Asian and African studies blog

24 posts categorized "Manuscripts"

13 June 2019

Same-Sex Relations in an 18th century Ottoman Manuscript

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those of us who live in the post-Stonewall era, and they’re even thornier when we try to apply contemporary terms to historical content.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or 13882 Ship

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

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

03 May 2019

Jesuit Mission Press ‘Feiqe monogatari’ now online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or_59_aa_1_fs002r Or_59_aa_1_fs014v
Successive shelfmarks used for Feiqe monogatari (Or.59.aa.1, preliminary pages) Noc

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

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


Hamish Todd,

Head of East Asian Collections

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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


28 December 2018

Download Hebrew Manuscripts for free, in partnership with BL Labs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miriam Lewis, Project Manager Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project

23 December 2018

Christmas at Lahore, 1597

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

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


By Malini Roy and Ursula Sims-Williams

12 June 2018

Thirty-leaved Qur’ans from India

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

25 April 2018

Tracking down the earliest copy of Khvaju Kirmani's collected works: British Library Or. 11519

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Our guest contributor today is Shiva Mihan of the University of Cambridge who recently completed her thesis Timurid Manuscript Production: The Scholarship and Aesthetics of Prince Bāysunghur’s Royal Atelier (1420–1435).

Or11519L.JPG_1500 Or11519R.JPG_1500
Opening to the British Library's copy of the Kullīyāt of Khvājū Kirmānī (BL Or. 11519, ff. 1v-2r)

When I came across the following description of  British Library Persian manuscript Or. 11519 on page 63 of G.M. Meredith-Owens, Handlist of Persian Manuscripts 1895-1966, my interest was piqued:

Or. 11519 Selected poems (mostly kasidahs) of Khvājū Kirmānī, apparently once part of a majmū‘eh of 500 f. xvth century. 66 f. 30.3 x 21 cm.

At the time, I was writing up my doctoral research into 15th century Persian book production under the patronage of Prince Baysunghur in his atelier in Herat, modern day Afghanistan. I had discovered that the most complete early manuscript of the works of Khvājū Kirmānī (died c.1352) was almost certainly produced under Baysunghur, i.e. Tehran Malek 5963. I had identified the scribe of this manuscript, which is dated 1426, as Muḥammad b. Muṭahhar, a senior scribe in Bāysunghur’s atelier, who had copied other important manuscripts for him. The manuscript Malek 5963, is an exquisite example of Timurid royal book production, now sadly slightly defective at the beginning and the end.

Beginning of Gul u Nawrūz from the Kullīyāt - Malek Library  5963  p. 811_1500
The beginning of Gul u Nawrūz, from the Kullīyāt of Khvājū Kirmānī (Malek 5963, p. 811) By permission of the Malek National Library

Malek 5963  internal colophon - Malek Library  5963  p. 1070
Malek 5963, internal colophon dated 1 Shaʿbān 829/7 June 1426, Herat, penned by the royal scribe, Muḥammad b. Muṭahhar b. Yūsuf b. Abū Sa‘īd al-Qāz̤ī al-Nisābūrī (Malek  5963, p. 1070) By permission of the Malek National Library

In order to verify the completeness of the Baysunghuri manuscript, bar the minor losses at start and end, I had compared its contents to the oldest known Khvājū Kirmānī manuscript, now housed in the same library, Malek 5980. That manuscript was copied during the poet’s lifetime, in 750/1349, by another accomplished scribe, Muḥammad b. ʿImrān al-Kirmānī. It too is very beautifully illuminated, and was very likely the presentation copy for the poet’s patron, the vizier Tāj al-Dīn Aḥmad who had commissioned the collection.

Sarlawḥ of the Rawz̤at al-anvār - Malek Library  5980  p. 435_1500
Sarlawḥ of the Rawz̤at al-anvār (Malek  5980, p. 435) By permission of the Malek National Library

The colophon signed by the scribe - Malek Library  5980  p. 708_1500
The colophon signed by the scribe, Muḥammad b. ʿImrān al-Kirmānī on 9th Ṣafar 750/1349 (Malek  5980, p. 708) By permission of the Malek National Library

Malek 5980 is thought to be the oldest extant manuscript by some 50 years. Khvājū Kirmānī is highly regarded in Iran to this day, and in 2013 a facsimile edition of Malek 5980 was produced by the University of Kerman in 2013 (see Further reading).

