THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

188 posts categorized "Middle East"

01 April 2021

Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing

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Between April-June 2021 the British Library and Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, will co-host Histories and Archives of Arabic Publishing: an online series of talks exploring publishing practices in Arabic as a site for unfolding intellectual networks, artistic practices and political imaginaries from the 1960s until the present.

Two-ring binder open with black and white page of illustrations, atop a green open-topped box with obscured items
From the collected archive for the project Borrowed Faces by Fehras Publishing Practices, Berlin, 2018-2021.

© Ferras Publishing Practices

The series has been co-curated and convened by Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History at Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and Daniel Lowe, Curator of Arabic Collections at the British Library.

The series has been organised in partnership with the Delfina Foundation, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge, and the Middle East History Group, Faculty of History, University of Cambridge.

Video still showing a white board with writing in black ink and lines in blue ink, with a hand at the bottom holding a writing instrument
Video still from Past Disquiet.
© Past Disquiet

Engaging with a variety of artistic, design, archival, curatorial and academic research projects, this series will reflect on the multiple and overlapping worlds of publishing and on the contemporary efforts to reconstruct and reimagine them.

Learning from the leading practitioners in the field, the series examines past and present practices of publishing in Arabic. It explores questions of scale of operations and reach; mediums and formats; audience and language; and the social and political context that gave rise to the practices in question. The series also explores contemporary collecting practices of publishing archives. It highlights collections’ capacity to foreground publishing archives not merely as a signifier of other historical processes but as a historical process in its own right.

 

Split image, with colour and black and white covers of books and pamphlets on the left, some in Latin script and some in Arabic script, some with titles blacked out, laid out in an overlapping fashion, and on the right a headshot of a woman with chin-length curly hair standing against a white textured wall, with shadow obscuring part of her face
Left: Image courtesy of Kayfa ta.
© Kayfa ta

Right: Hala Auji. 
© Hala Auji

 

How to maneuver: shapeshifting texts and other publishing tactics

The first session in the series on Tuesday 27 April at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) brings together artists and curators Ala Younis and Maha Maamoun, in conversation with art historian Hala Auji, to talk about Kayfa ta: On Shapeshifting Texts and Other Publishing Tactics. In 2012, they founded Kayfa ta as an independent publishing initiative that emerged from a need to break out of the limited readership and distribution of alternative books: books that cross genres, engage a mixed range of writers and readers, and are not driven by restrictive market values that control who and what is publishable. Their project is also interested in identifying the mechanisms of “gate-keeping”, be they in art or publishing, that shape and limit the voices and practices that have access to a wider public. In 2019, Kayfa ta expanded its interest into understanding the wider field of self and independent publishing and distribution, as well as the new challenges facing access of the private to shared public platforms, and the space left to maneuver the mounting obstacles therein. Their talk explores the expanded fields of contemporary publishing and distribution – modes of making-public and of public–making, as developed through quotidian as well as artistic strategies – as a revealing entry point to understanding contemporary efforts to limit and expand the space of the commons.

 

Split image with colour photograph of seven books standing up in a line on the left, and a black and white photograph of a man wearing spectacles on the right
Left: Arabic Design Library by Khatt Books.
© Khatt Books

Right: Moe Elhossieny.
© Ahmed Othman

 

Archives of design and designing the archive

On Tuesday 11 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Huda Smitshuijzen AbiFarès, Founding Director of the Khatt Foundation and Khatt Books publishers, will speak on The Arabic Design Library: Alternative Narratives from the Arab World. She will address the importance of documenting and presenting an alternative design history from parts of the world that are rarely covered in main-stream design publications. She will present the series of design monographs, The Arabic Design Library, published by Khatt Books since 2016. The series covers the work of some of the Arab world's design pioneers (including the likes of Hilmi al-Tuni, Saloua Raouda Choucair, Dia Azzawi, Nasri Khattar and Abdulkader Arnaout) who were practicing in the period stretching from the 1960s to the 1980s and who in their own way, engaged with design as a tool for political emancipation and socio-cultural progress.

She will be joined by Cairo-based multidisciplinary designer, researcher and writer Moe Elhosseiny who will speak on Arabic Cover Design Archive: Digital Archives as Design Activism. Through engaging with Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever, he takes a critical approach to history, archival practices and access in relation to collective memory in South Western Asia and North Africa. With archives being suppressed, neglected, avoided, or locked away, there is an urgency to support collective memory building. Consequently, forms of digital archiving may take on the role of design activism. Elhosseiny founded the Arabic Cover Design Archive which seeks to surface and record book design practices throughout the history of Arabic publishing, providing an accessible digital extension to an often inaccessible physical archive. By making the archive visible through digital means, this project multiplies the instances where engagement with this material can occur. It thus aims to increase the potentiality for creating meaning and greasing the wheels of knowledge production while simultaneously alerting the public to the existence of their history.

 

Split image with a photograph of three men, one bare-headed and two on left with hoods, standing in a close group, and right side showing a woman with medium length hair facing the camera with her shoulders and head centred
Left: Fehras Publishing Practices: Sami Rustom, Kenan Darwich, Omar Nicolas.
© Fehras Publishing Practices

Right: Zeina Maasri
© Zeina Maasri

 

Visualising the archive: Arabic publishing during the Cold War

On Tuesday 25 May at 17:00 BST (register via Zoom) Zeina Maasri, senior lecturer in the School of Humanities at the University of Brighton, will speak alongside Berlin-based artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices (Sami Rustom, Omar Nicolas and Kenan Darwich) about their respective projects on Arabic publishing during the Cold War.

In her talk The Visual Politics and Poetics of Arabic Publishing, Maasri will explore Beirut’s development from the late 1950s to the mid-1970s as a nexus of transnational Arab artistic encounter, intellectual debate and political contestation, which was marked by anticolonial struggle and complicated by a cold war order. Central to this nodal configuration was the city’s infrastructure of printing, Arabic publishing and distribution that sparked creative collaborations between various Arab artists, intellectuals and militants who crossed paths in Beirut. These transnational circuits have materialised in some of the pioneering modernist Arabic cultural periodicals of the period, as well as in politically radical publishing projects that summoned revolutionary change and solidarity with the Palestinian liberation struggle. Her talk centres the visuality and materiality of Arabic publications as important sites of aesthetic experimentation and as reproducible and mobile artefacts of print culture. She argues that the translocal visuality of such Arabic printscapes helped articulate political imaginaries, mobilize cross-border identifications and shape aesthetic sensibilities in and through the disjunctive flows of the global sixties.

Likewise, through their project Borrowed Faces, Fehras Publishing Practices focuses on the Cold War era as one of the most fertile and critical periods in the history of Arab culture and publishing because of the entanglement between politics and culture. Their ongoing project researches cultural policies, and intellectual hegemony pursued by the bipolar power, the United States and the Soviet Union, and their establishment of institutions to fund international networks, conferences and projects. It observes the transformation of culture and publishing in the region from within, where new literary styles and ideas started to emerge. At the core of these movements were publishers, writers, poets, and translators, some of whom established collectives and seminars or who launched initiatives, publications, and publishing houses. Borrowed Faces looks into this period by observing the common denominators between cultural practices then and today. Pursuing these lines of inquiry, the project digs into print archives from the 1950s and 60s, such as books, magazines, memoirs, personal letters, newspaper articles, and photographs.

 

Split image showing on the left a colour photograph of an exhibition space with free-standing black stands, movable orange walls, and cream and green structural wall, all with artwork on them; on right hand side, headshot of a woman with hair to her jaw, smiling
Left: Exhibition view, Past Disquiet, Sursock Museum, Beirut, Lebanon, July 27-October 1, 2018.
Photograph: Christopher Baaklini, Courtesy: Sursock Museum.

