Important Fragment from One of the World’s Oldest Qur’ans Sold by Christie’s

Written just decades after the birth of Islam, a rare fragment from a seventh-century Qur’an recently fetched almost 1 million pounds. 

A preserved fragment like this is a rare find, and it is believed to be from the same Qur’an as others dated to around 650-750 CE and held in Paris and Leiden. Auction house Christie’s offered it on sale in late October 2020 and it fetched close to £1 million, a price that far exceeded its estimated price of between £250,000 and £350,000. 

Christie’s sales of arts from the Islamic and Indian worlds attract the attention of collectors and there is usually a huge demand for arts, jewellery, and manuscripts. Among these items at the recent sale was the well-preserved historical folio from a 7th century Qur’an and its verses written in Hijazi script. 

According to Frances Keyworth, a cataloguer in Christie’s Islamic Art Departments, this is an important early Qur’an folio. This particular fragment appears to have been contained within one of the oldest Qur’ans and offers a fine sample of one of the earliest forms of Arabic calligraphy. Written in Hijazi style, the script is composed of the vertical strokes commonly used during the seventh century. 

The history of the Qur’an dates to 610 CE. The revelations from God were made to the Prophet Muhammed in stages, believed to have continued until he died around 632 CE. For several years after the Prophet’s death, the revelations made to him continued to be passed down orally in a unified version.

Subsequently, the fear that the memorized parts of the Qur’an would be lost resulted in the commission of the first written Qur’ans. During the first Caliphate of Abu Bakr, he commissioned Zayd ibn Thabit, the Prophet’s personal assistant create the first written copies of the Qur’an with the assistance of other scribes.

Recitations of the Qur’an spread into far-flung areas of the Islamic Empire as it grew. The third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan, directed a recompiled Qur’an to ensure uniformity in its reading. The task once again fell on Zayd ibn Thabit. He ensured that variant texts were suppressed and ensured the authoritative text was committed in the new Qur’ans. 

Scholars agree that by 650 CE there must have been between four and seven complete copies produced. These were sent to Kufa, Basra, Damascus, and probably Mecca, while Uthman kept one in Medina. Uthman ordered the destruction of all variant copies. 

Unfortunately, there are no known copies of these Qur’ans in existence now, but it is generally accepted that the Uthmanic Qur’an comprised all the 114 suras in the order they are known today. These are believed to have been passed down in the copies made subsequently, of which some fragments have been preserved, including the copy recently sold at the Christie’s auction.

Remarkably preserved

Christie’s Qur’an fragment (recto side), sūrah Maryam, vv. 72-82. Image credit: Christie’s Inc

Substantial in size, the folio measures 34.5 cm by 31 cm and is one of only a handful of fragments to have survived from the copies of the Qur’an made in the first decades after the founding of Islam. 

The Hijazi script used on the folio was common until the eighth century CE, but it was gradually replaced by the Kufic script. According to Christie’s Frances Keyworth, the script could have been created by a scribe born in Muhammed’s time.  

The text on the folio has remained remarkably unscathed and displays 18 out of 19 lines of the script. These are verses 82-90 from Chapter 19 of the Qur’an, and they speak of God’s love for people who act righteously. 

The folio also has one of the earliest forms of Arabic manuscript illumination still in existence. It runs along the bottom of the folio in a geometric pattern and was used to indicate chapter breaks. 

Other fragments still in existence

Leaf of Qur’an manuscript in Hijazi script on parchment. MS. Leiden Or. 14.545c, recto side (Q63:1-7). Image credit: Jan Just Witkam

The majority of the 38 known fragments from the earliest Qur’an manuscripts in existence today are in museums. Only two fragments match the format, style, and size of the Hijazi folio recently sold. Some of the smaller fragments are in London’s British Library, the Vatican in Rome, and Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace Museum. 

According to Keyworth, the two larger fragments almost certainly come from the same manuscript as the one recently sold, and almost certainly written by the same hand. They form part of the collections at Netherland’s Leiden University (Or. 14.454b-c) and the Bibliothéque Nationale de France in Paris (Arabe 331).

Radiocarbon dating of the Leiden folio has confirmed the page’s origin to somewhere between 650 and 700 CE. 

The most recent fragment sold formed part of a private collection that belonged to the former lecturer at the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Cultures at the New Sorbonne University Paris III. Doctor Jean-Michel Thierry de Crussol (1916-2011) was an authority on Armenian and Byzantine art. 

Whenever these types of fragments from ancient Islamic manuscripts appear, they cause major excitement. They are immensely significant for scholars of Islam but are also highly sought by Islamic art collectors. 

In 2008, Christie’s sold another important manuscript on vellum from a mid-seventh century Qur’an. It was estimated to fetch £100,000 but exceeded all expectations when it was sold for £2.5 million. 

