Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 30 September 2020

A Dutch tribute to Arabic

Leiden University in the Netherlands has assembled an exhibit of ancient Islamic manuscripts that will come to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday, Rym Ghazal writes
Leiden University’s canalside Academy Building looms in the background in Leiden, Netherlands. The university has offered studies in Arabic for the past 400 years. Tim Draper
Leiden University’s canalside Academy Building looms in the background in Leiden, Netherlands. The university has offered studies in Arabic for the past 400 years. Tim Draper

As the Arab world struggles to preserve the Arabic language as it is increasingly overshadowed by the English-speaking world, there are institutions like Leiden University that have dedicated over 400 years to this language crusade as manifested through its rarest collection of manuscripts and scrolls.

“The chair of Arabic was founded in 1613, which makes it one of the oldest in Europe,” says Dr Luit Mols, the curator of Middle East, West and Central Asia at the National Museum of Ethnology in Leiden, who curated the upcoming 400-year anniversary of Islamic Studies exhibition as it makes its stop in Abu Dhabi.

“Arabic was and is very important. The reasons for studying Arabic then were manifold, from an academic interest in the Arabic language and civilisation and the need for religious dialogue, and dispute, to the fostering of commercial and diplomatic ties.”

The exhibition The Art of the Islamic Book from Leiden Collections is a travelling exhibition that is composed of five themes, three of which have been selected for the Abu Dhabi exhibition that will run from December 10 to 26 at the Emirates Palace. These three themes feature Quran calligraphy, depictions of Mecca and Medina and the Art of Science. The exhibition has already been shown in Cairo and the Library of Alexandria; Abu Dhabi being the third place within the region. From here it will travel to Morocco.

“They are all part of the longstanding Leiden University Collections, that house a large and unique collection of Islamic manuscripts. Together, the three themes encompass 20 manuscripts that give insight into the richness of Islamic culture on the one hand and the variety of the Leiden collection and its high quality on the other hand,” Dr Mols says.

Since 2013 is Leiden University’s 400th anniversary of the study of Oriental Languages and Cultures, it decided to develop two exhibitions – one on 400 years of Arabic studies and one on the Haj to Mecca – in Leiden for a Dutch audience, and then to reach out beyond its borders and curate a travelling exhibition based on objects from Leiden University that would reflect Leiden’s “longstanding interest” in the Middle East and Islamic culture.

Leiden University holds some 4,000 Arabic manuscripts, along with 2,000 manuscripts in Persian and Ottoman Turkish and its students study a variety of BA and MA programmes. This year the university and the city of Leiden celebrate the history and future of the study of Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies in Leiden with a full programme of activities: museum exhibitions, poetry readings, concerts, scholarly meetings and tours.

“The significance of exhibitions like this is that they give people the opportunity to enjoy the beauty of objects and to admire the elegant calligraphic styles that were designed hundreds of years ago by master scribes and that are still executed up to this day by professional calligraphers,” Dr Mols says.

“They also make people aware and give insight into the early scientific developments that took place in the Arabic world. These manuscripts offer us insights in the ideas current hundreds of years ago about medicine, geography, botany and mechanical instruments: they open up a world that would otherwise remain invisible. They can revive our curiosity that we sometimes lose as adults but that children have in such quantities.”

The special collection at the university was born out of the diplomatic relations of the former Dutch republic with Morocco, from 1610, and the Ottoman Empire, from 1612, giving Dutch scholars the opportunity to travel to the Middle East in search of source materials.

One of the key figures, Levinus Warner (1618-1665), who was a student of Oriental languages and later became a diplomat, built up an impressive collection of about 1,000 Middle Eastern manuscripts with the help of local Muslim contacts and friends when residing in Istanbul from 1645 onwards. Many of these manuscripts originally came from the Mamluk Empire. Warner left his entire collection to Leiden University upon his death in 1665.

The exhibition in Abu Dhabi will not include any originals because of their fragility, as a statement from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands explains: “Among the selected items were quite a few manuscripts that because of their fragility and uniqueness are not allowed to travel at all.

“Moreover, as this exhibition was designed as a travelling exhibition going from one place to another we decided it would be best if we would show reproductions for all the manuscripts.

“In this way the exhibition can be shown in a variety of places, which do not need maximum security nor are limited by the restrictions of climate control and lighting that are of vital importance in the display of manuscripts in exhibitions. But the reproductions that are on display in Abu Dhabi really reflect the beauty of the originals.”

The reproductions include a copy of one of the university’s oldest objects, a double page of a parchment Quran from the second half of the eighth century.

“It is the oldest Quran fragment present in the Netherlands, and because of its fragility is not allowed to travel. The same holds true for a scientific manuscript, which is the oldest illustrated Arabic copy worldwide of the revised text of the famous botanical work Material Medica, written by the first-century Hellenistic scholar Dioscorides. On these double pages the text, which describes the qualities of two plants, which were used medicinally and for fragrances, is accompanied by depictions of two plants,” Dr Mols says.

