Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts
The Bodleian Library’s holdings of Arabic manuscripts stand at some 2,350. The Persian manuscripts number 2,530, and the Turkish 480. There are particular strengths in fields such as Arabic science, mathematics and medicine. The Persian illuminated and illustrated manuscripts are a highlight of the collection.
The holdings are strongest in the areas of classical and pre-modern Islam. The manuscripts exemplify most of the branches of learning cultivated in traditional Islamic society in the Middle East and North Africa.
The study of Arabic was particularly popular in Europe during the 17th century, and Oxford University and its newly refurbished library catered for scholars of this intellectual trend. By the second decade of the 18th century, the Bodleian Library already possessed over 1,500 Arabic manuscripts, together with a smaller number in Persian and Turkish.
When the Bodleian opened in 1602, its holdings already included a manuscript of the Qur’an. A Persian and a Turkish manuscript were donated in the same year. The collections grew under the aegis of William Laud, Chancellor of the University. The donations Laud made to the Library from 1635–1640 included 147 Arabic and 74 Persian and Turkish manuscripts.
In 1640 the Library received the small collection of Oriental manuscripts of Sir Kenelm Digby. The bequest of John Selden in 1659 included over 150 manuscripts in Arabic, Persian and Turkish. In 1678 the Library bought the collection of Thomas Greaves and his brother John. John Greaves was Professor of Geometry at Gresham College and was later the Savilian Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. He was thoroughly conversant with the Islamic tradition of astronomy, and spent time in Constantinople and Egypt pursuing his antiquarian and astronomical interests. Among his Persian manuscripts are the star tables of Ulugh Beg (partly digitised) and an illustrated copy of the poetical romance Yusuf u Zulaykha by the poet Jami (MS. Greaves 1).
Late 17th-century to early 19th-century
In 1692 the Bodleian purchased the magnificent collection of Oriental manuscripts belonging to Edward Pococke (1604-91). Pococke was the leading Arabist of his time in England, the first holder of the Laudian Chair of Arabic at Oxford, and a discerning collector. His collection of over 400 volumes is largely Arabic, but includes some 100 Hebrew and a handful of both Persian and Turkish manuscripts. It is strong in the areas of history, philology, literature and philosophy. Among the treasures of his collection are the Book of Roger by al-Idrisi, dated 1553 (MS. Pococke 375), with its attractive world and regional maps, and the charmingly illustrated animal fables of Bidpai, copied in Syria in 1354 (MS. Pococke 400).
Other important collections acquired in the 17th century include the libraries of Thomas Hyde (in 1692) and Robert Huntington (in 1693). Huntington (1637–1701) had lived and travelled in the Near East. His collection of over 600 volumes contains many rare and early items, including a number of works of Christian content in Arabic, Coptic and Syriac, which reflect his interest in the Eastern Churches. One of collection’s treasures is an illustrated 12th-century manuscript on weaponry commissioned by Saladin for his own library (MS. Huntingdon 264).
In 1714 the Bodleian received by bequest over 700 manuscripts belonging to Narcissus Marsh, Archbishop of Armagh and Fellow of Exeter College. Noteworthy among the Marsh manuscripts is the Arabic version of the Conics of the Greek geometer Apollonius of Perga (MS. Marsh 667, partially digitised). Dated 1070, this manuscript was used by the astronomer Edmund Halley for his 1710 edition of Apollonius’s work. Another remarkable item is al-Sufi’s Book of Fixed Stars, with its striking illustrations of the constellations (MS. Marsh 144). In addition to astronomical and mathematical works, the Marsh Collection contains many important historical, literary, medical and philological manuscripts.
The acquisition in the mid-19th century of the magnificent collections of Sir William and Sir Gore Ouseley greatly enhanced the Bodleian’s holdings of Persian manuscripts. Sir Gore went to India as a young man in 1787 for trade and whilst he was there began to learn Persian and collect manuscripts, many of which were finely illustrated and illuminated. His brother William accompanied him on his embassy to Persia in the years 1810–14 and added to the impressive collection of several hundred Persian manuscripts he had amassed in London. The Bodleian purchased this collection in 1843. In 1859, Sir Gore’s collection was donated through JB Elliott, uniting the two Ouseley collections under the same roof.
The most magnificent illustrated Persian manuscript is a copy of the poet Firdawsi’s Shah-namah, copied at Shiraz in the 1430s (MS. Ouseley Add. 176).
The Bodleian’s Turkish manuscripts are fewer in number and generally less striking than their Arabic or Persian counterparts, but there are still some fine items in the collection. Outstanding in terms of artistic merit are the four magnificent volumes of the Hamseh (‘Quintet’) of the Central Asian poet Nevai (MSS. Elliott 287, 317, 339, 408: the first volume has been digitised). The manuscripts in Chagatay were copied in 1485 and one of the miniatures has been attributed to the master-painter Bihzad.
Other notable accessions during the nineteenth century include: manuscripts of George Sale (d. 1736) the English translator to the Koran; James Fraser of the East India Company (d. 1754); the Scottish explorer James Bruce (1730–94); and General Alexander Walker, political resident in Baroda. The Bruce manuscripts were purchased in 1843, whilst the Walker manuscripts were donated in 1845. The Fraser and Sale collections were deposited in 1872. An interesting Arabic acquisition of the early nineteenth century is the seven-volume set of the Arabian Nights that Edward Wortley Montague had brought from Egypt, purchased by the Library in 1802 (MSS. Bodl. Or. 550-6. In 1878 and 1884 the Library acquired its first Arabic papyri from Egypt; the collection now numbers over 90 and are datable to the period from the 8th to the 10th century.
A number of interesting items were acquired in the 20th century, including an illustrated Arabic version of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides bequeathed to the Library by Sir William Osler, Professor of Medicine, in 1926 (MS. Arab. d. 138). In 2002 the Library was able to add to its Islamic scientific and cartographic holdings by purchasing – with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, National Art Collections Fund, the Friends of the Bodleian and others – the remarkable, unique and newly discovered Book of Curiosities, a late 12th- or early 13th-century Arabic manuscript containing a series of rare maps and astronomical diagrams (MS. Arab. c. 90).
In April 2015 the Trustees of the Simon Digby Memorial Trust donated 261 Oriental manuscripts belonging to the late Simon Digby (1932–2010), who was a Fellow of Wolfson College and a scholar, linguist, translator, and collector. He was also Assistant Keeper of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum from 1972.
The Simon Digby Oriental Collection is comprised mainly of Persian manuscripts, with a handful in languages such as Arabic, Urdu, Turkish, and Hindi. The collection contains important and rare manuscripts in the fields of Indian history, biographies of Sufi saints, and biographies and poetry of the Persian poets of the Sabk-i Hindī or Indian style. Of particular interest are a rare redaction of Baranī’s History of Fīrūzshāhī (MS. S. Digby Or. 54), a copy of Munʿimī’s History of Kashmīr (MS. S. Digby Or. 133), and an illustrated copy of Sharaf al-Dīn Yazdī’s Ẓafarnāmah (MS. S. Digby Or. 263).
The bulk of Mr. Digby’s collection was amassed in Britain at the auctions of manuscripts from the collections of Thomas Phillipps of Middle Hall (d. 1872), Sir Richard Burn, KCIE, ICS (d. 1947), A. H.
Further details of the Simon Digby Oriental Collection can be found on the union catalogue Fihrist (cataloguing work-in-progress).