Asian and African studies blog

205 posts categorized "Middle East"

16 August 2021

Real Sultans of the Ottoman Empire

Painting of a middle-aged man with a dark beard in a white turban, topped with gold band, and wearing a red, gold, and green robe, holding the hilt of his sword, inside of a grey oval frame
Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 4v).
CC Public Domain Image

What did people do before Hello! brought the latest royal gossip into the comfort of their homes? How did the average pleb manage before the gods of reality television took a handful of sanitized suburban clay, fashioned the Real Housewives series, and blew the life-giving breath of audience-tested PR into it? Illustrated manuscripts, obvs. In any case, most regular people were probably too busy with the relentless crush of survival to while away hours each day watching someone else live their best life. But for those who weren’t, Or 9505 would have been a treat.

Known as the Hadikatü’l-müluk or Garden of Kings, this late 19th-century work is a richly illustrated guide to the Ottoman dynasty. The original work dates from the early 18th century and was composed by Osmanzade Ahmet Tayip, who died in 1724 CE. The version held by the British Library, however, was expanded by Seyit Abdusamet, who sought to include Sultan Abdülmecit (reigned 1839-61). The text is beautifully copied, with an elaborate unvan, and 32 full-page portraits of 31 Emperors, from Sultan Osman I (reigned 1280-99 CE; f 3v) up to Sultan Abdülmecit (f 71v). The Padişahlar are each found inside an oval frame, with the exception of the final, then-reigning monarch, whose mounted personage is permitted to occupy the entirety of the page. This treasure of Ottoman portraiture was acquired by the British Museum in 1924, when it was purchased from the Cairo-based Maurice Nahman, the source of many of the Museum’s (and then Library’s) West Asian manuscripts.

Full-page painting of a man mounted upon a cantering black horse with white legs, atop of an ornate saddle, wearing a black cape and red fez topped with a lavish standard. The man is bearded and looking at the viewer
Abdülmecit atop his steed. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 72r).
CC Public Domain Image

The content of the Hadikatü’l-müluk is far from novel or unique. While national histories of the Ottoman Empire began in earnest towards the end of the 19th century, biography and dynastic history had long been common. Among the best known are Aşıkpaşazade’s Tevarih-i Âl-i Osman or Menakıb-i Âl-i Osman, a 15th-century account of the quasi-mythical origins of the Ottoman dynasty. A similar work, occasionally known as the Tarih-i Âl-i Osman, but whose author might have been Muhyiddin Mehmet İbn-i Ali el-Cemali, can be found at Add MS 5969 (with an extract at Add MS 7870). Over time, other works appeared as well, including the Tacu’t-tevarih (Or 856 , Or 3210, Or 7285, Or 7286, Or 7287, Or 7908, Or 8764, Add MS 18811, Add MS 19628), a 16th-century work by Hoca Sadettin Efendi; the Tarih-i Peçevi (Or 7353, Add MS 18071, Add MS 24961), a two-volume history of the Empire by Ottoman Bosniak scholar İbrahim Peçevi; and the Tarih-i Raşit (Or 9470, Or 9670, Or 9720, Add MS 23585), an 18th-century text by Mehmet Raşit that brings this narrative closer to the present. To this we can add a whole host of works that speak to histories of regions, people, and events crucial to the continued stability of the Ottoman regime. Koca Mehmet Ragıp Paşa’s Fethiye-yi Belgrad ( Or 6248, Or 7182, Or 7198, Or 9472, Or 10952, Or 12185) and the Tarih-i Sefer-i Kandia (Or 1137, Or 11154), which recounts the Ottoman capture of Crete in 1667-69, are just two well-represented texts of this genre found in the British Library’s collections. Historiography was a lively and crucial component of Ottoman statecraft, and a core tool of imprinting the dynasty’s legacy on the palimpsest of time.

A page of Arabic-script text inside a gold frame topped with a header with floral illumination in red, blue, green and gold inks
The opening page of the Hadikatü'l-müluk, featuring an elaborate unvan. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 1v).
CC Public Domain Image

Or 9505 clearly borrows from this tradition, but it also departs from it in a few very special ways. The Library holds another copy of the original text by Osmanzade (Or 7302), which is devoid of frills. It’s clear that Or 9505 is a luxury copy intended for a patron of considerable means, if not a member of the Imperial household. The highly ornate poetry at the start of the text, replete with complicated Persian and Arabic phrases, is laid out among gold text frames and separators. The unvan, or header, found on f 1v is a further indication of the pomp and ceremony with which this text was copied. It bears the name of the work inside a golden egg, surrounded by lush foliage and floral illumination in vivid pinks, blues, greens, and gold. A Baroque unvan is hardly something new or unique in an Ottoman manuscript. But this particular example does depart, in some ways, from what we usually see. For one, the floral components are not attached to the pink and yellow frame, but rather floating in empty space. And rather than containing the usual geometric or architectonic elements – so often reminiscent of towers, minarets, or palaces – this layout seems to be mimicking a crest, not unlike what we might see in European heraldry.

Painting of a middle-aged man with dark beard in yellow kaftan with red belt and dark blue vest, wearing a large white turban. The man is raising his right hand
Murat I, who reigned 1362-89 CE. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 10v).
CC Public Domain Image

But it’s not the formatting, or the illumination, that is the real showstopper of this volume. Clearly, the most attractive aspect of Or 9505 is its 32 images of the Sultans of the Ottoman dynasty. These are unmistakably bold and provocative portraits. That might not seem particularly shocking, but these images do stand out from the broader tradition of Ottoman manuscript painting reflected in the British Library’s collections. The Library houses a number of items bearing portraits of both real personalities and fictional characters. What marks Or 9505 apart is the way that the subject of the portrait dominates the image itself. Whether an illustrated copy of Navoiy’s Gharaib al-sighar (Or 13061); an 18th-century Hamse-yi Atayi complete with raunchy scenes (Or 13882); or an early 17th-century Hadikatü’s-suada (Or 12009), people were included in narrative paintings, depicted as part of a scene, surrounded by flora, fauna, and buildings. In her overview of albums created by Vassal Kalender, Dr. Günsel Renda has identified this as a particularly salient aspect of 18th century products, influenced by both Iranian and Chinese preferences and techniques, as well as some European ones. But the same can also be seen in Turkic manuscripts from outside of the Ottoman Empire and from earlier periods, including a late 16th-century Divan-i Xǝtai (Or 11388) or the exquisite 16th-century Nusratnāmah (Or 3222). Rulers, specifically, and people, in general, were often portrayed in a social or historical context.

