Asian and African studies blog

News from our curators and colleagues

Introduction

Our Asian and African Studies blog promotes the work of our curators, recent acquisitions, digitisation projects, and collaborative projects outside the Library. Our starting point was the British Library’s exhibition ‘Mughal India: Art, Culture and Empire’, which ran 9 Nov 2012 to 2 Apr 2013. Read more

02 August 2021

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

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

Lotus Sutra Manuscripts Digitisation Project

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

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

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

The Lotus Sutra collection

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

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

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

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

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

Equipment and Imaging Standards

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

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

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

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

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

Step 1. Digitising the scrolls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 2. Post-production

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 3. Stitching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Step 4. Editing stitched image

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

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

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

Step 5. Quality control

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

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

I hope you found this guide interesting and useful.

Jon Nicolls, Senior Imaging Technician, IDP

(All images were shot by Jon Nicolls)

CCBY Image

 

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

You can read more articles about the Project here:

26 July 2021

Glorious chariots in Thai manuscript paintings

Chariots figure prominently in South and Southeast Asian art and architectural decoration. Borrowed from the Sanskrit word ratha, the chariot is called rot (รถ) in Thai and has a special importance in  religious traditions in Thailand, especially those related to royal ceremonies and funerals. Impressive funeral chariots on four wheels have been reserved for kings and members of the royal family since the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). Representing Mount Meru, the tip of which reaches the heavens according to the Thai Buddhist cosmology Traiphum, such ornate and lavishly gilded funeral chariots carried equally ornate urns containing the body of the deceased to the place of cremation. Four-wheeled chariots or chariot-like vehicles are also used in ceremonies to parade Buddha statues during Songkran (New Year) processions, as shown in the image below.

Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand
Drawing of a Buddhist procession in southern Thailand, commissioned by James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.2v Noc

The coloured drawing of a procession of a Buddha statue in southern Thailand was commissioned in 1824 by Captain James Low who was based at Penang as an officer of the English East India Company. It depicts a realistically-drawn four-wheeled cart with a superstructure in the shape of a chariot on which a Buddha statue is paraded through town. The vehicle is pulled by twelve men and accompanied by monks and charioteers seated next to the statue, with additional men, women and children in various ethnic attires seen in southern Thailand at the time. Depictions of chariots with four wheels are rare in Thai manuscript paintings, however, two-wheeled chariots are frequently found in illustrations of scenes from the last ten Birth Tales of the Buddha (Jataka) in which the Bodhisatta, or Buddha-to-be, uses the vehicles. They can also be seen carrying Lord Sun and Lord Moon (below) in Thai Buddhist cosmologies.

Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot
Lord Moon (Phra Chan), travelling across the sky in a horse-drawn chariot. Detail from a drawing of Mount Meru and the Buddhist heavens. Copy from a Thai Buddhist cosmology made for James Low, Penang, 1824. British Library, Add MS 27370 f.4r Noc

While some European influence is obvious in the illustration of Lord Moon travelling in a chariot – for example in the simplified depiction of the wheels – the parts of a typical chariot in the Thai painting style are visible: the shaft with a decorative element in the shape of a naga (serpent) head and a banner, a highly decorative seat and a “tail” in a popular design called kranok.

Illustrations of scenes from the last ten Jataka were often added to a Buddhist text on the Great Perfections of the Buddha (Pali: Mahābuddhagunā) and collections of short extracts from the Pali Buddhist canon. Each of the last ten Jataka symbolises one of the Buddha’s Great Perfections. These texts and images were often included in funeral and commemoration books made in folding book format (samut khoi) from mulberry paper in the fashion of the 18th and 19th centuries. In some of these Jataka stories chariots play an important role.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.4 Noc

The painting above depicts a scene from the Nemi Jataka in the style of the late 18th century. Although the Nemi Jataka - which symbolises the perfection of resolution - is not included in this manuscript, the illustration appears in the context of the Mahābuddhagunā. Before a vibrant red background with floral decorations one can see King Nemi (Pali: Nimi) on a two-wheeled chariot pulled by two horses. The wheel of the chariot has eight spokes, similar to the Dhammchakka whose spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path, or Middle Way of Buddhism. On one horse kneels the divine charioteer Matali, who was sent from the heavenly realm of the god Indra to fetch Nemi for a visit to the Buddhist heavens, and Nemi is seen here sitting in the carriage with a small pavilion-like superstructure. However, Nemi ordered Matali to first take him to the realms of hell - shown in the lower part of the picture - so he could teach his subjects about the horrors that await evildoers.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14255, f.4 Noc

Although illustrations from the Jataka stories were relatively standardised in Thai manuscripts, there are always variations in the choice of colours and execution of details. The example above has a bright orange background with a deity hovering in the air. Two horses are jumping over a skeleton, but apparently the painter had some difficulty with perspective since the hind legs and tail of only one horse are visible. The chariot, harness and garments of the deity and charioteer are decorated with gold leaf.

During the 19th century, Thai painters seem to have enjoyed greater freedom to change details or to include their own ideas in their works. The illustration below depicts King Nemi on a glorious chariot that is pulled by only one horse. For the background, the artist chose plain black, perhaps to highlight the fact that hell is a dark and hopeless place. An interesting element in this illustration is the charioteer’s conical white hat  which is a traditional headgear worn by Thai nobility and royal Brahmins.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.13 Noc

The features of horses appear more realistic in 19th-century illustrations, and often some Western influence is visible in the painting style. The picture below has a bright blue background with white clouds executed with simple brush strokes. In the clouds, however, there are rooftops of heavenly palaces painted in the conventional Thai style. The chariot has no superstructure, but a wheel with a unique arrangement of spokes. Matali is depicted with green skin, possibly to emphasize the fact that he is a divine charioteer sent by the god Indra.

Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894
Scene from the Nemi Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, dated 1894. British Library, Or 16101, f.3 Noc

Another popular Jataka involving a chariot scene is the story of Prince Temiya, who as a child pretended to be “crippled and mute” so he would not have to become king, a role in which he might have to commit cruel acts leading to negative Karma. Ignorant Brahmins advised the king to send the apparently disabled child in a chariot to a graveyard and bury him there. Upon arrival at the graveyard, the young prince lifted the chariot with one hand to show his power and capabilities. The scared charioteer released Temiya at once, realising he was a Bodhisatta, who then chose a life in meditation as an ascetic. Temiya lifting the chariot is the most popular scene from this Jataka, shown in the illustration below in 18th-century painting style with a distinctive rocky landscape and a crooked tree. The scene is made particularly lively by the shocked, escaping horses.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 18th century. British Library, Or 14068, f.1 Noc

Another example of illustrating the Temiya Jataka, from a 19th-century manuscript, is shown below: the chariot waiting to pick up Prince Temiya, who sits motionless in meditation in front of a white stone building. The charioteer is depicted with green skin, perhaps to indicate that he was under the influence of Indra’s deities when they guided him to steer the chariot carrying Temiya through the Gate of Victory instead of the Gate of Death. The heavily decorated chariot is also equipped with two monastic fans (Thai: talaphat) and a golden offering bowl.

Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Temiya Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 14559, f.4 Noc

The Vessantara Jataka, or Great Jataka, also contains important episodes involving chariots. It tells the story of the Buddha’s last existence before attaining Buddhahood as a generous prince who showed great compassion with the needy and the poor. One well-known episode is depicted in the painting below, from a 19th-century manuscript: when Prince Vessantara was banished from the kingdom, he departed with his wife and children in a horse-driven chariot to set up a hermitage in the forest. However, on the way some Brahmins asked for the horses which Vessantara gave them as a gift. Deities sent by the god Indra immediately transformed themselves into deer to replace the horses and pull the chariot.

