Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013 Read more

12 July 2021

The art of small things (2): Text frames in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

At first glance, one of the simplest ways to identify a Qur’an manuscript in Southeast Asia – thus distinguishing copies of the Holy Book from the hundreds of other Islamic manuscripts written in Arabic script, whether in Arabic or in a local language such as Malay or Javanese – is that on every page, the text is usually enclosed within a frame. There are certainly other, non-Qur’anic, manuscripts with text borders, but probably no other Islamic text in the Malay world is so consistently presented with a frame on every page. At key junctures of the Qur'an, such as the first and last pages, or at the start of certain significant chapters, these frames may be exquisite artistic constructions, embellished with floral and foliate motifs, such as shown below in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani. However, even on all the other ‘regular’ pages in between, the text will still be framed.

Illuminated double frame marking the start of Surat Yasin, in a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 222v-223r
Illuminated double frame marking the start of Surat Yasin, in a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 222v-223r  noc

The text frames in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts always consist of a series of ruled lines. The schematic composition of these frames – in terms of the colour and order of the lines – is extraordinarily faithfully adhered to within each region, although sometimes there may be more than one preferred pattern within a single region. Text frames can thus be a key indicator of the geographical origin of a Qur’an manuscript, and may help to identify a manuscript when a study of the larger decorated elements is inconclusive. Some of the most characteristic patterns of text frames will be explored below with reference to the small collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia held in the British Library, all of which have been fully digitised, as well as Qur'an manuscripts from Indonesia digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP).

Along the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, two standard patterns of text frames are encountered. Most of the smaller, simpler Patani-style Qur’an manuscripts will have text frames of three ruled lines, black-black-red (here and elsewhere I follow the convention of describing the lines from inside out). More lavish manuscripts, generally produced within the Terengganu school but also sometimes in the Patani/Kelantan style, will have a more complex set of frames of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, and in the most sumptuous manuscripts the yellow might be replaced with gold. The exceptionally fine small Patani Qur’an in the British Library pictured above (Or 15227) has these black-thick yellow-black-black-red frames on every page.

Text frames in a Qur’an from Patani of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, typical of the fine East Coast school. British Library, Or 15227
Text frames in a Qur’an from Patani of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, typical of the fine East Coast school. British Library, Or 15227  noc

Similarly elaborate text frames – but with the red line constituting the innermost rather than the outermost frame – are also found in Qur’ans illuminated in the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style, including one held in Riau digitised through EAP.

EAP1020_PDEMK_BKG_ALH_02_10-text-crop
Text frames in a Qur’an held in Kampar, of red-black-thick yellow-black-black lines, as typical of Sulawesi-style manuscripts. EAP1020/3/2

For Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, there are also two prototypes of frames. The most common pattern – and that found in all three Acehnese Qur’ans held in the British Library, shown below - is a series of four parallel ruled lines of red-black-red-black ink. The other, less commonly encountered pattern, is a series of three lines of red-red-black ink.

Tf-15406  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: (middle) Or 16034  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh:  Or 16915.
Text frames of red-black-red-black lines in three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh. British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034, (right) Or 16915. noc

The prescriptions for frames for Qur’an manuscripts from Java are rather less rigid, but nonetheless still distinctive of their origin. Javanese Qur’ans generally have frames of a series of ruled black lines, most commonly three, but sometimes two or four. These lines may either be spaced evenly or clustered, but the most common pattern – as demonstrated by Or 16877 – is for a frame of three ruled black ink lines, with the inmost two lines close together, with a larger space before the outer line. Examples of the frames in the four Qur’an manuscripts from Java in the British Library are shown below.

Text frames of three ruled black lines-Add 12312  Text frames of three ruled black lines-15877-f.6v
Text frames of three evenly-spaced ruled black lines in two Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library (left) Add 12312, (right) Or 15877

Text frames-16877  Text frames in Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library, Add 12343, with four ruled lines, grouped in two closely-placed pairs.
Text frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library (left) Or 16877, with three ruled lines with the two inner lines closer together; (right) Add 12343, with four ruled lines, grouped in two closely-placed pairs.  noc

In the Minangkabau realm of west and central Sumatra, text frames usually comprise red lines, sometimes combined with black lines.