A painting of a middle-aged man in a green tunic with a white turban and black tassel upon his head sitting atop a black horse. The man is bearded and the horse is covered in a richly decorated saddle. The image is set within a page that features gold-wash illuminations in floral patterns
Sultan Ahmet I (?) on his black steed. (Ottoman poetry and painting album, late 16th century. Or 2709 f 4v). 
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A different point of comparison might be with Or 2709, a late 16th-century album of poetry and painting. This murakka might originate from Tabriz, Iran, which would have been under Ottoman control at roughly the same time. Regardless of the vagaries of war and conquest, it’s clear that Safavid centers of artistic production also influenced creatives in Istanbul greatly. What’s more, it contains what is clearly a portrait of a Sultan, identifiable from the black aigrette (sorguç) on his white turban, mounted on his black steed, not terribly dissimilar from Abdülmecit’s pose in Or 9505. The work doesn’t reflect the European-style portraits of the 15th and 16th centuries (such as Titian’s famed portrait of Kanunî Süleyman or Gentile Bellini’s painting of Sultan Mehmet II in the National Gallery). It’s probably a much better precursor to the Safavid- and Chinese-influenced Ottoman portraiture and costume books produced throughout the 17th and 18th centuries; books about which Dr. Serpil Bağcı has provided an excellent overview. What does seem to mark this portrait off from those of Or 9505, though, is the interactions between the object and the viewer. The one in Or 2709 is set further back, and, while sullen, the Padişah isn’t all that imposing. He seems to lack the piercing gaze – a challenge to the impertinent stare of the viewer – that we see in the portraits in Or 9505.

Painting of a younger man in a blue kaftan under a red vest with ermine trim and a white turban with a black tassel. The man in holding a bow in his left hand
Sultan Osman II, with bow in hand. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 40v).
CC Public Domain Image

We can, of course, pursue another track of inquiry regarding the Hadikatü’l-müluk. There is a long tradition of European influence on Ottoman painting, especially portraiture. Nearly 50 years ago, the late Dr. Esin Atıl provided us with a wonderful overview of the links between Italian Renaissance and Ottoman portraiture, detailing artistic exchange in the court of Sultan Mehmet II. These transfers of knowledge continued into the reign of Kanunî Süleyman, as Dr. Gülru Necipoğlu has explored, but eventually tapered off, re-emerging periodically thereafter, and with force during the 19th century. The period of Sultan Abdülmecit II’s reign is perhaps the best known for its adoption of Western European visual technologies for the purpose of statecraft, although Dr. Mary Roberts has also demonstrated the profoundly important usage of them during the reign of Sultan Abdülaziz as well.

An elderly man with a white beard in a green kaftan and gold belt under a yellow vest with an ermine trim. the man is wearing a white turban with a black tassel and is holding his right hand up
Selim II, Sultan from 1566 to 1574. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 30v).
CC Public Domain Image

Coming back to Or 9505, while we do know the name of the author of the original Hadikatü’l-müluk, and that of the individual who expanded it, we don’t know who painted these exquisite works. What we do know is that they were operating during the Tanzimat, a time of great social and political change in the Ottoman Empire. Among the characteristics of the Tanzimat was Ottoman intellectuals’ importation and adoption, if not assimilation, of Western European tastes and habits. Might this particular manuscript be a product of that desire for aesthetic Europeanisation? Even if this is true, these portraits still bear clear affinities with the Ottoman tradition of manuscript painting. They provide us with a solid and fascinating counterpoint to the realism of European Orientalist painting, and later Ottoman manifestations of the Western European traditions.

A middle-aged man in a blue robe under a green cape with his hand on the hilt of his sword. He is wearing a striped black and white turban with a red cloth tied around it, topped with a gold and feathered standard, and large gold triangles on either side of his head
Sultan Murat IV, who reigned 1623-40. (Osmanzade Tayip Ahmet, Hadikatü'l-müluk, late 19th century. Or 9505 f 42v).
CC Public Domain Image

These diversions into art history take me beyond my accumulated knowledge, or indeed my faculties of perception. For those of us not schooled in the disciplines of Ottoman painting and aesthetics, though, Or 9505 does hit upon a final truth we know all too well from the Age of Instagram. Portraiture can be a powerful stimulant to our sense of self. Whether a filtered selfie or a delicate painting, pictures reflect more than just how we look. They embody how we wish to be seen, remembered, and experienced. And for their viewers, they can elicit a wide range of emotions: envy, lust, admiration, and even schadenfreude. So come take a stroll through the Hadikatü’l-müluk, and forget your mundane worries for an hour or so – commercial breaks not included.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Curator, Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Works Cited :

Akın-Kıvanç, Esra, “Mustafa Âli’s Epic Deeds of Artists and New Approaches to Written Sources of Ottoman Art,” Journal of the Ottoman and Turkish Studies Association, 2:2 (November 2015), pp. 225-258.

Atıl, Esin, “Ottoman Miniature Painting Under Sultan Mehmed II,” Ars Orientalis, 9, Freer Gallery of Art Fiftieth Anniversary Volume (1973), pp. 103-120.

Bağcı, Serpil, “Presenting Vaṣṣāl Kalender’s Works: The Prefaces of Three Ottoman Albums,” Muqarnas, 30 (2013), pp. 255-313.

Necipoğlu, Gülru, “Süleyman the Magnificent and the Representation of Power in the Context of Ottoman-Hapsburg-Papal Rivalry,” The Art Bulletin, 71:3 (September 1989), pp. 401-427.

Renda, Günsel, “An Illustrated 18th-Century Ottoman Hamse in the Walters Art Gallery,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery, 39 (1981), pp. 15-32.

Roberts, Mary, “Ottoman Statecraft and ‘The Pencil of Nature’: Photograph, Painting, and Drawing at the Court of Sultan Abdülaziz,” Ars Orientalis, 43 (2013), pp. 10-30.

Titley, Norah M., Miniatures from Turkish Manuscripts: A Catalogue and Subject Index of Paintings in the British Library and British Museum (London: The British Library, 1981). (Open Access PDP 17)

19 July 2021

The Term 'Shater' and its Use in the India Office Records

1 Entry of Shah of Persia  Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar  into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters
Entry of the Shah of Persia, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar, into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters. Morier, A Second Journey..., after p. 386. Public domain

As part of cataloguing the India Office Records (IOR), we occasionally come across unfamiliar terms that make us question their origin and how they relate to the way they are used in the records. The case under consideration here is the term shater (pl. shaters), used in the IOR to refer to foot messengers. Shaters were employed to travel long distances, usually within Persia [Iran], in short periods of time to deliver letters to and from local governors, merchants, or the East India Company’s representatives. This post traces the possible roots of the term shater, and its development throughout history to bear the meaning of a foot messenger.

2 Two shotters carrying letters to Isfahan Nov 1708
Two shotters [shaters] carrying letters to Isfahan, Nov 1708 (IOR/G/29/2, f. 2r). Public domain

Arabic language dictionaries indicate that the term shater (Ar. shāṭir pl. shuṭṭar) has its origins in the root sh-ta-ra, which primarily means to distance oneself from family or tribe; someone who is shrewd at finding ways to do things, or overcoming obstacles. These meanings relate directly to a group known in Pre-Islamic Arabic literature as al-Sa‘alik [Brigands]. Members of this group were exiled by their tribes, and sometimes they chose to distance themselves. As they grew up alone, they developed their own life-style, and adopted certain characteristics that distinguished them from others. They were said to be ‘sharp, brave and as agile as horses’ (Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, pp. 375-378). An Arabic proverb indicates how agile a person is by comparing him to one of the Sa‘alik, who was also a famed poet, called al-Shanfara. The proverb says:

أعدى من الشنفرى
Swifter than al-Shanfara
(Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, p. 375)

Some Sa‘alik were also known to be crafty thieves and sometimes noble robbers who stole from the wealthy to feed the poor:

وعيّابةٌ للجودِ لم تدرِ أنني       بإنهابِ مالِ الباخلينَ موكَّلُ
And the critics of munificence are unaware that I am in charge of ripping misers off what they possess
(In the words of a thief, in Al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, p. 116)

The Sa‘alik’s lifestyle helped them to become familiar with trade routes, and some of them began to earn their living by protecting trade caravans instead of raiding them. Merchants recruited some of the Sa‘alik to walk ahead and protect them from possible attacks.

