Asian and African studies blog

179 posts categorized "Middle East"

19 June 2020

An eighth century Judaeo-Persian letter from Dandan-Uiliq

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A recent post on the Kaifeng Torah Scroll, a seventeenth century Torah scroll from Kaifeng, Henan province, featured the British Library’s Judaeo-Persian letter Or.8212/166 dating from the end of the eighth century as one of the earliest records of the Jewish community in China. Our post today coincides with Silk Road Week 2020 to celebrate the anniversary of the Silk Road - from Chang'an to the Tianshan Corridor - becoming a UNESCO World Heritage site on June 22, 2014. It highlights the long-term collaboration between the British Library and the National Library of China as part of the International Dunhuang Project (IDP) by focussing on our Judaeo-Persian document and a comparatively recent acquisition of the National Library of China BH1-19.

Judaeo-Persian letter discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)
The Judaeo-Persian document discovered in 1901 by Sir Aurel Stein at Dandan-Uiliq in 1901 (British Library Or.8212/166)

The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (National Library of China BH1-19)
The Judaeo-Persian letter acquired in 2004 by the National Library of China (BH1-19, image reproduced with the kind permission of the National Library of China)

The earliest of these two to be widely-known is the British Library document which was discovered early in 1901 during M.A. Stein’s first expedition to Central Asia. A group of his workmen were indulging in some independent ‘treasure-seeking’ after the completion of formal excavations at Dandan-Uiliq, the site of a former Buddhist monastery and Imperial garrison located to the northeast of Khotan between the Khotan and Keriya rivers in what is now the autonomous region of Xinjiang. While searching the debris left in the sand outside the broken east wall of an ancient dwelling-house (Stein’s D.XIII), they came across a document which Stein described (Margoliouth, p. 737):

as it then presented itself, was a lump of thin brownish paper, so closely crumpled up that in the absence of proper appliances I found it quite impossible to attempt its opening and unfolding. Only where one edge of the paper could be partially loosened was I able to make out some characters which manifestly looked like cursive Hebrew.

Map of Dandan-Uiliq, after Stein Sand-buried ruins of Khotan
Map of Dandan-Uiliq based on M. A. Stein's Map showing portions of Chinese Turkestan, Survey of India 1900-1901, scale 1 : 760,000 (Sand-buried ruins of Khotan, London, 1904)

The document was provisionally dated to the end of the eighth century when the site was abandoned, and this dating was confirmed by an analysis of the paper by Professor J. Wiesner (Margoliouth, pp. 742-3) which found that the structure was indistinguishable from the paper of Chinese documents found at Dandan Uiliq, dating from between 781 and 790.

The letter proved to be written in Judaeo-Persian, i.e. Persian written in Hebrew script. However since the beginning and end of each line was missing, there was only a limited amount of contextual information to be deduced (for an edition and translation see Utas, 1968 below). Mention of sheep trading and cloth indicates the document’s commercial nature and a reference to the author having written “more than 20 letters[1]” attests perhaps to a thriving trade. There is also an intriguing request for a harp required for instructing a girl how to play (see Yoshida, pp. 389-90 for a possible explanation of this).

In 2004, however, an almost intact leaf (BH1-19) of a similar document was acquired by the National Library of China. Published in 2008 (Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang), it appears to be the initial page of possibly the same letter and gives a more detailed historical context by referring to the defeat of the Tibetans at Kashgar which happened around 790.

The letter (translated by Zhang Zhan in Hansen, pp. 381-2) is from a Persian speaking Jew of Khotan to the ‘lord master’ Nisi Chilag, Abu Sahak and others on the subject of sheep trading. It lists bribes to officials, arranged no doubt in order of sociological importance and headed by a local ruler (dihgān) who can perhaps be identified with the King of Khotan or someone of equal status (Yoshida, p. 392). The gifts include a vase, scent, silk cloth, raw silk, sugar and other items which are not yet fully understood. Perhaps the most important information was the news from Kashgar that “They killed and captured all the Tibetans”. The writer himself contributed “a sum worth 100 strings of coins, or 100,000 coins” for the war effort.

Montage showing the two letters Or.8212/166 and BH1-19 superimposed for comparison
Montage showing the two letters BH1-19 and Or.8212/166 superimposed for comparison

As demonstrated by the montage above, the two documents are almost certainly part of the same letter with the National Library fragment forming the opening page and the British Library fragment a subsequent folio. From a morphological, palaeographical, and content-wise point of view we can be fairly certain that both were written by the same Judaeo-Persian trader. The author is identified in the second letter as ‘Sogdian,’ and despite being written in Persian, Yutaka Yoshida has convincingly argued on the basis of various sogdianisms in the letter itself that he was most likely a Persian speaking Sogdian Jew (Yoshida, pp. 390-92).

Taking both parts together the Dandan-Uiliq letter is probably the oldest surviving document of substance to be written in early New Persian, marking the first phase of the Persian language after the Islamic conquest. As such it provides important evidence for the development of the Persian language in addition to documenting the history of eighth-century Khotan.

Ursula Sims-Williams
Lead Curator, Persian, Asian and African Collections


Further reading

Margoliouth, D.S., “An early Judæo-Persian document from Khotan, in the Stein Collection, with other early Persian documents; with an introductory note by M.A. Stein and communications from W. Bacher, A.E. Cowley and J. Wiesner”, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland (1903), pp. 735-60.
Utas, Bo, “The Jewish-Persian fragment from Dandān-Uiliq”, Orientalia suecana 17 (1968) pp. 123-136 (republished in From Old to New Persian: Collected essays, Wiesbaden 2013, pp. 25-38).
Zhang Zhan and Shi Guang, “Yijian xinfaxian Youtai-Bosiyu xinzha de duandai yu shidu [A newly-discovered Judeo-Persian letter]”, Dunhuang Tulufan Yanjiu 11 (2008), pp. 71-99.
Hansen, V. The Silk Road: a new history with documents. Oxford: OUP, 2017, pp. 357-9, with Zhang Zhan’s translation of BH1-19, pp. 381-2.
Yutaka Yoshida, “Some new interpretations of the two Judeo-Persian letters from Khotan”. In A thousand judgements: Festschrift for Maria Macuch, eds. A. Hintze, D. Durkin-Meisterernst and C. Neumann, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2019, pp. 385-94.


[1] Literally “more than twenty and …[word missing]”

15 June 2020

The First Gaster Bible: a fine Hebrew manuscript from a Muslim land

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The Hebrew Bible, known in Christianity as The Old Testament, and as TaNaKh in Judaism, comprises the sacred texts of the Jewish people. It is a profuse and unique compilation of laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, royal chronicles, decrees, tales and much more. Its content and structure evolved over a lengthy period extending from the Babylonian exile of the Jewish population in Judea in the 6th century BCE, until about the 2nd century CE.

The word TaNaKh is an acronym based on the first consonantal letters representing its three principal divisions, namely: Torah known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im denoting Prophets, and Ketuvim or Writings. The TaNaKh consists of 24 books in all.

In antiquity, the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was copied on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Codices (singular: codex) i.e. bound books with pages, emerged in Judaism around the 8th century CE, although they may have been in use before then. The 10th century in particular witnessed an upsurge in the production of TaNaKh codices, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Psalms (64:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 14v))
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Named after its distinguished last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was most probably created in Egypt. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript giving details about its production – is missing, and so, nothing is known about the original commission. Its estimated date and place of production have thus been determined by comparing it with extant Hebrew Bibles copied about the 10th century in Egypt and the Middle East.

The First Gaster Bible shows unmissable signs of wear and tear. Its thousand-year old parchment folios displaying fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded embellishments, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What originally may have been a complete manuscript of Ketuvim (Writings), has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just portions from the Books of Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.


Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Top) Ruth (3:15- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. Or 9879, f. 31r (detail)
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(Bottom) . Ecclesiastes (beginning of ch.3). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 32v (detail)))
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When leafing through the manuscript, one notices right away the small script annotations that surround the scriptural text. These are collectively termed as masorah from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ msr’ meaning to hand down. The masorah is fundamentally a corpus of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the biblical text that safeguarded the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible over the centuries. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The Masoretes’ greatest contribution was the compilation of a system of signs and vowels that set up in writing the accurate way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously filled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation, both visible in the First Gaster Bible. The large masorah (masora magna) copied usually at the top and foot of pages, and the small masorah ( masora parva) penned between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from alterations. The latter is more copious and includes lists of whole sections from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other characteristics.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
End of Esther, beginning of Daniel. (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 40r))
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It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript provides a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art.

Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is essentially functional. Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include golden chains, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and undulating scrolls and spirals.

Illuminated page with Hebrew textIlluminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Psalms (69:4 - ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 16r))
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(Right) Psalms (71:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 17r))
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It is interesting to point out that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th – 11th centuries are incomplete. One such exception is the Leningrad Codex, preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg. Copied most probably in Egypt around 1008 or 1009 CE, it is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

Among the extant fragmentary specimens, the Aleppo Codex kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, qualifies as the oldest and most authoritative Hebrew Bible. It was copied c. 930 CE in Tiberias, the Holy Land, and has apparently lost 196 of its 491 original pages.

Apart from the First Gaster Bible, the British Library holds a few other very early, incomplete Hebrew biblical codices. The most prestigious is the London Codex, a Pentateuch with masorah that was created probably in Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. The scribe’s name - Nissi ben Daniel ha-Kohen who, in all likelihood was also the masorete and vocaliser of the manuscript, is hidden within the masoretic notes on folios, 40r, 113v and 139r.

