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70 posts categorized "Religion"

24 June 2020

Radicals and Rebels: The published works of Issachar Jacox Roberts

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In this blogpost, we return to an item discussed last year on the British Library Conservation Care blog in Consider the Cover: Conserving a Chinese Book, when it was being prepared for the exhibition ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (26 April – 27 August 2019). We then learned about the story told by the book’s binding, and now we look closer at its contents and context within the dramatic events of 19th-century China.

A book of Chinese characters open inside a display case
Zi bu ji jie on display in ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (2019). (15344.c.24) (Image credit: © Tony Antoniou)

Aside from being the second American Baptist missionary to set up in China and the first to establish a Protestant mission outside the foreign 'factory' corner  of Canton (Guangzhou), Issachar Roberts was also the religious teacher of Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全. Hong was the man who, in 1851, proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and led a 13-year rebellion against the Qing dynasty as ruler of the Taiping tianguo (太平天囯 ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’).

‘An Explanation of Radical Characters’

Zi bu ji jie is a short text which acts as a guide to the pronunciation and general category of meaning associated with each of the 214 Kangxi radicals (the classifiers used most famously in the dictionary completed in 1716, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor). These descriptions seem to be taken, either wholly or in part, from entries in the Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典 Kangxi zidian), which in turn draws upon earlier sources such as the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 and the Guangyun 廣韻.

Each entry gives the pronunciation first in the form of a homophone character, with variations in tone denoted by the position of a small circle, followed by a short definition in classical Chinese. The character 口 ‘mouth’, for example, is described as人所以言食也 “the means by which people speak and eat.”

The text may be classical in origin and formulaic in structure but it still reveals some of the context of its creation. For instance, it would appear that Roberts was unable to source a satisfactory definition of the eighth Kangxi radical 亠 ‘head’ and instead wrote: 亠字冇乜解法 “The character亠 has no explanation”, using local the Cantonese characters 冇乜 (= 沒有什麽 = ‘without any’).

A page of a printed Chinese book with ruled columns containing bold characters
A page from Zi bu ji jie (15344.c.24) containing local character variants.
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The copy of this work held in the British Library is stamped with “I. J. Roberts” and also includes a handwritten dedication to another prominent missionary, Walter Medhurst, and the date “October 13th, 1840”.

Little did the Reverend Roberts know when he published this ‘Explanation of Radical Characters’ that seven years later he would meet a ‘radical character’ of a very different kind.

‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’

A printed Chinese book with yellowing pages and text arranged in vertical columns, beginning with the title on the right
The first page of another of Roberts’ publications, Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
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Wen da su hua is translated as ‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’ and serves as an introduction to Christian doctrine presented in the form of a series of questions and answers. Given its title and more vernacular style, it is not surprising that local characters feature once again. In addition to the frequent use of the character 乜 (= 什麽 = ‘what/any’) in the phrasing of the questions, you can also find the third person pronoun 佢 and the verb 係 ‘to be’, such as:

問,個仔呌乜名呢。答,呌耶穌。
“Question: What is the name of his [God’s] son? Answer: [He] is called Jesus.”

This publication also includes a map of Asia and other geographical descriptions, which has been said to reflect Roberts’s “interest in spreading knowledge about the world”, and may well have formed part of Hong Xiuquan’s educational syllabus when he studied under the missionary in 1847.

This volume is signed by the author with the character 孝 ‘The Filial’, which is part of Roberts’s Chinese name, Luo Xiaoquan (羅孝全). It also appears to have been gifted to someone, although the ink has bled and the name is obscured.

A map of Asia in Chinese that unfolds from inside the book and has areas shaded in different colours
The hand-coloured map of Asia from inside Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
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‘The Chinese Revolutionist’

It is not clear whether these works were shown to Hong Xiuquan when he studied under Roberts in 1847. It seems likely that the catechism in particular may have been used, especially as Roberts himself refers to employing his own materials as well those prepared by other prominent missionaries. One thing we do know is that, despite his formal Christian education being cut short when his baptism was “postponed indefinitely”, the two months Hong spent with Roberts at his chapel in Canton (Guangzhou) had a profound and enduring effect on the soon-to-be Taiping leader and his ideology.

The meeting of Hong and Roberts was a turning point in Chinese history, falling halfway between two other crucial moments in the story of the Taiping rebellion. The first was in 1843, when Hong used certain Christian tracts as the basis for interpreting visions he had had following his fourth failure in the civil service examinations. Through this he perceived his divine purpose – to purge the earth of demons and idolatry – and lineage – as the second son of God and younger brother of Jesus Christ. The second crucial moment was on 11 January 1851, when he stood before thousands of his followers established himself as the leader, or Taiping Wang (太平王‘King of Great Peace’), of a rival Chinese dynasty.

In an article published in Putnam’s Monthly in October 1856, Roberts referred to both Hong’s examination failures and his postponed baptism as formative moments, or instances in which “all-wise Providence overruled”. He writes:

“Had he gained his literary degree, to become a mandarin under the Tartar rule would have been his highest aim; had he been baptized, to become an assistant preacher under his foreign teacher was the object in view; but now how widely different his present position!”

