İyul 1926” (“Presented to the British Museum in London. Author: Osman Aqçoqraqlı. 24 July 1926”). From the accession stamp at the back of the book, we can see that it was formally entered into the Library’s collections on 9 October 1926. This is hardly a smoking gun when it comes to MacPherson’s employment, or the nature of his relationship to Osman Aqçoqraqlı – not least since it predates MacPherson’s visit by a year. But it does demonstrate that the latter individual was clearly in communication with the Museum and that the Museum itself had a pre-existing relationship with the Peninsula’s scholarly community. This is something, I have learned, that is often imperative in ensuring smooth business trips. Indeed, in his own report, MacPherson notes that he has “extended some help to him [Aqçoqraqlı] in regard to European sources of information” on tamgalar. Was this the catalyst for his trip? MacPherson mentions in the notes that he was planning on returning to Crimea in 1928 to undertake more detailed research; perhaps this was part of a longer friendship arc ultimately interrupted by Stalinist repressions.

Yellowed page with calligraphic Arabic-script title at top above sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin, from the next up, featuring a half-profile of the left side of his face, entirely in black and whiteA group portrait photograph in black and white showing a line of men seated outside of a building in front of a line of four standing men, some of which are wearing hats, under a bolded title and above a caption, all of which are in Arabic script
The cover of İleri magazine, featuring a sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin (left) and a portrait of archaeologists working in Crimea (right) in 1925-26, including Aqçoqraqlı, standing second from the right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), cover and p. 45) (
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Many good examples of the Noir genre include murders, injustice and a crushingly ruthless system that outdoes those who participate in it. While we don’t know what happened to MacPherson (he might have been shot by a cold-blooded gangster while on his walking tour to Kerch), his was likely not the story that ended in despair. Rather, it is Crimean Tatar scholars who give this particular story its dark edge. With the triumph of Joseph Stalin in the struggle for the leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, a pall descended on many academic and minority communities across the USSR. The 1930s were a period of gradual but devastating repression of dissent and creativity. Many Turkic intellectuals and national leaders from the 1910s and 20s were targeted for purges. Osman Aqçoqraqlı was no exception, and in 1938 he was arrested and executed for his alleged nationalist transgressions. It was, in predictably Noir fashion, the system which had allowed him to pursue his research and to connect with like-minded scholars from abroad that would eventually cause his demise.

A pencil sketch and rubbing of Arabic script and numbers along with a shield-like shape on white paper, accompanied by handwritten text in Latin and Cyrillic scripts in black ink
A rubbing and sketch of a date marker for 1180 AH (1766-67 CE) identified with the Khan Cami, also known as the Cuma Cami, designed by the famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1552-64 CE. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927. Or 17013 f 9)
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In 1942, Crimea was invaded by Nazi forces. After the Soviet reoccupation, the accusation of collaboration levelled by Stalin against the entire Crimean Tatar nation resulted in their mass deportation to Uzbekistan and other destinations in 1944. Communities were shattered and tens of thousands died. It was only in 1989 that survivors and their descendants were able to return home en masse. Or 17013 is thus more than just the notes of a privileged, if not entitled, British business traveller interested in the region’s cultural and architectural heritage. They are evidence of a buoyant time of exploration, discovery, and self-expression among the peoples of Crimea; an ethos that would ultimately be betrayed and erased from official memory during the Great Purge and Deportation. The mystery of who Ian MacPherson was pales in comparison to the enormity of the Crimean Tatars’ displacement and dispossession; a trauma re-enacted in 2014 with the Russian annexation of the Peninsula.

Hopefully, making use of the dogged persistence of a Raymond Chandler anti-hero to uncover the finer points of a 95-year-old business trip has helped you while away a humid afternoon. With a little luck, it can also help us to reconstruct suppressed histories, and aid in the pursuit of long overdue restorative justice for repressed persons and peoples.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

As the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) uploads its two millionth image this week, we’d like to celebrate the nearly 80,000 images of British Library Arabic scientific manuscripts that contribute to this achievement.

One of the most fascinating of these manuscripts and one of the oldest is a thousand-year-old fragment of a Christian Arabic miscellany in Or. 8857. Enhanced cataloguing facilitated by the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership has provided a glimpse of the scientific interests and texts available to readers in the monasteries of the Near East around AD1000 and also of the diverse communities that produced these manuscripts in monastic scriptoria. Creating a digital surrogate of this fragment for the QDL has also allowed us to virtually reorder its folios and even remotely reunite it with another, larger fragment from the same manuscript held in another collection.


Acquisition and condition

On 30 May 1921, the British Museum acquired five folios of a Syriac manuscript along with thirty-three folios of a very ancient Arabic manuscript from F.W. Bickel, an antiquities dealer in Zürich specialising in Christian oriental manuscripts.

Off-white paper with two lines of cursive text in the Latin alphabet
Acquisition note: ‘Bought of F. W. Bickel. 30 May, 1921.’ (British Library, Or. 8857, endleaf verso [ii-v])
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When this purchase was recorded in the British Museum acquisition register, the fragmentary Arabic manuscript was given the shelfmark Or. 8857 along with a typically brief description: ‘Or. 8857. A fragment of a work on the calendar, followed by some prescriptions. 33ff. XIth. cent. 8o Arabic’. Clearly the manuscript was old – 5thAH/11th AD century according to the acquisition register. But details about its contents were scanty, and nothing was said about its provenance.

Off-white paper divided into three with small boxes on left and right and large one in the centre, all of which are filled with cursive text in the Latin alphabet in black ink
Entry for Or. 8857 in the British Museum acquisition register ( List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034, p. 275 [British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7])
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When the thirty-three paper folios that comprise Or. 8857 entered the British Museum, they were evidently in disarray. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that the folios arrived with a binding, but worse – the sewing that held the quires had disintegrated and the loose bifolia had broken apart along their spine-folds to become individual folios. At some point, probably shortly after their acquisition, all thirty-three folios were mounted on paper guards and sewn into a new binding with little regard to their original order but perhaps preserving the order in which they had arrived at the British Museum.

Off white manuscript folio with two columns of text in black ink in the Arabic script and red stamp with British Museum seal at bottom
The first folio, according to the manuscript’s present arrangement, is not what it seems. Its layout suggests either poetry or two columns of prose but, in fact, it is a list of the planets that rule each hour of the day, and it runs horizontally across the page despite the columns. What appears to be an eastern Arabic five (٥) in the upper left corner – perhaps explaining the western Arabic five in the lower right-hand corner – is actually a Coptic seventy (𐋰), which indicate that this is really not the first but the penultimate folio (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 1r)
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After this conservation work, the manuscript seems to have rested unnoticed until a more complete list of its contents was prepared for the Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library (pp. 353, 357, 385 and 389). But it was not catalogued in detail until it was selected for digitisation for the QDL.