Or 4445  f.40r Illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Pentateuch. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. (Or 4445, f. 38v))
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(Right) Pentateuch; Scribe’s acrostic in masoretic notes, left margin. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-959 CE. (Or 4445, f. 40r))
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The Second Gaster Bible comes also from Dr Moses Gaster’s former library. Furnished with masorah and delicate ornamentation, it was probably crafted in Egypt towards the last quarter of the 11th century CE. Despite its poor condition, it is evidently a beautiful example of Islamic influence on Jewish manuscript decoration.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Pentateuch; Deuteronomy (19:6- ). (The Second Gaster Bible, Egypt, 11th -12th century CE. (Or 9880, f. 34r))
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Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a particularly interesting Hebrew Pentateuch of Persian origin that lacks entirely the Books of Genesis and Exodus. This early codex is provided with masoretic rubrics, the Aramaic translation, and vowel points placed above the consonantal text. This vocalisation system was developed in Babylonia during the 6th and 7th centuries CE and was eventually superseded by the sublinear pointing developed and perfected by the Tiberian Masoretes.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Numbers (7:87- ). (Pentateuch, Iran, 10th -11th century CE. (Or 1467, f. 44r)).
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The First Gaster Bible is a highly significant codex included in the Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition whose opening has been deferred until further notice.

The British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts described in this blog have been digitised cover to cover as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the Library, 2013-2020. They are discoverable on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings

Dotan, Aron . Reflection towards a Critical Edition of Pentateuch Codex Or. 4445'. In.Estudios masoreticos (X Congreso de la IOMS). Dedicados a Harry M. Orlinsky (Textos y estudios 'Cardenal Cisneros' 55) (Madrid: Instituto de Filología CSIC, Departamento de Filología Bíblica y de Oriente Antiguo, 1993). pp. 39-51.

Friedman, Matti. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible . Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012

Gaster, Moses. Hebrew Illuminated Bibles of the IXth and Xth Centuries (Codices Or. Gaster, No. 150 and 151)……… Reprinted from the “Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology,” June, 1900. .London: Harrison & Sons, 1901.

Narkiss, Bezalel. Kitve-Yad ʿIvriyim Metsuyarim ; mavo me-et Sesil Rot ; [ʿIvrit, Daliyah Shaḥaḳ ; ʿarikhah, Daliyah Ṭesler].'Mahad. ʿIvrit ḥadashah u-Metuḳenet. Jerusalem: Keter, 1984. (in Hebrew)

Ortega-Monasterio, Maria-Teresa. Some Masoretic Notes of Mss. L and Or 4445 Compared with the Spanish Tradition'. Sefarad 57, no. 1 (1997), pp. 127-133.

10 June 2020

The Politics of Prognostication in the Cairo Sultanate

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In today’s complex and ever-changing circumstances, who wouldn’t want infallible means for interpreting the world around them and even predicting future events? While today’s leaders look to their medical, economic, military and other expert advisers, historically rulers across the world have also consulted astrologers, dream-interpreters and specialists in other forms of divination and occult sciences.

The Mamlūk sultans of late-medieval Egypt and Syria were no different in this regard. Many manuscripts copied within the Cairo Sultanate have survived and a number of them are on various methods of interpreting the present or foretelling the future. Since some of these manuscripts were produced for politically high-ranking patrons, we are in the privileged position of being able to read over the shoulders of Mamlūk sultans and amīrs (military commanders) and get a feeling for the place of prognostication in Mamlūk politics.

Patron statement in the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon
Patron statement in the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon: ‘Intended for the exalted, lordly, sultanic and felicitous treasury – may God dignify and exalt it by Muḥammad and his pure family’ (برسم الخزانة السامية | المولوية السلطانية | السعيدية أجلها | الله وأسماها بمحمد وآله | الطاهرين) (British Library Or. 7733, f. 1ar, recto side of unfoliated flyleaf after f. 1)

One such manuscript is Or. 7733, a manual of dream interpretation called the Book of the Full Moon on the Science of Dream Interpretation (Kitāb al-badr al-munīr fī ʿilm al-taʿbīr), written by Abū Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh ibn ʿAlī ibn ʿUmar ibn Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Baṣrī al-Maṣrī, known as Ibn Jaydān. The manuscript is a holograph (i.e. the copy was made by its author, Ibn Jaydān), completed on Wednesday 2 Rabīʿ II 727/25 February 1327 for the Sultan’s treasury (see ff. 1ar and 260r, lines 4-7). Ibn Jaydān explains in the preface that he composed the manual for the Mamlūk prince ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl (b. ca 725/1325, see f. 6v, lines 12-13). Since, however, this prince was still an infant in 1327, the true dedicatee must have been the boy’s father, the reigning Sultan al-Malik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ibn Qalāwūn (reg. 693-741/1293-1341 with gaps). Ibn Jaydān, claims that ‘the most deserving person concerning this science is the sultan because God bestowed His sovereignty upon him and entrusted him with custodianship of His creation, so of all people after the prophets, his dream is the most true and veracious’ (أَوْلَى الناس بهذا العلم السلطان لما آتاه الله من ملكه وكلّفه رعاية خلقه فكانت رؤياه أصحّ من كافة الناس بعد النبيين وأصدق, f. 4r, lines 10-13), and even tells us that he had dedicated other writings on dream interpretation to al-Nāṣir Muḥammad (see f. 3v, lines 5-7).

It seems, then, that the all-but-forgotten Ibn Jaydān was the personal dream-interpreter (muʿabbir) to al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, or at least that he repeatedly sought this sultan’s patronage. Given the relatively stable political climate in which al-Nāṣir Muḥammad ruled – his third reign, during which Ibn Jaydān wrote the Full Moon, lasted 31 years – it is not surprising that Ibn Jaydān wrote in support of the Sultan’s dynasty, the Qalāwūnids (678-784/1279-1382). In his preface to the Full Moon, Ibn Jaydān takes the opportunity to stress the crucial role dream interpreters have played in foretelling and protecting a ruler’s lineage. To do this, Ibn Jaydān presents a series of examples of dream-interpreters correctly predicting the deaths of presumptive heirs to the throne and the births of future rulers. These stories served to remind al-Nāṣir Muḥammad of the importance of dream-interpreters to the illustrious rulers of earlier Islamicate history, and more importantly of the reliability of their interpretations in foretelling the fortunes of their dynasties.

Ibn Jaydan on dream interpretation
Ibn Jaydān lists his other works on dream interpretation: (1) an abridgement composed at Hamadhān in 716/1316-7 of The Book of The Elixir on the Science of Dreams (Kitāb al-iksīr fī ʿilm al-manāmāt), (2) an unnamed didactic poem (urjūzah), (3) The Book of Glad Tidings Concerning The Science of Dream Interpretation (Kitāb al-tabshīr fī ʿilm al-taʿbīr) dedicated to al-Malik al-Nāṣir Muḥammad, and (4) another didactic poem named after the same sultan (British Library Or. 7733, f. 3v, see lines 1-8)

This is the context in which to understand Ibn Jaydān’s dedication of the work to an infant prince. The dedicatee, ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl, was not much more than one or two years old when Ibn Jaydān presented his dream interpretation manual, and he was not necessarily the heir apparent. In fact, his half-brother, al-Malik al-Manṣūr ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī, as first son of al-Malik al-Nāṣir’s first marriage had been heir to the throne until he died aged 7 and was buried in his father’s royal mausoleum in 710/1310. In the preface to the Full Moon, Ibn Jaydān refers to the late crown prince as ‘the martyred ruler ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn’ (ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn ʿAlī al-malik al-shahīd). Ibn Jaydān correctly predicts that ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl would one day become sultan, and indeed he lived to reign as al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ (reg. 743-6/1342-5). Ibn Jaydān’s dedication of the Full Moon to ʿImād al-Dīn Ismāʿīl was not only a vote of confidence in the viability of the prince’s future reign as sultan and thus the continuation of the Qalāwūnid dynasty, but perhaps more importantly a statement of Ibn Jaydān’s loyalty to the sultan.

Colophon of the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon (Or. 7733, f. 260r)
Colophon of the holograph copy of Ibn Jaydān’s Full Moon completed at the end of Wednesday 2 Rabīʻ II 727/25 February 1327 (آخر نهار الأربعاء لليلتين خلت من ربيع الآخر | سنة سبع وعشرين وسبعمئة هلالية, see lines 5-6) (British Library Or. 7733, f. 260r)

When the long and relatively stable reign of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad came to an end with his death in 741/1341, the subsequent forty-one years witnessed twelve of his descendants accede to the throne before the Qalāwūnid dynasty ended with the accession of al-Malik al-Ẓāhir Barqūq in 784/1382. Between al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s death and the accession of Ibn Jaydān’s dedicatee, al-Malik al-Ṣāliḥ Ismāʿīl (then about seventeen years old) the following year, no fewer than three of his brothers had taken the sultanate and either died or been deposed in factional intrigues. These tumultuous final years of the Qalāwūnid dynasty were dominated by the short reigns of very young sultans – often legal minors. Meanwhile, powerful Mamlūk amīrs wrestled for power as kingmakers and regents.

One of these young sultans was al-Nāṣir Muḥammad’s grandson, al-Malik al-Ashraf Shaʿbān II (b. 754/1353, reg. 764-778/1363-1377). He was only ten years old when he assumed the sultanate, but he held an uncharacteristically long reign for the period. In the early part of this reign, the real power was wielded by his regent and Commander-in-Chief (atābak al-ʿasākir), the ‘slave-soldier’ (mamlūk) Yalbughā al-Khāṣṣakī. Three years after al-Ashraf Shaʿbān’s accession, the child Sultan conspired with a group of six amīrs to overthrow Yalbughā and had him murdered in Rabīʿ II 768/December 1366.

