Asian and African studies blog

26 posts categorized "Science"

03 November 2014

Arabic scientific manuscripts go live in Qatar Digital Library

Add comment Comments (0)

The British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership has launched the Qatar Digital Library, a new bilingual, online portal providing access to previously undigitised British Library materials on two major themes: Gulf history, and the history of the sciences in the Arabic-speaking world. The portal hosts content ranging from archives, maps and manuscripts to sound recordings, photographs and much more. All of the content will be complemented with explanatory essays in both Arabic and English.

An early 13th century illustration of the horse’s good points from Kitāb al-bayṭarah by Aḥmad ibn ‘Atīq al-Azdī (Or 1523, ff.22v-23r)

A key part of this project is the digitisation of a selection of Arabic manuscripts from the British Library Collections dealing with scientific subjects such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, engineering, chemistry and many others. It was by no means an easy task to prioritise the manuscripts for digitisation. With over 500 Arabic scientific manuscripts in the British Library, there were just too many to choose from!

Our rationale in the selection below was to digitise important seminal texts and authors within a continuous narrative that spans from the late 8th century to the 19th century and from Islamic Spain to the Indian subcontinent. To provide the groundwork for the scientific advancements made within the Islamic world, we have digitised representative manuscripts containing all the Arabic translations of Greek scientific texts. For particularly important texts, like the Almagest of Ptolemy (Add MS 7474 and Add MS 7475), we have digitised all our copies.

Beyond these early translations, we have digitised scientific treatises that reflect scholarly activity down to the 17th century, such as astronomical texts by Bahāʼ al-Dīn al-ʻĀmilī. We have also digitised scholars’ notebooks, which offer a glimpse into the research interests of individual Arabic-speaking scholars, while providing a snapshot of the texts they found most interesting or useful (see for example this notebook on physics and mathematics Add MS 23570, and this one on alchemy and chemistry Or 13006).

Other scientific manuscripts were chosen for digitisation not just because the texts they contain are so significant within the history of science, but because the manuscripts themselves are objects of beauty and masterpieces of Islamic book arts. The British Library collections boast such treasures as ʻAbd al-Raḥmān al-Ṣūfī’s Book of Constellations (Or 5323) and an Arabic translation of Dioscorides’ Materia Medica (Or 3366).

To help contextualise these manuscripts, short essays are also available on the portal. You can find articles (and even videos) on such diverse topics as early translations into Arabic, ‘Islamic’ bookmaking techniques, wonders of engineering, and manuscript collectors.

Below you will find a list of the first 40 manuscripts. Over the coming weeks we will be adding more fascinating manuscripts and treasures. Please keep an eye on the Qatar Digital Library.

Add MS 6903: Hippocrates, Aphorisms. 18th century.

Add MS 7474: Ptolemy, Kitāb al-Majisṭī, books 1-6 of the Almagest, heavily illustrated by diagrams and tables. 28 Jumādá I 686 (11 July 1287).Add7474_f11v
Astronomical diagram from the Almagest of Ptolemy (Add MS 7474, f.11v)

Add MS 7475: Ptolemy, Kitāb Baṭlamyūs fī al-ta‘līm al-ma‘rūf bi-l-Majisṭī naqala Isḥāq ibn Ḥunayn, books 7-13 of Ptolemy's Almagest. Dated 3 Sha‘bān 615 (25 October 1218).

Add MS 7480 : Sharḥ Mukhtaṣar fī maʿrifat al-taqāwīm. Dated 29 Dhū al-Qa‘dah 1174 (2 July 1761).
Diagram of the spheres (Add MS 7480, f. 39v)

Add MS 7481: Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, Fa‘altu fa-lā talum. Dated 14 Jumādá I 826 (25 April 1423).

Add MS 7511: Aristotle, Kitāb fī ma‘rifat ṭabā’i‘ al-ḥayawān al-barrī wa-al-baḥrī, a compilation of translations of three treatises on zoology by Aristotle. 13th-14th century.

Add MS 9602: Ibn al-Naṭṭāḥ and Ibn al-Samḥ, two technical treatises on the use of the flat northern astrolabe. 14th century.
Beginning of a treatise on the use of the astrolabe by Muḥammad ibn ‘Alī ibn Yaḥyá ibn al-Naṭṭāḥ (Add MS 9602, f. 1v)

Add MS 14055: Ibn Mankalī, Kitāb al-ḥiyal fī al-ḥurūb wa-fatḥ al-madāʾin wa-ḥifẓ al-durūb, described as ‘the Book of War Machines found amongst the Treasures of Alexander Son of Dārāb the Byzantine (al-Rūmī), known as the Two-Horned (Dhū al-Qarnayn), translated from Greek into Arabicʼ. 16th-17th century.
Diagram of a mechanical device from a manual on the military arts supposedly discovered in the tomb of Alexander the Great at Alexandria and translated from Greek into Arabic. 16th-17th century (Add MS 14055, f.152r)

Add MS 23387: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Taḥrīr kitāb uṣūl al-handasah wa-al-ḥisāb, an Arabic version of Euclid's fundamental introduction to geometry. Dated 15 Rabī‘ II 656 (21 April 1258).
Add MS 23387_f9v
Diagrams from Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī's work on Euclid's Elements, copied within his lifetime (Add MS 23387, f. 9v)

Add MS 23391 : Kitāb Arshimīdas fī al-binkāmāt, on the hydraulic and pneumatic machinery of water-clocks with thirteen diagrams, attributed to Archimedes and Ṣan‘at al-zāmir, on the design and construction of a hydraulic flute playing machine attributed to Apollonius the carpenter and geometer. 16th century.
Top section of water-clock, showing a man's head whose eyes change colour on the hour a bird's head that drops balls onto a cymbal, and the mechanisms that drive these devices (Add MS 23391, f2r)

Add MS 23393: Quṭb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, al-Tuḥfah al-shāhīyah fī al-hayʾah, a commentary on Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī's Kitāb al-tadhkirah fī al-hay’ah. Dated 22 Ramaḍān 737 (18 September 1356).