Date and context of production

The manuscript is written in a squat and angular script that has been described as ‘Kufic’. This script is now considered one of a loosely defined group of scripts generically called Abbasid Bookhand because they were developed in the early Abbasid chancery and employed for copying books on both sacred and secular topics from roughly the 3rd/9th to 5th/11th century. They were then replaced by the maghribī script in the extreme west of the Islamic world and by the naskh script almost everywhere else.

Apart from the manuscript’s archaic script and paper, other features help to define the time and place it was copied. Chief amongst these are its quire signatures, numbers that tell the bookbinder the correct order in which to bind the quires that make up a manuscript. In this manuscript two sets of quire signatures are found on the first and last folio of each quire. These quire signatures are written using two separate systems of alphabetic numerical notation: Greek and Georgian. The use of these two numeral systems alongside an Arabic text written in Abbasid Bookhand and featuring the distinctive punctuation marks displayed in this manuscript all attest to the collaboration of multi-ethnic and multilingual artisans in the Syrian, Palestinian and Egyptian monastic scriptoria of the early Abbasid period. The particular combination of quire signatures found here, however, is most typical of the scriptorium of the Monastery of St Catherine, Sinai, especially during the late-4th/10th and early-5th/11th century.

Double page spread of manuscript on off-white paper with writing in Arabic script in black ink, with several features highlighted by red, green and blue circles placed over the text
Opening from the Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azmina), which displays a variety of punctuation and space-filling marks as well as Greek quire signatures (circled in green, Η = 8 right and Θ = 9 left), Georgian quire signatures (circled in red, Ⴆ = 7 lower right and Ⴇ = 9 upper right) and Coptic folio number (circled in blue, 𐋯𐋩 = 69) (British Library, Or. 8857, ff. 10v and 17r)

Or. 8857, ff. 10v:
Or. 8857, ff. 17r:
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Reordering the folios

The quire marks demonstrate that Or. 8857 is a fragment containing the remains of quires 5–9 of a larger original manuscript. But without putting the folios back in their original order, it would be impossible to know how much of each quire has survived. Luckily, each folio also has a number in its head margin. Although these folio numbers are likely to have been added somewhat after the quire signatures, they are early and they also attest to the multilingual context in which the manuscript was produced and consumed since they are written using the Coptic epact alphabetic numerals. The use of these numerals was not restricted to the Coptic community, and they are commonly referred to as ‘register letters’ (ḥurūf al-zimām) since they were favoured by merchants and administrators for use in their registers and account books.

Like the Arabic alphabetic numerals (ḥurūf al-jumal, commonly called abjad) – the numerical values of which happen to be explained on ff. 1v–2r of this manuscript – the Greek, Georgian and Coptic (zimām) alphabetic numeral systems all have a base of ten (unlike Roman numerals, which also have a sub-base of five) and they are additive (unlike Roman numerals, which also subtractive) rather than positional (like Arabic numerals). This means that to write the number 123 in alphabetic numerals, one does not write the letter representing 1 in the hundreds place, 2 in the tens place and 3 in the ones place as done with Arabic numerals. Rather, one writes the letters representing 100 (+) 20 (+) 3.

Table with first column and row in grey background with Greek letters in the central cells
Greek majuscule alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Georgian letters in the central cells
Georgian majuscule (Asomtavruli) alphabetic numerals 1–900

Table with first column and row in grey background with Coptic letters in the central cells
Coptic epact or zimām numerals 1–900

Reading the Coptic (zimām) foliation along with the quire signatures, it becomes clear that Or. 8857 is a fragment of five quaternions (quires 5–9) comprising folios 37–71 of a larger manuscript of unknown extent. Quires 5, 6 and 8 are still complete with eight folios each, while quire 7 is missing the two folios of its inner bifolium, and only the first three folios from quire 9 are preserved.

Five schematic diagrams of thick or hatched blue lines forming concentric c-shaped items flipped so that they are open to the left
Visualisation of the original quire arrangement of the folios in Or. 8857. Historic Coptic (zimām) foliation at left and modern British Museum foliation in brackets at right. Note that the Georgian signatures for quires 7 and 8 are erroneously reversed. (Visualisation produced with Viscodex)
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Diverse monastic reading material

Once we know the original order of the folios, we can see that Or. 8857 contains a variety of texts on subjects more or less obviously suited to the monks of Monastery of St Catherine.

1) Fragment of a Christian prayer (f. 37r–37v [British Museum f. 18r–18v]);

2) Prayer Taken from the Book of the Prophet David (Duʿā mustakhraj min Kitāb Dāwūd al-nabī, ff. 37v–41r [BM ff. 18v–22r]);

3) Prayer Composed by One of the Righteous Christian Believers (Duʿā allafahu baʿḍ al-muʾminīn al-muḥiqqīn min al-Naṣārá, ff. 41r–47v [BM ff. 22r–28v]);

4) Three recipes for incense (ff. 47v–49v [BM ff. 28v–30v]);

5) The Book of Seasons (Kitāb al-azminah, ff. 49v–70v, ff. 56–57 missing [BM ff. 30v–33v, 11r–16v, 3r–10v, 17r–17v, 1r and 1v]);

6) Fragment of an astrological text (ff. 70v-71v [BM ff. 1v-2v]).

The prayers that occupy the first eleven folios are clearly appropriate in a monastic context although certain features may seem jarring to the modern eye. One prayer ends with the invocation ‘O Lord of the Worlds!’ ( yā Rabb al-ʿĀlamīn, f. 18v), for example, and another is preceded by the basmala ( bi-sm Allāh al-Raḥmān al-Raḥīm, f. 22r), both phrases which occur in the Qurʿān and appear distinctly Islamic today. But during this early period, and for centuries after Or. 8857 was copied, these phrases were used in common by the Arabic-speaking adherents of all the Abrahamic faiths. On the other hand, although incense does not necessarily imply church ritual, the Trinitarian formula ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ (bi-sm al-Ab wa-al-Ibn wa-rūḥ al-qudus, f. 28v) at the beginning of the incense recipes attests to their Christian context.

The last two texts in the fragment, however, seem less typical of a monastic library. The Book of Seasons is a sort of almanac containing information about the calendar, the heavens, weather phenomena, human illness and health and agricultural matters as they pertain to the twelve months of the year. This genre of literature, in which titles like the Book of Seasons or the Book of Asterisms ( Kitāb al-anwāʾ) are common, provided important guides for living in harmony with the natural rhythms of the year – especially useful for monastic communities surviving in often harsh and semi-isolated conditions. Indeed, one of the earliest authors of this genre was Abū Zakarīyā Yūḥannā ibn Māsawayh (d. 243/857), a Nestorian Christian hospital director at Baghdad, personal physician to the Abbasid caliphs and teacher of the Nestorian physician and translator Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq (d. 260/873).

