Egypt continues its effort to stop the sale of Arabic manuscripts of Egyptian origins, but could not prevent the sale of the extraordinary Qur’an made for the Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qaytbay.
The Egyptian National Library and Archives have worked tirelessly to help retrieve Islamic manuscripts removed from Egypt illegally. Even though these sales are often difficult to stop, with auction houses claiming these were removed before the UNESCO convention of 1970, Egypt has managed to retrieve several important Egyptian cultural documents.
Egypt could not stop recent Christie’s sale
In April 2019, Christie’s presented the exceptional Mamluk Qur’an for sale at an estimated price of GBP 500,000 to GBP 800,000. The Qur’an fetched a remarkable GBP 3,724,750.
The Mamluk Qur’an was made for the Sultan al-Malik al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qaytbay. It has a rare dedicatory inscription on an illuminated frontispiece double-page in an angular Islamic script called thuluth; painted in gold on a lapis lazuli background. The Qur’an also bears the date Jumada I 21 of the year 894 AH (April 30 of the year 1489 CE.)
The Qur’an is written in naskh script, this is rare for a manuscript of this size where the longer, elegant verticals of muhaqqaq are usually seen. The scribe’s script flows and shows his individuality. According to William Robinson, the International Head of Islamic Art at Christie’s London, the scribe created a Qur’an that is pleasant to read.
According to Robinson, the scribe adhered to the general rules of the codified script but included a few quirks by ignoring them in some places, probably due to his rush to complete the commission.
The half-Baghdadi size of the folio measures 68cm by 45.5cm, a size not usually used in that period. Larger Qur’ans at that time were usually quarter-Baghdadi or smaller in size; suggesting the commission was specially made for one of Qaytbay’s foundations. It was probably sold to a private collector much later.
The scribe, Tanam al Namji, was probably a member of the royal scriptoriu – he describes himself as ‘of al-Malik al-Ashraf’ which translated to ‘of Sultan Qaytbay’.
The Sultan reigned from 1468 to 1496, and it is very unusual to find well preserved and complete manuscripts from that period. Both the front and back pages are original and unrestored. The rest of the Qur’an also I excellent condition; it has escaped damage from damp or insects and its pages maintain their cream color and the decorative details remain bright.
Sultan Qaytbay of Egypt was the last great sultan of the Mamluk period (1250-1517). This was the last period of Mamluk stability, and some spectacular monuments and foundations were created in the region of his reign during this time that spanned present-day Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, and Syria, as some parts of Arabia.
Monumental Qur’ans like this were often commissioned during the middle and later Mamluk period by sultans, and offered as endowments to Islamic institutions, where most still are. Only a few of these ever found their way to private collections.
Egyptian culture ministry opposes the sale
Even though the Mamluk Qur’an is not recorded on the registry of rare items belonging to Egypt, the Egyptian Minister of Culture, Enas Abdel Dayem, requested that Christie’s stop displaying the piece of Islamic heritage.
Christie’s did not stop the sale because the provenance of the Qur’an is “well-known”. The Mamluk Qur’an is part of a private collection. Its previous owner bought it in 1982 at Sotheby’s from the estate of the Hagop Kevorkian Collection.
Manuscripts successfully retrieved by Egypt
It took 45 days for the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to negotiate the release of a rare Quranic manuscript for sale at Cheswick Auction in the UK late in 2019. The Ministry acknowledged the tireless efforts of the Egyptian National Library and Archives.
The Quranic manuscript is the 16th part of a rare Mamluk manuscript belonging to Sultan Qansuh al-Ghuri (1446-1516). The 30 pages of the manuscript have naskhi script, and the Islamic calligraphy begins with gold. The text is beautifully framed in gold.
The Egyptian National Library and Archives retrieved several manuscripts between April and November 2018, including the 4th part of the Qansuh al-Ghuri’s Quranic manuscript.
In 2013, Egypt protested and halted the French auction house’s Osenat’s sale of a Qur’an manuscript taken from Cairo during Napoleon’s Egyptian Campaign during the 18th century.
The 47-page manuscript of the opening suras of the Qur’an and the Surah al-Baqara was taken from the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo. This is where the rebels against the 1978 Napoleonic invasion had their headquarters. It was saved from the pillage of the revolts by Jean-Joseph Marcel, the Engineer specialist who accompanied Napoleon on the Egyptian campaign.
Strong representations were made by the Egyptian Embassy, and the French House decided to halt the sale of the manuscript.
Preserving the history and culture of Islam is important, and Egypt is managing to retrieve a significant part. These efforts will help restore numerous manuscripts to their rightful place.
While some collectors have been ruthless and have only thought of their financial gain, others have worked hard to ensure their preservation. An excellent example is the Mamluk Qur’an sold last year. Its extraordinary condition is a testament to how some private collectors have helped preserve some mounmuntal manuscripts from damage and harm.