Patron statement in Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations
Patron statement in Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations: ‘Intended for the treasury of the honourable, most illustrious, sublime Lord Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur, Commander-in-chief of the victorious troops – God fortify His partisans!’ (برسم خزانة المقر الأشرف العالي | المولوي السيفي اسندمر | أتابك العساكر المنصورة | أعز الله أنصاره) (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 1, f. 1r , lower half)

In the ensuing turmoil, one of the six conspirators, the amīr Sayf al-Dīn Asandamur al-Nāṣirī (d. 769/1368), consolidated his power, winning military victories first against mamlūks formerly owned by and still faithful to Yalbughā and then against the Sultan’s own supporters. By the summer of 768/1367, Asandamur al-Nāṣirī had assumed the title of Commander-in-Chief, a position second in rank only to the Sultan. He was now master of the Cairo Sultanate as regent and power behind the throne of al-Ashraf Shaʿbān, who at around 14 years old was only just coming of age.

al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations
al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations contains historical examples of horoscopes for pre- and early Islamic rulers, such as this horoscope cast for the coronation (ʿiqd al-tāj) of the Byzantine usurper Leontius (reg. 484–488) at sunrise on Wednesday 18 July 484. Note that, despite its shelfmark, Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 2 is not actually the second volume of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s set of the Book of Interrogations and was copied over a century earlier, in 640/1243 (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 2, f. 137v ; see text and translation in Pingree 1976, Horoscope VII, pp. 139-42)

It may seem surprising that during his dramatic rise to power Asandamur al-Nāṣirī could have found time to consult a copy of the Book of Interrogations (Kitāb al-masāʾil) by the late third/ninth-century astrologer Abū Yūsuf Ya‘qūb ibn ‘Alī al-Qarshī al-Qaṣrānī. The text is a multi-volume treatise on ‘interrogations’, an astrological practice in which a question is answered by means of a horoscope cast for the time and place the interrogator poses the question. Since this practice was commonly used to predict the political fortunes of newly enthroned monarchs, and al-Qaṣrānī’s Book of Interrogations contains many historical examples of such royal horoscopes, it is not difficult to see why the book would have appealed to Asandamur al-Nāṣirī as he assumed authority over the sultanate.

Colophon of vol. 1 of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations
Colophon of vol. 1 of Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations, dated first 10 days of Shawwāl 768/late May-early June 1367: ‘The Book of Interrogations is finished with the praise and help of God in the first tenth of Shawwāl 768. May the prayer of God be upon our lord Muḥammad, seal of the prophets and apostles, and upon his family and all his companions. God suffices for us – truly He is the perfect authority’ (تم كتاب المسائل بحمد الله وعونه | في العشر الأول من شوال سنة ثمان وستين وسبعمائة | وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد خاتم النبيين والمرسلين وعلى آله وصحبه أجمعين | وحسبنا الله ونعم الوكيل). At either side of the top line of the colophon, another hand has written the following: ‘The first part of … is finished. It is followed by Chapter Seven: Concerning the Matter of Two Adversaries’ (Right: تم الجزء الأول من; Left: يتلوه الباب السابع في أمر الخصمين) (British Library Delhi Arabic 1916 vol 1, f. 193v)

Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s copy of the Book of Interrogations  was completed during the first 10 days of Shawwāl 768/late May-early June 1367, just as he was defeating the Sultan’s forces to achieve total dominance over the Mamlūk sphere. We do not know if Asandamur al-Nāṣirī or, more likely, an astrologer under his patronage actually used the techniques taught in the Book of Interrogations to foretell what would become of the new master of Egypt and Syria. Despite any astrological support he may have received, Asandamur al-Nāṣirī’s regency was short-lived, and in Ṣafar 769/October 1367 his troops suffered a catastrophic defeat by those of the Sultan. Asandamur al-Nāṣirī fled to Alexandria, where he met his end shortly after in obscure circumstances.

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
Thanks to Prof. Jo Steenbergen (University of Ghent) and Dr Noah D. Gardiner (University of South Carolina) for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this blog post.

Further reading
Bauden, Frédéric, ‘The Sons of al-Nāṣir Muḥammad and the Politics of Puppets: Where Did It All Start?’, Mamlūk Studies Review 13.1 (2009), pp. 53–81.
Flemming, Barbara, ‘Literary Activities in Mamlūk Halls and Barracks’, in Barbara Flemming, Essays on Turkish Literature and History (Leiden: Brill, 2018), pp. 105-16.
Franssen, EÏlise, ‘What was there in a Mamlūk Amīr’s Library? Evidence from a Fifteenth-century Manuscript’, in Developing Perspectives in Mamlūk History. Essays in Honor of Amalia Levanoni , ed. by Yuval Ben-Bassat (Leiden: Brill, 2017), pp. 311-32.
Mazor, Amir, ‘The Topos of Predicting the Future in Early Mamlūk Historiography’, in Mamlūk Historiography Revisited – Narratological Perspectives, ed. by Stephan Conermann (Göttingen: Bonn University Press, 2018), pp. 103-19.
Pingree, David, ‘Political Horoscopes from the Reign of Zeno’, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 30 (1976) pp. 133 and 135-50.
Van Steenbergen, Jo, ‘“Is Anyone My Guardian…?” Mamlūk Under-age Rule and the Later Qalāwūnids’, Al-Masāq 19.1 (2007), 55-65.
———, ‘The Amir Yalbughā al-Khāṣṣakī, the Qalāwūnid Sultanate, and the Cultural Matrix of Mamlūk Society: A Reassessment of Mamlūk Politics in the 1360s’, Journal of the American Oriental Society 131.3 (2011), 423-43.

01 June 2020

Written in your palm, just read it!

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We all wish to know the future. Wouldn’t it give us peace of mind if we knew what is waiting for us? Our Hebrew collection offers a fair number of manuscripts discussing different kinds of divination techniques. Perhaps the most well-known form of foretelling the future is palmistry, or chiromancy (from the Greek words kheir = hand and manteia = divination). If you want to know your future, you just have to consult a palmistry manual or show your hand to a person knowledgeable in this field.

This ancient divination technique appeared first in Judaism in late antique mystical circles, and became popular much later among medieval kabbalists. The most fundamental kabbalistic work, the Zohar ( The Book of Splendour) discusses hand and face reading at length, but many other sources also mention hokhmat ha-yad (the science of the hand). The early 13th-century kabbalist Asher ben Saul relates about the following custom:

“[At the conclusion of the Sabbath] they used to examine the lines of the palms of the hands, because through the lines on the hands the sages would know a man’s fate and the good things in store for him.” (Sefer ha-Minhagot)[1]

Even a harsh critic of the kabbalah, the famous Venetian rabbi Leon Modena, mentions palmistry in his autobiography: “The time of my death is predicted for the age of fifty-two, approximately, and I am fifty now. Palmistry also indicates that it will occur about the age of fifty.” [2] He died in 1648 at the age of 77.

Our forthcoming exhibition entitled Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word will display a short treatise on the topic from a Jewish manuscript from 18th-century Tunis.

Illustration of palm and palm lines.Explanation of palm illustration
A North African guide to palmistry. (Treatise on palmistry. Tunis, 1775. Or 10357, ff. 91v-92r.)
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The treatise is indeed very short, occupying two pages (ff. 91v-92), and is located at the end of a medical work by the physician Isaac Haim Cantarini. It was placed here perhaps because palmistry was often considered as a useful supplement to medicine. This work discusses merely six major lines of the palm: table line, wisdom line, honour line, fate line, life line, and wealth line, and is accompanied by a full-page diagram. Here is the translation of the entire work (except for half a sentence in the explanation of the table line, which is rather cryptic for the author of this blog. All solutions are welcome!).

1. The table line: when lines like these [three downward curving lines] coming out of it, they show that … ; when there is a line like this [forward slash] at the end, it shows [that he has] great influence.

2. When this line reaches from one edge to the other edge through the width of the hand, it shows great wisdom, and according to its length it will show if he is wise or an imbecile.

3. When this line begins at the wisdom line and finishes at the life line, it shows that every one of his days will be spent in honour and if there is a line coming out of it reaching the fortune line, it shows that he will die in honour.

4. If this line stretches from the top of the palm to its bottom, it shows great fortune. But if there are smaller lines coming out of it at the upper end where the fingers are, it shows that his fortune comes and goes. However if at its end there lines horizontally and vertically and one of them intertwines with the life line, he will die poor. And if a line comes out of the honour line and intertwines with the fate line, he will die rich.

5. The length of the life line corresponds to the length of his days. And if it there is a line coming out at the end closer to the arm and [crosses(?)] the fortune line, his days will be long.

6. The wealth line: if there are no smaller lines on its width, he will be rich, and if there are lines coming out of it, he will be poor in all his days; and if these lines are all coming out on one side, he will sometimes be rich sometimes poor. God will save us.

The manuscript does not mention the author of this short treatise. The hand diagram is, however, almost identical to that in a printed treatise on palmistry, physiognomy and astrology composed by t    he famous German-Jewish scholar Jacob ben Mordechai of Fulda composed a treatise on palmistry, physiognomy and astrology sometime in the late-17th or early 18th century. Jacob claims that he based his work on ancient authors, among others Aristotle, who - according to Jacob - was converted to Judaism. Could perhaps the diagram in our manuscript be copied from this printed book?

A printed illustration of a hand and palm lines
A printed palmistry diagram. (Jacob ben Mordechai of Fulda, Shoshanat Yaakov. Amsterdam, 1706.) (Source:
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There is one more example of a palmistry diagram in the Hebrew collection. The late 13th-century North French Miscellany offers a more elaborate mapping of the human hand. Here, the short explanations of the lines are inserted into the diagram itself. Although, palmistry is often integrated with astrology, none of these Jewish examples seem to have any connection to it.