Further reading

Shaker, Ahmed. “Al-taḥlīl al-Karbūnī al-Mushiʿ wa al-Makhṭuṭāt al-Qurʾāniyah al-Mubakirah” (i.e. Radiocarbon dating and Early Qur’an Manuscripts), Qur’an Manuscript Studies Blog, April 2015.

Shaker, Ahmed. “Auctioned Leaf of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest, Possibly Acquired by a Turkish Private Collector”. Qur’an Manuscript Studies Blog, July 2019.

Marx, Michael and Jocham, Tobias. “Radiocarbon (14C) Dating of Qurʾān Manuscripts”. Qurʾān Quotations Preserved on Papyrus Documents, 7th-10th Centuries, Brill, 2019, pp. 188–22.

Witkam, Jan Just. “Qur’an in higazi-like script (MS Leiden, Or. 14.545 c and Or. 14.545 b)”, available online at islamicmanuscripts.info (Courses on Arabic manuscripts).

The Life, Works and Contribution of Sergio Noja Noseda to Quran Manuscript Studies

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Sergio Noja Noseda. Image source: Il Giornale, 2006

by Ahmed Shaker

Introduction

‘Serendipity’ is a word coined by the English author and politician Horace Walpole in the mid-18th century. In a letter sent to his friend, Sir Horace Mann in 1757, Walpole expressed his admiration of a Persian fairy tale about the adventures of The Three Princes of Serendip who “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.” Thus, gradually, the word had become known in the Western literature to indicate the role coincidence plays in the discovery of unexpected things, or as modern dictionaries put it: “the faculty or phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”

I learned about this word lately as I interviewed Alba Fedeli–a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham–to discuss digital philology and Quranic manuscripts. When I asked her: “How did your interest in Quranic manuscripts come about?” she stated that, despite her enthusiasm for manuscripts since childhood, serendipity remained an influential factor in finding what would be her new career. It was the late Italian Arabist, Sergio Noja Noseda (1931-2008) who inspired her to study early Quranic manuscripts and involved her in his projects without prior planning from her side. Furthermore, young Noseda was fascinated too by the Giorgio Levi Della Vida’s (1886-1967) Frammenti coranici in carattere cufico [i.e. Quranic Fragments in Kufic Characters] (1947), of which he would spend long hours navigating through its pages that extensively describes a number of ‘Kufic’ Quran fragments kept at Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

The present article aims at introducing the reader to the life and works of an Italian scholar, who specialized in Islamic law, Arabic language and literature, Islamic civilization, and above all was one of the most prominent contributors to Quran manuscript studies in the late 20th century, as evident from his Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique series.

Sergio Noja Noseda (1931-2008): His Live and Works

Sergio Noja Noseda was born in Pola, Italy, on 7th of July, 1931. After completing his university studies, he enrolled in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan. In 1964, he published, in collaboration with Giovanni Galbiati (1888-1966), an Arabic legal manuscript, accompanied by Italian translation, entitled Aḥkām al-ʻAtīqah wa hya qawānīn lil-Naṣārī min al-ʻArab: Precetti e canoni giuridico morali per Arabi cristiani. Later on, he published an unknown copy of an apocryphal Arabic gospel attributed to Thomas.

In 1967, Noja was appointed lecturer at the University of Turin, where he taught Islamic law for a decade. At the time, he published an Italian translation of parts from Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī: Detti e fatti del Profeta dell‟Islam, raccolti da al-Buhari (Turin, 1983); a catalogue of oriental manuscripts kept at Turin University National Library: Fihris al-Makhṭūṭāt al-ʻArabīyah wa-al-Turkīyah wa-al-Fārisīyah fī al-Maktabah al-Waṭanīyah (Turin, 1974); and a catalogue for the Arabic manuscripts in the Royal Library: Catalogue of Arabic Manuscripts in the Royal Library of Turin (Rome, 1984).

Despite being passionate for Oriental manuscripts, Noseda focused his attention on the history of Arabs and Islamic civilization. To this purpose, he published a modern biography of Prophet Muḥammad in Italian, which was distinguished by the employment of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry and the representation of extant archaeological excavation from Arabian Peninsula before Islam. Therefore, it was admired widely inside and outside Italy. The biography was succeeded by the publication of four titles in a series dedicated to the ‘History of Muslim communities’ which comprehensively covers a wide range of historical periods from Arabs before Islam to the withdrawal of Russian military troops from Afghanistan in 1988.

The series included the following titles:

1. ‘Muhammad the Prophet of Islam’ (1990).

2. ‘The Expansion of Islam: From the Death of the Prophet to the Mongols (632-1258)’ (1993).

3. ‘The Age of Islamic Inertia: From the Fall of Baghdad to the Fall of Napoleon in Egypt’ (1994).

4. ‘Modern Islam: From Napoleon’s Invasion of Egypt to the Withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan’ (1995).

In 1976 – based on a recommendation from Francesco Gabrieli (1904-1996) – Noseda was assigned professor of Arabic language and literature at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Milan. And in 1991, he was elected member of the Lombardo Academy of Sciences and Literature, following a nomination from Cardinal Martini (1927-2012) for Noseda to fill the position of Trustee of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana.