Right: Refqa Abu-Remaileh
© Refqa Abu-Remaileh

 

Fragmented archives and histories of solidarity

The final session in the series on Tuesday 8 June at 17:00 (register via Zoom) brings together Refqa Abu-Remaileh and Kristine Khouri to speak about their respective archival and curatorial projects.

In her talk  A Database for Palestinian Literature, Abu-Remaileh will share the work-in-progress of the ERC project PalREAD-Country of Words. Focusing on PalREAD’s use of digital tools, the talk will discuss the challenges and joys of tracing and mapping a highly fragmented and scattered history of Palestinian literary production in Arabic from the early 20th century to the present spanning a multiplicity of geographical locations around the globe.

Researcher and writer Kristine Khouri’s talk Reflections on the (Digital) Future(s) of Past Disquiet focuses on her decade long research project conducted with Rasha Salti which took the form of an archival and documentary exhibition, publication, and seminars and other discursive events. The project investigated the histories of art collections and museums built in solidarity with political causes for Palestine, Chile, Nicaragua and South Africa as well as unearthed histories of transnational artistic solidarity networks of anti-imperialist and anti-colonial liberation struggles from the 1960s to the 1990s. While the exhibition presented the research in the form of text, digital surrogates of archival and other materials, video montages of interviews with participants and other testimonies and film and other footage, the exhibition did not exhibit any artwork. Today, over a decade later, the question remains on how to treat the digital archive which has been built throughout the project, gathering surrogates of documents held primarily in private homes or difficult to find ephemera of histories that have yet to be properly written. The talk will explore some of the reflections and challenges in thinking about the digital (and other) afterlives of Past Disquiet and ways to imagine encouraging further research.

Full abstracts and speaker biographies for the series can be found here. For any further enquiries please email Hana Sleiman and Daniel Lowe.

Hana Sleiman, Research Fellow in History, Murray Edwards College, University of Cambridge
Daniel Lowe, Curator, Arabic Collections
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29 March 2021

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

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Manuscript page with half-page painting in full colour of a man and woman in traditional Azerbaijani dress seated on the grass amidst various lively flora and fauna, with two columns of Arabic-script text above and below, surrounded by a thin red border with a thick gilt border around the entire page
An illustration of a dream sequence featuring two individuals seated in a garden from a 16th-century recension of the story of Layla and Majnun in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 97r)
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As a Canadian in London, one thing that makes me roll my eyes is being asked to say the word “about”. Everyone expects me to exhibit what’s known as Canadian raising, where those of us from Southern Ontario say the word as if it were spelled “aboot”. People have a good chuckle, and I grumpily insist we don’t do that in Toronto, and then we go on our merry ways. It’s not really all that important, but it does make me think, sometimes, about the assumption that English words are meant to be read one and one way only. Perhaps “about” should sound like “aboot”; and “caught” and “cot” should be distinct from one another; and “think” and “fink” really ought to be homonyms. What about going the other way, from writing into speech? If I write “about”, how do you know I didn’t mean for it to be pronounced “aboot”? For London to be heard as Lundon? Or that “breed!” is actually an instruction for you to breathe? In truth, our assumptions about these choices say more about our own backgrounds and prejudices than we care to reveal. The same can be said about many other linguistic communities, both historic and current, around the globe. In the Turkic collections, a particularly interesting example of this phenomenon appears in our holdings of Azerbaijani manuscripts.

Page of printed text primarily in Arabic script with some Cyrillic script, arranged in three columns beneath a large black-ink masthead featuring Arabic calligraphy
The first page of the newspaper Nicat (Salvation), published in Azerbaijani in Arabic script during the Tsarist period. (Nicat, 1:1 (Baku: Nicat Qiraatxanǝsi, 20 November 1910). ORB.30/342)
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It wouldn’t be one of my blogs if it didn’t start off with some sort of caveat. So, let’s get it out of the way. I use the term “ Azerbaijani” broadly in line with Euro-Atlantic linguistics: to denote a Turkic language of the Oghuz sub-branch that is closely related to Istanbul Turkish , and that is spoken in the Caucasus (especially the Republic of Azerbaijan) and in northwestern Iran. In English, we also have recourse to the shortcut Azeri, which usually means the Turkic language Azerbaijani. But Azeri might also mean Old Azeri or Azari, a now-dormant Western Iranian language from the same region that might be linked genetically to Tati or Talysh. In the Republic of Azerbaijan, the official name of the language is Azərbaycan dili (“Azerbaijan language"), but it can also be called Azərbaycanca (making use of the -ca/cə language suffix), or, less frequently, Azəricə. In this region, Azerbaijani was largely written in the Arabic script until the early 20th century, when the Soviet authorities first imposed the Latin-based Uniform alphabet in the late 1920s, and then a modified Cyrillic alphabet in the 1930s. In 1991, the year in which complete independence was achieved, the Republic of Azerbaijan officially adopted the Latin script for the language.


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

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

Stylized image of soldier in Soviet infantry uniform in red, gray, black and white, which detail in his face only, an colour blocking for rest of the image. Bold black text in Latin script is found on the left and top margins of the page
The cover of a periodical produced in Baku, Azerbaijan in the 1930s featuring the Latin alphabet imposed by Soviet authorities between 1927 and the late 1930s. (InqilaB vǝ Mǝdǝnijjǝt, 1-2 (Baku: AzǝriNǝshr, 1934). ITA.1986.c.18(9))
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As always, there are considerable political implications to the choice of terminology. My intention here is to mirror common Anglophone usage of the terminology, not to promote a particular movement or point of view. That said, the question arises: what makes something an “Azerbaijani” manuscript? The British Library holds some 7 manuscripts that can be described as containing texts in Azerbaijani. All but one of these are in an Arabic orthography that mirrors Ottoman Turkish quite closely, leaving Arabic words in their original spellings and marking only some vowels in non-Arabic words. This might make it seem as though telling Ottoman and Azerbaijani apart would be impossible, but there are a few clues. One of the easiest is the use of a syllable final -x (like the ch in loch) where Ottoman Turkish would have a -k. Çok “many” or “very” in Turkish becomes çox in Azerbaijani, and bakmak “to look” in Turkish is baxmaq in Azerbaijani, for example. Turkish employs the suffix -iyor for the present continuous, while Azerbaijani uses -ir. And, after the 16th century, Turkish uses only the suffix -miş for the perfective, while Azerbaijani has both -miş and -ip (in the 2nd and 3rd persons). There are, of course, other tells in terms of phonology, morphology, syntax and lexicon, but these are usually the easiest. And they help clue us in, broadly speaking, to how to pronounce those undifferentiated spellings of Arabic words I mentioned up above.

Zoomed image of painting of bare-chested man seating among a collection of different animals in a river-side setting, in full colour. Above and below the image is Arabic-script text in black ink arranged into two columns with a thin red border inside a thicker gilt border
An illustration of Mǝcnun amongst animals from an illustrated 16th-century manuscript in the Azerbaijani language. (Füzulî, Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, Azerbaijani, 16th century CE. Or 405, f 73r)
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So what, exactly, do these manuscripts comprise? Usually literary works, but there are also a few historical items as well. Undoubtedly, the most awe-inspiring item is Or 405, Füzulî’s Leyli vǝ Mǝcnun, copied in 1075 AH (1664 CE). This is Füzulî’s own recension of the classical tale, and one that he admits to having translated from a Persian source on the behest of his friends in Istanbul. This bit of information is important, as it shows how Azerbaijani functioned as a literary medium independently of Ottoman (or Istanbul) Turkish, permitting the translation and adaptation of texts from other languages in its own right. The copy held by the Library is a spectacular specimen of the tale, as it is accompanied by vivid and bright illustrations that relate to the stories found within the text. There are some lovely examples of Leyli in a graveyard and Mecnun among animals, all of which combine a simplicity of line and feature with motion and bright colours. And Or 405 also contains more than a few examples of the linguistic features that help us distinguish dialects, whether the presence of çox and yox (written چوخ and یوخ ), or the preponderance of -ip forms throughout.