A large hand with palm lines illustrated
A palmistry diagram. (Northern French Miscellany, France, 13th century. Add MS 11639, f. 115r)
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Palmistry is by no means a Jewish invention, and was popular in many cultures. In the British Library collections, you can find some beautifully illustrated works from Christian works on the subject, for instance. Christian authors often justify the use of such divination technique on biblical grounds, quoting the Book of Job: “Is as a sign on every man’s hand, that all men may know His doings.” (Job 37:7); or the Book of Proverbs: “In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honour.” (Proverbs 3:16).These two hand diagrams – a left and a right hand – illustrate a Latin chiromantic treatise in a late 12th or early 13th-century scientific miscellany. It is a pretty early example, since the first Latin manuscripts mentioning the subject are from the 12th century.

Sloane MS 2030 ff. 125v-126r
An example of palmistry among Christian scholars. (Latin scientific miscellany, England, 12th-13th century. Sloane MS 2030, ff. 125v-126r).
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And if you are interested in the relationship between palmistry and astrology, have a look at Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes, in chyromantiam, physiognomiam, astrologiam..., by the Carthusian monk Johannes ab Indagine (or Johannes Bremer von Hagen, died in 1537). Here you can see a digitised version of the Latin edition, but the British Library holds several copies of the English translation from as early as 1558 entitled Briefe introductions, both naturall, pleasaunte, and also delectable vnto the art of chiromancy, or manuel diuination, and physiognomy with circumstances vpon the faces of the signes.

A printed illustration of a hand and its lines explained in Latin
Johannes Bremer von Hagen’s guide to the palm and its lines. (Johannes ab Indagine, Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes, in chyromantiam, physiognomiam, astrologiam naturale[m]. Frankfurt: David Zöpfel, [1560]. Digital Store 1606/313).
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Both Hebrew manuscripts mentioned in this blog have been fully digitised as part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project. So if you do not want to turn to a professional palm reader, consult instead these “ancient” sources, and discover the truth written in your palm by yourself!

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections
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Further reading:

Burnett, Charles S. F. “The Earliest Chiromancy in the West.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 50 (1987): 198-195.

Scholem, Gershom. “Chiromancy.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, v. 4 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Pub. House, 2007), 652-654.

Thorndike, Lynn. “Chiromancy in Mediaeval Latin Manuscripts.” Speculum 40 (1965): 674-706.

[1] EJ “Chiromancy”, v. 4 p. 653.

[2] Lawrence Fine, Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages Through the Early Modern Period (Princeton, N.J.; Oxford : Princeton University Press, 2001), 461.

13 May 2020

Digitised East India Company ships’ journals and related records

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The East India Company’s charter of incorporation, dated 31 December 1600, provided the Company with a monopoly of all English (and later British) trade east of the Cape of Good Hope. Dutch voyages to Asia in the closing years of the sixteenth century had encouraged expectations of high profits to be made from the spice trade, and on 13 February 1601 the English East India Company’s first fleet of four ships sailed from Woolwich, bound for the pepper producing islands of Java and Sumatra.

The 'Earl of Abergavenny'. Foster 59
The East Indiaman 'Earl of Abergavenny', off Southsea, 1801. Oil painting by Thomas Luny (British Library Foster 59)

Between 1601 and 1614, eleven more Company fleets were sent to Asia. Each one of the fleets operated as a ‘separate stock voyage’, meaning that they were separately financed, kept their own accounts, and paid their own dividends, before the separate voyages were replaced by a single joint stock in 1614, which provided continuous financing for annual sailings. By the early 1800s sailings had reached a peak of forty to fifty ships per year.

A sketch of the ship Rooke (or Rook) in a storm off Cape Bonesprance (the Cape of Good Hope) (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXXXIII, f. 16v)
A sketch of the ship Rooke (or Rook) in a storm off Cape Bonesprance (the Cape of Good Hope) (IOR/L/MAR/A/CXXXIII, f. 16v)

At first, the Company either bought or built its own ships. However, from 1639 the Company began to hire ships, and after the closure of the Company’s dockyard at Blackwall in 1652, freighting from private owners became the general practice. Ships were built to agreed specifications by groups of managing ship-owners on the understanding that they would be hired by the Company. By the end of the eighteenth century, however, ships which had not been built specifically for the Company’s service were increasingly being hired or licensed for voyages to Asia. Whilst the owners were responsible for providing the crew for the ships, the officers were appointed by the Company, which tightly controlled aspects of the voyages including the pay for all ranks, private trade by crew members, and the precise amounts that could be charged for passage.

It was the regular practice for the commander and other principal officers of a ship to keep a full account of the voyage in a journal or log-book, which would eventually be handed in to East India House, the Company headquarters. From about the beginning of the eighteenth century these were supplemented by an official log, that was kept in a special form book supplied by the Company. The Company preserved the journals as evidence for the fulfilment of the terms of the charter. They were available for study by any East India Company ship commander, and the often detailed observations and navigational information they contain were utilised extensively by successive hydrographers for the purposes of improving the marine charts published by the Company.

These journals and related records form the India Office Records series IOR/L/MAR/A (dated 1605-1705) and IOR/L/MAR/B (dated 1702-1856).

Entries for 3-5 October 1729 from the journal of the ship Morice recorded by John Cary, Chief Mate (IOR/L/MAR/B/679E, f. 48r)
Entries for 3-5 October 1729 from the journal of the ship Morice recorded by John Cary, Chief Mate (IOR/L/MAR/B/679E, f. 48r)

Enhanced catalogue descriptions have been created for journals of ships that visited ports in the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula, and these journals have been digitised and are being made freely available on the Qatar Digital Library website as part of the British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership. They constitute an extraordinarily rich and valuable set of primary sources for numerous areas of research, including: the history of global trade networks; encounters between British merchants and crews and diverse people in different parts of Asia, Africa and elsewhere; the origins of British imperialism; rivalry between European powers in Asia; long-distance marine navigation; the experience of everyday life on board ship, and during lengthy voyages, for members of the crew; and historic weather patterns over the course of more than two centuries.

The first twelve voyages all had Indonesia as their primary destination, and the first English ‘factory’ or trading post in Asia was established at Bantam (Banten) on the island of Java. England’s main export of woollen cloth proved unpopular in Southeast Asia, however, whereas Indian cottons were discovered to be in high demand.

India was comprised of a number of distinct trading zones, each governed by separate and independent states, with each state being historically and commercially linked to a number of trading areas in both east and west Asia. Gujarati ships, for example, had long sailed to Java and Sumatra, exporting cotton in return for pepper and spices, as well as trading with the ports of the Red Sea and the Gulf.

It was in order to explore new possibilities for trade, to capitalise on these existing trade links, and to discover potential markets for English woollens, that the ships of the Third Voyage were instructed to sail to Bantam via the Arabian Sea and Surat. The latter was the principal port of the Indian Mughal Empire (1526-1857), and it was where the Company would establish its main factory in India. By 1620 the ‘Presidents’ or Chief Factors at Bantam and Surat controlled nearly two hundred factors spread out across more than a dozen trading centres, from Macassar (Makassar) to Masulipatnam (Machilipatnam) and from the Malabar Coast to the Red Sea.

In addition to Bantam and Surat, other destinations of the voyages included Persia (Iran), where raw silk was obtained, and Mocha in southern Yemen, where coffee could be purchased. Indeed, by the 1660s coffee had become the staple export of the Red Sea ports. Other ports of call in Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula included Aden, Socotra, Bandar ‘Abbas, Jeddah, Muscat, Jask, Masirah and Qeshm.

Journal of the voyage of the Prince Augustus to Mocha and Bombay, recorded by William Wells, Chief Mate, 1 August 1722 to 18 April 1725
Journal of the voyage of the Prince Augustus to Mocha and Bombay, recorded by William Wells, Chief Mate, 1 August 1722 to 18 April 1725 (IOR/L/MAR/B/665A)

Further destinations included Madras (Chennai), Bombay (Mumbai), Calcutta (Kolkata), Calicut (Kozhikode), Borneo, and Japan. The journals also record the ships calling at a variety of other places, in India, and elsewhere, such as: Table Bay, the Cape of Good Hope, St Helena, Madagascar, Mayotte, Joanna (Anjouan), Mauritius, Comoros, Batavia (Jakarta), Malacca, Rio de Janeiro, Trinidad, Santiago on Cape Verde, Texel, and Macau (Macao).

A sketch of the ‘Ship Defence at Anchor in Table Bay’
A sketch of the ‘Ship Defence at Anchor in Table Bay’ (in Defence: Journal, 4 November 1738-11 Oct 1740, IOR/L/MAR/B/647B, f. 19v)

The daily entries in the journals record: the arrival and departure of the ships from the various ports of call on the voyages; wind and other weather conditions; actions performed by members of the crew; encounters with other ships, including accounts of engagements with Portuguese ships (before the signing of a peace treaty, the Convention of Goa, in 1635); disease and deaths amongst the crew; punishments inflicted on crew members for various offences; and sometimes sightings of birds, fish, and other marine animals. Entries for when the ships were in port also record the provisioning of the ships, goods being loaded onto the ships, and goods and chests of treasure being unloaded from the ships and taken ashore for trading purposes. Entries for when the ships were at sea additionally record navigational information, including measurements of latitude, longitude, variation, and the courses of the ships, as well as sightings and bearings of land. Sketches, mostly of coastlines, can also occasionally be found in the journals.

