Asian and African studies blog

75 posts categorized "Religion"

02 August 2021

How to Digitise Scrolls: A Step-by-Step Guide from the Lotus Sutra Project

Photograph of man with back to camera in black shirt looking over long yellowed scroll in front of machinery with many cables
Jon Nicholls, Senior Imaging Technician, digitising a scroll on the Lotus Sutra Project.
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Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project

The International Dunhuang Project (IDP) is an international collaborative project based at the British Library and with centres around the world. The Project aims to preserve and digitise collections from archaeological sites along the Eastern part of the ancient trade routes known as the Silk Roads, including the Mogao caves near Dunhuang (present day Gansu province in China).

As part of this, the Lotus Sutra Manuscript Digitisation Project at the British Library is cataloguing, conserving, and digitising Chinese copies of the Lotus Sutra from the British Library’s Stein Collection.

These scrolls were procured by the British-Hungarian archaeologist Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943), when he travelled to Dunhuang. He was followed by several other foreign explorers who also took away a large number of manuscripts and other items. By digitising this corpus of texts, we can facilitate access to these historic items and bring them together digitally, after they were scattered around the globe.

The Lotus Sutra collection

The Lotus Sutra is a sacred text that contains important early teachings on Buddhism. It was possibly composed between the first century BCE and the second century CE. Its popularity in China, in particular at Dunhuang, is attested by the over 1,000 copies that are now in the British Library’s custodianship.

Although a few of these were digitised in the past, a total of 793 paper manuscripts are yet to be imaged. They are dated roughly between the 5th to 11th centuries, based on dated items at both ends of the spectrum.

Most, except for three booklets, are in the scroll format. Each scroll varies in size and condition. We have some scrolls that are incredibly long as well as some that are just fragments. We also have some very fragile scrolls that our fantastic Conservation team are working hard to preserve so that they are available for years to come.

We have calculated that collectively there is roughly 17km of scroll that needs to be conserved and digitised. That’s the distance from the British Library in North London to Wimbledon in Southwest London!

Thanks to the support from the Bei Shan Tang Foundation based in Hong Kong, we are steadily working through the entire collection, one scroll at a time. The digitised collection will be made freely available on the IDP website (http://idp.bl.uk/).

Equipment and Imaging Standards

To digitise the scrolls, we use specialist equipment at the British Library’s St Pancras site. Below details the equipment I use:

  • Phase One XF medium format camera on a copy stand
  • Phase One IQ3 80 MP Digital back
  • Phase One 120mm lens
  • LED lighting
  • Long and height-adjustable table
  • Capture One Software
  • Adobe Photoshop

To ensure consistency and reliability, we adhere to these imaging standards:

  • Aperture F.16
  • Shutter speed 0.6 Seconds
  • ISO 50

To further ensure quality and accuracy, we use the same equipment and standards for every image.

Step 1. Digitising the scrolls

Once the scrolls have been through conservation and are in stable condition they can be digitised. Digitising scrolls is quite a difficult process. As mentioned before, there are some very long scrolls (one even measuring up to 13 meters) and I have very limited space at my workstation.

At the beginning of this project, I was given specific scroll handling training from our wonderful Conservation team.

Equipped with the knowledge to handle the scrolls safely, I shoot the scrolls bit by bit, un-rolling and re-rolling onto a scroll core as I go, both as a space saving technique but also to avoid damage to the scrolls. Luckily the scrolls themselves are long horizontal rolls, which are made of several rectangular sheets of paper or ‘panels’ attached together. I photograph every panel individually, which makes it a lot easier to capture each part.

I try to lie the scroll down as flat as I can, but it is not always possible. Some of the scrolls undulate naturally and we need to be sympathetic to the item’s condition. When undulation of the scrolls occurs, I use various weights approved by our Conservation Team to hold either side of the panels to flatten them without putting undue pressure.

If need be, I use pins to flatten the scrolls. *We do not use pins directly on any part of the scrolls. Instead, I pin around the scroll and using transparent, acid free tabs in-between the pin and the scroll to protect the item.

Collection of white objects including bead-like string, white scroll, white pouch and other small white squares on a black background
Tools used for holding the item whilst digitising: scroll core, conservation ‘penny weights’, snake weights, weight bags, pins and acid free tabs.
CC Public Domain Image

I include a ruler in the image for size reference as well as a colour chart to calibrate colours and a focusing target to set up the control shots. These are cropped out of the final images.

Black background behind a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it and a black and white focus target with a multicoloured colour palette and black and white strips at bottom of image
Focus target, ruler and colour chart.
CC Public Domain Image

I shoot all the panels’ front (rectos) and back (versos) to capture the entire length of the scroll. As Chinese text is written and read vertically, top to bottom and right to left, I capture the panels from right to left.

I always overshoot either side of the panel and usually include 3 to 4 columns of text overlap (as seen in the photo below). This helps in the stitching process later.

Close view of yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with black bars above and below
Digitising a panel of a scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Once all the panels are shot, I process each image file from RAW files into TIFF files.

Step 2. Post-production

I edit every TIFF image in Photoshop. This task can take a long time if you have 40+ images to edit.