Roberts had been unaware of what had become of his one-time student until 1852 but spent much of the next eight years gathering support for the Taiping movement and trying to reach their capital at Nanjing (or Taijing 太京 ‘Heavenly Capital’, as it was known by the Taipings). Once there, he hoped to make use of his unique personal connection and the Christian fervour behind the rebellion in order to further his religious mission in China.

Detail of printed article from magazine
Detail from “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase” by I. J. Roberts, as published in the Primitive Church Magazine in January 1855. (P.P. 429)
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Roberts expressed his support of the Taiping regime in a circular dated June 1854 entitled “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase in China”, which was published the following January in The Primitive Church Magazine. A bit of a rebel himself, he went as far as to challenge what he saw as the “unequal and oppressive” actions of the Mission Board (which had dismissed him in 1852) and propose an alternative “committee of co-operation” to be based among the Taipings at Nanjing. Although aware of the disparities between his own beliefs and those of the Taipings, he was convinced that he could convert them to “true Christianity” and claimed that: “the Tartar dynasty will become defunct and the Tae-ping dynasty will be established in its stead… the Christian religion will not only be tolerated but promoted throughout China”.

It was not until 1862 that, having reached Nanjing and spent more than a year among the Taipings, Roberts finally gave up on his “grand plan”. Hong continued to express deep respect for his former teacher, granting him the exclusive honour of a personal audience and issuing orders for his protection, but Roberts came to realise that their religious differences were both substantial and irreconcilable. He left Nanjing in January 1862, “thoroughly disgusted with their proceedings”.

Emma Harrison
Curator, Chinese Collections

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Historical sources

Alexander Wylie, Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese: Giving a list of their publications, and obituary notices of the deceased. With copious indexes. (American Presbyterian Mission Press: Shanghae [sic], 1867): pp. 94-97. (4766.dd.).

Issachar Jacox Roberts, “Tae Ping Wang” in Putnam's Monthly, v.8 (Jul-Dec 1856).

The Primitive Church Magazine , Volumes XI-XII. (Arthur Hall & Co.: London, 1854-55). (P.P.429)

 

Further reading

Yuan Chung Teng, “Reverend Issachar Jacox Roberts and the Taiping Rebellion”. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (November 1963): pp.55-67.

George Blackburn Pruden, Jr., Issachar Jacox Roberts and American Diplomacy in China during the Taiping Rebellion. PhD dissertation in modern history. (The American University, 1977).

Prescott Clarke and JS Gregory, Western reports on the Taiping: A Selection of Documents. (Australian National University Press: Canberra, 1982). (X.809/54928)

Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. (W. W. Norton: New York, 1996). (YC.1996.b.6425)

15 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings

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

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

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

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

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

27 May 2020

Èṣù at the BL: Journeys Through Literature and Technology

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A sculpture of Esu against a backdrop of books
A sculpture of Èṣù. (© orishaimage.com, used by permission)

This character in Yorùbá mythology, Èṣù, achieved a somewhat more controversial status at the beginning of the 19th Century when it entered into literature. (The name is sometimes written as “Eshu” or “Exu/Echu” in Latin American literature or Legba, Elegba, Laaroye, Legba, Elegbara, among many others).

Oyelaran (2020) describes the deity as “the most important primordial bastion of the Yorùbá people’s metaphysical embodiments of organising and regulatory existential principles.” A mouthful of a description, more comprehensive than previous easy substitutions like "trickster god" or "messenger god", which have been used in the past, especially in Western literature. Wọlé Ṣóyínká calls Èṣù a “master dialectician” — one of the many important deities in the Yorùbá religious system, notable for its role as a sort of intermediary for other higher deities. Èṣù’s errands, according to stories in Ifá literature, were of different shapes, but the outcome — at least for those who crossed paths with him — could be either good or bad. But it was never just one thing, and those who worshipped it, or encountered it in a shrine or on the road, knew what propitiation was necessary to avoid its wrath or seek its warmth or direct them on another errand. Sophie Olúwọlé called Èṣù something akin to a policeman, a law enforcement agent who did not make rules but was often called upon to enforce them.

In the early 19th century, however, notably at the hands of the early missionary translators, Èṣù became something else: a total and exclusive symbol of evil. In translating the words “Satan” and “Devil” in his book Vocabulary of the Yorùbá Language (1843) [Digital Store 1333.f.23.], Samuel Ajayi Crowther had settled on “Èṣù” as the most appropriate word.

A listing of words including Satan along with its Yoruba translation
The entry on “Satan”. (Crowther, Samuel, Vocabulary of the Yoruba Language: Part 1 (London: Church Missionary Society, 1843). (General Reference Collection 1333.f.23)).
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Àjàyí Crowther was an early missionary and the first African Bishop on the Niger. A Yorùbá man himself — though he was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery. After his rescue by the British, he was educated in Sierra Leone and eventually returned home. He was intimately familiar with Yorùbá religious and cultural patterns, which made his choice of "Èṣù" for "Satan" an odd one. By settling on this rendering, however, history was forever changed. It had huge, perhaps unintended, consequences for the worship of the deity, the attitude to those who bore it as a root morpheme in their names (Èsùbíyì, Èsùgbàyí, Èsùlékè, Dáraléṣù, etc), and the perception of good and evil in Yorùbá culture and religion. (The same, later, happened in Igbo with “Ekwensu”).