Prince Vessantara is seen on the chariot which is only half shown. The realistically-painted deer that is pulling the chariot has a golden harness, similar to those worn by the white horses which are being taken away by the Brahmins. This excellently executed illustration in 19th-century painting style has a calm light pink and light green background.


Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.26 Noc

Another popular episode of the Vessantara Jataka is the return of the prince and his family to the royal palace, followed by his ascension to the throne. In contrast to the two-wheeled chariots in most Jataka illustrations, the scene below depicts an extravagantly decorated, glorious chariot with four wheels and a gilded pavilion-like superstructure in which Prince Vessantara is seated. Also kneeling on the chariot are his wife Maddi with their two little children, as well as Prince Vessantara’s parents who welcomed them back into the palace. They are wearing golden headgear as a sign of royalty. At the back of the chariot one can see two gilded monastic fans. Below are four attendants in commoners’ outfits accompanying the procession.

Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century, red background
Scene from the Vessantara Jataka in a paper folding book, central Thailand, 19th century. British Library, Or 16552, f.78 Noc

In all these Jataka illustrations, chariots are more than just vehicles for transportation: they also fulfil symbolic functions. In the Nemi Jataka the chariot is a means to travel between the Three Worlds (Traiphum) of the Thai cosmos – human realm, heavens and hells. In the story of Prince Temiya, the chariot is used to express the hero’s physical power, and metaphorically his mental strength and moral stature as a Bodhisatta. The chariots that appear in the Vessantara Jataka are vehicles in which the Buddha-to-be goes through pivotal changes, from a life of luxury and convenience in the royal palace to a life of sacrifice and hardship as a hermit in the wilderness, and then back from a hermit to becoming a righteous Buddhist king.

Jana Igunma, Henry Ginsburg Curator for Thai, Lao and Cambodian Ccownwork

Further reading
Blurton, Richard, A processional chariot from south India. London: British Museum, 2018.
Terwiel, Barend J., Two Scrolls Depicting Phra Phetracha’s Funeral Procession in 1704 and the Riddle of their Creation. Journal of the Siam Society vol. 104 (2016), pp. 79-94.

 

19 July 2021

The Term 'Shater' and its Use in the India Office Records

1 Entry of Shah of Persia  Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar  into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters
Entry of the Shah of Persia, Fath ‘Ali Shah Qajar, into Tehran preceded by a long row of shaters. Morier, A Second Journey..., after p. 386. Public domain

As part of cataloguing the India Office Records (IOR), we occasionally come across unfamiliar terms that make us question their origin and how they relate to the way they are used in the records. The case under consideration here is the term shater (pl. shaters), used in the IOR to refer to foot messengers. Shaters were employed to travel long distances, usually within Persia [Iran], in short periods of time to deliver letters to and from local governors, merchants, or the East India Company’s representatives. This post traces the possible roots of the term shater, and its development throughout history to bear the meaning of a foot messenger.

2 Two shotters carrying letters to Isfahan Nov 1708
Two shotters [shaters] carrying letters to Isfahan, Nov 1708 (IOR/G/29/2, f. 2r). Public domain

Arabic language dictionaries indicate that the term shater (Ar. shāṭir pl. shuṭṭar) has its origins in the root sh-ta-ra, which primarily means to distance oneself from family or tribe; someone who is shrewd at finding ways to do things, or overcoming obstacles. These meanings relate directly to a group known in Pre-Islamic Arabic literature as al-Sa‘alik [Brigands]. Members of this group were exiled by their tribes, and sometimes they chose to distance themselves. As they grew up alone, they developed their own life-style, and adopted certain characteristics that distinguished them from others. They were said to be ‘sharp, brave and as agile as horses’ (Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, pp. 375-378). An Arabic proverb indicates how agile a person is by comparing him to one of the Sa‘alik, who was also a famed poet, called al-Shanfara. The proverb says:

أعدى من الشنفرى
Swifter than al-Shanfara
(Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, p. 375)

Some Sa‘alik were also known to be crafty thieves and sometimes noble robbers who stole from the wealthy to feed the poor:

وعيّابةٌ للجودِ لم تدرِ أنني       بإنهابِ مالِ الباخلينَ موكَّلُ
And the critics of munificence are unaware that I am in charge of ripping misers off what they possess
(In the words of a thief, in Al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, p. 116)

The Sa‘alik’s lifestyle helped them to become familiar with trade routes, and some of them began to earn their living by protecting trade caravans instead of raiding them. Merchants recruited some of the Sa‘alik to walk ahead and protect them from possible attacks.

Several groups that were similar in nature to the Sa‘alik emerged in the early ‘Abbasid period (750-1258) under various names and characteristics. Among them were the shuttar. These were often associated with another group known as al-‘Ayyarin, vagabonds who appeared to drift aimlessly from one place to another. Besides sharing the Sa‘alik’s characteristics, the shuttar were well-organised, and worked collectively under an elected leader. They possessed a revolutionary spirit, leading popular resistance against corruption and social norms. Although some considered the shuttar to be anarchists (fawdawiyyin), the group was actually a socialist movement engaging in class struggle (al-Najjar’s Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 135 and 396). The shuttar were even condemned as ‘trouble makers’ by the authorities of medieval Baghdad (Hikayat al-Shuttar, pp. 126-127).

Nonetheless, the group became particularly popular during the reign of Harun al-Rashid (r. 786-809), who won them over to use their strength to put down disorder in his capital. Reportedly, a large group of shuttar played a crucial role in the fitna ('dispute') of 811-812 CE, between al-Rashid’s two sons al-Amin (r. 809-813) and al-Ma’mun (r. 813-833). The shuttar’s rebellious nature enabled them to impose new laws where existing ones were unpopular, something which earned many of them public admiration and they eventually became more accepted by the authorities.

By the mid-ninth century, the role of a shater had evolved from being a trouble-maker to someone who worked closely with the authorities. Governors arranged festivals, where they enjoyed watching the shuttar engage in ritual combat where the winner would be offered a silk kaftan and join the governor’s special guards. Henceforth, the shuttar were recruited as soldiers with a distinctive uniform. Under their own leadership, they marched ahead of the royal army. Some shuttar, however, continued to work as paid guards of trade caravans in much the same way as the Sa‘alik of the pre-Islamic period.

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the shuttar became familiar with landscapes, languages and dialects, which perhaps helped them to be recruited as foot messengers. This was particularly true of the Persian Court shaters, who in addition to their role as the Shah’s special guards, also worked as foot messengers. One of the foremost Arabic lexicons that defines the term shater as foot messenger is the Taj al-‘Arus by al-Zubaidi (d. 1790/1). In addition to the usual meanings of the term shater, al-Zubaidi equates the term with a courier who delivers mail over long distances in a short period of time.

It is most likely that al-Zubaidi was influenced by how the term shater was used in Persia at the time. Derived from the same Arabic root, in Persian the term shater means someone who is shrewd, fast, and fearless. In Safavid Iran (1501-1736), and probably before, the shater was said to act as a ‘bridge’, who ran before the horses of kings and other great men, opening the way for them to pass through the people. This continued to be the case in the Qajar period (1785-1925). Shaters were also appointed to the post of foot messengers during a special ceremony set for the occasion. References to shaters holding official positions as foot messengers in Safavid and Qajar Iran appear regularly in the IOR. One of the records gives a description of shaters, wearing special garments, during a special election ceremony as swift runners, who preceded the Shah of Persia’s retinue. 