Firstly, I digitally remove any pins or other unwanted objects in the shot using the lasso tool to select around the item, then delete using the ‘Content aware’ function. Please note this can only be done when the layer is locked.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of digital edit in Photoshop.
CC Public Domain Image

I then select and cut out the background and replace with a digital black background. This is done for aesthetic reasons and something that we inherited from the previous team. We continued with this for consistency with the historical images.

You can achieve a similar goal by shooting directly onto black fabric.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of the end of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Replacing background with digital black background.
CC Public Domain Image

I change the height of every image. This is done for the purposes of ingesting the images onto our website, which requires specific sizes and ensures consistency.

To speed the process up I have created ‘Actions’ in Photoshop to save me some time and partially automate the majority of the postproduction.

Step 3. Stitching

I use automatic stitching to generate the stitched TIFF. Having trialled a few software packages, I can say the Adobe’s Photoshop ‘Photomerge’ seems to be the best at the moment.

Whilst it is the best on the market, it unfortunately it can be very hit and miss, and depends on the length, curvature and condition of each scroll. Most recently I have discovered that dramatic change in colour on the scroll also confuses the software.

Seven scrolls of yellowed paper of various lengths atop a grey and white checkerboard background
Example of a stitched image gone wrong.
CC Public Domain Image

For this example above, I was forced to manually stitch all the separate parts together. This is a much longer process but is occasionally needed.

Automatic stitching works better when there are more reference points, which is why I include extra columns of text either side when shooting the image, as mentioned before.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a very long and thin yellowed scroll with Chinese characters on it with a black background
Example of a smaller scroll successfully digitally stitched together
CC Public Domain Image

If I am lucky there won’t be many changes required (known as post edits), but often I have to automatically stitch the scroll in parts or even manually stitch each image.

Step 4. Editing stitched image

The automated stitch image often produces some arched or warped images. I use ‘puppet warp’ and guidelines in Photoshop to subtly straighten the scroll, being careful to not over edit or make it look unnatural. There are some very helpful YouTube vlogs explaining how to use the Puppet warp function.

Lastly, using the TIFF files, I create three types of JPEG to be ingested to the IDP website, this includes: a large JPEG, a medium JPEG and a thumbnail.

Gray frame of a computer application with coloured icons around an image of a yellowed scroll with Chinese characters covered with light grey lines attached to one another at random angleson it with a black background
Example of Puppet warp in action to subtly straighten the scroll.
CC Public Domain Image

Step 5. Quality control

I finally quality check the images and make sure I adhere to our specific naming conventions before I move them to another server. From here they are quality checked by a Digitisation Officer in view of ultimately being uploaded to the IDP website.

Screen shot with light blue frame showing website with yellowish-grey left side bar, white background, images of yellowed scrolls with Chinese characters on them and a greyish yellow text box
Example of digitised scroll displayed on the IDP website.
CC Public Domain Image

I hope you found this guide interesting and useful.

Jon Nicolls, Senior Imaging Technician, IDP

(All images were shot by Jon Nicolls)

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To find out more about the Lotus Sutra Project and the International Dunhaung Project visit:

You can read more articles about the Project here:

23 November 2020

Christian Arabic Bible Translations in the British Library Collections

The British Library holds an impressive collection of Christian Arabic texts, including many Bible translations which served a variety of communal interests. The character of the translations varies greatly. Most were based on Greek and Syriac Vorlagen but Hebrew, Latin, and Coptic source texts were also sometimes consulted. The communities were often bilingual – or even trilingual – which is reflected in many manuscripts.

Folio from an early translation of the Pauline Epistles in Arabic
Folio from an early translation of the Pauline Epistles in Arabic (Or. 8612, fol. 1r)
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Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic
Folio from an early translation of Job in Arabic (Add. Ms. 26116, fol. 1r)
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The two earliest Bible manuscripts are dated on paleographical grounds to the latter half of the ninth century: Or. 8612, which represents an early version of the Pauline Epistles, and Add. Ms. 26116, a translation of the Book of Job.  The scripts, characterized by their horizontal extension and many angular shapes, are often referred to as ‘Christian Kufic’ or ‘Early Abbasid’ style and are typical of the earliest Christian Arabic manuscripts produced in Palestine.

Alongside the Gospels and the Pauline Epistles, the Book of Psalms is the most widely reproduced biblical text in Arabic[1]. There are several examples in the British Library, including the version commonly attributed to the famous translator and theologian ʻAbd Allāh ibn Faḍl al-Antākī. Ibn Faḍl was active in Antioch in the eleventh century and the translation attributed to him was widely used in the Rūm (Greek) Orthodox communities although it in fact dates from an earlier period and is found in the earliest attested Arabic versions. From the early stage of Arabic Bible production to the modern era, many extant translations of the Psalms show an affinity with the translation attributed to (or revised by) Ibn Faḍl and as such, they probably represent the most homogenously transmitted biblical book in Arabic. Yet, whereas some psalms in these manuscripts are highly similar or even identical to one another, others display notable variations.