Visitors will be able to discover and rediscover important milestones in Arab and Islamic history through the collection on display. The Art of Science theme includes botany, geography, astronomy, mathematics and medicine to texts on animals, military practices and philosophy. The interest in science was already institutionalised in the eighth century when the Caliph al-Mansur (714-775 AD) founded a library in Baghdad, in which translations of Persian works were made. Later, under Caliph al-Ma’mun (786-833 AD), translations of Greek scientific texts were made that served as a basis for the further development of scientific fields.

Depictions of Mecca and Medina have always been popular, with the earliest ones found on pilgrim certificates that functioned as memorials of the performed Haj. They were also customary in guidebooks for pilgrims, providing detailed information about the different sites and buildings and the rituals to perform. Another popular text with depictions of the mausoleum of the Prophet and, since the late 18th century, also of the Kaaba in Mecca was a collection of prayers for the Prophet, called Dala’il al-Khayrat, written by the Moroccan mystic al-Jazuli (died c. 1465AD).

The various forms of calligraphy in the Quran that will be displayed is illustrative of the important role of the word and writing in Islam. In the first-century Kufic, a rectilinear and angular script style, was favoured for writing the Quran. From the 10th century onwards calligraphers developed a set of rules for a proportionate round script, from which different styles emerged. From then onwards round scripts were favoured for the Quran for their readability. In the 10th century parchment, until then preferred for copies of the Quran, was substituted for paper that was much cheaper.

“The beauty of Islamic manuscripts is to a large extent defined by the art of calligraphy, miniatures and illumination. These three key-elements also enrich the Islamic manuscripts of the Special Collections of Leiden University. They give evidence of the unity and diversity of decorative patterns in the Islamic world,” Dr Mols says.

Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer and columnist for The National.

Some of the objects

Bifolio from a Qur’ān; H. 48,7; W. 68,8cm

Second half of the 8th or early 9th century

Leiden University, Special Collections

Of early Qur’āns often only fragments of single folios remain. These parchment folios were probably already damaged in the early Islamic period through extensive use. Because of the reverence for the Qur’ān, folios such as these were preserved in mosque surroundings. The verses on these folios are written in dark brown ink; the red dots are used for vocalisation. Small yellow lozenges mark the end of each verse, while groups of ten verses are indicated by a red square.

Single-volume Qur’ān

Gallipoli, Turkey; 5 Rajab 926/21st of June 1520

Leiden University, Special Collections

Full attention is given to the opening-pages of this Turkish Qur’ān with its rich embellishment of floral scrolls in gold, blue and black. To help make the verses understandable to Turkish readers, translations in old Anatolian Turkish are provided underneath the first verses of soerat al-Fatiha. The manuscript was bought by Dutch diplomat Levinus Warner in between 1645 and 1665. The strip in Latin pasted on the left page tells of his bequest to Leiden University.

The History of Mecca the Blessed and Medina the Radiant (Ta’rikh Makka al-Musharrafa wal-Madina al-Munawwara)

Prob. Ottoman Turkey, 22 Shawwal 1005/8 June 1597

Leiden University, Special Collections

This double miniature shows a flat projection of the Haram al-Sharif in Mecca with the central Ka’ba on the right. On the left one of the rituals of the pilgrimage in Mecca is depicted, showing the location of the two hillocks Marwa and Safa (here positioned in the left corner and at the base respectively). Pilgrims have to walk seven times between these hillocks as a reminder of Hajar’s search for water for her son Isma’īl. God came to her aid and a spring appeared with the name Zamzam.

Arabic translation of Dioscorides Materia Medica (Kitab al-hasha’ish fi Hayula al-‘Ilaj al-tibbi)

Samarqand, Ramadan 475/ Jan.-Febr. 1083

Leiden University, Special Collections

The earliest Arabic texts that were enlivened with miniatures were scientific books. These illustrations were intended to explicate the text further. The range of topics that were illustrated was broad: from botany, geography, astronomy, mathematics and medicine to texts on animals, military practices and philosophy.

This is the oldest illustrated Arabic copy worldwide of the revised text of the famous botanical work Material Medica, written by the 1st Century Hellenistic scholar Dioscorides. On the right page the strongly scented Sweet Flag is depicted, and on the left side a tree native to Southern Arabia that yields an aromatic resinous juice. Of the latter, the method of harvesting the juice is shown. Both plants were used medicinally and for fragrances.

Book of the Knowledge of Mechanical Devices by al-Jazarī (Kitab fi ma’rifat al-hiyal al-handasiyya by al-Jazari)

16th C (?)

Leiden University, Special Collections

The elephant clock that is shown here was part of a series of automatic machines based on Greek science. Court-engineer al-Jazarī (d. 1206) not only built automata but also produced a textbook with accompanying miniatures. The pebble that is released every half-hour into the beak of the upper dragon eventually ends up in the small bowl behind the mahout when the dragon is turned upside down. Counting the number of pebbles will tell you the time.

Updated: December 5, 2013 04:00 AM

Editor's Picks
Sign up to our daily email
Most Read