Add MS 23406: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Kitab Jālīnūs fī ‘amal al-tashrīḥ, an Arabic version of Galen's major work on anatomy the De anatomicis administrationibus. Dated 887 (1482).

Add MS 23407: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Alexandrian summaries of eight medical treatises by Galen. 17th century.

Add MS 23409: Ibn al-Quff, Kitāb al-‘umdah fī ṣinā‘at al-jirāḥah, a general introduction to the art of surgery. Dated 1052 (1642/43).

Add MS 23416: Ibn Akhī Ḥizām, Kitāb al-furūsīyah wa-shiyāt al-khayl, a treatise on hippiatrics, one of the earliest Arabic texts on veterinary medicine. 14th century.

Add MS 23570: Mathematical compendium. Copied in Jumādá II 1014 (Oct/Nov. 1605) at Yazd and Dhū al-Qa‘dah 1018 (Jan./Feb. 1610) at Qom.

Arundel Or 17: Kitāb ikhtiṣār al-sittat ‘ashr li-Jālīnūs talkhīṣ Yahyá al-Naḥwī, epitome of the sixteen books of Galen. Dated 25 Jumādá II 615 (18 September 1218).

Delhi Arabic 1926: Theodosius of Bithynia, Kitāb al-ukar, an Arabic version of the De sphaericis. 18th century.

IO Islamic 1249: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Arabic versions of seven Greek mathematical treatises. Copied in 1784.

IO Islamic 924: Kitāb Abulūnīyūs fī al-makhrūṭāt Apollonius of Perga. Dated Ramaḍān 1198 (July/August 1784).

Or 1523: Aḥmad ibn ‘Atīq al-Azdī, Kitāb al-bayṭarah, a treatise on hippiatrics, discussing their good and bad points, training, diseases and treatment. Dated 10? Rajab 620 (9? August 1223).

Or 15643: Sulaymān ibn Aḥmad al-Mahrī, Tuḥfat al-Fuḥūl fī tamhīd al-uṣūl fī ‘ilm al-biḥār, a manual on the principles of navigational theory. Dated at Ṣuḥār, 15 Jumādá II 1153 (7 September 1740).

Or 3366: Kitāb Dīsqūrīdis fī mawādd al-‘ilāj, an Arabic version of Dioscorides De materia medica. Dated at Baghdad, 10 Rabī‘ I 735 (8 November 1334).
Early 14th century botanical illustration from Dioscorides De materia medica (Or 3366, f. 35r)

Or 5323: al-Ṣūfī, Kitāb ṣuwar al-kawākib al-thābitah, an illustrated description of the 48 classical constellations discussed by Ptolemy in his Almagest. Dated, possibly at Maragha, between 1260 and 1279/80.
Ursa major (الدب الأكبر) as viewed on a celestial globe (upper) and as viewed in the sky (lower) (Or 5323, f.8v)

Or 5593: al-Bīrūni, Kitāb istī‘āb al-wujūh al-mumkinah fī ṣan‘at al-asṭurlāb, One of only three recorded copies of an influential treatise on the construction and use of astrolabes, containing 122 diagrams. 14th century.

Or 5596: Ibn al-Nafīs, Sharḥ Kitāb al-Qānūn lil-Qurashī. Dated Dhū al-Ḥijjah 902 (July/August 1497).

Or 6888: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Kitāb fī al-‘ayn mi’atān wa-sab‘ masā’il, a medical treatise on ophthalmology. Dated 2 Sha‘bān 891 (3 August 1486).

Or 7368: Avicenna, Sharḥ al-Majisṭī,  a commentary on Ptolemy's Almagest. Dated at Damascus, Ramaḍān 628 (July/August AD 1231).

Or 7499: Ibn Jazlah, Minhāj al-bayān fīmā yastaʿmiluhū al-insān, an alphabetically arranged handbook on pharmacology, copied during the author's lifetime. Dated Rajab 489 (June/July 1096).
Opening of Ibn Jazlah's work on pharmacology, copied during his lifetime in 1096 (Or 7499, f. 1v)

Or 8293: Ibn al-Tilmīdh, Aqrābādhīn madīnat al-salam, a collection of pharmaceutical texts. Dated, possibly at Baghdad, 625 (1227/28).

Or 8349: al-Bīrūnī, Kitāb al-tafhīm li-awā’īl ṣinā‘at al-tanjīm, Comprehensive introduction to the principles of astrology. Includes numerous diagrams and tables. Dating from before 1436.

Or 9202: Ḥunayn ibn Isḥāq, Alexandrian Summaries of three medical treatises by Galen, the second volume of a set of the treatises of the Greco-Roman physician Galen of Pergamon. 12th century.

