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136 posts categorized "Middle East"

17 June 2019

Mazal tov ve-siman tov (Good Luck and Good Sign): Jewish marriage contracts in the British Library’s Hebrew collection

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The celebration of a marriage is one of Judaism’s happiest and most joyous communal events.


Jewish Wedding Song Siman Tov & Mazal Tov (YouTube)

To mark the occasion a marriage contract – a ketubah [1] (literally ‘a writ’) is drawn up stipulating the couple’s binding obligations and responsibilities. The writing of a ketubah has been an integral part of Jewish weddings for over 2,000 years.

A mandatory deed given to a Jewish bride on her wedding day for safekeeping, the ketubah is considered to be one of the earliest documents granting women legal and financial rights. Its traditional Aramaic text lays down the groom's financial obligations towards the bride, thus ensuring her protection and security, should the marriage dissolve, or the husband pass away. Depending on their geo-cultural area of production, or the social position of the families involved, Jewish marriage contracts might also stipulate: the provision of food and clothing by the husband, his pledge not to take a second wife, the dowry the wife brings to the household.

Since this is effectively a formal transaction, the contract is usually signed by at least two male witnesses, either before or immediately after the marriage ceremony. The ketubah is customarily read out loud to the couple during the wedding service, under the bridal canopy (hupah).

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The bridal canopy and blessings recited at the wedding service. Collection of prayers, London, 1702-1714 (BL Harley MS 5713, f. 17v)
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Decorated marriage contracts

The art forms found in Jewish marriage contracts vary from country to country, and reflect the artistic developments and trends of their original locales, at particular periods. Yet more than just being visually appealing objects, ketubot are historical records, revealing social patterns, traditions and values within the Jewish communities they stemmed from.

Few decorated Jewish marriage contracts from the Middle Ages have survived. The earliest examples, dating from around the 10th century CE, were discovered in the Cairo Genizah, a storeroom of discarded religious and secular Jewish documents, which had been preserved for nearly one thousand years, in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, old Cairo.

From around the 14th century CE onwards, the custom of decorating ketubot flourished among communities of the Sephardi diaspora, particularly in Italy, spreading gradually to other Jewish diasporic centres, including those in Asia.

In Italy the art of the ketubah reached its pinnacle in the 17th and 18th centuries CE. Beautifully ornamented specimens were executed by highly skilled scribes and illuminators, on parchment or vellum. Characteristic adornments found in Italian ketubot include: biblical scenes, cherubs, coats of arms, micrographic designs, temple columns, zodiac signs and various others.

Seen here is an elegant, exquisitely decorated contract from Modena, recording the nuptials of Ephraim son of Kalonymus Sanguini, and Luna daughter of Mordecai Faro. The elaborate ketubah features an imposing architectural structure, topped by winged cherubs holding trumpets and leafy branches. The magnificent double border is composed of intricate micrographic lacework, surrounded by cut out patterns on a red ground inhabited by biblical vignettes, and the signs of the zodiac. Perhaps in an attempt to increase its value, the contract’s original date of 1757 was changed to 1557.

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Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)
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Oriental marriage contracts are scarcer than European ones, and serve as important examples of Jewish art and illumination of the areas they originated from. Some specimens flaunt bold and brilliant colouring and crude designs, while others exhibit native motifs and indigenous symbols. Here are two telling examples from our collection.

The first is a paper ketubah given by Pinḥas, son of Yosef, to Batsheva, daughter of Nethan’el in Herat, on 15th of Sivan, 5649, corresponding to 14th June 1889. The terms follow a fixed Afghani formula that specifies a gift from the groom of 200 and 25 zuzin (ancient Jewish coinage struck 2nd century CE), and his tosefet (additional gift) of 10 zuzin. The bride’s dowry amounts to 80 zehuvim (gold coins).

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Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)
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Although Jews have lived in Herat since early Islamic times, it became the largest and most influential Jewish community in Afghanistan during the 19th century CE, when persecuted Jews from the Persian town of Meshed streamed into Herat. As a result, decorated Jewish marriage contracts produced in Herat share many artistic characteristics with contracts from neighbouring Meshed.

The decorative programme is typical of contracts issued in Herat, and displays Islamic and Persian influences. The layout, as a whole, is very reminiscent of Persian carpets with a well-planned, orderly pattern. Written neatly in rows outlined in red ink, the square calligraphic text of the ketubah proper is framed by two concentric narrow bands. The rectangular band closest to the text is embellished with stylised violet and orange flowers and green foliage. The outer border is inscribed with copious good wishes, arranged in alphabetical order, each one beginning with the word siman (Hebrew for omen or sign) – siman orah, siman berakhah, siman gilah and so forth.

There is a conspicuous emphasis on the number five in contracts issued in Herat as in this example. The upper register consists of five arcuated compartments: three of which contain a single floral vase, while the other two are filled with verses from Isaiah 61:10. The lower register is occupied by a frieze made of five blank frames which were customarily reserved for the witnesses’ signatures. Instead, three witnesses signed their names just below the last line of the ketubah text. The use of the five-fold motifs was intentional as the number five (hamsa) is considered to have magical and protective powers in Islamic and Jewish cultures.

The second exemplar on parchment, records the betrothal in 1887 in Calcutta of Ya‘akov Hai Yosef Avraham Ta‘azi to Simhah, the daughter of Natan Yosef Douwek ha-Kohen. The layout is typical of marriage contracts created for the Indian Jewish communities between the 18th and 20th centuries CE, and consists of two distinct sections, the opening formula, or superscription, in the upper register, and the contract itself beneath. The superscription is written in Hebrew square characters, whereas the contract is penned in a semi-cursive Hebrew script. The superscription starts with an invocation to God, followed by blessings and good wishes to the newlyweds, and ends with biblical verses relating to marriage and fertility. The mohar (the groom’s marriage payment), tosefet (additional increment), and dowry specified in the contract amount to 7,555 rupees.

The finely embellished border is densely filled with red birds interspersed with stylised pink flowers and green foliage. The naively painted rampant tigers above the superscription, and the two long-tailed blue peacocks facing each other, are regarded as representatives of Indian fauna. The pair of silvery fish in the centre symbolise fertility. These figurative and decorative motifs are specifically associated with marriage contracts created for the Baghdadi Jews who settled in India.

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Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)
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The development of printing brought with it new decorating techniques, which were also employed to embellish Jewish marriage contracts. A case in point is copper plate engraving. Invented in Germany in the 15th century CE, the use of copper engraving for book illustration became widespread only in the mid-16th century CE. From the 17 th century CE onwards, this complex, skilled craft gained greater popularity, becoming widely practised in Holland and other European countries, including England.