Greek-Latin-Arabic Psalter. Harley Ms 5786 f.159v
Greek-Latin-Arabic Psalter (Harley Ms. 5786, fol. 159v)
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A relatively early copy of this translation is found in the polyglot Psalter Harley Ms. 5786, copied before 1153 CE.  A similar version became part of the Biblia Sacra Arabica, the official Roman Catholic Bible in Arabic issued in the seventeenth century. Similar (but not identical) to the latter are Harley Ms. 6524; Add. Ms. 3056; Harley Ms. 5476; Or. 14976; Or. 4055; and Arundel Or. 19 – all seemingly copied in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Many of these copies are psalters divided into twenty divisions (kathisma) indicating the daily recitation of psalms.

Psalms with Latin words added above the Arabic (Harley Ms. 6524, fol. 2v–3r)
Psalms with Latin words added above the Arabic (Harley Ms. 6524, fol. 2v–3r)
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Another version of the translation attributed to Ibn Faḍl was included in the London Polyglot compiled by Walton in 1654–57 CE and it is interesting to note that the wording in Walton’s polyglot is very similar to that in the magnificent codex Arundel Or. 15. This codex, which is undated, is written in a style typical of Mamluk Qurʼans. As with many translations of the Psalms, it contains the Biblical Odes and some additional prayers prefaced by a lengthy explanatory introduction written for the benefit of the reader and the preacher. It discusses the authorship of the various psalms, their genres, historical and theological aspects, as well as their liturgical use. In addition, the scribe, or team of scribes, added text critical notes to the translation in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and Arabic. 

 Arabic Psalms written in Mamluk style
Arabic Psalms copied in Mamluk style (Arundel Or. 15. fols. 38v-39r)
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A further example which appears to be loosely related to the above version is the bilingual Greek-Arabic Or. 5007 dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century.

Another important manuscript in the collection is Add. Ms. 9060 dated 1239 CE and written in Maghribi script. The introduction, which represents a revision of an earlier text, may originally have been composed by the Andalusian author Ḥafṣ ibn Albar al-Qūṭī (fl. 889 CE), who is known for his poetic translation of the Psalms into Arabic. The text of the Psalms in this copy is similar to Ibn Faḍl’s translation.

Psalms in Arabic from al-Andalus (Add. Ms. 9060, fol. 41v–42)
Psalms in Arabic from al-Andalus (Add. Ms. 9060, fol. 41v–42r)
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Of great interest also is the commentary on the Psalms by the famous East Syriac physician, philosopher, and exegete Abū al-Faraj ʻAbd Allāh Ibn al‑Ṭayyib (d. 1043 C.E.). The British Library has two copies of Abū al-Faraj’s commentary: Arundel Or. 4, dating from the thirteenth century, and Add. 15442 dated 1188 CE. A similar version of the Psalms, without a commentary, is transmitted in Or. 5469 (at least for Psalm 1). Ibn Ṭayyib’s philosophical works were known to famous philosophers such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Maimonides and he is often described as the most important Christian Arabic exegete, yet his exegetical works remain largely unstudied. Ibn Ṭayyib’s commentaries mainly focus on moral and historical aspects of the biblical texts, rather than Messianic ones, in contrast to Ḥafṣ ibn Albar and the author of Arundel Or. 15. He also wrote a commentary on the Gospels and an example of this is found in Or. 3201 dated 1805 CE.

The introduction to the Book of Psalms by Abū al-Faraj ibn al‑Ṭayyib (Add. Ms. 15442, fol. 2)
The introduction to the Book of Psalms by Abū al-Faraj ibn al‑Ṭayyib (Add. Ms. 15442, fol. 2)
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A particularly interesting manuscript as regards the history of the Bible in Arabic is Or. 1326, reportedly the second of two volumes containing biblical books. This manuscript, dated 1585–90 CE, includes, for instance, al-Ḥārith ibn Sinān’s translation of the Wisdom books. We know little about al-Ḥārith besides the fact that he most likely translated the Wisdom books and the Pentateuch from the Syriac Syrohexapla and supplied the latter with an introduction. Or. 1326 furthermore contains an Arabic translation of the Gospels, associated with al-Asʻad Abū al-Faraj Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʻAssāl. Hibat Allāh belonged to a famous Coptic family, which contributed greatly to the intellectual and literary life of the Coptic Orthodox church in the thirteenth century. The British Library has a very early example of his translation, Or. 3382 dated 1264 CE, and a later copy, Add. Ms. 5995 dated 1474. Or. 1326 furthermore contains the Pauline Epistles according to the Egyptian Vulgate and the version of the book of Job attributed to a certain Fatyun/Pethion who is mostly known for his translation of the Major Prophets (cf. Or. 5918, dating from the thirteenth or fourteenth century). Despite the wide circulation of his texts, the only thing we know about him is that he translated from the Syriac Peshitta and that he inserted explanations and so-called ‘alternate renderings’ into the text, so that one passage in the source text is represented by two or more different renditions in the target text. The version of the Prophets transmitted in Or.1326, however, is that attributed to a certain al-ʻAlam al-Iskandarī. The same version of the Prophets occurs in Or. 1319 dated 1806 CE which became widely known to biblical scholars through its incorporation into the London Polyglot. Al-ʻAlam translated the Prophets from an old Greek majuscule text, apparently in Alexandria, before or during the fourteenth century, from when the earliest extant copy is attested. This copy is also located at the British Library, Or. 1314, an ornamented bilingual Coptic-Arabic text, dated 1373/4 CE.

