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59 posts categorized "Persian"

01 March 2021

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

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Opening of teh Romance of Mahsati
The opening of the anonymous romance of the female poet and musician Mahsati and Amir Ahmad the preacher’s son. Copy dated Rabiʻ I 867/1462 (British Library Or.8755, f. 22v)
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Mahsati was one of the earliest female poets of classical Persian but the biographical details about her are rather meagre. She probably lived in the eleventh or twelfth century and may have been from Ganja, but Nishapur, Badakhshan and Khujand have also been given as her place of birth by later authors. She is said to have served in the capacity of a secretary (dabirah) or singer and musician at the court of the Seljuq Sultan Sanjar (r. 1097-1118), but at least one historian also places her husband in the court Ghaznavid Sultan Mahmud (r. 998-1030). In the late fifteenth century, Dawlatshah in his biographical dictionary Tazkirat al-shu‘ara confirms the connection with Sultan Sanjar and lists her among the ruler’s panegyric poets, along with others such as Adib Sabir, Rashid Vatvat, ‘Abd al-Vasih Jabali, and Anvari. Dawlatshah describes Mahsati as “the beloved of the sultan and elegant lady of the times” (mahbubah-yi sultan va zarifah-yi ruzgar) and includes an anecdote about how she won the sultan’s favour with her verbal skills as he was trying to mount his horse in the snow. She is said to have uttered this poem extemporaneously:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 November 2020

Muhammad Najib Khan, a Sufi soldier in 18th century southern India

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In recent months I’ve been working on manuscripts in the British Library which formed part of Tipu Sultan’s library and were acquired by the East India Company after the fall of Seringapatam in 1799. The history of how this part of the collection came to London has been recently described by Joshua Ehrlich (Plunder and prestige) and in several blogs by myself (notably Revisiting the provenance of the Sindbadnamah). The collection itself, however, was made up of many smaller collections, acquired mostly by conquest, and it is on one of these that I will focus today, namely the collection of the Sufi Muhammad Najib Khan Shahid (‘martyr’), an official of Anvar al-Din Khan, Nawab of the Carnatic from 1744 to 1749. While the apparent contradiction between the spiritual and military roles of courtly life has long been acknowledged, it is reinforced by the identification I propose here of Muhammad Najib the political adviser with our Sufi author and collector, an identification which is underlined by a shared Chishti affiliation and high status, further evidenced by the acquisition details of Muhammad Najib's own collection.

Death of Nabob of Carnatic
'The Death of the Nabob of the Carnatic'
in battle against the French in 1749, an anachronistic interpretation by Paul Philippoteaux (1846-1923). According to Burhan ibn Hasan, Muhammad Najib Khan was sitting behind the Nawab. From M. Guizot’s A popular history of France, vol 6, Boston, [187-?], p. 174.
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What do we know about Muhammad Najib Khan?

From the Tūzuk-i Vālājāhī, a history of the Walajah dynasty completed in 1786 by Burhan ibn Hasan, we learn that Muhammad Najib was originally a resident of Ajmer, and was one of the servants of the shrine of Muʻin al-Din Chishti. From the time that Anvar al-Din was stationed at the Mughal court in Shahjahanabad (ca. 1699), Muhammad Najib became “his intimate companion and a counsellor in all his affairs” and subsequently his “most intimate companion and the right hand man”. Caught up in the conflict between the rival factions of Hyderabad, the French and the East India Company, he was killed in action at the Battle of Ambur in 1749 during the Second Carnatic War together with his patron Anvar al-Din — after which they both became referred to in Persian sources as shahid (‘martyr’).

Muhammad Najib Khan’s scholarly credentials are evident from his Makhzan-i aʻrās (‘Treasury of death anniversaries’[1]), a calendar commemorating the deaths of Sufi saints which is based on a wide range of Chishti authorities dating from the 13th century onwards (Ernst, An Indo-Persian Guide). His lengthy introduction, in which he cites his full name as Muhammad Najib Qadiri Nagawri Ajmiri, offers a comprehensive guide to pilgrimage in the 18th century besides mentioning his patron Anvar al-Din Bahadur, a “lover of darwishes, the believer in their believers” (Ernst, p. 193). The work was completed on 5 Shavval 1156 (18 November 1743) during the period when Anvar al-Din was engaged in the army of Nizam al-Mulk Asaf Jah (Nizam of Hyderabad 1724-48). Muhammad Najib may also have been the subject of a biographical account, the Najīb nāmah, by the Sufi poet ʻAbd al-Latif Zawqi of Vellore (d. 1194/1780)[2].

Muhammad Najib Khan as a collector

Altogether sixteen volumes from Tipu Sultan’s library contain indications of having belonged to Muhammad Najib Khan. These include four different seals dated 1143 (1730/31), 1154? (1741/42), 1157 (1744/45) and one in which the date is illegible.

Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1143 (1730/31). IO Islamic 705
Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1143 (1730/31). IO Islamic 705
Muḥammad Najīb Khān, 1154 (1741/42). IO Islamic 1754
Muḥammad Najīb Khān, 1154? (1741/42).
IO Islamic 1754

 

Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1157 (1744/45). IO Islamic 1672
Muḥammad Najīb Khān 1157 (1744/45). IO Islamic 1672
Muḥammad Najīb Khān. IO Islamic 2221
Muḥammad Najīb Khān.
IO Islamic 2221

His manuscripts cover a range of Sufi and religious subjects including several works which he used in his Makhzan-i aʻrās mentioned above. All are in Persian excepting the Arabic ʻAyn al-ʻilm (IO Islamic 1672) which Muhammad Najib copied himself in Chicacole, at the time a dependancy of Hyderabad (Sīkākūl mutaʻallaqah-i Ḥaydarābād), completing it on 1 Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736). In date they range from 1577 to 1749. Importantly, several manuscripts contain acquisition details which place Muhammad Najib in Hyderabad in 1743 and in Arcot between 1747 and 1749. These dates correspond with the periods when his patron Anvar al-Din Khan was Governor of Hyderabad (1725-1743) and Nawab of the Carnatic (1744-1749). Several of Muhammad Najib's manuscripts were purchased - prices varying from RS 3 to 50 - and a Mulla ʻAbd Allah in Arcot is mentioned as a specific source. One manuscript also carries the seal of an unidentified Ahmad Khakpaʼi whose seal occurs in at least one other manuscript in Tipu Sultan's collection.

