Auctioned Leaf of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest, Possibly Acquired by a Turkish Private Collector

By Ahmed Shaker

After the discovery of a missing folio from Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest at the Louvre Abu Dhabi last week, it seems I was lucky enough to find more interesting stuff in this respect. As you remember, the Palimpsest has now 81 folios, preserved mainly at Dar al-Makhṭūṭāt and the Eastern Library in Yemen, in addition to 4 folios, which were stolen and sold at European auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonham’s starting in 1992 through 2008. One of these 4 folios was sold at Christie’s on April 8, 2008. This auction was unprecedented, as the Quranic leaf broke the world auction record for any Islamic manuscript by fetching the sum of £2,484,500. In their Fine Books’ Annual Report on the Top Auction Sales of 2008, Ian McKay and P. Scott Brown observes the following:

“High prices have been paid in the past for illustrated and highly decorative Eastern manuscripts—for groups or even individual leaves from the great Persian epic, the Shahnama, and for purely calligraphic manuscripts of the Qur’an,”


“In very recent times, however, there has been a marked increase in prices for very early, often single leaf specimens of Islamic calligraphy.”

If you have purchased a single Quranic leaf for 3 million US dollars–that is 20 times its original price–do you really want people to know your real identity? Of course not. Moreover, auction houses withheld names. They refer to buyers as either ‘anonymous’, or ‘private’ collectors. In this regard, I speculate this folio went to a Turkish private collector. This blogpost will try to figure this out after highlighting a few introductory points.

The Lost Folios 

Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest and other fragments, mostly Quranic, were discovered at the false ceiling of the Great Mosque in Ṣan‘ā’ in 1972. It was Qāḍī Ismā’īl ibn al-Akwa’ (d.2008), then the president of the Yemeni Antiquities Authority, who arranged to store the newly-discovered fragments, which filled 20 potato sacks, at the National Museum. But, as he saw the number of parchments was decreasing, he decided to move it back to the Western Library (al-Maktabah al-Gharbīyah), and lastly to Dar al-Makhṭūṭāt where it remains since. Evidently, some official workers were stealing the loose leaves and selling it to foreign antique dealers. In Yemen, such prohibited activities are common. Moreover, as the manuscripts were unbound, it was easier for someone in charge to take off the leaves without anyone noticing them. After all, if you don’t watch closely and count the leaves yourself, you will never know what has been missing. This explains, partially, how some folios of the Palimpsest went missing, consequently finding its way through European auction houses in the 1990s through 2008.

Fortunately, in the winter of 1996, German art historian Hans-Caspar Graf von Bothmer had microfilmed more than 35,000 images of the manuscripts discovered in 1972. This suggests that if any Quranic folio went missing after 1996, it would likely to be found in the microfilm of Von Bothmer. But who can access this microfilm? A very limited people indeed. As I heard from David Hollenberg, director of The Yemeni Manuscript Digitization Initiative, the Germans had made an agreement with the Yemenis, that they won’t release the photographs to the public. “They did not want the microfilm having the effect of diminishing the importance of visiting and doing research of the original,” said Hollenberg. The purpose behind making this microfilm was “merely a safeguard in case anything happened to the original,” he said.

Christie’s 2008 folio

Christie’s 2008 folio, recto and verso

The folio was identified to be part of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest in 2008. It’s thought to be from the mid-7th century CE, with a possible linkage to Medina. Written in Hijazi script, the folio has parts of al-Nisāʼ [4:171-176] and al-Māʼida [5:1-10]. It measures 36.3 x 28cm, with 28-30 lines to the page. Verses are separated by clusters of short sepia dashes, one medallion of red, green, and sepia. There are wear around the edges and some minor areas of holing. On April 8, 2008, the folio was sold to a ‘private’ collector for £2,484,500. Similarly, another folio of the Palimpsest, which has parts of al-Baqarah, was sold by Christie’s on May 1, 2001, for £163,250.

A Possible Turkish Owner 

Christie’s 2008 (verso), uploaded by a Turkish user on Pinterest. Probably photographed in 2017

Back to the original question of this post: How do I possibly know the Christie’s 2008 folio was acquired by a Turkish private collector? I have found a photograph on Pinterest, which bears the verso side of Christie’s 2008 folio. The user who uploaded the photograph is Turkish. He added the following description to it: “We own this Islamic Quran page. We think it is very early on vellum.”  When you navigate through his pins on Pinterest, you will realize he owes special interest to Islamic calligraphy. Although you can’t know precisely the date of the photograph, his ‘Kufic’ pin itself was updated last year. My scenario would be that the Christie’s 2008 folio was acquired by a Turkish private collector, whom he likely uploaded on Pinterest with the aim of boasting. We may never know his identity, but I have a feeling that the Quranic folio would appear in a collection or catalogue in Turkey within the forthcoming years.