Subsequent dictionaries of Yorùbá followed this particular tradition, retaining Èṣù as the appropriate translation of Satan, devil, or even demon. The Dictionary of Yorùbá Language, published by the Church Missionary Society in 1913 [X.208/3458.], did the same, as did many others. (See this review of Yorùbá dictionaries to see how Èṣù was rendered throughout history till current time). It was only natural that when technology took over as the repository of words and translations, Google Translate began to render the translation of Èṣù as “Satan” or “devil” or “demon” as well. This didn’t go well with a number of people. Adherents did not take too kindly to the association with evil, although for over a century they could not do anything about it.

Eshu_drawing
Oríta Mẹ́ta by Moussa Kone, ink and watercolour on paper, 76 x 56 cm, painted in 2020. (© Moussa Kone, used by permission).

When I worked at Google from 2015-2016, I worked on the first permanent fix of that online problem. I have written about that in a 2016 blog post. In the end, Èṣù, having no direct equivalent in English, was retained as “Esu" in English translation on Google Translate. Demon became “Ànjọ̀nú”, and Devil/evil became “Bìlísì” — a Yorubanized version of “Iblis”, an Arabic word for devil (which had also shown up in later translation of the bible in the line for “deliver us from evil” as “gba wa lowo bilisi”).

I had known for a while that Àjàyí Crowther had something to do with the misrepresentation of Èṣù in modern imagination — Wole Ṣóyínká in 1976 had alleged that the Bishop had “grovelled before his white missionary superiors in a plea for patience and understanding of his ‘backward, heathen, brutish’ brothers”. But many who have engaged with the topic over the years had assumed that this mistranslation happened during the Bishop’s translation of the Bible. It was, earlier this year, while working with the physical copy of The Vocabulary of Yorùbá at the British Library (referenced earlier) that I discovered the original source of the problem. It predated the work on the Bible by a number of years.

Figures of Esu2
Figures of Èṣù published in the Dictionary of Modern Yorùbá. (Abraham, Roy Clive, H. J. Sutton (illustrator), Dictionary of Modern Yoruba (London: University of London Press, 1958).) (12912.m.25)
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Now while one could argue that the skills used in dictionary lexicography are necessarily different from those used in prose translation, the eventual consequences of the choice of words used still point to the influence of Christian ideas about good and evil in the Bishop’s lexicographical choices. In today’s spoken Yorùbá, the word Èṣù is used interchangeably with ‘devil’ or ‘satan’, to the consternation of those cognisant of the initial error. But this is only in Nigeria. The diaspora Yorùbá in Cuba, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America appear to have kept the deity in his place of reverence and celebration, along with the other deities.

Most dictionaries of Yorùbá, alas, have followed Àjàyí Crowther. Even dictionaries published as late as Kayode Fakinlede’s 2003 Modern Practical Dictionary [YC.2006.a.19076] have retained that original “evil” association. Most who speak the language today do not even know of the time when the association wasn’t always present. To call someone “Ọmọ Èṣù” in Yorùbá today only means “child of the devil”. So whether the bell of the evil linkage can be successfully unrung is a question that will remain up in the air.

Kọ́lá Túbọ̀sún is a Nigerian linguist and writer, author of Edwardsville by Heart, a collection of poetry. He is 2019/2020 Chevening Research Fellow at the British Library.
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References

Ayankunle, Lamidi (bata); Baba Lati (bata); Baba Nasiru (bata),Eshu (Erin Osun, Osun State, Nigeria: 1985). [Live performance] ( ^A184405)

Harper, Peggy (sound recordist), “Eṣu”, on Peggy Harper African Recordings (Otu, Iseyin district, Western State, Nigeria: 18 November 1968). ( ^A250464). Available for listening in the British Library reading rooms only.

Ogundipẹ, Ayọdele, Èșù Elegbára: change, chance, uncertainty in Yorùbá mythology (Ilorin, Kwara State : Kwara State University Press, 2012). [ Asia, Pacific & Africa YP.2020.a.678 ]

Ogundele, W., “Esu-Elegbara: Ambivalence in Yoruba philosophy,” in Bayreuth African Studies, 38 (2001), pp. 29-36. ( 1871.242550 )

Ogunyẹmi, Wale, Eshu Elegbara (Ibadan: Orisun Acting Editions, 1970.) ( X.908/25448 ).

 

Further readings

Adefarakan, Temitope, “ 'At a Crossroads': Spirituality and The Politics of Exile: The Case of the Yoruba Orisa ,” Obsidian, 9:1 (2008), pp. 31-58.

Bacelar da Silva, Antonio José, “Exu is not Satan – the dialogics of memory and resistance among Afro-Brazilians,” African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, 13:1 (2020), pp. 54-67. (doi: 10.1080/17528631.2019.1637143)

Kone, Moussa, “ Yorùbá Dictionaries ,” Orisha Image Blog, 15 May 2018.

Oyèláràn, Ọ., “ Èṣù and ethics in the Yorùbá world view ,” Africa, 90:2 (2020), pp. 377-407. (doi:10.1017/S0001972019001098)

08 April 2020

Mah Nishtanah? Why is Tonight different from all other nights? In celebration of Passover

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Passover is a major Jewish Spring festival that has been celebrated annually since ancient times. It typically falls between late March and late April, and marks the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian bondage through divine intervention, as told in the biblical Book of Exodus. The highlight of the Passover celebration is the reading of the hagadah. 