In 1998, he was awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic – the highest granted award in the fields of arts, literature, and economics in Italy. In the same year, he founded the Ferni Noja Noseda Studi Arabo Islamici (Lesa) with the aim of publishing and distributing classical Arabic literature and Islamic studies publications in Italy. Moreover, the foundation was known for its efforts in reproducing the earliest extant witnesses of the Quranic text (i.e. fragments, codices, papyri) as facsimile editions. Therefore, the foundation launched the Amari Project; which will be discussed in details in the next section.

The Amari Project (1998-2001)

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Michael Amari (1806-1889). Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Among the goals of the Ferni Noja Noseda Studi Arabo Islamici was to publish the most valuable and oldest Quranic manuscripts in today’s libraries as full-scale replicas. Hence, the Amari Project was launched in the late 20th century, in remembrance of the late Michele Amari (1806-1889). Amari, who was a fugitive from the Bourbons in Naples, found refuge in France. As an Orientalist and Sicily historian, he was interested in studying Arabic language and collecting every historical or geographical reference to the island of Sicily that could be found in the Arabic manuscripts acquired by the Royal Library (now Bibliothèque nationale de France) in Paris. The library, in turn, sponsored and assigned him with the task of classifying the manuscripts of the Arabic department. 

The manuscripts Amari worked on included a substantial number of ancient Qurans as part of the Jean-Louis Asselin de Cherville’s (1772-1822) collection. Many of these Quranic manuscripts – purchased by then Royal library in 1833 – were acquired from the Mosque of ‘Amr in Al-Fusṭāṭ during Napoleon’s campaign to Egypt.

The Amari Project – in honorary of Michele Amari – was officially inaugurated in 1998. In collaboration with François Déroche, Noseda published the first volume of the Sources de la transmission manuscrite du texte coranique [i.e. Sources of the handwritten transmission of the Quranic text] series, entitled: Les manuscrits de style hịǧāzī. 1, Le manuscrit arabe 328 (a) de la Bibliothèque nationale de France. Written in the so-called Māʼil script (i.e. cursive), this Qur’anic manuscript is considered one of the oldest Qurans in the world today. The edition has reproduced the first 56 folios; that is BnF Arabe 328a. However, in 2009, Déroche was able to identify more dispersed folios at the National Library of Russia (Marcel 18; 18 folios), which – based on codicological and paleograhical criterias – found to resemble the same manuscript in Paris, raising the number of folios to 98, which represent about 45% of the Quranic text. Other corresponding folios, though minimal in quantity, were also located at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vat.Ar.1605; 1 folio), and The Nasser D. Khalili Collection of Islamic Art, London (KFQ 60; 1 folio). The new Latin designation, which brings all the scattered folios together, has become known as Codex Parsino-Petropolitanus.

In 2001, Noseda and Déroche published the first part of the second volume of the series, entitled Les manuscrits de style ḥiǧāzī. 2, tome 1, Le manuscrit Or. 2165 (f.1 a 61) de la British Library. The manuscript, Or. 2165, is the British Library’s oldest Quran in Māʼil style, and dated to the 7th or 8th century CE. In full, it has 121 folios, but the facsimile edition included the first 61 folios only. The rest of the 60 folios were scheduled for a future publication, but have never been released since. On the provenance of Or. 2165, Noseda tells us that historical information about this Quranic fragment is almost ‘non-existent’. However, there is a note that appears in the flyleaf at the end of the manuscript, reading: «Br of the Rev. Greville J. Chester 29 April 1879». In fact, Greville John Chester (1830-1892) was a clergyman and manuscripts collector, who was interested in natural history, archaeology, and Egyptology. He would travel almost every winter outside the country, where Egypt was his favourite destination. Based on this observation, it is likely that he acquired this manuscript from Egypt, and then presented it to the British Library who made the purchase in 1879. As in the case of Codex Parsino-Petropolitanus, other scattered folios of the same manuscript, Or. 2165, were located at the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris (BnF Arabe 328e; 6 folios), and Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah, Kuwait (LNS 19 CA; bi-folium). Therefore, the number of folios was extended to 128. Furthermore, Ms. Or. 2165 and its affiliated folios represent about two-thirds of the Quranic text.

Les manuscrits de style hịǧāzī, vols. 1, 2. Photograph Ahmed Shaker

The Amari Project aims to:

1. Enable scholars and researchers to access the most valuable and oldest witnesses of the Quranic text (i.e. fragments, codices, papyri) from world’s libraries, by reproducing them in full-scale replicas; which would make the comparison with other Quranic manuscripts possible.

2. Attach a CD-ROM with each volume, containing the actual transcription of the Quranic text as presented in manuscripts, in computerized Naskhi script; that would facilitate the electronic comparison between the modern printed Qur’ans and the early Qur’anic manuscripts.