The handsome full copper engraved border adorning this London ketubah, was apparently modelled on a plate developed in Amsterdam in 1687. The contract documents the union of Elazar son of David Tsarfati and Rachel daughter of Joseph Cortisos, on 18 Iyar 5562, corresponding to 20 May, 1802. Penned in a semi-cursive Sephardi script the ketubah text is flanked on both sides with leaf-patterned pillars. Each vertical frame features a vase containing floral variations populated with birds. The top right vignette shows a courting couple, the top left features an expectant woman with two children, seemingly a symbol of fertility and motherhood. In the arched upper compartment, two winged putti hold a drapery inscribed: be-siman tov (with a good sign). Below the vase in the right hand border is the name H. Burgh, Sculpt. who appears to be the master printer responsible for the engravings.

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Copper plate engraved ketubah. London, 1802 (BL Or 12376 H)
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The ketubot collection

The four Jewish marriage contracts described in this blog represent just a fraction of our significant holdings. As a matter of fact, a cursory survey of the ketubot preserved in the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection, has generated some very interesting findings:

  • about 90 specimens from across three geographical zones - Asia, Europe and the Near East - have so far been identified
  • the ketubot originated in 16 countries, namely: Afghanistan, Egypt, England, Gibraltar, Greece, the Holy Land, India, Iran, Italy, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey & Ukraine (Crimea)
  • more than a third are unadorned, the rest featuring a broad range of decorative embellishments
  • nearly a third of our ketubot – c. 28 pieces traced thus far- were crafted in Italy
  • a fair number have been captured digitally as part of the on-going Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, and are accessible on our Digitised Manuscripts (DM)

More will be digitised and published on DM in the months ahead.

Further reading

Reuven Kashani, Illustrated ketubot of Afghanistan (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 1978
– Illustrated Jewish marriage contracts from Iran, Bukhara and Afghanistan (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 2003
Jose Luis Lacave, Medieval ketubot from Sefarad  [translated from the Spanish by Eliahu Green]. Jerusalem, 2002
Shalom Sabar, Ketubbah: the art of the Jewish marriage contract. New York, c. 2000


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
Ccownwork

 


[1] from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ktv’ meaning writing; plural ketubot

30 April 2019

Soviet Labour Unions in Uzbekistan in the 1920s: Views from the Magazine Mihnat

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As a Chevening British Library Fellow, I am currently working on the British Library’s Turkish and Turkic periodicals published from the 1920s to 1930s. Most of these magazines are written in the Arabic and Latin scripts. This is what unites these materials; what distinguishes them is their coverage of different themes. In particular, a magazine named Mīḥnat provides us with a view of labour unions in Soviet Turkic states. It is a periodical about work, workers, and labour unions in Uzbekistan in the early Soviet period. The magazine was a joint periodical of three organizations: the People’s Labour Commissariat, the Soviet Professional Union, and the Central Social Insurance of the Uzbek S. S. R. It was published in 1926 and 1927. Several volumes of this magazine are held at the British Library under the shelfmark 14499.tt.23. Mīḥnat was published in two languages: Old Uzbek (Chagatai) in Perso-Arabic script and Russian in Cyrillic script. In 1927, the magazine had 1500 subscribers and more than 30 permanent correspondents supplied it with materials. Today, this magazine Mīḥnat is important for us as a way to better understand Soviet labour unions and their activities.

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Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Chagatai). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 7-8 (50-51). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)

When the Bolsheviks came to the power, they attempted to create a group of workers that would support their aims. As a consequence, labour unions began as a way to gather craftsmen and workers in one place under one purpose. To this end, Soviet authority needed a link to connect workers with labour unions. In the Uzbek S. S. R., a magazine named Mīḥnat took on this role. Soviet authorities used this magazine to share their views with local workers and to involve every individual possible in labour unions. Every profession had its labour union and these unions obeyed the Central Council of Labour Unions.

The early pages of the first issue of Mīḥnat each year begin with the publication of speeches of officials delivered at the annual congresses of the labour unions. These speeches cover the reports and future plans of the union, including how to increase the membership, the financial state of the union, the range of salaries, unemployment issues, the organisation of cultural events, and the publication of books about the labour union’s activities in the local language to attract local workers, and so on.

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Cover of the magazine Mīḥnat (in Russian). Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 4 (47). Tashkent, 1927 (BL 14499.tt.23)

Early suggestions proposed by officials and employees on improving the activities of labour unions concerned administrative issues. In particular, Y. Gārbūnāv offers in his article to put pressure on members, workers and factories to induce them to follow the decisions of labour unions. Later on, a reorganisation of labour unions is proposed based on dividing them into zones to reduce expenses and improve control. Subsequent issues raised concerned the financial aspects of the union with the content mainly dominated by matters such as reducing expenses and increasing the revenue of labour unions. One author named Lāzāvskī writes that the main source of income came from membership fees and, for this reason, he suggested recruiting new members as fast as possible.

One task of the labour unions was to establish rest conditions for workers and to organize their summer holidays. Labour unions became engaged in “social insurance” which, in Soviet Uzbekistan in the 1920s, meant organizing excursions to famous places, establishing social clubs, as well as sending workers to sanatoriums and holiday-homes for recreation. An analysis of the articles in Mīḥnat, reveals the limitations and difficulties faced by the unions because of a lack of financial resources and unfinished administrative procedures. The magazine would offer solutions, for example, by suggesting that the regional branches could be responsible for the allocation of “social insurance” because they knew who most needed it.

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Left: Caricature of Lenin’s presence in workers’ dormitories, “Līnīn būrchakīda mīhmānkhāna.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Right: Woman running away from Soviet-style work, “Bāsh būkhgāltīrning marḥamatī bīlan.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 3 (46). Tashkent, 1927, p. 19 (BL 14499.tt.23)

Special issues of the magazine dedicated to one specific topic of concern were also published. For example, volume 4 of 1927 was concerned with women members of the labour unions who in 1926 represented 15.7% of the total membership in the Uzbek S. S. R. This issue mentions that the union’s main task was to involve them in the activities of the Soviet labour unions. Soviet authorities believed that local women would only be liberated when economically independent and so, via the Mīḥnat, labour unions offered to fight for the “freedom of women” by creating special schools for them and involving them in manufacturing. Furthermore, planning cultural events for women was seen as one of the best ways to attract them to Soviet ideology. In addition, this magazine was one of the first periodicals in Soviet Uzbekistan to publish an article proposing allowances for women workers for pregnancy and child-birth.

The magazine Mīḥnat usually published letters from factory and plant workers in every volume in a section entitled Maḥallardan khātlār (“Letters from places”). These letters were not limited just to the achievements and problems of the working processes in factories, but also covered issues concerning the active or passive work of the labour unions in them. For example, while a sugar worker was boasting about social clubs and an in-factory bulletin posted on walls promoting socialism in his factory, his colleague in the food industry was complaining that the labour union was not organizing cultural events at his place of work. Some workers wrote letters asking for the opening of a canteen in a factory or the building of medical centres and schools around factories located in the countryside. There were also letters of complaint concerning workers’ economic and social conditions, describing bad working conditions in factories, low salaries, and a lack of housing for workers.

