Asian and African studies blog

11 posts categorized "Writing"

27 January 2014

15,000 images of Persian manuscripts online

Add comment Comments (4)

Asian and African Studies have just uploaded more than 15,000 images of Persian manuscripts online. This is the result of two years' work in an ongoing project sponsored by the Iran Heritage Foundation together with the Bahari Foundation, the Barakat Trust, the Friends of the British Library, the Soudavar Memorial Foundation and the Roshan Cultural Heritage Institute.

The jackal Dimnah tricks the ox Shanzabah into believing that his former friend the lion had turned against him, and was intending to eat him. From Husayn Va'iz Kashifi’s Anvar-i Suhayli. Mughal, 1610-11 (BL Add.18579, f87v)

The manuscripts were selected for their historical, literary and artistic importance and form part of a three year project to provide digital records of our Persian manuscript collection and images of 50 manuscripts.  We have created a dedicated project page which gives details of all the digitised manuscripts together with links to their images and supporting documentation. This is located at Digital Access to Persian Manuscripts but can also be easily found by clicking on the ‘Persian’ tab at the top of this page.

We’ve already written posts about several of these manuscripts, for example the Jalayirid Khamsah of Khvaju Kirmani (Add18113); Shah Tahmasp’s copy of Nizami’s Khamsah (Or.2265) and the late Timurid Mantiq al-Tayr by Farid al-Din ʻAttar (Add.7735), posts 1, 2 and 3 . We’ll be publishing more during the next few months so please subscribe to our blog (add your email in the box at the top of this page) to keep up with further developments.

Meanwhile, here is a selection from what we’ve digitised so far! Click on the links to go directly to the digitised folio.

The well known story of the hare who tricks the lion into drowning by attacking his own reflection in the well. From Naṣr Allāh Munshī's Kalīlah va Dimnah dated 707/1307-8 (BL Or.13506, f 52v)

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)

The fire-ordeal of Siyavush. From Firdawsi’s Shahnamah, Shiraz Safavid style, dating from the 16th century (BL IO Islamic 3540, f 98r)

The dragon outside its mountain cave explaining to Darab that it had been sent by God as His servant on earth. Artist: Narayan, c.1580-85. From the Darabnamah, a prose romance written in the 12th century by Abu Tahir Tarsusi (BL Or.4615, f112v)

A leaf from the Saddar (‘100 doors’), a popular compilation of 100 rules for Zoroastrians which range from justifying instant death for sodomy to the treatment of good and evil animals, and the avoidance of different forms of pollution. This copy, dated Samvat 1631 (AD 1575), is in Persian language, but transcribed in Avestan (Old Iranian) script, together with a Gujarati translation (BL IO Islamic 3043, f 137r)

Fath ʻAli Shah Qajar with two princes in attendance, receiving Mirza Riza Quli Munshi al-Mamalik. From the Shahanshah namah by Fath ʻAli Khan Saba. Qajar, dated 1225/1810 (BL IO Islamic 3442, f 64v)

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies



05 December 2013

Zoroastrian visions of heaven and hell

Add comment Comments (2)

Three of the most fascinating exhibits in ‘The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination’, on view at the Brunei Gallery SOAS until December 15th, concern the Zoroastrian vision of heaven and hell.

The revelations of Arda Viraz (‘righteous Viraz’), or Viraf, as his name has been transcribed in Persian, were written in Pahlavi (pre-Islamic Persian) during the early Islamic period, and reflect a time of religious instability. The story is set in the reign of the founder of the Sasanian Empire, Ardashir I (r. 224-241). It describes how the Zoroastrian community selected the righteous Viraz to visit the world of the dead returning with an account of the rewards and punishments in store. Although the story did not assume its definitive form until the 9th to 10 centuries AD, it can be regarded as part of a tradition of visionary accounts, the earliest of which is found in present-day Iran in the third-century inscriptions of the Zoroastrian high priest Kirder.

Many copies of this popular story survive in both prose and verse, with versions in Persian, Gujarati, Sanskrit and even Arabic (Kargar, p.29). Several include vivid illustrations, re-enforcing the story’s underlying importance as a Zoroastrian pedagogic text.