Page tinted salmon with gold flecks, featuring an ornately decorative sun motife in gold, red, blue, black and pink, with geometric and floral illumination on its interior, and thin, ornate rays in black emanating from the sunSalmon-tinted page with gold flecks featuring two columns of Arabic-script text inside a text box, with ornate geometrical illumination in a semi-circle pattern atop a thick band, at the top of the page. Illumination features gold, blue, red, black and green inks
The şemse or sun motif (left) and opening text with unvan (right) of the Divan-i Xǝtai, exemplifying the lush illumination found throughout the volume. (Xǝtai, Divan-i Xǝtai, Iran or Azerbaijan, 16th century CE. Or 3380, ff 2r-v)
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Or 405 is the only illustrated manuscript in Azerbaijani held at the British Library, but it is by no means the only beautifully constructed volume in the language. Or 3380, the Divan-i Xǝtai, is a 16th century copy of the collected poetry of Shah Ismail I, whose poetic pseudonym or mahlas was Xǝtai/Khaṭā’ī (خطائى). The work’s imperial connections are made apparent by the beautiful gold artistry and calligraphy employed throughout the volume. Shah Ismail was of mixed heritage and grew up speaking both Azerbaijani and Persian. Supported by various Turkic communities, he rose to power by defeating the Aq Qoyunlu confederation, and established the Safavid Empire, becoming Shah of Iran in 1501 CE. Ismail I is famous for many different reasons, including the imposition of Twelver Shi’ism as the official religion of his Empire, but he was also a renown poet in his own right. This confluence of political and literary prestige is undoubtedly the reason why his mahlas is written in gold throughout the work. Its entire construction is impressive; an example of luxury bookmaking in Safavid Iran. But so too is the poetry, which addresses both temporal and sacred love.

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

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

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

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

A page featuring text written in Georgian script in black in with red capitals and red ink for the title, inside a thin frame in red ink
The opening lines of a poem in Azerbaijani, written in the Georgian script, regarding the exploits of Ali Paşa. (IO Islamic 4443, f 23r)
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Azerbaijani appears in other manuscript works held by the Library, including a comparative grammar of the Turkic lects from Sindh, contemporary Pakistan (Or 404) and a grammar of the Azerbaijani language produced in Dhaka, contemporary Bangladesh (Or 1912). As I’ve described other works similar to these in my blogposts on Chagatai holdings, I’d prefer to end on a rarer and more peculiar member of the Turkic collections. IO Islamic 4443 is a hodge-podge of works in several languages, one of which had originally been described as “Armenian”. When I called up the manuscript, however, I realized that the original cataloguer had been mistaken: this script was not Armenian, but Georgian, and more importantly, the language was a Turkic one. Two different poems were contained in these 19th century works, both of which are in a Caucasian Oghuz dialect that is pretty easy to read, once you get the gist of the orthography. Poems about Ali Paşa, they might have been copied in Mardin, contemporary Turkey, in 1807. While such materials are much more common in the Republic of Georgia, as well as in libraries in other parts of the North and South Caucasus, they are exceptionally rare in the United Kingdom. IO Islamic 4443 represents the only example in the British Library collections, and probably one of only a handful available to readers in Great Britain. Scholars in Georgia have taken a particular interest in the work, and, hopefully, we might soon be treated to a more in-depth study and contextualization of the piece.

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

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

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

01 March 2021

The Courtesan and the Preacher: The Romance of Mahsati, an Early Female Persian Poet

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Opening of teh Romance of Mahsati
The opening of the anonymous romance of the female poet and musician Mahsati and Amir Ahmad the preacher’s son. Copy dated Rabiʻ I 867/1462 (British Library Or.8755, f. 22v)
 noc copy

Mahsati was one of the earliest female poets of classical Persian but the biographical details about her are rather meagre. She probably lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and may have been from Ganja, but Nishapur, Badakhshan and Khujand have also been given as her place of birth by later authors. She is said to have served in the capacity of a secretary (dabirah) or singer and musician at the court of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1097-1118), but at least one historian also places her husband in the court Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (r. 998-1030). In the late fifteenth century, Dawlatshah in his biographical dictionary Tazkirat al-shu‘ara confirms the connection with Sultan Sanjar and lists her among the ruler’s panegyric poets, along with others such as Adib Sabir, Rashid Vatvat, ‘Abd al-Vasih Jabali, and Anvari. Dawlatshah describes Mahsati as “the beloved of the sultan and elegant lady of the times” (mahbubah-yi sultan va zarifah-yi ruzgar) and includes an anecdote about how she won the sultan’s favour with her verbal skills as he was trying to mount his horse in the snow. She is said to have uttered this poem extemporaneously:

Heaven has saddled the mount of felicity for you, King,
And praised you among all the rulers,
In order that your steed’s golden shoe not get muddied
It has spread silver on the ground.

Mahsati is better known for her earthy poems, especially for the quatrains composed on the boys of the bazaar in the shahrashub (amorous, sometimes bawdy verse) genre. The corpus of her poems has increased over the years and modern editions contain between 250 to 300 poems, many of which are also attributed to other poets such as ‘Umar Khayyam.[1] The Swiss scholar, Fritz Meier, made a life-long study of Mahsati and published a corpus of her poems in Die schöne Mahsatī.[2] His research, especially on the fifteenth century romance starring Mahsati and her lover Amir Ahmad or Pur-i Khatib, who was the son of a preacher named Khatib, was published posthumously by Gudrun Schubert and Renate Würsch.[3]

The anonymous romance, Amir Ahmad u Mahsati, survives in at least three versions. One of these is in an illustrated manuscript in the British Library, Or. 8755, which also includes two other short versified narratives: Manqabatnamah, or Qissah-yi shir u div, on the exploits of Ali, and Qissah-yi Isma‘il about Ism‘ail and Ibrahim. The eighteen paintings in the manuscript, thirteen of which belong to the Mahsati romance, are in the Turkoman style.[4]

The story of Mahsati and Amir Ahmad is narrated in prose with 475 quatrains making up the dialogue by the main characters. It is told that Mahsati is the well-educated daughter of a mufti in Khujand whose special talent lies in impromptu versification. The townspeople disapprove of her musical abilities but when they complain to her father, he informs them that according to her horoscope she will become a courtesan. After her father’s death she and her mother move to Ganja where she settles in a tavern. She drinks wine, recites poetry, and even gets the king to fall for her charms. In the same town lives a preacher’s son, Amir Ahmad, who teaches around four hundred students. One night he dreams that he is being offered wine by a houri in paradise. Upon waking up he goes out and sees Mahsati as she plays music on a harp:

Mahsati sees Amir Ahmad for the first time
Mahsati and Amir Ahmad see each other for the first time (British Library Or.8755, f. 29v)
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In true fairytale fashion they fall in love with each other. Amir Ahmad leaves his home and begins to lead a dissipated life with his beloved. When his father has him locked up in a cell his pupils come to intercede on his behalf and hear his laments. His poems about Mahsati are mistaken by his father for verses on mystical love and he is thought to be cured of his lovesickness. But upon being released, he goes back to the tavern to be with Mahsati. As the condition of a wager with his father, he mounts a mule and is ready to go to the mosque if the beast leads him there, but the mule takes him right back to Mahsati.

The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati  f. 70a
The mule leads Amir Ahmad back to Mahsati (British Library Or.8755, f. 70r)
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The father persists and sends his pious brother Pir ‘Usman to go and bring the profligate back, but he himself becomes drunk and has to be carried home.

