Asian and African studies blog

155 posts categorized "Middle East"

16 March 2020

Hands off! This book is mine! Ownership inscriptions in Hebrew manuscripts

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Making notes in a book in not always an act of vandalism. Sometimes it is an act of caring. I often put my name in my own books before lending them. And I am not the only one. Manuscripts were held dear by their owners. A good number of inscriptions bear witness of the care patrons took to ensure the safety of their precious books. Just like Jewish scribes, Jewish owners also developed set phrases to make their marks.
"诇注讜诇诐 讬讻转讜讘 讗讚诐 砖诪讜 注诇 住驻专讜 砖诪讗 讗讞讚 诪谉 讛砖讜拽 讬讘讗 讜讬讗诪专 讝讛 讛住驻专 砖诇讬 诇讻谉 讻转讘转讬 砖诪讬..."
[People sign their books from the beginning of time lest someone come from the market and say 鈥楾his book is mine鈥, thus I have written my name 鈥

Elisha士 ben Gad of Ancona, 士Ets ha-da士at. Italy, 1535/6.Or_12362_f049v
Elisha士 ben Gad of Ancona, 士Ets ha-da士at. Safed, 1535/6. British Library, Or 12362, f. 49v Noc

This is one of most popular phrases. Why people from the market? A marketplace was seen as a gathering place for strangers, idlers, and perhaps even rascals. Owners were concerned that such suspicious characters would claim their precious books. The owner of an 18th-century Passover hagadah expresses his opinion about such false claimers very explicitly:
"诇注讜诇诐 讬讻转讜讘 讗讚诐 砖诪讜 注诇 住驻专讜 砖诪讗 讬讘讜讗 专' 讞诪住谉 讜专' 讙讝诇谉 诪谉 讛砖讜拽 讬讗诪专 砖诇讬 讛讜讗."
[People put their name into their book lest Rabbi Robber and Rabbi Thief come from the market and say 鈥業t is mine鈥.]

Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756.Or_12324_f001r det
Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756. British Library, Or 12324, f. 1r Noc

The owner of a halakhical miscellany composed an entire poem to declare his right to possess the book with a warning at the end:

讛驻谞拽住 讛讝讛 诪讗谉 讚讗砖讘讞转讬讛 / 讛讞讻诐 讛讜讗 讗诐 讛讜讗 砖讜讟讛 / 讘诪讛专讛 讬砖讬讘讛讜 诇讬 讘讞驻爪讬 / 讜诪讻讬住讜 诪注讜转讬讜 讬讜爪讬讗 / 讻讗砖专 注砖讬转讬 讻讬 专爪讬转讬讜 / 驻专注转讬讛讜 讜讗讞专 诇拽讞转讬讛讜
讗谞讬 专讗讬转讬 讗谞砖讬 诪讚讜转 / 砖拽讜谞讬诐 住驻专讬诐 讘诇讬 诪注讜转 / 专拽 讘讞诪砖讛 讗爪讘注讜转 / 诇讻谉 讞转诪转讬 注诇讬讜 砖诪讬 / 讻讚讬 砖诇讗 讬讘讗 讗讞讚 诪谉 讛砖讜拽 / 讜讬注砖讛 诇讬 爪讜拽 / 讜讗谞讬 谞讜转谉 诇讜 驻讜拽.

[Whoever finds this book, be he wise or a fool, quickly return it to me in accordance with my wishes,
And take his money out of his pocket, as I did when I wanted it: I paid for it, and then I took it.
I have seen people who bought books not with money but only with their five fingers, thus I wrote my name on [this book] lest someone come from the market and bring me trouble, [because then] I will tell him to scram.]

Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f046r Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f045v
Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century. British Library, Or 10092, f. 45v and 46r Noc

As you can see, the owner wanted to make sure that his message gets through to whoever tries to take his book, so he added the first part of his little poem also in Italian on the other side of the opening:
Questo libro chi la cata sia savio o sia matto tosto tosto al mio piacere lo renda e danari della sua borscia spenda come fece io quando lo volso lo pagai e poi lo tolso
[Whoever takes hold of this book, be he wise or be he foolish, quickly quickly return it in accordance with my wishes, and spend coins from his purse as I did when I wanted it: I paid and then I took it.]

The first stanza is somewhat obscure both in Hebrew and in Italian. A possible interpretation is that if someone gets hold of this manuscript, they should return it to the owner without hesitation, and buy one for themselves.

Such Italian inscriptions in Jewish books are not something unique. In the British Library collection, there is a large number of Italian Jewish manuscripts, and they often contain notes by the owners in Italian. These notes are very often put in rhyme. Raffael Vita inscribed the following little verse into his manuscript:
Questo libro e di carta chi 猫 orbo non lo quarda. Se piace a qualcheduno se ne vada comprar uno com' ho fatto ancor'io questo libro 猫 mio Raffael Vita 鈥
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. This one鈥檚 mine! Raffael Vita鈥

Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. Or_10485_f009v det
Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. British Library, Or 10485 f. 9v Noc

Almost identical inscription appears at the beginning of a 17th-century miscellany, but someone, probably a later owner deleted the name at the end:
Questo libro 猫 di carta che un 鈥 orbo non lo guarda se piacere a qualche uno si ne vada a comprar uno et per questo mi son sotto il mio nuome Jacob .. da 鈥
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. And this is why I have my my name here Jacob鈥.of 鈥

Miscellany, Italy, 17th century.Or_12360_f001v det
Miscellany, Italy, 17th century. British Library, Or 12360, f. 1v Noc

Another popular rhyme, used not only by Jewish, but also by Christian book owners, was a note in case the book would get lost:
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non si sapesse io che morire sono nato graziadio et angeli Sacerdoti son nominato. Reggio 12 aprile 1767
[If this book ever gets lost and the name of its owner is not known, I who was born to die thank God and the angels Sacerdoti is how I am called. Reggio 12 April 1767.]

Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century.Or_9902_f001r
Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century. British Library, Or 9902, f.1r Noc

As you can see, more than one member of the Sacerdoti family left their mark on this page.

The owner of a 16th-century collection of commentaries wanted to use the same rhyme, but for some reason he left the note unfinished. The most important thing - the name - is missing!
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non sapesse che lo trova che lo rende鈥.
[If this book ever gets lost, and the name of the owners is not known, whoever finds it, whoever returns it...]

Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535.Or_9155_f002r det
Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535. British Library, Or 9155, f. 2r Noc

If you decide to compose a short poem to ensure that everyone knows this book is yours, do not forget to add your name at the end! Otherwise you might never get it back!

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections Ccownwork


08 March 2020

Serial Feminists or Idealized Beauties? Mehasin, A Women鈥檚 Magazine in the Late Ottoman Period

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The first cover of Mehasin, showing a woman's portrait.
The cover of the first issue of Mehasin, appearing in September 1908. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaas谋, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

For much of the 20th century, official narratives in Turkey painted a stark dichotomy in the status of women before and after the reforms of the 1920s and 30s. The Ottoman period was described as a dark era of patriarchal oppression, ignorance and intolerance. It was shown as a bleak contrast to the Republican era, when women were allowed to participate fully in the life of the nation. The Republic proudly advertised its feminist credentials through suffrage (granted in 1930) and women鈥檚 access to a host of occupations, pastimes and means of personal expression. This perception, however, began to change in earnest following the 1980 coup . The bloody repression of the Left squeezed progressive energies towards a post-modernist blossoming in Turkey. Women鈥檚 experiences, stories and memories started coming to the fore in the cultural realm, and soon academics were challenging both the narrative of female emancipation post-1923, and the story of Ottoman brutishness. Groundbreaking scholars such as Deniz Kandiyoti, Fatmag眉l Berktay, Serpil 脟ak谋r, Aynur Demirdirek, Ay艧e Durakba艧a, Zehra Kabasakal Arat and many others paved the way for an appreciation of the complexities of gender, sexuality and power in both the Ottoman and Republican periods. In doing so, they ensured that women鈥檚 studies would become a core component of understanding the country鈥檚 past, present and future.

From the Edict of G眉lhane onwards, and particularly from 1910 up to the dissolution of the Empire in 1923, women were of greater and greater interest to the Ottoman 茅lite. The reasons for this are varied, and partially motivated by the sudden drop in productive and educated male labour brought about by a succession of wars and territorial loses. In order to explore such dynamics, the aforementioned scholars have occasionally made use of late Ottoman periodical publications targeted at women. Women were frequently a topic of periodicals both before and after the Constitutional Revolution of 1908, but they weren鈥檛 always the agents, or the audiences, of such works. Male authors discussed women as objects of beauty or subjects of study in literary, reformist, pedagogical and medical publications in Ottoman Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Armeno-Turkish, Karamanlitic and Ladino. They did not necessarily consider them, however, as active readers engaged in a conversation, real or implied. Throughout the 1990s, such trends were examined by a new wave of young scholars, many of them women. Hatice 脰zen, Ay艧e Zeren Enis, Nevin Yursever Ate艧, and Tatiana Filippova have all written about periodicals appearing in this period with a particular focus on their interaction with female Ottoman citizens. They have dissected them as specimens of publishing industry history, economic change, and state-sponsored modernization drives, among other phenomena. Most importantly, however, they have sought to make use of them as actual evidence of women鈥檚 lives, roles and dreams in the late Ottoman era, beyond ideological narratives.