Arda Viraz with the divinities Srosh, Mihr and Rashn, the judge, at the Chinvat bridge, which the souls of the dead must cross. Traditionally, if a soul’s good deeds outweigh the bad it is met by a beautiful woman (actually an embodiment of the deceased's life on earth), the bridge is broad and it can easily cross on its way to paradise; if not, the bridge becomes narrow, the soul encounters an ugly hag and falls into hell.
Rylands Persian MS 41, f.12r.  Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

The two manuscripts in ‘The Everlasting Flame’ are copies of a popular Persian version composed in verse in Iran at the end of the 13th century by Zartosht Bahram Pazhdu. The British Library’s manuscript (Reg.16.B.1) was copied in India and dates from the late 17th century. Although the text is in the Persian language, it was copied line by line in both Persian and Avestan (old Iranian) scripts, reflecting a tradition of transcribing Zoroastrian texts in a ‘Zoroastrian’ (i.e. Avestan) script. The manuscript was acquired for the orientalist Thomas Hyde (1636-1703) who used it as a means of deciphering the previously undeciphered Avestan script.
The beginning of Thomas Hyde’s copy of the Arda Viraf namah
British Library Reg.16.B.1, ff 1v-2r.   noc

The second copy on display (John Rylands Persian MS 41) contains 60 illustrations which vividly depict the rewards and punishments awarded after death. The scene below describes happy souls in a sweet smelling garden in paradise where birds sing, golden fishes swim and musicians perform. On enquiring how they earned such a reward, Arda Viraf is told that, while living, they killed frogs, scorpions, snakes, ants and other evil creatures (khrastar and hasharat)– one of the most meritorious actions a good Zoroastrian could perform.
A scene in paradise. Rylands Persian MS 41, f.26r
Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

In contrast, more than half of the illustrations in this manuscript depict the gruesome punishments in store for those judged deficient at the Chinvat Bridge. These were to some extent tailored to the crimes committed on earth; for example the man who had butchered believers was punished by being flayed alive, another who had overindulged and not given food to the poor was starved until forced to eat his own arms out of hunger. Punishments were meted out by demonic creatures, mostly consisting of those same evil scorpions, snakes and reptiles which good Zoroastrians were encouraged to destroy.
On the right: sinners who neglected to wear the sacred girdle (kusti) and were slack in matters of religious ritual are being eaten by demonic animals. On the left: a woman is hung upside down and tormented. Her crime was to disobey her husband and argue with him.
Rylands Persian MS 41. ff 47v-48r.  Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, The John Rylands Library, The University of Manchester

This manuscript was copied in July 1789 in Navsari, Gujarat, by a Zoroastrian, Peshotan Jiv Hirji Homji. It was brought to England at the end of the 18th century by a collector Samuel Guise, a surgeon working for the East India Company at its factory in Surat. Guise’s collection caused quite a stir in the literary world, being mentioned in journals such as The Edinburgh Magazine and the British Critic (Sims-Williams, p.200). The orientalist William Ouseley reproduced the illustration of the disobedient wife in his Oriental Collections published in 1798. After Guise’s death in 1811, his collection was sold. Most of his Zoroastrian manuscripts were acquired by the East India Company Library (now at the British Library) but this manuscript was purchased by the Persian scholar, John Haddon Hindley. Eventually it was bought by Alexander Lindsay, 25th Earl of Crawford, from the estate of another Persian scholar, Nathaniel Bland and is now in the John Rylands Library, University of Manchester. It has recently been digitised and images of the entire work can be seen at
An 18th century facsimile of Samuel Guise’s copy  of the Arda Viraf namah, included with some of the earliest engravings of Zoroastrian manuscripts in William Ouseley’s Oriental Collections.
British Library SV 400, vol. 2 part 3, facing p. 318.  noc

Further reading:

S. Stewart (ed), The Everlasting Flame: Zoroastrianism in History and Imagination. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Special discounted paperback edition available only from the SOAS bookshop
Articles: “Ardā Wīrāz”  by Ph. Gignoux,  “Činwad puhl” by A. Tafazzoli and “Kartir”  by P. O. Skjærvø in Encyclopædia Iranica (
D. Kargar, Arday-Viraf Nama: Iranian conceptions of the other world. Uppsala: Uppsala Universitet, 2009.
H. Jamaspji Asa, M. Haug, and E.W. West, The Book of Arda Viraf: The Pahlavi Text Prepared by Destur Hoshangji Jamaspji Asa. Bombay: Govt. Central Book Depot, 1872.
J.A. Pope (tr.), The Ardai Viraf Nameh; or, the Revelations of Ardai Viraf. London: Black, Parbury & Allen, 1816.
W. Ouseley, The Oriental Collections. London: Printed by Cooper and Graham, 1797-1800.
U. Sims-Williams,  “The strange story of Samuel Guise: an 18th-century collection of Zorostrian manuscripts,” Bulletin of the Asia Institute 19, 2005 (2009), pp. 199-209.


Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies

23 September 2013

Some Syriac Manichean Treasures in the British Library

Add comment Comments (3)

Founded by Mani in Mesopotamia in the 3rd century AD, Manichaeism was for a time one of the most widespread religions in the world. Under the protection of the Sasanian emperor Shapur I (r.241–72), Mani preached a fundamental dualism based on light (good) and darkness (evil), the world being a contamination of the two (this idea is seen in the Zoroastrian creation myth, see my recent post ‘Zoroaster’s Egg’). God had given the same message to the Buddha, Zoroaster and Jesus, but it had become distorted over time through oral misrepresentation. Mani therefore stressed the importance of the written text and also the use of paintings to illustrate his teachings. His religion was strongly influenced by Christianity and Zoroastrianism but came to be regarded as heretical by both.

The British Library is lucky enough to have some of the most important Manichaean texts in its collections, and recently we hosted a special viewing to celebrate the 8th International Conference of the International Association of Manichaean Studies, held at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). It was a momentous occasion, probably the first time that such important works had ever been looked at together, and certainly too good an opportunity to miss to write about them! 
IAMS visit
Manichaean scholars examining two Chinese scrolls: on the left the Manichaean Hymn Scroll (Or.8210/S.2659) and on the right the Compendium of the teachings of Mani, the Buddha of Light, dated AD 731 (Or.8210/S.3969)

Some of the oldest and most valuable sources on Manichaeism are in fact Christian anti-Manichaean writings, written only a century after Mani’s death (AD 274 or 277). The best-known are perhaps the Confessions, written in Latin in AD 397-8, of St. Augustine of Hippo who was himself a Manichaean before converting to Christianity.  One of the most important sources in the British Library is the Syriac manuscript Add.12150 which contains the treatise Against the Manicheans by Titus (d. 378) of Bostra (Bosra, now in Syria), translated from Greek. This codex is additionally important, being the oldest known dated Syriac manuscript, in near perfect condition, and copied in Edessa in the year 723 of the Seleucid era (AD 411).

The final page of Titus of Bostra’s treatise Against the Manicheans. Vellum, dated AD 411 (Add.12150, f.156r)

Equally important are Add.14574 and Add.14623, both parts of the only surviving copy of the Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan by Saint Ephrem (c. 306–373). This 6th century codex had at some point been broken up. 88 leaves (Add.14623) were washed and scrubbed to obliterate the original text, and then re-used in Egypt in 823 by a monk, Aaron, originally from Dara in Mesopotamia. Ironically, part of the original manuscript containing Ephrem’s Discourse on Virginity, apparently thought fit to preserve, was copied into the new manuscript before being erased. Fortunately the first 19 leaves (Add.14574) escaped the treatment and both parts are now in the Library's collection. Add. 14754 was acquired by the British Museum from a monastery in the Wadi Natrun in Egypt (as was Add.12150) by Archdeacon Tattam in the 19th century (for an account of how the Museum came to acquire them, see pp. xi-xiv of W. Wright’s Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum, vol. 3).
Folios 6v-7r of the 9th century palimpsest Add.14623

Upside down f7r
Detail of the bottom of folio 7r, turned upside down, showing Ephrem’s work underneath

It required the painstaking efforts of Charles Mitchell, a Canadian Syriac scholar teaching at Merchant Taylors’ School, London, to decipher the concealed text. From 1905 until the First World War he devoted his leisure time to reading what he could of the palimpsest which was extra problematic on account of the skin it was written on. “Worst of all” he wrote in the introduction to his edition (Mitchell 1912),  “only one side of the leaves could be read, except in two or three cases, though there was evidence that the writing was lurking in obscurity below.” Mitchell also complained that “Accurate deciphering is only possible under a good sunlight” and the London weather had held him back further.
CW Mitchell
The Rev. Charles Wand Mitchell, frontispiece to vol. 2 (Mitchell 1921)