Entries from the journal of the London, 8-12 July 1724
Entries from the journal of the London, 8-12 July 1724, when the ship was at anchor in Mocha Road, recording weather conditions, bales of coffee being received on board, and the death of the Chief Mate, Joshua Thomas Moor (IOR/L/MAR/B/313B, f. 45v)

The journals sometimes mention other significant or interesting incidents, such as: an earthquake felt at sea off the coast of Sumatra on 27 May 1623 (IOR/L/MAR/A/XXIX, f. 28); the reception given to the crew of the New Year's Gift by the King of Socotra in September 1614 (IOR/L/MAR/A/XXI, ff. 12-13); the massacre of twelve members of the Nathaniel’s crew at Hawar, on the southern coast of Arabia, east of Aden, on 4 September 1715 (IOR/L/MAR/B/136D, f. 53); and a meeting between Captain Richard Shuter of the Wyndham and the 'kings' of Anjouan and Mayotte on 14 July 1736 (IOR/L/MAR/B/230C, f. 19).

Some of the IOR/L/MAR/A files take the form of ships’ ledger books, consisting of accounts of pay and other financial records of each of the ship’s crew members, and lists of the crew. The IOR/L/MAR/B files sometimes also include lists of crew members, any passengers, East India Company soldiers, as well as local Indian, Portuguese, and Arab ‘lascars’ transported by the ships.

In addition to the IOR/L/MAR/A and IOR/L/MAR/B series files, the BL/QFP has also catalogued and digitised several files from the IOR/L/MAR/C series of Marine Miscellaneous Records. These include: abstracts of ship’s journals, 1610-1623 (IOR/L/MAR/C/3); correspondence related to the Euphrates expedition of 1835-36 (IOR/L/MAR/C/573 and 574); journals and other descriptions of journeys in and around the Arabian Peninsula and India (IOR/L/MAR/C/587); a list of ships (launched 1757-1827) in alphabetical order with full physical descriptions, names of builders, where they were built, and their launch dates (IOR/L/MAR/C/529); and other files, including volumes containing various documents relating to East India Company shipping.

The renewal of the East India Company’s charter in 1813 limited its monopoly to trade with China, opening up the whole of British India to private enterprises (except for trade in tea). Then under the Charter Act of 1833 the Company’s remaining monopolies were abolished and the Company ceased to be a commercial organisation, although it continued to administer British India and other territories on behalf of the Crown until 1858. This led to a large-scale destruction of mercantile records, but fortunately the marine records which form the IOR/L/MAR Series survived, and those which relate to the Gulf and the Arabian Peninsula are now being made freely accessible through the Qatar Digital Library.

Susannah Gillard, Content Specialist, Archivist, British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further reading:
Dalrymple, William, The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (London: Bloomsbury, 2019).
Farrington, Anthony, Catalogue of East India Company Ships' Journals and Logs, 1600-1834 (London: British Library, 1999).
Keay, John, The Honourable Company (London: HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017).
Moir, Martin, A general guide to the India Office Records (London: British Library, 1988 Reprinted, 1996).

03 May 2020

Drawing Ire: Illustrated Ottoman Satirical Magazines

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Cover of Alem featuring a colour drawing of a newspaper clerk speaking to an advertiser
The cover of issue 12 of the satirical magazine Alem, showing a newspaper clerk discussing fees for expected libel accusations. (Alem 21 Mayıs 1325 / 3 June 1909. 14498.a.75)
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The pen is mightier than the sword, they say, but sometimes it’s the cartoonist’s pencil that stings the most. Around the world, caricaturists of all political stripes have long used their illustrations to lampoon the rich and powerful. Sometimes, their humour is focused on the foibles and follies of celebrities. This can take a dark turn when jokes are based on racist, misogynistic, homophobic or other tropes (consider the controversy over a cartoon of Serena Williams in 2019). But, such illustrations can also be a lighthearted means of exposing the mundane and endearing flaws of those whom we admire. Roasting the actions and decisions of the political élite, on the other hand, can bring about a wrath unmatched by that of sports or entertainment stars, even when the images' stated purpose was the betterment of society and progress in politics. The lands of the former Ottoman Empire are certainly no stranger to such dynamics. In 2017, our colleague Daniel Lowe curated an exhibition of the Arabic comic tradition that contained considerable representation of satirical cartoons. For this year’s World Press Freedom Day, I’m going to share a few examples of the Ottoman Turkish satirical press from the British Library’s collections, and highlight some of the special connections between the United Kingdom and this vibrant part of Turkish culture.

Diyojen Masthead of First Issue
The masthead and first page of the first issue of Diyojen, featuring an illustration of Diogenes meeting Alexander. (Diyojen 12 Teşrinisani 1286 [25 November 1870]. ITA.1990.c.6)
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The first satirical newspaper featuring political content to emerge in Ottoman Turkish was the weekly Diyojen (Diogenes), published from 1870 to 1873 by the famed satirist Teodor Kasap (Theodoris Kasapis). Kasap, an Orthodox Greek born in Kayseri in 1835, lived in Paris between 1856 and 1870. During part of this time, he was personal secretary to Alexandre Dumas (his cousin); he also spearheaded the translation of Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo into Ottoman Turkish. His return to Istanbul in 1870 allowed him to pursue the publication of Diyojen in French, Ottoman Turkish and Greek until 1873, when it was shut down. The magazine was notable for its large masthead, which contained a lithographed illustration of Diogenes meeting Alexander. It also managed to feature, consistently, the writings of some of the great intellectuals of the Tanzimat period, including Namık Kemal and Recaizade Ekrem. Diyojen’s primary focus was not satirical illustrations, and many of its issues did not feature any cartoons at all. Nonetheless, as the first stand-alone satirical publication, it paved the way for the growth and evolution of the genre. Similar to Teodor Kasap himself, it was a development that was influenced heavily by European precedents as well as pro-European attitudes characteristic of the Tanzimat spirit. The degree to which it expressed Kasap’s and other contemporary intellectuals’ Europhile leanings is a fascinating topic, but sadly beyond the scope of this post. Luckily, it is the subject of a study by Hamdi Özdiş, Osmanlı Mizah Basınında Batılılaşma ve Siyaset (1870-1877) (Westernization and Politics in the Ottoman Satirical Press (1870-1877)).

A number of satirical magazines followed Diyojen, including Kasap’s own Çıngıraklı Tatar. This all came to an end in 1876, however, with the ascension of Abdülhamit II to the throne. Although the new Sultan initially presided over two years of (limited) constitutional and parliamentary democracy, the crushing defeats and territorial losses of 1878 allowed for the dawn of a new age of absolutism. Restrictions on freedom of the press and expression meant that many Ottoman intellectuals went or were forced into exile, leading to a boom in Ottoman periodical publications outside of the Imperial borders, including the United Kingdom.

Front page of Dolap featuring masthead and cartoon of Süleymaniye Front page of Dolap featuring cartoon of a dancing dervish and Father of Error
(Left) The cover of Dolap featuring the masthead as well as a cartoon of an execution in front of Süleymaniye Mosque. (Dolap 1 Nisan 1317 [1 April 1901]. 14498.d.4)

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(Right) Another cover of Dolap, this time featuring a dervish next to the "Father of Error". (Dolap 1 Mart 1317 [1 March 1901]. 14498.d.4)
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Among those closest to home for the British Library was Dolap, a monthly satirical magazine published in Folkestone, England between 1900 and 1901. The editor of the journal is unnamed, and the articles and illustrations are signed either with Derviş Külahı or Mürid, if at all. This was likely done to protect those engaged in Dolap’s production. Their text appears to have been printed using movable type, giving it a regular and uniform aesthetic, whereas the drawings themselves are highly variable. Some, such as those in the masthead (which includes Abdülhamit II sitting on a swing), look to have been drawn by a professional illustrator. The lines are clear and purposeful, while the range of emotions and diversity of appearance of the people looking at the Ottoman Sultan (presumably the leaders of other contemporary states) speak to a certain level of expressive confidence. Meanwhile, the drawing of a dervish (identified as el-Hakir el-Fakir ül-Şeyh Zahir Şazlı) and “Abū al-Ḍilāl” (“Father of Error”) is shaky and much more tentative in its use of detail. What is clear, from both these illustrations and the general content of the texts they accompanied, is that Dolap was a means to express a vehement opposition to Abdülhamit’s administration and its policies. Indeed, the first article of the first issue explains, while “speaking seriously”, that the publication intended to look at the corruption and crimes plaguing the Fatherland.

Page from Beberuhi featuring lithographed text and cartoonsA page from Beberuhi showing caricatures of Abdülhamit with various expressions
(Left) A lithographed and illustrated satirical dialogue from the first issue of Beberuhi. (Beberuhi 10 Ramazan 1315 / 1 Şubat 1898 [1 February 1898]. 14498.d.12)
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(Right) A bilingual Ottoman Turkish-French article on Abdülhamit II's performance in international negotiations. (Beberuhi 15 Cumaziülevvel 1316 / 1 Teşrinievvel 1898 [1 October 1898]. 14498.d.12)
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Such sentiments were also carried by the newspaper Beberuhi, published in Geneva in 1898. Unlike its spiritual successor Dolap, Beberuhi was printed partially with moveable type, and partially using lithography. This latter means of production ensured that the illustrator of some of the satirical cartoons was able to add their own text to accompany the visual criticism. Such processes are clearest in the panel above, in which a comical dialogue is paired with esquisses of characters bearing a certain resemblance to Hacıvat and Karagöz, the famous Ottoman shadow puppet characters who were well-known for their biting social criticism. These cartoons and some of the textual content too make it obvious that those in Beberuhi’s editorial board and its contributors were steadfast in their criticism of Abdülhamit’s régime. This is unsurprising, given that the periodical emerged from Young Turk circles in Geneva, one of the hotspots of this more extreme vein of anti-Hamidian opposition.

