From Medina to Istanbul: Exploring the History of Codex Topkapı Sarayı Medina 1a

From Medina to Istanbul: Exploring the History of Codex Topkapı Sarayı Medina 1a

Quranic manuscript studies continue to fascinate people and researchers around the world. According to Islamic tradition, Prophet Muhammad started receiving revelations from God around 610 CE and these continued until he died in 632 CE.

Up until 651 CE, when the third caliph Uthman ibn Affan ordered the first official texts to preserve the original form of the revelations, Muhammad’s teachings were mostly passed down orally. It is known that the first caliph Abu Bakr, had assigned Muhammad’s scribe, Zayd ibn Thabit to compile the revelation into a book.

Unfortunately, just fragments of the first copies of the Quran exist today. However, some copies attributed to the time of Uthman are preserved today and the one that we explore here is part of the collection of the Ottoman military general Fakri Pasha, held in the Topkapi Palace Museum Library in Istanbul.

Origin and date of the Topkapi Manuscript

For many years the Topkapi Quran manuscript (Codex Topkapı Sarayı Medina 1a) was thought to be of the oldest Qur’an fragments in existence.  Scholar such as Adolf Grohmann ascribed it to the 1st century of hijra based on script analysis, however, evidence from various portions of the manuscript indicated that it may have been written a slightly later, perhaps at  the end of the 1st century or early 2nd century AH.

Even though written in the Hijazi script, it was written in various forms indicating the scribes were familiar with the Kufic script of the Umayyad period. It has been established that at least five scribes worked together to make this copy, and it may have even been written by six. It has one of the most intriguing styles of early manuscripts observed so far. 

Contrary to popular belief that the original manuscript was missing about 20%, Codex Medina 1a is a complete Qur’an manuscript made of 391 folios, with only 2 folios being rewritten in a later time. This was ascertained by the Qur’an Manuscipt Studies Blog from the new book recently released by Research Centre for Islamic History, Art, and Culture (IRCICA) in Istanbul. The 2-volume work is entitled Al-Mushaf Al-Sharif: Topkapi Palace Museum Library, Madina nr.1, and was prepared by Dr. Tayyar Altıkulaç.

A collage of combined folios showing different hands in Codex Medina 1a.

Interestingly, when the manuscript was discovered, not much emphasis was placed on decorative elements like illumination and ornamentation and this was among the reasons why it was originally ascribed to a very early date.

At that time, it was believed that the early manuscripts were not elaborate. This hypothesis may have been flawed because of the discovery of an earlier Qur’an fragment, Codex Ṣanʿāʾ I, which had some form of simple geometric decorations. 

An example of geometric pattern drawn at the end line of sūrah al-Ṣāffāt and the beginning of sūrah Ṣād. Codex Topkapı Sarayı Medina 1a, f.203r. Image credit: Corpus Coranicum project/BBAW-Berlin

According to Francois Déroche, paleographically and historically the manuscript can almost certainly be dated in the Umayyad period (661-731/CE. Unlike Alain George and Barry Flood who date it to the late 1st century of hijra, he cautiously widens the range and includes the first decades of the second century. 

Similar illuminations can be seen at other Umayyad monuments like the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Great Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. 

The arrival of the manuscript at Topkapi

The commander of the Ottoman army in Medina was Fakhri (Fehreddin) Pasha (1868-1948). He was moved there to defend the city against the Arab revolt during World War I. Medina was besieged by Arab forces in 1917, and even when the Ottoman Empire withdrew from the war in 1918, Fakhri Pasha rejected armistice and refused to surrender.

To protect the artifacts and manuscripts during the siege from being harmed or pillaged, Fakhri Pasha carried them to Istanbul. Among the treasures was Codex Medina 1a, which was kept at the Prophet’s Mosque. Furthermore, Fakhri Pasha made a public oath that it would be returned after the end of the war.

Train transporting Codex Medina 1a and other artifacts from Medina en route to Istanbul on May 17, 1917.

Even though many of the manuscripts were later returned to Medina, some artifacts, including Codex Medina 1a, remain in the Sacred Relics room at Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul.

Photographs of the Topkapi Manuscript

One of the first European scholars to study the Topkapi Manuscript was Theodor Nöldeke. Considered as one of the most important orientalists of his time, he wrote Geschichte Des Qorān, a complete philological study of the Qur’an and its history. 

It was in 1936 that the first photograph of the manuscript was published in Die Geschichte Des Qorāntexts, a book authored by Gotthelf Bergsträsser and Otto Pretzl. During World War I, Bergsträsser was an officer in the German Army and taught at Istanbul University. His interest in Arabic and Aramaic began while in Turkey, and throughout his life, he concentrated mostly on the study of Arabic and the history of the Qur’an.  

Bergsträsser was preparing to produce a critical edition of the Qur’an and was roaming the Muslim world with one of the new portable cameras developed by Leica at the time. He was photographing early Qur’anic manuscripts and studying the different forms of the languages used to recite the Qur’anic text.

Photos of the manuscripts were taken between 1920 and the early 1930s. After Bergsträsser’s sudden death in 1933, his work was continued by Pretzl. Their huge archive of photos was made from private collections and libraries in Europe and the Middle East and included photos of the Topkapi Manuscript, which were photographed before World War II at the Topkapi Palace Museum in Istanbul. Unfortunately, the photo archive has only 305 folios of the 391 original folios.

Miraculously the black and white photos from the archive survived the Allied bombing of the Munich Academy during World War II. Currently, the archives of the photographs of the Qur’anic manuscripts are being studied and conserved as part of the Corpus Coranicum project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Berlin.

The exact size of the photo archive is unknown. At a meeting in Paris, Pretzl had told Muhammad Hamidullah (the prolific writer on the history and culture of Islam) that they were collating 42,000 copies. According to Hamidullah, Pretzl had informed him of inconsistencies in copies of the texts, but that these did not deviate in textual differences from the original texts. 

Missing pages of the archive

Codex Medina 1a in Gotthelf Bergsträßer’s film archive showing sūrah al-An’am, which corresponds to folio 87v in the original manuscript. Image credit: Corpus Coranicum/BBAW-Berlin

The film archive has Codex Medina 1a beginning with Sūrah al-ʾAnʿām (Q6:60) as folio 1v. This leaves us wondering what happened with the previous page (f.1r)? And perhaps the rest? 

With the new edition of Medina 1a by IRCICA we get to know that 87 folios of this Quran were never included in the Bergsträßer film archive.

Folio 1r of the original manuscript as produced in Tayyar Altikulaç’s 2020 edition showing Surah al-Fatiha and the beginning of sūrah al-Baqarah. Photo by Ahmed Shaker

For the first time we learn that folio 1 (verso) in the Bergsträßer film archive corresponds to folio  87 (verso) in the original manuscript. 

Documenting these old manuscripts remains an important part of preserving the history of the Qur’an.

Written by
Ahmed Shaker

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Ahmed Shaker

Independent researcher, translator, and editor.

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