Special collections: Middle Eastern manuscripts and rare books

The Bodleian Library's Islamic manuscript collection is one of the most important in Europe. By 1714, the library already owned a substantial number of Arabic manuscripts, along with a smaller holdings in Persian and Turkish. These foundation collections remain the cornerstone of the Bodleian’s resources for the study of Islamic culture and scholarship.

Armenian collecting also started in the 17th century, while the Georgian collections were developed in the 19th and early 20th century.

The Christian Orient


The earliest Armenian donations were the manuscripts presented by Archbishop Laud in 1635. Other early acquisitions of manuscripts include some from Thomas Marshall in 1685, from Edward Pococke in 1692 and Narcissus Marsh in 1713.

The real expansion of the collection came in the 19th century, with the librarianship of Nicholson who acquired among other items an antiphonary of 1296 (MS. Arm. F. 22), the earliest dated Armenian manuscript held by the library. By 1918, 124 Armenian manuscripts were held. Some 18 manuscripts have been acquired since then, but the collection remains essentially a modest one.

The earlier Armenian printed books are scattered among 12 or more of the more important collections acquired by the library, such as the Selden (acquired 1659), Marshall (acquired 1685) and Douce (acquired 1834) collections. Archbishop Laud’s 1636 benefaction included an Armenian printed book, the Venice Psalter of 1587.

The earliest recorded purchase of an Armenian printed book was in 1673, when the Amsterdam editions of the Bible of 1666 and 1673 were acquired. Among the Armenian printed items in the Pococke collection, which had been acquired in 1693, a hitherto unknown edition of the Psalms was discovered in 1969. It was printed in new Julfa, Iran in 1638 – the only known copy of the first book to be printed in Iran. In 1707, when visiting Oxford, Archbishop Thomas Vanandetsi presented the library with a collection of Armenian works printed at his Amsterdam press. Many of the 19th-century books came from the collection of SC Malan, donated to the Indian Institute Library in 1883.


The nucleus of the Bodleian Library’s rich holdings of Georgian books and manuscripts is the Wardrop Collection (digitised items), formed by Sir Oliver Wardrop, consular official and Georgian scholar, and his sister Marjory, a notable Georgian scholar in her own right. After Marjory’s early death in 1909, the Marjory Wardrop Fund was founded for the encouragement of Georgian studies and from 1910, through this fund, the Bodleian became the beneficiary of all Marjory Wardrop's papers, books and manuscripts. They were supplemented by further donations from Sir Oliver until his death in 1948. As a result, the Bodleian has become the major European repository of Georgian material outside Russia.

Most of the Wardrop manuscripts are from the 18th century or later, and in addition to the important literary, ecclesiastical, historical and legal texts include the extensive personal papers, correspondence and photographs of the Wardrops, dating roughly from the late 1880s to the late 1940s. Both brother and sister were enthusiastic correspondents, and Marjory maintained contact in Georgian with many of Georgia’s leading writers, poets and scholars of the time.

Non-Wardop Georgian manuscripts include a valuable menologion (Lives of the Saints) copied in Jerusalem in 1038-40 (MS. Georg. b. 1).

The Georgian printed books collection comprises books in Georgian, including many rare early editions and titles relating to Georgian and Caucasian studies in many other languages, and gives outstanding coverage in both categories up to 1917.

Islamic Collections

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.

19th century

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.

20th 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).

21st century

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).

Early printed books and other materials from the Middle East

The Bodleian Library is fortunate to have a number of early Arabic books, including a copy of the first book printed with Arabic moveable type in 1514 (Vet. Or. f. Arab. 1) and several first editions of Arabic works printed by the Italian Medici Press at the end of the 15th century. The first official printing press for Arabic type was established in Constantinople by İbrahim Műteferrika, who printed a series of seventeen works between 1729 and 1742. The Library has originals of all but one of these.

The ‘Elliot printed’ collection contains a number of early printed items from India, mostly works of classical Persian literature printed lithographically in Bombay and Calcutta in the period 1825–1855. In 1870 a collection of 74 Arabic works (in 150 volumes), printed at the government press at Boulak, Cairo, was given to the Library by the Khedive Ismail of Egypt through his son Prince Hassan, who was an undergraduate at the University. The Library’s small collection of Karamanlidika (Turkish language books printed in Greek characters) is also of some interest.

Central Asia

The Bodleian Library's Central Asian collections consist exclusively of printed material, except for our holdings of manuscripts in the Eastern Turkish literary language of Central Asia known as Chagatay and a single example of a manuscript in Uighur script.

The expansion of the Russian Empire into large parts of Transcaucasia and Central Asia led to the publication in St Petersburg and later in several Muslim central centres such as Kazan and Tashkent of studies on the languages, literatures and history of the people under Russian control. The Bodleian is fortunate to possess a number of these early productions. Following the 1917 Revolution in Russia, many languages in the region, which until then had existed only as spoken dialects, were promoted to literary status.

The Library has a selection of Central Asian items from before WWII. These include a grammar of Turkmen (Ashkhabad, 1929) and a novel in Azeri (Baku, 1938). Publication began in a whole range of ‘new’, mainly Turkic languages. From the 1940s, modified versions of the Cyrillic alphabet were used for these. The Bodleian is only of only a small number of British libraries to have collected actively in this area.

See also