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with several words in red ink on off-white paper
Information on the names of the months in Syriac, Greek and Persian from the beginning of the Book of Seasons, preceded by the basmala (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 30v)
CC Public Domain Image

The fragment ends with an anonymous introductory text on astrology, which includes an unusual method for determining a person’s ascendant not by observing their natal horoscope chart, but through numerological analysis of their name and that of their mother. While this text may seem the least appropriate in a monastery, there was considerable legal and theological disagreement about which of the various astrological practices were licit or illicit, and knowledge of the planets' influences on the environment and the human body was generally considered an important part of maintaining good health and wellbeing.


Fragments reunited

A much larger fragment of the same manuscript of which Or. 8857 is also a fragment is now held at the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan under the shelfmark X 201 sup. According to a note by Mons. Enrico Rodolfo Galbiati (Doctor of the Ambrosiana 1953–84, Prefect of the Ambrosiana 1984–89) written in the margin of the Ambrosiana’s copy of Löfgren and Traini’s Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (vol. 1, p. 33), X 201 sup. was amongst a lot purchased in 1910 from an unknown dealer in Munich by Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti, then Prefect of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana (1907-14), but soon to lead the Catholic Church as Pope Pius XI (1922–39).

X 201 sup. has also been digitised and is now available on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, where I stumbled upon it, immediately recognising its similarity to Or. 8857. Like Or. 8857, the Milan manuscript is a miscellany combining Christian material with texts on herbal remedies, medicine, astrology and related topics. Likewise, the same Abbasid Bookhand and number of lines per page are found in both manuscripts. But it is the Greek and Georgian quire signatures alongside Coptic foliation found in both manuscripts that prove they are two pieces of the same puzzle.

According to the Coptic foliation and bilingual quire signatures, Or. 8857 contains ff. 37–71 (ff. 56 and 57 are missing) of the original manuscript, and its last quire signature is 9 on f. 17r (f. 69r of the Coptic foliation). The Milan manuscript contains 227 folios (beginning at ff. 97 and ending at f. 337 of the Coptic foliation, with some gaps), and its first quire signature is 13 on f. 101r (f. 5r of the modern Ambrosiana foliation).

We know that the quires in Or. 8857 were quaternions, which have eight folios each, so we would expect the Milan manuscript to be composed of quaternions too – although it should be pointed out that irregular quires are not unusual in manuscripts. Between the beginning of quire 9 (the last in Or. 8857) and the beginning of quire 13 (the first to begin in the Milan manuscript) there were four quires, which if they were all regular quaternions, should equal thirty-two folios (4 quires x 8 folios in each quire = 32 folios). When we count from the beginning of quire 9 on f. 69 of the Coptic foliation and to the end of quire 12 on f. 100 there are, indeed, exactly thirty-two folios, confirming that the two manuscripts are fragments from the same original manuscript.

Even though 77 folios have been lost from the original manuscript (ff. 1–36, 56–57 and 72–96 of the Coptic foliation, plus another 14 within the body of X 201 sup.), a very substantial 260 folios have now been identified, and this will no doubt form the basis for future studies into Abbasid scientific traditions amongst Christian monastic communities.

Thanks to international digitisation projects, the magic of IIIF, and the Mirador viewer there are fewer barriers than ever before to studies of this kind. In fact, anyone with a computer and access to the internet can virtually reunite the two fragments of this manuscript by following the steps below.

1) Navigate to X 201 sup. on the Ambrosiana’s Biblioteca Digitale, and click on the words ‘Visualizza la copia digitale’. The images will open in the Mirador viewer via your web browser. Open the dropdown menu at the top left corner of the viewer window and choose a location in the viewer window at which to display Or. 8857.

A screen shot showing the cover of a book with a red binding, with thumbnails of pages on the bottom, and the file menu in the top left hand corner dropped down and highlighted in a red box with rounded edges

2) You will now see that a blank canvas has opened at your chosen location.

Screen shot with a book with a red binding atop thumbnails of pages on the left-hand side and a dark grey area with a red-outlined oval on the right-hand side

3) In another browser window, navigate to any page on the QDL displaying images of Or. 8857 and expand the tab marked ‘Use and Share this Record’.

Screen shot showing a white page with thumbnails of book spines in the centre and text on the bottom third, some of which is on a grey background. The lowest grey background is inside an oval outlined in red

4) Under the heading ‘IIIF details’, locate the IIIF logo next to the IIIF manifest for Or. 8857, drag the logo to the Mirador window in your web browser and drop it anywhere on the blank canvas (see step 2).

Screen shot with a black banner at the top and text with a grey background in the middle, with some of the text highlighted by lines and hollow boxes in red and light blue

5) Alternatively, you can copy the IIIF manifest ( located next to the IIIF logo on the screen in step 4 and click on the blank canvas in the Mirador viewer (see step 2). This will open the screen below, where you can paste the IIIF manifest into the field marked ‘Add new object from URL’ and click ‘Load’.

Screen shot showing a primarily white screen with a series of thumbnails of manuscript pages on the top third of the screen

6) You can now use the dropdown menus to choose how you would like to view each of the manuscripts and even repeat the steps above to add more canvases and view other IIIF compliant objects at the same time.

Screen shot of a black background with a matrix of thumbnails showing various pages of manuscripts

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

Thanks to Dr Adrien de Fouchier, OP (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) and Dr Stefano Serventi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) for their generous help and advice with my research for this blog.


Chrisomalis, Stephen, Numerical Notation: A Comparative History (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), pp. 135–37, table 5.1 (Greek and Georgian); 139, table 5.3 (Greek); 150, table 5.5 (Coptic/ zimām, the numerals for 600 [𐋸] and 700 [𐋹] are erroneously reversed) and 178, table 5.20 (Georgian)

Ifrah, Georges, The Universal History of Numbers from Prehistory to the Invention of the Computer , trans. by D. Bellos, E.F. Harding, S. Wood and I. Monk (New York–Chichester–Weinheim–Brisbane–Singapore–Toronto: John Wiley & Sons, 2000), pp. 220 (Greek), 225 (Georgian), and 545 (Coptic/zimām),

Kawatoko, Mutsuo, ‘On the Use of Coptic Numerals in Egypt in the 16th Century’, Orient 28 (1992) 71, fig. 3 (helpfully, gives variant forms for most numerals)

List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034 (British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7)

Löfgren, Oscar and Renato Traini,Catalogue of the Arabic Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, 3 vols, Fontes Ambrosiani LI, LXVI and Nuova Serie II (Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 1975–95) vol. 1, item 33, pp. 33–35

Pataridze, Tamara, ‘Les Signatures des cahiers unilingues et bilingues dans les manuscrits Sinaïtiques (Georgiens, Arabes et Syriaques)’, Manuscripta Orientalia 18.1 (2012) 15–35

Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library, compiled by Peter Stocks, ed. by Colin Baker (London: British Library, 2001)

Varisco, Daniel, ‘The Origin of the Anwāʾ in Arab Tradition’, Studia Islamica 74 (1991) 5–28

12 April 2021

An enigmatic Javanese manuscript in the British Library: Sĕrat Jaya Lĕngkara, Add 12310

Today's blog is by guest writer Dr Dick van der Meij, Liaison Officer and Academic Advisor for the Digital Repository of Endangered and Affected Manuscripts in Southeast Asia (DREAMSEA), programme, University of Hamburg.