EAP117-3-1-3.123  EAP117-23-1-3.11
Text frames in two Qur’ans from the Minangkabau region, both now held in Kerinci: (left) EAP117/30/1/3, and (right) EAP117/23/1/3.

In my previous blog post looking at verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, it was noted that ‘errors’ or lapses by scribes were extremely valuable in signalling the various work stages of copying a Qur’an manuscript. It could be seen that firstly, the scribe would copy the text, usually placing a small black mark to indicate clearly the placement of a verse marker. After the text was completed, the next stage was to draw in with red or black ink the circles of the verse markers. If the markers were to be coloured, the third stage was to fill them in with pigment.

Looking closely at text frames, it is also thanks to certain problems encountered by the scribes that we can be certain that in general, the text frames were added after the text was written on each page, not before. This becomes clear when we see that, in all three Qur’ans from Aceh, when the scribe realised that he had left out part of the text, he was able to supply the mising words before the frames were added. The frames, therefore, had to step around the additional words, which was done as neatly as possible. In one of the Qur'ans, we even find that three full pages were left out – perhaps forgotten – during the task of adding text frames to the book.

The text frame steps up and then down to accommodate some added words in a Qur’an from Aceh. British Library, Or 16915, f. 207r
The text frame steps up and then down to accommodate some added words in a Qur’an from Aceh. British Library, Or 16915, f. 207r  noc

Probable scribal miscalculation leads to a stepped text frame in a Qur'an from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406, f. 204r 

Probable scribal miscalculation leads to a stepped text frame in a Qur'an from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406, f. 204r   noc

The text frame detours around some words which the scribe has added vertically at the end of a line, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406 f.9r
The text frame detours around some words which the scribe has added vertically at the end of a line, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, f. 9r  noc

There are three pages (ff. 221r, 221v, 222r) with missing text frames in this Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 220v-221r.
There are three pages (ff. 221r, 221v, 222r) with missing text frames in this Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 220v-221r.  noc

This is the second of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the third on Surah headings, the fourth on Juz’ markers, and the fifth and final part on ruku' and maqra' Recitation markers.

Blog posts:
28 June 2021, The art of small things (1): Verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts which will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

What helps us to choose a good story to read? Could it be an advertising strapline?  Or the headline in a book review? Or perhaps a hash-tag on Twitter? Of course, the author’s storyline itself is the core stimulus of our curiosity and feeds our imagination. But what about illustrations? Illustrations are unlikely to be produced by the author of the text but they definitely have an influence in attracting people to take a book from the shelves. 

Traditionally in Japan stories for entertainment were accompanied with illustrations to enhance their appeal to readers, and there is no doubt that they also acted functionally as visual aids for instructional books. In the same way, we tend to add images of illustrated pages to our blog posts to assist our readers who are not always familiar with the topics.

The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji
Fig.1 The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.62r.  noc

The majority of known Japanese artists are male, as in other areas of the creative arts throughout history, such as playwrights, novelists, travel writers and so on. However, there are a few exceptions where we find women illustrators and artists who seem to emerge from the shadows of history.

This article will focus on Katsushika Ōi or Eijo (葛飾応為 or 栄女),  a talented artist who depicted the ‘The Floating World’ (Ukiyo) of geisha and actors, and who happened to be a woman. However, she is better known as the third daughter of the great Ukiyoe master, Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), whom she cared for in his workshop in his later years, spending most of her life in close company with him. Hokusai produced a huge quantity of Ukiyoe prints, illustrated books and paintings throughout his artistic life and Ōi is believed to have assisted his creations from her youth by adding figures in his illustrations or colouring his paintings. It was common for artists of that time to establish their own studios, collaborate with their co-workers and produce artworks under the name of famous artists.

‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo
Fig.2. ‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo (栄女). From Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 , an athology of Kyōka poetry illustrated by Hokusai and his followers ca 1818. British Museum, [1979,0305,0.411] (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

Ōi was  rather good at drawing from a very young age. As the daughter of Hokusai, her environment must have given her impetus to develop her skills and career in art.  She married once but found the artist's life far more interesting than that of a doting housewife. In fact, she did not conform to the typical image of feminine virtue that women of her time were expected to live up to within the context of domestic life. She much preferred to dedicate her time and passion to art by assisting her father’s work as well as creating her own paintings and drawings. Although she was not keen on life as an ordinary woman, she depicted attractive female figures in her works with a remarkably high level of skill.

Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi.
Fig.3 Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Only two printed books have been attributed to Katsushika Ōi as the sole illustrator.  One of them is Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki 絵入日用女重宝記, ‘An illustrated handbook on daily life for women’, with text byTakai Ranzan 高井蘭山, published in Kōwa 4 [1847].

Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo
Fig.4. Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo (応為栄女) as the artist. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki
Fig. 5. Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki . Women are depicted in traditional female roles, such as playing the Koto, writing, sewing, spinning, and weaving. British Library 16124.d.21  noc

Many of the details of Ōi’s life, including even her birth and death dates are unclear. The total number of works attributed solely to her, as opposed to collaborative works with her father, is a mere ten.  It is as if she was hidden behind her world-famous artist father.  However, she was certainly recognised as an independent artist during her lifetime and has recently been rediscovered by art historians, allowing her to emerge from her father’s shadow.

 

Reference:

Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

 

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

28 June 2021

The art of small things (1): Verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

Studies of the art of the Qur’an usually start with the beautiful illuminated frames across two facing pages that are naturally the most visually striking parts of the book, but all too often the studies also stop there. In fact, it is often in smaller features that geographical origin is most readily determined, through deep-seated attachments to certain preferred formats of page layout. The British Library holds eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia representing three regional traditions, with one from Patani on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula (Or 15227), three from Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra (Or 15406, Or 16034, Or 16915), and four from Java (Add 12312, Add 12343, Or 16877) including one from the island of Madura (Or 15877). Drawing on these and Qur'an manuscripts from Indonesia digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme, we will explore the art of minor decorative elements in Qur’an manuscripts, starting with the smallest of all: verse markers.

Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r
Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r  noc

In the absence of punctuation in Arabic script, and to support correct recitation, from at least the 10th century onwards Qur’an manuscripts were generally copied with small graphic devices separating each verse or aya. In Qur’ans from Southeast Asia, these verse markers are invariably small circles, generally varying in size from between 3 to 7 mm in diameter, and with olour schemes that differ between regions.

Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)
Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)  noc

Presented below is one line from each of the eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library, showing the start of the same verse (Surat al-Kahf, Q.18:8, ‘And lo! We shall make all that is therein a barren mound’), to show the shape and placement of the verse markers, with comments on each regional tradition.

On the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, Qur’an manuscripts normally indicate verse breaks with small red-ink circles.  More de luxe volumes, especially from the Terengganu school, have black or red ink circles filled with yellow pigment, and in the most lavish cases, gold. As shown above, the fine small Patani Qur’an in the British Library, Or 15227, has black circles filled with yellow (or occasionally green) paint. While copying the Qur’anic text, the scribe has taken care to leave enough space for the round verse markers to sit on the line adjacent to the words.

Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 148v
Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 149v  noc

In the three Acehnese Qur’ans shown below, only in one manuscript (Or 15406) has space been left on the line to fit in the verse markers; in the two other manuscripts the verse markers have had to be placed above the line. In Aceh, verse markers in illuminated Qur’an manuscripts are nearly always black ink circles which are coloured in with yellow. This colour scheme is found in all three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh in the British Library shown below, although on the page in question in Or 16034, the scribe has forgotten to colour in the verse markers, which have been left as black ink circles. In this manuscript, we can see clearly the small black ink dots that the scribe left while copying out the text to indicate the breaks between the verses, as a guide for placing the markers.

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v [NB this page is bound upside down in the volume]   noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r  noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts copied in the Javanese tradition, verse markers are invariably red ink circles. In the four Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library, only in one manuscript are the markers placed on the line of writing, while in three others they are located above the lines. In all these manuscripts too we can see the scribal mark left to indicate where the verse markers should be placed, but in the Qur’an from Madura, the scribe has forgotten to draw a red circle around the second caret mark placed above the line at the end of the verse Q.18:8.

All these small scribal lapses are interesting because they serve to illustrate clearly the three-stage order of working: firstly, the scribe would copy the text, usually placing a small black mark to indicate clearly the placement of a verse marker. After the text was completed, the next stage was to draw in with red or black ink the circles of the verse markers. If the markers were to be coloured, the third stage was to fill them in with pigment.