Esquisse of Abdülhamit atop a donkey surrounded by the leaders of various European states
A bilingual (Ottoman Turkish-French) lithographed caricature of Abdülhamit being led astray by European rivals, atop a saddle labeled "The Eastern Question". (Beberuhi 10 Ramazan 1315 / 1 Şubat 1898 [1 February 1898]. 14498.d.12)
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In addition to the bespoke satirical caricatures that were sprinkled among the text, Beberuhi also featured a number of bilingual (Ottoman Turkish-French) cartoons. These are of a distinctly different aesthetic than those discussed above. Moreover, their bilingual nature leads me to question whether these might have been reprinted from other publications, or if they were utilized in the Young Turks’ propagandistic campaigns directed at non-Ottomans as well. The focus in these drawings is Abdülhamit’s performance in the arena of international relations. He doesn’t fare well according to the editors of the magazine. Surprised, cheeky, foolish, bemused and complacent are all words we might use to describe the Sultan in these drawings; competent and compassionate certainly don’t make the list. Beberuhi and the Geneva nucleus of Young Turk opposition provide ample material for studies of the Ottoman exile press, such as this work by Servet Tiken. They will likely continue to do so as we look to understand more deeply the genesis of Ottoman political thought both at home and abroad.

Ottoman language cover of Alem showing the Naval MinisterBilingual cover of Alem showing a cabbie leaving for Athens
(Left) The cover of issue 4 of the satirical magazine Alem, showing the Naval Minister. (Alem 19 Şubat 1325 / 4 March 1909. 14498.a.75)
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(Right) The cover of issue 11 of the satirical magazine Alem, with a cartoon of a cabbie complaining about a lack of business in Istanbul. (Alem 14 Mayıs 1325 / 27 May 1909. 14498.a.75)
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In July 1908, a revolution rocked Istanbul, paving the way for the restitution of the Ottoman Constitution and Parliament. Known as the Young Turk Revolution, this milestone in late-Ottoman history meant, among many different things, a relaxation of censorship. The periodical press flourished, including those magazines devoted to satirical content. One such example in the British Library’s Turkish collections is Alem, an illustrated weekly published in Ottoman Turkish from February until June 1909. Edited by Yakovalızade Arif (Arif de Yacova on the French masthead), this periodical included occasional colour drawings, most of which focused on political, economic and cultural issues and hypocrisies in Ottoman society. Alem appears to have escaped the scrutiny of many of the scholars of this period of Ottoman publishing history, as did Yakovalızade Arif. But there are a few interesting things that we can glean from some of its covers.

Two-page spread of illustrations in colour
Two caricatures from the magazine Alem, the one on the left showing a royal official expressing his support for constitutionalism, while that on the right shows the reduction in tension between warring nations. (Alem 21 Mayıs 1325 / 3 June 1909. 14498.a.75)
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Based in Eminönü, the offices of Alem managed to put out 31 issues on a fairly regular basis. Moreover, given the number of issues published, and the professionalism of their production, it is likely that Yakovalıze Arif is nothing more than a pseudonym, employed for the protection of the editors and the contributors to the magazine. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand why Alem is the only publication attached to this individual in the entire holdings of the Milli Kütüphane, Turkey’s national library. In coming to the illustrations themselves, it appears that many, if not most, of the covers and satirical cartoons included in the weekly were completed by the same illustrator. The covers on hand are signed by a fairly well-known Ottoman painter named Ali Cemal Ben’im. The diversity of styles – from the strong, clear lines and calm colours of a pier, to the jagged edges of the Naval Minister in black ink – speak to Ben’im’s skill and versatility as an artist. Similarly, the content of the images is broad in its focus: from the economic troubles of cabbies and the petty defamatory actions of the upper classes, right up to the rapid about-face of the ruling classes and their support for constitutional monarchy. The editor, artist and contributors of Alem evidently sought to take a light-hearted approach to criticizing the flaws and faults of this rapidly changing society.

Cover of Cem featuring a shadow theatre performanceCaricature of two men talking in rain on bridge from cover of Cem
(Left) Caricature of a man entranced by a shadow puppet performance at the Ottoman border. (Cem 18 March 1911. 14498.a.91)
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(Right) Two men discussing foreign debt from Germany and the Ottoman Bank from the first issue of Cem. (Cem 28 Tişrin-i Sani 1326 [10 December 1910]. 14498.a.91)
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The final satirical periodical from our collections that I’d like to highlight is Cem, a bilingual Ottoman Turkish-French publication that reappeared in the Republican era as a Latin-script Turkish one. Cem was first produced in 1910-1912. It profited from the initial broadening of freedom of the press, only to fall victim to the reintroduction of controls following a dramatic change in government in 1912. It re-emerged in January 1927, after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey, and provided another two-years’ worth of illustrated satirical content until its final closure in May 1929. It was edited and illustrated by Cemil Cem, who had been an Ottoman diplomat posted to France during the late-Hamidian period. He began his career as an illustrator while still in the Ottoman foreign service, sending caricatures to the magazine Kalem starting in 1908. It was only in 1910 that he returned to Istanbul from Paris, and thus had the opportunity to found Cem. While the editor provided a considerable amount of content in both textual and visual form, criticizing both Abdülhamit and the İttihat ve Terakki Fırkası (Party of Union and Progress), there were other contributors as well. The most notable of these was Refik Halit Karay, an accomplished reporter and translator who had spent many years practicing journalism across Anatolia. Karay is well-known for his broad contribution to early-Republican Turkish literature, including his satirical pieces written for Cem and other periodicals, such as Ay Dede.

Cem Double Page Spread
Two pages of caricatures from Cem mocking the privileges of royalty (left) and the hypocrisy and immorality of parliamentarians (right). (Cem 26 January 1911. 14498.a.91)
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As with many satirical publications, Cem took aim at much more than just politicians and their whims. International relations, literature, the arts, and social relations all fell within Cemil Cem’s sights and those of his authors. The boundaries pushed by some of the drawings and texts, and the cheekiness of the humour, all point to why this periodical might have been deemed egregiously critical by the powers that be. An opening from issue 13, for example, reveals caricatures that take digs at both the privileges royalty accords itself and the foolishness of elected officials. No one, evidently, was safe from Cem’s sharp pen. Beyond this, however, the captions themselves speak to a sort of textual codeswitching. Those literate in both French and Ottoman will quickly realize that the two texts do not accord in a strict sense (something also occasionally seen in Alem). Both refer to the same image, but the manner in which they interpret and contextualize it differs. The Ottoman captions are more conversational and jocular than the French ones. This begs the question of who the two audiences of the journal were, and whether there were different standards, or different censors, for the different languages employed.

Turkish politician chasing a Greek butterfly with a netLloyd George among grave crosses in Gallipoli
(Left) A Turkish politician chases a Greek "butterfly" for his "non-aggression pact" collection. (Cem 1 October 1927. 14498.a.91)
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(Right) A caricature of Lloyd George sitting among graves at Gallipoli. (Cem 1 October 1927. 14498.a.91)
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Mizah dergileri – satirical magazines – did not die out with the advent of the Republic; far from it. These publications proliferated throughout the 20th century, following the vagaries of freedom of expression and the press, as well as liberal democracy, in Turkish history. Some have survived into the contemporary moment. Others have fallen prey to the counterattacks of the Turkish state, currently ranked as 157th most free for the press according to Reporters Without Borders. Yet this venerable literary and artistic tradition is a resilient one. In 2019, I wrote about the magazine Penguen, its proliferation, and its eventual closure in 2017. It would be easy to see this as a worrying parable of cultural and political asphyxiation; a tale whose finality is dark and foreboding. In the context of the Ottoman Turkish satirical periodicals held at the British Library, however, and those found elsewhere, I prefer to interpret it as yet another ebb bound to be followed the inevitable flow of Turkish cultural production. Whether inked or pixelated, the indomitable spirit of satirical caricature will rear its laughter-inducing head once again.

Dr. Michael Erdman
Curator of Turkish and Turkic Collections
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Further reading

Ener Su, Aydan, 1900-1928 Yılları Arası Yayımlanan Mizah Gazete ve Dergilerinin İncelenmesi, (unpublished doctoral thesis, Hacettepe Üniversitesi, 2017).

Seyhan, Salih, “II. Meşrutiyet Dönemi Mizah Basını ve İçeriklerinden Seçilmiş Örnekler”, Turkish Studies, 8/3 (Winter 2013), pp. 494-516.

Ünver, Merve, Eski Türkçe Mizah Dergilerinin Açıklamalı Bibliografyası (1870-1928), (unpublished masters thesis, Marmara Üniversitesi, 2013).

20 April 2020

Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah

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Upon disembarking in India in 1783 as a new puisne Judge at the Supreme Court of Judicature in Fort William, now Kolkata, which covered the districts of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, William Jones encountered a problem: how do British judges, relying, as they did, on pandits and maulavis to translate Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit legal texts into English and provide interpretations of the law for the Muslim and Hindu communities, ensure that they are applying the law as it ought to be applied, rather than as desired by the translators and scholars? Jones himself was very conscious of the possibility of corruption; indeed, this distrust of the pandits’ interpretations of the texts were his main motivations to learn Sanskrit (Jones, Letters, 2:666).