The hagadah (plural hagadot), which literally means ‘narration’ or ‘telling’, is the ritual book used in Jewish households on Passover Eve, at a festive ceremony and meal known as the Seder (order).  In the Jewish Diaspora the Seder is conducted on two consecutive nights.  

 

Seder table from Hispano-Moresque Jewish manuscript Seder table from Catalan Jewish manuscript
Seder table. (Hispano-Moresque Hagadah.  Castile, Spain, 1275-1324. Or 2737, f. 91r)

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Seder table. (Sister Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain1325-1374.  Or 2884, f.18r)

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This is a book of remembrance and redemption, aiming primarily to teach the young about the continuity of the Jewish people, and their unswerving faith in God:  “And you shall explain to your son on that day: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt” (Exodus 13:8).  

Written chiefly in Hebrew with Aramaic additions, the hagadah is a mosaic of biblical extracts, rabbinical discussions, legends, symbolic foods, prayers, Psalms and songs that were probably assembled as early as the 2nd century CE, evolving gradually into the set pattern of fifteen steps that is known today.

 

Seder table from the Ashkenazi Hagadah

Seder table. (The Ashkenzi Hagadah.  Ulm (?), Germany, 1430-1470.  Add MS 14762, f. 6r)

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Its enthralling contents and the fact that it is used at a domestic ceremony attended also by young children have been a fertile ground for artistic creativity and expression since medieval times.  Over the centuries, the hagadah has thus become one of the most endearing texts to Jews everywhere, and equally one of the most frequently decorated texts used in Jewish practise. The earliest extant illustration in a hagadah appears in an 11th-century manuscript fragment found in the Cairo Genizah.[1]  The illustration[2] depicts the maror (bitter herbs) a mandatory food eaten at the Seder.

 

Illustration of the maror from a Cairene fragment
Drawing of maror (bitter herbs) in a hagadah fragment from the Cairo Genizah (La Haggada enluminée. 1., Etude iconographique et stilistique des manuscrits enluminés et decorés de la Haggada du XIII. au XVI. siècle / Mendel Metzger. Leiden: Brill, 1973. (pp. 285-287)). (Image is not Creative Commons)

 

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, richly illuminated manuscripts of the Passover narrative were produced in limited numbers in various European centres.   Of the surviving hagadah manuscripts the finest and most luxurious specimens were created in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, in the 14th century.  The Brother and the Sister hagadot in the British Library’s Hebrew collection are a good case in point. 

The images seen here originate from these two splendid artefacts.  They contain the hymn Dayenu (It would have been enough), a Passover thanksgiving hymn that extols God’s magnanimity towards the Israelites. Its decoration is often encountered in other medieval Spanish Passover ritual books. The text is flanked by ornate vertical bands created by the repeated words ilu (if) and ve-lo (and if not) placed on filigree grounds.

 

Illuminated Dayenu hymn from the Brother Hagadah Illuminated Dayenu hymn from the Sister Hagadah

Embellished Dayenu hymn (It would have been enough). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 15v)

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Decorated Dayenu hymn (It would have been enough). (Sister Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1325-1374. Or 2884, f. 48v)

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The exact figure of extant illuminated hagadah manuscripts is difficult to determine, nonetheless, it can be stated with some degree of certainty that a small number date from the Middle Ages, whilst the majority are 18th century artefacts.

 

The 18th century witnessed a revival of Hebrew manuscript art, which has been linked to the emergence of a wealthy class of central and northern European Jews. Influenced by trends prevailing in their Christian milieu, these well-to-do patrons began to commission illuminated Hebrew manuscripts for everyday use and special occasions, hagadot being particularly popular.  This phenomenon, which some scholars have named the ”Jewish Renaissance,” was made possible by the formation of a school of professional scribe-artists, chiefly from Bohemia and Moravia, who travelled around Europe in search of commissions. 

The four sons illustration from German Jewish manuscript

The Four Sons. (The Sloane Hagadah, Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 6v)

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One of the most prominent Moravian scribe-artists of that period was Joseph ben David Leipnik, active in Hamburg and Altona.  Between 1731 and 1740 he created some thirteen hagadot. Featured here are miniatures from a beautifully wrought specimen Leipnik completed in 1740, now kept in the British Library’s Hebrew collection. The manuscript is called the Sloane Hagadah after its former owner, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), founder of the British Museum.  Like other 18th century Passover ritual books, the illuminations in this one were modelled on the copper engravings in the 1695 and 1712 printed editions of the Amsterdam hagadah.

Finding Baby Moses from Germany Jewish manuscriptMoses receiving the law from German Jewish manuscript
Finding of baby Moses. (The Sloane Hagadah., Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 12v)
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Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. (The Sloane Hagadah., Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 17v)
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The Passover ceremony is a major festive celebration for Jews everywhere. Families and guests gather round the beautifully set Seder table, to recite the hagadah, sing hymns and consume the traditional symbolic foodstuff arranged on special Seder plates.  

