The Discovery of an 8th-Century Qur’an Written Over a Coptic Biblical Text: An Interview with Eléonore Cellard and Catherine Louis

The Discovery of an 8th-Century Qur’an Written Over a Coptic Biblical Text: An Interview with Eléonore Cellard and Catherine Louis

[This interview is also available in Arabic and French]


In April 2018, Christie’s Auction House offered an early Quranic manuscript for sale as part of its Indian and Islamic World auction, which included oriental carpets and rugs. The Quranic fragment consists of nine miniature folios, the largest being 12.7 x 11.1 cm, and contains partial verses from Sūrat al-Māʼida (verses 40-58; 69-76; 83-88; 116-120) and Sūrat al-Anʻām (Verses 1-9). It is written in late Hijazi or early Kufic style on vertical parchment and dated to the 2nd-century A.H./8th-century C.E. 

Soon after the release of the auction, a French scholar named Eléonore Cellard was able to discover what appears to be a fainted Coptic text laying behind the Quranic text, which is thought to be from the Christian Old Testament. In this sense, it’s a palimpsest; that is a piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing. Covering two distinct theological texts, the first layer of the palimpsest (inferior) is Coptic, while the second layer (superior) is the Arabic Quran.

The discovery is considered remarkable, not only because Quranic palimpsests are rare, but also because it is the first time we encounter an example of a Coptic fragment being washed off to make a place for the Qur’an. Moreover, on April 26th, 2018, Christie’s Copto-Quranic palimpsest has reached an outstanding result—in terms of Islamic art auction sales—when the nine fragments fetched the sum of £596,790, that is five times its estimated price (£80,000-£120,000).

Christie’s Copto-Quranic palimpsest being sold on April 26th, 2018, for £596,790. Source: ChristiesInc/Twitter

To highlight the origins, codicological peculiarities, textual readings, and overall significance of Christie’s Copto-Quranic palimpsest, we had the opportunity to speak to Eléonore Cellard and Catherin Louis, respectively. Cellard is a post-doctorate at the College de France in Paris, where she majors in the study of the textual transmission of the Qur’an in the formative period of Islam, based on the oldest and finest Quranic manuscripts available to her. She is a student of the renowned codicologist François Déroche, and has recently published a book with Brill in 2017, entitled Codex Amrensis 1—a reproduction of an 8th-century Qur’anic fragment, scattered at four different institutions in Europe and the Middle East. As for Catherine Louis, she is a research fellow at the Institute of Research and History of Texts at the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS) in Paris, where she specializes in the stud of early Egyptian Christianity, cataloguing and editing unpublished Coptic manuscript texts, and examining book’s structure techniques in Egypt around that time. Her contributions can be found at Cahiers de la Bibliothèque copte—a peer-reviewed journal, in which Louis serves as an editor along with her colleague Anne Boud’hors. 

copto-coran palimpsest
Christie’s Copto-Quranic palimpsest. In this photograph, You can fairly sight the fainted Coptic text underlying the Quranic text. Source: Christie’s

The Interview

Quranic Manuscripts Studies Blog (QMSB): How did you find out about this palimpsest?

Eleonore Cellard (EC): I discovered this palimpsest by flipping through the Christie’s Islamic Art Sale Catalogue of April 26th, 2018, which was made available online. One of the lots, entitled “nine folios from a rare Late Hijazi or early Kufic small square Qur’an” has fascinated me in particular, for the research I conduct on ancient Qur’an manuscripts dated to the 2nd-century A.H./8th-century C.E. Since the images were in a very good quality, I was able to make enlargements to make sure what was there is not simply traces of wear of the parchment but of an actual erased writing.

However, this discovery is not coincidental. For several months now, I have been working on other palimpsests, attempting first to understand in which cultural and material contexts they appeared in, and what were the techniques used to reveal these erasures. In a way, one can say that my gaze was trained to observe what it was beyond visible writing. Maybe, without this preceding work, the erased text would have escaped my eyes, just as it had escaped the eye of its former owner and the eyes of Christie’s experts. And I must say that, at the time, I thought my imagination had played me a trick.