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Left: Workers playing cards while on the job, “Maḥallardan khātlār.Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)
Right: Unsafe working practices, “Maḥallardan khātlār.” Mīḥnat, vol. 1927, issue 2 (45). Tashkent, 1927, p. 17 (BL 14499.tt.23)

This is just a short description of one of the Turkic periodicals I have been working on. The main goal of my Chevening British Library Fellowship project is to explore and enhance the British Library’s Turkic-language collections. As a part of this project, I am creating a spreadsheet that covers every article in the Turkic periodicals held in the Library and am adding romanized and original script titles of articles and publications, published years, issues and subjects. This has made it possible to document the magazine Mīḥnat based on the data included in the spreadsheet. More than this, my aim is to show how classifying each article in these periodicals helps us to distinguish their different features at the same time contextualising them as part of a whole.

Further reading
Deutscher, Isaac., Soviet Trade Unions: Their Place in Soviet Labour Policy. Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1950
Gordon, Manya (1938), "Organized Labor under the Soviets", Foreign Affairs, 16 (3): 537–541

 

Akmal Bazarbaev, Chevening Fellow, British Library Asian and African Collections
 ccownwork

 

19 April 2019

Pouring wine on Haggadot: a Passover exception

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Why are these Haggadah manuscripts different from all other Hebrew manuscripts?
On all other nights we avoid spilling wine in our books,
But on this particular night, it is unavoidable.

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Reading the Haggadah and pouring wine. Brother Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Or 1404, f. 9r) Noc

This year the Jewish festival of Passover starts on 19th April. Two years ago we talked about cleaning the house before Passover as illustrated in some of the British Library’s Haggadot, and this year we want to talk about “making a mess” at the Seder table.

Traditionally, on the eve of Passover Jewish families gather together for one or two nights for a special ritual meal called the Seder meaning ‘order’. The Haggadah is a service book which gives 15 steps to celebrate the Israelites' deliverance from Egyptian enslavement as described in the Book of Exodus.

The Haggadah text was originally part of the Hebrew daily prayer book, becoming an independent unit around the 13th century. Its oldest extant version can be found in the prayer book of Saadiah Gaon from the tenth century, and its earliest copy as a separate book dates from the turn of the thirteenth century, the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah (Jerusalem, Israel Museum Ms. 180/57), which is also the first extant Haggadah in a separate volume to be illustrated. By the fourteenth century, the custom of illuminating the manuscripts of the Haggadah became widespread both in Sephardi as well as Ashkenazi lands.

The Haggadah is one of the most frequently decorated texts in Jewish practice, and the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection includes a range of beautifully illuminated Haggadot from around the 14th century.

The exquisite illuminations can be admired online and on display in the Treasures Gallery, but have you ever wondered about the stains in these invaluable manuscripts? Some of these codices were very expensive to produce, but, as these stains prove, their patrons apparently were not as vigilant as we are now about keeping them clean. Even nowadays, many Jewish families have stained books used every year at Passover. Why?

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The first six steps of the Passover Seder. The participants are drinking wine and eating matzah, with books on the table. Leipnik Haggadah, Germany, 1740 (Sloane MS 3173, f.2r) Noc

The cup of salvation will I raise, and I will call upon the name of God.’ (Psalms 116:13).

During the evenings of the Passover Seder, it is traditional to drink four cups of wine, and eat or gaze at different foods symbolising certain aspects of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and their Exodus. We will take you on a tour through all of the hazardous moments of the Seder, showing how stains and food crumbs become not only inevitable, but when practising the same ritual throughout generations, part of the tradition itself.

Imagine that you are seated at a table with an open Haggadah in front of you. And you pour some wine just like the men shown below in the fourteenth-century Hispano-Moresque Haggadah from Spain ...

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Participants around the laid Seder table reciting the Haggadah and raising cups of wine. Hispano-Moresque Haggadah, Spain, late 13th century (Or 2737, f. 91r) Noc

Wine is often considered a symbol of salvation in Jewish culture (and beyond). The four cups of wine one traditionally has to drink during the Seder are to celebrate Israel’s redemption from Egypt:

I am the Lord, I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God.’ (Ex. 6:6-7).

The four cups match the four verbs that describe how God delivered Israel from Egypt and will deliver Israel from exile at the End of Days: to free, to deliver, to redeem and to take. Of course, there are many more interpretations of the four cups, and the number four returns over and over and again during Seder.

The first cup of wine is used to make Kiddush, the blessing over wine (note the wine hazard!).

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A man is holding a golden chalice. Ashkenazi Haggadah, Germany, 15th century (Add MS 14762, ff. 2v-3r) Noc

After the first cup of wine, you might wash your hands, and sit down to eat some parsley, or other vegetable (karpas) depending on your tradition, dipped in salty water. Isn’t it just natural to shake the parsley a bit after dipping (food hazard)? Then, the middle matzah (unleavened bread) of the three stacked on the table is broken in half, with one half hidden for later (crumb hazard). The Seder ritual then continues with the retelling of the story of the Exodus. Some communities also have a tradition of raising the Seder plate or matzah stack over their heads (food & crumb hazard).

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Holding the basket over the head. Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Add MS 14761, f. 28v) Noc

The Seder continues, going through the Haggadah with the retelling of the Exodus story. When listing the Ten Plagues of Egypt, each participant of the Seder removes a drop of wine from their glass with their finger (wine hazard). Then you raise your second cup of wine, and after the recitation of some Psalms (Psalms 113-114), it is customary to drink at least half of the glass each time, and the glass should be filled to the top (wine hazard). Two glasses of wine on an almost empty stomach! It is not surprising that the numbers of stains in the manuscripts increase as the Seder progresses. After this, the participants eat matzah (crumb hazard). Then maror (bitter herb). Then sticky haroset (fruit and nut paste - food hazard) on its own and in crumbly matzah sandwiches (crumb hazard). And you have to turn the pages with those sticky fingers…

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Pouring the second cup. Golden Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Add MS 27210, ff. 27v-28r) Noc

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Blessings recited over the matzah and the maror at the beginning of the Seder meal. Ashkenazi Haggadah, Germany, 15th century (Add MS 14762, ff. 26v-27r) Noc

After a ritual washing of the hands, a festive meal is served, followed by the previously hidden afikoman matzah (from the Greek epikomion meaning ’dessert’). After the banquet you have to have two more glasses of wine! The third cup after birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meal and the fourth cup after reciting some more Psalms (wine hazard).

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The fourth cup is poured before reciting Psalm 79:6 which begins with Shefokh ḥamatkha (Pour out your wrath). Left: the initial word is missing in a 14th-century Ashkenazi Siddur (Add MS 26954, f. 124r). Right: the Shefokh in the Brother Haggadah, (Or 1404 f. 19v) Noc

Now you can see why it is dangerous to have food and drink around books, and why the British Library’s Reading Room policy is so strict.