Shaters’ outfit and their election ceremony
Shaters
’ outfit and their election ceremony (IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1, pp. 332-3). Public domain

While some Arabic dictionaries from the 18th century onwards described the term shater as a foot messenger, this was not how it was used by Arabic speakers. Instead, the term kept its initial meaning and developed an additional complimentary one. Today, describing someone as shater is considered a compliment. When translated into Persian, the term was first used with reference to a special guard who preceded the Shah’s army. However, the characteristics of a shater led to the development of a new position as part of an already well-established Persian postal system. Although the office of a shater seems very similar in nature to that of a chapar (horse-mounted messenger), the former would have differed by travelling on foot for most of his journey. Whether shaters had to occasionally use horses during their journey or not, a detailed study of the Persian postal system could answer this, something which is beyond the parameters of the present article.

5 Shotter delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory  Nov 1726
'Shotter' delivering letters at the Gombroon Factory, Nov 1726 (IOR/G/29/3, f. 4v). Public domain

6 Shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory  Nov 1732
The shater’s payment for delivering letters from Isfahan to Gombroon Factory, Nov 1732 (IOR/G/29/16, f. 131r). Public domain

It would be difficult to establish exactly when the term shater was first used to refer to a foot messenger, yet it can be assumed that this was the case at least since the early Safavid period. Although it originates from Arabic, the term shater with its new meaning became a particularity of Iranian culture. Similar to the Sa‘alik, and ‘Abbasid Baghdad’s shuttar, the Persian shaters were swift runners; brave; familiar with the landscapes and the languages of the people they met on their journeys; and above all, they were trusted by the ruling power who appointed them as foot messengers.

Primary Sources
James Morier, A second journey through Persia, Armenia, and Asia Minor, to Constantinople, between the years 1810 and 1816... (London: Longman, Hurst, etc, 1818)
Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-ʿArab. (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1981)
IOR/G/29/2 ‘Diary and Consultations of Mr Eaton Dodsworth…’
IOR/G/29/3 ‘Diary and Consultation Book of Thomas Waters…’
IOR/G/29/16 ‘Letters and Enclosures etc., Received from Gombroon’
IOR/L/PS/20/C43/1 ‘Persia and the Persian Question by the Hon. George Nathaniel Curzon, M.P.
IOR/R/15/5/397 John Richardson, A Dictionary, Persian, Arabic, and English; with a Dissertation on the Languages, Literature, and Manners of Eastern Nations
al-Qalqashandi, Subh al-A‘sha fi Kitabat al-Insha, vol 2 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Amiriyya, 1913)
al-Zubaidi, Taj al-‘Arus min Jawahir al-Qamus, vol 3 (Cairo: al-Matbaʿa al-Wahbiyya, undated)

Secondary Sources
Muhammad Rajab al-Najjar, Hikayat al-Shuttar wa al-‘Ayyarin (Cairo: al-Hay’a al-ʿAmma li-Qusur al-Thaqafa, 2002)
Shawqi Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi: al-‘Asr al-Jahili (Cairo: Dar al-Maʿaref, 1960).

Ula Zeir, Content Specialist-Arabic Languages/ Britih Library Qatar Foundation Project
CCBY

12 July 2021

The art of small things (2): Text frames in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

At first glance, one of the simplest ways to identify a Qur’an manuscript in Southeast Asia – thus distinguishing copies of the Holy Book from the hundreds of other Islamic manuscripts written in Arabic script, whether in Arabic or in a local language such as Malay or Javanese – is that on every page, the text is usually enclosed within a frame. There are certainly other, non-Qur’anic, manuscripts with text borders, but probably no other Islamic text in the Malay world is so consistently presented with a frame on every page. At key junctures of the Qur'an, such as the first and last pages, or at the start of certain significant chapters, these frames may be exquisite artistic constructions, embellished with floral and foliate motifs, such as shown below in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani. However, even on all the other ‘regular’ pages in between, the text will still be framed.

Illuminated double frame marking the start of Surat Yasin, in a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 222v-223r
Illuminated double frame marking the start of Surat Yasin, in a Qur’an from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 222v-223r  noc

The text frames in Southeast Asian Qur’an manuscripts always consist of a series of ruled lines. The schematic composition of these frames – in terms of the colour and order of the lines – is extraordinarily faithfully adhered to within each region, although sometimes there may be more than one preferred pattern within a single region. Text frames can thus be a key indicator of the geographical origin of a Qur’an manuscript, and may help to identify a manuscript when a study of the larger decorated elements is inconclusive. Some of the most characteristic patterns of text frames will be explored below with reference to the small collection of eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia held in the British Library, all of which have been fully digitised, as well as Qur'an manuscripts from Indonesia digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP).

Along the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, two standard patterns of text frames are encountered. Most of the smaller, simpler Patani-style Qur’an manuscripts will have text frames of three ruled lines, black-black-red (here and elsewhere I follow the convention of describing the lines from inside out). More lavish manuscripts, generally produced within the Terengganu school but also sometimes in the Patani/Kelantan style, will have a more complex set of frames of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, and in the most sumptuous manuscripts the yellow might be replaced with gold. The exceptionally fine small Patani Qur’an in the British Library pictured above (Or 15227) has these black-thick yellow-black-black-red frames on every page.

Text frames in a Qur’an from Patani of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, typical of the fine East Coast school. British Library, Or 15227
Text frames in a Qur’an from Patani of black-thick yellow-black-black-red lines, typical of the fine East Coast school. British Library, Or 15227  noc

Similarly elaborate text frames – but with the red line constituting the innermost rather than the outermost frame – are also found in Qur’ans illuminated in the Sulawesi diaspora geometric style, including one held in Riau digitised through EAP.

EAP1020_PDEMK_BKG_ALH_02_10-text-crop
Text frames in a Qur’an held in Kampar, of red-black-thick yellow-black-black lines, as typical of Sulawesi-style manuscripts. EAP1020/3/2

For Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, there are also two prototypes of frames. The most common pattern – and that found in all three Acehnese Qur’ans held in the British Library, shown below - is a series of four parallel ruled lines of red-black-red-black ink. The other, less commonly encountered pattern, is a series of three lines of red-red-black ink.

Tf-15406  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: (middle) Or 16034  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh:  Or 16915.
Text frames of red-black-red-black lines in three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh. British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034, (right) Or 16915. noc

The prescriptions for frames for Qur’an manuscripts from Java are rather less rigid, but nonetheless still distinctive of their origin. Javanese Qur’ans generally have frames of a series of ruled black lines, most commonly three, but sometimes two or four. These lines may either be spaced evenly or clustered, but the most common pattern – as demonstrated by Or 16877 – is for a frame of three ruled black ink lines, with the inmost two lines close together, with a larger space before the outer line. Examples of the frames in the four Qur’an manuscripts from Java in the British Library are shown below.

Text frames of three ruled black lines-Add 12312  Text frames of three ruled black lines-15877-f.6v
Text frames of three evenly-spaced ruled black lines in two Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library (left) Add 12312, (right) Or 15877

Text frames-16877  Text frames in Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library, Add 12343, with four ruled lines, grouped in two closely-placed pairs.
Text frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Java. British Library (left) Or 16877, with three ruled lines with the two inner lines closer together; (right) Add 12343, with four ruled lines, grouped in two closely-placed pairs.  noc

In the Minangkabau realm of west and central Sumatra, text frames usually comprise red lines, sometimes combined with black lines.

EAP117-3-1-3.123  EAP117-23-1-3.11
Text frames in two Qur’ans from the Minangkabau region, both now held in Kerinci: (left) EAP117/30/1/3, and (right) EAP117/23/1/3.

In my previous blog post looking at verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, it was noted that ‘errors’ or lapses by scribes were extremely valuable in signalling the various work stages of copying a Qur’an manuscript. It could be seen that firstly, the scribe would copy the text, usually placing a small black mark to indicate clearly the placement of a verse marker. After the text was completed, the next stage was to draw in with red or black ink the circles of the verse markers. If the markers were to be coloured, the third stage was to fill them in with pigment.

