THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

73 posts categorized "Religion"

11 September 2020

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

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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

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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

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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

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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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