Thanks to the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project and BL Labs, you can download one of the illuminated Haggadot from data.bl, print them out and make your own wine stains!
Hag sameaḥ!

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Brother Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Or 1404, f. 33r) Noc

Miriam Lewis and Zsofia Buda Ccownwork

26 March 2019

Musicians and Dancers in the India Office Records

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This guest post by Katherine Butler Schofield houses the illustrations for the podcast “A Bloody Difficult Woman: Mayalee Dancing Girl vs. The East India Company” produced by Chris Elcombe. It was part of a series of presentations at the British Library in 2018 for Katherine’s British Academy Mid-Career Fellowship programme “Histories of the Ephemeral: Writing on Music in Late Mughal India. Special thanks to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, for permission to reproduce the detail below from MS 380 of the courtesans’ kite dance.

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Loading salt on the new British leases at Sambhar Lake, Jaipur state, 1870s (BL Photo 355/1(60)
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I was going through the East India Company’s Foreign Department Proceedings Index, Volume 1840–49 K–Z, in the National Archives of India, when I first found her: “Pension to Meyalee[1], dancing-girl, from Jeypore share of Sambhur lake funds.” It was my first foray into the official records of British colonial rule in India, and I was there to see if I could find any trace of the Indian singers and dancers that we know, from paintings and travel writings of the time, filled the long nights and dreams of many an East India Company man in the early decades of the nineteenth century. So far I’d had little luck. And yet here she was—Mayalee Dancing Girl. But not just Mayalee: a whole set of musicians, dancers and other performers named as “pensioners” of the salt revenues of Sambhar lake in eastern Rajasthan.

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“Statement of pensions and endowments paid from Sambhur Treasury on account of the Jyepoor State from 1 January to 30 June 1839.” Section 2: cash payments monthly and on account of festivals (IOR Board of Control General Records, India Political Department, October 1838–1840)
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For a brief period between 1835 and 1842, the East India Company sequestered the revenue and salt factories of the Sambhar salt lake that rightfully belonged to the independent Rajput states of Jaipur and Jodhpur. In 1818, faced with the Company’s overwhelming military might, the major Rajput states signed a treaty in which the British offered them political and military “protection” in exchange for heavy cash tribute. By the early 1830s, Jaipur and Jodhpur were swimming in debt and refusing to cooperate with the British. So, from 1835 until 1842, the Company seized the lake at Sambhar, which is still one of India’s largest commercial sources of salt.

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  Timeline

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Imperial Gazetteer of India
, 1909 ed., vol. 26, Atlas: detail of “Rajputana”, p. 34
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The Sambhar lake accounts here in the British Library include long lists of institutions and individuals who had historical rights in the salt revenues of Sambhar, in salt as well as cash. And among the individual recipients of both cash and salt was a courtesan, or “dancing girl”, who was clearly more important than all the other performers at Sambhar. Her name was Mayalee.

What does Mayalee’s appearance in the Company’s official records tell us about interactions between the British colonial state and the Indians whose lives they were increasingly encroaching upon during the 1830s and 40s? In this blogpost, which accompanies my podcast on the Sambhar lake affair, I will look more generally at where musicians and dancers appear in the official records of the East India Company held in the India Office collections of the British Library, and in the National Archives of India.

Indian musicians and dancers appear in official colonial records only rarely, and when they do, what they have to tell us tends not to be about music. Instead, performers’ appearances in the official records open up unusual windows onto much wider concerns.

C A Bayly once wrote that, by the mid nineteenth century (Empire and Information (CUP, 1997), p. 55):

The British were able…to penetrate and control the upper level of networks of runners and newsletter writers with relative ease…yet they excluded themselves from affective and patrimonial knowledges …British understanding, revealingly, was weakest in regard to music and dance [etc.]…though such concerns are near the heart of any civilization.

Bayly’s statement is not necessarily true of individuals such as Sophia Plowden and her fellow-travellers. But it does seem to have been true of the official colonial state. In the 1830s and 40s, the cultural heartlands of North India’s elite musical traditions remained the Mughal court in Delhi and the autonomous princely states of Lucknow, Rajasthan, Gwalior, etc.—though we mustn’t forget there was thriving demand for these arts in the colonial port cities of Calcutta and Bombay, too. An overview of the indexes to the records of the Company’s dealings with the autonomous states c.1830–58 is telling[2]. It indicates that the colonial state was largely uninterested in performing artists; except when they were:

  • perpetrators or victims of crime or disorder, or otherwise involved in court cases;
  • scandalously mixed up in state politics;
  • included as a budget or expenditure line in the household accounts of deposed rulers who were now Company pensioners; or
  • beneficiaries of wills, pensions, land grants, or other forms of disbursements—such as salt in the case of Sambhar.

Criminal and civil cases in which performers faced Company judicial proceedings overwhelmingly seem to have concerned courtesans. This suggests just how wealthy and important courtesans like Mayalee were in the early nineteenth century, but also the general distrust with which they were viewed for their apparently mercenary motives, as well as their physical vulnerability. The British Library’s incomplete set of newsletters (akhbārāt) from Delhi c.1810–30 (Add. 24,038, Add. 23,148–9, Add. 22,624) tell us for example that, on 11 May 1830, the Resident of Delhi, Francis Hawkins (Pernau and Yunus Jaffrey, p.231):

went to the Shish Mahal [in the palace] and held the session of the appeal court. He heard the case of the Raja of Kishangarh and Rasiya, the tawai’f. [The Raja claimed Rs 18,000 from Rasiya and she refused to pay. He] said that he had given her Rs 1,000 and a shawl in advance and that she had no claim to further payment.

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Two courtesans perform the “kite” dance. Plowden Album. Lucknow, 1787–8
© Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, MS 380. All Rights Reserved

Numerous reports of highway robbery and even murder indicate how vulnerable tawā’ifs were to attack on the bandit-infested roads of Upper India. As itinerant professionals who moved from patron to patron carrying plentiful jewels and cash, they were clearly at risk even when they travelled together in large troupes[3].

Certain groups and individual performers became targets of Company suppression for their supposedly malignant interference in the political affairs of autonomous states. The Company’s most famous intervention was in Lucknow in 1848, when the Resident, Colonel Richmond, forced the last Nawab of Awadh, Wajid ‘Ali Shah, to stop appointing “Singers and other improper persons” to government positions, and made him send his notorious favourite, the sitār-player Ghulam Raza, into exile because of his “evil” influence[4]. But of particular relevance to Jodhpur and Jaipur in the 1830s was the Company’s attempt to destroy the power of the Rajput rulers’ customary bards and praise singers, the Bhatts and Charans, whom the British saw as “rapacious” “extortionists” with far too much sway over Rajput politics (see BL MSS Eur D814. Ludlow papers, c.1855).