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v  noc

Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r
Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r  noc

The round verse markers in Qur’ans from Southeast Asia are indeed the smallest artistic elements in the manuscripts, but they are also the basic buildings blocks of more elaborate graphic devices that sometimes blossom into remarkable artworks. These are used to indicate larger textual divisions such as juz’ or thirtieth parts of the Qur’an and subdivisions thereof, or the ends of suras or chapters. These composite roundels can range from the very basic models found in Javanese manuscripts to more artistic illuminated compositions in Acehnese Qur’ans, and can reach even more elaborate heights in other genres of manuscripts such as Kitab Mawlid texts.

Roundel-12312-f.14v-juz2  Roundel-16877-f.273v
Triple roundels in two Javanese Qur’ans to mark the start of a new juz’: British Library, (left) Add 12312; (right) Or 16877, f. 273v   noc

Roundel-16034-f.258r
Illuminated composite roundels used as a line filler at the end of Surat al-Fil (Q.105) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 258r  noc

Roundel-16915-f.131v  Roundel-16915-f.128v  coloured foundel in a Quran manuscript -15406-f.18v
Coloured composite roundels marking subdivisions of a juz’ in Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts. British Library, (left and centre) Or 16915, (right) Or 15406.  noc

As can be seen in the images, all the verse markers are perfect circles that were drawn mechanically with a compass, as is evident from the small black dot or indent discernible in the centre of nearly all the circles. The ubiquity of these perfect circles, in Qur’an manuscripts of every varying level of competence (for example, the Javanese Qur’an Or 16877 is copied in a very poor hand), suggests that rather than using a dedicated tool, they may have been made through an easily-learned scribal technique of somehow pivoting the nib of the pen around a sharp point. The use of a sharp-pointed implement is proven by some back-lit images taken to show the watermarks in a manuscript of a sermon from Kerinci, digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP117/9/1/3), which highlight the tiny holes created in the making of the composite roundels; similar observations have been made in Islamic manuscripts from Mindanao. However, the precise method of drawing these small circles, whether by using a tool or a technique, remains at present undocumented, and a field for future study.

Pinprick pivot holes in the paper made during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3  EAEAP117-9-1-3-compass points in a composite roundel
Pinprick pivot holes made in the paper during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, shown below, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3, 6

Sermon, written on a scroll, ca. 1830s, Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.
Sermon, written ca. 1830s in the form of a scroll in English paper watermarked 'Allford 1829', Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.

Occasionally small hand-drawn circles are also found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, and these are especially common in central Sumatra and areas in the Minangkabau sphere of influence, as in the Qur’an below.

EAP144-2-5.16
Hand-drawn small red circles as verse markers in a Qur’an from West Sumatra. EAP144/2/5.16

This is the first of a five-part series on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the second on Text frames; the third on Surah headings; the fourth on Juz’ markers; and the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Blog posts:
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

21 June 2021

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

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

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

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

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

A foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x'sA foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's
The first two pages of Ian MacPherson's report on his trip to Crimea, including descriptions of the Peninsula, Kezlev, the people he met, and some of the institutions in the region. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 35-36)
CC Public Domain Image

It’s the varied and wide-ranging interests encapsulated in Ian’s activities that point most firmly to him working in a position touching upon history, archaeology, anthropology, museology, and archival research. This might seem like a broad swathe of the social sciences and humanities, impossible to contain within anything other than personal interests. But the mix is not far from what Curators at the Library are asked to touch upon even today. MacPherson gathered information on historic and contemporary communities as well as those conducting research on them. His notes provide us with detailed descriptions of the ethnic and religious communities present in northern Crimea in the 1920s (Muslim Tatars, Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox Slavs, Qaraim, Turkic-speaking Jews or Krymchaks, Ashkenazi Jews, Armenians). These missives are clearly enmeshed within imperialist understandings of racial anthropology. Nonetheless, they collate valuable information about Crimean society before the devastating changes brought about by the purges of the 1930s; Nazi occupation; and wholesale deportation and ethnic cleansing during the Soviet reoccupation.