Among the other objectives of Amari Project was the compilation and reprinting of articles – which are now hard to find or out of print – written by leading philologists and manuscript experts. The first and second volumes had already included essays by Gotthelf Bergsträsser, Otto Pretzl, Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy, and Michael Amari. Their writings represent the core of this type of scholarship in the West, from the nineteenth century until the first half of the twentieth century.

Unexpected Death and Resumption of the Project

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Sergo Noseda. Image credit: Tatyana Fedorova, 2006

On 31st of January, 2008, professor emeritus Noja Noseda died in a sudden traffic accident in the city of Lesa. He was highly active then. On one hand, he and his team, who travelled to Yemen on numerous occasions, obtained a license from the Yemeni officials to photograph and publish three early Qur’anic fragments from the trove of Ṣanʿāʾ. These fragments would have been published as part of Sources series.

On the other hand, the third volume of Amari Project, which was a combination of early Qur’anic fragments from various libraries, was ready to be printed. Moreover, he even completed the second part of volume two, which would have included the folios (62-121) of the British Library’s oldest Quran–Or. 2165.

With the death of Noseda, the Amari Project, as well as the works of the Ferni Noja Noseda Studi Arabo Islamici, were suspended. As for the status of the project after his death, his pupil, Dr. Alba Fedeli, told me that the work has been transferred to the German-French team, represented by the Corpus Coranicum project in Berlin. Moreover, in 2011, Brill announced a new series entitled “Documenta Coranica” (i.e. Quranic documents); edited by François Déroche, Michael Marx, Angelika Neuwirth, and Christian Robin. The new German-French series will publish the most valuable and oldest Qur’anic witnesses (i.e. fragments, codices, papyri) in the form of replica, accompanied by essential comments and marginalia. The first volumes, currently being prepared, include the early Qur’anic fragments from the trove of Ṣanʿāʾ, and a complete edition of the British Library’s oldest Quran – Ms. Or. 2165.

In commemoration of his memory, his friend, Efim Rezvan, produced a short film titled “From Russia with Love: In Memory of Professor Sergio Noja Noseda.” Noseda, says Rezvan, was proud of his successful attempts to establish academic ties between Arab Muslim scholars and their Western counterparts to study the traditions of early Qur’anic manuscripts. To this purpose, the International Center for Research and Cataloguing of Ancient Arabic Manuscripts was established, and two scientific sessions were held in Cairo, in the years 2006 and 2007.

Concluding Remark

There is no doubt that the growing field of Qur’anic manuscript studies has lost a fine scholar and a prominent contributor. After decades of stagnation, Noseda was able to revive the studies conducted on early Qur’anic manuscripts and fragments. Without Amari Project, it would not have been possible to observe the presence of Qur’anic manuscripts in the academic works that dealt with the Qur’an, its compilation, and textual transmission.

Bibliography

“The British Library’s Oldest Qur’an Manuscript Or. 2165”. Journal of Qur’anic Studies. Vol 4, no. 2, 2002, pp. 110-112.

Baker, Colin. “The British Library’s Oldest Qur’an Manuscript Now Online”. Asian And African Studies Blog, 2016, https://blogs.bl.uk/asian-and-african/2016/04/the-british-librarys-oldest-quran-manuscript-now-online.html.

Conte, Rosa. Bibliographia Selecta: Sergio Noja Noseda / List of Sergio Noja Noseda’s Publications, 2017. 10.13140/RG.2.2.25723.82728.

Déroche, François, and Sergio Noja. Le Manuscrit Arabe 328 (A) De La Bibliothèque Nationale De France. Fondazione Ferni Noja Noseda, 1998.

Déroche, François, and Sergio Noja. Le Manuscrit Or. 2165 (F. 1 A 61) De La British Library. Fondazione Ferni Noja Noseda, 2001.

Déroche, François. La Transmission Écrite Du Coran Dans Les Débuts De L’islam. Le codex Parisino-petropolitanus. Brill, 2009.

Rezvan, Efim. “From Russia With Love”: Prof. Sergio Noja Noseda (1931-2008)”. Manuscripta Orientalia, vol 14, no. 1, 2008, pp. 72-72.

Rezvan, Efim. “The Mingana Folios In Their Historical Context (Notes In The Margins Of Newspaper Publications)”. Manuscripta Orientalia, vol 21, no. 2, 2015, pp. 32-38.

Roberts, Royston M. Serendipity: Accidental Discoveries In Science. John Wileyand Sons, 1989.