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Bhatt. From James Skinner's Tashrīh al-Aqwām, Delhi, 1825 (BL Add. 27,255, f. 129v)
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In this case, the British intended to take down these ritual specialists. Elsewhere, the loss of musicians’ livelihoods was probably unintended, though still devastating. What happened to the Nawab Nazim of Murshidabad’s department of entertainment in 1773 is salutary. Music departments existed as bureaucratic units of most princely states long before the British, e.g. the gunijān-khāna or “house of virtuosos” in Jaipur, and the arbāb-i nishāt or “department of entertainment” in Mughal Delhi, Murshidabad, and Hyderabad. They sometimes also appear in Company records as lines in the household accounts of recently deposed rulers, including those for the Nazim of Murshidabad (deposed 1765), which remained a major centre of Mughal musical culture until the 1770s.

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Besya
. The accompanying description of the classes of courtesan includes the bhagtans of the Rajput courts (BL Add. 27,255, f. 137v)
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In 1773, the British decided to slash the Nazim’s household expenditure. The young official placed in charge of this process sent a straitened budget back to Calcutta. All department budgets were slightly reduced—except one, which had a swingeing cut from 1393 rupees per annum to just 16: the budget of the “Arbab Neshat Musicians”[5]. With one pen stroke, a culturally illiterate accountant who considered music to be an unnecessary frippery for a deposed Nazim may have destroyed Murshidabad as a musical centre.

Musicians’ livelihoods were thus directly, and often harshly, affected by the Company’s interference, both intentional and unintentional, in older Indian modes of compensation for cultural labour. So what then of charitable grants and pensions: in cash, land, or things the British saw as valuable commodities, like salt? Company officials were clearly not at all averse to meddling in the customary and economic practices of autonomous states when they felt it was warranted, especially where their revenue maximisation was at stake. And as Roy Moxham has observed (The Great Hedge of India. Constable, 2001), where salt revenues were concerned, the Company was insatiably greedy.  But the appearance of Mayalee dancing girl and her colleagues within the salt-revenue records of the Sambhar lake affair—the subject of my next book—also reveals that the Company never had it all their own way.

Mayalee the dancing girl refused point blank to obey the British instruction to accept cash in lieu of the salt stipend that was her traditional due. And Jaipur and Jodhpur defied the Company in order to pay her in salt. To find out why—and what all this meant for Sambhar, Jaipur, Jodhpur, and the Company—you will have to listen to the podcast!

The images in this blogpost accompany the podcast and will help guide your imagination as I explore what the Company records inadvertently reveal about the lives and customs of all those who worked and ate the salt of Jaipur and Jodhpur, through the jarring misunderstandings and unintended consequences of East India Company interference in the operations of Sambhar salt lake.

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Portrait of Jagat Singh II. Jaipur, 1810–15 (BL Add. Or. 5132)
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Photograph of Ram Singh II. Jaipur, 1870s (BL Photo 127/(8))

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Rag Hindol; Krishna surrounded by female musicians. Jaipur, c.1850 (BL Add. Or. 2856)
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Engraving of Lieut. Col. John Ludlow, 6th Bengal Native Infantry (BL P1538)
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Collecting salt at Sambhar Lake, Jaipur state, 1870s (BL Photo 355/1(58))
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With full credits and thanks on the podcast website

Katherine Butler Schofield, King's College London
 ccownwork


[1] Her name is variously spelled Meyalee, Myalee and Mayalee in the accounts.
[2] The records of the East India Company’s dealings with the autonomous states are found in the Foreign Consultations and Proceedings in the National Archives of India, and the General Correspondence [E] and Board of Control General Records [F] files of the India Office records at the British Library.
[3] Tr. Margrit Pernau and Yunus Jaffrey, Information and the Public Sphere (OUP, 2009), pp. 69, 165, 231, 253–4.
[4] National Archives of India, Foreign Political Consultations (NAI FCP) 8 Jul 1848.
[5] NAI FCP 25 Jan 1773.

14 February 2019

Jewish love potions: a user's guide

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Would you like some help in your pursuit of your beloved? Our Hebrew manuscript collection can offer numerous love potion recipes and incantations, and now is the best time of year to share some of this wisdom with you.

Whether you are a diligent pupil of magic, or just a desperately love sick muggle, you can find a long list of love potions, incantations and amulets by browsing our digitised Jewish manuscripts. Finding the required ingredients and following all of the instructions might prove to be much more difficult. What’s more, the preparation of many of these potions involves starving animals to death, slaughtering, or mutilating them. Such cruelty would be unacceptable nowadays, even in the name of love. Luckily, we have been able to find some less gruesome prescriptions.

The collection at the British Library holds several manuscripts on folk medicine and kabbalistic-medical miscellanies, mostly from the 16th-18th century. Many contain prescriptions of kabbalistic amulets alongside with medical remedies, which demonstrates the lack of a strict differentiation between what we would now call medicine, magic, and astrology. Superstition and the belief in supernatural powers were an inherent part of folk medicine. So do not be surprised if you find a love potion after a protective incantation against dogs, or after a recipe on how to stop nose bleeding.

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ʿEts ha-daʿat
by Elishaʿ ben Gad of Anconah, Italy, 1535/6: love potion and amulet (right), incantation to obtain favour in the eyes of kings and princes (left) (BL Or 12362 , ff. 30v-31r)
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The majority of these magical/medical manuscripts are small in size, and don’t look anything special at first sight. One exception is a 16th-century Italian copy of ʿEts ha-daʿat (Tree of Knowledge) by Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, a treatise containing 125 kabbalistic formulae (kemeʿot). Our copy was written in a neat Italian hand and is decorated with initial-word panels and diagrams throughout. Do not trust the pretty looks though. The scribe made a fatal mistake when copying this love potion.

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ʿEts ha-daʿat by Elishaʿ ben Gad of Anconah, Italy, 1535/6: love potion recipe (BL Or 12362 , f. 30r)
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לאהבה – להרבות אהבה בין חתן וכלה כשתבא הכלה מהחופה לאחר גמר עשיית הברכה כתוב שם שניהם עם דבש על ב' עלי סלוויאה ותן לאכול העלה שכתוב עליו האיש לאיש ושם האשה לאשה

For love – to increase love between bridegroom and bride – when the bride comes from the huppah [canopy under which the Jewish couple is standing during the wedding ceremony] after finishing saying the blessing, write their names in honey onto two sage leaves and give the leaf with the man’s name on it to the man and the one with the woman’s name on it to the woman.

A less impressive volume from the 18th-19th century includes the same recipe but this time correctly (Or 10268). Can you spot the difference?

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Collection of medical recipes, Italy?, 18th-19th century: love potion (BL Or 10268 , f. 10r)
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להרבות אהבה בין חתן וכלה – כשיבאו מהחופה לאחר עשיית הברכה כתוב שם שניהם עם דבש על ב' עלי סלוויאה ותן לאכול העלה שכתוב עליו שם האיש לאשה ושם האשה לאיש

To increase love between bridegroom and bride – when they come from the huppah after saying the blessing, write their names in honey onto two sage leaves and give the leaf with the man’s name on it to the woman and [the one with] the woman’s name to the man.