Beginning of volume 2 of the Fatawa al-alamgiri
 The opening of volume two of William Jones' copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah, with Jones’ signature included in the heading (British Library RSPA 88). Public domain

The problem was not so much one of corruption or misinterpretation of the law, of course. Jones, hailing from one culture of law, was confronted by not one but two new legal systems in India, that of Islamic Law (fiqh) and the legal theory and jurisprudence of the Hindu community, which developed into the term Hindu Law during the British colony. In 1772, Warren Hastings, then governor, enforced that all Indians would be subject to Indian (Islamic and Hindu) law and that the approach to this law would be text-based rather than based on local custom. Medieval Islamic Law varied in theory and practice widely between the four Sunni and two (major) Shia schools and was fundamentally constructed on different principles with different goals from English law. The same is true of what became Hindu law; the administration of this by the Supreme Court was “fraught with difficulty” (Evison, 1998, 126) because of both the difficulty the pandits had working in a system where they were not able to access details of the case at hand, but rather relied on notes from the judge, and also the fact that the methods of interpreting traditional shastric literature were not conceived to provide simple universal answers to the questions posed by the British court system (see Evison, 1998, 126-8).

In this text-based legal culture, Jones aimed to acquire his own manuscript copies of important texts in Arabic, Persian and Sanskrit, in order to ensure he had access to the original material upon which customary law, he assumed, had been based. One of the most important of the texts he acquired was his five-volume copy of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah (MSS RSPA 87, 88, 89, 90 and 91); it was the end result of a long period of legal scholarship undertaken by a wide range of legal scholars and commissioned by the Mughal Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, better known as Aurangzeb (r.1658-1707). The text, recommended to Jones by an acquaintance of his, Mīr Ḥusayn ʻAlī (Jones, Notebook, 7, 13), proved to be one of the cornerstones of the British imperial legal system and one of the most prominent texts through which the colonial authorities administered Muslim law.

MS RSPA 87, is, however, very different from the other manuscripts in the collection. This manuscript volume was rebound in the standard India Office half-leather brown-maroon binding with wine-coloured marbled endpapers (like most of the Jones collection). The other volumes are still in their 18th-century brown leather-and-board binding, which has mostly become detached, except for MS RSPA 91, which is also bound in the India Office Library style.

Seal impressions of former owners (RSPA 87  f. 1r)
The initial leaf of volume one of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah with previous owners' seals and inscriptions (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

The script and paper of the manuscript are also very different from the others, which are all copied in one continuous neat naskh hand on a light-cream, thick, woven paper. The paper of this volume is, however, a worm-eaten and discoloured woven paper, whilst the hand is a thick, rough nastaʿlīq. The volume, then, is clearly from a different text production and would presumably have formed part of a different set of manuscripts, which are not part of the Jones collection. Equally, the same applies to the other set: whatever happened to the first volume?

It might be seem axiomatic that Jones should buy from different manuscript sets of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah. Why should it matter that one manuscript comes from a different place than the others? Perhaps he just bought the volumes which were available at the time and supplemented elsewhere with MS RSPA 87 (or vice-versa) when he could. Looking at any seals might be instructive. Where did they come from? When did they become grouped together into the same collection of manuscripts?

Seal B Seal C Seal D and inscription
Seals B, C and D indicating former owners of RSPA 87. Public domain

MS RSPA 87 has the greatest number of seals and, naturally, being the odd one out of the series, the most distinct lineage. On the first folio, there are four seals. At the top (seals A and B) are two copies of the same seal with the legend, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq murīd-i pādshāh-i ʻĀlamgīr sanah 36 (1692-93) which translates to “ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq, disciple of the Emperor ʻĀlamgīr in the regnal year 36,” meaning that this ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq owned this manuscript not earlier than 1692. In the accompanying ownership statement, ʻAbd al-Ḥaqq is noted to be the son of ʻAbd al-Wahhāb, a deceased judge. Seal C is a Qur’anic seal quoting verse 45 of surah 19 (Sūrat Maryam) which does not tell us much about the owner. The final seal (D) on this page is that of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-41AD). Alongside this seal, there is a note that states he bought the manuscript in 1162AH (1748-49AD).

Seal of Akram al-Din RSPA90 Seal pf Hafiz Masud RSPA91
Left: seal of Akram al-Dīn (RSPA 90) and right: acquisition note dated 1162 (1748-49) and seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān (RSPA 91). Public domain

The other four volumes in the series have a different origin. The oldest seal on all of these manuscripts is that of Muḥammad Abū al-Fatḥ Akram al-Dīn dated regnal year 39, 1107AH (1695-96AD), again making this set of manuscripts a copy of the text dating from the reign of Emperor ʻĀlamgīr, albeit a younger copy than MS RSPA 87. These manuscripts then all bear the same origin; what becomes interesting is that these manuscripts also all bear the seal of Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān dated 1153AH (1740-1AD). It is possible that Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān bought them from someone else who previously grouped the manuscripts together, especially given that he acquired them all in the same year (1162/1748-49).

Inscription of Muhammad Anwar RSPA87
Note dated Jumāda al-Awwal 1196AH (April-May 1782AD) by Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar (British Library RSPA 87, f. 1r). Public domain

So, we have identified Ḥāfiẓ Masʻūd Khān in the year 1162AH as the point at which we can positively assert that the manuscripts were definitely grouped together, with it being possible that they had been previously grouped and sold together to him. What, then, can we say about what happened next? On MS RSPA 87, there is a final acquisition note from a man named Sayyid Muḥammad Anwar ibn Sayyid Muḥammad Ghawth, who apparently acquired the manuscript in Jumāda al-Awwal in the year 1196AH (April-May 1782AD), only a year and a half before Jones acquired them, making Muḥammad Anwar the likely source of these manuscripts for Jones.

Through the seal record, then, we have been able to reconstruct the past history of Jones’s copies of al-Fatāwā al-ʻĀlamgīriyyah and provide the point at which we can definitively say this heterogenous manuscript collection had become grouped together as one text, predating Jones by some thirty years. In his notebooks, Jones lists this text first, before both al-Farāʼiḍ al-Sirājiyyah (MS RSPA 92), which Jones commissioned, and Mukhtaṣar al-Qudūrī, of which he owned two copies (MS RSPA 83 and MS RSPA 84) (see Jones, Notebook, 41); this manuscript text, covered in annotations and notes, which remain in need of extensive study, was therefore an integral cornerstone of his legal practice in India.

Further Reading

Evison, Gillian, “The Sanskrit Manuscripts of Sir William Jones in the Bodleian Library” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Ibetson, David, “Sir William Jones as Comparative Lawyer” in Alexander Murray (ed.) Sir William Jones 1746-1794: A Commemoration (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998).
Jones, William, Letters of Sir William Jones (ed. Garland Cannon) (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970; in two volumes).
——— Autograph Notebook, ca. 1785. Yale University, Beinecke Library MS. Osborn c400; this notebook is from the first few years of Jones’s life in India and details people, places and the books he acquired.
Stephens, Julia, Governing Islam: law, empire and secularism in South Asia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

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

06 April 2020

Qom mashiho! : Easter in the British Library's Syriac Manuscripts

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The Last Supper as imagined by a northern Syrian painter
The Last Supper as imagined by a 13th-century Syriac artist. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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As a commemoration, Easter encapsulates the central miracle of Christianity: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The focal point of all four Gospels is the story of Jesus’ execution by Roman soldiers, followed by His return to life. For millions of Christians around the world, the narrative of Christ’s arrival in Jerusalem, betrayal by Judas Iscariot, march through the streets of the city, and eventual crucifixion on Golgotha provide the framework for a week of prayer, meditation, fasting, and celebration. Key aspects of this saga have so permeated the cultures and traditions of predominantly Christian communities as to become cliché, handy for the description of the mundane and outlandish alike. To call someone a Judas is to highlight their propensity to betray friends; even Lady Gaga included this reference in her 2011 song of the same name. Judas’ thirty pieces of silver are a trope for the wages of treachery. Golgotha has been recycled by demagogues and ideologues of all stripes to designate the site of crushing defeats suffered by supposedly anointed nations and clans. And, of course, the Last Supper, Jesus’ final repast, has been used in countless iterations, stretching from the sombre to the satirical.

Such key events in the final days of Christ and His resurrection are also mirrored in artwork throughout the Christian world. For Western audiences, Leonardo Da Vinci’s The Last Supper (L’Ultima Cena) is perhaps the most iconic rendering of these paschal scenes, but it is by no means the only one. Indeed, the story of Jesus’ persecution, execution and resurrection have long been favourite topics for Syriac painters, especially those tasked with the illumination and illustration of liturgical and theological texts. The British Library, which has one of the largest collections of Syriac manuscripts in the world, is fortunate enough to be the custodian of several volumes featuring exquisite illustrations of the Easter story. From December 2019 until March 2020, I benefitted from the opportunity of cataloguing a number of these, in preparation for their digitisation and publication on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts page. While this project is now delayed due to the COVID-19 shutdown, I feel it apt to provide a sneak preview of some of these fantastic works just in time for the celebration of Easter (April 12 according to the Gregorian calendar; April 19 on the Julian one).

Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem from Syriac manuscript
Jesus' entry to Jerusalem from a 13th-century Syriac Lectionary. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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The four Gospels of the New Testament relate a host of encounters between Jesus and various historical figures. All of these provide the opportunity to demonstrate Jesus’ miraculous powers, as well as the wisdom embodied in both his earthly and divine beings. It is his entry into Jerusalem (commemorated on Palm Sunday), however, that marks the start of the Passion, the drama of Jesus’ betrayal, crucifixion and resurrection. Two manuscripts within the British Library collections contain wonderful renderings of Jesus’ arrival to the spiritual centre of Judea. The first, Add MS 7170, is a 13th-century lectionary, possibly from northern Syria. The image is a spectacular one, and if it looks familiar to you, it might be because it was featured as part of a 2016 exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, entitled Jerusalem 1000-1400: Every People Under Heaven. It’s not just the quantity of gold used by the illustrator that draws in the reader: the diversity of expression, ethnicity, and attire of the various individuals pictured, as well as the detail of the flora, fauna, and buildings make this image a true feast for the eye. It also betrays a certain level of Byzantine influence (according to Leroy) or possibly Armenian influence (in the estimation of Raby and Brock), marking the many different realms whose cultural sway impacted the development of art and literature among Syriac speakers. Further discussion of these influences, as well as the role of Islamic art in the evolution of Syriac iconography, can be found in this scholarly article by Bas Snelders.