One of the crucial problems in philology is deciding whether a manuscript is a new creation or an attempt to create a faithful copy of an already existing text, but it is often hard or even impossible to solve this problem because of a lack of information either in the manuscript itself or from external sources. One of the clues that may help solve this puzzle are the mistakes and corrections the scribe or others have made in the manuscript, either at the time of composing/copying, or at a later stage. Another clue may be the actual number of mistakes: if only a few errors are found it may either be due to the faithful copying of an existing manuscript, or the sign of an expert composer who made very few mistakes while creating the text (see Van der Meij 2017, Ch. 5). Combinations are, of course, also possible, and part of a manuscript text may be copied while other parts may be new or partly new creations. Another thing that can help to understand the production process is an assessment of other manuscripts made in the same culture. Some of these philological issues will be explored through the study of errors and their corrections in an early 19th century Javanese manuscript in the British Library, Sĕrat Jaya Lengkara, Add 12310.

Illuminated page at the start of a new canto. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 128v.
Illuminated page at the start of a new canto. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 128v.

This manuscript of Sĕrat Jaya Lengkara was first identified correctly by Ben Arps in the book Golden Letters (1991). The brief description in the catalogue by Ricklefs and Voorhoeve (1977) wrongly describes it as the poem Sĕrat Gondakusuma, and does not mention one of the most interesting aspects of the manuscript: that it is absolutely loaded with clearly indicated mistakes and corrections.

The manuscript starts with various pages that are clearly try-outs, some in a different hand. The text ends abruptly with three pages written up-side-down with two unfinished and uncoloured decorations, while the last inscribed page consists of jottings. The many errors (visible on virtually every page) are clearly marked, mostly scratched though with one to three black lines and provided with wavy red lines above, as will be clear from the illustrations below. The large number of mistakes make me think that this manuscript is perhaps a trial attempt by a person in training to become a professional scribe? At the same time, the manuscript contains many detailed illuminations and canto dividers. This combination of fine decorations and a bewildering number of clearly indicated errors will need to be explained some other time.

Illuminated canto indicator in the form of a mermaid. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 181v.
Illuminated canto indicator in the form of a mermaid. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 181v. Noc

We will have a closer look at this manuscript of the Sĕrat Jaya Lĕngkara and see if we can make sense of the way the scribe worked. We will start with mistakes in single letters (in Javanese called aksara and pasangan, consonants with added vowel sign) or parts thereof, and continue with larger mistakes.

Mistakes in single letters

Add 12310, f. 85r: anangkil. Just before the aksara /la/ at the end of the word the scribe noticed that he had started it in the wrong way, and so he struck it through with two black lines.
Add 12310, f. 85ranangkil. Just before the aksara /la/ at the end of the word the scribe noticed that he had started it in the wrong way, and so he struck it through with two black lines.

Add 12310, f. 115r.  Kakang dipati.The word dipati was started with the aksara /pa/ which was wrong, and so the scribe scribbled it out and placed a red error mark above, and the word started again with /di/.
Add 12310, f. 115rKakang dipati.The word dipati was started with the aksara /pa/ which was wrong, and so the scribe scribbled it out and placed a red error mark above, and the word started again with /di/.

 Add 12310, f. 114v: nĕmbah aturipun. After nĕmbah the scribe started with the aksara /ma/.
Add 12310, f. 114vnĕmbah aturipun. After nĕmbah the scribe started with the aksara /ma/. For a certain reason he crossed it out and put the aksara /ha/ under it making it aturipun rather than maturipun, which is interesting as it means the same and also does not violate the poetic rules of the sentence. It may have been seen after the writing process was finished as there is no red line above.

The scribe thought he was going to write tannana, but when he realized it was wrong he had to cross out both the aksara and pasangan /na/ with red ink, and repeat the aksara /na/ and added pasangan /ka/ beneath with the vowel sign /ĕ/.
Add 12310, f. 113vmantri tan kĕna ingetung. The scribe thought he was going to write tannana, but when he realized it was wrong he had to cross out both the aksara and pasangan /na/ with red ink, and repeat the aksara /na/ and added pasangan /ka/ beneath with the vowel sign /ĕ/.

Add 12310, 109r: karasa ing tangani wong (line two in the illustration)
Add 12310, 109rkarasa ing tangani wong (line two in the illustration). The scribe noticed he had forgotten the aksara /sa/ in karasa and added it above. He inadvertently repeated nni, which he crossed out, but then thought he was writing tanganira which again was wrong, causing him to scribble out the aksara /ra/ and add wang, forcing him to extend into the margin.

A plethora of these errors of essentially single letters occurs, and also of single vowel signs. The fact that these errors were seen by the scribe during the inscription process means that he or she was aware of what was being written, but does not offer a clue about whether or not the text is a new creation or a copy.

Larger errors

In the first line a verse line was added going into the right margin
Add 12310, f. 7r.  In the first line a verse line was added going into the right margin. The next line has two verse lines crossed out and provided with red lines. The correct lines followed to address the mistake. The first mistake ends in ing mang and continued in the next line with ka gene. The vowel sign /e/ was omitted at the end of in the second line. By erasing both lines and adding the correct text in the right margin this error was addressed.

In this particular case the scribe noticed the error when he or she had already completed this section, and therefore was unable to address the mistake within the text block, and so had to resort to adding text in the margin. Examples of this process are found in many places in the manuscript.

07-Screenshot_2021-03-09 The British Library MS Viewer(18) 90r
Add 12310, f. 90r.  An entire verse line is crossed out and red error marks added on top. The line starts with rĕspati which is the first word of the second line in the stanza that follows. The words angĕmbat madya are the last words of the second line of the stanza that precedes it, which starts with lumampah angĕmbat madya. The scribe seems to have glanced at a page and combined two parts of different verse lines into one, but noticed it in time to correct the mistake. Perhaps this means that in this and similar cases the text was indeed copied from a source, because otherwise the scribe’s eyes could not have wandered over the page. 

Two lines in the stanza had been forgotten and were added in the top margin.
Add 12310, f. 92r.   Two lines in the stanza had been forgotten and were added in the top margin. It is preceded by a mark that is repeated in line three of this illustration to indicate where it should be added. This addition means that the scribe was only aware of the omission when he was already further on in the writing process.