Several groups that were similar in nature to the Sa‘alik emerged in the early ‘Abbasid period (750-1258) under various names and characteristics. Among them were the shuttar. These were often associated with another group known as al-‘Ayyarin, vagabonds who appeared to drift aimlessly from one place to another. Besides sharing the Sa‘alik’s characteristics, the shuttar were well-organised, and worked collectively under an elected leader. They possessed a revolutionary spirit, leading popular resistance against corruption and social norms. Although some considered the shuttar to be anarchists (fawdawiyyin), the group was actually a socialist movement engaging in class struggle (al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 135 and 396). The shuttar were even condemned as ‘trouble makers’ by the authorities of medieval Baghdad (Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 126-127).

Nonetheless, the group became particularly popular during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), who won them over to use their strength to put down disorder in his capital. Reportedly, a large group of shuttar played a crucial role in the fitna ('dispute') of 811-812 CE, between al-Rashid’s two sons al-Amin (r. 809-813) and al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833). The shuttar’s rebellious nature enabled them to impose new laws where existing ones were unpopular, something which earned many of them public admiration and they eventually became more accepted by the authorities.

By the mid-ninth century, the role of a shater had evolved from being a trouble-maker to someone who worked closely with the authorities. Governors arranged festivals, where they enjoyed watching the shuttar engage in ritual combat where the winner would be offered a silk kaftan and join the governor’s special guards. Henceforth, the shuttar were recruited as soldiers with a distinctive uniform. Under their own leadership, they marched ahead of the royal army. Some shuttar, however, continued to work as paid guards of trade caravans in much the same way as the Sa‘alik of the pre-Islamic period.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the shuttar became familiar with landscapes, languages and dialects, which perhaps helped them to be recruited as foot messengers. This was particularly true of the Persian Court shaters, who in addition to their role as the Shah’s special guards, also worked as foot messengers. One of the foremost Arabic lexicons that defines the term shater as foot messenger is the Taj al-‘Arus by al-Zabidi (d. 1790/1). In addition to the usual meanings of the term shater, al-Zabidi equates the term with a courier who delivers mail over long distances in a short period of time.

It is most likely that al-Zabidi was influenced by how the term shater was used in Persia at the time. Derived from the same Arabic root, in Persian the term shater means someone who is shrewd, fast, and fearless. In Safavid Iran (1501-1736), and probably before, the shater was said to act as a ‘bridge’, who ran before the horses of kings and other great men, opening the way for them to pass through the people. This continued to be the case in the Qajar period (1785-1925). Shaters were also appointed to the post of foot messengers during a special ceremony set for the occasion. References to shaters holding official positions as foot messengers in Safavid and Qajar Iran appear regularly in the IOR. One of the records gives a description of shaters, wearing special garments, during a special election ceremony as swift runners, who preceded the Shah of Persia’s retinue. 

Shaters’ outfit and their election ceremony
Shaters
’ outfit and their election ceremony (IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1, pp. 332-3). Public domain

While some Arabic dictionaries from the 18th century onwards described the term shater as a foot messenger, this was not how it was used by Arabic speakers. Instead, the term kept its initial meaning and developed an additional complimentary one. Today, describing someone as shater is considered a compliment. When translated into Persian, the term was first used with reference to a special guard who preceded the Shah’s army. However, the characteristics of a shater led to the development of a new position as part of an already well-established Persian postal system. Although the office of a shater seems very similar in nature to that of a chapar (horse-mounted messenger), the former would have differed by travelling on foot for most of his journey. Whether shaters had to occasionally use horses during their journey or not, a detailed study of the Persian postal system could answer this, something which is beyond the parameters of the present article.

5 Shotter delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory  Nov 1726
'Shotter' delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory, Nov 1726 (IOR/G/29/3, f. 4v). Public domain

6 Shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory  Nov 1732
The shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory, Nov 1732 (IOR/G/29/16, f. 131r). Public domain

It would be difficult to establish exactly when the term shater was first used to refer to a foot messenger, yet it can be assumed that this was the case at least since the early Safavid period. Although it originates from Arabic, the term shater with its new meaning became a particularity of Iranian culture. Similar to the Sa‘alik, and ‘Abbasid Baghdad’s shuttar, the Persian shaters were swift runners; brave; familiar with the landscapes and the languages of the people they met on their journeys; and above all, they were trusted by the ruling power who appointed them as foot messengers.

Primary Sources
James Morier, A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816... (London: Longman, Hurst, etc, 1818)
Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-ʿArab. (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1981)
IOR/G/29/2 ‘Diary and Consultations of Mr Eaton Dodsworth…’
IOR/G/29/3 ‘Diary and Consultation Book of Thomas Waters…’
IOR/G/29/16 ‘Letters and Enclosures etc., Received from Gombroon’
IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1 ‘Persia and the Persian Question by the Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon, M.P.
IOR/R/15/5/397 John Richardson, A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English; with a Dissertation on the Languages, Literature, and Manners of Eastern Nations
al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-A‘sha fi Kitabat al-Insha, vol 2 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Amiriyya, 1913)
al-Zabidi, Taj al-‘Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus, vol 3 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Wahbiyya, undated)

Secondary Sources
Muhammad Rajab al-Najjar, Hikayat al-Shuttar wa al-‘Ayyarin (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-ʿAmma li-Qusur al-Thaqafa, 2002)
Shawqi Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi: al-‘Asr al-Jahili (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1960).

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist-Arabic Languages/ Britih Library Qatar Foundation Project
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21 June 2021

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

Off-white paper with black faded typed text in Latin script, with a drawing of concentric circle in the centre and Hebrew script copied by hand in black ink in the rings of the circles
The final page of Ian MacPherson's report from his travels to Crimea, including a copy of a Hebrew-script inscription and the legend to his map of Kezlev. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927. Or 17013 f 39)
CC Public Domain Image

With summer having arrived for those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to find a quiet green space and relax in the pleasant weather for a few hours – preferably with a good mystery. While I can’t offer you something along the lines of Zühal Kuyaş, Pınar Kür, Osman Aysu, Ümit Kıvanç, or even the pastiche but playful crime stories of Peyami Safa, I do have a bit of a conundrum that might help while away a humid hour or two. My Noir tale comes from deep inside one of the Library’s safe cupboards. Late in 2019, I found a stack of handwritten and typed notes from a man named Ian MacPherson (Or 17013). Some of the jottings related to library collections in Crimea; others were maps of Kezlev (Yevpatoria in Ukrainian and Russian) with the sites of interest marked; some had rubbings and sketches of inscriptions and “tamghalar” (tamgalar); and a final piece provided a translation of a report to the Crimean Academy of Sciences. But who was Ian MacPherson, and what was he doing in Crimea for four weeks during the summer of 1927?