A drunken Pir Usman  is brought home
A drunken Pir ʻUsman is carried home (British Library Or.8755, f. 75v)
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Upon the intercession of the king, the tavern is ordered to be closed and the drinkers to disperse. Mahsati goes off to Khurasan followed by Amir Ahmad. There he discovers her at a feast with three hundred distinguished poets and scholars.

Mahsati at a feast with the poets of Khurasan
Mahsati entertaining the poets of Khurasan (British Library Or.8755, f. 87r)
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The couple eventually returns to Ganja, where in the marketplace Mahsati sees and composes poems on a group of professional youths comprising a beer-seller, camel driver, spice-seller, bloodletter, barber, as well as a rind, a rakish drunkard.

Mahsati and Amir Ahmad encounter a drunkard in the marketplace
Amir Ahmad and Mahsati accosted by a drunkard in the bazaar (British Library Or.8755, f. 95v)
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There she also encounters the master poet Sana’i whom she satirizes in ribald verses. In the meantime, Amir Ahmad finally reconciles with his father and resumes his old life. Mahsati also repents and is allowed to marry her beloved. They lead a devout life and bring up god-fearing children. Eventually Amir Ahmad becomes the preacher of Ganja after his father’s death, and after his death his grave becomes a shrine for penitent drunkards.

The romance about Mahsati provides a contextualized narrative built around her poems. She is transformed into a pious, married woman who is repentant of her past life, but her earlier non-conventional persona persisted in the biographical accounts about her. However, one must be careful to not confuse either persona, the one that comes through in her poems as a poet of the bazaar, or in the romance with her conversion, with that of the actual individual.[5] Even if we do not have historical facts about her life, Mahsati’s poems were never forgotten over the centuries. Especially in the nineteenth century Persian literati in Iran and India sought to retrieve the voices of women and create a female canon of poets for which the inclusion of some classical poets was necessary to provide the authority of tradition. Mahsati, along with Rab‘ia Quzdari or Balkhi, feature in the small group of the earliest poets in these anthologies and continue to be remembered and read in the erstwhile larger Persianate world.

Sunil Sharma, Professor of Persianate and Comparative Literature at Boston University
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[1] Dick Davis, The Mirror of My Heart: A Thousand Years of Persian Poetry by Women (Washington, DC: Mage, 2019), pp. 7-14.
[2] Fritz Meier, Die schone Mahsatī. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der persischen Vierzeilers (Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1963).
[3] Die schöne Mahsatī. Der Volksroman uber Mahsatī und Amīr Ahmad, herausgegeben von Gudrun Schubert und Renate Würsch (Leiden: Brill, 2005).
[4] G.M. Meredith-Owens, “A Rare Illustrated Persian Manuscript,” The Memorial Volume of the Vth International Congress of Iranian Art & Archaeology, edited by A. Tajvid, (Tehran: Ministry of Culture and Arts, 1972), vol. 2, pp. 125 -131.
[5] For a discussion on the gender implications of Mahsati’s poetic voice, see Rebecca Gould, “Mahsatī of Ganja’s Wandering Quatrains: Translator’s Introduction,” Literary Imagination 13/2 (2011), pp. 225-227.

22 February 2021

Patchwork for a Prince: Exploring Persian Anthology British Library Or.13193

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Many Persian poetry anthologies – particularly those produced during the 15th and early 16th century - display a kaleidoscopic use of decorated papers, and reveal an engaging celebration of color with every turn of the page. This ‘patchwork’ approach calls to mind the patched garments worn by ascetic figures in some Persianate paintings. Traditionally worn to signal their renunciation of material wealth, these patched robes and shawls are similar in spirit to the pieced kasaya cloths sometimes worn by their Buddhist ascetic counterparts. Ironically, a number of these patched kasaya cloaks are made from extremely luxurious materials – including silk textiles, sometimes given to monasteries by wealthy donors seeking favor. This translation of a modest patchwork into one composed of sumptuous materials transforms their original ‘recycled’ intention into an elegant transmutation. When viewed as works of art (instead of works of piety), these robes become refined visual ‘allusions’ to the idea of poverty and renunciation, rather than actual reflections of it. They are markers of asceticism, but elevate the original idea of patching by necessity, to one of luxury.

Marbled decoration Silvered decoration
Examples of so-called  ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) and  ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) pages (Or.13193, ff. 13r and 13v). Public Domain

We can detect a similar visual conceit at work in many of the ‘patchwork’ Persian poetry anthologies produced in the 15th and early 16th century. These manuscripts exhibit a ‘patched’ appearance, but often not from necessity. Rather, it is achieved only through a highly labor-intensive process of multi-layered artistic collaboration that transforms the manuscript into an elaborate and luxurious visual pun. This kind of  assembled ‘patchwork’ occurs in both upright-format manuscripts and albums as well as oblong-format manuscripts in 15th and 16th century. These oblong format manuscripts typically comprise anthologies of poetry and are referred to in contemporary texts as safina. The term safina is often translated as ship or boat - but it may be better understood as vessel or ark – that is, as a carrier of disparate cargoes.

An example of this type of safina poetry anthology is held today in the British Library, it contains 144 folios that measure about 8 x 20.5 cm, bound along their short side. The textual content is primarily ghazal-form poetry by about twenty poets. Two folios bear the name of the Aq Qoyunlu prince ‘Abu’l-‘Izz [Yamin al-Din] Yusuf Bahadur Khan. Yusuf was one of the sons of Sultan Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, and brother to Sultan Ya’qub Aq Qoyunlu. In the 15th century, the Aq Qoyunlu dynasty controlled much of Persia, as well as parts of present-day Iraq and eastern Turkey. A distinctive style of manuscript production emerged under their reign in centres including Shiraz and Tabriz; a number of surviving safina manuscripts may be connected with their patronage. Given the inscription naming Yusuf ibn Uzun Hasan Aq Qoyunlu, the production of the British Library safina has been dated sometime between 1470 and 1480 CE - prior to his death around 1490 CE.

Horizontal view of a 'black' page
Fig. 3: Horizontal view of a black coloured page (Or.13193, f. 3v). Public Domain

Although ‘patched’ in appearance, this manuscript would have been very costly to produce. Multiple layers of work were involved in the production of its multicolored paper supports – which often involved the application of various decorative techniques – including stencilled designs. The papers in the British Library safina are of various hues, some with additional painted elements. Some pages have been described as ‘marbled’ (fig. 1) – although not technically accurate. Some are entirely or partially ‘silvered’ (fig. 2) and subsequently tarnished - a feature seen in other safina manuscripts of the period.. A few folios are coloured black (fig. 3) or deep blue, but most folios exhibit softer pastel tones. The British Library safina also features a broad range of stencilled folios, which are among its most engaging aspects. With almost each turn of the page, one encounters a new motif or color combination. It seems that the artists who created these books derived pleasure in creating new and captivating juxtapositions.

Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif
Fig. 4: Blue dragons intertwined with central animal-head motif (Or.13193, f. 27v). Public Domain

Looking closely at some of the stencilled and painted pages in the British Library safina, one notes folios that display figures of animals – flying ducks, swimming fish, and even wonderous creatures, such as blue dragons (fig. 4). Sometimes, human figures are playfully inserted within the stencilled designs.

In figs. 5 and 6, the figures are juxtaposed with calligraphic designs. In the scholarly literature, such stencilled and painted imagery in anthological manuscripts often has been overlooked or dismissed as mere ‘decoration.’ But, what significance could this imagery have held for the contemporary reader - and to what sources did the artists look for their inspiration? What relationship does this imagery have with the manuscript? In short - what is the function of these images, if not mere decoration?