Sketch of a woman on the cover of issue 8 of MehasinPhotograph of a woman with pearls on cover of issue 5 of Mehasin
The covers of issues 8 and 5 of Mehasin, showing the magazines promotion of women deemed "modern" through both illustration and photography. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaas谋, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

The Turkish and Turkic Collections at the British Library contain a number of these women-themed periodicals from the late-Ottoman period. Among the more visually appealing of these is Mehasin (Beauties), which appeared monthly in 1908-09. The masthead describes it as an illustrated periodical particular to ladies (鈥渉an谋mlara mahsus musavver gazete鈥). In terms of illustration, Mehasin does not disappoint: it contains photographs and drawings of women and children, clothes, accessories, furniture, machines, and locations both familiar and exotic. These accompany articles about a myriad of different topics, many of which might be classified as being pedantic or socially-reformist in nature. The purpose of Mehasin was not necessarily to provide an outlet for Ottoman women to discuss their lives and their positions in society, or to air their grievances against the patriarchy under which they lived. Rather, it was a conduit through which women could be educated and shaped by a mostly male 茅lite, refashioned as (often Europeanized) models of the new Ottoman social structure.

Painting of European woman and masthead of magazine
European painting in issue 7 of Mehasin, along with the tagline "A nation鈥檚 women are a measure of its level of development" just below the masthead of the article. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaas谋, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the periodical鈥檚 ethos comes from the tagline that appeared under the masthead of every issue: 鈥淎 nation鈥檚 women are a measure of its level of development鈥 (鈥淏ir milletin nisvan谋 derece-i terakkisinin mizanidir鈥), attributed to Abd眉lhak Hamit (Tarhan). Other examples come from the title and content of articles, such as 鈥淜indness within the family鈥 (鈥淎ile aras谋nda nezaket鈥; issue 3) and 鈥淲oman鈥檚 Social Standing鈥 (鈥淜ad谋n谋n mevki鈥-i ictimaisi鈥, issue 11). What does make Mehasin fairly interesting as a social phenomenon, however, is that it sought to do this through an appeal to women鈥檚 sensibilities, rather than an application of blunt male authority. Women were here being brought into the mandate and vision of the nation 鈥 a fairly new source of political power in the scheme of Ottoman history 鈥 but they weren鈥檛 necessarily given the opportunity to articulate that vision, or to shape its impact on their lives.

Photographs of Queen Ana of Spain
Photographs from an article on Queen Ena of Spain in issue 4 of Mehasin. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaas谋, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

Mehasin was certainly not revolutionary; at least not in the sense that later female Turkish thinkers, such Halide Edip Ad谋var, Sabiha Sertel or Suat Dervi艧, would have applied this term. It was clearly royalist, given the way that it focused on various members of European royal families (but not those of the Ottoman dynasty, I should note). It also concentrated more on ways for women to become 鈥渕odern鈥 rather than what men might do in their own lives to lessen the oppressive impact of patriarchy on their female compatriots. Beyond this, however, Mehasin鈥檚 writers and editors betray another interesting component of the nexus between women and modernization in the late Ottoman period. While gender was clearly emphasized, so too were race and class, albeit in a far subtler manner. It was not just the royals who were European: many of the model women, too, were white, upper-class Europeans, exemplary of an aspirational womanhood that must have been exceptionally foreign the majority of female Ottoman citizens. An appeal to intersectionality in the interests of women鈥檚 liberation was definitely not on the cards.

Images of women in "old style" dress from the Ottoman Empire
As part of an article about train travel in issue 9, images of women in "old-style" dress. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaas谋, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

Issue 3 of the magazine is particularly informative in this regard. It contains a series of articles and portraits of famous women and 鈥渂eauties鈥. These include Sarah Bernhardt, the famous American actress; women modeling the latest Parisian fashions; French, German, English, Russian, Italian, Spanish and American 鈥渂eauties鈥; and Mrs. Rosa Louis, 鈥淓ngland鈥檚 Most Famous Chef,鈥 who is the subject of a long article. Indeed, the only Ottoman whose photograph finds its way into the issue is the actor Burhaneddin Bey, who is pictured both in and out of costume. Similarly, issue 9 contains a large article entitled 鈥淢arriage Problems鈥 (鈥淢眉艧kil芒t-i izdiva莽鈥), which does reference the upper and lower classes. Nonetheless, it emphasizes that the main audience for the piece are middle-class women concerned about socially-appropriate conduct on issues of engagement, marriage and conjugal bliss. Where we do get images of local women鈥檚 attire is in the tenth issue, in an article about鈥 the railway, and a trip into the interior of Anatolia. Even then, the author chooses to provide not photographs of contemporary Ottoman women, but rather European-style paintings of 鈥渙ld dress鈥 or 鈥渙ur grandmothers鈥 attire鈥. The editor was apparently only interested in women who did not match his aspirations for the average middle-class Ottoman woman if they could be of use in buttressing self-alienating ideologies, as above, or if they fed a colonialist perspective on the women of Asia and Africa, as seen in 鈥淲omen of the Whole World鈥 (鈥淏utun D眉nya Kad谋nlar谋鈥) articles in issues 6 and 7.

Images of airplanes in flight.
Advances in the technology of flight in Europe, from issue 9 of Mehasin. (Mehasin (Istanbul: Hilal Matbaas谋, 1324-25 [1908-09]);
CC Public Domain Image

What is the source of such attitudes towards women鈥檚 behaviour? Mehasin was published by the Ottoman author and literary scholar Mehmet Rauf. Rauf, who was fluent in English and French, was particularly keen on psychology and the inclusion of psychological components into his literary and theatrical works. Perhaps it was this inclination for the study of the mind that led him to create a magazine that was intended to shape the thoughts of middle-class Ottoman women. To be fair, his was a goal that went well beyond the traditional domains afforded to women. He sought to expose his readers to the wonders of science and technology 鈥 such as the expos茅 on air travel in Europe in issue 9 鈥 just as much as he looked to force upon them a vision of European femininity. But Mehmet Rauf鈥檚 preference for enlightenment over emancipation hardly made him novel. As Sibel Bozdo臒an has shown, a long line of men throughout the Ottoman and Republican periods preferred the 鈥渕odern鈥 management of women to sharing power. As radical as it might have been at the time, their attitudes were yet another element crowding out women鈥檚 voices from the debate about Turkish identity and society.

Given that such views were far from uncommon throughout the 20th century, this does beg the question why a magazine such as Mehasin, or indeed other Ottoman periodicals dedicated to women, would have been forgotten or ignored for so long. One reason is undoubtedly the script issue. As these were produced prior to 1928, they are in the Arabic script, which the vast majority of Turkish citizens throughout the life of the Republic have been unable to read. Another, deeper, cause of ignorance, however, is an official policy, up until the AKP era, of seeking to downplay or erase the Ottoman past within narratives of Turkish history. As the historiographer B眉艧ra Ersanl谋 Behar has explored in her studies of official histories in Turkey, the Ottoman past was either a convenient negative Other for the Republic, or it simply was not. Explorations of the complex nature of Ottoman society were not encouraged. Luckily for us, historians who bucked the dominant trend have helped preserve and expand upon the importance of such publications for reconstructing social experiences in the late Ottoman Empire. In doing so, they鈥檝e helped paint a richer picture of Turkish women鈥檚 long-term struggle for liberation and equality, including when that meant breaking free from men鈥檚 tropes about the 鈥渕odern woman鈥.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
CCBY Image

04 March 2020

Until the donkey ascends the ladder: Hebrew scribal formulae

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Johanan, having copied a manuscript in Tivoli in 1514 in neat Sefardi script, describes himself in the colophon as 鈥渢he smallest of the disciples, who laps up the dust of the feet of the sages, the servant of their disciples鈥 Johanan ben Jacob Siracusi.鈥

Midrash on the Minor Prophets. Tivoli, 1514. Harley_ms_5704_f199r det
Midrash on the Minor Prophets. Tivoli, 1514. British Library, Harley MS 5704, f. 199r Noc

A colophon, meaning 鈥渇inal point鈥 in Greek, is a note that provides details about the production of the manuscript such as when and where it was copied, who copied it for whom, and so on. Jewish scribes often used certain set phrases in their colophons; 鈥渢he dust of the feet of the sages鈥 was one of them. The expression, portraying the scribe as a humble, insignificant fellow, probably comes from the Mishnah: 鈥渓et thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.鈥 (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:4)

The phrase became popular as an expression of humility in Jewish rabbinical literature, and it appears also in Hebrew colophons from various eras and lands. Here is another example from 17th-century Yemen: a certain Hayyim on the Mishnah calls himself 鈥渢he smallest of the scribes, dust of the feet of the sages, the young Hayyim ben Shalom ben David ben Isaac ben Solomon ben Jacob al-岣gagi鈥. We should not necessarily imagine Hayyim as a young man, though. 鈥淵oung鈥 here is a synonym for insignificant or minute. Also, notice that humility does not prevent him from listing his ancestors back to five generations!