So, with this background, the reader might well imagine the excitement when the good people of the British Library delivered Ms. Or. 11519 to me in the Reading Room. On opening up the manuscript, I was confronted by a beautiful illuminated double-page frontispiece and a few folios later a magnificent double-page heading (sarlawḥ).

IMG_4792_1500 IMG_4791_1500
Double-page sarlawḥ  to mark the beginning of the text (BL Or. 11519, ff. 4v-5r)

Straightaway, it was clear to me that the catalogue had been in error – this was not the work of the 15th, but of the 14th century. But the hand, a beautiful Persian script (a combination of taʿlīq and naskh) seemed strangely familiar to me. When I read the colophon I was amazed to find that although it was undated, the scribe named himself as Muḥammad b. ʿImrān.

The undated colophon signed by Muḥammad b. ʻImrān (BL Or. 11519, f. 66r)

No wonder I recognized the hand. There was no doubt in my mind: this manuscript must date to the mid-14th century, around the time the same scribe had copied the oldest known manuscript, Malek 5980, in 1349. As with the Malek manuscript, when Or. 11519 was copied, the poet himself was still alive.

To what was Glyn Meredith-Owens referring when he said “apparently once part of a majmuʿeh [collection] of 500 folios”? There is a note in Turkish on the first folio, which says something to this effect (where the number, I believe, is not 500, but 580). Could Or. 11519 (66 folios) and Malek 5980 (352 folios) have once been part of a single manuscript? If so, were there other parts remaining to be discovered? These seemed intriguing possibilities.
A note in Turkish, in Arabic script, records that the manuscript once contained 580 folios (BL Or. 11519, f.1r)

The similarity of the illuminations and the common scribe were very suggestive. It remained for me to study the text of the BL manuscript in more detail. Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator of the Persian collections, very kindly sent me photographs to enable this. I laboriously tracked down every poem by comparing the manuscript to the edition of Suhayli Khwansari (1336 shamsi/1957) and to other early manuscripts, using images kindly provided by librarians in Iran. Those other early manuscripts of the Kullīyāt of Khvājū Kirmānī were:

  • Tehran University Central Library, no. 5154, dated 808/1405
  • Tehran, Majles Library, no. 352, dated at a later time 820/1417, but I suspect it might date back to the late 14th century
  • Tehran, Golestan Palace Library, no. 335, dated 824/1421
  • Tehran, Malek National Library, no. 5963, dated 829/1426 (the Baysunghurī manuscript)

The valuable Jalayirid manuscript of the recently digitised BL Add.18113, dated 798/1396, is older than the above copies (see earlier posts  An illustrated 14th century Khamsah by Khvaju Kirmani and The archaeology of a manuscript: the Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani), but since it only contains three mathnavis, it was of little use in this comparative analysis.

As a result of my analysis, I can now say with confidence that there is no overlap in content between Or.  11519 and Muhammad b. ‘Imrān’s other Khvājū manuscript, Malek 5980. Putting all the evidence together, although Malek 5980 was previously thought to be a complete manuscript, in fact, BL Or. 11519 almost certain formed the first part of it. As such, despite the unfortunate inaccuracy in the catalogue, Or. 11519 presents a very good claim to being the earliest complete extant manuscript of Khvājū Kirmānī’s poetry. It is an unsuspected treasure of the Persian collection and a great gift for devotees of Khvājū Kirmānī.