In the instances of errors above it is not clear whether the scribe was copying a text, or creating one him or herself. The mistakes could be the result of a scribe knowledgeable in text production and he or she may have noticed omissions because of the requirements of the verse meters. Something of an altogether more complicated nature occurs when whole stanzas were rejected. When they were rejected because they were repetitions it may point to a copying process. However, this is not what we see in this manuscript as no indication can be found why a stanza was rejected and the issue thus becomes more complicated.

Erasures of whole stanzas

A full stanza was rejected because the eye had jumped from one sentence to the next causing a mistake
Add 12310, f. 175r. A full stanza was rejected because the eye had jumped from one sentence to the next causing a mistake. The first erased line runs pun uwa maos pati kabranan which is a combination of the start in the first line in the stanza in the correct version which runs pun maos and the third line that starts with pun uwa. The scribe saw this error in time to correct it.

An entire stanza was crossed out and red lines added above
Add. 12310, f. 93r. An entire stanza was crossed out and red lines added above. Why it is wrong is a puzzle. It is not a repetition of a stanza before or after it, or indeed anywhere to be found in its vicinity.

The last line of the stanza was written no fewer than three times, of which two were deemed wrong, while the third was accepted.
Add. 12310, f. 61v. The last line of the stanza was written no fewer than three times, of which two were deemed wrong, while the third was accepted. To make things even more clear, each letter in the incorrect line was provided with the vowel sign /i/ making the letters unreadable because many carry two vowels. This is a way of indicating corrections that we see in carefully executed copies but in this manuscript only in a few cases.

Other types of errors

In this case, corrections have been made in the margin, and then they too were rejected and marked as wrong
Add 12310, f. 94r. In this case, corrections have been made in the margin, and then they too were rejected and marked as wrong.

A new canto has started in the second line in this illustration, but the first stanza was rejected, and was crossed out with red error lines added above
Add. 12310, f. 121v. A new canto has started in the second line in this illustration, but the first stanza was rejected, and was crossed out with red error lines added above. To make things quite clear, a new decorative canto indicator (pepadan) was repeated, and coloured with the name of the poetic metre puh nila wisuda which is apparently an alternative name for the metre mijil. It is not clear where the erased text comes from as it has not been encountered elsewhare in this manuscript.

This is one of the rare occasions when a correction was made in another hand in the margin.
Add 12310, f. 171r. This is one of the rare occasions when a correction was made in another hand in the margin.


The copy of the Sĕrat Jaya Lĕngkara under discussion is an enigmatic manuscript. Even though it contains many fine illustrations, it is literally littered with minor and major mistakes that were addressed by the scribe and others. This combination of many textual errors with finely executed illuminations is a curious phenomenon and needs more detailed research as to why this happened. The fact that the scribe was aware of the traditional unobstructive way of indicating mistakes, but only used this occasionally in favour of crude crossings-out, suggests to me that the resulting manuscript was not intended to be a cherished final product.

Decorations on a nautical theme. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 19v.
Illustrations on a nautical theme. British Library, Add. 12310, f. 19v. Noc

Annabel Teh Gallop with Bernard Arps, Golden letters: writing traditions of Indonesia. Surat emas: budaya tulis di Indonesia. London: British Library; Jakarta: Lontar, 1991.
Dick van der Meij, Indonesian manuscripts from the islands of Java, Madura, Bali and Lombok. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
M.C. Ricklefs and P. Voorhoeve, Indonesian manuscripts in Great Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Dick van der Meij Ccownwork


29 March 2021

Tomayto, Tomahto: Identifying Azerbaijani Manuscripts in the British Library Collections

Manuscript page with half-page painting in full colour of a man and woman in traditional Azerbaijani dress seated on the grass amidst various lively flora and fauna, with two columns of Arabic-script text above and below, surrounded by a thin red border with a thick gilt border around the entire page
An illustration of a dream sequence featuring two individuals seated in a garden from a 16th-century recension of the story of Layla and Majnun in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 97r)
CC Public Domain Image

As a Canadian in London, one thing that makes me roll my eyes is being asked to say the word “about”. Everyone expects me to exhibit what’s known as Canadian raising, where those of us from Southern Ontario say the word as if it were spelled “aboot”. People have a good chuckle, and I grumpily insist we don’t do that in Toronto, and then we go on our merry ways. It’s not really all that important, but it does make me think, sometimes, about the assumption that English words are meant to be read one and one way only. Perhaps “about” should sound like “aboot”; and “caught” and “cot” should be distinct from one another; and “think” and “fink” really ought to be homonyms. What about going the other way, from writing into speech? If I write “about”, how do you know I didn’t mean for it to be pronounced “aboot”? For London to be heard as Lundon? Or that “breed!” is actually an instruction for you to breathe? In truth, our assumptions about these choices say more about our own backgrounds and prejudices than we care to reveal. The same can be said about many other linguistic communities, both historic and current, around the globe. In the Turkic collections, a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon appears in our holdings of Azerbaijani manuscripts.

Page of printed text primarily in Arabic script with some Cyrillic script, arranged in three columns beneath a large black-ink masthead featuring Arabic calligraphy
The first page of the newspaper Nicat (Salvation), published in Azerbaijani in Arabic script during the Tsarist period. (Nicat, 1:1 (Baku: Nicat Qiraatxanǝsi, 20 November 1910). ORB.30/342)
CC Public Domain Image

It wouldn’t be one of my blogs if it didn’t start off with some sort of caveat. So, let’s get it out of the way. I use the term “ Azerbaijani” broadly in line with Euro-Atlantic linguistics: to denote a Turkic language of the Oghuz sub-branch that is closely related to Istanbul Turkish , and that is spoken in the Caucasus (especially the Republic of Azerbaijan) and in northwestern Iran. In English, we also have recourse to the shortcut Azeri, which usually means the Turkic language Azerbaijani. But Azeri might also mean Old Azeri or Azari, a now-dormant Western Iranian language from the same region that might be linked genetically to Tati or Talysh. In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the official name of the language is Azərbaycan dili (“Azerbaijan language"), but it can also be called Azərbaycanca (making use of the -ca/cə language suffix), or, less frequently, Azəricə. In this region, Azerbaijani was largely written in the Arabic script until the early 20th century, when the Soviet authorities first imposed the Latin-based Uniform alphabet in the late 1920s, and then a modified Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s. In 1991, the year in which complete independence was achieved, the Republic of Azerbaijan officially adopted the Latin script for the language.

The world-renown Iranian singer Googoosh performing the Azerbaijani folk song Ayrılıq in Azerbaijani. 
(©VestiKavkaza, uploaded to YouTube). 

