Old Soldiers Never Die…

Old Soldiers Never Die…

The Friends of Leiden University Libraries contribute to the acquisition of a late Ottoman luxury manuscript

It is generally known that Turkey embarked upon an energetic programme of modernisation and westernisation in the twentieth century. But many tend to forget that Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, went through an era of tremendous change in the nineteenth century. On the eve of the First World War, the Empire possessed European-style hospitals, schools, public transport, banks, insurance companies, telegraph and trains. In the world of culture the printing press, still using the Arabic alphabet, supplanted the handwritten book as the most prominent means of communication.

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‘’Manifestations of Benefactions’’

Nevertheless, old habits are slow to die. Especially in the sphere of religion, the Holy Qur’an continued to be transcribed by hand throughout the nineteenth century. Apparently, people found it difficult to get used to God’s Word in machine-made print. Another case in point, albeit much smaller, is the Dala’il al-Khayrat or ‘Manifestations of Benefactions,’ a little work in praise of the Prophet Muhammad, the Seal of All Prophets. Written in Arabic in the fifteenth century CE by the Moroccan mystic Muhammad ibn Sulayman al-Jazuli, it took the Muslim world by storm and is still widely read and recited in countries as far apart as Morocco and Indonesia. And Turkey, of course. Quite naturally, each copy of the book reveals the artistic peculiarities of its country of origin. Because of this manifestation of cultural diversity, Leiden University Libraries has been actively collecting manuscripts of this text ever since the curatorship of Professor Jan Just Witkam (1975-2005).

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Late Ottoman Manuscript Culture

This manuscript, written in 1842 with additions from 1889, represents the very pinnacle of Ottoman manuscript culture. The pale blue and gold headpiece with tiny flowers on the opening page exudes an almost feminine grace. The perfectly balanced naskh style of the Arabic script is both strong and soothing to the nerves. Almost a fixed feature in Dala’il al-Khayrat manuscripts is the detailed image of the Haramayn, the Two Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina and the holiest shrines of Islam. On the right is the Haram of Mecca with the Holy Ka’bah dressed in its black silk covering or Kiswah; and on the left the Haram of Medina, where the Prophet is buried below the dome in the far left corner of the building.

Another, more curious illustration depicts the paraphernalia of the Prophet Muhammad: his banner, walking stick, toothbrush (sic!), mantle, rosary and sandals. Because these objects are too sacrosanct to be portrayed in a naturalistic manner, all of them are rendered in a minute script which makes up a Sura of the Qur’an.

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A Friend in Need…

Quite recently a Friend of the Library, Ms Katrien van Dijk, attracted our attention to this delicate manuscript, which her grandfather Wim Hartman had brought from Turkey in 1936. The fair price she and her family asked, in combination with a generous donation from the Board of the Friends, allowed us to secure this little jewel for the Leiden Middle Eastern Collections.

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[Or. 28.353]