Recalling the note in Turkish at the beginning of Or. 11519 stating that the original manuscript contained 580 folios, I was determined to do what I could to track down other missing parts, with a view to reconstructing the complete works of Khvājū in its original form. My initial investigations threw up to two strong candidates and another outside possibility. Firstly, a manuscript in the Konya Mevlana Museum, no. 140, was catalogued as 748 AH. Secondly, a Dīvān of Khvājū Kirmānī was said to be in the hand of our scribe, Muḥammad b. ‘Imrān, but was catalogued as a work of the 13th/19th century, in Mashhad, Astan Qods Library, no. 4650. With the help of colleagues in Turkey and in Iran I was able to study digital images of both manuscripts. As it turned out, neither was a part of the original Khvājū manuscript: the first had mistaken the date of composition for the date of copying, and the second proved to be a literal copy, including the colophon, of Malek 5980.

The third manuscript on my list, the outside chance, I had found catalogued as Khvājū’s Mafātiḥ al-qulūb in Tehran University Central Library, no. 2043, dated 705/1305, and penned by Muḥammad b. ʿUmar, 44 folios. The date had to be wrong, so why not the scribe’s name? More excitement was in store. When, thanks to the generosity of the Director, I was able to examine the manuscript first hand in Tehran University Library, I immediately recognised it was yet another part of the puzzle: here again was the same handwriting and the same style of illumination, the same paper, folio size, layout, rulings, ink, and headings.

Heading (sarlawḥ) of the Mafātiḥ al-qulūb of Khvājū - Tehran University 2043  f. 1v_1500
Heading (sarlawḥ) of the Mafātiḥ al-qulūb of Khvājū (Tehran University 2043, f. 1v) By permission of Tehran University

Tehran University 2043 is incomplete at the end and so has no colophon. However, a note at the beginning of the manuscript in a similar hand to that of the scribe, provides the title of the work and the name of the scribe, Muḥammad b. ‘Imrān (not ʿUmar), as well as the year, 750 (not 705)/1349. Other notes on the same folio tell us that the manuscript was once owned by Luṭf ‘Alī b. Muḥammad Kāẓim in 1343/1924.

20th century ownership notes and ‘signature’ in the manner of Muḥammad b. ‘Imrān - Tehran University  2043  f. 1r_1500
20th century ownership notes and ‘signature’ in the manner of Muḥammad b. ‘Imrān (Tehran University  2043, f. 1r) By permission of Tehran University

Luṭf ‘Alī b. Muḥammad Kāẓim (1857-1931), known as Ṣadr al-Afāz̤il, was a prominent scholar and calligrapher as well as a collector of Islamic manuscripts, in a line of such men (the Nasīrī-Amīnīs)[1]. A close examination of the Tehran University manuscript convinced me that the scribe’s signature (f. 1r) was not in the hand of Muḥammad b. ‘Imrān, but was a skilful forgery. The similarities with the authentic colophons of BL Or. 11519 and in Malek 5980 suggest that whoever forged this note had seen one or both of the other colophons. Yet another note, at the beginning of Malek 5980, signed by Ṣadr al-Afāz̤il, states his ownership of that manuscript also in 1339/1920. The BL manuscript was presented to the British Museum by R.S. Greenshields in 1934. Of course these could all be coincidences, but the signs are that the original Kullīyāt (of 580 folios?) – containing what would become BL Or. 11519, Malek 5980, and Tehran University 2043, and perhaps other fragments, yet to be discovered – was divided up between 1920 and 1934.

As stated above, I have compared the three parts of the original manuscript to numerous later ones (all pre-1440). The results have been both interesting and complicated. The poetic content of BL Or. 11519 is found in each of the four manuscripts I listed above. In Tehran University 5154 that content is faithfully reproduced; however, in the other three manuscripts, extra poems appear in this section, drawn from the first section of Malek 5980, but the redistribution of poems is different in each case. Surely, BL-Malek-Tehran University should now be regarded as the core corpus against which later reorganisations and additions are assessed, and much work by Khvājū Kirmānī scholars remains to be done in this area. To facilitate such work, and to satisfy a demand for reproductions of high quality illuminated manuscripts from the period, it is intended that a facsimile of the BL and Tehran University manuscripts be published to complement the University of Kerman’s Malek facsimile of 2013. The complexities of my textual comparisons will be provided in the introduction to the facsimile.