Or 9587: Ibn al-Raqqām, two treatises on the construction and use of sundials. Dating from before 1315.

Or 9649: Mūrisṭus, three technical treatises on the construction of musical organs. 19th century.

Or 11209: Naṣīr al-Dīn al-Ṭūsī, Kitāb al-tadhkirah fī al-hay’ah, a treatise on astronomy which summarises, rationalises and improves upon the system presented in the Almagest of Ptolemy. Copied at Ḥamāh, 11 Shawwāl 688 (28 October 1289).

Or 1198: Aḥmad ibn Yūsuf al-Tīfāshī, Kitāb manāfi‘ al-aḥjār wa-qīmatihā wa-usūlihā, a treatise on precious stones. Dated 15 Jumādá II 799 (16 March 1397).

Or 12802: Sahl ibn Bishr al-Isrā’īlī, Kitāb al-aḥkām ‘alá al-nisbah al-falakīyah, a treatise on interrogatory astrology. Dated 5 Dhū al-Ḥijjah 1093 (5 December 1682).

Or 13006: Compendium of alchemical treatises in Arabic, Persian and Ottoman. 16th and 18th centuries.

Or 13127: Aḥmad ibn Abī Sa‘d al-Harawī, Kitāb Mānālāwus fī al-ashkāl al-kurrīyah, a revised edition of the Arabic translation of Menelaus of Alexandria's (fl. ca AD 100) Greek treatise on spherical trigonometry. Dated at Damascus, 4 Rabī‘ II 548 (29 June 1153).

Sloane MS 3032: Ḥubaysh al-A‘sam, al-Maqālah al-thālithah min Kitāb Jālīnūs fī ḥīlat al-burū’ Jālīnūs, an Arabic version of Book three of Galen's De methodo medendi. 14th century.


Colin F. Baker, Lead Curator, Middle Eastern Studies
Bink Hallum, Arabic Scientific Manuscripts Curator, British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership

02 August 2014

‘Tanabata (七夕) Star Festival’ - is it 7 July or 2 August 2014? (2)

Add comment Comments (0)

In the first part of this blog post, we mentioned that the major star festivals marking Tanabata are celebrated not on 7 July, but a month later. Scientifically speaking, keeping the latter traditional (lunar) date makes more sense, because the two stars are more easily visible on this day than on the modern (solar) calendar day.

Currently Vega represents Orihime (Zhinü in Chinese) and Altair is Kengyū (Niulang in Chinese) in the actual summer night sky. Both of them are among the top 10 brightest stars in the night sky and this pair is visible at the same time of the year, at the highest point in the sky, so it is easier for us to spot them. Let’s compare the two star attitude charts, one for the solar date 7 July and one for 2 August 2014, which corresponds to the 7th day of the 7th lunar month 2014.


Stellar visibility plots for Japan's latitude on 7th July 2014, calculated with the STARALT program.

Stellar visibility plots for Japan's latitude on 2 August 2014, calculated with the STARALT program.

On 7 July, Vega and Altair reach their highest point in the sky, being directly overhead, around midnight. On 2 August, the above-mentioned two stars reach their maximum elevation earlier than on 7 July.

Generally speaking, 90 degrees means stars take positions straight above our heads, while 20 degrees is too near to the horizon – and obstructed by objects such as buildings and trees – for them to be seen. In addition to the timing of better visibility, the moon is brighter on 7th July than on 2nd August. When the moon is brighter, the stars look fainter. Consequently, the traditional day is the better option to see the stars and people have more time to enjoy festivals in the evening.

Since the earliest version of Chinese legend, Zhinü has always been (and still is) associated with Vega (also known as α Lyrae in Western astronomy), which is the second-brightest star in the Northern hemisphere. Vega is the brightest star in the Chinese asterism known as ‘The Weaving Girl’ (織女Zhinü) which is located in the Ox mansion (牛宿Niu su), on the west side of the Milky Way.  In contrast, Zhinü’s counterpart on the other side of the Milky Way has changed over the centuries. The original star for Niulang was Niu su yi (牛宿一 meaning ‘The First Star of Ox’), also known as β Capricorni, or Dabih Major in Western astronomy. This is the brightest star of the Ox asterism, which is also in the Ox mansion but on the eastern side of the Milky Way; β Capricorni has an apparent brightness of +3 magnitudes, and is not as bright as Vega, which has a brightness of 0 magnitudes, that is, approximately 15 times brighter.

Perhaps this difference between the brightness of Zhinü and Niulang in the original version is the reason why the star of Niulang was later changed, as this story became a more popular folktale. The new choice of the star for Niulang was Hegu er (河鼓二meaning ‘The Second Star of the Drum at the River’) which is known as Altair in Western astronomy. Altair is in fact the brightest star in the Chinese asterism He gu (河鼓 meaning ‘The Drum at the River’), which is also located within the Ox mansion on the eastern side of the Milky Way. Altair is about half as bright as Vega. Due to its folktale association, it is better known today in China as Niulang xing (牛郎星 meaning ‘The Cowman’s Star’).
Map of the stars in the Eastern sky. Shi jing zhuan shuo (詩經傳說), detail from a woodblock printed Qing dynasty illustrated version of the Classic of Poetry, 1727. Niulang was probably still Niu su yi (牛宿一 'The First Star of Ox') when the original illustration was published in earlier editions. This could be the reason why there were no signs of He gu (河鼓 'The Drum at the River'), because it had no particular significance at that time of illustration. British Library, 15266.a.2, vol. 1.  noc

At the same time, we can also see the Magpie Bridge in the summer night sky. Unfortunately because the location of the Milky Way and of the asterisms in the above illustration is only approximate, it is not possible accurately to identify which was Tian jin si (天津四 meaning “The Fourth Star of the Celestial Ford”) which is Deneb in Western astronomy. Deneb was thought to mark the location of the bridge across the Milky Way like a stepping-stone. The three stars Vega, Altair and Deneb form what is known as the Summer Triangle.