A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages, Or13193 f16r A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages,Or13193, f15v
Figs. 5 & 6: A combination of calligraphy and figures on facing pages (Or.13193, ff. 15v and 16r). Public Domain

Turning to the stencilled calligraphy of these pages (figs. 5 & 6), the individual letters are written against swirling golden vine scrolls, making it somewhat difficult to decipher. Yet, if one is already familiar with these well-known lines from a poem by Hafez, the text is relatively easy to read:

Dar īn zamāna rafīqī kih khālī az khalal-ast
Ṣurāḥī-yi may-i nāb u safīna-i ghazal-ast

This may be translated as:

These days, the only friend[s] without fault[s]
are a bottle of wine and a safina of ghazals…

The decision to highlight this verse within the manuscript is, of course, to create a punning reference back to the manuscript – which is, itself, a safina of ghazals and the reader’s companion at that moment. The placement of these lines evokes the very act of reading the anthology at hand. It is as if the book itself is speaking directly to its reader.

In addition to such ‘meta-textual’ references, we find other stencilled imagery which alludes to well-known works of Persian literature located ‘outside’ of the manuscript. That is, these stories are often not mentioned in the surrounding text of the anthology but are easily recognized by those who are conversant with the popular literature of the period. Another stencilled folio – for example – shows a painted figure gesturing towards a strange tree with branches terminating in human and animal heads (fig. 7). The appearance of this so-called waqwaq tree is likely a reference to the story of Alexander the Great (Iskandar), as related in Firdausi’s Shahnama. In this portion of the Shahnama epic, Iskandar encounters the waq waq - or talking tree – a tree which bears the fruit of human heads. The tree speaks to Iskandar, foretelling of his death. In this stencilled depiction, however, the tree is shown not only fruiting with human heads, but also with a diversity of animal heads – a bull, a horse or donkey, a dragon, and others.

Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r) Ouseley MS: Iskandar and the talking tree
Fig. 7: Iskandar and the talking tree (Or.13193, f. 56r). Public Domain
Fig. 8: The same subject from Firdausi's Shahnama (Bodleian Library MS. Ouseley Add. 176, f.311b). © Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford. CC-BY-NC 4.0. F

If we compare this stencilled page with a manuscript folio in the Bodleian library collection, the similarity becomes clear. In a painting (fig. 8) from a Shahnama dated to the 1430s (Ms. Ouseley Add. 176), Iskandar raises his finger to his lip, in a state of surprise and likely dismay. The figure in the British Library safina, by contrast, seems to reach out and tickle the chin of the face in front of him. While the stencilled image is likely an allusion to the story of Iskandar found in the Shahnama, there may be more significance to this image. The tree with multiple talking heads might also be seen as a reference to the anthology itself. That is, the book as a gathering of many and diverse voices into one vessel - each of which speaks to us individually as we read through the pages of the manuscript.

Finally, returning to the double page in the British Library safina mentioned above, we see two small painted figures – a male figure above and a female below – within the stencilled designs (see again figs 5 & 6). Both hold books in their hands. The female figure – appearing to be a young girl – looks up across the empty space of the open book towards the boy above. Their placement activates the space – with one figure gazing at another across the open book – only made possible when the book is held in the hand. It may be that the two figures represent the young Layla (or Layli) and Qays – at their first meeting at school – according to the poet Nizami’s telling of their love story. While this identification may seem tenuous, further examination of the surrounding poem by the poet Ashraf reveals a reference to someone not going mad – or becoming ‘majnun.’ Accordingly, the small female figure – likely Layla - gazes up at the figure of the boy - who would later in their love story come to be known as Majnun. This placement may be coincidental, but if we imagine that these two figures do represent Layla and Majnun, this alignment of verse and image suggests an extremely sophisticated orchestration of the elements contained within this safina. Such coordination would allow for these small painted elements to reflect the text on the page, and the surrounding folios. The ‘shorthand’ appearance of the painted elements also requires that the anthology’s reader be familiar with not only Layla and Majnun’s story, but also with the imagery connected with illustrated manuscripts of Nizami’s text.

These types of representational references – the visual equivalent of intertextual allusions - are frequent in these safina manuscripts. Other paintings and stencilled imagery within this and other anthologies display similar connections between the ‘internal’ image and ‘external’ texts - demanding that their viewers possess a sophisticated familiarity not only with the popular literature of the period, but also with its common visual vocabulary. As David J. Roxburgh has noted in discussing the numerous surviving Persian anthologies created for the fifteenth-century Timurid ruler Iskandar Sultan: “The anthologies offered Iskandar Sultan…a range of visual idioms that equaled the textual genres in variety and complexity; reading and looking demanded of him a series of shifts in perceptive and cognitive engagement…in order for the visual puns, these subtle games and inventions to be discerned… This assumed a fair degree of visual literacy on the part of the viewer because the visual events are in fact a series of extremely subtle mutations and hybrids…” (Roxburgh, “Aesthetics,” 130). Rather than mere decoration, the visual elements of these safina anthologies approach the multivalent complexity of the texts that they accompany. Furthermore, many of these safina manuscripts function on the whole as a visual conceit – a patchwork translated into pages – perhaps making reference to the multicoloured, patched cloaks of Sufi adherents. How appropriate then, that their poetical content often embodies the works of this same group.

Denise-Marie Teece, Assistant Professor of Art History, NYU Abu Dhabi
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Further reading

Meredith-Owens, G. M. “A New Illustrated Persian Anthology” British Museum Quarterly 34 (1970), pp. 122-125.

Richard, Francis. “Un manuscript méconnu, l’anthologie poétique de la Bibliothèque nationale illustreée et signée par Behzad,” Studia Iranica 20 (1991), pp. 263-74.

Roxburgh, David. “The Aesthetics of Aggregation: Persian Anthologies of the Fifteenth Century,” in Islamic Art and Literature, ed. Oleg Grabar and Cynthia Robinson (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001): 119–142.

Teece, Denise-Marie. “‘Compassionate Companion, Familiar Friend’: The Turin Safina (Biblioteca reale Ms. Or. 101) and its Significance,” Muqarnas 36 (2019), pp. 61-84.

——— Vessels of Verse, Ships of Song: Persian Anthologies of the Qara Quyunlu and Aq Quyunlu Period, Ph.D. diss., Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, 2013.

11 February 2021

An Earl, a collection, and a shopping list: Mail-order military manuscripts

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A lithographed wish-list of titles on Arabic military science testifies to the frustrated literary ambitions of a king’s son.

Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī, p.76
Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb. London, s.n. 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
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Shopping for books in the early nineteenth century

In these days of home delivery, we are used to the concept that (almost) whatever we wish to acquire, from takeaways and groceries to toys, clothes, and books, may be obtained without leaving the comfort – or confines – of the home. But two hundred years ago, for those with very specific literary interests, the acquisition of books or hand-written manuscripts could necessitate great dedication to the cause: months or years of foreign travel, tireless enquiry, and great expense.

Nonetheless, for those in possession of power, good contacts, and deep pockets, the pursuit of rare books could be conducted remotely, to a degree. And just as today’s shopping websites allow users to compile their ‘wishlists’, one remarkable document compiled at the behest of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster (1794-1842), tells a nineteenth-century tale of mail-order manuscripts.

The life and literary interests of George FitzClarence, first Earl of Munster

Eldest illegitimate son of Prince William (1765-1837, William IV from 1830), FitzClarence devoted much energy to appealing for funds and honours from his father, from whom he became estranged. Prone to drinking and gambling, publicly mocked in satirical sketches, and afflicted with depression, he has gone down in history as an unfortunate figure, committing suicide in March 1842 at the age of 48.

Caricature of FitzClarence as Bum Puff
Unflattering caricature of FitzClarence as ‘Bum Puff’, wearing Oriental slippers and accompanied by papers bearing pseudo-Arabic characters  (British Museum 1868,0808.9395.
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However, there was another side to FitzClarence, one overshadowed by his sad end.