South of the border, in Iran, the term “Azeri” usually refers to the old Iranian language and not the Turkic one. Here, the preferred terminology is Torki (ترکی, in Persian) or Türkçǝ (تۆرکجه, in Azerbaijani), and the dominant script is a modified Arabic one. While the varieties spoken in the Caucasus and Iran are distinct dialects, they do form a single linguistic grouping, relying on many common grammatical and lexical features, and share a common linguistic history. Speakers of the language in Iran vastly outnumber those in the Caucasus (perhaps 13 million to just over 9 million in the Republic, according to the CIA World Factbook as quoted on Wikipedia). Azerbaijani is not an official language in Iran, but can be found fairly frequently online and in printed media. Turkic-speakers have long been integrated into broader Iranian society, and many notable personalities in Iranian history come from Turkic backgrounds: Shah Ismail I; Ahmad Kasravi; and yes, even the world-renowned singer, Queen of contemporary Persian pop, Googoosh.

Stylized image of soldier in Soviet infantry uniform in red, gray, black and white, which detail in his face only, an colour blocking for rest of the image. Bold black text in Latin script is found on the left and top margins of the page
The cover of a periodical produced in Baku, Azerbaijan in the 1930s featuring the Latin alphabet imposed by Soviet authorities between 1927 and the late 1930s. (InqilaB vǝ Mǝdǝnijjǝt, 1-2 (Baku: AzǝriNǝshr, 1934). ITA.1986.c.18(9))
CC Public Domain Image

As always, there are considerable political implications to the choice of terminology. My intention here is to mirror common Anglophone usage of the terminology, not to promote a particular movement or point of view. That said, the question arises: what makes something an “Azerbaijani” manuscript? The British Library holds some 7 manuscripts that can be described as containing texts in Azerbaijani. All of these are in an Arabic orthography that mirrors Ottoman Turkish quite closely, leaving Arabic words in their original spellings and marking only some vowels in non-Arabic words. This might make it seem as though telling Ottoman and Azerbaijani apart would be impossible, but there are a few clues. One of the easiest is the use of a syllable final -x (like the ch in loch) where Ottoman Turkish would have a -k. Çok “many” or “very” in Turkish becomes çox in Azerbaijani, and bakmak “to look” in Turkish is baxmaq in Azerbaijani, for example. Turkish employs the suffix -iyor for the present continuous, while Azerbaijani uses -ir. And, after the 16th century, Turkish uses only the suffix -miş for the perfective, while Azerbaijani has both -miş and -ip (in the 2nd and 3rd persons). There are, of course, other tells in terms of phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, but these are usually the easiest. And they help clue us in, broadly speaking, to how to pronounce those undifferentiated spellings of Arabic words I mentioned up above.

Zoomed image of painting of bare-chested man seating among a collection of different animals in a river-side setting, in full colour. Above and below the image is Arabic-script text in black ink arranged into two columns with a thin red border inside a thicker gilt border
An illustration of Mǝcnun amongst animals from an illustrated 16th-century manuscript in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijani, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 73r)
CC Public Domain Image

So what, exactly, do these manuscripts comprise? Usually literary works, but there are also a few historical items as well. Undoubtedly, the most awe-inspiring item is Or 405, Füzulî’s Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, copied in 1075 AH (1664 CE). This is Füzulî’s own recension of the classical tale, and one that he admits to having translated from a Persian source on the behest of his friends in Istanbul. This bit of information is important, as it shows how Azerbaijani functioned as a literary medium independently of Ottoman (or Istanbul) Turkish, permitting the translation and adaptation of texts from other languages in its own right. The copy held by the Library is a spectacular specimen of the tale, as it is accompanied by vivid and bright illustrations that relate to the stories found within the text. There are some lovely examples of Leyli in a graveyard and Mecnun among animals, all of which combine a simplicity of line and feature with motion and bright colours. And Or 405 also contains more than a few examples of the linguistic features that help us distinguish dialects, whether the presence of çox and yox (written چوخ and یوخ ), or the preponderance of -ip forms throughout.

Page tinted salmon with gold flecks, featuring an ornately decorative sun motife in gold, red, blue, black and pink, with geometric and floral illumination on its interior, and thin, ornate rays in black emanating from the sunSalmon-tinted page with gold flecks featuring two columns of Arabic-script text inside a text box, with ornate geometrical illumination in a semi-circle pattern atop a thick band, at the top of the page. Illumination features gold, blue, red, black and green inks
The şemse or sun motif (left) and opening text with unvan (right) of the Divan-i Xǝtai, exemplifying the lush illumination found throughout the volume. (Xǝtai, Divan-i Xǝtai, Iran or Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 3380, ff 2r-v)
CC Public Domain Image

Or 405 is the only illustrated manuscript in Azerbaijani held at the British Library, but it is by no means the only beautifully constructed volume in the language. Or 3380, the Divan-i Xǝtai, is a 16th century copy of the collected poetry of Shah Ismail I, whose poetic pseudonym or mahlas was Xǝtai/Khaṭā’ī (خطائى). The work’s imperial connections are made apparent by the beautiful gold artistry and calligraphy employed throughout the volume. Shah Ismail was of mixed heritage and grew up speaking both Azerbaijani and Persian. Supported by various Turkic communities, he rose to power by defeating the Aq Qoyunlu confederation, and established the Safavid Empire, becoming Shah of Iran in 1501 CE. Ismail I is famous for many different reasons, including the imposition of Twelver Shi’ism as the official religion of his Empire, but he was also a renown poet in his own right. This confluence of political and literary prestige is undoubtedly the reason why his mahlas is written in gold throughout the work. Its entire construction is impressive; an example of luxury bookmaking in Safavid Iran. But so too is the poetry, which addresses both temporal and sacred love.

Page of Arabic-script text in black ink arranged in two columns
A folio of text from another recension of the story of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun in Azerbaijani, not composed by Füzulî. (Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Iran?, 18th century CE. Add MS 7936)
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The rest of the Azerbaijani items in the British Library’s holdings are not nearly as spectacular as Or 405 and Or 3380, but they do merit attention. The fourth text of Add MS 7936 is another version of Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun copied in the 18th century CE. This piece was written by an unnamed poet (not Füzulî), who appears to have made use of some of the Persian versions of the story to craft their own work in the 16th century CE. While the calligraphy and lack of illumination makes this a rather plain and run-of-the-mill text, the copyist’s alternation between one and two columns, prose and poetry, does provide an additional element of interest for those curious about the Azerbaijani literary set-up of the period.