Now, let’s compare the illustration of the star map, which was taken from the Shi jing zhuan shuo and actual summer night sky.

In this picture, we have flipped vertically the original Chinese illustration shown above, so that it is oriented to match the modern star chart below. British Library, 15266.a.2, vol. 1.  noc


The red circles mark the three stars of the Summer Triangle and we have sketched in green the approximate location of the magpie bridge. © 2000-2005 Kym Thalassoudis. All rights reserved.

So let’s look up the night sky on 2nd August 2014 and make a wish on these three fascinating stars!

Further reading and references

Chinese Astronomy Resource

Gregorian-Lunar Calendar Conversion Table

Object Visibility – STARALT

Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator, Japanese collections
Roberto Soria, Astronomer, ICRAR-Curtin University

With special thanks to Sara Chiesura, Curator, Chinese collections

28 March 2014

The Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan (Add.27261)

Add comment Comments (0)

Imagine being a position to commission a magnificent one-volume selection of the reading matter you would most like to carry around on your travels – a kind of miniature personal library. With no expense spared, you could order the most skilful calligraphers in the land to write it, the best painters to illustrate it, the best illuminators to decorate it, the best binders to bind it…

Such was the good fortune of Jalāl al-Dīn Iskandar Sultan ibn ‘Umar Shaykh, grandson of the famous Central Asian conqueror Tīmūr (Tamerlane). Iskandar ruled much of southern Iran for just five years (1409-1414) before meeting his death after rebelling against Shāh Rukh, his overlord. Iskandar was an enthusiastic and discerning patron of the arts and learning, and a number of the exquisite Persian manuscripts produced for him have survived. Amongst the most remarkable of these are his two Miscellanies, one of which is preserved at the Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon (MS. L.A. 161) and the other at the British Library (Add. 27261), now fully digitised as part of our Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts sponsored by the Iran Heritage Foundation and others. Thanks to a generous grant from the Andor Trust, selected folios from the London volume are now available to view and study, with notes and a number of translated extracts, as a ʻTurning the Pagesʼ presentation.

The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket encyclopedia containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (BL Add.27261, ff 2v-3r) - See more at:

Add27261 ff2v-3r
The opening of Timur’s grandson Iskandar Sultan’s pocket miscellany containing 23 works. Copied 813-4/1410-11 (BL Add.27261, ff 2v-3r)

The Miscellanies of Iskandar Sultan, then, are illustrated compendia of texts. Those in the first half of our volume were copied by Muḥammad al-Ḥalvā’ī, and the remainder by Nāṣir al-Kātib; their work is dated 813-814/1410-1411. We do not know who was responsible for the illumination and paintings; but some of the latter are probably by Pīr Aḥmad Bāgh-shimālī, reputedly the greatest artist of his time. Notable features of the book include the small page size (182 x 129 mm.) and writing; exquisitely detailed and inventive illumination; and jewel-like miniature paintings. The manuscript has been skilfully restored by British Library conservators and rebound in traditional Islamic style to open as flat as possible. Because the new binding is undecorated, for ‘Turning the Pages’ the covers from a different manuscript were used instead.

The texts chosen by the royal patron and/or his advisers could hardly have been more miscellaneous. They include a wide-ranging selection of religious, narrative and lyrical poetry; in prose, there are treatises on astronomy and astrology, geometry, medicine, farriery, alchemy, history, and Islamic law. In this ʻTurning the Pagesʼ production we have tried to make a representative selection of the 1092 pages (i.e. 546 folios), in the hope of doing justice, as far as possible, to the quality and wide variety of texts, decorative designs, and images.

A detailed description of the contents is available here. For present purposes, therefore, it will suffice to mention some of their interesting features, with a brief discussion of a few pages by way of example.

The poetical texts in the first half of the Miscellany all consist of parts or the whole of well-known lengthy works in masnavī form (rhyming couplets).

In this miniature, an illustration to Niẓāmī’s Iskandar-nāmah (‘Epic of Alexander the Great’), Alexander and his servant witness the enchanting and innocent spectacle of young girls bathing together at night in a pool out in the wilds. The sophistication of this painting is to some extent disguised by the simplicity of the composition (BL Add.27261, f 286r)

The Miscellany also includes qaīdas, poems in monorhyme, in praise of the Prophet Muḥammad or the Imams of the Shī‘a. Others are technical tours de force, single poems incorporating as many different metres or rhetorical devices as possible. Next comes a selection of over two hundred poems in the shorter ghazal form. This is complemented by a more extensive anthology, occupying the outer text panels of almost three hundred pages. Categorised variously by subject, genre or metre, it contains ghazals and other poems by over three hundred authors. Famous contributors include Farrukhī, Manūchihrī, Nāṣir-i Khusraw, Salmān-i Sāvajī, Amīr Khusraw, Ḥāfiẓ (one of the earliest known textual sources), and ‘Imād-i Faqīh. These last two both feature in a previous blog posting: see Jahangir’s Hafiz and the Madrasa Jurist. Others are little known today; whether their verse was fashionable in 8th/14th century southern Iran, and what criteria were applied by the compilers of Iskandar Sultan’s two Miscellanies would be an intriguing topic for literary historians to investigate.