Maimonides鈥 Commentary on Seder Mo士ed. Yemen, 1652. Or_2218_f096v det
Maimonides鈥 Commentary on Seder Mo士ed. Yemen, 1652. British Library, Or 2218, f. 96v Noc

In 1476, another scribe uses a very similar phrase in his colophon: 鈥淚 am the youngest among the disciples, who embraces the dust of the feet of the sages, Moses ben Masud ben Jacob鈥︹

Digest of several Talmud tractates by David ben Levi of Narbonne. 1476.Add_ms_19778_f151r det
Digest of several Talmud tractates by David ben Levi of Narbonne. 1476. British Library, Add MS 19778, f. 151r Noc

While humble, and insignificant, Moses also make sure that his work pays off: in exchange for his efforts he asked for protection against ill fate: 鈥淏lessed He who helps his servant鈥 who gives strength to the tired 鈥 may no harm befall the scribe not now and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that our father Jacob dreamt about.鈥

鈥淯ntil the donkey ascends the ladder鈥: that is, never, since the donkey is not ever likely to climb up the ladder. This is another nice example of set phrases Jewish scribes used in colophons. It first cropped up in some 13th-century Ashkenazi (German) codices, and has in time developed into a very popular formula. 鈥淏e strong and strengthened, no harm befall the scribe, not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder鈥 writes Nehemiah ben Jacob at the end of a 14th-century Ashkenazi festival prayer book.

Festival prayer book. Germany or Eastern Mediterranean, 1349.Add_ms_10456_f172v det
Festival prayer book. Germany or Eastern Mediterranean, 1349. British Library, Add MS 10456, f. 172v Noc

Another 14th-century scribe inscribed his colophon at the end of the carmina figurata 鈥 text written to form various shapes 鈥 here forming the word hazak, meaning 鈥榖e strong鈥. His colophon, like many others, starts with the same word, hazak: 鈥淏e strong and strengthened, may no harm befall the scribe, not today and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamt about.鈥

Harley_ms_1861_f219r Detail of Abraham's Pentateuch. Harley_ms_1861_f219r det
'Abraham's Pentateuch and Rashi'. Germany, 14th century. British Library, Harley MS 1861, f. 219r, with detail Noc

The second half of the rhyme refers to the biblical story of Jacob, who in a dream saw a ladder reaching the heavens with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:10-19). So what could be the connection between angels and donkeys? The Babylonian Talmud has an answer: 鈥淚f the early generations are characterized as sons of angels, we are the sons of men. And if the early generations are characterized as the sons of men, we are akin to donkeys.鈥

Jacob鈥檚 ladder. Golden Haggadah. Spain, 14th century. Add_ms_27210_f004v det
Jacob鈥檚 ladder. Golden Haggadah. Spain, 14th century. British Library, Add MS 27210, f. 4v Noc

We can agree that while angels can ascend and descend between earth and heavens with ease, donkeys would have a much more difficult time.

There is another possible source of this phrase that has nothing to do with Jacob鈥檚 ladder, and it comes from a midrash (a type of biblical interpretation): 鈥淔our things were said by the wise: As the sack can be washed white, so knowledge can be found with the ignorant; when the donkey ascends the ladder, then you can find wisdom with fool; when the kid puts up with the panther, then the daughter-in-law can put up with her mother-in-law; when you find an entirely white raven, then you find a good woman鈥 (Otsar midrashim, Hupat Eliyahu 139). The donkey ascending the ladder is thus a metaphor for impossibility or improbability.

In a 16th-century codex from Safed, someone crossed out the bit about the donkey in the colophon. Perhaps it did not seem appropriate or humorous for everyone? 鈥淚, Solomon Ezobi, the youngest among the disciples in the yeshiva of Safed 鈥 copied this book鈥 be the will of God that no harm befall the scribe until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamt.鈥

Kabbalistic treatise Or_6835_f235r det
Kabbalistic treatise. Safed, 1524. British Library, Or 6835, f. 235r Noc

All of these colophons were from neatly executed manuscripts. The last example is less orderly, scribbled down by a more cursive hand: 鈥淭his Birkat ha-mazon [Grace After Meals] is finished with the help of the Lord鈥. May no harm befall the scribe not today and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamed. Amen selah 鈥 I Joseph bar Gershon the scribe鈥

Fragment of a prayer book, 18th century? Arundel_or_50_f082v
Fragment of a prayer book, 18th century? British Library, Arundel Or 50, f. 82v Noc

The doodles under the colophon seem to be added by the same person but they have nothing to do with donkeys or ladders. As far as I know there is only one manuscript with a little doodle depicting a donkey climbing a ladder held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan (Cod. Milan. Nr. 7). Sadly it has not been digitised yet, but here is a reproduction of its reproduction!

Donkey climbing a ladder
From Alexander Scheiber, Essays on Jewish folklore and comparative literature (Budapest, 1985), p. 3.

Composed by me, Zsofi in Shevat 5780. Be strong and strengthened,
may no harm befall the scribe, not today and not ever,
until the donkey ascends the ladder
that Jacob our forefather
dreamt about.


Zsofi Buda, Asian and African collections Ccownwork

26 February 2020

William Jones, al-Mutanabb墨 and Emotional Encounters

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In 1774, William Jones (1746 鈥 1794), then 27, a graduate from Oxford University, a Fellow of the Royal Society and a barrister with the Middle Temple, received a copy of al-Mutanabb墨's D墨w膩n (poetry collection) as a gift from a certain 士Abd al-Ra岣膩n Beg.

1. William Jones by Arthur William Devis Foster 840
Portrait of Sir William Jones aged 47 by Arthur William Devis (1762-1822). Oil on canvas, ca. 1793 (Foster 840). Public Domain

驶Abd al-Ra岣膩n Beg, it would appear (although it is not certain), lived in the town of Hama (岣m膩) in modern-day Syria and then an important administrative and trade centre in the Ottoman Empire. 士Abd al-Ra岣膩n Beg sent this gift (now known as MS RSPA 107), having never met Jones, along with the following inscription:

賷氐賱 丕賱賰鬲丕亘 廿賱賶 亘賳丿乇 兀賯賮乇丿 賵賷鬲卮乇賮 亘賱孬賲 兀賳丕賲賱 丕賱兀賱丨賳 丕賱賲賲噩丿 丨囟乇丞 賵賱賷丕賲 噩賵賳爻
賷賻丕 乇賽賷丕丨賻 丕賱毓賻丕卮賽賯賷賳賻 兀賻賵賿氐賽賱賿 賲購丨賽亘賾賷賳丕 丕賱爻賻賱賻丕賲賻 *** 卮丕亘賻賴賵 丕賱乇賻賷丨丕賳 賵賻丕賱兀夭賿賴丕乇賻 卮賻賲丕賸 賮賷賽 丕賱噩賽賳丕賻賳賿
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賮賽賷 丕賱賮賻氐賻丕丨賻丞 賰賻丕賱丨賻乇賽賷乇 賮賷 丕賱爻賻賾禺丕賵丞 丨丕鬲賲賹 *** 賰賻丕賳 賴賻匕賻丕 賵賽賱賽賷丕賲 噩購賵賳爻 丕賳賻賰賱賷夭丕賳 賮賷 丕賱毓賷丕賳
賲賳 毓賳丿 丕賱毓亘丿 丕賱賮賯賷乇 毓亘丿 丕賱乇丨賲賳 亘賷賰

This book is to arrive at the port of Oxford and is honoured to kiss the fingertips of the most intelligent and glorious Sir William Jones:

O winds of the lovers, send greetings to our beloveds
They are akin to the sweet smell of flowers in a garden
If you arrive, o fragrant breeze of love, say to them,
鈥淵ou pillar of learning, be free of all worries!鈥
Judicious in his generosity, he is like silk in his elegance,
This man is William Jones, the Englishman

From your humble servant, 士Abd al-Ra岣膩n Beg.

2. RSPA 107 marbled and note JPG
驶Abd al-Ra岣膩n's dedication and Jones note underneath. Jones' translation is just visible, attached to the marbled endpaper (RSPA 107). Public Domain

Below this inscription, Jones has written:

I received this valuable manuscript by the hands of Mr. Howard to whose care it was entrusted in June 1774 at Venice, by Mr. W Montague. It was a present from Abderrahman Beg, who wrote the Arabick verses in this page, which are so flattering to me, that I can hardly translate them without blushing, 3 Oct. 1774, W. Jones.

Jones comment on receiving this book
Jones' note (RSPA 107, flyleaf). Public Domain

Yet, translate them he did 鈥 or at least, it would appear, given that the opposite side has been ripped out, but you can still make out the beginning of the word Oxford at the start of the page. Jones was clearly troubled by the verse. In two letters, also dated to 1774, Jones tells of his receipt of the gift and his consequent embarrassment. In a letter to the Mr. Howard who presented him with the manuscript, he wrote (Jones, pp. 229-30):

I have just received your most obliging letter, with a fine Arabic manuscript, containing the works of a celebrated poet with whom I have been long acquainted: this testimony of Mr Montague鈥檚 regard is extremely pleasing to me and I have a most grateful sense of his kindness. I am conscious how little I have deserved the many honours I have lately received from the learned in Europe and Asia: I can ascribe their politeness to nothing but their candour and benevolence. I fear they will think me still less deserving when they know that I have deserted, or rather suspended, all literary pursuits whatever and am wholly engaged in the study of a profession for which I was always intended. As the law is a jealous science, and will not have any partnership with the Eastern Muses, I must absolutely renounce their acquaintance for ten or twelve years to come. This manuscript, however, is highly acceptable to me, and shall be preserved among my choicest treasures, till I have leisure to give it an attentive perusal. There is a compliment to me written in Arabic verse, in the first leaf of the book, and signed Abdurrahman Beg: the verses are very fine, but so full of Oriental panegyric, that I could not read them without blushing. The present seems to come from the learned Arabian: but as he has not inserted my name in his verses, and speaks of Oxford, he must have heard me mentioned by Mr. Montague, to whom therefore I am equally indebted for the present.