A headshot of a balding man with no hat in black and white above a typed caption in Arabic scriptA reproduction of a black and white photograph of a group of 18 people including 2 women and 16 men, of whom 7 are seated in a front row, 9 are standing behind them, and a further two are standing behind that row, all of them in various forms of business or casual attire, with a bolded title in Arabic script above the photo and an Arabic-script caption below it
A portrait of the Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı (left) and a group photo of the participants at a 1926 Archaeological Conference in Kerch, Crimea, including Aqçoqraqlı seated on the far right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), pp. 44, 46) (11449.tt.26)
CC Public Domain Image

MacPherson’s papers also record meetings with numerous scholars. These include Soviet scientists from outside the region (among whom was an unnamed Jewish doctor from Minsk unsuccessfully researching blood types among Qaraim communities); Boris Saadevich Elyashevich, Curator of the Qaraim National Library; Polina J. Chepurina, the Head of the Yevpatoria Museum; Professor Filonenko, a Ukrainian member of the Turko-Tatar Faculty at Simferopol’ University; an unnamed Armenian priest; and the well-known Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı. Ian was clearly seeking the latest information from these individuals on the expansion and development of the social sciences and humanities in the region; a veritable hotbed of scholarly activities in the 1920s. He attended the Second Pan-Union Archaeological Conference in Aqyar (Sevastopol’) on 11-12 September 1927, and made extensive notes on the activities of the Qaraim National Library and the Yevpatoria Museum, documenting the work done to catalogue and study the holdings within new Soviet structures.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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14 June 2021

Three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh in the British Library

Aceh is renowned as one of the most fervently Islamic regions of Southeast Asia. Situated on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, it was the site of the first Muslim kingdoms in the archipelago in the 13th century, and Aceh has also produced many famous Islamic scholars and writers. There are probably more illuminated Qur’an manuscripts known today from Aceh than from anywhere else in the Malay world, and nearly all conform closely to what can be termed the Acehnese style of manuscript illumination (cf. Gallop 2004). The British Library holds three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, and all have been fully digitised.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

An especially fine example of this genre is Or 16915, which has three superb pairs of illuminated frames and further marginal ornaments throughout the manuscript indicating standard divisions of the Qur’anic text into thirty parts of equal length or juz’. As can be seen in the illustration above, the text boxes on two facing pages are surrounded by rectangular borders, with the vertical borders extended upwards and downwards. On the three outer sides of each page are arches, and those on the vertical sides are flanked by a pair of ‘wings’ or foliate tendrils. The palette is centred on red, yellow and black ink, but the most important colour is the reserved white of the background paper, which carries the main motif, usually a scrolling vine. Gold is never used in the illumination of Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts. In the final pair of illuminated frames from the same manuscript, shown below, the arches are ogival rather than triangular, but all elements still conform to the precepts of the Acehnese style.

Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r.r
Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r.  noc

The other two manuscripts are simpler bibliographic productions, but both were also created with decorated frames at the beginning, middle and end of the book. However, Or 16034 is now missing the first few folios, and thus also the initial illuminated frames which it would undoubtedly have had. It still has illuminated frames in the middle, which, as is the case with all Acehnese Qur’ans, are located at the start of the textual mid-point of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’, in Surat al-Kahf, verse 75, indicated here with the line in red ink. Although the decorated frames are cruder in design and execution than those shown above, they illustrate well both the degree of conformity to, yet variation possible within, the parameters of the Acehnese style.

Decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’ (Q, 18:75). Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.
Decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’ (Q, 18:75). British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.  noc

Probably the most interesting feature of this Qur’an manuscript is that the final pair of illuminated frames, which are located after the end of the Qur’anic text, were left blank. While at first glance it might be assumed that they were unfinished, in fact this is a distinctively Acehnese phenomenon, and scores of examples of such blank illuminated frames in Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh have been documented. In most cases they appear to have been designed to contain a prayer to be recited on completion of the Qur’an, or the final chapters of the Qur’an, or a repetition of the first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah. In Or 16034 the first words of a prayer have been written but the attempt then petered out, leaving only a few doodled pencil marks.

Blank decorated frames at the end of the Qur’an. Or 16034, ff. 260v-261r.
Blank decorated frames at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 260v-261r.  noc

The third Qur’an manuscript, Or 15604, has three pairs of double monochrome frames. These should not be regarded as ‘unfinished’ examples of manuscript art, for so many examples of Acehnese manuscripts with monochrome decoration can be found that this should be regarded as a standard variant of the Acehnese style. In all other aspects, these decorated frames are typical of the Acehnese style save that, unusually, both the initial and final pairs of frames are lacking the arches and flanking tendrils on the outer vertical sides, although these are present in the (very damaged) middle frames.