Page of text in Arabic script in black ink with occasional words written in red ink
The densely packed script of the Tarix-i Sam or Samname, with the addition (?) of punctuation and Persian text in red. (Tarix-i Sam, Iran?, 1265 AH [1848-49 CE]. Or 11130, f 236v)
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The other three texts in the Arabic script are all translations, glosses or paraphrases of earlier Persian works, once again highlighting just how closely linked the history of Azerbaijani literature is to that of its Iranic neighbours. By and large, these are historical texts revolving around the lives and experiences of notable people, real or imagined. Or 11130, Tarix-i Sam İbn-i Nǝriman, also known as the Samname, for example, is an Azerbaijani rendition of a legendary history prepared for a meddah, or traditional storyteller, based on an earlier Persian version. The Samname derives from the Shāh-nāmah (and so includes stories of Rustam) and can be found in its Persian original in other British Library manuscripts, including Or 2926. The opening of the work is in Persian, but then continues into an Azerbaijani dialect in an orthography that departs slightly from what we would normally expect based on the other texts found in the British Library collections. I have banged on about this before (particularly when looking at Chagatai manuscripts), but it remains to be seen whether these idiosyncrasies reflect dialectal differences, or just the personal choices of Muhǝmmǝd Rıza İbn-i Mǝrhum Molla Abdurrıza, the manuscript’s copyist.

Or 5772, in contrast to the Samname, deals with the life and miracles of Şeyh Safi, a 13th century CE Kurdish Sufi mystic and poet from Ardabil, a city that has long had a heavy concentration of Turkic speakers. This 16th century manuscript also provides a fairly thorough account of the rules and precepts of the Safavid Order of Sufis. This particular text raises a different set of questions, ones not related to language. Translations in many of the Ottoman and Azerbaijani works can create issues of citation and attribution. Some translators make clear reference to their source text, while others don’t. Perhaps text compilers might have sampled heavily from a number of different works by the same author, or maybe they constructed paraphrases or compilations of various works, all with the same title or dealing with the same issue, but by different authors. Whatever the case, these items, among which Or 5772 should be classed, cannot always be matched to an original source text. The item in hand, for example, might be related to the Persian work Maqalāt va Maqāmāt by Şeyh Safi, but we will only know for certain when greater research is conducted on it.

Page of text in Arabic script written in black ink arranged in two columnsPage of Arabic-script text in black in with geometric illumination band in centre, flanked by two triangles, under text in red ink
Initial text (left) and the colophon (right) from the Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, along with the start of a Persian-language text at the end of the colophon. (Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, Iran?, 1199 AH [1784-85 CE]. Or 9839, f 2r and f 95v)
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We have a bit more luck with Or 9839, Kitab-i Baxtiyarnamǝ, which, as you might have guessed, is an Azerbaijani gloss of the 12th-13th century Persian work Bakhtiyār-nāmah. This tale, which follows a familiar pattern of a captive telling stories in order to delay their eventual execution, can be found in a variety of versions. Further investigation is needed on Or 9839, therefore, to determine the source text of the translation, and the Azerbaijani gloss’ connection to other recensions. This process is eased by the fact that the text of the Baxtiyarnamǝ also contains occasional interlinear glosses in Persian, which might be the original source text. These follow a pattern seen in other bilingual or multilingual works, in which one language (Azerbaijani) is written using nesih, while another (Persian) can be found in nestalik. The beginning and end of the volume feature much more wear and tear than the body of the text, and a number of smudged ownership seals can be found on f 98r. Combined with the fact that someone appears to have added ᶜUbayd-i Zākānī’s mesnevi Qiṣṣa-i Sangtarāsh on ff 95v-98r (maybe the copyist of the manuscript, Molla Muhamməd Rəsul vələd-i Muhamməd, himself?), it’s clear that this manuscript created in 1199 AH (1784-85 CE) was well-used, if not also well-loved, by its owners and readers.

Manuscripts are fascinating sources for the study of literature, history, language, religion and politics. They are also documents that link past generations with current and future ones, and help to preserve cultural heritage. The Azerbaijani-language manuscript collection at the British Library is small in number, but it does present an opportunity to fulfil both aspects of manuscripts’ potential usefulness. By identifying and describing them sensitively, these treasures can be made discoverable to scholars from around the world. They also become more accessible to Azerbaijani-speakers not engaged in scholarly research, and more amenable to be reintegrated into the evolution and articulation of their identities, wherever they might find themselves. Thanks to these processes, we might finally figure out just how the gilded words they contain were really meant to sound.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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For more information on the characteristics of various Turkic languages and dialects, see:

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

08 February 2021

Boys, Boys, Boys: Enderunlu Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname

In June 2019, I shared with you the British Library’s beautifully illustrated copy of the Hamse-yi Atayi, which included copious illustrations of same-sex desire. In that post, I had the opportunity to tease out how we see and interpret homosexual love and sex in pre-modern Ottoman literature, and what that says about our worldview today. Of course, Atayi’s Hamse is far from the only work of Ottoman literature that speaks to this topic. I would be remiss if I did not make use of LGBT+ History Month to highlight another item that helps queer our collections.

Painted image of a park scene inside a palace with women and men in 18th century Ottoman dress engaged in various leisure activities, including conversation and music, with a body of water in the background
A view of Palace activities in the late 18th century taken from an illustrated copy of Enderunlu Fazıl Bey's Zenanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Zenanname, 1190 AH [1776-77 CE], Turkey. Or 7094, f 7r) 
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Frequent readers and fans of our blog might remember Dr. Sunil Sharma’s particularly popular post from November 2016 on the Zenanname, an Ottoman Turkish book on the women of the world penned by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey. The Zenanname is far from a work of women’s lib or a celebration of female feats and triumphs. Rather, it encapsulates an essentialist take on the characteristics of various women, their weaknesses and strengths, and constructs rigid typologies around class and country. Exceptionally misogynist at times, this literary piece was clearly destined for male readers. As Dr. Sharma points out, the Zenanname is actually a companion piece to the Hubanname, an earlier work by Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, which discusses the qualities of the beautiful young men of the world. This latter poem falls into a category of literature known as the şehrengiz, works on the beauties of various cities.

Who was Enderunlu Fazıl Bey? Although no definitive date can be found for his birth, he is believed to have been born in the 1750s or 60s in the city of Akka, Liwa of Safad, Ottoman Palestine (today Acre, Israel) to a family both well-placed in the Ottoman bureaucracy, and with a rebellious streak against central authority. His given name was Hüseyin, but he took the mahlas or poetic pseudonym Fazıl, as well as the qualifier Enderunlu or Enderunî because of his education in the Enderun. This was the interior court of the Ottoman imperial bureaucracy, destined to service the imperial family, and was located inside Topkapı Palace. He was ejected from the Palace in 1783-84 for his behaviour and spent more than a decade in destitution in Istanbul before seeking out Selim III’s beneficence. He wrote poetry to curry the Sultan’s favour, and also took positions in Aleppo, Erzurum and Rhodes. It was in this last location that Fazıl Bey lost his sight, which eventually resulted in his return to Istanbul, where he died in 1810. His grave can today be found in the municipality of Eyüp.