At the same time in October 1774, Jones wrote a very long letter to Hendrik Albert Schultens, the Dutch linguist, in which he said (Jones, pp. 227-8):

Whilst I am writing this letter, a person called upon me with a manuscript, which he had received at Venice from Mr. Montague, a man of family. I immediately perceived it to be a most beautiful and correct copy of Motanabbi with a letter addressed to myself in Arabic verse, from some person named Abdurrahman, whom Mr. Montague had probably seen in Asia. I owe great obligations to the politeness of the learned Arab but I by no means think myself worthy of his exaggerated encomiums 鈥 but you know the pompous style of the Orientals.

In both letters, as well as the note he appended to the verse inscription in the manuscript itself, Jones emphasises his embarrassment at receiving these 鈥渆xaggerated encomiums鈥; his response encapsulates a particular form of the colonial encounter, this being the interaction of two emotional regimes, expressed in two very different literary styles. Why did Jones feel so awkward about this poem?

Diwan al-Mutanabbi RSPA107
The opening pages of the D墨w膩n of al-Mutanabb墨 (RSPA 107, ff. 1v-2r). Public Domain

The poetry is a fairly standard example of Arabic panegyric (mad墨岣 ), a genre in which al-Mutannab墨 was one of the most exemplary poets of the entire tradition; his panegyrics for the tenth century Amir of Aleppo, Sayf al-Dawlah established his reputation and was, according to Margaret Larkin, the pinnacle of his career. 士Abd al-Ra岣膩n Beg鈥檚 poetic homage to Jones is, in many ways, a pastiche of the conventional symbols of poetic panegyric which al-Mutanabb墨 used 鈥 to much greater poetic effect and success 鈥 in his panegyrics of Sayf al-Dawlah. The winds of lovers (riy膩岣 'l-士膩shiq墨na), the south-winds of love ( nas墨ma 'l-岣bbi) and the sweet floral smell of the odoriferous plants and flowers in the garden which the object of poetry is akin to ( sh膩bah奴 'l-ray岣ツ乶a wa-l-azh膩ra shamman f墨-l-jin膩ni): these are all very conventional tropes of Arabic love lyric (nas墨b), clich茅 almost. The clich茅s used by 士Abd al-Ra岣膩n Beg may be conventional, but they also reveal an emotional regime which is expressed through the intermingling of the language of love and the language of admiration and an emotional regime in which this literary expression is completely normal, conventional and expected. Our concern here is: how did Jones read such poetry?

Jones was certainly well versed in Arabic poetry and would have been very familiar with the linguistic register of the nas墨b and the panegyric which are both on show here. Having already read al-Mutanabb墨, he would surely have known the idiomatic nature of the verse in front of him and the hackneyed terms of praise chosen by 士Abd al-Ra岣膩n Beg. Why the embarrassment, then?

William Reddy has proposed the 鈥榚motional regime鈥 as a useful framework for studying emotion history, this being what he terms the normative set of emotions in any one culture and the linguistic, ritualistic and practical structures of that culture which produce and embed them. Here, we see the interaction and conflict of two such emotional regimes: the 鈥渆xaggerated encomiums鈥 and 鈥減ompous panegyric鈥 of the poetry mixed with Jones鈥檚 blushing, embarrassment and 鈥楨nglish reserve鈥. Jones鈥檚 reading sees the poetry as awkward, over-the-top flattery. This he ascribes to the 鈥減ompous style of the Orientals鈥, rather brushing it aside as a local custom, a linguistic clich茅 that is, to his mind, in the context of the men never having met, a faintly ridiculous example of such poetry, of which Jones feels 鈥渨holly unworthy鈥. Yet, in the colonial politics of the moment, it would be easy to forget that Jones was subject to his own emotional regime, one which does not valorise such overt intermingling of personal feeling with professional compliment, hence Jones鈥檚 feeling 鈥榰nworthy鈥 of such compliments and emphasising in each of the letters his detachment from the subject of praise (his knowledge of Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit literature) and instead his professional attachment to a new field: the law.

However, Jones did not just read the poem. Rather, he struggles to accept the compliments and to see the poetry as anything other than 鈥減ompous鈥 because he translates them into his own idiom and sees them from within his own emotional regime, and it is at the English expression of emotions, which has become decontextualised from its linguistic formality, that he blushes. Translation can be a tricky business, displacing a constellation of poetic tropes and images from its historical and literary context and embedding them within a new language鈥檚 and a new emotional regime鈥檚 constraints of style. Whilst in Arabic the poem is a fairly conventional intermingling of nas墨b and mad墨岣 linguistic registers and images, the English translation stands out as unusual within the broader English poetic tradition and imaginary, exemplifying the discord felt by the inter-linguistic politics of emotional translation, the difficulty of expressing oneself comfortably across languages and emotional regimes which have their own register of emotional expression. In his translation, Jones has transformed the poem: out of a standardised and conventional set of images spread over three short lines of poetry, Jones has created this awkward feeling for himself in his attempt to read the Arabic into English, in his use of Arabic emotional expressions outside of their context.

This single interaction speaks to the difficulty we face in traversing emotional regimes, in translating styles and ways of speaking which are so at home in their own context into a new and unfamiliar emotional background.

Further Reading
Bray, Julia, 鈥淵a士q奴b b. al-Rab墨士 Read by al-Mutanabb墨 and al-Mubarrad: A Contribution to an Abbasid History of Emotions鈥, Journal of Abbasid Studies 4:1 (2017).
Jacobi, Renate 鈥淨a峁D玠a (pl. Qa峁D伿緄d)鈥 in Julie Scott Meisami and Paul Starkey (eds.) Encyclopaedia of Arabic Literature, 2:630-33.
Jones, Sir William (ed. John Shore and S.C. Wilks), Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Correspondence of Sir William Jones, by Lord Teignmouth. With the Life of Lord Teignmouth, and Notes, by S.C. Wilks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1835).
Larkin, Margaret Al-Mutanabbi: Voice of the 士Abbasid Poetic Ideal (Oxford: Oneworld, 2008).
Meisami, Julie Scott, Structure and Meaning in Medieval Arabic and Persian Lyric Poetry: Orient Pearls (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
al-Mutanabb墨, Ab奴 al-峁琣yyib (tr. A. J. Arberry), Poems of al-Mutanabb墨: a Selection with Introduction, Translation and Notes (London: Cambridge University Press, 1967).
Plamper, Jan et al, 鈥淭he History of Emotions: an Interview with William Reddy, Barbara Rosenwein, and Peter Stearns" in History and Theory 49, no. 2 (2010): 237-65.
Reddy, William, The Making of Romantic: Longing and Sexuality in Europe, South Asia and Japan 900-1200 CE (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2012).
鈥撯撯撯撯, The Navigation of Feeling: a Framework for the History of Emotions (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).
Sadan, Joseph, 鈥淢aiden鈥檚 Hair and Starry Skies 鈥 Image Systems and Ma士膩n墨 Guides鈥 in Sasson Somekh (ed.), Studies in Medieval Arabic and Hebrew Poetics (Leiden: Brill, 1991).

Jonathan Lawrence, D Phil candidate at the University of Oxford, doctoral placement at British Library

23 January 2020

Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library

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The British Library is fortunate in having an unparalled collection of over 100 Zoroastrian works ranging from the oldest, the ninth century Ashem Vohu prayer written in Sogdian script discovered by Aurel Stein in Central Asia in 1907, to, most recently, manuscripts collected especially for the Royal Society in London during the late-nineteenth century. Although Zoroastrianism is Iranian in origin, most of our manuscripts in fact come from India. They are written in Avestan (Old Iranian), Middle Persian, New Persian, and also in the Indian languages Sanskrit and Gujarati.

In the past few years several of our manuscripts have become familiar through exhibitions such as Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination held at SOAS (2013) and New Delhi (2016) and also through the Zoroastrian articles and collection items included in our recent website Discovering Sacred Texts. Building on this and thanks to the philanthropic support of Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, we have now been able to complete digitisation of the whole collection. This introductory post outlines the history of the collection and is intended as the first in a series highlighting the collection as the manuscripts go live during the next few months.

1 Zoroastrian prayer in Sogdian-Or MS 8212 84
One of the holiest Zoroastrian prayers, the Ashem vohu, discovered at Dunhuang by Aurel Stein in 1907. Transcribed into Sogdian (a medieval Iranian language) script, this fragment dates from around the ninth century AD, about four centuries earlier than any other surviving Zoroastrian text (BL Or.8212/84). Public domain

The collection is made up of three main collections described below, dating from the seventeenth, the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries, in addition to individual items acquired by British travellers to India and employees of the East India Company. I鈥檒l be writing more about these individual collections in future posts.