Two of the obligatory foods eaten on Passover eve are matsah (unleavened bread; knows also as ‘poor man’s bread’) and maror (bitter herbs). The former symbolises freedom. It is the unbaked bread dough the Israelites took with them when leaving Egypt hastily. The latter represents the harshness of the Israelites’ slavery endured under Pharaoh.  The matsah we partake from nowadays is a flat, cracker-like bread. Vegetables used most commonly as bitter herbs are horseradish and romaine lettuce.

Illustration of matsah from Catalan Jewish manuscriptIllustration of maror from Catalan Jewish manuscript
Miniature of the matsah (unleavened bread). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 17v)

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Miniature of the maror (bitter herbs). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 18r)
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Another essential food consumed at the Seder ceremony is haroset (sweetmeats) which is symbolic of the mortar and bricks the Israelite slaves used to build Pharaoh’s cities. Traditionally this is a sweet relish made of fruit, chopped or ground nuts and sweet red wine. Over the centuries, Jewish communities from around the world have developed their own versions of haroset.  Countless recipes exist using a variety of local ingredients, but many still are closely guarded secrets.

 

Distribution of matsah and haroset from Catalan golden hagadah Distribution of haroset from Hispano-Moresque hagadah

Distributing matsah and haroset  to children. (The Golden Hagadah, Catalonia, Spain, 1320-1330. Add MS 27210, f. 15r (detail))

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Distributing haroset. (Hispano-Moresque Hagadah.  Castile, Spain, 1275-1324. (Or 2737, f. 89r)

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A while ago, I discovered an interesting recipe for making haroset in an 18th century manuscript held in our collection. I found it rather intriguing that a manuscript of liturgical poems for circumcision contained instructions and ingredients for making Passover sweet relish. If a concealed connection does exist, it has yet to be unveiled. In the meantime, I am delighted to share this recipe with you.

Written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) in Latin characters, I presume it was most probably used yearly by the previous anonymous owner/s of the manuscript, and must have been passed down by relatives or friends with Sephardi roots (from Spain or Portugal). The ingredients used in it point strongly to the rich culinary tradition of Spanish Jews.

 

Latin-script Judeo-Spanish recipe for haroset
Recipe for making haroset.  (Place of production unknown, 18th century. Or 10452, f. 33v)

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My translation is only partial.  Since some of the ingredients and instructions were hard to make out, they have been omitted and replaced by dots.

Instructions for making haroset.

The haroset is made from:

black figs (higos negros)

sultanas (pasas del sol)

almonds (almendras) 

chickpeas (garvansos) 

walnuts (nuesis de Espania)

These are all toasted (toztado) and crushed (majado), then mixed well together with apples (mansanas), pomegranates (granadas) and orange rind (cascaron de naranjas)… 

To  this mixture add spices (especias)…… ginger (Xinjibre), cinnamon (Canelon de Brazil), nutmeg (Nuez moscada)……..  If preferred, the composition can be blended with kosher honey (miel) melted (deretida) with sugar and a bit of wine (un poco de vino).  The mixture is shaped into small round pellets/balls (balitas) that have been rolled in powdered cinnamon……The pellets can be made in advance and kept.   

Happy festival! (Buena vestas)!  

 

Our readers and followers would be pleased to know, that all the manuscripts featured in this blog have been fully digitised as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the British Library, 2013-2020. They are freely accessible on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

The Sloane Hagadah is one of the star objects in the Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word exhibition.  Due to the current global pandemic, the opening of the exhibition scheduled for March 2020 has been deferred until further notice.    

 

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies

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Further readings:

The Ashkenazi Haggadah: a Hebrew Manuscript of the Mid-15th Century From the Collections of the British Library, notes on the illuminations, transcription and English translation by David Goldstein (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985) [facsimile].

Evelyn M. Cohen, Joel ben Simeon Revisited: Reflections of the Scribe’s Artistic Repertoire in a Cinquecento Haggadah, in A Crown for a King; Studies in Jewish Art, History and Archaeology in Memory of Stephen S. Kayser, ed. by Shalom Sabar, Steven Fine, and William M. Kramer (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2000), pp. 59-71.

Evelyn C. Cohen, 'The "Sister Haggadah" and Its "Poor Relation"', Proceedings of the Eleventh Journal of World Congress of Jewish Studies, D2 (1994), 17-24.

Marc Michael Epstein, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)

Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah. Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011)

Katrin Kogman-Appel, Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain. Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), pp. 47-88.

Katrin Kogman-Appel, ‘The Sephardic Picture Cycles and the Rabbinic Tradition: Continuity and Innovation in Jewish Iconography’, Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte, 60 (1997), 451-82.

Katrin Kogman-Appel, ‘The Picture Cycles of the Rylands Haggadah and the so-called Brother Haggadah and Their Relation to the Western Tradition of Old Testament Illustration’ Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 79, 2 (1997), 3-20.

Yael Zirlin, 'Joel Meets Johannes: a Fifteenth-century Jewish-Christian Collaboration in Manuscript Illumination', Viator, 26 (1995), 265-82.


[1] A storeroom of discarded religious and secular Jewish documents that had been preserved in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo) for nearly one thousand years.  The exact whereabouts of this particular fragment are currently unknown. The fragment might have been owned by David Kaufmann a famous 19th century Jewish scholar who held the chair of philosophy and religion at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. 