This latter manuscript might have been someone’s personal notebook, who took better care when recording the recipe compared to the scribe of the neat looking Italian volume (Or 12362), perhaps because it was for his personal usage?

The recipe must have been considered a very effective one, since we also found it in an abridged form, in a 17th-century Ashkenazi collection of recipes and kabbalistic charms, probably written in today’s Belarus or Lithuania. This version written in Hebrew peppered with some Yiddish, recommends to apply the potion before the wedding night:

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Collection of kabbalistic charms and remedies, 17th century: love potion (in the middle) between instructions on how to avoid persecution and how to find favour in the eyes of rulers (BL Or 10568 , f. 10v)
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לאהבה חתן וכלה בלילה ראשונה יקח ב' זעלבן בלעטיר וכתוב עליו בדבש ותן לו לאכל שמו ושמה

For love between groom and bridegroom at the first night: take 2 Selben(sic!) bletter (‘sage leaves’, in Yiddish) and write on them in honey and give him (ie. them) to eat his name and her name.

It seems that it would be quite easy to make this recipe, and it might be delicious. However, if you do not manage to charm your beloved with honey and sage leaves, you can also experiment with some of the more laborious, but also more gruesome prescriptions. A 17th-century Italian folk medicine collection includes a recipe for a creamy substance that, after having applied it on your face and body, allegedly makes you irresistible. We have not tried it, and are rather sceptical about its success… Moreover, on a practical note, the identification of some of the ingredients is challenging.

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Collection of folk remedies, Italy, 17th century: love potion (BL Or 10161 , f. 34r)
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לאהבה קח עין צפרדע הנק' בוטן ועין עורב ותערבם עם שמן רוסטן ומשח פניך וגופך ויאהבוך כל האדם ותמצא חן בעיני כל רואיך באהר

For love: take an eye of a frog called 'boten' and an eye of crow and mix them with 'rusṭan' oil and rub it onto your face and body, and every man will love you and you will find favour in the eyes of all those who see you […]

The next recipe found in another 17th-century medical collection is much easier to prepare, though it may be tricky to administer it to the person of your desire.

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Collection of remedies, Orient, 17th century: love potion (Or 10462 , f. 11v)
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ע"א - חתוך צפרניך בסכין אח"כ רחצן במים ותן לשתות למי שתרצה ואהבך או חתוך בו תפוח ונתנהו לאכול

One more [for love] – cut your nails with a knife and then rinse them in water and give it to drink to whoever you want to fall in love with you or slice up some apple with the nails [put the nail into the apple] and give it to eat.

If you prefer not to bend over a cauldron for hours stirring concoctions, uttering the right magical formulae may also help. You only need a good mirror and some proficiency in medieval magical Hebrew, because the instructions are a bit confusing…

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Collection of cabbalistic charms and remedies, 17th century: love magic (BL Or 10568 , f. 12r)
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לאהבה קח מראה טיהרא ושפירא ותאמר למראה תתסכל בצורתי ואני אסתכל בצורתך ואתה תסתכל בצורת' ותאהבתה אותה עליו וכן תעשה ג' ימים זה אחר זה ותנח עליו ג' לילות ותאהבוך

For love – take a clear and good mirror and say to the mirror: ‘Look at my figure and I will look at your figure and you look at her figure and you will make her fall in love with him.’ Do this for three consecutive days and lie on it (the mirror) for three nights and she will love you.

Our collection can offer advice and help also for those who have already found the love of their life, but something or someone has cast a shadow over their marital bliss. This next recipe is especially recommended if you suspect that someone put a curse on your husband. Or if you just want to have a tasty breakfast together.

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Collection of remedies, Orient, 17th century: love potion preceded by a recipe to stop menstrual bleeding (BL Or 10462, f. 11r-11v)
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לאהבה בין איש לאשתו ואפי' מכושף קח מים מן נהרות ויין ומור ופלפל ושני בצי יונים ושני בצי תרנגולת ושחקם וערב הכל יחד והשקה האיש ואת האשה ויאהבו זה את זה

For love between husband and his wife or even he is under a spell [i.e. impotent]: take spring water, wine, and myrrh, and pepper, and two dove eggs and two hen eggs and break them, and mix them together, and give the mixture to drink to the man and the woman, and they will love each other.

Good luck in your amorous endeavours and if you try any of these recipes, please, send us feedback on how they worked.

Zsofi Buda, BL Hebrew Project
 CC-BY-SA

07 February 2019

Classical Central Asia in the Digital Age: Three Newly-Digitised Navoiy Manuscripts at the British Library

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Thanks to a partnership between the British Library and the Tashkent State University of Uzbek Language and Literature named Alisher Navoiy, three manuscripts including the poetical works of Alisher Navoiy are now available online. These three items are the first Chagatai-language texts to be uploaded to the Library’s digitised manuscript holdings, a sample of the more than 110 Chagatai and Central Asian Turkic manuscripts held by the British Library as part of its Turkish and Turkic collections.

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A leaf from the Muntakhab-i Dīvān-i Navā'ī with richly decorated paper appliqués and gold-leaf. Despite the water damage, the manuscript has retained its luxurious beauty. Herat, 15th-16th century (BL Or. 3493, f. 4v)
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All three works contain Divans, or poetical compendia, of the work of Alisher Navoiy, also known as ‘Ali Shīr Navā’ī. Navoiy was born in 1441 CE in Herat, Afghanistan, at a time when it was part of the Timurid Empire, and died in the same city in 1501 CE. He is the national poet of Uzbekistan and is regarded as one of the great poets of the mediaeval Turkic world. His broad oeuvre is a testament to the cultural, intellectual and social flowering of Khorasan in the 15th century CE, and to the importance of Herat in the broad mosaic of Turkic cultural production. The works are also an introduction to classical Chagatai, the literary language of Turkic Central Asia and Siberia. Little known or studied today outside of specialist circles, Chagatai was also the language of the Mughals, who established their reign over parts of the Indian Subcontinent in 1526.

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A rare sketch from inside the Muntakhab-i i Dīvān-i Navā'ī showing a Central Asian man in traditional dress. Herat, 15th-16th century (BL Or. 3493, f. 5v)
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Or.3493, the most delicate of our digitised Chagatai manuscripts, is a marvel to behold. Only 9 folios in length, this collection of poems from Navoiy’s divan dazzles with its creator’s penchant for brightly-coloured paper appliqués, gold illumination, and sweeping, bold nastaliq calligraphy. The presence of blue, yellow, green and pink blocks in between the stanzas gives the entire text an architectonic feel; a 3D illusion that draws in the reader. This pattern is broken only by the use of gold separators on later pages, and the appearance of a portly, kneeling Central Asian man on one of the manuscript’s middle folios. Despite occasional water damage – and the fact that the content is itself defective – this small volume remains a testament to the capacity of Herat’s manuscripts producers to create items of luxury and beauty as well as those of functional purpose.