Further reading
Khvājū Kirmānī, Kullīyāt-i Khvājū-yi Kirmānī, ed. A. Hāshimī & M. Mudabbirī (Tehran, 1392 shamsi/2013).
Wright, E.J. The Look of the Book: manuscript production in Shiraz, 1303–1452 (Washington, D.C., Seattle, Dublin, 2012).
Adamova, A.T. & M. Bayani, Persian painting: the arts of the book and potraiture (Farnborough, 2015).
Swietochowski, M.L. & S. Carboni, Illustrated poetry and epic images Persian painting of the 1330s and 1340s (New York, 1994). 


Shiva Mihan, University of Cambridge


[1] For more on faked manuscript interventions and the part played by Ṣadr al-Afāz̤il and his family, see F. Richard, “FORGERIES iv. OF ISLAMIC MANUSCRIPTS” and A. Soudavar, Reassessing Early Safavid Art and History, pp. 85-9.


05 April 2018

Making his mark: the seals of Tipu Sultan

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Over the past year or so I have been working on the library of Tipu Sultan, Sultan of Mysore (r. 1782-1799), of which an estimated 600 volumes were deposited in the library of the East India Company between 1806 and 1808 and again in 1837 after the Library of its college at Fort William was disbanded (for more on this see my earlier post Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah (IO Islamic 3214). By now I have examined well over half of the British Library manuscripts, and a few in other libraries, but have been surprised at how few of the volumes actually contain the seal of Tipu Sultan himself. So far I have found only twenty-eight, some with more than one impression. With the exception of one, they can be divided into three basic types: a personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73), and official seals dating from 1215 (1787/88) and 1223 (1795/96) of the muhammadi or mawludi era.

The opening pages of the highly illuminated and calligraphic Miʼat kalimah ʻAlīyah ʻālīyah Murtaḍawīyah (the 100 sayings of  ʻAli ibn Abi Talib) with an interlinear Persian verse translation. Tipu's personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73) is placed at the top. This manuscript was probably acquired in 1780 when the previous owner Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab was defeated by Hyder ʻAli’s forces and was despatched to Seringapatam with his family as prisoners (British Library IO Islamic 1662)

Tipu's personal seal
In many ways this is the most interesting of the three seals as it perhaps reflects Tipu's personal interests. The rectangular seal is inscribed Tīpū Sulṭān 1186 (1772/73), measuring 16 x 11.5 mm (interior measurement: 15 x 11 mm). The seal predates Tipu's accession to the throne at the end of 1782 after the death of his father Hyder ʻAli.

Untitled 2
Tipu's personal seal dated 1186 (1772/73), placed in the right hand margin of the opening of the poem Masnavī-i khvurshīd va māh by Nasafi (British Library IO Islamic 241)

It would take too long to go into details here and I hope to write more fully about it later, but to summarise, of the twenty-one volumes discovered so far, fourteen are volumes of poetry by Amir Khusraw, ʻAttar, Nasafi, Ahmad-i Jam, Zulali, Kamal Khujandi, ʻUrfi, Ahsan Allah[1] and others (but surprisingly not Firdawsi, Hafiz or Nizami). Other works with Tipu's seal include four historical works, a dictionary and two works on letter writing (inshāʼ). For the most part these volumes are very ordinary, only two, for example IO Islamic 1662 illustrated above, could be described as high quality. Since there were many other deluxe volumes in his collection which did not carry his seal, we can perhaps assume that it was the content Tipu especially valued.

It is not known when these manuscripts were acquired though at least five had belonged to Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab of Chittoor, brother of Muhammad ʻAli Nawab of the Carnatic, who was taken prisoner with his family in 1780. Another manuscript had belonged to the Qutb Shahs of Golconda and includes the seals of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah (r. 1580-1612) and his successor Muhammad Qutb Shah (r. 1612-26) – his seal dated 1021 (1612/13).

The one exception to these otherwise literary manuscripts is IO Islamic 4683: a collection of original documents from Seringapatam bound together in one volume. This seal occurs occurs on documents dated 15 Jaʻfari, year Azal 1198 AH (1784), and 1 Ahmadi, year Dalv 1200 AH (1786), ie. dating from before 1787, the date of the earlier of his two official seals described below.