Looking closely at text frames, it is also thanks to certain problems encountered by the scribes that we can be certain that in general, the text frames were added after the text was written on each page, not before. This becomes clear when we see that, in all three Qur’ans from Aceh, when the scribe realised that he had left out part of the text, he was able to supply the mising words before the frames were added. The frames, therefore, had to step around the additional words, which was done as neatly as possible. In one of the Qur'ans, we even find that three full pages were left out – perhaps forgotten – during the task of adding text frames to the book.

The text frame steps up and then down to accommodate some added words in a Qur’an from Aceh. British Library, Or 16915, f. 207r
The text frame steps up and then down to accommodate some added words in a Qur’an from Aceh. British Library, Or 16915, f. 207r  noc

Probable scribal miscalculation leads to a stepped text frame in a Qur'an from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406, f. 204r 

Probable scribal miscalculation leads to a stepped text frame in a Qur'an from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406, f. 204r   noc

The text frame detours around some words which the scribe has added vertically at the end of a line, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 15406 f.9r
The text frame detours around some words which the scribe has added vertically at the end of a line, in a Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, f. 9r  noc

There are three pages (ff. 221r, 221v, 222r) with missing text frames in this Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 220v-221r.
There are three pages (ff. 221r, 221v, 222r) with missing text frames in this Qur’an manuscript from Aceh. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 220v-221r.  noc

This is the second of a five-part series of blog posts on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the third on Surah headings, the fourth on Juz’ markers, and the fifth and final part on ruku' and maqra' Recitation markers.

Blog posts:
28 June 2021, The art of small things (1): Verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

05 July 2021

Sisters from the shadows – Katsushika Ōi

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts which will highlight the work of Japanese women artists, whose achievements have often been overshadowed by their male contemporaries.

What helps us to choose a good story to read? Could it be an advertising strapline?  Or the headline in a book review? Or perhaps a hash-tag on Twitter? Of course, the author’s storyline itself is the core stimulus of our curiosity and feeds our imagination. But what about illustrations? Illustrations are unlikely to be produced by the author of the text but they definitely have an influence in attracting people to take a book from the shelves. 

Traditionally in Japan stories for entertainment were accompanied with illustrations to enhance their appeal to readers, and there is no doubt that they also acted functionally as visual aids for instructional books. In the same way, we tend to add images of illustrated pages to our blog posts to assist our readers who are not always familiar with the topics.

The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji
Fig.1 The interplay of text and illustration. Two court ladies looking at an illustrated scroll while a third reads to them. Chapter 50 of 'The Tale of the Genji' (源氏物語繪詞, Genji monogatari ekotoba), Manuscript, ca. 1665. British Library, Or.1287, f.62r.  noc

The majority of known Japanese artists are male, as in other areas of the creative arts throughout history, such as playwrights, novelists, travel writers and so on. However, there are a few exceptions where we find women illustrators and artists who seem to emerge from the shadows of history.

This article will focus on Katsushika Ōi or Eijo (葛飾応為 or 栄女),  a talented artist who depicted the ‘The Floating World’ (Ukiyo) of geisha and actors, and who happened to be a woman. However, she is better known as the third daughter of the great Ukiyoe master, Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760-1849), whom she cared for in his workshop in his later years, spending most of her life in close company with him. Hokusai produced a huge quantity of Ukiyoe prints, illustrated books and paintings throughout his artistic life and Ōi is believed to have assisted his creations from her youth by adding figures in his illustrations or colouring his paintings. It was common for artists of that time to establish their own studios, collaborate with their co-workers and produce artworks under the name of famous artists.

‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo
Fig.2. ‘Sailboats voyaging in the mist’. An illustration by Katsushika Ōi as Eijo (栄女). From Kyōka kunizukushi 狂歌国尽 , an athology of Kyōka poetry illustrated by Hokusai and his followers ca 1818. British Museum, [1979,0305,0.411] (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) 

Ōi was  rather good at drawing from a very young age. As the daughter of Hokusai, her environment must have given her impetus to develop her skills and career in art.  She married once but found the artist's life far more interesting than that of a doting housewife. In fact, she did not conform to the typical image of feminine virtue that women of her time were expected to live up to within the context of domestic life. She much preferred to dedicate her time and passion to art by assisting her father’s work as well as creating her own paintings and drawings. Although she was not keen on life as an ordinary woman, she depicted attractive female figures in her works with a remarkably high level of skill.

Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi.
Fig.3 Cover of Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki  with text Takai Ranzan and illustrations by Katsushika Ōi. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Only two printed books have been attributed to Katsushika Ōi as the sole illustrator.  One of them is Eiri nichiyō onna chōhōki 絵入日用女重宝記, ‘An illustrated handbook on daily life for women’, with text byTakai Ranzan 高井蘭山, published in Kōwa 4 [1847].

Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo
Fig.4. Colophon of Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki which records Ōi Eijo (応為栄女) as the artist. 1847. British Library, 16124.d.21  noc

Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki
Fig. 5. Illustration by Ōi Eijo from Eiri nichiyō Onna chōhōki . Women are depicted in traditional female roles, such as playing the Koto, writing, sewing, spinning, and weaving. British Library 16124.d.21  noc

Many of the details of Ōi’s life, including even her birth and death dates are unclear. The total number of works attributed solely to her, as opposed to collaborative works with her father, is a mere ten.  It is as if she was hidden behind her world-famous artist father.  However, she was certainly recognised as an independent artist during her lifetime and has recently been rediscovered by art historians, allowing her to emerge from her father’s shadow.

 

Reference:

Julie Nelson Davis, Hokusai and Ōi: art runs in the family https://blog.britishmuseum.org/hokusai-and-oi-keeping-it-in-the-family/

 

By Yasuyo Ohtsuka, Curator of Japanese Studies  ccownwork

28 June 2021

The art of small things (1): Verse markers in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia

Studies of the art of the Qur’an usually start with the beautiful illuminated frames across two facing pages that are naturally the most visually striking parts of the book, but all too often the studies also stop there. In fact, it is often in smaller features that geographical origin is most readily determined, through deep-seated attachments to certain preferred formats of page layout. The British Library holds eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia representing three regional traditions, with one from Patani on the East Coast of the Malay peninsula (Or 15227), three from Aceh on the northern tip of Sumatra (Or 15406, Or 16034, Or 16915), and four from Java (Add 12312, Add 12343, Or 16877) including one from the island of Madura (Or 15877). Drawing on these and Qur'an manuscripts from Indonesia digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme, we will explore the art of minor decorative elements in Qur’an manuscripts, starting with the smallest of all: verse markers.

Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r
Decorated frames marking the start of Surat al-Kahf in a Qur’an manuscript from Patani, 19th century. British Library, Or 15227, ff. 149v-150r  noc

In the absence of punctuation in Arabic script, and to support correct recitation, from at least the 10th century onwards Qur’an manuscripts were generally copied with small graphic devices separating each verse or aya. In Qur’ans from Southeast Asia, these verse markers are invariably small circles, generally varying in size from between 3 to 7 mm in diameter, and with olour schemes that differ between regions.

Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)
Detail from the Patani Qur’an shown above, with two differently coloured round verse markers, each 3 mm in diameter. British Library, Or 15227, f. 149v (detail)  noc

Presented below is one line from each of the eight Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library, showing the start of the same verse (Surat al-Kahf, Q.18:8, ‘And lo! We shall make all that is therein a barren mound’), to show the shape and placement of the verse markers, with comments on each regional tradition.