A hand drawn map ink and pencil of a square in Kezlev with various buildings numbered and Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic script text hand written on it, as well as typewritten Latin-script text in the top left corner
A hand-drawn map of Qanglıq or Kaklyk Square (now Metalistiv Square), showing the bazar and Tatarok Street (today Tatar'ska Street), along with numbered buildings corresponding to those included in the legend provided by MacPherson. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 f 39)
CC Public Domain Image

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

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

A headshot of a balding man with no hat in black and white above a typed caption in Arabic scriptA reproduction of a black and white photograph of a group of 18 people including 2 women and 16 men, of whom 7 are seated in a front row, 9 are standing behind them, and a further two are standing behind that row, all of them in various forms of business or casual attire, with a bolded title in Arabic script above the photo and an Arabic-script caption below it
A portrait of the Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı (left) and a group photo of the participants at a 1926 Archaeological Conference in Kerch, Crimea, including Aqçoqraqlı seated on the far right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), pp. 44, 46) (11449.tt.26)
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MacPherson’s papers also record meetings with numerous scholars. These include Soviet scientists from outside the region (among whom was an unnamed Jewish doctor from Minsk unsuccessfully researching blood types among Qaraim communities); Boris Saadevich Elyashevich, Curator of the Qaraim National Library; Polina J. Chepurina, the Head of the Yevpatoria Museum; Professor Filonenko, a Ukrainian member of the Turko-Tatar Faculty at Simferopol’ University; an unnamed Armenian priest; and the well-known Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı. Ian was clearly seeking the latest information from these individuals on the expansion and development of the social sciences and humanities in the region; a veritable hotbed of scholarly activities in the 1920s. He attended the Second Pan-Union Archaeological Conference in Aqyar (Sevastopol’) on 11-12 September 1927, and made extensive notes on the activities of the Qaraim National Library and the Yevpatoria Museum, documenting the work done to catalogue and study the holdings within new Soviet structures.

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

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

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

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

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

Yellowed page with calligraphic Arabic-script title at top above sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin, from the next up, featuring a half-profile of the left side of his face, entirely in black and whiteA group portrait photograph in black and white showing a line of men seated outside of a building in front of a line of four standing men, some of which are wearing hats, under a bolded title and above a caption, all of which are in Arabic script
The cover of İleri magazine, featuring a sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin (left) and a portrait of archaeologists working in Crimea (right) in 1925-26, including Aqçoqraqlı, standing second from the right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), cover and p. 45) (11449.tt.26)
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Many good examples of the Noir genre include murders, injustice and a crushingly ruthless system that outdoes those who participate in it. While we don’t know what happened to MacPherson (he might have been shot by a cold-blooded gangster while on his walking tour to Kerch), his was likely not the story that ended in despair. Rather, it is Crimean Tatar scholars who give this particular story its dark edge. With the triumph of Joseph Stalin in the struggle for the leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, a pall descended on many academic and minority communities across the USSR. The 1930s were a period of gradual but devastating repression of dissent and creativity. Many Turkic intellectuals and national leaders from the 1910s and 20s were targeted for purges. Osman Aqçoqraqlı was no exception, and in 1938 he was arrested and executed for his alleged nationalist transgressions. It was, in predictably Noir fashion, the system which had allowed him to pursue his research and to connect with like-minded scholars from abroad that would eventually cause his demise.

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

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

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

A comparison between Rustam and Arjuna

The British Library has a rich collection of Persian manuscripts, including finely illustrated and decorated manuscripts of the Iranian national epic, the Shahnamah of Ferdowsi, but also including a copy of the Razmnamah, the Persian version of the Sanskrit epic, the Mahabharata.

In this blog, I would like to highlight the similarities between two major heroic characters in the Shahnamah and the Mahabharata: Rustam and Arjuna. Common features and episodes involving these characters can be seen as an example of cultural exchanges between Iran and India which date back to ancient times, even though there is still no consensus among scholars about the extent of the influences of thought and culture of the two nations on each other. Due to the different cultural and geographical environments in which the epics were formed, like any other stories with common roots, the stories of Rustam and Arjuna also have differences. But these differences cannot prevent us from seeing the similarities between the two characters, indicating that the stories must have originated from a common source.

The Mahabharata, which is attributed to the sage Vyasa, was written over centuries and focuses on the war between two families of cousins, the Pandavas and the Kauravas, who compete for the throne of Hastinapur. The Pandava brothers were Yudhisthira, Arjuna, Bhima, Nakula and Sahadeva.

Like the Mahabharata, Iranian epic stories were also narrated orally over centuries by storytellers, although the Shahnamah was written by the poet, Ferdowsi. As a Muslim poet, Ferdowsi homogenized the stories and emphasized the belief in one god in the spirit of the stories. Nevertheless, the presence of a few powerful ancient gods – such as Zurvan, Mithra, and Anahita – in the deep layers of the stories is still discernible. Many scholars have compared characters of the Shahnamah with gods and goddesses, and Zal, the father of Rustam is one of them. There are obvious vestiges of the worshiping of other gods in the Shahnamah; for example Fereydun and Zal are Sun worshipers.

In the discussion below, I have compiled some of the most striking examples of similarities and parallels in the stories about Rustam and Arjuna, with illustrations from two Mughal Persian manuscripts in the British Library’s collection: a late 15th-century copy of the Shahnamah with early 17th-century paintings (Add 5600) and a copy of the Razmnamah of 1598 (Or 12076).

Like Arjuna in the Mahabharata, Rustam is one of the most important heroes in the Shahnamah and the central character of many stories. Arjuna was born to the god Indra, and Rustam is the son of Zal and Rudabah.

Zal and Rudabeh (Add Ms 5600  f. 42v).jpg
Zal and Rudabah. Shahnamah, Mughal, early 17th century. Artist:  Qasim.  British Library, Add 5600, f. 42v Noc

Zal was born with white hair, which scared his father Sam enough to abandon his child, thinking he was a devil. In the Mahabharata Pandu, Arjuna’s father was also born extremely pale.

In an interesting article, Mihrdad Bahar has highlighted the similarities between Rustam and Indra, the god with whom Kunti, Arjuna's mother, conceived her child. Bahar notes that Indra and Rustam are both born by caesarean section, they are both large, both eat a lot and drink too much wine, and both have a club. In the Mahabharata, these traits are also given to Bhima and Arjuna, but as mentioned above, Arjuna was born of Indra.

Rustam and Arjuna both marry a woman outside their city or land. In the Shahnamah, Rustam marries Tahminah, the daughter of king of Samangan, and returns to Sistan after spending a short time with her. Tahminah gives birth to a baby boy and calls him Suhrab. Suhrab later tries to invade Iran and unknowingly fights with his own father, and is eventually killed by Rustam.

Rustam killing Suhrab (Add Ms 5600  f. 99r)
Rustam kills Suhrab in battle. Shahnamah, Mughal, early 17th century. Artist: Qasim. British Library, Add 5600, f. 99r Noc

In the Mahabharata, Arjuna marries Chitrangda, Raja Manpour's daughter. Raja Manpour agrees to the marriage on the condition that if his daughter becomes pregnant, the child will stay with him, which Arjuna accepts. Like Tahminah, Chitrangada gives birth to a baby boy, called Babruvahana. In time, Babruvahana too fights with his own father, Arjuna, although unlike Rustam, Arjuna does indeed recognize his son.