IO Islamic 705  f1v  opening of Rashahat
The illuminated opening of Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-ḥayāt, biographies of Naqshbandi saints, by ʻAli ibn Husayn Vaʻiz Kashifi, dated 17 Zu’l-Hijjah 984 (7 March 1577) (IO Islamic 705, ff. 1v-2r)
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Details of Muhammad Najib’s manuscripts are given at the end of this post, arranged in approximate order of acquisition. His collection almost certainly included other manuscripts, some of which are likely to be found in the library of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta where a substantial portion of Tipu Sultan’s collection remains. Probable candidates include a copy of the Makhzan-i aʻrās mentioned earlier (Ivanow ASB 1631). Tipu Sultan was undoubtedly very interested in saint anniversaries, in fact a second copy of this work (Ivanow ASB 1632) was copied, presumably at his request, by Sayyid ʻAli Riza, Superintendent (mutavallī) of the Masjid-i aʻla, Seringapatam, who also copied IO Islamic 1638 and IO Islamic 2734 for Tipu Sultan. Tipu also commissioned his own calendar of saints' deaths (Ṣaḥīfat al-aʻrās, IO Islamic 1176[3]) which is, however, just a list of names and dates.

IO Islamic 1672 ff1v-2r
The opening of  ʻAyn al-ʻilm by an unnamed author, copied in Chicacole at the beginning of Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736) by Muhammad Najib who signs himself in the colophon as Khan Sahib Muhammad Najib Khan. (IO Islamic 1672, ff. 1v-2r)
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It is not clear what happened to Muhammad Najib's collection after his death. A reasonable supposition might be that it was absorbed together with the collection of his patron into the library of Anvar al-Din Khan's son Nawab ʻAbd al-Vahhab Khan, which was siezed by Tipu's father Haydar ʻAli in 1780. However none of the 16 volumes include any seals or other indications of having belonged to ʻAbd al-Vahhab. Until extensive research has been carried out on the corresponding collections of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta we will just have to speculate!

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Collections
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Details of Muhammad Najib’s manuscripts, arranged in approximate order of acquisition

  • IO Islamic 705. Rashaḥāt-i ʻayn al-hayāt, biographies of Naqshbandi saints by ʻAli ibn Husayn Vaʻiz Kashifi. Dated 17 Zuʼl-Hijjah 984 (7 March 1577) and copied by Muhammad Husayn ibn Mawlana Abuʼl-Qasim al-Haravi. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1143 (1730/31).
  • IO Islamic 1672. ʻAyn al-ʻilm, a compendium on asceticism in Arabic by an unnamed author, copied by Khan Sahib Muhammad Najib Khan in Chicacole (Sīkākūl), Hyderabad, at the beginning of Jumada I 1149 (7 September 1736). Muhammad Najib’s seals of 1143 (1730/31) and 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1754. A collection of 8 works mostly by or connected with the Sufi saint Gisu Daraz (d. 1422), copied by several scribes between 1646 and 1686. Contains several examples of Muhammad Najib’s oval seal of 1154? (1741/42).
  • IO Islamic 2053. A collection of 4 works including the masnavis Tuḥfat al-aḥrār by Jami and Maṣdar al-ās̱ār by Muhsin Fani dated 22 Rabiʻ I 1067 (8 Jan 1657). Purchased in Hyderabad by Muhammad Najib on 4 Ramazan 1156 (22 Oct 1743), his seal dated 1143 (1730/31).
  • IO Islamic 27. Javāhir al-asrār, on the esoteric meanings and sayings of holy men by ʻAli Hamzah ibn Malik ibn Hasan Shaykh Azari. Copy dated Safar 1014 (June/July 1605). Acquired in Hyderabad in Zu’l-Qaʻdah 1156 (Dec/Jan 1743/44), Muhammad Najib’s oval seal dated 1154? (1741/42).
  • IO Islamic 703. Tarjumah-i Kanz al-daqāʼiq, a Persian translation from Arabic by Nasr Allah ibn Muhammad ibn Jamad. Previous owner Miyan Miran ibn Miyan Husayn called Miyan Hana Manju Khilji ʻAbbasi. Value Rs 11. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 946. Nafahāt al-uns, biographies of Sufi saints by Jami, dated 8 Rabiʻ II 987 (4 June 1579). Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1372. Badāʼiʻ al-inshā, on the art of prose composition by Yusufi. Copied by Sayyid Muhammad ibn Sayyid ʻAbd al-Ghani and dated 29 Jumada I 1078 (16 November 1667). Purchased from ʻAbd Allah, perhaps the same source as mentioned in IO Islamic 972, for Rs 3. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2209. Shabistān-i khayāl, ornate prose and verse by Fattahi. Undated but possibly 17th century. Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2255. Nuzhat al-arvāḥ, a Sufi treatise in prose and verse by Mir Fakhr al-Sadat Husayni. Dated at Hyderabad 4 Jumada I 1079 (10 Oct 1668). Muhammad Najib’s seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 1625. The Divan of a poet Raja or Raju, dated 1158 (1745) followed by the poem Nān u ḥalvā by Amuli. Muhammad Najib’s seal dated 1157 (1744-5).
  • IO Islamic 972 and 973. Ashiʻāt al-lamaʻāt, the first two volumes of a commentary by ʻAbd al-Haqq Dihlavi on the Arabic collection of hadith, the Mishkāt al-maṣābīḥ. Possibly 17th century. Two of three volumes purchased by Muhammad Najib, his seal dated 1157 (1744/45), for Rs. 50 from Mulla ʻAbd Allah in Arcot, in Ramazan 1160 (Sept 1747). Previous owner Ahmad Khakpaʼi, his seal dated 1117 regnal year 49 (1705).
  • IO Islamic 2039. Javāhir al-ẕāt, a masnavi by the Sufi poet ʻAttar, copied by Haji Muhammad Hayat in Benares in 1139 (1726/27). Undated but possibly 17th century. Purchased by Muhammad Najib in Arcot in Jumada I 1161 (April/May 1748), his seal dated 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 523. Maktūbāt-i Yaḥyā Munīrī a fourth collection of letters by Shaykh Ahmad ibn Yahya Muniri copied, perhaps for Muhammad Najib, in Arcot in Muharram 1162 (1749), his seal of 1157 (1744/45).
  • IO Islamic 2221. Khat̤imah by Gisudaraz. Undated but possibly 18th century. Muhammad Najib’s oval seal with illegible date.

