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The Manuscript Collection

Max von Oppenheim stood in the tradition of collectors whose interest in Islamic manuscripts had originated in 17th century Europe. Travelers, diplomats, and colonial officials acquired treasures of Islamic literature which eventually formed the bases of many contemporary private and public libraries in Europe.

Photo: Parchment Koran fragment in Maghribi ductus, 12th–14th century

On the Birth of a Discipline

During the decades when Oppenheim resided and formed a collection in the Near East, a dramatic transformation occurred in the media world of the Islamic Orient. At the end of the 19th century the printed book was introduced, sealing the fate of the hand-produced and copied manuscript for the consumers of scholarly, intellectual, and cultural texts. This development was followed by a sweeping language reform in the Turkish Republic which had been founded in the wake of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse. The intention was to open Turkey to the West and to liberate it from the supposedly “backward” Ottoman writing tradition. The Latin alphabet officially replaced Arabic script which had been employed in Ottoman Turkish texts for centuries. And this fundamental change was accompanied by an effort to delete as many words of Arabic and Persian origin as possible from the Turkish vocabulary.

A devaluation of handwritten manuscripts in the Orient resulted, but concurrently, the interest in them grew constantly among European researchers, scholars, and collectors who began to collect manuscripts in grand style, laying the foundations for the young discipline of Arabic studies. Simultaneously, Europeans considered themselves preservers and saviors of the Near East’s dying tradition of handwritten books.

An Overview of the Collection

The 189 exquisite manuscripts in the comparatively small Max von Oppenheim collection have been in the Department of Oriental Studies at Cologne University since 1949. One-hundred thirty-two individual and ten composite manuscripts (Hs. or. 1-217, Hss. without signature) which make up the greater part of the collection span nine centuries, from the earliest dating to 1024, to the latest, completed in 1925. The collection also includes manuscripts in Persian, Ottoman Turkish, Coptic, Syriac, and Ethiopic which have not yet been published. During the 1960s and 1970s, the Foundation acquired 170 additional Arabic and Persian manuscripts. There is a catalogue with descriptions of the Arabic holdings – individual and composite manuscripts – in both collections.

Subject matter

The manuscripts cover an extremely broad range of themes focusing on religion, scholarship, and literature – studies of the Koran, dogma, collections of Hadith (traditions concerning and sayings attributed to the Prophet), mysticism, law, philosophy, ethics, geography, medicine, grammar, lexicography, rhetoric, belles lettres, history, and Christian literature. Particularly noteworthy are the texts documenting contemporaneous events – for example, there is a ms with information about the tribal confederation in Mesopotamia of the Milli, made up of both Berbers and Kurds (Hs. or. 143). The text focuses on conflicts of three tribal leaders with the Arabs and the Ottoman, later the Turkish regimes. Oppenheim became friends with two of these men on his journeys in the Orient. It was the Milli who called his attention to the ruins of Tell Halaf. Copies in other libraries duplicate the larger number of the Oppenheim manuscripts which have in the meantime appeared in print.

Initial double page of a small-scale Koran in Nashk-Ductus, 18th/19th century
Poem about the advantages and pleasures of drinking tea, undated

Bindings, book illumination, and scribal media

There are outstanding examples of the bookbinder’s art among the covers of the Arabic manuscripts in the corpus. Most of the texts are enclosed in decorative, typically Islamic leather bindings featuring an almond-shaped motif (Persian: boteh). Frequently, the binding includes a flap, which can be folded over the front board to protect the inner book; it can also serve as a book mark. The collection includes as well one leather-bound book, completely embellished with a geometric pattern; two lacquered bindings; four half-leather bindings with covers of marbled paper; and books with bindings made of fabric.

A significant number of the manuscripts include illumination, both simple and elaborately complex. Artists involved in book illustration paid particular attention to the design of the headings, the frame surrounding the text, and the decoration of the title page, along with the first and final pages. The 55 Korans in the collection provide an instructive overview of the varying ornamental and calligraphic designs employed for the Koran in Islamic book art from its beginnings down to the Ottoman Period.

For the pages of text, the medium primarily used was paper, increasingly of European production beginning in the 14th century. But there are in the collection also some examples of papyrus and parchment, which played a prominent role in preparing documents and creating handwritten codices within the Islamic world prior to the introduction of paper. Two fragments of papyrus documents between glass are in the collection, as is a volume with parchment fragments from different manuscripts which are among the oldest Korans in the holdings. Because making parchment was so costly, it was reused; the product of such reuse is called a ‘palimpsest.’ An example in the collection is the two-page fragment from a Christian ‘apologetic’ tract written over a Coptic text of which some letters are still visible. Parchment was also employed for a deed in the collection from a Coptic context in Egypt’s Fayum province.

Christian-apologetic palimpsest text on parchment with traces of the original Christian Palestinian Aramaic text visible.
Copy of a letter from Muhammad al-Mahdi to the Governor and Sufi brother Mansur ibn Qadara, 1887/1888

Digitizing and new methods of research

New media and the resulting development of new methods of research have revitalized the study of Oriental manuscripts. Intense efforts are currently being made to document completely the inventory of Islamic manuscripts in private collections and public libraries. The ultimate goal is to render them accessible online, worldwide, via Internet databases. But the greater number of manuscripts already catalogued and edited nonetheless await analysis and detailed study. Today, ‘biographies’ of individual manuscripts increasingly occupy center stage. Research centers above all on the sociological and cultural environment in which a given manuscript was created and used. Information can come from entries and notes made by scribes, clients, owners, readers, and commentators – just to name a few possible sources. Material, economic, and aesthetic factors involved in the creation of a manuscript are studied as well. Max von Oppenheim’s small collection of Oriental manuscripts has a role to play in this increasingly expanding field of manuscript research.