As for the prose contents of Add. 27261, their subject areas have been enumerated above. The inclusion of a summary of jurisprudence according to the Ja‘farī school (mazhab) followed by Imāmī (Ithnā-‘Asharī) Shī‘īs is another indication, coupled with the above-mentioned poems in praise of the Imams, of interest in Shī‘ism at a time when the great majority of Iran’s population was Sunnī. There is also a concise guide to sacred law pertaining to religious obligations attributed (even though it is in Persian) to Abū Ḥanīfa, main founder of the (Sunnī) Ḥanafī juristic school.

Ā’īnah-i Sikandarī, a treatise on alchemy named after Iskandar Sultan, was written expressly for him, as was Risālah-’i Kibrīt-i amar (‘Red Sulphur’), on the same subject. Mukhtaar dar ‘ilm-i Uqlīdis. ‘Elements of Geometry’, presents some theorems from the first book of Euclid’s work, complete with illuminated geometrical figures and adorned with illuminated margins incorporating verses in praise of a patron and here doubtless intended for Iskandar Sultan. Here is an example:

From a translation of Euclid's ‘Elements of Geometry’ (BL Add.27261, f 344r)

Finally, a large proportion of the second half of the Miscellany is devoted to astronomy and astrology. This fact, coupled with the magnificent illuminated ‘Horoscope of Iskandar Sultan’ (now preserved at the Wellcome Institute, just half a mile along Euston Road from the British Library) suggest that the Sultan had a strong interest in such matters. The computation of calendars and the use of the astrolabe are described in Ma‘rifat-i taqvīm va usurlāb. Lastly, some of the 340 pages devoted to Rawat al-munajjimīn, a comprehensive early treatise on astrology, are enlivened by colourful, imaginative and exotic drawings in the margins. At the end of the copying process some blank pages remained, and it appears that at least one artist was literally ‘given carte blanche’ to decorate them in any matter he wished. Add_ms_27261_f542v
Marginal illustrations (BL Add.27261, f 542v)

Who decided what to put into the Miscellany? Did Iskandar choose for himself, or did others help? The manuscript has sometimes been described as a kind of encyclopaedia, but even with the contents of the Lisbon volume added, one would not only have a few subject areas covered; there is an abundance of great imaginative poetry but little practical information. If asked to design a ‘Swiss knife’ book for a Sultan, I think I might include some of the following (besides the poetry and jurisprudence): a cookbook; guides to hunting and to edible plants; at least as much geography as history; a primer of navigation by land and sea; a concise multilingual phrasebook; and prayers, passages from Scripture, and other words of wisdom and consolation for hard times. (The British Library has a kind of miniature miscellany compiled by the novelist George Eliot.) In any case, as a great bibliophile Iskandar must have been a happy man when the Miscellany was first presented to him for inspection. We hope you too will enjoy exploring the ‘Turning the Pages’ version of the Miscellany of Iskandar Sultan – and, perhaps, choosing what you would put in your Miscellany.

For a detailed catalogue description with links to the individual works and paintings see Description of Add. 27261.

Further Reading

Basil Gray, Persian Painting (London, 1961 and reprinted).

Thomas W. Lentz and Glenn M. Lowry, Timur and the Princely Vision: Persian Art and Culture in the Fifteenth Century (Los Angeles; Washington, DC, 1989).

Priscilla Soucek, ‘The Manuscripts of Iskandar Sultan: Structure and Content’ in Timurid Art and Culture, ed. L. Golombek and M. Subtelny (Leiden and New York, 1992), pp. 116-131.


Muhammad Isa Waley, Asian and African Studies

21 November 2013

The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture in New Delhi

Add comment Comments (0)

Since the closure of the British Library's exhibition Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire in April 2013, we have had the opportunity to launch facsimile versions of the show first in Kabul, Afghanistan this past summer and now in New Delhi, India this winter. 

The Mughals: Life, Art and Culture has been curated by the British Library and is brought to New Delhi by Roli Books in collaboration with the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts. It will be open for public viewing from 22nd November - 31st December 2013.



The exhibition showcases the British Library's extensive collection of illustrated manuscripts and paintings that were commissioned by Mughal emperors and other officials and depict the splendour and vibrant colour of Mughal life. The artwork cover a variety of subject matter; from scenes of courtly life including lively hunting parties and formal portraits of emperor to illustrations of works of literature which manage to convey the complex storylines in a single image, and dramatic panoramas of Indian landscape.

The child Akbar recognizes his mother at Kabul in 1545. This scene, from the Akbarnāmah, takes place in the women’s quarters. Ascribed to Madhu with principal portraits painted by Narsigh, 1602-3. BL Or.12988, f. 114r.  noc

Many of these works have never been published until now. Some of the rare exhibits on display include Shah Jahan's recipe book, 'Notebook of Fragrance', an 18th century manuscript 'Book of Affairs of Love' by Rai Anand Ram Mukhlis, 'Reminiscences of Imperial Delhi by Metcalfe and illustrated by the studio of Mazhar Ali Khan, a route map from Delhi to Qandahar, the earliest Indian atlas, a map of Delhi, and some of the most extraordinary portraits of the Mughal emperors. Being in a library and not a museum, most of the objects are kept in storage and are rarely seen. This exhibition provides a unique opportunity for Indian viewers to be a part of their own history.