Further reading

Ehrlich, Joshua. “Plunder and prestige: Tipu Sultan’s Library and the making of British India”, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies 43 (2020): 478-492.
Burhān ibn Ḥasan.  Tūzak-i-Wālājāhī ; translated into English by S. Muḥammad Ḥusayn Naynar. (Sources of the history of the Navvābs of the Carnatic; 1 & 2). Madras 1934-1939.
Ernst, Carl. “An Indo-Persian Guide to Sufi Shrine Pilgrimage”. In It’s not just academic: essays on sufism and Islamic studies. New Delhi, 2018, pp. 165-95; also available online in an earlier recension. Includes a lengthy discussion of the Makhzan-i aʻrās and also a translation of Muhammad Najib’s introduction.

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[1] A lithographed edition was published under the title Kitāb-i aʻrās in Agra, 1883 (BL 14837.f.17, see E. Edwards, Catalogue of Persian printed books in the British Museum, p. 511).

[2] Nabi Hadi, Dictionary of Indo-Persian Literature. Delhi, 1995, p.636; also Kokan, Muhammad Yusuf. Arabic and Persian in Carnatic, 1710-1960. Madras, 1974, p.147. However it seems quite likely that the work cited there may in fact be a work on Najib Khan, a Rohilla chief in the service of Ahmad Shah Durrani, by Muyhi al-Din ibn Abu al-Hasan Zawqi (IO Islamic 2725).

[3] So titled in the introduction. Attributed in a note on the flyleaf to Muhammad Sharif of Adhoni. See Ethé 2733 for more details.

31 July 2020

A Mughal Musical Miscellany: the journey of Or. 2361

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Scribal notes in a Mughal-period manuscript of fourteen musical texts shed light on its historical context and the process of its creation.

Fig. 1. Equestrian portrait of Aurangzeb
Fig. 1. Equestrian portrait of Aurangzeb, 17th century (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1925: 25.138.1)
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Four years after the accession of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb (1618-1707; ruled from 1658) [Fig. 1], a senior courtier entitled Dīyānat Khān commissioned a manuscript compilation of fourteen Arabic and Persian texts on music theory. Now held at the British Library as Oriental manuscript 2361, this manuscript is first and foremost a bilingual handbook of important reference works – some the sole surviving copies – on the scientific analysis of sound, rhythm and harmony, as well as practical instruction on instrument-making.

While the significance of its individual texts to Arabic and Persian musicology has long been recognised, the book has not yet been appreciated as a whole. Furthermore, a remarkable quantity of internal evidence testifies to its specific creation process and its historical context within the peripatetic Mughal court.

Dīyānat Khān: servant of Aurangzeb

Fig. 2. Inscription and seal recording the ownership of Diyanat Khan's grandson.jpg
Fig. 2. Inscription and seal dated 1120/1708-09 recording the ownership of Dīyānat Khān's grandson, Mirzā Muḥammad (British Library Or. 2361, f. 2r)
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Dīyānat Khān (Shāh Qubād ʿAbd al-Jalīl al-Ḥārithī al-Badakhshī, d. 1672) was a scholar, provincial administrator, and progenitor of a family of intellectuals. According to his grandson Mirzā Muḥammad ibn Rustam Mu‘tamad Khān, a historian who later inherited Or. 2361 [Fig. 2], he was born in Qandahar in today’s Afghanistan, but grew up in India. Complementing his interest in Arab-Persian musicological heritage, Dīyānat Khān also commissioned copies of texts on contemporary Indian instrumentation and performance, as well as on other scientific subjects.

Following Aurangzeb’s recovery from a serious illness in 1662, the imperial court travelled to Kashmir from Shāhjahānābād (Delhi) via Lahore, a six-month journey lasting from December 1662 to June 1663. This massive expedition is documented in an account based on contemporary Mughal court sources, the Maʾāsir-i ʿĀlamgīrī by Sāqī Mustaʿidd Khān. A description of the grand procession was also published in the memoirs of one participant, the French traveller François Bernier (1620-88), who was a member of Aurangzeb’s court until 1668 [fig. 3].

Fig. 3. Title page and engraving from Voyages de François Bernier (angevin) contenant la description des Etats du Grand Mogol, de l'Indoustan, du royaume de Kachemire
Fig. 3. Title page and engraving from Voyages de François Bernier (angevin) contenant la description des Etats du Grand Mogol, de l'Indoustan, du royaume de Kachemire (Amsterdam: Maret, 1699)
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Bernier vividly pictures the complexity of the organisation and the throngs of people who joined this long and difficult expedition. These comprised the whole nobility of Delhi each with their own grand tent, the ladies of the court, the army, and all the attendant servants, porters, and aides-de-camp, as well as numerous beasts of burden including camels, mules, and elephants.

While neither Bernier nor Maʾāsir-i ʿĀlamgīrī mention him, the places and dates recorded in the colophons of Or. 2361 inform us that somewhere among all this travelled Dīyānat Khān, his entourage, scribes, and this unfinished musical manuscript.

A mobile manuscript: begun in Delhi…

Almost the whole process of Or. 2361’s creation can be reconstructed from its detailed colophons (short statements found at the end of a text that record when and where the texts were copied, and sometimes later checked, and by whom), which are particularly informative thanks to the large number of texts and the close attention paid to the work by its patron, Dīyānat Khān.

The book was started in Ṣafar 1073/September 1662 during the lead-up to Aurangzeb’s departure from Delhi, with two Persian treatises on the lawfulness of music and singing, copied back-to-back by a Persian-language scribe, Muḥammad Amīn of Akbarābād (today’s Agra).

Shortly thereafter, six Arabic texts were copied during the four weeks from 17 Rabīʿ I/29 November to 13 Jumādá I/24 December 1662. The first was a short musicological treatise– today the only surviving copy – by the great Arab philosopher of the early Islamic period, al-Kindī (d. 873), followed by a work on Arabic modal structures by the Abbasid courtier-scholar Yaḥyá ibn al-Munajjim (d. 912).