Monochrome decorated frames, without side arches, at the beginning of a Qur’an from Aceh, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 1v-2r.
Monochrome decorated frames, without side arches, at the beginning of a Qur’an from Aceh, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Damaged monochrome decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an from Aceh, at the beginning of juz’ 16, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 147v-148r.
Damaged black and brown ink decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an from Aceh, at the beginning of juz’ 16, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 147v-148r.  noc

Both these two simpler Qur’an manuscripts display one of the most characteristic features of Acehnese illumination less evident in the finer Or 16915, namely the plaited rope border. This deceptively simple and seemingly universal motif is in fact fundamental to the Acehnese style, while almost never being encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from any other part of Southeast Asia.

Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh

Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh
Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (top) Or 15406, f. 314r; (bottom) Or 16034, f. 120r  noc

All three Qur’an manuscript from Aceh in the British Library were produced with three pairs of decorated frames, albeit with differing degrees of artistry and finesse. However, Or 16915 is a much more lavish example of book art as all the textual divisions within the Qur’an are marked with beautiful marginal ornaments. The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty juz’ or parts of equal length to facilitate its recitation within a complete month, especially the blessed month of Ramadan.  Each juz’ can also be subdivided into regular fractions of half (nisf), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn), and all these divisions are indicated in Or 16915 with ornamented medallions placed in the margin. The start of each new juz’ is also highlighted with a small composite roundel composed of intersecting circles within the text itself, and by setting the first line within red-ruled frames and writing the first verse in red ink. In the other two Acehnese Qur’ans, Or 15406 and Or 16034, the first line of each new juz’ is also written in red ink, and in Or 16034 is usually also marked by a composite roundel, but there are no decorative devices in the margins.

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)
The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82) marked with varying degrees of ornamentation in three Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts: British Library, (top) Or 16915, f. 54r, (middle) Or 15406, f. 57v, (bottom) Or 16034, f. 45r.  noc

It is probably in the minor decorative features that the umbilical cord linking all three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh is revealed most clearly. Thus all three manuscripts – despite evidently varying places and dates of production within Aceh – have text frames of exactly the same composition, namely a series of four parallel ruled lines (described from inside out) of red-black-red-black ink. This is the one of two frame schemes found in nearly all Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts, the other being the less common red-red-black (cf. Gallop 2007: 195).

Tf-15406  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: (middle) Or 16034  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh:  Or 16915.
Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034, (right) Or 16915.  noc

Lastly, all three Qur’an manuscripts are also linked by the smallest common ornamental element: the aya or verse markers, which in Acehnese Qur’ans are invariably small black circles, drawn mechanically with a compass-like tool, coloured in with yellow pigment.

Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-15406 f.246v  Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-16034  Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-16915
Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034), (right) Or 16915.  noc

None of these three manuscripts is dated, but Or 16915 is written on English paper made by J Whatman watermarked with the date '1819', suggesting it was copied sometime in the 1820s.  The two other manuscripts are copied on Italian paper with the tre lune watermark of three crescent moons, indicating 19th century production. It is very rare to find colophons in Southeast Asian Qur'an manuscripts, but Or 15406 does have an endowment (waqf) statement at the end naming the owner:  Inilah Qur'an milik Teungku Ti orang baruh duduk pada nanggroe Lam Kubu tetapi Qur'an ini diwakaf pada tangan Teungku Abdul Kadir Lam Siwi intaha kalam tamma, ‘This is the Qur'an belonging to Teungku Ti, from the coastal lowlands, residing in Lam Kubu, but this Qur'an has been inalienably endowed into the hands of Teungku Abdul Kadir of Lam Siwi, finis.’

Endowment statement at the end of the Qur'an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 315r
Endowment statement at the end of the Qur'an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 315r  noc

Further reading:
A.T. Gallop, ‘An Acehnese style of manuscript illumination’, Archipel, 2004, (68): 193-240.
A.T. Gallop, The art of the Qur’an in Southeast Asia. Word of God, Art of Man: the Qur’an and its creative expressions. Selected proceedings from the International Colloquium, London, 18-21 October 2003. Edited by Fahmida Suleman. Oxford: OUP in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2007, pp.191-204.
Blog post, 24 March 2014, An Illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Aceh
Blog post, 4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

07 June 2021

Portrait of Charles Weston (1731-1809)

In 2019, the Visual Arts Department acquired a late eighteenth-century portrait of the merchant and philanthropist, Charles Weston (1731-1809). Born in Calcutta (Kolkata) of both Indian and British descent, Weston’s portrait is an important document of the Anglo-Indian community in India.