In both stories, the surviving hero goes in search of a magic medicine to revive the wounded or killed hero. In the Shahnamah, this medicine is called Nushdaru and in the Mahabharata, Samjioni. Nushdaru is held by Kay Kavus, the king of Iran. Kay Kavus is afraid that Suhrab will join forces with Rustam after his recovery, and overthrow him from power. Therefore Kay Kavus refuses to give the medicine to Rustam, and Suhrab consequently dies. In the Mahabharata, however, when Babruvahana goes in search of Samjioni he manages to find it, and thus saves Arjuna from death.

Battle between Babhruvahana and the snakes (Or 12076  f. 71v)
Battle between Babhruvahana, son of Arjuna, and the snakes, for Samjioni. Razmnamah, Mughal, 1598. Artist: Sangha. British Library, Or 12076, f. 71r Noc

Despite the differences, both stories have a similar plot, involving the murder of a family member. In both epics, the fathers cause the war with their sons. Suhrab and Babruvahana both plea with their fathers to stop the war, but in both cases the fathers refuse.

Arjuna treating his son Babhruvahana with contempt (Or 12076  f. 44r)
Babruvahana kneels at Arjuna’s feet in Manipur, but Arjuna treats his son with contempt.  Razmnamah, Mughal, 1598. Artist: Khem. British Library, Or 12076, f. 44r Noc

Another parallel in stories about Rustam and Arjuna is that both heroes kill their stepbrothers, with Arjuna killing Karna and Rustam killing Shaghad.

Rustam impaled in the pit of spears shooting Shaghad through the tree trunk (Add Ms 5600  f. 338v)
Rustam, impaled in the pit of spears, shoots Shaghad through the tree trunk. Shahnamah, Mughal, early 17th century. Artist: Bhagvati.  British Library, Add 5600, f. 338v Noc

In the Shahnamah, Shaghad is born from another mother from Rustam. Meanwhile, in the Mahabharata, Karna has a different father from Arjuna, for before Kunti marries Pandu, she conceives Karna with Surya. In both epics, both stepbrothers join the enemies of their brothers. In the Mahabharata, Karna joins Kaurava’s army, and in the Shahnamah, Shaghad allies with the king of Kabul.

In both stories, Rustam and Arjuna also go on adventurous and dangerous journeys to help the king. In the Shahnamah, these journeys of Rustam are called Haft Khan ('Seven trials'). Rustam, who was a teenager at the time, was commissioned by Zal to go to Mazandaran to rescue Kay Kavus, the king of Iran. Kay Kavus had been deceived by the devil and had gone to Mazandaran, where he had been captured by a white demon. Rustam was forced to take a shorter route to rescue him immediately, but thereby had to confront seven dangers lurking on his way.

Rustam and the white div (Add Ms 5600  f. 75v)
Rustam kills the white demon (Div). Shahnamah, Mughal, early 17th century. Artist: Qasim.  British Library, Add 5600, f. 75v Noc

In Arjuna’s story, the hero's journey takes a year. To help his brother, Yudhisthira, Arjuna has to undertake a quest called Ashwamedha Yagya. As part of this formal undertaking, he must take a sacrificial horse into the country for a year to fight the opposition, and at the end return the horse to his brother's capital for sacrifice. It was during this trip that Arjuna got into a fight with his son Babruvahana and was killed by him, before being revived with the remedy Samjioni.

The Persian manuscripts reproduced in this blog, together with several other illustrated copies of the Shahnamah, have been fully digitised and can be accessed on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts portal, and the Digital access to Persian manuscripts page.

Further reading
Bahār, Mihrdād, Pizhūhishī dar asāṭīr-i Īrān, Tihrān: Āgāh, 1375 (1996).
Darmesteter, M.J. ‘Points de contact entre le Mahabharataa et le Shahnamah’, Journal asiatique, (1887) 15, pp.38-75.
Mukhtārī, Muḥammad, Usṭūrah-i Zāl, Tehrān, Nashr-e Qaṭrah, 1997.
Sims-Williams, Ursula, Razmnamah: the Persian Mahabharata, 2016.

Alireza Sedighi, British Library Ccownwork

I am grateful to my colleagues Pasquale Manzo, Pardad Chamsaz and Arani IIankuberan for their comments.

27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

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

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

 

Acquisition and condition

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

Off-white paper with two lines of cursive text in the Latin alphabet
Acquisition note: ‘Bought of F. W. Bickel. 30 May, 1921.’ (British Library, Or. 8857, endleaf verso [ii-v]) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00004e
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When this purchase was recorded in the British Museum acquisition register, the fragmentary Arabic manuscript was given the shelfmark Or. 8857 along with a typically brief description: ‘Or. 8857. A fragment of a work on the calendar, followed by some prescriptions. 33ff. XIth. cent. 8o Arabic’. Clearly the manuscript was old – 5thAH/11th AD century according to the acquisition register. But details about its contents were scanty, and nothing was said about its provenance.

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

Off white manuscript folio with two columns of text in black ink in the Arabic script and red stamp with British Museum seal at bottom
The first folio, according to the manuscript’s present arrangement, is not what it seems. Its layout suggests either poetry or two columns of prose but, in fact, it is a list of the planets that rule each hour of the day, and it runs horizontally across the page despite the columns. What appears to be an eastern Arabic five (٥) in the upper left corner – perhaps explaining the western Arabic five in the lower right-hand corner – is actually a Coptic seventy (𐋰), which indicate that this is really not the first but the penultimate folio (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 1r) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00000b
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After this conservation work, the manuscript seems to have rested unnoticed until a more complete list of its contents was prepared for the Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library (pp. 353, 357, 385 and 389). But it was not catalogued in detail until it was selected for digitisation for the QDL.

 

Date and context of production

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

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

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

Or. 8857, ff. 10v: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00001e
Or. 8857, ff. 17r: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00002b
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Reordering the folios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with several words in red ink on off-white paper
Information on the names of the months in Syriac, Greek and Persian from the beginning of the Book of Seasons, preceded by the basmala (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 30v) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x000046
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The fragment ends with an anonymous introductory text on astrology, which includes an unusual method for determining a person’s ascendant not by observing their natal horoscope chart, but through numerological analysis of their name and that of their mother. While this text may seem the least appropriate in a monastery, there was considerable legal and theological disagreement about which of the various astrological practices were licit or illicit, and knowledge of the planets' influences on the environment and the human body was generally considered an important part of maintaining good health and wellbeing.

 

Fragments reunited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

5) Alternatively, you can copy the IIIF manifest (https://www.qdl.qa/en/iiif/81055/vdc_100073295641.0x000001/manifest) located next to the IIIF logo on the screen in step 4 and click on the blank canvas in the Mirador viewer (see step 2). This will open the screen below, where you can paste the IIIF manifest into the field marked ‘Add new object from URL’ and click ‘Load’.

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

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

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

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Thanks to Dr Adrien de Fouchier, OP (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) and Dr Stefano Serventi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) for their generous help and advice with my research for this blog.