QMSB: What’s the significance of this discovery?

EC: In my opinion, this document profoundly enriches our knowledge of the handwritten transmission of the Quran, and more generally of the texts in the book culture of the Orient of Late Antiquity. Two elements seem to be particularly important in this perspective.

Firstly, thanks to the erased Coptic script which can be easily located in Egypt, this document gives us a clue to the places of production of the ancient Qur’anic manuscripts. This is a very valuable clue because we must remember that we have no such direct information in the manuscripts themselves. They do not contain any note from before the middle of the 3rd-century AH/9th-century C.E., or even later. In addition to that, most of these manuscripts— which were discovered starting from the 17th-century towards the 18th-century—were collected in the mosques of large urban centers; that may not be related to the actual locations in which the manuscripts were copied. However, this particular palimpsest confirms that Egypt has been a place of business for the textual transmission of the Quran, at least from the mid-8th century.

Secondly, this new palimpsest completes our understanding of the scribal practices of the Quran. Today, there are countless witnesses of palimpsests preserved in the Jewish and Christian book cultures of East and West. To give just one example, more than 20% of identified New Testament Lectionaries in uppercase Greek, are palimpsests. Conversely, we have only a few palimpsests for the Quran (they represent approximately less than 0.03% of the total manuscripts). The study of these exceptional witnesses will enable us to understand the matters and contexts in which such artifacts have been assembled. In this case, the Copto-Quranic palimpsest reflects certain economical constraints that fit well with the book culture of multicultural Egypt in the 8th century.

QMSB: In addition to Christie’s Copto-Qur’anic palimpsest, do we have further examples of Quranic palimpsests in presence today?

EC: Currently, we know 4 other Quranic palimpsests, each one of them were produced in different contexts—aside from Mingana-Lewis palimpsest of Cambridge University Library [Ms. Or. 1287]. In contrast to the other three, the Mingana-Lewis palimpsest contains folios, originally Quranic that has been erased to be reused in a Christian context. The two other palimpsests were discovered in the collection of Ṣan’ā’ in Yemen[1]. Both of the latter palimpsests are entirely Qur’anic; whether it is the erased text or the one that has been rewritten over it.

The third palimpsest was identified through a replica published in the early 20th century[2]. It is a folio from the collection of the Great Mosque of Damascus, with a Greek text being erased during the 3rd-century AH/9th-century CE to transcribe a Quranic text.

However, we must remember that we do not yet have an overview of all the collections. Other palimpsests may exist in the collections found in the great mosques of Damascus or Ṣan’ā. Others, again, may have circulated outside these collections in environments where access to writing materials was more difficult.

In conclusion, the extreme rarity of this practice of parchment reuse in the Quranic context is, perhaps, due to lack of conservation’s procedures.

QMSB: What was your first impression when you examined the palimpsest?

Catherine Louis (CL): I was initially very excited by this beautiful, completely unexpected discovery. The underlying writing showed signs of seniority, and the fact that it was erased for the fragments to be reused for copying a Quran, is unique. In addition, some Coptic fragments, the first to have been identified, showed we were dealing with at least two biblical passages, which made the lot even more interesting. The difficulties of reading the underlying text made the whole thing more exciting (it was a kind of challenge).

QMSB: Is the inferior Coptic text legible? If yes, what does it say?

CL: Two of the fragments have a rather readable view, and were identified shortly after their discovery, by A. Boud’hors (CNRS-IHT, Paris) and A. Suciu (Akademie der Wissenschaften, Göttingen) as containing excerpts from Deuteronomy and Isaiah. Then two other fragments which also contain excerpts from Deuteronomy and Isaiah were identified, but they are much less clearly legible. Regarding the remaining of the five fragments, I suspect that two of them also contains biblical excerpts, but the text is not legible enough to determine with certainty which passage it is. We still have three fragments on which we, unfortunately, only decipher a few letters that do not allow for the moment to identify them.