Portrait of Charles Weston
Portrait of Charles Weston by an unknown artist, 1790-1808. British Library, Foster 1104 Noc

His father was William Weston, registrar of the mayor’s court in Calcutta. Little is known of his mother, although she may have been Mrs. Mary Ballantine who married a William Weston in 1731 (Hawes 2004).   

Weston had an accomplished career despite the obstacles he would have faced as someone of mixed ancestry. He began as an apprentice to the surgeon John Zephaniah Holwell (1711-1798), who became a lifelong friend and provided Weston with capital to start his business. Weston accumulated his wealth through commerce, investment in property, and sheer luck – in 1778, he won Tiretta’s Bazar in the Calcutta lottery, which was worth Rs 196,000 and provided him with a monthly earning of Rs 3,500 (Hawes 2004).

Portrait of John Zephaniah Howell
Portrait of John Zephaniah Holwell, platinotype print from a painting attributed to Johann Zoffany, c.1750. British Library, P587 Noc

An eminent Calcutta citizen, Weston’s Lane in the city was named after him. He was also one of two Anglo-Indians to sit on the jury of the infamous trial of Maharaja Nandakumar in 1775 (Hawes 1996, 56). By the 1790s, Anglo-Indians would no longer be permitted to serve on Calcutta juries, and this was later amended in 1827 to allow Christians to serve (Anderson 2015, 14).

Close up of a map of Calcutta showing Weston's Lane
Close-up of a Map of Calcutta showing Weston’s Lane, 1842, British Library, P2348 Noc

Weston was married twice - to Amelia de Rozario in 1758, and after her death, to Constantia Weston. Constantia died in 1801 and was buried at the convent of Bandel, on the banks of the Hooghly River. A portrait of Constantia was published in Bengal Past and Present in 1915.

Weston was an active philanthropist and is said to have donated 100 gold mohurs monthly to the poor. He also served as the parish clerk for St. John’s Church, Calcutta. After his death, he left a charitable fund worth Rs 100,000 to be managed by the church and used towards poverty relief. His will also left bequests to many friends and dependents (Hawes 2004).

WD4381
View of the west end of St John's Church, Calcutta by Amelia Rebecca Prinsep, c. 1830, watercolour on paper. British Library, WD4381 Noc

Another portrait of Weston is housed in the vestry of St. John’s Church. It shows Weston wearing a cotton handkerchief around his head, which he wore to keep warm when in his home as he suffered from rheumatism. A reproduction of this painting also features in the publication Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days produced by the Calcutta Historical Society in 1910.

Weston died in 1809 and his grave can still be visited at South Park Street Cemetery, Kolkata (Calcutta). His epitaph reads: he led a life marked “by benevolence and charity, seldom equalled, and never yet exceeded in British India” (The Bengal Obituary 1851, 94). He was survived by his eldest son, Charles Weston (1763-1813) and by his grandchildren.

The acquisition of his portrait complements archival materials already held within the British Library’s collection that are related to Weston’s life and estate. For instance, the India Office Records and Private Papers Collection contains a copy of his will (IOR/L/AG/34/29/22) and an inventory taken after his death (IOR/L/AG/34/27/41).

 

References and further reading

Anderson, V. (2015), Race and Power in British India: Anglo-Indians, Class and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. London: I.B. Tauris.

Bengal wills (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/29/22 

Bengal: Past and Present (1915), vol. 10 (Jan – March)

Wilmot, C. (1910). Calcutta Faces and Places in Pre-Camera Days. Calcutta: Calcutta Historical Society.

Estates and Wills Branch: Inventories and Accounts of Deceased Estates - Bengal: Vol. 1 (1810), BL IOR/L/AG/34/27/41

Hawes, C. (2004), “Charles Weston” in The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/63541

Hawes, C. (1996), Poor Relations: The Making of a Eurasian Community in British India, 1773-1833. Richmond: Curzon.