After military service in India (1815-17) he travelled home via Egypt, later publishing his account of the journey. Pursuing his developing interest in Asian history and literature, FitzClarence became a founder member and from 1828, Vice-President of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, in which role he supported the publication and translation of Arabic texts via the Society’s Oriental Translation Fund, still operational today.

Anonymous portrait of the young George FitzClarence  Earl of Munster  c. 1810-20 (1918 0107.70)
Anonymous portrait of the young George FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, c. 1810-20 (British Museum 1918,0107.70)
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Subsequently, FitzClarence combined his interest in military matters with his scholarly and literary passions, initiating an ambitious project to author a comprehensive history of the military sciences in Muslim societies.

Military science in the Arabic written tradition

Hundreds of Arabic treatises on military science have been composed, re-arranged and translated into Turkish, Persian and other languages since at least the ʿAbbāsid period (750-1258). They are often categorised under the general label of furūsīyah (horsemanship), encompassing equestrianism, the mastery of mounted manoeuvres, polo, shooting at targets, and horseback hunting (a luxurious illustrated example of this genre is this copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah fī ta‘allum a‘māl al-furūsīyah (Add MS 18866).

Horsemen in combat Add MS 18866 f135r
Illustration of two horsemen wheeling around, with a sword in each one's hand on the horse's back. Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah by Muḥammad ibn ‘Īsá ibn Ismā‘īl al-Ḥanafī al-Aqṣarā’ī, dated 10 Muḥarram 773/25 July 1371 (BL Add MS 18866, f. 135r)
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However, the Arabic military sciences also include subjects such as the manufacture and use of weapons like the bow and arrow, sword, mace, lance (Add MS 14056, ff. 1v-10v; ff. 11r-18v) and spear; equine medicine and horse-training (Add MS 14056, ff. 19r-123v, Add MS 23416); tactical theory and skills for the battlefield; war machines (Add MS 14055) and explosive devices; military management and bureaucracy (Or 9016), and the etiquette of engaging the enemy and dividing the spoils of conquest.

Many texts take the form of didactic, practical manuals, with many surviving manuscripts today dating to the highly militarised Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria (1250-1517) as well as its Ottoman successor in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Add MS 20736).

Wishing to gather as many of these primary sources as possible towards his magnum opus, FitzClarence purchased extensively (Add MS 14056 and 14055). Not mastering the necessary linguistic skills, he enlisted the promising young Austrian Orientalist Aloys Sprenger (1813-93), who had recently relocated to London, as secretary and research assistant in his quest.

Loan note (BL Or 3631 f. 2v
Loan note (BL Or 3631 f. 2v)
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In addition to FitzClarence’s acquisitions, he and Sprenger borrowed and compiled all that the libraries and private collections of Britain had to offer on the subject, as a note inside a copy of three treatises on military science (Or 3631) borrowed from the antiquarian and astronomer John Lee, Né Fiott (1783-1866), attests, its melancholy codicil ‘Returned August 1842’ hinting at the tragic event to come.

They also travelled across Europe together, visiting libraries in search of relevant texts in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian and Hindustani. During this period Sprenger also obtained a medical degree ‘on the side’ with a thesis on the development of Arab medicine.

The ‘Wishlist’ of military texts

But FitzClarence wanted still more, and in 1840 issued – with Sprenger as ghost-writer– a 160-page Catalogue of books that We desire to purchase and subject matter clarifying the type of books We desire to obtain – the titles and details of which We do not know – on the study of warfare (Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb).

Title page  Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī
Title page, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb, London, 1840 (BL 14598.c.1, p. 1)
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Written in Sprenger’s Arabic hand and lithographed, this veritable shopping list opens with a preface in ornate classical Arabic literary style (p. 1), followed by an explanation of FitzClarence’s aim in writing the list, and a long description of the subjects of interest (pp. 1-83). The latter range widely, from Qurʾānic and legal precepts relating to war; jihād; armies and warfare throughout the history of Islam from the early caliphates to the Seljuqs, Timurids, Ottomans and Mughals; military management and financing; terminology; different styles of warfare (mounted or on foot); horses; apparel; weaponry; armour; training; parades; manoeuvres; famous teachers; desired qualities in a soldier, and numerous other fields of enquiry.

Then are listed hundreds of known titles on warfare, horsemanship, and weaponry (pp. 84-106) and military and political history (pp. 106-156), followed by an author index (pp. 156-160). The titles, often cited alongside biographical details of the authors, testify to Sprenger’s exhaustive research and vast knowledge of the field. In a sense, this remarkable compendium saw the Sprenger/FitzClarence team take an unlikely honorary place in the rich history of Arabic bio-bibliographic writings.

Layout of a royal fortress from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah central part of this image in Fahrasat al-kutub
Diagram (left) of the layout of a royal fortress from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah  (BL Add MS 18866, f. ‎209v), and (right) the copy of the central part of this image in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 76)
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The work also contains examples of diagrams sometimes found in the Arabic treatises sought, labelled images of weapons apparently functioning more as a terminological inventory for the author or reader’s benefit than as faithful reproductions from the manuscripts, and as some drawings apparently taken from European military texts.

‘winged’ insignia from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l ‘winged’ insignia
Diagram (left) of ‘winged’ insignia from a copy of Nihāyat al-su’l wa-al-umnīyah (BL Add MS 18866, f. ‎214v), and (right) copies of this and other insignia in Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu... (BL 14598.c.1, p. 61)
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An untimely end

This document was clearly aimed at Arab book dealers and agents with access to Arabic manuscripts, but further research is needed to establish whether FitzClarence’s wishlist directly resulted in any acquisitions. His suicide only two years later stopped the project in its tracks, and the planned History of Military Science among the Muslim Peoples which by now had mushroomed into a vast account of warfare including the pre-Islamic societies of Persia, China, and Indian, never came to fruition.

Having lost his patron, Sprenger sailed to India as a surgeon, later continuing his scholarly career as principal of various colleges in Delhi and Calcutta, and researcher-cataloguer of Indian collections including the Imperial libraries of Awadh (Oudh). He also amassed a manuscript library of his own, at least part of which now forms the Sprenger Collection at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

FitzClarence’s son William, the second Earl of Munster (1824-1901), inherited his father’s debts but not his interests, and certain of FitzClarence’s manuscripts were soon auctioned on 6 April 1843 (Add MS 14056, Add MS 14055). The British Museum purchased some volumes, while others were obtained at a later sale on 27 March 1855 (Add MS 20736).

Although FitzClarence’s book never came to be, copies of the wishlist remain in many libraries as a testament to his thwarted literary ambitions. One can only wonder what he would have made of the digital, virtual libraries of today in which his dream of access to ever more of the world’s Arabic military texts – and millions of others – is increasingly coming to pass.

References

Chaghatai, M. Ikram, ‘Dr. Aloys Sprenger (1813–1893): His Life and Contribution to Urdu Language and Literature’, Iqbal Review, 36 (1995), pp. 77–99.

FitzClarence, George Augustus Frederick,  Journal of a Route Across India, Through Egypt, to England, in the Latter End of the Year 1817, and the Beginning of 1818  (London: John Murray), 1819.

The Earl of Munster's obituary in 'Proceedings of the nineteenth anniversary meeting of the society' Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 7 (1843), pp. i-xxi.

Sprenger, Aloys and George Augustus Frederick FitzClarence, Earl of Munster, Kitāb Fahrasat al-kutub allatī narghabu an nabtāʿahā wa-al-masāʼil allatī tūḍiḥ jins al-kutub allatī narghabu al-ḥuṣūl ʿalayhā innamā najhalu asmāʼahā wa-al-masāʼil fī ʻilm al-ḥarb (London, s. n., 1840). British Library copy 14598.c.1. Digital copy at Princeton University Library, digitised by Hathi Trust

Sprenger, Aloys, A catalogue of the Arabic, Persian and Hindu'sta'ny manuscripts, of the libraries of the King of Oudh, Vol. 1 (Calcutta: J. Thomas for the Baptist Press), 1854.