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

24 May 2021

The Qatar Digital Library’s Two Millionth Image: ‘Isa bin Tarif returns to Qatar

This week the Qatar Digital Library (QDL) reached a milestone: the upload of its two millionth image. The image comes from IOR/F/4/2050/93539 'Vol 7 Persian Gulf Affairs of-'. It joins a wealth of material already available, with descriptions in both Arabic and English, digitised as part of a partnership between the British Library and Qatar Foundation. The QDL, part of the Qatar National Library, contains audio-visual material, India Office records, maps, private papers, Arabic scientific manuscripts, photographs and drawings, all free to access and download.

Selected files from IOR/F/4 Boards Papers (1796-1858) are being digitised during Phase Three of the Partnership. Each file covers a specific topic and contains copies of letters sent from the British governments of Bombay, Madras, and Bengal in India to the Court of Directors of the East India Company in London. These copies went to the Board of Control, which oversaw the business operations of the East India Company.

Letter from Captain Samuel Hennell about ‘Isa bin Tarif settling at al-Bid
A letter from Captain Samuel Hennell about ‘Isa bin Tarif settling at al-Bid’, (British Library: IOR/F/4/2050/93539, f 751r)
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Most common are letters from the British Resident in the Persian Gulf but the files also contain correspondence received from local rulers, merchants and other British military and administrative personnel. They provide evidence of the British perspective on events in the Gulf, as well as the Company’s decision-making and internal discussions.

The highlighted file contains a letter from Captain Samuel Hennell, British Resident in the Persian Gulf, to the Government of Bombay [Mumbai] dated 7 December 1843. It reports the arrival of Shaikh ‘Isa bin Tarif Al Bin ‘Ali al-‘Utbi (referred to in the letter as ‘Esa bin Tarif’) at al-Bid’ (‘Biddah’ in the text) on the Qatar Peninsula, a settlement that now forms part of the capital Doha. This was a significant move: Shaikh ‘Isa had been a dominant presence in the Gulf for some years, and the British had been keeping an eye on him because of his independence, ability, and alliances with powerful figures around the region. His move to al-Bid’ brought his years of protracted wandering to an end.

View from the anchorage of al-Bid’  from a plan of the harbour of al-Bid’ by J M Guy and G B Brucks  drawn by M Houghton
View from the anchorage of al-Bid’, from a plan of the harbour of al-Bid’ by J M Guy and G B Brucks, drawn by M Houghton (British Library: IOR/X/3694)
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Shaikh ‘Isa was chief of the Al Bin ‘Ali tribe formerly based at al-Huwailah, a town on the coast of Qatar. His strength had grown steadily until 1835 when it threatened the Shaikh of Bahrain, ‘Abdullah bin Ahmad Al Khalifah, who nominally ruled the peninsula. Shaikh ‘Isa enjoyed the support of his own tribe and that of the neighbouring Wahhabi forces. They combined to present a formidable challenge to Shaikh ‘Abdullah.

Riffa Fort  Bahrain  in 1870
Riffa Fort, Bahrain, in 1870 (British Library: Visual Arts, Photo 355/1/40)
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Eventually both sides agreed to the mediation of the Imam of Muscat, Sayyid Saʻid bin Sultan Al Bu Saʻid. He proposed that the Al Bin ‘Ali leave al-Huwailah for Bahrain, where their safety would be guaranteed. However, before this agreement was put into effect a dependent of Shaikh ‘Isa was killed. When Shaikh ‘Abdullah refused to pay reparations, Shaikh ‘Isa and his followers moved to Abu Dhabi.

It was at this point that the British became interested in Shaikh ‘Isa’s movements and activities. Their chief concern was to limit naval warfare in the Gulf, thereby protecting maritime trade routes. Hostilities between the Ali Bin ‘Ali and the Shaikh of Bahrain continued to threaten merchant shipping. When Shaikh ‘Isa requested permission to lead an expedition against Bahrain, the British refused. Shaikh ‘Abdullah’s request that he be allowed to force Shaikh ‘Isa and his followers to return to his control was similarly rejected.

While in Abu Dhabi Shaikh ‘Isa cultivated an alliance with the Imam of Muscat, Britain’s foremost ally in the region. In 1837 the British noted that ‘Isa had played a key role in the Imam’s capture of Mombasa. Also during this time, despite the British prohibition on attacking Shaikh ‘Abdullah, Shaikh ‘Isa conspired (unsuccessfully) to overthrow him with the cooperation of the Governor of Egypt, Khurshid Pasha.

In 1839 Shaikh ‘Isa left Abu Dhabi, partly due to the scarcity of resources for his tribe. He initially planned to move to Wakra on the Qatar Peninsula. Both the British and Shaikh ‘Abdullah were happy with this arrangement but the British were unwilling to guarantee that Bahrain would not attack Wakra. Consequently Shaikh ‘Isa moved instead to the island of Kish (Qais, referred to as ‘Kenn’ in British records) on the opposite northern coast of the Gulf.

Sketch of Kish Island by Captain Thomas Remo
Sketch of Kish Island by Captain Thomas Remon (British Library: IOR/R/15/1/732, p 45A)
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The British had previously drawn a ‘restrictive line’ along the length of the Gulf. This created a ‘neutral zone’ to the north, in which no armed vessels would be tolerated, thereby protecting commercial shipping in that area. Kish is located north of this line; the Qatar Peninsula is to the south. Meanwhile, the British were increasingly concerned by the power vacuum developing in the Qatar Peninsula. They were unconvinced that the most powerful man on the Peninsula, Salmin bin Nasir al-Suwaidi from the Sudan tribe, was strong enough to keep the peace or deter individuals from aggression against ships in the Gulf.

Shaikh ‘Isa was not content to remain at Kish indefinitely. He saw an opportunity of returning to the Qatar Peninsula by helping Shaikh Muhammed bin Khalifah Al Khalifah overthrow his great-uncle ‘Abdullah in Bahrain. The takeover was successful. In a letter dated 18 July 1843, the British Resident referred to Shaikh Muhammed and Shaikh ‘Isa as the ‘de-facto Rulers of Bahrein’.

Shaikh Muhammed and Shaikh ‘Isa are referred to as de-facto Rulers of Bahrein
Shaikh Muhammed and Shaikh ‘Isa are referred to as ‘de-facto Rulers of Bahrein’ (British Library: IOR/F/4/2050/93533, f 254)
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The British were unconvinced that the alliance between the two rulers would last. They knew that Shaikh ‘Isa was also cultivating an alliance with the ruler of Abu Dhabi. His move to al-Bid’ in December thus led the British to welcome a new era of stability for the region. The move brought him south of the ‘restrictive line’, which meant that any aggression between him and Bahrain would not affect shipping in the Gulf.

Survey of the southern side of the Gulf and the Qatar Peninsula
Survey of the southern side of the Gulf, including the Qatar Peninsula, (British Library: IOR/X/3630/20/5)
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He did not have long to enjoy his return. As before, his success on the Peninsula was the envy of Bahrain and Shaikh Muhammed wanted to bring him firmly under his control. In November 1847 a battle near Fuwairit (local accounts say Umm al-Suwayyah, near Al-Khor) ended in Shaikh ‘Isa’s death. ‘Isa showed firmly that Bahrain’s control over Qatar was unsustainable, and laid the foundation for the recognition of Qatar as an independent country. After Shaikh ‘Isa’s death, the power vacuum in the Peninsula was filled by the Al Thani family who had been the dominant family in Fuwairit.