Akbar is re-united with his mother after an absence of two years. This scene, from the Akbarnāmah, takes place in the women’s quarters. One of the ladies is almost certainly Gulbadan (Or.12988, f. 114r)   
 noc - See more at:

The exhibition will be inaugurated on Thursday 21 November 2013 by the Honourable Vice President Shri Hamid Ansari as the Chief Guest, with Shri Salman Khurshid, Honourable Minister of External Affairs as the Guest of Honour. A new publication by British Library curators and printed by Roli Books will accompany the show. For the British Library publication, Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire by J.P. Losty and Malini Roy, please click here.

Events accompanying the exhibition include:

22 November, 5.30pm     John Falconer, Lead Curator of Visual Arts (British Library)
India in Focus:  Photographs from South Asia

23 November, 5.30pm     William Dalrymple, Author
Painting in Late Mughal Delhi, 1707-1857

27 November, 5.30pm     Dr. Pushpesh Pant, Author, Historian
Food, Culture and the Mughals

29 November, 5.30pm     M.J. Akbar, Journalist, Author
Akbar: The Many Dimensions of Mughal India's Greatest Emperor


31 October 2013

Opening up the Hebrew manuscript collection

Add comment Comments (0)

This summer saw the beginning of a major project to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held in the  British Library.  Funded mainly by the Polonsky Foundation, the three-year project aims to make these invaluable manuscripts freely available to scholars and the public worldwide.  The manuscripts are being photographed in-house by the Library’s Imaging Services team, and stored in preservation format.  Detailed catalogue records will be available for each manuscript, to enable users to search by various fields such as date, place of origin, author/scribe and keywords to find manuscripts of relevance to their work. All manuscripts will be displayed in their entirety on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site free of charge.  We will also create a special ‘tour’ of the manuscripts on the website, highlighting aspects and themes of the collection in order to introduce it to wider audiences.

Acknowledged as one of the finest and most important in the world, the British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts collection is a vivid testimony to the creativity and intense scribal activities of Eastern and Western Jewish communities spanning  over 1,000 years.  In the collection there are  well over 3,000 individual objects, though for this project we are focusing on just 1,250 manuscripts. 

Hebrew Bible, Italy, 13th century, decorated opening  to the Book of Isaiah.  British Library, Harley 5711, f.1r.  noc

The collection is strong in all major areas of Hebrew literature, with Bible, liturgy, kabbalah, Talmud, Halakhah (Jewish law), ethics, poetry, philosophy and philology being particularly well represented. Its geographical spread is vast and takes in Europe, North Africa, the Middle and Near East, and various countries in Asia, such as Iran, Iraq, Yemen and China. Included in the project are codices (the large majority), Torah scrolls and Scrolls of the Book of Esther.  Hebrew is the predominant language of the material to be digitised; however, manuscripts that were copied in other Jewish languages utilizing Hebrew script, such as Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic,  Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish,  Yiddish, and others, have also been included in the project.

The Duke of Sussex’s Italian Bible, Italy, 1448, The Song of the Sea, Exodus 15.  British Library, Add. 15251, f. 49v.  noc

The collection contains numerous items of international significance, including the following:
  • Over 300 important biblical manuscripts including the London Codex dating from c. 10th century, one of the oldest Masoretic Bibles in existence and the Torah Scroll of the Jewish community of Kaifeng.
  • Anglo-Jewish charters in Hebrew and Hebrew/Latin attesting to the Jewish presence in England before the expulsion of the Jewish population in 1290 by King Edward I. They include debt acquittances (releases from debt), attestations (formal confirmations by signature), and other types of contractual transactions between Jews and non-Jews.
  • A collection of 142 Karaite manuscripts, one of the best Karaite resources in the world, comparable only to the Abraham Firkovitch Karaite manuscript collection in St. Petersburg.
  • Some 150 illuminated and decorated manuscripts representing the schools of medieval Hebrew illumination in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Treasures include the Golden Haggadah, the Lisbon Bible, the North French Hebrew Miscellany, the Duke of Sussex German Pentateuch, the Harley Catalan Bible, and the King’s Spanish Bible.
  • About 70 manuscripts containing texts of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Jewish legal code),  and  about 130 manuscript compendia and commentaries on Talmudic and Halakhic topics by some of the greatest Jewish luminaries such as Moses Maimonides, Rashi, Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, Isaac of Corbeil, and others. Many of these manuscripts date from the 14th and 15th centuries, with some dating back to the 12th century.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies 


23 October 2013

Review of the 9th Annual Conference of the Islamic Manuscript Association

Add comment Comments (0)

The Islamic Manuscript Association
is an organisation that promotes the cataloguing, digitisation, preservation, and research of Islamic manuscripts throughout the world.  This year’s conference focused on manuscripts of the Mamluk Empire and its contemporaries.  From September 2nd to the 4th, researchers, conservators, curators and librarians from across the world gathered to share their knowledge on this topic at Magdalene College, Cambridge.  The conference’s programme included 25 papers, of which I will discuss a selection in this blog.