Official seals of 1787 and 1796
Within a few months of ascending the throne Tipu instigated calendrical changes by renaming the twelve months and the year names of the 60 year cycle, while still also using the traditional hijri era for the year. An example of this can be seen in the documents mentioned above. However in his fifth regnal year, he established a new lunisolar system which he called muhammadi or mawludi[2], ie. dating from the supposed spiritual or actual birth of the Prophet which he believed to be thirteen years before the hijra in 622. A further innovation was to record the numbers from right to left instead of the usual way round, from left to right.

The reasons for establishing this new era are not clear but Kirkpatrick (Select Letters, p. xxxi) mentions a letter dated 29 Izadi (11th month) of the year Dalv, ie. at the beginning of 1787, written shortly before the change, in which Tipu Sultan requested information from scholars as to the exact dates of the birth, mission and flight of the Prophet.

The new system was reckoned to begin with the month Ahmadi 1215, year Sha, which commenced on the 20 March 1787[3]. The new seal was no doubt created to mark the new era and it continued to be used during the following years. It is found at the head or to the right side of documents and official manuals written at his request. It reads Tipū Sulṭān, 5121, i.e. 1215 mawludi era (1787/88) and measures 19 x 15 mm (interior measurement: 16 x 13 mm).

IO Islamic 447
Official seal dated 1215 mawludi (1787/88) in Muʼayyid al-mujāhidīn, an official collection of 104 sermons in verse to be read at prayers, composed by order of Tipu Sultan by Zayn al-ʻĀbidin Mūsavī Shūshtarī. This manuscript, copied by the author, is dated 27 Ramazan 1221 muhammadi corresponding to 7021 (ie 1207) hijri (8 May 1793) (British Library IO Islamic 447, f. 1v)

This seal has been found in three volumes so far:

  • IO Islamic 447: Muʼayyid al-mujāhidīn (mentioned above)
  • IO Islamic 1663: Fatavā-yi Muḥammadī, legal decisions arranged in 313 short chapters at the request of Tipu Sultan
  • IO Islamic 4685, a collection of orders (hukmnāmah) bound together in one volume. Seal impressions occur on ff 6v, 26v, 54r, and 84r, on documents dated 1221-2 mawludi (1793-5)

Eight years later a second seal was introduced. A description of this seal is given in Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī, regulations issued 21 Haydari, Hirasat, 1224 corresponding to 19 Rabiʻ I, 1121 hijri (22 September 1796) on the correct royal insignia to be used in seals and standards, and on the form of official cyphers to be used in different government departments. Instructions are given there for the special seal (muhr-i khāṣṣ) to measure one finger (angusht) by half with the tughra Tipu Sultan in the shape of a tiger’s (shīr[4]) mouth, and the four corners to carry the letters maw lū d-i Muḥammad. The tughra was also to contain 6 tiger (babrī) stripes.

IO Islamic 2379_f3-4
Instructions for the special seal from chapter 1 of Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī (British Library IO Islamic 2379, f. 4r)

The design of this new seal is another example of Tipu's fondness for the tiger motif and was presumably introduced in 1796 to coincide with the orders. It reads: Tipū Sulṭān 3221 [ie. 1223] Maw lū d-i Muḥammad (1795/96). It measures 19 x 15 (17 x 13 mm) and like the earlier seal is found on documents and government manuals of which several copies exist.

IO Isl 4684 f94v seal
Seal dated 1223 mawludi (1795/96) heading an official register of names for different kinds of horses and bullocks, dated 1 Ahmadi, Shadab, 1226 (March 1798) (British Library IO Islamic 4684, f. 94v)

This seal has been found in five volumes so far:

  • IO Islamic 1638, Mufarriḥ al-qulūb, a collection of mixed Persian and Dakhni songs collected for Tipu Sultan by Hasan ʻAli ʻIzzat and completed in AH 1199 (1784-5). For more on this manuscript see Kirkpatrick, Select Letters, pp. 391-3. This was one of many copies (see Ethe's Persian manuscripts in India Office Library nos. 2024-2032  and also Kirkpatrick (ibid, p.379)
  • IO Islamic 2379, Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī, regulations for the correct royal insignia for seals, on standards and the form of official cyphers to be used in different government departments, drawn up on 21 Haydari, Hirasat, 1224 corresponding to 19 Rabiʻ I, 1121 hijri (22 September 1796)
  • RAS Per 171, another copy of Z̤avabiṭ-i Sulṭānī
  • IO Islamic 4683, heading an official copy (f. 174v) of a consultation to the six government departments, dated 15 Ahmadi, Shadab (April 1798)
  • IO Islamic 4684 (see above)

Wax impression of a further official seal
Finally a unique  example of a European style wax sealing is found in IO Islamic 4683 attached to a consultation to Tipu's six government departments, dated 15 Ahmadi, Shadab (April 1798). The left-hand seal is inscribed yā ḥāfiz̤, and is possibly dated 1219 (1791/92), but if so, it is quite a few years earlier than the document it is connected to. Unfortunately I haven't been able to decipher the right hand seal. There were no doubt other seals of this type, but by virtue of their ephemeral nature they have not survived.

IO Islamic 4683n_wax seal
Wax sealing  (British Library IO Islamic 4683)


Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian


[1] Royal Asiatic Society RAS Per 310.
[2] See Kirkpatrick, W., Select Letters of Tippoo Sultan to Various Public Functionaries ... London, 1811, especially his notes on the calendar and Mauludi era, pp.xxvi-xxxvii; also Henderson, J.R., The coins of Haidar Alī and Tīpū Sultān. Madras, 1921. p. 28.
[3] The first year of the mawludi era is sometimes reckoned as 1786-7 AD, but fortunately some documents are dated in both the mauludi and the hijri era which makes a start date of 1787-8 incontrovertible.
[4] Shīr usually refers to a lion, but there is no doubt that tiger is implied here because of the babri 'tiger' stripe.


18 October 2017

Bestiary of Fears – an artist’s inspiration from illustrated Hebrew manuscripts

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Today's  post is by guest contributor Jacqueline Nicholls, a London based visual artist and Jewish educator. She uses her art to engage with traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She co-ordinates the Art Studio and other Arts & Culture events at JW3, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline’s art has been exhibited in solo shows and significant contemporary Jewish Art group shows in the UK, USA and Israel, and she was recently artist-in-resident in Venice with Beit Venezia. Jacqueline is a regular contributor to BBC R2 Pause for Thought

In the Jewish religion the seven weeks between the freedom festival of Passover and the festival of Pentecost is called the Omer. It is traditional to ritually count every day of these seven weeks and to use this time for personal spiritual transformation. For the last couple of years I have used this time for art projects, and I have undertaken this counting as a daily drawing practice, exploring different themes each year.

In 2016, I was invited to make use of the online digital Hebrew manuscript collection of the British Library and give feedback on how this resource could be useful for artists. I used this as an opportunity to explore the collection with a very personal project: The Bestiary of Fear. If this time is one of personal transformation, the focus for this project was to be on the things that terrify and paralyse the self and prevent growth. The etymology of the word ‘monster’ and the word ‘to demonstrate’ have the same root. They issue out an omen, bring forth a warning, and make visible that which is hidden in the dark. This Bestiary would be an externalising of the internal hidden fears, drawing them out to identify and demonstrate them, transforming the fears into finite monsters that can be contained, and hopefully, overcome.

The process of making this Bestiary was one of daily introspection; by contemplating my vulnerabilities, I was able to identify the fears I wanted to explore through this project. This introspection was followed by searching through the collection items included in The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts to find forms that resonated with the fears I had identified. I was drawn to the strange animals and fantastical beasts in the marginalia, and decided to focus on adapting them to develop the drawings for the Bestiary of Fears.

Seven manuscripts were selected for this project, exploring one each for a week of the seven-week Omer. They were: The Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761), The Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160, Prayer book (Add MS 26957), The Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639), The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah (Or 2737), The Sister Haggadah (Or 2884), and The Golden Haggadah (Add MS 27210). As the Omer begins during the festival of Passover when the Haggadot would have been used, it seemed appropriate to primarily focus on the illustrations within the Haggadot in the British Library’s collection.