The discovery of an early Quranic leaf at Louvre Abu Dhabi, belonging to Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest

An early Qur’anic leaf (Q.5:18-28) in Hijazi style at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, of which Ahmed Shaker has identified to be part of the famous ”Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest’. Photograph Ahmed Al-Yammahi

By Ahmed Shaker

‘Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest’, ‘DAM 01-27.1’, or ‘Codex Ṣan‘ā’’ 1’ are all designations of a well-known Qur’anic manuscript. The manuscript was discovered, amongst nearly 1000 Qur’anic fragments, at the false ceiling of the Great Mosque in Ṣan‘ā’, Yemen in the 1970s. The manuscript is a palimpsest, which is “a piece of writing material on which later writing has been superimposed on effaced earlier writing.” Hence, it has two text layers, of which both are Quranic. However, it’s believed that the inferior text is from the mid-7th century CE, while the superior text is, perhaps, from the late 7th or early 8th century CE. Since its discovery in 1972, the manuscript has been examined by various scholars like Elisabeth Puin, Alba Fedeli, Asma Hilali, Behnam Sadeghi, and others. It has as many as 80 folios, preserved today at Dar al-Makhṭūṭāt and the Eastern Library, nearby the Great Mosque. Starting in 1992 through 2008, some folios were sold at auction houses like Christie’s, Sotheby’s, and Bonham’s. Of course, the identity of the buyers was not revealed. More recently, another missing folio of the same manuscript was discovered by Ahmed Shaker, an independent researcher in early Qurans, at the Louvre Abu Dhabi. So, we are now to speak of an 81-folia Qur’anic fragment, written in ‘Hijazi’ or ‘Mail’ style.

What’s the discovery?

As I was scrolling through some images on Twitter, a photograph of a Quranic leaf showed up to me. It was taken at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, with the following description written on it: “an early Quranic leaf in Hijazi script, 600-700 CE.” I was curious to know more by examining the photograph myself. The script, the 10th verse-marker, and the overall appearance all pointed towards DAM 01-27.1. At first, I thought it could be one of the auctioned folios, now on display at Louvre Abu Dhabi. “Oh, good to know its final destination,” I said. But as I looked over and over and did the comparisons, I concluded it’s not one of them. It’s entirely a new folio, which hasn’t been published, and likely, identified before. As it turns out, the folio fills the gap right at Q.5:9 to Q.5:32 which was previously missing. The side of the Quranic leaf at Louvre Abu Dhabi ends through “من قتل نفساً بغير نفس أو فساد في الأرض فكأنما قتل”. If the observation is accurate, the next corresponding folio should start with “…الناس جميعاً”, right? Well, it certainly does.

The corresponding folio comes from a 2004 thesis of Razan Ḥamdūn, a Yemenite Grad-student who photographed the additional 40 folios of Ṣan‘ā’ Palimpsest, kept at the Eastern Library


Mohsen Goudrazi, a researcher who had studied parts of this manuscript along with Behnam Sadeghi, confirmed the discovery. He tweeted, “My God. My heart just stopped. This must be from Sana’a 1. The uppertext of Christies 2008 folio runs up to Q 5:9, and one of the Eastern Library folios […] begins with Q 5:32 (with al-nās jamī’an) so this folio would fit exactly between them.”

Later on, Islamic-Awareness, a web-based reference in Quranic manuscripts, praised the discovery, calling it an “interesting find,” adding, “It would fit nicely between Christies 2008 auction folio and the one from Hamdoun’s thesis.”


How did this folio get to Louvre Abu Dhabi? Was it sold at an auction house before finding its way at the Louvre? We are still looking into that, but Elèonore Cellard, a post-doctorate researcher at the Collège de France, has shared an interesting opinion in this regard. She thinks that the folio sold at Christie’s in 2008 was indeed a bi-folio, that is a single sheet folded in half to make two leaves, which was then “separated in 2 folios for selling.” Presumably, the other folio settled in Abu Dhabi.

Time to call curators 

After the confirmation of this discovery, it’s necessary now to reach out the curators at Louvre Abu Dhabi to let them know about the finding and request more details concerning the acquisition of this early Qur’anic folio, which belongs to DAM 01-27.1.

It is reported that the Quranic folio is displayed side by side with a Gothic Bible, Buddhist sutras, and a Torah from Yemen. Moreover, the curators have attached the following description to the folio: “Palimpsest page of a Quran in Hijazi script. From the Arabian peninsula, Medina about 600-700.”

State of fragmentation 

Most of our early Qurans are in a fragmentary state, that is we do not have complete codices, but rather fragments scattered at various libraries, museums, auction houses, and private collections. It takes time and effort to find and regroup these folios accordingly, but we certainly do, and this fascinating discovery is one significant example. Moreover, the discovery of new folio from DAM 01-27.1 raises the possibility of finding more folios from the same Quranic manuscript, elsewhere.

*Last updated October 22, 2018