The book of Daniel in Coptic and Arabic
The book of Daniel in Coptic and Arabic (Or. 1314, fol. 164r)
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Finally, the most widely circulated version of the Gospels in Arabic, the so-called Alexandrian or Egyptian Vulgate, is well-represented at the British Library. It was widely disseminated among the Copts but also among Syriac communities from the thirteenth century onwards. An early example is Or. 1315, dated 1208 CE  and an especially beautiful copy is Add. Ms. 11856, dated 1336/7 CE (see an earlier post in this blog Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic). Other examples include Arundel Or. 20/1 dated 1280 CE; Or. 426 dating from the thirteenth century; Or. 425 dated 1308 CE; Or. 1327 dated 1334 CE; Or. 1316 dated 1663 CE; Or. 1001 dating from the eighteenth century and Or. 1317 dated 1815 CE.

The Gospels in Arabic dated 1336/7 CE (Add. Ms. 11856, fols. 1v-2r)
The Gospels in Arabic dated 1336/7 CE (Add. Ms. 11856, fols. 1v-2r)
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Miriam L. Hjälm. Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology
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This post was written with the support of the Swedish Research Council (2017-01630). My gratitude to Meira Polliack, Camilla Adang, Colin Baker, and Ursula Sims-Williams.

Further reading

Major catalogues of the British Library Arabic manuscripts can be found at Find Arabic manuscripts.

Christian-Muslim Relations. A Bibliographical History, vols. 1–4 edited by D. Thomas et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2009–2012).
Kashouh, H. The Arabic Versions of the Gospels: The Manuscripts and Their Families (New York: De Gruyter, 2012).
van Koningsveld, P. S. The Arabic Psalter of Ḥafṣ ibn Albar al-Qûṭî: Prolegomena for a Critical Edition (Leiden: Aurora, 2016).
Moawad, S. Al-Asʿad Abū al-Faraǧ Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʿAssāl: Die arabische Übersetzung der vier Evangelien (Kairo: Alexandria School, 2014).
Monferrer-Sala, J.P. Liber Iob detractus apud Sin. Ar. 1 Notas en torno a la Vorlage siriaca de un manuscrito árabe cristiano (s. IX)’, Collectanea Christiana Orientalia 1 (2003), 119–142.
Senses of Scripture, Treasures of Tradition: The Bible in Arabic among Jews, Christians and Muslims, ed. M. L. Hjälm (Leiden: Brill, 2017).
Vollandt, R. ‘Making Quires Speak: An Analysis of Arabic Multi-Block Bibles and the Quest for a Canon’, Intellectual History of the Islamicate World 4 (2016), 173–209.
Zaki, V. ‘The Pauline Epistles in Arabic: Manuscripts, Versions, and Text Transmission’, (Ph.D. thesis, University of Munich 2019).

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[1]. The categorization of the Psalms in this blog is mainly based on an examination of psalms 1, 3, 21 [MT 22] and 22 [MT 23] and sometimes 77 [MT 78]:20–31 and in need of further refinement.

 

11 September 2020

eReading Karma in Snakes and Ladders: two South Asian game boards in the British Library collections

This guest blog post is by Souvik Mukherjee, an Assistant Professor and Head of the Department of English at Presidency University in Kolkata. His research looks at the narrative and the literary through the emerging discourse of videogames as storytelling media and at how these games inform and challenge our conceptions of narratives, identity and culture. 

Salman Rushdie, in his novel, Midnight’s Children, writes about the game of Snakes and Ladders that ‘all games have morals; and the game of Snakes and Ladders captures, as no other activity can hope to do, the eternal truth that for every ladder you climb, a snake is waiting just around the corner; and for every snake, a ladder will compensate’ (Rushdie 2016, 160). Whether Rushdie is aware one does not know but Snakes and Ladders indeed has its beginnings as a game of morals, or even more than that – a game about life and karma. When Frederick Henry Ayres, the famous toymaker from Aldgate, London, patented the game in 1892, the squares of the game-board had lost their moral connotations. There were earlier examples in Victorian England and mainland Europe that had a very Christian morality encoded into the boards but the game actually originated in India as Gyan Chaupar (it had other local variations such as Moksha Pat, Paramapada Sopanam and other adaptations such as the Bengali Golok Dham and the Tibetan Sa nam lam sha). Victorian versions of the game include the Kismet boardgame (c.a. 1895) now in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collection (fig. 1). There were other similar games such as Virtue Rewarded and Vice Punished (1818) and the New Game of Human Life (1790) although the latter did not contain snakes and ladders on its board.

http://media.vam.ac.uk/collections/img/2006/AU/2006AU4145_2500.jpg
Fig. 1. Kismet, c.1895. Chromolithograph on paper and card. Designed in England, manufactured in Bavaria. Victoria & Albert Museum, MISC.423-1981. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

    In the Indian versions, it was not a racing-game as it became in its Western adaptations. It was a game that did not end in square hundred but one that people could play over and over until they reached Vaikuntha (the sacred domain of Vishnu) after journeying though many rebirths and corresponding human experiences. Every square in the game signified a moral action, a celestial location or a state of being all of which were important in the Karmic journey. Here is the story of two game-boards in the British Library’s archives and how an Indian game designed to teach the workings of Karma and religion became the Snakes and Ladders that children play the world over, today.