Shaker, Ahmed. “Al-Mustaʻrib Al-Īṭālī Sergio Noseda Muḥaqqiq Al-Maṣāḥif Al-Ḥijāzīyah”. Idaat, 2017, https://www.ida2at.com/italian-arabist-sergio-noja-noseda-korans-detective-drama

An Unpublished Qur’anic Fragment from the Qubbat al-Khazna in the Syrian National Museum

by Arianna D’Ottone Rambach*

On the north-western side of the courtyard of the Damascus Great Mosque, there is an octagonal building standing on eight pillars, salvaged from the late-antique church of St. John the Baptist. The use of this structure as a treasury for funds (fig. 1) possibly started in Umayyad times, in 86 AH/705 CE, when the church was turned into a mosque. Indeed, this set a precedent for other regions and later periods: in 340/951-2, for example, al-Iṣṭakhrī wrote that in Ādharbayjān they deposit “the treasure in the Great Mosque after the Syrian fashion (‘alà rasm al-Shām). In Syria, in fact, they deposit the treasure in the Great Mosque in a little structure called bayt al-māl, covered with a leaden roof, closed by an iron door, and supported on nine (sic) columns”[1].

Fig 1: Qubbat al-Khaznah at the Great Umayyad Mosque. Photo by Arianna Rambach

As for Western sources, the earliest description of the domed octagonal building was made by Richard Pococke (1704-1765), who believed that it was a baptistery. Commenting on the plan of the Umayyad mosque, Pococke recorded, “There are a great number of mosques in Damascus, some of which were formerly churches, particularly the principal mosque, which was the cathedral church. […] A plan of the cathedral, and of the supposed buildings about it can be seen in the twenty-fifth plate. […] D is an octagon baptistery built on eight pillars[2].

The octagonal Bayt al-māl/Treasury, known in Western sources as the Qubbat al-khazna/storage dome), functioned first as a strongroom and later as an archive and library as well as a repository for written documents. It is not known when the transition from Treasury to storage room took place, but the different names given for the very same building—Bayt al-māl and Qubbat al-khazna—–reflect the two different functions of the structure at two different stages[3].

The custom of keeping both documents and books in a special place was part of the ancient Jewish tradition, the Cairo Genizah being a well-known example of this practice. In the Middle East, this tradition was also maintained by Christian and Muslim communities[4]. The Damascus Qubba is thus an ‘Islamic’ strongroom—also given its location within the walls of a mosque—and it held a large quantity of multilingual, and multigraphic, manuscript evidence representing a wide variety of religions, cultures, languages and alphabets.

There are as many as 200,000 manuscript fragments in the Qubba collection, although it is difficult to give a precise figure for various reasons: most of the fragments are currently in Istanbul, while others are still kept in Damascus, but at different sites, namely the National Museum and the Museum of Calligraphy. The whereabouts of a number of manuscripts is, however, unknown.

A forthcoming book, entitled The Damascus Fragments: Towards a History of the Qubbat al-khazna Corpus of Manuscripts and Documents, edited by the writer together with Konrad Hirschler and Ronny Vollandt, will present the manuscript evidence from the Damascene Qubba as an organic corpus.

A 9th century Qur’anic fragment from the National Museum of Damascus

Both the Syrian National Museum and the Museum of Calligraphy hold folios of ancient Qur’ans, originally part of the Qubbat al-khazna collection, which are datable from between the middle of the 2nd century AH/second half of the 8th century AD to the 5th/11th century. I have already had occasion to study and illustrate various Qur’anic fragments from both these museums[5]. I will limit myself here to mentioning the three folios of the Qur’an of Amajūr, which have never hitherto been illustrated. I was able to document these after seeing them displayed in one of the showcases in the Museum of Calligraphy in Damascus (fig. 2).

Fig 2: Three folios from Amajur Quran at the Museum of Calligraphy in Damascus. Photo by Arianna Rambach

The close connection between the Qubbat al-khazna and the Qur’anic fragments seems to have inspired Ottoman cabinetmakers to create a particular type of Qur’an box (fig. 3)[6]. The link between the Qubba, in which the manuscript fragments of the Damascus genizah-like deposit were kept, and the Ottoman wooden box created to contain a copy of the Qur’an that was moved to the Türk ve İslam Eserleri Müzesi in 1911 – just a few years before the arrival of the Damascus papers (Şam evrakı) in Istanbul (1917) – seems a remarkable case of mise en abîme.

Fig 3: old picture of a Qubba-shaped Qur’an box

The aim of this paper is to present a further unpublished Qur’anic fragment from the National Museum of Damascus (Inv. Nr. ‘Ayn 718)[7] containing the final verses of the Sūrat al-nūr (24, vv. 61-64) and the beginning of the Sūrat al-furqān (25, vv. 1-3). This parchment fragment can be dated to the 9th century based on palaeographical grounds (Style B.II). The text, comprising 16 lines of script per page, is written in black ink with red dots indicating the vocalization (fig. 4)[8]. The title of the Sūrat al-furqān and the number of its verses (sab‘ūna wa-sitt: 76)[9] is written in gold and outlined in ink (fig. 5), although the verses are not divided like the majority of the fragments belonging to this style[10]. Among the main features of the script, it is possible to note the following:
– The extension of the retroflex yā’/alif maqṣūra below the line (fig. 4, line 10: ḥattà and fig. 5, line 7: shay’);
– the short lower hook of the independent alif;
– The vertical body of the nūn with a short perpendicular lower stroke at the end of a word;
– The initial form of the ‘ayn with the hook that begins with an oblique stroke to the left (similar to C.Ia style)
– The hā’ in medial form that is connected to the following letter with a stroke from its pointed top (fig. 5, last line: li-anfusihim);
– The qāf in the final position taking the form of a U that points towards the right in relation to the head of the letter.