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem from 10th century Syriac manuscript
Jesus and his Disciples enter Jerusalem, from a 13th-century manuscript. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 11-13th century?. Or. 3372)
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Compare this to the second image of Christ’s entry into the holy city, taken from Or. 3372. Originally thought to be a 12th- or 13th-century manuscript, Julian Raby and Sebastian Brock have argued that this Harklean gospel lectionary is actually from several centuries earlier. Copied in Turabdin (near Mardin, Turkey), its image of Jesus entering Jerusalem is remarkably different, but no less complex, than the one found in Add MS 7170. Despite the damage to the pigment and the fading of colours, it is easy to see a greater attention to depth, whether in the branches and leaves of the trees, or in the swirling and pleating of the holy men’s cloaks. The differences in architecture, too, beg the question of illustrators’ reliance on the dominant styles of buildings in their respective periods and places, and how much such visual cues seeped into their imagining of Roman Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion.

Image of the Last Supper from 12th century Syriac manuscript
The Last Supper, and the unmasking of Judas, according to an enigmatic 12th-century artist. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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From the entry into Jerusalem, our next stop is the Last Supper, as popular among Syriac artists as it was with European painters and sculptors. The first manuscript illustration comes from Add MS 7169, a 12th-century Syriac lectionary. We are immediately faced with another style of representation, one that is flatter and more schematic than the images found in Or. 3372 or Add MS 7170. Discussed briefly in the Raby and Brock article (as well as in Jules Leroy’s 1964 monograph and a piece by Meyer Schapiro in The Art Bulletin behind JSTOR’s paywall), these two authors refer to the item as “problematic” and “enigmatic”. They speculate that it too might come from Turabdin, and cautiously reiterate Leroy’s hypothesis that it bears traces of very early Christian iconography, possibly even being part of the Melitene grouping of artworks. Whatever its origins and connections, Add MS 7169 bird’s-eye view of the table is beautiful. Jesus is standing in the bottom-left corner of the work, while His Disciples are seated around the table in a scene reminiscent more of a Chinese restaurant than Leonardo’s masterpiece. This is the big reveal: Jesus’ admission that he knows he has been betrayed; thrown under the bus, to use the modern parlance, by the man seated to his left, Judas Iscariot. Compare this to the far more detailed example from Add MS 7170 (at the start of the blog), in which Jesus’ likeness has now been defaced. Here, we are treated to an engrossing cross-section of the table with the diners all seated in a semicircle in what looks to be a well-appointed establishment, a lone cock parading before them.

Jesus on the Cross from a 10th century manuscript The Crucifixion from a 12th century manuscript
(Left) Jesus' crucifixion between two thieves. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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(Right) The Crucifixion, combined with various allegorical and didactic cues. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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From the Last Supper, we pass over Jesus’ procession through the streets of Jerusalem (captured today in the Via Dolorosa), right to the nadir of His time on Earth: the Crucifixion. The two images above of the Son of God nailed to the Cross come from Add MS 7169 and Add MS 7170 respectively, demonstrating, once again, the artists’ differing views on both representation and content. This episode is both a reflection of humanity’s failings and a confirmation of Christ’s sacrifice. After having been betrayed by His Disciple Judas and condemned by His community and the authorities alike, the Son dies for humanity’s sins. It is the ultimate means of redemption and salvation, cementing two core themes of Christian faith. In Add MS 7169, we see two scenes: first Jesus’ seizure by the Romans, and then His execution. The latter incorporates the two thieves between which Christ was crucified, as well as two soldiers stabbing him, while two angels fly overhead. This is a more literal take on Christ’s death, a bluntness of approach that is reflected in the bold lines and flat plane of the image. Contrast it to the painting found in Add MS 7170, where delicate lines and complex patterns hold sway. The image is much more didactic in nature, replacing the two thieves with the likenesses of various supporting characters who appear throughout the Passion. Part of the image is also allegorical. In addition to the angels watching the Crucifixion, Add MS 7170 has two other sets of winged creatures. Those to the right of Jesus, flying away from Him, are identified as “the congregation who hated Him” (ܟܢܘܫܬܐ ܕܣܢܬܗ) while those on His left, looking at Him and collecting His blood in a cup, are labeled as “the church that received Him” (ܥܕܬܐ ܕܩܒܠܬܗ). In this case, the artist was especially keen on showing the direct descent of the church – probably his Church – from the blood and sanctity of Christ. Interesting too is the fact that, although both images contain text, they do not have the words uttered by Jesus himself while on the Cross: Eli, eli, lama sabachthani? (Lord, Lord, why have you forsaken me?; ܐܝܠ ܐܝܠ ܠܡܢܐ ܫܒܩܬܢܝ in Syriac).

 Mary Magdalene discovers Jesus' empty tomb
The discovery of the empty tomb in Syriac Gospels from the region of Mosul, Iraq. (Iwangiliún. Mosul, Iraq, 1499 CE. Add MS 7174)
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The same day of Jesus’ death, He was taken down and buried, as befits Jewish custom, by a Jew identified as Joseph of Arimathea in the Gospel of Mark. This is marked on Good Friday, three days before Easter Sunday, the day of the Resurrection. While the Syriac manuscripts in the British Library’s holdings do not show Jesus in his tomb, they do show the revelation of His resurrection through imagery relating to the discovery of an empty burial chamber. In Add MS 7174, a Gospel copied in 1499 CE near Mosul, Iraq, Saint Mary Magdalene is portrayed as finding the empty tomb accompanied by Jesus Christ (who is partially effaced), two angels, and six “sinful Jews who gathered(?)” (ܝܗܘܕܝܐ ܚܛܝܐ ܩܒܘܐ). Among the most remarkable aspects of this particular illustration is the variation in attire between it and the miniatures found in the other manuscripts. Here, all the men are wearing turbans and something more akin to a cloak worn by a local cleric than the flowing robes found in the other texts.

Jesus' empty tomb from a 10th century manuscript
Mary Magdalene and another holy woman discovers the empty tomb, with Jesus to the right. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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The flattened plane in Add MS 7174 is also a noteworthy characteristic, one at odds with the imagery in Add MS 7169. Here, we have a frontal view of two women meeting the risen Christ, as well as cowering guards. The tomb is far more elaborate a structure, and if you look at the top of its arch, you can might spot a cross in the decoration; perhaps identifying it as a sacred space for contemporary Christians.

The Resurrection of Jesus from a 12th century manuscript
Jesus' resurrection from a 13th-century manuscript, including a detailed depiction of his burial shroud. (Syriac Lectionary. Northern Syria, 1216-1240. Add MS 7170)
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The most complex of the Resurrections, however, is the one found in Add MS 7170. Here, it is three women who find the empty tomb, this time with a clear image of Christ’s shroud inside the structure. Jesus and the holy women are also accompanied by an unidentified angel. The intricate detail on the various trees, and the embellishment on the tomb and in the border, are matched by the depth of emotion shown in the two weeping guards in the bottom left-hand corner of the painting. This image of the discovery of Christ’s empty tomb is also featured on the British Library’s Discovering Sacred Texts portal; an excellent tool for learning about religion and its influence on textual cultures the world over.

Multicolour and bejewelled mosaic cross from a 10th century manuscriptMulticolour mosaic cross from a Psalter
(Left) A multicoloured mosaic cross from an early 13th-century Psalter copied in Turabdin. (Ktābā Dawíd. Salah, Turabdin, 1203 CE. Add MS 7154)
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(Right) A rare multicoloured and bejewelled cross from a 12th-century lectionary. (Púrāš qeryānā d-ṭeṭrā ᵓewangelion qadišā. Turabdin?, 12th century. Add MS 7169)
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The final element of the Easter story that has produced a wide swathe of beautiful images in Syriac manuscripts is the Cross. With the spread and development of Christianity, the means of Jesus’ execution, the crucifix, become the most common and recognizable symbol of the faith. Many manuscripts from Christian cultures feature this visual cue. Syriac manuscripts occasionally have crosses embossed in their leather bindings or painted on the folios at the start or end of the text. Those that are illustrated in pigment are often composed of a mosaic of multicoloured squares. Add MS 7154, a Psalter copied in 1203 CE at Salah (also known as Barıştepe) near Turabdin, holds a faded but beautiful example, inked in six colours of the rainbow. Another cross is found at the end of Add MS 7169, one that includes a wider range of colours, as extra shades of pinks and white are also employed in the decoration of the crucifix. The border of dark red and blue swirling bands is a bold addition, but not bold enough to distract the viewer’s eye from the pencil lines indicating the artist’s process. Ewa Balicka-Witakowska has written about the methods of creating such works of art, but it was Raby and Brock who identified this particular example, as well as one from Or. 3372, as being unique for their inclusion of jewelled elements, visible here on the ends of the object.

The British Library’s holdings of Syriac manuscripts point to the rich and complex artistry of bookmaking among Syriac-speaking communities, as well as their traditions around the story of Easter. The items shown here, a small fraction of the Library’s collections, will soon be digitized and available for all to enjoy and study. Until then, we will have to be satisfied with the depiction of the Passion of Christ in this select group, and the simple Syriac greeting used at churches around the world on Easter Sunday: Qom mašiḥo! Šariro'ith qom! Christ is risen! Truly, he is risen!

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