List of Inscriptions on Tombs or Monuments in Bengal Possessing Historical or Archaeological Interest (1896), ed. C. R. Wilson.

The Telegraph India (2013), “New life for church pictures” https://www.telegraphindia.com/west-bengal/new-life-for-church-pictures/cid/1287818  

The Bengal Obituary: Or, a Record to Perpetuate the Memory of Departed Worth (1851), Holmes and Co. 

 

Nicole Ioffredi, Print Room Coordinator and Cataloguer Ccownwork

31 May 2021

A comparison between Rustam and Arjuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alireza Sedighi, British Library Ccownwork

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

27 May 2021

Fragments of Abbasid Sciences: From Desert Monastery to Digital Reunion

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

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

 

Acquisition and condition

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

Off-white paper with two lines of cursive text in the Latin alphabet
Acquisition note: ‘Bought of F. W. Bickel. 30 May, 1921.’ (British Library, Or. 8857, endleaf verso [ii-v]) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00004e
CC Public Domain Image

When this purchase was recorded in the British Museum acquisition register, the fragmentary Arabic manuscript was given the shelfmark Or. 8857 along with a typically brief description: ‘Or. 8857. A fragment of a work on the calendar, followed by some prescriptions. 33ff. XIth. cent. 8o Arabic’. Clearly the manuscript was old – 5thAH/11th AD century according to the acquisition register. But details about its contents were scanty, and nothing was said about its provenance.

Off-white paper divided into three with small boxes on left and right and large one in the centre, all of which are filled with cursive text in the Latin alphabet in black ink
Entry for Or. 8857 in the British Museum acquisition register ( List of Oriental Manuscripts 1909–1921. Or. 6948–9034, p. 275 [British Library, ORC GEN MSS 7])
CC Public Domain Image

When the thirty-three paper folios that comprise Or. 8857 entered the British Museum, they were evidently in disarray. Not only is there no evidence to suggest that the folios arrived with a binding, but worse – the sewing that held the quires had disintegrated and the loose bifolia had broken apart along their spine-folds to become individual folios. At some point, probably shortly after their acquisition, all thirty-three folios were mounted on paper guards and sewn into a new binding with little regard to their original order but perhaps preserving the order in which they had arrived at the British Museum.

Off white manuscript folio with two columns of text in black ink in the Arabic script and red stamp with British Museum seal at bottom
The first folio, according to the manuscript’s present arrangement, is not what it seems. Its layout suggests either poetry or two columns of prose but, in fact, it is a list of the planets that rule each hour of the day, and it runs horizontally across the page despite the columns. What appears to be an eastern Arabic five (٥) in the upper left corner – perhaps explaining the western Arabic five in the lower right-hand corner – is actually a Coptic seventy (𐋰), which indicate that this is really not the first but the penultimate folio (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 1r) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00000b
CC Public Domain Image

After this conservation work, the manuscript seems to have rested unnoticed until a more complete list of its contents was prepared for the Subject Guide to the Arabic Manuscripts in the British Library (pp. 353, 357, 385 and 389). But it was not catalogued in detail until it was selected for digitisation for the QDL.

 

Date and context of production

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

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

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

Or. 8857, ff. 10v: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00001e
Or. 8857, ff. 17r: https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x00002b
CC Public Domain Image

 

Reordering the folios

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Diverse monastic reading material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single page of Arabic-script text in black ink with several words in red ink on off-white paper
Information on the names of the months in Syriac, Greek and Persian from the beginning of the Book of Seasons, preceded by the basmala (British Library, Or. 8857, f. 30v) https://www.qdl.qa/en/archive/81055/vdc_100088125470.0x000046
CC Public Domain Image

The fragment ends with an anonymous introductory text on astrology, which includes an unusual method for determining a person’s ascendant not by observing their natal horoscope chart, but through numerological analysis of their name and that of their mother. While this text may seem the least appropriate in a monastery, there was considerable legal and theological disagreement about which of the various astrological practices were licit or illicit, and knowledge of the planets' influences on the environment and the human body was generally considered an important part of maintaining good health and wellbeing.

 

Fragments reunited

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
CCBY Image

Thanks to Dr Adrien de Fouchier, OP (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana) and Dr Stefano Serventi (Biblioteca Ambrosiana) for their generous help and advice with my research for this blog.

Bibliography:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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