For comparison, it is useful to bear in mind fragment KFQ13 and KFQ 14 of the Nasir Khalili Collection (London) and the Paris fragment, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Arabe 340f.

[Editor’s note: The calligraphic style in Inv. Nr. ‘Ayn 718 (illustrated above) matches several Quranic manuscripts from the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art (TIEM no. 457 and 458); Walters Art Museum (MS. W.552); and one Quranic folio previously held at King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies. This last example is identical to Inv. Nr. ‘Ayn 718 and likely belong to the Qubba collection. In both folios, black ink is used for the Quranic text, red ink for vowels, and each page has 16 lines]

*Dr. Arianna D’Ottone Rambach is Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at Sapienza University of Rome, where she teaches Arabic and Arabic Palaeography, Codicology and Numismatics. Her main field of research is Arabic written culture, from papyri and manuscripts to coins and inscriptions. She is the author of La storia di Bayāḍ e Riyāḍ (Vat.ar. 368): una nuova edizione e traduzione (2013); Collezione di Vittorio Emanuele III: Monete arabe (2017), The Qur’ān Encrypted. A Unique Qur’ānic Manuscript in Cipher, “Journal of Islamic Manuscripts” 11, 2 (2020), pp. 133-176 and the editor of Palaeography Between East and West (2018).


[1] “وبيت مالهم في مسجد الجامع على رسم الشام فانَّ بيوت أموال في الشام في مساجدها وهو بيت المال مرصص السطح وعليه باب حديد وهو على تسعة اساطين” Al-Istakhrī, Kitāb masālik al-mamālik/Viae Regnorum: description ditionis moslamicae, edited by M.J. De Goeje, Leiden, Brill, 19272, p. 184. For the English translation, see Keppel A.C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture. Umayyads. A.D. 622-720, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969, 2 vols: vol. I, 201-202.

[2] Richard Pococke, A Description of the East and Some Other Countries Vol. II, part I: Observations on Palestine or the Holy Land, Syria, Mesopotamia, Cyprus and Candia, London: Bowyer 1745, 120 and pl. XXL. On Pococke, “one of the first true exponents of the informed ‘travel writer’ tradition”, see Ross Burns, Damascus: A History, London and New York, Routledge, 2005, 62; see also Claire Gallien, Edward Pococke et l’orientalisme anglais du XVIIe siècle: passeurs, transferts et transition, “Dix-septième siècle” 268 (2015/3), 443-458.

[3] On the history of the Qubbat in Arabic sources, see Saʿīd Ḍ. Al-Joumani, Taʾrīkh Qubbat al-māl, aw Qubbat ʿĀʾisha, aw al-qubba al-gharbiyya fī-l-Jāmiʿ al-Umawī bi-Dimashq, in The Damascus Fragments: Towards a History of the Qubbat al-khazna Corpus of Manuscripts and Documents, edited by A. D’Ottone Rambach, K. Hirschler and R. Vollandt (eds), Beirut, Orient-Institut Beirut, 2020 (Beiruter Texte und Studien, 140) (in press).

[4] For example, the 1975 discovery of a room at St Catherine on Mount Sinai that had been sealed since the eighteenth century, containing another third of the library’s holdings – known since then as the ‘New Finds’ –, occurred just two years after the chance discovery of the manuscript fragments in Ṣan‘ā’ (Yemen) in 1973.

[5] See Arianna D’Ottone, Frammenti coranici antichi nel Museo nazionale di Damasco, in Dirāsāt Aryūliyya: Studi in onore di Angelo Arioli, edited by G. Lancioni and O. Durand, Roma, Nuova Cultura, 2007 (La Sapienza Orientale, III), pp. 217-239; Paolo Radiciotti and Arianna D’Ottone, I frammenti della Qubbat al-khazna di Damasco. A proposito di una scoperta sottovalutata, “Nea Rhome” 5 (2008), pp. 45-74: esp. pp. 65-74 and figs. 1-7; Arianna D’Ottone Rambach, Frammenti di manoscritti arabi: una conoscenza frammentaria, in Frammenti di un discorso storico. Per una grammatica dell’aldilà del frammento, edited by C. Tristano, Spoleto, Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo, 2019 (Palaeographica: Collana di studi di storia della scrittura, 8), pp. 261-284 and plates I-II: esp. pp. 276-281 and plates I-II.