Fig. 4. Colophon to al-Farabi’s treatise, copied in Delhi, 3 Jumada I, 1073/14 December 1662
Fig. 4. Colophon to al-Fārābī’s Kitāb al-madkhal fī al-mūsīqī, copied in Delhi, 3 Jumādá I, 1073/14 December 1662 and checked by Dīyānat Khān in Lahore, 22 Rajab 1073/2 March 1663 (British Library Or. 2361, f. 240r)
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The following Arabic texts are the second version of a treatise by Fatḥallāh al-Shirwānī (d. ca 1453), a unique copy of an earlier work by a disciple of Ibn Sīnā (d. 1037), Ibn Zaylah (d. 1048), and the first part (madkhal) of al-Fārābī’s (d. ca 950) Great Book on Music (Kitāb al-mūsīqī al-kabīr) [Fig. 4]. These were followed by an anonymous commentary on al-Urmawi’s (d. 1294) highly influential musicological treatise, the Book of Cycles (Kitāb al-Adwār).

These works were transcribed by the scribe Sayyid Abū Muḥammad ibn Sayyid Fatḥ Muḥammad Samānī (or Samānaʾī), probably from Samana in Punjab. The other colophons in the manuscript, and the consistency of handwriting throughout, indicate that all the texts within Or. 2361 were written by either Samānī or Muḥammad Amīn alone, specialising in Arabic and Persian respectively.

… continued in Ambala and Lahore…

Aurangzeb and his entourage left Delhi on 7 Jumādá I/18 December 1662. By late January 1663, the seventh Arabic text (another extensive commentary on Kitāb al-Adwār) and the third Persian text, entitled Mūsīqī ḥikmat-i ʿAlāʾī (excerpts on music from Ibn Sīnā’s Dānish nāmah-‘i ʿAlā'ī) were simultaneously completed at Anbālah (modern Ambala), a fortified town famous for its pleasure gardens, almost half-way to Lahore [fig. 5].

Fig. 5. Opening of Musiqi hikmat-i ʿAlaʾi by Ibn Sina
Fig. 5. Opening of Mūsīqī ḥikmat-i ʿAlāʾī by Ibn Sīnā (British Library Or. 2361, f. 157r)
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After taking a leisurely route, hunting and managing affairs of state along the way, Aurangzeb and his companions reached Lahore on 10 Rajab/18 February 1663. They then stayed until May, awaiting the melting of snow on the high mountain passes to Kashmir.

It was during the halt in Lahore that Dīyānat Khān’s active involvement in the volume began, with the colophon to al-Shirwānī’s treatise recording that he personally checked the text against the manuscript from which it was copied ‘in the vicinity of Lahore’, completing this task on 9 Rajab/17 February. A couple of weeks later, he also checked the work by al-Fārābī. Meanwhile, Samānī was producing a full copy of the original text of Kitāb al-Adwār, which was completed on 3 Ramaḍān/11 April in Lahore.

Most camp followers did not continue to Kashmir due to the difficulties of traversing the mountain passes and scarcity of supplies, so when Aurangzeb left Lahore in May, Dīyānat Khān took his half-finished manuscript with him to Kashmir, but apparently not the scribes, whose whereabouts are unknown until that December in Delhi, when Amīn copied a Persian song collection for Dīyānat Khān.[1]

Bernier evokes the trials of the journey from Lahore to Kashmir on the imperial Mughal road: the heat of the Punjab, hazardous river crossings by pontoon, and perilous mountain ascents, including a terrible accident which killed several people and elephants and caused Aurangzeb never again to visit Kashmir.

… and reviewed in Kashmir

By early June, the royal party had arrived at Srinagar, called Kashmir Town (Baladat Kashmīr) ‘the heart-pleasing’ (dilpazīr) in the manuscript, and Bernier describes the relief occasioned by the temperate beauty of the landscape [fig. 6].

Fig. 6. Engraving of the Kingdom of Kashmir, from Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668
Fig. 6. Engraving of the Kingdom of Kashmir, from Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668 (World Digital Library, foldout p. 408a)
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Whilst in Srinagar in August 1663, Dīyānat Khān worked on his manuscript alongside serving the emperor, completing the checking of the two commentaries on the Kitāb al-Adwār and the works by Ibn Zaylah and Ibn al-Munajjim. The Persian-speaking Dīyānat Khān only checked Arabic texts, perhaps indicating a greater written literacy in Arabic than in Persian, the language spoken at court.

Fig. 7. Diagram with a note by Diyanat Khan  the book's owner
Fig. 7. Diagram with a note by Dīyānat Khān, the book's owner, dated 1066/1656 (British Library IO Islamic 4419, f. 18v)
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Dīyānat Khān’s involvement may well have gone beyond checking the texts: seven years earlier he himself added the diagrams to a manuscript written for him in Hyderabad (Deccan), a copy of al-Birjandī’s (d. 1525–6) Treatise on the Construction and Use of Some Observational Devices (al-Risālah fī ṣanʿat baʿḍ al-ālāt al-raṣadiyyah wa-al-ʿamal bihā, British Library IO Islamic 4419) [Fig. 7]. It is also possible that he was responsible for the many diagrams in Or. 2361, a process requiring significant skill and understanding.

Back to Delhi

After nearly three months of business and pleasure, Aurangzeb left Kashmir on 22 Muḥarram 1074/26 August 1663. It was not until 23 Rabīʿ I 1075/14 October 1664, in Delhi, that further texts were added, when Samānī copied a treatise by al-Khujandī (fl. 1303-1316).

Shortly afterwards, Muḥammad Amīn completed the copying of two Persian works, both at the explicit behest of Dīyānat Khān. The first, completed on 19 Rabīʿ II 1075/9 November 1664, was a treatise on fretting by Qāsim ibn Dūst ʿAlī al-Bukhārī, dedicated to the Mughal Emperor Akbar (r. 1556-1605). This was followed back-to-back by a copy of Kanz al-tuḥaf, a fourteenth-century Persian treatise of uncertain authorship on music theory and practice, which includes an illustrated section on the form, manufacture and tuning of nine traditional wind- and string-instruments including the lute, qānūn [Fig. 8], reed pipe and harp.

Fig. 8. The qanun from Kanz al-tuhaf
Fig. 8. The qānūn from Kanz al-tuḥaf (British Library Or. 2361, f. 264v)
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The copy of Kanz al-tuḥaf was completed on 12 Rajab/29 January 1665,checked three days later and then again over three years later, against a copy dated 784/1382-83, belonging to a certain Shaykh Badhan [Fig. 9].