    One of the oldest Gyan Chaupar boards that have been traced so far is now in the British Library (Topsfield 1985, 203-226), originally in the collection of the East India Company officer Richard Johnson (1753-1807) (fig. 2). There are claims that the game originated much earlier – in the Kridakaushalya section of his 1871 Sanskrit magnum opus Brihad Jyotish Arnava, Venkatarama Harikrishna of Aurangabad states that the game was invented by the Marathi saint Dnyaneshwar (1275 – 1296). Andrew Topsfield lists around forty-four game-boards in his two articles published two decades apart and these boards belong to multiple religious traditions, Hindu, Jain and Muslim (Sufi). Topsfield mentions older boards that date back to the late 15th century and also ones that have 128 squares, 84 squares or a 100 squares instead of the 72 squares as on the Johnson board. There is, however, another board in the British Library that has probably not been written about yet. Listed as the Paramapada Sopanam Pata (fig. 3), it is described in the catalogue as: ‘Lithograph in Blockwood printing. of the game Paramapada sōpānam, a traditional Indian indoor game: in a chart titled: Paramapada Sopanam, in which the highest ascent indicates reaching Heaven and anywhere else where the pawn lands indicate various worlds according to Hindu mythology. Language note: In Kannada and Devanagari’. These two boards tell the story of the transculturation of a game that started out as a pedagogical tool to teach the ways of karma and ended up as Hasbro Inc.’s Chutes and Ladders.

Snakes and Ladders board game on paper from Lucknow
Designs for a game of snakes and ladders, gyan chaupur, commissioned by Richard Johnson, Lucknow, 1780-82. Johnson Album 5,8.  CC Public Domain Image

Snakes and Ladders board game, printed on paper, from Karnataka, 19th century
Paramapada Sopanam Pata, board game printed in Karnataka, c. 1800-1850. British Library, ORB 40/1046. CC Public Domain Image

    Around 1832, a Captain Henry Dundas Robertson would present what he called the Shastree’s Game of Heaven and Hell to the Royal Asiatic Society in London where the 128-square Vaishnav Gyan Chaupar board can still be seen. Around 1895, when the game was being sold in England as a children’s game, the civil servant Gerald Robert Dampier was sending a detailed report on the game to North Indian Notes and Queries. Around a century before Dampier and fifty years before Robertson, Richard Johnson’s possession of a Gyan Chaupar board around 1780-2 is in itself a curious affair. This board is now part of the British Library’s collection. Johnson, the deputy resident at Lucknow, is among the lesser-known Orientalists despite his prodigious collection of Indian art and his close connection with orientalists of greater repute such as Sir William Jones. Johnson was supposedly a competent official but he made a fortune through corruption and was called ‘Rupee Johnson’; he was also involved in Warren Hastings’s infamous looting of the Begums of Oudh. In his two years in Oudh (1780-82) Johnson was, however, seems to have been popular and was given the title Mumtāz al-Dawlah Mufakhkhar al-Mulk Richārd Jānsan Bahādur Ḥusām Jang, 1194 or ʻRichard Johnson chosen of the dynasty, exalted of the kingdom, sharp blade in war’, 1780 together with a mansab and an insignia by the Mughal Emperor Shah Alam. Johnson was also an eclectic collector and commissioned work by many Indian artists and scholars  of which 64 albums of paintings (over 1,000 individual items) and an estimated 1000 manuscripts in Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, Sanskrit, Bengali, Panjabi, Hindi and Assamese form the ‘backbone of the East India Company library’ (now at the British Library, see Sims-Williams 2014). While other orientalists such as Jones and Hiram Cox wrote on Chess, Johnson seems to have been interested in other games. Besides the Gyan Chaupar board, the Johnson collection contains the Persian game of Ganj (Treasure) and sketches for Ganjifa cards – the round playing cards that were common in India before the advent of European cards (British Library, Johnson Album 5).

    Johnson’s contribution to boardgame studies is no less important than that of the other orientalists although it has taken over two centuries to appreciate this. The Gyan Chaupar board was in his possession a good century before the game was imported to the West and transformed into a race-game. Johnson seems to have been interested in the original game and besides the Devanagari script, each square also contains a farsi transliteration. The words are not Persian but the script is.[i] It is difficult to identify the painter or the source – Malini Roy points out that ‘artists affiliated with Johnson’s studio include Mohan Singh, Ghulam Reza, Gobind Singh, Muhammad Ashiq, Udwat Singh, Sital Das, and Ram Sahai’ (Roy 2010, 181). Whether Johnson read the game-board is a moot question but he certainly cared to get the words transliterated into Persian. Beginning the game on utpatti or ‘origin’, the player can move to maya or ‘illusion’ (square 2), krodh or lobh – ‘anger’ and ‘greed’ respectively (squares 3 and 4) and ascend higher towards salvation via the ladders in the squares that represent daya or mercy (square 13) or Bhakti or devotion (square 54). Bhakti will take the player directly to Vaikuntha and salvation from the cycle of rebirths and the game ends here. For a game purportedly invented by a major figure of the Bhakti Movement, this is no surprise. If the throw of the dice takes the player beyond square 68, then the long snake on square 72 brings the player back to Earth and the cycle of rebirths continues. Johnson’s board is unique among the Gyan Chaupar boards that are known to scholars in that it contains two scorpions in addition to the snakes and the ladders also look somewhat serpentine.