[6] See Federica A. Broilo. Ottoman Woodwork: Some Little-Known Quran Boxes from the Türk ve Islam Eserleri Müzesi in Istanbul (16th-17th centuries), in Thirteenth International Congress of Turkish Art. Proceedings, edited by Dávid Géza and Ibolya Gerelyes, Budapest, Hungarian National Museum 2009, pp. 135-143: 140-141.

[7] The image of the fragment presented in this paper was taken from among the previously published photographs of other fragments from the National Museum; see supra. The inventory number is recorded in ink in the right-hand corner of the verso of the folio.

[8] A similar fragment, illustrated in the concise guide to the museum, no. A 344-345 datable to the 4th/10th century, has 15 lines per page; see A. Al-Ush, A. Al-Joundi and B. Zouhdi, A Concise Guide to the National Museum of Damascus, [Damascus], Publication of the General Directorate of Antiquities and Museums, [1975], p. 210, no. 3 and fig. 85.

[9] The changes in how the āyāt (verses) were numbered in ancient Qur’anic fragments has not yet been studied in depth. Different ways of numbering the verses are found in these fragments, with both the abjad system and numerals attested. In the fragments in which numerals are used, one sees that units can precede – as expected – or follow – as in this case – the tens.

[10] There are 15 lines of script on the verso of this fragment, although some blank spaces, corresponding to a line of script, are also left in order to separate the end of Sura 24, as well as the title of the Sūrat al-Furqān and the number of its verses (lines 1-7), from the beginning of the Sura 25 text (lines 8-15).

Lapis and Gold, Exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an

by Elaine Wright*

Bearing inventory number CBL Is 1558, the Chester Beatty Library’s so-called Ruzbihan Qur’an is surely one of the finest Islamic manuscripts in existence. It was produced in the city of Shiraz, in southwest Iran and, although undated, work on it was likely begun about 1550. By that date, Shiraz had been a major centre of book production for at least two centuries. Production was mainly commercial—with Shiraz manuscripts exported far and wide within the Islamic world—but fine manuscripts, the result of princely or other high-level patronage, were also produced there.

The calligrapher of the Chester Beatty Qur’an was Ruzbihan Muhammad al-Tab‘i al-Shirazi, whom Qadi Ahmad singles out as one of the four great calligraphers of sixteenth-century Shiraz. In his well-known treatise on calligraphers and painters, Qadi Ahmad underscores the high esteem in which these four calligraphers were held by telling us that most of the other renowned calligraphers, not only in Shiraz, but in all of Fars, Khurasan, Kirman and Iraq, were ‘mere eaters of the crumbs from their table’. Although a calligrapher of such high regard would have copied the text of numerous manuscripts over the course of his career, only five Qur’ans signed by Ruzbihan, including the Chester Beatty manuscript, have survived to this day, while another manuscript, a copy of the Qasida of Imam ‘Ali Riza, is also signed by him.  

Ruzbihan copied the text of the Chester Beatty manuscript onto large sheets of highly burnished, slightly off-white paper, each measuring approximately 42.7 x 29 cm. The arrangement of the text on the page consists of a series of panels containing long lines of large-scale script (muhaqqaq in the upper and lower panels but thulth in the middle panel) and shorter lines of small-scale script (naskh). The lines of naskh script were copied in black ink, but the lines of muhaqqaq and thulth were copied in either blue or gold ink, with the placement of the blue and gold inks alternating from opening to opening, further complicating an already complicated arrangement of the text. For each type of script, the nib of the reed pen was cut in a specific manner, so each page is the result of using three different scripts, at least three different pens and three different colours of ink. The copying of the text was, therefore, an especially long and labourious task, as well as a costly one, for the large lines of script meant fewer words could be fitted onto each page and therefore more sheets of expensive paper were required: the large (and heavy) manuscript consists of 445 folios, or 890 pages.

Overall, the manuscript had survived the centuries well, except for one major problem: on each page, the text is framed by a series of thin bands and lines of gold and coloured pigments, including a corrosive, copper-bearing green pigment known as atacamite, which, over the centuries, had burned through the paper. As a result, on many folios, the paper was split along the green framing line, sometimes with the rectangular section of the text almost completely dislodged from the surrounding paper. This meant the manuscript could no longer be safely handled, and so, in 2012, it was decided to remove the manuscript’s binding to allow the folios to be conserved. Once all the damaged folios had been repaired (and before the manuscript was rebound), a lengthy period of research on the manuscript was undertaken, which culminated, in the summer of 2016, in an exhibition at the Chester Beatty and then, in 2018, in the publication of a book on the manuscript, entitled Lapis and Gold, Exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an, by the Chester Beatty’s then Curator of the Islamic Collections, Elaine Wright.