Highlights included the presentation of Prof. Frédéric Bauden (Sorbonne – Paris IV), whose talk, “Manuscript Paper Formats of the Mamluk Period: The Contribution of Mamluk Chancery Paper,” identified the author of a unique manuscript on Mamluk-era chancery practice, al-Thaghr al-Bāsim fī Ṣina’at al-Kātib was al-Kātim , as al-Saḥmawī (d. 868/1464).  Using al-Qalqashandī’s well-known chancery manual, Ṣubḥ al-‘Āsha’ in conjunction with al-Saḥmawī’s work, Dr. Bauden established that certain of  J. von Karabaček’s calculations in his 1887 Das Arabische Papier were mistaken and are in need of revision. Throughout his paper, Dr. Bauden demonstrated the importance of chancery paper measurements for the study of Mamluk-era manuscripts.

Dr. Élise Franssen’s (University of Liège) paper, “Al-Ṣafadī: His Personality, Methodology, and Literary Tastes Approached Through His Tadhkira,”  received a very positive response from the audience and elicited much praise from those present.  Dr. Franssen focused on an autograph volume of Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn Khalīl Aybāk al-Ṣafadī’s (1297-1363) Tadhkira  that she described aptly as the author’s commonplace book, in which al-Ṣafadī recorded texts he found interesting, appreciated on an aesthetic level, or wanted to incorporate into his own work.   In her paper, Dr. Franssen demonstrated how the study of this autograph lends insight into a Mamluk scholar’s method of dealing with texts.

Dr. Muhammad Issa al-Sharafeen’s (Al-Bayt University, Jordan) paper, “The Copyist in the Mamluk Period,” examined the role of copyists – in contrast to calligraphers – in the production of manuscripts.  Dr. Sharafeen discussed many aspects of the manuscript production process that will interest codicologists, for instance the number of manuscripts that particular Mamluk-era scribes produced, the length of time it took for certain scribes to copy texts, and also the importance of accuracy in the professional practices of copyists and the mechanisms for correcting errors.  Dr. Sharafeen also established the identity of a scribe counterfeiting the famous calligrapher Ibn Bawwāb’s hand, casting light on an interesting example of historical forgery.  

Mr. Christopher Braun (Warburg Institute), currently pursuing a PhD, presented a paper entitled, “In Seach of Buried Riches: Arabic Manuscripts on Treasure Hunting in Medieval Islamic Egypt.”  While the extant manuscripts on treasure hunting date from the 18th and 19th century, the texts they contain are often much earlier, from the Mamluk and perhaps the Fatimid era.  These texts often included, in addition to instructions on where to locate the treasure, various incantations and techniques of divination in order to open the tombs in which the treasures were supposedly held.  His paper explored how these treatises may have been employed and some of the possible reasons for their creation, such as profiting from those gullible enough to purchase such manuscripts.

Dr. Osamu Otsuka’s (Tokyo University of Foreign Studies) presentation, “A Forgotten Ilkhanid Historical Work: Abū al-Qāsim Kāshānī’s Zubdat al-Tawārīkh,” challenged the current understanding of Ilkhanid historiography by examining a neglected author, Abū al-Qāsim Kāshānī (d. 1335 AD) and his comprehensive history, the Zubdat al-Tawārīkh, written for the seventh Ilkhanid ruler, Ghāzān Khān (r. 1294-1304 AD) .   Dr. Otsuka compared this work with the well-studied Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh of Rashīd al-Dīn (d. 1318 AD) and argued that through a process of textual borrowing (what we today would call plagiarism but was common practice in the writing of historical chronicles in the premodern world), Rashīd al-Dīn adapted large parts of Kāshānī’s more comprehensive Zubdat al-Tawārīkh into his Jāmi’ al-Tawārīkh.  Because of the similarity between the two works, scholars have often deduced that the opposite was the case, that Kāshānī’s work was the less original of the two, and Rashīd al-Dīn was the great chronicler; however, Dr. Otsuka sought to establish Kāshānī’s rightful place in Ilkhanid historiography.

While the above brief description of a selection of papers from the conference does not give justice to the breadth and depth of scholarship presented in Magdalene College, it should give the reader an idea of the variety of topics that were addressed over the three days.  A suggestion to TIMA would be to publish the conference proceedings, as many of the papers are very useful manuscript curators and researchers.

Further events included a speech by Dr. Iman Ezz el-Din Ismail (General Director of the Egyptian National Library, Bāb al-Khalq) on the receipt of UNESCO protected heritage status for her institution’s collection of Mamluk Qur’ans.  Workshops were also offered on digitistion and on how to contribute to a new world-wide union catalogue of Islamic manuscripts.

 Next year’s conference will be held again at Madgalene College from August 31st to September 2nd, 2014, and the topic will be Manuscripts and Conflict.

TIMA poster_Arabic

Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies
Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork - See more at:
Nur Sobers-Khan, Asian and African Studies
 ccownwork - See more at:

08 August 2013

Natural History Drawings from South Asia

Add comment Comments (0)

In the late 18th century British and Scottish botanists and surgeons led a movement to document the natural history of the subcontinent. The East India Company, initially established as the British trading company and eventually a major governing power over parts of the subcontinent, recognised the need for this scientific research. Its practice was therefore adopted as official policy and resulted in the collection of rare species of flora and fauna. The specimens were preserved in the newly established Royal Botanic Garden in Calcutta and the Barrackpore Menagerie.