On the East Coast of the Malay peninsula, Qur’an manuscripts normally indicate verse breaks with small red-ink circles.  More de luxe volumes, especially from the Terengganu school, have black or red ink circles filled with yellow pigment, and in the most lavish cases, gold. As shown above, the fine small Patani Qur’an in the British Library, Or 15227, has black circles filled with yellow (or occasionally green) paint. While copying the Qur’anic text, the scribe has taken care to leave enough space for the round verse markers to sit on the line adjacent to the words.

Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 148v
Qur’an from Patani, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels.  British Library, Or. 15227, f. 149v  noc

In the three Acehnese Qur’ans shown below, only in one manuscript (Or 15406) has space been left on the line to fit in the verse markers; in the two other manuscripts the verse markers have had to be placed above the line. In Aceh, verse markers in illuminated Qur’an manuscripts are nearly always black ink circles which are coloured in with yellow. This colour scheme is found in all three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh in the British Library shown below, although on the page in question in Or 16034, the scribe has forgotten to colour in the verse markers, which have been left as black ink circles. In this manuscript, we can see clearly the small black ink dots that the scribe left while copying out the text to indicate the breaks between the verses, as a guide for placing the markers.

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 15406, f. 142v [NB this page is bound upside down in the volume]   noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of yellow roundels. British Library, Or. 16915, f. 131r  noc

Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v
Qur’an from Aceh, Q.8:18, with verse markers of black circles which have not been coloured in yellow. British Library, Or. 16034, f. 115v  noc

In Qur’an manuscripts copied in the Javanese tradition, verse markers are invariably red ink circles. In the four Javanese Qur’ans in the British Library, only in one manuscript are the markers placed on the line of writing, while in three others they are located above the lines. In all these manuscripts too we can see the scribal mark left to indicate where the verse markers should be placed, but in the Qur’an from Madura, the scribe has forgotten to draw a red circle around the second caret mark placed above the line at the end of the verse Q.18:8.

All these small scribal lapses are interesting because they serve to illustrate clearly the three-stage order of working: firstly, the scribe would copy the text, usually placing a small black mark to indicate clearly the placement of a verse marker. After the text was completed, the next stage was to draw in with red or black ink the circles of the verse markers. If the markers were to be coloured, the third stage was to fill them in with pigment.

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add 12312, f. 95r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Add. 12343, f. 89r  noc

Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v
Qur’an from Java, Q.8:18, , with verse markers of red circles. British Library, Or 16877, f. 146v  noc

Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r
Qur’an from Madura, Q.8:18, with verse markers of red circles; one has been missed out at the end of the verse. British Library, Or 15877, f. 147r  noc

The round verse markers in Qur’ans from Southeast Asia are indeed the smallest artistic elements in the manuscripts, but they are also the basic buildings blocks of more elaborate graphic devices that sometimes blossom into remarkable artworks. These are used to indicate larger textual divisions such as juz’ or thirtieth parts of the Qur’an and subdivisions thereof, or the ends of suras or chapters. These composite roundels can range from the very basic models found in Javanese manuscripts to more artistic illuminated compositions in Acehnese Qur’ans, and can reach even more elaborate heights in other genres of manuscripts such as Kitab Mawlid texts.

Roundel-12312-f.14v-juz2  Roundel-16877-f.273v
Triple roundels in two Javanese Qur’ans to mark the start of a new juz’: British Library, (left) Add 12312; (right) Or 16877, f. 273v   noc

Roundel-16034-f.258r
Illuminated composite roundels used as a line filler at the end of Surat al-Fil (Q.105) in an Acehnese Qur’an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 258r  noc

Roundel-16915-f.131v  Roundel-16915-f.128v  coloured foundel in a Quran manuscript -15406-f.18v
Coloured composite roundels marking subdivisions of a juz’ in Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts. British Library, (left and centre) Or 16915, (right) Or 15406.  noc

As can be seen in the images, all the verse markers are perfect circles that were drawn mechanically with a compass, as is evident from the small black dot or indent discernible in the centre of nearly all the circles. The ubiquity of these perfect circles, in Qur’an manuscripts of every varying level of competence (for example, the Javanese Qur’an Or 16877 is copied in a very poor hand), suggests that rather than using a dedicated tool, they may have been made through an easily-learned scribal technique of somehow pivoting the nib of the pen around a sharp point. The use of a sharp-pointed implement is proven by some back-lit images taken to show the watermarks in a manuscript of a sermon from Kerinci, digitised through the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP117/9/1/3), which highlight the tiny holes created in the making of the composite roundels; similar observations have been made in Islamic manuscripts from Mindanao. However, the precise method of drawing these small circles, whether by using a tool or a technique, remains at present undocumented, and a field for future study.

Pinprick pivot holes in the paper made during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3  EAEAP117-9-1-3-compass points in a composite roundel
Pinprick pivot holes made in the paper during the creation of decorative composite roundels, in a sermon from Kerinci, Jambi, shown below, probably written in the 1830s. EAP117/9/1/3, 6

Sermon, written on a scroll, ca. 1830s, Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.
Sermon, written ca. 1830s in the form of a scroll in English paper watermarked 'Allford 1829', Kerinci, Jambi, Sumatra.  EAP117/9/1/3.

Occasionally small hand-drawn circles are also found in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia, and these are especially common in central Sumatra and areas in the Minangkabau sphere of influence, as in the Qur’an below.

EAP144-2-5.16
Hand-drawn small red circles as verse markers in a Qur’an from West Sumatra. EAP144/2/5.16

This is the first of a five-part series on ‘The art of small things’ in Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library. The first part is on Verse markers; the second on Text frames; the third on Surah headings; the fourth on Juz’ markers; and the fifth and final part is on ruku' and maqra' Recitation indicators.

Blog posts:
4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library
25 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia digitised by the Endangered Archives Programme

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork

21 June 2021

Black Sea Noir: Who was Ian MacPherson and Why Was He in Crimea?

Off-white paper with black faded typed text in Latin script, with a drawing of concentric circle in the centre and Hebrew script copied by hand in black ink in the rings of the circles
The final page of Ian MacPherson's report from his travels to Crimea, including a copy of a Hebrew-script inscription and the legend to his map of Kezlev. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927. Or 17013 f 39)
CC Public Domain Image

With summer having arrived for those of us in the northern hemisphere, it’s time to find a quiet green space and relax in the pleasant weather for a few hours – preferably with a good mystery. While I can’t offer you something along the lines of Zühal Kuyaş, Pınar Kür, Osman Aysu, Ümit Kıvanç, or even the pastiche but playful crime stories of Peyami Safa, I do have a bit of a conundrum that might help while away a humid hour or two. My Noir tale comes from deep inside one of the Library’s safe cupboards. Late in 2019, I found a stack of handwritten and typed notes from a man named Ian MacPherson (Or 17013). Some of the jottings related to library collections in Crimea; others were maps of Kezlev (Yevpatoria in Ukrainian and Russian) with the sites of interest marked; some had rubbings and sketches of inscriptions and “tamghalar” (tamgalar); and a final piece provided a translation of a report to the Crimean Academy of Sciences. But who was Ian MacPherson, and what was he doing in Crimea for four weeks during the summer of 1927?