Mitchell's patience and perseverance led, Dr. Barnett, then Keeper of Oriental Manuscripts at the Museum, in 1908 to apply a “re-agent” to the illegible part of the palimpsest. This had the effect of revealing the underwriting so clearly that it became possible to transcribe almost the entire contents. Mitchell was also able to reconstruct the original order of the leaves and quires. I’m not sure what this “re-agent” would have been, but judging from the present illegibilty of the palimpsest, I think this manuscript would be a good candidate for some form of investigative photography!

Unfortunately, Charles Mitchell was fatally wounded in action in France in 1917 during the First World War, while helping a doctor to bandage the wounded near the firing line. Volume 1 of his edition and translation had been published in 1912, and vol 2 was published posthumously in 1921.

We also have important Manichaean texts from Central Asia in Middle Persian, Sogdian, Turkish and Chinese. I’ll be writing about them on another occasion.

Further reading

Good articles on Mani and Manichaeism can be found in Encyclopædia Iranica online, especially Werner Sundermann’s “Mani”  and “Manicheism i: general survey
A good online introduction is also:
P.O. Skjærvø, An Introduction to Manicheism, 2006
An edition and translation of St. Ephrem’s Prose Refutations is also available online:
C.W. Mitchell, S. Ephraim’s Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan, vol.1 (1912) and vol. 2 (1921)
For an article about Titus of Bostra, see:
Nils Arne Pedersen, "Titus of Bostra in Syriac Literature" in Laval théologique et philosophique, vol. 62/2 (2006), pp. 359-367.

Ursula Sims-Williams, Asian and African Studies


Postscript by Christina Duffy, British Library Imaging Scientist

USW:  Many of us have been wondering about the miraculous "re-agent" applied under Dr. Barnett's auspices to St. Ephrem's Prose Refutations of Mani, Marcion, and Bardaisan in 1908. I asked Christina Duffy, Imaging Scientist at the British Library if she could say anything about the process and this is her reply. The good news is that the Library is planning to get new equipment later this year which may be able to read the undertext of the palimpsest and perhaps even improve on Mitchell's readings. We'll report on this in due course.   

She writes:

Sadly the result of chemicals used to make indecipherable script legible is seen in many of our manuscripts here at the BL. While the treatments initially enhanced the faded text greatly it was only a matter of time before the entire passage was left in a much worse state!

In 1969 Restaurator reprinted a report of the St Gallen Conference on the Conservation of Manuscripts from 1898 which listed gallic acid, thiocyanate, ammonium sulphide, sodium sulphide, potassium ferrocyanide and tannin solution as chemicals used to recover text. Essentially the reagents were attempting to balance the ink formulation. By "reagent" we mean a substance or compound used to bring about a chemical reaction.

There is mention of the use of chemical reinforcements as early as the 17th century but it wasn't until the 19th century when chemistry was more understood that lots of reactions were tried out. For iron-gall ink, a good stable black ink is formed by a black iron-gall ink complex. If the ink production for whatever reason is imperfect, ink can become illegible overtime i.e. fade. Imperfect ink is generally missing one of the essential compounds in the ink ingredient list (such as iron sulphide or gallic acid) so it makes sense that applying these missing chemicals will allow the reaction to take place and the text to become clear again! Which is what they did, but alas the aftermath was less pleasing! 

The oldest known recipe for text recovery uses gallic acid. One article suggests making an extract of gall-nuts in white wine and wetting the missing text with a sponge to recover the text. However it isn't mentioned that the gall-nut extract goes brown itself after a few years and wherever the liquid was applied turns dark brown so nothing is legible!

Other treatments include hepar suplhuris, toning letters blue by reacting iron ions with potassium hexacyanoferrates or placing the text briefly in hydrochloric acid. Some manuscripts treated in this way are now covered in blue dye and completely illegible...which is why using imaging techniques is a much better idea!

There is a good article explaining all this including the chemical formulas by Robert Fuchs, “The history of chemical reinforcement of texts in manuscripts – What should we do now?” in Care and Conservation of Manuscripts 7 (2003): 159–170.


Follow us on Twitter @BLASia_Africa