[2] This Genizah fragment was published by David Kaufmann, “Notes to the Egyptian Fragments of the Haggadah,” Jewish Quarterly Review, X (1898).  The fragment and illustration were also published in: 

La Haggada enluminée. 1., Etude iconographique et stilistique des manuscrits enluminés et decorés de la Haggada du XIII. au XVI. siècle / Mendel Metzger. Leiden: Brill, 1973. (pp. 285-287).  

 

06 April 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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21 February 2020

Guanyin: the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

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This is the thirteenth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 - 23 Feb 2020. 

Bodhisattvas are sentient beings that seek enlightenment and embrace the principle of compassion to liberate others from suffering. In Buddhist practice, suffering is part of the cycle of rebirth and the level you are reborn is in a cause and effect relationship with your actions in previous lives. There are many levels that sentient beings need to attain before they achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha: the Bodhisattva level is the last step before Buddhahood. This blog post will introduce one of the most famous Boddhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism: Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, also known as Guanyin. It is important to highlight that Guanyin had actually become a Buddha known as 正法明如來 (“The Buddha who clearly understands the true law”) in the past. However, in order to make direct contact with sentient beings and lead them from suffering, this Buddha decided to step down and return as a Boddhisattva. This decision is known as 倒駕慈航 (Turning back the Ferry of Compassion). This blog will discuss the great compassion of this Bodhisattva from three perspectives: the name, the form, and the practice, all of which are centred around the needs of sentient beings.

Long Picture of Guanyin
Illustration of Guanyin. (Or.8210/S.9137)

The name: caring for all sentient beings

As Buddhism spread eastwards from its Indian heartland, Buddhist terminology in Sanskrit was adapted to other languages using either a sense-for-sense translation or a transliteration derived from the original pronunciation. For example, the name of Amitābha Buddha underwent transliteration to become ‘Amituo’ in Chinese. By contrast, Avalokiteśvara’s name was translated into Chinese based on its meaning and certain aspects of the Bodhisattva’s nature. This approach leaves more room for interpretation and, as a result, there are two common versions of the name, Guanshiyin and Guanzizai.

Guanshiyin, also known as Guanyin, is the name for this Boddhisattva that is seen in most sutras, such as the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. This translation comes from the Sanskrit “Avalokita”, which means to observe (觀[guan]), and “svara”, which means sound (音[yin]). In other words, the Bodhisattva is “the sound-perceiver” or the one who hears the sounds (of sentient beings) of the world (世[shi]). This name is also referred to the Universal Gate Chapter of Lotus Sutra, which says: “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva will instantly perceive the sound of their cries, and they (the suffering) will all be liberated”. One possible explanation for this name sometimes being abbreviated is that, in order to avoid the name of Emperor Taizong (598-649) of Tang: 李世民 (Li, Shimin), people took out the second character and shortened the name from Guanshiyin to Guanyin. Either way, this reflects the fact that Guanyin is conscious of the voices of the suffering calling for help and is committed to rescuing these beings in various ways.

Name of the Bodhisattva in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanshiyin (觀世音) appears in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. (Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance, 1838, Add MS 16329)

The second name for this Boddhisattva, Guanzizai, is an interpretation based on the characteristics of the Bodhisattva and the path that practitioners need to follow. It comes from a different, but more common Sanskrit root “Avalokita” + “iśvara” from which it is possible to derive the meaning of ‘one who can observe unimpeded’. This name appears in the Heart Sutra which is the condensed, but nonetheless sacred, text of the Sutra of Great Wisdom. It reveals the concept of emptiness and the fundamental truth that nothing is permanent. This Bodhisattva is the one who perfectly understands (or perceives: 觀[guan]) this rule of emptiness, leaves aside their worldly attachments, and attains the great freedom (自在[zizai]) that comes with this realisation. In this way, this Bodhisattva can hold all sentient beings in his heart and rescue them without any obstacles. Therefore, when the Heart Sutra was translated by Master Xuanzang (c.602-664) in the Tang Dynasty, Guanzizai was used in order to reveal this Boddhisattva’s nature and hopefully to encourage practitioners to follow the same path.

Detail of the name of Bodhisattva Guanzizai in the Heart Sutra
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanzizai (觀自在) shows in the lower middle part of the stupa of Heart Sutra (Heart SutraOr.8210/S.4289).

The form: depictions of Guanyin

While there are a few different names to refer to this Bodhisattva, there are even more different forms that Guanyin can take when appearing to sentient beings in order to guide them away from suffering.

One interesting development of Guanyin’s form is the way in which gender is represented. In general, the gender of deities in Buddhism are neutral and rarely discussed. Early depictions show Guanyin with a more masculine appearance, creating the impression that the original gender of Guanyin was male. However, the female form becomes more popular later in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in China. The reasons for this are linked to the historical context. Traditionally, China was a very patriarchal society; a system reinforced by Confucian principles which put pressure on women to obey their husbands and give birth to sons (instead of daughters). As a result, women were generally the ones asking for Guanyin’s help in order to achieve these goals. In addition, it was thought that a woman must commit to one man for her whole life (even after his death), therefore it seemed more appropriate for a woman to worship a deity in female form. In this way, Guanyin starts to take on more feminine qualities such as kindness and grace and, in female form, she is seen as more accessible to women.