A hand drawn map ink and pencil of a square in Kezlev with various buildings numbered and Arabic, Latin and Cyrillic script text hand written on it, as well as typewritten Latin-script text in the top left corner
A hand-drawn map of Qanglıq or Kaklyk Square (now Metalistiv Square), showing the bazar and Tatarok Street (today Tatar'ska Street), along with numbered buildings corresponding to those included in the legend provided by MacPherson. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 f 39)
CC Public Domain Image

To answer the first question, I don’t really know. That is, I don’t have precise details on his dates of birth and death, or about his education and profession. But from the notes that he left, we can gather a few details. Let’s do our best Saga Norén and go through some of them. Given that these seemingly bureaucratic notes were found in a safe cupboard at the British Library, I’m willing to guess that Mr. MacPherson was employed by the British Museum (the Library’s predecessor institution) to acquire materials from the Soviet Union, the former Ottoman Empire, or both. While it’s true that these notes could have been deposited by a third party at any point between 1927 and 2019, this situation seems unlikely. The fact that they speak of libraries of interest; archaeological and historical conferences attended; and meetings with various local scholars and officials all point to the BM as being Ian’s most likely place of employment. Indeed, wherever he worked, it was certainly a “museum” (f 38) that contained a library. In a note from 8 November 1927, MacPherson remarks that he will check the lists of English-language materials at the Yevpatoria Library with those held at “our library” in London. MacPherson also states (f 38) that “were any collaborator of the British Museum” to pursue in-depth research in Kezlev in the coming years, they would be able to count on his assistance as a fixer and a translator. Perhaps, then, he was a former employee of the Museum, now freelancer (of a sort) eager to use his connections to finance his continued travels.

A foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x'sA foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's
The first two pages of Ian MacPherson's report on his trip to Crimea, including descriptions of the Peninsula, Kezlev, the people he met, and some of the institutions in the region. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 35-36)
CC Public Domain Image

It’s the varied and wide-ranging interests encapsulated in Ian’s activities that point most firmly to him working in a position touching upon history, archaeology, anthropology, museology, and archival research. This might seem like a broad swathe of the social sciences and humanities, impossible to contain within anything other than personal interests. But the mix is not far from what Curators at the Library are asked to touch upon even today. MacPherson gathered information on historic and contemporary communities as well as those conducting research on them. His notes provide us with detailed descriptions of the ethnic and religious communities present in northern Crimea in the 1920s (Muslim Tatars, Greek Catholic and Russian Orthodox Slavs, Qaraim, Turkic-speaking Jews or Krymchaks, Ashkenazi Jews, Armenians). These missives are clearly enmeshed within imperialist understandings of racial anthropology. Nonetheless, they collate valuable information about Crimean society before the devastating changes brought about by the purges of the 1930s; Nazi occupation; and wholesale deportation and ethnic cleansing during the Soviet reoccupation.

A headshot of a balding man with no hat in black and white above a typed caption in Arabic scriptA reproduction of a black and white photograph of a group of 18 people including 2 women and 16 men, of whom 7 are seated in a front row, 9 are standing behind them, and a further two are standing behind that row, all of them in various forms of business or casual attire, with a bolded title in Arabic script above the photo and an Arabic-script caption below it
A portrait of the Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı (left) and a group photo of the participants at a 1926 Archaeological Conference in Kerch, Crimea, including Aqçoqraqlı seated on the far right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), pp. 44, 46) (11449.tt.26)
CC Public Domain Image

MacPherson’s papers also record meetings with numerous scholars. These include Soviet scientists from outside the region (among whom was an unnamed Jewish doctor from Minsk unsuccessfully researching blood types among Qaraim communities); Boris Saadevich Elyashevich, Curator of the Qaraim National Library; Polina J. Chepurina, the Head of the Yevpatoria Museum; Professor Filonenko, a Ukrainian member of the Turko-Tatar Faculty at Simferopol’ University; an unnamed Armenian priest; and the well-known Crimean Tatar historian Osman Aqçoqraqlı. Ian was clearly seeking the latest information from these individuals on the expansion and development of the social sciences and humanities in the region; a veritable hotbed of scholarly activities in the 1920s. He attended the Second Pan-Union Archaeological Conference in Aqyar (Sevastopol’) on 11-12 September 1927, and made extensive notes on the activities of the Qaraim National Library and the Yevpatoria Museum, documenting the work done to catalogue and study the holdings within new Soviet structures.

A foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's and Arabic and Samaritan script texts also added in by handA foolscap page of Latin-script text typed on a typewriter with some words and phrases either crossed out in pen or cancelled with typed x's
MacPherson's report on the Yevpatoria Museum and their holdings of items relating to the history of Crimea. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 37-38)
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The lists and descriptions that MacPherson compiled are also invaluable for the information that they provide about Crimean culture and history. Among them, we have an overview of some of the treasures of the Qaraim National Library as compiled by Mikhail Nikolaevich Sokolov (f 36; originally a report for the Academy of Sciences in 1926). The gradual shift in ownership and control over cultural heritage is also documented, as MacPherson’s notes include a “List of property in the town of Eupatoria to become municipal property” (f 40), clearly sketching out the Soviet state’s desire to take ownership and assert control over the cultural heritage of the region’s various communities. And, most notably, the sheets are filled with sketches; short descriptions; rubbing and transcriptions of inscriptions; floor plans; and maps of important places and buildings found throughout this segment of the Crimean Peninsula. MacPherson was evidently very keen to bring back information about the Hebrew- and Arabic-script manifestations of faith and power in Kezlev and other towns. Given the shaky nature of much of the Arabic script used to copy down Crimean Tatar and Arabic inscriptions, it seems as though Ian himself engaged in this endeavour. He was likely helped considerably by local scholars, as the Crimean Tatar phrases are in an orthography characteristic of the 1910s and 20s, rather than Classical Ottoman.

Pencil rubbing of a three pronged figure with a pointed head alongside an ink sketch of a bird upon which the item might have been basedPencil rubbing of a three pronged figure showing only the outline of the prongs with a blank interior below a rubbing of the outline of a bar
Two examples of tamgalar taken from MacPherson's rubbings of the symbols from mosques and graveyards in Kezlev. On the left, an example that Aqçoqraqlı identified with Qaraqurt and that MacPherson labelled as "Ceni Mille", and on the right, one that he linked to Kezlev. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927, Or 17013 ff 11,19)
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A separate look should be devoted to the rubbings and sketches of tamgalar found throughout the sheets. These are stamps or seals that were employed by various communities – often Turkic or Mongolic speakers – across Eurasia. The expanse over which they are found is a tribute to their incorporation into nomadic cultures. They encoded many pieces of information, including family ties; socio-economic structures and relationships; and power dynamics. To this day, the Tarak tamga continues to be used as a national symbol of the Crimean Tatars. MacPherson wasn’t always accurate in his identification of these stamps, and some of what has been labeled “tamga” in the notes is clearly not related to this part of nomadic Eurasian heritage. Nonetheless, it’s clear that this aspect of Crimea’s semiotic culture fascinated our traveler, and that it was a big motivating factor in his further research into Crimean history.

A yellowed page with lithographed reproduction of a sketch featuring stone monuments each bearing a different tamga symbol on them, entirely in black and white, above and below typed Arabic-script text
An artist's rendition of tamgalar found across Crimea on various stone monuments, illustrating the typical settings in which such evidence of the Peninsula's Turkic heritage can be found. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Huner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926), p. 11). (11499.p.11)
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Another piece of the puzzle fell into place last autumn. A chunk of the mystery surrounding Ian MacPherson and his trip to Crimea had already become much less murky thanks to his detailed notes. But MacPherson’s relationship with the people mentioned in them continued to be unclear, not least because there were no indications of how he was received by those individuals mentioned in his missives. As luck would have it, though, I was able to find another clue while on one of my many exploratory trips to the Library’s basements. There, I stumbled upon a monograph without a record in our electronic catalog, Qırım'da Tatar Tamgaları (قریم'دا تاتار تامغالاری) (14499.p.11). This volume, authored by the very same Osman Aqçoqraqlı MacPherson met in 1927, is a beautifully illustrated and very detailed study of tamgalar. It documents an important stage in the development of the social sciences in Crimea, with a particular emphasis on the contributions of Indigenous scholars. Moreover, it provides us with clear indications of the spread of particular early Soviet opinions and ideas following the Bolshevik takeover.