QMSB: Is it possible yet to date the lower Coptic text?

CL: Yes, approximately. We know that these fragments came from a Coptic manuscript which was probably of a rather small size. It is written in the so-called “biblical” capital (from the name of the uncial used in many ancient Greek Bible manuscripts). This writing also corresponds to what is found in various Coptic manuscripts originating in Egypt and were datable, quite safely, to the 6th-7th centuries; as they were found during excavations alongside other dated documents. These indices allow to suppose that these fragments were copied around the seventh century—maybe even in the sixth century—but at the moment, we can not provide a precise dating due to lack of specific indications as to where these fragments were made and the circumstances surrounding its appearance in the antique markets.

QMSB: Where does the palimpsest probably come from?

CL: it is not certain that the Coptic text and the Quranic text were copied in the same place. Some palimpsests containing an underlying text in Coptic have indeed travelled, and their underlying text may have been copied elsewhere before the manuscript or part of it was acquired in Egypt and other copies of it were reproduced; they may have been written in other languages.

The Coptic manuscript with its own characteristics (size, paleography, and language) is likely to come from the Middle and Upper Egypt, where we have obtained many similar manuscripts (in the areas from Abydos to Hermopolis, at least), but it remains difficult to further clarify this issue at this time.

EC: As I said above, the material and textual characteristics of Quranic writing do not allow us to associate it with a particular regional practice. The writing used follows a model disseminated in all the different urban centers. Some textual features, which have been added later, refer to a tradition of Medinan reading; knowing that the latter has been widely disseminated in Egypt. This observation also concords with a set of manuscripts, discovered in the Mosque of ʿAmr in Fusṭāṭ, which have the same characteristics.

QMSB: What are your further studies on this palimpsest?

CL: It seems to me that the most important work would be to read and identify the Coptic fragments of this lot, which are still remained without identification. This would require good photographs (ideally multispectral photographs) that would better visualize the underlying text. Without this step, attempts to identify certain fragments are likely to fail. However, there remains a possibility that some fragments do not come from the same book. Without good quality photographs, it remains impossible to say that all the Coptic fragments used in the Quranic codex have been biblical. This is an important question that can only be solved by careful examination of the lower layer of these fragments, with the help of the modern technologies at our disposal. We can, therefore, consider that these fragments have not yet revealed all of their mysteries, and that there is still due work to get the best out of it, but this work can only be done as it become possible to access the originals again.

EC: With the reconstructing of the lower text, using multispectral imaging, we aim at several things: to precisely locate the original manuscript, and also to understand the process of transformation of the Coptic manuscript into a Quranic manuscript.

Unfortunately, this document is no longer available since the sale of Christie’s. Despite our insistence on obtaining multispectral images of the fragments, the purchaser of the object never contacted us about it. We hope that the study we are trying to conduct and publish will change the situation.

[1] Cellard is referring to two Quranic palimpsests, currently kept at the Dar al-makhṭūṭāt in Yemen; explicitly DAM 01-27.1 and DAM 18-?.a. The first is dated to the 1st/2nd-century A.H, while the second is from the 3rd/4th-century A.H.

[2] A photograph of this folio was published in 1908 by the Berlin State Library. The 1908 edition also included photographs of oriental manuscripts, written in a variety of languages, and were previously stored at the Great Mosque of Damascus. See Photographien von ausgewählten Fragmenten aus der Omayyaden-Moschee in Damaskus in verschiedenen Sprachen. Berlin, Staatsbibliothek, Mss. simulata orientalia 6, 1908. pl.3a.

We thank E. Cellard for providing us with this information.

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Ahmed W. Shaker and Abderrahmane Ettousy