Thomas Hyde (1636鈥1703)

Our oldest collection, and the earliest to reach the West, was acquired for the seventeenth century polymath Thomas Hyde. Hyde became Laudian Professor of Arabic at the University of Oxford in 1691 and Regius Professor of Hebrew in 1697 and also served as Royal Secretary and Translator of Oriental Languages for three successive monarchs: Charles II, James II and William III. While he had never travelled in the East himself, he built up a network of travellers and East India Company officials whom he asked to purchase books and manuscripts on his behalf. Several of these were chaplains whom Hyde had personally recommended to the Levant and the East India trading companies. After his death in 1703 part of his collection was purchased by Queen Anne for the Royal Library. It was subsequently given to the British Museum by King George III in 1757. 鈥

2 Hydes Khordah Avesta-royal_ms_16_b_vi_f001r
A copy of the Khordah Avesta (鈥楲ittle Avesta鈥) which contains prayers, hymns and invocations. This manuscript begins with the Ashem vohu (featured also in Sogdian script above) and is dated 30 Ardibihisht 1042 in the era of Yazdagird (1673). It was copied at the request of the English Agent Kunvarji Nanabhai Modi probably on commission for Hyde. Hyde could read though never wholly understood Avestan, but he used this particular manuscript as a model for the special Avestan type he created for his well-known History of the Persian Religion published in 1700 (BL Royal Ms, f. 1r). Public domain

Samuel Guise (1751-1811)

Samuel Guise began his career as a Surgeon on the Bombay Establishment of the East-India Company in 1775 and from 1788 until the end of 1795, he was Head Surgeon at the East-India Company鈥檚 Factory in Surat where his work brought him into close contact with the Parsi community. An avid collector, he acquired altogether more than 400 manuscripts while in India. At some point he was fortunate enough to be able to purchase from his widow, the collection of the famous Dastur Darab who had taught the first translator of the Avesta, Anquetil du Perron, between 1758 and 1760 (Guise, Catalogue, 1800, pp. 3-4):

This Collection was made at Surat, from the year 1788 till the End of 1795, with great Trouble and Expence. ... Of this Collection, however rich in Arabick and Persian works of Merit, the chief Value consists in the numerous Zend and Pehlavi MSS treating of the antient Religion and History of the Parsees, or Disciples of the celebrated Zoroaster, many of which were purchased, at a very considerable Expence, from the Widow of Darab, who had been, in the Study of those Languages, the Preceptor of M. Anquetil du Perron; and some of the Manuscripts are such as this inquisitive Frenchman found it impossible to procure

In 1796 he retired to Montrose, Angus, where he lived until his death in 1811. The story of his collection and what subsequently happened to it is told in my article 鈥淭he strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,鈥 but eventually in 1812, 26 Zoroastrian manuscripts were acquired at auction by the East India Company Library. They include one of the oldest surviving Avestan manuscripts, the Pahlavi Videvdad (鈥楲aw to drive away the demons鈥), a legal work concerned with ritual and purity which was copied in 1323 AD (Mss Avestan 4). Other important manuscripts are a copy of the liturgical text, the Videvdad sa虅dah (Mss Avestan 1), attributed to the fifteenth century, and one of the oldest copies of the Yasna s膩dah 鈥 the simple text of the Yasna ritual without any commentary鈥 (Mss Avestan 17).

3 Yasna sadah-mss_avestan_17_f128r copy
Verses 6-7鈥 of Yasna 43 on the creation of the universe. The red floral decorations are verse dividers and are a feature of this manuscript. This copy was completed in India in 1556 (BL Mss Avestan 17, f. 128r). Public domain

Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner

Burjorji Ashburner was a successful Bombay merchant, a Freemason, and a member of the Bombay Asiatic Society. He was also a member of the Committee of Management for one of the most important Zoroastrian libraries in Bombay, the Mulla Firuz Library and made a special point of having copies made of some of the rarer items. In April 1864 Burjurji wrote offering some 70 to 80 volumes as a gift to the Royal Society, London, promising to add additional ones:

In the course of antiquarian researches...with special reference to the Parsee religion, I have had the good fortune to obtain some valuable ancient manuscripts in Zend, Pehlui, and Persian. I do not wish to keep to myself what may be useful in the literary world. [1]

His collection consisted of standard Arabic and Persian works in addition to nineteen specifically Zoroastrian manuscripts in Persian, Avestan and Pahlavi. A number of Bujorji鈥檚 manuscripts came originally from Iran. The oldest is an illustrated copy of the Videvdad sa虅dah (RSPA 230) which was copied in Yazd, Iran, in 1647. Whereas Zoroastrian manuscripts are generally unillustrated except for small devices such as verse dividers and occasional diagrams, this one, exceptionally, contains seven coloured drawings of trees, used as chapter headings not unlike Islamic manuscripts of the same period.

4 An illustrated Videvdad Sadah-RSPA230_64R
The beginning of chapter 19 of the Videvdad sadah in which Zoroaster repels an attempt on his life by the demon Buiti, sent by the evil spirit Angra Mainyu. Note the elongated calligraphic script which is typical of the older manuscripts from Iran (BL RSPA 230, f. 227r). Public domain

Several of Bujorji鈥檚 manuscripts were copied or written by Siyavakhsh Urmazdyar an Iranian poet and writer living in Bombay in the mid-nineteenth century. His poetical name was Azari, but he was otherwise known as Sarfahkar Kirmani or Irani. These include works in Persian on the calendar (the subject of a major controversy at the time), a dictionary, treatises on divination and the interaction between Zoroastrians and Muslims, in addition to copies of Avestan texts.

Other sources

The remaining manuscripts were acquired in India, mostly by East India Company servants Jonathan Duncan Governor of Bombay (1756鈥1811), Sir John Malcolm (1769鈥1833), and the Scottish linguist and poet John Leyden (1775-1811). They range from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries.

5 Qissah Sanjan-io_islamic_2572_f001v copy
The beginning of the Qissah-i Sanjan, the traditional story in Persian verse of the settlement of the Parsis in India composed by Bahman ibn Kayqub膩d at Nausari in AD 1600. This copy is undated but was written, most probably for John Leyden, on paper watermarked 1799 (BL IO Islamic 2572, f. 1v). Public domain

Further reading

Samuel Guise, A Catalogue and Detailed Account of a Very Valuable and Curious Collection of Manuscripts, Collected in Hindostan. London, 1800.
Almut Hintze, An introduction to Zoroastrianism, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Jenny Rose, Zoroastrianism from the early modern period, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
Ursula Sims-Williams, Zoroastrianism in late antiquity, in Discovering Sacred Texts, British Library 2019.
----------------, 鈥The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,鈥 Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.
----------------, 鈥Zoroastrian Manuscripts in the British Library, London,鈥 in The Transmission of the Avesta, ed. A. Cantera. Wiesbaden, 2012, pp. 173-94.

We are grateful to Mrs Purviz Rusy Shroff, Mr Neville Shroff and Mr Zarir Cama for their generous support towards this project.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library

[1] Royal Society Archives MC.7.53: Ashburner to the Foreign Secretary, 13 April 1864

24 December 2019

Christmas from Bethlehem to Bethnahrein

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On December 25, Christians around the world (except most Orthodox Christians) will mark the birth of Jesus Christ, whom they believe to be the son of God and the Messiah. Jesus, who was born in a manger in Bethlehem, grew up speaking a dialect of Aramaic, once the lingua franca of West Asia. The Gospels, which relate Jesus鈥 life and teachings, were written in Greek, but the language that Jesus spoke continued to be used long past his death. Aramaic gradually evolved into various languages, with different speech communities surviving to the present day, albeit none of them in the vicinity of Jesus鈥 birthplace. Linguistic retention has been most tenacious in Mesopotamia, known as Beth-Nahrein (軖軡墁 堍軛塥軡堍; "Between the Rivers"). For those groups that still speak it, language and culture continue to be important aspects of identity, including in the birthday celebrations of the world鈥檚 most famous Aramaic speaker, Jesus of Nazareth.

A recording of a 2016 Assyrian Church of the East Christmas celebration in Baghdad. (YouTube, uploaded by Rev. Shmoel Maqdis)

From the 1st century CE, an Aramaic language, Syriac, rose to become an important vehicle for Christianity and Christian philosophy in the Middle East. Based on the dialect of Urfa (Edessa/螘未蔚蟽蟽伪 in Greek, Urhoi/軔軜塥軛軡 in Syriac), it has been used continuously by Syriac Christians in their liturgy and theological writings, as well as their secular histories and literature, for over a millennium and a half. Syriac Christianity is a rich and varied collection of faith practices, one that incorporates some 11 different churches of various theological and cultural orientations. Some, such as the Syriac Orthodox Church, are in communion with the Armenian, Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches. The Syriac Maronite Church and the Chaldean Catholic Church are in communion with the Catholic Church based in Rome. Other groups, such as the Assyrian Church of the East, are completely independent of broader structures, while the Mar Thoma Syrian Church of Kerala, India is in communion with the Anglican Church. What they all have in common, however, is their use of one of two Syriac rites, continuing on the religious significance of this Aramaic dialect, even in communities where it was never spoken as a daily language.

The Nativity scene from Add MS 7170.
An illustration of the Nativity from a 13th century Syriac lectionary copied in Syria or northern Iraq. (Syriac Lectionary, Add MS 7170)
CC Public Domain Image

It should be no surprise, then, that Christmas too is described and celebrated in this linguistic relative of Jesus鈥 speech, whether in India, Lebanon, Iraq, or among the diaspora. The story of Jesus鈥 birth is found in the Peshitta, or simplified Syriac translation of the Gospels. Just as in the King James Bible, the Peshitta version provides us with a description of the manger in Luke 2:1, while Matthew 2:11 tells of the visit of the Magi. The British Library holds one of the largest and richest 鈥 if not the largest and richest 鈥 collections of Syriac manuscripts in the world, which include many copies of the Peshitta. Given the importance of the birth of the Christian Messiah as a milestone in Christian history, some of the works within our collections contain beautifully illuminated and illustrated narrations of the Nativity. One of the most spectacular depictions of the event comes from the manuscript Add MS 7170, a 13th century Lectionary that was copied in northern Iraq near the city of Mosul. The painting shows the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus lying side by side and watched over by angels, while the Magi arrive bearing gifts. Their presence in a manger is noted by the fact that both a donkey and an ox look down upon the infant, just as enraptured by his being as the humans.