    One more detail is not obvious from the board. None of these boards comes with playing pieces or dice but writing in 1895, Dampier claims that the game was played with cowrie shells as dice and he also adds that the game is ‘very contrary to our Western teachings […] it is not clear why Love of Violence (sq. 72) should lead to Darkness (sq. 51)’. Dampier notes that the game has been ‘lately introduced in England and with ordinary dice for cowries and [with] a somewhere revised set of rules been patented there as a children’s game’ (Dampier 1895, 25-27).

    Dampier’s short but detailed account of Gyan Chaupar provides a clearer entry point into how and why an ‘oriental’ game of karma needed to be Westernised as a children’s game. The transition from the karmic game to the game on Christian morality and then to a race-game for children embodying competition rather than soul-searching is evident from his pithy notes sent to the journal North Indian Notes and Queries. One might assume that the principles working here would have been very different from Johnson’s approach to the game. The story, nevertheless, does not end here. I was fortunate to discover another game-board in the British Library as I mention above. The Paramapada Sopanam or the Ladder to Heaven is similar to the Johnson board in most ways except that there are only snakes on the board. Some snakes help the player ascend and the others are for descent (I purposely eschew terms like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ here). Square 54 or Bhakti, a many-headed serpent leads the player to Vaikuntha (the board is damaged here) and one might assume that it is Ananta, the celestial snake on which Vishnu reclines. There are some differences with the Johnson board although both relate to the Vaishnav sect of Hinduism. While Gyan Chaupar is largely forgotten in Northern India (except in the Jain tradition where it is reportedly played by some during the Jain festival Paryushan), Paramapada Sopanam is regularly played on the festive day of Vaikuntha Ekadasi in the Indian states of Telengana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. In fact, Carl Gustav Jung supposedly obtained a copy of the game when he visited Tamil Nadu in 1938 and took it back to Zurich; Sulagna Sengupta concludes that Jung read the matrix of the game as the play of opposites in the psyche (Sengupta 2017).

    From the karmic game to Jung’s model for the play of psychological opposites, Gyan Chaupar in its many forms is certainly much more than the race game that it has been changed into after its appropriation by the colonial apparatus. Recent research has been able to identify many of these game-boards and these two boards in the British Library are crucial for the ‘recovery research’ into Gyan Chaupar and its variants as well as the cultures in which they were conceived. Recent research on games talks of ‘gamification’ or the application of ludic principles to real-life activities – a closer look at the original Gyan Chaupar will show its merit as a gamified text, an instructional manual on the ways of life and on Indic soteriology.

 

Notes
[i] I am indebted to Ms Azadeh Mazlousaki Isaksen of the University of Tromso, Norway, for the translations. Ms Isaksen initially struggled to translate the words as she found them unfamiliar. The reason was that these were Hindi or Sanskrit words written in the Persian script.

 

Bibliography
Cannon, Garland, and Andrew Grout. “Notes and Communications.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, vol. 55, no. 2, 1992, pp. 316–318. 

Dampier, Gerald Roberts. “A Primitive Game.” North Indian Notes and Queries V (1895): p. 25-27.

Roy, Malini. “Origins of the Late Mughal Painting Tradition in Awadh.” India’s Fabled City: The Art of Courtly Lucknow. Ed. Stephen Markel and Tushara Bindu Gude. Los Angeles: Prestel, 2010.

Rushdie, Salman. Midnights Children. London: Random House, 2016.

Sengupta, Sulagna. “Parama Pada Sopanam : The Divine Game of Rebirth and Renewal.” Jungian Perspectives on Rebirth and Renewal: Phoenix Rising. Ed. Elizabeth Brodersen and Michael Glock. London ; New York, NY: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group, 2017.

Sims-Williams, Ursula. “‘White Mughal’ Richard Johnson and Mir Qamar al-Din Minnat.” British Library Asian and African Studies Blog, 1 May 2014.

Topsfield, Andrew. “The Indian Game of Snakes and Ladders.” Artibus Asiae, vol. 46, no. 3, 1985, pp. 203–226. 

 

By Dr. Souvik Mukherjee CCBY Image

10 August 2020

Magic and Divination in Ethiopian Manuscripts

Inset of amulet scroll focusing on image of rider with lance
One of the most beautifully illustrated 18th-century amulet scrolls featuring a rider bearing a lance fighting a horned demon armed with a sword. (Or 12859)
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With the exception of a few works, magic, medicine, talismans, and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts have received little serious scholarly attention. Research on the subject has so far been mostly restricted to the texts found on manuscripts. The scholarship on Ethiopian magic is very small and not fully investigated; the subject is still in its infancy.