Anne Courtney, Gulf History Cataloguer, BL/Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Further reading

Primary Sources
IOR/F/4/2050/93533, ‘Vol 1 Affairs of the Persian Gulf’
IOR/F/4/2050/93539, ‘Vol 7 Persian Gulf Affairs of -’
Both these items mainly concern disputes between the shaikhs of the Gulf and their movements, as well as details of other minor items which the Resident in the Persian Gulf was involved in.
IOR/R/15/1/732, ‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’, 1856

Secondary Sources
Morton, M. Q., Masters of the Pearl: A History of Qatar (London: Reaktion Books, 2020)
Rahman, H., The Emergence of Qatar: the turbulent years, 1627-1916 (London: K. Paul, 2005)
Said Zahlan, R., The Creation of Qatar. (London: Routledge, 1979)
Tuson, P., Records of Qatar: primary documents 1820-1960 (Slough: Archive Editions, 1991)

17 May 2021

"Oyez, Oyez, Oyez": Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition Re-opens

After sporadic closures throughout 2020 and the recent national lock-down, we are pleased to announce the eagerly anticipated re-opening on 18th May of the stimulating and beautifully designed British Library exhibition, Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word.

Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals
Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals. Sefer ha-Terumah (Book of the Heave Offering). Germany, 1307 (Add MS 18424, f. 31r detail)
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The 44 artifacts brought together for this exhibition convey powerful messages:

  • the magnitude of written culture as the bond connecting Jewish communities from all corners of the world
  • the centrality of Hebrew language and script linking Diaspora Jews, and documenting their experiences
  • the living proof of the centuries-long culture, history, and traditions of the Jewish people
  • high points and signs of conflict, as well as the exchanges of ideas and knowledge in the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in the communities they lived in

Spanning a millennium, most of the showcased objects come from the British Library’s outstanding, multi-faceted Hebrew manuscript collection. In the glass cases arranged in the centre of the gallery well-known iconic specimens rest alongside unknown pieces on display for the very first time.
Viewers are taken on a voyage of discovery through four sections clearly demarcated by thematic text panels. The Bible and beyond section presents core Jewish religious texts from around the world.

Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance  Germany  1300-1324
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 1300-1324 (Add MS 15282, f.28r)
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The beautifully wrought, 700-years old Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch is open at the story of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac, captured here in a stunning micrographic design. Micrography is the weaving of minute lettering into abstract, geometric, and figurative patterns. It is a scribal practice unique to Jewish art that began in the 9th century CE in Egypt and the Holy Land and has continued to this day.

Also on view in this section is a 13th century incomplete copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud (literally ‘learning’) is the ultimate guide to religious law in Judaism. It is the largest corpus of Jewish knowledge, teachings and traditions accumulated over many centuries. The Babylonian Talmud, as its name implies, was compiled by scholars in Babylonia (present day Iraq). Although committed to writing around the year 500 CE, it continued to be edited for close to two centuries afterwards. During the Middle Ages and early modern period, the Talmud was the target of unrelenting condemnation and censorship by Christian authorities. Its allegedly offensive and blasphemous contents, led to frequent public burnings and the destruction of numerous copies. The copy on display has fortunately survived intact.
Babylonian Talmud  fragments. 13th century
Babylonian Talmud, fragments. Germany (?), 13th century copy (Add MS 25717, f.72v)
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The Living together part of the exhibition offers glimpses of the interaction between Jews and non-Jews through historical accounts, legal documents, and literature. Among the splendid artifacts on display are Perek Shirah and Sefer ha-zikuk. Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song) is an ancient hymn of praise in which every created thing – from the animate to the celestial – thanks God for its existence. The praises are mostly biblical verses, often taken from the Book of Psalms. The right page illustration which shows 13 different animals, opens the chapter on the four-legged beasts.

Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r
Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Vienna, Austria (?). Copy, ca.1740 (Or 12983, ff. 12v-13r)
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The pictorial style in this charming 18th century manuscript copy of Perek Shirah was evidently influenced by contemporary European art. The 5 miniatures and the Hebrew and Yiddish text in the manuscript are the work of Aaron Wolf Schreiber Herlingen of Gewitsch, a prominent Moravian scribe-illustrator who was active from 1719 to 1752, primarily in Vienna. Some 50 manuscripts created by him are known to have survived.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation) is a manual of censorial principles and index of some 450 Hebrew works that allegedly contained morally detrimental, anti-Christian words and passages. Expurgators or revisers of Hebrew books, as they were sometimes called, deleted content they suspected referred to Christians in a negative way. On show is a 17th century manuscript copy of the original Sefer ha-zikuk Dominico Irosolimitano compiled in 1596 in Mantua.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r
Sefer ha-zikuk
(Book of Expurgation). Modena, Italy, 17th century copy (Or 6639, ff. 41v-42r)
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An established expurgator of Hebrew books in the service of the Catholic Church in Italy, Dominico Irosolimitano was a converted rabbi formerly known as Samuel Vivas (b. Holy Land 1550; d. Italy 1620). He was active in many Italian cities including Mantua, Milan and Rome, and was responsible for censoring some 20,000 Hebrew books and manuscripts during a career that extended over 40 years.

The Power of letters and words section reveals how Jewish kabbalah seeks to better understand the world and the Divine, and shows the centrality of the Hebrew alphabet in kabbalistic theory and practice.
One of the most prominent Jewish kabbalists in medieval Spain was Abraham Abulafia (b.1240- d. after 1290). He founded Prophetic Kabbalah, a unique mystical method to reach a state of union with God. Among his many works Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba (Life in the World to come), known also as Sefer ha-‘igulim (Book of circles) is particularly significant.
The circles in this 15th century manuscript copy of the work, contain Abulafia’s instructions for mystical meditation, reminiscent of practices in Buddhism and Hinduism. The techniques include: combining letters, reciting and visualising the Divine names, breathing exercises and poses. The reader is meant to enter each circle through an ‘entrance’ clearly indicated by a decorative pin-like marker at the top. Latin translations of Abulafia’s writings influenced many Renaissance Christian kabbalists, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola being one of them.

Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r) Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r)
Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy, 15th century copy (Or 4596, ff. 88v-89r)
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The exhibited small parchment amulet was created sometime in the 18th or 19th century. Its creases clearly prove that such amulets were folded and kept in the owner’s clothing, purse or in an amulet holder, and were carried around.

Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)
Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)
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Amulets are believed to have magical powers, bring good luck and ward off evil, sickness, and other misfortunes. They have been used for centuries and are mentioned in the Talmud (the Talmudic term is kame’a). The most common types were for childbirth. In earlier times, high levels of childbirth and infant mortality led people to seek protection from the mysterious forces that seemingly had power over these events.

Hebrew amulets include symbolic designs, kabbalistic inscriptions, angels’ names, and permutations on the Names of God, as this specimen written for Esther bat Miriam shows. It was intended to guard her from all possible misfortunes at all times of day.

The final part of the exhibition – Science and scholarship - explores how Jewish thinkers have spread knowledge and have contributed new ideas to scholarship.

Living in communities scattered across the globe, many Jewish scholars were multilingual. At the crossroads of different cultures, they translated works between Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Their most important contribution was transmitting Arabic and Greek ideas from these works to Christian Europe and their own co-religionists.