Header of the Gospel of John from Or. 14365. Story of the Nativity from Gospel of Luke in Or 14365.
The start of the Gospel of John, with instructions that it is to be read for Christmas, as well as the story of the Nativity in the Gospel of Matthew, from a 15th century Peshitta from Tur Abdin, Turkey (Peshi峁璽膩, Or. 14365). 
CC Public Domain Image

The story of the Nativity appears in all of copies of the Peshitta that contain all four of the Gospels, just as it does in all versions of the New Testament copied or published in other languages. As time went on, not only the event but its commemoration too became an important part of organizing the teachings and life of the Church and its faithful. In addition to the passages in both Luke and Matthew, whole sections of the Gospels were assigned for reading during the Christmas season. Excerpts from Or. 14365, a 15th century manuscript produced in Tur Abdin, Turkey, show not only Luke 2:1-10, telling the story of the Nativity, but also the header of the Gospel of John, which is intended to be read at Christmas. It features an intricate geometrical pattern of interlacing red, green and yellow bands, and is accompanied by a cloth thumb-tab, indicating that this section was indeed meant to be found and actively read by literate believers.

Illustrated cover page of Children's Christmas stories in Swadaya.
The cover of a collection of Christmas stories for children translated from English into Swadaya (neo-Aramic from northwestern Iran). (Lil膩 Abr膩ha膩m Taym煤r膩zi, Il膩n膩 qa峁m膩 d-'i'd膩 za'or膩 (峁琣hran : 峁琣b铆士膩 b-Ma峁璪膩士t膩 d-s铆士t膩 sefr膩yt膩 d-士膩l铆me at煤r膩ye b-ziqt膩 miny膩n膩 d-tr铆n, 1959) (YP.2018.a.1677).
CC Public Domain Image

Christianity has been a cornerstone of Aramaic-speakers鈥 identities right up to the present. As Adam H. Becker has explored in his book Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism, the 19th century brought an onslaught of American and British Protestant missionaries to northern Iraq and western Iran. This added a new layer to the relationship between history, language, religion and ethnicity in the region. European and American insistence on linking the ancient Assyrian Empire with contemporary Aramaic speakers, as well as the importation of European Christmas traditions, allowed for new means of celebrating the holiday alongside traditional ones. The British Library holds small but notable collections of contemporary poetry and prose works in Classical Syriac as well as the neo-Aramaic languages Turoyo and Swadaya. Within these, some include works dedicated to the celebration of Christmas. Writing targeted at children is especially rich with examples, as the holiday 鈥 beloved by children 鈥 also provides a good opportunity to teach these endangered languages to future generations. Some poems come with imagery that is clearly influenced by Western European symbolism, including Christmas trees and a portly, jolly and bearded Santa Claus. In mid-20th century works, such as the pamphlet above produced in Tehran, this is a reflection of the influence of British and American missionaries in the homeland of many neo-Aramaic speakers. Christmas stories were translated from English into the Swadaya dialect of the Urmia Region, ensuring a transfer of Euro-American Christmas traditions and symbols to a part of the Assyrian people.

A poem in Turoyo about Father Christmas including illustrations.
A song about Father Christmas in from an anthology of children's verse in Classical Syriac published in the Netherlands. (Murat Can, Zmiro峁痮 d 拧abre men Be峁-nahrin : 41 zmiro峁痮 lan nacime b Surayt (Enschede : Gana峁 艩arwoye, 1998). (YP.2018.b.125)
CC Public Domain Image

The gradual infiltration of European ideas about Christmas also occurred because of the geography of Syriac Christian communities. Although originally from West Asia, more people who identify as Assyrians or Syriacs might live in the diaspora than do in the homeland. Conservative guesses are that half the community live outside of West Asia, with the United States and Sweden the largest populations. The British Library鈥檚 collections feature numerous works published by authors or community groups in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, many of them focused on the preservation and promulgation of culture and language. The example above, sourced from the Netherlands, shows the use of images familiar to anyone who might have grown up in Western Europe or North America, alongside a Turoyo song about Father Christmas.

News from Baghdad's Assyrian community including the 1973 Christmas party.
News from Baghdad's Assyrian community, including a piece on female students' Christmas party in December 1973. ("Akhbar al-mujtama'at al-膩th奴r墨", M煤rdin膩 At煤r膩y膩, Issue 3-4 (Baghda虅d : al-Na虅di虅 al-Thaqa虅fi虅 al-A虅thu虅ri虅, April 1974). (ZP.9.b.189)
CC Public Domain Image

In the homeland, Christmas continues to be celebrated and woven into contemporary culture, despite the numerous pressures exerted on Aramaic speakers to go into hiding or depart. In the 1970s, the Assyrians of Baghdad openly celebrated Christmas as a group event, as seen in the community news section of the periodical M煤rdin膩 Atur膩y膩 (The Educated Assyrian). In December 1973, female Assyrian students marked the occasion with a party that included dance and song, among other entertainment. Christmas was not only a chance to mark the passage of time and to celebrate the birth of Christ, but also an opportunity to take stock and look towards the community's future. 

The Iran-Iraq War, decades of sanctions, unrest in the south-east of Turkey, and, eventually, the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq have all led to a drastic reduction in the presence of Syriac Christians in their homeland, as well as the celebration of Christian festivities there. Nonetheless, communities remain, and occasionally grow, allowing for Christmas Mass to be sung across the region. This year, too, the Nativity will be celebrated, in Syriac, in churches from Ainkawa to Adelaide, Mardin to Malm枚, and Qamishlo to Kerala. Neither time nor distance can erase the sense of hope and yearning for peace represented by the celebration of Christmas.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library

21 November 2019

Buddha From Kashgar to Istanbul

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This is the eighth of a series of blog posts accompanying the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 鈥 23 Feb 2020.

In 1911-12, Ahmet Refik (Alt谋nay) published the B眉y眉k Tarih-i Umum卯, a compendious history of the world. Much of the material was far from ground-breaking. Similar to broader Ottoman historiography of this period, the sections on the ancient Mediterranean and the cultures and civilizations of Europe were taken, largely unchallenged, from French, English and German sources. What is noteworthy, however, is the self-assured manner in which the ancient history of the Turks as a nation is outlined in the Tarih. This was a continuation of a new trend in history-writing stemming from the mid-19th century. As B眉艧ra Behar Ersanl谋 explains, it was based upon Western European sources 鈥 especially the work of L茅on Cahun 鈥 but it was clearly repurposed for the growth in national consciousness among Turkic intellectuals in the Ottoman Empire.

Among these new perspectives was a fresh look at religion. Islam was a key component of Ottoman statehood, especially since Sultan Murad I declared himself Caliph in 1517. Ahmet Refik, however, problematized these links, highlighting the fact that, despite a clear overlap between Turkicness and Islamic identity, the two were far from identical. In addition to Islam, different Turkic peoples had embraced Animism (sometimes in the form of Tengrism), Zoroastrianism, Manich忙ism, various forms of Christianity, Judaism and Buddhism over the course of their recorded history. Indeed, Ahmet Refik remarks that:

鈥淭he Turks and the Mongols are not a religious people. The religious imagination, zeal and abundant inquiry that was so strong among the Arabs, Iranians and Slavs was unable to have an important influence on the thoughts of the Turks, Mongols or Manchus. The religion that was most appropriate to the nature of the Turks was the faith of the Buddha. In nature, thought and temperament, the Turks were Buddhist. The one encompassing [space] that would have kept the Turks living in complete comfort would have been the faith of the Buddha.鈥 (Ahmet Refik, B眉y眉k Tarih-i Umumi: IV Cilt, 277)

Contemporary understandings of the history of the Turkic peoples, and of religion across Eurasia, assign much of Ahmet Refik鈥檚 supposition and the assumptions upon which it is based to the realm of untruth. Nonetheless, it does highlight a fact that cannot be ignored: for a millennium and a half, Buddhism has and continues to be a core component of many Turkic communities across the Central Asia and Siberia.

Cover page of the B眉y眉k tarih-i umumi, Ottoman history of the world. Passage on Buddhism the B眉y眉k tarih-i umumi, Ottoman history of the world.
An early 20th-century view of Buddhism鈥檚 impact on the Turkic peoples, from an Ottoman perspective. (Ahmet Refik, B眉y眉k Tarih-i Umumi: IV Cilt (Istanbul: Kitabhane-yi I虈slam ve Askeri, I虈brahim Hilmi, 1328 [1912]), p. 277. ORB.30/8834) CC Public Domain Image

The Turkic peoples had likely encountered Buddhists and Buddhism by the middle of the first millennium CE. Chinese accounts from as early as the 6 th century speak of the translation of Buddhist texts into a language used by the Turks (although this was likely Sogdian). At least one inscription, as well as the construction of temples and statuary, testify to Buddhism鈥檚 importance during the Second K枚k Turkic Khaganate (678-747 CE). It likely coexisted with Tengrism, the Turkic animistic belief system, during the early period, and later competed with Manicheanism for followers among the Uyghurs, Qarluqs and other Turkic peoples. It was eventually Buddhism that won out as the primarily religion of the Uyghurs in the 10th century, motivating the creation of numerous Buddhist religious manuscripts, some of which survive into the present.