This short illustrated blog will explore some magic and divination in Ethiopian manuscripts and other items, such as amulets from the collection, making use of images from some of the best examples of the manuscripts and amulet scrolls in the British Library’s collections. As well as containing spells, charts, magical squares and numbers, these manuscripts are adorned with rich illustrations. For an introduction to the amulets, see my previous blog post.

Collection of illustration in red and black ink from practitioner's handbook
An 18th-century practitioner’s handbook. This manuscript is decorated with over 200 illustrations of magical pictures, squares and lines of magical and talismans. (Or 11390, f. 47v)
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The English term "magic" is a cultural construct rooted in Western thought and in a particular ethnocentric history, more specifically in the complex of Greco-Roman culture overlaid with Judaeo-Christian theology. Thus, the late 19th-century Western approach to the study of magic was, to a large extent, shaped by its inheritance. Consequently, the term "magic" has been problematized, and has become the focus of endless scholarly debate leading to a situation in which both its definition and its relation to religion has become contingent upon the interest and research area of each particular scholar. Nevertheless, there is a fair amount of agreement that one of the main characteristics of magic can broadly be described as having an immediate goal, while the purpose and function of religion is long term.

Close-up of charts and magic squares in Ge'ez script in red and black ink
While most divination treatises are usually just texts, this example has an elaborate drawing of charts and magic square. (Or 12034, f.64v)
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There are many factors distinguishing the Ethiopian tradition of magic from its Near-Eastern counterpart. One aspect is the strong connection between the divination and amulet scrolls. Only the Ethiopian tradition has a firm, established, and attested connection between the amulet writers and the Church; this is not found in either Near-Eastern Christianity or Judaism.

We must therefore be cautious when discussing "magic" in general outside of its cultural construct in Western scholarship, since the difference of terms changes their meanings from culture to culture. In order for us to understand Ethiopian magic and what constitutes it, it needs to be contextualized by its historical and cultural heritage and characterized in reference to a variety of areas of study.

Divination cycle arranged as a wheel in red and black ink
Another example is this 17th-century divination manual Awda nagaśt “Cycle of the kings” (Add MS 16247, f. 14v)
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Ethiopian magic and divination books are a striking and very distinctive form of Ethiopian material culture. Part of a rich magical literature of incantation, these manuscripts are also adorned with a variety of illustrations that were created for spiritual edification and for protection from real or imagined harm. While Christian icons were intended to promote spiritual growth, Ethiopian magical art consists of visual representations of the world of demons and the supernatural, making the invisible visible for all believers.

Inset of illustration in red, yellow and black inks from amulet scroll
An 18th-century amulet scroll composed of three strips of parchment measuring 1570 X 70 mm. It features an incantation against various diseases, accompanied with talisman and magical characters. (Or 5424)
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The British Library's collection of magic, divination, and magico-medical writing that fits into this group of manuscripts numbers over 40, making it the largest in the UK. The Wellcome Trust possesses 16 manuscripts, and the Cambridge University Library holds 14 manuscripts.

The majority of the Scrolls were acquired after the Maqdala collection catalog's publication in 1877. The provenance preserved in some of the manuscripts themselves or in the library register allows us to confirm their origin; however, the vast majority of the Scrolls contain no mention of where they came from.

Eyob Derillo, Ethiopic Collections Engagement Support
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Further reading:

Derillo, Eyob, “Case Study, Traveling Medicine: Medieval Ethiopian Amulet Scrolls and Practitioners' Handbooks,” in Toward a Global Middle Ages: Encountering the World Through Illuminated Manuscripts , edited by Brian C. Keene (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2019), pp. 121-124. (Document Supply on order)

Mercier, Jacques, Art That Heals: The Image as Medicine in Ethiopia. New York: Prestel, 1997. (LB.31.b.15213)

17 July 2020

Autograph responsum of Moses Maimonides, pre-eminent Jewish polymath and spiritual leader

While awaiting the postponed opening of our exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word, I am delighted to offer our readers and followers snapshots of its magnificent contents. Among the 39 Hebrew manuscripts included in the exhibition, there are three pertaining to Maimonides. In this blog, I will be highlighting an all-time favourite - Maimonides’ signed responsum (Or 5519 B), which was discovered in the 19th century in the Cairo Genizah.

Maimonides’ responsum.  Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (British Library Or 5519B)
Maimonides’ responsum.  Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B)
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Who was Maimonides?

One of the greatest Jewish sages of all times, Mosheh ben Maimon (b.1135, Cordoba, Spain, d.1204, Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt), was not only an outstanding legal authority, erudite philosopher and celebrated physician, but, also the most influential Jewish spiritual leader of his era. The Arabs amongst whom he spent most of his life knew him as Abu Imram Musa ibn Maimun al-Qurtubi. To Western Christian scholars he was known as Moses Maimonides or simply Maimonides, while his own people called him Rambam, an acronym of Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon.