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The beginning of the Dīvān-i Fānī, including its sparsely decorated 'unvān. Central Asia, 916 AH (BL Or. 11249, f. 1v)
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Or.11249, produced in 916 AH (1509-10 CE) in Central Asia, is the least studied of the Chagatai items added to our digital collections. Known as both the Dīvān-i Fānī and the Dīvān-i Navā’ī, it is the most comprehensive of the group with respect to Navoiy’s poetical oeuvre. The use of black ink and red catchwords is far from unusual, and the neatly laid-out nastaliq of the scribe’s hand leads us to believe that this was likely created within a workshop well-versed in the production of divans and other such works. Occasional marginalia speak to the usage of this volume – as does the water damage that stains some of its folios. With further in-depth research on its contents, and a comparison with other contemporaneous Central Asian manuscripts, we might come to know the importance of this particular item within the broader scope of Central Asian intellectual traditions.

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The beginning of the text Tukhfat al-salāṭīn at koyuldu, demonstrating the use of different coloured inks to complement the elegant calligraphy. Mecmua. Herat, 914 AH (BL Add MS 7914, f. 25v)
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Add MS 7914, the last of the three manuscripts, is not dedicated to Navoiy exclusively. A mecmua or codex of various works compiled in Herat in 914 AH (1507-08 CE), it contains a variety of different texts created by nine different authors in a myriad of styles. Its breadth of poetic and prose creation and intellectual inspiration speak volumes about the interplay of Turkic and Persian literary traditions across Eurasia. Within these is found Navoiy’s Tuḥfat al-salāṭin, a collection of poems copied out by the scribe ‘Abd al-Jamīl Kātib. The remaining poems are varied in content. Some are works in verse about love and longing, such as Amīrī’s Dah nāmah, which tells a romantic story through ten letters. Others poeticise the Central Asian martial arts, debate the merits of wine and hashish, or adapt circulating Persian forms into Chagatai poetry, as Ḥaydar Talba Khorazmī’s didactic poem based on a Persian version by Niẓāmi so aptly demonstrates. This diversity of content is reflected in the construction of the volume, where naskh and nastaliq, black and coloured inks, chaos and clarity make appearances depending on the demands of the individual patrons, and the skill of the particular scribes.

The British Library’s holdings of Ottoman and Chagatai manuscripts contain another 30-odd texts first penned by Alisher Navoiy. It is our hope that, in the coming years, many more of these will find their way onto Digitised Manuscripts, facilitating more intensive and complete study and enjoyment of Turkic Central Asia’s literary and cultural heritage.

Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
 ccownwork

23 January 2019

Researching the Asian and African Collections at the British Library

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The Asian and African department at the British Library began 2019 with one of the most important annual events in our calendar: a training day for students beginning their doctoral dissertations. Approximately fifty students from across the UK were introduced to the collections and the best ways to research them.

It was a ‘really fantastic’ experience, according to one participant, who explained that ‘the collections of the BL can be wonderful but overwhelming so it was incredibly helpful being introduced to what there is and how to use them’.

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Items on display at the ‘Meet the Curators session’

So, what were the top tips from the day? Where should researchers begin when confronted with the enormous collections at the British Library? If you haven’t used our collections yet – or if you have, but aren’t too sure how it all works – then this blog will get you started.


Where to start

The first place to look is our subject hub pages. (You can also get there from the front page of our website by going to the ‘Catalogues and Collections’ menu, then selecting ‘Overview of the Collections’.)

These pages give you a quick overview of what’s in the BL’s collections, how you can access it, and what you can get elsewhere. It’s an essential place to start, so that you know the sort of things you can search for in our catalogues and what we’re likely to have (as well as what we don’t have).
Subject hub imageRelevant subject hubs for Asian and African Studies via https://www.bl.uk/subjects


Understanding our collections

The British Library’s collections are huge. They are:

  • from all over the world
  • in all major world languages, and many others
  • in all disciplines, and
  • historical and contemporary.

We hold material in a very wide range of formats. If, so far, you’ve only thought about using books and manuscripts or archives, it could be worth asking how other items (perhaps sound recordings, or maps) could bring new dimensions to your research.

Collection formats
Different collection formats in the British Library


Searching the collections

There are two main catalogues:

Explore the British Library, for (mainly) published material:

  • Books and serials
  • Newspapers
  • Maps
  • Audio-visual material
  • Doctoral theses
  • E-resources
  • Archived websites
  • Printed music

Explore Archives and Manuscripts, for (mainly) unpublished material:

  • Archives
  • Manuscripts
  • Visual collections

Both catalogues indicate hard-copy and digital material.

Additional catalogues are also available via our website, and these may give more detail on particular collections. For example, the Sound and Moving Image catalogue is recommended for audio-visual collections.

Show and tell 2
Hebrew and Christian Orient curator Ilana Tahan showing some BL collection items at the doctoral training day


Using the collections: in the Reading Rooms

For physical/hard-copy items, you’ll need to come into our Reading Rooms (having first obtained a Reader Pass). Our full collections are available for research at our main building in St Pancras, London. You can also see many items (but not everything) in our Reading Room at Boston Spa, Wetherby, Yorkshire.

For licensing reasons, some electronic material is only available on-site in our Reading Rooms. The most important thing to be aware of in this respect is our collection of subscription e-resources. These are electronic packages which the British Library buys and/or subscribes to. They include:

  • bibliographies and other reference tools
  • journals and e-books, and
  • collections of primary sources.

University libraries also offer these packages, but we have many things which individual libraries may not hold, so it’s always worth checking. The best way to find out what we have is to go to our electronic resources page.

Remote access to a few of these resources is available to Reader Pass holders, and may increase in future. Where this service is offered, it’s indicated on the electronic resources page.

E-resources Japan sample search
Sample search for electronic resources on Japan

The British Library is given one free copy of every book published or distributed in the UK. This is called legal deposit, and these days about half of this material come to us as e-books. These electronic publications are also only available in the Reading Rooms. These can be identified through Explore the British Library and read on the Reading Room computers.


Using the collections: online

We are digitising more and more of our collections, which means that some of the material you’ll find in our catalogues is available free online.

Manuscripts from our collections are available through the Digitised Manuscripts portal, which includes (but is not limited to) Ethiopic, Hebrew, Malay, Persian and Thai manuscripts. See the Asian and African Studies blog for more on these digitised manuscripts.

  • The Endangered Archives Programme offers large collections of archives and manuscripts from many African and Asian countries online. (The originals remain in the country of origin.)

Doctoral theses (dissertations) from most UK universities can be downloaded or requested via our EThOS service. In many cases, it’s free.

  • The Qatar Digital Library has digitised many India Office Records and Arabic manuscripts held by the British Library. These are of particular relevance to the history of the Middle East, but also relate to East Africa and the Horn, as well as other regions.

Many older books in our collections have been digitised and are available through Explore the British Library. When you find records for these items, you can click through to the full text, which is also available in Google Books.