Fig. 3. A folio before conservation, showing the damage caused by the pigment atacamite

With the folios loose, they could be much more easily and safely manipulated than if bound, and the resulting close study of the manuscript—often with the aid of a microscope—revealed many surprises, one of which was the discovery of omissions and errors in the text. Although it is often said that the act of copying out the text of the Qur’an is one of reverence, calligraphers are of course only human, and no matter how careful one is, small slip-ups are bound to occur, especially when the copying of the text was as complicated a matter as it was with the Ruzbihan Qur’an. Omissions most often occurred when the same word or phrase appeared in close sequence within the text, with the calligrapher omitting the second occurrence of the word or phrase. If the omission was caught, the omitted text was usually added by squeezing it between the existing lines of text, in a small hand. Actual errors—usually just a wrong letter or wrong word—could be fixed, if caught when the ink was still damp, by licking the paper to remove the ink; once the paper had dried, the correct letter or word was added.

The information presented above is drawn from Parts 1-3 of Lapis and Gold, which, following a brief introduction, focus on Ruzbihan and his contribution to the production of the manuscript and then on the specific features of the manuscript that facilitate the reading and recitation of the holy text. The latter includes a discussion of the small devices that mark the end of each verse, which, though found in all copies of the Qur’an, are treated with a level of detail and precision absent in almost all other manuscripts of the time. The care lavished on these tiny devices is reflected, on a much grander scale, by the other, unusually fine illuminations found throughout the manuscript, which are the focus of Parts 4-5 of the book.

Fig. 4. One of more than 6,000 verse markers in the manuscript

Indeed, although the manuscript is renowned for being in the hand of Ruzbihan, it is equally the combined quality, extent, complexity and diversity of its overall decorative program that sets the manuscript apart from almost all others of its time.  Moreover, while the text was copied by a single individual, it is clear that a large team of highly skilled, but now anonymous artists and craftsmen was responsible for the decoration. Especially magnificent are the five fully illuminated, double-page openings—and one single page—that mark the beginning, middle and end of the manuscript. As in most manuscripts, illuminated headings mark the beginning of each sura (chapter) of the Qur’an, but those in the Ruzbihan Qur’an are much more varied in terms of both composition and palette than is typical for the sixteenth century. Close examination of these illuminations revealed that when painting areas with a gold ground, the artist first added the gold and then painted the coloured pigments on top of it. However, if the deep blue pigment made from ground-up lapis lazuli was to be used for the ground, then all the gold and coloured details—no matter how tiny—were painted in first and, then, the dark blue ground was painted in around them. This reversal of the process was necessary because of the nature of the blue pigment, which absorbs any colour painted on top of it.

In most manuscripts, the small vertical panels at either side of the short lines of naskh script are undecorated or, at best, are very simply decorated. But in the Ruzbihan Qur’an, each of these more than 3,500 panels is beautifully decorated. One of the two types of decoration used consists of that seen elsewhere throughout the manuscript, namely a gold ground overpainted with multi-coloured blossoms. The other—used for more than eighty-five per cent of the panels—is much more extraordinary. It consists of separate pieces of paper dyed in a wide range of often unusual colours and overpainted with tiny lotuses and other blossoms, mainly using thin wash-like pigments. So far, this technique of dying, over-painting with washes and pasting in place separate pieces of papers has not been seen in any other manuscript.

Fig. 6. A detail of f. 185a, showing a vertical panel consisting of a separate, dyed and pasted-on piece of paper

Curiously, the illuminations at the end of the manuscript exhibit a startling change in aesthetic, an obvious change of taste that can be seen in broad terms as a move from a more classical style of decoration (as used in the shamsas and frontispiece) to one in which earlier norms of beauty seem to be discarded, replaced by what often seems an almost discordant conglomeration of patterns and colours. In some cases, existing illuminations have been overpainted, but this was not a much later re-working of the illuminations for there are clear indications that the artists responsible were the same ones who produced all other illuminations in the manuscript. Moreover, once started, this re-working of the manuscript was soon halted, for only the final fourteen openings are either partially or fully affected.

What prompted the decisions to begin and then end the re-working of the illuminations is not known.

Lapis and Gold, Exploring Chester Beatty’s Ruzbihan Qur’an, by Elaine Wright (with an essay on pigments by Kristine Rose Beers) Ad Ilissum/Paul Holberton Publishing, London. 320 pages, 430 colour illustrations.

[Editor’s note: The book, Lapis and Gold, is available on Amazon or from the publisher. A complete digitized version of the Ruzbihan Qur’an (CBL Is 1558) can also be viewed on the Chester Beatty Library website.]


*Dr. Elaine Wright worked as Curator of the Islamic Collections at the Chester Beatty Library from 1998 to 2017, where she was responsible for the care, management and public display of the Library’s more than 6,000 Islamic manuscripts and single-page paintings and calligraphies.

Her main area of research is manuscript production in the Persianate world. In addition to Lapis and Gold, she is the author of Islam: Faith, Art, Culture, Manuscripts of the Chester Beatty Library (2009) and The Look of the Book: Manuscript Production in Shiraz, 1303-1452 (2012); she is also the main author of Muraqqa‘, Imperial Mughal Albums from the Chester Beatty Library (2008).