The beasties and monsters within these manuscripts are delightful and charming. Sometimes the connection with the text is clear, fulfilling an interpretive role of commentary. And sometimes their inclusion seems decorative with very loose connections to the content. There are breaks and dividing markers within the long body of writing and playful insertions in the margins. One of my favourites is the depiction of a dog licking its bottom on the page containing some special festive prayers in the Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639 f.232v).

Dog licking its bottom, The Northern French Miscellany, France, 1278-1324 CE (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 232v)  noc

This whimsical and vulgar treatment is not found in modern day printed Hebrew prayer books, and contemporary Jewish religious culture is poorer for its exclusion. These are manuscripts that were made for a particular audience and therefore they can be intimate and personal in a way that printed books for a wider readership cannot.

An example of this can be seen in the Italian Prayer Book (Add MS 26957). This manuscript was created in 1469 for the patrons Menachem ben Shmuel and his daughter Maraviglia bat Menachem ben Shmuel. In this manuscript, mindful that it is made for a woman, the stage-directions for the prayers depict a woman and not a man as the active participant who performs the rituals. This is something that would be unusual to find in a mainstream printed Hebrew prayer book today. I was inspired by the woman on folio 55v, who is pointing to the blessing to count the Omer, as the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity. To portray the fear I turned her pointing instructing finger into the gesture of an overbearing matriarch.

Illustration of a woman pointing to the text for the counting of the Omer, Italy, 1469 CE (British Library Add MS 26957, f. 55v)  noc

Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity ©Jacqueline Nicholls

In the process of searching through the beasts in the marginalia looking for the right external form to match the inner emotion, I sometimes made connections with the text on that page. An example of this can be seen in Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval. This features a stern, condescending, and judgemental creature looking down his nose and frowning with contempt. The inspiration for this beastie was found in the Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761) accompanying the introductory passage of the Four Sons (f33v.), where it describes how a parent should tell the Passover story to their different types of children. It seemed fitting for this fear, because there is nothing more disapproving than the patriarch who judges his children, who pigeon-holes them and finds them lacking. 

Introductory passage of the Four Sons, Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th Century CE (Add MS 14761 f. 33v)  noc

Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval ©Jacqueline Nicholls

I was particularly struck by the nuance and detail of expression that were captured in these small and delicate drawings. The high quality of the photography and the ability to examine close details on the computer screen meant that the subtleties and sleight touches in the drawings can be scrutinised without damage to the original manuscript. As the online digitised manuscripts do not have a scale on the screen, one can only estimate the size of the original manuscript and accompanying illustrations by noting the width of the pen strokes.

In the Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160), the text of the Five Books of Moses is decorated with micrography of patterns and beasts in the margins around the text. This unique Jewish scribal art form consists of weaving minute letters into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. In the section which tells the story of Jacob and Esau, there is a strange dopey looking dinosaur-like figure (f. 19v) that became the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up. The narrative of Esau and Jacob is one of a relationship that does not run smooth, with patterns of deceptions and mistakes.

Micrographic dinosaur-like hybrid, Yonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160 f. 19v)  noc

Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up ©Jacqueline Nicholls

Discussions about definitions of Jewish Art tend to centre on the prohibition of making graven images in the Ten Commandments. This focus side-lines the history and existence of Hebrew illustrated manuscripts. It misinterprets a specific Rabbinic directive about idolatry, putting it into a wider context of disapproval of the plastic arts. This has resulted in a tendency to be suspicious of or to downplay the role of the visual within Jewish heritage. As an artist who engages with traditional Jewish texts, it was refreshing and inspiring to connect with the range and diversity of imagery within the Hebrew manuscript collection at the British Library, at the same time becoming familiar with the quirks, humour and artistry that exist within the tradition, a spirit that can be renewed for contemporary Jewish Art.

The complete Bestiary of Fears can be found online at Jacqueline Nicholls: Omer Drawings.

Jacqueline Nicholls