As part of the documentation process, Indian artists were hired to illustrate the scientific specimens. Sets of the watercolours and drawings remained in archives in India, while duplicates were sent to the East India Company’s Library in London. Natural history enthusiasts including Marquis Wellesley, Governor-General of Bengal (1798-1805) and Lord Clive, Governor of Madras (1798-1803) also amassed personal collections of such works.

A selection of watercolours and drawings are currently on display in the British Library's Treasure's Gallery.  Every few months, the display will be rotated.  A few that are currently on view include:

NHD 32_37 porcupine

Himalayan porcupine  noc
Unknown Indian artist
Calcutta, c. 1798-1805
Watercolour on paper
British Library, NHD 32/37

This species of porcupine (Hystrix brachyura hodgsoni) is also known as Hodgson’s short tailed porcupine. These mammals live in forests and grasslands of northeastern India, eastern Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh. Porcupine can grow up to 90 cm in length, they are predominantly nocturnal and survive on fruit and grains. This drawing is part of a series assembled by Marquis Wellesley, Governor-General of Bengal (1798-1805).

NHD 44_15 mud turtle
Indian flapshell turtle  noc 
Unknown Chinese artist, c. 1798-1803
Watercolour on paper
British Library, NHD 44/15

This species of turtle (Lissemys punctata) is indigenous to the North Indian River Plain and parts of Burma and Thailand. They can be found in shallow and stagnant bodies of water, surviving on a diet of frogs, aquatic snails and fishes. The domed shell of the turtle can measure up to 37 cm. This drawing is by a Chinese painter working for the British in Malaysia and acquired by Lord Clive, later 1st Earl of Powis.


Rhododendron  noc
Unknown Indian artist
Calcutta, c. 1798 – 1805
British Library, NHD 16/24

This woody tree (Rhododendron arboreum) is indigenous to north-central India and can grow up to 25 m in height. In full bloom, the scarlet flowers are a spectacular sight. This drawing was copied from an original in the collection of Major-General Thomas Hardwicke, who served in the Bengal Artillery and was a great collector of natural history drawings. Hardwicke’s discovery of this species in 1796 is the basis for the earliest description and identification of this species.

Several items from Hardwicke’s collection, including this drawing, were acquired by Marquis Wellesley, Governor-General of Bengal (1798-1805). The correct identification of this rhododendron was provided by Dr. Henry Noltie of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Edinburgh.


Further reading:

Mildred Archer, Natural History Drawings in the India Office Library, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1962

H.J. Noltie, Indian Botanical Drawings, 1793-1868, from the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. Edinburgh: Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, 1999

H.J. Noltie, Raffles' Ark Redrawn: Natural History Drawings from the Collection of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles. London & Edinburgh: The British Library & Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh in association with Bernard Quaritch Ltd, 1999.

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License

Malini Roy, Visual Arts Curator Creative Commons License - See more at:

19 June 2013

Burmese Horoscopes (Myanmar Zata)

Add comment Comments (0)

Burmese astrology is as old as the ancient civilization of Burma (Myanmar). It is based on the seven days of the week. Most Burmese believe in astrology and often consult with fortune tellers and astrologers for their future. Burmese parents usually record carefully the exact moment at which a child is born and engage an astrologer or a Buddhist monk to create a horoscope (zata) for their child soon after birth. The zata is inscribed with a metal stylus on both sides of a folded piece of corypha palm leaf which has been sewn tightly together to make a thick surface. The zata is incised on one side with astrological diagrams, calculations and zodiac signs, a complicated array of figures that depict the position of various planets at the time of birth and date, and the day of the week is represented by numbers. The day and time of birth and the zata name — given by the astrologer — are neatly inscribed on the other side. Usually the zata is about 21 x 6 cm long, half the length of palm leaf. Some of them are very beautifully engraved and ornamented. 

HoroscopeOr12469a[1] HoroscopeOr12469ar[1]
Front and back of the zata of Ma Hnin, dated 1840 (Or.12469a)

Zata are always kept carefully in a secure place by the parents, sometimes in a special religious room, until the children are old enough to take care of them themselves. Parents take their children’s zatas to the fortune tellers or astrologers to find out about their children’s health, wealth and even their future. The astrologers calculate and predict according to the time and circumstances of a person’s birth and then give detailed interpretations of their readings. People also consult with astrologers over matters such as marriage, illness or jobs.

The earliest of the five horoscopes in the British Library Burmese collection is the zata of Myat Tha Aung, dated 1781 AD (Egerton 852C). The Burmese inscription on one side shows that this person was born in the year 1143 BE, in the month of Thidingyut (October), on the fifth day of the waxing moon, and the first day of the week, Taninganwei (Sunday), in the evening. On the reverse a roundel and a square table with the numbers is surrounded by an ornamental border of numbers. 
The Zata of Myat Tha Aung, dated 1781 AD (Egerton 852C)

The zata of Ma Hnin (Or.12469a) is dated 1840, the zata of Ma Thaing (Or.4789) is dated 1842, the zata of Shin Hkaing (Or.4790) is dated 1852, and the zata of U Thuwunna (Or.12469b) is dated 1875. Each of them consists of a single palm leaf stitched to another to make a thick surface. All are very neatly executed and the general construction is the same.

This kind of Burmese art and this form of astrology still remain popular in Burma, with some ordinary people as well as astrologers being able to interpret the signs.    

San San May, Asian and African Studies