A page of text in Arabic script written in rık'a calligraphy in two columns in black ink
The opening of a combined version of the Hubanname and the Çenginame, a work on the male dancers of Istanbul. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7093, f 1v)
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What was the behaviour that resulted in Fazıl Bey’s expulsion from the Palace? Sabahattin’s article in the Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi claims it was “addiction” or "fixations" (“düşkünlük”) and "love affairs" ("aşk maceraları"). Love and eroticism, indeed, are key themes in his poetry, and large motivators for his fame today as a poet. This history of same-sex desire is part of the reason for the poet’s appropriation today by some LGBTQI activists in Turkey, as well as the interest of various Ottoman literary scholars in Turkey and abroad. The Hubanname is perhaps the best example of this orientation in Fazıl Bey’s work.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The opening text of Fazıl Bey's Hubanname. ([Collected Works of Fazıl Bey Enderuni], 19th century, Turkey. Or 7095, ff 47v-48r)
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The British Library holds three copies of the Hubanname text. It can be found in Or 7093 and Or 7095, both of which are collections of Fazıl Bey’s works, as well as Or 7083, a mecmua also containing the works of Atıf Mustafa Efendi and Hazık Mehmet Erzurumi. Sadly, none of the British Library’s holdings are illustrated, which provides a disappointing contrast to both the exquisite illustrations of the Zenanname (Or 7094), and to the paintings in copies of the Hubanname in other collections. For those readers who understand Turkish, there is a wonderful video from December 2019 of Dr. Selim S. Kuru describing and analyzing a number of images from the copy held at the Library of İstanbul Üniversitesi. The text-heavy works present in the British Library collections were all bequeathed by E. J. W. Gibb, whose six-volume A History of Ottoman Poetry has long been a foundational text for Anglophone studies of Ottoman literature. As Sharma has pointed out, Gibb was not a fan of Fazıl Bey’s skill as a poet, but he did give him credit for the originality of his work, and for the use and adaptation of popular poetry within his own oeuvre.

Gibb’s lack of appreciation is far from surprising, especially when we consider his disdain for Atayi’s bawdy tales. This disapproval, nonetheless, is hard to square with our own sensibilities or, perhaps, those of Fazıl Bey’s contemporaries. As Dr. İrvin Cemil Schick explains, homoerotic themes were far from rare in Ottoman literature, including descriptions of sexual acts, which are absent from the current work. The author’s decision to depart from the usual şehrengiz template and to describe the young men of the world by ethnicity and characteristics, on the other hand, is both his claim to fame, and the area in which Fazıl Bey might have found himself in hot water today. For several years, intense discussion within the gay community, as well as other groups under the LGBTQI umbrella, have focused on the prevalence and impact of implicit and explicit racism. Some of the descriptions included in the Hubanname would be sure to raise eyebrows, even if the ridiculousness of the broad brush strokes employed might also elicit a few chuckles.

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
The end of the description of Jewish men, and the one on Roma youths, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 54v-55r)
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In his presentation, Kuru focuses on the Hubanname’s exposition of the young men of Istanbul, where Greeks, Armenians and Jews are the first up for examination. Fazıl Bey is much taken with Greek men, claiming that they are the most beautiful of their peers. Nonetheless, these “roses” have peculiar accents, and their pronounced sibilants and confusion between sīn and shīn leave much to be desired. Armenians come next, charming Casanovas of the capital, followed up by Jewish men, who feel the poet’s particular wrath. While some light-skinned Jews take his fancy, our wily and fickle ways, and, apparently, horniness, make us “enemies to all nations”. Afterwards come the Roma, whose young men, with their dark features, are pretty, lithe, musically-inclined, commercially-oriented, and totally untrustworthy; which is why, Fazıl Bey tells us, they are unsuited to love. The list of Istanbul’s communities continues: Rumelians, Tatars, Bosniaks, Albanians, Georgians, and Circassians. These are surrounded, both before and after, by descriptions of men from other communities outside of Istanbul: Persians, Baghdadis, Damascenes (faces white as wax), Hejazis, Moroccans, Algerians (iron-hard, whether young or old), Ethiopians (lusty, strong, and charming), Black men (diamonds, coral, eyes of love), Frenchmen, Englishmen, Russians, Germans, Spaniards (each one exceptional in his beauty), and even the Indigenous peoples of the Americas (big-mouthed and wide-faced).

Double-page spread of text in black ink in Arabic script arranged in two columns per page, with headers in red ink
Description of Black men and Ethiopian ones, from the Hubanname. (Enderunlu Fazıl Bey, Hubanname, 1210 AH [1795 CE], Turkey. Or 7083, ff 43v-44r)
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Fazıl Bey’s sharp-tongued review of the gifts and flaws of the world’s most beautiful young men feels like a late 18th-century Ottoman drag act, complete with the zingers you’d expect from a vicious queen taking hold of the stage for an evening’s roast. They could be dismissed as mere fun, or even as personal preference. But the truth is that some of his phrasing and stereotyping cuts close to home for those of us who have been both victims and guilty of the typecasting and casual racism of the gay dating scene. As much as Fazıl Bey’s Hubanname is a testament to the forms of same-sex desire in different times and places, it’s also a showcase of how sex, stereotype, and prejudice can easily blend into one hot sticky mess.

This LGBT+ History Month, revisiting the Hubanname lets us delve into the history of same-sex desire in the Ottoman Empire. It can also help us reflect on the power dynamics encoded in our own gaze. Enderunlu Fazıl Bey might have been maligned for his sexuality, but he was also still part of the Ottoman elite. His work, and others like it, is an opportunity for us all to problematize the boundary between predilection and prejudice, preference and persuasion. At the end of the day, love is love, and sex is sex, and they should be available to all, without detriment to one’s dignity or human worth.

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

Çil, Okan, “Osmanlı'nın eşcinsel şairi: Enderunlu Fâzıl”, Duvar Gazete, 21 October 2019. Last accessed: 10 January 2020. <>

Kücük, Sabahattin, “Enderunlu Fâzıl: Mahallîleşme eğilimini ileri bir safhaya götüren divan şairi”, Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. Last accessed: 6 January 2021. <>

Schick, İrvin Cemil, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” The Turkish Studies Association Journal, 28:1/2 (2004), pp. 81-103. <>

For the Ottoman History Podcast based on Schick’s study of eroticism in Ottoman literature, see here.

Yılmaz, Ozan, “Enderunlu Fazıl Divanı’nda Yahudilikle İlgili Unsurlar ve Andnâme-i Yehûdî-Beçe”, Türkbilig, 22 (2011), pp. 1-30. <>

The Hubanname was most recently published in translation into modern Turkish by SEL Yayncılık. The work was translated by Reşit İmrahor, an alias that has been employed by a number of authors and translators for more than 30 years.

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