One of Dublin’s finest museums has launched a project to identify the seals used in its Islamic documents. Si Hawkins reports
Sometimes the smallest marks can make a world of difference. Dublin’s Chester Beatty Library is widely regarded as one of Europe’s finest, housed in the grounds of the imposing Dublin Castle and boasting a notable array of rare books, paintings and prints. And yet at the hub of its impressive Islamic Collection, home to some of the most splendidly preserved Qurans on record, the staff spend much of their time analysing items too outwardly unimposing ever to put on public display.
These are the seal impressions, stamps of ownership so significant, in fact, that the Chester Beatty recently began a forward-thinking project to further their study. And everyone with an interest is invited to get involved.
“We were drawing up a proposal for a grant, and I put in that we wanted a ‘seals database’,” explains Dr Elaine Wright, the Islamic Collection’s curator. “The seals are really important because they give a history of the actual manuscript, who’s owned it over the years. It can be really interesting.” Wright’s assistant on the project, Elizabeth Omidvaran, elaborates: “It’s like detective work and this is a resource to assist with that. We just need more detectives working on it.”
Wright and Omidvaran have broken off from those investigations to meet me at the cafe in the library’s grand atrium, where they’ll spend a happy hour waxing lyrical about these neglected insignia. Their burgeoning venture, the Islamic Seals Database, is an online gallery of seal impressions, distinctive symbols that were stamped into manuscripts to denote ownership, just as a regular library would stamp its books today.
The documents involved – mostly from the 15th century, but often much older – vary from priceless Qurans acquired by Mughal rulers to the more prosaic everyday works that dominate the collection’s Arabic section. Deciphering the seal impressions within can reveal much about the manuscript’s history and the tastes of its owner. “You can build up a picture of an individual’s library. If you’ve got all these books with this person’s seal, you get to understand what he was interested in, what kind of books he collected or had produced for himself,” Wright explains.
Unpacking the seals’ origins is not always straightforward, however, and many remain mysterious. Hence the online database serves a dual purpose, as a resource and as a forum for others to share knowledge. “Usually the seals will have the name of the person and maybe a date, but you may not know who those people are,” the curator admits, “so we made it interactive in the hope that people will come and say ‘I know that this person lived in such and such a place.’ Then you can figure out where the manuscript travelled to.”
Having secured the aforementioned grant, the project began in a low-key fashion two years ago. Four hundred unique impressions from the Islamic Collection’s 2,600 manuscripts are currently displayed online, along with whatever information exists, which can then be added to. Now the database enters phase two, as seal impressions from manuscripts in the British Museum and The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore are set to be uploaded, which should raise the profile.
Despite the illustrious nature of the institutions involved, help is welcome from anyone with useful input. Local knowledge can shed light on “a phrase or name that might come from a particular area”, says Wright. “You don’t have to be a historian to contribute to the website: if you can read Arabic you can simply do a transliteration or a transcription.”
The seal impressions may generally just be a tiny stamp on a manuscript’s inside cover, but they do reward closer inspection. The enlarged online versions often reveal elaborate ornamentation within the differing outlines (the seal shapes vary from a teardrop to a Turkish bonnet).
“The calligraphy, different designs, sometimes they’ll have tiny floral motifs – they’re miniature works of art in themselves,” insists the curator. Omidvaran concurs. “You can tell that somebody took a lot of time and attention on them. Some of them are very functional, but most are quite beautiful.”
It becomes abundantly clear during our conversation that analysing and cataloguing the myriad stamps is time-consuming and frequently challenging but, surprisingly, rarely a chore. “They are lovely things,” smiles Wright. “We’ve developed a real fondness for them.”
The Islamic Seals Database can be accessed at www.cbl.ie/islamicseals. The Islamic Collection is at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin Castle, Dublin. Admission is free
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