Avicenna  The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy  1479
Avicenna, The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy, 1479 (Harley MS 5680, f. 209r)
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In 1279, the Italian Jew, Nathan ha-Me’ati, translated the 11th-century Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna) from the original Arabic into Hebrew. The Canon was the most influential work of medieval medicine and the translation created new Hebrew medical vocabulary. This page from a 15th-century copy shows the end of Book V, which lists 650 recipes for medicines.

Another medieval Jewish scholar whose translations helped disseminate scientific ideas and knowledge was Jacob Anatoli (c. 1194-1256) who hailed from Provence, southern France.
In 13th century Naples, under the patronage of the enlightened Emperor Frederick II, Jacob Anatoli translated al-Farghani’s Compendium into Hebrew using both the original Arabic text and a Latin translation. The Compendium was an Arabic summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest, and it played a key role in spreading Greek astronomical knowledge in medieval Europe. Titled Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements), the manuscript on view is a 16th-17th century copy of Anatoli’s Hebrew translation.

Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v

Al-Farghani, Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements). North Africa (?), 16th-17th century (Add MS 27107, ff. 147v-148r)
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Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open until Sunday 6 June 2021.

Follow this link for a 3D virtual tour of the exhibition.

Other platforms with Hebrew manuscript content:

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.


Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections
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10 May 2021

The many names of the General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf

Following the publication, in December 2020, of my blog ‘A cessation of plunder and piracy… for ever’, we received some interesting feedback from Dr James Onley, Director of Historical Research at the Qatar National Library, who are the British Library’s partners in producing the Qatar Digital Library. The blog discussed a particular treaty, which it referred to as the General Maritime Treaty, but Dr Onley suggested that this was not the historical name, and was instead of more recent provenance. This came as something of a surprise, as ‘General Maritime Treaty’ is also the name used in QDL catalogue descriptions. So I decided to investigate it further.

The treaty was produced in 1820 and was given the title, ‘General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf’. However, it is common for treaties to become known by a shorter, more memorable title. If this was the case for the treaty of 1820, then what was the short title that was used? A delve into the QDL shows that this is not a simple question to answer.

Letter from Major General William Grant Keir, to Captain William Bruce, Resident at Bushire
Letter from Major General William Grant Keir, to Captain William Bruce, Resident at Bushire, IOR/R/15/1/21, ff. 4-12.
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The image above shows part of a letter, dated 16 January 1820, from William Grant Keir, who signed the treaty on behalf of Britain. He wrote: ‘I have now the honour to transmit the accompanying copy of a General Treaty into which I have entered with certain Arab tribes’. He then added that ‘All matters of a temporary or individual nature have been included in Preliminary Treaties… with the several chiefs, that the General Treaty might be reserved exclusively for arrangements of a permanent nature or such as are common to the whole of the contracting tribes’.

Keir therefore called his treaty a ‘general treaty’ (the name is not consistently capitalised in the records) in order to distinguish it from the preliminary treaties he had concluded with individual rulers. In correspondence from the time it was sometimes referred to by this name, but also simply as ‘the treaty’.

By the 1830s, officials in the Gulf were also calling it the General Treaty of Peace, as the following extract shows:

‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’,
‘Selections from the Records of the Bombay Government’, IOR/R/15/1/732, p. 314. This part is from a historical sketch covering the years 1819-1831 by Samuel Hennell, who was Assistant Resident in the Persian Gulf at this time.
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This title increasingly became the accepted one. It was used in volume one of Charles Rathbone Low’s History of the Indian Navy, published in 1844. And this is what it was called by John Gordon Lorimer in his Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf, Oman and Central Arabia, produced in two parts in 1908 and 1915.

However, around the same time, another long-form title for the treaty began to appear. Specifically, the second edition of Charles Umpherston Aitchison’s A Collection of Treaties, Engagements, and Sanads Relating to India and Neighbouring Countries, produced in 1876, contained a copy of the 1820 treaty, but referred to it in the contents page as: ‘General Treaty with the Arab Chiefs for the cessation of plunder and piracy by land and sea’. This title would appear in subsequent editions of Aitchison’s Collection of Treaties, and would be replicated in other contexts as well.

From the contents of ‘A collection of treaties, engagements and sanads relating to India and neighbouring countries
From the contents of ‘A collection of treaties, engagements and sanads relating to India and neighbouring countries [...] Vol XI containing the treaties, & c., relating to Aden and the south western coast of Arabia, the Arab principalities in the Persian Gulf, Muscat (Oman), Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province’, compiled by C. U. Aitchison, IOR/L/PS/20/G3/12, f. 5v. This is from the fifth edition, published in 1933.
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Over the course of the twentieth century there was no consistent way of referring to the treaty, and individual writers would sometimes use more than one name. In 1970 Donald Hawley, a former British Political Agent in the Gulf, published a history, The Trucial States, in which he referred to the agreement variously as the General Treaty, the General Treaty of Peace, the 1820 treaty, the General Treaty for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy, and the General Treaty of Peace for the Cessation of Plunder and Piracy. In fact, the only title Hawley didn’t use was the original one!

And what about General Maritime Treaty, the title used in my earlier blog post? Apart from one appearance in a historical memorandum produced in 1934, this title doesn’t seem to feature in the records or other material currently on the QDL. Furthermore, it seems to have come into wider use only after the turn of this century. It possibly has its origins in a Wikipedia article about the treaty which, according to the article’s history, was created in 2009.

It may be true, as this blog indicates, that there has never been a single, accepted way of referring to this treaty. However, the near absence of ‘General Maritime Treaty’ in the historical records means that we have taken the decision to remove it from our catalogue descriptions. Instead, as there is no consistently used short-form title, we have replaced it with the treaty’s original title, ‘General Treaty with the Arab Tribes of the Persian Gulf’. This is also what you’ll see now if you look at my earlier blog post.

But does this have any wider significance, beyond a cataloguer’s concern for getting a name right? Admittedly, it was unlikely to cause major confusion among users of the QDL. Nevertheless, I think this exercise has highlighted something important about the treaty, and about British imperialism in the Gulf more generally.

The treaty was created following a major British military intervention, and it reshaped the political map of the region in a way that is still evident today. Yet, from the start, the British were keen to downplay the extent and significance of their involvement. For example, just prior to the launch of the military campaign in 1819, the Government of India stated, ‘we are anxious to avoid all interference in the concerns of the Arab states beyond what may be necessary for effecting the suppression of piracy’ (IOR/F/4/650/17854, f. 386v - soon to be added to the QDL). Before and after this campaign, British officials insisted that their intervention was a limited one, aimed simply at restoring order and not at establishing British control in the region.

It is perhaps, then, no coincidence that the treaty created in 1820 was given an innocuous title, one that belied the force that lay behind it and the unbalanced relations it established with the rulers who signed it. It was, in fact, a watershed moment, marking the beginning of British imperial dominance of the Gulf. As this hegemony was strengthened over subsequent decades, it is telling that Britain’s preferred title for the agreement that formed its basis was the General Treaty of Peace.

The confusion, now and in the past, over the name of the 1820 treaty owes something to the indistinctiveness of its title. This, in turn, is a reminder of how Britain sought to frame its involvement in the Gulf, and of the need to look beyond this appearance to gain a more complete view of this history.

 

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