Fig. 4. Colophon to al-Farabi’s treatise, copied in Delhi, 3 Jumada I, 1073/14 December 1662
Fig. 9. Colophon to Kanz al-Tuḥaf, recording that it was checked against two different manuscripts over a three-and-a-half-year period (British Library Or. 2361, f. 269v)
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The afterlife of Or. 2361

The codex as it is today poses some conundrums. The present order of the texts does not follow any consistent system, whether by date of composition or copying, language, or subject matter. It was evidently written piecemeal and bound together, but the original order, if different from today’s, is unknown. Finally, the manuscript’s Kashmiri-style illumination and gold-tooled blue leather binding date from a later period, likely connected with the series of rapid transfers of ownership in the nineteenth century documented f. 2r that culminated in its purchase from ‘Syed Ali, of Hyderabad’ in 1881. The manuscript as originally produced would have been an altogether more sober, scholarly affair.

With such a wealth of internal information, Or. 2361’s significance goes well beyond its musical subject-matter, providing a snapshot of the sometimes highly mobile context of manuscript production at the time. The pages of this volume trace the interconnecting lives of the emperor Aurangzeb, his intellectual courtier Dīyānat Khān, and the latter’s two scribes over a few years, against a moving backdrop of cities, mountains, plains, and royal encampments. A scholarly life was evidently not a sedentary one for Dīyānat Khān.

Fully catalogued and digitised copies of Or. 2361 and IO Islamic 4419 will be uploaded to the Qatar Digital Library as soon as circumstances permit.

Click here to see this blog post presented as a visual, interactive StoryMap.

Jenny Norton-Wright, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership
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Further reading:

For full details on Or. 2361’s musical texts, with a full bibliography, please consult the full catalogue record (note that to see details of the individual works you will need to follow the tab ‘Browse this collection’).

Bernier, François, ‘Journey to Kashemire’, in Travels in the Mogul Empire, A.D. 1656-1668, translated by Archibald Constable, 2nd edition revised by Vincent A. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1916).

Saqi Mustaʻidd Khan, Maāsir-i-ʿĀlamgiri: A history of the Emperor Aurangzib-ʿĀlamgir (reign 1658-1707 A.D.), translated into English and annotated by Sir Jadunath Sarkar (Calcutta: Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1947).

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[1] Lahore University Library PPh III.16, 163.6.










08 July 2020

Toys and ephemera in a fifteenth-century multilingual illustrated dictionary from India

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The Miftāḥ al-Fużalā or Key of the Learned of Muḥammad Dā’ūd Shādiyābādī (BL Or 3299), a multilingual illustrated Persian dictionary written in 1468 gives us glimpses into the ephemeral life of the sultanate of Malwa in Central India. This illustrated dictionary (farhang) has quadruple the number of illustrations (179 in total) as Mandu’s famed Ni‘matnāmah or Book of Delights (BL IO Islamic 149), but it has mostly escaped scholarly attention until recently. It has been attributed to 1490 based on its paintings’ close relationship to a contemporaneous Shirazi idiom. Like the Ni‘matnāmah, it is a unicum and no other known illustrated versions survive. Other works by Shadiyabadi include a vernacularised Persian transcreation of al-Jazarī’s twelfth-century Arabic book on automata (Wonders of Crafts, ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī, BL Or 13718) and a commentary on the Persian poet Khāqānī’s oeuvre (Bodleian MS Fraser 63).

My doctoral thesis, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of South Asia (ca. 1450–1600)—a study of the corpus of Islamicate cosmographies and related wonder manuscripts in South Asia—was prompted by the Miftāḥ. My work on the Miftāḥ and the ‘Ajā’ib al-Ṣanā‘ī led me to conduct a global search of early-modern manuscripts devoted to wonder and the cosmos made in South Asia. Through a philological and codicological analysis of the Miftāḥ my thesis argues that the experience of this book generated a playful, didactive soundscape and its form and function owed much to the genre of the Islamicate cosmography (‘ajā’ib al-makhlūqāt). The definitions contained in the Miftāḥ shed light on nearly every aspect of early-modern material culture including metalwork, textiles, arms and armour, food, and architecture.

Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490. Or3299_f51v
Fig. 1: Dolls (bādajan), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 5.9 x 6.8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 51v)
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As a happy diversion from today’s world, here I present some of the toys from the Miftāḥ. The Miftāḥ’s large, well-spaced nasta‘līq writing suggests that it may have been intended for a young learner, likely a child. The inclusion of several entries devoted to toys also implies a child reader. For example, the first illustrated entry one encounters in the Miftāḥ is for the term dolls. Shadiyabadi defines ‘bādajan’ as “dolls that young girls make clothes for and play with, and in Hindavi they are called ‘guriy[a]’.” (fig. 1). Like a child playing with their early-modern Cabbage Patch Kids, the entry shows a young girl putting her three dolls to bed. It captures a lost moment of childhood play from the past.

Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490 .Or3299_f259v
Fig. 2: Dolls (lahfatān), Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.5 x 8 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 259v)
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To work on the Miftāḥ I developed a finding aid in Excel that allowed me to notice how its craftsmen created several visual synonyms. So, for the word ‘bādajan,’ we have the visual synonym of ‘lahfatān’ (fig. 2). Shadiyabadi states that these are dolls for which young girls (dukhtarān) make clothing and play with. This entry, however, does not include the Hindavi equivalent.

Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)
Fig. 3: Yo-yo (farmūk, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 7.6 x 7.6 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 212v)
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Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)
Fig. 4: Yo-yo (bādfarah, laṭṭū) Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 6.2 x 6.5 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 55v)
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Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)
Fig. 5: Lady with a Yo-yo, India, Rajasthan, Raghugarh, ca. 1770. Opaque watercolour and gold on paper, sheet: 9 1/4 x 6 3/16 in. (23.5 x 15.7 cm) (Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Alan Kirschbaum, 80.268.1)

In addition to dolls, the Miftāḥ contains entries on toys that one would recognise from South Asian art more broadly. For example, it devotes an entry to the whip-top or yo-yo which Shadiyabadi calls a farmūk in Persian and laṭṭū in Hindavi (fig. 3). It too has a visual synonym in the word bādfarah that is also accompanied by its Hindavi equivalent (fig. 4). These yo-yos, like many of the crafts and objects depicted in the Miftāḥ, can be found in numerous other examples. There are several Rajput paintings of ladies playing with yo-yos, for instance (fig. 5). The Miftāḥ gives words to these objects in both Persian and Hindavi thereby allowing art historians to come closer to these objects through philology.

Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)
Fig. 6: Kazhmazh, Miftāḥ al-Fużalā of Shadiyabadi, Mandu, ca. 1490, 5.9 x 7.9 cm (British Library Or 3299, f. 228v)
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By way of one final example, a teaser for forthcoming work on the Miftāḥ’s sonic elements and sultanate soundscapes, I offer the definition of kazhmazh. Shadiyabadi defines kazhmazh as the child whose language is still not fully developed. The word itself is onomatopoetic, suggesting a childlike babble. The painting depicts a larger woman, probably the mother, speaking to her son. The child is comparatively much smaller. As we know so little about childhood and play in early-modern India, this illustrated definition gives us one vision of that ephemeral world. We can both hear and see the child struggle to correctly pronounce words correctly. It, along with the entries devoted to toys, draw us into a world of the pleasures of sultanate children.

I dedicate this piece especially to my nieces Anika and Zarina Tekchandani.

Vivek Gupta, PhD History of Art at SOAS, University of London; Postdoctoral Associate in Islamic Art at the University of Cambridge based at the Centre of Islamic Studies (from September 2020); and former doctoral placement at BL Asian and African Collections
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Supplementary Reading

Baevskiĭ, Solomon I, Early Persian Lexicography. Trans. N. Killian. Global Oriental: Kent, 2007.
Gupta, Vivek, Wonder Reoriented: Manuscripts and Experience in Islamicate Societies of  South Asia, ca. 1450—1600. PhD thesis, SOAS University of London, 2020.
Karomat, Dilorom, “Turki and Hindavi in the World of Persian.” In After Timur Left: Culture and Circulation in Fifteenth-Century North India, eds. Francesca Orsini and Samira Sheikh, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2014, pp. 131-66.
Qaisar, A. Jan, and Verma, Som Prakash,  “The Miftah-ul Fuzala’: A Study of an Illustrated Persian Lexicon.” In Art and Culture Painting and Perspective vol. II, eds. Ahsan Jan Qaisar, Som Prakash Verma, Abhinav Publications: New Delhi, 2002, pp. 17-32.
Titley, Norah, “An Illustrated Persian Glossary of the Sixteenth Century,” The British Museum Quarterly 29. no. 1/2. (Winter 1964-1965), pp. 15-19.

29 June 2020

Two Miscellanies in the Manuscript Collection of Sir William Jones

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Sir William Jones collected a large array of manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Chinese and Sanskrit during both his life as a student and lawyer in London, and also as a puisne judge in Bengal. Collecting primarily Persian and Arabic materials and mostly commissioning Sanskrit materials, Jones picked up quite a number of oddities along the way. By far the biggest part of the collection is made up of well-known or popular works of Arabic and Persian science, literature and grammar as well as standard reference works in Islamic law; his collection is replete with such wonders as a beautifully illustrated copy of Niẓāmī’s Khamsah (MS RSPA 31), three separate copies of Rūmī’s Mas̱navī (MSS RSPA 34-41), and six manuscripts of works by Jāmī (MSS RSPA 46-50), including a Kulliyāt-i Jāmī (the complete, or collected, works of Jāmī; MS RSPA 46).

The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 369v-369r)
The opening of Jāmī's first collection of poems (Dīvān) in the centre with his Silsilat al-ẕahab in the margins. Copy dated Shaʻban 940/1534 (British Library RSPA 46, ff. 368v-369r)
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In this blog post, however, I would like to shine a light on two of the most unusual and most difficult to classify manuscripts in the collection. Perhaps the most strikingly individual manuscript is MS RSPA 55, written on a mix of poor-quality coloured paper by a variety of hands. Impossible to classify or name, RSPA 55 is made up of miscellaneous segments of texts with no clear order or internal principles. Composed largely out of selections of poetry from a range of Persian authors, there are several sections which are devoted to the Dīvān-i ʻUrfī of the 16th century Indo-Persian poet ʻUrfī Shīrāzī, whose work is the most frequently reproduced in the manuscript.

Beyond ʻUrfī, there appears to be little to no rhyme nor reason behind the selections; there are anecdotes referring to Hārūn al-Rashīd followed immediately by a story of three travellers who share ten loaves, shortly after which we find a description of ten different kinds of script (Arabic, Greek, etc.), sayings in Persian by Plato and quotations in Arabic from the ḥadīth. This is all spread over just 4 folios, ff.87-91.

Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reighn of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)
Excerpt from Miʻrāj al-khalīl by the Indo-Persian poet Tajallī (d. 1088/1677) who emigrated from Shiraz in the reign of Shah Jahan (British Library RSPA 55, f. 236v)
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The manuscript continues to spool its way over 469 folios, replete with ghazals, rubāʿīs, letters, witticisms and anecdotes, as well as qaṣīdahs, mars̱īyahs and qiṭʻahs of varying renown; perhaps one of the most striking things about this hodge-podge manuscript is the number of lesser known poets among the ones quoted. Rarely today will students of Persian poetry study in depth (if at all) the Dīvān of, say, Ghanī Kāshmīrī, Mīrzā Jalāl Asīr, Fighānī or Āṣafī, all featured in this miscellany of poetry.

There is no clear indication from the manuscript of how (or why) Jones acquired the work and no reason to suppose he commissioned it. Indeed, there are no annotations on the manuscript that can positively be traced back to him; unusually, the manuscript does not even include title and author details at the beginning in his hand. Who assembled it, and perhaps more importantly why they did so in the way they did, remains, therefore every bit as much of a mystery as how it wound its way into the collections of an English puisne judge in Kolkata.

Jones also owned another miscellany of poetical works, MS RSPA 109. This very small manuscript, measuring only 200 x 65mm, is a collection of Arabic poetry about love, that Jones entitles Dīwān al-ʻāshiq, with the gloss, “A collection of Arabick poems some of which are extremely beautiful – Anthologia Amatoria.” Including poems written by a wide range of poets, including Ibn Sayyid al-Nās, Ibn Maṭrūḥ, al-Sharīf al-Raḍī and Maḥmūd ibn Fahd al-Ḥalabī. These poets come from all periods of Arabic literature, with perhaps a slightly greater number from the Ayyubid and Mamluk periods than from the earlier periods. This is indeed his only manuscript that would have provided him access to post-Abbasid poetry, as the majority of his Arabic poetry collection was composed of copies of the Muʻallaqāt and other pre-Islamic poetry (MSS RSPA 103-5 and 110), a copy of Abū Tammām’s Ḥamāsah (MS RSPA 106), the Dīwān of al-Mutanabbī (MS RSPA 107) and the Dīwān of ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (MS RSPA 108).

Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)
Leaves from an anthology of Arabic love poetry, 18th century (British Library RSPA 109)
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This manuscript also includes the only specimens of Turkish literature of the entire collection. Famously a scholar of Arabic and Persian, Jones’s scholarship is not so focused on Turkish (see Cannon, Life, 44-5). Whilst his letters make it clear he at one time viewed himself eligible for the role of ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, a job posting that never materialised, he only ever published one work of any significance on Turkish literature, this being “A Turkish Ode on the Spring,” a verse based upon Mesihi, which he augmented with a transliteration of the original and a prose translation. This poem and translation were found within Jones’s 1777 publication of Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, before he embarked on his trip to India. In this anthology, however, which does mostly consist of Arabic poems, there are short extracts of poetry by Navāʼī, Nasīmī, Fahmī and others, in both Chagatay and Ottoman Turkish.

Beyond the poetry, the manuscript is also of interest for two further reasons. Firstly, it contains a number of folios dedicated to the writing out of glyphs for numbers of more than one digit, what appears to be several folios of handwriting practice and a folio which lists abbreviations found throughout the manuscript. Whose handwriting practice this is remains a mystery, especially given that the Turkish poetry and these miscellaneous pages were written in a hand different from the Arabic poems.

Finally, the manuscript also includes a page in English that names General John Carnac, a soldier in the East India Company and, later, after returning to India in 1773, a member of the council of Bombay (now Mumbai). This page is a short list of some of his eastern manuscripts with some brief descriptions; it seems likely that this manuscript once formed part of Carnac’s collection of manuscripts; we do not know whether Carnac himself commissioned the manuscript or if he purchased it. Carnac’s work in India did briefly take him to Bengal (in the 1760s), but by the time Jones was resident in India, Carnac was resident in Mumbai and then, Manguluru, both of which are on the western coast of the Indian subcontinent, along the Arabian Sea. It does not appear that Jones ever travelled to the western coast of India. Did Carnac bring the manuscript back to England and give it to Jones before India? Did they meet in India and exchange the manuscript? Did the manuscript go through others’ hands before Jones?

General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)
A former owner? General Carnac's name inscribed in Jones anthology of Arabic poetry (British Library RSPA 109)
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It seems most probable that Carnac might have given Jones the manuscript in India, possibly in Bengal. In May 1787, for example, John Carnac, also a member of Jones’ Asiatic Society, despite being resident in Mumbai, gave six ancient plates to the society that he had come across (Asiatick Researches, 1:356). Unfortunately, MS RSPA 109 remains unmentioned in both Jones’ letters and the volumes of Asiatick Researches, but the interaction proves the two men certainly knew each other and were part of a broader culture among the English colonial officers of manuscript exchange.

These miscellanies, then, are two of the more curious aspects of the collection that both warrant further study and highlight the diverse nature of the collection. Jones was not only set about collecting classic works that today would form part of a Persian Poetry 101 class at university; instead, he was collecting literary works in a wide array of genres and styles, including these miscellaneous manuscripts that would have given him access to a great amount of literature not represented elsewhere in his collection.

Jonathan Lawrence, DPhil candidate at the University of Oxford, and former doctoral placement at the British Library
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Further Reading

Lawrence, Jonathan, “Sir William Jones’ manuscript copy of al-Fatawa al-'Alamgiriyyah
Society of Bengal, Asiatick Researches, Volume the First , London, 1799-1839.
Cannon, Garland, The Life and Mind of Oriental Jones. Cambridge, 1990.
Dennison Ross, E. and Browne, E.G. Catalogue of Two Collections of Persian and Arabic Manuscripts Preserved in the India Office Library, London, 1902.
Jones, William Letters of Sir William Jones, ed. Garland Cannon, 2 v., Oxford, 1970.
——— Poems, consisting chiefly of translations from the Asiatick languages, London, 1777; second edition
Sitter, Zak, “William Jones, ‘Eastern Poetry’ and the Problem of Imitation” in Texas Studies in Language and Literature 50:4 (2008), pp 385-407

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)
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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)
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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

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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.

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

23 January 2020

Digital Zoroastrian at the British Library

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

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

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

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


Thomas Hyde (1636–1703)

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


2 Hydes Khordah Avesta-royal_ms_16_b_vi_f001r
A copy of the Khordah Avesta (‘Little Avesta’) which contains prayers, hymns and invocations. This manuscript begins with the Ashem vohu (featured also in Sogdian script above) and is dated 30 Ardibihisht 1042 in the era of Yazdagird (1673). It was copied at the request of the English Agent Kunvarji Nanabhai Modi probably on commission for Hyde. Hyde could read though never wholly understood Avestan, but he used this particular manuscript as a model for the special Avestan type he created for his well-known History of the Persian Religion published in 1700 (BL Royal Ms 16.B.vi, f. 1r). Public domain


Samuel Guise (1751-1811)

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

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

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

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


Burjorji Sorabji Ashburner

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

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

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

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

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


Other sources

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

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

Further reading

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


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

Ursula Sims-Williams, Lead Curator Persian, British Library
© CCBY



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

12 November 2019

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

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

Or 11996 ff1v-2r Mam u Zin
The opening pages of Mam û Zîn by Ehmed Xani, copied in 1221 AH/1806-7 CE (Or. 11996, ff. 1v-2r)
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What does this have to do with the British Library's holdings of Kurdish manuscripts? For starters, it helps us to understand the context within which they were created. Unlike Ottoman Turkish, Arabic or Persian, Kurdish was not the language of a widespread, long-lasting Imperial power. As a result, prior to the end of the 20th century, it was not employed over long periods of time as a vehicle for the creation of state documents, or a state-sponsored literary corpus. Moreover, Kurdish was not the liturgical language of a large religious community with a long tradition of written cultural production. Hebrew might not have been a state language for thousands of years before the creation of the State of Israel, but its use as a liturgical language by Jews around the world helped ensure the creation of a hefty corpus of both religious and secular material in it. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, for Syriac. Kurdish was thus doubly disadvantaged in finding patronage for the creation of a large written canon prior to the 20th century, and as a result, we are left with relatively fewer manuscripts in it than compared to Ottoman Turkish, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Hebrew or Syriac.