Yellowed page with printed text in Arabic script showing a ruled table that includes the Syllabic system employed for Indigenous languages in Canada against their pronunciation in Arabic scriptYellowed page with printed text in Arabic script showing a ruled table that includes the Hangul system employed for Korean alongside the letters' pronunciation in Arabic script
Schemes showing the Hangul system (left) and the Syllabics system (right) and alleging similarities or direct lineages with the tamgalar employed by both Mongolic and Turkic peoples across Eurasia. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Huner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926), pp. 20-21). (11499.p.11)
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Although the majority of Aqçoqraqlı’s text is focused on the various tamgalar, their meanings, and their historical connections, the end of the work introduces a new, and highly dubious, deviation. In a twist that makes express use of Nikolai Marr’s theories regarding a “Japhetic” group of languages, he implies parallels between Mongolic tamgalar and early Hangul, the alphabet used for Korean, if not a clear line of inspiration (p. 20). Similarly, he draws readers’ attention to the similarities between the tamgalar and the syllabic system applied to various Indigenous languages spoken in Canada (p. 21). Whatever similarities exist, these are purely coincidental, as neither the Nêhiyaw history of the system nor that of European settlers speaks to any Turkic or Mongolic influence in the appearance of the writing system. The same logic is applied to the Phoenician, Himyarite and Ge’ez alphabets and syllabaries (p. 22). Such cross-cultural, and often ahistorical, approaches to historical linguistics were a hallmark of both Marr’s worldview and that of many Turkic nationalists, particularly those participating in the construction of the Turkish History Thesis in the 1930s. Their appearance in a Soviet work prior to the Stalinist crackdown makes this an especially valuable work from a historiographical perspective.

Printed cover page featuring printed Arabic calligraphy with small tamga symbols among the calligraphy and a handwritten inscription in Arabic script in blue-black ink at the top right of the page
The title page of Aqçoqraqlı's work on tamgalar, including a dedication of the work to the British Museum dated 24 July 1926. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, Qırım'da Tatar Tamğaları : Baku'da toplanmakta olan Türkiyat Kurultayı Münasabetile (Bağçesaray : Kırım Tatar Hüner ve Sanayı Nefiye Texnikumesi Matbaası, 1926)). (11499.p.11)
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But this isn’t quite what we’re interested in investigating, is it? Back to the matter at hand, and MacPherson’s connections to Aqçoqraqlı. On the title page of the book, we find a dedication written in a tight rık’a hand with black ink, probably using a fountain pen. It reads: “Londra’da Britanya Müzehanesine takdim olunur. Müellif: Osman Aqçoqraqlı. 24 İyul 1926” (“Presented to the British Museum in London. Author: Osman Aqçoqraqlı. 24 July 1926”). From the accession stamp at the back of the book, we can see that it was formally entered into the Library’s collections on 9 October 1926. This is hardly a smoking gun when it comes to MacPherson’s employment, or the nature of his relationship to Osman Aqçoqraqlı – not least since it predates MacPherson’s visit by a year. But it does demonstrate that the latter individual was clearly in communication with the Museum and that the Museum itself had a pre-existing relationship with the Peninsula’s scholarly community. This is something, I have learned, that is often imperative in ensuring smooth business trips. Indeed, in his own report, MacPherson notes that he has “extended some help to him [Aqçoqraqlı] in regard to European sources of information” on tamgalar. Was this the catalyst for his trip? MacPherson mentions in the notes that he was planning on returning to Crimea in 1928 to undertake more detailed research; perhaps this was part of a longer friendship arc ultimately interrupted by Stalinist repressions.

Yellowed page with calligraphic Arabic-script title at top above sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin, from the next up, featuring a half-profile of the left side of his face, entirely in black and whiteA group portrait photograph in black and white showing a line of men seated outside of a building in front of a line of four standing men, some of which are wearing hats, under a bolded title and above a caption, all of which are in Arabic script
The cover of İleri magazine, featuring a sketched portrait of Joseph Stalin (left) and a portrait of archaeologists working in Crimea (right) in 1925-26, including Aqçoqraqlı, standing second from the right. (Aqçoqraqlı, Osman, "Kerç'de Arxeoloği Konferensiası", İleri, 6-7 (November 1926), cover and p. 45) (11449.tt.26)
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Many good examples of the Noir genre include murders, injustice and a crushingly ruthless system that outdoes those who participate in it. While we don’t know what happened to MacPherson (he might have been shot by a cold-blooded gangster while on his walking tour to Kerch), his was likely not the story that ended in despair. Rather, it is Crimean Tatar scholars who give this particular story its dark edge. With the triumph of Joseph Stalin in the struggle for the leadership of the Communist Party and the Soviet Union, a pall descended on many academic and minority communities across the USSR. The 1930s were a period of gradual but devastating repression of dissent and creativity. Many Turkic intellectuals and national leaders from the 1910s and 20s were targeted for purges. Osman Aqçoqraqlı was no exception, and in 1938 he was arrested and executed for his alleged nationalist transgressions. It was, in predictably Noir fashion, the system which had allowed him to pursue his research and to connect with like-minded scholars from abroad that would eventually cause his demise.

A pencil sketch and rubbing of Arabic script and numbers along with a shield-like shape on white paper, accompanied by handwritten text in Latin and Cyrillic scripts in black ink
A rubbing and sketch of a date marker for 1180 AH (1766-67 CE) identified with the Khan Cami, also known as the Cuma Cami, designed by the famed Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan in 1552-64 CE. ([Ian MacPherson Report on Crimea and Rubbings], 1927. Or 17013 f 9)
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In 1942, Crimea was invaded by Nazi forces. After the Soviet reoccupation, the accusation of collaboration levelled by Stalin against the entire Crimean Tatar nation resulted in their mass deportation to Uzbekistan and other destinations in 1944. Communities were shattered and tens of thousands died. It was only in 1989 that survivors and their descendants were able to return home en masse. Or 17013 is thus more than just the notes of a privileged, if not entitled, British business traveller interested in the region’s cultural and architectural heritage. They are evidence of a buoyant time of exploration, discovery, and self-expression among the peoples of Crimea; an ethos that would ultimately be betrayed and erased from official memory during the Great Purge and Deportation. The mystery of who Ian MacPherson was pales in comparison to the enormity of the Crimean Tatars’ displacement and dispossession; a trauma re-enacted in 2014 with the Russian annexation of the Peninsula.

Hopefully, making use of the dogged persistence of a Raymond Chandler anti-hero to uncover the finer points of a 95-year-old business trip has helped you while away a humid afternoon. With a little luck, it can also help us to reconstruct suppressed histories, and aid in the pursuit of long overdue restorative justice for repressed persons and peoples.

Dr. Michael Erdman, Turkish and Turkic Curator
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14 June 2021

Three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh in the British Library

Aceh is renowned as one of the most fervently Islamic regions of Southeast Asia. Situated on the northern tip of the island of Sumatra, it was the site of the first Muslim kingdoms in the archipelago in the 13th century, and Aceh has also produced many famous Islamic scholars and writers. There are probably more illuminated Qur’an manuscripts known today from Aceh than from anywhere else in the Malay world, and nearly all conform closely to what can be termed the Acehnese style of manuscript illumination (cf. Gallop 2004). The British Library holds three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh, and all have been fully digitised.

Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.
Illuminated frames at the start of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 2v-3r.  noc

An especially fine example of this genre is Or 16915, which has three superb pairs of illuminated frames and further marginal ornaments throughout the manuscript indicating standard divisions of the Qur’anic text into thirty parts of equal length or juz’. As can be seen in the illustration above, the text boxes on two facing pages are surrounded by rectangular borders, with the vertical borders extended upwards and downwards. On the three outer sides of each page are arches, and those on the vertical sides are flanked by a pair of ‘wings’ or foliate tendrils. The palette is centred on red, yellow and black ink, but the most important colour is the reserved white of the background paper, which carries the main motif, usually a scrolling vine. Gold is never used in the illumination of Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts. In the final pair of illuminated frames from the same manuscript, shown below, the arches are ogival rather than triangular, but all elements still conform to the precepts of the Acehnese style.

Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r.r
Illuminated frames at the end of a Qur’an from Aceh, ca. 1820s. British Library, Or 16915, ff. 254v-255r.  noc

The other two manuscripts are simpler bibliographic productions, but both were also created with decorated frames at the beginning, middle and end of the book. However, Or 16034 is now missing the first few folios, and thus also the initial illuminated frames which it would undoubtedly have had. It still has illuminated frames in the middle, which, as is the case with all Acehnese Qur’ans, are located at the start of the textual mid-point of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’, in Surat al-Kahf, verse 75, indicated here with the line in red ink. Although the decorated frames are cruder in design and execution than those shown above, they illustrate well both the degree of conformity to, yet variation possible within, the parameters of the Acehnese style.

Decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’ (Q, 18:75). Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.
Decorated frames in the middle of the Qur’an, at the start of the 16th juz’ (Q, 18:75). British Library, Or 16034, ff. 119v-120r.  noc

Probably the most interesting feature of this Qur’an manuscript is that the final pair of illuminated frames, which are located after the end of the Qur’anic text, were left blank. While at first glance it might be assumed that they were unfinished, in fact this is a distinctively Acehnese phenomenon, and scores of examples of such blank illuminated frames in Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh have been documented. In most cases they appear to have been designed to contain a prayer to be recited on completion of the Qur’an, or the final chapters of the Qur’an, or a repetition of the first chapter, Surat al-Fatihah. In Or 16034 the first words of a prayer have been written but the attempt then petered out, leaving only a few doodled pencil marks.

Blank decorated frames at the end of the Qur’an. Or 16034, ff. 260v-261r.
Blank decorated frames at the end of the Qur’an. British Library, Or 16034, ff. 260v-261r.  noc

The third Qur’an manuscript, Or 15604, has three pairs of double monochrome frames. These should not be regarded as ‘unfinished’ examples of manuscript art, for so many examples of Acehnese manuscripts with monochrome decoration can be found that this should be regarded as a standard variant of the Acehnese style. In all other aspects, these decorated frames are typical of the Acehnese style save that, unusually, both the initial and final pairs of frames are lacking the arches and flanking tendrils on the outer vertical sides, although these are present in the (very damaged) middle frames.

Monochrome decorated frames, without side arches, at the beginning of a Qur’an from Aceh, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 1v-2r.
Monochrome decorated frames, without side arches, at the beginning of a Qur’an from Aceh, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 1v-2r.  noc

Damaged monochrome decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an from Aceh, at the beginning of juz’ 16, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 147v-148r.
Damaged black and brown ink decorated frames in the centre of a Qur’an from Aceh, at the beginning of juz’ 16, 19th century. British Library, Or 15406, ff. 147v-148r.  noc

Both these two simpler Qur’an manuscripts display one of the most characteristic features of Acehnese illumination less evident in the finer Or 16915, namely the plaited rope border. This deceptively simple and seemingly universal motif is in fact fundamental to the Acehnese style, while almost never being encountered in Qur’an manuscripts from any other part of Southeast Asia.

Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh

Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh
Plaited rope borders from decorated frames in two Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (top) Or 15406, f. 314r; (bottom) Or 16034, f. 120r  noc

All three Qur’an manuscript from Aceh in the British Library were produced with three pairs of decorated frames, albeit with differing degrees of artistry and finesse. However, Or 16915 is a much more lavish example of book art as all the textual divisions within the Qur’an are marked with beautiful marginal ornaments. The Qur’an is traditionally divided into thirty juz’ or parts of equal length to facilitate its recitation within a complete month, especially the blessed month of Ramadan.  Each juz’ can also be subdivided into regular fractions of half (nisf), quarters (rubu‘) and eighths (thumn), and all these divisions are indicated in Or 16915 with ornamented medallions placed in the margin. The start of each new juz’ is also highlighted with a small composite roundel composed of intersecting circles within the text itself, and by setting the first line within red-ruled frames and writing the first verse in red ink. In the other two Acehnese Qur’ans, Or 15406 and Or 16034, the first line of each new juz’ is also written in red ink, and in Or 16034 is usually also marked by a composite roundel, but there are no decorative devices in the margins.

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)

The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82)
The start of juz’ 7 of the Qur’an (Q. 5:82) marked with varying degrees of ornamentation in three Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts: British Library, (top) Or 16915, f. 54r, (middle) Or 15406, f. 57v, (bottom) Or 16034, f. 45r.  noc

It is probably in the minor decorative features that the umbilical cord linking all three Qur’an manuscripts from Aceh is revealed most clearly. Thus all three manuscripts – despite evidently varying places and dates of production within Aceh – have text frames of exactly the same composition, namely a series of four parallel ruled lines (described from inside out) of red-black-red-black ink. This is the one of two frame schemes found in nearly all Acehnese Qur’an manuscripts, the other being the less common red-red-black (cf. Gallop 2007: 195).

Tf-15406  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: (middle) Or 16034  Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh:  Or 16915.
Text frames of red-black-red-black ruled ink lines in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034, (right) Or 16915.  noc

Lastly, all three Qur’an manuscripts are also linked by the smallest common ornamental element: the aya or verse markers, which in Acehnese Qur’ans are invariably small black circles, drawn mechanically with a compass-like tool, coloured in with yellow pigment.

Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-15406 f.246v  Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-16034  Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment-16915
Verse (aya) markers of black circles filled with yellow pigment in all three Qur'an manuscripts from Aceh: British Library, (left) Or 15406, (middle) Or 16034), (right) Or 16915.  noc

None of these three manuscripts is dated, but Or 16915 is written on English paper made by J Whatman watermarked with the date '1819', suggesting it was copied sometime in the 1820s.  The two other manuscripts are copied on Italian paper with the tre lune watermark of three crescent moons, indicating 19th century production. It is very rare to find colophons in Southeast Asian Qur'an manuscripts, but Or 15406 does have an endowment (waqf) statement at the end naming the owner:  Inilah Qur'an milik Teungku Ti orang baruh duduk pada nanggroe Lam Kubu tetapi Qur'an ini diwakaf pada tangan Teungku Abdul Kadir Lam Siwi intaha kalam tamma, ‘This is the Qur'an belonging to Teungku Ti, from the coastal lowlands, residing in Lam Kubu, but this Qur'an has been inalienably endowed into the hands of Teungku Abdul Kadir of Lam Siwi, finis.’

Endowment statement at the end of the Qur'an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 315r
Endowment statement at the end of the Qur'an. British Library, Or 15406, f. 315r  noc

Further reading:
A.T. Gallop, ‘An Acehnese style of manuscript illumination’, Archipel, 2004, (68): 193-240.
A.T. Gallop, The art of the Qur’an in Southeast Asia. Word of God, Art of Man: the Qur’an and its creative expressions. Selected proceedings from the International Colloquium, London, 18-21 October 2003. Edited by Fahmida Suleman. Oxford: OUP in association with the Institute of Ismaili Studies, 2007, pp.191-204.
Blog post, 24 March 2014, An Illuminated Qur’an manuscript from Aceh
Blog post, 4 February 2021, Qur’an manuscripts from Southeast Asia in the British Library

Annabel Teh Gallop, Lead Curator, Southeast Asia  ccownwork