Wright, Jo, 'Sir Thomas Reade: Knight, ‘Nincumpoop’ and Collector of Antiquities', Asian and African Studies Blog (2014).

— , An Earl, a Collection and a Gun: the Curious Provenance of a British Library Manuscript', Qatar Digital Library (2014).

Jenny Norton-Wright, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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08 February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Çil, Okan, “Osmanlı'nın eşcinsel şairi: Enderunlu Fâzıl”, Duvar Gazete, 21 October 2019. Last accessed: 10 January 2020. <https://www.gazeteduvar.com.tr/kitap/2019/11/21/osmanlinin-escinsel-sairi-enderunlu-fazil>

Kücük, Sabahattin, “Enderunlu Fâzıl: Mahallîleşme eğilimini ileri bir safhaya götüren divan şairi”, Türk Diyanet Vakfı İslâm Ansiklopedisi. Last accessed: 6 January 2021. <https://islamansiklopedisi.org.tr/enderunlu-fazil>

Schick, İrvin Cemil, “Representation of Gender and Sexuality in Ottoman and Turkish Erotic Literature,” The Turkish Studies Association Journal, 28:1/2 (2004), pp. 81-103. <https://www.jstor.org/stable/43383697>

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

Yılmaz, Ozan, “Enderunlu Fazıl Divanı’nda Yahudilikle İlgili Unsurlar ve Andnâme-i Yehûdî-Beçe”, Türkbilig, 22 (2011), pp. 1-30. <https://dergipark.org.tr/tr/download/article-file/990142>

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

18 January 2021

The Gombroon Diaries: a Rich Source on Eighteenth Century Persia and the Persian Gulf

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The Gombroon (Bandar-e ʻAbbas) Factory was established in 1623 to represent the interests of the East India Company (EIC) on the southern coast of Persia (Iran) and the Gulf. It soon became the centre of British trade and political activities following the expulsion of the Portuguese from Hormuz and Bahrain. A Chief Agent headed the Factory’s decision-making ‘Council’. The Council members coordinated with Sub-Agents, Brokers and local partners at the rest of the British establishments in Persia, primarily in Esfahan, Kerman and Shiraz.

A list of account salaries due to Company's staff at Gombroon
A list of account salaries due to Company's staff at Gombroon (IOR/G/29/5/2 f 79v)
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In many ways, the Factory owed its existence and commerce in the region to certain royal grants confirming specific trading privileges known as Rogums (Ruqum or Raqams). These were granted to the British by the King (Shah) of Persia, and were renewed regularly.

A list of Rogums granted by the King of Persia
A list of Rogums granted by the King of Persia (IOR/G/29/3 f 9v)
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The daily consultations at the Gombroon Factory were recorded in diaries. Each diary usually covered a one year period. Copies of the diaries were dispatched by sail to the Company’s administrative headquarters in the Bombay Presidency. The surviving thirty-two diaries are an open gate to the social, political and economic history of eighteenth-century Persia and the Persian Gulf. These diaries are bound within thirteen individual volumes that are classified under the India Office Records’ (IOR) sub-series IOR/G/29/2-14. These are dated from November 1708 to February 1763. Any lacuna within these two dates would indicate that the diary either did not exist in the first place or was lost, misplaced, or removed from the records at some point. Most of the volumes include one diary each, apart from volumes IOR/G/29/5, 6, and 7 which contain nine, seven and six diaries respectively.

The Gombroon diaries record the day-to-day consultations that took place at the Factory. These cover the administrative decisions made, letters sent and received, visits to and from the Factory, trading activities, inland and offshore military operations, in addition to miscellaneous reports of other political and commercial events taking place in the region.

Apart from their administrative nature, the diaries stand out as an extensive and under-utilised source for the study of commercial activities in eighteenth century Persia and the Gulf. These can be glimpsed through the records they preserve of the activities of the British, Dutch and French trading companies, as well as local Persian and Arab merchants in the region. Such records help trace the history of foreign powers’ interest in the region, as well as encounters with and among local authorities.

Descrption of the Persian fleet sailing to Khorfakkan
The Persian fleet sailing to Khorfakkan to assist the Imam against his rebellious subjects (IOR/G/29/5/9 f 375v).
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The records of commercial activities also reveal some remarkable information about the movement of ships and the busy ports at the time. Examples of the names of ships that appear regularly in the records are: the Success, the Prince George, the Prince Edward, the Fayz Rabbani, the Phoenix, and the Swallow. Among the many ports the ships sailed to and from are: Bandar-e ʻAbbas, Bombay, Basra, Bandar-e Rig, Surat, Bandar-e Charak, Mocha, Muscat and Bushehr.

The Phoenix imported from Basra
The Phoenix imported from Basra (IOR/G/29/11 f 8v)
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The commercial aspect is also preserved in the records of traded commodities, mainly woollen goods, rice, rose water, grain, sugar, copper, spices, and coffee, in addition to the names of Persian currencies used at the time and their exchange rates in Indian rupees.

The highlights of the diaries, however, are the records they contain of the state of affairs and the never-ending inland and offshore military operations. These introduce the readers to the names of prominent military generals, regional governors and influential tribes involved in such operations. These include but are not limited to: Shah Tahmasp II, Nadir Shah Afshar, Ahmad Shah Afghan Dorrani, Shahrokh Mirza Afshar, Karim Khan Zand, Azad Khan Ghilzaʼi, Nasir Khan Al Mazkur, Shaikh Hatim bin Jubarah al-Nasuri, Shaikhs Rashid and Rahmah al-Qasimi and the tribes of Jubarah, the Banu Muʻin, the Al-ʻAli, and the Arabs of Julfar.

Conflicts among the tribes
Conflicts among the tribes (IOR/G/29/12 f 21v)
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Indeed, a large number of towns and provinces are also mentioned in the diaries as part of the accounts of the military operations. These include Bandar-e 'Abbas, Esfahan, Qazvin, Yazd, Tabriz, Khorasan, Mashhad, Mazandaran, Shiraz, and Qishm Island.

The entry of Shah Tahmasp II into Esfahan after the defeat of the Afghans
The entry of Shah Tahmasp II into Esfahan after the defeat of the Afghans (IOR/G/29/5/3 f 96v)
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In addition to the above, the diaries preserve some occasional, yet fascinating records of weddings, deaths, celebrations, personal disputes, etc. An example of these is the news of Shahrokh Mirza Afshar’s wedding and the choice of presents for the occasion.

News of the marriage of Shahrokh Mirza Afshar
News of Shahrokh Mirza Afshar's marriage (IOR/G/29/10 f 84v)
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Another interesting example is a letter sent by the EIC to Sultan Muhammad Mirza, a claimant to the throne following the Afghan invasion of Persia, in which we learn that the prince had threatened to expel the Company from the Gulf to protect his friend Shaikh Rashid al-Qasimi of Basidu. The company was therefore pleading with Sultan Muhammad Mirza not to attack them, and promising to lift their unilateral blockade against Shaikh Rashid. Additional details about this letter and its historical context will be provided by my colleague Dr. Kurosh Meshkat in a separate forthcoming blog.