Or 6444 f11r Gorani Anthology_1500 Or 6444 f55r Gorani Anthology_1500
Two pages of poetry in Gorani from the Gorani anthology in safina format. Copy dated 1197 AH/ 1782-4 CE (Or. 6444, f. 11r and f. 55r)
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Indeed, the British Library holds a total of 8 manuscript texts in Kurdish, compared to the estimated 4000 items in Turkic languages. Of these, only 6 are volumes composed entirely, or nearly entirely, of poetry written in Kurdish. The best known of these is Or. 6444, a codex of Gorani poetry, which was transliterated and translated by Mr. Anwar Soltani, and eventually published as a bilingual edition entitled Anthology of Gorani Kurdish Poetry (YC.1999.b.8850). Some of the poetry included in the volume was composed by well-known Kurdish authors. None of them, however, is as famous as Ehmed Xanî, the author of the Kurdish epic Mam û Zîn, which the Library holds in manuscript form under the shelfmark Or. 11996. This work is a meditation on forbidden love, but it also encapsulates some of the core themes of a nascent Kurdish national identity. Mam û Zîn has been copied and published numerous times, especially since the creation of a de-facto Kurdish entity in Northern Iraq following the first Gulf War, when the Kurdish publishing industry blossomed. Nonetheless, this manuscript recension brings to life a historical dimension of the development of Kurdish literacy in the Middle East, while also acting as a window onto Xanî's poetical genius.

Or 8208 Seyfu-l-mulûk f45v-46r
Two better-preserved pages of the Seyfu'l-mulûk showing a fully-vocalized rendering of the Kurmanji text. Copy dated 1286 AH / 1869-70 CE (Or. 8208, ff. 45v-46r)
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Among the other Kurmanji Kurdish manuscipts is Or. 8208, a poem known as Seyfu'l-Mulûk, or The Sword of Kings. The Library's copy is badly damaged, and although the text is largely legible, many of the pages have lost their edges, in some cases depriving readers of complete words of phrases. This story is set in Egypt, where the action revolves around the adventures of a particular prince, but the origins of the tale are Persian. Versions of the Seyfu'l-Mulûk can be found across the Islamic world, and this Kurdish version attests to the manner in which such texts were accepted and assimilated into broader Kurdish creative culture.

Add MS 7829 ff91v-92r. Gorani Poem
A section of the Gorani translation of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar, early 19th century (Add MS 7829, ff. 91v-92r)
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Add MS 23554 f37r Bahram u Gulandam
A folio of Bahrām va Gulandām translated into Gorani showing a later addition to the text, early 19th century (Add MS 23554, f. 37r)
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Other items within the Kurdish collections are translations of well-known Persian works into the Gorani dialect. Add MS 7829 presents us with two stories: that of Leyla and Mecnun; and another of Khvurshīd-i Khāvar. Add MS 7826, in contrast, is a Gorani translation of Khusraw va Shīrīn. Finally, Add MS 23554 is the story of Bahrām va Gulandām, yet another Persian epic of reasonable fame amongst Middle Eastern communities. The simple production of all three manuscripts, as well as the lack of information about the copyist or where they were created, lead us to believe that they were part of a broader reading culture among Kurdish speakers. They might not be remarkable items of art and luxury, but their construction and formatting provide us with valuable information about the manner in which Kurds read and shared literature in their native tongue, all while remaining part of a broader West Asian cultural space.

Or 5932 14v
The start of the earliest Kurdish-Arabic dictionary in verse, the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 9v)
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Or. 5932 9r: The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî
The opening part of the Edîqeya Îmanî, a didactic poem composed by Ehmed Xanî. 18th century (Or. 5932, f. 14v)
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The last item in the collections containing Kurdish poetry is Or. 5932. It contains two Kurmanji Kurdish poems among various other works in Arabic, Ottoman Turkish and Persian. The first Kurmanji Kurdish work is the Nûbihara Biçûkan, composed by Ehmed Xanî as a means of teaching the Arabic language to Kurdish students at madrasas. The second is known as the Edîqeya Îmanî, another didactic work originally composed by Ehmed Xanî. The Edîqeya was also traditionally used as a starter text by Kurdish students at madrasas. The inclusion of these two particular poems in the codex is apt, given that the final text is an Arabic didactic poem aimed at helping Persian-speaking students learn the Arabic language; a mandatory subject for anyone studying the Qur'an.

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

Add MS 26319 ff2v-3r Laki
A page of the Persian-Laki dictionary featuring terms in both languages written in neat nasta'liq. Dated 1811 CE (Add MS 26319, ff. 2v-3r)
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Add MS 26319 ff9v-10r English Kurdish
A page of the English-Kurdish wordlist featuring terms of common usage. Early 19th century (Add MS 26319, ff. 9v-10r)
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Linguistic diversity, far from being a hindrance, enriches our collections. In addition to the variety of dialects reflected in the poetic works, the British Library also holds a number of handwritten wordlists of Kurdish dialects in Iraq and Iran. The first of these, found under the shelf mark Add MS 26319, round out the collections and help to bolster our corpus of scholarly material relating to the Kurdish linguistic space. The codex is one that was created by the last owner of the manuscripts - C. J. Erskine - prior to its purchase by the British Museum in 1865. It holds an English-Kurdish glossary, as well as Persian-Laki Kurdish and Persian-Ardalani Kurdish (possibly a reference to Gorani) wordlists. While far from serious linguistic treatises on Kurdish dialectology or grammar, they do nonetheless provide a look at some of the pre-standardization aspects of Kurdish speech communities. They point to the ways in which linguistic diversity among the Kurds was conceived, sometimes by Western Orientalists, and sometimes by Kurds themselves. Such glossaries were a common phenomenon among British military and colonial officials, and more official versions were often published by governmental agencies. One need only look at IOR/L/MIL/17/15/52, a mass-produced multilingual volume entitled "Vocabularies: English, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish, Syriac" (digitised as part of the Qatar Digital Library), to see their importance within the context of the late British Empire.

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

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

Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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