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Rare Islamic and Christian manuscripts recall a more inclusive Middle East

March 13, 2015 at 5:39 pm

The book is heavy, somewhat fragile despite its bulk, the papers stained yellow with age and hardened by dust and time. The inside leaf showcases a mesmerising scrawl of Arabic typography, while the cover page reads, in Latin: “Liber Psalmorum”, “Book of Psalms”. This is a bilingual copy of a Christian text, published in both Latin and Arabic in Rome in 1641, a rare example of the enduring and historical bonds between Western and Eastern Christianity.

“What is so fascinating about this book,” says Roxana Kashani, Bloomsbury Auction’s specialist in Middle East manuscripts, where this volume forms part of an upcoming auction, “is that we don’t even know how they made the Arabic letters. At that time, Europe and the Middle East had completely different printing styles and traditions, so we don’t know how they were able to produce a book that incorporated both languages.”

The Book of Psalms will be sold at auction on 19 March by Dreweatts & Bloomsbury in London, an auction house specialising in books and manuscripts, part of a veritable treasure-trove of historic Islamic and Christian texts from the Middle East. The auction, which also features continental and English manuscripts, will showcase more than 20 lots of rare Islamic manuscripts ranging in price from £600 for the bilingual Book of Psalms, to an estimated £12,000-£18,000 for two exquisite and rare Ottoman and Mamluk Qur’ans.

Like many artefacts and treasures, it is not the monetary but the historical value that makes these items so precious. “Each of these pieces tells a story,” says Roxana, “many of them are brought in to us by people who have been handed them down or found them in their lofts and they simply don’t realise their worth.”

Another fascinating item is an Arabic edition of the Nieremberg, printed at the monastery of St John the Baptist in Dair Al-Shwair, Lebanon, in 1734. As well as being a beautiful example of early Arabic printing typography, this volume was also the first ever book to be printed in Lebanon. Considering the old Arabic adage that “Egypt writes, Lebanon prints and Iraq reads” this is no insignificant fact.

Both these books tell a story of the integral nature of Arab Christian communities in the Middle East, and to a lost era of religious diversity and inclusivity. At a time when Christians are facing renewed persecution in the region, and many have fled their ancestral homes to seek refuge in the West, it is a story worth listening to.

Indeed, each of the items up for auction has its own story to tell about the cross-fertilisation of cultures and ideas. A beautiful 17th century Indian Qur’an inscribed with hand-written black Bihari script boasts an inscription on its inside cover that reads, in English: “Looted from valley of Barkilli, Boner, 16.1.98.” Roxana tells me that after some digging, she was able to find an article in the London Gazette from 1898 telling of a British field expedition led by Major-General Sir Bindon Blood to the north of India: “On the 16th [of January] Brigadier-General moved to Barkili, close to the Boner Pass, where [Sir Blood] joined him, and the force marched… to Bajkatta.”

“This Qur’an was most probably taken during that expedition, and has been in someone’s private collection ever since,” says Roxana.

Like many historical artefacts, these volumes and manuscripts are implicated in dense historical ties of colonialism and empire; the fact that the English word “loot” is believed to originate from the Hindustani slang for “plunder” only serves to add a gloss of irony to the sloping black lines of the Arabic text inscribed by Indian hands.

And indeed, it is the spidery traces of the script itself that often hide the secret to each text’s origins and history. With the exception of the two Christian books, all the items in the auction have been hand-written, and Roxana tells me, the style of the Arabic script can serve as a telling clue to the circumstances of its crafting. The Indian Qur’an, for example, is unique in that the Arabic has been rendered in a much more South Asian style, akin to Hindi calligraphy. Another item, a single leaf from a large Illuminated Medieval Qur’an is a beautiful example of thuluth (one third) script, an elegant cursive script written on the principle that “one third” of the each letter slopes forwards; while a small, leather-bound North African Qur’an dating from 1500 showcases what is known as “Maghribi script”, distinguished by fat, curved letters and ordered lines.

Another item, a Hanafi school text by Burhan Al-Din Ibrahim (Al-Halabi) on the ordinances and laws relating to the performance of prayer, has a stylised smattering of notes and annotations in the margins – a testament to the past figures who have read and learnt from the text. Another Hanafi text, an important legal treatise on the principles of legal practice, is especially rare since it is thought to have been copied directly from the author’s original. In the Middle East, where a strong oral tradition meant that many texts were passed down by the spoken word and where each handwritten manuscript took months, if not years, to produce, this is an amazing find, explains Roxana.

While each item is unique and fascinating in its own way, it is the early Islamic Qur’ans in the collection that really steal the show. An exquisite 18th century Ottoman Illuminated Qur’an is a dazzling array of gold leaf and intricately drawn ornaments and borders, the colours and vibrancy of the decorative touches contrasting and complementing the tight black lines of the naskhin script. Just as beautiful, and even more rare, an early Mamluk Qur’an from 15th century Egypt in elegant black muhaqqaq script whose gold and blue illuminated borders still shine through six centuries of dirt and grime. Although not a complete Qur’an, comprising three of the seven manzil, Roxana explains that to have even this small section – amounting to 160 leaves – together in one binding is extremely rare.

“These Qur’ans were so highly prized that often people would divide them up into sections to pass on to their children as inheritance. Often, you can only come across a few leaves, or a single leaf on its own, but to have 160 all together is amazing,” says Roxana.

Overall, the auction represents an aesthetic and temporal showcase of printing techniques and theological revelations in the Middle East; a collection of manuscripts and artefacts whose continued existence through the ages speaks of a deep-rooted longing for knowledge and understanding in the region that has, sadly, often been eclipsed by more gruesome contemporary developments.

The auction of Continental, English and Middle Eastern Manuscripts will be held on Thursday 19 March at 2pm at Bloomsbury House, London. The lots will be available to view on the 17 and 18 March.