Letter from the EIC to Sultan Muhammad Mirza  1727
Letter from the East India Company to Sultan Muhammad Mirza, 1727 (IOR/G/29/4 f 29v)
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With the variety of topics they cover, the Gombroon diaries stand out as primary source material on the commercial, political and military history of the region. The way in which these diaries are organised makes it difficult to search for a particular piece of information within them. In fact, it may be necessary to read a volume from cover to cover in order to spot the name of a certain person, ship, a place or an event. Nevertheless, thanks to the ongoing British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership (BLQFP), these fascinating diaries and many other materials are now being catalogued, digitised, and made available on the Qatar Digital Library. Making such materials available allows those interested in the history of the region to easily browse the diaries, and appreciate and make use of the abundance and variety of their content spanning most of the eighteenth century.

Ula Zeir
Content Specialist, Arabic Language, British Library-Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Further Reading

British Library, India Office Records, Bandar ʻAbbas (Gombroon) Diaries and Consultations. IOR/G/29/2-14.
Penelope Tuson, The Records of the British Residency and Agencies in the Persian Gulf. London, 1979.

21 December 2020

‘A cessation of plunder and piracy… for ever’: the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf

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This year marks the 200th anniversary of the signing of the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf of 1820. Though little-known today, this agreement between Britain and ten tribal rulers of the eastern Arabian coast was a decisive moment in the modern history of the Gulf, marking the beginning of 150 years of British hegemony over the region. Since 2014, the Qatar Digital Library has provided online access to a growing number of records from British Library collections that document this fascinating history. This anniversary year provides an opportune moment to consider the treaty that sits at the heart of this history, and has left a legacy that endures to the present day.

General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf
The opening to the treaty (British Library, IOR/L/PS/10/606, f. 131r)
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Background to the treaty

The treaty was the culmination of several decades of conflict between Britain and the Qawasim (singular Qasimi), an Arab tribe based around the port of Ra’s al-Khaymah. The Qawasim were at the head of a large network of tribes with an expanding influence on both shores of the Gulf. However, their rise brought them into conflict with other local powers, particularly Oman.

This was of serious concern to Britain, which had formed an alliance in 1798 with Oman’s ruler, the Imam of Muscat (Sayyid Sultan bin Ahmad Al Bu Sa‘id, reigned 1792-1804). The purpose of this alliance for Britain was to guarantee access to the Gulf. This was sought partly for its commercial potential, but primarily because the Gulf lay on the main line of communication between Britain and its expanding Indian empire. Official communications from India were regularly taken by ship up the Gulf to Basra, from where they were transported to Europe. Secure access to the Gulf was therefore vital for the British administration in India.

The rise of the Qawasim threatened to upset this arrangement, a fear articulated by British officials in the Gulf. For example, in July 1816 William Bruce, the British Resident at Bushire, reported on the Imam of Muscat’s efforts to challenge Qawasim power in Bahrain. Bruce observed that ‘if His Highness fails in reducing this island to obedience the acquisition of force to the piratical states [the Qawasim and their allies] will be such as to enable them to reduce Muscat if they please, and effectually to cut off all intercourse with the Gulph till such time as we are compelled to destroy them by fitting out an expedition to this quarter.’ (British Library, IOR/F/4/574/14024, f. 9v, soon to be added to the Qatar Digital Library). To officials like Bruce it was vital for Britain to maintain access to the Gulf, and he advocated the use of force to stop the further expansion of Qawasim power.

British expansion in India brought them into conflict with the Qawasim in other ways. The India Office Records contain many reports from this period of raids carried out by the Qawasim on shipping in the Indian Ocean. There was a long history of tensions between Arab and Indian trading communities, and it is far from clear that the attacks being attributed to the Qawasim were all carried out by them. Nevertheless, many Indian merchants began to appeal to the British authorities for assistance. In one petition, received on 5 February 1817, Siv-ji Govind-ji, a merchant writing from Bombay, claimed that his ship had been captured by four vessels owned by the Qawasim (spelled ‘Joasmee’ in the document, below) near its intended destination at Lakhpat in Gujarat, with the loss of most of the crew and cargo. Describing himself as ‘a subject dwelling under the British protection and colours’ he appealed to the British authorities in India for aid.

 Petition sent by Siv-ji Govind-ji to the Government of Bombay  5 February 1817  Petition to the Government of Bombay  5 February 1817
A copy of a petition sent by Siv-ji Govind-ji to the Government of Bombay, 5 February 1817 (British Library, IOR/F/4/649, ff. 26r-26v - soon to be added to the QDL)
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As the allegations against the Qawasim increased, officials in Bombay sensed an opportunity to finally bring their rivals in the Gulf to heel. In December 1819, with assistance from Oman, Britain sent a military expedition to the Gulf. The result was an overwhelming defeat for the Qawasim, leading to the capture of their fleet and the occupation of Ra’s al-Khaymah. It was in the aftermath of this crushing military campaign that the treaty was created. It was produced in English and Arabic and first signed on 8 January 1820, with more signatories added over the following weeks.

The contents of the treaty

What is striking in the treaty is how the defeated Arabs of the Gulf are addressed. The first article states: ‘There shall be a cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea on the part of the Arabs, who are parties to this contract, for ever.’ In describing the actions of the Qawasim as ‘piracy’, the treaty echoed the comment of Bruce, who above referred to them as the ‘piratical states’. Such references abound in the India Office Records. In British eyes, the seafaring Arabs did not represent a political entity with whom relations could be conducted as equals. Rather, they were pirates, seeking only to destroy and disrupt the maritime trade of the Gulf and the Indian Ocean. If they continued in such behaviour, the treaty declared, they would be considered ‘an enemy of all mankind’.

The treaty went on to outline a new system of maritime conduct. From thenceforth, Arab ships were to carry a register and port clearance giving details of the vessel, its ownership and crew, and its ports of origin and destination. These ships were also to fly ‘the flag of the friendly Arabs’, a red rectangle in a white border, in order to signify their adherence to the terms of the treaty. Having complied with these demands, ‘the vessels of the friendly Arabs, bearing their flag above described, shall enter into all the British ports and into the ports of the allies of the British… and they shall buy and sell therein’. Through their adherence to the terms of the treaty, the Qawasim and their allies were to be weaned off their ‘piratical’ habits and integrated into the maritime trading system established by Britain in the Gulf and Indian Ocean.

Article 3 of the General Maritime Treaty
Article 3 of the treaty (British Library, IOR/L/PS/10/606, f. 131r)
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The legacies of the treaty

The treaty was therefore intended to establish a new order in the Gulf, and it marked the beginning of a deepening British involvement in the region. A naval force remained to police the new arrangements, and a series of subsequent treaties saw Britain adopting a role as enforcer of an ongoing truce between the different coastal tribes. By the start of the twentieth century, Britain had assumed responsibility for the defence and foreign policy of these tribes, and was increasingly intervening in the administration and development of their territories. In short, the Arabian coast of the Gulf had effectively become a British protectorate.

This position was maintained until 1971 when, with the British departure from the region, the states of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Bahrain came into being. These states are therefore a direct legacy of the treaty of 1820, and remain governed by many of those same ruling families with whom Britain entered into treaty relations two hundred years ago. Furthermore, the red and white national flags adopted by many of these states provide a striking reminder of this treaty, having their roots in the ‘flag of the friendly Arabs’ first imposed on them in 1820.

The General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf is therefore central to understanding the modern history of the Gulf and Britain’s role within it. To explore this history in more depth, visit the Qatar Digital Library.

Further reading

Charles E. Davies, The Blood-Red Arab Flag: An Investigation into Qasimi Piracy 1797-1820 (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997).

James Onley, “Britain and the Gulf Shaikhdoms, 1820-1971: The Politics of Protection”, CIRS Occasional Paper no. 4 (Doha, Qatar: Center for International and Regional Studies, 2009).

Sultan Muhammad al-Qasimi, The Myth of Arab Piracy in the Gulf (London: Croom Helm, 1986).

David Woodbridge, Gulf History Cataloguer, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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