The Uyghurs came to prominence after overthrowing the Qarluq and other Turkic polities in the 8th century CE and entering into an alliance with the Chinese monarchy. The earliest probable Turkic Buddhist texts, which come from Uyghur settlements in present-day Mongolia, made use of an archaic Turkic dialect also seen in the Runic texts of the Orkhon inscriptions . Such examples are exceptionally rare, leading some scholars to suppose that Buddhist production in Turkic languages during this period was minimal. This contrasts with later items from the Tarim Basin in present-day Xinjiang 鈥 including those found in the British Library鈥檚 collections 鈥 which demonstrate a much more contemporary dialect. This dialect is not directly related to today鈥檚 Uyghur language, part of the Karluk sub-family of languages. Rather, it is likely an earlier form of Western Yugur , a small language belonging to the Siberian sub-family, spoken today in Gansu Province, China. As can be seen from the images below, the British Library texts are far too fragmentary to provide a clear picture of Buddhist practice in Uyghur, but they do establish that it existed.

Turkic Buddhist fragment in Uyghur script. Turkic Buddhist fragment in Uyghur script.
Fragments of 9th-century Buddhist texts in Uyghur (Or. 13085A and Or. 13085C). CC Public Domain Image

The letters of the Uyghur alphabet with pronunciation.
A guide to the Uyghur script, used in many Turkic Buddhist texts. (Khoja Abduqayyam, Qa虇dimqi Uyghur yazma yadikarliqliridin tallanma (Urumchi: Shinjang Kha虇lq Na虇shriyati, 1983), p. 125). ITA.1990.a.20). CC Public Domain Image

In the late 10th and early 11th centuries CE, the Qarakhanids, a Turkic community to the west of the Uyghur state, converted to Islam. This placed them in opposition with the primarily Buddhist Uyghurs, adding a religious element to socio-political and economic conflict in Central Asia. The Qocho Kingdom 鈥 a successor state of the Uyghur Khanate 鈥 continued to be a stronghold of Buddhist practice even after the conversion of the Qarakhanids and the invasion of the Mongols 鈥 themselves Buddhists 鈥 in the 13th century. The ultimate blow was dealt by the Chagatai Khanate in the late 13 th and early 14th centuries. A successor state of the Golden Horde, the Chagatai state was a fierce defender of the Chinggisid legacy. Nonetheless, the ascension of Muslim Khan Tughluq Timur to the throne in the second half of the 14th century spelled the beginning of the end for widespread Buddhist practice among the region鈥檚 Turkic peoples. It also saw a linguistic shift in which the Siberian Turkic language of the original Uyghur populations was gradually supplanted by a Karluk one closely linked to Chagatai, the literary language of Turkic Central Asia .

A painting of Chagatai Khan seated with his counsellors.
Chagatai Khan, seated amongst counsellors, from the 16 th-century manuscript called the Nusratname, also known as the Qissa-yi Chingiz Khan (Or. 3222). CC Public Domain Image

The collapse of the Qocho Kingdom did not mean the end of Turkic peoples鈥 relationship to Buddhism. For one, the Western Yugurs, linguistic if not ethnic descendants of the first Uyghurs, continue to practice the faith. But they are not the most numerous Turkic-speaking adherents. Buddhism also thrives among the Tuvans, a Turkic people whose titular homeland 鈥 the Tyva Republic 鈥 is nestled between Russia, China and Mongolia. Approximately 62% of the population of Tyva Republic identifies as Buddhist, with the most widespread practice a form of Buddhism similar to the one found in Tibet. As ethnic Tuvans make up 82% of the Republic鈥檚 population, the proportion of Buddhists among the Tuvans is likely far higher than the percentage of the entire Republic鈥檚 population. Buddhism co-exists with Tengrism and other forms of animistic belief, highlighting the blending of religious traditions among the region鈥檚 Turkic inhabitants. Materials within the British Library鈥檚 Turkic collections point to the revival and flourishing of various aspects of these belief systems following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Appreciation of the art, poetry and philosophy of Tuvan Buddhism shows up in both popular publications and in scholarly ones, as seen below.

A painting of the Balden Lhama by a Tuvan artist.
A painting of the Balden or Palden Lhama by a Tuvan artist. ( Shagaanyn锔爂锔 do虈zu虈 bolgash 毛zu-chan锔爂锔hyldary : Shagaa bai虇yrlalynga turaskaatkan To虈gerik shire虈e虈nin锔爂锔 materialdary; Kyzyl, khoorai虇 2015 ch. (Kyzyl: Tuvinskii虇 institut gumanitarnykh i prikladnykh sot锔爏锔al使no-e虈konomicheskikh issledovanii虇, 2015). YP.2019.a.4289). CC Public Domain Image

Cover page of conference materials dedicated to Tuvan Buddhism.
Materials from a conference on Buddhist and other indigenous faith practices in Kyzyl, Tyva ( To虈o虈gu虈ge Dai锔燼锔yshaan - Kelir U虈ezhe : Be虈e虈zi kozhuunun锔爂锔 260 bolgash Khemchik kozhuunnun锔爂锔 250 oi锔爑锔cha turaskaatkan e虈rtem-praktiktik konferent锔爏锔i锔燼锔ardary. 2014 chyldyn锔爂锔 okti锔燼锔r使 24, 2015 chyldyn锔爂锔 aprel使 29. Chadaana khoora沫 (Kyzyl: OAO Tyvapoligraf, 2015). YP.2019.b.473). CC Public Domain Image

The Tuvans, together with the Western Yugurs, as the two majority-Buddhist communities in the Turkic World. There is, however, another part to the story regarding the interaction between the Turkic peoples and the Buddhist faith. In the 17th century, a Buddhist Mongolic-speaking group known as the Oirots migrated from present-day eastern Kazakhstan to the Volga Region, where they established the Kalmyk Khanate. In doing so, they entered into an alliance with Russia, and pushed out Muslim Turkic communities, particularly the Nogais and the Karakalpaks. They battled the Kazakhs and Bashkirs and assisted in Russian campaigns against the Safavids and Ottomans, but under Catherine the Great their autonomy was eventually abolished and their Khanate absorbed into the Russian Empire. The great 17 th-century Ottoman chronicler Evliya 脟elebi provided Ottomans with considerable information about the Kalmyks in the seventh volume of his Seyahatname, but nowhere does he mention that they were Buddhist. He frequently refers to them as k眉ffar, or infidels, pointing out both their animistic beliefs and another belief system, which he equates with the 鈥渉ul没l卯鈥 heterodoxy, combining a belief that God is inside the individual with reincarnation. He also gives a fairly comprehensive description of a pilgrimage site linked to Kalmyk ancestor worship. It houses the statue of an 鈥渁ngel without wings鈥 and is topped by a bronze dome. Neither the Buddha, nor connections between this system of religious belief and those found further east, are ever mentioned. Nevertheless, it does appear that 17th century Ottomans were still introduced to the particularities of Kalmyk Buddhist practice thanks to the writings of this intrepid traveler.

Today, Kalmykia, found just south of Volgograd, is Europe鈥檚 only Buddhist-plurality territory. Nearly 48% of Kalmykia鈥檚 population identifies as Buddhist. Kalmykia鈥檚 capital, Elista, provides a centre for the practice of Tibetan-derived Buddhism as well as the publication of a plethora of Buddhist material. Examples in the British Library collections point to the increased importance afforded the documentation of these traditions, and of the role that Buddhism plays in the expression and development of contemporary Kalmyk cultural and spiritual life.

Images of Kalmyk Buddhist practitioners and stupas. Images of Kalmyk Buddhist practitioner and scholar.
Portraits of Kalmyk practitioners of Buddhism, along with descriptions of local interpretations and practices of the faith. ("Khranitel'nit锔爏锔 vechnosti - Bochkaeva Nogan Kornusovna", (Elitsa?: [publisher not identified], [2016?]). YP.2019.a.1453) CC Public Domain Image

Ahmet Refik might have waxed lyrical about the similarities between Buddhist and traditional Turkic worldviews, but he clearly failed to grasp the living, dynamic nature of that linkage. Buddhism has impressed its stamp on the social, linguistic, political, economic and cultural development of the Turkic peoples. The British Library鈥檚 collections related to such topics, in turn, demonstrate that this is an ongoing relationship, one that is certain to continue motivating cultural production across Eurasia.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
CCBY Image

Further Reading:

Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2010). YC.2015.a.4835
Johan Elverskog, Uygur Buddhist Literature, Silk Road Studies: I (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 1997). ORW.1998.a.251
Juten Oda, A Study of the Buddhist S奴tra called S盲kiz Y眉km盲k Yaruq or S盲kiz T枚rl眉gin Yarum茂拧 Yaltr茂m茂拧 in Old Turkic, Berliner Turfantexte: XXXIII (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 2015). YD.2017.b.44
Margit K艖ves, Buddhism Among the Turks of Central Asia (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aitya Prakashan, 2009). YP.2010.b.482
Xavier Tremblay, 鈥淭he Spread of Buddhism in Serindia 鈥 Buddhism among Iranians, Tocharians and Turks before the 13th century,鈥 in ed. Ann Heirmann & Stephan Peter Bumbacher, The Spread of Buddhism (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 75-130.