E-book picture
Catalogue record and digitised full text of a work by the Rev. Samuel Ajayi Crowther, Bishop on the Niger

For more information on what’s available online, see our Digital Collections page as well as the subject hub pages for your area.

And finally…talk to us!

We know that the BL is complicated and staff in Asian and African Collections are happy to point you in the right direction. You can reach us online, or by talking to the staff on the enquiry desk in the Asian and African Studies Reading Room. Enquiries are handled by a specialist reference team, and referred to curators if necessary.

And don’t forget our blog, a mine of information on our collections.

Show and tell 3
Discussions at the doctoral training day


Marion Wallace, Lead Curator, Africa
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad37726d4200c-pi

17 January 2019

The Other March of the Penguins: A Flightless Mascot for Dissent in Turkey

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In advance of Penguin Awareness Day on Sunday January 20, we tell this story of how a bumbling and beloved resident of the globe’s southern shores became a symbol of dissent and defiance for a generation of Turkish citizens.

Çapulcu Penguen_1500
Çapulcu Penguen, or Looter Penguin, is the cuddly mascot of Penguen magazine dressed as a masked demonstrator from the Gezi Park protests. At the start of the demonstrations, then-Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan referred to the protestors as çapulcular - looters or marauders - as a way to discredit their movement. Cover of a Çapulcu Penguen notebook, Istanbul: Penguen, [2015?]

On 28 May 2013, a group of environmentalists occupied Gezi Park in Taksim Square, Istanbul. They were protesting the government’s decision to remove one of central Istanbul’s last green spaces in order to make way for a new shopping centre and mosque. When armed police were sent in to remove the protestors for a second time on May 31, the demonstrations ballooned, with 100 000 people marching down İstiklal Avenue, Istanbul’s most prominent shopping street. The momentum of anti-government activism gathered quickly, and soon strikes, occupations, and marches occurred across the country. All manner of calls were made, from the demands of anti-capitalist Muslims and religious minorities, to the concerns of Armenians, Kurds and LGBT people about the abrogation of their rights.

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Cumhuriyet Anıtı (Republic Memorial) in Taksim Square covered with flags and protest banners during the protests in June 2013. © Michael James Erdman

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A crowd gathers to listen to speakers at the Gezi Park occupation, June 2013. © Michael James Erdman

On June 2, while foreign media were reporting on the extent of the unrest, Turkish media remained remarkably quiet . CNNTürk, taking its cue from government media outlets, broadcast a documentary about penguins rather than coverage of the protests crippling the country’s economic and political centres. Turks, who have a long, vaunted tradition of political satire , did not waste this opportunity, and soon real and virtual spaces were filled with mocking memes referencing penguins and the government’s refusal to engage with its citizens. Penguins are not native to Turkey; these images were either taken from photographs floating about the Internet or, in the vein of another longstanding Turkish tradition, appeared in cartoon form. Indeed, such 2D animated activists featured prominently in two publications springing from the same spirit of political engagement that fed the Gezi Park Protests which can be found in the British Library’s Turkish collections.

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The logo of the publishing group Peng!, resposible for publishing Penguen magazine and the title of the Penguen magazine series, featuring the a determined cartoon penguin with his hang glider. Penguen 2014 Karikatür Yıllığı, Istanbul: Peng!, 2014 (BL YP.2018.b.538)

Penguen 2014 Karikatür Yıllığı, our first example, is a compendium of the caricatures in the satirical magazine Penguen published in the year 2014. The periodical first appeared in 2002, and soon became the most widely sold weekly magazine in Turkey. Its mascot, a chubby penguin notable for his predilection for hang gliders (and flying) was drawn by the cartoonist Selçuk Erdem. The magazine quickly made a name for itself as being fearless in its biting satire. It was promptly sued in 2005 by then Prime Minister Reccep Tayyip Erdoğan because of a cartoon depicting him as a cat. The magazine was acquitted, but continued to face angry responses for its oppositional, pro-secularist stances; its offices were even firebombed in 2012. It was almost serendipitous, then, that penguins should be coopted as a symbol of media acquiescence to and complicity with government repression in June 2013, allowing Penguen to highlight that these cuddly lovers of fish and snowy frolics also have a subversive and revolutionary side.

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Cover of the Penguen 2014 Karikatür Yıllığı featuring a cartoon criticising official practices of charity and social assistance. Penguen 2014 Karikatür Yıllığı, Istanbul: Peng!, 2014 (BL YP.2018.b.538)

In 2017, Penguen’s owners announced that they would be closing up shop with only a month’s notice. They cited both a decline in magazine readership in Turkey and increased government repression. In their unsigned farewell letter, the editors of Penguen thanked their readers, caricaturists, authors, journalists, and even politicians, “who were guests on our covers and our Agenda pages.” They also speculated that “perhaps one day we will encounter once more a freer Press. If anything remains that can be called the Press…” Over the years, the magazine provided a space for amateur cartoonists to submit their own drawings and rise to prominence. In 2007, six of its cartoonists started up the satirical magazine Uykusuz [Insomniac], which continues Penguen’s mission, and can also be found in the British Library’s collections.

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The cover of Raşel Meseri's Pen Parkta (Pen at the Park), showing Pen the Penguin erupting from his televisual prison. Meser, Raşel, Pen Parkta, Istanbul: Habitus Minör, 2015 (BL YP.2017.a.2606)

The second penguin-themed publication in our discussion is Raşel Meseri’s Pen Parkta [Pen at the Park, a graphic novel in Turkish, Armenian and Kurmanji Kurdish illustrated by Suzanne Karssenberg. The story follows Pen, a penguin like those featured in the documentary aired on CNNTürk, as he erupts from a TV screen in Istanbul and tours the city. He heads to Gezi Park, eager to liberate his fellow penguins from their televised prisons, and meets up with other furry and feathered protestors along the way, exploring the causes of the demonstrators’ anger, and their hopes for change. The choice of languages is far from random. They represent the communities that came together in Gezi Park to make their voices heard; three tongues that, despite official narratives, have each added their own notes to Istanbul’s harmony. Pen Park’ta uses a simple narrative with endearing and engaging imagery to tell the story of the object’s transformation into subject; of the unwitting liar who becomes a warrior of truth.

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A happy ending for Pen's beleaguered fellow penguins, as the crowds at Gezi Park come to assist in their liberation. Meser, Raşel, Pen Parkta, Istanbul: Habitus Minör, 2015 (BL YP.2017.a.2606)

Your average penguin might not have a fist to raise in defiance, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t oppose the powers that be – at least not in Turkey. Indeed, in 2013, this flightless bird, so often characterised as docile, defenseless, and dedicated, became a symbol of resistance and empowerment. It was, perhaps, an apt metaphor for sections of Turkish society in the age of Erdoğan: those who shed their cloaks of passivity to engage in their own March of the Penguins.

Michael Erdman, Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad37726d4200c-pi