Monument of Maimonides in Córdoba, Spain
Monument of Maimonides in Córdoba, Spain. Photo: Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA
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A polymath with a stupendous intellect and an astonishing memory (legend has it that he retained every word and thought after reading a book), Maimonides displays an unmatched originality, incisive analytical power and profound erudition in most of his works. There is hardly a discipline of medieval scholarship, or field of Jewish knowledge that he did not master and cover in his writings. He was a polyglot fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and seemingly well acquainted with Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Persian and Spanish.

Although Maimonides’ literary legacy encompasses a vast corpus of writings in a broad range of disciplines, he is famous for composing three of Judaism’s major works: the commentary to the Mishnah - oral tradition of Jewish Law (1168 CE), the Mishneh Torah (The Second Law or the Mighty Hand) a monumental code of Jewish law (1178 CE), and the Moreh Nevukhin (The Guide for the Perplexed), probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era (1190 CE).

lavishly illuminated page from the Lisbon Mishneh Torah embellished opening to Sefer Nezikin (Book of Damages)
Left: lavishly illuminated page from the Lisbon Mishneh Torah. Lisbon, Portugal, 1472 (Harley MS 5698, f. 11v);
right: embellished opening to Sefer Nezikin (Book of Damages), Lisbon Mishneh Torah. Lisbon, Portugal, 1472 (Harley MS 5699, f. 277v)
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What are responsa?

A rich source of historical and sociological material, responsa (singular responsum) are written answers to questions asked of various rabbinic authorities on religious, legal or general matters. This rabbinic-talmudic literary genre (Hebrew she’elot u-teshuvot) spans more than fourteen centuries and covers the vast geographical expanse of the Jewish Diaspora.

The beginnings of the genre can be traced back to the late talmudic period (c. 6th century CE) when the geonim–teachers and scholars of the Babylonian academies–began receiving legal questions from diasporic countries. The preservation of this material in Cairo, which between the 6th and 11th centuries CE served as the principal distribution centre for answers sent onwards to western North African Jewish communities, contributed further to its survival. Not surprisingly, a hoard of ‘gaonic responsa’ was found among the treasures accumulated in the Cairo Genizah when it was uncovered more than a century ago.

Autograph responsum of Moses Maimonides

Difficult cases were referred by local rabbinic courts to the world-renowned authority Moses Maimonides in Fustat, Old Cairo, and the latter drafted his reply, or responsum as in this example. This case concerns a teacher who regretted an oath he had taken not to teach the daughters of a certain person. The oath, which had been prompted by slanderous remarks, resulted in loss of earnings for the teacher and disruption to the girls’ education. Maimonides’ succinct answer rules that the teacher should rescind the oath in front of ‘three Israelites’, then resume his work as before. The last word in the document is Maimonides’ signature Mosheh (Moses).

Maimonides’ own handwriting
Maimonides’ own handwriting with his signature (last word in line 3). Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B, detail)

The enquiry was written, presumably by a professional notary, in a semi-square Spanish-Maghrebi hand, in a mixture of rabbinic Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. It begins with a sequence of honorific attributes addressed to Maimonides such as for instance: Mosheh ha-rav ha-gadol (Moses the Great Rabbi) and ha-Patish he-hazak (the powerful hammer). The succinct reply, in the same mixed languages, is in Maimonides’ own hand and occupies the last three lines of text.

The question addressed to Maimonides with honorific attributes
The question addressed to Maimonides with honorific attributes (line 2 from the top). Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B, detail)

Apart from illustrating Maimonides’ unsurpassed authority and the veneration he commanded from the Jewish world, this significant autograph manuscript shows Maimonides’ sympathetic approach and high degree of pragmatism when dealing with his fellow co-religionists’ predicaments. It also provides a glimpse of Jewish life in twelfth-century Egypt and demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, education in medieval times was not restricted to Jewish males.

Over five hundred responsa written by Moses Maimonides are known to have survived. They are priceless testimonies to his thinking on applying the law to actual cases, and illuminate the social conditions prevailing during his lifetime. Maimonides’ legal answers embrace a broad spectrum of life situations including business partnerships, conversion to Judaism, inheritance, marriage and divorce, oaths, and others. Although many lack the date of composition, it is generally accepted that they were written between 1167, shortly after his arrival in Egypt and 1204, the year of his death. The first collection of Maimonides’ responsa appeared in print only in the 18th century. Noteworthy scholarly collections that have been published since include Alfred Freimann’s 1934 edition, and Joshua Blau’s 1957-61 four-volume compilation, both in Hebrew.

Further readings

Blau, Joshua, Teshuvot ha-Rambam. 4 vols, Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1957-1961.
Freimann, Alfred, Teshuvot ha-Rambam, Jerusalem, Mekize Nirdamim, first edition, 1934.
Halbertal, Moshe, Maimonides: Life and Thought, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Kraemer Joel L., Maimonides: the Life and World of one of Civilizations’ greatest minds, Doubleday Religion, 2010.
Zuroff Abraham N., The Responsa of Maimonides,Yeshiva University, 1966.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
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24 June 2020

Radicals and Rebels: The published works of Issachar Jacox Roberts

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

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

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)).
CC Public Domain Image

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)
CC Public Domain Image

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.
CCBY Image

 

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)

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