12 November 2019

A testament to diversity: Kurdish manuscript collections at the British Library

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In the exhibition Writing: Making Your Mark, we explored the connections between power and the written word. The use of writing can be an exceptionally efficient means of expanding a state's sovereignty far beyond the reach of its armies. Similarly, when a particular community or government chooses to use a particular script or language, it bestows upon that means of expression a sheen of officialdom and prestige synonymous with state sponsorship.

Or 11996 ff1v-2r Mam u Zin
The opening pages of Mam 没 Z卯n by Ehmed Xani, copied in 1221 AH/1806-7 CE (Or. 11996, ff. 1v-2r)

What does this have to do with the British Library's holdings of Kurdish manuscripts? For starters, it helps us to understand the context within which they were created. Unlike Ottoman Turkish, Arabic or Persian, Kurdish was not the language of a widespread, long-lasting Imperial power. As a result, prior to the end of the 20th century, it was not employed over long periods of time as a vehicle for the creation of state documents, or a state-sponsored literary corpus. Moreover, Kurdish was not the liturgical language of a large religious community with a long tradition of written cultural production. Hebrew might not have been a state language for thousands of years before the creation of the State of Israel, but its use as a liturgical language by Jews around the world helped ensure the creation of a hefty corpus of both religious and secular material in it. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for Syriac. Kurdish was thus doubly disadvantaged in finding patronage for the creation of a large written canon prior to the 20th century, and as a result, we are left with relatively fewer manuscripts in it than compared to Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Hebrew or Syriac.

Or 6444 f11r Gorani Anthology_1500 Or 6444 f55r Gorani Anthology_1500
Two pages of poetry in Gorani from the Gorani anthology in safina format. Copy dated 1197 AH/ 1782-4 CE (Or. 6444, f. 11r and f. 55r)

Indeed, the British Library holds a total of 8 manuscript texts in Kurdish, compared to the estimated 4000 items in Turkic languages. Of these, only 6 are volumes composed entirely, or nearly entirely, of poetry written in Kurdish. The best known of these is Or. 6444, a codex of Gorani poetry, which was transliterated and translated by Mr. Anwar Soltani, and eventually published as a bilingual edition entitled Anthology of Gorani Kurdish Poetry (YC.1999.b.8850). Some of the poetry included in the volume was composed by well-known Kurdish authors. None of them, however, is as famous as Ehmed Xan卯, the author of the Kurdish epic Mam 没 Z卯n, which the Library holds in manuscript form under the shelfmark Or. 11996. This work is a meditation on forbidden love, but it also encapsulates some of the core themes of a nascent Kurdish national identity. Mam 没 Z卯n has been copied and published numerous times, especially since the creation of a de-facto Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, when the Kurdish publishing industry blossomed. Nonetheless, this manuscript recension brings to life a historical dimension of the development of Kurdish literacy in the Middle East, while also acting as a window onto Xan卯's poetical genius.

Or 8208 Seyfu-l-mulu虃k f45v-46r
Two better-preserved pages of the Seyfu'l-mul没k showing a fully-vocalized rendering of the Kurmanji text. Copy dated 1286 AH / 1869-70 CE (Or. 8208, ff. 45v-46r)

Among the other Kurmanji Kurdish manuscipts is Or. 8208, a poem known as Seyfu'l-Mul没k, or The Sword of Kings. The Library's copy is badly damaged, and although the text is largely legible, many of the pages have lost their edges, in some cases depriving readers of complete words of phrases. This story is set in Egypt, where the action revolves around the adventures of a particular prince, but the origins of the tale are Persian. Versions of the Seyfu'l-Mul没k can be found across the Islamic world, and this Kurdish version attests to the manner in which such texts were accepted and assimilated into broader Kurdish creative culture.

Add MS 7829 ff91v-92r. Gorani Poem
A section of the Gorani translation of Khvursh墨d-i Kh膩var, early 19th century (Add MS 7829, ff. 91v-92r)

Add MS 23554 f37r Bahram u Gulandam
A folio of Bahr膩m va Guland膩m translated into Gorani showing a later addition to the text, early 19th century (Add MS 23554, f. 37r)

Other items within the Kurdish collections are translations of well-known Persian works into the Gorani dialect. Add MS 7829 presents us with two stories: that of Leyla and Mecnun; and another of Khvursh墨d-i Kh膩var. Add MS 7826, in contrast, is a Gorani translation of Khusraw va Sh墨r墨n. Finally, Add MS 23554 is the story of Bahr膩m va Guland膩m, yet another Persian epic of reasonable fame amongst Middle Eastern communities. The simple production of all three manuscripts, as well as the lack of information about the copyist or where they were created, lead us to believe that they were part of a broader reading culture among Kurdish speakers. They might not be remarkable items of art and luxury, but their construction and formatting provide us with valuable information about the manner in which Kurds read and shared literature in their native tongue, all while remaining part of a broader West Asian cultural space.

Or 5932 14v
The start of the earliest Kurdish-Arabic dictionary in verse, the N没bihara Bi莽没kan, composed by Ehmed Xan卯. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 9v)

Or. 5932 9r: The opening part of the Ed卯qeya 脦man卯, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xan卯
The opening part of the Ed卯qeya 脦man卯, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xan卯. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 14v)

The last item in the collections containing Kurdish poetry is Or. 5932. It contains two Kurmanji Kurdish poems among various other works in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Persian. The first Kurmanji Kurdish work is the N没bihara Bi莽没kan, composed by Ehmed Xan卯 as a means of teaching the Arabic language to Kurdish students at madrasas. The second is known as the Ed卯qeya 脦man卯, another didactic work originally composed by Ehmed Xan卯. The Ed卯qeya was also traditionally used as a starter text by Kurdish students at madrasas. The inclusion of these two particular poems in the codex is apt, given that the final text is an Arabic didactic poem aimed at helping Persian-speaking students learn the Arabic language; a mandatory subject for anyone studying the Qur'an.

One of the most challenging aspects of creating a cohesive and cogent collection of Kurdish works is the dialectical differences that exist between Kurdish speech communities. Today, there are two main dialects, or languages (the distinction is far from hard and fast), spoken and written across the Middle East. Kurmanji is the dominant Kurdish language in North and West Kurdistan, primarily spoken by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and Armenia, as well as parts of northern Iraq and north-eastern Iran. Sorani, by contrast, is used primarily in Central and East Kurdistan, covering northern Iraq and western Iran. Today, Kurmanji in Turkey and Armenia is written in Latin script, while Sorani in Iraq and Iran is written in Arabic script (as is Kurmanji in Syria). Cyrillic script was used in Armenia prior to 1991, but Armenian Kurds and Yezidis have since switched to the Latin standard. Add to this a plethora of local dialects that differ, in various degrees, from the commonly used lects of Amed (Diyarbak谋r), Sl锚man卯 and H锚wler, and the related but distinct Zazaki and Gorani languages, and you get the totality of the Kurdophone sphere. All of this leads to a situation of remarkable diversity within the written corpus, one not usually seen in that of a state language. All texts in the British Library's Kurdish manuscript collections are written in Arabic script, which bedevils the task of the cataloguer. They are faced with the exceptionally difficult task of properly identifying the dialect of the text, in addition to the other pertinent information relating to the manuscripts, without the handy tool of state-sponsored standardization usually employed when cataloguing published works.

Add MS 26319 ff2v-3r Laki
A page of the Persian-Laki dictionary featuring terms in both languages written in neat nasta'liq. Dated 1811 CE (Add MS 26319, ff. 2v-3r)

Add MS 26319 ff9v-10r English Kurdish
A page of the English-Kurdish wordlist featuring terms of common usage. Early 19th century (Add MS 26319, ff. 9v-10r)

Linguistic diversity, far from being a hindrance, enriches our collections. In addition to the variety of dialects reflected in the poetic works, the British Library also holds a number of handwritten wordlists of Kurdish dialects in Iraq and Iran. The first of these, found under the shelf mark Add MS 26319, round out the collections and help to bolster our corpus of scholarly material relating to the Kurdish linguistic space. The codex is one that was created by the last owner of the manuscripts - C. J. Erskine - prior to its purchase by the British Museum in 1865. It holds an English-Kurdish glossary, as well as Persian-Laki Kurdish and Persian-Ardalani Kurdish (possibly a reference to Gorani) wordlists. While far from serious linguistic treatises on Kurdish dialectology or grammar, they do nonetheless provide a look at some of the pre-standardization aspects of Kurdish speech communities. They point to the ways in which linguistic diversity among the Kurds was conceived, sometimes by Western Orientalists, and sometimes by Kurds themselves. Such glossaries were a common phenomenon among British military and colonial officials, and more official versions were often published by governmental agencies. One need only look at IOR/L/MIL/17/15/52, a mass-produced multilingual volume entitled "Vocabularies: English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, Syriac" (digitised as part of the Qatar Digital Library), to see their importance within the context of the late British Empire.

Together, this motley collection of holdings produced by Kurds and colonial administrators provides a unique entry point to pre-20th century Kurdish cultural life. A lack of state sponsorship deprived Kurdish communities of some of the resources needed to create a written canon on the scale of the Persian, Arabic or Ottoman Turkish ones. It did not, however, stops the Kurds from seeking to write down, share and disseminate texts, and to preserve their cultural production for future generations. The British Library is lucky to be custodian of a small snapshot of such dynamics, which it aims to make available to all those seeking to understand better the history of Kurdish cultural expression.

The author would like to thank Mr. Yakup Ayka莽 of Artuklu Mardin 脺niversitesi for his great help in the identification and description of Kurmanji Kurdish works within the British Library's collections.

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library