Guanyin Bodhisattva in Female Form
Guanyin Bodhisattva appears in female form. (Vignettes Representing Manifestations of Buddhist Saints, before 1911, Add MS 10592)

So far we have discussed the work of Guanyin in isolation, but this Bodhisattva does not go it alone in the rescue business; Guanyin also works with Amitābha Buddha and Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva to guide the dead to the Western Pure Land. This trio is known as the Three Noble Ones of the West. When pictured together, it would be easy to recognise the Amitābha Buddha as he is always in the middle but sometimes it can be a bit difficult to work out which attendant is Guanyin since the basic style of Bodhisattvas is the same. One clue would be the plant they hold in their hand; Mahāsthāmaprāpta holds a lotus and Guanyin holds a willow. The other indication is the item on their head; it is a vase containing his parents’ ashes on Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s head and a statue of seated Amitābha Buddha on Guanyin’s. In this case, when a person approaches death, they can call upon not only Amitābha, but also Guanyin to ask for guidance.

The Three Noble Ones of the West
The Three Noble Ones of the West (Photo credit: London Fo Guang Shan; posted with permission).

The practice: Guanyin as a guide

There are many different forms of Buddhist practice including meditation and chanting of texts such as dharanis or sutras. Certain dharanis and sutras can relate to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. The most notable ones featuring Guanyin are the Great Compassion Dharnai and the Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva.

Generally speaking, a dharani is a phrase or mantra, recited as sounds based on the original Sanskrit, which is believed to be powerful and protective. When someone chants the dharani, the related deity will come to provide their support. The Great Compassion Dharani, also known as Great Compassion Heart Dharani contains the power of Guanyin to rescue sentient beings. According to the Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion , this dharani contains the power to remove all horror and suffering and achieve perfection. Furthermore, the dharani can also help followers listen to the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), enhance their wisdom, and guide the dead towards rebirth in a Pure Land.

Great Compassion Heart Dharani
Chinese manuscript of the Great Compassion Heart Dharani with annotation (Great Compassion Heart Dharani, 1700-1909, Or 6995).

A sutra is a canonical scripture recording the teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha). The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. As the name suggests, in this text the Bodhisattva indicates many ‘gates’, or methods for a follower to practice, and Guanyin will manifest in different forms in order to guide them. No matter who you are, Guanyin will appear in the corresponding role to teach you. The Bodhisattva also has the power to improve a bad situation. No matter what difficulty you find yourself in, when you chant the Bodhisattva’s name, he always is able to release you from suffering. Moreover, the sutra also reveals the power of Guanyin to provide followers with wisdom and fearlessness on the path towards Buddhahood.

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokitesvara Bodhisvatta
The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva (Or.59.b.24).

The above perspectives all demonstrate the Great Compassion of this Bodhisattva since the name he goes by, the form he takes and the practices he upholds all have the needs of sentient beings at their heart, showing that he does his best to rescues them. However, it is also important to note that practitioners should not totally rely on the power of the Bodhisattva. The main objective is for the followers themselves to cultivate a heart as compassionate as Guanyin’s, and in doing so they will be following the path of the Bodhisattva in order to attain Buddhahood.

Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison.

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The accompanying volume to the Buddhism exhibition, "Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary Life", is still available for purchase at the British Library Shop and online

Reference:

Conversion table of Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ name

Sanskrit

Chinese

Pinyin

Avalokiteśvara

觀自在

Guanzizai

觀世音

Guanshiyin

觀音

Guanyin

Amitābha

阿彌陀

Amito

Mahāsthāmaprāpta

大勢至

Dashizhi

Conversion table of Sutra names

English

Sanskrit

Chinese

Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance

 

大悲懺儀軌

Heart Sutra

Prajñāpāramitāhṛdaya

般若波羅密多心經

Sutra of Great Wisdom

Mahāprajñāpāramitā-sūtra

大般若波羅蜜多經

Great Compassion Dharnai

Mahākaruṇādhāranī

大悲咒

Great Compassion Heart Dharani

Mahākaruṇā-cittadhāranī

大悲心陀羅尼

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Samanta-mukha-parivarto nāmâvalokiteśvara-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśaḥ

觀世音菩薩普門品

Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion

 

千手千眼觀世音菩薩廣大圓滿無礙大悲心陀羅尼經

Lotus Sutra

Sad-dharma Puṇḍárīka Sūtra

妙法蓮華經

24 December 2019

Christmas from Bethlehem to Bethnahrein

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


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

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

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

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

Illustrated cover page of Children's Christmas stories in Swadaya.
The cover of a collection of Christmas stories for children translated from English into Swadaya (neo-Aramic from northwestern Iran). (Lilā Abrāhaām Taymúrāzi, Ilānā qaṣomā d-'i'dā za'orā (Ṭahran : Ṭabíʿā b-Maṭbāʿtā d-síʿtā sefrāytā d-ʿālíme atúrāye b-ziqtā minyānā d-trín, 1959) (YP.2018.a.1677).
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Christianity has been a cornerstone of Aramaic-speakers’ identities right up to the present. As Adam H. Becker has explored in his book Revival and Awakening: American Evangelical Missionaries in Iran and the Origins of Assyrian Nationalism, the 19th century brought an onslaught of American and British Protestant missionaries to northern Iraq and western Iran. This added a new layer to the relationship between history, language, religion and ethnicity in the region. European and American insistence on linking the ancient Assyrian Empire with contemporary Aramaic speakers, as well as the importation of European Christmas traditions, allowed for new means of celebrating the holiday alongside traditional ones. The British Library holds small but notable collections of contemporary poetry and prose works in Classical Syriac as well as the neo-Aramaic languages Turoyo and Swadaya. Within these, some include works dedicated to the celebration of Christmas. Writing targeted at children is especially rich with examples, as the holiday – beloved by children – also provides a good opportunity to teach these endangered languages to future generations. Some poems come with imagery that is clearly influenced by Western European symbolism, including Christmas trees and a portly, jolly and bearded Santa Claus. In mid-20th century works, such as the pamphlet above produced in Tehran, this is a reflection of the influence of British and American missionaries in the homeland of many neo-Aramaic speakers. Christmas stories were translated from English into the Swadaya dialect of the Urmia Region, ensuring a transfer of Euro-American Christmas traditions and symbols to a part of the Assyrian people.

A poem in Turoyo about Father Christmas including illustrations.
A song about Father Christmas in from an anthology of children's verse in Classical Syriac published in the Netherlands. (Murat Can, Zmiroṯo d šabre men Beṯ-nahrin : 41 zmiroṯo lan nacime b Surayt (Enschede : Ganaṯ Šarwoye, 1998). (YP.2018.b.125)
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The gradual infiltration of European ideas about Christmas also occurred because of the geography of Syriac Christian communities. Although originally from West Asia, more people who identify as Assyrians or Syriacs might live in the diaspora than do in the homeland. Conservative guesses are that half the community live outside of West Asia, with the United States and Sweden the largest populations. The British Library’s collections feature numerous works published by authors or community groups in Sweden, the Netherlands and Germany, many of them focused on the preservation and promulgation of culture and language. The example above, sourced from the Netherlands, shows the use of images familiar to anyone who might have grown up in Western Europe or North America, alongside a Turoyo song about Father Christmas.

News from Baghdad's Assyrian community including the 1973 Christmas party.
News from Baghdad's Assyrian community, including a piece on female students' Christmas party in December 1973. ("Akhbar al-mujtama'at al-āthūrī", Múrdinā Atúrāyā, Issue 3-4 (Baghdād : al-Nādī al-Thaqāfī al-Āthūrī, April 1974). (ZP.9.b.189)
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In the homeland, Christmas continues to be celebrated and woven into contemporary culture, despite the numerous pressures exerted on Aramaic speakers to go into hiding or depart. In the 1970s, the Assyrians of Baghdad openly celebrated Christmas as a group event, as seen in the community news section of the periodical Múrdinā Aturāyā (The Educated Assyrian). In December 1973, female Assyrian students marked the occasion with a party that included dance and song, among other entertainment. Christmas was not only a chance to mark the passage of time and to celebrate the birth of Christ, but also an opportunity to take stock and look towards the community's future. 

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

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Collections Curator, British Library
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21 November 2019

Buddha From Kashgar to Istanbul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A painting of the Balden Lhama by a Tuvan artist.
A painting of the Balden or Palden Lhama by a Tuvan artist. ( Shagaanyn︠g︡ dȯzu̇ bolgash ëzu-chan︠g︡chyldary : Shagaa baĭyrlalynga turaskaatkan Tȯgerik shirėėnin︠g︡ materialdary; Kyzyl, khooraĭ 2015 ch. (Kyzyl: Tuvinskiĭ institut gumanitarnykh i prikladnykh sot︠s︡ialʹno-ėkonomicheskikh issledovaniĭ, 2015). YP.2019.a.4289). CC Public Domain Image

Cover page of conference materials dedicated to Tuvan Buddhism.
Materials from a conference on Buddhist and other indigenous faith practices in Kyzyl, Tyva ( Tȯȯgu̇ge Dai︠a︡myshaan - Kelir U̇ezhe : Bėėzi kozhuunun︠g︡ 260 bolgash Khemchik kozhuunnun︠g︡ 250 oi︠u︡ncha turaskaatkan ėrtem-praktiktik konferent︠s︡ii︠a︡lardary. 2014 chyldyn︠g︡ okti︠a︡brʹ 24, 2015 chyldyn︠g︡ aprelʹ 29. Chadaana khooraĭ (Kyzyl: OAO Tyvapoligraf, 2015). YP.2019.b.473). CC Public Domain Image

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

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

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

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

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

Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press, 2010). YC.2015.a.4835
Johan Elverskog, Uygur Buddhist Literature, Silk Road Studies: I (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 1997). ORW.1998.a.251
Juten Oda, A Study of the Buddhist Sūtra called Säkiz Yükmäk Yaruq or Säkiz Törlügin Yarumïš Yaltrïmïš in Old Turkic, Berliner Turfantexte: XXXIII (Turnhout: BREPOLS, 2015). YD.2017.b.44
Margit Kőves, Buddhism Among the Turks of Central Asia (New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture and Aitya Prakashan, 2009). YP.2010.b.482
Xavier Tremblay, “The Spread of Buddhism in Serindia – Buddhism among Iranians, Tocharians and Turks before the 13th century,” in ed. Ann Heirmann & Stephan Peter Bumbacher, The Spread of Buddhism (Leiden: Brill, 2007), pp. 75-130.